The very way he re-acted to Coronel Eduardo Lucas’s summons to breakfast at Casa Grande the following morning must have convinced the new Managing Director that he was dealing with an idiot.

The fact that it was a summons and not an invitation; that he hardly knew the Coronel; that the brisk command, with no hint of the purpose behind it, filled B’s mind with unspoken questions, that he hesitated between asking at least one of the questions and giving an affirmative acknowledgement, left him hesitant and unresponsive.

‘As sete horas,’ said the Coronel before departing. Seven o’clock was a reasonable time in this mining outpost, but breakfast at Casa Grande had only ever been for the visiting London directors or special dignitaries. Was he being honoured? Unlikely, thought B, so what was behind this?

The century-old hacienda looked its best as he joined the Coronel on the varandah. He was sure that this choice of location was no afforded privilege to him but rather to glory the lean, restless, sallow-faced man who swiftly took command of the proceedings with orders to Abilio, the maitre hotel, the table placing and seating arrangements.

The old order has gone – vanished, flashed through B’s mind as he took his seat; and this is the new order. And he, a lamb amongst the wolves, a lone remnant of the old order, was about to be eviscerated by the leader of the wolf-pack – a career officer in the Brazilian army, seconded to take over as head of the new Brazilian company that, a few months before, had been a British company with a century and a half of activity and tradition in gold mining.

He found it difficult to follow the Coronel’s fast delivery, being used to the slower, more deliberate way the local Mineiros spoke. He had learned to speak and hear Portuguese their way after five years amongst them. At first there were just questions to answer and he was aware of the dark, probing eyes that flickered impatiently as he deliberated over his responses.

The Colonel was so typically a certain caricature of what the British imagined South Americans to look like in those pre-television days; he was probably from Rio, thought B – mercurial, fast of thought and speech – his jet-black hair combed back from his forehead; his black darting eyes and his restless, coffee-fueled body made it impossible to relax in his presence. B felt pedestrian and slow and at a disadvantage.

‘How long had he worked for the Company?’ ‘Did he realise that things would have to change?’ Certain changes would have to be made immediately and he was told what these would have to be. Concentrating on the delivery gave him no opportunity to note what he was eating but the coffee, that he usually avoided because it gave him palpitations, was continually poured.

The mixed questions and orders were coming in salvoes. ‘Ha muito furto?’ He didn’t recognise the word and had to ask. ‘Roubo.’ He sensed dangerous ground. Since the new management had arrived, he had heard that many of the rare artefacts on open display in the old hacienda had disappeared.  ‘Ah, theft -no, not really.’ A look that seemed like contempt flashed across the Colonel’s face. The uncomfortable meeting was coming to an end. Abilio, black, inscrutable was hovering around the table so everything said would be around the town and was probably meant to be.

Beyond the varandah, the lawn stretching to the flowering borders and the palm trees and the distant hills. In times past the slaves had gathered on this lawn each morning for roll-call before being herded down the mine. The mine and hundreds of miles of the surrounding country that generations of Britons had been here before him working to make a profitable replica of their distant homeland and now, as the last of the ex-patriates, engulfed by the changing times, he was being grilled by the head of the new regime.

He could not relax one second; but breakfast was drawing to an end. ‘And those signs in English – they are everywhere – remove them – take them down – replace them – we speak Portuguese here – do you understand?’ Yes, he understood, only too well. His days here were numbered but, before they sent him off, he was to personally supervise the obliteration of one hundred and fifty years of history.

October 1960