In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)11

No meat for me, and Frank say no meat for him either. He want to do everything like me now. The nice waitress bring us trout. The skin burn black and crispy at the top, and when I eat a piece of the fish it is raw and rotten, so that the church taste come back in my mouth, and I think of the dead again, and brass and flowers.

The waitress come in, her armpits smelling now, and ask if anybody want wine. She say she forgot to ask the first time. Nobody hear, nobody answer. She ask again; she say some people drink wine at wedding parties. Still nobody answer. And then an old man who never say anything before, he looking so sad, he lift his face up, he laugh and say, ‘There’s your answer, miss.’ And I feel he must be like Stephen, the wise and funny man of the family, and that people expect to laugh at what he say. And people laugh, and I feel I like that man.

I love them. They take my money, they spoil my life, they separate us. But you can’t kill them. O God, show me the enemy. Once you find out who the enemy is, you can kill him. But these people here they confuse me. Who hurt me? Who spoil my life? Tell me who to beat back. I work four years to save my money, I work like a donkey night and day. My brother was to be the educated one, the nice one. And this is how it is ending, in this room, eating with these people. Tell me who to kill.

And now my brother come to me. He is going away with his wife, for good. He hold me by the hand, he look at me, tears come in his eyes, and he say, ‘I love you.’ It is true, it is like the time he cry and say he didn’t have confidence. I know that he love me, that now it is true, but that it will not be true as soon as he go out of this room, that he will have to forget me. Because it was my idea after my trouble that nobody should know, that the message should go back home that I was dead. And for all this time I am the dead man.

I have my own place to go back to. Frank will take me there when this is over. And now that my brother leave me for good I forget his face already, and I only seeing the rain and the house and the mud, the field at the back with the pará-grass bending down with the rain, the donkey and the smoke from the kitchen, my father in the gallery and my brother in the room on the floor, and that boy opening his mouth to scream, like in Rope.

IN A FREE STATE

1

IN THIS COUNTRY in Africa there was a president and there was also a king. They belonged to different tribes. The enmity of the tribes was old, and with independence their anxieties about one another became acute. The king and the president intrigued with the local representatives of white governments. The white men who were appealed to liked the king personally. But the president was stronger; the new army was wholly his, of his tribe; and the white men decided that the president was to be supported. So that at last, this weekend, the president was able to send his army against the king’s people.

The territory of the king’s people lay to the south and was still known by its colonial name of the Southern Collectorate. It was there that Bobby worked, as an administrative officer in one of the departments of the central government. But during this week of crisis he had been in the capital, four hundred miles away, attending a seminar on community development; and in the capital there was no sign of war or crisis. The seminar had more English participants than African; the Africans were well-dressed and dignified, with little to say; and the seminar ended on Sunday with a buffet lunch in a half-acre garden in what was still an English suburb.

It was like another Sunday in the capital, which, in spite of the white exodus to South Africa and in spite of deportations, remained an English-Indian creation in the African wilderness. It owed nothing to African skill; it required none. Not far from the capital were bush villages, half-day excursions for tourists. But in the capital Africa showed only in the semi-tropical suburban gardens, in the tourist-shop displays of carvings and leather goods and souvenir drums and spears, and in the awkward liveried boys in the new tourist hotels, where the white or Israeli supervisors were never far away. Africa here was décor. Glamour for the white visitor and expatriate; glamour too for the African, the man flushed out from the bush, to whom, in the city, with independence, civilization appeared to have been granted complete. It was still a colonial city, with a colonial glamour. Everyone in it was far from home.

*

In the bar of the New Shropshire, once white, now the capital’s interracial pick-up spot, with a reputation for racial ‘incidents’, the white men wore open shirts and drank beer. The Africans drank shorter, prettier drinks with cocktail sticks and wore English-made Daks suits. Their hair was parted low on the left and piled up on the right, in the style known to city Africans as the English style.

The Africans were young, in their twenties, and plump. They could read and write, and were high civil servants, politicians or the relations of politicians, non-executive directors and managing directors of recently opened branches of big international corporations. They were the new men of the country and they saw themselves as men of power. They hadn’t paid for the suits they wore; in some cases they had had the drapers deported. They came to the New Shropshire to be seen and noted by white people, however transient; to be courted; to make trouble. There were no Asiatics in the bar: the liberations it offered were only for black and white.

Bobby was wearing a saffron cotton shirt of a type that had begun to be known as a ‘native shirt’. It was like a smock, with short, wide sleeves and a low open neck; the fabric, with its bold ‘native’ pattern in black and red, was designed and woven in Holland.

The small young African at Bobby’s table was not a native. He was, as he had quickly let Bobby know, a Zulu, a refugee from South Africa. He was in light-blue trousers and a plain white shirt, and he was further distinguished from the other Africans in the bar by his cloth cap, of a plaid pattern, with which, as he slumped low in his chair, he continually played, now putting it on and pulling it over his eyes, now using it as a fan, now holding it against his chest and kneading it with his small hands, as though performing an isometric exercise.

Conversation with the Zulu wasn’t easy. There too he was fidgety. The king and the president, sabotage in South Africa, seminars, tourists, the natives: he hopped from subject to subject, never committing himself, never relating one thing to another. And the cloth cap was like part of his elusiveness. The cap made the Zulu appear now as a dandy, now as an exploited labourer from the South African mines, now as an American minstrel, and sometimes even as the revolutionary he had told Bobby he was.

They had been together for more than an hour. It was nearly half-past ten; it was getting late for Bobby. Then, after a silence, during which they had both been looking at the rest of the bar, the Zulu said, ‘In this town there are even white whores now.’

Bobby, looking at his beer, sipping his beer, not hurrying himself, refusing to meet the Zulu’s eyes, was glad that the talk had at last touched sex.

‘It isn’t nice,’ the Zulu said.

‘What isn’t nice?’

‘Look.’ The Zulu sat up, his cap on his head, and put his hand to his hip pocket, thrusting forward his small but well-developed chest as he did so, tight within the white shirt. He took out a wallet and flipped his thumb through many new banknotes. ‘I could go now to places where this would make me welcome. I don’t think it is nice.’

Bobby thought: this boy is a whore. Bobby was nervous of African whores in hotel bars. But he prepared to bargain. He said, ‘You are a brave man. Going about with all that cash. I never carry more than sixty or eighty shillings on me.’

‘You need two hundred to do anything in this town.’

‘A hundred at the outside is enough for me.’

‘Enjoy it.’

Bobby looked up and held the Zulu’s gaze. The Zulu didn’t flinch. It was Bobby who looked away.

Bobby said, ‘You South Africans are all arrogant.’

‘We are not like your natives here. These people are the most ignorant people in the world. Look at them.’

Bobby looked at the Zulu. So small for a Zulu. ‘You must
be careful what you say. They might deport you.’

The Zulu fanned himself with his cap and turned away. ‘Why do these white people want to be with the natives? A couple of years ago the natives couldn’t even come in here. Now look. It isn’t nice. I don’t think it is nice.’

‘It must be different in South Africa,’ Bobby said.

‘What do you want to hear, mister? Listen, I’ll tell you. I did pretty well in South Africa. I bought my whisky. I had my women. You’d be surprised.’

‘I can see that many people would find you attractive.’

‘I’ll tell you.’ The Zulu’s voice dropped. His tone became conspiratorial as he began to give the names of South African politicians with whose wives and daughters he had slept.

Bobby, looking at the Zulu’s tense little face, the eyes that held such hurt, felt compassion and excitement. It was the African thrill: Bobby forgot his nervousness.

‘South Africans,’ the Zulu said, raising his voice again. ‘Over here they never leave you alone. They always look for you. “You from South Africa?” I’m tired of being accosted by them.’

‘I don’t blame them.’

‘I thought you were South African when you came in.’

‘Me!’

‘They always sit with me. They always want to start a conversation.’

‘What a nice cap.’

Bobby leaned to touch the plaid cap, and for a while they held the cap together, Bobby fingering the material, the Zulu allowing the cap to be fingered.

Bobby said, ‘Do you like my new shirt?’

‘I wouldn’t be seen dead in one of those native shirts.’

‘It’s the colour. We can’t wear the lovely colours you can wear.’

The Zulu’s eyes hardened. Bobby’s fingers edged along the cap until they were next to the Zulu’s. Then he looked down at the fingers, pink beside black.

‘When I born again –’ Bobby stopped. He had begun to talk pidgin; that wouldn’t do with the Zulu. He looked up. ‘If I come into the world again I want to come with your colour.’ His voice was low. On the plaid cap his fingers moved until they were over one of the Zulu’s.

The Zulu didn’t stir. His face, when he lifted it to Bobby’s, was without expression. Bobby’s blue eyes went moist and seemed to stare; his thin lips trembled and seemed set in a half-smile. There was silence between the two men. Then, without moving his hand or changing his expression, the Zulu spat in Bobby’s face.

For a second or so Bobby’s fingers remained on the Zulu’s. Then he took his hand away, found his handkerchief, dabbed at his face; and when he put away the handkerchief his eyes were still staring at the Zulu, his lips still seemed set in their half-smile. The Zulu never moved.

The bar had seen. Blacks stared, whites looked away. Conversation faltered, then recovered.

Bobby got up. The Zulu continued to stare, into space now, never changing the level of his gaze. Deliberately, Bobby moved his chair back. Then, plump and sacrificial-looking in his loose, dancing native shirt, not looking down, left arm at his side, right arm jerking from the elbow, he walked with a fixed smile towards the door.

The Zulu sank lower in his armchair. He put on his cap and took it off; he pressed his chin into his neck, opened his mouth, closed his mouth. His face had been taut and expressionless; now it had the calm of a child. This was what remained of his revolution: these visits to the New Shropshire, this fishing for white men. In the capital the Zulu was a solitary, without employment, living on a small dole from an American foundation. In this part of Africa the Americans – or simply Americans – supported everything.

The liveried barboy, remembering his duties, ran after Bobby with the bill. He stopped Bobby in the doorway, beside the large native drum, part of the new decorations of the New Shropshire. Bobby, at first not hearing, then relieved that it was only the boy, overacted confusion. Feeling below the yellow native shirt for his wallet, in the hip pocket of his soft light-grey flannel trousers, he smiled, as at a private joke, without looking at the boy’s face. He gave the boy a twenty-shilling note. Then, absurd chivalry overcoming him, he gave the boy another note, to pay for the Zulu’s drinks as well; and he didn’t wait for change.

*

In the lobby there was the new official photograph of the president. It had appeared in the city only that weekend. In the old photographs the president wore a headdress of the king’s tribe, a gift of the king at the time of independence, a symbol of the unity of the tribes. The new photograph showed the president without the headdress, in jacket, shirt and tie, with his hair done in the English style. The bloated cheeks shone in the studio lights; the hard opaque eyes looked directly at the camera. Africans were said to attribute a magical power to the president’s eyes; and the eyes seemed to know their reputation.

From the floodlit forecourt of the New Shropshire – the rock garden, the white flagpole with the limp national flag – Bobby drove down the sloping drive to the dark highway. At night in every suburb the bush began there, on the highway. Every week men of the forest came to settle in the usurped city. They brought only the skills of the forest; they found no room; and at night they prowled the city’s unenclosed spaces. There were many frightening stories. Normally Bobby scoffed, rejecting, as much as the stories, the expatriates who told them. But now he drove very fast, down the bush-lined highways, past the wide roundabouts, through the bumpy lanes of the Indian bazaar – houses, shops and warehouses – to the city centre, with its complex one-way system, its half-dozen skyscrapers dark above the bright square and the wide dusty car-park.

In the cramped lobby of his hotel there was again the new photograph of the president, between English fox-hunting prints. The hotel, built in colonial days, was where up-country government officers like Bobby were lodged when they came to the capital on government business. It looked older than it was. Rough timber merged into mock-Tudor: the hotel was partly ‘pioneer’, partly suburban, still English, home from home. Bobby didn’t like it. His room, which had an open fireplace, was white and furry, with white walls, white sheepskin rugs, a white candlewick bedspread and a zebra-skin pouffe.

The evening was over, the week was over. This was his last night in the capital; early in the morning he was driving back to the Collectorate. His packing had already been done. He left a tip for the roomboy in an envelope. Soon he was in bed. He was quite calm.

*

Africa was for Bobby the empty spaces, the safe adventure of long fatiguing drives on open roads, the other Africans, boys built like men. ‘You want lift? You big boy, you no go school? No, no, you no frighten. Look, I give you shilling. You hold my hand. Look, my colour, your colour. I give you shilling buy schoolbooks. Buy books, learn read, get big job. When I born again I want your colour. You no frighten. You want five shillings?’ Sweet infantilism, almost without language: in language lay mockery and self-disgust.

All week, while being the government officer at the seminar, he had rehearsed that drive back to the Collectorate. But then, at the buffet lunch, he had been asked to give Linda a lift back; and he couldn’t refuse. Linda was one of the ‘compound wives’ from the Collectorate, one of those who lived in the government compound. She had flown up to the capital with her husband, who was taking part in the seminar; but she wasn’t flying back with him. Bobby knew Linda and her husband and had even been once to dinner at their house; but after three years they were still no more than acquaintances. It was one of those difficult half-relationships, with uncertainty rather than suspicion on both sides. So the prospect of adventure had vanished; and the drive, which had promised so much, seemed likely to be full of strain.

Disappointment rather than need, then, had sent Bobby to the New Shropshire. And even while he was making his preparations to go out he had known that the evening wouldn’t end well. He didn’t like places like the New Shropshire. He didn’t have the bar-room skills, the bar-room toughness. Instinct had told him, from the first exchange of glances, that the Zul
u was only a tease. But he had gone to the table and committed himself. He didn’t like African whores. A whore in Africa was a boy who wanted more than five shillings; any boy who wanted more than five was dealing only in money, and was wrong. Bobby had decided that long ago; but he had started to bargain with the Zulu.

That evening he had broken all his rules; the evening had shown how right his rules were. He felt no bitterness, no hurt. He didn’t blame the Zulu, he didn’t blame Linda. Before Africa, the incident of the evening might have driven him out adventuring for hours more in dangerous places; and then in his room might have driven him to a further act of excess and self-mortification. But now he knew that the mood would pass, the morning would come. Even with Linda as his passenger, the drive remained.

He was awakened by a sound as of crowing cocks. It came from the lane at the side of the hotel. It was one of the sounds of the African night: a prowler had been disturbed, the African hue and cry was being raised. Later, he saw himself again in a place like the New Shropshire. He was on his back and the liveried boy was standing above him; but he couldn’t raise his head to see the boy’s face, to see whether the face laughed. His head was aching; the pain began to shoot and then it was as if his head were exploding. Even when he awakened, the pain remained, the sense of the drained head. It was some time before he fell asleep again. And when next he was awakened, by the helicopter circling near, then far, then so close it seemed to be directly over the hotel, it was well past five, light in the white room, and time to get up.

2

YAK-YAK-YAK-YAK. The helicopter, flying low, as if examining the hotel car-park, drowned the braying of the burglar alarm on Bobby’s car as Bobby unlocked the door. Bobby, feeling himself examined, didn’t look up. The helicopter hovered, then rose again at an angle.

In the bazaar area, through which Bobby had driven so recklessly the previous evening, the shops and warehouses of concrete and corrugated iron were closed; the long Indian names on plain signboards looked as cramped as the buildings. When the road left the bazaar it ran beside a wide dry gully, cool now, but promising dust and glare later; and then, the gully disappearing, the road became a dual-carriageway with flowers and shrubs on the central reservation.

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