In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)12

The Union Club had been founded by some Indians in colonial days as a multi-racial club; it was the only club in the capital that admitted Africans. After independence the Indian founders had been deported, the club seized and turned into a hotel for tourists. The garden was a wild dry tangle around a bare yard. And in the main doorway, level to the dusty ground, below a cantilevered concrete slab, Linda stood beside her ivory-coloured suitcase and waved.

She was cheerful, with no early-morning strain on her thin face. No need to ask what had kept her overnight in the capital. Her cream shirt hung out of her blue trousers, which were a little loose around her narrow, low hips; her hair was in a pale-brown scarf. In those clothes, and below that concrete slab, she looked small, boyish, half-made. She was hardly good-looking, and she showed her age; but in the Collectorate compound she had a reputation as a man-eater. Bobby had heard appalling stories about Linda. As appalling, he thought, getting out of the car, as the stories she must have heard about him.

With loud words in the empty yard, they fell on one another, conducting this meeting, their first without witnesses, as though they had witnesses; so that all at once, after silence and tension, they were like actors in a play, neither really listening to the other, Linda tinkling, apologetic, grateful, explaining, Bobby simultaneously rejecting explanations and gratitude and fussing tremendously with the ivory-coloured suitcase, as with a stage property.

Yak-yak-yak-yak.

Silenced, they both looked up. The men in the helicopter were white.

‘They are looking for the king,’ Linda said, when the helicopter moved away. ‘They say he’s in the capital. He got away from the Collectorate in one of those African taxis. In some sort of disguise.’

Last night’s expatriate gossip: Bobby began to be depressed about his passenger. Over rocks and broken pavement they bumped out of the yard.

‘I hope they haven’t done anything too awful to the poor wives,’ Linda said. Her manner was still affected. ‘Were you persona very grata in that quarter?’

‘Not very. I’m not a great one for high society.’

She giggled, out of her own cheerfulness.

Bobby set his face. He decided to be sombre, to give nothing away. He had shown goodwill and that was enough for the time being.

Sombrely, then, he drove along the dual-carriageway; and sombrely many minutes later he took the gentle curves of the suburban road, with its wide grass verges, hedges, big houses, big gardens, with here and there now a barefoot yard-boy in khaki.

‘You wouldn’t believe you were in Africa,’ Linda said. ‘It’s so much like England here.’

‘It’s a little grander than the England I know.’

She didn’t answer. And for some time she said nothing.

He felt he had been too aggressive. He said, ‘Of course, they didn’t allow Africans to live here.’

‘They had their servants, Bobby.’

‘Servants, yes.’ She caught him unprepared. He hadn’t expected her to be so provocative so early. He said, with the calm grim satisfaction of a man prophesying the racial holocaust, ‘I suppose that is why someone like John Mubende-Mbarara has refused to move out of the native quarter.’

‘How well you pronounce those names.’

Bobby’s sombreness turned to gloom. ‘Well, he won’t come to you. If you want to see his work you have to go to him. In the native quarter.’

Linda said, ‘When Johnny M. began, he was a good primitive painter and we all loved his paintings of his family’s lovely ribby cattle. But he churned out so many of those he got to be a little better than primitive. Now he’s only bad. So I don’t suppose it matters if he does continue to paint his cattle in the native quarter.’

‘That’s been said before.’

‘About him living in the native quarter?’

‘About his painting.’ Bobby hated himself for answering.

‘He’s got awfully fat,’ Linda said.

Bobby decided to say no more. He decided again to be sombre and this time not to be drawn.

*

Suburban gardens gave way to African urban allotments with fewer trees, and at the edge of the town the land felt open and the light was like the light that announces the nearness of the ocean. Here, serving both town and wilderness, weathered painted hoardings on tall poles showed laughing Africans smoking cigarettes, drinking soft drinks and using sewing machines.

Allotments turned to smallholdings and secondary bush. A few Africans were about, most on foot, one or two on old bicycles. Their clothes were patched with large oblongs of red, blue, yellow, green; it was a local style. Bobby was on the point of saying something about the African colour-sense. But he held back; it was too close to the subject of the painter.

The land began to slope; the view became more extensive. The Indian-English town felt far away already. To one side of the road the land was hummocked, as with grassed-over ant-hills. Each hump marked the site of a tree that had been felled. Wasteland now, emptiness; but here, until just seventy years before, Africans like those on the road had lived, hidden from the world, in the shelter of their forests.

Yak-yak. At first only a distant drone, the helicopter was quickly overhead; and for a while it stayed, touched now with the morning light, killing the noise of the car and the feel of its engine. The road curved downhill, now in yellow light, now in damp shadow. The helicopter receded, the sound of wind and motor-car tyres returned.

From beside mounds of fruit and vegetables heavy-limbed African boys ran out into the road, holding up cauliflowers and cabbages. There had been accidents here; offending motorists had been manhandled by enraged crowds, gathering swiftly from the roadside bush. Bobby slowed down. He hunched over the wheel and gave a slow, low wave to the first boy. The boy didn’t respond, but Bobby continued to smile and wave until he had passed all the boys. Then, remembering Linda, he went sombre again.

She was serene, full of her own cheerfulness. And when she said, ‘Did you notice the size of those cauliflowers?’ it was as though she didn’t know they were quarrelling.

He said, grimly, ‘Yes, I noticed the size of the cauliflowers.’

‘It’s something that surprised me.’

‘Oh?’

‘It’s foolish really, but I never thought they would have fields. I somehow imagined they would all be living in the jungle. When Martin said we were being posted to the Southern Collectorate I imagined the compound would be in a little clearing in the forest. I never thought there would be roads and houses and shops –’

‘And radios.’

‘It was ridiculous. I knew it was ridiculous, but I sort of saw them leaning on their spears under a tree and standing around one of those big old-fashioned sets. His Master’s Voice.’

Bobby said, ‘Do you remember that American from the foundation who came out to encourage us to keep statistics or something? I took him out for a drive one day, and as soon as we were out of the town he was terrified. He kept on asking, “Where’s the Congo? Is that the Congo?” He was absolutely terrified all the time.’

The road was now cut into a hill and the curves were sharp. A sign said: Beware of Fallen Rocks.

‘That’s one of my favourite road-signs,’ Bobby said. ‘I always look for it.’

‘So precise.’

‘Isn’t it?’

His sombreness had gone; it would be hard now for him to reassume it. Already he and Linda had become travellers together, sensitive to the sights, finding conversation in everything.

‘I love being out this early,’ Linda said. ‘It reminds me of summer mornings in England. Though in England I never liked the summer, I must say.’

‘Oh?’

‘I always felt I should be enjoying myself, but I never seemed to. The day would go on and on, and I could never find much to do. The summer always made me feel I was missing a lot. I preferred the autumn. I was much more in control then. To me autumn is the great season of renewal. All very girlish, I’m sur
e.’

‘I wouldn’t say girlish. I would say unusual. I once had a psychiatrist who thought we were all reminded of death in October. He said that as soon as he realized this he stopped being rheumatic in the winter. Of course at the same time he’d put in central heating.’

‘I somehow thought, Bobby, that you would have a psychiatrist.’ She was being bright again. ‘Tell me exactly what was wrong.’

He said, calmly, ‘I had a breakdown at Oxford.’

He had spoken too calmly. Linda remained bright. ‘I’ve long wanted to ask someone who had one. Exactly what is a breakdown?’

It was something he had defined more than once. But he pretended to fumble for the words. ‘A breakdown. It’s like watching yourself die. Well, not die. It’s like watching yourself become a ghost.’

She matched his tone. ‘Did it last long?’

‘Eighteen months.’

She was impressed. He could tell.

With a chuckle, as though speaking to a child, he said, ‘Look at that lovely tree.’ She obeyed. And when the tree had been looked at, he said, solemnly again, ‘Africa saved my life.’ As though it was a complete statement, explaining everything; as though he was at once punishing and forgiving all who misunderstood him.

She was stilled. She could find nothing to say.

*

This was the famous view. This was the openness the sky had been promising. The land dropped and dropped. The continent here was gigantically flawed. The eye lost itself in the colourless distances of the wide valley, dissolving in every direction in cloud and haze.

Linda said, ‘Africa, Africa.’

‘Shall we stop and have a look?’

He pulled in where the verge widened. They got out of the car.

‘So cool,’ Linda said.

‘You wouldn’t believe you were almost on the Equator.’

They had both seen the view many times and neither of them wanted to say anything that the other might have heard before or anything that was too fanciful.

‘It’s the clouds that do it,’ Linda said at last. ‘When we first came out Martin took photographs of clouds all the time.’

‘I never knew Martin was a photographer.’

‘He wasn’t. He’d just got himself a camera. He used to use my name when he sent the film off to be processed, so that no one at Kodak would think he’d taken the pictures. I suppose they must get an awful lot of junk. After he got tired of clouds he began crawling about on his hands and knees snapping toadstools and the tiniest wildflowers he could find. The camera wasn’t built for that. All he got were greeny-brown blurs. The people at Kodak dutifully sent every blur back, addressed to me.’

They were in danger of forgetting the view.

‘So cool here,’ Bobby said.

A white Volkswagen went past, travelling out of the town. A white man was at the wheel. He blew his horn long and hard when he saw Bobby and Linda, and accelerated down the hill.

‘I wonder who he’s showing off to,’ Bobby said.

Linda found this very funny.

‘It’s absurd,’ Bobby said, when they were sitting in the car again, ‘but I feel all this’ – he indicated the great valley – ‘belongs to me.’

She had been close to laughter. Now she leaned forward and laughed. ‘It is absurd, Bobby. When you say it like that.’

‘But you know what I mean. I couldn’t bear looking at this if I didn’t know that I was going to look at it again. You know,’ he said, sitting up, as stiff as a driving pupil, looking left and right, driving off, ‘I never knew a place like Africa existed. I wasn’t interested. I suppose, like you, I thought of tribesmen and spears. And of course I knew about South Africa.’

‘I’ve just thought. We haven’t heard the helicopter for some time.’

‘Helicopters don’t have much of a range. It’s almost the only thing I learned in the Air Force.’

‘Bobby!’

‘Just National Service.’

‘Do you think they’ve got the king?’

‘It must be awful for him,’ Bobby said, ‘having to run from the wogs. I am in a minority on this, I know, but I always found him embarrassing. He was far too English for me. We’ll see what his smart London friends do for him now. Such a foolish man. I feel sure some of them put him up to all this talk of secession and so on.’

‘ “I say, awfully stuffy here, with all these wogs, what?” ’

‘And they found it very charming and funny. I never did, I must say. You know, there’s going to be an awful lot of ill-informed criticism. And we won’t be exempt. Serving dictatorial African regimes and so on.’

‘It’s something that worries Martin,’ Linda said.

‘Oh?’

‘The criticism.’

‘I am here to serve,’ Bobby said. ‘I’m not here to tell them how to run their country. There’s been too much of that. What sort of government the Africans choose to have is none of my business. It doesn’t alter the fact that they need food and schools and hospitals. People who don’t want to serve have no business here. That sounds brutal, but that’s how I see it.’

She didn’t respond.

‘It isn’t a popular attitude, I know,’ he said. ‘What is it our Duchess says?’

‘Duchess?’

‘That’s how I call her.’

‘You mean Doris Marshall?’

‘I bend over “black-wards”. Isn’t that what she says?’

Linda smiled.

‘Very original,’ Bobby said. ‘But I don’t know why we think the Africans don’t have eyes. You think the Africans don’t know that the Marshalls are on the old South African railroad?’

‘She’s South African.’

‘As she tells everybody,’ Bobby said.

‘ “And proud of it, my dear.” ’

‘ “When I was steddying ittykit in Suffafrica –” ’

‘That’s it,’ Linda said. ‘You’ve got it exactly. And there’s this thing about “glove-box”. Do you know about that?’

‘You mean you don’t say glove-compartment.’

‘You always say glove-box.’

‘ “Because it’s ittykit in Suffafrica, my dear.” ’

‘That’s it, that’s it,’ Linda said.

‘I think the sooner they finish putting the screws on Denis Marshall and send the two of them packing to South Africa, the better for everybody.’

She rearranged the scarf around her hair and rolled down the window a little.

‘It’s almost cold,’ she said, and took a deep breath. ‘That’s the nice thing about the capital. The open fires.’

After the way they had just been talking, this expatriate commonplace disappointed him. He said, ‘The nicest thing about the capital is this. This drive back. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.’

‘Stop it. You’ll make me sad.’

‘There’s a splendid thing I read by Somerset Maugham somewhere. He’s not much admired now, I know. But he said that if you wanted only the best and held out for it, really held out, you usually got it. I must say I’ve begun to feel like that. I feel we can always do what we really want to do.’

‘It’s easy for you now, Bobby. But you were saying there was a time when you didn’t even know a place like Africa existed.’

‘I know now.’

‘I know it too. But it doesn’t help. I may want to stay, but I know I can’t.’

She closed the window and took a deep breath again. She gazed at the wide valley.

She said, ‘If I weren’t English I think I would like to be a Masai. So tall, those women. So elegant.’

It was a compliment to Africa: he took it as a sign of her new attitude to him. But he said, ‘How very Kenya-settler. The romantic blacks are the backward ones.’

‘Are they backward? I was thinking of the manyattas or whatever they are. Like the drawings in a geography book. You know, your little hut, your tall fence, and bringing home your cattle for the night to prot
ect them against marauders.’

‘That’s what I meant. Peter Pan in Africa.’

‘But doesn’t the pre-man side of Africa have this effect on you sometimes?’

He didn’t reply. They both became embarrassed.

He said, ‘I can’t see you in a manyatta, I must say.’

She accepted that.

A little later she said, ‘Marauders. I love that word.’

The emptiness of the road couldn’t now be taken for granted. Traffic to the capital was light but steady: old lorries, tankers driven by turbaned Sikhs, a few European and Asian cars, African-driven Peugeot estate-cars, often looking brand-new, always speeding, packed with rocking Africans.

These Peugeot cars were the country’s long-distance taxi-buses. One, horn blaring, surprised and overtook Bobby on a steep slope. The Africans in the back turned round to smile. Linda looked away. The horn continued. Almost immediately the road curved and the Peugeot’s brake-lights came on.

‘I can’t understand why some people like to drive with their brakes,’ Bobby said.

Linda said, ‘For the same reason that they sell their spare tyres.’

Bend by bend, brake-lights intermittently flashing, the Peugeot pulled away.

‘It was one of the things I noticed when I first came out,’ Linda said. ‘Nearly everybody you met had been in an accident or knew someone who had been in an accident. There were so many people in splints in the compound it looked like a ski resort.’

It was an old joke, but Bobby acknowledged it. ‘There was an accident right here not long ago. One of our Singer-Singer Sikh friends turned off his ignition, to coast down. But somehow that locked his steering.’

‘What happened?’

‘He ran off the road and was killed.’

‘Martin says they are the worst drivers.’

‘Whenever you see a Mercedes in the middle of the road you can be sure it’s an Asian at the wheel. I can’t stand those shops. They don’t sell the Africans a pack of cigarettes. They sell them just one or two cigarettes at a time. They make a fortune out of the Africans.’

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