In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)13

‘A good way of getting something out of them is to say, “Hello, isn’t this made in South Africa?” They get so terrified they virtually give you the shop free.’

She stopped then, feeling she had gone too far.

*

At last they were at the foot of the cliff and on the floor of the valley. The sun was getting high; the land was scrub and open; it became warm in the car. Linda rolled down her window a crack. At the other side of the valley the escarpment was blurred; colour there was insubstantial, like an illusion of light and distance. They were headed for that escarpment, for the high plateau; and the road before them was straight.

Sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour: without effort or thought Bobby was accelerating, drawn on by the road. Here, after the hillside windings, the adventure of the drive as speed, distance and tension always began. As he concentrated on the car and the black road, Bobby’s sense of time became acute. Without looking at his watch he could measure off quarter-hours.

A derelict wooden building; a warning to slow down, on a washed-out red-and-white roadside board and then in elongated white letters on the road itself. Aright-angled turn over the narrow-gauge, desolate-looking railroad track; and the highway became the worn main road of a straggling settlement: tin and old timber, twisted hoardings, a long wire fence with danger signs stencilled in red, dirt branch-roads, trees rising out of dusty yards, crooked shops raised off the earth. And then, making the road narrow, an African crowd.

They wore felt hats with conical crowns and brims pulled down low. Many were in long drooping jackets, brown or dark-grey, which looked like cast-off European clothes. Quite a few, men and women, were brilliantly patched. Two or three men with pencils and pads were marshalling the Africans into open lorries with high canopy-frames. Policemen in black uniforms watched.

‘They are restless today,’ Linda said.

Bobby, driving very slowly, let the old joke pass. Africans stared from the road and down from the lorries, their black faces featureless below their felt hats. Bobby began a low wave but didn’t complete it. Linda, encountering stares, adjusted her scarf and looked straight ahead. Even when they had passed the crowd Bobby continued to drive slowly, anxious not to appear to be running away. In the rear-view mirror the blank-faced Africans with their patches and hats grew small. Out of the settlement, past a curve, Bobby checked again: the road behind showed clear.

The light hurt. Linda put on her dark glasses. The scrub stretched in every direction and seemed to end only with the hazy mountains. In the high sky clouds grew swiftly from the merest white wisps, became silver and black with storm, then disintegrated and reshaped. Bobby and Linda didn’t talk. It was some time before Bobby took the car up to speed again.

Linda said, ‘You know what they’re up to, don’t you?’

Bobby didn’t reply.

‘They are going to swear their oaths of hate. You know what that means, don’t you? You know the filthy things they are going to do? The filth they are going to eat? The blood, the excrement, the dirt.’

Bobby leaned over the wheel. ‘I don’t know how much of those stories one can believe.’

‘I believe you know. It’s been going on all weekend in the capital.’

‘There’s an awful lot of gossip in the capital. Some people will insist on their thrills.’

‘Hate against the king and the king’s people. And against you and me. I can do without that sort of thrill.’

‘I know, I know. You think oaths, you think terrorists and pangas. But that’s not the issue today, thank goodness. And you know, all I believe they do is to eat a piece of meat. I don’t think they even eat it. They just bite on it.’

‘Well, I suppose going up to Government House to eat dirt and hold hands and dance naked in the dark is no better and no worse than going up to sign the visitors’ book.’

She laughed. It broke the mood.

‘I must say I didn’t like the looks we got there,’ Bobby said. ‘For a minute it made me feel we were back in the old days. I would’ve hated to be here then, wouldn’t you?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I would have adjusted. I adjust very easily.’

‘I wonder whether we aren’t a little jealous of the president and his people. At a time like this we feel excluded, and naturally we resent it. I’m sure we would like them a lot more if they were more easygoing. Like the Masai. Speaking personally, I haven’t found any … “prejudice”.’

Above her dark glasses her narrow forehead twitched. ‘Oh, it’s easy for you, Bobby.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I think it’s going to rain this afternoon. Just when we leave the tar. I’m looking at those clouds piling up there. If you travel a lot with Martin you get this eye for clouds. That untarred bit of road is my private nightmare. Just half an hour of rain and it’s all mud. I can’t stand skids. It’s like being in an earthquake. It’s the one thing that really makes me hysterical. That and earthquakes.’

‘I wouldn’t say the clouds are “piling up”.’

‘Still, wouldn’t it be romantic if we had to spend the night at the colonel’s, watching the rain come sweeping in across the lake?’

‘He’s very much the sort of character I prefer to keep away from. Everything I hear about him leads me to believe he’s a total bore.’

‘He’s a very settler settler, I must say. He doesn’t care for anyone.’

‘I suppose you mean Africans.’

‘Bobby. Pay attention. The first time the Marshalls went there she asked for a port and lemon.’

‘ “My dear!” ’

‘My dear. He just lifted up his scrawny arm and pointed to the door and shouted, “Get out!” Even the barboy jumped.’

‘Ittykit in Suffafrica. I forgive him that. I might almost say it’s a point in his favour. But why do you say it’s easier for me?’

‘Oh, Bobby, I’ve gone over this so often with Martin. We appear to talk of nothing else. When I was a girl lapping up my Somerset Maugham and learning about the great world I never dreamt that so much of my married life would have been spent anguishing about things like “terms of service”.’

‘Ogguna Wanga-Butere is my superior,’ Bobby said. ‘He is my – “boss”. I show him respect. And I believe he respects me.’

‘I’m sorry, but when those names trip off your tongue like that, you make them sound very funny.’

‘I very much feel that Europeans have themselves to blame if there’s any prejudice against them. Every day the president travels up and down, telling his people that we are needed. But he’s no fool. He knows the old colonial hands are out to get every penny they can before they scuttle South. It makes me laugh. We lecture the Africans about corruption. But there’s a lot of anguish and talk about prejudice when they rumble our little rackets. And not so little either. We were spending thousands on overseas baggage allowances for baggage that never went anywhere.’

‘It was nice to have,’ Linda said.

She was abstracted; her good humour had gone. Her bony forehead, curving sharply from the flat, thinning hair below her scarf, had begun to shine; above her dark glasses the worry-lines were beginning to show.

‘Busoga-Kesoro brought me the papers. He said, “Bobby, this claim by Denis Marshall has been passed and paid. But we know he didn’t take any baggage anywhere this last leave. What do we do?” What could I say? I knew very well there would be talk over the coffee-cups about my “disloyalty”. But who are my loyalties to? I told B-K, “I think this should go up to the minister.” ’

He was exaggerating his role; he was talking too much. He saw that; he saw he was losing Linda’s interest. He leaned over the wheel, smiled at the road, shifted about on his seat and said, ‘Where shall we stop for coffee?’

‘The Hunting Lodge?’

He didn’t approve. But he said, ‘What a good idea. I hear it’s under new management.’

She said in her new abstracted manner, ‘After the prop
erty scare.’

‘The Asians did very well out of that.’

She didn’t reply. He fell silent. He would have liked to abolish the impression of talkativeness, to be again, as at the beginning, the man with personality in reserve. But now the sombre person was she.

The road ran black and straight between the flat scrub.

‘I believe you are right,’ he said after a time. ‘The clouds are piling up. At times like this one doesn’t know whether to press on or to hang back.’

His manner was conciliating. She made no effort to match it. She said firmly, ‘I want coffee.’

They looked at the road.

‘I’d heard,’ he said, ‘that Sammy Kisenyi wasn’t the easiest of men. But I didn’t know that Martin was so unhappy.’

She sighed. Bobby was stilled; he leaned back against his seat. Then, stilling him further, keeping up the tension, Linda with great weary self-possession rearranged her hair and scarf.

Far away on the road something shimmered. It was more than a mirage. They concentrated on it. A mangled dog.

‘I’m glad I’ve seen it,’ Linda said. ‘I was waiting for it.’ Her tone was mystical. ‘You always have to see one.’

‘So you’ll be leaving?’

‘Oh, Bobby, it’s so different for you. In your department the work goes on and there’s always something to show. But radio is radio. You have to put out programmes. And if you’re an old radio man, as Martin is, you know when you are putting out rubbish. And surely the point of coming out here and giving up the BBC was to do something a little better than that. I suppose it’s Martin’s fault in a way. He was never one of the pushing P.R.O. types.’

‘I see that. About the radio. I do feel they overdo the politics and the speeches. There could be a little more editing.’

‘When I think that Martin was offered the job of Regional Director. But he said, “No. This is an African country. This is a job for someone like Sammy.” ’

‘They say that Sammy had a rough time in England.’

‘Of course it hasn’t been a disaster. There are still people in the BBC who remember Martin. When we were there on leave last year someone at the Club said to Martin, “Oh, but you’re pretty high-powered over there, aren’t you?” ’

‘But of course. No one spoils his career by coming out here. So you think you’ll be going back to England?’

‘One has to think of the future. But England: I don’t know. Martin has put out feelers here and there. I have no doubt that something will happen.’

‘I’m sure it will.’ But his question hadn’t been answered. He asked, ‘Where do you think it’ll be?’

He waited.

She said, ‘South.’

He said, ‘My life is here.’

3

THE SCRUB, when it ruled, had appeared to stretch all the way to the escarpment across a flat valley. But for some time the land had been getting broken and greener. The escarpment still bounded the view, but less and less abruptly. There were now low, spreading, isolated hills; dark trees in the distance hinted at water and streams; here and there hummocked fields spoke of recent forests. Dirt roads began to meet the highway; simple road-signs gave the names of places, twenty, thirty, sixty miles away. There were a few small hoardings. Traffic was still light.

Linda said, in her even mystical voice, ‘That’s my favourite hill on this drive. It looks as though some giant hand had clawed down the side.’

The description was accurate. It was what Bobby himself felt about the hill.

He said, ‘Yes.’

Ahead of them, a tall covered van entered the highway from a side road. Beagles pushed their heads above the tailboard of the van. Hanging on at the back, badly jolted, were two Africans in jodhpurs and riding boots, red caps and jackets.

‘Such a strange part of Africa,’ Linda said.

She sat up, took her bag from the floor and brought out her vanity case. She began to make her face up. Her mystical manner had disappeared. Bobby was now the gloomy one.

‘When we were in West Africa for those few months,’ she said, patting powder, squinting at the hand mirror, ‘you would never have said that the Africans there were remotely English. But as soon as you crossed the border into the French place there you saw black men just like ours sitting on the roadside and eating French bread and drinking red wine and wearing little French berets. Now you come here and see these black English grooms.’

The road had begun to curve; the way ahead was no longer clear. They stayed behind the van with the yelping, interested beagles. The grooms eyed the car without friendliness. A sign announced the Hunting Lodge, one mile on.

‘We’ll have to be quick,’ Bobby said. ‘I don’t like the way those clouds are piling up there.’

‘I told you I was the expert.’

The road they turned off into dipped sharply from the embank ment of the highway. It ran dark-red and narrow, with deep wheeltracks about a central ridge, between humped fields. Rain had fallen the previous day or early that morning. The car slithered in the wheeltracks; the steering-wheel jumped in Bobby’s hands.

‘Still hasn’t dried out,’ Bobby said. ‘It must have rained pretty hard.’

‘It will rain again soon,’ Linda said. But she didn’t sound anxious.

The red road curved, following a shallow depression between gentle slopes. Bobby and Linda were enclosed by green; the highway was hidden. Not far ahead of them a line of trees, some white and leafless, marked the course of a stream. Beyond that the land sloped up again, parkland.

‘Like England,’ Linda said.

‘Or Africa.’

Past a turning the land on the left was shaved of humps and was as flat as a swamp, with scattered tussocks of grass and reeds breaking the surface, as in a swamp. At one end of the levelled area was a derelict timber pavilion, the roof partly collapsed.

‘Polo,’ Linda said.

‘Does Martin play?’

As they drove past they saw the ruin in elevation. Light showed through the missing boards in the exposed back wall at the top and between the broken planking of the steps below, so that the pavilion looked like a dark-grey cut-out against the green. The pavilion had not been built to last. It was a structure such as an army might put up and leave behind.

‘Do you think those beagles will go back home when the time comes?’ Linda said. ‘Or will they grow wild?’

The red road ran beside the line of trees, some of which, on the bank of the stream, had died, their roots drowned. Water roared over stones and could be heard above the beat of the car engine. Sometimes the stream itself could be seen, brimming and muddy.

‘Goodness,’ Bobby said. ‘It must have rained heavily.’

The road turned off, twisted and climbed. Broken rocks had been beaten into the road here and they showed jagged where the surrounding earth had been washed away. The car rocked but did not skid; the hill flattened, became open; and they were at the Hunting Lodge: a separate little creosoted office-shed, marked with a board, a mock-pioneer, mock-Tudor hall, and two rows of cottages flat to the ground, with tiled roofs and chimneys and rough casement windows above a profusion of seed-packet flowers drooping from the recent rain.

A white Volkswagen was parked in the yard, the manoeuvres of its wheels showing fresh on the wet sand. Bobby recognized it as the Volkswagen that had passed them when they had stopped to look at the view. The driver, the man who had sounded the horn, a short, sturdy man of about forty, with dark glasses, khaki slacks and a conventional sports shirt, was waiting.

Bobby, sensing Linda fresh and alert beside him, wondered how he had allowed himself to forget. More, he wondered how he had allowed himself to be brought so directly to the Hunting Lodge. He decided to be grim.

Frowning, he parked.

‘Too late for coffee,’ the man from the Volkswagen said. He was American, of moderate accent.

‘But perhaps in time for lunch,’ Linda said.

Bobby, concent
rating on his frown and his parking and his general silent grimness, missed his chance to object.

‘Bobby,’ Linda said, ‘do you know Carter?’

Bobby, locking the car door, barely looked up. ‘I don’t think I do.’

‘Well. Bobby, Carter.’

‘That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing, Bobby,’ Carter said, taking off his dark glasses, extending a hand.

And Bobby knew he had already been described to Carter by Linda.

‘They start serving lunch at twelve,’ Carter said. ‘But we’ll have to order it now if we want it. As you can see, the place isn’t exactly packed out. All right, lunch? I’ll go and tell her.’

‘I’ll go,’ Bobby said.

He moved off towards the hall.

‘In the office, Bobby,’ Carter said. ‘She’s in the office.’

Bobby turned and smiled, as though he knew but had forgotten. Then he thought that it was foolish to smile; and sternly, left arm rigid, soft mouth set, eyes blank, native shirt jumping, he crossed the yard and went up the steps into the little office-shack.

Below the new photograph of the president, with the hair done in the English style, a middle-aged white woman stood writing at a little counter with her left hand. Her right arm was in plaster, in a sling. She looked up as Bobby entered, then went on writing. In another country this would not have been noticeable; here it was unusual. In the corner of the office, out of the light that came through the door, Bobby saw an African. The African was smiling.

The African was dressed like those labourers they had seen that morning being marshalled into the lorries. But his clothes looked more personal and less like cast-offs. His striped brown jacket was stained in many places and the bloated tips of the wide lapels curled; but the jacket fitted. The pullover, rough with little burrs of dirt, fitted; and the shirt, oily and black around the collar, with two or three old tidemarks of sweat, was like a second skin. Seen from the car, the labourers on the road were expressionless and blank, their black faces in shadow below hats pulled down to the crown. But the African in the office carried his round-topped hat in his hand, and his face was exposed. It was a face as plain as the president’s in the photograph, showing age alone rather than a quality of experience. Liveliness and emotion lay only in the eyes.

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