In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)14

The eyes now smiled, turning from the middle-aged woman writing at the counter to Bobby. When Bobby smiled back the African did not respond. His smile was fixed.

The woman looked up.

‘Can we have lunch for three?’

‘We start at twelve.’

And then, as though not wishing to show too much interest in Bobby while the smiling African looked on, she returned to her writing.

Bobby didn’t see Linda and Carter when he came out of the office. He walked down the gravelled path between the cottages and the drooping flowers. Outside each door there was a little pile of split eucalyptus logs, wet from the rain. An old grey-and-black spaniel was worrying one pile, sniffing loudly. From the cottages the hummocked open land, so recently forest, sloped down to what was still woodland. The stream roared there, its course marked by the bare white branches of those trees whose roots it had drowned.

A forest stream, it turned out, with the forest debris of collapsed trees. But from the high bank on which he stood Bobby saw flat stones and boulders below the raging red water: stepping stones: the small thrills, perhaps, of an ordered garden in a gentler season. A little way up there was a remnant of a retaining brick wall. The stream had long ago breached that and now in flood was making another channel through what had once been a garden, swamping the arum lilies that had grown wild. Sunlight, coming through the trees, lit up some of the white lilies and showed them as patches of pure colour against the tangled weeds pulled flat by the flow of water, silent here, and already in places gathered into stagnant pools.

All at once the lilies lost their brightness; it grew dark below the trees; the swamped garden was silent. The stream raged on. On the other bank tree trunks were black in the gloom; leaves and branches hung low. The wood of a fairy-tale, far from home: what was so recently man-made, after the forests had been cut down and the forest-dwellers flushed out and dismissed, what had perhaps been intended only as an effect of art in a landscape made secure, had become natural. It spoke of an absence of men, danger. Bobby thought of the king, hunted from the sky. He looked up. The rainclouds had massed; the road ahead was untarred for a hundred miles.

He went out of the wood into the open and walked back up the hill. The spaniel was still worrying the pile of split logs and had partly pulled it down. The African with the smile was now outside the office, his hat still in his hand. Bobby acknowledged the African’s gaze, turned into the hall and went into the room marked Lounge.

It was a long wide room. Small-paned windows with chintz curtains gave clear views of the woodland, the hills beyond with irregular blocks of pine forest, the play of rainclouds. The furniture looked used but not recently used. The new photograph of the president, the man of the forest with his hair now in the English style, stood between coloured prints of English scenes. There were old magazines: photographs of parties, dances, country houses, furniture: an England, as it were, for export, carefully photographed, with what was offending left out. The English countryside Bobby knew best was a spreading semi-industrial confusion of housing developments like tent-cities, old houses lost on busy main roads, railroad tracks, factory buildings; where what remained of Nature – a brook, it might be, with pollarded willows – looked only like semi-urban wasteland. But the room he was in echoed the photographs in the magazines. The scale was too large, for him, for the injured woman in the tiny office; and perhaps it had always been too large.

Someone shrieked: ‘Three lunches, was it?’

The shriek, really a hoarse, piercing whisper, came from a middle-aged white man in a state of great ruin. He was bandaged and plastered all the way up one leg and all the way up one arm. He barely supported himself on metal crutches and at every step he seemed about to fall on his face.

‘Motor accident,’ the man hissed, with some pride. ‘They say lightning never strikes twice.…’ He shook his head. ‘You saw my wife?’

‘In the office?’

‘Got her too.’ He leaned forward at a steep angle like a comedian. ‘Oh yes. But all right now. Just the itching. Funny thing about plaster. You know, when they take it out at the end, they will still find that little bit at the centre wet. You heading south? Work there? Short-contract man?’

Bobby nodded.

‘You’re the lucky ones. Sending half back to the London bank every month, eh? Salting it away. But bad in the Collectorate now. Going to be a lot of trouble there, I reckon.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by trouble,’ Bobby said.

The ruined man became guarded. ‘No trouble up here.’ He nodded to the photograph of the president. ‘The witchdoctor’s all right. Oh no. No trouble here. Tourism’s going to be big business, and the African knows he can’t manage it by himself. Say what you like, the African’s no fool.’

Bobby put the magazine down and began to move away. He didn’t hurry; there was no need. The ruined man started after him, but couldn’t pursue.

The African was still outside the office. The spaniel sat, old and blank, on the office steps. The woodpile outside the cottage door had been pulled down. Near it Bobby now saw lavender in bloom, an old bush. As he bent down to break off some spikes he saw, among the scattered logs, a lizard’s tail, separate, dead. Then he saw Linda and Carter. Linda waved. It was a large gesture; her blue trousers and cream shirt, seen at a distance, against the gravelled path and the unsettled light of the open hillside, were vivid; and again, as at the start of the day, it was as though they had an audience and were all three in a film or play. Bobby turned: it was only the gaze of the African, cleaning his top lip with his tongue.

Linda said, ‘What have you got, Bobby?’

‘Lavender.’ He passed a spike below her nose. ‘I love lavender. Is that effeminate of me?’

She laughed. For the first time he saw her poor teeth. ‘I wouldn’t say effeminate. I would say old-fashioned.’

She was the brightest of the three when they went into the high timbered dining-hall.

*

They sat at the edge of the desolate room, next to the high fireplace. There was no fire, but logs had been laid. The boy was nervous and abstracted and kept on adjusting the cutlery on the table. His white shirt was less than fresh; his dusty black bowtie was askew.

Carter said, ‘You colonialists did pretty well.’

‘What a lovely word,’ Linda said. ‘One so seldom hears it in conversation. You make it sound very big and technical.’

‘Sitting here, I feel they must have been very big people. Giants in fact. I suppose that’s why they haven’t lighted the fire for us. We’re too small.’

Or too ugly, Bobby thought, breaking his roll.

The frightened boy brought in the soup plate by plate, pressing his thumbs on the rims. He walked with a stoop, raising his knees high; his big feet, loosely hinged at the ankles, flapped up and down.

‘He almost looks like one of ours,’ Carter said.

‘Carter says there’s a four o’clock curfew in the Southern Collectorate, Bobby. The army’s rampaging somewhat, apparently.’

‘That’s what African armies are for,’ Carter said. ‘They are intended only for civilian use.’

‘So it looks as though we’ll have to spend the night at the colonel’s,’ Linda said. ‘Or stay here.’

‘The “boy” might light the fire for you,’ Carter said to Bobby.

Something was wrong with Carter’s molars, and he ate like a dog, holding his head over his plate and catching the food in his mouth with every chew, at the same time giving a slight hiss, as though every mouthful was too hot.

He finished a mouthful and made conversation. He said, ‘I can’t get used to this word boy.’

‘Doris Marshall tried to call hers a butler,’ Linda said.

‘Isn’t that typical!’ Bobby said.

‘In the end she settled for steward. It always seems to me such an absurd word,’ Linda said.

Bobby said, ‘It offended Luke. He said to me afterwards, “I am not a
steward, sir. I am a houseboy.” ’

‘Who is Doris Marshall?’ Carter asked.

‘She’s a South African,’ Linda said.

Carter looked puzzled.

‘Luke is Bobby’s houseboy,’ Linda said.

‘I imagine,’ Bobby said, looking at Linda, ‘she thought she was bending over black-wards.’

Linda cried, ‘Bobby!’

‘We are on to my favourite subject,’ Carter said. ‘Servants.’

Bobby said, ‘It always fascinates our visitors.’

Carter ate.

‘I can’t,’ he said later, looking round the dining-hall, once more playing the visitor, ‘I can’t get over the Britishness of this place.’

‘When I was in West Africa,’ Linda said, ‘everyone was always saying what rotten colonialists we were and how good the French were. And when you crossed the border it looked true. You saw all those black men just like ours sitting on the roadside and eating French bread and drinking red wine and wearing those funny little French berets.’

‘So at least,’ Bobby said, ‘we might be spared over here.’

Carter looked at Bobby and said with direct aggression, ‘You do pretty well.’

It began to rain. The dining-hall grew dark; the roof drummed.

‘That stretch of mud,’ Linda said. ‘It’s the one thing that makes me hysterical, skidding on mud.’

‘I wonder if it’s true about the curfew,’ Bobby said.

‘You don’t have to take my word for it,’ Carter said.

‘I don’t have to take your word for anything.’

Linda appeared not to notice. ‘Poor little king,’ she said, going girlish and affected. ‘Poor little African king.’

After this there was nothing like conversation. They finished the bottle of Australian Riesling; and then, to the visible relief of the boy, lunch was over. Bobby seized the bill when the boy brought it. Carter became morose.

‘Office,’ the boy said. ‘You pay office.’

The African was still there, sheltering under the narrow eaves. Rain blurred the edge of the hill, dripped down the tiled roof of the cottages onto the flowers, washed the gravel path. It was almost chilly. Carter was alone in the dining-hall when Bobby went back. They didn’t talk; Carter turned and looked out at the rain. Linda, when she came in, was as bright as before.

It was time to leave. Bobby began to fuss.

‘I’ll stay here for a little,’ Carter said.

‘Will we be seeing you later perhaps?’ Bobby asked.

‘Let’s leave it open,’ Carter said.

Bobby ran through the rain to the car and drove it up to the hall entrance. Linda got in. She looked at Carter; she seemed concerned now. There was some sort of movement in the shadows behind Carter, and the ruined man appeared, leaning forward, as if with exaggerated interest. As Bobby was driving off the woman with the arm-sling came out on the office steps. She gestured towards the African with her uninjured hand and shouted through the rain.

Bobby stopped and rolled down the window.

‘Can you take him down to the road?’

‘Oh Lord,’ Linda said, leaning over the seat to clear her things away.

*

The African opened the door himself. He filled the car with his smell. Through the rain, the windows misting, they drove off, Linda rigid, Bobby wiping the windscreen with the back of his hand. When Bobby looked at the rear-view mirror he caught the African’s smiling eyes.

‘You work here?’ Bobby asked, in the brisk, friendly, simple voice he used with country Africans.

‘In a way.’

‘What you do? What your work?’

‘Anyanist.’

‘Oh, you mean trade unionist. You organize the workers, you bargain with the employers. You get your members more money, better conditions. That right?’

‘Yes, yes. Anyanist. What you do?’

‘I work here.’

‘I don’t see you.’

‘I work in the south. The Southern Collectorate.’

‘Yes, yes. South.’ The African laughed.

‘I’m a civil servant. A bureaucrat. I have my in-tray and my out-tray. I also have my tea-tray.’

‘Civil servant. That is good.’

‘I like it.’

They were driving slowly down the rocky slope, the rain washing against the windscreen, almost too fast for the wipers. An African came round the corner at the bottom of the slope, walking up to the Hunting Lodge. He saw the car and stood at the side of the road to wait for it to pass. His hat was pulled down low over his head and the lapels of his jacket were turned up.

‘He is getting absolutely soaked,’ Bobby said, still in his friendly simple voice.

‘That is obvious,’ Linda said.

‘You stop,’ the African in the car said to Bobby.

When Bobby looked in the mirror he met the African’s gaze.

‘You stop,’ the African said, looking at the mirror. ‘You take him.’

‘But he is not going in our direction,’ Bobby said.

‘You stop. He is my friend.’

Bobby stopped beside the African. Rain ran down the sloping brim of the African’s hat; nothing could be seen of his face. Still in the rain, he took off his hat; he looked terrified. The African in the back opened the door. The man came in. He said ‘Sir’ to Bobby and sat on the edge of the plastic-covered seat until the first African pulled him back.

The Africans made the car feel crowded. Linda rolled down her window and breathed deeply. Rain spattered her scarf.

The level polo ground was awash and now, with the scattered clumps of reeds and grass rising out of the water, looked more than ever like a swamp. Rain had darkened the ruined pavilion.

‘Is your friend a unionist too?’ Bobby asked.

‘Yes, yes,’ the first African said quickly. ‘Anyanist.’

‘I hope you don’t have too far to go in this weather,’ Bobby said.

‘Not far,’ the first African said.

Rain splashed the frothing red puddles in the deep wheeltracks. Sometimes the car slithered. The road began to rise to the high embankment of the highway.

‘You turn right,’ the African said.

‘We are going left,’ Bobby said. ‘We are going to the Collectorate.’

‘You turn right.’

They were now nearly where the red dirt road turned to sand and rock and widened for the last sharp climb to the highway. The African was still looking at the rear-view mirror.

‘Is it far, where you want to go?’ Bobby said.

‘Not far. You turn right.’

‘Christ!’ Linda said. She leaned back and put her hand to the rear door handle. ‘Out!’

Bobby stopped. The wet African, behind Linda, at once jumped out. Almost at the same time the African who had been talking opened his door and got out and put on his hat. Immediately he was faceless, his smile and menace of no importance. Bobby moved up to the embankment, leaving them there, standing on either side of the dirt road, hats pulled down to the shape of their heads, soaking in the rain, two roadside Africans.

‘What a smell!’ Linda said. ‘Absolute gangsters. I’m not going to get myself killed simply because I’m too nice to be rude to Africans.’

Just before he turned into the highway Bobby looked in the mirror: the Africans hadn’t moved.

‘I’ve had this too often with Martin,’ Linda said. ‘It’s these damned oaths they’re swearing. They feel that everybody’s scared stiff of them as a result.’

‘But still, it makes me so ashamed. So cocky, and then going just like that. What I can’t understand is why he should have hung around for so long up there. You don’t have to be from a foundation to find that a little sinister.’

‘Sinister my foot. It’s just stupidity, that’s all. Let’s open this window. You can smell the filth they’ve been eating.’

The rain slanted in, big drops. Bobby, looking in the mirror, saw the Africans standing
on the highway. Black, emblematic: in the mirror they grew smaller and smaller, less and less distinct in the rain and against the tar. They began to walk. They walked off the highway, back into the road that led to the Hunting Lodge. Bobby didn’t think Linda had seen. He didn’t tell her.

4

‘IT’S SO PATHETIC,’ Linda said.

‘I’m sorry. I should have been firmer.’

‘You feel sorry for them, and you keep on feeling sorry and saying nice things, nice encouraging things, and before you know where you are you have a Sammy Kisenyi on your hands. I’m afraid we shall have to close the window. The Marshalls talk about the smell of Africa – have you heard her?’

‘I should have been firmer.’

‘This very special smell.’

‘I’ve never got on with people who talk about things like the smell of Africa,’ Bobby said. ‘It’s like people who talk about, well, the Masai.’

‘You may be right. But I used to think I wasn’t very sensitive, getting this smell of Africa that the Marshalls and everybody else said they so loved. But I got it this time, when we came back from leave. It lasts about half an hour or so, no more. It is a smell of rotting vegetation and Africans. One is very much like the other.’

It was the smell, in a warm shuttered room, that Bobby liked. He said, ‘Perhaps it is time for you to go South.’

‘It’s so damned pathetic. You remember when the president came to the Collectorate? All those thin and haggard white men, all those fat black men.’

‘I don’t know why you have this thing about them being fat.’

‘I like to think of my savages as lean. You wouldn’t believe it now, but Sammy was as thin as a rake when he came back from England. Martin showed the president round the studios. Sammy, of course, doesn’t know a microphone from a doorknob. Do you know the first thing Martin said afterwards? It’s so embarrassing to say. Martin said, “I’ll say this for the witchdoctor. He smells like a polecat.” Martin! Well, you know, that sort of thing makes you feel ashamed for everybody, yourself included. But then.’

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