In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)15

‘Oh dear.’

‘Perhaps the word will get around and they’ll deport me. I’d like that.’

‘Lunch wasn’t a good idea.’

‘Perhaps not.’

‘Your views seem to have changed a good deal since the morning.’

‘I don’t know whether I have any views really.’ Linda’s voice was going lighter. ‘That’s why it would be nice to be deported. We must tell Busoga-Kesoro.’

Bobby didn’t like the archness; he didn’t like the innuendo. He began to drive fast, too fast for the wet road.

He said, ‘They say the animal is always sad afterwards.’

‘How romantic, Bobby.’

He decided to say no more.

The rain thinned. The sky lifted. The road shone in a silver light.

*

An obstruction in the road ahead defined itself as police jeeps, policemen in capes, and two zebra-striped wooden barriers.

Linda said, ‘I suppose this is what is known as a roadblock.’

Slowing down, preparing a face for the policemen, Bobby began to smile.

‘Please don’t be too nice, Bobby. So English those policemen, with their black uniforms and their capes and caps. You can tell that the boss is the fat one, with the plain and fancy clothes.’

It passingly enraged Bobby that the man Linda spoke about seemed to be in charge. He was young and big-bellied; a dark-brown felt hat sat lightly on his head; below a police-issue cape he wore a flowered sports shirt.

With two uniformed policemen he came down the centre of the road to the car.

Bobby said, ‘I am a government officer. I’m attached to Mr Ogguna Wanga-Butere’s department in the Southern Collectorate.’

The plainclothesman said, ‘Licence.’

While he examined Bobby’s driving permit his lips and tongue played together, and he held his elbows tight against his sides, giving his paunch a slight lift from time to time.

‘My compound pass is on the windscreen,’ Bobby said.

‘Bonnet and keys, please.’

Bobby pulled the bonnet-release lever and handed over the keys. The uniformed men searched under the bonnet and in the boot, while the plainclothesman himself patted the upholstery on the doors and felt between the seats. He opened Linda’s suitcase and pressed down the flimsy contents with a flat, broad hand.

‘So’ you’ve been troubled,’ he said at last.

It was the formula of dismissal. Then hurriedly, when the car was moving off, like a man remembering part of the drill, he smiled and raised his hat. The hair on which the hat sat so lightly was extravagantly of the English style, scraped together in a high springy mound on one side, with a wide, low parting on the other side.

‘It’s a consolation anyway that he’s one of “ours” ’ Linda said, as Bobby drove between the zebra-striped barriers. ‘But I thought they were looking for the king in the capital, didn’t you? The story last night was that he’d got away in one of those taxis.’

‘They were looking for arms. I happen to know that there’s a lot of concern high up about people smuggling in arms to the Collectorate. Tourists and so forth. They say there’s an absolute arsenal in the king’s palace. Weren’t they extraordinarily polite, though?’ The roadblock, the policemen, the rain on the black capes, the open road, his own security: excitement was in Bobby’s voice. ‘That’s Simon Lubero’s doing. He’s very keen on good relations with the public and so on. Everybody says that Hobbes keeps him up to the mark, but I met him at the conference last year and was most impressed. There was an interview with him in the paper the other day which I found extremely good, I must say.’

‘In our own “Two-Minute Silence”. Preparing us all. Simon’s very British.’

‘That’s not bad. With him.’

‘ “So’ you been troubled,” ’ Linda mimicked. ‘I feel there must be a curfew, don’t you? I know we are white and neutral, but I’m beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t be “racing” in the other direction. We don’t seem to have too much company.’

He was in fact racing, half acting out, after the peculiar excitement of the roadblock, a make-believe of danger and escape on the empty African road, lined now on one side with the tall, bare, candelabra-like branches of sisal: the rain almost gone, the clouds high, the light shifting, the rolling land streaked with luminous green, bright colour going on and off on the distant mountains.

He looked at the petrol gauge and said, ‘We’ll stop at Esher and fill up with petrol.’

‘At the time of the Asian boycott everybody in the compound always kept their tanks full, ready to dash off at any moment of day or night to the border.’

‘My dear,’ Bobby said, ‘such excitement. Daily mentions on the BBC, signing on for the airlift at the High Commission, laying in tins.’

‘I laid in my tins.’

Linda was showing the effect of the lunch and the Riesling and the drive. Her face was white and strained, dark below the eyes, and the tan on her prominent temples looked like stains, yellow below brown.

She said, abruptly, ‘I love this dramatic light, don’t you? And the sisal. It all looks so empty until you start seeing those little brown huts. You feel that nothing has ever happened here.’ Her voice was going mystical; she was listening to herself speak; Bobby could tell now. ‘No one will ever know what has happened here.’

He said, ‘Some of us know what happened here.’

‘Twenty or thirty people were killed during the Asian boycott. And it wasn’t only those Danish dairy experts who were made to double up and down in the sun. I wonder if these things that don’t get into the papers or on the radio are reported in some special place, in some little black book. Or big black book.’

Bobby thought: she is not concerned; she is concerned about other things; she is only trying, for no reason, to undermine me, and to transfer her mood to me. Thinking this, he found that his own excitement had gone, that he was waiting to be irritated by her.

‘You weren’t here for the earthquake,’ Linda said. ‘I’d just come. The houseboy came to me in the morning with tears in his eyes and said that his family lived in one of the villages that had been destroyed. I took him to the police station, to see whether they had a list of casualties. They didn’t, and everybody was very rude. I tried every day for a week. There was no list, and even the houseboy stopped worrying. Nothing in the “Two-Minute Silence”. Nothing on the radio. Everybody had just forgotten about it. Was there an earthquake? Did it matter? Perhaps all those people hadn’t died, and it didn’t matter if they had. Perhaps the houseboy was just trying to make himself interesting. Perhaps nothing that happens here is more interesting than any other thing that happens. Perhaps in a place like this there isn’t any news. Sammy Kisenyi can put out the Lord’s Prayer every day and call it the news.’

Bobby thought he detected one of Martin’s bitter mots. But he only said, ‘If you put it like that, perhaps there isn’t news anywhere.’

‘I don’t want to argue. I believe you know what I mean.’

‘We’ll stop at Esher for petrol.’

She said, in half-apology, ‘I have a slight head.’

She took her bag from the floor and put it on her knees, looked at her face in her hand mirror and said, ‘Good Lord.’ Briskly, as though banishing the mood, she made up her face; without weariness, she rearranged her hair and retied her scarf, her arms still young, the short sleeves of her shirt opening to show the mole in her shaved armpit. Then she put on her dark glasses, sat back in her seat and looked quite composed.

Bobby was hating her.

*

ESH, the milestones had been promising every two miles, E S H. And now at last the board – of English design: it might have been imported from England – said ESHER. But there was still only wilderness.

Then old pine trees grew behind wire fences; tractor-marked dirt tracks met the highway in flurries of melting mud. And it was wilderness again. The hills rose in humps on on
e side; the highway twisted. A washed-out board gave insufficient warning of a level-crossing; the car was jolted. Tall eucalyptus trees made an open, dripping grove, tattered bark on straight trunks; and, against the great mountains in the distance, the rising hills showed a mixture of fenced pastures, hummocked open land, eucalyptus windbreaks, old forest patches: an unfinished landscape, a scratching in the continent.

The verges widened; a few tarnished villas were set in large gardens. There was a roundabout, its garden still maintained, and the highway entered the town. Cross-streets, each with a new black-and-white board bearing the name of a minister in the capital, could be seen to end in mud after two or three hundred yards. The town had been built to grow. It hadn’t grown. It remained a collection of old tin-and-timber buildings, its pioneer flimsiness pointed by the small new bank building, the motor car and tractor showroom. The mud-splashed police barracks, low white concrete sheds flat to the ground, already looked like the hutments of the African quarter in the capital.

The filling station Bobby turned into belonged to an oil company that had come to the country after independence. A tall yellow-and-black board announced the amenities in bold international symbols. But one of the symbols, the telephone, had been partly covered over with a square of brown paper; and another symbol, the crossed knife and fork, had been crossed out, apparently by a finger dipped in engine oil. Along the lower edge of the yellow board, as on the white walls of the office, were the marks of oily fingers and sometimes whole hands that had tried to wipe or roll themselves clean. The covered part of the asphalted yard was black with oil; the exposed part, still wet after the rain, was iridescent.

Four Africans in old blue dungarees that looked like cast-offs watched the car come in. When Bobby stopped outside the covered area and sounded his horn, all four Africans started; but then, looking at one another, all four hesitated. One of the Africans was very small; his dungarees dropped low at the crotch and were thick with turn-ups at the ankles.

‘I’ll go and risk the Ladies’,’ Linda said.

She walked with fussy little steps, keeping her head down. Her trousers were baggy below the knee and there was a long blot of perspiration on her shirt between the shoulder blades.

The small African and another African came to the car, the small African kicking out at every step, fighting the encumbrance of his dungarees. The small African carried a bucket, a sponge and a metal-handled cleaner. Silently he began to clean the car windows.

Linda came back. ‘The place is locked.’

The big African dipped into his pocket and held out a greasy Yale key between a greasy thumb and forefinger. Linda took the key without comment and walked away briskly again.

Oil, petrol, water, battery, tyres: Bobby anxiously superintended and encouraged the big African. He used his simple friendly voice and he laughed a lot. The African was too preoccupied to respond. When Linda came back, Bobby went silent. Self-possessed, hard to read behind her dark glasses, she stood at the edge of the asphalted yard, looking across the road to the hills and the mountains.

At last Bobby paid, and he and Linda got back in the car. While they waited for change they were aware of the small African, the cleaner, darkening one window, then another. Linda’s forehead began to twitch; she sighed. The big African came with the change. If she sighs again like that, Bobby thought, I’ll give her a piece of my mind. The African counted out the change coin by coin into Bobby’s hand. It was too much; it was more than Bobby had given.

‘It’s pathetic,’ Linda whispered.

The small African moved from Linda’s window to Linda’s side of the windscreen. He pulled back the wiper in an alarming way and began to clean, his face level with Linda’s and just a few inches away. He frowned, doing his work, making a point of not looking at her.

She looked down at her lap and whispered, ‘It’s pathetic.’

If she uses that word again, Bobby thought, I’ll hit her. He was counting back the excess change into the patient cupped palm of the big African, and he was deliberately counting in his friendly simple voice. He paid out the last coin, which included a tip, and smiled at the African. The big African went away, and the small African came round with his bucket to Bobby’s side of the windscreen.

Linda said, ‘Look what this one’s been doing.’

Bobby looked at Linda’s side of the windscreen. Then he looked at the small African. The African was using a double-edged cleaner, one edge made of rubber, one edge made of sponge; but both sponge and rubber had perished, and he was rubbing the central bar of metal on the windscreen. He had left a complicated trail of deep scratches on the windows all around the car. Scratching away now, not looking at Bobby, he frowned, to show his intentness.

Bobby saw the fineness of the African’s features, the special, dead blackness of the skin, and recognized him as a man of the king’s tribe. Bobby was at once deeply angry. The African, aware of Bobby’s scrutiny, frowned harder.

‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’

Bobby pushed the door open so violently that the African was hit and thrown off balance.

The African recovered and scrambled away from the car. He said, ‘What?’ and opened his mouth to say more. But then he just looked at Bobby with shocked, liquid eyes, the disintegrating large sponge in his left hand, the metal-handled cleaner still in his right.

‘Look at what you’ve done,’ Bobby shouted. ‘You’ve ruined my windscreen. You’ve ruined all my windows. You’ve knocked several hundred shillings off the resale value. Who’s going to give me that? You?’

‘Insurance,’ the African said. And again he seemed about to say something else; but the words didn’t come.

‘Oh yes, you are very clever. Like all your people. You always know. Insurance? I want it back from you.’

Bobby took a step towards the African. The African stepped back, awkward in his dungarees.

The three other Africans stood still, in their dingy blue dungarees, one next to the door of the office, against the white wall, one in front of the yellow board, one beside the petrol pump.

‘I’m going to have you sacked,’ Bobby said. ‘Sent back to your people. Who’s the manager here?’

The African standing against the white office wall raised his hand. He was the man with whom Bobby had dealt, the man who had given the change. He hesitated, then he came towards Bobby. He stood a few feet away, held his hands behind his back and said, ‘Manager.’

Company policy, clearly; but Bobby doubted whether this manager had it in his power to recruit and sack.

‘I’ll be dropping a note to your head office,’ Bobby said. He took out an envelope and ballpoint pen from the pocket of his native shirt. ‘Who’s your superior? Who your boss-man?’

‘Dis’ sup’indant. Ind-ian.’

‘The old Asian trick of remote control. He come here today, your district superintendent?’

‘Today no. Home. He live there.’ The manager waved towards that part of the town Bobby had just driven through.

‘Oh yes, they’re all hiding today. Give me his address. Boss-man, where he live?’ And while he scribbled on the envelope, with such impatience that he almost immediately stopped writing words and then, deliberately, was just making marks, he said, ‘These people shouldn’t be employed. They and their king have had it all their own way for too long. But their little games are over now. Look at my windscreen.’

The manager looked, leaning to one side to show that he looked.

The small African had begun to relax within his dungarees. He was looking down penitentially at the oily yard, still holding his sponge and cleaner, his little mouth set.

Bobby resented this inattention. He said, ‘This is something for the police.’

The African looked up, his eyes wide with terror. Again he opened his mouth to talk but said nothing. Then, making a gesture as if he was ready to throw aside the tools of his trade, the sponge and the metal-handled cleaner, he turned and began to walk
, kicking out in his dungarees, to the edge of the yard.

‘I’m a government officer!’ Bobby shouted.

The African halted and turned, ‘Sir.’

‘How dare you turn your back on me while I’m addressing you?’

Native shirt swinging, crooking his right arm, pulling back his open palm, Bobby advanced on the small African.

The African was making no effort to dodge the blow. There was only expectation in his glittering eyes.

The other three Africans stood where they were, one in front of the yellow board, one next to the pump, the manager near the car.

‘Bobby,’ Linda said, through the half-open car door. Her voice was neutral, without reproof; she spoke his name as though she had known him a long time.

‘How dare you turn your back on me?’

‘Bobby.’ She had opened the car door and was preparing to get out.

All four Africans stood just where they were as, yellow native shirt dancing, Bobby bustled back to the car. And they remained where they were while Bobby started the car and drove down to the edge of the yard. There he stopped.

‘That damned address,’ Bobby said. ‘Where did I put it?’ He acted out an angry search for the envelope on which he had written nothing.

‘I think we can forget that,’ Linda said.

‘Oh no.’

‘Drop a note to head office, as you said. I don’t think we should go chasing any address that man has given.’

He still searched.

Very quickly, then, with a revving of the engine, a burst of blue smoke and a squeal of tyres, he turned left, heading out of the town, giving up the district superintendent.

The four Africans stood where they were.

*

‘The humiliation,’ he said, restless in his seat.

Linda said nothing.

The town was quickly past: three or four big concrete sheds and a foundry among the empty overgrown lots of an ‘industrial estate’, a stretch of bumpy dual-carriageway, washed-out hoardings with their close-to-Caucasian pictures of laughing Africans, the highway again, and then on a hillside rows and rows of unpainted wooden huts, relics of a failed colonial plantation.

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