In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)16

‘The humiliation.’

Rainclouds darkened the far hills to the right, and the mountains in the distance were hidden. But to the left, where the land was open, the sky was still high, and when the sun struck through the clouds the wet road glistened and the fenced pasture-land was the freshest green.

Suddenly Bobby braked, but with care, without skidding, and pulled in at the side of the road. The road was empty; the manoeuvre was safe. The left wheels sank in soft grass and mud; but he had kept the right wheels on the tar. He bent over the steering-wheel and knocked his forehead lightly against it. Raising his head, resting his right elbow on the wheel, he jammed his palm against his mouth, held his forehead and looked down, and jammed his palm against his mouth again.

‘Oh, my God,’ he said. ‘How awful.’

Clouds raced in the sky. The fields darkened and lit up. Now it was like dusk; now it was afternoon.

‘Awful,’ he said, hitting his mouth with the heel of his palm. ‘Awful.’

He held the wheel with both hands and leaned right over it, the sleeves of the native shirt riding down his arms, pink from the day’s exposure.

Linda said nothing. She didn’t turn to look. Her dark glasses gave nothing away.

Bobby looked up. ‘I know the king’s people,’ he said. ‘He probably is a Christian. He goes to church every Sunday. He keeps his clothes very clean. He washes and irons his own two shirts very carefully. His wife does a little teaching in the school in their village in the Collectorate. He reads. He had that foolish little paperback in the back pocket of those dungarees.’ Bobby was thinking of his own houseboy, who was also small and fine-featured and of the king’s tribe: a churchgoer and a reader of devout or educational primers in the second, moneyless half of the month, a drinker in the first half, often tortured by hangovers, light and silent then, with an additional quality of delicacy. Bobby said softly, ‘God.’ Then, leaning again on the steering-wheel, he made himself think of the bar of the New Shropshire. ‘God. God.’ He looked up. ‘God.’ But now his voice had changed. ‘God, how beautiful.’ He was speaking of the play of sunlight in the green field.

At last Linda responded. She turned to look at the field.

Bobby said, ‘And now I’ve destroyed his pathetic little dignity.’

‘I don’t think so,’ Linda said. She saw the tears in Bobby’s eyes, and her manner altered. ‘I don’t think he even knew what it was all about. And anyway they needed a ticking off. It certainly hasn’t done them any harm. You should have seen that lavatory. You know, I believe I still have that key.’

‘Perhaps I should go back.’

‘Whatever for? That would really frighten them. They might even send for the police.’

‘I’ll probably burst into tears.’ His eyes, already clearing up, had just brimmed over. He smiled.

‘I doubt it. I think it might get you angry all over again if you went back and found them laughing all over the place.’

‘I’ll go back.’

‘I’ve been through this so often with my houseboys. You lose a dozen tins of powdered milk, and you tick them off. There is the most terrible scene, and you start walking about your own house on tiptoe. You expect suicide at least, but in the quarters they are having a high old time. They’ve called in all their friends and they are killing themselves with laughter.’

‘We misinterpret their laughter,’ Bobby said, his hand playing with the gear lever.

‘That may well be. It’s embarrassment or disapproval or something like that. Sammy Kisenyi was telling me. And some European probably told him. But I feel that some of it is good old-fashioned laughter.’

Bobby turned on the ignition.

Linda gave a yelp, lifted up her shirt, twisted violently in her seat towards the door.

‘I’ve been stung! See what it is. I can’t bear to look.’

Remaining twisted on her left hip, keeping her shirt lifted, she gazed up at the roof through her dark glasses, while Bobby looked. Just below her ribs he saw the red rising bump.

‘What is it?’ Linda called. ‘What is it?’

‘I can see where it bit you. But I can’t see it.’

‘Oh my God.’

She remained rigid and Bobby studied the body which now, like a child, she displayed: the thin yellow folds of the moist skin, the fragile ribs, the brassiere, put on for the day’s adventure, enclosing those poor little breasts, and below the waistband of her blue trousers the undergarments that looked as strapped and surgical as the brassiere.

He bent over and kissed the red bump. Linda dropped her eyes from the roof of the car to the top of Bobby’s head. She was careful now to hold her shirt up to keep it from covering Bobby’s head; and she was also careful to stay still, not to disturb him.

He kissed the bump again and asked, ‘Is it better now?’

‘It is better.’

He took his head away. She straightened up and dropped her shirt.

‘I hope you don’t misinterpret my intention,’ Bobby said.

‘Oh, Bobby, that was one of the nicest things that’s ever happened to me.’

‘Oh dear,’ he said, starting the car. ‘You make it sound like childbirth.’

‘Women can believe anything.’

She spoke sharply. But it was what he was expecting. It gave the mood a balance; and it was as friends, personalities established, personalities accepted, that they started again on the road.

It became very dark. The black, over-charged clouds were low; the last streak of light on the green field faded. And the rain did come, hard, drowning the sound of the engine, spattering white on the tar. There was no longer a view; there was only rain. It was cosy in the car.

*

‘These scratches,’ Bobby said. ‘I suppose I’ll get used to them. I was bitten by my mother’s dog once. You can imagine the upset. For me, for my mother, and the poor dog. It was a pretty bad bite. It came out, curiously enough, as two perfectly parallel lines. Just below my calf. The dog is dead now. I still have the marks and, you know, I am rather pleased to have them.’

A little later he said, ‘A doctor gave me some tranquillizers once. This was some years ago. I had a recrudescence of my old trouble and I thought I was going to get my breakdown all over again. I don’t suppose you ever lose the fear, really.’

‘Tranquillizers. Oh dear. Don’t tell me you’re on those.’

‘Listen. He gave me the tranquillizers. Harmless-looking little white tablets. They had a very strange effect. After three days – do you really want me to tell you?’ He smiled.

‘Do.’

‘After three days they burnt the skin off the tip of my penis.’

Linda didn’t hesitate. ‘How awful for you.’

‘Absolutely scorched.’ He was still smiling.

*

The rain continued.

‘It’s strange,’ Bobby said. ‘I never learned to drive until I came out here. But during my illness I always consoled myself with the fantasy of driving through a cold and rainy night, driving endless miles, until I came to a cottage right at the top of a hill. There would be a fire there, and it would be warm and I would be perfectly safe.’

‘Rain outside, fire inside. That’s always romantic.’

‘No doubt. Very romantic. But it gave me much comfort.’ There was a hint of reproof in his voice. ‘And then there was this room I saw myself in. Everything absolutely white. White curtains, blowing in with the breeze. White walls, white bed. Lots of tall windows, all open. Outside, the greenest of hills and, at the bottom, a very blue sea.’

‘It sounds like a hospital on some Greek island.’

‘I suppose it was just that. A wish to give up, to be nothing, to do nothing. Just watching yourself become a ghost. I used to spend hours every day in that room. And every night. I didn’t have a bedside table. I used to put my watch on the floor. One morning I stepped on it and broke the glass. I was going to have it mended, but then I changed my mind and decide
d not to mend it until I got better.’

‘Now that is macabre.’

‘Walking around with a smashed watch. It’s just the sort of sick thing you can do. But the most terrifying thing is how quickly you can adapt to having your whole life written off. At first I used to say, “I’m going to get better next week.” Then it was next month. Then it was next year.’

‘Isn’t there some kind of shock treatment?’

‘Like the tranquillizers. I didn’t know anything about anything. I thought psychiatry was an American joke and a psychiatrist was someone like Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound.’

‘It dates us. Wasn’t that a gorgeous film?’

‘Wasn’t it. In a way, you are right about the shock, though. That was how I started to get better. This psychiatrist I used to go to, the one who cured his rheumatism by telling himself he was only frightened of dying, he said to me after one session, “My wife will give you a lift into town.” I had never met his wife. I sat in the drawing-room and waited for her. He was that sort of psychiatrist. No surgery, just his house. Perhaps I should have waited somewhere else. I heard this woman talking to some other people. Then I heard her say in her bright voice, “But I can take you in. I’ve got to take in one of Arthur’s young queers.” She didn’t know I was right there. I thought everything I’d told the man was confidential. I don’t believe I’ve ever hated anybody so much in my life. I really wanted them both to die. It was unfair really, because he’d done a good job with me. I suppose without knowing it I was getting better. But this shock, as you say, gave me the jolt I needed.’

Linda looked through the scratched glass at the rain.

‘ “One of Arthur’s young queers.” ’ Bobby smiled.

Linda said nothing.

Bobby knew he had embarrassed and moved her. He said, with a touch of aggression, ‘I don’t believe I’ve said anything to surprise you?’

‘You do terrible things,’ he said after a while, the smile gone, his voice altered. ‘You do terrible things to prove to yourself that you are a real person. I don’t believe I ever felt so exploited.’

‘The public attitude has changed a lot.’

‘I wonder why. I hate English queers. They are awful and obscene. And then, of course, I was arrested. On a Saturday night, in the usual place. The policeman was niceness itself. He tried to “reform” me. It was funny. He tried to fill my mind with images of desire. It was like an incitement to rape. I thought at one stage he was going to pull out his wallet and show me pornographic pictures. But he did the usual things. He took my handkerchief off me, very carefully. My handkerchief! I could have died with shame. It was a very dirty handkerchief. My case came up early on the Monday morning. After the tarts. Guilty, guilty; ten pounds, ten pounds. I told the magistrate I acted “in the heat of the moment”. This caused a little titter and as soon as I’d said it I knew I couldn’t have said anything more foolish or damning. But I was discharged very quickly and was able to catch the fast train to Oxford. Oh yes, after my wild London weekend I was back in time for lunch in hall. But I thought Denis Marshall told you. I “broke down” and “confessed” to him some time ago. It always gets me into trouble, but I always break down and confess in the end. It’s the effeminate side of my nature. What is it Doris Marshall says they do with people like me in South Africa? They shave our heads, classify us as natives, put us in dresses and send us to live in the native quarter?’

Linda continued to stare at the rain.

‘I’m sorry. I’ve been blabbing as usual, and I believe I’ve depressed you.’

‘I was thinking about the road,’ Linda said. ‘Even if the mud isn’t too bad, I can’t see us getting to the compound before eight or nine. I think we should make up our minds pretty quickly whether or not to detour to the colonel’s. I was beginning to feel there’s something in the settler maxim about aiming to get where you’re going by four. It is now half-past two.’

‘I haven’t heard of anyone starving on the road to the Collectorate.’

‘We should make up our mind pretty soon. The turning’s going to be on us any minute.’

‘No need to ask what your wishes in the matter are.’

‘I always think the old colonel’s fun,’ Linda said. ‘And I would love to see the lake in bad weather.’

‘I’m glad at any rate that I haven’t depressed you. It is nice, isn’t it?’ he said, speaking now of the landscape. ‘Even in the rain, as you say.’

‘Driving “through the night” to your little house on the hill.’

‘Oh dear. I see that’s been taken down in evidence against me. I can’t say I’m sorry Denis Marshall’s contract isn’t going to be renewed. But I don’t believe I’ll get anyone to believe that it had nothing to do with me.’

‘I don’t think it matters, Bobby.’

‘Busoga-Kesoro brought me the papers. What could I say? We talk so much about corruption among the Africans. And who are my loyalties to, anyway?’

‘Doris Marshall can be very amusing. But no one pays too much attention to what she says.’

‘It makes me laugh. All the time some people are here they run down the country and criticize the people. As soon as they have to go it’s another story.’

‘I suppose that’s true of me.’

‘I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry that you are going.’

‘Why should you be sorry?’

He couldn’t say he was sorry because they were in the car together and because he had confessed to her and because she would now always have some idea of him as he truly was.

He said, ‘I’m sorry because it hasn’t worked out for you.’

‘It’s different for you, Bobby.’

‘You keep saying that.’

‘Look. I do believe they’ve closed the road.’

*

At the road junction, on the road itself, and in the fields about the road, uniformed policemen stood black in the rain with rifles below their capes. Just beyond the junction dark-blue police jeeps blocked the highway to the Collectorate. A red lantern hung from a white wooden barrier; and a black arrow on a long white board pointed down the side road that ran flat to the mountains.

The road to the mountains was clear. No policeman waved Bobby down. But Bobby stopped. Fifty feet or so behind the barrier and the jeeps two heavy planks were laid across the highway: the rain-surf danced about two rows of six-inch metal spikes. A hundred yards or so beyond that, just before the highway curved and was hidden by low bush, there were about half a dozen army lorries with regimental emblems on their tailboards.

Bobby prepared a smile and began to roll down his window. The window-frame dripped, the rain blew in. None of the policemen moved; no one came out of the jeeps. Then a man sitting in the back of a jeep, a fat man, quite young, leaned forward, a chocolate-and-yellow flowered shirt below his cape, and impatiently waved Bobby on; he appeared to be eating.

‘Thank God for that,’ Linda said. ‘I was dreading another search.’

‘They’re very good that way,’ Bobby said. ‘They have a pretty shrewd idea who we are.’

‘At least they’ve made up our minds for us,’ Linda said. ‘Now it will have to be the colonel’s. I feel that Simon Lubero’s writ ends right here, don’t you? The army seems very much in control. I hope we don’t run into any of their lorries. They’re absolute fiends.’

‘I always show the army respect.’

‘Martin says that whenever you see an army lorry you must park off the road until it passes. They run you down for fun.’

‘I wish they could have kept it a police operation,’ Bobby said. ‘I’m sure it is what Simon himself would have preferred.’

5

FOR SOME MILES the road to the mountains was asphalted and as wide and safe as the highway they had just left. But this road wasn’t built on an embankment; it followed the level of the land which here, near the mountains, had flattened out into the gentlest slope, smooth and bare, without trees. In
the openness fenceposts stood out, and the rain-washed road could be seen for some way ahead, empty, skimming the tilted land. The mountains were faint in the rain, but they no longer simply bounded the view; they led the eye upwards.

Fields, fences; a dirt cross-road with a washed-out signpost; a scattered settlement with concrete and timber the colour of wet adobe; trees and bush. The road began to twist and climb. It narrowed. And then there was no more asphalt, only a rough rock surface.

Climbing, they had glimpses of the high plain they had just left; and even through the rain there were suggestions of the land dropping away beyond that. But then, as they went deeper into the mountains, all they saw was the bush on both sides of the road. Curves were sharp around cuttings, wet rock shining below shredded overhangs of roots and earth. There were little, melting landslides in the shallow overgrown ditch and sometimes on the road.

‘Really it’s hard to know what one would choose,’ Bobby said. ‘A hundred miles of mud on the highway. Or this.’

Soon they were well into the mountains. Every now and then they saw peaks and further peaks rising above the rain and the mist; so that after only half an hour of climbing it seemed they were on the roof of the world, at the heart of the continent. The sunlight and the scrub, the straight black road, the hiss of the tyres, the play of light on brilliant green fields: that belonged to another country. The car bumped along the rocks; sometimes for stretches the road was strewn with cinders, which made a squelchy sound; the car was noisy, rattling, low gears always above the din of the rain. Not talking, listening for other motor vehicles, half expecting to see army lorries around every blind corner, Bobby and Linda concentrated on the shut-in road.

Occasionally now they saw huts beside the road and wild lilies in small rain-splashed ponds. Sometimes the land fell away on one side and the black trunks of roadside trees and the wet black lower boughs, leaves dripping, framed a view of a grey-green valley: inset terraced hills, red paths going up each hill to a little stockaded grass hut, paths winding away to other, hidden valleys.

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