In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)17

‘This was what I meant,’ Linda said. ‘I never expected there would be fields here or that they would terrace up all those hills, right to the very top. I never thought of those tracks, and never thought it would look so old and settled.’

‘It was the land we left them,’ Bobby said.

She leaned back in her seat and took off her dark glasses, and Bobby saw that he had said the wrong thing, had struck the wrong note.

‘It’s absurd to think of now,’ he said soon after, in another voice. ‘I knew nothing at all about Africa when I came here. I was surprised to find them working iron. Somehow no one had thought of telling me that. I was really surprised. But you know that if you leave any old piece of metal lying about –’

‘And not so old. Overnight your car can disappear, with only the seats left to mark the spot. They’ll pick a Boeing clean in a week.’

Bobby knew the joke, but he laughed. ‘I suppose I vaguely felt when I came here that they would be hostile because I was white and English and because of South Africa and things like that.’

‘They don’t care about South Africa.’

‘That’s just it. This extreme sophistication. They laugh.’

‘Sammy Kisenyi was telling me that’s because they’re very angry.’

‘Sammy exaggerates, like the politicians. Sammy likes to do the racial thing from time to time. He’s really just testing you. That can be a bit of a bore. I can’t bear that sort of socialistic, third-world pose, can you? It’s something he picked up in England. It’s not typical. They say Sammy had a rough time in England.’

‘It’s certainly left him with a thing about the white woman. The blind, the lame, the halt, no one’s safe.’

‘That’s rather pathetic. I wonder how many Sammys we are creating.’

‘Pathetic, it’s frightening. Sammy believes he’s irresistible because he’s black and fat. He feels he learned how to “handle” English people in England. Seriously. He’s badly mixed up.’

‘Sammy’s an exception. I suppose what I like about ordinary Africans is that with them there’s none of this testing. They take you just as you are. Doris Marshall is right. I have a lot to be grateful to Denis for. He made me come over here. The things you do when you’re young. Writing the LCC exam because everybody else was writing it, applying to Hedley’s because everybody else was applying. I suppose it’s a kind of hysteria. There are so many things you can do perfectly adequately. So many things that you know are not enough, but would do. You look steady, when in fact you’re just drifting. I wasn’t much of a fighter. After Oxford I was just content to be well again. It never occurred to me that I might want to use myself fully as a human being. It isn’t easy to explain, I know, and everything one says can be twisted here. There are too many people around who know how to make the correct noises.’

‘You make it so difficult, Bobby.’

‘In what way?’

‘People take jobs for all sorts of reasons. I wonder if people talk about the place they live in as much as they do about Africa.’

‘Oxford. People talked about nothing else except being up at Oxford.’

‘I suppose we did try too hard to make the correct noises. We should have known from the first day that the country wasn’t for us, and we should have taken our courage in both hands and gone back home.’

‘But you’ve been here six years.’

‘As Martin says, the only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.’

‘And you’re really going South?’

‘It’s only an idea. In four years Martin will be fifty. I suppose we could go back to England and Martin could go freelance. He is a hack who thinks he is, as Martin says. But you can’t really make a fresh start at forty-six. And Martin isn’t really the freelance type. He isn’t much of a fighter either.’

The car bumped and bumped. The trees dripped. Through black overhanging leaves they had a glimpse beyond far peaks of a small mountain lake, grey, like the sky. A roadside jacaranda had freshly shed its purple flowers, a brushing of delicate colour on the rock and mud of the road: they went over it.

‘My life is here.’

‘Bobby!’

On a path on the wooded hillside just above the road about a dozen Africans in bright new cotton gowns were walking one behind the other in the rain, covering their heads with leaves. With the bright colours of their cottons, and the leaves over their heads, they were very nearly camouflaged. They didn’t look at the car.

‘That’s the sort of thing that makes me feel far from home,’ Linda said. ‘I feel that sort of forest life has been going on for ever.’

‘You’ve been reading too much Conrad. I hate that book, don’t you?’

‘You mean they’re probably just going to a wedding or an annual general meeting.’

‘Now you sound like Doris Marshall.’

‘All right.’

‘I loved Denis. I can never stop being grateful to him for what he did for me. My meeting with him at that college Gaudy changed my life. I began to feel I wanted to use myself again. He got me my job here, and I suppose he showed me how to look at the country. But he wanted me to keep on being helpless. He wanted to remain my go-between. He kept on saying that I didn’t understand Africans and he would handle them for me. He didn’t like it when I started to find my own feet and get around. Such a naïve man, really. He wanted me to remain his property. He went insane when he discovered I didn’t object to physical contact with Africans.’

‘You were neither of you discreet.’

‘He talked so much of service to Africa. I can’t tell you how shattered I was. And then he started this campaign against me. I thought I was finished. But that was when I truly got to admire Ogguna Wanga-Butere and Busoga-Kesoro. They understood what Denis was up to.’

‘I don’t want to hear any more.’

‘They are all like that.’

All at once Bobby’s excitement died down. He felt he had destroyed the mood of confession and friendship and had lost Linda. He had spoken too much; in the morning he would be full of regret; Linda would be another of those people from whom he would have to hide. He set his face, the silent man.

They passed more Africans on the hillside. Linda didn’t exclaim or point them out. Bobby began to search for words that would restore the old mood. Half an hour ago he had so many things to say; now nothing new suggested itself. Feeling Linda sitting in reproach beside him, he wished only to go over what he had said, to recapture those passages where he had held her.

‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘this is the sort of drive I used to dream of. The mountains, the rain, the forest. To me it is like Bergman country.’

Yellow mounds of fresh earth began to appear at the roadside and sometimes on the road itself. Heavy vehicles had passed some time before, and their tyres had squashed the earth and spread it over the road; yellow rivulets ran everywhere. Below them there was a valley, grey-green and blurred in the rain. Within the valley there were many conical little hills, each terraced, each with its grass hut behind a grass stockade; and to the huts and along the bottom of the valley faint brown paths ran, like the paths in a fairytale.

‘I used to drive day after day along this road and spend hours in that white room –’

‘Bobby!’

*

They were skidding, slithering first to the left, the back of the car slapping a mound of earth, the wall of the hillside coming at them, then to the right, the valley clear below them, and it was only the knowledge that the mounds of earth would prevent them going over the precipice that saved Bobby from panic. Then motion became absurd and arbitrary; the car suddenly felt fragile; at every swing it seemed about to overturn. And when at last the car came to rest, they were at a slight tilt in the ditch beside the hillside wall, facing the way they had come, deep in roadside bush, black twigs and wet leaves sticking to the left-hand windows. The engine had cut out; they were aware of the rain on leaves and the car.< br />
Bobby restarted the car and put it in gear. The car bucked and they heard the whine of wheels spinning in mud. He tried again. This time the car didn’t buck; they only heard the whine.

Bobby opened his door. Rain and leaves and wind racketed. Stooping, he climbed out onto the road. His yellow native shirt, at first dancing with his brisk movements, quickly became limp and dark with rain.

‘There’s no damage I can see,’ he said to Linda. ‘I think it just needs a little push. You take over.’

‘I can’t drive.’

‘Someone will have to push.’

‘Can’t we wait until some of those Africans we saw turn up?’

‘That was miles ago. We’ll be well and truly stuck by the time they get here.’

Linda came out through Bobby’s door and stood in the gutter behind the spinning wheels. She pushed and then, on Bobby’s instructions, she tried to rock the car; and then she simply beat her palms on it. Bobby decided to use the reverse gear. Linda pushed from the front. The reverse gear worked. The car was freed, and Bobby got it back on the road.

Some time later, while Bobby was working the car round to face the way they were going, with Linda moving from one side of the road to another to guide, muddy up to her knees, her shirt wet, her brassiere showing, her hair damp, her hands sticky with mud, some time later the exhaust rammed into a mound of earth and the car stalled. They both then abandoned the car to look for a length of stick to clear the exhaust: the empty car blocking the narrow road at an irrational angle, its occupants soaking and frenzied in separate parts of the bush, Bobby anxious again about army lorries, Linda in the end hysterical, tearing at bush at random and offering Bobby little twigs and sprays, like someone offering herbs.

When they were together again in the righted car they didn’t talk. The view was as spectacular as before but they ignored it. The car felt wet and damp; there was mud on the plastic seats and the rubber mats, mud on the floors and dashboard.

‘I don’t know what idiot dumped this stuff right on the road,’ Bobby said.

Linda said nothing.

For miles, it seemed, the mounds of earth continued; and whenever they went over the squashed yellow spread they waited for the car to slip. Without comment they crushed purple jacaranda flowers into the mud. Then there were no more mounds of earth; and then, too, the rain stopped. The sky lightened, became almost silver to the west; and they saw, after the dusk of forest and rain, that it was still only afternoon.

In the valleys there was that stillness that came after prolonged rain. The paths were empty; the depleted clouds, less dark, higher now, didn’t move; plants and trees were still. The grey sky was settled: the sun wasn’t going to come out again that day. Then, as they drove, they began to see people on the paths, people within the stockades. Smoke rose up straight from some huts.

Always the road followed the contour of a hill; always they had hill and woods on one side. For some time now, in those woods, on paths that had been stamped or beaten into brown-black ledges, they had been seeing Africans on the move, in bright new clothes. The Africans had never been easy to see, with their black skins and multi-coloured cottons. And now Bobby and Linda saw that the hillside along which they had been driving was alive with Africans. Wherever they looked they saw more. On a wide ledge cut into the hill was a low thatched shelter. With its rough leaf-thatch and black poles, trimmed tree-branches, it had at first looked just like part of the woods; but it was packed with seated Africans, all in new clothes. On zigzag paths above and below the shelter many more Africans were standing.

‘It’s not a wedding,’ Linda said. ‘It’s those oaths of hate again.’

‘They’re not the president’s tribe.’

‘They’re close enough. Somewhere up there they’ve taken off their nice new clothes and they’re dancing naked and holding hands and eating dung. The president probably sent them a nice piece of dung. You could disappear here without trace. You know what happened on the other side, don’t you? The rivers ran red. But that again is something that never happened.’

‘They were serfs over there,’ Bobby said, his own temper building up. ‘They were oppressed for centuries.’

‘It’s so damned absurd,’ Linda said.

He concentrated on the road.

‘Not absurd for them. Absurd for me. Being here.’

They had been moving towards the crest of a ridge; the sky felt more open. They came out of the forest on to the bare ridge, and the valley on the other side opened spectacularly: a miniature country laid out below them, every corner filled with the same details of terraced hill and thatched hut, the smoke of cooking-fires, the wet winding paths: a view ending in miniatures of itself, dissolving in mist. The view called for exclamation.

But Linda only said, ‘Bergman.’

Bobby set his face.

They began to go down; they lost the view. On this side of the ridge the vegetation was different, more grassy. Some hillsides were feathery with a fine bamboo. They had a glimpse of the lake they were making for, leaden in the dim light. Then, still going down, they entered woods again and were again in gloom. The road twisted; the ride seemed rougher downhill. There were no signs of men until a cluster of huts and then a villa in a clearing grown wild again announced the nearness of the lake town. By now, in the car, they had exhausted silence and irritation. They had dried out; the mud on the seats and the dashboard was drying fast.

Bobby said, ‘Does the colonel give a hot bath?’

‘I hope so.’ Linda spoke gently.

It was like another turning in the rocky road. But then forest and gloom were abolished and they were out into openness and the light of late afternoon. The lake was before them, wide as the horizon, water indistinguishable from sky. And they were on asphalt again, on a short road that appeared to run right down the hill to the lake, but then turned to show the town and almost immediately became a two-lane boulevard, lamp-standards down the centre, and tall palms, an import, suggesting not the natural growth of the tropics but the nurtured sub-temperate planting of a resort in a colder country.

The boulevard was bumpy. A lamp-standard was broken. A park separated the boulevard from the lake: unlighted cafés on the front, a small, empty pier. On the other side of the boulevard were villas set in enormous gardens, full of colour, startling after the forest. Red bougainvillaea festooned a dead tree. There was an old filling station with one pump; the small window of a tourist shop was choked with ivory and leather objects; on a billboard outside a low, blank building white hand-written posters gave the names of films and actors.

And then, quickly, the town that had looked whole showed its dereliction. The drives of villas were overgrown, disgorging glaciers of sand and dirt through open gateways. The park was overgrown. The globes and imitation coach-lamps in walls had been smashed and were empty. Metal was everywhere rusty. The boulevard was more than bumpy. It was cracked and fissured; the concrete gutters were choked with sand and dirt and weeds; the sidewalks were overgrown. The roofs of some villas had broken down. One verandah roof, of corrugated iron, was hanging like a bird’s spread wing.

The boulevard and park had been cut level in land that was uneven. Almost at the end of the boulevard there was a long mildewed concrete wall, sagging from the pressure of earth on the other side. Above the gateway a vertical board shaped like an arrow with a curving head said HOTEL. They turned in there and went up the concrete incline to the gravelled yard where, next to a strip of old garden that ran parallel with the concrete wall, a large two-storeyed timber building with a built-in verandah still appeared whole.

When they stopped they heard the sound of water. That came from the lake. From the building itself, from a little room near where they had stopped, they heard an English voice shouting.

‘That is the colonel,’ Linda said. ‘He is in form.’

6

THE SHOUTING continued, while Bobby and Linda got their suitcases out of the car and Bobby set the bur
glar alarm, which immediately cheeped, and then almost brayed as Bobby locked the car door. The shouting continued, but the African who came down the steps from the office, carrying his felt hat in his hand, was smiling; and when he saw Bobby and Linda he smiled more widely. When he put on his hat he became faceless, his smile vanished. His drooping, grimy European-style clothes looked damp; his battered army boots dragged on the wet gravel all the way out of the yard.

Bobby, going up to the office with Linda, set his face. The colonel had heard the car; in the dark office, in a disorder of ledgers and pads, paperbacks and calendars, he was waiting. Set face met set face. The colonel was shorter than Bobby had expected. He was in a short-sleeved shirt and his outstretched hands were pressed against the edge of the counter. The muscles on his arms had shrunk, but he was still powerfully built. He ignored Linda; his dark, moist eyes, full of the strain of his shouting and a rage that had taken him almost to tears, fixed themselves on Bobby.

The colonel wasn’t going to speak first. Linda, unrecognized, was also silent.

‘We would like two rooms for the night,’ Bobby said.

The colonel’s gaze dropped from Bobby’s face to Bobby’s shirt.

A Belgian calendar hung from the pigeonholes on the back wall, above an old black iron safe. There was no photograph of the president, only a framed watercolour of the lake and the hotel, dated 1949 and dedicated by the artist ‘to Jim’.

Without speaking, the colonel opened a ledger and turned it to Bobby. Silent himself, his face equally set, Bobby wrote. And it was only while he was writing that he began to understand that the colonel was an old man. The colonel’s hands were blotched, the skin loose; they trembled as they pressed against the counter. Bobby was also aware that the colonel was smelling. He saw that the colonel’s singlet was brown with dirt; he saw dirt in the oily folds of skin on the colonel’s neck.

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