In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)18

Bobby passed the ledger to Linda. The colonel stepped back from the counter, turned his head and shouted for the boy. His hands stopped trembling then, and when he turned to Bobby again his face had cleared up; his eyes were even touched with mockery.

He said, ‘I take it you’ll be wanting dinner?’

‘There may be a third person,’ Linda said. ‘He’s probably stuck in those mud heaps on the road.’

This was news to Bobby. And now the set face and the silence, which he had been addressing to the colonel, served for Linda as well.

They didn’t talk as they followed the boy into the main building and up the staircase. The boy was young; the black trousers and red tunic he wore had become, on him, only a type of African clothes; at every step his bare heels popped out of his black shoes. Paint had peeled on the staircase; on the landing there was a stack of old unpainted boards, perhaps discarded shelves; in the dark corridor upstairs, where the jute matting smelled of damp and mould, a bed was stood up on its end. Still without speaking, Linda and Bobby went into their rooms, on opposite sides of the corridor. Linda was the lucky one; she had the room overlooking the boulevard and the lake.

Bobby’s room was close and in near-darkness. The rain-spattered window showed the hotel’s water-tower, trees and bush, the roofs of buildings in the next street and, in the yard below, the low whitewashed quarters of the hotel boys. Bobby heard the high-pitched chatter in the language of the forest, the banging of pans, the exclamations that were like squeals. No noise came from the rest of the town, over which there hung a faint blue haze, as from scattered cooking-fires.

The bed had been made up some time ago; the bedspread, in a small flowered pattern, had moulded itself to every ridge and hollow of the bedclothes. The top light was dim; on the timber ceiling the hard graining of wood, and knots, showed like burns through the white paint. In the bathroom the fixtures were old and heavy, the washbasin minutely cracked, stained where taps had dripped. The brass fittings in the plug-hole were black. And the water, when Bobby ran it, spat out red-brown with mud: lake water after rain. It didn’t get lighter, but it presently ran hot. Bobby washed.

Downstairs someone turned on a radio. An African voice burred and boomed through the hollow wooden building, stumbling over the six o’clock news from the capital, or the comment that followed the news: a voice reading word by word, evenly, and sometimes syllable by syllable, often trapping itself and then impatiently eliding. ‘Feu-dal … ter’rists … se’ssionist … Ab’am Lincoln … secu’ty forces … exte’m’nated … vermin.’ The words came up to Bobby like an angry stutter. Against the competition of the radio the hotel boys banged about more and laughed more shrilly and squealed harder and longer in their forest language.

The brown water gurgled away past the black brass outlet into the dark hole, past the flowing strands of slime that were like the ferns at the bottom of a brook; it sent up a rotting smell. The white towel was worn and thin and had a smell of mildew. All at once, drying his face, pressing the towel against his eyes, Bobby felt exhausted, dazed by the long drive; and in that resort town, which he hardly knew, at the edge of that lake, in this hotel room, at this time of day, his exhaustion turned to melancholy.

It was not a disagreeable melancholy. Solitary, he wished now to be alone; he enjoyed the idea of wishing to be alone. It had been a long day; he had talked too much and made many misjudgments. He wished to be absent, to be missed. It was the beginning of one of his sulks; it was so that he punished and refreshed himself.

He didn’t change his trousers. He put on the grey shirt he had worn for the buffet lunch in the capital the day before, and went downstairs. In the bar, where the radio was on, the commentator still angrily entangled in his violent words, there was no light. Above the long concrete wall, on this side no higher than a parapet, the broad spiked palm fronds on the boulevard were black against the lake and the unmoving clouds. In the park, bush hid the wall against which the lake slapped and thumped. Smoke hung faint in the air. The light had almost gone.

Bobby stood in the hotel gateway: he was unwilling to go out on the boulevard. He walked about the yard. He glimpsed cooking-fires in the boys’ quarters; women and children looked up; he hadn’t expected such numbers. He went and stood in the gateway again. He felt observed. He turned and saw the colonel leaning in a doorway of the unlit bar, looking at him. Bobby went out on the boulevard.

He walked past the hotel’s concrete wall; past an empty house, green with damp below a great tree, clods of earth and bits of brick and mortar strewn about the verandah, weeds binding the sand and earth that had flowed out from the drive; and he turned up a side street. The side street was short; the town was only three blocks deep. In the verandah of a villa some Africans were stooped around a cooking-fire. One man, in a tattered army tunic, stood up as Bobby passed. Bobby looked away. But the man had stood up only to throw something from his pocket into the pot.

The town was inhabited. Many of the houses that looked abandoned were occupied, by Africans who had come in from the forest and had used the awkward, angular objects they had found, walls, doors, windows, furniture, to re-create the shelter of the round forest hut. Within drawing-rooms they had built shelters; they had raised roofs on verandah half-walls. Fires burned on pieces of corrugated iron; bricks were the cooking-stones. Many of the men wore ragged army clothes, still wet from the rain, pockets stuffed and drooping. A bicycle leaned in a doorless doorway, as within the stockade of a hut.

On the sidewalks grass had grown around rubbish from the houses, things that couldn’t be used and had been thrown out: cracked squares of picture glass, fragments of upholstered chairs, mattresses that had been disembowelled for their springs, books and magazines whose pages had stuck together in solid, crinkled pads. Once Bobby saw a flattened cigarette packet, black on faded red: Belga. It recalled European holidays: as though Belgium and Europe had once lain across the water, and the lake had only been a version of the English Channel. This resort hadn’t been built for tourists in Africa; it had been created by people who thought they had come to Africa to stay, and looked in a resort for a version of the things of home: a park, a pier, a waterside promenade. Now, after the troubles across the lake, after independence and the property scare, after the army mutiny, after the white exodus South and the Asian deportations, after all these deaths, the resort no longer had a function.

Faintly now, in the distance, there was a rhythmic sound, as of dancing, but so faint that even when Bobby stood still he couldn’t be sure. He walked on. At the bush end of a side street he came upon a row of what had once been shops. He heard then the sound of an engine; and a little later a car came banging up the broken street. It was a Chevrolet, driven by an Indian girl. She stopped outside one of the shops. She barely looked at Bobby and hurried in, her high-heeled shoes tapping on the road and the concrete. The shop was in darkness, but it still worked, and was open for business. The shelves were bright with tins; there was a middle-aged man behind the counter.

The rhythmic sound persisted. It became clearer; above it now could be heard a man shouting. Bobby turned back towards the openness of the lake, dead silver through the black of bush and trees and hedges that had begun to grow into trees. But he was walking towards the sound, and the sound itself was coming closer. When he got to the boulevard he saw a company of soldiers coming out at the double into the boulevard from a tunnel of trees. In the dark, and against their shining black skins, the soldiers’ white vests glowed like so many white shields; their white canvas shoes were like a separate flutter of pigeon wings. The moustached man shouting at them, and running with them, was in the fatigues of the Israeli army.

Three abreast the soldiers came, khaki trousers, white shoes, white vests, faceless. They had fallen into an easy rhythmic jog. The Israeli, calling time, was running up to the head of the column. There he turned and, continuing to shout, lifting his own legs high, he reviewed the company as they jogged past. But the Israeli was do
ing one thing, the Africans another. The Israeli was using his body, exercising, demonstrating fitness. The Africans, their eyes half closed, had fallen into a trance-like dance of the forest. Their knees hardly rose; their faces were blank with serious pleasure; they went blinking past the Israeli, blinking away the sweat that rolled down their shaved heads to their eyes. When they had all passed, the Israeli swivelled, still calling ‘Ah! Ah!’ Then, like a sheepdog, he scampered to the head of the column on the other side, calling to the Africans in vain. The Africans had grown fat and round-armed on the army diet; the Israeli instructor was small, slender, fined down.

Instructor and soldiers continued down one lane of the boulevard; and Bobby, in the other lane, followed them, walking towards the hotel. The jogging white vests came together in the gloom; the white shoes fluttered; then they were hidden by the dark vegetation in the centre of the boulevard. Slowly the tramping receded. But it was always clear, with, above it, the instructor’s shout.

And then the tramping and the shouts grew louder again. The soldiers had turned, and were coming down the other lane of the boulevard. A disturbance in the gloom, white growing out of blackness: Bobby stopped to watch. But as the soldiers came near, and shaved heads appeared above bobbing white vests, Bobby became uneasy. It was wrong to stare; he would be noted. So, looking straight ahead, resisting the rhythm of the dance, he walked past the sweating, blinking soldiers and their instructor, who scampered by, inches away, shouting, ‘Ah! Ah!’

The night had now fallen. In one or two verandahs African campfires burned low. Some of the street lamps came on, blue, fluorescent. A dim light showed in a villa. On the other side of the boulevard the overgrown park had become the colour of the lake, a flat blackness. Bobby came again to the house with the great tree, its mass suggested by the pale glow of the hotel yard. It was very dark below the concrete wall. Light fanned out through the gateway; the gravelled yard was crisscrossed with shadows. The bar lights were on. Linda was silhouetted in the verandah.

‘Bobby?’

He had been missed: she sounded lonely and waiting. She had changed; she was in trousers that were white or cream.

She said in a whisper, ‘I feel like a port and lemon.’

But the bar was silent and desolate; and the joke, which had to do with the colonel and Doris Marshall, didn’t work.

They sat without talking, sipping sherry, studying the photographs and watercolours on the panelled walls and the dusty Johnny Walker figure on their table. The colonel, now wearing silver-rimmed glasses, sat below one of the ceiling lamps and read a paperback; he was drinking gin. The boy with the red tunic drooped behind the counter, looking down at the counter.

There were footsteps on the gravel, on the concrete steps, on the verandah, and a tall, thin African stood in a doorway of the bar. Below a ragged army raincoat he wore a black suit, a dirty white shirt and a black bowtie; his army-style boots were caked in mud. He stood in the doorway until the colonel looked at him. Then he bowed and said, ‘Good evening, Colonel, sir.’

The Colonel nodded and went back to his book.

Tiptoeing in his boots, moving swiftly, not looking at anything in the room, the African went and stood at the bar. The boy poured him a whisky and soda. The African curled thin, long fingers around the glass. As he raised the glass, he rolled his eyes to one side to look at Bobby and Linda.

The colonel went on reading. The silence in the room was like the silence outside.

A motor vehicle hummed in the distance, and then it was in the boulevard. It came closer, its lights lit up the boulevard; it was just outside, it turned into the yard. Two doors banged. Linda, Bobby and the barboy looked at the verandah. It was two Israelis, small, slender men in civilian clothes. They acknowledged the colonel but didn’t look at Bobby or Linda. When the barboy went to their table they gave their order without looking up at the boy; and then they spoke softly, almost in whispers, in their own language, like people under orders not to fraternize, comment or see.

One hand in his pocket now, the African finished his drink. Carefully, with thumb and forefinger he placed a coin at the far end of the counter. He stopped near the colonel’s table, again waited to be seen, bowed and said, ‘Good night, Colonel. Thank you, sir.’

The colonel bowed.

When the African had gone the colonel looked at Bobby and Linda over his glasses and said with what might have been a smile, ‘Well, at least some of us still dress.’

Linda smiled.

Bobby set his face, and he had the satisfaction of seeing the colonel give up his attempt at a smile.

‘You don’t have to tell me what your rooms are like,’ the colonel said. ‘I haven’t been up those stairs for three or four months.’ He put one hand to his hip. ‘Peter looks after that now. Head boy. You should see his quarters. Used to inspect the quarters once a month. Gave that up years ago. Couldn’t bear it. What’s the use, what’s the use?’ Holding the paperback in both hands, flexing the spine, he began to read again.

A tall liveried boy came in from the adjoining room and said to the colonel, ‘Dinner, sir.’

The two Israelis got up at once and went in with their drinks.

Linda said, ‘I’ll go upstairs for a moment.’

Bobby didn’t wait in the bar. He went into the dining-room. It was a large open room with two square pillars in the middle and wide wire-netted windows in the wall that faced the lake. The panelled side walls were hung with more watercolours. There were about twelve tables and all were laid. Half a dozen sauce bottles, a tall silver cruet-stand and a stack of books and magazines marked the colonel’s table. The table to which the boy led Bobby was laid for three.

The boy was big and he moved briskly, creating little turbulences of stink. The cuffs and collar of his red tunic were oily black; oil gleamed on his cheeks and neck. The menu he gave Bobby was written out in a strong old-fashioned sloping hand: five courses.

Linda came back.

‘That was quick,’ Bobby said.

She took the menu and frowned hard at it. ‘I saw someone in your room.’

She continued to frown, and Bobby understood that she wasn’t just giving him news; she expected him to go and look. He was irritated by the casual feminine demand. But temper left him as soon as he was out of the dining-room.

A dim light burned above the stairwell. There was no light in the corridor upstairs. When he put on the light in his room the window threw back a dark reflection. The bed hadn’t been turned down; his open suitcase was as he had left it; the yellow native shirt hung on the back of a chair. Nothing had been disturbed; nothing had changed. Only the smells seemed sharper.

He went across the corridor to Linda’s room: a smaller room, but lighter and fresher: the colonel had shown Linda favour. On an armchair he saw the brassiere of the day, the shirt, the mud-spattered blue trousers with their intimate creases and still, around the crumpled waistband and smooth hips, retaining something of the shape of the wearer. A bright silver object shone on the bare bedside table: a bit of foil, a sachet torn open by clumsy fingers. It wasn’t a shampoo. It was a vaginal deodorant with an appalling name.

The slut, Bobby thought, the slut.

Walking across the dining-room again, he smiled down at the floor. But when he sat down at the table he had stopped smiling and his face was set. He saw that the third place-setting had been cleared away. And again it was a little time before he understood the nature of Linda’s stare, which he had been ignoring. He had resolved to be silent; now he found himself saying, in a conspiratorial whisper that matched Linda’s, ‘I didn’t see anyone.’

Linda was less than satisfied. Her forehead twitched; she gave an impatient sigh and shifted away.

Bobby was hating everything.

*

Presently the colonel came in, with his stiff, halting step. He had a finger between his book. He was flushed; the gin was working on him. He looked about the room with satisfaction, as though it was quite full. He loo
ked benignly at Linda.

‘Have you read this?’ He lifted the book: it was by Naomi Jacob: Linda couldn’t read the title. ‘It’s very good about the mentality of the Hun. Don’t show me the menu,’ he said to the boy. ‘I wrote it. I’ll have the soup. Used to get them here. Those package tours from Frankfurt. Had to drop them.’

You mean they dropped you, Bobby thought.

‘They would eat up your profits,’ the colonel said. ‘Literally eat them up. We used to do a buffet for them. Terrible idea. Never offer the Hun a buffet. He isn’t happy until he’s eaten every last scrap. He believes the new ham on the buffet is for him alone. There used to be a stampede. I saw two women fight. No, no; clear away the buffet as soon as you see the Hun coming. Meet the horde at the door and say, “It’s strictly fixed portions today, gentlemen.” ’

‘They are tremendous eaters,’ Linda said.

‘Like the Belgians. Now there’s a crowd. We used to get lots of them here from the other side. The only thing you can say for the Belgian is that he knows a good bottle of burgundy. Little of that sort of thing here now, though. Of course a lot of this’ – he waved at the wire-netted windows, at the darkness, at the lake – ‘a lot of this is their doing. They thought they would just come from little Belgium and start living the good life right away. No work. Nothing like that. Just the good life. There was this woman just before the troubles, she said to me, “But it’s our estate. The king gave it to us.” You should see what they got up to over there. Mansions, palaces, swimming pools. You should have seen. There’s these two tribes among them –’

‘The Flemings and the Walloons,’ Linda said.

‘They sound the opposite of what they should be. The Walloons should be the fat ones, but they are rather thin and refined. The Flemings should be thin, but they are fat. Ever seen a party of Flemings at the trough? They would order dinner for ten o’clock and get here at seven. At seven. They would start drinking. Just to make themselves hungry. By eight they would be hungry and nibbling at everything and getting the boys to run back and forth with more and more savouries. You’ve got to watch the savouries when the Belgians are around. And they would keep on drinking and drinking, getting themselves hungrier and hungrier. The food’s in here, the boys are waiting. But they said ten, and they’re not coming in until ten. Until ten o’clock they’re just building up their appetites. Quarrelling, shouting, playing cards. Children screaming. Everybody shouting at the boys for more savouries. There would be pandemonium in that bar, from one little Fleming family party. Then at ten they would come in and eat solidly for an hour and a half. Grunting and snorting together. Mother, father, child. Everyone a little ball of fat. That was the sort of example they were setting. You can’t blame the Africans. The Africans have eyes. They can see. The African’s very funny that way. You can drive him hard for weeks on end. But one day he’ll gallop away with you.’

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