In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)19

There was a crash in the kitchen, and a burst of high-pitched chatter. One voice rose quickly to a squeal which sounded like laughter; and then all the voices in the kitchen squealed together.

The colonel became abstracted; he was no longer looking directly at Linda. The Israelis talked softly. The tall boy came to clear away Bobby and Linda’s plates and left a little of his stink behind.

‘You saw that chap in the evening dress?’ the colonel asked.

Bobby frowned. Linda was about to smile, but she saw that the colonel was not smiling.

‘He’s been coming here for a month or so. Ever since he picked up those clothes. I don’t know who he is.’

Linda said, ‘He was awfully polite.’

‘Oh yes, all very polite. But he comes to put me in my place, you know. Isn’t that so, Timothy?’

The tall boy stood still and raised his head. ‘Sir?’

‘He would like to kill me, wouldn’t he?’

Timothy remained still, the tray in his hands, and tried to look serious. He said nothing. He relaxed only when the colonel went back to his food.

‘One day they’ll gallop away with you,’ the colonel said.

With quick, long strides Timothy went to the kitchen. Afresh voice was added to the squeals there; and then, the voice abruptly withdrawn, an aggrieved squealing going on, Timothy came out again, still brisk, still serious, and went to the table of the Israelis.

‘I remember how we’d train men for Salonika, India, and places like that,’ the colonel said. ‘Sometimes we had to strap them to the horses. Ah-wa-wa! You’d hear them bawling at the other end of the ground. Some of them would develop rashes an inch thick. But we’d make riders out of them. We’d get them off to Salonika, India, or wherever it was.’ He looked directly at Linda again. ‘These names must sound strange to you. I suppose the name of this place will sound strange soon.’

The squealing in the kitchen died down.

The colonel became abstracted again, busy with his food.

A tall, slender African, dark-brown, not black, came out into the dining-room from the kitchen. He moved lightly, like an athlete. He nodded and smiled at the Israelis, at Bobby and Linda, and went to the colonel’s table. The mobility and openness of his face made him look less like an African than a West Indian or American mulatto. He wore simple clothes with much style. His well-tailored khaki trousers were clean and ironed; the collar of his grey shirt was clean and firm. His cream-coloured pullover suggested the sportsman, the tennis-player or the cricketer. There was a parting in his hair, and his brown shoes shone.

He stood before the colonel and waited to be seen.

Then he said, ‘I come to say good night, sir.’ His accent had echoes of the colonel’s accent.

‘Yes, Peter. You’re off. We heard the crash and we heard you squeal. Where to this time?’

‘I go cinema, sir.’ The pidgin was a surprise.

‘You’ve seen our local bug-house?’ the colonel asked Linda. ‘I suppose that will close down when the army goes. If the army goes.’

The Israelis didn’t hear.

‘And what are you going to see, Peter?’

The question confused Peter. He continued to look at the colonel. His face held a half-smile and then went African-blank.

He said, ‘I can’t remember, sir.’

‘That’s the African for you,’ the colonel said. The words were spoken at Linda but not addressed to her.

Peter waited. But the colonel was occupied with his food. Peter became composed again; the half-smile returned to his face.

He said at last, ‘I go, sir?’

The colonel nodded without looking up.

Peter moved away with his light athlete’s step. His leather heels sounded on the floor of the bar, the verandah. As soon as they touched the concrete steps, the colonel slammed a sauce bottle down and shouted, ‘Peter!’

Bobby jumped. Timothy held his face straight as though he had just been slapped. Even the Israelis looked up. It was silent in the dining-room, the bar, the kitchen.

Then, as lightly as his leather heels permitted, Peter came back to the dining-room and stood before the colonel’s table.

The colonel said, ‘Give me the keys for the Volkswagen, Peter.’

‘Keys in office, sir.’

‘That’s a foolish thing to say, Peter. If the keys were in the office, I wouldn’t be asking you for them now, would I?’

‘No, sir.’

‘So it’s a foolish thing to say.’

‘Foolish thing, sir.’

‘So you are very foolish.’

Peter was silent.

‘Peter?’

‘Foolish thing, sir.’

‘Don’t say it with so much pride, Peter. If you are foolish, you are foolish and you do foolish things. No witchdoctor is going to cure that.’

Peter no longer glanced about the room; his eyes were fixed on the colonel. His bony shoulders were hunched; he appeared to stoop.

‘Oh, he looks so fine,’ the colonel said, as though speaking to Linda again; but he wasn’t looking at her. ‘So polished.’ He held out his open palm and raised it up and down. ‘Pass by the door of his quarters, and it’s all you can do to keep yourself from being sick.’

In his thin face Peter’s eyes had begun to stare and shine. His mouth was loose.

‘Give me the keys, Peter.’

‘Keys in Volkswagen, sir.’

Bobby pushed his plate aside. Linda kicked him below the table. He settled back. The colonel saw. He looked away from Peter to the floor near Bobby’s feet, and he seemed to grow abstracted.

He made a gesture with his index finger. ‘How wide is the hotel lot, Peter?’

‘One hundred and fifty feet, sir.’

‘And deep?’

‘Two hundred feet.’

‘And in those thirty thousand square feet I am in charge. I don’t care what happens outside. I am in charge here. If you don’t like what I do you can get out. Get out at once.’

Bobby pressed a finger on the tablecloth and picked up a crumb.

‘What do you think of me, Peter?’

‘I like you, sir.’

‘He likes me. Peter likes me.’

‘You take me in when I was small. You give me job, you give me quarters. You look after my children.’

‘He has fourteen. He’s living with three of those animals right now. So polished. So nice. So well-spoken. You wouldn’t believe he doesn’t even know how to hold a pen in those hands. You wouldn’t believe the filth he comes out of. But you like dirt, don’t you, Peter? You like going in to some black hole to eat filth and dance naked. You will steal and lie to do that, won’t you?’

‘I like the quarters, sir.’

‘While I live you will stay there. You won’t move in here, Peter. I don’t want you to bank on that. If I die you will starve, Peter. You will go back to bush.’

‘That is true, sir.’

‘And you like me. I am good to you. But I haven’t been good to you. In this room we’ve had people talking about exterminating you. Don’t you remember?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘You’re a liar.’

‘I like you, sir.’

‘What about the boy who was locked in the refrigerator?’

‘That was somewhere else.’

‘So you remember that.’

‘I never talk about these things, sir.’

‘The whippings? There was a lot of that. What about the crops you weren’t allowed to grow? You remember that? You say you like me?’

‘I hate you, sir.’

‘Of course you hate me, and I know you hate me. Last week you killed that South African. Old, helpless. Didn’t you? Lived here for twenty years. Married one of your women.’

‘Thief kill him, sir.’

‘That’s what they always say, Peter. But we know who killed him. It was someone who hated him.’

‘No, sir.’

‘Do you remember when your woman was sick, Peter?’

‘You know about that, sir.’

‘Tell me again.’

Peter’s staring eyes were inflamed, moist with tears of irritation. His half-open mouth was collapsed, the upper part of his face taut.

‘It’s a story you always tell,’ the colonel said. ‘People always listen.’

Timothy was leaning against one of the square pillars in the middle of the room, head back, slightly to one side, looking on.

‘My wife was sick,’ Peter said. He stopped, choked with irritation.

‘You had three others. Go on.’

‘She cry every night in the quarters.’

‘Black with filth and stink.’

‘One night she was very sick. I get car and take her to hospital. They say no. Hospital for Eu’peans only. Huts for natives. Indian doctor take her. Too late, sir. She die.’

‘And you went out the next day and got other women and sent them to the forest to chop wood. And they loaded up the wood on their backs and came back to you in the evening. It’s a good story, especially for visitors.’

‘I never talk about these things, sir.’

‘Who do you hate more? The Indian or me?’

‘I hate the Indian.’

‘You are ungrateful. Who do you hate more? The Indian or me?’

‘I will always hate you, sir.’

‘Don’t you forget it. Your hate will keep me alive. One night, Peter, you will knock on my door –’

‘No, sir.’

‘You will be wearing a raincoat or you will have a jacket. You will be holding your elbows close to your side –’

‘No, sir. No, sir.’ Peter was closing and opening his eyes.

‘I won’t behave like the South African, Peter. When you say, “Good evening, sir,” I won’t say, “Why, it’s Peter, my own boy. Come in, Peter. Have some tea. How are you? How’s your family?” There’ll be no cups of tea. I won’t behave like that. I’ll be waiting. I’ll say, “It’s Peter. Peter hates me.” And you won’t come past that door. I’ll kill you. I’ll shoot you dead.’

Peter opened his eyes and looked at the top of the colonel’s head.

‘This is how I swear my oath,’ the colonel said. ‘Under these lights, in the open, before witnesses. Tell your friends.’

For some time Peter stood looking at the top of the colonel’s head. His mouth closed, became firm again; there were no tears in his inflamed eyes. He put his hand in the pocket of his khaki trousers and took out a key-ring with two keys. He was going to place it on the table, but the colonel held out his hand and Peter put the keys in the colonel’s palm. There was nothing more to keep him; and with a step as light and springy and athletic as before he walked through the dining-room to the kitchen.

The colonel didn’t look at anyone in the room. He took up a glass of water, but his hands trembled and he put the glass down. His face went pale.

Timothy left the pillar and made himself busy.

When the colonel recovered, and colour came back to his face, he looked at Linda and said, ‘It’s their big night. They’ve been building up to it all week. Mister Peter was going to turn up in the hotel Volkswagen. A lot of them believe he’s already taken over. Oh, out there he’s quite a politician, Mister Peter. Well, that’s his problem. Isn’t it, Timothy?’ He had stopped trembling; he smiled at Timothy.

Timothy smiled back, in relief.

There was chatter in the kitchen again. A high-pitched voice began to squeal, and there was laughter.

‘Do you hear him?’ the colonel said to Linda.

Taking a fork to her mouth, she nodded.

‘That’s Peter, although you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what they’re saying? It sounds as though they’re having the most fantastic argument, but they’re saying nothing. They’re like the birds when it comes to chattering. You should hear Timothy here when he gets going.’

Timothy, clearing away the Israelis’ last plates, smiled at the compliment, but remained correct. He creased his forehead and pulled back the corners of his closed mouth.

There was a peal of laughter from the kitchen.

‘That’s Peter all right,’ the colonel said. ‘They can go on like that for hours. It means nothing at all. What did you think of the dinner?’

‘It was very nice,’ Linda said.

‘Nothing to do with me. Cookboy does it all. Just tells me and I write the menu. You would laugh if you saw him.’ The colonel smiled. ‘Fresh from the bush. Never sat on a chair until he came here. I wonder what will happen to him when I go. But what’s the use?’

‘Are you thinking of going?’

‘I think of nothing else. But it’s too late now. Can’t wait for the Americans to come and buy us all out. That’ll come. But it’ll be too late for me.’

The Israelis, by signs alone, called for their bill. Timothy took their money and gave them change. The colonel made a point of not looking. When the Israelis went past the colonel’s table they hesitated and bowed briefly. The colonel said nothing. He raised his eyes to acknowledge them and then he stared into space, as though their passage had disturbed the train of his thoughts. He kept on staring until the Israelis, in the gravelled yard, began to talk more loudly.

‘These people don’t know how lucky they are,’ the colonel said.

A car door banged, once, twice. An engine started.

‘If the Europeans had come here fifty years earlier, they would have been hunted down like game and exterminated. Twenty, thirty years later – well, the Arabs would have got here first, and they would all have been roped up and driven down to the coast and sold. That’s Africa. They’ll kill the king all right. They’ll decimate his tribe before this is over. Did you know him? Have you been listening to the news?’

‘I only saw him,’ Linda said.

‘Came here for lunch once. Very polished. If I were a younger man I would go out and try to rescue him. Though that wouldn’t have made much sense either. He’s no different from the others. Given half the chance, he’d be hunting the witchdoctor. They say there’s good and bad everywhere. There’s no good and bad here. They’re just Africans. They do what they have to do. That’s what you have to tell yourself. You can’t hate them. You can’t even get angry with them. Really angry.’

Dinner was almost over. Timothy was clearing the tables that had been laid and not used.

‘Too late,’ the colonel said, straightening the magazines and books on his table. ‘Too late for that South African. He used to come here, until he had that last stroke. That was his great mistake. A real old Boer. They found the teapot half full, the two cups on the floor, and tea and blood everywhere. Once or twice he brought his wife. The ugliest woman you ever saw. Like a wrinkled and very happy old ape.’ He paused. ‘These past few years I’ve seen things here that would make you cry.’

At the sudden falseness, the tone of a man saying what he thought was expected of him, Bobby looked up. He saw the colonel looking at him. Bobby, sipping coffee, blew at the steam. The colonel looked away.

The squealing and chatter in the kitchen stopped.

It was like a signal for the colonel. He stood up. ‘Not the sort of thing you read in the papers. Not the sort of thing the people in the High Commission want to hear about either. For them it’s all sweetness and light now. Mustn’t offend the witchdoctor.’ Steadying himself on his feet, he straightened the magazines again, rearranged his sauce bottles, took up his book and held it against his chest. ‘Not many votes in this quarter now.’

He spoke it like an exit line. Walking off, he held himself exaggeratedly upright, but he couldn’t hide his injured hip. In the bar, and then down the verandah to his room, his footsteps were slow, one light, one flat and heavy.

Timothy, moving with a new, almost playful, looseness, swiftly gathered up tablecloths. He made large and rapid gestures; he took long, stretching strides, each ending with a little skid, as though he was demonstrating his
great height and reach. His smell swirled about the room.

It was not quite half-past eight.

‘I’m beginning to feel there’s something to be said for the Belgians,’ Linda said. ‘Never eat before ten.’

‘The Flemings,’ Bobby said. ‘The fat ones.’

Timothy switched off two of the three lights.

‘You are the expert on the local amusements,’ Bobby said.

‘Wait for me in the bar,’ Linda said. ‘We might go for a walk.’

Bobby didn’t care for her confident, confiding manner. It was as though disappointment, and darkness, had brought out the wife in her and she was casting him in the role of Martin. But he didn’t want to be alone either. He went into the bar. Timothy switched off the last light in the dining-room and could be heard squealing with someone in the kitchen. The barboy was behind the bar, still drooping, still apparently studying the bar; it turned out now that he was reading a book. Presently Linda came down, a cardigan hanging on her shoulders. She gave a comic shiver, as though shivering at more than cold.

*

In the boulevard they couldn’t hear the voices from the kitchen or the quarters. They heard only the sound of their shoes on the sand and loose gravel of the broken road and the occasional slap of the unseen lake against the lake wall. The glow from the quarters at the back gave depth to the hotel building; the light from the bar, spreading out into the yard on one side, and showing faintly through the open windows of the unlit dining-room on the other side, outlined the hotel’s concrete wall. Beyond that was the darkness of the great tree and the empty house.

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