In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)20

Linda said, ‘I wouldn’t like to be by myself here.’

Ahead of them was one of the street lamps that worked, a splintering, fluorescent circle, smoky after the day’s rain. Objects began to define themselves; shadows grew hard. Light fell on the stepped line of a broken brick wall. Wet palm fronds shone; there were glitters in the park.

‘It’s funny,’ Linda whispered, ‘how you can forget the houses and feel that the lake hasn’t even been discovered.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by discovered,’ Bobby said, not whispering. ‘The people here knew about it all the time.’

‘I’ve heard that one. I just wish they’d managed to let the rest of us know.’

They came to the house with the broken corrugated-iron roof that hung down like a bird’s spread wing. In the verandah there was a group squatting around a small fire.

Linda said, ‘They hadn’t moved into the boulevard when I was here the last time.’

As she spoke, she stumbled. A pebble skidded away. An African stood up in the verandah, thin bare legs and ragged jacket silhouetted against the fire. Linda and Bobby looked straight ahead.

When they had passed the house, Linda said, ‘He’s right. They’ll kill him.’

They passed the filling station; the tourist shop; the cinema, still blank and closed. They came to the end of the boulevard and continued into the tree-hung lane from which the running soldiers had come out earlier that evening. There was no asphalt surface on this lane; their feet fell on wet sand, pebbles, leaves. The blackness grew intense very quickly. The pale walls of villas set far back in gloomy overgrown gardens were barely visible; verandahs were like part of the surrounding blackness. There were no fires here. The trees were low above the lane; the sense of openness had gone.

A dog barked, a low, deep sound; and then it was beside them, big and growling. They walked on, the dog shepherding them angrily past his lot. Dogs barked on either side of the road ahead. And soon they were walking between dogs that obeyed no boundaries. A faint electric light, not a campfire, burned in an inside room of a villa. From that villa, too, dogs came bounding, without a bark, paws ripping through undergrowth and then, over the low twisted wooden fence, beating lightly on the sand of the road, scattering small pebbles. And always, from the black road ahead, came the sound of more dogs. No voices called to the dogs.

‘This is nonsense,’ Linda said.

They turned back. But where before the dogs had only been keeping them to the centre of the lane, now the dogs crossed in front of them and behind them. Paws pattered on the sand and made an almost metallic sound; growls were deep, abrupt, never loud. Always there was barking in the distance. The pack grew.

‘Oh my God,’ Linda said. ‘These dogs don’t have any owners. They’ve gone wild.’

‘Don’t talk,’ Bobby said. ‘And for God’s sake don’t stumble.’

And their speech did madden the dogs more. Now the dogs occupied the lane completely and their movements were thick and flurried. They were waiting for a signal: the first leap by the bravest in the pack, a sudden gesture from Bobby or Linda, a dislodged pebble. But, steadily, the boulevard and the light came nearer.

‘You said your mother’s dog left those two parallel lines on your calf?’ Linda said.

Rage overcame Bobby. ‘I’ll kill them. I’m wearing these steel-tipped shoes. I’ll kill the first one that attacks me. I’ll kick its skull in. I’ll kill it.’

The anger stayed with him and was like courage. And it was as if the dogs responded to his anger. They began to keep to the edge of the lane; they began to fall behind. But the boulevard was near; the darkness was thinning in the fluorescent light; and the boulevard was the boundary the dogs recognized.

Bobby was trembling. Slowly on the boulevard the sense of time came back to him.

Linda was saying, ‘They say you have to have fourteen injections for tetanus.’

‘They brought these dogs here to attack Africans.’

‘All right, Bobby. They’re attacking everybody now.’

‘They trained them to attack Africans.’

‘They didn’t train them very well.’

‘It isn’t funny.’

‘How do you think I feel?’

They walked back to the hotel without talking. They didn’t look at the campfires they passed. In the hotel the bar lights were still on; there was no light in the colonel’s room, next to the office. In the verandah Linda appeared to wait for Bobby to say something. He said nothing. He set his face, turned away from her, and went alone into the bar. She went down the verandah to the passage; he heard her go up the stairs to her room. It was just past nine. The adventure had lasted less than half an hour.

*

Bobby sat on a barstool and drank Dubonnet. The fear drained out of him; the moment of panic in the dark lane became remote. The anger turned to exhaustion, and melancholy at his own solitude, in that bar, beside that vast African lake. Vacantly considering the dusty head of the barboy in the red tunic, Bobby thought: poor boy, poor African, poor African’s head; and tears began to come to Bobby’s eyes.

‘I read French book,’ the barboy said, showing a tattered book in very limp covers.

Bobby heard but didn’t understand. He looked at the boy and remembered the dogs and thought: poor boy.

‘I read geometry,’ the barboy said, lifting another tattered book from below the bar.

And Bobby understood that the barboy was trying to start a conversation. It was what some young Africans did. They tried to start conversations with people they thought were visitors and kindly; they hoped not only to practise their English but also to acquire manners and knowledge. It moved Bobby to be singled out in this way; it moved him that, after all that had happened, the boy should show such trust; and it distressed him that he had allowed himself to be influenced by the colonel and had so far not looked at the boy, had seen only an African in uniform, one of the colonel’s employees, part of the hateful hotel.

‘You read geometry,’ Bobby said. ‘You show me where you read.’

The barboy smiled and danced up and down on his toes. He pressed his elbows on the bar and at the same time turned the first few pages of the book, gathering up each page with the whole of his palm. The pages he turned were black and furred, the edges worn.

‘I read here,’ the boy said. Still hopping, he placed a palm across two pages and shoved the book towards Bobby.

Bobby put the book in the middle of the bar. ‘You read here? The three angles of a triangle together make one hundred and eighty degrees?’

‘I read here.’ The boy leaned sideways across the bar. ‘You teach me.’

‘I teach you. You give me paper.’

The boy brought out a chit-pad.

‘Look, I teach you. I draw straight line. That straight line make one hundred and eighty degrees. Hundred eighty. Look now. I draw triangle on straight line. Like that. That angle here and that other angle here and that angle up there, all that make hundred eighty degrees. You understand?’

‘Hundate.’

‘You no understand. Look, I teach you again. I draw circle here. Circle make three hundred and sixty degrees.’

‘Hundate.’

‘No. No hundate. Three hundred and sixty. Three hundan-sixty. I show you hundate. I draw line through circle. Hundate up there. Hundate here.’

‘I read French.’

‘You read plenty. What for you like read so much?’

‘I go school next year,’ the boy said, showing off now, looking down his nose, sticking out his lower lip, and pulling back the geometry book with the fingertips of both hands. ‘I buy more schoolbooks. I get big job.’

The words had echoes: Bobby understood that someone must have passed this way before. Adventure was not in Bobby’s mind; adventure was what he had ceased to hope for that day. But now, with sadness for the boy who might have had a previous teacher, he saw that adventure was coming; and, as so often, it was coming when it
was least expected, so that it seemed just, like reward. Teaching the boy, he had not studied him. Now he looked at the boy’s head, dust adhering to oil; he looked at the lean, tough neck. And the boy, knowing he was being appraised, looked down gravely at his French book, moving his swollen lips.

‘What’s your name?’ Bobby asked, looking at the boy’s ears.

‘Carolus.’ The boy didn’t look up.

‘You have nice name.’

‘You teach me French.’

The French grammar, its limp red cloth cover stained and sticky and bleached and curling, had been written by an Irish priest and printed in Ireland.

‘How far you reach? You reach here? Partitive article?’

‘Partitive.’

‘In English you no have partitive article. You no say, “Bring me some ink.” ’ Bobby paused: language teaching had unexpected difficulties. ‘In French you always say, “Bring me some ink.” ’

‘Some ink.’

‘That’s it.’

Bobby looked at the boy, and the boy looked down at the book and moved a thick tongue slowly between his lips.

‘What time bar close?’ Bobby said.

‘You teach me English,’ the boy said. ‘You no teach me French. You no know French?’

‘I know French. Look, I teach you. In English you say ink.’

‘Ink.’

‘In French you say l’encre.’

‘Link.’

‘What time bar close?’

‘Any time. Link. You teach me more.’

‘Bring me some ink. Bring me de l’encre. De l’encre. How you mean, any time?’

The boy went coy. He hung his head low over the disintegrating Irish book, so that Bobby saw the top of his head: particles of fluff trapped between the springs.

‘Bar close ten o’clock,’ the boy said.

‘You bring me tea ten o’clock.’

The boy hung his head lower. ‘Kitchen close.’

‘You bring me tea. Room four. I teach you more.’ Bobby folded the fingers of his hand and rubbed his knuckles through the oily springs of the barboy’s hair. ‘I give you shilling.’

‘Kitchen close,’ the boy said.

Bobby placed his palm on the boy’s taut neck, half on the springy hair, half on the warm skin. ‘What a little bargainer it is,’ he said; and, suddenly pulling the boy’s face across the bar to his own, he whispered into his ear, ‘I give you five.’

The boy didn’t pull his head back and Bobby, still holding the boy’s head close and feeling the boy straining to be still, began rubbing his thumb behind the boy’s left ear, feeling the bone below the smooth African skin. The boy became very quiet. Tears came to Bobby’s eyes; and though he was looking at his own thumb and the intricate modelling of the boy’s ear and the coarse little springs of hair, he was not thinking of the boy or the dogs or the intimacies to come; he was surrendering only to his own tenderness and melancholy, which at such moments overflowed.

Suddenly the boy jumped away.

The burglar alarm on Bobby’s car was shrieking. The sharp metallic vibrations rose and fell around a central, persistent wail. The hotel yard jumped with light, bright bulb after bright bulb, everywhere. The quarters broke out into high-pitched chatter, which instantly developed into a general squealing.

‘Peter!’ the colonel called. ‘Peter!’

From the quarters women wailed. Footsteps were everywhere, in the yard, in the hotel itself.

The boy was looking at Bobby with eyes of terror.

The burglar alarm continued to shriek. It would not subside until the car ceased to rock and became still again.

‘Peter!’ the colonel called.

Bobby went out to the verandah. The colonel’s room at the end of the verandah was lit up. The door was open; the window at the back of the room showed the brightly lit yard.

The garage was an open shed. A naked bulb burned there now and threw deep shadows. The rocking of the car was not perceptible, but the alarm was still going, the central wail broken.

Bobby saw that no wheel was missing from his car, no hubcap taken off.

The silences between the wails grew longer, the wail itself fainter. The alarm became a series of cheeps, pips, and then finally died. And then the brightness of the awakened yard was as startling as the alarm had been.

Bobby went back to the bar. The boy still looked at him with eyes of terror. He had put on all the bar lights.

‘Peter,’ the colonel was saying.

At last the quarters went quiet.

‘Dog or cat jump on car, sir.’

‘Were you sleeping?’

‘Sleeping, sir.’

‘You are very foolish.’

Women wailed.

‘I’m going to have you tied up. Timothy! Carolus!’

The barboy jerked his head. But he didn’t move.

The wailing continued, drowning the colonel’s questions, the soft responses.

‘Carolus!’

Now Carolus moved. His mouth, half open, had grown thick and immobile. His movement was awkward, his limbs heavy. He opened the back door of the bar and stood for a little with his back to Bobby, his hand behind him on the doorknob. Across the dark wide passageway half a panelled door was ajar, and Bobby had a glimpse of the bright yard: the unshaded bulbs on the cylindrical metal legs of the water-tower, the glare of the whitewashed quarters, the bush at the back that glittered in black shadow and looked artificial.

‘Carolus!’

He pulled the door shut, and Bobby was alone in the bar. With all the lights on it seemed a bigger room.

Outside, the women wailed in relay, no two drawing breath at the same time. It was impossible to pick out what the male voices were saying. The wailing became simple sound, part of the background.

In a framed signed photograph behind the bar, the photograph enlarged, imprecise, a man in a boat held up a big fish and smiled in strong sunlight: the weather and the mood, and all the implied order, of a particular day. There was a calendar, with an African landscape, from a Belgian brewery, the names of towns in Belgium and Africa printed in the same red type. The paint on the half-empty shelves was old and scratched, cream below brown; in one corner half a dozen nearly empty liqueur bottles had old, dry, stained labels.

The wailing outside grew weaker, was no longer background. Bobby heard the colonel’s voice. The wailing grew loud again, subsided again, and then there was almost silence.

Bobby left the bar and went quickly down the verandah to the enclosed passageway. The door that gave on to the yard was ajar. He didn’t look. He was aware of brightness, movement. He also knew he had been observed.

Upstairs, as he was opening his door, he heard Linda open hers. She was in a short cotton nightdress; her shiny shins looked as sharp as her elbows.

She whispered, ‘Peter? I knew it, I knew it.’

Again he felt that she was involving him in a neutral marital intimacy. And though he half wanted the company, he was perverse. He set his face, as though he had been especially affronted by what had happened downstairs, turned away from Linda and without a word pushed his door open.

It was unexpectedly bright with the glare from the yard. He closed the door, deciding at the last moment to give a little slam. He kicked something across the floor. He didn’t need to turn on the light to see that it was the key of his car.

*

It was only when he was undressed that he became disquieted. Intruders: there might have been a crisis, and he might have been without his car, trapped. He decided then to pack, to be ready at any time for a swift getaway. He arranged, around a chair, everything he would need: packed suitcase, trousers, the yellow native shirt, shoes and socks. He went to bed in his vest and underpants. It was pointless, even a little deranged; it was the behaviour of the compound. But when the lights in the yard went off, and he felt himself alone in the darkness, he was glad he had done what he had done.

There was a knock on the door, but so gen
tle he couldn’t be sure. He waited. The knock came again. He sat up; he didn’t put the light on. The door opened, the ceiling light was turned on. It wasn’t Linda. It was Carolus, with a tea-tray. The world was normal again; the hotel was the hotel.

‘You close door,’ Bobby said.

Carolus closed the door.

‘You bring tea, Carolus? You very good boy. You bring tea here.’

Carolus set the tray on the bedside table. Just as his limbs had lost their lightness, and he moved clumsily, so his face had altered. His eyes had gone red, his lips thick, creased and dry, with a white bloom; his whole face appeared inflamed with apprehension and mistrust.

‘You sit here. You talk with me. I teach you.’

Carolus was taking out a piece of paper from the tight pocket of his red tunic.

‘I teach you French? I teach you hundate?’

The paper was a chit for the tea. It was made out in soft pencil, in the colonel’s firm handwriting.

Anger swept through Bobby; and his anger grew at the sight of Carolus’s heavy face.

He ordered: ‘Pencil.’

Carolus had one waiting.

‘Now get out!’ Bobby said, handing back the pencil and the chit.

Carolus didn’t move. His expression didn’t alter.

‘Go!’

‘You give me.’

‘Give you? Give you nothing. Give you whip.’

It wasn’t even true; it was someone else’s words; he was violating himself. Sitting up in bed, looking at the inflamed African face coming nearer to his, he saw it invaded by such blank and mindless rage that his own anger vanished in terror, terror at something he sensed to be beyond his control, beyond his reason.

He said, ‘I give you. I promise you. I give you.’

He took up a shilling from the change he had put out on the bedside table.

‘You give me five.’

‘I give you, I give you.’

Even when he had the money, Carolus looked at it suspiciously, and then he looked from his palm to Bobby’s face. And as soon as Carolus began to walk to the door Bobby understood that Carolus was only ‘fresh from the bush’; and Bobby knew that he had misread the boy’s face, had seen things in it that were not there.

Leave a Reply