In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)21

He said, ‘Boy.’

Carolus stopped. He started to turn to face Bobby.

‘You take off light, boy.’

Carolus obeyed. And when he left the room he shut the door quietly behind him.

Bobby turned on the bedside lamp. He poured a cup of tea. It was weak and full of leaves; it had been brewed in water that was barely hot. It was awful.

7

HE WAS IN A CAR with a woman whose identity he couldn’t be sure of. They were quarrelling. Everything she said was accurate; everything was wounding; and though to everything there was a reply, he couldn’t explain himself. He had to shout above her shouts; he was screaming; and as they sped along the empty road, dangerously, the wheel jumping in his hands, she wounded him and wounded him, more and more deeply; and there was rage and ache in his head, which seemed about to explode. He was no longer in the car. He was standing beside a table in a room full of people and chatter; and his exploding head made him collapse and stretch out right there, before them, on the floor.

When he awoke there was only the memory of the head. The woman and her arguments had vanished; but the wound remained. It was dark, but there was a quality about the darkness which suggested that it would soon be light. He reasoned: it was his early night, the events of the evening, and anyway he had packed for a quick getaway. Just the trousers and the native shirt, and he would be off. But petrol: he didn’t have enough, his tank wasn’t filled: again and again he panicked as in his dream. And then it was daylight: a faint chattering from the quarters, a glimpse of trees at the back which he hadn’t seen the previous evening, and the radio downstairs, the African announcer stumbling over the violent words of the news bulletin from the capital.

It was the light, the openness, the lake, that surprised him when he went down to the dining-room. The sky was high and blue; beyond the ornamental palms on the boulevard the lake stretched to the horizon. The previous evening the wire-netting on the dining-room windows had appeared to enclose the room; now it offered no barrier to the light and was scarcely visible. So sodden and heavy and gloomily tropical the previous evening; but now the air was fresh. The hotel, the boulevard, the park, the lake: something of the resort atmosphere survived. And this morning there was activity on the boulevard. Above the hotel’s concrete wall an army lorry could be seen moving slowly from left to right.

The colonel, dressed as before, was at his table. He had almost finished breakfast; he was drinking tea and reading his book. Bobby, in his yellow native shirt, forgot about the lake and the light; and, left hand at his side, right hand swinging, made his swift, grim passage to the only other table that had been laid. Seated, his face set, he looked at the colonel; but the colonel was reading. Crumbs on the tablecloth, disorder in the butter-flecked marmalade: Linda had been down already. Grimly, Bobby buttered a piece of cold toast.

‘News not so good this morning,’ the colonel said. His voice was relaxed and casual. ‘Still, I suppose the sooner this thing’s over the better for all of us.’

Bobby, biting on his hard toast, gave a brief, blank smile. The colonel didn’t see; he was turning the page of his book.

Timothy, his smell sharp in the light morning air, offered the breakfast card. The card was as dingy as the red-checked waiter’s rag Timothy flicked about the table. His gestures were freer this morning. He was almost skittish, almost familiar, and he appeared anxious to talk. With every friendly flick of his rag he released a little more of his smell.

Another lorry went grinding past the hotel.

‘Army’s on the move this morning,’ the colonel said. ‘Not a time to be on the road, when our army’s on the move. I always give them a wide berth myself.’

‘I imagine the road’s still wet,’ Bobby said.

‘Oh, one or two of those lorries are going to come to grief down some precipice or the other.’

The colonel smiled directly at Bobby. The colonel looked older this morning; but there was no strain in his face; the flesh around his eyes and mouth looked softer and rested.

Bobby was uncertain about the joke.

The colonel noticed. ‘They’re going to leave the road in an awful state.’

‘But I imagine it’ll dry out pretty quickly,’ Bobby said. ‘With this sun.’

‘Oh, with this sun it’ll dry out in no time at all. No time at all. By lunchtime, I’d say.’

It was like an invitation to linger; it was unexpected. But Linda had been down; she and the colonel had no doubt talked.

A car came into the yard. A door slammed. The colonel put a marker, a polished strip of bamboo shaped like a paper-knife, clearly an old possession, in his book; and waited. He appeared to know who the visitor was.

It was Peter, coming in from the bar with his light athletic steps. He was in khaki this morning: the khaki trousers of the previous evening, an ironed khaki shirt with epaulettes and button-down pockets. His sleeves were rolled up; there was a big wristwatch with a shining stainless-steel strap on his left wrist. His arms were bony, the muscles slack; the crinkled loose skin around his elbows showed that he was older than he looked. He carried two or three handwritten lists; he must have been out shopping.

When he saw Bobby, Peter paused, bowed and smiled and said in his English accent, ‘Good morning, sir.’

There was no irony in the smile. It was like the smile of an old acquaintance. It didn’t go with the bow; it was part of Peter’s disjointedness. Like his clothes, like the bow, like the accent, Peter’s smile was only one part of his training, and it was separate from the other parts. Like Carolus and Timothy, Peter belonged to the hotel and the boys’ quarters of the hotel. It was disturbing; as always in former settler haunts, Bobby felt he was trespassing.

Peter stood easily by the colonel’s table while the colonel went through the lists. When Peter went away, after bowing again to Bobby and smiling, the colonel stood up, holding his book against his chest. He steadied himself and threw back his shoulders. Then he hesitated, as though listening to the whine of the army lorry on the boulevard.

He smiled at Bobby and said, ‘At times like this I always feel that the nearer you are to an army camp the safer it is. They’re more under control. I don’t know whether you were here for the mutiny. Even the witchdoctor ran away. Nobody knew where he was for a week. But it was perfectly all right here.’

Again Bobby was uncertain.

‘Of course it’ll all blow over in a day or two,’ the colonel said. ‘Everybody’ll be calmer. Day or two.’

Bobby wasn’t sure, but he thought the colonel was asking for company. He said, ‘We’re a day late as it is.’

‘We’ll give you an early lunch. You’ll get to the Collectorate well before the curfew.’

‘So that’s official, the curfew?’

‘Four o’clock. We’ll get you off in good time.’

*

Later Bobby came downstairs to find Linda in the verandah. She was looking at the bright lake through her dark glasses. She had changed her shirt but was wearing yesterday’s blue trousers; there were faint dusty stains where the mud had been brushed off.

She said, ‘Has the colonel told you?’

She moved away without waiting for his reply. They were still quarrelling.

Bobby was in no mood to talk; he especially wished to be spared the colonel’s disquieting company; and he decided, with relief, to go grim. Grim-faced, he looked through the paperbacks in the office, war stories, historical romances; made a selection; and settled down in a red-painted wicker chair in the verandah to a sulky read.

Linda attached herself to the colonel. They sat in the open office and Bobby heard the colonel talking. They walked about the yard, the garage, the garden, the quarters, and Bobby heard the colonel talking. They sat in the colonel’s open room; they came out and stood in the hotel gateway. The colonel appeared to recognize this gateway as a boundary. He kept within the gravelled yard and never stepped on the concrete that sloped down to the asphalt of the bou
levard.

At intervals the army lorries rolled slowly by. Below green forage caps the fat faces of the soldiers were expressionless and still matt-black from their morning wash.

The air lost its morning freshness; the light became hard; and Bobby, not held by the paperbacks, began again to feel something of the desolation of the derelict resort. Carolus came into the bar, dusty-headed, oily-skinned, in his old black trousers and tight red tunic, as though he hadn’t taken off his clothes or washed since the previous evening. He moved noisily about the bar with broom and rag, taking long, skidding steps, as if in imitation of Timothy. Then he saw Bobby in the verandah. Carolus didn’t come out to the verandah. He retreated with his broom and rag and stayed in the bar, out of sight. Bobby didn’t move. He put his book face down on his knees, looked at a point in the yard, and frowned. He heard Carolus moving quietly in the bar, trying not to draw attention to himself.

The colonel and Linda were still together, but there were now passages of silence between them. When they came and sat at Bobby’s table, for coffee, Bobby saw that they had done so because they had exhausted the mood that had been created by their conversation.

Bobby, still grim, made no effort to talk. Neither did Linda, half smiling behind her dark glasses. And the colonel seemed to have nothing more to say.

Bobby thought: he’ll start talking about Africans.

Carolus stood in a doorway with the coffee-tray.

The colonel said, ‘It looks as though the lorries have stopped.’

Bobby looked at Carolus and then stared into space, demonstrating his capacity for sternness, even in the colonel’s company. Carolus became quite stupid and heavy with fright.

‘What gets me, you know,’ the colonel said, setting out the cups with his firm, square hands, ‘is the way those Africans manage to look so downtrodden as soon as they’re obeying orders. Did you see those drivers? Driving very, very slowly, and looking very, very downtrodden, as though they’d all had the rod this morning. It’s only because those instructors are looking on.’

Bobby, not talking, tilted his empty cup to study a flaw in the glazing.

‘You can train them so far and so far only,’ the colonel said, taking the cup from Bobby. ‘Carolus. Soon they are going to be driving those lorries like madmen, and those same downtrodden faces are going to look very nasty. Carolus.’

Carolus was standing in the doorway, looking in terror from Bobby to the colonel.

Bobby stared at Carolus.

‘Carolus,’ the colonel said, irritation breaking into his voice for the first time that morning, ‘this cup is absolutely filthy.’

Carolus brought another cup. They had coffee. But the colonel’s irritation, which had at first seemed only assumed, remained. The calm of the morning had gone; his face was becoming strained again. Linda was silent, smiling behind her dark glasses, as if with inner content. Bobby continued to be grim.

After coffee the colonel left them. And though they heard him talking to the kitchen about their lunch, he behaved afterwards as though they had already left. He didn’t come to the bar or the dining-room while they were having their lunch. Timothy, his own manner less skittish now, brought their bill and took their money.

The colonel was in the yard when Bobby and Linda came down with their suitcases, but he didn’t appear to see. He didn’t appear to hear when Bobby unlocked the car door and the burglar alarm brayed. Hands in pockets, the colonel stood in the gateway. He looked at the boulevard and the lake; sometimes he looked at the hotel building, remotely, as though considering a picture. He didn’t hear the car start; he didn’t notice it coming close. But suddenly, as Bobby slowed down, the colonel leaned forward and smiled at Linda.

He said, ‘If you run into the army, play dead.’

As Bobby moved off, a group of eight men began coming up to the yard from the boulevard. Two were Indians in turbans; the others were young Africans in white shirts and dark trousers, trainee-surveyors perhaps, builders from the army camp, or employees of the Works Department. One of the Indians spoke to the colonel.

‘Lunch!’ the colonel shouted. ‘This isn’t a roadhouse. You can’t just walk in here at any hour you choose and demand lunch.’

Down the concrete incline, Bobby and Linda turned into the boulevard, whose ruin, in daylight, the colours so bright, so new, startled them afresh. The thin asphalt surfacing was swollen and cracked like the crust on a cake.

‘No!’ the colonel was shouting. ‘No! No!’

‘That was for your benefit,’ Bobby said to Linda. ‘You made a great hit there.’

‘Oh dear. He could do with the money too. Eight fifteens, that’s a hundred and twenty shillings. Not counting the drinks.’

‘I shouldn’t worry. They’ll get their lunch. Shall we come back and check, after we get our petrol?’

She lifted her chin, gave an impatient little sniff, and turned to look at the green damp walls of the empty house which the previous evening she hadn’t been able to see.

8

THE PETROL STATION worked. They got their petrol; that secret anxiety of Bobby’s was stilled. To avoid passing in front of the hotel again, he turned down a side street and drove out of the resort by a street that ran parallel to the lake boulevard. Soon the scattered villas on the edge of the town were left behind, and they were on the mountain road.

The soft shoulders of the road had been churned up by the army lorries, but the central surface was firm and dry. Here and there, especially at corners, rain and the lorries had dislodged rocks and created muddy potholes; in some places, where the road had subsided, large rocks stuck out; but the road was generally easy. The road-menders hadn’t been at work on this side of the resort; no one had dumped mounds of earth.

They climbed higher. They entered forest, still wet, with soft spots of sunshine on the road and the dark tangled hillsides. The light and openness of the lake were shut out. Sometimes they had a view of the lake below them, no longer glittering, indistinguishable from the sky; and when they came out of the forest into the damp valleys of ferns and bamboos the sky seemed lower and more oppressive, and the light had a different quality, settled, dead, holding no reflection from a water surface.

They hadn’t been talking.

Now Linda said, ‘You wonder how they ever managed to find the place.’

She was being provocative; their quarrel was still on. Bobby didn’t reply, and she said nothing else. After some time she carefully changed her position in her seat.

Bamboos and ferns dropped away. At the top of the ridge the land was quite bare. Then they began to go down again, past a valley which was like the valleys they had seen the day before. Again there were fields, terraced hills, huts. In the rain the day before the colours had been soft, green and grey; the paths had meandered into mist; the fields had been empty. Now in the dead sunlight the colours were harsher. Mud was black, vegetation was shining green. The huts that yesterday in the rain had looked such comforting shelters were now seen to be rough structures of grass standing in fenced yards of trampled black mud. Women and children in bright clothes were at work with simple implements in little patches of wet black earth. The women maintained a fixed stoop on straight, firm legs, their broad hips rigid, exaggeratedly humped; so, doubled up, flexible and curving only from waist to head, they hoed and weeded and stepped along their row. All over the valley, among the women and the children, there were little smoking bonfires of damp weedings. It was the immemorial life of the forest. The paths were simple forest paths, leading to nothing else.

At a twist in the road ahead, where the bare verge widened and rose and fell away, half a dozen small domestic animals stood together silhouetted against the sky. But two turned out to be naked children. Dull-eyed, disfigured with mud, they stood where they were and watched the car pass.

Linda said, ‘I was hoping to buy some of those White Fathers cigars for Martin. Do you know them? You could get a great big bundle for a few shillings. Wrapped in a
sort of dry banana-leaf box.’

Martin, Bobby thought: they were getting near home. He said, ‘I thought Martin was a pipe man.’

‘He loves these. They’re absolutely vile, but he likes to puff away and fill his room with the smoke. Just puffing away. Into curtains, bookshelves, under cushions. Just to get the smell everywhere. You used to be able to get them at the colonel’s. But I didn’t see them this time, and I forgot to ask. I imagine they used to come from the other side of the lake. But I suppose the poor old White Fathers now have other things to think about instead of cigars.’

‘I don’t know. I wonder why we always think when things are not going well for us that it’s all coming to an end.’

‘The colonel’s under no illusion on that score. Oh dear, it was awful.’

‘I’m in no position to judge,’ Bobby said. ‘I’ve never been one for settler grandeur.’

‘It’s gone down so much. I suppose since he had that accident and damaged his hip. The rooms are so awful and the boys are so dirty, and he’s stopped looking after himself.’

‘ “That’s what happens the minute you take your eyes off them.” ’

Linda missed the irony. Her silence was like simple agreement.

Bobby tried again. ‘I thought only Africans smelled. What is it that Doris Marshall says? That little bit of settler wisdom about civilization and cleanliness?’

‘Oh goodness,’ Linda said. ‘That Timothy.’

Bobby let the subject drop.

Linda said, ‘I suppose there must be hundreds of people like that all over the world, in all sorts of strange places.’

‘They’ve had a good life.’

‘That’s not the point.’

‘What is?’

‘I don’t believe you want to understand. It’s so awful.’ Her voice broke; it took Bobby by surprise. ‘The foolish man is trying to live on his will alone. Oh dear. And the shirt he was wearing was so dirty. He wanted the company. And he’s right. They’re waiting to kill him.’

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