In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)22

‘I’d kill him myself if I stayed there.’

‘I don’t trust that Peter one little bit. A little too fawning and smooth, with that fancy wristwatch.’

Bobby said, ‘Peter is a little too clean, I must admit.’

‘The colonel was shell-shocked in the Great War. He told me. He said that if anyone scolded him he became unconscious. Scolded, that was the word he used. Then he said he pulled himself together.’

Bobby suppressed his unease. ‘He can go South.’ He paused. ‘Still a lot of blacks there he can take it out of.’

‘If you put it like that. But it doesn’t matter where he goes now. He took Peter in as a boy, fresh from the bush –’

‘– and trained him. I know.’

‘I suppose they had a good life, as you say. But what strange places they landed themselves in. Salonika, India.’

‘How quickly we pick things up. I wasn’t aware that we sent settlers to Salonika.’

‘I don’t even know where Salonika is. He’s sick of the sight of the lake, sick of the hotel and the quarters, sick of his own food and the table he goes to three times a day. But he won’t leave. He told me he hadn’t been outside his gate for months.’

‘That doesn’t sound like will to me. I used to have an aunt like that, in darkest England.’

‘And he’s still so damned fair. He still gives you a five-course dinner.’

She had been talking slowly; he thought she was only growing ‘mystical’. But then he saw a thin trickle of tears below her dark glasses. He wanted to say: I know why you’re crying. But he decided to let her be, to do nothing that would feed her mood.

He concentrated on his driving. Always, on the rocky road, there were signs of the army lorries that had gone before: the churned-up soft edges, massively embossed with tyre-treads, the muddy potholes at some corners, and occasionally a dislodged boulder, white where it had been buried, earth colour above that. The road continued to be reasonably easy, and empty.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ Linda said. ‘Let the dead bury the dead.’

*

Valley led to valley. The road climbed and dropped. But they kept going lower. The valleys became wider; the earth became less black, rockier; the light became more tropical. The dwellings were no longer all of grass; not all had fences and trampled yards. There were little clusters of timber-and-corrugated-iron shacks; and sometimes now there were even ruins, of weathered boards and rusting corrugated iron.

Something like a monument appeared beside the road. It looked like a war memorial or a drinking fountain. It turned out to be a standpipe: a black nozzle sticking out of a large concrete wall with bevelled edges and cut-away corners, PUBLIC WORKS AND WELFARE JOINT ADMINISTRATION 27—5—54 roughly picked out in a stripe of blue-and-white mosaic at the top of the wall. It was the first of eight monumental standpipes. Then once more there was only the road.

From the car they had intermittent glimpses of a rocky river, widening as the land grew flatter. And then the road came out from a cutting in the bush and ran on a high concrete-walled embankment beside the sprawling riverbed: narrow muddy channels between islands of sand and half-stripped shrubs and heaped rocks white in the sunlight. There was no barrier on the embankment, and the openness gave a sense of hazard.

The road turned away from the river and entered bush again. But the river remained close; and when the road next twisted down out of the bush, to run beside the river once more, Bobby and Linda saw a soldier in a crimson beret standing in bright sunlight on the wide concrete wall of the embankment, the khaki of his uniform and the shining black of his face, contrasting textures, clear and sharp against the openness of the riverbed.

He waved at the car, leaning forward slightly, keeping his polished black boots together. African labourers in the valleys were thin, their clothes ragged. The soldier’s ironed uniform was tight over his round arms and thighs and his soldier’s paunch. He was conscious of his difference, of the army clothes, the evidence of the army diet. His wave was heavy and awkward and looked frantic, but it held authority; and there was confidence in the round, smiling face.

Bobby was driving slowly on the rocky road.

Linda said, ‘He’s a nice fat one.’

The African continued to smile and wave, his hand flapping from the wrist. The car didn’t stop. The African’s hand dropped; his face went blank.

Bobby, glancing at the shaking rear-view mirror, had a momentary, confused sense of openness and hazard: the barrierless high embankment tilting behind him, racing beside him. He looked down from the mirror to the road.

‘I don’t like that look he gave us,’ Linda said. ‘Now I imagine he’s going to telephone his other fat friends, and they’ll be waiting for us at some roadblock. I imagine he’s running to beat out the message on his drums right at this moment.’

‘I always give Africans lifts.’

‘I didn’t stop you.’

‘How do you mean, you didn’t stop me?’

‘Just what I said. They’ll pick you out anywhere, in that yellow native shirt.’

‘For God’s sake.’

He had been slowing down. Now, a little too wildly, he accelerated.

‘I suppose it’s because they can’t read,’ Linda said, ‘but they’re very sharp. You know that sort of common near the compound. Martin and I were driving past that one day, when we saw Doris Marshall’s houseboy, or steward, I suppose we should say, rolling about on the grass, dead drunk as usual, in the middle of the afternoon. As soon as he saw us he ran out right into the road to wave us down. Martin was for stopping. I wasn’t. Well, that drunken houseboy saw that conversation from fifty or a hundred feet away, and repeated it word for word to Doris Marshall. Doris didn’t like it. Suffafrican ittykit. I’d wounded her steward’s feelings.’

Bobby braked. When the car stopped he held the steering-wheel hard and leaned over it.

‘Oh, Bobby. I wasn’t being serious.’

He closed his eyes, then opened them.

‘Really, I wasn’t being serious. You weren’t thinking of going back for him?’

It was, vaguely, what he had in mind.

‘That would be too ridiculous.’

‘I knew there was something I should have done this morning,’ Bobby said. ‘I should have telephoned Ogguna Wanga-Butere or Busoga-Kesoro. It’s just occurred to me.’

She accepted the explanation. ‘I doubt whether either of them’s at work today.’

Bobby put his hand to the ignition switch.

In the distance, from the direction of the plain, there was the sound of a helicopter. It was a faint sound, now coming on the wind, now vanishing, then at last steady. When Bobby turned on the ignition, the helicopter couldn’t be heard.

*

They drove towards the plain and the sound of the helicopter, approaching, receding, always audible above the beat of the engine and the rattle of the car on the rocky road. They lost the river; but all the land now had the bleached quality of a riverbed. There were a few scattered huts on stilts. Cactus bloomed and threw black shadows. The road became sand, with sunken wheel-tracks; at corners there were drifts of dry loose sand in which the car wheels slipped. It was an old, exhausted land. But it was inhabited.

Two men ran out into the road. But perhaps they were only boys. They were naked, and chalked white from head to toe, white as the rocks, white as the knotted, scaly lower half of the tall cactus plants, white as the dead branches of trees whose roots were loose in the crumbling soil. For four or five seconds, no more, the white figures ran with slow, light steps on the stony edge of the road and then ran back from the road into the field of scrub and stone.

Their steps might have been normal. Perhaps they had only been frightened by the car. Perhaps it was their colour, robbing them of faces and even of nudity, that had made them seem light-footed and insubstantial. Perhaps it was the noise of the car, killing the cries they might have made and the sounds of their feet.

So brief an apparition, so abrupt and without disturbance: still listening for the helicopter above the beat of the engine, Bobby didn’t look to see where in that bright rubbled landscape the chalked boys or men had gone. Linda didn’t look. Neither she nor Bobby talked. And it was a little time before Bobby realized that the helicopter, for which he was listening, was no longer to be heard.

And now they were altogether out of the mountains, which began to show in the rear-view mirror as a blue-green range rising out of the bright plain. Farms appeared again, and fenced fields; little shack settlements at crossroads: houses and huts in dusty yards, two or three wooden shops: flaking distemper on old timber, faded advertisements on doors, twisted frames, dark interiors. They slowed down for a petrol tanker driven by an Indian. It was the first motor vehicle they had seen since leaving the hotel. But there were others now: old lorries, old cars driven by Africans. The road was tarred again. They were entering a market town.

Small ochre-and-red official buildings were scattered about the winding road. But the gaps between the buildings had not been filled; much of the town was waste-ground, as eroded and full of glare as a riverbed. The buildings were in a type of Italianate style, with a touch of the South American. Walls went right down to the ground and were mud-splashed; roughly plastered concrete looked like adobe. Crooked telegraph poles, sagging wires, the broken edges of the asphalt road, scuffed grass sidewalks, dust, scattered rubbish, African bicycles, broken-down lorries and motor cars outside the bus-station shed: the town had failed to grow, but it still worked.

Africans sat and squatted in a dusty park where eucalyptus had grown tall. There was a market with a little clock-tower. One stall was entirely hung with clothes for Africans, each garment on a hanger, the hangers staggered down and across, so that the stall appeared to be hung with a fluttering rag carpet. Below the clock on the tower there was, in raised concrete letters, red on ochre: MARKET 1951.

Then the town was past and the road was empty again. The road was so empty and the air so clear, the land so flat and stripped, that miles before they reached it they could see the embankment of the main highway to the Collectorate. And that too was empty. Black, wide and straight: the car stopped rattling. The tyres hissed again: the sound of smooth, swift motion. Air rushed through the half-open windows.

‘Did you feel that?’ Bobby was excited. ‘You can get some dangerous crosswinds here. They blow you off the road if you aren’t careful.’

The sun struck through the very top of the windscreen. Every deep scratch made the day before at the filling station was clear. On the gleaming bonnet minute scratches made circular patterns.

Linda said, ‘I knew it.’

Beyond the white gleam of the bonnet, through the distortions of heatwaves, in the distance, black asphalt dissolving into light: a confusion of vehicles on one side of the road, an accident.

Linda said, ‘I thought it was too good to be true. It always happens when the road is as empty as this.’

Approaching slowly, they saw a grey-and-magenta Volkswagen minibus parked level on the road; a blue Peugeot saloon parked on the verge; and, tilted to one side, half in the ditch, a shattered dark-green Peugeot estate-car, by its number-plate one of those used by Africans as long-distance taxis. There were other vehicles beyond this, but this was the only wreck: so new, in destruction so fragile and murderous.

As Bobby slowed down, an African in dark trousers and a white shirt came out from behind the minibus. Bobby stopped.

‘Can we do anything to help?’

The African, squinting at the windscreen dazzle, looked uncertainly at Bobby and Linda and didn’t reply.

Bobby edged forward past the fearful wreck. He saw a white Volkswagen; he stopped again. Like a hundred white Volkswagens; like the Volkswagen of yesterday; but the man who came around from behind it was not white and short, but black, tall, solidly made. Not the blackness or the stature of Africa: there was about his hard features and warm complexion something that suggested other bloods, another continent, another language.

Linda, looking at the wreck for blood, a body, shoes, a blanket, responded at once to the authority of this man. She leaned out into the sun and called to him, ‘What’s happened?’

He smiled at Linda and came close to the car.

‘A fatal accident,’ he said. ‘Drive carefully.’

He was not of the country. He spoke with the unmistakable accent of the American Negro.

The smile and the accent, and the unexpected compassion of the advice, gave his words authority. Bobby felt the little thrill of human fellowship. It was something more than the sentimentality that overcame him whenever, innocent himself, and white, he met African officials or policemen doing a difficult duty. He was anxious to show that he obeyed, was responsive. He drove off carefully over the wavering black skid-marks that started and ended so abruptly on the black road. The sun was coming through the top of the scratched windscreen: he was aware of dazzle as a danger: he pulled down the visor.

The mirror showed activity around the estate-car and the minibus. There were more men than Bobby had noticed as he had passed. Then the road began to curve, and that view was lost.

Four or five army lorries, their axles high above the level road, were parked ahead. On the grass verge beside the lorries, in the shallow ditch, and in the shade of the stunted trees that grew in the field beyond, there were soldiers with rifles. Bobby drove slowly, to show that he had nothing to hide.

All the soldiers turned to look at the car. Below dark-green forage caps their black faces looked greased. The soldiers on the verge appeared to be frowning. Their eyes were narrow above their fat cheeks; foreheads that were so smooth during the entrancement of yesterday’s run along the lake boulevard were now creased and puckered up between almost hairless eyebrows. Now they had guns in their hands, and no one else had. The soldiers beyond the ditch, in the shade of the trees, were smiling at the car.

Bobby lifted one hand from the steering-wheel in a half-wave. No one waved back. All the soldiers continued to look at the car, those who smiled, those who frowned.

Linda said, ‘That wasn’t an accident.’

Bobby was accelerating.

‘Bobby, they’ve killed the king. That was the king.’

The road was straight and black. The tyres hissed on the wet tar.

‘That was the king. They’ve killed him.’

‘I don’t know,’ Bobby said.

‘Those soldiers knew what they were grinning about. Did you see them grinning? Savages. Fat black savages. I can’t bear it when they grin like that.’

‘The king was black too.’

‘Bobby, don’t ask me to talk about that now.’

‘I don’t know what we’re talking about. It probably was what that man said. An accident.’

‘That would be nice to believe. You know, I thought it was a joke. They said he would try to get away in a taxi in some sort of disguise.’

‘He must have picked it up around here somewhere. Between roadblocks.’

‘That’s what everybody in the capital was saying he would do. I thought it was a joke. And that’s just what he goes and does.’

‘Of course it was all bluff, all this talk about secession and an independent kingdom and so on. That was always Simon Lubero’s private view, by the way. The king was just a London playboy. He impressed a lot of people over there. But I’m sorry to say he was a very foolish man.’

‘That’s what everybody says. And I suppose that’s why I didn’t believe it. I thought it was too foolish to be true. All that Oxford accent and London talk. I thought it was an act.’

‘Simon was always level-headed about the whole thing. I happen to know that Simon very much wanted it to remain a purely police operation.’

‘And yet you would think that these people would have their secret ways, that they would always be able to hide in the bush and get away. Being African and a king. I thought the helicopter and those white men in i
t were so ridiculous.’

‘Yes,’ Bobby said, ‘the wogs got him.’ His bitterness surprised him, the discovery of anger, aimed at no one. He became calmer. ‘The wogs got him,’ he said again. ‘I hope the word gets back to London and I hope his smart friends find that funny too.’

He was still driving fast, but he was no longer racing.

He said, ‘I should have telephoned Ogguna Wanga-Butere. He would have straightened out this curfew business. Not that I think there’s going to be any trouble. We’re making excellent time as it is.’

‘You know what they say about Africa,’ Linda said. ‘You drive these long distances and when you get to where you’re going there’s nothing to do. But I must say I’m beginning to feel it would be nice to see the old compound again.’

The land opened out. The horizon dipped. Far away they could see the pale-blue hills, low, almost merging into the sky, and in the middle distance the isolated, curiously-shaped tors and cones, darker, greener, but still blurred in the haze, that marked this part of the Collectorate, the king’s territory.

‘Leopard Tor,’ Linda said.

‘It’s one of my favourite views.’

‘Like a John Ford western.’

‘How very film-society. To me it’s just Africa. There’s going to be an awful lot of foolish talk in the compound in the next few weeks, and a lot of comment in the foreign press. I suppose I wouldn’t mind it so much if I felt that those people really cared.’

‘I don’t know whether I care. That’s the terrible thing. I don’t know what I think. All I know is that I want to get back to the compound.’

Later, the view not changing in spite of their speed, distances appearing to remain what they were, Linda said, ‘Why do you suppose they call it Leopard Tor?’

Bobby noted that her voice had altered and was growing mystical. He didn’t reply.

She said, ‘I saw a dead leopard once.’

Bobby concentrated on the road.

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