In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)23

‘In West Africa. A long red tongue hanging down from between the teeth. I wanted to touch it when they brought it in, to see if it was still warm. But you mustn’t, because it’s full of fleas. Then they began to skin it. Just below the skin it was like a ballet dancer in tights. You wouldn’t believe the muscles. All that had to be cut up and thrown away, burnt on the fire. In the morning when I got up I thought, “I’ll go and look at the leopard.” I’d forgotten.’

She spoke slowly. She had begun to listen to her own words.

Bobby said, ‘I don’t believe they’re going to skin the king.’

‘I can’t bear it the way those soldiers grin. Did you see them grinning? You weren’t here for the mutiny. Eighty marines flew in. Just eighty, and those same grinning soldiers threw away their guns and tore off those uniforms and ran off naked into the bush. They could run in those days. They weren’t so fat. It was funny at the airport. Everybody from the compound was there. But the marines weren’t waving back. Those young boys were just jumping out of the planes, guns at the ready, and running through the applauding crowd.’

‘I heard about that,’ Bobby said. ‘I don’t think the Africans have forgotten either. They find it rather less funny. It’s their big fear, you know, since the Belgians and the Congo. White men coming down from the sky.’

‘That’s what Sammy Kisenyi was telling me.’

‘That’s what many of them thought the king wanted.’

‘I feel like the colonel. I feel I should have gone out and done something to help the king. But then I know that wouldn’t have made much sense either.’

‘That’s just it. It’s not your business or mine. They have to sort these things out themselves. And he nearly made it, you know. If he hadn’t been spotted, in another ninety minutes or so he would have been up there, scuttling across the lake to the other side.’

‘Oh my God. You mean they’re still waiting for him at the lake? They must have been waiting all last night. It’s going to be awful in the Collectorate when the news breaks.’

‘I imagine they’ll keep it quiet for a day or two.’

‘I feel I never want to stir out of the compound again.’

‘That would be quite a departure, for you.’

‘Of course,’ Linda said, responding to the provocation, ‘the soldiers may be rampaging around there at this minute.’

The wide view was going. The land was becoming more broken; there were more trees; the road curved more often. They passed allotments, shops, huts: a village. But no one was to be seen.

‘I hated this place from the first day I came here,’ Linda said. ‘I felt I had no right to be among these people. It was too easy. They made it too easy. It wasn’t at all what I wanted.’

Bobby said, ‘You know why you came.’

‘They sent Jimmy Ruhengiri to meet us at the airport. For forty miles I had to make conversation with Jimmy. The conversation you make with the educated ones. Like playing chess with yourself: you make all the moves. And all I kept on seeing were those horrible little huts. I was screaming inside. I knew that nothing good was going to happen to me here. And that first day they put us up in a filthy room in the barracks they call a guest-house. Martin didn’t have enough points. We didn’t know. Give Martin a points-system to live by, and you can be sure Martin will never have enough points for anything.’

‘You didn’t do too badly,’ Bobby said.

‘A girl in the next room was crying, and it was still only afternoon. That really frightened me. I don’t think I ever wanted anything so much as I wanted to leave that day, to go back to the airport and take the next plane back to London.’

‘Why didn’t you?’

‘You go out driving with Sammy Kisenyi, making educated conversation, and you see a naked savage with a penis one foot long. You pretend you’ve seen nothing. You see two naked boys painted white running about the public highway, and you don’t talk about it. Sammy Kisenyi reads a paper on broadcasting at the conference. He’s lifted whole paragraphs from T. S. Eliot, of all people. You say nothing about it, you can’t say anything about it. Outside you encourage and encourage. In the compound you talk and talk. Everybody just lies and lies and lies.’

‘You know why you came. You can’t complain.’

‘It’s their country. But it’s your life. In the end you don’t know what you feel about anything. All you know is that you want to be safe in the compound.’

‘You came for the freedom, though. You adjust very easily, remember?’

‘No doubt we look at these things differently, Bobby.’

‘It doesn’t matter now what you think, though.’

‘Every night in the compound you hear them raising the hue and cry, and you know they’re beating someone to death outside. Every week there’s this list of people who’ve been killed, and some of them don’t even have names. You should either stay away, or you should go among them with the whip in your hand. Anything in between is ridiculous.’

‘Is that Martin? Or the colonel? I can’t keep up with you, Linda. All those lovely weekends in the capital, with all those lovely open fires. Somehow I was expecting more. I was astonished at your taste, Linda. “I adjust very easily.” Very nicely spoken, but it’s nobody’s fault if the people we find are just like ourselves. You’ve all been reading the same books. Of course, we read a lot, don’t we? We mustn’t let our minds grow rusty, among the savages.’

‘It isn’t for you to talk like this, Bobby.’

‘I’m disqualified, am I? You should have told me. But I thought you wanted a houseboy to spread the news. I thought you wanted someone to excite by your screams in bed.’

‘That is one of Doris Marshall’s absurd stories.’

‘ “Let’s get Bobby to witness. He is one of Denis Marshall’s.” ’ He was moving his head up and down. ‘ “Let’s get Bobby. You can do what you like with Bobby.” “That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing, Bobby.” Very funny. But you chose the wrong man.’

‘This is nonsense.’

‘Is it?’ He took his right hand off the steering-wheel and tapped his head. ‘I notice everything. It’s all there.’

‘I always thought you were a romantic, Bobby.’

‘You chose the wrong man.’

‘I wish it was the way you tell it. You can’t have looked very carefully at the people in the compound.’

‘That’s just it. It’s nobody’s fault if the people you find are just like yourself.’

‘Let’s stop this, Bobby. I take back everything.’

‘You talk about savages and whips.’

‘I take that back.’

‘There are so many like you, Linda. We mustn’t let our minds grow rusty. We are among savages and we need our cultural activities. We are among these very dirty savages and we must remind ourselves that we have this loveliness. Do we use our vaginal deodorant daily?’

‘This is ridiculous.’

‘Do we? Do we? What brand do we use? Hot Girl, Cool Girl, Fresh Girl? Girl-Fresh? You’re nothing. You’re nothing but a rotting cunt. There are millions like you, millions, and there will be millions more. “I’m very adjustable.” “I hope they’ve done nothing to the poor wives.” I don’t know who you think you are. I don’t know why you think it matters what you think about anything.’

She leaned back in her seat and looked out of her window. A village again: dusty shacks, tropical backyard vegetation, a dirt side road: a vista of sun, dust and trees there; and then bush beside the highway again.

‘There are millions like you. And millions like Martin. You are nothing.’

‘Please stop the car. I will get out here. I don’t want to say anything more. Please stop the car.’

He braked with a squeal on the hot road. The wind stopped rushing through the windows. The beat of the engine was like silence. Trees were throwing squat shadows across the ditches. The sky was hot and high.

Linda said, ‘You were right. It wasn’t a good idea.�
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‘You’re a fool. You’ll get into trouble.’

‘I’m very foolish.’

‘This is your idea, remember.’

‘I’ll make other arrangements. I’ll probably get a taxi or something.’

As she turned to open the door he saw that the back of her shirt was wet. He was aware then that his own shirt was wet, and felt cold. For a second, stepping out on the road, Linda appeared to be without a sense of direction. Her dark glasses masked her expression. She steadied herself. Bobby watched her start back towards the village they had just passed.

He called, ‘Your suitcase?’

She didn’t turn. ‘You can take that.’

He opened his door and stood up on the road. The sense of the moving road remained with him. He felt dizzy in the still hot air; he had again that sensation of the overcharged, exploding head.

‘Linda!’

She continued to walk away with her brisk little steps, looking down, so alien on the high embankment of the empty road, so accidental-looking, the colours of her trousers and shirt suddenly so bright and noticeable that vivid colour seemed to come as well to the road and fields and sky, and the scene had something of the unreal quality of a colour photograph.

He got back in the car, slammed the door shut and drove off, rubbing his dry palms on the steering-wheel, studying the black road, feeling the heat thrown back from the bonnet, where the sun was reflected in a little ring of scratched glitter.

*

Minutes later, aware all the time of the declining sun, the black shadows of trees, the empty fields, the empty car, the roar of the engine and the wind, he began to have the sense of nightmare. The colonel and the hotel, the soldier beside the wide riverbed, the white boys breaking out into the road like heraldic animals and running in slow, silent motion, Linda on the road: the pictures were clear, they had a sequence, but they were like things imagined.

He needed to be calmer. Acknowledging the need, he became calmer. The sense of nightmare was reduced to a memory of his own violence and a foreboding of danger. He was alone; he was inviting reprisal. But still he raced. There was danger at the end of the road, danger in his solitude. But still he allowed time to pass.

The car jumped, came down hard again on the road, and the steering-wheel momentarily kicked itself free of his hands. The road here had subsided. The thin asphalt crust, soft and melting in the afternoon sun, rose and fell. It was a stretch of road Bobby knew. He took his foot off the accelerator. Another bump, another slither, but he was in control. He stopped, and again was aware of the silence, the light, the heat.

He turned to go back. The road was as empty as before. On the wet tar he saw the tracks he had just made. In his panic, the road and the fields had been like things he was imagining. It astonished him, going back, to find he had seen it so clearly and remembered so much. His car had made perfect tracks, quite ordinary.

There was no sign of Linda on the highway. The little village that had been built all on one side of the highway, about the dirt road, looked shut up and evacuated. No one appeared when Bobby sounded his horn. The two or three shops, crooked wooden structures, were the colour of their bare, dusty yards. On tin advertisements nailed to the closed doors, the sheets of tin robbed by the sunlight of all colours except black and pale yellow, a laughing African woman in a turban-type headdress held up a jar of eczema ointment and a laughing African man smoked a cigarette.

Bobby turned into the dirt road. At once there was dust. At once all that the rear-view mirror showed was dust, dense and billowing, like the yellow smoke from a fierce fire. Bobby closed the windows; but as he drove along, obliterating what he had seen, bush, tall trees, an empty wooden hut, the dust in the car became thicker. He saw a large corrugated-iron shed standing in a junkyard, old grease black and thick on dust; and next to this, behind two or three starved shrubs in hard earth, a white concrete bungalow on low pillars, squarely exposed to the afternoon sun.

Bobby stopped and rolled down his window. Dust billowed slowly around the car. When Bobby sounded his horn, a lanky Indian youth opened the front door of the bungalow. He looked at the car, and beckoned. Bobby hesitated. The boy stood where he was, between verandah and inner room, a puzzled intermediary between Bobby and someone inside.

Bobby went into the bungalow. The verandah, an afternoon sun-trap, heat reflected from white walls and rising from the floorboards, was empty. In the suffocating little drawing-room, among paper flowers and paperbacks, chairs with chromium-plated metal frames and Hindu deities in copper-coloured plastic, Linda appeared to be having tea. With bared teeth she was biting the very tip of a pickled chili.

Bobby ignored the middle-aged Indian, Linda’s host, and said, ‘We don’t have too much time now.’

Linda said, ‘I’m having a little tea.’

‘Well, I suppose there’s no rush. I suppose I’ll have a little tea too.’

‘Yes, yes,’ the middle-aged Indian said, and went out of the room.

Neither Bobby nor Linda nor the tall boy spoke. It was very hot. Linda was red; Bobby began to sweat. A young woman in a green sari brought a plate of pickles and an extra cup, and went out again.

‘Nice place you have here,’ Bobby said, when the middle-aged man returned.

‘Mrs McCartland,’ the man said, sitting down and rocking his legs from side to side. ‘She sold up in a hurry when she went South. House, furniture, books, business, everything.’

Bobby said, ‘Nice books.’

‘You want a few?’ His legs still, the man leaned towards the bookcase and pulled out a handful of paperbacks with his left hand. ‘Take.’

Bobby shook his head. ‘Are you going South too?’

The man giggled and pushed the books back in place. ‘I am thinking of cloth business in the United States. Or Cairo. I am starting a juices-parlour in Cairo.’

‘What’s that?’

‘These Egyptians, you see, are drinking so much of the fresh fruit juices. As soon as I can get my money out, I will go. My brother is already there. Where are you going?’

‘I live here,’ Bobby said. ‘I’m a government officer.’

Slowly, the man’s legs stopped rocking. He giggled.

Linda got up. ‘I think we should be starting.’

Bobby smiled and sipped his tea.

‘You knew Mr McCartland?’ the man asked, after a time.

‘I didn’t know him.’ Bobby stood up.

‘He died when he was very young,’ the man said, following Bobby and Linda out into the yard and the road, where the dust was still settling. ‘He was a great racer. He used to drive early in the mornings from here to the capital at a hundred miles an hour.’

Bobby, walking slowly, looking up at the sky, not acknowledging the man’s farewells, said, ‘That’s what we’ll have to do now to get to the Collectorate before the curfew.’

They got into the car. The Indian went up to his verandah and watched them reverse in the garage yard. The dust began to billow again. When they drove away dust blotted out the road.

Linda said, ‘Do you believe that man drove to the capital at a hundred miles an hour?’

‘Do you?’

‘I wonder why he said that.’

At the junction the shops were as closed and blank as before. The bleached Africans on the tin advertisements grinned; shadows had lengthened below the eaves.

They turned into the highway and rolled down their windows. The sun slanted through the scratched dusty windscreen. Everything in the car was coated with dust; on the dashboard every little grain of dust cast a minute shadow. On the soft tar, on the righthand side of the road, Bobby saw one of the tracks he had made when he had driven back to the village. All his other tracks had been obliterated, by treads of a chunkier pattern. More than one heavy vehicle had passed, keeping more or less to the left, heading towards the Collectorate.

Bobby drove cautiously. He came again to the stretch of subsidence where the road, soft tar on an uneve
n surface, appeared to billow and melt. Here was where he had stopped: something still remained of the curving tracks where he had turned.

‘Are we very late?’ Linda said.

‘We’ve only lost about half an hour. But I imagine you’ll smile sweetly at them and they’ll give us a cup of tea.’

They both smiled, as though they had both won.

At first with private smiles, and then with fixed faces, they drove through the hot afternoon air, shadows beginning to fall on the road, slanting towards them from the right; and neither of them exclaimed when, abruptly, they saw Leopard Tor again, nearer now and larger, half in sun and half in shadow, its vertical wall less sheer, its sloping side, tufted with forest, more jagged.

Linda said, ‘Do you believe he’s really going to Cairo?’

‘He’s lying,’ Bobby said. ‘Everybody lies.’

She smiled.

Then she saw what Bobby was gazing at, at the end of the road: the column of army lorries whose tyre-tracks they had been following.

9

HE HUNG BACK. He speeded up. He hung back again. Neither he nor Linda spoke. Leopard Tor, rising out of bush, was always to the right, its forested slope in shadow. The vegetation beside the highway had subtly altered. It was still scrub; no crops grew on it; but it was acquiring a rainy tropical lushness. They came nearer and nearer the lorries, a column of five, their slanting shadows falling just over the asphalt and jigging along the irregularities of the verge. Sometimes, through a break in the vegetation, Bobby and Linda could see the purely tropical land beyond the Tor, the territory of the king’s people, a vast sunlit woodland, seemingly empty, with only scattered patches of a browner haze to show where, in that bush, the villages were.

The green-capped soldiers sitting with rifles at the back of the last lorry scowled at the car. The faces of the soldiers behind them were in shadow. Then Bobby saw the driver. His face and his cap, shakily reflected in profile in the wing-mirror of the cab, made a featureless black outline against a background of dazzle. Sometimes, when the lorry bumped, or when he turned to look at the mirror and Bobby, the face caught a yellow shine from the sun.

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