In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)24

So for a time Bobby and Linda drove on, keeping at a fixed distance from the last lorry. Behind the tailboard, with its heraldic regimental emblem, the soldiers continued to scowl. Intermittently Bobby felt the gaze of the driver; every now and then that face in the mirror shone.

Linda said, ‘If we go on at this rate we’ll certainly be late.’

‘It’s not easy to overtake on this road,’ Bobby said. ‘It winds so much.’

They drove on. The soldiers continued to stare.

Linda said, ‘We’re probably making them anxious.’

Bobby didn’t smile.

They came to a stretch of road that was straight and undeniably clear.

Bobby sounded his horn and pulled out to overtake. The soldiers became alert. Bobby, accelerating, looked up at them, looked away, too quickly, and was dazzled by the sun. He began to overtake, sounding his horn. The lorry moved to the right. Spots streamed before Bobby’s eyes; he raced; he was already almost off the road. The lorry continued to move to the right. Bobby was driving beside it. He felt his right wheels mount the verge. The ditch came close. He braked and the car bucked and bumped. The lorry pulled away. The soldiers’ faces creased into friendly smiles. The cab-mirror reflected the driver’s laugh: suddenly he had a face. Then that reflection was lost. The car was askew on the verge. The lorry moved further away, fell back into line. The soldiers’ faces became indistinct. A khaki-clad arm came out from the driver’s cab and flapped about awkwardly, hand swinging from the wrist: it was a signal to overtake.

Linda said, ‘When you meet the army, play dead.’

The back of Bobby’s shirt was wet. His face began to burn. He felt the heat of the engine, the bonnet, the windscreen. The air was warm; the floor of the car was warm. Hot sweat broke out afresh all over his body. His eyes pricked; his trousers stuck to his shins.

He started the car and took it off the verge. Once more he followed the tracks of the lorries, chunky zipper-patterns on the soft asphalt. He drove slowly, never more than thirty-five miles an hour; and still from time to time they saw the lorries. The Tor grew larger; haze softened its shadowed forested slope. The afternoon light grew smoky.

And now the highway opened up, and for miles ahead was as straight as a Roman road, swinging from hill to hill. The army lorries, small in the distance, climbed, disappeared, and then were seen to climb again. They were entering the territory of the king’s people; and the highway here followed the ancient forest road. For centuries, using only the products of the forest, earth, reeds, the king’s people had built their roads as straight as this, over hills, across swamps. From far away Bobby could see the small whitewashed stone building, a police post, that stood at the boundary of the king’s territory. But the flag that flew there today wasn’t the king’s flag. It was the flag of the president’s country.

Near the stone building the lorries turned off the road, and the road was empty again. But Bobby didn’t drive any faster. There was no longer any point; it was past four, the hour of the curfew. Soon they could see the low, sprawling modern building, glass and coloured concrete, as bright as beads, that the Americans had built in the bush as a gift to the new country. It had been intended as a school, and symbolically it straddled the king’s territory and the president’s. It had been visited but never used; there had been neither pupils nor teachers; it had remained empty. It had a use today. The cleared space in front, partly bushed-over again, was full of lorries. And in the shade of the lorries there were groups of fat soldiers.

No barrier stood in the road here; no one waved them down. But Bobby stopped: the school, the lorries and the soldiers to his left, the stone building, over which the president’s flag flew, across the road to his right. The soldiers didn’t look at the car. No one came out of the stone building. Beyond the Tor was bright woodland, extending to the horizon through a deepening smoke haze.

‘Do we wait for them here?’ Linda said.

Bobby didn’t reply.

‘Perhaps there’s no curfew,’ Linda said.

A soldier was looking at them. He was shorter than the soldiers he stood with, near the open tailboard of a lorry. He was drinking from a tin cup.

‘Perhaps the colonel got it wrong,’ Linda said.

‘Did he?’ Bobby said.

The soldier moved away from the group by the tailboard, shook out his tin cup, and walked slowly towards the car. His head was shaved and bare. His stiff khaki trousers were creased below his paunch and down the round thighs that rubbed against one another. He sucked at the inside of his fat cheeks and bunched his lips and spat, carefully, leaning to one side to let the spittle drain out from his lips. He smiled at the car.

Then they saw the prisoners. They were sitting on the ground; some were prostrate; most were naked. It was their nakedness that had camouflaged them in the sun-and-shade about the shrubs, small trees and lorries. Bright eyes were alive in black flesh; but there was little movement among the prisoners. They were the slender, small-boned, very black people of the king’s tribe, a clothed people, builders of roads. But such dignity as they had possessed in freedom had already gone; they were only forest people now, in the hands of their enemies. Some were roped up in the traditional forest way, neck to neck, in groups of three or four, as though for delivery to the slave-merchant. All showed the liver-coloured marks of blood and beatings. One or two looked dead.

The soldier smiled, wet hand holding the wet tin cup, and came near the car.

Bobby, preparing a smile, leaned across Linda and, with his left hand freeing the wet native shirt from his left armpit, asked, ‘Who your officer? Who your boss-man?’

Linda looked away from the soldier to the whitewashed stone building and the flag, the Tor and the smoking woodland.

The soldier pressed his belly against the car door and the smell of his warm khaki mingled with the smell of the sweat from Bobby’s open left armpit and his yellow back. The soldier looked at Bobby and Linda and looked into the car, and spoke softly in a complicated forest language.

‘Who your boss-man?’ Bobby asked again.

‘Let’s drive on, Bobby,’ Linda said. ‘They’re not interested in us. Let’s drive on.’

Bobby pointed to the stone building. ‘Boss-man there?’

The soldier spoke again, this time to Linda, in his language.

She said irritably, ‘I don’t understand,’ and looked straight ahead.

The soldier behaved as though he had been slapped. He gave a sheepish smile and took a step back from the car. He shook out his tin cup; he stopped smiling. He said softly, ‘Don’ un’erstan’. Don’ un’erstan’.’ He looked down at the body of the car, the doors, the wheels, as though searching for something. Then he turned and began to walk back to his group.

Bobby opened his door and got out. It was cool; the sweated shirt was chill on his back; but the tar was soft below his feet. He could see the prisoners more clearly now. He could see the smoke from the woodland beyond the Tor. Not haze, not afternoon cooking-fires: in that bush, villages were on fire. The rebuffed soldier was talking to his comrades. Bobby tried not to see. His instinct was to get back in the car and drive without stopping to the compound. But he controlled himself. Quickly, right hand swinging, he crossed the bright road into the dusty yard and the shadow cast by the stone building, and went through the open door.

As soon as he entered he knew he had made a mistake. But it was too late to withdraw. In the cool dark room, with its desks and chairs pushed to the walls, with the new photograph of the president on the green noticeboard, among old notices about rates and taxes and wanted criminals and other printed and duplicated lists, there was no officer, no policeman. Three soldiers with shaved heads were sitting below the window on the concrete floor, their caps on their knees. They all stood up as Bobby entered.

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

‘Sir!’ one of the soldiers said, and they all stood to attention.

‘Who your officer? Wh
o your boss-man?’

They didn’t reply and Bobby didn’t know how, after his good start, to continue.

They saw his hesitation and they ceased to be nervous. They relaxed. Their faces became full of inquiry.

The soldier in the middle said, ‘No boss-man.’

Bobby felt he had used the wrong word. He looked from the soldier in the middle to the soldier on the right, the fattest of the three, the one who had called him sir. ‘You give pass here?’

The fat soldier’s cheeks rode up to his small liquid eyes. He waved his right hand slowly in front of his face, showing Bobby the palm.

‘No pass,’ the soldier in the middle said.

Bobby looked at him. ‘Mr Wanga-Butere my boss-man.’ Smiling, he held his hands in front of him to indicate an enormous paunch, and he pretended to stagger under the weight. ‘Mr Busoga-Kesoro my big boss-man.’

They didn’t smile.

‘Busoga-Kesoro,’ the fat soldier said, studying Bobby’s face, and working his cheeks and lips as though gathering spittle. ‘Busoga-Kesoro.’

‘You no have curfew?’ Bobby said.

‘Car-few,’ the fat soldier said.

The soldier in the middle said, ‘Car-few.’

‘What time you have car-few? Four o’clock, five o’clock, six o’clock?’

‘Five o’clock,’ the fat soldier said. ‘Six o’clock.’

Bobby held out his wrist and pointed to his watch. ‘Four? Five? Six?’

‘You give me?’ the fat soldier said, and held Bobby’s wrist.

Black skin on pink: they all looked.

The fat soldier moved his thumb over the dial of the watch. His eyes were friendly, womanish. His cheeks and lips began to work again.

The soldier in the middle unbuttoned the pocket of his tunic and took out a crushed, half-empty packet of cigarettes. It was the brand which, in the advertisements, laughing Africans smoked.

Outside, lorries were revving up. There was chatter and shouting. Boots grated on asphalt; cab-doors slammed. Lorries whined away in low gear.

‘I no give you,’ Bobby said. ‘I no have no more.’

He had made a joke. They all laughed.

‘No have no more,’ the fat soldier said, and let Bobby’s wrist drop.

‘I go,’ Bobby said.

He walked towards the door. He had a view of the sunlit road, the dusty yard with its diagonal line of shadow, the insect-spattered front of his car.

‘Boy!’

He stopped; it was his error. He turned, to face the dark room.

It was the soldier in the middle who had spoken. He was holding out an unlit cigarette, very white, between his middle and index fingers.

‘I give you cigarette, boy.’

‘I no smoke,’ Bobby said.

‘I give you. Come, I give you.’

And Bobby walked from the door and the brightness towards the soldiers, preferring that what was going to happen should happen here, in the dark room, rather than in the open, before the others.

The soldier’s hand was outstretched still, open, palm down, the cigarette perpendicular between the middle and index fingers. Then the fingers widened, the cigarette fell, and in that same movement of finger-widening the palm came up at Bobby’s face, only clawing, it seemed, but then landing hard on his chin. The other hand tore at the yellow native shirt.

‘I report you,’ Bobby said, falling back. ‘I report you.’

The other soldiers were behind him, to support him as he fell, to seize and twist his arms with practised hands; and it seemed then that the soldier in front of him was maddened not by his words but by the sound and sight of the torn shirt. He tore again and again at the shirt and the vest below the shirt, and with the right hand that had held the cigarette he clawed with clumsy rage at Bobby’s face as though wishing to seize it by the nose, chin and cheeks alone.

‘I report you,’ Bobby said.

His arms were twisted harder and he was thrown forward, and when he was on the concrete floor, feeling the boots thump him on the back, the neck, the jaw, he saw, with surprise, that the legs of two soldiers were quite still. It was the fat soldier, grunting as he squatted, tight in his khaki, who was beside him, seizing him by the hair, banging his head on the floor, rubbing his face hard on the floor, now this side, now the other. Bobby knew he was losing skin; but still he noticed that the other soldiers remained where they were.

He had thought at first that the soldier with the cigarette wished only to humiliate, denude, disfigure; and he had half understood, half felt sympathy. But they had gone too far; and now he felt that the fat soldier, who had asked for the watch, intended to kill. He thought: I must protect myself, I must play dead.

Sprawling on his front, he made himself heavy, his left arm jammed against the side of his head. The boots probed his ribs, his belly, probed and kicked. Bobby tried not to move; he didn’t think he moved; the fine grit on the smooth plaster of the floor stuck to his wet skin. He didn’t open his eyes, fearing to find that he might not be able to see. Then he felt the boot hard on his right wrist, and he could have cried then, at the clear pure pain, the knowledge of the fracture, so deliberate, the knowledge that what had been whole all his life had been broken. He shut out everything to concentrate on that wrist. He felt it grow numb; he felt the swelling come. And then he was on the road again, in a bright landscape, nervous at his own speed, his tyre-tracks and the wet, billowing road.

He awakened. He thought he would open his eyes. His whole face burned. He could see. He could see that in the dark room there were no more khaki legs. He waited to make sure. He felt it was important to act at once, while he was lucid, while the strength that had come back to him remained. He sat up, leaning on his wrist. He had forgotten that injury; he remembered now. He stood up, and he was steady. He didn’t look at himself. Walking, he remembered to look on the floor. But he didn’t see the cigarette the soldier had dropped.

The light was yellower. Shadows had spread and were less harsh. There was more dust and smoke. The sun caught the windscreen of a lorry, a window of the school. Soldiers squatted or sat around small twig fires, eating out of tin plates, drinking out of tin cups, unhurried, deliberate, their eyes and voices bright with the pleasure of food: forest people, kings of the forest, at the end of another lucky day. Some way behind them, in the sun, the bound black prisoners lay on the ground and didn’t move.

A soldier saw Bobby and stared. The soldier’s eyes glittered. Without turning his head he spoke to the man beside him, and the whole group looked. Bobby held his hands at his side and stood in the doorway, allowing himself to be examined. He began to walk to the car, which remained where he had left it, quite exposed on the open road, the wheels slightly sunk in the asphalt. The soldiers went back to their food.

Linda, still in her seat, leaned to hold the door open. No one came to the car. The engine answered. Bobby rested his right hand on the steering-wheel. No one stopped him from leaving. The afternoon light made every scratch on the windscreen gold. The almost perpendicular side of Leopard Tor was also gold; the shadowed side was blurred, the forest on its lower slopes now like part of the surrounding bush.

Four or five hundred yards away, over the brow of the hill, they came to the roadblock. The soldier with the rifle, his face just black below his cap, waved them down with the awkward flapping African gesture. But even before they stopped, the man in the flowered shirt and dark trousers and his hair in the English style, on the other side of the road, signalled to them to go on.

Bobby drove in and out of the white barriers and then slowly past the vehicles halted on the other side of the road, vehicles going out of the Collectorate: the Peugeot taxi-buses, the broken-down vans and African cars. The passengers were on the verge. Some were holding duplicated foolscap sheets, their passes; but others were already sitting down or lying on the grass, half naked, their clothes torn; the fully clothed soldiers moved among them. Some of the African women were in Edwardian costumes.
So the first missionaries had appeared among the king’s people; and so, ever since, but in African-style cottons, the women of the king’s people had dressed on formal occasions or whenever they made a long journey.

The road continued straight, from hilltop to hilltop, a strip of asphalt in a wide swathe through the bush.

Linda said, ‘Let’s stop for a little, Bobby.’

He pulled up on the road, just like that.

She tried to dust his hair, to straighten the rags of the yellow shirt. There was little else she could do. He didn’t allow her to touch his face.

She said, ‘Your watch is broken.’

Bobby closed his heavy eyes and, in that darkness, thought, with sudden passing sorrow for her, for whom so much had also gone wrong: but these are the hands of a nurse.

He opened his eyes and saw the road. They drove on. The sky above was dark blue; the light was beginning to go. The tufted forest glowed where the king’s villages were burning.

They were a people who lived, vulnerably now, in villages along their ancient straight roads: roads that had spread their power as forest conquerors, until the first explorers came. The villages were close together; the highway was normally full of pedestrians and cyclists. But the road now was empty; and the villages they passed were empty, dead, burnt-out. The villages that blazed were in the dirt tracks off the main road.

Linda said, ‘I wonder if they’ve burned down the compound.’

But there was no other place to drive to.

The road dipped; they lost the view of the burning villages. The bush was tall and dark in this depression. They had entered forest, and the road, a straight black cutting, swung away between walls of forest, up and down, and then up to a high horizon. Bobby’s wrist ached; he felt his eyes grow heavy. And then he was in a white storm. Like flakes of snow they came out of the forest, butterflies, white, on the asphalt, on the grass, on tree trunks, in the air, millions and millions of white butterflies, fluttering out of the forest. And the storm did not stop. They were crushed by the car wheels; they touched the bonnet and fluttered on the hot metal and died; they stuck to the windscreen.

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