I. It started with the generator. Kenneth walked into the office just after lunch one day at the very beginning of the long rains. It was too hot. The air wasn’t stirring at all. Moko, the vice-principal, was yelling at Henry. “Henry, you can not always be making these silly and frivolous requests. You must plan and anticipate needs. One order every six months or even every year should be quite sufficient, indeed. I must impress upon you that, without foresight, nothing of lasting value can be accomplished.”
Moko turned away from Henry, who sat immobile at his desk, his face totally quiet. Dressed in short-sleeved white shirt frayed at the collar and grayish green slacks, Henry was a slight man in his middle thirties. While Moko was working under his white shirt on a mild rise that would, with a little encouragement, boll out into a full fledged pot belly, Henry’s frame lacked even a hint of fat. The articulation of every muscle was visible.† The skin was a wrapping that revealed their workings more than it cloaked them.†
Underneath the desk, Henry’s ankles were crossed. In the drab office with its old wooden furniture, the bright yellow of Henry’s rubber clogs made an accent, like hot mustard sauce. “Henry, you can not always be getting the idea that you’re indispensable. You know what the President has been saying about all this feather boating held over from colonial times. He say, ‘Pay for performance and only for performance.’ That’s official now, not just one man’s whim, although some of us, we have been thinking the same thing for some time now, only we don’t have the President’s rhetorical flavor.”
Moko stopped for breath, not one, but three or four. His face lost definition, turned to brown dough. Then he seemed to gather himself again, like a storm that flags, then renews itself on the basis of natural will. Henry had remained quite still throughout, as if he knew just what was coming.
“Remember, Henry,” Moko went on, “policy is just steam unless it is implemented faithfully by all nationalists. Remember who it is that writes your evaluations, who it is that watches over your work and helps you to attain the wider perspective.” Henry sat at his desk with his ankles in their yellow clogs crossed.
“Remember, Henry,” Moko finished, “everyone has his job to do in the building of the nation, but no one is indispensable. When the head swells, the eyes go shut.”
“Yes, sir,” Henry said, quite seriously.
Moko, who had been standing facing Henry, pivoted and became aware that Kenneth was present. Seeing Kenneth, he squared his shoulders and cleared his throat.
“Sloppy administrative procedure,” Moko told Kenneth. “A chronic problem out here.”
Kenneth kept his face straight.
Moko talked as if he were literally possessed by the ghost of old Grimes, who had been gone seven years now from the country, five years from the face of the earth. He’d died of pneumonia in the winter two years after returning home. Grimes had predicted retirement wouldn’t agree with him.
Moko squared his shoulders just the way Grimes used to do. Moko cleared his throat just exactly the way red-faced Grimes used to do. Moko lacked only the mustache.
Kenneth remembered when he’d first come out Grimes and his wife, Mathilda, had taken the trouble to have him for dinner, lamb chops with mint jelly. Afterwards, Grimes had offered him brandy and a good cigar and proceeded to explain his philosophy of administration. “I respond (hrrr-rrrr-mmmph) in the negative to all requests that are out of the routine as a matter of course. Ideas that have merit have their own (hrrr-rrrr-rrrr-mmmph) energy. No matter what you do, you just can’t get rid of them.They come back over and over again. So, my boy, if you simply respond negatively, but (hrrr-mmmph) straightforwardly, no (hrrr-rrrr-mmph) beating about the bush, then you have an effective method for winnowing the wheat from the chaff, while conserving your own resources. This last is very important as well, for the climate does wear on you, if you don’t learn to suit yourself to it.”
Once Moko was out of the office, Kenneth looked over at Henry, who remained sitting impassively at his desk, just as if Moko had not departed.
If anyone was indispensable at Kingoro Boys’ College, it was Henry. Henry got along with everyone, always had. When there were rough spots, Henry knew how to smooth them over. Henry liked to read in his spare time. He read all sorts of things, but never talked about what he read, at least not at work.
Kenneth suspected that, when you got right down to it, Henry was the single most knowledgeable person at the school. Henry never imposed. Nor could Kenneth ever recall Henry making an unsolicited suggestion. If you asked, however, Henry would give you an answer.
But Henry’s rule, which he enforced with absolute consistency, was that you had to ask. That way, the responsibility for what ensued lay on your shoulders and Henry could stay clear.
Kenneth was less involved now in the day to day business of running the college. Moko had been designated as his successor. That had come down from the very top of the Ministry of Education. Moko was a second cousin of the Minister. Yet, no date had been announced so far for the transfer of power.
Kenneth knew the time would come when he would have to go. He hated thinking about the future. He was popular at the college. The students and the faculty liked him. He returned the liking. He tried not to push himself on anyone.
It was hard to think of being replaced by someone like Moko, but he thought, in fairness, that it must have been very hard for someone like old Grimes to think of being replaced by someone like himself. Did the three of them represent, he wondered, a logical progression, like the notes that compose a chord?
“Henry,” Kenneth said, “what is it this time?”
“We need new brushes for the old generator and a coupling for the new generator,” Henry answered.
“Yes, yes,” Kenneth nodded, “Lena told me the lights were flickering the night before last, when I was over in town. I thought they were dimmer than usual last night, too.”
Now, finally, Henry uncrossed his ankles and sat up a bit straighter in his wooden chair. Out the window, a freighter with Chinese characters on its prow was moving into the harbor. The ship loomed close and huge. Only a small patch of sky, near white from the heat was visible.
“Nelson Mansuela, he say he can only do so much to keep them running. He say, he do what he can, then he need stronger medicine than what he has got, like new parts. This is old equipment. The old generator is from before the war. If not for Nelson, it would have been on the rust heap long ago,” Henry explained. “Then the whole college would be in the dark each evening after sunset. Mr. Moko said he isn’t certain that would be such a bad idea, because then the boys would have to cultivate better work habits. In the long run it might save money.” Henry’s tone was quizzical, with the barest hint of irony.
“Nelson, he wanted to go speak with Mr. Moko, himself. I told Nelson that he was the expert. He knew more about those generators than anyone else. He knew them like he was a mother and they were his children. Only Mr.Moko, I told Nelson, he says all the time, just like Mr.Grimes used to do, that it is imperative to respect the order of command. So I told Nelson I would take care of the parts for him.”
“And Mr. Moko won’t sign the requisition?” Kenneth extrapolated, becoming infected with Henry’s peculiar formalisms, so giving Moko a title he never used either in his thoughts or in his dealings with Moko.
Henry didn’t say anything to influence Kenneth one way or the other. This kind of situation, Kenneth realized with a rush of curiosity, must come up all the time now. When he’d been more engaged in the details, he’d simply signed whatever Henry gave him to sign. If he asked for an explanation, it was always forthcoming and always satisfactory.
They’d been careful. With a little skimping, they’d been able to stay within budget. When they’d started to get direct aid from Sweden, they’d even had a small surplus for two or three years.
“What are you going to do, if he won’t sign?” Kenneth asked.
“He has the right not to sign,” Henry said. “He is my superior. If we can not generate electricity, then that is his responsibility.” Kenneth was aware Henry was letting him know it might be more convenient for him not to have heard anything about this matter.
“Come now, Henry,” Kenneth said, making a characteristic shooing motion with his hand, “this can’t be the first time this problem ever came up.”
Resignation appeared on Henry’s face, as if to declare that he was simply someone who existed to be commanded by the great and the powerful.
“I use the petty cash fund. I go to Singh’s and I get the parts. I include the cost in the maintenance budget for the next six months. Then I repay petty cash. If there isn’t enough in petty cash, Singh will give me items on credit.”
Henry had a spectrum of Englishes that he used to suit occasion, subject and interlocutor. This last was the clear, crisp, effortlessly grammatical version.
“Personal credit?” Kenneth clarified.
“Yes, of course,” Henry said.
“But that’s risky for you,” Kenneth objected.
“My son is a student here. What is a secondary school without light†after dark? Half of every day is darkness.”
“I have to go to town this afternoon,” Kenneth said.
“I’ll get what we need at Singh’s. I’ll let you know how much it was.”
Kenneth was half way through the door on the way out, when he twisted back and told Henry to tell Nelson Mansuela that he’d bring the parts out to him by 4:30 in the afternoon.That was when, with just a small sigh like a declaration of boundless discontent after infinite patience, the rains started every afternoon, coming down so heavy that you couldn’t see a hundred feet away from you without squinting as you tried to put together the pieces of familiar objects into recognizable wholes.
Mohandas Singh greeted Kenneth with a flourish, as well he might, Kenneth thought, given the volume of business Kingoro Boys’ College had sent his way over the years and given the eagerness of his arch-rival Chatterjee to get a part of that business Mohandas Singh’s greeting triggered an image in Kenneth’s mind. He’d been driving out to get Marianne from school ten days before. As he was making the hard right in front of the Cosmopolitan, he’d seen Moko at a table with an Indian.
There had been two large brown bottles of Tusker in front of them. He’d had no trouble recognizing the beer. He hadn’t recognized the Indian, until just now, that is, when Singh beamed and nodded and half bowed and shot a shrewd glance at him, all at once Chatterjee had been the Indian having beer at the Cosmopolitan with Moko. Moko would be the head of the school soon. So it would be up to him to sign off on all contracts. There was a lot that Chatterjee could do for Moko and the other way around. It seemed so clumsy, however, that Moko and Chatterjee should go to the most visible place in town and sit down under an umbrella and talk about it during the heat of the day over cold Tuskers. Was corruption something to show off?†
“My youngest daughter is married now,” Singh said, breaking a silence that Kenneth had let go on too long. Kenneth hadn’t meant any offense by it. Only he was preoccupied. He was wondering if that had really been Chatterjee. It had been so hot that afternoon. That was before the rains had even started. He’d fallen asleep in the afternoon, something he almost never did. Lena had woken him to go get Marianne. He’d struggled out of sleep, as if he’d left important business unfinished. He’d felt drugged.
Maybe it hadn’t been Moko. It was just a glimpse he’d gotten. The beer had rivetted him. He could see the cold sweat on the sides of the bottles. It wasn’t quite so hot today, but it was nearly so. Mohandas Singh had a special smell and so did his shop, small in the front, but with three other huts behind it, perhaps more. Kenneth was regularly astounded with what Mohandas Singh stocked. Or what he could get. Who knew what Mohandas Singh was involved in?
Maybe it hadn’t been either Moko or Chatterjee. There were stories about people losing their bearings at this time of year, mistaking one person for another, drawing precipitous conclusions with terrible consequences. It happened both to natives and to Europeans. Maybe his mind had played a trick on him.
“Congratulations,” Kenneth said to Mohandas Singh, trying to put verve into his voice, at the same time that he thought that Singh’s youngest daughter could not have been more than thirteen years old, a child.
Mohandas Singh’s face fell, so suddenly and completely, that Kenneth started, pulling himself up straighter as he tried to imagine what he had said to produce the collapse
“Thank you for your kind word, Sir Kenneth, and the kind intention that goes with it. However, this particular marriage is a loss as well as a gain, for my daughter has gone back home and, although she writes to her mother twice a week, still I was accustomed for many years to seeing her right here before me, morning, noon and night. I was accustomed to the special caress of her presence. Now that is no more for me. I have no more children here in this country with me. This is very sad for me. Everything seems different. But it is better that way, better for them I think. After all, we started off there at home, but my children have only seen their home on visits. They don’t even know their relatives.” Mohandas Singh’s face looked genuinely sad.
It surprised Kenneth that Mohandas should have chosen to reveal so much to him. Out of embarrassment, Kenneth switched ground.
“I need six l7c103sx’s and an M91b coupling. Those are generator parts,” he said. “Henry says he’s gotten parts here before.”
“Certainly, certainly, Sir Kenneth. It is true what Henry says. He has gotten parts here, many times. No need to worry. We will keep the college a beacon of light.”
Mohandas Singh called all Europeans, “Sir,” in this idiosyncratic manner, confidently joining the title and the first name, so bringing into being a vast peerage oddly skew to ordinary social usage.
The effect was, for Kenneth, that his own self-consciousness was slightly heightened so that he felt both exotic and ridiculous in equal alternating measures.
“Henry says that he’s bought parts here on personal credit.”
“Yes, yes, Sir Kenneth, that is so. He is always very prompt in repayment, so that he causes us no discomfort. You can trust that Henry. He’s a credit to the college. He is a man of honor.”
Kenneth nodded. Mohandas Singh, making another bowing motion, seemed about to scurry away. This was the customary procedure. You made your request. Then Mohandas Singh would smile, bob his head, disappear into the courtyard at the rear. You heard shouts back and forth, high pitched, sudden bursts of words in a language you didn’t understand. There was no telling how many people were back there or what their relationships were to each other. He could be gone a long time, leaving you alone in the dark of the shop where, in addition to oil and grease, you could smell curry, cloves and betel.
“Things are changing, Sir Kenneth,” Mohandas Singh said, just as he seemed to be about to turn and head for the rectangle of white light that was the doorway to the courtyard. “Things are changing very fast here, Sir Kenneth. I can not say if it is development, but it is change. Change is the rule of life”
Kenneth waited for him to say more.Mohandas Singh’s nostrils twitched spasmodically.
Mohandas Singh raised his eyebrows, looked Kenneth full in the face, then turned and was gone. Kenneth thought about it as he waited for the ferry. It was as if Mohandas Singh had been tempted to try to warn him,
before it was too late, but had been restrained by something within him just at the last instant.
“A word to the wise is sufficient, Sir Kenneth.”
Perhaps only that and then a finger across the lips. Then he could have turned and whirled out through the door to search for the generator parts in the secret world of his stores. Kenneth heard the throbbing hum of the ferry’s motor in the distance across the neck of the harbor. He felt a bond with Mohandas Singh. He thought how it must be for Mohandas Singh to be left behind with all his children married off and gone back to India. Did he know Mohandas Singh’s wife’s name?† He’d seen her only once, a tiny dark woman who smiled but did not speak. How little, Kenneth thought, he really knew about Mohandas Singh. In the cloistered atmosphere of the shop a sense, ominous as prophecy, of vulnerability pervaded everything Under the oil and the grease, the curry, cloves and betel, the smell of worried, waiting fear and of the helpless shame that went along with it seasoned the air.
It was over a hundred degrees. The tide was three quarters of the way out. Water lapped against the pier, making slapping slurping noises.The stink of salt slime was on the air. Kenneth felt his stomach turn over and, at the same time, an intense longing for the rain. Just so something should happen. Anything. He looked across the harbor, near flat silver under the intense bombardment of the sun. He looked down toward the docks where the cranes were moving slowly, smoothly, the light glinting off their metallic necks. There were only two ships in port. The Chinese freighter he’d seen out the office window earlier was being unloaded. He could barely make out huge burlap sacks. There had been little rain the year before. Maybe it was rice that was being unloaded.† This year’s harvest could hardly be worse than last year’s. So far, there was more rain, at least here on the coast. Inland it was still much too dry. The desert was marching down from the north.
This was the middle of nowhere but also for him somewhere because he had lived here more than ten years. When he left would he be even able to remember it? He was afraid it might slip off like a dream that is vivid at the moment of first awakening but loses definition immediately after. Could it come to be as if he had never stood under this hot glaring sun by this water and smelled the unfathomable stink and looked at his shadow and scuffed his brown boot up against both the shadow and the concrete as he waited for the ferry?
II. Kenneth found Nelson Mansuela out in the generator shed. The old generator was running. Kenneth heard its three separate rattles. He felt the first fat drops, advance scouts of the coming torrent as he walked across the volleyball courts. He ducked into the shed just ahead of the rain.
The shed had a tin roof. When the rain started there was so much noise he and Nelson couldn’t hear above it. It was like being under a barrage. Nelson smiled when he saw the parts that Kenneth had brought. He had a coal black face and good strong white teeth. He held his head tipped slightly towards the right, his chin rotated upwards.
Nelson switched on an old flashlight he’d reclaimed. This made a circle of light within which he could go on with what he was doing. It was raining so fiercely there was no question of Kenneth’s leaving. He would have been immediately soaked all the way through the skin. Sometimes the rain came down so hard that it actually hurt when it hit you.
Out the crack in the door of the shed, Kenneth saw the stalks of the bamboo swaying, the leaves on the poles dancing frenziedly this way and that as the raindrops scored direct hits. It was the first moment of animation in what had been a long, sullen day He didn’t want to think about what came next.† Did planning and foresight really help?† Despite what Moko told Henry, what Moko had gotten from old Grimes, Kenneth wasn’t so sure it did, not when it came to important things, anyway. If you were just talking about getting ahead in the world, then maybe it was true.
But then the right term was scheming, something Kenneth knew he’d never learn. In point of fact, he’d come out here to escape the need for it. He didn’t know what he liked less, hurting or being hurt. They formed a couple in his mind. If he’d stayed out here over ten years, it was because the escape had worked. Maybe it only postponed the reckoning, but that was something.
Kenneth sat on a crate. Nelson Mansuela worked on, absorbed in what he was doing. Kenneth watched him work and wondered. He knew next to nothing about him, only that he had been at the college since before Kenneth arrived and that he came from up north in the mountains.†
Nelson Mansuela didn’t call for attention Whenever Kenneth passed him, Nelson smiled and greeted him, but that was all. There was nothing extra in it. He had no idea if Nelson Mansuela spoke any English. If he did, Kenneth had never heard him. Kenneth had always taken him for granted.
Nelson worked in a crouch, his seat just off the concrete floor of the shed. Nelson had huge hands, pink on the palms. Grime sat in the creases, mapped them, made of each one a country of its own. The rain continued to hit the tin roof, which had now found its resonant frequency, so that it sustained a high eerie tone above the slapping, pinging noises of the individual raindrops striking.† Kenneth thought it was strange enough that he, himself, should find himself here at this moment, stranded in this semi-dark room for the duration of the afternoon rains. Perhaps it was stranger still that Nelson Mansuela should be there. Nelson was left handed. When he got up from his crouch to look for something on the bench at the end of the shed, Kenneth was struck with how long his arms were. They reached almost to his knees. His shoulders were round and well muscled. The veins stood out like rivers that coursed down his forearm. When he walked, he hitched his left shoulder.† Kenneth tried to figure out how old he was. He still had all his hair. He could have been thirty. He could have been forty. Possibly even older than that.
Kenneth wanted to know more about him. He wanted to know what he thought about the country and its future. He wanted to know what independence had meant to him. He wanted to know where he had been on Independence Day. He wanted to know how he had celebrated and with whom. He wanted to know what he thought about the President and his policies. He wanted to know what he thought about Europeans and what they had done for the country. Or was it to the country? Above all, Kenneth wanted to know what Nelson Mansuela thought of him. Not what he thought on the surface, but what he felt way down deep.†He wanted to know if he made a difference in any way, however slight, to Nelson Mansuela.
But there wasn’t any way to ask. One of the things that Kenneth was most ashamed of was that he’d never learned the language. He knew more phrases, certainly, than old Grimes had, but he wasn’t fluent. He could ask directions in the bush or order a drink or a meal, but he couldn’t carry on a conversation. He couldn’t say what he meant to say.
Even to him, it was something of a mystery why he had never learned. It wasn’t beyond his capacities. He’d learned French in school and learned it well, having spent two summers in Normandy. His mother was very good at languages. He’d gotten the knack from her. Here, though, he’d felt different. Everything was so exotic. It wasn’t different simply in details. The whole ground plan was different. Sometimes he thought it was simply laziness that had held him back from learning the language. Lena spoke it quite well, as did the two children.
Lena had learned from talking with the houseboys, so she could talk with the students and the personnel of the college as well. Marianne spoke with the same clearly European inflections that Lena had, even though she’d been born in the country.† She’d kept a distance that defined her allegiance. Randy, three years younger than Marianne, spoke perfectly. Except for the color of his skin, you couldn’t have told him from a native child of five. He held himself the way the native children did, moved the way they did, even used some of the same facial expressions. He could be unsettlingly patient the way they were, too.
Occasionally, Kenneth would catch sight of Randy among a little band of native children down on the dazzlingly white sand beach. It was so peculiar that that should be his very own son, not just because he hadn’t really ever expected to have a son, but also because his son had been able to cross a boundary that held him back. He didn’t worry about Marianne, but he often wondered what his son’s life would be like, what it would take for him to find himself later on. Were they making it truly impossible for him to get along in the world as it was? He admired the children, who, so far as he could tell, made no distinction of race or station.
Randy was more like him than Marianne was. Randy had the capacity to lose himself in what surrounded him.† Lena and Marianne were precise about distinctions, setting up separate housekeeping wherever they went. They did it as naturally and unthinkingly as they breathed. Maybe, Kenneth thought, it was something other than laziness that had kept him from learning the language.
Perhaps, he didn’t want to let himself go too far. He couldn’t afford to do what Randy did. This was a brutal fact that he’d learned somewhere along the line. He couldn’t say where or how he’d learned, but he did know it.† It wasn’t safe to go native, not if you were of a certain age and a certain responsibility, whatever that particular social category, all the more dangerous for being so indistinctly defined, meant.
If you couldn’t go all the way in, then it was better to make a stop early on, so that you could keep everything on the other side of that border vague. In this way, you didn’t have to spoil illusions which you yet couldn’t afford to test. You didn’t have to give up illusions which you had no way to replace.† The students and native faculty of Kingoro Boys’ College liked the fact that he was so awkward in their language. He knew that. He could tell it from the way they treated him. It made him less dreadful and, since he was less dreadful and didn’t intrude himself into the private corners of their lives, they let him come closer to them. They relaxed in his presence. They carried themselves ever so slightly differently.
They let very subtle bonds of attachment grow up between them. These were probably what held and immobilized Kenneth. They could easily have refused him. He made himself complete the thought: they could easily have refused him like everyone else in his life had. Or was it that he had held himself aloof, kept the slightest demanding and disapproving distance, kept it inwardly and secretly, disguising it underneath a cloak of affability? It was hard to say. He knew only that he was lonely, that the loneliness stalked him all through the day and tracked him even into sleep. It padded through his dreams, an undefinable menace.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. The silence was as disconcerting as the din had been. Nelson pushed the door open. The sweet steamy scent of a doused tropical afternoon came rushing in and mixed with the smells of the generator room. Despite his curiosity, there was nothing for Kenneth to do but to get up off his crate and to leave. The rain had let him stay. Now he had to go, otherwise he would make Nelson uncomfortable, which would be a breach of hospitality.
He walked down to the beach, where the tide was almost all the way out. The sky was going from gray overall to a lighter range of colors. Kenneth could see a seam where the clouds were thinner and might later open to show blue. Small waves barely murmured as they touched up against the edge of the ooze. Some of the boys were playing ping-pong up on the veranda of the college. He could hear the white stiff-walled ball bouncing off the table and being struck against the paddles. When the boys who were standing around watching and waiting their turns to play caught sight of him, they yelled happily and waved at him. He waved back at them, smiled before he turned back towards the water.
There was real gaiety and enthusiasm in their voices when they called out to him. It made him grin. He’d spent more than ten years among them, not so much teaching anything that he knew, but rather serving as a specimen of something exotic, to be observed, puzzled over, possibly even emulated in one way or another. He supposed he felt not so very differently than an animal in a zoo might feel were it to become self-conscious about its position and the social function of its captivity. Only he had been not captured but captivated. That is to say, in a certain sense, he had willed his own captivity.
Kenneth couldn’t get Nelson Mansuela off his mind in the days that followed. How in this land without machines had Nelson Mansuela learned about machinery? Had he gone to school? If so, what kind of a school? When? How? There were missionaries in the north. Perhaps one of the Lutheran fathers had taught him? But why him, of all the children? Did he have, from the beginning, some special affinity for machinery, something inborn?
He tried to learn where Nelson Mansuela lived, but without asking, for he didn’t want to reveal his curiosity.So he watched.† Nelson Mansuela arrived for work each day just as the sun began to tinge the eastern horizon, turning the sea first pink, then red. He came by boat, a dugout. He came from the direction of the shantytown past the docks. He pulled the dugout up in a clump of reeds a hundred yards south of the college boundary. He then put on a pair of rubber clogs and a white shirt. When he left after dark, so had to make his way across the harbor in the night, he put a flashlight in the bow of the dugout. He came seven days each week.
Sometimes Kenneth went out in the late afternoon to play volleyball with the boys. He played enthusiastically but awkwardly. When he missed a shot he should have made, the boys laughed and clapped, good naturedly. They made him feel welcome. He knew most of their names. He made a point of knowing. Some were more graceful than others. Some stood out from the rest. But he felt kindly disposed towards all of them. He had no idea what the future would make of them, but, with the setting sun spreading its colors across the sky above, making a display that was as much beyond imagination as the future was, he didn’t care what kind of men they would become. The present was enough.
One afternoon, he noticed Nelson Mansuela watching. It surprised him. He didn’t know how long Nelson had been watching or why. For all he knew, Nelson had a son who was a student at the college.† He couldn’t think of a boy named Mansuela, or of a boy who looked like Nelson, but perhaps the boy was enrolled under a different name. Perhaps the boy didn’t take after his father in looks at all. He had never seen Nelson talking to one of the students, but that didn’t mean anything. Of what went on at the college he was acquainted with only a very small part. But he didn’t object to that. That was the way it should be. What was most important was what he didn’t know, because without a sphere of autonomy and privacy, there could be no real independence.
The next day his curiosity got the better of him.† He arranged to get to the office after lunch, leaving a long enough interval so Moko was already gone.†Henry was sitting alone behind his desk, his feet in their bright yellow clogs crossed as usual.
The air was still, oppressive. Kenneth was suddenly embarrassed. How was he to explain his presence? What was his errand? It struck him as odd that he should feel that he had to explain himself at all to Henry. He remembered when it hadn’t been so. He remembered when it wouldn’t have occurred to him to worry or even to wonder about what Henry might think. Something had changed. Only he couldn’t put his finger on it. He couldn’t tell, either, whether it had changed within him or around him.
“It’s amazing, Henry,” Kenneth started, “but the generators seem to be working perfectly. So far as I know, there hasn’t been any further difficulty with them.”
“That is so. Nelson Mansuela says the new parts have made all the difference. By the way, though, I don’t think you ever let me know how much the parts you bought cost so that we could reimburse you the personal funds you took out of your own pocket,” Henry said. “I forgot,” Kenneth answered. “Besides, it doesn’t really make any difference.† It wasn’t that much.† We probably have used enough electricity over the years in our bungalow so that we should buy those generators a gift of some sort.”
Forgetting had been Kenneth’s way out of what could have been an awkward situation.† He didn’t want to put either Henry or himself in a difficult spot with regard to safeguarding Moko’s dignity or respecting his authority. Besides, Kenneth really was delighted to have gotten the parts for the generator.
It had awakened him. All his perceptions had changed. It was as if he’d changed levels. Everything was the same, but everything was also different, because he put it together differently. This wasn’t a matter of will. He hadn’t been aware that he’d been sleeping, no, not exactly asleep, but oblivious, as if a part of him had been sequestered, screened off from his view. He couldn’t tell now if he was excited or irritated. Both mingled in the way in which things teased and intrigued him.
He wondered if it had something to do with the rains, if it was an effect of the climate.† He looked at Henry and thought about Grimes. He remembered that, when Grimes used to lecture him about the climate and its effects, he’d had no idea what Grimes was talking about. An innate caution that verged on miserliness had kept him from simply deciding that Grimes was a fool. Somewhere inside he’d recorded what Grimes said and kept it, like pieces for a puzzle to be assembled later.
Places were different. Climates were different. Weather and land had a genius which shaped people and their ways, their thoughts, their feelings, their habits. All senses were different here. Sensing was different here. It made a different music, with different meshings, different lapses, a different reach and weave and drive. He’d gotten more or less used to it, but he was sensitive to the fact of the difference. Maybe it was this difference that bothered Lena. Maybe it was just the climate she couldn’t come properly to grips with, what made for her annoyance, as if she were always being ever so subtly vexed in ways she couldn’t even name.
“Where did Nelson Mansuela learn about generators?” Kenneth asked Henry.
As he asked, he had the feeling that Henry had both outwaited and outwitted him. Henry, as usual, had made him state what he wanted. He’d made Kenneth come out in the open with his curiosity. So, whatever Kenneth managed to learn from Henry about Nelson Mansuela, Henry had learned another little bit about Kenneth. It was peculiar, Kenneth thought, that it had taken him so many years to become aware of how intensely Henry watched. What had he been involved in all those years? Where had he been? What had been going on inside him? Of course, he’d been right here, right where he was now. But that was only a trivial response.
Kenneth couldn’t remember what he’d been like. Nothing convincing of his own past experience came to rescue him from the feeling of lonely aimlessness that took hold of him standing there in front of Henry, waiting for Henry to answer. He was abashed in front of Henry. It was as if the tables had turned, so that he was now the supplicant and acutely aware of his status as supplicant. Inside himself, Kenneth felt now like a very small boy.† This feeling was most disconcerting because it was so familiar, not that he’d been accustomed to being aware of it. There was a small boy in him, intact, unmodified, yearning, diffident, terrified and grand in his dreams and hopes. He had kept this small boy there, out of harm’s way.† He’d hidden him and protected him.† He’d travelled far to find a place where this young boy could be safe, could escape notice and injury, as if he were a precious statue, a votive image of extraordinary power and fragility both.†
He’d done all this for this young boy because he was completely bound up with him. If he let him go, then there would be no more to either of them. To have fashioned him in the first place had been a work that required uncommon skill and daring. It wasn’t daring and skill that could be advertised. It was too delicate and too little trusting for publicity. He, himself, as he was accustomed both to know himself and to present himself to the outside world, to dangerous other persons, was nothing more than a shell, made of conventional materials to camouflage and protect this small boy.
These thoughts came so still within him. They were like the whisperings of an internal wind. That they came so still made them even starker and even more convincing. Kenneth feared for a moment he was losing entirely his grip on ordinary reality. Even that sensation, odd though this seemed to him at the time, was thrilling.
Everything was clear, so breathtakingly simple. If he were so near to nothing, then he was expendable. Kenneth asked himself where the shame was in losing his grip on himself. Why shouldn’t he be curious exactly as he wished to be? He’d always been, insofar as he knew himself, something of an odd duckling. Why shouldn’t he have a fling? Where was the danger? Why did he have to be so terribly discrete? Especially since he didn’t know what he wanted to know, so could not be accused of premeditated malice.
These last thoughts, this ironic and uncharacteristic devotion to himself, brought a smile to his lips, so that, awaiting the answer to the question he had posed, he stood before Henry, looking not fearful and one down and haplessly eager to please, but rather quite ravished with himself and at least one up, if not more than that.†
Henry had never seen the principal look quite like this before. Kenneth stood before him with a self-satisfied smirk on his face, as if to say that he had the right to command and Henry the duty to obey as a consequence of natural law not only unalterable but unquestionable. Kenneth was quite suddenly, by a process of inward alchemy he could sense without being able to afford himself any explanation, the perfect picture of the colonial master.
He noticed, too, that something in Henry’s bearing had changed, as if the difference in Kenneth evoked a related difference in him. Kenneth had the contradictory conviction that he was both more and less himself than he had been just a short while before. He likened it to the feeling you have when you set out on a long voyage, when dread mingles with the hopeful excitement of exotic anticipation. Had this rush of contradiction, pulling in such different directions, in fact been with him so long ago when he first set out for Africa? If so, why hadn’t he been able to experience it directly back then? Why had he deferred it? What made him now such a vexing mystery to himself?
“I don’t have any idea where Nelson Mansuela learned about generators and other machines,” Henry said.
“Well, man, you must know something about him,” Kenneth burst out, turning to look out the window at the blue brimming harbor. “You know more than anyone about everything else that goes on here. He’s worked here for more than ten years, since before I got here, since the time of old Grimes. You’ve had plenty of time to study him. For example, let’s start with the simple facts of the matter. How did he come to work here?”
Henry looked thoughtful for a moment, not as if he were considering not answering, but simply thoughtful. Still, his looking that way sorely tried Kenneth’s patience.†
It seemed to Kenneth the height of insolence because it was gratuitous. There wasn’t anything to think about. It was a simple question he had asked. It deserved a simple, straightforward answer, just the facts.
Why did everything have to become so complicated, caught up in tangled, useless growth? Why did everything have to get slowed down?† Why did he always have to wait?
“Mr.Grimes took him on. It was a year or so after I came here, myself. Mr.Grimes said he was a good specimen.’ Mr.Grimes was very pleased that “he knew a little bit about machinery without thinking that he knew all there was to know.’ I believe those were Mr.Grimes’ exact words,” Henry responded softly.
His tone of voice betrayed no hint of any disturbance in his customary equanimity.
“So Nelson Mansuela was already a mechanic when he came here. That must be so. But it still doesn’t answer the question of where he learned.† Why did Nelson Mansuela come here in the first place, Henry?”
When he heard the question come out of his mouth, it sounded like an idiot’s question. The logical response on Henry’s part, it seemed to Kenneth, would have been to tell him he had absolutely no inkling why Nelson Mansuela had come here in the first place, that he didn’t consider it any of his own business to know such things and that, if Kenneth were so curious about Nelson’s situation and motivation, he could go ask Nelson Mansuela himself.
Kenneth knew that, even if this was the logical response, there was no possible way that Henry could give it. It was outside the confines of the social relationship that obtained between them. Strangely, perhaps just because Henry was so punctilious in his observation of them, he could imagine Henry violating the rules. There was something about Henry’s insistence on knowing and ever so faithfully and carefully following the rules that seemed already to breach their spirit and constitute a most insidious threat of mutiny.
Kenneth had known Henry more than a decade and now it occurred to him to wonder if he knew Henry at all. Could it be that Henry was changing? Or was it that he himself had refused to look beyond the facade? Or was it some mixture of the two factors? Was there a larger change going on around them that left them no choice but to change themselves?† Was this what Mohandas Singh had been trying to suggest before some peculiar discretion operating like a self-protective reflex had stopped him?
Kenneth was exasperated by now, not just with Henry, but also with himself. A major part of the frustration was that the frustration had no name. Maybe even it was the largest part of the frustration, that what he felt was so diffuse, so like the weather in its oppression, that there was no way to make a pattern out of Something was happening to him, around him, in him. It wasn’t even clearly against his will. He had the sense he was cooperating in spite of himself. †
“People say a lot of different things about Nelson Mansuela,” Henry said, as if discretion demanded that he start with a disclaimer.
Henry maintained his characteristic posture at his desk. Kenneth couldn’t help himself. He took a step closer to Henry. He was staring at Henry, his face flushed. He didn’t care that his frustration showed.
Henry paused, looked at his nails.
Kenneth knew that he was going to answer, that he had more to say. Only he knew also that Henry would stretch it out, that Henry was a master of this kind of timing and pacing. He would stretch it out to push Kenneth right to the brink, all the while acting as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Kenneth noticed the slightest upturnings of the corners of Henry’s mouth, just the beginnings of a smile.”They say Nelson Mansuela had a part in the troubles, not a small part, either. Not under the name Nelson Mansuela. Under other names, more than one.They say the colonial government had a price on his head, but he only laughed and said he was worth much more than that,” Henry said.
“Was he here at Kingoro during the troubles?” Kenneth asked. “I don’t think so,” answered Henry, “Not for the worst part, anyway. You understand, I don’t know if any of this is true, but I am just telling you what people say. They say that his mother and two of his older brothers were killed in the Nistolobe massacre and that he left home then and went to sea.”
“Maybe that’s where he learned his mechanics,” Kenneth said.
“These are only stories I have heard that I am telling you because you asked,” Henry demurred.
“But if he was right at the heart of the troubles, then why hasn’t he entered politics? Why hasn’t he gone into the government? With a background like that, he could have been one of the leaders,” Kenneth said, genuinely puzzled.
“I don’t know,” Henry said. “It could be a matter of personal preference. Or maybe he doesn’t trust any government at all.† What is it that† Lord Acton said? Correct me if I don’t have it exactly right. Was it Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.'”
“That’s precisely it,” Kenneth said.
He felt stung, as if, when Henry quoted Lord Acton, the quotation was intended as a reproach to him, personally, for the way that he was conducting himself. He walked out of the office, no more satisfied than when he came in. In fact, Nelson Mansuela had become, in his mind, an even larger enigma than before. Of course, he told himself, old Grimes hadn’t known any of this about Nelson Mansuela, because, if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to tolerate his presence. Grimes certainly wouldn’t have been able to refer to him as “a fine specimen” if he’d known that he’d been right at the center of the troubles.
It had been rumored for years that the troubles had been inspired and led by a man who refused to reveal his identity even to his closest associates and claimed an inspiration from the world of the dead .
“Could it be that Nelson Mansuela was that man, that legendary leader whose existence even now was hotly debated?
The debate was kept alive by the fact that the President was careful never to seem either to confirm or to deny the rumors.
Kenneth felt superior to old Grimes. He would see more deeply into matters. He would penetrate below the surface. Perhaps he would solve a mystery where Grimes hadn’t even been aware that there was one.
III. “They need us, but they can’t bear knowing they need us. They really can’t bear to see it.It simply shames them too much. That’s what makes the situation so beastly delicate. Shame can kill, you know,” said David Robinson.
The sun was setting in the west, lighting up the sky in a particularly spectacular display.† To the east, the Indian Ocean was a soft, mellow blue. It was hot, but not as hot as before the daily downpour. A new moon was just visible out over the water in that section of the sky from which the light had most faded.
They were sitting out on the veranda at the Robinsons’, talking and looking at the sky and the sea and sipping their drinks, just as they had done so many times before.
Kenneth wasn’t quite paying attention to what was being said. He was feeling what he usually felt at moments of beauty like this one, namely, that he must have done something very dishonest and very dishonorable but also enormously clever in order to have the privilege of enjoying what was not, fundamentally, intended for the likes of him.
“It doesn’t feel the same,” Betty Robinson said. “The atmosphere is different. The way people look at each other is different than the way it used to be. I feel more out of place. I think what’s happening isn’t good.”
The intensity of the new moon, that tiny round silver sliver hanging off to the east like a boomerang that could not spin and so could not return, was increasing moment by moment. Kenneth wished he could paint, so that he could capture something like what he saw, stop it, keep it still, make it just a little less confusing. If he’d had the least facility, he would have been willing, he thought now, to take on the frustration and the inevitability of defeat. It would have been worth it, even for an approximation, even if it cost a whole life of struggle and ambiguity.
“What do you think it is, Betty? What do you think is happening? What is changing?” Ian MacDonald asked.
David Robinson was the foreign exchange expert in the Department of the Treasury. He’d been in Nigeria before coming out here. When he’d first come, he’d liked to go to work wearing lavish robes that he’d brought with him from Ibadan. He’d met Betty here. She’d been a secretary at the embassy. She’d grown up in a household where her mother and her father didn’t speak. Since her father drank and sometimes turned violent when he drank, it had been important for her to be aware of shifts in the atmosphere. Betty had told Lena her father hadn’t just beaten her and her younger sisters. He’d done sexual things to them, too.
She was the oldest so she always felt that she had to protect her sisters. She’d always felt that it was better if it happened to her. When she left home at the age of sixteen, she hadn’t been able to sleep more than two or three hours a night for the first six months. Finally, she had a dream in which her two younger sisters stood beside a bed in which both her parents lay dead. Her sisters were waving at her through a curtain of flames and there was an immense feeling of relief.
Four years ago David had come to talk with Kenneth in the late afternoon. The expression on his face wasn’t the ordinary ironic, aloof one. Kenneth knew immediately this visit was an unusual one. David said he was very worried about Betty. The kids had been telling him for months that sometimes they would find her in the closet by herself, crying. When they tried to talk with her, they couldn’t get her to recognize them. She seemed in a daze.
Saidi the house boy would shoo them away and tell them not to bother their mother while she was talking with the spirits. At first, David hadn’t believed a word of it all. Alicia, the older of his two girls, in particular had a vivid imagination and was given to embellishing. He’d scolded both the girls and Saidi for talking such primitive rot. However, on that day, he’d happened to come home two hours earlier than usual.
This was very rare, because he felt it was important for him to set an example by observing regular hours and being accessible at work all day long. He’d promised himself that before he left there would be someone who had enough understanding of currency transactions, arbitrage and the economics of decisions about currency valuation to replace him adequately.
When he got home, he couldn’t find Betty. After he searched the house, he heard a whimpering sound from a closet. He said it sounded like a puppy who was being whipped. When he opened the closet up, there she was, crying and pleading and shaking and making small high hurt noises down in her throat. She had on only a bra and some panties. When he tried to get her attention, he couldn’t do it. The damnedest thing was that there was something so sexy about her, so different than the way she was most of the time. David’s face turned red as the flame trees when he told Kenneth this.
He didn’t know what to do. The girls were playing out in the back of the house under a jacaranda tree. Saidi was hanging wash on the line. Everything was going on just as if it were a perfectly normal day. So David had left the house and gone into town and had a few beers and come out to talk with Kenneth. Kenneth hadn’t told David what he knew from Lena. He hadn’t told Lena what he’d learned from David. He didn’t think it was right to complete the circuits.†
Kenneth had told David that it was probably best just to wait, because she’d come out of it sooner or later. Maybe this was something that she just had to go through. It had seemed at the time an extraordinarily stupid and slothful thing to say, but he hadn’t had any idea what else he could have said. He’d wondered at the time why David had chosen him to talk about what was going on with Betty. He’d wanted to ask, but then he’d decided that wasn’t tactful. He’d thought that maybe it was because he himself didn’t seem like he was all there all of the time.
Ian MacDonald was the senior expatriate agricultural officer in the ministry. His special interest was animal husbandry. He had jet black hair and a huge full-jawed head that sat on top of great round shoulders. He looked like a bull. No less totemic description fit.
When he asked Betty what she meant, what was changing, both Lena and his own wife, Nara, shifted their bodies and turned towards him.† The Scottish burr in his voice rasped on the soft evening air. Lena had told Kenneth she’d always wanted to go to bed with Ian Macdonald and that she couldn’t imagine a woman who wouldn’t want Nara had black hair, too, and small perfect features. She wore fluted gold earrings in her ears and a sleeveless silk dress the color of straw.
When Kenneth looked at Ian and Nara, he couldn’t help envying them and feeling shame for himself. They were beautiful. They were put together properly. He wasn’t. It gave them a tremendous primitive authority. He wanted to please them, as if, by pleasing them, some of the magic they had might be made to rub off on him. Kenneth had the thought that he wouldn’t mind if Lena went to bed with Ian MacDonald. He trusted that in his bluff straightforward way Ian would do a better job than he did himself. It might be a relief if Ian took Lena to bed.†
“It’s as if they’ve waited too long. They’re tired and frightened. Independence came and they thought that would change everything. It wasn’t a question of thinking that it would change everything. They knew it would change everything. It was simply so. Then time went by.They waited and they waited and then they waited some more. They didn’t mind waiting. They know how to wait.† And waiting didn’t bring any doubt.
“They liked the waiting, because as they waited, they enjoyed what was to come. They savored it. It whetted their appetite. The more they waited, the more certain it became that what they were waiting for was coming. They put more and more of themselves into the dream, into the dream that had become a certainty. You couldn’t see it. Therefore it had to be so. No one talked about it, because they didn’t need to talk about it, so intensely did they share it.
“You could say that they didn’t understand at all what independence meant. It’s fashionable to say that and to think that. I’ve said it and thought it myself, many times. I’ve lived with that thought. Only the opposite is true.† They knew what independence meant. They knew down to the last detail. They had no doubts. And now it has gone on too long. They have waited who knows how much too long. It could be an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year. It makes no difference how much too long. All that makes a difference is that it has gone on too long, so they are frightened and angry, so they are looking about for a sacrifice.” “A sacrifice?” Nara breathed, caught up in the hushed excitement of Betty’s declaration.
Kenneth’s eyes had been fixed on Betty’s face. He had never heard her talk so much at one time. The words came rolling out, with no special emphasis, almost monotone. Yet the effect was extraordinary, as if a blind person were describing an exquisite object visible only to him by an inner sight denied all his listeners, so that the customary roles were reversed and the listeners, for the very first time, grasped and were awed by what blindness was, by the profound isolation and confusion into which it could throw a person and the heroic efforts such a confused isolato had to make in order to reconstruct a world in which he could live and move and breath and show himself to his fellow men as yet a man, someone worthy of their respect and attention.
Just as Betty paused, Nara inhaled and sat up just ever so slightly in her chair, so that Kenneth’s attention switched to her. Her features were blank and all the more beautiful for being blank. There wasn’t a single wrinkle on her skin. Despite the fact that she was in her late thirties and had borne five children, she looked as if she had experienced nothing, known nothing, suffered nothing. She looked as if she had been living somewhere on a sheltered island off in the midst of an ocean where storms never blew and one day’s weather was exactly the same in its perfection as the weather of the day before.Yet, just because of that, her understanding of what Betty meant when she spoke of sacrifice seemed all the more immediate and intuitive. She seemed to sigh her assent almost in a spirit of fulfillment, as if she anticipated the sacrifice and looked forward to it.
Kenneth felt there was something horrible about beauty, because beauty asserted the possibility of perfection, of the coherence of elements without slippages, wrinkles or other cracks in the overall design. Not only did beauty assert the possibility of perfection, of liberation from doubt and falling short and all manner of similar mixed inconveniences, it presented itself as an end with a legitimate claim to justify all manner of means. In the name of beauty, violence could be unleashed. No, it was worse than that. In the name of beauty, violence could not help but be unleashed.
Beauty flowed smoothly into violence. Tranquility led to frenzy. “Yes,” Betty said, “they’re looking for a sacrifice to repair the injury to the dream.The sacrifice has to be flesh and blood. It has to suffer. Until the sacrifice is found, there will be tension. No one can look his neighbor in the eye. It’s no one’s fault. It’s a natural process which works everywhere.”
“None of us will be here five years from now,” Lena said. “I’m not so sure,” disagreed David Robinson. “It’s a question of terms. None of us will be here on the same terms. The terms are getting harsher.”
“But they have the right to dictate the terms,” Lena said. “It’s their country. We’re here because we’ve wanted to be here. We’ve wanted to be here because we think it’s better for us here than it would be at home. Maybe they have to get rid of us in order to be themselves in their own way. We make them too uncomfortable. We can’t help it and neither can they. We’re different and, despite all our wishing, incompatible.”
“But they’ll ruin themselves,” David declared. “They’ll ruin themselves because they have no idea how not to ruin themselves. They’ll ruin themselves with the best of intentions.”
“You mean that the country will become something different than we’ve imagined, don’t you?” Lena questioned. “Maybe it will be much better without us. We don’t even know what we’ve brought with us. We don’t know how we’ve infected the place.”
“Do you know there are only eleven hundred expatriates now in the whole country?† There were thirty thousand before independence. The rest of the lot have packed their baggage and gone,” David Robinson said.
“I don’t have any desire to leave,” Ian MacDonald said. “I like it here. I like the people. I love the country. It’s still savage and so, in a certain way, am I.”
“I don’t think any of us know what the country has done to us,” Lena said. “When we came out here, we didn’t think it would make a difference. We didn’t think it would change us. But it has.”
“Of course it has,” Betty Robinson said. “It’s changed us and there’s no changing ourselves back. That’s what is so difficult to come to terms with. We can’t take back what we’ve done or what we’re becoming any more than they can.”
For a moment, the idea took hold of Kenneth’s imagination that Betty was a witch capable of casting the most powerful spells. He felt his cock stir, thrill with sensation, then lapse back up against his thigh into quiesence and flaccidity, like a snake that has been addressed just sufficiently by its charmer to signify its recognition of the charmer’s voice and authority, but not enough to rise and coil and begin the dance.† †
He remembered what Grimes had told him just about a month before Grimes left the country. Grimes wasn’t looking well at the time. A new sag was apparent in his shoulders. He didn’t seem quite so distant or forbidding as he had up to that time. While Kenneth was only too eager to see him go and wondered how he’d managed to put up with him as long as he had, another part of him felt sorry for Grimes. It didn’t seem so much that Grimes was going home as that he was going into exile.
“These chaps are primitive. There’s no question about that. There’s no doubt in my mind on that score. As long as they cling to their old ways, they won’t enjoy the benefits of civilization, if they are capable of enjoying them at all. I have my doubts. Yet, I believe we shouldn’t judge hastily, but only in the ripeness of time. I’ve seen some things while I was here that convinced me that there is dark power in the old ways and that they will die hard. I’ve lived here a very long time, the better part of my life in fact.”
As he said this last, he looked past Kenneth, out the window of his office at the ocean. His gaze was blank and he let his lip go slack.† It was the first time Kenneth had ever seen his face empty of its characteristic ferocious determination. It was a terrible sight.† Grimes looked ancient and used up. Kenneth wanted to ask him what he had seen that had convinced him of the dark power of the old ways, but he simply looked too tired. It seemed to Kenneth that it would have been too much of an imposition. He kept still.
Sitting out there on the Robinsons’ veranda, letting the conversation eddy around him, it struck Kenneth how much he thought about old Grimes, how often the image of old Grimes and particular memories connected with him came back into his mind these days. He’d managed to go literally years without thinking of him more than once or twice a year and then, just in passing, without any emotional charge or particular influence on the general course of his thinking. Now, it was as if Grimes had taken on renewed force and vigor within him and had the power to press his point of view and interests at every twisting and turning of the way. Kenneth was surprised and a bit taken aback to notice how much of an influence Grimes must have been on him, how much of the man he must have taken in.
“Do you know what Ulla Svenstrom told me about David Robinson?” Lena asked Kenneth two days later at breakfast.
Kenneth looked down at the piece of toast in front of him. Ulla Svenstrom, a tall dramatic blonde woman who both frightened and attracted Kenneth, so that he never knew what to say around her, was the wife of the director of the Swedish medical mission. She was herself a pediatrician. She worked three days a week out at the Ntoro clinic and was an avid diver.
“Ulla told me that she heard David Robinson left Nigeria because he had embezzled a quarter of a million pounds which he transferred to a numbered account in Switzerland. He knew so much about how the currency regulations were being circumvented by the leading members of the Government that there wasn’t any way to prosecute him. He didn’t attempt to defend himself. He simply said that, like any other skillful and successful broker, he felt he was entitled to a fair commission as a reward for his efforts.”
Lena glanced to him for a reaction. When he failed to produce one, she went on.
“Don’t you see why coming to a country like this one would be so attractive to him, then?† Here he could embezzle whatever he liked, so long only as he was discrete. No one would be sophisticated enough to trap him. Of course, this is a very poor country, but still he could embezzle at the very least twenty or twenty-five thousand pounds a year, with virtually no risk. In addition to what he already has in the bank in Switzerland, that would make him a very wealthy man.”
“It’s slander,” Kenneth said.
“Don’t be naive,” Lena returned.
“Come now,” Kenneth insisted. “David’s the kind of person about whom it’s almost irresistible to say and think nasty things.† He can be so odd at times. He’s so tall and so obviously smarter than any of the rest of us. He cultivates his image rather carefully. He made quite a stir when he first got here, with his robes and all that apparatus. That doesn’t mean he’s a petty thief.”†
“I wouldn’t call him a petty thief. Yes, he steals,” Lena said, “but the scale’s so much grander and it’s so much harder to understand why he does it. David steals and hides it away in a distant country, where he can’t use it. They don’t live extravagantly. I’m not sure that a man like him might not steal simply for the sport of it. He might steal simply to relieve the tedium of life and demonstrate his own sense of freedom.”
“But you have no evidence that he steals. Only hearsay.† It’s worse than that. It’s malicious defamation of character,” Kenneth retorted.†
“Ulla wasn’t meaning to be malicious. It was quite different than that.† She was just saying how interesting she thought it would be to know a man like that up close. I asked her if she meant that she wanted to have an affair with him. She thought I was serious and stopped to think about it. She told me she had had only four affairs since she was married. The Swedes have very different ideas about these things than we do,” Lena went on.
Kenneth chose to ignore the last twist. “I assume you told Ulla that you didn’t know a thing about this ridiculous story that David Robinson is a polished thief who sucks the blood out of one poor country after another,” he said.
As he spoke, he could hear his voice rising in anger. He wondered what it was that made him so irritable. Lena didn’t answer in words, but he could read her answer from her face. She hadn’t contested what Ulla said. That made him doubly angry.
“I suppose there’s something perfectly dreadful about each one of us to circulate as a rumour. If it circulates long enough, then it becomes the sovereign coin of truth. I wonder what slanderous story there is to be passed around about Ian MacDonald?”
By now it was a fight, not about anything in specific, but even more dangerous because it was about things in general.
“Beyond that he keeps a native woman only two hundred and fifty miles from here and has had a whole brood of children by her, I don’t know anything scandalous,” Lena returned.
Kenneth was shocked. He certainly did not believe that David Robinson was a thief. No such thought had ever crossed his mind. It would never have occurred to him, even had he lived to be a hundred. However, he had no way to disprove the allegation. Perhaps he was congenitally deficient in the capacity for suspicion.
Just as it never would have occurred to him to suspect that David Robinson was stealing money through his position in the government and hiding it in Switzerland, he had never entertained the idea that Ian MacDonald might have another family sequestered in the bush. Ian and Nara seemed so much at ease with each other and so pleased with their circumstances.It was like discovering new pieces after you were convinced that the puzzle was satisfactorily done.†
“On what authority do you have that piece of news?” Kenneth demanded.
“Everyone knows about it. I know because Nara told me about it herself. She’s gone out to meet the woman herself.†She says the woman’s a beauty, that, with the exception of skin color, she looks very much like she does herself. Ian’s oldest son by that woman is in the army. Ian’s been initiated into the tribe. He refuses to tell Nara about the ceremonies. He says he’s given his word not to divulge anything about them. His explanation to Nara is that, if you’re going to live in a country, then you have to find a way to be part of it. Nara said the woman was very hospitable towards her and seemed to bear her no animosity at all, as if she, Nara, were the senior wife and, therefore, entitled to a certain respect and deference. In a way, it all makes sense and is all familiar.† Nara was raised in Madagascar. Her father was a planter. He had three different native mistresses. In fact, the story of how he died is that one of them got jealous and poisoned him. Nara doesn’t believe that. She says he just drank himself to death,” Lena finished, enjoying citing chapter and verse.
“What’s there to tell about us, then?” Kenneth asked, feeling very much on the defensive.
“Nothing at all.† So much more’s the pity,” Lena snapped at him.†
She got up from the table where they had been sitting and headed off for the bedroom. He didn’t have any notion what she meant to do there or what he should do next. For an instant, he had the idea that her lip and chin had been trembling and that she was going in there to cry. He felt a sense of obligation to go back there and to try to comfort her.
That sense of obligation drove him out the front door of the bungalow. His blindness amazed him. It seemed to him that he had lived here for years without noticing anything that went on around him. In a certain sense, he’d prided himself on that. He didn’t want to be overbearing and intrusive.†He believed in certain kinds of tact and reserve. He had always thought of these beliefs as altruistic.
Yet now he wasn’t so sure. Maybe it was his own need that made him act the way he did. Maybe it had nothing whatsoever to do with consideration for others. The scope of what he had chosen not to know about was astounding. It was as if he’d been living in a cocoon, a rather warm and comfortable place, not perfect, not all he could have wished for, but still, for all that it represented a compromise and a renunciation of certain exploratory joys, recognizably home.
Bit by bit, the coccoon was being ripped apart. Was it that he had been struggling within it and his struggle was tearing its delicate threads? Or were there outside forces that impinged? He really couldn’t say. Only he was aware that it had all started, or at least begun to declare itself that day he walked into the office after lunch and heard Moko shouting at Henry. Once he’d involved himself in getting the generator parts, then the process was under way. First, there had been the conversation with Mohandas Singh, with its aura of warning. Then there had been the encounter with Nelson Mansuela in the rain and his growing curiosity about Nelson. Now, there was the set of discoveries about the Robinsons and the MacDonalds.
He and Lena had been drifting apart for years. He’d known it for years. Yet, the action that it would have required to change things had seemed always both so drastic and so mysterious that he had never thought seriously of undertaking it. He’d always presented this to himself in terms of loyalty, loyalty to his wife, loyalty to his children, even loyalty to himself, for a bargain once made was a bargain, wasn’t it?
Lena accused him of lack of style, of lack of daring, of having no spirit of adventure or risk, of being, in a certain sense a stultifying fool. So far as he could tell, her accusations were just. He hadn’t come out here in search of adventure. He’d come out here in search of the opposite, in the hope that he could find peace. He did lack style and daring. At core he didn’t want to travel beyond the boundaries of established order, but rather to find a set of boundaries, an established order on which he could rely for definition and reassurance. What he had learned, though, was that this project, too, was illusory.† Maybe the ones who sought adventure, took risks and wanted to go beyond the bounds, already knew that. Maybe they had had the discernment to despair early of security and stability.† Maybe they really asked less than he did.
Was the point of Lena’s attack to provoke him into a strong response that would allow her to engage with him? Maybe they had drifted apart because he had steadfastly refused to respond to her provocations, to the differences of style, to the small goading remarks, to the repeated questionings of his judgement. He’d always thought of himself as forbearing and generous with regard to her. That was what he’d intended to be.
Now it looked different. Maybe what he’d taken as forbearing and generosity had actually been a refusal to get involved and to put himself on the line, above all, a refusal to let himself be known, as if he preferred to remain not just for others but also for himself a reclusive fiction, not a creature of flesh and blood on a more or less equal footing with other creatures of flesh and blood. Maybe it amounted to nothing more than impotence.
What was he, then, to do? Kenneth felt, without thinking about it in any direct way, that things had gone too far to do anything about them at all. He had lived on the basis of certain illusions up to this point. That was itself a fact, not an illusion. It could not be dismissed, like some airy phantasm. Illusions made realities. He could not, for example, start to explain to Lena that there had been a hideous misunderstanding, that he hadn’t meant to be so stingy with her, to drive her further and further into quietly desperate frustration by insisting on pleasant and affable reserve as a means of maintaining his own unsullied privacy.
He anticipated that Marianne would take her mother’s side and hoped that Randy would be able to see just a little bit of his. He imagined Randy would be able to appreciate something of his position. This idea made him guilty, as if he were passing on an exotic and intractable infection to his son.
IV. At the end of the long rains, Lena said she wanted to take the children and go for a month to visit her mother. Kenneth raised the question of whether taking Marianne out of school was advisable, but he didn’t raise it seriously. He knew in advance that Lena would say that Marianne was doing very well in school and could afford to miss a month. He knew that she would go on to say that, in any case, she would learn more from the trip that she would from staying and going to school. It was time for her to become aware that there was a whole world beyond the confines of this odd, backwards, isolated country. He agreed with all that. He really did.
He never raised the possibility he might be able to go along with them. He had enough leave accumulated. It would have been feasible to arrange it. He could have said he thought it was a good time to go on leave because it would give Moko an opportunity to assume full responsibility for running the place. He didn’t bring it up with Lena because he didn’t expect her to come back. He thought the notion that she was going to go for a month was only a polite fiction. He watched her pack and thought that she and the children could live easily on just what they were taking with them. They would have to buy winter things. That was all.
He could not imagine why, given the degree of estrangement between them, she would come back. He didn’t fault her for not stating her intentions openly. He was grateful to her for that.
He felt sorry for her. She hadn’t got what she wanted and he was the cause of that. He didn’t even know in any precise way what her dreams had been. He hadn’t bothered to map out the shape of the disappointment he had occasioned her. Perhaps it would have made a difference. Suppose he had seen what he was seeing now five years ago or even just two or three years ago. Would that have made a fundamental difference? He couldn’t say.
But he did have the conviction that this parting at the airport, so casually accomplished, was a final one. He stood and watched the plane take off into the blue blue sky. It was silent and silver, climbing up and away in a graceful arc, first over the ocean, then, still within the eye’s range, curving back over land, heading north to traverse the equator. He watched the sky even after he could no longer see a glinting dot. It was strange that something so large could so swiftly and so smoothly, so silently become so small. Kenneth had to bite his lower lip, hard, to keep the tears from coming once he turned his gaze back to the ground, back to where his own shadow was cut sharply out against the tarmac in full sun. He refused to cry. He didn’t feel he was entitled to that.
He was surprised how desolate he felt back at the school once his family was gone. If the place had seemed beautiful and vivid to him before, a place worthy of love, now it seemed very different. He noticed the buildings needed painting much more urgently that he had been aware. He noticed how thin the boys were, how worried they looked. Were they getting enough to eat? It occurred to him to wonder if food was being stolen from the kitchen, so that, in actual fact, the portions were much more meagre than they were supposed to be. He promised himself that he would talk to Moko about the painting, that he would investigate himself to see if the food being served to the boys was ample or if they were being cheated.
All he did was to detest himself for his inertia. He had let things go too far to take them back in hand. That was no illusion. It wasn’t simply that he had blinded himself to what was going on in front of his nose. It was that he had prided himself on not seeing. Why was that? He was at a loss to give an account of his motives. Had he had another vision to replace the daily reality before him? If so, that vision had been dispelled so thoroughly he couldn’t trace it. No clue was left. He was waiting for the letter from Lena announcing that it was all over, that she and the children were not coming back. He expected it. He was counting on it, even.†
When he got near the little cubby holes into which the mail was sorted, his stomach tightened. There was no way to gain distance from it. Once or twice, he thought he was going to faint dead away. The cubbyholes for the mail were just within the office doorway, that is, directly in front of Henry’s desk. If Kenneth didn’t crumple to the ground when he approached the mailboxes, it was because he was aware that Henry had, with his usual acumen, noted the change in him and was watching him. He refused to pass out in front of Henry.
Day after day he went to his cubbyhole, sorted through the mail and failed to find anything from Lena. It was going to come some day. It was only a question of which day. The stomach that went tight as he approached the office became part of his routine. He expected it. It had its rights, too. Strangely enough, he slept soundly and placidly through the nights. With the passing of the rains, the nights were fresher and clearer, followed by sparkling dawns. Still, this didn’t wholly explain his ease in sleeping or the airy openness of his dreams, full of soft colors and wide prospects.
He felt something momentous was being prepared. He was changing. He felt off balance. In a way, he was quite indifferent to what went on around him. In another way, he was continually scanning, looking for a sign, an omen. He had dinner one evening at the MacDonalds’, a few days later with the Robinsons. He was surprised to note that Ian wasn’t built quite as powerfully as he’d thought. Nara seemed tired and irritable, not so beautiful as he had been used to finding her. David Robinson was having back spasms the night Kenneth went there for dinner, so Betty served herself and Kenneth at the table, then fed David who was lying flat on the floor afterwards.
Kenneth had the impression she was feeding a dog or some other injured animal out of a solicitude whose largest ingredient was pity. David kept up a chatter about the world money markets and commodity prices exactly as if nothing at all were out of the ordinary. Nothing seemed more ludicrous to Kenneth than the idea of attributing glamor to this creature stretched out on his back on the floor, wincing whenever he tried to move from side to side. Suppose he were a rich man as the result of his ill gotten gains. He still seemed hardly able to rise on all fours. Kenneth had to work hard to keep from laughing out loud.
Three weeks to the day after Lena left, Kenneth awoke from a deep smooth soothing sleep with the thought, quite unconnected to any defining context, that it was all too good to be true. He took this as a sign meaning that it was on this day that a message would arrive from Lena, putting an end to his waiting. This interpretation pleased him, put him in such good humor that, donning a set of Tartan plaid bathing trunks, he made his way down to the beach and proceeded to swim for half an hour before breakfast, something he had not done in years. He then washed the salt off in the shower, singing brightly as he did so. In a certain way, he no longer felt like himself at all, but rather like a sanguine ghost. He did notice that his mood was peculiar and that, when he looked in the mirror, his eyes seemed to shine back at him, as if he had a fever.
He was still humming when he walked into the office and reached an assured hand into his cubbyhole. Sure enough, true to his intuition, there was a letter from Lena. He made himself contain his eagerness long enough to go upstairs into his own office, close the door and sit down behind his desk, before he opened, Much to his astonishment, it was filled with small snippets of everyday gossip and made absolutely no mention of her having decided not to return. It announced only a small delay in view of her mother’s failing health and Lena’s sense that this might well be the last visit ever. She provided a flight number and a date on which she and the children would return. It was the day after Independence Day, some fifteen days hence.
Kenneth was shocked. He had no idea at all how to take the letter, what he should make of it. He had assumed that she wasn’t coming back, that it was all over between them. He had had no doubts on that score, not that he particularly wanted it to be over, but simply that it had seemed so plainly to be done, once and for all. What had they left to say to each other? Were there loose ends he hadn’t noticed? Was there some unfinished business between them? Could things be changed or modified? He felt a terrible squeamishness at the very idea. He was literally dumbfounded. He read the letter over and over, found it more disturbingly ordinary each time he read it.
His heart was pounding. He was breathing fast and his nylon shirt was soaked through with sweat. He wished that there was someone he could talk with about the whole thing. He entertained, fleetingly, the ridiculous idea of consulting Henry about his quandary. He dismissed it when a picture of Henry’s face, half gloating, floated up before his mind’s eye. He asked himself whether he could be coming down with malaria or some other disease, perhaps even worse than malaria. You never knew what you could pick up in these parts. As time went on, your resistance wore down, imperceptibly, until finally you were primed to succumb. It didn’t matter what specific agent caught hold of you. Sooner or later something would.
The fact that she was coming back, that she was bringing the children along with her, proved to him something which, up until now, he hadn’t wanted to face. This was that they would have to leave. They would have to go somewhere else.
So it was that he approached the celebration of Independence Day in a very special frame of mind, a mixture of exhilaration and desperation. He knew that this would be the very last Independence Day he spent in the country. Perhaps he would come back to visit some day. But most likely he wouldn’t. This wasn’t a place you came to easily. It was so far away and so very different. As a visitor you were on the outside. You couldn’t in a matter of weeks or even months sink deep into the place, sink in far enough to appreciate the differences and so feel yourself called into question. It wasn’t really a place to be visited.† When he left, he would leave once and for all and he would take it with him..†
He wanted to be part of the celebration. He wanted to rub shoulders with the people. He didn’t want to worry about anything, about his position or his status in the eyes of others.
The MacDonalds were having a party for the expatriate community, or at least for the tatters that were still left.† When Nara called to invite him, he ignored the caress in her voice. He said he wasn’t feeling well, so he wouldn’t be coming. It was a lie. But it served his purpose.† He didn’t want to be part of that.
V. Each year, Kingoro Boys’ College played a football match against Rufiri Preparatory School on the morning before Independence Day. Kenneth went to cheer the team on.† It was pleasant to stand on the sidelines and shout, to see how intensely caught up in the game the boys were, how quickly they reacted to the ball. He was glad they triumphed, four goals to only a single one for the other side.
He went back to the bungalow and slept until three in the afternoon.
Then he got dressed, took the ferry over into town and made his way down to the market quarter, wandering slowly through the town. People came to the capital from all over the country for the celebration. It was the biggest festival of the year. It was more than a political event. It was hard to say just what it was.
A group of youths had walked seven hundred miles to the capital from the farthest corner of the country tucked up against the lake. More than fifty thousand people were going to State House at midnight to hear the President give his annual Independence Day speech. Last year he had talked for almost three hours. Then the crowd had danced, right there in front of State House, until the dawn came up out of the ocean.
Usually, he and Lena had gone out early on the eve of Independence Day, then gone to bed just after they’d watched the midnight fireworks over the harbor. There was no better vantage point from which to watch them than the one they had. This time, though, Kenneth didn’t want to watch from the distance. He wanted to be in the crowd. He wanted to smell the sweat and taste the enthusiasm. He wanted to be just one amid the throng. He wanted to be caught up in it and swept away by it, just as if his skin had not been white, just as if he, too, had never known winter. He would have to go out to the airport and pick Lena and the kids up the day after tomorrow in the early afternoon. He would have to face the fact that they had to leave and to go somewhere else together. But tonight was his own. He could do as he liked.
There were temporary stalls in the market at which crowds of men with a few women sprinkled in were drinking fermented beer. Kenneth chose one at random, then waited patiently until he worked his way to the front of the throng. He observed that people were buying large gourds full of beer, which were then passed around from mouth to mouth. He took a bill from his pocket, showed it to the man with a glistening bald black head, held up four fingers and indicated he wanted all four of the gourds filled up and passed around. He took the first swallow himself. It had a sickening taste, but he managed to get it down. Just because it tasted so bad, so rank, it thrilled him doubly as it went down.
He didn’t understand the language. It was only a pleasant and exotic buzzing in his ears. After the four gourds were drained empty, he reached into his pocket, took out another bill and order them refilled again. The crowd around him thickened. He was hemmed in on all sides.He couldn’t move without pressing up against someone. He drank and passed the gourd and smiled. He felt the sun on his skin, warming him. He felt happy.
It was the most peculiar sensation, because he couldn’t explain where it came from, why it should be so. But he was taken out of himself. He looked around him and found the bodies that were near him beautiful. It wasn’t that he had any criteria for what made them beautiful. They were simply that way.
The man directly in front of him was at least a foot shorter than Kenneth himself. He had deep creases on his forehead, sharp sculpted lines to his face, so that you couldn’t help seeing the architecture of the bones underneath his face. You couldn’t avoid knowing that the armature for that face was a skull, that in time the skull would surface from the depths, appear as astonishingly white and rigid as the skin that now hid it from view was black and supple. The man in front of him wasn’t young.† His teeth were broken off, a set of pegs scattered about in pink gums. He wore a red shirt emblazoned with pineapples, torn at the shoulder and a pair of green shorts which had probably once been army fatigues. He had no shoes, not even rubber clogs. When he laughed, he cackled and the crow’s feet at the edges of his eyes danced. He threw his head back to drink, then unabashedly licked his lips and howled with pleasure.† Then he slapped Kenneth on the back and hugged him, so that Kenneth couldn’t help smelling him up close.
It didn’t offend Kenneth. He liked it. It was like the aroma of a very pungent and ripe goat cheese.† The liking of it wasn’t a response you could will, but, if you did like it, then there was something rare and precious in it, a pleasure that stood for the idiosyncrasy of living. He was beautiful not because he conformed to any model of beauty, not out of any perfection but just because he was there, because his skin glowed and he wanted more beer.
He hugged the man back, although he knew nothing about him, couldn’t even have begun to imagine anything particular about him. Kenneth lifted his hands and ordered yet another round of the fermented beer for the men around him. The beer was cheap. It cost him next to nothing. He was immensely wealthy by comparison to everyone around him, probably earned hundreds of times as much as they did in a year. But all that made no particular difference. It didn’t even make any particular difference what they were celebrating.
The point was only that they were celebrating, that today was a day different than all other days, that the normal order of things was in suspension. The sun was beginning to go down. It was no longer the scorching, domineering, tyrant sun of mid-day and early afternoon. It was a softer sun now, inclining just to the first tinges of rose as its rays found its way through the mangoes over at the edge of the market square and through the slats of the stall to fall on laughing, animated faces content with the present moment, but yet looking forward to the night and its excitements.
It was after Kenneth ordered the gourds refilled for the ninth (or was it the tenth?) time that a large hand fell on his shoulder and he turned to look up into a face that seemed familiar, but that he yet was not able to place immediately. This man was huge, with a hand so large that it was itself an object of astonishment. Kenneth couldn’t have said just exactly how much taller than he the man with his huge hand on his shoulder was. He was the tallest person around.† Yet, he was tall in the way a giraffe is, not in a threatening manner. In the time that it took him to recognize Innocent Raminoro, who had been a student at the college during the first years that Kenneth was there, Kenneth realized that the beer had had quite an effect on him. He was drunk and his head was spinning. He suddenly wished that he could sit down, that he could get out of the crowd and have some air to breath that didn’t carry the close smells of a throng of people.
Innocent had been taller than Kenneth even back then, seven or eight years ago. Kenneth remembered him as a shy and gentle boy, often awkward in movement. He had worked hard and been very popular, both among his fellow students and among the teachers. It was hard to think of him as a grown man. Yet, here was the evidence, another incontrovertible proof that things changed.
“I’m glad to see you, sir, out celebrating our Independence,” Innocent said.
Kenneth beamed back up at Innocent.
“I’m glad to see you, too, Innocent,” Kenneth returned. Innocent’s face broke into a huge smile. Then he threw his head back and laughed. As he laughed, he clapped Kenneth across the back.
“So you remember my name. You remember who I am. I never expected that. We always thought there were just too many of usWe wanted you to notice us, but we didn’t believe that such a big, important man as you could notice us or remember us. Come, come, you must come with me. I want you to meet my family.”
Innocent began to tug Kenneth out of the crowd. As he did so, Kenneth resisted just long enough to turn and pass a bill towards the stall and order the gourds filled and passed around once more.
Innocent was so large that the crowd parted easily in front of him. As it did, a cheer went up. It took Kenneth a few seconds to realize that the cheer was for him. He was overwhelmed and abashed. He turned back towards the crowd that was cheering. As he did so, he stumbled and almost tripped, but managed to catch and right himself, so that he came up grinning, red faced and breathless.
He raised his fist above his head and shouted, “Uhuru.”
He didn’t know why he did it or what he meant by it. But it felt wonderful.
The crowd loved it and shouted back, “Uhuru.”
All four gourds were lifted in the air.
“Uhuru,” the shout went up again.
Only this time it had spread. It was no longer just the crowd in this corner of the market that was shouting. The shout was louder and more fierce. It rang out and echoed. It brought everyone in the market together. After a few more volleys, everyone was shouting “Uhuru” up at the sky, up at the sun that was starting to dip, up at the very few clouds and beyond them. The shouts rang out one after another, as they found a natural cadence. They sent chills down Kenneth’s spine. He and Innocent stood and shouted with everyone else. It was one of those moments when there is no room for thought and no way to break away.
The shouting stopped on a crescendo.The last “Uhuru” was the loudest, the one that rang the most.†The stopping was as mysterious as the starting.
Why does lightning stop after cutting the sky fifteen, seventeen or nineteen times in the space of seven or eight minutes? Because a reservoir of charge is exhausted and an equilibrium is re-established, at least for a short period. So it was that the market fell quiet after this last, great shout. The roaring was replaced by a quieter buzzing. Celebration still went on, but in a lower key. Innocent led Kenneth away, down toward a street at the back of the market that led into a quarter that Kenneth didn’t know at all.
Kenneth regretted leaving the market, because he felt things were just starting there. He looked back and felt a pang of fear, as if, like Lot’s wife, he might be turned on the spot to a pillar of salt. The sky was beginning to glow in a broad band of oranges and reds. He could see hundreds of small dark figures, some still, some moving, arrayed all around the market. It was a tableau, a moment, one that would be always with him. The communion of sharing was more inarticulate and more natural than any understanding that he could superimpose. They were all part of this evening, this scene. Each one was a dot that made a difference, even if none of them could discern what difference in the overall picture he or she made.
Innocent led Kenneth along for ten or fifteen minutes, or perhaps it was even longer, first through a maze of narrow streets, then beyond this maze of streets, onto a set of paths, becoming more sandy as they went on.† Kenneth had no clear idea where they were going, except that he could smell the sea, so he knew they must be heading closer to water.†He guessed they were on the way to the quarter behind the docks, a shantytown where Europeans didn’t go, not because they were in any explicit way unwelcome, but simply because they had no connection, no reason to go there. He was glad to follow Innocent, although sometimes Innocent’s strides were so long that he had to break into a trot to keep up with him.
The air was cooler now and, as they walked, as they passed and greeted people on the right and the left, other shapes in motion calling out the obligatory formulas, Kenneth felt his head beginning to clear. He was going somewhere he’d never been before. He didn’t know why he hadn’t allowed anything like this to happen to him before in all his years in the country.
He’d been held, he supposed, in the grip of a certain mold. It had held him because he hadn’t thought to break free of it. But then again he hadn’t been able to think of breaking free of it. It was all part of a larger pattern, a figure whose outline they couldn’t discern because they were part of it. Yet, they couldn’t help feeling when the figure began to move, because its motion carried them along with it. Where it would carry them could not be known except by going, by being swept along.
Kenneth’s nostrils brought him the scent of the sea and also another smell, like meat roasting on an open fire. It was the second smell that moved him, making him realize how ravenously hungry he was. For some reason, he also thought about the effect it must have on people who didn’t eat meat more than once or twice a year. If it aroused and intoxicated him, who could have meat virtually whenever he liked, what might it not to do to them? It occurred to him that he had never even begun to appreciate the importance of the celebration of Indepndence Day, the magnitude of what was being celebrated and the intensity that the celebration generated. There was simply nothing like it in his own experience. In a certain way, he was the deprived one.
Finally, they came out into a clearing with five mud and wattle huts. Through a patch of bamboo Kenneth could see the slick dark surface of the water of the harbor. He imagined that, if he walked down through the bamboo, he would be able to see Kingoro College.† So, where he was now was, at least geographically, very close to where he had been for the past ten years and more. Yet, in another way, the distance was so great, that it was remarkable that he’d ever come this far.
A fire was burning within a circle of stones. Around the fire was a cluster of people, men and women, adults and children. At Innocent’s greeting, the cluster broke and everyone turned to call back towards him. Kenneth noticed immediately that four others of the men around the fire were almost as tall as Innocent, himself. When Kenneth came closer, so that everyone could see him, there was a moment of astonished silence. Then a young boy, maybe seven or eight years old, was sent dashing to one of the huts in order to bring out a three legged stool for Kenneth to sit on.
Innocent introduced Kenneth to his mother and his father, also to two of his older brothers. All three men were built on the same scale as Innocent himself. Innocent translated back and forth. Then Innocent introduced his wife, who held a baby in her arms. This was Innocent’s first child. Kenneth was trying to decide how old Innocent himself would be now. Perhaps just in his early twenties, maybe not even that old. Yet, he seemed to be prospering.
He was the assistant commissioner for the Irolongo district. He just happened to be in the capital visiting for the holiday. He said his good fortune had started with Kingoro College and the education he received there, so he was very grateful to Kenneth and grateful to have the opportunity to have the honor to introduce him to his family. As Innocent said this, first in one language, then in the other, everyone around the fire nodded seriously. Kenneth nodded, too.
Meanwhile, fat oozed out from the kid that was roasting on a wooden spit over the fire. It sizzled in the fire, sending entrancing aromas out combined with the smell of wood smoke. Innocent had brought the kid home with him. It was a great occasion. A gourd filled with beer was brought and the drinking began again. The conversation veered off in quick bursts that Kenneth could not understand. Yet, the atmosphere was friendly and he felt enveloped in it. He looked into the fire and watched the flames jumping one way and another. Underneath them, coals flickered different shades of orange.
Innocent’s wife looked to be only a girl, not yet really a woman, although already she had a child. Innocent’s mother was probably no more than in her late thirties, yet she looked old and tired. Innocent’s father worked on the docks. That was a very good job, as jobs went. They sat around the fire, talking, drinking, waiting. Twilight began to edge into night.The light of the fire was now the principal light. As it flickered and danced, it cast shadows flickering and dancing out from the ring of people around it into the clearing.From time to time, someone would get up and leave the circle of the fire, but soon they returned. The fire held them.
People came by and stopped for a minute and spoke. Then they left. Once Innocent got up and left for ten or fifteen minutes. Just when Kenneth was beginning to get uncomfortable, he came back. When finally the goat was judged to be ready to eat, it was taken down from the spit, then carefully cut up into tiny bits of meat by Innocent and his father, working in relays. The most prized bits were the fat.
The women brought large wooden bowls of corn paste and beans. By now the crowd around the fire had swelled. Perhaps there were fifty people, maybe there were more. Most squatted and ate some distance off from the fire, grunting and laughing as they talked while they ate. Kenneth was given a large piece of meat, much larger than any that he saw given to anyone else. This stirred guilt in him, yet there was no way to refuse, for it would have been a mortal insult to decline what was so generously offered. When he bit into it, it was delicious.
Perhaps, he thought, it tasted better than anything that he had ever eaten. For some reason, when he bit into the meat of the kid, he thought of Lena and Marianne and Randy. He thought about the fact that they would be coming from Europe the day after next. He thought about the fact that it would be necessary for them to leave and go somewhere else. He thought how inconceivable it would be to anyone around this fire that you could get into a silver airplane here and get off in London. He thought how lonely the lives that he and Lena and Marianne and Randy led seemed to be in comparison to the lives of those who were gathered around the fire to partake of this tiny succulent kid. He envied them and was not ashamed of his envy.
He wondered what had gone wrong for him and where it had gone wrong and whether it had had to go wrong. He wondered if there was a way to redress it, to recapture the kind of warmth that seemed to flow around this fire. Especially bitter was his knowledge that he would never be able to explain any of this kind of wondering to Lena, that she wouldn’t sit still to listen to it. She thought it was just empty sentiment, a species of vanity.
Maybe she was right. Maybe that was all there was to it. Maybe it was just childish wishing, longing for things to be other than they were. Maybe it was an excuse to keep from coping with things as they actually were, to keep from having to engage with difficult and embarrassing circumstances. Maybe things were very different for the people arrayed about this fire than he thought they were. Maybe they were as consumed within as he was.
Only he doubted it. For one thing, they didn’t have the luxury of that kind of damnation. They had to work too hard. One thing pressed on another and they were always too close to the fine line between continuing whole and being injured or destroyed. They could kill and eat the kid because they were so close to the kid, so close to its vulnerability and its expendability. One could stand for the other. There was camaraderie in their triumph.
VI. When the feast was finally done, Innocent stood up and made a speech. Kenneth had no idea what he said. Everyone cheered and Kenneth cheered, too. Then they set off again, Kenneth and Innocent and Innocent’s two brothers, followed by a line of women and children. Innocent’s father had slipped away somewhere. Maybe he was in the rear of the procession, but Kenneth never saw him again.
This time they walked for a very long time. It seemed like the better part of an hour. As they walked they joined into a crowd that became larger and larger. Kenneth didn’t know where they were going but assumed the destination was State House, to watch the fireworks and listen to the President speak. Kenneth never knew afterwards how the trouble began. Where he was, the temper of the crowd was good, cheerful. Later, he heard a variety of accounts.
One was that one of the fireworks misfired, so that instead of taking flight up over the harbor and exploding there, it flew only a hundred feet or so and then twisted back into the crowd, lodging in the leg of a certain young man, who was left writhing in terrible pain and did lose his leg the following day. Since the contractor who supplied the fireworks was known to be Indian, in this portion of the crowd this spark kindled an anger, first against Indians and then against all foreigners in general.
It simmered quietly through the remainder of the fireworks and then through the President’s speech, which was about how, in difficult circumstances, only discipline, self-reliance and work based on mutual trust and hope could build a better life for the nation. The President talked about those who had despair and bitterness in their hearts and how he wanted to reach out to them.
He spoke about how the meaning of Independence was not bitterness and despair but hopeful realism. He spoke about how Independence meant both disappointments and triumphs and how the disappointments of today had to become the foundation that would support the triumphs of tomorrow. He spoke for only an hour this year. Those who were up close to him said that he looked tired and worried, as if he had been working too hard.
As it happened, the fireworks contractors attempted to drive out through this portion of the crowd after the President’s speech. Someone shouted at them that they were traitors to the nation, filthy exploiters who sucked the blood from the common people. Soon their vehicle was hemmed it on all sides. It was rocked from side to side, until finally it toppled over. The four men in the vehicle got out and tried to run, but they were caught and severely beaten. Two of them had considerable sums of money on them, including some gold coins. This inflamed the mob, who spread out from the grounds of State House and began to smash windows and loot stores.
Kenneth himself had drifted away from Innocent and his brothers during the President’s speech. He wasn’t sure later whether it was he who moved or whether they did and he failed to notice and to follow them. He wandered about as the President spoke, just drinking in the scene with his eyes, looking at all the different kinds of people who were here, the ones who stood quietly and listened, those who danced and swayed as the President spoke, the children who were fast asleep on the ground. It wasn’t until, after the speech, when he tried to make his way to the ferry that he got the first clue that something had gone wrong.
A gang of boys surrounded him.† They started to taunt him and call him a colonialist. He didn’t know what else they were calling him, because he didn’t understand it. They picked up small stones and threw them at him, all the while standing between him and the road to the ferry.
He was shocked. Nothing remotely like this had happened to him in all his years in the country. He certainly hadn’t expected it to happen this night. In fact, he had never felt more comfortable, more at home here. His heart beat faster. He breathed faster. He debated just rushing at them, picking out the largest one and slugging him as hard as he could.Probably, that would be the end of it right there. A stone landed on his skull and stung.† He came very close to charging at the one he thought he’d seen throw it. But, just as he was gathering himself, the thought appalled him. It was the very opposite of everything he stood for, everything he thought he believed in. No real harm had been done him. It was no use losing perspective. This was just an isolated unfortunate incident.
Instead of charging at them, he did the opposite. He turned and ran, away from the ferry, back towards town. The boys were so taken by surprise, they just stood and laughed and jeered. They didn’t bother following him.
It was enjoyable to run. It drew cool night air into his lungs. He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d run just for the pleasure of it. As a boy, he’d loved to run. Somewhere along the line he’d given it up.He thought he’d go back into town and see if he could find a place to have a drink. Maybe even he’d stay up all night. He hadn’t done that in years either. Besides this was almost certainly the last Independence Day that he’d spend in the country.He should make the most of it. He still had no sense of danger.
Ironically, it was in front of Mohandas Singh’s shop that the mob caught hold of him. He was just passing down that street in order to get to the Metropole, because he knew that it would be open. When he first heard the noise, he thought it was just the sound of celebration. He didn’t pick up the different tone, so he made no effort to escape. Fifty or sixty men stood out in the street, yelling. The shop was shuttered up. They were banging on the door as they yelled. The door was a flimsy affair. Kenneth watched in a kind of horrified fascination. They tore the door off its hinges. Then an old man came flying out into the street, pleading with the crowd.
It took Kenneth a few seconds to recognize Mohandas Singh. When he did, instead of fleeing, which might have been some help at least in preserving his own skin, he ran towards the crowd and pushed his way into its center. He grabbed hold of Mohandas Singh, actually wrestling him from two men who had hold of him. Mohandas Singh was wearing a nightshirt and a pair of plaid slippers. He was in a terrible fright, so that his hair almost stood on end on his head. Yet he did have the presence of mind to address Kenneth, in a tone at once reasonable and pleading, the sort of tone a parent might use in trying to restrain an impetuous child who has passed beyond the age when physical control is practical.
“No, Sir Kenneth,” Mohandas Singh said, “get away. This is none of your affair. There isn’t any point in your getting mixed up in it. They won’t listen to reason.”
“Of course, it’s my affair,” Kenneth retorted. “It’s everyone’s affair.”
Then he turned to the crowd and yelled. “Go home.† Go home.”
That much he could say in their language. “Don’t behave like criminals,” he continued in English.
They stood still for a moment. They didn’t know what to do. They were at a crossroads. They could have gone home. They could have gone to sleep. They could have left the shop and possessions of Mohandas Singh in peace. Yet, there was something in them, something in their mood that wouldn’t let them rest. It wasn’t something that had been created overnight. It had been a long time in the making, an accumulated resentment and disappointment, the two alloyed together to make something much more dangerous than either alone. In that instant of hesitation before Kenneth knew which way it was going to go, he thought of Betty Robinson, of her feeling that they were looking about for a sacrifice, that there had to be a sacrifice. Was Mohandas Singh to be that sacrifice? Or was it to be he, himself?
That was a possibility he’d never considered before, namely that he himself might be the sacrifice or at least part of the sacrifice. An image of the kid roasting on the spit that he’d sampled earlier in the evening flashed through his mind. It must have been a beautiful animal in life, graceful and frisky, soft to the touch. He felt a kinship with the kid. Then he had a peculiar reaction. It was a reaction that went beyond fear. If he were destined to be part of the sacrifice, then he could acquiesce in that. There would be pain and then there would be an end to pain. He wouldn’t have to worry, to think, to decide, to weigh, to continue in his accustomed bafflement.So there wasn’t really anything that they could do to him. There wasn’t anything they could take away that he wasn’t prepared to give up.
It wasn’t a question of words. A thickset man with a horrible leering scowl on his face rushed Kenneth and knocked him away from Mohandas Singh, throwing him to the ground in the process. It hurt when he hit the ground. It knocked the breath out of him. He probably could have gotten up and simply run away, because it wasn’t primarily him they were interested in.
It was Mohandas Singh and the goods inside Mohandas Singh’s shop, especially the latter, that galvanized them. They were going to change the terms of trade, to alter them once and for all so that what they wished, they could have even in the moment of the wishing itself. But Kenneth didn’t even consider running off. He picked himself up and threw himself on the man who was pushing Mohandas Singh up against the door of his shop. He managed to wrestle him to the ground and to roll around there with him, until the man was on top of him and holding him down.
What happened afterwards wasn’t clear to him. He thought he remembered more fighting, being kicked and beaten and dragged through the street. He thought he remembered seeing Mohandas Singh’s wife crying in the street while they looted the store. He thought he remembered that they had set the store on fire. He thought he remembered thinking that he was glad that he’d bought the parts for the generator before this had happened to Mohandas Singh’s store. That way they could go on having electricity at Kingoro College and the boys could go on studying and reading after dark. That was very important.
But it was all too much of a jumble. He must have lost consciousness. He thought he remembered wandering about the city. He thought he remembered that he’d been set upon more than once. He thought he remembered falling down in the street, thinking that he might never get up again. His head hurt and things seemed to be slowly spinning about him. His belly hurt and so did his back. Whenever he took a breath, something stabbed at him between his ribs. But none of this served to explain either where he was or how he had gotten there. It seemed like five years ago, or maybe longer even than that he was standing in the warm sunshine drinking beer out of a gourd and feeling so much at one with everyone around. Where he was now, there was a damp smell, a smell on the verge of rot. Someone was there with him.
“How are you?” a deep voice asked.
Kenneth couldn’t place the voice. Yet it served immediately to sooth him, so that he could breath more deeply and the room slowed in its spinning or stopped altogether. He was lying on the floor in the corner of a hut. The man who had asked him how he was had a dark face. He was a black man. He was someone Kenneth knew or should have know.
When he solved the problem, he felt it was something like a stroke of genius. He couldn’t recognize the man because the man was speaking in the wrong language. He was speaking in English, with a heavy lilting accent, but in English nonetheless.†
He was someone Kenneth had assumed couldn’t speak English. But now he was speaking English. That was a fact. It was another fact that didn’t fit, but it was a fact nonetheless.
The man was Nelson Mansuela.
“I’m all right,” Kenneth said.
Nelson Mansuela didn’t say anything in reply. He just looked down on Kenneth.
“How did I get here?” Kenneth asked.
“I brought you,” Nelson Mansuela said.
“Where did you find me?” Kenneth wanted to know.
“I found you in the street,” Nelson answered.
“Why did you do it?” he questioned.
“It wasn’t safe there for you,” Nelson said, as if that explained everything. “Can you stand up?”
Kenneth wasn’t sure he could. There was light in the hut, light from a small lantern. Kenneth struggled to pull himself first into a sitting position and then to his feet. The throb in his head was much worse when he stood up.
Something that glinted gold caught his eyes on top of a wooden crate in the corner of the hut. It, too, was something familiar, something that he should have recognized but couldn’t place at first.†He couldn’t place it because it wasn’t where it should have been, because he hadn’t seen it for a long time. Yet, he knew that he should know what it was. He knew that, if he pushed himself hard enough, he could know what it was.
Then, all of a sudden, he did know what the gold object was. It was Grimes’ pocket watch, the pocket watch that had belonged both to Grimes’ father and to his grandfather.†He remembered how upset Grimes had been just before he had left the country that his watch was missing, that he couldn’t find it, no matter how hard he searched. He remembered Grimes saying that if he didn’t find that watch he’d feel as if he’d left his soul in the country.
He remembered that Mathilda had been certain that one of the houseboys had stolen it. She’d wanted to start an inquisition, but Grimes had stopped her, saying simply that it wasn’t any use.
He had to ask the question. No, it wasn’t a question at all.† It was a declaration.
“That’s Grimes’ pocket watch, isn’t it?” “It is,” Nelson Mansuela said. “He gave it to me before he left the country. It was a gift.”
Kenneth believed him. He believed him on the instant. There was something in the man’s voice that made it impossible not to believe him. Kenneth remembered that Henry had told him that Grimes had described Nelson Mansuela as “a fine specimen.”
The words rang in his head. What exactly was the connection between Grimes and Nelson Mansuela? Perhaps it was a completely different kind of connection than he’d ever imagined, a much more intimate one.
Kenneth took his eyes off the watch.
“If you can walk,” Nelson Mansuela said, “I’ll get you back across to the College. You’ve been out for more than twenty-four hours. It’s almost dawn now.”
With Nelson supporting him, Kenneth made his way down to the harbor shore. Out to the east, beyond the mouth of the harbor, the horizon was just beginning to tinge pink. It was a clear night and directly overhead, when he made himself look up just to prove that he could do it, there were thousands upon thousands of stars. Nelson helped him scramble into the dugout.
“Is it true,” Kenneth asked, as they began to glide silently across the smooth face of the harbor in the dark, “that you were one of the leaders in the troubles?”
“There are so many stories about those times,” Nelson Mansuela said.
It wasn’t a denial. Kenneth’s mind leaped on ahead. Then it was perfectly possible that Grimes had known, too. It was perfectly possible that Grimes had helped to keep him safe. Why? Because he had loved him.
Nelson pushed the boat on effortlessly. Kenneth had the thought that he was crossing the river Styx only in the opposite direction from the one usually travelled. He didn’t need to ask the details. He knew that Nelson wouldn’t give them all.
Nelson had saved his life. A cool breeze stirred across the water. Kenneth knew that he would never forget this breeze.† He would leave the country. He would have to leave soon. Moko would be principal. Henry would run the place, having achieved first of all an understanding with Moko. But Kenneth would know where he had been, in the midst of what an extraordinary drama he had passed the best part of his life.
Who could say what had made him wander into the office just that day at just that time? Who could say why he had decided to take it upon himself to get those generator parts? He thought of Mohandas Singh and hoped that he had made it alive through the night. One day, he thought, he would try to tell the whole story, or at least some version of it, to his son Randy. Maybe Randy would understand.