Night of the fireflies

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NIGHT OF THE FIREFLIES”



by


MICHAEL RAEBURN

The author wishes to thank the following people for their help during the writing of this book: Ian Fenton, Heidi Draper, Jeanne Hromnik, Rina Minervini, Mike Hutchinson, Dr Jerome Premmereur, Anna Raeburn, Terrence Blacker, Fiona Eberts, Caroline Chomienne, Dr Clive Wake, Adam Munthe, Dr Karen Badt, Peter Marinker, Sheelagh Killeen, Francesco Cavalli-Sforza and Rupert Sheldrake.

In memory of James Baldwin whose influence was inspirational.

Oh! If we only had other organs which could work other miracles in our favour, what a number of fresh things we might discover around us!”


GUY DE MAUPASSANT – “THE HORLA”
And it so happened that I was chosen to bear testimony ...

DAY ONE – WEDNESDAY 19TH DECEMBER 1984

ENCOUNTER WITH MY PROSPECTIVE HOST

Sim, escuto.”

These were the first words Rainer Kruger spoke to me – a man so hard of hearing, so full of his own words, and the first thing he says to me is that he is listening, he is waiting to hear me. His energy was “On” from the moment he answered my phone call, and he spoke loudly – a man who was unafraid in a country where fear haunted every shadow. I was to discover that such loudness was part of his pattern of behaviour: at one moment to plunge into the silence of the dead and at the next to burst forth provocatively with hazardous noise. As far as listening was concerned, my encounter with Rainer Kruger was mostly a one-way street: Sim, escuto should have been my line.

In the sedate lobby of the only hotel in town, I was grateful to be out of the sun, even though the lateness of the afternoon brought no reprieve from the hammering heat. Oxygen was particularly short within the narrow confines of the phone booth. Through the sweating glass, two Germanic-looking men came looming towards me. Judging by their terrible suits they were probably from the German Democratic Republic, dispatched to Africa to inject more science into the Mozambican brand of scientific socialism. They mistook my vigorous waving at the swarm of mosquitoes for a gesture of dismissal.

With my hand cupped round the mouthpiece, in one difficult breath I whispered my name and how I had obtained the Krugers’ number. Rainer Kruger had never heard of the journalist who had given it to me.

“He must have interviewed my father about his yeast business,” he said. “But I doubt if he will remember. He chooses only to remember things from os boms velhos tempos the good old days, before the revolution. I am Mr Kruger Junior. What can I do for you?” His English was fluent but stilted, his Mozambican Portuguese accent tinged with the flat vowels of Southern African whites. He must have lived for a while or been educated in neighbouring South Africa.

Within seconds he displayed that special gift of putting one on edge that I was to become familiar with. I had said, “Sorry to ring you out of the blue” and he responded with a shout of laughter, repeating “out of the blue” twice, so much did it appeal to his brand of humour.

When he had finished, he said loudly, “Do you wish to stay with us during your visit to our capital city, since you cannot afford that hotel?”

I shot a nervous glance into the lobby. Was he standing right there somewhere, watching me? “How do you know where I am?” I asked guardedly.

“You see ... Michael, you say? … Miguel, we say. You see, Miguel, everyone who comes to Mozambique who is – how to say – who is freelance in life, starts off at the Polana Hotel. It is like the promised land where only those who are not paying themselves can afford to dwell.” A bellowing laugh shuddered through the earpiece.

All of a rush I replied, “There are no rooms available at the Polana. As you know, there are no other hotels left open anywhere in the city. I’ve got friends here, but I can’t find them. I should have phoned before flying in, but I couldn’t get through. You know what the lines are like. If you can put me up just for one night that would be great.”

Silence. I called his name. Had we been cut off?

Finally he spoke. “It is not usual for people to stay in our house, but you have contacted me ...”

“Don’t worry. Tomorrow I’ll be gone. I’m sure that ...”

He shot in with: “It must be okay for you to stay. But right now I cannot find the reason.”

“The reason!” I exclaimed. “The reason is everyone I know is away. It’s Christmas.”

At this he went “Shh!” loudly and at length. “No more Christmas – it’s called Family Day here. But no, that is not the reason. The thing is, you have appeared … and, in particular, you have appeared at this important time of my life.”

He was too weird; I was ready to call the whole thing off. Being in the phone booth was like steaming in a Turkish bath with one’s clothes on, and the mosquitoes were increasing the ferocity of their attacks. Before I could say anything, he announced decisively, transferring the Portuguese present tense into English, “I come and get you! I am one of the happy few who is not only the owner of a car but can even get petrol to drive it. This is because I am a running dog of the ancien régime.”

Ignoring my attempt to conclude the conversation, he charged on, “We have plenty of room. I live alone with my father, and two servants who do not count, even here in Utopia. It is well known that our ‘chefs’ treat their servants like ghosts in their Zona Libertada Da Humanidade – you must have seen that written all over our airport in big letters? Não é verdade, Miguel?”

I was desperate for him to stop. I could not believe that a local, living under increasingly edgy one-party rule in a country ravaged by civil war, could talk in this way on the most bugged instrument in the world. An old hand at Southern African political activism, I knew just how important it was to keep your affiliations quiet if they were serious, and how easy it was to be labelled an enemy through mere hearsay. Indeed, so flustered was I by this man’s crass boldness that he had to ask twice where I had come from, before I answered. He was delighted with the response. “Zimbabwe! Meu Deus! You are one of us – um camarada comunista!”

The man was a menace. I was on the point of getting out of his line of fire when he discharged another volley of laughter before saying “Não faz mal! I am on my way!” and hung up so abruptly I was left gawking at the hand piece.


The sprung doors of the phone booth flapped and winced as I escaped in a rush, startling the lobby staff. I set off for the lounge bar in a daze, but two receptionists hurried to intercept me: before I could advance any further into the premises my shoulder bag had to be searched, an exercise that involved their slowly removing everything in it … and then letting me put it all back. Having nothing better to do, the cashier and the porter joined in. They were all wearing the same stiffly-starched pre-independence uniforms, faded over a decade from brown to threadbare beige. Earlier, upon my arrival at the hotel, all four men had assembled before me to apply hotel rules that obliged non-residents to check in their suitcases for US$10 and to purchase US$10 of beverage coupons for the privilege of using the phone.

Having emerged unscathed from the search I walked into the lounge bar and directly into the line of vision of the two East Germans. They were seated in cushioned lilac armchairs within the genteel embrace of gold-inlaid walls and red velvet curtains. At another table sat four men who looked like expat workers due to their informal attire and their weather-beaten skin. For them, too, I was the object of curiosity. Later I heard them talking of low-cost housing, pronouncing the “ou” in the unique rounded way of Canadians.

The room was a bouquet of memories from my student days when I had paid a brief visit to Mozambique to brush up my Portuguese, one of my subjects for a BA. This was before independence and long before civil war, when the Portuguese were imperial lords and the city was called Lourenço Marques. Despite twenty years of extensive cracking, peeling and shredding, the quaint splendour of colonial decor and architecture remained as I remembered it, the buxom crystal chandelier still hanging from the domed and flourishingly embossed ceiling under whose glow I had danced to a jazz band with my first serious girlfriend, Molly, also nicknamed Molly-Pops ... O, the lost ingenuity of youth!

The bold stares of the customers brought me sharply back to reality. I was in a top African hotel where intrigue is always on the menu, especially where a national war implicated the giants of communism and capitalism. Who is this stranger? How will he profit from the war?” – the message of calculating eyes. Feigning nonchalance, I loped to the bar and perched on a high stool. While the barman bestowed on me a vodka and tonic in exchange for the beverage coupons, I saw the Canadians squeeze closer and begin to discuss me in whispers.

It was then, while my imported drink was being painstakingly fixed, that I noticed smears of blood on my shoulder bag. No wonder I was being stared at: not only was I new in town, but I bore stains of war from the horrific moment of my arrival.

We had landed at Maputo airport on a civilian aircraft from Zimbabwe, which had paused in transit at the port of Beira in northern Mozambique. After a long wait, we had finally been allowed to leave the boiling cylinder of the passenger cabin. The minute our feet touched the tarmac, we were hastily corralled by a human chain of air hostesses and separated from the baggage handlers who, no longer in possession of fork-lift trucks from os boms velhos tempos, were simply dropping our suitcases from the luggage hold down on to the runway.

Suddenly there was a dull explosion and a severed arm spun across the landing strip, fragments of plastic and cloth twirling about our luggage. A bare-footed leg hosed in tattered camouflage tumbled over some cases, and a full torso – head intact but bloated beyond recognition and with one rigid arm pointing dramatically at the sky – settled unsteadily on top of the mountain of luggage like some cock-eyed war memorial.

Uproar from the passengers. Molecules of rotting flesh singed the air. Unable to control myself, I threw up, as did several others. People were running in all directions. Prattling like startled blackbirds, the hostesses fled into the terminal through a door bilingually labelled Benvindo a Maputo Welcome to Maputo. They were immediately replaced by immigration and customs officers who rounded up the straying passengers while talking excitedly among themselves. From what I could gather, the body of a military commander killed by a land mine had been flown back from the port of Beira, where we had transited, to the capital for burial. Long, hot delays had so precipitated fermentation and the expansion of the plastic body bag that it became as taut as a drumhead … until, ill-advisedly dropped from the hold like a vulgar case, it had exploded ...

My shoulder bag bore the traces. A visit to the Polana bar’s toilet to clean them off, followed by the vodka-tonic, helped to restore a measure of calm. But apprehension over the imminent arrival of my prospective host soon took hold of me. Kruger Junior sounded like bad news, an unliberated ex-colonial “when-we” who did nothing but hanker after the past and gripe about the liberated populace (the povo).

God knows why I had let myself in for this! No normal person would voluntarily come to a country crippled by civil war. And I was not going to be able to get out of the place for a whole week, which was when the next exit flight was scheduled. Somewhere behind the boarded-up facades of the besieged city, Kudzi, my lover for nearly six years and the sole purpose of my visit, lay hidden. The dire mood of the city only served to rub salt into my wounds since she had come here to remove herself as far as possible from me, and a prospective job with UNICEF had offered her the opportunity. Aid organisations were not Kudzi’s bag – she was supposed to be a journalist. Again and again she had refused to take my calls. What if I never managed to find her amidst all the desolation? Was I so awful in her eyes that conditions in Mozambique were pleasant by comparison?

The warmth generated by the vodka was now adding to the stickiness of the coastal air. Not even the recesses of the Polana Hotel could escape the leaden heat that engulfed the entire country at Christmas time; the building’s air-conditioners were simply too old, tired and wanting in spare parts.

I asked for a glass of water; my hands were shaking when I drank it.

The airport incident had underscored the cost of the gamble I was taking in seeking out Kudzi; without doubt it was a bad omen. I should have remained at home in Zimbabwe and sorted out my dire financial problems resulting from a film I was supposed to direct that had been postponed. Everything here felt wrong. I had needed to hitch a ride in from the airport as there were no taxis. My local contacts, most of whom I had never met, were proving unreachable. I had very little foreign currency.

Of course there was no way I could have known, as I sat in the relative comfort of the Polana lounge bar, that both the situation I had placed myself in and my emotional condition were ideal for Rainer Kruger – they contained all the elements required of a victim.

Then, for one chilling moment, I could have sworn I smelt the amassed heat and heard the sharp tick-tack of the weapons of the Renamo rebelsi who, out there, not far from the hotel, were pushing against the city limits.

My desire to flee the lounge was gradually being bolstered by a belief that my prospective host had thought better of his hasty invitation. I was preparing to return to the lobby and resume my attempts to phone absent people when Rainer Kruger erupted into the bar – the only way to describe his entrance – with a loud “Ha!” uttered from the doorway. Every single person turned to look at him. Lifting his arms, he made a theatrical gesture of welcome in my direction, a wide smile exposing a fence of crooked teeth. Even in the shadow of the door frame his formlessness was apparent, the head too large for the scrawny body, simian arms rising from the baggy sockets of his white short-sleeved shirt.

That the customers had immediately recognised him was apparent from their turning away in unanimous disapproval to resume their conversations. A marked man for a host was everything I did not need. Wishing him away, I lifted the remains of my vodka to my lips.

In no time an egg-shaped head with bulbous eyes loomed down the barrel of the glass, compelling me to lower it. Light from the big chandelier fell upon him, revealing, contrary to the expectations his Germanic name had raised, the unmistakable yellow-brown skin of a person of mixed race, um mestiço.

Bemvindo a Maputo, Senhor Miguel!” He held out his hand. I raised mine listlessly and took his – the fingers were limp, cold and dry, like a clutch of frozen eels. Hurriedly, I let go.

His bloodlessness startled me, but it was not only that. Everything about him was an assault on the senses. His eyes, protruding almost like a chameleon’s and each with a certain independence of its own, were so black that they seemed to be all pupil, giving me the feeling of peering into two pits. Diverting my gaze brought further consternation: prehensile feet, with toes big-boned and long, gripped the floor beyond his open-ended sandals. Nowhere in the world could such a person have passed unnoticed.

He astonished me still further when he remarked: “Sorry about my body temperature. Rest assured I am not at death’s door. I am a high temperature superconductor – resistance free. Heat passes straight through me. Nice to meet you!”

His steadfast grin was invasive, doubly so with those terrible teeth. Switching his attentions to the bartender he called out, “Como está, caro Carlos?”

Apparently familiar with the icicle effect, Carlos shook his hand calmly.

“This is Senhor Miguel,” he announced with an expansive gesture towards me. “Our neighbour from Zimbabwe.”

I barely had the time to nod at Carlos when my prospective host’s poker-thin finger swung past my face and up at the chandelier. “With the dust removed, imagine how it would glitter – especially when we had grand balls here. Have you seen the magnificent dining room?”

“Yes. I was here once as a student of Portuguese ... before independence.”

“Independence!” he yelped. “As a Mozambican comrade I cannot invite you for a drink at the Polana because I am not supposed to have foreign currency. It is like being in a duty-free shop without being a passenger, if you see what I mean?” He winced theatrically. Then, raising his voice, he announced to the room at large, “Some members of the GDR used to invite me for a drink, but since my father was accused of spying on their embassy the invitations stopped. Não é verdade?”

The East German delegation threw him filthy looks; he winked back at them cheekily.

My alarm bells were ringing: the dangers of this sort of gratuitous counter-revolutionary bombast were all too familiar. Rising from the bar stool, I made for the door. More agile than expected, he stuck to my heels. “Do not worry, Miguel! You will get accustomed to my inflammatory flourishes. No one takes any notice. I am taken for a harmless fool. You see, I have been enquired into – most deeply – and cast aside. Like a piece of rubbish.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see his limbs jangling beside me, uncoordinated like a puppet’s. As we passed the phone booth he cried out, “Even the telephone tappers, they are used to my nonsense. Believe me, Miguel, everyone knows I am a big-mouth nobody.”

In the centre of the lobby I spun round to face him. “You’d make me a lot happier by cooling it!” We were being observed by four members of staff – the two receptionists, the cashier and the porter – standing as still as sphinxes. Fortunately, there was no one else about.

In a sudden descent into obsequiousness, he replied, “I understand. Sorry! I have become over-excited. The last weeks are most confusing. Too much information pouring into my poor head!” He was waving his long hands about like fans. “You are quite right. I must get hold of myself.”

There was an awkward moment of all-round immobility before he smacked his forehead and exclaimed, “How rude! I believe I have not introduced myself. You do not know my full identity.”

I emitted a pained sigh as he dug into the pockets of his beige trousers searching for something – first one pocket, then another. The hotel staff began to shuffle uneasily. “Porca miséria!” he muttered. “Where did I put it?” He was double-jointed, and the assertive bending to unnatural angles made me queasy. “Porca miséria!” he repeated. His temples were packed with fat, blue-black veins that were so pumped up it crossed my mind he might be on drugs. Then I noticed an even more unusual phenomenon: the almost cleanly bald crown of his pointed head had not a single bead of sweat on it, just a sheen of dampness, while my own head was a fountain. It was as if his body resided elsewhere, beyond the borders of this profoundly humid country.

At last he pulled out what he was hunting for – a card sealed in clear plastic. Triumphantly he held it up. “My ID! Look at it!” I had no choice but to do so since he was holding it inches from my face. His photograph was on it. “See! There is my name. Hans Rainer, pronounced as in the river Rhine, plus ‘er’ – Rain-er Kruger. No one uses the Hans. My name Rainer lies outside the Portuguese selection so here they call me the closest thing to it – Rainha, spelt R-A-I-N-H-A. You know what that means? It means Queen!” Another blast of laughter hit me like a cannon ball, and on this occasion he opened his mouth so wide that his tongue poked out – black with red patches, piebald, leathery – a parrot’s tongue! I stepped back in alarm. He looked scarcely human.

Clapping his hands in glee he went on, “Only English-speakers like you know what is a Queen! The joke is lost on Moçambicanos. But have no fear, drag clubs are not my scene.”

In a split second he performed another rapid mood change. “Read this!” he said terribly seriously, prodding at some words on the card with a spindly forefinger that was lanceted by a nail as perfect as a church window. (I remember thinking at that moment that this nail, the only morphology of his body that could be associated with beauty, must be the gift of his African genes.) I saw Asilo Psiquiátrico Nacional (State Asylum for the Insane) printed across the top of his ID. Within a denser text below I picked out the words transtorno bipolar.

“See that? I am a certified crazy. Not bad, eh? Mentally disturbed but harmless.” He waved the card at me. “It means I can say anything and no one cares. Do you believe me now?”

I nodded, hesitantly.

“Many are envious that I have such a card. Imagine if everyone had one? Ah! then we could talk of real freedom!” With a bitter laugh he whipped the card back into his pocket.

I started for the porter’s lodge, keen to draw the lunatic out of the public domain. But once again with uncanny speed he was at my side, slapping his frozen paw on my shoulder. “Relax! I will get your bags. In Maputo, I know all the rules.”

By now the porter was hauling my hefty suitcase out of left-luggage. Rainer decided to relieve him of the object, but gasped and dropped it, then struggled with it as if he were pulling at an anchor. Going to his rescue I found myself dancing about ridiculously with him while he refused to let go. Only when I wrenched the case away did he raise his stick arms in surrender. After which he pulled out a bundle of notes and went round liberally tipping the porter, the receptionists and even the cashier. None of them offered a word of thanks. Meanwhile I dragged my case with ungracious haste out through the revolving door.

Night had fallen, an event that made not the slightest breach in the wall of heat. Behind me I heard Rainer come out, then shout back inside “A luta continua!” He was standing in front of the doorway making a clenched fist salute towards reception. I was on the point of protesting once more when I heard all four employees respond with the double chant, “Viva Frelimo! Viva a revolução!”

A chuckle escaped my lips – the first in a many a day. Perhaps he really did know all the rules.
THE KRUGERS’ HOUSE
“It is my key to the city,” Rainer announced as he directed me across the floodlit forecourt towards an old 504 Peugeot which, despite being dented all over, had been polished until it shone like black serpentine. He added, “Without a car, life is a black hole from where there is no escape.”

As he helped me heave my case into the boot, he asked why it was so heavy. I explained that I had been advised to bring along plenty of tinned food. “Excellent!” he remarked. “I see you are a man who knows how to look after himself in the great unknown.”

Revving hard, he steered his car towards the steel gates which were efficiently parted by soldiers. It was unnerving to leave the Polana Hotel, an island of self-generating light with a good supply of vodka.

All too swiftly the car sank into the belly of the African night.

There were no streetlights anywhere. No shop lights. No signs of life. High security walls made it impossible to see more than the roof of a suburban house. Apartment blocks were blackened out. A city locked in darkness, I thought, is more frightening than a jungle because it is unnatural.

As we rattled and jolted down the road, Rainer made no attempt to avoid the potholes. He sat huddled over the wheel in total silence. A new mood had settled on him: he was like an actor who had subsided into himself after an exhausting performance. In the green light of the dashboard I studied his face with fascinated curiosity: gravity, its directive force, had pulled at the heavy creases of skin and dragged down his African lips hang-dog fashion so that each time we hit a major hole in the road the loose flesh shook and juddered; his hooked nose was typical of neither Africa nor Europe, more like a Native American’s; and although he must have been only in his late thirties, the strangeness of his looks, dominated by his protuberant eyes, made him appear much older, yet at the same time ageless.

Who, I wondered, was his African mother? What had she been doing with a German who, according to my journalist friend, had fled from communism in Russia and then again in China, only to come to Africa and be engulfed in another Marxist revolution? And how had such a father and such a mother come to produce such a bizarre individual, who was now leading me through a dark and dangerous city in an ancient and uncertain car?

Through the open window, hot air buffeted my skin like the furred wings of crazed moths. A street sign flashed past in the headlights – avenida Mao Tsé Tung – adding to my sense of displacement. Seconds later, a sweep of bougainvillea on a garden wall brought Kudzi back to mind with a pang: she was sitting in our lushly flowered garden in Zimbabwe with her knees up and her skirt gathered under her buttocks reading The Sociological Impact of Blair Toilets in Southern Matabeleland, unaware that I had come out of the house and had stopped to admire her; the hum of the insects, the rustle of the bamboos, the treasure of colours, the intensity of my lover’s concentration, which often caused her to part her lips and bite her tongue, transformed that ordinary moment for me into an image of indestructible bliss ... Yet destruction had come. And, thirty-seven days later, fragments of Kudzi lay embedded in me like shrapnel.

We were driving alongside the sandy open ground of a public park when I noticed that I had become the object of Rainer’s scrutiny. His searching glances were saying What are you doing in my car? Why am I taking you home?

Hastily I said, “Thank you for your spontaneous offer of hospitality … it’s most uncommon. I don’t think I fully realised just how bad things are here.”

Ignoring the remark he asked, “You are a journalist?”

“No. Some writing, some films,” I answered.

The bulbous nature of his eyes made it doubtful to interpret their widening as a favourable response.

We were now slowing down in a narrow street lined with scraggy jacaranda trees. A battered sign skewered at the wrong angle read avenida Francisco O. Magumbwe.

Rainer mumbled, “Why have you come here?”

I had no reason to conceal the truth. “My girlfriend’s run off. I’m here to find her and take her back to Zimbabwe.”

He shook his head, as if trying to express sympathy, or so I assumed, before saying after a pause, “I doubt that is the primary reason.”

It was my turn to widen eyes, but I chose not to pursue the point with a person who enjoyed being a contrarian.

As we drove past a moderately tall towerblock, I could see cooking fires in the lower passageways with shifting figures leaning over black pots. Rainer wound up his window and asked me to do the same. “Muggings have occurred at gateways,” he remarked. “Always remember: if you carry 500 meticais or a couple of US dollars, your life should be spared.”

We pulled up at a double gate that was made of sheet metal topped with barbed wire and spikes and was set in a high brick wall crowned with pieces of broken bottle. A servant, who must have been waiting for us, peeped through a slit with a chain running through it, then opened up.

A tarred driveway brought us right up to a parking area in front of a single-storeyed house surrounded by a garden where the monotony of sandy soil and sun-scorched patches of grass was broken by coarse, twisting bushes, shrubs and cacti. With a clumsy lurch, the car stalled after knocking against a bricked-in bed of geraniums that defined the parking area. Rainer had omitted to disengage the gear.

The death of the engine and headlights was greeted by a choral swell of cicadas. As though we had arrived on foot, my companion went “Phew!” and got out. I had to grope about for the handle before I could open my door. At the invisible gate behind us, the rustle of a chain and the clunk of a padlock could be heard.

I looked up at the house: a slated, steep roof gleamed under the star-bright sky like a helmet and cast hard shadows over the white-washed walls then down on to the driveway.

The gateman lifted my case out of the boot as easily as if it contained straw and disappeared with it round the back of the building. As my eyes grew accustomed to the absence of light, dozens of fireflies glowed on and off over the garden like sentinels. A quick series of eerie hoots – half-electrical, half-animal – stopped me in my tracks.

“Fruit bats,” Rainer explained as he moved towards the hard-wood front door. “The true regents of the night – not those squeaking cicadas!”

There was a lot of lock and key activity before the door opened and a mongrel with a strong mix of Labrador rushed up to Rainer. It responded enthusiastically to his endearments – “Rosa, my lovely! I’m home, my sweet!” – accompanied by much patting. Encased in plaster, one of the animal’s hind legs thrashed about awkwardly.

As I stepped into the hallway, my attention was drawn instantly to a pool of lamp light on the veranda where three people were playing cards. Two of them, a middle-aged couple of Mediterranean appearance, nodded at me with timid smiles, and we exchanged a cordial “Boa tarde!” The third, a heavily built old man with cropped white hair, did not look up at all. Behind them, the rusted gauze of an insect screen running the whole length of the veranda devoured the peripheries of the lamplight.

I found myself following Rainer down a tenebrous corridor while Rosa skidded between our legs, her claws squealing on frictionless tiles like chalk, her plaster leg thudding.

“Wonderful! You speak Portuguese!” His voice boomed out behind me in the passage.

I whispered “Mais ou menos”, wincing as the resonant sibilance fell away amidst the impression of profound treachery that the house had so quickly stamped on me.

In a candle-lit room at the end of the passage, walled in by shelves of books that were all leather-bound in uniform red, the servant who had opened the gate was already pulling a bunk bed from the wall. There was one window covered by a grey Venetian blind. At the centre of the ceiling a wooden fan hung lifelessly. I saw my suitcase already parked on a low table. Next to it was an oak desk, heavily embossed in the European baroque manner.

“This is the library of my father,” Rainer said with distaste. The servant switched on a table fan. “These fans are run by heavy duty batteries that António keeps topped up and charged as best he can. Don’t you, António?”

The servant straightened up. He was a tall, well-muscled, handsome man of about thirty. He did not respond. As he prepared to leave the room his eyes passed over me, unnerving in their bold and appraising intelligence.

Showing me to a bathroom off the corridor with a large jug of water by the sink, Rainer explained: “Hot and cold showers are only available in the morning, outside at the back. António will show you. He has fixed up the water tanks to capture the erratic municipal offerings, and he has revived a wood boiler from the days of the pioneers. We all have so much to learn in order to survive. Tedious, isn’t it?”

Dinner would be served in half an hour. He drifted away, leaving me to wonder how he would cope without António making tedium so comfortable for him.

Travel, trauma and heat had killed my appetite. I sat down at the ostentatious desk (a relic, perhaps, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rescued by Rainer’s father) and drank the cooled water that had been put out for me – a kindness that helped to temper my feelings of antipathy towards my host. My attention was caught by a silver-framed photograph of a youngish woman dressed in ’40s chic that was positioned next to the blotting pad; she had an aloof, sensual, Garboesque quality, but her mouth was screwed up too tightly, giving her a gagged look.

With a deep sigh I lay down on the bunk bed in the airless room. António’s fan was doing nothing more than stir the thick heat, but the window screens had at least made the house an insect-free zone. Normally I like rooms full of books; my office in Zimbabwe has over twenty years of books stretching higgledy-piggledy up to the ceiling. In Mr Kruger Senior’s library, however, the books – all apparently covered by the same binder – had been transformed into wallpaper, mere decoration. The library of a snob.

I got up to open the window, and shut it again at once: the air outside was clammier than within. Through the Venetians, the car and the gate could be seen, a still-life petrified in silver. In the midst of chaos, I thought, there are always secret corners of peace – a comforting reflection that ended all too abruptly with the passing of a shadow across the slit in the gate through which the chain passed. Someone had been peering inside. I was the new player in town who needed to be checked out. Danger was in the air once again, threatening even this fortified haven.

A noise close behind spun me round: the thick-set old man from the veranda was shuffling round the desk – doubtlessly Kruger Senior. He must have been at least eighty, his head, jaw and neck covered by close-cut bristle like the pelt of a white rat. Snatching up a gold fountain pen, a big magnifying glass, and then the photograph of the Garboesque woman – which he hugged protectively to his chest as if she were still alive – he made for the door, ignoring me completely.

“You should not barge in!” Rainer had appeared in the doorway, glaring at his father. “I explained we have a guest!”

The old man wheezed as he swayed from foot to foot looking for a space to get past his son. Rainer gestured towards me hopelessly, saying, “Miguel, this is my father, Klaus Kruger.”

Without a glance in my direction the old man lurched forward with a savage and brusque sound and pushed past his son. Then the two of them were swallowed up by the dark passage, Rainer’s voice echoing “You can write your imaginary letters on the veranda. You spend your life on the veranda …”

It was all too much for me. Exhausted, I flopped down once again on the bed.




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