Night of the fireflies

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DINNER AT THE KRUGERS
I was holding the earpiece as close as possible, trying to make out the sounds coming through the phone. In the kitchen, dinner was being prepared, but otherwise all was quiet in the Kruger house.

Alô? Quem é?” – the Scandinavian tones of Kudzi’s friend, Ulla (the only female plumber I have ever met), flattened the Latin lilt of Portuguese.

I blurted out, “Ulla, I must speak to Kudzi, this is Michael. Put her on!”

“How dare you barge into my flat? I warn you, if you try coming here again, I’ll have you arrested.” I could hear muffled voices as she covered the mouthpiece. I imagined the two of them in that boxy room overlooking a bay peppered with the “lamps of war”. My mind concentrated on my lost lover, willing her to grant me respite.

Ulla’s fingers slipped, letting the odd word through: I heard “he” twice and Kudzi’s melodious African-accented voice saying, “Tell him ... he must ...” and, worst of all, “go home”.

Cold coils wove through my gut.

“Stop playing games and put her on,” I pleaded. A thousand grains of sand whispered back. At last a swell announced the release of Ulla’s hand. “Kudzi does not want to speak to you!” – click bzzzz … she had rung off. I spun like a satellite lost in space.

After rinsing my face in the bathroom to little effect, I delivered my defeated body to the bunk bed in the old man’s library. Outside, the hooting fruit bats built up a choral swell concordant with the rise of my own despair. Tuning into them, though, as a meditative exercise must have worked to a degree because I fell asleep.

Next thing I knew, António was shaking me gently and announcing dinner.

The dining room, when I entered it sluggishly, was blooming in the light of its chandelier, nourished by a repaired power line. Even the ceiling fan was working. Under this festival of crystal, the father, the son and the two card players were standing behind the high-backed chairs around the dining table, apparently waiting for me. A starched tablecloth laden with silver and chinaware stretched before them. Next to the sideboard where the food sat, Agi and António hung back, at the ready. Regaining my composure from the shock of such formality, I apologised for my lateness and offered a cheery good evening to which all replied, save Mr Kruger Senior.

Rainer off-handedly introduced me to the card players, a Greek couple named Parfitis. Mr Kruger mumbled a handy one-liner grace – Komm Herr Jesus, sei unser Gast und segne, was Du uns bescheret hast! (the equivalent of my boarding school one-liner: “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful!”). Everyone said “Amen” except Rainer who muttered something unintelligible. We sat down as one with a squealing of heavy wood on friction-free tiles.

The Greeks “ooed” a lot when a grilled kingklip was brought to us on a silver platter by António. Agi followed in his wake with one fried tomato for each of us.

Mr Parfitis seized the opportunity to tell me in fragmentary English how the Russians had vacuumed the Mozambican seas of fish, “Throwing back what they are not liking, but only after all the fish they have captured have become dead.”

This caused Mr Kruger to glare at me through fishy eyes as he grunted something about “the blacks” being given guns by the Russians in exchange for their fish so they could go about killing one another. The Greeks laughed readily at this tasteless remark, having obviously learnt to swallow Kruger’s bile in exchange for card games and real meals.

While António used a silver jug to serve us South African wine from Stellenbosch, I tried concentrating on the palatial setting and the goodness of the meal to distract myself from the company. But the exercise was marred by Mrs Parfitis who informed me that the kingklip had been bought on the black market at a cost equivalent to the monthly average wage.

Meanwhile, visibly tired from his healing exertions, Rainer withdrew into silent vigil over his portion of fish which he picked at without interest, while I remained the centre of attention.

Mr Parfitis felt obliged to tell me at length how he came to be in Maputo on contract with an electrical company that repaired lifts. He brought his saga to a climax with a grisly account of how people were beheaded climbing out of lifts during power failures when the current suddenly came back on.

It was when the last course – carefully sculpted mangoes from the garden – was being served by Agi that things suddenly came to a head. Mrs Parfitis was attempting to show off her knowledge of nineteenth century Hapsburg silver, but instead of impressing her host she sent the old man into a fury about “sucata”, which he claimed was the only business left in Maputo.

Todo o país é uma sucata!” he barked at his son. “That is what Rainer has made of our yeast factory – sucata – because he has less sense of business than ... than my servants!”

Rainer rolled his immense orbs in dismay. The Greeks went rigid. Agi dived out the door, followed by António.

“Tell him,” Mr Kruger growled at his son while pointing at me, “Tell him what is sucata!”

It was Mr Parfitis who came to my rescue. “Scrap metal,” he whispered. And Kruger took up the chant, “Scrap metal! Sucata! Scrap metal! Now you can get rid of my factory as scrap metal!”

Rainer glowered at his father, his lagoon-like countenance brimming with resentment. “There is enough profit from your factory,” he croaked, “to last for the rest of your miserable days ... after I am gone.”

“Where will you go?” Kruger flung back. “You could not earn your living anywhere!”

At this Rainer leapt to his feet knocking over his heavy-wood chair, which struck the ceramic floor with a boom. “Very soon!” he shrieked, shaking his finger at his father, “Very soon I will be leaving you for good! You will never see me again!”

Mr Kruger emitted an acrid laugh, egging him on: “Go! Good! Go! Go! Leave me! Let me rot in hell!”

Rainer disappeared, a door slammed and the grandfather clock announced the hour with its “Ave Maria” ditty. Pleading fatigue, I hurried out of the dining room more determined than ever to find alternative accommodation the next day.

In the library I at once fell into a fitful sleep soon punctuated with echoing shouts and screams from the buildings nearby. They grew so loud that I sat up fearing a crowd had entered the property. Added to these came the rattle and roar of a heavy truck.

I walked cautiously to the blinds and pried two slats apart: scattered lights blinked all over the garden – but these were not the lights of war, they were the blue phosphorescent lanterns of the fireflies held aloft in modest yet resolute protest against all forms of affliction.

Beyond the garden wall, the clamour of military agitation gradually fell away with diminishing echoes among the shadow-brooded streets of the broken city.



DAY THREE – FRIDAY 21ST DECEMBER 1984

BAD NEWS
The bold strokes of the morning sun pried my eyes open. It was a blessing, that blast of light. I lay curled naked on the drenched sheet holding on to the glorious illumination, for the tentacles of night still hovered over me and there was no telling what had been lived and what had been imagined during the past few days.

Like a man recovering from long sickness I levered my body up. On the desk were the remains of a fish paste sandwich that I vaguely remembered eating on our return from the Costa do Sol. Round the walls stood the leather-bound books that I had so despised when I arrived two – or was it three – days ago? My well-travelled suitcase lay in a corner, and in it were my ID and my passport. They, at least, confirmed that I was born in a real place on a specific day and had been given a name that I retained.

Stirred by breaths of heavy air, the blinds clinked. What had I really registered through them each night? Rainer smiting the invisible? The gunfire of civil war? I pattered sorely over to the window. Outside stood Rainer’s car with António polishing it – the man who was and wasn’t a servant; the servant who spoke so well and with such authority.

And then there was Kudzi. Always Kudzi. Whose imagined presence had become more real than her physical one. A person of such encompassing beauty that she also existed within my system like a virus, draining it of all its resources. I firmly believed my own recovery was in every way dependent on my plan to recover her. How was I to achieve this … what was I to do next? The enormity of the difficulties numbed me. It struck me that I might be chasing after a disembodied presence, that Ulla was playing games with me, that the slippers at her flat had been some sort of a decoy, that Kudzi wasn’t in Mozambique at all …

Mercifully, when I went to the Krugers’ kitchen, only Agi was present with coffee and freshly baked bread at the ready. Her sweetness did nothing to alter my decision to leave the premises that morning, but the fearful implications of abandoning the comforts of the Kruger palace were underscored by the squeaky voice of a newscaster on a transistor radio talking about a fire at an insecticide factory in the suburb of Matola. An act of political sabotage was suspected.

Defying panic, I abandoned breakfast and made for the hall phone. Classical piano music was filling the house. From the hallway I could see Rainer in the living room seated at the grand piano next to the Christmas tree; he was struggling with a piece that sounded like Mozart, attempting to forge ahead with it as if he were writing the score himself, trying one musical theme then another. Surprisingly enough, he was a fair pianist.

Moving the phone out of his line of vision, I dialled Irish Maeve’s number. This time my call was answered by a male member of staff: Maeve was out, so could I leave my number? On this occasion the hazards of disclosing where I was were overcome by the urgent desire to escape. “This number is only valid for the next few hours,” I insisted.

It was while hunting in my diary for the number of another contact at a Swedish NGO that I noticed old man Kruger sitting on a veranda chair, his back stiff with chronic outrage, his eyes fixed on the rusting steel-meshed screens that kept the myriad representatives of African entomology at bay. I wondered if he were prone to drifting off like his son.

My next call was answered by a woman named Slapgard. She was leaving that day for Stockholm because one of her team had been “murdered by fire by Renamo terrorists”. She continued, “Haven’t you heard? Now all foreigners in Mozambique are military targets according to a statement from a Renamo component in Portugal.” My hints regarding accommodation were met only with the suggestion that I take her seat at a slide show about mural paintings to be given by Albie Sachs, an ANC representative from South Africa. “Who knows?” she added with a brittle laugh, “You might meet someone who can put you up. It’s on Saturday.”

As all these “aid” people knew one another, I found myself asking the stranger if she knew Kudzi. “Oh, yes,” she answered. “I met her yesterday at the Ministry of Agriculture.”

I was seized by jealousy. The woman who had so recently spent time with my girlfriend continued, “She’s going to do an excellent job. They’re so lucky to have her.”

“She’s accepted the job?” I stammered.

“She’s going to be working on the peasant collectivisation project in Tete province. We are all being sent home for the moment, but Kudzi’s almost a local – she’ll keep it going.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. Kudzi’s a natural for the job. She has such a gift for communicating. And she’s so positive, and ...”

I put the receiver down, a hollow cave settling where my stomach had been.

Snatching up the phone I dialled Ulla’s number. Her maid answered: the ladies were out. I chose to believe her.

Next thing, Rainer was beside me. “Hello, Miguel. Have you rested well?” He was smiling sympathetically while pulling awkwardly at the sparse springs of his African hair. “Have you bad news?”

“Yes … Well … No ...” It was hard to speak. “It’s my girlfriend. She’s taken that job … working out there in the bush.”

“Goodness! She certainly is a determined woman!” He watched me quizzically for a moment while I stood looking at the phone as though the answer to my salvation lay somewhere at the end of a billion lines.


THE MUGGING
To recover my composure I took a walk in the garden. António, who was weeding the vegetable patch with an African badza, avoided looking up when I passed by. I gave the shed a wide berth as I could hear Mr Kruger sawing away at his rage, and found myself wandering in a remote corner of the property beside the high whitewashed boundary wall mounted with glass spearheads – flashes of red or blue or green. Here, among some flowering bushes beyond the domestic quarters, I was brought to a halt by a most pleasing creature: a brightly coloured orange and green lizard lying motionless on a stone, as alert as a lion on the prowl yet breathing with steady and unhurried breath. I sought fortitude from this masterpiece of design, this emblem of nature’s permanence, unquestioning and acquiescent. Of the same species as those I had known as a child around my parental home in Zimbabwe, the lizard brought back memories of my feuding mother and father. Regrettably, unquestioning permanence when applied to humans becomes an obstacle. If my parents had learnt so little from life it was because they had behaved as unchangingly as the lizard. In their case the result had been divorce and a lifetime of unhappiness for both. Was I repeating such a pattern in my feuds with Kudzi? Could this be my inheritance? Kudzi was not my first relationship to end in disaster. Was this the unchanging pattern of my fate?

In a flash the lizard vanished like a streaking arrow. Almost simultaneously a loud hooting came from the back alley. Agi came out of the kitchen calling “Coming!” She hurried to a narrow metal door in the rear wall and unlocked it. A large black man in a Fidel Castro outfit swept into the yard with confident authority and was respectfully ushered towards the domestic quarters by Agi. This was obviously one of Rainer’s patients, one of his “government men”. As I emerged from the greenery, the master healer himself came out of the house wearing a fez and carrying a fly whisk. Giving me a broad grin, he flourished the whisk, lifted the fez, and winked. “I put on a great big show for them!” he had told me, which explained the fez in particular since the nearest authentic place for such headgear was in Muslim countries thousands of miles to the north.

With Rainer now out of the way it seemed a good moment to make my escape. Under no circumstances was I going to allow Rainer’s conspiratorial tendencies, or his apocalyptical obsessions, or his proprietorial zeal to hinder my objectives.

I hurriedly packed a shoulder bag with the bare necessities, including the map torn out of the phone directory. I phoned the Polana Hotel: this time they had a room available for one night; I was more than ready to exchange my pitiful sum of foreign currency for twenty-four hours of respite in order to armour myself against the blows Kudzi was delivering, and to plan my next move.

As I exited through the kitchen door I caught a glimpse of the government man’s driver, in a combat jump-suit topped with a kepi, leaning on the back gate. On his shoulder was the formula AK47. Beyond him, the bonnet of a black Mercedes sparkled in the alleyway, bearing the Mozambican flag – one of a breed of vehicle that goes everywhere with the latitude and impunity of birds; whatever a regime’s politics or state of decay, it is likely to have a fleet of Mercedes charging about with its officials and exuding power.

Without a query, António let me out of the front gate. After what I had overheard him saying about me on my first night, he must have been glad to see the back of me.

As an airplane passes through areas of turbulence, so I passed through areas of stench as I braved the street. The city sewers were jammed, in certain places more than others, hence the variations in density of both smell and flies. From the dulled halls and passages of apartment blocks, people stopped and stared at me in disbelief. With my fair skin and ginger hair screaming “foreigner” I was an irresistible target. A group of card players squatting on the smashed pavement muttered about me as I passed.

By the time I turned out of the Krugers’ street into avenida Patrice Lumumba, things started to go wrong. I found myself pursued by a swelling crowd of children, mainly boys, all of them clad in rags and barefoot like country kids, some with open wounds or sores. My shoulder bag helped whip up their excitement – they zeroed in, pawing and tugging at it like dogs. As with the flies, waving the kids away achieved nothing. Through their suppurating glaucomatic eyes I perceived resentment, translated by some into clownish faces and mocking laughter. Their shouts ricocheted upon the entombed shop fronts like those of agitated gulls, their spittle – in my mind, harbingers of countless diseases – sprayed my face releasing paroxysms of horror.

I walked faster – so did they. Even those who propelled themselves on crutches – victims of land mines – kept up the pace. In the shade of covered walks I passed pockets of adults who looked at me with surprise, but never with pity. No one thought to intervene. My pulses were thundering; sweat streamed into my eyes. Searching frantically for an escape route, I saw the fading sign for the Coimbra Café a block away.

I never reached this haven. I tripped on broken flag stones and fell, winding myself. The kids pounced as if I were carrion. They ripped at my clothes. Some kicked me, others punched me and tore my hair. My bag was wrenched away. I lost sight of the sky as slippery acrid bodies writhed upon mine, jabbing me with sharp-boned blows. I hit out as much as I could, dispensing some injuries. Although I did not believe my time had come, I was convinced that I was going to break a limb or lose an eye as I became buried under the trouncing devils.

As suddenly as the assault started, it ended. They were pulling each other off. As the weight upon me eased, my body expanded like a couch cushion. They were all looking in the same direction down the street, pointing, catcalling … until one voice rose above the others like a signal used by the leader of their species: “Soldados! Soldados!” … They scattered.

I got up with great difficulty. There was a sharp pain in my side; my arm was badly grazed, a gooey mixture of blood, sweat and dirt; my clothes were torn and soiled. The heavy sound of an approaching vehicle filled the air. Wiping the gritty sweat from my eyes, I leaned against a walled-in barber’s shop from where I spotted my map on the tarmac. My shoulder bag was nowhere to be seen: money, passport gone! As fast as possible I scooped up the map, while out of the shimmering and swimming street the cause of the kids’ dispersal emerged with a thunderous rumble: an open military truck coming past with two soldiers in the front and piles of bananas jiggling in the back.

To get out of the way I squeezed myself into a gap between buildings little wider than my shoulders. The rumbling waned. On I went, pushing through this catacombic space and suffering new assaults: the close hot smell of shit and urine, and feral cats pursing me like shadows – some real, others imaginary …

At last, I slid out into another street a full block from the place of the mugging. The pain in my side, now like a slicing knife.

All that mattered was to find refuge. There were no kids about, just one short fellow about ten yards away with a yellow billboard sandwiched over his shoulders, staring at me with open curiosity. “Totobola” (the football pools) was written across his board, and the forms for this were clasped in his hand like consecrated elements assuring salvation. I held his vulpine gaze for a second, read danger in it, and hurried off again in the direction of the coast from where I knew how to find the Polana.

The Totobola midget established himself as my next tormentor. As fast as I went, he kept pace close behind. Whenever I stopped, he stopped and spat slowly; whenever I faced him, he turned away pretending to watch something else. In one of these movements of his body he exposed his profile: that of a hunchback. The fact that I had not the slightest compassion for this twisted fellow, nor for my child predators, nor for any of the wretches I passed on the desolate streets, was an indication of the extent of my terror.

Using the same technique of switching blocks by unorthodox routes I cut through the ruins of the Austrian Cake Shop, zigzagging among fallen enclosures that once housed genteel strudel eaters, to emerge with enormous relief exactly where I wanted to be – on the Miradouro promenade high above the ocean. Designed by the Portuguese as a place of beauty and relaxation, the thousand columns of “The Golden View” were now crumbling, the tressed roof of wisteria withered to gorgonesque sticks. Steel-dry grass slashed at my legs. On the land sloping down to the sea sat hills of festering rubbish where dozens of citizens pecked for scraps along with the crows. Beyond this, like a rippled tablecloth, the grey-green sea spread out to oblivion.

Despite the wetness that began in the hot air and continued as rivers of sweat on my body, the land was turning to cindery dust from long-standing drought – a dust that blew into my eyes and down my throat. A woman ran past me carrying a dead dog on her shoulder, its legs tied criss-cross on a stick like a hunting trophy. I was giddy, my legs as wobbly as the colonnade. When a collapsed section of the wisteria’s support beams made my route impassable, I gave up and sank to the ground.

How long I remained there I can not say. At some point I lifted my head to find the Totobola man sitting like a vulturous gargoyle on a crumbling balcony, the sandwich boards tugging his misshapen backbone in the wind. Had I been able to muster the strength I would have hurled a stone at him. Instead I grimaced, and he responded by slow-spitting into the dust. The sound of an approaching vehicle at last made him scurry off.

… It was the Peugeot that was pulling up, brightly glinting, with Rainer at the wheel, grinning straight at me through the wickerwork of his teeth. “Meu Deus! Shame! Que vergonha!” he exclaimed with exaggerated concern as he climbed out. Swiftly he moved towards me and helped me to my feet, half dragging me over to the car.

I shall always remember sinking into the leather passenger seat of that old 504 as one of the sweetest sensations of my life.

In response to Rainer’s persistent questions about what had happened to me, I croaked out minimal information.

“You are lucky to be alive,” he said, which I interpreted to mean “I told you so!” Jabbing a thumb back at the colonnade, he added, “That is exactly where my mother used to love to sit – once there was a bench where you were lying. I still drop by sometimes to see her. Today her presence was very strong – it drew me here. But who do I find instead? Senor Miguel! … My mother, she loved the Miradouro, and this big avenue we are on, the Duc de Connaught it used to be – now avenida Fredrick Engels, would you believe!”

As we drove away, the car was a cocoon that wrapped itself around me, shutting off the atrocity of the outside world.

“Where is your bag?” Rainer asked.

“Gone,” I sighed.

“Do not worry. We will sort it out.”

His words made me sharply aware of my predicament: I was more helpless than ever and I had been thrown back into his clutches. It was an indignity to be saved by someone whom I disliked and whose hospitality I had rejected in the most sneaky manner. Meanwhile, the feeling of safety in that car was overwhelming and nothing would have made me get out. Not even Rainer himself who carried his own danger signal like a snake its hiss.

As we passed the ruins of the Austrian Cake Shop so recently traversed in my journey through Hades, the brutal smack of the front shock absorbers sent shooting pains through my injured ribcage.

Soon we were crossing avenida Julius Nyerere, and the jacarandas of the Krugers’ street came into view, strobing the windscreen. After that, the tall block of flats opposite the house loomed up. Approaching the front gate, we slowed down, and Rainer said, “I am expecting fireworks from my father. He is a man ruled by disappointment and I am going to give him a big one – we stopped production at our yeast factory today. No more wood.”

The gate had a name plate that I had not noticed before, written on the top in faded blue paint: Esperança (Hope). While waiting for António to open up, Rainer continued, “Lorries have been hit by rockets while going out of town to get fire wood. The last working bakery shut today. I have closed the yeast factory and the workers have been dismissed.” He chuckled inappropriately and ended on an enigmatic note: “It is the end of all our factories. This could not have come at a better time.”

Through a haze of debilitation, the voice of my journalist friend filtered back to me. Someone had been arrested at one of these factories, but I could not recall who or for what reason. And now I had neither the interest nor the energy to ask.

We drove in through the black steel gates opened by António. And there before me stood the ample house, its fat roof sitting arms akimbo upon its white-washed walls.




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