Night of the fireflies


THE LINE BETWEEN REAL AND UNREAL

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THE LINE BETWEEN REAL AND UNREAL
Rainer and António sat me down on a stool in the bathroom. Agi brought a pail of hot water and a glass of cordial of a far superior quality to the Russian liquid soap I had drunk at Ulla's. Rainer washed and disinfected the gashes and cuts on my injured arm. He sent António off for plasters. Gently, he felt my ribs; he wasn’t putting on an act, he was carrying out the task in hand like a professional.

“I was at Wits University in South Africa,” he said wryly. “I did a year of science and dropped out, then a year of medicine and dropped out,” adding with an ironic smile, “Enough to diagnose a cracked rib. It will soon heal. Avoid lying on it.”

Another fish paste sandwich was waiting for me like a sacred host on the library desk. By a miracle, the loss of the passport was not a catastrophe, as I had left my ID card in my suitcase. Climbing under a soft, fresh sheet, I lay gazing at the card, relishing the thought that I would still be able to leave the country … and soon fell into a feverish sleep.

In the long hours that followed – throughout that afternoon and during the night – a shuttling between my unconscious and conscious mind blurred the line between reality and unreality until I could no longer tell which was which. I became disorientated, lost all capacity for rational thought, and my sense of self became more clouded than ever. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before, and when it was over, I had unwittingly crossed the crucial barrier that keeps most people sane and able to make a distinction between their living moments and their imagined ones. Looking back, I can pinpoint this moment as my first blind step along the road that I was to follow – or was induced to follow – during the oncoming days under the irresponsible guidance of Rainer Kruger.

The syndrome began with a genuine dream, its subject war:

I am on the run from child soldiers. They catch me. “We know you are going to a meeting of teachers!” one of them accuses. My denials bring the butt of his gun down upon my skull. I escape by crawling to the top of a dried-up waterfall where Kudzi stands with a rifle trained on me. After a moment she lowers the weapon and says, “The war is over.”
I awoke from this dream sobbing and with even sharper rib pains. Eventually exhaustion took me back to the war in my subconscious:
Swarms of terrified Africans are running for cover into the Loja Interfranca. Inside, people scramble to get money from Rainer who is wearing a bank teller’s cap. A shot rings out – Rainer’s head explodes. I look up and see António next to an enormous church organ, holding a smoking rifle. Behind him sits a peacock with its glorious tail fully fanned. Higher up still, Michelangelo’s finger of God points down at me from a domed ceiling, and a booming voice begins shouting incomprehensible words. I think it must be the voice of God ...
It was from here on that it became impossible to differentiate between dream and reality:

“You are my curse!” – another voice ranting. “You are the living evidence of my mortal sin!” I recognise old man Kruger’s rasping tone. I hear Rainer hiss, “Keep quiet!” But the old man is unstoppable: “God has placed the devil in you. Every time I look at you I step closer to the fires of hell. God will never absolve me!” ...

Mournful classical music fills my head. Night has fallen. Looking for the source of the music I seem to be walking out of the library, down the passageway. At the far end of the veranda, Mr Kruger sits staring into space. Next to him an old turntable is playing a scratched record …

A car engine starts. I’m now back on the library bed. Headlights swing over the leather-bound books. I hear the gate being unlocked, then the sound of the car driving away into the encompassing night ...

Now I am drowning. River water becomes darker and darker as I am sucked into a whirlpool. Fortunately the vortex takes an unexpected swing and I find myself being pushed upwards like a cork. I pop up in an underground cave where my agent Julian Friedmann drags me out of the current. He shows me a triptych painted on the walls of the cave 30,000 years ago by Cro-Magnon people – the first artists. Kudzi steps out of the shadows; she opens her arms and calls my name confidently. “The war is over,” she announces once again …


A car returns ... a gate shuts ... voices whisper ...

DAY FOUR – SATURDAY 22ND DECEMBER 1984

MIRRORS OF CONFLICT
A coldness of the flesh like a post-fever chill met the blaze from the morning sun mounting the window – almost a defiance.

Within seconds the harsh words of the old man Kruger came back to me as if he were saying them all over again out there in the hall: “Every time I look at you I step closer to the fires of hell …”

During my long, turbulent night, had his voice been incongruously cushioned in a surround of languid classical music? … or perhaps not.

I lurched off the bed, and the firmness of the floor tiles connecting with my feet had a reassuring effect. The mechanical source of that music would need to be traced to the lounge or out on to the veranda in order to put things into place – at least on one score.

Slipping a towel round my waist I set off down the passage unconvinced that I would find reassuring evidence. I was wrong. There it was in all its ancient glory, a ’50s gramophone squatting next to the armchair where I had seen the old man sitting during the night. I peered down at a scratched LP on the turntable, labelled “Grieg’s Nocturne” – the music I had heard, the very music, inscribed on shiny vinyl.

As a mariner in a storm hurries for his anchor, so I hurried for one of my hardcover notebooks. I carry them everywhere to record events, script ideas or snatches of dialogue, to copy things I read. In this instance I felt it would be restorative to sit at the library desk and attempt to separate my recent living and dreaming moments into two distinct lists – get to see them clearly in their rightful places.

I started forty-four days back with the unequivocal reality of Kudzi moving out of our house in Zimbabwe. I listed our consequent exchanges, which were like those of two people speaking past each other in different languages. Then I noted my preparations for departure for Mozambique and the unsuccessful phone connections. I ended this list of living moments with Maputo, its exploding body bag, its suffocating heat, its voracious street kids and, finally, Rainer, its card-carrying crazy.

After I compiled the second column, listing what I deemed indisputably to be dreams, it dawned on me that the separate columns were in fact very similar. This was due to reality having increasingly taken on the uncontrolled and disjointed quality of a dream. Everything about Mozambique in particular was quintessentially surreal – packed with ambiguity, disarray, absurdity – and its impact upon my over-stressed mind had been significant.

Never had the tie-up between the lived and the imagined appeared so close, and as I concentrated further on the lists, a common ingredient became apparent: conflict. Conflict – and of course the suffering that comes with it – ran through my relationship with Kudzi, through the Kruger household, through Mozambique and through the dreams themselves where I was struck by the butt of a gun, where Rainer had his head blown off by António, and so forth. Dreamscape and landscape reflected one another under the common banner of conflict. With such a convergence of outer and inner worlds, no wonder I was bewildered. I concluded by putting a title to my morning’s work: Mirrors of Conflict.

There is nothing more gratifying than well-managed thoughts. All my life I have needed to believe that my mind is in control, and that I am able to perceive a certain number of concrete facets of the world through the power of reason. As a child I knew the name and habits of every bird in Southern Africa; as an adolescent I discovered the Stoics and the belief in will; as a student in Paris I found the radical political thinkers – Sartre, Marcuse, Fanon and many others. My Mirrors of Conflict hypothesis remained true to this tradition.

Calmed by the mental exercise, I made for the shower in its garden lean-to.

I was inspecting the weals on my body while dousing myself with heavenly cool water when António banged on the corrugated iron and announced in his soft voice that I was wanted on the phone.

I rushed, dripping, to the hall. The moment I heard Ulla’s sing-song Danish accent, my excitement subsided: I knew she had come on the line at Kudzi’s instigation to perform her ancestral duty as a Shield Virgin – those women who were sent out from Viking ships to loot the enemy; although Ulla had adapted to modern times by replacing the Viking dagger with a monkey wrench.

“It is difficult to conceive,” she said, “that you do not realise with whom you are staying!”

I kicked myself for the carelessness that had enabled her to trace my calls (easy for Ulla through her political connections). Nevertheless, fresh from making lists and reflecting upon them, my old self raised its head and bared its teeth. I told her, “I’m staying with a n’ganga who hides under a bush.”

“A what?”

“It’s difficult to conceive that the mother of an African child such as yourself doesn’t know what a n’ganga is. What you Europeans call a witchdoctor.”

She choked. I had only met Ulla once, when she had come to visit Kudzi in Zimbabwe. Under the auspices of the aid organisation DANIDA, she had forged herself into a proud Mozambican, married a journalist on Maputo’s Notiçias and joined the Frelimo party. Recovering quickly she retorted, “It’s inappropriate to joke when you’re staying in the house of a man who was imprisoned for economic crimes against his country.”

“Can’t be too difficult. I heard from Joe Van Something the Second of the US Embassy that an Indian in Machava jail was shot for selling prawns to fellow prisoners. Rainer was released as a nut case as far as I can gather. He goes about with a card saying ...”

“Everyone knows that,” she cut in. “But that’s not all he goes round doing according to my sources. How come you’re moving out?”

“Who told you that?”

“Never mind.”

“I’m staying here because I’m broke and have nowhere else to go for the moment. Now kindly let me speak to Kudzi.”

But Ulla was not done with me. “For six months Rainer Kruger shared a cell in Machava Jail with an Englishman called John Boland. Have you heard of him?”

“No.”

“He’s a mercenary,” she said in the way an Inquisitor would squeeze out the word “heretic”. “The usual kind – Congo, Angola, Rhodesia. We suspect he’s been brought here to do a job.”



Now I was really lost. “Why are you talking to me about all this – especially on a phone with big ears?”

“The only people listening to this phone are friends of mine.”

“Ah, of course, silly of me to miss the ‘we’ bit. Now, be nice, Ulla. Please pass me Kudzi, if she’s there.”

“She’s out,” Ulla responded quickly. “What’s more, Kudzi has serious reasons for not seeing you.” She was closing in for the kill. I said nothing, and she continued, “Perhaps I can convince her otherwise.”

“You hate my guts!”

“When I heard you were hoping to move out from ‘The Queen of Spies’, I wanted to encourage you not to. You are in a privileged position to hear news of Boland.”

I lowered my voice. “For God sake! I’m here to see Kudzi, I’m not some master spy.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything. If something crops up I’d like to know, that’s all. Perhaps you could motivate yourself by recalling the political ideals of some of your old films and books? I’ll get Kudzi to ring you as soon as she comes back. Okay?”

Making an effort, I said, “Thank you!” and rang off.

Ulla was what I feared most within the far left – capable of doing anything for the cause. Anyway, I didn’t have to do anything. I could make something up about Rainer just to use her to corner Kudzi. Ultimately, all she had achieved by her shabby attempt at blackmail was to throw on centre stage the drama of conspiracy that I had watched in rehearsal on the porch during my first night, starring Rainer and António. I resented her for reviving my state of unease – one that had been exacerbated by such a confusing night.

After getting dressed in the minimum of clothing, I had a cup of coffee in the kitchen with Agi, and enjoyed chatting away with this buoyant soul about the quality of the vegetables from the garden, owing to the high standard of António’s compost.

Then I called Irish Maeve again. She had recognised the number I had left and was impressed. “It must be like staying at the Ritz,” she gasped. “But Rainer’s a bit of a weirdo, isn’t he?”

“How do you know him?”

“My husband Joe knows him. Seems he’s one of those locals who gets invited to certain Embassy do’s – can’t imagine why! I’ve seen him a couple of times; well you can’t exactly miss him, can you, with those eyes? Surrounded by diplomatic smoothies he looks like the Mad Bomber. Be careful, he’s quite unbalanced. Glad you’re all fixed up for the moment, though, ’cause everyone seems to have family visitors for Christmas – oops, sorry, the banned but ever sacred word! – for Family Day.”

I asked her to keep trying. I liked Maeve’s take on things; she possessed that particular Gaelic twist of mind whereby thoughts and phrasing come out other than expected, and she spoke beautifully. But, although I was technically free if I accepted one impossible condition (Kudzi’s dismissal), I was in no condition to get involved with another woman. Kudzi had named me “a serial monogamist”. I had certainly remained faithful to her.

Maeve signed off with a seductive edge to her voice. “I look forward to seeing you, Michael, at the Trooping of the Colours on Christmas Eve.” The Irish pronunciation of Michael contained additional syllables that turned it into a song; but she had sidestepped “Family Day Eve”, which would have been too much for even her gymnastic tongue.

I tried to rest for what was left of the morning, my cracked rib a source of great discomfort. What I was doing was waiting for Kudzi to phone. But as time passed and I became discouraged, the five o’clock Albie Sachs slide show for which the Swedes were keeping me a seat began to present itself as my last slim hope of meeting her.

While the necessity to attend this event matured in my mind, so did the problem of getting there. By late morning when the Grieg Nocturne was once more filling the naturally heavy air with even heavier sorrow, I shoved my pride aside and headed for the living area, determined to pin down the only possible source of transportation.


A GAME OF CHESS
It was a homely scene – idyllic even, to anyone who was ignorant of the political and pathological sharks that lurked beneath the surface: Klaus Kruger seated stiff-backed on the porch next to the gramophone listening to his cracked record over and over and staring through the fly screens at the steel-gated entrance, while – visible through the open double-doors of the sitting room – his son played chess with his so-called manservant.

Waving at the open drinks cabinet, Rainer called out to me, “My Agi squeezed juice with fresh oranges from the USAID ‘Green Belt’ – the one that squeezes our city. Help yourself!”

I filled a glass and positioned myself next to the jolly Christmas tree with the self-consciousness of a guest. The gramophone grated as the needle set off once more across the vinyl, its sounds generating no change in the stubborn set of the old man’s shoulders.

Assuming the casually curious manner of a newcomer, I wandered around the room. My hand ran pleasingly over the polished wood of the piano, undulated with age. I was surprised to see that it was a Steinway. Having witnessed Rainer’s healing powers, I was almost ready to give credence to his claim that he could see the notes he played shaking the air as they soared from the raised lid. At any rate, I tried to visualise them.

The imagined voyage of the music led me to a couple of wall paintings mounted in lacquered frames suggesting Old Masters – a ploy that could not mask their amateurish style. One depicted a floundering boar pursued by Cossacks on horseback; in the second, flames leapt out of a twisted tree and transformed themselves into the head and antlers of a deer baying in terror. The mood of hopeless suffering that ran from the soul of the painter through these oils was so contagious that I found myself backing away from them towards the sofa.

Mr Kruger’s music further aggravated my mood by conjuring up images of severe northern winters and of death. I thought how non-African the European preoccupation with death was. For the indigenous inhabitants of Africa – apart for those who had turned to Christ or Mohammed – death was a simple event on the journey to the spirit world where people joined their ancestors, and in this sense the realm of the dead was as real as that of the living. Africans had none of the morbidity that Europeans imposed upon mortality; none of their dread of the unknown and fear of retribution or terror of eternal damnation – ancestors could be appeased. I thought of Kudzi, forever resilient even after her brother and many of her comrades-in-arms were killed during the long war which had brought independence to Zimbabwe. Kudzi, unlike Grieg, had no need to create nostalgia out of death.

I jumped up, my hands flying – “Can’t we turn this music off?” The chess players looked up in surprise. “How can your father listen to this stuff again and again and again?” I was quite taken aback by my state of nerves.

“Of course,” Rainer replied, promptly rising to his feet and starting for the porch. “At least we can try.”

The old man remained immobile as Rainer positioned himself by the turntable. There was a nasty scrape as the needle was lifted off the record, followed by a sonorous click when Rainer switched off the machine. Then he waved his hands several times in front of his father, who remained as impenetrable as a military stronghold.

“See that?” Rainer grinned at me with the delight of a schoolboy turning a trick. “Right now he is probably a kid in Russia running through the halls of the Kruger family mansion ... Or he could be older, in which case he is in Shanghai with friends like Count and Countess Rostopov – he never stops talking about them. Maybe they are all at the opera!”

He peered into his father’s face. “Ah, now I see. He is doing what he likes best – standing in the Shanghai harbour watching his coolies load timber on ships for Europe. Counting in his head all those thousands of Chinese trees he owns.” Throwing me a devilish glance he added, “My father can go on watching those boats for hours, bewitched by his lost empire. At least he is out of our way.”

I laughed, apologised for my outburst, and sat back down on the sofa. Rainer resumed his place at the chess board, whereupon António, who had not broken his concentration, moved his rook decisively, rose and left the room.

Aghast, Rainer studied the new positions on the board. “You see my bishop here!” he exclaimed, stabbing his finger at the board. “António has blocked it with his rook. The rook does not have to move, yet it exerts a force upon the board through the rules of chess behaviour that make up its essential – how to say – ‘rookishness’?” He clicked his piebald bird’s tongue, got up thoughtfully and poured himself a drink.

“Sorry, I don’t know much about chess,” I said. “I used to play a bit with my father. That’s all.”

“Now my father,” he resumed, seizing upon the parental theme, “is the same as the rook. He loves to block people.”

Wandering over to the two disturbing paintings, he stood before them sipping his drink. “Most surely he blocked my mother. These paintings are the last she did before marrying him. She was also a marvellous actress before the Second World War. ‘Theatre slut’ he called her.” He was now running his tremulous fingers over a teak chest with well-shone brass hinges, which sat on a low table under the paintings. “After she joined him in Mozambique, he made her give it all up: a wife and an artist were separate people according to him.”

With infinite care he raised the lid of the chest, his body sagging as he looked at its contents. When he spoke again, his voice was sad. “My mother was a wonderful woman. She died of cancer.” He gestured me over. “Come! I want to show you something.”

The chest turned out to be a creepy reliquary of the dead woman’s odds and ends, tenderly folded and stacked: crocheted tablecloths, needlepoint tapestries, embroidered doilies, dainty handbags, a few expensive pairs of shoes, dozens of distinguished silk scarves, and a three-stranded pearl necklace “which used to glow like a half moon on her neck after the pearls had absorbed the oils from her skin”.

After this Freudian flourish, Rainer pulled out a copy of the photograph I had seen on his father’s desk: the Garboesque woman, very European, very white, hardly capable of coupling with the Sherman tank to produce a coffee-coloured son like Rainer. Observing my puzzlement, he said, “She was like a real mom; I called her little mom – mãezimha – she loved that. Unable to have a child of her own, she nurtured me. Rosvita was her name. My real mother was the African maid who worked for my father before my stepmother came out to join him. That was in 1947. Luckily for me, during my first few years on this Earth, my father stuck me in the African compound with my black mom and the other servants. At least it gave me the chance to enjoy rituals and sit with medicine men – get into the vibe as you would say. I’d have never got that chance if I’d been locked up in this Protestant prison from birth. It was my sweet stepmom who eventually brought me inside the house. But she meant well.”

He put the photo down carefully and added, “I never really knew my African mother. The old dog packed her off when I was five. She died soon after that. It was my first psychic experience: I lived the scalding heat of her fever and fell into a coma … so I am told. She probably died of malaria, judging from what I know now.”

How old he looked suddenly! From one moment to another his face appeared to change its time of life: when it was infantile it could seem lost in wonderment; when it was adolescent it could look infuriatingly churlish; then in mature form it conveyed penetrating intuitions and wisdom, even; and when old it looked dried up by years of disenchantment.

“My stepmother forgave my father, but he never forgave himself,” he continued as he began prowling round the sofa glaring at his father’s intransigent back. “Calvinists believe all humans are condemned to eternal misery. For my father, redemption is unlikely, as God elects only a few superior beings over the wretched povo, and for no particular reason at all – such as good behaviour. Can you believe such nonsense? So my father waits for the infernal fires and every time he sees me he finds the living proof of his damnation.”

He had got himself so worked up that he was making it difficult for me to bring up the ride to the slide show. Unable to settle on to anything, his eyes slid over my body, almost lasciviously – a tendency that I had already noticed on several occasions – so that he was addressing my feet by the time he said, “You have no idea, Miguel, what a relief it is to know that my father is really nothing to do with me.” There was a long pause until he must have become aware of my feet fidgeting nervously, which prompted him to continue. “Oh, yes, to be sure, his seed sparked the event in my mother’s womb on February 20, 1947!” He threw me a sidelong glance to check if I was listening. “You see, the astrologers have it wrong to chart from birth which is less precise. Conception is the key.”

Suddenly he banged his hands together. “In a fraction of a second all the information on me burst through into the combining cells of my African mother and that old pervert over there. But their cells had nothing to do with my newly activated Life-Line, they contained only the genetic material I required.” Noticing my frown, he said, “Okay, okay, you are not supposed to know what a Life-Line is! You would call it the soul.”

His “Life-Line” thing sounded far too much like guru-speak for my tastes. He sneered at my sceptical look, thumped his chest, his eyebrows going skyward like wings, and insisted, “The essential quality of my Life-Line – it is not my father’s, it is all mine. Obrigado Deus! Otherwise each time I look at him I would burst into tears.”

Then, apparently bored with the issue, he dropped into his chair, bent his head over the chess set and stared at it in silent immobility. But with him there was no such thing as a quiet moment – even while studying the chess board he was zinging with imminent drama.

The unbridgeable depths of heat along with the uncertain weather of Rainer’s emotions had thrown me into a headspin. Weakly, I sat down once more on the sofa.

There was a sudden shout. “Ah ha! A rainha!” Snatching up his queen, Rainer placed it on the far side of the board. “A trick up my sleeve to unblock my position. A positive force that will set me free in two moves. Chess is like life. It possesses a past and a future. I search the board for its origins and potentialities. I spot the patterns and assemble them into a power for victory.”

At this instant António returned with his usual unflappability, which I hoped, in vain, might be contagious. Rainer jabbed at the board, saying, “Look António! A rainha! A rainha! I keep telling you my tricks are good. By sacrificing my queen, you lose. Now do you believe me? I know how to break the bands of Zeega … how to leap up the Lines!”

Fearful of his relentless raving, I raised my own voice: “I must be at a slide show before five! I must go there! Please could you take me in the car!” The force of my words had drawn me to my feet. They both shot looks at me. I was standing over them. Rainer’s eyes cleared wonderfully, like lake water beneath a dying wind. “Happy to,” he replied without hesitation. “But it is not yet one o’clock.”

I thanked him, sat down, and sought calm.

One o’clock was lunch time – a tray of sandwiches in the living room, alone with Rainer. Alone, that is, with his father still out on the porch watching the movie inside his head. To fill the time and prevent another outburst on the inexactitude of astrologers or unfiltered interferences or on some power fantasy reflected across a chess board, I had a brainwave: since Rainer appeared so keen to hold forth, why not do a proper interview with him on his healing powers? There were many good reasons for this: it would switch off the movie in my own head; it would focus Rainer and keep him under control to some extent; and I could turn it into a magazine article and make some cash, which I certainly needed.

When I suggested it, Rainer tried to back out. He said he had no interest in speaking about what he called “psi” (pronounced “sai” and short for psychic) things because on the one or two occasions when he had tried, his listeners had dismissed him as a crank or a charlatan. “People on earth are not ready to talk of psi things,” he said, as though he were not part of the human race.

When I brought in my pocket Casio recorder and started setting up, he stared at it in horror. It became my turn to babble on at him: about what a great idea it was to explain a rarely witnessed occurrence and how his knowledge of science and medicine made him a unique subject for an interview on something that was generally considered non-scientific.

After much coaxing I got him to agree. Yet his reason for doing so was perturbing: “I will soon be dead,” he said, “so why should I care about what I say?”

We got off to a meandering start. The interviews have since been edited. Rainer did not speak with quite the same fluency as appears, but to have kept his stiff English speech pattern, largely devoid of grammatical links, would have made the content ponderous and distracting. He also had a tendency to wander from the subject or become incomprehensible, particularly when he let his emotions take over.




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