Night of the fireflies


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A crowd stood about drinking, smoking, bathed in electric light as in your standard bar. With war at the gates of the city, with nothing to do, and with the price of a beer at fifty meticais when you got 1500 to the dollar on the black market, the motivation to come to the Búzio and drink yourself into oblivion was irresistible. It was just about the last watering hole in town, and certainly one of the only places where you could pay in local money. They even had vodka.

I felt ten years younger entering the Búzio. For the first time in weeks my head was in place, the world around me – even the city – suddenly looked manageable, objectively interesting, exciting even.

Pushing my way towards the bar I remembered that all my money had been stolen in the mugging. To solve this problem I set about hunting for Rainer. I had not got far before I bumped into someone I knew well: Godwin Matatu, another Zimbabwean, had been editor of Africa Magazine in London, and was now with the multinational Lonrho, as their roving ambassador for Southern Africa. It was like finding an old friend on a desert island. We exchanged mutually astonished greetings. I told him about coming to win back Kudzi, whom he knew (she had written for his magazine for a while). He tut-tutted, bought me a double vodka and tonic, and lent me twenty US dollars.

As Godwin was staying in a flat owned by Lonrho, I explained my tenuous connection with Rainer, and asked if he could put me up. His answer was “No”. His superior, he said, had come to Mozambique to purchase the world’s largest reserve of columbo-tantalite – a rare mineral used for nuclear reactors and missile parts – and was staying with him.

“Missiles! Santo Deus!” Rainer had popped out of the throng. He squeezed my shoulder, Latin-style. “Are you the one who is planning a coup d’état, Miguel?”

I cringed. He was already tipsy. Compelled to introduce them, I was relieved to see that Godwin was not acquainted with my host. Rainer made a fuss about Godwin’s coming to Maputo on business when everyone he knew was dying to abandon the place. As he started back to the bar to buy a round of drinks for us he laughed in his crazy fashion, and I saw Godwin flinch at being suddenly and unexpectedly exposed to all those teeth – yellow, chipped and misaligned like old piano keys.

Needless to say Godwin found Rainer “a little out of the ordinary”. “In this town,” he told me, “you must be careful whom you mix with. Particularly in this bar. You see the fellow behind the counter?”

Through the smoke and clusters of heads I could make out a Portuguese-looking man of about fifty with a rough face and slow eyes who was pouring drinks sloppily as if to say: I’ve got an endless source, I’m king of this bar and this city! I watched Rainer go up to him and place his order.

“That’s Miguel da Silva, the owner,” Godwin explained. “His father was killed in the ’60s by Frelimo during the liberation struggle. All his family live in Lisbon except him. Now how come? Look at his face! Not surprising he’s suspected of being a Renamo agent!”

Rainer was speaking confidentially to da Silva who rang up the cash till. Next to it I spotted a small fat dog lying asleep in a basket.

“It’s a dangerous time,” Godwin said. “The Nkomati Accord3 isn’t sticking with South Africa. You’ve heard of the foreigners being killed? Nine, or is it ten, this month? It’s never been this bad.”

Sooner than expected, Rainer reappeared before us, his eyelids peeled back in mock amazement. “Ooo! Look at these serious faces! Must stop talking politics in here! … Drinks are on their way.”

Godwin then made the mistake of asking Rainer what he did, giving my host the opportunity to launch into a jubilant account of the collapse of his bakery and yeast empire, until the arrival of a waiter brought the story to an abrupt end. I gagged. There he was in flesh and blood, the little Totobola hunchback, looking me straight in the eye and rattling his tray of drinks. Rainer’s response took me even more by surprise. Assuming by my expression that I was horrified by the hunch on the back of the fellow, he flew to his defence. “Do not look at him like that! This is Toto. You must be kind to hunchbacks. There is nothing evil about them. The English king, Richard III, has been classified as a bad man for five hundred years. And why? Because he’s supposed to have a hunched back!”

Throughout this extraordinary outburst Toto remained impassive, while Godwin shot glances at me in consternation.

Rainer seized the drinks off the tray and shoved them at us. “Toto has worked here for years. He is my friend. He lives opposite us with his family. Yes, he has a family!”

Godwin, now desperate to get away from Rainer, was saved by a journalist from AIM, the government news agency, who came and spoke to him about going home. But before they got a chance to do so, an even more bizarre encounter took place, right where we were standing near the entrance to the bar.

A tall white man walked in, and the moment Rainer set eyes upon him, his arms shot upwards in welcome like battered flagsticks, and he called out with excessive enthusiasm – “Ah! Mr John! My dear cellmate!”

The newcomer froze. He was grim-faced, over fifty, but with the power of a far younger man detectable in his wiry torso stretching a black t-shirt. His eyes, a stony grey, matched the colour of his slicked-back hair. As he attempted to push past us, Rainer latched on to him like a groupie. “Where have you been? Have you been flying your airplane in dangerous zones? Let me introduce you to my friends ... Miguel, meet John Boland, the pilot – we were prison mates together.”

The penny dropped: Ulla’s phone call: Rainer shared a cell with an Englishman called John Boland.

In an accent from England’s industrial Midlands, this mercenary so feared by Ulla growled at Rainer, “You’re weird!” Then finding himself unable to advance any further without knocking into my frail host, he barked “Get out of my way!” – his attempt to muffle the command causing it to come out all wrong, like an expression of sickness.

“Please,” Rainer wheedled, “stay and have one drink with us!” Stretching an interminable arm across to me, he pulled me closer. “Miguel here is a most interesting film maker and writer ... And his friend Mr Godwin is a big fish: he is Mr Lonrho.”

Boland was at the limit of his patience. Looking at Rainer as if he wanted to kill him, he asked, “Why do you bug me every time you see me? What’s your game? Eh?”

A dumb silence had fallen around us. Violence singed the air. Everyone was watching.

It was at this moment that I decided that my host must be gay. I had suspected it ever since I met him, although androgynous qualities do not necessarily denote homosexuality, and there may have been no sexual implications behind the sobriquet “Rainha the Drag Queen”. I had also wondered if he “camped it up” simply to rile people for his own pleasure. But now there was no mistaking his disposition as he threw up his eyebrows and howled almost in falsetto, “My game! Did I not tell you about my game, Mr John? Surely you know! We both play the same game, you and I – they call it death!” emitting the fatal word like a spitting cat.

Boland went white. Then the violence came – but from an unexpected source: Rainer was holding a glass of brandy and coke in one hand and it exploded as if it had been hit by a bullet, spraying glass and liquid over the mercenary and others in the vicinity. The event was accompanied by detonating macabre laughter from Rainer who affected a toreador’s sweep to wave Boland through to the bar. I think it was the ludicrous spectacle of Rainer’s last gesture that stalled Boland’s strike. Instead, the intimidating man uttered an exclamation of contempt as he strode forward while everyone moved out of his way, leaving him free to continue to the bar. A couple of people laughed nervously. Then the crowd slowly resumed their business.

Rainer turned to us in triumph. “He’s so cruel looking, don’t you think? I call him ‘The Executioner’.”

Godwin and I didn’t know where to look, but the news agency man was truly impressed. “Ai Jesus!” he said to Rainer. “How did you do that? Breaking a glass with one hand. I’ve never seen anyone do that. Great trick!”

Pulling me aside, Godwin asked, “Who is this Rainer nut?”

I shrugged, my eyes on Toto who was already scampering among the legs of the patrons, cleaning up the mess.

“What was he inside for?” Godwin pressed.

“I have no idea. He came to me out of the blue.”

“You’d better find out. He certainly likes to shoot from the hip. He’s right about his friend Boland – Boland’s a marked man.”

I was beginning to feel dizzy once again. It was stuffy, ever torrid, I had drunk several shots of vodka and all this intrigue was getting me down. “Marked by whom?” I mumbled.

“He’s an English mercenary who fought for the Rhodesians in their SAS dirty tricks brigade. He was recognised recently by a freedom fighter who knew him too well to ever forget. What I’d like to know is, why Boland is here in Mozambique flying freight planes for a state company?”

“I did hear he was locked up by Frelimo,” I said, lethargy setting in.

“How do you know that?”

“Ulla told me.”

“Ah, of course, Kudzi’s Frelimo friend. Yes, I also heard about it. They got him on some minor offence – refusing to fly somewhere. Wrote him off as a cowboy, then set him free. Frelimo should throw him out. Tell that to Ulla from me!”

The agency journalist at last succeeded in dragging Godwin off. I watched my friend go out the door with a surge of apprehension – my last link with a familiar world.

I spent the next three hours getting increasingly drunk with Rainer in the Búzio. Early on, we subsided together in a corner where I took up Ulla’s claim that he had been locked up for “economic crimes”. Rainer confirmed that this was indeed the case, then confounded me with his explanation of what the crime had consisted of: refusing to allow officials to hold a “comício” in which his factory workers had to swear political allegiance to the party, install a flag and a portrait of the President, and engage in dialectic on worker participation and power-sharing. He went on to describe the gory conditions inside the two jails he had attended: Machava, and another place deliberately and atrociously misnamed Vila Algarve. I remember being amused by his account of a new class system enshrined in prison menus with Geral (gruel) for the masses, Dieta for Muslims, and Especial for those like Rainer who could afford to pay.

My host’s vivid account was curtailed by a power failure. In the ensuing darkness there was much muttering and blathering about Renamo bandidos coming to take over the city. Rainer, predictably, riled our immediate neighbours with a bold conjecture that there would be plenty of light after the take-over because the bandidos would have become skilled electricians by then with all their cable cutting. Fortunately, the arrival of hurricane lamps diverted attention from this political hot potato.

The new lighting brought Rainer’s attention back to me and blessed him with a change of subject. “What do you know about Richard III?” he asked.

My answer was the obvious minimum: “He murdered the princes in the Tower of London to secure the crown.”

Scorn twisted his features. “Vai pro caralho! Rubbish you learned from that swine Shakespeare, the favourite puppy dog of the Tudors!” And he launched into a slurred account of Richard III as a much-maligned monarch who was entirely innocent of the crimes invented by the Tudors to discredit him. “And he was no hunchback,” he said, thumping me on my spine. “He had one shoulder lower than the other – that is all.”

Pushing his face into mine, he asked, “How do you think Richard must feel having been a symbol of evil for all these centuries without a chance to clear his name?”

“Bloody awful” I responded, not without sarcasm.

“Most wounded, he is. Que seca! Richard III was a liberal reformer, a man who was kind and generous. Porra! Porra! Shit! Do you not know this?”

I assured him that he was absolutely right, then lost track of much of what he went on to say, fascinated by the elasticity of his mouth as he drunkenly circled the words with his lips to try to separate them, then darted the difficult ones out with the help of his piebald tongue like a chameleon, and even like a spitting cobra when he infused them with his bitter cynicism. I also remember being intrigued by the way he kept moving in and out of the present tense and switching from the first to the third person so that he and Richard III often became one and the same person.

According to Rainer, Richard was popular with the people, and a loving man when it came to women. He spoke in particular about a certain Elizabeth of York, sister of the famously murdered Princes, who fancied Richard and whom he was falsely accused of trying to kill.

“Elizabeth was throwing herself at me!” he exclaimed, his features creased into a picture of woe. “Like yourself Miguel, at the time I was sick with love for my wife Anne. So I had to keep Elizabeth away from me. That is why she turned against me, you see. She went off and married my enemy Henry. It was Henry who killed the princes and stole the crown. It was Henry who fought and killed me at the Battle of Bosworth. Vai pró caralho it was Elizabeth who betrayed me! All my troubles started from back then, that is for sure. All the difficulties I have recalling whole sections of my Life-Line. All the blocks I run into …”

Big tears were rolling down his face. “The Queen” had tipped the scales of melodrama. Tongue well in cheek, I asked, “Could you introduce me to Richard? He wouldn’t happen to be here in the bar, by any chance?”

Drying his eyes on his palms Rainer looked at me long and hard as only drunks can do when they have difficulty focusing. Eventually he said with a spectacular slur, “As a matter of fact he is.”

People had started to leave – the hands of the bar clock were close to midnight, perilously close to curfew time.

“He most definitely is here,” he muttered. “Right here in the Búzio.”

“Well, introduce me then,” I urged, scrambling to my feet and pulling him up as well.

We stood facing one another unsteadily. He shot out his hand – I took it by reflex – a toothy grin sprung his face open – “How do you do?” he said regally. “Very pleased to meet you, Miguel. The name’s Richard – Richard the Third of England!”

“Very pleased to meet you, too,” I groaned.

We drove back to the house in a winding manner as though for once Rainer were consciously trying to avoid the potholes. Now and then I caught glimpses of the unwashed and unhoused scampering for cover in drains, between broken walls, behind staircases, anywhere that would conceal them from the military patrols of the night. As we turned into avenida Francisco O. Magumbwe (a deceased Frelimo hero of the Mozambican liberation war, I had learnt at the bar), our headlights fell upon two women chopping down a jacaranda tree, presumably for firewood. Their eyes widened in terror for a second, then they scuttled off, their dresses billowing, and disappeared like ghosts in the buildings.

The fruit bats fired their scary cries at us as António unlocked the gate. There was no end to his hours of duty, it seemed. Rainer leaned out of the window and blurted, “Boa noite, Elizabeth of York! How are you this hot night?” adding hoots of derisive laughter that echoed through the garden.

Unperturbed, António held open the gate, and as we entered the driveway Rainer called out again, “Não faz mal, my dear Elizabeth! Love hazzzth no fury greater than a woman scorned … or something like that!” He swung his head round at me – “That swine Mr Shakespeare, isn’t it? Filho da puta!” Upon which he drove on cue into the bed of geraniums, and stalled the car.

For an eternity I vomited in the bathroom until dry retching set in. The next stage involved lying naked on the tiled floor in a pool of sweat, waiting for the strength to get to the library.

To accomplish this I had to slide along the passage wall until I arrived at an impassable gulf: the open doorway leading to the dining room. Going down on all fours, I was about to attempt to cross this when I heard the squeak of the sprung back door, followed by the soft padding of bare feet. António appeared and – without noticing me, or else choosing not to – glided through to the living room, where I saw him open Rainer’s bedroom door, go in, and lock it firmly behind him.

This action managed to register itself in my brain. After which it required minimal effort to put two and two together and come up with António as Rainer’s lover.

I must have made it safely to the library because that is where I found myself in the morning, head pounding, tongue cracking, stomach churning. Despite the city’s decay, the people’s suffering, Rainer’s shenanigans and my own torment, the cock in the back yard crowed and the grandfather clock chimed six times, then played Ave Maria. I went straight for a dose of radical treatment: shot of vodka from Zimbabwe Duty Free, four aspirins, black coffee from Agi, cool shower.

I dressed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from my film The Grass is Singing. I don’t make a habit of sporting t-shirts from my films, but this one was long and thereby ideal as a bed shirt; although on this occasion I put it on because Kudzi, who had worked on the Zambian shoot in 1980, often wore it – so having it on that morning was like having her wrapped round me, or so I tried to imagine.

While getting dressed I saw António in the car park reassembling the bricks of the geranium bed; although the side walls of the bed were concreted in, he was using nothing more than earth to level off the bricks at the front in preparation for their next collision with the car.

With a cup of coffee in hand I sat alone on the screened front porch and was soon granted a visual treat in the garden: the male peacock tottering forward over the cracked earth, its fully fanned tail held high like a heavenly banner. This universal symbol of power and glory had stood behind António at the Loja Interfranca when he shot Rainer in my dream. Whose power and glory had been at stake in the dream? Not António’s – he was of small import to me and unlikely to inhabit my subconscious; it had to be Rainer’s … or else mine, the dreamer’s ... or, perhaps, both of ours.

It occurred to me that I had not made much effort to find alternative accommodation during the course of the previous day. I was constantly waylaid by one drama or another. The comforts of the Kruger household were also beginning to take hold. Meanwhile, I was close to admitting the unimaginable: that Rainer and his world had begun to dominate my mind almost as much as Kudzi.

The mystery man himself emerged from his room walking in a slow, palpable cloud of somnolence, carrying his dog in his arms like a baby. His bare feet protruded from crumpled trousers, toes spreading over the red concrete of the porch with the flexigrip of a monkey. His face was as creased as the brown nylon shirt in which he had spent the night and, when he sat down in an armchair next to me without so much as a good morning, I observed the damp deadness of a hangover in his eyes. Keeping Rosa firmly against his breast, Rainer slid his back low across the seat of the chair. “Alcohol is not an enlightening drug,” he mumbled hoarsely. “I hope I did nothing scandalous at the Búzio?”

“You enraged a beefy man called Boland,” I answered in a voice that was equally hoarse.


A moment later he embarrassed me by stretching an arm out and placing an icy hand on the back of my neck.

“How is your head?” he asked as his fingers rubbed the nape.

I spaced my words warily: “Not … bad … thank you.” Even as I spoke I felt the dullness being dredged from me through his simple touch; shots of blood and oxygen filled my head while unerring charges of energy ran up and down my spine. When he withdrew his hand – which had turned hot during the exercise – the invigoration he had unleashed did not subside.

He responded to my sincere gratitude in his usual convoluted way. “Pity you cannot do the same for me. When it comes to helping oneself, it is always harder, isn’t it?” And he sighed as he sank down even further into the chair. “Auto-generation is exhausting ... Trouble is, I am not sure bootstrapping works. Nothing better than a good kick up the backside from an external source!”

As usual I was in such ignorance about his world that I derived nothing from his references other than the fear of once more being overloaded and bewildered by him.

While we sat together in silence I kept glancing at him out of the side of my eye. Soon his chin began to sink on to his chest and his eyelids drooped. I was now able to stare at him openly … and at close quarters. A man of mixed race with the capacity to relieve pain with a touch of the hand, to cicatrise a wound with a twirl of the fingers. His perfect Apache’s nose had wide hairless nostrils that pulsated gently like the gills of a fish. The vein snaking down the centre of his forehead bulged like fresh concrete between tightly laid stones. His gnarled fingers were vines lacing through the fur of his dog that lay sprawled across his chest, as still as a toy. Above the top of his trousers, the yellow-brown skin of his belly was a dry riverbed wrinkling between his hips. When did he eat, I wondered. I had seen him merely nibbling at food – half a sandwich, a mouthful of fish. Hard to imagine such a sack of skin and bones having sex. The axis of his sensuality lay beyond the carnal in some seething realm of his imagination.

Furtively I leaned right up close, inches away from him, a position that gave me a false sense of power over him. The surface tranquillity of his face exuded harmlessness, vulnerability even. But in his case, even sleep did not succeed in defusing him – within the cave of his unconscious I was aware of a time-bomb ticking away. What motives could possibly lurk inside that dark scalp which rose like a bald vulture’s through a halo of grey-speckled, crinkly hair? Sensational remarks like his professed determination “to break the state of torpor” referred to nothing I could pin down. He could be finalising a political manoeuvre or describing some personal upheaval involving António, his father, the factory, or the hand of the devil. Difficult, also, to know what importance to give his statements in view of his histrionic tendencies.

Yet Ulla was convinced Rainer was up to something political. And António had objected to his friend’s proceeding with his so-called “conspiração”: it was dangerous and could not work, he had said. Now that I knew they were lovers it was easy to appreciate António’s anxiety, even if I had not the slightest idea what could bring about the separation that António feared, or where they would end up once parted.

Why had Rainer gone for Boland, so deliberately winding him up? Boland had indicated that it had not been the first provocation. From what Ulla and Godwin had said, Boland could well be a fascist component in Rainer’s schemes. Of course their rapport could also have a sexual aspect. If Boland were a gay and they had shared a cell in Machava prison, this could go some way towards explaining Boland’s anger and Rainer’s stirring it up with such delight.

Then there was all the psychic stuff, tinged with touches of sci-fi. Since the healing interview I could see that many of the references that I had assumed to be political code words, were, in fact, references to psychic phenomena. What were these doing muddled with politics? Why on earth had Rainer talked about me to António in terms of a Life-Line that crossed or did not cross with his? Also there were his references to Zeega, the planet with which he was so familiar that I could imagine him touring it in a Star Wars dune buggy. No one could take such a proposition seriously. Could Rainer be a religious zealot like his father, perceiving me to be the source of divine retribution, to be kept in the house at all costs? Was he going to bring about an apocalypse and take us all to a new heaven on a far-off planet? António had called the plot “the shift of forms”, very much in keeping with his master’s psi or spiritual terms of reference. Or did António’s hostility towards me stem from a more prosaic source: the suspicion that I might be an undercover agent who was endangering his lover?

There was no getting away from it: I had passed from being irritated, frightened and repelled by Rainer Kruger, to being irritated, frightened, repelled, but genuinely intrigued. The ceasefire, or at least the opening of peace negotiations with Kudzi could provide me with the mental energy to try and strip Rainer of a few more of his onion skins. I remained unconvinced, meanwhile, that there really was a plot. And if it did exist, there was no telling whether it was driven by politics, trauma, psychic enquiry, satanic powers, or by a mixture of them all.

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