WHITE LIES Dexter Petley
This edition first published in 2016
First published in Great Britain in 2003 by Fourth Estate A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
Copyright © Dexter Petley 2003
The right of Dexter Petley to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.
HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication.
Source ISBN: 9780007135103
Ebook Edition © OCTOBER 2012 ISBN 9780007392667 Version: 2016-08-10
We were in a supermarket in Flers that Saturday afternoon last January. Joy was choosing things you wouldn’t buy if you were planning to leave your husband, unless she was stocking up for the unexpected, the bare cupboard I didn’t know was coming. But there was something wrong, she was low-speed, and anything I said echoed and died out like a weighted sack of words dropped into a winter pond.
I saw her clutch a bag of flour like she couldn’t let it go, her bottom lip pegged in her teeth. Did I catch her in the act of planning or had she just made the decision, and was wondering if she really wanted to leave me with a bag of flour I wouldn’t need? I must’ve tipped the balance, if there was still a balance, when I said: what d’you want that for?
If she stood here now I wouldn’t say: when did you decide to leave me, which item in the trolley was the last moment of our marriage? She’d picked a tin of chickpeas instead of dry ones, holding her breath like she was weighing up the future.
—We can’t afford these bloody tins, I said, snatching it off her and clunking it back on the shelf, jumping back in time and trying to change events. She’d run out of last straws right then.
We drove home through mist like a stocking over your head, down lanes invisible under tractor mud. The Land Rover cab was cold and streaming, the glaze channels on the door-tops completely rusted away, the windows held in place with splints of oak lathe from our ceiling. I said: what are you so fucking miserable about? Shouted it really, because we had to shout to hear ourselves above the roar of the diesel engine.
—I need some time to myself, she’d shouted back. I have to go away, to be alone.
I spent the rest of the weekend in a dumb panic. She’d ask me to wait outside while she made phone calls, and once there I began to map out my future alone. I occupied myself with the twenty-year-old hay-bales, dragging them out the barns and up the back garden, cutting the hemp string, the bales springing open like accordions into cakes. I mulched the vegetable beds, one square hay cake at a time, but they were too compact so I pulled them all apart and scattered them loose and thick. Then Joy banged on the window and I stood there as she handed me a cup of tea. She made small talk and offered me a home-made biscuit like she was the widow of the place, old Madame Macé, and I was the silent, respectful gardener.
—I’ll only be gone a week, she said, coming outside and standing on the well cover. The dark green box hedge behind her, the sound of a man we’d never seen calling his dog.
—You’re not coming back, I said, I know you’re not coming back.
—I’m your friend, she said, but the hug was all jacket and mittens, her body already gone. I don’t have anything to give you right now …
I didn’t dare ask what she meant. I didn’t even ask who she’d phoned or where she was going. I stretched every minute till it snapped and blanked out the whole of the coming week. She said she’d booked a ticket on the Eurostar shuttle, and she asked me if I’d drive her to the station Monday morning, like she was a guest who wanted to get the train to Paris.
This was the first time she’d left anyone, perhaps the first time she’d ever lied, so she hadn’t known that all deserters say: I just need time to think, it’s not you, I’m your friend, don’t worry. I’d done it before almost word for word, amazed at how easy it was to get away with. It was no different now, only I was the shocked one, willing to agree to anything, but not wanting to know what I’d done wrong. When I get back we’ll talk, she said. I remained grateful for every kind word, but we knew there’d be no talk.
She was my executioner, quick, tidy, purposeful, letting me spend my last hours outside where, by Sunday, I was just hanging about, gripping on to corner-stones or gutterpipe, crying against the seized-up baler rusting down by the mare. I’d kick its solid rubber wheels, homing on their details to alleviate the distress. I noticed they’d come off a British Army gun carriage made in Birmingham in 1942. I tried to concentrate on the effects of this war and forget Joy, but I couldn’t eat and she had to sit on my lap to help me drink the tea. So I felt like a war veteran too, trembling on a stick on a last visit to France, to this farm where the battle took place in the German retreat. We were surrounded by souvenirs of that battle and the occupation. A German Officer’s pocket inkwell Joy had found just by putting her hand under the cider press. Track-wheels off Panzer tanks stuck upright in the garden for periwinkles to climb. US Army jerrycans, 1943, on the Land Rover roof rack. A German-French dictionary, Berlin 1941. Hitler Pfennigs and machinegun bullets lying unused in their hundreds on the floor in rotten layers of grain and in the recesses of every barn wall. There were live shells still on a window ledge and the aluminium box we’d scuffed out from under the chicken house with the words US Army Bomb Mechanism on it. Water canteens and leather webbing and big brass shell cases with greasy rags tied over the top which old Farmer Macé had used as rust-proof paint pots. And the mound of heavy leather army horse tack from the beginning of the war.
Our conversation evaded concrete futures. Joy listed the small things I could get on with while she was away. I swallowed the lies like they were pep pills. If I strayed into emotive areas she’d say don’t, so I didn’t. I shut off my mind so the imaginary time between her leaving and her coming back would cease to exist beyond that domestic span of going up the field to check on the goats or gathering wood for the night.
On Sunday morning Joy wove a band of lavender for my fishing hat then asked me to stay outside till she banged on the window with a mug of tea. I went chopping wood, smashing up old oak planks, so worm-eaten they were half powder. Monsieur Aunay’s grandson came by on the Mobylette to check on some beasts in the top field. I’d only ever seen him at apple gathering, in the back of the cart with the whole family. Now he looked like he was on a rite of passage, his first solo task. He’d borrowed his grandpère’s Mobylette and white crash helmet and he wore a new pair of blue overalls. He checked the bœuf and pushed the Mobylette homeward down the muddy track. I swung the axe a few more times but there he was, standing beside me, holding out a piece of paper. Fund-raising to renovate the salle des fêtes at Landigou, ten francs a scratch card. I bought one, he stood there as I scratched it. Vous avez perdu.
On Monday morning I could see Joy was holding her breath, crossing her fingers, suppressing that rising triumph of getting away, or the terror in case the Land Rover wouldn’t start or the train was cancelled. I played my part to perfection too, and if she noticed maybe she was grateful. For me it was not an act of love but contrition, letting her believe she wasn’t lying, that she was just taking time out from a lifelong commitment and in the process helping herself over a period of self-doubt.
There wasn’t time, and it wasn’t Joy sitting there now. In this woman’s haste to get away from me, the future image of herself had slipped its lead and pulled ahead, choking and laughing. Just simple but significant changes, like she didn’t drink coffee that morning. It makes me manic, she said, like it’d been a lifelong tendency and she was talking to an acquaintance years hence.
As we got in the Land Rover she said to the geese: bye you lot and I knew my last chance had gone. It was the farewell I never got.
Monday was market day in Briouze. We followed our neighbours’ tractors with their orange beacons flashing in the mist, the breath of lumbering beasts billowing through the slats of vacheres towed by mud-lagged Land Cruisers and crapped-on Renault vans. It was the perfect time to turn her back on the place.
We stood on the railway platform away from the smokers. She acted like we were strangers, stepping on a train to be a single girl travelling alone in France, with no winter clothes in her rucksack. I didn’t know she’d packed the silk shirts and cotton socks, the brown dress and safari shorts. Or that she’d be back in Africa before I could sleep again.
The train came in like a row of linked tombs. I tried to say something but my mouth was cold, I couldn’t feel my lips and my jaw locked shut.
—Buck-up, she said.
She gave me her cheek as I went to kiss her mouth, and I caught her smell for a keepsake. By the end of the week it would disappear from her clothes and the bed as the mould and damp remains of Le Haut Bois took over.
She’d once called me ‘the unlucky explorer’ from some poem it doesn’t matter who wrote:
And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked;
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.
I’d read about Joy The Gold-Panning Missionary long before I met her. A flowery article beside an inky newsprint photo in Viva, a Nairobi women’s magazine which Zanna showed me.
Zanna was twenty years older than me. We met in London at a Somali literacy gig in Whitechapel. She was thin, with blue tracing-paper skin, dressed in black with a beehive sitting on her head. She kept her money down her bra in a leather pouch and put belladonna drops in her eyes to make them blue. She said her husband Austen lived in Kenya.
She took me back to her flat in Stoke Newington to show me her photos of Africa, her Pokot stools, Karamajong finger knives, Turkana beads and Masai blankets, her kanzus, kikois and her paintings of Lake Baringo. She changed into a floor-length tie-dyed jellaba and gave me a kikoi to wear while she made us fried-egg sandwiches and told me about Austen. She’d met him in Soho in the fifties when he was a young linguist, half-starved and selling poetry pamphlets outside cafes.
Zanna sold hand-made clothes down Portobello Road and modelled for unknown painters or stashed things for spivs and thugs and Jewish booksellers. She had boxes of photographs of half-starved young men in black rollnecks, gathered like poets outside new coffee bars. Everyone was called Johnny and they were all geniuses, all dead too. Drink, suicide, drugs, starvation, Jack the Knife. When Francis Bacon was starving, Zanna would give him ten bob for a painting. She’d scrape the paint off and sell the canvas down Bayswater to slumming toffs.
—No one wanted one with the fuckin paint still on it, darlin.
Then Austen got a job teaching English in Kenya, so Zanna joined him as his ‘disguise’. By now the photos were Kodakolor with white borders: Austen turned half native, half Africa bum in his shorts and elephant-hide bush-boots, tea cloth headdress, elder’s staff, ten beers a night. In the sixties Austen joined the BBC East Africa Monitoring Unit and they married. He boozed with prostitutes, hunted elephants, camped in lion country and trout fished the Berkshires. The photographs were black and white again: Austen’s boot on a dead elephant. Zanna running the camp kitchen. A Sikh mechanic holding a blunderbuss beside the zebra-striped Land Rover.
Soon Austen’s prostitutes moved in. Illiterate Kikuyu girls who spent his money on school fees for cousins, seed for their shambas, booze, cloth and witch doctors. Zanna painted watercolours and took African lovers, but her life there became a tour of duty whittled down to three months a year, just enough time to extricate Austen from another hoax, disaster or nightmare.
The magazine cutting about Joy was in a box with bundles of aerogrammes hammered into stencils by Austen’s typing and his latest photos of dogs, ducks and parched scrub. Austen had come across Joy on one of his walks in Pokotland and suggested Viva do an article. Joy, the 29-year-old American missionary helping children pan for gold so they could pay their school fees. Joy, living in a bush village in cattle-raiding country, running the school and a women’s self-help group. She rode a motorcycle, wasn’t married, and Zanna said she was ‘ever so nice’ but wasn’t really a ‘missionary’.
I always told people that my own African past was typical and insignificant. A year in Sudan as a teacher, ten months of it on strike, after which I’d been sacked and drifted along the overland trail of East Africa in my late twenties, trying to find something I could do naturally with little effort, a bit of stringing in Uganda maybe, but always failing to make the breakthrough.
I was thirty then, stuck in London a whole year, incoherent about why I felt drawn back to Africa. Zanna’s Africa was a corrupt and dangerous playground which had turned Austen into a reckless adventurer who believed he was indestructible. But he was just a middle-aged man glutting on sex and booze with Kikuyu tarts in native dives.
It was dawn when Zanna suggested we went to bed, even if I wasn’t her type. Sex was silent, in the dark made by thick drapes and blankets tacked over the windows. Next day I found the set of clothes Austen kept for his annual week in London. Thornproof suit, impeccable Crombie, shiny brogues. I put them on and wore them for weeks, riding Zanna’s black wartime bicycle about town, getting oil on the turnups. I spent her money on an Aeroflot ticket to Nairobi, then thought about what I’d say when I walked into Amolem and asked for Joy.
All Aeroflot flights went to Moscow back in those days. We landed in minus sixteen, got shunted through a terminal behind glass walls and three hundred abandoned boarding gates. Six iron-curtain travellers huddled in the distance with their brown-paper baskets and stringbags. Every gate was blocked by ground staff with guns, boy recruits in military serge, the icy stare of cold raw shaves.
Our passports were taken and replaced by flimsy red cards. We wouldn’t be flying on to Nairobi that day and they didn’t know when. No plane, bad weather.
The clapped-out airport bus smoked like a burning tyre. It was a mobile coldstore and the driver wore white wellingtons. Hotel reception was like check-in at the morgue. We were all Nairobi bound, all frozen stiff and starting to notice each other for the first time, the pack shuffling into suits. The men had no hand luggage, just the clothes on their backs and the duty-free. The women were mostly mothers with babies, bundles of plastic bags and nappies. The husbands swapped business cards. They all had import/export shops but business was only so-so, which was why we were all flying the cheapest airline in the world.
—This is my Mombasa number …
—This is my Bombay address …
The English lads were bragging.
—Nah, bit of Swahili and they drop at your feet. All you have to say is hapana mzuri and you get the lot for nothing …
No one edged my way till I was at the desk. It was clear I had to share a room with the bloke behind me.
—I’m Frogget, he said.
—I don’t really want to share, I said.
—No trouble. Fuckin shoot through, I will.
He swung a key fob the size of a wooden tennis ball.
—Stops yer puttin it in yer fuckin mouth, dunnit.
He tried it in the lock, upside down. He reeked of Gatwick bars and two-dollar vodkas on the Tupolev over.
—I’ll kick the fuckin door in if this key don’t fit. It’s the way I like to do things, you know, no nonsense, drive it out. That’s me. Drive it right out I do.
He threw open the door and swung his plastic bag with the 200 Marlboro on to the first bed and walked straight back out to find the bar. The room was two beds wide, the big triple-glazed window was a glass sandwich and wouldn’t close. Net curtains swayed more from heavy filth than wind. Beyond the steps below, there was a perfect surface of untrodden snow. Pine trees lined the road a hundred yards away. Cement trucks and heavy tippers drove by in the dusk which fell like bonfire smoke. The air was pitted with diesel fume and sludge and the airport was lit up by yellow-fever floods. Against the snow a soldier, a gun and a dog.
I fell asleep and woke with a stiff neck from the sub-zero draft to find Frogget rummaging in his carrier bag.
—Run out of fags didn I. Aint you avin tea?
—Downstairs, in that canteen.
Frogget tore the wrapping off his box and threw it on the bed, lit one up and left in a puff of smoke. I took the lift downstairs to the canteen and sat on my own in one corner, scratching my dry hair and smoking on a parched throat. A few curled slices of black bread see-sawed on the tablecloth if I touched it. The mothers crowded at the kitchen door for warm baby milk, the men laughed in the bar and the canteen was silent. A Russian waitress brought a plate to my table, picked up the bread, put it on the new plate and brushed crumbs on to the floor.
—Ticket, she said.
—I haven’t got one.
She took the bread away so I walked down the marble stairs to reception. A soldier opened the outer door and snow blew in. He brushed it off his greatcoat, stamped his boots and lit up a cigarette. I got the meal ticket and went back to the canteen and the waitress by the tea urn said:
—Sit over there, with your friends.
I joined the only two I recognised from the flight.
—You come for the shit sandwiches? I’m Ray, he’s Steve, pleased to meet you.
—Norman, I said.
—How far you going Norman?
—What takes you to Kenya then?
—Just a visit, I said. What takes you, Ray?
Frogget came out of the toilet and slammed his beer bottle down, spilling it on his fags and barging in on the conversation.
—Me? he said. You talking about me? I’ve bin out there a coupla times. Livin on the beaches with them lads that rip off tourists, you know, girls and all. I got a few down there, Malindi, Lamu. You just ask fer me in a bar. Say mzungu Frogget and make like you mean I drink a lot. I tell yer, when I’m down there I drink till I don’t know where the next one’s comin from. Couple o’months an I’ll be back ‘ome but not before I’ve whacked it in. Coke, smack, speed, White Cap, Tusker, anything yer like, me. Yeah, smack it up I do.
Ray leaned forward and said:
—You ever chewed that root?
—Mirrah, you mean?
—Yeah, that’s the stuff. Acid and mirrah. Couldn’ ‘andle that could they, them natives?
Frogget looked at Steve.
—Well Steve, he said. What you up to?
—Yeah Steve, Ray said. What turns you cuckoo?
Steve was still silent, turning a Rothman’s packet in his hands, lifting the flap, closing it, putting the packet down. He scratched his leg and sighed before biting his lip.
—Yeah, well, I dunno do I.
—Ah come on Steve, fuck me. You aint goin out there to Kenya to buy a fuckin ice cream, China, I know.
—Well, Steve said, to see what’s there I suppose. You know, this and that, here and there.
Ray slapped him on the back and said:
—Well that’s about all anyone can do isn’t it? That’s what I’m going for and I’ve seen it all before. He’ll get a girl. He’ll be alright.
I got up and walked off thinking what was so different about me? I was looking for a woman too wasn’t I?
Next day the bus took us out to the airport at twenty to midnight, bouncing across the frozen ruts. We were put back in the deserted glass corridors, let loose and ignored. Frogget and Ray were in a bar and Ray was beginning to stagger and sing Polish drinking songs, encouraged by the barmaids with their two-dollar vodkas. Steve was glassy-eyed and wanted to ask me something:
—D’yer reckon I could get to South Africa like, overland?
—Nah, Ray says. No one can. Not even him.
He pointed to an African at the other end of the bar then swayed towards him.
—You won’t even get out of Nairobi. Boukrah. That’s all they ever bleedin say there, boukrah. Tomorrow, always bleedin tomorrow. Isn’t that right friend?
Ray put his arm round the African’s neck and the African pushed it off.
—I’m not your friend. I don’t even know who you are.
—All Africans are my friends. You’re an African, all Africans are my friends, so you’re my friend because you need me.
—I don’t need you man.
—Yes you do, you need me to look after you. All Africans need me to look after them. I’m the white man and I say jambo bwana to the black man. I want you to love me.
He reeled against the wall, bounced off and fell against the African.
—I don’t want you to love me, white man. Get your hands off. Don’t touch me.
Frogget went over.
—Leave it Ray, you’re a public nuisance. You want some village people you should’ve said, man. Get on down to Lamu.
—No, Ray said, getting a hand on the African’s head. Let me kiss you, I want to kiss you, you’re my friend.
—Get off. Are you homosexual or something?
The African went to a table and sat down.
—Yeah, alright, I’ll be one. I don’t mind homosexuals, let me fuck you, come on I want to fuck you.
The African stood and caught Ray by the elbow.
—Fuck off man and leave me alone.
Ray fell against the wall.
—Blacks don’t have to like whites any more. You never seen a black man before?
—I’m just having some fun …
Ray went along the bar looking for his vodka.
—All these black pigs are the same. He’ll get over it.
One afternoon I found this German helmet while clearing the bank above the lavoir. Joy had been gone three days, but when I looked back down the chemin at Le Haut Bois nothing told me she’d ever been there. No window steaming as the kettle boiled, no Joy packing logs in the basket, no scubbing of her wellingtons on brittled mud. So I kept away from that house, letting the phone ring and the door clap in a pealing wind. It scraped through the barns day and night and drove sleet-rash into my face, preaching at my chapped lips and fingers.
I’d begun to landscape, starting by the lavoir the way me and Joy had meant to, but the earth was frozen shut. Every hamlet in France has a lavoir, a water source and washing place. Joy had wanted to turn ours into a water garden, to plant willows and excavate the stone walls and the granite slabs, but it was still a gullion of sludge, just a cow-hole for Monsieur Aunay’s beasts. The bank above was a snag of dead bramble, buckthorn and flailing whips of untrimmed ash, but I’d cleared halfway, tugging links of barbed wire fence from claws of grass where even the dirt was rusted. It was German Army wire, you could tell from the clips between barbs.
The helmet was under leaf-mould and lifted out like a bowl, leaving a smooth hollow of dry, configured roots. The leather webbing was complete, snapping as it eased free. And there, like a coronet, still recognisable after fifty-two years, were woven sprigs of lavender.
For a second, this soldier was more real to me than Joy, sitting in the meadow with his helmet capped on the fence-post as he scratched his head and guzzled stolen cider, the farm behind him ransacked. He’d splashed himself in the lavoir and filled his canteen from the trickling spring, ears drying in a stroke of summer. I held this rusty helmet with its Bosch-drop over the ear, picking out rust-wafers and sycamore leaves like fossils of extinct fish, running my finger round the bullet hole. He’d stood up, put the tin hat back on, the hole appearing as suddenly as the shot, straight through the daydream, killing him where the helmet fell.
I carried it back to the house at dusk, driven inside by the merciless cold. Because of the wind I was sleeping downstairs, rolled up in the duvet on the floor between the armoire and the woodstove, instead of adrift under the roof in our big empty bed. Up there the tiles slid away at night and splintered in the yard, like dreams of broken teeth. Even the glass out of the skylight took off and put a deep scratch down the side of the Land Rover.
The dark closed in and the moon shone hard as a mortuary light, flooding the room in formaldehyde sheen. I ate a bag of monkey nuts instead of cooking, and used the German helmet as a bowl for the empty shells. If I fell asleep before exhaustion the mice would wake me, pulling at my hair, so I set this corral of wooden mouse traps called Lucifers round the floor and slept inside it, only they snapped all night. Or the geese at their watch would wake me, running round the yard like Nazis in a daze, confused by the moon or in a panic over the two-foot-long coypu who kept a den in one corner of the mare and emerged at night like a submarine.
For several nights a smell had curled up into the house from under the floorboards. But now it detonated just as I settled down, so I put my clothes back on over my pyjamas and thought okay, I’ll rip the floorboards up.
I spent an hour smacking the torch in the barn as I looked for the jemmy, unable to strike matches in there because of all the US Army jerrycans leaking jeep fumes since 1944. Everything was black except this old goat skin nailed to the back of the barn door. The same door the Normans used to nail owls to in 1745.
I stepped on a rake and the six-foot handle smacked me under the left eye. I couldn’t get the Land Rover started to use the headlights and even the split-charge terminal had rusted up in the damp so I couldn’t run a spot off the lighter socket.
When I did get back to the house with the jemmy I couldn’t smell the body at all. I hoped I’d dreamt it, only once the door was closed the stink unfolded twice the size. The problem was now obvious. To get the planks up I’d have to take the wood stove out and it was still alight. I opened the door and all four windows, kicked the smokepipe off and dragged and rocked the iron box across the clay tiles. It belched smoke and I had to wrap my left arm in a wet towel. When I reached the big granite fireplace the stove crashed on to its side. I’d forgotten to take the chimney panels out so the smoke spewed back into the room. I knocked the panels down and rushed outside half asphyxiated, waiting for the smoke to clear from the house.
Then I had to empty and dismantle the armoire because it was too big and heavy to move alone, which meant bagging Joy’s clothes, something I’d been putting off. Once that was done I knocked the armoire pegs out and stacked the pieces neatly in the grand séjour. Next came the armchair, the table, the bookcases and some barrels we’d used as tables. The worst thing was this polystyrene sheeting we’d glued down to keep the damp and the cold out. On top of it was cheap blue carpeting tacked tight against the skirting. In spite of this the wind still got under there and the carpet billowed, in-out, in-out, like the floor was breathing.
It was 3.30 a.m. by the time I had the boards up and there were drifts of polystyrene swirling round the house, all charged with static and wind from the open door like a scene from one of those dozy plastic snowshakers I had in the sixties, a souvenir of Madame Tussaud’s.
I stepped onto the bare clay three feet below the floorboards and found the body of our cat curled up in the corner. She must have crawled through the vent after a mouse or eaten a poisoned rat and crawled in there to die. It was me who’d put rat poison down. I hadn’t minded too much when they’d gnawed holes in the night or even when I saw one run across the floor with an apple, only one night I woke to find a rat sitting on my stomach.
I put the cat in a bin bag and buried her in the wind and the dark as tears blew in my mouth and up my nose like flies. Then I sat at the table in three jumpers and two joggings, drinking coffee as the sun rose like a glint on the ice, the door still open, unable to see the point in putting anything back.
Austen met me at the airport in his 1956 Land Rover and we left Ray, Steve and Frogget arguing with porters in the airport bar. Straight off Austen said:
—So you’re Zan’s boyfriend are you, bloke? Well, she said I’ve got to keep you away from all those Kuke dolly birds at the Starlight Club, ha!
A crate of Guinness rattled in the back along with two sacks of maize, two hens tied by the legs and debes of paraffin and water.
—They’re for Wanja, he shouted over the engine as we rattled across potholes towards the Ngong Hills.
—Zan tell you about Wanja, bloke?
—What do you mean?
—I think she’s gone mad. Bloody worrying, bloke.
—No, ha. Wanja. Round the bloody bend. Those fucking Tanzanian witch doctors. She puts bloody lipstick round her eyes and mutters to herself all day. Found her walking round the shamba last night, starkers. Says there’s a devil in her stomach. Wanjiku’s running the place now. She’s only twelve. Can’t go to school in case her mother burns the place down.
It was probably the drought turned Wanja mad because a wind like a blowtorch scorched across the shadeless plain. The Ngong Hills looked desolate in the clear air.
—Lions still up there, bloke.
This was Masai country parcelled up and sold to Kikuyus who didn’t already have an ancestral plot in the bush. Narrow strips of land still shadeless between rough homesteads. Umbrella thorn and clumps of candelabra where Masai cattle grazed on the unenclosed land. Grey-black cotton-soil sloped up to the hills patrolled by kites and eagles.
In Austen’s compound the rainwater tanks were empty and the earth was cracked. Wanja was in the shamba tying strips of cloth and ribbon to withered stalks. She wore an anorak despite the heat, hair uncombed and dusty. An ex-prostitute Austen had ‘rescued’ from the tourist bars, now she was singing a Kikuyu hymn as a big old white drake with goiters and sores stumbled round her.
Austen told her he’d got the chickens but she just stared and shrugged. He untied them and they ran round the compound. Wanjiku looked like a mission-school house-girl with dusty knees, short white socks and grey cotton frock. No one knew the identity of her father, just that he was one of Wanja’s Johns from the Starlite days. Wanjiku curtsied and helped us unload the truck. There was a gas fridge in the storeroom and I guzzled cold water from glass bottles.
—Don’t forget to boil the water first, bloke. Comes from a standpipe in the village.
It tasted of flouride and Wanjiku’s teeth were stained from it. Inside, the hut was baking because there was no ceiling under the pitched tin roof. Austen said there were love birds nesting up there once, but the chatter drove him nuts so he’d chased them away. Wanjiku started sweeping the bare concrete floor round the tatty sofa and dusted Austen’s desk which rocked against the shiplap walls. There were stacks of blue flimsy foolscap, a huge grey typewriter, a paraffin lamp, some rare books on a single shelf reserved for Africana.
I dozed in a corner all afternoon while Austen was away. Wanjiku crept about, peeled potatoes, filled the paraffin lamps. The roof clanked and the smell of baked creosote fumes gave me a headache. The sunset didn’t linger into evening and Wanjiku lit the oil lamps and put the potatoes on the bottled gas stove. Austen came back with two oil drums full of water and I helped him drain them into one of the rainwater tanks which were sunk underground. I said I needed a shave and a wash.
—Piss on the saplings, bloke, and waste-water on the paw-paw tree.
Wanja came in to eat the fluffy boiled potatoes and bean stew with fragments of goat’s leg. She started singing Kikuyu hymns and Wanjiku joined in.
—The Spirit of Zion Church, Austen said. I could throttle the fucker who put that up. Just a tin duka with a cross on it by the water tap. I say we go out bloke. Bring a sweater, it gets chilly.
He really wanted to take me to the Starlite or the Pub, but he was being protective because he said Zanna wouldn’t approve.
—First day, bloke. Take it easy, ha.
We headed out through Masai country and came to the Craze which was supposed to be an out-of-town nightspot and hotel. The bar was empty and there was one white couple on the disco floor, dancing like it was a game of blind man’s buff. Me and Austen sat on twirly iron chairs with red, heart-shaped, leather upholstery. On the menu was chips, fried eggs, fried bread and baked beans: sixteen bob. There was tomato sauce on the table and waiters in red jackets lined up to shake our hands. When the white couple saw us they came straight over and the disco was turned off. They were brother and sister, the bloke a slightly younger version of Austen, tanned and wiry with a clipped voice like he’d been shouting at natives all his life. The moustache was 1901. He was repatriating himself, that’s what he said. Eleven years in Zambia. He banged his fist on the table.
—Why should I bother with that man? Eh? Tell me that.
—Who? Kaunda? Austen said.
—Of course. The man’s a fool. KK’s done nothing in eleven years. Just sacrificed his socialist ideals for a kilo of fucking sugar.
He was just as bitter about the Craze too. He’d wanted a last fling, a stop-over in whore country, but these Indian bastards had conned him into staying at the Craze. They’d offered transport and said these out-of-town weekend nightspots were trendy with the new middle-class African and enlightened Europeans. His sister had come out to meet him for the week and they were flying back together. She wore an orange kaftan and kept saying: it’s alright Robert, it’s cool.
She got the disco turned back on. The light show was a bloke shaking a coloured bulb in each hand like maracas. The four of us danced till Austen said it was fuckin ridiculous and we left.
Wanjiku came running out the shack when we pulled up. As Austen switched the engine off we could hear a commotion, a wailing and crying in the distance. It was too dark to see my hands. I could make out a dim glow here and there half a mile off.
—Where’s Wanja? Austen said.
—Oh Austen, Wanjiku said and started crying. She say to tell you she has gone to Tanzania.
—Shit and derision! What’s going on up there?
—I do not know.
Austen locked me in the shack with Wanjiku and gave me an airgun. He let the Ridgeback loose and set off on foot with a panga. I blew the lamps out but what with the fear, the jet lag, the heat and the sudden change of diet, my guts gave out. I had five seconds to get to the long drop only we were locked in. I could’ve gone through the window but the dog would’ve shredded me. Austen came back and found me washing my trousers in a bucket and needing somewhere to stash the soiled pages of yesterday’s Daily Nation.
—Bloody drunkard, mshenzi. Not you bloke. Up there. Josphat bloody Githinji. Chang’aa gang war. Four women with kids after Githinji’s son start stoning old Mama Githinji. Whole family’s running all over the shamba yelling like dogs. God! The police car’s outside the bar. Two police, dead drunk, say they’re not assigned.
He wanted to sit and talk now, to map out my career, to get me stringing for the BBC Africa Service. Him and Zanna had all the contacts. I didn’t booze back then, or talk much. I just listened and gulped down Austen’s Roosters, short lethal fags made of uncured tobacco with no filters. Austen shuttled between the sofa and the crate of Export Guinness in the storeroom, small bottles brewed under licence in Kenya. One flick of his well-worn Swiss Army knife and the bottle tops rattled to the floor. One Rooster, one Guinness, six or seven swigs a bottle till he became louder and maudlin while Wanjiku slept soundly on a mat on the kitchen floor.
Everywhere I suggested going for a story he said was too dangerous.
—Stay out of Uganda for the moment bloke. The Ministry of Defence just announced it: guerillas gonna resume bombing campaign in Kampala.
So I flicked through the Daily Nation. Teenage girls at Lamu jailed for idleness.
—Trouble there too, bloke. Three hour shootout between bandits and police. Killed two of ’em and arrested the truck driver. Indian smugglers. Three hundred and forty elephant tusks. God! Right fucking shambles this Wildlife bloody Army. Kenyatta’s bloody wife still flies about in an army helicopter massacring zebra with a machine gun.
I said I’d just hitch out to Naivasha then. A dispute between neighbours had turned into the serial buggering of chickens by rival gangs in Kakamega. Austen said I couldn’t sell a story like that so why didn’t I go interview a dentist about flouride in the water. And if Wanja came back I could ask her about skin-lightening creams. He said all the prostitutes used them to make their skin go pale. He reckoned it was the mercury in the cream that had turned Wanja mad.
My idea was different. I wanted to visit Joy and do a story on gold panning and cattle rustling. But I wanted to be something first, get the red dirt on my boots and find some connection for myself. Maybe my character would form itself in parallel to the story I found. I didn’t tell him those bits, and I didn’t ask him about Joy either, but I didn’t have to wait long before he mentioned her:
—Hey bloke, I’ve got it. You must go and see this woman Joy up in Amolem …
I could’ve asked him what she was like but he was ratted on Guinness now and I wanted to preserve her welcome like it was a real memory, not a guess or a hope.
The Rooster smoke was coming out his ears as he banged the chair and shouted:
—D’you know what that cunt Mengistu does to the Ethiopian people? Charges the fuckers he shoots for the bullets.
I wasn’t interested enough to listen now. I was picturing Joy in her long months between visitors, the airmail envelopes crisp and yellow and filling with insect pepper, her despair if a guitar string snapped, sewing up the holes in her mosquito net with raffia, listening in the night for cattle raids and aeroplanes, snakes and shooting stars … Listening out for me.
—Hey bloke, Austen said. Zanna give you that bloody jacket for Schick?
It was in the bottom of my pack, a heavyweight camouflaged Barbour which I’d agreed to deliver, new and oily.
—Christ almighty, Austen said when I gave it to him. Bloke’s gonna wear that down the Starlite? Mad bastard.
—Who is this Schick? I said.
—You don’t wanna know bloke. Man should wear a Keep Away sign round his neck.
It took seven bottles of Guinness before Austen was pissed enough to go to sleep.
Next day I set off for Naivasha, fifty miles north, reaching Dagoretti by clapped-out bus. For the settlers of Karen/Nairobi, Dagoretti was where Africa began, with the last white homestead in sight of the township.
The streets stank of raw sewage and barefoot women carried bundles of firewood. Kids queued for water with twenty-litre cooking-oil tins. There were mud houses in the lanes, roofs made of flattened tin cans, doors from packing cases. There were barber shops in the market square and radio repair shops, charcoal sellers, bars and cafes. Women in brilliant white dresses walked home from church.
A few kids followed me up the long hill towards Kikuyu.
—Hey you. Mzungu. Liverpool, Liverpool. Where are you going?
At the top there was open pasture rising to a coffee grove. A gutted white mansion behind the spiked muigoya hedge. A boy was collecting the leaves in a basket so his family could wipe their arses.
—Good morning sir, he said. Have you come to live?
—No, I said, and he was crestfallen.
There were buses and taxis in the shabby township. I asked the boy which bus for Naivasha.
—Hey you, he said. You stay here and eat paw-paw. You go that way and those thugs there are the bad men. They will steal your bag.
—I must go to Naivasha, I said.
It was the middle of the afternoon and the township men were already drunk. Over the road, two North Yemenites were getting into a Datsun Cherry. I guessed they didn’t live out here so I waved and ran across.
They greeted me back, we shook hands. They wore brown nylon and smelled of tea rose, their teeth were brown and one of them smoked an imported cigarette.
—Which road are you taking? I said.
—The road to there.
The driver pointed out of town.
—Away? I said.
—Yes, away from here.
—Will you take me?
—Welcome, they said.
They’d been chewing mirrah and were cake-eyed, judging by the pile of stalks on the floor in the back of the car. They asked the usual questions, like was I a tourist? A German? Why did I go to Kikuyu Junction? For the girls? The beer? Had I read the Koran?
In situations like those I usually kept it quiet, head down. I’d met too many travellers on the overland route who turned up the volume and tried to make the cross-over. They chewed the mirrah, grooved on the Koran, in for the ride like pocket Kerouacs, but it always turned bad.
If I was undecided about being in Africa anyway, it was best to keep to dignity, respect, and manners. That was my travelling creed. It avoided confrontation.
My gift, my real talent, was to go through life invisibly. I could be the only white man seen for twenty years but still dilute any interest in my existence. Other travellers were like the Pied Piper or the UN turning up with a lorry-load of aid. The whole district flocks out the bush to see and touch them.
It was my first real day back in Kenya. Since I’d last passed through a couple of years back, an attempted coup had sharpened security. Now I had a year’s open ticket, eighty dollars cash, and a couple of hundred shillings bummed off Austen till the end of the week. Khalid was a careful driver; his friend translated the Day-Glo quotes from the Koran on the fringed pendants hanging round the inside of the car. But we were only three miles out of Kikuyu Junction when Khalid said:
It was a roadblock five hundred yards ahead, a blue Land Rover with light flashing, spikes across the road, rifles in the air. Without a second’s pause, Khalid opened the glovebox, took out two small packets and tossed them onto the back seat beside me.
—I give you one hundred United States dollars for putting these into your pocket and for the talking. In English. No Swahili. Is very important. English. The police are scared of good English. I know this for ten years I live in Kenya.
I put them in my pocket because Khalid’s logic was impeccable. There was no risk to me, whatever happened. I wouldn’t be beaten up, jailed or face extortion, but they would. If the police searched me I’d tell the truth and be believed. The point was, we all wanted to get to Naivasha and this was the best solution. I needed a hundred dollars and they knew it.
The police waved us down. I leaned out.
—Jambo, the policeman said.
—Good afternoon, I said. How are you?
I didn’t give him a chance to answer. He tried to lean in and take a look. He stank of millet beer too.
—How are you? he said.
—Very well, thank you. What’s the problem? I’m taking my two friends to Naivasha to have tea with my mother. We’re already late.
—Okay, he said. Go to Naivasha.
—Thank you. Goodbye.
The Yemenites were deadpan for a mile then praised Allah the Merciful. I handed back the packets and didn’t ask what they contained and they didn’t tell me. I saw one contained foreign exchange because they paid me from it, one hundred and fifty dollars US, a bonus of fifty.
—You, lucky charm, Khalid said.
—You could be professional, Jamal said.
—Will you do it again, one day? For us?
I knew exaggerating my own immunity would be dangerous, only the money was a good reason to consider it and I’d be free of Austen’s political hand-me-downs. I still needed a source of foreign exchange to act as a reserve against local shillings. And I’d been given a value by these two Yemenites, the threads of self-definition, the first contour in my personality. I felt anonymous, but anonymity didn’t just mean blending in with the wananchi. And it wasn’t only my skin colour which was opposite, it was my polarity. I always seemed to be travelling or just flowing in the opposite direction to everyone else. I emanated this lack of interest, this laissez-faire. It could’ve made me the perfect smuggler, if I wanted to be one. But my vocation was to drift. I could wait five days sitting on my rucksack at the bus station in Dar es Salaam for the bus to Zambia. Or five hours for my rice and beans in the New World Eating Bar in Wethefuckarwe. I didn’t need profit to eat githeri, just five bob here, five bob there.
So what else made me the perfect smuggler’s lucky charm? I could fake a plummy accent which wouldn’t fool anyone in London but could strike notes of authority in Africa. I failed to interest people, even prostitutes and beggar boys ignored me. And I knew every border, road, dive and dodge in East Africa, or would do soon enough. I could multiply the briefest details into facts, like my whole being was a vacuum that sucked in single experiences rapidly and completely, expanding them by intuition. In this way, places I’d never visited were familiar; places arrived at never confused or disoriented me. Yes, I was ready to accept I was the perfect smuggler’s lucky charm.
I wrote my name on a piece of paper with Austen’s PO box number. I said I’d do it again if they needed me, as lucky charm, that is. There’d be no compromise in that. Then Khalid said:
—You want to sell your passport? One hundred dollars?
—Yes, I said, why not.
—Hey man, Jamal said. You know Mr Schick? You do good business with Schick because he want lucky charm …
Three weeks and one expensive fever later I went to pick up some new passport photos in downtown Nairobi. Embassy Jagger, photographer. His studio was a tin hut behind the market place, beside a ten-foot pile of rotting fruit skins. His choice of backdrop was either a grey sheet or plastic shower curtain. It wasn’t my face on the photos. It looked like a carrier bag drying on the line, or a police identikit. I stared at the likenesses again for some sign of recognition. It was like he’d lost the film, or the camera hadn’t worked so he’d taken a negative of a long thin Luo’s face from his drawer, overexposed the print and tinted up the grey. My big lips and flat nose, fluked eyes, pocks and a scar. My first ever photograph, hence the fear, pride and perplexity.
I sat in the New Protein Best World Cafe and forged Austen’s signature on the back of the photographs then rushed to the High Commission to report my passport stolen and apply for another.
—Must we always have to tell people we close at 11.30 when it says so on the door!
—I need a fuckin passport.
He wouldn’t even let me leave the photographs.
I was meeting Schick for the first time at three, against all Austen’s advice. Schick needed a ‘passenger’ for a run into Uganda and I’d had a good recommendation from the Yemenites.
I thought I could kill some time in the park so I ran across to the traffic island, sprinting with the crowd as the buses heaved down. A packet fell from someone’s back pocket and bounced on the ground. A split second and the haze and clutter of legs left it behind. I was at the back. My instinct was to scoop, lift and keep going in one movement like nothing had happened and no one had noticed. But my balance was barged sideways by a man who fell on the packet, a fluke snatch which made us both lose momentum. By the time we’d saved our skins and backtracked out the road and onto the island, the crowd had left us and we were alone.
He was grubbier than me in his cockeyed cowboy boots and twenty-eight-inch flares with the linings dragging on the ground. His wide-lapelled pin-striped jacket was ripped to shreds and had red plastic pockets sewn on to the old ones. The stiffeners in the butterfly collars of his flower shirt were slipping out like false finger nails. His teeth were brown. His eyes bloody pink.
—Run after him, I said.
The crowd began to disperse on the other side. The man hesitated, holding the brick-shaped envelope. I could see a five bob note through its cellophane window, then slowly he began to slide the packet under his shirt. We were now alone on the traffic island in Kenyatta Avenue. Two hundred Kenyans were gathering each side for the next rush across. They must’ve all been watching us. People shouted at me from bus windows.
—Hey mzungu, hey you …
But I’d become detached by those photographs, or disfigured by malaria. I didn’t feel mzungu. I was snide, doing business with my companion. There was no doubt we were trapped in some kind of companionship now, so much so that he sensed my greed. He noticed the tear in my trousers, the grey smelly jacket. I didn’t have any socks on. A ponytail lanked out from under my crooked straw hat. I didn’t even have a rucksack, just carried my passport photographs in my hand like any Kenyan.
—Run after him, I said, scanning the crowds. Not for the owner of the packet, but to see who was looking at us, and how soon we would be swallowed up in the next wave.
—Give it back …
I pointed to a man running against the lights, dodging his way across. I was covering myself, that’s all. My companion didn’t move. The packet was secure under his shirt and his hands were free. The lights changed. He was of course entitled to test me out. As the surge began, he simply stepped into the road without looking back. The crowd behind me caught up and I was swept towards him. At the kerb I made a lunge at his shirt. It ripped in my hand.
—Give that money back, I said.
But he knew what I meant and I was powerless to deny it. I was saying give it back to me.
—No, man, five-five. Look, there is ten thousand shillings in it.
The packet was exposed through his ripped shirt. It was written on. 10,000/-.
I was disappointed. It wasn’t enough. It was only one month’s rent on a Karen bungalow, or four more months bumming round Kenya. The price of a guard dog or twenty dinners at the International Casino. For my companion it meant capital, profit, or months of the good life down the Baboo Night Club in River Road. If he kept the whole ten thousand it was a year’s salary.
The man I thought had dropped the money was running back. Perhaps he remembered the feeling of it falling out. I knew it wasn’t his money, that it was a payroll, that they’d call the police and he’d be beaten up. He ran past so I set off after him, shouting, ducking traffic as the lights changed. Across the Uhuru Road he went, until a council gardener shouted for him to stop. I grabbed his hand, started pulling him back to Kenyatta.
—You’ve had your money stolen. Back pocket …
He was wearing a bottle-green corduroy jacket. Round face, short, squat, out of breath. He slipped his hand into his jacket and showed me a green wage packet.
—Not me, he said. This is all I have.
I walked back to the traffic lights.
—Pssst. Pssst. The silly cunt thought I hadn’t seen him standing there. Even the Nairobi City Council gardeners were leaning on their tools watching the two thieves meet up again.
—Psst. You ran after the wrong man, he said. You, a fool, shouting like that you get me killed. Now we go. Split five-five. Five thousand you, five thousand me. Aieee you fool. Say sorry.
—That is okay. We are friends.
He clutched the money through his clothes. I suppose he’d earned custodial rights, but my self-evaluation was declining. I’d overacted the part. I’d take a thousand bob now just to get gone. But why should he have the nine thousand?
—Where you going? I asked.
—Walk, he say. Look for place.
He was fiddling with the packet now and pulled out the chit.
—Look. Ten thousand shillings.
It said Kenya Transport Co. Mombasa 6,000/-. Nairobi 4,000/-. I could take my half to the Transport office and get the loser off the hook but I wanted to go to Tanzania one day. I wanted to give Austen five hundred bob. I had to pay three hundred shillings for my new passport. I found myself telling all this to my new friend, so he didn’t think I’d betray him. I showed him more holes in my clothes and said I couldn’t pay the doctor for some medicine and didn’t even have any underpants. He said soon I would have a lot of money.
We walked to Club 1900. He hesitated.
—No way, I said and walked on.
He caught me up and started to jibber.
—It is our lucky day. One time, before, I found nine thousand dollars in Mombasa and bought a Volvo. Five thousand shillings, it is nothing to me. This is true, I have eighty thousand shillings on me.
He started to look ridiculous, a parody of suspicion, tracing and retracing his steps, peering off the road at any path or hideout. We were down among the wholesale shops, the dry goods, the Asian importers and office suppliers. Old Nairobi, low colonial stores, shoe shops, seamstresses, the smell of cotton and leather and printers’ ink. Cool, tidy, dusty shops with atriums and balconies where gentle but highly strung Patels sat at colossal rolltop desks looking down into the shop below. I’d begun to go there to change my currency, just paltry sums like a ten-dollar bill, but I was always invited to draw up a chair under the ceiling fan to drink a Pepsi and to listen to their gripes about police harassment, bent customs officers, greedy relatives in St Leonards.
—Give me twenty steps, he said. I am turning off this road on the corner.
He pointed to a rubbish patch, a wasteland with paths that crisscrossed between the ditches and the warehouses. It was lunchtime. Workers lounged in groups, Asian shopgirls smoking and drinking tea, messengers in flipflops chucking mango skins in the gutter. They all watched as I waited for my signal. It came from a ridge a hundred yards away. He beckoned, like he was digging a hole with one hand, before squatting under banana fronds. A hundred people saw me pick my way over to the sewage drain.
—Were you seen? he says.
I felt sick. I’d used up a whole day’s energy and shouldn’t have been slagging on an empty stomach after two weeks throwing up chloroquine. My legs were too weak to squat and I got the shakes. He was waving the packet in the air.
—Your lucky day. My lucky day. Which day you born?
He gave me the chit. I was born yesterday.
—You destroy it. Tear it up.
I struck a match but he blew it out.
—No, just tear.
I tore it up and wanted to ditch it where it would be carried away on the flowing scum.
—Now just put it down, he said.
As I sprinkled the fragments he wanted me to squat. The notes were half eased from the envelope when I saw a man come over the ridge.
—There are some people, I said.
Now the man in the green cord jacket smiled at me.
—They’ve followed us, I said.
—Ah, he said. They are the police. Just sit here.
The man in the cord jacket smiled at me again
and came across to shake hands.
—How are you? he said. We go to the police now.
I got up and followed him across the ditch and got wet feet. I was ushered under another banana bush with more urgency now. This was it, a beating, and I’d nothing to bribe them with except perhaps my jacket. We all squatted. Were the police already under the banana bush? I couldn’t see the shopgirls any more. My companion showed them the money.
—Here, all of it. We are not taking any of it. It is all here.
—The cheque, the man in the green cord jacket said. The chit. Where is this?
He turned to me:
—Did you have any outside money?
We were both searched. Why was I so silent? There was no chit. Only my photographs which they handed round, then gave back. In my half-delirium I thought: why couldn’t they see they were of him? Why couldn’t they see I’d stolen his face.
—This man, my companion was saying. He didn’t know. He is nothing to do with it.
They looked at me.
—That’s right, I said, pointing to the man in the green cord jacket. Ask this man.
He said: this is true.
A policeman took me aside.
—I’m sick, I said. It was all I could say but it worked.
—You go now. If you come to the police station this man will change his story and blame everything on you. That officer likes your pen.
I gave him my metal Parker ballpoint and wondered, what would Joy think of me now?
Until we found Le Haut Bois, me and Joy were living on the campsite at Putanges. It was the summer of 1994 when Normandy was green with rain and convoys of old British Army trucks and American jeeps that had come over for the D-Day fiftieth anniversary. Solemn old men in berets, anciens combattants spattered in medals, saluted at war memorials lined with bombshells painted grey. Shy Welsh boys dressed like soldiers in fatigues stood outside cafes in La Ferté Macé plucking up the courage to go in and order a beer. The occupied French waved as we drove by, just coincidence that our old green hardtop was army surplus. We soon demobbed, but something between the exaggerated welcome, the false wartime solidarity and the distorted mission of our lives kept us there and we outstayed our welcome.
The bocage was like a parody of its own past because every commune was a lost world. We drove in and out of eras which had vanished without trace in Britain. The past sat there like undrained land. We saw farmyards unchanged for four hundred years slipping into ruin, the creepers taking over, the discarded implements and machinery left where the horse dropped dead or the steam bailer clapped out. In corners of these yards, opposite the old farmhouses, were the new pavillons, those beige rendered, fixed-price bungalow kits the old couples had always dreamed of since the war. The farm sat like the rubbish now, strewn in the yard and on the land, waiting for ruination.
The campsite was a one star municipal but by July it was like an overspill from the ZUP and HLMs, the council flats of Falaise and Argentan. Family caravans linked with orange awnings, the TVs on all day, the men still going to work in the Moulinex factory. In the evening they’d be in their tattoos and yellow shorts, bonnets up on smoky Simcas, revving up while their fat wives tipped bags of crisps into bowls and fetched sticky bottles from striped orange kitchenettes. Their dogs pissed up everyone’s wheels and their cats were kept on bungee leads skewered to the ground.
We were pitched under an old beech tree twenty yards from the river Orne for seven francs a day. It seemed like the right place for Joy to forget Africa, at least till she decided where she wanted to go next. She’d sit outside under the beech tree reading while I went perch fishing in the gorge below the dam at Rabodanges. In the evenings we’d boil our tinned ratatouille on the petrol stove and eat goat’s cheese with cider from the farmer’s barrel. Then we’d stroll slowly round the village, almost door to door, like we were counting the stones on the walls, smelling the omelettes and the onion soup. We talked to cats and little girls and nodded to stubby farmers tumbling out the Bar des Sport. We lingered with our beer at the Pot d’Etain where the patron had a handlebar moustache as big as a ferret and all his cycling trophies were in a row behind the bar.
One evening we were in the Grande Rue, a narrow curving street with tiny stone houses built round boulders big as the rooms inside. The backs plunged two storeys down to gardens which ran alongside the river. We could see them from the campsite, like an escarpment, or cave dwelling. One of the houses was a small dark office with the round, gold sign of a notaire hanging like a monocle from the wall. In the window there were faded colour photocopies of old farmyards, corps des fermes, hovels and ruins, all from a time-warp. Nobody wanted them and the pictures had faded out until you could hardly see the prices. They read like old money, two, three, four thousand pounds. No toilet, no water, no telephone. No comfort, it said. But there were bread ovens, oak beams, cider presses, rabbit hutches and kitchen gardens, cellars, attics, wells, springs, cider-apple trees, pear orchards, bee hives, stables, pig-houses and smokeries.
We toured other villages looking for these parttime notaires’ études, one dusty window, the gold paint peeling off the hanging sign. We found more faded ruins and half the houses in these villages had an A Vendre sign nailed on the front door like a wreath for the dead. We peered through crusted windows into kitchens with stone sinks, post office calendars for 1968, black and yellow linoleum, straw chairs with half the legs gnawed off by woodworm. There was always a neighbour fussing over potted fuchsias round the step, sweeping our footprints away behind us, hanging the wet floor-cloth from a nail. Old women in housecoats and cardigans came out to tell us they didn’t know the price, or if they did they said four million old francs.
We bought survey maps and drove all day after cheap houses. We found them along dusty brown lanes which crossed courtyards and wound between barns and cider orchards and pasture. Hamlets where every house was made of mud and lay empty, the grey net curtains like dead eyes, dried up flies caught along their edges.
At some point we should’ve asked ourselves what we were doing, who we were, what we expected to become by slipping into skin shed by dead peasants. Until, one evening we drove out to Le Haut Bois, looking for the fermette à rénover we’d seen advertised in a window, with outbuildings, 4,964 square metres of land, pasture with pear trees, 85,000 francs. We saw a bicycle leaning against a statue of Our Lady in the hedgerow, a little man in blue overalls slashing the grass along the verge, flattening the buttercups and cowslips. Joy said we were looking for the place that was for sale. He scratched his head and looked at the nearest hovel sticking from the brambles and vines. That’s for sale, he said, and so is that, and that. Half of the commune was for sale. Everyone was dead.
—Do you want to buy a house?
—Yes, we said.
The first time we’d admitted it.
—You’re going to live here? he said.
—We do live here, Joy said.
By August we were lodging in the Grande Rue with Widow Cardonel while hesitating over signing the promise to buy Le Haut Bois. Madame Cardonel was so old her skin hung like a curtain. She dressed in black and put all her remaining strength into polishing cold metal, ringing out dishclothes and pouncing on infractions of the rules.
Our room was upstairs and faced the river. We had the big brass Cardonel marriage bed but she’d locked every drawer and cupboard, taken the candles from the Virgin’s votary and told us not to run any taps. She lived downstairs, sleeping in the front room. She rose at six, took a nap in the afternoon and went to bed at 9.30 like clockwork.
She called me le monsieur. My job from the outset was the fetching of water from the river in different coloured buckets. Blue for the washing-up, red for cooking, white for personal. Drinking water came from the supermarket. She allowed us one bath a week in the same water. One morning I eased the tap on in the upstairs bathroom to brush my teeth, but Madame Cardonel was banging on the ceiling with her cane before I’d even wet my toothbrush.
A nurse came once a week to give her a bath. I’d fetch one bucket and hoist it onto the bottled gas to warm, not boil. The nurse sponged her down in a galvanised trough in Madame’s bedroom. Joy asked her why she didn’t use eau de ville. The river is water, she said.
We cooked for ourselves, but Madame laid three places in the kitchen on the plastic tablecloth with its scenes of pots and pans. She’d use her hand like a snow plough on the table, chasing all the breadcrumbs into her palm when she’d finished her meal, licking up the crumbs till they were gone. And, when the milk was finished, she’d cut the box with scissors and scrape the milk dew off the insides into her cup. At night she never put the lights on, shuffling about with a little square bike torch she kept in a housecoat pocket.
Joy did the talking in French. I was still picking up words, like banknotes in the wind. I didn’t know which to start on, chasing one too long and letting the whole sentence blow away. This meant that Madame Cardonel stopped looking at me when she spoke. She’d tell Joy that the monsieur hadn’t fetched the water yet, or could the monsieur change the gas bottle. If she did address me she never waited till I processed what she’d said, she just snapped: comprend pas, hein, comprend pas l’monsieur. Every evening she nagged down a tumbler of apéritif maison and said: that’s another the Boche won’t get.
Sometimes the phone rang. It was rigged to the old bell from out the fire station so she could hear it. If we were in she’d say a man was coming at half-past five and we should wait in our room. It was business, she said. We’d listen to muffled voices coming up the stairwell through the closed kitchen door. Madame Cardonel chuffing down the steps out back with her keys, the unjailing of the cave door, locks, chain, padlocks. Five hundred bottles of Calvados the Germans didn’t get. Some of it was seventy years old in the bottle. She put the 350 francs she got for each bottle in a biscuit tin under her marriage girdles in the armoire.
According to her, every farm we looked at as a potential home was never any good. Each time she’d say the man’s mother was a collabo, she’d ‘knitted with the Germans’, and after Liberation the patriots went round the farms and shaved the hair off women like her. So when we told her we’d finally decided to buy Juliette Macé’s old place at Le Haut Bois she shook her head and said: huh, Aunay, he won’t want you there.
Monsieur Aunay came into the yard the day me and Joy moved into Le Haut Bois. It was September and the mud felt like putty and smelled like school clods off football boots. We arrived to find a pall of smoke in our neighbour Prodhomme’s field and his 15-year-old boy backing a hay trailer up to our front door for a second load. Prodhomme just waded into the house and slumped anything he could carry for the fire, its black swirling smoke and orange flames, all Madame Macé’s rag and bone sheething through the apple trees. We stopped them ransacking more, and Joy told them we’d bought the buildings and their contents. They were ashamed, that’s all. Prodhomme had waited twenty years to get in there and clear up. Wiping out the traces of generations of Lecoeur, Legrange and Macé with a ketchup of diesel and a few broken matches.
We began to clear the rubbish from the house ourselves, wearing masks against the dust and smell, and new blue boiler suits we’d bought from Bricomarché. Suddenly Monsieur Aunay was standing there, red checked shirt, blue work trousers, the back of his hands raked with bramble scratches. We thought he’d come to welcome us. Joy said bonjour monsieur very properly, even rolling her r’s and getting half the roll stuck in her throat. He ignored her and looked at me, said something I didn’t understand, but mentioned Madame Macé. I smiled stupidly and tried mustering the vocabulary to offer him a drink of cider from the old crusty bottle cooling in the rain butt. Then Joy’s grin changed shape and she rolled her eyes.
—What did ’e say? I said.
—It doesn’t matter, she said.
He spoke to her now, asked if she spoke French.
—Yes, she said.
He repeated what he’d said and walked off, put his white crash helmet on and went up the lane on his old Solex.
—Well? I said.
—He said we weren’t respecting the memory of Madame Macé.
Joy had been gone ten days when the police parked down on the lane below Le Haut Bois and walked up, tacking through the mud in shiny shoes. Gendarmes, Brigade de Briouze, it said on their van. It was 10 a.m. The taller one had tiny feet and carried the crime case. I made them coffee, just the warmed-up sips I’d poured back into the pot over the previous days. The room temperature was four degrees, the stove unlit. The case was opened and the pandore put on the latex gloves and powdered two glasses for fingerprints.
I’d fixed up the break-in myself, through Yannick Thiboult, a brocanteur, a junk wheeler who still owed us ten thousand francs. He’d turned up in his van one afternoon in our first winter at Le Haut Bois, one of those days when the landscape is like wet newspaper and the mud follows you indoors. Yannick was nosing, like anyone who came down our lane. Me and Joy were hacking plaster off the ceiling, gutting the grand séjour to expose the beams, when we heard the van. Days could pass and all we’d hear was a moped whingeing through the mist, the postman’s yellow van at midday, a school bus, the toot of the bread van once a week. There were tractors, and the Paris-New York Concorde hitting the sound barrier at five minutes to five. So when we heard anything in the lane we’d stop, listen, and hold our breath like it would crash or it was an animal sniffing us out.
Yannick was standing in the yard hitching his trousers up. He looked like a kid pushed into something he didn’t want to do. He saw the English number plate on our vehicle and started looking at the barn roofs and the treetops. He called behind him: eh, Gilles … Gilles came round the side, lighting a stub on his lip, flick-knife on the belt of his black leather trousers, matching black hair larded flat over a face like a grindstone.
Joy still did all the talking, but I was beginning to pick up a word here and there. They were looking for les auges, old granite troughs. Yannick must’ve noticed we had barns full of camelote. He was standing by one auge which had sunk to its rims on the edge of what might once have been a garden. Gilles was already trying to lever it out with his spinning-wheel fingers. Yannick offered us a hundred francs. Joy was a tough dealer. She’d stand her ground, pull her sleeves down, hook a thumb through the hole and talk with her hands like she was a French widow weighing melons. We had six auges, so Yannick knew we must have six of everything else. Le Haut Bois was like a museum.
He said his client was a Parisien, a mine d’or but an asshole. She would pay a thousand francs cash for the big auges, five hundred for the small ones, then stick them in her garden and set them up with supermarket geraniums. Joy said moitié-moitié, fifty-fifty. All this time I was wondering what the pendant round Yannick’s neck was, jigging on a chain. It looked like a big bearded face made of gold-painted tin, the top off a jelly mould. Gilles was brushing greenery off his trouser leg. He wasn’t dressed for agricultural tackle collecting. He was a towner, probably from Flers, but Yannick was dressed from a bin bag left at the clothes recycling bin, grey joggings with knees like camel humps and a green acrylic jumper with pulled threads.
Five of the auges were too heavy to lift, even with four of us. So as Yannick backed his van round the yard and burnt his clutch, we levered each auge out with these eight-foot iron bars we’d found in the cider barn. Then with planks and rollers we’d heave and drag them into the van till it sagged in the mud. It was nearly dark when we finished. We sat at the table for a coup, a home-brew winter warmer. Everything Yannick saw, he asked how much, saying he’d just opened a brocante in the old primary school at Ste-Honorine. Ste-Honorine was a one-horse-trough village seven kilometres east with a tractor mechanic, a church and a boulangerie. There were mud houses where old women still slopped out, and a stray dog running across the road with a chicken in its mouth.
We’d seen his brocante, L’Atelier de Merlin. He’d hung two old chairs from the brackets of his upstairs windowbox and draped a hand-painted banner across the road. It looked like the place had shut down years back, but he was just waiting for his enterprise loan to come through. Even his van was rented. I wanted to let him in the barns but Joy didn’t. Gilles kept asking Joy where she was from, why didn’t she smoke, when was she going to have children. Yannick wanted to know if Scotland was a good place to find camelote. Him and Gilles were going there next month. I didn’t believe a word of it. We got two hundred quid for the auges though.
On the day of the break-in I was supposed to stay out from midday till bedtime. I did a sausage and chips at Leclerc in Argentan followed by a weekly shop which I managed to spin out till 4 p.m. The shopping was an emotional gamble. Just three weeks before, me and Joy had gone Christmas shopping there. It had been so cold that day the condensation drips inside the Land Rover froze into rivets of ice. Joy’s hands were blue inside her mittens and I felt sick. When we’d got home Joy said: what are we going to do? We can’t go on like this.
I’d begun to frame everything she said in my own scheme of things, like those template marker systems for multiple choice. For my own peace of mind ‘what are we going to do?’ meant: how are we going to get warm? ‘We can’t go on like this’ meant: we must get proper firewood. I still thought we were brave and authentic in letting ourselves slip down the evolutionary scale. From benefits to hunter-gatherers and, by that winter, scavengers. By nightfall on our last few days together, the cold was dangerous, minus sixteen. Our firewood pile was scrap from dumps, hedgerows and collapsed buildings. It had nails, rusty iron hinges, staples and barbed wire in it. It was frozen now and weighed twice what it should. It snapped the teeth off our chainsaw so we couldn’t cut it to size for the stove. Instead, we made an inferno in the open fireplace, pulled up our stolen armchairs and cooked on trivets and cauldrons.
So I had no appetite for buying food at Leclerc that day. My trolley looked like the one parked near the exits, the one with the cardboard sign tied on with string: Red Cross, give a tin to the poor. Gone were the falafals and yoghurt, the corn pone bread and salads of marriage. In came the tins of sauerkraut, cheap blended wine in consigned litre bottles, tinned fish and tinned peas. I scooped up two bags of potato chips big as coal sacks.
I turned into the yard at midnight, expecting just a smashed window and some paltry disarray, but Le Haut Bois had been ransacked. It was like the house had regurgitated the previous hundred and fifty years, turned all the treasure it once contained back into rubbish. It looked just like it had the day we’d moved in, Juliette Macé’s sick-house, the windowsill rotting beside her bed, rats gnawing on the floorboards, mouldy black slug trails across the plaster and that sweet, deathly cloying dry decomposure.
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.