He is aware of himself in the room, behind the apartment door, at the end of a corridor, within the spaces of this destination that has the name HOTEL LEBUVU in gilt mosaic where he was brought in. The vast lobby where a plastic-upholstered sofa and matching easy chairs are stranded, the waiting elevator in its shaft that goes up floor after floor past empty halls, gleaming signs—CONFERENCE CENTRE, TROPICANA BUFFET, THE MERMAID BAR—he is aware of being finally reached within all this as in a film a series of dissolves passes the camera through walls to find a single figure, the hero, the criminal. Himself.
The curtains are open upon the dark, at night. When he gets up in the morning he closes them. By now they are on fire with the sun. The day pressing to enter. But his back is turned; he is an echo in the chamber of what was once the hotel.
The chair faces the wide-screen television set they must have installed when they decided where to put him. There is nothing to match its expensive finish—the small deal table and four chairs with hard red plastic-covered seats, the hairy two-division sofa, the Formica-topped stool, the burning curtains whose circles and blotches of pattern dazzle like the flicker of flames: these would be standard for a clientele of transients who spend a night, spill beer, and put out cigarettes under a heel. The silvery convex of the TV screen reflects a dim, ballooned vision of a face, pale and full. He forgets, and passes a hand over cheek and chin, but there is no beard there—it’s real that he shaved it off. And they gave him money to fit himself out with the clothes he wears now. The beard (it was dark and vigorous, unlike the fine hair of his head) and the camouflage fatigues tucked into boots that struck authoritatively with each step, the leather-bound beret; took them all off, divested himself of them. There! He must be believed, he was believed. The face pale and sloping away into the pale flesh of the chin: his hidden self produced for them. It’s there on the dead screen when he looks up.
They supplied a cassette player of good quality as well as the wide-screen television set. He is playing, so loudly it fills the room, presses counter to the day pressing against the curtains, the music track from a film about an American soldier who becomes brutalized by the atrocities he is forced to commit in Vietnam. He saw the film long ago, doesn’t remember it well, and does not visualize its images. He is not listening: the swell and clash, the tympani of conflict, the brass of glory, the chords of thrilling resolve, the maudlin strings of regret, the pauses of disgust—they come from inside him. They flow from him and he sits on and does not meet the image smeared on the screen. Now and then he sees his hand. It never matched the beard, the fatigues, the beret, the orders it signed. It is a slim, white, hairless hand, almost transparent over fragile bones, as the skeleton of a gecko can be seen within its ghostly skin. The knuckles are delicately pink—clean, clean hand, scrubbed and scrubbed—but along the V between first and second fingers there is the shit-coloured stain of nicotine where the cigarette burns down. They were prepared to spend foreign currency on him. They still supply from somewhere the imported brand he prefers; packets are stacked up amply in their cellophane, within reach. And he can dial room service as indicated on the telephone that stands on the floor, and, after a long wait, someone will come and bring cold beer. He was offered whisky, anything he liked, at the beginning, and he ordered it although he had never been one to drink spirits, had made the choice, in his profession, of commanding the respect accorded the superiorly disciplined personality rather than the kind admiringly given to the hard-living swaggerer. The whisky has stopped coming; when he orders a bottle nothing is said but it is not delivered.
As if it mattered.
Covered by the volume of the music, there is the silence. Nothing said about the house: the deal included a house, he was given to understand it would be one of the fine ones left behind and expropriated by the State in the name of the people, when the colonials fled. A house with a garden and watchman for privacy, security (in his circumstances), one of the houses he used to ride past when he was the schoolboy son of a civil servant living here in a less affluent white quarter. A house and a car. Eventually some sort of decent position. Rehabilitated. He had thought of information, public relations (with his international experience); it was too soon to say, but they didn’t say no.
Everything he wanted: that was to be his reward. The television crews came—not merely the tin-pot African ones but the BBC, CBS, Antenne 2, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen—and the foreign correspondents flew in with their tape recorders. He was produced at press conferences in the company of the Commander of the Armed Forces, the Minister of Defence, and their aides elegant as the overthrown colonial ones had been. A flower arrangement among the water carafes. Him displayed in his provided clothes, his thighs that had been imposing in fatigues too fleshy when crossed in slightly shiny tropical trousers, his chin white, soft and naked where the beard was gone, his hair barbered neat and flat with the dun fringe above the forehead, clippers run up the nape—on his big hunched body he saw in the newspaper photographs the head of a little boy with round bewildered eyes under brows drawn together and raised. He told his story. For the first few months he told his story again and again, in performance. Everyone has heard it, now. On the table with the four chairs drawn up a cold fried egg waits on a plate covered by another plate. A jug of hot water has grown tepid beside a tin of instant coffee. Someone has brought these things and gone away. Everyone has gone away. The soaring, billowing music in the room is the accompaniment the performance never had. When the tape has ended he depresses the rewind button to play it again.
They never mention the house or the car and he doesn’t know how to bring up the subject—they hardly ever come to see him any more, but maybe that’s natural because the debriefing is over, they’re satisfied. There’s nothing more to tell the television crews and the press. There’s nothing more he can think of—think back! think back!—to find to say. They’ve heard about his childhood in this capital, this country to which he has been returned. That he was an ordinary colonial child of parents who’d come out from Europe to find a better life where it was warm and there were opportunities. That it was warm and there was the sea and tropical fruit, blacks to dig and haul, but the opportunity was nothing grander than the assured tenure of a white man in the lower ranks of the civil service. His parents were not interested in politics, never. They were not interested in the blacks. They didn’t think the blacks would ever affect their lives and his. When the colonial war began it was away in the North; troops came from the ‘mother’ country to deal with it. The boy would perhaps become an accountant, certainly something one rung above his father, because each generation must better itself, as they had done by emigrating. He grew up taking for granted the activities and outlets for adventurous play that had no place in the reality of the blacks’ lives, the blacks’ war: as an adolescent he bonded with his peers through joining the parachute club, and he jumped—the rite of passage into manhood.
In the capital, the revolution was achieved overnight by a relinquishment of power by Europe, exacted by the indigenous people through years of war in the rural areas. A few statues toppled in the capital’s square and some shops were looted in revenge for exploitation. His parents judged their security by the uninterrupted continuance, at first, of the things that mattered to them: the garbage continued to be collected twice a week and there was fish in the market. Their modest lives would surely not be touched by black rule. He was apprenticed as draughtsman to an architect by then (more prestigious than accountancy) and his weekend hobby, in addition to jumping from the sky, was photography. He even made a bit of pocket money by selling amusing shots of animals and birds to a local paper. Then came the event that—all at once, reeled up as the tape is filling its left cylinder on rewind—the experience that explained everything he had ever done since, everything that he was to confess to, everything he was to inculpate himself for and judge himself on in his performance for the journalists under the monitoring approval of the Commander of the Armed Forces and the Minister of Defence, during the probing of debriefing, the Q and A interviews; and to himself, in fiery dimness behind the curtains’ embers, facing the fish-eye of the TV screen, surrounded by the music, alone. He took a photograph of a sea-bird alighting on some sort of tower structure. Soldiers lumbered with sawn-off machine guns seized him, smashed his camera and took him to the police. He was detained for five weeks in a dirty cell the colonial regime had used for blacks. His parents were told he was an imperialist spy—their innocent boy only two years out of school! Of course, this was all in the confusion of the first days of freedom (he would explain to his audience), it was to be expected. And who was that boy to think he could photograph anything he liked, a military installation of interest to the new State’s enemies? That white boy.
At this point in the telling came the confession that for the first time in his life he thought about blacks—and hated them. They had smashed his camera and locked him up like a black and he hated them and their government and everything they might do, whether it was good or bad. No—he had not then believed they could ever do anything good for the country where he was born. He was sought out by or he sought out—he was never made to be clear on this small point—white people to whom his parents had successfully appealed to get him released. They soothed him with their indignation over what had happened to him and gave him a substitute for the comradeship of the parachute club (closed down by the blacks’ military security) in their secret organization to restore white rule through compliant black proxies. How it was to be done was not yet formulated, allies from neighbouring cold and hot wars had not yet been found, money from international interests wanting access to oil and mineral finds had not been supplied, sources for matériel and mercenaries to put together a rebel army in the bush were still to be investigated. He bent quietly over his drawing board and at night he went to clandestine meetings. He felt importantly patriotic; something new, because his parents had abandoned their country, and this country in which he was born had been taken back by the blacks for themselves. His parents thanked God he was safe in good company, white like them but well off and knowledgeable about how to go on living here where it was warm, trusted to advise one if it were to be time to leave. They were proud when told their son was being sent to Europe to study; an act of philanthropy by compatriots of the country they had all once emigrated from.
Of humble beginnings, he had come into the patrimony of counter-revolution.
The telephone is not only good for house calls that summon the old black man shrunken in khaki who brings the beer, brought the egg and covered it with a second plate. He can phone long distance every day, if he wants to. There is never a bill; they pay. That was the condition understood—they would provide everything. So he phones his mother every third day in the European city to which she and his father returned when the people who knew about these things said it was time to go. He has only to dial, and it’s winter there now and the phone will ring on its crocheted mat in the living-room behind double-glazing, discovered to him (so that was where his parents came from!) when he was set up in the same European city. They must have realized soon that he was not studying. At least not in the sense they would understand, of attending an institute and qualifying for a profession you could name. But it was obvious to them he was doing well, he was highly-thought-of by the people who had recognized the young man’s qualities and taken him up after the terrible time when those blacks threw him in prison back where everything was lost, now—the civil servant’s pension, the mangoes and passion fruit, the sun. He was involved in the affairs of those people of substance, international business too complicated for him to explain. And confidential. They respected that. A mother and father must never make any move that might jeopardize the opportunities they themselves have not been able to provide. He was always on his way to or from the airport—France, Germany, Switzerland, and other destinations he did not specify. Of course his gift for languages must have been invaluable to the people he worked with rather than for—that was clearly his status. He had not an apartment but a whole house purchased for him in the privacy of one of the best quarters, and his study or office there was not only lined with documents and books but equipped with the latest forms of telecommunication. Foreign associates came to stay; he had a full-time maid. His delicate, adolescent’s chin disappeared in the soft flesh of good living, and then he grew the beard that came out dark and vigorous giving him the aspect of a man of power. They never saw him wearing the rest of its attributes: the bulky fatigues and the boots and the beret. He visited them in civilian clothes that had come to be his disguise.
The first time he ever used the phone on the floor was when he phoned her, his mother, to tell her he was alive and here. Where? How could she ever have supposed it—back, back in this country! The sun, the mangoes (that day there was fruit supplied on the table where the egg congeals, now), the prison a young boy had been thrown into like any black. She wept because she and his father had thought he was dead. He had disappeared two months previously. Without a word; that was one of the conditions he adhered to on his side, he couldn’t tell his parents this was not a business trip from which he would return: he was giving up the house, the maid, the first-class air tickets, the important visitors, the book-lined room with the telecommunications system by which was planned the blowing up of trains, the mining of roads, and the massacre of sleeping villagers back there where he was born.
It is the day to phone her. It’s more and more difficult to keep up the obligation. There’s nothing left to tell her, either. From weeping gratitude that he was alive, as time has gone by she has come to ask why she should be punished in this way, why he should have got mixed up in something that ended so badly.
Over the phone she says, Are you all right?
He asks after his father’s health. Does it look like being a mild winter?
Already the wind from the mountains has brought a touch of rheumatism.
Do you need anything? (Money is provided for him to send to his parents, deprived of their pension; that’s part of the deal.)
Then there’s nothing to say. She doesn’t ask if he’s suffering from the heat back there, although the sun banks up its fire in the closed curtains, although she knows well enough what the climate’s like in summer, and he was gone seven years and cannot reacclimatize. She doesn’t want to mention the heat because that is to admit he is back there, she and his father will never understand what it was all about, his life; why he got himself into the fine house, the telecommunications system, the international connections, or why he gave it all up. She says little, in a listless voice, over the phone. But she writes. They deliver her letters, pushed under the door. Why does God punish me? What have your father and I done? It all started long ago. We were too soft with you. With that parachute nonsense. We should never have allowed it. Giving in, letting you run wild with those boys. It started to go wrong then, we should have seen you were going to make a mess of our lives, I don’t know why. You had to go jumping from up there. Do you know what I felt, seeing you fall like that, enjoying yourself frightening us to death while you fooled around with killing yourself? We should have known it. Where it would end. Why did you have to be like that? Why? Why?
First in the weeks of debriefing and then in the press conferences, he had to say.
They demanded again and again. It was their right.
How could you associate yourself with the murderous horde that burns down hospitals, cuts off the ears of villagers, blows up trains full of innocent workers going home to their huts, rapes children and forces women at gunpoint to kill their husbands and eat their flesh?
He sat there before them sane, and was confronted by the madness. As he sits in the red gloom in front of the wide-screen television set, the fuse of a cigarette between the fingers of his fine white hand and his pale blue eyes clear under puppy-like brows. Shuddering; they couldn’t see it but he shuddered within every time to hear listed by them what he knew had happened. How could they come out with it, just like that?
Because horror comes slowly. It takes weeks and months, trickling, growing, mounting, rolling, swelling from the faxed codes of operation, the triumph of arms deals secretly concluded with countries who publicly condemn such transactions; from the word ‘destabilization’ with its image of some faulty piece of mechanism to be rocked from its base so that a sound structure may be put in its place. He sent the fax, he took the flights to campaign for support from multinational companies interested in access to the oil and minerals the blacks were giving to their rivals, he canvassed Foreign Offices interested in that other term, spheres of influence.
In the fine house where an antique clock played an air over the sudden stutterings of communications installations, the war was intelligence, the miracle of receiving the voice of a general thousands of kilometres away, on the other continent, down there in the bush. When he travelled on his European missions he himself was that fighting man: the beard, the fatigues, the beret. The people he visited saw him as straight from the universal battlefield of Right and Left; the accoutrements transformed him for himself, so it seemed he was emerged from that generic destiny known as the field of operations.
You mean to say you didn’t know?
But nobody talked. A push was achieved or it wasn’t. A miniature flag moved on the map. Men lost, and losses imposed on the government forces were recorded. There were some reverses. A huge airlift of supplies and matériel by the neighbouring African state allied in the cause of destabilization was successful; the rebel force would fight on for years, village by village, bridge by bridge, power stations and strategic roads gained on the map. There would be victory on the righteous side.
Nobody said how it was being done. The black government spread reports of massacres because it was losing, and of course the leftist and liberal press took up the tales. Intelligence, tuned to the clock with its gilded cupids, filed these: under disinformation about destabilization.
Here, always, they waited for him to go on. He swallowed continually between phrases, and while he was telling they would watch him swallow. The cold egg won’t go down. There is a thin streamer of minute ants who come up six floors through the empty foyer and the closed reception rooms and find their way along the leg of the table to food left there; he knows. And telling, telling—telling over and over to himself, now that no one comes to ask any more, he swallows, while the ants come steadily. Go on, go on.
It wasn’t until I went to the neighbouring State—it is a white state and very advanced—that provided the matériel, planes, intelligence supplied by its agents to the communications centre it set up for us in the house in Europe. There was also a base.
A training base for our people. It was secret, no one knew it was there. Hidden in a game reserve. I was very confident—pleased—to find myself sent not only around Europe, but chosen to go to that State. To liaise. To meet the Commander of National Security and Special Services there. See for myself the important extent of co-operation in our mutual dedication to the cause. Report back on the morale of our men being trained there in the use of advanced weapons and strategy.
A crescendo comes in great waves from the speaker provided with the tape player: to win the war, stabilize by destabilization, set up a regime of peace and justice!
During press conferences, at this point an ooze of heat would rise under his skin. Their eyes on him drew it up from his tissues like a blister. And then?
There’s no one in the room, the curtains are closed against everyone. Swallow. I saw the male refugees captured at the border brought in starving. I saw how to deal with them. They were made to join our forces or were put back over the border to die. I could see that they would die. Their villages burned, their families hacked to death—you saw in their faces and bodies how it really happened … the disinformation. It wasn’t talked about at that base, either. Our allies, at the dinners they gave—game dishes and wine, everything of the best provided, treated like a VIP—they didn’t talk about these things. Well … I was shown around … everything. The secret radio station that broadcast the Voice of our organization. The latest weapons made available to us. The boots and uniforms made in their factories. (That outfit of mine must have come from there.) The planes taking off at night to fly our men, armed and equipped to do what they were trained to do. I knew, now, what that was.
Of course, it was war …
… War isn’t pretty. There is brutality on both sides. I had to understand. Tried to. But planes also came back from over the border at night. Not empty. They carried what I thought were refugee children to be saved from the fighting; girls of twelve or thirteen, terrified, they had to be pulled apart from each other to get them to walk. They were brought in for the men who were receiving their military training. Men who had been without women; to satisfy them. After dinner, the Commander offered me one. He had one led in for himself. He took off her clothes to show me.
So, yes, I knew what happened to those girl children. I knew that our army had become—maybe always was—yes, what you say, a murderous horde that burned hospitals, cut off the ears of villagers, raped, blew up trains full of workers. Brought to devastation this country where I was born. It’s there, only the glowing curtains keep it out. At night, when the curtains are drawn back it is still there in the dark with the blind bulk of buildings, the traces of broken boulevards and decayed squares marked in feeble lights. Familiar to me, can’t say I don’t know it, can’t say it doesn’t recognize me. It is there, with the sun pressing against the window, a population become beggars living in the streets, camping out in what used to be our—white people’s—apartments, no electricity, no water in the tiled bathrooms, no glass in the windows, and on the fine balconies facing the sea where we used to take our aperitifs, those little open fires where they cook their scraps of food.
And that’s the end.
But it’s gone over again and again. No end. It’s only the tape that ends. Can’t be explained how someone begins really to know. Instead of having intelligence by fax and satellite.
Back in the room in Europe with its telecommunications there was on record the whereabouts of this black regime’s representatives abroad. One day he went there. In the rebel army’s outfit, with the beard, so that they could shoot him if they wanted; so that they would realize who he was and what he knew. Not the atrocities. Something else; all that he could offer to efface his knowledge of the atrocities: complete information about the rebel army, its leaders, its internal feuds, its allies, its sources of supply, the exact position and function of its secret bases. Everything. Everything he was and had been, right back to the jump with the parachute and the photograph of the tower. They didn’t shoot. They kept him under guard so that the people from the telecommunications headquarters in the room with the antique clock would not kill him before he could tell. They handled him carefully; himself a strange and rare species, kept captured for study. They were aware of its worth, to them.
Debriefing is like destabilization, the term doesn’t describe the method and experience. Day by day, divested of the boots, fatigues, the beret and the beard, first-class flights, the house in Europe, the dinners of honour, the prestige of intelligence—his life. He has been discovered there beneath it, sitting quite still on a chair in a dark room, only a naked full neck pulsating. In the silence after the tape ends it is possible to think there is the distinct sound of ants moving in an unwavering path.
They knew they couldn’t have it for nothing—his life. They haven’t provided the house with a garden that was part of the deal. Or the car. Of course, he can go out. Go where he likes, it was only for the first six months that he was restricted. Once they know they can trust him, he’s not of interest to them any longer. Nothing more, now, to lead them to. Once he’s told everything, once he’s been displayed, what use is he to them?
They are right. Perhaps they will never come to him again.
The girl emerges from the bedroom, she sleeps late.
There is a girl. They didn’t supply her. But they might have; she was there in the waiting room when he went under surveillance to a doctor. He politely let her take her turn with the doctor first, and when she came out they got talking. I don’t see how I’m ever supposed to follow this diet, she said, what can you buy if you haven’t got foreign currency—you know how it is, living here.
Yes—for the first time he saw it was so: he lives here. Perhaps it was possible for him to get what she needed? She didn’t ask questions; access to foreign currency is not a subject to be discussed.
The girl’s been in the bedroom all morning, just as if there was no one there. Now the dim room prolongs her lassitude, no break between night and day. Pink feet with hammer toes drag over the floor; she makes tasting sounds with her tongue against her palate. She takes a deep breath, holds then expels it; because he doesn’t speak.
So you don’t want to eat?
She has lifted the covering plate and touches the yellow mound of the yolk with her forefinger; the congealed surface dents shinily. She wipes her finger on the T-shirt that is her nightgown. A sprig of houseplant she brought and put in a glass, one day, is on the table where she set it down then; in the cloudy water, the darkened room, it has sent out one frail, floating thread of root. Ants are wavering at the rim of the glass. The thin buttermilk smell of her fluids and his semen comes to him as she bends to follow the ants’ trail from the floor. After he had finished with her, last night, she said: You don’t love me.
He was assailed by the sight of the twelve-year-old child and the Commander.
Then she heard something she couldn’t believe. The man weeping. She drew away in fear and repugnance to the side of the bed.
She hangs about the room behind him, this morning, knowing he’s not going to speak.
Why don’t we go to the beach. Let’s have a swim. I’d love to go and eat some prawns. We can take a bus. There’s a good place … it’s cheap. And don’t you feel like a swim, I’m dying to get into the water … come on.
She waits patiently.
Has he shaken his head—there was some slight movement. There is nothing in the room she can turn to as a pretext to keep her there, waiting to see if he accepts her forgiveness, her humble understanding of her function. After a few minutes she goes back into the bedroom and comes out dressed.
I’m going. (Qualifies:) Going for a swim.
This time he nods and leans to take a cigarette.
She hasn’t opened the door yet. She’s hesitating, as if she thinks she ought to make some gesture, doesn’t know what, might come over and touch his hair.
After the inhalation of the cigarette has become his breath and body, he gets up and goes to the window. He pulls aside the curtains to left and right. They are parched and faded, burned out. And now he is exposed: there is the bright stare of the beggared city, city turned inside out, no shelter there for life, the old men propped against empty façades to die, the orphaned children running in packs round the rubbish dumps, the men without ears and women with a stump where there was an arm, their clamour rising at him, rising six floors in the sun. He can’t go out because they are all around him, the people.
Jump. The stunning blow of the earth as it came up to flexed knees, the parachute sinking silken.
He stands, and then backs into the room.
Not now; not yet.