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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Another false start

He had always told his friends, when the worst comes, you will all head north. I will head south.

The worst had not yet come, but it was close. He decided to take his chances.

The hills were burning as he left. His last memory of the island was of the lines of flame creeping across the contours of the ridges and slopes, the smudge of smoke barely visible in the swiftly rising dusk.

***

There was an almost-full moon, and the river was a hammered thread of silver among the black trees as the plane made its arc of descent.

There was a smell of burning here too. Flakes of soot drifted across the road outside the airport.

"Trouble at home," the taxi driver said. "Trouble here too, but at least we used to it."

There was a guesthouse near the centre of the city run by a taciturn woman who used to be a nun at a convent in the Interior. She disliked talking about her past, and so asked no one else about theirs.

He knew she recognised him, though she said nothing. She gave him a key and pointed to the stairs.

There was a power outage. As he closed the door to his room, a draught blew his candle out. He didn't bother to relight it. He locked the door, undressed, lay on the bed. The mosquito net hovered like a hot mist. The bedclothes were sweet with the perfume of cheap detergent.

All through the night the wooden house made sounds too vague to be called creaks. Perhaps they were sighs. Perhaps the wood through its mask of paint was inhaling and exhaling the humid air.

The next day he threw away the clothes he had arrived in.

***

For nearly a fortnight he felt at ease. In the mornings he went to the library two blocks south. The reading room would be empty, except sometimes for an elderly person vainly searching through volumes of old newspapers for some elusive fact. He would read whatever books had been left on the long table by the previous day's patrons; it didn't matter what they were. He had read everything already--everything he had ever thought he needed to read--and now books were merely an effortless and familiar way to pass the time. He read popular novels of the 1940s and 50s, books on the archaeology of the Holy Land, natural history reference books, accounts of the Napoleonic Wars. He would break off when he got hungry, sometimes in mid-sentence.

In the afternoons he walked along the sea wall that sheltered the city from the placid Atlantic tides.

***

It was the dry season, and with no rain to flush the stagnating water from the city's canals, the mild stench of the streets began to ripen. When the sea breeze died down, he could smell the canals from his room, three storeys above.

He was fascinated, somehow, by the filthy water, opaque green and iridescent with household chemicals, bubbling with tadpoles and small fish. When he was out walking he had to resist the impulse to gaze into the canals choked with rubbish and weeds, to look for a stick to poke around in the putrid depths.

He decided it was time to leave the city. When he told the landlady, he knew she had guessed where he was going, but she never said a word.

***

Perhaps he went back home. Trouble there, as the taxi driver said, but trouble everywhere, and the worst, though close, had not yet come. And perhaps the worst was still no reason to leave.

The hills were still burning as the plane landed. In the chaos at the airport--hundreds of people were camping in the terminal, hoping to catch flights heading north--his rucksack was lost. It didn't matter, he would have thrown away his clothes anyway.

Parts of the city were burning too. He could see the plume of smoke all the way from the airport. By now all his friends would have left the island. Gone north. Perhaps eventually he would go north too.

***

Perhaps that is a different story.

Perhaps he didn't go back home.

He woke early in his room at the guesthouse and left silently while everyone slept. He had paid off the landlady, the melancholy ex-nun, the night before.

At the centre of the city the market was already noisy with people selling, arguing, carting goods, their clothes damp with night dew. He caught a bus heading west.

The bus crossed one river on a bridge, then drove twenty miles through rice paddies and villages to another river. Here there was no bridge.

At the stelling, boatmen hustled for passengers and pickpockets moved through the crowd, their eyes downcast.

Someone half pushed, half pulled him into a small boat already full of passengers, and they cast off. The river here was so wide, he couldn't see to the far bank--it looked like the open sea. No, he couldn't see to the far bank because an island obscured the horizon. A big ferry lurched into the current, and the small boat nipped beneath its bow and set a course upriver.

Pirates stopped boats on the river sometimes, but they encountered none today. He hadn't worn a watch in months, and he was too drowsy to note the hours passing by.

The river gradually narrowed, and then they reached what looked like another island. It was really the promontory between two rivers, the place where two rivers happened to meet, and a little town clung to the riverbanks.

Someone had told him to ask for the Providence Hotel.

Perhaps by now he was no longer travelling alone.

Perhaps at the guesthouse in the city he had met a young man, another traveller. They started talking one morning over breakfast. The young man was German, perhaps, or Swiss--or German by way of Brazil. He seemed to speak fluent Portuguese. The details were never clear. He was restless; he had been in the country several months, he said, but he never explained why. They began going to the library together, where the German would spend hours looking at a big atlas; they began walking to the sea wall together. Now they had left the city together, and taken the small boat to Providence, and were looking for the Providence Hotel.

***

He--now there are two travellers, simple pronouns will not suffice. Johannes est nomen ejus. John is his name, or a name good enough for this story.

The German's name is Andreas.

Perhaps we slip gently into the present tense.

John does not mean to stay long in Providence. This was a boom-town once, on a modest scale, in the days--a century before--when the gold and diamond fields upriver were still fresh, and thousands of men left the coast to prospect alone in the deep rainforest. Providence was their staging point, the last outpost of civilisation as they fought their way into the Interior past rapids and falls, deep into the North-West. And Providence was the place they returned to, their pockets filled with nuggets and stones wrapped in brown paper, their eyes bright with hunger. A century before, Providence was a small, busy town of rum shops, general stores, and brothels, glittering at night with many lamps, and loud with music and laughter....

1 comment:

Leon Wainwright said...

When fashions change will we still burn our clothes? Tell me the one about the dying tree. About the resurrection. About the time we were left without a radio and no callsign, and could not find the tushao. And how the fiction has never healed.