Sunday, April 16, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:3

The city was called Georgetown, and the central district near the river was snarled with traffic. The driver explained that the Brazilian president was visiting, and some of the main streets were closed for the convenience of his entourage. The car zigzagged back and forth, and he lost his sense of direction, could not tell if they were still heading north. The white spire of the cathedral seemed to circle them, counterclockwise.

"This is the place," said the driver. They were on Camp Street, at the Georgetown Club, where he had a room booked. A skinny security guard in a khaki uniform opened the heavy iron gate.

He had expected spacious grounds, wide lawns and pavilions, not this building overlooking a noisy street, with a small strip of garden--shrubs in orderly beds. From the outside, the Club was three storeys of white-painted wood, its facade broken by many windows. Inside, it was dark polished wood.

There was no one to help his with his bags. He climbed the stairs to the main lounge, a long, airy room furnished with low chairs and sofas, small tables, faded maps of Guyana pre-dating independence, as he saw when he looked closely: where each map had once been captioned "British Guiana", someone had carefully pasted a strip of paper printed "Guyana" over the old colonial name.

The only person in the lounge was a man in a white shirt behind the bar, looking alarmed to be called from his newspaper. The barman handed him a form to fill out, an application for "temporary membership", and gave him the key to room seven.

The wooden staircase, with its ill-fitting maroon modern carpet, creaked as he climbed, and the heat in the corridor on the upper floor felt stale, as though it had been trapped there behind the windows for too many long afternoons.

He was disoriented by the feeling that here at the Georgetown Club it could have been any year in the last three decades; the furniture, the decor, and even the most inconsequential fittings looked like they had not changed in that long. Everything was like a vague childhood memory about the way doors opened or chairs settled. But his room was air-conditioned and cool and clean. There were two beds, a small refrigerator with bottles of water, a long desk with a telephone. The window looked past a traveller's palm onto Camp Street, busy with schoolchildren and bicycles, and the small trenches that ran along the sides of the street, choked with weeds and gagged with stagnant water. At this height, two storeys up, he was safely above the smell of the city's decay.

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