31: Pebble in a Pool
Leaving Moses and the scouts to continue their patrol I returned to the lodge.
The buzz of the cell phone in my pocket brought me back from the thoughts which mulled through my mind as I drove. I had reached the umbrella of the lodges satellite Wi-Fi.
The pent-up messages streamed into the instrument, announcing their arrival with short sharp buzzes.
Stopping where the road skirts the kitchen fence, I scanned the texts. Maybe there was something important to deal with before I continued back out of Wi-Fi range up at my campsite.
Gene, my boss, wanted to talk to me. It was important he said. He was willing to fly up to meet in Lusaka and speak about it in person. Ulrich had called to inquire about another scout quitting. Was this so? Jean wanted to know. He needed to discuss things with me before reporting back to Ulrich about any action plan.
It was obvious Ulric saught my hide on his boardroom wall.
With the engine running I stared at the message.
What the hell was I doing here?
How could I explain things to a foreigner in his office in Germany about African beliefs. He would assign the same importance to witchcraft’s influence over life out here as he would to the churches in increasingly atheist Europe.
It was hopeless, especially if he was fishing for rumors to validate his preconceived long distance suppositions.
What kind of son of a shallow bitch banker can he be if he thought like this?
Why was this guy even funding conservation in Africa? Was it an echo of his own guilt in the role that Europe laid in messing up the continent in the first place? Maybe from a sense of collective historic guilt he should be considered more culpable than myself. Where I attempted to do something with my sweat, he used other people’s money to buy absolution, cloaked to his shareholders as marketing.
If I could fly high enough to squint down on this flat wide portion of the world, and even without a view of history,I would still see myself for what I am, an African by all measures, except one, a pale skinned descendent of colonialists abandoned out here by the ancestors of those sitting in a comfortable office far from the realities of this continent. To history I was little more than a pale scab on the dark skin of Africa, attempting in my diminutive and most probably futile way, to heal some of its wounds. I could hardly be blamed for the sub-continents old unhealed cuts, let alone for the new, self-inflicted by the inheritors of that native freedom.
But my gloom was accentuated because I am probably too late to take up the scalpel and stitches to any gashes. I realize that issues needing dexterity and mental skill should most effectively be handled by hands younger and steadier than my own past-prime fists. Maybe Ulrich recognized that as well, and wanted to ride the band wagon of replacing the old with new.
I engaged the gear and began to drive on past the Lodge. A flutter from under the chitenges roof caught my attention. It was the silhouette of Lauren’s hand, stretched high above her bare shoulder as she energetically waved at me. Backlit by the afternoon light in the cool gloom of the chitenge, she wore a tank top and faded cut-off jeans.
Hmm, I thought, today had been sun tan time for those nice long legs and arms, below a bit of burnishing for her shoulders.
So why not catchup with her before I headed to Mumbwa early in the morning. She was fun. I needed something to get me out of my funk.
Stopping, I shouted across at her that I was going to clean up and would be back in an hour.
But leaving her behind my dark mood persisted. Probably it was prodded by the new moral dilemma which droopd its implications over me from the moment I recognized the scar on Mustafa’s chest. I don’t know why I am drawn to the people and places like this. Is it to escape further back behind blighted relationships and the obliteration of an identity. Or maybe it was an attempt to shape a future as a reflection of an unrealistic ideal of how it should have been. Or perhaps it was simply the only virtual home I had ever known, with all the emotional impossibility and heartbreak of abandoning it.
Like a pale pebble laying for years in the dark river bed of life, with all my edges knocked away, what destiny was it that had tossed me into this backwater of Africa, the latest shallow, murky pool of my existence. Would some far away banker flick me into some other dried up pond.
The flotsam of my genome had washed ashore in Table Bay 300 years ago on a Dutch East India-man, , and the rest, a hundred years ago, to a coffee farm, in the highlands of Kenya. Now, like that pale pebble my color distinguished me from the thousands round about. That sufficiency singled me out.
“Go, Go now, before it is too late!” Her silky voice echoed in my mind.
Would it be a banker or a crocodile lurking, waiting to burst out of the slime at the bottom of a pool to grasp my leg, and drag all that awareness of history beneath the ripples of time. It wouldn’t care about my white ‘mzungu’ skin. Would the darkness of my nurture be enough to make ripples big enough to affect the surface of this wide, flat verdant pool of Eden. Did I still have enough energy, like the flashes of quartz in the dark pebbles, to light up the dimness of a fading life.
Unlike Moses, I am not a believer, but I wished I had his faith. His certainty that it has ordained purpose.
Life would be so much easier if I felt it had some grand plan, instead of being brought here on the back of a fucking hyena.
I wondered what had long ago broken the branch of a big Leadwood tree at the edge of the small lawn where it wrapped around the anthill towards the kitchen. Maybe the tug of an elephant’s trunk? A thunderstorms billowing downdraught?
Whatever it was, the healing of the break wrapped around to leave an aperture to a glove sized hollow. It was sufficient space for a pair of Arnots Chats to raise a family, a seemingly safe spot, but this was their second attempt.
So what became of the prior brood? Maybe a ground squirrels dash and snatch up the tree trunk, or had the squeaky begging clamors of the chicks caught the attention of a mamba. Had the snake surreptitiously slithered along the branch, peered its big black unblinking eyes into the gloom, where it opened the wide grin of its mouth to bite and swallowed the pink cocktails, even as they blindly begged it for food.
But this time fate was on the side of these latest chattering youngsters. They owed there domicile to the presence of lodge guests back in September, at the time of spring-time nest selection. Being chats, their parents had more tolerance for the presence of humans than the Black-Collared Barbets, whose greater aggressiveness would otherwise have won the struggle for nest real estate.
Persistence and adapting to the up heaving reality of a lodge being built in the previous wilderness of their lives had been the secret of success for these little creatures. So should I learn from them?
But, so much for the scolding of the cheeky little black and white birds, it was Lauren’s figure standing out on the deck that drew my attention as I pulled into the parking area.
I was ready to embrace her fun and let it distract me from the concerns, anxieties and moral dilemmas.
Walking across to join her an unusually boisterous rush of air buffeted the tops of the trees. From there its fervor tumble down the slope towards the river, shaking the shrubs growing in the gully running along one side of the chitenge. Rising, it playfully pushed at the woven reed matting along one of the walls, before its final mischievous act, snatching my floppy hat and tossing it into the long grass in the gully. . Bending to retrieve it, I noticed an unfamiliar vehicle partly obscured beyond the nearest chalet.
With my faded cloth crown back bolstering my pride, I acknowledged Lauren’s breezy, “Welcome back stranger.” Behind her two figures were slumped in the large lounge chairs.
“How did your mission go?” she queried.
I had mentioned to her two days ago that I would be out deploying scouts.
She walked across to the beverage table tucked against the now limp matting of the chitenge’s wall.
“Tea or coffee?” she asked, “If its coffee, it will be the plastic stuff. The good stuff is finished..” She was referring to the chicory based instant substitute.
My gaze drifted across to the new figures,. One was leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, her chin resting on the knuckles of her hand as she held a phone in the other. Her companion had her elbows splayed on her upholstered armrests. She also didn’t look up from a lazy reclined focus on her device to notice my stare. .
I was struck by the jet black main of the smaller of the two. Her cascading hair framed a finely sculpted face. Our eyes met as she looked up. A smile spread on a bounteous mouth whose pouted lips were coated with red lipstick so startling it rendered her virtually theatrical. Her dark eyebrows gave her a stylized hieroglyphic appearance.
The other woman was equally striking. Her hair, although not as full, found its dark chestnut abundance tinted auburn with golden highlights. Her wide green eyes set far apart, with pencil thin eyebrows spanning a high bridged nose was a profile stolen directly from a Minoan vase. The smooth olive tone of her skin bolstered this hint of a Mediterranean origin.
I nodded surreptitiously in their direction, as under my breath I asked Lauren, “Are they your friends?”
“Not mine. Companions of Mustafa’s friends. There is no need to keep your voice down. They don’t speak English.”
“A pretty pair,” I admired, “They certainly have discovered that WhatsApp works out here.”
Noting the wide golden bracelet adorning the hand of the darker one, and the light elegance in the purple flow of her close fitting dress, more appropriate for London’s Belgravia I muttered, “An expensive pair I should imagine.”
Lauren snorted as she led me out onto the deck. “You’re right about them being expensive in more ways than one. But who cares?” she said, “these days marriage is not necessary to airbrush whoredom. It has always been about bartering in goods and services.”
“Wow!” I had touched a nerve. “You have strong opinions.”
“No, I have experience, which breeds realism, which accentuates the fallacies of social consensus.
Exposed to vagaries of the wind, we sat on the deck with the rustle of the leaves sprinkling their sounds onto those of the ripples tugging at the exposed roots in the river below. Lauren’s candor appealed to me. She lacked ostentatiousness. It hinted of a life which had given up trying to melt itself to the taste of the time. I wasn’t sure if her lack of conformity had come from within, or as in my case, been imposed from without.
“I will be heading in to Mumbwa early tomorrow morning.” I said, “I want to ask the head warden to send a patrol up the west side of the Lunga River.”
We’d been sitting on the deck for some time discussing the unusual activity I had encountered yesterday. She bet me, if I dug deep enough, I would find Narina’s father and his friends manipulating some sort of puppets tying those vertebrae to trees.
“He’s a jackal,” she said, “a master at manipulation. Most people don’t know what he’s up to, or that they are snared in his mesh. Now he’s wooing big money. As you said, that pair over there do not come cheap.”
“Who are they?” and who are they with? I asked. “What do you know about them?”
“Not much, only what Narina told me. They are South American. She can speak their lingo, because she married someone from over there. She lived there quite a few years. Their consorts are obviously very well healed with more bling even than these two latin barbie dolls.”
“Mustafa has dual motives for inviting his darling daughter and myself out here. It is convenient to have her around to translate.”
The latin connection was not what I would have guessed. But then Africa always manages to concoct some unlikely trait in those who had lived here long enough, it makes for strange bedfellows.
“Having her as translator is why he doesn’t want ‘us’ to leave,” she grumbled.
“How have you and Narina remained friends if you have such a poor opinion of her father?” The surprise on my face showed.
Lauren sighed heavily. “It’s a long story. We were at school together.”
“Well!” Lauren continued,” We had a strange relationship, I was a teacher, fresh out of training college, when she became the head-girl. Her mother had recently died in a car accident.”
“I was still young, not much older than the pupils I talked, and still with their rebelliousness.”
I found it hard to identify wiht the stuffy conformity to a teacher’s hierarchy.
Narina on her part, had the duality of a strong character, inherited from her father,
mixed with the soft grace of her mother. She needed consolation. It was this unusual give and take, of mixing her advice to me, my sympathy and authority to her, that bonded us together, and has kept us thus ever since.”
“Her father was never around. So I never really had to deal with his Jekyll-Hyde personality much. “
Lauren inhaled deeply on the cigarette dangling in the fingers of her hand. This time she blew two smoke rings at me.
I skewered both wiht my index finger in a suggestive gesture . I could also give and take. She smiled.
“OK.” she said, “Why don’t we go for a walk and I’ll tell you more.
The branches of the tall acacias spanned above the ruts of the road like an arbor.
Pointing to the smooth treacle like surface enveloping one of the tree trunks, “That
is a Strangler Fig” I said. “In these dense copses there is a struggle for sunlight. These figs solve that problem by starting at
the top from a seed pooped by a bird. They send down long straggly roots. As they grow and thicken the roots may even spread enough to wrap around the host, eventually strangling it.”
Ducking under low branches, snapping a few twigs in her way Lauren crossed to the trunk and rubbed her palm on the fig’s smooth grey-green bark.
“It feels like a snake skin.”
As she rubbed the bark I said. “I sort of identify with the strangled host. But it is a different kind of snake skin that is squeezign me.
“What do you mean?”
“I think that a major donor who is a snake is trying to squeeze me out of here.”
I went on, “And there is another, new, moral dilemma which is squeezing my conscience.”
“Tell me about these.”
“No, not yet. I need to think about the new one a bit more.” I spoke softly, almost to myself.
She linked the fingers of her hands behind her head as we continued walking.
“Where were we?” she asked rhetorically. “”You wanted to know about my business.”
She continued. “I married into a family known for not backing down to get what they wanted. I was young, he wanted me, and got me. For a while.
They made their fortune in the furniture business. I was ‘allowed’ to dabble at the periphery.
I chose the fabrics to reupholstering secondhand furniture. But I wasn’t given permission to get
the high quality materials i wanted. ‘What for?’ if a quick turnaround gave a quick profit.
It didn’t take long for me to see an opportunity. I attendid auctions and learned where and what to look for.
I then ran my own little business out of the garage of a friend, pretending it was hers and not mine, because a wife was not supposed to have her own business, and sometimes dabble with the competition.
Even so with time, like you it seems , I felt like that tree with the fig slowly smothering it. Things got worse when my daughter was born. I was supposed to stay home. I was expected to be an obedient wife and not rock the comfortable affluent sailing of the family boat.
Things came to a head when I refused to leave my gig. It was doing well, and the cracks in our solidarity widened.
By then I loved my independence more than my husband.
My first lover was carefully chosen, because he imported fabrics from all over the world. Why not link the bed to the business. After all, it is preferable to be a freelance prostitute than somebody’s slave. If you cut away the fluff that is what an ‘old-fashioned’ marriage is.
‘Hmmm, I see where you get your ideas about relationships. You are pretty prickly. Just as well I didn’t go fishing with you” I said . “I might have stepped on one of your barbs.”
“Precisely!” she replied as she deliberately again blew the smoke from her cigarette at my grinning face.
“He opened my eyes to the Levant, with its high-quality leathers and fabrics.” She glanced at me, “and the Kama Sutra.”
Stopping, she balanced on one foot as she raised her other leg to stubb her cigarette on the heel of her shoe.
“Do you think I am shocking?” She asked.
“No. I find it refreshingly honest.”
Lauren shrugged, “I guess so.”
“So, How did you get to be here?” she asked.
The crunch of our steps syncopated their sounds in the sand. Her long legs matched mine exactly.
“I am here because of missed opportunities and following a dream which was a mirage.”
“I always seemed to be at the right place at the wrong time.
The only time I got it right was in the army. It was an exhilarating period, which probably contributed too much of the mismatching ever since.
After the war there was scant place in the new Africa for a white man in the Army.
But there was security jobs. I spent quite a few years with those. But once I was over the middle age hump, even those dried up. I was seldom at home, which was not conducive to stable relationships.
That is one of the greatest regrets of my life, not realizing when I should’ve stuck around. I assumed the ‘She’s’ in my life would wait for me. They didn’t. Only long enough to have a baby and get most of my danger pay.
Since then, like you, I have become jaded about relationships.
“But to answer your question, I got this job here because somebody in my old army unit is now the head of a conservation foundation trying to bring good practices to the parks in Africa.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I may be on the brink of being fired. Because I am part of the old Africa.”
“Don’t you feel alienated by what Africa has become in our lifetime?” I asked her.
There was only the crunch of our steps and the far away snorts of some hippo to fil the void of my question.
“Actually I love the new Africa.” she said. “Iits vibrancy. Its mixing of cultures. THe breakdown of the old ways and the synthesis of new. It is the essence of my life. The changes of color, texture, shape, Patton.. I get my inspiration from everything around me.”
“Yes but you live in the Cape., at the tip of Africa”I interrupted. “It has never really been part of the rest of the continent. It has always had a different history, culture, outlook, ideas. Africa has always trickled down and fermented in the fields at the foot of table Mountain, bringing new tastes and talent.”
Up here I feel that I am about to be swept away by the flood of indigenous empowerment,, or something else that will make me irrelevant.
Maybe I should marry a black woman to anchor myself in place.”
“Why don’t you?” she asked.
I smiled at her. “Most are too young for me.”
“But I have a relationship with someone in town. A good one of convenience. A pleasant one for both of us. I rent a room from her and keep her entertained when I can. She is independent like you. She is in control. She can pick me up and put me down whenever she wants.”
“She is part of the new Africa, and it seems so are you.” I said. “I am still trying to fit in.”
“Who knows? Maybe as both she and I being immersed in African culture regard a relationship more for its practicality than about love. It allows one to love more than one person at a time without the poison of jealousy.
So is that part of the new or the old Africa?
Most Western woman want to be a Madonna. I’ve yet to find one who will tolerate me. At my age we are who we are. It is difficult to change for anyone, not even ourselves.”
Lauren cleared her throat. “You will figure it out . It seems that you are a survivor . But speaking of Mumbwa,” Lshe changed the subject, ” I want to go with you. I want to get the hell out of here. Even if I have to stay at some flea bitten motel’ for a month before I can catch a bus.”
She added, “So tonight I’m inviting you to join me for dinner.”
Turning her head to look directly at me, she blew the smoke ring of a fresh cigarette at my face, which I again symbolically poked my middle digit through.
a woman full of smoke and mirrors I thought.,
Smiling she said, “We need to celebrate my last evening here!”