Twenties

He stayed at the Safari Inn, where a bare, stone-floored room cost $3 per night. The Safari was scented with smoke from mosquito coils which were lit each night in the stair well and which in the morning had each expired to curls of ash. Breakfast (coffee, omelette, toast and fruit jam, a pink slice of pawpaw) was served in a dining room whose open windows drew in sparrows in search of crumbs.

In the lobby sat the owner, a tall Asian, listless and damp-eyed, watching the television. Barefoot Africans dressed in green overalls ferried piles of laundry, or mopped the stone floor. There was a steady stream of backpackers from Europe and America; few stayed more than a couple of nights. Dar es Salaam was too humid, the interior full of promise.

He was the Campaign Manager for an NGO, and he had been sent to Dar to organise the launch of a new programme for young Tanzanian volunteers. During the day he would work from a desk at the international bank which was sponsoring the launch, and in the early evening he walked back across the city to the Safari. The air cooling, the light fading, the streets full of commuters and shoppers. On his way home he bought beer and cashew nuts. He rarely came across anyone else on the stairwell. His key rattled in the loose fitting door; inside there was a table, a chair, a bed, a mosquito net, grey and full of holes, a tall narrow mirror. A window looked over a construction site where workers scaled wooden scaffolding. In a narrow adjunct there was a shower, a sink, a fresh bar of green soap.

He undressed, lay face down on the floor and did fifty press ups and then he took a shower, the water cool on his body. Afterwards he opened a bottle of beer and ate some nuts and waited to dry in the humidity. Lying on the bed he listened to the BBC’s World Service. He read. He wrote. Sometimes he would stand in front of the mirror and imagine himself a champion golfer, walking onto the 18th tee at The Open. Hitting a three wood for safety. Walking up the fairway to his ball, waving to the crowd, and then, after preparation, a two iron to a green ringed by stands. He loved this club because it was difficult to strike well. A slow back swing, the right elbow pulling-in towards his hip on the down swing, the turning shoulders bringing the club head down in an accelerating arc so that his hands turned through the ball and the release was clean and out of the middle of the club and the ball pushed and soared into the air and stood over the green like a star and when it landed it fell soft and stopped within twelve feet of the pin and the crowd were rising to their feet and the stewards were already sprinting behind him to keep back the crowd as he strode down the fairway and onto the 18th green. This role play he repeated. He wrote his diary. He thought often about calling a girl in London, but the line was poor, the call expensive and he did not know what he would say. They had been lovers for years but their relationship was no longer symmetrical and he was frightened that the call would not go well. Instead, he sent her postcards and letters. The frequency and length of these he considered carefully.

On India Street a hawker sold second hand text books and novels and old copies of The Economist. On Saturday afternoons he bought a second-hand Economist for a dollar and that night he sat outside an Indian restaurant around the corner from the Safari and ate curry and drank beer from a steel cup and read the newspaper from cover to cover. The World This Week. Leaders. Letters. Briefing. Britain. Europe. United States. The Americas. Middle East and Africa. Asia. International. Business. Finance and Economics. Books and Arts. Obituary. Pages of certainty and reason and ‘could do better’ scepticism. Photographs, ungainly cartoons and various graphs. Science and Technology.

In the weak light of a strobe tapped remorselessly by flying ants he scanned adverts for Chief Executives and Chief Financial Officers and Statistical Analysts and Economists and Project Managers. The depth and plunder of the northern hemisphere, its sophisticated regimes and confident schemes. Around him Africans worked into the night. Men, stripped to the waist, disappeared under ruined cars, leant over engine blocks, lit their darkness with acetylene torches, soldering and slicing and perforating their carcasses. It was delightfully balmy and in the dark he felt anonymous and safe. Into the night the strobe tapped; singed ants winged to the floor.

On Sundays he caught the small passenger ferry out to Bongoyo Island where he read and swam and ate a lunch of fried chicken. A man sold Kilimanjaro beer out of a bucket of melted ice and he bought two bottles but when the man came back round again he declined a third because by now the beer was warm. When he caught the last ferry home his skin was taut with sunburn and salt. By ten o’clock he was in bed and the next day he woke early and dressed in his tan cotton suit and walked past the whistling taxi drivers all the way to the bank, or the headquarters of a multinational company, or State House where he had an appointment with the Chief of Staff to the Vice President. By the time he arrived at his destination his suit jacket was patched with sweat. Autumn passed in dull, humid weather.

He spent Christmas on a beach of white Zanzibar sand and in January he came home. Dark England was illuminated by yellow electric light. A friend had invited him to shoot in the north east. He caught a train north and at Darlington a taxi through the glow of street lights and roundabouts and car dealerships lit up and rows of terraced housing. For over a mile they drove alongside the wall of an estate and then turned into a drive which ran through empty park land. The next morning, the girl dozing in her four poster bed, he stood in a line of silent men and watched the river mist clear and waited, his stomach churning, for an invisible army of beaters to drive into the freezing, coal-scented air flurries of birds from the wooded high ground on the far side of the river.

At lunchtime the Land Rovers drove the guns and their girls into a walled garden. In front of an empty cottage a table had been laid for lunch. Experienced young men and women talked excitedly with one another while two butlers emptied magnums of claret into silver cups, and set to frying eggs to accompany the cold ham and roast potatoes. Nearby huge pieces of wood burned in an orange fire and the loaders sat in the back of a horse box holding cans of beer and sandwiches. He took his place at the table with the pleasure of an occasional shot who had exceeded his expectations. His shoulder was pleasantly sore; each time he had handed his spent gun to his loader its pair had been placed expertly into his hands, the barrels still hot from last time and he would raise the gun and immediately there would be two more high, sprinting birds to shoot at. It was dry and the party sat happily around the table for an hour. He agreed to extra ham and salad, smoked cigarettes between courses, accepted a glass of damson vodka and then another and a slice of fruitcake and when a wooden box was offered to him by one of the butlers, its cedar lid opened, he selected a cigar. The keeper arrived with an anxious bitch Labrador at his heels and asked the guns to guess how many birds had been shot during the morning. The wisecracks laughed and shouted, and he lit his cigar and looked on, and when his eyes met the girl’s he knew he would never marry her and it was time to stop thinking about it and to a gale of laughter and cheers the keeper shouted out a number and stood up with a flourish, the yellow tassels of his woollen garters dancing against the tips of his boots. Then the keeper blew a whistle and the horse box was already driving out of the garden, the loaders hanging out of the back like refugees and the guns were walking towards the Land Rovers, or disappearing into the cottage to piss and he decided he would walk on account of his cigar and his friend, who also had a cigar, said he would do the same and together they began to walk out of the walled garden.

“Bring cigars!” said his friend in a mock grandeur, waving his cigar like a wand. It was their old joke. They walked together out of the walled garden towards the river, where the guns were lining up in butts on the bank. His friend turned to him.

“What are you going to do now?”

The light was leaving the day. He climbed down into his butt and pissed into the river, his cigar clenched between his teeth. His loader arrived with his guns and they stood together talking. The man had a business supplying local farmers with animal feeds. Business was poor. He loved his field sports. Loading gave him an excuse to get away from the wife, and meet interesting folk and a day’s shooting at the end of the season. Then the loader nodded and muttered “over” in a sorrowful whisper as a pheasant glided directly overhead and in haste he threw the half cigar to the ground and turned to face the wooded hillside and his friend shot twice and it was dark enough to see flame out of the end of his gun and the broken circle of a bird tumbled against the river bank and into the water.

Taken from 38, pages 27 – 31.

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