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Norman Rush

MORTALS

A novel

For my Muse and Critic, with gratitude for the last ten years of extraordinary forbearance, creative impatience, unfailing love.

Elsa, you are unique.

And for Isis, Angus, Monica, and Jason, beloved people.

Map

I. UNREST

1. Paradise

At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house.

He paused at his gate. All the houses on the close, in fact all the houses in the extension, were identical, but, for Africa, sumptuous. They were Type III houses built by the government for allocation to the upper civil service and significant expatriates like agency heads and chiefs of mission. The rooms were giant, as Iris had put it when they moved in. Throughout the extension the properties were walled and gated on the street side and separated internally from one another by wire-mesh perimeter fencing that had to be constantly monitored and kept in repair because there was a network of footpaths through the area that the Batswana insisted on using to get from Bontleng or the squatter settlements to their day jobs or for visits with friends or family living in the servants’ quarters each Type III house came with. The quarters were cubicles set well apart from the main houses, which had possibly been a mistake because it made monitoring the flux of lodgers and visitors that much harder. If the quarters had been connected to the main houses there might be less thousand clowns activity in them, although you’d lose yet another piece of your own privacy. The perimeter fences were constantly developing holes so that the paths could keep functioning as they had before the extension was built, and it was a fact that their African neighbors were consistently more lax than the expatriates who lived there about keeping the wire fences fixed up.

The houses stood on generous plots and there was nothing wrong with a Type III house. They were single- story cinderblock oblongs faced with cement stucco. Their house was salt-white inside and out. Every third house in the extension was painted tan. The floors were poured concrete. He’d had to push Iris into the house the first time they inspected it because she thought the floors were wet, they were waxed and buffed to such an insane lustre. They had the best plot on Kgari Close, the largest, at the apex of the horseshoe the close made. They had six rooms.

He would admit that their moderne type furniture was on the ungainly and garish side. It was from South Africa. It seemed to be made for very large human beings. On the other hand it was provided free by the government of Botswana. Their bed was firm, and was vast. The corrugated iron roof, painted red to suggest terracotta tile, was a mistake, but only in the hottest part of the year, like now, when it converted the unshaded parts of the house into ovens, to which the answer was the airconditioners they had in their bedroom and living room, at least, at opposite ends of the house, except that unfortunately Iris saw herself as acquiring virtue by abstaining from using them exactly when the justification for using them was greatest. She always denied her attitude had anything to do with solidarity with Dimakatso and the other servants in the neighborhood out in their hot cubicles or with the un-airconditioned population in general, but he thought otherwise. She claimed it was because the airconditioners made too much noise for her. She was very sensitive to noise. Also she could be willful. For example, everything in the house could be locked up—regular closets, linen closets, cupboards, cabinets. The assumption was that you were going to be stolen from. The drill everywhere else was that the maid came to you to get the key when something had to be procured, and brought the key back to you afterward. But Iris kept everything unlocked even though their first maid had complained about it because she was worried that if anything went missing she’d be blamed. So nothing was locked, which was fine, she always did what she wanted. What was wrong now? He was tired of it.

Sometimes the yardman opened the gate, but usually it was the watchman, who came on duty at five. He overlapped the yardman’s tour by half an hour or so, but the yardman could be anywhere, doing anything, including napping someplace. The watchman would normally be at his post under the thorn tree to the right of the gate, sitting on a camp stool and having a cup of Joko tea and eating the very decent leftovers Iris provided—a chop, chicken thighs, and the sweets without which no meal is complete, to a Motswana. On weekends it could happen that there wasn’t much for lunch and he would think about the procession of chops and drumsticks that had gone out the kitchen door to Fikile that week, but he’d never complained about it. The watchman was coming. Ray liked Fikile, a short, energetic man in his forties. He wore the military jacket and service cap the Waygard Company supplied, but with them he wore heavy black woolen dress slacks too long for him and rolled up into tubes at his ankles. His ankles were bare. He was wearing shoes so cheap the leather of the vamp gathered up like the neck of a sack where the laces were drawn tight. They exchanged greetings and Fikile opened the gate. Ray walked into the yard. It was possible Fikile was illiterate. When he’d first come to work for them he’d always seemed to have reading matter with him, and then Ray had noticed that it was the same worn copy of Dikgang that they were seeing day after day. Then he had stopped bringing anything at all to read. Ray’s theory was that having the newspaper with him had been for the purpose of making a good impression and that now that Fikile knew they liked him and were going to keep him he was excused from having to pretend he could read. His English was minimal. Naturally Iris wanted to do something, but she felt blocked because to ask him if in fact he could read or not, after he’d clearly gone out of his way to give the impression he could, might insult him. Ray suspected that behind her agitation over Fikile was a short story she’d broken her heart reading in which one of the wretched of the earth is tricked into thinking he can learn to read by staring at a mystical diagram and repeating a nonsense mantra he has paid some charlatan his last nickel for. And to hand Fikile some piece of reading matter of their own, in Setswana or English, would seem like a test. Iris seemed to want her fiction to be excruciating. But that was the way she was and he was sorry he’d asked, when she’d given up right away on something light he’d recommended, probably Tom Sharpe, Isn’t it excruciating enough for you? He was always on the lookout for decent books for her, but being in Africa made it difficult and she made it difficult because she was cursed with good literary taste. She knew good writing from bad.

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