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The Scent of African Dusk
And while men had whistled as she swung her hips down the streets, none ever made crude proposals to her. She had that sudden upward curl of the upper lip which portends a rebuff. She never said yes, and men hate begging. There were missed occasions, chance encounters, hints, overbearing men with hairy nostrils. But still no flowers ever came. No suicides were scheduled beneath her window.
Hers was an unusual beauty: particularly when viewed at forty five degrees. She was a high strung pale girl who expelled cigarette smoke through her nostrils most convincingly and painted her lips scarlet red.
Her adolescence had flowed by like the mucky waters of the Seine. She had gone to university; read history, changed her mind; and read letters; but never fell in love. Then she had found a job as a receptionist at a commercial firm.
Her friends had got married, given birth to red wrinkled babies, and indulged in the aesthetics of interior decoration. But for her, happiness had remained elsewhere; in an instant glimpsed in a distant lighted window, in a toothy smile on a billboard, or in the intimate embrace of a young couple kissing on the métro. Her breasts had softened and her hips had spread out. And thus she had set off alone through the interminable corridors of her twenties and down the red-carpeted stairway to old age.
Then presently, a robust African man with a clipped moustache and a crew cut to boot, hurried along ahead of her, snorting through his whiskers. And their itineraries down that stairway of life, might have never converged, if she had not raised her eyes to admire the perfect spiral described by the iron handrail. She had missed a step, lunged forward and slid down a flight of steps to the next landing. The man had stopped and walked back to give her a hand.
‘Are you alright?’ he had asked as he gave her his two hands. And he could not help but notice her momentarily unveiled long and lovely legs.
‘Yes,’ Isabelle had replied.
For a moment they had recoiled into an embarrassed silence while she covered her nudity and put on her
Then perhaps to put her at ease, the man had asked her if she had not hurt herself. ‘Fortunately, no,’ she said. ‘I was admiring the magnificent spiral formed by the staircase. And it gave me vertigo.’
‘Yes, isn’t it beautiful,’ the man said. And they both looked up the winding staircase. ‘It is a pity they don’t build like this anymore,’ he added. ‘Do you live here?’ queried the man stroking his whiskers.
‘No, I work here,' she answered.
They had then resumed their journey down the stairs. They had exchanged a glance of astounded empathy as a heavyset woman lumbered up the staircase, breathing heavily.
He had held open the front door and motioned her out with a sweeping gesture of his right hand.
‘Which way are you going?’ he had asked her outside.
‘To the métro.’
‘I could give you a ride.’
A uniformed chauffeur had fumbled to open doors for them. In the car they had exchanged telephone numbers. For a moment an instinctive sense of decency had refrained her from unveiling herself to a total stranger, but she had been overcome by an irresistible urge to please this kind moustachioed man. The following week they had dined together at an expensive restaurant, where they were tended to by an army
The man’s name was Francis Lutera. He was a minor diplomat posted in Paris, from some english speaking African country. His bearing carried distinction, and he spoke an accented, stilted French, with an occasional lapse into English. At thirty three, he was still a bachelor, inspite of his good looks and that structural solidity so appealing to women. Isabelle loved the way his nose gracefully rolled back at the tip and spread out towards his smooth cheeks. The way his skin gathered beneath his eyes when he smiled. His full lips were very becoming. Didn’t he look like that musician, what’s his name?... Belamonte? Belafonte? Yes, like Harry Belafonte.
At the New year’s gala, they had described concentric circles, spinning like entwined tops around the ballroom floor. At the charity ball a melancholic tango had implored them to bend and spin to its languid rhythm. He in his dinner-jacket, and she in her light evening wear had made such an elegant couple that everyone had found them absolutely charming, well matched. They got married that summer.
Then a few months later, Francis was recalled. They had moved into a peeling colonial, iron roofed bungalow with wire netting shutters and dry water taps. For the morning bath, the houseboy would fetch water in plastic jerrycans from a neighbour’s downhill and fill the tub, in which Francis and Isabelle would take turns bathing in the same water. In the house there was a tiny grey mouse she nicknamed Mickey, which scared the daylights out of her.
Isabelle had discovered with disappointment that Africa was not just the brilliant blue sky and endless savanna myth of the travel agent, but was also the suffocating heat, the pervasive red dust, the invisible mosquitoes whizzing through the dark , and a cacophony of cryptic languages.
Her favourite aspect of Africa, was the dusk. She would sit in a wicker chair on the verandah, with her legs resting on the balustrade to watch the day die a slow crimson death. A floral scent compounded with the warm humid smell of decay, the smell of African dusk, would hung in the air like an invisible curtain. And the distant hills would become giant sepals upon which reposed the celestial flower. Usually, Juma the houseboy, would serve her a glass of lemon juice. And she would sip it very slowly, its acerbic taste tickling her taste buds.
For a moment the celestial flower would waver over the horizon, then wither away into the interminable eulogy of a frog and the chorus of crickets. The distant hills would become gilted with specks of distant street lights. The electric bulb on the verandah would attract a swarm of mosquitoes, an occasional white moth, and motionless, translucent geckos hanging upside down on the cieling. The mosquitoes and the white moth would perform loops around the light under the watchful eye of the gecko. Eventually, if one of the mosquitoes settled down for a rest, a gecko would suddenly flick out its tongue and engulf it.
Towards seven o’clock, Isabelle would hear her husband’s car struggle up the hill in low gear. She would
meet him at the front door, and would quickly press her pursed painted lips against his mouth. In the sitting room, where a gilted chandelier whose glass pendants hang like an immobile rainfall above a large zebra skin drum, Isabelle would leisurely kick off her shoes, cuddle in the corner of a large black chesterfield with buttons like a fat woman’s navel, folding one leg under her, and begin leafing through an outdated illustrated magazine. While her bespectacled husband in the remains of his business suit, dozed into an open newspaper after a harassing day at the office. On his return from Europe, Francis had been appointed to a high position in the ministry of foreign affairs. He had become distracted, detached, and he always seemed to have official business waiting. Sometimes he would spend hours on the telephone. At the dining table he would yawn into his fist, as Juma ladled a spoonful of green peas onto his plate.
Their house was not unlike a public house. There was an incessant stream of guests and relatives; uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nephews of nephews, who just showed up unexpected and uninvited. They arrived with their bare feet shod in a thin layer of red dust. Some just dropped in on the occasion of a visit to town. Others came seeking favours from Francis; a job at the ministry, a government scholarship for a son. There were seldom less than half a dozen people at the dining table. How could one refuse them? They drank their tea from the saucer, ate with their fingers.
And although Francis despised some of these relatives for their countryside manners, Isabelle received them like her own. They were the numerous brothers and sisters she never had. She would preside over the table talk with diligence, rolling and unrolling her rs in her Frenchfied English. But at the slightest neglect, the conversation would veer off into vernacular. Immediately, poor, susceptible Isabelle, would rush to recover control of the conversation and steer it back into English, for fear the cryptic mirth be at her expense.
That Christmas, Francis took Isabelle to his home village. They drove down suburban roads between green hedges, on to the potholed one way streets of the city centre. They bumped past shabby concrete skyscrapers, past the rusty corrugated iron shacks in the slum. Then the bougainvilliers and flower beds along the curb disintegrated into rugged countryside without transition. Speeding lorries and taxis packed with passengers bumped along, raising clouds of red dust.
After a few hours on the motorway, Francis turned off into a dirt road which cut through scrub and banana plantations and led to a village of ochre coloured houses. There were many children tripping about the dusty compounds. Little boys rolled used car tyres along the road. Chicken went about pecking at the ground.
Francis’ widowed mother, lived in a large house with a dusty front yard. She was a tall woman with the stern handsome face that mother-in-laws are often endowed with. It was a delicate matter dealing with her, for she understood neither English nor Isabelle’s impatient gesticulations. There were numerous members of the extended family spending Christmas at the house. That night, Francis was separated from Isabelle, who was put up with her two sister-in-laws and four other girls; he was put with his brothers and a cousin. Isabelle shared a bed with one of her sister-in-laws, a big woman who smelt of wood smoke and took up most of the bed. The inevitable, invisible mosquito whizzing through the dark kept her awake much of the night.
Next day dawned with that limpid hue which portends a stifling day. Here and there, bulbous white cloudlets spotted the blue sky and turned it into a colossal fresco stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. Isabelle was given a large tin basin of water and was shown to an iron shack besides the latrine, for her morning bath.
From early morning the men sat in the yard playing cards and drinking a traditional brew made from fermented bananas. While the women went to fetch water in yellow jerrycans from the well, with babies tucked into cottons on their back. When they came back, they went about the domestic chores in a noisy joviality. They pounded ground nuts in wooden mortars, peeled green plantains and huge purple sweet potatoes for lunch, then lighted charcoal stoves.
Under the oppressive sun, the village was a watery vista. The air was hot and heavy. Vultures drifted in the sky. Isabelle felt lonely and unwelcome, her offers of help went unacknowledged. The fabric in her armpits formed dark round patches of sweat. She found it repugnant to squat over the putrid, fly infested latrine pit. Afterwards, she felt embarrassed to cross the backyard, walk past the men playing cards in the back yard, on her way from the latrine, as if she was coming from doing something unbearably shameful. She became unnecessarily sensitive to the men’s and neighbour’s stares. Her back tingled as though it was being walked over by a line of black ants.
Later, the children kicked up dust as they chased chickens to be slaughtered for lunch. One of the chickens ran into the house through the back door. Bursts of tinkles and shrieks could be heard as the children went from room to room. Then the chicken flew out of a window and landed a few meters from where the men were playing cards. Francis was part of the shouting, laughing commotion which ran about the yard like a single, multi-limbed creature.
When the chickens were caught, Isabelle saw Francis fold his shirt sleeves and accept a knife. She saw him as she had never seen him before; a sturdy, rugged man with plastic sandals strapped between his toes. In his printed cotton shirt and faded jeans, he looked so much like any other villager. He was handed the cackling chicken and he walked over to a corner of the yard. He clasped the bird’s wings beneath his left foot; the feet beneath his right. Someone challenged him to slaughter the hen in a single slash. And he accepted, then he siezed the helpless chicken’s head and started plucking off its neck feathers. His face was set in an expression Isabelle had never seen before. Two deep furrows cut down his brow to the top of his nose and he was biting his lower lip. There was something ritualistic, in the pervading atmosphere not unlike a sacrifice. A primeval, pagan household ritual expurgated from modern life by the cellophane wrapped, supermarket chicken. Francis slit the the chicken’s throat, as Isabelle looked away in horror.
But in the ensuing applause and confusion, the chicken had escaped from Francis’ grasp. Amid the euphoria, it had gone flapping around the yard, its headless bloody neck splashing blood all over the place.
Lunch was served beneath a crackling iron roof. Naturally, Isabelle decline the offer of chicken stew, shuddering to think that perhaps this was the same bird that had flapped around the yard headless. Then later, a big black fly with hairy legs settled on the edge of her plate, rubbed it’s head with the fore legs, smoothened its delicate transparent wings with the hind legs, before darting off to reemerge on the brim of her glass. From then on she had lost appetite to think of whence that fly had come.
‘Darling are you alright?’ asked Francis when he saw that she was not eating and was very pale. But she said nothing; what was there to be said.
From then on, everything changed: she no longer saw Francis in the same glowing light she had always seen him; of the suave diplomat and high-ranking civil servant. Beneath the veneer of his three piece suits and English accent, disguised another man altogether. A man capable of chopping off a chicken's head without second thoughts. A rugged man with plastic sandals strapped between his toes who could spend his days sipping beer and playing cards with his mates without paying the least attention to her. She could not understand this transformation. What could have happened to the man she knew and loved ? She could not explain how one could go from socializing on the parisian cocktail circuit to beheading a chicken in a remote African village ? She had the impression of living with two distinct individuals: one with whom she did the local cocktail circuit and the other with whom she spent weekends and holidays in a dusty village in the middle of nowhere.
She felt trapped behind the high concrete wall around their house. In idleness, the heat and dust were overwhelming. And there was nothing to do in the city: the only cinema showed blood-and-guts or Bollywood movies. The museum was a dusty little joke of tiny clay models under glass cases, the local theatre was not even worth mentioning. The bookshops sold third or forth hand cheap thrillers by James Hardly Chase and vernacular translations of the bible. In the city, the well-to-do lived sequestered lives, they seldom went out. They were like foreigners in their own country. They looked to Europe for inspiration. They worshiped their foreign made cars, punctuated their afternoons with a cup of tea, dressed like Englishmen without the attributes of the dreadful English weather. They professed to revere their country but sent their English speaking children overseas for studies.
Behind their high concrete walls, they were under siege. They lived in a concrete bubble, occasionally emerging in their air conditioned Japanese four wheel drive cars to go to the air conditioned office, to the air conditioned bar at an international hotel. Their lives were at once barren and repetitive.
One evening Isabelle and Francis were invited to a recently opened casino run by a friend. The casino was an air-conditioned, blinded enclave designed to deceive the impressionable client that he was either in Atlantic city or Las Vegas. The management was exclusively white: stout Israelis in tight tuxedos. There were many familiar faces Isabelle often saw around town, faces whose value derived from their proximity to power or wealth- a cousin to a government official, or the son of a rich businessman and their hangers-on. The conversation, in the slanted local English, was facetious and tiresome, its subject the tragic events in a neighbouring country. Certain gruesome atrocities committed by the governement militias were enumerated like the fouls of a rival football team. The militia, drank the blood of their victims after hacking them to death, someone said. They remained on the grisly subject of atrocities for some time. Apparently the militia had forced women to have sex with AIDS patients at a certain hospital, then set them free to go and infect their men. The tragic events in that country having been exhausted, the talk drifted to armed car thefts in the city and other matters.
Isabelle was disgusted, not just at the lewd jokes, but at the general lack of indignation, at very idea that a tragedy of such magnitude and still fresh in peoples’ minds, was already reduced to a handful of locker-room jokes. It was history seen through the eyes of a football fan.
Later they went to the newest discotheque in town, where Isabelle deliberately underestimated the potency of a local brew. Such that the following day she would wake up late, and virtually still drank.