Next Boat from Douala by William Boyd

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From The London Magazine Stories 11, 1979

Then the brothel was raided. Christ, he’d only gone down to Spinoza’s to confront Patience with her handiwork. She hadn’t been free when Morgan first arrived so he had chatted to the owner, Baruch — as his better-read clients whimsically dubbed the diminutive Levantine pimp – for half an hour or so, and watched the girls dancing listlessly under the roof fans. His anger had subsided a bit but he managed to stoke up a rage when he was eventually ushered into Patience’s cubicle. ‘Hey!’ he had roared, lowering his greyish Y-fronts, ‘Bloody look at this mess!’ But then his tirade had been cut short by the whistles and stompings of Sgt. Mbele and his vice squad.

The day had started badly. Morgan woke, hot and sweaty, his sheets damp binding-cloths. Three things presented themselves to his mind almost simultaneously: it was Christmas eve, in four days he would be catching the next boat home from Douala and he had a dull ache in his groin. He eased his 17½ stone out of bed and started for the bathroom. There, a hesitant diagnosis set off by the unfamiliar pain was horrifyingly confirmed by the sight of his opaque, forked and pustular urine.

He dropped off at the local clinic before going into the office. Inside it was cool and air-conditioned. Outside, in the shade cast by the wide eaves, mothers and children sprawled. And inside he ruefully confessed to a Calvinistic Scottish doctor, young and unrelentingly professional, of his weekly visits to Patience at Spinoza’s. Then a plump black sister led him to an ante-room where, retreating coyly behind a screen, he delivered up a urine sample. The clear tinkle of his stream on the thin glass of the bottle seemed to rebound deafeningly from the tiled walls. With a cursoriness teetering on the edge of contempt the doctor told him that the result of the test would be available tomorrow.

He vented his embarrassment and mounting anger at his office, Nkongsamba’s High Commission, turning down all that day’s  ‘applications for visas out of hand, vetoing the recommendations of senior missionaries for candidates in the next birthday honours and, exquisite zenith of the day’s attack of spleen, peremptorily sacking a filing clerk for eating fu-fu while handling correspondence. He began to feel a little better, the fear of some hideous social disease retreating as time interposed itself between now and his visit to the clinic.

After lunch his air-conditioner broke down. Morgan detested the sun and because of his corpulence his three years in Nkongsamba had been three years of seemingly constant perspiration, virulent rashes and general discomfort. He had accepted the posting gladly, proud to tell family and friends he was in the Diplomatic Service, and had enthusiastically read the literature of West Africa, searching, with increasing despair, first in Joyce Cary then through Graham Greene right down to Gerald Durrell and Conrad, for any experience that vaguely corresponded with his own. When the cream tropical suit he had so keenly bought began to grow mould in the armpits – a creeping greenish hue eventually encroaching on the button-down flap of a breast pocket-he had forthwith abandoned it, and with it all hopes of injecting a literary frisson into his dull and routine life. But, thank God, he was leaving it all soon, next boat from Douala, leaving the steaming forest, the truculent natives, the tiny black flies that raised florin-sized bites. What would he miss? The beer, strong and cold, and, of course, Patience, with her lordotic posture, pragmatic sex and her smooth black body smelling strangely of ‘Amby’, a skin lightening agent that sold very well in these parts.

Morgan came home after work. There had been an unexpected fall of rain during the afternoon. The air was heavy and damp, great ranges of purple cumulus loomed in the sky. He climbed up the steps to his stoop shouting for Pious his houseboy to bring beer. There on the stoop table lay his copy of Keats, sole heritage of his years at his plate-glass university. He had come across it while packing and had glanced through it, with nostalgic affection, at breakfast. Now, carelessly left out in the rain, it sat there swollen, and steaming slightly it seemed, in the late afternoon heat – a grotesque papier-maché brick. He picked it up and bellowed for Pious.

He stood under the cold shower allowing the stream of water to course down his face plastering his thinning hair to his forehead. A startled Pious had received the sodden complete works full in the face and when he scrabbled to pick it up Morgan had booted him viciously in the arse. He smiled, then frowned. The sudden movement, though producing a satisfying yelp from Pious, had done some damage. Pain pulsed like a belisha beacon from his testicles, now, he was convinced, grown palpably larger. He counted slowly from one to ten. Things were ganging up on him, he was beginning to feel insecure, hunted almost. Only three days to the boat, then away, thank Christ, for good.

An obsequious chastened Pious brought him the gin on the stoop. Morgan poured two inches into a glass full of ice, added some bitters and a dash of water. He hated the drink but it seemed the apt thing to do; end of a tropical day, sundowners and all that. It was dark now and unbearably humid. There would be a storm tonight. Fat sausage flies brought out by the rain whirled and battered about him. Ungainly on their wings one landed in his gin and drowned there, straddled on the cubes. His shirt stuck to his back, the minatory hum of a mosquito was in his ear. Crickets chirped moronically in the garden. He would go and sort out that Patience.

*          *          *

In Sgt. Mbele’s fetid detention hall Morgan had two hours in which to repent that decision. Finally he managed to impress Mbele, a grinning stubborn man, with, also, the help of a 30 kobo bribe, that as he was an assistant district commissioner he possessed diplomatic immunity, and that he would take it as a personal favour if the sergeant wouldn’t mention him in his report. H.E., though profligate himself, admired a sense of decorum in his subordinates.

Leaving the police station Morgan decided there and then to abandon his car at Spinoza’s and instead go to the club — a ten minute walk — and get drunk. The Recreation Club, as it was inspiringly named, had been built for the expatriate population of Nkongsamba in the heady days of the Empire. A long rambling high—ceilinged building, surrounded by a piebald golf—course and tennis courts, it preserved, with its uniformed servants and airmail copies of British newspapers, something of the ease and tenor of those times. As Morgan approached it became evident that quiet inebriation was out of the question. Gerry and the Pacemakers boomed from the ballroom, coloured lights and streamers were festooned everywhere. It was the Christmas Party. Morgan, scowling and black-humoured, brutally shouldered his way through the crowd around the bar and drank three large gins very quickly. Then, moderately composed, he sat on a bar stool and surveyed the scene. The men wore white dinner jackets or tropical suits and looked hot and apoplectic. The women sported the fashions of a decade ago and appeared strained and ill—at-ease. There were few young people; young people did not come to the tropics from choice, only if they were sent like Morgan.

‘Um, excuse me’ a tap on his elbow ‘it is Mr Morgan isn’t it?’

He looked round. ‘Yes. Hello. Mrs . . . Brinkit, yes? Erm, let me see. Queen’s Birthday, High Commission last year?’

‘That’s right’. She seemed overjoyed that he had remembered. She was tall and thin and just missed being attractive. Thirtyish, late, probably. She wore a strapless evening gown that exposed a lot of bony chest and shoulder. Her nose was red, she was a bit drunk but then so was Morgan.

‘Doreen’ she said.

‘Sorry?’.

‘Doreen. My name.’

‘Christ yes. So sorry. And your husband, ah, George, How’s he ?’

‘It’s Brian actually. He would be here but Tom, our dachshund, ran away and Brian’s been out all night looking for him. Doesn’t want him to catch rabies.’

‘A la recherche du Tom perdu’ eh? Mbahaha.’ Morgan laughed at his joke.

‘Pardon?’ said Doreen Brinkit smiling blankly and swaying gently up against him.

Morgan drank a lot more and danced with Doreen. They became very friendly, more by force of circumstances — they were both alone, unattractive and needing to forget it — than by desire. At midnight they kissed and she stuck her tongue in his ear. There was no sign of Brian. Morgan remembered them now from the cocktail party at the High Commission. Brinkit small bald and shy. Doreen six inches taller than him. Brinkit telling him of his desire to leave Africa and become a vet in Devon. Wanted kids, nothing quite like family life. No place for children Africa, very risky, healthwise. No place for you either Morgan had thought as he looked at the man’s little eyes and his frail earnest features.

Some time later in a dark corner of the ballroom Doreen squirmed and hissed ‘No! Morgan! Stop it. . . honestly, not here.’ Then more suggestively, ‘Look why don’t I give you a run home. I’ve got the van outside.’

Breathless with excitement and lust Morgan excused himself for a moment. On his way to the lavatory he reflected that possibly it hadn’t been such a bad day after all. God. A real white woman. Wor.

But then a five minute session of searing agony in the gent’s toilet brought home to him — with an awful clarity — the nightmarish significance of the lyrics in Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’. He reeled out of the toilet, eyes streaming, teeth clenched, and collided with a small firm object. Through the mists of tears the prim features of his doctor shimmered and formed, mouth like a recently sutured wound.

‘Oh! Morgan, it’s you. Well, I won’t waste any words. Save you a  trip tomorrow. Bad news I’m afraid. You’ve got gonorrhoea.’ As if he didn’t know.

*          *          *

The VW bus was parked up a track off the main road some miles out of town. The jungle reared up on all sides. Heavy rain beat down remorselessly. Inside, lit by the inadequate glow of a map light, Morgan and Doreen Brinkit lay in the back, spacious with the seats folded down. Doreeen moaned unconvincingly as Morgan nuzzled her neck. His heart wasn’t in it. His mind was obsessed with a single image, rooted there since he’d heard the appalling news, of a rancid gherkin astride two suppurating black olives. With a shudder he broke off and took great pulls at the gin bottle he’d purchased before leaving the club. His brain seemed to cartwheel crazily in his skull. Bloody country! he screamed inwardly. Bloody filthy Patience! Three rotting years just to end up with the clap. He drank deep awash with self-pity. A tense frustrated rage mounted within him. Distractedly he looked round. Doreen was tugging at the bodice of her skirt, all tulle and taffeta reinforced with bakelite and whalebone. She pulled it down revealing an absurd cut—away bra that offered her nipples like canapés on a cocktail tray. Morgan’s rage was replaced by a spasm of equally intense lust. What the hell, he was on the next boat from Douala, clearing out. She was desperate for it. He reached up and switched out the map light.

But then somewhere in the prolonged pre—coital tussle, Doreen’s dress Concertina-ed at her waist, Morgan’s trousers at his knees, the rain drumming on the tin roof, the air soupy with sweat and deep breathing, Morgan took stock. Perhaps it was when, spliced between Doreen’s pale shanks, she breathed come on Morgan, it’s O.K., it’s O.K., it’s the safe time of the month and Morgan looked up at the windscreen awash with water and images began to zig—zag through his mind, like bats in a room seeking an open window. He thought of his testicles effervescing with bacilli, he thought of pathetic Brian Brinkit searching for his fucking dachshund in a downpour, then he thought of impregnating Doreen, his putrid seed in her womb, Brian’s innocent alarm at the diseased monster he’d inadvertently produced, he thought of Brian diseased too, a loathsome spiral of infection, a little septic carbuncle festering in Africa behind him. And he realized as Doreen’s grunts began to reach a crescendo beneath him that, no, in spite of everything — Patience, Keats, Pious, Mbele, the stinking heat and the clap — it just wasn’t on.

He withdrew and sat up breathing heavily.

‘What is it Morgan?’ Surprised, a tint of anger colouring her voice.

What the hell could he say? ‘I’m sorry Doreen’ he began pathetically, desperately running through plausible reasons. ‘But . . . it’s just, um . . . well I don’t think this is fair to Brian. I mean . . . he is out looking for Tom, in this rain.’ Then, despite himself, he laughed, a half—suppressed derisive snort, and Doreen abruptly burst into tears, sobbing as she tried to cover herself up. Morgan sat and finished the gin.

Get out!’ Morgan looked round in alarm. Doreen, hair all over the place, face tracked with mascara, shrieking at him. ‘Fucking get out! How dare you treat me like this! You filth, you fat sodding bastard!’ She started to pummel him with her fists, pushing him towards the back of the van with surprising strength. Somehow the door sprang open.

‘Hang on Doreen! It’s pouring. Let’s talk about it.’ She was hitting him about the head and shoulders with the empty gin bottle screaming obscenities all the while Morgan fell out of the back of the van. He scampered out of the way seconds later as she reversed violently down the road. Morgan sat on the verge, the jungle at his back, rain soaking him completely. ‘Jesus,’ he said. He wiped his wet hair from his forehead. For some curious reason he felt lightheaded suddenly hugely relieved. He got to his feet noticing unconcernedly that his trousers were covered in mud. Then, for a brief tranquil moment, the rain beating down on his head, he felt intensely exhilaratingly happy. Why? He couldn’t really be sure. Still… He set off down the track, a bulky dripping figure, humming quietly to himself at first, and then, spontaneously, filling his lungs and breaking into a booming cockney basso profundo that spilled out into the dark and over the trees.

‘Hyme a si—i—inging in a ryne, hyme a singing in a ryne.’

Cicadas trilled in his path.

© William Boyd 2015


closeThis short story appeared in The London Magazine Stories 11 in 1979, a London Magazine Editions publication selected by TLM editor Alan Ross. Alongside it was short fiction by writers including Nadine Gordimer, Graham Swift and Milan Kundera.