Read Turning Back the Sun Online

Authors: Colin Thubron

Tags: #Travel

Turning Back the Sun (10 page)

But he demanded between kisses, “Why not talk? Do you sometimes try to forget me when we make love?”

But she only frowned. “Perhaps I”ve had the wrong sort of men for too long. You”re not that sort of man.” She touched his head to her breast. “Perhaps I can”t associate sex with love anymore. I don”t know.” Yet she seemed unconscious of the pathos in the conjecture. “I don”t know what any of it means.”


s Rayner finished his morning clinic and checked the waiting room, he found Leszek”s last patients huddled round the walls with their gaze averted from its center. There, immobile on their quilt, sat the old savage and his blank-faced daughter. She was wearing the same crumpled white dress, but her father had put on a loose-fitting shirt and bound his grey hair with a headband. They sat there like emanations of the wilderness. Nobody even glanced at them. But as the old man lumbered to his feet, the incongruity of his standing there, so rough-hewn and immobile, seemed to deplete him. His open-air majesty had dropped away. He looked rather helpless.

He said, “I come because I think something not right when I in that place. You say, if you get to town, come see me.”

Rayner led him into his room, and the girl followed. The other patients” faces lifted in unison to watch them.

The old man sat down on the edge of the examination couch. The girl fidgeted beside him. Her movements were sudden and frightened. And now Rayner saw that her father was changed. He seemed no longer to control
the bulk of flesh which enclosed him. His life had shrivelled inside it. Even his expression seemed to have withdrawn into his thicket of beard and locks, leaving little behind but a swarming nose and overcast eyes.

Rayner said: “What do you feel is wrong?”

The old man flexed his arm, testing it. “It went wrong back there, in that place, three days ago.” His look of puzzlement, the natives” knotting of nose and brows, seemed suddenly fitting. He gazed at Rayner. “I wake up with this feeling, like a ghost has been living in me. Yes, like that. Like somebody done something to me in the night while I”m sleeping. But there”s nobody been in that place for two days. Just me and my daughter.”

“What did it feel like?”

“Well, I get up thinking: who”s been here? Then I bend for my trousers and my fingers don”t take them. My arm is somewhere else, it”s left me. So I say to my daughter, pick up my trousers. I say that in my head, but my mouth doesn”t make words at all. See, I”ve lost my control. As if my body taken by some other feller. So I pick up the trousers with my other hand, and that”s okay. But when I try talk again the words come out wrong, like a baby. Yes, that”s how it is, like a baby.”

When Rayner examined him he found, as he expected, that his blood pressure was high; and on its left side the corrugations of his forehead had relaxed unnaturally, and a faint slackness released one corner of his mouth.

“You didn”t see yourself in a mirror after this?”

“Mirror?” A guttural laugh rocked the man”s shoulders. “What”d an old man have a mirror for? I given up looking at myself. I done with all that.”

“Did you have trouble eating?”

“The girl says the food come out of my mouth. Yes, I find it in my beard. But not anymore. Is okay now.” “What about your eyes?”

“Eyes, they”re hard to shut at first.” He dug his fingers
into their lids. “When we started out to town, everything worse than now. But it gets better with walking.”

“How long were you walking?”

“Two days.”

Rayner thought: then he”s still strong, he may carry on for a few years.

The old man settled his look of puzzlement on him, but with an unfocused gaze, as if he descried some figure on a skyline deep in Rayner”s skull. “So what is this thing? Is it one of those that come back?”

“You”ve had a mild stroke.” Rayner watched the man”s face, but it yielded nothing. “It means you”ve got to be careful or it could come back.” But he wondered what to advise. The old man”s diet was already almost free of salts and animal fats, and in any case, little in his way of living would change now. “I”ll give you some tablets.”

He made up a packet of bromide, but knew that it was little more than a placebo. “Take one tablet every day. It”ll make your body calmer.”

The man took them in his oddly delicate hands, then passed them to his daughter.

Rayner asked, “You”ll remember?”

The old man did not answer. He seemed to have forgotten, or dismissed, the tablets. Instead he flexed his left arm again. “What about this? Is not like before. My grip still gone a bit.”

“That may get better. Don”t stop using it.”

The girl held the bromide in front of her, like a trophy. Her father got to his feet. He quivered faintly all through his frame. When he went to the door his gait was stiffly frail, but Rayner remembered it had been like that before.

“Where will you go now?”

They turned in the doorway, side by side. They resembled a primitive icon, he thought: their faces both unreadable. Like all the savages, they seemed at once contented
and melancholy. This was their mystery to him. He repeated, “Where will you go now? Have you relatives anywhere?”

“Relatives all too far from here, I reckon,” the old man said. “My father come from Piat country but his people they all left. I not been in that country for long time. That”s all Mingala now.”

But to Rayner these names and boundaries were all meaningless. He and the native lived on different maps. To the old man the few towns and linked roads were incidental to the flux and ebb of herdsmen over the grasslands.

Rayner asked, “Can you come back and see me? Can you get transport from that place?”

“We go somewhere else,” the man said. “Water not so good in that place. I reckon it won”t last.”

“Can you come back here in a few days?”

“We come back.” But the old man said it without conviction, like a formula. Then he turned his back heavily in the doorway and his daughter followed him out, still carrying the tablets in front of her.

Rayner heard them walk through the waiting room, and into the street. He felt relief at their going—things were difficult enough here as it was—followed by self-disgust. If they”d been townspeople, he thought, he would have kept the man under observation for three or four weeks, checking his blood pressure and the taking of his pills. As it was, father and daughter would disappear back into the wilderness, where he would perhaps die.

Rayner went into the waiting room, where Leszek”s last patient, a balloon-faced woman holding crutches, asked at once, “Did they have it, doctor?”

He controlled his irritation. “The disease has no connection with the natives. That”s all nonsense. We haven”t diagnosed a single case among them.”

All the same, his anxiety had deepened. The epidemic was spreading. Even a long-term prisoner in the town jail
had developed it. And the water supply analysis from the state laboratories had supplied no clue.

He walked out into the street. The natives had gone barely fifty meters along the pavement, the father”s hand weighing on his daughter”s shoulder. Something about their backs as they moved—the weakened stoop of the man, the girl”s innocent slenderness—made them unbearably vulnerable. Rayner heard himself sigh with exasperation as he followed them. The girl was carrying a bag and a rolled-up quilt. He called out in a voice still harsh with annoyance, “If you settle near here I can keep an eye on you. There”s a piece of parkland just above the river.”

They turned and stared.

He touched the old man”s arm. “I”ll need to check on you during the next three weeks. If you stay above the river, you shouldn”t be disturbed. Have you got any food, any money?”

“We got all those things,” the man said. “We going upriver, but if you want maybe we stay here a little, eh. You show us the place.”

Rayner took them back along the street behind the clinic. Passersby stared in hostility, and he imagined how they would talk. Mutely he hated the old man for moving so slowly. Then he was ashamed at his own shame, and glowered back at the passersby, suppressing their stares.

In the scrubland between the clinic and his home grew a copse of bloodwood trees and acacia, concealed from the road and the river. But as he led the natives across it they were all flagrantly exposed, and he knew people must be watching.

Then the copse pulled a screen round them. The girl spread the quilt under a tree and took a wooden mixing bowl and some medicine grass out of the bag. Her father sat down, and seemed content. She knelt beside him. Rayner said, “If you start feeling worse, you get back to the clinic. I”ll come and see you some days, to check your blood.”

The man”s head turned slowly, levelly, viewing the copse. His far-focused eyes and flared nostrils seemed to be listening to it, Rayner thought, deciding on it. He said, “This okay, this place. We can stay.”

“You”ll stay three weeks?” Rayner crouched beside him.

“Well, maybe. But we need to go back. Back to some place where our people passing through. I thinking about my daughter. She needs marry.” The girl was soaking the medicine grass with a gourd of water. “But okay we stay here some.”

Rayner wondered where his people were, his clan, his vanished family. The natives seemed to splinter and coalesce mysteriously, almost at random. “Just don”t go into the middle of town too often. Things have got worse between the blacks and whites. A lot of rumors going about.”

“I seen the way people look.”

“And don”t camp by the river at night. The army patrols it.”

The old man took off his headband and laid it on the quilt, releasing his hair to circle him like a huge, disordered ruff. “I seen the army, three trucks out in the bush. Gangs of blackfellers too, got hunting spears in the old way. And some got guns.”

Rayner had heard of these groups: as many as fifteen or twenty men, armed as if for raiding. The soldiers never seemed to find them, but last week they had surprised a native breaking into a house on the outskirts, and had shot him dead. Most of the townspeople had shown open satisfaction at this, imagining that something had at last been done.

Back in the capital, Rayner remembered, people had talked about the sanctity of individual life. But here a human life was a negotiable unit. There were too many poor ones to pretend that they deeply mattered.

“These groups all over the bush,” the old man said. “Some there, some here. One party come to the ancestor
place, where we was. Our people think that if you camp round the ancestors, you get strong.” “What are these groups doing?”

“They just living, mostly. But some afraid of the soldiers, and maybe some just bad in the head and want to kill whitefeller, and the drought make them silly. Yes, lots of fellers got spears now, just to help themselves, or to make revenge, see. Is everything changed. Everyone talking and getting scared.” But he spoke as if such things were already receding from him in his age and sickness, growing meaningless. “I reckon this country going back to the old times. I remember when white soldiers and blackfellers shooting all over the bush. But that now sixty years ago, when I a long way very little. I never think I see that again.”

Rayner glanced up at the bald sky. “Perhaps the rains will come.”

But the old man said, “I reckon the sky dried out now. Is too late for rains. We had one year like this when I was a boy. Water holes emptied, and dead cattle all over the bush. Some fellers went mad, started killing.” His breathing had grown heavy again. “I reckon we got that kind of year.”

Rayner stood up. The girl had already mulched the grass and was pouring its liquid back into the gourd. She did not seem to notice when he said goodbye, but her father gazed up at him with an expression which might have been gratitude, and lifted his hand in a half-salute. Looking back from the copse”s edge, Rayner saw them seated side by side as if on silent picnic, embalmed in the noon glare, motionless. Above them the sky and the bloodwood trees were drained of color. The two natives could have been at prayer. They reminded Rayner of the painted scarp of their own ancestors, whose faded figures seemed to inhabit some primitive Eden.


he town”s fear was heightened by a sense that the wilderness was closing in on it. By August a haze of bush fires hovered across every horizon, and blurred the circle of the sun. The savages, it was said, were systematically setting fire to the scrublands, and the tinder-dry shrubs and grasses ignited at the fall of a cigarette or a broken bottle. Smoke half obscured the northern hills, rolling like cannon fire between their clefts, and the town streets, even the house interiors, were pervaded by the faint miasma of burning.

Without a newspaper or radio station of its own, the town floated on a groundswell of hearsay. The two national journals (which arrived a day late) printed articles whose brevity and plainness illuminated nothing. But everyone could see that the drift of farmers into the streets had swelled. Some of them still trucked out to their fields or herds during the day, and returned at sunset. But others had abandoned their ranches altogether, and set up in boarding houses or slept in the alleys on their horse-drawn carts, sprawled among the flotsam of their possessions. They were dour people, with sun-bleached
hair and reddened hands. They did not look as if they would frighten easily. Almost all told tales of armed native bands and pilfered stock, or knew of some farmstead which had been attacked. But they had lived in isolation; their news was as fragmentary and filled with rumor and contradiction as the town”s. Yet they seemed to accept the drought and savages with fatalism, whereas the townsmen, who had suffered less, were by turns panicky and outraged, and were demanding revenge.

Many of the farmers whom Rayner used to telegraph in the wilds now came to him from the streets. His clinic was already brimming with patients whose ailments were nervous or unspecific, and the hospital engulfed him half the afternoon in minor operations for an upsurge of accidents due to alcohol and heatstroke. Two babies in the hospital died of diphtheria. The humidity did not let up. The fans whispering under the surgery ceilings only redistributed the heat, and evening brought no touch of wind. The air banked up round the town in a wall of smoke and dust, and people began to feel that the seasons had stopped. After the sultry nights, everyone woke exhausted. Rayner slept only fitfully even when not on call.

Whenever he visited the old native, whose blood pressure remained erratic, he saw himself a traitor in the town”s eyes. As he approached the copse where they were camped, he always hoped to find them gone. Yet he knew that the man was in no state to move.

“Who are these people?” Zoë demanded. “Aren”t they frightened?”

But the situation in the town seemed to stimulate her, as if she were at last witnessing something meaningful. She reported every rumor and incident. The nightclub closed earlier now, and she insisted on walking back alone through the near-silent streets, whose only danger, she said, lay in the drunken calls of the farmers from their wagons.

Then one night she returned tense with indignation. The half-caste dancer in the cabaret had suddenly disappeared, dismissed overnight by Felicie”s father. He”d called the rest of the artistes together and explained that customers were commenting on the girl. It was bad for the club”s reputation. You couldn”t employ the enemy …

“Enemy! She was just a dancer.”

During the next few days Rayner noticed the last of the natives vanished from the town center. Even the man who tended the plants in the mall was taken for questioning, and the girl on Nielsen”s Baked Potato van disappeared one evening, and never returned. When Rayner enquired after them, people”s fear surfaced in near-paranoia. There was no such thing as a civilized native, they said. “Those people” always reverted to type.

The detection of half-castes had now become an ugly game. The darker-skinned townspeople fell under early suspicion, and people claimed to discern even in Italian and Syrian immigrants the savages” triple frown or the lines ploughing down from the bridge of the nose to the mouth”s corners. You could tell “them,” people said, by their distinctive stance with their knees braced back, and by the way they walked on the balls of their feet, as if sneaking up on you.

Medical helplessness in the face of the disease was changing people”s perception of the doctors. They were suddenly seen as fallible. A cloud of disillusion brewed up, and an indefinable resentment. Rayner realized, too, that people were talking more personally about him. He was what the military termed an “unreliable element.” Even the medical officer, his half-skilled analyst, had alluded to it. The story had spread that he had treated savages out of the bush, increasing the risk of infection, and had settled two of them in the parklands near the clinic. During his surgery Rayner sensed that even the older patients were troubled with him, although they said nothing.

It was Leszek—tremulous and brittle with pride—who
broached the subject. “Do you suppose that old man may be well enough to leave soon? It cannot be very safe for him now …” Even in this weather Leszek wore a linen jacket and tie, his white hair fastidiously smoothed back. But he looked stressed and pale.

Rayner said, “His blood pressure”s still too high.”

“I”ve never had to treat any of the savages,” Leszek said wanly, “but they suffer from high blood pressure a lot, I”ve heard.”

Rayner knew what Leszek wanted. In his partner”s face he saw the ghosts of the past assembling: fear of authority and of the community”s hatred, the exile he never spoke about. Leszek”s lips pursed primly, as if in self-judgement. Pride and fear were at odds in him.

“I”m having to regulate the man”s tablets,” Rayner said. “He doesn”t even remember to take them.”

“The savages are used to their own medicines.” Again Leszek seemed to be saying:
They are not like us. Leave them alone.

Rayner said, “I don”t want that old man”s death on my hands.” But he knew, as he said it, that he was hoping Leszek would somehow absolve him from protecting the natives any longer. Like Leszek, he was growing deeply apprehensive.

“The trouble is …” Leszek nervously adjusted his spectacles. “There”s more than just the savages to consider. You must have noticed … you surely have. The whole clinic has become affected. Half the town knows. Only yesterday I was about to administer an injection when the patient asked, “Is that needle clean?” and I knew what she was thinking. Nobody ever used to ask that.”

It was true, Rayner thought, the patients who used to be so docile were suddenly questioning the sterilization of needles and even of dressings. Only that morning a miner submitting to a blood test for lead poisoning had demanded to see the needle sterilized before his eyes.

“It”s so much a matter of faith,” Leszek said. “If people
lose faith in us … if they start shying away from us … we”ll kill people that way.”

Rayner felt a dulled, stubborn resistance to this. Leszek was simply afraid. “It”s ridiculous.”

Leszek said bitterly, “People are ridiculous.” He took off his spectacles as if to obliterate his fellow men. “But you can understand it. There”ve been seven whites killed here in as many weeks. What are they to feel?”

“I know.” The memory of those axed-in heads surfaced again. “But the natives all come from different clans. This old man has no connection with the groups upriver.”

“I dare say not.” Leszek turned starchy and defensive. Perhaps he felt he was being accused of cowardice, or was accusing himself. “But it”s only a matter of time before the military takes the last of the savages in. And then what happens to them?” There was a tinge of reedy triumph in his voice. “Yes, what then? It”s better you tell them to go, before it”s too late.”

That night Rayner was woken by confused shouts and cries. They sounded far away but violent, as if left over from nightmare, yet when he fully woke they were still there. He pulled back the curtain from a three-quarter moon. Beyond and a little below him, like a ghost over the blanched river, moved an unlit police launch. All along the near bank, where the last natives had camped, the darkness spurted lights and the screams and bawling reached him with unearthly distinctness. A cooking fire showered the night with sparks before dying underfoot. A child was shrieking. But in that distance everything passed with a chill unnaturalness. Gradually the lights shifted downriver toward the road. Occasionally, in the flash of torches, Rayner discerned a jostle of heads as someone still resisted arrest. Then, one by one, the jeeps” headlights flooded the distant highway as they drove away, and the police launch drifted back into dimness. For a
moment the loudest sound was his own breathing, short and harsh in the room”s silence.

Then, with an eerie shock of familiarity, as if it resonated somewhere in his memory (but he could not recall where), there arose from near the river a long, disembodied howling, which wavered like a dog”s under the moon, and died away.

By the time Rayner had tugged on his trousers and gone outside, everything was silent again. He blundered along the crest of the slope, afraid of treading on a snake with his bare feet. He had forgotten to bring a torch, but by the time he reached the copse his eyes had adjusted to the moonlight. For the first time since their arrival he was praying that the natives would still be there. He thrust aside the branches until he reached the bloodwood trees.

They lay asleep on their quilt. The girl bunched on her side, her head covered by her arms. The old man”s face was turned up to the sky. Yet he appeared not really to sleep. The converging lines which knit together his eyes and nose twitched and flinched at the air. And the big, dry mouth was never still. It uttered tiny cries. And he breathed so lightly. Rayner stared down at him with relief and something like affection. But in its enormous nest of hair the old man”s face looked emptied, Rayner thought, as if he were the detritus of some older, sturdier race, which had lost its evolutionary way. And the cries he uttered were like the fragments of a language he had once known, and was trying in vain to recover.

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