Read Turning Back the Sun Online

Authors: Colin Thubron

Tags: #Travel

Turning Back the Sun (9 page)


s the disease spread, and the rains did not come, the town simmered in suspension. A surface normality reigned, but a new energy went into preserving it. Even in the streets people walked with a look of responsibility, as if embattled, and their talk was edgy. Tiny distress signals multiplied. A few weeks earlier, anything thought indigenous to the land—from banana fiber to sweet potatoes—had shown a price tag stamped with a smiling native. These had now vanished; and the shops which once displayed native-woven mats and baskets were selling other things.

Everybody knew that the situation had outstripped the police, and that decisions now rested with the army. Their jeep patrols rumbled out into the country every morning, scouring the stock-breeding lands at the foot of the mountains, and sometimes at sunset, if you saw them return, you would glimpse the blank face of a captured savage among the soldiery. There were random arrests at night, usually in the dry riverbeds along the town”s outskirts. But almost nobody witnessed them. And nobody asked if the natives were returned. After a rumor that
their dogs were spreading the disease, all strays were shot on sight. Yet there was no official curfew, and every morning people would wake to a new swathe of graffiti blazoned across public buildings. The latest of them, inscribed on the walls of the telephone exchange, simply said: “Kill them.”

Rayner spent more time than usual operating the erratic radiotelegraph which connected his clinic with outlying cattle stations. Many farming people only needed reassurance, but he could not truthfully give it. Their women came in pregnant from the stations now at thirty-five weeks, begging for beds. He never got away from work before dusk.

After a week of such days he emerged from his clinic to find an army staff car waiting for him. Its driver said, “There”s a job for you up at barracks, sir.” He hated being at the military”s disposal, but Leszek was too old and nervous to go. So he climbed into the car, with a vague foreboding.

In the twilight the town was closing itself down. They left behind the expensive stucco villas with their flimsy wrought iron and frangipani trees, and entered a poorer district. People had already abandoned the streets. Through the slats of their shanties, lifted on concrete stilts above the termites, faint lamplight showed or jazz drifted. Their tin roofs were rusting to shreds, and the gardens rampaged with dogs. The sun set in a torrid blur, as it had for weeks. To Rayner, feverish with humidity, it seemed that only the rain could restore this place, and cleanse the air of fear.

Instead of a lounging duty guard, two armed sentries monitored them at the gates. They drove on under searchlights across a tarmac parade ground, where twelve-pound field guns flanked an empty flagstaff, then on through a military police compound, and stopped outside the army surgeon”s door. The driver said, “It”s through there.”

At that moment the door swung open and Ivar came out. “Rayner! I didn”t want to trouble you”—he squeezed his hand—”but one of the prisoners needs medical attention. You”ll understand when you see him.” Ivar looked suavely regretful, as if he had caused some embarrassment. “I have to go, but the lieutenant will advise you.”

So Rayner went in alone. The room was stifling. It was more like a prison cell than a surgery. A white-draped bed under a powerful overhead lamp did service as an operating table, and the medicine shelves showed lines of yellowing labels and discolored lints. The prisoner was sitting in a chair facing the Intelligence lieutenant, while between them stood a stout corporal, one of the half-breed natives whom the army used as trackers and interpreters.

“The prisoner fell during a fight with another inmate,” the lieutenant said. “I don”t think it”s too serious.”

Rayner stooped to examine the man. He was a young savage with a flat, brutal face. His eyes were charcoal slits. Down from his left eyebrow ploughed a jagged, three-inch gash. Its blood still soaked his shirt.

Rayner asked casually, “Where did you collect this man?”

“He was hanging around one of the farms upriver. He had a gun. We took him in as a precaution.” The lieutenant”s voice fluted and cooed. “Then he lost his head.”

Rayner straightened and said, “I”ll need ether for this.”

“You”ve handled this size of wound before, haven”t you?”

“Yes, but not under these conditions.” He hunted the surgeon”s shelves, but there were no ether masks, not even chloroform, and half the bottles were empty or unlabelled.

“What”s wrong with just sterilizing it?” The lieutenant”s voice tinkled on his girl”s lips. But his eyes were saying:
It”s only a savage. They don”t feel anything.

“It”ll need extra care.” Rayner thought: Perhaps it”s
surer, the man may be more frightened of ether than of the needle. He asked the interpreter, “Tell him to lie on the bed. Tell him that I”m a doctor and that I”m going to sew his skin together again.”

The interpreter took the savage”s arm and guided him to the operating table. His native speech sounded crazed to unaccustomed ears. It lurched between bunched consonants and a hoarse torrent of phonemes. He seemed to be abusing the prisoner, but no expression arrived on either of their faces. The man might have heard nothing at all. But he followed the corporal”s arm to the bed, and lay down. His hair bushed round his head like a pillow.

Rayner asked, “Does he understand you? Are you from the same clan?”

The interpreter said, “He”s from the Ningumiri. But he understands me all right. He”s just not meeting us.”

When Rayner started cleaning the wound, the prisoner did not stir, only stared up at the lamp. It was the face of a pitiless statue. The only signs of its unease were the vertical ridges which lifted faintly in the center of the forehead. But in this brighter light Rayner could see that the skin around the wound was minutely, evenly serrated, as if it had been sawed. He asked, “What actually caused this?”

The lieutenant said, “He fell.”

“But what hit him? What did it? This isn”t compatible with a fall.”

“I don”t know. I wasn”t there.” The lieutenant”s tone had tightened. “Is it relevant?”

“Yes it is.” Rayner felt a prick of anger. “If I knew the answer I”d be able to assess the chances of infection.” He turned to the interpreter. “Ask the prisoner what caused this.”

The interpreter”s eyes flicked to the lieutenant, and back. Then he turned to the native and resumed his bursts of vowels and glottal consonants. Rayner was aware that he might have been saying anything, and that neither he
nor the lieutenant would know. Perhaps, Rayner imagined, the corporal”s own savage heritage was more potent than his white blood, and he was saying: “Stay silent. These whites are all bastards.” Or maybe his army uniform obliterated any racial fellow-feeling: “If you answer the doctor”s question, we”ll beat the hell out of you.”

Whatever he said, no reply came. The savage went on staring at the ceiling as if he were deaf. Yet somewhere behind those sunk eyes, Rayner sensed, the man understood. It was apparent in the set of his full, belligerent mouth.

Rayner leaned over him and tried to see into his eyes. He demanded, “Tell me, what hit you?”

The lieutenant stirred behind him. But the savage never moved. The corporal, for some reason, was smiling.

Rayner mistrusted the surgeon”s implements, and used his own. As he dipped his needle into the half-numbed skin, he did not know what the native”s reaction would be. But again there was none. Rayner might as well have been stitching the man”s clothes. Only when he adjusted the overhead lamp, lowering it closer to the bed, the ridges on the native”s forehead trembled with sudden fear and his eyes opened to show bloodshot whites. But the moment Rayner resumed his stitching, drawing the skin over the raw wound, the man”s face resettled into its black halo of hair, and seemed at peace.

The sweat started trickling from Rayner”s forehead into his eyes. By the time he had finished, he felt unnaturally exhausted. He packed his implements back into his case without a word.

The lieutenant said, “We know we can count on your discretion.”

Rayner snapped, “You”re lucky you can.” But he realized that the statement was meaningless. Nobody in the town would care what happened in this prison, and some would feel a secret pleasure. He wiped the sweat from his
lips and touched the prisoner”s shoulder, uncomprehended.

“Rest now.”

The same staff car was waiting outside to drive him back. The streets were deserted. Their few lamps spread dangerous pools of light in the dark. The whole town had gone silent, locked in its private dreams and nightmares. A three-quarter moon hung overhead, and a few of the desert deer had strayed in and were grazing on the verges.

Rayner must have let out an involuntary groan, because the driver turned round and said, “Are you all right, sir?”

“Yes,” he said. “I”m all right.”

The sweat had dried on his forehead, and even his anger had ebbed. But he pulled the towel from his case and wiped his hands, his neck, his lips, over and over. He just wanted to get out of here.


ayner”s villa had subtly transformed. During the seven years he had lived there, it had continued to look bare, cool and too big for him, as if briefly rented. It resembled, in fact, the place of transition he believed it to be.

But Zoë vitalized it. She came and went between the villa and her flat, borrowing his books and bringing back textiles or rugs which she hung on the offending blank walls. He enjoyed the way she moved so easily in and out. They seemed to have an unspoken treaty not to coerce one another. Sometimes she would stay for a few hours, sometimes for several days. He never knew. But where previous girlfriends had tried to feminize the villa, suggesting prettier curtain designs or buying him vases and ornaments, Zoë left behind a bright, personal trail of things she had forgotten or wanted him to keep, and spread a kind of zany Bohemia. It was oddly uninvasive. She would appropriate a wall or an alcove, impatient with its starkness, then forget whatever she had put there—a copper bowl, a flowering shrub, a stuffed armadillo—and sometimes replace it later as if it had been his. At other
times she would discover mementoes and photographs which he had stowed away in the louvered cupboards, and would impudently set them up on view. “There! Why do you hide your past from me?” And he would find himself living with his parents again in the inaccessible capital.

Little by little, to his secret pleasure, her possessions intermingled with his. Her novels and yoga manuals became incorporated among his medical texts, histories and travel books, and his classical records were infiltrated by jazz. In the bedroom cupboards her summer dresses came to hang among his drab jackets, and a flotilla of small shoes appeared; and when he hunted the bathroom shelves for razor blades he found her setting-pins and tweezers instead.

Usually she brought her cat with her: the only guarantee of an overnight stay. It was mercurial, independent and a little fierce, like her. Its variegated coat, he told her, was a symbol of her personality, and depending on her mood he would lift the creature up in front of her and point to an area of fur—black, brindled, white or furious orange. He had come to sense when she wanted to be alone by the preoccupied way she moved about; then he would simply lift up the cat, point to black fur and disappear into his study or the garden. Her moods, he sensed, were a part of her self-reassurance. They were saying, “I do not belong to him.” They made him perversely sad. He loved her independence; but it unnerved him.

Their working hours were at odds. In the morning, after finishing her dance exercises, Zoë went out to teach yoga to bored businessmen”s wives, who averted their collective gaze from what she did in the evening, but who all wanted to look like her. At dusk, just as he returned, she would be gone, and he would enter rooms in which the musty odor of his own solitude had been replaced by the smells of her day: nail varnish, vegetarian cooking, cat food, and the sweetish scent of her sweat after exercise.
And on the bed two or three of her costumes would lie discarded in a shimmering pile of lamé, aigrette and batwing sleeves.

On one of these evenings he returned to a letter from his aunt in the capital. The writing on the envelope had become a tremulous mockery of its old self, but the message inside retained the austere factuality of his father”s sister. “My health has declined,” she wrote, “and I am arranging for the eventual disposal of this house. As you are my closest surviving relative, it will pass to you, and I will inform you when the lawyers need your attendance. Your temporary residence permit here can be arranged.”

He tried to imagine her. Even fifteen years ago, when he”d last seen her, she had looked formidably old. After his father”s death she had continued to come to lunch on most Sundays—to his mother”s distress—wearing a brown bombazine dress, long out of fashion. A quaint toque hat generally roosted on her head, he remembered, but this was the only ridiculous thing about Aunt Birgit. The moment she removed it, you were confronted by a face of white, aquiline power.

Rayner”s sudden elation had nothing to do with the money. It was the prospect of the capital which filled him with impatience.

“Who is this aunt?” Zoë asked.

“She”s my father”s younger sister. She never married. But everything I heard about her came from my parents, and that wasn”t much. So when you ask who she is, I realize I don”t know. As a boy I was a bit in awe of her.” His childhood had been full of people like that, he remembered: people of whom “Who is she?” died on the lips. “I could never picture her young.”

Zoë listened. Rayner intrigued her when he tried to imagine people”s lives, because that was not the sort of imagining she could do. She embraced or rejected people on instinct.

“I think my aunt must be dying. She owned this house on the same street as ours. It”s valuable.” But when he thought about how little it interested him, he felt distantly sad for her: this old woman, who would die out there on the fringes of his memory, leaving nothing to anybody loved. All at once he asked Zoë, “Do you need money?”

“No!” She laughed, suddenly tender. “What would I need money for?”

“Cat food?” How strange, he thought. Money could do so little for either of them. The recognition of this must separate them from almost anybody else in the town. “My aunt must have more influence than I thought,” he said. “She says she can get me a two-week residence permit.”

“It”d be good for you to go back. You”ll see your old friends.” But Zoë said this gravely, as if after long silence, touching his chest with her fingertips, and he realized that the idea unnerved her. “You”ll see the sea.” He sensed her apprehension. He was going away to the city most natural to him, from which she had been banished. She took up the letter to reread it, then tossed it back onto the table. “You”ll pick up old threads.” But she could not keep still, as if the carpet were shifting under her feet.

Rayner felt a warm, selfish relief at these symptoms of her love, her dependence. But a growing wretchedness too. Because he knew that one day he would go back for good. He said, “Do you have any family or contacts left there?”


“I wonder how much things have changed.” He began to sound falsely jocular, because he felt guilty. “There might be new job openings for you, something you could get a residence permit for.” But the moment he said this he realized it was fantasy. Who ever went up to the capital from a provincial cabaret? Yet guilt and sadness drove him on: guilt that it would be this city—perhaps soon—which would separate them. He did not want to think about it.
He wanted to believe that she would be there too. “I could look around for you.”

But Zoë was suddenly angry. All the lines of her face converged on her eyes. “Why the hell should I go back there? What”s the point? They killed off their floor shows years ago. There”s nothing left but puppets and ballroom dancing!”

He said, “You”ve kept so fit, you could go back into ballet.”

“Ballet!” She spat out the word. “Why should I go back into the ballet? I left the capital to get away from all that. Christ. Dying swans and Sleeping Beauties! I just don”t
like that. I”m not a swan, and I”m not beautiful.” She washed a hand across her face as if wiping off its mask. “At least the dancing here is true. It”s
Why should I dance falsely there when I can dance properly here?”

“For one thing, you”d get a better kind of spectator …” Rayner was starting to hate himself. But he could not believe that in her heart she did not want to return.

“God damn the spectators!” She glared at him. “I”ll dance just for
if I have to. At least that”d be better than pretending!” She stared down at her feet. “I couldn”t go back to that bloody ballet. I haven”t done an
in ten years. Anyway, how do you know a theater audience is any better? Those posh people. They”re probably wanking in their pants just like in the nightclub.” Once, in a priggish moment, Rayner had attributed her swearing, when she became excited, to “the coarseness of her profession.” She had not forgiven this. “Yes, I know what you”re thinking, they”d
talk like that in the capital.”

were born near the capital. You should know.”

“I don”t give a fuck for the capital. I”m
here. Now.
And that”s okay with me, except that you”re … you”re …” She faltered. She made as if to face him, but did not, and he saw that her cheeks were shining with tears, “… Except that you”re obsessed with going back.”

Then she thrust back her shoulders, uncaring of her face for once, which was bleeding mascara and tears, and faced him squarely. “How long have we been lovers? Three months now. And you haven”t understood a thing.”

But they both knew that beneath his speciousness he was saying:
I mean to return to the capital for good. I wish you could come too.

And that she was answering:
You know I can”t.

She went off into another room, slamming the door behind her. Rayner stayed where he was, kicking at the table leg, too proud to follow and apologize. Sometimes, he thought, Zoë appeared to have lost hope, and was just angrily resigned to where and who she was; but at other times, as now, she simply seemed realistic, and made him feel a child.

He pushed open the door. She was perched on the kitchen table, inspecting the cat. She had let her hair down in an act of unconcern. The cat”s claws were tangled in it. The mascara had dried on her cheeks.

She looked up and said at once, “How can I explain to you? I”m not happy with what I”m doing, but it”s the best I have to go on with. If I could, I”d make the world different, but I can”t. So I dance my kind of dance in the only place that will accept me.” She detached the cat”s claws. “I”m sorry it”s not the state opera house.”

He felt too ashamed to touch her. He went to the sink and started washing glasses which she had already washed. “You pour so much energy into your work…. It just annoys me that it”s only for those…. They”re only hoping you”ll strip …” He ended lamely, “You know I admire your dancing.”

But when he watched her dance now he did not know whether he was admiring it through her, or loving her through it. Sometimes, unpredictably, she would arrive home glowing with the applause she had received: generally from the middle-aged people who came early in the evening. Then the depth of her pleasure moved him, and
he would be astonished again at this violent, hopeless quest for recognition in such a place, and at her refusal to become what it wanted her to be.

She said more softly, “I don”t see the differences in people like you do. You always see the differences. But even the men in that club aren”t all bad, and maybe something I do gets home to one or two of them, and they think
that”s dancing,
instead of what they”re usually thinking.”

Rayner took her head in his hands, not knowing if she would wrench it away, but she only looked down. When he picked the cat out of her lap and pointed to its furious orange fur, a wavering smile started on her mouth, then disappeared.

Suddenly he said, “
I”m sorry,
” and the words sounded intense, broken. Sorry, they were saying, not only for his misconceived wishes for her, but for his own divisive hopes, which were for himself. Yet he felt that he did love her, in his fractured and limited way, quite violently.

She said, “I”m not ashamed of what I do.”

“I know. That shows.” She carried a kind of flawed pride with her, and this self-image seemed to establish her literal worth. But the ambience in which it played itself out was endlessly confusing to him, as if the strippers, the dimmed lights, the prurient audience painted over her a thin, contaminating varnish.

Yet he was erotically proud of the dancer on the little stage. He loved her body in motion. Even at home, when she dressed or undressed, he would watch the lift of her soft arms and tight breasts, the flicker of her calves. And when she emerged into the club”s spotlight, slimmer and more vivid than her daytime self, he would sense the restlessness of other men all round him. “She”d be a hard lay,” he heard one man mutter. But their anger, if it came, was only frustration, he knew, because her dance was saying: I am like this, but you cannot have me. Then he would
realize with wonder that her inaccessible beauty would lie beside him tonight.

Loving her, he told her playfully, was like enjoying illusion and reality together.

“But I don”t dance an illusion,” she said crossly. “I”m the only one who doesn”t.”

“Perhaps you only imagine you”re dancing your real self,” he teased her. “All that going into battle. All that apparent confidence. Showing off your body.”

“That”s too clever,” she said.

But the important thing was momentarily to believe the illusion, Rayner thought, and there swam into his head a memory of small girls dancing in somebody”s hall. They were rigged out in white- and silver-woven tutus and crowns. It was his job to keep the gramophone wound up and playing
The Sleeping Beauty.
Jarmila—blonde, twelve-year-old Jarmila—was the acknowledged ballerina among them (even by Miriam, who was proud) and her conviction carried the day. She performed precocious bourrées and arabesques. Unlike Zoë, she knew that she was beautiful, and a swan. It was a matter of who you imagined you were.

It was late. Zoë put the cat to bed on its cushion. Then she cleansed her face, swearing at its smeared mascara. “How long have I been looking like that? You must have been laughing at me.”

“I wasn”t.”

For a while she lay sexlessly in his arms, withdrawn into one of her darknesses. At such moments, with deepening wretchedness, he felt her imprisoned in a past which he could not enter, back in the shadow of her parents, her merciless lovers, her stillborn child.

He wanted to make love to her, as if this were to give her something. But it might be her gift to him. “I”m sorry I was such a fool.”

“Don”t talk.” Her body turned against his. “You can
tell me I”m beautiful if you like.” That was the sadness in her speaking. “Otherwise don”t talk.”

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