In 1992, Mozambique’s seventeen-year-old civil war was ended by the worst drought in living memory. Even fertile Gorongosa, in the interior of the country, found itself dependent on food aid. From trains grinding their way west along the contested Beira—Machipanda rail-line, armed men rolled sacks of grain into the dust. The sacks split. It could be days since the last train and I would still find boys from my class crawling about the embankments, sifting grains from fistfuls of gravel.
With the region in such disarray, I found it relatively easy to desert my post. So I returned to the coast and settled in Beira, Mozambique’s second city.
Beira was a port town. It depended for its income on Mozambique’s landlocked neighbours to the west, and on the busy overland corridor through which their trade was conducted.
Attacks on this corridor by RENAMO, the apartheid-backed faction in this war, had rendered Beira redundant, and today’s famine relief effort, shipping grain for onward distribution, was too little and too hesitant to revive the city’s fortunes. Consequently, the streets had acquired a timelessness that was not romantic. There was no light, no water, no food, no sanitation. There were only people.
Shelter was at a premium. In my building whole families lived out diagonal lives in the stairwell. There was no electricity to run elevators, so the cheapest apartments in the city were on the upper floors of the tower blocks. None of the blocks was especially high by Western standards, so my tenth-floor eyrie gave me views across the whole city.
It was the piano, rather than the views, which first sold the apartment to me. I hadn’t had a piano since I was a child. It was an antique upright from colonial days, shipped from Portugal and abandoned during the exodus. Its lid was locked, so I couldn’t try it out, but once I’d established that it came with the apartment, I agreed to take the place, overpriced as it was.
For the most part of each day, I would sit out on my handkerchiefsized balcony and watch the city consume itself. There was no firewood to be had, and since most of the windows in town were mesh, not glass, people had decided that it was an easy and a relatively harmless thing to chip out the window frames for fuel. When that supply was exhausted, people turned on their furniture. Those who had run out of furniture pulled up sections of floor. By evening, the woodsmoke from 10,000 braiis made my eyes smart, and I went indoors. Usually I went to bed around this time. There was little else to do. The radio was useless as batteries were hard to come by.
The piano was a different story.
The day I moved in, the first thing I did was break open the keyboard. I sat down to play. The instrument emitted a dreadful dead thumping and wheezing. I pulled off the top and looked in.
The strings had been cut.
The piano came with a piano stool; lifting up the lid, I discovered that it was full of sheet music. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I managed, with a deal of effort, to wheel the unstrung piano onto the balcony, and there I sat down and played: clippety-clop, clippety-clop—bonk. As the weeks went by, so my coordination improved to the point where I could hear the shape of the music and the pattern of the parts. At last the piano’s hammers found their mark, tapping, ever so lightly, the strings inside my head.
I stopped my playing and looked over the city to the old holiday camps sprawled along the seafront. Beach huts were being adapted to accommodate refugees flooding to the coast from the parched interior. It seemed to me that, with this latest influx, Beira would achieve a critical mass. All it had going for it was the size of its population, but maybe this was enough. After twenty years of this bare existence, the city had learned how to feed off its own refuse for ever. I imagined it spreading in a chain reaction across the whole world: a self-sustaining half-life.
Communications were unreliable. The city had decayed to the point where it had learned to do without the outside world. There was little in the way of entertainment. A handful of bottle stores operated out of mud-brick houses along the shore, and it was to these that I thumbed my way, come late afternoon—or drove sometimes, if there was fuel enough for the pick-up.
With transport so hard to come by, every vehicle on the road was an unofficial bus; driving without passengers attracted the attention of the police. One afternoon, out on the coastal road, one of the men I had picked up rapped on the roof of the cabin and pointed me down a track towards a bit of beach I had not explored before. Several others seemed to know of the place, so once I had let off the onward travellers I rolled the pick-up down to the beach. At the tree-line, an enclosure fenced off with rushes marked the site of a new bottle store. The place had an ambitious layout. The tables and benches in the enclosure were cast concrete, but their surfaces were decorated with inset fragments of pottery and mirror. Under a raised veranda, I saw the walls of the store had fresh murals.
Inside, a white kid with a slurred Austrian accent was giving the girl behind the bar a hard time.
“I know every fucking owner on this coast,” he said, more or less, his speech a druggy mishmash of German and Portuguese.
Dumb, impassive, the girl shook her head.
From out the back a white man—a real bruiser—joined the girl. “Out,” he said, barely bothering to make eye contact. He and Austrian Boy must have run into each other before, because the kid began straight away to retreat towards the veranda. “You’re fucked,” he shouted. “You’d better watch your back. I know people.”
The barman blinked. He was a big man, clean-shaven, crew-cut, built for a fight. His eyes were mean and set close together. His mouth let him down: small and pursed above a weakling chin. “What crap was that?” he asked no one in particular, in English, when the boy was gone. I was surprised to hear the man’s Norfolk burr: I had assumed, from the sheer size of him, that he was a Boer.
By way of conversation, I translated the boy’s German.
“Or words to that effect,” I said.
All the other bottle stores were locally run and I wondered what had driven a European to set up in so unrewarding a business. The drinks here were the usual trio—orange Fanta, green-label Carlsberg and chibuku, a locally produced granular swill I had never got used to. I supposed he must be, like me, an ideological recruit to FRELIMO, the country’s beleaguered socialist government. I couldn’t think what else would bring an Englishman to such a miserable pass. He was about my age: a middle-aged drifter for whom home was by now a distant memory. He was happy to talk to a countryman and, when I offered to buy him a beer, he plucked a Carlsberg off the shelf and led me to an outdoor table.
His name was Nick Jenkins. I told him something about myself. I mentioned Gorongosa, and it surprised me how much I was prepared to relive of that time, merely to feed a casual chat.
We talked about the war, and when I explained how, in spite of my politics, I had come to work as a teacher in RENAMO’s apartheid-funded heartland—how I had fomented Marxist revolution among my seven- and eight-year-olds under the very noses of the party hierarchy—Jenkins chuckled.
My own life, eventful as it might have appeared from the outside, had been dictated by the sweep of political events. Nick Jenkins, on the other hand, like all true adventurers, had somehow sidestepped the big events of his day. This was his second time in Mozambique. The first, the late sixties, had seen him working the merchant lines out of Maputo when it was still Lourenío Marques, the colonial capital. From there he’d gone to the Caribbean, where he’d built up a small import-export concern. “It was my second time there, and all,” he laughed. “I can’t seem to make up my mind.”
I did a quick mental calculation. “You must have been young the first time, then. Your first time in the Caribbean. When was that? Early sixties?”
“Damn right.” He nodded. “A bloody kid.”
It was when he told me about Cuba that I began to doubt his tale. “Six bloody battalions,” he sighed, reminiscing. “Fifteen hundred men. Christ!”
“You were in the Bay of Pigs landing?”
“Not ‘in’ it. We just happened to be berthed in Puerto Cabezas for a refit. The boat was chartered. We came with the boat. We were deckhands, not squaddies.”
The enormity of this new anecdote, artfully shaped out of hints and hesitations and the occasional buzz-word, took my breath away. That a seventeen-year-old boy from the fens should have washed up on the beaches of Havana in 1961 seemed incredible.
He did not stop there. A couple of years later, he told me, one night in October 1963, he found himself washing glasses in the very nightclub where Yuri Gagarin, hero of the Soviet Union and the first man in space, was celebrating the first leg of yet another world friendship tour. Jenkins had a gift for detail. The motley quality of Gagarin’s official retinue—every suit an arms supplier or party dilettante—was lent added spice by the invective he had saved up for their wives: monstrous, shot-putting hags obsessed with translating Neruda and Borges into Russian. He even had it in mind that the Playa Girón—the bay where a band of coral had, he said, been fatally mistaken for seaweed—later gave its name to the national honour the Cuban president Fidel Castro awarded Gagarin during this goodwill trip.
“He showed it to me, right there in the bar. Yuri did. His medal. And I showed him my scar. And Yuri laughed and told me, ‘You too wear the Order of Playa Girón!’”
I was tempted to ask what language they had used, that Jenkins could converse so freely with a Russian cosmonaut. Together with his highbrow literary references, so lovingly mispronounced (“Georgie Borkiss”), his story convinced me that I was in the company of a gifted imposter.
It was night by the time we were done, and the kerosene was running low in the lamp. I waited for Jenkins to lock up, and walked with him to where our vehicles were parked. My deepening silence should have warned him that the evening’s game was up, but Jenkins could not resist further embroidery.
“Seaweed!” he laughed. “Fuckers in American intelligence had it down for seaweed. Fucking coral, more like. I felt the deck lurch, the whole bloody boat started to roll, and I didn’t hang around, I can tell you. I jumped, and it’s a bloody miracle I didn’t spit myself on the reef.” He thought about this and added, “Some did.”
Jenkins’s Land Rover was drawn up a few feet from where I had parked the Toyota. The moon came out from behind a cloud, and I saw that the Land Rover was leaning drunkenly to the right. Before I thought to stop him, Jenkins had walked over to investigate. He was still spinning his tale as he vanished into shadow. “I heard them screaming in the dark. I tasted their blood in the water—”
There then came the sound I imagine a cricket bat makes as it strikes a cabbage, a thud as of a body falling into sand, and Jenkins was silent.
I charged like an idiot into the darkness.
I couldn’t see a thing. Arms upraised, I swung about, hoping I might collide usefully with Jenkins’s attacker. I stumbled and fell headlong. I tried to get up. Something buried itself in the sand by my right ear. I grabbed it. The stick came free without a struggle. I scrambled to my feet. I was afraid to swing the stick blindly, but then the assailant, disarmed, stumbled out of the vehicle’s shadow into the moonlight. Austrian Boy, of course. I ran at him with the stick held point-first. It was a flimsy sort of weapon—the best the boy’s fool mind could come up with in all the hours Jenkins and I had been drinking. I did what I could with it, punching him deep under his ribcage. Winded, he fell back another couple of paces. Jenkins was already up on his feet. He blundered past me and swung his clenched fist back and forth in front of the boy’s face: his features disappeared in a splash of black blood.
“Jesus,” I said.
Jenkins turned past me. The boy was staggering blindly about the track, hands pressed to his face, holding it together.
I followed Jenkins across the sand. It was a magnificent night, the sky white with stars. At the water’s edge, each wave gave a faint burst of greenish light as it rolled into the sand. Jenkins kneeled, oblivious to the water swilling round his knees, and washed the blood off his Stanley knife. He dried it fastidiously on his shirt.
I said to him, “Don’t do things by halves, do you?”
He ignored me, scooped up seawater in handfuls and threw it over his face, washing off the blood dribbling from the scratch on his scalp.
When he was done bathing his head he sank back on the sand. “We never stood a fucking chance,” he said, his face empty of all feeling. I couldn’t tell whether he meant tonight, or 16 April 1961. I didn’t much care, either. The war had acclimatized me to Jenkins’s brand of cheap violence, but it had not got rid of my distaste.
I helped him up and back towards the vehicles. The boy had vanished again. Once I had got Jenkins into the passenger seat of the Toyota, I turned on the cabin light and examined his cut. There was still blood running behind his ear and into the collar of his shirt, but the cut itself was trivial; the seawater had already begun to staunch the flow. I studied his pupils, and got him to hold out his hands for me. I found no sign of concussion. “Sit tight,” I said.
Taking the flashlight with me, I went to check what damage the boy had done to his Land Rover. The worst I found were a couple of deflated tyres, but, when I returned to the pick-up, Jenkins had disappeared. I called and, when I got no reply, I seriously considered driving off and leaving him there. Every instinct told me I should leave this evening behind as quickly as possible.
Then I heard Jenkins ranting in bad Portuguese: “What the bloody hell is the point?” His angry exclamation came to me muffled by distance. “If I was a burglar you’d be dead by now!” Jenkins was fairly screaming. I turned my flashlight back on and shone it towards the bottle store. He must have gone round the back.
Another, unfamiliar voice replied, “Eeh? Eeh, chiyani? What? Where are they? I have a club! Look, I have a club!”
For the second time that evening, it sounded as though my host was being threatened. With a heavy heart, I approached the back of the bottle store. I found Jenkins towering over a small man by the side of a watchman’s hut not much bigger than a kennel.
“Why don’t you use the bloody light?” Jenkins shouted. “You should be round the front.”
His watchman laughed at such absurdity. “To light the burglar’s way? They can’t see in the dark, you know.”
“How are you meant to spot them, then? Wait till they trip over you? Look, you fucking idiot, there’s one out there now. What are you going to do about him, eh?”
“The hut is here! I have my gun! I never sleep, I listen all the time.”
“Get out the front. He won’t do you any harm, not now I’ve done your bloody job for you. Find him and get him to clear off.”
Jenkins noticed me waiting for him, and suddenly lost interest in his watchman. “Oh, stay where you are, then. Get your throat cut, why should I worry?” Mumbling, nursing his head, Jenkins joined me and together we returned to my truck.
I mentioned his flat tyres, and since there had been no other visible damage to his vehicle, Jenkins, much recovered, took this as good news.
“It was so bloody dark we couldn’t see a thing,” he said, as I dug about for my keys. He was picking up where he left off, practically mid-sentence. “We were running into each other. Knocking each other down. Everyone was screaming. Most of us couldn’t swim.”
After all that had happened tonight, I was losing my patience. “If you were captured after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, if you were a convicted contra, how come a couple of years later you were working in a Havana nightclub?”
“That was the length of my sentence,” he said, surprised, as if the answer were self-evident. “Twenty-two months in La Cabaña. Come on, I was only a kid, anyone could see that.”
He curled forward and bent his head for me to examine his shorn scalp, presenting me with incontrovertible proof of his story. “There,” he said, playing his fingers over the cut the boy had dealt him. He wanted me to see something else, something beneath: the scar from a wound inflicted by an oar wielded by an outraged Cuban fisherman, twenty-six years before, on the day CIA-backed Cuban contras came to grief in the Bay of Pigs. “Tottery old fucker, he was. Found me hiding in his boathouse.” Jenkins laughed, head still bent for my inspection. “A sinking ship to escape from in the middle of the night, a fucking reef to climb over, couldn’t see a thing, shells and bullets and God knows what whizzing everywhere, and this is my one and only battle scar.”
I could see that he needed a couple of stitches after tonight. What I couldn’t see was any old war wound.
Jenkins sat up too fast, groaned and held his head. “The shit must have clobbered me in the same place. Bloody feels like it, too—there he is . . .”
I had just that moment turned on my headlights. Austrian Boy was slumped some distance up the track, covered in blood. His eyes shone out of the mess of his face like two blue stones.
I drove towards him. Shock had made him stupid: he just sat there, waiting to be run over. I braked. “Now what?” I said.
“All right, give me a hand.” We got out and went over to the boy. Jenkins took his arms and I took his feet. We ignored his keening and manhandled him into the bed of the Toyota. There were a couple of NGOs newly opened on the highway into town; if we dumped him in front of the right gate, some well-meaning Swedish doctor would see to him soon enough.