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Authors: William Boyd

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BOOK: A Good Man in Africa
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For example the Commission residence itself was got up like a cross between some makeshift Buddhist temple and a Chinese restaurant. There were carved wooden screens, paper lanterns,
impossibly low furniture, stark driftwood flower arrangements, silk paintings and an immense brass gong in one corner hanging from a pole supported by two half life-size gilded wooden figures. Returning home with Priscilla one night (it seemed like years ago now; they had only just begun “going out”) Morgan, emboldened by the romance and drink, had seized the padded gong-beater and effected a languid slow-motion swing at the gong, crying out in basso profundo over his shoulder, “J. Arthur Rank presents.” It had not gone down well—the shocked, unlaughing expressions of the family, the heretical implications suffusing the strained silent atmosphere, the fumbling tense seconds as he nervously strove to replace the gong-beater on its tiny impractical hook.… He shivered slightly as he remembered it now, seeing the gong reposing brassily in the corner, and wondered what the old bag wanted him for.

Fanshawe, as if reading his thoughts, said, “I imagine Chloe’ll be down any moment,” and, equally on cue, his wife stepped sedately down the stairs that led up to the first floor. Before he had met this one, Morgan had assumed that people called Chloe were either the neurotic, brilliant daughters of Oxbridge dons or else silly, screaming debutantes. Mrs. Fanshawe was neither of these and Morgan had had to revise his Chloe-category considerably to fit her in. She was tall and palely fleshy, a moderately “handsome” woman gone to fat, with short, dyed black hair swept back in a dramatic wave from her face and held immovably in position by a fearsomely strong lacquer; even in the most intemperate breezes Morgan had never seen a single hair stir from the solid lapidary mass of her coiffed head. She had a chest like an opera singer, too, a single wedge of heavily trussed and boned undergarmentry from which the rest of her body tapered gradually into surprisingly small and elegant feet—too small, Morgan always thought, to support the impressive disequilibrium of her bosom. She held herself in a manner that encouraged this conclusion: poised, feet slightly apart, thighs braced, head canted back as if she felt she was about to crash forward onto her face. She ventured into the sun rarely, maintaining her unexercised pallor like a memsahib from the Raj by means of this reticence and also with the aid of unsparing applications from her powder compact, which she wielded often, and in public. Her other favourite cosmetic tool was a bright
scarlet lipstick, which only served to emphasise the thinness of her lips.

“Ah, here you are at last, Morgan,” she said (as if she were the one who had been kept waiting), sweeping across the room and cautiously lowering herself into a squat armchair. “Sherry, I think, Arthur,” she said to Fanshawe, who duly presented everyone with a pale Amontillado.

“Well,” Mrs. Fanshawe exhaled, raising her glass. She then said something that, to Morgan’s ears, sounded very like
Nakana-hishana.
“A Siamese toast,” she added in condescending explanation.

“Erm,
nakahish
 … um, cheers,” Morgan responded, taking a grudging sip at his warm cloying sherry and feeling sweat prickle all over his body. Nobody drank sherry in Africa, he fumed inwardly, and certainly not at this time of day when what your body craved for was something long, clinking with ice and possessing a kick like a mule. Morgan looked at Mrs. Fanshawe’s pale knees as she resettled the hem of her Thai silk dress around them. Nobody, he was acutely aware, had so much as breathed the name of Priscilla, so he resolutely took the bull by the horns.

“Marvellous news about Priscilla and … mmm, very pleased,” he said feebly, raising his sticky glass to toast the couple for the second time that day.

“Oh, you’ve heard,” Mrs. Fanshawe enthused. “I’m so glad. Did Dickie tell you? We’re terribly pleased, aren’t we, Arthur? He’s got such good prospects … Dickie, that is.” It all came out in a rush and was followed by an awkward silence as the implied comparison was swiftly picked up and inwardly digested.

“Priscilla will be down in a minute,” Mrs. Fanshawe continued, her pale skin refusing to colour. “She’ll be glad to see you.”

Sherry made Morgan depressed and this lie deepened the gloom that was settling on him as inevitably as night. He stared morosely at the dragon-patterned rugs on the Fanshawes’ floor as they filled him in on the details of Dickie and Priscilla’s good fortune and the excellent connections of her future in-laws.

“… and, amazingly, it seems Dickie’s a family friend of the Duchess of Ripon. What do you think of that for a coincidence?” Morgan looked up sharply. The request would be due soon; he had an infallible ear for topics being bodily dragged in. “Which is actually what I wanted to have a chat about, Morgan,”
she said predictably, running her hands beneath her buttocks, smoothing out the silk creases. “Have you got a cigarette there, Arthur?” she asked her husband.

Fanshawe offered her a rosewood box inlaid with a mother-of-pearl Hokusai landscape. She took a cigarette from it which she screwed into a holder. Morgan waved the box away when it was presented to him. “Given up,” he said. “Mustn’t tempt me, tut-tut.” Why did he have to sound quite so cretinous? he wondered, as Mrs. Fanshawe smiled at him through clenched teeth. She lit her cigarette. I know why she uses a holder, thought Morgan—she likes to bite things. The creases in Mrs. Fanshawe’s soft throat disappeared momentarily as she threw her head back to blow smoke at the rotating ceiling fan.

“Yes,” she said, as if replying to a question, “the Duchess’ll be spending Christmas night here, arriving at some point on Christmas day. She’s very graciously agreed to officiate at a children’s party in the afternoon at the club.” She left it like that, vague and up in the air. Oh no, Morgan thought miserably; the games, she wants me to run the games. He set his features in a firm mask. He was going to refuse, he didn’t care how they pressured him, he was
not
going to spend Christmas trying to organise hordes of screaming brats.

Mrs. Fanshawe tipped ash from her cigarette. “The Duchess,” she continued airily, “is giving small presents to all the expatriate children, and,” here she turned and beamed at Morgan, “we were hoping to get you in on this.”

Morgan was confused. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.”

Fanshawe broke in. “Christmas spirit, all that.” Morgan was no wiser, but he felt apprehension hollow his chest.

“Exactly,” Mrs. Fanshawe crowed as if everything was clear and above-board. “We thought—didn’t we, Arthur?—that as
we
are the Duchess’s hosts it would be fitting if a senior member of the Commission were.… were in some way involved with her own very generous act.”

Morgan was flustered. “You mean you want me to distribute the presents?”

“Precisely,” Mrs. Fanshawe said. “We want you to be Father Christmas.”

Morgan felt the anger and outrage boil up inside him. He gripped the sides of his armchair and tried to control his voice.
“Let me get this straight,” he said slowly. “You want me to
dress up
as Father Christmas?” He felt his top lip quiver with fury at the effrontery of their suggestion. Just who the hell did they think he was—court jester?

“What’s this, Morgan?” came a voice from the stairs. “Are you going to be Father Christmas?” It was Priscilla. She wore white flared slacks and a powder blue T-shirt. Morgan’s jumping heart lifted him to his feet. Priscilla. Those breasts …

He caught himself. “We-ll,” he said, making the word two syllables, the better to illustrate his reluctant refusal.

“But that’s
mar
vellous!” Priscilla squealed, sitting herself down on the arm of a sofa. “You’ll make a super Santa. How clever of you, Mummy.”

Morgan felt even more confused. How could anyone misunderstand such a crude vocal inflection? But at the same time he was pleased—pleased she was pleased.

“I don’t know,” Morgan continued hesitantly. “I thought Dalm … Dickie would …”

A peal of laughter greeted this half-suggestion. “Oh, Morgan, don’t be such a silly,” Priscilla exclaimed. “Dickie’s much too thin. Oops …” She pulled down her bottom lip with her forefinger in mock-apology. “Oh God, sorry, Morgan.” Everybody grinned, though, including him. He hated himself.


Go
on,” Priscilla said leaning back, pointing her breasts at him. “You’ll be fantastic.”

At that moment he would have done anything for her. “All right,” he said, fully aware that he would probably regret this decision for the rest of his life. “Glad to.”

“Good man,” Fanshawe said, approaching with the sherry decanter. “Top you up, shall I?”

Priscilla left at the same time as Morgan. She was going down to the club to meet Dalmire after his golf. Morgan walked with her to her car. His depression had deepened; he had a buzzing, incipient headache.

“By the way,” he said, “I meant to mention it: congratulations. He’s a nice chap, um, Dickie. Lucky man,” he added, with what he hoped was a grin of wry defeat.

Priscilla gazed dreamily at the Commission. Her eyes swept round to the storm clouds behind which the sun had now sunk,
rimming the purple cliffs with burning orange. “Thanks, Morgan,” she said, then: “Look.” She wriggled her hand at him. “Like it?”

Morgan gingerly took the offered finger and looked at the diamond ring. “Nice,” he said, then added in an American accent, “A lat of racks.”

“It’s his grandma’s,” Priscilla told him. “He had it sent out in the diplomatic bag when he knew he was going to propose. Isn’t he sweet?”

“Mmm. Isn’t he,” Morgan agreed, thinking: the conniving, covert little bastard.

Priscilla took her finger away and polished the stone against her left breast. Morgan felt his tongue swell to block his throat. She seemed to have forgotten everything that had happened between him and her, erased it completely from her memory, like cleaning condensation from a window, everything gone, even that night. He gulped: that night. The night she’d unzipped his fly … best to forget too, he supposed. He looked at her round plump face, her thick dark hair, cut boyishly short with a fringe that seemed to rest on her eyelashes. She was very nearly a pretty girl in a typically unambitious English Home Counties sort of way, but she was prevented from achieving this modest beauty by her nose. It was long and thin and turned up sharply at the end like a ski-jump. Even the most partisan observer, the most besotted lover, would have to admit it was a dominant feature which even overcame, ultimately, the potent distractions of her fabulous body. Morgan remembered an afternoon’s sunbathing with her when his eyes would run irresistibly up her slim legs, past her neat crutch, swoop over those impossible breasts to alight fixedly on that curious nose. She had a flawless complexion, her lips were, unlike her mother’s, generous and soft, her hair was shiny and lustrous. But.…

Morgan of course didn’t give, or hadn’t given, a fart about her nose, but in a spirit of pure aesthetic objectivity he had to admit it was a prominent landmark. Perhaps after a decade or so across the breakfast table it might have begun to get on his nerves, he said to himself sour-grapily, feeling only marginally compensated.

They stood silently together for a moment, Morgan looking at a soldier-ant gamely negotiating the interminable mountain
range of the driveway gravel, Priscilla holding up her ring to catch a fleeting shaft of sunlight.

“Looks like it’s going to be a real storm,” she remarked.

Morgan couldn’t stand it any longer. “Pris,” he said feelingly, “about that night, about
us
 …”

She turned on him a smile of uncomprehending candour. “
Do
let’s
not
talk about it, please, Morgan. It’s over now.” She paused. “Dickie’ll be waiting for me down at the club. Can I give you a lift?” She opened the door of her car and got in.

Morgan crouched down and looked in the window. He put on a serious face. “I know things have been bad lately, Pris, but I can explain. There are,” he smiled faintly, “convincing reasons for everything, believe me.” He thought for a second before deciding to add, “I think we should talk.” It sounded good: mature, seasoned, unhysterical.

Priscilla had been fiddling with the key in the ignition. She flashed the same smile at him again, the one that said you can talk all you want but I can’t hear a thing.

“Coming to the barbecue?” she asked blithely.

“What?”

“Tonight. At the club.”

It was no use. “Yes, I expect so.”

“See you there then,” she said. She switched on the engine, backed out of the garage and headed off down the drive. Morgan watched it go. How could she treat him like this?

“You bitch,” he uttered softly at the departing car. “Selfish, unfeeling bitch.”

Chapter 2

Morgan walked morosely back to the Commission. He looked at his watch: half-past five. He had told Hazel he’d be at the flat before five. He could smell smoke from the charcoal braziers in the servants’ quarters: dinner time, the Commission would be closed. He went in to the staff car-park and saw his car was the only one remaining, his cream Peugeot 404, or “Peejott” as they were known locally. He had bought it in the summer when everyone else was on leave. Hazel had suggested a Peugeot; they carried a lot of status in Kinjanja. By his car shall ye know him. Mercedes Benzes came at the top of the list; you hadn’t arrived until you did in a Mercedes. They were for heads of state, important government officials, high-ranking soldiers, very successful businessmen and chiefs. Next came the Peugeot, for the professional man: lawyers, senior civil servants, doctors, university heads of department. It spelt respectability. Citroens, grade three, were for young men on the make, pushy executives, lecturers,
arrivistes
of all kinds. Morgan publicly scoffed at such overt status symbols and justified buying a Peugeot for sound engineering reasons, but nonetheless, he enjoyed the appraising looks it received, felt vaguely flattered by the open weighing-up people subjected him to when he stepped out of the car—not important enough for a Merc, but a man of some quality
just the same. It was too bad for Hazel that he only drove her about under cover of darkness; none of her friends had ever seen her in it.

BOOK: A Good Man in Africa
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