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Authors: Iain Sinclair

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BOOK: Downriver
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Now Arthur saw the raised spear of a white church between the twin domes of the hospital. There were masts and ladders. Courtyards, narrow passageways. Stone steps, green with algae.

He paddled carefully out from the dark and narrow beach, until he was moving freely. And without effort. The mud did not settle on his white trousers. He slid. The steep gradient went away from him. He drifted. He opened his arms. The water flowed into his veins. He crossed over.

XI

Bobby Younger sat in the back of the curtained limousine between two officials. The keeper of the Black Museum had tapped him, sliced his reverie, asked him to step outside: some gentlemen wanted a word. Then Bobby was squeezed. He was sweated, cold. Photographs confronted him that might once have provoked a private pleasure, but were now contextualized into raw fear. Rough, shirtless boys pouted: he was accused by every mark that he could identify. Old letters, written in heat, without thought, were sealed in pouches of plastic – like rare literary holographs. There were documents, typed in blue ink, defaced with official stamps. There were reports from West Africa; facts and fictions. Duplicates, invoices, VAT returns, sworn statements. The junkman had rambled like a speed-freak. Bobby's unwritten autobiography had been violently sub-edited, ghosted
by professionals: it was offered to the world in instalments of lurid sensation. The Tilbury Group was defaced into the Wild Bunch. Bobby had been nominated, and would now oblige. Always. And for ever.

He had been shadowed and eavesdropped – as we are all eavesdropped – and now he was put to use. He would serve. Or he would cease to be. His London days were a scrapbook to barter; but Bobby himself was no longer credible. His parking space at the studios had already been requisitioned. He would take the offered advance and step westwards. A bungalow on the edge of a golf course. He would speak only in quotations. He would disappear from view. Confessions would be supplied; private papers, forgeries. The Black Museum was at his disposal. He would shape an account of the murders that would point the finger where the finger should be pointed. He was ‘on the firm'.

Arthur Singleton's name had been promoted to the head of the list. The seals were broken on all the files. Arthur Singleton should therefore bear the solitary brand of guilt. His was the honour. He was the ‘madman', the ‘invert', the ‘suicide'. He was the Judas Goat, by appointment.

‘We'll make it easy for you,' the thin one said, offering Bobby a cigarette, and dropping, without embarrassment, into the parrot-speak of his trade. ‘We'll supply you with the opening paragraph.'

Bobby was trembling. He had to move a finger slowly along the line of words to make any sense of them. ‘
When does a victim realize he is the chosen one
?
When does a “fall guy” receive the first intimations of vertigo
?'

XII

I stayed in my corner, doing nothing; swirling the liquid yellow stain in an almost empty glass. Joblard's thirst was painful to watch. He drummed his fingers, waiting doggedly at the bar for Bobby Younger's return. The shifty rump of the Connoisseurs
of Crime had tumbled out of a side-door, like an audience fleeing from the National Anthem. We were alone.

Joblard used this suspended interval of time in arranging the twelve postcards, on the board behind the spirit bottles, into a coherent tale: a fiction that would carry him out on the tide, and away from the sullen gravity of Tilbury Riverside. The postcards were our only hope of escape.

Joblard's HEART OF DARKNESS. A Narrative in Twelve Postcards
.

(1) Sepia filter: the tanned light of dead time. Heat haze. A three-master rides at anchor. Two small islands float, unfocused, like derelict submarines, covered in vegetation. The photographer has been unable to describe the point at which the sea melts into the sky.

(2) A rivermouth, obliquely approached. A slave fort, or another island, shimmering in mid-channel. A tall bare tree lifting from the scrub that runs down to the water's edge. The sharp black gradient of an infected beach.

(3) Five native ‘boys' rowing a longboat through the shallows. Perhaps to oblige the photographer? He would not be able to do justice to the cultivated moustaches of the pilot from a greater distance. The rudder strings hang limply in the lap of a corpulent and ugly Dutchman, or Low German trader. He sits, straight-backed, his hands cupped protectively over his genitals: as if to shield them from the eyes of the oarsmen – who have nowhere else to look. Their reflections, broken and butchered, follow them through the water.

(4) Two African ‘bloods' are travestied as South Sea Cannibals. They have feathers poked in their crinkly hair; and they are wearing grass skirts. One appears to smoke a clay pipe, while the other chews a cigar. Stiff cellophane collars clamp their throats, like slave-chokers. The suggestion is that they have eaten a Missionary to obtain them. They are playing billiards.
‘An easy shot' is the card's ambiguous title. Does it refer to the cannon on offer? Or to this unarmed brace of smoking-room intruders? Will their heads fit onto the wall between the decorative white nudes and the framed photograph of the ‘Central Hotel'? The postcard was printed in Saxony.

(5)
Adamorisha, Lagos
. Six draped figures, probably male. Their hands and feet are hidden in loose blankets. Their faces are covered with cloths. They are holding sticks and wands and shotguns. Straw hats, either Spanish or Mexican, keep their head-coverings in place. The effect is bizarre: nuns playing at cowboys. Or, more accurately, a renegade sect overcome by the need to ‘fix' the moment before a massacre. A record that will not hang them. The man who took the photograph was obviously slaughtered at the completion of his task. Possession of this postcard is a potential sentence of death.

(6) The hunt: a dead crocodile, its jaws set in a terminal yawn. Twenty-five white men in hats pose around the corpse. Most wear moustaches. A naval officer is bearded. They all bristle with rifles, hand-guns, bandoleers. The dominant member of the group is also the fattest. He rests his boot on the crocodile's neck. It is the Dutchman from the longboat. The scaly victim, too old to make a decent suitcase, has been hired for the occasion. Does it take a posse of twenty-five grotesquely over-armed and over-dressed colonials to eliminate one elderly reptile? These men are going somewhere else. They are travelling downriver. And they will, at the very least, burn a village, rape the cattle, and annex a piece of territory the size of Portugal.

(7)
Chef de Village
(
Congo Français
). He glowers in creased jacket and cheap beads. He wears a bowler hat with the lining turned out, in the form of a sweaty leather skullcap. He hides beneath the shade of a golfing umbrella. His infant son stands beside him: stone-smooth, sculpted head reaching over the rim of a table, that has been set out to resemble a roadside stall. Two empty beer flagons and a corked bottle of ‘Natural Bilin Water'. A jaggedly-opened tin of tomatoes. An upended bowl that
keeps the flies from some invisible delicacy. What is the chief's son staring at in such perplexity? Whose shadow falls across the corner of the table? Has a great chief been reduced to the status of a roadside huckster? Or has a surviving huckster been found to impersonate a chief?

(8) A secret place. A clearing in the jungle. Young boys in loose white shifts stand in a pool beneath a waterfall, that drifts like ectoplasm from the overhanging foliage. A man and an older boy are perched on the rocks above them. They lean on sticks. The boy might be blind, or a leper. Balanced, on the edge of the card, is a second youth: a bugle raised to his lips. A European lies beside him; bald and bearded, in a greasy soutane. A Jesuitical dwarf, in stockinged feet, whose eye sockets are markings in the red earth. Deeper into the shadows are further figures, still as plants. The lacy spray rises like smoke from a hole in the cliff. It is a real temptation to reverse the card, and turn the composition on its head. This reading is stranger, but calmer. The boys now hang from the walls of a cave, like so many scholarly bats. The waterfall is, of course, unchanged.

(9) Ivory poachers. A white man closing his hands around the long barrel of a rifle. He has borrowed General Gordon's tasselled smoking cap. He could be Sinclair's grandfather. He has that mixture of ferocity and sunken-eyed cunning. Eleven naked and muscular blacks pose around him, with the arrogant self-possession of Yardies. They have been chosen and arranged like a touring cricket team. The ‘head boy' wears a moulting stovepipe hat. In the centre of the composition is a trophy table, supporting the solitary tusk of a bull elephant. From the arrangement, and the design of the plates, it is possible to deduce that this table once belonged to the
Chef de Village
. He is no longer to be seen. Neither the
Chef
, nor his son.

(10) An uprising, or dispute among bandits. The slaughter is ‘staged' outside a corrugated-iron shed. Riders on mules. Half a bicyclist. A raised whip. A man in the dirt, arm outstretched, flinches from the carefully aimed rifle. A loss of ‘sharpness' in
the foreground melts a group of bearded fanatics into a single unit: a triple-headed monster
physically demonstrating
the miracle of the Trinity. One of the victims is smiling, and giving the game away. Impossible to tell. Is this faked photograph a rehearsal for an atrocity that has yet to be enacted? Or is it a reconstruction of some repellent episode, already well on its way towards entering the history books? A mustard-yellow fingerprint spins through the trees like a dying sun. It is still not too late to bring the criminals to justice.

(11) The golden hour. Three colonists, or ‘interlopers', are gathered for their sundowners in the corner of a verandah. They are ‘meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring'. The planked balcony on which they sit is also a kind of deck, set high above a deserted street. There is a wine bottle on the bamboo table. Their glasses are charged, but they are waiting patiently for a signal from the photographer. Obviously, they have something to celebrate – if it is only their good fortune in possessing an undrunk bottle of claret. Our angle of approach is indirect; we are eavesdropping on this scene – with the tacit collaboration of the participants. Beneath the cane chair of the bullet-headed man is a riverboat captain's cap. He has the predatory smile, and the arched eyebrows, of an avatar of Sir James Goldsmith. Cross-legged, straight-backed as ever, squatting on the floor, is our Dutchman: a bronze idol in a crisp white suit. The third man, with a glass frozen halfway towards his preposterous moustache, is a father-in-law, glancing hopefully out of shot for the assistant director's call for ‘action' in a minor Mack Sennett comedy. Above the heads of this complacent drinking school two sharp-spoked wooden wheels have been placed: almost Japanese in their effect. They have returned from an expedition. They are alive. They want to parade their triumph in the face of posterity, like a one-finger salute.

(12) A little later, on the same verandah. Everybody is slightly drunker. The photograph itself is inebriated. And the features of the riverboat captain, who leans forward to ‘top up' the
comedian's glass, have been burnt out like a flaring match-head. The colonists have slipped from focus, but the balcony of the adjacent bungalow has sharpened. The street has gone, leaving in its place a tall bare tree. It is as if the whole set had slid back to the shore. Yarns of the ocean will now be put to the test. The sun has dropped behind the Japanese wheels, giving them an heraldic status. And the photographer has slipped to the floor. He includes most of the tin roof in his composition: a flapping dark sail. A sinister development. But there are more troubling implications.
The Dutchman has disappeared
; and another man, younger, with the same moustache, has taken his place. He
could
, very nearly, be the Dutchman, at another time, ten or fifteen years before: reincarnated, by occult trickery, for this special valedictory piss-up. It is easy to imagine this trio meeting every evening, taking up their invariable positions, drinking their invariable drinks, making the invariable remarks. The second version of the balcony scene might then be an
earlier
party: aped, to greater effect, in the first postcard. But the fact that the riverboat captain and the comedian are unchanged would seem to contradict this explanation. No, it is much more obvious than that.
The Dutchman has taken over the camera
. Legless and wobbly, he is attempting to reproduce the original portrait. Perhaps, each man in turn will be the recorder: before returning to reoccupy his place as a bit-player. But all the other postcards, if they were not flawed in processing, have now been lost. And cannot be described. The new face, the man who has been responsible, until this moment, for the pictorial record, is an actor, an ironist. He precisely mimics the Dutchman's way of lifting his glass with a mannerist delicacy about the positioning of his fingers. He could be the double of Paul Klee, photographed in 1906, in the garden of his parents' house in Obstbergweg, Berne. He is the true author of this fiction that could, of course, be reassembled in any order, and read in whatever way suits the current narrator. These dim postcards are as neutral as a Tarot pack.

Joblard's thirst was unassuaged. The game was over. He wanted more. He leant across the bar and plucked the postcards from their board. He fondled them, and sniffed them. He held them against his cheek, and he shuffled them. He turned them over.
THIS SPACE, AS WELL AS THE BACK, MAY NOW BE USED FOR COMMUNICATION, BUT FOR INLAND ONLY
. The warning proved unnecessary. All the cards – except one – were blank, virgin. The owner could not bear to part with them. They would find their way into a scrapbook. But the billiard-playing cannibals
had
received the red king's head, and was postmarked
LEYTONSTONE
. 3
P.M
. SP23. 04. So this tale of the exotic had not been stolen out of the dark continent,
but dispatched to greet it
. Nothing could match the mysteries shrouding the heart of Leytonstone. The sender had no word to add to the image. He identified his potential audience, spelt out, with some difficulty, an address – and left it at that. Who could, in all conscience, ask for more? Demented investigators, and bounty-hunting snoops, should search out the descendants of ‘F. Wilson, Esq., Santa Isabel, Fernando Poo, S.W.C. Africa'.

BOOK: Downriver
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