africa
Type
Fiction

The traveller

Lockhart was lost. He crossed a border of shade to stand in the sunlight, looking around for a sign. At every step the coins in his pocket jangled. He was in the habit of carrying loose change about him to throw to beggars. An airplane flew far up in the sky, travelling away from the sun, which hadn’t appeared to change its position all day, as if it too had lost its way. Seeing no sign, Lockhart continued down the street, thinking once again how well stocked the shops appeared, how solid the houses. He turned a corner and found himself in a part of town he remembered from his childhood, massive steelworks and a railway line running behind an endless row of neglected houses. He stopped and closed his eyes. There was a smell of sewage from a broken pipe, acrid smoke and the thrum and clank of machinery. It might have been in Mogadishu. Since he had returned to Australia, everything he saw reminded him of something.

The bell rang as he walked up to the school gates. Children dashed from the building, smart in their uniforms. There seemed to be a car waiting for each of them. He caught sight of his nephew, a small, red-haired boy, and automatically held out his hand. Paul shook it, awkwardly, and Lockhart said, ‘Mr Livingstone, I presume.’ Though Paul’s surname was Livingstone it was not a very good joke, and Lockhart had already used it three or four times before. Lockhart found it difficult to speak to his nephew. Paul had the look of someone travelling through life without the correct papers.

‘Chile,’ Lockhart said abruptly, after they had walked side by side for a few moments.

‘Santiago,’ the boy said.

Paul had won a prize from his school for memorising the capital cities of a hundred and fifty countries. Lockhart was proud of him. He himself had left school at fourteen.

‘You’re very clever, isn’t it?’ Lockhart said. ‘I mean, aren’t you?’

After all his years there, Africa had colonised Lockhart’s English.

‘Shall we foot it?’ he said, and Paul nodded.

‘Where’s Mum?’ he asked. The boy’s blue eyes always seemed to be moving, looking this way or that, but always settling back to his uncle.

‘At the doctor’s,’ Lockhart said. ‘Just a check-up. She’ll be home soon. I said I’d pick you up. Canada.’

‘That’s easy. Ottawa,’ the boy said.

‘Excellent,’ Lockhart said. He tugged at his nephew’s schoolbag and the boy turned to face him.

‘Did you pick up the sponsorship forms?’ Lockhart asked.

Paul nodded and unslung his bag from his shoulder. He took out a sheaf of forms and a sealed envelope. Lockhart glanced at the forms, then opened the envelope and counted the money inside. ‘That’s excellent,’ he said. ‘This means three months of square meals at the orphanage. Well done, son.’ The boy grinned at him and Lockhart, looking up, realised he had lost his way again.

‘Where’s your house?’ he asked.

Paul pointed to a nearby street. ‘It’s your house too,’ he said, but Lockhart was silent.

They soon came to the place, a small white weatherboard cottage with a well-kept garden. Paul unlocked the door and they went inside, Lockhart taking his watch from his pocket and putting it on. It was an old habit, from living in Nairobi. If you wore a watch in the street there, it would be ripped from your wrist. His nephew, he noticed as he fixed the strap, had also put his watch in his pocket for the walk home from school. Lockhart made his way through the clean, bare hallway; the only decoration was the small crucifix nailed to the yellow wallpaper. Lockhart wanted a shower, partly for the pleasure of it, and partly to avoid his nephew whom he knew would hover around him, as insistent as any beggar. In the bathroom, he took off his clothes and regarded himself naked in the mirror. He had been careless of the sun since coming to Australia. While his chest was white, his arms were an angry maroon, his calves brown and his thick thighs pink. He reminded himself of a map of colonial Africa. Standing there, he practised his smile.

Lockhart stood in the shower for ten minutes, until all the hot water was gone. As he dried himself he could hear music from Paul’s bedroom, the throb of an insistent bass like the war drums in old Tarzan films. He changed into a pair of dark blue trousers and a blue shirt that his sister had given him. The clothes were brand new. There were no names written on the label, no burns or small, repaired tears. It was a pleasure to wear clothes that hadn’t belonged to someone else.

He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Neatly spaced along the walls were several photographs of African children in wooden frames. On the bottom left of each frame, in Lockhart’s handwriting, was the child’s name: Faith, Prosper, Charity, Innocent. When he heard his sister at the front door he sat down at the kitchen bench.

‘Hello!’ Narelle called out as she came into the kitchen, carrying a heavy leather bag. She was ten years younger than Lockhart, but she seemed older. Her hair was grey, the skin on her thin face mottled with veins. She worked in a hospital canteen, and wore a neat, white uniform that smelled of disinfectant.

‘How was your walk today?’ she asked him.

‘It was lovely, thanks.’

‘Are you making tea?’

‘Yes.’

‘Could I have a cup?’

‘Of course.’

It struck Lockhart how much their conversations resembled the dialogues in a phrasebook. She put her bag down on the kitchen counter and a thick manila envelope fell out. As she leaned over to pick it up, Lockhart caught sight of her scar, where they had cut off her breast the year before. It was long and still red, with raised dots on either side of it from the stitches, like a disputed border on a map. Lockhart looked away.

‘Here’s the money from the fundraiser at the hospital,’ she said, handing him the envelope. ‘You had better put it in the bank tomorrow. I don’t like having that much money in the house.’

‘I will,’ he said, as he opened the cupboard to find a cup for her.

‘I haven’t had a letter from the orphans for a while,’ she said. ‘Are you sure they’re okay?’

‘It’s just the postal service,’ Lockhart said. ‘Once, in Swaziland, I posted a letter to a village two miles away and it took a year to arrive. Don’t worry. When I left, Faith was just starting school, thanks to the money your Rotary group sent, and Prosper was being apprenticed to a carpenter.’

He poured out her tea, spooned several sugars into his own. He couldn’t remember if she took sugar, but he didn’t want to ask. He stood for a moment, blowing on his mug.

‘Are you all right for money?’ she asked suddenly, reaching for her purse. ‘It must be so expensive here, compared with what you’re used to.’

‘I’m fine,’ Lockhart said. Then, ‘For the moment.’

‘Where’s Paul?’ Narelle asked. ‘Here, let me do that.’ She took his mug and washed it in the sink.

‘He’s in his room,’ Lockhart said. ‘We had a nice chat today.’

‘He’s very fond of you,’ Narelle said.

She put one of her hands on the kitchen table, and a moment later the other on top of it, as if she was comforting herself.

‘He’s a good boy,’ Lockhart said. ‘Very smart. I’d have gone far with his brains.’

‘You did go far,’ Narelle said.

‘Yes, I suppose so,’ he replied. ‘A few thousand miles, anyway.’

They drank their tea, neither of them speaking for a moment. ‘Because, you see,’ she said, ‘the doctor found a lump, in my breast. The right one. Obviously.’

‘Yes,’ Lockhart said, putting down his cup. He had little desire to become person A in the dialogue, but he knew what questions were expected. ‘What did the doctor say?’

‘I’ve to go to the hospital tomorrow, for tests. They think the cancer may have returned. And …’

‘What?’

‘They’re worried it’s travelled to other places. In my body. They’re going to take some tissue.’

‘A biopsy,’ Lockhart said. His hand had jerked up nervously, like a student desperate to answer a question.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘A biopsy. I don’t like that word. Greg went in for a biopsy, and never came out again.’

Greg was Narelle’s husband. He had died when Lockhart was in the Congo, several years before.

‘Paul will be upset,’ Narelle said, sipping her tea.

‘Are you going to tell him?’

‘His father didn’t tell him, and I don’t think Paul ever forgave him. We have to.’

Lockhart nervously noted the use of first person plural.

‘Could you?’ Narelle asked. ‘It will be better from you. He admires you so much. If you say everything will be all right, he’ll believe you.’

‘When?’

‘Now,’ she said.

‘Of course.’ He smiled his smile. ‘Don’t worry.’

‘Richard,’ she said. ‘If anything should happen to me, could you look after –’

‘You’ll be fine!’ Lockhart called heartily over his shoulder as he left the kitchen.

He went down the narrow hallway to his nephew’s room. Taped to the door was an old creased map of Africa, torn from an atlas. His nephew had marked out his uncle’s travels in a red felt pen, through countries that no longer existed. The lines and dots reminded Lockhart of the progress of a disease.

He knocked on the door, and went in. On several high shelves were various knick-knacks that Lockhart had sent Paul over the years – a model bicycle made from Coca-Cola ring pulls, a coat hanger twisted into the shape of Africa. One wall of the room was papered with different notes of African currencies, francs, shillings and krugerrands to make a lurid collage of corrupt and assassinated presidents, zebras, lions, waterfalls and Zulus. All of it was worth less than five dollars.

Paul was lying on the bed, reading King Solomon’s Mines. Lockhart stood at the door, uncertain of how to begin. He’d had little experience of cancer. Most Africans he had known had never lived long enough to die from it. The boy looked up at him from behind the book, and seeing Lockhart’s face, he frowned. Lockhart grinned at him, and said, ‘This one will get you. North Korea?’

‘Pyongyang,’ the boy replied.

Lockhart sat down at the end of the bed. ‘You know that your mother was at the doctor,’ he began.

Paul sat up suddenly and stared at him. ‘What is it?’ he said quickly.

To Lockhart, he already had the look of an orphan about him.

‘Well …’ Lockhart began. ‘She’s home now.’

‘That’s good,’ the boy said. Lockhart was afraid Paul would ask questions, but like him, the boy was a natural speaker B.

Lockhart, to his own surprise, said, ‘When you’re a bit older, you can come out to visit me in Africa. You’d get on well with Prosper. He’s just starting as an apprentice mechanic.’

Unexpectedly, Paul leaned forward and embraced him. Lockhart patted the boy firmly on the back twice, then said, ‘Let’s go and see your mother.’

Narelle was waiting in the living room, writing a letter to one of the orphans. She looked up as they came in, and Lockhart shook his head and mouthed, ‘Tomorrow.’ She frowned, then nodded, and the boy sat down beside her, shrugging off her kiss. They watched the television for a long time together in silence.

At last Lockhart said, ‘I think I’ll turn in. Goodnight.’ He kissed his sister on the cheek, and shook his nephew’s hand. Then he went to the kitchen to retrieve the envelope Narelle had brought for him, and went to his bedroom, a small space at the back of the house. The green walls were covered in more framed photographs of children, waving and laughing at the camera. These were the children his sister thought lived in Lockhart’s orphanage. But there was no orphanage. They were street children he had found in Freetown and Kampala; he had paid them a cigarette each to be photographed. Lockhart shut the door, then kneeled down and pulled the suitcase out from under the bed. It was easy to pack up his few things. He supposed that he had never really unpacked his suitcase in forty years. He added the envelopes that Narelle and Paul had given him to a dozen similar envelopes wedged tightly under the Australian phrasebook which Paul had presented to him as a joke, but which Lockhart used on occasion.

When he had closed the case, he sat down on the bed and looked out of the window to the dark street. He wasn’t sure where the train station was. He felt lost, and he realised then that he had always had this feeling, that all his life he had felt as if he had just arrived in a strange new town at midnight, and was waiting for the morning to get his bearings. But morning had never come.

He sat quite still for an hour after he heard the doors to his nephew’s and his sister’s bedrooms close. Then he took his suitcase and crept into the dark hall. He had opened the front door and was standing half-in, half-out of the house when Paul appeared from the kitchen wearing a shapeless blue dressing gown, a glass of water in his hand. He stared at his uncle’s suitcase.

‘Where are you going?’ the boy asked, frightened.

‘Nowhere,’ Lockhart said, and he shut the door.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ryan O'Neill is the author of The Weight of a Human Heart and the Miles Franklin-shortlisted and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award-winning Their Brilliant Careers. His fiction has appeared in many places. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.

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