Capus, Alex (Sample Translation)

Eine Frage der Zeit (A Question of Time)

Albrecht Knaus Verlag, August 2007, 304 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-8135-0272-5


Blind and crazed by exhaustion Anton Rüter clambered up the railway embankment which he had been running towards since dawn. From the clumps of rough bush grass came the rustlings of snakes and lizards, the sun blazed high above him, and behind him lay the plateau of East Africa, hundreds of kilometres under water at the start of the rainy season. For ten whole days he had picked his way alone across the flooded steppe. At night he had propped himself against trees and, knee-deep in water, slept for an hour; sometimes, too, in clouds of mosquitoes, he had scaled a termites’ nest, and curled up like a dog. His food had been the raw carcasses of drowned animals caught in the branches of fallen trees and he had drunk the brackish water he was wading through. His hair was matted, his beard long, his bare legs covered in jungle sores. His uniform which hung off him in strips was a fantastical conglomeration from the battle fields through which he’d fled. He had stripped the jacket from a dead Belgian askari, the shorts from a Rhodesian sergeant, the pith helmet from a South African officer. The sandals he’d patched together himself from the remains of his own boots.

He lay on his belly now between the rails and pressed his face into the rust-red gravel, listened to the deafening screech of the cicadas and didn’t dare look over the other side of the embankment. Anton Rüter didn’t know what he should hope for. If, as he suspected, the desolate, flooded grassland stretched on beyond the tracks to the horizon, he would die of hunger and weakness. If there was a native village, he’d be beaten to death like a dog. And if he encountered soldiers, they would shoot him, hang him, or at best put him in chains.

Then he became acutely aware of a scent – the smell of hot porridge. Anton Rüter sniffed, unbelieving at first, then full of greed. No doubt about it, his senses, sharpened by his prolonged hunger, weren’t deceiving him. That was porridge, probably without sugar or salt, the way the British liked it, and most likely prepared with water rather than milk – but definitely porridge. He raised his head, grabbed hold of the burning hot tracks and dragged himself along – and when he reached the edge of the embankment, he had no eyes for the ‘King’s African Rifles’ company who, but a stone’s throw away, were setting up camp on the edge of a little forest. He took no notice of the five armoured cars, the mine-throwers, machine guns and the mountain of crates of ammunition, he ignored the thirty men in their immaculate uniform and neatly combed hair, putting up their tents, unloading provisions, or resting in the shade of the trees. Anton Rüter had eyes for one thing only – the steaming copper pot, left carelessly untended beyond the tents on the edge of the wood, suspended over a fire. He tottered to his feet and hurled himself down, grabbed the pot and stumbled towards the wood, hearing neither the astonished cries of the Englishmen, nor the barking of the dogs and the whistling pistol shots, as he disappeared into the protective darkness of the trees, and a few steps on he tumbled down a gorge invisible in the thick undergrowth. When he came to at the foot of the gorge, scratched, bruised and burnt by the hot porridge, he crawled beneath the roots of an upturned tree and listened to the barking of the dogs and the men’s voices and as they didn’t seem to be drawing closer, he licked the porridge from his body in the knowledge he would be found sooner or later. Then he fell asleep and forgot the pot and the pistol shots, the dogs and the railway embankment and the never-ending water and indeed everything he had experienced, endured and done in the last four years.
Chapter 2 Bitter Honey

When Anton Rüter reached Dar es Salaam, only one of the natural sights of German East Africa made any real impression on him: the Governor’s wife. He tried to smother his disappointment, but he couldn’t deny that until now the journey had been unspectacular, boring even. The rail journey from Papenburg to Marseille in overheated trains with steamed up windows had been a torment, as had the crossing of the Mediterranean on the Empire Postal Steamer, the Feldmarschall, with the first nine hundred and eighty crates of the components of the Götzen, stacked in its hold . There were only a few passengers on board and as it rained incessantly and the ship pitched and lurched everyone retreated to their cabins. In Port Said the Feldmarschall made a stop for coal and from one hour to the next, there in the middle of the Suez Canal, the chilly winter gave way to tropical heat. Dolphins accompanied the ship through the Red Sea, entertaining the passengers with their capers, and every so often they could make out the black shadow of a water turtle shooting through the water ahead of the ship’s motors. Now and then there would be a break in the rain and the Papenburgers would lie out on deckchairs up on the sun-deck, looking out at the oily, inert sea and the hulking gloom of the African coast.

On January 10, 1914, leaving the spice island of Zanzibar behind them, and at last headed westwards towards the mainland, past Bagamoyo, the old Arabian port, the destination for countless slave and ivory caravans from the depths of Africa and the marketplace where in former times Massai, Auaheli and Bantu kings had met with Arabian merchants from Jeddah, shipbuilders from Kuwait, cloth and spice merchants from Bombay and pirates from Shanghai and when the Feldmarschall had safely negotiated the gap in the reef five hundred sea miles south of the equator and entered the bay of Dar Es Salaam – that too was a disappointment. What Anton Rüter saw was a narrow strip of wet sandy beach that stretched round the edge of the bay, fringed by a low row of grey coconut palms, and some colonial buildings poking up behind those – but no lumbering dragons, no erupting volcanoes, and no sudden second sun in the sky raised by earth’s gravity. No Chinese junks where they dropped anchor and no Arabian sailing ships, just the British trading schooner Sheffield next to the German battleship Königsberg, grey and drenched, the gun turrets carefully covered to protect them from the incessant rain. They could make out the barracks of the customs station with their rusty corrugated iron roofs, the rain deafening as it drummed down on them, and the paths were a black sludge from coal dropped on the way to the coal bunkers each day.

As the Feldmarschall bumped up against the jetty and ropes were thrown to the sailors to secure them, Anton Rüter stood at the deck rail, watching the scene below and surprised at how familiar it all was. Only the scorching heat was new and unaccustomed and the oppressive humidity, and the fact that everything he touched was hot: the railing was hot. When he took a step back and leaned against the steel, that was hot too. And the heat in his cabin: the toothpaste was hot; the water in the cold water tap was hot; the sheets and his pillow were hot, as well, and permanently damp from his sweat. The air they breathed was hot. The salt water the cabin boys used to scrub the deck was hot. Even the rain was hot. Rüter realised that for a long time there’d be nothing cool in his world; he would discover soon enough that in the tropics not even the dead grow cold before the flesh falls from their bones. Another new phenomenon were the rivulets of sweat that flowed from his forehead day and night, into his eyes, down his cheeks, into the corners of his mouth, dripped from his chin onto his chest, collected in the fold of his belly, ran down his legs and into his shoes, while every short walk on deck brought him to the edge of exhaustion, and even the laying out and folding up of his construction plans was physically taxing. There was no exotic enchantment about it, though. It was not romantic, only unpleasant.

The dockworkers tied the cables round the bollards, fixed the gangway and started unloading the first pieces of baggage. Suddenly someone roared a military order then there was a clatter of boots, a rattling of belts and a further order, and on either side of the jetty twelve askari, Negro soldiers, and two white sergeants presented their weapons in the pouring rain. They were dripping wet and wearing sandy coloured uniforms with blue bands round their calves and red caps with white imperial eagles sewn on. Rüter was fascinated. The only Negroes he had seen thus far were those adorning tins of cocoa and on the collecting boxes of Catholic missionaries. Once he had almost seen some in the flesh at the National Exhibition in Oldenburg in the summer of 1905 where Somali warriors were performing dances and songs; but then the President of the Papenburg Workers Gymnastic Club had fallen in the Japanese pool with its kobu fish and with half of the youth team vomiting after strawberry ice-cream that had gone off, they had given the Somali warriors a miss and opted for an early return home.

Five minutes passed as the doctor, the dock officials and the hotel porters scurried over to the Feldmarschall; and when Anton Rüter redirected his attention to the black men on the jetty he realized they weren’t black at all, but rather brown and not even particularly dark brown at that, and once he’d grown used to the skin colour there was nothing exotic in their appearance, it was perfectly normal. The dockworkers weren’t doing anything bizarrely foreign, but rather busying themselves with the ropes and carrying crates and sacks like dockworkers the world over. Nor were the soldiers beating their chests with their fists, nor rolling their eyes, nor sticking out tattooed tongues, but standing to attention in the rain, with surly soldierly expressions, watched closely by their two red-faced corporals who were probably called Hochstetter or Wörns or Finkelhuber.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about it all, then. However, five steps away from the soldiers under the pouring rain stood – the Governor’s wife. In her left hand she twirled her white umbrella so that the raindrops sprayed off at a trajectory, while, her right hand raised high, she waved up to the bridge deck. Rüter had never clapped eyes on a creature such as this, an apparition of almost unearthly whiteness. Beneath her snow-white hat, as wide as a cartwheel, a little spray of pretty white blooms pinned to its pink band, two bright blue eyes beamed at him from a softly rounded milky-white face; the smiling, tender pink lips revealed a row of perfect pearly teeth, and when she called out to the newcomers through the rain, they couldn’t make out what at that distance, a most feminine double-chin formed and they caught a glimpse of the bright red of the tip of her tongue between her teeth. It struck Anton Rüter that it would be polite to wave back and he raised his hand in greeting, and Wendt and Tellmann who had joined him at the rail followed suit. When Rüter asked them whether they’d heard what the woman had shouted, they didn’t answer, but kept staring down. And when he repeated his question a first and then a second time, young Wendt snarled from the corner of his mouth, who gives a damn, man. The lady was wearing a white linen dress that floated and shone over her full hips as though there were a secret source of light beneath. The dress had a blinding white full décolleté, below the hem was a gleam of white silk stockings and on her feet were white silk shoes which by some miracle had remained immaculate in spite of the black mud. The three shipbuilders were rooted to the spot. They had never seen such a creature – such a woman, if she really were one – before. Her ilk was not to be found in Papenburg.
And then the woman’s name was ‘Schnee’ (Snow) to boot. Ada Schnee, born Burlington, had grown up in New Zealand, the daughter of Irish-British sheep-breeders.

Standing two umbrella widths away inconspicuously was her spouse Heinrich Schnee, Doctor of Jurisprudence, Governor of German East Africa for the last two years and the highest civil and military commander of the colony; a gaunt little man with a black uniform jacket edged with gold, white trousers with a red stripe and an overlong sabre by his side, the tip of which almost brushed against the cement of the jetty. He was about the same height as his wife, perhaps a touch shorter or taller, it was hard to tell for he was wearing a topi of cotton-covered cork; as a symbol of his high office the helmet was dyed a golden yellow and topped with a golden spike. Schnee was only forty-three years old and from a distance looked youthfully wiry and nimble-footed. Close-up, however, it was clear that he had aged before his time as is common for Europeans in the tropics. His features were set and formal, his mouth a narrow line, the moustache looked as though it had been stuck on for a joke, and his neck was leathery and wrinkly. When he offered his arm to his wife to walk together towards the passengers of the Feldmarschall he did so with the stiff grace of a pensioner in good repair; and when he welcomed the three Papenburg shipbuilders at the end of the jetty, his address sounded clipped and tense, and also shy and hesitant as though fearing the young people might make fun of his grandfatherly turn of phrase. The three Pappenburgers who for starters didn’t regard themselves as youngsters and secondly would never dream of laughing at the Governor, answered in turn with a clearing of throats, awkward thank you-s and staccato remarks upon the unproblematic passage – and then as the rain beat down a thick tortured silence spread between the four men which they would never have found their way out of had the Governor’s wife not come to their rescue. She did so by laughing her tinkling laugh and suggesting the gentlemen continue their discussion in the drawing room of the Governor’s palace where it was pleasantly dry and where some refreshments awaited. With a blink of her lashes she set her husband in motion, with a light touch of his elbow she set Tellmann off in his wake. Then she gave Rüter an enchanting smile and bestowed a look on young Wendt that lingered a calculated, but in-detectable, second too long upon which the two men also made their way up the white concrete steps to the harbour-road. The Negro soldiers and their corporals followed at a distance, while out in the bay the first of the nine hundred and eighty crates were suspended over the water by the Feldmarschall’s derrick. As they walked the Governor’s wife, in a charming British accent redolent of dainty tea crockery and picnics on lush green lawns, told her guests interesting tidbits about the new floating dock out by the anchorage. At the top of the steps she stretched her left arm with all the grace of a ballet dancer and pointed to an elongated shed next to the train station and said, ‘We’ll keep your ship parts in that warehouse until you continue on to Lake Tanganyika . You do know you are to keep us company for a time?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Rüter said.

‘You have to spend a few days in Dar Es Salaam. You’ll be staying in the Kaiserhof Hotel, just next to the Governor’s residence.’

‘You are too kind, your Excellency,’ said Rüter, ‘But our mission allows no…’

‘You want to run away from me?’ The Governess laughed her tinkling laugh. ‘Ah, but you won’t succeed! The railway line is not finished yet, alas, the final ten kilometres to the shores need to be completed. For better or for worse you’ll have to make do with our company for two or three weeks:’

Just at the moment the rain stopped, as though someone had turned off a tap. A patch of blue appeared in the cloudy sky and quickly spread and the shafts of sunlight brought out the red flowers of the acacia trees in wonderful contrast to the gleaming white facades of the administrative and agricultural buildings. It was early afternoon, the sleepiest time of the day. An oxen-cart trundled into the town with its load of stones, a practically naked old woman carried brushwood out of town, an Arab robed in white whipped his donkey.

A gap in the row of buildings to the left revealed a broad side-street lined with palm trees. Rüter, Wendt and Tellmann could see that beyond it, behind the white facades of administrative buildings, stretched a sea of single-storey mud houses, windowless dwellings of planks of wood and huts of woven palm-leaves. Naked children were running round the steaming street, women crouched on the ground in groups, men were walking hand in hand. They could make out quiet singing and loud laughter, and the wind bore interesting scents.

‘The natives’ quarter,’ the Governess smiled. ‘A lively people, and here in Dar Es Salaam, they outnumber the whites tenfold, by the way. Before you continue on your journey you must go on a tour of it, it’s quite safe these days.’

On the edge of the natives’ quarter was the place of execution, five gallows in a row, and then the avenue continued through a picturesque grove of coconut palms that separated the harbour district from the government district. As the Governor had retreated into silence again and the three newcomers were restricting themselves to expressions of studied interest, Ada Schnee took up her commentary once more. She pointed out the luxuriant flower-beds to the men on either side of the road, tended by her black girls with great enthusiasm, and there was the beach where she rode out to on her horse every morning. Then she reported on the nursing college she herself had set up, praising the industriousness of the black students who were urgently needed as carers for sick plantation workers and wounded Negro soldiers, and she jokingly talked up the German East-African toothbrushes that a missionary in Dodma had set his blacks to producing using mole bristles.

‘The toothbrushes are perfectly hygienic, just a little too strong – like so much in Africa, as you’ll see. The mango compote made by the Catholic sisters in Tabora, for example, tastes just like German plum compote – only a little stronger. And the malt beer brewed by our Schulze just beyond the palm copse and adhering to German purity regulations tastes like real German beer – just a little stronger. If it is too strong for you, you might like to try the honey beer that almost every landlord in the country brews themselves. There is an abundance of wild honey all over the bush. Close to the rubber plantations, though, the honey has a bitter taste and shouldn’t be used.’

And so the Governess chattered on. Anton Rüter was charmed by the lightness of her tone and from her constantly effortless and contained cheerfulness which struck him as typically British. As a northern German he was not particularly prone to cheerfulness and when it did come upon him he knew no restraint; he would laugh too loudly, gesticulate wildly and start stuttering from sheer enthusiasm, a fact that greatly embarrassed him afterwards.

Young Wendt also studied the Governess with scientific curiosity as she laughingly regaled them with tales of beer-brewers stealing the life-belts from ships to make corks for their bottles. She walked tall and relaxed, her gestures were femininely modest, the expressions on her face of a perfect symmetry. She could roll her eyes in amusement without playing the clown; she could frown in concern without causing her companions real worry; and her laugh could only be described as enchanting. Hermann Wendt wondered whether any muscle ever moved without consent in that face, and what would be required to make this woman cry out in abandon.

Rudolph Tellmann also listened raptly to the Governess and stored away everything she said. He was surprised however that the woman could talk at such length about mango compote, honey beer and toothbrushes while saying not a word about her children. In his experience it was usually just a matter of time before a married woman brought the conversation round to her children. That the Governess did not do so must mean that she didn’t have any children. Tellmann pondered what might lie at the root of her childlessness, and discreetly looked at the married couple walking comfortably arm in arm. Perhaps it was simply a biological matter, possibly, however, also one of psychology. Who could tell. Tellmann at least found the notion feasible that even at night the two of them weren’t so much man and wife as Governor and Governess.

To the east of the palm-trees and stretching towards the sea was the government quarter. Bright villas were surrounded by blooming gardens and broad shady avenues. The still waters of the bay reflected both the Catholic and the Evangelical churches. Then came the post office, the government hospital and a square fringed by palm-trees and with a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm. The Governor explained to his guests that on Sundays an askari band played German march here, not too badly in fact, and on the Emperor’s birthday and Sedan Day there was a parade of the troops. At the end of another palm-lined avenue, and on a high plinth was a larger-than-life bust of Prince Otto von Bismarck behind which stretched a gloriously green park and at its centre, in elevated oriental splendour, was the Governor’s palace. Passing through Moorish arches, a tall leafy arbour surrounded the building, above that was a broad shady veranda and high above the sloping roof flew the black, white and red flag with the Imperial eagle. From the main entrance a flowery path of white crushed shells led to the beach along which seven women in a line crunched their way. They were draped in brown cloth, and balancing willow baskets of shingle on their heads, and round their necks were forged rings of iron by which the women were attached by rhythmically swinging chains to one another, and which rubbed the skin raw and bloody on the women’s collar bones. Their faces were impassive, their gaze of dead indifference, black flies sat in their wounds. They emptied their baskets where the rain had washed away the shells, then retraced their steps to the beach.

Governor Schnee saw that his guests had observed this. ‘Criminals,’ he said, and frowned with regret. ‘Tried-by-law thieves, arsonists, smugglers. Terrible business. Oh, that it were not necessary.’ He led the gentlemen up the steps and with a wave of his arm which seemed more apologetic than inviting, ushered them into the house. And while his guests disappeared into the welcome dimness, he explained to them that the chain punishment was, alas, indispensable, for the natives had proven themselves immune to more civilised forms of punishment. Fines were useless as most of the blacks were absolutely without means. As for the hippopotamus whip, he’d done away with that for women on humanitarian grounds. And he resorted to hanging only if the law allowed no other possible outcome. Thus in most cases the chain was all that remained, to show due respect to the law which he, as the highest judge of the colony, was duty-bound to impose. Terrible to watch, a shameful reminder of the days of slavery long past, a scandal for any man of ideals – but regrettably the only effective punishment. He stopped by the door and looked back at the seven women who had reached the beach and were again filling the baskets with their bare hands.

‘It is the only thing I really resent the blacks for,’ he said with unexpected passion, as he handed his golden helmet to a servant, ‘That they force me to do things I myself regard as evil, and that I as an individual am left with no choice between what is good and bad. Every day I am forced into acting badly so as to avoid my own downfall and that of the colony that the Kaiser has entrusted me with, and with every subsequent rotten act I merge a little more with the role allocated to me. That, gentlemen, is the lot of the colonialist: faced with the life-long decision of opting for self-contempt or death.’

Chapter Five The Long-Awaited Telegram

When Lieutenant Geffrey Spicer Simson’s life finally took the long yearned-for turn, he was sitting in a wicker chair on the veranda of his pavilion in Banjul at the delta of the Gambian river. It was Monday, and the first day of his monthly week off. The evening of 11th May 1914 was moonless but starry clear, and the hour of the worst of the mosquito plague was over. He had poured himself a sherry and had his feet propped up on the veranda’s balustrade. His wife Amy was sitting next to him and, undeterred by the clothing requirements of the tropical climate, was knitting her husband a cardigan. The two houseboys stood on either side of the veranda and waved the large palm-fans to give the married couple the illusion of a breeze. In the canals all around millions of frogs gave voice, between the banana plants the cheerful lights of neighbouring pavilions twinkled. Their inhabitants were British colonial officials, almost all of them married and approximately the same age and standing as the Spicers; as most of them were also without children, or had left their offspring behind in English boarding schools because of the climate, there was a lively social scene in the government quarter with frequent mutual invitations to barbecues and tea-parties and evening cocktail parties – a life that the Spicer Simsons were sadly excluded from as numerous neighbours, as time went on, had broken off contact to them. The reasons for this were manifold, but mostly rested on misunderstandings, prejudice and mutual disagreements.

The neighbour to the left, for example, didn’t want to reconcile himself to the idea of Spicer going skinny-dipping in the river in the afternoons, in the middle of a residential area and visible to numerous housewives of British origin and Anglo-Saxon modesty. At the neighbour’s request that he at least leave off the preliminary stretching exercises on the shore, during which the tattooed body was shown off to particular advantage, he was given the frosty response that his physical fitness was in the higher interest of his Majesty’s navy and was therefore to be given more weight than the prudery of wives with too much time on their hands – at that the neighbour, after a moment of disbelief, suppressed his rising tide of anger and politely requested that Spicer never again set foot on his property and keep his distance from his wife and himself in public.

The neighbour on their right also took an inconsequential difference of opinion as an excuse to burn the bridges with the Spicers. It happened one Sunday at afternoon tea, when Spicer was regaling them with his adventures in China which he laced with the occasional quote from the writings of Confucius – and not in English, but in an idiom he described as Chinese. By chance however that particular neighbour had also spent time in China on service, fifteen whole years in fact, during which time he had gained a reasonable grasp of Cantonese. As he frowned and asked Spicer whether his lines of Confucius were in Cantonese, in East or West Mandarin or in another of the Chinese languages, he was met with a wearied look and a patronising smile. And when the neighbour went on to explain that there is no more a Chinese national language than there is a European one, Spicer turned without a word to the ladies and embarked on a lecture on Chinese medicine.

Particularly unfortunate was the row with the neighbours on the opposite side of the canal, for that involved the Governor in person – a white-haired gentleman with a walking stick and thick spectacles who had been a middleweight boxing champion at Oxford many decades earlier. Spicer had made an enemy of him in all innocence on New Year’s Eve 1911 when, sleeves rolled up, he argued the technically correct delivery of an uppercut and was so unwavering in his beliefs that shortly before midnight the Governor ran out of patience, lay his walking stick and spectacles to one side and offered to show Spicer a perfectly executed uppercut if he didn’t shut up that very second.

So it came to pass in Gambia – as it had everywhere else in the world where he’d been – that Spicer cut a lonely figure. Yet he was an sincere man who had never deceived anyone in his life, not gone behind backs, not told any lies of import; it was rather a multitude of minor incidents and trifles that led to small-minded people turning their backs on him; and unfortunately Gambia, like anywhere else in the world, had a high proportion of petty minds so that by their second year of service there wasn’t a single soul left with whom they had the slightest contact beyond work. Amy bore her lot with stoic composure. She had grown up in Victoria, British Columbia, the daughter of a lawyer and never would have imagined she’d be living in a pavilion on stilts and that black Negro boys would paddle her in a hollowed-out tree-trunk to do her shopping; she stayed calm, however, and in the midst of howling monkeys and crocodiles upheld the pillars of a British way of life. Every day of the year she prepared bacon and beans for breakfast, and in the afternoon tea and biscuits were served on the veranda – even when people had long since stopped calling in. Her skirts and Spicer’s uniform were always crisply ironed and, with the help of two native girls, she tirelessly defended the pavilion against creepers, cockroaches and termites. When she made her daily expedition to the market, the baker and the butcher she said a friendly hello all round and received equally warm greetings back; for the ladies and the men of the colonial community made it clear to Amy that their social ban applied only to Lieutenant Spicer, not her. The wives of the civil servants were happy to chat with her to shorten the wait at the post office or the hairdresser’s. They called Amy ‘my dear’ and inquired how she was, weaving barbed little references to her unfortunate position into their concern and promising her – amongst friends – with horrible compassion any possible support they could offer. And when Amy seemed loyally bemused and started to talk about the weather and invited the ladies to tea, they just smiled sweetly and had to dash off.

Amy stood by Spicer in faithful friendship. She had got to know him extremely well during five years of marriage and held him in steadfast affection; for she knew that there wasn’t a bad bone in his body. Of course he was a vain storytelling fop – but only out of a desire not to give in to the meanness, the run-of-the-mill, the dullness of the everyday. To that extent Amy was even proud of her husband’s peccadilloes: she saw them as the revolt of a basically noble soul against the common compromise, against the comfortable arrangement with the power of conditions and against the creeping stupidity that assails most people in the middle part of their lives. Certainly this constant rebellion made the couple’s everyday life considerably more difficult; but in other ways Spicer was an undemanding husband – in his childlike egocentricity his needs were simple and reasonable and quiet Amy fulfilled them with ease. She did appreciate that. With a shudder she thought of the sometimes bizarre extravagances she’s heard about concerning the husbands of other women, who to all outer appearances may seem the most conservative of men but perhaps for that very reason would act out the most outrageous scenarios to prove to themselves they were alive. And if her marriage had remained childless thus far, that was because Amy so wished it. She had resolved not to have her children here in Gambia but to wait their return to London before bringing them into the world. Until then, it wasn’t difficult for her to match Spicer’s male desires with the cycle of the moon and her own female body.
And Spicer? He didn’t waste too much thought on it all. Who did these neighbours think they were to forbid him to swim in the river? Cosseted creatures, that’s what, people with hairdryers and pension plans, people with velvet collars, haemorrhoids and bristling eyebrows. It didn’t surprise him that such people would put each of his words on the golden scale, and he couldn’t care less. East or West Mandarin, Cantonese, uppercuts – they were just words. If those were the things that mattered to people – for him, it was about something else. Quite what, he couldn’t honestly say, for he was in no position to. How was he meant to describe the important, the beautiful, the noble, while his feet were stuck in the musty stinking mud of the Gambian River where since of the beginning of time nothing had happened apart from the on-going monotony of begetting, birth and decay? As long as he was prisoner here it was impossible to say what mattered to him. All he could do was wait for the moment of redemption and trust that it would come.

That moment came that Saturday evening, 11th May 1914, as Geoffrey Spicer Simson was drinking a sherry on the veranda of his pavilion and Amy was knitting him a cardigan. His clapped out old steamer was safely moored in the harbour, the four Negro boys were with their wives and children, and the two feverish Irishmen were probably getting drunk somewhere. It was the end of a quiet, uneventful day, the sort the Spicers had experienced many of in the Gambia delta, and which in all probability they would experience many more of. Out in the world dramatic events were afoot which Spicer had no notion of. In the Berlin Reichstag Karl Liebknecht had denounced the war preparations of the German government. Albania had mobilized and was poised for war with Greece. In St Petersburg a hundred thousand Bolshevik workers were striking. In Paris the Socialists were celebrating victory in the election to the National Assembly and in London Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, was in discussions with King George the Fifth about the necessity of arming a further fleet. On that particular evening, then, Lieutenant Spicer was sitting in a wicker chair drinking sherry when a figure emerged from the darkness of the line of palm trees and approached in haste. It was the figure of a Negro boy whom Spicer knew by sight; a messenger from the post office who sometimes delivered his post. That was strange, for there had been no mail ship that day and neither, to the best of Spicer’s knowledge, an overseas steamer.

‘Mister Spicer,’ the boy called out breathlessly when he reached the bottom of the stairs, ‘A cable for you!’

Spicer jumped up.

‘From London,’ the boy said.

Spicer was at the steps in two bounds, took the telegram and tore open the envelope. It was from the Naval Ministry. Secret orders, utmost urgency, undercover partial mobilisation. Spicer was to break of his hydrographical work immediately, pack up his Gambian home and return to London as swiftly as possible. Spicer told the Negro boy to wait and hurriedly drafted a telegram announcing his arrival in London within ten days.

Chapter 16 Mushy Sweet Potatoes

Wendt’s beer-garden was quiet in the days following Mkenge’s whipping. Mkenge himself never visited again and the two Bantu men Mkwawa and Kahigi played their board-game elsewhere. Another bitter blow for Hermann Wendt and Anton Rüter was that Mamdou, the millet beer brewer, stopped his delivery from one day to the next. What weighed most heavily though was that Samblakira’s visits stopped, too. She didn’t bring them breakfast or lunch, nor did she visit them in the evenings or at night – neither Anton Rüter nor Hermann Wendt.

The pair of them dealt with the inflicted solitude with calm, practical resolve. Since they were out of provisions, they had to organise some, and because they were alone now, they grew closer. Anton Rüter saw to it that firewood, beans, sweet potatoes and, every so often, a chicken were delivered. To begin with the Arabian traders were reluctant and tried to avoid business with them aware of the Captain Lieutenant’s sleight of hand with the hippopotamus whip; but as Rüter was still head of the shipyard and an important customer, and because he had perfected the oriental diplomacy of obsequious friendliness and gentle coercion, they eventually provided him with all he wanted, albeit at inflated prices.

Young Wendt who had learned something about the preparation of African dishes from Samblakira, took on the cooking. To begin with his chicken was tough, the beans bland and the sweet potatoes mushy, but he didn’t see that as a reason to stop, rather to pause for thought; he soon discovered that there was no metaphysics involved in dealing with the cooking pots, just the dialectic juggling of cooking times and temperatures, quantities of salt and the volume of a pot. And when he made the further discovery that the mechanics of cookery – just like those of ship-building or world history – require an additional pinch of craziness for the desired success, his mutton ragouts and vegetable casseroles were soon almost as good as Samblakira’s.

The loneliness was harder to alleviate. Rüter and Wendt had quickly understood that Samblakira, Mkenge, Mamadou, Mkwawa and Kahigi were not keeping their distance out of any cooling of their friendship, but because they feared for their lives. That was understandable. For before the Captain Lieutenant had left to inspect the enemy he had set up an armed control point on the highest point of the peninsula with a clear view over to Wendt’s beer-garden; it was manned by two guards day and night and apparently had the brief to run checks on anyone venturing on to the peninsula, noting their personal details and the time of entry. The shipyard and the Götzen were also under tight round-the-clock supervision and the warehouses were illuminated by torches on all sides at night.

Rüter and Wendt acted as though they were oblivious to it all. Every morning at sunrise they made their way with grim determination to the yard past the guards and worked on the Götzen until dusk. A mere stone’s throw away Rudolf Tellmann, following orders of the Captain Lieutenant, was riveting together the sawn-up portions of the Kingani on a makeshift slipway. He didn’t even look at the Götzen. Rüter and Wendt shouted across and waved at him, walked over several times a day, talked about the weather or invited him to supper, but Tellmann kept on inserting rivets in silence as though he heard and saw nothing. The day came when he hammered in the last rivet and the Kingani stood ready on the slipway as though it had never been sawn in four. The joins were invisible and a brand-new Maxim machine-gun was mounted on the forecastle. Tellmann waved over the askari who were on duty, pressed a few cables into their hands, pushed aside the props and without any ceremony let the ship slip into the water. And when he saw that she was floating well and that the askari would have no difficulties in pulling her to the quay and tying her fast, he left without a word, disappeared into the barracks and didn’t return to the shipyard.

Rüter and Wendt spent their evenings together in the beer-garden which they had set up again now that the short rainy season was over. They ate the stews that young Wendt cooked and drank the millet beer that Rüter now brewed himself and behaved perfectly naturally as though unaware of the checkpoint with its machine-gun trained on them day and night. They regaled each other with noisy stories of Papenburg that they’d told and heard a hundred times before, and they sang Plattdeutsch songs and kept reassuring one another that the war couldn’t possibly last much longer and they’d soon be on their way home to Pappenburg.

One evening, when they’d got well stuck in to the millet beer, Rüter fell asleep on a rush mat in front of Wendt’s front door who covered him over with a blanket. Then, one day they fetched Rüter’s bed from his wooden hut and carried it into Wendt’s and from that day forth they lived under one roof.

The Captain Lieutenant paid a daily visit to the construction site. Sometimes when Wendt and Rüter were working outside he would sit in the shade of a fig tree, light a cigarette and watch them. If they were working inside he would come on board and ask in a polite but suspicious tone how work was progressing. One day however he arrived at the moment Wendt and Rüter were removing a drive-shaft from the ship’s stern; Wendt was manning the rotary-crane, Rüter was directing him with hand signals from the bow.

‘Corporal Rüter, what the devil are you doing – you’re meant to be assembling the ship, not dismantling it!’

‘The drive-shifts are warped, Captain Lieutenant. We have to hammer them out.’

‘Stop, halt! That’s an order. You, too, Wendt.’

The Captain Lieutenant eyed the drive-shift, now half out, with suspicion. ‘The thing looks perfectly even to me.’

‘Of course, the warp can’t be seen by the naked eye. Nonetheless it’s causing strong vibrations.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Very strong vibrations, Captain. If you’d like to get an impression yourself, I’ll gladly reinstall the shaft and fire up the engine. It would take a day or two though.’

‘None of your cheek. How is it possible – how can such thick steel warp?’

Rüter shrugged. ‘The African heat perhaps.’

‘Rubbish. The climate doesn’t effect steel, you know that very well. Nowhere in Africa is as hot as your engine room.’

‘Possibly a manufacturing error. Or improper storage during transport. Or faulty assembly.’

‘Interesting. Who would be responsible for that?’

‘Me, whatever the case. Until its launch I’m responsible for the entire ship whatever might happen.’

‘What would happen if we simply left the shaft where it is and didn’t straighten it?’

‘That would be very dangerous. With vibrations of that strength the rivets would break and the screws come loose.’


‘Absolutely certain. In no time flat.’

‘Well, then, continue, dismantle the thing.’

The Captain Lieutenant pulled his pith helmet low over his brow and turned to go, and Rüter gestured to Wendt to swing the crane to the left. After a few steps, however, von Zimmer stopped and rubbed his finger tips over his right temple as though he had just remembered something.

‘Tell me, Rüter, while I’m here, is there anything else I should know about?’

‘What do you mean, Captain?’

‘Are there any other difficulties that could cost us time?’

‘That depends. Things keep disappearing.’

‘What sort of things, dammit?’

‘From the materials sheds. Things are always disappearing.’

‘Always? What’s that supposed to mean, man?’

‘Almost every night. Boxes of light switches, brass bolts, washers – they just disappear.’

‘That’s impossible. The sheds are closely guarded.’

‘Probably someone is slipping past the watchmen. Or perhaps the watchmen are being bribed. Last week suddenly all the portholes had gone. Then the blocks, fastenings and winches for the life-boats. And there’s been no sign of the large anchor since yesterday.’

‘And you’re telling me this now?’

‘You never asked me about it, Captain Lieutenant, sir.’

‘None of your cheek, Rüter. This is your last warning!’

‘Yes, Captain Lieutenant, Sir.’

‘What now ?’

‘Wendt and I are doing our best to replace the missing parts. We’re making light switches and turning new screws. We’re building a new anchor from leftover railway tracks. Instead of portholes we’re fitting round pieces of tin. It requires time, of course. But the ship will be finished, worry not.’


‘In a month perhaps. Provided no more stuff disappears.’

‘That is too late.’

‘If you could lend us Tellmann, we’d make faster progress.’

‘So, you want Tellmann back, is that it?’

‘It would be to the benefit of all.’

‘You are pushing it, Rüter.’

‘I can’t guarantee that we’ll be finished in a month. It might take two or three months, it depends.’

‘Alright, you’ll get Tellmann. But my patience is at an end, be careful’

‘I certainly will.’

‘You just can’t help yourself, can you? Always mocking. That’s your great weakness, Corporal Rüter. One day your arrogance will cost you your head.’

‘Yes, Captain Lieutenant, sir. May I suggest that the guards receive reinforcements and the positions are manned by only the most trustworthy of men.’
Translated by Rebecca Morrison