They left in separate cars, each with his driver. They took different routes out of the hilly town: one back up to Koforidua, where he was working with the plant; the other back to the smouldering city on a winding single-lane road. From here the West African coast was a blur of grainy colour, a discontinuation. He breathed easier now that it was over. In another place it would never have been done like this, so furtive and fucked up. Two men in a hotel room on a quiet afternoon, girls swaying past with buckets on their heads.
He glanced at the driver whose eyes were dark brown screens. He had dozed the whole time, bare feet tossed out of the passenger window.
Now he breathed in deep, sweating more. When they were inside, his skin had been dry and silken, an endless terrain. He had bitten the other’s lip, drawn blood, licked the wound, felt unquestioned. He wondered what the other man was thinking now as his pickup truck negotiated sharp curves, sped beneath old boughs reaching over the frayed road, women in chop bars glimpsing his profile.
He had watched him dress: old printed boxers stitched once or twice, jeans from the second-hand market, a Lacoste shirt washed many times. Clothed again, they had stood simply in the room, organised nothing further.
He looked at the driver, a northerner who had sharp, wide features. It had probably been unwise to bring him up here today, but he had no way of knowing the roads out of town, the exact location of the hotel, and the pluck of his seasoned vehicle. What if the jeep had petered out on the ascent, or the engine failed to turn over in the parking lot afterwards? How to explain this excursion to colleagues at work, or rely on local goodwill? He felt certain his cells were flaring and his face could barely manoeuvre.
The small jeep drifted down to the coast, tall grass and stunted trees whipping past. At the city edge a group of sleeping soldiers sprawled under a broad tree. They were thrown back on benches, khaki trousers tucked into polished boots, slick berets on shaven heads, hands holding rifles. A young one pointed them through the busted gate. He had a thick blue belt snug around his waist, temples giving off flints of light.
He showered at the house. His lover’s smell was raw over him and now he wished he had showered at the hotel and not brought the strong odour of their skins inside the vehicle. Had the driver seen the other man saunter up to the reception, carrying the folders he had suggested? He dressed quickly. He sat on the bed, looking at the wood grain of the parquet floor.
The driver said an envelope had arrived at the office when the secretaries had all gone. It had his name on it in slanted capital letters. Uncertain letters. He thought of a classroom with sixty kids, empty window frames looking onto a clearing of dust outside, hours of football under the sun.
HOTEL DE CALIFORNIE
He looked hard at the driver, made sure he didn’t show the page. ‘Who gave you this?’ he said.
‘A woman,’ the driver said, hands clasped.
He could have folded over with relief. That afternoon he sent the driver home and stayed in the office, working on for hours. The sun fell and the cleaners mopped. Occasionally, he looked up. A heavy black dome hugged the roofs above the city, extinguishing every star. The neighbouring buildings were ill-lit and crammed with palms.
When he was through he walked outside and joined the flux of shadows moving along the trafficked road to the fast food shops at the junction. Open gutters gaped beside him; girls tittered in his wake, but mostly he was unnoticed, his skin a velour of perspiration. At the junction he fell onto a plastic chair by the street and ordered a beer, guzzled it. A smooth girl caught his eye and he winked at her. She came over to flaunt her rich figure, draping herself over him.
‘Sister,' he said, curling her hair. 'Tell me, where is the Hotel de Californie?’
She told him and he drew a map in his mind.
‘You want to take me there?’ she said.
He bought her a beer, he was finished with her. There were other things on his mind. Where to go from here. How to steal him away, luxuriate in him. Perhaps to employ him?
It was punishable by death in this country.
As people coursed past he was surprised to see his driver walking along, arm around a young woman, both wearing light smiles. He shied back in his seat, half-covered his obroni face, watched their backs recede. His lack of safety disarmed him. But he knew that he was safe, he had done nothing.
He could not sleep in the night. He turned off the air conditioning, opened the window louvers; he heard the night watchman shuffle to the front gate and saw him standing under the strip light on the pillar. His skin went from cool to slick in moments.
He sat on the edge of the bed, tried to lie down on the floor. He went out to the kitchen for water, pushed his face under the tap, felt the cold chute fill his nostrils and eyes. He stood naked on the tiles. A tall wrangled man, his body a ruffled harbour. He thought of his lover in a prefab house in the hills, a woman by his side, a baby in a cot at the end of the bed.
The jeep refused to start. He sat sweating at the wheel, turning the key on and off, hearing a defiant clicking coming from somewhere in the engine. He lifted up the bonnet, clueless. It was three o’clock and he was ready early, he’d been certain he would lose his way in the warren downtown. But a taxi? He needed the shelter of his own vehicle in that dodgy zone. A quick getaway and no wandering the streets. He swore, skin blistering in moisture all over. Fuck.
He called and the driver sounded drowsy on his mobile phone. But he knew the driver was obedient. He said he could catch the tro tro, he’d be at the house in fifteen minutes.
He kicked a pot bearing a cactus which toppled over in a cascade of soil and roots. He bent down, gathered up dirt and pebbles in his hand, righted the plant. He walked to the end of the yard, saw that children were watching him through the scrappy hedge.
The driver pushed open the gate and walked over to the little jeep. He peered under the bonnet. Picked up a rock, hit the two bolts on the battery, gave them a really good whack. Told him to try the ignition again now.
The engine turned over and the jeep started.
They reached the Hotel de Californie at four thirty. He was nervy now, he could sense that it was all going pear-shaped. His hands were as weightless as paper, yet his skin was a thick coat daubed on him. His thoughts were metallic scissions on drifts of light. He won’t be here. This is the wrong place. This is a hoax. He thought of being discovered, being thrown into a cell, strung up, pummelled. He felt dark coals of fear and wanted to reverse out of the car park.
But then he saw a face leaning out a window, elbows on the sill, smoking calmly. Oh, the rush. He grabbed the briefcase he had tossed in the back, left the driver some dirty bills.
The driver gave him another envelope. His name in slanted capitals again.
It had been a while now. The last time there had been a knock on the hotel room door, someone trying the locked handle. Everything had been suspended – all fondling, all love – in that moment. They both stared at the grimy door and agitating curve of metal. He’d felt a current travel through the body of the other man, saw him draw back destroyed; their coupling a noxious stain upon the baby and wife. They had solemnly resumed lovemaking. He’d watched the other man dress and leave, a different shirt this time, treasured and washed. He’d plugged in his computer and cupped his face.
He stood before the driver and opened up the envelope.
How on earth to find it? Why couldn’t he just have him at his own place? A beer on the veranda, a snack inside. Then the discovery of his rooms, the air tightening as their mouths locked together.
‘Who gave you this?’
‘A boy, Sir.'
Was this a game or a trap? Was someone watching him? He worked late into the night. He addressed a backlog of emails. Emails from old university friends, emails from ex-colleagues back in Europe, from a sometime lover in Berlin, from his sister travelling through Australia. He told her about him: I’ve met this guy. He’s not free but it’s really something. It’s going to be another agony thing, I can tell you. I feel like a dog on a chain, on a stake plunged into the ground. There is so much beauty here and I can’t run from it. Hot, tropical beauty. Huge thunderclouds and red dirt that steams under your feet. I’ve read the book you gave me. I really loved it, you know.
He sat back. It wasn’t true. He hadn’t even opened her book. But it would make her happy. He wished he had a photo of him, even a shot on his phone. Something to stare into, something to examine with intimate recollection. A metal bucket clattered outside in the hall and he listened to the slow sweeps of the mop.
This time when they set out, he was calmer. He’d told the driver he was buying some glass beads to take home, that one of the girls in the office was sending him to a guy at the beach who brought them from upcountry. They’d given him the house number, did he know where it was? He didn’t show him the paper, just told him the address. The driver thought for a minute, then nodded.
They drove out of the city along the crammed coastal road. This time he had a feeling it would be fundamental, eclipsing. He had wanted to bring some sort of gift, but couldn’t think what a man would give to another man here, in this country. In the end he brought his sister’s book, but knew the other would never read it.
They passed a group of soldiers on the roadside. There was no real check-point, just an open-backed military jeep parked in the sun, five men sitting in the back holding guns, heads leaning on the struts of the vehicle. Down an incline to the sea were the shapeless hills where former ministers had been dragged out at dawn and executed after a coup d’etat. It had happened years ago and the place bore no new growth, just sand and weeds, the ocean a blue cloth hanging beyond them.
He looked over that scarred cemetery of souls. To think of the thrashing waves as the firing squad took aim, crosswinds entering a pasty mouth, then a bloodless falling.
Deep inside Nungua town they pulled up in front of a tin-roofed house with a narrow veranda. His lover was sitting outside with a young woman in a patterned dress and headscarf. She was wearing purple plastic sandals. Two half-empty bottles of Fanta sat on the table between them and the girl had high cheekbones pressed to the top of her face and narrow slanted eyes; her skin was glossy.
At first he pulled back, the recognition floored him and the young girl was something he did not comprehend. Then the man on the veranda waved at him. He too raised his hand behind the windscreen. He told the driver to wait at the bar on the corner and stepped out into the salty neighbourhood of laughing mothers and blaring Tupac playing and kids trailing wire contraptions on wheels. The pair watched him. The car departed and the woman led the men inside, placed the Fanta bottles in the kitchen sink, and locked the door behind her.
They were holding each other on the bed when the woman’s high voice rang out from the other room. They kissed. They crawled apart and began to dress. This time he did not watch the other man pull on his worn clothes, but sat there, elbowing into his T-shirt, smelling whiffs of their melded skins. They embraced. He was given a fresh Fanta from the fridge while the other finished one of the warm bottles waiting there.
He walked alone down the street and came to the bar on the corner. It was empty. For a moment his innards seized and he nearly stumbled on the ridge of the gutter. He felt obscenely visible, his crimes in colossal scrolls on his person. He ordered a beer and threw it back, grateful for the chemical swilling; he looked for options in the degraded sky.
Then the car trundled up the road and the driver was most apologetic, saying he’d been to a timber yard. He climbed in, said he preferred the windows open, realised he didn’t have a single bead to show for the afternoon.
Now the soldiers turned to stare as their car crawled past in the tired file back from the beaches. One soldier pointed to his white face and urged them off the road. The driver swung over untroubled, but he was already grinding his jaw, thinking of colleagues he could call if they were hassled. Papers were fished out, they were all in order. His documents were pored over with a theatrical intensity that set him on edge.
A narrow man in a loose uniform commanded the driver to step down from the vehicle. The driver looked across at him swept with worry, but his thoughts were confounded. He could only think of his lover being harangued by these young bastards, the ripples he had tongued along his beautiful throat, the unguarded facial expressions he had received as gifts. He was stopped from leaving the car by a second soldier standing by his window shaking his head.
‘What’s going on here?’ His voice nearly failed him. ‘What’s the problem?’
They marched the driver down the incline into a pit in the land, beyond the stream of traffic. As he watched, his head began to spin and the faintness spread in tingles to his hands and legs. Again, he pushed the door; the stern young soldier shook his head. The man turned laughing to the small group fixed in a circle of olive green shirts and blue tassels on built shoulders, berets on gleaming foreheads, guns dangling.
The driver was pushed to his knees.
‘Stop this!’ he cried from the vehicle.
The driver raised pale hands, long fingers with small joints. On the kneeling man’s face he could read no expression, hear no sound through this horrible suspension.
One soldier playfully raised a gun.
He sat there, compelled. He thought of a gun raised to his lover’s temple and this shocking vision wet him through: he would rather the cold heel in his own mouth. He pulled out a fan of cash from the glove compartment and waved it at the young soldier’s flanks, yelling at the dusk-smeared concave. Begged them.
The soldiers fell away laughing, ribbing each other, guns thwacked against lean spines. The driver stood and dusted himself off.
They crawled back to the steaming city, which was soon awash with stormy gusts and red-swilling streets. The driver accepted his grave apology. He stared through the window at the splattered houses, realising how violently the afternoon’s beauty had been overturned. He now saw their bodies as fragrant with risk and doom, prologue to the staged execution. The two contexts overlapped and he saw that the long road with its bloody memories was a poisoned thread through the hours. He looked at the driver’s unchanged face and wondered what thoughts he must have summoned in those unlawful moments. He saw the lovers on the drenched bed and knew he would never risk seeing the man he craved again.
In the following weeks he worked long days and went home directly. He wrote jaunty emails to friends, contacted a woman who had wanted to marry him, who sent him photographs of her twins. He looked up house prices in his old city and considered doing an online language course in Chinese. His sister wrote to him: I’m so glad you liked the book. It was great, wasn’t it? Thanks for the photos. The house looks rather swish, at least you’re not sweating all day. What about a shot of this famous man you’ve met? A wife and kid this time? Something tells me you are barking up a very thorny tree. I’m so glad to have left everything and more behind. Here the deserts are crazy with flowers…
But in the night he dreamed of being raped in a cell and woke up floundering, uncertain of his senses. Another time he saw himself surrounded by soldiers, prone on the sand, anticipating ecstasy. It repulsed him.
When two months had passed he knew there would be no more envelopes or hotel names written in slanted letters. He remained calm. After work the driver took him to the tennis courts. He met a young waiter who slipped him his telephone number when he paid for a round of drinks. He watched the man’s long spine and the clipped back of his skull disappearing into the kitchens. That night he called him up and gave him his address.
CATHERINE MCNAMARA grew up in Sydney, moved to Paris to study French and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2014 and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize 2011. Her story 'Magaly Park' received a Pushcart nomination and her work has been shortlisted and anthologised widely.