by Gert Nygårdshaug
Published by Cappelen Damm AS, 2011
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Guardian of the water
The sight you saw as you walked down the street and came to a halt would accompany you into sleep that night; the heavy, intoxicated sleep in which a single image is often hammered fast and only dissipates upon waking. The image was that of two children, a skinny boy and a little girl on their knees beside a dead dog, not grieving for a pet that had been run over but eagerly hacking away at the carcass with a knife in order to loosen some pieces of meat they could take home to cook. You stopped for a moment in the dusty street; wiped the sweat from your brow. There was only you who saw this – nobody else seemed to pay the emaciated children much attention, they were used to it, but not you. You turn away and walk on, down towards the harbour district where you have an errand to run – the same errand you have run almost every day for the three weeks in which you have been here in the small town beside one of the main channels of the Niger Delta.
The town is called Patani-aw-Uli.
You walk into an alley where the odours of rotten cabbage, excrement and urine make you want to hold your nose, but you refrain from doing so – a white man holding his nose would be ridiculed, openly laughed at. Instead you nod, greeting everyone you encounter, then slip quickly through the door of a dive situated all the way down on the river bank; wipe your brow again and smile at the overweight owner who stands behind the counter and who recognises you, but does not smile back. You take the lukewarm bottle of Maxa, the local beer, and sit down at the table in the corner beneath a hopeless fishing montage consisting of a stuffed, varnished catfish, a bit of rotten rope and some dusty, blue-glass fishing floats. You wipe greasy stains and crumbs from the table’s cigarette-burned oilcloth with the rag you always carry in your back pocket.
It is eleven o’clock.
The dive has no other customers.
Five minutes pass, and then the man you have been waiting for arrives: a large, short-winded Nigerian, dressed in the khaki green uniform of the port authority police and wearing a side cap that only just balances on his head of curly black hair, his shirt half-open to reveal the heavy, shining gold cross on a solid chain around his neck. The man has a strong-featured, broad face that seems in no way stern, but rather genial; he stands beside the counter talking to the owner for a moment, you can hear that they’re speaking Yoruba, although you understand only a few words. Then he turns towards you and smiles, showing his over-filled teeth, which also shine gold, and comes towards the table and sits down.
You say nothing. Simply nod, slowly, and hold his gaze.
‘MS Torunga,’ he says, pulling a large, brown envelope from down his shirt front before setting it down on the table, protected by his huge palm.
‘Very good,’ you answer. ‘Reliable documentation?’
‘Sure, boss. Eight photographs that cannot lie.’
‘I know the one,’ you say.
You half get up out of your chair, open the pouch you wear fastened around your waist and pull out a roll of dollar bills that you quickly and discreetly transfer to the policeman’s right hand; he just as swiftly tucks the money into his breast pocket while at the same time pushing the brown envelope towards you.
‘Thank you, Mr. H’Embato,’ you say, placing a 100-naira note on the table as payment for the beer and standing to leave.
‘Two more ships arrive tomorrow.’ The policeman, H’Embato, remains seated.
‘Okay,’ you answer. ‘Same time.’
‘Same time, but double the price.’
You nod and lift a hand in parting to the owner behind the counter, who still doesn’t smile. On the way back to the hotel you buy a couple of grilled cobs of corn and a bag of pouruka, sliced and fried pork.
You might be an author, perhaps one named Gert Nygårdshaug. Your head is swirling with memories of conversations you’ve had with a Mayan professor but they refuse to settle; find no rest or sense. The hotel at which you have been staying these past weeks is in a class hardly deserving of stars, but this is of little consequence – you are not here to live a life of luxury. In the room you set the food on the table beside the window to be eaten later and cover it with a towel to keep off the flies. You stand at the sink for a long time, letting the water run and thoroughly washing your hands, then your face, then your hands again. You dry yourself – the ceiling fan doesn’t work, has never worked, and the room is hot; you glance at your face in the mirror, it looks much as it has done for the past ten years, you think, because you’ve seen it every day and so failed to noticed the relentless tiny changes that have occurred from month to month, year to year. But aging is often rendered invisible to those who do not count the years, only the experiences of the days.
You walk over to the chest of drawers and pull out the drawer in which you have gathered the documentation. Take out the folder and the little black notebook and sit down at the table as you open the envelope you’ve just received from H’Embato; spread the eight polaroid photographs out across the tabletop and nod.
It looks like electronics.
It is electronics.
You sit with a magnifying glass and study each picture in detail; H’Embato is such a good photographer that on some of the images you can even make out the logo and therefore the brand of the hard disks, printers and mobile phones. The containers of the MS Torunga are packed with discarded electronics from industrialised countries, tonnes of waste that contains lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans and brominated flame retardants. Waste that it would cost huge sums to dispose of at legal disposal sites in the countries of origin, but which here, up along the banks of the Niger, can be dumped without incurring any costs other than those for transport.
You put the images in the folder, which already contains hundreds of other photographs.
Over these past three weeks you have collected documentation from the cargoes of twenty-six large container ships, most of them from Europe, but also from Canada, the US and Asia – ships that are owned by well-known and established shipowners, including ones from your homeland. Ships that sail under legal flags of convenience like those of Cyprus, Panama or Liberia, but which are chartered for shorter or longer periods by shell companies whose networks can be traced back to the Sicilian Mafia, the Yakuza, the Triads or Solntsevskaya Bratva. You sit for a long time with your hand on the thick folder, waving away flies, then take out your pen and enter the day’s report in the little black book – name, date and cargo – you glance back through the other reports, the names of ships full of hazardous industrial chemicals of various types from various factories; tonnes of toxic waste from hospitals and not least from the oil and gas industry. Mercury, containers of highly toxic PCB – the dumping of which is strictly forbidden in most countries, but not here.
You close both the book and your eyes.
Go back to the sink and splash water on your face.
You take another, larger exercise book from a drawer of the chest; set it down on the table beside the hand towel that hides today’s lunch.
You chose this place. One of the main channels of the Niger Delta. You sought out this town because it is a mandatory port of call for all container ships, where their cargoes are cleared prior to further transport up the river and customs duties levied where necessary. You had found a port inspector – H’Embato the policeman – who for a fistful of dollars and a modern polaroid camera would supply you with information about the cargo he inspected, about the contents of the containers that the port authority police were ordered to check to ensure that they contained no luxury goods subject to customs.
Most of the containers contained no luxury articles.
And toxic waste and discarded electronics were duty-free.
As you sit there with your report book still in front of you, a few drops of sweat falling down onto the open pages, you do the sums: over the few days you have been here, many hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chemicals and industrial waste have passed through the port to be dumped further inland, perhaps as far north as Niger or Mali – how much will this be in a year? Five years? Ten? What about the other waterways on this earth subjected to the same traffic?
Why are you asking these questions, why are you sitting here in this lousy hotel room with spiderwebs in the corners and cockroaches at your feet, tormented by flies, mosquitoes and heat – why stay in this stinking town where children eat meat from dog carcasses? Because you’re a worried inhabitant of this earth and there is a book you wish to write, a story you wish to tell – you want to use the skills you possess to reveal, submit evidence, accuse and litigate – but will you be heard? And who will listen? You shove the report book and folder of photographs aside and open the other, thicker exercise book – over the next few hours, until late in the afternoon, you sit and write, page after page filling with letters, words and sentences that are moistened with drops of sweat and marred by dead flies you have slapped against the paper in irritation.
Tonight you’re going to meet The Diver at the Russian’s bar.
It was just a few days ago that you met him, entirely by chance; he came walking towards you in the middle of the dusty main street, a white man among the black crowds, sunglasses and a cowboy hat on his head. Wearing cream-coloured chinos, a grey-blue, short-sleeved viscose shirt and a pair of burgundy docksiders. He made a beeline straight for you and stopped.
‘Howdy, man!’ A wide, friendly grin as he took off his sunglasses.
He was an American, from New Hampshire and working as a diver for IUMI, International Underwater and Marine Investigation – a company that had sprung out of Greenpeace but that was now being financed by organisations that included the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, SERC, and which surveyed and conducted research on the sea’s ecosystems and the biological changes taking place in certain coastal regions.
The first meeting was brief, just a quick beer in one of the dives lining the main street, seeing as the helicopter that had brought him here would be returning to the base on the coast in just under an hour. When you told him about what you were doing he became interested – but was there a hint of sadness in his eyes? – and you had agreed to meet again in a few days when he had a free weekend. The place you suggested was the Trotsky bar. You explained where it was, and that it stayed open all night.
Now that night had come, and what might The Diver be able to tell you? You have no particular expectations, but surely there will be drinking from the old Russian’s rich and varied selection of vodkas with which you are already well acquainted. You close the exercise book, put it in the chest of drawers and eat the cold corn cobs and pork, swilled down with the dregs of a bottle of tonic water that stands there on the table.
You still have a couple of hours before you are due to meet The Diver – who had introduced himself as Peter O’Bryan, you remember. You’re looking forward to this meeting, to a conversation with someone concerned with the same issues as you, who might think the way you do and have expertise.
The brief half hour between the light of day and complete darkness you spend down in the port area. Your skin slathered in a liberal application of mosquito milk, you saunter past the busy dock for foreign vessels where freighters of various kinds are moored, and turn onto a muddy scrap of road that runs alongside the riverbank. You chase off a group of begging children who follow after you, tugging at your shirt and trouser legs – you want to be left in peace and so find a rickety bench beside a fallen pile of planks that must have once been a boathouse, the remains of the fishing boats now half-submerged and rotting in the riverside mire. Nobody fishes any longer in the stinking river that flows past you, calm and wide, unmoved by the bloated corpses it carries along on its back: animals, but also humans.
Africa’s most populous country, with a quarter of the continent’s inhabitants. Despite the poverty and significant childhood mortality, the country’s population growth is enormous. Half of the population is under fourteen years old, and the number of inhabitants is expected to double, possibly triple, over the next ten to twenty years. You close your eyes and try to imagine the future that awaits these people.
You see nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Soon the sun will sink into the treetops, blurred by the grey haze, that you can just make out half a kilometre away on the other side of the river. You bend down and pick up a fistful of pebbles, which you throw at the rats darting about in the rushes and mud down at the river’s edge. Then you get up and start to walk back taking another route, cutting diagonally inland away from the river, up towards the back alleys that lead to the main street of the town.
In the glow of the fast-dwindling sunlight you suddenly catch sight of a plant, a flower at the edge of the road, a stunningly beautiful growth with purplish-red and yellow petals clustered around a strong stem; the colours almost dazzle you, and you stand there and consider this miracle, its perfect form – an orchid? A Dendrobium? An immigrant from Asia? You bend down and gently stroke the petals; this orchid is your favourite plant.
All at once, you stand up.
The gob of saliva hangs there in the uppermost petals, dripping slowly downwards.
Terrified, you take a few steps back, afraid at this sudden act; turn, no longer looking at the plant, and continue to walk up towards the town. You’re soon in the throng on the main street where you let yourself drown in the crowd of bodies, women and children, sweaty workers on their way home, the street sellers setting up their evening stands. You direct your steps towards the place that in recent weeks has been your harbour, your anchorage.
The name, Trotsky, can just be made out on the partly crushed neon sign above the bar’s entrance. In disappointment and rage at how capitalism and the mafia had taken over his dear homeland, the Russian, Dmitry – you do not know his surname – had run as far away as possible, and the furthest he could get had turned out to be Nigeria. At least, this is how the story is told; you have picked up these details from the bar’s other patrons over the evenings and nights. His age was impossible to guess, possibly somewhere between sixty and eighty; the man seemed completely blasted by the sun, spirits and nerves, his skin stretched tight over his skull where the remnants of his pale hair looked sewn on, his teeth stained brown by nicotine and asphaltic coffee.
But Dmitry was a friendly, munificent soul to everyone who visited his bar and who exhibited the bare minimum in good manners; he also had an inconceivably large store of various varieties of vodka in a freezer behind the counter, all with added flavours he had mixed himself – these were offered to selected guests when he was in a generous mood. You had been lucky enough to taste a fair number of them, including a piri-piri vodka, 52 per cent and made from soaked red peppers, as well as an unpleasant version mixed with Scotch bonnet chilli – you had almost collapsed like a teenager after the first drink of that one.
Behind the bar, out of customers’ reach, hung Dmitry’s greatest relic: an ice axe. He swore that this was the very ice axe with which Trotsky was murdered in Mexico one August day in 1940, a claim impossible to prove or disprove, and which doesn’t tend to occupy your thoughts all that much. Nor does it today, after you shamefully desecrated – spat on – your favourite orchid, and step through the doorway into Dmitry’s bar.
You find a seat in the innermost corner after having got yourself an ice-cold beer – Dmitry’s beer is always cold, straight from Siberia – and are left alone by the prostitutes who sashay around in their elaborate outfits. They know that there is no custom to be had from you.
At a table along one of the longer walls sit four land workers, greyish-black and heavy zombies who have just finished the day’s fourteen-hour shift, their shirts made of chemical fertilizer sacks; at another sit two regulars you’ve exchanged words with on a couple of occasions, but with whom you feel no need to become better acquainted. They’re drinking Nigerian Guinness, local oil barons wearing traditional African dress who live off smuggling cheap, Nigerian diesel to Benin, where they sell it for five times the price. They were always sure to make studied gestures with their hands so that everyone in the immediate vicinity could see the Rolex watches they wore around their wrists.
You signal to one of the girls who is serving.
Order a portion of eba.
The food comes to the table, a ball of steamed garri, tapioca, served with an extremely hot sauce and two pieces of meat tough as meniscus, but you eat with zeal. When you have scraped the plate clean, the person you have been waiting for appears in the doorway. The Diver looks around, then catches sight of you and smiles; you make space for him in the corner in which you are sitting.
‘Heavy,’ he says, looking around.
For the first half hour you shoot the breeze, drinking beer; eventually and without enthusiasm you speak of the purpose of your stay here, the gathering of documentation, evidence that – perhaps – can be turned into a hard-hitting novel, a real eye-opener. The Diver nods as he waves away the prostitutes; he nods several times, but does not seem happy. As you fall silent and drink your fourth beer of the evening, Peter O’Bryan tells you that he is of Irish descent, his great-grandfather emigrated and made it as a fisherman on the north-east coast of America – the sea has provided a living for his family over the years. But even as a teenager he had decided that what existed below the water’s surface was worthy of deeper study, and therefore diving became his livelihood, first as a marine in the legendary Navy Seals. But had he soon moved into civil operations when it became clear that his peace-loving disposition was not compatible with the anti-terror philosophy of the military leadership in Coronado, California; that the corps’ motto, ‘My amount is little, but my support is sincere’ was well suited – far better suited, in fact – to civil marine activities, such as monitoring the rapid decline of sea life on its march towards death and extinction.
‘How rapid?’ you ask, after having let The Diver’s last sentence sink in.
‘Pretty fast. Do you know what seawater really is?’ His blue eyes turn hard. ‘It isn’t the sharks, giant squid, seals and whales that dominate the world’s oceans, but a multitude of microscopic creatures. In just a litre of seawater swirl around several billion viruses, a billion bacteria, five million single-celled organisms and a million algae. In just a measly litre, man!’
‘It sounds like a thick soup.’
‘Invisible, but vital for all larger life in the sea.’
‘And this is all rapidly going to the dogs?’
‘You think you can stomach the truth?’
‘I would think so.’ A feeling of unease washes over you.
‘Okay, but don’t they have any drink with a bit more bite – this beer is just blowing me up like a springtime cow put out to pasture.’
‘Give me a moment,’ you say, and elbow your way to the bar where, after catching Dmitry alone, you return to The Diver with two brimming glasses of viscous, frost-steaming, dark-red vodka, taken from the Russian’s well-stocked freezer.
After the first swig, O’Bryan jerks his head and leans back against the wall.
‘Sixty-two per cent,’ you say. ‘Cherry and piri-piri.’
A few minutes of silence as the inner cold of the drink is slowly transformed into a warm glow that spreads to the soles of your feet; you study The Diver’s face, freckles, neat features, a strong chin. Blue, somewhat heavy eyes with a hint of – melancholy? Or grief? – below a bristly, reddish fringe.
‘I love the sea.’ Peter O’Bryan clears his throat. ‘I love the teeming, colourful universe below the surface, with its incomprehensible multitude of creations of all shapes and sizes. Or, I loved the sea. Now I see only death, decay and misery.’ He empties the rest of the glass in one gulp, this time without spasms.
‘You loved it?’
‘Yeah, dammit, I loved it. Because now I dive in a sewer of death looking for hope, for life, but find nothing.’
‘So it is that bad out there.’ You think of the thick folder back in your hotel room with its more than a hundred photographs: waste, poison.
‘In just a year the dead zone off the Niger Delta has expanded by almost five kilometres.’ O’Bryan’s gaze is fixed on the tabletop. ‘It’s now reached the edge of the deep sea – and it’s spreading. Do you know how many estuaries like that exist in the world?’ He suddenly gets up and throws his arms wide before slumping back down into his chair again.
‘Many,’ you say.
‘The Amazon, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Yangtze, Indus, Mekong, Euphrates, Zambezi, Congo, Rio Grande, Orinoco – to name but a few. The same damn filth. We’re at a tipping point.’
You get up and go to the bar again to get something stronger; the American’s face is now completely different from the face you encountered on the street a few days ago. Perhaps he can’t take the Russian’s drink? you think as you set two more frosty glasses on the table, the contents this time green in colour.
But Peter O’Bryan can hold his liquor, because for the next few minutes he speaks calmly, and you listen.
‘Yeah – we’re at a tipping point, it’s all about to tip over. The earth’s oceans are undergoing dramatic changes; the chemistry, those vital microscopic organisms – it’s all about to go crazy.’
‘But surely it can be fixed?’ You attempt to find a positive outcome for the conversation.
‘Fixed? Let me tell you – what we’re seeing in the seas that are still living is an invasion of monsters – I’m talking for example about the boom in jellyfish, a glutinous, slimy mass – they’re popping up everywhere, all over the globe, in enormous numbers. They’re around Australia, in the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea, off the coasts of Namibia, South Africa and Nigeria. In the Mediterranean many species of fish have almost been rendered extinct because the jellyfish eat their food. There are three main reasons for this: global warming, ocean carbon uptake, and not least the mass-scale pollution of the seas which you yourself have witnessed here in this cursed corner of the globe. But I won’t hear a word said against the Africans – they’re damned well innocent in all this.’
He glances up at the cobwebs below the rafters; lifts his glass and drains the rest of its contents.
You think: If things really are this bad, why aren’t the newspapers reporting more about it? Where are the headlines? You notice that the light in the dim bar is blinking and squint one eye shut; realise that it’s just a lightbulb about to implode. The din around you, which on previous evenings has had a calming effect, suddenly seems pressing and claustrophobic. You know from experience that you can hold Dmitry’s vodka, no problem, but you now have to take your cloth from your pocket, wipe it quickly across your face.
‘But is it really too late?’
‘I’m afraid it might be. Have you read Rachel Carson?’
‘The Silent Spring? It’s a long time since that was published.’ You fidget uncomfortably on your chair.
‘Carson’s birds are still singing – for however long that will last. But below the surface of the oceans it’s turning quiet – very, very quiet. It’s death, the silent death, and it’s sneaking up on us much faster than you might think.’ One of Peter O’Bryan’s eyebrows pulled into a low frown.
He continued, turning his empty glass in his hand:
‘Then you have all the plastic – a horrendous product. It breaks down extremely slowly and basically never disappears. Instead, it turns into ever-smaller units – pellets. More than a billion tonnes of plastic are produced each year, and most of this eventually ends up in the sea. And that’s when the nastiness happens: microscopic remnants of plastic are consumed by marine life, and that life sustains lethal injuries as a result. Check your tube of toothpaste, Colgate with its super fancy icy granules. In reality, these icy granules are tiny pieces of polymer – plastic – that scrub your teeth to make them whiter. They end up in the sea.’
This meeting, this conversation, you now realise, is not going the way you thought it would – but then what had you expected? A merry evening, two white men in a bar in an African country, drinking themselves drunk without inhibition as they slapped each other on the back, hiccupping out their faith and hope in a better world? There will be no slapping each other’s backs tonight.
Another glass of vodka and The Diver goes on:
‘As I’m sure you know, the pH value of the world’s oceans is plummeting – there hasn’t been such rapid and dramatic acidification for twenty million years. And this primarily affects molluscs, crustaceans and corals, which are being decimated on an ever-increasing scale. If the pH value is too low, not enough calcium carbonate can form in the seawater, the lack of which affects the gastropods – sea butterflies – which provide food for larger marine animals such as the Arctic Cod in the Barents Sea. You must have heard about the crisis in French gourmet kitchens?’ O’Bryan croaks out a dry laugh.
You say nothing.
‘And the oyster death,’ he goes on. ‘It first happened in the Mediterranean, from Corsica to the Languedoc, then along the entire Atlantic coast from Biarritz to Arcachon. The warning bells are ringing but its no use, the death is in the process of spreading all the way north, to the oyster-rich areas of Normandy and Brittany. Those of us working in IUMA and SERC have long predicted this – but what can we do?’
The Diver’s eyebrow has got itself into even more of a tangle.
‘I don’t know.’ The toxic ships you’ve been registering as they make their way up the Niger suddenly seem insignificant.
‘And now the oyster farmers in Normandy are standing on street corners, handing out oysters as they shout: “Take these oysters, they may well be last you ever eat!” Sad. You like oysters, man?’
‘I like oysters.’
Nothing is said for a while; the glasses are refilled and the clamour and crush of people in Dmitry’s popular bar increases; the vodka seems to be doing its thing, because now The Diver begins to wink at the sex workers swarming between the tables.
‘I’m grateful to you for telling me this,’ you shout to be heard above the din. ‘It’ll give my novel an extra dimension.’ These words, this last sentence, at once seems meaningless and falls without applause to the floor where it is trampled on; you want to leave, get out into the dark tropical night, look up at the stars and take a deep breath, but stay seated.
The vodka in your glass is ice-blue.
The Diver squints and leans towards you with diabolical intensity, his mouth suddenly and incomprehensibly large, but the words, the dystopias, are still loud and clear.
‘The death in the ocean, it’s happening everywhere, not just outside this fucking sewer known as the Niger River. Let me tell you, every year enormous, oxygen-starved areas of the sea are expanding due to a combination of the fertilizers that are washed out of agricultural regions and the toxic substances from industry. This is happening all over the world, from Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the US, to the Baltic Sea. I can give you an example that we registered last year: a large area, increasing dramatically with every year that passes, just beyond the mouth of the Mississippi, our holy river, in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers from the vast agricultural regions within our country are discharged into the sea, where these nutrients cause algal blooms. When the algae die they sink to the sea floor, where the process of decay uses so much oxygen that life in the great oceans is kicking the bucket; the shrimpers in New Orleans are about to haul in their last trawl. Bottoms up, buddy!’
He drinks quickly, and you too lift your glass and empty it. The Diver gets up from the table, unsteady on his feet, and ploughs his way towards the bar – you realise, then, that he is an extremely unhappy man.
He does not return to the table.
It’s past midnight when you get up – you can still hear Peter O’Bryan’s loud voice somewhere deeper within the premises. You find him on a chair with a chubby young woman on his lap; he catches sight of you, shoves the girl aside and comes to stand almost chest to chest with you, planting both hands on your shoulders, one eyebrow pulling up towards his hairline, the other hiding an eye.
‘My friend,’ he slurs. ‘I wish you good luck – we’re fighting the same fight. But listen.’ He’s close to your face, his mouth huge. ‘I think the swansong is being sung for Mother Earth. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to die on land when I say farewell to all this misery. I’ll dive to the bottom of the ocean and find a beautiful wreck, a fine and noble sailing ship from when the world was clean and blue. I’ll swim into the captain’s cabin and rip off my diving suit, mask and tank; and naked, like in the mother’s womb, it’ll be goodbye, Peter O’Bryan – goodnight, sleep tight!’
You can only nod.
Outside Trotsky the night is warm; dark and still.
You walk up the almost empty main street and stop at the hotel at which you are staying, standing there in uncertainty for a moment as your vodka brain attempts to clear your thoughts – what’s the point? A novel? You walk through the door and see the receptionist sitting there, sleeping and snoring in the chair as usual. Around the half-eaten chicken sandwich he has left on the counter crawls an army of cockroaches; you walk determinedly up the stairs, let yourself into your room and stand at the sink.
Rinse your face for a long time.
You then go over to the chest of drawers and take out the folder and the little black notebook.
Then the larger book, the exercise book, the novel you have begun, pages covered in dense handwriting, words, words, words.
You hesitate for a while, then stuff everything under your shirtfront. But before you leave the room again you find a half-full bottle of Nigerian brandy that you have set against the wall, under the table. You take a generous swig and shove the bottle into your pocket; go downstairs, past reception and out into the dark street. It is empty, nobody around.
You should have known it long before you met The Diver. It has been there. You knew it after your last visit to Mexico, the Yucatán, where you saw an enormous wooden head on a Mayan gravestone. You knew it well when you spit on the beautiful orchid, your favourite flower.
You make your way down to the river, stagger past the port office, stumbling ahead through the dark between the collapsed, abandoned fishing huts. Feel that you’re wading in mud up to your ankles as the squeaking rats run away but you don’t care, simply ignore the clammy heat that sticks your shirt to your back, the sickly scent of rotting wood, oil and dead animals. You slip several times, fall and flounder in the mud but get up again and walk on, fumbling your way to the crooked bench where you sat earlier this evening. Before Trotsky, before The Diver, before the orchid.
You sit down.
You see lights out on the river, boats, ships on their way up, their way down, and you try to breathe calmly. You rub off the worst of the mud but know that the stench of the banks of the Niger will remain in your skin for the rest of your life, you will never manage to wash it away, that’s simply how it will be. You pull the bottle of brandy from your sticky pocket and drink, tipping your head back, but see no stars, no stars tonight.
Then you get up.
From beneath your shirt you pull the folder, the notebook and the exercise book. You walk all the way down to the riverbank, wade out, try to keep your balance in the slick mire and succeed; with water up to your thighs you open the folder and throw the images out into the river, one by one, everything disappearing into the dark. Then you rip the notebook in two and throw the pieces as far as you can, then the novel, ripping out page after page of cramped handwriting, all the words, words, words. In the end, you stand with the covers in your hands and gently drop them, too, into the water.
Nothing left now.
You stand there, and you might be the author who will never write again, who no longer finds meaning in words. You stand there in the dark, in the middle of the night in a river named the Niger; you are wet and dirty and feel absolutely nothing, you are nothing. But you know the image you will take with you into your alcohol-fuelled nightmares tonight is of two children, a skinny boy and a little girl on their knees hacking pieces of meat from a dead dog.
But suppose you are not that author, and that you exist fifteen or twenty years in the future.
Suppose you are someone else entirely, and that you are carrying a weapon, a rifle, and that you now, in this moment, lift the rifle to your shoulder, calmly set your cheek against the stock, and take aim.
[End of Part 1]