from Splendorville

Splendorville is set in the 1920s and written from the perspective of a youngish woman, Dr. Esparto, who lost her mother early and was brought up by a tribe in the desert of North Africa where her archaeologist father was busy with excavations. After training as a doctor, Esparto has as the novel opens been in general practice in a small town in the desert for some years. She has a close friend in the local police chief, Fred, who like her is of European origin (he is from France) in a society now struggling to free itself from bad memories of its colonial past. Fred, overworked and short of staff, is concerned by escalating tribal tensions, but he is a philanthropic, happy-go-lucky type, still enthusiastic about solving crimes.

Dr Esparto is an unambitious physician with no great sense of calling; all she really wants is to be left in peace to dwell on the past. She feels much affection for Fred, though an earlier physical relationship between them is now over. She loves the town she calls Splendorville: its narrow alleyways, flat roofs, starry night sky and abandoned royal palace. Her becalmed routine is shattered when an American film crew arrives to film-in these last years of the silent movie-a smoldering, Rudolph-Valentino-type love story. Their presence in the town provokes local hostility and eventually leads to devastating events that alter Fred and Dr Esparto's lives irrevocably.

He was in the process of emptying the room. The floor was strewn with boxes of books; on the sofa, beside the sleeping cat, lay piles of letters and notebooks. He sang as he leafed through a bundle of papers and ran out into the garden, carrying it in his arms. Through the window I saw him throw the bundle onto the fire and stand over it until it caught light.

I sat down on the window ledge and waited. Fred stood by the sofa and looked at the letters lying there, sorted by year and tied up with red string; then he swept them all together and carried them to the fire. His body seemed to undulate in the heat; it looked as if he was dancing around the brazier as he studded it with sheaves of letters. Flakes of ash rose in a column above the gardens. "Not those," I begged as he opened a cupboard and pulled out his photograph albums, but he sped along the hall as if taking a run-up and hurled them into the brazier, which almost tipped over with the sudden weight: twenty years of his life, of mine, of the city I call Splendorville although that is not its real name. The load almost smothered the blaze, but only for an instant before it flared up again, its oily white smoke veiling him. He was still outside as a second shower of raindrops the size of eggs began to fall, hissing against the red-hot brazier.

When he came in, he stood with his back to me, drinking water from the carafe. "Have you finished now?" I asked him, and surveyed the room that I no longer recognised, because everything that had made it different from other rooms had gone: the books, the pictures, the framed photographs from the Khar camp; the tapestry of the prince killing a lion, which used to hang above the sofa. Only the gramophone records remained, on a stool, a surprisingly small pile considering all the hours of music, swelling but increasingly scratchy voices in an evermore ghostly echo of performances he had seen in his youth, all that was left after half a lifetime in the colonies. He set down the carafe and looked at them. "Do you think they would burn?" he asked, putting one back in its sleeve after dusting it off with a handkerchief, from force of habit.

"Undoubtedly. But why?"

"They're worn out. I shall buy new ones."

Suddenly his elation was gone; he was simply tired and dirty as he stood with the record in his hand, unable to make up his mind. A sooty trickle of sweat ran down his nose and disappeared into the deep lines round his mouth. That body which could move so lightly when he was happy was as heavy as armour now; he lacked the energy to direct it. His hands were firmly clamped to the record he had been about to destroy. "Listen, Fred," I said, not liking to see him that way. "Something happened today, something unpleasant. I'd like to talk to you about it."

"Later," he said. "Do you want my gramophone?"

"Why are you giving away your gramophone?"

"If you do want it, perhaps it's stupid of me to destroy the records."

From outside came the squeaking of a gate and the sound of a car emerging into the street. "Another one," muttered Fred, going over to the window. "That's the third this week." He stood looking out for a while before closing the curtains with a sudden jerk and turning round. In the gloom he was himself again, as light as if his bulky body had been stuffed with feathers. I knew how soft that body was when you got close to it.

"Do you want to come upstairs with me?" he asked quietly, looking towards the staircase. "Like in the old days."

I shook my head.

"Fine by me," he said.

Outside in the garden, the last remnants of his memories were vanishing in little puffs of smoke. A few sparse raindrops fell into the embers with a sizzling sound, and then the rain stopped. While Fred went out to throw his gramophone records into the brazier, I looked at the dark mark above the sofa where the tapestry used to hang, the prince out hunting lions a hundred or five hundred years ago; it didn't matter which, because the prince always stayed the same, unchanging in his sky blue costume with his sword still in its scabbard, for a prince needs nothing but his hands to kill a lion. I'd seen the hunt so many times I didn't need to see it any more, and I'd seen the Khar camp so many times I didn't need to see that either, or the photographs Fred had taken the first time I let him come with me. That was ten years ago, or fifteen, I couldn't remember. Everything had stayed the same for so long I hadn't needed to keep track of time, and that way I'd somehow remained outside it, in a state of unchangeability where one hundred years and five hundred years amount to the same thing. I'd liked being there with Fred, the two of us, in a place where time couldn't reach us. I hadn't had to change.

I want to be myself until I die, I thought, as Fred pulled open a drawer at the far end of the room and tucked his pistol inside, wrapped in a piece of cloth.

"What have you done with the tapestry?" I asked.

"Given it away," he said, betraying me by looking round the emptied room as if pleased with the change. I didn't understand why; I didn't know where he was heading. And I didn't want there to be such a thing as time passing so we became different, so I could no longer call for him, nor he for me.

"Do you miss the old times?" I asked him, thinking of the little room upstairs, the lamp that had burnt all night behind a screen. I hated myself for asking and he, as if sensing the fact, let the words pass.

"Come on," he said. "There's something I want to show you."