“FIRST PAGES OF TALES OF THE WEIRD”
I had my shower and I took a good look at myself in the bathroom mirror. At first, I didn’t see anything particularly eye-catching. Just like every morning, I paid no attention to my, well, pathetic appearance. Then, for some reason, I looked again, but this time more carefully: my hair was thinning, my belly was overhanging my belt, my skin was losing its sheen, my eyes were lifeless, wrinkles lined my face, and all of this really pissed me off. And then it hit me: I was forty-two years old and had done nothing but fritter away the best years of my life in vain.
There I was just standing there in the bathroom; I could hear my wife yelling at me from the living room. She was reminding me of what I had forgotten to buy on my way home yesterday evening: meat, milk, cheese, stuff for salad and a whole load of other bleeding crap... Now I came to think about it, I’d forgotten all sorts over years, like doing a fun sport; making time for hobbies; having sex with a woman out of nothing but lust - but, hey, forget about having sex, just a bit flirting would’ve been nice: you know, a romantic meal in some posh restaurant, getting off my face, getting down and dirty; biking with my mates; going to the movies or a concert; dancing like there’s no tomorrow... Then I gave up thinking about it and trying to list them off because I really had forgotten about them all; I’d wanted to forget about them all. You can’t turn the clock back though, can you? Is it really life, all those years that just chew you up and spit you out?…
My daughter had been pretty much the only source of happiness in my life until she finished primary school, but now she’d just turned twelve. And she’d turned into a whining, spoilt little brat who got on my nerves just like her mother did. It’s got to the point where they actually enjoy ganging up on me to throw a spanner into everything I do. They always wanted something or other from me, and, whatever I do, it’s never good enough. We were a middle-class, comfortably-off family; we couldn’t afford to lead the life of luxury that the rich business men we knew could. And whose fault do you think that was? Mine!… I was why my wife and daughter couldn’t have what they wanted; I was why they couldn’t go wherever they wanted…
I was the finance director for a big company. We produced tyres for the automotive industry. I’d been working there for thirteen years. Luckily, I spoke two foreign languages. That meant I’d been able to rise from being just a normal accounts clerk to managerial level. If it hadn’t have been for them, by now, I’d be, ooh let me see, head of the accounts department and only making half of what I’m on now. Maybe then the wife would’ve already left me, and I could’ve been so much happier...
I was in the bedroom getting dressed, and the wife was nagging me to hurry up and get myself ready: I was supposed to be helping my daughter with her homework. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were coming, and she was in the kitchen, getting dinner ready. Forget how much it cost for her to throw all these fancy dinner parties, most of my hard earned cash went on my daughter’s school fees. My God, we were paying a small fortune. In this country, when you’ve got an eleven year-old who’s about to leave primary school, it’s hell… Oh, of course, every kid from our social class had to go to some fancy private school. There were no more free secondary schools and grammar schools like there was in my day. Even if there still was, our wives had conveniently forgotten they existed. Once, I stupidly said, “Let’s raise the child naturally; she can go to a normal secondary school; then she can go to music school: I mean, she’s a girl, she can get involved with art.”
Well, that made the shit hit the fan, didn’t it? My wife declared a cold war on me and wouldn’t talk to me for three days.
If you want to get your kid into one of the well-known private primaries, first, you’ve got to enter the draw for that school’s nursery, then, you’ve got to bicker among yourselves ‘to give your child the future she deserves’, then, if your little darling is actually selected, you’ve got to shell out ten grand a year. And why do you fork out all of this? So your kid can catch some different bug every couple of days from the other kids, get sick and, hey presto, strengthen their immune system. The ten grand you pay for nursery school goes up to fifteen when they go to primary school. Every last penny went on lessons, courses and private teachers, and, on top of that, we were helping her with her homework every evening.
There’s an old saying: ‘Look at the mother to marry the daughter,’ but actually that’s wrong; the original goes like this: ‘Look at the mother, and don’t marry the daughter.’ As she grows up, she’s becoming more like her mother every day. She doesn’t like me or my ideas, just like her mother. For them, I was just some kind of walking cash machine, and the cash I gave them was never enough. I never had any time to myself at the weekend or of an evening. All my free time was swallowed up by DIY, being a chauffeur or babysitter on days out, shopping, fixing the car, paying off the bank loan, and the child’s lessons.
I’d be trying to explain Pythagoras’ theorem to the girl, and problems at work would keep popping into my mind. This year, I was fighting a war on two fronts: home and abroad. Ongoing conflicts with colleagues above and below me are making my life a misery. The assistant CFO has recently started to see me as a threat, and, because of his childish paranoia, has started to persecute me whenever he gets the chance. So I had to keep a close eye on him as well as on a few twats from my own department.
At the same time, the company was having difficulty paying back all its loans. We kept squabbling with the banks, but we had to find some new short-term loans from somewhere. I couldn’t get anyone to stick to the budget goals I’d set. And the cost of our investments, for various reasons that I won’t go into here, had exceeded the programme we’d drawn up, and, at the same time, sales were lower than expected.
Frankly, everything was so bad and so depressing.
Was it really worth it, putting in so much effort just to live this shit life of mine? I asked myself this question again and again. You can only put up with the pain if you think it’s going to get you somewhere. And here was me, fighting just to stay afloat. My whole future was mortgaged: the house was bought on credit, the car was bought on credit, the new fridge was bought on credit, the washing machine was bought on credit, the stereo was bought on credit, even the mountain trip we went on during the winter half-term had been bought on credit for God’s sake!…
Sure, I was getting good money as a glorified clerk, but life was expensive. As an honest financier, I was like a tailor who couldn’t re-stitch the seams he’d unpicked. All those things I could do for the company with one arm tied behind my back: all the financial wizardry, the cheap loans, the well-chosen and perfectly timed investments, the budgets measured down to the millimetre and the cash flow tables; I just couldn’t pull off for myself. I was just one of those saps who know how to make the boss rich.
I’d known I had to change something for the last two years, but not being able to do anything at all had given my confidence a bad knock. But there was one area where I thought I was successful: planning... If I really wanted to reset my life to zero, that’s where I’d have to start from. So one hot July evening, while I was still at the company, I got into making detailed preparations for the period of activity that would the beginning of the rest of my life.
Actually, I was really depressed, and taking my own life was one of my options. But I chose the other one. The more I thought about it, the more I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But, then again, maybe it was just the light of a train speeding towards me… While everyone at home and at work was in the holiday mood, just killing time here and there, I spent every free moment I had thinking and planning. It took me two weeks to flesh out all the details, and when I’d finished, I put it into action immediately. I couldn’t afford to lose a single hour now. My grandma used to say, ‘Well begun is half done,’ but I kept hesitating until I’d taken that first step. After that though, I soon got over the butterflies of the first few days: the fear that made my hands shake uncontrollably, worrying about what people would say; my kid’s got nothing to eat, my wife walks the street…
After brains, the next thing you’ve got to have for this sort of thing is money, and lots of it. If you’re serious about robbery, you can’t just set up a company, accumulate capital and then float it on the stock market, you know. It’s not like the good old days: in today’s world, even if you want to rob a bank, you’ve got to have capital... But anyway, I’d worked out how to get round that one, too: I’d been keeping tabs on the company’s most active foreign bank accounts. Almost all the company’s exports to England routed through the one Sterling account, held in a London branch. Its annual transaction volume was eighteen million pounds. We’d actually opened this Sterling credit account to regulate export revenues. Our customers’ payment periods on export fees for cash on delivery were irregular. Based on the currency exchange regulations, we were had to bring this foreign currency to the country within ninety days. And on top of that, they paid the exporter additional bonuses on contracts closed within thirty days. That’s why we chose this sort of method.
It’s simple: we’d write an order to the bank in London twenty-five days after shipping to ensure an amount up to the value of the goods was transferred from the credit account to the account of the local bank we worked with as a payment on export goods. Our foreign customers made payments into the same account. That’s how we settled our debts. The system had been working like this for two and a half years. And this foreign currency account was the first step in my plan to swipe the money in the easiest and surest way I knew how... At first, I’d been wracking my brains and slogging my guts out over it. When the time came, I was going to finish the job.
The second king pin of my project was to escape from my wife. If you leave your wife, you leave your children anyway: two birds, one stone. At this crucial stage of the plan, I was going to have to act out the rôle I’d written for myself, and act it out well. The only thing was I had pretty much no acting skills. So I’d got into the habit of rehearsing what I was going to say to her in front of the mirror every day, and, you know what, my acting got better and better. After a while, I’d memorised all my lines and rewritten the ones that seemed fake.
After leaving the wife, I’d have to leave the country. I’d got the timing down for my border escape points. Even the Birdman of Alcatraz hadn’t prepared his escape plan so well. After I’d got the timing sorted, I got to work on the second part of the plan. But this part was looking like a real spider’s web...
My worst fears never happened. I managed to get divorced much more easily than I’d been expecting. I told her that, for reasons I couldn’t go into, I’d have to leave my job in a month, and sell the house to pay off all our debts. I told her how much I loved and that I knew she wouldn’t leave me now when I needed her most. Even though I was no Lawrence Olivier, I still put on a fantastic show that night... There were even tears in my eyes. She was touched by what I’d told her and she was very understanding and affectionate about the whole thing. And when we were having sex for what must’ve been the first time in months, she kept probing me for details about my problems at work and my debts. It was just like it was when we were on our honeymoon: she was screaming in bed, doing her porn star impression and everything…
Two days later, I sold the car.
When I asked her to borrow some money from her mother, and give it to me to pay off our own debts, she started to see things a bit differently, though. Now, I started tightening the screws shamelessly; I was calling pretty much on the hour, begging her to find me some money from somewhere, anywhere.
In the end, the inevitable happened; after ten days, she called me at work and told me she was leaving me. In spite of my heroic resistance, we got divorced in a single hearing. I’d made her feel so sorry for me she didn’t want anything from the family home. I could even have got maintenance from her if I’d wanted to force the issue. In the space of one day, I’d packed all my belongings into two suitcases and moved into a studio flat in a trendy suburb.
Then I went onto the financial phase, all the while keeping my divorce secret from everyone at work. At that time the management was all at each other’s throats with company problems, and career conflicts had come to a head: the witches’ cauldron was bubbling. In the middle of all this chaos, I managed to open myself a personal account in the same branch of the bank we used for our export loans, without letting on to a soul. No one even bothered to ask me why. And then, just to make sure the money’d be transferred from the company account to mine, I sent instructions to the tune of almost five hundred and eighty thousand pounds. Before I sent the coded message, I drew up all the documents myself, and got them approved and signed off by the directors and the general manager. I changed the numbers so they matched my personal account by tampering with the bottom part of the signed orders.
And twelve days later I was filthy rich, and it had all been so easy. I reckoned it would take at least three weeks for the company to notice they’d been the victims of an audacious robbery. I’d executed the final bank instructions on the Friday afternoon and called the bank’s customer rep in London, so they wouldn’t get suspicious and call up the company when a large sum of money was transferred to a personal account. It was already August. I’d going on my annual leave after the company’s weekly evaluation meeting. All my stuff was ready and waiting by the front door of the house. Now, I’d reached the third and final stage of the plan: I covered all my tracks, hopped into a taxi, and went to the airport. My visa and passport were still in my own name. Once I’d got through passport control and customs, and onto the plane, I felt a bit more relaxed. I took a deep breath.
During the flight, I kept wondering if I’d forgotten something. There was no room for any mistakes. When they began to serve lunch, I realised I’d hardly eaten anything since Wednesday, but, anyway, I wasn’t feeling hungry. It was too late now to do anything about my misgivings. I opened my notebook and glanced at what was left to do. I wanted to make sure I’d done everything well, so I wouldn’t have any problems and get myself into trouble.
I thought about what I’d left behind me: maybe I’d never see the magical city of Istanbul ever again. Sure, I’d been born and bred there, and it really was a beautiful city, but for me it’d become a hell on earth. It’s not where you live, but how you live; that’s what’s important. I was leaving my mother, my brother and all my old friends behind; from now on, I had no childhood memories.
I only managed to force down a couple of mouthfuls of British Airways food. But I asked the hostess for red wine and drank three glasses, one after the other, to calm myself down. At customs and passport control in Heathrow, I was pretty nervous about being refused entry and being sent back. I was sweating like a pig and dashing off the toilet practically once every half hour.
If you decide to start a new life, you notice how many links you have with the past, and though you try not to leave any clues about where you’ve gone, you’d be surprised by how many details the little problems throw up. I wrote up another checklist and ticked everything off and was glad to see I hadn’t forgotten anything. From now on, though, I was going to need to have luck on my side.
Within a month at the very latest, I’d have to find either another country to go to, or else someone to marry with the right to live in England. If I left it too late, they’d find out I was wanted in Turkey. I’d got my English visa using genuine documents and it was valid for one month. I’d have to sort out a wedding, or else get hold of a fake passport from somewhere, before the cops find me.
From LONDON to PORT au PRINCE
By the time I get to the hotel from the airport, it’s already very late. I walk into the lobby, and it’s as if chance is smiling on me again. It seems like the first person I talk to in London has been waiting for me to walk through the door: she’s the receptionist, a pretty, young half-caste girl... I arrive there looking like a classic tourist, but she doesn’t greet me like I’m just some ordinary punter.
It’s like she sees something in my face, and it enchants her; she checks my booking and gives me the key but not normally it’s like she’s self-conscious or something. I say thank you, and she tells me her shift finishes soon, with a flirtatious glance. She points at my face and says something about knowing me from somewhere. How can I ignore a sign like this? I have her send my suitcase up to the room and invite her for a drink on the roof-bar of hotel next door. I get there before her, but in five minutes, she’s sitting there with me.
She’s beautiful and friendly, half-Haitian, half-French. She’s lived more than seven years in England, and she’s a British citizen. So intelligent, so beautiful... We spend a long time on the terrace just drinking and chatting. The more we talk, the more I see how much we have to offer each other.
Eartha Silvain… She’s the one I had to find, and luck introduces me to her at just the right time. I’ve turned the conversation into a barrage of persuasion, and when it finishes, and we’re saying good-bye, I ask her if she wants to meet up the next day. She accepts just like that.
There are a few days of just friendship, and then our fiery bedroom antics begin. She brings out the man in me. She’s known me for a grand total of four days, but she still accepts my proposal. The documents from the consulate come through in two weeks and we finally tie the knot. We rent a house just off the Portobello Road and move Eartha’s things in. She loves me so much!… I wonder if my limitless spending has anything to do with it.
While we’re in London, I’m slowly transferring a significant amount of my bank balance here to a bank in Switzerland. I reckon I’ve only got two weeks left before I’ll have to go somewhere else and become someone else.
Meanwhile, me and my new wife are having a whale of a time chasing our whims round London. I want to be able to enjoy the high life for a while. Or local is pub called Scott’s, just round the corner from our house. I tell Eartha we should have a honeymoon.
We’re sitting there talking about how fantastic it’d be to go to Haiti and how she can get the time off work, when a strangely dressed old woman comes up to us from the table behind. “Now, I’m sure I know you from somewhere, but where?” she says. Eartha tells her I’m from Istanbul, and the old woman starts speaking to me in Turkish.
I introduce Eartha to her. She sits down with us, and I get her a pint. I mention my childhood in Nishantashi just in passing and realize we lived on the same street for a time, and she knew my mother. I suddenly feel very uneasy about someone recognizing me, and I make up my mind to get away from this half-crazed, talkative old bat. I go to the toilet and have a think. I come out again and go back to the woman, who is chatting to Eartha. I tell her I’m very sorry, but we have to go. Well, the old bat gets really pissed off with this sudden frostiness, and she flies into a rage, jabbing her finger at me like she’s going to have my eye out and wagging it in my face. She starts screaming that she knows my mother and ‘the real me’. “Bloody fake!” she yells.
I tell her firmly she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But my words just wind her up even more; she hisses at me in, spraying spit in my face.
“You stole his identity and took his place!”
She’s getting more and more hysterical, and I practically have to drag Eartha by the shoulders to get us out of there. And this old woman is shrieking after us at the top of her voice...
“You’re not him! You’ve killed him, you murderer!”
And now I’ve got to explain to Eartha what the deranged old crow was saying. That night, I tell her about my childhood and Istanbul, and I don’t forget to mention ‘my mother’s senile friend’. Eartha looks like she’s convinced.
In a few days, we’ll have sorted out all the paperwork in London and then we’re off to my wife’s hometown of Port au Prince on honeymoon. I surprise even myself with my knowledge of the West Indies. It’s like I’ve been to Haiti and Cuba before. But I’m sure I’ve never read anything detailed about their history and geography.
We’re sitting on the plane, chatting; Eartha’s listening to what I have to say and thinks I’ve been to the island before but am not telling her. So I say I used to be a pirate in the Antilles; we both laugh at that one. Then she tells me her own family’s story.
Eartha’s mother was a very pretty woman from Marseilles. She came to Haiti, got ill and died at a very early age. She got to know Eartha’s father when she was on holiday in Port au Prince and fell in love with him. Eartha’s handsome, Haitian father was a mulatto who worked for the Tonton Macoutes, the secret police organization of the former dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier.
As time went on, her father got more and more worried about the political chaos in Haiti, so he left his job, and he and Eartha’s mother moved to San Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, and got married. They had Eartha and her little brother there. A few months after her brother was born, there was a new government in Haiti, so they moved back to Port au Prince. Isabelle, her mother, and her brother both got sick there and never recovered. Eartha doesn’t tell me anything about their illness; I decide not to dwell on it because it probably makes her upset to think about it.
Port-au-Prince is a real hole. There are some beautiful buildings from the colonial years, back when the island still had lots of natural resources, but now they’ve fallen into disrepair and neglect. Driving from the airport to the city, I’m taking in the surroundings and listening to Eartha at the same time. Before we go into the hotel, she says she wants to visit her family, and I say alright. She gives the driver the address, and we head over there.
Eartha’s father doesn’t live in one of the shantytowns, which make up almost eighty percent of the city; he lives in a small, second-floor flat in an old building. Our suitcases bang against the walls as we go up the rickety stairs. We ring the bell. Her father doesn’t keep us waiting, opens the door and takes our suitcases inside. He shakes my hand enthusiastically and gives Eartha a big hug. Just then, I notice a small mulatto woman with a beautiful face who must be in her mid-thirties standing behind him. I introduce myself to Eartha’s stepmother. She nods timidly and smiles, without breaking her silence.
We have a chat in the living room, surrounded by walls that haven’t had a lick of paint in years. Prosper, my father-in-law, instructs his wife to serve us drinks. I guess this tough-looking black man is around fifty-five or sixty; he’s tall with short, curly grey hair and his wide forehead is lined with deep wrinkles. He says he knows English and for years he was a driver at the American Consulate.
We talk a bit longer, but he sees we’re tired from the journey and offers to drop us off at our hotel. We take our things and go downstairs. We get into his car, and he gives us a quick tour of the city. For the second time that day, I notice I can remember the port and all the colonial buildings around it clearly; I realize I’m going to feel at home here. We’d booked an apartment in a smart area of Port au Prince with a view of the Gulf and not far from where Eartha’s father, Prosper Silvain, lives when we were still in London. It’s a studio flat. It’s got nothing decent inside, but at least the building has an interesting atmosphere. Anyway, I figure if you’re on honeymoon with a beautiful, twenty-five year old half-caste girl, you’re going to have plenty of fun wherever you are, aren’t you? In Haiti, the mulattoes, like Eartha, are a privileged class. Your full-blooded African has much darker skin, lives in poverty and speaks some weird form of French; they call ‘Haitian Creole’.
So, the next morning we rent a jeep and drive into the countryside. The road winds round mountain slopes with coffee and sugar cane plantations. Until one hundred and fifty years ago, the island was all tropical forest, but now you can only find small clumps of trees concentrated in a few areas. They’d cut down most of the trees to make way for corn, sweet potatoes and manioc, and also to get timber. The plantation workers stare at us with unfriendly, bloodshot eyes that glisten in their black faces, and it puts us on edge. It’s like the air is restless with warlike tension from all the years of colonialism.
They are the descendants of the slaves that were seized from their houses on the coasts of West Africa and brought here. But after so many generations, they still have to work themselves into the ground for their board, just like their forefathers did. Slavery’s been abolished; officially, but you’d never know it. And they still blame the whites for their suffering.
We return to the city, wander round the port for a bit and have something to eat in a restaurant near Champ de Mars Square. We spend a long time in the liveliest part of the city, the Iron Market, which used to be famous for slave traders; we have a great time. The meat we ate at the shitty little restaurant in the market has given me the runs. It’s very hot and humid. I’m starting to come out in red blotches over my face and arms, and at first I think it’s heat rash. Later, I realize it’s something that comes from inside.
I and Eartha spend the whole night having sex. We stay in bed more than eight hours, just sex, cold showers, fruit and more sex; we chat a lot too. She asks me about Istanbul and my life there, so I tell her some stories, but nothing to rock the boat, and I don’t really mention anything from the last ten years. She’s all ears.
The next morning, I glance at myself in the mirror. I’m covered from top to bottom in a rash, my skin’s got darker, and I’m sure it’s not just the light or anything; I’ve got lots more hair over my hands, arms and chest. I have to double-take. Even the look on my face has changed, for God’s sake. Now I’ve got an insolent, ruthless glint in my eyes. I’ve got no idea how it happened, but I do I feel better like this, so I don’t bother thinking too much about it.
On our second day, we go to a beautiful beach to the south-west of the island. There are tobacco fields and a cigar factory. We finally come out of the sea, and take a tour of the factory. We buy some cigars and cigarillos in different sizes for Prosper and Eartha’s other relatives. The labels of the high-quality, wooden cigar boxes are really beautiful. I don’t smoke, but still I buy myself a large box of cigars, cut one and light up. Eartha’s amazed I don’t even cough once like someone who’s been smoking for forty years. She thinks I’m an ex-smoker. I just laughing and tell her I’ve never smoked before, but I liked the cigar, and I’ll keep on puffing.
It’s like the way I laugh and my behavior don’t belong to me. I don’t walk anymore so much as swagger, like I’m showing my inner strength. My self-confidence’s never been higher: I really believe I can do everything and win every battle. I put my arm round, and we go for a stroll along the beach. We sit in a café on the shore when we get tired.
By our second evening on the island, Eartha’s noticed how I’ve changed, too. We think my skin’s got darker and spotty because I’m not used to the tropical sun. But we’ve no explanation for the other things, like my lips swelling, my eyes getting darker and my body hair sprouting more thickly and darkly. Back at the hotel, Eartha takes my photo and compares how I look in it to how I look in the London photos. I tell her she’s turned me into someone else with her black magic, and we burst out laughing.
On the third day of our honeymoon, Eartha’s great aunt, the sister of Prosper’s late father, dies. Eartha hadn’t seen her in years; she says she was an old woman pushing ninety. The people closest to her stay in her house, and the funeral will be that evening, we’ve been invited. It’s in Genove, to the northwest of the city, where there’s a ‘secret forest’ with an abandoned temple.
We go off to the fetish market in the harbor in the late afternoon to buy the strange clothes we’ll have to wear for the funeral: lizard-skin necklaces and bizarre objects I don’t understand decorated with dried plants. On the way there, Eartha explains the customs, rituals and daily life in Haiti. She cheerfully gives me lots of historical information.
She says they call the voodoo kings bokonoses; they’re like abbots, and they organize and lead the ceremonies. The bokonoses are the real leaders of the country, and the people respect them even more than the president. They say only local people can make sense of the mysterious black magic they use at their secret gatherings, black magic the people have believed in and used for centuries. We jump into one of the pick-ups and go back to the hotel. They’ve got two rows of seats at the back, and they’re a bit like our dolmush minibuses.
After dinner, we go round to Prosper’s place to talk about the funeral. We have a cup of coffee and set off together for the temple for the ceremony. That evening, Prosper introduces me Mattias, who’s the abbot who’ll be officiating at the funeral service. He’s one of Prosper’s closest friends. He’s barefoot and wears a snow-white habit that goes down to his ankles. He’s sitting in front the temple door, making medicine from plants. Eartha whispers that he’s a great wise man with supernatural powers.
There is a picture of the goddess Mamiwater hanging on the stone wall behind the table. She looks like a mermaid rising out of the water, and she’s holding a python that’s a bridge between the sky, the sea and the earth. I take a quick look inside the temple. Vodouisants with white paint on their faces are getting ready for the ceremony. There are animal skulls and wooden dolls around the altar.
Mattias is very old, but you notice so much energy in his eyes and body. Prosper introduces me to him, and he shakes my hand with smile on his face. ‘I already know who you are, my child,’ he says. Well, that does surprise me! He’s got this strange light in his eyes, and when he looks at me, it’s like I’m under his spell.
‘Welcome back among us…’
He touches my temple with the middle finger of his left hand and I feel like I have come back… And then I notice my body’s changing more quickly now. It’s like his finger tip’s somehow attracting other cells that’d been buried somewhere in my memory. And now I can’t even remember who I really am. Now I’m a stressed-out financial clerk. God, I do miss my ex-wife and my little girl… How are they coping without me? And Istanbul? How are things back there? I feel too weak: I can’t do anything about anything.
Then, I’m asleep. I wake up and I’m someone else. The first thing I see when I open my eyes is Mattias watching me. I’m someone else… different, stronger. Have I been dreaming? Is this really happening to me? There’s a nineteenth-century voyager and adventurer inside me. He’s full of evil; he’s terrifying and fearless; he does whatever he wants. A violent pervert who’s sailed the seven seas, which’s been to the four corners of the earth, who takes advantage of anything and everything.
Yes, I’m someone else…
Mattias tells me to come with him and takes me to a group of drummers. He introduces me to Aristide, the head-drummer.
“Once, you were a good drummer,” he whispers to my ear. “Tonight, you’ll be playing with Aristide and these guys.”
He hands me over to them and goes. While he’s walking back to the temple, he turns round, and our eyes meet. He’s got a strange smile on his face.
Aristide puts me in front of a tumba. And I really do know how to play it. There’s a brass ensemble in the group next to us, but the most impressive group of instruments is a kind of vibraphone. It’s made up of empty oil barrels. They’ve hammered their surfaces into tuned, concave rings, and you play it with round-headed, wooden drumsticks. There are people here who can play these instruments like a piano virtuoso.
We tune up and have a sound check, after that we sort out our costumes and where we’re going to sit. Then Mattias asks for silence. The disciples are all sitting on long, wooden benches, which form a large rectangular area round the orchestra. Mattias gives a speech about the dead aunt, but it’s difficult for me to understand his French. Then he prays for her and makes another speech to explain that she’s not really dead, but that her spirit’s still with us. Everyone prays and that’s it: a Haitian funeral. But now it’s time for another ceremony, something much deeper and darker...
The kettledrums open the night with an impressive version of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Then, the wind instruments and drums join in. Time flies; the night gets darker; the bottom of the well gets deeper. Now, we’re feverishly dancing. The hypnotic beat of the drums fills the whole temple. They’re handing round kola nuts for the musicians and dancers to chew on. They taste a bit like raw potato and dye your teeth orange, but, apart from that, they and make it easier for you to go into a trance.
And there’s this really stunning woman. She’s wrapped herself in shiny, red cloth; she’s got her hair veiled and her face painted white. The rhythm of the music gets faster and faster and the dancers’ eyes roll back in their sockets, and they fling their heads back. In the end, the woman in red goes into a trance; she arches her back like a bow; she’s dripping with sweat; she’s spinning round and round.
I’ve been playing for quite a while now and it’s like I’m lost in some black whirlpool. Eartha’s standing under a willow tree watching the ceremony, and she looks like an idol someone might have put there. And I’m just taking everything as it comes. I’ve been chewing the kola nuts that are being handed round, but there are also those leaves: they’re only for the drummers and they make your tongue numb. I’m sweating like a pig and trying to quench my thirst with Port au Prince Rum. But, of course, it doesn’t really help, and I just get pissed instead and drift off into my own little world.
There’s a mud pool which must be about two feet deep and twenty-five wide in the middle of the secret forest, between the trees. All the dancers begin to dance together in the mud. The women who are possessed by different spirits are shouting and screaming as the spirits speak through them and that woman in red goes absolutely crazy and starts tearing her clothes to bits. We’re like drunken pigs, all wallowing together in the smelly mud pit.
I’m completely off my face by this time. I’m dancing like there’s electricity flowing through my body. The drummer keep making the rhythm more and more intense, and now it’s so fast I can’t understand it. They’ve strung up live roosters upside down from clothes lines, and they’re sacrificing them by ripping off their heads and then smearing their blood on our faces.
After a while, I dance my way closer to them. I’m covered in mud from head to toe. I’m holding one of the cockerels by the head, and I tear it off with my teeth. Blood splatters all over my face and hair and its salty taste fills my mouth. There’s a well adjoining one of the temple walls a bit further along; a disciple’s standing there with a thick rubber hosepipe, and it’s his job to hose you down if you’re all muddy or sweaty. I go up to him and get him to squirt water over my clothes.
I’m out of breath and knackered, so I have a rest in a corner. But when I come out and go back to the where I left Eartha, I can’t find her or Prosper. I want to ask Mattias where they are, but then notice the temple door’s been locked. I can hear the vodouisants’ blood-curdling screams coming from inside.
I haven’t got a clue what’s happened to Eartha and her dad. And it doesn’t look like the clouds in my head are going to be going anywhere soon; all in all, I’m in such a strange mood I’ve got no idea about anything that’s happening around me. I’m giving myself over to the instincts of the dark man inside me. I leave with the ceremony still in full swing and jump into an old jeep I find nearby with its keys left in the ignition. First, I go to the hotel and then to Prosper’s house, but there’s no sign of life there. After that, I go down to the harbor and wander around the dark streets looking for Eartha.
I walk into a sailors’ bar near the harbor. It’s dark, damp and full of lowlife pissheads. It stinks, and I can’t see a thing for the smoke. I ask the barman if he knows where they might be. Some old drunk who’s sitting immediately to the left of the door strikes up conversation. He says he guesses I must be Prosper’s son-in-law.
He’s completely smashed and must be somewhere in his sixties. He keeps muttering things like, ‘we’re all cursed and we’re gonna die.’ I tell him I lost my wife and father-in-law during the ceremony and now I’m looking for them; I ask if he can help me. He screws his face up and says some more strange things like, ‘Ah, Prosper and his wife only go to Mattias’ place for official business. They’ll have gone on to Adelante’s temple from there; they’re really his disciples, know what I mean.’ I say I can’t make neither head nor tail of what he’s been talking about. I ask him who this Adelante is. He looks surprised I don’t know, and says in a muffled voice, ‘His disciples are the ones who are ill… The ones who’ve got the curse inside them go to him to try and find a cure.’
The more he talks, the less I can understand what he’s going on about.
“What’s this curse, exactly? How can I find them? Can you tell me?…”
But he doesn’t answer the questions I fire at him; he just nudges the bloke sitting next to him and says something I can‘t understand. They burst out laughing. I order each of them a stiff drink: I want to keep them talking a bit longer. The old drunk downs his drink in one and says, “Ah, there are all kinds of fucking down in Adelante’s secret forest.” He starts to laugh again. “Prosper and his wife just loves it there…”
He’s completely lost the plot by now, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to tell me anything else. I ask him again where Adelante’s temple is, but he cottons on to me trying to get him to talk and won’t say anything else.
Now, by this time I’m well pissed off, so I try using force. But when I see everyone there coming towards me, I change my mind. I try to calm them all down, and I have to pay the barman double. I leave and can hear them muttering angrily, and now I’m back on the dark streets, just wandering around aimlessly.
One of the prostitutes on the corner says she’ll do anything for twenty dollars. At first, I just laugh and keep going, but then I feel this strange urge and turn round and go back to her. She looks like that woman in red from the ceremony, and she’s got great legs and tits.
She takes the twenty in advance, and leads me to a rundown old shack. I fuck her like an animal, roaring and screaming… We both get all sweaty. I offer her another twenty: I want to get rough and do her up the arse. She agrees to forty. I grab her hands and use the sash holding my trousers up to tie them behind her back; I get a good clump of her hair in my left hand and yank her head right back. I press down on her body. Her hips spread out under me like a big tray. I’m really worked up by now, and I start ripping into that arse of hers with my teeth; my nails leave deep scratch marks on the inside of her thighs. I go into her dry as a bone, chafing and tearing her delicate skin. She won’t stop screaming; the noise really grates, but at the same time it turns me on even more. I let go of her hair and shove my hand into her mouth to shut her up. She tries to bite at my fingers, but I don’t let her. In frenzied spasms, I come inside her, like a dog.
I bung her another twenty to shut her up –she’s crying and swearing at me now– and then I undo her hands. I get dressed hastily and dash off into the street.
I keep on looking for Eartha among the gambling dens and bars in the narrow streets of the shantytown. These places so awful… I can’t physically stay inside any of them; the cigar smoke’s too much for me, and they all stink of sweat and piss.
In the end, I go back to Prosper’s house; the lights are still out; no one’s home. I’ve got nowhere else to go, so I go back to the secret forest. The wild-looking guards at the entrance say the ceremony’s over and there’s no one left inside the temple. I tell them I want to have a look anyway, and the guard in front just shakes his head and points his bayonet at my stomach. I ask them if they’ve seen Eartha and Prosper; I see from their gestures they haven’t. Then, I say I’m looking for Adelante’s place. The guards go ballistic, and I have to get away from them and quick, but without turning my back on them.
I go round the streets of Port au Prince one last time; it’s like I know them off by heart. The garden of the old church in the square and the station building in the harbor catch my eye, and suddenly it all comes flooding back: my new appearance, my new face and my new hairy body… they’re not mine at all; they all belong to someone else…
Yes, I was here before, a hundred and twenty years ago...