Ray Johnstone is an Australian writer and artist. For the last sixteen years he has lived and worked in an 800 year old house in a small medieval village in rural France.
He writes dark, quirky fiction and makes sure that the reader is entertained up to the last full stop. But his work is not for the faint hearted.
By Ray Johnstone
In bad faith, it is from myself that I am hiding the truth.
Jean-Paul SARTRE (1905-1980).
Paul and the boy both heard the vehicle drive into the courtyard. A car door slammed but the engine was kept running. Paul looked at his face in the mirror and went on shaving. He was expecting a visit, but he showed no sign of fear or the pangs of pain he felt gnawing at his bowels.
The boy put down the old enamel jug of water he was holding and went to the window. He looked out and then quickly stepped away from the opening.
‘Well, who is it?’ asked Paul, trying to sound more casual than he felt.
‘It is a jeep, Father. It’s the army. There are three soldiers. One is at the front door. He is speaking to Father Xavier. We must be careful, Father. They might have been drinking, and they do not drink wine with song, Father.’
‘Don’t worry, my boy. We have nothing to fear. It’s probably a routine visit. Perhaps Father Xavier will give them something and send them on their way. Now, more hot water please. I must finish my face.’
There was a soft knock at the door. And a brief conversation in dialect. Paul did not understand what was being said. But he understood the wide-eyed look on the boy’s face. He turned to Paul and said, ‘I will pack some things for you. You must go with them.’
In the courtyard, Paul tried to insist on traveling in the seat next to the driver, but a young soldier slapped him across the face with an open hand and pointed to the rear of the jeep. Paul felt the blood in his mouth, but he turned the other cheek and climbed into the back of the vehicle. He sat on the floor. Two soldiers got in with him. One of them drew his finger across his throat and laughed. Paul did not think it was funny.
Four years earlier, Paul was told to meet a man in a black suit at the international airport. As soon as possible, they’d said.
Some request. All but impossible he thought as he went into the congested international terminal. But the man found him easily. No trouble at all, it seemed. Seek and ye shall find, he remembered, was one of his mother’s favourites.
The man was in a hurry, it seemed. He immediately asked for Paul’s passport. He put it in his briefcase and handed Paul a new one.
‘It’s completely legal and legitimate. Which means it’ll take a little longer to work out where you’ve been, etcetera. Not a huge advantage, but one never knows. Don’t forget though, if they really want to find out about you, they will. On the other hand, sometimes they don’t check.’ The man stopped. He reflected on what he was about to say. ‘But you must be very careful. It’s always best to play it safe. Eternal vigilance and all that. Not everyone is on our side. In fact some people will be vehemently pitched against you. And where you’re going they may even try to kill you.’
Paul paged through the document. Where they got the photo from he had no idea. But it looked fairly recent.
‘Now listen carefully, because this is very important.’ The man handed Paul a brown envelope sealed with tape. ‘Don’t open it now. Only when you get to the queue at immigration. You’ll be in for a long wait. There will be only one official on duty. So, just as you get to the counter, take all the dollars out and put them inside your passport.’
They shook hands. The man said, ‘Ite in pace.’
Paul was surprised. He had not been addressed in Latin for a long, long time. ‘And may you too have a long life,’ he replied.
The man in black was soon lost in the crowded concourse. Paul was on his own again.
On a hot day in the rainy season, but with no sign of rain, the small aircraft circled Bangala’s airport. Paul gripped the armrests of his metal seat and, with white knuckles, looked down at the ribbon of runway. First sight of of his new posting. In the far distance he could just make out a large open pit mining operation. On the horizon, a ring of blue mountains reached out of the jungle marking the frontier. Despite their closeness to the equator, some of the higher peaks were white with snow.
A slight change of course brought the capital’s handful of skyscrapers into view and Paul caught sight of the notorious haze of smoke that rose above the city whatever the season.
The pilot’s approach was complicated because of the proximity of a series of rocky outcrops. Years ago questions were asked about the airport’s location. Mist and smog were common, it was pointed out, and wasn’t it too close to the mountains? But no answers were forthcoming. Construction inevitably went on to completion, but well behind time and millions over budget.
As they descended several military vehicles floated into view. Then the aircraft banked suddenly as it overshot the pockmarked landing strip. Father Paul instinctively clutched at his favourite silver rosary in his pocket. He looked down again and saw that many bomb craters still lined the edges of the black apron. Ten years after the end of the civil war they had still not been repaired.
The pilot had told Paul his conditions. He wanted full payment in advance. He said Paul must disembark immediately on landing. ‘There’s no air traffic control, so they won’t be expecting us until they hear the engine. But I’m not hanging around. I drop you—and take off straight away. One never knows in Bangala.’
When the plane stopped, the pilot left the engine running. He lowered a flimsy ladder onto the runway. As Paul touched the concrete, the metal frame disappeared back into the fuselage. He handed down Paul’s backpack. The door slammed and the aircraft did a U-turn. It stopped for a moment before accelerating down the concrete towards take off. It was soon a spec disappearing into the heat haze. Then it was gone, and Paul was alone in his new country.
It turned out to be exactly as the man had said. It was a long wait. Crowds of people sweating in the corrugated iron customs and immigration shed built onto one side of a concrete mass that was Bangala’s airport.
There was only one man at the arrivals desk and it took a long time to get to him. He looked bored—even when he took the money out of Paul’s passport. ‘OK, pass through.’
‘No stamp?’ asked Paul. ‘No entry visa to say how long I can stay?’
‘Go! Nothing more to do.’
Paul went through into the filthy concourse. Overflowing rubbish bins. A trash strewn floor. No signs to say what to do or where to go. And soldiers with guns everywhere.
He was met by a young man in a white robe with tribal scars on his face, and perfect white teeth that positively beamed when he smiled. But he was not smiling now.
‘Father Paul?’ he asked and then introduced himself as Simon. ‘We must hurry. This is a bad place. There are many soldiers. Please come with me, and don’t look at or speak to anyone. Let us be like the prudent man who foresees evil and hides himself when the simple pass on and are punished.’
As they neared a splintered glass door, they passed a group of armed men in uniform, several of who were sitting on their haunches smoking and drinking. One of them called out. Simon ignored the shout, and taking Paul by the elbow, led him towards the exit. But the sound of a bolt assembly being pulled back and a round being loaded into the firing chamber made Simon stop and look at the group of ragged men surrounded by empty plastic beer cartons. One of them got up and sauntered towards Simon and Paul. He spoke to Simon who answered in a language Paul didn’t understand. Suddenly the man raised his rifle and hit Simon in the chest with the butt. Simon collapsed and lay on the floor. Paul stepped forward and grabbed at the gun. This infuriated the man turned on Paul shouting for his comrades to help.
A man with facial scars appeared. He was in uniform, holding a short swagger stick. He hit the soldier across the face. They all obviously knew who he was, because they immediately backed off. The man he’d struck was fingering the bright pink weals on his ebony cheeks.
Paul helped Simon to his feet.
‘Very pleased to see you,’ Paul said, attempting to make light of a difficult situation. ‘Thank you very much for interceding.’
The officer stared at them. ‘Why don’t you just get out of here before you both get hurt?’ Then he walked off, glaring at the young soldiers and gesticulating at them with the cane he’d just used with such effect. And with such authority.
Beneath the surface the mission station and school had changed little since its founding in the colonial days. Old fashioned or politically incorrect concepts and words like native, or assimilation and tribal development were no longer used, but that was about it.
Most of the country’s nationalists had come to the view that the missionaries had taken their land in exchange for a book—a concept that had been used more and more as the independence movement took hold. Before the majority of settlers had left. But, perhaps because they were too busy eking a living out of the soil, the locals living near to the mission remained loyal to a way of life that some politicians had branded an old fashioned faith in imperialism.
Paul applied himself to his new environment from the day he arrived, and he took to his new teaching situation like a duck to water. Always willing to help his peers—and of course the pupils.
Paul was a very good teacher. He had a natural rapport with young people, in this case boys, because there were no girls at the school. He knew his subjects well, spoke fluent French and Spanish and had studied European and colonial history. He went to great lengths to ensure that the mission school boys liked his lessons.
One boy, Naftali, the son of a minor tribal elder, caught his eye. He was a bright kid. Very bright. He spoke good English with hardly a trace of an accent, and he was handsome, self confident and amusing. He could be the class jester whenever he wanted to. He asked probing questions in class and was never slow to spark a debate on testy matters. Paul liked him a lot.
‘How can it be that our Bangala dedication to animism is not considered in the same league as European religions,’ asked Naftali. ‘Despite the fact that it’s been looked at from all angles and upside down by anthropologists for generations. Experts with their own religious leanings, which we see as prejudiced, declare it to be pagan. And give it disparaging labels likeanimism or totemism. At best it’s considered a cult – at worst it’s dismissed as primitive native mumbo jumbo. But it’s just as removed from scientific reality as anyone believing in walking on water or living in the sky when you’re dead.’
Paul realized he was on difficult ground on many occasions. But he tried. And he kept trying. In the end, he found this uphill battle to be gratifying and stimulating despite the deep-seated doubt and anxiety it sometimes provoked. He’d not thought about religion so much since he’d taken orders.
Sometimes the questions were even more difficult. Especially one that one occasion when Naftali brought the house down. Paul was never able to work out if the boy was being deliberately provocative or simply playing the clown.
‘Forgive me for being intrusive, Father Paul, but how can the Church prognosticate on the matters that, in theory anyway, none of it’s adherents should know anything about. For example, Father, why are we taught that something we all do, and which is so much fun, is considered to be so bad? Why is such a simple pleasure condemned as a mortal sin?’
Paul smiled bleakly, trying to formulate an answer.
But Naftali got in first with another question. It was like a runaway train, and, although Paul saw it coming, there was no way it was going to be stopped. Naftali saw to that.
‘So what we’d all like to know Father Paul, is how often do you yourself masturbate?’
It was obvious from the start that Naftali was extremely precocious. He was good at all subjects, and his mind was quick, alert and receptive. He grasped new ideas and he was open to new concepts. So of course the time came when it was obvious that Naftali would benefit from extra instruction.
Paul wrestled with the situation for a long time before making up his mind. But how to couch it? How to make the offer?
Finally he decided.
‘Naftali, you’re a very bright boy. Here’s a key to the front door of the building. Feel free to use it any time at all. I am always available if you feel the need to talk. Face to face. On any subject you might wish to discuss.’ After all Paul told himself, this was solely in the spirit of developing a young mind.
So that’s how it started.Those regular visits from Naftali. Sometimes at night. And sometimes quite late.
They came to get him well after dark. A group of men in shabby clothes with sullen faces. He recognized most of them. Two uncles and four cousins. They all carried pangas. Several had been drinking. He recognized them despite the slurred speech and bloodshot eyes. His father’s brothers did not speak to him. Some refused even to look at him. They would not meet his gaze. His father said he must go with them. His mother was crying, but made no attempt to interfere. This was mens’ business. His father told him. Naftali was to prepare for an initiation ceremony. A right of passage that all boys went through. Although he knew it was a lie, he knew the importance of being seen to obey his father. So he went with them. From the dark night they went into the darker forest. Where he knew it would be more than circumcision they had in mind.
When Paul was pushed into Major Kimani’s office, a saying his mother had used flashed into mind. Black as your hat. That’s what she would have said in those days when that kind of metaphor was tolerated. And that’s what Kimani was, but with a mind as sharp as a razor. As Paul was about to find out.
‘Stop! Leave him alone,’ he shouted at his men. And, to Paul, ’My apologies, Father. But I’m sure you’ve heard that old colonial expression, You can take an African out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the African. Well, although it’s a racial slur, I know why the original settlers thought along those lines. And my people continue to exasperate even me.
Although his mouth was badly swollen, Paul relaxed somewhat in the Major’s presence. He did not know why he’d been brought in, but he knew he’d have to be on his toes when answering any questions. But he felt reasonably confident that he’d be able to work his way out of it. Because he’d been through this before. The situation had not been quite the same. But very similar. Not in this country. Not in Africa. In Ireland, it had been. Picked up and interrogated by the Garda Siochana. And then exonerated and apologized to in a sudden change of direction. Or a change of heart. After something had changed attitudes.
Kimani spoke to the soldiers for a while in Kangala. He never raised his voice, but it was obvious he was livid with them. Then Paul heard a word that he recognized. An English word. It sent a chill down his spine. They were talking about a laptop. His laptop.
Then, obviously for Paul’s benefit, he switched to English as he bundled the soldiers out of the door. ‘Now get out. Go and do your jobs. Properly. Go and find his computer. I know you’ve got it hidden somewhere. Get it back here.’
An hour went by. They talked about all kinds of things. The politics of post colonialism. How global warming and overpopulation appeared to be the major burdens Africa would have to come to terms with in the twenty first century. The influence of various United Nations institutions and the role of NGO’s. Kimani pointed out what he saw as similarities between the Bangala tribe’s primitive religion and Paul’s. The role played by magical or supernatural powers amongst tribespeople. The parallel entrenched hierarchy of men with influence.
Paul chose not to refute any of the hypotheses proposed by Kimani.
Eventually, there was a knock at the door, and a soldier came in with Paul’s laptop. Even at that stage, he felt reasonably confident. But not for long.
Major Kimani picked up the phone, and a few minutes later a man who was not in uniform entered the office. He spoke to the Major, but took no notice of Paul.
‘This is Philemon, our very own black-faced hacker. He’s rather uncommunicative as you can see, but he’s a whiz with computers. An expert with software. Even protected software. As you will see, I believe. And very soon, I hope.’
The major spoke to Philemon in Kangala, but Paul recognized one word that caused a burning sensation to start churning in his stomach. Photos.
Philemon went to work on the laptop. Then he pointed out something to the Major. He wrote a few notes on a piece of paper, and when he’d left the room, the major started scrolling through Paul’s files. Although Paul could not see the screen, he knew what the Major was looking at. Downloaded pictures that he kept in what, until now, he thought was a safe place.
The major switched off the laptop.
He got up and walked over to Paul. He deliberately stood over him. Up close. ‘Well, now that I’ve looked at your photos, I’ll show you a few of mine.’
He handed Paul a folder. Inside were five glossy colour photos. They were all of Naftali. He was naked. Obviously dead. And covered in blood. With dozens of gaping panga wounds all over his beautiful body.
The old mission panel van stopped outside a large colonial era mansion surrounded by high walls. Some Bagambian soldiers sat outside a metal security door. Paul said hello to them in Kiswahili. He knew they understood, but they ignored him. He pressed the intercom and the gate was opened by two much paler soldiers in battle dress. They said good morning politely and he stepped over a barrier into the embassy. They saw immediately that he was in a highly distressed state.
One of them escorted Paul to the Ambassador’s office where he was received by Sir Richard Campbell and an assistant.
‘I am sorry to trouble you, Sir Richard, but I need to phone those one hundred and ten acres in Rome. And I need a secure line. Well, I know it’s not a line any more, but what I mean is your satellite phone. As per our arrangement.’
‘Certainly Father, I know the arrangement. We’re at your disposal. And we’re happy to honour our country’s agreement with yours.’ The Ambassador thought about what he’d said. ‘Well, I know it’s not really your country you’re phoning, I suppose… But, well, you know what I mean, I’m sure.’
Paul was led to an empty office. He telephoned the unlisted number. He was sweating profusely. The man who answered asked him a question. ‘Quo vadis?’
Paul searched through the dark labyrinth of his mind for the code he’d been given so long ago. Eventually he dredged up the answer. A phrase he’d once been given to commit to memory. When he’d first had dealings with these people. Paul remembered. He gave the answer that was required. ‘Ad vitam aeternam.’
He was immediately put through to a man who called himself Gregory. He had an Irish accent. He told Paul to calm down. They’d arrange something. He said not to talk to anyone about anything. Not even at the school.
After Paul had made his call, he felt much better, and he left, thanking the Ambassador profusely. ‘Everything in order?’ Sir Nigel asked. ‘Nothing we can help with? At the school I mean.’
‘Thank you Sir Nigel, that’s very kind of you, but I think I’ve got it sorted now. The person I phoned was very helpful, and he knows what to do.’
During the whole exchange, the Ambassador’s assistant had said nothing to the priest.
When Paul was gone, the Ambassador asked,‘Why so glum, Lionel? Something on your mind?’
‘No sir. Well, yes, I suppose so sir.’
‘Well, what is it? Cough up now. We’re both in this together. We have to know what each other thinks.’
‘I’m sorry sir, but it makes me sick. Why do we do it? Because this kind of thing sends the wrong message to everyone. About what we stand for. You know, white hats versus black hats. Just who’s side are we on exactly? After all, we know who he’s phoning and we know why. Two of the most corrupt governments in the world colluding with each other, and we simply stand by. I know the standard rationale is that there is a chance we can influence this one for the better. But the one he phoned… It’s a lost cause isn’t it? It’s more corrupt than corrupt.’
‘Now, now, Lionel. I can see that you’re passionate about it. And distressed perhaps. But ours not to reason why.’
‘Yes sir, and into the valley of death rode all those who thought that.’
The taxi owner-driver couldn’t believe his luck. He’d never had a fare like this before. And, although the distance was considerable, there was no problem when he asked his passenger for a rather large deposit.
Then, forty miles from the airport through a built up area to the start of the interstate road and two hundred and fifty miles on the Great Western Highway. Another hundred or so, through several small, spread out towns with unpronounceable names. Then up into the mountains to the mission and the school. A very remote place indeed.
When the taxi had gone, the head of the school, Father James, took Paul on a quick orientation tour of the institution.
‘Please don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything, Father Paul. It’s my job to make you welcome, remember. To take care of you. You have nothing to worry about here. We’re a very closed community. Close-knit you might say. We have to be, being so far from everywhere. But this isolation brings with it certain benefits. Which I’m sure you’re aware of. Let’s just say it’s nothing like where you were before. No, not a bit like that at all. You see, we’ve been here a long time, and we’ve made the effort and taken the trouble to establish very good relations with the various authorities. It’s a well developed partnership if you like. Right from the earliest days, we got things off on the right footing. And we’ve been at pains to keep it that way. So, no, there’s no problem with anyone. None at all. We’re all in this together, if you like. A symbiotic relationship the scientists would say.’ He smiled at what he saw as an amusing metaphor.
Then he went on. ‘And we do our best here at St Luke’s. For the boys I mean. We believe that these boys should be treated with love and care. So I know you’ll fit in. To be sure, I’m very positive that you’ll like it. We have a fine bunch of fine kids to take care of. You’re going to like them Father.’
The priest beckoned to a handsome boy in his late teens.
‘Oh, Martin, come over here for a moment, will you.’ He turned to Paul and added, ‘I’d like to introduce you to this young lad. He’s been assigned to help you. To show you around, that sort of thing.’
Paul shook hands with Martin who flashed back a disarming smile. He appeared to take little notice of what Father James was saying about him. Father James put his hand on Martin’s shoulder and shook it slightly.
‘Martin is, how do I put it? Well, he’s only very slightly…er…handicapped, as we used to say. Almost normal, I suppose. But he comes from a desperate family. And he’s much better off here. Where we can look after him and give him all the love and attention he needs.’
Paul picked up his rucksack and handed it to the boy. ‘Perhaps you can help me with this to start off with please Martin. Your first chore. It would be really helpful, because I’ve been carrying it around for a long, long time, it seems.’
Martin smiled at Paul. ‘Of course Father, I’m at your disposal.’
Paul’s spirits rose. He felt elated. Exhilarated.
And why not? He was about to start a new life in a new world. And from what he’d been told, he had a feeling he’d be very happy in this strange but stimulating environment.
They walked towards the main building past the faded sign on the wall that proclaimed: St Luke’s School for Boys with Special Needs.
© Ray Johnstone 2015