A. López-Peláez – Nothing Can the Sun Do – Chapter I

por Antonio López-Peláez

Is it true that he has abandoned us?

But whither, that he can’t return?

Has he really gone?

So insatiable is the other world?

Does it never fill up?

Sotho funeral prayer.

The light aircraft that brought me to Liberia landed at Robertsfield airport shortly after midnight. At the foot of the steps there was a petrol tanker halfway through a wheel change, and just behind, illuminated by the runway lighting, Mokhtar was waiting for me. He was wearing a cream coloured summer suit, a white silk shirt, a plain tie and a woven leather shoe on his good foot. On the other he had the usual orthopaedic one.

‘Welcome to Monrovia,’ he said, coming forward to shake my hand.

‘Thank you, Mr. Abjoupon. How are things going?’

‘Wonderfully, Toubab. The truce is a blessing.’

‘I can imagine.’

‘The Nigerian peace corps did it. They arrived without being called for and put things in order with gunfire.’

‘So I heard.’

‘As you can see,’ he added, ‘with them we don’t need white men.’

Mokhtar let out a raucous laugh which I didn’t quite like. Then he took hold of my cases and we set off almost in complete darkness towards the terminal building on the other side of the runway. Awaiting me there were only two Nigerian soldiers in slumber on the floor and a civilian in a tracksuit sitting behind a formica desk who reluctantly checked my visa and my diplomatic passport, asked for ten dollars and categorically prohibited me from leaving the boundaries of the liberated territory.

‘Liberated by whom?’ Mokhtar joined in.

‘Liberated by us,’ was the reply.

‘Here everybody liberates everybody else.’

‘Liberated by us,’ repeated the man in the tracksuit impassively.

One of the soldiers yawned, stretched and kept looking at us with curiosity. I said thank you for everything, put another five dollars on the desk and assured him that I would follow all the instructions to the letter. Then I took Mokhtar by the arm and we went out into the car park. There was his Toyota van, recently waxed and with a Liberian flag covering the rear window.

‘Are you going to cause me problems,’ I said, ‘or are you going to help me to solve them?’

‘Half and half.’

‘That’s not good enough.’

Mokhtar shrugged his shoulders, and straight away limped into the van and started the engine.

‘I’m a Mandingo, I’m lame and I’m queer,’ he declared leaning out of the window. ‘You can expect the minimum from me and nothing more.’

I decided not to insist and put my luggage in the back of the van. Then I got in and sat next to Mokhtar. He released the handbrake and instead of driving off he looked at me with a serious expression.

‘Which problem exactly do I have to help you solve?’ he said.

‘They’ve sent me to look for T.’

Mokhtar snorted and shook his head.

‘You’re not going to find him.’

‘Probably not.’

‘But even so, you can count on me.’

‘I’ve got no choice.’

‘No, you haven’t,’ he agreed, and at that very moment the airport lights started to flicker.

Mokhtar finally set off, drove out of the car park and took the road to Monrovia at full speed and with only one headlight. We advanced in the darkness dodging puddles and potholes without meeting a single vehicle. We passed empty farms, abandoned plantations and undergrowth reduced to ashes. We just missed several bats and we pardoned the life of a wild cat that crossed our path. Coming out of a bend at the beginning of Tubman Boulevard, in the distance appeared a myriad of multicoloured lights, all joined together higgledy-piggledy, shining in the pitch dark like a huge electricity station.

‘What’s that?’ I said.

‘That? That’s the truce.’

___________

There were bars, cafés, terraces, woro-woros,coloured light bulbs, baked banana stalls, bottles piled up on the pavements and loudspeakers blasting out in the streets. Nobody sleeps here, Mokhtar declared with pride. Nobody sleeps a wink.The establishments were called Serum, Glucose, Armoured, Get 27, Casino. The boys danced at the entrance of the bars and the girls kept an eye on them, whispering, nudging and shoving each other. A buxom adolescent, who was observing the panorama from the bonnet of a Land Rover, screamed with laughter on seeing our van blocked by the crowd. She must have weighed more than fourteen stone and was dressed from head to foot in white: white shorts, white t shirt, white scarf and white calf-length boots with platform soles. She had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and she couldn’t stop laughing. She pointed at us, covered her face with her forearms and howled on and on. Mokhtar replied by blowing his horn and making rude gestures. Then he turned to me with a smile from ear to ear.

‘The transvestites are still to come,’ he declared. ‘This is nothing without the transvestites.’

‘There are also transvestites?’

‘There are.’

‘In Monrovia?’

‘In my house.’

___________

‘That is life,’ Samantha Jallah said, and all the others shut up. ‘This is me. Samantha, the legend. Samantha, the personality. You have to be creative, be an artist, have vision. You can’t always be stuck to the ground like a centipede.’

Everybody applauded. Mama Marie stood up and play-acted a toast.

‘They love you for what you are,’ she proclaimed, ‘they hate you for what you are.’

‘Where you die, I’ll rot,’ shouted Lady Maressa.

‘I’m going to go out and mix with the people,’ Samantha carried on. ‘And you with me. Let the rain soak us, sisters. Let the sun burn us.’

They all clapped again and cheered her on, and she responded by standing up and making the victory sign with both hands. Then Mokhtar came out of the kitchen with two trays of liver in sauce and placed them on top of a pile of cardboard boxes stacked up on the patio. The applause stopped and all the girls, Samantha included, rushed to the food as if they hadn’t eaten for days. They probably hadn’t.

‘What are all these people doing in your house?’ I whispered to Mokhtar.

‘They’ve got nowhere to go, Toubab. They’re frightened the rain will soak them and the sun will burn them.’

‘I need to rest. I’m worn out.’

‘Go to my room and don’t worry about me. This is going to last all night.’

‘We’ve got to take up arms,’ said Samantha, with her mouth full and chewing away hungrily. ‘We’ve got to put up a fight and not take a step back. The princesses’ army is on the warpath.’

This time no one cheered her. They were all occupied devouring the liver. Only Lady Maressa acknowledged her and shouted out loud:

‘The lelés are no longer hiding. The lelés are going to sweep Monrovia. The third millennium has arrived.’

‘They’re very frightened,’ concluded Mokhtar. ‘It’s normal. I’m going to get some more beer.’

___________

Mokhtar’s room had a sink, a wickerwork chair and a mattress on the floor. The window catch was secured with a bolt and a chain. I placed my luggage in a corner and I took off my shoes. I opened the tap at the sink and instead of water a couple of tiny spiders came out. I collapsed onto the mattress without taking my clothes off. On the other side of the window, in the patio, you could hear shouts, music and laughter. From my pocket I took out the wallet with my credentials and the black and white photograph of T. I looked at it for an instant, just enough to be able to sleep, and I closed my eyes. Shortly after, someone knocked gently at the door.

‘Open up,’ whispered a voice.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Open up. I’ve come to watch television with you.’

‘Television?’

‘Open up.’

‘There’s no television here.’

‘Open the door.’

I didn’t answer again. I just lay on the mattress waiting for her to stop. She carried on insisting for a good while, without raising her voice or using an inappropriate word, but finally she gave up, rattled the door and cleared off. Once again I looked at the photograph of T. It seemed impossible to imagine that he and the princesses’ army had anything in common. Nevertheless they did: they had me. On the patio the noise was getting louder and louder. Someone announced at the top of their voice the performance of the Senegalese dancers from Velingara. I put away the photograph and turned over on the mattress. This time I didn’t shut my eyes. I wanted to be awake when the lelé came back.