Usually When They Leave They're Gone
‘How often will she come back?’
‘She’ll be back for a week or so at the end of February and then about every five weeks after that,’ I said.
‘That’s not so long, I guess,’ he said.
‘Sometimes it seems very long time,’ I said.
He looked at me and I think he understood both my meanings.
‘Anyway, it already feels very long,’ I said.
Then my phone made a sound like a telegraph.
‘We’re going to spend a ton of money on text messaging,’ I said.
I retrieved my phone and read the message: ‘I’m getting a kitten here!’ I thought for a moment and then I typed out a reply with my thumbs. When I was done, I waited until I heard the sound like a rocket ship taking off and then I put the phone back in my pocket.
Lachlan sat on an upright wooden chair and he drank a cold beer and his boots were off. He wore shorts and a straw hat and dark sunglasses. It was just past midday and it was very hot but there was a nice breeze off the ocean, which we could see beyond the sand.
‘Is this where they go surfing?’ I asked.
‘It’s down that way past the trees,’ he said. ‘You go past the trees to Nana’s Guesthouse where there is camping and then past that there is a cove and that’s where they go surfing.’
‘And the surfing is really that good here?’ I asked.
‘Hell if I know,’ he said. ‘But these guys are from California so maybe they know something about it.’
He motioned to the other side of the long balcony where the owner and his few friends sat on a bamboo sofa with cloth covered foam cushions on it. The owner was dark with thick, wavy hair and a dark, thick growth from not shaving for several days. I thought he looked like he had slept on many sofas and in many youth hostels and even though he was a little older now he did not look any different. His friend was taller and much lighter with a heavy but very well manicured beard. He had a boy’s face and a hairless chest and then you saw the manicured beard and you thought that he wanted to appear rough but also not be. There was a woman who sat between them and she was lighter than the one but darker than the other so that she looked like she was put there intentionally to tie the room together. She sat there with her legs crossed and her big eyes and her many freckles all seemed to be focused intently on the blond one. He had been reading a book about the war in Vietnam and now he was talking about what he had read.
‘We could have gone straight for Hanoi in the first place and the war would have been won,’ he said, ‘but the military industrial complex had other ideas.’
‘He’s from California?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ Lachlan said and I could tell that he was restraining himself as he listed to their conversation.
‘Actually, you know I’m from California and I really don’t understand surfing,’ I said.
‘Is it that complicated?’ he said.
‘I suppose the mechanics of it are straight forward enough,’ I said. ‘It’s the enjoyment that I don’t understand.’
‘Says the one who rides motorbikes in Liberia,’ he said.
‘OK. It takes all kinds,’ I said. ‘Anyway, I took surfing lessons a few years ago and I was quite disappointed.’
‘You grew up in California and you only just learned to surf a few years ago?’ he said.
‘Not all Californians are like this joker,’ I said.
‘So you learned to surf?’ he said.
‘Or took a few lessons, anyway, I said. ‘Here’s what I took from it. You paddle like hell to get out past the breakers, taking one face full of water after another. When you finally get out there, you’re too exhausted to do anything so you just float around for while. Then, when you’ve got your wind back and probably you’re starting to get bored, you paddle in and maybe you catch one. If you don’t, you’re in no man’s land and you’re going to get pounded by the next one so you’ve got to turn around and paddle your ass back out pretty fast. If you catch it and you can stand up, then maybe you get a ride and I suppose it’s fun enough and then it’s over. Then you either go in or you paddle like hell back out there and do the whole thing over again.’
We drank from our beers, which ran with condensation down the sides of the bottles and dripped on the floor. I untied my boots and pulled them loose at the ankles. Beneath, I saw that my socks had red stains where the sweat and the road dust had combined. We had arrived an hour or so before and I still wore my jeans, which were covered in the same red highway dust as my boots, my shirt, and my arms.
We had left early in the morning to avoid the traffic in the capitol and to have as much of the day here as possible because we would only stay the night. Lachlan and Nik drove the four-wheel drive with the NGO plates because it would have an easier time passing through the checkpoints. I drove behind on the motorbike because they had a full back seat and because I preferred to ride. From my apartment we went through downtown and across the bridge. After the bridge we drove through Bushrod Island where we passed through Vai Town and Clara Town and past the brewery, following Mamba Point Road with only a detour to avoid Duala Market. After the Brewery the road crossed another bridge and opened onto a highway. It was good tarmac and it was straight most of the way until we reached the immigration checkpoint at Klay.
Nearing the checkpoint, Nik slowed and, she slowing, I pulled alongside as though to overtake. This is how the motorcycle taxis drive here and I had mimicked them so that maybe the four-wheel drive would obscure me from the immigration officers. There was nothing to hide because my papers were in order as well as they can be in a developing country, but a white man on a motorbike is a target and the ride had been very pleasant thus far.
After the checkpoint we turned left and followed this new segment of good highway over another river until where it split off southwest. Then we passed another checkpoint and at the junction we pulled off so that Lachlan could take the driver’s seat.
‘The tarmac ends up ahead,’ he said as I pulled alongside. ‘Do you want to lead so you don’t catch our dust?’
I nodded and I accelerated ahead, over a rise, and down the other side, slowing just before the tarmac ended and the road became graded dirt and pebbles. It can be very tricky to drive a motorbike at speed on a dirt road and it was my first time on this one. Motorcycles that are made for this are usually quite light, have a high center of gravity, and almost always they have a long suspension and deeply treaded tires called knobbies. My motorcycle was light enough but it had very little suspension and street tires with only enough tread to channel the rain away.
I ran it at near 70 kmh and I saw in my mirrors that Lachlan maintained plenty of distance. As long as I stayed straight and perfectly vertical the bike skimmed fast over the pebbly surface. At bends in the road, I kept the front wheel straight and I steered with slight shifts of my body to influence the rear wheel. After some kilometers, we took a short break at a clearing beside Lake Piso. Then, afterwards the road became more gravelly so that the pebbles acted like ball bearings under my tires. I cut my speed to 40kmh and this helped but not completely. The gravel covered the whole road and it was hard to find good lines particularly where the bends were flanked by dense vegetation. After an hour we arrived at Robertsport where the tarmac resumed. At the intersection by the petrol station we turned away from the downtown, which was only a narrow street of small restaurants and storefronts. At the next street we turned seaward and we continued straight until we reached the guesthouse.
‘How was it?’ Lachlan said when we both had parked.
‘Good fun,’ I said. ‘There were a few hairy moments that you might have noticed.’
After lunch we walked into town and took beers at a small entertainment center beside where the lake joins with the ocean. We sat around a large plastic table and we ordered Club Beers that were served cold and in extra large bottles. It was a typical place with African hip-hop playing too loud over a too weak sound system and further distorted by the thundering of a nearby generator. The noise made it so that speaking was a chore. One person might raise his voice to make a passing observation but most of the others around him would not hear it. So, he might repeat himself with more effort or another might relay the message. Then, the others would smile and nod and decide that responding was not worth the exertion.
On the way back to the guesthouse, we stopped at another entertainment center where the music was quieter and the generator was better removed from the sitting area. The others, which were Nik’s visiting workmate, a friend, and the friend’s houseboy, decided to continue back to the guesthouse and then to enjoy the beach during the hot afternoon. We order beers and we sat a little easier because it was quieter and there were fewer people to try to include.
‘I haven’t made a decision about her yet,’ I said, ‘but she has one of those tone deaf voices that is always loud and never changes its pitch.’
‘I guess it’s really been OK but it feels like it’s going to be a long five weeks of having her in the house,’ Lachlan said.
‘Mostly she’s been doing her own thing but for things like this it’s hard to tell her we’re taking a trip and not invite her along,’ Nik said.
‘Is she helping out at the school at all?’ I said.
‘She pokes around in the classrooms and tries to give suggestions,’ Nik said. ‘The other day she spent some hours barefoot at the river and she came back wanting to put on a musical or puppet show or something.’
‘Well, send me an invitation,’ I said.
‘Maybe you’ll want to sponsor it,’ Lachlan said.
‘Now there’s a thought,’ I said.
After the beers we walked back to the guesthouse. The sun was still strong but it was lower and the breeze was nice. We changed into our bathing suits and laid our towels at the top before where the sand slopes into the water. I listened to an audiobook and then I fell asleep for a while.
‘I slept,’ I said when I woke up.
‘Yes you did,’ Nik said.
‘I didn’t snore, did I?’
‘You did a little,’ she said.
‘I don’t snore and don’t tell Jess that,’ I said.
The sun was very low now and it was becoming dusk. Nik and Lachlan went back to the guesthouse and I stayed a while longer and put my feet in the water. At the guesthouse the lights were on now and the guests had returned from the beach and others had come just for dinner. The guesthouse felt a lot like a youth hostel and the conversation seemed to fit only most were probably too old to stay in youth hostels.
‘It’s a lot to pay for not having flushing toilets or running water and to use a solar camp shower,’ I sent in one of my text messages to Jess when she asked how it was going.
‘Look at who has become so particular,’ she replied.
‘It’s just a lot to pay for that,’ I sent back to her.
The dinner was rice and sauce and fried plantains and grilled barracuda. It was quite good and I added local chili sauce to it so that the rice became very spicy and the sweat began to drip from my forehead. ‘Are you happy now?’ is what Jess would have said, I thought, and I missed the ribbing that she would have given me. We drank Tiger beer and after dinner we moved to the balcony and we each took another bottle. Soon the guesthouse quieted and the generator went off and we sat on the balcony in the white light of a solar lantern.
‘The house belonged to an NGO before they took over the lease,’ the houseboy said. ‘I was a beneficiary of the NGO when they were here. They helped to put me through secondary school when I came back from Sierra Leone after the war. Last year they closed the office and went back to Texas. They brought some of the beneficiaries with them to attend university. When they took over this place to make the guesthouse they gave me a job. It is good but I am waiting that soon the NGO will bring me t