Art by Julia Solis
In December when sunlight appeared to have been filtered through thin sandpaper and glazed windows streaked with frost concealed a Polish city that had been resurrected from wartime debris, he awoke in a room where flowers had been scattered about the floor during an all–night party and the smell of coffee still lingered in the air along with the stale odour of cigarette butts mashed into ashtrays, and tepid perfume emanated from tired used–up bodies which lay everywhere in sensual disorder; one next to him, the head and face hidden behind a tangle of yellow hair, one uncovered leg thrust out from scant blankets, a small, nicely rounded tumescent breast peeping from the thin edge of a slipping brassiere; and Duduza knew at once he was far away from Africa, far away from war, rape and pillage which for the last few months had been his lot; knew also he was now engaged in another war, employing different weapons (love, for one thing) and different personnel.
At home it would be summer; swallows would be twittering in the trees of the white suburbs where black children were not permitted to sing their sleeptime melodies; but here snow was about to fall, the light wary, desperate, and fugitive, was of another order, slanted like the smile of the Party official who had greeted him at the railway station, "Welcome to Cracow, Comrade Duduza, welcome!" And Anna lying across from him in flimsy woolen underwear was both real and unreal; having met her first in Africa, which was now so far away from this Festival of Love it seemed to belong to another universe, Anna did not, like the others, belong here. She was too compromised by the unhappiness of Africa. At that time of morning when she was still vulnerable and wholly unprotected, not even by her extreme intelligence, from his impertinent gaze, he watched her, secretively, keenly, stared at jumbled clothes which had been discarded after a prolonged preliminary war now lying in a heap on the floor beside her racked body. Like the others, once the lights were switched off, they had made love wildly, uninhibitedly in the darkened room, Anna crying out in her delirium, in spite of her pronounced atheist views loudly invoking the name of Jesus and Mary the Mother of God! Her passion already greatly stimulated by sounds of collective love–making, during one moment of runaway passion Anna had howled like someone demented: "Jezus Chrystus! Dudu, for Jesus' sake, what are you doing to me! Oh, bloody hell!" Dudu tried to stifle her cries to no avail. In order to calm her he had to pause in the extremity of his own passion, listening to the grunts and moans of the others. "Why do you stop now?" Anna protested, but no sooner had Dudu resumed than Anna shrieked with not a little showing off, Dudu thought. "O, Santa Maria, Mother of God!" she moaned. "Dudu, for the sake of God, stop a minute! Oh, God, what are you doing to me!"
"Fucking," Dudu promptly answered under his breath. Amidst the grunts and shrieks there were muted giggles. No wonder the others watched them with curious amusement the next morning.
'World Without Frontiers' was the theme of the Festival but the theme could just as well had been Love with a capital letter. At this carnival of love everyone, it seemed, was determined to be friendly, everyone was greedy to take love where love was offered and give it liberally where it was in short supply. Doubtless, this was a collective manifestation of amity such as Dudu had never experienced anywhere before. During the reception a boy with long stringy unwashed brown hair called Ryszard told Duduza: "Something grows inside me every time I see your fighters coming out of the forests, bearing on their shoulders defiant arms like cathedral candlesticks. I see the fatigue in their faces. They are like lovers who have spent a long unusual night in a communal brothel!"
Vitoria DeSoto, the pretty girl from Colombia who spoke to him constantly about the "end of History," said to him during the party: "Have you read Michel Delclou? Everything stops here, apparently, the strivings of all human Reason, – they finally culminate here where thought has become unhinged from its moorings and ideas float like wisps of smoke in a kind of conceptual stratosphere, scarcely to be got hold of again by any existing mind, however intelligent. From now on time flows in all directions. Past, present and future are gathered into a single fateful knot!" Vitoria paused; she ran her fingers through her dark gold hair and whispered: "Without any truth–guarantees all thought is nomad, with no ground to stand on so to speak, and we? What are we? We drift like papier-marche’ across a dark and colourless universe. As the poet said, History is approaching a speechless end."
Dudu had no idea what the young woman was talking about but he duly noted she was breathtakingly pretty with green eyes like seaweeds; numerous species of fish swam all around the concentrated pupils of her eyes when she smiled or spoke her dangerous thoughts. "I would like to take you back with me to Columbia, the land of cocaine," she said with a distracted smile which was clearly harmful to any man forced to endure it. "There you could live on sugar and water and every Wednesday afternoon hear the bands play in front of the cathedral. On Sunday mornings in Bogota’ my mother who once worked in a de luxe brothel – bless her heart! – would wake you with a kiss of angels whose lips are forever sealed, forbidden from telling complete sexual truths." As if to protect her long ivory throat from a contagious disease, Vitoria lifted to her mouth the rollneck of her cherry–red sweater upon whose front was inscribed in black letters like a magic formula the slogan "Socialismo O Muerte!"
"In my mother's house," Vitoria announced, "we live as if God himself had suffered a nervous breakdown! A father who in the guise of running a travel agency traffics in drugs. One brother in the national army fighting another who is in the guerrilla movement, and a mother who runs a rehab centre for drug addicts and prostitutes. And me? An activist in the Students Revolutionary Council. A fashion model and a show-off! What a way to close a century!"
The thought occurred to Duduza that this Youth Festival promised to launch him into an orbit whose mode of operation was the kind of weightlessness for which he had no preparation or previous training. On the eve of his departure from his native country which for seven years had been ravaged by fighting against Aquila's entrenched regime, he had sworn to treat his journey to Europe, especially his participation in the International Youth Festival, not as an occasion for personal adventure or indiscriminate amusement but as a rare opportunity to communicate a message to the youth of the world about how every day, every minute, his country lived under the lash of colonial repression. To his fighting comrades in the swamps and forests of Central Africa he had promised to use any platform to tell the story of their suffering. And yet here he was now, surrounded by the magic of guitars and concertinas and the subtle flesh of women whose bodies carried not the smell of socialism but the odor of freshly cut flowers and La Dolce Vita perfume; for the moment, at any rate, he was willing to forget his own mother who had just been expelled by the Aquila regime from the urban township of Benghazi because of her alleged support for the underground movement. Recognizing his own weakness, Dudu felt a secret shame. His conscience was torn. Scrutinizing him candidly with her naked brown eyes the Columbian girl repeated her sentiment: "Dudu, I really wish you could meet my mother."
"I would very much like to meet your mother, Vitoria." He offered this like an apology.
"Really. My own mother has known only suffering," Dudu began in a voice already contaminated by bodily passions and desire. With increasing difficulty he tried to explain many things to the young woman that Africa would have needed little explanation. Then in a voice grown more animate though still intimate he related the horrors of Aquila's murder squads. He told Victoria of stringent regulations and inflexible controls over the black population, of the omnipresence of informers and spies even among his own people who were in the pay of the regime; he spoke of mass raids and police detentions, and told her of mass starvation. He spoke to her as if the whole world were listening, forgetful or oblivious of the fact that the girl was only an audience of one. "Once when my father was down in the mines a group of soldiers broke into the house, stripped my mother naked and then took her by turns, all fourteen of them. They made her kneel on all fours on the bare floor, her head tucked under her arms, and one by one they performed their act of demolition, leaving her an improbable site of human wreckage. Needless to say, my brothers and I were forced to watch at the point of a gun."
Vitoria's hands were stretched, palms out, against the wood of the bookshelf. Dudu's words were like nails being driven into her own flesh. A turbulent disruption distorted her features, her jaw became tense and rigid, her mouth moved but no words came; her hands were trembling as if she suffered from palsy. Only seconds before this girl had been pretty, gleaming, radiant in fact; now she was ugly, her high cheekbones suffused with unusual scarlet, and for what seemed a very long time she remained silent, her green emerald eyes so still that their natural light seemed to have been completely extinguished. Then when Duduza was already feeling embarrassed by having perhaps too hastily exposed his wounds to this young woman who had spoken so recently and so very eloquently of the end of history, Vitoria startled him by suddenly asking in a quiet but nervous voice: "Is that the reason why you joined the movement?"
"It is the only reason I'm ashamed to say," Duduza admitted. "It was the beginning, at any rate. I have to confess that initially, my involvement in politics had nothing to do with the desire to right the general wrongs suffered by my country. It was desire for revenge."
Vitoria DeSoto placed a sympathetic hand on Dudu's shoulder." Separately, each one of us has the memory of their own suffering," she declared." Only the nerves will tell us where our bodies touch. Look, when I was twenty–two, just out of college, I met a young man. His eyes were so starved of sunlight you would think he'd been born swimming up for air in an ocean so deep that the whole earth could not contain it. Oh, what a boy! I've never known so much hunger in anyone so young. His hands, when he touched me, were frozen by years of excruciating deprivation under detention in a succession of prisons across our southern continent. He was raped at least four times by men who no longer know the value of human life."
Vitoria's eyes darkened, became very still as in someone living through a remembered nightmare. Then like a searchlight her eyes swept across Dudu's attentive face, and fixing them challengingly upon his, she resumed her narrative. "In my room, when we got undressed, I thought in order to alleviate his hunger, I'd allow this poor boy to take my whole breast into his famished mouth. He was so starved, his entire body was simply trembling with desire. The experience itself, such as it was, wasn't even erotic. Far from it. It was like feeding a starving animal. Like giving suck to an infant."
Pausing only briefly, she smiled as though her youth had been entirely a mistake. "I was so young and inexperienced I thought in order to stop him from gagging on a woman's flesh in his almost inhuman greed, I would stuff my whole animal body into his mouth. Stop it from screaming with so much desire. I was simply..."
She did not finish. Like an avenging angel suspicious of the tiniest trace of sinful desire, Anna Zagajewski was soon upon them. "There you are you two!" she smiled wholesomely. "Dudu, you must be famished. There is food on the table. How hungry you look, both of you!" Dudu and Vitoria laughed together, thinking of the boy who had lived so long under starvation (talk about hunger!) and Anna, not knowing what to think, turned from one to the other, trying to read from their faces signs of a blossoming relationship. "Did I say something funny?" she wondered.
"No, no, no!" Dudu quickly assured her. "Just a private joke between Vitoria and me."
"Oh, I see. How interesting!"
"World Without Frontiers," Vitoria smiled at Anna to reassure her. "Festival of Love. What an appropriate slogan for an International Youth Festival!"
“‘World Without Frontiers’ was the theme of the Festival but the theme could just as well had been Love with a capital letter. At this carnival of love everyone, it seemed, was determined to be friendly, everyone was greedy to take love where love was offered and give it liberally where it was in short supply.”
Just before breakfast Dudu and Ryszard of the long brown hair, also Tadeusz the youth leader from Gdansk, Bogdan of the dancing troupe from the mountain district of Piwniczna and a few others, shared a shower; black, white and brown bodies mingling under the white steam in an unconventional celebration of international socialism; during this spirited display of unusual intimacy a Korean boy slipped on a bar of soap and went sprawling across the wet floor, and everyone laughed. They pulled him to his feet, and encircling him performed a dans minuet. At intervals, without too much concentration, they sang “The Internationale.” On the other side of the screen they could hear the girls under the showers shrieking and rattling water installations. A voice which Dudu recognized as belonging to Anna Zagajewski – his Anna with the tragic sense – was singing in cheerfully despondent tones an old Polish song:
Oh my darling! My darling!
Chestnuts are falling as before
Like red rain at the lovers' feet.
Anywhere he could have recognized that voice which, mourning what it had to achieve and grieving over what it had not yet lost, suffered, it seemed, for the sake of suffering; it was the same voice that had lulled him to sleep on the hills of Zambezi, their twin bodies wrapped together in a lion's skin under a sky full of liquid stars. Dudu had met her when they both started work for International Defence Aid for Southern Africa; when they became lovers Anna taught him Polish, a difficult language whose rudiments Dudu was only able to learn through Anna's tireless efforts. "Try," she ordered when he was about to give up in frustration. "You have to try harder," she insisted. "Otherwise, how will you be able to speak to our children?"
They had not yet discussed marriage but for the colour of the skin, which would probably be an indeterminate mixture of black and white and everything in–between, Anna seemed to assume that their off–spring would be Polish and speaking the Polish language, not Zambezian. Amused by her certainties, Dudu asked: "Is that a marriage proposal by any chance?"
Anna was not easily embarrassed but this time she blushed. "Well, just in case we have time to get married and make a family, I want you to learn some Polish. Repeat after me, please: Dzien dobry, Pani Aniu!"
"Dzien dobry, Pani!" Dudu repeated. This time Anna burst into outright laughter, then quickly sobering, took Dudu's face between her cool hands and kissed him on the mouth. "You're doing fine."
As if to confirm the Slavic stereotype, after a visit to the camps in Lusaka, Dudu remembered that Anna had broken into tears. That was after Aquila's white army had crossed the border to attack guerrillas of the Zambezi Resistance Movement in their Zambian sanctuaries. While Aquila's migs buzzed the powerless republic, his commandos made sorties into the suburbs where the Zambezi Resistance Movement was known to shelter; they placed charges, destroying more than a dozen houses close to the presidential palace. A number of people, including women and children, were killed as they ran helter–skelter in an effort to break out of the encirclement.
For days news of this invasion filled the papers of southern Africa. In the wake of the attack Anna was sent across the border by her international aid organization to gather information about families who had sustained loss or death, and for an entire week after her return, she was sick. She was often vomiting. And she kept Dudu awake half the night, talking incessantly. "Dudu, how can the world let it happen? Tell me that. You studied politics. What did they write in your textbooks those venerable professors with strings of letters behind their names?"
At the beginning, before the intensification of the war, Anna had lived in a hired cottage on the outskirts of town, Dudu in the black township of Benghazi; but often they spent nights together in Anna's humble lodgings. Then one early morning, acting on a private tip, two Special Branch detectives raided Anna's bungalow; they searched every nook and cranny; some books, several documents and tapes, were seized. That same afternoon, after a brief appearance before a magistrate in private session, Anna was declared an undesirable alien and given hours to pack her things and leave. Back in Poland, she became a public figure. She was assigned to the Committee for Solidarity with Africa, Asia and South America by the Ministry of Culture; and in accordance with her changed status, instead of signing herself with her full name 'Anna Zagajewski' she now preferred to sign herself simply: 'Anna Z.' It was as now as 'Anna Z', sitting on the Youth Festival Planning Committee, that Anna forced a decision to send an invitation to Dudu rather than to the Zambezi Resistance Movement which after endless bickering might decide to send a different delegate; the Movement was forced to let Dudu go as its sole representative. And so, here he was at last, having stepped down from the 'plane straight into the warm bathtub of the great Festival of Love.
For the first time in the history of the Youth Festival, that year an American contingent was taking part, eight young women and seven young men representing the American Christian Youth Organization which was said to be heading a new religious revival in its native country. The leader of the delegation was a man called Eric Stone, about thirty years of age, stupendously tall and large with a gait and figure that suggested a matron employed in a school of the martial arts, already compromised by constant proximity to the hardened flesh of athletes but she herself someone obviously inclined to the pleasures of the bedroom and the dinner table. The Festival Bulletin described Stone as a former sergeant in the US Army who had sacrificed a promising career in order to take up the leadership of the militant Christian youth movement, a proselytizing organization which, confident enough in the final victory of its cause, saw no reason not to confront its ideological enemies on their own home ground. All the same, during their brief stay in Cracow, with the noticeable exception of their dedicated leader, the Americans behaved much like an army on furlough after a period of prolonged abstinence, eager to make up for long forgotten pleasures. They spent long hours in one another's rooms; first, they sang religious hymns; later, without any warning, they switched to disco and country music, then to rock 'n roll; and all night–long they danced to a heap of cassettes, pausing at intervals only to shriek and wail like banshees.
At the first moment of arrival Eric Stone climbed down from the hotel limousine ahead of his flock and was watched curiously by the inmates of the Hotel Piast as he stepped gingerly across the pavement into the foyer as though testing the ground for possible minefields: the way Stone carefully picked his steps among the flagstones made him look like a platoon commander putting his own life at risk in order to shield his troops from unknown dangers that might lie ahead. With his black felt hat surrounded by a flowered white band, and a black shirt and a white tie topped by a long black leather coat, Stone looked like a Chicago gangster on the run, only a step ahead of the F.B.I. His papal face, florid in the dark Polish winter, gleamed like a dire warning, his tight rigid carriage a gesture of American infallibility only slightly muted by the yellowish light of the hotel lobby.
Dudu met and shook hands with all the Americans and instantly fell in love with one Bonnie Lelalee, a fresh–faced beauty from Montana with braided corn–colored hair and strong milky white teeth. She wore cowboy boots with silver studs, a fur coat and a black wide–brimmed cowboy hat, a Circe from the mountains of Montana who could with the flick of her fingers turn men into complete swine. When sharing a joke with someone Bonnie Lelalee had a way of punching a person hard on the chest and then leaning backwards to guffaw from the depths of her lungs. She clasped Dudu's hand firmly in her own, and looking him straight in the eye, said: "Where you from, Dudu?"
"That must be somewhere in Africa. Right?"
"Right," Dudu admitted. He was rewarded by a sweeping smile, but not before Bonnie Lelalee, in her quirky enthusiasm, had given Dudu a massive punch in the stomach. Like a punctured balloon, Dudu gasped for air, and yet in spite of the searing pain he was aware of being slightly intoxicated by the strong perfume and dense heat that emanated from the person of Bonnie Lelalee. "Be seeing you, Dudu," Bonnie promised. "I want you to tell me all about Zambezi and Africa. I want you to tell me all about 'em crocodiles and man–eaters and men they say ride baboons stark naked, facing backwards. I want you to tell me all about it, baby. You hear?"
"Sure thing," Dudu said, feeling that with the aid of a zealous young woman like Bonnie Lelalee he could easily master the idioms and rhythms of the American language.
"Remember, Dudu, Jesus loves you." Bonnie had told him on that first day as she was being whisked away to her room. "Jesus is Love. Black or white, it don't matter 'cause Jesus loves you just as much as anyone else! Can you understand that?"
"Sure," Dudu said.
Bonnie smiled her approval. "Good. Because this is the motto of our Christian Youth Movement. Jesus is Love." And then she was gone, swept away with the rest of the American delegation.
All morning, a voice kept up a crackling stream of messages on the loudspeaker: "Comrades, at precisely seventeen hours this evening, you are requested to assemble at the foyer where buses will be ready to transport you to the ball at the Palace of Culture. Your presence at this great hospitality event is seriously anticipated! Comrades, at precisely seventeen hours...Your presence at this great hospitality event is seriously anticipated!"
Serious or not, it seemed to Dudu that in many respects this festival had begun to resemble a big Roman holiday. It was also a kind of sanatorium, a health resort, a spa, a rehab center, in which a variety of therapies were being administered to the inmates by invisible physicians. Just being in the same place with a lot of like–minded people took the weight off your shoulders, made resistance to other prevailing orders seem the most natural thing in the world. Halfway through the week Dudu was already feeling greatly refreshed, like someone whose health had recently been diagnosed as rapidly failing is suddenly given a new lease on life, and surprises friends and relatives by slowly recovering. This was immensely encouraging. When the time came to return to Africa he would be ready to plough a new furrow, to begin again at the beginning.
However, to keep up the momentum of recovery it was necessary to also maintain a strict physical regime. For his daily exercise, Dudu set off every morning from the Hotel Piast to jog the two miles or so to the bus terminus and back, wearing only his dark grey tracksuit which blended discreetly with the early morning fog. Apprehensive Poles, with fearful offspring sheltering behind their mothers' skirts, watched as this strange black figure glided past their doorsteps. Apparently, in the northern Catholic lands it was known that the devil was apt to present himself in the guise of a human face; he could materialize suddenly out of the dark landscape without a warning, obviously shorn of his tail and long ears, ready to abduct God's sacrificial lambs. During one of those jogging exercises, on a terrain enveloped by a thick fog, Dudu once came upon a Polish workman on his way to work. Scared out of his wits by the sudden apparition out of the winter darkness the Pole was about to bolt but finally thought the better of it. Instead, he contented himself with making the sign of the cross.
After the Americans had had time to settle in, everyone mingled happily with the newcomers except Vitoria DeSoto who remained implacably hostile. Vitoria disliked the Americans generally but Eric Stone she hated at first sight and did not disguise her hostility. When Stone came into the room she gritted her teeth and growled: "An impossible American! Look how he carries himself. Like the king of the earth. And all that fat! I ask myself: how much food has been snatched out of the mouths of babes around the world in order to sustain the weight of that single gross American?"
In vain did Dudu try to placate the Colombian. "Come, Vitoria, where is your internationalism? Where's friendship and youth solidarity which are the two themes of the Festival? World without frontiers, remember?" Dudu laughed.
Vitoria did not enter into the spirit of frivolity to which Dudu's merriment supposedly invited her. "These American imperialists have no shame!" she snorted, the pupils of her green eyes contracting into shining needle points." They come as guests but expect everyone to bow and scrape before them. I'll tell you one thing. Their friendship is worth nothing." Vitoria sighed, heaving her fine shoulders in resigned suffering. Oh, how much they pretend, offering protection when no one has asked them for it! They should never be invited anywhere. Wherever they go, they bring unhappiness. They only spoil the party." Finally, she warned Dudu, whose attitude toward various manifestations of world imperialism she was inclined to regard as too relaxed, to stay away from Stone. "I mean it. Try not to talk to him," she advised.
"Come on, Vitoria, this is a festival of love, after all." Dudu protested.
"No – 'Come on, Vitoria!' – If you love your country as I do mine, you'll stay away from Americans like him."
Just then, bathed, scrubbed and shining and wearing a highly ornamented dress with a skirt well above her shapely knees, Bonnie Lelalee came into the room, smiling at everyone within sight, her red lips slashed open as though ready to utter the most banal propositions as the ultimate religious truths of the century. For a few seconds she gathered the tumbling strands of her blonde hair into her left hand as though in fear of having it soiled. Fascinated, Dudu watched her as if a banana snake had tumbled out of banana leaf; mesmerized, he watched her big pure depthless eyes wandering the room like searchlights, her lips moving ceaselessly, mouthing, Dudu imagined, the slogan of the Christian Youth movement, 'Jesus loves you! Jesus loves you! Jesus loves you!' until her huge eyes fixed their gaze with a certain justifiable inevitability on Dudu, the blackest among the delegates, the most deserving of love and redemption. Dudu experienced an unusual thrill at being the receptacle, if not of Jesus' love, certainly of being the object of Bonnie's sedulous attention. Watching this big blonde from Montana prancing around the room like the Queen of Corn, Dudu was entranced. He turned to Vitoria and beamed at her what he hoped would be a provocative smile. "So, what about Bonnie Lelalee, then? Isn't she just delightful?"
"She's different," Vitoria conceded. "Of course, she is different. She is a woman. Strictly speaking, women have nothing to do with the world political order."
Dudu laughed. "Really? You could've fooled me."
Vitoria seemed unfazed. "Power is a preserve of male domination," she announced, "imperialism its global aspect."
To Dudu Eric Stone was cordial but mildly disdainful and for the rest of the festivities he was inclined to view the young black man as a posturing field nigger who had wandered in from the plantation into the big house without proper credentials. Stone's small amused eyes seemed to be questioning Dudu constantly; he seemed to be asking: "Nigger, what the hell are you doing here? Why are you not in the fields where you belong?" Later, in the course of the revels, when Dudu forgot himself and threw his arm affectionately around the shoulders of women delegates, Stone's eyes became visibly stonier. During one of the numerous receptions for delegates held at the Hotel Piast the American actually liberated Dudu's friend, Anna Zagajewski from Dudu's encircling arm by gently lifting it from Anna's all too compliant shoulder.
Anna was wearing an off–shoulder dress. Pale, powdered and smooth, her shining immaculate skin glowed invitingly, drawing Dudu like a magnet or rather like a bee to a jar of honey. He placed his huge black hand on her hospitable flesh and moved it slowly up and down the slopes of her back in a gently caressing motion. Unable to believe his own eyes, Eric Stone experienced a temporary feeling of dizziness as he watched the nigger's pink fingers tickling Anna's small ears, and far from showing displeasure Anna's lobes actually seemed to twitch, coil and twirl like a rabbit's at the nigger's touch. This caused Stone's own ears to burn like melting candle wax. When Anna got separated from the black man, Stone seized his opportunity to utter a dire warning: "Miscegenation is a sin, Anna," he half- whispered into her ear. "I know you're a communist and an' all and you don't believe in God but you're a good girl, Anna. Let me warn you. Stay away from that nigger." When Anna laughed and started to move away Stone called out. "Anna, listen to what I'm telling you. The Bible say your body is a holy temple for God's indwelling spirit. Remember, Anna: Jesus loves you."
Anna Z. giggled at this belated attempt to protect her virtue but Stone did not seem disconcerted. On the contrary, rifeness of sin and immorality was for Eric Stone a shocking revelation and an opportunity. Whenever he detected signs of mischief he was galvanized into action. The other delegates began to treat Stone as a joke. "Hey, Stone. Where is Bonnie?" Christopher Sayers, the Englishman from Liverpool, mischievously enquired.
"Bonnie?" Stone echoed. "How do I know? I'm not Bonnie's keeper."
"Is that how you perform your duties as a leader? Letting members of your delegation wander off far and wide without proper surveillance?"
Though Stone said nothing in reply his eyes clouded with suspicion. Bonnie Lelalee was pretty, intelligent, but also wild and intractable, too much of a mixer with undesirables. Stone was determined to keep a close eye on her. A few minutes later delegates heard a message being broadcast on the loudspeaker system. "Miss Bonnie Lelalee! Bonnie, are you receiving me? Miss Bonnie Lelalee, please report instantly to the American Festival Office in the foyer."
On the fifth day of the Festival, after lunching at the Hotel Piast, groups of youths went on tour of the ancient town of Cracow, accompanied by a guide, their arms linked in a spontaneous display of international friendship and solidarity. Freezing temperatures had little effect on their spirits. They cavorted in the Planty Gardens by the banks of a quiet stream, pausing only briefly to gaze like a group of Narcissi into the slow–moving waters. Later in the old market square, under the shadow of the ancient cathedral, and watched assiduously by the local population, they performed dances of many lands. Against the weak light of a northern winter the bright–colored costumes of many nations seemed to blaze like so many leaping flames in the public square.
Toward the end of the week the rhythm of the Festival had slackened noticeably. In the daytime there were numerous panels and study groups, drearily monotonous and only periodically brought to life by bursts of humor or incendiary passions. The study sessions devoted to imperialism in its many varieties were long, the language familiar and repetitive, the slogans tired and overworked; a warmed–up language containing the usual formulas of Peace, Solidarity and Friendship. In pursuit of a world free from imperialist domination, a Soviet delegate, Petrov Kutuzov, delivered a strong attack lasting nearly an hour on American imperialism, predicting the imminent collapse of the capitalist system from its own internal contradictions and endless cycle of crises. It was the turn of the leader of the Chinese delegation, Li Yat–sen, to cause an unexpected sensation by delivering his own blistering attack on the Soviets attempts to achieve world domination and undermine the independence of smaller states in the interests of a revisionist program incompatible with the development of true socialism; and finally Eric Stone, prophesying an approaching Armageddon, rounded up on the evil empires of both the Soviet and Chinese systems which, he vowed, would come to certain destruction in the hands of an invincible army of a growing Christian crusade.
By this time a surprising number of delegates had begun to develop strategies for avoiding these sessions. They met in the communal bar to exchange information or compare notes; couples drifted off to town or retired to their rooms to pursue the war against world imperialism by other means. Only the evenings with their succession of small parties and disco dances at the Hotel Piast and the nightly prowls in the old town provided some relief from the tedium of official study schedules. As the week and the festival drew to a close Dudu had become equally aware of something in the air that was subtly changing, congealing like winter Polish skies; something wearing thin, becoming fragile and friable like skin chafed too often. After they had become too well-acquainted, the delegates started behaving like members of any community without any clearly defined rules of conduct; clashing egos and desires began to surface, some relationships got frayed, became brittle. Only Vitoria DeSoto, it seemed, remained true to herself and her fixed horizons which were determined mostly by her devotion to the small and the local.
On several occasions Dudu ran into Bonnie Lelalee in the hotel lounge or in the crowded disco floor, and discovered the truth of Vitoria's doctrine regarding differences between men and women. At such moments, despite Eric Stone's relentless supervision, Bonnie went out of her way to extract from Dudu brief moments of intimacy. Several times they had danced together, and whenever the occasion presented itself, her breath hot and moist, Bonnie had whispered into Dudu's ear her message of Jesus' inexhaustible love, telling him in a voice coarsened by passion how infinite, how unselfish and unbiased that love was. On these occasions, conscious of Bonnie's supple flesh and the fresh odor of her body as of newly cut flowers after a spring rain, Dudu was overwhelmed by a very human desire which was doubtless contrary to Bonnie's message of divine love.
The day before departure Dudu ran into the Americans at a party hosted by a Polish professor of philology. The professor was clearly a man of the world who had travelled widely in Africa, East Asia and America, and his conversations were spiced with many anecdotes from many cultures and regions of the earth. Anna Z. had not wanted to come. Instead, she and a Czech girl had chosen to go to a cabaret show at the Piwnica pod Baranami. Inevitably, Bonnie was there wearing a shimmering green mini–dress and too much jewelry for a gathering of international socialists. The beautiful American wasted no time in attaching herself to Dudu despite Eric Stone's obvious disapproval. While they ate supper her gaze followed Dudu's every movement across the floor that separated them. She smiled approval at his manifest appetite, and when he was finished she jumped up to take his plate away. "You want another helping, Dudu? No? Well, I'm goin' to get me another."
"Maybe, just a tiny bit more." Dudu yielded.
"Stay there. I'll be right back."
In the spacious living room in which lights had been dimmed and guests sat or reclined on heavy cushions scattered across the floor, everything had been arranged to produce maximum theatrical effect. Food and drinks to which host and hostess periodically urged their guests to help themselves were heaped on a table at the far end of the room. After a while Bonnie became a little tipsy and heavy from the wine so that her tall but slim body, evenly balanced on the flat bottom of her thighs, seemed to drop impressively into the unsuspecting hollowness of the cushion. Sometimes reaching out to grasp Dudu's arm, Bonnie surged forward, seemed to float toward him like a splendid yacht casting out of anchor.
It had snowed during the afternoon and Bonnie's face, smooth, freshly made up, gleamed spectacularly under the candlelight, the eyes, their shining lucidity, less in evidence now under the gloom, had turned a darkish blue like sea–water at dusk. Dudu watched her avidly as though she were a new phenomenon that needed to reveal itself phase by phase as the night progressed. Slowly, pleasantly, they were getting drunk. They were leaving on the morrow but for the time being, at least, it seemed as though Bonnie wanted to forget all the fuss about packing, about their imminent departure for her great country, about the immense struggles against world communism still to follow. Dudu was intrigued by Bonnie's seeming indifference to what others thought—for Anna, for Eric Stone or the rest of her fellow Americans.
"Tell me something, Bonnie," Dudu said to the girl, "what is it exactly you're looking for in your life. I mean, this very minute what do you crave for?"
Bonnie giggled, looking confused. "I guess––." She ran the tip of her tongue across her upper lip, staining the tongue with a bit of red. "I guess––." Dudu waited for her to finish but Bonnie only raised her glass and took a sip at the wine, screwing her face, and fine liver–coloured drops clung indelicately to her naked lower lip. With the immaculately white napkin she dabbed insufficiently at the mouth and Dudu watched the reddish stains spreading like bloodspots, leaving an impression of sullied female fecundity upon what only a minute before had been a spotlessly clean white garment. "I guess, I want––." She seemed never able to put into words what she wanted but her eyes swam out to him like a whole night, with its dark phantoms coming his way. Dudu was utterly surrounded by her eyes, by the wide circular movement of her mouth. Finally, Bonnie gave him an immense smile. "Come to my room about midnight. I'll tell you what I want." Her eyelashes flickered minutely. " Come barefoot. Don't wear any shoes, you hear? They make too much noise. Knock once, twice, then knock three rapid ones, an' I'll know it's you. You'll do that for me?"
"Sure thing," Dudu smiled but Bonnie was not smiling anymore.
"Good. Because I'll be waiting up for you. I want to talk to you, Dudu. An' this will be our last chance to really talk. Tomorrow everyone 'll be packin' an' ready to leave."
Like someone under hypnosis, Dudu gazed at her mouth still wet from wine, at the way her lips, spittle–wet like the body of a snail, reminded him of something which was impossible to name; a dark memory, vague but palpable; just that mouth with its frilled look which brought back the memory of darkness, of a certain warmth, the muscular contraction, the exquisite suckling warmth and lubricity of a fine red circular orifice. Beyond that it was difficult to recall, difficult even to describe. Her body bent forward, a vein which ran down the left side of Bonnie's long fine neck throbbed violently as she talked. All at once, Dudu felt an insupportable urge to reach out and touch the swollen length of that vein; he could see her face swimming just above the naked flame of the candlelight: pure, intense, eager.
"You promise you'll come?"
"I promise." The thought, an ungenerous thought, came to Dudu that she was C.I.A. but he couldn't be sure and he didn't care. She was certainly full of corn or con, but she looked lovely. Alcohol did not flush her skin, which looked almost transparent in its purity. After this they drifted apart.
Far into the night, in a country supposedly plagued by chronic shortages, wine was still flowing, aiding the easy flow of conversation. When it was time to leave, Bonnie pressed herself against Dudu, right there at the door while everyone was busy profusely thanking the host and hostess. "Just remember what I said to you. About midnight, without fail," she said urgently.
"I won't forget," Dudu promised.
"Knock once, knock twice, then three rapid ones, an' I'll know it was you."
"Knock once, knock twice, then three rapid ones," Dudu repeated.
"An' don't wear any shoes," Bonnie cautioned.
"And not to wear any shoes."
"Good. And don't you forget. 'Cause shoes make too much noise."
And then she was gone with the others. Through the cracks between the curtains Dudu watched the Americans pile into a single car which presently took off into the dark Polish night, its tail–lights flashing like the eyes of an evil demon. He told himself, if it's adventure she is looking for, thrilling, intoxicating and pleasantly erotic like a sweetly delicious dream, I am ready to oblige her; nevertheless, he suspected that Bonnie was less shallow and more complicated than she let on. An affair with her, however brief, would lead to further complications.
“At last the clock struck the hour of midnight. Dudu fetched a deep sigh of relief. Sliding out of bed, he slipped into his pants and tee–shirt, began rummaging under the bed for his shoes until he remembered Bonnie's warning. ‘Come barefoot!’ It was like being invited to the shrine of a goddess where special ceremonies must be performed. Barefoot, he stepped into the corridor and headed for her room.”
When Dudu got to the hotel Anna Z. was still not back from the cabaret. Trying as much as possible not to dwell on Bonnie's invitation, Dudu slowly got undressed, then slid under the bed covers, and with the lights switched off lay gazing at the pale moon which was stuck like a yellow sticker on a clear night sky. He was never any good at this waiting game, never liked waiting for Anna Z., or back home in the bush lying in ambush for an army truck which would soon drive by and be blown to pieces; at such moments, like the rest of his squad, he was only able to stand the nerve–racking vigil by smoking endless joints of ganja.
At last the clock struck the hour of midnight. Dudu fetched a deep sigh of relief. Sliding out of bed, he slipped into his pants and tee–shirt, began rummaging under the bed for his shoes until he remembered Bonnie's warning. "Come barefoot!" It was like being invited to the shrine of a goddess where special ceremonies must be peformed. Barefoot, he stepped into the corridor and headed for her room. Everywhere there was the sound of leave–taking festivities, everywhere the sound of laughter and music. As Dudu tiptoed past one of the rooms he caught a glimpse of a slim figure, half–hidden from view, leaning against a pillar; then he heard a voice by now grown very familiar to him, enunciating with great clarity: "My friend, but don't you see how we're caught between the horns of a dilemma, between Charybdis and Scylla; between ceaseless labour and ceaseless idleness...."
Dudu could hardly resist a smile of recognition of the source of that passion for raticionation which for the past week had pervaded the Hotel Piast like a ubiquitous voice of prophecy. He was still smiling to himself when he reached Bonnie's room. At the first two taps Bonnie Lelalee did not immediately open the door, but after the three rapid ones she opened the door a tiny crack, then wide enough for Dudu to slip into the dark room unobserved. "Sweet boy! Aren't you a darling to come exactly as you promised?"
"Yah, well. It wasn't exactly the kind of promise that was hard to keep," Dudu explained. Bonnie laughed with something like deep satisfaction.
"Dance with me, Dudu," she said without putting on the light. "Dance with me.“
She was wearing something careless, a loose dressing gown which peeled away slowly under Dudu's fingers, leaving nothing but some flimsy shift of silky material underneath, sleek, ungraspable, smooth–flowing like water. On the radio player a casette was playing a popular tune: “It Could Happen to You.“ "All I did was..." the singer intoned but Dudu was scarcely listening to the words. Even with this insufficient provocation the two midnight celebrants began to dance slowly, carefully, cheek to cheek, exploring each other's skin like unknown territory. Dudu kept reminding himself that despite her lush good looks he felt no great passion for the American girl, only a mild curiosity; that part of his mind wanted to find out before they parted what it was that drove Bonnie into these moments of emotional upheaval and coarse recklessness. She had said she wanted to talk to him; this seemed little enough to ask.
"I'm not choosing one kind of love over another, you understand?" she told him, dancing very close, her arms wrapped around Dudu's neck . "Jesus' love. Human love. I don't know, it gets a little confused. It gets so mixed up you don't know which is first an' which is last. Love one another, the Bible say. Now, there were not too many black boys in Montana when I was a kid, even now come to think of it. But when I was sixteen there was this black boy whose people came from the Coast. He was maybe seventeen or maybe a little older but not much older than that, an' he played a real good guitar...Well, I don't know, I'm just a simple old–fashion' Baptist Republican girl!" She broke off.
They danced very close. Dudu was aware of everything about Bonnie; aware of the texture of the flimsy shift between them and beneath it the breathing closeness of her body, the feel of her warm flesh, the hard prickliness of her small breasts and the smooth firmness of her thighs. She flowed quite easily in his arms. It was like swimming in shallow waters, all the time being conscious of the sandy bottom, knowing the deceiving firmness of that bottom and how it could suddenly undo you, not touching it however, just swimming very close to it, floating. The smell, a vague fragrance of perfume and heat and something else too, invaded his senses and he felt his head going dizzy up there inside her hair. Dudu was feeling hot and sweaty and it seemed to him that there was not enough air to breathe in the room.
"Dudu, baby, hold me," she said. "I'm, oh, so tired. Please, hold me! Otherwise I'll simply collapse like a heap at your feet." And she let her head lie upon his shoulder. There was nothing like her sinuous, elongated slimness, the flowing rhythm of her limbs, the sharp thrusts of her breasts as though something insubstantial as the wind had pushed needle hands into his skin. The feeling was exquisite, the pleasure, the reckless daring, the licence, the abandon, the sense of something inevitable about to happen. It was as though they were somewhere else yet present inside their bodies; and Bonnie was both a part of him and yet separate from him. He plunged into the feathered glory of that voluptuous sensation where lust has its own reason and one is outside oneself, an onlooker, an invitee to spectacle!
"Oh, baby, this is wonderful," Bonnie mumbled like one in a walking dream. Dudu felt the thudding beat of her disloyal heart like a racking wanton tidal wave against his body. When the music stopped he had no knowledge of how or when it had reached that woeful state of cessation; they sat down on her bed, both sweating and short of breath.
"Dudu, darling, I never guessed you were such a good dancer." She pressed herself against him. Then she uttered a surprised chuckle, quite wicked and self–satisfied. "Really, darling, I wouldn't have thought it of you! What a devil you are! Please, try to be decent."
But she continued to run a small finger against the knotted point of Dudu's trousered leg.
Late that morning Dudu was awakened by tremendous din outside his door. A voice he recognised as belonging to Eric Stone, the leader of the American delegation, was yelling: "I'm sure the nigger had something to do with it! Someone saw him leave Bonnie's room at the crack of dawn." Dudu rubbed his eyes, understanding nothing of what the commotion was all about until two members of the Polish milicja knocked on his door. In their careful English they explained to him: a young American woman had just been discovered by the hotel cleaners in her room, lying across her bed, nude, her head facing the wrong way from the rest of her body. The way they kept emphasizing how Bonnie's body had been found 'naked' sounded as if, even in her death, they were fondling her flesh, but Dudu remembered that while they were together Bonnie's body had never been exactly 'naked'; she had had on her small diaphanous shift which he had had to lift gently with his fingers in order to admire her narrow buttocks bathed in the soft moonlight.
Even when they were taking him away he felt no fear, only confusion, the same confusion he had experienced the day his guerrila unit had been encircled by Aquila's battleworn patrol deep in the Ngwadi forests and had to fight its way out inch by inch under the forest undergrowth, using for escape goat tracks and deep ravines known only to mountain herdboys. During that desperate retreat in the African bush the first thing that went was memory. His mind was fixed only on escape; try as he might to picture in his mind his mother, his father and his sister, the memory of their faces became blurred. He was floating in a kind of void. Only the African sky above, like the snow outside the Hotel Piast now, possessed its sharp–edged clarity.
Born in Durban in 1936, he died in Johannesburg in 2010, after an illustrious career as a print journalist, broadcaster, literary critic, novelist and writer across varied genres. His debut novel, Mating Birds, won the Macmillan International Pen Prize and featured in the New York Times’s list of 100 best books published in 1986.
Alongside journalists such as Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Henry Nxumalo, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakasa, Es’kia Mphahlele and Casey Motsisi, he was part of a short-lived 50s black urban political and cultural renaissance in apartheid South Africa. In 1958 he assisted in the production of Athol Fugard’s play, No Good Friday, at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg. In 1959, together with fellow Drum writer Bloke Modisane and American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, he cowrote the script for Come Back Africa, featuring among others, Can Themba and Miriam Makeba. In 1971, his radio play, We Can’t All Be Martin Luther King, was broadcast on BBC Radio.
Lewis Nkosi wrote thunderously and fought a damn good fight for black people’s dignity in Africa and the African diaspora. After leaving South Africa in 1960 on a Nieman Fellowship Scholarship to study journalism at Harvard University on a one-way exit permit, he became one of the finest, most enduring and unforgettable critics of his generation.
Julia Solis organizes events in abandoned spaces and sometimes photographs these for publications or exhibitions. Her most recent book is Capsule Out Of Time on dioramas of decay in West Virginia. More of her work can be found at darkpassage.com / @sunkenpalace