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GREENE, Graham

The Heart of the Matter : excerpt

‘Well, Major Scobie. you know how it is. My store in Sharp Town, that does fine because I am there to keep an eye on it. My store in Macaulay Street - that does not bad because my sister is there. But my store? in Durban Street and Bond Street they do badly. I am cheated all the time. Like all my countrymen, I cannot read or write, and everyone cheats me.’

‘Gossip says you can keep all your stocks in all your stores in your head.’

Yusef chuckled and beamed. ‘My memory is not bad. But it keeps me awake at night, Major Scobie. Unless I take a lot of whisky I keep thinking about Durban Street and Bond Street and Macaulay Street’

‘Which shall I drop you at now?’

‘Oh, now I go home to bed, Major Scobie. My house in Sharp Town, if you please. Wont you come in and have a little whisky?’

‘Sorry. I’m on duty, Yusef.’

‘It is very kind of you, Major Scobie, to give me this lift. Would you let me show my gratitude by sending Mrs Scobie a roll of silk?’

‘Just what I wouldn’t like, Yusef.’

‘Yes, yes, I knew. It’s very hard, all this gossip. Just because there are some Syrians like Tallit’

‘You would like Tallit out of your way, wouldn’t you, Yusef?’

‘Yes, Major Scobie. It would be for my good, but it would also be for your good.’

‘You sold him some of those fake diamonds last year, didn’t you?’

‘Oh, Major Scobie, you don’t really believe I’d get the better of anyone like that. Some of the poor Syrians suffered a great deal over those diamonds, Major Scobie. It would be a shame to deceive your own people like that.’

‘They shouldn’t have broken the law by buying diamonds. Some of them even had the nerve to complain to the police.’

‘They are very ignorant, poor fellows.’

‘You weren’t as ignorant as all that were you, Yusef?’

‘If you ask me, Major Scobie, it was Tallit. Otherwise, why does he pretend I sold him the diamonds?’

Scobie drove slowly. The rough street was crowded. Thin black bodies weaved like daddy-long-legs in the dimmed headlights. ‘How long will the rice shortage go on, Yusef?’

‘You know as much about that as I do, Major Scobie.’

‘I know these poor devils can’t get rice at the controlled price.’

‘I’ve heard. Major Scobie, that they can’t get their share of the free distribution unless they tip the policeman at the gate.’

It was quite true. There was a retort in this colony to every accusation. There was always a blacker corruption elsewhere to be pointed at. The scandalmongers of the secretariat fulfilled a useful purpose - they kept alive the idea that no one was to be trusted. That was better than complacence. Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you didn’t love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed. He felt a sudden affection for Yusef. He said, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right. One day, Yusef, you’ll find my foot under your fat arse.’

‘Maybe, Major Scobie, or maybe well be friends together. That is what I should like more than anything in the world.’

They drew up outside the Sharp Town house and Yusef s steward ran out with a torch to light him in. ‘Major Scobie,’ Yusef said, ‘it would give me such pleasure to give you a glass of whisky. I think I could help you a lot. I am very patriotic, Major Scobie.’

‘That’s why you are hoarding your cottons against a Vichy invasion, isn’t it? They will be worth more than English pounds.’

‘The Esperança is in tomorrow, isn’t she?’

‘Probably.’

‘What a waste of time it is searching a big ship like that for diamonds. Unless you know beforehand exactly where they are. You know that when the ship returns to Angola a seaman reports where you looked. You will sift all the sugar in the hold. You will search the lard in the kitchens because someone once told Captain Druce that a diamond can be heated and dropped in the middle of a tin of lard. Of course the cabins and the ventilators and the lockers. Tubes of toothpaste. Do you think one day you will find one little diamond?’

‘No.’

‘I don’t either.’

A hurricane-lamp burned at each corner of the wooden pyramids of crates. Across the black slow water he could just make out the naval depot ship, a disused liner, where she lay, so it was believed, on a reef of empty whisky bottles. He stood quietly for a while breathing in the heavy smell of the sea. Within half a mile of him a whole convoy lay at anchor, but all he could detect were the long shadow of the depot ship and a scatter of small red lights as though a street were up: he could hear nothing from the water but the water itself, slapping against the jetties. The magic of this place never failed him: here he kept his foothold on the very edge of a strange continent.

Somewhere in the darkness two rats scuffled. These waterside rats were the size of rabbits. The natives called them pigs and ate them roasted; the name helped to distinguish them from the wharf rats, who were a human breed. Walking along a light railway Scobie made in the direction of the markets. At the corner of a warehouse he came on two policemen.

‘Anything to report?’

‘No, sah.’

‘Been along this way?’

‘Oh yes, sah, we just come from there.’

He knew that they were lying: they would never go alone to that end of the wharf, the playground of the human rats, unless they had a white officer to guard them. The rats were cowards but dangerous - boys of sixteen or so, armed with razors or bits of broken bottle, they swarmed in groups around the warehouses, pilfering if they found an easily-opened case, settling like flies around any drunken sailor who stumbled their way, occasionally slashing a policeman who had made himself unpopular with one of their innumerable relatives. Gates couldn’t keep them off the wharf: they swam round from Kru Town or the fishing beaches.

‘Come on,’ Scobie said, ‘we’ll have another look.’

With weary patience the policemen trailed behind him, half a mile one way, half a mile the other. Only the pigs moved on the wharf, and the water slapped. One of the policemen said self-righteously, ‘Quiet night, sah.’ They shone their torches with self-conscious assiduity from one side to another, lighting the abandoned chassis of a car, an empty truck, the corner of a tarpaulin, a bottle standing at the corner of a warehouse with palm leaves stuffed in for a cork. Scobie said, ‘What’s that?’ One of his official nightmares was an incendiary bomb: it was so easy to prepare: every day men from Vichy territory came into town with smuggled cattle - they were encouraged to come in for the sake of the meat supply. On this side of the border native saboteurs were being trained in case of invasion : why not on the other side?

‘Let me see it,’ he said, but neither of the policemen moved to touch it.

‘Only native medicine, sah,’ one of them said with a skin-deep sneer.

Scobie picked the bottle up. It was a dimpled Haig, and when he drew out the palm leaves the stench of dog’s pizzle and nameless decay blew out like a gas escape. A nerve in his head beat with sudden irritation. For no reason at all he remembered Fraser’s flushed face and Thimblerigg’s giggle. The stench from the bottle moved him with nausea, and he felt his fingers polluted by the palm leaves. He threw the bottle over the wharf, and the hungry mouth of the water received it with a single belch, but the contents were scattered on the air, and the whole windless place smelt sour and ammoniac. The policemen were silent: Scobie was aware of their mute disapproval. He should have left the bottle where it stood: it had been placed there for one purpose, directed at one person, but now that its contents had been released, it was as if the evil thought were left to wander blindly through the air, to settle maybe on the innocent.

‘Good night,’ Scobie said and turned abruptly on his heel. He had not gone twenty yards before he heard their boots scuffling rapidly away from the dangerous area.

Scobie drove up to the police station by way of Pitt Street. Outside the brothel on the left-hand side the girls were sitting along the pavement taking a bit of air. Within the police station behind the black-out blinds the scent of a monkey house thickened for the night. The sergeant on duty took his legs off the table in the charge-room and stood to attention.

‘Anything to report?’

‘Five drunk and disorderly, sah. I lock them in the big cell.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Two Frenchmen, sah, with no passes.’

‘Black?’

‘Yes, sah.’

‘Where were they found?’

‘In Pitt Street, sah.’

‘I’ll see them in the morning. What about the launch? Is it running all right? I shall want to go out to the Esperança.’