Tropical Jungles ( A Story)
“Thank you for your advice. I have no time for you.
She could, perhaps, write to him a strongly-worded letter, like this, bitter yet with calculating civility, a brief answer of no more than two lines. She could give him up in the same way that gamblers, whose whole fortune hangs on a number above or below the winning number, leave their dream castles without a word of farewell.
She had got to know him before he was sent on business to Uganda. She used to work with him in on of the branches of an Arab bank in London. He was an important official, while she was the English secretary, Elaine.
Once, she had read the biography of Lawrence of Arabia. When she asked him what he had thought of the film, he answered her question with a look of disdain as if she had suddenly changed the subject. So she went back to her chair and resumed her secretarial duties. After that, they each tried to score off the other, while pretending it was the other who was starting an argument or quarrel. He did that in his devious Eastern way, while she went about it with extreme craft and subtlety. Being curious by nature, she insisted on knowing who had been the first to start the argument. But this often made her more involved, and landed her in mysterious world in which the feelings of fear and adventure could not be easily disentangled. It was as if the third world were muddled but innocent world, well equipped with guns and tanks, yet watching her closely like a child.
A soon as he arrived in Uganda he sent her a postcard:
“Dear Mrs. Rogers,( That was her married name) :
Greeting and best wishes to you from Kampala. The beautiful modern city. There is everything one needs here. Life runs smoothly, and the weather is generally pleasant, especially at night. My regards to all our friends. Looking forward to hearing from you at the earliest opportunity.
She repeated the phrase “especially at night,” then she took a pen and wrote him a letter. After all there was no harm in friendly relationship between people. She sent him her greetings, and told him how much she admired his style in writing English, and that she liked the postcard, which was a picture of a group of Africans performing a folk-dance during the independence celebrations. She mentioned at the end of the letter that she was prepared to send him books or anything else he needed from London. She ended her letter by complaining of the cold in London and asking him to send her a little sunshine in a bottle. At the end she added:
“I have not given your regards to any of our friends (meaning the bank employees), nor have I told them that I have received a card from you. Who can tell whether the friends of today might not be the enemies of tomorrow?”
She signed the letter “yours sincerely, Elaine”. She wrote her Christian name only, without adding her married name. The letter was speedily sent to Uganda. She waited three weeks for an answer. Finally, his handwriting, next to a stamp on which was a picture of an African young man with milk-white teeth, reached her. It read:
I can hardly neglect someone like you. Someone who is good and kind. I shall never forget how kind you were to me during my last days in Britain. I’ve kept your letter in my pocket, my left pocket, all this time. I read it several times, although you don’t speak you mind, nor did I do that while I was in London. Your farewell gift to me is with me. It is the only one of the gifts I received from my friends in London which I brought with me.
You said you had decided to go on holiday in August. How about coming to Uganda? I can send you an air ticket and take care of all your expenses. The slogan ‘Africa for the Africans,’ of course, would exclude a sweet, lovely person like you. What do you think of my suggestion? Nights in Uganda are full of stars, but it needed more than one person to count them.
He did not sign his full name, only his initials. And all she needed was a pen to write him a quick answer :
“Dear Mr Al-Jadiri,
I still feel awkward when I call you by your first name. I received your last letter. I had no idea you were sentimental. To tell you the truth, I waited for your letter so long that I thought you were not going to write to me at all. I even began to curse you under my breath.
I was so touched by your invitation to me to visit Uganda. But in my present difficult circumstances I cannot possibly accept. You know very well that I am married and have a child. I sometimes blame myself for writing to you at all. Could your feelings towards me perhaps amount to nothing more than mere passion? Please don’t be angry with me. I want to talk to you frankly about a very important matter. I have had no relations with any other man than my husband. I have no experience of men, having married very young. As I said, my husband has been the only man in my life and I am still only 24 years old. I am not used to brief and casual affairs. I must tell you how I miss you.
P.S. Has your car arrived? They told me it would take two months to ship it out to Uganda. If it hasn’t arrived yet, then I’ll get in touch with them to see what has happened.”
Once again she was very diplomatic, something she had inherited from her ancestors. She used to find excuses to keep their relationship going. One of the best excuses was when she rang him up at his flat before he left for Uganda. The call was an official one, or at least she had tired to make it seem so. She had misled him so that he would mislead her. He had wanted to have his car shipped out to Uganda by a well known company. But by a mere coincidence she had come across another company which was more efficient and reasonable. It charged £20.00 less than the well known company. She had his telephone number, and getting in touch with him was a tempting prospect, as if the £20.00 she was going to save would feed the starving people of Africa. She dialled his number:
“Hello. Yes, it’s me.”
“Is it you?”
“Yes, it is.”
He was delighted to be talking to her. It was evening and he was shaving. He had told her so and she seemed to be pleased by that.
“Where do these Arabs spend their evenings?” She wondered. “Dining? Well, who with? Perhaps it is not important?”
He was a bachelor and had a very seductive voice. The next time she telephoned him he had already shaved and dressed, and was waiting for her call.
“You’re late. I’ve been waiting for your call for over an hour.”
“I couldn’t get through easily to the shipping company. The man in charge is away. In the end I accepted their offer. The difference in the charges of the two companies is £20.00.”
That was how a car with rubber tyres came to play an important part in the development of their relationship. This led to an exchange of questions about the number of her children, whether love survived marriage, what time he got up on Sundays, and if he should not smoke less. Did he drink alcohol , and how long was he going to stay a bachelor ?! She went on to say:
“Until you’ll be 45 perhaps, and then you’ll marry an 18 year old girl.”
“Elaine, you’ve hurt my feelings. Do you think I’m like that?”
“No, but isn’t that the sort of thing done in your country?”
He cut her short with gentle words, saying that he had not met the right girl yet. The girl whom he was ready to love, and to whom he hand over the key to his empty heart. She knew, just as he knew, that his heart had never been empty, and that the key to it, together with the key to his flat, was often on loan, and that the lock was never firm. Once, three months previously, while overcome with emotion, she telephoned him and heard the soft tones of a young woman speaking English. She had guessed that it was his girlfriend who was at that time in his flat. Now that she had a good excuse she decided to get in touch with him. The subject of the car was a good excuse, a big green excuse. The car being green. It had to be sent out to Uganda by a company that did not charge too much. It seemed to be the most reasonable of the British shipping companies that were all in it for a big profit. She wanted to save him £20.00 with which to buy thousands loaves of bread, loaves to feed the poor of the earth. She had been eager to give him the necessary information in the evening, instead of waiting until the following morning. It was a matter of great importance and urgency.
Fortunately, this time she did not hear the young woman’s voice she had heard before. Instead she felt as if she were carried in a dream. She felt happy and light-hearted. She began to sing in the kitchen, contrary to her usual habit. She sang while she washed up, made the beds and swept the stairs. Boring, routine housework became something secondary to the songs which expressed the joys of love and the happy expectations of future meetings. It was amazing how people’s lives could be transformed from the life of a ewe or a sow to the winged life of a dove or a nightingale.
The letters he wrote her were sent to her Scottish neighbour’s address. She put them under the mat in her neighbour’s sitting room, after she had read them. The two women used to read and reread the letters together out of a sense of loyalty and friendship. They used to share a joke and exchange a few pleasantries from time to time, while her neighbour’s husband was not around. Another postcard she received read as follows:
I shall be going to Algeria on a special mission, and then on to Ghana and Cairo. I don’t know where I’ll be staying. I shall be getting in touch with you soon.”
It was a brief note. But, at least, it was better than nothing. She tried, as she put, to read between the lines, and to explain the obvious. But she could not come to grips with the situation. She took the postcard and put it under the mat at the neighbour’s. The card was soon forgotten under the dusty mat.
It was nearly time for her holiday. She was getting ready to leave with her husband and child for Spain. It was not her decision, but her husband’s. Spain was a good idea. After all it was the nearest European country to Africa. They had decided to spend a fortnight there. In her next letter she would write and tell him that she travelled across the seas to be near him. On her return with husband and child she would send him Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. She might even send him a poem she had composed herself. She had started to dabble in poetry. She might very likely say:
“Here is one of my poems:
I have been searching for you since Eternity
In the Scriptures, Moses,
Mohammed, Jesus, Zarathustra,
But the only flame I found was within me.”
The day following her return from Spain she took her handbag and went to work. London seemed to her like a wise old woman staring at her knowingly and maliciously. London was not one of her favourite cities, at any rate. It was not Accra or Kampala, not even Beirut or Baghdad or Cairo or Tunis. She had come to a point of devouring the maps of Asia and Africa, in order to follow step by step the route taken by the postcards and letters which she longed to receive. She remembered appropriate literary quotations from the works of writers who were relatively little known. She would use phrases, which had stuck in her mind, describing palm trees, deserts, tropical jungles, the perfumes of India and exotic delicacies, and she would pretend, without any hesitation, that she had written them herself. For instance, Lawrence Durrell says that a city becomes a complete world if one loved just one of its inhabitants. She wondered why people live in these cold islands. She often asked people that question. She herself wanted to talk about things other than the weather of the British Isles. She also disliked European dress, heavy taxation, eating potatoes every day, blue eyes and classical music. She settled down to the idea of being permanently unsettled.
But then another letter came.
You stood one day in front of the altar and promised in the presence of your husband and all the congregation to take your husband for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. You gave yourself to your husband unquestioningly. This is precisely what you did when you married him.
As far as you and I concerned, I feel that we have reached a point in our relationship where we have got to come to a decision. I am a bachelor, and so have nothing to lose. I am a man whose life could very well come to an end by a stray bullet, or a car accident, or even a plane crash. Who knows? You, on the other hand, have everything to lose, everything, your husband and your country. I can’t give you anything better in return. I can just see you wanting to strangle me with your beautiful hands for saying what I have just said. But I feel I owe it to you to be honest because I just can’t hurt anyone who has never hurt me, nor can I bear to cause suffering to person who has never wished me any ill. What will your husband say when he finds our letters? You probably think I am mad worrying about mere letters, and that our relationship amounts to nothing more than those letters. What I’d like is to spare you any unnecessary problems and complications. You are beautiful beyond words. You exude beauty from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. You are a Venus without exaggeration. I wish I had been an artist to paint a portrait of you and immortalise you for centuries to come, for generations after generations, just like the Mona Lisa. I have known many beautiful women, but you far outshine them all. You are endowed with far greater beauty and a pleasant disposition and kindness that knows no limits.
You ask me if what I feel towards you does not amount to mere physical attraction. I feel I must answer you with all sincerity. I can’t deny that I am a man. But when I asked you to come to Uganda I only had your interest and well-being at heart. I wanted to make you happy. I could have taken advantage of my position at work in London to make advances to you as I longed to do. But I respect you, and I respect myself. I can’t flirt with a woman who is married and a mother, in other words a woman who belongs to another man. That was why our relationship remained within very strict limits, in spite of my real feelings towards you. Perhaps I felt something more towards you than you did towards me.”
She wondered what had happened to make him say all that. How could he be so cruel? They seemed to get on very well and had a good relationship. What had happened to him? Her Scottish neighbour tried to comfort her, as they read the letter together. No, no, that could not possibly be true. What was it that had happened? “He is mad,” she thought. “I must try to understand his motives.” Elaine read the letter for the fourth time and wondered again what had happened. Why this virtue all of a sudden? Why all this advice? It was the preaching that bothered most. She snatched the letter from her neighbour’s hand. Her neighbour was also astonished by his behaviour. Elaine’s neighbour had thought him sensible and highly sensitive. He had seemed to her almost a child, a handsome Arab, one of the rare treasures of the East. He was someone better than maharajah, carrying all the promises and riches of the East to Elaine and to her as well. Elaine’s neighbour had forgotten all about love, let alone the pleasures of travel. The thought of this man had renewed in her the desire to travel again. She began to read the names of foreign cities, which seemed strange to her. She would exclaim: “Oh, that’s a place I’d like to see.” She came to know, once more, the pangs of love, realising that she too had been in love once. That had been twenty years ago when her husband was still a young man. He had been courageous, loved and respected by all. But that was all before the arrival of their five children, and her husband had become addicted to alcohol, while she herself seemed forever to be looking for the scattered shoes of her children before they went to school each morning. Everything that was worthwhile had come to an end, the longing, the expectations and the tender feelings.
The two women sat down again on the sofa, and the neighbour said: “Calm down, Elaine. I’ll make you a cup of tea in a minute. Just sit down for a while.” But she refused to do so. “No, no, no, it isn’t possible. He simply can’t put an end to our relationship so casually. Why does he complicate things? Everything was running smoothly and naturally between us, so much so that whenever our hands touched in the bank when I handed him the stamps, it was done in the gentlest way. He used to ask me to take down his letters, and I would sit at his desk facing him. He often found a good pretext to call me. He always timed it so that we would keep coming across each other. It was strange how sensitive he was, as if he had feelers all over his body.”
“Thank you for all your good advice, but I have no time for you
She would write to him a letter in this tone, a harsh tone, full of malice and totally indifferent. She looked on both sides of the letter for his address, but she could not find it anywhere. “Look, he hasn’t even left his address, as if I am someone who could rape him.” *
* Translated by Farida Abu – Haidar