Sport 32: Summer 2004
Debbie Hill — Acrid
Over the border from Côte d'Ivoire into Ghana the bus stopped at a fruit market smelling richly of open sewers. Five big market women with twists of fabric on their heads stood around Laura. She was small, fair-haired and flaccid-armed.
‘What you looking for?’ the pineapple stall-holder asked Laura.
‘So don't come here. We need money so if you window shopping go to the store.’
‘I'm not allowed to look?’ said Laura.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Go away.’
The women waited.
‘Well, I don't care what you think. I'm going to look.’
‘Okay, carry on,’ she said.
‘Okay, give me one pineapple,’ said Laura.
A man with a collarless white satin jacket laughed behind her. The market women looked at him admiringly.
‘I am Innocent,’ he said, offering Laura a pink palm.
He was wide-eyed with sharp cheek bones. Laura had seen him watching her when she was sitting on the back seat of the bus, soporific, between the bare, plump arms of two Ghanaian women.
Back on the bus they sat together, eating pineapple. The bus was airless and smelt of dead crab and escargot bought on the roadside in Cote d'Ivoire, mixed with the acrid odour of Innocent's deodorant on white satin.
Innocent told Laura he had come back to visit his family in Ghana after living in Paris for some years. At first he had slept in parks in Paris, then learnt French and was now getting regular acting work.
‘And what brings you to Ghana, Laura?’
‘Just looking,’ she said, picking strands of pineapple from her teeth.page 217
Innocent helped her find a taxi in the heat and red dust of Accra.
‘Your hair is very fine, Laura, take care,’ he said.
‘You go fit be my wife, my fren, my sista?’ the taxi driver asked.
‘No, I don't want to be your wife, your fren, your sista. I just want go hotel,’ said Laura.
He laughed out the open window, turned around and shook her hand, clicking her finger.
The hotel was on the sea front in the city centre and had once been fairly grand. It had a large empty swimming pool with deep cracks. The diving board was still there but the stairs leading to it had gone. The receptionist wore a black bouffant wig. One hand supported her cheek while she wrote Laura's name in a ledger.
‘Where is my Exmas box?’ she drawled.
‘Where is your what?’
She leaned over and looked Laura in the eyes.
‘Dash me some Christmas money.’
The roar and smell of the sea draped the bare white walls and louvre windows of her room.
In the morning Laura went down to the dirty beach in front of the hotel. She watched fishermen walking along the shore intrigued by a white woman with a taut brown body in a g-string bikini, doing scissor exercises. Laura had seen her the day before in the hotel restaurant, with a man who looked Lebanese, eating chicken and rice with a cigarette and coke. She had looked miserable.
Laura put her towel next to hers on the beach, keeping her T-shirt on and looking at her own white thighs spreading across the towel.
The woman said she was Adriana, from Italy, and had come back to find her boyfriend, a black American she had lived with in Accra. She couldn't stop thinking about him.
‘He was fantastic in bed but what was I to do all day? I cook something then he goes out again. I was screaming with the boredom and then he kicked me out. I have to find him.’
Laura asked her about the Lebanese man.
‘He says he will help me find him. He takes me here and there and page 218 we have a bit of sex.’ She tutted. ‘Promise me you won't tell anyone what I just told you.’
She took off her bikini top and lay on her stomach.
‘Now I'm so tired. I like you Laura. You and me we should go out with two young black men and have some fun.’
Later Adriana went to get some barbecued chicken from a beach stall. Laura saw her talking to two Indian men and pointing at her.
‘They're coming for us tonight. Come. Let's go, we can have some fun, they are born in Ghana, they'll take us around, clubs, dancing. You can have either one, I don't mind, for you only Laura.’
Laura liked the idea of being taken around by locals.
‘Okay Adriana, only for you,’ she said and cracked a molar on the chicken bone. ‘I've broken my tooth.’
They met for dinner in the open-air restaurant before their dates arrived. Adriana wore a short pink skirt and a white crocheted top, her white bra and brown skin showing through the holes. Her long brown layered hair was freshly brushed and the pink lipstick made her look older, Laura thought. Her slip-on shoes clicked on the stained terrazzo floor. Laura had washed her hair and rubbed it at the roots to make it fuller. She wore dark pants and a grey T-shirt.
When the waiter finally came Laura ordered chicken with groundnut sauce.
‘Sorry we have no chicken.’
The waiter looked out into the night behind their heads.
‘But I really wanted chicken.’
The waiter paused.
‘Okay, we have chicken.’
Sushil and Ranjit were smirking when they arrived. Their long-sleeved shirts were well-pressed and tucked in at the waist. Ranjit was young with long black lashes. His family owned a small electrical shop in the city. Sushil, older with round cheeks, had an import-export business.
‘Where are you from, Laura?’ Ranjit asked.
‘Oh, very good.’page 219
The conversation slumped into another silence.
‘Come on, I'm bored here,’ said Adriana.
They finished their drinks and left in an awkward line, Adriana leading. Laura hit her hip against the wooden arm of a chair as they left.
‘Sorry,’ said Sushil, behind her.
They drove to a beach with headless palm trees and Sushil passed around a joint. Two men stood at the black water's edge in some religious rite, one with arms outstretched, Christ-like, the other bent over and muttering.
‘What are they doing?’ Laura whispered to Ranjit.
‘These Africans, Laura, they do some very, very strange stuff,’ he said, waving his head from side to side.
The joint had made Laura's mouth dry and she couldn't find a way to sit. She locked her hands under her knees with her chin resting on top, her tongue exploring the broken molar. Ranjit had put his hand on Adriana's knee. He was talking in Hindi to Sushil and giggling.
‘What's so funny?’ Adriana asked, annoyed. ‘You bring us here, it's no fun, me and Laura are wasting our time, I hate your stupid talk.’
Ranjit leaned over and whispered to her. She lit a cigarette and smiled. He laughed and said, ‘You know, Laura, Sushil has a wife and two children.’
‘Oh.’ She coughed. ‘Where are they?’
Ranjit laughed again.
‘That is a very technical question,’ Sushil replied.
He looked at her for a few moments.
‘I see you have cried too much in your life.’
Ranjit's hand was creeping further up Adriana's skirt. He suddenly jumped up, shaking his hand in the air.
‘She stubbed her cigarette on my hand! Bitch! Bitch!’
Adriana stood up.
‘Come, Laura, we go!’
Ranjit grabbed Adriana's hand and pushed it hard back against the wrist. She pulled away from him and Laura followed her, the sand dune dragging down their knees and shoulders.
‘Bok, bok, bok. You look like a chicken, Laura!’ Sushil shouted.page 220
They stood on the dusty edge of the road, unsure of where they were. A small white Toyota drove past then reversed back. Innocent got out of the car and laughed.
‘I thought it was you. What are you doing here?’
He looked curiously at Adriana.
‘Innocent, this is Adriana. I met her at the hotel.’
He asked where they wanted to go; Adriana wanted to go home.
‘Please Adriana, I will take you home but first let me take you both for a drink.’
Laura saw a drinking bar called ‘Don't Mind Your Wife’ up ahead.
‘There,’ she said, pointing.
‘No, no, Laura, not there I think. I know a better one.’
Laura looked at Innocent driving and saw the perfect line of his jaw meeting his neck. For a few moments the thumping of Hindi film music filled the car as Sushil and Ranjit sped past.
They sat at wet aluminium tables outside at the ‘Time Heals’ drinking bar. It had white-washed walls on three sides, an uneven concrete floor and no roof. Loud Ghanaian High Life music crackled through thin speakers and a man and a woman danced slowly in a small area clear of tables. Innocent had put on his white satin jacket. A waiter brought them three very cold beers.
Laura asked Innocent why the waiter was wearing yellow sunglasses.
‘He has Apollo.’
‘When Apollo 11 landed on the moon there was an epidemic of conjunctivitis and so we call it Apollo.’
They both laughed.
‘Why is Ghana so funny?’ she asked.
‘Because they do things for their own sake, not for a reason.’
Innocent went to buy some kebabs from the stall next to the bar.
‘You like him Laura, don't you. You never tell me about him. Why?’
‘I don't know, it didn't seem necessary.’
Adriana looked very tired.
‘And, Laura, I tell you everything, everything! Is he your boyfriend?’
‘No! Of course not. I just met him on a bus. Anyway I think he's gay, don't you?’page 221
‘He's very handsome. Why don't you go for him, Laura? Because he's black?’
Laura took a drink of beer and wiped the condensation off on her trousers. She thought of when she stabbed a guy in the hand with a broken glass in a bar, for no reason. That's when she'd left. She'd been quieter since.
‘Didn't you feel better when you did that to Ranjit?’ Laura said.
Adriana shook her head. Innocent came back to the table.
‘I go now, Laura. You stay here,’ Adriana said.
‘No,’ said Innocent. ‘I promised to take you home. Let's go.’
As they walked to the car Innocent stopped Laura and pulled her to him. Her damp hands fused with the back of his satin jacket and she smelt his deodorant. As he bent to kiss her she saw the small white pimples around his mouth.
Innocent seemed unaware of Adriana's mood in the car while Laura could feel it against the back of her neck. The road passed through the huge city tip; the smell was so strong it was almost solid. As Laura rolled up her window, Innocent rolled his down. He put his head out, flaring his nostrils, drawing in the smell deeply and laughing.
‘Aah, it's good to be home.’
‘Stop it!’ shouted Adriana. ‘It's disgusting!’
Innocent ignored her, putting his shoulders out and breathing in more fiercely.
‘Take it, Laura!’
He was waist out now, throwing his head back. Laura took the steering wheel in one hand and the car swayed.
‘I can't,’ she said.
‘Stop it!’ Adriana said as she rocked the back of Laura's seat.
Laura's arm jerked sideways and Innocent slipped back in and they were jolted forwards for a moment, unsure of what they had hit. An old man with matted hair lay across the car bonnet, his eyes open and staring inside the car. The car slowed and he rolled onto the road. Innocent sped up and the car bumped over him like a speed hump, twice.
‘Jesus Maria, Jesus Maria, stop the car. Stop! Laura, make him stop!’ Adriana screamed.page 222
Innocent was pale and gripping the steering wheel.
‘You want to go back? And do what? Mouth to mouth? Put him in the back of the car next to Adriana? You want that, Adriana?’
His eyes were very white and big as he spoke, his voice getting louder.
‘Or maybe we just go to the police station and explain very nicely to them what happened? And we will be months explaining. And you will call in the embassies for some help and goodbye me. Believe me, nobody cares about him. And my dear Laura, was I driving or were you?’
Adriana leaned forward and pulled Laura's hair.
‘Let go of my hair you bitch. How can I make him stop?’ Laura shouted at her, pushing her hand away.
As the car slowed in front of the hotel, Laura opened the door and vomited chicken and rice and beer and her own spit and bile onto gravel.
The next afternoon Laura went to Adriana's room. She was still in bed, tearful.
‘Laura, I think I get malaria. I want you to stay with me, here in this room. Please close the windows, the sea is making me sick.’
Laura brought her coffee and bread. She ate it at the dressing table.
‘So alone, so alone,’ she said to her face in the mirror, smiling.
‘Why don't you go back to Italy, Adriana?’
‘How can I go back until I find my boyfriend?’
She looked at Laura in the mirror.
‘Laura, do you think Innocent would help me find him?’
In the taxi to the airport Laura sat in the back seat between gashes in the red plastic upholstery. She chewed the flaking skin from around her nails.
The taxi driver said, ‘Can I come wid you?’
She spat a fleck of skin and it landed on the shoulder of his brown jacket. She thought how it would probably stay there all day.