In my first memory as a child, I sit naked in a garden somewhere in the Congo watching ants scutter in line. They lug the pale green carcass of a grasshopper, its limbs rigid in death. It is noon and the world is immersed in a silence, broken only now and then by the raucous caw of a solitary crow. To my right stands an enormous tickberry bush, its flowers bursting with colour like a thousand minuscule fireworks. Their sweet scent envelops me. Beyond that, my memory is awash with sun, like an overexposed photograph. It fades and leaves a blank space, where impression meets imagination.
“So you’re deeply attracted to the Congo?”
“But you’ve never been back?”
We left Africa in the late seventies and moved back to Munich. I was only six at the time and so my memory is a little patchy. Over the years, I have reconstructed the Congo in my mind. It looks a lot like African stamps—rich and vibrant in colour, but also cartoonish, as if freshly drawn with a brand new box of colouring pencils. I see a kaleidoscopic cloud of butterflies; a carpet of exotic flowers –voluptuous orchids, deceptive frangipani, seductive birds of paradise. I see trees heavy with fruit, but also snakes and other hidden dangers lurking behind each and every leaf.
“Have you ever thought about going back?”
“Yes, of course I have, but…”
When we lived in Africa, I had a collection of stamps. I used to sit on the patio soaking envelopes in warm water until the adhesive softened and the stamps peeled up. One day, I managed to detach some beautiful crocodile stamps. My father was at work and Philippe, a friend of my parents, had come to visit. He and my mother were inside the house. I called her from the patio, wanting to show her the new addition to my album, but no one answered. So I jumped down from my chair and walked to the front door, only to find that it was locked. I banged hard and shouted—still nothing happened. Discouraged, I sank to the ground, my back against the wall, waiting for my mother and Philippe to re-emerge. A millipede lay in the sand and I poked it with a stick. It was dead. Above me, in the jacaranda tree, resounded the loud kraa of a crow.
“What’s holding you back?”
“Something that happened when I was a child.”
Back in Europe, life was dreary. All I remember is grey—the sky, the buildings, the streets, even the people. We lived in a small flat in a large, featureless block. The lifts permanently smelled of dog excrement. My father left at the crack of dawn to go to work, and he only returned late at night, just before I had to go to sleep. He used to come and sit on the edge of my bed to read me a story. Then he tickled and cuddled me, and kissed me goodnight. It was the highlight of my day. That, and my African stamps, which seemed even brighter, more beautiful now the world around me had been sapped of colour. I leafed through my album and was instantly among the buffaloes and lions, zebras and giraffes.
“So what happened?”
“One day, I found these stamps…”
Every Thursday, after my mother picked me up from school, we passed by the post office. She had a private box with her own key. I wasn’t sure why she needed one of those—we also received mail at home. Not until later did I understand… Every week, there was a letter in that box. I only saw it briefly, because my mother hid it quickly in her bag. I knew it came from the Congo—I spotted the vivid stamps on the envelope and I wanted them. But they were forbidden fruit: the look on my mother’s face told me I should not ask for them, nor mention them at home. One day, while she was making my dinner, I noticed one of those envelopes sticking out from her bag. The stamps were so tempting. They depicted precious stones of the Congo—the petrified green waves of malachite; the violet transparency of amethyst. Those had to be in my collection.
“I stole them.”
I took the envelope and hid it under my pillow. That evening, my father came to my bedroom as usual. He had bought a bible and he read me the story of Adam and Eve. It all seemed so improbable at the time—a ludicrous punishment for such a trivial crime. But then my own sin brought it all home.
“So you’re hesitant to return to Africa because of some stamps?”
“No, of course not. It’s what happened because of them.”
After he told me the story, my father bent over to kiss me good night. He buried his face in my neck to tickle me. I was screaming with laughter when his hand touched something under my pillow and he suddenly stopped. He pulled out the envelope. There was a silence while he inspected it. Then I saw him go pale and tremble. I was worried he was going to scold me for stealing it. But the only sound that came from his lips was a barely audible “Philippe…” He then kissed my forehead and left the room, forgetting to switch off the light. My parents divorced shortly after and, even though I continued to dream of Africa, I never looked at my stamps again.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand.”
“Do you have time for another drink?”
I was thirty years old the first time I told someone what had happened. Ben and I were sitting outside on rusty chairs in a small café somewhere in Calabria. Thick, grey clouds blanketed the sky and a scent of wild mint hung in the air. It was unusually cool for that time of year. I told Ben everything, then we sat in silence. I dropped my cigarette and bent to pick it up. Among the gravel and thorny weeds lay the body of a dead gecko, contorted and squashed, covered in tiny ants. I took a deep drag from my cigarette and just above me, somewhere in the pines, reverberated the sharp, hoarse caw of a crow.
Brecht De Poortere was born in Belgium and grew up in Africa. He now lives in Paris, France, where he writes (primarily) about his experiences living abroad. He’s also obsessed with ranking literary journals by their number of Twitter followers. You can find his ranking and more of his writing at www.brechtdepoortere.com or you can follow him on Twitter @brecht_dp.
This is a fine piece of writing. Sorry I’m so late to read it.
Comments are closed.