Two For Tanner Page 2

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He certainly had a problem. Under less restricted circumstances I probably would have been a good deal more sympathetic. But I too had a problem, and mine had a temporal urgency his did not share. Another few hours of celibacy would not kill him, while a few more hours in my birdcage would resolve itself in hanging or decapitation or whatever sort of fun and games was on the morrow’s agenda.

“I suppose you have had women?”

“Oh,” I said. “Yes, uh, yes I have.” And so I had, and it was the possession of one such, Tuppence Ngawa by name, that had brought me to Thailand in the first place.

“Many women?”

“Not too many.”

“What are they like?”

“Better than ham.”

“Pardon me?”

“Never mind,” I said. It was a reference to an old joke about a priest and a rabbi, a joke that couldn’t make much sense to a Thai. Besides, it was a diversion; the main thing now was to find a way to escape, and the only hope was this unhappy virgin, and-

Of course.

“There is nothing on earth to match the embrace of a woman,” I said. “I am not without extensive experience in such matters and I can tell you that no other sensation is its equivalent. The soft, sweet texture of female flesh, of breasts and legs, of hungry lips and tender doe-like eyes, the taste of a woman, the subtle but pungent aroma of a woman…”

I went on in this vein for quite a while. It had the desired effect. The poor clown had a fairly short fuse to begin with, and this was sheer agony for him. “Stop,” he said at last. “Please stop.”

“It is unfair that you have never known such joy. If only I were free, I would do something about it.”

“You would?”

“Of course, my friend.”

“But what would you do?”

“I would help you find a woman.”

“You could do this?”

“With ease and with pleasure.”

He hesitated for a moment. “It is a trick,” he said suddenly. “It is a capitalist imperialist trick, a trick.”

And he went away.

I slapped a mosquito and said something obscene in Siamese. At sunrise they were going to kill me. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know why, but it hardly mattered. I had to get away, and they were not going to let me get away, and my little virginal friend had decided that he did not trust me. I hadn’t slept in seventeen years and tomorrow I would go to sleep and I would never wake up. I could barely remember what sleep was like, but the way I remembered it, the best part of it was waking up refreshed, and that was a part I couldn’t look forward to. They were going to put me to sleep, and that would be the end of it.

“You would really get me a woman?”

He had returned. It was darker now, and his voice was more urgent now, and I could guess what he had been spending his time thinking about. Capitalist imperialist trick or no, I was his one chance, just as he was mine. Alliances have been forged upon less than that.

“I will.”

“I have decided to trust you, my friend.”

“Good.”

“I shall help you.”

“They will kill me at sunrise unless we do something about it.”

“We will escape.”

“Good.”

“Together.”

“Good.”

“I go now. When it is darker, when the camp sleeps, I shall return. I go now, my friend, my good friend.”

I celebrated by slapping another mosquito. They were fairly bad during the days and considerably worse at night, and night was coming. The mosquitoes had bothered me most the first day in the jungle, but by the time I was captured the ferocity of their attack had diminished to a great extent. By now they mostly let me alone. What with my diet and my dysentery and the raids of earlier mosquitoes, I must have been running out of blood.

I wondered if my little friend would ever come back and whether his help would make much difference one way or the other. The cage could only be opened by lowering it to the ground, which in turn could not be done without making a hell of a racket and waking the entire camp. Furthermore, sentries stayed awake the entire night, so that even if I escaped from the cage, I would probably be caught trying to sneak out of the camp. And if I wasn’t caught, I would have a whole jungle to walk through.

I wondered if the Land Rover still worked. It had been at about the end of its tether anyway; the path that had brought me the last little bit of the way to the guerrilla encampment was barely wide enough to admit the car, and was so overgrown in spots that a less rugged vehicle would have given up miles earlier. So even if the Land Rover were still operable, which was doubtful, I couldn’t count on it to take me anywhere.

Was there anything of value in the car? Nothing much, really. The extra clothing I had brought would have been appropriated by the guerrillas, just as they had taken what I was wearing. They probably would have left the butterfly-collecting equipment alone. The spreading board, the killing jar, the butterfly net, all the little accoutrements designed to cover my presence in the jungles and rubber plantations of Thailand, and all quite wasted now. These guerrillas did not seem to care whether I was a bona fide lepidopterist or a sneaky spy. All they wanted to do was kill me.

I closed my eyes and cursed. I cursed Tuppence’s father for going back to Africa and conceiving Tuppence in the first place. I cursed Tuppence for coming first from Nairobi to New York, and then from New York to Bangkok. I cursed the King of Thailand for being a modern jazz enthusiast and I cursed Tuppence for being a thief, and over and above it all I cursed myself for being several different kinds of a damned fool.

Then I stopped cursing and started thinking, and of the two thinking turned out to be the more productive, because by the time night had fallen once and for all and my little Thai friend had crept soundlessly to my cage and whispered his presence, I had it all figured out.

“The automobile,” I said. “Is it still where I left it?”

“The automobile?”

“The motor car.”

“The motor car?”

“The automobile, the motor car, the horse of metal with rubber feet-”

“Ah, the automobile! It is on the path in the clearing to the south.”

“And has anything been taken from it?”

“Your clothing was taken, and the rubber feet were removed.”

I wondered why. “But the other objects in the back seat?”

“They are where they were.”

“And could you gain access to the automobile?”

“I could.”

“And bring me certain articles from the back seat?”

“I could.”

“Then, I think we may have a chance for freedom. You will have many tasks to perform between now and the rising of the sun, but if you work very hard and if luck is with us, I think there is a fair chance that we may succeed.”

“And I will have a woman?”

“You will have a woman.”

“Then, it is worth whatever risks must be taken.”

“It certainly is.”

“And you will be saved, and we will run away, and they will not lead you to the chopping block and sever your head by driving the blade of the ax through your neck.”

I swallowed. “Is that what they had planned?”

“It is how executions are performed here.”

“A sort of neck-Thai party,” I said. But I said it in English because of course it wouldn’t work in Siamese, and in English it made no sense to my little friend. “An old saying of my forefathers,” I explained. “Nothing at all. We need not concern ourselves with it. We have much work ahead of us.”

“Tell me what I must do.”

“Go to the automobile and remove the battery-”

“What is a battery?”

“You raise the hood and-”

“The hood?”

“We have much work ahead of us,” I said.

Chapter 2

My first meeting with Miss T’pani Ngawa took place at a PAUL meeting held on a rainy Thursday night in a storefront church on Lenox Avenue at 138th Street. I lived several blocks and a few light-years away on 107th Street near Broadway, and so I walked to the meeting through the cold, impartial rain, which fell alike on black and white, and through the cries of Hey, Whitey! and What you doin’ up here, Mr. Charlie?

PAUL is the Pan-African Unity League, and what I was doin’ up there, Mr. Charlie, was going to a meeting of it. The climate at the meeting itself was drier and warmer in every respect. There was a brief report on the slaughter of Ibos in Nigeria, a somewhat more extended lecture on conditions in the Congo, and, finally, a report by Miss Ngawa on social and economic progress in Kenya.

When the meeting ended, she and I went out for coffee. We had an immediate common bond. I was the only Caucasian at the meeting, and she was the only African. All the others in attendance were American Negroes.

“The Back-To-Africa bit,” she said. “Bwana and simba and the bloody drums in the bloody jungle. Sheeit, baby, like it is all something else, you dig?”

As a man is, so does he speak. Tuppence, being a highly unorthodox combination of things, spoke an English all her own. She was the only child of a Kenyan mother and an American father. Her father, one Willie Jackson, had been a follower of Marcus Garvey and an African Nationalist. The Army sent him to North Africa during the Second World War, where he rather promptly deserted and headed south. He changed his name to Willie Ngawa, married Tuppence’s mother, and conceived Tuppence.

Later, during the Mau Mau uprising, Willie Ngawa was sentenced to death for miscegenation. Like most American Negroes, he had a certain amount of Caucasian blood in his veins and arteries and capillaries; thus an extremist wing of the Mau Mau felt that it was criminal for him to marry a full-blooded Negress. He was accordingly taken from his hut one night when Tuppence was very small and he was bound hand and foot and carried off into the jungle, where his captors broke both his arms and legs and introduced a regiment of army ants into his rectum. The ants promptly began to devour Willie Ngawa’s bowels, somewhere in the course of which Willie Ngawa had the good sense to expire.

Tuppence and her mother subsequently moved to Nairobi and lived in that city while Kenya transformed itself from British Crown Colony to independent republic. She grew up learning English and Swahili and sang the folk songs of Kenya. She went to college in London, began singing with a jazz group there, and ultimately came to New York, where she took an apartment on the Lower East Side, got a more or less steady gig with a local jazz quartet, and concurrently developed a reputation as an African folk singer at Harlem rent parties and East Village loft sessions.

Her speech reflected all of these influences. The prevailing accent was upper-class English, spoken with the special precision that the language receives only when it issues from the lips of a citizen of one of the Commonwealth countries. No Englishman ever born speaks as pure a strain of English as a well-educated Kenyan or Pakistani or Nigerian. Intermingled with this accent was a strong undercurrent of Harlem diction liberally salted with bop slang and peppered with bits and pieces of Swahili. The result was as profoundly individualistic a speech pattern as I have ever heard, singularly Tuppence.

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