“I knew it! I knew the moment we got that door open. I know the smell. I know it only too well. I was a stretcher-bearer in the war.” Mr. Salomon stopped.
“What did you do?”
“First thing was to chase Abie away. It wasn’t going to be a sight for a kid. Nor for an adult, either. I was sick… I couldn’t help it.”
He’d have to tell his story again and again. Everyone wanted to know. They were in a state of shock – the residents and the neighbours and, as the news spread, many from further afield. Some even walked down from the distant Polish camp over the hill – the camp they nicknamed Siberia.
“Such a nice old man!”…“A gentleman.”… “A real white man!” … “A diplomat of the old school.”
The commissioner of police joined the group: “Did you people know the consul had a revolver?” No, nobody did.
“But Mr Salomon, you live in the next room…. you and your family. Didn’t any of you hear the shot?”
“Two doors away”, Salomon corrected him. “And Abie’s room is still a bit further.” None of the three Salomons had heard the shot. Nor had anyone else.
“I’m not a forensic expert” the commissioner continued, “But judging by the state of the body I’d guess the consul must have killed himself at least a week earlier.”
“Perhaps on New Years’ Eve?” suggested Kowalski.
Young Abie, anxious to involve himself in grown-up conversation, joined in: “Of course. New Year’s Eve! Fire-works were going off all over. Nobody would have heard…”
“What’s happened to his boy?”
Again the teenager was anxious to prove himself: The consul had paid off his servant just before the New Year. He had overheard the ‘boy’ telling the others that the consul had been generous. He had been a real bwana.
Abie had a good ear for languages. He had picked up a fair bit of Nyanja sitting with the black servants. Passing Whites had hinted that this wasn’t what a white child should be doing. Abie had been puzzled. Was it also wrong that he had learnt some Polish? The consul had taught him several polite forms of greeting.
The commissioner turned to Abie: “Do you know where we can find his boy?”
No, he didn’t but he would enquire from the other servants at the Imp.
It took the commissioner two days to trace the consul’s servant to his home village an hour’s hours’ drive away and to have him brought back in a police vehicle. The man looked frightened. Why were the police after him? He had not stolen anything. The consul had made him a present of that picture in the frame. Honest he had. He pulled a finger across his neck in that expressive gesture of his people which meant “Slit my throat if I’m not telling the truth.”
Nobody had bothered to explain. When he heard that his old bwana had killed himself he wept. He squatted on his haunches at the edge of the long veranda and wept quietly.
“Very kind man,” he told Abie. “I knew he had little money but he gave me one month’s pay extra. I thought he’s going back to Poland. He told me long time ago “When this war is finish I go back home.” I said “Take me too, bwana”. He said “No. Poland too cold for Africans.” The old bwana respected people – even us Africans. He asked my name. “Sixpence? Sixpence!? That’s not a real name.” Before him all my bosses call me Sixpence. My African name is difficult for you Whites. I said “I’m Amon Chapusha of the Lenje people.” After that he always call me by my real name.”
People at the Imp stuck to their groups – Poles together, German Jews together. The handful of Polish Jews moved uneasily between the two groups. The sole English resident kept to himself, though they said he did have some strange visitors. People greeted one another each morning, usually in heavily accented English, but rarely got into conversation even though several of the Poles spoke faultless German. They came from regions that, before World War I, had belonged to Germany. Some had even studied at German universities but now they resolutely refused to use “Hitler’s bloody language”.
The long veranda was full of discussion, even in that language. Katz, who usually spent his days stalking around the town, joined the others. Weisbrot, the landlord, had also come over. Normally one only saw him at the end of each month when he came to collect the rents which Mrs Salomon raked in for him. Once or twice she had also had to call him at other times to settle disputes – usually disputes over the use of the kitchen which the residents had to share.
Weisbrot said he had realised the consul was in financial difficulties. Some months earlier the old gentleman had asked whether there might not, perhaps, be a cheaper room. Weisbrot didn’t have one, but he’d been keen to help. He had told the consul that he needed an usher for his cinema. The consul had never taken him up on that. He’d only shaken his head. Pity!
Zbyszek made a mental note. He said he was writing a piece for a Polish newsletter. He had just come back from the bank but the manager had refused to discuss a client’s affairs. When he heard of the consul’s suicide he had relaxed a little. The consul, he said, had closed his account so, in fact, he was no longer the bank’s client. There hadn’t been any money coming in for a while.
Zbyszek had nodded. “Not since last February, I guess. That’s when they recognised them. That’s when Churchill embraced that gang of Stalin’s thugs as the new government of Poland!”
Zbyszek referred to this as “the great betrayal” – but only when talking to fellow-Poles. With others he toned down his anger. But, like most of his countrymen, he was bitter at Churchill for switching recognition from the Polish government in exile in London to the Soviet-backed one at Lublin. “That’s the thanks we got for all those Polish airmen who gave their lives in the Battle of Britain! I hear their widows have been offered asylum in England! Thanks a million! ”
His own income, too, had dried up last February. Fortunately he could still earn “a few miserable zloty” – as he put it – from a Chicago Polish weekly. And once in a while Zbyszek would earn a few more as a court interpreter. “Imp”, he joked, “came from impecunious.”
The consul’s funeral gave rise to some debate: Could a suicide be buried with a requiem mass and in consecrated ground?
Kowalski said that obviously the poor man had not been in his right mind. Suicide is an act of ultimate despair. God would forgive him. The church prays for people who have taken their own lives. Kowalski himself had once toyed with the idea of becoming a priest and still remembered some theology. “By ways known to Him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”
Zbyszek, more cynical about theology, said the consul had been totally clearheaded. He had wound up his financial affairs meticulously. He and the consul had discussed the effects of Churchill’s decision to transfer recognition from the London exile Poles to Stalin’s stooges at Lublin. His analysis had been well informed and lucid. The consul had been a good man and deserved a decent funeral.
The bishop did not dare ponder his decision too long. Once again the phones were down and if he had wanted to consult the archbishop he would have to do it by letter, but in the hot climate of Africa burials cannot be delayed. There was no time to consult.
A requiem mass was arranged. The great numbers who turned up convinced the bishop that there would have been a fearful fuss if he had decided otherwise.
Frankfurter, the Jew, wanted to attend. He had never been to a Christian funeral. He consulted Kowalski: what was the correct form of dress? Should he wear his skullcap?
Amon Chapusha, better known as Sixpence, knew that black men were not admitted to the white men’s church. He hovered outside the door and followed the coffin when it was carried to the cemetery. When he saw others throwing earth into the grave he moved forward, pushed in among the astonished whites, and followed suit. No one attempted to stop him.
After the ceremony he and young Abie sat on the low wall that surrounded the cemetery.
“You say he had no money left?” said Abie. “But you know, bwana Weisbrot had offered him a job at his cinema.”
Amon Chapusha thought for a moment, then slowly unpacked the bundle which contained most of his worldly possessions. He had carried it with him ever since the police had pounced on him at his home village and had shoved him into their Landover – without explanation. Carefully he unwrapped a framed photograph. The glass was cracked.
“Oh, pity! It must have got broken in the police car. Pity! The bwana consul gave it to me so that I would remember him.”
It was a photograph of two white men. “Look at the strange clothes they wear in Poland!”
There was the consul at some diplomatic function. Next to him stood another dressed identically: top hat, tails, starched shirt, white tie. The second was leaning on a silver-topped cane.
“You see that white man next to him? The consul told me that was the king of the Poles.”
It was Pilsudski, president of Poland after World War I.
“Can’t you understand, little bwana? A man who had been the friend of kings did not want be an usher in bwana Weisbrot’s cinema.”