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Low life

Opportunity knocks

Jeremy Clarke reports on his Low Life

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

I met Combo at dawn. I was standing on the Malawian shore of the lake watching the sun rise over the mountains in Mozambique and she came and stood wordlessly beside me and we watched together. After a while I offered her a swig from the bottle I was holding. ‘No,’ she said, without taking her eyes away from the sun. ‘I am too drunk.’

It was the first sunrise of a four-day music festival. I’d been dancing all night on the beach. A line of four middle-class English girls were kneeling in a row at the water’s edge performing the Astanga yoga Salute to the Sun. You could feel the heat of the sun as soon as it had freed itself from the mountain tops. I was utterly at peace with myself for the first time in as long as I can remember.

After another while I said, ‘I’m going back to the room to sleep.’ She took this as the invitation that it was and we turned around and walked very slowly and silently together across the white sand towards the rooms under the palm trees.

There was a baboon on the stairs. This particular one had a reputation for indiscriminate violence, but like everyone else that morning he was in an irenic frame of mind and let us pass without incident.

I was sharing the room with the financial director of the festival, but had yet to meet him. Under the mosquito net was a sleeping form. I lifted the net and extended the hand of friendship. Once he’d realised where he was, and who I was, and what the situation was, he returned the handshake, gallantly said hello to Combo, and went back to sleep.

Combo was a performer. I’d assumed she was a mere music fan like myself, but around noon she said she must get up and go and rehearse her afternoon set. I stayed in bed till around two, then went back on the beach. The sun was fierce, and I lay under the shade of a plastic table and read the Blantyre Times until late in the afternoon.

In the evening I thought I’d better try to eat something and went to the restaurant. And who should come along but Combo showing off her form in a diaphanous orange gown slit to the navel. She was arm-in-arm with a friend, whom she introduced as her cousin, Opportunity. I invited Combo and Opportunity to join me for something to eat, and they each pulled out a chair and sat down.

Opportunity was not bad-looking, but sullen and picky. She upbraided me for exchanging banter with the man at the next table, even after I’d explained he was not only a friend but also Barnstaple Town’s top scorer this season. She sent her meal back twice as inedible. The brandy measures were too small. She gave the waitress real hell over this. Her double shot had arrived in what looked like a gigantic child’s plastic beaker, and indeed it looked so minuscule that I added my English voice to the shrill Chewa chorus of complaint. After that, she liked me a little better and deigned to make a little small talk.

She was a backing singer for a famous Malawian singer — a boring job, she said. Even the international tours she found tedious. The famous singer alleviated his boredom by sleeping with a different woman every night. Sometimes more than one. Pretty or not pretty, fat or thin, he wasn’t fussy. Last week he’d told Opportunity it was her turn. She refused him. He was so angry he stopped her pay. Now she has so many money problems.

After dinner, the three of us walked the short distance to the music stage. Combo was vigour personified. Opportunity refused even to shake a leg. She hated the music, she said. She couldn’t stand all this chamba smoke drifting over her. She needed more brandy to make her happy enough to dance.

And then right out of the blue Combo stopped dancing, slapped me hard round the face, burst into tears and started yelling at me. I was paying more attention to her cousin than her. Who did I like best? Her or her cousin? I should make up my mind. But I was only being polite to her cousin, I protested, and trying to cheer her up a bit.

In the event Opportunity livened up after about a gallon of brandy, and both she and Combo came back with me to the room afterwards, one on each arm. The baboon was on the stairs again and eyed us speculatively, without malice. And once again the financial director was very tolerant and urbane about being woken just after dawn and introduced to our latest guests.

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