Jeremy Clarke

Waiting for Mr Kurtz

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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The yellow plastic tables on the terrace outside the ferry-terminal bar faced directly into the afternoon sun. It was the last week of September and surprisingly hot. We’d been over to Roscoff for the day, from Plymouth, just for something to do, and we’d been uncomfortably hot all day, traipsing round in our sports anoraks and rucksacks. My boy said he was going for a wander, which I’m beginning to think is a euphemism for having a crafty fag.

We’d seen all we wanted to see of Roscoff, a pretty little fishing town full of sprightly old French people, with an open-air food market, very expensive, with middle-class stall-holders. And we were hot. We’d been there since sunrise and now we were lugging shopping bags full to bursting with bottles of hopefully sprightly old wine and packets of fags, as well as our rucksacks. So we tottered back to the ship at one o’clock, three hours before departure, thinking we could shower then lie on our bunks in our cabin. But we’d been badly advised. No foot passengers were allowed on the ship until ten minutes before departure. Neither of us felt like walking round Roscoff again, pretty as it was. So now we had three hours to kill at the ferry- terminal café.

The yellow plastic tables bore advertisements for Lipton’s Iced Tea. The cement terrace looked out on to a lorry park dotted with stunted palm trees. Separated from the lorry park by a 20ft-high chain-link fence was a vast concreted area on which cars and trucks queued prior to embarkation. Not much of a view. But with nothing but six cold wet English months to look forward to, I sat there basking wistfully in the hot sun like a man on a pier with a terminal illness.

A brisk waiter presented me with a beer mat, on which he set a tall glass of ice-cold Amstel. Such a relief to take off the anorak and rucksack and put the shopping bags down. Wonderful, too, to sit down, even on a yellow plastic chair. But best of all, now that my boy had gone for a ‘wander’, I was free to get my book out.

I was reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The paperback was free with the Sunday Telegraph. (That a Sunday newspaper should give away as a freebie something so astoundingly first-rate, is almost as unsettling as Conrad’s story.) I’d started reading it lying on my bunk in Plymouth Sound, and resumed it in the disembarkation queue just before dawn. I’d had to shut the book again at French passport control, just as Marlow turned his binoculars on Mr Kurtz’s stockade and noticed the human heads stuck on the posts.

It might have appeared to my boy since then that his father was strolling beside him around Roscoff in Brittany; but in reality I was on board a tiny paddle steamer anchored on the upper reaches of the Congo, waiting for Mr Kurtz. It might have seemed that his old man was buying shallots from one of the middle-class stallholders at the open-air market, but the truth was I was haggling for bushmeat with a naked cannibal.

I took a sip of lager and resumed my place at the helm of the paddle steamer anchored in mid-stream on the Congo. The yellow plastic tables around me began to fill up. My boy reappeared, asked me what time it was and disappeared again. Mr Kurtz was carried aboard on a stretcher. I wanted to hear him speak as much as Marlow did. You know how imperative it can be to hear someone’s speaking voice. Neither Marlow nor I were disappointed. Then we glimpsed his magnificent queen, briefly, on the riverbank. What a woman! And then Mr Kurtz said, ‘The horror! The horror!’ and snuffed it, and we were back in civilisation, in Brussels, returning his effects to his fiancée.

I looked up from my freebie in a daze. I could suddenly feel the sun beating down through my thinning hair on to the top of my scalp. All the tables were occupied now. Five French lorry-drivers passed between them like aristocrats of labour. A bloke at the next table was telling his mate, ‘She likes me to pull down her knickers and slap her arse with my cheque book.’ My boy reappeared. ‘Good wander?’ I said. He gave me a sideways look. I handed him ten euros and waved him inside to order two more beers.