NATIVES OF MY PERSON extract from new novel

“I tell you it is over.” said Ivan, “I feel like a mountain now.”

He slipped, and Baptiste watched him sprawled flat over the bunkerie They were both smiling.

“What is happening to the mountain?” Baptiste asked. “The wind kidnapping your strength? Say what happened? 1 tell you, you still have a small daze. Stay put. Don’t move. I hear the Commandant order you to rest”.

“Till I was fit,” said Ivan. “I was particular to hear him say that. Till I was fit.”

“The Commandant is just a hole,” said Baptiste.

“What do you mean the Commandant is a hole?

“A hole”, Baptiste repeated, “like what you bury things in. Only he is a hole with two ends. But the same hole.”

“You are mad”, Ivan said, “just absolute mad.’

Baptiste got up. He was making ready to go, watching Ivan closely and wondering whether the man was really serious about returning to work. He walked away round the bend of the sails and out of sight. Ivan hardly noticed his absence. He was rehearsing his earlier attempts to sit up, and muttering about madness and Baptiste.

“The Commandant is a hole…what kind of a thing is that to say…not about the Commandant I mean, but just to say. The Commandant is a hole.

The sea was calm. The arc of white fire that ringed the ship had been smothered by shadow. The crew worked through days of cloud, curious, teasing darkness had joined water and sky. They were expecting rain, but it never came. Some laid bets and lost. There was argument about the change of weather. The younger men contained their fear with work. The Commandant did not appear for some time. He wrote his orders on huge sheets of paper, and those who could read passed them on. These were wholly concerned with matters of discipline and fitness.

“The Commandant senses a streak of restlessness in some men. This displeases the Commandant. The Commandant orders an end to restlessness.”

“The Commandant is aware of slackness in certain men. It is forbidden to be at all times. The Commandant orders an end to these tendencies.”

Baptiste would read these orders with a mixture of resignation and mockery. He was careful whom he spoke to when he was reflecting on the Commandant. Yet he was not afraid of the Commandant. At any rate, there was nothing in his behaviour to suggest that he was capable of such an emotion. He didn’t hate the Commandant; nor was there any real evidence of envy. The Commandant was simply a kind of fact, an event in nature which he had to confront. His response would vary according to his mood. When he was angry, he would elaborate on this function of the Commandant as a hole. At other times, he would try to imagine the Commandant among a family of friends, entertaining children, coaxing a wife out of worry.

“I think it will storm,” said Baptiste. “What do you say?”

“It is too soon to predict.” said Ivan.

“Use your powers,” said Baptiste, “will it storm?”

“I say it is too soon to predict,” Ivan insisted.

Baptiste was going to press for an answer, then changed his mind. He would let Ivan offer his findings without being forced to do so. Ever since his recovery from sun stroke, Ivan had gained a dubious reputation among the crew. His illness was seen as a revelation, a baptism of fire which had cleansed his mind and ordained him witli certain powers. Ivan could see things. He was consulted. Even Baptiste, who was skeptical and by nature irreverent, would look to Ivan for a sign, a clue to the future.

“I’ll say this,” Ivan conceded, “when there is a moon I will predict.”

“And when will the moon come out?”

“That I cannot declare.” Ivan said.

“What use is your power?” Baptiste asked, feeling the urge to argue.

“You are impatient,” Ivan said. The tone was gentle, solicitous, almost affectionate.

“The Commandant will clinch you,” Baptiste threatened. “You hear the orders? A slackness, a certain restlessness. The Commandant is displeased. He will put an end to your mooning.”

Ivan grew apprehensive. He regarded any frivolous reference to the Commandant as unsafe. Did Baptiste know of something? Was the Commandant complaining about him? It seemed most inappropriate a moment for Baptiste to be lighthearted. He told him so.

“A joke is a joke, but this is no joke.”

And Baptiste ran off, his laugh like the clap of thunder rejoicing the sails. He enjoyed the effect of his warning on Ivan. He enjoyed even more the studied gravity of Ivan’s bearing as he looked about him, anticipating the arrival of the Commandant. “We must speak later”, said Ivan.

It was difficult to know whether Baptiste had heard. The sea had begun to swell. The wind rose and made a wreck of the bottles on the cryslaturn. They made an echo, like bells at odds with their chiming. Just sounds in disarray.

“I am going to die,” said Baptiste, “but I feel free, ever so free.”

He was to fix the rim of the ocean where it appeared to touch the sky. His eyes flashed fires of ecstasy through the sombre folds of darkness that opened and closed over the ship. The afternoon was over. The night was near. “Ever so free,’ said Baptiste, “so free.”

Pierre was a lean, athletic youth with remarkably green eyes set deep into narrow sockets. His blond hair was heaped high above his brow. It was clasped at the middle of his head with a rubber band, and the rest grew like weed down the back of his neck. He took great care with the heaped fluff that crowned his brow. The rest simply happened, like vegetation. It made you think of a bird’s nest, deserted and in ruin. In spite of a certain bluntness of speech, he was a favourite with the men. He was exceptional among the professional soldiers who were not popular with the common workhands.

“Eat it up,” he would say, “eat the lot up.”

This exhortation took care of every activity. When the deck hands were scrubbing Pierre would relieve the tedium of their chores with those words: “Eat it up, eat the lot up.” This advice had restored many a reluctant appetite for the coarse, indifferent meal. Often he sat with the common workhands. It was forbidden, but informers never included Pierre among their targets “Eat it up, eat the lot up,” he would say when the evening anecdotes turned on sexual adventures of men who had a greater know-ledge of pleasure than he could ever claim. He was alternately coarse and gentle. His weakness was, perhaps, a certain violence of temper. He said he hated ighting, but he left no doubt about his readiness to defend his honour with a pair of very efficient fists And he knew his strength.

“What would you be out of uniform?” Ivan asked him.

“What I’d be? Just myself, the same Pierre,” he said.

Ivan agreed, but it didn’t seem an adequate reply.

“But your ambition,” Ivan went on, “if you could be free to enjoy your ambition. What would it be?”