When the Bishop entered my dreams, I had to kill him. Surely you can understand that! Consider how he dogged me through the streets of Mombasa, howling anathemas after me for my "licentiousness." He was referring to my shameless pursuit of Mrs. Willoughby, whose charming house on Prince Albert Street drew me, as it had drawn Kong to her very bed. Mrs. Willoughby fascinated many who found themselves in Africa. It was she who introduced me to her sometime lover, Vladimir Ilich Lenin. The two "Siggies" -- Freud and Romberg -- were once frequent visitors to Prince Albert Street, as much to view the voluptuous Mrs. Willoughby as to sip champagne cocktails on her veranda. Near the end of his life, Henry James had paid his respects to the lady, contriving to purloin one of her gloves "in remembrance." Mombasa was, in 1912, the place to be when in Africa; and Mrs. Willoughby's was the destination for the cultured and the curious. That Mr. Willoughby was, more often than not, absent from Prince Albert Street supplied a noticeable frisson to our visits.
The Bishop took it much amiss. Ever vigilant against breaches of public decency, he would stand by the hour behind the drapery or in the hallway outside Mrs. Willoughby's bedroom with his jaundiced eye screwed to the keyhole. We were constantly tripping over his crosier as we passed to and fro. Leave your crosier in the vestibule umbrella stand! we shouted, and received only curses for our pains.
"I would bar you and your sort from this house, had I the power," he growled. "Unhappily, Kenya is not a theocracy. Were it, I would devise ingenious punishments to chasten you."
The Bishop was a prig, and we told him so at every opportunity, giving him an occasional thumping for emphasis.
"Swine!" he would mutter as he straightened his ecclesiastical high hat knocked askew by our violent attack on his dignity. "Adulterers!"
I remember one afternoon on Prince Albert Street in particular: we were drinking gin slings on Mrs. Willoughby's veranda, watching the sun die among the minarets. To the east the ocean heaved itself up, then flattened with a hiss as the light went out of the sky. I assured Mrs. Willoughby that the sun would rise again, after the usual adjournment -- there (pointing oceanward); but she was unconvinced, having acquired in Africa a skepticism that a richly varied experience had only confirmed. "Perhaps," she said and sighed, taking my proffered hand. The "Pineapple Rag" drifted through the French windows, pausing on the veranda as if to quicken her mood, then blew beyond the railings and the topiary like a sheet of wind-swept rain to the sea. We were talking about the Special Theory of Relativity. The year before, Albert had arrived in Africa, wanting to forget -- Mileva, his wife; his carping colleagues at the University of Zürich ("Mister Negatives!" he called them); and the terrible anxieties of four-dimensional existence. I had taken him on safari through the interior to distract him with the flora and fauna of Africa, but it had not been a success.
The music stopped abruptly, and Scott brought a stranger onto the veranda and, after putting a drink in his hand and introducing him as none other than H. G. Wells, went inside to resume his playing. Ragtime had but little time left before war and jazz finished it forever, and Joplin wished to make the most of it.
"What brings you to Mombasa?" I asked Wells, whom I hated on sight because of the sexual energy he radiated in the vicinity of the Object of My Desire, whose amorous gaze now rested on the Great Man.
"Mrs. Willoughby," he answered, lifting her hand to his lips. "Lady, your fame has jumped the ocean -- and deservedly so," he said, kissing it (her hand, that is).
She was pleased.
I took him aside and admonished him:
"She is mine."
"Are you a sultan?" he asked scornfully. "Women belong to no one but themselves."
"Suffragette!" I hissed. "Shavian!"
He laughed unpleasantly in my face. I shoved him, and he tripped over his valise. A sheaf of papers spilled across the flagstones of the path that led to the belvedere above the Indian Ocean where, on moonlit nights, I had made love to Mrs. Willoughby (when Mr. Willoughby was away building up the African infrastructure).
"What is that?" I asked, as the wind winnowed the manuscript pages.
"My history!" he cried, playing hopscotch on the tumbling papers, whitely luminous under the moon, in an effort to save them from joining "The Pineapple Rag" scattering, note by note, on the water. "For God's sake, man -- can't you help me!"
I helped him, though I hated him.
"Thank you," he said, as he shut up the papers in his valise.
We were sitting in the belvedere. The lights of an unseen steamer
shivered against the blackness. I studied Wells' face in the sidereal light
and thought it ordinary.
"I, too, am writing a history: A History of the Imagination."
"What's in it?"
"Everything that is not in yours," I taunted him.
"Then it's a lie!" he said with a vehemence I thought extreme.
"Mine is a history of possibilities ... of possibilities which, instant by instant, become impossibilities."
"I do not understand you."
"In your history -- the official history -- the present moment gives way ceaselessly to the past. What is becomes what was. In mine, what might have been becomes what never was -- but 'perhaps' ..." (echoing Mrs. Willoughby's sad conditional) "should have been."
"Fantasist!" he shouted.
"History is impossible ipso facto," I answered imperturbably. "It consists entirely in time drained of all possibility of actualization. Only the future is significant, is pregnant with possibility."
I pointed to the steamer which by now had entered the bay.
"The boat will sink, or not -- depending," I said. "You write the history that lies in its wake while I write of its possible encounters with the unknown. In this, mine is a history of the future. Like your Time Machine
or War of the Worlds."
Wells stopped his pacing of the narrow enclosure to shout his indignation at me:
"They are fictions!"
"Really?" I asked, enjoying his discomfiture. "I understood them to be descriptions of realities that have not yet occurred but may, or may not, according to the laws of chance. But they are no less real for all that."
"You're a lunatic!"
"Time is richer than you suppose," I said. "You imagine it as a succession of singular moments like a string of pearls. I see it as ..." -- I hunted for a suitable image with which to convey the dizzying complexity of time and settled on the firmament -- "as the night sky with its countless stars, each having its own past, present, and future."
He beat the air with his fists in a perfect fury.
"I have not come all this way to listen to your ravings! I've come to seduce Mrs. Willoughby. As I have seen the lady for myself, I know she is not a product of your deranged imagination."
His hands were at my throat.
I shoved him, for a second time that day.
He fell backwards over the railing of the belvedere with nothing but air to sustain him.
I listened: for the sliding gravel of the precipice, for the thud of a body landing on the rocks below, for a splash in case he had managed to clear the steep incline (remembering all the while Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls). For a long time I listened but heard nothing except Wells' scream, which persists even now.
I do not know whether Wells drowned or broke his neck or vanished
into thin air like his Time Traveler or Invisible Man. I did not search in the morning for his body. (Yes, the sun did rise, although there have been times when it didn't; but this truth I wouldn't dare admit to Mrs. Willoughby!) Of course, Wells lived on somewhere and finished somewhere his Outline of History; saw it published -- somewhere; relished his acclaim -- somewhere; continued to enjoy his power over women. But he also died as a result of his fall from Mrs. Willoughby's belvedere. For so I imagine it. And so, therefore, it is.
(Am I insane?
And don't care.
Knowing that Africa will love me -- sane or not.)
I was asleep and dreaming of Mrs. Willoughby. Her piano-colored hair -- how rich and fragrant. Her breasts -- so full and milky. Her nails -- sharp and red. And her hat was charming, too, though I do not as a rule notice millinery.
I stroked her thigh -- her "silken" thigh. Why not? One cannot always be minting new metaphors! I stroked her thigh and nibbled happily at this and that.
The Bishop dragged himself out from under the bed, his crosier clattering.
"Adulterer! Fornicator!" he thundered. "And now you've committed murder because of your unholy lust!"
Mrs. Willoughby hid her face and wept for Wells, whose prowess would not now be tested on Prince Albert Street.
I knocked the Bishop down. In return he smote me with his crosier.
"Beast!" he fulminated. "Sodomite!"
In a fine rage I set upon him, strangling him with his cassock rope.
He made a nasty adenoidal sound before crumpling like a paper bag onto the floor.
"Is he dead?" Mrs. Willoughby asked, amid sobs.
"Yes," I said, well satisfied.
I lugged the body out of doors and left it for the wild animals, which entered the city after dark.
"You are cruel," said Mrs. Willoughby when I returned. She was brushing her nervous hair, which crackled. "It will thunder tonight," she said.
"Would you like to go to the theater?"
"What's on?" she asked, watching me closely in the cheval glass.
I bit her shoulder.
"You are cruel," she repeated.
We sat in Mrs. Willoughby's box and waited for the house lights to go out so that we could fondle one another secretly. She seemed to have forgotten all about Wells. Mrs. Willoughby was never one to brood, I thought approvingly. After Lenin's deportation for "outrages against the Bishop's Turkish carpet," she had scarcely turned a hair before taking up with von Höhnel, the polo champion.
"Are we dreaming?" she asked while the Three Witches cackled.
And as proof, I levitated.
"Good," she said, undoing the buttons of her blouse.
We watched the play, taking comfort in the dark. And in each other's hands which behaved like little animals.
Banquo's ghost appeared during Macbeth's reception. I was wondering how people managed in those days without cocktails when the Bishop leapt from the wings.
"Murderer!" he screamed at me, shaking his crosier.
Never shake thy gory locks at me!
"I thought he was dead?" asked Mrs. Willoughby.
"He is. This is the Bishop's ghost."
"Are you sure we're asleep?" she asked anxiously.
I shrugged. One is never entirely sure of anything in Africa.
I wrote a little in my History of the Imagination, like Samuel Pepys writing in his diary centuries before. Like his, mine is in cipher: those who read it will not understand its true meaning.
If, in fact, I do.
Mrs. Willoughby was asleep under the mosquito net, her beautiful body naked in the agitated light that beat up and down the glass chimney on the writing desk. She is enfolded in history, I thought. The big history, the public one, and mine -- the marvelous history. Wells called it a lie, but I do not believe that. What can be imagined, is. This I believe. The movements of the brain, the heart -- the landscape of the body and desire -- these are worth setting down. History is a story, I told Wells, who had come to sit on the side of the bed to watch Mrs. Willoughby sleep. One of many. Moriarty, Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. The Time Traveler, the Invisible Man, H. G. Wells. All equally real and unreal.
"We're all creations," I asserted. "The products of desire. And imagination is a precondition of desire."
"I've come to take her away," he said as if in answer.
You're not the first. I was thinking of Kong. But she returns, always, because the strength of my imagination is greater even than that of desire.
Wells lifted the netting.
"And the war that's coming ... will your imagination be proof against that?" he asked, reading my mind.
His anguished look pained me, moved me to unwonted sympathy.
"Leave us," I said gently; and, being but a figment, he left, having no choice but to do as I wished.
I blew out the lamp, undressed, and lay down beside Mrs. Willoughby. She did not stir, and I had no wish to wake her. The day had been long. I had murdered and created. Tomorrow would come (with or without the sun's rising), and we would pick up the thread again.
Outside, the Bishop's ghost stole past the French windows, dragging its crosier soundlessly.
And the war that's coming? I asked of the engulfing darkness.
I listened a moment, but no answer came to me from out of the night.
Only thunder over Kilindini Harbor.
Samuel Pepys had also come to Africa. To Tangier. As Stravinsky will, in flight from the debâcle of The Rite of Spring. But that is to come. For now, I had only the moment in mind, composed of rain and Mrs. Willoughby's hair.
Soon Africa closed its hand; and I was forced once more to cede the consciousness that I had claimed for myself, with much difficulty, from the vast unconsciousness during the long day.
And so it will be always.
. . .
Years later, Chinua Achebe denounced my use of Africa as a setting, "a prop" for my aesthetic and intellectual fantasies. I had exploited the continent, he said, as surely as the imperialist powers. I did not understand his country any more than Conrad when he had written The Heart of
"Yours is not the real Africa!" Achebe rebuked me.
"No," I agreed. "It is another Africa altogether."
"And the black porters who are made to bear the burdens of your narrative on their backs?" he asked.
"Their burdens are light," I replied. "They weigh nothing at all -- no more than a thought."
"A thought can cripple," he answered sadly.
"I believe in the absolute freedom of the imagination," I declared.
But he had gone, back to his Africa.
"What can be imagined, is!" I shouted.
But who was there to hear me?
Previously Published in The North American Review
Literal Latte, Stirring V2:E8, V2:E11, Archipelago, The Barcelona Review, The Cream City Review, Elimae, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, The North American Review, The Paris Review
The Aga Kahn Prize given by The Paris Review