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376. Limitation (VII)



I met the last Chu’a tribal elder in a London bedsit. I had just arrived in London and taken a room on the ground floor from a dancer; it was a typical London affair: the Victorian terrace, good for a fine esquire and five bouncy children; the Pakistani landlord who domiciled a drunken uncle in the room next to mine as a caretaker (I went to buy his whiskey once a week, a box from a sympathetic corner shop); and then the eight or nine people squashed into every nook in the house: Italian interns two-to-a-bed on the top floor (Italian girls always sleep in the same bed, who knows why) to the Korean girl who had come to London to teach mathematics in a comprehensive (she despaired at little Tariq and Nadine, not what she expected from her British sojourn).


I arrived there from a friendlier place and so I shot up to every room to introduce myself; but few people were at home, and those that were offered no welcome. The elder let me in simply because he never really closed his door. It was half open and I knocked at it and pushed, then it opened all the way without resistance; it was a slight grunt that led me to believe I was welcome. There was very little in the room except the bed, and the walls were entirely undecorated. There, up against the interior wall, sat the elder; he had a cigarette in his mouth—he only smoked American Spirit, a slightly pretentious brand with, funnily enough, an Indian chief on the package.


The elder had sat there so long that a black outline from his cigarette smoke had formed about him. When he shifted he left a clear smoke halo on the wall; and yet somehow he always found his mark again and settled down to another packet. He was there all the time; he never moved, only sometimes I heard a gentle squeak from his bed. I lay below on the sofa—a sofa that turned into a very crude bed—and tried to warm myself with an electric fan; quite against the rules, sometimes the landlord’s uncle came and asked me about it.


It was about a week into my stay at the house that I began to have peculiar dreams; my dreams transferred to a jungle environment. Haringey faded away and there was only the Amazon and jaguars, not Turkish shops and Kurdish immigration lawyers. One time I saw “the Chief”, as I had begun to call him, sat in a clearing in the jungle—wisps from an American Spirit still on his lips.


Further details emerged when a man from the Peruvian embassy called round one afternoon. I let him in, since my room was nearest the front door; and it was he who explained that the Chief was the last Chu’a elder; not the last of his tribe, though they were almost extinct, but the last elder—the last man to carry the tribal secrets. Apparently, the Chief had insisted that he come to London, about ten years ago, and since then—so far as anyone knew—he had sat down in this room, started to smoke, and not moved an inch. The man from the embassy came to check on him every six months. “The American NGOs get very upset,” he muttered to me, “and say we have deported him for mineral rights…” He flashed me two sharp little teeth. “They say we violate human rights,” he added, and then gave a shrug.


One afternoon, I came back from my part-time job at a charity shop to find a policeman at the door. After I identified myself, I was ushered in and debriefed by a fat detective. It seemed that at about 03:33 pm there had been a loud bang and, when the uncle rushed in to check, the Chief’s room was filled with smoke—and the black outline around him had turned to purple.

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