Read a chapter from The Devil's Garden

23 March 2011

Read an extract from the Man Booker Prize longlisted Edward Docx's new novel, The Devil's Garden.

by Edward Docx

I

There is only one way in and there is only one way out: the river. And so they arrived on the supply boat in the late afternoon, just as the worst of the heat was over and the caiman began to stir. I heard their voices as they passed outside my hut. We had been expecting them – yesterday, today, tomorrow. Sooner or later. 

I switched off my desk fan the better to listen. Sole was showing them the path down to the washhouse and explaining how our makeshift showers work. I could tell by her tone that she was trying her best to be soothing. The one cursed the cramp of the boat, the heat, the insects; the other the lack of airstrips. 

Perhaps I should have greeted them there and then – welcoming, cordial and buoyed from my work. After all, it was not every day that we were visited by a Judge and a Colonel. But some part of me wanted to make an impression. And so I decided that I would let our visitors settle and wait until dinner to introduce myself. Instead, I would go down to the river and help with the unloading. 

 

II

On the path, the heat of my own body hung heavily about me, suffocating, and the humidity was so thick that to breathe was almost to drink. The only place to see the sun was where the river broke the canopy and so it had become my habit to look up whenever I stood on the bank. 

Red and yellow macaws were flying downstream. A graceful heron-like bird, whose name I could not recall, stood opposite me on one leg, studying the torpid flow, its long neck ivory in the softening light. The air was filled with a hundred different songs, chirps, squawks and screeches – back and forth, far and near, all around. But, beneath these calls, my ear was attuned to the real buzz and hum of the jungle: the great electric simmer of the insects. 

Vinton, the boatman, was passing up our supplies to Jorge and Felipe. Felipe waved his greeting. I felt the wood shift a fraction as I walked out on to our jetty, the stilts beneath uneven, thin and crooked as crane fly legs on the mud. The water beyond was the colour of cinnamon and still so low that the boat could tie up only at the furthest reach. 

‘What’s left?’ I asked. 

‘All the important things, Dr Forle,’ Felipe replied. ‘All the important things.’ 

Felipe was our guide. His habitual demeanour was to please and his habitual expression was a wide and apprehensive smile. 

‘They’ve brought quite a few boxes of their own,’ he said. 

Jorge had turned away to urinate over the other side. 

I looked at the stack of electrical goods beside the handcart. 

‘Satellite dishes,’ Felipe said and shrugged. 

‘Maybe they like to watch a lot of TV,’ I said. ‘People do. I’ll help pass up.’ 

The boat was still half full. I descended the rickety ladder to join Vinton, who was standing on his makeshift deck below. 

‘Vinton.’ 

‘Chief.’ 

This was the boatman’s joke – a double insult aimed at both Felipe and at me. Rebaque, the true head of the Station, had been away for more than three weeks. Nobody knew where. No word. But if anyone was chief, then strictly it should have been Felipe. Though I moved carefully, the boat rocked. 

‘If the water gets any lower, we’ll be cut off completely,’ I said. 

‘It won’t.’ Vinton stood purposefully still. He was proud of his white cracked-leather seats; his was the only luxury craft between here and Laberinto. 

‘The river is on the rise?’ I asked the question as if I had been waiting for such a day. 

‘No.’ Vinton spat carefully over the side. ‘You would know if the rains had come.’ 

A few years previously, the entire basin had suffered the most severe drought in living memory – passenger boats stranded even on the larger rivers, half the forest burning, the whole vast system down to dribble and seep. If the rain did not quickly begin in earnest, I understood that even this record would soon be surpassed. 

Jorge’s mud-smeared sports shoes came into view on the jetty’s edge. He stood heavily above the boat – a big, glabrous Buddha of a man with an odd coffee-coloured birthmark spilt across his smooth brown head. 

‘Everything is crushed,’ he said as he zipped himself up. ‘The biscuits. The bananas. Crumbs and mush.’ 

‘They’ll be OK.’ Felipe appeared beside him. ‘You’ll find a way to use them.’ 

Jorge scowled. He was constantly suspicious of a slight and was the sort of person who must continually apply acid to all that was said and done around them as the only certain prevention. He was our cook. Sometimes, when we ate, I could not separate the taste of the food from the man. 

Vinton threw paper towels up to Jorge. 

I offered up the first big box of cigarettes to Felipe. 

‘You’ll stay tonight, Vinton?’ Jorge smirked. 

‘No . . . not tonight.’ Vinton shook his head as though the decision were narrowly made, though he had never eaten with us, nor spent a single night on the Station. 

‘Another woman?’ Jorge grasped a big tin of cooking oil from the boatman. 

‘Your sisters.’ Vinton grinned – broken teeth, a glint of gold. ‘A special show – free of charge.’ 

Jorge’s smirk fattened into a smile; he would take this off Vinton though nobody else. 

We passed up bottles of water without speaking for a while. The heat seemed to shrink tighter about my skin. A beetle ran the gunwale, Brasilucanus acomus – dense, heavy-armoured, a brutal tank on tiny legs. 

Then Felipe asked: ‘Which one is the Judge?’ 

He could not endure silence and must always force conversation; it was a trait I disliked in myself. 

‘The smaller thin one with white hair,’ Vinton said. ‘The big one says he’s the Colonel. Wouldn’t wait for his own boats but he complained all the way here in this one.’ 

Jorge did his favourite mime of masturbation. ‘What are they doing here anyway?’ he asked. ‘Nobody comes to this place because they want to – nobody except you people.’ 

I inclined my head. 

‘It’s the registration,’ Felipe said. 

Jorge scoffed. ‘What did they say was really going on, Vinton? What did you overhear?’ 

‘They didn’t speak. Or not to each other, they didn’t.’ Vinton spat a second time. ‘Not one word in seven hours.’ 

As far as we understood, our two visitors had been travelling up the river for a month, registering people to vote. For the last three days they had been on our branch. Our Station would be their final stop. Only day-long boat trips from here; it was too dangerous further into the interior, even for government officials – especially for government officials. 

The boat was almost empty save for its heaviest freight lying ballast at the bottom, which included four crates of beer and the case of spirits that I had paid for. The others knew it was my intention to donate vodka and whiskey to our bar, such as it was. And I was unduly pleased that my order had arrived; indeed, it occurred to me that I had come down solely to check on its safety. 

We handed the bottles up, self-consciously careful. Then Felipe climbed down into the boat to help with the fuel drums for the generators. We counted three and heaved. There was a moment when I thought one of the damn things might fall back. But then we had it high enough and Jorge had rolled it over the edge to safety. We burnt oil. 

The job was done. We were all slick with the work but only I felt the discomfort in my collared shirt. In six weeks, I still had not learned to sweat freely. Across the river, another bird I did not know chose this moment to display the fan of its plumage – bands of carmine, tips of jade. There was a splash in the water. The weeds strung out in the sluggish current around the legs of the jetty. I climbed the ladder. Jorge and Felipe would drag and push our cart. I would carry as much as I could. Vinton would wait with the remaining stacks. 

There came the sound of another engine – full-throated and growing quickly louder. 

I turned back to face the river. We knew straight away that it could not be any of our near neighbours; the Indians and the river-people, the ribereƱos, travelled with their motors at the lowest possible chug to save fuel. A moment later and we could make out six passengers – all men – sitting line astern in a rigid inflatable. They wore uniform. 

It seemed undignified to continue staring as the boat veered from midstream to make its course for our jetty but this is what we did until they were almost upon us. Then, abruptly, I put down the box of cigarettes I had been holding and offered to receive their rope.