After all these adventures – later there were those who said I must have been suicidal but that had not occurred to me, or I had protested against it. Even during times of deep depression alone in Darfur without water or among silly expats – or being served raw liver in a desolate grass hut village – and certainly not suicidal in the clearly exciting times, hiding in safe places deep in colonial Angola during the revolution against the Portuguese. Or dealing with scoundrels, such as a travel writer who turned out to be the cruel son of a titled English friend of my grandparents. He was was traveling through Angola and Katanga financed by the mining interests that had had Lumumba killed. Hardly depressed when facing spear carriers in Chad’s near desert who suddenly emerged in a previously empty landscape to negotiate the division of a just shot antelope – or, after being ordered out of Abeché by French army men who were still present, but staying anyway and sleeping in the house of their enemy, a mysterious Foreign Legion widow named Madam Lucieni, whose pet lions roamed through every room.
And now I was on a ship – with help from an old friend from draftee army days who was now in the Foreign Service and in the U.S. Legation in Luanda. I had gotten this job way, way below the equator on a Norwegian freighter going non-stop all the way up to Emden on the North Sea – this in exchange for my friend helping with paperwork so the old captain would not have to go ashore and do it himself.
Another reason I was hired, it soon became clear, was that the old captain needed someone new to hear his stories. Norwegian ship’s officers, though not crew members, stayed at sea for six years at a stretch. The captain needed someone new to hear about being shipwrecked in the 1920s off the China Coast, and about his adventures, before he was a ship’s officer, going up to Greenland to club baby seals to death.
Nominally I was working for my passage. I was given the job of painting around the portholes in the officer’s quarters. And I was put up in their part of the ship in what amounted so a suite – something called the owner’s carbin, which they said had never been used by any of the line’s owners but every norwegian ship had one because it was tradition.
Once I actually was doing a little painting and the ship’s stewardess, a tall and tight, though technically Venus-like, Nordic woman – I had never imagined that a non-passenger ship would carry a stewardess – started talking to me like an angry schoolteacher, about what a messy job I was doing, and why was I spending so much time talking with the men rather than working? The others told me the story on her. She had just moved into the first mate’s cabin, which was a scandal in this life at close quarters. The first mate told me that what he had done meant he would never ship out as a first officer again but he didn’t care. He did not look like he was having fun. He did not even look like he was getting laid, though he must have been.
The ship's engineer was a wiry right-winger. He invited me into his sitting room – they did live well on this ship – so he could rail at Socialists everywhere, especially those in power in Norway. But he would get off track and start telling me about the war, about his days in the underground, the chances he took, his friends whom the Nazis and their collaborators caught and executed.
There was abundant mealtime food of the meat and potatoes sort, and at all hours an assortment of cheeses in the officers' dining room, which benefited from a behind-the-scenes cook I never met, just as I met few on board who were not officers. And there was sometimes plenty of good Norwegian beer, which was important to me at that time in my life. How they got Norwegian beer in the obscure places they visited was a mystery. No place was quite so disconnected then as Luanda – which strangely was an all-white Mediterranean looking city – white buildings and white people – even the shoeshine boys and lottery ticket salesmen were white Portuguese. My friend and his wife, though both anti-apartheid liberals, left margarine in the kitchen for the servants, and had real butter at their own table, the only sign that they followed local custom. My friend had complained to me that there were people in the Foreign Service who had told him he was being sent to Africa because his experience growing up in Georgia would help him in tough dealings with Negroes.
I was actually kind of depressed most of the time on the freighter. It was feeling like I belonged nowhere. I had been living high with my lovely artist girlfriend in Greece but I did not speak the language there. Before Greece I was all over Yugoslavia, a young man alone in strange towns without Serbo-Croat. In Africa there were many new languages I did not speak.
When I ran out of reading matter I went to the closet they called the ship’s library, where almost everything was in English, which is the official language of the sea. And there was a paperback of an historical novel that a few months ago my mother, strangely, had written me about. Strange that she should give me literary advice. But maybe not so strange that she did not know me well enough to know how much I disliked historical fiction. She said I really should read this one.
This novel was about Dumas or Hugo or one of those old-time best-selling French writers – musketeers and pretty girls in lacy long dresses and evil cardinals and galley slaves and that sort of thing. This novel about this writer starts when he is an inexperienced young man. It is his first night in Paris. He is just in from some dull provincial place.
On that night, knowing no-one, he by chance meets Major Dreyfus, and then by chance meets Toulouse-Lautrec. I put it down before finding out if by chance he slept with Colette, I was that depressed.