Kalashnikov by Joanna Smith
Shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2018
It can’t be. But there it is – my friend Kester’s Throne of Weapons, soldered together from rusting AK-47s. It stands alone on a plinth in a beautifully lit glass case in the African gallery of the British Museum. Instantly, I’m swept back twenty years to a muggy December night in a slum-suburb of Maputo.
A man emerges from the moon-shadow of a breeze block bottle store. He’s hooded and has a Kalashnikov slung around his shoulder. He steps right out in front of my car and I swerve violently to miss him, driving away as fast as I can through sand-drifts and potholes. This is nowhere near fast enough. In my rear-view mirror I see him watching me and reaching for his gun. My first instinct is to wind up my window quickly but the winding handle has dropped off. The pliers I use instead are somewhere in the footwell of this rattling old Toyota Corolla, held together with gaffer tape and prayers.
I’d been told it was a bad idea to drive to this part of the city in the early hours of the morning, this shanty-town of wood smoke and rusted corrugated iron. But I was new and carefree in Mozambique and completely inexperienced in situations going badly wrong. This was where Kester lived and he needed a lift home with his heavy white sack full of rifles.
Earlier that night, we’d been at a party in the beautiful acacia and jacaranda-lined part of the city, built for the Portuguese when Maputo was Lourenço Marques, city of dreams. The party was twenty-five floors up in a dubious lift, in an apartment block perched on a clifftop high above the Indian Ocean, high above the silver path of the full moon, its searchlight leading straight over the dark water to where we danced on a vast expanse of highly-polished parquet to the irresistible Johannesburg beat of Brenda Fassie.
Our host was Mathieu who worked for Christian Aid, which, among other good works, sponsored the artists of the Nucleo D’arte collective. The Nucleo was based in a pretty villa just along from the college where I worked. It had a big tin-roofed studio in the garden, smelling of solder and paint and cannabis and sweat, where artists (still raw after the end of the civil war that had killed a million Mozambicans) painted big angry abstracts in red and black, made sculptures from blasted shell cases and rusting weapons and rolled themselves fat joints from the Rizla-like pages of Christian Aid Bibles. Kester was just about to set off on a tour of the galleries of Europe with his Throne of Weapons.
After the party, I offered Kester a lift and we drew up outside his little house of cane and cardboard. He told me to wait, walked off between the frayed leaves of banana plants and ducked through the door. He returned after a little while with a pink plastic bag containing something angry. He opened the bag to show me a big, scrabbling, mottled creature, its pincers firmly tied with raffia.
‘Thank you,’ I said, wondering if I could boil water and cast this crab in to meet a painful death. I placed the bag on the floor behind my seat and started to drive back towards the white high-rises that soared up above the dark huddle of zinc shanty roofs. The plastic bag crackled behind me. I turned down a potholed street lined with low breezeblock houses, and that’s when the hooded man stepped out of the moon-shadow of a bottle store.
The bang was terrifyingly loud, shockingly loud, a noise that echoed round the cement walls and triggered a cacophony of hysterical barking. A current of shock ripped through my body like electricity and tingled painfully at the ends of my fingers.
That man with the gun. He shot at me. At me! It felt as if a wrecking ball had burst through the smooth white walls of my ordinary life. There was another bang. A baby began to cry close at hand but there was no movement in the houses, no lights, no twitch of curtains.
I tried to accelerate but the road was so rutted and sandy that my wheels spun and jolted and I was moving at walking pace, in the nightmarish situation of trying in vain to race, to flee away from mortal danger. Rivulets of sweat dripped down my back and into my knickers.
There was another tremendously loud crack, this time accompanied by a whizz, exactly like a rocket going up on bonfire night. Bullets. Vzzzz! Vzzzz! Those bullets were close, really close to my right ear and in my mirrors were flares of white light. First there were single shots and then a burst of several close together. Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba.
It was the thought of Pilar that made me slow the car.
Pilar. Soon after I arrived in the country, a group of us spent a Sunday afternoon driving an hour up north to the sandy town of Catembe to take the car ferry over to the beach. Pilar was a doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres, a warm dark-haired Spanish woman, about thirty years old. We’d sat side by side on a wooden bench on the deck of the ferry, feeling the throb of the engine beneath us, sharing a cold bottle of beer as the palm-lined river glided by, the colour of milky tea. Our feet were up on the metal railings and I remember noticing how tanned and slender hers were in their brown leather flip-flops.
In the middle of the river, the throbbing and rattling suddenly cut out and in the deep silence that followed we drifted serenely downstream and came to rest in a tangle of water hyacinths. We sat and chatted for an hour or two and I remember her telling me that the local doctors were world experts in amputation thanks to all the landmines, and that a gecko had dropped off her kitchen ceiling that morning and fallen into the omelet she was making.
I heard about a month later that late at night, driving her Land Cruiser down to the coast road she had been shot in the back of the head and killed. It was the thought of her lovely feet and the memory of the gecko in her omelet that upset me most at the time.
All this flashed through my head in an instant and compelled me to stop the car, pull up the ratchety handbrake and grip the steering wheel, waiting for it. And after that rain of gunfire, a stunned silence fell upon the street, a heavy silence that rang in my ears.
As I waited, my life did not flash before of me. I didn’t think of my life’s trajectory to this point or mourn the joys that would never be mine. Instead, I thought it was lucky the seats of the Toyota Corolla were upholstered in a burgundy velour like the inside of a coffin. I thought, that’s good. The mess won’t show up too badly.
Dogs barked and the man’s boots pounded the baked earth of the road. I sat at my open window, feeling as defenceless as a peeled fruit.
‘Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!’ I said, holding my hands up where he could see them. He walked up to the car shaking his head slowly from side to side, his lips pursed in a silent whistle.
So. This could actually happen. I could leave my job in a college of Further Education in Leamington Spa and be shot in the head on the streets of Maputo. I was suddenly possessed by an unexpected insight: I was fervently keen to stay alive. I really, truly wanted to continue living, and for some reason this struck me as a revelation. It felt as if I was being shaken very vigorously and certain loose pieces were falling into place.
The man’s forearms were thin and wiry, smooth and hairless, the colour and sheen of a milk chocolate Easter egg. The metal bracelet of his watch was loose around his wrist. He wasn’t pointing his AK-47 at me – it hung in front of him from its leather strap. This observation seemed very important. I looked at his face and thought – his adrenaline isn’t up; he’s surely too relaxed to kill me now, in cold blood. Surely.
His gun was very close to me, at eye level. It smelled of hot metal, of fireworks. I’d never been in close contact with a machine gun or any other type of gun before and the proximity of it was shocking. I was transfixed by its brown oily metal and rusting bolts and screws; its worn-ness and its dependable air, like an old garden spade.
He reached his slim hand in through the open window. He wanted to remove my car key, but saw there was just a small octagonal hole where the keyhole should be.
‘Turn it off,’ he said, completely unruffled.
This was easier said than done. I wanted to do exactly what he said so he wouldn’t shoot me, but I operated the ignition with a big screwdriver that was lying somewhere in the foot well with the pliers.
‘I’m sorry, there isn’t a key,’ I said. ‘I use a…’
Oh, Lord. What was the Portuguese for screwdriver? I didn’t want to reach down into the passenger foot well in case he thought I was scrabbling around for a weapon and killed me
The image of the car seats and windows splattered with my blood had been so vivid to me I still felt it was quite likely to come to pass. That scene in Pulp Fiction kept flashing through my mind, the one where Vincent Vega turns to the back seat, gun in hand, and accidentally blows out the brains of that nice boy Marvin.
‘I use a… ferramento, a tool,’ I said. ‘It’s down there.’
He bent down to peer into the foot well. ‘Pass it,’ he said.
He accepted the screwdriver without comment and used it to turn off my ignition.
‘So. Why didn’t you stop when I asked?’
Why didn’t I stop? ‘I was frightened,’ I said. ‘I thought you were a gangster.’
‘A gangster? I am not a gangster,’ he said with enormous disdain. ‘I am a Police Officer,’ and he turned half round to reveal the word OLÍCIA in large black letters on the back of his anorak, the P having peeled off.
I felt a vast surge of relief which radiated through my body like golden sunshine. Maybe I wasn’t going to die or be abducted or raped or even lose the Toyota. But I was still in big trouble by the looks of things.
‘Why were you driving down here, Senhora?’ he said sternly. ‘Don’t you know that this is a one-way street?’
A one way street? That was the problem? ‘I didn’t see the sign,’ I said, smiling.
‘This is a serious infringement, Senhora. A very serious infringement. You will have to accompany me to the Police Station.’
He unclipped a rusting pair of handcuffs from his belt and I nodded, trying to make my expression remorseful.
He looked at me and added, ‘And wait there until 6 o’clock when the Sergeant arrives.’
I nodded again. Fine. Everything was fine.
He sighed. ‘Unless there is another way we can resolve this situation.’
Another way? Could he be asking me for money?
All I had in my pocket was a disgusting crumple of 5000 Meticais notes that were probably worth about £1.50. I didn’t want to bring them out because they were of so little value and because I wasn’t completely certain he was angling for a bribe.
And then there was a furious crackling sound from the back of the car and the policeman gripped his gun.
‘Don’t shoot!’ I said again. ‘It’s a… it’s a…’ The policeman watched me without expression as I made frantic pincer-like gestures with both hands. ‘It’s a… yes! It’s a carangeijo. A carangeijo!’
‘Let me see this carangeijo,’ he said, and I twisted round and stretched for the bag which had lodged itself under my seat.
‘Please,’ I said. ‘Take it.’
‘You want to give this to me?’
He slung the gun over his shoulder and took the bag, undid the knot and peered inside. ‘This time, Senhora,’ he said, ‘I’m letting you off with a caution.’
And he sealed the bag with a tight knot and walked away, turning back after a few paces to hand me my screwdriver.
I watched in my rear-view mirror as he paced sedately along the deserted street and disappeared around the corner by the bottle store.
I started the car and began to drive towards the high-rises, my mind a blank. Once I’d reached the familiar avenues of acacia trees near my home, everything around me suddenly began to move sluggishly. The sounds of barking and horns were weirdly muted and the light of dawn seemed all wrong.
I climbed the stairs to my flat and stood in the doorway for a long time, contemplating my sunny living room: the half-written letter to my parents on the table, photos of my friends blu-tacked to the wall, the thick pile of exam papers waiting to be marked and Olive the cat, mewing for her breakfast.
Joanna Smith spent many years in Tanzania and Mozambique teaching literature, training teachers, translating for the UN and writing three film scripts which were shot in Mozambique and South Africa. She now teaches creative writing in Lyme Regis and has recently completed a screenplay about a one-legged Mozambican car thief.