The Hit of a Marksman
by Bertil Falk
part 1 of 2
It was one of those miraculous summer mornings. I had spent the night in Stockholm. The day before I had attended an ecumenical conference that ended in communion in the Church of St. Jacob.
The yellow cross on blue ground in the shape of a three-tailed ensign with the crowned coat of arms flapped from the Royal Palace opposite Grand Hotel and revealed that His Majesty the King was at home.
The statue of the Sun Singer on Strömparterren raised his arms towards the sun in the east and the statue of King Charles XII in Kungsträdgården, the king’s garden, pointed his verdigris copper-finger in the same direction, towards Moscow.
The ferryboats were moored to the quay-edge. My ferryboat was in front of the National Museum. Pillars of smoke from the funnel showed that it was ready to run, but according to the schedule there were still ten minutes to go before it put off. The deck was on level with the quay and I went on board across the gangplank.
The smell of tarred hawsers mixed with the inspiring scent of newly percolated coffee stimulated me. I walked up the ladder to the coffee shop, bought my breakfast, bacon and egg, corn flakes and milk and a big cup of coffee and a Danish pastry. Balancing in order not to spill a drop, I walked outdoors with my tray and sat down at one of the tables by the stern.
The sun shone bright. Screaming gulls dived into the water opposite the statue of King Gustavus III on the other side of the water, where the merchant houses of the Old Town formed a background of medieval houses to the hectic traffic on Skeppsbron.
The rotary of Slussen, once upon the days of left-hand traffic prospectively planned and built for right-hand traffic, was a merry-go-round of buses and cars and all kinds of vehicles. Soon we would leave all this noise and bustle behind us. Anyhow, I enjoyed this wonderful morning.
Yes, I felt elated! And believe me, at my time of life you usually do not walk around in a state of elation. But this morning it was next to impossible not to feel good and blessed by the Lord.
I had almost finished my meal and was enjoying the coffee as all the movements preceding a departure came into being. The ship’s bell rang, orders were delivered, ropes were set free from the mooring rings, the scraping when the gangway was drawn in grated upon my eardrums for a few seconds and we set out. The hoot told the world that we were on our way.
Another ferryboat passed by us and a third and a fourth came after us. Soon it seemed as if the four boats were involved in a race to the many landing-stages spread along mainland and islands alike.
We were abreast of the end of Djurgården when a voice called out my name. It was no less a man than a former Cabinet Minister, once the most radical Social-Democrat in the Government, who, like myself, nowadays belonged to the privileged cadre of senior citizens. He came from a very political family. His maternal great grandmother had been a radical suffragette, his paternal grandfather and his mother had been parliamentarians and his twin-brother was the general-director of a civil service department.
He wore a hat that looked somewhat like a Stetson and he greeted me by raising that hat with his left hand.
“How are you,” he said and when he smiled his red moustache seemed to quiver on top of his upper lip. “Long time ago, my dear reverend.” He said it as if he was glad that he had stumbled upon me.
What he said was true. It was a long time ago. We had met when he visited the missionary station in Kenya some twenty years ago. He had stayed a couple of days and had socialized with us. I remember that he used to sit sipping at a glass of whisky on the rocks together with some other people. I was never among them, but in the evenings I saw them from a distance when I took my evening walk down to the small church and I heard them laughing, his distinct laughter hovering like an eagle above the other peoples’. Actually, I only had a few words with him.
I was therefore surprised that he now recognized me. I did of course recognize him. He was a famous person. The corruption scandals surrounding his time in office were serialized in the news of the international short wave transmissions from Radio Sweden we used to pick up on 6065 kilocycles short wave in Kenya in those days.
He sat down with his tray and it turned out that after his retirement he had bought a house on one of the islands not far from the island cliff in the world’s biggest archipelago, where I lived out the rest of my life and we now were heading for. He sipped at his coffee, coughed and we exchanged memories for a while until he brought up a story that I had not thought of for many years. He said: “I read a long time ago that a man was shot at the missionary station.”
I looked at him, somewhat surprised that the sight of me triggered that old story in his memory. It struck me that he was much older than I remembered him, but of course, who was not? His eyes were hollow. I guessed that he suffered from insomnia. But his moustache was still red. Maybe he dyed it?
“It did not exactly happen at the station, but there was a strange incident of that kind not far from the hospital,” I admitted. “The man who was shot was a friend of mine. His name was George, a white Kenyan farmer of the third generation.”
“Tell me about it?”
There was no doubt that he was eager to hear the story, so I began telling him what happened, beginning with a background, deeply rooted in another time, a time long before Internet became a common habit.
“George’s grandfather arrived at Mombasa in 1895,” I said, “It was at the same time that Whitehouse arrived. Whitehouse was, as you probably know, assigned by the British Foreign Office to build what later was called The Lunatic Express, a railway across East Africa. Malaria was rampant. In 1905 when Kisumu, called Port Florence by the British, was hit by bubonic plague and put under a quarantine, George’s grandfather, who had seen the workers, most of them coolies from India, dying like flies during the building of the railway, thought that enough was enough. He backed out from the awesome project and became a pioneer farmer.
“In 1911 he began to make a profit out of the high-grade coffee he grew. His son, who married a German woman, took over the farm in 1931. He was the father of George and when he died George and his twin brother Robert inherited the farm.
“Their mother, she was still alive when I left Kenya, used to say that her sons didn’t have to look into a mirror. They just looked at each other. This is of course things you say about identical twins, isn’t it, but at the end it turned out that what she said had a deeper significance than anyone thought. It had a profound meaning under its surface innocence.
“Anyhow, Robert died an early victim of AIDS. And it is now fifteen years since George was shot. Come to think of it, George was left-handed like you.”
“Really?” said the ex-minister. “What’s so strange about that? Many people are left-handed.” He sipped at his coffee and with his left hand he lowered his cup to the saucer.
Taken aback a little by his unerring remark, I said, “Did I say it was strange?” and continued, “George was unhealthy, very often affected by infections, but he was a good farmer. His coughing could sometimes be a little bit irritating. But George was a very nice person. I once said that George really had his heart in the right place, but his wife said, ‘Don’t be too sure about that’. I protested. ‘He has a heart of gold’, I said, and she replied, ‘Well, he certainly has’.”.
I laughed at the memory.
“Sounds like a contradiction. What the heck did she mean? That his temper oscillated?”
The ex-minister smiled as if he actually tried to hide some esoteric knowledge behind his words.
“That’s what I wondered, too,” I told him, “but when I asked her, she just laughed. Her name was Mary and she was a beautiful native woman with a ravishing temperament. She had her Bachelor of Science in Horticulture from Moi University in Eldoret and she was so outgoing and so kind that we all loved her. Mary and George were about thirty-five years old. And believe me, they were very happy.”
I looked across the gunwale into the air and said almost to myself “Yes, she was really something,” and for a moment I saw that lovely lady in my mind’s eye.
“You sound enthusiastic about her,” my fellow passenger said, and coughed.
“You think so? Well, she was admirable. But I don’t think that enthusiastic is the right word. I would rather say that I am getting nostalgic when I think of her. Unfortunately, a young Dutch surgeon came to the mission station. His name was Cornelius. He was about the same age as Mary and George. He was a very skilful surgeon and saved a lot of lives. But there was a problem.”
I took a big sip from my cup and I dipped the Danish in my coffee. The ex-minister leaned towards me.
“What kind of problem?”
Copyright © 2007 by Bertil Falk