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The Lake Retba Murder (Le Meurtre au Lac Rose)


Illustration by Eleanor Taylor ©

It wasn’t a crime anyone had asked him to solve, but he was the person who had seen something strange in the water. To first notice the oddly shaped buoy bobbing near the edge of the lake. Roberto had turned left at a slight change in the wind when he saw it, being pushed by fate towards the shore. Towards him. He waded in. The body was painfully bloated. Even its black pores were stretched. As he turned her over, pink water pooled in the dips above her collarbones and he saw the twin bulbs of her breasts had swollen into one ugly lump. Her hair was ruined and looked like a claggy drain rag riddled with knots. Her fingertips were tightly shrivelled. Squishy nails, green and furry at the cuticles, steadily rotting up towards the tips. A helicopter filled with tourists chopped through the summer sky. From that high up, Roberto thought, he and the corpse must look like flies stranded in a strawberry milkshake.

Mireille looked down from her favourite dune and saw Roberto in the lake. She let the sand sift through her fingers as she watched the sun go down. The African sunset foreigners made so much of. Her watch seemed to tighten around her wrist when she saw him. She looked at its face. Two hours until their rendezvous. She hoped he wouldn’t be late. As Mireille herself had explained, she was like a car and needed to be serviced. She’d enjoyed a certain standard and frequency of sex in the thirty-four legal years that she’d been having it.

‘Thrice a week we should be having sex. Together. Obviously. My address…’

A portly fifty-year-old woman had propositioned him. Then, with her stare, she urged him to find a pen and a scrap of paper to take her address down. Had she learnt such forwardness in Iceland? he wondered. His mother, of the same age, said Mireille had left at sixteen with a policeman on holiday here. She’d upped and gone like sand on a windy day. No goodbyes, not much taken, and barely noticed. She’d returned similarly, without warning, seeking no reunions and only greeting people as she came across them. She said ‘Hello’ and moved on with her day, as if she’d just left the house for a box of cigarettes thirty years ago.

After they had sex, he thought he could smell smoke on his own skin, as evidence of the unholy fire they’d just created. Then she’d light up. Usually saying nothing. Unless he lingered too long. In that case she winked and turned her back to him. And lay down still smoking. That back, where her underclothes had etched themselves into her body. Making lines and creases of secret hurt.

He and Fatima weren’t exactly friends but they had dropped out of school at the same time and that was enough. Fatima didn’t feel looked at when she was with Roberto, and it was nice having a break from being a beguiling zoo animal. They saw each other by chance maybe every fortnight or so. Sometimes he saw her silhouette, sitting alone on a dune letting the world turn to black. Blotting out the natural beauty that seemed to plague her.

The last time they’d talked she’d caught him, malingering, on a break from one of his empty walks. They’d chatted, their backs being warmed by the mud wall that had soaked up the heat of the day. It had been about whether he was going to Dakar any time soon. He needed to get her a proper needle for her record player. He’d fashioned one out of a syringe he’d stolen from the clinic and it had wrecked a completely good record, Wish You Were Here.

‘I’m not sure when,’ he said. ‘But I’ll get you one. I’ll fix it.’

The police weren’t too bothered about him working the case. To them she was just another stiff in the morgue and a case file in a corner of the office. Roberto went down there and found himself distracted by the coroner’s very high-up fringe, something he’d never seen before. It showed up the bones in her forehead, two round knobs protruding rather unattractively, like an extra set of eyes.

He inspected the body, ravaged by the water, one last time. Fatima smelled salty but there was also something else. He lifted up the sheet, searching for what it was on her that was different. Something. A detail. Escaped him.

‘Are you hearing me? I said strangled to death before she took in any water. She didn’t drown.’

Well that was obvious, Roberto thought. He looked at the burgundy bruising around her throat. Dr Diouf’s observation wasn’t particularly insightful. This was evident to them both in the awkward handing over of files at the end of their curt meeting. What a waste.

It was ten to sex o’clock. Mireille curled a lock of hair around her finger and smiled. Roberto fucked like a dream. She thought that, after years of harsh winds gnawing at her face, her looks were moonwalking backwards, her wrinkles blurring smooth, and the sex was what was doing it. Youth was a funny thing. Maybe it was contagious. Maybe it could be captured.

Roberto knew that he specifically had been chosen. It was him or nothing, but he didn’t know why. He couldn’t see the boy Mireille saw in him. What had she seen reflected in the rippling scales of fresh tilapia and mullet? That day he’d been left alone to look after the stall, his father’s warning ringing in his ears. Roberto wasn’t a fisherman. His father had big arms, fit for tattooing and pulling in lines weighed low by flipping fish. There were bloody grooves in his palms from earning a living on the line. He walked the same kilometre to the sea and back every day without feeling trapped. Roberto lacked heft; was lightly muscular and lean. The tides didn’t interest him and neither did the heaviness of nets, so he left them all day unattended and lolling in the sea, anchored by pegs to the shore. He refused to squat near them and wait, marking time by cigarette butts, boasts and tussles with other fishermen. He left his kit behind trusting the generous sea to fill it and the other hunched fishers not to steal too much.

He walked the kilometre back, off the path, through the bush. He sat by Lake Retba knowing its every shift of colour. Mauve, lavender-pink at dusk, magenta at dawn and crayon-pink during the day. At least during dry season. When the rains came, Le Lac Rose was diluted. As boring as tap water.

He walked around the town. Up and down, through the narrow dirt streets. Chewing on a piece of briny wild samphire he’d picked up. Letting the pink juices drip off the cliff of his jaw. He walked through the world like a ghost, glancing at things and then turning away. Remembering everything but cherishing nothing. Passing through throngs of people in high season. Walking in thin air in the middle of the road in off-season. Sometimes stopping for a café crème and savouring its strength and bitterness that tasted like Mireille.

Had it been taken? Robbery gone wrong? After a while all he could get out of the family was tears so he finished his tea and left. The sound of sorrow rolling away behind him.

When he reached the coast, his kit was alone and pathetic. There were two common rougets du Sénégal and a small hake that would be bland in his mother’s pan no matter how much she sprinkled things and tutted over it. That night he and his father would quarrel again. Threats and excuses were thrown at each other like old bent-up cards, in a game that everyone had forgotten the rules of. The night following the day he looked after the stall in town they’d quarrelled even more. Mireille had turned the day upside down. Roberto had given wrong change, slipped on guts, and filleted wonkily and shakily, leaving bones in where there shouldn’t have been. Customers pursed their lips or closed their purses and moved on to rival stalls. While listening to a Miriam Makeba LP overlaid by his father’s shouting, he thought about how careers couldn’t be inherited like warts. He didn’t know what he wanted, but it wasn’t this. No. Careers, he thought, were decided in that same hellish place where the rest of the things he couldn’t understand knotted over themselves – like why the lake was pink, and his love for Mireille.

He understood the physics of her. Her body and how she liked to be tossed, folded and bent on the bed. In sex he was gloriously tethered to her lurid kinetics. He loved her and how she smelt redolent of milky sleep, tobacco, juniper perfume and sweat, mingled. He knew when she crawled up him, her hip creaking over his, and pushed her face into him, she was going to whisper in his ear, ‘Again.’ And he would rise.

While dressing Mireille said, ‘Awful about that girl who was killed.’

‘Yes,’ Roberto said. ‘It hasn’t even made the paper yet. We were friends.’

Mireille poured herself some water from a jug and didn’t offer Roberto any. He let himself out wondering where to wander next.

The following day Roberto set off to interview the family hoping to get some clues.

‘An angry ex-boyfriend? Apart from the ones I already know about? A new one?’ he asked.

‘Too many to mention,’ her mother sobbed. ‘But I think they were all too still in love with her to, to-t-to…’

Fatima’s three younger siblings burst into tears and it sounded like the crash of falling glasses. They knew something was wrong but they weren’t sure what. All under seven, they copied their mother’s emotions and didn’t really know what to be sad about. Roberto wanted to warn them that that feeling would never go away. Never knowing what to be sad about.

He knew Fatima didn’t keep regular hours. She was always being asked out by locals and foreigners and she led them on at different places day and night. When she was lazy she let her looks do the work: begging seated on a pavement somewhere and waiting for money to fill her lap. She lifted up her heavy skirt and went home at the end of the day, cheekily giving whoever was around a little extra to look at. The only stakes in her schedule were waitressing Mondays at La Caresse Marine and Wednesdays being a chambermaid at the hotel.

‘Did she get to all her jobs last week?’ he asked.

‘Y-y-yes,’ her mother said.

Suddenly an odd thought came to Roberto. He looked down at the specks of loose-leaf tea in his cup. Had her wages drifted from her, note by note, or had they been in a bundle of bills and coins that sank to the bottom? He hadn’t noticed any money nearby. Had it been taken? Robbery gone wrong? After a while all he could get out of the family was tears so he finished his tea and left. The sound of sorrow rolling away behind him.

Roberto kicked up dust with his rubber flip flops while in a mental maze of his own making. His autopilot malfunctioned; he missed a left turn and walked crown-first into the chest of some old classmates. He butted his head again like a whirring toy car into a wall. The wall grew a hand that jerked his chin up and flipped him on to his back. Luc. Luc and his friends. They had tucked in their shirts to hide their jagged edges and rolled up the muddy parts of their trousers.

‘Hey, con. Look where you’re going. Wanna die like that girl?’

He didn’t reply. How could he?

‘Quelle nana!’ one of the group said. The boys laughed at the memory of Fatima’s beauty. They were passing around a red and white tub of Brylcreem and generally spiffing themselves up, which was a change from their usual endeavours. The last time Roberto had seen them they were spraying blood-like graffiti on a wall. Now they were all popped white collars.

‘Where are you going?’ he hadn’t meant to say but did.

‘L’hôtel,’ said another one of the boys grinning down at him still splayed on the ground.

Luc threw down a comb with some stubby broken teeth.

‘We’ll see you there,’ he said and the group erupted into laughter again.

Roberto threw the greasy comb off his stomach and thought about the gang ambling to the hotel. They moved into the early evening with their shoulders confidently squared against the unspoken rule that locals weren’t let in to become familiar with the guests, lest they become familiar with the concepts of class mobility or self-improvement.

Meanwhile Mireille sat at La Caresse Marine, smoking into a gin and tonic. It was something Hans had taught her. Exhaling smoke into the drink brought out the more herbal and juniper flavours in cheaper gin. She was eavesdropping on a conversation she’d heard a hundred times. Sometimes told wrongly and half-sure. Sometimes read out loud from a guidebook with buyer’s confidence.

‘The lake’s pink because of the algae here,’ a pale man said. ‘Dunaliella salina. It has a red pigment and it absorbs the light making it Le Lac Rose. Good thing we’re here in dry season. It’s at its best. Like some sort of sacred pool on an alien planet.’

‘It looks good enough to eat,’ said his travel mate. ‘Cotton candy. Or strawberry ice-cream.’

They looked like the same kind of pale Hans was. Mireille and Hans loved each other. They had certainly professed it at their woodland wedding where the summer sun never set on the proceedings. They’d ignited each other when she handed him the bill at a lakeside café. She had looked into his eyes and seen no malice, just a calm sadness-tinged blue. And he saw dark honey and an inquisitiveness in hers that drove her to seek adventure away from the lake, the harsh coarse salt and the searing pink like open flesh.

Hans told her not to bother but Mireille learned Icelandic anyway to impress him and to read food labels. Then she moved on to the newspaper. What a waste. Nothing seemed to happen in Iceland. Occasionally a glacier crashed into another and a drunk froze to death on the street, the aquavit turning to ice in his veins. Problems of a different universe. Mireille was an Afronaut keeping her dictaphone up to date on her adventures. Canoeing in the fjords. Her hair breaking off because of the cold. Her boring stenographer’s job at an advertising agency. She sunned herself with her happy lamp for Vitamin D and hoped that there was more to life.

It was a deafeningly quiet life they led. Their inter­actions with each other became ever more polite and robotic. Until they were in limbo. Neither riotously happy nor darkly sad. Too many spin cycles; their love had gone grey in the wash. Mireille blamed herself, her independence and privacy. But Hans thought stoically that it was the natural progression of love. Like flowers, it had to die. And anyway, he thought, dead flowers held some crumpled faded beauty. He couldn’t recognise the girl who had chosen to marry him.

Hans suggested they go on holiday to see the steel tower in the clouds.

‘You mean the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, dear. But how about further south – Cinque Terre, Italy?’

‘Okay, elskan.’

Mireille wondered if Hans knew this was the last hurrah, the flight to Rome and then a driving holiday where they looked out of the car windows in opposite directions, fought over how to work the Leica camera and clasped each other’s hands over the shift stick some of the way. Mireille got up from her comfy spot, lying on his pot belly on the warm beach, and went to one of the many little pizzerias in Vernazza to bring back something for them to eat in the wake of the incredible marine view. She got some pizza alright, salame picante e basilico. She got in the rental car and drove away until the pizza got cold and she no longer wanted it.

Mireille stubbed her cigarette out harshly and barked for the bill. She suddenly felt sick. The waiter brought over the scribbled bill: ‘3 dbl G&T’. As she handed him the money, she was marked by how cutting and rough his hands were. Like everyone else, he was in the salt business. People sailed out on les pirogues and gathered salt their whole lives. The salt looked like small diamonds in the sunlight, but it was much cheaper and rougher on the body. Everyone’s hands looked mummified. She tipped the man and thought of how careful Roberto was. He always smelt oddly feminine from the shea butter he smothered himself in. But it kept him soft and somewhat sheltered from the world.

Another day passed and Roberto was no closer to figuring out who had killed Fatima. Something small nagged at him but he just couldn’t remember what it was. It was as fragile and inaccessible as a memory of an old dream. Wispy and out of grasp. He lay down at home, his parents shouting as only a fishwife and fisherman could, and cuddled a pillowcase he had stolen from Mireille’s house. It smelled like everything she was made up to be. He breathed deeply. It calmed and focused him. Taking him away from the world he was born into.

Mireille tramped around town in a rage.

‘Where the fuck was he? Who did he think he was?’ she muttered and muttered under her breath.

He hadn’t pitched up for their rendezvous. Now what the hell was she supposed to do? She wasn’t going to spend her time prowling the streets for a boy. She was in control here. She decided to sit by the lake, which was turning a dark purple because of the late hour. She sat and smoked, sulkily, angrily, needily on each drag.

Roberto crept up beside her, on the dune, the samphire and wildflowers shivering a little in the wind. He knew that smell. He’d found it. He sat by Mireille and stroked her curly bush of hair, playing at affection. But he was looking for what he already knew he would find. There it was. Round, save for some wrinkling, navy and pungent. Just like the one he’d found in Fatima’s navel. A juniper berry. He picked it out of her hair and they both looked in his palm. It was so dark now they could barely see what they both knew was there and what it meant.

‘You know she was never meant for this world,’ Mireille said. ‘She was too beautiful for it. It would have only scarred her and let her down. Escape would have been no escape. But staying would have eaten away and scratched at her until she was small. Disappointment would have hunted her stealthily like it did me.

‘It’s up to you now, Roberto. Fuck me or betray me?’

‘The Lake Retba Murder’ comes from Water: New Short Fiction from Africa. For more details see Windows on the world, our world fiction titles.

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