William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWELVE: A King of Infinite Space
In one of our earlier meetings, we had agreed that Lord Howard would lead the five-member delegation assigned to deliver our pledge to King Philip. The other delegates were Oxford, Cardinal Allen, Doctor Lopez and Thomas Percy. They left for Spain on the following feast day of the Epiphany.
After everyone had said goodbye to them at the end of the Mass which was offered that day for their intention, Oxford joined me in the sacristy. I had served at the Mass and was putting away the celebrants’ vestments, having been appointed the first sacristan of All Saints’ College two days earlier. At the end of a surprisingly long and warm chat, he said: “Mother Isola tells me you’re staying here until next Christmas.”
“Yes. She asked me…”
“Ordered you, you mean.”
“She humbly requested…” It warmed my heart to see the earl smile for the first time since I told him about what he called my “diabolical scheme”. We both knew that humility wasn’t one of Mother Isola’s virtues. He burst out laughing after I said “She politely pleaded with me to wait here for Emmanuel’s return, and to teach in the seminary while doing so.”
“I mentioned your scheme to the bishop. For some reason I can’t understand, he thinks it is funny. He wishes someone had come up with such an idea long before now.”
“We won’t be reckless, my lord.” I knelt down as Oxford laid his hands on my head to bless me. “We’ll attract no undue attention to ourselves.”
“Make sure you don’t.”
We walked side by side down the central aisle of the chapel to the main door. I closed it behind him and returned to the sacristy to finish my chores for the morning.
Half an hour or so later, I walked down the same aisle to the end, entered one of the back pews, knelt down and said a Pater Noster. When I reached the end of my prayer, instead of “Amen”, I heard myself whisper “Amina”. I could smell the intoxicating pomade the nymph wore when last I saw her.
I sprang out of the pew, dashed to the door, and opened it a crack. There, sure enough, was Amina Sefuwa – sitting on the landing of the chapel stairs between a pair of shears and a handful of long-stem roses. She had been harvesting flowers in a nearby garden and had run for shelter when it started raining.
I picked the roses up and sat down where they had been lying. Separating them in feigned anger, I asked: “How could you, Amina? Reds and whites together? Tut! Tut! Haven’t you heard about the Wars of the Roses?”
“I have. But I find family quarrels entertaining. Don’t you?”
“Not if they’re between my kin?”
Taking the flowers from me, she said: “No need separating them. They’re all going to end up in the same vase. I hope your bishop doesn’t have the same reaction as you.”
“Are they for him?”
“For Father’s dining table.” She pointed to the sky with her shears. “The rain’s letting up. Oh, I’ve confused you, haven’t I? Bishop Watson is coming to pay Father Julius one last visit this evening before he and the remaining Englishmen set sail early tomorrow morning.”
“Are you aware…”
“That you’re not leaving for another year? How couldn’t I be. All Mother has been talking about for days is the seminary’s young, handsome, brilliant acting and fencing master. She calls you her best catch.”
Embarrassed at being spoken about like a knight errant, I pinned my gaze on the floor. After a long silence, which neither of us seemed anxious to break, I asked: “Do you think I can be of any help? At the orphanage, I mean.”
Instead of answering me, she plucked a thorn off one of her roses and tossed it in the direction of a figure running toward us. It was Robert Catesby. Lifting her shears and flowers up in the air, as if in a celebratory gesture, Amina bounded down the steps two at a time. When she and Robert got within a couple of yards of each other, she turned around and yelled: “Ask Mother the next time you see her. You could teach the children English.”
As I watched Amina hop to the rectory, unimpeded by layers of garments, her black silk dress clinging to the curves of her shapely body, my mind’s eye turned northward to Stratford-upon-Avon. I pictured Anne and the children in winter garb, and a numbing chill ran down my spine at the same time as flames of desire blazed their way up from the pit of my stomach.
Robert interrupted my reverie with a cough. He came to ask me to go and help him with his and the bishop’s packing. He wouldn’t stop running. So I ran behind him all the way back to Castelo Novo, where they too had been staying.
Although the day was still young when I saw them off at the port the next morning, we had to bull our way to their ship. The port teemed with chattering clusters of colourful humanity. Scantily-clad youngsters here. Overly-dressed oldsters there. Hawkers dickering with travellers everywhere. And in their midst twitted, hawed and hissed, mooed and hooted, cackled and crowed at least one specimen, it seemed, of every living creature under the sun.
As I twisted and turned through the crowd on my way back to the waiting seminary coach, a voice by then as sweet to my ear as that of a nightingale sang my name above the maddening din. I spun around to see Amina waving from a distance. Pointing to the carriage with one hand, I beckoned her with the other.
When she caught up with me, we threw ourselves into each other’s arms – as uninhibited as two kittens. My whole body, I thought, swelled out of all proportion as her tender skin rubbed against mine.
“Mother Isola wishes to know if the young Englishman is free to sup with her this evening. Since you’re the only Englishman, young or old, of my acquaintance, I guessed that would be you.”
“Let’s hope you guessed right. I wouldn’t want to show up at the orphanage and find out she was expecting someone younger and more English.”
“Does that mean you’re free?”
“For Mother Isola, I would be free even in the heat of a raging battle.”
“I will tell her so.”
“How about you, Amina. Are you free for an hour or two to show me this part of the island?”
“For William Shakspere, I would be free even in the heat of a raging battle.”
Amina had walked to the harbour. She asked the seminary coachman if he could help her make a few purchases and drive us to the Baía São Valentim (Saint Valentine Bay). He agreed.
About two hours later, while the carriage driver, who was an avid swimmer, indulged in his passion, Amina and I sat on a mat under a baobab tree, swapping stories about our pasts over puffpuff (little maize and banana loaves), coconut sweets and a calabash of palm wine. We took turns sipping the pungent beverage and making faces each time we did so.
Amina had just turned twenty. She was the second of two children born to Lidia and Hameed Sefuwa, a Portuguese interpreter from Lisbon and a mariner from Hausaland, whose first child, a boy, had died in infancy.
A month before Amina’s third birthday, her mother was shot dead on the neighbouring island of Otcho in a skirmish between Portuguese forces and an armed Malabese front opposed to their building on the island a fort intended to serve as a slave depot. Two years later, her father went on an expedition from which he was still to return. He had accompanied one of the king’s nephews on a voyage to no known destination to verify the claims made by some foreign travellers that human beings as white as themselves lived “on the other side of the big water”. No member of the expedition had been heard from since.
Amina’s father had left her, at the age of five, in Mother Isola’s care. Almost immediately, the former nun started grooming her young charge to take over the running of her orphanage. She ensured that Amina received a Muhammadan education in Arabic, as requested by her father. She also taught her Accounting, English and Italian while Amina in turn helped her with her Portuguese.
I didn’t return to Castelo Novo after our morning together. The coachman dropped both of us off at the orphanage, where I spent the afternoon with some of the children while Mother and Amina prepared supper.
Mother Isola had invited Father Julius to join the three of us. But he and Amina hardly said a word all evening while our hostess and I conversed at length like two old friends about life back in England – mostly about how the lives of Catholics had incrementally changed for the worse since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne.
“Sometimes it’s best to do nothing but stand back and watch events play themselves out,” the old lady said after I told her what I hoped Emmanuel and I would do when we returned to England. She and I had left Amina and Father Julius in the dining hall and were strolling in the large, colourful garden of the orphanage – “to ease the digestive process”, as she put it. The stroll was an after-supper ritual we would repeat nearly every evening for the rest of my stay in Corisco.
“Look at me,” she continued, pulling her arm from my grip and pointing at her mementos of the hurricane that had blown her to the Kingdom of Malabo: a patch over her left eye, a scar looking like a cockroach on her chest, and the stump to which her left arm had been reduced. “Have you ever seen anything this unsightly? And how did I get to be thus? Because I thought life in Birmingham was unbearable. I wanted better; but got worse.”
As we were entering the house thirty minutes or so later, she slipped her arm back under mine and said: “People change. Queen Elizabeth may change for the better with age.”
“But will her parliament?” I asked. “The queen is surrounded by fanatics who would go to any length to abolish Roman Catholicism in England. Just before I left the country they passed an act which authorizes the seizure of chattels and lands belonging to recusants who’re behind in their payments. Why, two years ago they fixed the fine for recusancy at twenty pounds. And it won’t surprise me a jot if the fine is double that amount by the time I return to London.”
“Did you hear that? He expects to return to London.” Mother winked at Amina and Father Julius, who had both come to the door to help us in. All three of them laughed until we got back to the dining hall.
Had they contrived to make me settle permanently in Malabo, I wondered. How would they fit Emmanuel in their plans? And my dream of crippling the Church of England?
It wasn’t until just before my departure late that night that Amina told me why they had laughed. According to a Malabese legend, Fernão do Pó, the first foreigner to set foot in Corisco, was also the last one to find his way back to his native land. The rest were entrapped in the maze of islands that was the Kingdom of Malabo.
We were in front of the house, Amina and I. Standing side by side, we gazed at the priest riding away until we could see him and his horse no more. Then I pointed at the moon over our heads and said: “She and her minions, the stars which led me into your warm arms, will guide me back to my land of frost and snow.”
Amina walked a few steps away and sat on the grass. I followed her and stood astride her outstretched legs. She tossed her hair back and the long, silky strands formed a wall behind her while her soft, round face mirrored the moon above. I stared wistfully into the sparkling whites of her hazel eyes. She gave her hair another toss and shyly tilted her head to one side as I took her hand and raised it halfway to my lips.
Then we heard a creaking sound. I dropped Amina’s hand as fast as I would have dropped a burning coal. She was back on her feet in the blink of an eye. Mother Isola hemmed and stuck her neck through a window, making me wish she had been wearing a patch over her other eye as well.
“Would it weren’t so, Amina,” I said, perusing her upturned face. “Would there were neither moon nor stars to show me the way out of Corisco.”
Fixing my glazing eyes on the soft hand I yearned to kiss, I slid a full ten paces backwards on the lawn; and then turned around, pocketed my hands, and crawled as slowly as a snail back to Castelo Novo.
Three or four weeks later, after spending every one of the intervening evenings in the company of Mother Isola and her charges, I moved to the Rectory, the sprawling house she and Amina lived in. The Rectory used to be a residence for priests, hence the name. It was attached to the old church building which Mother had converted to a dormitory for her orphaned children.
She had pointed out that it would be less of a strain on me if I didn’t go to work in two destinations from the castle. If I stayed at the Rectory, I would teach English there at my leisure; and when I went out to work it would be only to All Saints’ College. She couldn’t have made a more welcome suggestion.
Imagine a wine festival with me as Bacchus. That’s what the rest of my days in Corisco were like.
For ten whole months, I indulged myself with prodigal abandon. Hardly a day went by when I wasn’t entertained somewhere, at times by complete strangers. Hardly a day went by when I wasn’t seized by uncontrollable, rib-crushing, tear-jerking fits of boisterous laughter.
No activity I engaged in was lacking in hilarity. I dabbled in portrait painting. I went swimming, sailing and hiking. In addition to English, fencing and acting, I taught horseback riding. I learned to hunt and trap; to box, wrestle and dance.
And when I found time to open a book, it was invariably one which fired up my imagination. I read sailors’ yarns, tales of adventure, fantastic travel accounts by popular storytellers like Magellan, Polo, Diaz, Cabral, Do Po, De Ponte and Da Gama. And I read reports by adventurers who claimed to have accomplished exploits that were later proved to be impossible, like navigating a trans-Africa waterway from Tripolitania to the Cape of Good Hope.
I came across fables about the gold-spattered kingdom of El Dorado; the enchanting palaces of Ethiopia built by Iskindir, the mythical priest-king known to the English as Prester John; the unquenchable fires of Tierra del Fuego, Land of the Anthropophagi; the floating islands of Patagonia, where spices grew like weeds and giants were taller than oak trees. Most imaginative of all were the tales about the newly discovered continent of Austronesia, inhabited by a race whose eyes revolved on their shoulders; whose women grew extra pairs of breasts on their backs; and whose male folk were each encumbered with an extra half leg, the half leg extending in some cases well below their knees.
Then came Christmas.
The Yuletide of 1586 has been etched in my mind all these years. It was celebrated in the streets from the first day of December to the first of the following January: a thirty-two-day, island-wide, uninterrupted party.
At Amina’s insistence, from Christmas Day to New Year’s, rain or shine, attired as a peacock, I paraded through the streets of Corisco with her dance group. When it all came to an end eventually, I was relieved, and yet regretted at the same time that I would never again witness so exciting a Christmas season. Emmanuel was due to return from Mbini by the end of January.
But he didn’t.
While engrossed in a vivid description of Austronesians one hazy afternoon that month, I was jolted into complete wakefulness and the here-and-now by a tug on my hammock. I turned my head to behold the whitest eyes on the blackest face I ever saw on a girl, or any other human being, come to think of it. I was about to reach out and touch her to assure myself she wasn’t an apparition from Austronesia when she asked: “Is this where I would find Mother Isola?”
“You speak English!”
“And Arabic. Bube, Yoruba and Hausa. I am an interpreter.”
“I’m terribly sorry.”
“Don’t be. You’re not the first Englishman to be surprised to hear me speak his language.”
I climbed out of the hammock and introduced myself. Then asked after an awkward pause: “And you? What’s your name?”
“Ladipo. Monifa Ladipo.” She spelled both names for me.
In spite of her shoes being worn out, Monifa was the picture of elegance. She wrapped a piece of cloth round her waist, forming a skirt, and tucked in its folds a voluminous blouse the arms of which reached down to her elbows. On her head rose a tall headscarf. All three items were cut from the same material, a dazzling white cloth on which pictures of several kinds of fish were drawn in black.
Her ears were decorated with large, circular golden rings. And on each of her cheeks had been incised a pair of vertical lines – clearly not scars from an accident, but beauty marks of some sort.
“When you’re done…”
“I am done. Admiring you, if that’s what you mean.” I took one of the bundles Monifa was carrying in each hand, said “This way” and led her to Mother Isola.
Mother and Amina were seated in a shade in the garden going over some financial records. I introduced Monifa. She crouched and was about to start speaking when Mother turned to me and said: “Fetch a chair for our visitor”.
I dashed into the house and back with a chair under each arm. As Monifa and I sat down, she said: “Master Lopez sent me to inform you that he’s going to work in Mbini for another year.”
“Another twelve months of sunny days for you, young man,” said Mother, smiling at me.
“And another Christmas!” added Amina with an even broader smile.
Alas, neither was to be.
Copyright: Raphael Soné