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I Hear the Drums, Echoing Tonight

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It’s difficult to find the composure to write. I’ve not altogether lost it, though I seem to grow weaker by the day. Increasingly feeble-minded and the right words are difficult to form, but no, I have not lost my faculties entirely. Marlow is asleep beside me in the truckle bed. He’s beginning to look somewhat feverish himself. There is a slight sheen over the pale cheek, a dampness to his hair. The drums cry out in the night, they don’t ever stop. Seem to mimic my heart, which thunders like a djembe being pulverized. And again, those awful howls. I feel myself getting uneasy. I’m coming out in a sweat. My God, have I indeed gone mad?

I told Marlow that I would like to paint him once, and he gave me a small smile. ‘I always thought that I would be a painter,’ he told me. I believe that his father was an artist of sorts. He goes quiet when he mentions him and so I asked what kind of man he was - liberal with the hand? Stern and disapproving? ‘Not at all,’ he said, softly. ‘He broke that cycle. No, not at all.’ And when he looked up at me there were tears in his eyes. I then noticed his gaze directed toward my portrait of the Woman. I do not think myself much capable with a brush anymore. Too much concentration, hands have an unpleasant tremor. ‘It’s not half as good as what I was able to do,’ I muttered. ‘I know, I saw it,’ he said. To which I relied ‘Well, you’re frank for an Englishman.’ But he’s not, usually. There is no knowing with Marlow. His eyes and expression and downward glances give the impression of there being more than you would expect. I caught him writing about me once and he was embarrassed - put the pen in his pocket and looked at me almost defiantly. Yet I have set out to put the last days - I feel sure these are my last days - of Kurtz down to posterity and all I can make mention of is him. It’s all that interests me.

He was a breath of humanity into this place. Warmth, although he was not obvious with it. Eyes the colour of tinned peas. I know well that my reputation precedes me and so I looked him up and down in silence, in the hope of determining exactly where I stood in his estimations. He was in awe, I made out that much. Supple body, slender limbs. A dirty blonde, with split ends combed back untidily from his wistful face. Not what I had been expecting. I sort-of wished him to tell me things, how it is back in those chartered streets, the mind-forged manacles! Same as ever, I would imagine. I can remember well that poem, and being read it years ago. It’s funny the things that we remember. ‘Talk English with me.’ I had demanded, because I don’t want to lose my grasp of it. You do that, out here. I fear forgetting words at all and grunting like some animal, but then what difference would it make? It’s all meaningless conjecture.

His accent is wonderful, English of the Englanders, just as I remember, but scattered with the occasional dropped consonant or mispronounced vowel that can go from a bit innocent to saucily indecorous. I look over at him now, the rise and fall of his slight chest, his hair tousled over the pillow. What is it that you said to me, Marlow, when you came out here? That you must be loyal to the nightmare of your choice? Well then, I am loyal to mine.

I am very unwell. The second day since his arrival he pulled water from the river to bathe me. I sat there in the mud, wearing a sort of loincloth that the Company had fashioned to protect my modesty. I snatched the rag from him and he watched suspiciously as I soaked it in the bucket and then, with my other hand, began to open up his shirt. He said nothing. I pressed it to his body and squeezed out the suds, water dripping down his chest. Moving it gently down his body, lightly over his hip bones, I noticed that he had a few scars and that his ribs were beginning to show more than they should. It happens, out here. ‘Oh baby, you’re bruised!’ I murmured, looking with arousal at the scrapes and lesions purpling his skin. ‘And we must get you something to eat.’ Poking his stomach. He gave me a strange look. ‘I bet you think you’re the sane one in this asylum, huh? Just you wait.’ I snarled, throwing the rag down the bank. Then I leant in - and in the quickest of moments - kissed him right on the mouth. He just stared into my eyes with a quizzical expression in his own, such as they often have, and I burst into laughter so hard that it hurt my chest and I struggled to breathe. He tried to give me medicine and I complied reluctantly. I cannot say for certain how I passed that night.

We walk around together talking secretively (that’s what they think) and at any moment we are still both my arms are wrapped around him tightly, pulling him to me. He keeps a hesitant hand behind my back. My people look on curiously but they don’t do anything. Bemused by this sudden preference. I’m not sure what happened to the Woman. The Company watch conspicuously. I know what they all say over cards and cigars up at the Station, and I can see their eye rolls at the riverbank, even if not manifest. I suppose they all think that I have gone properly mad.

I had begun to kiss his throat, causing him to let out a moan and the dirty blonde hairs along his arm to raise. I was on top of him, my hands on his shoulders, pinning him to the hard little bed. Slowly, my lips caressed his neck, his chest, his soft belly. I made my way over the delicate trail of light-coloured hairs, below his navel. Reached for his cock through his trousers, felt it swelling beneath my hand.
‘No,’ he said, gasping, trying to pull away from me.
‘You want to.’ I breathed, grinding on him, lifting my head momentarily to kiss him firmly on the lips.
He did not reply and, weak as I was, though needing him as I did, I relented. I lay down on his chest instead, nestling into him. I was surprised to feel his arms come out to wrap around me, and that he even stroked gently in between my shoulders. Surprising tenderness, given the way that I often treat him.

He is no great lover. Fondles me dispassionately as though I am a lump of clay. Yet his urgent, insatiate kiss has every primal urge inside of me bound up until it is agony and I want him. He is remarkable, in a way. It’s intelligence mingled with something else, that I do not quite understand. I like the way that he tells a story. ‘Tell me about the orphan - the one who found that he was rich.’ I demanded when we were in bed one night, then changed my mind. ‘No, no - tell me about the clown.’
‘Clown?’
‘Yes, that clown. In the musical hall at Drury Lane.’
‘Do you mean Dan Leno? He’s an actor, not a clown.’
‘Yes, well - a clown’s a clown. Tell me.’
And so he began, starting with the most peculiar image of a cockney man dressed as a dame, who then roamed the backstage ‘ranting that he should be Richard III’ Then the Russian burst into the room.
‘Kurtz!’
‘Go away!’ I sat up and snarled at him, and he stopped perplexed, the door hanging open as I turned back to my Marlow and began to kiss him, curling over him possessively. And yet, and such things cannot be made up, we ended up with three in a bed. A sight for sore eyes, it was. Myself on one side of Marlow and the Russian in its horrible patchwork garb on the other. I think he got a bit irritated, because we kept interrupting. Perhaps he was the sane one, putting the inmates to bed. After a while he fell silent and said that he was tired. The Russian was already asleep, head resting in the crook of Marlow’s shoulder. ‘Does your head hurt again?’ I asked Marlow, because he had been suffering headaches those last few days. He nodded. ‘Come here.’ And I took his head into my hands, began to gently massage along his temples with my thumbs, then moved my fingers in soothing circles over his scalp. Stroked his hair. ‘How did you learn to do that?’
‘My previous post was in the East, before I heard about the ivory trade.’
He snorted. ‘Well, so was mine. But when they say “Massage Parlor” they usually mean something else.’

Now I look over at him again - I’ve gone to the desk to write - and, I freeze. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. Is he breathing? ‘Marlow!’ I go to him, suddenly more worried than I would ordinarily care to admit. ‘Marlow, Marlow!’ I’m like a child, nudging him. ‘Wake up, Marlow, wake up,’ and he murmurs something sleepily, bats me away with his hand. He is breathing, he is not dead. I don’t know why I thought that he would be. The drums are still going and I don’t want to write anymore. I’m not sure that I have much else to say, contrary to the popular belief. All I want is Marlow.