The nightwatchman's occurrence book_ and other comic inventions - By V. S. Naipaul

Prologue: A Bad Sign

THAT AFTERNOON MR Surujpat Harbans nearly killed the two white women and the black bitch.

When he saw the women he thought of them only as objects he must try not to hit, and he didn’t stop to think how strange it was to see two blonde women forcing red American cycles up Elvira Hill, the highest point in County Naparoni, the smallest, most isolated and most neglected of the nine counties of Trinidad.

The heavy American bicycles with their pudgy tyres didn’t make cycling up the hill easier for the women. They rose from their low saddles and pressed down hard on the pedals and the cycles twisted all over the narrow road.

Harbans followed in a nervous low gear. He didn’t like driving and didn’t feel he was ever in control of the old Dodge lorry banging and rattling on the loose dirt road. Something else about the lorry worried him. It was bright with red posters: Vote Harbans for Elvira. There were two on the front bumper; two on the bonnet; one on each wing; the cab-doors were covered except for an oblong patch which was painted HARBANS TRANSPORT SERVICE. The posters, the first of his campaign so far, had arrived only that morning. They made him shy, and a little nervous about the reception he was going to get in Elvira.

Just before the brow of the hill he decided he needed more power and stepped a little harder on the accelerator. At the same time the women wobbled into the middle of the road, decided they couldn’t cycle up any further, and dismounted. Harbans stamped on his brakes, his left foot missed the clutch, and the engine stalled.

The bumper covered with two Vote Harbans for Elvira posters hit the back mudguard of one cycle and sent the cyclist stumbling forward, her hands still on the handlebars. But she didn’t fall.

The women turned to the lorry. They were both young and quite remarkably good-looking. Harbans had seen nothing like it outside the cinema. Perhaps it was the effect of the sun-glasses they both wore. The trays of both cycles were packed with books and magazines, and from the top of each tray a stiff pennant said: AWAKE!

The taller woman, who had been knocked forward, composed herself quickly and smiled. ‘Good brakes, mister.’ She spoke with an American accent—or it might have been Canadian: Harbans couldn’t tell. She sounded unreasonably cheerful.

‘Fust time it happen,’ Harbans said, almost in a whisper. ‘Fust time in more than twenty years.’ That wasn’t hard to believe. He had the face of the extra-careful driver, thin, timid, dyspeptic. His hair was thin and grey, his nose thin and long.

The shorter woman smiled too. ‘Don’t look so worried, mister. We’re all right.’

In a difficult position Harbans had the knack of suddenly going absent-minded. He would look down at the grey hairs on the back of his hands and get lost studying them.

‘Eh?’ he said to his hands, and paused. ‘Eh? All right?’ He paused again. ‘You sure?’

‘We’re always all right,’ the taller woman said.

‘We’re Witnesses,’ said the other.

‘Eh?’ But the legal sound of the word made him look up. ‘You is.…’ He waved a wrinkled hand. ‘Election nonsense.’ He was coy and apologetic; his thin voice became a coo. ‘My head a little hot with worries. Election worries.’

The taller woman smiled back. ‘We know you’re worried.’

‘We’re Witnesses,’ said the other.

Harbans saw the AWAKE! pennants for the first time and understood. The women dragged their red bicycles to the verge and waved him on. He managed somehow to move the Dodge off and got it to the top of Elvira Hill, where the black and yellow board of the Trinidad Automobile Association announces the district as ‘The Elvira.’ This is short for The Elvira Estate, named after the wife of one of the early owners, but everyone who knows the district well says Elvira.

From the top of Elvira Hill you get one of the finest views in Trinidad, better even than the view from Tortuga in South Caroni. Below, the jungly hills and valleys of the Central Range. Beyond, to the south, the sugar-cane fields, the silver tanks of the oil refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre, and the pink and white houses of San Fernando; to the west, the shining rice-fields and swamps of Caroni, and the Gulf of Paria; the Caroni Savannah to the north, and the settlements at the foot of the Northern Range.

Harbans didn’t care for the view. All he saw about him was a