A diplomat from Cameroon is my first customer today. He ensconces himself on the stool farthest to my left, facing me across this semi-circular bar counter.
Bonjour, I say. Feldschlösschen still?
Yes, cold, he says.
I open the beer for him. He takes the first sip, adjusts his spectacles and says, Tell me, is it true that this pub is closing?
Before I answer, a Zambian writer walks in. The last time she was here, she gave me her autographed book, which I’m yet to read. The name on the book’s cover is Chileshe Paul, but I’m not sure whether it’s a pen name or a real one.
I want Merlot, she says. I’ll be coming every evening to take a glass of Merlot, until the day you close.
To be clear, this pub is not necessarily closing, I say. It is merely changing ownership.
No matter, says the Zambian. Changing ownership and closing are the same to me. Then pointing at the in-ceiling speakers, she says, Zangalewa! How can you guys just be sitting here when a great song like this is playing? Come, darling, let’s dance – she beckons to me.
I smile and shake my head.
Why are you southern African men often shy? Turning to the Cameroonian, she says, You’re not from southern Africa, are you?
No, says the man, laughing.
Come, let’s dance.
She and the Cameroonian rise to dance.
When the song comes to an end, they both return to their stools at the counter. She says to me, So, who is Mr Frank selling the pub to?
A Portuguese woman called Sofia Matilde Almeida Pais. The lady has pledged that nothing will change. That’s what Mr Frank told me.
What do you mean, nothing will change?, the Cameroonian chips in.
Its name will remain Pub One. The stools you’re sitting on, the black sofas over there in the two corners, the seats on the terrace outside, where smokers sit, everything will remain the same. Maybe she’ll not want to retain me as barman, but that’ll entirely be her prerogative.
A Malawian economist, who has arrived quietly, joins in. The bar is the sum of its parts, he says. Take you away – he points at me – and the bar is gone. Remove that speaker from above us, the one from which the voice of Papa Wemba is now pouring, the bar is gone. The disconnection of Mr Frank from this facility no longer makes it Pub One. It may very well retain the name and everything else, but its soul would be gone. And what a pity that would be.
Ruth, a Kenyan woman who came in just after the Malawian economist’s arrival, says, Can’t we customers have a meeting with Mr Frank?
Loud coughing makes everyone turn their heads. Antoine Mumba, a regular from Congo, enters.
How are you, comrade? I say.
The man smiles in a sad way and says, How can I be fine when my second home is being taken away from me?
Mumba comes here every night. I still remember the first night he walked in, back in ’84. He told me I was the first Malawian he had ever met. He was curious about my living here in Switzerland.
I know most of you from Anglophone countries go to Britain and America, he said.
At first, I just laughed and didn’t tell him my story. But when I saw him every evening for the next two weeks or so, I loosened up.
I told him that I came here to study; but when I read in the papers that three cabinet ministers had been brutally murdered back home, I decided to go on a one-man march to my country’s embassy in Paris. Our government promptly declared me enemy of state, and relatives urged me not to return for my own safety.
For his part, Mumba told me that he worked as a bodyguard for his country’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. When the Prime Minister was assassinated in January 1961, Mumba fled Congo for good and settled here in this cold Swiss city, where loneliness gnaws at you the way hungry mice gnaw at cheese.
And so since 1984, he comes to our pub almost every night. One can see in his face a terrible sadness that evaporates only after he has taken a few beers here. Wheezing, he says, Why is Mr Frank closing . . . ? He breaks into a deep, prolonged cough and throws up in the process. There is some blood in his vomit.
I call Musu, our cleaner, from the storeroom at the back. I hold Mumba by the hand and walk him to a chair on the terrace outside. The whistling from deep inside his chest doesn’t stop. I think you should go home to rest, I say. I can call a taxi for you.
No, man, I’m fine. Give me a beer.
Are you sure?.
Just give me a beer, he says and coughs again.
I bring him his favourite Père Jakob. He goes to the toilet and I only open the bottle when he returns.
I asked you a question. Why is this pub being closed?
Once again, I explain that the pub isn’t closing, that it’s merely being sold.
Though there’s nothing I can do, I understand our customers when they inundate me with questions about the fate of this pub. This place is an archive of great memories. A woman from Jamaica, for instance, met her man here, and now the marriage is in its seventeenth year. There is a man who comes here at least three evenings a week, always with a stuffed rabbit he calls Tito, to which he talks when he gets drunk, and says this pub and his apartment are the only two places in the world to which he talks to the inanimate object.
So what’ll you be doing, handsome? The writer from Zambia says as soon as I return to the counter.
After the pub is sold, you mean?
Yes, after Pub One has shut down.
I don’t know. I really don’t know.
A new arrival catches her attention. She leaves the counter to talk to the man, who is in the process of taking a place in the corner.
Inevitably, the Zambian writer’s question has stirred in my mind memories of 1994, when the dictator lost power. I clearly remember the day and the hour I got the news. I clutched the pocket radio tightly as I lay on bed in my apartment, unable to believe what I had just heard. Until that moment, I had resigned to the fact that the dictatorship would never end, that the old man’s presidency would be eternal. That he himself was mortal I had no doubt, but I never thought it possible for anyone to dismantle the machinery of oppression he had built for three decades. In the streets of our country, it was, until now, easier to mention God’s name than the dictator’s. You had to look around before uttering the old man’s name. It was wise to assume that even trees and walls had ears. But now, without warning, everything had changed. I started saving in the hope of going back to my country. However, Geneva has an insatiable appetite for money. When you take care of rent and food and transport, and also when you settle utility and occasional medical bills, what goes into the savings basket is just a trickle. I have tried my best to avoid going to the movies or hiring equipment to go skiing in Chamonix. I also never celebrate my birthdays in any fancy way, apart from buying myself a bottle of wine, which costs less than five francs in Denner. Regardless, I need at least seven more years of saving to make enough for my new beginning back home. What I now have could cover only an air ticket and a few meals on arrival. I have thought of moving to a cheaper hostel to save money, but a part of me tells me that Ms Sofia Almeida will eventually change her mind.
Sometimes I have a headache when I think too much about the sale of this pub. The uncertainty of my future frightens me. The bad thing with Mr Frank is that he is a man of few words. That makes it hard to know exactly when the axe will fall.