We have already fixed a price

Katrine Marie Guldager

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Sebastian surveyed the blue of the ocean from the poolside and felt utterly at ease; like the pool water lapping over the rim of the basin all day long, his being swelled with self-satisfaction. And had he not earned it, after all? Had he not worked hard? A black woman in a tailored dress came over to serve him a drink. For just a moment, he believed he deserved her. Perhaps she was a prostitute, perhaps not. Not that it mattered. He could always find another. Dar es Salaam was crawling with women who would willingly put themselves at his disposal. Who says it means the same thing in Africa? And is prostitution necessarily degrading?

Sebastian was in a lousy mood and he knew it. He peered over the rim of his sunglasses and spotted another white man lying diagonally in front of him. Not that he was sprawled out in a way that ruined his view, not that he cast a shadow across his path, the man was just lying there in a way that annoyed him. The waitress came over to his deckchair to enquire if everything was to his satisfaction. Sebastian adjusted his bathing shorts, let the question hang in the air as long as possible, nipped at his drink, and nibbled some of the peanuts that were served in a small glass bowl. Perhaps he would like some more peanuts? The question irked him. He gave her a look that seemed to declare:

I have never done anything to you.


The other white man cleared his throat. The waitress gave a start before hurrying over to his side. The man wanted to know if it was possible to bathe in the ocean? The waitress looked a little annoyed by the question. Yes, certainly you could bathe in the ocean, she explained, but not directly from the grounds of the hotel. She remained standing behind the man's deckchair. As if to signify that she was at his disposal.

Sebastian watched the waitress standing there. He started to get annoyed by the fact that she was so polite. He felt like shaking her, hard, and saying:

It's your country, dammit, not ours!

But he just gathered up his things instead and went up to his room to prepare for the meetings he had the next day.

After an alfresco dinner in the hotel restaurant, he took a taxi to a bar on the waterfront. First he took a walk to get a grip on himself, but he knew exactly which bar he had in mind: 'New Happy Bar,' it was called. The sign was hand painted. He strolled nonchalantly across the street with his hands in his pockets. It was dark inside. After a couple of hours the bar was full, and he was no longer alone. Two black women had sat down at his table. He didn't speak Swahili and their English was poor. He bought them both a beer. He put a beer down in front of each woman, and said:


The women smiled knowingly and asked him whether he was married. One of them opened her hand to reveal the tip of a condom. She wanted to dance. Her wig sat slightly askew, her lips bright red. The music had gotten louder. Sebastian decided to go with the one who wanted to dance, and asked her whether she'd like to go outside. Once they were outside, he pelted her with kisses, his desire was so aggressive that she pulled free from his arms and glared at him angrily.

"Relax," she said.

She frowned in a way he found odd. He was sweating. His bottom lip opened onto his chin. He felt a breeze from the ocean and suggested they go down to the beach.

"Beach," he said.

He took her hand and led the way. They stood under a palm tree. He pulled down his pants, lifted the skirt of her dress, and did it. Afterwards, she didn't want to accept any payment. She whispered in his ear that he should come again the next night. He nodded earnestly and thought: hardly likely. It annoyed him that he hadn't had a chance to pay her.


The next day he was lying by the pool having a nap, when the other white man came over and introduced himself as John Østergaard. It annoyed Sebastian that he was also a Dane. John asked whether he could take a seat, and Sebastian said yes. He was about to lather himself with sunscreen. The waitress appeared with refreshments. John talked about prostitution; he could never do it, he said, be with another woman, who only did it for the money's sake? He'd rather die. Die? Sebastian thought this was a bit excessive. Besides, he felt that prostitution was a different matter in Africa. It was more commonplace.

After a couple of hours, Sebastian went back to his room. As he zapped through the channels, he considered whom he could call. He felt like calling home. He travelled so much that there were fewer and fewer people with whom he kept contact. Actually, the only one he had left was his ex-wife, Marit, who was highly pregnant. He already had his hand on the receiver when it rang. He hoped it was Marit, but he heard his boss's voice on the other end of the line. Sebastian tried not to sound surprised. His boss rarely called anymore. He asked how things were going. Sebastian could hear his voice echo faintly down the line:

"It's going well. We've almost pushed through all our conditions."

Afterwards he felt lonely in such a helpless, sad way. He held onto the curtain in the window with one hand, and looked out over the ocean.


After dinner in the hotel restaurant, he drove into town. It wasn't planned, but he ended up sitting in the car in front of the same bar from the night before. He looked at the hand-painted sign and noticed that the breeze from the ocean was warm. He'd just have one beer. He opened the car door and got out. He opened the door to the bar and saw her sitting on the lap of a big, fat white man. The man had his tongue down her throat and was pawing her crotch. Nobody took any notice. Sebastian sat down at the same table as the night before. After a couple of hours, she came over. She sat in silence. He wanted to pay her for the previous night, but first he wanted to buy her a drink. Without another word, he got up to fetch some drinks. When he came back, she said:

"Thank you."

Around midnight they were standing under the same palm tree as the night before. His kisses were wet and wild, without restraint.

He tried to do it, but suddenly he couldn't.

I'm losing my mind, he thought.

When he got back to the hotel, he went into the bathroom and threw up. The tiles were so white it made his head hurt.


When the sun came up, Sebastian was sitting in bed reading Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities. He had a busy day ahead of him. Not only did he have two meetings at the embassy, he had a meeting at one of the new hotels in Kariakoo. He didn't like driving much, so he had hired a driver. It was going to be a hot day. Sebastian marked the relevant page in his book with a bookmark and went down to the restaurant, where he ate a small portion of cornflakes. He crunched the cornflakes loudly between his teeth and chewed thoroughly, as if he wished to crush the teeth themselves.

In the parking lot behind the hotel his driver sat sleeping in the car. As Sebastian opened the car door his driver straightened up slowly; he wasn't the servile type. They fixed a price for the day, and Sebastian gave a list of places he needed to be. The driver nodded in the rearview mirror, and Sebastian thought that he'd just secured him a month's wages. They drove into town, and as they drove along the coast, you could smell the stench of the ocean. Sebastian made a face, and the driver shot him a look that said: Yes, the ocean stinks, but it's none of my concern.

The driver turned left after Selander Bridge by mistake, and they ended up in an area of Dar es Salaam where Sebastian had never been before. It wasn't far from the hubbub of the main road, even so, it was dead quiet. Large villas sprawled side by side with bits of the ocean visible in between. The lawns were sleek and green, and Sebastian asked the driver to slow down, it was as if they had dropped into a time warp, a paradise fringed with Hell.


After lunch they got stuck in a traffic jam at Manzi Mmojo. Sebastian became impatient, and decided he'd walk the rest of the way to the hotel, where his meeting was to be held. The driver looked at him vacantly as Sebastian got out of the car, cursing the sun.

"Close the door," said the driver.

Sebastian was sweating even before he got out of the car. One road mirrored the next, and Sebastian was no more than a white speck blown awry in a black labyrinth, black men pulled carts through the narrow streets, there was a stench of rotten fruit and people, a blind man nearly tripped him up with his stick, and he thought he could hear the sound of an ape; there were people everywhere, and everywhere they stared at him in wonder, I could never live here, he thought, and the very next moment, I can never go home.

When the meeting was over, his driver miraculously appeared before the hotel. Sebastian opened the door, got in, and slammed the door so violently that his driver woke with a start. Although the peak of the midday sun had passed, it was still hot. His driver started to protest that the price was too low. He said that if he was expected to drive all day, he would need more money.

"We've already fixed a price," said Sebastian firmly. "I'm not prepared to discuss the matter again."

translated from the Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen

© Katrine Marie Guldager and Politiken Literary Agency
© Translation, Lindy Falk van Rooyen, November 2014