December 5, 2005



Flames and black smoke covered the upper slopes of the mountain over Fishhoek, the fire engine had been there since the evening before, and this morning most of the men had gone up the track carrying sacks and axes and shovels. Where else would three boys go, on a Saturday morning, breakfast bolted down and pocket money already spent? Not that there was any prospect of actually participating, but all the action made the area interesting, especially from the house on the far side of the valley, where the flames were visible, way taller than the ant sized men moving around in front of them.
As they got closer the flames were lost from view behind the houses and trees on the lower slopes, and firstly ash and black burnt grass and leaves, then hot and sometimes glowing bits, began to drift down on everything. They were beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea, with the roar and noise of the flames louder as they got closer, when the wind dropped away suddenly and the noise of the fire seemed to change. There was an outburst of shouting from the men up there, thin with distance, and then the wind switched around just like that and began to blow from behind them. The men were cheering and yelling now, something had happened and they weren't there yet! Wanting to be a part of this adventure, The Great Fire, they hurried up the track past the last houses
The fire engine was parked where a big rock blocked it from going any further uphill, and on any other day would have rated a good close inspection, unattended as it was, but not now. They hurried past on the footpath through scrub and tall grass, the air humming with insects disturbed by the fire and birds darting around with full beaks.
A great brown mottled mantis came whizzing along and landed on Peter’s right shoulder, turning its head on the thin neck and waving it’s barbed front legs in an agitated way. He called to his brothers, “Hey look here, he’s trying to talk to me.”


To read more, youll have to wait til someone decides the story is worth publishing, or else read the book I shall be self-publishing through Lulu fairly soon. I have about 25,000 words in short story form, around 100 oages in a paper back, so I hope to put together a book of short stories during this summer.

November 16, 2005

He aint heavy, hes my brother

Heavy guys doing the Ton

John had a Mark V Jaguar, 1952 vintage, equipped with a 12 cylinder Rolls Royce engine that drank like a tinker and flew like an arrow, too fast and heavy for the windy narrow roads but able to do The Ton with ease on any straight open road you could find. Hence the visits to the Busy Bee, which was right at the end of the M1 Motorway, frequented by truckers and rockers, bikers and bad boys. Somehow they would end up there most weekend nights, to sit and drink sweet tea and eat egg and chips or fried egg sandwiches, or even sausage egg and chips if someone felt like spending a bit. It was mostly guys, Pete felt awkward bringing girls along when the others were solo, though Brenda went along a few times. She was cool, confident and friendly, at ease with the boys and enjoyed the speed as much as they. She was a Meter Maid, bobbed blond hair and nice legs in her black uniform, gave parking tickets and politeness up and down High Street all week and hung out with the guys in pubs and cars on weekends. That all ended when she decided to try for a career, and joined up as a police trainee in London, moved away to somewhere in Hounslow and pretty soon found herself

November 13, 2005

going South

Another early start, heading south from Lusaka in the cool dim morning, this time staying on the main road all the way to Salisbury. They were going to Aunt --'s for the weekend, Henry's sister. They lived in the closed housing compound of a big fertiliser company, an oasis of lawns and flowerbeds in the middle of an African shanty town (quite invisible from inside the high fence)
Crossing the border was pretty easy and casual, no line-up and just a few lines on a form to fill in. On the road again into the boabab and thorn tree bush country of the Zambezi valley,with a huge soft moth with startling great eyes on its wings that had been lying just outside the door on the Rhodesian side..
Soon after the start of the climb out of the valley, where the road began to wind uphill, there was an army roadblock, guys in camo with guns ready. They were alert and aggressive, -------

November 10, 2005


Have deleted a lot of stuff, as I have been told that by posting here, it is actually published, and so publishers wont pay for that right.

early story

Blaze of Glory

They went up the mountain in the morning, when bright sun sparkled on the dewy spider webs, mist rose from the grass and rested in the hollows. They were three together, barefoot boys, they slipped through the seaside bungalows and white fenced gardens to the wild slopes beyond. There was a rough dirt track halfway, and then a footpath through the rocks and heath, the scent of wild geraniums strong as they brushed by. They had sticks in case of snakes and a bottle of tap water and three oranges, some marbles and a catapult, slingshot to you, made with carefully cut rubber from an old car inner tube. They took turns with the provisions, which they were all going to eat later, but only the two older ones carried the catapult in turn, because Rich couldn’t shoot properly with it, and what good would it do if he had it when they met a leopard, say,in the middle of the path? Of course nobody had actually seen a leopard around here for a couple of hundred years, but you never knew
When they got to the branch in the path after the zig zag climb through the rock bluffs, they turned left along the more used trail.

September 18, 2005



Tuli was suddenly beside Pete as he stood and stared up the hill after the departing Movers and Shakers of the District, "Come on,” she said, “let’s go sit in the shade, away from all this dust and smell around here.“ She carried a radio tuned to Radio Zambia, she wore a mahia, the traditional patterned cloth wrap of country women, instead of the khaki pants or jeans which he had seen her wear previously.
Pete realised now that she had been one of the waitresses he had seen busy in the open sided bar near the jetty. “I help out in many of my father’s businesses.” she said, “But I think that place will be pretty quiet for a while now, those Zimbabwe guys have all left for their big camp inland, so they don’t need me there this afternoon. The regular barman will be back this evening, and he can look after our local customers.”
They strolled over to where the boat was tied up, and settled on a convenient log beside a big rock. A slight breeze off the lake stirred the trees enough to shift the leaf shadows into dancing patterns on the red earth, and a dove cooed gently and insistently somewhere close by. The radio played a mix of Beatles and Stones, the latest from London, with Mbaqanga music, bright jolting rhythms and metallic guitars with lyrics in Bemba or Chinyanja from up by the Congo.
She had brought several bottles of Castle Lager, and so they sat companionably and sipped, taking things slowly. “You know.” she said,“I love it here, this is my place, here in the bush by the old river valley, but really there isn’t a future here for me. When I was a child I thought we would live by the river forever, but then they came to build the dam, and I was sent to boarding school, and every time I came back, things were changed.

August 19, 2005

Plotting the Revolution

Mrs. C. waited until the boys had eaten their fish fingers and chips before making her offer, “Well now, boys, I know you are both good hearted and want to help your fellow man, to help everyone achieve true freedom in an egalitarian society, we’ve had fruitful discussions along those lines. This evening we have an opportunity to make a real contribution to world freedom and the struggle against oppression.”
The response was as soggy as the meal,“Aw, Mum what now, more flyers to hand out, or what? There’s no election going on, and anyway you only got two votes last time, yours and Fred Naylor’s, and you said you wouldn’t try again.” from William, and just a glassy stare from Pete, who kept his head and opinions low every time she got political.
“No, no, it’s not a campaign for votes this time, it’s actually more like direct action. We have a chance to be in at the beginning of great changes. I can’t tell you more unless you promise absolute secrecy and discretion. Who wants rice pudding ?”
“Please,” and “I do thanks,” they muttered, as she plunked down a glass bowl half full of rice and milk with a few raisins sunk in it.
The contents slid tepidly down hungry young gullets to mix in a properly egalitarian way with the rest of the meal before she spoke again, “William, you will come along with me I know, and Peter, you have expressed your dislike of injustice many times, now is a chance to do something.”
“Wait a minute Mum, don’t tell me we’re going to dig holes again! That’s just crazy, how does going out in the middle of the night and digging holes all over the country side help anything? Especially how does that fight injustice?” asked Billy -William.
“Now, now, I’ve warned you before, don’t mention certain things inside the house, please be careful what you say.“ she replied.
“What, do you think MI5 is listening, or what? Good luck to them, if they’ve got time to listen to what goes on around here they must be pretty bored. I bet they got a microphone and a camera in the kitchen to get your rice pudding recipe. The Queen wants to try it at the palace I expect.” said Bill.
“Well, now I know it’s much better with cinnamon and maybe a bit of honey, but that last election was very expensive and I’m still paying the printer’s bills and for the meeting hall and everything. We just have to make sacrifices for the cause, you know.” said Mrs. C.

August 18, 2005

A trip to the Lake

They set out South at first light, leaving the outskirts of the city before the sky in the East lightened past bright oranges and pinks, while the streets were still empty of vehicles except for a few buses and minivans with early commuters. The Vauxhall was packed with Henry and the three teenagers and all their stuff, light on clothes but heavy on consumables
When they stopped, there was no river or other surface water anywhere closer than perhaps twenty miles away, so the bush was quiet and still under the sun, only cicadas and doves sang in the dusty thorn scrub along the road, and shade was rare and sparse. Henry pulled up under a tree just off the road that was covered with pods like three foot grey sausages and thick dark foliage, that gave an impression of shelter from the sun if not the heat.
They sat and ate a sandwich each, drank Fanta out of plastic cups and Rich got out his camera and took shots of everyone else in the car with the doors open, and of the sausage tree and its fruit, carefully fiddling with his settings and writing the figures down so he could look at them when the films got developed .
They were about to set off again when something moved over beside a great bare baobab tree a couple of hundred yards away. There stood an elephant, ----

August 15, 2005

apologies, an early version of this chapter

Half a dozen camo clad guys walked up to the wooden jetty and checked us over, with a scornful air, before they walked back to the shade of one of the nearby wood and corrugated iron shelters, where they settled in with beer and cigarettes, and carelessly leant their AKs against the rough table. Their arrival coincided with the sudden disappearance of everyone who usually worked, mended and dryed fishing nets, or sold vegetables, dried fish or bush meat by the dusty road. Except for the waitresses in their chosen watering hole, who didn’t look too happy about all the new business.
Japhet and I looked at each other wordlessly, and he reached to start the diesel engine, while I stepped over onto the rough planks, cast off the nylon mooring lines, and stepped back aboard. “We can tie up to that tree by the big rocks over there, it's close enough that the other guys will find us easily when they get back with the soil samples, and should be out of the direct line if anything starts.” -------

August 11, 2005


Flames and black smoke covered the upper slopes of the mountain over Fishhook , the fire engine had been there since the evening before and this morning most of the men had gone up the track carrying sacks and axes and shovels . Where else would three boys go, on a Saturday morning, breakfast bolted down and pocket money already spent? Not that there was any prospect of actually participating, but all the action made the area interesting, especially from the house on the far side of the valley, where the flames were visible , way taller than the ant sized men moving around in front of them. Only as they got closer, the flames were lost from view behind the houses and trees on the lower slopes, and firstly ash and black burnt bits of grass and leaves, then hot and sometimes glowing bits, began to drift down on everything. They were beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea , with the roar and noise of the flames growing louder as they got closer, when the wind dropped away suddenly and the noise of the fire seemed to change. There was an outburst of shouting from the distant men up there, thin with distance, and then the wind switched around just like that and began to blow from behind them. The men were cheering and yelling now, something had happened and they werent there yet! Wanting to be a part of this adventure, The Great Fire, they hurried up the track past the last houses
The fire engine was parked where a big rock blocked it from going any further uphill, and on any other day would have rated a good close inspection, unattended as it was, but not now. They hurried past on the footpath through scrub and tall grass, the air humming with insects disturbed by the fire and birds darting around with full beaks.
A great brown mottled mantis came whizzing along and landed on Phil’s right shoulder, turning its head on the thin neck and waving it’s barbed front legs in an agitated way. He called to his brothers “ Hey look here, he’s trying to talk to me.”
“What’s he saying then, telling you there’s a fire and lots of smoke ?”joked Paul , and they all laughed.
“Probably, though now he’s just waving his one leg and pointing it thataway, off to the right a bit, which is the direction he came from .Maybe he wants us to rescue his eggs. Maybe he’s a she that is , and wants us to save her eggs. “ answered Phil.
So of course, since they had heard somewhere that mantises were thought by the Bushmen, the San, to be messengers from their version of God, they kept a close watch on the grass and bushes on their right as they climbed the winding path. About a hundred yards further up , the mantis took to flight again, and flew into a clump of tall spindly wild geraniums. The boys followed, and were startled by a great brown shape that erupted into visibility as they neared, an antelope that took off headlong , crashing away across the slope. “ Wow that’s an eland.” said Paul, “Must have been driven down from the Game Reserve by the fire. Where’s that mantis though? It landed somewhere in here, lets see, maybe it does have eggs here or something.”
They fossicked around among the strong-scented plants for a bit, and Paul was just getting impatient and starting to move on, when Phil saw a flick of movement, the mantis spreading it’s yellow and orange underwings as it sat on something that looked like a rock, until you looked closely. “Hey here’s a baby buck, the mantis is sitting on it, come see. “ They stood silently and watched as the animal struggled to stand up, and stood wobbling for a few seconds before collapsing again with a sprawl of impossibly long legs. “ We should leave it here, then the mother will come back and it’ll be ok. “ said Paul. Since this seemed like the best thing to do, they started back towards the nearby path, waiting quietly as two men came crashing and stumbling past downhill, one with his arm all red and burnt, and the other one helping him. “ You boys shouldn’t be here, it’s dangerous” called the burnt man
“ I’m coming back in a bit, as soon as I get Joe to the nurse.” said the other “You better be gone by the time I come back.”
They looked at one another and shrugged. Just because that guy got himself burnt didn’t mean they would too. Right at that moment the wind changed again, coming down the slope at them, carrying choking black smoke and a rain of burning debris into the surrounding bush. Several minor fires started up where flaming leaves landed in dry grass and in a few seconds their feelings of security and eagerness to see more action changed to unease and some apprehension. “ She won’t come back if it starts to burn here.” said Paul “Let’s carry that baby down the hill a bit , where the fire won’t get it .”
They duly went and picked the little animal up , Paul crouched down and they draped it over his shoulder with it’s legs dangling front and back, He said that was a “Fireman’s Lift.” His younger brothers were impressed, as they had not known there was a special way to carry animals when you rescued them from a fire. They would hacve done it all wrong without their eldest brother.
The mantis came along too, sitting comfortably on Philip’s shoulder , with quick side trips over to the baby eland every few minutes. On one of these check-up visits Cliffy noticed something that looked like a little wasp’s nest stuck to the hair under the buck’s neck, almost invisible in the hollow where the neck and chest merged.. “ Here’s the mantises babies too” he cried “see here, that’s why it was so worried. “
They stopped for a bit and examined this for a few moments while Paul rested, then Phil picked up the load and they set off again. Soon they reached a smoke free area just uphill from the first houses and stopped again a few yards off the path and out of sight , in case that man came back. Here they noticed a single bump in the middle of the baby’s forehead “That must be it’s horn “ said Cliff.
“There should be two horns.” said Paul, “all animals have two horns, if they have horns.”
“ Unicorns dont , they have one horn .”said Phil, thats what their name means, uni means one and I suppose corn means horn. “
“ So why don’t they just call them one horns, then ? asked Cliff
“ Same reason lots of things have several names” said Paul “ Men are guys and fellows too, and buck are also antelopes , so this is a baby buck and an eland and a unicorn.”
Nobody felt like arguing, it was quite hot and everyone had itchy eyes and throats from the smoke. “His mother won’t find him here, the fire is coming down the mountain and it’ll burn where we found him, so what are we going to do with him?We could take him home, and ask mum if we can keep him.” said Phil. “ Unicorns are special, more special than dogs and cats, and mum did say maybe we should get a dog soon, so she probably won’t mind.” This seemed like a reasonable assumption to all three, so they set off home through the quiet Saturday morning streets, carrying the baby unicorn in the Firemans Lift and the mantis anyhow she chose to ride.
About half way home, the baby began to struggle and bleat, so they stopped again and sat in the shade of someone’s tall wooden fence, “ Maybe we aren’t doing this right.” said Paul “When they catch a Unicorn they have to have a Maiden, and then it’s tame and does whatever they want. “ Well of course this sounded like important technical information , so they decided that probably baby sister Judy qualified as a Maiden, and could actually help with a project for a change, instead of being an annoyance, as all kid sisters tended to be. Cliff was volunteered to go home and bring her, and some orange squash and perhaps some apples, and not to get lost on the way, while the elder two waited.
The mantis seemed to approve of this arrangement, nodding her head up and down vigorously in time with the movement of Phil’s head when he asked her opinion “ That’s a good idea , right mantis ?Cliff should go and fetch her and we will guard you guys here. “
The clincher came when Cliffy objected loudly “ Hey no fair, it’s just moving it’s head because you are. “ and the mantis turned to look at him and spread her wings and waved her front legs threateningly. He shut up right away then, not realising that his loud voice could have produced the same reaction without any understanding of his meaning.
When the two youngest arrived, they all sat and drank orange squash and Judy was introduced to the Unicorn, which didn’t seem particularly impressed by her, but allowed her to stroke his nose and feel his horn-bump.He didn’t seem interested in the orange squash and just sniffed the apple they offered, so they decided he probably only wanted milk.Naturally Judy couldn’t carry him, so she walked behind where he could see her when they set off again, with his front legs dangling down the carrier’s back.
Soon after they got to the main road, a grey Morris Minor pulled up and the driver , a tanned man with a black beard, asked “ Where are you going with that eland?” So they explained about the fire on the mountain and the mother running off and the one horn, but didn’t mention the mantis until she flew over and perched on the car’s steering wheel. Then they showed him the egg case , and he listened solemnly to the whole story before saying “ So do you live on a farm then, where an animal like this can live ? Because you know it will grow quite big and it will need space , just like a cow or a horse. You won’t be able to keep him in a small garden. Why don’t you all climb in and I’ll give you a lift home and take this little guy to my farm.”
Riding in a car wasn’t something they did every day, so that was pretty good, and they got home in a few minutes and ran in all talking at once to tell mum all about it. She came out and looked in the open window at the young animal on the back seat and said “ Well , Mr. umm “ and hesitated “ Thorn ,” he said,” pleased to meet you ma’am “
“ Well Mr.Thorn” she said “ if you could take care of this little fellow I’m sure that would be best. Thank you for helping , and I hope they weren’t too much trouble, they do get into all kinds of things, but they mean well, you know. “
That was that, he drove off with the baby in the back seat and the children went into the house and then back outside to rinse off the worst of the black dust from the fire with the hose before washing their hands and faces for lunch.

August 2, 2005


We went up the mountain in the morning, bright sun on the dew and spiderwebs sparkling, mist rising from the grass and resting in the hollows. We were three together, barefoot boys slipping through the seaside bungalows and white fenced gardens to the wild slopes beyond. There was a rough dirt track leading up halfway, and then a footpath through the rocks and heath, the scent of wild geraniums strong as we brushed by . We had sticks in case of snakes and a bottle of tap water and three oranges, some marbles and a catapult, slingshot to you, made with carefully cut rubber from an old car inner tube. We took turns carrying the provisions, which we were all going to eat later, but only the two older ones carried the catapult in turn, because Cliffy couldn’t shoot properly with it and what good would it do us if he was carrying it and we met a leopard, say , standing in the middle of the path ? Of course nobody had actually seen a leopard around here for a couple of hundred years, but you never knew .
When we got to the branch in the path after the zig zag climb through the rock bluffs , we turned left along the more used trail . We would take the fainter right branch on another longer day when we didn’t have to be back by lunchtime. We ate the oranges quite soon after getting up onto the different terrain above the steepest slopes. Here the bushes were mostly heather , flowering pink and white , and proteas, with their big stiff blossoms . There were insects and birds busy all around, harvesting pollen and nectar, and of course others after the harvesters, spiders and lizards and a hawk wheeling high above against the sky. We watched him watch us, probably hopes we will scare something into the open that he can swoop down and grab , we decided. The lizards just duck into cracks in the rocks, and the small birds stay low among the bushes, so it must be difficult to get hold of something even when you can see so much busy life all around.
We trotted and walked , stopped and watched, making our way towards the lookout station with the flagpole where they signaled to the fishing boats in the bay when shoals of fish came into view. There was only a bare pole today, rope slapping in the wind and the dark green door padlocked, the windows blank in the whitewashed walls of the square concrete building.” Must have carried stuff here with a donkey,” I speculated.
“Maybe a whole lot of donkeys,” chimed in Cliffy, “then they wouldn’t have to stop building to go down and get more stuff , they could have just brought everything at once.” After contemplating this image, of a whole train of donkeys winding along the rocky path, I objected “ But the fishermen don’t have lots of donkeys, they only have rowing boats and maybe a couple of donkeys, so they probably did it a bit at a time, every time they came up to watch for the fish they would bring some stuff and build a bit .”
This seemed to be our older brother’s opinion too, because all he said was “ Probably they put a roof up first, after they put up the flagpole, so they could shelter from the rain.”
Although of course both of us younger ones immediately thought that it would have been difficult to have a roof with no supporting walls, we left it at that and looked for other interesting stuff around. Bright birds were zipping through the bushes, hovering by flowers and darting off again, iridescent blues and greens shimmering on their heads and backs , bright orange below.” Those are sunbirds,” said eldest brother authoritatively. There were brown little birds with them, which were the females, but at the time we didn’t realise they were a single species, and other brown and yellow birds with long trailing tail feathers , which Paul confidently identified as sugarbirds. We tried a few flowers to see if we could get any of the nectar they were all feeding on, but the most we could do was to get our noses dusted with yellow pollen, which tasted faintly bitter if anything. “ What about finding a bee’s nest, a hive ? There should be lots of honey “ I suggested.
“ They’ll just sting us, “ answered Paul, “ You have to have a fire and lots of smoke, then they don’t sting, but we don’t have any matches.”
“ Maybe we can find some of those black bees that don’t sting, Mum said there are black bees that don’t have stingers, remember ? “
Wandering among the wind-tossed bushes, we searched for the legendary black bees , and found bumble bees in several sizes, lots of ordinary bees, some creatures that looked like bees but didn’t act like them, and several kinds of wasps. No black bees .
“ If we find a black bee, what are we going to do ?” asked Cliff,” One bee won’t have much honey, will it ?”
“ Oh, that’s easy,” came the answer, “ if we follow it , it will lead us to it’s hive and we can get honey there. “
“ Hey , here’s a nest, a bird’s nest, “ I called. In the middle of quite a thick and sturdy protea bush there was a tiny cup, twigs and grass tightly woven onto a fork in the main stem. Parting the leaves and leaning forwards, I tried to see if there was anything in it.
A yellow branch moved and revealed itself as a great snake, a cobra thicker than my arm, it’s muscular length trailing from just below the nest down into the tangled grass , The mouth opened a little, showing fearsome teeth and a flickering forked tongue as it turned to me, black expressionless eye locked to mine from a distance of three feet. The body rippled as it seemed to flow up into the bush, gathering into an S bend and lifting the head free to sway back a little. I held my breath and slowly brought the catapult up with my left hand, stretching the rubber back with the right at the same time. My hands were moving somehow without volition, my attention was focused on watching it’s eyes, hoping to be able to jump back and away if it began to strike , but not wanting to precipitate things.
Sunbird struck. Blazing blue and orange , a tiny bundle of feathers hurtled through the branches at the snake’s eye and seemed to attach itself there, so that as I shot and jumped back and out into the open, I saw the sinuous yellow column blossom into a crown of glorious feathers.
Shaking, I watched from a good distance as the whole bush seemed to fly apart , lashed by the body writhing in it’s prolonged final spasms. Snakes don’t seem to die quickly, the body keeps moving long after the brain is gone. Not so with birds, this one was thrown clear in a few seconds and was dead before he hit the ground. I picked him up, careful of the spatters of venom on his feathers, and marveled at tiny perfection. The tip of the beak was broken off, probably right inside the snake’s eye, and there was the mark of a single tooth on his belly where feathers were missing.
We came down from the mountain three brothers , one of us mortal now, honeyless and bearing a small death. Carried in a shirt pocket he died like Ajax or Achilles, remembered in glory, battle winner. We thought he had been protecting his nest , but Dad said “No, just his territory, sunbirds’ nests are closed , with just a small hole to go in and out, if the nest was cup -shaped it was probably a sugar-bird’s nest , so that bird won the war and lived.” Optimistically , Dad took to calling me Sugarbird soon after that day, and it took me a long time to understand why he picked such a wussy nickname for me.

July 27, 2005

Witch Finder

Robert and I took one of the Toyota pick- ups from work and drove two hours and quite a long way from the forest that Sunday. We were supposed to be scouting for wild mushrooms, which people in Europe paid big money to eat in upscale restaurants, but he had begged me to help him . He was in an agony of fear and horror, his sister had phoned to tell him his three year old niece had gone missing. The family feared the worst, that she had been kidnapped and was probably dead by now, or soon would be.
There had been several people around their district who had vanished over the past five or six years. Each one had been found several days later mutilated , with certain body parts hacked off, lips and genitals, tongues , ears and eyes usually, though sometimes internal organs had been taken. All had bled to death and then were dumped , still tied hand and foot, wrapped in newspaper and old plastic fertilizer bags.
Everybody knew it was the old Muti murder horror , using human body parts for potions and charms to give powerful people an edge over their rivals, for promotion in Government or business, financial success or luck in ( it’s just a word ) Love. Everybody knew who was involved too, there were often big shiny cars parked at a certain isolated homestead, where the cattle were fat from grazing other people’s crops, and the old man had a surprising number of young wives. Ten years ago he had been an object of scorn, ragged and shiftless, perennially drunk and his children always hungry, often in trouble for fighting or petty theft, a seller of weak medicines and doubtful spells, whose customers usually couldn’t afford the bus fare to the Government hospital or else didn’t want their husbands to know they were trying to abort their eighth child, or who were quarrelling with a co-wife and hoped to have her burn herself at the cooking fire.
We talked during the drive, of course, and he told me all this, though no names or other identifying information, at my request. I was going to try and get some sort of objective proof somehow, something that could justify certain low-ranking police going over the heads of their Station Commander and the District Commissioner to make arrests and do more than a token investigation. My reputation as some kind of crime investigator and communer with the spirits was rather flimsily based on the luck I had finding wild mushrooms in commercially viable concentrations and keeping track of the misdeeds of several rambunctious drivers and about a hundred young co-ed mushroom pickers out in the forest. Oh yeah, plus I had long hair and a raggedy beard, which proved the craziness required of any worthy Witch-finder.
Traditionally, I knew , the process used iin these parts involved getting suspects and innocents together and working the atmosphere up into a sort of humming tension of expectation and fear, then sorting out putative culprits from the gathered crowd by use of the sense of smell. Chaka, the great Zulu leader, had a favourite Witch-finder , an old woman, who was probably more feared than he was. She was said to have “smelt out “ hundreds of evil men and women , conveniently often people that Chaka wanted to dispose of , simply by moving among an assembled crowd with her eyes closed, sniffing at people’s bodies.
We drove off the main road through the hills for several hot and bumpy miles along tracks more often used by oxen and tractors than by anything without low range gears and four wheel drive. We went slowly with the windows open , enjoying the vista of green hills dotted with grazing cattle and dark clumps of trees , corn tall and lush on the flatter land near each of the widely separated homesteads. We passed a few people walking in groups of four or five together and then one old man striding along alone , carrying a plastic supermarket bag . As we eased carefully past him, a stench of rotting meat wafted in the window,. “ Hey that guy’s lunch is a little past its “best by” date “ I joked. Robert just stared solemnly back and responded “ Mr. Dube eats some strange things.”
Today the neighbours were all gathering again at Robert’s sister’s place, after searching the countryside over the past three days. She lived as second wife of the eldest son of the extended family. The missing girl, Emilia , was her third child, and had been playing with other toddlers of the family under the care of her eldest sister, who was nine, while the adults and older children hoed weeds in the nearby corn field. When Zanele, her mother, came to eat lunch with the kids, she found Emilia gone and her sister shaking and crying , while the other little ones wept in sympathy. She told me this while seated at her mother-in -law’s table in the thatch roofed house at the centre of the compound. I had the privilege of sitting at ease sipping tea , playing the role of a mysterious and powerful investigator while the gathering waited silently outside. We three, Constable Simelane, Henrietta Zuma ( Emilia’s grandmother), and I were trying to find some detail that might have been overlooked in the first panic and turmoil of the disappearance.
All that Grace could say was “ She’s gone, I don’t know what happened, i went to Elphas, he fell and hurt his knee and it was bleeding and he was crying, so I washed his knee and told him to sit there by the tree in the shade and then I came back and she was gone . But I looked and looked and I dont see.” She was speaking English to me, quite fluently and with a slight American accent, probably her English teacher was a Peace Corps worker, and somehow that last sentence had an odd ring. I said, “ Pardon Grace, do you mean you didn’t see where she went ? “ She promptly burst into loud sobs and hiccupped “ No, no I can’t say , I can’t say . Oh my poor sister .” Her mother hugged her tightly and patted her back while glaring at me. “ What do you think, of course that’s what she meant, are you trying to torture her ? Whats the matter with you ?”
I swallowed a sip of tea to help my suddenly dry mouth and throat to articulate my next words gently “ Please ma’am, can you let us talk with her a little more, we have to get every detail we can , she might have seen someone nearby before the child, before Emilia that is, went missing .” Grandmother Henrietta suddenly frowned and spoke “ Zanele, let her sit here a while, I will see that she answers properly. You go and see to the other guests, there is beer for the men, everyone should be here by now. “ she turned to me “ Ask. I will see that she answers “
Grandmother was evidently ruler in this homestead, because the sobbing child gathered herself with an effort and whispered to me “ I saw him , he said he would help to find her , but I musn’t say that I saw him or she will die .” The adults leaned forward listening intently “ We can only help your sister if you tell us everything “ I said, “ Can you trust the person who told you to be quiet ? Is this a person who could lie to you ? ”
“ No, no , I musn’t think bad things about people, the minister at church told me I musn’t , I must be a good girl and pray to Lord Jesus and everything will be fine , he said.”
“ Well you know , Grace, sometimes people are bad and say things that just aren’t true and break their promises. You should trust your family and be polite , but don’t always believe everything people say “ said Grandmother “ Now tell us, child, who was there, who did you see that day ? “
“ But he said he could only help to save her if no-one knew he was nearby If I told anyone he wouldn’t be able to help and she would die, and it would be my fault . “ She wailed. Grandmother waited grimly until she quieted again and then spoke , “ Tell us. Who .Was . There . “
“ Johannes Dube “ she whispered. “ When I didnt see her I looked by the gate, and there were some people running away, carrying a sack, then Mr Dube was standing there ,and he said he would help to find my sister when I asked if he’d seen her”
With that name I suddenly realised what we had to do. “ Listen Grace, you can help us, you know. I want you to go out among the people and help your mother to look after the guests, take them food and drink . While you are doing that, I want you to use your nose. If you smell bad meat , I want you to try and find where the smell is coming from, without anybody noticing what you are doing. Come back here and tell us if you think somebody is carrying anything that smells like that, perhaps something in their pocket or on a string around their neck . “ She nodded solemly and looked at her grandmother for approval.
In a few minutes she was back , and whispered to her grandmother, who wrote on a piece of paper and passed it to me. Johannes Dube . Plastic bag and something on a string around his neck. Mandla Zwane , something in his right pants pocket, Dorothy Hlope, something smelly in her purse. We looked at one another silently. “ Right then, lets call in Dube first “ I said . ”See what he has to say. If these guys believe their magic will protect them , they have to carry the Muti they’ve made with them to get the benefit. Which means if we get a look at what they are carrying we will probably find all the evidence we need for the Constable to arrest them.”
The old man swaggered in and sat down, taking the teapot and pouring himself a cup , which he proceeded to slurp noisily. “So what do you want, Henrietta? I told you, if you pay me two cows I can use my magic powers to find your granddaughter. Send this fool away first though, before I do anything .” He spoke SiSwati, not realising I understood him, then turned to me and spoke English “ How do you do , very good of you to come help our poor people .”
I played along “ Mr. Dube, if we all work together we will learn from one another and I’m sure we can accomplish a lot . I am so happy to be able to help the great people of your beautiful country . I am so curious about your customs you know, tell me, what are you carrying there, is it your lunch ?”
“ Oh you know, just some of our traditional food that it is our custom I must eat you know , to make myself strong . “ He replied casually.
“ I just love to try your traditional food you know .” Before he could react I grabbed the bag from his hand and dumped the contents on the table.
Two ears and some other body parts , covered in red ochre and bits of plant matter , and pierced by thongs , ready to be strung around someone’s neck, but still plainly and unmistakably enough to tie him to the missing girl. Constable Simelane rose grimly to his full 5ft 6 and took him firmly by the arm. “ Well now, what do we have here ? “ he intoned, in his best British Bobby style . “ I think you had better come along to the station so that we can pursue our enquiries. Who is in it with you then ?”
“ No, no, you dont understand, it’s Zwane, him and that Hlope woman and Esther Dlamini, they did it, they threatened me , but I was going to tell you anyway .” whined Dube.
I didn’t hear any more , as I bolted outside to the fresh air and heaved my guts up , to the mute astonishment of the gathering. This actually was just the right thing to do, as vomiting and extreme agitation are regarded as signs of spirit possession . As believers in magic powers and the influence of spirits on the mundane, our targets were likely to believe that I was picking out suspects with this kind of help . Shakily, I went back in and we called in each person “smelt out “ by Grace or implicated by others , and questioned them, and each blamed others, each was carrying some sort of charm with human body parts as one of its components, and each in turn was formally arrested and locked in a separate room , pending the arrival of reinforcements and transport from the police station in town.
Eventually six people were convicted of ritual murder and sentenced to death. Since Swaziland did not have an executioner, they waited in prison quite a while and for all I know they are still there.

July 20, 2005

The first line

This last piece, Only Angel Saw, was written for The First Line, which is a magazine/website that provides a first line and asks writers to do stories using this.

only Angel saw

Having little to his name when he died, the reading of Henry Fromm’s will went quickly. Angel had tied her hair back and put on a jacket, borrowed from Dave, in an attempt to be sympathetic to the occasion ; both formal and official and of course quite sad. She had been surprised by the letter, with her name properly spelled and all neatly laid out on a really lovely thick and creamy sheet of paper, definitely worth keeping to use the other side, perhaps a memory portrait of Henry in a happy mood, eating of course, something that might capture his essential purity and simplicity.
So now she owned everything in Henry’s room , all his clothes, his bed and blankets and books, his hotplate and cooking stuff, his clocks and everything except his money. His sister from Liverpool got whatever money there was, which was all she was interested in , so there was no need for the sniffy attitude and stares at her bare feet. Dave would be happy too, they could move into Henry’s room with its big window and space to move around. Of course they’d have to get rid of all that stuff somehow, maybe just put it all on Jen’s stall at the market.
“ One more thing Miss Davidson , “. said the lawyer “there is a receipt here for rent paid for his room in Congreve Street for the next 10 months and a similar receipt for rental fees on a storage facility , Browns Storage and Cartage of Brook Lane, in Bushey. Both the contents of his room and whatever may be in storage are yours, constituting as they do all his worldly goods other than monetary assets . Here is an abstract of the relevant passage of the will, which you may show to establish actual possession of the articles in question. “
“ Thank you “ she answered with a bright smile , and took the offered pieces of paper, more of that thick creamy stuff, and put it all neatly folded as it was into the jacket’s inside pocket .
Dave was enthusiastic about the stuff in Brown’s, speculating endlessly about what could be there, so next day they went to see.They had no problems , no-one asked to see any bits of paper or anything, they just used the key with the big plastic tag “Browns S & C” which was hanging on a nail beside the door in Henry’s room. Brown’s didn't believe in being nosey it seemed, they walked in the gate and found door #7 , matching the number on the back of the tag, and tugged it open through the dead leaves and cigarette butts lying in a soggy mess all along that side of the yard.
Inside they found several cardboard boxes tied with string, which looked as if they hadn't been opened since the end of the War, more than twenty years before. The first one was filled with Army stuff, khaki uniforms and boots neatly wrapped in thick brown paper that looked as if it had come from a butcher’s shop,which was, as Dave pointed out , appropriate for what it represented. Henry had been in the Army in the War , he had been with something he called the South African Irish, which didn't exist according to Angel’s friend Jane’s boyfriend, who worked in the Home Office in London. Well at least there were neat little harps on the uniforms, so they were something to do with Irish, anyway. Henry was always talking about fighting in Africa, in Abyssinia against the Italians and then in the Desert, and he would always get blind drunk when he started on about someplace he called Sidi Rezegh and not say much after he got that far.
In the second box they found old papers, yellow looking newspapers and bundles of letters written in neat feminine longhand in light blue ink and tied with string, typewritten official looking papers in big stiff brown envelopes and a few books, all of it smelling of mould and damp and mice. Angel tried to read the title on the fattest book , which actually looked like it was written in gold leaf, but it seemed to be some weird foreign writing with strange shapes , so she asked Dave “What’s this Dave, is it Hebrew ? You can read that cant you?” Dave took a quick look and frowned “ No way, this isn’t Hebrew or anything like that, I should know, after all I am a Cohen , you know . My Dad made sure I learnt all that stuff. This must be that Abyssinian writing , what do they call it, Geez. “
Of course they dug right down to the bottom of the box, to see what good stuff might be under everything else, and were rewarded by the contents of a bundle wrapped carefully in oiled paper and silk. Some kind of costume with great bright stones decorating the chest area, which Dave grabbed and put on over his t shirt while she was admiring the pattern in the silk wrappings. There was also a very ornate crucifix right at the bottom of the box, which Angel held up to admire in the weak light from the open door.
Dave was already ripping the last box open as she turned to him “ Wow look at this, isn't it beautiful ? Look how it shines in the light, it must be gold “ crowed Angel . That caught his attention enough to turn his head to her as he opened the lid on the box. Which emitted light of its own in dazzling intensity , blazing bright in the dim room, but seen only by Angel. By the time Dave turned again to look, that first coruscation had dimmed to a bearable level, enough to puzzle him as to its source but no longer blinding. What he saw was another wooden box carefully protected inside the cardboard, with what looked like carrying poles packed beside it, light shining gently from every crack in the seemingly normal wood. “ Hey wow that has to be worth something .” said Dave “ There’s something in this box shining the same way, the old guy had a whole stash of gold stuff mouldering here while he got by on his Army pension or whatever .” He tried to pull one of the planks off the box, but found it too much for bare hands. “ Lets go to the pub and celebrate “
They locked up again and Angel slipped the key into her back pocket, with the tag dangling like a plastic tail, and the crucifix hung neatly from the leather thong around her neck, next to the glass trade beads from Morocco that Dave had given her . She also took a photo of a smiling young man in army uniform, slim and mustached, primed for the battles of life, Henry around 1940 or so, a long road and fifty pounds away from the Henry she knew in the Sixties.
They stayed in the Rose and Crown until Last Call, then piled in someone’s van and went to a really cool party in a huge bare country house that someone who was someone else’s boyfriend had just bought , something to do with Pinewood Studios and a movie called 2001 . Anyway when they got back to town it was Monday afternoon and Dave had to go into College to write an exam, so Angel took the photo and started her portrait of Henry on that nice paper, young and smiling.
When Dave came in carrying fish and chips he had news “ That was a breeze, I just knew everything , the answers just came easy. I did great, Baby, just great “ he grabbed her and tickled her until she thumped him with the fist holding the watercolour brush, spraying yellow paint over his face and hair - Henry had been blond of course - and then they ate while sitting on the bed, side by side. “ Oh , by the way, we can forget about whatever was in that last box , Brown’ s burned down yesterday “ he said through a mouthful of cod.

July 18, 2005

Lion and Unicorn

“Come here, beautiful “ crooned the great beast in a playful singsong grumbling voice that echoed among the rocks and trees to rebound from all sides at once. She froze in mid - stride, right there in the open dusty ground next to the great granite swell of the hill slope at the head of the valley.
This valley had been their home for the past year , the children's laughter bouncing happily around as they played, the adults a little busier with the concerns and complications of life. They had fled the old place to escape the tyranny and oppression of an autocrat’s rule; a self-proclaimed king whose only virtue was strength, whose only concerns were his own advantage , his numerous offspring and the security of his rule.
The result had been the disappearances in the night, the whispering morning conferences when everyone tried to account for the latest mysterious disappearance,optimistically trying to assign some blame to the victims in order to reassure themselves of their own safety.
Finally, when even the noon sun seemed unable to lift the gloom and mothers kept their brghtest toddlers tightly by them, the band had set out from the only home they knew. They had found this fold in the hills on the fourth day of their journey, bright with bird song and green as a dream , and had settled in like ducks into a pond.
She stood at full alert, heart speeding up to a frantic gallop while her legs seemed made of quivering mud, almost collapsing under her . Where was he lurking ? - she scanned the dappled shifting shade of the white -thorn tree , the deeper shade of the rock beside it -- all that moved was a wren bobbing about its business in tiny self- importance.
She knew that voice, the threat his presence here in the valley brought to all her family and friends - the image of those hairy paws on her daughter’s shoulders, that foul breath --she breathed out suddenly in disgust, clearing the very thought from her nostrils.
With the snort came resolve. No more. No more running, someone had to make a stand or this would never end, living in fear of that beast, never knowing where or when he would strike, no peaceful playtimes free of worry. Innocent young ones just tender meat in his eyes.Time to fight him face to face.
With studied nonchalance she stepped forward, head held high - “ Come see what I have for you big guy “ - she answered in a voice somewhat higher pitched than she had hoped.
All around an uneasy silence spread , only the hot breeze rustled the grass standing in clumps here and there among the trees. If things went as usual, there would be no witnesses until after it was all over, and no retribution. The thought fanned her into restrained rage, her breath began to whistle in and out as the adrenaline surged through every part of her.
Suddenly he stepped into view, seeming to glow brightly against the dark rock behind him. How had she missed seeing him until this moment ? -- he was so big, so menacing it seemed impossible that he had been hidden until now .
He swaggered confidently forward, arrogant and sway-bellied, in control of everything he knew - his rivals run off or dead , his prey his for the taking .
He paused for a moment in faint puzzlement - why was she making it so easy ? Looked like he wouldn't have to run to catch her - who cares why - he could save his breath , though hed grab her from in front instead of behind like usual. Good enough. He grunted deep in his chest as he swung into practiced action. As he reared onto his haunches to grab her by the neck - his favourite opening move - she lowered her head and stepped sharply forwards, driving her single spiral horn into his exposed belly.
For once the unicorn had won, the lion lay bleeding in the primordial dust.
Turning away from the spreading dark puddle of blood in the dust , she walked to the stream and dipped her head into the cool water, waggling it from side to side to rinse the blood off her horn while it was still wet. It was hard enough to be born as different as she and a few others were, without being shunned by the herd because of a smell of blood . She would show her grand - daughter the body and demonstrate her successful moves to her, at least there was one bright child amongst the herd to pass a few lessons on to. Most of their herd mates and relatives were just ordinary eland, born with two horns and no ability to learn language. In every generation a few were born like herself, one - horned and able to understand and learn the spoken language beyond the few simple grunts and whickers of the main herd. If they could only live in peace for a while, perhaps they could increase their numbers to the point where they could safely breed only with other speaking ones, instead of having to mix in with the ordinary herd and have some children born to the bright pain of intelligence and some to the dull certainty of a placid animal life. That lion had been really quite frightening, a predator with a rudimentary grasp of language and the ability to think . A truly terrifying prospect if he had bred intelligent cubs, but as far as she knew he had not. He had been conciously targetting the brigfht ones of the herd in their previous home, which had reduced their numbers to a frighteningly low count before they had moved here.
The great flat top of the mountain with its ever present clouds and mist had been their haven , their home for many generations until that animal had caused their recent move. Perhaps now they should move back there and resume their old life, after all the relationship they had built up with the small men there, the users of poison arrows , had been quite interesting. The men had sent their wise ones up the mountain to spend time with the herd, and the learning had gone both ways. Here in the lower country the men were herders of sheep and cattle and not quite as ready to accept an intelligent herbivore as an equal.

July 15, 2005


The first great snowstorm of winter brought fierce winds and a chill that pierced to the bone. When I went out to bring in some firewood early in the evening, a calico cat came running out of the swirling , stinging whiteness, miaowing desperately . She headed right for the door and slipped in as soon as I opened it for her, obviously quite used to people and confident of her welcome despite the hard life she must have been leading recently. She was thin and slightly ragged looking, very hungry and quite vocal until I gave her some cold chicken, which she ate while purring loudly. She settled comfortably in front of the stove, with her paws neatly folded under her chest and a definite air of permanence about her. My thoughts were that she was probably a town cat brought out by someone and dumped in the countryside to fend for herself, as seems to happen fairly often.
Within an hour she had earned her keep by catching one of the mice which had been running all over the house, nibbling any food left open and leaving their droppings everywhere. She ate all of it, no fuss, no mess, and I decided she could definitely stay.
Late that same night when I opened the kitchen door to marvel at how high the snow had drifted in a few hours, there was a half-grown black and white kitten crouched there. Quiet and still except for shivering, she passively allowed me to pick her up and bring her inside, where she eagerly accepted the last of that cold chicken. The two cats knew each other , and the younger one tried to nurse, but was sharply rebuffed, so the relationship was obvious. Naturally I slogged around in the snow for a while, trying to see if there were any others around, but found nothing but bare snow and dark shadows.
Both cats spent the winter inside, using the litter box , catching mice and keeping me company. Neither wanted to venture outside for any reason, it seemed, until the snow melted and the muddy ground dried out a little, when both sat and enjoyed the spring sun with me.
The younger cat was long and lean , with big paws , and markings that reminded me of Sylvester, the comic book enemy of Tweety Bird, so she was Sylvia. Her mother was more compactly built, with tiny neat paws and a much more restrained manner,. I named her Rose, but mostly she was known as Sylvia’s Mother . Sylvia climbed everywhere and got into everything, knocking sugar bowls and chess pieces to the floor, crouching on top of the fish tank with one paw hanging hopefully down into the water until I put a cover over it, and finding mice in the most unlikely places.
One day when the birds were busy everywhere and the grass was sprouting new and green, Rose went for a walk somewhere and never came back , though I left a window open for her for weeks. Sylvia stayed with me, pregnant with her first litter before I ‘d realised she was old enough. She had six , all of whom went to homes happy to receive them, and was pregnant again before her second visit to the vet, when of course I had intended to get her “ fixed “. She had by now matured into quite a large and athletic cat, sleek and soft furred, prone to sudden outbursts of unsolicited purring and addicted to tummy rubs. She was also quite an ambitous hunter , and several times brought back rabbits for her kittens.
One evening that fall I was bumbling around in the kitchen with the four babies of her second litter tumbling and wrestling around my feet. Suddenly there was a loud pained squeal as I stepped on a tiny tail, and instantly Sylvia was there in bristling fury. Her yellow eyes glared into every corner , searching for the threat, ready to rip apart anything that dared touch her children, radiating pure fury and aggression as every hair stood on end and her claws dug into the floor. Quickly she checked to see if everyone was present and unharmed, first one kitten got a sniff and a lick, then the next, then me and then the fifth of her charges, the fourth kitten. I felt in rapid succesion, fear of this feral beast, then relief that she discounted me as a threat, and finally honour and gratitude that she counted me as a kitten

July 4, 2005

Revised green corn

Just added a bit to this piece, if you actually read it over the past few days, which not many have done by now. Some at the end and a few words in the middle.

Green corn

Green corn
Towards evening the old boat chugged into a deep inlet, what had been a steep narrow valley in the hills above the great river before the dam was built now a convenient harbour. They had taken soil samples at two spots along the shoreline during the long day, each time leaving the water and following game paths inland , carefully labellig the sealed bags of earth with the map co-ordinates and depth they were from, then storing them with the growing collection back in the boat.
Here they would have tracks made by people to follow, company for the evening, beer and talk around the fires. There was a prospectors’ camp, two geologists and their gear, quite a few helpers and others in a sprawl of tents under the trees where a stream met the lake. Further up where the ground levelled out was a great expanse of corn , head high and bursting with vigour, and beyond that rose the smoke of a fair sized village..
“ All right guys, lets get set up over there beside the other tents, Adam you go see about getting some of that corn, a couple of ears each should be good, Henry you start the fire , Pete lets go meet those geologists, bring that case of beer. Oh yeah, Adam , heres some cash for the corn, just find someone who actually owns it before you start paying though “ and Andy and Peter headed for a shady seat under the thorn trees, where two empty canvas chairs signaled a welcome amongst the half dozen already there. Guy and Alex , the geologists, were both bearded and sunburnt , Guy a lanky twenty something with yellowish curls straggling over his shoulders , and Alex getting on for forty with years of beer fighting his belt. They were sitting with a young woman and an older man, both dressed in khaki shirts and pressed pants, smart contrast to their hosts’ crumple and wear style. They were Chief Luto and his daughter Tuli, visiting from just over the other side of the corn field, both fluent English speakers and obviously better educated and more prosperous than your average subsistence farmer. Andy and the Chief were soon deep into soil chemistry, corn varieties and pests, with side excursions into lake water levels and vegetables. Some quick words to one of Alex’s guys sent him running off to tell Adam not to worry about paying for those ears of corn, the Chief didnt want any cash . Tuli and Guy and Peter had their own technical discussion going, music and mini skirts, guitars and chords, the Scene in London where he had just come from and In the capital Lumaka, where Tuli had just finished high school. Alex was happy with beer and the cool breeze, just sitting and sipping and listening to a dove cooing the last sunlight away somewhere nearby.
After one of those short sharp tropical sunsets and the metallic clamour of the guinea fowl going to roost in the thorn trees , the creaks and croaks of frogs and crickets praised the rising half moon and the blaze of the milky Way and Southern Cross over them. Guy brought out his guitar and played and they sang Beatles , Dylan and Baez , stopping to munch roasted green corn and pork sausages. They sang “ I been working like a dog “ with enthusiasm, everyone joined in. They sang “one two three four what are we fighting for ? “ with just the young people , and a couple of duets from Guy and Tuli , “Parsley sage rosemary and thyme” went down well with some nice harmony. Then Pete tried one he’d heard just a couple of weeks before in a pub in St Albans, “In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty I wanna be In the warm heart of your loving mind “ and everyone swayed to the tune and sang along the second time around, but somehow Pete was convinced there had to be more to the song than that, so he extemporised “Ah to wake once more and feel your arms at Edens door “ which was ok, but still kinda short .Hippos started to grunt and snort somewhere offshore, getting closer as Luto frowned and cursed “ Oh no here they come again, they had a taste of corn last night and now they’re back , we didnt see them around here until yesterday, they must have moved along the coast. Damn. I’ ll get some guys to light a fire in the field and see if we can scare them off. It wont be easy because they must be quite hungry, there’s no reeds or grass for miles along the coast except here and we drove them off pretty quick last night. “
Peter was up for adventure and excitement, cocky after the encounter with the Rodians on the lake, so went along into the field and waited by the blazing logs in the path from the water . Two young guys from the village armed with tin cans and stones as noise-makers had been appointed to this duty by their chief, and they had a fair sized calabash of home brewed sorghum beer, nkomboti, to help pass the time quicker and several large joints rolled in brown paper to slow things down again.
Some hazy time later the logs were blazing four foot flames, and they had all moved back away from the heat, when the noise of something large and sure of itself crashing through the thorn branches across the path sent his buddies off into the shadows . Pete grabbed a blazing branch and waved it in front of him like a lion tamer with a chair , shouting “ Go on get outta here “
One of the other guys grabbed him from behind and hustled him off the path into the corn as the hippo just kept coming . He threw the burning branch right into its open mouth as it stamped by, then stumbled blindy deeper into the dark field. Woke up with a lump on his head and a really bad headache , lying in Guy’s tent sometime after sunrise. Andy had left to get his soil samples and the rest were down by the stream , looking for diamond indicator minerals in a process that involved shovelling gravel into a wooden sluice and pumping lots of water through it, then picking through their gleanings with tweezers and magnifying glasses . There were a diesel generator, a pump and several radios all going full volume, a scene of bustle and industry sending a plume of silty brown out into the lake. Sounded like one hippo felt unhappy too, because one of the four or five out there was grunting and complaining loudly instead of snoozing with just his nostrils above water in proper hippo style. They had munched through a wide swath of the cornfield despite all efforts , and most were busy digesting and keeping cool. Tuli brought Peter clean water and a damp cloth, but not much sympathy;” Hey man , you were sucking it back pretty good last night, werent you ? Just drink lots of water and take it easy. What did you do to yourself anyway, fall over into a donga and hit your head or run in to a tree or something ? You look like you got yourself a concussion, your one eye is really big, and the other is normal , let me see. Oh yeah you got a nice bump right here . Well that will help when Andy gets back, he might let you off with some of your hide left, everyone has been up and working for hours already. “
Anyway when Andy got back from the bush everything was already packed back in the boat and they set off for the next stop somewhere to the West up the lake with little delay. “ You know that is quite remarkable back there” Andy commented “ That Luto is really someone around here . They are lucky he”s the chief, he gets things done .and he works hard, and hes not afraid to try things . That corn was planted months before the rains came, when the Rodians dropped the water level in the lake it left a big area of level mud and shallow water, and he went in and dug drains and planted corn , they dont have cattle around here bedause of the tstse fly you know, so everything had to be done with hand tools, no ox ploughs. If he can get some of that corn to the city they should make a bit selling it to eat fresh. Make way more like that than as a staple crop, and looks like the hippos will get most of it if they leave it in the field to mature and dry. You must have run right into one of those drainage ditches.” Then he turned his attention to the map and started to plot locations for the afternoon soil sampling hike.


June 30, 2005

The Berkshire Tiger

A scream tore through the tiny wood and echoed over the golden stubble and rich brown ploughland. Indignant rooks flapped cawing from their gleaning and several horses baulked at the nearby fence, unseating a couple of stout Hunt followers who had chosen the easier line through the swale.
Peter was the only one to respond to the horror in that voice, mostly because he had been watching the crisp blond and her great red gelding all afternoon. He was following the hunt on foot, able to keep up with the hounds by taking short cuts where the horses couldnt and getting in some really hard training while enjoying the sheer spectacle . He had ridden Marjorie’s horse earlier in the day, while she nursed a migraine headache , much to her mothers displeasure, and then after lunch she had got some colour back in her cheeks and decided she was able to ride again. Pete wasnt too sure exactly what a migraine was or if it might come back and cause her to fall or start throwing up or something, but he wanted to help if he could. Though this stop was probably just a bathroom break, that scream was definitely not just minor fright at some equally scared critter or thorn scratch.
He turned into the tangled brambles of the copse, called “ Can I help? “ and stood a moment listening; there was a sort of low rumbling noise, not a growl, but something definitely animal, and the sound of someone breathing in jerky gasps.
The red horse was tied to the low branch of an oak, sweating and rolling his eyes in terror, so his rider had to be here. Standing by the horse he looked into the shadows, where something was moving, something flicking back and forth over the top of a grey deadfall. Black and orange striped it swung from side to side , long and sinuous , a snake ? No it was furry, an animal tail ! What was it , here in the soft English farmland of the Home Counties ?
He stepped forward as if edging along a narrow ledge over a precipice, every nerve twitching. Unbelievable, improbable, a fantasy, there was a solid black and orange striped tiger lying at ease, casually holding the girl down with one paw , licking her face and purring in a vibrant lower register. She looked right at him and made shooing motions with her hands . “Get out , go, go “ she hissed ; was this a pet then, some kind of game perhaps ?
Then he noticed that this was serious, it was licking the blood pouring from great gashes on her cheek. What to do ? Call for help? Get the Master to call off the foxhounds and use them to drive off this surreal beast ? No time even to try something like that , she’d be meat in minutes unless he did something. Now.
He pulled out his pocket knife , opened its 3 inch blade and grabbed the tail, yelling ”Let her go ! “ He hauled on that tail like a bargee at the locks, long and hard, digging his heels into the leaf mould and leaning back. The great animal jumped in startlement and hauled against him, scrabbling paws sending rotten sticks and beechmast flying, while the girl rolled free and scrambled away. He held on with his left hand and chopped blindly with the knife, landing a lucky blow between two vertebrae that lopped off two feet of the tail. With an undignified yowl the great cat shot away , leaving a very surprised victor shaking with his bloody trophy clenched in a frozen grip.
From the sunlit field a womans voice called “ Marjorie , where are you ? Are you alright?”
“Here, mum, I’m here, oh God look out, theres a tiger in here, stay there, I’m coming out. ”
she replied as she stumbled hastily away.
Peter followed her , untying her horse and hanging onto the reins as they surged out into the open meadow, suddenly aswarm with horses , hysterical dogs and shouting red faced and red jacketed men. “ What the bloody hell is going on here? Bloody vermin attacking riders ! Yes yes I saw the damn thing going to cover over there in Tompkins Wood; Come on girl , lets go find you a doctor , theres a couple out today. You, boy, stay with the creature, watch where it goes, theres a couple of my hounds broke scent to follow it , Captain and Belle, wasted on vermin , see if you can bring them back “ the Huntmaster stormed through the situation in his usual style and was gone again.
“ Look after Big Red for my daughter will you ? I think you’ll need a horse for this . Be careful now . “ They were gone before he knew it, so holding the reins firmly he set off for Tompkins Wood , towards the excited music of Belle hot on a scent underscored by Captains deeper baying .
The afternoon was dimming to a clear twilight, shadows forming striped patterns everywhere by the time he could calm Big Red enough to mount. From the saddle everything seemed more manageable, the shadows less threatening, and the horse seemed to sense his increased confidence . He cut off a good solid branch and strippped the twigs so that he had something better than a pocket knife to fend off any ambush.
The moon loomed huge on the horizon , casting a colder light before the hounds song changed; the tiger was moving. They broke from the woods at a run about 200 yards away, at the far end of the meadow. Heads up, they were following close on something when he caught up to them at a stone field wall. He clipped the long leather leashes to their collars and they went through the gate hounds ahead and horse behind , pulling in opposite directions . For a timeless while that was the pattern, the pulls opposed in spirit and direction as they followed a ghost through the dim fields. When Red began to sweat and wrestle it was time to stop while the dogs raged, then move again when the horse calmed and the dogs became anxious. Seemingly the beast would travel only ten minutes at a stretch before pausing and defying the dogs for a while, so the journey became a long series of runs and pauses, Peter and the horse both very wary of getting too close and the dogs reckless in their desire to close with their enemy. Eventually the endless trail came to a high steel mesh fence across a grassy slope, mixed animal noises from within, this had to be a zoo; of course , home for the tiger, they didnt know they had an escape artist in residence.
Turning along the fence line, Pete rode slowly uphill, following the unleashed hounds, running free again now that the quarry had surely gone into its den , back into its zoo home. This particular enclosure housed wolves , the half-dozen scruffy looking animals on the inside restlessly appearing out of the shadows to sniff and stare and then fading out of sight again as they showed their unease. The hounds had been quiet for a while, trotting on the dirt track along the fenceline with their heads low and their tongues hanging loosely , ready for kibble and kennel. Suddenly reverberating growls broke the calm , sending ice right through him and tensing every muscle in a spasmodic reaction as the horse reared in panic and the hounds broke into a storm of noise again. By the time horse and rider had sorted themselves out again the noise had died down to a high pitched whimpering from Belle who crouched shivering and bloody under a hawthorn bush. No sign of Captain or the tiger, so he gently lifted Belle up and held her in front of the saddle as he rode . Her left foreleg was broken and she had deep score marks on her muzzle and chest as if from a single casual swipe of a very large paw.
On the far side of the enclosed rectangle of the zoo they came to a road leading to the main gates through a sleeping village. Only one house showed a light, easier to speak to someone already awake , so he pounded on that door.
Which I opened with some trepidation, disturbed in the middle of my fourth re-write of the opening chapter of my Book of the Mole . Needless to say I found Petes story fascinating and somewhat disturbing, after all who wants to hear that the great cats next door prowl the night at will ? I fed the boy and the horse ginger snaps and lawn grass ( Pete only chewed a few stems , to check the quality he said ) and cat food for the hound. He told his story between gulps of sweet tea while we waited for the horse- box to arrive, and of course I asked him if he’ d mind if I wrote of his adventures , with some name changing of course, and as it turned out, some years delay .
Henry Chesterfield, the Keeper of Carnivores, arrived within the hour and went to check his charges immediately. He left somewhat sceptical, but came back very anxious to ensure no one talked to any newspapers before he could tighten up his tiger security. He had found Captain half eaten in front of the concrete den, apparently no impediment to climbing the twenty foot fence or leaping the wide moat. Roger the aging Bengal tiger had only half his tail, so it was pretty easy to identify the wanderer, though not really reassuring , as he was perhaps the least athletic and tamest of all the tigers there. He was zoo born and had been hand reared by Henry years before when he first started his career at Whippleside Zoo. Mrs. Jones and her daughter Marjorie came to visit me and thank me for taking care of the horse and so on, and of course they got VIP treatment at the zoo. The poor girls face and shoulder were stitched up but looked as if she would carry some nasty looking scars back to Rhodia when they went home.

June 28, 2005

Almost War

We were out in Lake Karimba, the north shore a ragged dark line of bush perhaps two miles away, the Rhodian shore lost in the haze to the south. Warm blue and slightly smelly with drifting clumps of water hyacinth, the lake was new enough that the crocs and hippos were still establishing their yearly routines and dead trees stood on drowned hills, perches for fish eagles . We were using a government boat to get to areas of the north shore with no easy land accesss, doing a soil survey for the Zabian Ministry of Agriculture , traveling at ease in one of those well -used boats with a chugging engine and a nice shady canvas roof - if you ever saw Hepburn and Bogie in The African Queen you have some idea of what she was like . This one was maybe 25 ft with a shallow draught and about 3 ft of hull above the water, room for 6 of us with tents and gear for a week - stopping each evening at a chosen spot and going inland taking samples early each morning before the December heat set in. I was there for the fishing, a lazy extra taken along as a favour to my stepfather , bored in the city and occupied with those teen boy perennials eating, sleeping and grumbling, convinced the world would resolve into perfect harmony if everyone did things my way. South of the lake Mr Seth and his supporters were in a stand-off with the British, wanting to maintain their hold on things without all that nasty one man one vote stuff, and sporadic land mining and burnings, imprisonments and speeches were a daily background grumble. When we drove south to visit Aunt Boom in Salbury thered be roadblocks and armed men everywhere, it was always a relief to get back north where things were definitely more casual .
Over our horizon a tiny aluminum boat appeared, outboard motor screaming and bow high, two guys crouching together in the stern. Suddenly with these sweating desparate guys casual had gone flying; both were wearing dirty camouflage and dry blood, the one handling the motor with jerky speed, the other lost in a world of pain, clutching his right arm in a soggy dark shirtsleeve. -- ” Help, my friend needs help “ -- the steerer burst out as they hauled up along side our starboard -- north -- side. “ We only have a small first aid kit with us “ answered Andy, who was running things. “ Youre better off heading straight on for Siavonga, theres a clinic with a nurse there.”
“ No no man, they’re right behind us , you know hot pursuit man. They’re gonna shoot us on the water. You have to help “
“ But what can we do? We’re just with the Ministry of Agriculture, I suppose we can tell them this is Zabia and they should go home, but they will probably do whatever they want anyway. We dont have any weapons or anything, we arent involved in your quarrel. You guys , what have you been doing anyway, how do we know you arent just murderers or something, running from the police ? Ok we’ll just talk to them and see what they have to say, they cant just shoot you, they’ll take you to prison, arrest you and take you back.” Andy was indignant, fuming at this intrusion into the morning , ten am and alrready a steamy 110 out on the water, at least another 2 hours travel to the next planned landing at a small new village of Tonga people from down in the drowned river valley.
With an authoritative roar a speeding black rubber Zodiac packed with men, all khaki shorts , bristling beards and weapons arrived to put an end to indecision. “ Hey you guys see a couple of terrorists, we’ re after the bastards for two days now , theres only a couple left from the band, we got the others yesterday, they been laying fucking mines all over” shouted one with a slightly cleaner shirt “ We are Rhodian Government anti terrorist action forces and we’ve been tracking the bastards down “
While we gaped in heat - fuddled astonishment at these new arrivals we suddenly realised that we were right in the middle of a real live shooting war. Our first guests were now ducking down below the level of our north side while their hunters were pulling up to our south , as yet unaware of just how close their quarry was.
Until there came a yell “ Back off or you’ll get it , I’ ll throw this, if you shoot me it’ll go off and blow us all away “ from the first guy, who was now brandishing something black and sinister looking in his hand - a grenade held up for all to see .
Everything froze into slow motion, the background fell out of focus, all attention centred on the weapons and their wielders, nobody moved or remembered to breathe; as the zodiac drifted up and bumped against our side. All anybody wanted to do was get out alive, the best thing to do seemed to be dont move , dont set anything off, dont start the showdown yet, let’s get out of here. With a swift sure movement Andy broke the impasse, by grabbing the AK47 from the hands of the black-bearded guy in the bow of the Zodiac. He pointed it down and ordered “ Right then, this is Zabia here and we are Zabian Government officers on Government business, you people have no right involving us in your war or even to be here. Get back to your own country and fight your bloody war there, leave us alone. You can start by throwing all those guns overboard and then leave, get out of here. Do it now or I’ll shoot a few holes in your boat and you can swim back”
Reluctantly they accepted the situation, “ What happens if we throw our weapons away, you going to take us into Zabia or hand us to the terrorists ?” asked the officer
“ You can go right back where you came from “ answered Andy “ We just want you out of here, let us go on with our business and let these guys go their way. If they go back into your country you can chase after them all you want, but this isnt your place, this is our country here . We will see these guys are safe and will just go their way. Now do as I say, get rid of all those guns.
“ Okay then , men just drop them in the drink, and lets get out of here” ordered the officer. With a sudden bustle of movement the impasse was broken as the guns splashed over the side into the lake. “ Right, now we’re leaving - lets go , hit it Jim “ he ordered. With a roar their idling outboard revved up and the bow lifted as they turned and accelerated away, bouncing over the low waves.
Our other guests were overjoyed at this turn of events and whistled and laughed as they watched their pursuers turn and run . “Go on then , run you bastards , run before I throw this “ yelled the grenade wielder redundantly , then seemingly disappointed at losing his chance at martyrdom turned to us and yelled “ Your in with them , why did you let them go, we could have given them a fair trial and shot them like they deserve. We had them and you let them go “
Exasperated Andy growled “ You didnt have anything but a standoff , with a pretty good chance of being blown away, those guys would have shot you if youd thrown that thing and they probably would have tried to get you before you could throw it. We are all very lucky to come out still breathing. Now just get rid of the bloody thing and take your friend ashore, he needs to be seen to and all we have out here are band- aids, the nurse at the Siavonga clinic there knows what shes doing.” As he spoke he swung the gun he still held and pointed it right at the grenade man “ Come on man be sensible , we arent your enemies, the Zabian government lets you guys stay here because they sympathise with your cause, but we arent in your war, we are just trying to get on with our own business .”
The wounded man reached to his friend and grabbed him by the arm , whispering something in an urgent hiss which produced first a scowl and then a shrug as his protector listened intently, eyes on us, daring anyone to try something. Then finally with a great swing of the arm the grenade went flying over the lake to produce a dull thump and a dirty roil of weeds and water as it finally exploded. “ All right then Andy” I yelled , “ You sorted that lot out -- Hey good luck you guys “ as the dinghy swung away towards the shore . Everyone on board except Andy had been lying or crouching down , trying to be as small and inconspicuous as possible, and now we all stood up and remembered to breathe again.
“ Good thing I met all those guys a couple of weeks ago in a bar in Salbury “ grunted Andy, “ They recognised me and knew I ‘m honest and neutral in this whole business, we spent hours arguing with them trying to convince me they had a just war - of course theres no such thing . The other guys know me too , I took a baby to the clinic last month , gave the mother a lift; I think the wounded one there is the father, he recognised me too. Small world hey ?” He turned and casually dropped the gun over the side “ Good riddance to that ; come on now, lets get going “


This blog is going to be for writing , stories perhaps leading to a book , online or hardcopy at some point