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