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.