A gentle rain splattered the roof of the club as the evening came to an end. We saw lightning in the clouds on the horizon as we got into the car. “Better get a move on before that storm arrives,” Erika said apprehensively. “Why do you sound so worried?” “Hell man, I’m terrified of lightning. Let’s get home.” “It’s a million to one against being struck,” I said, trying to reassure her. She wrapped her fur coat tightly around her and linked an arm through mine. It made it a bit awkward changing gear but I decided to make the best of it if that gave her comfort. The spots of rain rapidly increased in size and weight and drummed loudly on the car roof. “If this keeps up we’ll soon be bogged down,” Erika moaned loudly. “Better put the mud chains on the wheels. They’re in the back.” I stopped and looked in the boot with a torch she gave me. A jack, a starting handle, and adjustable spanner and a spare wheel were all I could find. Erika cursed roundly. “Renier must have forgotten to put them back after the last time we used them,” she swore.
I got back in and we pressed on. The wind was so violent it rocked the car and the wipers struggled to cope with the cascades of water obscuring the windscreen. We had to drive straight into the storm, and where the headlights managed to pierce the deluge, the twin waterlogged ruts that were the road merged into a single side fast-running torrent. We suddenly slid sideways. I over corrected and we slid the other way. A bow wave lapped right over the bonnet. I dropped down to second gear and revved the engine to blow water out of the exhaust. We slithered crab-like up a slight rise and I had just begun to congratulate myself on being in the clear when we dropped into a hollow full to the brim with thick glutinous mud the rear wheels spun madly. We crawled a few more inches and came to a dead stop. I wrenched the gear lever alternately into reverse and then forward, rocking the car back and forth, but she just dug in deeper.
I switched off and turned to Erika, her face a frightened blob of white in the darkness. “I’ll have to dig the back wheels out and find something to put under them,” I said firmly, endeavouring to exude a confidence I didn’t really feel. “You stay in the car and keep dry.” A shattering crack of thunder overhead almost lifted us in the air. Erika flung her arms round my neck. “Don’t leave me alone “ she cried out in panic. “I’m only just outside,” I said, impatient with her fear of the elements. “We’ll be stuck here all night unless I do something.” I got out quickly and slammed the door shut. A mixture of driving rain and needle-sharp hail lashed through my thin shirt and shorts. I stumbled over something and fell flat on my face. It was so dark that I had to wait for the lightning flashes to gradually collect together a pile of stones and dead wood. I selected a stout length of tree branch and began digging, eventually having to get down on my stomach and wallow in the ooze.
I opened the car door when I had positioned sufficient wood and rubble under the rear wheels. “I’ll start the engine and try it now,” I said. Erika shone the torch on me. “You can’t get in here in that state.” She squealed in anguish. “You’ll have to clean yourself up first.” “All right then, you drive it out,” I said irritably. I should have known better. She revved the engine until it screamed and suddenly let the clutch out, and all my hard work spewed out behind the car. “Switch off – switch off,” I shouted wildly as the wheels dug in deeper than before. “Now I’ve got to do it all over again.” “I’m sorry – I’m really am,” Erika wailed. “I’ll help you this time.” “You’ll get soaked.” “The hell with that. I’d rather be doing something.”
She removed her fur coat and got out of the car. A jagged streak of lightning ripped and sizzled through the air above us and she jumped at least a foot off the ground. I gripped her shoulders to steady her frightened trembling. “Get back in the car until the storm passes over. I’ll manage,” I shouted. She shook her head. “No,” she cried, gasping as the driving wind tried to push her protest back down her throat. “The quicker I help, the sooner we’ll get out of here.” We gathered the scattered stones and dead wood together again. Erika kneeled at first, then ceasing to care anymore, she lay full length in the mud and dug out one wheel while I did the other. I could hear her panting and sobbing as each flash of lightning and every gust of rain and hail lanced through the flimsiness of her frock, and had to admit admiringly to myself that Marie Bouker was perhaps the only other colonial bred woman I knew who would not have sat at the back and left me to work alone in such appalling conditions. Erika was so deeply embedded in the mire when we had finished that I had to go round and pull her out. She came free with a plopping sucking sound.
This time I remembered a trick old Piet had told me he often used when he became stuck. I removed the spark plugs and slowly cranked the car out on to firm ground with the starting handle. Erika leapt with joy and hugged me. We broke apart and burst into hysterical laughter as the last flicker of lightning bathed us momentarily in its fading light. We were both so covered in reddish-brown mud that we could only see the whites of each other’s eyes. We scraped off as much as we could and got back in the car, beyond caring about soiling the carpets and upholstery. Erika found an old blanket on the back seat and wrapped it around her shivering body. We made it back to the farm without further trouble apart from a hair-raising incident when I nearly skidded into a gaping ravine where the track skirted dangerously close to the edge.
The Africans had all retired to their huts for the night. They had thoughtfully left a kerosene pressure lamp burning in the dining room. Erika asked me to carry it into the bathroom and hang it from a hook in the ceiling. She proceeded to wriggle out of her mud-caked frock. I turned and made for the door before she became embarrassed by my presence. She reached out and pulled me back. “Take your clothes off,” she ordered. I hesitated, looking sheepish. “Hell man, don’t be shy,” she said. “There’s not enough hot water for us to shower separately. We’ll have to share.” I stripped off to my underpants and stood awkwardly, not knowing what to do with my hands.
She turned her back to me. “Unfasten my bra, please,” she said calmly, looking at me over her shoulder. She stood waiting and it took me several seconds to realise that she really meant what she had just said. I fumbled with trembling fingers. The catch twisted in the sodden strap and would not release. The more I tried to control my breathing, the more ragged it became. I saw her watching me in the mirror suspended on the opposite wall. I tugged in desperation and the catch suddenly came apart. Her ample breasts bounced with relief at this blessed release and pouted their full, rounded glory.
She removed the rest of her clothes and stepped naked and unashamed under the shower. “Come on in“ she called with a backward glance. “It’s lovely and warm.” I took a deep breath, dropped my underpants and plunged in beside her. She turned and faced me. “I’ll wash you, then you can do me,” she said, her lips curving in a faint smile as I hurriedly averted my gaze. Slowly and methodically, she proceeded to wash all the caked mud from me, her manipulative, fingers triggering hitherto unknown forces within me as they caressed my body. I gave up trying to conceal the evidence of my arousal and just stood brazenly before her, letting her do as she liked and wishing it would never end. I soaped her shoulders when it came to my turn and my hands moved as in a trance, delighting in the feel of her satin skin as I tried to prolong this exquisite agony.
She turned the shower off when I had finished and threw me a towel. We dried each other down and she doused the kerosene lamp. The sky had almost cleared and a few remaining wisps of cloud scudded intermittently across the face of a three-quarter moon. She grasped my hand and led me quickly to her bedroom, her back and shoulders gleaming like translucent mother of pearl as she walked before me. She climbed on the bed without a word and pulled me down beside her, as if it was the most natural and expected culmination of the experience we had jointly endured. Speech would have broken the spell. I lost all sense of reality. This was the centre of the Universe and nothing else existed except the room, the moonlight, and this desirable woman. It wasn’t until the half-light of impending dawn that we eventually curled up in each other’s arms and feel into a deep exhausted sleep.
I spent nearly every night in the marital bed for the rest of that month. Erika set the alarm for seven so that I had ample time to scuttle back to my own bedroom before the houseboy brought the morning tea at eight. When I left to start the fresh term at school she made me promise to have my next holiday period with her again. I needed no persuasion. My attitude towards my schoolmates underwent a puzzling change. I had never noticed until then how immature and juvenile they were. It was confirmed when I overheard my mother comment on how suddenly I seemed to have grown up. Any temptation I might have had to boast about my loss of virginity was completely stifled by my feelings for Erika. The fact that she was over twice my age and married to boot seemed strangely irrelevant. It amazed me that I could give her so much pleasure and all I knew was that when I was with her, all else receded into the background and I surrendered myself to an all-consuming obsession.
On the day we were allowed home at half term I was told that Erika had come down from Eldoret the week before and stayed a couple of days. “She asked if you would spend your next holiday with her on the farm,” my mother said. “I told her I would mention it to you, but I thought you had something else arranged.” “Oh, I don’t mind,” I answered, trying to sound off-hand. “You were supposed to be going to your friend at Mombassa for some swimming and surfing this time weren’t you?” “It’ll keep,” I said with a noncommittal shrug. “I feel sorry for Eri – er – Mrs Pretorius. She still can’t drive very well and she needs help with the farm. Her relatives don’t seem to care and seldom call to see how she’s coping.” “Well, she’ll just have to manage on her own after this. You can go this time, but if she asks you again you’ll have to make some excuse.” “But why? I thought you wanted me help her.” “I did, but people are talking…we’ve been hearing rumours.” “What about?” “Never you mind,” she said, giving me a hard look.
I was about to protest further when I saw her lips tighten. I knew if I said much more she would dig her heels in and forbid me to go. Better to play it cool, I thought, and have at least one more sojourn in heaven with Erika. End of term could not come fast enough for me. My school report was one of the worst I ever had. Several teachers referred to my mysterious onset of my lack of concentration. One even asked if I had taken up transcendental meditation. My father told me to pull my socks up, but by the time I boarded the train for Eldoret, school was the farthest thing from my thoughts. Just the sight of Erika waiting on the station platform stirred me into a fever of anticipation. It was market day and many of her friends were in town. She made a few purchases in some shops and seemed cool and distant. I felt uneasy. After all, I hadn’t seen her for three months. Perhaps she’d either had second thoughts, or worse still, found someone else nearer her own age. I needn’t have worried. That night my fears burnt out in the furnace of her incandescent passion.
We were in town picking up some supplies a few days later when we bumped into an Army Captain, an officer in Renier’s unit in Egypt. He told us he was home on a brief visit on compassionate leave having just lost a parent. Erika asked him about Renier. “He seems a bit depressed, actually,” the Captain said. “He’s had some quite severe shivering attacks and lost a lot of weight, but I don’t think that’s what concerns him. He frets more about you and how you’re making out.” “I’ve written letter after letter explaining that everything’s fine,” Erika said. “I hope you’ll tell him that when you get back.” “I certainly will,” the Captain assured her. He turned to me and shook my hand. “Is this the young man who I’ve heard is keeping you company?” Erika smiled. “Yes, he’s been and absolute brick helping me around the farm and teaching me to drive. I don’t know how I would have managed without him.” “That’s marvellous. I’m glad I can tell your husband how well you’re being looked after,” the Captain saluted and made for the nearest bar.
A strange compulsion seemed to enter our relationship, as if our exquisite affinity was just a precious dream that could suddenly dissolve in the first breath of wind. Although we spent the nights in mutual bliss, it still was not enough and we hungered for more. We begrudged the hours of daylight spent in the company of others and had to be constantly on our guard in case we revealed our secret by a forgetful word or unconscious act of affection.
We started taking a simple lunch after we had done the morning’s work around the farm and seeking out the remotest spots we could find. Erika told the Africans she was practising her driving or else I shot and brought back an impala to give plausibility to our long absences. They had never fed so well in all their lives. One hot afternoon as we lay on a blanket in the shade of an acacia tree, her love-making suddenly became so unusually desperate and clinging that I had to fight for every breath. As she lay temporally satiated she shivered and tightened her arms around me. “We’d better get back,” she said despondently. “What’s wrong?” I asked, amazed at the ease with which she could plummet from rapture to gloom in the blink of an eye. “It’s early yet.” She glanced at her watch and shook herself. “Oh, I’m just being silly. It’s so peaceful and lovely here. I suppose we can stay on a bit.”
We sat talking and watching bright blue dragonflies hovering spasmodically over the gurgling waters of the nearby stream. The smell of wet grass from a distant rain squall wafted on the hot, still air. Erika eventually shook off her sombre mood and it was an hour to sunset before we returned to the farm. We were still quite some distance from the house when we both saw the figure of a man on the veranda observing our approach. Erika craned forward, her hand rubbed the windscreen for clearer vision. “It’s Renier – Renier’s back.” She croaked, her face going dead and white. She had managed to compose herself outwardly by the time we drew up to the front of the house. She ran up the steps and embraced her husband. “What a lovely surprise,” she cried. “Why didn’t you let me know you were coming home on leave?” He hugged her lovingly. “I’m back for good,” he said, smiling triumphantly. “I’ve been invalided out of the army. It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to contact you.”
He went on to explain that he had contracted a severe form of malaria and the frequent bouts of shivering left him spent and useless. Taking account of his age and the rare occasions when he was fit for duty, the army doctors recommended his immediate discharge. He was fortunate enough to be found a place on an R.A.F. Dakota bound for South Africa the next morning. “You’ve lost a lot of weight,” Erika tutted, successfully concealing her discomfiture. “Never mind darling, we’ll soon fatten you up.” Renier put his arm round her waist. “You‘ve been gone a long time,” he said plaintively. “I’ve been waiting for you since early afternoon. I managed to get a lift form the station.” “I know,” she said, hunching her shoulders in a gesture of resignation. “We’ve been out for a buck for the Africans. Something must have spooked them because we couldn’t get near enough for a shot. We had to give up in the end.”
Renier was strangely quite over dinner that night. Erika and I tried to make him talk about his recent experiences. He mentioned that the Captain from his Unit we had met in Eldoret had sought him out for a few words when he had returned from compassionate leave, but apart from that, nothing much happened as he had spent most of his time in hospital. Renier thanked me for all I had done as we retired for the night and said he did not wish to impose on my good nature any longer. He assured me that they would be able to manage if I wanted to leave. I only stopped myself just in time from entering the marital bedroom instead of my own.
We went with him into town next morning to see his doctor. Erika and I passed the time in the local hotel drinking several coffees. She sat silent and preoccupied, remaining unresponsive when acquaintances nodded their greetings. We returned to the car and she resumed her seat at the front. A mangy looking dog wandered aimlessly down the middle of the deserted street. A heavy rain cloud blotted out the sun and a flurry of wind teased the dust into little swirling dervishes. The shutters of an empty shop slammed dismally.
Erika’s shoulders trembled as if suddenly caught in an icy blast. She put her arm through the space between the front seats and tightly grasped my hand. “I’ve something to ask you,” she said, looking anywhere but at my face, “I want you to go home tomorrow.” “But why?” I said, crestfallen. “I’ve still got a few days of my holiday left.” “It’s no good,” she sighed. “We can’t go on as before.” “We could sneak away for an hour or two,” I suggested hopefully. “She shook her head with deliberate emphasis. “It’s too risky now Renier’s back. We’re bound to give ourselves away.” I could detect a note of unmistakable finality in her voice. “All right, I’ll go home, “ I agreed reluctantly. “Perhaps when I’ve left school and got my own house and a good job, you might come to live with me.”
A faint smile curved Erika’s lips. “It wouldn’t work out,” she said, squeezing my hand. “Just think, when you reach my age I’ll be an old woman. You won’t want me then.” She paused and looked around at the doctor’s surgery. “Renier and I were very happy once,” she continued. ”Perhaps we can be again. We talked things over last night and we’re going to South Africa to see a specialist. He can get proper treatment for malaria there and expert advice for his impotence. I owe it to him to try and save our marriage after all these years. Please understand. You’ll be all right. You’re young. You’ll soon find a lovely girl of your own age. You won’t remember me then.” “You’re wrong. I always will,” I swore fervently. Renier’s figure loomed through the glass panel in the surgery door. Erika quickly released my hand and faced forward.
Renier had a violent aguey bout that night and a migraine that nearly blew the top of his head off. He was still weak and worn out next morning. “I can’t go while he’s like this,” I told Erika. “You need help. Besides, who’ll take me to catch the train?” “He’s over the worst,” she replied. “Remember what we agreed. You drive to the station and I’ll bring you the car back. The cook’s wife can watch over Renier for a couple of hours.” I shook my head doubtfully. Although she had rewarded my constant efforts by becoming a passable driver, she still made the odd unthinking mistake. But then, I thought, as only one vehicle per hour was the average on the roads around Eldoret, the chances of her colliding with one were pretty remote. I looked into Renier’s bedroom to wish him well and found him fast asleep, I threw my suitcase into the back of the car and drove Erika to the railway station. “Stop by that copse just outside town,” she said, “I don’t want to say goodbye where we can be seen. You’ll only have a couple of hundred yards to walk.”
I parked under the cover of the trees and switched the engine off. Erika reached up, and putting her arms around my neck, she kissed me full on the mouth, that thrusting, wet-lipped erotic kiss I had come to know so well. I felt her body trembling as we clung together a moment in a last inconsolable embrace. The summoning yet haunting whistle of an impatient locomotive suddenly stabbed through the motionless air. Erika untwined her arms and pushed me away. “Go now,” she said, her voice shaking. “Quick – before I lose control.”
I got out of the car like a robot, stiff and obedient, my limbs moving by numbers. I collected my suitcase and waited by the driver’s door while Erika shuffled across the front seat and started the engine. She put her arm through the open window and let her fingers momentarily caress my cheek. “Thank you,” she said, a slight sob in her voice, her face streaked with mascara. “Thank you for the joy you brought me.” And then she’d gone, blinking her eyes through a mist as she jerked the clutch in a series of hops and veered alarmingly from side to side. Even the rhythmic drumming of the metal wheels on the joints in the rails could not induce sleep in me as I travelled home that night. My spirits sunk into an abyss of gloom as I tried to accept the end of my relationship with Erika. She had transformed my adolescence into manhood, and knowing the full extent of the voracious passion that resided within her, I continued to nurture in my vanity the smallest flame of hope that she could one day wish to resume our former exquisite intimacy.
The train pulled in to Nairobi just after breakfast next morning. My mother met me without the hint of a smile on her face. My heart missed a beat. ‘Here it comes,’ I told myself. ‘She must have heard more than a rumour. I’m in for it now!’ She didn’t give me her usual hug of greeting which I took to be definite confirmation of my fears. She led the way back to our car in silence. I got in and shut the door. She looked away from me. “I don’t quite know how to say this“ she uttered hesitantly. I waited breathlessly for her to continue, feverishly trying to think of plausible answers if she made any accusations. She suddenly turned and faced me. “There’s no other way I can put it,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. “We had a telegram from Eldoret late last night. There’s been a terrible accident.” She paused a moment. “They found Erika’s car at the bottom of a ravine – I’m afraid she’s dead!”
“Lion!” I whispered, pulling back forcibly on Cedric’s arm. He stopped abruptly, pale blue eyes startled and questioning in the sudden pallor of his angular face. “How do you know?” he asked, looking around nervously. “Keep your voice down,” I hissed anxiously. “Can’t you smell ‘em?” His thin aristocratic nose wrinkled in disgust as he at last detected the acrid stench that defiled the gentle breeze. “D’you mean that stink of cat’s piss?” The flick of a hairy ear riveted my apprehensively roaming gaze on to a tawny feline head and a pair of yellow eyes observing us from the cover of a thicket on the edge of the river. I turned slowly and faced back the way we had come. “Let’s get out of here“ I said quietly. “And take it easy. They’re watching every move we make.”
“Your m-mean there’s more than one?” Cedric stammered, almost swallowing his prominent Adam’s apple. “I can only see one female,” I said. “But she won’t be on her own, that’s for sure.” I just managed to clutch a fistful of his shirt before he took off. “Walk, you fool“ I swore with muted urgency. “They’ll be sleeping off a good night’s hunting and won’t bother us unless we do something stupid.” I hoped like hell I was right. We eased gently through the knee-high, straw-coloured savannah grass, taking a course parallel to the river and about fifty yards from the trees and undergrowth that lined its banks.
The menace in the low rumbling growl I suddenly heard stopped me in my tracks, fear squeezing my bowels as I imagined those cruel sabre teeth rending into my flesh. Cedric cannoned into me and I staggered forward a pace. We became aware at the same time of a heavy crashing through the bushes where I had just seen the lioness. I spun round raising my shotgun to my shoulder despite knowing of its inadequacy against a big cat. The tops of a clump of young saplings bent and swayed and snapped with a sound like pistol shots, then out into the open with the speed of a battle tank came the monstrous black shape of the King of all Buffaloes, his spread of horn wide enough to hang a hammock from.
He skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust and raised his massive head, snuffling the wind into his foam-flecked muzzle. Even from the hundred yards or so that separated us I could see the scars on his flank and shoulder, the legacy no doubt of his many battles to retain supremacy of the herd. I guessed he must have lost the last one and was now an ill-tempered outcast who had just suffered the indignity of being warned off his favourite drinking place by the pride of satiated lions. I somehow didn’t think that his already pent-up rage would in any way be mollified by this ignominious expulsion from his territory.
Cedric flung his shotgun to his shoulder and loosed off both barrels before I could stop him. The explosions so close to my ear stunned me to a temporary deafness. It must have thought it had blundered into a swarm of bees for it bellowed in surprise then arched its back and spun round and round in bewildered circles. “Idiot’” I shouted at Cedric. “You can’t kill an animal that size with birdshot.” The old bull’s head went down and it pawed the ground with its forefeet. Grass flattened under the blasts of air from is snorting nostrils. It was at this point I decided that staying in that place was just about the worst thing I could do, especially as the nearest tree seemed a mile away. I had covered the first ten yards towards the river before I realised that Cedric wasn’t with me. I looked back over my shoulder, still running at full tilt, and saw that he hadn’t moved. His fumbling hands were desperately attempting to insert fresh cartridges into his gun. He seemed oblivious of the bull which by now was in the initial stages of acceleration, its mightily muscled hindquarters driving its immense body forward at a frightening speed, its hate-filled eyes homing in on Cedric’s skeletal body.
“Run for the trees you stupid bastard!” I yelled in anguish. Cedric looked up at last and I saw his jaw drop in horror as he realised just how much ground the buffalo had already covered. He threw his gun away and started running. I turned my head to the front and ran straight into a ‘wait a bit’ thorn bush. Too close to avoid it, I tried leaping over the top but couldn’t gain enough height and my legs went right through the middle. Oooh, the pain of it! My trousers ripped, my flesh tore, my blood oozed. A thudding behind me – nearer – louder – panting – my heart pounding – a tree – thank God – a mighty jump – a frantic scramble – safe in the lower branches - a gasp of relief.
I looked down amazed. Cedric had almost caught me up despite my twenty yard start. It was his panting and thudding feet I had heard. The forty-mile-an- hour buffalo was closing in fast. It didn’t look as if Cedric would make it. I raised my shotgun and released the safety catch. I took hurried aim but Cedric’s head and shoulders were directly in my line of fire. He looked up at me, eyes flaring in panic and despair – and fell flat on his face! The buffalo instantly filled the space in my sights where Cedric’s head had been a moment before. I fired both barrels, aiming between those killer horns at the point where the neck joined the body in the forlorn hope that I could stop its charge. My trembling hands ruined the shot and the pellets struck splinters off the rock-hard base of its horns. It veered away, partially stunned by the force of the blast at such close range, and shook its head like a drunk who had collided with a lamppost.
It bought enough time for Cedric to spring into my tree with an agility that sparked a spontaneous burst of applause from sundry spectating simians high up in the neighbouring woodland. The lioness had disappeared so I assumed that the pride had moved on to a quieter, more peaceful place to continue their siesta. The buffalo came quartering in and clouted our tree with such an impact that it vibrated like a piano wire. It rampaged round the base, goring and butting and bellowing with stark staring rage. Its rancid bovine odour wafted strongly up to us and we could see the blood-bloated ticks clinging to the folds of its skin. It backed away for a breather, flanks heaving, spittle drooling from its mouth. I had a second or two to appraise our hastily acquired refuge. What I saw knotted my stomach. The tree was little more than a sapling, a teenager in arboreal terms. Fifteen feet high and about a foot in diameter at the base, the trunk tapered off at the top to a pencil slimness.
Cedric straddled the lowest branch and every time the buffalo gored in he had to jerk his legs up out of the way of that great armoured head. “Move up a bit,” he pleaded. I started climbing. The thin upper trunk bent over almost horizontally until I feared it would snap. “I can’t,” I groaned helplessly. “It won’t take my weight.” The buffalo came in again with renewed fury and we heard a horrible rending and tearing sound. “The tree’s splitting,” Cedric yelled in dismay. “What can we do?” “Shurrup and let me think,” I shouted, conscious only of the thumping of my heart in my ears. “Well you’d better hurry up,” he shouted again. “We’ll be mince-meat in a minute.”
I forced myself to concentrate. From the expression on Cedric’s face it was obvious that he expected me to come up with some magical solutions. The one thing I knew I must not do was to underestimate the tenacity and cunning of the monster raging about below. Among the cognoscenti, the African buffalo is considered the most dangerous of all big game. I remembered what Piet Bouker had told me about the day he nearly lost his life when outsmarted by one. A wealthy client of his had wounded a buffalo while on safari. Piet had to then reluctantly observe the professional hunter’s code of not permitting the slow agonising death of an injured animal. He had to search for it in a swamp to finish it off, the last place he would have chosen for such a hazardous task owing to the six feet high reeds which restricted his vision down to a couple of yards. He followed its clearly visible spoor in the thick oozing mud. The buffalo traversed a wide arc and waited in ambush at the point where it rejoined its own track. It crashed out of cover almost on top of Piet and he had less than a second to raise his Mannlicher and get in the fatal shot.
Bearing this in mind, I hurriedly appraised the possibilities. I only had bird-shot cartridges with me and considered whether the sting of the pellets on the old bull’s hide would either speed him on his way or only serve to incense him further. I plumped for the latter. The thought that did occur to me was that if he did manage to batter the tree down, who would he go for first, me or Cedric? My hopes were rather uncharitable I have to confess.
I quietly cursed Cedric for our predicament and myself for assuming that his circumstances and upbringing had installed in him a measure of common sense. His parents had terminated his education at Winchester just before the outbreak of war, and leaving their vast estates in Yorkshire in the care of a relative, had set sail for South Africa. They spent a couple of years there and then moved north to Kenya where they purchased a fifty-thousand acre ranch on the shores of Lake Naivasha. They lived in a hotel in Nairobi at first while the ranch-house was furnished and improved to a luxurious standard. Because my father had some business dealings with them they occasionally came to our house for the tennis cum tea parties that my mother organised.
The first time I set eyes on Cedric I nearly died laughing. His ears stood out from the side of his head like teapot handles and waggled furiously whenever he became annoyed. He wore khaki shorts that were so long and socks pulled up so high that only an inch of knee was visible, which was just as well perhaps. His skin was still as pink as when he had left England despite his sojourn in South Africa. My mother pulled me aside. “Be nice to Cedric,” she instructed in hushed tones. “He must be feeling strange and lonely. Take him round to meet some of your friends.” I only took him once before they made it quite clear that they wanted no repetition. He had the most annoying habit of addressing everyone younger than himself as ‘boy.’
He came with his parents one night to dine with us on a couple of roast guinea fowl I had brought back that afternoon. They complimented my mother on how tasty they were and made comparisons with the pheasant on their estate back home. They then discussed different species of game birds and the wonderful shoots they had enjoyed. “In fact, I bought a pair of matched shotguns for Cedric just before we left home,” his father informed us. “He‘s not had the chance to use them yet.” His eyes gleamed with a sudden idea, and leaning forward, he spoke directly to my father. “Perhaps your son could take him out to bag some guinea fowl soon?” he suggested.
By now we had reached the Turkish coffee and brandy and cigar stage of the meal. My father tilted back expansively, stick his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets and puffed out a cloud of smoke. “Of course he will,” he replied, studiously avoiding my despairing look. “We’ll call for Cedric tomorrow and I’ll drop them out in the bush somewhere. I can pick them up again when I finish work.” I managed an insipid simile while inwardly seething with resentment and dismay at the way my father had dropped me right in it. My mother weighed me down with enough sandwiches and chocolate bars next morning to keep an army for a week. I never had such a fuss made when I went out on my own. It was normally a case of raiding the larder for leftovers.
Cedric gave me his matched pair of shotguns when we arrived to pick him up at his hotel. I examined each one with envy and admiration, then attempted to give them back. “No, boy, you carry them,” he said, looking superciliously down his long nose. “Don’t you know anything about a shoot? You’re supposed to reload each one after I’ve fired it.” My father kicked my shin. “Oh, we don’t observe that custom out here,” he explained patiently. “It’s every man for himself.” Cedric grimaced ungraciously and left one of the pair behind.
My father dropped us off at a shallow ford on the Athi river about eight miles out of town. “I’ll pick you up at four o’clock,” he shouted as he turned the car round. “Good hunting.” “Where are the beaters?” Cedric asked with an irritable frown. “Are you sure you told them the right time and place?” My blood felt hot as it rushed to my face. “We don’t need any,” I replied, restraining with difficulty the urge to kick his prominent teeth down his throat. “These birds aren’t bred to order, they’re completely wild. Half the fun is in looking for them and being quick on the trigger when they fly. I’ve walked all day sometimes and never seen any. If we follow the course of the river we should flush some out. They’ll be close to shade and water now the sun’s getting hot.” “How do they fly?” he asked, ignoring my lecture. “They have to run quite a long way before they can take off, then they peel off in all directions,” I said. “Let them get well up first.” “You must be joking,” Cedric sneered. “We’ll be lucky if we bag a brace apiece at that rate.” “So what? You’re surely not going to shoot them while they’re still on the ground?” “It makes no difference to me. What’s it matter? We’re after game, aren’t we? We have to show something for our efforts when we get home.” I shot him a contemptuous glance but he chose not to notice.
We had only walked a few paces when I heard a clicking noise from behind. I spun round and caught Cedric in the act of inserting two cartridges up the breech of his gun. He snapped it shut before I could react and I found myself staring straight down the business end of the twin barrels. I ducked so violently that I nearly dislocated my neck. “What the hell are you doing?” I choked angrily. “What’s it look like? He said. “I’m ready if we put any birds up.” “From the way you’re handling that weapon you’ll probably blow my head off, first. Just how many of your Yorkshire beaters have you shot up the arse?” “Ha-ha, very droll. They keep well out of range.” “Yes, and I can see why. Well, I’m telling you this. We don’t move another step unless you walk with your gun broken open.” “Oh, have it your way then. Can we start now?”
Clinging desperately to our shuddering perch, I wished heartily I had never agreed to bring Cedric out. I couldn’t blame the cantankerous old buffalo raging about below for venting its spite against him for his thoughtlessness; it was including me in its vendetta that I minded. The split in our flimsy tree trunk had by now riven almost halfway up its length and was getting longer each time the infuriated beast charged in. The tree bent and swayed so much that I knew a couple more rushes would finally demolish it. I waited for the next attack and made ready to fire, hoping that both barrels from directly above might cause enough damage to slow it down during our enforced flight to a stronger tree. I hated the thought of harming it, but the crazed animal certainly didn’t think that way about us and I realised I had to act fast. For a dark, fleeting moment I toyed with the idea of kicking Cedric off the lower branch and hot-footing it out of there while the buffalo wreaked its revenge.
I tightened my grip on the tree as it lowered its head for what I hoped would be the final time, and charged in once again. Cedric struggled to a crouching position and I wondered why he hadn’t done it before. I was totally unprepared for his next move. One second before those mighty horns smashed into the base of the tree, he launched himself into space, spindly legs already going through the motions of running as he hit the ground. He streaked off down towards the river at a nine second per hundred yards pace, closely followed by the slavering bull. He reached the bank fractionally ahead and leapt out in a wide arcing dive. The buffalo lost its footing down the steep sides and floundered into the water in a great wall of spray. Cedric surfaced and struck out with frantic haste. He stopped swimming and turned to face his pursuer when he reached the middle of the river.
I thought for a wild moment he intended to wrestle with it as Tarzan would have done. He waited until the bull, head raised and nostrils flaring, was almost on him, then dived deep. It passed right over where he had been only a moment before, swivelling its head from side to side in sheer bewilderment. It circled just once, then it seemed as if the heat of its anger evaporated in the coolness of the water for it snorted its resignation and made a bee-line for the opposite bank. It scrambled out and trotted off into the surrounding bush land without so much as a backward glance.
The tree finally collapsed as I swung down to earth and I had to jump the last few feet. I ran down to the river and helped fish Cedric out. “That was unbelievable,” I said admiringly. “I owe you an apology.” “What for?” he asked, looking puzzled as he wrung his shirt out. “For assuming you were a spineless, arrogant buffoon.” “I probably am,” he said with a rueful grin, “but I’m learning fast.”
Absolutely marvellous story, or should that be 'stories'. Thank you for all this work you have done in bringing it together. I do not know about publishing and copyright laws, but I hope you have got this protected. Does posting on Anyport constitute 'publishing'?
Travel! Set out and head for pastures new[br] Life tastes the richer when you’ve road worn feet.[br]Ibn Battuta[br]
Another exciting episode in the early life of OnlyDad, and a nice surprise at the end. Your dad has such a knack for writing.
This chapter reminded me that when I was a kid I read a book called just "Hunter." It was written by a man named Hunter who led hunting parties in Africa. How's that for economy of words? He said buffalo were the most dangerous game, I think because they were the most irritable.
He wrote it whilst in his seventies, so in the 1990's. I've corrected some spelling mistakes and earlier I put in brackets some of the country names that were changed from when he knew them. Later I've left them as they are. I did take out a comment about the Japanese after his brother died and later another one about Germans. I felt they added nothing and were somewhat debatable in taste. I didn't want in the future anyone to focus on those two things to the detriment of the whole story as they were a very minor few lines. If you see what I mean. As to my efforts, they pale in comparison. My dad was well educated for the times, was influenced by intelligent people (most of the time) during his early life and spoke 'proper English'. (His father, before working as a newspaper editor in Kenya, was a British intelligence agent.) Mrs M says he should have been an announcer for the BBC - in comparison I was relatively poorly educated and didn't pass any educational exams after the age of sixteen and have, unless I think about it, a strong local accent.
Thanks for the details, Mark. I'm so glad you've chosen to put your dad's stories here.
I've mentioned before that, for work, I am obligated to participate in a continuing education group that meets once a month. We are required to read books, short stories, articles, etc, and then report a bit to the group. This week I shared a little of what you've published here and my colleagues were quite fascinated.
We were a front line country when World War II began even though we were thousands of miles from Europe. It was assumed that Mussolini would not be long in ordering his troops to invade from Abyssinia. Nothing happened for a few days while somnolent government officials continued their lethargic rounds of golf and imbibed their whisky and soda sundowners. Instructions were eventually issued for air raid shelters to be constructed at all government buildings, hospitals and schools.
I was a pupil at the Prince of Wales school at Kabete, about seven miles out of Nairobi. There was no mistaking us with our navy-blue blazers trimmed with gold brain and the breast pocket badge which proudly displayed the three feathers emblem of the Prince of Wales. We were threatened with unspeakable retribution if we misbehaved in public while wearing our blazers, a rather unnecessary threat as it was the only boy’s school in the country and everyone knew everyone else anyway.
The two-storeyed main building with white-washed walls and red-tiled roof formed three sides of a square. The grass covered quadrangle with a flagpole in the middle was strictly out of bounds except for ceremonial occasions. Colonnaded verandas ran down the length of each side and gave access to classrooms, dormitories, the assembly hall and gymnasium. The grounds of about two hundred acres had sports fields and tennis courts at the front and meadow and woodland at the rear. The Headmaster enhanced his reputation and saved the Authorities a considerable sum of money by using us as slave labour to dig our air raid shelters. All games and lessons were postponed until we had excavated trenches at the fourth side of the quadrangle and shored them up with timber. We filled Hessian sacks with the earth we had removed and roofed the trenches over. At least they afforded projection from shrapnel in the event of an air raid. We were not permitted to return to normal until the job was completed.
The day the Italians entered the war in June 1940, one of our ground patrols on the border spotted a faint dot high in the sky at about twenty-five thousand feet. It was an enemy reconnaissance plane harmlessly tootling along and only just visible through powerful binoculars. It hadn’t the range to fly to Nairobi and back, but on receipt of the patrol’s radio message, air raid sirens started wailing all over the place. We dived into our shelters chattering excitedly and welcoming this interruption of our lessons. The town’s inhabitants scattered in all directions leaving the streets and bazaars deserted until the all clear. All the shops and business premises were left wide open and unattended, a rare opportunity for the thieves and robbers who fortunately had fled with the rest.
The few street lamps on Delamere Avenue, the main street, which only worked intermittently anyway, were extinguished every night from then on and a strict blackout imposed. Car headlights were masked and no one dared to strike a match outdoors. It soon became apparent that only town dwellers observed the regulations as it was a hopeless task trying to enforce them over such a widely dispersed rural population. The Africans refused to douse their cooking fires, unable to comprehend such a thing as a bombing raid. That was the first and last time an Italian plane came anywhere near the border, but we continued to be kept on a wartime footing.
Our school buildings were converted into a hospital ready for the expected casualties. All the upcountry pupils were transferred to a requisitioned hotel on the shores of Lake Naivasha about eighty miles from Nairobi in the Rift Valley. Those of us who lived in Nairobi were absorbed into the Kenya Girl’s high school not far from the town centre. I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t appreciated mixed education while at primary school because at that age girls were a pain in the neck. However, a couple of years in an all male environment caused my attitude to undergo a remarkable change when I found myself in the same classroom as a coven of bewitching females.
The wide gangway down the middle that was supposed to segregate us had no effect at all. I actually looked forward to every day at school for the first time in my life. My academic standards took a disastrous plunge and my parents made sinister threats unless I showed some improvement. I foolishly ignored their repeated warnings as I could not concentrate while surrounded by all those delicious girls with their flirty eyes and provocative gestures.
Saturdays were the highlight of the week when voluntary ballroom dancing classes were held in the assembly hall. These sessions unfortunately began immediately after army cadet training which made it difficult to avoid crushing our partner’s feet with our heavy hobnailed boots. We were actually allowed to grasp a girl around her waist. I delayed washing off the heady aroma of perfume and perspiration from my hands for as long as I could after these exciting encounters.
The day of reckoning came sooner than I bargained for. My parents finally lost patience after a period of steadily declining standards. My blood chilled as they perused my latest and worst ever end of term report in ominous silence. My father said nothing until all the family were assembled round the dinner table, then thrust that infamous document under my nose and ordered me to read it out loud.
While my sisters sniggered behind their hands I spluttered phrases and comments that said: ‘no motivation’, ‘bone idle’, and those were the more moderate observations. “We’ve had enough,” my father said sourly when I had finished. “It’s being mixed in with girls, that’s your trouble isn’t it?” “Of course not,” I denied, assuming an air of injured innocence. “We’ve given you every chance,” my mother said, joining in the condemnation. “You’ll have no more distractions where you’re going. We’re sending you to boarding school at Naivasha next term.” “Oh no, not there,” I pleaded, horrified by this cruel sentence. It was rumoured that they had stale bread and black treacle for their tea. “I promise I’ll improve if only you’ll let me stay at home.” “It’s too late for that,” she said. “It’s already been arranged. There’s no more to be said.”
I glanced at my father for any sign of sympathy. He was too busy trying to avoid spilling the tomato soup down his waistcoat. This ultimatum completely killed my appetite. My throat constricted as I contemplated the strict regimentation of boarding school and the surrender of all freedom. I asked to be excused the table and fled out into the darkened garden where I picked up a stick and thrashed the flower heads off their stems. I tasted the sting of the dreaded hippo hide kiboko once again next morning.
I was the only pupil from Nairobi on the train up to Naivasha at the commencement of the new term although there were another half dozen from Mombassa and a couple from Arusha on the Tanganyikan border. The school bus took us the few miles round the lake shore to the commandeered hotel, a low rambling building with a green, moss-covered roof. Dotted around the grounds and sheltering under yellow-barked fever trees were several rectangular dormitory huts connected to the main building by narrow roofed-over walkways.
The Headmaster checked our names from a clipboard. He looked up sharply when I answered my name and scrutinised me from head to foot. A grandfather clock in the corner of the room ticked slowly and deliberately in the heavily laden silence. He spoke in a whispered aside to a tall fair-haired man with a cadaverous face who wore myopic gold-rimmed spectacles. “You’ll be in Clive House,” the Headmaster told me. “This is your House-master, Mr. Sneade. He’ll show you where to put your things and settle you in.” Cadaver face jerked his head at me in a signal to follow. His legs were so long that I took two steps to his one. The sweltering heat broke me out in a sticky sweat while I struggled with my heavy leather suitcase. We stopped outside one of the long huts after a hundred yards or so.
“This is your dormitory. Find a spare bed and locker,” Mr Sneade grunted, his chameleon eyes bulging as he gazed down at me over the rims of his glasses. I expected him to shake hands and shuddered at the prospect of touching his sickly yellow skin which I had noticed on other people who overdosed on quinine. “Thank you,” I said, turning away hastily. “Thank you what?” he queried testily. “Thank you, Sir.” “That’s better,” he growled. “You’re a known troublemaker, boy. I can do without your sort in my House. You’re reports from Nairobi are nothing short of scandalous. Well, it won’t wash with me,” he said, shaking a nicotine-stained forefinger at me. “I shall crackdown on you the first time you step out of line. Understand?” “Yes Sir,” I replied, gazing at the junction of his eyebrows. He stared back and we faced each other for long seconds while he willed me to back down. I probably would have done had I been looking directly into the stark hostility in those frigid orbs. I cheered inwardly when he turned away and strode off.
I entered the dormitory timidly and felt a great surge of relief when I found that there were only two juniors in who I already knew. They indicated a spare bed and chatted while I unpacked. They advised me to read most carefully the rules and regulations pinned to the notice board on the wall. ‘Beds to be made every morning with counterpanes six inches from the floor all round – no one allowed in the dormitory before four o’clock unless changing for sports – clothes to be neatly folded and placed in lockers at all times – shoes to be polished every night last thing before lights out…’ and that was only a quarter of the first page.
My depression deepened as I read on. We were reasonably free to do as we liked on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday after morning service, but as Naivasha township and the lake were out of bounds, there was nothing left but limited exploration of the surrounding bush country. The school had been founded by a former Captain of the Royal Navy and was run on a mixture of public school and military academy. All subsequent head masters had maintained this format. A prefect hoisted the Union flag up a tall pole every morning while a bugler from our cadet band sounded reveille and hauled it down every sunset. It mattered not what you were doing during this ceremony, you had to stand to attention even if you were on the throne.
The pupils were divided into four Houses named after various stalwarts of Empire – Hawke – Clive – Rhodes – Grigg, the last one being a former governor of the colony. It was the ultimate accolade to be a member of the House with the most points for academic and athletic achievement at the end of the year. The whole school, with freshly washed faces and slicked back hair attended the annual prize giving dinner. The top House sat at the elite end of the dining room and were ceremoniously presented with the Victor Ludorum, a magnificent life sized solid silver cockerel which was kept in a glass case in the assembly hall and only removed for cleaning and the annual presentation.
I had only just finished reading the notice board when the lunch gong sounded. Being Saturday and no compulsory activities, I wandered disconsolately down to the lake shore after the meal and found a quiet place to smoke a cigarette. I sat brooding and thinking about running away and living rough in the bush dodging search parties for as long as possible. I planned it out to the last detail. All I needed was a good hunting knife and I could survive by trapping small animals and spearing fish and stealing vegetables from African plantations. I fantasised about this idea for a while before reluctantly abandoning it. It didn’t seem to me to be worth all the trouble when I eventually came down to earth. Now, my brother, Lance, would have made his way to Mombassa and jumped ship or something equally as daring. I knew deep down that I hadn’t the guts when it came to the crunch.
I considered several hare-brained options before weakly deciding to take the easiest course by merging into the crowd and attracting as little attention as possible. The obvious thing was to improve my academic performance so dramatically that my parents would relent and permit me to return to school in Nairobi after just one term. Much as I disliked surrender, I could see no other way out. I should have felt thoroughly ashamed of myself for giving in so easily. However, my self-esteem suffered no diminution as rational thought was superior to hasty action. I contented myself by thinking that they couldn’t stop me from hating the place and everyone in it.
The sudden piercing sound of the sunset bugle cut through my melancholy. I rose stiffly and walked back to the dormitory. I guessed they were playing a game of some sort when I heard shouts of encouragements and a babble of voices as I approached. I entered, blinking from the darkness, and saw one of the new boys jump down from a table, his eyes red-rimmed from crying. Rough hands caught hold of me, and despite kicking and struggling, I was soon overcome and completely disrobed.
Spencer, the House Captain, a blond athletic youth with an aquiline nose, pushed through the mob and glared down at me. “Where the hell have you been?” he growled aggressively. “Thought you’d escape the initiation ceremony did you? Just for that you’ll do an extra couple of runs.” “What ceremony?” I lied, feigning ignorance. “You’ll soon find out,” he said, smirking as he pulled me to my feet. “All you have to do is run to the end of the dormitory and back as fast as you can. Do six runs and you’ll break the record.” I turned and looked down the two rows of boys standing at the foot of their beds with their hands behind their backs and eager looks on their faces as if expecting a treat. Spencer suddenly lashed out with a wet towel and caught me a stinging blow across my bare buttocks. “Get running,” he shouted gleefully.
I shot off at a hundred miles per hour in an attempt to simulate a gazelle that was about to become a cheetah’s dinner. More wet towels were miraculously produced and struck at me as I passed by each bed, by the time I completed the six runs my body glowed a bright red. “Now stand on that table,” Spencer ordered when my panting had subsided. “Sing a song or recite a poem. The choice is yours.” “I’ll say a poem,” I offered, remembering a short four liner. Before I had finished the first line they struck at my bare toes with the edges of heavy wooden rulers. “Let’s see how well you dance,” they laughed as I hopped about trying to keep both feet in the air at once. When I finished the poem they made me sing a song for good measure. Then they forced my head down a lavatory bowl and flushed it. “What’s next?” I asked defiantly, determined to conceal my mortification at all costs. “Get dried off,” Spencer said. “It’s time we went in to dinner.”
I lathered my head and shoulders and washed about six times before feeling clean enough to get dressed. I dreaded what further horrors might be in store, but knew that resistance would only prolong the torture. I went back after dinner and lay on my bed pretending to read. Nothing further happened. I stayed awake long after lights out staring into the dark and wondering why Mr Sneade hadn’t come in to investigate the commotion during the initiation. He lived in rooms at one end of our dormitory so he must have heard. He never once intervened in all the years I was a senior and as enthusiastic as the others in inflicting the ceremony on the new boys. I eventually dropped off into a fitful sleep which was rudely interrupted at dawn when I was tipped out of bed and dragged to one of the bathrooms.
“How long can you hold your breath?” Spencer asked disarmingly. “I don’t know,” I lied, thinking it wiser to conceal the fact that I could hold it for nearly two minutes. Spencer nodded to two of his aides who dumped me unceremoniously into a bath full of ice-cold water. The shock nearly made me expel all the air I had surreptitiously stored in my lungs. They held my head under and I lay perfectly still, counting the seconds. They let me up when I reached thirty to my great surprise. “That’s it,” Spencer said, shaking my hand. “You are now a fully fledged member of Clive House. You can start by polishing my shoes every night.”
When the Italians in Abyssinia finally capitulated, our school buildings near Nairobi were released by the military and handed back for educational purposes once again. Gleefully assuming that I would be living at home next term, I found that the best way to avoid trouble was to disappear into the surrounding savannah at every opportunity. I discovered a beehive and carefully pinpointed its position. It was a hollowed out log suspended from the branch of a tree and sealed at both ends with cowhide. There was a small hole at each end to allow access for the bees. I examined it several times over the next few weeks, and finding no sign of interference, presumed that the owner had forgotten is location. I had heard of smoking bees out of the hive and wondered if it really did work. I couldn’t wait to put it to the test and the prospect of all that delicious honey to spread on my bread at tea-time made me positively slaver in anticipation. I had visions of selling off the surplus to my schoolmates, so the next weekend I went suitably armed with a box of matches and half a dozen jam jars. I lit a fire at the base of the tree and covered it with plenty of green foliage. The smoke soon rose in a dense column and enveloped the hive in choking fumes. I retired to a discreet distance and settled down to wait.
As I sat watching the smoke billowing upwards it suddenly occurred to me that it could be seen for miles in that still sunlit air. Hoping that I had allowed enough time to elapse, I stamped the fire out and quickly shinned up the tree. Everything looked quiet and peaceful and I could hear no buzzing so I stabbed my knife into the cowhide at one end of the hollow log and all hell broke loose! A cloud of furious bees came rampaging out of the hole I had made and dived in for the attack. Someone must have been kidding because I had been led to believe that the smoke either made them abandon the hive or become too lethargic to resist. Ignoring the probability of a broken ankle, I took one tremendous leap to the ground and ran wildly to a shallow stream nearby, my arms flailing like windmills to fend off the pursuing swarm. The water was only a few inches deep and I had to scramble blindly a further hundred yards before I found a pool deep enough to completely submerge. The bees had thankfully dispersed when I eventually surfaced and I had amazingly only been stung in two places, once on each side of my neck.
I heard a shout and pounding feet. A grizzled old tribesman angrily brandishing a heavy quarterstaff was bearing down on me in a series of rheumatic skips and jumps. I broke all speed records once again and soon left him far behind. By the time I got back to the school my neck had swollen that much that Matron, who wore spectacles with inch thick lenses and wouldn’t listen to my explanation, put me to bed in the isolation hut with suspected mumps. At least I gained a couple of days respite from the daily grind.
I tangled with Mr Sneade as soon as I attended classes again.
Besides being my Housemaster, he also taught maths, which unfortunately for me was one of my worst subjects. It was a foregone conclusion, for apart from my appalling reports from Nairobi and his desire to have students of the highest calibre, I enjoyed a great rapport with his wife. Not that I had the temerity to assume he could be jealous of me, but it seemed to me he was annoyed with his wife for taking a liking to me. A glamorous blonde, she was artistic and musical, the complete opposite of her husband. Everyone drooled aver her. I never ceased to wonder what she saw in Mr Sneade.
When she discovered that I played the saxophone, she arranged for me and another pupil who was good on percussion, to meet her every Saturday afternoon in the assembly hall. She played piano like a dream and her blues and boogie-woogie were straight from the Deep South. The jam sessions we had together were the highlight of the week for me. It soon got around the school and we had an enthusiastic audience of thirty or forty every time we performed. Mr Sneade’s evident dislike and continual humiliation of me in front of the lads eventually shattered my resolve to keep out of trouble and goaded me into a stupid gesture of defiance. He was a fanatic about being correctly dressed so I chose to appear one morning without a tie. Mr Sneade surprised me by only giving me a warning. We had another maths period two days later, and foolishly pushing my luck, I removed my tie just before he entered the classroom.
He stared at me in disbelief. “You’re undressed, boy,” he grated harshly. “Where’s your tie?” My hand flew to my neck in mock surprise. “I was in a hurry this morning and must have forgotten to put it on, Sir,” I said, heavily emphasising the simulated tone of apology in my voice. “Come off it,” he said, glaring fiercely. “Can’t you think up a better excuse than that? Drop your trousers.” Grasps all round the classroom as I looked at him in shocked amazement. “Hurry up, boy. I said drop your trousers,” he repeated. I unfastened my belt and let them fall to the floor, nervously speculating on his next move. “You never forget to come out without your trousers on, do you?” he said. “You can sit there like that for the rest of this period and perhaps you’ll find out what being undressed in public really feels like.”
The total unexpectedness of this form of punishment left me speechless and I sat down, uncomfortably aware of the sniggers of my classmates and the coldness of my chair on my bare posterior. I spent the next hour day-dreaming about the horrible tortures I would gleefully inflict on Mr Sneade if I ever had him at my mercy. I did get some small satisfaction before we finally left Naivasha. He had been a rowing blue when at Cambridge University and coached us in that sport. He took three of us at a time out on the lake in a rowing dinghy and demonstrated the finer points of sculling “I hope you’ve been paying attention,” he said when it came to my turn to sit beside him. “Just match me stroke for stroke.”
We started off gently enough, just rippling through the water. He suddenly increased his pace and the boat began to veer. “Put your back into it,” he snapped. “We kept a straight course when the other two were rowing.” I pulled harder and faster and brought the bow round again. We surged forward and once more I sensed him gradually building up the speed and strength of his stroke. I didn’t expect to be his equal, but if that was the way he wanted to play, I decided to give him some pain and surprise by showing that I wasn’t a complete novice. He couldn’t know that I had spent many hours rowing around Mombassa Island with my brothers when we went on family holidays every year. I increased my effort and managed to keep the boat straight. We flew through the water, kicking up a bow wave like a speedboat and oblivious to everything but our struggle for supremacy. Mr Sneade stepped up his pace even further and the bow began turning slowly again in his favour. I called up all my reserves and rowed like a galley slave, red-faced, eyes bulging.
We forged on and on, gasping for breath, muscles screaming in protest and neither giving an inch. My tortured body told me that I couldn’t last much longer and I made excuses for myself on the grounds that I couldn’t hope to compete with a Cambridge blue even if he was more than twice my age. I was just about to concede when the front of the boat began turning back in my favour. I desperately clawed out one last ounce of strength from somewhere and the boat flipped round in a half circle. Mr Sneade dropped his oar and slumped forward on his seat, body racked with a coughing fit and his face turning blue.
I had been vaguely aware of our passengers gesticulating with considerable agitation during the latter stages of the duel, and only realised why when the boat suddenly rocked alarmingly and a massive head with gaping jaws and gleaming scimitar tusks reared up out of the water beside me and grunted with the harsh ‘oy-oy-oy’ sound of one very irate hippopotamus. It was so close that I could smell the rotting vegetation on its breath. We had blundered slap bang into the middle of a herd of the beasts, any one of which could overturn our fragile craft without the slightest effort. Fortunately, they must have considered that their leader’s warning had been enough, for they let us pass, just their snouts and eyes visible as they watched our oars catch crab after crab in our frantic haste to get away. Later that day I experienced a feeling of smug satisfaction when I saw Mr Sneade coming out of the Headmaster’s office looking rather subdued and heard the buzz around the school that he had been severely carpeted for unthinkingly putting his pupils at risk.
When I returned home from Naivasha at the end of term, I discovered to my utter dismay that my time as a boarder was far from over. The fact that our school had been re-established in its original buildings near Nairobi produced no change of heart in my parents. I wheedled, cajoled, and made endless promises, pointing out repeatedly that I could ride to school in ten minutes and they would save a considerable amount of money in not having to pay boarding fees. My worst fears were confirmed when they maintained that the remarkable improvement in my academic standards while at Naivasha proved that boarding school was just what I needed and they wished they had thought of it years before.
Sadly disillusioned, I entered Clive House dormitory at the start of the new term only to find someone in a far blacker mood. I immediately recognised the boy emptying his suitcase on the bed next to mine. I hadn’t seen Kangy Gormley for a couple of years and still remembered his forlorn countenance when we all moved up to secondary education. He had been kept back at primary school but was eventually upgraded despite not having attained the required standard. He lived in Mombassa where his father worked as a railway engineer and his first name was Andrew.
We called him ‘Kangy’ because of the way he ran, loping along in a series of hops with his forearms tucked into his chest. He looked deeply despondent as he packed his clothes into his bedside locker, his acne-ravaged face glooming under a thatch of unkempt, raven-black hair. “What’s up?” I asked. “I thought you’d be glad to move up at last.” “Well, I’m not,” he replied dejectedly. “I didn’t want to come here in the first place. I asked my father to let me finish with school and find me a job in his workshops but he said I have to stay on until I’m eighteen.” “It won’t seem all that long,” I said, vainly trying to cheer him up. “You know most of us already so you’ll soon settle in and have lots of friends.” “Oh yeah, and where are they?” he said, slamming his locker door shut. “Apart from the Head and Mr Sneade, you’re the first person to speak to me since I arrived.”
Just then, we heard heavy footsteps approaching from behind us. “Hey you,” came a harsh bark. “What’s your name?” There was no mistaking that voice. It belonged to a prefect in his final year called Eric Hunt, a hulking, barrel-shaped youth who enjoyed walking up and down the dormitory stripped to the waist and flexing his muscles. Kangy jumped nervously. “A-Andy Gormley,” he stammered. “Who told you to take that bed?” Eric demanded. “No one,” Kangy said. “It’s not being used.” He stood up. He was almost as tall as Eric but only half the width. “You can’t have it,” Eric rapped back. “New boys start at the bottom end of the dormitory.” “I’m staying here,” Kangy exclaimed bravely. “Mr Sneade never said anything about that. He told me to find a bed and locker for myself.”
Poor old Kangy. You never challenged Eric Hunt if you knew what was good for you. I hastily moved back a pace. “Well I’m telling you,” Eric said, a vein beating in his temple and his eyes bulging. He caught hold of Kangy’s arm with one swift movement and twisted it viciously behind his back. Kangy doubled up as Eric turned the screw. “Hold on, Eric,” I protested, worried by Kangy’s pain-wracked grimace. “You’ll break his arm in a minute.” “Keep your nose out or you’ll get the same,” Eric said venomously. “Let go – let go – I’ll find another bed,” Kangy yelled in agony. Eric released him. “Shift your things right now.” Unfortunately for me, Kangy seemed to think he owed me a debt of gratitude for my intervention. He latched himself on and followed me around like a pet dog and I had to devise all sorts of stratagems to keep out of his way until the occasion arose where he proved to be extremely useful.
A certain number of us who craved a cigarette before bed-time had formed a smoking club which met after prep at nine o’clock every evening. We then had a free hour to ourselves before lights out at ten. We were sworn to secrecy and had rites and rituals designed to cement our brotherhood. Swift and brutal retribution was threatened to anyone reneging on the oath of allegiance. We mustered at the end of a long corridor that led out on to the darkened grounds and stood around appearing to be innocently talking and then suddenly melting into the night in twos and threes. Kangy didn’t smoke so I explained what we were going to do and suggested that he made himself scarce and not become involved.
He wouldn’t hear of it. “Can I keep cave for you?” he asked, wagging his tail. “If I see anyone coming I’ll warn you like this.” He cupped both hands to his mouth and imitated an owl so realistically that a hunting male in the distance responded immediately. We swore him into the smoking club as a reward and his grateful thanks positively embarrassed us. He kept lookout every night and saved us from discovery on many occasions until inevitably, Mr Aspley, the Headmaster, became suspicious.
He began patrolling the school grounds after prep wearing spiked running shoes and armed with a six-celled torch that beamed a brilliant shaft of light that could reveal an insect at two hundred yards. He had been a champion miler in his youth and could still outrun anyone at the school. This tactic met with instant success and he chased and caught half a dozen of our members in the next few nights. They all had six strokes of the cane next morning. Kangy had failed to see him because he made a wide detour in the dark to approach from unexpected directions.
We held a council of war to decide on a new plan of action. Kangy felt devastated but we hurriedly assured him that we attached no blame to him. It was suggested that we switch our operation to the disused air-raid shelters situated on the fourth side of the quadrangle, the advantages being that we would be out of sight underground, the shelters were only a short dash from the end of the corridor and Kangy had an unobstructed view of the whole layout. We were already breaching an out of bounds diktat by leaving the school buildings after dark anyway, so we recklessly decided to take on the added risk of instant expulsion if caught in the air-raid shelters. They were E-shaped, each arm being about fifty yards long and having its own entrance. The Army had only boarded up the middle section when they had vacated the premises and left both ends open. The first night we went into the shelters we loosened these boards in case we ever needed to use this middle exit in a hurry. It had become overgrown and well concealed.
Mr Aspley roamed the grounds night after night while we puffed away contentedly almost beneath his very feet. He became increasingly frustrated as his success rate plummeted. We assumed that he didn’t think we’d dare to use the shelters as the punishment was so final. He extended his search to cover all the playing fields at the front and the remotest corners of the woods and meadows at the back. It filtered down through the grapevine that the Education Department had become seriously alarmed at his requests for so many torch batteries and his increasingly disturbed and erratic behaviour.
One night kangy came tumbling down into the shelters all of a flusters. “Quick – put your smokes out,” he hissed urgently. “Didn’t you hear my warning? I’ve just seen old Aspley going in at the other end.” We scrambled out and swiftly dispersed into the darkness and made our separate ways back to our dormitories. Kangy tried to tag on to me so I had to explain that it would arouse suspicion if he left his lockout post at that exact time. I told him to go back and wait there a few more minutes.
Mr Aspley eventually came out of the shelters and immediately confronted Kangy. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. “I’m reading, Sir.” “Why do you come to the same place every night?” “It’s quiet here, Sir. I have to read my comics away from the others because the tease me.” Mr Aspley regarded him silently, as if pole-axed by such an innocent and candid answer. “You’ve been smoking, haven’t you?” he suddenly barked. “Don’t deny it because I can smell it on you.” “I don’t see how, Sir. I don’t smoke.” “We’ll soon see. Turn your pockets out.”
Mr Aspley then proceeded to examine the linings for the faintest trace of tobacco shreds and even made Kangy remove his socks and shoes. He patted his clothing all over and rocked back on his heels when he finally smelled his breath. He snatched Kangy’s comics out of his hands. “I’m confiscating these. It’s time you stopped reading such rubbish. Report to my office in the morning and I’ll give you the titles of some intelligent books you can read.” Kangy kept his other comics hidden inside his shirt after that and prominently displayed a copy of ‘the Cloister And The Hearth’ wherever he went.
You know you're going to have to find a new name for this set of tales. "A bedtime story" is just not a proper title for this autobiographical work. Was it your father's choice, or did you tack it on for our benefit, Mark?
I just gave it that name mainly to convey that it isn't a short comment or post but a lengthy thing. He gave it the name of 'Red runs the river' probably because there has to be a title somewhere. Usually at the beginning, from what I remember about books.
Mr Aspley discontinued his nightly patrols and appeared to have abandoned any hope of catching us. We reckoned we had him licked at last, but as a precaution, we let a week pass by before resuming our use of the air-raid shelters. We only had time for a few puffs on that first night when we clearly heard Kangy’s hooting owl. We stubbed our cigarettes out and made for the nearest exit. The front man came to an abrupt halt at the steps leading up to the surface. We all stumbled and went down like a pack of dominoes. “We can’t get out this way,” he whispered hoarsely. “I’m not dead sure, but from his silhouette it looks like Mr Benson standing guard at the top.”
We picked ourselves up in dismay, realising that there was no way past our athletic physical training instructor. I turned quickly and saw the diffused reflection of a torch beam on the roof coming from the other end of the shelters and blessed the fact that the slight curvature of the trenches we had inaccurately dug saved us from immediate discovery. We moved quickly and silently to the middle section exit and hurriedly removed the boards that we had the foresight to loosen previously. I ran up the steps to the surface. A hand shot out of the darkness and gripped my arm. A loud voice shouted in my ear. “Over here, Headmaster, I’ve got one of them.”
I could only make out a shadowy figure in the gloom. Placing the open palm of my hand on where I thought its face should be, I pushed suddenly and violently. Spectacles bent and cracked under my fingers and the shadow staggered backwards and fell. I took off into the night followed by the rest of the smoking club, our feet scarcely touching the ground. A thin high-pitched voice rang out behind us. “Headmaster – quick – quick. They’re coming out this way.” We recognised it as belonging to the Science Master, a myopic, dried up little man. We had all scattered before Mr Aspley reached him. Mr Benson at the other exit valiantly gave chase, but we easily left him behind. He might have been an expert in the gymnasium, but his muscle-bound legs were useless for running more than a few yards. Mr Aspley scrabbled around in the long grass for the Science Master’s shattered spectacles and led him back to the school buildings as he would a blind man.
Next morning at assembly, Mr Aspley paced up and down the rostrum literally frothing at the mouth as he waited for the hall to fill up. Even the teaching staff standing in a semi-circle behind him looked cowed and apprehensive. No one had ever seen him in such a state before and we all feared he might burst a blood vessel, his face was so purple. He demanded that those who had been smoking in the shelters last night, step forward immediately. He indicated in no uncertain terms that the person responsible for the cowardly attack on the Science Master would be summarily expelled. The others involved would only receive six strokes of the cane providing they revealed his identity. Heads turned this way and that in the deathly silence that followed. No one moved.
Mr Aspley crashed his fist down on the table in front of him with such force that several hymn books bounced off and papers wafted down to the floor. “Right – that’s it,” he raged. “All sports cancelled and the grounds are out of bounds until the culprits own up or someone tells me who they are.” He glared around the assembly hall for long seconds before stalking off to his office, completely ignoring the swelling murmur of indignation that followed him out of the door. We members of the smoking club studiously avoided each other’s eyes and I gave fervent thanks to our oath of secrecy for there were many creeps who would have been only too glad to shop us.
A gang of labourers arrived that afternoon and proceeded to fill in the air-raid shelters. The Headmaster’s decision to confine everyone to the school buildings so seriously disrupted the curriculum that he had to recant after a couple of days and remained a sour and embittered man despite achieving a measure of success in forcing us to consider the wisdom of disbanding the smoking club. We split up and sought out our own private bolt holes instead.
I selected a tree in the middle of a dense copse behind the school and was always careful not to carry more than one cigarette and match at a time. Besides being easily disposed of in the event of imminent discovery, I was determined not to contribute to the ample supply of confiscated cigarettes Mr Aspley kept in his office to offer around when visited by official dignitaries. I was up this tree the following Sunday afternoon when I caught a movement below out of the corner of my eye. Mr Aspley appeared, bending low as he skulked through the undergrowth. I stubbed my cigarette out and quickly stuffed it and the used match into a woodpecker hole above my head. I deliberately scuffled my feet to attract his attention and forestall any accusations about trying to remain hidden.
“Come down at once,” he called out. “So this is where you come for a smoke.” “No Sir,” I denied, feigning indignation. “I’m looking in a nest. I collect bird’s eggs.” I had rehearsed this story many times. It was the only plausible excuse I could think of for being up a tree. “A likely tale,” Mr Aspley scoffed. He ordered me to empty my pockets. Finding nothing to incriminate me, he started thrashing the long grass underfoot with a stick he carried. He walked round the base of the tree in ever widening circles. I saw him drop something from the hidden side of his body after making a few circuits. He continued round once more and suddenly stopped at the same spot. “Aha, what’s this?” he crowed triumphantly, bending down and picking up a spent matchstick. He pushed it under my nose. “I knew I would find proof if I looked long enough.” “It’s not mine, Sir. It’s brown and weathered. It must have been here for ages.” I dare not accuse him of dropping it as I suspected I had seen. “No doubt I’ll find your cigarette stub if I continue searching. However, this is good enough for me,” he said, ignoring my protest. “Report to my office after tea.” I received the maximum for that one. Six thwacks across my bum from his well-worn cane. All I got from my parents were incredulous looks when I complained to them about the way I had been set up, and the opinion that I probably deserved it anyway.
For a few weeks after, he started his second term, Kangy Gormley appeared to have resigned himself to staying on at school until he was eighteen. He would have been reasonably content, I thought, but for a series of events that severely weakened his new-found resolve. He developed a throbbing passion for Mrs Newton, our history teacher, a dark-haired woman in her mid-thirties with a figure like an hour glass. She had a peculiar quirk of nature that derived a perverse pleasure in assuming provocative postures and then glaring contemptuously and giving us a tongue-lashing when we exhibited normal red-blooded reactions. She had us stand over her while she sat at her desk to lecture us about some aspect of our work, then deliberately lean forward to reveal tantalising glimpses of her ample bosom down the low cut neck of her dress. We had learnt from experience not to prolong our lustful glances. But not poor old Kangy. He craned forward quite openly and stared brazenly down the valley between the rounded hills, his eyes protruding like golf balls.