Volume 3

Chapter 4

Two emerald-spotted doves cooed. His watch had stopped ticking. It had worked for years, been everywhere and yet in Africa it had broken; as they had told him all nice things did out here.

‘Would a baboon quit smoking?’ he mused to himself, pressing a gash in his finger against a cool whisky.
  They were sitting out by the stoep in the hot shade of a fig tree. They had been alone for a while now and often sat over sundowners as darkness came, quickly as it did out here. Hunched with a Peter blue and a whisky too, the old hand as usual cursed both which were killing him. ‘Enough’ he would say, going for another.

They had been hunting that day.

A northernly wind blew across Charles’ chest. The sun just above the miombo winced, still chilly before breakfast. Pivots of green wheat swayed in a golden haze, lauding heavenward as god-made clouds spread out over the gum and beyond the low green hills. The pick-up stalked along the grass as a leopard prowls and it did not take long to spot their quarry; a couple does sprang off, leaving a buck cut against the light, poised, listening as the sunn hemp rattled softly.

Putting down the binoculars, the old hand got out of the cab; at rest most of the time, he sharpened at once. Charles was never one for many words in these matters, no swagger, no anxious questions. He kept his nerves quiet. With a nod to the old hand, he jumped down from the truck, hitting the ground softly, feet and knees together. His fingers no longer stiff, he could feel the weight of the rifle; safety off, crick-crack, safety on and off they trod in tail, crouching across the scorched earth and tufts of burnt grass.
  A single bird popped up to screech alarm, dropping and rising twice or thrice as they slow-stepped past back-bent. How still life seemed under so vast a sky. ‘It’s a handsome young male’ the old hand turned to whisper, knowing it was Charles’ first. The head was indeed fine.
  The buck had not moved and they set for an ant hill ahead. Charles crawled up first and fixed the animal. Focused, he heard the avuncular tone at his back ‘you have plenty of time, make yourself comfortable.’ His heart was steady and his breathing slowed, he did not want too much time, only enough to lie still. Bringing his right thigh up, his left foot slipped. He broke off, wriggled a bit and shouldered the rifle again, then all was still.
  Looking up the animal was still staring back at them, still listening. Charles settled the crosshairs; deep breath in–just as his father had taught him with the air rifle against the old Surrey oak–half breath out, squeeze…
  The scene shook, his ears rang and his breath pushed out. In a second he settled the sight as the dust cleared; the animal stumbled back to its knees and suddenly Charles was up and off. Decided, he breeched and bolted another round and made for a near tree. Upright against it, he steadied himself. Crack! The animal dropped limp, life steaming out the second wound. Charles was off again and the old hand followed in a rush.

A thick blood drooled from its mouth. Charles looked for the two shots, no more than an inch apart, then grabbing the scruff, he disgorged the animal for good, making quick, forceful work with his Rodgers knife, which back home had mostly opened letters. Letting go, his hands warm and steaming, the head fell back to the dirt.
  Taking a moment alone, he dipped two fingers into its neck and blooded himself. Standing up, he felt the large horny hand on his shoulder. ‘Well done Charles, good shot.’   
  Distant, despondent, he posed for that photo. The old hand then helped him ruck the animal and they trudged back through the bush. Charles only half-heard the chatter congratulating him, breathing a little more. He had done it. The old hand had been by him, had helped him spot it even but he had shouldered the rifle, fixed the animal, taken the shot, cut its throat and smeared his cheeks with blood.

When the skinner later brought the liver and the testicles, a raw slice of each was set on a china saucer with the teacup filled with a tot of gin. Before breakfast–coffee, bacon, toast, scotch eggs, tree tomatoes, Fortnum’s mulberry jam, slices of paw paw, very cold champagne and cool beer, Mosi–the dirty water kind they all drank in these parts–Charles ate both with joking dignity and washed it down harshly. Then they ate and they laughed. Today was a good day on the farm, there would be no work.

Not moved from breakfast, they had watched as Friday, the impish gardener, older than his country and who had seen little change since, lodged the trophy in a tree by an ant colony at the end of the lawn. It stared out as if marking the frightening boundary of some gruesome tribe and the dashed column moved up and down, picking at the insides around the sockets, chomping matter off the bone.

‘Are you here to have fun or are you here to work?’ the old hand had asked Charles on his first night. ‘Work of course’ but, since, the old hand had occasionally asked ‘Are you having fun? Good, I want you to.’ He believed that between the ages of twenty and twenty-five young men should enjoy themselves as much as they wanted.

The two men often talked of such things with few words. The old hand thinking, would screw his eyes and grasp his fist, keeping silent whilst he did, holding one’s attention, staring into the middle distance. Having discerned his meaning and chosen his words, he would speak in short, sure sentences. It marked his former rank; to speak exactly. At interval, having made his point, he might then stare at Charles, nodding as he listened with a restive scowl wrought from a rough worn face.
  Then they would not talk. Silence often best filled the vast land which stared back taciturn. The gum’s caressing hush, enchanted with the song of recent memory, would toy with his hair as she had once skipping along with the sparse clouds, hand in hand.

That evening Charles thought about all the fun out here and all the work he had done and that, what he had vaguely known for a long time now, Africa was not for him. His life was back Home.
  He told the old hand this and thinking for a moment the old hand said ‘One day you will be like me Charles; you will have worn all the nice shirts and drunk all the fine wines you care to; read all the big books and smoked all the cigars you want; worked hard, thought all you care to think; you will have loved enough and ending up alone like me, you will long for a life out here. We’re no longer fit for England.’
  He paused again in one of his fixing silences ‘Stay for a couple more months, a year even, you will see and you will only be twenty-two and life will still be yours when you get back.’ And, when Charles said nothing, again like the twilight refusing night, he ended with a smile “You remind me of my younger brother, so quick-tempered and proud. As our mother used to tell us both ‘youth is beauty’. So go off then. You don’t need to say any more, I think I understand and anyway it is the most tiresome thing for a young man to have to explain himself.
  I am now going to be patronising but don’t marry young and, if I can’t work you, I think a short commission in the Life Guards would do you much good. But above all, do not listen to me for advice.”
  Charles could not really explain the longing to himself and stared long at those words as they danced in the violent colours of dusk.

Having dogged their masters from the gate, coming home; the pride of ridgebacks lay about the lawn, one happily at their feet. Knowing nothing of the pain of Men and the troubles of these last few months, what bothered him? The heat? The shade? The flies?

When night set, Charles left the old hand in a snore and rode off to lock the estate. Like every night that winter, every winter, distant wildfires flamed across the hills, answering it seemed the eternal embers of the plantation which the guards made to and from on patrol, calling out ‘good evening, sah’ ‘evening boss’ or usually from the older men ‘bwana’; some saluting as he came past.
  At first they had been a curious sight; a platoon of yellow overalls and red berets with brown belts, every evening paraded with floppy marching for a changing of the guard.
  They had been drilled by the new head of security, a dishonourably discharged corporal who had lied about being in the Zambian special forces. One of the highest paid men on the farm, prone to long-worded speeches which sweat low-mindedly from his thick neck, he had, without any experience, found himself in this position of authority which he wielded ruthlessly to prove his worth, beasting his small force into personal obedience like the small African tyrant who was his namesake.
  The old hand had not interfered and Charles had learnt best not to either. He usual dealt with security out in the open, between his office and the yard and only once had been inside the poky guard’s hut, finding handcuffs and truncheons hanging on the wall.
  Theft had mostly stopped. Now if anyone wanted to steal they had to bribe a guard first, who, by means left to this tyrant and the local police, would be found out. It was best to keep it all at arms-length then the village would accept it, happy to have their own justice done. The culprit was given a couple days off to recover and came back demoted to some other job.
  Thus honesty and discipline had been drilled into the cohort and eased into this way of things, slowing down, sometimes stopping to answer, Charles had taken to saluting back.

Speeding off again, his mind whirred with the bike. He was a rider operating a machine and his limbs moved with practised ease. His world just a headlight and a couple stars held in the spindly outcrop of the jungle. Coursing away from the banana trees, the cut out fleeting leaves seemed to hide eerie bodies, someone deeper in the darkness, someone behind his back. He felt his skin crawl in the chilling sough, finding comfort only in the warmth of the engine between his legs.

  Drawn with tight thrill, every night he had pushed faster and faster, thrown himself harder into the bends and swerves just to feel a bit more; every time stopping just short of throwing himself too far, too fast and slowing down, would switch off the engine to hear the night’s rush.

Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020