Page 1 of 1
Posted: Tue Nov 01, 2011 2:43 pm
It was reported in the London Telegraph, of all places, and went by, apparently, completely unnoticed. A single telegram:
AS FOR THE RECENT DISCOVERIES IN COLONIAL AFRICA, WE WOULD LIKE TO REPORT OUR ENTHUSIASM ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF ARCHEOLOGICAL WORKS IN THE DEVIL’S PUNCHBOWL IN NORTHERN RHODESIA. SEVERAL NEW SPECIES FOUND, UNKNOWN TO HUMANITY BEFORE NOW; SAURIAN REPTILE, FLIGHTED, POSSIBLE CRETACEOUS ORIGIN. SYNAPOMORPHOGICALLY SPEAKING, WE ARE DELVING INTO UNKNOWN TERRITORY!
Blasted hounds! Iain Marquis-Stokes ("I.M.S." as he signs his paperwork) shouted at the Tory rag. Last thing they want is for the Germans to know about that. Confounded spies, they pass through our borders with consummate ease and stick a priggish finger in the air at lacklustre African border control. From Dar-es-Salaam one could easily book a taxi through (harsh wasteland, let us be fair) to the centre of Salisbury itself. They say the British services, operating from some godforsaken place in the Med, Crete most likely, had restricted German travel all throughout East Africa, and only the jungle stayed the Jungle. ‘Here be Dragons’ I.M.S. often saw written humorously upon various territorial (and confidential) maps. He chuckled, momentarily, at just how bloody right they were.
Now all and sundry knew about the blasted things. The Belgians would send out a fleet from Leopoldville, the turncoat Italians would make a beeline for it, and the Germans would probably airdrop Himmler himself to have a gander. Of all places; the London fucking Telegraph!
It was time to dust off the phone. Iain’s desk was a frightful mess. Strata of ageing detritus had formed; from the bottom a foundation of pencil shavings, eraser residue, flecks of cigarette ash, rings of coffee etched like spastic Olympic symbols, a selection of red rubber-bands, withered and crispy from age and exposure to dry humidity, a shilling, helplessly lost and stuck to the worn lacquer of the table by forces unknown—probably a rogue drip of honey that had agglutinated poor George’s embossed face to the stripped wood, where it would hold fast until the desk itself was scrapped and the wood shredded to insulate housing in Russia—a single corner of some forgotten and either destroyed or archived hand-written document that had also fallen prey to the sticky glutinous blob of honey so carelessly dribbled from Iain’s toast over a year previously, rusting paperclips, some wires that were initially intended to repair the ceiling bulb, so that the switch would bring the bearer of flicking it some light more than the horrid Victorian standard lamp ushered in by a fresh-faced student lackey from the Archaeological Society of Egypt ("Ace") when Iain was first stationed in this abandoned corner of the earth, and the ink from a snapped fountain pen—a Parker no less. Above this bedrock of man-made sediment, lay the first layer of forgotten and yellowing papers. A mishmash of newspaper cuttings from a more optimistic age (Iain planned to scrapbook the whole lot, but he found that there was no glue nor tape forthcoming, and decided to let the papers fester on the desk where they would be covered by equally important, but most importantly more recent paper, and forgotten), all archeologically-based, for the world was in love with finding more about herself over the last century, thus making Iain a most-sought historian on pre-human remains and fossilised lumps that were to be taxed accordingly, and sent to museums around the world, particularly the British Museum, who would pay a fine price to hire various petrified animal remains, several news clippings about the Concern Raised by the outrageous movements of Herr Hitler, some six years previously, which Iain had collected whilst in Egypt—the papers always came two weeks after publication date, which was quite impressive as it had taken Iain himself seven weeks to travel from Southampton docks to Cairo—as he knew, as well as the rest of the non-Yank world, that war was coming, and the touchpaper was Poland, who were apparently friends with all of Europe bar Germany and the former Ottoman territories, for reasons Iain did not know why (what have we ever done with the Poles? He occasionally thought, prior to war breaking out), and the binary subjects had interleaved over several months of weightier stuff being constantly slumped and cajoled on top of them. On top of that, a newer, fresher layer of papers, which had borne the brunt of many a spilt cup of tea, coffee, Coca-Cola (when it could be obtained), and banana-milk. Some of this congealed, thickened liquid had seeped through and disfigured the text and occasional rotogravure photography of the Nazi/archaeological news-cuttings below it, smudging the snippets of reported history, but no matter: they would be scrapped soon, by a well-meaning House Boy named Mwoko who, feeling that Iain should not return any time soon, would proceed to tip all remaining paper on his desk into a sack where it was used for kindling to heat the servant’s shack. The content of these liquid-scarred papers was as irrelevant as they were illegible; hand-written notes from higher-echelons of Ace congratulating Iain upon his first successful find in the face of uncertain danger in discovering an abandoned village alluded to in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, various work orders and tax forms, expenses payments that were never filed, not that Iain was too rich to care for such pleasantry reimbursements, it’s just that, despite his job to be meticulous, he was such a lazy prig and found that covering things with other things to be the best form of housekeeping, and, as such, housekept regularly and consistently until such point as his desk could no longer sustain the balance of paper and other trash that would be dangerously tilting, despite the restorative force of the creaking fan which was constantly on keeping a kind of balanced karma, ordering the piles of garbage to stay upright, where they would keep some mode of chronological sedimentary order, weighted down by hemispherical orbs of glass with flattened bottoms, etched and inscribed with various Latin phrases that Iain, despite dealing with nominative Latin on a daily basis, never actually bothered to translate. Pro Sempa Ignorius Something Or Other was about as far as he got; the paper-weights served their function: maintain equilibrium among his carelessly filed notes, and as such never needed any further attention. As robots go, they were the most efficient, when joining forces with the desk-fan to maintain absolute universal order. Above the layer of useless notes telling him just how archaeologically tenured he really was, just like a Real Archaeologist, giving him delusions of being revered as a swashbuckling Exotic Adventurer, most likely wearing a khaki pith helmet, armed to the teeth with elephant guns and dynamite, and possibly a bullwhip—no, no, an Aussie slouch hat. They were all the rage, and made you look more of a Hollywood swashbuckler than an Errol Flynn Robin Hood—there lay another pile of papers, of which were far more important, being that they were current, and thus marked diligently with red pen DO NOT THROW AWAY over each top-right-hand corner, and these were the order papers for an exciting new archaeological dig somewhere north of Salisbury, discovered by cartographers who had taken the Aught-Five train (named such as it was completed in 1905) to Lusaka, disembarking several hundred miles beforehand at Karoi and then ventured East into what the natives called Mzarabani, an exciting wilderness.
And now someone stating themselves to be Corporal H. Smyth had blown the whole operation wide open with some bare-faced letter to the London fucking Telegraph! Iain had been staring absentmindedly into his remarkable filthy environment of a desk that he forgot why he was examining something that he rarely if ever examines in the first place, scrabbling for a pen notwithstanding. Of course, the telephone. It was still wired up, and quite a dearth of wire there was too, coiled like a burnt mamba, only there was more than fifty yards of the blasted stuff. Iain brushed aside what little space there was left, dislodging an ashtray that contained close to three-hundred stubs of rolled Golden Virginia tobacco: ever since he trod on his pipe and snapped the stem, no replacement pipe had been forthcoming, and Iain had been forced to smoke filthy brown roll-ups, using small amounts of cotton wrapped in card as a filter. Occasionally, these caught fire as he stubbed the cancerous things out, causing him to reflexively blow on it, scattering ash across the papers and floor. A cursory hand-wave to dust the flecks off the white papers would almost certainly smudge a pencil-grey cloud across the clean paper, and Iain would curse and stomp and blast this and that, and then curse and stomp and holler again when he saw the smudge had extended all across the side of his brushing hand, causing him to, once again, reflexively rub the offending smudge on the thigh of his trousers, causing the ash residue to transfer to the clean material.
Iain picked up the telephone, and dialled thirty-three. The pips juddered in the far distance.
"Salisbury exchange" a clipped voice barked into his unready ear."
"Yes. Ahoy-hoy. Could you transfer me to London."
"I’m sorry sir, but the connection has been dead for over a week. The exchange was bombed sir and we’ve had no word as to when it will be restored."
"A week? I cannot believe it would take more than a few hours to restore the wires"
"We’ve been dealing with telegraphs, mainly, as the Shropshire line appears to be open, but I cannot relay you to them as it’s emergency only. Is your call an emergency?"
"I dare say so. I need to get hold of the Telegraph editors, or anyone on Fleet Street if it matters."
"If this is a press concern, sir, I’m afraid the best we can do is transfer you to the consulate in Johannesburg."
"Well what bloody good would that do?" Iain snapped.
"I’ll transfer you over," she replied curtly and before he could react there was a hiss as she popped out the cable in whatever primitive machinery they had up in there and there was a crackle as it connected again. A gruff voice responded over a gravelly line.
Iain sighed, and explained to the telephone that he was trying to reach Fleet Street, and was greeted with a strange combination of animosity and bemusement. He explained that he was supposed to have been put through to Johannesburg, and not Livingstone, but he would rather talk to London directly, as—and he made this absolutely clear—London operators are competent enough to direct your call without too much fuss and aggravation. He was irritably informed that communications with London have been under strong disruption for several months, but if he waited they could transfer him through to the Telegraph offices in Manchester, and soon, after several routings, he was on the line to a thickly accented receptionist at Kemsley House, who belched at him in a strange mixture of Liverpudlian dockyarder, Irish tinker, and Mancunian brogue.
"Would you be so kind as to put me through to the letters editor, miss," he said, diplomatically.
"Sorry Sir, but Mr. Epstein is unavailable"
"It's a matter of vital urgency," Iain said, composure starting to crack, "when will he be back?"
"I'm unsure, sir. Is there anything else I can help you with."
"Yes, you can stay on the line until Mr. Epstein returns. Then you can ask him who the devil wrote highly confidential information in a letter, which he chose to publish, seemingly unedited and uncensored, when there are Jerry spies all around, and why no-one at your establishment had the good sense to realise that this kind of thing is exactly how we're going to lose this bloody war, and I'm sure they're poring over their copies of the London Telegraph in some bunker in Berlin right now wondering just how obvious we've made this truth and perhaps it's just a red-herring as the Brits wouldn't be so bloomin' stupid to ever release confidential information like that in a national, nay, international newspaper!"
There was a brief pause, in which Iain heard some calculated breathing and he fiddled with a rudimentary pencil-sharpener in anticipation. After a short hiatus of conversation, the receptionist piped up:
"I don't care for your tone, sir, but we are very busy here. If you like I could simply place the phone down and you can wait on the other end of the line until Mr. Epstein returns. I'm sure he has a very important meeting he is attending right now, and-- Oh, he's just coming in now. I will see if he's available to talk…"
Iain heard her call over to the recently-introduced Mr. Epstein and there was a fraught exchange of words. Apparently the rain in Manchester was "a nightmare" and, to Mr. Epstein's chagrin, a hole had developed not only in the roof of the umbrella, but also the sole in his shoe--which was Italian nonetheless--and as a result he is both soaked from the top of his head to the sole of his left foot, and by golly he's angry. There was a crackling-thumping-rustling (in that order) as the receiver was placed carelessly upon the receptionist's reception desk, and then another discharge of static and noise as the hand of Mr. Epstein grabbed the phone.
"Epstein." Mr. Epstein said.
"Speaking." Mr. Epstein said.
"Are you the letters editor?"
"Yes." Mr. Epstein said.
"Good." After many hours and several thousand miles of underground cables later, he finally managed to get through to the very man he wished to speak to. "I wish to speak to you as a matter of utmost urgency."
"I have little time." Mr. Epstein said.
"Then I shall be quick."
"Go ahead." Mr. Epstein said.
"On the second of June, you published a letter from a gentleman, Corporal H. Smyth, mentioning--and I wish not to speak so openly over such easily-intercepted communications--about a certain discovery."
"Oh?" Mr. Epstein said.
"Yes. 'Oh'. Now, this… discovery… was made recently and well, now the cat's been let out of the bag, it seems every bally villain and his dog will be on the trail of this, uh, discovery."
There was a long and drawn-out sigh at the end of the telephone. A sigh that said to stop wasting my time. A sigh that said I have more important things to do. A sigh that said who is this crack-pot and why did I agree to take this telephone call? "I can't for the life of me work out what you're getting at, old boy," Mr. Epstein said. Before Iain could interject, Mr. Epstein spoke again. "We get many letters, numbering in the thousands, Mr…?"
"Iain," Iain said.
"Iain," Mr. Epstein said. "What with the picture-houses only running 'til three and the restriction on greyhound racing, people have precious little to do for entertainment, and so the lost art of letter-writing has somewhat experienced a renaissance these past few years. As such, I am full-time sorting through the literal piles of letters and telegrams I receive on an hourly basis. If there's one thing we can do more efficiently than the Jerries, it's ensure letters of complaint and diatribe reach their intended target with utmost accuracy and proficiency."
Iain moved to speak, but the authoritative Mr. Epstein (who, it transpires, was rather a diminutive man, an apostate Jew, and would wear a bowler hat to hide his spreading bald patch--once preserved meticulously under a Yarmulke, but now, thanks to his public apostasy and excommunication from the community in London's Golders Green, had no reason to wear one) interrupted the haughty gentleman calling from Rhodesia.
"Mr. Iain, I know exactly what you are about to say," Mr. Epstein said, "so I will save you the bother of saying it. The letter you speak of, the one with a certain discovery, would almost certainly be found out should this line have been intercepted by the enemy, and the information that you have passed on thus far, concerning a Major Smith--"
"Corporal H. Smyth"
"Corporal H. Smyth" Mr. Epstein said, "would already be currently assessed at this very moment by whichever agency that has been chosen to intercept lines coming into, or going out of, Kemsley House. In fact, it would take the most rudimentary of detectives to simply search the archives for a copy of the second of June, skip to the letters page, and seek out a by-line with the name H. Smith (corporal) in it. So let us save our potential eavesdroppers the hassle of finding a copy of the newspaper, and simply drop the paranoia and tell me what the devil it is you mean."
"Fine," Iain relented. "The letter was concerning the possible existence of dragons after a discovery of an unknown species of sauropod in Northern Rhodesia."
"Please tell me you are joking," Mr. Epstein said.
"I am not."
"We thought it was not serious," Mr. Epstein said.
"Please do not waste my time," Mr. Epstein said.
"I am not."
"Then please enlighten me," Mr. Epstein said, "how is this a matter of national urgency? You realise that it is now the fourteenth of June. Between the second of June and the fourteenth of June, some very important happenings have been going on. Everyone has been talking about them. I feel something this minor would have been lost in the hubbub. I presume you know what I mean?"
"I do not. It takes nearly a fortnight for the papers to reach this corner of the world, and I have not had use for my radio in three years."
"All right," Mr. Epstein said. "When you finally get around to reading the newspaper dated the seventh of June, you will understand. We've had a bit of a turnaround on the war-front. Too early to say if it's been a success yet."
"I'm not interested in that. I just need to know who this Smyth character is. Do you recall the letter?"
"I do, now," Mr. Epstein said. "We had quite the chuckle about it. You may have noticed we post the light-hearted and bizarre communiqués in the bottom-right of the letters page. There's quite a bit of competition for the prized place. Why, only yesterday we had a suggestion from a Mrs. Sopkinson of Tunbridge Wells requesting that the British Navy build a balsawood model of the British Isles on a scale of one-to-one, and float it into the Atlantic Ocean, so the Luftwaffe would be somehow confused or distracted, and bomb that instead of our ports and cities. The other week we had an elderly gentleman call in and suggest we feed pigeons cement, fly them over Berlin, and as the cement hardens into concrete, they become mobile flying bombs, with which we can terrorise the German peoples."
Mr. Epstein laughed at himself. Iain sat stony-faced, clearly unamused. The mid-morning African heat was dry and Iain idly picked dried, flaky mucus from the rim of his nostrils. Mr. Epstein cleared his throat. The line was beginning to crackle.
"I have a facsimile of the telegram in our 'artoo-ay'," Mr. Epstein said. "That is, our 'Ready To Archive' filing cabinet. If you are quite serious about this, I can tell you the name and address of Corporal Smyth."
"Very well," Mr. Epstein said. His voice muffled as he spoke to the secretary. "Lena, be a dear and find letters in the folder dated second of June, s'il-vous plait."
There was a scuffling, and the sound of footsteps trotting up an iron staircase. Iain fanned himself with the offending newspaper in question.
"Here you are," Mr. Epstein said. "Telegram sent from the Hampstead Post Office, dated first of June, nineteen-forty-four, stamped for press-printing second of June, nineteen-forty-four, from a Corporal H. Smith of sixty-six Loudoun Road, St Johns Wood, London."
Iain slammed down the telephone receiver, and the ageing cradle cracked.
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Tue Nov 01, 2011 7:06 pm
Dragons! This is excellent, I hope you keep going. Also this was my favourite line of the whole thing:
The other week we had an elderly gentleman call in and suggest we feed pigeons cement, fly them over Berlin, and as the cement hardens into concrete, they become mobile flying bombs, with which we can terrorise the German peoples.
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Wed Nov 02, 2011 12:05 am
Felstaff may hate ampersands, but he's still a champignon writer.
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Wed Nov 02, 2011 1:10 am
Needs more line breaks!
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Thu Nov 03, 2011 10:28 pm
Also needs more writing. I am enjoying this.
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Tue Nov 08, 2011 4:25 pm
The next Day, Iain, via a routing station located in relatively-untouched Cork, managed to get put through to sixty-eight Loudoun Road. Sixty-six did not have a telephone, and sixty-four had been destroyed after a direct hit in 1942. Iain pictured the scene; rows of Victorian townhouses, hardly fireproofed, and one large crater in the row, like a haggard old woman with a missing front tooth. Surprising (to Iain at least), he was put through to a child, Eleanor, but her parents called her Elsie, barely six years old. He asked her why she wasn't evacuated and she said her parents thought the elderly gentleman who agreed to take her in was a "bad man" who "probably was going to hurt her", so they sent for her, and she had been living back in London since the summer of 1943. Her parents were not at home, what with her mother working at the local furnishing store ("Brandlings & Sons") and her father was a postmaster who worked long hours. He asked her about her next door neighbour, Mr. Smyth, and, through her simplistic dialogue, gathered that he was a veteran of the Great War, and had a lot of maps of countries of the world in his front room, but he never spoke to anybody. In fact, no-one ever saw him leave the house. He was a recluse who kept his garden well-tended, but left the front of the house to rot, with several missing windows, carelessly boarded-up, and an unclaimed emptied milk-bottle had been left on the doorstep for some months, resulting in collected mildew that painted deep spinach-green fuzz at the base of the glass. Picked up, surely a perfectly circular mark of collected and calcified residue would be indelibly printed upon the stoned step.
Iain convinced the young Eleanor to speak to her mummy once her mummy had returned, and she would be expecting a call from him later that evening, after seven because they must have tea first, and before eight as that was Eleanor's bed-time, even though sometimes her parents let her stay up late and listen to Tommy Handley on the wireless, as he was very funny and talked fast and had a strange accent but mummy and daddy both laughed at him even though she didn't understand the jokes sometimes but he was silly so it was fun. Goodbye, Elsie, Iain said.
He rang back at seven o'clock, Greenwich Mean Time, and was answered by a gruff, working-class voice, swiftly established as Elsie's father Ronald, the postmaster. Iain explained to the somewhat irate gentleman that he was calling from deepest Africa, and the time was very similar, and that he wished to know more about their veteran neighbour, Corporal Smyth. "A weird old coot", Ronald the postmaster had informed him. Iain agreed, and this interchange bonded the two men, separated by five-thousand, one-hundred and twenty-nine miles. Indeed, it seemed quite odd for one to retain one's rank in civilian life when it was as low as corporal. Had he been a Major, that would have been a far different story, as Majors have a tendency to be boorish brutes with bristling handle-bar moustaches and booming voices. A corporal, being one of the lowest ranks of the RAF, one simple hop up from aircraftman, which is what they call the lads who clean the officers' mess, would more likely be frowned upon or mocked, rather than respected, by the townies and the unwashed who wanted nothing to do with military life. Ronald assured him he didn't seem very pilot-like. Indeed he could well be a Royal Marine or an army chap, at which point a corporal would be an even lower ranking. What was clear was that Corporal Smyth had continued a military lifestyle for several years post-war, and had never risen above the rank he so proudly brandished in public, including public correspondence to the London Telegraph. Iain was sure that spending his time learning knots and morals during a short tenure in the Sea Scouts during his brief teenage life in Norfolk would have automatically entitled him to the rank of corporal, before he'd even stepped through the door at Sandhurst, which is where he presumed they were trained. The Royal Family trained there, so perhaps it would be Chelsea Barracks instead. No, that can't be--Chelsea Barracks, along with the lawns of Buckingham Palace and St. James' Park, had been transformed into row after row of allotments. Potatoes, broccoli and sprouts were ending the season now, and young Elsie hated all three, cheeky monkey.
Ronald's tone was softening, and Iain felt he had made quite the connection, as if the two were sharing a pint and discussing whether London Irish were in with a shot this year, since they haven't reached the peaks of the early thirties, when old 'Cags' Cagney was scoring what seemed like a try every six minutes of play. Iain didn't suppose he could knock on the old vet's front door and get him to come over and have a chinwag, if he didn't mind awfully? Ronald sighed, there was a short silence of disdain, but the bond created was strong enough to bridge it, and Ronald "supposed he could".
The receiver left dangling--Iain could hear the metronomical swoosh of air with each pendulous swing--soon there was a distant knocking noise, as Ronald tak-tak-takked on the wooden door of Corporal Smyth. Iain could hear mumbling, quite a bit of it actually, and then finally a tone of agreement was picked up by the receiver. Footsteps ensued, followed by the smashing of glass, most likely the abandoned milk-bottle on the doorstep, and a swift "damn and blast" punctuated the air after that, before the noisy rustle of a hand grabbing the telephone wire, and the thrust of the ear-piece against the side of the head.
"Smyth," the voice barked. It was aged, experienced, and on the threshold of elderly. Assuming Corporal Smyth had joined the Great War in his early twenties, or possibly late teens, it would put him at somewhere over forty, but less than fifty. He sounded over fifty. He sounded far more authoritative than a Corporal.
"Am I speaking to the Corporal H. Smyth who recently wrote a letter to the Telegraph?"
"Right. Right. May I ask you a personal question?"
"You may, but I may not answer it."
"Where did you find out about the recent, uh, archaeological discovery in Africa?"
"I will not disclose my sources over a compromised line," Corporal Smyth said, abruptly
"Yet you freely exposed the knowledge in a national newspaper."
"I have my reasons."
"Why? So the Nazis can get there first? Because that's what you've done, you old bastard!"
"You, sir, are an imbecile," Corporal Smyth snapped. "And most likely an amateur treasure hunter in some back-woods African shit-hole looking to claim some treasure for personal glory. My reasons for publishing such a missive are entirely necessary and, like I said, absolutely none of your business."
There was a click, and Iain was disconnected from number sixty-eight Loudoun road, leaving him alone wondering what was happening some five-thousand miles away where an old war veteran was now in a house with a bemused postmaster with whom he had not communicated with for goodness knows how many years. He imagined the scene as quite uncomfortable.
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Tue Nov 08, 2011 4:25 pm
Iain, goodness knows how much he hated that name, thoughtfully chewed on a banana. How often he had stared at the stories in wide-eyed bewilderment as the Morning Post lamented the lack of colourful fruit, and people were surviving on a nub of cheese alone, and the biggest business in the country were ration cook-books, where you made Sunday roasts with half an egg-yolk, three teaspoons of milk, a cube of beef, and as many turnips as you could wrench from your neighbour's back garden. Here in the wilderness, the banana's ubiquity contributed to its blandness. Iain was prone to sparking his gag reflex when the yellow flesh was too hard, soft, or not the exact consistency as he was expecting. Each mastication became slower, more drawn out, and more pensive. Iain had no idea of how long he was staring blankly out the window to a small outhouse and beyond that, several hundred miles of pure Savannah idyll, but that didn't matter, because after six minutes and forty-two seconds of complete blankness, he got to his feet, grabbed the topmost set of blueprints, and scrambled to his bicycle. Within minutes he was cycling home, where he was greeted by his boy and manservant, who were playing dice out front. Mwoko immediately stood to attention, despite Iain's constant pleas not to emphasise this silly master/servant business, and Iain resorted to his usual cry of 'at ease, soldier' in an American accent, like they do in the propaganda talkies that Iain used to watch after work in Soho.
"You home early today, Bwana Stokes," Mwoko said, respectfully. "I not cooled lemonade, and there no been shipment of gin to village."
Iain stopped in his tracks at the lack of gin. Realising this was not Mwoko's fault, he couldn't help feel anger, and tried not to direct it at the well-meaning house boy.
"Never mind that", Iain said in passable Swahili, a code signifying that Mwoko can stop attempting to speak English, as it was always so horribly broken. "I need help packing."
"Packing? But where are you heading to?" Mwoko asked, in highly-cultivated Swahili.
"We need to leave. You and me. Tonight, if possible. Help me with my things."
Mwoko trailed into the house. The manservant, Tele, was mainly there to tend the garden. Iain never liked him, although he always felt an affinity with Mwoko. Tele felt dismissed from his post, packed up the dice, and wandered off home.
Mwoko was not allowed in Iain's room without direct permission, and this had created some sort of invisible barrier where he would stand on the threshold and not move an inch. Iain flicked his hand irritably, urging him to come in.
"Listen," Iain said, "we might be gone awhile. It's alright because work doesn't need me to report in for several more weeks, so we're free to go where we choose. Help me sort through this trunk."
Iain opened up the heavy lid of what was really just an oversized battered ottoman, full of Iain's junk, collected over the years, and in a similar state to his office bureau.
Inside, the trunk was a mire of personal effects, letters, trinkets, buttons, unfinished thoughts and unpacked belongings that once held some significance, and possibly may do in the future, and were transported under the notion that yes, they would be needed for Iain's work, so their inclusion in Iain's transfer to Rhodesia were imperative, even though their immediate purpose were not apparent. The brown paper wrapping the various papers was dusty, and had collected, amongst other treasures, entwined cobweb, small black nuggets that may or may not be cockroach eggs, various tea stains that had created an adhesive for environmental motes, and several multicoloured pen scribbles, when no other note-paper was at hand. The jottings were meaningless. Simple arithmetic, a telephone number ("Sidmouth 0-163") which reminded Iain that he had left a jacket at a dry-cleaning place in South Devon, an expensive jacket, too. It also reminded Iain that he had not seen his cherished, coveted Parker fountain pen for some time, and that he hoped he had brought it with him to Africa, as the landlord of his abode in Pimlico would in no doubt have stolen it or, due to his pig-ignorance, discarded the treasure as he did with each spring clean.
Mwoko remarked, in one of the first instances in which Iain had heard outright disdain from his usual polite manner, that Iain himself was not a great organiser. There wasn't a Swahili word for 'scatterbrained', and Mwoko did not know the English term, so Iain let him mumble on in idle talk as he tried to describe the word, fastidiously using the term 'unorganised', as that implied Iain's work, as a professional archaeologist and highly esteemed amongst his peers (and Mwoko himself, despite being completely uneducated, and academically and scientifically ignorant, belying his immense logical intelligence), was somehow in disrepute. Iain did not feel offended, merely flattered, by Mwoko's unreserved outspokenness. There was a small bite of shame that he had never, in his entire life, even washed a dinner plate.
"Have you ever been married, Bwana Stokes?" Mwoko asked. This level of personal questioning was beyond anything Mwoko had ever asked before. Primarily, it felt like an invasion of privacy. You've barely known me three years, Iain thought to himself, and then realised that, by gosh, three years was an awfully long time, particularly when you spend a good forty percent of your waking day in the presence of someone who is so unlike you, so culturally mutually exclusive, so cultivated in such radically opposite ways, that it dawned on him that, despite the linguistic and social barriers that were imposed upon the two characters, he and Mwoko were, in fact, best friends. Iain's only friend, it transpired. Iain did not know whether to feel depressed or elated, so he merely answered the question.
"Yes. Once." Iain said. Never had such personal exploration and information been imparted upon Mwoko so freely! Iain suddenly felt as though he were suffering an epiphany, and let the well-tended restricted access between tongue and conscience break loose. "However, it was a bit of a mistake, really. We met at sixteen. She was from Oxford. Went on to study at LSE, of all places--did her masters there, too, unusually--and I ended up with a third from Edinburgh."
Mwoko nodded, as if he understood. Iain could see in his eyes everything Mwoko had learned about the British Isles, (in that he had seen some pictures, and Iain had often complained, usually after several decants from his prized bottle of Whyte & Mackay's Fettercairn single malt (he would drink no other, despite there being higher quality Scottish imports) about the state of the transport system, the delinquency of youth, the ugliness of people in the monotone uniform greys and browns suburbs of the cities, and the corruption of the police) that no matter what locale you would select, the picture he formed behind those huge deep-brown eyes of his was one of picturesque nature. Rolling hills, woods with aged trees and bracken, misty, mysteriously brooding grey skies, constant rain, wet leaves on muddy tracks… A mere utterance of England and Mwoko could almost smell the brackish water, the vegetation, the freedom he believed the island to be like. More often than not, Iain would be dismissive, saying "you have no idea of what it's really like", emphasising the 'really' with the wisdom of a sage in front of an unenlightened ignoramus. Mwoko would try to urge him to be descriptive. He loved his own imagination, and would have been somewhat of an artist, had the materials been available to him, and the societal contempt that an indigenous savage could possibly emulate the majestic Romanticism of Constable, Friedrich, or Turner did not exist. It never even occurred to Iain to simply buy a paintbrush and easel, and then leave it in Mwoko's quarters. Suddenly, he desired to see what Mwoko was capable of.
"We got married in a hurry. Her parents didn't like the idea. Wanted nothing to do with me," Iain reminisced, suddenly lost in his own memory, and rambling as if recording a dictation. Mwoko's existence in the room, sorting through the box, was suddenly irrelevant. He had been the catalyst, the key to unlock Iain's sudden desire to impart his secret history, transcending the massive plane from 'secrecy' to 'privacy'. It was out in the open, now. Mwoko, for his part, did not question this alteration in behaviour, merely assuming (quite correctly) that his master had simply let a dam burst and all pent-up emotion that he had been stoically building up over the past three years (in fact, unbeknownst to Mwoko, for significantly longer than that--émigrés with no ties to the colony do not leave the safety and sanctity of England's greenest hills and dark, Satanic mills unless they are running away from something not of the physical world, but of the psychological universe inside their own heads).
Mwoko listened intently at the disruption caused by Iain's in-laws, apparently a common theme in Western marriages, to the point where it is mocked in ribald comedy, and absorbed every word. Gossip is the great leveller, and the complex matrices of human interactions is simply flattened by information pertaining to intriguing relationships, as, no matter how geographically distant once society is from another, or how radical the tenets inherent in each one, if, indeed such tenets are inherent, people are essentially the same, in relation to how they communicate with others.
"In short," Iain mused, "she couldn't handle the pressure from her parents, and would wildly swing in mood. I guess I didn't show enough courage to keep it together. Hold on to this, it has my passport in it. Slightly battered, but legible. I don't think any border control on this entire continent has even looked at it. Anyway, we stopped speaking, I guess. Couldn't ask for a divorce; it had only been a few months."
Mwoko, feeling empowered by these intimate revelations, dared to press the issue of Iain's personal history, one he had never dared ask before, primarily because he had no prior knowledge of Iain's pre-Africa existence, bar several anecdotes recounting various annoyances from "the homestead". Indeed he knew relatively little about Iain's Rhodesian incarnation, the pair having never shared anything more than casual observations, and professional intercommunication, regarding such trivialities as what constitutes the essence of archaeology, where should the houseplants be moved to ensure maximum light exposure and composition, and what could possibly be wrong with Iain's prized Oldsmobile Viking, imported from America via Suez, during the quiet months at the start of the war. "Did you love her?"
The question seemed too much, and Iain pressed on sorting through the jumble in silence. Mwoko did not understand why the sudden reversion to the cold shoulder--relations had always been warm and amicable, despite Iain's regular and inflammatory moods, which were often directed at inanimate objects such as crockery, pens, and the indestructible typewriter that Iain angrily stamped his reports up with. Mwoko was the only one who knew how to change the ink ribbon, but they had been in short supply, having needed to be imported, and consequently were rarer than gold dust. With each passing week, the type on the paper became faded, to the point where the letters were punched so hard by Iain's fast-callousing index fingers--he never learned to touch-type--that the text ceased to be printed, but bevelled upon the paper. Had Iain's employers been blind, it would have provided ample indentation into the paper to be interpreted by touch alone.
Mwoko, sensing the sudden shift in atmosphere, swiftly changed the subject, and changed to English, asking slowly "will you be needing the typewriter?"
"If it can fit in the car," Iain said. "Oh damned hounds, I haven't checked the petrol. There's a Shell station in Macheke. I hope we can make it that far. We should probably travel light, and only by night. Reliable as the lady Viking is, I don't think we can risk her overheating in this damned heat."
Mwoko, knowing far more about car maintenance than his master, could only agree with the sentiment. Perhaps next time Iain chooses to elaborate upon his lost amour, and life before Rhodesia, he would resist the temptation to ask questions or steer the debate, lest Iain close up again, like he just demonstrated, and Mwoko would have his curiosity sated, rather than infuriatingly piqued, with no denouement again. Perhaps one day Iain might even gather up the concern to enquire about Mwoko's colourful life, which he so wished to share.
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Tue Nov 08, 2011 4:28 pm
"Damn and blast and shit." Iain kicked the heavy treads of his Oldsmobile's tyres. "There's not enough petrol to get us as far as Bromley, for goodness' sakes."
Mwoko remained silent and unmoved. He had spent many an hour traipsing back and forth from the refinery, bucket of petrol in tow. Iain loved driving; it was almost a vice for him. Mwoko never asked to drive the hulking, lumbering beast around, and knew that Iain would never allow it. There was this time, long before the reliable Viking, when Iain has a 1930 blazing red Buick Marquette. Salvaged from the graveyard of the scrapheap by a drunken Colonial Boer-war veteran called Captain Hardcastle, who had unceremoniously crashed it nose-first into an iron gate-post outside of his hill-top maisonette high above Salisbury after a particularly heavy gin-filled night at the dance hall in the centre of town (odd, as Captain Hardcastle was mid-forties and well above the age of dancers who frequented the centre of town on a Friday and Saturday night. There was, however, a secret brothel that everybody knew about three doors down, in a converted flour mill, that the locals referred to as "Flour Mills & Boon" after the racy series of salaciously sexual pulp fiction that became obligatory secret bedtime reading by the frustrated Colonial housewives) , Iain offered to remove the offending tangled mess, free of charge, providing he could keep the car for scrap. Captain Hardcastle, rich enough to buy another three of the damned things, agreed on the condition that Iain also repainted the post--a ten minute job--to which Iain heartily shook his hand, and using a rudimentary winch, was able to extricate the glorious red Marquette from the iron gate-post, and to his surprise it managed to start. Captain Hardcastle had retired to his reading room by this point. Had he known that the car had restarted, he may well have called the deal off, and paid an African handyman to straighten out the metal and exchange the torn panelling, and perhaps replace the tires. Iain switched of the engine immediately, pushed the magnificent red beast down the winding road leading up to the entrance of Captain Hardcastle's, and, once he had reached the bottom, leapt into the trundling car, revved the engine and drove it safely back to his home where he kept it secluded in the garage, working on the damaged hull of the car over a period of months, until it looked better than new. Various replacements like headlamps and grilles, etc., were haggled for in the automotive industrial area in Salisbury south; a huge conglomerate of oil-blackened workmen sweating under the noon sun with a belt full of smudgy wrenches and ratchets. Iain would often come home victoriously clutching a large headlamp. "It's actually from a Ford," he'd proclaim, "but it's identical in shape and size to the Buick". The project had swiftly become a hobby for Iain: he was Dr. Frankenstein and the smashed Marquette was his patchwork monster. In between studying rocks and fauna, which he would swiftly tire of, he'd be clanking metal and matching scarlet paint pots, ready for "The Big Paint" when the car replacement was completed. Verily, after only a few months of intense mechanical obsession, the car was restored, and Iain had never looked prouder, calling all the house workers (himself, Nila the housemaid, and the manservant who Mwoko played dice with sometimes), photographing them all individually standing proudly in front of the red machine. Iain cursed and wished for one of those Kodachrome cameras, as it did not look half as impressive in black-and-white. "Red!" he cried, "I need to immortalise the red!" Sometimes Iain caught Mwoko looking rapt through the windows of the Marquette, and would signal his presence with a polite cough. Mwoko would catch himself, blink, and hurriedly continue whatever small task he was performing in the garage at that time; usually something so trivial as to be deemed completely pointless; a mere façade in which to stand in close proximity with the car, wondering wide-eyed at the creamy beige leather interior. Iain allowed him to continue such fantasies by not chastising him when he caught him in the garage. One day, Iain had been sent by train to the Marden Dams, north-east of Salisbury, and left the Marquette at home. Iain kept the hefty ignition key in the vase where he would usually stash his umbrella--a large golf-umbrella sporting the two-headed Barclays' Eagle. Mwoko always thought that the logo represented a bad omen, a sign of terrible fortune. His sensible, logical brain encouraged him to reject all notions of witchcraft--the white man had tried to replace that mumbo jumbo with wooden imagery of Jesus upon the cross, and Mwoko was, although he never dared admit it, something of a natural atheist: he never even considered the existence of a god and heaven and a demon and a hell and a purgatory and no amount of churchgoing missionary visitors trying to "civilise" him would convince him otherwise. Similarly he rejected the barbaric 'voodoo' rituals of his ancestral tribe that the Colonials called the 'Ooglie-Booglies' in a highly derogatory tone, whilst hypocritically spending all Sunday being told that they were headed on a train of damnation towards some fire-and-brimstone underworld for the rest of eternity unless they appease their sky-deity with collections to save their deity's roof. For these reasons, Mwoko secretly eschewed all forms of religion and spirituality, and kept his feet firmly on the ground, with aspirations of self-affirmed greatness where he could thank nobody for progress but his own ideals, and possibly his parents (may they rest in peace) for blessing him with a logical mind when all around him was a hotbed of irrationality. Once Mwoko removed the umbrella, the key would lustrously wink at him, begging him to take the car out for just a quick spin. Iain was suspicious enough to suspect Mwoko of toying with the car during his absence, but he was never fastidious enough to jot down the number on the mile-o-meter (6,260) before he left on business trips. Once he mentally noted the exact mileage (on his trip to Marden Dams, no less) but, being the scatterbrain that he is, promptly forgot it within ten minutes of leaving the garage. Mwoko had waited, perspiring and meditating, until he was sure Iain was safely on the train heading towards the dam, and, checking that the housemaid (a pretty young woman named Nila, who was actually of Ethiopian descent, and had an uncle who was a diplomat to several southern African nations, which is why she ended up in Rhodesia. Her uncle turned out to be a spy for the British, something that got MI6 in hot water with the Belgian Staatsveiligheid as it was predominantly the activities in Belgian Congo that he was reporting on) had left for the day, he calmly and collectedly retrieved the key from its usual hiding spot, snuck into the garage, opened both the front and back gate (just in case the car lurched forwards or backwards as it was prone to doing), and sat, panting and victorious, in the driver's seat. With trembling fingers he would slot the oddly-toothed key, no different from the house keys that the Colonials took around with them (except stamped with a large 'GM' logo upon it), into the ignition slot. One twist and the car would roar, as if an awakened and angry giant, rattling the paintbrushes and tins on the cobwebbed shelves. The garage would fill with the thick tang of engine oil, which smelled glorious, and the sprockets would judder and jolt and Mwoko felt as if he were about to be thrown through the fastidiously-unblemished windscreen and onto the humming fiery red bonnet. The car felt alive, more like a chained tiger, raring to exact vengeance upon those that imprisoned it, and Mwoko would set it free. He lowered the lever and the beast lurched forward, clean out of the garage, and Mwoko had to shunt the brakes with both feet to stop the vehicle from careering straight into Iain's greenhouse, at that time filled with poinsettias, imported from Central Mexico. Iain had been a keen botanist as a youth, and his gateway into the world of archaeology was initially paved through the remedial study of paleobotany in his teens. Much as he loved flowers, he never memorised the Latin names for them, as botanists are wont to do, calling anyone who did so "an insufferable prig". The Marquette had stopped short of the fragile glass by six clear inches. Mwoko had breathed a sigh of relief, and gingerly teased the gearstick into reverse, before gently letting up on the brake, which had been pressed hard enough to nearly make an indent on the metal foot panel below it. The car was now under his control, and he teased it backwards, before turning hard and deftly rolling it down the driveway. He noticed the tyres had made four solid skid marks, extending from one foot outside of the garage to six inches before the greenhouse. Destroying Iain's prized plants with his prized car would probably have been enough to land him in gaol, for a longer time than, say, armed robbery. He would tend the garden afterwards, clearing all evidence of the car's movements, right up to the front gate of Iain's maisonette. After the knife-edge adventure of leaving the empty house in a stolen car, Mwoko's escapades around town dulled in comparison. He drove through thick, dense jungle and luscious grassland, avoiding towns and civilisation where possible, as Iain used the car as a status symbol, and thus everyone within a six mile radius (barring Captain Hardcastle, who was otherwise a recluse nowadays, having damaged his liver through constant inebriation, and choosing a life of perennial solitude. He would only live for eight more months, having not made contact with anyone but the village doctor, an educated African called Dr. Lamutu, with whom he donated his entire estate to. Lamutu, upon receipt of the estate within four days of Hardcastle's death, sold the entire estate and moved with his family to South Africa to continue practicing in Johannesburg), would hear him cruising around with screeching tyres and a deep throated, growling engine. Mwoko maintained an air of conspicuousness, not allowing anyone to see nor hear hide nor hair of the 1930 bright red Buick Marquette, and returned the car, forty-eight minutes later, painstakingly reversing it to the exact point that the tyre treads stood before the theft, dusting off the leather interior, straightening the rear-view mirror to exactly how it stood before, and then left to remove all traces of the near-miss outside the garage. It took him several hours to restore the impeccable driveway, combing the gravel with utmost care to give not even the slightest hint that a wheeled automobile had traversed the long driveway.
That car had gone, sold for a higher price than Iain could have ever dreamed, and the third-hand Oldsmobile Viking had replaced it. Boxier, and far more American insofar that it really had ogre-like presence, the Viking was more reliable and could navigate the harsh bumpy roads between the house and Salisbury. Mwoko had not even seen the Marquette to say goodbye to it, not that he would ever admit attachment to what is essentially a non-living inanimate heap of colourful metal, but there was both a twinge of sadness and disappointment with its sudden replacement. Mwoko had no desire to drive the Oldsmobile, and suspected Iain had purchased it purely for that reason. Aesthetically, it was a brute of a car, and didn't have the elegance and dazzling beauty of the Buick.
Now, it was stuck in the garage with barely an ounce of petrol inside it.
"Mwoko, where's the bicycle?" Iain demanded, and Mwoko set about shifting the various gardening debris; hoes, rakes, watering cans, as well as several large sheets of translucent, browning Bakelite which served as both greenhouse frame and protection from the sun's harsh rays to many of Iain's imported plants, shrubs, and bushes, that would have surely withered under the intense ultraviolet light (indeed, Iain had to import soil and peat also, as the ground was too alkaline to nurture his shrubs enough, and many of them died before the first dry season was even in full swing). Under the detritus, a rusting Raleigh was pulled, covered in cobwebs and balled-up husks of a variety of large and dangerous insects. Mwoko used an oily rag to wipe the grit from the rusty brown chain, and tenderly dabbed the nib from an oil-can on each link as he fed the pulley system around the fixed gear using a gentle rotation of the pedals.
"We haven't enough time for that," Iain said, "I need to get a can right away."
"Bwana Stokes," Mwoko said, skipping the English entirely and speaking entirely in assertive Swahili, "the chain is rusty and may break after only small use. Also, I am a faster rider than you, so I should go [in your stead]."
Iain, having worked himself into a frenzy of boyish excitement, had not given such thought to logic, took a deep breath and agreed.
"You should go and have some tea," Mwoko said (dangerously overstepping his boundary) "and calm down, otherwise you will be stuck in the wilderness with no way home and only a bicycle frame with a broken chain in your hand." Iain's face froze as he interpreted this information. Mwoko, on any other day, would have clenched his own toes in anticipation at just what this kind of reaction would bring, but the relationship between them had changed ineffably in the past few hours, and he felt nothing but a sense of liberation in that he did not even need to look Iain Marquis-Stokes in his eye as he spoke, and he continued to grease the squeaky wheel of the ageing Raleigh bicycle. Mwoko did not need to come with him. He was not necessary for this strange journey that Bwana Stokes had suddenly endeavoured to undertake, and his only role would be as one of companionship, and this filled him with confidence.
Iain did so, and left Mwoko to his devices, retiring to the drawing room where he began to diligently plan out the possible journey to this mysterious exotic unexplored territory. Within a few minutes, Mwoko was on the bicycle and whooping in delight as the rickety frame bounced down the hilly scrubland, terrorising a herd of okapi, which scattered in all directions, The balding tyres grazed the dirt, and large golden dust clouds spurted out from underneath the grinding wheels. Tough tufts of dry grass launched the rampaging bicycle in the air, and Mwoko savoured the momentary feeling of flying as he departed from the seat and floated independently of the bicycle, for the briefest of glorious moments, before his buttocks slammed down hard on the hardened leather seat, simultaneously as the bike touched down on terra firma. The rebound would lift Mwoko off the seat again, and he would lose control of the bike, hoping in vain that there would not be a rogue rock to smash the unclaimed bicycle to bits until he regained control of it.
At the bottom of the hill, Mwoko hit the dust track that the car would soon travel down. The sun was blisteringly high in the sky, and he thundered through the still, hazy air, which cooled the patch on his back where sweat was forming in great streams. Now the going was much more straight. Below the inch or so of eroded sand and silt, there lay a hidden winding snake of macadam, tough as nails, laid down by the Colonials some hundred years earlier. It could support the movement of one thousand horses, and Mwoko had observed several tanks, a year previously, rumbling across. Probably a gift from the Dutch in South Africa, he thought, painted golds and browns, to help Monty out in the desert north. He had waved at the helmeted head poking out from the top of the tank, and the soldier inside had caught his eye, but he had not waved back. This disappointed Mwoko, and his memory focused on that lack of civility from the British or Dutch soldier, moreso than the awesome spectacle of many tonnes of metal rumbling across the Savannah plain.
Mwoko reminisced about that time as he reached the refinery. It was an hour by bicycle, along a long meandering road, with not much to look at, aside from the odd crossing snake, and telegraph pole stood incongruously amongst the natural beauty, which, frankly, was monotonous enough to warrant a single telegraph pole in order to spice it up a little. The refinery was situated at the side of the road, surrounded by little more than a rusting chain-linked fence, which had collapsed in places. Men with guns and wearing gleaming white pith helmets ambled around the large oil depot. Too hot to proceed with the formal "halt!", they simply idly watched him pull up, covered in dust which had mudded in streaks around his temples where the sweat was dripping profusely. They recognised him, but he couldn't remember any of their faces.
"One gallon, please," Mwoko said, emulating his clipped British accent as much as possible.
One Colonial, a heavily tanned white man, removed his pith helmet, revealing a severe receding hairline leaving a peninsulaic tuft of hair at the apex of his head, and mopped his brow with the back of his hand. "How much do you have?" he asked.
"Two shillings and sixpence," Mwoko said, checking his pocket.
"Petrol has risen significantly these last few months," the man said curtly.
"Is it no longer a shilling a gallon?" Mwoko asked, suddenly suspicious that these men were trying to fleece him. "How much has it risen?"
"It's doubled. Two bob a bucket."
"Two shillings?" he asked incredulously. "I will give you one and sixpence. My employer will be down later to ensure he remains in good credit with the Shell Corporation."
The men, realising that they weren't dealing with a local, agreed, and Mwoko took the hand-written receipt between his teeth, and, grasping the large oil-can in his left hand, made his way onto the bicycle, where he wobbled away, sloshing crude liquid over the edge of the can. The men watched him depart, and then went back to their game of rummy, smoking small brown rolled cigarettes mere feet from large open-topped vats of refined petrol.
The way back, being uphill, was not so fun. The sticky residue had soaked his hands and khaki shorts and the dust adhered to his bare skin, caking his hand and leg, and itching something terrible. There was also the fact that he now had to slog the bicycle uphill once he left the road. It took nearly two hours to reach the hill in which Mwoko needed to climb. Bwana Stokes' modest home was situated just behind the crest, surrounded by many trees, and was well-hidden from view. Nobody would have ever known of its existence, and there were no discernable landmarks nearby in which to direct visitors, which was not a problem as Iain rarely had visitors. Mwoko strained his mind, as he set the bicycle down to rest before the big uphill push; had anybody so much as visited Bwana Iain during his tenure here, in Rhodesia? Of course! There was his boss, a bristling red-faced man with drooped cheeks and a strange accent. Iain described him as 'That Scotch Bastard' on occasion. Mwoko had never heard a Scottish accent before, but he found it so brusque he wasn't sure he would have understood a single word of the Glaswegian had he been able to speak English as fluently as his master.
Mwoko attempted the hill, teetering oil-can in tow, and found that the going was slow and unbalanced. The okapi he scared earlier and were now regrouped and tentatively observing him. Mwoko felt they were mocking his lumbering progress in revenge for scattering them earlier. They chewed the dry Savannah grass mockingly.
Several hundred yards up the relatively shallow hill, Mwoko was able to maintain a steady balance and gather some speed. Success, he thought, until there was a swift crack, and the rusting bicycle chain snapped in two, lashing his bared, oily leg, and leaving an angry scratch that broke the skin in several spots. He swore to the sky, and let the bicycle drop to the floor, kicking the spinning front wheel in spite, resulting in a stubbed toe, which caused further cursing. Now he had to climb the last kilometre or so of sloping scrubland on foot. Nearly a quarter of the oil-can had escaped over the edge, and the handle was slippery with gunk. Mwoko began to feel nauseous as the once-pleasant aroma of refined petrol began to overwhelm his nostrils, which were flaring and taking in deep ingrained rushes of gas-fumed air as the going was so heavy. As he reached the apex of the hill, after nearly half-an-hour of tireless slogging, he saw Iain in the distance, hands on hips, irascibly tapping hit foot. Iain made no attempt to come to him to help bear the burden of the cursed oil-can, and when Mwoko stumbled into view, Iain said impatiently:
"You took your time. Where's my bicycle?"
"The chain snapped," Mwoko said as he trudged passed him, not stopping to even make eye-contact. "The bicycle is lying at the bottom of the hill. We can pick it up when we're in the car."
"No time for that," Iain said. "Let's get this can in to the tank, eh? I've gathered your things; they are under the seat. We have to head out now, so the engine won't overheat, but before dark as I don't trust these broken roads, even with the lamps on full."
Diligently, Mwoko poured the petrol into the car's tank using a filter cone, spilling not a drop. As Iain flustered around the various rooms in the house, looking for any extra essentials he may have overlooked, Mwoko drew a large bucket of water from the well out the back, and set about rubbing the grimy oil-dust mud that was clinging to him. Being immersed in petrol fumes for the best part of an hour had made him light-headed and faint. He grabbed a loofah and scrubbed the gunk off, wincing as the hard sponge bit into the laceration the bicycle chain had whipped. As for his clothes, he discarded them, and grabbed a crisp, fresh kanzu from the linen room, and draped it over him.
With a mighty roar, the Viking, which Iain would refer to as 'the Vanquisher', screeched into life. The car sat trembling and bristling like a caged animal. Mwoko opened the garage doors, and the Viking lurched out, swerving at the last second to avoid the greenhouse (which it missed by barely three inches) before grinding to a halt, spewing up gravel and dust from the immaculate driveway. Iain threw it into neutral, opened the door, banged twice with pride on the roof of the fulminating metal monster, and Mwoko saw a look of childish excitement gleam in his eyes. It was true that, for the past year or so, Iain had become morose and melancholic with his profession. The war had dried up all resources to his company, so work was minimal. Fortunately, he was well moneyed, as the firm had direct sponsorship from Shell's exploration department. They helped Shell find oil, and Shell got to sit back and throw lots of money around. If anything, the Nazis were the best thing that ever happened to the Shell Corporation. So long as they didn't interfere with its Central African operations as much as it had done with its bothersome invasion of North Africa. Even with Monty winning the scrum up there, everything they had created up there had been destroyed, either by Rommel or the fleeing British sabotaging their own refineries. Here in Rhodesia, it was a different story. Untouched by war, Iain felt distanced from the world; moreso than an archaeologist--one of the loneliest professions outside of lighthouse keeper--would normally feel. There came a point where he might have even signed up to the military - 'Do His Bit' for King and Country. Alas, he did not have good enough eyesight to fly a plane, and as the RAF African Expeditionary Force was his ideal and only target, his lacklustre vision swiftly put a dampener on that dream. He had no desire to traipse through desert and jungle with a sweaty pack and a constantly-jamming rifle, hunting Jerries in such humid conditions. Also he did not know of a single Colonial or expat willing to sign up. Life was comfortable out here, and people were rich enough not to fight. The blacks, however; they signed up in droves. Involuntary volunteering was pretty rife out here, though. Iain never even considered pressuring Mwoko into doing the same, despite the need for Swahili translators, as he would have no-one who could iron shirts and stiffen the collars on his eveningwear with such perfectness as Mwoko.
"Come now, get in. We've got a lot of miles to cover, and this thing won't even reach forty in this heat."
Mwoko did as he was told. Inside the Viking smelled of rich leather. He imagined the drawing rooms of England all smelt this way. That, or dusty books and oaken dressing tables.
Iain ground the stick into first gear, and the car screeched and complained, before puttering off at a light pace down the long driveway. Once out, Iain wrenched the thing into second, and the car belched and farted blackened, sour-smelling sooty smoke. It crested the hill like a lumbering black metal giant, before roaring onto the plateau. The hill began to ease downwards at the lightest gradient, but that was enough for Iain to let go of the accelerator, and let gravity overtake the engine's raw power. Faster and faster it gathered speed, and the rocks to the side of the rudimentary road began to whizz past. Mwoko stuck his head out of the lowered window and felt the freedom of air blasting his scrunched-up face. He withdrew his head and opened his eyes. The family of okapi were playing peacefully several hundred yards away. At sight of the car, instead of bolting like they did with Mwoko on the bicycle, they curiously gazed. It was unlikely they had seen anything travel at such great speed before--nearly fifty miles per hour, the milometer indicated--so the sense of whatever animal equivalent of bewilderment that existed overruled their primitive instinct to turn and bolt. Indeed, the younger ones tried to run to catch up with the car. Mwoko made eye contact with one as it scampered alongside for the briefest of seconds, and its beautiful round eyes betrayed an innocent sense of curiosity and excitement, similar to how Iain's eyes had looked previously at the beginning of this great caper.
They were reaching the bottom of the hill. Sixty miles an hour, the milometer rattled, and the windows were juddering and the framework was complaining. Mwoko vibrated on his seat, teeth chattering, vision blinkered. The bottom of the hill, which joined the road proper, was gaining on them fast. The angle where the hill stopped and the road began, obtuse as it was, would cause severe damage and destruction to the vehicle had it collided head-on.
"Iain!" Mwoko called, voice trilling with the intense reverberation, "you are going to crash!" Iain noted that this was the very first time Mwoko had ever referred to him by his first name. All these years, it had been "Bwana Stokes" or "Meester Marquis-Stokes", but never "Iain". It was an epiphany for Iain, as at that moment he was juggling several things inside his head. Primarily, the act of controlling the car as it thundered towards what may have well been a brick wall. Secondly, the excitement of trying to remain as calm as possible in the face of certain death, thirdly that his employed servant had suddenly referred to him as an equal, and fourthly just how loathed he was towards his own common, dull name. The sheer adrenaline rush of careering down a hill had severely influenced his reaction to Mwoko's addressing of him, and he aligned the sense of elation, concluding that, yes, he was fine with his travelling companion to no longer be in his employment, but there as company, no more, no less. The notion of slavery had always unnerved and perturbed him, and Iain's initial reaction as he stepped foot on Rhodesian soil was one of pure shock, as every white master had a black servant in this nation, and he was presented with one before he had even arrived at his own doorstep. He was informed, after lightly and safely touching upon the subject in a friendly setting with other Colonials (over a game of Texas Holdem in the mansion gardens of Lady Windshere, a batty old loon who carried a pair of opera glasses wherever she went, and would inspect everything, from an oil painting to a stray eyelash on one's shoulder, by holding her face so close you could hear her throat cluck, and feel the warm pungent breath against your cheek, as she held up the spectacles to her beady eyes before making an inane observation that one could only associate with the aristocracy), that having a black boy on board was "the done thing" and "they get paid, so how is it any different from back home?" Also that blacks were less inclined to complain about tasks assigned to them, would never offer lip, and always showed the utmost respect and diligence. What English person could be known to be the same; even the butlers were sneering judgmentalists, and lackeys were incorrigible layabouts that would do the most menial of tasks in such a begrudging manner… So, Iain had taken on the several house-keepers his firm had assigned him, and they were all, with the exception of the manservant, enthusiastic and energetic. They were paid much higher than national average salary for itinerant and native Rhodesians, which would explain the alarming efficiency in which they completed chores, silently and invisibly, as Iain pored over papers and slammed his typewriter against the desk whilst uttering profanity that would upset Nila, who was a devout Christian, and alarm Mwoko to the point where he would come rushing in carrying a rake, wondering if Bwana Stokes had been attacked by a green mamba.
"Nonsense, Mwoko" Iain said, as if boasting to a buddy over a pint on the cricket green. "Watch this." With a sharp tug, he turned the giant steering-wheel full-circle to the right, and the car turned in a graceful arc, tilting up on two wheels. Mwoko covered his eyes. The car felt as though it were about to tip right over, and the pair of them would roll and roll to their deaths, far beyond the road in front of them. Instead, the car lurched, still on two wheels, at an angle that slowly converged with the line of the road before them until it was nearly parallel. The car bumped severely as it left the crude twisty path of the hill, onto the uneven shrub tufts that had rattled Mwoko's bones hours earlier on the bicycle. Mwoko felt his rump leave the seat and his head bump heavily on the ceiling of the car and it felt like the vehicle was about to fall to pieces under the immense stresses bestowed upon it by Iain's reckless driving. Onwards through the underbrush the car sped, bumping and grinding and throwing Mwoko's frame across the seat where he slammed into one door, before being launched back by the inertia and crashing into the other side. Suddenly, the car converged with the road, and the fluctuating interior of the car ceased, causing Mwoko to land face-down on the seat. He rectified himself, and saw Iain whooping and cackling mercilessly. Iain stepped on the accelerator, and the car sped along the smooth road, sending clouds of dust high into the air. Mwoko checked to see if his nose was bleeding, as he had crumpled against the tough glass of the car's window pretty hard. It wasn't, but it was still sore. Iain lowered the driver's window, and rested one arm on the car, feeling the breeze as it swept through the interior, which no longer had the scent of musty leather, but of the hazy air and burnt scrubland that was synonymous with the African Savannah.
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Fri Nov 11, 2011 5:05 pm
The journey had begun. And, like all journeys, a thrill of silent optimism resonated around the stuffy interior of the car. The sun was beginning to set over the Kariba mountains. Iain had seen paintings of the great lake before the mountains that feeds the Zambezi river, and always wanted to visit, but for now was content with seeing the cut silhouette of the range, over three hundred miles away. There was a sense of peace as the car remained at a steady forty-five miles per hour, on a gentle slope for the next few miles, allowing Iain to conserve petrol. The serenity and beauty of the setting sun meant neither man wished to break such a comfortable silence.
Mwoko, in his eternal wisdom, had brought some notepaper and a charcoal pencil, and began to sketch the scenery before it became too dark to see. Iain, cruising automatically, allowed his vision to routinely focus on Mwoko's fast-sketching hand. It was good. Not only was it stylistic, it was fairly accurate, too. Mwoko had good vision for light and shade, deftly crushing the chalky pencil down at various pressure points to accentuate each shadow, and highlight each sun-touched rock. Soon, however, the sun was over halfway behind the distant mountain range, and the sky turned inky; an unwavering shade of dark blue that enveloped the pair as they drove. Behind them, the expansive plains of Mozambique and the fort of Umtali, or kumakomoyo, as it was swallowed by the enveloping mountain ranges, were quickly swept up by the darkness' reach.
Iain switched on the beams, and the various fauna that were idly trotting around the fens and craics that littered the lea scattered. Mostly deer, Iain thought, but too dark to make out. As if pulled by some deity, the sun disappeared suddenly behind the horizon line, and the cover of darkness washed over them like a gushing wave.
"We shouldn't drive through the night," Iain declared in Swahili. "I don't know the roads too well leading to Salisbury. We're coming up to Marondellas. There is much timber there, and most of the locals like to trade trinkets for petrol, so we can refill there. We can sleep in the car."
"Bwana Stokes," Mwoko said, reverting to his respectful addressing, now the excitement of the crazed driving debacle was over, "I can try to see if anyone will let us stay the night?"
"Thank you, Mwoko, but if we are to stay anywhere tonight, I don't want it to be some tin hut and sleeping on thorny bushes, hay, and shit. We can see if any Colonials are out in the bars and canteens, or if the dance hall is still open, and make some friends that way. What say you? I can vouch for you, if need be."
"Okeh," Mwoko said, and folded up his sketches, stretching his legs across the back of the car. He wasn't used to being cooped up in such a manner. He felt the urge to run around to get the blood flowing.
The car trundled into the sleepy town--the half-way house between Umtali and Salisbury--and the only lights they could make out, aside from the several electric lamp-posts marking each junction, was from what appeared to be an American saloon-styled bar. It was located in a wooden building next to a timber yard, cast from the very timber that travelled through the town by the ton, every hour of the waking day. Now, however, the yard was silent, the hulking machinery asleep, and only the warm yellow glow of gas-lamps emanated from the slatted windows of the saloon.
Iain drew the car up alongside the dirt track leading up to the timber yard. He kept it in shadow, lest any night-walkers stumble upon it and have a root around inside. Iain pulled out a bottle of whiskey from the glove compartment. Mwoko looked at the label.
"Feh? Tehr? Care-knee?" He asked, quizzically. "Is this English?"
"Old Fettercairn," Iain said in a cod Scottish accent, "finest malt whiskey, streight far'm Fettercairn in Scawtland." He switched back to his standard received pronunciation. "'Course, it tastes different since the Americans bought the place. Might even switch, you know. Tastes bitterer. Not sure why."
"Why do you hate the Americans, Bwana Stokes?" Mwoko asked.
Iain took a swig, and contemplatively swooshed it around his palette. He swallowed, and took a deep suck of air, as if dragging on a cigar. "I don't think I do, really. I mean; everyone hates the damn Yanks, don't they?"
"I do not know," Mwoko said, honestly. He had never met an American personally, but he knew what they sounded like from his four visits to the picture house.
"They swagger around," Iain said, taking another pull, before handing the bottle to Mwoko, "thinking they're cock of the walk! They sometimes slam down a dollar bill before saying hello. Money talks in America, you know, and Yanks think they can do what they want, depending on the thickness of their wallets." He noticed Mwoko hadn't taken the bottle that he had held out to him. "Why aren't you drinking?" he demanded, somewhat offended.
"I do not drink, Bwana Stokes," Mwoko said. "I have never tried."
"Golly," Iain said, drawing his lips back over his teeth, as one is wont to do after taking a particularly sharp pull of oaky whiskey. "Didn't even know." He shook the bottle playfully. "Well, there's no time like the present! Have yourself a swig. Delicious, liquid fire, my boy. Go on--have a snifter."
Mwoko tentatively took the bottle. He uncorked it, and gingerly approached the lip of the bottle with his nose. He gave one sniff of the powerful spirit before thrusting his arm away, and turning his head in disgust.
"Ugh!" he said in Swahili. "That is poison!"
"Oh nonsense," Iain, said, laughing and clapping his hands. "You need a little education on what's what in this country. Real men here drink whisky and gin."
“I never understood drinking,” Mwoko said. It was true, he always felt the human mind only retained its sharpness if untainted by intoxicants. Several of the men in town used to call him over when he was a fishmonger. They would be smoking a concoction of dried herbs—tobacco, marijuana and whatever they could get their hands on. They would barter poker chips for glasses of rum, gin, and anything that had been imported, and mysteriously lost en route to the country houses and mansions owned by the Colonial whites. Mwoko would go up to them, sometimes joining in for a game of poker. He would sit downwind of them, as the reek of burning weed would be cloying and leave a sour taste in his mouth and nose. He could smell their spirits from his perch above the poker table (a small upturned soapbox, battered through years of use, and varnished with the lacquer of spilt drink. Even with his nose upturned, tilted towards the fresh breeze that wafted by, taking the scent of drugs, alcohol, and dirty poverty with it, Mwoko could still taste the tang from each hardened glass, remarking that it smelled like the cleaning fluid he used to polish Bwana Stokes’ car, or Brasso.
And now, his housemaster was offering him the drink he’d turned down so many times before. He felt obliged to take a pull. The claustrophobia of the car, and the fear of offence threw his simple ethical code off-kilter, and he took the bottle. Snapping it upwards as his lips pushed against the narrow rim of the aged whiskey bottle, just like he’d seen John Wayne do with a bottle of moonshine in his favourite film—Stagecoach—he opened his throat, and let the liquid flow coolly over his tongue, before it swiftly turned into burning fire that sloshed down the back of his throat, feeling like it took several layers of skin with it.
Mwoko gasped and then maintained a steadfast silence as Iain laughed and took back the bottle. Mwoko coughed a little, and felt the warmth spread across his chest, as if the whiskey was coating his insides, forming a tingly insulation
Iain laughed. "Get used to it," he said, taking another pull and forcing a poker face as he swallowed, before letting out a satisfied sigh. "What do you say, should we go in?" With bottle still in hand, he motioned towards the incongruously American bar in the middle of a sleepy African industrial village.
Mwoko leaned his head out of the window. "I can hear voices," he said, "but I cannot make out the language. It is one I have never heard before."
Iain raised an eyebrow. People only spoke English and Swahili in most of Rhodesia, and the last time he was around these parts, barely even Swahili. He wound down the window, which juddered uncomfortably, as if it didn't quite fit in the frame, and poked his head out too. Sure enough, the raucous sounds of laughter and shouting that emanate from drinking establishments, particularly late at night, sounded entirely foreign. There were also women's voices, which was odd, as most pubs were unofficially men-only. The great tavern was an historically male dominion; an escape from the boring lives and complaining wives of the Colonial man. It also made an excellent alibi for illicit business. No man should mix business and pleasure, they say, so as a rule of thumb, one never brought his mistress to his favourite drinking establishment.
Iain, for his part, barely recognised the language, but the accent was clear; the people inside were Eastern European. That much was true, but what country are they from? And what are they doing here, in the middle of Africa where nothing is happening?
"Let's go inside." Iain shut off the engine, and the car hissed and relaxed onto its suspension, like a dog bedding down for the night. He tossed the bottle on the back seat, got out, and Mwoko followed. The buzz of the alcohol was beginning to take hold of Iain's confidence and inhibition control centre, and he noticed the same was happening to Mwoko, who only had had half the amount he had. Low tolerance, he thought, which was natural for someone who had never imbibed alcohol before. There was something in the way they both walked--a certain swagger. This must have been a subconscious joke, as the bar looked like the saloons in old Western films, with swinging doors.
The pair nonchalantly eased through the saloon doors. They were greeted by a blast of heat and a concoction of smells; dirt, smoke, sweat, and the most overpowering reek of hops. Iain savoured the scent of beer, but Mwoko felt like retching at the pungent aroma. The bar was packed with white men and women; not British by account of their clothes, which were ragged, unwashed, and decidedly ethnic. Once colourful pastiches, the tattered shawls of the women and jackets of the men had faded. They looked like they had just walked here all the way from Romania. In one corner, a band comprising of a fiddler, a double-bassist, and a bagpiper played an unusual folk chorus, and was surrounded by a cavalcade of dancers; men and women clutching beer steins, circling each other; the woman holding their tattered dresses high. On closer inspection, Iain could see that many of the clothes were patchwork ensembles; well-hemmed, with not a stitch out of place, but made of heavily eroded materials. They looked like fine-woven ragdolls made from old bedsheets.
"Who are these people," Mwoko leaned in and whispered loudly to Iain's ear, "and what is that strange music they are playing?"
"I'm not sure, but they're definitely Eastern European. Possibly Romanian," Iain said, not having a clue about their origin other from what continent they were from. Iain estimated that they must be refugees from a Balkan state, as the music was decidedly folkish, even though the trills of the fiddle and the authoritative boom of the double-bass gave the music a distinctly Teutonic essence. Iain demanded to know more. Unfortunately, everyone in the saloon, including the barmaids and bartender, seemed to be of the same ilk. Iain wished for just one black person to appear, so he could converse. English, Swahili, heck even Welsh (which Iain had a slight fluency to) would have sufficed.
They made their way in through the throng, Mwoko seeming to be far more comfortable than Iain, despite being the only one of his race there, and both made friendly nods towards and halloos towards various people in the hope that one of them had a grasp of English. Although there were some friendly nods and some raised their glasses saying something like "naz drewy", many eyes were suspect, and examined the pair of them from head to toe, raising an eyebrow at their relatively fine clothing.
They reached the bar. Iain saw several barrels tipped upon their side, awkwardly tapped, as if an amateur had just rammed the faucet into the wood with undue care, and noticed just how many empty barrels lined the walls in the room behind the bar. There were no labels on the kegs, and no indication of the name of the brew anywhere, so Iain had no idea what to ask for.
A drunken man, with deep-set eyes and flecked grey hair, that once must have been a magnificent goldish-red mane, slammed his palm down on the bar, and loudly proclaimed "dwa piwa, teraz!" Immediately two wooden steins, overflowing with frothy beer slid down the bar, from an anonymous hand, and the man steadied himself as he tried to tackle the impossible task of remaining balanced whilst picking up two objects simultaneously. Through the gaudy haze of inebriation, he handled it spectacularly well. It is said that the only balance a drunk has is when he holds a beer in his hand. This adage seemed to ring true, as no matter how much the man stumbled and tripped and juddered and jaggered through the crowds, and over the filthy straw floor, not a single drop was spilled. Iain was impressed.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the barman. He caught his eye, and attempted to repeat the refrain of the drunken man. "duh-va pi-vah, te-racks!" he said, holding two fingers aloft to simulate that it was, indeed, two beers he wished for. Instead of the magically appearing pints sliding down the bar towards him, as with the drunk man, the bartender approached the pair, and spoke rapidly in a language they could not make hide nor hair of.
"I'm sorry?" Iain said. "I don't understand… your language." He spoke slowly and loudly, as if patronising the barman, who had his arms folded and looked distinctly unimpressed. It was a peculiarly English thing to do, Iain had noticed, to feel that the entire world should know English. It had, after all, been the language of trade for centuries. Every country should speak English, he felt, just as a Frenchman might have felt the same way about French. And if a man could not understand the English spoken to him, he surely would understand if the speaker slowed down and over-enunciated each morae of what he was trying to communicate. It was just the done thing.
The barman and Iain appeared to be at an impasse. The barman remained statuesque, and Iain did not know how to communicate to him that he simply wanted a beer for himself and his compatriot. As it stood, the barman had not even looked at Mwoko.
Fortunately, for all parties concerned, a wild, bristly-moustachio'd man clapped Iain on the shoulder, making him jump.
"Hey, you are English, hey?" the voice said, with a deeply lilting Eastern European twang. It could have been Czechoslovakian, Iain thought, but it had a Germanic tinge to it. Of course: these people were Polish!
"Yes, I am!" Iain said, relieved to hear his own mother tongue. "And you are Polish, no?"
The man laughed, and his bulbous red nose deepened in hue, as the moustache frissled below it. "Ya, ya. We are the Polish!" Again he clamped his open-palmed hand hard on Iain's shoulder, knocking him almost onto the bar. "You ever seen a Pole in Africa?" he said.
"Not until tonight," Iain said. "I'm not sure I've even seen a Pole full stop. Anyway, let me buy you a drink. Mr…?"
"Smeeth!" The Pole said. "We are all Mister Smeeth here. Even the women!" He laughed hard at his own joke. Iain didn't understand it, and traded confused eyes with Mwoko, who was biting his lip in anxiety.
"Why are you all Mr. Smith?" Iain asked, genuinely interested.
"Later, later," the man said. His baritone voice was powerful, and had attracted the attention of all around him. They looked on, curiously. It was apparent none of them could speak English, and Iain's and Mwoko's sudden minority status swiftly labelled them as quaint curiosities. "hey gospodar; dwa piwa, teraz!" he called over their shoulders, to the barman who had wandered off and was out of view.
Once again, two more beers came winging their way along the bar, stopping before Mwoko and Iain, as if pushed, once more, by an invisible hand. Where did these even come from? Thought Iain. He could tell Mwoko was equally curious and quizzical to the matter.
"Come, come!" the Polish man said, ushering them towards his table. "You meet my friends, yes."
He barged through the dancing couples, and Iain and Mwoko followed in his wake. From nowhere, two stools appeared, and they sat down amongst several men and women, many of whom were rather elderly, or they so looked. Despite only being in their mid-to-late thirties, possibly forties, they had at least thirty years on Iain, and nearly forty on Mwoko's fresh-faced looks. Haggard and cragged were their faces, with heavy lines of sorrow etched deep into their brows; sallow cheeks and drooped hooked noses, browned teeth and bent postures. These Polish refugees had clearly been exposed to long and arduous horror and tribulation, but tonight, tonight they were happy, full of cheer, and drunk.
One woman leaned over to Mwoko and spoke right into his eyes. She spoke fast, but softly, and the glottal 'Z's and hard 'ch's that the Polish man employed were dampened by her tender voice. She might not have been older than twenty-five, but she looked forty-five.
Mwoko listened to her voice, and when she finished, he turned his head to Mr. Smith. "What did she say?"
He wiped the frothy beer from his mouth. "She say: have you a wife? And would you like one?" and then he burst out laughing.
"Really?" Mwoko said, eyes widening.
"Ha ha! No, although she clearly feels that way. Look at her! She is beautiful, no? She actually say: your country is beautiful, and she not want to move back to Poland when the trouble is over."
"Ah!" Mwoko said, "then I will teach her Swahili!" he turned to the girl. "What is your name?" he asked, and then again in Swahili.
"Her name is Jolanta. It mean 'flower blossom'", Mr. Smith said. "She is unmarried, well she was. Her husband is not come with us."
"Why not?" he asked, not taking his eyes off of her.
Iain swiftly spoke to stop the sudden dwelling on grief that Mr. Smith looked like he was about to experience, being as drunk as he was, and interrupted with a question. "So, who are you, and what are you doing here? In all places, the middle of nowhere?"
Mr. Smith took a large slurp from his stein. "The middle of nowhere is good. Better. Best for us. No Dachau in the Middle of Nowhere."
"Is. Is camp," Mr. Smith said, making a rectangle with his hands to signify high walls. "Camp where they make you work. The Germans. Millions are working in Dachau. They build the train track and make the coal. Lots dead. Many dead, probably. Husband of Jolanta in Dachau. We flee Poland, and make way to Rhodesia," animatedly, he traces the journey they made with a finger on an invisible map on the table. "Pyramids and Mummies," he laughs, tapping his finger on the invisible representation of Egypt. "Boat got hit here. We all swum, all alive for sure! Gyptians are funny people, yes?"
Iain listened intently as Mr. Smith retold the tale of their journey from Poland to Rhodesia. He wasn't speaking chronologically. After speaking about travelling down the Nile, he mentions a Russian-built train taking them to Greece, or so he thinks. They didn't stay long in Greece, and sailed to Egypt, where they travelled by ferry. Iain thought that was when a Stuka dive-bomber managed to sink their boat, but they all miraculously survived, and stayed in a munitions factory warehouse. Upon leaving it in an American military Jeep at five o'clock in the morning, they turned to see the factory bombed barely minutes after their escape. They spent a few weeks at a makeshift army base somewhere in the desert, where they were ignored by the British and Canadian soldiers, except Mr. Smith, of course, as he could converse with them. The others refused to learn or speak anything but Polish, and the British and Canadian Desert Rats refused to learn Polish. There was some infighting, also, and Mr. Smith pulled a pistol on one of the officers. They were urged to leave after that, and after nearly a month of being transported from military base to military base, they wound up on a train to Salisbury, along with many other groups of Polish refugees. There was apparently a link between Polish imports and the town of Marondellas, so they made their way here, and lo and behold, there was a thriving community of escaped Poles, the majority of which were here tonight.
Iain looked around; there were a fair few of them. Now he had had time to study the people, he saw they fitted certain cliques; there were the majority of working-class looking folks (the ones who were dancing) but there were also smaller, well-to-do groups, like the table he was at, who huddled in circles, not interacting too much with the rest of the crowd. A group of artistic-looking individuals sat at a table, not talking or drinking; they held their heads high which gave them an air of looking down at those around them. In Poland, no doubt, these groups would never be seen in the same town, let alone the same room. The atmosphere, nonetheless, was convivial, and there was much cheering and clinking of glasses. It appeared as though the music was the tie that bound these varying strata of people together.
"So, how do all these people know each other?" Iain asked. "Not, I mean, on friendly terms, but you all seem to be part of the same community. What's the link between you and those artist guys over there? Or those women dancing without shoes?"
Mr. Smith gave a wide grin, bearing many loose brown teeth. "Is Jews," is all he said, before pointing with his tankard towards the ceiling. Sure enough, the candlelit chandelier that bathed the entire room in warm orange glow was in the shape of a Star of David.
"Jews!" Iain said. "How strange. If anyone was to tell me that driving through a small industrial village in the middle of nowhere in the heart of Africa would end with me drinking the night away with a bunch of Polish Jews, I simply wouldn't have believed them."
"Ha ha!" Mr. Smith burst out. "Is true. No Pole in Africa is not Jew. The rest stay home; the Germans do not care and their homes are not bombed. But the Jew: the Jew must leave. It is the British who took us here. Except for my brother. He was taken to England. Very hush hush." He touched his finger to his lips as he spoke.
Iain suddenly found this new information fascinating. "Why did they take your brother to England?"
"To fight the Germans, yes!" Mr. Smith said.
"But there are no Germans in England. At least, not yet anyway."
"No, no; not to fight with gun. He will fight with mathematics. They need good Polish brain to crack codes."
Of course, Iain had read about the secret army of cryptologists, trying to crack the Nazi codes and spy on their transmissions. None of it made a jot of sense to him, and he had turned the newspaper over to the financial news. He recalled that the Victor Company of Japan, or JVC, had broken its ties with its American holdings company. That would be a shot in the eye for the Americans, he had thought; the Japs make such damn good cameras.
"It's good to know that you're helping out with the whole war effort," Iain said, speaking as a layman who knew nothing of the machinations of war, aside from the fact it was very different to the trench warfare of the Great War, and that more money was lost on planes and tanks per day than the country could feasibly afford. After this whole mess is sorted, he mused, there would be no more money left in the country. They might even have to cut their links with the colonies, and Iain would be shipped home to the miserable grey rubble that was now England. He had an escape plan; to move to the Welsh valleys and live an idle, simple life far from civilisation should that ever happen. He was unsure that he could live in a city ever again, not after experiencing the freedom of life that one lived in the colonies.
"Yes, yes. We have good neighbour too. Christian man, Ilks we name him. He said he would hide our belongings in his farm house if the Nazi come. We know they steal paintings and gold. We have little, but will be nice to come back to! If we ever go back, of course! Ro-deezha is such beautiful country. Not as beautiful as Poland, of course."
Iain turned to Mwoko, who was animatedly demonstrating to Jolanta how he once caught a black mamba with a rake, killing it inches before it bit him--and would have killed him in thirty seconds flat with its potent venom. She was laughing at his charades, which was making him laugh. He noticed that whenever she took a sip from her beer, he would follow suit, and mask his distaste. No wonder he was so animated; he was drinking beer to impress a pretty girl! Add the shot of whiskey he had gulped before they entered, he must be well on the way to dropping his inhibitions entirely. Iain left him to his sport; a man must learn his tolerance, and this was a baptism of fire for Mwoko.
"Where are you heading to, traveller?" Mr. Smith knocked Iain's shoulder. He jerked forward and smiled.
"We're archaeologists," Iain said, flapping his hand between himself and Mwoko. "It means we dig up the ground and see how people before us lived."
"Heh. Pyramids and mummies."
"Yes, pretty much. However, we're on a bit of an important mission. You know about dinosaurs?"
"Yes, yes, of course. We have dinosaur in Poland. We had men from Mongolia come dig them up. 'Krakowsaurus!' we told them. It was in paper. My nephew Alojzy wanted to be a dinosaur digger. He spoke to the Mongolian men. They were so red! As red as your friend is black. Jolanta! Akt zniewieściały!" He rapped on the table, and Jolanta composed herself. Mr. Smith turned back to Iain "and you expect to find dinosaur in Africa?"
"Well, yes… And no," Iain said, truthfully. "Truth be told, we're not sure what we're going to find. But whatever it is, we want to protect it."
"Who you protect dinosaur from?" Mr. Smith asked, a stern look in his eye.
"Well," Iain leaned in closer, conspiratorially, "we don't want the Germans to get wind of it. Otherwise they might claim it for themselves."
Mr. Smith looked contemplative for a moment, even going as far as to stroke his whiskery chin. Then he burst into derisive laughter. "Ah, you English! You know priority, no! Yes, the Germans want to rule the new world, not dig up the old one!"
Iain let the comment slide. He thought if he even uttered the word 'dragons', Mr. Smith would burst into even greater raucous laughter. Instead he leant back, drained his tankard, and offered to buy the table drinks. With a flourish, they cheered heartily as he shook his empty stein; the universal sign for 'who is up for another?"
[17000 exactly, 12988 below target]
Re: Felstaff's NaNoWriMo.
Posted: Sat Nov 12, 2011 12:13 am
Hey, you can go red if you want. You've earned it!