Gillian Long’s new novel Watershed looks at the divisive political issues of our time. The story unfolds a decade into the future and explores war in the Middle East, a Caliphate with its headquarters in Baghdad, fundamentalism and morality, the erosion of civil liberties and post traumatic stress. Read Chapter 1 here
Watershed by Gillian Long: Now available. Click to buy
Watershed is a dystopian political thriller about the insidiousness of political corruption, the dangers of social injustice, the fragility of democracy and the power of family, as one man prepares to abandon all he believes in to save the woman he loves.
The story is set in Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra, and takes in the vast wilderness of Cape York, and the raw beauty of the Kimberly, with flashbacks to war torn Baghdad.
A novel about the insidiousness of political corruption, the dangers of social injustice, the fragility of democracy and the power of family, as one man prepares to abandon all he believes in to save the woman he loves.
It’s the end of the 2020s and Australia struggles under tyranny. The economy has collapsed as terrorism escalates.
Conscript Blake Lincoln returns from an endless Middle East war, wounded and a National hero. When he meets Charlotte all he wants is to forget the war and have his old life back.
Instead, he uncovers secrets that will blow the government apart. Corrupt men seized Charlotte to silence Blake. Now he must find and rescue her, but before he can do that he needs to expose their evil agenda.
Watershed is set in Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra. It takes in the vast wilderness of Cape York, and the raw beauty of the Kimberly, with flashbacks to war-torn Baghdad.
The Khartoum arrivals hall was just a tiled room with poor lighting, full of disembarking passengers and a foreign smell. I stood by my suitcase, arms clutched across my waist, as I scanned the crowds, searching for my husband.
A wall clock told me it was nearly midnight. Outside darkness pressed against the glass exit door. The view was impenetrable, shedding doubt on my decision to arrive here earlier than planned. But what was I to do in London by myself?
I couldn’t stay in a strange city where I knew no one and had nowhere to live other than my VW Kombi. A van painted in the colours of the Rhodesian flag with rebel badges and stickers was noticeable and I couldn’t park up just anywhere. Anyway, I didn’t want to spend a month alone now our friends had been forced to go home to Zimbabwe.
They had come on holiday to do the grand tour with me, now that sanctions were lifted, but on entry to the UK they were given a one week visa to allow them time to change their flights and return home. It was basically a deportation order despite our country’s new status in the world.
It was so unfair and all because my friend was too honest, albeit a mite antagonistic. The immigration officer had no sense of humour and sent both of them home. From their report the immigration officer said something like, ‘did you fight in the Rhodesian war?’
Our friend responded, ‘of course.’
I mean, what able bodied man under 60 didn’t, right?
The immigration officer said, ‘did you support Ian Smith?’
‘Yes of course.’ My friend said rashly before committing the fatal mistake of adding, ‘dumb bastard,’ under his breath.
Clearly it was the wrong thing to say. The immigration officer heard, frowned and gave them 24 hours. After a short argument they managed to get an extension of one week which allowed us a lightening tour around the great ancestral island.
As I waved farewell I wondered what I would do with myself for the next few weeks. When my husband and I made this plan, we agreed that he would fly to the Sudan by himself giving him time to settle into his new job. He would also find us somewhere to live. While he was doing that I would spend a month sightseeing in the UK with our friends. Then when they were ready to go home, he would come back to the UK and we would go to Sudan together to take up our new life.
There was no contingency, no plan B and I didn’t want to hang around for weeks waiting until my husband was able to return to the UK. I decided instead, to drive to Khartoum in my Kombi. It would fill the intervening weeks, and be interesting to drive across Europe and North Africa. I had no maps, but my school girl geography was good so I thought I could just follow the signs, and off I set.
I might have made it if the car hadn’t broken down. Now as I waited in the arrivals hall, I watched people retrieve their luggage and exclaim when they met family or friends, hugging and kissing each other, and chattering as they walked to the exit, arms entwined. They were happy to be reunited and I was alone, skirted by their swirling joy.
I looked at my watch. The clock on the wall was slow. It was nearly 2 am. I suppressed rising nervousness. Surely my husband would arrive to collect me soon. I hadn’t contemplated an alternative. I didn’t know his address or phone number, and at that stage I wasn’t to know, phones in Sudan were as unreliable as everything else.
All I had was the post office box number for the engineering company for whom he worked. Earlier that day I had sent a telegram from Rome. The man who sent it assured me it would reach Khartoum in plenty of time to warn my husband of my arrival. Only once I had his assurance did I exchange my last Sterling for a one way air ticket from Rome to Khartoum.
My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten on the plane. After I bought my air ticket there was just enough Lire left over to buy a pizza; one like I had seen people munching as they sauntered through Roman streets. Its bohemian promise was sadly compromised by the cold reality of a flavourless wodge of stale dough. Now I regretted leaving it on a discrete building ledge because I was hungry and even stale pizza would have done.
A man interrupted my thoughts.
‘Are you okay? Is someone meeting you?’ His accent was English public school, his blue eyes appraising under pale eyebrows and receding flyaway hair.
‘Yes. Thank you.’ In case he was dangerous I added. ‘I am waiting for my husband.’
He nodded and walked back to a small group of men, some in traditional Arab clothing, and some like him in Western suits and ties. They stood in a circle around their baggage talking.
They had lost interest in me and I returned to my thoughts, wondering if my Kombi would be all right in the Rome airport. My stomach growled and I remembered the bacon and eggs I had left behind. Oh God! An image of the food I had forgotten in the cool box of the Kombi bubbled to mind. It’ll be heaving by the time I get back to rescue it.
I had a good excuse for abandoning the car in Rome airport. I had little choice after its clutch went at the top of a mountain pass. I managed to drive, clutch-less to Rome but I didn’t think I could continue on with it like that all the way across North Africa. In the end it came down to a choice; spend my cash on an airfare or fix the Kombi, but if I fixed the car, I wouldn’t have enough money to pay for fuel for the rest of the journey.
The clutch packed up after I had left Lyon, days earlier, to travel high across the Alps heading for Italy. At the time I had no idea the road was closed. If there were warnings I didn’t see them. I stopped at a sign saying Douane. I knew the word meant Customs. It was the same in Afrikaans, which I don’t speak, but I had seen the word plenty of times at the South Africa border crossings. So I knew I had at last reached the border between France and Italy.
It was February and snow drifted metres high on either side of the road. On my left icicles, the length of broadswords, dripped like stalactites from the lip of a rocky outcrop. On my right, snow stretched across the landscape towards towering peaks hidden in cloud. I shivered as I alighted from the interior warmth of the Kombi.
Underfoot the road was covered with a thin layer of snow, enough so my footfalls crunched in silence as I made my way to the sign. A red fox, bushy tailed and magnificent ran in front of me, and I stopped to watch, remembering childhood tales from Beatrix Potter.
The fox disappeared. Once more I was alone with the sign, feeling the triviality of my existence. Above, a vast sky domed a fathomless blue, fringed with the cloud shrouded mountains. Still, I could not see a customs post. Perhaps I was mistaken, and the word did not mean Customs after all.
I turned back to the van. As I did, I saw something in the distance sticking out from the snow. I squinted but couldn’t make out what it was against the glare. I didn’t fancy wading through drifts to examine it. Slowly it dawned on me that it was a chimney.
A chimney meant a building and a roof, but none of that was visible from where I stood. The customs post was completely submerged. I returned to the car and sat, arms looped over the steering wheel, staring at the chimney wondering what to do. I didn’t want to go back so I figured I would press on. Perhaps there would be another post further on.
I turned the ignition and depressed the clutch to put the car in gear. The grating crash made me wince and I turned off the engine. I am not sure why I got out of the car again except I must have had some vague notion that is what one did when a car broke down. You got out and lifted the bonnet and fiddled in the engine until you fixed it. It was a silly notion really; I hadn’t a clue. All I did was shiver and stare.
I sat back in the car and pondered, but nothing came. I put the car in third gear, took off the handbrake and rolled, turning the key as the car moved forward. With a jolt the car started and bunny hopped down the road. As I picked up speed the engine screamed, and teeth bared, with my left shoulder rising to meet my left ear, I crashed into fourth gear. I would be all right now. I would worry about what I would do to stop or slow down to turn a corner when it happened.
Despite moments of terror, and cringing embarrassment I made it to Rome, but the details are too many for this story.
Now the Khartoum arrivals hall was emptying and a man in jalabiya and turban pushed a broom about in front of him. Outside vehicles arrived and left and the last remaining group picked up their luggage to leave. I didn’t know what to do, and looked again at my watch trying to contain rising panic.
The group that included my enquiring Englishman disappeared beyond the glass exit doors. I was alone with the broom sweeper. My hand went up to my mouth and I chewed a nail, thinking blank thoughts as I tried to contain growing despair. The door opened again. At last! I breathed out. He was here. But he wasn’t. It was just my Englishman returning.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘we are heading into town. I don’t think your husband is coming and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a taxi at this time of night.’ He looked concerned. ‘We can give you a lift to the Hilton and your husband can pick you up from there, if you like.’ He scanned my face. ‘You can’t stay here anyway. The airport is closing.’
I stared at him mute as my brain shrieked. I had heard scary stories and my imagination always worked overtime, but what choice did I have. I gathered my courage and nodded.
‘Thank you. Something must have delayed him,’ I said.
He picked up my suitcase, saying politely if unnecessarily, ‘we are outside.’
As I followed him to the car I had another thought. How could I check into the Hilton? I had no money, but it was too late to admit that now and anyway he was putting my case in the boot. A sense of fatalism overcame me and I tried to hide my worry with a mask of polite interest.
In the car the man introduced himself. He was on business and visited Sudan often.
He asked, ‘is this your first visit?’
‘Yes,’ I nodded wondering if admitting ignorance was a good idea, but I find it difficult to lie outright. Prevarication is easier, but outright lying always brings me undone.
‘But your husband lives here?’
Oh God how long would this trip take and how many confessions would the man exhume. I was wrong to be suspicious. He was merely a concerned English gentleman, and I was an ungrateful and mistrusting person. By the time we arrived at the hotel he had extracted the truth. I didn’t know where my husband was or how to contact him.
It was just as well this was the era pre-internet. Trust preceded technology and the hotel did not ask for a credit card or a deposit, for I had neither. They gave me a room without a flicker of doubt although they kept my temporary British passport. I suppose that was security of a kind. I turned to thank my benefactor and made my way to the lift. At least I was safe for now.
He called out, ‘you might ring the embassy tomorrow.’
I turned, and he explained. ‘Your husband will have registered with the embassy. They will be able to contact him.’
The breath I had held in my lungs, seemingly since I arrived, whooshed out and gratefully I said, ‘thank you.’
Here at last was a likely resolution to my rescue. Contacting the embassy hadn’t occurred to me. The next day, I discovered, it hadn’t occurred to my husband either. The front desk arranged for someone from the British Embassy to come and speak with me. He was a solemn young man, not much older than me, who didn’t seem able to believe I had travelled to Khartoum on my own with just a one way ticket, no money, and no knowledge of where, in the million square kilometres that made up the Sudan, my husband lived or worked.
‘Do you know the name of the company for whom he works?’
I shook my head. ‘I can’t remember the name of the company. I only have the post office address.’
‘Right, he got up to go. I’ll see what can be done.’
I counted the hours and was afraid to eat or ask for prices, afraid to leave the hotel in case he came to find me and I wasn’t there. What kind of bill was I racking up and how would I pay it if I couldn’t find him?
On day three, I was just about ready to despair when my husband arrived to collect me. He paid the hotel bill without comment. I didn’t ask him how much. He said not to worry about the Kombi. It would cost more to retrieve than it was worth. Of course he never received any telegram, but his grin of incredulity made me feel better.
‘Did you seriously think you could make it all the way here in that clapped out tin can?’
We walked out of the hotel through revolving glass doors. Outside the heat smacked into me like a solid wall, the air searing my lungs and I gasped. A minute later, discomfort was forgotten.
Before me lay the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, their waters flowing side by side for hundreds of meters before unifying into one mighty torrent that would flow on passed antiquity, oblivious to history and the puny efforts of humankind. I was in the enchanted Kingdom of Kush. A land of whirling dervishes that spawned al-Mahdī, killed General Gordon and crowned Lord Kitchener’s career. It was the start of my new life.
It’s the 1980s and Crispin St. Peters croons, you were on my mind. I love the song even though it’s decades out of date.
We are in Harare, Zimbabwe, what used to be Salisbury, Rhodesia. I still can’t get to grip with the new names. Harare used to be a suburb of Salisbury – now it has eaten the whole city.
We sit on high bar stools in the Round Bar and watch the barman pour our drinks, a gin and tonic for me and a beer for my husband, who plagues the poor man with an inquisition on how he feels about Mugabe’s reign, after the atrocity of Gukurahundi.
In here the lights are bright, unlike the shadowy room next door, silent now. This is the iconic bar of my youth and I gaze around remembering the magic of Le Coq d’Or. The live bands, the noise, the crowds, the haze of cigarette smoke laced with marijuana, the smell of spilt beer, drinking sickly cane and coke, and hoping one of the hesitant men will have the courage to ask a breathless young thing to dance.
Tonight, the tables ringing the room are full. Four new arrivals enter, look around and join us at the bar. I suck in my breath. It can’t be. It is. I wonder if I have the courage to ask. I say nothing and stare into my drink remembering.
Cranbourne Boys High first fifteen rugby team, and the boy of my dreams who never knew I existed, never knew his name was scratched into my ruler, never knew the trouble I was in when the Nun’s discovered it and complained to my mother. Who is this person they demanded. Mute I shook my head. How could I say he was the love of my young life? I had never spoken to him.
It was at my first grown-up party, my friend’s brother’s birthday. The sitting room was crowded with revellers, but I don’t remember any of them, don’t remember anything except bright coloured lights, the thumping beat of rock, the smell of devils on horseback, and his noisy entry with his band of brothers.
They swaggered in demanding attention by their loud and confident presence. An electric bolt galvanised the room. Suddenly life was more glamorous, more exciting, and party goers clamoured for their attention, surrounding them like rock stars.
I watched mesmerised until his gaze fell on me. Without hesitation, he handed his beer to his friend and pushed through the crowd towards me. Without a word, he confronted me, his presence large and mine trembling. I was the doe in his spotlight. He took my hand and pulled me into his arms. I went passively, captured and then he kissed me.
Minutes passed as the crowd whooped and hollered, egging him on, the girls green and secretly sulking. Who does this newcomer think she is? And still the kiss went on, his mouth coercing mine open, my stomach dissolving into quicksilver. I had never been kissed like it before. I sagged against him and he lowered me to the sofa, his lips never leaving mine. The crowd were restless, bored now, but the kiss went on. I was lost in ecstasy, ready for eternity.
Abruptly he stopped. Confused I opened my eyes to look into his, serious and intense.
He said, ‘I have to go,’ his look regretful.
I nodded and he got up, once more the rugger hero, the darling of the crowds as he joined his mates. Minutes later they were gone in a roar of lights and revving engines. I didn’t know his name.
I sat dazed on the sofa, my lips bruised, and a rash on my chin where his skin had sandpapered mine. No one spoke to me, but if they had I wouldn’t have heard. I was in love.
My husband’s voice brings me back into the bar. He’s talking to the man. The four of them join us, and I look at my fingers, embarrassed by the intimacy of my mind, lashes lowered covering the tell-tale secrets in my eyes.
Later he asks me to dance. Away from his wife and my husband I ask if he remembers. Of course he doesn’t, but I admit my years of yearning, smiling as if amused by the folly of youth.
Roy and his wife settled in Kenya in the 1920s. They met and married in India where their respective British parents worked with the Indian civil administration.
When I meet Roy he is eighty seven, I am in my twenties, Argentina has invaded the Falkland Islands, AID’s has just been identified, and the East African low veldt is in drought.
But it still rains in the high veldt where we live on a coffee plantation in Kiambu, on the central escarpment north of Nairobi, Kenya. The untidy green hills strewn with weedy banana plants, and the muddy red dirt roads still conjure the smell of damp fecundity along with the crisp high-altitude air shot through with brilliant equatorial sunlight. Endless people with bicycles and carts, hug the side of the road as we pass in our Mercedes four by four, courtesy of the engineering company for whom my husband works.
His job is to oversee multiple civil works across Kenya and Sudan. Where he goes, I go exploring places that for me are full of fable and fascination. This trip we are heading for Malindi, but will stop on the way to visit a friend of a friend who lives near Voi, on a ranch located west of the Nairobi to Mombasa road.
We seldom travel through Mombasa to get to Malindi, but turn off passed Voi to take the winding dusty roads through the vast lowland thorn scrub of the Tsavo East National Park. Drought claims this region as its own. Dust lies in drifts at the base of leafless thorn scrub. How animals survive here baffles me, but they are still abundant and easily spotted in the bush or crossing deserted dirt tracks. It is the attraction for taking the rutted torturous route.
We are warned to beware of poachers, who will not hesitate to kill. They say they are mostly Somali, hungry and ruthless. It’s as if the Kenyan’s would never stoop to poaching, which I am sure is not the truth although perhaps I malign them. My husband is unconcerned so I stop worrying.
As I gaze out the window I muse why animals choose such dry, difficult terrain when the rain soaked richness of Tsavo West rises into cool green mountains just across the highway. My husband laughs and says I am anthropomorphising, and anyway it’s not usually this dry.
On this trip we turn off to the west a few kilometres before our usual plunge into the dust stricken ruts of Tsava East, and travel a short distance to a farm we have been invited to visit. The sprawling homestead nestles into the side of a hill looking east across the vast thorn scrub beyond the highway. It’s high here and catches the prevailing breeze, making the whole place more bearable than the furnace of the surrounding plain. The house is magically evocative of the great British Raj, its wide pillared verandas overlooking tree shaded gardens.
In the distance a river bed meanders east across the plains, showing small pools of stagnant water that glint in the dusty landscape as it waits breathlessly for rain. Small dark dots move along its banks. Through binoculars one can make out herds of Eland, Cape buffalo and elephant.
As we pull up in the driveway, two men step off the veranda to greet us. Roy is dressed in a kikoy, a kind of Kenyan sarong, striped and tasselled that traditionally men wear, along with white shirt, sleeves rolled up his forearms, collar unbuttoned. Despite his age he is still fit and healthy, stocky and grizzled with fly away hair and a wide girth.
His son is perhaps sixty, tall and bronzed. He removes his hat with a courtly sweep, revealing light brown hair plastered to his head by his hatband. His eyes crinkle into welcoming creases, radiating against years of scorching light as he shakes my husband’s hand. He manages the farm for his Dad and lives a short distance away with his wife in a smaller more modern house.
He swings up into an old Land Rover and heads towards his farming duties as we follow the old man up steps to a broad veranda that leads seamlessly into a sitting room. There isn’t any demarcation between veranda and sitting room except for the layout of furniture. Two comfy old sofas face each other over a coffee table, bookending a fireplace.
It’s hard to believe a fire could ever be warranted in this place, but winter nights are cool. I glance up at the walls of shelving that flanks both sides of the chimney flue to create a dividing wall between the sitting room and the rest of the house. They are chock-a-block with books piled higgledy piggledy, and I long to browse.
Roy rings a small hand bell, and a servant wearing a red fez and flowing white jellabiya, brings tea. I pour as is expected, and we sit back making desultory small talk. He offers cigarettes and we accept. My husband walks over to the veranda and gazes out across the plains. I can read his nostalgia. He would give a world of ambition to own this place. Wild Africa is in his soul.
My cigarette burns down, and cupping my hand under it, I look for an ashtray but there is none. ‘Do you have an ashtray?’ I ask.
‘Just flick the ash on the floor, the breeze will blow it away,’ Roy says.
I look askance, and he explains.
‘My wife and I built this place when we first arrived. The external walls were made of hessian. If you dampen the cloth the breeze cools the house you see. We only built a few internal walls to hold up the roof, and for privacy in certain parts. My wife sewed all the walls herself.’
He smiles at my surprise. To me the words sewing walls doesn’t sound right.
He continues. ‘When she died twenty years ago, the cloth fell into disrepair. I couldn’t bare another person touching them, even for maintenance. Anyway what use are walls, they just trap dust.’
I am amused and smile. I love this man. ‘Where did you come from?’
‘I lived in India as a young man.’ He pauses as if gathering his memory. ‘My parents were there as British expats. It’s where I met my wife. After we married in the late ‘20s, we moved here. In India the writing was already scrawled across the country’s future, the place was changing rapidly. Unrest was increasing, and we were no longer welcome. My parents encouraged us to settle in Kenya so here we journeyed, and we didn’t regret one minute of it, although this country is changing too. Come my dear, if you are interested I will show you around.’
I follow him through a doorway to a dining room, also without outside walls, then into the kitchen. Surprisingly the kitchen has external walls and a window.
‘To keep the hyena’s out,’ he says.
A long electrical lead snakes cross the kitchen floor and exits an open back door. He follows it and I follow him.
He glances back at me. ‘I will just give these chappies a chivvy along. If I leave them too it, they will hang about all afternoon and nothing gets done.’
Outside a group of African men squat on their haunches, some in khaki shorts, some in jellabiyas hoisted up and bunched between their thighs. They stare intently at a television parked on an old oil drum in the middle of a swept dirt courtyard.
I stand on the kitchen steps and watch as he speaks rapid Swahili, too fast for my limited understanding to catch more than a few dozen words. The TV’s volume hurts my ears until one of the men reluctantly rises to switch it off. The men disperse in various directions to their farm chores, leaving the television on the drum, alone and silent.
‘It’s the only place that has reception,’ Roy explains.
I nod as if I understand.
‘They are obsessed, and will watch anything, all day if they can get away with it. I wish I never bought the blasted thing.’ He pauses a moment and then adds, ‘I thought I was buying a wireless.’
I laugh. ‘How…?’ I realise it might be rude to interrogate and I taper off.
He reads my curiosity and says, ‘I don’t go to town myself anymore.’ He looks down ruefully at his kikoy. ‘Haven’t any trousers,’ his hands sweep down across his thighs. ‘Cook runs errands for me when he goes to buy supplies. He’s the culprit who tricked me into buying this monstrosity. I told him to take it back but as you see we still have it.’ He chuckles.
‘When did you last go to town?’
‘A long time ago my dear—too long for me to remember. I rely on lovely people like you to bring me news. My son refuses, says I should get out, but what for? After my wife died I couldn’t see the point anymore. Anyway, I got too fat to wear my trousers so in the end I just didn’t bother. Now… well, one can’t be seen out and about without one’s trousers.’ He smiles at me.
‘But you could get more trousers made, couldn’t you?’
‘Yes I suppose I could, perhaps I will one day.’ He points across the dusty yard, changing the subject. ‘You see that kopje over there.’
I look up at the monolith flanking the back garden. It rises up shading the house from the western sun. Its high and I tilt my head back to gaze at its summit. ‘Ja,’ I say.
‘There used to be a troop of baboons living up there. They were a bloody nuisance. Since the law stopping us shooting any game, even these bastards, they have become even bolder and more belligerent.’
‘Where are they now?’ I ask knowing how scary an aggressive troop can be. The memory is still fresh. A few weeks ago, I was lost in a forested river gully near our house in Kiambu, trapped from retracing my steps by baboons. Their grunts and screams terrified me as I floundered through the bush, their spiteful shifty eyes watching me from the cliff tops as they tracked me for miles. I shudder.
He chuckles again. ‘They ran away.’
‘What did you do?’
‘It was cook’s idea really, ingenious. Bloody ingenious!’
I wait, watching him smile at the memory.
‘First we set bait and let them take it the first few evenings. Then they became bold and the troop’s leader would saunter up nightly to take the offerings. That’s when we set the trap.’
Despite my dislike of the creatures, I’m not sure I want to hear anymore, but I am too polite to say anything. The old man sees my expression.
‘No my dear, we didn’t do anything to harm them, just caught the leader. He wasn’t happy about that, but wasn’t hurt.’
‘What then?’ I shake my head wondering at the point of it all.
‘We dunked him in a barrel of white wash. He didn’t like that much.’
Bemused I ask, ‘why?’
‘Baboon troops don’t like strangers. They stick to their own family groups and won’t tolerate other baboons joining them. The one we caught was a big bastard, the dominant male so he would be pretty scary to a family group who weren’t his own.’
I don’t understand and shake my head.
He looks at me and purses his mouth. Lines radiate out from his bottom lip and down his chin with deep groves bracketing his mouth and nose as he recalls the incident. ‘Once he was freed of his confines, he bolted back to his troop. He was pretty furious, but desperate to get away. We watched him climb the kopje there.’ He points at the sheer rock wall. ‘The rest of the baboons were at the top, also watching him, but they didn’t recognise the strange white creature closing in on their territory. As he got closer they backed away, until they turned and fled, with him running after them. To my knowledge they are still running.’
I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not, but he was too busy laughing to care what I thought.
Roy insists we stay the night. He has a guest cottage across the garden where we can sleep, and he orders the servants to make it up. Over dinner I am besotted by his stories of the old days; on safari to the Rift Valley lakes, hunting in the Northern Frontier District, scandalous behaviour at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. He is a wonderful host and plies us with memories, and gin before dinner, wine at dinner and whisky after dinner in the correct order of the day.
His farm is lion-country-central. Now that he’s no longer allowed to shoot predatory game, he’s contemplating swapping cattle ranching for sisal, and has an experimental crop in the ground. He still maintains a sizable herd of cattle, but says lions take on average two head a week. They are eating his profits, but he is philosophical.
At bed time I don’t notice much about my surroundings as I weave behind my husband towards the guest cottage. I awake a few hours later with a raging thirst. I am in a single bed, my husband in its twin a metre away. We sleep under mosquito nets teepee’d over each bed. In the moonlight I can see that the guest house, like the main house, has no external walls. The moonlight creates dark shapes in the shrubbery beyond the roof line.
My husband snores deep in an alcohol induced slumber, and unperturbed by the cackling hyenas in the distance. An owl whistles as it hunts its prey. I contemplate getting up to go to the bathroom to get a drink of water. Then I hear another sound, one I have heard before, and my blood stops in my veins. It’s a snarling cough, then a rumbling purr rising to a growl followed by another cough.
It’s the terrifying sound only a lion makes. It’s distant, I know because I have heard their call close up before, outside a door-less hut in Dinder National Park on the Sudanese, Eritrean boarder, but that’s another story. This lion is at least half a kilometre away, but still too close for comfort.
I call out to my husband but he doesn’t wake. I lie rigid, my ears straining against the night, my eyes scanning the shadowy garden. Was that a movement? I stare but can’t be sure. I am holding my breath and gasp for air, trying to breathe normally, but the more I try, the more my lungs’ rhythm goes out of whack. I call my husband again but it’s pointless. I know from experience he won’t wake.
I tell myself not to be stupid. After all no self respecting lion will come near the house. Memories of humans with guns are still fresh. Anyway Roy has lived here for years without walls. He hasn’t been eaten by a lion. Suitably scalded for my fancifulness I try to sleep, but every sound jolts me to wide-eyed wakefulness.
Then its dawn, and relieved I go to the bathroom to quench my thirst, and hydrate my hangover. When I walk out from the bathroom, my husband is sitting on the side of his bed.
‘Did you hear the lions last night?’ I ask climbing into my jeans.
‘No.’ Surprised he looks at me. ‘Why didn’t you wake me?’
After breakfast Roy takes my husband to show him the sisal plantation but I stay behind. I scan the bookshelves and a title catches my eye; The Kings African Rifle Regiment. I pull out the book and sit down on the sofa, flicking through it, reading snippets but searching the photo plates for the unfamiliar face of my father whom I haven’t seen since I was a child of about eight. Somehow the Kings African Rifles rings a bell. I am sure my father was an officer in that Regiment during the war. An hour goes by in a flash.
I am so engrossed I don’t hear them return and look up as Roy says, ‘interested in my old Regiment are you?’
I look at him hopefully. ‘I think my father was in the Kings African Rifles in the war.’
‘Is that so?’ He looks interested. ‘What is his name?’
I say his name and he smiles. ‘Good grief yes. Percy.’
‘No, Philip, he hated being called Percy,’ I say, remembering an incident when I was a child. Someone called him Percy and he didn’t answer. I asked him why when it wasn’t his name, and he muttered some profanity under his breath.
Roy looks thoughtful. ‘Yes I remember that. I think it’s why the fellows persisted. Gave us no end of sport.’ He pauses searching his memory. ‘He used to walk a lot. Fanatical walker.’
‘Yes. That sounds like him.’
‘Yes, yes. Young red haired chappie; made captain before he was demobbed. Had a bicycle too I think.’
‘I don’t know about a bicycle,’ I say, disappointed I can’t confirm this piece of information. I remember the colour of the hairs on his arms though. They were curly and gleamed golden in sunlight. They fascinated me. Whenever I could I would touch them, feeling their texture with my finger tips, unraveling their curl to their full length, plucking at them until he protested. But I can’t remember the colour of the hair on his head; grey and balding probably for he was middle aged when I was born.
‘Good chap. I liked him a lot. Very amusing and the girls love him. He was a charmer.’
Now I knew it was my Dad. No one could lay on the charm like he did when confronted by a pretty face; perhaps with the exception of my husband. I guess that’s why I married him—my husband that is.
I felt a warm glow, knowing someone knew my Dad and spoke about him fondly. It made him real to me somehow. Before that he was a distant and indistinct memory.
‘Is there a photo in the book?’ I ask, holding out the volume.
‘No my dear. He only joined up at the outbreak of the war. That volume predates his time.’
It’s the late 1980’s, and I live with my partner in the Manganese mining town of Alyangula, Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Australia. He’s mad about fishing and it consumes our weekends. I hate fishing, but I am dutiful and try to like it. I don’t really understand the attraction although I like eating fish.
The reason I hate fishing is my love/hate relationship with the great outdoors. I love nature, space and the wilderness. I love the flora and fauna, not snakes so much or crocodiles, but they have their place. I do not like the tropical sun or the heat, despite having lived between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn for the best part of my life. My skin burns easily and mossies, sand flies and March flies seem to prefer the taste of my blood to any other.
My partner says, ‘they hone in on carbon dioxide.’ He laughs, ‘hot air, get it?’
‘Not funny,’ I say slathering thick smears of sun block, mixed with insect repellent, across every inch of my body.
It’s late afternoon by the time we reach the mangrove-fringed river mouth on the mainland, 60 kilometres from Alyangula across the Gulf seas. It’s taken us a few hours, battling strong winds that whip around the southern edge of the Island. The boat thrusts its bow to the sky as it climbs ocean hillocks, and thumps down the other side in spine jolting terror.
I am afraid of the sea, and have been ever since as a child, I read Noddy and Big Ears go to the Sea Side. Noddy is bitten on the toe by a crab. Obviously as an adult I am not afraid of crabs, but the sea is not my element. In Northern Australia, not only sharks and sea snakes inhabit its warm currents, but salt water crocodiles ply their way about the oceans.
Eventually we reach the sheltered mainland just on high tide, perfect for negotiating the narrow channel carved through the mud flats by an unnamed Arnhem Land river.
As soon as the danger of bottoming-out is passed, my partner hands me a fishing rod with a brightly attached lure and says, ‘see if you can catch a barra for dinner, while I take the boat in. I’ll tie up for the night over there,’ he says pointing at the mangroves.
I look at him askance. He’s joking isn’t he? ‘I don’t know how,’ I say.
‘It’s easy, look.’ He casts, and the lure jiggles in our wake. He hands me the rod, and turns back to steer in the boat.
I have hardly got a proper grip on the rod handle when the line whizzes through the reel, and I jump with surprise, almost loosing the rod overboard.
I try to hand the rod back to him but he says, ‘you do it. Just wind it in steadily, don’t jerk it, you don’t want the line to snap.’ He guides the boat to the mangroves and leans over, about to hook the painter around a study branch.
I am terrified of the line snapping, and more goes out than is reeled in, but eventually I see the fish surface. It shoots from the water, twisting to free itself and plunges back to the depth. I hop about with excitement. The boat rocks so I stop.
‘I can see it. Help me, what do I do now?’
‘Oh shit!’ He says dropping the painter back in the boat. ‘Here take the wheel.’ The boat drifts back out towards the channel as he takes the rod, his gaze fixed on the water twenty metres away.
‘What is it? I stare at the olive green ripples of the eddying water. Then I see it too, the shadowy length beneath the surface. It glides towards us with scarcely a flick of muscle, water rippling along its scaly back.
He has the rod and pulls it back vertically as he reels in the line fast and steady. I take the wheel as he shouts instructions about where to point the bow, and how much throttle to give. I do my best, but driving a boat is another first for me.
The boat seems to behave, and I risk a glance behind. There’s a silvery flash of fish beneath the surface. It’s almost at the boat and I swear it is swimming towards us to get away from the croc. But too late; we are all too late, and with a flick and swish the croc is gone, down to the depths with our dinner.
As my partner reels in the line, a sad and mangled Barramundi head rises from the river, dribbling pinkish water over the side of the boat.
‘Bad luck, but never mind, you can try again.’ He takes the fish head off the lure and chucks it into the river, then he hands me the rod, and takes the wheel to return to the mangrove mooring. ‘At least you kept the lure.’
I can’t believe a crocodile stole the very first fish I have ever caught with a rod. I once caught fish with a hand grenade, but that’s a story I am not proud of, and it was a long time ago. I blew a petrified tree from the waters of Lake Kyle. The only other time I had ever tried fishing was as a child at Kariba Dam.
We have an old cine movie of my Dad’s employee, Samson, taking us fishing off a pontoon in the lake. It must have been in the 1960s. The movie is grainy now, but you can see him handing each of us children a rod before we step onto the pontoon.
The largest rod is snapped-up by my middle brother, who I can see already has visions of the great Hemmingway-Marlin battle – even if we are on the largest inland manmade lake in the world at that time, rather than the sea.
There is no sound, but I can see Samson is disapproving of the younger boy taking the largest rod, and shakes his head. He looks at my eldest brother, who remains calm in his floppy fishing hat with its school band haphazardly attached. He is not perturbed by this breach of seniority. Sampson hands him the next biggest rod.
My eldest sister is next. She is head of the siblings and looks suitably bored as one approaching teenage years should. Fishing is not something to thrill a young woman, and I am sure she would rather be reading a Nancy Drew mystery. She takes the dainty rod Samson hands her, and steps to the rear of the pontoon, her back to the boys.
Finally, it is my turn. I am too little to step onto the pontoon myself, and stumble with its movement. Samson rights me, and hands me a rod, which I clutch proudly. I take it over to my brothers and sit down, dangling my line over the edge of the pontoon.
When recently, my partner and I watched that movie, he pointed out that the rod handed to me was just a long stick with a bit of line tied to the end. There was no hook on that line. No wonder I never caught a fish.
Now in the Arnhem Land river, my partner turns the boat around and heads back to the mangroves. I try casting the lure as he did. The reel whines and the lure plops into the water behind the boat. I feel very proud of myself and glance around, but he is busy nosing the boat towards the mangroves.
There is a tug and strike, I have another fish. The reel screams as the fish tries to escape. I can’t believe it and shout my triumph.
He glances back at me. ‘Bring it in before that bastard croc gets it.’
I reel frantically, praying it won’t snap the line. I really want this fish.
‘Careful, let the fish run a bit. Don’t make the line too tight.’ He’s leaning over, tying the painter to the branch, shouting instructions which I try to follow. Then I have the fish at the boat. I scan the water, praying no more hungry crocodiles arrive.
He finishes securing the boat and stands behind me. ‘Easy,’ he says as the boat rocks on the lapping waves. ‘Beginners luck, hooking two like that.’
‘Here you take it. I’m frightened I’ll lose it.’
‘No bring it in. It’s your fish.’ He lifts the net as I reel it in, and scoops the barramundi into the boat. ‘Wait til you taste fresh barra, straight from the sea into a frying pan with a bit of butter,’ he says. ‘There is nothing in the world quite like it.’
Andre Guernier said:
Finally downloaded Dying Days onto my Kindle. You use your words like an artists’ palette in the descriptions of your characters. A real skill. You’ve done a terrific job. I can almost feel the smell of the African bush. I did much of my work in the army in the Sengwe, deep into the Low Veldt. A wonderful place!