We weren’t given any handouts but did catch the arrival of that night’s dinner. Zebra stew. We hadn’t known this but, as a result of the famine and the difficulty obtaining sufficient meat, the school was expected to supplement its rations by conducting hunts. Senior boys who could shoot were expected to bring home the bacon, so to speak. We idled around watching, as the zebra was manhandled onto the fifteen-foot-square, concrete slab that sloped inwards to a soak-away drainage-hole in the middle. The concrete slab, heated by the sun till you couldn’t put bare skin on it, was designed, in a prescient nod towards the notion of multi-tasking, for the dual purpose of butchering game or a place to wash the laundry. Several African chefs emerged from the kitchen, keening their blades against steels. They ignored the miasma of the broiling, foetid and over-flowing dust-bins nearby as they descended upon the luckless creature. We watched, fascinated, as the zebra was slit open, the guts spilled out and all the flies of Africa relocated from the dust-bins and descended upon the carcass. After a while the prefects focussed on us, and shooed us away. “Voetsek, man! Bugger off, eh!”
“There’s at least one out there, I’m sure, maybe two,” I heard their hushed voices.
“I can’t see anyone, are you sure?” came the response.
“Well, I think so.”
And then the voices became further muffled and I couldn’t make out what was being said.
My heart beat faster, I felt sure I was alone and wouldn’t get any mercy. At the least they would fire at me and a catapult rock at this range was bloody dangerous. Worse than that might happen if I was taken prisoner. From my crouch, I couldn’t see anything other than the roof outline of the target house ten yards away.
Then I heard them. Several pairs of feet were leaping through the grass and getting louder! Coming in my direction! I decided to go down fighting. I sprung to my feet, and saw three boys converging rapidly towards me. The one in the centre loosed his rock; it whizzed close by my head for I heard its flight. I fired back on reflex without aiming and my rock caught him in the stomach. He staggered and fell to his knees winded and gasping. The other two were in point blank range. They had slowed to a walk, both catapults trained on me, and I had no chance to re-load.
“Oh, look, it’s Edwards,” sneered the one in exaggerated comment, coming to a halt and raising his catapult at my head. “You got Snelling in the stomach, didja? Where do you think we should get him?” he asked in an aside to Oliver.
The huge, black ants were packed tight, like soldiers in columns, so thick, there appeared to be no room between them; except in the places that our missiles had landed. There the larger column was interrupted, by the whirling in every direction of platoons of ants, despatched it seemed, to find the enemy and put a stop to the bombing and killing of their colleagues. As they spread out, the rear section of the column played catch-up with the front half and attempted to reform into their disciplined march, only to be bombed again, and more so as we joined in. Pepsi had taken his eye off the ants as we approached, and moments later, was howling at the bites. A squad of ants had climbed his sandals and were swarming over his foot. Pepsi hopped about on the other, desperately brushing his skin to get them off.
“You don’t want to let safari ants get a hold on you, Peps,” said Sheddy. “Those things are deadly, man. Once they stick their mandibles into you they never let go, not even if you cut 'em off at the head. Witch doctors even use 'em like our doctors use stitches to sew up a wound. When they’re on the march, there’s nothing stops them. They don’t let anything get in their way. Do you know that safari ants are the only insect known to have eaten alive a wounded human being? And they often will eat a large animal like a buck; I’ve heard they can strip an animal to its bones in a day.”
“Really!” I was stunned. “How ghastly.”
“Don’t ever get in the way of a safari ant column,” Sheddy repeated. “You got no chance, I’m telling you, man.”
"I can't get 'em off properly," Doug yelled, "I brushed them off but it's like they're still there, look at my foot?"
"Yup," said Sheddy, "You brushed them off but they left their mandibles in you. You won't get 'em out now. You'll have to wait 'till your skin grows out."
Hazel was looking into my eyes intently. There was a slight pull on my arm; she was drawing me towards her… and now we were close, hands still held, arms down at sides, nearly nose to nose. My mind was racing and excited.
Does this girl want to be kissed? I wondered. If not, and I try it, she might be cross and slap me. I’d seen that happen at the pictures, and besides which other boys had told me girls did things like that. But she isn’t talking or acting like she’d be cross. She seems expectant.
I noted the shape of her breasts under her thin cotton blouse. Hazel was well developed and under other circumstances, probably with a group of other boys, might have been the object of teasing. Certainly her development had been commented on by my friends. What was it Doug had said? One and a half British Standard Hand-fulls.
Her chest heaved as she breathed hard. A flush of excitement washed over me. I realised I was short of breath, breathing heavily like her as I stared into those hazel eyes after which, I decided, she must have been named. She drew me closer, my lips almost touching hers. I thought she must push me away, she would think me too bold wanting to kiss when we’d only just become boy and girlfriend, but she made no move to do so.
Mr. Simms continued, “These locusts will consume every leaf, every blade of grass, every bit of vegetation they can find. It will become our purpose to deny them that chance, at least as much as we can. Locusts are large and each one eats voluminous quantities. There will be millions of them; there could be as many as twenty, thirty, forty million of them, per square mile, so think about that.”
The girls, who already knew they disliked locusts from seeing just the odd one here or there in the grass, stared at Mr. Simms, wide-eyed, jaws dropped, ashen faces.
“Forty million?” gasped Carola Sorenson on their behalf.
“Yes, young lady, quite easily, but do not concern yourself overmuch, Miss Sorenson, they will not all land on your shoulders at the same time,” smiled Mr. Simms.
Laughter from the boys followed that witty comment, but the straight-faced girls were not in the slightest bit amused.
“They may be quite scary," Mr. Simms continued, “as they look horrible in close up and if they are swarming about your face and eyes and ears, you may become even a little scared, especially you girls who don’t much like any insect, I believe it is true to say.”
The girls were regarding Mr. Simms in alarm. Locusts in their faces, locusts in their hair? Forty million of them? …in a square mile? The prospect was horrific.
“How many square miles of them, sir?” I asked mischievously, with the girls in mind.
“Could be anywhere from fifty to one hundred, Edwards.”
“Fifty to one hundred square miles of locusts sir, with forty million per square mile? Wow.”
Even the boys stopped laughing at that.
The smell of game thickened the air, the musky odour of hundreds of animals carried before them on the breeze. Now there was a new disquiet. Snorts and grumbles, the snapping of twigs or cracking of branches, all resonated invisible through the trees giving a sense for a heavy wall of life rolling relentlessly towards us. Flocks of birds began flying away, squawking noisily as they did. The vervets had become silent; they’d warned everybody. If you didn’t leave now, it wasn’t their fault. Soon we’d be approached by thousands of zebra, wildebeest, and Thomson’s gazelle… and they’d panic as soon as Neil or one of the others got a shot off. My heart beat faster than ever.
We were crouched in the heat, swatting flies and mosquitoes, wiping our sweat as we peered through the trees trying to spot the first animals. Neither of us was expecting the commotion when it came. There was a flash of moving brown in the grasses, then several flashes.
“Oh my Gosh, lion!” I said. “There are simbas and they’re attacking the herd!”
“Shit!” exclaimed Neil. “They’re going to mess everything up.”
“I told you I thought I saw them.”
Before you could blink, the herd had been aroused. The alarm was sounded, the stampede was on and it was coming directly at us. That wasn’t in the plan. The herd should have scattered away from us, in response to a shot being fired.
“Close in behind me,” Neil yelled. “Use the anthill for protection, it’s our only chance.”
Heart vibrating with the heavy thumps of a gong, I closed tight into a crouch behind Neil, making myself as small as possible, pulled out my other hanky and held it over my nose and mouth.
“They’re coming this way,” yelled Neil. “Don’t move, Edwards, no matter what. They’ll be all around us in moments, hold tight!”
“Yes,” said Hazel in a suddenly subdued voice, tears welling now that she had said it out loud. She glanced down to look away, fidgeting with her hands as she sobbed for a few moments.
I put my arm around her and gave her a hug.
“Anyhow,” she sniffed, suddenly looking up, throwing her hair back and saying, “This won’t do; mustn’t be silly; it’s all over now anyway…."
She paused, then with a swallow continued, “He, that is they, Kitten and him, were messing about at the water’s edge. She’d taken her shoes off but not waded in far. Anthony was up to his shins in the water. There were dead tree logs floating by and one in particular. Except it wasn’t a log. Suddenly, with no warning, just as Kitten, that is Susan, had looked up at Anthony to call him to come and see something she’d found in the mud, the quiet of the waters suddenly broke into a roiling explosion of noise and mayhem as the log turned into the gaping jaws of this massive Nile crocodile lunging at her brother…”
“Let me take you through this one more time, Kinoyo,” said voice number one in Swahili. “We’re not going to take aggressive action like capturing or killing any of those European totos… yet. That will be for you to do when the time comes. We’re here to establish a cell, recruit people, train them and then we’ll move on. You’re our first recruit. But, you must do exactly as we say. If not, or if you betray us, you and your wife and your kids will have your throats slit… or worse. Do you follow me, Kinoyo?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Kinoyo, his Cigogo dialect evident. “I’m sorry to sound impatient. I just want to get this going, but I’ll do whatever the great Kenyatta says.”
“Silence!” interrupted voice number one angrily. “You’re never to speak that name, do you understand? Never! There must be no knowledge that we’re seeking to expand Mau Mau into Tanganyika. You will never speak of him, or his lieutenants, or of Mau Mau. When you recruit your people, you’ll not tell them of this either. When the time comes we will tell you what to say.”
Voice number two jumped in. “One of our leaders will be coming here for the first meeting by the second moon. By that time you’ll need to have recruited up to six potential operatives. We expect no less than three. Do you think you can do this? Are there enough discontent people who might readily join up?”
“I’ll find some,” replied Kinoyo. “Most of them seem to be fat and happy enough with the Europeans, I have to say, but still there is discontent among a few of the young. I think I’ll not have any problem finding four, maybe six.”
Doug and I looked grimly at each other, silently mouthing, “Mau Mau!” That was big trouble. Everyone knew of the atrocities going on in Kenya, the most awful, savage cruelty and bestiality, mostly Kikuyu to Kikuyu but of course involving Europeans, especially farmers and their animals. And this meant we’d be in serious trouble if we were caught.
“You should have some, Peps – the food’s super.”
“No, thanks, miss” he said turning to the lunch lady. “I can’t stop. Thanks all the same.”
“All right, dear,” and she was gone.
“How are you, man? What all happened? That is you under all those bandages?”
“Very funny, Peps. Yes, it’s me, and I’m doing all right. Not too much pain now, thank goodness, but it was pretty rough last night, I can tell you.”
I went on to tell Doug everything I could recall from last evening’s admission.
“The nurse undressed you?” he asked incredulously, this being Doug’s area of greatest interest. “Wow, Tony, you lucky bastard.”
“Shush, Peps, they’ll hear you.”
“And when the nurse was cleaning you up, did you, 'you know'?”
“Yes, I did ‘you know',” I assured him. “It was very embarrassing actually. I’m supposed to be badly injured and that had to happen.”
“Cor Tony, you lucky sod. I hope you didn’t leave her disappointed.”