Dara was dragging his feet again but couldn’t help it. Less than a dozen yards of the cool unlit corridor remained. Beyond it lay arid Africa and certain danger. Slight of stature, he had intelligent eyes and the complexion of a tenderly airbrushed glossy. Indeed, he risked being pretty, a dangerous liability in his sudden predicament.
His slackened pace made the teacher accelerate; the man’s heels clicking the concrete floor with menace and irritation.
“Little bleck fucker.” The teacher said it under his breath in that jarring guttural accent of the local tongue.
“Excuse me sir?” Dara half turned in disbelief.
“Don’t you dare beckchat me boy,” the man growled. He was already within shoving distance, his breath puffing jabs of hot air into Dara’s ear. “…You jus’ obey and GET OUT!”
Even with this threat barking hard at his heels, Dara’s feet remained leaden and reluctant to carry him the final paces.
Beyond the corridor—outside—freshly minted enemies waited.
For the past weeks he’d been feeling displaced. A refugee. But in this instant the anguish was overwhelming.
The scrubland in which he was marooned; this village, this dorp—Carnarvon in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province—had become his prison.
The muted silence of the school corridor fled as he reached the threshold. The zinging din from the cicadas was a wall of sound. It seemed plaited into the sweltering heat, amplifying the misery. He paused a moment, the rhythmic pulse from the insects clubbing his mind. His eyes squinted out over the arc-lit gravel wasteland where shadows seemed to hide on tiptoe.
The teacher’s voice behind him demanded he keep moving. This was a “final warning” it threatened. But he ignored it and stole a glimpse heavenward. The sun glared fiercely back. Like a biblical God of old it commanded him to avert his foreign eyes.
This sun was a different beast to the insipid glow of England. Here it was a cruel master. Dominating every outdoor ambition from horizon to horizon it seemed in no hurry to vacate its daytime throne.
Everything in this place was in no hurry to do much at all. Everything lethargic and slow paced; everything but the insects and flies that delighted in aggravating with their manic agitations.
Everything was parched too. Years of drought left the powdery residue of fine grit everywhere.
He huffed in resignation and pocketed his trembling hands. Predators would feed on fear if they spotted it.
This was now home. For the next three months this lot would be his lot.
He set his shoulders and stepped out into Hell.
Adopting a leisurely attitude that he didn’t feel, he aimed his hands-in-pockets amble for the shade of a flat-topped acacia thorn tree that promised some threadbare relief from the cloudless sky.
As he approached, the clutch of brown boys loitering in the shade there halted their conversations and eyed him with suspicion and a look of dread.
In the distance beyond them, oblivious to the oppressive temperatures, a noisy game with a ball was in full swing. Big boned lads, all white, charged about while a group of girls looked on admiringly. Most had blonde hair but one stood out, hers lustrous and full of body even from this range.
Clutches of kids engaged in small dramas, apart in other places around the playground. Apartheid, the forced separation of races seemed to have not yet relinquished its grip here.
“You’re the new one they’re talking about?” The boldest of the boys inquired directly.
“Till the end of term,” Dara confirmed, relieved that the pitch of his voice was only a breath too high. He offered his hand and the most nonchalant smile he could muster. The boys looked at the trembling offer as if it dripped with disease.
“Best you keep opinions to yourself then,” said the wispy lad with a yellow tinge to the brown of his skin and a shrewd oriental set to intelligent eyes.
“I haven’t expressed any,” Dara pointed out, giving up on his attempt at a handshake.
“They say you have…” the accuser motioned toward the big-boned boys, “you challenged the teacher, the domi...”
“Oh hogwash…” Dara retorted, his confidence flooding back at the lie. “That teacher… he told me to tell the class why I’m here.”
There was an awkward moment of silence, the boy studying Dara’s effort to subdue private terrors; in it he saw his own reflection so he extended his hand and a smile of encouragement.
“I’m Dawid… they call me ’Dawie’,” he pronounced the ’w’ as a ’v’ and drew out the ’a’ so it sounded like two ’a’s and a ’v’—“Daah-Vee”—he introduced the others.
Dara greeted each in turn, starting to ride the exhilaration of overcoming terror.
The adrenaline had spiked Dara’s mind and he’d taken the whole scene in at a glance.
Dawie had hair echoing the sparse pockets of bush in the desert just beyond the school’s fence. It tufted in clumps on his head. That and his startlingly high cheekbones and small ears struck Dara as peculiar.
The eyes of one boy caught Dara’s attention; they were green as emeralds and just as crystal clear. With his dusty blond hair and pale skin, he seemed strangely out at odds with this group in this divided place.
Dawie saw the small question in Dara’s frown.
“This is Tjaardt,” he introduced, and the boy’s face lit up. “He’s also a foreigner.”
Tjaardt corrected him, his mother was from the Baster community in neighbouring Namibia, but his father was local; and he’d been born in the town.
“Ja… but you’re not really one of us… and you’re not one of them…” Dawie’s head again motioned toward the ball game, “…so you’re a foreigner.”
As if arranged by divine intervention to emphasize the point, a wave of tension suddenly dashed through Dara’s new friends with a shout from the field beyond them. The game had momentarily halted and there was some consultation between several of its participants, one brute clearly the ringleader. He was glaring toward Dara and the huddle under the tree. Nods of agreement and an unmistakable hand gesture flicked in their direction, emphasized by a rasping curse in the local language that only just carried on the still air.
The boys in the shade pretended not to notice—but darting glances betrayed their fear. Though the game resumed, this newcomer in their midst had them in jeopardy. Dara felt the thing within trying to grip him with its terror again so he spoke carefully in a measured voice to assure himself all would be fine.
“So, they think I’ve ventured an opinion? And...? What’s wrong with my opinions even if I had? It’s a free world.”
“Free?” Dawie laughed the word out. “In this place if you don’t say what they want to hear, that is opinion enough. And it’s worse for you because you’re black….” He emphasized the condemnation with a scrawny finger poked at Dara’s forearm.
“I’m Indian,” Dara corrected.
“Ja… whatever… you’re a coolie; brown, black… you’re like me… makes no difference. You don’t have an opinion,” Dawie assured him.
Dara looked down at the offending dark skin of his forearm; the son of an Indian father whose father in another era had indeed been a coolie according to the word’s definition—an unskilled native laborer from India’s south.
He was proud of his Indian heritage but he’d not really noticed its blackness like this before. Here though, under the intense glare of the African sun and the fierce scrutiny of the locals his blackness seemed his standout and perhaps only defining feature.
The news got worse and worse, they explained—he was the darkest with a strange accent that didn’t fit the expectation the locals had for how he should talk; his larney—his posh British accent, hated so much because it was, well… British and, the British had burned their farms and imprisoned their women a century earlier. To the bitter end… they would never forget it.
“He says,” Dawid motioned toward the distant tormentors, “they’ll shut your mouth for you if you open it again.”
“I’m not scared of them,” Dara parried and forced the involuntary swallow he felt coming to leave him—it would negate the dismissive claim he needed to believe.
“Well then you’re a fool. They’ll fuck you up. Don’t you understand?”
Today had been his first full day at the school.
The last class he’d attended before this lunch break had been Life Orientation.
The teacher, a Mr. van der Nest, was a tall thin man with a hawkish face and ferocious eyes inherited from generations that scan distant horizons. He was not on staff but an outsider who filled in pro bono to teach various guidance subjects both in and out of the curriculum.
Van der Nest in an increasingly ill mood had checked his watch and halted class early.
“Sit julle Bybels weg,” he’d instructed the class. He’d wanted all bibles safely stowed before allowing this little black foreigner to speak the heresies that the school authorities had insisted he must.
He’d then fixed Dara with his most intimidating glare and gruffly told the boy to introduce himself; to explain to the class who he was and why he had come to their Carnarvon.
The order for this introduction, he’d explained to the class in Afrikaans in the tone of an apology, had come from a higher authority.
“They say to treat him like an ambassador for the project,” the Principal, Dr. Deon Louw, had earlier told Gert van der Nest. “I’ve been instructed by the department that, as the first of the scientists’ kids, we need to formally welcome him and allow him to talk on their behalf. Now… I don’t like it either Gert… but I’d rather he do it in your class because I know you can get it over with in the right context. As long as you let him have his say before the end of class, we’ve done our duty.”
Van der Nest didn’t like being told what to do or how to do it; it was one of the advantages of volunteering his time. For years everyone had turned a blind eye as he’d ignored the State’s official curriculum in his Life-Orientation subject in favor of his own doctrine.
But the situation had become even worse… He’d only just stomached the unfortunate news that a foreign scientist’s son would soon defile his turf when, ahead of the school assembly that morning, he’d realized the boy was a dark skinned Indian with flashing white teeth and the charm of the devil; one who’d quickly drawn several of the white girls into a tittering mob around him.
If many more like him were threatening to come, Gert had determined that he’d set the mood for their welcome with this one; so, with all bibles safely out of sight, he’d rounded on Dara:
“Explain to the class why you’re here… and make it quick,” he’d made Dara’s presence sound like an accusation of some dreadful sacrilege.
Dara understood the tone clearly enough but was clueless as to its murky motivation. For him, the straightforward question without a hidden sleight involved two sets of answers—Dara had elected to come to Carnarvon school to meet friends, avoid boredom and kill the last three months of the year before his final year of schooling, which would see him in a private Cape Town boarding school next year.
But to get to that explanation he’d first needed to explain what had brought him to Carnarvon; and that had required him to explain his mother’s career….
Since most of the kids were the offspring of sheep farmers or farm laborers, Dara had imagined that expanding on the details of the most exciting technology ever conceived in science coming to their very doorstep would be riveting and welcomed.
With this in mind he’d enthusiastically waded into the details, trying to inject excitement into his delivery:
“My strange accent…?” he had begun as jovially as he’d planned to, while pinning up posters of huge radio dishes superimposed onto their desert landscape, “…It’s from England.”
The class had reflected a few mild smiles dotted in a sea of blank or suspicious faces, the smiles mainly from the girls he’d chatted with earlier—and the teacher had given each of them a withering look to extinguish their welcome.
“My mother’s an Astrophysicist, studying the physics of the universe. She’s from Boston, but she graduated from Caltech. Now she’s on contract from the European Space Consortium and will be here for the next five years. My dad’s from India… he graduated from Oxford and studies Evolutionary Anthropology, so his work has him travelling a lot. He’s in America right now promoting his newest book and doing a lecture tour, but he’ll be visiting here soon...”
He’d finished fixing the posters to the board.
All the while the teacher had been pacing the class irritably, deliberately drawing attention away from Dara and to himself.
“…So… mine is a family of scientists; the first of many new residents who’ll soon come to this area to work on one of the greatest scientific infrastructures ever; the SKA… I’m sure everyone here knows what it is…?”
From the back of the class had come a response; “Ja… ’n rooinek duiwel gedoente”—a foreigner’s devil contraption, someone quickly translated for his benefit.
The class had erupted with laughter and out of years of habit van der Nest had scowled, trying to pick out the culprit and decide what to do. Since he’d agreed with the sentiment he’d done nothing but growl “STILTE!”—The class went instantly dead quiet.
“I’m sorry—I don’t understand…?” Dara had asked.
“It’s nothing… Jus’ get on with it! We know what it is—that telescope…” van der Nest had snapped, “…your SKA. Hurry this up…!” He’d stalked to the window and looked out at the nothingness beyond the parking lot.
Dara had seen how the class minutely scrutinized the teacher for his smallest reactions, hardly watching the presentation at all.
Van der Nest’s demeanor had begun hostile and steadily deteriorated from there; to ensure there’d be no misunderstanding he’d huffed and clucked noisily, making a scene out of advertising his disinterest and irritation.
“Well, sir… Yes… the SKA. It’s a radio telescope, not an optical one. Radio’s a longer wavelength of light so you don’t use lenses like a normal telescope; the SKA uses giant dishes… like satellite TV dishes, but these are as big as houses. South Africa’s sharing the project with Australia; eighty percent of it is being built in South Africa and…”
Another disruption; a heckler shouting out again in Afrikaans had led to a short but enthusiastic discussion with derogatory overtones about the raging sport rivalry between South Africa and Australia. Van der Nest had reluctantly shoo-shed this more interesting diversion.
“…SKA… Square Kilometer Array… it gets its name from the total collecting area of its three and a half thousand dishes spread all over Southern Africa and out as far as Madagascar, Malawi and even Nigeria. Together they make up a square kilometer… that’s a million square meters of collecting area. Now, here’s what’s amazing: It will collect more data per day than the Internet produces in a year… so much data that if it was written to compact disks, the stack would grow by a kilometer a minute. That’s sixty kilometers an hour.”
By now, Van der Nest had retired to his chair where he’d sat with his knee jumping incessantly on an arched foot, irritated and enduring this offensive boy with only a slender veneer of self-control.
The unpleasantness had got to Dara, his own voice had seemed to him to be coming from outside his body, his vision had bounced to each pound of his heart but he’d pressed on.
The facts of his mother’s career and the instrument she was helping to build had stunned him when he’d first learned of them. But though he’d used simple language, the teacher’s reaction and blank stares he’d received, had convinced him that a cultural disconnect in his telling of it must be the reason, so he’d tried another tack from his prepared pitch:
“Three hundred years ago when Galileo pointed his telescope to the sky, he increased our resolution of the stars by ten-times—but the SKA will increase our knowledge not just by ten but by ten-thousand times... As you know, Galileo was nearly burned at the stake by the church for being right… This is going to be a lot bigger and Carnarvon is going to be its very centre.”
The silence had crackled with that statement—all eyes had gone to van der Nest, whose face had cragged, his eyes slitting with ever more outrage with each word that Dara had spoken.
Dara had shuffled and stammered not knowing what he’d done to offend and how to turn it around, so he’d pushed deeper into the features of the unit and deeper still into the morass of the teacher’s wrath:
“The scientists don’t even know how they’ll manage all the data, but when it comes on-stream in another decade or so, computer technology will have increased according to Moore’s Law so tha…”
But it had been all too much for van der Nest, who had stood to his full height from his chair cutting Dara off mid sentence; “And what will this donnerse ding… what will your damned thing do hey? What is it reeeeally going to do, this fantastic masjien you like so much? What trrrruble is it looking for?”
Van der Nest had stammered the question, too blinded by fury to find the English words, his heavy accent rendering it almost incoherent. Dara had stumbled into the literal answer with trepidation.
“We… we’re… looking for the origins of the universe—fo… for where everything; the sun and stars, earth and life… where it all came from and how it happened. We’re looking for other life in the galaxy or univer…”
“And where-is-our-God in all of this?” van der Nest had snarled, his voice low and rumbling with menace.
Dara had seen an angry vein snake its way across the man’s forehead and it had unnerved him, “I… I… I don’t know sir.”
“I’ll tell you then you… you little boy,” the cautions Principal Louw had only just impressed upon him to avoid racial slurs at all costs with this foreign boy had reined his mouth in, but left it with nothing much else; “…our God is nowhere in there and that… that…” his hands had balled into fists, “… that means…”
He’d not finished his sentence; Face red, eyes bulging; the words had dried in his mouth. His jaw had worked but when all sound abandoned him, he’d slammed his fist into the desk and the pencil tin had leapt with a class full of hearts and clattered its contents to the floor. He’d turned and stomped to the door; a moment later it had slammed behind him with an echo and the click of his heels had strode away down the corridor.
“Jislaaik!”… a small nervous voice somewhere in the class had said.
The low burble and murmur of children unsure of what to make of a situation had been punctuated by a few nervous giggles. Dara had shuffled his feet and slowly made his way to his desk, careful not to catch anybody’s eye, careful to keep his hands closed to fists so they didn’t fidget.
A few moments later the bell had rung in the corridor outside and everyone had begun to file out until Dara had been almost alone.
The last to pass him had said, “Meneer van der Nest is die Dominee… the town preacher.”
Dara had listened till the corridor outside had become quiet and deserted.
He’d collected his belongings into his bag and left the classroom. School rules so recently impressed on him required all students to vacate the building for the duration of breaks but given the sudden crisis, he’d preferred some solitude to think so he’d sought out a quiet corner that nobody would be likely to check.
It hadn’t been long before the prowling teacher ferreted him out, identifying him as the newcomer who didn’t know any better. He was spared further sanction and unceremoniously ejected onto the playground.
Now outside, the heat was wearing on Dara. His emotions frayed, the effort of keeping up a brave attitude sapped his energy and he felt exhausted.
Just then the school bell rang again, calling an end to lunch break and everyone began traipsing back toward the squat face brick school building.
Tjaardt and the other boys went directly inside but Dara lingered a little talking to Dawie, reluctant to be in the throng, delaying the misery of yet more tension as long as possible.
“Whether you think you did or didn’t talk against God doesn’t matter,” Dawie was explaining. “If Dominee van der Nest thinks you did, you did… he makes those decisions for us.”
Dara couldn’t grasp the blind herd mentality of it, “Nobody around here ever thinks for themselves?”
“On this topic? No… I do, but I’ll never talk about it.”
“Well if none of you talk about it perhaps everyone disagrees with the preacher?” Dara suggested.
“Perhaps some do but I’m not going to find out.”
“Kom julle… OPSKUD!” shouted a teacher from the parking lot. He was pointing an accusing finger at them and motioning them to GET A MOVE ON to the building.
Their short delay had the two new friends entering the corridor, briefly within view of the distant adult, then swallowed by a clutch of stragglers from the field who had accelerated to catch up, all speaking Afrikaans
Before he’d realized it, Dara was shouldered apart from his new companion and swallowed by the mob, the ominous laughter peculiar to boys in a horde began pummeling him as they closed ranks around him, a sea of tall uniform walling and screening his view on all sides.
A sense of foreboding gripped Dara, but he committed to ignore it and win his way to the next class through bluff alone.
The press of bodies surged as they funneled through the unlit passage, so cool and dark after the brightness of the African sun.
When it came, he didn’t feel the punch—it detonated solidly at the base of his skull with a thunderclap of sound and he collapsed like an imploded smokestack.
Looking up, blinking, his vision reverberated; a sea of faces leering back. An acrid smell from the impact stung him. The ring of faces looking down on him jabbered excitedly, jostling and shoving over him lying prostate, the din in his ears from the impact of the blow obliterated all hope of comprehending a word or gist.
Through the fog he realized two camps; one half trying to move the other half away from him, the antagonists trying to get past them to land new blows.
There was a timid and testing kick in his ribs and someone stamped on his ankle, but he hardly registered these as pain, he only felt the nausea.
Then something wet, a glob of thick liquid smacked him in the face.
Instinctively he wiped at it with the back of his hand and a roar of laughter went up as it clung to his wrist; the unmistakable opaque muck of spat mucus.
Looking past it through the strobe and swirl of vision he saw the girl with the hair from the playground. She was fighting mightily, wrestling to push someone back, giving it her all to stop the figure reaching Dara.
He felt revolted to see the ferocity she endured for him, ashamed to be lying so helpless while she fought. Then she was gone, flung aside; and through the haze, surging into view where she’d been a moment before appeared the smirking culprit—as ugly as a fortress with close-cropped hair squaring off a head like a block of granite, his nose crooked across his face.
His name was Vermaak, Neels Vermaak—the ringleader from the playground ball game, the bad-news Dawie had just moments ago warned him about.
“Mister Prrrrretty boy…” said the piece of granite with a drum-roll to his ’rrr’s, “Jou klein swart moffie duiwelaanbidder. Kom… staan… ek klap jou weer.”
The throaty challenge to stand up for another smack needed no interpretation; Dara had already picked up enough of the local intonation to know he was being goaded with accusations of homosexuality and devil worship.
The words washed over him in a dream state, all in slow motion as the boy deliberately wiped his own mouth to emphasize who owned the gob.
Then, suddenly, the crowd evaporated and a lone adult was looking down on Dara.
Lying in the sick bay the kindly old secretary in a hideous blue floral dress acted as nurse. She had an icepack to his neck.
“Now you jus’ lie still, you hear?”
She was plump and genial and thick of accent; “Poor boy. I’m sorry for you but it’s your own fault… this is why you’re forbidden to horseplay in the corridors.”
Principal Louw, judge, jury and executioner, had quickly convened an impromptu hearing; the girl with the blond hair was among them, the block of granite was absent.
The principal wagged his finger sternly at the girl’s bowed face severely admonishing her; “Wat sal jou Pa se? Staan jy nie op vir jou eie mense nie?”—His tone said it all; the disappointment her father would feel and questioning why she wouldn’t stand up for her own people.
Judgment was swiftly delivered: Dara’s clowning had caused the slip and fall that had cracked the back of his skull on the floor. He was firmly reprimanded for putting the school’s good name at risk. Conduct like this strictly contravened school regulations—he would be dealt with and learn the consequences once his concussion had been assessed.
Dara was in no position to argue against the gang of witnesses hastily assembled. He didn’t care to, as he had no intention of returning to face sanction anyway.
His mother would be relieved with this decision, he thought. Marsha had been against him enrolling in the first place.
Now what he most dreaded was her inevitable, “I told you so!”
“I told you... I warned you! You know I’ll always back you up but why must you confront these people?” Marsha scolded Dara as they arrived at her car but she stopped and hugged him before she opened the door. “This is very upsetting.”
They got into the BMW, its sleek air-conditioned interior an oasis of familiarity.
“I didn’t confront them, Mum.”
“The principal just gave me an earful, how very insulting you were in class, …no respect for your hosts…”
“I’m merely repeating….”
“That’s ridiculous, Mum. I already told you what happened.”
“They see things differently—this is what I alerted you to…”
She’d been called at work to come and fetch him, and on their way to the car Dara had briefed her about the class incident, the playground tensions and the ambush punch.
They drove in silence through the school gates and she put her hand on his knee and squeezed it.
“I’m not attacking you. I’m just concerned you don’t quite understand. They’re different to us… different to anyone you’ve met.”
“I didn’t try to change them, Mum. I didn’t even bring it up. The teacher asked me to talk about your work.”
She was silent a moment. “How’re you feeling now?”
“I’m fine Mum, you’re making a big deal over nothing.”
…But she knew he wasn’t and saw how he kept his hands pressed firmly to his thighs as he replayed events though his mind in the silence, tension in his shoulders.
They stopped at the clinic where, after an hour’s negotiation, Dara triumphed and was discharged.
“You’re making such a big deal of it,” he griped as he opened the car door. “It was nothing, Mum…” he got in and shut the door. “I’ve had worse playing soccer.”
“Enough, Dara,” she admonished. “The doctor agreed… an overnight observation is normal.”
“But not around here…” Dara repeated what the doctor had conceded after Dara had used every argument to escape a whole night in a hospital bed for observation. “I’ll sleep in your bed and you can watch me all night,” he assured.
A few blocks later Marsha turned the car off the broad main street into a side road and parked outside a drab pale-blue building, fenced from the street with coiled razor wire topping its perimeter.
Flagpoles stood outside, the flags flaccid against the dazzling blue of the sky. A blue “South African Police” sign jutted above the charge-office door.
“Why are we stopping here?” There was alarm in Dara’s voice.
“We have to lay a charge”
“No Mum! No way! I’m not a coward.”
“We have to do it, Dara,” she asserted, knowing that fears of cowardice were his demon.
A hulking man in a straining police uniform filled the doorway, his back to the road. As they stopped he peered at them over his shoulder, a cigarette smouldering between sausage fingers held behind his rump.
Slowly he turned and studied them more closely, lifting the cigarette to his mouth and drawing on it thoughtfully. The smoky exhalation came slowly through his nose and his ice-blue eyes explored the contents of the vehicle, scanning its occupants as a predator picks prey from a herd. He puffed the last of the plume and a hint of an approving smile appeared at the corners of his mouth.
The giant nodded a barely perceptible greeting; it seemed more ominous than welcoming.
“Men don’t lay charges,” Dara was insisting.
“It’s not about being a man and it’s got nothing to do with cowardice, Dara. The ones who ambush from behind are the cowards.”
Since Marsha and her husband had begun spending extended periods apart, each involved in careers that forced them to different continents, Dara had assumed a fiercely protective role.
He bridled at what he took as a misguided suggestion from his mother that he was somehow weak; “I’m seventeen! I can handle this.”
“That’s ridiculous, Dara.”
She knew the look he was giving her now, fresh from winning the battle at the clinic his jaw was set and his eyes squinted with determination, ready to assert his rights again. In this mood he would not cooperate and she certainly didn’t wish him to dig his heels in among strangers.
By now the policeman in the doorway had half turned and was clearly talking about them to someone inside, alternately glimpsing back at them… nodding agreement to something either said to him or to his own thoughts.
It unsettled Marsha and she re-started the engine.
As she pulled away the man’s penetrating stare locked onto Dara, the boulder that was the policeman’s head slowly swiveling to track them. His expression betrayed a process of actively filing that face in his police brain for future reference… it made Marsha check and re-check her rearview mirror until they were well away.
They passed through the town centre under the shadow of the forbidding NG Church spire that dominated the landscape.
“You shouldn’t have gone anywhere near talking about their God,” she advised.
“Oh come on…!” Exasperation in his voice, “… they said that to you, too? It’s as if I’m in a parallel universe. Mum, have you even been listening to me? I didn’t!”
“These people…” Marsha gestured toward the spire; “they’re not thrilled to have us here. We’re not just newcomers, Dara; we’re the enemy. That preacher’s incensed about the SKA.”
“Now you tell me…” Dara said sarcastically. She could see him regaining his full confidence and it pleased her.
“I didn’t know till now… the secretary just told me,” Marsha admitted.
“What’s his problem?”
“She said he’s angry that we’ve come here to search for the Universe’s origins. He feels it’s a direct challenge to the Bible, to Genesis or something.”
“That’s really pathetic…” Dara huffed, “…Childish.”
“Childish it may be but they take it very seriously and that’s what I warned you about. I didn’t know they’re at fever pitch with it right now but I warned you that they’re Calvinist, Old Testament obsessed. They’ve created an angry God who holds each of them responsible for everyone’s behavior… and they enforce it with fists.”
“I know that Mum, but….”
“No, you’ve just learned it, Dara. I’m concerned that you still don’t understand. You like a good argument but these are zealots and it’s a volatile situation, so I’m emphasizing it. You’re out of your depth.”
They were silent a while, Dara contemplating her words.
The town slid silently by and gave way to asphalt through scrubland and undulating hills with a smudge of mountains in the far distance. They turned onto the access road to the SKA staff compound, sited on a farm.
Dara explored the lump at the back of his head and it hurt.
For three days he lay indoors, immersed in the satellite TV and fibre optic Internet feed, his pride hurting more than his injury.
Marsha called at regular intervals from work to quiz him, alert to signs of complications from the concussion.
The house staff regularly checked on and fussed over him. From the questions they asked and the way they studied him, they were clearly under instruction to report any hint of symptoms back to his mother.
Outdoors the heat remained relentless; indoors a climate-controlled heaven.
Slowly as his morale strengthened Dara ventured out to the swimming pool but the loneliness he’d aimed to avoid by attending the local school in the first place began to bite.
Marsha was at work all day and often into the night.
Dara was accustomed to sophisticated company; the house staff, friendly as they were, were simple country folk.
The 250cc off-road motorbike the landlord, a farmer, had lent Dara became his saviour. It came with restrictions of course; he was several months shy of eighteen, the age limit on public roads for that engine capacity. Marsha underlined this law with her own ban. With the unpleasantness of the town still so fresh in his mind he had no intention of violating these rules. After all, he had the run of the vast farm, endless tracks leading through the scrub, up into the hills.
Although Dara was naturally gregarious and preferred to have the company of friends of every stripe, he began to bury his feelings of isolation in the exhilaration of chasing around the vastness.
Soon he knew every corner of the extensive farm. The region was arid and devoid of the large wildlife that most people presume proliferate in Africa. In the intricacies of the insects, birds and small animals Dara found increasing fascination.
His father’s career as an evolutionary anthropologist had infected him; he knew that the area was dotted with caves containing Bushmen paintings from centuries ago… the legacy of these hunter-gatherer peoples who had been driven by indigenous African and European invaders to the arid interior of Southern Africa.
Dara’s world became exploration. He’d always done it through books but now it was hands-on, it was real. He’d been at it now for weeks and was already successful in his quest to find rock paintings, not knowing if he was the first to see them since their creation. Finding a fossil by chance, his horizons broadened. Now he spent hours intensively researching the prehistoric environment of the area.
Over dinner each evening he’d enthusiastically recount the new discoveries of his day and lay out his plans for the morrow. Often they’d spend time with others in the compound, Marsha’s colleagues and visitors and Dara would be riveted by the many facets of the development they where here to attend.
The prospect of living in a commune had been a foreign one to Dara but the longer he stayed the more he became captivated by its advantages; so many great minds in one place to tap.