Loxton, Dara was pleased to note, proved a much smaller but prettier town than Carnarvon—leafy and green and not the drab utility so common for the region.
The small and only coffee shop in the unimaginatively named Carnarvon Street, was tranquil and deserted. It was dappled in shade by a mix of well-established pine and poplar. The town almost didn’t fit with the arid escarpment into which it was set.
Dara had arrived early and parked his bike around the corner.
The road past the shop terminated in a circle with an attractively architected church built on it. The church itself was a smaller clone of the Carnarvon church, though its gardens were greener and seemed better maintained. Like it’s Carnarvon lookalike, the steeple had a clock set into it that indicated he’d arrived a full twenty-five minutes early. Excited, he’d ridden faster than intended.
Venturing this far from home with nobody knowing his whereabouts had been exhilarating. His heart was still fluttering—so many stimuli, concerns and issues nagging him; but they were all ridiculous, childish paranoias; or so he’d convinced himself.
He calmed himself and selected a seat in the shade. The young coloured waitress came out and wordlessly passed him a menu, then went back inside. Through the glass he saw her consult with an older white woman who studied him as the waitress spoke. The older lady nodded and came outside, directly to him.
“Hello seun, is jy alleen?” It was a badly disguised ruse to engage in conversation—clearly she wanted to know what a dark skinned youth—perhaps the first ever—was doing at her table.
“I’m sorry Ma’am, I don’t understand,” he said.
The cultured Oxford accent startled the proprietress.
“Ooooh, ‘n Engelsman!” She bleated in response. “I is sorry my boy,” she continued in halting and heavily accented English. “I did not know. Is you going to be alone, so I can clear?” She indicated the cutlery settings for four.
“I have a meeting with someone,” Dara told her, feeling important, and she cleared two settings.
“I get you something while waiting?”
“Water will be fine.”
The water was a little brackish, municipal tap water with a tang of chemicals, but it was palatable and Dara’s constitution was now accustomed to the local flora as he had a few months earlier.
It was a tranquil and windless day, the cicadas barely perceptible in the distance. Dove and rock pigeon choruses were the lead vocal, strumming out their signature staccato call. No vehicles or pedestrians were about.
A few minutes later, creeping silently, a pickup with a cage at the back rolled by—it had the blue and yellow markings of the South African Police and was topped with a blue light over the cab. It had two occupants; a white driver and black passenger, both in police uniform—they studied Dara as they cruised. Their approach and their focus made it clear that they had been called to take a look.
They reached the circle with the church on it fifty meters away and passed out of sight around and behind the shrubbery and building.
Dara’s heart was suddenly pounding, his breathing ragged.
“Relax!” he told himself. This was a pickle; a dark-skinned boy in whitest Africa—sixty kilometers from home on a motorbike he was not licensed to ride! The flimsy menu he was pretending to study fluttered so he put it down.
She was watching him through the window—the owner of the shop, talking on her phone.
The van was gone and didn’t appear again as it should have if it had kept the same pace; “Surely they would…” Dara assured himself, “if they were coming back…?”
He was gripped with paranoia, trying desperately to relax.
A few minutes passed and the waitress came out again to inquire if he needed anything else. It felt more like she’d been sent to gauge something, but the moment she saw the police van rolling silently back from behind the church she scuttled straight inside again.
Dara quickly fished in his pocket and pretended to make a call on his mobile, hoping it would give him cover and make him appear unconcerned. He orientated himself to watch the road in the reflection of the window, just then the vehicle slid quietly into view. It stopped adjacent to his position and the idling engine cut.
The moments passed at a glacial pace, his mind cramming with what might happen next.
He heard the door unlatch and saw the reflection as the driver got out on the far side of the vehicle, donned his police hat and started making his way around the front of the car—now definitely heading in Dara’s direction.
Dara was transfixed, watching with horror as the reflection in the glass locked onto him. He did his best to appear unconcerned.
The shop owner was watching too. In the silence he could hear the first crunch of the approaching boot on the pathway.
Just then the policeman in the passenger seat on the 2-way radio called to his walking companion. The man turned aside and went to the passenger window.
Dara felt the urge to bolt.
At that moment the silence was broken by a high-pitched whine and a throaty cough of thunder approaching from the distance, out of sight, beyond the circle and the church.
The engine coughed and coughed again—three more times; blasting suddenly into the howl of a jet engine as the low-slung glistening red car burst from behind the church under throttle—it looked like a predator, crouching low and wide, clinging to the tarmac as a lobster grabs a towel.
The car coughed a final time as the driver flipped the gears down to a halt, snug behind the police van.
There it burbled like a wasp’s nest full of smoke; the engine cut.
The policeman had straightened from the driver’s window, studying the red sports car pulled contemptuously close behind him on a deserted street.
The door of the Ferrari opened and its sharply dressed driver unfolded his lofty frame from its innards. The policeman suddenly seemed to recognize the man and made haste toward him, but as he came in range the man faked a punch to the policeman’s gut. As the cop doubled to the lightly landed blow, the man snatched the police hat off his head and crowned himself with it, displaying a deftness and speed that belied his proportions. It was a friendly gesture, but one only a true friend could get away with.
There was unbridled laughter and a slapping of backs, a bone-crunching handshake and smile-lines creasing both men’s faces.
Only then did Dara realize he’d halted his charade on the phone and was watching the scene unfold, mouth agape with bewilderment.
The hat was restored to its rightful head and the two men spoke a moment longer, then the well-dressed young man looked in Dara’s direction and gestured toward him. The policeman followed his gaze and the pair said something to one another; the tall man patted the cop on his shoulder said, “Dankie boet, groete aan almal.”—intimate greetings of old friends.
“Al’s reg,” the policeman replied his affirmations and returned to his van as the young man with the wide smile and electric blue eyes approached in Dara’s direction.
Dara could see both policemen still studying him intensively as they cruised slowly away in the background. The white driver now had the radio microphone up to his mouth and he wasn’t smiling.
“Memes?” The stranger asked.
“I’ll be in my car… you can’t miss it…” Dara remembered those words and now he understood them. The traumatic startles of the past half hour had nearly wiped his memory clean; he’d almost forgotten why he was even here, chancing his freedom.
“VoorVel?” Dara asked tentatively, stumbling over the pronunciation, which required an “F” sound for the “V”s; phonetically, “FoorFel.”
“Uhmmm, well… yes—but don’t say it out aloud!” The man suggested, “It’s not something you say out loud… That tannie in there will hear you and won’t be pleased.”
As Oom literally means uncle but is generically used for any older man, so too tannie means aunt and has the same purpose as a generic label for all older women.
“My name is JJ… JJ Kruger,” the man said.
Kruger was a common enough surname in the area, but it stood out for Dara. It was a significant name, but in this instant of tangled emotions he just couldn’t place it.
“How did you know I’m Memes?” he asked as they shook hands; JJ’s hand like a brick, thick and solid.
JJ looked around theatrically, “Is there anyone else here who looks like a dirty heathen?” He asked with a laugh.
Apart from the tannie and the waitress, the village seemed entirely deserted.
“But I didn’t expect you to be so young—you don’t give that away when you write.”
“Thank you,” said Dara, a bit taken aback by it all and at a loss for words.
“The pieces are falling into place …” JJ pondered aloud, studying him. “I heard from my Pa that there was some trouble up here with an Indian boy…. Your mother is a scientist?”
Dara was speechless as his predicament far from home came crashing in on him—he’d seen the electric blue eyes before, the colossal proportions—he’d heard the surname—Kruger—Constable Kruger, he realized, the hulking man with the predacious eyes filling the doorway of the police station.
He felt the blood drain from his face and he went faint, his mouth dry and tunnel vision threatening.
“Your dad’s the policeman in Carnarvon?” He stumbled, trepidation in his voice.
“Don’t worry,” JJ reached across and enveloped his shoulder in that vast paw. He’d seen Dara’s look of terror; the reasons for it were obvious. “We’re friends, remember? Same side; I’m not one of them.”
The old lady in the store was on the phone again, watching them through the window and reporting this outrageous gossip to somebody… possibly to everybody.
“So your mother is a scientist?” JJ asked, “Impressive! Rumour has it that she’s beautiful too. Smart and stunning.”
“Yes,” Dara agreed—he was very proud of her.
“It’s an exciting project we’ve got here. I was so excited when it was announced,” he sighed. “But my people… they’ve got gripes, some are legitimate and others are ancient fears and suspicions they’re battling to overcome.”
JJ did most of the talking, Dara listened; he was a good listener and enjoyed the man’s insights, enthusiasm and grasp of many subjects; from the sciences to economics, social issues to personal sensitivity of the prevailing race biases.
“You do know that it comes from fear, Dara?” JJ pointed out. “They think they’re strong; they’ll trumpet how strong they are in their ‘Lord’, and that their Lord gives them this or that authority. It all sounds very convincing, even to them; they even convince themselves that it’s true. And in many cases it is true, their conviction of a higher authority to authenticate and authorize their actions does make them overcome what perhaps those without that faith might achieve. But it’s all self-hypnosis. I know, I was one of them, a youth leader for half my young life… Until I went to the city.”
He’d ordered a beer and offered one to Dara, but Dara refused. JJ sipped and smacked his lips, savoring it, “Delicious on a hot day,” he said raising it to Dara.
“Yes… My Mum often allows me a beer, but I’m on the bike,” just saying that out aloud made Dara feel quite grown-up—though he cringed within for having preceded it with; ‘My Mum allows’.
JJ saw the boy cringe and felt for him, so he pretended he didn’t hear it; “I’m driving too, so I’ll just have the one.”
The waitress brought some snacks, and when she’d gone, JJ returned to their conversation;
“I’d grown up here and had blinkers on, but at university I had my eyes opened… ‘The Bible says this’ and ‘the Bible says that’… that was my reference... Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t stupid… just misinformed. I wasn’t uneducated, just under-educated. It was a mess, really… just a tangle of self-assured bigotries put in my head that I kept repeating till they were true. You must remember that where I come from I was taught blacks and coloureds… anyone not European, were automatically stupid, lazy, untrustworthy… atheists too! Atheists were the worst; in my view they were devils and demonic. You couldn’t trust them, they had no moral fiber—because in my world, morals only came from the Bible. And then I met these people, these atheists, brown and black people on equal terms. In Cape Town I couldn’t dominate them and I couldn’t avoid them. I couldn’t ostracize them, they were everywhere and they had the same rights as me. If I tried to ostracize them, I’d be the one ostracized by just about everyone else. I had to adapt or die.”
His phone pinged with a message and his eyebrows rose as he looked at the screen; “This is what drives me nuts… those cops or the tannie are broadcasting… the family knows I’m in Loxton… they want to know what’s keeping me.” His thumbs were a blur as he typed a response, his brow furrowed with irritation.
Dara made to collect his keys to leave.
“No… relax... they can wait. I just need to also tell the wife I’m safe… she worries… hates this car...” his expression softened to a smile as he sent the second message, “…but, you know… it’s the reward I promised myself in the years of sacrifice.”
He put the mobile aside; “…I was telling you; when I came home in the early years there was strife. Trouble in my home with my father mostly and trouble in the dorp with my old friends and the Dominee. My wife’s American and not very welcome. I went to church to appease the family but it irritated me, a waste of my time… my mind had moved on. Predictable nonsense—you only see it as an outsider… I didn’t go back and the pressure came on… endless guilt trips, threats of damnation, shunning. Jeez, enough to have intimidated me if I wasn’t so independent. Eventually the nonsense stopped when they realized it wasn’t working.”
The tannie came outside to ask if they wanted anything more and JJ was very friendly with her. He made small talk in Afrikaans and ensured she didn’t hear anything of the heresies they’d been speaking of to feed back into the town’s gossip mill.
When she’d gone he went on;
“That was a decade ago, we get on fine now—nobody bothers me about it anymore. I don’t come home often, not much for me here. My business is in the city, my friends and life are there. I mainly live in the suburbs but also have a beach house for weekends and holidays.”
“What business?” Dara asked—he felt like he was being bad company, just listening with not much to add till this gap.
“I buy hospitals,” he said. “…bit of a long story…”
“Gee, that is amazing. Are you a doctor?”
“Oh… no… businessman. I qualified in law and practiced for two years in South Africa, but I didn’t enjoy it, so I did a gap year in the States and made a bit of cash as a head hunter with an Executive Search firm… helping place Vice-President and above at HMO, Managed Healthcare facilities all over the States. It gave me a great sense of the medical industry as a commercial venture. When I got back to South Africa hospital privatization was just taking off… Right place, right time; a friend of mine was a doctor at a hospital and I heard it was in trouble. My wife’s connected to big money, so we found backers and got our first buy out. It was very lucrative. We now have…” He squinted in thought; things lately had been moving so quickly that he needed some calculations. “Sheeew… it’s pretty close to a billion in cap value and it’s still a private concern—I’m resisting us floating it. Sorry—you understand what ‘floating’ means? What cap value is?”
“Sure—floating on the stock exchange—the cap values what your assets are worth,” Dara said.
“I forget—you’re still at school; but you’re so advanced. What were you thinking, going to Carnarvon School? It’s a village school, they’ve never seen anything like you before, of course there was going to be kak, shees man!” JJ laughed at him in a jovial way, it was a warm laugh, the laugh of an equal.
“I thought I should get to know the locals, even though I won’t really live here”
“And how’d that work out for you?” The question was a politeness, JJ knew all about the incident—and more.
“I made one good friend; his grandfather’s a bushman clan leader around here.”
“Ahh that’ll be Oom Karel—nice old man. You met him?” JJ asked.
“No, I only know his grandson, Dawie—Dawid. But he speaks a lot about his grandfather and his people.”
“Ja… his people,” JJ said it contemplatively, pausing. “…Good kind people, ambushed by history. We’ve done so much wrong to them… I doubt we can ever make it right.”
“Charity?” Dara ventured.
“Alas… Money doesn’t seem to help. A big issue is that their culture never developed alcohol—it’s lethal to them. What they don’t drink away they get scammed out of—they’re pretty innocent people. Sitting ducks for every con artist or dirty politician.”
“What if they had their own land?”
“I might be wrong, but I think that party’s over. Their traditional ways are down the toilet, the game they traditionally subsisted on is gone; poachers will see to it that it stays gone. They realistically can’t hunt for a living, and most don’t want to anymore. Subsistence doesn’t work in the modern world...” He shook his head.
“My dad says the same thing… insoluble,” Dara agreed.
“You know…” JJ nodded, “You really must meet my sister—she’s seventeen. You’re… what, eighteen?”
“No, Seventeen also,” Dara said.
“You said you came by bike?”
He looked quizzical and Dara stammered the reply; “Yes… a… a small one.”
“Long way for a one two five?”
“It’s… uhmm… a two fifty,” Dara conceded.
“Hmmm… so… seventeen… no license then…?” JJ smiled knowingly. “Glad you didn’t accept the beer or I’d be complicit. Don’t let our friends in blue get you,” he winked, referring to the police uniforms. He sipped and pondered thoughtfully, “You must definitely meet my sis… She’s a beautiful lady… beautiful person… Your dad?”
“My dad’s an author… a speaker… evolutionary anthropologist, so he travels a lot,” Dara volunteered. “All over the world with lectures and book launches.”
“Interesting… what’s his name?” JJ inquired and Dara told him. “Wow—I know his work well, I’m a fan.”
“He’s visiting soon.”
“Hell, I’d love to meet him.”
“I can organize it,” Dara assured.
JJ indicated to the waitress for the bill.
JJ paid and they bid farewell with a loose plan to meet again during the week.
The car door thunked closed and the predator barked into life. JJ u-turned and the engine boomed a blizzard of sound. By the time the car reached the roundabout with the church built on it, he’d geared up three times and back down a gear to round it; the engine whistled out of sight and the car was gone.
The oblivion of silence settled once more over the town, it left Dara feeling strangely vulnerable and foreign all over again.
He walked quietly round to his bike, donned his helmet and kicked the machine into life. He retraced his path back to the highway, following JJ’s path toward Carnarvon.
At the junction he turned right and headed north. There was no traffic through the semi-desert and the sky was its usual aching blue, the temperature as hot as always. A light crosswind toyed gently with the bike.
Dara settled into the ride; he was already past the half way mark and approaching a highway sign that read ‘25 kilometers’ to Carnarvon; it meant there was less than twenty to his turnoff; home in ten minutes; and he began to relax.
The road inclined and passed through a cutting into the apex of a hillock. As he crested and began the descent into the next dip there was a small gravel lot obscured by a flanking rock formation. He passed it and in horror glimpsed the parked police patrol van from earlier facing the road. His heart leapt and his eyes flew to the handlebar mirror but the knobby tires made it judder so that the image danced too much for detail.
The engine was screaming and he realized that he had the throttle cranked wide open—he dared a darted look back over his shoulder and could see the van still parked. A moment later he looked again and the van was moving from the slip road to the highway. He was crazed now, the bike shaking and near its limited extent for speed—another stolen look over his shoulder and the van turned onto the highway, it’s blunt back facing him; retreating to Loxton.
With a flush of relief he returned attention ahead with only a split second to react; the road was curving away and he was on a collision path with the crash barrier. Time jammed to slow motion again. He fought the bike to match the curve but the barrier was bending faster toward him than he could manage, closer and closer it came. He knew the rule—look where you want to go, not where you’re afraid to hit, so he forced his eyes down the road.
It was only a glancing blow; his adrenaline surge anaesthetizing the impact, the barrier slamming into the bike’s steel crash-bars, but it gashed his pants open at the knee. The bike swerved, he corrected and over-corrected, it swerved in the opposite direction—the barrier was coming up again. He pumped the back brake and the bike slid, the rubber bit and he corrected again.
The road opened in front of him and he was traveling normally in a straight line as if nothing had occurred. He shut the throttle right down, back down under the speed limit.
His tongue felt like a chunk of shoe leather in his mouth and every finger seemed to be capped by a golf ball. He felt the trickle of icy sweat down his flanks and then the numbness of his knee began to fade, giving birth to sickening pain. He stole a look—it was ugly; blood and gore, open flesh gaping through the rip in his blood-soaked pants, a windswept iceberg of white bone sitting proud of the red mangle.
“Oh… ggggreat!” he exclaimed. It would need a stitch or ten and that would take some explaining.
Another few kilometers passed and his knee was starting to stiffen; the whole leg racked with pain. The bike felt a little different too—felt like it was floating and crabbing, not reacting properly; or perhaps it was just the nausea from the bump he’d taken?
He passed the Fraserburg turnoff—home was quite close now, his mind was a clutter; outthinking the questions that would be asked about his knee and the bike—where it had happened and how it had happened.
He needed a story that fitted the evidence; he hadn’t fallen, there was no evidence for that. He also needed a story that wasn’t too improbable; his mother was incisive in her questioning and she could link the most unlikely things.
To keep the bike, he also needed a story that meant the accident was not his negligence, was not caused by excessive speed—and he couldn’t see how he could make that one fly given the probable scrape to the steel of the crashbar.
There weren’t too many possible answers he could come up with on a dirt road alibi that fitted what he needed his mother to believe.
All of those problems suddenly evaporated as he rounded a bend, and, directly ahead, the road was blocked. Instinctively, he shut the throttle and stood on the brakes—a police van blocked the road, a single arms-folded blue uniform in front of it.
His options were to run—to double back. On an open tar road his machine could barely break the speed limit and the van would be on him in seconds. He had no option, he had to play it cool—so he rode steadily onward, slowing as any law-abiding citizen would in such an eventuality.
Then another realization detonated in Dara’s mind—the man in front of the van was huge, he had ice-blue eyes that bore ruthlessly across the closing distance between them.
Dara’s heart felt like a boulder crammed in his chest, it was Kruger—JJ’s father, JJ had sold him out.
Just a putting green of distance between them now…
His mind was racing for how to react. He slowed to a halt and the hulk walked slowly forward, nodding curtly with recognition.
“You a veeeery long way from home,” the cavernous drone and throaty rumble of his heavily accented voice was unmistakable.
“A…. a bit”, Dara stammered. It was a weak statement but he was surprised any sound left his mouth at all. His mirrored visor was still firmly down; he knew that he should tip it up but he was desperate to keep any last pretense at anonymity as long as he could—realistically his accent had already identified him; it was a pointless and silly hope.
The policeman walked slowly around behind him, seeming to take forever to reappear. Dara had both feet on the ground and was watching him intently in the rear-view mirrors; the engine pinging from heat and smelling of oil from the strain of the ride and the bump it had taken.
“You ran out of talent,” Kruger observed dryly, looking at the gash in Dara’s knee. “…Going to need some needle work.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Dara tried to sound nonchalant, but with his leg now extended, his foot on the floor, the freshly wind-dried scab had cracked and he could feel the trickle of new blood running down his calf, tickling into his boot. His nausea doubled.
“You’d better get it seen to,” the cop’s words sounded empathetic, his tone didn’t. “There’s an accident up ahead though so you’ll have to cut through the farm lands,” Constable Kruger indicated the dirt road that intersected where the van was parked. “That’ll bring you out on the R63—it’ll get you into town and you can backtrack to your compound.”
Dara was lightheaded with shock, stunned that he was being released.
He thanked Kruger enthusiastically and pulled away, missing then clashing his gear change. The dirt road was loose and rutted, punishing his knee.
He rode on carefully, resisting the urge to run again. He felt exhausted from an afternoon full of so many sudden and unexpected surprises. There was exhilaration too; the recent surge of adrenaline with the policeman had dulled the developing ache in his knee and cleared his head.
“Just nurse the bike home,” he spoke out aloud inside the helmet and reminded himself of his dad’s watchwords when you’re under pressure “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
He was very keen to be home fast.
His mind was now filled with concern for what the news of an accident—one sufficient to shut down the highway—might mean.
His mother jumped first to mind. He pushed that fear aside; she worked in a different direction and only returned toward sunset, but the demons of worry that it could be her crept back and he subdued the thought again, checking himself when the urgency of that worry had opened the throttle a bit.
And what about JJ… Kruger’s son? Had JJ betrayed him? It seemed unlikely and pointless if Kruger had just let him go…
Had JJ crashed, he wandered—JJ had taken off like he had a coal on his seat. But the father would hardly be out on the highway directing traffic if his son was in the accident.
Perhaps then Kruger hadn’t realized or been told it was his son? That wasn’t possible either; JJ’s car was hardly inconspicuous.
Dara’s mind was a maze full of escaped monkeys, thoughts bolting in every direction when a new one ran through the frame and began to gnaw at him—his own accent. The cop definitely knew who he was and therefore knew his age and no license… and… and… and so many angles, too many surprises for one day—his mind was running amuck.
The road inclined ahead and bore to the right—as he crested over the undulation he looked back and could see the distant intersection with the tar road he’d just left—oddly, the road was empty and clear; no police van stood where he’d just been diverted.
He looked again… and again to make sure he was seeing it properly and the geometry of the roads was right; he wasn’t wrong—the intersection was vacant and open.
It was more than strange and the urge to run hard again seized him; the policeman might have thought better of it and could be giving chase. Blind fear gripped him for an instant; but there was no sign of any dust trail.
Regardless of the reason for the open road, there was no way he was going to double back.
Had he dreamed all of this? He seriously considered it. Was he dreaming now? Was he delirious from the collision with the barrier, he asked himself? With the pain he was feeling, he thought he may well be hallucinating.
It was all crazy. Surreal. But he spied landmarks on the distant mountains he now knew so well. In his quest to find caves to explore, he’d intensively studied the area maps and online satellite images. The landmarks triangulated in his head, and they gave him a good fix for where he was; he was between the two tar roads that converged on Carnarvon. To buoy his own spirits he forced himself to laugh at the predicament he found himself in; at least if he was delirious, he thought, his humor and navigation skills were crisp.
He brought his mind back to important matters, contemplating what to do when he’d exit the dirt back onto the tar in the distance, he’d have to take that other highway into Carnarvon and then double back toward the accident to get home.
As he thought this over, he came through another drift, a dip through a dry riverbed and the road veered around a gentle corner. He was traveling mercifully slowly, not much faster than a runner’s sprint when something slammed him viciously across the chest, stopping him dead in his tracks as the bike went out from under him. The impact and sound like a gunshot.
There was a loud ‘TWANG’ as he fell, smashing into the ground, driving the air from his lungs. The motorbike continued riding on its own momentum until it left the road, hit a boulder and flopped over, its back wheel chugging round and round where it lay.
The padded jacket he wore had taken the brunt of the wire strung across the dirt road.
“Look,” a familiar voice said, screened by a large bush, “it’s our Prrrrretty Boy.”
Dara instinctively tried to roll toward the direction of the voice, but the voice snapped at him in an accent so thick he could barely understand the words—the tone was enough—“Don’t you look at me, boy! Put your face in the dirt.”
Clutching for air, ribs smashed from the blow in the front and crushed from the fall at the back, Dara obeyed. He heard the metallic snickers and zings of bailing wire hastily retrieved, coiled and clattering into the back of a pickup—a pickup he hadn’t seen from his approach, screened as it had been behind the thick wall of thorn bush the voice had hidden behind.
Self-preservation took over and Dara tried to roll to his knees, but swift footfalls through the dirt closed in on him in an instant and an explosion of sound, light and pain burst in the same instant within his mind. His neck snapped dangerously as the running boot met his helmet; the impact of it rolling him over-and-over in the dirt. He exaggerated the rolls, trying to make distance, but the assailant followed and delivered a steel toecap into the small of his back; he arched to the pain of it.
Rolling again, over and over with grit and grime obscuring the helmet visor, he saw only the outline of the pursuing figure. “I have to identify him,” the idea of it urging within his mind seemed ludicrous—he was certain he’d be dead, but he knew he must try.
Rolling away hadn’t worked, so he rolled into a tight ball and blows came raining in from every angle; a tornado of fury that made him grateful for the helmet. Then, miraculously, the pain flooded away—Dara only heard the thuds of blows reporting themselves to his numb mind. Everything crystalized; he must play dead, fifteen, twenty blows and kicks arrived in an avalanche as he entered an ethereal dream world where the crocodiles of traumatic hallucination began to play trumpets, its lizards dancing jigs.
With his body protectively curled into a ball, his eyes began swimming in tears; at last the attacker began to tire, the blows arrived less regularly, the assailant’s breathing rasping from the effort. And then they stopped.
One last almighty kick arrived, aimed at Dara’s crotch—a tester to see if he was truly out cold. It didn’t land squarely and the burst of pain he expected was dulled. Dara rode it, completing the illusion that he was unconscious, for he very nearly was.
“Not such a Prrrrretty boy now, hey?” The rolled ‘rrr’s were muffled by Dara’s helmet, but they were unmistakable, and he saw a gob splatter onto the visor, where it hung for a moment then trickled slowly through the settled dust, clearing a runnel of visibility.
Boot crunches retreated, the door of a vehicle opened and closed, and a diesel engine clattered into life. The ordeal left Dara facing down the road and away from the truck; he dared not sneak a look to identify what he could, he felt too numb and weary to bother. The wheels began to crunch slowly over the stony ground, approaching, louder and louder. Through the fog of pain, alarm bells rang through Dare’s mind; an urgent dilemma to roll aside and risk betraying pretended coma, perhaps goading the driver to more violence, or lay still and risk being crushed.
The crunch of wheels was close now, and closer still; “Surely nobody would…” his mind begged against the evidence of his ears, but a moment later the pressure of a wheel pushed into his helmet, trying to mount it. The hard shell ground against the rough earth, stuttering forward until it seated in a rut and wedged.
The wheel found traction and rode up but fell immediately back with insufficient engine revs; the engine gunned louder and the wheels juddered again, bit and popped up-and-over, the tread imprinting its track onto the clear Perspex, smearing the dust and gob, the rear wheels only slapping him with a glancing blow.
Dara lay in stunned disbelief. He heard the pickup shifting through its gears into the distance and in the silence of its wake the motorbike still burbled as it idled on its side in the drainage trench.
Dara rolled to his back and groaned. He needed the helmet off—the protective shell of it now a prison to his senses. His mind was clearing and the tight-fitting enclosure clamped on his head became claustrophobic, obscuring his vision and hearing in those moments of desperation when he urgently needed his senses on the highest alert to protect his body from further assault and tires.
He must get off the road, he knew it. If he was wrong and the police were still diverting traffic, little traffic as the local highway attracted, a detoured commuter might be in a hurry to buy back time.
He tried to lift his left arm, needing both hands to un-cleat and lift the helmet away, but with horror found it paralyzed, lying next to him at an awkward angle.
With his right hand he reached over and lifted it by the sleeve. It was weighty and dead; it felt detached—severed. The shock of it horrified him—he lifted it high enough to look at, and the angle it described left no doubt that it was broken. With some small joy, he realized it still felt meatily attached; it would only go so far. He placed it across his sternum and it immediately slid from his chest, hitting the ground alongside him with a slap.
He tried to roll but his leg was dead too. Adrenaline coursing his body had extinguished his neural response; everything dull, heavy and paralyzed—cadaverous.
As the shock subsided, the pain came on like a breaking wave, every violated part of his body screaming private agonies, a cacophony to an overloaded brain.
He was weeping, and realized he had been doing so all along—but now it was tears of pain. The sobbing collapsing his rib cage, crushed as it was from every angle.
Dara got a grip on himself, he held his breathe and willed the sobs away, “They won’t help you…” he admonished himself. “Focus—move—crawl!”
He tried, but couldn’t crawl, so he managed to roll to his good side and inch himself with his good arm across the ground until the stony dirt in his field of view through the visor gave way to the close-up detail of threadbare grasses, the sticks and stones at the margin of the roadway.
The effort of it exhausted him and the movement brought fresh focus to this injury or that fracture in every extremity, “I’ll rest a moment,” he reassured himself aloud.
The last thing he saw was the zigzag tire pattern on the outside of the visor.
He could hear that the little bike was still chugging and it pleased him that at least it was not too badly damaged.