CHAPTER 2: Valley Return, Bombshell, Bullies, and Message
The breakfast was excellent – a good old farm-style one with the works. Mealie-meal (maize) porridge, followed by eggs, bacon, ‘wors’ sausages, fried mushrooms and tomatoes, and lashings of toast with butter and marmalade were enough to restore any spirits. They had phoned the hospital, to be told that the Kippens were still in a ‘serious’ condition, but stable and probably out of danger.
‘I want to go back to the valley,’ Donald announced while they were sipping their coffee, ‘and see if anyone at the Hendersons’ place can tell us anything. It all strikes me as being very strange.’
‘Something seems to be stirring things up there,’ Hugh ventured.
His father nodded. ‘I wonder if anyone has been using some dangerous new insecticide which is affecting everything? I mean, snakes bite, horses can get spooked, and mysterious diseases do happen. Still it goes beyond strange for all of that to take place in such a short time in one area, plus that extraordinary madness of the bees, and not to mention whatever has chased the Ndlovus out of their village. I get the impression they have been terrified by something, and are clamming up. I gather Dengana didn’t tell you much, either … Hugh? Hugh!’
The boy’s attention had wandered to what he could see through the window near the table. There was some activity in the garden, and it looked as though the …
‘I know that funny look you get. You haven’t taken them again, have you?’ stormed Donald. ‘Pills! Now! And I’m watching you!’
Under his father’s determined glare, Hugh had no option but to take the hated meds. Soon, he knew, he would start to feel all woolly and fuzzy again. Indeed, by the time they again came to the dizzying zigzags leading down into Rhino Valley he had started feeling dizzy enough already without them.
They stopped by at the Field of Bees just to check that everything was still in order. The only activity was from the hives which were, of course, hives of activity. Donald looked nervously at them. ‘Bob told me once that he has well over two million bees there. I’d say it must have been at least a million of them in that swarm. What that was about, or why you started raving in that way, and then it was just as if … actually, I don’t even want to think about it. It is all too … too … unnatural!’
Apart from the bees, the scene was about as lively as a bear’s den in midwinter. There were no signs of pets or livestock needing to be tended, so Donald simply switched off the main electric power and locked everything up. Then they drove on to The Frogs’ Place.
Field of Bees had been a thriving city centre compared with what greeted them as soon as they entered the property. Nothing stirred. ‘I’m not a fanciful person,’ Donald said - and this was an understatement - ‘but something here gives me the total creeps, now. At least there were bird calls and some insect activities at the Apiary; but listen: no birds; no insects; nothing. And where on earth are all the horses and cattle and chickens and things?’
Indeed, it was so still that even the occasional slight stirring of wind through the leaves sounded loud. As they approached the house Hugh had a vague feeling they were being watched, and with it came a trace of familiarity, as if to do with something he had experienced recently, but the thought didn’t seem worth following up and he simply concentrated on following his father up instead.
The front door was closed and turned out to be locked. Donald knocked and called out for a while, without really expecting any response, and then they went to the back. The door there was also closed, but not locked. ‘We may as well make sure there’s nobody inside in need of help,’ Donald said, and in they went.
Dimly, Hugh had a feeling of foreboding: that something inside was horribly wrong.
Everything looked normal, though. They checked each room, but none had signs of recent occupation. Some of the furniture seemed to have been changed around since they were last there, and bare floorboards showed in one or two places where they thought they remembered carpets, but there was nothing remarkable in that.
‘I’ll switch off the electricity here, too,’ Donald announced, and Hugh pointed to where the box was situated in the scullery. ‘Don’t think I’ll lock here, though. We’ll leave it as we found it. I don’t mind telling you, I’ll be glad to get out.’ He shuddered involuntarily.
On the way back to the car, Hugh suddenly had a clear view of a leopard lying lazily across a large branch to the far side of the surrounding lawn and staring at them. ‘Look, Dad …’ he began urgently, pointing, but then decided it must have been a trick of the light and shade. ‘Uh … no. Just thought I saw something,’ he mumbled.
They spent the next couple of hours in a completely fruitless set of visits. They hadn’t expected that there would be anyone at the village or Ndhlovu farm, or at Ferreiras’ or Coetzees’ farms, or at Crags, and they found the nobody they expected. The smaller farms and the new hatchery at the far end were all similarly deserted. There were no signs at all of either people or livestock.
‘This is utterly mad!’ Donald stormed for about the twentieth time as the finally set out on their return. ‘Beyond any sort of sense. Anyway, all we can do now is to report it to the police who have jurisdiction over this area – that’ll be at Kranzton – and we can find out how Bob and Beryl are doing at the same time.’
The Kranzton revisit was also rather fruitless. Both Kippens were now fully conscious and their condition was ‘improving’, but they were not allowed visitors.
Then, the police were utterly disinterested.
‘It is not our area,’ said the policeman at the desk.
Donald demanded to see his superior, and convinced her that it was their area. ‘But what crime has been committed?’ the officer asked reasonably.
‘All these people have simply abandoned their homes and vanished!’ Donald protested.
‘Well, they must want to be some place else,’ the woman shrugged.
She only said they would ‘investigate the matter’ after Donald had lost his temper and raged for a while, but there was little assurance that much - if anything at all - would actually happen.
Then there was nothing more to do but buy some pies and soft drinks as lunch, and then set off on the return journey to their home near Durban.
After driving in silence for some time, and a few false starts, Donald said hesitantly, ‘Hugh, I had a special reason for wanting us to come on this outing. I needed to tell you … I mean, to ask you … I mean, I have something serious to talk to you about … that is to say, I want you to be very grown-up and understanding about something …’
‘You’ve met someone you fancy,’ Hugh said in a dull voice.
‘As a matter of fact, yes,’ Donald admitted. ‘How did you know?’
‘I sort-of guessed from the way you’ve been acting, and from all those secret telephone calls and everything. She’s from upcountry?’
‘That’s right,’ his father confirmed eagerly. ‘I met her on that first business trip, and we’ve been seeing each other every time I’ve gone up there since. Anyway, I think it is rather more than just “fancy” or I wouldn’t have bothered to mention it. We’ve become really serious.’
‘Oh,’ said Hugh.
‘I mean, it’s not as if she can replace your Mom,’ Donald added in a rush. ‘Nobody could do that. It’s just that I’m ready, now, to share my life with someone else again, and Raine – her name’s Raine Flynn - is an absolute darling. I’m sure you and she will get on very well.’
‘Yah; right,’ said Hugh.
There was silence while Donald concentrated on overtaking a particularly large and slow-moving timber truck and trailer, and then he glanced at his son whose face was copying his voice by giving about as much away as a miser does to beggars. ‘Well, um, what do you think about it?’
‘Don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do, anyway, is there?’ Hugh said bluntly.
‘But you will try to be reasonable?’ Donald pleaded.
‘Um,’ said Hugh without enthusiasm. ‘Suppose so.’
‘Great; that’s all I ask. There is something else, though, which I hope isn’t going to be as awkward as I think.’
The suddenly worried tone aroused Hugh’s curiosity. ’What else could there be?’ he asked.
‘There’s this daughter, Tyrentia, about your age,’ Donald said, trying to choose his words carefully. ‘To be quite honest, I don’t like her much - no, that isn’t really what I mean - that is to say, she’s a bit difficult to get on with and I can’t really make her out, but naturally she is an important part of Raine’s life and we’ve just got to find a way to live with her.’
Hugh had a horrible sinking feeling. ’Tie-what? What’s she like, exactly?’ he asked directly.
Donald spelt the name for him and went on, ‘Well, she seems to have a great opinion of herself, and mostly comes across as rude, sulky, bad-tempered and selfish. It isn’t only that she resents me butting into their lives; she’s had the same reaction towards everyone I’ve ever seen her come into contact with, unless it suits her to butter them up for something. It isn’t a case of “like mother, like daughter” at all, because Raine has the sweetest personality you can imagine.’
‘The tyrant-y daughter sounds truly charming!’ Hugh commented, and bit his tongue just in time before adding, ‘and maybe this Raine is just like her but is in butter-up mode at present?’
’Oh, how I wish she were truly charming!’ Donald smiled ruefully. ‘Anyway, please try and get on with her somehow. They are coming down on Tuesday to stay for a week with Raine’s parents who live about fifteen minutes away from where we are. After that … we shall have to see.’
By the next day Hugh’s sense of dread about the impending arrival had grown huge. The impression of being utterly doomed began when he caught the bus to school, and it lasted throughout the day. Rude,. bad-tempered, selfish and sulky? And the mother? What would it be like to be bossed around by two females in his own home? Would this Raine expect him to call her ‘Mom’? Never, he resolved.
He was so preoccupied that a couple of the teaching staff asked him pointedly whether he had taken his meds, and it also made him careless, during the main break of the morning, in not observing his usual precautions to keep out of the way of everyone
‘Heyoo!’ came the grating voice of Brian Simpkins, a boy in a grade above his who, with his gang of cronies, enjoyed making lives a misery, and his in particular. Brian was actually small for his age, and far smaller than the burly Hugh, but made up for it with a meanness and ruthlessness known and reluctantly respected by all. Hugh tried to ignore him.
‘Heyoo! I’m talking to yoo, yoo big dumbo yoo! Your laces are undone!’
Hugh looked down at his shoes. ‘No, they’re not,’ he said.
‘An eagle! Look!’ Brian yelled, pointing upwards. ‘No, not there, stupid; higher! Right above you!’
Too late, Hugh registered the tugs at his shoes as two of Brian’s hangers on, Sipho and Ben, undid the laces.
‘They are, now, Heyoo!’ Brian sniggered.
Sighing, Hugh bent down to tie them up again. He should have known better. ‘Free kicks!’ Brian crowed, and he and his cronies managed to get one in each before Hugh went down on his haunches to finish the job. He stood up again rubbing a bruised behind and wondering how to escape. Dimly he thought to himself, as he had done so many times before, that he really should stand up to these bullies, but it simply didn’t feel worth the effort, and he hated all violence.
Fortunately, at that moment, one of the prefects came up and showed signs of remaining in the area. Brian scowled. ‘Lovely chatting to you, Heyoo. See yoooo again soon!’ he said, and they moved off seeking someone else to torment.
After school he was more on his guard, and crept to peer around the far corner of the building nearest the gate to observe that, as he had suspected, Brian and his friends were planning an ambush. He slipped away and made his escape over the fence on the far side, via a handy tree and a big drop from an overhanging branch on the other side. This had come in useful on a number of previous occasions, and he had perfected a parachute-roll to soften the landing. His bus went past the school gates, and he had a good view of the Brian gang still waiting patiently for him, but filling in some time with bullying anyone else they could get hold of in the meantime.
As Hugh’s father returned from his office, the boy dropped his homework to corner him.
‘Exactly when and how does it all happen?’ he demanded.
‘I’m going to fetch them at the airport tomorrow at midday, and bring them straight here, so they’ll see you as soon as you get home from school. Then, later, we’ll take them to her parents.’ Donald patted Hugh’s shoulder in a comradely way. ‘I don’t mind admitting to you that I’m petrified. Raine and I have become most important to one another, but if she doesn’t like you or you her, or if I simply can’t adapt to her little witch … I mean, to her daughter … or if you two kids tear each others’ eyes out, I simply don’t know what we’re going to do.’
Hugh looked at his father fondly. He might not have any of the understanding or wisdom his mother had shown, but he was a really good man and he was constantly doing his best. ‘Don’t worry, Dad,’ he said. ‘If it all comes apart it won’t be for want of me trying as hard as I can, I promise you.’
‘Thanks for that, Hugh,’ his father said with feeling. ‘If only I knew the same attitude would be coming from Tyrentia I wouldn’t have a worry in the world, but as things are I’m afraid it will all be up to you.’
That night before he went to sleep Hugh received a message in his mind, or after he had gone to sleep he dreamt that before he had gone to sleep he had received message in his mind. It amounted to the same thing, and was extremely powerful either way. The message was rather long and most confusing, but it boiled down to three main items:
The first was that he needed to trust his senses. For many years he had been trained not to do so and had become convinced that they were not to be relied upon. The message reminded him, however, of what had happened with the bees, and how on this occasion there could be no question of imagination because what he had been ‘imagining’ had actually had a result which others had been able to see.
The second part was that there was some terribly important task in which his help was desperately going to be needed. This was where the message grew too confusing to understand, because it gave the impression of trying to go into the nature of what had to be done, but made no sense at all. At least he was able to make out that he would not be alone in carrying out the task; in fact he might have many helpers, as well as some main ones.
One thing to emerge strongly was that the task was connected in some way with Rhino Valley.
The final message, which came across particularly clearly, was that, by hook or crook, he must no longer take his medications. He must stop completely, and not touch them again. Not ever.