Fair Game

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Toby, or not Toby?

The town of Karoi wasn’t much more than a stopover between Harare and the border, and they didn’t tarry longer than to nip to the toilets for a quick wee and to buy some packets of crisps before they turned off the main road and headed down a long dust road into an endless horizon of thornveld. This didn’t change much for three hours and most of them dozed off.

“How long on this road, Gabby?” Fred asked, looking at the map. “Looks quite a way until we hit the tar road from Bulawayo to Vic Falls.”

“I don’t know, Fred. I really have never been here before. No AfriCan-Do safari has. Really.”

Fred was genuinely surprised. He looked out the window with a smile. Perhaps this was exciting after all.

“I tell you what’s worrying me a bit,” Jocko said as he leant over the back of their seat. “The Meanie is sounding a bit chesty to me. His smoker’s cough when he fires up is one thing, but he sounds like he’s got a frog in his throat still.”

“Ja, he does sound a bit grumbly. I’m sure Cuthbert is aware of it. I trust him. He wouldn’t have come if he wasn’t comfortable that we’ll make it through.” Gabby peered through the dividing window into the driver’s cab below them and, with a jolt of concern, could see that Cuthbert’s head was tilted to one side as he drove. Listening.

As they roared along the dust road towards the thorny horizon, The Meanie’s usual growl was slightly louder and less regular than normal. It became clearer to everyone.

They all lapsed into silence, looking out the window at the bushveld and pastoral scenery, but all with their ears pricked. Hoping the noise didn’t get any worse or louder.

It did.

With a final buck and lurch, The Meanie let out a death rattle and coughed his last. Silence, a low hiss and all was quiet around them. No one said a word; the dust caught them and rose softly up beside the windows. A bird resumed its melodic whistling in a low bush alongside.

“Cuthbert?” said Gabby into the intercom.

“Aaiiiii,” came Cuthbert’s voice from the cockpit.

“Not good?” Gabby asked

“No.” He had lifted up the engine hatch next to his seat. “Don’t think so.”

“Let’s see.” He got up and opened the engine cowling.

“At least we can have a few drinks while this shit is sorted out,” said Rabbit. “I’ve got a fierce beer thirst coming on.”

For once, Fred felt likewise. They had been aboard The Meanie for over seven weeks and although he had settled into a timeless acceptance of being a traveller and not a holidaymaker, he still didn’t see any long delays or deviation from schedule as an easy come, easy go interesting path of destiny. They had a plan. To a certain extent, they must stick to the plan.

So he was happy to ease his irritation with a couple of drinks. The Meanie’s dying gasps and gurgle hadn’t sounded promising at all.

Everyone shuffled to the door, with most of them stopping to grab a beer from the cooler box on their way out and Rabbit and Geoffrey stopping to grab the entire cooler box on their way out. The dust slowly wafted away on the imperceptible breeze, leaving only the heat. The screeching cicadas filled the silence. Intensifying the emptiness.

As everyone stretched and looked around, Cuthbert and Goodness began to lift the cab so they could get at The Meanie’s innards. The truck was parked at what looked to the eye as roughly the midpoint of an endless road in either direction. Along one side of the road were crudely cultivated fields a couple of hundred yards deep, and then blue hills rolling all the way to Lake Kariba. On the other, a rocky ridge dotted with thorn trees ran parallel to the road until they seemed to meet in the distance.

Several hundred yards further up the road some black specks emerged from the fields and began sprinting towards them. Within minutes a gaggle of excited children had gathered around, and were watching them with breathless eagerness. Gabby smiled, went back to the truck and filled her pockets with sweets, which she diplomatically dispensed among them.

“Do you speak English?” she asked.

The tallest child, who looked to be around ten, was pushed to the front and had greatness thrust upon him. He nodded and adopted a serious expression.

“Is your village near here?”

Again, a serious nod, a point in the direction from which they had come, and he turned to his team of advisers to explain how discussions were progressing at this point.

“How far?” asked Fred.

“Not far,” said the spokesman. Overcome with the responsibility of speaking, he looked down at his feet, which he shuffled in the sand, his broad toes splayed from a life without shoes.

“Probably doesn’t really mean anything around here,” said Gabby. “Could be just over that rise, or half a day’s walk. I guess they were working these fields and are neglecting their duties while they inspect us. Maybe a couple of you want to take a stroll up the road and see if there’s a store nearby where we can buy some Cokes and maize meal if we need to camp near here. If we need to.”

She turned to Cuthbert and said, “What’s it look like, Cuthbert? Are we going to be here for a while?”

He nodded, “Maybe we need another part from Karoi. I must go back there. It’s not a big problem, just not many cars passing here to take me. Could be one day to wait here.”

“OK, well let’s make ourselves comfortable then. We’ll miss Matusadona, but there’s nothing we can do. Who wants to go and look for a village, or a general store or somewhere to camp? I doubt anyone really needs to go with Cuthbert, but if you do, I’m sure he’d appreciate the company, and it’s a little adventure outing for you. And who just wants to sit in the shade here and drink beer? Come on, surprise me.”

Geoffrey did. “I’ll go with Cuthbert.”

He had already clambered aboard the wheel-casing of The Meanie and was looking into the engine with the drivers to identify the problem. Although still a new man in terms of eagerness to please, Geoffrey wasn’t so much helping as standing watching, sipping his beer and nodding knowingly. He was doing his best to be of assistance, and so long as he remained quiet, he was succeeding. He had relinquished control of the cooler box and wasn’t the first to sit back and drink until the problem was solved, which for him was several steps along the twelve-step programme to being a decent human.

Jocko and Charlie lugged the cooler box into the shade with the attentive children watching as they settled into the soft grass and delved inside. Inga, Stacey, Toby, Kirsty and Fred joined them. James and Gabby elected to locate the nearby village, and set off down the road with half the children.

The other half sat a little distance from the cooler box and watched expectantly. They gleefully clapped their hands as Jocko handed out Cokes to them. But this largesse brought Gabby’s village guiding party rushing back until she promised to buy them Cokes from their local store if they would show her where it was. The deputation set off once again, in the opposite direction from where the children had first appeared.

Cuthbert and Goodness, under the auspices of Geoffrey, had by now managed to remove a few greasy pieces from the engine and had wrapped them in some mutton cloth. Goodness and Rabbit were going to stay with the truck and do some other routine repairs and upkeep as far as possible, and Cuthbert and Geoffrey set off walking towards a minor junction a kilometre back to increase their chances of passing traffic.

Within an hour of Gabby’s return, the entire party had gathered their overnight necessities and traipsed a kilometre down the road to the trading store, by which time a few idle locals had convened to see if anything interesting might come to pass. If it was more entertaining than sleeping in the shade watching scrawny goats denude the landscape, they were onto a good thing.

The barefooted guiding party were pleased to be rejoined with the children they had left at the broken-down truck, their excited chattering conveying that they too had enjoyed the hospitality of these unexpected visitors, and any backlash they might encounter for having abandoned the fields had been adequately compensated for by the rare Coca-Cola treat.

The shopkeeper was a mine of information, as could be expected. He was the central hub of intelligence in the region. What he lacked in teeth, he more than made up for in solutions to their predicament. In short order, he had a big pot of stodgy maize sadza on the go and had announced in exemplary English that they were cordially invited to sleep in the village hall while they waited for their spare parts to arrive. He flashed a toothless smile.

“That’s a fine suggestion, by gum,” said Fred. Gabby frowned at him.

His name was Smart, he imparted, before nipping into the back of his shop. A furious clinking could be heard as he shuttled his entire stockpile of beer from the storeroom to a huge chest freezer humming next to the back door.

“He’s expecting some turnover this afternoon,” said Charlie.

“And who are we to disappoint him?” James began handing out cold beers from the fridge behind the counter. There was no need to count. An audit of the empties would suffice. In a remote location such as this, empty bottles were worth more than the beer inside them. There was no way the shopkeeper would let anyone wander off with the bottles unless they gave him replacements. His supply depended on swapping them with the distributors for refilling.

The store had a long cool veranda, waxed with red floor polish that gave off a heady aroma of colonial times. They all sat and rolled the sadza into balls with their hands and dipped it into African Rhino Peri-Peri Hot Sauce. The spicy sauce helped increase their thirst and the beer supply was steady. The children’s Cokes were replenished and the villagers who began to trickle in from far afield were offered beers and food.

By early evening, after a rigorous and vibrant table football tournament, a senior villager arrived. After swallowing a couple of beers in the blink of an eye, he instructed some youths to relieve Jocko and Charlie of the heavy cooler box and bade them follow him to their lodgings.

“Is this safe?” Inga asked Gabby in her lilting Swedish accent, as they trailed down a narrow path through the bush.

“Probably safer than if we camped at The Meanie and didn’t interact with the villagers. What do you reckon, James?

“So long as we’re supplying beers, I’m sure we’ll be well looked after. And it’s fun. And interesting.”

The path widened into a delta of inter-crossed trails as they neared the village and soon all was smooth underfoot as they approached the central hall. Around them were one or two formal houses, with framed windows, obviously for the more senior villagers, but for most of the inhabitants round huts with pointy thatched roofs were called home.

The senior villager bellowed gustily into the open door of one of the single-roomed square houses as if it were a country pile and the master might be in the west wing. Out came the little village priest, blinking from his interrupted slumbers and hastily tying his white robe around him with a new piece of rope. Dangling a key from his hand, he trotted ahead of them to the hall, which was obviously the church as well. Turning to smile his broadest, he flung the doors open with all the pomp of a garden fête opening.

James, having learnt from the canoe-partner selection process, dragged his heels until he was behind Kirsty in the line as they entered the hall and noted that they were in the first of two rooms, one smaller than the other. Most of the others packed their stuff along the walls of the larger room in the positions they wished to sleep. The room was cool, with high windows, and had been meticulously swept clean of droppings from the many bats hanging peacefully in the dark rafters.

The smaller room was clearly not used for gatherings, but for storage and preparation for whatever ceremonies should take place in the main room. It was hard to imagine any ceremonies that shouldn’t. The hall was clearly of great pride to the village. The priest and senior villager both stood just inside the door beaming, while behind them a cluster of heads blocked the door.

A large stack of chairs stood in the centre of the second room, and Kirsty walked around it and placed her backpack against the wall in the far corner.

“The vestry,” said James. “Or the sacristy, would you say, Kirsty?” She chuckled as he followed her into the room and dumped his bag in the corner nearest the door. Toby wasn’t far behind him and nonchalantly slung his bag into the other corner behind the door.

“There are even pegs here for our vestments,” said Toby as he hung up his crumpled sleeping bag to air and tucked his sunglasses into a pocket of his backpack. By now, everything had a place and he could find a toothpick in his pack blindfolded.

“Everybody settled in?” shouted Gabby cheerfully and flung her pack over the chairs into the far corner. “Let’s go and mingle with our hosts.”

The beaming priest carefully locked the door behind them, and tied the key to his belt. They traipsed down to a central clearing beneath a huge baobab tree in which a number of benches were arranged in a circle. The beers had been put in a bucket of water, in a brave attempt to keep them cool but, in truth, the only way to have a cold beer from now on was to drink it as fast as possible.

This wasn’t a terrible problem to have, and everyone set about the beers with renewed focus. There was much laughter and shouting as the villagers asked relentless questions about their backgrounds and journey thus far. The scorching heat of the day lifted and underneath its oppressive mantle slipped a balmy evening as the white sky blushed to a rose-tinted dome.

A group of small boys, chastened from their neglect of the fields earlier in the day, returned from a punitive wood-gathering foray and, with meticulous attention to detail, built a conservative fire in the centre of the circle. Another meal was produced, similar to the last, but with some unidentified meat as a rare, but thankfully well-done, treat.

Gabby whisked two bottles of whisky out of her pack and the senior villager appeared with a small radio that he attached to a large battery reserved specifically for the purpose. The crackle of dry wood sent a periodic plume of sparks into the dark sky and the smoke curled slowly towards the stars.

One by one, the villagers rose and shuffled to the music on the hard-packed sand. They invited the overlanders to join them. James and Gabby needed no encouragement. James repeated his Nairobi bar routine, much to the delight of the clapping spectators, and Gabby showed herself to have similar bottom-waggling abilities. A wayward high kick from James cleared a bench of its occupants and they lay in the sand outside the circle where they landed, helpless with laughter.

Eventually, all the beer and whisky was finished and the fire crackled down to its embers. They all sat staring at the glowing coals reflectively for a while as the village priest snored peacefully on his stool. He was shaken awake gently to release the keys from his belt loop without risk of his robe falling open and revealing his sacred under-raiment, if any.

They weaved their way back to the hall and, with much laughter and bumping into each other in an effort to find matches and lanterns, eventually made their way to their sleeping bags. The steady reverberation of drunken snoring slowly filled the room.

Toby lay on his back, perfectly content. He was listening carefully to the snores around him and buzzing from the big room through the open door near his head, trying to identify the guilty parties. He was also conscious of Kirsty, diagonally opposite him in the little room, and he focussed his listening carefully to try to catch her breathing. What he wouldn’t have given to be lying next to her, hearing her slipping off to sleep. He imagined James, in the corner nearest Kirsty, lying awake with his thoughts running on similar though slightly less romantic lines.

The rumbling crescendoed, and Toby thought, “Go boy, Jocko. Obviously dreaming of Bondi Beach.” Suddenly there was a vicious crack and a longer peel of thunder, and Toby silently apologised to Jocko for the undeserved accusation.

Within minutes, there was an almighty electric storm around them. It took a while for the rain to come, with much sound and fury beforehand, but when it did, it beat on the tin roof with the roar of a highway. Sleeping with the sound of rain on the roof is one thing, Toby thought to himself, but this is a different proposition. He heard shuffling from James’s corner and pictured him lying there also awake. Then the shuffling moved slowly across the room. Toby felt a flash of dread, as if a cold drop of rain had leaked through the roof and plopped onto his forehead. His ears strained more than ever.

The shuffling went on for a while and then ceased. Toby couldn’t really pinpoint where the sounds were coming from, what with the steady drumming of fat drops on the roof and the occasional clap of thunder. He thought he detected a low moan, a woman’s voice, but couldn’t be sure. Then, to confirm his very worst fears, he heard another, unmistakeable. The sound of someone in an embrace, trying to muffle her pleasure. The moans became more rhythmic, and soon James’s steady and heavy breathing could be heard as well.

Toby wanted to shout out in anguish, he wanted to cover his ears, but his arms were trapped to his side. It was like trying to wake from a bad dream, as if his mind was returning to wakefulness but not letting go of the nightmare and his body wasn’t responding. He was helpless and listened to the moans turn to sighs and then silence again. The storm soothed to gentle rain and, after a few decorous minutes on James’s behalf, the shuffling returned to its original corner of the room. There was one last shuffle from Kirsty’s corner and then the room was quiet.

It was turning to grey light outside when Toby finally drifted into a light unhappy sleep.

What seemed to him like seconds later, and was in fact not much more than an hour, Toby’s eyes shot open and he wanted to be up and off. If there had been an international airport within a day’s walk he would have headed there, even if it meant ploughing straight through a herd of elephants. But no such luck. So he quietly packed his bag, cast a glance at Kirsty sleeping in the corner, hefted his pack to his shoulder, and stole out of the hall and back up the path to the trading store. He smiled wanly at the elderly ladies who were out sweeping in front of their huts, and surmised that the rest of the village must already be headed out to the fields, with the exception of the priest and the other senior whisky drinkers.

At the trading store, he bought a Coke and a packet of biscuits, exchanged a little banter with the shopkeeper and trudged off towards The Meanie. He greeted Goodness and Cuthbert, who was back already, established that The Meanie would be ready for action in about half an hour, which came as some relief, and lay down in the shade to munch methodically on his breakfast. After such a healthy start, he fell into a light doze on his pack until the sound of approaching voices caused him to raise his head.

Fred was standing over him.

“Thought I’d catch you before the rabble arrived.” They both looked back down the long road to the group making its way over, the excited voices carrying on the cool morning air. “You slunk out of there like a robber’s dog. What’s the matter?”

“Didn’t sleep so well.” Toby lay back on his pack, one arm behind his head, looking up at Fred. “Things going hump in the night.”

“Aah,” said Fred. He looked thoughtfully back at James telling an animated story as he bounced along, the sound of accompanying laughter clear in the valley.

“Will you watch my pack, please? I need to perform some ablutions,” said Toby as he stuffed a handful of tissues into his pocket, pulled out his toothbrush and a bottle of water, and strode off up between the trees and over the crest of the nearby ridge.

Toby sat on his little pile of rocks, his elbows on his knees, his chin resting in his hands, and his heart completely and utterly broken. He held his binoculars and was aimlessly swinging them around, pretending, to himself, to be looking for birds. He panned the surrounding vista. It was beautiful, small solace though that was. He had chosen a fairly open spot, assured of privacy through the distance he had walked from The Meanie family. His temporary throne was perched just below the ridge. A few yards under the crest. Behind him, the rugged slope ran all the way down to the road on which the dejected Meanie sat and waited for his bits to be replaced and, on his side of the ridge, down towards forever. As far as he could see stretched untouched bushveld, so very different from the open grassland of the Mara, which now seemed like a whole world away for him. His anguish at Kirsty’s perfidy was so acute that had his aged lioness popped out of the bush in front of him again, he would scarcely have shat himself any more than he intended.

The rugged slope at his feet ran down sharply, too steep to stroll down without picking a careful path, covered with trees with slim trunks and wide canopies so that as he sat, he could look out through the shimmering leaves and gaze into nothing but quiet space. An endless sea of yellow with currents of wind moving channels through the waving grass, dotted with isolated acacias. Almost too far to discern, betrayed only by tiny movement, a herd of impala huddled in a shade oasis and twitched its collective ears. He was shielded from the sun by flickering leaves, but beyond the trees the sky was huge, all around like a deep breath.

Toby sat, his trousers around his ankles, lost in confusion. He felt thuds of nausea when he allowed his mind to drift to last night’s sighs and shuffles in the hall. He felt wonder when he tracked a lone vulture spiralling lazy circles in the endless sky. He lifted his binoculars to his eyes and scanned the lands in front of him. A hunger to see something interesting drove him to concentrate. A pride of lions resting up in the shade or something similar, improbable though that was. Within the crisp black circle of his binocular lens, he found a retreat from reality. As he scoped left along the ridge, his heart jumped in his chest. There was Fred, also with binoculars glued to his eyes, focussed intently on Toby sitting on a pile of rocks with his dirty shorts now encumbering his legs. Toby waved him frantically away, his binoculars still glued on Fred. Fred smiled and waved. Found you!

No, no, no, this is not right. Toby lowered his glasses and shouted, “Fuck off, Fred!”

“Hey, Grandma,” hollered Fred, “what big red eyes you have.” Fred laughed as he sauntered over and sat next to Toby on a smooth rock.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” said Toby. “Are you blind? Can you not see that I’m trying to perform my ablutions?”

“Toby, calm down. I think we’ve come far enough on this trip. And I’m not referring to miles. I want to talk to you, and I think this is an acceptable forum. Sorry, I hope you don’t feel awkward.”

“Awkward? Awkward? You try take a peaceful shit in the bush and see if your mate coming over for a deep-and-meaningful makes you feel awkward. ‘Awkward’ is not the fucking word. I’m sorry Fred, but at least wander round that tree while I finish up. I can’t think with my pants down. Getting hit by a bus with dirty underwear is one thing. This is in a different league entirely.”

Fred stood leaning against a smooth tree, looking out into the valley, until Toby, his trousers tightly buckled, wandered over to him.

“Didn’t know I was a bush tracker, did you, mate?”

“Hardly difficult,” Toby replied, “you knew I’d be after a throne with a view.”

“Let’s discuss last night.”

“Let’s not.”

“Let’s.”

Fred leant his head back against the leathery bark. “Toby, if I’m right in my take on what happened last night, I realise how it must have been a sword in the heart for you. A living torture. You must feel awful. I’d give you a hug now, only you haven’t washed your hands.”

“I feel like an idiot,” Toby plonked himself down on a rock. “I counted my chickens, and I paid the price. I just feel like such a fool for playing it like some slow love story and thinking I was in there and all that remained to do was ride off into the sunset, but meantime, I didn’t realise I still had Mr Swashbuckling-Bodice-Ripper hovering around the whole time with his, ‘I’m an African, I’m home’ bullshit. Mind you, I’m not like that, so I didn’t really have much choice. I couldn’t play that game if I tried.” Toby sighed and looked out along the ridge.

“Oh fantastic, speak of the devil. Here comes Rode’er Haggard now. Probably wants to show us he can find his way through the bush.” Toby laughed a wry laugh.

“He’s still our friend, Toby.”

“I know, I know.”

James scrambled down to them, grinning.

“How are you, James? Anything you’d like to share with us? A few exertions in the wee hours you’d like to talk about?”

“What goes on tour stays on tour.”

“We’re still on tour.”

“So we are, mate, so we are. Which is why Gabby wants us back at The Meanie.

“OK, I will say one thing though,” continued James. “It’s a pity we had to be so quiet. I can feel that girl has a lot of pent-up hormonal energy. Maybe it was fuelled a bit by the storm. All that electricity flowing around. It would be great to unleash the beast in some dodgy hotel room somewhere. Maybe I’ll have another pop in Vic Falls.”

“Pop?” muttered Toby. “Fucking hell.”

They wound their way down to The Meanie to find Gabby cheerfully directing the last of the packing. She stood up, arms akimbo, and watched them walk up to The Meanie.

“Where you been, Toby? Birdwatching?”

“Birdwatching. That’s right.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Well, not much. Some little brown jobs for starters, but eventually a tit showed up, and then a bustard.”

They all laughed appreciably and clambered aboard. Kirsty sat down next to Jocko without a glance at Toby or James.

“Well,” Gabby said, “a few more hours and you’ll never sit in The Blue Meanie again. Isn’t that an awful thought?”

Stacy, in her southern drawl, said, “Hasn’t this been just, like, the best thing you ever done?” Her big blond head bounced around as she spoke, unable to compensate for the uneven jolting of The Meanie over the pitted road. It had been a tar road once. But now there were patches of tar, with so many potholes that in most places they had all joined up to form an uneven dirt track. Like a photograph in negative, the tarmac islands were isolated in the uneven gravel.

Charlie was about to answer her as they hit a bump and she hovered and then thumped back into her chair with a click of teeth, saying “Oh my goodness.”

“You alright?” said Charlie, taking her hand.

“This road is pretty wild, huh?” she said.

“The Meanie loves it rough,” said Fred.

Every fresh buck brought laughs and cheers from all. Except Toby and Kirsty, who both hung grimly onto the chair arms and looked determinedly out their respective sides at the thickets of passing bush.

Two hours later, they reached a T-junction and turned onto a smoother, regularly maintained dirt road. Although severely corrugated, so that Geoffrey could make an annoying wobbly croak by groaning and letting his diaphragm tremble, the worst of the unknown route seemed to be over. They saw several trucks and passenger vehicles heading for the ferry point at Mlibizi, destined to travel on the lake by boat to Kariba Bay, where The Meanie had come from. To Toby, it seemed like the romantic moments on the banks of the Zambezi had been a pleasant dream. There was no connection between that time and this.

His gloomy reverie was interrupted by two muffled squirts from the back seat. Spltsch. Spltsch.

“What was that?” Gabby swung round and glared at Geoffrey and Rabbit in the backseat.

“Two ice-cold frothy bottles of mind-your-own-business,” said Geoffrey.

“Oh no, no, no. No ways,” said Gabby. “You know the rules. I thought you guys would make it, but the final hurdle was too high for you.”

“Hang on a minute,” said Rabbit. “I knew you’d say that. But, but we discussed it at the store this morning when we were getting final provisions. We figured it was the home stretch and we’ve been such good boys. Let’s have some fun on the run in. Please… The Gabbster,” he added hopefully, followed with a sycophantic smile.

“Yes, please, Miss Gabby. Please,” they all chorused, with Geoffrey popping and handing beers forward as fast as he could to add critical mass before she could protest.

She laughed and sipped from a bottle. Toby took one without looking at it and drank half of it, his eyes never leaving the passing landscape.

By the time they arrived in Victoria Falls, they were all half in the bag and Rabbit and Geoffrey had their arms around each other and were singing in surprising harmony,

Blu-ue Mean(ie)

Now I’m no longer alone

Without a dream in my heart

Without a love of my own

Their arrival in the campsite was hurrahed. Rabbit clambered down and pulled his pack from the rack, still singing at full voice,

So I say, thank you for The Meanie, the songs I’m singing

Thanks for all the joy he’s bringing.

Geoffrey and Rabbit sang their way to the little budget bungalows that dotted the campsite, along with Stacy and Inga, Jocko, Kirsty and Charlie.

Toby, Fred and James had all elected to get rooms in the nearby hotel, desperate for a decent shower and a thunder box not built from a pile of rocks. They copped a bit of flak from Gabby along the lines of, “Ooh, la-di-dah, the toffs are staying at the Ritz.

“Ratherrr,” said Fred. “And please be so kind as to join us for cocktails on the Stanley Terrace as soon as you’ve dumped your packs in Plebeiansville. Shall we say an hour hence? We will be hosting. We’ve saved up for this.”

Gabby laughed. “The Stanley Terrace is awesome. I’d be delighted, Lord Frederick Verisopht. Best you blow the African dust off your London gold cards, because the Africa-on-a Shoestring thing is officially over for you. However, may I suggest that we rather go to the Jungle Junction, which is also rather nice, right next to the pool? The requirements are less formal, as I am sure the plebeians can only manage smart casual at best after nearly eight weeks on the road.”

It took them all of half an hour to put their bags down before they gathered at the Jungle Junction, the most casual of the Victoria Falls Hotel’s restaurants. Toby, Fred and James were already comfortably seated at a wrought-iron table with eleven gin and tonics lined up in front of them as the rest of their erstwhile travel companions traipsed up the road and onto the terrace.

As they raised the glasses to their lips, James beckoned to the barman to bring another round of the same. There would be little sightseeing or activity with what remained of the afternoon and evening. The high-level plan was to drink their way through to the evening and well into their last night together, in the hope of avoiding tearful goodbyes. Most of them had at least the next day to see Mosi-oa-Tunya, and decide which adrenaline-junkie activities they wanted to experience in and around Vic Falls. So there wasn’t the usual rush to get out and take photographs of the natural wonders.

The Jungle Junction was shaded by huge fig trees. The travellers sat in a large circle as the steady supply of gins came courtesy of smiling waiters in uniform. A chef lit a large fire under a pile of coals held in a fifty gallon drum sawn in half, and placed a grill over it.

The stories of their trip flowed as fast as the cocktails. Toby started to feel not exactly happy, but not unhappy either, as the drinks eased his anguish. He watched the sparks fly up towards the sky for what seemed like the five-hundredth time, and thought poignantly that it was the last. His attention was caught when he heard his name.

The lion story was being told once again.

“Nothing you do tomorrow, mate, no bungee jumping, no white water rafting, no nothing, is going to be as extreme as climbing that tree,” Rabbit said as he looked at Toby admiringly. “That was awesome. Really.”

“I would say it was nothing,” said Toby, “only my stomach still does some bungee jumping of its own when I think about it.”

“Well, don’t think about it then, mate,” said Jocko.

Stacy, whose Deep South upbringing had engendered in her a surprising capacity for strong drink for one so petite, had a gin and tonic the size of a beer stein in her hand and seemed to have no problem in swilling it back, although her eyes did get a bit glassy from time to time when she said, “I’m gonna miss you guys so much.” She sidled onto Jocko’s chair next to him. “Scootch over,” she said and snuggled against his chest.

A band came on and a group of African dancers shuffled around in front of them. It wasn’t really the setting for James to join them and he managed to restrain himself. The situation was certainly the smartest they had been in for some while. For Rabbit and Geoffrey, perhaps since birth.

“This is more like it,” said Fred. “This is what I had in mind when I decided to come on safari.”

“We know you don’t mean it,” said Charlie, “so stop pretending to be a ponce.”

“But I do.” Fred looked ruefully at his glass. “I wish I hadn’t swapped my khaki bush jacket for a wooden statue and a canoe trip.”

“That reminds me…” Toby said quietly, put his glass down and strode off to his room. No one really paid him any attention, except Kirsty, who watched him wander off.

Night had fallen and they ordered some platters of meat from the barbecue. The beers still flowed and although Charlie and Jocko began to express concern at the tab they were running up, Fred and James assured them that they were being hosted and were not to even think about contributing.

Kirsty stood up without a word, walked to reception and asked which room Toby was in.

He was rummaging around in his backpack when he heard a knock. Opening the door he was surprised to see her and they stood looking at each other for a long while before she walked past him into the room. He shut the door behind her.

“Toby, before you, sorry, before we get absolutely hammered, can I chat to you quickly?”

“Of course.”

“Why are you being such an arsehole?”

“Me being an arsehole? Me?”

“Yes, you.” Her eyes were brimming with tears. “You’ve hurt me, you really have.”

“How could I possibly have hurt you? By not speaking to you? After what you did to me. You know, Kirsty, I thought we had a bit of an understanding. A thing going, call it whatever you want.”

“So did I. That’s why you hurt me. Shagging Gabby doesn’t show a whole lot of understanding, does it?” She was angry now. Still tearful, but angry.

Toby stood dumbfounded. He quickly reached forward and grabbed her shoulders. She tried to wrench herself free, but he held her tight. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “I thought it was you. I can’t believe it. I thought it was you. It must have been James and Gabby.”

She relaxed and looked up at him, confused amazement moving across her face.

“Promise me, Toby.”

“I promise you.”

Toby’s lips were a breath way from Kirsty’s. He couldn’t bring himself to kiss her and end the exquisite anticipation, only to share her breath. They started kissing slowly, the lightest touch of lips. Gradually their lips opened and they pulled each other tighter. Gently Toby fell back onto the bed and held her with him.

The closeness of her lips, the pressure of their skin. Of every sense of attachment that was alive to him, her soft breath was the most tangible. The room was dark, lit only by the lights from beyond the window and her silhouette above him was tanned and beautiful, framed by the blue of the night outside. Her hair fell over his head.

They slid out of their clothes, never taking their lips apart. He rolled onto her and fumbled her shirt over her head.

He was inside her, he was moving slowly against her movements, he was feeling her thighs sliding up against his and the soles of her feet on the back of his calves. He had her light brown hair in his hands, he had disbelief as his aide, but her caught breath kept him grounded. Their mouths stayed a whisper apart. He stared into her eyes and she into his, sighing softly, sharing a secret, a breath, a moment.

He let go of her hair and moved his hands down to her shoulders, his hands clasped on her back, his thumbs pressed into the cups of her armpits. Moving a hand down to the small of her back and holding her tightly, he pulled her against him and rolled over onto his back, her legs wrapped around his, her green eyes unwavering and soft, darker in the dim light, and her hands delicately holding the back of his neck.

They moved faster together, breathing harder until they lost control of their rhythm and clutched each other hard in pure pleasure. For a few moments they were frozen, until at last they could bear to release one another and roll apart.

They lay next to each other, holding hands in silence, not wanting to leave the moment or break the bond they had created. There was no need for trite words or affirmation. Their still-heavy breathing was the only sound they made, and the tight squeeze of each other’s hands the only communication they needed.

Kirsty rolled back towards him and put her chin on his chest and gazed unblinking into his eyes while stroking his face. His eyes never left hers and he knew she could feel his heart beating under her chin. He could almost hear it himself. He brought one hand around onto her lower back and, with the other, twirled a tendril of hair.

They lay soundlessly for the time it took to comprehend their depth of feeling, until, at last, Kirsty pulled herself up to his face, gave him a soft kiss on the lips and swung her legs off the bed. He looked at her graceful back, storing the image in his memory and sat up on the other side of the bed.

They had some awkward giggles and gathered their clothes off the floor. Turning back to face Toby, Kirsty found him to be wearing his pith helmet.

“Got what I came for,” he muttered shyly.

“So did I,” she laughed and kissed him fully again. “You happy?”

“If I didn’t have ears, I’d smile my head off,” he answered, and she chuckled.

Arm in arm, they walked back out to the Jungle Junction. When the others saw them, a slow realisation dawned on them and, as one, they cheered.

Toby smiled, put his arm around Kirsty, and doffed his hat.

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