Snake in the grass
Toby, unable to sleep with excitement, stuck his head out of the tent, gingerly. There was a slight rose margin to the horizon and the light was deep indigo. Mock dawn. The sun wouldn’t rise for a good half an hour, but its appearance looked imminent. He peered around long and hard, focussing on the many indistinct shapes among the trees before cautiously setting foot outside. His nervousness dissipated when he saw Goodness stoking a fire and getting pots of water on the boil.
It had taken them an hour of rocking and skidding along the muddy road to get to the site that Gabby had selected as their first overnight stop. They had split into task teams, some to do the meal, some to put up the tents and some to look as busy as possible without contributing much. Gabby had watched carefully to see how they interacted and who could be relied on. She noted James’s concerted efforts to figure the tents out and plan their erection in a co-ordinated and efficient manner. She knew he was a management consultant, or had been, but also knew he was desperate to get to the cold beers and saw readying the camp as an obstacle to this. It was good to know he could be encouraged through positive reinforcement and reward.
Gabby also noted Geoffrey’s carrying useless pieces of camp equipment to and fro from the trucks as a guise to keep him from having to do any of the heavy lifting or crawling around in the grass fixing guy ropes. He took one camp stool at a time, and placed them around the fire. The meal team of Stacy, Charlie and Fred peeled potatoes and onions and chatted happily as Goodness got some meat out of the big fridge in the truck and prepared the fire.
This morning, not even the memories of the unseemly scramble to get into the right tents with the right people could quell Toby’s good mood. Ever one to avoid confrontation, after the tents were pitched, he had tried to distance himself from the running of the bulls to get into a tent with Kirsty and not into a tent with the boozing yobbos, Rabbit and Geoffrey.
Gabby had forestalled any serious parlaying by splitting the girls and boys into separate tents. Toby had ended up sharing with Charlie and Jocko, whose snoring had competed ably with the roaring of lions and whooping of hyena clans nearby.
Toby sat on a camp stool, sipping the Kenyan coffee Goodness had given him. It was one of the finest mornings he could ever have imagined. Staring out at endless plains while the sky slowly lightened and things became visible further and further away. The dawn chorus of birds was such a din, it was almost a cacophony. Some of the birds seemed to be trying to drown out not only their own species but any other bird that dared to make a sound. Some seemed to be singing for the enjoyment of it. There was a moist smell of dew, grass seeds and damp earth and hundreds of beetles scuttled about in the grass around his feet.
While Toby was marvelling at it all, Cuthbert unzipped the tents and shook the rest of the sleepers awake. If they wanted good game viewing, they needed a predawn start. Lions would be returning from the hunt, or lying on a kill. Hyenas were still out, craning their long necks, noses held high for the scent of something edible on the breeze. The Mara’s cheetah would be perched atop termite mounds, scanning the plains for antelope, eager to make a kill before the heat soared.
In the camp, any after-effects of the exuberance of the previous evening were replaced by excitement and anticipation of seeing wild animals. Only Geoffrey showed any outward signs of being the worse for wear, but then he had drunk double what anyone else had. He stood at the edge of the circle of tents and hawked and spat like a cowboy with a bad plug habit.
“All aboard The Meanie,” Gabby sang, but there was no need for encouragement. They could barely all get through the door at once in their haste. And with a few big puffs of smoke, The Meanie grumbled out onto the plains, eager to beat the many Land Rovers and herds of matatus that would be swarming in from the park’s borders full of day trippers.
They headed towards the river, hoping to see the wildebeest crossing.
Gloomy clouds hung, pregnant with squalls. The wind was picking up but the grass, cropped short by grazing, didn’t stir. As The Meanie approached the river, they could see a cloud of dust hanging over a large black mass of wildebeest, with a steady stream of the hapless beasts plodding towards the gathering herd and swelling the numbers. The herd surged and slowed, blocked by the Mara River from the greener grass on the other side.
The Meanie reached the river and waited. The herd also waited, bellowing and scuffling, building up the nerve to cross. Corpses dotted the rapids like so many boulders, their dead bellies taut and bloated and legs stuck straight up towards the great sky. The vultures perched frustrated on the dead animals, unable to tear through the skin. Crocodiles lay on the banks, unconcerned with the waiting herd, having feasted for days on the previous unfortunates.
The travellers sat for hours watching the herd surge and back away, like a slowly pressing tide. More and more animals arrived, until the plain in front of the crossing point was thick with dust and grey snorting bodies. But the pressure of numbers still wasn’t enough to force the front of the herd to leap off the muddy ledges, and the tide ebbed and flowed without breaking the banks. By midmorning, nothing had changed and, disappointed, Gabby and Cuthbert chose to drive off and show the group any of the Big Five they might find, leaving the wildebeest to their contemplation of the crossing and, for some, an untimely death.
Although the travellers were disappointed at not having seen the iconic crossing, a circuitous route back to camp yielded a wealth of game sightings that showed what the migration was all about. It wasn’t about the crossing of a river, Gabby explained, partly to mollify them, but partly because she wanted them to see the big picture and not focus on what they perceived to be the single big event. Having all these prey animals here led to a bloom of dependents animals. They saw a cheetah mother with three cubs, feeding on a Thomson’s gazelle she had just caught. They, in turn, were surrounded by a patient attendance of vultures, with a cloud of latecomers from the distant sky spiralling in like a tornado in reverse.
A hyena clan watched them uninterestedly, the cubs poking their huge ears out of the burrows, followed by curious eyes and noses. Charlie had his camera going at full speed, completely carried away at the wonder of it all. The hyenas’ den was among some termite mounds and grass tussocks in a huge grassy plain with the river off in the distance behind them and, beyond that, flat-topped acacias forming an uninterrupted canopy on the horizon.
Small herds of petite antelope, striped with white and dark brown along their beige flanks, walked delicately across the plain, keeping their distance from the hyenas they could smell but not see among the grassy knolls.
Gradually, the wind drifted the rain-heavy clouds away and the sky became a spreading expanse of purest blue. And with the sun rising in the blue sky, came the heat.
They sat around the camp later, chattering about the finer aspects of their morning drive. Superb starlings chirruped in the trees above, dropping down to pick up crumbs left over from brunch.
No one was inclined to move around much, due partly to the increasing heat, but more due to the huge fried breakfast that had greeted them when they returned from the drive. Goodness had stood smiling and waving from his place next to the fire, an enormous frying pan next to him. He must have seen them wandering back over the plains from the slightly elevated camp, because he had cooked sausages, bacon and tomato. It was up to them to fry their own eggs.
Goodness’s moment of triumph had undoubtedly been the bottle of Killa hot sauce he had dug out of the camp stores.
“My God,” said Charlie. “This stuff is delicious. Not too hot, not too bland, my nose is running a bit but I can still taste my eggs. It’s perfect.”
“It’s pretty tasty,” Stacy agreed. “We get pretty hot sauces down south, lotsa Mexican stuff and Louisiana stuff, so I consider myself a well-seasoned saucy girl.”
They all laughed appreciably at Stacy’s joke, Jocko perhaps a little too loudly, maybe surprised that the bimbo looks should be complemented by a show of wit, not to mention the mild sexual innuendo.
“Do we have enough of this?” Charlie asked.
Gabby smiled, “It’s always a winner. We can get more in Malawi, where it’s made. We won’t run out before then.”
Rabbit and Geoffrey, now inseparable wild men of the bush, had taken their shirts off and were tanning in the full blazing African sun. No trace of the rain clouds remained, only small pockets of fluffy white in the endless blue. The bush men had managed to rustle up some weed from somewhere and were smoking themselves into somnolence while their skin sizzled like chops on a grill.
Inga and Charlie sat with a bird book, trying to match the pictures to the busy group of birds they saw around them in the trees, with Charlie snapping some close ups of the starlings and showing Inga all the things the camera could do to edit the images.
Fred had fished two cold beers out of The Meanie. He plonked himself next to Jocko and handed him one. A natural attribute of Fred’s was his interest in other people and his ability to engage them. He loved to work the room at a cocktail party, listening to people talking about themselves. It was this ability to listen that had in no small part led to his success in the corporate world. Travelling around Africa in a truck with a diverse collection of new characters was a treat for Fred.
“So what’s your story, Jocko?” he asked, sipping languidly on his beer, and taking the time to ensure the bottle stayed in the shade. There was now only a light breeze blowing, which moved the hot air around in desultory gusts. As it blew the leaves above them, they felt the sun shifting its weight across their exposed skin. The view stretching away from their reclined position against the tree into the far distance was of lush grassland, pocked by umbrella-canopied thorn trees and thousands of wildebeest, their heads hanging in the shade of their bodies, their silhouettes rippling in the haze. A small herd stood nearby, ignoring the camp, their tails swishing against the flies and the heat audible over the shrilling of cicadas and the chirping birds.
While Jocko and Fred chatted, the mattresses were all dragged out of the by now infernal tents and strewn around in patches of shade. The group dozed, read or quietly murmured swapped impressions of the journey thus far.
James and Kirsty stood at the edge of the trees, talking about James’s hands, and Toby watched a small troop of monkeys and read his book. He was feeling very unsettled. Not bearing to watch James and Kirsty playing at the edge of the trees, he had been forced to watch the monkeys playing in canopies. Watching the monkeys had made him think of George Selborne firing him in London. It had seemed like a lifetime away, but now he was sitting here, when he should have been euphorically relaxed, stewing. He was angry with himself for allowing such negative thoughts to intrude on a beautiful day. He was angry with James and also angry with Kirsty, although why should he be? She hadn’t done anything wrong. Nor had James really. Talking about his hands and his childhood and chatting to girls was what he did. Just as stealing scraps of food was what the monkeys did. You couldn’t blame them for it.
Sick of watching monkeys and thinking about the day he was fired, and wanting to expunge the negativity from his mind, Toby placed a small frond of acacia leaves in his book, closed it and heaved himself to his feet. Stretching, he looked over the plains and pulled his hat over his forehead. He thought he might wander up to the nearby herd of wildebeest and take a photo or two and get a shot looking back at the camp. The light was flat and white, but he thought he might capture the heat if he could get a hint of shimmer in the shots.
As he neared the wildebeest, he tried to move very slowly and look in any direction but at the somnolent herd. There was a lone tree between him and them. He managed to stop himself whistling and looking at the sky like a cartoon character feigning innocence, and chose his foot placement carefully, enjoying the fact that he was “stalking” for the first time in his life.
And being stalked.
Toby’s initial concern at seeing something moving in a clump of grass thirty yards away turned to minor fright when he thought he was looking at the black head of a tawny-coloured cobra flicking back and forth. His minor fright turned to utter terror when he realised that what he was watching in the grass wasn’t a tawny cobra, but was in fact a tail.
Attached to a lioness.
His days in the financial environment had involved some fairly nimble mental arithmetic, but nothing like the rapid calculations that now flew through his head, of the relative distances between the lioness and himself, the nearest tree and himself, the speed of the lioness and the slowness of himself.
The lioness lifted herself an inch above the ground and eased forward ever so slightly.
Flight! The decision to fight or take flight was taken away from Toby’s brain as his legs launched into action and headed for the tree as fast as they could carry his habitually sedentary body. He had only five yards to go to the tree, and he covered that and gained a handhold in the lower branches as the lioness sprang across the ground in a series of fluid bounds and halved the distance between them.
He tried to heave himself into the branches but his pull-up days were well behind him and it took a low growl from the fast-approaching lioness to awaken the vestigial gymnast within. He pulled himself into the tree, found a foothold and reached for more height. He was only six feet off the ground and petrified of being within reach of her claws.
His head was well into the thorns and his arms tensed for another heave heavenwards by the time the lioness covered the remaining few yards with a huge leap that carried her outstretched claws inches from his scrabbling feet as he swung his legs up, in what was surely the most acrobatic movement he had ever achieved in all his days. He could still hear the lioness clawing the bark and attempting to follow him up the tree, but didn’t see her in her quest. His mind was white with fear and his focus was forward and upward. His camera had caught on a strong branch and he was stuck. He heaved himself again, and the strap broke, leaving the camera hanging from the branch and Toby fumbling upwards again. Finally, when his head poked out the top of the tree, he afforded himself a backwards glance, to assure himself of his survival.
He had scrambled, clawed and surged his way through the tangle of thorns, breaking branches and spraying flakes of bark to the ground, grabbing any handhold he could conceive of supporting him and thrusting with his legs until he was certain there was nowhere further to go without reaching for the sky. He didn’t know how closely he had escaped the lioness, because he had never dared to look back, both to avoid the terror that he knew might paralyse him and because it would have been a waste of the milliseconds he needed to reach the blue patches in the canopy of the spiny flat-topped tree. She had only made one noise in her pursuit of the soft-fleshed banker, and that was a snarl of annoyance when he reached the thinner branches near the top.
The snarl of the lioness was replaced by a roar of blood rushing around his head and he was quite insensible to any other sound for a long minute. Slowly, amid his gasping and panting, other sounds began to register dimly with him and he became more aware of what was going on around him.
Not in all the benign years of his English country upbringing had he ever been even a slight fraction as close to death. Never had he felt more alive. He noticed a caterpillar inching along a branch, flicking its upper body in a radius for its next foothold. A spider dangled in the air in front of his face, its legs waving and reaching for the web Toby had demolished in his gibbering ascent. He wondered if any snakes loved this tree as much as he did, but the thought didn’t worry him as much as it should have done. Given the circumstances, it would be absurd to be wary of a snake right now. He pursed his lips and tried to slow his panting with steady whooshing breaths.
He looked down. The lioness stood up on her back legs, leaning against the tree trunk with one front paw, the other hanging down beside her and her tail flicking angrily. Her face was covered with the scars of a long life – a struggle to feed, to mate, to rear her litters. He looked at her as hard as he dared, wanting to remember her every languorous move. He felt fury towards her, a wish to avenge himself for the terror he had felt. A wish to reassert his human dominance. If he’d had a gun… Instead, he forced himself to appreciate her beauty, her obvious age, her rage. Her forearm, as she clenched her paw, digging her claws into the loose bark and bulging her sinewy muscle, looked human; the muscles were the same as those of a strong man. She didn’t appear to be assessing the accessibility of his perch, so Toby was more readily inclined to be observant and terrified rather than just terrified.
She pushed herself off the trunk with a low huff and paced around the tree, waiting to see what he would do. He looked up and around him, near and far. He wanted to create a mental snapshot, to hear every sound, to feel every one of Africa’s touches and to have a vivid picture burnt into his brain. He might even have had the presence of mind by now to take a picture, but his camera hung some way below him, and there it could remain until the lioness was no longer a threat. However long that may be.
Provided the lioness died of starvation or old age before he did, he was going to have one cracking story to tell about his travels in the Dark Continent. Given his well-padded midriff and the fact that he was only in his early thirties, he reckoned his odds of outlasting the lioness on both counts were in his favour, even if they counted her remaining life in cat years.
His heart rate slowing, Toby sat in the top of the umbrella thorn tree, looked over the Mara plains and felt a thudding rush of elation. He was scratched and bleeding, and thought he detected a bad smell coming from his trousers, but figured he was safe for the moment and that was all that mattered. His adrenaline began to subside, and with the shaking and relief came a recognition of freedom that he had never before experienced.
Toby would normally require recreational drugs of some sort to reach a heightened state of awareness such as this. He felt the sun pressing on his unaccustomed and reddened skin, felt the faintest zephyr brushing the hair on his arms and the hot liquid air calming his deep gasps.
He was struck by the green of it all – from the fresh small leaves in his tree, like fans of emeralds, to the vast swathes of kikuyu grass stretching to infinity. The sky was immense, cloudless and dotted with a few lone vultures miles up in the heavens. The blood swish-thump receded from his ears. The sound of his heart was replaced by the keening shrill of cicadas and the twitter of starlings from the nearby grove in which he had sat so serenely and safely until his frustration had driven him out into the open grassland. And so nearly to his doom.
He became aware too of the shouting coming from the camp and noticed the overlander staff running towards his tree, banging pots and pans and waving their arms, the look of fright on their faces giving him answers as to how narrow his escape had been. What now seemed like several hours to him had in fact lasted less than a minute. He looked at his scratches and decreed them to be superficial badges of his ordeal. Gingerly, he bowed his head and sniffed the air carefully to confirm whether he had lost control of himself. He happily decided that he hadn’t and couldn’t have given a shit if he had.
Although he had up until this point in his life been disparagingly dismissive of people who said, generally by way of commiseration for something bad that happened to someone else, that all things happen for a reason, he had to admit that matters had worked out rather well. He didn’t have to be Pollyanna to see that a certain amount of good had come from a bad run of events.
He was now sitting in an uncomfortable acacia that was slightly too low to the ground to fully satisfy his survival concerns but seemed to have provided an adequate deterrent to a weakened predator. Away to the horizon stretched a vast grassy plain dotted with wildebeest and zebra, and below him the disgruntled and aging lioness slunk away into the grass. Two weeks ago he had been sitting discussing his firing with one very disgruntled boss. It had been just as thorny there. He preferred the tree. He preferred his life right now to the one he had been living in London.
By the time the cooks had arrived at the base of the tree, running, shouting and banging pots, Toby was fairly serene. The lioness had slunk off, the wildebeest were a cantering grey blob in the distance, and the rest of the group had gathered around the tree, all bunched unconsciously together lest the lioness decide to return. Toby’s minute in the tree had been a Zen-like hour to him. He had contemplated the scenery, his old job and the meaning of life.
He smiled down at them, and a drop of sweat slid off his nose and spun down through the branches.
“How you gonna get down?” Jocko shouted up at him.
“He’ll shit himself to climb down from there,” Rabbit remarked.
“I reckon he’s done that already.” Geoffrey’s tone suggested that he might not have found it at all a problem to have battled the lioness off without retiring to the uppermost branches of a thorn tree.
“No, I haven’t,” sang Toby from above, and quietly added, “it was touch and go though.” The sweat now poured off him and he badly needed to get to the shade and drink as many beers as he could lay his hands on, and maybe a little whisky. He began the laborious task of picking his way out of the tree, feeling each prick and scratch clearly without the anaesthetic effects of adrenaline. It took a bit of effort to disentangle his camera, which, like him, was scratched and slightly dented but otherwise seemed perfectly functional.
He was escorted back to the camp and a chair was put out for him in the shade. The group stood around him and fired off all the post-drama questions. What had gone through his mind? What if he hadn’t seen the lioness? How did he know to go for the tree? How come his trousers weren’t soiled; did he have much experience of fear in the past? They checked his camera strap, marvelling at how he had managed to snap it, given that not even Charlie or Jocko, heaving with all their might, could break it now. Eventually there wasn’t much else to say and everyone went back to their previous activities, leaving Toby to sip on his beers and look out over the plains with his binoculars. He tried to spot his lioness, but she must have lain down somewhere to rest until the evening. He silently wished her luck.
An hour or so later, once he’d stopped shaking, Toby sat with his binoculars pointed out towards the plains, but really his eyes were swivelled in their sockets watching James playing with Kirsty. He was pretending to push her out of the camp to the spot where the lioness had lain, licking her lips and watching Toby’s approach. Giggling and writhing, Kirsty turned and pushed back on his chest, giving him a chance to grab her shoulders, spin her round and, with his arms around her waist, march her out into the open.
She let out a stifled shriek of pretend fear and wriggled away from him. Toby moved his chair to face away from them, and opened his novel.
Once more, the smooth prose engulfed him and he became absorbed and saddened by the tragic death of Denys Finch-Hatton in a plane crash. The incident was alive to Toby. He sat under the same vast sky, he felt the same hot breeze and he could picture without needing to read the words, how lonely and poignant the engine must have sounded in this great expanse as the plane turned, with only Finch-Hatton aware that there was something irretrievably wrong and terrible disaster was a probability. No other human on earth to help him. Toby himself had recently learnt how quickly the idyllic could become life or death in this land.
He was too emotional to carry on reading about Finch-Hatton’s last flight and instead sat and thought what his own flight must have looked like from the air. With a detachment that being several hundred feet above the ground would have provided, he could imagine it would have been fairly amusing. A corpulent figure in a pith helmet stalking some wildebeest.
Hello, what’s he up to? Then the omniscient pilot would have seen the lioness and been filled with the “Oh no, look right you fool” sensation a movie theatre audience experiences when an amateurish director has rather obviously scripted a murderer behind the door. Then a comic split second when the figure spots the lioness and nearly jumps out of his skin, and a thrill as he sets off at full speed for the tree. Followed by a moment of suspense as the action is hidden by the branches, before, finally, a satisfying and welcome relief as the now de-hatted head pops out of the tree’s canopy. Everything required of a decent screenplay.
Toby sat musing in this way for some time, replaying various bits of the drama over with slightly different scenarios and outcomes. A pair of hands blocked his vision and startled him – something he normally hated, more than he hated people who knew you didn’t remember their name and lorded it over you.
“Guess who?” Kirsty’s voice. His annoyance evaporated.
“How are you, Toby?” It was the first time she had spoken his name. She stood behind him and rubbed his shoulders. “Still in shock? Or never were in shock, or were in shock but not any more? The beers helping? Seriously, how are you, Toby?”
“Fine thanks, really. Thanks for asking.”
“You know, they say when you’re charged by a lion you’re supposed to throw shit at it.” She paused and smiled and waited a second. “Now you say, ‘But what if there’s none around?’ and I say, ‘There will be.’” She watched his expression for amusement. “Maybe that’s not so funny to someone who has actually been charged by a lion.”
“No, it’s quite funny. Although a bit inaccurate. I think it’s closer to the truth to say that you should scatter shit behind you as you’re running away. To confuse the lion.”
“Know what they really say? They really say you’re not supposed to run. That you should stand your ground.”
“Whoever ‘they’ are, they’ve never been in that situation. Besides, I was running so fast nothing could have caught me.” He chuckled. “In truth, in the nanosecond that I weighed up all my options, standing my ground and surviving seemed less probable than making it to the tree. Those thoughts crossed my mind at the speed of light.”
“Did it seem like slow motion?” Her voice carried across the top of his head as her hands eased the knots out of his shoulders. She was rubbing the cuts and scratches and it stung, but he wouldn’t have stopped her even if she had been rubbing salt into the wounds.
“You know that dream when you’re running up the beach but going nowhere and the waves are crashing at your feet? It was a bit like that.” He paused, took a sip of beer and slightly shook his head. “I’m not sure I could climb that tree again even if you gave me all day, a pair of gauntlets, some pruning shears and a ladder to do it.
He continued, “It’s given me renewed confidence in evolutionary theory. Deep within my genes, there’s an arboreal primate. Large boned though I am, I had the agility of a gibbon when it mattered.” Kirsty laughed and lifted up Toby’s arm to look at his hand.
“Nope,” she said, “opposable thumbs. Not a gibbon. Choose another ape.”
He glanced back over his shoulder, looking into her green eyes, “Any sign of a prehensile tail back there? I could use it to get myself another beer out of the cooler box.” Again, Kirsty chuckled, ruffled his hair and sauntered back to the kitchen area. She carefully selected the coldest beer she could find and walked back to him, opening it. She took a long pull, wiped the top with her T-shirt and passed it to him.
“Well,” she said, “you’ve definitely shown you’ve got guts.”
“Lots of guts,” he said, rubbing his stomach.
She blushed, “I didn’t mean it like that. You know I didn’t.”
“I know, sorry.”
“Maybe when we get to Zanzibar you’ll be chased by a shark. Then you can really test your evolutionary theory. There must be some fish genes in you too.” She took his beer and had a sip, passing it back to him without wiping the top. Toby didn’t wipe it either.
“I can’t wait to get to the beach. I love it. Blue sea, white sand. Coral. It’s going to be awesome.” She gave his shoulders one last squeeze and moved with languid grace back to a vacant mattress in the shade, leaving Toby in a state of silent exhilaration.