Fair Game

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Whacko Jocko

Charlie’s face was steadily darkening with rage. The tall Yorkshireman’s heavily muscled arms bunched and shook as he wrestled with his camera lens, trying to twist it free of the body. The jolting of The Blue Meanie down the heavily pot-holed road from the Songwe border crossing between Tanzania and Malawi wasn’t making his task any easier.

Jocko watched with detached interest. Jocko did almost everything with detached interest. It was one of the effects that the five weeks in Africa had had on him. He had been laid back to begin with, but had now become somnambulant. At times it was hard to tell if there was anyone at home. He, and many of the others, had slowly but surely adorned themselves with necklaces, bracelets and earrings that they had bought from street vendors and hawkers as they progressed down the continent. Their T-shirts proclaimed where they had been, and much of the original clothing they had packed was now gone. Donated to street children, exchanged for wooden statues and left in hotel rooms to save the bother of laundry. Within a relatively short space of time, they had become identikits for the backpackers they had met and left behind in Nairobi, what seemed like a lifetime before.

Charlie eventually flopped the camera down on his lap and sighed.

“I think this thing is really fucked,” he complained. “It wasn’t cheap either. Maybe I should swap it for a necklace or a hammock or something.”

Jocko just chuckled. “Someone will take it, mate, even if it doesn’t work at all. Maybe we can use the lens to light fires or something.” Jocko’s eyes lit up as Charlie popped the flash cover up and down a few times and whirred the lens to telescopic and back. “Yeah, show them that. Show them that and tell them you’re James Bond,” he said with a smile.

The camera was duly passed around and everyone had a turn at dismembering it, or passing helpful comment. The scenery they passed was uneventful and had been so since they’d entered Malawi. There wasn’t much else to do but read, unless that led to car sickness, in which case, Charlie’s camera was the most interesting thing on board.

After his indiscretions on the beach, Kirsty would not have James anywhere near her, so his carsickness difficulties seemed to have disappeared and he was buried in a hefty tome, The Scramble for Africa, which he had purloined from Toby’s suitcase. James’s mind was incredibly active, and if he couldn’t be engaged in licentiousness, he wasn’t one to stare out the window in quiet reflection if there was something more educational on offer. His time needed to be spent constructively, whether it was cutting his nails with great diligence, or learning something new.

He sat next to Jocko, and chatted amiably to him between bouts of reading. Despite Jocko’s proprietorial protectiveness of Kirsty in the beginning, they were all now relaxing their guards and had slotted into a fabric of friendships with each other based on mutual interests and facets of their personalities they found interesting. The cliques of Aussies and Londoners, those with money and those without, and differences in background had melted away. Their friendships were now based on who they were, not what they were. Geoffrey and Rabbit were still able to grate the nerves on occasion, but Gabby generally kept them on a short leash and they fitted in where they had to.

The mood aboard The Meanie was generally a cheerful one. They had developed habits that were respected by each other. Where they kept their stuff, where they sat, which windows were open and which had the blinds down. A comfortable social microcosm existed and it was rare that disruptions to the harmony occurred. But it hadn’t been as convivial on the way out of Dar es Salaam as it had been when they arrived. There had been an intangible tension when they all clambered back aboard and although they had greeted Cuthbert and Goodness like long-lost brothers, with hugs and backslapping, there was an edge in the air and the habitual seating plan seemed to be under review.

Gabby couldn’t understand it; she was a brilliant people person, quick to step in, diplomatic, with a wicked sense of humour and, at times, without a shred of subtlety. She loved people and their foibles and watched carefully for signs of friction, which she was adept at defusing. But she wasn’t sure what had caused the current climate of over-politeness that would be characteristic of a group of strangers getting on board The Meanie for the first time.

Geoffrey fed off it, his comments slightly more barbed, his rudeness slightly less contrite. He made horrible remarks without any thought of the consequences, or any concern for others’ feelings. He had even managed to get Jocko to look at him thoughtfully through narrow eyes, which to any receptive person might have constituted a good reason to quieten down.

It was almost a week since watching James in flagrante delicto on the beach before Kirsty could even bring herself to greet James. Which suited Toby fine. She spent all her time with him, and James seemed to understand that he wasn’t welcome. Toby and Kirsty had become comfortable friends. She enjoyed sitting next to him on the long multi-day drive south because he was quiet, spending long periods watching the countryside go by, and his perspicacity always led her to see what she was seeing in a different way. He was sensitive to the local people as they passed through, and what their needs and difficulties might be. She knew that he had been a banker, so was surprised and excited to hear him come up with esoteric interpretations of what he saw. His approach to their long road transfers was part daydream and part anthropology.

She didn’t try to force small talk with him, preferring to wait until he had seen something that triggered a remark or conversation. As Toby watched the passing world, she studied his face, as if to see what interested him and to second-guess what might catch his attention. To try to gauge his thoughts about what he saw. She read her book and peered from under her eyebrows at him. When he swung his head as something on the side of the road grabbed his eye, Kirsty looked with him, trying to draw the connection between the visual event and what his train of thought might be. She never asked him what he was looking at, hoping instead that he would tell her from his point of view, or trying to remember to mention the sights later, to see if she had been right about his thinking.

As they continued on the bumpy journey down to a resort on the lake. Kirsty said to Toby, “Give me another saying.”

“What?” he looked confused.

“You know,” she said, “the email or Internet derivation of how a saying came about, like the fair maiden one.”

“OK,” he laughed. “Tell me a saying and I’ll make it up.”

“No, you choose the saying this time.”

He looked out at the passing landscape for a while.

“What about ‘a faint heart never won a fair maiden’ again?” he said.

“OK.” She smiled out the window. “Is it mediaeval times again?”

“No,” he said. “Elizabethan times. When they used to have those big royal balls, the most beautiful women were always courted by a number of suitors, as they are in the nightclubs today. If she was torn between two equally dashing suitors, and given that she couldn’t select them on the basis of the amount of champagne they bought for her and the size of their wallets, as she would in the nightclubs today, she had to find some way to select the most eligible one. She didn’t want the guy who just wanted to sleep with her (or steal her maidenhead, in the parlance of the times), and then go off drinking and hunting stags with his mates.”

“Maybe that’s where ‘stag party’ comes from,” she laughed. “You can do that one next.”

“You can,” he said. “Anyway, on with this amazing story: so, she would have to marry one of these guys. It wasn’t like our enlightened times, where a girl could have a brief fling and walk away with her reputation intact, if not her maidenhead. She needed to know that the guy was serious about her. She’d take each one’s hand between her own two and place her ear on his breast. Given that they wore thick tunics and the like, if she could hear his heart beating, it meant that the physical contact meant a great deal to him, and he was serious about her. If his heart was beating too faintly, he never won the fair maiden.”

Kirsty laughed again, “I must email that to everyone I know; it’s surely true.” As she laughed she took Toby’s hand between her own two and placed her head on his chest. She needn’t have done so, because he was sure she could even see his heart beating, let alone hear it.

She let his hand go, leant back and looked out the window thoughtfully.

They were in the heart of the tobacco area, driving down the country’s M1. The villages were smaller than they had encountered in Tanzania and less formal. There seemed to be more of the round huts, more quintessentially “African Village”. There were fewer shops advertising Omo and Agip. The huts were more evenly spread over the rolling hilly countryside with a plaited weave of paths and thin roads in and among them. The bare red mud gave way to green only in a cultured field or remote thickets on distant hilltops.

Kirsty said, “Lots of huts. But I don’t see many people. Do they go away to work? In the tobacco fields maybe.”

“I think they’re all dead,” said Toby. “Aids.”

Kirsty’s eyebrows arched and her flecked green eyes darkened. Toby continued, “I was reading some statistics on this place. The HIV infection rate is fifty per cent. Imagine that. If you see two people, one of them is HIV positive. I think it’s a major trucking route. So I get the feeling we’re on a major Aids transmission line here – north to south and back again.”

“That’s so sad.”

It’s why there are few adults. Most of these people are children, working in the fields. They should probably be in school.

“Probably? Jesus, definitely. My God, this is an eye-opener. We go from one fun place to another ‘seeing’ Africa, but the reality is in-between. You don’t get pics of this on the brochures.” Kirsty had her hand pressed against her chin as she spoke, her deep eyes glassy.

The rural scene changed to one of increasing urban density. The round huts became square houses, still simple in design and materials. But now divided into two rooms. They were approaching the ferry port town of Nkhotakota. Gradually the two-room bungalows turned into more detailed houses and, finally, they rounded a corner in the street to find a group of trading stores and a smattering of awful guesthouses. Flanking the road were large billboards warning against the deadly consequences of screwing the town’s prostitutes, and promulgating the use of condoms in moments of weakness.

Toby looked up at the billboards, and shook his head. “The message doesn’t get through.”

The swirling dust, and being jostled through the heat had brought on a mood of fractious boredom, and everyone was delighted when The Meanie juddered to a halt in what could be called the town square at a stretch. There was a string of large trucks parked along the side of the road, and, behind these, a dirty beach spread to either side of a long pier jutting out into the lake, under which huddled piles of litter.

The square was empty. But not because of Aids. It seemed that every man, woman and child in the vicinity was on the pier supervising the unloading of a rusting ferry that had just pulled into port. The Meanie passengers, now standing above the beach, watched with great delight as a group of backpackers disembarked into the throng and attempted to make their way to the shore. The shifting crowd pushed them against the railless edge of the pier, and they peered over the edge with alarm. The whites of their eyes were visible from the beach.

At one point the pier had eroded away, leaving old tram rails spanning a ten foot drop to the water below. For one intrepid backpacker this was too much to negotiate with a heavy pack, and he lowered himself onto all fours, to the shrieks of the village children skipping along the rails beside him. Eventually, a combination of humiliation and lack of mobility overcame him, and he tumbled down into the lake with a loud splash, electing to take the watery route to shore in water that was fortunately only waist deep. This elicited a cheer from The Blue Meanie crowd and a sheepish wave from the wader.

A shout from the other side of the square drew their attention. Inga and Stacey waved at them.

“Look what we found,” they said. “Supplies!” Above their heads they held bottles of Killa hot sauce. They were standing in front of a shipping container mounted on bricks with a kiosk created in the side of it and the interior filled with essential items, such as soap, snuff, cigarettes sold individually, and a whole shelf of Killa hot sauce.

“We’ve found the sauce,” Inga said.

“We’ve found the source,” Stacey said, laughing. “The source of the sauce.” She had brought them a bottle each and handed them out to her grateful travel companions.

Fred walked up behind James. “Alright then, ginger Goldilocks? What’s up?”

“You can talk, mophead.”

“Look how curly your hair’s become,” Fred pulled a strand taught like he was tweaking a spring. “Boing! A day or two more, and you can scour the pots.”

“Speak for yourself, you could already swab out The Meanie.” James looked at Fred and tousled his hair. “This is almost a bob, mate. Are you ever going to cut it?”

“No. Are you going to cut yours?”

“I have to cut it, long hair for me just doesn’t cut it. It gets wiry. This is the longest, wiriest my hair has ever been. I’ve been assessing the local barber.”

They stood watching the barber in his stall. It was set up at the edge of the earthen clearing. Two pigs were sleeping peacefully against the side of the stall. On two sides, the stall was made of plywood that had served a previous purpose in life. On the third side a piece of hessian sacking hung down to the dusty floor, and the roof was a tarpaulin that sagged down towards the head of a stocky young man who was seated on the barber’s stool. His head was being shaved with an old razor, the type where a classically shaped double-sided blade is screwed onto the top. Trickles of blood flowed from some small nicks in his cranium.

“He’s being massacred,” James whispered.

“I won’t be getting a shave there,” said Fred.

“But what about a haircut? Or are you growing dreads, now that you’ve taken to introspection and meditation and so on?”

“My hair’s just long, not filthy. I’m definitely not cutting it.”

“You’ve gone from being a quintessentially earnest English lawyer to looking like a quintessentially eccentric English aristocrat who’s in the process of going troppo. Pity you don’t have a country seat or any breeding. Or, more importantly, any inbreeding.”

“I’m not going troppo, but I think I’m done with lawyering. Endlessly reading docs and feeling self-important. It all seems like such hogwash when you’re out here. Surrounded by these unwashed hogs,” he chuckled and pointed at the sleeping pigs.

“I agree, but then again, I was saying that in London. That’s why we’re here, remember?” James looked up at Fred, “What do you think you’ll do instead?”

“Well, I’m not serious about a career, but I am serious about Eleanor. She can decide what she wants to do. If she wants to be a mum, that’s fine. I’ll work hard. But if she wants to be a career woman, that’s fine too. I’ll stay at home and think of something else to do that doesn’t soak up all my waking hours.”

“Good boy,” said James, and patted Fred’s shoulder. “Now to visit the gents’ hair stylist for my coiffure.”

With renewed good humour, Fred joined the rest of the group as they made their way behind the row of shops to find their accommodation and a few cold beers to make the overnight stop as quick and painless as possible.

The road from Nkhotakota to Monkey Bay was much the same as the previous day, but for the fact that it was hugely cambered, so they were forever leaning to the left, or sliding down the seats to a pile near the window. This was enough to cause anyone to be grumpy, and Rabbit and Geoffrey’s rabbiting became quite tough to bear.

Desperate for some relief from the driving, and the chance to stretch their legs, they saw a sign touting “Iced Cold Coka-Cola” and all yelled in unison for Cuthbert to stop. A delighted child came running up to the vehicle and beckoned them to follow her back among the huts, her bare feet impervious to the thorns and compacted gravel. In a small hut at the back of the village stood an old fridge with Coca-Cola’s red and white swoosh painted onto its side, and inside was a sparse collection of Cokes and Fantas – cooled once a day with a diesel generator sitting outside in the dust.

They bought the lot and clambered back into the overlander, leaving the child’s mother clutching a handful of dilapidated banknotes and the child a fistful of sweets, waving with their free hands. The woman had also luckily been well stocked with packets of raw peanuts, still in their shells. For a long while, the rustling crunch of the shells and the chomping on the untreated nuts was all the sound from inside The Meanie. The travellers painstakingly removed the two nuts at a time, enjoying the refreshing green taste of the nuts and the effort of getting to a point of satisfaction. This wasn’t fast food.

Besides sustained attempts to keep themselves from sliding against one another with their sweaty thighs stuck to each other, there wasn’t much else of interest to keep them occupied until The Meanie rolled down the hill into the small lakeside village of Chembe, the entry point to Cape Maclear and the Lake Malawi National Park, and grumbled to a halt in the shade.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Gabby to the thirsty crew, who had all caught sight of a large Carling sign above a veranda looking out over the lake, and were colliding in the door of The Meanie trying to make a beeline in that direction.

“We’re not camping here, and the beach is quite long. There are many places to stay, and you can make your choices, since we’ll be here for four days. If you’d like, I will happily book you into a spot about three hundred metres down this road, but I need a quick show of hands as to who wants me to book their accommodation, and who wants to find their own.

“All those who want to do their own thing, up with your grubbies.

“Let’s see now, that would be… zero, as expected. All you want to do is drink. OK, kids. Well, off you go. Don’t forget to wear your hats. But – oy! – you still need to come and get your bags out of The Meanie. I’m not unpacking and making your beds.”

“Aren’t you going to join us, Gabby?” asked James. “There’ll be enough Carlings for everyone.”

“I will in a minute. I still need to do my job though, tough as it is.” She winked at him and hopped into the cab next to Goodness as they urged The Meanie to its resting place for the next four days.

The bar was nothing more than a room with a bar counter at the far end, and the front open onto a veranda that had a small flight of stairs down onto the beach. The vast lake stretched out to the west, ready to catch the slowly sinking sun. It was still hot and the sun hadn’t yet begun its descent to the lapping waters of the lake. So there were only a few loafers in the bar, the rest of the backpacking inhabitants of the coastal village not yet back from boating, snorkelling, picnicking on isolated shores or having the traditional deep afternoon sleep that only the bored and the extremely well rested can accommodate.

Several hours of dusty driving necessitated an early cocktail hour for the sweaty passengers of The Blue Meanie and they ordered their second round of beers the moment the first arrived.

They were just settling into this when a villager sidled up to them and began the idle chatter of one who wants to offer some business but enjoys the pleasantries as much as the transaction. After establishing who they all were, where they all came from, and where they were all going, he broached the subject of his trade.

“You want Malawi Gold?”

Rabbit and Geoffrey scrabbled for their wallets before the others could begin to answer and the seller didn’t have time to enter the long route of persuasive negotiation he had prepared before Rabbit was clutching a maize cob wrapped around small balls of newspaper full of promising-looking herbal clusters. Rabbit propped a magazine on his lap and began breaking up one of the heads and rolling a joint with studied concentration, while they all passed round the bag and sniffed appreciatively at it.

The first joint was lit and passed on by Rabbit and he started on the second. The purveyor sat himself on the wall to join in the process and as the sweet smoke drifted down the beach, the noses of the afternoon sleepers in their tents and bungalows must have twitched knowingly because young scruffy people began to emerge and the bar filled up in ones and twos.

“Thank God, it’s cooling off a bit,” Jocko spoke in a nasal tone, trying not to let the smoke he had pulled into his lungs escape until he had reaped the full narcotic benefits.

“Sunset’s gonna be awesome,” James said. “We must remember to look for the green flash.”

“The what?” asked Kirsty. “The green stash is right here.”

“The green flash, blondie,” said Geoffrey. “Haven’t you ever got stoned and watched a sunset before? As it goes down you get a green flash.”

“Don’t call me blondie,” said Kirsty in an offhand way, not taking her eyes off the horizon and taking a drag of the joint Jocko had just past her.

“Amazing what the sun’s done. Your hair was chestnut brown when we first met you,” Toby remarked, dissipating the moment of tension.

“You were fat when we first met you,” Rabbit said, bringing the tension back again.

“Yes, well, some of us have changed for the better,” Toby said and stretched out in his chair, rubbing his hands over his now moderately flat stomach, “and some of us haven’t.”

The barman had by now put on some quiet reggae and was struggling to keep up with the beer orders that were flooding in from an increasingly crowded veranda. The Malawi Gold seller was doing a brisk trade from his chair alongside Toby and Toby took it upon himself to advise him of the pitfalls of the retail business, pointing out that his stocktaking would never pass an audit, since it seemed that a lot of his profits were going up in smoke.

“You see, mate,” Toby’s words were sparingly released through his held breath with small puffs of smoke, his eyes narrowed, “you’re never going to be successful in this business if you’re as whacked out of your skull as I am right now, and end up smoking all your merchandise. You see, mate. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“I see,” said the ganja-man, taking back the joint and toking it casually as if it were an ultra light cigarette. “You want to buy more Malawi Gold? Another cob?”

“Absolutely, mate. Absolutely.”

“This stuff’s wicked,” Geoffrey took the new cob from the ganja-man and, removing one of the twists of newspaper from the wrapped maize leaf, began to unravel it and build a little pile of finely ground weed on the old travel magazine on his lap.

“Whew,” Kirsty shook her head as though to clear it, “it’s quite strong, though. I reckon that’s about enough for me.”

“Oh, you need to unclench a bit, I reckon,” Rabbit said. “It’ll do you good to mellow out. You’re giving us relaxed Aussies a bad name.”

“Yeah, you’re a bit of an uptight bitch,” sniggered Geoffrey, his eyes now beady red from all the grass, and his tongue a bit looser and sharper than normal. Toby’s eyes narrowed as Geoffrey continued, “But I know what’d get yer knickers out of their twist, darlin‘.”

“Now hang on a minute,” said Toby.

“Shut it, Billy Bunter, you know you’d like to get yer leg over Sheila here more than the rest of us.”

“Stand up!” Jocko loomed over Geoffrey, “Stand up and apologise.”

“Relax, mate. Calm down. Just havin‘ a laugh.”

“Apologise! Right now!”

“Or what?”

The heavy smack of Jocko’s fist hitting Geoffrey’s cheek caused a jet of spittle to fly out the corner of his mouth, narrowly missing Inga, and his eyes, although wide open with surprise, were instantly glazed. The force of the punch rocked his chair past its tipping point and Geoffrey slowly flopped onto his back, his legs splayed out and his tattered shorts showing both a lack of underpants and the last turkey in the shop, to all who sat opposite him.

“Jesus, Jocko,” said Fred. “Well done, I suppose. Well deserved too.”

Charlie said nothing, but raised his beer and shook Jocko by the hand.

Rabbit looked terrified. Sensing he might have aligned himself with the wrong party, and might be next in line for some severe corporal punishment, he played the only card he had.

“Good to see one Aussie sticking up for another, mate,” he managed with a dry throat.

“Aussie has nothing to do with it, ‘mate’. Rudeness does. And I’d bear that in mind if I were you.”

“What’s wrong with Geoffrey?” asked Gabby, who had just stepped up onto the veranda to find the group sitting in stiff silence, all eyes fixed on Geoffrey and the undignified disclosure of his bits and pieces.

“Jocko hit him sooo hard,” drawled Stacy

“Oh, God, well at least cover his little balls,” said Gabby. “Was that really necessary, Jocko? He was behaving like the working part of an arsehole, but we still have a long way to go and I don’t want any friction in The Meanie.”

“Yes,” they chorused, “it was.”

“He was the only one causing friction,” Fred observed. “I think perhaps Jocko’s knocked some sense into him.”

“I’ll have a chat with him,” said Gabby. “But Jocko, I want you to apologise as well. Maybe it will clear the air a bit. I don’t want him cowering like a whipped dog for the rest of the trip. He’s also paid his money, even though he was becoming a bit of a nuisance. But please, cover his balls; he won’t recover if he knows he was on display in such splendour.”

Gabby sniffed once or twice, “Talk about clearing the air. From the smell around here and the red eyes, I can see you’ve already enjoyed the Malawian specialities. So no doubt you’re hungry. I’ll organise something to eat and then I think we should head back to our accommodation and get some sleep. Start afresh tomorrow. Stacy, will you look after Geoffrey when he wakes up. I’ll be back in a minute.”

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James arrived back from his run shirtless and shiny, his torso still in good shape, but not as bulky as he’d been when they left London a lifetime ago.

He wandered over to the veranda of their guesthouse to find only Kirsty sitting on a reed chair with her long legs propped up on another chair in front of her, her elegant feet bare and a book spread in her lap. A broad straw hat shielded her face from his view and he took the time to admire her legs. Sensing him standing there, she looked up.

“Where’s everyone?” he asked.

“I think they walked around the point to go snorkelling. It all got a bit too rushed for me. I’m on a go-slow today after all the action yesterday. So is Fred, by the looks of things. He wrapped himself in a sarong, took all his new meditation paraphernalia and his book and has gone for some ‘alone time’.”

“What’s going on with all that meditation stuff? He used to be the stiffest upper lip in town and now he’s soul-searching like a yogi on opium. At least he seems to be coming up with some answers to his inner questions. Anyway, how slow’s your go-slow? Because I met a kid on my run who wants to take us across to that island for snorkelling and lunch.” James gestured off the beach, where a small island could be seen just out of swimming range. “He says he’ll make a barbecue for us. You keen? Could be quite cool.”

“That could be fun,” said Kirsty, lowering her book and pursing her lips. “Sure, let’s go.”

“Alright, get your things. I’ll go get my baggies on. He should be here in about ten minutes.” James’s cool acceptance belied his excitement and he scampered off as if his run was yesterday’s exercise, almost losing his footing in the gravel when he careered round the corner at full tilt.

The Malawian canoe was a hollowed out log and they had concerns about its stability. But it was fairly solid, even though this particular boat was banana-shaped, obviously not from the straightest tree in the vicinity. It wasn’t very comfortable. The log had been hollowed out almost whole, leaving just a thin opening through which to place the legs, one in front of each other, with a buttock on either side. This did little to detract from the enjoyment of the trip out over the crystal waters, watching the sandy line of shore receding slowly behind them.

Kirsty sat at the prow facing back towards James and gazed at the distant line of huts and bungalows nestled in the shade behind them, a look of bliss settling on her now lightly freckled face. James faced towards the island, looking at Kirsty through the side of his sunglasses, a similar look on his.

The boy nosed the boat in-between the boulders and they stepped out onto a flat rock. The paddle had taken half an hour in the baking sun. James was again shiny with sweat and desperate to slip into the water. They gathered up their masks and left Banda to set up a little picnic site for them in the shade.

As they drifted out beyond the rocky shore, the sunlight weaved a web of moving strands of light on the sandy bottom, where several male cichlids were busy tending their conical mound nests and defending their territories against other brightly coloured fish. James and Kirsty floated above, enjoying their own wildlife documentary and occasionally lifting their heads to point something out to the other.

“Funny to see this tropical aquarium thing in fresh water, don’t you think?”

“It is a bit. Can’t believe the colours,” Kirsty slipped her snorkel back into her mouth and slowly kicked over to a rocky outcrop where the concentration of fish glittered and flashed more colourfully than over the sandy bottom. James swam behind her, watching her smooth brown legs leaving a swirl of bubbles in her wake. Her muscles were clearly defined from the effort and her bikini bottom had crept up slightly, showing a tan line of dark brown against a thin crescent of creamy buttock brightened by the flickering blue water.

He felt a wash of lust and looked away guiltily before he had a rod a marlin couldn’t bend, or, worse, before she could turn back and see him ogling her like a sex-starved schoolboy.

Beginning to get cold, they floated on their backs to face the sun and moved back to the shore.

“Forgiven me yet?” James asked, as casually as he could muster.

“For what?”

“Ah, come on, Kirsty, you’ve hardly spoken to me since we left Zanzibar. I’m sorry all that happened, but we’re on holiday here. It’s inevitable that there should be a bit of romantic action from time to time.”

“Romantic action is one thing, but the only casual one-off sex on the beach I’m going to be having is a cocktail. So don’t start eyeing me up like you’ve got any chances.” She turned and swam freestyle back to the shore.

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A small crowd of onlookers gathered to help them pack The Blue Meanie. Mostly local boys from the village, some of whom they had come to know fairly well over the four days they had been there. Banda, the banana boat boy, had ferried them back and forth from the island, and had attached himself to James like a Man Friday, always present after breakfast with suggestions as to likely activities to pass the day. Most of these involved paddling somewhere in the banana boat and grilling dubious-looking but surprisingly tasty pieces of chambo over a frugal bed of coals, with the fins and the tails curling in the smoke.

He had enhanced the value of his activity package by noting on the first trip James’s increasing agitation at the lack of cold beers as the day crept towards noon, and had procured a tired cooler box with beers and ice on day two. From that moment, he had an exclusive arrangement with James. He could rely on custom even if James was merely going to lie in a hammock in front of his bungalow. For initiative and service delivery like that, James was happy to pay a healthy premium for his beer. The first day Banda had acquired the beers, he had entered into a credit agreement with the bottle store owner. But by day four he had enough profit to pay for the beers upfront and upgrade the food menu to include chicken, for good measure.

This last act of generosity did cause some measure of distress in the group later that evening, because plump ‘Maggie’, the creamy brown-speckled hen, adopted mascot of The Blue Meanie passengers, wasn’t seen clucking around her usual haunts in front of their bungalow.

The only person packing the overlander more energetically than Banda was Geoffrey.

The rest of the group were standing back in open-mouthed amazement as he grabbed pack after pack and, with regimental efficiency, packed them all neatly in their customary places. Stacy had dragged her pack out from the bungalow and was moving it towards The Meanie with a strained expression on her face, when Geoffrey, the bruising still evident around his left eye, rushed to her, grabbed the pack and said, “’ere, love, let me ’elp you with that.”

“I didn’t know he knew words like that: ‘’elp’, I mean ‘help’,” whispered Fred to Charlie.

“He’s ’eweman, I mean human. Jocko’s knocked some sense into him. He’s seen the light, mate.”

“He’s seen the stars.”

Once they were all packed and had left Banda and his cohorts with a pile of T-shirts, they jumped aboard and started selecting their positions. Cuthbert fired up The Meanie, who gave his usual smoker’s cough and grumbled and shuddered in the blue smoke.

Gabby stood up at the front.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seatbelts sign. Please take a moment to read the safety leaflet, put your seat backs in the upright position and secure your tray tables.

“That was Malawi. Looks like we cleared up a few things and got rid of a few spiders. Nice to see everyone cosy again. The ‘blue’ Meanie could feel the mood. He was getting upset. Now he’s happy again. Listen to him. Cuthbert gunned the engine for effect and The Meanie sprang up the road, leaving a choking cloud of dust over the gallery, who scattered in every direction, with the exception of a few stalwart children who ran alongside for a while shouting entreaties for any last-minute munificence from the passengers.

Toby leant over Stacy to look back at the lake, their faces pushed together in the open window. Behind them, Kirsty and Rabbit did the same. Although Rabbit’s face was aimed at the lake, as was one of his eyes, the other was swivelled in his head to stare at Kirsty’s freckled cheek so close to his. He had never been this close to her, and was at a loss as to how to handle it with any sort of aplomb.

Once Gabby had made her stewardess’s speech, she slipped in next to James.

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