The arrival of Raage Tennant – The parting of ways – Journey to civilisation – A vague acquaintance – Ipswich bound
Not all the lands in Africa are as fertile as the place where
I lived with the Ajuru. Some places have been hit by drought,
disease, wars more serious than minor scuffles between neighbors,
and other misfortunes. Nobody is untouched when they see a small
child that isn’t wasting its energy on crying anymore. It is so
very tempting to walk over with our large bones, and give that
child our food. That will make us feel better about ourselves,
but unfortunately, the people are hungry again the next day.
Should we just leave the Africans to their fate? Of course
not. But at the same time, we should approach the situation with
a large dose of humility. Africans have been living here since
time immemorial, and they know like no other what these lands
can provide for them. They know not to get too attached to any
child below the age of one year. To project our Western values
upon them, does not do them any service.
This was a lesson I learnt from my time with the Ajuru. Humans
are indomitable. They will survive from the coldest places to the
hottest. They will endure things that to our modern sensibilities
seem unbearable. But to know that people exist all of whose
children survive into adulthood, who never need feel hunger,
that will break stronger souls than mine.
— Carl Tennant, “My life with the Ajuru”
Fatin went into labour in the middle of the night, and I was unceremoniously thrown out by Dhuuxo. She and the other women took over the tent. I looked into Fatin’s eyes one more time and left. Women’s business. I found a space by the fire pit, and tried not to hear Fatin’s screams. I wanted to be in that tent, letting Fatin squeeze my hand into a pulp, but I was not allowed. As I stared into the embers of the fire, I heard a noise beside me and found Elder Hanad was sitting beside me. He passed me a cup of the foul fermented whatever it was. Geedi sat down on my other side. Neither spoke.
It had been as Obsiye predicted. Hanad had told me that I could stay until Fatin gave birth, but then the tribe would head upstream, and I would head downstream. I hadn’t protested, hadn’t even asked why. I had gone against the will of the village elder. I was no longer welcome here. Watching the women walk round the camp was my only solace. One of the men of the M’bari tribe was now part of the Ajuru. He had come to Elder Hanad, and humbly begged to be admitted. Hanad had consulted with his wife Dhuuxo, who had had a discreet word with the other women, who had reported that he had been the most kind of them, keeping the more vulnerable ones away from harm. Somehow, I had missed him in my barrage of fire, though he didn’t even dare look at me. I was too numb to feel the sting of the situation that an attacker was welcome in the tribe, while I was not.
Elder Hanad refilled my cup. “It will not take long now,” he said. “Fatin is healthy and strong.”
I looked at Elder Hanad, then back into the smouldering embers of the fire. “I have things in my trunk that might help.”
“Did you bring enough for every woman who will give birth?”
“Do you have enough even for the next woman to give birth who will suffer the most?”
“How would I know who that is? But I have enough for Fatin.”
“You truly have great powers, Kal Tennant, to decide who should suffer pain, and who should not. You are the mightiest man in this tribe. When someone displeases you, you point at that man, and he dies. My tribe is too small for a man such as you.”
I drank from my cup. Back in the tent, Fatin had another contraction.
“I will run out of bullets. I will run out of morphia. Then, I will be just like any other man.”
Elder Hanad laughed quietly. “But what if the power is not something in that trunk of yours, but something in your head? If you would be the one to either give it, or keep it, then you would be the owner of our souls.”
“Are you worried that I might go against your rule? You are a wise man, Elder Hanad. I would not presume. Whatever I have, I would give freely to whoever needed it.”
Elder Hanad snorted with laughter. “If I were to throw out everyone who did not do as I said, I would soon have no tribe at all. And then Dhuuxo would throw me out of the tent. No Kal Tennant. I am not worried about the strength of my words.”
“Then what are you worried about, Elder? I have done my best to become one of you. I doubt I could have done more to fit in.”
Elder Hanad put his hand on my shoulder. “That is true. I have seen you try to hunt on your big feet. The tent you built, where now your child is arriving, is an Ajuru tent, not an English one. You have eaten our food, and drunk our drink, and made them yours. You are a good man, Kal Tennant. I am sorry to see you go.”
“Then why? I have not learnt even a single leaf from the tree that is the Ajuru. Why must I leave?”
Elder Hanad drank from his cup. His eyes turned to the fire, and he didn’t speak for a while. Geedi bumped his fist into my shoulder.
“You should not have stolen away Fatin from Obsiye, my friend. Hunters do not like to see someone make off with their prey.” He chuckled. “Lion or pale-faced giant.”
Hanad shook his head. “Fatin will never belong to Obsiye. Nor will your child, be sure of that. When first you and your friends walked into camp, Fatin was fast running out of nice ways to tell Obsiye to find someone else to warm his bed. After this, she will no longer bother trying to be nice about it.”
“Then tell me, Elder. What is wrong?”
Elder Hanad took a deep breath. “England is a faraway place. Not only a long way to walk, but also in the way they think, in the way they live.” He pulled out his steel Buck knife, the one given to him by the late Professor James Hammond. It glinted in the firelight. It struck me that apart from the things I had brought, nothing in the Ajuru tribe shone like that metal. “Nobody of my tribe, or any of the tribes we trade with, knows how to make one of these knives. I use this only to look at. To shave wood for a bow, or to dig in rotten trees for grubs to eat, I use the same tools that my grandfather used. I know how to make them. They are mine. This…” Hanad balanced the knife on his palm. “This is not mine. It cuts much better than any tool I can make. I could use it, Kal. It would make my life easier. But then, if it broke, how would I replace it? I would have to beg one of you white men for it, and he might give it to me out of kindness like you, or he might give it to me so that I would owe him. This is just a knife. I can throw it away and never miss it. What if it were something that could save my life? One of those weapons of yours? Medicine that would let me live to be a hundred years old? If you would offer me something like that, how would I refuse? And then, I would be your thing. You might give me all that I need, and never even think of refusing, or you might make demands in return. If I would die if I refused, how large would those demands have to be before I would put my tribe before my very own life?”
Geedi stirred. “If it were me, I would beg for my life. I would die a coward, or live as the plaything of whoever saved me. I might live, but the man who walked the forests afterwards, would no longer be Geedi the hunter.”
“Even to know that such things exist,” said Elder Hanad, “Knowing that we can never have them.” Back in the tent, Fatin cried out again. “For our women even to know that they can give birth without pain. It would destroy us. We can bear it now, because we must. If we give that up, then we will become weak. We would no longer be masters of our own fate. I would not wish to live like that.”
Hanad and Geedi kept me company through the night, and into the morning. Then, Geedi, Odawaa, Nuune and Obsiye went out to hunt, leaving me alone. Still, Fatin’s labour continued. Dhuuxo came out of the tent, her face hard, tired, drawn. I started to ask her a question and she all but snarled at me to get out of her way. She disappeared into her tent, to emerge a few moments later with a bundle of herbs and more cloth. She didn’t even look at me as she went back into Fatin’s tent. I stood looking at it, my hands balled into fists with knuckles white. I could barge in, soothe Fatin’s pain with a few drops of the pain medicine I had. But the words of Elder Hanad kept coming back to me. Fatin was strong, tough. She was able to bear her fate because she knew that she must. Would she still be able if she knew that really she didn’t have to?
The tent door opened and Kinsi came out. She saw me, gave me a brief smile, then went into her tent. From inside, I could hear the sound of voices raised in song, a soothing noise to ease Fatin’s suffering, to remind her that she was not alone, that her tribeswomen were with her and would be until the end. Another woman took Kinsi’s place. Fatin was no longer screaming, which was worse than hearing her. The thought I had resolutely quashed whenever it came up, now would no longer be denied.
Fatin might die.
My child might die.
I could do nothing.
I pulled my parang from my belt, cut off a long straight branch from a tree and set to shaping it into the makings of a spear. I shaved off the bark, then set to sharpening the stick. The day wore on as my spear became shorter and shorter until at last it was no more than a foot long. I looked at it in my hand, then threw it into the fire pit. I turned my head. I had heard something. Something different. A few moments later, I heard it again, and stronger. I breathed in, forgot to breathe out. In my ears was the unmistakable cry of a new-born child. I jumped up, and not a hundred angry women could have kept me out of the tent. Fatin lay in her bed, eyes closed, her body limp, her stomach flat once more. On the other side of the tent, Dhuuxo, who had been with Fatin throughout her entire ordeal, had just finished wrapping up a tiny package in cloth. She turned round to me, and smiled wearily.
“Kal Tennant, you have a son.”
I turned round. Fatin was looking at me. I moved over to her, and took her hand. She blinked slowly, and smiled at me.
“Your ring was right,” she said. Dhuuxo came up and put our son into Fatin’s arms. Fatin’s eyes turned to our son. “You are late in coming, my child,” she said. “And for that, I will name you Raage.”
I looked at the tiny face, his skin a bit lighter than Fatin’s, a bit darker than mine, and the most glorious sight in the whole of Creation. I lay down in the bed and put my arms round them both. Soon, we would be apart forever, but this moment, nobody could take from me.
Fatin put her hand on my cheek, and I looked at her palm, as pale as mine, then into her eyes. The suffering of the past night was slowly fading from them.
I noticed that she used the English pronunciation of my name, rather than the slightly off way the Ajuru pronounced it. To my surprise, she continued in English.
“We say travel fast, go alone. Travel far, go together. Do you wish to travel fast, or far?”
My breath stuck in my throat. All this time, I had assumed that Fatin and my child would stay with the Ajuru. I would make my way back to England, and then my stay in Africa would be nothing more than a few books of notes, drawings, and memories. Ever since Hanad had told me I had to leave, I hadn’t dared even ask her.
“I will travel fast if I must,” I said. “But I will travel far if I can.” I closed my eyes a moment, then looked at her. “Will you travel with me?”
Fatin took a shivering breath.
“Yes,” she said.
Raage was a week old. We were standing on the bank of the White Nile, watching Fatin’s family walk along the bank. She dried her tears, looked at me, then started to follow the river downstream. I picked up the primitive sled containing my trunk, and followed her. She carried Raage in a sling, and while she didn’t walk as easily as always, we made good time. We came to a wider area of sand, and I drew level with her. She looked at me, and smiled through her sadness.
“Tell me, Carl. What are your people like?”
“Good people,” I said. “Bad people. You’ll like my sister. She’ll like you.”
Fatin laughed. “I will never forget her face when I told her I was carrying your child.”
“And then she told me.” I looked far, far ahead. “I was ready to die, to give in to the disease of the mountains, until I knew that. You and Raage. Without you, I would not be here now.”
Raage, not to be left out of the conversation, started to wail. Fatin pulled her carrying sling a bit higher and put Raage to her breast. She didn’t even break step to do it.
“You came to us,” said Fatin. “If not for the M’bari, you would have lived with us your whole life.”
“Or until my books were full,” I said.
“What would you have done when your books were full?”
I pulled my sledge over a fallen tree. It dropped to the ground on the other side.
“Got more books.”
Fatin had never shown much interest in what I was writing, though she did like my drawings, especially of the people. I had tried to explain what the books were for, that they preserved the knowledge and that someone, even a hundred years from now, could look at them and know what I had written. Fatin had smiled, nodded, and put her thoughts about it with the other strange things her exotic pale-skinned lover did now and then. I wondered if she realised what kind of shock she was in for. In maybe a few weeks, she would be sailing on her first dirigible. She would be in a room that you could make bright, just by turning a valve. She would see buildings a hundred times as tall as herself. Ride in a steam train faster than any man could run. What would she think of it all?
“You said we were going ‘home’. Where is your home?”
I thought about that. We had a small apartment in the outskirts of London. Me, Alex, Father, Mother. But it wasn’t a home as such, merely a place to rest a while before setting out again. When we were not there, we rented out a room to keep the place from being ransacked while it was empty. But truth be told, there wasn’t much to ransack there, not even memories. Our home was a ship, a camp. Home was people, not places. I looked at Fatin.
“It’s here. It’s with you. It’s also wherever Alex is, or where Mother and Father used to be. We will find Alex, and then my home will be bigger.”
Fatin smiled at me in a way that made my stomach tighten. “We are not very different then.” Her smile faded. “I have kept you away from your home all this time. Now, it is my turn.” She looked down at Raage, who had his eyes shut tight and looked disappointed with the world. Fatin put him up on her shoulder and rubbed his back till he burped, then put him on the other side. “Greedy little boy. What is England like?”
“Cold and wet,” I said. “You’ll have to wrap up warm. We’re going to have to get you some clothes.”
“Like the ones Alex was wearing?”
“Warmer than that.”
“Don’t you have the sun in England?”
I laughed. “Often the sun hides behind dark clouds, and you have to stay inside by the fire and drink warm drinks and huddle together.”
“I like huddling with you.”
I grinned like a school boy. “I know.”
Fatin gave me a Look. “But not now. When Raage grows teeth and can eat… What do the English eat?”
“Pies,” I said. “Cheese. Bacon. Eggs. Toast. Potato chips with fish and peas.” Now that she had got me to remember things, I felt a craving I hadn’t felt before. Pork and apple sausages with mashed potatoes and thick onion gravy. I started grinning. Beer. A proper pint of stout, a dew-covered glass of pale ale.
“You are leaking,” said Fatin.
“It’s your fault for making me think of food.”
As it was time for something to eat, we sat down by the riverside, well away from the water of course. Fatin held up a piece of flat bread and looked at it. She looked into my eyes.
“This bread is the last piece of food from my tribe,” she said, in the Ajuru language. She bit into it, and continued in English. “You and Raage are my tribe now.”
I moved a bit closer and put my arm round her. She put her head on my shoulder. I stroked her dark hair.
“I will do my best to be worthy.”
After a few days travel, we came to a small hut on the river bank. Not round like those of the African tribes, but square and straight like the Europeans’. A small dock or landing platform was next to it. Since nobody seemed to be home, we squatted down about a hundred yards away and built a fire to cook a meal. About an hour later, a small steamboat made its way to the dock. As we watched, the helmsman cut off the engine, letting the boat slowly slide towards the dock. A sailor, European, wearing blue trousers and a red-and-white striped shirt, stood at the bow, ready with a rope. He jumped ashore and tied the mooring line to a bollard. I hurried up to help. Fatin stayed behind feeding Raage. The sailor spotted me, and gave me a nod.
“Good evening,” I said. “Do you need a hand?”
The sailor stopped to look at me, then called over his shoulder. “Oy Mac! It’s a Sassenach.”
A bearded face popped out of the steering cabin. “Oh Christ. Let me fetch my Claidheamh Mòr.”
“Put that away you Scottish git, you’ve got it marked ‘Front towards enemy’ to keep from hurting yourself.” He ran to the stern of the boat and tied that end off as well. He had a decidedly Irish accent and sure enough introduced himself as O’Connor.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
Mac kicked open the clamps to the railing and pulled it out so they could unload their cargo.
“Kodok,” he said. “Need a ride?”
“That would be wonderful,” I said. Kodok had a dirigible port. I could easily book a flight there to England. I would have to write to Alex to see if she was still at Ipswich, and for that matter if England was still there. I realised how out of touch I was with the news. Meanwhile, Fatin had come up carrying Raage. She gave the men a nervous smile.
“Run along now lass,” said Mac. “Nothing for you here.”
“Um,” I said, the most I could say while keeping my voice level. I looked up at Mac. “She’s with me.”
“Is she now?” O’Connor grinned. “Bought her for some beads and mirrors did you? She’s cute, I’ll give you that. But I’d have picked one without a child.”
Part of me wanted to punch O’Connor in his stupid Irish face, but that would not get us any closer to Kodok. I compromised by simply staring daggers at him.
“Nevertheless, she is with me. So is my child. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Oh bejayzes, man. Sure, bring her. We’ll even carry her for free if you lend a hand with the unloading.”
I turned to Fatin, who was looking at us with a slightly vacant look in her eyes.
“Fatin? We can travel with these men, but they are not… respectful of you,” I said in Ajuru.
“So I see,” said Fatin with a smile. “The one with the face like a warthog just did not realise. The one with flames for hair is an idiot. Are they going to take us all the way to England?”
I shook my head. “Just to Kodok. A few days at most.”
“I’ll live,” said Fatin. “And now I will get on this big canoe, clean Raage and watch you sweat like a pig to pay for our journey.”
She stepped on board, put Raage on a crate, and started wiping his bottom. I started to unload bags of flour, beans, and boxes of solid lead. This took maybe an hour or so. The railing was replaced, the moorings were cast off, and the steamer made its slow way to Kodok.
It was actually quite pleasant to travel by steamer. The sailors O’Connor and Mac (to this day, I have not found out what his full name was), mostly left us in peace. They were on a delivery round, bringing much needed supplies to settlements along the White Nile. The work loading and unloading was heavy but simple, and a few days later, the docks of Kodok were in sight. The actual town was a few miles away from the shore, and at this point, we really needed to get Fatin some clothes to stop her making a spectacle of herself. I had some American dollars hidden in a secret compartment of my trunk, and we walked into a shop. We came out again with Fatin wearing a white dress that she kept smoothing round her and looking at. I took the opportunity to replace my trousers and shirts. Then, we made our way to the offices of the British Overseas Airship Company. As it happened, due to a cancellation, there were three places left on the evening dirigible.
As the time for departure drew nearer, we walked to the airship that would take us to England. Home for me, a whole new world for Fatin. We stood still, looking up at the dirigible, named Baldur, after the Norse god of light and purity. Fatin’s face was still, serious.
“Have you seen a dirigible before?”
Fatin nodded. “Yes. You can see them passing overhead sometimes.”
“So now you know. They are not gods.”
She reached out and slapped the back of my head. “We know. Gods do not look like this. They don’t look like anything. They tell other things what to look like.”
“Let’s get on board.”
Baldur was a relatively small dirigible, and fairly modern. It had three decks. The cabins on the lower deck were the most desirable, because they had portholes through which one could see the Earth as we passed over it. Naturally, we were on the top deck because we were late in booking. The crew had thoughtfully put a small cot in the cabin for Raage. As the airship cast off its moorings, Fatin and I went to the restaurant on the middle deck to have our dinner. We got one of the small tables by a porthole, and Fatin put Raage on the bench next to her, fast asleep. I picked up the menu.
“What is that?” said Fatin.
“It’s the menu. It shows what they have to eat.”
Fatin looked at it more closely, frowning.
“How?” she asked.
I pointed. “That means, ‘Sausages and mash’. That line means ‘Fish and chips, choice of baked beans and peas.’ That line means…”
Fatin smiled. “The only word I understand is ‘fish’. Will these people allow us to fish?”
“They will bring it to us if we ask them. But not to me. I am having sausages.”
A waiter came. I ordered fish and chips for Fatin, sausages for myself, a large jug of water, and my first pint of ale in a year. When it arrived, I simply put it on the table in front of me and looked at it for a moment. Then, I drank half of it. When I opened my eyes, Fatin was looking at me, an amused little half-grin on her face. I offered her my pint. Just a sip wouldn’t turn Raage into an alcoholic. Her face when she tasted the ale was a picture. She handed the glass back to me, clearly thinking that I had lost what little sanity I had. Our food arrived, and she sniffed it suspiciously, then licked her fingers and picked up a hot piece of fish, blowing on it. She tasted the piece, and seemed to like it.
I looked at her knife and fork, lying ignored next to her plate. The enormity of what I had done became clear to me. Here was a grown woman, who would have to learn how to feed herself. All of the knowledge she had spent her whole life acquiring, would be useless to her. She would be helpless without me, in the cold lands of Great Britain. Did she realise? Would she have followed me so readily if she had known? I leaned over and kissed her.
“What was that for?” she said, not displeased.
As I was showing Fatin how to use a fork, there was a noise and I looked up. A man was standing next to our table, dressed in a beige suit, wearing a Panama hat.
“I thought it was you, Mister Tennant. Taking your work home with you I see?”
“Mr. Riley,” I said.
I didn’t know the man very well, but Alex had clearly loathed him. On closer inspection, he was looking a bit worse for wear. Bruises were almost healed on his face. He seemed reluctant to take his right hand out of his pocket.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
Actually, I did, but being English, I gave the one possible answer.
“Please do, Mr. Riley. How do you do?”
He sneered. “Not as good as I’d like, but not as bad as it could’ve been. Oh. When next you meet Oberst Klemm, stay the hell away from him. He’s not friendly anymore.”
“Klemm has switched sides?”
“Nope. He’s still on the same side. His own. He’s just got different people paying him now.”
“What about Master Nazeem?”
“Ain’t seen him since we parted ways aboard Boreas. Old fraud probably used his turban for a parachute. I’d stay the hell away from him too, just on principle.”
“Ah,” I said. I looked at his face. “Is that what you are doing at the moment?”
“Me? Run away from those goddamn amateurs? That’d be the day. No, I’ve got word that someone tried to top your sister.”
“Top…” I stared. “There’s been an attempt on Alexandra’s life?”
Riley laughed in an unpleasant way. “God I love the way you Brits talk. Yes. Someone tried to kill her. She told him not to, but the shithead got away. So I’m gonna see if I can do better than those idiots in their bowler hats.”
“I want to have a word with the man who did that,” I said.
“Draw a number,” said Riley. “I got dibs on his kneecaps and fingernails.”
I glanced at Fatin. She was fussing a bit with Raage and didn’t appear to have followed our conversation. Then she gave me a brief glance that told me she had, and didn’t want anything to do with it.
“This flight goes straight to Heath Row,” said Riley. “From there, I’m taking the train to Ipswich. Get there a hell of a lot quicker than this thing flies. Want to come with, Mr. Tennant?”
I gave Fatin a look. She picked up Raage. “You said not to take off my dress unless we are alone,” she said in Ajuru. “Raage is hungry too. Please take me to our bed?”
“Give me a moment to get rid of him,” I said. Fatin nodded. How useful to have a language nobody else could speak. I turned to Riley.
“We seem to be going in the same direction. We’ll be happy to travel with you. But now, we need to see to our child’s needs, so I will bid you goodnight.”
Raage was about to wake up, moving slowly. Riley put out his hand, and touched his finger to Raage’s palm. Raage gripped it tightly. I took a short breath. Riley’s right hand was… the wrong shape. It looked like he could not straighten his fingers. What had happened to him? I could not ask, and to be honest, I didn’t want to.
We went to our cabin, and Fatin set to feeding Raage. She looked up to me.
“That man frightens me,” she said. “There is no… no feeling in his eyes. It has been removed from him.”
“We may need him,” I said. “Someone has tried to kill Alex. Why would anyone do that? We must find out.”
Fatin looked miles away. “It may be too high a price to pay. Elder Hanad once told of such a man. He had suffered at the hands of another tribe, and had lost all the love for his fellow humans. A man like he is will cut the hands and feet off a small child with no more feeling than you or I would feel picking herbs. Elder Hanad knew this. He…” she hesitated a moment. “He sent him away.”
“Elder Hanad is a wise man,” I said.
“He did not go willingly. Elder Hanad…” she trailed off.
“He had to insist,” I said.
Fatin nodded quietly. “We never used that campsite again.”
Fatin finished feeding Raage, and put him in the cot, where he fell asleep immediately. I ran my fingers over his little head, small dark curls already growing. Fatin had taken off her dress, folded it up and put it under the pillow. I looked at her a moment. Ajuru women normally wore only a skirt, leaving their breasts out in plain sight. It wasn’t that they were exposing themselves exactly, it was just not a part of the body that was covered up. Now that she had taken off a Western dress, Fatin seemed somehow more naked now, than she had been with much more of her skin in sight. I got in the bed next to her, put my arms round her. Fatin put her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes and sighed. Raage, in his cot, made a few little noises, then a loud snort, after which he started breathing normally again. Fatin wriggled a bit, getting more comfortable on the soft mattress, and fell asleep as I watched her.