A slight detour – The disappearance of Master Nazeem – Ipswich bound – Family matters
At the risk of being soppy, I do enjoy a happy ending to what might otherwise have been a gruelling tale of death, betrayal and violence. The white man has a rather bad reputation for walking into peaceful places, taking what nature has to offer, so to speak, then buggering off leaving the locals to deal with the results. It was a heartwarming sight to see Carl Tennant come back to life and take his place in the life of the woman he, to put it bluntly, got in the family way. Yes, I am aware of the role promiscuity plays in keeping the gene pool of the various tribes healthy, and Miss Fatin would probably have been fine whether or not Carl ever showed his face again, but still.
— Professor Margaret Enderby, expedition report.
“Captain, I have a request.”
Carl Tennant stood in front of Captain Gaskin. He had recovered enough to be on his feet again, and the colour had come back to his face.
“By all means,” said Captain Gaskin. “What is it?”
“When I was with the Hammond expedition, we met a friendly nomadic tribe, who helped us find our way when we were lost. Their community is exceedingly interesting, anthropologically speaking. I would like to study them further.”
Behind his back, I could see Alexandra make a brave attempt to keep her face straight. She picked up a convenient copy of the Gazette and hid herself behind it.
Carl held out a thick manila envelope to Captain Gaskin. “I am aware that the University would require me to act as a witness in the case of the disappearance of our expedition. To this end, I have written out a complete account of all the relevant events in the matter. I hope this will serve.”
“Thank you, Mr. Tennant,” said Gaskin, with a polite nod. “I am sure that this will clear up any remaining questions.”
“Now my request is for the airship Boreas to aid me in finding back the tribe. They told me that they were planning to spend most of the dry season on the banks of the White Nile. I am aware that this is outside of Boreas‘ original mandate, but on foot, it would take me many months to find them, and time is of the essence. I will gladly reimburse you for any extra…”
The Captain raised his hand. “Mr. Tennant, Boreas is above all a research vessel. It is our ongoing mission to seek out new life, and new civilisations. To go where none have gone before. We have a debt of gratitude towards you, and I assure you, a small airborn search along the river banks is well within the parameters of our mission.”
The look of relief on Carl’s face was a sight to see. “Thank you Captain. You cannot know how much this means to me.”
“I’ve been told that you have another reason as well, a more… personal one?” Gaskin’s eyes gleamed.
“Um. Yes Captain,” said Carl. The poor boy was actually blushing.
“Well, give my best to the young lady. I’ll tell the helm to make for the White Nile.”
“Well, do you have everything you need?”
Alexandra was fussing over her brother. We were standing on the bank of the White Nile. We could see the grey dead vegetation showing the level of the river before Summer’s hot sun reduced it. Carl had cut down two straight young trees, and fashioned them into a kind of sledge for dragging his trunk over the ground. There was a yoke in the middle so he could lean into it when he moved. Pre-historic technology, and it still worked as well as anything we could come up with.
“Everything I’m likely to need,” he said.
“Quinine, laxatives, constipants, disinfectant, bandages, salt, tea. Enough to tide me over until I learn the medicines used by the tribe.”
Alexandra looked into his eyes. “Are you really sure about this?”
“Yes. More than anything.” Carl slowly began to smile and his face lit up. “Think of the books I’m going to write. I will know more about nomadic African tribes than anyone North of the Mediterranean. I’ve got three big empty books. When I fill them up, I’ll be back.”
I looked up the river. In the distance was the settlement re-built. Fires were burning, people were walking about. I couldn’t see if Fatin was there.
“Well off we go then,” said Alexandra.
“I’ll walk you there. Are you coming Margaret?”
I had to laugh. “Of course! Me? Miss a chance to get my kit off? Come on!”
We set off, Carl dragging his luggage.
“Get your kit off?”
“Oh yes,” said Alexandra. “Very liberating. Fatin squeezed my boobs if you must know.”
Carl’s eyes opened wide in mock horror. “What did you do with the woman I love?”
Alexandra shrugged. “Squeezed back. It seemed rude not to. Hers are very nice. Top marks on your taste in boobs.”
“Good God,” said Carl, shaking his head.
“All the women were squeezing mine,” I added. “Not to worry. Plenty to go round.”
“Oo! Do you think hers will have gotten bigger? What with my big brother having got her pregnant?”
“Bound to,” I said. “Can’t wait to see the difference. How about you, Carl?”
Carl stuck his fingers in his ears and walked faster.
We walked into the camp about twenty minutes later. Several of the women recognised us and waved, walking out to meet us. Someone shouted Fatin’s name, and a few moments later, she emerged from one of the tents where she had been weaving a basket. She stared at Carl, and dropped the reeds from her hand. Then she slowly walked up to him. Carl dropped his sledge. For a few moments, they simply stood there. Then, Fatin’s hand, deep brown with her palm a lighter colour, touched Carl’s marked cheek. I could see her swallow. Then, in the blink of an eye, she wrapped her arms round Carl, and pressed herself against him, whispering into his ear. Carl hugged her as though he was never going to let go again. All round him, people were pointing, laughing, smiling. I looked at Alexandra. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, but she was smiling along with the rest. One of the tribe women pointed a hand at the pair. I shrugged, and we both laughed. For some things, it really doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s a good anthropological and evolutionary reason for it, but bollocks to that, I say. People are people. It really is as simple as that.
Alexandra and I were back on board. Boreas was steaming full speed on a course for Cairo. The diplomatic mess caused by our rather direct tactics in Khartoum had not quite been cleared up by the bastards with soft voices and hard minds. At least we hadn’t annoyed anyone important in Egypt lately. Wadcroft was buried in the unavoidable paperwork. Riley was in his cabin, doing God only knows what. Andrew was hanging precariously next to the Beast in an extra large bosun’s chair, hammering away at the broken track. He was hoping to get the track repaired and the Beast back to full function before we reached Cairo. I’d watched him for a while, but his acrobatics made me queasy. Alexandra was sitting curled up in her usual chair in the observation lounge, an empty gin-and-tonic next to her.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Refill, dear?”
She looked up to me. “Please.”
I picked up her glass, and walked over to the drinks cabinet to do the necessary. Just as I turned round, glasses in hand, Riley came in. He looked round, then turned to me.
“You seen Nazeem anywhere?”
“Meditating in the aft observation room, thirty minutes ago,” I said. “Why?”
“He’s not there anymore. Damn. I was certain he’d try to give us the slip at some time, but I figured he wouldn’t try it seven hundred feet up in the air.”
“This is a big ship, Riley. Checked the loos have you?”
“What am I, a god-damned idiot? I’m heading to the archive room, and if I find as much as a piece of paper out of order, I’m organising a full-on search.”
“You do that,” I said. “If you need any volunteers to beat the bushes, you know where to find us.”
Riley stormed out, and I handed Alexandra her glass. “Drink up dear. We may need it.”
Alexandra sipped her drink. “I think Riley has lost it. Why on Earth would Nazeem up and disappear? We’re heading for Cairo. That’s the natural habitat for shady frauds and spies. He’d be much happier there than down here in the jungle.”
“Maybe he transported himself there by magic,” I said.
Alexandra gave me a little smile. “I’m not Wadcroft. I don’t believe you are serious.”
“Hah! Didn’t you see him snatch a bullet out of the air?”
“He snatched at something, and then he gave me a bullet. Not the same thing.”
I sat down and pulled up a footstool, I pressed down the slice of lemon in the glass and watched one of the pips drift to the surface. I tried fishing it out with the stirrer, but it fell back down. Sometimes, you need to get your hands dirty. I fished the pip out with my fingers instead and wiped my fingers on my sleeve.
“We still don’t know who that poor bugger was who fell to his death on the way here. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
“My count is now up to fourteen confirmed,” said Alexandra. “This is an expensive expedition.”
“It is,” I said. I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to say. So I said nothing, and we sat together, watching the sky turn from blue to black.
By the next morning, Nazeem still hadn’t been found. Riley kicked up a frightful fuss, and we searched all of Boreas from top to bottom. The rock samples from Hammond’s camp were undisturbed. All their records, every rambling word, were still there. Riley tried to get Captain Gaskin to turn round, but Gaskin shouted him down. Nazeem had disappeared in a way as mysterious as he had arrived, and that was all there was to it. Like all magic tricks, everybody secretly knew how he did it, but when you come right down to it, who gives a toss? Perhaps we would see him again, him and his spirits, but for now, he was gone. We got to Cairo in good time, and set down Klemm and his Jäger. Two of them were sporting bandages, but apart from that pig named Meiwes, none of them were seriously hurt. Klemm marched his soldiers down the gangway. I was half expecting him to throw off a military style salute, but he simply waved, said it had been a pleasure and walked away. Riley walked past us, carrying a suitcase. He put it down to shake hands with us, then disappeared into Cairo’s busy streets. No doubt, he would be combing the whole of Africa for information on our rather shadowy adversaries. If anyone can find them, Riley can, and they won’t be the happiest of people when he does.
Boreas now turned back to the North West. Captain Gaskin was setting us down in exactly the same place where he picked us up two months ago. Andrew had put away his tools, and as we passed over the beaches of the Netherlands, heading west, he was looking down one of the telescopes, enthralled, at something moving about on the beach. I looked through the other telescope and saw what he was looking at. A herd of mechanical strandbeest was scuttling along the beach, legs moving in a strange crab-like fashion, dorsal sails undulating in the wind. A Dutch artist had constructed these strange creatures out of balsa wood. Part of his legacy was that people would come regularly, and keep the strandbeest in repair with fresh supplies of wood, string and so on.
“Their gait is very regular,” said Andrew. “The legs are constructed using a very precise ratio between the various struts of the limbs. This is obviously a great advantage when travelling on loose sand. The calculations must have been immense.”
Far below us, the wind picked up, and the creatures sped up to a run.
“We have a few of Mr. Janssen’s dissertations in the library,” I said. “I think he said once that building these creatures gave him a sense of the problems the real Creator had to solve.” I looked up from my telescope. “Say Andrew, did you ever finish reading the Bible?”
Andrew shook his head. “Before I stopped reading, I found one hundred and fifteen instances where verses contradicted other verses, and a further seventy-five where verses contradicted observable facts. I believe that Father Nathaniel must have given me an uncorrected proof by mystake. I will find a more up to date version in the Library.”
“They don’t update this book much,” I said.
Andrew has a special kind of frown that he shows when he is faced with one of those strange facts of life that simply don’t make sense to one with a literal mind like his.
“Surely, to have an accurate description of the Creator is of the utmost importance. Why would people not bring their description up to date?”
I looked down again at the strandbeest. Creatures of wood, wind, and mathematics. Everything about them measured and understood.
“They can’t agree on what the Creator looks like. When they do, they’ll be sure to put out a new version.”
The sight of the Algernon University bell tower was greeted by cheers from all us Brits. Gaskin, with a flair for drama, turned on all the external lights and turned round Boreas, then slowly descended towards the tethers. These had been thoughtfully put in to avoid Boreas flying away when the Beast was unloaded. Andrew stoked up the furnace once more, and drove the Beast through the beautiful new doors to its stable. There, it de-pressurised itself, extinguished its fire and went to have a well-earned sleep. We unloaded our luggage, piled it up in the entrance hall, and went to see the Chancellor to report. Wadcroft was carrying a briefcase full of everybody’s notes, carefully typed out on board Boreas. Wadcroft did most of the talking, and I slowly sunk back in my chair until Alexandra nudged me.
“Time for dinner,” she said.
I leant over to whisper to her. “How long was I out?”
“Concentrating deeply on Professor Wadcroft’s melodious voice, you mean? Just ten minutes.”
We walked off to the dining hall. Captain Gaskin had politely declined our dinner invitation. He had to sail back to Arkham to report. Andrew never goes to official dinners. Large crowds tend to upset him, with the noise and the random motions. Miss Felicia had helped him unpack and he would probably be back in his workshop, writing his poems in steel and fire. So it was just Alan, me and Alexandra.
Normally, I didn’t eat in the common dining hall. To tell you the truth, sitting at High Table, so we can be properly adored by students eagerly watching our every mouthful, makes me want to scream. But today, we were the conquering heroes, and being worshipped was part of the job. Algernon university’s dining hall was cavernous, dimly lit by gas-lamps, and at the moment, filled with row upon row of tables and the hard folding chairs that give our younger generation a bit of backbone. The dining hall was also used for popular guest lectures, like the one given by that shining star of the silver screen, Veronica Cardinale, a while back. Despite the fact that her most marketable assets are in her tight sweater, and for some reason she always plays completely brain-dead airheads, she is also the director of her own production company. I quite enjoyed her talk while all round me, boys were gently dribbling and girls were memorising her hairdo. Several weeks after, I was gazed at in lectures from behind strands of hair artfully hanging over one eye. We were now striding regally down the central passage on our way to High Table. I saw one of the girls waving at Alexandra, who waved back and veered off the path to join her and her friends. We walked on, climbed the stairs and took our rightful place at the hand of the Chancellor. I looked at the menu card, which for the occasion was all in French, and probably differed a bit from the food on the floor. I looked over where Alexandra was sitting next to a girl who was talking excitedly to her friend and making shooting gestures. Instead of a filet mignon with haricots verts and pommes frites, Alexandra was in grave danger of being served les twizzleurs de turkey with les soggy chips and les petits pois maché to within an inch of their lives.
As the kitchen slaves started to trudge out bearing plates, there was something moving next to us. A wheelchair was being pushed up the ramp at the side of the platform. In the chair sat a man who was looking a bit worse for wear. Irregular patches of his hair were missing. He wore a black eyepatch, and his left arm lay motionless in his lap. One of his legs had been amputated below the knee. I gave him a friendly nod as he was wheeled to the seat next to me.
“Good evening, Sir,” I said.
“Good evening, Doctor Enderby,” said the man.
I blinked. How did this man know my name?
“Have we met before?”
The man laughed. “Yes, we have. But I forgive you for not recognising me. I have… let us call it changed.”
The laugh did it. “Philip? I thought you were dead!”
A waiter came and filled our glasses with the house claret. Philip Tennant picked up his glass, and sipped carefully.
“So did I, for a while. But then I found myself in a hospital in the city of Hnctplep. That city, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with any African culture, so Barnaby is still not vindicated. They have very good doctors, though. Now I have been told that my daughter was a member of that expedition of yours. Where is she? And did she find my son?”
I pointed. “She’s down there talking to some students. She’ll be up in a minute.”
The bell rang once, and there were the requisite five seconds of silence for people to pray. Then, happy troughing commenced. Alexandra made her way to the High Table and put her hand on my shoulder in passing.
“Did they set me a plate? Sorry for ducking out, but I think I have just promised to start a marksmanship club at…”
She fell silent, and stared at Philip. I could see her starting to tremble.
Philip pushed his wheelchair back, and looked up at his daughter.
“Forgive me for not getting up, Alexandra. In fact, I am here to have your physicians fit me with one of these marvellous prosthetic legs.”
Alexandra bent down and wrapped her arms round Philip’s neck. I could see his face over her shoulder, eye closed, a smile on his face that said that all would be right with the world in a bit, hand gently stroking Alexandra’s back. Alexandra looked at his face, ravaged as it was. Philip looked back at her, fingers brushing her cheek.
“Tell me, Alexandra. Did you find Carl?”
“Yes. Yes I did. But he didn’t come back with us. He’s… He has a…” Alexandra breathed in deep. “You’re going to be a grandfather.”
Philip simply stared. “I’m too young to be a grandfather! I have expeditions to go on. Discoveries to make. Books to write. I can’t do that with a string of grandchildren at my knees, whining for sweeties!”
Alexandra laughed. A genuine laugh of happiness. It was lovely to hear. She sat down next to her father.
“Let’s eat,” she said. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”
“I have stories of my own, Alexandra,” said Philip, picking up his fork.
Alexandra pulled his plate over and cut his filet into smaller pieces. Then, she pushed the plate back to him.
“Good,” she said.
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.