Martin is a Kentish Aberdonian and marine biologist who turned to writing on retirement. His stories are often set in exotic locations, especially Africa and Latin America. More recently he has drifted into magical realism and absurdist memoir. He was one of the volunteers who helped to keep Pushing Out the Boat, North-East Scotland’s Magazine of New Writing, afloat and has several stories published in its pages as well as elsewhere.
In this podcast we hear Carrie’s recounting of her experience crossing West Africa in a cobbled together Land-Rover in 1967. Carrie is one of four characters who are journeying together. Each part of the journey is seen from a different character’s perspective. Here the four meet Samantha and Dickie, two Londoners travelling in the opposite direction whose underpowered Citroen has broken down on the edge of the vast Savannah. Carrie expects that they’ll need help. Not at all!
Paga (Complete Chapter)
Me and Ben are in the back of Rob’s Land-rover. We’re rattling north towards Upper Volta; soon be clear out of Ghana. Emmett’s up front at the wheel with Rob, most probably squabbling. Sometimes I wonder how I got myself hitched up to such a contrary guy. Anyhow, it’s fine and peaceful here with Ben. He’s so easy to get on with and kinda cute. We’re side by side, the Michelin map over our knees. According to it, the road we’re on is a main highway – trans-continental – but it ain’t hardly wide enough for a car to overtake. It’s kinda grooved like a creek rippled by a breeze, I guess that’s why the tyres are growling so much.
I just love watching the passing country and Mr Michelin sure knows how to make a map. The coastal forests – the big green swathe on the map stretching from Sierra Leone through Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire to Ghana – are behind us now. We’re into the white zone: that means savannah. Through the dusty tail-gate, (I clean it most every night but the red powder just drifts right on back), we watch the long terracotta ribbon of highway roll back to the horizon – it’s kinda hypnotic! Endless prairies of high, sun-bleached grasses, why we could be in Montana, except it ain’t so durn hot there!
Emmett has his cowboy hat pulled low over his brow. I swear if I didn’t nag him now and then it would never leave his head at all, not even in bed! His scrawny arm juts out of the window like he is a GI in one a those war movies. Every now and then we catch the odd bar or two of humming above the engine noise. Ben makes a face like he’s in pain and covers his ears: ‘I’ve had to live with that tuneless Scottish racket for twelve whole months.’ Me, I don’t understand all this English/Scottish stuff: they pretend, Ben and Rob, to hate each other but all I see are two mighty good buddies.
I fretted about this journey before we set out. Me and three men cooped up together for lord knows how long in Rob’s truck; it was kind of scary. Emmett ain’t an easy man to get along with: he’s on such a short fuse. With Ben I soon stopped worryin, he never rises to Emmett’s bait, just grins and lets it run over him. But with Rob, Emmett never let’s up about how much better it would have been in his Jeep: he’s like a dog with a bone.
We got all the windows open back here. We ain’t got a lot of choice, what with all the gas we’re carryin: nearly 80 gallons in two tanks between us and the drivers. Rob and Emmett drilled little holes in the top to relieve the pressure from all this heat. You just can’t ever get away from the fumes and it sure ain’t my favourite perfume. Emmett says we’re like a rolling bomb but according to Rob we don’t have no choice, given the distances between gas stations. Rob has a kind of quaint way of speaking: ‘this old girl guzzles fuel like an alcoholic on a bender,’ that’s what he said (or something like it) back in Freetown. ‘And Rob should know!’ Ben had responded, winking at me, ‘Him being a Scot!’
Before we left, Ben had clowned the part of a fuel vendor in the middle of the Sahara. He put on his tough-guy face, which was funny because he’s one of the softest guys I’ve ever met: ‘Vous n’aimez pas le prix. You don’t like the price?’ He’d shrugged his shoulders. ‘Cela ne m’est egal, mon ami. It’s all the same to me, pal. Le prochain gasoline…’ he’d pointed vaguely north, ‘…500 kilometres!’ So Rob rigged up these massive tanks. He said something like: ‘Nae bloody Touareg’s gonnae hold us over a barrel.’ As for the fumes, you get kinda used to them.
Suddenly we’re braking. Ben’s pointing up the highway. On the road ahead is a grey heap of corrugated metal, like an Okie shack on wheels. Smoke’s belching from under the hood. A young woman is peering into the space behind the smoke. ‘What on earth is that?’ I ask Ben, ‘ain’t never seen one a’ them before.’
‘That’s a Citroen Deux Chevaux van,’ he laughs, ‘probably full of baguettes’. I’m looking at him puzzled. He’s miming something in the air. ‘French loaves.’ He says.
By the time we’re out of the Land-rover, Rob and Emmett are already asking the young woman if she needs help. In the fruitiest voice you ever heard, she says:
‘Oh heavens no, this happens all the time, ever since we left Dover. I’ll have her fixed in a jiffy, but thanks anyhow! I’m Samantha, by the way.’
By now I’m introducing myself to Samantha’s guy. Emmett’s looks at Samantha. He’s got that wicked look in his eye, and before I can stop him he’s jerking his thumb towards the fella: ‘What about him, don’t he do no fixin’?’
‘Dickie? Oh lummy no, he’s useless with motors. But he’s a real wiz at the money markets!’
Dickie says: ‘D…d…did you know the p…p…pound’s just devalued?’
‘What about the dollar?’ Emmett asks.
‘Strong…g…ger than ever, thank g…g…goodness Sam and I bought d…dollar travellers cheques.’
Emmett’s got that smug look in his eyes, he just can’t stop himself: ‘So what did I tell you guys,’ he’s looking at Rob, ‘dollar beats the pound every goddamn time!’ Then he turns to Dickie: ‘So where you two headed?’
Emmett looks like I feel: incredulous. ‘In that?’ Waving away the last wisps of smoke with his hat, he’s peering under the hood. ‘You call that an engine?’ And I’ve got to say, even to my untrained eye it looks mighty insubstantial.
Samantha ain’t in the slightest bit put out: ‘We crossed India north to south last year in this old girl.’
Emmett’s shaking his head again. All he can say is: ‘God dammit!’
Samantha continues: ‘You know, the worst thing about leaving London when we did was that it was just so… just so …whizzy!’
‘Whizzy?’ I ask. ‘How d’you mean, whizzy?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Samantha is waving her oil-stained hands, ‘all those parties, the music, the flower-people, the Rolling Stones, the free love…’
‘Free love?’ Rob is in quick.
‘Oh yes, lots and lots of it. That’s why everyone’s calling it the summer of love.’
‘See what you guys been missin’?’ Emmett’s at it again before returning his gaze to Sam: ‘What about Vietnam? We’ve kinda lost touch these last weeks.’
‘Not my scene I’m afraid, you’ll have to ask Dickie.’
Dickie stutters to life: ‘N…n…n…not too good, I’m afraid. No sign of an end to it. More slaughter every d…d…d…day. You should never have invaded in the first place.’
‘Too damn right.’ Emmett’s fingering his chin, looking suddenly pensive. I don’t know if the others know what he’s thinking but I sure do: he’s wondering if he’ll be drafted.
Ben’s looking kind of dreamy. ‘A dime for ’em’ I say. He looks puzzled, then smiles: ‘Oh you mean a penny!’ He pauses, looking distant again. ‘I was just thinking of home: London pubs, roasting chestnuts, home cooking, slipping between crisp white sheets, girls in mini-skirts…’ I try not to frown at this last remark but Samantha’s voice brakes in:
‘How’s the road south to Tamale?’
Emmett made a sweeping gesture with his arm, pointing along the road from one horizon to the other: ‘Same-oh, same-oh. Rattling bones all the way. How about the frontier up ahead?’
‘No problem,’ Samantha says as she opens the car door, ‘but if you like crocodiles, you simply must stop at Paga!’
Emmett’s in the back with me now, snoozing; sometimes his head falls on my shoulder. Ben has moved up to the front cab. Before he shifted we’d spread the map across our laps and found Paga. The script was hard to make out what with all the juddering and the letters were small and barely visible through the yellow hatching which marked the frontier. ‘Ah, here it is, Carrie, right on the border just past a big-looking settlement called Navrongo.’ He touched the point on the map, I felt his finger tip on my knee.
We stopped at a motley collection of grass-roofed huts beside a small lake full of water lilies. It was beautiful but there were no road signs and it was impossible to know if we had reached the right place, but almost immediately a small half-naked boy approached and took Ben’s hand. He looked up into Ben’s eyes and said: ‘You want to see de crocodiles, sah?’
Ben looked at each of us in turn: ‘You want to see the crocodiles?’
‘Sure!’ says Emmett.
‘First you have to buy chicken.’
‘How much?’ Rob growls, towering over the kid.
‘Twenty pesewa (two British shillings)’’ the boy replies brightly.
‘Not sure this is such a good idea, boys.’ I say, but the boys ignore me, even Ben.
Rob looks at Emmett: ‘Dollar’s stronger than the pound Emmett, looks like your call.’
‘Look I’ll put in ten,’ Ben says, handing it to the boy ‘With any luck,’ he continues, pointing at Emmett, ‘he will give you the other half.’ And to my surprise, he does. Ben extends his hand towards the kid: ‘I’m Ben by the way; what’s your name?’
The boy looks at Ben: ‘I am called Basayin.’
Two other boys join Basayin. One of them runs off to fetch the bird. He returns, not with a chicken but with a scrawny Guinea Fowl under his arm. He passes it to Basayin who hands it to Ben: ‘Hold dis for a second,’ the boy says, leaving Ben with the bird flapping under his arm. Ben looks uncomfortable, well he’s only got himself to blame. He told me later that it was only when he felt the fast beat of the bird’s heart that he began to feel bad. The three boys scamper off to take up positions roughly equidistant around the periphery of the lake. I glance toward the village. A few women are pounding millet in big wooden mortars, an old man sits cross-legged on a raffia mat smoking a clay pipe, a couple of mangy dogs snarl at each other in the dust. No-one pays us any heed.
The three boys are now stationary. They begin to call out ‘Ka-bak, Ka-bak, Ka-bak.’
Can’t believe how beautiful the lake is! Water lilies reflected all blue and mauve in the water. A little-bitty kingfisher shoots across the lake.
The boys continue: ‘Ka-bak, ka-bak, ka-bak.’
‘Disnae sound like any fowl that I’ve ever heard,’ Rob grumbles, but the bird under Ben’s arm is looking alert: ‘Ka-bak, ka-bak’ it calls, its little yellow helmet suddenly raised.
The boys around the lake hear it and laugh, their teeth flashing brightly in the sunshine. They wave at us then start again: ‘Ka-bak, ka-bak, ka-bak.’
After a while, Emmett looses interest: ‘This is a con.’ But as he speaks the lilies in the centre of the lake begin to quiver. Something is stirring out there, my heart misses a beat. Bubbles are rising from the depths. Finally, the creature surfaces like a lazy submarine. I watch its cold reptilian eyes scanning the banks of the lake. It seems to be looking right at me! But no, its eyes are on Ben. He’s trying to look cool, but he don’t fool me. The crocodile’s headed straight for him!
‘Uh oh!’ I hear myself say, backing off behind my three guys.
The little boys run back to join us. ‘I take de bird now, sah,’ Basayin says to Ben. He sets it gently down onto the muddy edge of the lake where the water laps. Its two legs are hobbled together with string: ‘Stand back!’ he commands. There is now about three feet of string between Basayin and the poor bird. I am beginning to feel like an accomplice to an imminent crime. But it’s too late now, the crocodile has already hauled itself out of the water. It’s not even in a goddamn hurry.
It ain’t huge but it’s big enough, six or seven feet maybe. Its jaws are two feet from the hapless fowl. Then SNAP! Quick as lightening, the bird is inside the jaws. It’s horrible! Basayin releases his end of the string. The crocodile contemplates us for a while, its eyes expressionless. What the hell is Rob doing? Crazy guy, he’s lifting the tip of the critter’s tail while Emmett takes a photo. Basayin is waving his hands frantically: ‘No Sah, no totch! Crocodile very dangerous!’
One of the other boys is looking at me. He has a kind look about him. He comes over and takes my hand: ‘Dat me Grandfadda Madrongo!’ he nods at the receding reptile slipping back below the surface. ‘Lek os, dey must have sostenonce’
‘You mean there are lots of crocodiles in there?’ I gasp, ‘Oh my!’
‘Oh yes, all de village ancestors are there,’ he smiles brightly up at me, ‘and one day, we too will join dem.’
Thanks to Zapslat for sound effects in Martin’s tale.
Martin Stephenson gave permission to use his song Rain as intro and exit, sung by Helen McCookerybook (permission also granted)