HORSE CART FROM TAMBACUNDA TO TIMBUKTOO
London, England, 1998
A middle aged manager facing 50 is made redundant and takes a
crazy trip across Africa.
The most dangerous animal on earth is a woman who has fallen out of love....
Alfred Quarry is 54 years old. He has it all worked out. After a life of careful planning and execution, he has the right job, the right car, the right boat, the right wife and the right mistress.
He is on the brink of a partnership in the firm and an early retirement with all the associated benefits shortly thereafter.
On the day of his 55th birthday, it happens. It starts as nothing more significant than a small slip of paper placed carefully on the centre of his desk. On it, scrawled in the erratic style of his personal assistant was a name and a phone number. As soon as he saw it, he froze. He knew everything he planned for, everything he had worked so long to build was in peril.
falling markets, falling prices, falling sales all meant falling axes. There was nothing deft or skillful in the pruning. It was almost as if the victim could hear the blade whistling towards his neck. It was almost a relief when the Director of Personnel sent for him.
He had not been happy for quite some time. His day was filled with loathsome, demanding people working through their own loathsome, demanding agendas. True enough, the money and the perks made life in London easy. And an easy life in London was about as easy as it could get.
But, every day was consumed with finding the compromise between working in the City and the money that kept accumulating in his bank account.
He could not believe his own boss was not doing the deed herself. The Director of Personnel delivered the message, with great sympathy, but he was powerless to do anything. Nevertheless he was clever enough to seat himself strategically on the far side of the big table with all the chairs around the edge of the table, making it almost impossible to get at him.
So there were no arguments or challenges. No explanations. No professional analysis of the situation. Simply a sales pitch on how generous the company was being with the lovely fat cheque that would come after the rubber stamp arbitration process. It wasn't until the victim uttered a four letter word with a breathless groan of resignation that the atmosphere became tolerable.
'Can you demonstrate direct revenue?' rolled over and over in his head. He logged telephone calls, wrote reports, lunched when he could, but the punters weren't buying. He tried advertising, he tried marketing but the punters weren't buying. The market was crowded and he couldn't make himself heard in the noise.
That was the night, that very night, she chose to take up the seat next to him on the train.
For more than a year they boarded from the same platform, yet never shared the same compartment. For two hundred and two consecutive working days they arrived together, shared the journey home, yet had never so much as exchanged a nod of acknowledgement.
And there she was, her bare arm inches from his trembling hand.
Over the past year she had become all he ever thought about. Every evening he would rush to the station, then linger near his car gnawing at himself with anticipation until he was sure that she was not going to catch a later train. He tried hard to be discreet and he was sure that she was not aware of what he was doing.
Such was the intimacy of their relationship, but such was the frustration. Every morning, day after day, week after week, month after month, he tried to attract her eyes to him, but she always turned away. It never seemed a rebuff, or done deliberately to discourage him, she just did not seem to be aware that he was there.
After a few months he started fretting through the day, worrying that she would be on a different train. He had taken to walking the streets during his lunch breaks in the hope that he might spot her. He started to feel like he was loosing control of himself. His life seemed to belong to someone else. Someone he did not know. Someone who occupied his body without his permission.
At least once a day he would promise himself that he would catch another train. He would promise himself that he wouldn't look. His promises evaporated like his resolve and with a knot of anxiety binding up his insides, he continued to wait for her to appear in the parking lot.
Then today, as if she sensed what happened to him the day before, she sat right next to him.
She was wearing his favourite sleeveless yellow blouse and tight black skirt. Her hair was tied up to reveal the naked nape of her neck, just the way he liked it.
Her entire wardrobe was fixed in his mind and he noticed when she was wearing a new pair of shoes, or a new jumper. He knew the precise colour of her eyes and had counted the number of freckles spattered across the bridge of her nose, and yet he did not know her name.
He noticed the way her milky, bare arms were lightly burned from the weekend sun. He wondered to himself if she enjoyed gardening, as he did. Perhaps he might meet her one day in the garden centre on the A road, just a few miles from their village. It might give him the opportunity to say hello, to introduce himself. Surely she was married. Nobody like her lived alone.
When the train arrived she didn't move. She waited until the compartment was empty, then stood up and exited, but didn't turn around to look at him. He couldn't bring himself to speak.
He stood desperately to go her, as always.
He tucked his Telegraph beneath his arm and followed her along the platform and down into the subway keeping his distance enjoying the gentle sway of her hips and the adept manner she had of maneuvering herself through the jumble and jostle of the commuters flowing through the culverts of the underground system like some huge polluted river. Never once did she so much as turn around to look for him.
They each found a seat in one of the cars toward the middle of a train. And then, at Great Portland Street, he panicked when she stood up. For the briefest moment he thought that she might be changing the whole routine by alighting at a new station but he exhaled with relief when she simply offered her place to a pregnant woman. In the same instant, a spotty faced youngster who had occupied the seat next to him, jumped up and pounced out of the closing doors knocking aside an older gentleman in a tired grey suit and nearly colliding with three burly young men wearing red berets and big, ugly, black boots.
He squeezed through the pack of bodies that separated him for her, but she still did not look his way. He became conscious of the smell of his breath, the stain on his tie and the dusting of dandruff that had collected on his collar. He cursed himself for not having asked his wife to buff his shoes that morning. And today of all days he was wearing the same shirt for the third day running. Three days in this heat. He was sure that he could whiff the stale odour emanating from his armpits or perhaps it was coming from the cheese and pickle sandwiches slowly melting in his briefcase. He gritted his teeth and hoped the trembling of his hands would be disguised by the natural shaking of the rumbling train as it pulled away from the platform.
Controlling his constricted breath as much as possible. And just when he felt that he was starting to get a grip on himself, his eyes fell to the floor where they found the perfectly rounded tips of her perfectly clean shoes placed perfectly together, the toes precisely level, the ankles touching without pressing. He was unable to drag his eyes back to the safety as they crept up the delicate columns of her shins and across the curving sill of her half revealed knees. Once they gained the plateau of her lap, he could not stop them lingering on the gentle swelling beneath the loose fitting cotton of her blouse or racing up to their ultimate objective, her face.
He felt his tongue swell up and fill his mouth when his lascivious survey was arrested by her cool, stare. He tried hard to swallow the drool that started collecting at the corners of his constricted lips when she smiled but it simply wasn't possible, not in the face of such a smile. It wasn't just a 'my goodness isn't it warm' smile, but a 'Golly it's a scorcher' grin.
In a desperate bid to salvage the situation he insisted his eyeballs search for something else to molest. It took endless grinding seconds for the riot of faces and sounds to orient themselves.
It was quite clear that he was not strong enough. Again the eyes escaped and found the round toes of her perfect shoes. He shook his head and tried to concentrate on something else. Dinner last night seemed a convenient refuge.
'Well,' he remembered proclaiming to his gathered family, 'guess who might be promoted to Chief Financial Officer tomorrow?'
'Archie Aslix,' his wife had answered dispassionately poking a dangling, grease limp chip into the corner of her mouth. It was the obvious answer. Archie was very smooth.
'Not at all...', he had countered confidently, nodding to each of his children in turn, but neither of them bothered to lift their noses out of their plates.
'Dick Coxwell,' his wife grunted without looking up at him.
'Not at all,' he had said, annoyed that she hadn't picked up the hint.
'Arnie Thuckhew!' she had belched out without bothering to swallow the wodge of half masticated beefburger that filled her mouth as she finally brought herself to look up at him.
He shook his head with dismay that Arnie's name should come up before his. Arnie was a clerk.
'Let me think,' she said, ignoring his reddening temples and clenched jaw while her big brown eyes crawled over the ceiling as if she was looking for an annoying fly.
'That does it Mavis! I'll simply have to tell you!'
He jumped when she shrieked, 'No...No...please don't. It was Les Credit!'
'I know who it is!' his youngest chirped just as he was about to tip over the edge into one of his choking, spluttering, self abusive fits of rage. 'It's you isn't it Daddy?'
Before he could answer, Mavis smacked the little girl across the back of the head, knocking a glass of milk over, its contents rolling across the plastic table cloth like a white tide, effectively preempting any totally false but pleasing announcement he might have had to make.
But spilled milk just made him think of her and his eyes would in no way subordinate themselves to his will as they slowly made their way up her slightly sunburned, but elegantly shaped calfs hoping to find above them thighs the colour of a strawberry milkshake. Unable to exert any control at all, he let them have their way while he tried to unglue his back from the sweat soaking through his shirt and into the man made fibre of his suit jacket, adhering him to the back of the seat when, without any encouragement or authorisation whatsoever, something unwanted and unwelcome stirred out of its warm torpor and came popping out of the slot in the front of his St. Micheal's briefs like a diver breaking the surface for air. He quickly covered the situation with his briefcase.
Disturbed by his squirming, the girl in the yellow blouse squinted at him suspiciously. At the same instant he looked up to see if she had noticed anything. Once again he found himself staring into those alarmingly real green eyes. He smiled back, the lunacy of his grin aggravated by the rocking of the train which was in turn not relieving his embarrassment in any way. She turned away.
He took the opportunity to reach into his pocket in order to return the source of his difficulty to a more comfortable, and less visible position. As his fingers reached for the structure that held the front of his trousers up like a tent pole, they tripped over some loose change laying neglected in the corner of his pocket.
Like a pair of palace guards, the girl's eyes sought the source of the tell-tale jingle. They found what they were looking for at the precise moment that his fingers were ready to accomplish their appointed task. The moment turned electric.
For one silly second, he actually, foolishly, thought she was going to smile and say something sexy. She looked at the mound in his lap, connected it to the hand in his pocket, compared it with the glint in his eye, then opened her mouth with the longest, most ungodly wail that he had heard since his daughter didn't get what she wanted for her birthday.
The strangled words of 'Pervert! Molester! Rapist!' turned the confined space into a muddle of confused activity. In the blink of an eye the three men in the red berets pulled him out of his seat by his lapels. His face was pressed hard against a T-Shirt that read 'Guardian Angels' and his arms were twisted up his back. Before he could scream out his innocence, he was flipped over and laid flat on his back amongst the discarded recruitment magazines, dried-up saliva and scuff marks. An angel on each limb held him fast, spread eagled, staked out under the fluorescent dome light.
'Oh, my god!,' the girl bawled above him,' Did you see what he was doing! Right next to me! Oh It was horrible.'
'No! No!' He pleaded. 'It's all a mistake!'
The big angel who stood on his ear with one of his big, ugly black boots leaned over and said with a smooth American accent, 'What's that in your pants? A pocket calculator?'
And there he was, in full possession of the incriminating evidence. Though it was not as prominent as he would have wanted at another time and place, he hopelessly wished it would behave like a sleepy puppy and curl up somewhere out of sight. He suddenly felt like vomiting.
He further despaired as he listened to an old grey flanneled voice remark. 'I see the point. He does seem to have a rising interest in something.'
'It's all a big mistake.' he spluttered. 'I'm not that sort of man. Look, I promise you I'm respectable. I'm going to be the Chief Financial Officer of a quoted company.'
'What company?' he heard another voice from the crowd ask with genuine interest.
'Adams and Appleyard.'
'Adams and Appleyard, aren't you involved in some kind of takeover speculation?'
'Yes, that's us.'
He was relieved to hear, 'I say, move aside you young thugs. Let this gentleman up.' although he was unable to identify the exact source of the voice.
'Is there any truth to the rumours?' the old grey haired man asked, all him to put a face to the voice as he was pulled to his feet by many helping hands who further assisted him by brushing the dust off his suit.
'I cannot confirm any rumours,' he said, much comforted to be on his feet again but still not daring to look at anyone directly. 'I am constrained by confidentiality.'
He kept his eyes cast downwards as a few men in smart suits eager to hear more put aside their financial newspapers and crowded around him,quietly elbowing the Guardian Angels and the girl in the yellow blouse to the outer edge of the circle. But through the babble of questions flying at him, he could just hear the big Angel addressing the girl in a slow, heavy, masculine accent. 'Look, maybe this was all some kind of misunderstanding. I'm sure he was only trying to make himself more comfortable. I think we can let this one go, don't you?'
And he stood there saying nothing with his head down and his suit wrapped around his scrawny frame like bad packaging as the doors of the carriage opened and her perfect shoes, with their perfectly rounded toes stepped off the train. She turned around deliberately and gave him a huge warm smile, then walked away.
'Are you going to be alright my good man?' the old gentleman enquired when the doors closed and he was able to look up again.
'Oh yes, quite all right,' he responded abstractly.
Or if you've followed me thus far, hang on....here are two possible choices.
PROCEED or GO BACK HOME.............