Overland Sample – CHAPTER EIGHT: Lola’s Chimpanzee.
Mabel had never seen an uncut diamond before. The white soapy almost flabby looking stone in Rolf’s hand struck her as completely unremarkable. But she knew the truth as so often she did. Bob had got it right.
Lola and Tracy still didn’t seem to know what it was, didn’t seem to get it. Patricia’s eyes, though, were wide and curious. And just a little apprehensive. Patricia wasn’t stupid. Three of the four South Africans were bunched together; Korin and Rolf locking stares with Kobus. Achim as usual inscrutable.
It was Kobus who broke the silence. He turned to Lola. “You say there’s more stones like this?”
“In the chimpanzee, monkey, whatever. Yes. Oh, God, God, God, I just loathe this wind! Why’s it always got to be so windy?”
Nobody bothered answering the question.
“Show us,” said Kobus curtly.
Lola looked confused but shrugged and led the group away from the tents. There, only a few yards away, was something very dry, black and dead, partially buried by a red pile of sand. They gathered round. It hadn’t been there when they’d set up camp. Mabel was sure of that. Perhaps the wind had unearthed it.
“Well, guys, looks as if we’ve got a bit of a situation here,” said Kobus stooping to pull the withered, leathery carcass out of the sand. A hairy, shriveled rug of some sort came loose from the thing and was caught by the wind and sucked away, rattling stiffly across the stony, killing Namib grassland.
A bit of a situation? And some, thought Mabel. Oh yes, indeed and some, then a little bit more. She hoped that Kobus could handle what she feared was to come. She hoped that they all could.
The corpse even without the foul furry rug that had made Lola think it was a monkey was barely recognizable as human – the head was missing and so were the legs. Twig thin, yellowed bones jutted through the skin in blunted weathered nubs. The stomach had been ripped open. Perhaps it had bloated and burst, Mabel thought queasily, remembering the more lurid detective novels that she’d read while pottering about the stacks in her library.
Finding a body, even a ghastly desert-tortured remnant like this, was news. What the body contained though was more than news. It was earth shaking.
Nestled in the leathery, blackened cavity like eggs in a rancid nest was a pile of stones and the stones exactly resembled the one Rolf had found. Exactly, but for one thing. They were much bigger. One in particular was huge. It had a blue-ish tint to it that, just for a moment, seemed to flare and writhe.
It’s a soul, thought Mabel, with a surge of unease. The diamond’s got a soul!
Nonsense, woman. Stop being fanciful! It’s just a stone. Well, not just a stone. A huge diamond. But a diamond with a soul? No, utter rubbish. Stuff and nonsense. Concentrate, Mabel, the next few minutes are going to be important, she told herself as another surging blast of wind threw sand at her. She sneezed.
“It’s a child!” moaned Patricia, pointing at the time-burned corpse. “Oh, no! It’s a little child! But what’s it doing here?” She made a vague, anguished gesture at the inimical, wind-scoured wilderness.
“Look after the lady,” grunted Kobus. “The dry grass makes it look soft as a feather from a distance but this is hard ground to faint on.”
Kobus now had his hand in the cadaver’s sternum and was groping about, a frown on his face, all his muscles tense and taut, his eyes preoccupied. He was clearly thinking furiously and Mabel was relieved to see it.
Tracy put her arm around Patricia’s shoulders. The wind gusted again and whipped her long hair painfully into Patricia’s face. Patricia crouched down, tears of pain in her eyes. Tracy struggled with her rebellious hair.
Mabel took over and held Patricia safe.
“Not a child. It’s a Bushman. Or a Nama. Dead a long time,” said Kobus. “A long, long time, phew yes. Man, we’re talking maybe a century.”
“I saw a Mummy in the British Museum, London, England,” said Bob.
British Museum, London, England?
Why were North Americans always doing that? Stating the blindingly obvious? Then compounding it with further fatuous elaboration? Where else was there a British Museum in a place called London?
China? Texas? Guatemala?
It made Mabel cross.
“The guy looks just like that Mummy. Kinda crouched?” Bob continued, ignorant of his offence. “You know? Crouched? Like that? Pugilist’s posture?”
Belt up you buffoon! thought Mabel. This dreadful wreckage was once a man who had lived. Loved (hopefully). And died in this dreadful, terrible, wonderful place then been half eaten and here was Bob using it as yet another peg to hang one of his interminable travel story’s on!
“The kaffir looks like a second hand teabag,” said Rolf
He’s got a point, thought Mabel. Although, actually, the dead man looked a bit more like the leather jacket the Finley’s boy was wearing after he’d bought that horrid motorcycle and gone crashing into the petrol pump while the attendant was drunk and smoking. But yes there was an aspect of old teabag about the corpse.
Rolf had a way with words, Mabel decided. A very insensitive way.
“Hey, man, Rolf,” said Pieter who, Mabel had learned, was deeply religious. As well as simple-minded. “Please show the dead some respect.”
Mabel glanced at Pieter and put on her horn rims. Pieter had a stolid, turnip-like face, burned red and raw by outdoor work. A Boer peasant. Poor. He didn’t fit with the other South Africans. Mabel wondered who he was, why he was here, what he did.
While she looked at Pieter, Pieter gazed down at the withered husk with a strangely potent reverence then closed his eyes. His lips moved but the whispered prayer was snatched and swallowed by the unrelenting wind. Mabel heard nothing but the howl of the Namib.
But, oh, there was something touching in his genuine show of grief. If the dead man had a ghost she hoped it was here at this time to witness it.
A sudden, swift flurry of dust, a minor, tiny cyclone rose in front of her, formed itself, then raced, zig zaggiing, off into the dead grass and was gone.
More wind. Horrible wind.
Rolf callously put his booted foot on the dead thing’s chest. The rib cage collapsed under the weight. There was another snap as the vertebra broke. A large flap of dried skin was torn loose and flitted away like a crippled bat.
“Don’t want the rest blowing away,” Rolf said. “You taking the trinkets, Kobus?”
Kobus nodded. He pulled a small plastic bag out of his jacket. He collected the stones carefully, counting aloud as he did so. A few of them had been entombed and held tight in the small and large intestines – pea-sized lumps bulging in shriveled sections of gut. Kobus used a knife to cut them out. It was time consuming work. Mabel watched and thought of the biltong she’d (sort of) enjoyed the previous day.
She decided that she wouldn’t be having any more biltong. Not for a very long time.
After two minutes of watching Kobus saw and slice, Rolf tried to help. Kobus told him to back off. Rolf blinked. Kobus asked him where the Israelis were.
“Half a kay away. Plus minus. Smoking something. Rolling around.” Rolf put his binoculars away and didn’t seem to see the point of the question.
“How about the frogs?”
Rolf swiveled his binoculars. Very quickly the answer came.
“On a dune. Holding hands.”
“Right. Go and keep an eye on them. From somewhere else. This is a need to know scenario and they don’t need to know. And there’s too many people clustered here at this moment. It might attract interest. You see?”
Rolf finally understood where Kobus was coming from. It was an Us and Them thing. Us with a Mummymified Bushman with a gut full of uncut diamonds and Them with a holiday. More diamonds for Us. Keep Them out of it.
But Rolf didn’t go himself. He told Korin to go. Korin went. Then Rolf reduced the crowd further by ordering Pieter to get dinner ready. He called Pieter ‘Cheffy’ and Pieter ‘Cheffy’ Pieterson seemed to like that, Mabel thought. He ambled off towards Esmerelda with a modest, happy smile on his moon face.
“Hey! And Cheffy! Before you rattle the pans, fix that sad excuse for a shower! It’s about to take off for Mombassa!” yelled Rolf. His voice fought the gusts of wind and won.
Pieter changed direction and charged heavily and earnestly in the direction of the bush shower. Mabel, now convinced that she had the makings of a possible New York Times best-seller, tried to find an analogy for the way Pieter ran. Something between a serf storming a castle and a lumbering rhinoceros was her verdict though, of course, she’d never seen either in a charge.
“What we have is an unusual situation. And we need to think quickly.”
They were all crouched now around the withered body of the Bushman. Lola and Tracy were next to each other looking timid, uncertain, and, Mabel thought, very, very young. Bob’s expression was alert and excited but dumb. Like a young dog hoping for a walk. Rolf had a hard set of eyes. His buddy, Achim, looked the most frightening of all. He didn’t have any expression on his face; looked like something from Madame Tussauds.
“First, before we even begin to discuss what we’re going to do,” said Kobus, “Let’s cut to the chase. Who are you guys?”
“What’s that mean?” Rolf said. “We’re tourists.”
“I’ve done 43 Overlands and I’ve never had guys like you on any of them.”
“We’re tourists. We want to see Africa,” Rolf persisted. “You know. The elephants. The wide open spaces. See different cultures. Buy some souvenirs. Bundu bashing. All that shit.”
Kobus looked depressed.
“Hey man, Rolf! Patricia here, she’s a tourist. Tracy, Mabel, Lola, they’re tourists. Maybe Pieter, maybe even Pieter, he’s a tourist. You aren’t. You’ve got a Koevoet tattoo on your shoulder for Christ’s sake! What is this? You were in Koevoet? Or did you get drunk in a Durban bar?”
“Koevoet?” asked Bob. “What’s that?”
“We’ll get to you in a minute, Bob,” said Kobus. “So hey, Rolf. Who are you? I need to know.”
“What I am is my business, Kobus. You’re the guide. I’m the client. What I pay, pays your wages.”
“Fine. OK. Have it your way. I’ll be handing this little lot in at the nearest police station.”
Mabel thought this was a very good idea. Though how near the nearest police station was, she didn’t like to imagine. Tracy, Patricia and Lola were nodding uncertainly. Rolf looked stunned at this outrageous suggestion. Achim glanced at him then returned his dead-snake-gaze to Kobus.
“I’m serious,” said Kobus.
“You out of your mind?” Rolf bellowed suddenly. “Look at the size of them! They’re worth a fortune! Millions man. I’m talking dollars not Rand! ”
Rolf appealed to his English audience.
“Pounds! Not dollars! Look at the size of them! The kaffir’s been dead for years! Nobody knows they exist! That blue stone, alone. It’s worth more than a fortune!”
Mabel saw that the three English girls were flinching and afraid. Lola didn’t rise to the ‘kaffir’ comment. Patricia felt as if she might subside completely. She was trembling in Mabel’s arms like a small sick animal.
Rolf stopped yelling. He’d noticed his audience, too. He began to speak soothingly.
“Look ladies, let me paint you a picture, hey? Namibia has got loads of things going for it. But the only one that lasts forever is diamonds. You know how old these stones are? They pre-date life itself! Not human life. All life! They’re as old as the planet! And they’ll be here until the planet’s a fucking cinder. What was the name of that James Bond film?”
Pieter was back.
“Ach for pity’s sake, man. I’m being rhetorical. Diamonds Are Forever.”
“Why is that?”
“Go away! I’m talking!”
“I am here to see if the ladies have allergies to some foods. Spots. Sicknesses.”
“They don’t! Now, please man, go away and do your stuff, and leave us.”
“Pieter means well. He’s just fucking stupid. So to the point. My guess is Tutankhamen here swallowed the gleamers down in the Sperrgebiet back before they got it organized and closed it off. In the early days there were so many diamonds they’d find them by moonlight. Just lying around. OK, they’ve closed off the area now – it’s forbidden territory. Not even a vehicle gets out, you know? X-ray machines. Armed guards. Diamond smuggling? I mean forget about it. You know they’ve got this guy who just watches people when they leave. It’s like the guys they have at casinos spotting cheats. They can remember a face twenty years down the line, read the body language, smell your sweat, see right through you and bang, if you’ve got stones, he’s got you! But back then in the early days, man it was like the Wild West. Anything went. And a lot of the shit that went was diamonds!”
Mabel thought Rolf was doing well. His audience was staring at him wide-eyed but strangely transfixed as he continued.
“OK, so this Bushman or this Nama tribesman, he’s working down there and he gets lucky. He swallows the stuff, or you know, puts it up him. I don’t wish to sound indelicate but that is what occurred. He trots north. Snuffs it. Maybe he’s planning on meeting some guy who’ll pay him in tobacco or brandy. Shoot him an eland, give him the liver. Something. Maybe he’s just swallowed the lot because some guy told him to. Maybe. Whatever. Anyway, he kicks the big bucket, a brown hyena takes his head, takes his legs. Sand swallows him. I’m saying no-one knows they exist! Man, we sell these diamonds, split the jingling change and we’re set up for life! Long and merry!”
Kobus was sweating. He looked undecided, Mabel thought. But he was still the man in charge. And he was strong. Probably more than a match for Rolf if it came to a physical confrontation.
Rolf saw Mabel looking at Kobus and seemed to read her thoughts. He changed tack.
“Hey, Kobus, how much they paying you for this guiding lark? Eighty Rand a day? A hundred? Think about it, man.”
Mabel thought about it. Eighty Rand – a hundred Rand – was a pittance. Less than ten pounds. Kobus would surely be getting more than that.
“I’m paid 75 rand per diem,” said Kobus reluctantly.
“Per diem? What’s that shit mean? Per diem?” Rolf was whining now, playing the comic.
Mabel decided to step in.
“Are we sure these are diamonds?”
Rolf looked at her. “Trust me, madam. They’re diamonds and they’re big, bloody big. We’re looking at maybe 12 million. Fifteen. More. I know stones.”
“They are big,” conceded Kobus. “Little mannie must have suffered from serious indigestion.”
Rolf laughed delightedly, desperately, unconvincingly and clapped a heavy sun burnt arm round Kobus’s shoulders. Kobus knocked Rolf’s arm off. Rolf put his arm back. Kobus let it lie.
Things could go any way, Mabel thought. This is the turning point, the abiding moment. At least three of the South Africans had weapons. They had knives. Rolf she guessed might have a gun. He’d certainly reached for something in his safari jacket when Kobus had thrown the petrol onto the braai to end the party the previous night. It seemed a long time ago.
Mabel decided to try and help. She cleared her throat in the same warning way that she had cleared her throat in her library when things were getting just a bit too loud in the Children’s Corner.
It worked. She had their attention.
“Perhaps, we should all introduce ourselves a little more plainly?” said Mabel. “I think that Kobus has decisions to make and if you could say who you really are it would be reassuring.”
Rolf looked at Achim. Achim gave a barely perceptible nod.
A moment passed then Rolf made his decision.
“Look, man, Kobus. Ladies. I’ll come clean, eh? Like the English lady suggests. Me, and Korin, and Achim here, we’re businessmen. OK? We’ve got a little project going on just now at the moment. There’s a small-scale miner – you know? Doesn’t mine really. Just picks around up in Damaraland looking for malachite, tourmaline, crystals, geodes and that sort of stuff. Anyway he’s got lucky and he’s found two meteorites, right? And there’s a yank – no offence Rob…”
“Bob. I’m Canadian.”
“Yes, whatever. Don’t fucking interrupt. And this yank’s down in Cape Town and he wants them. He’s a Space freak. Fossil freak. We were going to meet the miner, get the meteorites, stash them in the truck, smuggle them over the border and sell them. I know it wasn’t fair to use your Overland as a front like that but you know the police don’t check these Overland vehicles if they find a little dagga in some guy’s back pack. They make the bust and haul the sap off, pat themselves on the back and we just sail through. It’s all thought of.”
“You were going to plant dagga in one of my client’s backpacks? I could lose my license!”
“Hey, just a bit of dagga. Not commercial quantity. Cause a diversion. That’s why we brought Pieter along. Good deal for him. Poor bastard’s not had much in the way of foreign travel. He gets a free holiday and in return gets a fine (which we pay for him) and spends a couple of days in the slammer fighting off the moffies.”
“Moffies?” asked Bob.
“Puffdas. Bum-punchers. Moffies. And no more interruptions, Rob. Like I say, it wasn’t fair and we apologize but there’s no need for that now. Forget the damn meteorites. Compared to this lot, they’re ostrich piss!”
Kobus shook his head in amazement. “Sonofabitch,” he muttered bleakly. “Ex-Koevoet meteorite smugglers on my truck. And I thought I’d seen everything.”
“So who’s Pieter?” asked Mabel privately thinking that Rolf’s meteorite smuggling plan was absurdly over-complicated. If she had two meteorites to get over a border she felt sure she could come up with a sleeker solution. Depending of course on the size of the meteorites.
“Pieter? He’s a friend of ours. Korin’s cousin. Has a piss poor farm in Kwa-zulu with 200 kaffir squatters he can’t shift and who keep stealing his kit and washing their feet in his drinking water,” said Rolf. “On this trip he’s a tourist. Same as you ladies here. And same as Rob.”
“Yes, whatever. So, what? Do we hit the police station? And let the cops steal them? They will, you know. Or do we all get seriously rich seriously easily?”
Mabel thought that it was one heck of a good question. The wind rose in strength. The wizened body was already gathering a new layer of sand. It would soon be gone again.
Now you see it now you don’t. Death and the desert; dark conjurors both.
“Come on people, think about it!” said Rolf impatiently.
Day two: shotgun fire, police station riot, hospital. Day three: a Bastard hitch hiker/journalist. Day four and a ghost leopard falls off a cliff. And now here we are, Mabel thought, still day four, sitting and standing around a Bushman or Nama diamond smuggler with no head or legs, dead decades earlier, and we can all be millionaires if we decide to trust each other.
And break the law.
Talk about Unexpected Africa!
“How do we sell them?” she asked, hoping that Rolf could offer a less hare-brained plan than his meteorite smuggling strategy. .
“Nothing easier, madam. We follow the Overland as planned. No change to the schedule. No point in alerting the others, eh? That was your idea, Kobus, right?”
Kobus nodded. It had been.
“I know a diamantaire in Lusaka who shifted raw stones from the Cuango valley for UNITA over in Angola. He’ll get them to Antwerp. You know how many stones left Angola last year? Just under 600,000,000 US dollars worth and more than half of that was on the informal market…”
Mabel was now fascinated. And hooked. Diamond smuggling, UNITA, Cuango Valley…
She’d been thrilled to see her first wild ostrich! How banal by comparison. Here she now was with a man who defined international criminal behaviour involving billions of blood stained dollars worth of diamonds stolen and smuggled out of war zones as ‘informal’.
“This lot won’t raise an eyebrow,” Rolf finished. “Until they hit the showrooms! Then there’ll be a fucking stampede!”
“You know your stuff,” Kobus said, tugging dubiously at the lobe of his left ear.
“Sure I do. Like I say I’m a businessman. I’ve been around the block. Used to sell home-made lemonade and game meat on a road side stand when I was just five years old. Made a few bucks, too. Bought my first hunting rifle when I was six. Second hand but a real smooth shoot. Brought down a kudu five days later.”
“Is this relevant?” interrupted Kobus. His ear lobe tugging was moving from dubious to downright distrustful. He’d sold lemonade from a road side stall when he was eight years old and hadn’t made enough to buy a pop gun let alone a hunting rifle. And he doubted a six year old could hit a wall let alone bag a kudu. This sounded like bullshit. Diamonds and bullshitters – catastrophic mixture.
“Hear me out, man, Kobus,” said Rolf. “Please? We are going into business. I’m just giving you a bit of background about your business partner and salesman.”
“We used to fit up speakers on our kasspirs when we hit those terrs over the Angolan border and play it full volume. “Another One Bites The Dust!” by Freddy Mercury as we chased our contact. It made them very shaky. They were wailing and running like losers as soon as they heard that music start. That was my idea. And I was the guy who supplied the amps and I can tell you we got through a lot of gear. And there were a whole load of the terrs who had Soviet bloc supplied rifle grenade-launchers and they were using them but the plan is to use blank rounds so the expanding force propels the grenade but I made a plan to drop leaflets with different instructions. Use live rounds to launch your grenade!”
Rolf laughed fondly at the memory.
“Their heads were being blown off. By Themselves! Another one bites the dust!
That was another of my business initiatives.”
“Actually that’s quite funny. You were killing communists and playing them Queen?”
Kobus suddenly had a smile that reminded Mabel of the smiles on the “I’m so happy” faces the Koevoets were wearing on their Kasspir in her guidebook.
To her horror she then realized that she, too, was smiling.
It was, in a way, funny, the Queen story. And the rifle grenades back firing after the owners had studiously followed the instructions – that was also quite amusing.
But, no, it was nothing to laugh about. She must not get sucked into this sort of … laughing at people slipping on banana peel (or blowing their heads off) comic moral rot.
What on earth was wrong with her, today?
I’m enjoying myself she realized. I’m having a proper adventure. I’m not 3,000 miles from Framley. I’m light years away. And getting further by the minute.
Mabel thought about how much she’d receive as her share of this ‘informal’ marketing strategy. Assuming Rolf’s guess was right, assuming this thing didn’t degenerate into a Treasure of The Sierra Madre scenario, assuming they didn’t get caught and plunged into a dungeon – at least one million pounds.
She then wondered whether they actually had a choice. Would Rolf allow them to go to the police station if that’s what Kobus decided? Or would they end up under a dune keeping the Bushman company? Bob maybe hadn’t heard of Koevoet but Mabel knew what the guys…
She’d never called gentlemen or boys guys in her life! What was happening to her?
…of Koevoet were capable of.
She suddenly decided that the most expedient thing to do was to go along with Rolf. Break the law. She’d never done it before – the occasional parking ticket excepted – and, hell, she reasoned, a change is as good as a rest. Ten thousand pounds would get Clive’s business off the rocks. The remainder she’d use to fund charitable trusts involving endangered species. Not all of the rest, she amended. Some she’d use to come on safari again. To date it was proving a great deal more eventful than the seven nights on the north Welsh coast at Whistling Sands, her normal annual holiday.
“I’m no longer a tourist,” Mabel announced.
“So what are you?” asked Achim. The blank stare was gone. He now looked vaguely intrigued.
“I’m what he was.”
Mabel pointed to the remains of the Bushman smuggler. “I’m your mule.”
“Mule?” asked Bob.
Goodness, he’s slow, Mabel thought.
“I’ll help get the diamonds over the border. No one searches an old lady’s undergarments, now do they?”
Rolf’s eyes flashed triumphantly. Achim nodded. Mabel suddenly realized that he was holding a pistol. He probably had been for most of the conversation. Nobody else had noticed it. It was just hanging from one hand, close to his khaki trousers. Un-noticeable. Until you noticed it.
I think I’ve just saved my life, she thought. How extraordinary!
Achim’s gun vanished.
I’ve just saved all their lives! Mabel thought. Pregnant Patricia, noisy beautiful Lola, gentle Tracy, silly Bob, pretty Michelle, all of them.
An image, a vision, flashed in front of her.
It was Achim, his gun was out, he was smiling. It was Rolf, his gun was out, all business. It was Korin, savage with a knife. They were hunting the girls through the dunes. Hunting the French. Hunting the Israelis. Finding them all, one by one, or two by two, or clutching each other in a pitiful, shivering group.
She could almost hear the terrified pleas for mercy. Then the gunfire.
She shook her head. The picture show was gone.
“You OK?” Achim asked.
“Fine,” said Mabel, feeling very far from fine. Had she just seen the future? Was that how it was going to be?
“So what do you think?” she asked, trying to look brave.
Kobus seemed lost for words. Then he raised his hands in surrender and brought them down to his sides with a resounding slap.
“Jesus, “he sighed “You’re a crazy English, Mabel. Did anyone tell you that before? You’re mad, bad and dangerous to know! Anyone tell you that? ”
Mabel considered the question. The answer was no. The last time anybody had bothered to say anything about her was after her retirement party at the Framley library.
She’d heard it as someone else was helping her into the taxi after the Spam sandwiches were over and the single bottle of cheap white wine consumed.
“I think we need someone a little more dynamic. I don’t like the Children’s Corner concept. It’s too conservative. Passe. I think we should run with the Young Adults Storying Environment. I’d like to see the kids storying.”
“She’s been very reliable. Steadfast. But I agree. She’s not the image we’re looking for. She’s got a bit quaint.”
Damn Framley! thought Mabel with sudden viciousness. The humiliation of being dismissed, after decades of diligent service, with a bottle of wine with its label still on – £1.99 – and two bookends that she, herself, had donated to the OXFAM shop for sale to the needy and which some vile municipality miser had bought for her – presumably pocketing the change- and… and…
I’ll go back and buy their damn library! she vowed. And expand the Children’s Corner!
Lola was rubbing her nose and with her other hand was fiddling with her hair. Tracy still seemed lost. Patricia was looking thoughtful.
One by one they nodded.
Bob had a wild smile.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Way to go Overland!”
And so the decision was made.