Hierdie is die LitNet-argief (2006–2012)
Besoek die aktiewe LitNet-platform by www.litnet.co.za

This is the LitNet archive (2006–2012)
Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za


 
Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction

The Incident on Heron Island


Richard Jurgens - 2011-12-13

Untitled Document

I

It was blazing out in the open countryside, though the calendars said that it would soon be late October. Hilton Ellis mopped his brow with the spotted handkerchief that he had knotted on his head earlier against the unaccustomed UV rays.

They had walked from the bus stop, sweating heavily in the unseasonal warmth, along a long, straight bicycle path lined by a guardian row of elm trees. This had brought them at last to the wooden gate of the little yacht haven on its glittering dark lake. The place was quiet, it being out of season. Hundreds of little boats lined the crowded jetty, jostling one another in the light-dappled water.

Hilton had been hoping for a breather, but Sparks Mchunu wasn’t one to linger unless a drink or a smoke was involved. (Maybe they were, on the other side of the water.) He unlocked the gate and set off purposefully along the jetty, past the throng of watercraft, some with sails furled, others with canopies and inboard motors, and yet others with little seven-horsepower outboards clamped on their sterns.

Catching up with him, Hilton saw that he was already afloat, and that the little bumboat he was standing in was hardly larger than a coracle, or a comic opera vessel just large enough to hold an owl and a pussycat perhaps. It bobbed alarmingly as its owner hunched over the engine, pulling energetically at the ignition cord.

The engine sputtered into life and a puff of blue smoke appeared above the waterline. The engine’s sudden racket was an unpleasant invasion of the silence, like that of a lawnmower or an airliner passing overhead on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And without quite wanting to, Hilton now noticed that the little boat bore the name Charon in faded red letters on its prow.

“Let’s go, comrade!” Sparks said, noticing Hilton lingering delicately on the jetty.

There being nothing for it, Hiltonstepped down. Seen in silhouette against the sky it was probably a real Monsieur Hulot moment: the rotund bohemian gentleman stepping into the tiny boat, arms out wide, teetering like a ballerina over the water. For a split second everything hung in the balance and they almost flipped. Then Hilton lost his footing, landing arse first on the hard wooden bench, and this somehow righted the boat.

Sparks revved the engine, and the propeller bit into the dark water. Within a moment they had reversed out of the berth and were speeding out on to the open water. Holding firmly to the gunwales, Hiltonturned his face to the bow. The smell of the lake – fresh water, trees, duck shit – streamed past. Ahead of them, looming on the horizon, he could see the island, its patches of green lawn between poplars and chestnut trees.  Meanwhile, behind them, the little harbour receded, its rows of tethered yachts and cabin cruisers still bobbing. And the Charon, as it chugged across the expanse of quiet grey water, trailed a smooth, gleaming wake.

He had good memories of his last visit to this place, some years before – the island. On that occasion Sparks had been celebrating his acquisition of a passport. A group of thirty people had been ferried over in a chartered cruiser. To honour his new nationality Sparks had draped a large tricolour of blue, white and red from the roof of his hut and decorated it with orange bunting. His wife had prepared a generous feast of marinated meats for the fire and a variety of fresh salads. A ceaseless flow of drinks had been provided too: beer, wine, whisky. Afternoon light had slanted in among the trees, beautiful people had laughed and danced. Later there had been candles at the lakeside, and the familiar rhythms of Kingston and Soweto had wafted over the darkening lawn that edged the water.

How things had changed since then, Hilton thought. Now it was just the two of them. Two grumpy old men.

The wind on their faces grew stronger. Sparks, tiller between his knees, lit a cigarette between cupped hands. It took a few attempts, even though he used his worn brass Zippo. Having succeeded, he leaned back nonchalantly on the stern of the boat to blow smoke into the wind. Seeing Hilton’s eye on him, he held up a thumb.

“Nearly there, comrade,” he yelled into the wind.

“So you keep telling me,” Hilton shouted back.

*

That morning, Hilton had prepared a selection of edible sand juices for the outing, as well as some books and CDs. He had even dug out an old bottle of sun block, for his pate. These items he’d packed into a rucksack, which he set down by the front door. But of course the agreed hour came and went without Sparks appearing.

Hilton wasn’t too surprised; the man’s chronic lateness was well known to his friends. Rather than wait, then, he settled down at his kitchen table to write up his daily journal. He’d dreamed, the night before, that he was observing a collection of crystals glowing in fabulous colours when a disembodied voice said, “You understand, of course, that life is simply a temporary transformation of energy”,  and he wanted to note this down. Then he tried Sparks’s number and received no answer. And finally he clumped down the stairs to wait outside.

His street was really little more than a narrow alley connecting two of the city’s canals, and it got dark early, even in summer. Today shadows were already drawing up the baroque and crumbling facades of the houses. At the end of the block he could see a patch of bright sunshine, like the light at the end of a tunnel, and tourists in summery gear strolling up and down. All those lives, all those purposes going by. 

It was chilly in the shadows. Shivering a little, he thought he should find a patch of sun. His eye was caught by a movement between the cars parked along one side of the narrow street. Idly, he walked a few steps to investigate. Peering around the chrome bumper of an old winged car he found two sharp and very unimpressed yellow eyes staring back at him.

They belonged to the grey heron that had recently taken to waiting outside a neighbour’s window for a regular lunchtime snack. The bird stood almost as high as his waist, and wielded a yellow dagger-sized beak that could surely inflict considerable damage.

The prehistoric-looking creature was as startled as he was, but its responses were much quicker. It sized him up, and decided that he was too large to eat. Then it decided that there was no need seek a safer perch higher up. Instead, it skittered a little along the street, or around a corner of a parked car, each time he approached, keeping its emotionless eye on him all the while. It wasn’t going anywhere. It was simply defending its patch, and its free lunch.

“Good hunting, comrade?”

Sparks had appeared out of nowhere, as he did, and was standing there in his crisp city gear, as if he’d just emerged from a girlfriend’s shower. Embarrassed to have been caught at his silly stalking game with the insouciant heron, Hilton looked him up and down.

“You’re late,” he said. “It’s afternoon already.”

Sparks shrugged, as he’d done no doubt a hundred times before in a hundred places around this city, pissed-off friends wondering where he’d been. Angry lovers, with tight faces and arms folded, ditto. The man would set out with every intention of arriving at his destination, of course – it wasn’t that he meant to drop you. But on the way, eish, things would happen – things that usually involved bars and the people he met in them, often young women.

Well, he was here now, that was something. Taking him firmly by an elbow, Hilton set a course for the bus terminus. It was only when they were actually on the bus and safely on their way that he felt able to relax. The bus thundered on and he fell into a fitful doze.

But he’d forgotten that convenience of modern life, the mobile communication device. He was wokenby the sound of Sparks’s phone – a rooster crowing loudly. Ringtones being what they were these days. No one’s phone simply sounded like a phone.

Sparks muttered confidentially for a while. Hilton gathered that he was speaking to his son, Nelson. They often spoke the local lingo between themselves, which was disconcerting. They seemed to inhabit a very different world when they spoke the boy’s mother-language. They were so much more local.

Whatever they discussed, Sparks decided that they were heading for a different destination by the time he closed his phone. They got out of the bus at the next stop and, still schlepping the rucksack of supplies, shortly afterwards caught a metro going in another direction.

*

Presently they were in a district in the bleakly modern western outskirts of the city, with its rows of strangely shaped skyscrapers. Sparks led himto a park where people were sharing blankets in the sun, radios were playing, an ice cream van was doing brisk trade, and kids were skateboarding along the paths. It was a happy scene, this crowd of half-naked fellow citizens, but Hilton had prepared himself for quiet trees and clopping water today, for the peace of the island.

Sparks appeared to be heading resolutely in the direction of the sports hall, a stark building of glass and metal, a monument to the artificiality of postmodernist architecture in the middle of the green park.

“We’re not going in there?” Hilton puffed.

“It’s Nelson,” Sparks replied cryptically.

“What about him?”

“He’s competing today,” Sparks said.

There seemed no answer to this remark, although it certainly raised questions. Why had Sparks suggested that they go out to the island today if his son was competing in an important event? Why had he apparently decided not to attend the event, and then changed his mind? And so on. But Sparks was on a mission now, and there was no stopping him. Hilton followed him inside, where they were quickly caught up in a whirl of entrance turnstiles, security guards in short-sleeved shirts, and eddying crowds of excited young folk mobbing the booths for tickets.

They were attending, it appeared from numerous signs, the Pools n Tubes national skateboarding championship. In the bright foyer T-shirted sales people were selling skateboard magazines, DVDs, instruction manuals, and high-end, state-of-the-art equipment and spare parts – “decks”, “trucks”, wheels, axles. Refreshment stands at regular intervals offered hot dogs, energy drinks and vitamin-supplemented candy bars. Crowds of people were milling about, most of them teenagers in branded clothing and reversed baseball caps, some of them with skateboards in the crooks of their arms where no doubt teddy bears had dangled only a few years before.

High above their heads, on a vast video screen, a blithe youth in a straw hat was strumming on a guitar. He was singing a lilting, happy chorus to a backdrop of sunny moments in the lives of the cool dudes, the kings of the skateboard who rode the empty backyard pools of California and drifted in convertibles along the boulevards with the wind in their hair.

They consulted a large map of the event. Large arrows pointed to the Tube Ride, Street Course, Quarter Pipe, Vert Ramp, Pool Ride, Grindbox. But the map was drawn in a graffiti-like style that seemed to locate the competition events in a maze of abstract lines and squiggles, and it offered no useful guidance. Sparks got into a fret, which didn’t help. And the stands of the Pool Ride event, when they found their way there at last, were full of excited family members and supporters, so that they had to pick their way to the top.

The height was unsettling, but it gave them a good view of the deep dry pool of grey concrete where the action was taking place. As they sat down, a long-haired skateboarder in a black Lycra bodysuit was executing a perfect touch-and-grab as he shot over the edge of the pool – then, hanging suspended in the air for a long moment, he suddenly reversed the direction of his board, using only his feet, and zoomed down the side again to finish with a strong power slide in the dry bottom of the pool.

Hearing the new arrivals speaking English, two boys in baseball caps behind them who had been following the performance now began offering loud commentary.

“Dude, did you see his air?”

“Sick, man!”

“Yeah, rad! This local kid who’s coming now, he’s got no chance.”

“Hey!” Sparks said, turning around.

The two little wise-asses behind them eyeballed him cheekily. They were about sixteen, needle-thin, with hormonal blotches on their faces and peroxide spikes showing underneath their caps, and dressed in oversized T-shirts that might have concealed all manner of weapons. Seeing them, Hilton felt his adrenaline levels rocket. Unpleasant encounters in the trams recently had made him aware that he was becoming that sad thing – a man showing his age. The streets were full of youths like these, with testosterone coursing like raw alcohol through their veins.

Sparks, though, was another matter. If the little pricks thought they were taunting some grumpy old desk clerk from Suriname, they were much mistaken. They had no idea who they were dealing with. The man, in fact, was a former insurgent who’d been trained in the delicate art of killing people suddenly and without weapons. His unusual skills, the fruit of years of clandestine training, had proved useful on more than one occasion during his long acquaintance with the shadows of this city’s underground. The young fools were poking a stick in a cave without first making sure that that no leopard lurked in it. Hilton almost hoped they’d push it further.

To his disappointment, though, Sparks relied on brains rather than brawn. “Boys, the ‘dude’ who’s up next is my son,” he said mildly in the local lingo.

“Ooh, his son!” the boys told each other mockingly, but it was only to save face and they piped down. The unspoken code of masculine presence had been consulted. It had conveyed, correctly, that there was something about this man, older though he was, that they couldn’t handle.

The next competitor, the “local kid”, had appeared at the edge of the dry pool with a scuffed skateboard in his hand. He was a tall young man, light brown of skin and with a short curly Afro, and he was wearing a loose green-and-black vest, baggy black half-pants and scuffed trainers – very “street”.

“That’s Nelson!” Hilton said. “My god, he’s grown. Has it been so long?”

“Well, he’s seventeen,” Sparks replied.

When Hilton had last seen the boy he’d had a poster of Michael Jackson on his bedroom wall. He’d played snakes and ladders with him, read him chapters of Harry Potter, and they’d watched Terminator movies together. The boy had loved listening to his stories, as he recalled, too – a clear sign of intelligence. Hilton could see him in his Spider-Man pyjamas, clapping his hands with glee to the rhythms of a cynical little tale about a shark and a crocodile that he had told in those days. He hadn’t told that story for ages. He wondered if he could even remember it.

“It’s been too long, Sparks,” Hilton said.

But Sparks’s mind was on other things. He was watching his son, who was walking to the bottom of the grey concrete pool to prepare for his round.

“You know, he earned thirty thousand in prize money this year,” he said.

“What?”

Hilton could hardly believe his ears. Thirty thousand, in one year! At seventeen! Outrageous. Hilton had worked hard, in his way, in a demanding profession – for the theatre was a demanding profession indeed – and he’d never earned that amount in a single year. Or indeed, possibly, ever.

“Yes,” Sparks said, reading his mind. “Now some sportswear company is offering to sponsor him. They’re talking another twenty thousand.”And yet he seemed oddly glum.

A hip hop number came on. The tall young man in the empty concrete pool windmilled his arms a few times, the skateboard under one foot. Then he mounted the skateboard casually, as if setting off on a gentle trip through the park, and allowed his ride, which was nothing more than a tiny surfboard on four toxic-green polyurethane wheels, really, to roll slowly up the sides of the dry pool while he stood on it as naturally as if he were on solid ground. He was “testing the surface”, Hilton gathered from the peanut gallery.

Meanwhile, the music, a thin brass section supported by growling bass and rippling congas, got going to a cool Shaft-like groove.

On the day I die
Gonna touch the sky
Gotta testify.

And the young man, Nelson, began to fly.



II

Dusk was already settling over the island. A glittering reflection of the orange sun lay on the lake. On the far shore a line of leafless trees were holding their bare trunks up to the pale sky.

To his right Hilton could see the other-worldly silhouette of a grey heron standing very still on its thin legs in the water while the wind played with its white ruff. No doubt it was contemplating the winter it would have to see out here in the north. Overhead, meanwhile, a V-shaped wing of geese were honking with excitement as they set out for the south. The geese always knew when it was time to leave. Within a few days the weather forecasters would be predicting a cold snap.

The island was little more than a raised meadow of green in the middle of the lake, no larger than two basketball courts, perhaps. He’d come out for a breath of fresh air, and was standing on the short wooden jetty. Near him the Charon, tied fast by a stout rope that was threaded through the ring in its nose, moved confidently in the darkening water.

Looking at the evening gathering over the dark lake, its surface a silvery patchwork of textures reflecting invisible undercurrents and eddies, he wondered whether he could face another northern winter. But behind the trees that surrounded the lake he could see the fields that they’d tramped among earlier, on their long walk from bus stop to the harbour, and beyond them loomed the high-rise buildings that ringed the city, and hidden behind them lay the old inner city of alleys and canals and devious harbour town ways where he had seen out his adult years. Unlike the geese, he hadn’t anywhere else to go.

The warmth of the day was vanishing fast. Shivering at the chilly breeze that had blown up over the water he extracted a last quick hit of smoke from the joint and ventured shivering back inside.

*

The light of several paraffin lamps flickered invitingly in the windows of the wooden hut beneath its sheltering curtain of trees as he drew near. Sparks had got the little wood stove in the corner going, and the hut was warming up. He was hunching close to the stove, still in his jacket and scarf, in a deckchair, with a bottle to hand.

When Hilton saw it last, the hut had been little more than a fisherman’s shack, equipped with a heavy woodworking surface that doubled as a kitchen table, a few folding chairs, a rudimentary galley in one corner, and a range of fishing rods and reels on the wall. The idea was that Sparks spent weekends there, fishing, working on the important development-related documents that took him around the world, or getting away from the noise of the world. But today the little hut contained a narrow, neatly made truckle bed against the far wall, a kitchenette with a rack of plates, mugs and cutlery in a corner, curtains over the windows, and rows of books by the built-in desk at one of the windows.

“I’ll put some food together, shall I?” Hilton said.

Sparks nodded and returned his contemplation of the flames that turned and writhed in the open grate of the little stove. Muttering some silent protests at his friend’s obstinate silence, Hilton went to the corner kitchenette. Moods come and go, the body’s quest for food continues.

He’d planned simple fare, having expected to find a rustic hut here on the island: sandwiches, fruit to follow, and, as a starter, some fresh herrings with onion and pickled gherkin. But when he got the rucksack open he knew immediately that the first item on the menu wasn’t going to work. Sparks, huddling with his thoughts in front of the crackling stove, also noticed.

“Eish, what’s that?” he said, as a distinctly fishy odour filled the little hut.

Hilton held up the packet of herrings that had been kept warm and confined for too long. “I got them from that stall by the Westerkerk,” he said regretfully.

“Well, comrade, it’s a stink,” Sparks said indignantly, scowling at Hilton from his deckchair.

Something was eating the man, it was clear. The jackets and shirts in a corner, the rows of shoes under the bed, the supplies of groceries on the shelves in the corner kitchenette, the season’s supply of firewood piled under the eaves of the hut outside, the efficient little boat bobbing like a demon at the jetty. He’d settled in. Maybe that had something to do with it. Any man would be upset if he’d exchanged his comfortable house for a fisherman’s shack on a windy island.

“You okay?” Hilton said, returning the herrings to their packet and wrapping it securely.

But Sparks, who did not like to talk about himself, just shook his head.

Hilton turned to preparing sandwiches. When they were ready he joined Sparks by the humming stove. He accepted his plate distractedly. Hilton turned a chair to the fire and began tucking into his sandwiches. He’d added a layer of horseradish. The first bite flooded his nose with a mustardy sharpness and brought sharp tears to his eyes.

“Not hungry?” he said, noticing that Sparks had ignored the plate of food in his lap and was still glumly contemplating the flames.

He’d been excited enough at the skateboarding competition. Young Nelson had blasted his way through the semis and had ended up clinching second place in the Pool Ride final. He’d been only narrowly beaten by the kid in the dangerous black Lycra outfit. Even the Peanut Gallery Kids who were sitting behind them had agreed that it had been a good performance. And besides the cup, and the bunch of flowers, and the kiss from one of the pretty ladies from the promotion team, the young man had won a cash prize of five thousand dollars, tax free.

Jostling with hundreds of eager fans he and Sparks had fought their way through the throng on the stands to the railings for the prize-giving. Nelson, from his place on the podium, had noticed his father hanging over the railing. The father raised a fist in salute and the son smiled and raised a peace sign in reply. After that the young skateboarding star disappeared in a melee of admirers.

“Comrade, I’ll tell you what it is,” Sparks said. “You see how I am living now. You can imagine why.”

He indicated the cramped little hut, with its bed and kitchen corner and window desk.

Hilton nodded. He had met Sparks’s wife a few times over the years. She was an earnest woman who worked for Greenpeace, or some organisation like that, some bunch of fervent-eyed activists out to change the world. As a family they’d always had a life of their own. They had lived in a free-standing house in a provincial town, working and watching their son grow up, and sometimes Sparks had gone away for a “quiet weekend on the island”. She’d seemed content. Now, apparently, all that had come to an end.

“You should have told me before,” Hilton said. “You can always stay with me in town. You know that.” Although the truth was that his spare room was an Augean stable that he hadn’t dared to go into for months.

Sparks put his plate aside and took another swig of his whisky. “Thanks, bru. No need.”

“I think that may be the first time you’ve ever called me ‘bru’,” Hilton said.

“The thing is, I’m worried about Nelson,” Sparks said. At last it was out, the reason why he had invited Hilton out here today. “You saw how they surrounded him. Men with money schemes. Women with other schemes. I know a bit about both, I think. And he is young.”

“Well, when you want a break, send him to me,” Hilton said. “If you don’t want it, he can use the spare room. I’ll look after him.”

Why not? After all, he’d babysat the boy when he was smaller. He had been an honorary uncle, and told stories while the lad lay, fresh from his bath, ready for sleep in his bed.

“My bru, I appreciate the offer, really,” Sparks said.

“That’s the second time today,” Hilton replied.

*

They stared for some time into the flames in the grate of the little wood stove.

“Why don’t you tella story, comrade?” Sparks said at last.

“What?”

“We are sitting here by a fire, warming our toes. That’s a good time for a story.”

“All right, we’ll trade,” Hilton said.

“Fine,” Sparks said. “You start.”

“What story do you want to hear?”

“Nelson used to talk about a story that you would tell him,” Sparks replied. “It was about animals.”

“All my stories are about animals,” Hilton said.

“Well, choose,” Sparks said.

So Hilton decided to tell the tale that he’d been reminded of earlier that day. Despite the dust of the years it turned out that it was ready for use and entire, like a puppet on a craftsman’s shelf, or a mask on an actor’s wall.

The Shark and the Crocodile

The shark and crocodile sat in a café one spring day
watching the tourists float past
in a profitable sort of way.
They discussed rip-offs and tax dodges
whilst wearing their sharp-toothed grins,
and were getting on quite famously
when a hard-boiled shrimp wandered in.

“Gentlemen, I greet you, I am new to this fair town
and I’d value your good advice
for you’ve surely been around.”

Shark and Crocky exchanged smiling glances
at this perky little shrimp.
They both decided on the instant
to have fun with this little pink wimp.

“Delighted, and welcome, stranger!
may I say this as a hunch –
you must be awfully hungry
would you care to join us for lunch?”

So the three vacated the café
and walked along the quaint canals,
chatting so animatedly
as if they were lifelong pals.
They arrived early at the Ritz,
which was grand as a marble tomb.
The waiter bowed them to their table,
the best one in the room.
Shark and Crocky glanced at the menu
to see upon what they would dine.

“Hmm, seafood goes very well
with a bottle of chilled white wine …
Shrimp, the wine has made you tired,
take a quick nap on this bed …”
They covered him with sauce and green lettuce,
on a piece of fresh brown bread
and gobbled him so hastily
they slobbered in their greed.
The waiter sneered disgustedly
as he watched the cheap bastards feed.

Later, Shark and Crocky were sleeping deeply
in the middle zone of night.
They woke up gibbering in terror
when they saw a spooky light.

“I am the ghost of your conscience,”
came the voice of the eaten shrimp.
Shark and Crocky lay scared shitless,
their bodies numb and limp.

“You broke the sacred bond of trusted friendship
you cruel and wicked lads,
but I have come to warn you
of your fate which is equally bad.
You will be eaten by your own conscience,
which will uncover your evil deeds.
The judgment that will visit you
will be equal to you your greed.

“You thought I was a tasty little morsel,
a raw provincial wimp,
but this green glow you see, my friends –
is the ghost of a creature from Chernobyl,
toxic half-life blasting,
twenty-four-hour broadcasting
every single night and day,
the ghost of a radioactive shrimp!”


Sparks chuckled drily. “A ghost shrimp,” he said. “Where do you get these ideas, bru?”

“Your turn,” Hilton said. “You know the story I want to hear.”

He and Sparks had been friends for twenty-five years or more by then. And yet in all that time – a generation, in fact – Hilton had never known more about the decisive moment in his life than what everyone else knew: that at some time in the late 1970s he’d been undergoing training in East Berlin for an undercover mission with MK when he’d seized an opportunity to make a break for freedom in the West – and that, unlike so many others, he’d succeeded. Did Nelson, the future star of his sport, even know that his Dad once climbed the Berlin Wall?

Sparks, however, was ready for him. “That fish you brought in here is smelling, don’t you think?” he said. “We must get it out.”

“Now?”

Sparks nodded. Impatiently, Hilton got up to seize the malodorous package. He’d seen a stout metal rubbish bin earlier, behind the hut. The suspect parcel would be safe enough in there. Holding his nose to one side, as if it would have helped, he headed outside, determined to be back inside within a moment.

Outside, the night had turned dark and windy. The trees that lined one side of the little island were bending and flicking their branches. Beyond them the dark water of the lake, which had been so glassy earlier, was churning, little waves slapping impatiently against one another. The far shore was visible only as a low smudge on the other side of the wind-tossed lake.

He turned the corner. The warm, dry smell of firewood piled under the eaves, or perhaps the smell of creosote, suddenly reminded him of places, hardly identifiable now, that he had known many years before, as a child in Africa. What if he had never left? What if he had never come to Europe? How he would he have been faring now?

But life is short, and the roads we take remove the roads we didn’t take just as surely as if they had never existed, so there was no way to answer to these questions. And it was perhaps because he was thinking of this that he failed to notice, until the last moment, the prehistoric figure of a grey heron spreading its considerable wingspan, swaying its terrible dagger of a beak, and glaring at him with its implacable yellow eyes from the top of the dustbin while the night wind swirled behind it like a black operatic backdrop.

*

Word got around. It had been a severe attack. In the end they’d sent an ambulance helicopter to fetch him. People from his colourful past kept dropping by the ward, bringing the obligatorily awful flowers and cards.

Sparks was among the visitors. His eyes followed with some concern the complex tracery of tubes and wires that connected Hilton to an array of instruments and a collection of drips. But he had good news. Nelson would soon be flying to Bratislava, or Prague, or somewhere, for a major competition, and his father would be flying with him. So things were working out, as they should for good people.

Between visits there was time to record his impressions of “the incident on Heron Island”, as Hilton called it, in the journal that he kept on his nightstand.

He’d been thinking about that island. There had been an episode at that party long ago that he had forgotten about until now. The celebrations had gone on long into the night; the guests had slept over, all thirty of them, where they could. The next morning Hilton had been sleepily rubbing his head in the sunlight, having just woken up in the hut among a crowd of sleeping bags and sleeping bodies, when he noticed that something wasn’t quite right about the bright flag draped from the roof. Something about it seemed out of balance.

“That’s right,” Sparks said. He was sitting on a chair on the lawn, smoking a cigarette.

“Morning,” Hilton replied. “What’s right?”

“Look at the flag again, comrade,” Sparks said.

Hilton made an effort. A tricolour, blue, white and red. Clean, fresh colours. The emblem of the country that had taken them in, eccentrics of freedom each in his way, and given them a place in the world to live. A symbol of humanity.

“Someone told me last night,’ said Sparks. ‘Don’t you see? It’s upside-down.”

 

___________________________________________________________


The lines from Kane West’s “Touch the Sky” are gratefully acknowledged. I have used the late Nicholas Leslie’s tale “The Shark and the Crocodile”, with some improvisation at the end. The story is noted on in his Labyrinth of Dreams 1977–2009, Volume 26, “The Book of Compassion Continues …”, entry dated Monday 23 February 1987. The journals are in my private possession.

This is the last in the sequence of twelve Hilton Ellis stories that I originally suggested to Imke van Heerden back in 2009. I’d like to express my gratitude to her for believing in the project. Bibi Slippers took it over at a later stage, and my thanks go to her too. My sincere thanks, too, to Ruth Ward and Eddie Woods. The Hilton Ellis stories will appear with the title story (not included in this sequence) in book form, and in chronological order, in due course.