Goat Fever



With the hut door shut, we were spared the flies, but you could see them outside, bumping irritably against the smeared glass of the one tiny window. It was only ten o’clock and in that heat, the air seemed used up, incapable of supporting life.

I got up off the bed, stepping over Evans’ legs where he sat against the wall, head lolling and the FN cradled across his lap. The window resisted at first; it took some time to secure just an inch or so of ventilation. Detective Jamba watched me, muddy eyes crinkled at the corners. Thinking I’m soft, the bastard. Fine for you, brought up under these conditions. Let’s see whose upbringing tells when it hits the fan. If the bugger ever shows at all.

Soft thump, thump, thump on the mud floor. Ricky’s hind leg going again with a faint tinkle of choke chain as he pursued something through his thick ruff. Then that maddening licking again as he performed his toilet. His ears dropped at my tongue click and he subsided onto his paws again, a long, resigned sigh stirring a tiny puff of dust on the floor. Fine for you too, you stupid sod. You’re the one got to relieve yourself last night. Right in the presence of your betters. I suppose it’s eau de cologne to you.

I creaked back onto the bed again, gingerly settling into my own cool patch of sweat. Soon have to relinquish the comfort of this collapsing wire and wood contraption to one of the others.

That had been a really hairy trip. “ We’ve got this old van, painted up for you/ Looks like a Post Office truck. Only one headlight, usual roughed up bundu-basher you see in the area,” In Lupane? A post Office truck? Hell, 99% of the population can’t even write their names out there.

The Special Branch superintendent wasn’t known for democratic debates on his action plans, and standing there, smelling of shaving lotion and exuding a vague malt vapour from the depths of his sheepskin jacket, he, at least, was convinced this would be a good one.

I just grunted and climbed up into the dusty back with the two Africans. Ricky scrabbled his way up and stood there, brush waving happily. How that dog loved to ride in trucks . Big hit with the African police, laughing delightedly as he anticipated the twists and turns in the road, leaning this way and that like a skier. Fell over every now and then when he misjudged and that would bring the house down. A little less levity when anyone got familiar or stood on his paw and got shown the ivory.

Apart from having only one headlight, the truck only had one rear window. Very authentic, very rural. I abandoned the Uzi to the floor and put my boot on it, to hunch into my camouflage smock, hands anywhere there seemed to be warmth. Jamba and

Kenneth retreated into their greatcoats and said little. Even at a sedate fifty, the night wind out of the mopani forest was raw and uncompromising. Evans peered back through the cracked cab window into our echoing, icy prison. He smirked and I could imagine him saying, ‘Rank has it’s privileges, mate,’ in that lilting Welsh accent. I gave him a rude sign in a brief display of spirit, then went back to my misery. Lupane was never going to happen and I was frozen to the bone.

But it did, and we swung off the tar onto a dirt road and dropped our speed to a crawl. The wind of the main road disappeared and was replaced by dust. Dust in great choking clouds of dry Africa, sucked in through the missing window. I pulled my fly-veil over my mouth and my smock over my head, but I knew I was going to die. The Africans were immobile, but enveloped by a thin blanket I hadn’t seen them bring aboard. Wily sods. They must have found out from Evans where we were going. Why did they never tell me anything ? Even Ricky was snorting, bounced up and down as we all were over that hellish track, swinging his great, wolfish head in explosive sneezes.

And then, suddenly, it all stopped. The van just rolled to a squeaking halt, the dust falling away slowly and all of us sitting waiting, in a world turned silent except for the tick of cooling metal and the sound of the handbrake being slowly applied. Africa waited outside.

Evans slithered out of the cab and came round to the back.

“OK this is it. Don’t slam the door. Come on, we’re late.” He was hushed and urgent.

There was a dim figure standing beside the road some fifty yards ahead. Kenneth slouched off towards it. The darkness was coming back to life, the intrusion of the vehicle forgotten. Bush-babies were moving again in the Mopani canopy overhead, a petulant cry or two very close. I could imagine them, clinging, wide-eyed to their perches, staring down at the approaching avalanche of sound and light. Now, with their world returned to darkness, they were re-assured and life went on. Nightjars were shrilling, almost underfoot.

Kenneth was back, murmuring to Evans, the other African in tow.

“Sah… he don’t know if this man will come. It can be he not coming.” Kenneth’s voice was flat and unemotional, but the gaze he levelled at the other black man unsettled the latter. He fidgeted and started to explore his nostrils.

A moment’s silence, then Evans’ quiet snarl. As he slung the FN and hunted through his duffle coat pockets, producing a slightly bent photograph and a pencil torch.

“Is that so? Well Kenneth, you can tell Judas here that it can be that this photograph can fall into the wrong hands if it can be this man not coming!”

The pencil torch was on the photograph so that I could see it too. In the suffused glow, I could also see the stranger’s palm to his cheek, African fashion, as he shook his head slowly in dismay.

“Ah, ah,ah,ah, Maiwe!” Black Rhodesia’s reaction to all matters of fate.

Without another word, the man turned and padded off into the darkness. I could see that his feet were bare and that he wore only a thin shirt against the biting cold; if he was shivering, it wasn’t from the elements. Although for the life of me, I couldn’t see why a studio shot of the same man accepting a handful of five pound notes from a uniformed police inspector should be that sobering. Much later, I learned that the camera had been behind one way glass and that the smiling faces had been turned towards the mirror to see how happy Silas Ngenge had been at receiving his reward for some very interesting information.

At least the walking dispelled some of the cold. Ricky pottered about in the leaves along the path. Off the lead and running free, I knew he’d have an ear cocked for a word from me, if need be, but until we got to where we were going, I wasn’t taking my hands out of my pockets.

The ragged single file wound on through the night. Looking in any direction other than at the faint path at one’s feet was pointless. The drought had done for just about everything but the Mopani, and even with those roots, there had to be a limit. There just wasn’t anything left of the scanty rains of yesteryear. And yet, people existed out here. They grubbed for sustenance, eked out with help from extended family in the cities, shepherded the ubiquitous goats that further ravaged the landscape, and even kept a scrawny head of cattle or two. They dug for water, deepening the wells year after year, and hauling the precious liquid miles to sustain life.

And somewhere out there in the trackless, dry bush, was Lipson Ncube, last survivor of Operation Mansion, alone, determined and very nervous. What the hell was he doing for water, I wondered. Someone was feeding him and quenching his thirst at night, that much was obvious. But what about the long days of incredible, parching heat, and the loneliness? Panting shallowly like an animal in some sparse shade, afraid to go to the wells and always waiting for something to happen. Each night, a journey into fear, as he prowled the silent, sleeping villages, avoiding the yapping curs, until hunger forced him to rap on another rickety tin door and make whispered threats.

And Silas Ngenge had fed him. Fed him the coarse ground yellow sadza, with thin relish pooling at the tilted edge of a chipped enamel plate - and watched him eat. Feverishly and fast, starving both for food and the sound of another human voice. The Kalashnikov on the table, black eye of the muzzle watching the door, inches from his delving maize- mealed fingers. And when he had eaten and belched and hunted the last soggy grains with his broken nails, he’d rolled a solitary cigarette. A pinch of the green mbanje in the

yellow brown tobacco. Rolled in yellowing newspaper and lit from the wavering flame of the paraffin lamp made from a Brasso tin. And he had talked, Silas listening. Of the fight and the prize. Of the planes and the rockets and the soldiers. And if the mbanje had taken him by then, he would tell of his own part. The others fallen, he alone had defied the soldiers. Until that night, when the first crawling soldier had slithered into his still-warm lair between the rocks to find him gone.

Leading the way, Silas sighed again. The white man was devious. Like all Africans, he had profound respect for the camera as a witness. Before enrolling for the land-husbandry lectures at St Faith’s Mission, he’d lived in Bulawayo. Worked in a factory, overalled and steel helmeted. Taken the wages and entertained the whores, roared at the soccer matches and drunk the weak municipal beer. And sharing a squalid room with two other men from the Tribal Trust Lands, he’d written home. Of great things done and seen. And sent the photograph taken at the Bigboy Photographic Studio at Mzilikazi. It showed him proud and erect beside the loaned and brand-new Phillips Roadster with the monstrous balloon tyres, a potted plant behind him and a generous tuck of material pegged back behind him to stretch the borrowed suit tight across his spare frame.

It had all been believed and the clear black and white shot in Evans’ pocket would seem just as real. Aaah, but that had been a number one bicycle. The photographer had been quick to relieve him of it when the session ended. He sighed audibly, and Kenneth, shadowing him in the soft, powdery sand, grinned one of his rare grins.

We were into the village before one could register the change in the shadows. Suddenly, the pointed tops of huts were faintly outlined against the few stars and there were the restless sounds of penned goats before the ammoniac stink of their midden. No doubt, Ricky had been slinking along, drawing in great draughts of that enticing scent for the last quarter mile or so, wondering why I wasn’t getting excited too. Goats were second on his list of favourite things. By a narrow margin.

There was the chink of a key and Silas let us into the low hut that was to be both our refuge and our prison for the next day and night. I still remember the acrid, cold black smell of the sooty thatch and my slow finger-tip exploration of the tiny room. Walking into Jamba, already sitting on the floor, African, philosophical, patient, black as the room.

Evans was groping for my arm and whispering in my ear.

“Kenneth’s gone off with him. Reckons he doesn’t trust the little shit. All we can do is sit tight and hope they find him. Apparently he hangs out to the west of the village until after midnight and you just go out and whistle him up.

I sat and tried to imagine Kenneth following the informer out into the bush. I knew he wasn’t armed. The terrorist certainly was. We might not even hear a shot. There was the long, triangular bayonet folded down under the barrel of the Kalashnikov.

Evans at my ear again.

“Our man says this guy’s quite a little addict, too. Smokes up a storm when he can. It can either make him easy or very difficult. You remember what Butch said. He’s not fussy about whether we bring him back in cuffs or in a bag. Reckon the dog will get him?”

I knew he was just making whispered conversation. I also knew that no matter what a botch the rest of us made of it, the dog snoring somewhere in the dark would do his bit. He was eight years old, teeth wearing a bit, sometimes a little stiff in the mornings, but I couldn’t remember him ever letting me down. I stretched out, feeling for him and found a paw. Which was snatched away with a surprised jerk and replaced with a cold nose. Just a sniff and then I could hear him splaying himself out again, smacking his lips.

And so we dozed and took turns to stay awake until the morning. It came in a pink square that grew on the wall of the hut, turned orange and then white. There were sounds outside, a woman singing, a child piping shrilly, struggling with the crude gate on the goat kraal. A clatter of hooves as the animals spilled out and one could almost see them, standing there, waiting for the leader to make his stately way out, those strange yellow eyes with the vertical pupils. Satanic in the first light. Worse at night by firelight, when they stand around your camp, staring at you. Just an occasional foot-stamp of alarm and that strange, flatulent sound they utter.

The heat crept into the hut. Welcome at first and then unbearable until we were stripping off the clothes of the night before, keeping our boots on and weapons near at hand. Personally, I couldn’t have cared less if the villagers knew we were there. I doubted that they would have betrayed us. But Evans was The Inspector and I was The Section Officer and so we sat and suffered and hated what we were doing. Only Jama seemed unmoved, his balding head back against the mud wall and his big pink-palmed hands folded in his lap. Occasionally his eyes would open at some sound outside but basically, he just sat. And waited.

We shared a small tin of bully beef that Evans conjured out of the duffle coat. The tepid liquid in my water bottle couldn’t get rid of the clinging traces of lard in the mouth. Ricky didn’t get any bully, but I held up his head and sloshed some water down his throat. It had him gagging and coughing, so I left him to endure his thirst with the rest of us. Tongue lolling and dripping, eyes closed, he lay there panting and waited for sundown.

It’s hard to say whether any of us spared much thought for Kenneth. If he was still alive, he was out there in the fresh air, such as it was. Squatting under some sun-blasted,

scrubby bush, patiently talking to the quarry. Maybe wondering when Silas was going to say something. I found myself wondering what Lipson looked like. I expected him to be young. They usually were, with the hunted expression and restlessness of the hands. Either belligerent or subdued. Depending on how much chance they had. I would have said this one had plenty. He was hardly surrounded and the main road to the Falls was an easy day’s walk. Probably he thought it was patrolled. Anyway, it was to our advantage that he couldn’t bring himself to leave the area.

Somehow the day ended. The light died until we were once again in blackness, only slightly less daunting for its familiarity. Back to sharing the bed and the watches, time trudging by imperceptably. At eleven, I realised we’d been there for twenty-four hours without much water and very little food, but I wasn’t hungry. God, don’t these buggers ever give up? What a bloody existence. This is one terrorist who’s not coming in from the cold. He’s in the next province by now and Kenneth is due for a nice State funeral. When we find him. If we find him. I’ll be looking forward to finding friend Silas though.

I was struggling back from sleep. Someone was shaking me, cautiously, hoping Ricky couldn’t see it in the dark. Jamba breathing in my face.

“Aishe, he is here. Aishe Evans say, going, one , two, three. Me, I stay here.”

“Good for you, mate,” I muttered “Don’t get yourself stitched by a Kalashnikov for anyone. Least of all when you can’t shoot back.”

Evans, crouched in the half-open door-way. Touch him on the shoulder and we stand together. His breath now in my face, whispering, ” OK, here we go. He’s in that big hut over there. Stoned and very jumpy. Silas has gone for food. Left him with Kenneth, trying on clothes. Told him they were going to smuggle him out. Ready?”

Nodding. Clicking my tongue and feeling the warmth of the dog against my left knee, holding him there until I release him with another sound that only he will hear. The Uzi across my chest at the port, stepping out from under the eaves of the hut and stopping short. The stars are much brighter tonight, the sandy expanse of the hard-packed compound almost white.

And every ruddy goat in Rhodesia is assembled there, in a big, silent, staring herd. Just beyond them, the other hut, where a faint, yellow lamp-gleam shows at the window, where Kenneth is playing for time, being a helpful, solicitous friend.

Evans striding on silently, not looking back, unaware. Another click, and we set off in his wake. I can feel the tension in the dog. The goats are motionless. The closest is a kid, bowing its embryonic horns at the dog and backing off just enough to let us pass. A huge hammering weight in my chest, but my eyes on the side of the hut from which

Lipson must come if he hears us. Kenneth, I love you. Please don’t let me down. Just keep going with the charade. Be my friend too.

The goats snorting and backing, then closing in behind as we pass. Spare a glance down at the dog’s head. He is machine-like. In a trance. This is not happening to him. To both of us. And I think we’re going to make it. A nasty moment when some goat, high on bravado, nuzzles his passing brush. Just an intake of breath and nothing else. And the pressure in my chest worsens. Through my fear, a love of this dog at my knee, massive love, choking me. Giving me the stiffening I need.

Through the herd of silent watchers now, and beside the hut, standing almost without breathing, the three of us motionless, our three faint shadows stretching away to the right. The murmur of a voice inside, even a low laugh. I hope it’s Kenneth. I don’t want to kill a man who’s laughing. Evans with the FN at hip height. He’s looking at me, counting with big dramatic nods of his head. I swing silently wide of him to give him cover and to get out of his line of fire. Ricky wheeling his hindquarters round and facing the door, ears pricked. A machine.

I want Evans to wait a moment. I don’t know why. Just a quick check on angles and so futile really. But the Welshman is lifting a boot and I’m fascinated to see how the door buckles on impact, wire hinges rip out of the wattle and daub frame and suddenly there’s light. Feeble and orange, from a tiny struggling flame atop some sort of tin. There’s a small table and bed. Nothing else. Two dark silhouettes and the one holding up the trousers for inspection is frozen at the theatrically loud roar.

“LIPSON SURRENDER!!” Hell, I thought they only said ’surrender’ in books and movies.

There’s a momentary glimpse of a young face, a bushy beard, hair in Mau Mau twists and then he throws the trousers. At Evans - over him. And then the two figures are moving. Fast, as only very frightened men can move. Out of the tiny hut in an explosion of limbs and slapping feet, and the huge flat bang of the FN yellows the thatch, eclipsing the lamp’s feeble efforts.

One racing figure left and the other right. Out towards the open bush. It has to be Lipson. I’ve swung the Uzi to cover him, but I can’t even see the muzzle, let alone the sights. The pressure is gone from my knee and I see him streaking across the compound, low and beautiful. Lipson’s start eaten up in about twenty panting yards. I’m screaming in a high pitched voice as I follow, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, you’ll hit the dog!”

Evans is behind me, shouting something crazy, over and over, and the next bang from the FN, almost in my ear, makes me duck and cringe, everything singing and blurred.


Lipson is caught in mid-stride, doing well, about to take the three taut strands of Silas Mgenge’s half- finished fence, when a steel trap shuts on his calf followed by an incredible weight that he doesn’t feel. Because the back of his head is missing and he no longer cares about the struggle for freedom from oppression. He has freedom. There in the dust, with the broken strands of barbed wire slowly inching their way back into coils and this great shaggy animal sniffing at him curiously.

I ran up, the Uzi one-handed at the high port as the dust cloud settled. Evans coming in from the other side. Ricky standing over the body, non-plussed, but watching Evans, head below his shoulders, and glaring up from under his brows. I called him off, and we all stood. Looking down at Lipson. Wearing Silas Mgenge’s agricultural college blazer. And there didn’t seem to be anything else to do.

Sitting on a pile of firewood with Evans, watching the villagers staring at Lipson. Ricky free again and snuffling round the fence posts and trees. Without conscience. While Evans, hard man though he was, sat silent and withdrawn. Saying nothing of his wild, chance shot in the dark at a fleeting shadow. Watching the simple people, unmoved by death or the reasons for it. Shivering in the night chill. Just curious and amazed.

“Ah, ah, ah, ah, maiwe,” Africa’s reaction to all matters of fate.

Ricky was part of another life. But I remember him so well. God, how that dog loved to chase goats.

Pinelands Writers’ Circle

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