So many festivals, so many events, so many fascinating poets and writers. I wish I could clone myself – and not catch colds – and go to more. I missed Attila the Stockbroker at Worcester’s Marr’s Bars this week due to coldy wussiness. The splendid Spoz was on as well: here’s a clip from his act on the night.
Changing the subject – but a Mars Bar features (tenuous link of the year) – here’s a short (1100 words) story from 2004. It was picked up by Helen Cross (My Summer of Love) and Sibyl Ruth for Short Cuts at Birmingham’s MAC. It was one of those stories where, as writer, I felt I was not responsible – it came from somewere else. I love that feeling.
I am standing on the edge of paradise.
A buttressed tree bole towers above me, cascading with vines; cool shadows as we wait. Behind us the jungle quivers with unseen life. Giant strangler fig trees, lianas; lush undergrowth in more shades of green than I could ever have imagined. Birds sing and call but nothing moves, except the flies which swarm in maddening buzzing masses. They like the salt in my sweat and there is plenty of that.
From beyond a damp curtain of vines the heat leaps up, pounding my face, reflected from the dark rocks in front. Perhaps they are even adding to the heat: this is a lava flow. The sinuous, rippling, polished obsidian curves shimmer like black glass in the fierce sun. In the distance, almost half a kilometre away across the inferno I can see more green, indistinct with heat haze.
That is where we want to be.
First we have to cross the baking volcanic no man’s land before us.
My guide says that three months ago Nyiragongo started throbbing and rumbling. New fissures ripped the flanks of the ancient crater and lava swept inexorably down and across the valley. Before that, there was only a dusty cinder road to cross. Now we have half a kilometre of hell, so we will wait for darkness. We sit against our packs, sip water cautiously, and Lucky keeps watch while I scribble in my notebook.
As the sun sinks I dig deep in my pack and find a Mars Bar. It has melted and been squashed for days. The chocolate is grey-powdered and greasy from the heat. We share it and Lucky is delighted with the exotic treat: he has never had a Mars Bar before. My mother always carried chocolate on her expeditions.
“We have company,” Lucky murmurs, licking the wrapper.
I feel the skin on my neck prickle. The jungle sounds are changing but I had thought it was just the usual transition to the night shift of unseen wildlife. Even the tiniest frogs here make more noise than a banshee.
“What do you mean?” I whisper. Already the light has almost gone; darkness falls quickly near the equator.
“Our side.” He seems confident, carefully stashes the Mars wrapper in his ragged shirt, cups his hands to his mouth and makes a noise like one of the sleepy night birds. The call is returned. My heart is pounding. Our side: what he means, of course, is his side. I am merely the observer, the recorder; not taking sides, not getting involved.
I strain my ears for movement, but all I can hear is my own heartbeat, and leaves rustling in the breeze. Then, only a few metres away in the dark undergrowth, the unmistakable clink as a gun is cocked. The hair on the back of my neck is on end, my mouth is dry; I am frozen to the spot.
Lucky says something quietly, calmly and a voice replies, also in the local dialect. There is a brief whispered exchange and I know I am being discussed: I catch the mention of Mzungu (Caucasian) several times. Apparently the gunmen are wondering what I’m doing here. I’m wondering the same thing.
Lucky leans closer to me, “I tell them you are here to see them win our freedom,” he breathes, “I say you have come to show your people the evil that has happened here and they will help us make a new government.”
Yeah, like one junior war correspondent will capture the attention of America. I was hoping to get a few column inches buried somewhere near the editorial, but now it matters: Lucky thinks I can change the world.
Darker shadows have crept from the undergrowth, only seen when they move by the glint of starlight on their guns, eyes or teeth. At least a dozen boys crowd around us; they want to touch my hair, feel my shirt – to see how different I am, or as a good luck talisman? The smallest youth would only come up to my chest and I’m not tall.
“How old is he?” I ask Lucky.
“Douze ans,” twelve years, comes back the reply.
Lucky is one of the oldest – fifteen; proud in his responsibility for me but unarmed: therefore a civilian.
There is scuffling and excitement; something is handed around the group. Tiny white pills. I shake my head but Lucky accepts eagerly. “Help me run very fast.” He grins. Amphetamine? Cocaine? Some weird cocktail? I’m glad I’ve declined the offer. The night is unreal enough without any help from drugs.
More bird calls, not so sleepy now, and we’re off, crouching low and scuttling across the open spaces between mounds of basalt. The rocks are hot; in places the lava has cracked and an eerie red glow seeps out. In the distance Nyiragongo’s peak pulses against the night sky.
The lava is treacherous, crunching underfoot, slipping and crumbling. I stumble into an outcrop and find my knee bleeding; the rock cuts like jagged razor blades. I am panting but Lucky is close by, excited – elated even; full of drug-induced vitality.
We are almost there when shots ring out to our right and lights flare. A ridge of basalt offers shelter and we slither towards it, bent double. Then, terrifyingly loud, automatic fire comes directly at us and a spotlight blinds me. Something tugs me and I realise, hurling myself face down, that a bullet hit my backpack. Lucky, a few paces ahead, also flings himself down but he falters in mid-air and tumbles. He lands a couple of metres away and I hear him whimper and scrabble towards me. “I’m okay,” I reassure him. “Are you hurt?” More shots and I shrug my pack from my shoulders: it makes me an obvious target. I wriggle towards Lucky, shards of lava lacerating my bare limbs. I reach out to touch his hand; he grabs my fingers, clinging in terror but I daren’t move closer: the spotlight and the shooting is concentrating on our area and we are still exposed.
“Lucky?” I whisper, in a lull in the gunfire. No answer. His grip is weaker. I flex my hand, and his fingers fall away from mine.
In the sudden silence, something flutters across my face. I brush it impatiently aside but it isn’t a leaf: the cellophane has the distantly remembered scent of chocolate, overlaid by sweat and the sweet, metallic tang of fresh blood.
The breeze catches the Mars Bar wrapper again and carries it away, into the darkness.