*Authors note: Before you continue, I would like to thank all of you who have followed the adventures of Lockhart and Doppler so far. Apologies for the huge gap in posting, I have been entering various writers competitions and attempting to write a book. This story was not long-listed in one of those comps, so I present to you my first submission failure...
The Tinkling of the Camels Bells
An almighty explosion caused masonry, men and even camels to go soaring through the air like they were never meant to. Rifles, pistols and thrown rocks pinged and whizzed overhead. A wild eyed chappie with his kaffiya flying from his head like unravelling bandages, raced towards me, blade raised high, screaming, “Aieee!” Before he could lower it, I had planted my boot firmly in his groin. He folded like an Egyptian cotton table cloth. I gave him another kick in the side of his head, just to make sure and yanked the curved blade from his grasp. It was on occasions like these that I was glad I did not routinely wear corsets – so restrictive.
Rising from my crouched position I found another bearing down on me. He was intercepted by the fist of a much larger fellow, also in Arab garb, with fierce whiskers protruding from once white facial wrappings. I found myself charging for cover alongside this person. A quick glance down and I saw English riding boots flashing beneath the dishevelled robe. I myself favour Italian leather, more comfortable, softer leather you see. I have a delightful chap in Soho Square, London who makes most of my footwear, has an eye for the shape of a woman’s calf. For an extra coin or two, he will make modifications to order, simple things like a sheath for throwing knives or a compartment for darts, you know, the sort of thing a gal might need when working.
The pair of us charged towards the doorway of a partially destroyed temple, bounding over the massive doors that lay crumbling in the dirt. I knew there was a crypt beneath, should I require somewhere to hide – I had been in the process of, ahem, cataloguing the various burial items this very morning, but then some bloody, local conflict had erupted. We were thrown through the entrance by a second explosion, falling masonry shattered the floor and I found myself tumbling into darkness. Flailing, my fingers found cloth, I kept hold, it was all I had. I fell screaming into darkness, the figure with me made no sound, I presumed he had croaked, until we stopped.He went, “Oof!” as I landed on top of him. A moments silence as we lay face to face, our panting breaths mingling. I tried to lever myself upright, but my head hit something a mere foot above me. A stone slab must have fallen to cover the cavity I found myself in with this other individual.
“I wonder,” came his dust laden whisper “Ahem, I wonder if you could reach beneath my galibaya, I seem to remember I have some Lucifer’s in my pocket.”
He was English, educated, his voice quite deep and dare I say, commanding. I fumbled about with my right hand amidst the layers of robe till I found a deep pocket. I also found more than a box of matches. Did I detect an appreciative sigh? In the coffin like confines we found ourselves, I wriggled my arm to a position from which I could strike the long stick against the wall. As the light blossomed I found myself looking into a face I recognised. Dark, fierce eyes and marvellous moustache of the chap who had felled one of my attackers.
“Hello Dick.” I smiled.
“Hello.” He replied, “And you are?”
“You seem to know me, but I’m afraid I have not had the pleasure.” He said this last word in a vaguely suggestive manner.
“You’re Captain Burton; explorer, soldier, translator and member of The RoyalGeographical Society.”
Everyone had heard of Captain Richard Francis Burton in the Royal Geographic Society, and even the odd few outside of it. The man had a giant reputation that many were in awe of, in fear of or simply jealous. Being female, I of course could not be a member of the Society, but, I did do work for them on occasion. Sometimes my work was unofficial. You know, they had once tried to expel me for some minor infringement of rules; something to do with not declaring all my finds or what-not.
Anyhow, I told them they couldn’t, because I’m not a member. They whined that it ‘just wasn’t cricket’ and ‘ungentlemanly’, whereupon I began unbuttoning my blouse explaining that I wasn’t a gentleman and never would be. Caused uproar as you can imagine. Banned me from their rooms and study halls. I still have my contacts though.
“You have done your research. I’m impressed. Tell me Lucy Lockhart, what brings you to the Dark Continent? Explorer?”
“Sort of, yes.”
I wriggled to test the extent of our confines. Just before the match went out, I saw him smirking with amusement, or pleasure. It was hard to tell.
“I believe there is an opening beyond your feet.” He whispered close to my ear. He smelt like cloves and tobacco. “But I believe I have dislocated my shoulder, might take me a little longer.”
I began making my way towards the small opening. I had to squeeze down the length of Burtons body, he didn’t complain, until I felt lose stones and a gap that I shoved myself through backwards. Eventually, both Burton and I were able to turnabout into crouched positions. I rooted about in my grubby satchel and found my portable light. About nine inches in diameter and seven long, the glass bulb was encased in protective brass fitting. An attachment at the top allowed it to be hung on my belt, a winding mechanism poked out from the base. It had been exposed to enough sunlight over the past few days, so should have stored up enough power. I turned the small handle on the side and a tiny orange glow flourished. I turned faster and faster until we had a light bright enough to see some twenty or so feet away.
“There’s a crypt beneath this temple, should be easy to find.” I told him.
“Been here before have we?” He asked, one eyebrow raised. I saw that his left arm hung limply at his side.
“Research.” I said briefly. “I think we need to get your shoulder fixed before we go any further, you’re not going to be able to crawl using one hand.”
“Been in a worse state.” He said matter of factly.
I got him to sit with his back against the tunnel wall and planted my right boot against his chest and took hold of his arm in both hands.
“This might sting a bit.”
I pulled. Something went pop. Apart from a grimace flickering briefly across his face, he didn’t make a sound in response to the pain he must surely have felt. I was more than impressed. I retrieved a small flask from my bag and offered it to him. He sniffed at the open top,
“Brandy.” He said agreeably. Then took a swig. He proffered the flask to me. I took a deep slug before screwing back the lid.
“You’re a woman of talents Miss Lockhart. Or is it missus?”
“Lockhart will do. Shall we go?” I indicated the crawl ahead.
“Perhaps you should go first this time. I mean, wouldn’t want you to feel emasculated, woman leading the way and all that.”
“Not at all, not at all. Though I admit that I like to lead from the front, I am certainly not averse to bringing up the rear.”
I began to crawl off down the tunnel, the orange light swinging back and forth at my waist and occasionally scraping against the floor as the surface undulated and the skirts of my duster trailing. I could hear Captain Burton moving behind. He was silent as we went. We must have wended our way for about half an hour. We had bypassed some side tunnels and made several oblique turns. My knees were sore, my neck ached and I had not the slightest clue where we were.
“Should have come out into the crypt proper by now.” I exclaimed stopping mid crawl.Burton sat back against the wall. I joined him.
“Didn’t make a map last time eh?” he asked. The slightest smirk detectable just beneath the bushy moustache.
Even when he was being jovial he looked kind of angry. His hirsute brows pulled low over his eyes made him look like a hawk, a predator. I never saw eyes like them – steel, they cut through you. I looked away, rubbing my hands together to wipe off the dirt.
“I wish I had some of Doppler’s bioluminescent gel on me. Feels like we’re going in circles.”
“Bioluminescent?” he queried.
“Yes, it was something my partner made (actually, this is a lie, she stole it from a young pharmacist when he invited her to his rooms). You can dab it or draw on surfaces with it. Use it as a directional indicator. It glows in the dark, like fire flies or phosphorescence on the sea, you know what I mean?”
“I do indeed. And who is this Doppler person, your husband?” I laughed out loud, “No, she, is not my husband. She’s my partner.”
“Ah, I see.” He nodded knowingly.
“Actually,” I began, feeling a little like I was in some sort of competition, “She is my partner in work, only.”
“No, no,” he held up his hands, “You don’t need to explain to me, I know all about l'amour qui n'ose pas dire son nom.”
“God Almighty man! She’s my daughter! And you sir, are obsessed!”
A stunned silence, well, on my part anyway. I had never revealed to anyone that Theodora Doppler is in fact my daughter. Travel companion, fellow treasure hunter, niece even, but never daughter. Theodora, or Doppler as she is referred to in company, is sixteen years old. Dark haired, pretty, slender, good company and intelligent. I have tried to give her a varied and well-rounded education. But most of all, she is a prodigy when it comes to the sciences. Made her first sleeping drought aged ten. Understands about voltaic piles and all that. And she accompanies me on many of my, let’s call them fact-finding missions. Burton looked at me with his fiery gaze. It made me a little uncomfortable, the intensity of it, like he was reading my thoughts. Then he reached over and took my reluctant hand in his.
“My own beloved mother was descended from the illegitimate son of King Louis the fourteenth. Or so it is said in the family. I do not know if it is true and what is more, I do not care. I will not let myself be subjugated by another’s appetites. Do you not think half of England is born out of wedlock? Perhaps more. If only we did not care so much about what society thought, our lives would trundle along the merrier. I may have only just met you Ms. Lockhart, but I do believe we are cut from a similar cloth.
We crave the excitement of ‘the other’, we must travel and we must escape the confines of a society that must always present itself as correct. Beneath the cool banality lies hypocrisy fed by desires. I see it wherever I travel. Except, not in those societies that our English cousins would call primitive. They may be naked ma’am, but at least they do not clothe themselves in false morals.”I had found his deep voice quite relaxing, absorbing even. Here was a man who did not judge women for their actions which, if on a par with men would be considered indecent and immoral. A modern man, an enlightened man, a…
“So, how about it?” He ended suggestively.
“I think we should continue” I interrupted, pulling my hand free and escaping those blazing eyes.
We did not have much farther to go before we squeezed through some tumble of rock into a small square chamber. Shining the light around revealed it to have been some sort of store room. Rotten baskets with mouldy grain spilling forth dotted the corners. Decaying parcels revealed themselves to be large leaves tied with twine, inside were indeterminate things, dried fish or strips of meat possibly. I turned around to face the now upright Captain, he was stunningly tall.
“Gosh, you are big.” I remarked.
“You’ve no idea.” He grinned wolfishly. “Must have been one of the Somali food stores.” Burton continued indicating the old supplies.
“It’s rather lofty” I commented, shining my lamp upwards. Looked like twenty feet at least.
“They lowered their packages on ropes, one man would climb down, see there,” he pointed at shallow recesses in one wall, “He would untie the food parcels, pile it up then climb out.”
“Seems like a lot of trouble, why not build a store house?”
“Look around Ms Lockhart, what don’t you see?”
I scanned the floor space. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for at first, then I saw.
“Bones, there’s no bones.”
“Precisely. What do farmers struggle with apart from weather and invading tribes? Animals that would eat their crops. And there have been plenty of times when there have been droughts or food shortages to warrant building a fortress for food. Rats, hyenas, fox, even leopards would have ransacked storehouses if built up top. The locals found a way to prevent that, dig down and dig deep. Brilliant what the human mind can come up with in times of necessity.”
“Speaking of food, do you have anything on you? I think this is a good place to stop and take a break.”
I opened my satchel bringing out the flask of brandy. Plus some dried fruit and a bar of chocolate. Burton threw the ends of his galibaya up and across both shoulders. Beneath, he was wearing standard travelling clothes of a westerner; boots, light pants and a once white, collarless shirt. He pulled out the box of matches I had returned to him, a squashed packet of cigarettes and a large handful of what looked like small, yellowish rocks.
“What is that?” I asked, poking at them with the end of my gloved finger.
“Smell it.” He raised his palm to my face.
“Looks like we have ourselves a veritable feast Ms Lockhart.”
I frowned at him. Burton took off his robe and spread it across the floor and sat down cross legged. Then as if laying a table, he placed his only possessions in a neat row.
“Will you join me?” he held out a hand in invitation.
I sat, then I too placed my edibles on the makeshift picnic blanket. I pointed at the frankincense and cigarettes,
“They aren’t foodstuffs.”
“Not quite, but the next best thing.”
“How? Cigarettes and incense?”
“Do you smoke Ms Lockhart?”
“I do. And could you please just call me Lockhart, Ms just makes me sound formal, stuffy. Like a school mistress.”
“Very well, Lockhart. You will know that smoking reduces the appetite, you must have been hungry at times and you have reached for a cigarette, have you not?”
This was true. There had been many occasions when I had staved off hunger with a Gauloises or a roll-your-own.
“Ok, I’ll give you that. But what about the frankincense?”
“Frankincense is edible indeed. It has been used for thousands of years throughout Africa. As medicine, a spiritual purifier, as a calming agent, mostly burnt on charcoal but is even chewed and eaten. It can take a little getting used to, its flavour is somewhat unique and it warms in the mouth. It also gives a mild feeling of euphoria if enough is consumed. The farmers hereabouts chew it the same way the American
Indians chew spruce sap in gum form.”
I picked up a small fragment and rolled it around between finger and thumb. The smell increased as it warmed up. Then I popped it into my mouth and chewed.
“Same cloth.” He smiled, picking up a couple of pieces and beginning to chew.
The flavour was exactly as it smelt, it reminded me of when I was small. My uncle had built me a tree house, but he had not allowed the wood to cure and every spring, resin would seep out, golden red and sticky. I would pick it off with my nails and roll it between my fingers, sniffing at it. I had even tried tasting it once, but I was scared I would be poisoned so spat it out. It was actually quite disgusting. The frankincense was not unpleasant, quite strong with a background hint of bitterness. Kind of brittle to start with, gradually becoming a chewy wad that got tougher. By the time I had swallowed it, Burton had consumed another three or four pieces. We continued eating resin and sipping brandy, foregoing the fruit and chocolate. The warmth that had started in my mouth was beginning to spread to my head and down my limbs. I began to relax in this slightly intimidating man’s company. We lay on our sides, propped up on our elbows against old woven baskets and I found myself talking to him freely. Captain Burton was not only well travelled, but incredibly intelligent and well informed on practically everything we touched on.
“So when you say treasure hunter, you mean thief?” he accused, though not without a twinkle in his eye.
“I’m not a thief! Well, not in the usual way.”
“And what would the usual way be Lockhart?”
“Well, shop lifting, pick pocketing, stealing from homes, you know, a common thief.”
“Ah, so you are an uncommon thief? You only take from the dead? Those that cannot fight back, protest or prevent.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Now you sound like a child. Be honest with yourself if not me. I do not care either way. I have no respect for religions, they all seem to me to be about man’s praise for himself rather than a higher being.”
“You’re very hard on mankind aren’t you?”
“Not mankind. Falsity, that’s what upsets me. Lucy, I have travelled in the guise of an Afghan doctor, a tribesman of Saudi and as a pilgrim, but I would never presume to imitate another man’s culture or religion only to ridicule it as soon as my feet touched England’s shores, as so many do. That is ungentlemanly and not Christian.”
I did not know if he was aware of the contradictions in his speech regarding his belief or non-belief, but I did not press him on it. He was in a comfortable frame of mind, his moustache seemed less threatening for a start. He regaled me with tales from his days at Oxford College, where he had been suspended for some minor misdemeanour. I told him of my education I received from my mad uncle after my father had died. We shared stories and the brandy and ate too much frankincense.
“It’s very hot in here isn’t it?” I panted, pulling at my necktie and sloughing off my duster.
The gap between us seemed to have closed. He leant over to assist, grunting at the weight on his shoulder that had been dislocated, he collapsed back down into the fusty baskets sending up a cloud of dust motes.
“Come to me Lucy.” He held out one hand gazing at me beneath his brows like a wolf.
I paused in the process of tipping back the almost empty flask. This was Captain Richard Francis Burton; Egyptologist, expert swordsman, adventurer, linguist and renowned shagger – how could I refuse?
I came awake with a twitch, the kind you get when you’re about to drop off and your leg kicks of its own volition. Sitting up sharply, I put my hand to my aching head.
“That’ll be lack of water. Sweated it all out.”
Burton was sat cross legged against a wall with my lamp close to him. He was naked and appeared to be writing in a small, dog-eared notebook. Looking down quickly, I remembered I too was still naked and pulled the corner of our picnic blanket up around me. Burton, catching my movements, shook his head in disappointment. Realising the stupidity of my action, I let the cloth fall. I padded over to where he sat and quite blatantly read over his shoulder; when the English female is free to give vent to her passions, free from the constraints of ‘civilised’ society, she is as wild and ardent as any whore I have lain with in Cairo, she can…
“What the hell are you doing?!” I shrilled.
“Writing my notes.” He replied evenly.
“You’re writing about me! How dare you! What sort of person writes about…well, what we did…?”
“Sex, Lucy.” He closed the book with the pencil marking the page. “Quite amazing. I have travelled far and wide experiencing and recording. Everything. Everything Lucy, including sex. And do you know what I have found?”
I shook my head dumbly.
“That nowhere in the world can people take part in the act of copulation and not be able to talk about it afterwards. Except Europe, particularly Britain and especially the English. There are people all over the world making love at this very moment and only in England will you find them shaking hands afterwards and unable to make eye contact. I never fail to be amazed by how a person can make themselves bare without baring themselves. And here we are, you and me, alone, isolated with no-one to see. We make love all night and what is the first thing you do when you awake? You attempt to cover your nakedness. The habits of so called civilized society bore me.”Crikey, I thought, bit intense!
“Well I don’t know about you, but I need to get dressed and out of here. I need water and real food and a wash” I said, peeling a dried apricot from my buttock. I dropped it into my mouth and looked down at him impudently.
“Got any more where that came from?” he looked to where I’d found my apricot.
“Sorry sir, not today sir, I’m fresh out of bum-pricots.” I teased in a fake London servant girl voice.
“In that case,”
I slapped his hand away.
“No Dick! We need to get going.”
Eventually, after much prevarication, we were both dressed. All our belongings collected, nothing, not an apricot remained on the floor. Burton insisted on it. He claimed he could climb the sheer wall with its miniscule hand holds despite his previously dislocated shoulder. I shrugged, who was I to argue with a beast like Burton? We began our ascent. The handholds dug into the rock face were a mere inch deep in some places and difficult to push the toe of a boot into. The original Somali farmers almost certainly climbed it barefoot. It was slow progress.
“You needn’t worry. I didn’t write your name.” Burton suddenly said from the dark.
The lantern at my waist was fading, it had been running constantly for some hours and we were reduced to a weak, orange glow, barely enough to see the wall that was inches from my face. However, I could now make out a very slim outline of dim light up above. Had to be the doorway to the store hole. I hoped it wasn’t fixed shut.
“The notes I was making about intercourse with an Eng...”
“Alright!” I interrupted with a hiss, almost losing my grip on the wall. “Can we not discuss it right at this moment please?” Loose flakes fell from beneath my left boot. “As you wish.” He sighed.
We continued in silence and pretty soon my face was up against a rough wooden panel. In my youth I went mountaineering with a crazy schoolteacher and her nieces in Austria over a couple of winters. She impressed on us the need to “maintain three points of contact at all times gels”. I never forgot, but don’t always practice to be perfectly honest. But right now, I was doing so. This would be a straight drop of some twenty five feet to thirty feet, not a killer, but I didn’t want a broken leg. I ground my toes as far into the shallow dips as they would go, tensed my hold and with my free fist, hit at the wooden panel. It didn’t budge. I couldn’t push, gravity would find me out. Burton arrived seconds later and the two of us thumped at the panel. Either someone would hear us, or we would eventually shift it. Sand began to seep through the slim gap, sifting over our hands and shoulders in a slow continuous flow.
“Damn!” exclaimed Burton, “We’re going to drown in sand at this rate.”
He bashed harder at the recalcitrant door. The weight of sand on my shoulders was causing my fingers to begin a slow, inevitable slip on the rock. I reached for the knife at my belt and thrusting as hard as I dared, stabbed the point into the wood. It went in a reasonable amount, allowing me to relieve the weight ever so slightly on my gripping hand that was beginning to tremble with the effort.
“Have at it!” barked Burton, alternating between punching the wood and shoving sand away.
I began repeatedly stabbing at the closest corner. More sand sifted through, but the wood had begun to splinter. As I hacked, Burton clawed away sand and bits of wood to prevent it falling into my face. I was sweating with the effort, my arms burned taking the strain. Presently, Burton growling, wrenched off a good sized chunk and sand poured over me. I closed my eyes and tried to lower my head. I had sand in my mouth and nostrils, I slashed blindly and struck rock. The sudden impact rocked through my body, my fingers were slipping from the gritty handhold, and my toes scrabbled for contact as I fell away from the wall. For the longest moment in my life, I was suspended in empty space, sand raining all about me. Then abruptly yanked backed against the wall. Burton had caught hold of my duster coat, unfortunately it wasn’t fastened and I began slipping out of it.
“Grab the wall damn you!” he commanded, “Come on woman! Pull yourself together!”
Woman?! Woman? I scrabbled angrily against the wall, feeling for the shallow holds and found them. I began pulling my outraged self up to the door. Burton had shaken a whole narrow plank free, I thrust out my hand grasping at the external wall and clenching my teeth, hauled myself up and out, pulling the remaining pieces of door with me. I turned to assist Burton and we lay panting in the sand staring up at the night sky for a moment. Spitting sand we stood and dusted ourselves down.
“Don’t!” I slapped his arm, “Call me woman again!” I yelled, giving him another thump.
I stood, hands on hips, glaring. He looked down at me calmly, hands folded in front.
“But you are a woman Lucy.”
“You know what I mean,” I waggled my finger at him. “That tone, that way you said it, that way men say it. God it makes my blood boil.” I growled.
“Would you rather I had said, “No Lucy, don’t let go, Lucy hang on, please Lucy.””? He put on a pathetic, imploring tone.Now I felt foolish. Burton had used the oldest trick in the book. Fury can give you wings and he knew exactly what to say to give me the strength to exert myself that one last bit. I scowled at the sand.
“You’re acting like a child again.” He teased.
I took a deep breath, about to argue back, but stopped. He was right. I was being childish, and ungrateful.
“I’m sorry.” I stepped towards him putting my hand on his arm, “I am sorry and thank you.” I added more sincerely.
“Apology accepted. By the way, that was my injured arm you punched.”
“Now whose being a baby.” I teased.
We scanned about us. Not very far away we could make out the temple where all the fighting had been going on. Now it was silent. There was light enough from the stars to see the huge, ancient stones that had once formed the temple complex. We approached, the area in front of the main buildings was strewn with bodies, a couple of camels and a horse too. We searched for the living, but found none. Burton turned bodies over as if looking for someone. Many of those who had died had been carrying clubs, but one or two had scimitars, there were a couple of rifles but no ammo, the odd pistol here and there, a couple of water flasks attached to the corpse of a camel and other oddments. We helped ourselves.
“Looks like camel is on the menu then.” Announced Burton as he made a small fire.
“Blast! My horses aren’t here.” I yelled as I returned from searching behind the dilapidated walls alongside the temple.
“Probably made a bolt for it, or were ridden out.” He replied dully, “Just as well, because if they were still here, it would be because they were dead.”
“All my supplies were on them. God what a mess!” I grumbled, dropping down cross-legged on the opposite side of the camp fire. “Barely found a thing in there,” I pointed towards the temple, “and now this!” I indicated the surrounding disorder.Burton poked the fire into life silently. His mouth tight. He had a look on his face that shut me up. Then he took a knife he had found and began cutting into the haunches of a small camel. Whilst he was occupied, I checked around again to see if any of my possessions had fallen from my mount and packhorse. I generally ensure all my items are securely fastened and I discovered nothing. Working my way back to where Burton was now roasting camel meat, I availed myself of a second scimitar with sheathe.
Something I had wondered about, but not asked him yet, returned to mind.
“So how come you were in the area? I mean, what’s here that the Royal Society would be interested in?”
He eyed me over a strip of meat. I suddenly felt like I had hit upon a risky topic.
“You first.” He said.
Burton already had an idea of what I did, so I decided to tell the truth.
“I was sent in a semi-official capacity to collect information about Punt. Its architecture, art and culture, but primarily its relationship to Egypt. Some scholars believe that Puntland was attached to the bottom of Egypt.”
“But you’re not a scholar.”
“Not really, no.”
“So?” he had one eyebrow raised in an infuriatingly seductive manner. Or maybe it was an effect from the heat above the fire.
“I work for Sir Rowland Cornish, staunch member of the Royal Society.” I continued.
“I have heard of him.”
“Sir Rowland had heard a story about an artefact in Africa. A lidded bowl that had belonged to both Queen Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, supposedly created as a divination device. The item passed through the hands of a number of female rulers, it travelled around the continent, occasionally disappearing from the records, to reappear suddenly when a female of some standing required it. Or so it is said.”
“And it is this item you seek?”
“It is. Sir Rowland has a private collection to rival the best in England, perhaps the world.”
“And he wants to add to his collection with this, possibly non-existent artefact?”
“He’s pretty certain of its actuality. He has researchers continuously collecting stories, oral and written, potential locations and recent siting’s of all sorts of objects.”
“And so under the guise of a researcher for the Royal Society, you’re treasure hunting for Cornish. Does he pay you well?”
“Well enough.” I wasn’t going to say how much. Sir Rowland always paid well. Plus, he ensured my reputation in the Royal Society was not sullied, at least not too much.
“How did you get here?” continued Burton, “And why, in God’s name, are you travelling alone?”
“I have my own transport, the Professor Selwyn. It’s a balloon with sphere suspended beneath.”
Captain Burton frowned questioningly.
“I designed it with a Mr Cavor and Mr Wells. It is based on a space worthy craft designed by Professor Cavor, but instead of gravity defying Cavorite, my sphere is made of mahogany wood, white ash and brass, with six portholes. The interior walls are lined in dark, red leather, seating of the same. Hand sewn in London at ‘Leytons
Leather Bodies’, who will make practically anything you want in leather, very obliging, highly recommended. There is plenty of space beneath the flooring for storage. It’s watertight, you never know when you’re going to crash land in the sea.”
Burton gawped at me like I had spoken some alien language. Not one of the twenty five he spoke.
“You fly in a wooden ball suspended beneath a hot air balloon?” he finally asked.
“And you flew from England, alone?”
“That’s right.” I didn’t embellish.
I didn’t mention the days spent messing about in Hungary with a minor prince.Paying ‘in kind’ for gas and supplies in Greece, or doing a runner in Yemen for reasons I will not bore you with here. Needless to say it had something to do with dignitaries and drink.
“And where is this marvellous balloon sphere of yours now then?”
“Berbera. Some very obliging local has it tucked away. It was his horses I borrowed for the trip out here.”
He nodded, understanding the predicament of explaining how one lost transport that didn’t belong to you.
I ripped at a piece of moist camel meat with my teeth. It tasted wonderful. If you’ve never eaten camel I can recommend it highly. Forget your beef, pork and chicken.
This tastes like a perfect blend of all three together, delicious.
Burton chewed over his lingering wonder at my account. He probably wasn’t sure if he should believe me or not. I’m not sure I believe me! He took a deep breath and lobbing a bone into the small fire, fixed me with those eyes. “You know, I might have to kill you after I have told you.”
I raised my brows, “Well don’t tell me then. I like being alive. Not much to do when you’re dead.”
“Does anything frighten you Lockhart?” he shook his head.
“Oh, lots of things, but you’re not going to find out tonight. It’s still your turn.” I took a swig from one of the canteens Burton had found.
“Like yourself, I have an official and unofficial reason for my presence in the area.”
“Go on.” I encouraged gently. I was hoping his reasons were…..
“I was on a pilgrimage to Mecca last year, when the caravan I was travelling with was attacked. Many animals and brave men died on both sides. There are so many conflicts going on all the time here, it’s deuced hard to keep track of who’s who. I had left the military to one side for the duration of this journey and I was almost hoping I wouldn’t have to return. But after my Hajj, I headed south hoping to meet up with some friends in Al Lith. My plans were scuppered when I was intercepted by an odious Lieutenant from my company who presented me to Carmichael, one of our intelligence officers. Told me to get myself to Somalia, chum up with the Italians and get a feel for the climate.”
“You’re a spy?” I whispered agog.
“Of course not! And I’ll deny it to anyone who asks!”
I remained silent under his ferocious glare. Eventually he continued.
“So, I got myself to Djibouti tout suite and made my way with a small caravan toHargeisa, where I was to meet up with a contact. Except that didn’t work out.”
“On account he was dead. Fellow had a run in with an Abgaal chappie. These Italians don’t know how to keep their emotions in check, he had no respect for the order of things and lost his head, literally. So, I’m on my way to Mogadishu, Italian Consulate down there, long way round, when we were attacked by bandits. Chased here and this is the result.” He indicated the surrounding chaos. “Officially, I am recording the rivers and lakes of Somaliland.”
We sat in silence for some time, gazing into the fire, chewing on camel and swigging whatever liquid refreshments we had found, arak was on the list judging by the aniseed flavour. I was thinking about how I was going to get to Berbera on foot. It would be a two day walk, through semi-desert, with no water. And if Burton was on his way to Mogadishu then he was headed in the opposite direction, so I would be on my own. Blast. I hadn’t found the bowl that Sir Rowland Cornish was after. My investigations had amounted to nothing. I had plundered another temple on my journey here. The small finds that I did manage were tied onto one of my horses, probably on their way to a market in Ethiopia by now. The information Cornish had been given must have been misheard or simply wrong. I wasn’t particularly perturbed by this. Plenty of times I have risked life and limb, or just time and money, to come away empty handed. It wasn’t simply the things that I was after; the gold, the statuettes, necklaces, jade masks and so forth. It was the journey itself. The excitement, the thrill of the chase. I wouldn’t do it if it were easy. And now I found myself in the company of a man who was on his own journey. Arguably a more significant one than mine. I watched him watching the stars. His eyebrows scowled, his moustache menaced his top lip and his black Gypsy hair was a storm across his forehead. Had he been an animal encountered in the wild, I should have run the other way. Hang about, I thought to myself, he is kind of an animal you’ve encountered in the wild, why didn’t you run the other way? Because beasts, cads and bounders were part of the thrill of life for me.
“What are you staring at?” Burton’s husky voice broke me from my reverie.
“Oh, I was just admiring your moustache. You know, it is quite possibly the largest ‘tache I have ever encountered.”
“Would you like to encounter it again?” he murmured.
The following morning saw us making use of dead men’s clothes. Burton was more inclined than I to cover himself as if he were not a white westerner. His skin was dark enough from constant exposure to the sun and his facial hair black enough for an Afghan. I stuck to my duster, jodhpurs, waistcoat and blouse. The only exception being a white kaffiya to fend off the sun, which Burton helped to arrange on my head and across the lower portion of my face. It had been decided that Burton would escort me back to Berbera on the north coast where I would reunite with my much loved Professor Selwyn and from there I would take him south to Mogadishu. He was rather keen to experience a ride in the Professor. The journey would take at least a day and a half I reckoned.
“We may be extremely lucky and encounter a caravan heading the way we’re travelling. We may be lucky enough to encounter a caravan that will give us water if not companionship. Or we may be alone to fend for ourselves. As we have no water to start with, with must be patient, not talk and keep a lookout for possible water sources.” Burton explained, unnecessarily I felt.
We left the ancient, tumbled complex and headed into a world of searing sand and sun. I had insisted on bringing both the scimitars I had found, despite Burton telling me to leave one as they would become burdensome. He himself had a pair of pistols with about four rounds apiece as well as his knife and a Djibouti short sword, an oddly curved blade with a vicious point, he carried across his body on a woven cord. We walked slowly in silence, keeping our breathing regular and using as little energy as possible. I had my kaffiya pulled across most of my face leaving only enough space to peek through. I could still catch the scent of its previous owner, faintly pungent man sweat. At least the land was fairly flat around here, slight undulations with hills to the north, nothing like the Arabian desert with all that shifting sand and mountainous dunes. After three or four hours I was parched, I couldn’t stop licking my lips. My eyes burned and I was tempted to just close them as I walked along. I squinted and blinked, my lids felt gritty. The temperature seemed to be rising, must have been at least ninety degrees. Another couple of hours and it would be reaching mid-day.
I opened my eyes. And staggering on the spot turned to where the voice had come from. Burton’s blurry figure was walking towards me.
“Have you been walking with your eyes shut or something?” he demanded.
“No.” I croaked.
“You fool.” He began to untie the cord from the blade he carried, “What were you thinking. It is a good job I looked around when I did,” he tucked the blade into his belt and began to make a slip knot in either end of the cord, “How would you have managed alone? Do you think some passing Samaritan would just turn up? Look lively now!” he slipped one end over my unprotesting wrist and the other over his own. Then he gave a slight tug and I followed like a dog on a leash.
We continued on for I don’t know how long, when Burton suggested we halt for a while. He removed the loop of cord from his wrist and wandered away a short distance. He had propped me up against the trunk of one of the stubby trees that were beginning to appear dotted around. The shade was most welcome. I pulled the cloth from my face and gasped at the hot air. I could see Burton crouching down now and again, raising rocks, poking things with a stick and stabbing stuff with his knife.He returned, licking the blade as he came.
He handed me a knobbly root. I chewed on its slightly bitter flesh. First I thought my tongue would shrivel up, but very quickly and in a sudden rush, my mouth became full of saliva and moisture. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t care. I could hear Burton crunching away next to me. As I looked at him curiously, he proffered me something small and brown, it was some sort of beetle, no, a scorpion! I watched as he snapped the stinger off the tail end of one and pop it into his mouth and begin crunching. I wasn’t sure how desperately hungry I was.
“Eat it, it’s good for you. Better cooked I admit, but,” he shrugged and ate another.
The thing was already dead. I looked at it. I could see its horrible little eyes. I copied Burton and snapped off the stinger, then closing my eyes tight, I put it into my mouth. I wanted to gag. I shuffled it around without biting down, hoping to swallow it whole, like a child with vegetables on its fork, not wanting to taste it. But it wouldn’t go down, so I bit and chewed very, very quickly to get it over with.A booming noise burst from Burton. He was laughing! He was laughing at me!
“You should see your face.” He chortled.
“It was disgusting!” I whined.
“More disgusting than dying and have them fed off you?” he said darkly, “Now, what we really need are termites.”
“Termites!” I spluttered.
“Full of calories. Keep us going termites will.” He stood and held out his hand to help me rise. “Look, “he pointed into the distance, “We’re nearly there.”
“Where, Berbera?” I was puzzled.
“No, that’s miles away. There, over there,” he continued insistently. “Looks like a narrow wadi. More shrubs, trees too. See?”
I squinted in the direction he pointed. I could see the grey-pink dust becoming grey-green plant life.
“And if I’m right, that looks like the tip of a termite hill en route. Come on, best foot forwards.”
He began striding off towards lunch. I followed feeling pathetic and hungry and excruciatingly thirsty. I don’t think I had ever walked across a desert before. I didn’t think I would be doing it again any time soon either. I hoped that Burton was right about there being water up ahead, I fantasised about gulping down huge mouthfuls, splashing it over my hot, dry skin and rolling in it. I managed to catch up to Burton, who seemed very intent on getting his termites, when he came to an abrupt halt. I stopped a few feet behind him.
“What is it? Food we can eat?” I asked hopefully.
He didn’t reply, except to wave me quiet with one hand whilst drawing a pistol from his belt with the other. I did as he bid and went into a slight crouch, scanning the trees up ahead. I couldn’t see anything except rocks and shrubs and trees, and more rocks and shrubs. I was expecting a deer or rabbit to come bounding out of the treeline ahead. Stepping cautiously forwards and raising his gun hand high in a show of non-aggression, Burton called out in a language I did not know. Nothing happened for a second or two. Then a spear came hurtling towards him, quickly followed by seven men who had been perfectly hidden until the moment they moved. They let out a high pitched ululation as they came.
“Ok, not Berber then!” he noted coolly.
Burton stepped sideways as the spear flew at him, at the same time following its trajectory and seeing it miss me, turned back immediately to fire his pistols alternately, left, right, left, right at the onrushing figures. His aim was good, two or three shots apiece though and he was out of ammunition. He dropped one pistol, switched his grip on the second to use the handle as a club and pulled his Djibouti blade free and stood tall, arms slightly out from his sides, chest swelled. This was not the time to admire I chided myself, pulling both scimitars free and readying myself. Our attackers, like the ones at the temple site, used clubs and scimitars. Burton had shot and killed three men as they ran but we had four left to deal with. I charged with a battle cry I’m sure they would never forget, had they spoken English;
“I need a drink you bastards!”
I sliced at the first figure to my left, baring my teeth and growling. Burton was having at three of them, alternating between clubbing them with his pistol butt and jabbing with his blade. My opponent swung his club at my head, I ducked and kicked him hard in the shin. That took him by surprise and in that moment I shoved my blade through his midriff. He fell into me with a grunt. But I couldn’t pull the blade free! I was still trying to shake the fellow loose when one of Burton’s attackers broke free and ran at me. I let go of the scimitar and readied myself with the other, this one was keeping a wary distance, eyeing up the situation. I went into a low crouch maintaining the horizontal position of the blade and keeping my eyes fixed on his, I reached slowly to my boot and slid out my dagger. I could hear the grunts and cries of the fight Burton was having with his two remaining attackers. I made it obvious that I was about to stand and swing my sword arm, my attacker made his move, rushing forwards with his sword raised high, but instead of standing I remained low and with an underarm action that the England Cricket team would have been proud of, loosed the dagger. It found its mark and the briefly startled fellow tipped and fell alongside me, the hilt of my dagger protruding from under his chin.
Twisting my dagger free, I looked over to where Burton was checking the dead for anything useful. I could see now that they weren’t a ragtag bunch of bandits. The cloth of their white pants, shirts and robes was beyond the usual. Their hair was tied in top knots with decorative beads. He stood and looked at me askance.
“I need a drink you bastards?”
I didn’t have a suitable quip so I just shrugged.
“That’s an, interesting war cry.” He said.
We made our way through the trees into a dip where there was a camp made near a shallow pool that emerged from beneath a stone slab one end and trickled off as a narrow stream a few hundred yards away. But most glorious of all, there were three camels. They were all females, smaller than their male counterparts, with blonde hair, gaily harnessed with bells and laden with tents, spears and water skins. We settled down near the smokeless fire they had made, ate their rations and drank their arak.
“Thank the gods we don’t have to eat termites.” I said.
“They’re quite tasty actually.” Replied Burton, “Kind of pulpy and squishy to start with,”
“Ok, I get the picture. I’m just glad that I’m not eating them.” I said as I popped a salty morsel of meat into my mouth.
“So what about rats?” he asked.
“Rats? I’d rather not.” I said with a grimace.
He gave a hint of a smile. I looked at him with a questioning expression. He smiled wider and nodded at my hand. As I was about to take another bite, I paused.
“Yes.”I instinctively spat it out.
“Eurgh!” I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand.
“What do you usually do when you travel? Take a five course dinner and a waiter to serve it?” he teased.
“Oh, you’re a very funny man.” I sneered, and threw the remainder at him.
He threw what I presumed was a date at me, so I picked up the nearest item and lobbed that.
“Christ!” he put his hand to his head. He picked up what I’d thrown. It was a perfectly spherical metal object with three lines cut into it parallel.
“What is it?” I asked going over to him.
“I haven’t a clue, but it hurts like hell.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t look, I just picked up the nearest thing.”Now, looking again, I saw there were four more of these unusual items laid on an open cloth. They were about the size of a ball from a child’s cup and ball toy, all metal but what metal I did not know and they all had these three grooves running around them. I’d never seen anything like them.
“Perhaps your collector chappie would be interested in them.” Suggested Burton.
Perhaps he would I thought. So I wrapped them again in the cloth and stuffed them into my leather bag. After we had rested for half an hour we took a bathe in the pool. It was delicious. Warmed by the midday sun, it was tepid and smelt green. The bells on the camel’s harnesses tinkled as they ate. I was by now completely at ease in Burtons company, so being naked held no fear, or shame. Despite his initial impression, he was the most delightful company once I came to know him, he had a way of making me forget I was from a society that was governed by strict adherence to rules of correctness. He really did treat a woman as his equal, in all ways.The slight breeze carried the aroma of the surrounding trees across the water and over my bare skin. Insects hummed lazily over teensy, yellow flowers. A beetle scurried to grapple with a centipede, a brief battle ensued ending with the glossy beetle having its dinner. I closed my eyes against the suns glare and simply breathed it all in.
Around late afternoon, after a very languid lovemaking session, we set off. Burton and I riding a camel each, the third tied to his saddle. We left most of the items they had been carrying, especially the tents and spears. I think the camels were mightily relieved. I hate camels. They’re bad tempered, some say single minded, they smell, they have bad breath and they spit. I tried to keep away from the front end. Riding them is not a pleasure. The spine is continuously rocking back and forth until your teeth grate. I could only bear it for a couple of hours at a time before I got down and walked, leading the ugly beast. Burton, as expected, seemed quite at home on his. Was there no situation that made this man uncomfortable?However, riding the camels reduced our travel time immeasurably, especially when we had races. I clung on tight, squeezing with my thighs as I shouted ‘Hut! Hut!’ I wasn’t going to let Burton win this competition. I did fall off twice though and we had to chase the stupid animal as it dashed off free of its cranky burden. At night, we sheltered in an ancient structure that had almost disappeared into the sand, its walls having been knocked down and blocks stolen to perhaps build houses or temples elsewhere. We snuggled together under the camel blankets as the temperature plummeted.
The following morning, we reached Berber without any further incidents. I sold the camels to a trader in the market and used some of the money to recompense the gentleman who had kindly loaned his horses to me. He was quite upset at first, they were his favourites, but paying over the odds soon put the smile back on his face.
Burton did not want any of the money, apart from a handful of change that would ‘see me through’.I was delighted to be reunited with the Professor Selwyn and after a little difficulty getting the balloon inflated, we were off. The journey to Mogadishu was uneventful and apart from one or two hours when I took my eye off the charts, we made decent progress. Burton was totally enamoured of the sphere. He kept looking out of the portholes at the landscape below and wanting to stand on the gantry with the lid open and watch the clouds around us.
Mogadishu proved to be a marvellously bustling township of merchants, military and markets. We spent our final night together in a relatively clean hotel. It was a joyous and yet sad occasion. We parted outside the front door in the morning, he to find the Italian Consulate and me to head off to wherever I felt like.
“Well this is it then.” I said. “It’s been fun.”
He raised his dangerous brow,
“Sort of.” I added. “Goodbye Dick. And thank you.”
Taking my hand in his he said something that moved me in a way I could not put into words,
“Like a star you came, across my night sky. All the radiance of this morning was you.”
He kissed my hand and walked away into the crowds of galibaya, uniforms and the scent of pomegranates.