Please, God

2011-01-15 00:00

WAY back then when I was still in Drakensberg-climbing form I met a most curious youth from the lesser aristocracy of England, his father was equerry to Queenie Windsor, no less, his mother was lady-in-waiting for something which gave her access to Buck House, his family name was Lowesley-Warne, and he personally was known as Lowly Worm, of course, though his true Christian name was Cecil. And it was in Lowly’s company that young Joe and I scaled the Berg escarpment one glorious autumn morn in 1986. But it was the manner of our meeting that was interesting and, as I say, most curious.

When young Joe was seventeen I said to him, said I: Let me tell you, when I was a lad we didn’t look forward to leaving school so we could loaf about under a tree and play a guitar and drink wine, we realised this was the first day of manhood and went straight off to war to kill the enemy. Every decent Christian knew who our enemies were, there was no excuse of ignorance, you just went in there shoulder to shoulder with your comrades and killed them. And don’t sit there suppressing yawns while I am talking to you. Okay, said he. Okay what? said I. Okay I won’t suppress yawns while you are talking to me, said he; last thing we did in History was how you buggers went off in one thousand four-engined Lancaster strategic bombers and hit Dresden when the war was in fact over in those parts and in one night unloaded two thousand six hundred tons of high explosive and killed forty thousand Christian civilians who were fleeing the atheist Red Army. A couple of thousand took refuge in the cathedral because it was God’s House and He would protect them, but you flattened the lot including His House and just lucky for Him you didn’t flatten Him too. But then again, maybe you did, I don’t see him around these days.

And shortly thereafter, lo, one of those ugly long envelopes with a departmental stamp arrives and inside is an ugly letter from the army which tells young Joe that he now belongs to a regiment called the Special Services Brigade, the SSB, stationed at Lydenburg, and since he is now eighteen he will report there within two (2) weeks and go off and kill black folks in Angola whom every decent Christian knows are our enemies. So Joe puts things in a bag and departs north, but he doesn’t stop at Lydenburg, he disappears into Africa, and lives how and on what is anybody’s guess. He just becomes sort of feral, he could have taught MK a thing or two about crossing borders without papers. And on top of Mount Mlanji, in Malawi, there he comes upon Lowly Worm sitting cross-legged upon a rock in that meditative position with his fingers like lotus buds pointing upwards. Hoosit bru? says Joe by way of introduction, and Lowly slowly opens his eyes and smiles and there and then an everlasting friendship is established. Lowly is doing Africa, as they say, but he’s doing it the non-tourist way, on local transport, hitch-hiking, and that thing known in Nigeria as the Number Eleven Bus, which is to say walking.

Then one balmy autumn eve suddenly the two of them appear back in Durbs, skinny, smelly and looking as if they’ve just been run over, but cheerful. Ewe gerus, Joe says This is Lowly Worm and we’ve snoke back into SA to climb the Berg, Gray’s Pass because there’s a nice cave at the top to kip in. Okay, say I, I think the army’s decided they don’t want you anyway, our family has such a bad name. So we fling assorted Dronkensberg goeters in the family rustmobile: dried food, water bottles, whisky, backpacks, boots, whatnot, and we’re off in a leisurely fashion next morning. And I was still so elastic in those days we make it to the cave by late afternoon. It’s a long haul, I tell you, and stiff up the escarpment, it’s not much short of Mont Blanc at Gray’s Pass: 10 500 feet, but we’ve cleaned all the baboon shit out of the iNkosazana cave and set up our little camp when the mist comes down WHAM! and visibility is zero. Berg wisdom, that.

We take a wee noggin or two of whisky in celebration, and Lowly says Excuse me, and walks off into the mist like Cap’n Oates, we assume to do a pee. But after quite a bit two dark apparitions suddenly appear in this lonely lonely place, robust Basutho men in blankets and gumboots and balaclavas; we didn’t know anybody at all lived here, could live here. They speak to us in Gold Mine Fanagalo. Would we like to swop a candle for this Coke-bottle of goat’s milk? Only a pleasure. Smiles, we’ll give you two. More smiles, but anxious. We think your friend is going to die, they say. Alarmed, we rush off into the mist with them, and over there stands Lowly upside-down on his head upon a tuft of grass, stark naked, his willy dangling down, or is it up? the wrong way. Oh he’s from England, we say. That’s how he says his prayers. They nod, they understand. Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, they say. God save Africa.

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