B. C. Bamber, Super Red
Publisher: Vagabond Unlimited
Length: 136 pp.
The Great Hall waited for me. I didn’t have a huge amount of courage. I didn’t want to go there particularly. I guess I wanted to stay at home and pretend it wasn’t happening. I was an Arab Muslim teenager, with a family who was too big for my parents to manage and I was in their way. My father just said that if I put it off too long I was destined for a more painful death, so I needed to grit my teeth and get on with it. The journey was going to be difficult, but first I had to go and see our tribal leader. It was customary for anyone in our village to go and see him first. He was more of a warlord than a tribal leader. He was frightening. He had this mean face, with the scars of chicken pox all over it. His eye had a scar above it from a fight and he was not trustworthy as far as I was concerned. Lucky for us my father was friends with him, otherwise we might have had a much harder life.
My father was into gambling, so we have always been poor. Despite this we had just moved into a new house, funded mainly by my brothers, of which there were many. I have eight brothers and four sisters, although two of my brothers are brothers-in-law. We all live in this ramshackle house, on the top of cliff. It is a newly built house, but the house is somewhat unfinished. Some of it is well built, but the bit I sleep in is really just a hut. Father says he will build the rest when he has the money, whenever that is. The trouble with my father is that he often bets with his mates. He would often pick me, or one of the others to take part in the bet. One time I was made to go on a run across the desert between the old house and the site where this house is. The fact is me and the other kid, Ebed I think his name was, cheated. We walked for most of it and decided between us who was going to win. I let him win because he claimed his father beats him. I couldn’t think of a reason not to believe him. He even showed me a scar on his side, that he said he got when he was eleven. At least my father didn’t beat me and I let him win.
But sometimes my father bets on other things like dog racing, although not on a track, cos’ there isn’t one round here. His friends drive around in large fast cars, throwing dust all over the place. They are aggressive and unkind. I can’t stand his friends and I don’t think they are friends anyway. I worry they might turn on us, although my older brothers wouldn’t have it. They’re pretty tough guys. But I was a fast runner and good on horse-back, like my girlfriend Kiren. In the past we had to ride on horse-back for many miles, over the plains, most of which was covered with dust, and maybe some thin hardy grass, waving in the wind that trails across the Earth, unheeded by any large objects, buildings, even hills; accept for ours, which stands right at the top of an escarpment. The escarpment runs for a few miles in either direction, and has stubbornly refused to be worn away by the winds that blow across the landscape. The long winding pathways we used have been travelled over and over by millions of people, making their way from different communities scattered randomly across the continent. Most of the paths go to the Great Hall. When we go in our final few days, they should act as our guide.
I will travel with Kiren. We’ve grown up together, promising years ago we’d marry and stay together forever. Despite childhood promises not meaning very much, as chance had it, we stayed together, never finding that anyone else in our lives caught our attention. Neither of us ever got seduced by anyone else. It was strangely comfortable, almost incestuous; but we had been in love since we were old enough to understand our feelings for each other. Her long thick dark hair, flowed down her back, like a princess. She started growing it from birth and never had any intention of having it cut. And now she was seventeen it was as long as it would go. It had stopped growing a while ago.
Most of the time Connie, my horse, was slower than hers. Sisian was a huge horse, in comparison. Much faster. Kiren would never let me ride Sisian; which offended me. But she just laughed it off, not taking my protests seriously at all. I wondered whether she’d let me on the journey? Connie was a great horse, and kept up, surprising me every time we rode together. She was a great horse, I bought from my sister. As one of the younger ones, I often got hand-me-downs, but this horse was being neglected by the others so I got quite attached to her. And she is fast. I don’t think the others realise just how fast she is.
The main thing that’s bugging me at the moment is the big hole between the main part of the house and service part which dealt with plumbing and electricity from the generator. This gap dropped right down and I would often peer down it to see if I could see the bottom. Dad says he’s going to fill it with rubble, but he hasn’t just yet. Just outside the window of my room, which I shared with Ahmed, my little brother, was a sheer slope which fell about two hundred feet down. I hated it. I’ve had more than one nightmare about falling off. But it’s not that sheer. You could crawl down it, as I found out later. It wasn’t a cliff in the normal sense of the word. It was more like the side of a slag heap, with little stones that roll down it when they become unstable. I often hear the chink of the stones as they hit things on their way down. At least when I leave for the Great Hall I won’t have to sleep here anymore.
We’d only been there a week, when the men turned up to see father. They all called at the same time to look round, their cars blowing dust everywhere as usual. All the lads were in the kitchen and dining room, while I tried to keep a low profile. I didn’t fancy being dragged into a bet, especially as I saw one of their sons with them. Me and my sister Yanice went into her room, that she shared with my other sisters, and I noticed straight away that a large part of the room was empty.
‘Why is that still empty?’ I said, pointing. ‘That should be my room by now. Why can’t I move in now, instead of sleeping at the edge of a cliff?’ I turned and pointed backwards towards the edge of cliff as I spoke, with great effect.
‘Mum says this isn’t going to be your room for a while,’ Sara said. She was a cow. But as mum was right there I asked her.
‘Mum?’ I said. ‘Can I not move in now?’
‘Not yet. It’s not ready. You can’t share with girls, Nathan,’ she said. My mother was a hard worker and an honest broker, except when it came to my father. She found it hard to stand up to him.
‘Please?’ I pleaded. ‘Do you know how cold it is in there?’
‘I know. But until your dad has built the room properly you can’t. Anyway, that will be your room, it’s just not finished.’
‘I don’t want to sleep at the edge of that cliff. It’s not stable,’ I said.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said dismissively. ‘It’s not a cliff, its slope for one thing and don’t go pestering your dad either. I don’t want him throwing his weight around. You’ll just have to wait.’ By this time all the girls were in the room, including my nieces. I had two nieces via my older sisters. They got under my feet. I wasn’t close to them really. Not as close I was to Yanice, my favourite sister and Kiren of course. My older sisters got on my nerves since they got married. Why their husbands didn’t have their own houses I didn’t know. I didn’t ask. I just stayed out of the way as usual, playing with my favourite girls, which Dan my older brother would tease me about, but I don’t care. He seems to think it makes me a poof. Just because he hangs around with his dopey mates it doesn’t mean I have to. Like I said, me and Kiren will get married soon. I don’t know when.
My father’s friends all parked their cars in the car spaces at the front of the house, outside my window, and just at the top of the hill road. The road was very steep, but their large cars easily made it up. As they shouted and laughed loudly there was a blood curdling shriek from the gap behind the house. I’ll never forget that. As everyone arrived we all stared down the gap at my young niece at the bottom, her broken body just in sight.
As I arrived father was climbing down while my sister Kalik screamed and wailed, my mother trying to comfort her. Then my dad fell. We all heard his leg crunch against the unforgiving walls of the hole. He didn’t cry out, he just moaned, before my brothers all reached down to bring him out. Dan and his friend inched down to recover my little niece’s body from the floor of the hole. I could see her bag, and her bright red shawl, over her shoulders, her long black hair, spread across her back. I walked away as father was carried to his bed. Blood dripped a trail through the house to my parent’s room. There were no doctors for miles, so he had to just cope with it. I was stood outside his room listening to what was happening as he shouted about who let Judith play round the hole, and why hadn’t my brothers filled the hole yet. It was always someone else’s fault. I was waiting for my name to come floating through the air, on the end of an obscenity. But it never came.
As I stood there, I saw my mother, wrapping herself up in her black shawl. She was going to town to see the elders. We needed help for my father. We’d have to go and beg to the elders, like they cared. Although sometimes they surprise everyone and carry out a kind, unselfish act. But it doesn’t happen very often. And woe betide anyone who criticises them. They have been known to disappear people. And boast about disappearing people as well, that’s the frightening bit. There is no one to challenge their authority you see, apart from far away powers who don’t have the resources to watch them. They are overlords of this province and to get anything done you have to go by them first.
‘I’ll come.’ I said to my mother as she got ready for the walk.
‘Okay. Your sisters are coming as well,’ she said.
‘Fine.’ As much as I disliked them, I didn’t mind. We did get on sometimes and given the circumstances, it would look good for a male to go with them, besides the fact I didn’t want to stay with all these men. Hopefully dad’s mates will be gone by time we get back; which could take some time. I grabbed my book to take with me and a warm jacket. As warm as possible in case we get stranded out in the plain over-night. It’s happened before and it’s hard to go back for anything once you’re out there on your own.
You have to walk to get to the town, which was about seven miles. It wasn’t too hot that day, but the dust can get to you if you’re not used to it. The town was directly down the road, that our house was on, but over the ridge, not down it. We set off and I trailed behind them, listening to them talking. My sisters, my niece and my mum all talked with each other about nothing all the way there. I stayed quiet. There’s not much point trying to take part in the conversation, because there’s no ‘in’ to it. They don’t let you speak, when they’re talking. They discussed dad and my poor niece who died all the way there. It was pretty depressing. I heard mum say that she was going to ask the Chief to pay for her funeral. We were all but broke and funerals are pricey.
As we arrived there was a hive of activity outside. There was a large building with a tent attached to it, which stuck out into the front courtyard, where a lot of unpleasant looking men stood round doing nothing. They were unshaven, large and staring at every passer-by, occasionally cracking a joke with each other. There was a queue to get in so we got in the line, where the guards padded us down. As we approached my mum said,
‘As you’re the only male you should ask him,’ she said with a smirk on her face. The others had the same look. As if they’d decided ages ago and then dropped their bombshell at the last minute, to piss me off and make me panic. To see how I’d react, to see if I could be a man about it.
‘What?’ I said, shocked. ‘You could have told me earlier,’ I protested.
‘Do you know what to ask for?’ mum said, realising that she hadn’t prepped me at all.
‘You want me to ask for medical help for dad, and funeral costs for Judith?’
I was excited. I threw my shoulders back and straightened up. I would have to be a man now, and not be nervous. I’m not quite old enough to be taken seriously by these men and their Chief. Nervously I got in line behind some other people. My sisters went in, followed by mum and my niece. Then it was my turn. But the guards didn’t like the look of me, and mum didn’t notice the guards had stopped me. I was taken to one side and they searched me. They found my book and it suddenly occurred to me the book might not be approved of here. It was an old book with a yellow paperback cover. The pages were all yellow and brown with age, and some of pages were falling out. The guard grabbed it roughly, and looked at the cover, studying it for what seemed like ages. Just as my sister went in, she looked back at me and smiled. What a cow. The guard finally grinned and threw it across to the back of the tent, where other lads sat around. The loose pages went fluttering everywhere. I’d never get them all back, I knew that much. The lads ignored it, but grinned at me and each other. There was no need to throw it across the tent.
I walked into the main tent and couldn’t see the others anywhere. They’d gone in without me, through another entrance to another internal area where the boss was. I was too late and I knew better than to burst in on the Chief.
I knew that round the back was a tea shop, where they served food and drink, so I went in there to wait. I went in and around the room were nasty looking blokes, and one or two women sat at the tables. The blokes were propped up at the bar; not that it sold any alcoholic drinks. I’m sure they would all have their stashes back home. I know dad did. His friends got away with it because of their links with the Chief and his cronies. It was just tea here though. One of the lads from the front tent came in and sat down next to me as I ordered. He had my book in his hand. I looked at it then at him.
‘What you reading this for?’ he said, waggling the book up and down in his hand. He slid it over to me.
‘I can read what I like.’ I said, knowing he’d come back at me with something.
‘Yeah? Is that a fact?’ He said and laughed at me.
‘You carry on laughing at me and I’ll punch your face in,’ I told him. I hated being laughed at. He got up suddenly, knocking his chair back. I jumped up as well to square up to him, but as I stood my tea went flying and covered me in it, and the tea cup fell to the floor and smashed into pieces. He grinned at me. I looked over at the guard who was stood at the door. I saw him in the corner my eye and I knew I was in trouble. I don’t know how long he had been stood there, but seeing me start a fight and drop my tea was enough for him to come over. He grabbed by my robes and dragged me out of the tea room. The lad I’d been arguing with threw my book across the room, its pages rattling through the air, making a flapping noise, before it landed on my head. I picked it up as the whole room laughed, and I was led away and out of the building. As I arrived back outside, my sisters, my niece and my mum were stood with their backs to the entrance, looking for me.
‘I’m here.’ I said startling them, as they spun round to see me. The guard had already gone, so they needn’t know I picked a fight and got thrown out.
‘Where were you?’ they said.
‘In there, having tea.’ I looked down at the wet patch on my stomach and legs, just as they did. They said nothing. They weren’t interested in me. ‘What did you get?’ I asked.
‘They will be paying for everything we asked for,’ my mother said as we set off in the direction of home.
‘Yeah it is,’ my sister said in a matter of fact way. I knew what she was thinking. That I was a useless male leaving the tough work to the women. I wasn’t going to tell her what happened. She wouldn’t believe me and she would turn it against me. I didn’t want them all taking the piss later.
* * *
The next day dad was screaming at everyone. I was dreading my turn to go in and see him. I was keeping a low profile so far. But it was only a matter of time before I would hear him calling me. When it came I couldn’t ignore it, so I walked round to his room, pushing the door open a little, before walking in. The room was hot and sweaty. He was lying on the bed, with his leg up, leaning forward, his face covered in several days of beard growth. I felt sorry for him in there suffering. We had no pain killers, which was why he was drinking so much. Probably this was the reason he was being so difficult and shouting at everyone. I’m sure one of us would have got a beating by now if he could catch us. It was fairly simple, if he goes to hit you run. He can’t get up to chase you and by the time he sees you again he’d have forgotten. When he passes out, the place can be quite peaceful, especially when the lads are out. It was rare to get the place to myself though.
‘Nathan,’ he said. ‘I want you to do something for me,’ his arm flopped off the side of the bed, as his battle scarred hand pointed a crooked finger at me. He squinted his eyes. He always said this when it was time to take part in one of his bets so I braced myself. ‘Now,’ He paused. ‘Luther’s boy and Molam the Chief’s cousin are having a race down the escarpment, and I want you to race them. I’ve got a twenty on you to win. And ya’ brothers,’ he added.
‘Oh,’ I said, completely unenthusiastic. There wasn’t any way of getting out of it so there was no point trying. As soon as he committed me, I was doing it. If I mentioned the fact I didn’t want to, I would get bawled at.
‘And another thing,’ he said, just when I thought he’d finished, ‘the Chief wants you to set off to the Great Hall soon. You’ve got a month and I said you’ll be going.’ He looked at me in the eye when he said that. I’m sure he was looking for a reason to shout at me. He smiled a mischievous smile, to wind me up and see how I would react to being told to go. He was throwing me out. I felt like crying. I nodded and said okay. ‘You will get a car, and you’ll be going with Kiren, you’ll be pleased to hear.’
‘A car?’ I said. ‘Wow.’
‘Don’t get too excited,’ he said, his arm hanging off the bed, his eyes rolled up to look at me. I felt myself edging away from his sight, making it harder for him to see me. I’d driven cars before, but there was some bad news coming.
‘You’ll have to get some fuel from somewhere. We’ve got enough to get you about half way. Then you’re on your own.’
Damn it, I thought and left. For the rest of that day I had a knot in my stomach. I headed for my room and sat on the dirt floor. It was cold so I wrapped a blanket round me and shivered and cried. I wouldn’t have minded so much if going to the Great Hall didn’t mean certain death. But that’s what it meant. I was convinced from that point onwards that my father didn’t care about me. He had too many children, that was the problem. And I was his least favourite. He was the type who favoured the eldest and didn’t care about the others that followed. All he really wanted was one champion. That’s why he chose me. He could have chosen any of those macho, brainless morons, I call my brothers. I sat there for half an hour and thought through all the events. He hurt his leg and poor little Judith died. Then we went to see the Chief. Now I know he’s friends with the Chief’s cousin, but could my mother and sister have traded the cost of the funeral and dads treatment for his leg, for me going to the Great Hall? The Chief was always looking for people to go. He was told to take all the people of the town years ago. But there were few takers, especially the Chiefs own family. Ever since he was told to send everyone, he was looking for people to trick into going to keep them happy and I know he made Luther send one of his kids. Now it was my turn.
Luther was Kiren’s uncle. He’d brought her and her sister up, since her parents went off to the Great Hall and Kiren was left to grow up and see a bit of life before being killed off. Why anyone wanted to go was beyond me. I guess the alternative was worse.
I decided to go and see her. I hadn’t spent much time with her since we moved into our new house. I got up and began walking. It was down the bottom of the hill. Not too far. But as soon as I was about to start climbing down the hill to her place, I saw her coming up. And she was running. I slowed down. There didn’t seem much point in running to her when she was coming up here. So I sat on a rock and waited. I was sat away from her facing the road; my bum hurting against the rock. I didn’t realise straight away, but as she got nearer it slowly dawned on me that she was crying. So I stood up and began running down to meet her, feeling guilty I’d waited up here selfishly, too lazy to go half way.
‘I’m going to the Hall,’ she cried. ‘My uncle’s throwing me out, Nathan!’ I didn’t want to tell her my father was throwing me out as well, but I felt I had to. Get it over with in one go. She flung her arms round me.
‘Me too,’ I said. She looked so sweet, like a child. She looked at me silently for a second or two. She wiped her face again and stopped crying. ‘I’m so sorry. It must be harder for you as well. My parents are already there.’
‘Yeah. I never believed that my father hated me until now. They swapped my going to the Hall for my dad’s treatment for his leg. The Chief will be pleased with himself I expect. We do get to drive, but we’ve only got enough fuel to get half way.’
‘What about my uncle? Could he pay the rest?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know who’s paying what really, Kiren. I assumed my dad was paying for everything. Till now,’ I said. I thought for a while. It was true that both of us are going. Could they not pay for whole trip? We sat on the rock together and talked about everything. She told me her uncle had strict instructions that as soon as she finished school and was old enough to marry she was to be sent to the Great Hall. Of course she didn’t know this until today. We embraced and held each other for a while. Her crying almost made me cry as well. I didn’t think she was going to stop. I had a real job keeping the tears from flowing down my face. But as soon as we started planning the journey and where we could go on the way, it all seemed like a huge adventure. We were actually smiling about it in the end. Then I told her about the bet.
‘They’re pathetic aren’t they? I mean you could die falling of that cliff,’ she argued, although there was little point arguing with me. The cliff was a little farther along the escarpment, and was covered with lumps of loose rock. ‘Hey, you know what we could do, don’t you?’
‘What?’ I said.
‘We could leave early, like tomorrow!’
‘My brothers would murder us both. I have to go when I am told and that’s that, because if I try and pull any stunts, the Chief will be upset with dad and dad with me. And he’s in a real nasty mood since he broke his leg.’
‘And little Judith died.’
‘Yes of course,’ I felt like saying he didn’t care about her, just his leg and the Chief. But I wasn’t convinced that was true. He may not care about me, but I know he cares generally. Like a general will care about his troops. ‘But we will have a good time together you and I. When we arrive we’ll get the monks to marry us.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. She was really excited. ‘And if my uncle won’t pay for the rest of the trip, I think we should take Sisian and Connie instead of a car. What use is a car if we run out of petrol?’ I agreed. But I would have to square it with dad first. If it saves him one of his precious cars and petrol, then I’m sure he’ll be okay with it. We were both dead set on the idea, by the time we started heading back for our evening meal. I said she could eat with us. They won’t miss her down there and anyway, they know where she’s gone. It’s not like she has any other friends round here.
* * *
The following day dad’s friends arrived for his bet. Kiren had stayed over, so I was glad she was there to look after me if anything went wrong. The three boys were stood at the top of the bank, which was about two hundred feet down, with rubble at the bottom. We were given the start, and I jumped off, not looking at the other boys. The rock was red with large grey rocks on it, which would roll down from time to time. The farther you went down the slope the bigger the rocks got.
I descended on my hands and feet, with my hands scraping on the rock face. I could feel blood, hot streams of it coming from my arms and hands, but didn’t look at it as the pain started to interfere with my concentration. I could hear my brothers’ voices at the top, echoing around as I slid quickly, feeling my way with my thick boots, rattling through them as I fell. I wished they’d shut up, I thought as I listened to my brothers pretending to be concerned that I win this pathetic bet for them. I caught a glimpse of one of the other boys, before reaching the bottom, and looking up I saw one boy had fallen and knocked himself out; the other boy slowly reached the bottom, much more cautiously than we did. Blood was streaming down his face. I didn’t know him, so I couldn’t call his name to see if he was awake. I stood and looked up to see several of blokes also descending down the hill to help the lad at the bottom. It was a bizarre and dangerous bet and I stood back and waited as the blokes arrived and picked him up. One of dad’s friends had driven down the hill and across the dusty strip of land to where we were stood, as the car bounced up and down across the terrain. I walked away. It was their own stupid fault. They were all looking pretty silly now it’s backfired. But it won’t put them off. The sooner I leave for the Great Hall the better.
I walked slowly back up the hill, as everyone helped the young lad. I stood still for a second looking back and could see him stood up now, being washed down with white cloth. I carried on up and was met by Kiren who hugged me. Then dad came forward. My boots were in tatters, and he shook my hand, congratulating me. I didn’t smile or say anything.
‘I’ll buy you some new boots,’ he said, his deep voice sounded genuine. I expect he will buy them. He was a man of his word, even if he did sell my soul to the Chief. I walked off with Kiren to find somewhere quiet to discuss our leaving. Now the bet was over, we could talk about when we would leave.
‘I’ll need my new boots first,’ I said. ‘It will be a long difficult journey. So I’ll need my boots.’
‘All right,’ she said, slightly annoyed about my insistence on this. ‘As soon as you get them we’ll go.’ We hugged, she lent her head on my arm and we snuggled there for a while.
‘I wonder how long we have when we get there?’ I asked.
‘My uncle said you can stay alive for quite a while. Months apparently.’
‘Really? We’re still getting married there aren’t we?’ I asked.
‘Of course. I’m not going to let you go. Oh, your arms and hands are bleeding!’
‘You only just noticed?’ I laughed. They weren’t that bad. She got up and ran into the house. A couple of minutes past while I sat and waited, staring at the door, waiting for her to reappear. I was feeling down. I always suspected I wasn’t liked by my family and now I knew, I was depressed. I always wanted to know for definite, hoping that they would tell me the truth and put me out of my misery. I know that it’s customary for families to have a gathering and a party before someone leaves for the Great Hall. Kiren’s parents did. If they don’t have one for me, then I’ll know for sure, but it did seem that I was first choice when mum went to see the Chief for money and medicine for dad. At least he was on his feet, although with a stick. He was still in pain and could only stay on his feet for a few minutes at a time. The rest of the time he’d lie on his bed and shout at everyone. Kiren appeared with a bowl, and I smiled at her.
‘What?’ she said.
‘Oh, nothing.’ I sighed. She was the very best thing in my life. She sat and silently went about cleaning my wounds. She had a nurse’s touch. She would have made an excellent nurse, or mother. But neither of those things were destined for her now. Yanice arrived a few minutes later with some disinfectant. She poured a cap full from dad’s supply into the water, and stirred it round with the cloth, while Kiren waited to have it back, her hand hovering in mid-air, waiting. She picked it up and went over the wounds again.
‘You have little stones in some of these wounds.’ I didn’t reply. Yanice was crouched in front me, watching everything, as the girls studied my wounds with stones in them. It always fascinated me how women see it as their personal responsibility to care for the injured. Even to the point of nudging rivals out the way, especially men. They treat men as incompetents and amateurs. It’s their responsibility and no one else’s.
‘What happened to the other lad? Is he all right?’ I asked.
‘He’s been taken home. I think he’ll survive. He was on his feet before I left,’ Yanice said.
‘That’s okay then,’ I replied.
Copyright © 2012 by B. C. Bamber