Would you believe that, of all the places that a vehicle driven by two thirsty men on their way to a meeting, would break down, it would be outside a pub? Never.
Frank Merryweather, the party-leader of the team of natural resources mappers in the Zambezi Valley in 1972, didn’t believe it and neither did anyone else at the meeting, but that’s what happened. I don’t remember the name of the store, it was somewhere in Trevor Tawse’s area, but just outside of the store, the ball joint of the Landy’s front steering arm fell down. Fortunately my foreman, Jack, was with us and he had become used to tightening it up. Much better at it that either me or Charles Howard (Jed), and as there was no room under there for the three of us, we repaired to the nearest available shade. It becomes very hot when you stop driving, no breeze, as it were, and in no time we were very thirsty. What I’ve never understood is that Frank never tore us off a strip because we got a bit tipsy there, relieving our thirst. No, he seemed more annoyed because he thought we were lying about where we had broken down, or even lying about breaking down.
So, we were a little late and I drove the Landy into the meeting. Well, the meeting was outside in the shade in a semicircle of chairs, but there was a gap just wide enough to put the bonnet of the Landy into, which was fortunate, because I could see that there were not quite enough chairs and of course we could just use the vehicle to sit in while the meeting could continue around the bonnet. Frank went sort of puce, so I apologised for being late as we had broken down outside the pub. The meeting had a sort of non-verbal vote and the general consensus seemed to be that I was a stranger to the truth.
And Brer Jed, he don’t say nothin’. I actually think that he was embarrassed. The meeting continued and our transgression seemed to be forgotten in the face of the news of the lions.
The Shiré floodplains were the predominant feature of both Tawse brothers’ areas. It still flooded occasionally, so it mostly consisted of grasslands with palms and some dense thickets. As on the Zambezi floodplain, there was plenty of evidence of the lala-palm crop being reaped. The lala-palm (Hyphaene petersiana), or vegetable ivory, produces a hard, carvable nut, but the locals are less interested in this than they are in the distillable sap which will run from diagonal slashes in the stem.
So, in the season, the unfortunate lala-palms resemble a mutilated army, standing, slashed and bleeding into containers as the previous cuts try to heal themselves. As the sap runs slower, the palm is beheaded and a woven palm-leaf hat is placed over the wound to help slow the congealing process.
The territories of the various groups of brewers are fiercely defended, even to the death, it is rumoured. While mapping, I had stumbled across their stills, and Jack would hurriedly assure the seemingly empty bush that we mean no harm, we were not Portuguese and neither were we policemen. After a time, if there was anyone sober enough to understand this, the brewers might emerge from the thicket and offer us some of their brew. Like the unrefined product anywhere in the world, you could use it for high explosive or run racing cars on it and after the first taste, I developed a pantomime of refusal that included a scene of my death that was received with laughter and a touch of the contempt that the seasoned moonshine imbiber holds for the uninitiated. They certainly lived off their own product. They absorbed more than they sold, living in the swamps like animals, emaciated, covered in sores, almost naked. Their families visited to try and recover as much as they could of the product for sale in the villages, giving them food and clothing in return, until their livers hardened to stone and they died, to be replaced by another of the family.
This concerned three sap tappers in Derek Tawse’s area. It transpired that on the previous Tuesday night, they had slipped into their usual evening’s coma, as their intake touched the Enough mark.
I suppose that it was too much to expect for anyone to leave well alone such a tasty meal as was found unattended that night. Consider, (although it may not have been the youngest of meat,) there can be no doubt that it had been subjected to a thorough and continual process of marinating. More tender could not be found. The strange thing was that the head of the hungry family not only decided which morsel they should devour, he allowed none of them to touch any other.
The new day burned down on the comatose men until one of them finally awoke. He stumbled to his feet to find water and finally focussed a bleary eye on his companions. He took a considerable time to believe what he saw. Whilst one of them was still unconscious, the other was gone; except for his head. The lions had devoured the rest of him while his companions slept on undisturbed.
Jed muttered to me, “I know we’ve had a couple of beers, but I hope Frank doesn’t bite our heads off.”