It was pale and fierce, gulping down a bowl of soup. I wondered if it was Jah, come to deliver me from
Before taking a step towards the pale fierce thing, I reached into the pocket of my Paraguayan Man Of Destiny trousers and took out a box of Swan Vestas. It would be useful to know if it was frightened of fire before getting any closer. Bunching three or four matches together, I struck them across the sandpapery side of the box, and as soon as they lit, I flung them across the ditch which ran between me and the pale fierce thing. With no scrub or gorse to ignite, for they fell on a patch of bare earth, the matches sputtered out quickly, but not before the tiny flames had attracted the thing’s attention, with dramatic results. It let fall the now empty soup bowl and scampered away towards a copse or spinney. This is not the place to go into detail about the difference between a copse and a spinney, which would involve giving dictionary definitions, so be content with the idea that the pale fierce thing was making off, with surprising agility, towards a clump of trees. They were a mix of pugton and simnel trees, and I worried that, once within their shelter, I would lose sight of the thing, for they were heavy with budding spring foliage, fat leaves and dripping pods all enmeshed within a riot of twisting twining tendrils.
Earlier in the week, on the Tuesday, I had won a tin cup for excellence in pole-vaulting at a magnificent sports stadium in
The ditch was deeper than I thought. When, eventually, I clambered to my feet, I saw that the mud walls loomed up much higher than my head, and days upon days of rainfall had worn them smooth. I am very good at sizing up situations rapidly and astutely, for I had been a Tantarabim Cadet, and had the cap and badges to prove it, not that I was wearing them now, of course. I trudged through the mud for at least a mile, in both directions, and was astonished at the uniformity of the ditch’s depth and featurelessness. Nowhere did I come upon a place where I might gain a foothold on some jagged shard or clump of roots. Returning to the spot where I had first fallen, which I had marked, cadet-fashion, by scraping T for Tantarabim! into the muck with a pointed stick, I reached into another trouser pocket, took out my whistle, and parped a shrill blast on it. This would, I hoped, summon the pale fierce thing back from its sanctuary in the spinney. Already, you see, I had worked out that if I was going to escape this ditch, I would need its help.
While I waited for it to come to me, my thoughts turned once again to Jah Rastafari. I wondered if my predicament was a sufferation imposed on me by Jah for purposes only He knew. This was so dispiriting that I was in danger of betraying my Tantarabim Cadetship and succumbing to tears. Indeed, I even sniffled once or twice. I wanted something to smite, to snap me back to my usual gusto, but all I could see was a ditch beetle in a puddle at my feet. It was beyond smiting, for it had already drowned. I parped on my whistle again.
All I knew of the pale fierce thing, other than its paleness and fierceness, was that it was keen on soup and frightened by fire. These were the facts I had to work with. As far as I knew, it might be deaf, and my whistling was in vain. What then? I could retrudge my steps along the ditch, going further than a mile in each direction, hoping to find that clump or shard or even a ladder. But night was falling, and I would be blundering about in the dark. Better to remain here, only yards away from the spinney, or copse. I did not know what kind of creature the pale fierce thing was, but it had a head, and arms and legs, and possibly a tail, though of that I was not certain, and I had to persuade myself that it also had a sense of compassion. Surely it would want to rescue a pole-vaulting tin cup winner who was also an ex-Tantarabim Cadet? It might even know something of Jah, though that was unlikely. Who truly knows Jah? There can be comfort in theological speculation, even for a sinner such as me. I gave the whistle a third, longer, parp, and turned my mind to the divinity, or otherwise, of Haile Selassie. As if on cue, the head of the pale fierce thing peeped down at me from the edge of the ditch. It had shockingly huge bright eyes, like those of a tamarind, but otherwise there was nothing monkey-like about that head. Somehow I knew speech would be useless. I merely gazed up at it, imploringly. Its head swivelled, left and right, with insect speed, and then returned to look at me again. In the mud, I stood to one side and pointed at my T For Tantarabim! scraping. Did I see a flicker of understanding in those big eyes? It was hard to tell.
A carrion crow swooped in to land and perched on the ditch’s edge a little way from the pale fierce thing. It might have been the same crow from which I had plucked a feather to test the wind. Bird and thing looked at each other, and I was aware of an intensity in the space between them, mesmerising, icy, alien, utterly beyond anything I could comprehend. I squelched my boots in the mud. What would Haile Selassie do? What would Jah do? What, apart from squelching, would I do? I dredged up all I had learned as a Tantarabim Cadet. Testing the wind with the feather of a carrion crow. Always carrying a box of Swan Vestas and knowing how to strike them three or four at a time. Daily pole-vaulting practice, with rest periods. Never bringing a pan of soup to the boil, and transferring the soup to the bowl with deft elegance. Never trying to eat soup with a fork. The carrion crow and the pale fierce thing were still gazing, one to the other, in an uncanny compact. Always buying soup bowls from Hubermann’s. Collecting the discount vouchers and tucking them neatly into the little Hubermann’s discount voucher wallet provided. Being spry and sprightly through the waking hours, and, on one’s pallet, lying splayed out. Checking the mercury six times a day. Never using the string that ties one’s tent pegs into a bundle as a leash for a dog. The naming of dogs to be restricted to Patch or Rags or Spot. Praising Jah Rastafari. Discarding the pips from fruit with care. Never mixing soup with fruit. The sky was black now, but in the faint starlight I could see silhouetted the carrion crow and the pale fierce thing, utterly still, utterly enrapt by each other. Knowing the difference between a spinney and a copse. Knowing a ditch from a trench. Not being reliant on maps. Marking one’s spot by scraping T For Tantarabim! in the mud with a pointed stick. Always carrying a pointed stick. Having the pointed stick threaded through one’s dreadlocks to keep the hands free. Using the hands to smite things to revive gusto. Not smiting that which has drowned. Tying knots. Keeping one’s cadet cap clean and dry. Daily polishing one’s badges with a rag steeped in cadet badge polish from Hubermann’s. Speculating upon the divinity or otherwise of Haile Selassie. Regular study of Ethiopian history. Eschewing frippery where’er it raises its unseemly head.
I had been taught that these Tantarabim Cadetship skills would stand me in good stead throughout my days in