He sat with his glass of white wine in hand, laid his head back into the embroidered arm of the ridiculously fancy comfy chair and glowed.
The late afternoon sun glared through the white linen curtains and all around him posh holiday-makers their guides and their waiters were either sitting admiring the view or swanning around talking in low confident voices. Even in the shade he had to squint.
On the bus to the airport he was just 'Basil, of Alliance and Leicester', who even found himself digging out a notebook and writing some stuff down to look busy.
It was a list:
-Change of clothes*4
-Sun cream factor 40
Was he just trying to blend in or was he still subconsciously trying to look busy like he did at work?
On the plane he was just 'Basil, on holiday', playing with his camera, rereading bits of his guide book, and again, writing notes and checking through his plastic folders full of papers and tickets, occasionally adjusting himself for cramps or loosening and then re-tightening his shirt. Always avoiding any eye contact.
His seat was beside a young man, maybe an adventurer. When he could he looked him over, with envy, a man starting his life with risks. This man wouldn't be bothered with monthly reports he thought to himself, and wouldn't be gazing out the windows on sunny days like he had for thirty years, wondering.
Of course he didn't talk to the man, except when asked if it was alright to close the window shutter, to which he gave little more than a squeak of approval, and nodded his head.
In the airport he was just 'Tourist', with his dutifully colourful shirt, huge camera, and pale anxious face telling anyone in Kenya who wished to know, everything they needed to about him before they even knew it. After the various queues and passport checks, he waddled awkwardly past the row of people with cardboard signs with names on them, past the row of taxis and up to his bus, which thankfully had the name of his holiday company on it, and the name of the resort he was going to.
Even in that small journey across the airport, he felt small, and weak, like he did, in the office, at school, and even at home, but now it was different. In his specially bought white suit, in his chair looking out of the window he was 'Basil: adventurer'.
His mum and dad had gazed lovingly down at a black haired baby when he was born, and 'Basil', is a beautiful name. They probably had an inkling that his hair was actually going to be red like his father's, but they couldn't have known that in less than a year an aristocratic fox in hunter's costume named 'Basil brush' would grace TV sets and please thousands of children with his ridiculous antics. That the name would fuel jokes at their baby's expense, and that the poor thing would fail to see the funny side.
That he would grow to be smaller than average and have a kind of squeaky croaky voice, and that this combination would mean that simply too much of his childhood ended up being spent trying to be normal, unnoticed. Him and his dad would run around in the garden chasing monsters with swords but the moment they left the safety of the house that all stopped, and he was undercover.
When his glass was finished, he left his colonial chair, and headed to the gilded wood bar to get his next. He started with a nervous shuffle but then remembered that bold knight and tried a lofty swagger. God only knows what it looked like but it felt good. Just for once he was hero again, and truly he was.
Twenty five years he'd dutifully saved and carefully paid his pension and then the crash came halving it's value over night, and from that day on he had changed. He scrimped and he saved as before but to a different aim, that was equally fragile but held more meaning after he'd realised the nicer house, the comfy retirement, the wife was not going to happen.
Everything changed flavour then, every sheet of paper he signed, every 'How can I help you, sir' was a step into the unknown, a step towards Kenya, towards the lions of the mara. His life had a full stop here, and he would go home to a cashed in pension, and no savings.
He gathered up the guts, and tried to strike up a conversation.
'It's a beautiful day'
The barman smiled enthusiastically.
'Yes sir, every day is a beautiful day in Kenya'.
Then silence. He tried again.
'Are we heading out tomorrow then?'
'I'm sorry sir, I only serve the drinks, and my English it is not very good sir'
Still a big smile but the barman was now awkwardly looking around for other customers. Basil wondered about asking him how long he'd worked there or what it was like, but decided to just give up. He paid, and returned to the safety of his chair, trying again the stride of the adventure but lapsing into the 'don't look at me' shuffle.
He looked around the room, there were one or two couples about his age, chatting excitedly, sometimes laughing, occasionally fiddling with their mobile phones or brochures. There were a couple of young women chatting eagerly to an older man, dressed in safari gear and evidently loving the attention. He stood by their table with a foot on the leg of the stool and an arm on the table, physically claiming the room and the entire of Kenya as his territory.
Basil was on his own.
One of the posher looking guests went over to the bar and said something in another language to the barman and they both laughed. Basil watched as they chatted on, smiling, while the barman prepared a drink, and then watched as the guest went back to his table, to his group of friends.
Then he looked at the brochures and tried to read their titles. He thought he would get up and pick one up. He knew a lot about lions, had poured through every book, had drank every tv show on the subject of lions he could get for years. Maybe someone would say hello, or he could join in a conversation on the way there or back.
No, this was madness, he wasn't like them, they were confident, the real thing. He got up, he had to get out. He could go to his room and prepare for tomorrow, maybe that would improve his frame of mind. No, too lonely. He'd go out.
There was a door only meters away, and it led onto a verandah. He headed out, and down the steps. it was beginning to cool down outside, and out here he felt like the adventurer again.
'It wasn't the people he was out here for, anyway'.
From outside, the building was far less grand. The verandah was patched onto the edge of a complex of concrete buildings that apart from a peppering of dust were not unlike those of a motorway hotel in the UK. Glossy posters with dot-com addresses and barcodes for mobile phones helped break the illusion further, but peeking through the buses, branded four wheel drive cars, and 1980s Mercedes you could see the yellowing grasses, and the umbrella trees.
Basil smiled to himself, and took a deep breath. Somewhere behind that huge laminate poster of a zebra, there almost definitely was a real one, and gazelles too, and lions. He felt, or maybe he wanted to feel, that it was calling him. He whistled a tune to himself, 'The lion sleeps tonight', his little joke to himself, and then he walked up to the large poster and examined it.
There were lots of animals, possibly too many. Maybe all of the dramatic ones, maybe placed a little too carefully in the landscape, probably edited, but it made him excited.
Maybe he'd go for a walk.
There was a fence marking the boundaries of the place, but it was a single wooden bar on top of wooden stakes so he easily, albeit awkwardly got out and into the grasses. The sky was turning a yellowy orange and the scant nearby trees cast huge shadows that wormed like snakes across the grass as it softly swayed to the breeze.
Now and then he could hear the more enthusiastic crickets practising their nightly song. Facing away from the car park he could almost pretend he was in the wild. No, he was in the wild, this was real. He had to remind himself, and to that aim he decided to venture a little further, perhaps .
An umbrella tree took his fancy, it felt like a comfortable bridge between the adventure and the safe. It was on the edge of a large area with much denser trees but still within running distance of the car park. From there he would be able to soak up the atmosphere, and feel wild enough. He might even catch a glimpse of something.
As he approached he was both relieved and disappointed that the trees and bushes were much farther apart than they seemed. He went cautiously over to a toothbrush bush and broke a bit off, then headed under the the umbrella tree and sat down in a natural depression on the trunk and, chewing on the sprig of toothbrush bush began again to take in the surroundings.
The horizon was now a deep orange and he could begin to pick up stars in the now deepening sky. Even they were different, and the sun was a huge glowing rippling ball in the sky as big as a melon. The crickets were now almost deafening and from time to time he could hear noises of birds or maybe something unusual in the distance. It was everything he'd ever dreamed it would be and more. Every once in a while a group of birds would take to the sky and then gradually circle back into a distant tree. In a mixture of nervousness and curiosity he'd glance into the silhouettes and shadows, but to his disappointment and relief he saw nothing that night.
Out here his imagination and memory ran riot happily together, he was adventuring with Tarzan, he was dancing with locals, he was presenting his own nature program under his breath and he was eagerly watching it with his mum and dad all at once.
The tree fit round him as neatly as the ridiculously embroidered chair he'd been lounging in a half an hour ago, and everything he touched smelt heard or found transported him to another grand adventure.
He was home, finally home, why had he waited so long?
Without knowing it he drifted from fantasy to dream.
He was woken with a start to large sound but it was over before he could register it properly.
Still not conscious enough even for panic he looked around, and then a grunting noise alerted him to two shining points to his right.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the light he picked out the form. Something cow shaped with large curved horns, probably a wildebeest. It snorted, and scratched it's feet. It looked angry.
Then it started to move towards him.
Quicker than he had moved in years he was around the other side of the tree and thankfully it had stopped. He waited. It snorted again, and started pushing towards him, and now he noticed that there were others, also with their eyes fixed on him. Now did not seem like a good time to break for it, but he felt he had to, he started running. He planned, of course to head around it and back to the resort, but as he ran he perceived the others standing stock still but none the less a wall of danger between him and the resort, and still the beast followed.
Basil travelled from tree to tree catching his breath where he could, and always it was nearby. Worryingly he was gradually getting further and not closer to the resort. It was as if he was being driven or herded out. He was no longer enjoying the wilderness and was cursing his own arrogance for leaving home.
The chase, though it never came to blows lasted the night, and whatever the wildebeest wanted of him, probably to protect their young, they were not satisfied until the sun was beginning to rise and he was utterly exhausted. When they finally moved off it was the best he could to to clamber under another tree before he fell again to a more troubled sleep this time.
His dreams were a cruel montage of wild beasts traumatic confrontations with his past, and were ended by the dazzling sun glaring through the canopy.
It was hot, even in the shade, what shade there was. He took his coat off, and the urge was to take his shirt off but knew that he'd fry like bacon in the cruel mid day sun. He was thirsty and his mind returned to the task of getting back.
How far had he gone? He could not see the resort any more, or any sign of it. Should he head back? No not in the midday sun. Huddled up against the tree he waited for what seemed forever, and again his mind ran.
Why wasn't he brave enough to at least try shouting or waving at the wildebeest, or maybe just chanced his luck and ran through them.
What crazed brain had ever thought of leaving the compound in the first place?
He should have known, he was too weak for Africa, a pencil pusher from Sheffield does not belong in the Mara, he should be neatening paper and saying 'Yes sir'. This was his midlife crisis, and his punishment would be painful death in the sun. People will find him and he'll be a funny story in the papers.
'Basil brush found dead in the Bush'
And he wouldn't even get to see the lions.
By the time the sun become low enough he was desperate and headed off at a canter towards safety. Only he hadn't got far before he discovered it wasn't the way he thought. The next discovery was that he couldn't find 'the way' at all. Everything looked the same, the trees even spaced, and mostly of similar height seemed to go off infinitely in all directions. The landscape was entirely flat other than a single hill with a flat top, and he remembered no hill from the previous night so it was of no help either. He decided to head towards it, however. Maybe from there he would be able to see where he was.
It was a long walk to the hill, and the sun was setting when he reached the bottom, but it was not particularly tall, so there was still enough light to see clearly when he got to a good viewpoint.
The view was magnificent and it felt like he could see for miles but there was no sign of the resort. How? He was no superman, he couldn't have gone that far. We went right to the summit and crossed the top. Still no sign of the resort but there was a small lake. That would save him, he had one last glance at the landscape vainly then headed towards it.
Luck had smiled, the water looked clean and clear. Amazingly, he also found food nearby. The most wonderful, the most exciting fruit he'd ever seen. He'd always hated mangoes but somehow this was amazing, to see something that he recognised from the supermarket. It tasted delicious, and when he'd finished he washed the huge seed and vowed to keep it forever.
He sat down by the lake for a while, Africa maybe didn't hate him after all. Again the crickets gradually began practising and then singing and the spell was re-woven. He'd be alright maybe, good feelings.
Elation! There was a shape emerging at the other end of the lake, a lioness. She was beautiful, she drank from the water. Then another emerged and they stood side by side, lapping up the water together.
It was all worthwhile, here he was with a show all to himself. He would treasure this moment for the rest of his life.
He gradually moved towards them, how close could he get. They were still busy lapping up the water for quite some time, which meant he got quite close, close enough to see the blacks if their pupils, this was magic. They were beautiful, their fur catching the rays of setting sun like velvet, their whiskers, queens of the cat world. When their eyes briefly met, his heart shook with joy.
One of them stopped drinking. And lifted it's head high. Wow, this was like 'Born Free', which he's watched so many times. It started slowly walking along the side of the lake. Each elegant stride played in slow motion in his mind.
He started stepping backwards and it began to canter. He began to canter too, and it began picking up speed.
Then he had the first idea that definitely wasn't stupid. He remembered a documentary he'd seen years ago of an African local who'd had extensive experience with lions, and remembered him waving his arms and shouting. Being firm, and not running.
Basil knew what to do, quickly raised his arms turned and faced the lion and shouted. It wasn't a natural gesture for Basil, and the noise he made was more of a squawk than a manly yell.
'Go away you bastard!'
Actually to him it sounded more like a whimper, but she stopped.
He caught his breath and shouted again, and she flinched, bringing him renewed confidence. He started jumping up and down and waving his arms and shouting growling. The lioness paused, backed away and watched for a bit, and then actually turned around and sloped off.
He looked around him and then down at himself, and dusted himself down. He was shaking with excitement, he felt alive, hell, virile. He looked up at the sky.
'I am Basil and I spoke to the lions!'
He shouted it, and then felt embarrassed, but not that embarrassed. He chuckled to himself, this WAS an adventure, a real one, he really was in the wild, he really had survived thus far and found both food and water, he'd seen lions with bells on them, and hell, he might actually live to tell the tale if anyone wanted to hear it.
He had a plan now, he would walk. Even in Kenya he'd probably find something or someone eventually, and again, who knows he might get out with nothing more than sunburn.
It was a stroll now and not a desperate crawl for life. He even caught himself swaggering.
He was not, however, out of the woods. The African nights seemed to be his bane, and soon he was aware of noises around him. Somehow he knew what it was. It was her, and possibly a friend.
He walked faster and peered about him. He at least knew not to run despite the temptation.
Soon he was sure there were two, and there was no mistake, they were definitely following.
He tried shouting and waving but that trick seemed to have lost it's charm.
They always kept their distance, but seemed to make no effort at all to hide. That at least was a small comfort, this was not ordinary stalking, maybe they were just driving him away like the wildebeest before.
Then a new threat, the unmistakeable chorus of roaring of a male some distance ahead. He amended his path and kept going, but they were getting closer. Then just walking and weaving through the trees for who knows how long. A subtly different game from the night before, this time the trees were his enemies and every time he went through a dense patch the lionesses would emerge nearer than before.
When he was ready to fall down with exhaustion and fear had almost lost it's meaning, he paused and saw the lioness shaking from side to side in a gesture that any cat owner knows well. As it flew towards him his last noise was a kind of squeak more than a scream.
A sleep, a period of conscious blackness, and then a feeling of being leant on. A huge paw from the ether. As basil finally summed the strength to stop scrunching his eyes shut they were met with a claw and he screamed in part pain, but mostly fear.
He heard a quick shuffle backward and again ventured to open his eyes, and there facing him were a set of teeth close enough to smell their last kill. He just lay there and let his eyes travel up to meet hers. She roared but stayed where she was.
It must have been five minutes before he dared move a muscle, and then another ten after the swift swipe before he dared again, but eventually he managed to sit up. His leg was sore and looking down he saw that his trousers were ripped almost completely off below the thigh, but the wound wasn't deep. Eyes back on the lioness (no the two lionesses, he noticed) he wriggled his toes and then bent his knee, it really was sore but it all worked, and then tried to get up but again the paw and his face was back on the floor.
He got up again, quicker this time but didn't dare move once up. They watched him for some time, and then laid down. What were they doing? Eventually he tried again to move off but there was a roar and they moved in. He sat down before they needed to do anything.
'Hello ladies', he said sarcastically. 'What can I do for you today?'.
They looked up at him mouths open, panting in the heat.
That's right, he thought, it is hot and I'm dead in this sun anyway. I need to move. How to do this? If he moved away he knew what would happen, so he moved under the tree with them, and sat down. They didn't seem to mind. A mixture of emotions were roused in him. Obviously fear, bewilderment and also despair, but deep within there was another voice, and one that he didn't recognise at first. A quiet 'wow'.
From this odd feeling a dangerous idea came into his head.
'Maybe I can and should stroke them, cats like having their necks rubbed.'
He dared himself to lie his hand gently on the nearest of the two.
Instantly her body became rigid and his body and mind both instinctively sprang back in a way that he didn't entirely understand. He tried to edge further away and she sprang. He was beneath her, pinned to the floor. Her gnarled up and grimacing down at him like a living gargoyle. He could feel her hot breath, feel her spit hit his face as she roared .
They were like that for a good while, her tail thumping angrily through the dusty grass, and him gasping for breath under her as inoffensively as possible, but then she got up off him then went back to reclining a little further away from him and began grooming her paws.
He sat and watched her in silence, again wrestling through more emotions than he usually faced in a week, many of them unfamiliar. He was fairly sure that he's be dead in half an hour at most,this was it. Why was he still worrying about his camera, and wishing that someone could see him now. This was a cruel parody of torture, mixed with his wildest dreams.
Unconsciously he began to voice these internal thoughts, and whilst the initial reaction of his two hosts was overwhelmingly negative they seemed to begin to not bother, and there was nothing to do so he chatted away to himself. As long as there were no sudden movements they generally tolerated him.
'I wonder if I'll get rescued? That would probably be trouble for you two'.
To an imaginary audience: 'Yes there I was quite the thing with two wild lionesses one at each side'.
'Of course I'll need to get home to boast about this'
'Isn't nature marvellous?'
'Don't suppose you have anything to drink, girls?'
Drink was quite a common theme in his monologue, and featured in many guises from cold Martinis and beer to orange juice and even champagne.
He did feel kind of faint, come to think of it. This tree wasn't much of a shelter. After a while he huddled up best he could, and stayed like that, dizzy and possibly even sleeping or passed out at points.
In the evening the lionesses got up and moved away. He could guess where they were going and a large part of him wanted to head in the other direction, but he too needed water. Escape seemed a hollow victory without water so he limply plodded after them, and sure enough he found himself back at the water hole. Dizzy and weak, he mustered the strength to drink too much too soon, and after vomiting profusely proceeded to drink again, slower this time, all the time watched a by fascinated audience of two.
When he felt strong enough he got up and looked around. Maybe there were more mangoes.
This time he found two or three, and while he was eating he was interrupted by another noise, a rustle and then a wildebeest appeared. Basil looked round for his captors. At first glance they appeared to have vanished but a motion in the undergrowth nearby stopped that thought. His attention went back to the wildebeest. God only knows why but it was on it's own and moved very timidly down to the water to drink. For some reason he was no fan of wildebeest. He felt a strange mixture of relief and grim pleasure when the lionesses shot out of nowhere and wrestled the poor beast to the floor, but this was not for long as soon there was a new guest at the dining table.
A male came down. Maybe the male that he'd heard the other night. After much hostility but no actual violence the females retreated with maybe a leg or thigh each whilst the male gorged itself on the larger share. He was huge and covered with scars but evidently in top form.
Now there were three. He told himself that the male would probably be too lazy to be the biggest risk, and while it make some fairly horrific noises in his direction, he was actually right. It was one of the females that strolled up, grabbed him by the leg and dragged him back to what was evidently their favourite tree, and he was able to spend the rest of the night nursing it in comparative peace.
The next day was almost a carbon copy of the first, with just a few subtle differences. He felt worse drank slower and was allowed to carry himself back to the tree that night. By the following day he was beginning to get a feel for what was actually happening.
The pride was at a guess moderately new, the lionesses, young and playful were probably sisters, and were trying their hand at motherhood, or at least ownership. The male was probably the newest member and right now tolerated him, but did insist on spraying him from time to time. As for the females, generally they were a bit rough with him, even more so as they grew accustomed to him, but apparently this was mostly play.
They also seemed to have landed on their feet as a pride. There was a reasonable supply of wildebeest, for some reason, separated from their herd and roaming lonely. Easy targets for two fit and slightly hyper active females and one incredibly lazy misogynist lion. Basically there was a tree a lake and a hill that seemed to suit everyone just fine. Even Basil himself got time to relax and food to eat here.
He began to catch himself enjoying it. He talked to them endlessly and they generally didn't mind. Whilst touching any of then in any way was out of the question he frequently woke up with something huge and furry pressed up against him. The fights were too rough and he was covered in gashes but for the first time in a very long while he felt appreciated, appreciated by lions.
He didn't miss work at all, was getting used to not having a bed, was beginning to actively enjoy being not being safe, and could think of at least three times when he hadn't missed his camera. He felt stronger, which was already actually true, he felt braver which was definitely true, and even felt taller, although this wasn't. Maybe it was just because for a brief while he's stopped caring, but he felt that he could deal with anything now. This sadly was not true either.
Within days, the water got smaller and was soon mud. The wildebeest also became scarcer, either because they had regrouped or just left. This meant that it was also time for the lions to move on.
In theory he knew this from the nature books, but being in the centre of it he felt it too. So much so that he almost felt like it was him leading them. They moved into the plains, and here the hunting was harder, and involved all. Instinctively he knew when one of the others had spotted something, and even knew what to do.
He and the male drew up the middle, the path of least effort and skill while the female slinked ahead. When the time came for the final chase he had an extra party trick of jumping up and down and screaming which helped the others by causing utter confusion whilst they went in for the kill. But out in the plains there was little for him, no fruit, and he couldn't eat raw meat meaningfully.
It was obvious to Basil that he was now on borrowed time, but in a strange way that seemed almost fair to him. It was comforting to think back to his times in the office where he'd say to himself 'Before I die I will see the lions on Africa.'. He was starving but had he seen lions? It was a fair deal, and there was nothing waiting at home for him anyway.
And then he saw it. Something white. A mirage? A dry stone? No. Clearly it was the outline of a van. He was saved if he could just get their attention.
He ran and shouted, he waved his arms, already fitter he moved like the desperate wind, and roared like thunder, 'Help! Stop! Wait'.
They heard him, and saw him, but maybe they didn't. They saw no victorious return of a newborn African lion-man with his pride in tow. They saw a feeble wounded, raggedy man being hotly pursued by deadly predators.
He was halfway there, and in tears of joy and excitement when he heard the first crack. There was a loud roar and one of his lionesses fell, and in dismay he stopped in his tracks.
The male panicked and leapt at him, he felt the thud of it's huge weight hit him and heard another crack of a rifle. The last female retreated, and the first would awaken dazed but alright in a few hours, but basil and the male were both dead.
Local news papers told of the unfortunate tourist who was killed by a lion in front of a horrified crowd after going missing some weeks earlier. They featured interviews with Nervous rangers who would explain the folly of unaccompanied travels in the wild, and a passport photo that he'd always hated. There were naughty giggles in his former office, and then the world forgot.
Nobody noticed a new story going among the Masai of a fiery haired spirit-man that stalked through the bushes and roamed with the lions on the plains at night, but Basil finally was at home in the bush.
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