Competition entry, 1994 words
The 12.35 Eurostar pulled out of Gare du Nord in Paris bound for London’s St Pancras not long after the Channel Tunnel opened. Hector McAndrews settled back in his First Class seat, looking forward to lunch and a glass of rosé. He was pleased to sit alone, able to think about work, writing various stories for international media, especially an assignment about the River Thames, comparing residential life long ago and living on the river now. A photo-journalist for over 25 years, Hector loved his work taking him to cities he revered, especially Paris, home for many years. He just had to walk along a street for story and photo opportunities to present themselves.
As he considered a story about ridding central Paris of vehicles, a slim upright fellow, possibly in his early sixties, placed his bag in the luggage rack and plumped down opposite. Hector hoped he wasn’t the chatty type, preferring to contemplate the countryside flying past, recalling childhood train journeys in coal-fuelled steam trains, and hearing still the rhythmical belching sounds and the pounding wheels. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “From a Railway Carriage” came to mind:
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches …
Nowadays the trains were quiet, but he was still thrilled with memories of the cosiness of the old-style compartments, just his mother and him, sometimes six plush seats to themselves, and old landscape paintings to prompt dreams of other places. The trains were slower then, the passing scenes could be studied. Now Hector only glimpsed a blur of fence, clumps of trees punctuating the view, long flat fields rising to the horizon with a tiny barn or shed indenting the sky.
Hector was relieved the new arrival sat looking out. He would say something soon to be friendly, but there was no need – the man reached into his jacket pocket and took out a crumpled old newspaper cutting, smoothing it on their shared table. He looked at it with reverence, as if to make a speech from notes, head tilted, viewing his audience with respect. Hector caught his eye. The man looked worried, as if uncertain what to say, then he found his voice.
“I hope you don’t mind but I have sat here on purpose. I saw a kindly fellow, a man of the world, probably well travelled, able to converse, enjoy company and have a laugh.”
Hector couldn’t disagree. “Thank you, I do indeed enjoy a chat and have visited many countries as a writer, reporting on places I’ve seen. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, I have to tell someone something as often as I can – doctor’s orders long ago, self-revelation, expressive therapy he called it.”
Hector thought of The Ancient Mariner, who “stoppeth one of three” to listen to his awful tale. He wondered if this was similar. The writer and optimist in him felt a good story was imminent.
“Would you like to tell me? We have a while before Waterloo.”
“Oh, thank you. My name is John Johnstone.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, I am Hector McAndrews.”
John Johnstone straightened his back, leaned forward and began his tale.
“There was tragedy in my family before World War Two, when life wasn’t easy for people. My mother had difficulty giving birth. I was lucky to be born, not helped by there being two of us coming into the world at the same time. We were poor and my brother was taken away, so I never knew about his existence for many years. It must have been awful for my mother at the time and having to keep it secret. Years later I learned I had a twin called Walter. I vowed to find out what had happened to him. I was intelligent and got a job with a newspaper in Manchester, just sweeping the floors at first but later I was assigned to write a story about how families were preparing for another awful war. After a few years I became a regular writer and had access to records and newspapers. A big part of my work was sifting through newspapers and cataloguing articles in a vertical file. I loved reading stories of strange people and faraway places. One day in an American newspaper I found an article, entitled “Terrible Conflict with Lions”. It was rightly sub-titled, “A Remarkable Story”. I read casually at first but became transfixed on seeing the name of the chap in the conflict. It was the same as my twin brother. I continued with hope and dread. This is the article here now. May I read bits of it to you?”
Hector was intrigued. “Of course, I’m all ears.”
“Walter Johnstone’s work involved mapping and in September, 1957 he was in the west of Tanganyika to map some features of the country. On October 2nd, Mr Johnstone was by the Kalungwizi River and shot a waterbuck nearby – not clever because five lions appeared and fell on the carcass. Walter shot at them wounding two, the others ran off. He and his driver followed until they spotted one of the wounded lions. They alighted and moved towards it. It promptly charged, so Walter shot it in the neck and in the nick of time. The infuriated creature chased the driver running hell for leather, caught him and seized him. Walter ran up to the writhing bodies but dared not shoot for fear of harming the driver. Suddenly the lion ceased to rip and claw, keeled over, succumbing to the earlier shots. The driver was in shock but otherwise seemed to have survived the mauling.”
John Johnstone paused to assess his listener’s interest, enough to continue reading. He needn’t have worried because Hector was making notes and asked him, “I wonder why Walter shot at the lions busy devouring the waterbuck. Do you think he was inexperienced?”
Mr Johnstone replied, “Yes, that had crossed my mind. Better if he had just observed them. Perhaps he took fright or something. Shall I continue?”
“Please do, it’s fascinating.”
“Walter told the driver to get another gun. Meanwhile he climbed a tree to see if he could espy the other lions. He shouted out loud, and the second wounded lion appeared at the foot of the tree. It was bleeding freely from its wounds, but it was made of sterner stuff than the other lion, and leapt up the tree, although the lower branches were ten feet up. It seized Walter by the thigh and ripped him down to the ground. In a flurry of fur and angry growling, lion and man struggled and tussled, the creature gnawing his victim at the arms and sides. In a desperate effort to get the creature off, Walter thrust his arm down the lion’s throat, whereupon the lion moved off a short distance, watching him like a cat eyeing a mouse. Walter edged towards his rifle beneath the tree, reaching it after agonising minutes, and succeeded in shooting the lion between the eyes. He was exhausted and had to sit down until his driver came back with a policeman from the nearby village of Chiluvias.”
Hector was quietly making notes, all the while looking at the reader. He said, “I think Walter was lucky to escape like that.”
“Yes, the story isn’t over though.”
The driver and policeman cleaned up Walter’s wounds with some permanganate of potash, then took him to the village, and sent a message to Dr Mackay of Kambole, asking for help. He came accompanied by his wife, a nurse. Two weeks later they had to amputate two fingers of Walter’s right hand. He became feverish with a large abscess in his left leg. They sedated him and the next day he was moved to a bigger town 60 miles away. This journey was difficult and although he was receiving hospital treatment, he was in a state of high fever and delirium, unlikely to recover. A few days later, Walter breathed his last and was buried beneath a large tree at Kambole beside a road that he had once surveyed.
This was a sad death of one so young, such a hopeful career ahead of him, but his trigger happy ways, prompted out of fear, had proved his undoing. He had gone to Africa at the age of 21 and had been there only a few months.
Hector said, “I think the words ‘trigger happy’ proved his inexperience in the wild.”
John Johnstone said, “We were born in 1936.”
Hector sat very still, his head teeming with thoughts and ideas. He knew a good story when he heard one. He said, “How amazing to find out what happened to your twin, a newspaper article by chance.”
Mr Johnstone replied simply, “I wished I could have known him, even for the short time of his life. My life would have been so different if we had been brought up together, and especially perhaps for Walter whose life might have been different, who knows?”
Hector offered a kind thought, saying, “Our lives are possibly more interesting for how we have lived them and how they could have been otherwise. You are dealing with how things could have been so different, am I right?”
Mr Johnstone replied, “Yes indeed, my heartfelt thanks to you for listening.”
Hector started thinking about his own experience, how he had left home to travel the world, to become a travel writer. What if he hadn’t had itchy feet? What if he had listened to his mother who wanted him to go to a local university. What would he have become?
Mr Johnstone continued, “There isn’t a day goes by but I wonder what my brother was like, if we looked alike, if we had similar personalities, what took him out to Africa, what family he was with before that, how would we have been together growing up. It’s all-consuming for me. Hence the need for therapy. I thank you for listening. You have helped me. Oh, here’s lunch coming, I’d better get back to my seat in cattle class. All the best, and bon appétit! Hope you can have a glass of rosé.”
Hector sat back, mulling over the twin’s lion tale. He dimly took in the speeding blur of countryside, not long to the darkness of the “Chunnel”, to Waterloo, to seeing his boss and talking about his assignment. The storyteller had gone, possibly off to tell his tale to another likely listener. Hector thought Walter’s story was very fine, but the writer in him was already putting flesh on its bones, adding photos of lions, safari conditions and a young trigger-twitching chap in khaki and cotton, toting a gun.
He was glad he had taken notes, to be able to work up a good piece, possibly titled, “Lost Twin Found”, “Tall Twin Tales” or “The Lion Twin”. The circumstances were fine, something told to him by a stranger out of a psychological need, so no need to transmogrify it, no need to make it racier. It could easily grace the pages of a magazine, a glossy travel magazine even, or enter a short story competition on the radio. He would add though that he had explored an inner world of anguishing over the outer and how different his past could have been, and the future.
The train zoomed into the darkness of the Channel Tunnel. He would have 35 minutes with no distractions, in a revery, in a train, in a tunnel. Hector found his thoughts kept turning to the slim chances of finding news of a twin five decades later, his having been killed by lions 50 years before. He would put that and more into the story. For now though, he tried to turn his mind to writing about life on the banks of the Thames and how to glean first-hand information about the authorities’ traffic-free plans for the centre of the City of Light.