A Short Story For Christmas: Gilstrap, the homesick explorer

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The tamarind trees hummed with the evidence of baboons, Gilstrap had noticed, because the noisy creatures loved squatting in the branches, cracking a tamarind seed, and a smile, with each bite of their doggy teeth. You could not camp within 50 feet of a tamarind. But Gilstrap was not dismayed. "There it is!" he said, with cheery fatalism, and tugged his moustache. He was on a quest.

The Two-Toed Tumbo people were the object of this quest, yet as an explorer he knew that such a journey was a continuous series of startling confrontations of which the baboons chewing in the limbs of the tamarind were just one. This was the Zimbaba, the lower river.

It was not Mudford, the home he had left too long ago even to remember the names of its trees, nor any of the people there, except the ones who had tormented him as a youngster, and the woman who waited for him in vain. Her name was Elveera Howie. Mudford was the past and, like all such distant memories, it was unreal and a little absurd, a sort of toy-town he had abandoned, when he was Freddie Gilstrap from Webster Street.

Gilstrap the explorer had a taste for hardships but could not abide nuisances, which was why he had fled Mudford and why he had stayed away. Elveera was just an encumbrance, because she would not leave the hideous town.

Christmas was coming. Good! He was where he wanted to be, on the other side of the earth. In Central Africa, beneath the tamarinds and winterthorns of the Zimbaba banks. Gilstrap knew that had he been anywhere else, he would be yearning to be back here on the Zimbaba.

Sometimes, trekking alone in the heat along the river bank he was able, in his stupor of satisfaction, to recover his dislike of Mudford. There was, first of all, Elveera Howie, supporting herself by giving music lessons in the parlour of her house near Craddock Bridge, adjacent to the Interstate; and the Interstate itself, looming over the town, illuminating Mudford with its glaring lights at night and, with that traffic, drowning the music of Elveera's strings. Mudford was never silent, nor ever dark.

The pillars of the Interstate attracted graffiti, and beneath the arches were strange encampments of drifters and drunks. Then there were Gilstrap's hatreds: the litter, the filthy black seats of a Mudford taxi and the meaningless smile of the driver. Someone at a soda fountain slurping a drink or loudly chewing ice. Circus animals, baseball hats on backwards, the exultant insincerity of The Mudford Messenger. Dirty hands, cold eyes, billboards, bad breath, most flags. The person who rested a damp drinking- glass on a book cover, and bus fumes, and the idiot laughter of someone watching TV. Mayor Mazzola, Dr Enid Hugo the dentist, Hump his neighbour's lab - just one of Brimble's slobbering dogs, Elveera's cat Morris, most children, and - in this season - everything to do with Christmas, from the Christmas carols monotonously repeated in elevators and the overstuffed Santa ambushing him from every Mudford street corner, to the top-heavy Christmas trees on their wobbly stands.

Gilstrap craved new sights, and in Africa he was thrilled when he reflected, I have never been here before, and better, Nor seen anything like this before.

Even better, Nor has anyone else.

He was altogether a satisfied man. He was more than fifty, but could pedal that many miles on his bike in half a day, and not only could do that number of push-ups as well but often did. On any quest, he said, the principal thing was never to look back.

His bearers saw him down the Zimbaba from Chambo in dugouts - the river was down, the heavy rains were not due until mid-December - and just above Kawaba he paid off his bearers and sent them back, and struck out on his own, the low scrub smacking his puttees.

And while Gilstrap marched he heard a child's bratty voice call out, "Go away!"

"On the contrary."

He spoke pompously, to make his point, yet was somewhat self-conscious at finding himself replying to a bird in a tree. It was, of course, a Go-Away bird.

"I am staying."

Because, GiIstrap reflected, it was a land without Christmas trees, nor any suggestion of home; it was, in a word, not Mudford. He had spoken indignantly and it seemed significant that there had been no answer, so the bird had quite seen his point.

One afternoon, he pitched his tent and, squatting to tidy the tent pegs, could not rise from his heels. He toppled forward, used the last of his strength to zip the flapping door, and there he lay, under canvas, twitching like a monkey. He was very cold. He shivered. He grew warm. His brain ached, his skin was scorched, he panted, he slept, he saw doggy demons with chewed fur and red eyes; he saw cranky birds on black trees with beaks like scissors; then he saw nothing, for he felt that his eyes were being boiled in their sockets.

When the fever finally passed, Gilstrap crept from his tent, weak and thirsty, and knelt at the river bank. He saw a troop of baboons all tangled in the tamarinds. The baboons joined him, scoop-splashing the water to their mouths as Gilstrap did - the Zimbaba was clean enough to drink.

Ranged on the bank, the baboons regarded him with dripping faces, but what struck Gilstrap most of all was the way the baboons separated into little families, mother and child and frowning father, just the way Mudford families picnicked at Hickey Park or rested by the banks of the Mystic River, near Craddock Bridge, at Christmas. Now he remembered that fragment of Mudford and sighed.

Resuming his hike, he saw a crocodile on a sand bank with its mouth wide open, and a white-feathered egret approached it, and Gilstrap was put in mind of Dr Enid Hugo, the dentist, and her long legs and white smock. The egret did a most dentist-like thing, tilted her head and drilled expertly between the crocodile's teeth, foraging as she cleaned them. He remembered the garrulity of Dr Hugo, though perhaps her questions were no worse than the insistent egret.

A roly-poly hippo, not far away, raised itself before Gilstrap and seemed to smile, and Gilstrap was put in mind of a well-padded Santa, shaking with laughter, on a Mudford street corner. But the Santa was the more harmless of these buffoons.

Even trotting busily along the banks, the hippos looked like shoppers and they munched in the herbage like mothers at lunch.

"Go away!" he heard, and it was repeated.

He knew it was another Go-Away Bird, yet now the command made him pensive.

Gilstrap pushed on, picking the odd guava and watching the slow-footed progress of his dusty boots, to the doubtful encouragement of the Monotonous Lark and the screech of the Racquet-tail Roller in their tumbling acrobatics.

Towards nightfall, camped by a kopje, he felt a pair of eyes upon him - a warthog receding - indeed backing directly into his hole. Yet Gilstrap did not see the tusks and the hairy nostrils, the bristly face nor the oversized head, but the sweeter and sillier face of Hump, the lab, settling into his dog-bed with the same tentative inquiry of his hindquarters.

Not twenty feet away, another wart-hog was also reversing: this one, with a snout like a hood ornament, looked like an old Chevy, specifically that of Ed Brimble, Gilstrap's Mudford neighbour, as he fastidiously backed into his garage.

Gilstrap woke and crawled from his tent to see Aunt Torn at breakfast, nodding at her spinster sisters, Grace and Trudy. But no: though they had many Gilstrap features - solemn and long-faced and leggy - it was a trio of Marabou Storks, at work on the remnants of the food Gilstrap had unwisely left out last night. They had just about finished his provisions, and had punished the horde of guavas he had gathered.

Put distinctly in mind of Mudford at that juncture, he saw something Wagnerian in the Cape Buffaloes, which looked like an entire cast of Parsifal at the Mudford Opera. Reminiscing in this way Gilstrap hardly noticed the eland beneath their horns, so lyre-like you half expected the phantom hand of a lovely woman - Elveera's perhaps - to reach out and pluck them and fill the air with the plangency of this chord.

Yet there was no music here. There was all of Africa, and not the chirping of birds but their sudden utterances, the Go-Away Bird with its command, and even more orders from the Mourning Dove, which repeated, "Work harder, work harder!" and at noon, "No farther, no farther!" and at nightfall, "Drink lager, drink lager!"

In his already crapulous state, Gilstrap heard and obeyed and, listening for more, heard the Laughing Dove laughing and a Spotted hyena yakking like a boasting child. Stumbling in the darkness, he shone his torch and saw a porcupine like a pot- scrubber and a Night Ape lurking like Mayor Mazzola, and a large ripe artichoke. The artichoke made him hungry - and a bit homesick, too, for the last artichoke he had eaten at Elveera's in Mudford - but, before he could feast on this one, he saw it revealed as a pangolin.

Onward in the morning on more reluctant feet, he saw a squirrel and he was back in Hickey Park, but it was just a bush squirrel, nor as glossy or as well-fed as the Mudford squirrels. He saw more families of Mudford picnickers, but they were troops of Chacma baboons. Nor was that creature Morris the cat, but instead a frolicking, clawless otter, drying itself on a rock; that coiled coach-whip an Egyptian cobra, that coat-rack on the pretty patterned carpet a Goliath heron standing in a backwater in a small sea of hyacinths.

"Go Away," cried the Go-Away Bird.

He glanced up and saw a Fish Eagle and, for an instant, was in the Mudford Post Office, standing under the American Eagle, getting his mail, which at this season would have been a stack of Christmas cards.

Yet the Hooded Vulture was a hooded vulture, the tse-tse flies were tse- tse flies, the crocs crocs, the bats bats, the sunlight's shattering flash like the swipe of a golden sword. Gilstrap knew he ought to have been nearer to the object of his quest, and yet he seemed no nearer.

He turned inland, away from the river bank, in desperation and what he saw made him pine for Mudford: as far as he could see were Christmas trees. Pine trees here? Yes, the trees were gorgeous - their green boughs beautifully decorated with bright trinkets. Gilstrap wept at their symmetry and their colour, and even at the way they so explicitly wobbled on their stands.

Through his tears of homesickness, how was Gilstrap to know that these were the Two-Toed Tumbo People in their ceremonial cloaks, which were contrived from the feathers of the Green-Backed Heron and the Green Sandpiper, the Emerald Cuckoo and the Olive Bee-eater, and hung with ornaments?

"Go Away," cried the Go-Away Bird.

This time Gilstrap obliged, leaving his tins and his camp stool and his puttees and his tent, and fled upriver to Chambo, and caught the night bus, the first of many journeys that brought him back to Mudford and his love.

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