Shortly after I had graduated from high school, on a holiday down in the bush with my family, my father and I heard a couple of lions roaring in the middle of the night, and decided to go out looking for them.
The open Land Rover we were using at the time was a temperamental old wreck, shuddering and coughing reluctantly into action when you turned the key, and taking off with all the speed and grace of an oil-tanker. But we coaxed it into life and headed on out to the spot where we imagined the lions to be. And found them.
We nursed the struggling old war-horse through a deep, dry riverbed and up onto a wide, open plain on the other side, where we stopped and did a sweep with our spotlights. There, some way off down the road, we spotted our lions. Four of them, eyes glowing back at us like headlights from the edge of the darkness. And then we did something a little odd. Instead of driving up for a closer look, we turned off the vehicle. And the lights.
It had been drizzling earlier, and the bush was covered in tiny, shimmering droplets of water, clinging to the grass and the trees like a dusting of glitter. The clouds had cleared, revealing a full moon bright enough to read by. All around us the bush glowed with reflected light, except for the road in front of us, a dark, narrow line curving off into the distance and splitting the scene in two. It was a wonderfully peaceful scene.
Except for the four lions, which were now casually strolling down the road towards us. We discussed, in hushed whispers, whether or not to try and start the vehicle. The lions got closer. We stopped discussing. Closer. We stopped breathing. The lions stopped a few feet in front of the vehicle, and sized us up.
We had decided, during our whispered conference, to sit things out. We were pretty sure the lions would peel off into the bush to go round us, and besides, sitting in an open vehicle close to lions and other wild animals is more thrilling than it is dangerous. As long as you don’t stand up, the theory is that lions cannot separate the humans from the enormous chunk of metal in front of them, and simply leave you alone.
It’s a lovely theory. It does, however, seem a little less convincing when you’re sitting in the dark, in an open bucket of loose bolts that probably won’t start, a few feet away from the top of the food chain. But then, to our enormous relief, the lions peeled off into the bush. Or at least two of them did. We were slightly less relieved when the other two strolled straight up to the front of the vehicle. And parted. One went left and one went right. My father and I clearly both felt that this wasn’t really an ideal time for a strategy meeting, and we both silently decided to watch the one on the right.
The lions had obviously decided that they didn’t want to get wet, and stayed on the road, which was just a narrow dirt track. This meant that as she passed us, the lioness on our right was close enough to reach out and touch without stretching. She also, as if to let my father know she wasn’t really buying that whole “one big chunk of metal” theory either, turned her head and made direct eye-contact with my father, holding his gaze as she strolled by.
And the other lion? God alone knows. I assume he was ambling past on the other side of the car, but he might have been moonwalking for all we knew. What I do know is that as my father’s lioness reached the back of the vehicle, so did he. Where he stopped. And turned. And started to crane his neck and look down into the back of the vehicle. Where I was sitting.
My father, having had part of his soul burned out by the eyes of the lioness, cracked. He turned the key, and the old Landy rattled into life. He jammed the gear lever into first, and slammed his foot down on the accelerator. The Landy took off like a tortoise with a wooden leg. And so did the lion. He started off at a slow walk, but as the Landy picked up speed, so did he, trotting along a few feet behind us, still craning his neck.
He never got faster than a trot. Agonisingly slowly, we pulled away, eventually leaving him behind in the dark. We pulled over and sat in silence for a moment or two. And then, for the first time in my life, I bummed a cigarette from my father.
Why am I telling you this? Memory. I am currently being plagued by memories. And not this kind. This, you see, is a proper memory. I was, for a brief moment, part of something incredible. Something primal. I shared something with our remotest ancestors and with someone hugely important to me.
This happened more than twenty years ago, but I will hold on to every detail ‘til the day I die; the smell of the rain on the grass. The breath of the lions puffing out in moonlit clouds in front of them as they emerged from the darkness. The soft, rhythmic grunts they let out with every step as they padded past. The hair on the back of my neck that tracked the unseen progress of the lion behind us. My hands, slippery with sweat, that clutched the hard metal body of an old SLR camera on my lap, film wound on and flash charged and ready, finger poised over the tall silver button, never to be pushed, because the ancient lizard part of my brain had explained to the wannabe wildlife photographer part that a sudden “CLICK! FLASH! WHIRRRRRRRR!” might just trigger some sort of Pavlovian response in my subject.
This memory is a wonderful thing. But I will never wake up with it. I have to take it out like a childhood photo album, blowing off the dust before flicking through it frame by frame, nodding happily to myself at each familiar step along the way, thinking “Yes. That was a day.”
So what do I wake up with? Zenj.
And what is Zenj? Zenj is the name of an ancient lost city hidden by the steaming jungles of central Africa. It is rumoured to be the final resting place of a fantastic treasure, but watch out! It’s protected by huge, psychotic, man-eating gorillas.
At around the same time as our adventure with the lions, I stayed up one night and watched the saga of Zenj on the movie channel. And that’s about all I remember of it. Man-eating gorillas, steaming jungles, and a fabulous lost city called Zenj. It was a supremely bad movie. Tim Curry was in it, chewing up the scenery like Frankenfurter from the Rocky Horror Show after eating rather too many pies.
But the word has stuck with me. Every couple of months, I will wake up and it will pop into my head like an unwelcome visitor. Zenj. I will carry it around with me all day, rolling it around in my head. Zenj. It will leap out at me as I wait in the bank queue. Zenj. It will distract me while I’m trying to parallel park. Zenj. It will interrupt my children while they try to catalogue the day’s injuries when I pick them up from school. Zenj.
And then, the next day, it will be gone again. This may seem like an odd thing to remember for decades, but it makes perfect sense. Just say it out loud. Zenj. It helps if you pretend to be Tim Curry while you say it. It is a supremely satisfying thing to say. It’s wonderfully awkward; letters aren’t supposed to go together like that. Repeat it throughout your day. Zenj. It will make you happy.
Like “the Farm Hand”. I am not an Ashton Kutcher fan. I don’t dislike him, he simply doesn’t mean anything to me. But once, again several decades ago, I saw him do a “thing” on TV. I have no memory of the context; all I remember is him pretending to be a professional wrestler, holding up one clawed hand, and growling in a professional wrestler voice “Beware of the Farm Hand!”
And it stuck. Like Zenj. Every few months, “The Farm Hand” will steal unbidden into my consciousness, and I will be forced to carry it around for a while. Luckily, now that I have children I can put it to good use. To help calm them down and get them ready for bed at night, I can stiffen a single hand into a claw, hunch over my shoulders, and run around behind them growling “The Farm Hand!”
It doesn’t actually seem to work, but you can’t blame a man for trying. Mrs 23thorns can, though. Mrs 23thorns can blame a man for trying. It hurts me very deeply.
But don’t worry about me. When my feelings are hurt, I can always take refuge in “Kibble, Quibble”. “Kibble, Quibble” was a TV show that has burned itself into my psyche. Which is a little surprising, since it only aired once, when I was in my early teens. There was a bit of a build-up, a series of teasers telling us how hilarious it was going to be, and I was hooked. On the big night of the pilot episode, I set myself up in front of the TV. This was going to be so good! I would laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
It was a remarkable show. Two men in suits walked up to a stranger in a shopping centre. They hauled out a crisp new R50 note, and held it up in front of the man. “This”, they said, “is yours if you swim across that fountain over there.” The man looked at them. Then he looked at the fountain. Then he looked back at them. “Seriously?” he said. “Seriously”, they replied.
So he handed his wallet and keys to a friend, strolled over to the fountain, and with all the drama and excitement of a dog waking up but deciding to go back to sleep again, swam across. He pulled himself out, strolled back over to the men in their suits, and held out his hand. They gave him the R50. He turned and walked away. The men looked at each other awkwardly, as if they had somehow been expecting something else. They looked at the camera. They shuffled uncomfortably. And the credits rolled.
The show was cancelled the next day. It was one of the most vacuous and pointless exercises ever to be televised, and to just up and cancel it like that was a crime. It was beautiful. And it is all mine. No-one else even remembers it. Just me. It’s filed away in the “unwanted treasures” section of my brain, between Zenj and “The Farm Hand”, and once every couple of years it pops out and makes me smile.
They say that as you die, your life flashes before your eyes. I really hope that that is true. It would ease my passing if the gathering darkness was filled with lions breathing clouds of moonlit steam, if my heart could quicken one last time with the thrill of knowing that on that one, perfect night, I could have reached out my hand and touched something as wild, and dangerous, and free as the world itself. But I don’t think that’s how it’s going to go.
No. I rather suspect that as I feel myself starting to drift towards the light, I will stretch out a single hand towards it. And almost unbidden, it will twist itself into a claw, and I will look around at my gathered loved-ones, and with a final, gasping breath, growl “The Farm Hand”, and be on my way.