Advance . . . .
The sun rained down, desiccating the parched earth even further. Woollagong was hot this time of year. Even the camels were listless, browsing on the barren twigs of the yarrowbee bushes as they trudged along, for some kind of nourishment.
Dangaroa whistled for his dog Grip to turn the lead camel. The day was edging away and it was time to make camp for the night. A trifle early perhaps, but in this scrub land, it was far better to prepare early than get caught out with no time to gather kindling
Jililie had already stopped at the end of the line and was gathering what sticks she could find close by to start the fire going. Once the fire was alight with enough burnable material to keep it going a few minutes, she ranged further afield, bringing back her horde to keep it blazing with a steady flame which would heat their precious water for a cup of strong tea and be hot enough to cook the damper.
“That be enough?” she asked.
Dangaroa nodded. Once he had settled the herd, he would range farther out and gather as much as he could to keep a blaze going right through until past dawn. Night temperatures dropped suddenly in the bare desert and freezing air could not be ruled out; a fire would also keep away dingoes. It might however draw snakes in so a wide patch of earth and sand was cleared around the campsite. He could spot a snake if it came close to get warm.
As the camels were herded into a semi-circular pattern, Dangaroa commanded one of the pack animals to sit. From its load he took a portable rope, compact - light-weight, but strong enough to become a barrier for the beasts, a secure area to keep them from roaming. It saved the tedious task of hobbling individuals every night; easier for Grip's attention to be focused on keeping a watchful eye for predators rather than looking out for strays that left the security of the herd. The corall also served as a central area for feeding the beasts the packages of nourishing fodder in pellet form they had brought with them to supplement naturally gathered edibles.
“Give me the billie can,” said Jililie, “making damper soon.” Dangaroa was a quiet man and just nodded again, moving over to where the fire and hot tea awaited him.
By the time they had a good fire burning, the camels had been fed, the damper was almost cooked. The sun was setting, its last red rays casting a bronze light over the scraggy trees on the perimeter of the clearing. A brilliant sunset, as always in this region but neither Dangaroa nor Jililie had time to look at the sky, their attention was focused on that night’s meal and bedding the camels down.
Jililie mixed up the flour and water blend and placed it in the damper pot then swung it over the flames. The fire was putting out plenty of heat although it was small and the damper would not take more than half an hour to cook.
The billie had been placed over the flames as soon as the fire took hold and the water was just about at boiling point now. She emptied a pouch of tea into the pot for it to brew. They liked it strong as did many other drovers.
When all the camels had been fed their ration and Dangaroa had finished gathering sticks, he called in Grip for his ration of dried meat and a drink before sending him off to do guard duty. He doubted any dingoes were close, but you never knew and the prospect of fresh camel meat might prove too tempting for a pack of the blighters.
Whilst collecting wood, Dangaroa kept an eye open for browns that liked this region. Browns venom was virulent. Grip was a good work animal but he had to look after the camels. Couldn't expect him to keep watch for snakes too so a sweep of the area was a justified precaution. They would probably keep away during the night. They seldom stuck around humans, but you could never tell for sure.
The cold night made snakes lethargic and a nice warm fire could bring up their body temperatures enough to make hunting for food an easier task, so a place to get warm was always a good option. Both Dangaroa and Jillie would of course, take turns in sleeping and keeping watch. Jililie would watch first, then Dangaroa would take over when she woke him around two a.m.
The sky was black velvet, like a woman's shawl that was covered with glittering diamonds. Dangaroa never ceased to marvel at the sight as he settled himself, blanket around his shoulders, to wait for dawn to lighten the sky. Some night insects, attracted to the low flames, buzzed around. At the perimeter, Dangaroa continually brushed at the annoyance. He wished he had one of those fancy fans the women used in the summer but that would also waft the icy air over his face and that was something he could do without.
He heard the sound of dingo calls once or twice as he watched over the herd, but they were some distance away. Far enough, he thought, for them not to be a menace.
Jililie slept soundly, her light snoring an accompaniment to the crackle of the flames, the odd grunting of sleeping camels and his own in-drawn breaths.
Finally a dark purple smudged the far horizon. Dawn was approaching. Dangaroa moved back towards the fire and added fuel. He also topped up the water in the billie and shook Jililie awake.
Jillie yawned and unwrapped herself from the blanket. She had grown cold as the night wore on and was loathe to leave the covering off. With a slight shiver, she began to prepare their meagre breakfast, adding sugar to the pot of black tea. The night had passed without danger and as soon as breakfast and ablutions were done, they would pack up the compound and be on their way, another day over and nearer their goal.
The camels bleated as the compound was wound up and replaced on the lead animal. It groaned and spat as it lifted its hind legs, then stretched its forelegs up off the ground. Dangaroa knew this was a miserable animal, but it was a strong one and a born leader so he put up with its cantankerousness.
Grip wagged his tail, yipped as he nipped at the beasts and ran around getting them to start moving, which they were loathe to do. Dangaroa called him to heel.
Pots and blankets had already been loaded so Jillie was ready to go. She just had to gather her walking staff, make sure the fire was out and the embers scattered. She spread the ashes with her shoe. As she did so, she noticed the shoes were getting a bit worn. They would have to see her through until the spring.
The sun was almost risen as they set off. In the distance, the red earth blazed where the sun hit it. It was truly a colourful landscape. One she had been brought up in. So totally different to the pictures of places in other parts of the world. There were books in the old schoolroom where she had once been taken. That did not last long. She never looked at books now. Her tribe had welcomed her back. Now she was married to Dangaroa, she followed him and the camels. It wasn’t a bad living. No restrictions now.
Ayres Rock loomed high in the early morning sunshine a week later. Again, the redness shone out like a beacon. They always stopped nearby and climbed to the top. Visitors staying around the area gazed at their ragged clothes, watched their nimbleness with awe and jealousy. Tourists took pictures of the camels, of Grip. When they came down, they asled if they could take pictures of Dangaroa and Jillie. A few years previously, they may have had a refusal. Now Jillie charged, and everyone was happy.
Finally the camel train moved on. There were still a few hundred miles to travel. They had to reach their destination before the rains came and made the last stretch soggy. They did not want to lose cahs by being late due to wet trails.
“Grip,” called Dangaroa.
Grip yipped to start the camels moving, nipping heels and leaping out of the way of the odd kick. Just a few more weeks and they would be back home. But just for a while. Only a while.
© Copyright Evelyn J. Steward. March, 2003.
(Edited and added to October, 2012)
The Church of Depletion
The grey slate roof, its tiles uneven and often broken, had become tarnished. The drab copper-toned olive green lichens were less of a colour, more of a living rust that infected the ridge. Dripping over the slate like a dirty lace tablecloth that had shifted, so that some parts had more covering than others.
The gravestones in the surrounding churchyard were like so many jagged rotten teeth so that from above, the church in the centre of it all could be construed as a dark throat sucking in the light.
But who could view from it above?
The birds did not care; not the pigeons who had long since left the eves to roost in cosier places; not the crows, though their black feathers sometimes adorned corners of the bell tower where fights had broken out. Even the long eared bats, their dark wings flapping as twilight sent them out in search of insects on the night air, had finally departed the inner sanctum bared by broken windows.
No longer did Saint Paul sit at his table writing of his travels, setting his Gospel down for all the world to know in windows now in pieces. And the royal blue glass where Jesus turned water into wine was now pitted and faded; the hem of his robe had been smashed by children lobbing stones for practice over many generations.
Gabriel’s wing feathers had been mangled when a bolt of lightning struck through the window, bouncing into the Chancel and scoring a line on the marble floor. A freak earth tremor had heaved up flagstones by the entrance so that the door stood eternally ajar.
Leaves and debris cluttered the once tidy Nave leaving a carpet around the base of the pews. Mouse and rat droppings were thick in dark corners and in the rafters, squirrels had nested for many a long year. Nut shells, mouldering in the dankness, littered the stones beneath their nests, whitening with age.
God had long since left the building. Or so it was assumed by the locals, and who is to say they are wrong?
And so it was that there came a time when the very fabric of the building degenerated. The roof began to sag. Slates slipped into the graveyard below, or found holes in which to slip past the rafters to smash into so many pieces at the altar where the wooden cross had long since rotted as the weather crept inside.
It was a sad place, even sadder for the fact that none of the locals cared that it had been fallen into disrepute. After several generations more, with the roof completely caved in, the stones that formed the walls collapsed in on themselves. Earth blew over and dust came to rest on the rubble. And so the church became buried in the ground as it had been buried in the hearts of men.
“Dig deeper, Toony,” said Larel, ”we still have to find something.”
Toony looked at her. “I’d like to see you do better,” he stated.
“Time is short,” she replied. “You know we have to get this dig done in three rises.”
“If you keep stopping me, I’ll never get it done. Then you can complain as much as you like but there will be nothing to be done about it. So leave me alone. Get on with your own work, will you.”
Larel pouted but agreed in principal with what he said. She watched him as he went back to moving the earth around the sharp point that was sticking up proud of the surface. When he ignored her continued jibes, she turned and stepped away several paces to where her own machine stood idling. He could speed up his digger, she brooded as she set her own digger in motion. But she was not team leader, Batoon was and it was his choice to dig carefully where she, Larel, might barge on ahead and get the work done more quickly.
Toony (her shortening of his name annoyed him but he had long since stopped chiding her over it) drove his machine with ease around the chipped point until finally he found the soil softening. Whole chunks fell away from the stonework to be tossed in the air to the rear several paces. He knew his machine like it was a part of his own body and was able to just tease the switches to give him the utmost control. The slightest slip could reduce the stonework to rubble. As it was, the dirt slipped gradually away to reveal a wider base the deeper he went.
It wasn’t long before he was lost to Larel’s sight. Glancing over to his workings, she watched the stream of soil plume into the air. It landed in a neat pile which was building up conically to one side of the dig.
She debated whether or not she should leave what she was doing and go check on him, but on second thought, she decided not to test his wrath again but just keep digging where she was. She was coming to a corner stone in any case and would need to be more careful with her digger. Larel keyed her controls to slow her digger down and set the fine brushes in motion. Toony wasn’t the only one who was a competent archaeologist, she sulked.
Toony’s base had grown larger the further down he went. He had been careful to cut steps in the side of the excavation so that he could get back up to the top easily, should he need to call Larel for any reason. She was young and he understood that she would want to unearth something unusual, quickly. This was her first major dig and she was still in training. It would take much time to control her patience so that even the smallest find would bring joy and understanding. He liked her enthusiasm though. Few followed the calling these days and he was pleased to have her on the team even with her impatience.
In the next few days his work space had considerably widened so that it took him several minutes to excavate one round. He invited Larel to look at what he had so far. She studied the shape but could make nothing of it. ”What do you think it is?“ she asked.
“I am not sure, but it might be what they called a ‘church‘, or so my notes inform me.”
“What is a ‘church’?” She looked blankly at him.
He had investigated the bio-com set on their work before starting out.
“I am not too sure myself,” Toony replied, “but I think it was a meeting place of some kind.”
“For what purpose?”
God, she could be really irritating at times!
© Copyright Evelyn J. Steward. March, 2004.
The Convent stretched along Avery drive and turned the corner at Priory Road. It was high, as most boundary walls of monastic residences were. Crafted out of blocks of fine stone two centuries past, the years had weathered it and ivy clung to parts so that its veneer had a more rounded look now.
The lights were few and far between along Priory Road. Cherry trees had been planted years ago by the local Borough Council, then in between they put lampposts. The trees had grown in the intervening years so that their summer laden branches swarmed around narrow trunks dappling the light from each lamp.
Tonight it was raining. The wind blew and the branches swayed and bunches of leaves at branch ends fluttered like demented birds at a feeding table. The lamplight, a dull orange, was broken up by the dancing leaves that clattered against each other like beads from a broken necklace.
Rain left little puddles on the uneven pavement. Fresh raindrops pattered into the pools causing the reflected light to fracture into myriad shapes that seemed akin to bright star-like prisms, changing with each droplet and wind ruffle.
It was a rough night for the time of year, spring, and Leita pulled her coat tighter around her body, tucking her scarf closer around her neck. As she walked quickly along Priory Road holding her umbrella above her head, shoulders hunched to keep the umbrella between her face and the blown rain, she felt shivers run down her back. Raindrops pelted her clothing.
A sudden gust caught the umbrella and blew it inside out. Leita turned sharply holding the ‘witch’s hat’ shape behind her, a groan escaping her lips. As she turned, she caught a glimpse of a shadow two lampposts behind her, but then it was gone. Probably a cat, she thought.
Wrestling with the handle, she turned her umbrella right side out noticing a dent in one of the spokes. It would wear the material, eventually causing a leak. She sighed! It had been new. Not a brac in it. She doubted it would withstand another onslaught.
Reaching the Convent gate, Leita searched for the large key and inserted it in the lock. The gate opened with a creak. That will need oiling, she thought. Entering the courtyard, she locked the gate behind her then hurriedly walked around to the back of the imposing building.
Unlocking the rear door, Leita stepped inside. She shook her coat and hung it on the peg beside the door. It would soon dry off in the warmth of the kitchen.
She gathered up the black habits waiting to be laundered. Taking them into the little room off the kitchen, she put them into one of the three washing machines and set it to ‘ON’. Next were the whites and they occupied another machine. The third she filled with linen, sheets, tablecloths, all the accoutréments that filled the home of the nuns within the Convent. Conventionally, the nuns would rotate ther task. But recently, some had been sent to other convents to teaching posts so this job became vacant.
There was silver to polish tonight. Leita got out the polish and cloths and started the task whilst the machines did their work with a reassuring background hum. She liked working at night, left alone to work in peace. The Convent was silent for a few hours, she could reflect on her life.
Tonight she thought about that perceived shadow. It seemed to slide back behind the lamppost, the height of a person, so it could not have been a cat. The thought worried her a little. Then she became too busy to think about what she may or may not have seen.
The laundry, when dry, had to be ironed and put away in cupboards in the room along the hall. The big clock struck three thirty. Time was disappearing fast. The breakfast table was to be laid in the large dining hall further along the passageway. That meant linen and silver arranged in proper order.
Once this was done, she heard the faint sound of singing. How could an hour go so fast? Back in the kitchen she got out the large copper saucepan half filling it with water. Tipping a bag of oatmeal into the saucepan she added one cup of milk to make it more palatable. Lighting the gas, she stirred the oatmeal in, leaving it to simmer on a low heat. Next, the bread, bought in this time as the sister who baked had been sent to another Convent. In fact, several of the Sisters were absent for one thing or another so there were less to cook for than usual. All was ready for Sister Margaret John who took care of feeding the nuns their first meal of the day at five a.m.
Leita was putting her coat on when Sister Margaret John entered the kitchen from the hallway. “Everything ready, child?” she asked.
“Yes Sister Margaret John, all done.”
“Thank you and Bless you child,” the Sister replied and began to settle to her morning tasks. Leita heard the other nuns coming out of Devotion. Her time was up. Picking up her handbag and bent umbrella, she left by the rear door, walking across the yeard, avoiding the deeper puddles. The rain had made the lock harder to open. Tomorrow night she must bring oil to make it turn easier.
The rain had ceased. She was glad she did not have to struggle with her umbrella again. Making her way back down priory Road, she turned the corner to walk to the bus stop just a bit further along. Dawn had broken and the birds were madly singing, each their own special song. It lifted Leita’s heart and the fears of the previous night left her.
Once home, she made herself some toast which this morning unaccountably, she burnt a little and had to open a window to let out the acrid smell. She buttered it anyway and spread a little jam on top as a treat. After her light breakfast, the window seat called to her and with pencil and pad in hand, she sat and began to sketch.
What appeared on the pad was not what she intended but a sketch of the rain-soaked road, whipping trees and a shadow. Looking at the picture she had drawn, she shivered. A cold pain shot down her spine causing her to clasp her arms around her body, drawing her knees up to her chin in foetal guise.
A trip out in the bright sunshine was what she needed and putting on her cardigan, she left her rented flat and got the bus into town and entered the local museum. A couple of hours perusing the paintings and artifacts was just what she needed. Like the silence of the Comvent, the museum held few people and it was comforting, being alone with many famous works of art. Paintings, statues, moderns pieces as well as old.
Sleep that afternoon was slow in coming. Tossing and turning, she had dreams of shadows and lightning and a strange figure trying to grasp her.
That evening was dry and warm. Her journey to the Convent was uneventful. As it was the following day. Leita began to relax and enjoy her work. She had moved to the town a year ago and needing employment, she found the post at the Convent convenient and suitable. Ever since she was sixteen, or when her foster parents deemed her to be of an age, she had worked, then had to move. This fear of someone following her. Stalking her. She had been more of a gypsy moving from place to place, finding work where she could. This town had held promise, now it seemed she would have to move again.
The following night the rain returned. Not the heavy bluster as before but a light drizzle. Again it made puddles and the refracted light caused her to have doubts. Leita kept looking over her shoulder thinking she saw something more than trees but could see nothing extraordinary.
Then she heard it. That shuffle, shuffle of feet in soft shoes dragging along the pavement.
She spun around, her heart in her mouth. Nothing there!
Leita raced for the gate, fumbled with the key and jumbled it into the wet wrought iron lock. Barely scraping through the gate, she locked it from inside, her hands trembling, scare noticing that the lock was easier to manipulate since she had set the oil to work.
Running across the courtyard she looked up and uttered a silent ’forgive me’ plea and raced for the kitchen door.
Again Leita fumbled with the key. Once inside, the door firmly locked she rushed to the far door that opened onto the Hall, leaning against it as she fought to catch her breath. What can I do, she thought?
After half an hour, her fears subsided and she was able to begin her work. She was comfortable here. The work was not overly hard or tiring and she had the morning to go out, enjoy the various museums and art galleries, the parks and woodland. She did not want to move again.
Sister Margaret John appeared at her usual time and saw she was disturbed but said nothing as she had her own problems. Competent nuns were being replaced by Novitiates, and she had the teaching of them. Dear, dear!
Sunshine washed away the rain clouds and for the next few days all was serene in Leita’s world. Summery days dispelled the gloom that had settled over Leita. She enjoyed walks through the park to feed the ducks on the pond. Ducks quacked and geese honked as they dived for pieces of bread, squabbling for the choicest bits. A few strays were gobbled up by brave fish as ripples carried the bread further out and away from the birds.
Each night Leita walked to work down Priory Road, wary of shadows. No wind tussled the branches and the succulent warmth in the evening air seeped into her being. All was well.
A week later the rain returned. Leita had almost forgotten her earlier fears when she heard the shuffle, shuffle once more. She turned and this time caught the sight of a figure following her. As she passed by a lamppost, she could see nothing. Moving into the shadow of a tree trunk, she caught sight of the mysterious and threatening dark figure two lamps down behind her. She ran as fast as she could, opening the gate and running for the kitchen door.
Heaving, she got the door open, locked it and slid to the floor, her back to the kitchen wall. She took great gulps of air. A shadow appeared through the glass of the door and the handle twisted.
She held her hand in front of her mouth and became silent. The door jangled, the shadow leaned heavily on the glass as if to break it. Leita did not breathe. Her heart pounded in her chest, she felt it could be heard, it seemed so loud. Then the shadow was gone.
For a few seconds Leita sat immovable, then she jumped up and ran for the inner door leading to the Hall. A crash of glass cracked then tinkled and splintered all over the entrance to the kitchen. Her voice let go a little squeak. And she ran into the Hall. The Sisters were chanting a late Devotion but someone heard the crash and they started to stream out of the Chapel as she ran down the corridor towards them.
“What is it, child?” called the nun running towards her.
Leita screamed. Pointing towards the kitchen, “there is someone following me. I think he just broke in.” tears streamed down her face as she took hold of Sister John Paul’s outstretched hand.
Suddenly a blue flash, like lightning, appeared on the bare wall of the hallway. Some of the Novitiates fell to the floor, paralysed with fear. From the centre of the flash a strange shape appeared like a monster. There were blue and red sparks, white light and yellow flashes. The shape seemed to come out of the wall, then it leapt to the floor and straightened up. Not a monster but the shape of a man.
More nuns emerged from the Chapel holding rosaries up to their lips and praying audibly. Others fled to niches where statues of The Virgin and Christ stood serene, prostrating themselves in terror.
The man ran to Leita, touched her arm and ran on into the kitchen. It did not seem to frighten her. Leita, together with some of the nuns, heard sounds of a scuffle, pans being knocked to the floor, ladles and cutlery rattling over the flagstones. They all heard the back door crash shut, then silence.
The door to the Hall opened and the man came through and spoke to Leita. “He’s gone. I lost him. Are you alright?” His touch was gentle as he stroked her trembling hand. She tried to withdraw it but he held her firm.
The lightning continued to rage against the wall. Sister Gabriel stood firm, gazing at the phenomenon. Daring someone else to come through. A strong independent woman, nothing frightened her. “This isn’t going to hurt you!” she called to the others, but they ignored her fortitude and trembled still where they knelt or lay.
The man ushered Leita into the open doorway of the dining room. Sitting her down, he talked gently to her. “Leita, I have been searching for you for so long. Now finally I have found you and can take you home.” He looked kindly into her eyes.
Something stirred within Leita‘s heart. For some unaccountable reason, she trusted him.
“But…but..who are you,” she stammered.
“I am your father. You were stolen away as a child. Each time I tried to reach you, HE frightened you away.” Though his violet eyes bore into her soul, she was no longer afraid. It was as if she had ‘come home’.
“But I don’t understand… .” Though her fear was gone, she needed answers.
“Shush, my daughter. I must be quick for we have only a few minutes before the rupture closes. He stole you and opened a rift into this world. He could not look after you and left you where you would be found. Then he disappeared. We have tried to reach him, and you, but only now has it been possible. It was he who followed you. Only recently have I been able to open a portal into this world to see where he was, what he had done with you. Only now have I been able to cause a time rupture. He took the secret with him.” Her hand was in his and it felt right.
“I still don’t understand,” Leita said, feeling less fraught.
There will be more explanations later, I promise. We must hurry. You are coming, aren’t you?” His face echoed the pleading.
“I…I….,” she was on the brink of something, a happening she felt she had been waiting for all her life. With no idea of how or why this was happening, she had to think fast. Seconds to decide. Finally she said, “Yes,“ firmly. Decidedly.
The man took her hand and they returned to the hallway. The crackling and fire of the lightning was softer. “This way,” he said, “it’s losing cohesion.” Holding her hand tightly, he turned and nodded and the both jumped into the rupture.
Ahron gazed at his daughter asleep on the bed. Oh so much time had passed. So much lost. He sighed, wishing he had found her sooner. He looked lovingly at his wife Rhonea who was silently weeping as she clung limp to his arm.
“She is unhurt?” Rhonea asked quietly.
“I think so. She is more afraid than anything else. Let time heal her, and our love.” Ahron turned to his wife, gathered her into his arms then turned them both away to let their daughter rest.
Orhrona, for that was Leita’s real name, woke feeling wary of where she was. But a sense of well being overcame her senses. The room was bathed in a rosy tint from the rising sun. Filmy hangings of pastel hues were draped from the high ceiling, falling to the floor in swathes. From the open doors leading onto a balcony a soft warm scented zepher played with the drapery. She rose, walking to the open doors and gazed out on breathtaking scenery of rolling grassland, blue-green hills, blossoming trees and in the distance, pink-topped mountains, and felt so happy.
After a few days she began to feel at ease in her new home. The grass was just a little bluer, the flowers smelled sweeter and the food was delicious. Her new life was peaceful and serene in this world of her birth, a world so beautiful that it enfolded her being so that the suffering of her other life seemed to vanish in this magical land.
Orhrona became accustomed to her new name, to the visitors who welcomed her so profusely. She painted delightful picturesss of the natural beauty that surrounded their home. She felt so loved, she could hardly bear it.
Ahron came into breakfast one morning saying” They have caught him. At last he will pay for what he did to us. Outcast is what he will be.” A satisfied look graced his countenance.
“Oh no,” gasped Rhonea. “We cannot be so cruel.
“But he stole our daughter,” stated Ahron. His stance was a little belligerent.
”And we have her back. It would be too much to bear.” Rhonea was more forgiving than Ahron. After a few moments thought, Ahron melted at his wife’s temperate attitude.
“He will be punished by the Council, you know.”
“I expect he will,” she replied. “But not by us.”
Orhona forgot Leita’s life, over time, as if it had never happened. She learned how to be a caring, loving daughter to the parents who always knew they would find her in the end. Ever hopeful that their one and only child would be returned to them, safe and sound. She became a great designer, took a husband and mothered four children, all with wonderful gifts. The human world was forgotten except on rare occasions, when the wind blew and the rain drummed down outside her beautiful new home.
© Copyright Evelyn J. Steward. November 2011
(Edited and amended September, 2012)
Word Count 3105
His real name was Axalottle Geshempher but as kids, we were hard pushed to get our tongues around the shortened version of Uncle Axle. So we generally called him 'The Book'.
He had a chequered history, did Uncle Axle, as he more often than not disclosed by reciting this bit of past information or that little anecdote. No one quite knew exactly where he came from or what religion he might be. I say religion because many thought of him as of Jewish extract on account of his name sounding so much like many of the other unpronounceable Jewish names in the area. That was one piece of knowledge never bestowed on us.
But then another school of thought felt he was from South America. I cannot think why they would imagine that now, but he had a swarthy look and he did like to dance to Latin American music when it came on the radio.
Sometimes we used to watch him through the window when we first got out of school of an afternoon. We rushed home for tea, (which took us all of ten minutes) looking in again before we knocked on the door of his two up, two down dwelling. It was one of those dingy streets where the pavement was a bare yard from doorstep to curb stone.
He loved the Tango and he could Samba with the best of them, he said, (if only he had a partner).
There were some camps who said his name was derived from an ancient fish, or an old mountain and they could have been right, for all we knew. Not a fish like a herring mind you, we were used to that name; or cod and tuppence worth at the local fish shop.
All we kids knew was that 'The Book' was the greatest man we could be around at the time. He literally seemed to enjoy our company. Most grown ups then had little knowledge or care of what we kids did with our time. In school we were controlled by the teachers. Most days we would rush home after school, grab our tea and come back to Uncle Axle's house as the rest of the day was ours until bedtime, which in the light Summer evenings was usually ten pm or just after.
It was way before television. We had no money to speak of and had to make our own enjoyment. Cricket in the street with the bat made from a strip of orange box and chalk for the stumps. Or hoops with an old bicycle wheel. Fag cards flung against one of the many walls and marbles (if someone could treat us because they cost real money, one half-penny for three). But 'The Book' relished our company late afternoon and early evening during the week. Said it taught him never to forget that we were people too, just that we had to wait a while to get there. Very wise was Uncle Axle. More than we knew then.
We were called to visit real Uncles, Aunts and Cousins and attend Church on Sunday, not to mention Sunday School so we never saw Uncle Axle until Monday afternoon when he would come to his little blue door, beckon his finger with one hand whilst waving a new book in the other.
He had discovered all kinds of things (information we would say today) that you only got out of books. He must have read sixteen hours a day to acquire so much knowledge. There were lots of books in his room but he often went down to the Library, spent his days pouring over the printed page. That is what he told us at any rate, and we believed him for how else could he know so much?
We thought he was brilliant, the most well-read man on the planet. Not that we even knew much about planets then but 'The Book' knew all there was to know about the Universe. He could pinpoint a particular star and tell you how far away it was supposed to be (distances were somewhat imprecise at that time) and show you the spot in the sky where the planet Mars was, or Jupiter or some other stellar body.
We loved to be with him on Winter evenings when it got dark early and the sky was crisp black and thick with stars and planets, and the bright twinkling lights of the Universe. He would stand in the street and recite facts and figures we would never dispute.
In Summer we were not allowed out past our bed time. Long Summer evenings, when the 'canyon' streets held the day's heat like a sheepskin blanket, meant that darkness came too late for us to indulge Uncle Axle's knowledge of the summer skies.
During the summer though he had other wonders for us to learn. Our knowledge of the world we were a part of came from 'The Book'. Strange sounding places like darkest Africa, Taj Mahal, Rotarua and names like Samarkand, Bali and Ethiopia were like magical jewels to us kids. We rolled them around on our tongues, repeating them the next day as if they were some huge gobstopper we sucked to see the change in colour.
We were told of people whose skins were so black they shone like glass and of others who wore blue robes and rode a 'ship of the desert'. Said he had seen them himself. We asked "what was a desert?" and of course 'The Book' satisfied our curiosity.
Every day we added to our growing awareness of all things written, enlarged upon by Uncle Axle's copious ideas on each and every subject. We were the most well-read (second hand) kids north of the River, not that any of the others outside our little group were interested. We got called names many a time and not a few fist fights broke out as we defended 'The Book' and his teachings (all unbeknown to him).
Our school teacher became curious when we voiced opinions on subjects he decided should not have been known to us. "Who told you that?" was often hurled at us until finally Uncle Axle was called to book. He must stop it! Children should be taught in school. He was giving them ideas above their station. Learning was for the school curriculum to decide, not some old man whose dubious contact was unwelcome.
So that was the end of 'The Book' for us. Parents got involved and he was hounded out of the area. Police came and asked us questions, but it was all so innocent then.
We never saw Axalottle Geshempher again. But I often wondered whatever became of this quiet old professor who wanted nothing better than to instil in us some learning of subjects wider than our comprehension.
© Copyright Evelyn J. Steward October 2001.
(Edited April, 2012)