Monday, 13 July 2009

A Dunch of Flaws - excerpt

Dear All,

For the past week I have been traveling all over Scandinavia with my son & am still writing up the trip.
So, if you will forgive me, thi
s week I offer you a small excerpt of the new book I am writing. It is the story of a shy, dyslexic boy called Houston Penrose who lives with his family in 1970s Mombasa and to whom terrible things later happen. The novel is called A Dunch of Flaws, the title taken from a Valentine's card my son [also dyslexic] gave me when he was aged about eight. It was a wobbly picture of a bunch of flowers, with that across the top. Please keep in mind the writing has not been buffed at all. I hope you enjoy it.

A Dunch Of Flaws
Excerpt from Chapter One.

The view through the balcony posts was of a dripping, steamy world. Rain from the cloudburst was still pouring steadily from the roof into the covered water butts below. The frog symphony had entered a soft, syncopated movement. Houston saw Joshua emerge from the outhouse. He watched as Joshua stooped to stroke the dogs who were sheltering under the eaves there, but they turned and walked away stiffed-leggedly, as if to be subjected to something so lacking in machismo as a pat affronted them. They were two large Rhodesian ridgebacks; their job was to help the night watchman keep them safe. They did this by barking at bicyclists and fruitbats; beyond that, any relations with the occupants of the house were decidedly cool.Houston took the harmonica away from his mouth and dangled it between his forefinger and thumb wondering whether to drop it into the puddle directly below; a musical apology by way of a mercy killing. He was trying to decide what to do, when a something caught his eye - a butterfly the size of his hand was tacking in his direction. As it stuttered closer and closer, he stopped peddling his legs and kept as still as possible. Seconds later, to his delight, the butterfly had settled on the corner of his harmonica. Very gently, with his other hand, Houston offered a finger towards its legs. Hesitantly, it sidled aboard. He lifted the creature up to eyelevel and examined the beautiful metallic blue of its wings, as they pumped like tiny slowing bellows. Whoomph! A sudden rush of air, a ruffling swirl of speeding wings, and the butterfly was gone. Houston let out an involuntary yelp, unable to grasp immediately what had just happened. He looked about until he finally caught sight of the assailant. A dive-bombing bee-eater had snatched the butterfly and was now on a branch near the top of the mango tree. Two bright, stiff wings stuck out of its beak for a second before the bee-eater tipped it’s head back, opened it’s mouth a fraction and swallowed. Houston peered closely at his finger to see if it had drawn any blood, but no, it had struck its prey with such precision there was no damage, just some dots of pollen that had been shaken from the butterfly’s wings.
Darling!’ Houston heard his mother’s call on her third try and scrambled to his feet.
‘Coming Mama!’ he answered and took the stairs three at a time. At the bottom he padded quietly across the sitting room and out of the front door where he was hit by a waft of j
asmine. Hadija waved to him from the ladder murmuring, ‘Houston….’

At the far end of the garden Boaz and Joshua were untangling the Chinese lanterns. Nina was tying cushions onto chairs. She turned as she sensed her son’s presence. He held up his finger. ‘A bee-eater snatched a butterfly right out of my hand.’
‘How bold.’ she replied. ‘What was it? A carmine, a Madagascan, a cinnamon-chested?’
‘It was a Lesser-thieving one, Mama’ he said and made her laugh.
‘Help me with these cushions darling. Where’s Gibb?’ ‘He ran over to Jenny Rasbash’s house about an hour ago. They like to swim in the rain.’
‘Well, go to my address book and look up the Rasbash’s number would you? Call and ask them to send him home straight away; we have a mass of things to do. Tell him Jenny can come - that might help.’
‘I thought you’d banned her?’

‘She can’t be sick on the ambassador’s shoes twice, can she? And even if she is, the law of probabilities means it’ll be a different ambassador, surely.’
‘Maybe she could come instead of me?’ suggested Houston. Nina looked at her son for a moment. On the whole, she let him retreat when he wanted, but tonight would not be one of those occasions. ‘Nonsense darling. You’re a teenager, you’ll be fifteen next month. You’ll be fine.’ Houston looked at her, puzzled as to how being a higher number had any connection to an increased enjoyment of meeting strangers. Nina stroked his cheek. ‘Why don’t you help Boaz serve the food? When you have a job, it’s easier.’

Houston shambled off to the telephone in the hall. Cradling the heavy Bakelite handle under his chin, he held the address book close to his face so he could see the writing and dialled. He waited a few minutes and then tried again. After his third try he said, ‘Telephone’s broken Mama.’
‘Not again!’
‘Not ours - we’ve got a dialling tone, I think it’s the Rasbashs’.
‘Well then darling, run over there like a good boy, but put a shirt on, you can’t walk around bare-chested.’
‘Why not?’
‘Why not? Well, because it’s not befitting for the son of the soon-to-be counselor at the British Embassy in Rome to be seen wandering about like a hobo, that’s why not. There should be something in the ironing.’
Houston went out of the back of the house and chose a navy blue t-shirt from the pile. Muthoni and Prudence, the two housemaids championed starch and the shirt made a pleasing ripping sound as he prized the edges apart and wriggled around to stop it feeling as if he was wearing a sandwich board.
As he left the house he took his harmonica out of his pocket and started to practice Summertime once more. Hadija laughed at him ‘Houston,’ she said as she fixed the last loop of her jasmine swag, ‘wewe nsikia mahewa kama mawe.’ [You have the musical ear of a stone] He could still hear Boaz giggling as he reached the gates at the top of the drive.

The Penroses lived at the end of a dirt track in a sleepy corner at the northern end of Twiga Heights. It was one of smartest Mombasa districts, with well-proportioned homes set in enormous gardens - although everything lay concealed from the street. High walls stuck with broken bottles and razor wire shielded the occupants from the cauldron flurry of the city. The road leading from the city centre to Twiga Heights was abundantly potholed and lined with telegraph poles festooned in dense entanglements of cable that explained why the telephone service was so intermittent.

The street was quiet for the time of day; people were only just beginning to emerge into the sunshine and pick their way through the puddles. The usual smells of exhaust fumes, spices, and raw sewage had been dampened by the rain. Houston passed a gaggle woman with buckets balanced on their heads, their kanga-clad sugar-bums undulating rhythmically as they walked. Two of them carried babies so heavily swaddled, their heads appeared like tiny chocolate drops at the centre of gigantic Swiss rolls tied to their backs.
At the junction of the main road a Maasai moran with ghee-burnished skin and long bead-strands slung over his shoulders, stood on one leg, squinting into the middle distance: a cou
ntry boy feigning indifference to the city, the insouciant drape of his red plaid shuka belying his careful styling. On the opposite corner, a pack of shenzi dogs slept in the dust, while a couple of puppies foraged for scraps in the drifts of litter.

The Penrose's house lay a few streets west of Kimathi Avenue, Twiga Height’s main shopping street. The Rasbashs lived a few streets beyond it to the east. Houston exchanged nods with the juice-seller who was singing along softly to a tinny radio tied to the top his fruit-barrow canopy and crossed the road. He dodged in front of a brightly painted truck lacing its way through the water-fille
d ruts and climbed up the four steep steps that led up to boardwalk. He loped past the shady doorways of haberdashers, ironmongers and shoe stores.
The local sho
ps here on Kimathi counterbalanced Mombasa’s bustling centre by conducting their business with the all urgency of continental drift. Opening hours were erratic, stock was always problematic and months could go buy when the shoe store only had size nine galoshes to sell, or the ironmongers had a glut of axe-heads, but no shafts.
At the end of the parade, Mr Ali Kisii, sporting a resplendent hennaed comb-over, lounged in the doorway of his barbershop. ‘Good afternoon Master Houston.’ he said, deftly spinning his scissors round his fingers, ‘where are you off to in the heat of the day?’
‘I have to fetch my brother, we’re having a party tonight.’
‘A party? We are too: a big barbecue for my nephew’s engagement.’
‘Ours is a leaving party.’

Ali Kisii looked shocked. ‘You are not leaving?’
‘Yes.’ Houston looked at the ground. ‘It’s very sad.’ He didn’t really like saying it out loud. ‘My father has a new posting.’ A taxi tore by, pressing his horns instead of his brakes; forcing them to pause their conversation for a moment. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To Rome.’
‘Rome! My god above! Well, at least if I ever get tired of going to Mecca, I know that I can come and visit you in the home of that devil the Pope. When are you going?’
‘Not until the end of school term. We’re having the party now because everything will be packed up by then – my mother’s already made a start.’ ‘Yes surely, surely.’ Ali Kisii said vaguely, he was sizing up a rotund old man walking down the boardwalk towards them. Houston gave him a small wave and carried on. ‘Maybe you need a haircut!’ Ali Kisii called after him. ‘It is a wonder you can see where you're going, if I may say.’
‘It’s the fashion Mr Kisii’ Houston replied, turning and walking backwards.
Ali Kisii flipped the scissors upside down and held the handles to his eyes like lorgnettes. ‘Well if I may say so, it is most definitely a lady fashion you have stumbled upon in error.’
Houston smiled. ‘Perhaps tomorrow.’
But Ali Kisii and turned his concentration to the portly man who had crossed the street and was studying the price list that hung in the barbershop window beside illustrations of the hairstyles.

When Houston reached the Rasbashs’, he rattled the gate until the guard arrived and let him in. He walked straight to the pool, which was round the side of the house, hidden from view by oleander bushes. There was no one there.
Music started blasting out of the Rasbashs’ sitting room window, so he walked over to the front door and knocked. The music was far too loud for anyone to hear him, so after a minute, he turned the handle and went in.
Susan Rasbash was dancing around the sitting room, dressed in a long pink kaftan and matching turban.
She swooped around the room, arms weaving, her eyes lightly shut behind oversized sunglasses. Houston froze in the doorway overcome with embarrassment. He coughed, but she remained unaware of him. The room Finally, when a crackly hush descended upon the room between tracks, he coughed again. Susan Rasbash turned and fixed him with a steady gaze, showing no sign on surprise.
‘Well looky here, sneaking up like a handsome spy, Houston Penrose.’ Almost immediately, his head felt it might explode from the surfeit of blood that had disobediently rushed there. Voluptuous orange painted lips parted and she grinned at him, pushing back the sleeves of her kaftan to fiddle with complicated earrings that had caught on the turban. She had remarkably hairy arms.
His mother said everyone got hairier in the Tropics, but Houston had read in his Look and Learn comic that body hair helped keep the body warm and put it to her that people should really get balder. She had been unable to explain to his satisfaction, why it was the opposite and if the hair grew to provide the surface shade, or if the greenhouse heat just sent the follicles into wonky overdrive. They both agreed it was a strange phenomenon manifested particularly strongly in Mrs Rasbash and why it had earned her the nickname Hirsute Sue.

‘Wasn’t that pivotal?’ She sighed in a glorious manner. ‘That was the title track. It’s my favourite I think. My sister sent it to me. It’s a smash hit in England. Look!’ And she marched over to the side-table, grabbed the album cover and strode over, waving it at him. ‘It’s called Aladdin Sane. Do you get it?’ Houston dragged his eyes away from her arms and stared blankly at a photograph of a bare shouldered man with a lightning flash painted down his face. What was he meant to ‘get’?
‘Er’ he said.
‘He’s saying he’s mental !
Aladdin Sane: A lad insane. You see?’ she cried jabbing her finger along the title.
What he wanted to say was ‘It’s you who’s acting mental Mrs Rasbash, could you stop because it’s scaring me’ but instead he said, ‘He does look a bit loony, yes.’

‘Oh no, no, you’re wrong there!’ She said fiercely, striding back to the record player. ‘Bowie’s a goddamn genius.’ He felt lost and alone in uncharted Rasbash territory, where it was alright for her to call a singer mad, but not him. She settled the needle back down and it crackled into the opening bars of a lazy guitar strum. He surfed a wave of dread that she might start dancing again and resolved to get away as soon as he could.
‘I need to find Gibb!’ he said, raising his voice over the swelling music. She swayed a bit, but thankfully this next song was a ballad. ‘My mother needs him to help with the party.’

‘Oh sure, the party. Gary and I are coming. You must be pretty excited about going to Italy.’ She looked into the middle distance. ‘What I wouldn’t give to live there.’ Houston shrugged. All the grown ups said the same thing to him, but all he felt was sad and nervous. He would miss their house and he would miss Boaz. He thought he should probably miss Joshua, but his English was very bad, so they never really spoke much; not like Boaz.
He didn’t really want to talk to Susan Rasbash about it, so instead he said, ‘Is Gibb here?’
‘No.’ she replied. ‘But they’ll be back soon. They went with Clarence to see the fire.’
‘The fire?’ Houston knew nothing about a fire.
‘The Malaika bangle factory burned down last night. They’ve gone to see what’s left. Good riddance I say!’ Susan Rasbash picked up a glass and took a long, noisy draught. She waved the glass at Houston and said, ‘Straightener?’
‘No thank you Mrs Rasbash.’
She shrugged and poured herself some more Campari and lifted the glass to him in a lazy salute. He was beginning to panic a bit. Could he leave a message for Gibb, or should he wait? He wasn’t sure how long he was going to manage being on his own with Mrs Rasbash in this mood.
‘Yes, we read about it in the paper this morning. I imagine that cloudburst probably put the last of it out.’ She grabbed the Daily Nation off her coffee table. ‘Listen to this,’ she said, tapping a Rooster cigarette out of a soft packet and lighting it. ‘“The Malaika Factory, Mombasa's most visited tourist site after Fort Jesus.” Most visited site? They must be mad! It was only visited it because that gigantic neon hand was an easy landmark for people to meet. Where was I? “was destroyed in an inferno last night. The destruction of the bangle factory is not only a great blow to local jobs but also a loss to Mombasa’s rich and diverse heritage. Six fire engines attended. Foul play is not suspected” It’s unbelievable!’ She threw the paper down in disgust. ‘It goes on to describe it as some sort of tragedy for jewelers everywhere and a cultural cataclysm for rest of humanity’s wrists. Everyone knows that place was the wretched black heart of child labour in East Africa! I’m glad it burned.’
‘Mrs Rasbash?’ he interrupted.
‘Your telephone isn’t working.’
‘Damn and blast! Not again!’ and she strode out onto her front porch, arms folded, propelling him forward in the bow wake of her indignation. She gestured beyond her property.
‘Just look at it, I mean, really.’ In the line of telegraph poles in her street, the nearest one to her house was missing.

‘Did it fall over?’ Houston asked.
‘Who knows? It might have been struck by lightning, or been chopped up for firewood, or stolen to make a boat mast. Instead of replacing it, those idiot telephone engineers have simply draped the cable between the trees. Do you see?’ It was true, the wires sagged so badly, they almost touched the ground. ‘Even if I could call for help no one would come. I’ve no bloody idea what I would do with myself in this godforsaken country if it wasn’t for Rasputin.’
‘Yes, Rasputin. Pet tortoise. He means the world to me. Keeps me calm.'
Mrs Rasbash ushered Houston back into the house and ranted on about the telephone system, Rasputin, David Bowie, the bangle factory and much else besides until, to his great relief he heard the crunch of a car arriving and the slamming of doors.
Gibb swaggered into the house and clapped his brother on the back. ‘You missed a trip Houston. The Malaika Factory is completely burned out. It’s still smouldering man.’
‘We have to get home Gibb.’
Jenny, who had followed behind Gibb and gave Houston a friendly wave.
‘Hey Jenny.’
‘Hey Houston, looking forward to tonight?’
‘Not really, but Mama says you are invited over as well. You can come now, if you like.’
‘That’s nice of her after the....’ she stopped herself and glanced quickly at her mother. She looked down at her gingham shift and swiped at some smut marks.
‘I’ll come later with Mum and Dad, if you don’t mind. My hair reeks of burnt plastic. I need to change.’

Houston had spent quite enough time at the Rasbashes’ house and started pulling Gibb towards the door.
‘We have to get back. Mama needs our help. She sent me to fetch you. I’ve been waiting for hours.’
‘Ok. See you later’ said Gibb, blowing Jenny a nonchalant kiss. ‘Thanks for the beer Mrs Rasbash.’
‘My pleasure Gibb’ said Mrs Rasbash.
‘She gave you a beer?’ said Houston, as soon as they were in the drive and out of earshot.
‘Yep, earlier she did, two in fact’ said Gibb. ‘Don’t tell Mama.’
‘I won’t. She offered me a gin or something.’
‘You? Blimey. Jenny says her mum gets "coast crazy" and her dad has to take her upcountry to get her calmed down.’

‘Might be time for them to take that trip’ said Houston, and they strolled past the telephone cables in silence.