I have another visitor, today. Jeff Gardiner has dropped in while on his blog tour. It’s just as well you didn’t arrive in Jerusalem yesterday, Jeff, or you might have found yourself drowning in a sea of black hats!
I’ve just started reading Jeff’s previous novel, Myopia. I was attracted to that one, of course, because the main character is a boy who is bullied.
Igboland is a very different sort of novel, as Jeff’s description shows.
Igboland is a novel of passion and conflict set in Nigeria during the late 1960s Biafran War. Lydia is a young English girl, recently married to Clem, a Methodist Missionary. Their first home together as a couple is in the West African bush, thousands of miles away from her beloved family. Lydia and Clem arrive in Nigeria just as civil war breaks out and the extract below is of their first sight of their new home. The novel is inspired by the diaries and photos of my own parents, who lived out in West Africa for six years. They travelled to Nigeria on a ship, The Apapa, and then travelled hundreds of miles on a train into the foreign bushland.
Here is an extract from Chapter 2 of Igboland:
That evening the train came to a sudden, jerking halt.
‘Here we are, my love,’ Clem said with a nudge. ‘This must be Enugu. Look lively.’
‘Sorry,’ I mumbled. ‘I’m so tired. I don’t feel very well.’
With little sympathy, Clem pulled me up and tucked his arm into mine. We stopped by the door and I wondered why he didn’t open it straight away. Instead, he stepped back and I heard a harsh but muffled voice shout from below us.
‘Why’s there no platform?’ Clem asked aloud. ‘What’s going on?’
I looked out the window and noticed a soldier outside on a raised hillock, waving two hands above his head at us. In one hand he held a gun.
‘Stay behind me,’ Clem ordered.
The soldier was gesticulating for us to exit the train.
Clem opened the train door and stood in front of me with his hands up.
‘Come down from the train!’ the soldier beckoned furiously again; his face impenetrably dark under his peaked cap. I had no idea which side he was on – or even which side might show us the greater sympathy. Thus my ignorance enhanced my fear.
The soldier came closer, placing his gun in his holster.
‘Quickly. The line ahead has been bombed. Enemy soldiers are patrolling and all ways into the city are blocked.’ His English was excellent; clearly the product of a good education. With there being no platform, the drop down to the floor was considerable. Clem jumped for it but tumbled over and turned his ankle. The soldier reached up and signalled for me to jump onto him. He easily caught me. I wrapped my arms round his neck and my legs round his waist, and then he lowered me gently to the ground.
Behind me, I became aware of the other passengers jumping down, the driver and stewards amongst them. They stood in large groups chattering excitedly amongst themselves.
‘You must turn back. Go back North. Perhaps we could drive you north to a safer place like Jos.’
Clem shook his head. ‘We’re going to Ngkaluku.’
‘This is not a good idea.’
But Clem insisted and nearly came to blows with the soldier.
He asked to see our passports.
‘Mr and Mrs Davie.’ He enunciated each sound very deliberately.
‘Reverend Davie,’ Clem replied pedantically.
When he saw he was getting nowhere with my stubborn husband, the soldier whistled behind him and a group of about a dozen similarly dressed soldiers appeared. They talked to each other in their own tongue. A few of them gave us dirty looks and began to argue amongst themselves. Eventually the first soldier, presumably their leader, returned accompanied by another.
‘Corporal Nwoko here will drive you to your destination and leave you there. Are you sure this is what you want?’
Clem stood firm and the soldier in charge shook his head. He obviously had a more important mission to complete and was keen to get us out of the way. Giving up on us as a lost cause, he went to talk sense into the other passengers.
Corporal Nwoko pulled the limping Clem towards a clump of trees away from the stationary train and I followed behind like a puppy. It occurred to me just then that he might be preparing to shoot us and a rising sense of panic struck me. The relief was palpable when I saw an open-top Jeep parked under a mahogany tree.
‘I will drive you now,’ said Corporal Nwoko, leaping into the driver’s seat and jerking his thumb behind him.
Clem got in the back with me and we sped off down a red dirt track pocked with potholes. The bumps only worsened my headache.
‘You come here at very bad time,’ our driver shouted over his shoulder, ominously.
For the rest of the car journey I phased in and out of the intermittent conversation. I remember very little about the last part of our long and tortuous trek. My only recollections are short flashes of being bumped around, with my head on Clem’s lap; having flushes of being freezing cold and then sweating profusely; the voices of the two men chatting between long silences as I drifted in and out in waves, feeling horribly claustrophobic. A new warmth embraced me as I allowed my entire being to be engulfed by the looming jaws of darkness.
‘Lydia? We’re here!’
‘What, home?’ I said, filled with happiness.
I was going to see Mum’s dimpled smile and her mischievous eyes; Dad’s strong arms would welcome me back and Oliver would proudly call me his ‘favourite sister’. I even saw Frisky bouncing up on his back paws, tongue out, tail wagging–—
‘Welcome to Ngkaluku.’
The dream crumbled.
My life crashed about me as my head swam in a panic. I wanted to scream and thrash about but my whole body felt drained of all energy. All my limbs were paralysed.
This wasn’t home. Home was thousands of miles away.
Clem helped me out. We stood alone in the West African bush.
Corporal Nwoko revved his engine noisily and turned his vehicle round. On the way past he slowed down and leaned over towards us.
‘We try to warn you,’ he sneered in a chilling tone, before accelerating away.
The sight awaiting us was horrific.
Ngkaluku had been recently bombed.
The devastation shocked us. Bodies and limbs lay piled up. Dead faces stared out with eyes burnt from their sockets. Many of the corpses had been smashed beyond recognition, or possessed gashes of bloodless open flesh exposing rotten innards. Swarms of flies flickered around the heaps. Dogs and other small scavengers made dashes past the children instructed to keep them off. Vultures hopped about sullenly only a short distance away. Grotesque as it was, the sight continued to entice me to look. After a while, I could no longer return the gaze of these death masks. Without a second thought, Clem went to help the locals in their search under debris for further bodies, which were then carried over to a hut now designated a makeshift medical centre. A local doctor had already assembled a team of helpers and was doing what he could with very few resources.
Wow – exciting stuff! Thank you for that excerpt, Jeff, and good luck with your new novel.