The Today novel.
The British High Commissioner to Kenya, Edward Clay, apologised for a speech in which he launched a stinging attack on corruption within the country.
Inspired by the colourful language used in the apology, we decided to launch a literary experiment that ran throughout the summer of 2004. Author Alexander McCall Smith agreed to begin our short story, the second chapter was added by James Delingpole, a third by Ian Rankin and so on. Now, the story is complete, skilfully finished off by Today listener Julia Ray.
Read the story below, or listen to the readings of those who've penned it.
Chapter 1 : Alexander McCall Smith
Like the skin of a fruit or a nut – the fruit wants to draw attention to itself and to invite people to peel it, and then to look at the fruit inside and to see whether it is good to eat – whether it agrees with you.
The High Commissioner loved these trips up country, into a land of distant horizons and air so sharp and fresh that one might drink it: Africa distilled, as Karen Blixen had written all those years ago. He was there to inspect a project to which money had been committed – a project involving the dissemination of collections of English poetry to schools. It was a great undertaking in his view: one which would enable learners of English to appreciate the subtler possibilities of the language. Not for these students the dull sentences of the usual language text book – these books took the student straight into the realms of English metaphysical poetry!
That morning he had taken a walk into the local market before the heat of the day began to build up. The market was crowded, and clusters of people stood about the sellers of vegetables and dried meat, of medicinal roots, of combs and skin balms in brightly-coloured tins. He walked through the crowds and found himself in front of a fruit seller. There were oranges and a pile of slightly rotting bananas, a bowl of stringy green beans and … now what was that? He peered at the pieces of fruit set out an upturned tin tray. They looked like grenadillas, he thought, but were too small and they were too wizened for lychees.
He leaned forward to make a closer inspection, and as he did the fruit seller leaned forward too, with the air of one who wanted to say something important.
"Please speak slowly," he said to the man. "Then I can understand."
The seller nodded. "Like the skin of a fruit or a nut," he began, " the fruit wants to draw attention to itself and to invite people to peel it, and then to look at the fruit inside and to see whether it agrees with you." It was a remarkable statement – poetic even - one which he would try to remember and use in the future, perhaps in some official communiqué – the language of diplomacy was so arid these days it could do with a bit more metaphor.
The High Commissioner was puzzled, but he bought a few pieces of the fruit and tucked them into his pocket. Then, glancing at his watch, he made his way back to his hotel. There, in his room, he made a discovery. While he had been out, some unknown person had called at his hotel and left him a small gift. "For His Excellency," the accompanying card read. "Please enjoy this gift." And the gift? A small bowl of these strange fruit that he had seen in the market. So it must be a local delicacy.
He turned over the card which had accompanied the fruit. There was something else written on the back. "I know who shot Lord Errol," the card said. "Are you interested?"
Chapter 2 : James Delingpole
"The strange thing is, I'm not" answered the High Commissioner, as he folded the card carefully into a perfect scale model of the Mau Mau Uprising. He stared at it for a moment in surprise. Then his gaze fell on the squished remains of the fruit he had half-eaten earlier on his way back from the market. They had begun to glow an eerie, molten orange.
"Quite extraordinary," he said to himself as he dialled reception. He was thinking mainly of the Lord Errol question. And his bizarre lack of interest in hearing the answer. It was almost as if...
"Sir, can I help you?" came the voice from reception.
"Ah yes. I'd like some water please," said the High Commissioner.
"Excuse me sir?"
"Water. Water," the High Commissioner rasped.
"Yes water water everywhere," said the receptionist with sudden enthusiasm. "Nor any drop to drink."
The High Commissioner sighed. This local poetry-for-schools campaign. Perhaps it wasn't quite the unmitigated blessing he had first imagined.
Lying on the bed, light-headed from thirst, he retrieved his train of thought.
The reason, he realised, that he didn't care who shot Lord Errol was because....because, by God, he knew already.
He seized a piece of hotel notepaper - it was headed Xanadu Lodge - and scribbled down the answer.
It was her all right. Definitely her.
Then, while the inspiration was still fresh, he jotted down the details of all the other questions he now quite amazingly knew the answers to.
Who shot JFK.
Whither the crew of the Marie Celeste.
The Bermuda Triangle.
The meaning of life.
He had just dealt with 'How do you turn base metal into gold?' and was about to grapple with the tricky 'Where do flies go in winter?', when he was interrupted by a knock at the door.
By the time he had tipped the waiter, the inspiration had gone, killed by Kenya's very own answer to the Person from Porlock.
Still, at least he had made a pretty good start. He read the answers through.
Definitely Lee Harvey Oswald - on his own.
Eaten by a giant squid ...
But now his bedside phone was ringing.
"Edward old boy" - Edward instantly recognised the princely accent of his old Oxford chum Maina Mwangi. "I could scarcely believe it when your secretary told me. What the devil are you doing in that godforsaken hell-hole."
"Maina," the High Commissioner replied. "What a stroke of luck you rang. I've got something quite extraordinary to tell you."
"Yes, yes well before you do that, allow a native to treat his favourite Mzungu to a spot of vital local knowledge. Are you all there and listening carefully? Only you sound a little odd."
"No no, I'm quite well," said the High Commissioner, as the skies turned emerald and a squadron of sunbirds the size of eagles hummed noisily by.
"Good, then I'm not too late," said Maina. "There's something you really must know about the strange fruit they eat in that neck of the woods. The one that looks a bit like a shrivelled lychee.."
Chapter 3: Ian Rankin
Edward's wife woke from her nap, face flushed from the heat. She wondered if a car had perhaps drawn up outside: Edward's car.
She walked through the house, aware of sounds from the kitchen, the staff busy with cooking and laundry. Pulled open the front door, but there was no sign of Edward's Land Rover. Looking down towards the door-mat, she saw a small package.
Stooped and picked it up, then shaded her eyes to peer across to the compound's padlocked gate, the uniformed guard dozing in his sentry-box. Normally, post was delivered by someone from the High Commission, but not today.
And no writing on the brown paper-bag. She shook it, and it rattled. Closed the door behind her and stood in the hallway, picking at the sellotape. Slid her hand inside and drew out a videocassette. No label to identify its contents. Her stomach tightened. There was only one video machine in the house: in Edward's study. His domain, with its secrets and hiding-places... only a few of which she'd found.
Well, she had to fill her days somehow.
She hated the Nairobi posting, with bars on the house windows and the banks all guarded by soldiers, the children begging at the roadside ... begging not for money but for pencils. She handed them out copiously, but never filling the void.
In her husband's study, surrounded by photos of his diplomatic conquests, she slid the tape into the machine...
She'd watched the segment four or five times, forehead furrowed, when a tap at the door was followed by a servant's voice telling her Lady Errol had arrived. Little surprise there: Lavinia Errol popped round most days. Edward's wife knew she had to be nice to Lady Errol. It was the ... diplomatic thing to do. Lavinia Errol knew everything about everyone-everyone who mattered. It was important to stay on the woman's right side.
he tried to shake her head free of the press conference she'd just watched, a grainy recording from television news. A French footballer talking some gibberish about seagulls following fishing-boats. What on earth could it mean?
She made her way towards the kitchen. Lady Errol drank rooiboos tea... rooiboos? Didn't that sound like rebus? And wasn't a rebus some kind of code or puzzle? She frowned again, picking up a snatch of conversation in the kitchen.
'We have our own stories and songs and art -why do they think we need theirs?'
And then her arm was snatched, and she was dragged into an alcove. Dragged by Lady Errol, a thread of black lace around her neck signifying her recent shocking widowhood. Lady Errol, dark-eyed and hissing words which froze the sweat on Edward's wife's brow.
'It can't be helped, Susan, but I have bad news. Your husband suspects, my dear. Now, what's to be done about that...?'
Chapter 4: Jasper Fforde
The high commissioner stumbled into the hotel reception, narrowly avoiding a small boy who tried unsuccessfully to sell him a bootleg copy of 'Paradise Lost'
'I need to place a long distance call to my wife,' he explained in a state of breathless agitation, 'It is of the utmost importance.'
'The lines are down between here and Nairobi,' explained the receptionist, putting aside the burns she was reading, 'but if it's urgent you can use my mobile - just press the 'phone against the cold drinks dispenser the transmitter is not powerful and the steel of the refrigerator boosts the signal.'
The high commissioner gratefully accepted her mobile, and, head pressed against the cool surface, rang his wife.
'You better pick that up,' growled Lady Errol, glaring at the high commissioner's wife as the telephone jangled in its cradle, 'but if it's Maina Mwangi I have not spoken to you. The transfer goes through tomorrow and if Mwangi even suspects Garrance de Povoire has a torn ligament we could be out of the running for the Pan-African Football League - and we all know what that means.'
'Darling-!' said the high commissioner, his voice distorted by atmospheric disturbance, 'Thank heavens I've got through to you. I'm in a small town just West of Malindi with my head pressed against a refrigerator.'
'But Edward,' she replied, disappointment in her voice, 'you promised you wouldn't do that sort of thing anymore, at least, never when on official duties.'
'No, no,' replied her husband, 'it's this dratted mobile. Wait a moment, someone wants to get a lager, I'm going to have to call you back - By the way, does the codename sapphire mean anything to you?'
Forgetting herself, she repeated the word out loud and was startled to hear a sharp intake of breath from Lady Errol. She glanced across to see the widow rummage in her purse and produce, not the powder compact she was expecting, but a small pearl-handled revolver.
'I was hoping it wouldn't come to this,' whispered Lady Errol in the same emotionless tone of voice that she used to order a pink gin at the Muthaiga country club, 'I've always liked you and you make a damn fine fourth at bridge - but your meddling is not something we can tolerate. Tell me how much Edward knows about Sapphire or I will be forced to kill you.'
The High Commissioner's wife tried to stall for time and rang the bell for some tea, then attempted to engage Lady Errol on a conversation regarding the weather. It was a relief for both of them when the High Commissioner rang back.
'Darling,' he said in a hurried tone, 'I haven't got long. The signal faded and I'm in the high street, head against the roof of a taxi. The meter's running and I've only got eight bob in change. Listen carefully: There's something quite remarkable going on up here the mixture of English poetry and a small fruit is releasing a set of chemicals into the brain that allows one to solve mysteries, spookily, at a distance - The murder of Lord Errol might be a conundrum in Nairobi but up here it's been common knowledge for at least a week. I'll be home as soon as I can.' But the high commissioner was talking to himself. Six hundred miles away in his office in Nairobi, a dishevelled figure had presented himself at the door to his office.
'Good lord!' exclaimed Lady Errol, the revolver dropping from her grasp onto the zebra-skin, 'Darling - James - My Husband - Lord Errol!'
Chapter 5: William Boyd
The High Commissioner's wife picked up the small revolver: it seemed real enough. She slipped it into her pocket and turned to Lavinia Errol. She was lying sobbing on the zebra skin rug. Her keening was becoming irritating.
James Wilbraham, the new third secretary at the Commission, hurried in with a glass of water. Lavinia Errol gulped it down and started to cry again.
"Why does she think I'm her husband?" Wilbraham asked plaintively. He was still in some shock.
"Lavinia's not a well woman," the High Commissioner's wife said. "We'd better get her back to the clinic." They helped Lavinia to her feet. She was now muttering names: Diana, Delves Broughton, Diana Delamere and Joss, Delves and Diana … it was all very sad, this obsession of hers with an ancient murder: just because she shared the victim's name.
Everyone knew that Delves Broughton had killed Lord Errol. There was nothing more to discover.
"James," she said to Wilbraham, "After we've dropped off Lavinia I want you to drive me up to Malindi. I've got to find out what Edward is up to."
Edward walked down the dirt track, the afternoon sun hot on his head and shoulders. Perhaps this was crazy, but the taxi driver seemed adamant. There was a grove of fruit trees, he had said - everyone in the town knew where they were.
He turned a corner and saw a small orchard of spindly gnarled trees, like quince trees, he thought to himself. And the fruit on them was quince-like, also, something between an almond and a plum, with a distinct bloom on the skin. He picked one.
"It's not the season."
Edward turned. A boy stood there. He had many beads around his neck and a bow and a quiver of arrows slung over a shoulder.
"It's not the season," he repeated in Swahili. "It is forbidden to eat the fruit."
As Edward plodded down the road to town he took the fruit out of his pocket and smelled it: sour and farinaceous. He took a bite: fleshy and bland. And then came an aftertaste of rancid bitterness. He spat and raked his throat. No wonder it was forbidden to eat the fruit.
At the hotel, he wandered out to the pool bar - he had to flush that taste out of his mouth and the afternoon sun had made him feel woozy and light headed. He needed a beer.
The pool was quiet: only one sunbather, a woman in a purple swimsuit, supine on her lounger.
Edward ordered a beer from the barman and a packet of cigarettes.
The barman listlessly served him.
"Room number," he asked.
"103," Edward said. He lit a cigarette and turned to see the woman sunbather approaching the bar. She had a face that looked Russian or Polish and a lissom athlete's body. No doubt the wife of some UNESCO official or foreign contractor - bored with up-country Kenya, tired of working on her tan.
The woman had an unlit cigarette in her hand.
"Have you fire?" she asked, smiling.
He pushed the box of matches towards her. Definitely foreign. East German, Czech? How did that line go? "The fruit wants to draw attention to itself…"
She put her keys down on the bar and lit her cigarette. He glanced at the room number.
Room 104. They were already neighbours.
Chapter 6: A.L.Kennedy
The High Commissioner was examining Katja's skin, which had seemed really quite agreeable the previous afternoon by the pool. As she thumbed avidly through the collected works of John Clare, Edward stroked her left thigh - it felt like something… something vegetable, or a fruit, the skin of a… well, he wanted to say peach, or nectarine, or apricot as a final option - but actually it seemed rather more like the rind of a kumquat, possibly even a lychee. This was slightly disturbing. He also thought he was developing a headache.
"And e'en the dearest - that I loved the best - are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest."
Katja's East European murmur raised an undiplomatic sweat at the backs of both his knees, "I beg your pardon ? Katja ? Miss… um ?"
"Koslowski." She rolled over beneath the sheet thoughtfully provided along with room 104's pillow cases. There was a dry rustle, like the rasp of husks.
"Of course, I er…"
"Forgot my name in the grip of your adulterous passion." Her face was changing, turning autumnal.
Damn those bloody hallucinogenic fruit."Well, there's no need to be personal." Maybe they'd done him permanent damage. Or maybe she really was a woman made of bark and dying leaves. He whimpered and reached for a cigarette.
Meanwhile, the High Commissioner's wife was driving South, contemplating her plans as she went. With Lady Errol packed off for an permanent stay in that dreadful Swiss loony bin, their little indiscretions could all be forgotten and the Embassy bridge parties would never again be interrupted by inappropriate naval ditties or screeching accusations of murder. She nibbled the maandazi Wilbraham had brought her at their last stop, liking their crisp give, the way they almost burned her tongue. The next shipment of Indian methaqualone was due on Sunday, the marijuana fields were flourishing… soon she would have enough money to leave this dreadful hole and her even more dreadful husband.
Who at that moment was even more surprised than he could have thought possible - and he had quite recently decided he possessed an almost infinite capacity for shock. While Katja Koslwoski lay beside him looking for all the world like an unhappy compost heap, Edward peered up at the noble figure of Chief Inspector Amos Kibwana. Edward coughed. Edward blinked. "Ah, this is a private room..."
"Don't pretend you don't know who I am, Mr. Sapphire."
"Ah, would it be alright if I truly didn't know ?"
"You think Africa is still your playground… take what you like, make money however you want. What if I should arrest you now ?"
Edward felt his day had not started well and was deteriorating fast. He pulled on his cigarette overly hard, before choking out, "Her Britannic Majesty would… be annoyed. Probably…" It suddenly occurred to him that his cigarette was not, in fact a cigarette. It was from that new ivory case his wife had given him. Which was worrying.
"My grandfather died in one of your British camps - perhaps this should make me annoyed ?"
The bed seemed to wriggle beneath Edward's back, ""Over reaction… the Mau Mau thing. Mistakes made… sorry."
The bullet-proof Mercedes ground on, lifting up a gleeful dust behind it. "Wilbraham ? I think we shall stop at Lucius' farm for some nice, fresh ugali and dengu. Then on to the air strip by three." She exhaled slowly, watching the excellent air conditioning make a cloud of her breath. Poor Edward, he never had understood anything - not even that the fruit only gave an illusion of truth, the mirage of solution.
Chapter 7: Julia Ray (a Today listener)
Edward slowly became aware of his surroundings. Anxious faces peered down at him - the first one to come into focus was the market seller from whom he had just bought the unfamiliar fruit.
His mind felt somewhat disengaged. In it were Lord Errol and Maina Mwangi, his friends from university, Lord Errol's somewhat unusual wife Lavinia, his own wife who seemed to have become slightly distant recently, Eric Cantona, whom he had met the previous week at a High Commission reception and the Russian girl he'd met on the plane from London, whom he had - despite valiant efforts - been unable to put out of it.
He felt strong hands lifting him up and many voices were talking at once. Small boys surrounded him - they were arguing fiercely and trying to get his attention. He felt giddy and was relieved when through the crowd came a traditionally built gentleman with an imposing air. "Quiet, quiet" he shouted and miraculously the whole cacophony stopped.
"What happened to me?" Edward found himself asking. Wisdom Tumbuka, local headmaster and elder of the church, explained. "Your poetry campaign has been very successful here and you have been the unfortunate victim of over-jealous poetry readers who are taking all literary allusions very seriously. Despite our best efforts things have got a bit out of hand. You had the misfortune to take a direct hit from "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" which, by the way, is causing an enormous amount of heated debate here. The intended victim of the large projected tome was the man who sold you the fruit. He has begun to annoy all the local poetry enthusiasts with pseudo-literary pronouncements."
Edward suddenly remembered what the fruit seller had said just before he was hit by "The Complete Works of Shakespeare". He turned to look for him and he was much surprised to find that the man was standing directly behind him, listening to all that was being said.
"I've got it," Edward gasped, somewhat to the man's surprise. The fruit, it's Africa . Outside it is beautiful, the wide vistas, the mountains, the animals, the flowers, the trees, but we must look inside, at the people and at their poetry. I will ask London for funds to promote African poetry!"
Edward felt very dignified making this speech. He felt rather peckish too, now that he thought about it. He saw the fruit he had just bought and took a bite. Suddenly he also began to feel rather strange.
Thanks to all of you who've followed the story throughout the summer, those who've sent in their prose, as well as the professional authors who've taken part.
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