Excerpt

Binstead’s Safari

Rachel Ingalls

February 28, 2019 
The following is from Rachel Ingalls' novel Binstead's Safari. The novel unfolds the fractured fairy tale of the rebirth of a drab, insecure woman as a fiercely alive, fearless beauty when she and her negligent husband go on safari in Africa. Rachel Ingalls is an American-born author who has lived in the UK since 1965. She is the author of the novels Mrs. Caliban and Binstead’s Safari as well as numerous novellas and short stories.

Stan sat directly behind a wiry man of about his own age: late thirties to early forties. The man was named Carpenter. He worked for the government, not for the tourist board. He had told everyone about safety measures, and disappointed the Frenchwoman who was traveling with them. She was a professional photographer and, like many photographers not working inside actual war zones, dressed in what looked like genuine combat-issue clothes. Stan had thought when he first saw her that she was a very small soldier. She was smoking Gauloises until Carpenter said something to her about a fire risk. Stan was pretty sure the rule had been made up just that minute.

He was in the back seat with a large, proper-looking Dutchwoman and a Japanese who was handsome enough to be a movie star. The car was a heavy-duty vehicle, a cross between a truck, a jeep and a wagon. They were all slightly crushed together inside and the view from where he was sitting wasn’t always good. The photographer seemed to believe they should have been given a convertible or a jeep. Stan, however, had been told in London about a member of the television crew whose jeep had been accordioned by some large animal— a rhinoceros or a wild buffalo. And God only knew what an elephant could do to an ordinary car if it concentrated. He was glad they were where they were.

From the beginning it was clear that Carpenter couldn’t stand the Frenchwoman. She tried to take loudly snapping pictures into the driver’s face and spent a lot of time complaining, mainly because of dust on the lenses. The Japanese asked about rainfall, herd numbers and so on, but Carpenter had trouble understanding his accent. Stan repeated a few of the questions, paraphrased in order not to o end the Japanese, whose English was grammatically faultless and not, in his opinion, difficult to understand. It occurred to him part way through the morning that Carpenter might su er from impaired hearing: either an ordinary deafness or one caused by constant exposure to gun re at close range—something the army was fussy about, he remembered, because you could sue them if it got worse.

The Dutchwoman said nothing at first. She appeared pleased to be where she was and looked as respectable and dignified as if she were on a church outing. Stan felt there was an unexpressed sympathy between them until about twenty minutes later, after they had gone over some especially bumpy stretches and swallowed quite a lot of dust from a car ahead. She then began to chatter. As he had expected, she seemed to be a very nice woman, but practically impossible to stem. Information about her friends, family, vacations, poured from her. His replies grew quieter and more perfunctory and she became more animated, laughing and chortling. She turned to the Japanese on her other side. All at once he too went into action: out came his friends, family, vacations as well. The silent understanding had been there all right, but between the two other people, not between Stan and anyone else.

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They stopped several times to see lion, elephant, giraffe. All the animals were immensely far away, almost dots. The Frenchwoman made a big production of her work, getting out of the car and setting up tripods every time they came to a halt. While she was busy, the Japanese explained to the Dutchwoman that a friend of his was a photographer and none of that was really necessary. Carpenter kept an eye on everyone and on the neighboring countryside. The driver stared ahead during the breaks, his face still and thoughtful except for an occasional ripple of activity along his jaw muscles that showed he was chewing something.

They drove in among zebra and a herd of animals which were larger than ordinary gazelle and had dramatically back-slanted horns. Stan felt caught by the grace of movement as he watched a long outer swale lift itself up from the main body to get out of the way, all its members jumping in accord. The driver was using the car to buzz them. It wasn’t blatant and they never left the road completely; nevertheless, that was what he was doing. The herd swerved and an entire wedge-like section of it leapt over to the side in high, far-aiming arcs, right at the three-quarter mark of which the gazelles kicked their hind legs like rabbits. It was fun to see. It also made Stan think about what ability enabled them to wheel and leap together so exactly. It was almost like watching a flock of birds. Men did it too, but only on the parade ground. When he’d gone through his short spell of that, he’d just thought of it as marching. The official name for the whole process was Basic Training.

On their way back, the Frenchwoman started a quarrel. She was championed, without having looked for it, by the Japanese. The Dutchwoman came to attention.

“What?” she said.

“Excuse me?”

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Carpenter leaned over the seat and away from the French being discharged at his head.

“We had some trouble here a few days ago.”

“You, personally?” Stan asked.

“No. A few bloody stupid fools got out of their car when they’d been warned not to. It’s usually the photographers,” he said, raising his voice.

“We will guarantee to stay in the car,” the Japanese told him.

“Yes, indeed,” the Dutchwoman agreed.

Stan asked, “What happened?”

“Lion. Went for one of the cars. Don’t know why. Took a swipe at the window—from above, you understand, on the roof. They hadn’t even shut the windows. Laid a man’s arm open. Then one of them panicked, I think. Got out and ran. Of course, he didn’t stand a chance. The driver had to go after them, and then he was mauled. Damn shame.”

“And the lion?”

“Got away. But he’s here, somewhere. We tracked him, and he’s doubled back.”

“Was he hit?”

“Not badly. Enough to slow him down. Enough to make him a nasty customer if he’s cornered.”

“We will stay in the car,” the Dutchwoman promised.

Stan said, “Shouldn’t he be asleep at this time of day? I thought lions were nocturnal, they hunted at night.”

“By and large. If they’re disturbed, you can’t tell what they’ll do. Can’t tell in any case.”

“I guess you couldn’t have left the body.”

Carpenter made a face. “That would have been the sensible thing to do, but of course it was out of the question.”

“Leave the body?” the Dutchwoman said. “This poor man who is killed? What a terrible idea — why leave the body?”

“So the lion would return to it,” Stan told her.

“Ah, forget the lion.”

Carpenter said, “I’m inclined to agree with you.”

“I thought they turned into man-eaters,” Stan said. “If they get hurt, or crippled.”

“Oh, a few bites out of a tourist, we don’t count that. It’s the wound that makes the difference.”

In the end, Carpenter gave in. They took the route that went past the place where the accident had happened. And there, in what they were later told was the identical spot, a large dark-blue four-door car stood empty, with all the doors open. Carpenter began to mutter oaths. He said something to the driver and then announced, “I’m going out, but if one of you moves from here, I refuse to be responsible.”

As he left, taking his rifle with him, he bent down and said, “Binstead, keep the lady in the car.”

The Frenchwoman reached for the door handle straightaway. Stan lunged across the seat and put his arm over hers. He said in French that he regretted very much—but. She told him not to be absurd. Would she, he asked her, want her nice camera to be eaten up by the ferocious animals? She said he spoke French like a Spanish cow, and she darted towards the door again. This time he grabbed her by the back of her shirt collar and pulled, saying that he had been entrusted with a sacred duty to protect the beautiful ladies, and it was a matter of honor. “Imbecile,” she screamed, “imbecile,” and then laughed. He let go. She turned, still laughing, to look at him.

The driver had sat through the whole proceeding without making any movement or sound, not even munching on the thing in his mouth.

Stan said, in English, that if she could shoot her pictures from where they were—through the glass—that might work. She answered in English that she had everything she needed for it, but couldn’t she put her head out of the window with the camera?

“Better not. Remember that lion on the roof. When these things happen, it’s always very fast. And you aren’t expecting it.”

“Okay,” she said. Behind her, the Japanese had already pulled out a camera of his own and started it whirring.

From then on, as Stan had said, things did happen very fast. They saw Carpenter o in the distance, and another man walking slowly towards him. The two stood together, then both went over to the right and parted again in order to cover a patch of low-growing bushes. They began to move farther and farther away.

And then, there was a rushing. The figures were so small that it was hard to tell at first what it was. But the next moment, leaning forward past the Dutchwoman, Stan realized that what he was seeing was a running woman who fell and writhed around on the ground. There were shots and he saw a lion run back into the undergrowth. That was what had made the woman fall down: the lion had jumped on her from behind while she was trying to escape. They heard the shots distinctly and they heard, even from such a long way and with the windows partly closed, the tiny screaming, quickly lost in the great spaces beyond.

It’s the way it must have been in the war, he thought. The way it must have been the day he died. And they buried him out there.

Later, when Carpenter talked about it, Stan pieced together what had actually taken place. Many of the things he had assumed, were not there. The lion, for instance, was a lioness and had not jumped, but had run along behind and then beside the woman, and brought her down by clawing up at her legs.

The woman was a German children’s nurse, employed to look after a child of seven. She had been wearing white—a suit for a European summer, not a regular nurse’s uniform—which had made her look so hideously bloodstained after the attack that Carpenter and the other guide were sure she was dead when she hit the ground. But she hung on, moaning and whimpering, to die later in the hospital from shock and loss of blood.

The child, so the survivors said, had been an extremely spoiled and obstreperous little boy. He had declared loudly that if they didn’t stop the car, he was going to have to pee on his fellow passengers. The driver had braked, the boy climbed out, and he had immediately skipped off across the grass while the grown-ups yelled at him to come back. The guide started to go out in pursuit, but the nurse brushed him aside. He assumed that the boy would come to her. Of course, she was the one person there whom the child was certain not to obey; he ran on ahead of her, laughing and taunting. All at once they were both far away out on the plain. The guide and driver got out with their rifles, ordering the others to stay put—which they hadn’t done.

The boy raced into some bushes and out the opposite side, where he tripped over a lion, two lionesses and five well-grown cubs all lazing in the shade. The nurse followed. She heard what was happening and, since she was higher o the ground than the child had been at his approach, saw part of it. She turned around, running for her life. By that time, most of the car’s occupants were over to the right, being shouted at by their guide, and, as soon as he joined the group, Carpenter.

The Frenchwoman filmed everything she could. The Japanese likewise fixed himself in a contorted, knee-bent stance up against the roof in order to get a better angle and he kept his finger on the silver lever of his machine. The Dutchwoman clicked her tongue. She murmured doleful phrases in Dutch, but she didn’t look away.

At last Carpenter came back, opened the door and got in. Both cameras were still filming. He spoke to the driver, who started up. They backed away down the track and turned.

At the hotel, Stan invited Carpenter to lunch. Not lunch, he answered, but a drink. They ordered beer in the bar and drank together as Carpenter told the story and added one or two others. He gave the impression that he thought Stan had acted commendably in managing to keep everyone from getting hysterical or leaving the car while the hunt was on. They said goodbye on friendly terms. Stan had the feeling that he had stood up to some kind of test.

The clerk at the reception desk signaled to him as he passed. He handed over a note, which said that Millie had telephoned and she wouldn’t be back for lunch but would meet him in the late afternoon at the sporting goods store to collect their clothes and other equipment. He had forgotten all about her.

He had lunch by himself, went back to their room, sat down in a chair and began to shake. He thought about his brother.

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From Binstead’s Safari. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Rachel Ingalls.




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