Stephen had recently returned to the farm having spent several months travelling and supposedly working in the Philippines. During his short time there he had witnessed a military coup, a volcano and an earthquake thus adding justification to the already well-earned sobriquet, ‘Comrade Disaster”. Despite his adventures, he had not exactly covered himself in glory while he had been away, having sent a distress message to his family asking for money to buy him an air ticket back to Zimbabwe. It was generally considered that at his age he should have taken care of that matter himself. But Stephen had got used to being the youngest member of the family and to being indulged by his parents and older brothers. But now his father, Mr Jankovitch was becoming somewhat frustrated by the fact that he was living at home without showing any signs of finding a job or doing anything constructive with his life. Stephen, for all his thick skin was aware that he was treading on thin ice and was himself becoming somewhat apprehensive about his relationship with his father.
At breakfast one morning, Mr Jankovitch announced that he would be spending the day in Harare. It was just past eight o’clock and the older sons, Mike and Robert who had already been up for a couple of hours, were at the table with him. But, so far, there was no sign that Stephen had even emerged from his bedroom.
“Where is Stephen?” asked Mr Jankovitch
Mike and Robert gave each other a knowing look and then grunted in unison, “I don’t know”.
Their mother who had just walked in from the kitchen said, “I just heard him coming out of the bathroom. He will be here any minute.”
“Maybe we should have breakfast at 12 o’clock to give Stephen enough time have a piss in the morning,” said Mr Jankovitch, savagely shoving a piece of toast in his mouth.
“I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary to use that word. Anyway I expect he is tired after last night,” said his wife.
“Why what did he do last night?”
“It was a club night. All the boys were there.”
“Ha, Michael and Robert have a few drinks and can get up in the morning, but not Stephen.” he stretched across the table for the paprika.
Stephen appeared at the door, looking somewhat sheepish. He had heard the tone and mention of his name. “Good morning”. He sat down.
“Stephen,” said his father, “I am going to town today. Michael is running the farm, Robert is servicing one of the tractors and calibrating the sprayer, what are you going to do?”
Stephen, who had been contemplating a day of fishing at the dam, realised that he had better come up with something that would meet with his father’s approval. If he had more time to think, he would have said suggested that he drive round the farm checking the cattle fencing. That would have allowed him to take a shotgun with him and to do a bit of shooting; every bit as much fun as fishing. But it was too early in the day for him to think clearly and instead he panicked.
“The Suzuki 90 is misfiring. I will give it a service.”
Robert looked at Mike and muttered something. Mike let out a short laugh.
“Did you say something, Robert?”
“I think it is a good idea for Stephen to service the motorbike.”
“It should only take one hour, but Stephen will probably take ten” said Mr Jankovitch, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
Stephen felt his father almost certainly had a valid point, but was peeved by his lack of faith. “I am not that useless.”
“Right”, said Mr Jankovitch getting up from the table, “I should be back at about four o’clock.” He left the room and headed down the passage.
Mike looked at Stephen, “So Steve, do you think that you can service the motorbike?”
“It can’t be that difficult.”
“Papa will be really mad if its’ not fixed when he gets back,” Mike taunted, “Remember when you broke the drill when you tried to repair the boat trailer? Sheesh, I thought he was going to klup you.”
“Yuss! I would not want to be in your shoes. You will really be in the cactus if you screw this up,” added Robert.
The two older brothers left the dining room laughing and headed back to work. Stephen contemplated his plate and then pushed it to one side. He got up and set off glumly towards the work shop.
The motorbike was on its stand next to the tractor where Robert was working. Stephen cleared a space and went to fetch some tools. He did not know for sure what the cause of the problem was, but felt that the misfiring was either due to a faulty spark plug or a blocked carburettor. He set to work.
Robert looked across. “Make sure you use the right tools and don’t lose any parts.”
Somewhat irritated by this intervention Stephen harrumphed noisily and began loosening the spark plug.
The two brothers worked in silence for a while; Robert methodically, Stephen haphazardly. At one point Mike came by and asked how things were going.
“Well, I have managed to establish that it was not the spark plug,” said Stephen, trying not to sound too disappointed that the easy route had been denied him. “I am now stripping the carburettor.”
“Well be careful,” said Mike. “There are lots of small parts and you don’t want any of them to go missing”.
“I don’t know why nobody thinks I am capable of doing something as simple as stripping a carburettor”.
“It’s not just stripping it. You have to reassemble it as well; in the right order. Hey, Rob, can you leave the tractor for a bit. I need you to come and take a quick look at the mill.”
Mike drove off on his motorbike with Rob riding pillion, leaving a slightly agitated Stephen to resume the task in hand.
All the parts were laid in front of him on the floor of the workshop on a hessian sack. He had carefully placed them in the order that he had taken them apart, to make sure that he could reassemble them correctly. He wanted at all costs to avoid having to ask Rob for any help. Feeling rather pleased with himself, he stood up from his work for a stretch. As he turned round, he noticed that large pigeon had landed on the telephone line 20 metres away. This, he thought to himself, was just the diversion he needed to break the monotony of his work. There was an air rifle in his father’s office at the back of the workshop. In his enthusiasm to fetch it, his foot snagged in a corner of the sack and the carburettor assembly went flying over the dusty floor. All thoughts of pigeon pie evaporated as Stephen anxiously scrambled to retrieve the parts all the while taking furtive looks to make sure that nobody had seen him. Where did the screw go? Which way up did the float lie? How many parts should there be? ‘Bazd meg a picsadat’, he swore, in his father’s native Hungarian.
It was half an hour before lunch when Stephen decided that he had found and cleaned as much of the carburettor has he possibly could. He began the process of reassembling it. Things seemed to be going fairly smoothly and he was just tightening the last screw, when Rob returned. As he walked up, something caught his eye.
“What’s this, doing here?” He bent down and picked up what looked to Stephen like a washer.
Panic. Was it part of the motorbike? Had he failed to retrieve it? Should he claim it and face the humiliation, or should he reject it and face the possibility that it was indeed part of the carburettor. He made no comment, but merely shrugged. Rob, said nothing but placed the washer on the work bench next to the tractor. It certainly did not belong there. It must belong to the motorbike. Stephen thought for a moment. All he had to do was to sneak back the washer when Rob was not looking.
“Come,” said Rob, “let’s go and graze.”
They headed back to the house for lunch. Mike joined them a few minutes later. Mrs Jankovitch was already at the table when they entered the dining room. She knew well enough not to ask Stephen how his day was going, so she confined such topics to her elder sons. Their morning had been spent productively so they were in good spirits. The atmosphere at lunch was more relaxed in the absence of their father and Stephen began to feel sufficiently emboldened to state that he thought that he would be ready to start the bike when he got back to work in the afternoon. Neither Mike nor Robert made any comment, not even a sarcastic one, which added to his confidence.
It was normal for everyone to rest for an hour after lunch, but Stephen had work to do. He had to get back to the workshop before Rob, so as to be able to recover the washer that his brother had found. He left his bedroom five minutes earlier than usual and headed back to work. The washer was lying where Rob had left it. Stephen grabbed it and walked over to the motorbike. He was now familiar with things, or so he thought and it would not take him long to disassemble the carburettor, find, where the washer belonged and put it all back together again.
Twenty minutes later he was ready to start the bike. He put his foot on the lever and gave it a kick. Brrrrrrr! And again. Brrrrrr! And again! The engine was not firing. Rob looked up from the sprayer where he was now working.
“Maybe it’s flooded. Try push starting it.”
Stephen wheeled the bike outside. He put it in second gear, then holding in the clutch he broke into a run, pushing the motorbike down the road. Leaping on, he released the clutch. Brrrrrr! He got off and began pushing again. This time he did not jump on when he let out the clutch but carried on pushing. The engine refused to fire. Stephen began to tire as he pushed against the turning but lifeless engine. He wheeled the bike round and headed back to the workshop.
“What’s wrong?” asked Rob.
“It won’t fire”
“Did you switch on the petrol?”
Stephen quickly looked down. He had not forgotten. Phew. “Yes, of course. Do you think that I am a baboon?”
“Ok, take it apart again and I will come and have a look.”
Stephen realised that he was facing defeat. He did as his brother bid and laid all the parts on the sack. Rob came over and crouched down next to him. He inspected the parts to make sure that they were all clean and undamaged.
“Ok, let’s put it back properly this time.”
He took up each part in turn and put in its place.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It’s a washer”, replied Stephen.
“In know that, but what’s it doing here? It looks like the washer that I needed for the sprayer. I put it by the tractor before lunch.”
“Oh,” said Stephen, “ is thaaat where it came from? Somebody must have put here when we were at lunch.”
Rob shook his head. “Yeah, right. Ok, let’s give it a go.”
He tried kick-starting it, but nothing happened.
“Give me a push.” He climbed on and Stephen began pushing. Brrrrr! Bang, Brrrrr
“Keep going, it’s trying to fire,” shouted Rob.
Stephen was becoming exhausted, but he knew his brother would not let him off lightly. Brrrr, bang, bang, brrrrr.
“I can’t carry on. I have to rest.”
“Keep going, it’s nearly there.”
Stephen, pushed for a while longer and then stopped.
“All right, go and fetch Mike’s motorbike. I will get a rope and I will tow you.”
This seemed like a good idea to Stephen and off he went. He was feeling much happier now that Robert had failed to get it start. It wasn’t just him.
Robert tied one end of the rope to the pillion of his bike and the other to handle-bar on Stephen’s.
“Stick it in second gear and when I give you the signal, let out the clutch. Keep the rope tense otherwise you might get it tangled in your wheels,”
Rob set off down the road, in the direction of the farm compound, where the farm workers lived, Stephen trailing behind in his wake. Periodically Stephen would let out the clutch and the engine would make its infuriatingly sterile noise. As they approached the compound, children ran to the side of road to watch the strange convoy. Women emerged from their houses, their curiosity aroused. Rob and Stephen rode past shouting instructions to each other, their voices rising and language deteriorating with frustration.
Eventually, Rob stopped his motorbike and said, “It’s buggered. I don’t know what the problem is. I cannot waste any more time on this. I have to get back to the workshop to finish the sprayer. Put it in neutral and we will go back.”
Bitterly, Stephen turned the bike round towards home. He slipped it into neutral and off they rode. Without the resistance of Stephen’s engine turning over, Robert was able to get a reasonable speed. As they approached the compound the onlookers were still there. It was at this point that Stephen decided to have one final go at trying to start his motorbike. Without warning Robert, he slipped it into third gear and released the clutch. The engine fired immediately. Unwilling to let the engine die, Stephen opened the throttle and accelerated. The motorbike shot forward. With a big smile he looked across as he raced past his brother who was clearly unaware of what had been going on behind him. A look of panic appeared on Robert’s face as Stephen pulled away from him.
‘Stop,’ he shouted at his younger brother, but it was pointless. Stephen was too pleased with himself. Nothing would induce him to stop his motorbike and risk stalling the engine. Or so he thought. Suddenly the tow rope, which still attached to the front of his motorbike went taut. The force of his faster bike pulled Robert’s rear wheel round spinning him off on to the side of the road. Stephen’s demise was even more spectacular. His front wheel was jerked sideways while the bike was still accelerating. Stephen went flying through the air and landed in the middle of the road. The brothers’ humiliation and the delight of the farm children were complete.
6 thoughts on “An African Misadventure”
I was put in mind to post this by Four Eyed English Genius’s account of his adventures with his lawnmower.
Lovely tale, Sipu. Thanks
Hi Pseu. Thanks. The fellow on whom the story is based is a sort of William Brown. His exploits warrant several books.
Good read, Sipu: he does sound like a walking disaster area. Plenty more material there, then?
Hi Araminta, that is true there are lots of stories. He also happens to be one of the funniest people I know.
Hey, the inept younger brother is always the one who, in the end, conquers the giant, steals his gold and wins the princess and the kingdom. It’s only a matter of time.