The message was an urgent one. It came from a presumably respectable source, the headmaster of the Middle School in the African township on the other side of the railway track. I read it twice, but there was no mistaking its meaning. One of his pupils had been cycling to school that morning with his younger brother on the crossbar when a naked man had leapt out from behind a tree and thrown a spear which killed the younger boy. The note ended with a request for immediate instructions.
Normally, it would not have been my responsibility to make a decision, but the Provincial Education Officer, John Forester, had just gone off for ten days on a tour of schools in the bush, leaving me in charge of the office. ‘Think you can manage ?’ he’d asked with a grin as he loaded his fishing rod and shotgun into the back of the Land Rover. ‘Certainly,’ I’d replied, with all the confidence of a raw recruit with fourteen weeks’ experience of the country. I waved him off cheerfully and took over his desk, feeling twice as important as I had any right to feel.
And now this had happened. Somewhere out there a naked madman was lurking behind bushes on the outskirts of one of my schools, possibly with a whole arsenal of spears. My brief on-the-job training had not covered this eventuality. I decided it was a matter for the police.
The Inspector of Police, when I got through to him on the phone, sounded bored and decidedly sceptical. He showed interest only when I declared my intention of closing the school until the madman had been caught and safely locked up. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that !’ he exclaimed, as if I had suggested declaring a national holiday. ‘Let me send one of my chaps out. I ‘ll get back to you when we have something to report.’
The next three hours were the longest in my short life. I had visions of a mass slaughter taking place and the subsequent official report denouncing me as incompetent and indecisive, all of which I felt to be horribly true. What would the boss have done ? I had no doubt he would have pickedup his shotgun and driven out to the school with both barrels blazing. And sorted things out.
That afternoon the telephone finally rang. It was the Inspector. ‘You were right about the young lad being killed,’ he said resentfully. I didn’t know whether to feel glad or sorry. ‘There’s no need to close the school, however. My man took a closer look at the bicycle left lying at the roadside. It had one of its pedals missing. The lads must have fallen off their bike and the rod which fits into the pedal had gone straight into the younger boy’s heart. It was covered with blood. A thousand to one chance. I think you’ll find the Coroner records a verdict of death by misadventure.’
When John Forester returned from tour and breezed into the office, I was back at my own desk, busily at work. ‘Everything go all right ?’ he asked. ‘Certainly,’ I murmured, barely raising my head from the papers in front of me. ‘A piece of cake.’