Dis' Taste

By Caven Tootell

Historical fiction

Paperback, eBook

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4 mins


Travelling up river in canoe:

Philippe crouched a little lower in the prow of the canoe, as it slid under some low hanging branches and was enveloped in almost complete darkness. The leaves brushed against him, along with a thick branch, as he tried to move his head away from it, another projection made a dull, hollow scraping sound as it rubbed and bounced down the outer hull. A trickle of warm water ran off the leaves and onto his tunic. The canoe was over four metres long, rudely cut from a large tree and it was obviously very old and had been used considerably. There was a thick layer of slime and mud coating the lower floor which stunk of unwashed bodies and rotting food and Philippe’s boots slid as he tried to steady himself by leaning heavily on the side of the canoe. The water sloshed up over his laces and left a layer of vile smelling sludge on top of his boots. With one hand he gripped what passed as a gunwale, the rough wood finish bit into his hand, but he dared not let go in case he toppled over in front of the African Force Publique soldiers riding with him. Up ahead one of the Africans poled with his paddle as they neared the shore, while others fended off the foliage with their hands. The eight Force Publique conscripts were huddled low in the boat, now lifting their oars as they neared the bank.

They were all very quiet, seemed almost nervous or excited, their Albini rifles slung across their backs, the heavy stock pulled down on the sling and the raised hammer occasionally made a low clang as it bumped the wooden gunwales. The askari were the company’s locally conscripted soldiers, forced into enlisting in the Force Publique. Most were from tribes and nations further afield than were they were deployed or stationed. This was to cut all emotional ties with locals when they had to enforce the company’s will and rule. An added benefit was that if they were attacked they were highly unlikely to desert to the attackers. As outsiders their life and health were dependent on the control and dominance of the company. In essence they were simple, uneducated mercenaries, often co-opted into a year’s service. Their corporals were usually just the few who could hold and maintain the Europeans instructions and managed to instil fear into their subordinates. 

There was a slight lightning of the sky in the east so he knew they had to get ashore quickly and get into cover before they were spotted. It was eerily quiet, some indeterminate jungle sounds almost as if it was breathing as it slept and an occasional slap of water as some fish started its day of struggling in life.

Over the side of the boat the water was menacingly dark in this light, it swirled sluggishly as if it was oil, past the boat now they were in close to the landfall, gripping and pushing them forward then fighting with the paddlers and trying to push them away from the closing bank. Hollow thuds sounded as the river pushed the paddles against the hollow hull, then the straining of the Askari as they struggled to regain mastery over the lump of wood and bend it and the river to their will and objective. Philippe strained his eyes in the darkness. He had become accustomed to the low light in mid-stream as they left the river boat, but here under the drooping river foliage there was a different kind of darkness. It seemed thicker, more enveloping and he could only make out the white tunics of the Askari ahead of him. He heard the loud splash of some river dweller way off to his right, too far out into deep water to be a crocodile, maybe a tiger fish or a bird making an early start to its day’s hunting. Way off in the distance could be heard the very faint rumblings of the rapids as the Congo river finished its greatest falls from higher up and turned itself into a wide sluggish river as it wound down towards the coast and Leopoldville.

Earlier travel up river in steamer:

It had taken the detachment the best part of a day and last night to reach close to Mbama on the company’s riverboat. Philippe along with Messerli and Augustine had relaxed on the upper deck as the boat chugged its way upstream against the current. They had played baccarat whilst the European Sergeants had supervised the Askari, making sure their weapons were cleaned and serviceable down on the quarterdeck under the awning. At sunset whilst the men prepared their meals and sang, the three officers, tunics unbuttoned under the oppressive heat had drunk a bottle of cognac Augustine had brought with him. The boy also brought a bottle of Gin and two beers to table as they relaxed in the canvas chairs, absentmindedly watching the river banks as they slipped by. Messerli had his new M98 Mauser he had recently had shipped to him from Germany. It was a splendid looking weapon with its newer lines compared to the standard issued Albini rifle. Messerli played with the bolt several times, revelling in the smooth action. With a beer bottle in one hand and the barrel supported by his boot resting on the boat’s railing he seemed intent on shooting at whatever strayed into his line of fire. Philippe leant back in his chair, stretched his legs and put his feet up on the rail as well. He drank deeply from his bottle of beer and grinned at Messerli and his antics. “Do you think you can kill any wild pygmies Richard?” he enquired jokingly. 

Messerli turned his head slowly and peered at Philippe, “Most definitely my friend, could not miss if he was related to a Belgian!” grinning and turning back to his field of fire. With a conspiratorial smile, Messerli clicked the five round box magazine into the magazine spring. This was one of the nice improvements over the earlier single shot Albini which had a front hinged; forward lifting breech and a large flintlock striker.

The heat and humidity was becoming unbearable, even this close to the water and under the shade. Smiling at his friend Messerli squinted with his eyes and scanned the jungle lining the river banks. The steamer grunted and belched smoke as it pushed against the current in their trip up river. Its progress was slow as if it too was pushing through the water logged air and cloying vegetation. Intermittently they would see a troop of monkeys screaming and clamouring in the overhanging trees, but Richard’s shots would drive them back into the safety of the deep treetops. Philippe took a long draught from his bottle of beer and threw the empty over the side. Absentmindedly he called for the servant to bring him another from the tub of water below where they were kept to pretend to keep them cool. The boy dressed in crisp white looked slightly ridiculous in his livery against the wild background setting from the deck.

“Have you chaps had any encounters with the Mbama village before,’ Augustine interjected into the quiet reverie?



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