If you are reading this on the day that it is published I am at the Author-signing event in Telford hoping to sell some of my books. I hope that this event attracts readers with a bit of cash in their pockets and is not just a day spent in a room full of writers flogging their wares to each other. I am amazed by how much effort some of the writers put in to providing trinkets to accompany their written work. I could be disparaging and call it tat but actually some authors really seem to spend a lot of time crafting the bits and pieces that support their written efforts. Is this really want book buyers want? I’ve got bookmarks and postcards but that’s it. All my effort goes into producing the books.
This week I watched a programme on autism by autistic people. It suggested that over 1% of the population are somewhere on the spectrum. Of course most of those are functioning pretty successfully in society but have questions about themselves and how they fit into the community. About the same number of people are thought to be gender-variant in some way or other and there must be endless minorities claiming similar numbers. I wonder who is “normal” or indeed what that term even means. The autistic presenters seemed to lump all “normal” people together as if they never had any self-doubts or worries about their place or role in the world. I believe that the marvellous thing about humanity is that we are all different. We have a wide range of physical characteristics, personalities, aptitudes and abilities that make each one of us unique, and we each have our problems and questions. I also wonder if this search for a medical term to attach to ourselves is just a means to find people who are like us; a label to tell us which group we can belong to. I am not denying that there are many severely autistic people who need a great deal of support and understanding in the same way that those with severe gender dysphoria need swift assessment and treatment to put them in the gender that matches their personality. What I do want to see is acceptance by society that there is no norm which everyone should aspire to.
I am still giving Jasmine a rest although I must get down to editing Molly’s Boudoir soon. It’s had a month or two resting in my computer files. I have been thinking and planning to start a couple of SF/Fantasy novels but as usual cannot quite decide which to begin with. Can I write two novels at the same time?
In the meantime here is another SF story I wrote a year or so ago from an idea that arose from an article in New Scientist magazine (New Scientist no. 3056 16th Jan 2016 p.27 I plant memories in seeds, Karin Ljubic Fister). I was considering developing it further and I may, but decided that actually my idea wasn’t particularly original (the scientific research moved faster than I imagined) and the story contained elements of older novels by more skilled writers. Ideas and plots can’t be copyrighted and I wasn’t guilty of plagiarism but the plot was a bit too familiar. Nevertheless I enjoyed writing it and doing the research into the east Africa scenes. I haven’t been there but I hope I captured something of the atmosphere of the Rift Valley.
Anyway, let’s see what you think of Benefactors. There will be a number of episodes over the next few weeks.
Benefactors: Part 1
Two men wearing red and orange cloaks over their traditional woven skirts, approached the grove of trees arguing with each other. Jock Fraser listened then raised a finger to his earpiece. All he was getting was whistles and clicks fed from the smartphone in the breast pocket of his gillet. He turned to the man sitting next to him on the dusty ground. He resembled the arguing men in looks but was wearing western style dress.
‘I’m not getting a translation of what those guys are arguing about,’ Jock said. ‘Aren’t they speaking Samburu, Ekuru?’
The dark skinned Ekuru Lengabilo shook his head. ‘There is some similarity but they are using their own speech.’
Jock frowned. He was not used to being out of communication with the people around him. ‘Can you translate for me?’
‘I have some words but this language is only spoken by these people. They are few and do not travel far from the trees that they tend. It is an old tongue without the words for modern ideas like phone and truck.’
Jock sighed. ‘Well, see what you can manage. What are those two arguing about?’
‘How much the one with the necklace is willing to pay the other for a goat.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Jock saw two other people arriving, a man and woman. They were not speaking to each other, in fact they were looking in different directions as if they did not even want their view sullied by the image of the other.
The arriving pairs looked at Jock and his companion with sour expressions then sat with him amongst the scruffy, low trees. Others arrived until there were about a dozen sitting in a circle. The murmur of chatter slowly faded.
A child of about seven years approached the group carrying a wooden bowl. She, Jock surmised she was a girl, moved around the circle and each person took a leaf and put it in their mouths. The girl came to Jock and he too took a leaf. It was taken from the trees under which they sat. He chewed. The taste was bitter and the flavour not particularly pleasant but he persisted as did the other people. Talk resumed. Jock noticed the couple, man and wife perhaps, begin to converse. They seemed happy to acknowledge each other’s presence now. The two men who had been arguing now spoke to each other more conversationally, nodded and smiled at each other. Others chatted amiably and Jock too felt content and happy to be amongst these people who he had not met before. He felt a connection with them that seemed more than just sharing the shade of the trees.
An elderly man used his stick to haul himself to his feet. He addressed the small crowd but looked towards Jock and Ekuru. Lengabilo interpreted haltingly.
‘He welcomes you on behalf of the people of the God Tree. He thanks you for your gifts and your offer to speak on their behalf to those that rule over us.’ Jock felt a bit guilty at hearing that – he was a botanist not a negotiator and he carried little influence with the government officials despite having drug company money behind his expedition. All he knew was that like most small indigenous tribes these people were under threat from the exploiters from the capital and beyond. He nodded in acknowledgement to the tribe’s elder and felt an unusual bond with him and determination to help.
Another child walked towards him carrying something on a bark tray. The elder explained that it was a gift from his people. The young boy who had such similar looks that Jock guessed he was related to the girl, a slightly older brother perhaps, smiled at Jock and handed over the bark. On it lay a small twig with a few leaves and a seed pod. The leaves and pod were dry and appeared brittle. They had obviously been plucked from one of the trees some time ago. Jock found this gift much more interesting than the words.
The elder was still speaking and Jock’s interpreter made it clear how much an honour this gift was: one of the last remaining seeds of the tree from the most recent flowering a decade ago. Jock knew how lucky he was. In their earlier conversations he had learnt that the next flowering, if indeed the trees survived that long, would not be for another thirty years or more and few of the seeds collected from the previous crop had germinated and taken root. There were probably no more than a dozen living examples of the tree. Most of them in this small grove.
Why was the tree special, Jock asked himself? It was small, spindly and slow-growing. Its wood was of little practical use, the leaves were edible but provided little sustenance and the seeds too rare to be of any value except ceremonially. All Jock knew was that the leaves appeared to contain a mild narcotic, hence the feeling of conviviality that he and the congregation felt. Why therefore did the people invest so much of their time in tending and protecting the trees? Was it simply tradition?
A tap on Professor Helen Patel’s door caused her to look up from the paper she was reading on her scroll. She felt a brief feeling of annoyance.
‘Yes?’ she called. The door opened and Sarah, her secretary looked in.
‘Doctor Fraser is here. You remember he asked for an appointment.’
Helen sighed. Why couldn’t the man have just sent an vemail or simply a text. ‘Oh, yes. I suppose you’d better send him in.’
Hardly had she spoken than a man brushed passed Sarah and hurried in to the office. His pale freckled face was peeling and his ginger hair windblown. He wore khaki shorts and a multi-pocketed gillet over a check shirt. His message had said that he was a field botanist. Helen wondered if he had come to her straight from an expedition. She half rose from her chair as Fraser advanced towards her with his arm outstretched. She took his hand and he gripped hers in a firm handshake.
‘Please sit down Doctor Fraser.’ Helen said sinking back into her own seat. Fraser pulled a chair up and sat as close as possible. He placed a canvas satchel that had been over his shoulder on the desk.
‘Oh, please call me Jock,’ Fraser said revealing his Scottish origins in his accent as well as his appearance.
‘It’s your name?’ Helen asked not quite believing that there were actually Scotsmen called Jock.
‘No, it’s Johann. My mother was Austrian but most people ignore that.’
Helen decided not to go into Jock Fraser’s ancestry. ‘I don’t understand why you wanted to see me in person, especially as you’re a botanist and I am not.’
Fraser leaned forward, his eyes shining. ‘But you’re a genomist, a highly respected one.’
‘That’s true. I worked on the Human Genome Project as a postdoc and I’ve been in the field for more than three decades now.’
‘And you have worked on sequencing and gene expression in plants,’ Jock added.
‘Yes, mainly plants. What is it you want to tell me Dr Fraser, uh, Jock?’
Jock took a deep breath and began to open the straps of his bag. ‘I’ve just come back from a survey in the Rift Valley in Kenya.’
Helen had an image of wide open savannah with elephants and lions, and insects and snakes and hot sun. She remembered why she preferred the lab.
‘Sounds lovely,’ she said.
‘Very exciting,’ Jock agreed. ‘The expedition was paid for by a drug company which I won’t name for now. We were looking for plants that may have medicinal properties that could provide the precursors for drugs.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Helen nodded, ‘a valuable job. We need sources of new medicines. Did you find any?’
Jock shrugged, ‘One or two that may be useful, but we also found this.’ He took what looked like a plastic sandwich box out of the bag, placed it on the desk in front of Helen and lifted the lid off. Inside were couple of small oval leaves and a shrivelled brown seed case. Helen didn’t recognise the plant.
‘A tree or bush?’
‘A small tree. No scientific name yet. Never recorded before, except by the indigenous population. In fact, we think there may only be a few of the trees, restricted to one small area.’
‘Almost extinct then?’
‘I hope not,’ Jock said. ‘The trees live for many hundreds if not thousands of years and only produce seeds once in a lifetime. A lifetime of the locals that is: about every forty years. They tend them and celebrate when they flower.’
‘Is it a potential drug source?’ Helen asked, wondering why Jock was showing her the specimen.
He shrugged, ‘Perhaps. The leaves contain a mild narcotic. The locals chew them during tribal gatherings. It makes them feel gregarious and cooperative. There could be a use for that, but the taste is pretty disgusting.’
‘Oh,’ Helen said wondering where this conversation was going.
Jock sat up straight as if about to start on a story. ‘That was the reason the Company decided to sequence the tree’s DNA, but I wanted to know more because the locals call it the God Tree – in their language of course.’