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Up the River
by A. McIntyre

Hidden under ferns in the crippling heat, we’d been watching the group all day through binoculars, Caruthers constantly taking notes.  I wondered why because hitherto he’d never show interest in anything other than military history, mining, and fly fishing.  Twilight came, and it was time to return to the camp.  When he finally gave the signal, we crept away till we found the trail.

“Well old chap, what do you think?”

“Actually,” I replied.  “It seems to me that their life is a continual orgy.”

Caruthers smiled.  “Rather like certain quarters of Port Campbell.”

“Yes,” I said.  “London no different.  Chaps putting their most prized possession in the regions of ladies where I wouldn’t introduce the stipule of my umbrella.  I always wondered who Campbell was, by the way.”

“A strong loined progenitor,” Caruthers replied.  “Dozens of natives entitled to wear Campbell tartan.  The story of the Scottish Highlands with an English appendage,” he added.  “Interesting, the comparison.  Savage lands, savage lands.”

Caruthers chuckled, “Oh, in the old days, the biggest challenge was acquiring a wife.  Besides the District Commissioner’s daughters, there wasn’t much to choose from, and they weren’t exactly beauties.  Young bachelors getting on in the world, and there we were stuck in the furthest corner of the Empire.  Illustrious career in the Colonial Office, and nothing for a proper wife.  Shackled we were, caged by our success.  We’d sit about at sunset nursing our pink gins.  For months we had rumors about teachers for the school.  The steamer making its journey every two weeks, we’d congregate on the dock watching as it struggled upstream against the current, a white dot growing larger as it progressed against the black of the river.  All we were thinking about was some suitable females might be on board.  One day, we got word of some developments during a terrific thunder storm, no-one could hear a thing due to the static.  The name Leslie Rogers was all we gleaned.  We were on the dock at the appointed hour with our binoculars, making all the right noises, By Jove sir, here she comes, what, another hour or so, steady on steady on, as the dilapidated vessel made its gradual way.  Standing in the bows, not the women of our dreams, rather one bald, lean, very tough individual with a countenance like old leather, a Classics master from one of the Great Schools, and we went back to our posts terribly dejected.  Well, the poor fellow died very soon after, tick bite fever or some such thing.  Awfully nice chap actually, missionary type, very zealous, but not quite what we wanted you know.  We buried him and that was that, we made an effort to keep his grave tidy.  Time went by.  The usual complaints, the rhythm of the tropics, pink gins, desk work, forays into the hinterland to sort out tribal disputes, staggering heat, then out of the blue the steamer arrived taking us all unawares, and there she stood.”

“Marjorie?”  I said.

Caruthers nodded, “Yes, Marjorie, I’ll never forget her descending the gangplank, her face, her eyes, hair like an angel, ladylike yet tough, I could see that right away, the school teacher.  By gad sir, they muttered.  Well, they all made a dash for her tripping over each other, bumbling about, trying to assist her with her luggage, quoting Shakespeare, Ovid, flexing muscles, cracking jokes, twiddling moustaches, whatever they thought might impress her.  But I knew I’d won her the moment she stepped down the gangplank.”

“How?”  I asked.

“Because I made no moves to assist and she liked that, she was from Cheltenham Ladies, you know, very tough, we were married within the year.”

I laughed, “Women are so odd.”

Caruthers smiled, “An understatement old fellow if I ever heard one, the more I’ve known the less I understood about them.”

“Not like those lady chimps,” I added.

Caruthers offered me a cigarette, “Don’t you be fooled, they’re far cleverer than we imagine, we’re just at the beginning, they get jealous too you know.  And never forget, they had two Bushmen in the primate section of London Zoo at the beginning of the century until someone mentioned the oddity of it all.  Who are we to comment?”

“You know,” I agreed.  “You really have something there.”

“And I’ve heard,” Caruthers interrupted.  “There’s a lovely young thing up country studying chimps, name’s Jane something or other, protégée of that Leakey fellow we once met.  I wonder what dear old Edgar Rice Burroughs would say, why I’m taking such prodigious notes in my spare time, old chap, hope to liaise with her at some point you know, share some ideas on the subject.”

“Quite,” I agreed.  “Of course, with Marjorie gone, and all that.”

“Exactly old man,” said Caruthers.  “Exactly.  Well, here we are, I’ll build the fire if you prepare the pot, pour me some of that Glenlivet will you.”

Previously published in 971 Menu.


Andrew McIntyre spent the first six years of his life in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Educated at boarding schools in England, he attended universities in Britain, Japan, and the United States.  He holds master’s degrees in Economics and Comparative Literature.  After years of travel, working at various times as a lecturer, sailor, construction worker, bookseller, and chocolatier, he found some stability in San Francisco.  He has published stories in many magazines, most recently in The Taj Mahal Review, The Copperfield Review, and Long Story Short.  His short story collection, The Short, the Long, and the Tall, was recently published by Merilang Press. . Contact Andrew.

Why did you decide to write your story?

I was born in South Africa, and spent my early years there before leaving to be educated in England.  As a result, from an early age, I have been interested in colonial history, and the history of empires.  I am also fascinated by how, as human beings, we see ourselves, how we define ourselves.  Within this context, almost like a mirror, I think fiction has a very special purpose.  I couldn’t resist placing Dr. Jane Goodall in the Tarzan reference of my story.  I have a very great respect for her and her work.  I think she has done much to make us more humble regarding Nature, and make us respect our primate cousins, and perhaps see ourselves a little more clearly.  .

Do you have any projects you’re working on right now?

I am editing a novella and a novel, both projects on which I have been working for many years.  I am also promoting my recently published short story collection, The Short, the Long, and the Tall.  I recently did an author event at Book Passage Bookstore, in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

What things are you doing to improve your writing?

In order to analyze and study fine sentence structure, I read as much excellent non-fiction as I can, magazines like The Economist, authors like Niall Ferguson.  Regarding current projects, I am constantly revising and editing, draft after draft.

What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?

A good memory is a wonderful gift.  Self-belief and patience are also vital, together with the obsessive stamina of a marathon runner to take a project to completion against all odds.  I think a writer can develop an ability to read and edit as if the writer were at least 3 different people, viewing and analyzing the work from disparate perspectives.  In terms of craft, I think the Biblical parable offers some key essences of an effective story: fine, concise sentences, an entertaining plot, didactic layers offering meanings within meanings, qualities that make the readers work to understand, thus involving them at a greater depth of experience.

What author do you admire, living or dead?

Joseph Conrad.

What recent book made an impression on you?

Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History.

For what one accomplishment would you most like to be remembered?

The publication of my short story collection, The Short, the Long, and the Tall.

Tell us about your family.

My father was born in 1904, he died in 1974.  He spent 50 years in Africa, served in World War 2, and witnessed the steady decline of the British Empire, hence my interest in colonial and military history.  His anecdotes have been a major inspiration for my writing.  My mother is still alive, she was much younger than my father, yet she is a child of the Edwardian era; another big influence and source of ideas for stories, especially with her childhood experience of World War 2.  I was very close to my grandmother.  She was from Bristol and, for generations, her family was involved in trade with the west coast of Africa and the Caribbean.  Subsequently, she had some remarkable tales.

What would you like our readers to know about you?

As a young child in the tropics, I encountered some extraordinary characters who had been involved in the British Raj.  They were friends of my parents, and many of my stories have been inspired by my early encounters with this lost generation.  After leaving South Africa, I was educated in boarding schools in England, many of my associates coming from similar backgrounds.  Until quite recently, I led a very rootless existence, due to work and study.  I have managed to find a stable, comfortable home in San Francisco, partly because most of the city’s population comes from elsewhere, and identity is not a problem.  In terms of artistic production, I think this earlier nomadic experience afforded me objectivity, and an appreciation of impermanence.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

The socio-political system in which I have lived all my life, liberal democracy.

Is there a message in your story that you want your readers to grasp?

All human beings are essentially equal, and we should respect each other in this way.  We are also inseparable from Nature.  To try to live otherwise is to court disaster and our self-destruction.

Finally, do you have anything else to add?

The Internet has led to a renaissance for the short story, unparalleled in the history of literature.  This is a truly wonderful phenomenon because, for reasons I have never properly understood, the short story has never been adequately valued.  I encourage everybody, readers and writers, to make the most of this flowering of talent, and enjoy the stability our civilization offers us.  A study of history shows that long periods of peace are very rare, when artistic endeavors can truly flourish.  Let us appreciate and make the most of this wonderful time, while it lasts.