Crump by PJ Vanston (Matador, 2010). Sold out of paperback; available in e-book format.
A Cat Called Dog by Jem Vanston (Matador, 2013). The original and the best. My favourite of all of my published books. The title came to me in a dream. Where the journey started...
A Cat Called Dog by Jem Vanston - illustrated child-friendly version, but also for adults (Austin Macauley 2015). Hardback ISBN: 9781784559618; Paperback ISBN: 9781784559595; ebook ISBN: 9781784559601
Illustrated sequel: A Cat Called Dog 2 - the one with the kittens (2017) by Jem Vanston. A very cinematic quest tale for kids and adults (and 2 chapters feature dinosaurs and the first ever depiction in fiction of T=Rexes hunting as a pack/team!).
Rasmus - a television tale (October 2016), by PJ Vanston. Paperbook and ebook. Predicting the future of TV and BBC. Got interest from the largest film agency in the USA in LA (and who knows, it may even have inspired Squid Game...)
Santa Goes on Strike (Rowanvale, 2018), by Jem Vanston. Perenially Popular Poem Picture Book for both kids and adults. Word of mouth breathes life into the poem every Christmas...
Somewhere in Europe (Matador, 2020), by PJ Vanston, sequel to Crump (2010), ten years on...
Thinking Time: 365 Inspiring, Amusing and Thought-Provoking quotes to get you through the year (Two Fat Cats, 2021) by Jem Vanston. My only non-fiction book (ever!)
The Loved Ones: A Collection of Pandemic Poems about Love and Loss (Two Fat Cats, 2022) by Jem Vanston. A very special book of poems by turns funny, moving, warm, sad and joyful.
The Nine Lives of Summer (Two Fat Cats, 2023), by Jem Vanston. A diverse and international Middle-Grade Children's Book about a cat living 9 lives in 12 countries, and one for all cat lovers of all ages.
The Prague Violin (joint 2nd prize 2012 British Czech and Slovak Association Writing Competiton; 1st prize Inscribe Media Global Story competition 2013). SEE BELOW to read the story.
The Last Shark. A futuristic short story inspired by the scandal of shark-finning and set in south-east Asia where demand for shark fins as a status symbol in soup is high (and why 90% of sharks in the world's oceans have gone in 30 years. Thanks, China). On the SHARK TRUST website for years. SEE BELOW to read the full story.
Tusk. (Published on the Care for the Wild International charity website for years before the charity merged with the Born Free Foundation to create a new one!) A longish short story set in Africa (Kenya) about how the demand for ivory from the cash-rich Chinese not only corrupts Africans who live in a land of elephants, but ends in the slaughter of those elephants. SEE BELOW to read the full story.
@Death (short story for published in Pop Cult magazine [page 12], but suitable for younger/teen readers + YA too). This BBC3 'Red Rose' is original? Nope - I was there first.
A Cat Called Dog at Christmas (TheDailyMews.com):
A Selection of my demo songs are on SoundCloud here: https://soundcloud.com/user-217675148
Here's my Christmas song, Happy to be Home this Christmas (words and music by Jem Vanston). On the track, vocals are by Bobby Cole who also engineered the track in his studio. I play piano. Enjoy! Feel free to share and sing along!
The Prague Violin
The snow came early that year.
From his apartment window, Petr watched the small white flakes floating like feathers on the air, fluttering and dancing up and down and round and round like tiny butterflies of ice, before swirling with a final flourish and settling to stillness on the dark cobbles of the streets below.
He loved the snow. Some people thought that snow was just snow, but they were wrong. There were so many different types of snow, from the dry frosty dust which was usual in Prague during winter, to the heavy, wet flakes that were perfect for building snowmen but which, to the annoyance of children, would only fall on those rare winter days when the Bohemian weather was not cold enough to freeze lakes.
Each snowfall was different, as was each individual snowflake. Always, when he saw the snow falling, he would think of music – and he would identify each style of snowfall according to music and assign a composer to each type.
That evening, the snow was definitely Mozart – playful, clever and young, and a joy to behold. Sometimes, on other days, it was Tchaikovsky or Beethoven, exquisitely beautiful but brooding and melancholy; sometimes, it was Puccini or Verdi; occasionally, especially when the air was freezing cold, it was Debussy, or Grieg or Mahler perhaps, or sometimes Smetana or Dvorak; and, sometimes, on really dark, dismal and perhaps better-forgotten days, it was Wagner, doom-laden and frightening.
But the snow was always music to Petr Svoboda; it was the only way he could really see it, make sense of it, understand it – or anything else in the world, for that matter.
The snowflakes to the scientist are merely raindrops frozen to ice high up in the clouds; to the tram driver, the worker, the widow, they are but a slippery and slushy annoyance; but to the musician, to the artist – to him – they are something else entirely: to those who destiny or providence has blessed with imagination and the gift of music’s mysteries, snowflakes are like the very notes of music themselves, whether playing waking melodies in the wind of winter mornings, or serenading the darkness of night with their sad and silent songs.
It was at such moments, watching the snow fall, that Petr felt himself almost leave his body, almost break free from the chains of history that bound him and every other soul in that little city to the place and the time in which they lived. At such moments, he felt free as the snow itself as it danced wildly in the dark air of winter in the squares and lanes and passageways of Prague – a fleeting freedom of the kind he only usually experienced when he was playing his violin and the music that was, to him, life itself. Without it, he would have been as trapped as a broken bird in its cage; without the magical movement of music through his veins, his heart would have stopped pumping, blackened and shrivelled to nothing, and his life would have been a living death, cold and colourless as a stillborn child.
There was a time, not long before, when things had seemed to be changing, when the springtime of Dubcek had seemed the future, and the very air had seemed to hum with possibility; when the old, cold cobbles of Prague had seemed to come alive and give a spring to the step of her people; when Petr’s youth was almost bursting though his skin and he was ready to be a part of building a new future in this, his city, for her warm, worn people. That was a time before the Russians came, with their tanks and their orders and their disgusting tea.
Now, all that was nothing but a barely remembered – and probably best forgotten – past, nothing more than the tiny bright light of a candle glimpsed in the gloom before being snuffed out by an unseen and sinister hand, a tiny fragile ember of hope utterly extinguished and spent.
Now it was a different time; now it was almost as though all that had never happened. This was not nineteen sixty-eight, after all, but nineteen eighty-one, and no-one was going to give anyone any real freedom anymore. The full force of oppression had returned after The Prague Spring, worse than before, like a dreadful poisonous fog in the air, choking and stifling everything and everyone it touched. Petr was only thirty, but looked older; everybody did, in those days.
But Petr was lucky – he knew that. The way he lived, the success he had enjoyed. It wasn’t every young man who lived in such a beautiful apartment in Prague Castle, after all; it wasn’t the workers in the factories, or even the petty bureaucrats at their desks, who were able to enjoy, to the same extent anyway, the imported goods he could afford, or have the freedom to travel to foreign countries. Who else did he know who had been to London and Paris, to Vienna and Rome? Some people had been to Moscow and Leningrad, of course, or other Eastern Bloc countries and cities – to Budapest, Warsaw and Sofia, perhaps to the Black Sea resorts. But who had been to ‘The West’? No-one at all, except senior party members – none of whom could ever be trusted, as everyone was well aware. Even an idiot knew that most of them were spies and would report anything and everything you said to them to their superiors. So Petr never expressed an opinion, certainly not a political one, and only talked through his music, through the Mozart and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky he played on his violin.
It was safer that way, especially when Western visitors visited Prague: many of them were politicians or academics sympathetic to the ideals of socialism or communism, and had been invited to Czechoslovakia by The Party, so you couldn’t just think they were safe to trust because they were from the ‘West’. These were ‘useful idiots’ indeed, granting a legitimacy to the regime by their presence and approval. When he met such people, Petr always pretended he didn’t know any English; he just stayed silent, smiling pleasantly as he had always done, and played his violin – performed for the crowds like one of those dancing dogs at the circus. And they loved him for it. He didn’t really mind. So long as he could play his music, he could cope with anything – any humiliation, any pain, any suffering, so long as he could play his violin and feel it at his fingertips and in his heart.
Sometimes, he thought about leaving for good, staying in London or Paris, not returning to Prague at all – and he could have done it, he knew. Easy to think of doing such a thing, and perhaps easier for a man like him without a wife or children. But to leave Prague? To leave it forever and never go back? How could he do that? It was unthinkable! Prague was his city and his home, where he’d been born and where his mother was buried – and where he would be buried too, in time. So how could he leave and never return? And, even though his city and his country were now ruled by traitors – by the awful Russian puppets of Czechoslovakia – he knew that this was where he would live for the rest of his life.
To be a professional musician was all he had ever wanted since childhood, and the tuition given to him by his father, God rest his soul, had ensured that he could play to the requisite standard from his mid-teenage years. But it was more than that: he had a rare talent – a talent which, when he played the violin to an audience, could touch their hearts in a way that was special. Unique, even.
His father could see that, could hear his talent – a talent that he, in his own fine musicianship, had never possessed to anywhere near the same degree. True, he was a professional violinist in the Prague state orchestra, but not all musicians were special; competent, yes, and excellent too, but not special. It was rare indeed for anyone to play like his son; to play in a way that could, through the mysterious power of music, those little twitches of air and vibrations, seem to make the world more beautiful, to make the colours of life richer and deeper, to touch each and every emotion almost effortlessly – to make the hardest of icy hearts melt in the warmth of a mere violin’s melody. His son had the gift, and his talent was a blessing from the angels.
When Petr was fourteen, in the mid 1960s, Pan Svoboda realised that his son was not just going to equal him, but to exceed his talent – and he knew exactly what he had to do.
‘An artist always needs proper tools to do the job,’ his father would always say and, even though young Petr already had a violin of fine quality which was on loan from the state, his father would demand better. It would be the best for his son, and that would mean asking them for the violin: The Prague Violin itself
This violin, talked of in hushed tones by the few who knew of its existence, was rumoured to be guarded by the StB – the state security police – themselves. It was apparently over two hundred years old, with a tone so pure it was said to have been the very last violin its Italian master-maker ever made – he had reached perfection, and, so the legend goes, never made another. There were other, sadder, stories too, tales of suicide and of suffering, of the violin maker deliberately blinding himself so he would no longer have to see his creation, or of his pouring hot molten wax into his ears so he would no longer have to hear it, not after he had heard the perfect sound of heaven itself, for he had insulted and mocked God himself by creating such a perfect thing.
But the only tale known to be true from contemporary accounts was that the violin’s unusual and perfect sound was created by accident, by the neat serendipity of coincidence. After he had finished fashioning the violin and polished it to a mirror shine, and carefully strung the strings, the violin maker had played it. His face fell; the tone was dull and disappointing, bland and lacking richness – good enough for a good-enough violin, but not for the something special he was aiming to create. After so many weeks of work, so much effort and love, the frustration and pain was unbearable; a terrible anger raged inside him like a storm, before exploding in a wolf-like howl from the violin maker that could be heard throughout the town, they said. With raging contempt, the master-maker hurled the violin out of the open window of his workshop and onto the hard cobbles of the street outside.
Whatever happened, whatever knock or fortunate flaw the shock of that violence caused, was a complete mystery; but when its creator had finally retrieved the instrument, whose neck and body were now twisted and bent, he decided, for some reason he could never fathom, that, instead of burning it to ashes in the furnace, he would try playing it again. He could never say why, but when he did so his instinct was shown to be correct; for there, in the dull air, he heard the most perfect, most beautiful, tone that his ears and heart had ever heard, and he knew then that this violin was going to be his last.
Petr’s father knew that there was only one way to convince the authorities to consider the request for his son to play that great violin: Petr himself would have to play before the whole committee – for all the officials and party apparatchiks, and even the Minister for Culture himself. Then they would hear what he could hear and be convinced that his boy was special enough to be allowed to play The Prague Violin.
Pan Svoboda wrote letters and made enquiries and, eventually, after a great deal of persuasion and manoeuvring, as well as certain ‘gifts’ being given, he convinced those in charge of state culture into allowing his son to perform an audition before them.
The day came, and Petr stood in front of the committee, which consisted entirely of old, grey men; the Minister of Culture, who was very fat and had huge bushy eyebrows, sat in the middle, frowning. Everyone seemed to be smoking. His father nodded to his son, who, after taking a long, deep breath held his old violin up to his neck and began playing.
Soon, even the sternest, greyest member of the panel seemed to have colour blushing in his ashen cheeks, as the warmth of the music filled the smoky air like sunbeams. It was always the effect Petr had on people when he played – even though he was just a skinny fourteen year old boy, small for his age, with a thick mop of chocolate-coloured hair, and a face as smooth as an egg, who didn’t look as though he would be able to lift a violin, let alone play it.
But when they heard the music this scrawny boy could make with his old violin, those old waxworks and bureaucrats, whose utilitarian and statistical brains sternly ruled and regulated their hearts, were immediately and completely convinced that here was a young musician of rare talent who deserved nothing but the very best.
Naturally, his talent would also impress visitors from the USSR and elsewhere, and would thus reflect well on the success and health of the Czechoslovak socialist system, which produced young people so much better, so much more refined and cultured, than the crude youth of the capitalist West. Here was a boy who would show all the people how lucky they were to live in their successful and productive socialist republic.
When Petr had finished playing, the members of the committee applauded in the Russian manner, and at least one of them seemed to be rubbing his eyes, which was no doubt because of all the tobacco smoke in the air. Petr looked at his father, but he wasn’t smiling – he could see that the smiles of the suited men were small and non-committal. An official then led father and son out of the room, down a corridor and to the waiting area, where they were asked to sit and wait.
Some time later, another official came and led them back to the committee room. Petr and his father entered the room again, not knowing what to expect. But what they saw delighted them.
For there it was, on the table in front of their wide eyes. The Prague Violin – the glorious instrument that Petr’s father had seen but once in his whole life, whose veneer seemed to glow golden-red with age and beauty, and which was treated almost like a holy relic by the state. Neither Petr, nor his father, could keep his eyes off it. It seemed alive: a beautiful living thing.
The Minister of Culture nodded solemnly at an official, and soon The Prague Violin was resting perfectly balanced in Petr’s hands. Slowly, and with great care and respect, he lifted the violin to his neck and began to play.
The music that filled that room was of a tone so rare, and of such richness and beauty, that the very air itself seemed to bow in its presence. It was a music that soothed and moved all the room’s occupants in ways most of them had forgotten existed, if ever they had been able to feel at all.
For Petr, the experience was more special still. When he played that violin, he felt as though he were coming home, as though he were being reunited with a part of himself, as integral to his being as his flesh and blood and bone. He had been born to play this instrument; it was his destiny. When his small hands eased the bow over its strings, the violin almost seemed to be playing itself – or, perhaps, it was as though the instrument was playing Petr, rather than the other way round. It was, quite simply, perfect.
When he had finished, there were tears of joy and pride swimming in his father’s eyes; he felt as though he had now heard the angels sing.
And so it was decided: Petr’s would have the right to play The Prague Violin at the concert hall practice room three times a week, and perhaps more in future. Pan Svoboda had complete confidence that his son’s extraordinary talent would impress all who heard it and would lead to the kind of admiration and success he himself could only have dreamed of at his age. And he was right.
Within months, his son – this gawky and awkward teenage boy – was the talk of Prague. That was in 1964, and Petr Svoboda had, since then, become the most famous musician in the whole of Czechoslovakia and his fame had spread to most other Eastern Bloc countries too.
Petr and his father had lived together in the early days, but throat cancer had killed Pan Svoboda a few years later, when Petr was twenty-one. Since then, Petr had lived alone at the state apartment in Prague Castle that they had shared.
Both he and his father loved the view over the city from there – the red-roofed mosaic of its streets and houses, with the Vltava snaking through its middle to the small grey tower blocks in the distance. That was where Petr practised, every day, on The Prague Violin, which now lived with him in that apartment like a lover as it had done since he was sixteen, even though it was still officially owned by the state.
And the more he played the violin, the more it seemed to grow with him, from youth to maturity. It was, in Petr’s eyes, alive – growing inside him – and its beautiful music was all that kept Peter alive during those dark days too. It was all the company he ever wanted or needed.
In April 1981, Brezhnev himself was due to visit Prague for a few days to attend a conference of Communist party leaders, and to open the newly built concrete-clad Palace of Culture where all Czechoslovak party conferences would now be held, and a concert was being organised especially in his honour. Petr would of course be expected to perform; indeed, with his reputation, he would be the star musician, and everyone would be expected to start rehearsals months before too. This was nothing unusual – whenever any significant foreign visitor, such as a VIP from one of the communist states, came to Czechoslovakia, they always put on what Petr referred to as a ‘circus’: a classical concert, or an opera, or perhaps some dull, worthy play by some dull, worthy comrade playwright or other.
And Brezhnev was as big as they come – he was, effectively, the leader of the whole Soviet Bloc so was treated like royalty, and without a hint of irony too. No expense was spared in preparation for his visit – in sprucing up the city and making everything look ‘as it should’ for such an honoured guest. Despite the fact that Brezhnev had been responsible for crushing the Prague Spring, he would be given the warmest of welcomes by her citizens, partly because it was only he who could give the order to reform anything at all, and partly because anyone saying anything against him would most likely be arrested or diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to an asylum somewhere, drugged up to the eyeballs: no-one needed reminding that one in six of Prague’s population were party members so, in effect, spies for the State.
For Petr, it was just another concert; he cared not if he played to princes or paupers – what mattered was the music, not the supposed pedigree of the audience. Politics and rank and hierarchies were not his interest. So long as he had his music, he was happy.
It was a just a few months before the Brezhnev visit when it happened.
The snow came early again that year.
Petr had just been in rehearsal with the orchestra, and had decided to catch the tram home, rather than accept a lift. This was mostly because Petr disliked the orchestra secretary, a small rodent-faced man with a permanent supercilious smirk on his face, whose nose seemed to be permanently twitching and sniffing at the air. But it was also because he liked taking the tram, especially at that time of year, with the first, crisp snow of the winter nipping the air.
Petr loved Prague in the wintertime; he liked the city at any time of year, but he loved it in then. He often walked by himself through the Old Town Square, past Tyn Cathedral and St Nicholas Church, past the Old Town Hall Tower and the Astronomical Clock, past the statue of Jan Hus and all the patient people waiting for friends on its steps, and across through the little lanes to the Charles Bridge, where lovers and others held hands as they watched the river, the dark statues of the ancient saints watching their laughing and love-making and whispering bitter conspiracies into the wind for no-one to hear.
The StB often followed him, of course: that was to be expected for someone as well known as Petr Svoboda. But, because he had been used to this shadowing from his teenage years, it didn’t really bother him that much at all. In fact, it once even saved him in his younger days when a loud and desperate drunk jumped out from a doorway, grabbed him, hugged him close and refused to let go. The StB man saved him then, freeing him from the drunk’s grip. A ‘pervert’, they told him later. Petr never found out what had happened to the drunk.
On the day that it happened, the snow had started to fall fresh and crisp that morning, but had become heavier by the afternoon, with large, lazy flakes almost blocking out an eerie electric-yellow sky. A looming and ominously tense sort of darkness had hung in the air since morning. It was less cold than usual for the month of year, and the wind was blowing up: a storm was definitely coming. The sky itself, yellowing like an old eyeball, looked ill. Definitely Wagner snow, evil and threatening, thought Petr as he left rehearsal and started to walk through the blustery wind towards Wenceslas Square – not really a square at all, but the main commercial boulevard of Prague.
That evening, he decided to walk back from the rehearsal rooms, down Wenceslas Square, and to the Old Town, before crossing the Charles Bridge and catching the twenty-two tram on the other side of the river, which would take him up the steep hill to Prague Castle and his apartment.
The snow became heavier as Petr set off that evening, violin case in hand. He buried his chin in his scarf against the sharp wind and the heavy flakes which now were being blown almost horizontally along the wide streets, though they still stung the skin on his upper face like angry white wasps as he walked along. There was a charge in the air – some kind of ugly electricity that made Petr shiver, as twitchy and nervous as a puppy. People were everywhere scuttling about like little insects, as if seeking sanctuary from a coming menace and shelter from the storm.
The man who was following him had a long, horsey face and was as thin as an icicle, which was unusual for well-fed StB men. He smoked cigarettes constantly, which wasn’t. Petr recognised him immediately as one of his usual ‘bodyguards’, though they had never actually met or spoken a word to each other – that just wasn’t the way these things worked. He hurried down past the sausage stands and kiosks of Wenceslas Square, and made his way down the narrow streets towards the Old Town.
For some reason, Petr felt tense; it was getting colder now it was dark. Walking faster and faster, with his violin case held tightly in his hand, he hurried through the Old Town Square, paused to look up at the Astronomical Clock as he always did, and then turned left into the maze of narrow streets towards the Charles Bridge.
Before long, Peter found that he was running, and when he reached the bridge, he started to run across it too – he didn’t know why. Halfway across the bridge, he looked back and could see that the horse-faced man was running too, some way distant; he looked exhausted, his breath a constant smoky cloud on the freezing air.
Petr was running faster now, his feet occasionally slipping on the cobbles. On the other side of the river was the tram stop. He could hear the tram approaching from somewhere to his left. He knew that if he was quick he could get on and watch the doors slam shut before the StB man had caught up with him.
The number twenty-two tram clank-clunked round the corner. Petr decided to run across the road and beat it to its stop, like he used to when he was a boy. Still running, he looked back over his shoulder at the StB man following him some distance behind. He stopped and turned round, and stood squinting through the snowfall. He couldn’t quite make out what he was seeing, but through the gloom the figure’s face seemed to have changed somehow.
No longer was there a thin figure with a horsey face running towards him, but the strangest thing – the face he saw was that of his father. There – right there – in the snow-speckled sickly-yellow glow of the street lights.
Petr blinked and squinted his eyes so they were almost closed. “Father?” he said. And then it happened.
The tram squealed to a halt in the snow; one or two of the passengers screamed. People ran from the pavements to where Petr lay. An ambulance was called. The StB man stayed with him until it arrived.
The violin. Where was it? The thought suddenly occurred to the StB man as he knelt by the boy. He looked around but couldn’t see it, so asked the bystanders; they couldn’t see it either, though he wasn’t sure they weren’t lying. That could mean one of two things: either, some anti-social element had made off with it, or it was under the tram. It turned out to be the latter.
The thing didn’t look too badly damaged – for something that had gone under a tram, that is. Fortunately, it had not been sliced it in half, as was common to human limbs that fell under those steel wheels – which, like all trams in the Eastern Bloc, had been built by sweat and toil of the noble workers of Czechoslovakia (though Hungary had the buses – and so all buses in Prague were Hungarian-built, which is why they always smelt so bad, the StB man always thought). But the violin case did look a bit dented and crushed, like the face of a difficult suspect, and it was partially coated in a layer of black grease and dirt too.
The StB man knew what he had to do – (as StB men always did) – and immediately took the violin in its case to the orchestra secretary.
When the orchestra secretary saw the violin case, he sniffed the air, his nostrils twitching wide, like a pet dog smelling its own arse. He opened the case, lifted out the violin and examined it. True, he was not a violinist, or a string instrument specialist, but the thing didn’t look quite right to him, even though it was clearly not too badly damaged – it wasn’t in splinters, after all, which had happened once recently to an unfortunate cello that accompanied the cellist in his final jump off the ‘Suicide Bridge’, next to the new Palace of Culture. Lifting it up, he could see that the neck was a bit bent and the body rather warped too, and he thought of the Brezhnev visit that everyone knew was coming in the Spring of the following year, and the trouble he’d get into if it was decided that his negligence had caused such an important instrument to be damaged.
He knew what to do. While Petr was recovering in hospital, the violin would be sent to be repaired and cleaned. No-one would then be able to accuse him of being negligent, because no-one need ever know the violin had been damaged at all or sent for repair, because he would never report what had happened. The StB man agreed with the orchestra secretary and The Prague Violin was duly sent away to the best violin restorers in Czechoslovakia.
Petr couldn’t recall much about the accident. He remembered running across the Charles Bridge and through the snow towards the tram stop, and then – nothing. He was out cold for hours, they said, and his mind was fogged with concussion for days. They told him he was lucky to just get cuts and bruises, but he’d be in hospital for a while yet, just in case. Petr didn’t question their judgement or ask why he had to take so many pills.
The first thing he asked about when he came round was his violin. The doctor told him it was back in his apartment; this was what the StB man had told the doctor to say. It could have been worse: the doctor knew other doctors who had been asked to inject bacteria or viruses into perfectly healthy patients, or diagnose people who opposed the state as mentally ill and inject them full of drugs so they could be wheeled off left to rot in some asylum somewhere.
When, after two weeks, Petr left hospital, the orchestra manager was there to drive him home. It was a bright and cold winter’s morning, and fine flakes of snow were sprinkling like icing sugar on the windscreen; Mozart snow, thought Petr. The Skoda growled in disappointment, or perhaps envy, as it crawled its way up the hill to Prague Castle.
The orchestra secretary insisted on staying with Petr as they took the lift up to his apartment. Petr could tell something was wrong – his guardian was unusually friendly and respectful. That was most odd; usually, he was irritatingly smug, supercilious and disapproving.
They entered the apartment and went through into the living room. There, through the window, Prague was a frosty jewel sparkling in the golden sunlight of a bright autumn morning, and the Vltava was a river of silver flowing through the city. A dusting of fine snow made the red roofs glitter and glint like jewels in the sun. And there, before the window and the view, and sitting on a table, was The Prague Violin in its case.
Petr approached the table. He paused briefly and closed his eyes, as if in prayer. Then, tentatively, he opened the case and looked inside. A strong and sweet smell of new varnish made his nostrils twitch in disgust. His heart felt as though it had momentarily ceased beating.
What had they done? What had those damn fool idiots done?
Silence. Petr couldn’t speak. His face was as white as broken ice.
Petr closed his eyes. Opening them again, he looked at the violin in its case before him: its colour was lighter than before where those idiots had ‘cleaned’ it, and rubbed and scraped away the patina of two centuries’ use. It was no longer the rich, golden reddish-brown of before, but a light shade of brown, like newly cut wood. It was the same colour as cheap, badly made furniture.
The violin seemed different in another way too; before, the neck of the violin was slightly bent, twisted at the tiniest of angles in relation to the body, whose frame was similarly warped. Somehow, and in some way, these flaws had disappeared, as though a hot iron had straightened and flattened everything and made it regular and standard, like a crisp newly-pressed police uniform.
But worse was to come. With some trepidation, and a heart beating as quick as a rabbit’s, Petr lifted the violin to his neck. He took a deep breath, picked up the bow, and started to play.
No noise in the world, no matter how harsh or ugly, how base or brutal, could have sounded as painful and terrible to Petr as that which filled his ears that morning. As he played, his fingers were reluctant to continue their careful work, and his hand almost refused to rub the bow over the strings.
A bystander would have heard a violin being played proficiently: a beautiful sound actually, played by one whose talent was only to be envied. But to Petr, it was different, because he could hear – he could feel – the difference.
There was no doubt about it – in rectifying the tiny flaws of the violin, its uniqueness, its purest of tones, had been utterly destroyed; the instrument had been made correct, had been cleaned and mended to a state of conformity, which made it just like all the other well-made violins in the world. But its beauty, its very heart and soul, had utterly gone. It was now, essentially, dead.
Petr stopped playing and replaced the violin in its case. And then he wept; he knelt down on the carpet of that room and wept as he had never wept before, not even when his father had died. What had those bastards done?
The orchestra secretary watched all this from the doorway, his scalp itching in the sweaty warmth of the apartment. He knew he could not lie to Petr now.
“It was taken to be cleaned,” he said casually and matter-of-fact, “and repaired – after the accident. You remember? The tram? I don’t need to tell you how lucky you are to be alive...”
Petr continued weeping, and his weeping would soon become sobbing. It came from his core – a deep, ancient howl of grief and anger as black and inevitable as death within him.
“The violin has actually been improved by its restoration, of course. We want to sound our best at the concert for our honoured guest, don’t we?” said the orchestra secretary, in the manner of a matron scolding a lazy schoolboy.
But Petr was not listening. He knew that the violin had been ruined – bent into a rigid, standardised shape which had killed its soul and the very quality that had made its music special in the first place.
The orchestra secretary made sure that two StB men were on guard throughout the night on the street outside Petr’s apartment.
April 1981. The day of the concert came. Brezhnev was there, with all the other comrades, in the ‘royal’ box.
Petr had never, not in all his life, been nervous when he performed; off-stage maybe, but not on – once he had started playing he was transported to a place far above and away from where he stood on the stage watched by the audience.
Now, however, he was nervous on stage too. Since the previous year and the violin’s ‘restoration’, the music it made no longer made his heart sing, was no longer beautiful and soothing to his mind, and it no longer transported him to a better and more beautiful place; instead, it was ugly – a cheap, deformed, ruined sound of despair full of pain and suffering and loss.
That evening, the audience applauded after he’d finished playing, but they could hear it too – not any inferior sound from the violin, not to their ears anyway, but the seeming loss of confidence of the exquisite talent that had made Petr’s playing so special. He even fudged a couple of notes – and none of the orchestra had ever heard him do that at a concert before; or, at least, not before the violin has been ‘restored’ anyway.
Of course, Brezhnev didn’t notice anything wrong. But then, to his cloth ears all violins sounded the same – he very much preferred the sound of tractors and factory production lines. And anyway, for majority of the concert he was thinking of the state dinner that would be enjoying when this diplomatic and cultural nicety was over, and the pretty, young Czech girls who would, he was sure, be serving him later too.
“What were you thinking!” demanded the orchestra secretary after the concert, “and in front of Comrade Brezhnev too!”
Damn Comrade Brezhnev, thought Petr, and damn you – you traitor to your country, you traitor to Prague, you traitor to music itself!
“I’m sorry,” said Petr, “but...it’s your fault!”
There was an audible gasp amongst the other musicians in the dressing room, who stopped what they were doing and looked over.
“My fault?” said the orchestra secretary, “What on earth are you talking about?”
“The Prague Violin...”
Petr could not bear to look at where the instrument sat in its case on the table of the dressing room. He closed his eyes.
“You should have left it alone, left it as it was.”
The orchestra manager frowned and sniffed the air defiantly.
“The Prague Violin was damaged, so we had to get it repaired and cleaned. Its restoration was a complete success, as all experts agree.”
“But you ruined it – you destroyed it. The sound – the tone – it’s so different now.”
“Nonsense! Its sound and tone were improved by the finest craftsmen – its neck was always a little bent, for example, and now that fault has been rectified.”
Petr held his head in his hands and groaned a sigh of despair. He had tried to play the violin as normal over the preceding months, to ignore the horror of what they had done to it, but now, after the concert for Brezhnev, he could lie to himself no longer.
“You ruined it!” Petr groaned, and put his head in his hands.
The orchestra secretary was not smiling any more. The tips of his ears were red and his hands were shaking slightly – with anger, probably.
“It is not the wonderfully restored Prague Violin that is at fault. It is you Petr Svoboda who needs to practise more!”
Petr didn’t look up – he kept his head in his hands. The other musicians were shocked at the orchestra secretary’s reprimand – Petr was the star of the orchestra.
“And I do not want to see and hear a performance such as the one you gave this evening ever again!”
“No?” said Petr, looking up at the orchestra secretary – who, at that moment, looked like the ugliest little rat of a man Petr had ever seen, “Or what?”
Silence engulfed the room. It was so quiet that they could all hear the wind blowing outside. No-one had ever talked to the orchestra secretary like that before.
The other musicians bowed their heads so as not to meet the orchestra secretary’s eye as he surveyed the dressing room – they knew he had the power to make their lives difficult if he wanted to, to remove them from the orchestra and take away all privileges they enjoyed.
The orchestra secretary walked out of the room. Petr sat with his head in his hands and thought of the past while the musicians gossiped like little mice whispering about a cat.
Over the next few weeks, Petr’s behaviour became more and more erratic. He started drinking – beer, at first, both at home and at the local ‘hostivar’ every day; and sweet white wine from Slovakia; then slivovic, the sweet plum brandy; bitter Becherovka, which tasted like cough medicine; and, finally, Russian vodka. He had started drinking in the mornings too, and at any time of day or night.
More than once, Petr was drunk when he turned up for practice with the orchestra; more than once, he was actually under the influence during a concert too – it was the only way he could deal with the terrible stage fright that now started to afflict him, and calm the shakes caused by his daily diet of alcohol.
But Petr knew what the real problem was: shame. Shame at what he was doing – shame at playing a violin that had sounded so beautiful but which now sounded like any of the violins to come out of any production line anywhere in the world. He never practised at home anymore; he just drank and drank and drank, and watched the weather change outside his window.
One winter’s evening later that year, Petr could stand it no longer. After spending the day watching the snow fall on Prague from his apartment – thick, wet snow falling like flakes of diseased skin from the yellowed flesh of the sky – and drinking glass after glass of vodka, Petr grabbed the violin from its case, opened the dining room window, and flung the instrument out into the winter air like an escaped convict hurling his chains into the ocean. The violin turned and twisted in the air like an acrobat, snowflakes seeming to separate in awe at its trajectory, before it fell like a dead bird to the ground and smashed and splintered like dead bones on the cobbles below. Today, Petr decided, the snow was definitely Wagner snow.
When Petr did not turn up at the next rehearsal later that week, the orchestra secretary visited his apartment, accompanied by two StB men, just in case. The concierge for the whole apartment block, an old grandmother, had recovered the violin on the day he had thrown it out of the window and returned it to Petr, wordlessly and not even waiting for any explanation, but she had informed the authorities about what had happened, though not straight away, so had done her job correctly. She was the one who let them into the apartment.
Petr had placed the violin on the dining room table, where it now lay like a corpse, its neck broken and twisted, its body dented and split. He himself spent every day and night getting drunk until he passed out, before waking to resume his drinking once again.
The orchestra secretary stared in horrified amazement at the wreck of the violin. He hadn’t expected this. How could he, Petr Svoboda, the best violinist of his generation, smash his violin to pieces like that, like a spoilt child breaking an old unwanted toy? Had he no feeling whatsoever for that violin, the one he had played since youth? Had he no feeling for the instrument? No respect? And as Petr well knew, that violin was special, and was worth a small fortune too. It was The Prague Violin for goodness sake! And now it lay broken and smashed on the table before him. The orchestra secretary would get into serious trouble for this; he was already thinking about how the violin could be restored again, though perhaps ‘rebuilt’ would have been a better word.
Petr was drunk, lying on the sofa laughing to himself and looking up at the orchestra secretary. Empty bottles sat on every surface around the apartment. The StB men were expressionless – they had seen it all before – but the orchestra secretary could scarcely believe his eyes.
“Why?” asked the orchestra secretary, “Why did you do this awful terrible thing? The Prague Violin is ruined!”
Petr did not reply at first. But then he mumbled something about how the cleaning and repairing and ‘restoration’ of the violin – (Petr spat a snide laugh at the orchestra secretary at this point) – had ruined it forever; about how it was his decision to make and that he had made it: he had decided that he would never ever play that violin, or any other, again.
“Nonsense,” said the orchestra secretary like an old woman, “you’ll do what you’re told and that’s an end to it!”
With that, Petr jumped unsteadily to his feet and, in front of the security men, said exactly what he wanted to say. He no longer had his violin to speak through, so now he had to make do with the poor substitute of the next best thing: words.
“I’ll never play again – and you can’t make me!” he said like a truculent child, “Never! Never! Never!”
Then he told the orchestra secretary with his supercilious face just what he thought of him, and said exactly what he thought of the state security service too, and the government, and communism, and that stupid uncultured pig Brezhnev who wouldn’t know the difference between a beautiful piece of music and a cat farting through its ears, and much else besides.
The men left. But, sometime later that night, Petr was woken by the sound of people entering his apartment. He heard them first, but then his drunken eyes squinted in pain at the electric light bulb as they entered the living room where Petr had fallen asleep on the sofa, as usual. He could see that one of the men had a hypodermic needle. He could remember nothing after that.
After several months in the hospital – time which had been mostly erased from his memory somehow – Petr was taken to a small apartment in Prague 10, near where he had grown up, which was to be his new home, they said.
Of course, all his privileges had been stopped and he would now have to get by on the state salary paid for his new job – the job they gave all those who caused trouble for the state, but not enough trouble to warrant something worse.
It was an easy job, sitting down there in the boiler room, stoking the fire, watching the flames dance and feeling the heat on his face. He was alone, all the time, all day every day – but found he didn’t mind it at all. Sometimes, he saw faces in the fire; sometimes, he even saw his father’s.
All his pay went on drink – beer usually, like any good Czech, but anything else he could afford too. One thing he never did again was play a musical instrument, or even listen to music. He didn’t even own a record player, and hadn’t played a violin since that last time, when he had wept at what they had done, before he had hurled the fully restored and utterly ruined Prague Violin out into the night and put an end to it all. His world was now a world of utter silence, and he knew it would all be over soon as surely as he knew things would never change.
Sometimes, on his free day, he would catch the tram to Prague Castle, where he would look out over the whole city, over the red-roofed mosaic of its streets and houses, with the Vltava snaking through its middle to the small grey tower blocks in the distance.
He especially loved to watch Prague in the snow.
The Last Shark
“A shark? Are you sure?”
Kai could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“Are you absolutely sure?”
Li Ying said he was. It looked about two metres long, he said.
It was incredible news: not only had the fishermen caught a shark, but it was still alive and being held in a tank at the docks.
“What species?” asked Kai, high and excited. He was perched on his chair like a hungry crab at the edge of a rock pool.
Li Ying said he thought it was a blue shark. The image he emailed over a few moments later confirmed it.
Kai smiled as wide as the ocean.
“I knew it!” he said, “I knew there’d still be one out there!”
And if there was one, then there could be more; and if there were more, they could be breeding. Perhaps the blue shark was not extinct, after all.
“Tell them... just to keep it where it is...in the tank...until I get there.”
Li Ying said he would, though Kai heard doubt in his voice.
“Tell them we can pay them good money for it.”
“I’ll try,” said Li Ying, “I’ll try my best.”
“Enough for a new boat perhaps...Good money! Tell them! Tell them that!”
There was no time to lose. Kai knew he had to get to the Shanghai docks as soon as he could. He wasn’t the only one who’d be interested in that shark.
Grabbing his briefcase, into which he had placed some bundles of cash he kept in his office for just such occasions, Kai made his way downstairs to the exit as quickly as he could manage. His damn leg! It always slowed him down. If only he could grow a new leg back like a crab or a lobster.
He limped out onto the street and waited for his cab.
Kai was a marine biologist and senior manager in charge of sharks and rays at the largest aquarium in the world in Shanghai. If there was one person in the whole of the city who would know how best to look after that animal, it was him. He was the shark’s only chance now.
Blue sharks had been declared completely extinct twenty years earlier. Although most sharks were extinct in the wild, some species survived in aquariums around the world – but not the blue. The blue was a pelagic shark, so swam huge distances in the open oceans. Unlike the bottom or surface feeders which were easy to keep in captivity, pelagic sharks always became ill and died of infections eventually, despite the best efforts of experts.
The taxi arrived and Kai got in. He promised the driver that he’d pay double his fare plus a good tip if he got to the docks quickly. The streets would be clogged with traffic – they always were – but there was nothing else he could do. The cab swam out into the current of slow-moving cars.
It was almost unbelievable: a blue shark caught in the open ocean. All species of large shark had been thought extinct in the wild since at least 2040. Sometimes, a dogfish or a smaller shark would turn up, and there were still some rays out there, but apart from that the only sharks left were in captivity. Some species, the ones that couldn’t be kept in aquariums, were thought to be completely extinct: the great whites, hammerheads, tiger sharks – and the blue.
The last time a large shark had been caught in the wild was over two decades before, so for a fisherman to catch one and bring it alive to the Shanghai docks was nothing short of a miracle. They must have been fishing in the deepest waters, either using mile-long lines with baited hooks or giant nets for the squid and jellyfish that made up the vast majority of their catch these days.
Kai was sixty five years old, with a small, round head of short-cropped silver hair, and you could see the European blood in the shape of his nose. His skin was the colour of seashells. He had white catfish whiskers sprouting from his cheeks and chin which seemed to twitch when he spoke, as though they were searching for words swimming past in the air. The small, thick lenses of his glasses sat like two little glass jellyfish in front of his bright inquisitive eyes. He looked through them at the unmoving traffic all around him.
“Please hurry,” said Kai.
“I do my best, but...” shrugged the taxi driver, “this Shanghai! World number one city! What I can do?”
As the cab sat still as a limpet in the line of traffic, Kai began to think of the past. He remembered when he’d be taken fishing by his father as a young boy, almost sixty years before.
They’d been catching a fair number of fish from the boat that day. It had happened when Kai was reeling in a smallish tuna – he could still almost feel it tugging on the line like the memory itself! Just as he saw the bright silver flash as the fish’s solid body surfaced, a dark triangular fin appeared in the water and the torpedo body of a huge blue-grey shape rose under it. He realised that his recollection of the event may well have been embellished by his imagination over the years, but he could still remember the look of unblinking terror in that tuna’s eyes. In his memory, they were expressive eyes that looked almost human – almost like his own.
The shark grabbed the fish in its huge jaws. But it didn’t bite straight away – it held the flapping tuna delicately in its teeth, much like Kai’s mother would hold a needle in her mouth when sewing. At that exact moment, the shark was actually pulling on Kai’s fishing line through the body of the tuna. He could feel the magnificence of that big fish in his fingertips, see the row of triangular teeth bared white and red as the tuna bled a little trickle of blood into the sea like a long red tear. For the longest of moments, Kai and the shark stared deep into each other’s eyes, like lovers.
Then, with a single, quick, inevitable bite, the shark bit the body clean away from the head as if taking a bite out of a sandwich. Kai fell backwards as the tension of the huge weight disappeared from his fishing line, and the bloody head of the tuna, still biting on his hook, flew through the air like a flying fish; it bounced and skidded across the wooden deck before coming to rest by Kai’s feet. The tuna had the shark’s crescent-shaped bite-mark on its neck, and a stunned look of amazement on its face. So did Kai!
How his father laughed! He said it would’ve been better to catch the shark – at least they could sell the fin to one of the fancy restaurants downtown. Kai heard another shh-tock – this meant his father was opening yet another bottle of beer.
His father hurled the tuna head back into the sea, shouting:
“Eh! Shark! Show some manners and finish your meal!”
Then he then told the shark to take good care of his fin, in the same way he told Kai to take care of his fishing gear.
“Good luck, shark!” his father said. He then gave a long sad bow of his head and toasted the ocean with his bottle of beer.
Kai wasn’t sure whether he was joking or praying – though it did seem just like a prayer – but from that day onwards Kai had been hooked on sharks.
On another day, his father had steered the boat up the Yangtze specifically to show his son the Baiji white dolphins. Eventually, they saw two playfully skimming the brown soupy surface of the river. The water looked dirty and it smelt bad. His father said that soon these dolphins would be extinct. He was right – they were declared extinct two years later in 2006.
“What does extinct mean?” Kai remembered asking. He remembered the look of sadness – almost shame – on his father’s face as he told him. It all seemed so long ago now.
“Good luck, shark!” he said, and he meant it.
“What you say, mister?” said the taxi driver.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Kai. But it wasn’t.
The walkways of Shanghai were crawling with commuters, all so busy and preoccupied, all scuttling to and fro like little land crabs, all off to work so they could buy the products that shimmered and winked at them from the shiny shop windows and which they thought would make them happy.
Kai looked at the people outside the taxi in the same way that he looked at specimens under his microscope, as though they were another species, different from him. Perhaps they were. They all looked so young – young enough to be his children, or even grandchildren. Kai knew that none of them – not one of those youngsters he saw passing by – would ever have seen a white dolphin and probably not a shark either, except in his aquarium or on a computer screen. Kai felt more alone than ever. He closed his eyes and thought of the past. He remembered his parents’ faces.
Of course, his father had been killed in the first war with America. His mother – (who was half-American) – seemed to die then too, though she stayed alive for eleven more years. Kai acquired his limp after being injured during the second African uprising – which was the precise moment in his life that Kai decided he definitely preferred sharks to people. Now, in 2061, there were over seventeen billion people in the world and very, very few sharks. Kai often wished it was the other way round.
These days, the Yangtze was a dead river and the big predators of the oceans had mostly gone, hunted to extinction by fishermen eager to catch what their customers wanted to buy, whatever the consequences. It was just bad luck for some species that they tasted so good. Kai hadn’t eaten some of them since he was a child, though some did survive in very limited numbers in the world’s marine conservation areas or aquariums.
These days, the seas of the world mostly squirmed with jellyfish and squid, plus a few smaller species of fish that human beings, in their insatiable hunger, were seemingly prepared to make extinct too. Kai knew it wouldn’t stop until everything was dead.
They had found ways to flavour flavourless jellyfish so it tasted like real fish, and even processed it to have a similar texture and shape, so most people made do with that because it was all they could afford. But there were many who still craved the real thing and a few who could – and would – pay any price to taste tuna or swordfish or cod again. For those with money, anything was possible.
But the sharks had not been fished to extinction for the taste of their flesh – it was their fins that had been their downfall as a species.
Kai remembered when he was a boy and had watched the grinning fishermen come ashore with hundreds of shark fins piled in their plastic crates – perhaps even thousands. ‘Golden triangles’, the fishermen would call them. He rarely saw a whole shark’s body back then because all those beautiful animals, having had their fins sliced off, had been thrown overboard like junk, to sink and twitch and spiral to the bottom of the sea to be eaten alive by the fattening, scavenging crabs.
The great irony was that shark’s fin, being cartilage, actually tasted of nothing at all; in fact, so tasteless was it that the delicacy of shark’s fin soup only tasted of the seasoned chicken broth that the fin was boiled in.
Yet still people demanded it – they wanted to eat their shark fin soup to show how successful and sophisticated they were, and because old traditions and superstitions die hard. This got even worse as sharks became scarce and the cost of fins rocketed – some people would pay anything to eat that dish, which made the fisherman try to catch as many sharks as they could, however small and immature, which meant many did not get the opportunity to breed before being killed.
That one dish – shark’s fin soup – had been responsible for the extinction of most sharks in the wild. There was also a huge demand for fins in traditional medicine.
And even when fishing for sharks was finally made illegal, long after most of them had disappeared anyway, people still craved the illicit pleasure of eating shark fin soup – and that appetite was satisfied, if the price was high enough.
Since his boyhood, Kai had watched the numbers decline and plummet. He had researched and monitored the populations; he knew the facts of the shark’s annihilation as well as he knew their anatomy.
But there was always a hope – a small but real hope – that somewhere out there in the vast and unknowable oceans there were still populations of sharks: small, isolated populations that could have somehow escaped the sonic location devices and the all-devouring deadly nets and hooks of the fishermen. If Kai could establish that, then maybe it would be possible to really protect them – to start again. Maybe even one day to introduce sharks from aquariums to the open oceans.
Kai knew he had to be quick. He’d have to arrange to buy the blue shark from the fisherman, then take it back to the aquarium and consult every expert he knew around the world to keep it alive. It had always failed in the past but there was a chance, albeit a small one, that this shark would survive in captivity, especially with the improved technology they had now. And then they could search the oceans for more blue sharks – in the same place the fisherman caught this one – and they could even start a worldwide breeding programme. The blue shark, as a species, could perhaps be brought back from the dead, after all.
The traffic was gridlocked, as it so often was – despite all the regulations on cars in the city, it was always like this. The taxi driver said that they would just have to be patient and would be there soon.
If it wasn’t for his leg, Kai knew he would just get out and run to the docks, like he used to race along the beach when he was a boy. He watched the crowds of people swarming around the taxi on all sides, like blowflies around the corpse of the washed-up whale he had once seen. He tried calling Li Ying; there was no answer. Why?
Kai’s mind pictured all the species that were now gone, on land and sea. Even when he was young, these animals were not extinct; endangered, yes, but now they were gone forever. So many species were gone – some completely extinct, some extinct in the wild. And it had all happened in his little lifetime.
Finally, at long last, they arrived at their destination.
As the taxi entered the docks area, three black Mercedes with mirror windows glided past it on their way out, followed by a large and dirty white van. It was an incongruous sight, and it was unusual to see such luxury cars at the docks – as the preferred car of government officials they were more usually seen parked outside the fashionable department stores and restaurants downtown.
Kai got out of the taxi and limped as quickly as he could towards the quay. There was still no answer from Li Ying’s phone.
Two fishermen were standing by their boat, shouting loudly and sharing swigs from a bottle. They stopped talking when they saw Kai approaching.
“Shark?” one of them laughed, soon followed by the other – they sounded drunk, “No shark here – only jellyfish and squids. Very nice. You want buy?”
Kai walked across the quay. He called Li Ying again; he could just about hear a faint ringtone. It was coming from behind one of the buildings on the quayside.
The ringtone led him to a pile of plastic crates behind one of them. That was where he found Li Ying, sprawled on the ground. There was blood on his face and in his hair. His lip was split and there was the first dark shadow of a black eye. He had clearly been beaten up badly.
Kai knelt down and spoke to him. Li Ying opened his eyes.
“I tried,” he said, groaning, “I tried... my best, but...”
He told Kai what had happened. It was too late – the shark was gone. Li Ying’s eyes were swollen with pain and blood and tears.
Kai helped him up when he was ready. The young man then led him to the plastic tank where he had seen the blue shark. Kai could still smell it there – could still feel its presence somehow, like an ancestor. But now it was gone and there was nothing they could do.
“Good luck, shark,” he said, his voice breaking with sorrow. Then he bowed his head as if in prayer, as did Li Ying. They were both crying like rain.
They both knew that the shark was already dead. It had disappeared into the city like a ghost and its fin – as well as the rest of its body – would be eaten as a delicacy, or perhaps dried and used for traditional medicine or as an aphrodisiac.
No wonder the fishermen looked happy: they would have sold the shark to some businessperson, or perhaps some government official with bottomless pockets and limitless funds. That single fin had probably bought them a new boat – or two – or more. Perhaps a whole fleet. Maybe even a new house – maybe several houses. Maybe they’d never have to work again. And nor would their children.
Kai looked out at the sea. It seemed so vast and limitless, but he knew that it wasn’t: it had its limits, as did the whole Earth, and they had been reached and exceeded long ago.
He thought of the shark he had seen when a boy, the big fish that had beheaded his tuna, and the way his father wished it good luck – they were all long gone now. They were never coming back.
Maybe the shark the fishermen had caught that day was the last blue shark, he thought, as he stared at the sea – or maybe there were more, somewhere out there in the vast dark waters of the world. But it would be the last shark the fishing boats of Shanghai would ever catch.
The photo that Li Ying had taken and sent to Kai’s computer would, some years later, be internationally recognised as the last recorded image of a blue shark. The species was now, officially, completely extinct.
No-one in the village was particularly surprised when Tambo Chalinga became Minister for Conservation in the new government.
They all knew Tambo would go far – he had been the star student at the local school and then at university in the city, where he graduated with the highest marks in his year. They also knew, however, that he was not cut out for a career in banking or business – because, from the earliest days, it was clear that Tambo had only one interest in life: elephants.
This was hardly surprising: in the village it was said his birth was accompanied by the singing of elephants who stood waiting patiently for two days until he came into the world, and then marked his arrival with a celebratory chorus of trumpeting not heard before or since.
From boyhood, Tambo had a special relationship with the elephants. Where they lived near the National Park, there were always elephants roaming the savannas. Sometimes, they wandered onto their fields and flattened their crops, but not to any disastrous extent – everyone in the village respected and loved the elephants. So if occasionally a young bull made a mistake by trespassing where he was not wanted, he was always treated with understanding, in the same way a wise village elder will always show leniency and guidance to a wayward youth.
It was always Tambo who led the young elephant back to the herd – a dangerous thing to do for anybody else, but Tambo knew he would be perfectly safe, even with the big cow matriarch he had nicknamed ‘Tusk’, who had a scar on her forehead and the broken-off left tusk jutting out of her huge head like an ivory dagger. She was Tambo’s favourite elephant of all – she had spirit as well as raw power, and controlled the herd as sternly as any Kenyan mother.
His close relationship and affinity with the elephants was why they jokingly sometimes called him Tembo – Swahili for ‘elephant’.
Tambo studied hard at university and was headhunted at graduation to work as a researcher in the Ministry of Conservation – a job which allowed him to break free from his desk for a couple of days every week to liaise with wildlife wardens and conservationists, and elephants. They needed all the help they could get to tackle the enormous problem they had with poachers – a problem that was getting worse, due to increased world demand for raw ivory.
He knew these elephants and they knew him. And the elephants he knew best of all, the ones Tambo Chalinga regarded as his family as much as – or perhaps even more than – his many cousins and uncles and aunts, were those that lived on the plains around the village, although they could also roam over great distances. Every time he returned home, they came to greet him – as if welcoming home a much-loved family member. Even the big cow elephant with the scar and the broken left tusk celebrated Tambo’s return, and even allowed him to approach and touch her. Sometimes, one of the young bull elephants would be there too, briefly rejoining the herd, possibly out of homesickness and remembering how his life used to be, before returning to a life of solitary wandering in the bush.
Tambo Chalinga had big plans for the Ministry of Conservation. It broke his heart to see how poachers were still killing elephants in Kenya, and how the rampant corruption in his country meant that it went on despite the law. Tambo was absolutely determined to stop this corruption, because that was the only way to protect the elephants, especially now the Chinese were in Africa – and everyone knew how much they loved their ivory.
‘They will bring nothing but blackness and death to this land,’ his great aunt Mwamini said when she first saw their engineers building the new road to the city.
Tambo had been a junior minister at that point, nothing but a glorified secretary really.
‘They will kill all the elephants, these yellow devils!’ his great aunt said.
‘They are here to invest,’ said Tambo, ‘just for business – not to rule us in an empire!’
His great aunt Mwamini had scoffed at this, mumbling and chuckling to herself as if enjoying a private joke.
‘Everyone have his price. Government man, ‘specially.’
‘But I am not just a politician; my main interest and concern is conservation – the elephants. You know that.’
His aunt said nothing; she just shook her head, and closed her tired old eyes to the world.
Tambo knew that Mwamini was a grumpy old lady, and that she rarely saw good in anything or anyone, so her reaction was only to be expected – and tolerated. The changes she must have seen...
Tambo, by contrast, was an optimist: he was not against incomers – they brought wealth and investment, not to mention new ideas and ways of thinking. Just like the British when they were here – but different.
The Chinese did not have any moral or ‘civilising agenda’ like the British Empire, or any religion to promote either: they only seemed to care about money. But was that such a bad thing? Money was important, and so was business – it would improve the lives of his countrymen, and ultimately of the elephants and wildlife too.
‘It’s got to stop,’ said Tambo to his wife on the evening he was appointed Minister of Conservation, ‘the corruption, the bribes, the turning a blind eye to poaching – all of it! And I am going to stop it!’
Muraty nodded at her husband and smiled patiently.
‘We have become so corrupt in this country that nobody believes honesty can even exist.’
She served them dinner: spicy pork with ugali and githeri, the popular porridge and bean dishes.
‘But I will show them! I shall clean up the department of conservation like a big bull elephant in a water hole!’
It was on that very day that Tambo first saw Mr Wu.
At first, Tambo thought he was just another Chinese official in Kenya – an engineer or a negotiator, hungry for African minerals at any price. There were so many these days, in all industries and ministries, everywhere. It was only later that Tambo found out he was actually the representative of the Chinese government in Kenya – a man responsible for a great many investments. Mr Liu, his predecessor, had been recalled for reasons unknown.
Tambo would invite Mr Wu to a meeting soon so he could get to know him; he would try and persuade him to act to stop all tolerance to the illicit ivory trade and the demand it was both satisfying and creating in China, which in turn led to poaching throughout Africa.
First, however, there was business to take care of and, as he had informed his wife using the language of Western politicians he had seen on TV, he intended to ‘hit the ground running’ in his new job – and he did.
Kenyan politics had never known anything like it. Within a month of Tambo Chalinga becoming Minister for Conservation, more than thirty government officials – as well as four junior government ministers – were languishing in prison, having been arrested for corruption and embezzlement.
The President was delighted at this progress, as he stated in a TV interview, and so were many other senior ministers who publicly berated those who had been arrested whenever the opportunity arose. Tambo knew they were probably all just as corrupt, if not more so, but he couldn’t go for the big fish – not yet, anyway. That would have to wait; otherwise he could threaten his own position, or even – as he well knew – his life.
Of course, Tambo was only able to clamp down on this corruption by bribing the police – not with money, but with the promise that none of them would ever be personally investigated for corruption. Tambo knew this promise was enough. He also knew that if he broke it both he and his wife would be killed, and the Chief of Police knew he knew this too – it was a system that worked, in its own little brutal way. That was just how things were: Tambo had to work within the system if he was to achieve his goal – he was doing what he was doing for the elephants. Everything he did was for them.
As luck would have it, Mr Wu’s secretary contacted the Ministry of Conservation with a dinner invitation for later that week before Tambo had had a chance to make contact.
‘Welcome to Kenya,’ said Tambo to Mr Wu, who bowed low in thanks. Always bowing, these Chinese, even when they knew they were the masters.
During the meal – which was served in a backstreet Chinese restaurant Tambo didn’t even know existed – they discussed at great length the ivory poaching situation in the country. Mr Wu, whose English was excellent – (though he always had several aides with him including an interpreter, who occasionally whispered a word in his ear) – listened patiently as his guest expressed the hope that progress could be made with the ‘ivory situation’.
Perhaps it was because Tambo thought the food so delicious, or perhaps the numbing effects of several bottles of beer – (or the fact that his host was paying the bill) – but by the end of the meal he felt warm towards Mr Wu and optimistic as to how they could work together.
At the end of the evening, as they all stood up to leave, Mr Wu handed Tambo a small wooden box. It was clear that this was a gift and Tambo should accept it with gratitude, which is what he did with a little hesitant bow, as diplomacy dictates.
Tambo opened the box. He frowned.
‘Is not the new ivory,’ said Wu. ‘Is ivory figure of emperor of China. Ming Dynasty. Five hundred year old”
Tambo held the little statuette up to the light. It was absolutely beautiful – exquisite in its workmanship – about six inches high, though more with the small stand, and so delicately carved by what was obviously a masterful hand. There was real humanity in the emperor’s face, a special quality in his smile, like the Mona Lisa. Enigmatic.
It was ivory, yes – but it was old ivory. Very old. Made from ivory from an elephant that had lived and died in Africa half a millennium before, probably from one of the ‘big-tuskers’, as they were called. These ‘big-tuskers’ were all gone now. They had been the first to be wiped out by hunters, so their DNA had been deleted from history well over a century ago. No-one alive today had ever seen a ‘big-tusker’: they were already extinct.
But Tambo always liked to think that the elephants he knew, those he had grown up with, might well be descendants or relatives of the unlucky big-tuskers – maybe even of the elephant whose tusk had been carved into the object in his hand. How long the ivory trade had gone on! And how many elephants had been slaughtered just so their teeth – those elongated incisors which had evolved to dig the earth for roots – could be sawn off and turned into trinkets, letter openers, ornaments and piano keys for the amusement of more advanced people far across the oceans in more civilised lands.
Tambo invited Mr Wu and his colleagues to come with him to his village, to meet the elephants themselves. It was all arranged for the following week.
Muraty did not like the statuette – she didn’t like old things, preferring the fashionable designer furniture and clothes she saw on TV – so she was pleased to hear that Tambo intended to keep it at the Ministry.
That evening, Tambo decided to look up the Ming statuette on the internet – just for interest.
‘Oh my God,’ he gasped when he saw it, immediately apologising to his wife for the blasphemy. ‘Sorry sorry – but Muraty, look – please. Look!’
On the screen was a figure similar to the one sitting on the desk in front of Tambo, but this one was in the British Museum. Another website had a similar Ming period ivory figure too – it was to be auctioned in London with a guide price of £100,000.
At that very moment, if Tambo had been an elephant, he would have made a deafening trumpeting sound with his trunk.
‘It is not a bribe, said Tambo, somewhat defensively, when he noticed Muraty’s glare. ‘It is a gift to the people and government of Kenya, not for me personally.”
His wife said nothing; she started clearing the table.
Tambo sometimes wondered if he had made the right decision in getting married. Maybe he should have stayed solitary, like a bull elephant, only occasionally visiting the opposite sex when his needs demanded. It would have been less complicated, that’s for sure. Tambo really didn’t understand women; but, bizarrely – and he really did not understand this at all – he absolutely understood female elephants.
He held up the ivory figure to the light, admiring its beauty one last time, before placing it back in its box, which he put into his briefcase, ready to take into the office the next day.
Mr Wu loved the elephants.
It was an exciting day for the villagers: their son Tambo, who had risen high and become a government minister – and who had even been on TV – was now bringing an important guest to their home. A Chinese guest – a rich guest who could do good things for Tambo’s people.
Tambo showed Mr Wu around the village – which did not take long, it was true. He showed him the little schoolhouse where he had studied, as well as the hut where he was born. But he did not want to invite Mr Wu into one of the huts: the cramped and cluttered residences were an embarrassment to Tambo, and he was sure the Chinese would look down on anyone who lived this way. He didn’t know how the Chinese lived, but he did know that some had lived in palaces in the past, and he had never heard of Chinamen living in huts. So, instead, he guided Mr Wu back to the four-wheel drive so they could make their way out into the plains to see the elephants.
As they left, Tambo saw his great aunt Mwamini watching them suspiciously from outside her hut. Tambo met her eye then looked away quickly, as though his not acknowledging her would make her disappear from view. But her eyes would always be there, he knew, watching the world like God, no matter whether he looked back or not.
Before long, they had found the herd.
Mr Wu watched as Tambo approached the elephants on foot. There were about a dozen, including three calves and the matriarch with the scar on her face and the broken-off left tusk. The rumble and snort of the herd seemed to greet Tambo like an old friend, with every elephant extending its trunk in welcome.
Tambo greeted his old friends too, though he was always wary of the aggressive matriarch – the oldest and biggest elephant in the herd. She had been a young two-tusked mother when he was a child – then, one day, she had returned from the bush with only one, which had probably been broken off whilst fighting, maybe when defending the herd. She had apparently become even more bad-tempered since, but then, she was left-tusked – (elephants, like humans with hands, had one dominant side) – so to lose her left tusk had been most unfortunate, making life more difficult for her as she had had to learn to use the right from scratch.
There was no danger, however: Tambo knew Tusk well, so he would be able to tell from the flap of her ears, the movement of her feet and the tone of the deep guttural growling and rumbling noises she made when she’d had enough.
Tambo gave the signal. Slowly, vigilantly, nervously, Mr Wu and his aides left the jeep and approached the herd, their suits and ties looking incongruously surreal in the savannah’s bright African sunshine.
The elephants seemed curious and excited at these new strange-smelling visitors. They crowded round, extending their trunks to touch the hands and heads of the Chinese guests. Tambo explained to Mr Wu how he had known these animals since boyhood, that they were in effect his family, and that he would do anything to protect them. Mr Wu smiled and bowed, admiring the long tusks of the elephant whose trunk was caressing his sweaty scalp.
Suddenly, Tambo sensed that the old matriarch had had enough and led his guests back to the four-wheel drives. As they got into the vehicles, the old she-elephant gave a deafening blast of a trumpet: this was unusual and Tambo thought that this probably meant that she was still unsure about the strangers. It was then that Tambo noticed that the face of every single member of the Chinese entourage shone with a big, broad ivory-coloured smile.
When they returned to the village, Tambo’s great aunt Mwamini was still watching from outside her hut. What was that expression in her eyes? Tambo wasn’t sure. Was it anger? No. Accusation? Disappointment? Maybe. It was weariness, yes, but it was more than that. It was the look an elephant had in its eyes before it lay down to die. It was a look that saw everything and nothing at the same time.
The President was delighted at the close relationship Tambo was forging with Mr Wu. As he mentioned more than once – ‘China is the new America’ – and he was keen to do business with these new colonialists.
Over the following months, Tambo built up a strong relationship with the Chinese delegation, and they met several times a week. His wife didn’t complain, but sometimes she joked that he was spending more time with Mr Wu than with her! She was probably just joking; after all, Tambo did give her plenty of money for clothes, and they were now wealthy enough to employ a maid to do all of the housework and cooking, so Muraty had plenty of time to go shopping in all the best boutiques. She even went on shopping expeditions to Paris and London.
So what if they were spending lots of time apart, or even living mostly separate lives? Lots of married couples did – and wasn’t that what elephants did too? Tambo was behaving perfectly normally for a bull elephant: solitary, proud and confident in what he did. It wasn’t as if there were any children to worry about – yet.
The anti-corruption campaign went well that year, with yet more minor officials being arrested and Tambo being interviewed on TV about the progress they were making in tackling both the corruption in Kenya and the ivory poaching that had increased so much in recent years, as well as in forging important trading and business links with the Chinese.
Then, one day, Mr Wu invited Tambo out for a meal at the same restaurant at which they had first got to know each other. After the meal, Mr Wu handed an envelope to Tambo; his expression when he opened it was similar, if not identical, to the one he had had on his face when he had first made love to his wife.
In the village, the news was bad. Mwamini was dying, so Tambo was summoned.
He arrived from the city that evening, directly from that dinner with Mr Wu, dressed in an expensive designer suit and wearing the gold watch he always wore these days. He sat with his great aunt a while as she drifted in and out of consciousness, like clouds across the moon. Clearly, the end was near.
She was mumbling something too, which Tambo thought at first was his name. But it wasn’t ‘Tambo’ that she was saying, it was ‘Tembo’ – ‘elephant’ in Swahili.
Mwamini muttered it over and over again, like a chant. Then she turned and looked at Tambo, looked into him, her eyes as small and black as a rat’s – and he knew she knew. He could see it in the blackness of her dying eyes. She knew what he had done, knew that it was all his fault, knew that he had brought nothing but death and destruction and shame to his ancestors’ village.
No-one expected Mwamini to last the night, but last she did: by sunrise the next morning she was not yet dead. Tambo had been with her all night, and as she seemed to be sleeping, he decided he would take a break – go out onto the plains and see his old friends, the elephants. There was nothing else to do in the village: it seemed so small and alien and boring to him now.
One thing puzzled him: since he had arrived back in the village he had noticed people treating him strangely, keeping their distance as though he had some strange disease, or in the way that certain individuals were treated who had been in trouble with the police. Even his old friends and cousins were wary and unsmiling in his presence, their faces as dark and hard as the masks of his tribe.
It was envy, of course – at his new-found wealth. Yes, that must be it – the suit and the watch and his government position. People were often envious, jealous of others’ success, frightened of ambition.
Well, Tambo wasn’t and he had proved it. He was becoming one of Kenya’s best known and most popular politicians, so much so that he was even being talked about as a possible future presidential candidate.
Imagine that – him, Tambo Chalinga, President of Kenya! He could go to America on a visit and meet President Obama: two sons of Kenya – two black men – in the White House. Imagine that!
Tambo walked for a few minutes onto the plain but could not see or hear any elephants. He went back and got the four-wheel drive – he knew all the places the elephants frequented and where they roamed, and if anyone could locate them, it was him. He drove for almost an hour before he found them.
He smelt it first – the unmistakeable sweet stench of death. Tambo stopped the four-wheel drive and got out. The smell led him to a ridge by some trees, and as he climbed it he could hear the drone of blowflies buzzing. The birds were silent in the skies as he approached, as they were before thunder storms. Though alone, Tambo felt somehow that he was being watched.
There they were – all of them: more than a dozen elephants, the whole herd, all dead. They had been shot – machine-gunned – the calves too; and the tusks had been severed from their heads, no doubt sawn off with chainsaws in minutes. Quick and efficient: the modern way. Tambo retched and covered his nostrils with his sleeve.
When had this happened? Yesterday perhaps? The body cavities were now crawling with maggots and flies, but that kind of decomposition could happen quickly in the relentless heat. The old way of death was the same as it ever was: Africa eats its own.
He looked at them, one by one, recognised each individual from the ears. And then he saw Tusk. The matriarch lay surrounded by the others, her eye sockets black with flies, her solitary tusk sawn clean off, like a tree branch that had got in the way. There was the weathered shard of her broken-off left tusk still sticking out of her skull – the poachers obviously hadn’t thought it was worth taking that.
‘Tembo,’ whispered Tambo at the matriarch’s corpse, and the wind seemed to echo a reply.
‘Tembo,’ whispered the voice of his great aunt Mwamini.
He looked around, but there was no-one there.
How could she be there? She was in her hut, in bed, dying.
But Africa always makes noises, he knew, for those who could hear.
He should have felt sad – angry – something. Anything. But he didn’t. He just felt numb, his heart deadened by a head full of money. He knew he had changed, and knew there was nothing he could do about it now.
When he got back to the village, they told him that great aunt Mwamini was dead.
Tambo paid his respects briefly, as he was expected to, though he was reluctant to gaze upon his great aunt’s corpse after the look she had given him the night before. Then he informed the members of his family that he had pressing business in the city and so, sadly, could not stay in the village for the funeral or the traditional period of mourning.
Nobody seemed surprised – though Tambo knew what he was doing would be considered offensive and disrespectful. But he was a modern man now, not some African village peasant worshipping the ways of the witchdoctor, even if his fathers’ fathers had lived like that since before memory began. Now, things had changed.
Tambo climbed into the four-wheel drive with the briefcase he had kept with him since he had arrived and which he had never let out of his sight during his stay. In it was the envelope from Mr Wu, and inside that was the banker’s draft for five million US dollars which Tambo had insisted was the minimum he would personally accept to allow the Chinese – and the poachers who supplied them – access to the ‘ivory resources’ of Kenya.
They had drawn a line on the map, him and Mr Wu, when they had negotiated the deal in the restaurant: the Chinese would be able to kill all elephants on one side of that line, but not the other – the line went right through the middle of the National Park, which was vast enough to ensure that no poachers working for Mr Wu would ever be caught. Unfortunately for the elephants of Tambo’s village, they had crossed over that line whilst roaming, and so Mr Wu’s poachers had, according to their little illegal agreement, the right to machine-gun them and harvest their ivory.
Tambo thought of the elephants he had grown up with, their corpses now rotting in the bush, and closed his eyes, trying to delete the unnecessary memory from his head.
He opened them to the sight of unsmiling villagers crowding around his car – the look in their eyes was something he could not explain. It seemed – though how this was possible Tambo didn’t know – that they knew, just like Aunt Mwamini had known.
Tambo looked away. He started the ignition of the four-wheel drive and drove back to the stinking dirty city where he knew he now belonged.
He would never touch, or be touched by, an elephant again.