Next week is our last week before our Christmas hiatus, when I will share a couple of charming short stories to get you in the mood for the Christmas festivities and help you to feel hope and optimism for the year to come.
But first, I want to start to close out this year by showcasing the last of the excerpts of the 2020 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize (Best Unpublished Manuscript) shortlisted novels we have received. I hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as me. Keep on the look out for each author and their work over the coming months and years; fingers crossed they find an interested publisher soon!
Tony Durrant’s Veldt Hunter is the story of a man fleeing his past and using his deadly skills to fight in and survive the Boer War. His path crosses the passionate but conflicted Helena, and it is her perspective we experience in this excerpt from chapter six. Despite joining part way into the story, Tony creates an emotional connection between the reader and Helena that grips from the outset. We learn of her mother’s severe sickness and their isolation; Helena’s fond memories of her past and the sad contrast with the present situation; and how the only thing more terrifying than being alone on a faraway farm, in the dark, with no-one to help her dying mother is to discover you are, in fact, not alone.
Enjoy Tony’s fantastic excerpt below! And if you missed the previous shortlisted extracts or would like to read them again, you can do so here:
Keep on writing!
Dan (Associate Editor)
Veldt Hunter (novel extract) by Tony Durrant
Harry Swift is a reluctant hero. Having fled England, he’s now on African soil amid the bloody Boer War, escaping memories of his step-brother’s death and the prospect of a cloying home life. Swift ran wild as a youth, learning to track and poach: skills he puts to the test in the new guerrilla warfare used by the Boers. His mission is to smuggle secret codes into besieged Ladysmith, a journey on which he crosses paths with the beautiful yet fiery Helena van Aardt, a Boer farmer’s daughter who finds herself torn between her feelings for Swift and love of her country.
Excerpt context: Helena van Aardt is a Boer living on a farm in the Orange Free State in 1899. Her brother, Jan, is away fighting the British. Her mother, Sophia, is dying of consumption.
The bowl by Sophia’s bed was splashed with red more often these days, and Helena learned to control both her senses and her emotions, as she washed away her mother’s life blood. She spent all the waking hours supporting her through the agonies of her condition and cleaning her to maintain some dignity. It was a heart-wrenching role reversal for the daughter to watch her proud and once beautiful mother be reduced to a shadow of the woman she once was.
Before long, came the day when she could not bear watching her mother’s pain any longer. Helena decided to send Charlie to fetch their nearest neighbour, Mrs Zeederberg, who knew about healing.
It was late afternoon when Helena ushered Charlie towards the Cape cart. There had been a time when the old Xhosa would have scorned the services of the cart and covered any distance on foot with ease. Not these days. As Charlie climbed into the seat, the cart rocked and he made a show of retaining his dignity, sneering at the worn reins and iron-shod wheels, and stiffening when Helena’s hand reached out to steady him. Helena knew that he was secretly pleased at the elevated status the cart gave him.
“You will make the Zeederbergs’ homestead by dark, but don’t expect Mrs Zeederburg to come straight back. Not in the dark. Anyway, I think there is a storm coming.” He pulled his faded blanket over his head like a shawl, then shot a look at the purple rainclouds that were gathering in the east. He flicked the whip over Somer’s head and lurched away.
As the cart disappeared into the distance, Helena did the rounds of the farm, shutting in the cow and chickens. Wolf followed at her heels, occasionally stopping and sniffing the air, growling. He stood by her on the stoep, tail down, as she gave one last look at the bruised thunderheads that rolled across the veldt.
“Come on, Wolfie. Don’t let the wind spook you.”
Helena locked the front door and went through the house, lighting lamps and closing shutters. She warmed some soup in the kitchen and took it in for her mother, but Sophia would not be drawn to the spoon. As the darkness grew outside, Helena sat and read from Exodus again, while Sophia drifted in and out of sleep. Then came the first pattering which swiftly grew into drumming, as droplets fell against the shutters. Thunder growled in the distance until the sound of the drumming on the corrugated roof drowned all other sound. Helena’s tiredness took its toll, and her chin fell to her chest. The fire flickered in the grate, and the lamp threw a calming pool of light around the sleeping mother and daughter.
Helena dreamed she was a child again, walking with Papa and Mama to church. Her father’s eyes flashed as he smiled, and her mother’s full mouth framed white teeth as she laughed. Jan was walking ahead in his Sunday best, throwing stones for Wolf who was barking. His barks grew louder, drowning out her parents’ laughter and it caused her to open her eyes with a start. Wolf was barking. She sat up and the bible slid from her knees and thumped to the floor. Her mother muttered in her sleep. Helena picked up the candle from the table and went into the hallway. Wolf was facing the front door, legs braced, the hair rising along his spine.
“Wolfie. Steady boy. Steady.” She had never seen him so excited. “It’s only the wild dogs come to scavenge. Shush now, Wolf.” The old dog continued to stare at the door. His tail was down and his lips curled. The rain had slackened, but the thunder still rumbled. Wolf looked at Helena over his shoulder, eyes blazing. He turned back to the door and started barking again. Helena’s heart hammered.
She walked past Wolf to lay her hand on the bolt, bracing herself to pull it back. There was a sound behind her and she whirled to see her mother in the bedroom doorway. Lightning flickered, causing Sophia’s nightgown to flare white. Dragging herself from her bed must have been a huge effort, but Sophie was determinedly pointing towards the gun rack.
“Your rifle. Get your rifle.”
Helena put down the candle and grabbed the Martini Henry. It was not loaded. One of her mother’s house rules was to never allow loaded guns under her roof. Helena fumbled for the bandolier. The brass of the cartridge felt cool in her sweating palm. She opened the breech, slipped in the round and pulled up the under-lever. She looked at her mother. Their eyes locked in the candlelight. Sophia struggled to talk. Every word was an effort.
“This is our home and we’ll defend it in the way we choose. Understand me, girl? Don’t be frightened to pull that trigger.”
'Yes, Mama.‘ Helena’s mouth had gone dry. She hefted the weight of the rifle. Suddenly, it did not feel so familiar. She held it uncertainly and looked at the front door. Wolf’s barking had subsided to a steady growl. Lightning flashed again and thunder followed.
Sophia clicked her fingers. “Wolf! Heel.” The dog hesitated and with another growl towards the door slunk down the passage to sit by Sophia, who trembled with the effort of standing up.
“Mama, you must go back to bed. You are too weak. I will deal with this. I have the dog. I have the rifle.”
“This is my home, Helena. Our home. Our land. Always remember that.” She slid down the doorframe into a squat, then reached out to hold Wolf’s collar. “We are not people to hide behind our doors from those who threaten our homes. Now, go to the door, and once it is open, you stand aside. I shall release Wolf… if I have to.”
Helena paced down the hall and reached out with her left hand towards the door. She slid back the bolt, took a deep breath, then pulled. The candle guttered in the sudden draught and went out. She could see nothing but blackness and a curtain of rain. She felt exposed. She was enough of a hunter to know that the lamp from her mother’s room was lighting the hall behind her, showing her in silhouette. She wanted to close the door.
“There’s nothing, Mama. I can’t see anything. It must be wild dogs.” Lightning flashed again. She gasped. Seared against her retina was the image of a man standing about twenty yards from the stoep. Wolf saw him, too, and, with a bark, bounded forward out of Sophia’s grasp. The dog disappeared into the darkness. There was a shotgun blast and an animal howl of pain. Helena flung up her rifle and fired into the darkness. The sound of the Martini Henry crashed in the enclosed space of the hallway. Its flash blinded her, and the powder fumes filled her nostrils.
The wind sucked the gun-smoke out into the night, and Helena gasped for air. Lightning flashed again, but this time the figure was gone. Wolf’s body lay motionless in the rain. Helena slammed the door and shot home the bolt. She needed to reload and staggered down the hall towards the gun rack. She fumbled with the bandolier for another round.
“Did you see him, Mama? It was a man. He shot Wolf.” There was no reply. Helena looked down at her mother. Sophia was slumped against the doorframe. Her head was tilted back against the wood, and a faint cough brought a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth, its bright drops spotting her white nightdress; the last flourish of the sickness that had plagued her for years.
“Mama. No. Mama. Mama.” Helena dropped the rifle to crouch and reach out a hand to Sophia’s face. The skin was cool, stretched tight across the cheekbone. “Let me get you to your bed.” She encircled Sophia with her arms. Her mother’s eyes opened wide.
“Never mind me. Reload your rifle, girl. I am going. The storm is passing.”
Helena held her mother’s face in both hands.
“No, Mama. No.”
Sophia van Aardt’s lifeless eyes stared back at her daughter. Helena locked her mother in a crushing embrace. Sobs wracked her body. She pressed her face into the dark mane of her mother’s hair and inhaled her scent.
“Oh, Moeder. Moeder.” She rocked on her heels. Sophia’s head lolled against her breast. The rain had stopped, the wind had dropped, and thunder rumbled far in the distance. The silence was broken only by dripping water. Tears flowed down Helena’s cheeks into her mother’s hair. She was alone. As she took in a long breath, footsteps sounded on the stoep. The slow plod of booted feet. They came closer to the door. The thump and scrape of a man with a limp.
© Tony Durrant, 2020
Tony Durrant grew up in Tyneside, sought his first big adventure as a paratrooper in the Army reserves, then trained as a print journalist after university. He was a news reporter in the North of England, then moved to London and worked for the Daily Mirror. He covered the rise of adventure sports as a freelance journalist and contributed regularly to the Daily Telegraph, for which he also wrote a health and fitness column. He went to Afghanistan as an RAF reservist in 2014 where, among the dust and heat, he had the idea for his Boer War protagonist Harry Swift. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from the Open University. Tony lives in the Pennine Hills of Cumbria with Sally and their Border Terrier, Boot.
You can read more about Tony and his work at www.tonydurrant.com
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! ‘Showcase’, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue (6) of Write On! out now and available here.