Copyright 2001-2008, James J. Belcher.  All rights reserved.

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Copyright 2004, 2005 James J. Belcher.  All Rights Reserved. 

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Daryl Harding and the Quest for Dhwee

 

      Chapter 1

 

Everyone knows that Dhwee was big news in 2003, but very few know the real story, much less the big secret behind it.  Here’s how it happened: 

It could be said that it started with Daryl’s pimple on that Monday morning, the 1st of September 2003, or his conversation with Dr. Penrith around 10:00am that same day, or even his tasting from the almost-magical agar dish, but that would be getting ahead of us.  First, we’d better talk about Daryl, his father and the trip to Zimbabwe.  

            Daryl never seemed a likely much-of-anything because scrawny, pimply 19-year-old bookworms who drop out after earning their secondary school diplomas aren’t given much credit or even much thought by most of us.  Back then, Charlie Harding was a renowned retired cricketer, but now he’s mostly admired for his role with the Australian Cricket Board (ACB).  His asthma-plagued son Daryl was the bane of his existence.  Perhaps Charlie would have seen things differently if Daryl had not won a $15,000 prize from a lottery ticket given him on the occasion of his 18th birthday and promptly withdrawn his application to the University of Melbourne, where he had already been accepted for admission in the spring term. 

As Charlie said to Daryl’s mum Emily, “If he’s so all blamed smart and he’s so liked by his teachers, why’s he acting like a jerk and dropping out?”  Emily had her usual response, “I dunno, Charlie, but maybe he has his reasons.”  [Charlie and Emily: Haven’t a clue!] 

As Daryl tried to explain it to Charlie, “Dad, I’m not sure what I want, and now I have the money to keep me going while I sort things out.  I guess I’ll buy a car or a ute or a caravan and drive around the country, or then again, maybe I’ll just hang around here and think about it.”  Daryl conveniently forgot he had no driver’s licence, since he never bothered to take the Vic Roads exam, even after the school driver education course. 

[I’ve learned a lot about computers, not just the courses I aced at school, but how to use the Net to learn just about anything.  I have a high IQ and practically straight-A grades, but I’m just not sure of a heading.  So I sit back and learn at home, how to, where to, what to, why is, all the questions.  No, I don’t have a girlfriend and I could care less about cricket, but I was head of the science club, vice president of the math club and quickly accepted to uni, even though I didn’t go.  Something’s going to turn up, and when it does, I’m ready.  It’s got to be exciting and different, because I’m not about to spend the rest of my life poring through engineering manuals, law books, medical journals, financial records or computer science texts.  I don’t want to be another Charlie, and after all, I live in The Lucky Country.]   

            Daryl’s time was mostly spent playing on the Internet with his laptop computer, a graduation gift his parents regretted [Charlie: Staring at that damned thing all the time. Wonder what he’s looking at – probably porno.][Emily: I dunno, Charlie, but maybe he has his reasons.]  When he wasn’t in his room with just the Internet for a companion, Daryl would hang out with Ernie and Lou, a couple of chums.  His mates were neighbours before the Hardings’ move to Hampton two years earlier; they had been school classmates most of their lives.  Mostly, they’d sit and talk in Daryl’s room, door closed.  None of the three ever seemed to be dating anyone.   In the past year, they went to a 24-hour rock concert once and spent a couple of Saturday afternoons watching the telly together, beers in hand and a footy game blaring, not cricket.  Their weekend entertainment generally consisted of a Friday midnight movie on the telly, horror films for the most part.  Ernie and Lou were both in uni, apparently doing OK there, but it didn’t seem to faze Daryl.  

On the rare occasion, Daryl would go over to Lou’s place, or at least that’s what he told Charlie and Emily.  Daryl never went to Ernie’s; Charlie and Emily suspected Ernie’s parents figured Daryl was a bad influence and prohibited their place as a meeting spot.  Lou would drive his parent’s car once in a while; Ernie had his own, an old ute, and he generally drove the three.  Neither seemed to mind that Daryl didn’t have a licence and didn’t drive.  [Charlie: Haven’t those three stooges got anything to do?  Yeah, our son is different – he’s the one who’s not enrolled in uni.]  

Daryl had been hanging around the Harding household about a year before the ACB got involved in the Zimbabwe controversy.  Charlie and the ACB had a series of test matches scheduled in Zimbabwe and a political turn of events left a dictator known as Robert Mugabe in charge of the country amid civil unrest, a clamour of vote-rigging charges and calls for international sanctions.  There were Australians who demanded that the ACB cancel all matches on security grounds or as a political protest, take your pick.  The ACB wanted to continue the matches, keep their valuable television contract revenues and “just play cricket”. 

Given the worrisome state of affairs, the ACB sent Charlie as an emissary to sort things out.  Charlie elected to take Daryl along.  No, he didn’t think Charlie would suddenly come to life, but he wasn’t ready to test Emily’s threat of divorce “if you leave me alone with that dropkick son of yours who never picks up after himself.”  Charlie worked out a package deal where Daryl’s expenses were minimal, with the ACB unknowingly picking up most of them (except airfare).  When Daryl agreed to pay for his airfare from his own savings account, Charlie and Emily breathed a sigh of relief.  Of course, it took several promptings for Daryl to get a passport and a debit VISA card (linked to his $15,000 savings account) and actually pay for the airfare he promised. 

In turn, Daryl demanded that he could go his own way while Charlie attended various meetings.  Of course, without a driver’s licence for their rented car, Daryl was more or less stranded, so Charlie figured Daryl would bum around from meeting to meeting, waiting in the reception areas and walking around the halls.   

They arrived on an Air Zimbabwe flight from Johannesburg on Sunday night local time, having flown non-stop from Melbourne to Sydney, and then on to Johannesburg, one of the longest scheduled flights on the globe.  Exhausted, they went to sleep soon after they checked into their hotel, the Harare Hilton.  Fittingly, they slept in separate rooms, since Charlie couldn’t handle the sounds of Daryl’s wheezing.  It wasn’t Daryl’s fault, but due to his asthma, Charlie and Emily insisted he keep his bedroom door shut at night.  [Charlie: A dozen years of wheezing with no really serious attacks makes him a bloody nuisance, what with the night time noise.  He sleeps through it all, God bless him, so it’s best for all of us, and there’s no danger.] 

The two of them were feeling the effects of jet lag as Charlie and Daryl faced Monday morning.  They had gained nine hours due to time zone differences, which meant they had been awake for 27 hours (not counting sleep on the plane) before their arrival at the hotel.  Bleary-eyed and largely silent, the two of them began their day with brekkie at the coffee shop.  It was standard Aussie fare, nothing special, and the two barely said a word.  Charlie was afraid he would get lost, so he studied the map given him at the Avis airport office in lieu of his traditional morning paper.  Indeed, he managed to find his way without a problem to the large but older office building where the first meeting was to take place. 

All this – the hotel, brekkie, the rented Ford Falcon, the roadway, the buildings – was pretty boring to Daryl.  As he scoped out the lobby directory of the structure that housed the Zimbabwe National Athletics Board (which Charlie called Z-NAB), it seemed pathetic, hosting a hundred or more departments, none of which seemed to be related.  It made him think of a rabbit warren, an endless series of tunnels leading ultimately to nowhere in particular.  

As it happened, Monday was a newly declared bank holiday and Charlie’s long-scheduled meeting took precedence, even as most offices in the building were closed.  The waiting room was boring, so Daryl began a little exploration adventure, peeking through open doors and out open windows. 

The first open door on the second or third hallway said “Robert Penwith, M.D., Epidemiology Division” and the large room inside looked like some Hollywood movie producer’s idea of a 1930’s chemistry lab.  The man in the white coat with the scant traces of white hair upon an otherwise bald head looked about eighty and was the only person Daryl could see.  Unlike the other faces, Dr. Penrith’s was white, something common in Southern Rhodesia but not in the independent nation now called Zimbabwe.   

He stared at Daryl, who had walked through the door to check out the specimens, labels and other paraphernalia in the spacious room that now held just those two.   

“Who are you and why are you here?” 

Daryl, his mind wandering in the soup of jet lag, barely heard the old man’s voice.  The same words were repeated, only louder.  Daryl woke up and blurted out, “I’ll leave if you want.” 

“No, that’s all right.  Who are you and what are you here for?” 

“Daryl - - - Harding.  From Melbourne, Victoria.  That’s Australia.  Just lookin’.  My dad’s here about cricket matches between the two countries.” 

“Australia, a million miles and a million years away.  I don’t suppose you ever heard of malaria?” 

“No, not to talk about it.” 

“It’s a disease, unknown in your world, still common here.  Africa-wide, malaria still kills a million a year, mostly children.  We’re analysing a new strain, one that killed off a couple of villages a month ago.  Small villages with their own distinct people once, minding their own simple lives, for all I know more or less the same for fifty or a hundred or five hundred years.  Then there’s no one left, all of them dead.  They were saveable, most all of them, and the difference was a thousand dollars of antibiotics.  I don’t guess you ever thought about your National Insurance Card.” 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

“No, I guess you wouldn’t.  I’m talking about government-provided medical care in all the Commonwealth nations that are also developed countries.  You know, what’s it called in Australia?” 

“I guess you mean Medicare, but Mum keeps the card.” 

“You just take it for granted, don’t you?” 

Daryl thought then answered.  “I guess so, but I’ve never been much sick.”  [He’s a few bullets short of a full clip, but humour him.] 

“Of course not, but you got immunized from the time you were born, and we have more bugs here to get you sick.” 

Daryl didn’t have a clue as to what the old relic was talking about.  He let the old man blabber on. 

“Well here, there’s no Medicare, no cards, no hospitals, and not many doctors with much they can do about things.  What do you think about that?” 

“No hospitals?” 

“Yes, some, for the few, the lucky, the top brass in the capital.  Not much of anything you Aussies would call a hospital anywhere else.  What we call a hospital would be laughed at by doctors there, and you take them for granted.”  He stared at Daryl, obviously waiting for Daryl to say something in reply. 

Daryl didn’t want to say something, but he feared he had to break the silence.  “Well, that’s not our problem, is it?”  [Gotcha, you yabbering clown] 

For the first time, the old man smiled and his face showed a real expression.  “No, damn it, you’re right there.  It’s ours.  I just succumbed to DWS.  I bet you don’t know that term, do you?”   

Daryl shook his head, and waited.   

           “Developing World Syndrome, or Developing World Stupidity, as I see it.  Expecting someone else to pick up the bits, never imagining we could do it ourselves.”  The old man relaxed a trifle and Daryl let down his guard. 

           “Well, I’m Robert Penrith, Dr. Penrith to you and I’ve earned both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in microbiology from Cambridge.  I don’t suppose you’ve been to university, have you?” 

           Daryl shuddered a bit, reminded of his election to discontinue his studies.  Dr. Penrith was waiting for an answer. 

           The seconds were like hours, so Daryl blurted out.  “I was accepted but deferred my uni.” 

           Now the doctor’s face was a scowl.  “Waiting for what?  Godot?”  Daryl didn’t even know Godot was a who and not a what, much less that Waiting for Godot was a famous theatrical production by an equally famous author. 

          “Maybe I’ll go to uni when I get back.” 

          Now the old face was pleasant again, then resigned, perhaps a curious trace of philosophy written on it.  “Well, you’d better, if you’re to use your head for something better than to bounce a ball off it.  And maybe, even still, you’d be unable to do much.  At least I can reason much of what happens, even if I can’t correct the underlying problems.” 

          Daryl look back at the sign on the door, which was still open, like the windows and the bare breeze and the sweltering heat.  “What’s epidemiology?”  [Change the subject.  Let him do the talking] 

          “As I said, something of which you have only the barest idea in Australia, the science of epidemics, of health problems that rapidly spread to infect large populations, generally very serious diseases.  Here, my hands are full, with little my staff and I can do but estimate body counts for the WHO, the World Health Organization of the United Nations.  We forward reports regularly, if that means much.  At least the world can know.”  

          Daryl’s barely interested mind was diverted to something closer at hand, a small plastic container with a wet lump of something that looked like manure.  He pointed.  “And this?” 

          “There’s a story behind that, which by the way is a petri dish, sometimes referred to as an agar dish, with a portion of antelope dung.” 

          Daryl looked closer.  “It’s got tiny yellow flecks on it.  What are they?” 

          Dr. Penrith walked over and looked at the specimen.  “I see what you mean.  Pollen I guess, common this time of year, most of the year really.  But that’s probably not important, at least if one were to believe the stupid story an aide told me about it.” 

          “You see, that specimen in the agar dish came by way of an old man, at least sixty, who claimed to be over a hundred and forty years old.  He was the last survivor in one of the two villages I talked about.  He claimed it was camel dung, a food only eaten by the chiefs of his village, supplied by his shaman, what used to be called a witch doctor.  He claimed to be the last of the chiefs because an early injury prevented him from siring children.  He passed away while my aide was conducting his work at the village, this supposedly 140-year-old man.  Stupid story, huh?” 

           For Daryl’s part, he was curious.  “What’s so stupid?” 

          “First, people don’t live to a hundred and forty, anywhere.  Second, attaining the age of sixty is relatively rare for natives in the jungle, with seventy very rare.  Third, there aren’t camels within three thousand kilometres of here, but my assistant reported that the old man spoke in an arcane dialect except for the one English word “camel”, which he repeated.  Claimed he got the word from an Englishman named Stanley, Stanley who I don’t know.  Fourth, it’s ordinary antelope dung, and eating antelope dung isn’t healthy.  Go ahead, taste it if you don’t believe me.” 

           To his amazement, before the doctor could stop him, Daryl did just that.  He took the top off the agar dish, stuck his finger in the dampish lump and licked it. 

            Dr. Penrith was flabbergasted.  “You damn fool kid.  If your parents can’t teach you better than to eat shit, you don’t belong in a university, you need to work on a garbage truck.  Get out!”  He meant it and Daryl retreated to the door, only discovering during that brief retreat the taste sensation that would change his life forever.    

As he was closing the door and looked back, Daryl saw the old man stare at him, point and then collapse to the floor.  As he fell, his mouth was open, as if he were trying to talk.  Perhaps there was something strange in the way Daryl looked just then, we’ll never know.  Daryl rushed back into the lab through the half-closed door and briefly hovered over an apparently dead body, just an instant before it happened.   

Suddenly he felt the full impact of what he had tasted.  Whoosh!  It was a tingle, but much more.  It was ears popping, a tiny explosion inside his head, and more still.  To Dr. Penrith, it was shit; to Daryl, the “camel dung” was dynamite stuff.  Daryl grabbed the dish, stuffed it inside his pants pocket and ran out the still unclosed door and through the empty hallways, back to the waiting room of the office where Charlie was still behind closed doors, meeting with his Zimbabwean counterparts.  Daryl pretended to be bored, reading some old magazines about things he didn’t understand and could care less about.   

            The taste kept with him and the tingle got even more pronounced, so Daryl was understandably worried his facial expressions would give him away.  He tried to go to sleep, which wasn’t difficult, since there was no receptionist or other person in the waiting room.   The heat was stifling and the silence was deafening.  Anyway, he must have succeeded, because Charlie woke him up an hour or two later.  Daryl wouldn’t exactly know – he never wore a watch.