“What did I tell you about the bins?” My father was standing over me, hands on hips, slightly out of breath after rushing in from the garden.
“I don’t know what you told me.” I didn’t know what he told me.
“The order! The order of the bins.” He pulled me out of the couch and dragged me outside, pointed. “Look at this mess!”
There are three wheelie bins in the hole in the side of the hedge. One blue, one green, one brown. Rubbish, recycling and the compost. “What did I tell you about the order?” He was shouting.
“I don’t know what you told me.”
“Blue, green and brown. That’s the Zwaluuuum flag right there. You want me to get my tires slashed? A brick through our new windows?” I shrugged, meaning no. “I told you to put back the bins in any other order, didn’t I?” He didn’t.
We wheeled them out and switched them so it was brown, blue, green. “What if this is some other country’s flag?” I asked and he told me that of course it doesn’t matter. “Where’s Zwaluuuum?” I asked.
“Darkest Africa. The jungle. It’s not a country, actually. Just a tribal area. Help me pick up these leaves.”
“Why are we afraid of their flag? Are they here?”
“No, no. Of course not. But the neighbouring tribe are. The Zwaleemi. They live in a house on the other side of the estate.” I looked up from my bundle. “They do, and if they see the Zwaluuuum flag sitting out the side of our house walking by some night, they might take against us. It’s more than likely.”
“What do they look like? I’ve never seen them.” I was imagining beautiful black girls with necks elongated by dozens of gold hoops. Men with enormous lip discs painted with lurid spirals. In the Eighties it was nothing but neck rings and lip discs, do you remember? Is this how Africa is still described to children? I hope so.
“They’re small. Like pygmies. Smaller, in fact. I think the explorers discovered the Pygmy tribes first, that’s how they claimed the name.”
“I’ve never seen them.”
“Well you wouldn’t have. Most of them work at the meat factory up the way. They’re on night-shifts. They tell me the night is preferable to our bright spring days; they’re used to living under a dense rainforest canopy. They tell me. If you were up at two aey em you’d see them on their way to work. Mostly menfolk. Sending money home, of course.”
I took a walk around the block after dinner, but none of the houses looked suspicious. Or rather, they all did in the settling dark. There were more than twenty Zwaleemi living in the house, Dad said. I pictured them tiny, five to a bed. And the little one said: roll over.
Saturday morning saw me at the library. “There’s no Zwaleem in the atlas,” I told my father later. “Or the encyclopedia. I couldn’t find Zwaluuuum either.”
He paused peeling carrots. “How did you search the whole atlas? It would take forever. Africa is twenty pages.” I searched in the index. The woman showed me how. “How did you spell it?” Properly.
“I’m not surprised you didn’t find it.” He handed me a scoured carrot and I Bugs Bunnied it. “‘Zwaleem’ is the name they use themselves. I don’t even know if there’s a Western record of their tribe, specifically.”
“But the flag!”
“You don’t need to be a country to have a flag. What about New Zealand?”
“New Zealand is a country!” He raised his eyebrows. I was almost sure.
That afternoon we walked around the racecourse looking for rabbits. I was looking for rabbits. My father was just walking and pointing at birds and horse racing equipment. The sun pushed a long shadow out from under the stands.
“There’s two,” he said without emphasis. “Up ahead. It must be their day off.” Zwaleemi? He meant Zwaleemi. All I could see, a few hundred yards off, was two kids with their hoods up, moving ahead of us. One of them looked like Alan Grogan. Same jacket.
“If you say so. Don’t they look cold on this fine day? It’s perfectly natural, when you think about it. From the African rainforest to here.”
I was almost sure. “They’re kids. Let’s catch up.” The pair were moving fast but I thought I could catch them.
“No, no. Not with my hamstring. Hang on there.” He put a hand on my shoulder, leaning heavily.