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Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Ken Barris’s The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions

The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions is a collection of new and critically acclaimed short stories by award-winning author Ken Barris. They combine everyday events with the surreal: the title is centered on a dog called Worm; in another, a husband and wife quarrel over a plugless lamp; and in another, a man encounters a speaking baboon in his kitchen.

Lyrical and humorous, these stories concretise the human condition via the author’s characteristically unfettered style.

Read an excerpt from a story titled “Poor William” here:

I do not know Cape Town well. The last time I was there I made myself unpopular by suggesting that there might be a demonic aspect to the mountain. The puff adders, baboons, and porcupines that apparently come down the mountain while the people are going up amount to a devil’s menagerie. There is not enough space between the mountain and the sea, so that anyone who does manage to find a sliver of land becomes self-congratulatory, hence the famous Cape Town snobbery. The peninsula is like a scorpion’s claw, waiting to be crisply snapped off Africa . . . – Hanoch Abelman, 31 January 2010

As I walked into my house, I knew something was wrong. There was a smell in the air that I couldn’t identify – something rank and wild – and then sounds of breaking crockery from the kitchen confirmed it. Mastering my fear, I walked slowly to the kitchen door. A large male baboon looked up from a slice of bread laid flat on a cutting board, and turned to me. My shock at first prevented me from recognising the object in his left hand. It was a butter knife.

The baboon rose into a shambling walk and approached me, the knife grasped awkwardly. I resolved to hold my position, but not to stare boldly into the animal’s eyes, or grin (although I was far from grinning at the time). I knew that baboons interpret such expressions as aggressive, which might provoke an attack, and their fangs are bigger than a lion’s.

The ape paused just under a metre away, and stuck out its hand. The left, still holding the knife, dangled by its side. I was bewildered, and couldn’t understand this gesture.

“Don’t be alarmed,” it said. “I would like to shake your hand. Unfortunately I cannot introduce myself properly, as I have not considered a name for myself, but I believe the newspapers call me William.”

Stupefied, I took the animal’s hand, and shook it. The texture of his skin was rough and horny, as if it were long accustomed to manual labour.

My astonishment grew when the beast raised an eyebrow, if that is what one might term the bridge of raised fur above his copper eyes. I was disturbed by the cunning spirit, the shrewd intelligence, that animated them.

“And you are?” he asked.

I had to clear my throat before I could introduce myself, and stumbled over the sound of my own name.

The baboon turned back slightly, making a sweeping gesture that included the entire kitchen in its scope.

“Well met then, Mr Harris. I suppose you expect me to apologise for my presence here. I mean no harm, I assure you, but I am of course an urban guerrilla. It is my nature as an ape to take what I can, but even so, I am sometimes driven to do things that I regret.”

You will grasp the absurdity of my response when I tell you that I did insist on an apology for the broken jug on the floor. But what does one say to a talking baboon?

“I do so apologise,” he replied gravely. “As you can see, I walk with a limp because of an injury that hasn’t healed properly. I was shot in the hip, right here, and my tail isn’t fully under control.” His mouth twisted oddly – if he were human, I would say it was an expression of bitterness – as he added, “I knocked off your jug with my tail, you see.”
Dropping the butter knife on the floor, he parted his fur to the side of the hip, and showed me a puckered weal.

“The bullet had to be removed surgically,” he said. “I have another injury here, a lesser one.” He ran his forefinger along a strip of whitened skin along his hairless cheek. “I was merely grazed here, thank heavens. If I hadn’t turned away when I did, the damage would have been fatal, I am quite sure of it. Luckily it was a small-bore weapon.”

I recall that my mouth opened and closed foolishly. I was quite at a loss for words.

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