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Wilkins - Leicester
by Harry Downey



We only knew him as Wilkins. No first name -– nothing like that. Just ‘Wilkins – Leicester’. That’s how he introduced himself. Whether he had a double-barrelled name or that was where he came from we didn’t find out till afterwards, but the general view was that he was just Wilkins.  It was enough anyway, as apart from the customary basic social greetings he didn’t have much to say for himself.

It was a couple of years ago, on a wild-life safari holiday that we ran across him. There were about a dozen of us in the party, and Wilkins was the odd one out, as the rest of us were all couples - retired mostly and on ‘The holiday of a lifetime’ thing - while he apparently, had expected a group of single people. Whether Wilkins had gone on holiday hoping to find the love of his life or not, I don’t know − but we, that’s Viv, my wife, and I − couldn’t see that working out for him.

A man probably in his mid-sixties, well over six feet in height, thin and bald with a comb-over of what hair was left that fooled no-one, Wilkins had a right eye that clearly was artificial. The curious thing about this  eye was that the good eye - his own - moved normally as he looked at things, but the glass eye seemed to go by a different set of rules. Sometimes it moved in tandem with its partner, sometimes it didn’t, so it was possible to have the disconcerting effect of a chap with eyes looking in different directions. With upper teeth that were false and a lower set that should have been sorted but hadn’t been, even his mother would have agreed that he was no oil painting. For a safari holiday in Africa, he was plain scruffy, rather than the ‘smart casual’ that seemed to be the unofficial dress code for everyone else. Add to these limitations a man lacking in social graces, in no way was he the answer to a maiden’s prayer - nor an  ageing man-hunting widow’s either. Then there was that camera.

Pretty well everyone in the group had a camera; It was that sort of holiday and everyone wanted something to show back home of the exotic wildlife we had been promised. At least two of the party had reserve second cameras slung around their necks − ‘Just in case, old boy. I was a boy scout once, you know. Be prepared and all that’. Wilkins had the biggest camera you can imagine. It had buttons, interchangeable lenses, timers and all sorts of gizmos – it even had a tripod. I’d never seen one like it, but that doesn’t mean much coming from someone like me who knows next to nothing about photography. We couldn’t recall seeing him without his camera. Mealtimes, in the bar, everywhere he went, he had the camera with him with fingers poised to click its buttons. It must have worked for him as, constantly, he - boringly, it must be said - tried to show off his latest efforts. To be fair, the ones I did see were quite impressive and Wilkins did seem to know his stuff. I do know enough about cameras to know that these days they don’t use rolls of film anymore. If they still did Wilkins would have needed to have an African Sherpa - is there such a thing? - and a handcart to carry back-up supplies of blank canvases for his passion. By the way, he called his camera Colin. Don’t ask – I don’t know either.

The holiday was magnificent. It cost an arm and a leg but we felt it was worth every penny.  Joseph Ngongo, the guide,  a local chap, was really good and seemed to know his stuff. Obviously, you would expect him to be knowledgeable, but he came across as a dedicated man where wild-life was involved, an enthusiast rather than someone just doing a job.

Wednesday. Our party was due to fly back to Heathrow on the Thursday, so part of the group went to a market for some last-minute shopping for presents to take back home, while the missis and I opted for an easy day in an area we hadn’t been to before.  That was when it all happened.

We’d left the Range Rovers and had split into small groups. Robert walking in front with Wilkins. There didn’t seem just then anything special enough to be photographed but, of course, ‘Colin the Camera  ‘– he’d become that by now to us all – was busy working overtime. Viv and I, with a couple from Preston, were a few yards behind just idly chatting away. Suddenly Wilkins‘ right arm shot out and he seemed to grab from the air a flying something. We couldn’t see what it was, but clearly it made Wilkins happy. Whatever it was, we wanted to know about it. I have a wife you might call ‘nosey’ - you might, me, I wouldn’t dare to - but I must admit I was mildly intrigued. So, we joined Wilkins who had moved to a fallen tree, where he seemed to be trying to take a picture with his left hand with his right hand still closed. He wasn’t finding it easy. Finally, he opened the hand and we could just see she was holding some sort of bee. That’s the best way I can describe it. Not massive, but bigger than the ones we know back home - but bee or something else, it wasn’t happy.  It was zzuzzing away, but Wilkins seemed to have it held by one or both of its wings. He managed to take a couple of photos, seemed satisfied enough with his efforts, then opened his hand and let the creature go. Actually, that surprised me, as somehow I had expected him to put his foot on the thing and kill it. The bee clearly wasn’t hurt enough to be unable to fly away, but what it did was weird. Instead of putting as much distance as possible as quickly as possible between itself and its tormentor, it flew almost vertically to about ten feet above Wilkins’ head, circled a couple of times, then flew away towards a large acacia tree about a hundred yards away.

Joseph by now was having kittens. He was shouting at Wilkins saying things like “You don’t realise, do you? Do you know what you’ve done, Mister Wilkins? You have big trouble now.” We were all just standing there wondering what the hell was happening and why he was acting as he was. It was completely out of character with everything we’d seen of him during the last ten days, He’d been pleasant, helpful, polite and everyone in the group agreed on how much he’d made the holiday such a success. ‘Harangued‘ isn’t a word I’d normally use much, but it was the one that seemed right for the dressing down he was giving Wilkins. He was shouting about tribal spirits, ancestor worship, local superstitions and none of us could make out what he was on about.

Wilkins was trying to get a word in and had just begun to try to calm down the big African when it happened. They seemed to come from nowhere. A gigantic swarm - hundreds, possibly thousands of the bees covered him so that inside the cocoon they had wrapped around him nothing recognisable could be seen. Just the shape of a human form  inside a wraparound blanket, inches thick - a buzzing mass of angry creatures hiding the death of the tourist. The noise from the swarm was loud, but  not enough to drown the screams from the dying man.

Two, maybe three minutes and their work was done. The swarm went. We had stood in horror, helplessly watching and hearing a man die in front of us. There was nothing we could do. All that was left was something we could barely recognise as a human being. The camera was still wrapped round what had been his neck. The eyes were wide open – both looking the same way. Later, discussing the terrible sight we had seen, that seemed a minor display of dignity in the terrible event.

Inevitably the authorities and the system took over. We made statements, and were all allowed to fly home the next day as scheduled. By then Joseph had reverted to the man we all had known. The tale as he told us was remarkable but not complicated. The story went that sometime in the distant past, two hundred years or so earlier, one particular group - a tribe or what I’m not clear - was feuding with another. This second group, bigger and stronger, won and all but wiped out the losers. A sort of ethnic cleansing I suppose. None of this is written down, of course - it’s just oral history.

Apparently the end of the bloodletting was a hopeless stand by the final surviving warriors who fought on till the last man was butchered. End of story? No. The way it’s told is that just days after the massacre, a swarm of bees attacked and killed the victorious chief, all his family and most of the tribal elders.. It was seen as some sort of retribution by the spirits of the dead.. Divine Intervention or black magic? Nonsense, or course. But that tale survives right up to the present day and it is still believed by many of Joseph Ngongo’s people.  And those bees were just like the ones that killed Wilkins

Back in the U.K. the papers and TV people had got hold of the story and they milked it for all they were worth. Those of our group who’d been there when Wilkins died were tracked down and interviewed. I’m a regular Daily Telegraph reader, so I wasn’t over-pleased when Pete, the chap from Preston we’d met on holiday,  who reads the Mirror normally, was quoted in the D.T. while my little bit was in the red top under a massive headline ‘Death by a Thousand Stings. To compound the insult,  they took my picture but didn’t use it. And to make it even worse they got my name wrong too. I’m Owen Peters, but they referred to me as Peter Owen. I wasn’t too bothered though, when they took a couple of years off my age. Incidentally we learned from the media that Wilkins did come from Leicester and he did have a first name. He was Cedric.



Some months later, a piece in the Telegraph caught my eye. Apparently someone, Wilkins’ brother I think, had looked at the pictures he’d taken in Africa and passed them on to a naturalist.  An expert had examined the photos of the bee that had been photographed and declared it as ‘sufficiently different’ to justify its own name. So, our late acquaintance would be forever remembered in the arcane world of bees. The ‘Killer Bees’, as they’d become known, overnight became officially listed as Apis Mellifera Wilkins.

Not long after we got back home in  Bristol, the Tour  company sent us the official group picture of our party. There he was, right in the front row, almost hiding  Josh, the little London bloke, With the sun bouncing off Wilkins bald patch and his attempted smile,  you couldn’t miss him. I’ve had the photo  framed, and I’m pleased in a way that Colin the Camera was there as well. You couldn’t miss him either.




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