Killed at the Whim of a Hat
"Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."
- GEORGE W. BUSH, LACROSSE, WISCONSIN, 18 OCTOBER, 2000
Old Mel hired one of Da's nephews - the slow-witted one with the dent in his forehead - to sink a well in his back acre. The irrigation trenches his family had dug between the rows of oil palms didn't extend to the rear fence and the new fronds were browning even before they fanned open. It hadn't rained for a month. Mel had been lugging watering cans out there for two weeks and his back bones were starting to clack like mah-jong tiles. So, a well, a cheap Chinese pump, half a dozen sprinklers, and all he'd need to do was flick a switch. Oil palms took care of themselves if you watered them often and gave them manure treats once every three months. Twenty palms saved without crippling his spine. Cheap at twice the price.
So, on Saturday last, Old Mel sat on the top rung of the back fence and watched the young man work. The nephew's skull indentation made Mel wonder if he'd been hit by a metal petanque ball thrown at high speed. Such was the concavity. But he decided it was better not to ask. He knew the response would be long and slobbered. He knew the nephew would stop work to reply because he couldn't perform two functions simultaneously. So Mel merely sat and watched him dig. He could have chipped in with some labor to make the job easier but Old Mel was a firm believer in not hiring a goat and bleating himself.
The tried-and-tested southern Thai method of sinking a well would undoubtedly not have been acceptable in any Western country where concepts such as "quality" and "safety standards" were firmly in place. Four one-meter concrete pipe segments lay on the ground to one side. The nephew would dig a hole broad and deep enough to insert one of the segments. He would then jump into the hole and continue to burrow downward, scooping out earth from beneath the concrete pipe. The latter would sink into the ground like a very slow elevator. Once its top lip was level with the surface of the field, the second pipe segment would be placed on top of it and the excavation would continue. The earth in Old Mel's field was a mixture of dirt and sand and once you got below the knotty pissweed, it was not terribly hard to dig. The problems would begin - if you were lucky - when the third section was inserted and the water started to rise, turning the hole into a mudbath spa. Before the fourth segment was level with the ground, the unfortunate young man could be spending half his time submerged in murky brown water.
But on this arid Saturday morning the well would not allow itself to be sunk. At no more than waist depth below the surface, the nephew's hoe clanged against something solid. A loud metallic gong scattered the wimpy drongos from the trees. Lizards scampered from beneath rocks. The nephew was obviously enchanted by the percussion because he struck three more times before Mel could convince him to cease. The old man climbed down from his perch, hooked his toes into his sandals, and ambled over to the hole. He stopped at the concrete rim and stared down at his laborer's feet which, against all the odds, stood astride a small island of rust.
"It can't be much," Mel said. "Probably a barrel lid. Sink your hoe off to the edges. You can work your way below it and pry it up."
Easily said. The nephew prodded and poked but every foray produced the same tinny clunk. There was no way around it. For all anyone knew, the obstruction might have extended from the Gulf all the way across to the Andaman Sea and been connected to one of the earth's plates. All Mel could think about was that this sheet of metal stood defiantly between him and lower-back-pain relief. He wasn't about to give in without a fight whether it unbalanced the earth or not. He walked to the fence, grabbed a solid black crowbar and held it out to the lad.
Excerpted from Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill. Copyright © 2011 by Colin Cotterill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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