Monday, 13 September 2010


Eustace is not a noticeable man. That is the first impression. I must have seen him around before last July, but the first time I really noticed him was when he slaughtered James in a bike race. It was the heats for the Deep South Games 2009. James is six foot two, was riding a titanium mountain bike, and had done the extraordinary Raid Pyrenean (a time-limited monster ride that overlaps with the Tour de France route over 21 mountain passes, not least the two most famous killers, Tourmalet and Aubisque) the previous summer. Eustace is five foot one and was riding a heavy Brazilian road bike in welly boots. He rode quietly across the finish line without a glimmer of triumph, leaving the competition considerably in his wake and whomphing like manatees.

If Leonie’s most striking feature is that smile that wells out of the centre of herself, Eustace’s most striking attribute is his spectroscopic capability. The kind of skills testosterone-ridden young men gain on expensive SAS-run survival courses are the quotidian ground of his life. At Deep South Games time we can all marvel at how fast he climbs the bare trunk of an ité tree, how quickly he lights fire from cotton, how beautifully he weaves a basket at speed, how perfectly forms an arrow from discarded scraps. For the rest of the year these are his daily occupations, not competition skills. The long bike rides in the breathless furnace of a savannah dry season afternoon, shooting fish with an arrow made on the creek bank, finding unexpected pawpaws and quickly weaving a basket to carry them home in, shinning up a coconut palm using a ripped palm leave twisted into a figure of eight round his feet, with a sharpened machete shoved in the back of his trousers. Confident that he will not fall.

It is not that Eustace is unusually quiet, or bad with words. But I have rarely met someone to whom words are so dispensable. He uses them competently, like a foreigner who is pretty good with chopsticks, but the effect is of a skill learnt, not an integral part of his personality. If he thought about it, I guess he would judge words as a pretty poor medium of communication. But I don’t think he’d find that train of thought interesting. Eustace teaches weaving and archery on our young adult training course. Some of the students complain that he does not explain. I do not want to interfere with his equilibrium by articulating the scope of what he is teaching. Besides, it cannot be pinned down like that. He is bringing himself into the course; other people can bring explanations. He is also one of the community development plan team, where he listens and judges and intervenes only at need. He is on the village council, where I suspect he is equally laconic and equally valued.

There is a quietness in his face that would be easy to mistake for gentleness. I don’t think it is. I think it is peace. I think that he has chosen a life in which there are no ambitions, and few nagging worries, tugs of loyalty or twisted feelings, and is enjoying the fruit of that choice without vanity and without drama. Eustace is one of the most impressive men I have ever met, but I suspect he would be astonished and baffled to hear that, and I’m not sure it would be welcome. He neither knows nor cares whether he impresses. That is the taproot of his dignity.

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