The Sunbird

The Sunbird

A hazy aerial photograph and a sinister curse – known only to the Africans – and Dr Benjamin Kazin stumbles on the archaeological discovery of a lifetime...

For nearly two thousand years, a brilliant and unknown ancient civilisation has remained buried in southern Africa. Now at last the red cliffs of
Botswana seem about to yield their secret.

Under the lavish patronage of his old friend and mentor Lauren Sturvesant, head of one of the richest companies in the world, Ben and his green-eyed assistant Sally grope towards the mystery of the lost people.

Magnificent cave paintings and the Bushmen's legendary City of the Moon are the unexpected clues to the first discoveries that point to the existence of an ancient city, violently destroyed centuries ago.

But the magic of uncovering a lost culture is interrupted by dramas of a different kind: hunting scenes, romance, and the violence of African terrorists. And all are skilfully echoed in the splendour of the ancient world, as in a breathtaking sweep through time, the reader is transported back to the last days of the magnificent city itself.

Combining adventure, suspense and a wealth of historical detail, The Sunbird is a brilliant imaginative feat.

Reviews

  • 'A splendid panoramic piece of writing with colourful characters woven into an enthralling plot .... an extremely readable and satisfying big book.' – Oxford Times

Listen to an Audio Extract from 'The Sunbird'

Text Extract from 'The Sunbird'

It cut across the darkened projection room and exploded silently against the screen – and I did not recognize it. I had waited fifteen years for it, and when it came I did not recognize it. The image was swirled and vague, and it made no sense to me for I had expected a photograph of some small object; a skull perhaps, or pottery, or an artefact, a piece of gold work, beads – certainly not this surrealistic pattern of grey and white and black.

Louren’s voice, tight with excitement, gave me the clue I needed. ‘Taken at thirty-six thou. at six forty-seven on the fourth of Sept,’ that was eight days ago, ‘exposed in a 35 mm. Leica.’

An aerial photograph then. My eyes and brain adjusted, and almost instantly I felt the first tickle of my own excitement begin as Louren went on in the same crisp tone.

‘I’ve got a charter company running an aerial survey over all my concession areas. The idea is to pick the strike and run of geographical formations. This photograph is only one of a couple of hundred thousand of the area – the navigator did not even know what he was photographing. However, the people in analysis spotted it, and passed it on to me.’

His face turned towards me, pale and solemn in the glare of the projector.

‘You can see it, can’t you, Ben? Just off centre. Top right quarter.’

I opened my mouth to reply, but my voice caught in my throat and I had to turn the sound I made into a cough. With surprise I found I was trembling, and my guts seethed with an amalgam of hope and dread.

‘It’s classic! Acropolis, double enclosure and the “phallic towers”.’ He was exaggerating, they were faint outlines, indistinct and in places disappearing, but the general shape and configuration were right.

‘North,’ I blurted. ‘Where is north?’

‘Top of picture – he’s right, Ben. Facing north. Could the towers be sun-orientated?’

I did not speak again. The reaction was coming swiftly now. Nothing in my life had been this easy, therefore this was suspect and I searched for the flaws.

‘Stratification,’ I said. ‘Probably limestone in contact with the country granite. Throwing surface patterns.’

‘Oh bull!’ Louren cut in, the excitement still bubbling in his voice. He jumped up and strode to the screen, picked up an ebony pointer from the lectern and used it to spot the cell-like stippling around the outline of what he was pleased to presume was the main enclosure. ‘You tell me where you’ve ever seen geographical patterns like that.’

I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t want to make myself vulnerable again with hope.

‘Perhaps,’ I said.

‘Damn you.’ He laughed now, and the sound was good for he did not often laugh these days. ‘I should have known you’d fight it. You are without doubt the most miserable bloody pessimist in Africa.’

‘It could be anything, Lo,’ I protested. ‘A trick of light, of shape and shade. Even conceding that it is man-made – it could be recent gardens or agriculture–’

‘A hundred miles from the nearest surface water? Forget it, Ben! You know as well as I do that this is the–’

‘Don’t say it,’ I almost shouted, and was out of the padded leather chair, across the projection room and had hold of his arm before I realized I had moved.

‘Don’t say it,’ I repeated. ‘It’s – it’s bad luck.’ I always stutter when I am excited, but it is the least of my physical disabilities and I have long ago ceased worrying about it.

Louren laughed again, but with the trace of uneasiness he shows whenever I move quickly or unleash the strength of my arms. He stooped over me now, and eased my fingers that were sunk into the flesh of his forearm.

‘Sorry – did I hurt you?’ I released the grip.

‘No.’ But he massaged his arm as he moved to the control panel and doused the projector, then turned the wall switch and we stood blinking at each other in the light.

‘My little Yiddish leprechaun,’ he smiled. ‘You cannot fool me. You are wetting yourself.’

I looked up at him, ashamed of my outburst now, but still excited.

‘Where is it, Lo? Where did you find it?’

‘I want you to admit it first. I want you to go out on a limb for once in your life. I want you to say it – before I’ll tell you another thing,’ he teased.

‘All right.’ I looked away and picked my words. ‘It looks, at first glance, quite interesting.’

And he threw back that great golden head and bellowed with bull laughter.

‘You’re going to have to do a lot better than that. Let’s try again.’

His laughter I cannot resist, and my own followed immediately. I was aware of its birdlike quality against his.

‘It looks to me,’ I wheezed, ‘as though you may have found – it.’

‘You beauty!’ he shouted. ‘You little beauty.’

It was years since I had seen him like this. The solemn banker’s mask stripped away, the cares of the Sturvesant financial empire forgotten in this moment of promise and achievement.

‘Now tell me,’ I pleaded. ‘Where did you find it?’

‘Come,’ he said, serious again, and we went to the long table against the wall. There was a chart spread and pinned on the green baize. It was a high table, and I scrambled quickly onto a chair and leaned across it. Now I was almost on equal terms with Louren who stood beside me. We pored over the chart.

‘Aeronautical Series A. Southern Africa. Chart 5. Botswana and Western Rhodesia.’

I searched it quickly, looking for some indication – a cross, or pencil mark perhaps.

‘Where?’ I said. ‘Where?’

‘You know that I’ve got twenty-five thousand square miles of mineral concession down here south of Maun–’

‘Come on, Lo. Don’t try and sell me shares in Sturvesant Minerals. Where the hell is it?’

‘We’ve put a landing-strip in here that will take the Lear jet. Just finished it.’

‘It can’t be that far south of the gold series.’

‘It isn’t,’ Louren reassured me. ‘Throttle back, you’ll rupture something.’ He was enjoying himself tormenting me.

His finger moved across the chart, and stopped suddenly

– my heart seemed to stop with it. It was looking better and better. The latitude was perfect, all the clues I had so painstakingly gathered over the years pointed to this general area.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Two hundred and twelve miles southeast of Maun, fifty-six miles from the south-western beacon of the Wankie game reserve, tucked below a curve of low hills, lost in a wilderness of rock and dry land scrub.’

‘When can we leave?’ I asked.

‘Wow!’ Louren shook his head. ‘You do believe it. You really do!’

‘Someone else could stumble on it.’

‘It’s been lying there for a thousand years – another

week won’t–’ ‘Another week!’ I cried in anguish. ‘Ben, I can’t get away before then. I’ve got the Annual General Meeting of Anglo-Sturvesant on Friday, and on Saturday I have business in Zu¨rich – but I’ll cut it short, especially for you.’

‘Cut it altogether,’ I begged. ‘Send one of your bright young men.’

‘When somebody lends you twenty-five million, it’s only polite to go fetch the cheque yourself, not send the office boy.’

‘Christ, Lo. It’s only money – this is really important.’

For a moment Louren stared at me, the pale blue eyes bemused and reflective.

‘Twenty-five million is only money?’ He shook his head slowly and then wonderingly as though he had heard a new truth spoken. ‘I suppose you are right.’ He smiled, gently now, the smile of affection for a well-loved friend. ‘Sorry, Ben. Tuesday. We’ll fly at dawn, I promise you. We’ll recce from the air. Then land at Maun. Peter Larkin – you know him?’

‘Yes, very well.’ Peter ran a big safari business out of Maun. Twice I’d used him on my Kalahari expeditions.

‘Good. I’ve been on to him already. He will service the expedition. We will go in light and fast – one Land-Rover and a pair of three-ton Unimogs. I can only spare five days

– and that’s a squeeze – but I’ll get a charter helicopter to fetch me out, and I’ll leave you to scratch around–’ As he talked Louren led me out of the projection room into the long gallery.

Sunlight spilled in through the high windows, giving good light to the paintings and sculptures that decorated the gallery. Here works of the leading South African artists mingled easily with those of the great internationals living and dead. Louren Sturvesant, and his ancestors before him, had spent money wisely. Even now in the urgency of the moment, my eyes were tugged aside by the soft fleshy glow of a Renoir nude.

Louren paced easily over the sound-deadening pile of Oriental carpets, and I matched stride for stride. My legs are as long as his and as powerful.

‘If you turn up what we are both hoping for, then you can go in full-scale. A permanent camp, airstrip, assistants of your choice, a full crew, and any equipment you call for.’

‘Please God, let it happen,’ I said softly and at the head of the staircase we paused. Louren and I grinned at each other like conspirators.

‘You know what it could cost?’ I asked. ‘We might be digging for five or six years.’

‘I hope so,’ he agreed.

‘It could run into – a couple of hundred thousand.’

‘It’s only money, like the man said.’ And again that great bull laugh started me off. We went down the staircase roaring and tittering, each in his own way. Elated and hyper-tense, we faced each other in the hall.

‘I’ll be back at seven-thirty Monday evening. Can you meet me at the airport, Alitalia flight 310 from Zu¨rich? In the meantime you get your end arranged.’

‘I’ll need a copy of that photograph.’

‘I’ve already had an enlargement delivered by hand to the Institute. You have got a week to gloat over it.’ He glanced at the gold Piaget on his wrist. ‘Damn. I’m late.’

He turned to the doorway at the moment that Hilary Sturvesant came through it from the patio. She wore a short white tennis dress, and her legs were long and achingly beautiful. A tall girl with gold-brown hair hanging shiny and soft to her shoulders.

‘Darling, you aren’t going?’

‘I’m sorry, Hil. I meant to tell you I wouldn’t be staying for lunch, but Ben will need somebody to hold him down.’

‘You’ve shown him?’ She turned and came to me, stooped to kiss me on the lips easily and naturally, with not the least sign of revulsion, and then she stepped back and smiled full into my eyes. Every time she does that she makes me her slave for another hundred years.

‘What do you think of it, Ben? Is it possible?’ But before I could answer Louren had slipped his arm about her waist and they both smiled down at me.

‘He’s doing his nut. He’s frothing at the mouth and doing back flips. He wants to rush into the desert now, this minute.’ Then he pulled Hilary to him and kissed her. For a long minute they were oblivious of my presence as they embraced. They are, for me, the epitome of beautiful woman and manhood, both of them tall and strong and well-favoured. Hilary is younger than he is by twelve years, his fourth wife and the mother of only the youngest of his seven children. In her middle twenties she has the maturity and poise of a much older woman.

‘Give Ben some lunch, my darling. I’ll be home late.’ Louren pulled away from the embrace.

‘I’ll miss you,’ Hilary said.

‘And I you. I’ll see you Monday, Ben. Cable Larkin if you think of anything special we will need. So long, partner.’ And he was gone.

Hilary took my hand and led me out on to the wide flagged patio. Five acres of lawn and dazzling flowerbeds sloped gently down to the stream and artificial lake. Both tennis courts were occupied and a shrieking mob of small near-naked bodies thrashed the water of the swimming-pool to a sun-sparkled white. Two uniformed servants were laying out a cold buffet on the long patio trestle-table, and with a small squirming twinge of dread I saw a half-dozen young matrons in tennis dress sprawled in the lounging chairs beside the outside bar. They were flushed with exertion, perspiration dampened the crisp white dresses and they sipped at long dewy, fruit-laden glasses of Pimms No. 1.

‘Come,’ said Hilary, and led me towards them. I steeled myself, trying to draw myself up to an extra inch of height as we moved towards the group.

‘Girls – we’ve got a man to keep us company. I want you to meet Dr Benjamin Kazin, Dr Kazin is the Director of the Institute of African Anthropology and Prehistory. Ben, this is Marjory Phelps.’

I turned to each of them as she spoke their names, and I acknowledged the slightly over-effusive greetings, giving each my eyes and voice, they are my good things. It was as difficult for them as it was for me. You do not expect your hostess to spring a hunchback on you with the pre-lunch drinks.

The children rescued me. Bobby spotted me and came at a run, shrieking, ‘Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben!’ She flung her cold wet arms around my neck and pressed her sopping bathing-costume to my new suit, before dragging me away to become overwhelmed by the rest of the Sturvesant brood and their hordes of young friends. I find it easier with children; they either do not seem to notice or they come straight out with it. ‘Why do you walk all bent over like that?’

For once I was not very good value, I was too preoccupied to give them my full attention – and soon they drifted away, all but Bobby – for she is ever loyal. Then Hilary took over from her stepdaughter and I was returned to the league of young mothers where I made a better impression. I cannot resist pretty women, once the first awkwardness wears off. It was three o’clock before I left for the Institute.

Bobby Sturvesant pours Glen Grant malt whisky with the same heavy thirteen-year-old hand she uses to pour Coca-Cola. Consequently I floated into the Institute feeling very good indeed.

The envelope was on my desk marked ‘Private and Confidential’ with a note pinned to one corner, ‘This came for you at lunch-time. Looks exciting! Sal.’

With a quick stab of jealousy I inspected the seal of the envelope. It was unbroken. Sally hadn’t been into it – but I knew it must have taken all her self-control for she has an almost neurotic curiosity. She calls it a fine inquiring scientific mind.

I guessed she would arrive within the next five minutes so I found the packet of Three X peppermints in my top drawer and slipped one into my mouth to smother the whisky fumes before I opened the envelope and drew out the glossy twelve-by-twelve enlargement, switched on the desk light and adjusted it and the magnifying table lens over the print. Then I looked around at the hosts of the past that crowd my office. All four walls are lined with shelves, and from floor to shoulder height – my shoulder height – these are filled with books: the tools of my trade, all bound in brown and green calf-skin, and titled in gold leaf. It is a big room, and there are many thousands of volumes. The shelves above the books carry the plaster busts of all the creatures that preceded man. Head and shoulders only. Australopithecus, Proconsul, Robusta, Rhodesian Man, Peking – all of them up to Neanderthal and finally Cro-Magnon himself – Homo sapiens sapiens in all his glory and infamy. The shelves to the right of my desk are laden with busts of all the typical ethnic types found in Africa, Hamites, Arabs, pygmies, the negroids, Boskops, bushmen, Griqua, Hottentot and all the others. They watched me attentively with their bulging glass eyes as I addressed them.

‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘I think we are on to something good.’ I only speak aloud to them when I am excited or drunk, and now I was more than a little of each.

‘Who are you talking to?’ asked Sally from the doorway, making me leap in my seat. It was a rhetorical question, she knew damn well who I was talking to. She lounged against the jamb, her hands thrust deeply into the pockets of her grubby white dust-coat. Dark hair drawn back with a ribbon from the deep bulging forehead, large green eyes well spaced beside the pert nose. High cheekbones, wide sensual smiling mouth. A big girl with long well-muscled legs in the tight-fitting blue jeans. Why do I always like them big?

‘Good lunch?’ she asked, starting the slow sliding approach across the carpet towards my desk that would put her in position to check what was going on. She can read documents upside-down, as I have proved to my cost.

‘Great,’ I answered, deliberately covering the photograph with the envelope. ‘Cold turkey, lobster salad, smoked trout, and a very good duck and truffles in aspic.’

‘You bastard,’ she whispered softly. She loves good food, and she had noticed my play with the envelope. I don’t allow her to talk to me like that, but then I can’t stop her either.

Five feet from me she sniffed, ‘And peppermint-flavoured malt whisky! Yummy!’

I blushed, I can’t help it. It’s like my stutter – and she burst out laughing and came to perch on the edge of my desk.

‘Come on, Ben.’ She eyed the envelope frankly. ‘I’ve been bursting since it arrived. I would have steamed it open – but the electric kettle is broken.’

Dr Sally Benator has been my assistant for two years, which is coincidentally the exact period of time that I have been in love with her.

I moved aside, making room for her behind the desk and uncovered the photograph. ‘All right,’ I agreed, ‘let’s see what you make of it.’

She squeezed in beside me, her upper arm touching my shoulder – a contact that shivered electrically through my whole body. In two years she had become like the children, she didn’t seem to notice the hump. She was easy and natural, and I had a time-table worked out – in another two years our relationship would have ripened. I had to go slowly, very slowly, so as not to alarm her, but in that time I would have accustomed her to the thought of me as a lover and husband. If the last two years had been long – I hated to think about the next two.

She leaned over the desk peering into the magnifying lens, and she was still and silent for a long time. Reflected light was thrown up into her face, and when she at last looked up her expression was rapt, the green eyes sparkled.

‘Ben,’ she said. ‘Oh Ben – I’m so glad for you!’ Somehow her easy acceptance and presumption annoyed me.

‘You are jumping the gun,’ I snapped. ‘There could be a dozen natural explanations.’

‘No.’ She shook her head, smiling still. ‘Don’t try and knock it. It’s true, Ben, at last. You’ve worked so long and believed so long, don’t be afraid now. Accept it.’

She slipped out from behind the desk and crossed quickly to the shelf of books under the label ‘K’. There are twelve volumes there that bear the author’s name ‘Benjamin Kazin’. She selected one, and opened it at the fly-leaf.

Ophir,’ she read, ‘by Dr Benjamin Kazin. A personal investigation of the prehistoric gold-working civilization of Central Africa, with special reference to the city of Zimbabwe and to the legend of the ancients and the lost city of the Kalahari.’

She came to me smiling. ‘Have you read it?’ she asked. ‘It’s quite entertaining.’

‘There’s a chance, Sal. I agree. Just a chance, but–’

‘Where does it lie?’ she cut in. ‘In the mineralized series, as you predicted?’

I nodded. ‘Yes, it’s in the gold belt. But it could, it just could, produce so much more than Langebeli and Ruwane.’

She grinned triumphantly, and bent over the lens again. With her finger she touched the Indian ink arrow in the corner of the photo that gave the northerly bearing.

‘The whole city–’

‘If it is a city,’ I cut in.

‘The whole city,’ she repeated with emphasis, ‘faces north. Into the sun. With the acropolis behind it – sun and moon, the two gods. The phallic towers – there are four, five – six. Perhaps seven of them.’

‘Sal, those aren’t towers, they are just dark patches on a photograph taken from 36,000 feet.’

‘Thirty-six thousand!’ Sal’s head jerked up. ‘Then it’s huge! You could fit Zimbabwe into the main enclosure half a dozen times.’

‘Easy, girl. For God’s sake.’

‘And the lower city outside the walls. It stretches for miles. It’s enormous, Ben – but I wonder why it’s crescent-shaped like that?’ She straightened up, and for the first time – the very first wonderful time – she spontaneously threw her arms around my neck and hugged me. ‘Oh, I’m so excited, I could die. When do we leave?’

I didn’t answer, I hardly heard the question, I just stood there and revelled in the feel of her big warm breasts pressing against me.

‘When?’ she asked again, pulling back to look into my face.

‘What?’ I asked. ‘What did you say?’ I was both blushing and stuttering – and she laughed.

‘When do we leave, Ben? When are we going to find your lost city?’

‘Well,’ I considered how to phrase it delicately, ‘Louren Sturvesant and I will go in first. We leave on Tuesday. Louren didn’t mention an assistant – so I don’t think you will be coming along on the recce.’

Sally stepped back and placing her clenched fists on her hips, she looked at me unkindly and asked with deceptive gentleness: ‘Do you want to bet on that?’

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