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Seven Minutes After Midnight

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A few years ago I visited a crocodile farm in the Philippines, and after wondering what would happen if the crocs were to escape, I wrote this story. A few days ago I read a news report about crocodiles escaping from a farm in South Africa, so my account is maybe not as fictional as I had thought!

It was seven minutes after midnight. The last of the fireworks were sputtering into the sky: showers of red, yellow and pink sparks silhouetting the palm trees and banana branches and Alfonso was eager to go and join the party in the town. He remembered other New Year’s Eve nights, when, as a young student, he had drunk himself silly on coconut wine, flirting with the girls in the house next door. Then there was the time uncle Pedro had wanted to roast the pig and Alfonso had spent all afternoon digging the pit and sharpening the poles but when the time came to kill the pig the creature got away and was not found until three days later so they had eaten rice and beans instead.
This year, however, Alfonso had a job and was not allowed off duty until the farm was locked down properly so he rushed around the sheds, closing down tanks, shutting off the lights, except where they were needed for incubating the eggs, and generally making sure the place was secure. He had already checked the hatchling tanks, or had he?
Alfonso stopped and scratched his head. Of course he had; that was where he was headed when the fireworks started. They had been good fireworks, for a small town: lots of the big coloured ones, shooting up high then drifting back down like twirling umbrellas and not so many of the bangers. Bangers were only fun when you lit them yourself, creeping up behind somebody and letting them off so that the poor person jumped out of their skin.
Alfonso pulled off his uniform and threw it in the guard house; he would retrieve it in the morning. Everon was on duty; he had already had a couple of beers and he wished Alfonso a slurred Happy New Year. Alfonso replied, feeling sorry for Everon. Who wanted to be stuck out on the edge of a field guarding a crocodile farm on New Year’s Eve? Did they think the goats were going to rush across the road and storm the place?
Walking out of the gate he quickened his pace, past the goats, still nibbling at the lush, green grass drenched in moonlight. A stray rooster darted out of the shadows and strutted beside him, fluffing up his feathers in preparation for the dawn – the fireworks had probably put the bird out of sorts. Alfonso strode across the bridge, pausing briefly to see if Gisella had laid out her washing as usual on the river bank. Something white caught his eye and he grinned. One of these days Gisella’s washing would be borne downstream on the current, past all the children playing games and the women drawing water and the whole town would see her laundry. There were plenty of pools and logs for the pants and dresses to snag on and then she would be a laughing stock.
Alfonso thought again about his plan for stringing a net across the river, just above the farm. He could catch fish, perhaps, in his lunch breaks, but it would also stop all the debris from the stores up the hillside from floating down the river and ending up outside the school where the kids played with it. And of course, it would catch Giselle’s laundry too. He smiled as he thought of her squatting by the river every morning, hair tied back out of the way, scrubbing hard at the sheets, waving to him on his way to work. Then the sounds of the New Year celebration rang out louder and he hurried along the road to join in the festivities.

Inside the dark hatchling shed the year-old crocodiles clambered over each other, scaling leathery skins, competing to be on the top of the pile with their snouts out of the manky water. The unlucky ones bided their time underwater, slowing their metabolism to a mere heartbeat, waiting for their turn on top. Some had been in these tanks for almost a year, others were recent arrivals, relocated while their shed was being repainted. The loud bangs earlier in the evening had unsettled some of the young reptiles and they moved around the tanks, trying to settle, opening and closing their long jaws, displaying rows of sharp teeth.
One tank at the end of the row contained several restless crocodiles who had all gathered at the same end of the tank, pawing at the smooth sides. A bout of leap-frog caused the tank to lurch to one side and the crocodiles paused briefly in their mountings but soon resumed their climbing. The sudden shift of weight unbalanced the tank and with a crash it fell on its side, spilling water and young crocodiles onto the concrete floor. The water soon drained away down the channels but the crocodiles remained, crawling slowly, testing the limits of their new confinement.
The hatchling shed was not particularly large and the immature crocodiles soon found the open door which Alfonso had forgotten to secure. A shaft of moonlight pointed the way to freedom. Poking their snouts through the opening they sensed earth and water and vegetation and ventured out. Nearby, barred gates and fences secured the open-air tanks of the larger crocodiles. The young ones slithered past their slumbering fathers, mothers, uncles and grandfathers and headed, like homing pigeons, for the river which rippled along the edge of the farm like a silvery snake.
Ah, the cool feel of wet sand and mud against the skin, the satisfying sensation of sinking into the water, without a brother or neighbour standing on one’s nose.
The young crocodiles slithered into the river. Some stayed at the bank, burying themselves in the sand like sticks. Some submerged themselves completely, revelling in the dark depths; some floated like logs, their eyes barely breaking the surface. Others followed the tug of the current and drifted downstream, twirling and spinning in the eddies, coming to rest in the shallow pools where a myriad footprints nearby told tales of the many visitors to the river. A few of the hardier beasts swam upstream, the powerful kicks from their legs propelling them against the current until they too flopped down in a crevice, exhausted from the evening’s excitement.
Gisella’s washing stone, the toddlers’ paddling pool, the youngsters’ swim hole and the unofficial village well all gained lodgers overnight. The new arrivals gulped the fresh, river air, closed their translucent eyelids and settled down in the shallows to wait for breakfast. They were in no hurry; the pale pink of dawn was barely showing through the trees and the roosters were just beginning to stir, announcing the arrival of a new day. Something good was bound to come along soon.

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