Several readers encouraged me to explore what happened to Nicholas after he had screamed. Part I ended thus:
“We’re almost there,” Nicholas said encouragingly as he turned back to face them. “If you look carefully, you should be able to spot our shelter between those trees down there. Just be careful as you step over these last rocks.” One man and all these girls … they’d be eating out of his hand before long.
As that thought drifted through his mind, Nicholas walked straight into the web of a golden orb spider stretched across the path. He screamed and dropped his rifle …
The girls shrieked too. Nicholas knew it was now or never. He retrieved his rifle and faced the group, smiling broadly. “Now that wasn’t an inspiring sight was it?”
“Or sound.” Siobhan added sourly.
“Or sound,” Nicholas repeated. “The thing is, you are bound to come across spider webs strung across the path when we walk through the forested area early tomorrow morning. If you all react the way I have just demonstrated, we won’t see or hear anything and might as well go home.”
‘Keep them busy, Nicholas. Show them you’re in charge’ thundered through his head. “Now is a good time for tea, decide where you are going to sleep, and who is going to help me make supper tonight.”
To his relief, everyone got busy and the spider incident seemed to have been forgotten. The girls were hungry and tired, yet perked up when Nicholas produced some packs of cards and set them a challenge playing sevens. “The final winner won’t have to do any night watch duty tonight.”
He joined Siobhan with a mug of coffee during her night watch session between three and four in the morning. They watched the girls sleeping a little distance from the low embers and listened to the night sounds. It was Siobhan’s third such trip, so she was familiar with the routine and didn’t say much until she had drained her mug.
“Did you study drama at some stage?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“That spider performance was so realistic, I could have sworn you were genuinely frightened.” She stirred the embers with a stick and appeared to be focused on the tiny sparks that flew up into the darkness.
Nicholas placed another log on the fire. “It was only a spider,” he replied nonchalantly. “The girls seemed out of sorts; I thought it might cheer them up a little.”
”You’ve been a wonder with them so far, Nick.”
After an early breakfast, Nicholas tasked one group of girls to keep an eye out for birds while the others were to note any insects seen along the way. He was relieved to see Siobhan nodding her approval. He identified some of the trees in the forest area and encouraged the girls to make bark rubbings and to either collect or draw the leaves for their hiking journals he had asked them to compile.
Conversations were animated around the fire that night. Nicholas found a happy medium between joking with the group and choosing moments in which to impart more serious information. He felt they enjoyed showing him their hiking journals and smiled inwardly at the way some seemed to vie with each other to ask him questions.
There was a collective reluctance to move away from the communal fire on their last night together and so it was already late when the solo night watches began. As silence mantled the group, Nicholas snuggled into his sleeping bag, feeling relaxed enough at last to drift off to sleep for a couple of hours.
Later, he heard someone waking Siobhan for her turn of duty. She groaned softly and thanked whoever had brewed her a mug of tea. Nicholas stretched out and allowed a satisfied sigh to escape as he rolled over.
An ear-splitting shriek broke the silence of the early hours, followed immediately by a blood-curdling scream that woke everyone. The shriek came again as Siobhan played her powerful torch beam around the camp. “Nick!” She yelled loudly with a note of rising hysteria. “Nick!”
He wriggled out of his sleeping bag.
“Nick! Bring your rifle!” Siobhan was clearly scared out of her wits. He indicated to the wide-eyed girls to remain in their sleeping bags and held a finger to his lips. Siobhan was sobbing now and cowered when another high-pitched scream rent the air.
Nicholas smiled in the dark as he sat beside her. His rifle lay on the ground in front of them. “Shine your torch into the trees,” he instructed quietly, “and you’ll see the eyes.” Confidence really is the key, he couldn’t help thinking.
“In the trees?” Siobhan shuddered. Nearly everyone had their torches trained upwards by now.
“No need to panic. These are galagos, also known as bush babies. You are very lucky to see them.” He spoke in a conversational tone as he placed another log on the fire and adjusted the metal trivet over the coals. “Anyone for tea?”
Nicholas didn’t try to quieten the girls during their short walk on that last morning. He actually enjoyed their cheerful singing as he drove them back to the reception area and was taken aback to be hugged by each one in turn as they got into their minibus. “Do you feel okay to drive this lot?” He watched as Siobhan ticked off her checklist before shutting the sliding door of the minibus.
“I’ll be fine. We’re overnighting at a farm along the way, so I don’t have too far to go.” She moved forward and hugged him too then slid into the driver’s seat.
Ten days later Nicholas again faced William Barlow, who had called him away from a bird identification course he was running with Simon. “I need to see you about birds of a different kind,” he had said tersely before leading the way to his office.
“I’ve received an e-mailed report on your trip with the girls”, he said gruffly as they sat down. “Miss Davidson is pleased with your performance. This has been her best trip yet.” He passed across the e-mail he had printed. “The Headmaster has recommended you too.” William looked pleased. “He ‘phoned this morning. He tells me that this was a particularly difficult group of girls and you have worked wonders with them.” He smiled at Nicholas. “Apparently it all started with a performance over a spider. Would you like to tell me about it?”
Nicholas could feel the flush on his face. ‘Confidence is the key’, he told himself sternly. “Nothing to tell really. I just put on a bit of a show to spark an interest.”
“Well done lad!” You’re a credit to us.” William perused his list. “A group of eight women collectively celebrating their fiftieth birthdays arrive on Friday. I’m going to ask Gillian to assist you with this one.”