After the journey, I woke to find myself on a grassy knoll, bathed in honey-coloured morning light. Albert was snuffling my chest.
“We’re here. It is time to get up my friend.”
“Where? Where am I? Where’s here?” I asked, still half-asleep.
I sat up and surveyed the scene before me. We seemed to be on a ridge that overlooked a luxuriant green valley peppered with acacia trees. There was a river down there, glistening in the sunshine. And as I focussed in, I could see animals moving lazily about the landscape – grazing from the treetops or drinking water at the riverside. And what is more they were all giraffes, green ones like Albert.
“It’s The Land of the Green Giraffes”, smiled Albert. “My home. Come – let’s go.”
I clambered aboard and Albert began a careful descent to the valley below through aromatic foliage where butterflies shimmered and purposeful bees hummed amidst milky blossoms. The air was as still as stillness can be.
At the bottom of the ridge, we came across a group of green giraffes dozing in the shade. There were perhaps fifteen of them of various sizes. Albert stopped to ask if they knew where Acrux and Gacrux might be. One or two looked up at me with only vague interest. We were directed westwards to the river.
And that’s where we found them foraging. Acrux was Albert’s father – a mighty bull giraffe who stood some eighteen feet above the ground. Perched on his hind legs he seemed to be able to reach the topmost leaves by extending his long blue tongue. His mother, Gacrux, was of smaller stature with big brown eyes as shiny as polished garnet.
They greeted Albert with tender affection and bent in to smell the unfamiliar traveller on Albert’s back. Acrux was so big he was quite intimidating at first with bony green horns protruding from his skull.
“What is it?” asked Gacrux.
“It’s a human being,” said Albert.
The days I spent in The Land of the Green Giraffes were the most magical days of my life.
I swam in the river, picked sweet fruits from the bushes and trees and drank creamy giraffe milk from an old coconut shell. At first I explored the territory with Albert and later I went alone. I was never afraid. I came to realise that the green giraffes would never hurt me. They lived gently and quietly, at peace with their world as no doubt they had been for century after century – each generation passing the baton of existence to the next.
At night I slept with Albert’s family beneath the branches of an umbrella tree, watching the phases of a silvery moon drifting above and gradually learning to stop asking questions. It was enough to just lie there listening to the cicadas and the breathing of my gentle companions before sleep took me into unconsciousness.
Apart from feeling a little like Gulliver in Brobdingnag, my overwhelming memory of The Land of Green Giraffes is of the quietness and the peace. Every day had a familiar rhythm and the majority of communications between the giraffes happened non-verbally. I found my own word count reducing day by day and noticed that Albert was also much quieter than he had been back in Sheffield. Or had I simply dreamed that other life?
Consequently, I was rather taken aback when Albert came bounding down to the riverside on my penultimate afternoon, yelling that there was going to be a necking competition and I needed to get my proverbial skates on if I wanted to see it. He waited while I put my clothes back on.
It seemed that every green giraffe was in attendance. All were gathered about a large and grassy open area that strangely reminded me of Whirlow Playingfields. The two combatants were Albert’s father Acrux and another mighty bull called Mimosa who only the day before had picked me some delicious masuku fruits from an impenetrable thorny grove.
Of course I had never witnessed a necking competition before. The crowd were hushed as battle commenced. Acrux snorted and Mimosa mooed. They vaulted towards each other in lumbering strides and then their necks connected with a thump. They appeared to be trying to force each other to the left or right in a show of mighty strength that was greeted with murmurings of approval and accompanied by clouds of dust.
But as the contest continued, it seemed more like a ritualistic dance – something like that. There was no real aggression. It was indeed just a show of strength. Mimosa and Acrux were in fact the best of friends. They had nothing to prove to each other and there was no kudos to be won. You might say that it was a demonstration for the younger giraffes – the demonstration of an ancient symbolic game designed to fortify green giraffe society. At least that is how it seemed to me.
When it was over and the physical battle had been drawn, the two great bulls nuzzled each other in mutual respect as the spectators rose awkwardly up onto their legs in a show of mass approval.
“Did you enjoy that?” asked Albert and without waiting for my reply added, “I’m taking you back home tomorrow.”
My heart sank much more than a little. I had half-forgotten that I was human.
I thought of that other world of constant chatter. Vehicles rumbling along motorways and politicians gabbling on television screens. Inflatable Mediterranean migrant craft and plastic bags hanging limply in hedgerows. An exhausted polar bear trying to swim to a distant ice floe he will never reach and an eighteenth century ink drawing of a dodo. A homeless woman huddled in a doorway as a stretch limo roars past with urban beat music blaring. And of broken lives and pills for depression and hypodermic needles dropped by park benches where children play. The guns and the bombs that maim. I saw it all and felt ashamed.
One last night in The Land of Green Giraffes. One last morning. One last dip in the river and one last handful of succulent berries.
Gacrux leant down to rub my cheek. Her tongue moving tenderly through my hair. Acrux followed suit and so did Albert’s brother Limahl and his sister Cheryl. They were saying goodbye as tears filled my eyes, threatening to overflow.
I didn’t need to say “thank you”. They knew it already.
Gripping Albert’s green neck once more, we rose above the verdant valley and as we did so, all the other green giraffes descended on the necking arena to witness my departure. There were hundreds of them all looking up and diminishing in size as we headed back up into the clouds.