Previous Post Next Post

New Writing: Night Runners by J S Fortuna (Chapters 1 & 2)

We are very excited to announce a new section on our Journal called New Writing. This is where we will feature short excerpts of writing that we love and want to share with you. If you are interested in being featured, please submit your piece to
Our inaugural piece is by J S Fortuna, an author from London. J S started writing Night Runners (her debut novel) in 2007 whilst working for a fair trade farming charity in Kenya. She is currently writing the sequel. The duology is based on her experiences of the small town in which she lived for 18 months, and takes inspiration from a local folk tale that she was told by a policeman who bears some similarity to the main character. 
Night Runners centres around Alex, a Kenyan policeman, posted to a remote border town where he is drawn into investigating the macabre Night Runners. Alex and his colleague encounter a Night Runner whilst on a shift at a police checkpoint. They are momentarily lured away from their mundane existence into something exciting and dangerous. The writing below is the first two chapters from this novel.

‘Tu na sema’, ‘Tell me your thoughts’. Alex turned to glare at his friend and calmly replied; ‘That I am sick of you, and I am sick of this’. ‘Ah come on, you are tired and short of miraa’. Both policemen stood by the side of the road; their boots were covered with dry red soil which deposited a new layer of dust with each step. The murram road was made of beaten earth, and deeply grooved. The men watched, disinterested, as trucks plunged into muddy pot holes from which they quickly tried to recover. Beside their feet the edges of the murram sloped down towards gullies filled with rubbish and thorny yellow flowering weeds.
Alex’s companion bent to light a small paraffin lamp as the sun started to dip below the horizon. It always set quickly on the Equator, and there may be only another half an hour before darkness descended. Soon they would be completely enveloped by it with just a tantalising glimpse of the houses gripping the edge of town. But they must remain here all night laboriously checking vehicles going in and out of Bungoma. Most would be heading to the border town of Busia; Uganda lay just a few miles from there. The checkpoint made everyone irritable and anxious, but Alex was well versed at extracting a few shillings from those he disliked. Even the Westerners knew they needed to hastily roll down the windows of their air conditioned 4x4s to acknowledge him. A driver approached, and Alex flashed his torch up and down three times to indicate that he needed to pull over. The driver huffed at the prospect of having to pay a bribe.
Alex reached for his hand torch to dazzle a small lizard. Suddenly, he shone it across the road to the khaki figure of his friend. ‘I think I see a jajouk!’ he rasped in a strained whisper. Both men quickly and carefully swung around lowering their torches so that they were pressed against their thighs. Alex’s tried to peer at the petrol station that lay just before the town, but he was too slow to catch another sighting.
As dawn broke the pair dismissed themselves from the checkpoint. It was now time to eat and sleep. Both decided they were too tired to walk and flagged down a passing truck for a lift back to Bungoma police station. The driver accepted with indifference; playing the role of the respectful local. No one doubted that it was a ruse; it was simply a matter of what you had to do to get along in this place.
Then, as if sleep walking, Alex got into his car and drove up the very same road towards Busia, and his room in the Sportsview Hotel. ‘Karibu’; the lone man at the reception mocked Alex as he strolled through the lobby for the hundredth time. ‘Has the cleaner been to my room?’, ‘She has been delayed by traffic across town’, ‘Well, just make sure she doesn’t wake me when she comes in’, ‘Ok, Sir’.
Alex struggled to fall asleep. His mind drifted towards his wife and two children in Meru, Central Province. He had been in the police force for sixteen years, and had been posted to Bungoma five years ago, but he had never got used to this place. He had started to feel particularly lonely after he turned 40, two years ago. For some reason, unknown to him, he felt as if a kind of vulnerability had crept up on him. When he felt this taking over he would cross the border to visit brothels on the Ugandan side of Busia. People referred to it as ‘going to Uganda for fun’, but this euphemism was about as far from the truth as you could possibly get.

It was dark before Alex shuffled down to the hotel lobby. It was large with high white ceilings that had long since turned a dirty peach colour. Large, drab brown curtains matched the faded red velour sofas. Local men were huddled around a blinking TV bringing a new meaning to the term ‘One-eyed God’. Tonight there was Premier League match and everyone would be supporting either Arsenal or Chelsea. Alex tried not to catch anyone’s eye, or engage them in conversation. Countless times he had been sipping a Tusker beer alone at the bar when an excited fan had approached him for his opinion on a certain manager, player, or tactic that was supposed to make a big difference to the game.
Alex quickly turned his back on the match and walked towards the bar. ‘Joseph, what can I get tonight?’ ‘The chicken is good’. The chicken arrived. Alex began to chew heavily on a crispy orange drumstick. As he did so, oil oozed out and dripped down his narrow pointy chin, and over his long ‘piano-player’ fingers. He had always thought that his fingers were like those of Congolese genocidaire. When he was in police training it was the thick set men with huge fingers that had been the most feared. He had always assumed these men were the cruellest, but he had since changed his mind.
As he dwelt on this inane thought there was a sudden power surge followed by a blackout. The fans laughed, and then chatted nervously as the darkness lasted longer than they had hoped. For a moment they fell silent, but soon after began booing loudly in the direction of the bar. Alex got up to leave; luckily he knew the lobby and front door well enough to make his way to the street in complete darkness. He pulled down his hat, zipped up his anorak, and headed across town to Shakers Bar.
Alex walked in to the bar and looked around; almost everyone was dining on a meal of mlima, large chunks of beef boiled until very soft with a thin gravy and a large mound of ugali. Alex ordered a sweet, milky tea and took a seat with some friends on the veranda. The group were all Kikuyus from the Central Province. One of the men started to complain loudly about his assistant who was a local. Alex thought that the ease by which the tribal stereotypes and prejudice flowed from his friend’s lips was disturbing. ‘This fellow is lazy, unimaginative and no good at business’, ‘Look around you, all the businesses that have made any success in this town are owned by outsiders, either people from the coast or Central Province’. ‘These people don’t help themselves’, ‘It’s no surprise that this area is so backward’. People from Western Kenya were often stereotyped in this way, but Alex liked them. He found them laid back, reserved and shy. He knew that they had been historically marginalised and were much poorer than the rest of Kenya.
Alex shuffled nervously on his seat; he felt increasingly uncomfortable with his friend’s rhetoric which now appeared to be turning into a full tirade. ‘Look at this place!’ ‘It’s just a dusty border town that relies on smuggling’, ‘The smugglers must have hit hard times now that they have clamped down’, ‘I wouldn’t be so sure’, Alex replied. ‘What’s happening under the radar?’, ‘Come on, you know better than to ask me that’, Alex said wearily. Sometimes he wished he had the freedom to talk about his work, as the other men could, but caution and self-preservation had made him tight-lipped from the first day of his posting. His friends had become accustomed to his detached and indifferent demeanour. Alex thought these men were unable to understand the nuances of his work; the blurring of right and wrong, the contradictory evidence, and the oddities of life in a small town on the edge of nowhere. But they weren’t as ignorant as he thought. Each of them secretly worried about him, and the way he appeared to sleep walk through life like a cynical bystander.
Alex looked out over the veranda. The matutu stand was dimly-lit; pockets of light illuminating the cafes and bars that were crowded around the makeshift square. These places, on the whole, were greasy, dirty shacks that attracted truckers, hawkers and drunks. Each one was illuminated like a miniature stage. Alex could make out the familiar sight of waiters incessantly mopping unoccupied Formica tables with brown, stained cloths. Most were Muslims from the Coast with tight-fitting skull caps.
In the middle of the square, deep puddles of liquid mud were surrounded by islands of more solid ground. People leapt across those puddles to avoid screeching vehicles. Most of the passengers were visiting family on the other side of the border. Drivers, in a hurry to drop their loads, swerved wildly to avoid people disembarking, and picking up lifts. The matutu ‘conductors’ were in the habit of leaning heavily out of the side door window, and swearing loudly at anyone who got in their way.
The stench of diesel intermingled with thick fumes to produce a kind of fog that swirled around half-lit figures. Amidst the passengers there were punters who had come here for cheap beer and snacks. They jostled with loitering boda boda drivers just out of their teens. Alex could just make out casual political chatter, and concern about the falling price of maize.
Alex looked from the melee towards the languid and airless sky. There were no birds, or anything resembling wildlife, left in this town. A few feral cats and dogs cowered under vehicles to avoid the lights, and to devour café scraps in peace. Some of the cats were stripy as if they had been interbred with leopards.

Alex continued sipping his thick milky tea and stripping a thin layer from the limp shoots of the miraa leaves pressed into his hand, leaving the bruised, brown ones until last. His eyes widened, like saucers, and he felt the miraa high reaching the perfect level. He felt the urge to talk to the man at the next table. Before he knew it he had begun a long rambling lecture about the quality of miraa in his home town of Meru.
‘Meru produces the best miraa in the world and many men take it. It’s deeply rooted in our home culture, like hashish to the Moroccans’. Alex stifled a giggle. ‘At the break of dawn it is flown to Somalia and Ethiopia where there is a huge and lucrative market’. ‘This is crucial as the green shoots and stems are the most potent and soon wilt if left in the midday sun.
Alex continued rambling blissfully unaware of whether the man on the next table was listening or not. ‘Of course some Meru men choose to avoid it, but they understand the culture nevertheless’. ‘The wzee sit all day under the tree in the centre of town and just chew’, ‘Watoto laugh at the crusted spit glistening at the sides of their mouths’, he said with a giggle, ‘But the wzee feel content. Their world is a weird and wonderful place where they can forget everything, even food and drink’.
Alex turned back to his table and abruptly embarked on another subject. ‘There is a lot of petty criminality in this the town’, ‘His neighbour’s tools, my neighbour’s wife’. Alex laughed heartily and the others followed. ‘I became a policeman because I’m interested in human flaws’. He started another one of his stories.
‘Yesterday at the checkpoint I stopped a British couple who said they were cycling across Africa. I saw them slowly approaching me, and the first thing that came into view was their gritted teeth!’, ‘They were trying to smile whilst they struggled in the sun’. ‘As they got closer I saw that their faces had a fusion of lines; some like deep dungas, and others like shallow ripples in a pond’. ‘They approached me as calmly as they could, but I could tell they were terrified’, ‘this is when I broke out my crooked smile’. Alex could barely hold back his giggles. He felt no sense of shame, or guilt, about taking bribes. ‘They were afraid of me!’ ‘But I just waved them on’. He laughed long and hard.
Alex was heavily into miraa. Unlike his friends he did not drink much and avoided crowded, noisy places; but he made an exception for Shakers Bar. For many years it had been run by Indians who made the best matumbu fry, samosa and chai. They were keen on trashy Mexican soap opera which blared out from a small TV balanced on the counter. They were friendly and unassuming, and more importantly, kept the chai flowing and asked few questions.
Please let us know what you thought of the piece either in the comments section below or at