Umuzi has shared an excerpt from Anna Peters’ Year of Cooking Dangerously, the new novel by Kathryn White.
In the excerpt, Anna is given a special assignment: covering the centenary of the annual South African Rabbit Jump Championships for the illustrious publication Petz in da Hood!
She manages to score an exclusive interview with the champion bunny’s owner, but the day takes a horrifying turn when she gets to their farm …
Read the excerpt:
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But God is busy. As is Saxi, my boss. She has informed me that I will be taking her place at a function this Saturday. I will be the Petz in da Hood! representative at the annual South African Rabbit Jump Championships. I ask Simone if she will come with me and she says yes, provided I go with her to choose lingerie for her honeymoon. There is nothing – nothing – more depressing than shopping for lingerie for your best friend’s honeymoon when your boyfriend is probably shacking up with an air hostess in Czech or Slovakia or somewhere.
The show takes place in the Far East of Johannesburg, about one minute from the airport and three from a racetrack. A marquee has been set up on a hill and we have to park in a ditch under a thorn tree. As VIPs Simone and I have dressed accordingly: high heels, red lipstick and wide-brimmed hats that would have made Professor Henry Higgins proud.
‘Anna, this better bloody make you the most famous pet writer in the country,’ Simone tells me as we hike through clumps of thorn trees towards the tent. (Note, two problems already: hike and tent.) When we reach the tent we notice a sign that says VIP parking. Ah, next time.
There is also a red carpet, complete with the flags of participating countries. We receive giant rosettes with VIP scrawled inside. We are ushered into the arena and walked to our special VIP seats.
As Sim and I walk past the Judges’ Table an old man of, oh, I’m guesstimating, ninety-five, lets out a wolf whistle.
Simone waves back at him. But it seems the whistle is for a large lady with orange hair clutching an orange rabbit that I briefly mistake for a corgi. ‘Good luck, Mrs Bigelow,’ the old man calls to her. By way of acknowledgement, Mrs Bigelow fist-pumps with her free hand.
Our VIP seats are in a special VIP box, suspended above the heaving arena of bunnies and handlers. Jared, our photographer, arrives. He also receives a rosette, but photographers are cool (even pet photographers) so he doesn’t wear his. At exactly noon a bugle is blown. A man enters the arena, carefully picking his way through the jumping course that has been laid out for the bunny rabbits.
‘Welcome to the one hundredth anniversary of the Annual South African Rabbit Jump Championships!’
Wow. I mean, that’s almost the same age as Joburg itself (yes, it’s true, there was no city or even a road here before 1886).
‘And a pleasure and privilege to have the prestigious Petz in da hooooood! who are here with us today.’
Wow-diddy-wow! Simone and I get up and wave.
‘Now, without further ado, please put your hands together for the ten finalists.’ Bunnies begin to bounce out from behind a curtain, followed, at the end of a string, by owners who’ve fixed their expressions into what I like to call Game Face. ‘One of whom will win R100 000!’
Wow-diggedy-wow-wow! This is serious stuff. With a double blow of the bugle, the commentator bows and walks backwards, then takes his seat at the Judges’ Table.
Some of the bunnies are very big. Some of them are very small. All of them twitch their noses as they jump, ears flapping to the sound of their owners’ encouraging grunts. They are all endearingly cute, but what will I write about? Newspaper ad sales are down and Saxi has instructed me to come up with something ‘compelling’.
There is only one bunny left to jump.
The curtain is still closed but the crowd – largely Swedish it seems – has begun to chant.
‘Yump Buster yump! Yump Buster yump!’
The commentator holds up his hand for silence.
‘Last up in the finals are world champions, Mrs Rudolfina Bigelow and Buster.’
With another blow of the bugle, Mrs Bigelow emerges, holding the corgi-rabbit. She stands at the start of the jumping line and leans down to lift up Buster’s orange ear. I assume she gives him a pep talk because from our Very Important vantage point I actually see Buster turn to make eye contact with her and nod.
Simone almost starts to laugh so I pinch her. She shouts in pain.
‘Shhh!’ I tell her. ‘I think this is it. This is my story. The Bunny Whisperer.’
From the first leap into the air, it is apparent that Buster is leagues above the other rabbits. A step above the rest. In a class of his own. A jump ahead.
The commentator can hardly keep up: ‘Skipping a loogy over the first jump. A little bit of lag on the back leg – ably made up for by a scamper towards number two.’ (Insert bugle sound effects.) ‘Buster, what a rabbit! Adds in half a stride to scurry forward, that point-two-five seconds could make all the difference between obscurity and fame. Now, leaping over the combination three and four in a double pop. Nice. And the crowd joins Bigelow in egging him on toward the end.’
We join the crowd, jumping to our feet as Buster and Mrs Bigelow hare around the course.
‘Cutting the corner over there … And Buster, heading towards the home run: increasing his hop from two centimetres to four, really pushing it from his back quarters. Here comes the final bounce: intent eyes as he aims for the middle. Oh! And counting down the hops: three, two, one!’
Simone and I throw up our hands with the rest of the crowd and start shouting ‘Yump Buster yump! Yump Buster yump!’
‘And, it’s a new record for the fastest time in the fifty-centimetre championships! And it seems, yes, yes, yes! That makes it a win for Buster and Bigelow as the Champion of Champions at the centenary of the annual South African Rabbit Jump Championships!’
Bigelow’s face is dripping with perspiration and she throws her head back to air punch and make a very unladylike roar of happiness. Buster, I kid you not, turns to look up at her. Then slowly stands on his back legs and places his bunny feet into the air. Simone and I join the crowd in mad applause, throwing up our hands in the air like Bunny Buster.
Jared the photographer joins me as we move through the ecstatic crowds. Our team is exhausted but – no wussiness for this Pulitzer-prize-pet-journalist-in-the-making (that’s me) – I shove my iPhone into the space around Mrs Bigelow and Buster. This time I even remember to press record, unlike the time the monkey said hello and my Dictaphone wasn’t on.
‘Mrs Bigelow,’ I yell.
She takes my phone from my hand and puts it to her ear.
‘How do you feel about the win?’ I shout through the din.
She takes the phone and looks at it, trying to locate the voice. ‘Very good!’ she yells as she walks off, holding my phone to her ear.
I motion for Jared, leaping over bunnies and owners as we pursue her through the arena. When we eventually catch up to explain, Mrs Bigelow finds this so hilarious that she starts to choke. On her laughter. Jared bashes her on the back.
He has saved her life! She decides she will give us an exclusive interview. At the Bigelows’ rabbit farm. Still keyed up from the excitement of the event, Jared, Simone and I agree to travel with the Bunny Team and get the real inside scoop.
‘Inside the Bunny Team’ is inside an eighteen-wheeler with neat rows of rabbits in hutches, chewing on celebratory carrots.
‘Buster?’ I ask one of the handlers. He nods. ‘Buster.’ Then points down the row: ‘Buster One, Two, Three, Four, Five …’
They are all orange furred. We’re not quite sure which one is Buster so I pat the closest and we take our seats alongside the rabbit handlers. With a toot-toot, the truck lugs into gear and we rumble over ground before hitting the smooth asphalt of tar.
After half an hour Simone and I exchange nervous glances. Another fifteen minutes and the road changes again, to gravel. The truck stops and there is a hissing sound as it comes to standstill. The handlers stand and start to organise the cages and boxes.
The back doors of the truck are flung open; Mr and Mrs Bigelow appear and start shouting at everyone. Sim and I totter down the steps. My heels sink into thick loamy soil. Toto, we’re not in the East anymore. I don’t even think we are in Johannesburg: hills stretch towards a sunset, a lake to the left and a long, flat house to the right.
Mr Bigelow claps me on the back and motions for us to follow. We walk through a low fence – this is worth a mention, because in South Africa, well, there aren’t any – into a garden with hundreds of gnomes, many of whom seem to be freshly painted. In the centre is the farmhouse. On the porch a cuckoo clock announces that it is 6 p.m. Weimaraners stretch and bark.
We are taken through a long passage, to the kitchen. Mr Bigelow turns to smile at us. In his arms he cuddles an orange bunny.
‘Buster?’ I ask.
‘Buster!’ he points to the rabbit in his arms. ‘Come, come, sit.’ The Bigelows’ daughter appears from the pantry, clutching three jugs of ale, which she hands us. ‘We make our own,’ she smiles. She too has the familial orange hair.
Jared is now lying prostrate on the floor, clicking his camera up the daughter’s skirt. I give Jared a little kick to remind him to get photos that we can use in a community paper and on a family website.
‘Right!’ Mrs Bigelow claps her hands. ‘First, we drink, then we cook. Second, we talk.’
The beer is sweet and malty, like a bitter, frothy honey. It stings the back of my throat.
‘Ah,’ we all sigh. Except I actually burp, by mistake.
Everyone is kind enough to pretend that didn’t happen.
‘Come now.’ Mr Bigelow escorts Simone and me outside.
The red porch gleams in the dying sun, the broekie lace tinged pink. Twirling quietly in the twilight air, hanging from the broekie lace, are skinned rabbit carcasses. Mr Bigelow takes his hand off the rabbit that he is stroking and points to a carcass.
‘Buster,’ he says. The rabbit twirls back and faces me. It has all the hair on its head – orange – and its eyes are wide open. I stare in horror.
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