I touch the scar on my cheek and it flinches as though the long-dead tissue had a Lazarus-life of its own.
Uneasily, I stare at the two letters and accompanying neat package which are still where I put them earlier in the day. Within easy reach of my hand, they are a constant and unsettling focus for my mind and eye.
The single envelope in which the letters were posted is also still there. Airmail and drably English in its design, its difference from its local kin both fascinates and disturbs. I am not accustomed any more to receiving mail from abroad.
The one letter, typed under the logo of a firm of lawyers, is a covering letter which starts off by describing how they have only managed to trace me after much trouble and expense, which expense is to be defrayed by the ‘deceased’s estate’. Then comes the bald statement that it is he that has ‘passed on’ – how I hate that phrase! – after a long illness whose nature they do not disclose and that I have been named in his will as one of the heirs. My legacy, they add, is very small but will no doubt be of some significance to me and it is being forwarded under separate cover per registered mail.
The other letter is from him and I knew that straight away. After fifty years of silence, there was still no mistaking the rounded, bold and generously sprawling hand. Closer inspection betrayed the slight shakiness that is beginning to taint my own hand, and I noted this with an unwilling tenderness and a resurgence – as unwilling – of a love that time, it seems, has too lightly overlaid.
After reading the letters – but not yet opening the package – I had sat for a long time, staring out of the window and watching gulls and papers whirling up out of the southeaster-ridden street, but not knowing which were papers and which were gulls. Reaching for an expected pain, I had found only a numbness transcending pain and, later, Carina had come in and laid her hands on my shoulders and asked, her voice as pale and anxious as her hands, ‘Anything wrong?’
I do not mean to be disparaging when I refer to Carina in these terms. I am, after all, not much darker than her and although my hair is fair turned white and hers is white-blonde turned white, my body hair is as colourless and (as far as I am concerned) unflatteringly rare. I, too, can be nervy although not as pathologically so as Carina whose twitchiness sometimes reminds me of the dainty tremblings of a mouse – and that despite the fact that she moves her long, rather heavy bones in a manner that is unsettlingly male.
Do I love her? ‘Love’ is a word that frightens me in the way that these two letters frighten me and if I were to say ‘yes’, I would qualify that by adding that – in our case and from my side – love is an emotion too often threatened by ennui to attain to the grand passion for which I have long since ceased to hope.
Certainly, though, I loved her enough to be able to say, ‘No, everything is fine,’ and turn around and smile into the once so startling blue eyes that now – under certain lights and when looked at in a certain way – have faded into the almost as startling white stare of the blind.
Whether she believed me or not, I cannot say, and equally do I not know why I have bothered to even mention a wife, and a second one at that – the first having absconded to fleshlier fields a lifetime ago – who does not in any way figure in the now so distant and tangled happenings with which the letters deal. Or do I, indeed, know why and have I subconsciously allowed Carina to surface in a manner and image that have more to do with me than her and that will save me the pain of having to explain in so many words why, in those years of warping and war, an oddness in my psyche became set in stone?
Whatever the case, I am now back with the package and the letters, leaving Carina sleeping – or pretending to, she being disconcertingly perceptive at times – and no commonplace papers or gulls beyond the window to divert me: only a darkness that is as inward as it is outward as – yielding to the persuasion of the tide I thought had ebbed beyond recall – I turn to the package and start to unwrap it, then stop, not wanting this from him and as afraid of it as though it held his severed hand.
Or is this all fancifulness? Am I permitting a phantom a power that belongs to me alone? What relevance do they still have – a war that time has tamed into the damp squib of every other war, a love whose strangeness is best left buried where it lies?
Haplessly, unable to resist, I listen for the nightingale that will never sing again, hear only the screaming of an ambulance or a patrol car, a woman crying to deaf ears of a murder or a raping in a lane, and lower my face into the emptiness of my hands.
* * *
I am lying on the only patch of improbable grass in a corner of the camp. Balding in parts, overgrown in others, generally neglected and forlorn, it is none the less grass, gentle to the touch, sweet on the tongue. The odd wild flower glows like a light left on under the alien sun.
I am not alone. Bodies, ranging from teak to white-worm, lie scattered at angles as though a bomb had flung them there. As at a signal, conversations swell to a low, communal hum hardly distinguishable from that of the darting bees, dwindle away into a silence in which I hear a plane droning somewhere high up, frustratingly free.
I am back in the narrow wadi sneaking down to the sea. I shelter under a rock’s overhang, clutching the recently shunted-off-on-to-me Hotchkiss machine gun that I still do not fully understand. Peculiarly, I am alone but I know that in the wadis paralleling mine there is a bristling like cockroaches packing a crack in a wall of thousands of others who wait for the jesus of the ships that will never come. I have stared at the grain of the rock for so long that it has become a grain on the inside of my skull.
A bomber, pregnantly not ours, lumbers over the wadi on its way to the sea, its shadow huge on the ground, its belly seeming to skim rock, scrub, sand. I dutifully pump the gun’s last exotic rounds at it, marvelling that, for once, the gun does not jam. But there is no flowering of the plane into flame, no gratifying hurtling of it into the glittering enamel of the sea, and I stare after it as it rises into higher flight and am drained as one who has milked his seed into his hand.
Later, a shell explodes near the sea, the sand and the windless air deadening it into the slow-motion of a dream, and the sun sets into the usual heedless blood-hush of the sky.
I squat down beside the now useless gun, resting my back against its stand, thinking I will not sleep, staring into the heart of darkness that is a night that may not attain to any dawn. But I am wrong. There are muted thunderings, stuttering rushes of nearer sound, an occasional screaming of men or some persisting gull, but I strangely sleep, as strangely do not dream, and am woken – not by any uproar but a silence – to a sun still far from where I have slumped down into the foetal coil. I do not need any loudhailer to tell me that the lines are breached, that the sand is as ash under my feet.
Dully, I struggle up, still tripping over trailing sleep, slop petrol over the gun and the truck of anti-gas equipment deeper in under the rock, curse all the courses at Helwan that readied frightened men for the nightmare that never was. The synthetics of the suits, gloves, boots, intolerably flare.
Down at the dead end of the beach, I wash my face in the tideless sea, stare out over the still darkened warm-as-blood water to the skyline that has become a cage’s prohibitive ring, go back, then, to the higher, now sunlit land where silent men are smashing rifles over rocks with the ferocity of those who wrestle serpents with their bare hands.
I pass what is clearly an officer’s tent. It is dug in until only the ridge shows, neat steps leading down. Outside, a batman is washing a china plate, saucer, cup, his pug-dog peasant’s face seemingly unconcerned, but it does not raise from its staring down at the trembling of the hands.
I pass another tent sunk in the sand. Again the ubiquitous robot’s playing games, denying midnight now. Frenziedly the hands polish the buttons on an officer’s tunic, button-stick inserted round the buttons so that the Brasso will not whiten the sullen cloth, bring upon the hands a comic wrath. The tunic’s shoulder flaps flaunt a crown. I am thinking ‘Christ!’, beating back bile.
He is coming towards me, studying the anonymity of my fatigues, two pips glinting on his shoulders, sandy hair lifting in the awakening wind. The hair, the prissy pursing of the lips, the button mushroom eyes, warn of the worst of the breed and I snap him my still smart training college salute. He floppy-chops an arm back, barks, ‘Unit and rank?’
I think to tell him I am Colonel this-or-that because how would he – now – ever find out otherwise, but the solemnness in the air like bells’ dissuades me and I say, ‘Sergeant. Second Divisional Headquarters. Sir!’
His eyes widen a little as he balances between surprise and what I suspect is a chronic tendency to disbelieve. ‘Div. H.Q.? What do you do at Div. H.Q.?’ There is a slight emphasis on the ‘you’.
‘Chemical Warfare Intelligence and Training. Sir!’
He is impressed and it shows in a slight inclining to me of stance and tone, and something like a greediness of the eyes, which makes no sense and which I dismiss as a stress-induced fancifulness of the mind.
‘Do you want to hand yourself over like a sheep or make a break?’ His voice is casual but his glance is sharp and I hear myself saying, ‘Make a break,’ even though previously there had been no thought of that in my mind. I am honest enough to admit that I am no hero and, even now, I am painfully aware that my excitement at the prospect of escape only slightly exceeds my congenital dread.
‘Get in that truck then,’ he says and indicates a battered three-tonner a few paces off. ‘Where’s your kit? Are you armed?’
‘No kit, sir. No arms.’ Even as the words still sound, I realize what I’m saying and I hump not my kit but my shame as I for the first time am faced by the fact that I never even thought of retrieving my kit from the anti-gas truck before I set the latter alight. As I said, I’m no hero and more likely to be stood against a wall than paraded for a gong, but he does not seem to mind, even nods, and I get into the truck and see that there are already others in it, lying flat, face down. Surely veterans, these, because they have lined the sides of the truck with the kitbags that they did not forget to bring, and another spider of fear scuttles up my spine as I understand – as I should have at the start – that they are braced for the crossfire that is already raging in my mind.
It would take but a step and a jump to again quit the truck, but I stay put and we are off, the truck weaving and rattling over the moonscape of the land, roiling up a hot white dust that settles in our hair, eyes, clothes, till we look like labourers in a cement factory coming off shift, and the knotting in me slowly slackens as there is still no shot or shout.
Then, without warning, we stop, the suddenness of it sliding us around like loose cargo on a canting ship, and the cab door slams and the lieutenant is shouting to us to leave the truck, hands raised. And we stand up, but don’t raise our hands because we don’t know what the shit he is on about, and the Jerries are ringing us round and the lieutenant is proffering his revolver to the brass in charge. But the brass waves it aside and the lieutenant turns to us and smiles, but there is nothing behind the button mushroom eyes and I know the meaning of betrayal and the rottenness that slinks in the flesh and breath of men.
‘Come,’ says the lieutenant. Then, patronizingly: ‘We could never have got through, anyway.’
‘And you knew that,’ says the hulk with a beard beside me and a gun seems to flow into an extension of his hand, but his aim does not match the buccaneer beard and the lieutenant stares, chalk-faced and open-mouthed, as his shoulder shatters and the revolver farts a useless round into the sand.
The brass fires then and the hulk’s face explodes, splattering me with blood and bone, and I lean over the truck’s side and hurl up the supper I never had. Then the Jerries post a guard over us, gun drawn, and another gets into the cab beside the driver and the truck turns around and heads back into the dying town.
The lieutenant does not look back as the grey, stolid shapes close round him and I unashamedly claim the hulk’s kit as my own and, upending his water bottle into my hand, cleanse my face and fatigues as best I can.
‘Anybody lying here?’ asks a pommy voice, referring to the narrow space on my left, and I open my eyes, but the sun is level with them now, blinding them, and I close them again and say, ‘No.’
As expected, he takes the space without any further asking my leave, which would have been unnatural anyway in a place where anything unclaimed is everyone’s prey, and I am only surprised that he had anything at all to say before he flopped himself down. His shoulder lightly brushes mine and I wince aside, not only because I dislike poms, but because I have never been one for touching or being touched and, as a prisoner, I have been leant upon, trodden on, shoved all possible ways, with a frequency and vehemence that should see me through for the rest of whatever days are still mine. Also, he smells of soap, the overly scented yet almost frothless shit that one can sometimes beg or buy off a guard, and his shoulder is wet as though he has just crouch-bathed under one of the rows of taps in the open-ended shelter across the way.
I almost grow curious enough to turn around and look at him, but the sun is a gold leadenness in my limbs and I am back under that other sun as the Jerries add us to the biblical multitude that waits, not for any Saviour, but for the older than that assembling of the enslaved, the time-before-time’s smashing of the rebellious knee.
Actually, the conqueror turns out to be not at all like a royal Caesar or a rapacious Genghis Khan. Or should that be the other way around? Flanked by his panzers in his one overt try for histrionics and his face shrouded in the shadow cast by his cap, he speaks to us as one who too, dixie in his hand, stands in the queue when grub is up. We are, he assures us, lions (which, secretly and guiltily, we know we are not), but our officers are donkeys (which, most passionately, we know but too well), and a sigh like a wind in ripening wheat runs through us as we stand, belly to spine, locked in our adoration of this new god of war.
Not me, though. I am still seeing the lieutenant turning to us with his savouring smile of a little boy who pulls wings off flies and I am wondering what other and less pleasing agenda lies behind this companionable charade. And this mistrust is still prowling in me when a guy I know I know, but cannot at once place, comes up to me, humping his kit, sweat like a wounding under his arms, and says, ‘I am from Div. H.Q. Aren’t you?’
I look at him and nearly say, ‘No,’ because, one, I’m by nature a loner and my one-man job as the anti-gas freak has allowed me to indulge that up to now, and, two, this man looks like he’s going to make more of a loner of me after the first few exchanges about the nothing we share.
It’s not that he looks all that bad. He’s got this hook of a nose that reminds me of Issy Kapelowitz who was in our class at school, but I don’t think he’s a Yid because (unless he’s a convert which only happens about once in a trillion years) there’s a crucifix slung about his neck and, if you’re asking me, it’s ivory and he had better watch it or his parting from it is liable to be the brand of sweet sorrow he could well do without. His hair (what I can see of it under the dust) is brown and soft and more wavy than curled, and his brow is high (which does not necessarily mean that he has sense) and his chin juts (which does not necessarily mean that he is anything other than several kinds of an obstinate cunt).
His eyes, though, hold no ambivalence, interpret all else. Sunk deep in his skull, ringed by the bruises of a sleepless night, crinkled at the corners as though he laughs a lot or is a lot older than his flawless, clearly still natural teeth would have me believe, they are gentle – and conciliatory – and understanding – and every other damned innocuous quality that can sometimes so set my teeth on edge.
No, even with those eyes, his face is not intolerable, and his body is not laden with any belly and his legs go down straight and his arms, though no weightlifter’s, are reasonably muscled and male. What does put me off are his movements: the little almost dancing steps he takes even when, supposedly, he is standing still, the delicate, frenetic gestures of his hands, the almost womanliness of him that threatens to touch – and touch – and touch – and I have already told of my feelings concerning that.
But then I look around me at the facelessness of the crowd, the namelessness of it because there are so many to name, the stemming of us into this sweating, defecating mass by the single thin wire strung on makeshift posts pushed into the dispassionate sand; and the alienness of it all, of this scarred and dying world that holds nothing of the green exhilaration of my own heart’s land, overwhelms even my solitariness and I look at him with something of a despairing and say, ‘Yes, I’m from Div. H.Q.’
‘I knew I’d seen you there!’ he exclaims and his hands flutter like exuberant wings. ‘I was a clerk in Intelligence. Typing and files. That sort of thing. What did you do?’
‘Nothing much,’ I lie. ‘Emptying the generals’ piss-pots most of the time.’
‘Oh,’ he says, a little thrown. ‘But you are joking, aren’t you now?’ Then: ‘Well, I think we chaps from Div. must stick together, don’t you? At the moment I feel more like a child out of school than anything else and yesterday I quite sinfully enjoyed destroying all those stuffy files! But the feeling won’t last because God alone knows where to from here. So,’ and he thrusts out his hand, ‘my name is Douglas – Douglas Summerfield. What is yours?’
‘Tom – Tom Smith,’ I say, struggling to get my hand back from his lingering clasp and naming my names as coarsely as I can in the hope that this will emphasize their commonness as opposed to the grandiloquence of his and so, from the start, abort a relationship upon which he seems ferociously intent, but from which my entire ego quails. I do have enough of a conscience left, however, to remember with some measure of guilt that the names on my birth certificate (and which I hardly ever spell out to anyone) are Thomas Aloysius Smythe.
The small, mean ploy fails. When I sit down on the dead hulk’s kit, he sits down on his – next to me – and talks and talks, not irrelevantly or even tediously, but with a bright hungering for communication with – grappling to – another that bewilders me and draws me even deeper into a shell which he does not seem able to sense is there. Or does he and is it that which is spurring him on to ever more determined efforts to break me down?
There are moments, always brief, when he falls silent, takes a rosary from a button-down pocket of the tunic with its three stripes of the rank that we share and, running the rosary through his fingers, mutters under his breath with an intensity that unsettles me even more than the usual prattling of his tongue. And sometimes a sudden surging of the crowd will separate us and I will try to slip away from him through the bodies standing densely packed as mealies in a field, but always, somehow, he finds me again, either suddenly reappearing at my side, fine white teeth smiling and glad, or waving to me over the intervening heads like – I savagely think – a drowning clown or a tart desperate for trade.
Later in the day, the Jerries begin to truck us out of the temporary camp, travelling in slow convoy along the coastal road, the sea sometimes seen, sometimes only the salt of it crying ‘Here!’, and Douglas is again right there beside me in the truck, having held onto my arm with a bruising stubbornness throughout the crazed battling to get aboard. Why, I am wondering, did we so object to being left behind when, so Jerry tells us, we will tomorrow morning be handed over to the Ites who, we are assured, are something else again?
Dusk shading into night, the convoy stops as at a sign and the trucks melt into the side of the road. Ours crashes in under a low, almost leafless tree and the driver-guard whisks a camouflage net over the still protruding bonnet with the deftness of an old angler casting his line. Why, I do not know, because the sky has been clear of our planes all day. Have we still got any planes? Are the Jerries, the Ites and us all that is left of humankind? Where are the wogs to whom this soil belongs?
I get off, Douglas shadowing me – who else? – stare out over the flat endlessness at the other side of the road, this solitary tree. Ancient flint glints in the half-light, the earth seems tinged with as old a blood, stubborn scrub starts up out of it like terrified hair and I am crying inside. Douglas, clinging to my profile, puts out a mothering hand, but I strike it aside and he exasperatingly smiles, nodding that he understands, and I come closer to prayer, fiercely, entreatingly, wishing him gone.
Astonishingly, the driver pours water from a jerry can into a canvas basin on a collapsible stand, invites us to wash our faces and hands, pantomiming what he means when his tongue fails. Warily as beasts too many traps have scarred, we edge closer, do as he says, but quickly, knowing that our necks are achingly exposed, and he fetches some cup-sized cans from somewhere in the cab, not fearing that we might cut and run – where to, anyway? – and begins to open them, not with a bayonet, story-book style, but with a civilized tin-opener that stabs me with thoughts of other places, other times, as poignantly as it punctures the cans.
Then he hands us each an opened can, pantomiming ‘Eat!’ and I see that the cans contain chunks of a grainy, grey meat in a splash of thin and oily slop, and I take out a pinch of the meat with cautious fingers and taste it, and it is as though I had never known a tasting tongue before, and I bolt the meat and slurp up the slop with all the passion of the hunger I had forgotten my belly held. And Douglas, forever vigilant, looks at me with as passionate a pitying and hands me the still uneaten half of his can, saying he is not hungry, and I am sure he is lying and make to hand the can back, but then think, as much of irritation as of hunger overcoming me, ‘What the fuck! If he wants to be a prick, then let him!’ and the Jerry picks up our two empty cans and puts them with the other empties into a sack and throws the sack into the cab, asking nothing of us, more captive than conqueror and a kind man who does not wish that we litter this small refuge that none of us might ever again have reason to disturb.
Is it his kindness – or Douglas’? – that, too late, shames me, turning the meat in my belly into the dead flesh that it is as we lie down to sleep, I in the hulk’s greatcoat, Douglas beside me in a waterproof, the rest variously huddled as the earth cools down with the suddenness of a switched-off stove? Quietly, I turn my head. Douglas is asleep, lying on his back, his mouth slightly opened, his breath even and slow, the hands with which he earlier counted his beads composed, the almost frenziedness of his waking self subsumed by the vulnerability of the inward child. Am I too intolerant of him? Should I cut the relationship and have done? Is ‘relationship’ not too strong a word? Can there be a relationship between the pursuer and the pursued?
I turn my head the other way, quickly now, aware of a rustling of wind or sand. The driver, unsleeping, is standing there, on guard and armed. His shape is very black, very tall, against the nearing, plunging, shower of the stars; his face, in profile, has a noble flow. Enemy and killer, yet there is a grace in him, a youthfulness and urgency that is as beautiful as it is animal and male, and I fall asleep against my will, knowing that he is there.
I wake up, once, before we must. He is still on guard, but standing at a different angle to where I lie. A misshapen moon is now low in the sky. I do not know if it is rising or setting, suddenly do not even know where we are, never having been further than where we lost the war. Long shadows reach for me as though I am the last of living flesh. A bird or beast horribly howls. I am floating again on a lambent, tideless sea where, a millennium ago, we swam under a risen moon, our limbs’ pale tentacles seeking our beginnings in our ends.
At first light, Douglas is shaking me and we are all rising and looking past each other like dead men. Even Douglas, sensing our sombreness, spares me the usual bonhomie, and the driver sets up the basin again and we wash, distasteful of ourselves as though, in the night, we had consorted with a foulness primal as the sand. And the driver hands us each a crooked doorstep of black bread, indicating that he is sorry that he cannot give more, and in the clear betraying dawn I see that he is not at all tall, and there is a scar running from the corner of an eye to under the chin and his eyes are old and stunned from having seen too much too soon.
Douglas has readied his kit – and mine – and is now standing staring in the direction of the barely audible sea, fingering his beads and muttering what I have learned are ‘Hail Marys’, and, although I say nothing, having been taught respect for other people’s faiths, I wish he would stop because, to me, prayers are a private affair and he is as embarrassing to me as though I had come upon him with his pants down and shitting behind one of these stones.
Maybe Douglas has a point, though, because he is just dropping the beads back into his pocket when the Jerry points to dust-covered truck after ditto-covered truck rounding the far western bend of the road and says ‘Mussolinis’ as though the word leaves a bad taste on his tongue. Then, his eyes gravely compassionate, he makes this-way-that motions with his hands that indicate a switching-round and my heart is darting in the cage of my throat and the bread in my belly is a black pregnancy of unease.
‘Hey, Yank! You got a watch? I get you cheese and chocolate for watch.’
Where I am lying is next to the highwire fence and the speaker is so close that I almost feel his breath on my cheek. But I don’t turn my head to look at him because I know who it is. It’s the particularly scruffy little Ite guard with a face like the mummy walks again, his eyes alone belying that with their glitter like needles and the quickness of spiders on the run. To him, all prisoners are Yanks and have watches all the time and, like me, are suckers for chocolate and cheese, and his breaking in on my thoughts so peculiarly on cue worries the little extrasensory worm I inherited through my mother’s genes.
‘Fuck off!’ I say and turn my back on him and the bolt of his rifle clicks as he screams, ‘You fuck me? I fuck you!’ but I know he will not shoot and the ou beside me laughs an honest laugh that I could like, but Douglas has already taken his place in the ramshackle Ite truck rattling its way westwards under a lowering sun.
That night, we are herded into a cemetery with a fence around it that is as impregnable as any prison’s, and although I am aware of random lights filtering through inadequate blackout shields, there does not seem to be any ongoing activity save ours and the night is as unidentifiably about us as the middle sea. The graves are clearly those of wogs, and believing wogs at that because the mounds of earth are mostly unadorned in compliance with a faith as austere as the desert in which it was first proclaimed, and, in the still moonless night, I stumble and fall as from a reaching of hands and know a horror at our desecration that no agnostic should. Douglas, though, is undisturbed, ensconced as he is behind the barricade of his beads.
‘Herding’ is too harsh a word? Hardly so. Jerry was right about the Ites. Runts in ragged uniforms that uniformly don’t fit, egged on by foppish officers who porcinely, tediously scream, they flail into us with boots, fists, rifle-butts, their zest the tired simulations of children playing a game long since no longer new.
I am generalizing the way xenophobes do? Perhaps I will ask myself that question, maybe even answer it, in some later, more gracious time – supposing, of course, that such a time can ever again be – but at the moment, in a night that never ends, my only philosophy is that of the living who would not be dead as these we are now trampling under their crumbling mounds.
As the incoming trucks disgorge more and more of us into the burial ground’s inelastic space, cramming us against each other and the dangerous discomfort of the barbed wire fence, I say to myself that this cannot go on and, when the moon at last rises, I see from Douglas’ face that he is telling himself the same thing, his eyes disbelieving and stunned, but – and this stays with me – his soft, garrulous mouth set as tightly as mine in his determination to stay alive. Hell, I am thinking, he is not all piss and wind.
Sometime in time’s long standing still, stasis is reached as we stare with faces pressed against even the inside of the only gate and the guards know that to open it would be to unleash an onrush as involuntary as the bursting of a dam. I am locked into the arse before me as though I sodomized it and am locked from behind in as final a negation of the privacy of my flesh, and Douglas’ hip is jutting into mine like a broken-off iron and my own bones are lattices of pain that hold back my knotting body’s unending scream.
Somebody farts, raucously as a wordless shout, and a gusting stench of urine and shit tells of another who, despairing and ashamed, has let slip the beast of his need. But nobody laughs and I am thinking this can only be the Hell in which I have never believed, and, as we suddenly, and as though impelled by a single consciousness, tilt gatewards, then spinecrackingly whip back, there are howls as of souls in torment – and garglings into silences that as terribly sound.
Incredibly, then, there is light in the east and the trucks are stuttering into life, and the gate is crashing open and there is an exploding out into a measureless space. But before I reach the gate, my one boot sinks into a crackling softness that I cannot bring myself to look down at because I know it is a crushed-dead man, and it is only when we have been cuffed back into our truck that I lift up the boot and uncontrollably shudder as I see that it is splattered with blood and fragments of what could be flesh and bone. Wordlessly, Douglas gropes around on the truck’s littered floor and comes up with a piece of paper and – as wordlessly and expressionlessly, and without any by-my-leave – lifts up my foot and wipes the boot clean.
The truck jerks itself off and trundles past a meagre complex of prefabs lining a side track that leads back onto the coast road, and there is a silence between Douglas and me that, for once, drags on with no sign that Douglas will be the first to speak.
But I am burdened by something I must ask and, at last, I do: ‘What was your job before the war?’
He looks at me, surprised by this first ever question from my side. ‘A male nurse. Why?’
‘Just asking,’ I say and watch the ball of paper, bloodied by my boot, rolling around. But my mind is changing gears with the grinding reluctance of the truck that, like all the Ite trucks, seems likely to at any moment topple over and die. Which is an unfortunate image after what I have just been through.
The salt flats glitter all the way to the blue smear of the sea and the sun is not much past noon when the convoy suddenly stops and we scramble out of the trucks to the usual accompaniment of clicking rifle-bolts and hysterical yells. Bewilderedly, we mill about, ant-like under the vast brass of the sky, wondering why, and Douglas puts on his Intelligence cap and says maybe there’s been an operational shift, that our forces have regrouped and are now retaking the conquered sand. I snort at that though, secretly, I hope, and one of the others from our truck irritably asks why the Ites can never do anything without kicking up such a fucking fuss, and Douglas rather meanderingly says that the little dark ones are from the south and the taller, paler ones – who seem to comprise their officer class – are from the north and the two are as different from one another as vinegar from wine. Which is a rather refreshing variation of the usual chalk-and-cheese cliché and again the gears are shifting in my brain.
The Ites are not prone to giving us toilet breaks, compelling us to, en route, piss or shit from the inside looking out, which usually means to jut buttocks or cocks over the trucks’ sides and do our thing to the Ites’ inexhaustible – and adolescent – delight. So, now we decide that this unexpected stop is to be our toilet break and there is a general pissing and dropping of pants where we stand, but the Ites will have none of it and furiously begin to drive us deeper into the flats.
As in the just-past night, only terror tinged with a dull anger stirs in us as the normally ludicrous takes on a shape of nightmare under even so high and revealing a sun, and no laughter moves in us with its saving grace as we watch the beatings as of beasts of those still struggling to free themselves from the hobbles of their pants, and the face of our Jerry driver floats out before me like the fragment of a dream already ages old, and I reach out as to a lost and redeeming friend, but the emptiness in me is the emptier for its finding only the Now.
The ground is firm enough under our boots, but there is a hollow ring to it as of water warningly close, and I am reckoning it will be bitter and salt as the crystals strewn like some malignant frost over the curiously ochre earth. Also, there are shallow depressions of cracking mud that tell of water in some other time, a surging, perhaps, of a capricious tide. The occasional scrub is twisted and black as though a fire had swept it or an enervating poison gripped its roots, and the even scarcer grass is cancerous and brittle as a dying man’s hair, and I am hearing the usual silence that even our frenetic trampling cannot shatter or obscure.
Is this a place for a killing, a cutting off from them of a flesh that is conquered but for which they have no use? The thought is upon me like an assassin in a private place and I look at Douglas and, for the first time, there is a true communion between us as I see that he is thinking the same thing though not wanting to, and he is shaking his head and assuring, ‘No. It is just an operational trick. You’ll see. They’ll be moving us on again soon,’ but there is a stridency to what he is saying of one who secretly does not believe.
He is as right as he is wrong. The sun sets – and rises and sets – and still we live, although dying is all we think about, strive against, as no summons to move on comes, and the skeletons we pretended we did not have begin to show, and our lips crack like the old mud’s heaving apart, and our tongues are the tumescences our loins no longer need.
In a stray quirk of fertility, near where the trucks still wait under their camouflage nets for the planes that never fly, is a spring that surfaces into a wide, shallow pool, then again runs underground. The pool is ringed with grass of an almost unbearably brilliant green, and there are small honey-scented flowers and hovering, doubtlessly rowdy, bees. We passed it with a quick wonder when we were driven into the flats; now we stare at it all the time, quivering with the intensity of dogs held back from a bitch in heat as the Ites man the machine guns they have set up round the pool and occasionally, with the casual sadism of children, splash themselves with water, empty their water bottles onto the burning iron of the earth. Someone who called the guns’ bluff is still lying out there, minus his face, silent under the shifting coverlet of the flies.
At noon of the third day, the sun is a struck gong in our skulls. A second man, lured by the shimmering siren of the pool, weaves out towards the guns. They shoot him too, the reports flat as a toy pistol’s popped cork, no bird starting in terror from the crackling salt.
We rise, then, as one, mindlessly march to a beat of the blood only we hear, a heedlessness of death our desperate armour for the insane. As from some other earth, we apprehend the flawed flats’ shuddering under our steps, hear the senseless whisperings of our swollen tongues, knot our every tissue against the bullets that must surely come.
But the guns are silent and the Ites are hauling them back to the trucks as they concede us the pool, and we are a mob again, breaking ranks, rushing upon the spring with an incontinence that strips us of the brief dignity we had donned. Douglas, his face raptor as the rest, beak of a nose scything the air, mouth set as a trap, starts from my side with a fleetness I would never have guessed at and wriggles his length into the writhing mass of bodies covering the pool, his jostlings ruthless and maddened as any, and I cannot decide whether I am feeling smugness at his degradation or disappointment and shame.
When at last our thirst is stilled and some are vomiting, their bellies dangerously ballooned, there is as little left of the spring as of our pride. The grass is crushed, the flowers effaced without trace, the once crystal water turned to a tired sludge, and we trudge spiritlessly back to the trucks when summoned, no thought in us of escape, leaving behind us a scarring we now inescapably bear in our own selves.
Douglas is strangely silent as we again trundle westwards, his beads slipping, dutifully, through his fingers, but his lips unmoving and his mind patently elsewhere.
‘I suppose you don’t think much of me any more,’ he at last says, his tone wistful and his eyes misty with a not-quite-tearfulness that irritates me as profoundly as the beads.
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ I snap, laying on the harshness, partly because I am feeling pissed off – although I do not quite know why – and partly because I suspect that any softness on my part will have him blubbering on my shoulder like a little boy. Or should that be ‘little girl’?
‘About the way I behaved at the spring,’ he says, his fingers juggling the beads almost frantically now, aggravating my mood.
‘What makes you think you behaved any differently from everybody else? Including me?’
‘Yes, but I left you behind. I never once thought about you. I thought only of myself.’
‘For Chrissakes!’ I explode in a whisper so as not to share this slush with the rest of the truck. ‘Will you stop mothering me as though I were a little kid? You’re not that old! And anyway, I don’t need you. I don’t need anybody. I’ve looked after myself nearly all of my goddam life!’
‘You said “mothering”,’ he cuts in. ‘Why did you say “mothering”? Do you think I’m one of those?’
‘Those what?’ I nag, though I know perfectly well what he means.
But he doesn’t answer that; only stares at the blank, cab side of the truck as though there’s nothing there. Then he turns me right around, the whine in his voice quite gone.
‘I can’t help how I am. I have got this way of moving and speaking, and I have got this way of caring about people. That’s why I became a male nurse and why I was glad to get into H.Q. and handle files instead of guns. But I have a wife and son whom I try not to think about all the time and I’m hoping that these,’ and he flips the beads, ‘will see to it that I get back to them one day.’
‘So?’ I ask, fending him off, but sensing I’m going to lose.
‘So I’m a talking fool who was hoping to find, at least, a friend to go with me into the God knows how many years yet of this,’ and he gestures about the truck with those too graceful hands. ‘So do you want me to sit somewhere else from now on?’
‘It’s OK,’ I say, my voice curt and dismissive, but he seems to understand that I am only being me.
A shadow falls across me, clotting the slits of sun that still anchor me to the present, and Douglas’ voice says, ‘Tom,’ and I ask, ‘What?’ and Douglas asks if I have seen his rosary, and I say it was lying on his bedding and he probably folded it up into his blankets as he has done so many times before. And Douglas says, ‘Of course!’ and the sun is shining in the slits again.
‘He one of the funnies?’ asks the pommy voice close to my left ear, and I know exactly what is meant by ‘funnies’ and am not amused. But I don’t work up a sweat about it either because everybody reacts to Douglas in that way the first time around, then ends up liking him for the guileless fool that he seems.
So I pretend that I had not heard, but the voice persists, ‘He your mate?’ and there is a slight emphasis on the ‘mate’ that does get my goat and I mumble, ‘Mind your own business,’ and would take the matter further, but I am already an ocean away as the convoy finally stops in the late afternoon of the following day and we are left to infest the multitude of brown army tents that have been erected for us on a waste of sand white as bone.
The sea is near – its tang enticing on the windless, still torrid air – and, for a moment, the sand beneath my boots is beach sand, and I am a boy again. Also there is a city – seemingly so close that a stone, thrown at it, would rebound, clattering, from the nearest wall. But that is a trick of light and air and actually it is a long walk away, sunken in a depression beside the sea, only the upper floors of the taller buildings and the domes and minarets of the many mosques towering up with a shining, magical whiteness that matches our own still pristine sand.
But there is illusion upon illusion because, as the light fades and the shadows gather like mauve water in every angle and hollow, I begin to see that it is a paintless city with many paneless windows and fault-lines in the walls that tell of bombs in the days – the years? – when our planes still had a say in the skies. But then a muezzin in a minaret is calling the always absent wogs to prayer and there is a sweetness and foreverness about it that heals, and hope is walking back to me like some old friend with a half-forgotten face – or should that be half a face? – and I watch with something like satisfaction as Douglas lays out our private space in a tent that must surely house a hundred sleeping in the round.
Douglas is still ‘mothering’ me? I have given in to him like the macho weakling that I am? Yes, but the ‘weakness’ is more like a rare kindness in me, I having come to understand that, for Douglas, to not mother someone is to not breathe. And then, this first night in a place with a roof of sorts and a double body’s length of sand we can call ‘his’ and ‘mine’, there is an appearance of domesticity, of a home, and a home is a bipolar thing, balanced between his yin and my yang.
All of which is, of course, a load of bull and is quickly shown to be so. A rumour floats – and refuses to blow away – that any day, without warning, we will be shipped off to Mussoliniland, and, at once, the illusion of permanence – or even semi-permanence – is shattered and we stand again amongst the graves and the sand between the tents is a slyness of salt that has claimed us for its own.
As though to drive the point home, the Ites’ taunting of us resumes in a manner that is frighteningly known. Once a day – usually when the sun is at its highest and we are stripped to the underpants many of us no longer have – the water trailers circle the camp in round after round of mindless sadism, water sloshing and chuckling with a delicious liquidness that unfailingly lures us out to the milling and yelling of the captive beasts at feeding time that we have become. Only then do the trailers take up their stations about the camp and we complete our degradation as we jostle and bicker – and all too often bloodily fight – in a queueless rush to fill our water bottles and whatever other containers we have been able to scrounge.
There is also a minor, more in-the-face, version of the game that so turns the Ites on, which sends murder bellowing through my brain. An Ite guard, prowling the camp’s perimeters, looks out for the last of our watches flashing on some innocent’s arm, offers a whole multi-litre can of water for the watch, brings the can, slopping water onto the sand, takes the watch, then upends the can, laughing like fuck as the innocent, more often than not, breaks down and weeps like some little kid that’s seen his world end before its time.
Whichever version of the game, it is then that we again foul the clear pool of our human genes, and the sand beneath our boots bares its myriad teeth of bitter salt and I am thinking it would have been best if they had shot us back there and buried us, or left us to rot, in the last shreds of a dignity we were never fit to wear.
And then there is the food – the one ladle a day equals a three-quarter dixie of strangely grey macaroni drenched with an oily soup, two bread rolls no bigger than the standard ‘English’ bun and a to-be-saved and delicately, lingeringly eaten two-inch cube of oddly superior cheese. Sufficient to sustain life if not spirit, this is a diet that encourages the body to a new equilibrium of skin and bone, limits conversation to fantasies about food, goads whatever spirit is still left into the vitriolic intolerance of each other of too many scorpions in a jar, and often I go out and sit and stare at the city whose name I now know but will not disclose because that will destroy its timelessness, as it will destroy the timelessness of all that is happening here.
It is not surprising, then, that this morning I have this trouble with the guy that sleeps next to Douglas and me. He was a war correspondent for a Jo’burg paper – or so he says – and is an almost runt with a long, narrow face and a matching nose that twitches in tune with a world of stimuli he alone prowls. The once rakish moustache now straggles and is stippling out to its subsuming by as flourishing and bristling a beard, and the eyes, black and liquid as olives, scuttle far back in sockets ringed with shadows heavy as mascara on a whore.
His eyes are like that because he masturbates, masturbates with a frequency and ferocity that is neither hilarious nor titillating, merely drearily, sickeningly obscene. Lying on his side, jerking and whimpering like a ridden-over dog, he sometimes milks that pitiful cock twice in one day and I am having difficulty remembering any day when he left the fucking thing alone. Even between wanks, he’s juggling his balls or fiddling with his foreskin, his mood petulant as a kid that wants to play after the other kid’s called it a day, and I say to Douglas that, Jesus, this has got to stop, and he says, no, to leave the ‘poor man’ alone because he’s seen this before and it’s like a disease.
This morning, though, confrontation comes at us like life skidding on a wet road. It is still early and the tent is mostly quiet, sleeping being one way of not being here, and I am not listening to Douglas fingering his beads and whispering his Ave Marias, and I am trying to not listen to the wanker having it off with his cock. But as his grappling goes on and on, it begins to seep through to me that something is wrong, that he is weakening without anything happening, that the starving body is at last rebelling against the lust that is more in his mind than in his loins.
So it is that suddenly he slumps and a long groan drags out of him like the final exhalation of a dying man and I’m thinking, ‘Thank Christ, maybe there will be one nut less here from now on,’ but then he is whipping round and glaring at Douglas who is lying between him and me and his eyes are white with hatred and rage. ‘It is you!’ he hisses. ‘You with those goddam beads that’s spoiling it for me!’ and he lunges to snatch the rosary, but I am over Douglas and on him, and we are entwined and rolling, but skeletally and slowly, our breaths snuffling and noisy as pigs’, our bodies the leaden baggage in a nightmare that will not end. But then his genitals, balls swinging beneath the sad, shortening erection, have flopped through the split crotch of his underpants, are dangling within the reach of my hand, and I grasp them, wholly and viciously, driven by a sadism born of my own deprivation and despair.
‘No!’ he shrieks on a note so high that the sleepers wake as one, and I loose him and he lies, coiled and sobbing, his hand clutching his groin as though it was his smashed, favourite toy, and I am expecting Douglas to chide me for treating the ‘poor man’ so, but he is looking at me with glowing eyes, the womanishness in him strutting as never before.
‘Shut up!’ I snarl as though he had spoken aloud, and turn over and, amazingly, sleep, and when I again wake up, the wanker is gone and Douglas, still proudly glancing at me from the sides of his eyes, says he walked out, muttering, an hour ago, and late in the afternoon a guard comes to fetch his kit and tells us he will not be back because he was flashing his cock to all the guards about the camp and complaining that it had died, so they took him to the Ite doc who pronounced him crazy as a coot and is having him sent to an asylum in the city where he can play with himself for the rest of the war.
Douglas does, then, again speak of him as ‘that poor man’ but not too forcefully so, and I try to feel a proper guilt for the part I have played in putting the guy where he now is, but then think, fuck it, he’s probably better off there and, in any case, I am as edgy as a fox when it comes to probing into motivations that may turn out to be quite other than they seem.
Douglas, though, has no problems with that. To him, I am just the selfless friend who leapt to his defence in the hour of his need, and this discovery of so unexpected a depth in me encourages him to complain that I have never told him anything about myself, whereas he has told me all about his sterling silver upbringing and his as sterling silver, still living and doting mum and dad, and has shown me photos of his wife and kid, she a clearly breathy dumpling of a woman who would drive me crazy in a week and the kid looking just like all the other kids I have ever known. So I tell him my mother was a gypsy who told fortunes in a tent she pitched in her flat in Hillbrow, and my father did time for flogging stolen watches in the street, and, when they died early on in my life, I paid my way through university with the loot I earned at night from running with a gang whose mark is still on my shoulder, and I show him what looks like a branding with a hot iron, and he looks at me disbelievingly and a little affronted, although it just might all be true.
‘I got to piss,’ says the guy I had forgotten was still there. ‘Keep my place for me, will you?’ and I nod without looking, listening as he swishes away through the grass, then no longer listening as we clamber out of the stripped shell of the cargo boat and the first stones from the crowds lining the streets of the southernmost Ite town thud into us with a hating that hurts the heart rather than the bones. I, like the most of us, walk hunched and flinching, pretending I do not hear the cries that accompany the stones and that clearly are curses because, here and there, I can make out the few dirty words that are the only Ite-speak that I know. Douglas, though, strides out with a certain majesty, rosary plainly in his hands, and no stones seem to be striking him, which could be a miracle but is more likely to be because the Ites are also Catholics and are not sure whether he is one of ours or one of theirs, and inevitably – and hopefully unworthily – the thought comes that there could be one smart cookie behind the beads.
But now there is a settling down beside me again and a proffering of thanks to prove that the right man is back, and I am thinking that I must have dozed off there because I never heard him coming through the grass. And I am remembering also that he said he was going for a piss and for the rest of my life, hearing that word – or ‘shit’ – I will be back in the ship that brought us from a sand I had never thought I could love to a land lush with leaves and holy bells as a new Eden overlying Hell.
And always, then, that horror in me of a whole flesh that sleeps, then wakes to a rotting in a sudden leper’s skin.
Truth is, I do not want to think about that ship, anytime, anywhere. But, however briefly, I have to because it is a link in a sequence of events that I sense is rushing me to an end that is as unpredictable yet ordained as that of a car whose brakes have failed on a long hill. With each thinking back, the aversion grows and the details become less, the conscious me beavering the easily movable items such as the days at sea, faces that crowded us, guards that yelled, into the lumber-room of the subconscious where, hopefully, everything will one day lie mumbling but chained.
At the moment, though, it is as I said – the operative words are still vividly ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ and I was of the very many who had the shits the day we boarded the ship. Not Douglas, though – male nurses being exempt from indignities such as a runny gut. We thought we were being clever when we battled our way to the front of the queue. Would this not, then, ensure us a choice space on deck? Instead, we found ourselves at the bottom of the booming, cavernous hull, beside us a single iron ladder that reared up past the encircling higher decks to a hatchway that was closed most of the time but which, when not, held a circlet of sky as distant and surreal as the mouth of a well. Up this, by day and at night when the hull was lit by the minimum of naked bulbs that cast more shadows than light, passed the despairing, embattled sufferers of dysentery or diarrhoea. The hatchway would open and close, open and close, and the number of times that I managed to win through and, as in the case of the trucks in the desert, jut cock and arse over the swaying ship’s rail and try to shit out the porcupine of pain that was the cramp in my gut while the guard shrieked at me to have done, is one of the details that my mind mercifully no longer yields.
Most of the time, though, we never made it to the top and would hang like shot birds from the ladder’s rungs as we let slip our shit and the accompanying piss, not, for that brief moment, caring about the profanities below, but shamelessly, as in an orgasm, revelling in the collapse of the anus’ clench, its bestial abandonment to the bowel’s need. Being at the foot of the ladder, we would have been hardest hit, but Douglas, with something of the ruthlessness that had so shamed him on the flats but which now did him proud, nagged for and found a more distant space for us and there, each time I shat my pants, took them from me and, with the remote impassiveness of the nurse, washed them as best he could in the pool of sea water that mysteriously sloshed in the deepest part of the ship’s hull.
At night, we would lie, sleepless, the sea writhing beneath us like some monstrous serpent that at any moment would break through the ship’s frail hide, the meagre rations and as little water they had issued us before we embarked dwindling and unceasingly tempting us to finish them off at one go, and, all about us, even now sneaking from every pore of our skins, shit and piss, and piss and shit, and only Douglas’ face, and his hands washing my pants, worth time’s sparing of them and the reason for my remembering anything at all.
But now the Now is reaching through to me like the sun to a diver cleaving up to the top strata of the pool, and the images that are the links I seek are fewer and scattered as we move up from the first southern squat to this far northern camp ringed by hills and clangorous with bells.
Still in the south, the Ites discover – or did he somehow leak it to them? – that Douglas was a clerk at Div., and he swings it so that I become his assistant and we sit sorting prisoners’ records at the old infirmary amongst the olives and oleanders, and Douglas, with admirable and patriotic amorality, insists that we do next to nothing for our double ration of macaroni and rolls.
And there is the time at the stop halfway to here when the Ite guard holds me down on the stout-legged wooden stool and the Ite doctor, scorning anaesthetics, yanks out the last of my lower back teeth, abscess and all, and leaves it to Douglas to stop me bleeding to death and deaden my pain with tablets he says he filched from the infirmary down south; and there is the night at the same place when we catch the ou who has been stealing our boots and flogging them to the Ites, and we dunk him up to over his head in the pit latrine that’s full to the brink with shit, and he crawls out of there with only his white eyes and red tongue showing, and I feel an irrational pity and something of his guilt, but, this time, morality wins and Douglas – the prim Douglas of old – says, ‘Serves him right,’ and, for a moment, seems almost ready to say, ‘Serves him fucking well right.’
Then it is that I sleep, an illusion of stability enfolding me in this, at last, established camp – and something of a domesticity too as my thoughts stay focused on Douglas who has grown on me from the so-small seed of my tolerance and for whom I have come to feel an affection that may not be passionate, but is rooted in the respect due to a solid and honourable man.
Copyright © 2002 by Tatamkhulu Afrika