Martin Booth lay on the plastic sofa in the reception are of the High Commission, while somebody somewhere decided what was to be done with him. The weariness of the past thirty-six hours had caught up with him and, despite his racing mind, he found himself dozing. In the half wakened depths of his psyche he went over the most recent events he could recall. The High Commissioner himself had sat across the wooden table, accompanied by Bardle and one unnamed man who stood with his back to him. ‘Why, in God’s name did you not tell us she knew him?’ The Commissioner barked.
‘I thought it would have done her harm.’ He had mumbled head down, his shame shivering up his spine. ‘Harm!’ The Commissioner complemented his tone with a severe shade of florid in his face. ‘Harm! She could hardly be in a worse position. What were you thinking?’ Good question, what had he been thing? What had possessed him to leaver her, was that what the Commissioner was asking? Or was he merely irritated that his backwater posting was bubbling into a major incident, complete with paper work. ‘I didn’t really understand what I saw.’
‘I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, you don’t expect your girlfriend, to have contacts in an African rebel force.’
‘No, that’s crossed my mind as well, but how the hell keeping quiet helps. I don’t know.’
‘All right!’ Martin felt anxiety and rage rise in an effort at self-justification. ‘I should have told you! Jesus Christ there’s plenty I should have done, but I didn’t!’ Martin rolled on the sofa and covered his face remembering the tears of shame had had unsuccessfully tried to fight back, remembering the sickening thud of Jo’s beating, remembering that he had left her alone.
‘All right, what’s done is done.’ The Commissioner’s attitude had changed at the sight of Martin’s distress. The Commissioner was not a man who dealt well with, what he regarded, as the modern tendency to “give in” to “one’s” emotions. ‘Can you at least tell us now, everything you know.’
‘He wasn’t glad to see her’ Martin recovered, sensing the room’s change in attitude ‘Jesus!’ He struggled against the memory. ‘He crippled her.’
‘So striking her wasn’t a show? You can be sure of that?’ The unnamed man stood by the window, listening quietly, he spoke with an American accent. Martin felt no curiosity, his life was no longer his own, but at the mercy of faceless conspirators in this strange land. Martin breathed deeply. ‘Yes’ he replied. ‘That was for nodoby’d benefit but his own.’ Bardle spoke next, he had been taking notes at the interview. ‘Do you know where they met?’
‘I think she met him at Leicester, yes the university. She asked him “Was that what English law taught you? Is that justice?”‘
‘Why did she ask him that?’
‘They’d just killed the child, she wanted to know was that justice?’ He paused. ‘He must’ve studied Law at Leicester with her.’
‘Did she study Law?’ The stranger asked
‘No she did English.’
‘Did she ever mention him to you?’ Bardle questioned and the demand had racked in Martin’s memory as he had tried to recall the mention of Leo Botaleni’s name. As far as he could remember she had never mentioned him, but then they had only known each other six months. What can you know of a person in that time? Their only real time together cannot have been more than two months, not enough time to know someone, obviously not even enough time to discover that you didn’t love someone more than you loved life.
Martin lay on his back, his arm covering his face, somewhere music was playing on an old transistor radio. The triviality of whispering pop battered his brain. The reminder of a non-caring world steeped in easy thrills made him feel like a man in the dead zone, between each world. Loathed by all, at least Jo had found a place. He began to escape. The music began to fade and waver as long sought after sleep assuaged the pain.
He was walking again on the dusty flats, the scrub biting at his feet. The fear of being hunted in his heart. Ahead in the road shapes wavered and shimmered, appearing like mirages so that at first he did not recognise neither the van, nor Jo at whom, he soon saw, a gun was leveled. Across the scrub he saw her struggle against two men who held fast as a target. This time he ran forward to protect her, give his life for her, calling out her name, hoping she would hear him and know he was there. As he ran on the image faded and clouds of dust stung his eyes blurring his vision and choking him. In his blindness and panic he cried out, the words of the mission, of his childhood ‘God help us! Hear my prayer!’ like the Psalmists of old, he fell on his knees and begged the Deity for cover and through the dust the shapes became discernible again.
To Martin’s wonder, this time the struggling group appeared surrounded by a multitude they did not see. A supernatural army hovering above, about to rescue. Martin raised himself up and stood, for now the dust storm had gone, whirling its way towards the battleground. Martin began to praise the Deity that had heard his prayer. ‘Oh Lord I am a weak man’ he heard himself cry. ‘My bones poured out on the ground, but Thou hast saved me, Thos hast seen my weakness and turned it its strength!’ He lifted his arms to the Deity and watched in wonder as the dust began to glow and throb in a glorious transfiguration. There, before him in the wild scrub against the background of war, like the figure Nebuchadnezzar’s fire, a man of light appeared. His back to Martin, facing Jo whose figure he could not now see because of the light. ‘I am here’ he heard a voice cry in the wilderness and he ran forward to his master, now fearing nothing. God had come to him as a Pillar of Fire. He called out to the figure ‘Lord take me! I come to you as I am’ and to his joy the figure began to turn. It started to move to face its unworthy son and rock him safe in forgiveness, and Martin stopped to admire the full glory of the Deity. This was the God in whom he believed, the ultimate arbiter, the final insurance policy against the evil that men do, but the figure turned and in its turning it face grew dark but familiar, at first Martin could not discern the features and then the light dimmed to gloom so that only the figure shrunk to silhouette. Instead of a reassurance there was an intense sense of insignificance, instead of meekness – a kind of disinterested indifference, instead of forgiveness – judgment. The face was neither man nor fiend, neither angel nor Christ and whilst nothing the figure did, threatened him or even touched him, its very presence begged a question at the universe. Its nature was unfathomable. Its presence in his life was unexplainable and above all it was overwhelmingly sinister. Martin was terrified the grip of fear a sour taste of terror rose in throat. He could look at this thing no more.
He screamed and sat up, his sweat had stuck him to the sofa and he ripped his arm away as if escaping the fire. Above him the face remained, handsome, but evil, swaying with its threat in his sight. Martin started back, Bardle smiled, his own features replacing those of the apparition’s. ‘Just a bad dream Booth. It’s only to be expected – all things considered.’ Martin shook himself awake and repositioned himself on the sofa. ‘We’ve decided’ Bardle said. ‘That you should go to Tanzania tonight. You can wait there until we get news. Whatever happens that’s most likely to be the border they’ll make for. You leave in an hour, as you are I’m afraid, no souvenirs.’
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2011