‘Where did you meet him? Tom had wanted to ask her that for almost an hour. Jo sat beside him her head bowed from the sun, her hand covering her eyes and the battered side of her face turned away from him. Occasionally she got up and walked about to stop the suffering of her muscles and the stiffening of her joints. She felt a hundred years old, both in spirit and on body. The activity around them was growing more frenetic. The boys in the bush were packing up, whispered, furtive conversations were taking place. They could here the clinical clicking weapons as they were loaded and checked. All this indicated an imminent departure. No one had bother to move the bodies of Angus or the soldier. Above, like a cliche, the vultures circles and waited, a sign to the bush that meat was available and on the edges of activity, strange unidentifiable rustling could be heard.
Jo longed for Martin, but the thought of him worried her, frightened her. Was he safe or dead? Why had he gone without a word? What did he knowing of the Rebels that made him so afraid? The speculation made her want to cry but the tears burned her swollen eye and the spasms of sobs made her stomach throb, so she did not think too much of him, but agonised in an attempt to pray for strength and deliverance, avoiding awkward questions of God in order not to doubt either God or Martin, Martin mostly or she would cry, so she was glad of Tom’s interruption. It distracted her from the gruelling relentless pain.
She did not raise her head at the question or turn towards him, everything hurt. ‘At Leicester University’ she replied. ‘He read Law and I did English. We didn’t know each other all that well. We went to the same parties, knew the same people. We were in the Debating Society together. He was quite famous at the university. He was president of the Union for a year. He was full of himself then.’ She paused, painfully to concentrate on her throbbing face.
Tom looked across the clearing to where Botaleni and Joseph stood absorbed in some crucial conversation. He tried to imagine Leo as an ordinary foreign student in a provincial university. He thought of the union hacks he’d known, earnest people, barely adult, arguing passionately in rooms smelling of skunk and alchohol, shouting each other down in large long and boring meetings, some of them reaching the union hierarchies and traipsing twice yearly to NUS conferences where they scurried and debated in the conviction that they could affect, if not change, the world. Their society was ripe for manipulation, it bred idealists and cynics and which was Botaleni? An innocent fighter in a just war or a privileged mind wanting a piece of the action?
The conversation had broken up and Joseph was walking towards them, a first aid box in his hand. He came up to Jo and crouched before her. She still had her head bowed and her hand covering her eyes. Joseph reached up and parted her hands so that he could see her face. Tom watched him. It was the first time he had see the African relaxed and confident. He was now on his own patch. He seemed also to have convinced Botaleni of something, scored a success, which Tom sincerely hoped was to their benefit and not to their detriment. Joseph’s natural ebullience that had been hidden from his face now shone thought, Tom seized on the hope that this was not sinister.
In build Joseph was not unlike Tom himself. A little overweight and rounded in the face. ‘I have to treat your wounds’ he said to Jo. ‘It will hurt a little.’ He set the box down and signalled to Tom to come closer and help. The activity had attracted the attention of the children and the little girl stepped forward to watch, but Tom looked at her without smiling and the parents called her back.
Joseph opend the box, which had only basic supplies. There was a bandage, some antiseptic lotion, iodine some cotton wool and lint and a bottle of pure water. He took the latter and the cotton wool and soaked it, he lifted her wounded face towards him. The pain of the movement made Jo gasp and stinging tears started to flow. He leant forward to dab at her eyes, but involuntarily her hands went up to stop him, Joseph nodded at Tom and Tom positioned himself behind her so that she could lean against him. He put his arms round her and grasped her wrists holding them down. Satisfied, Joseph started again, but she moved her head away so that Tom had to hold her hair with one hand thus keeping her still. He cleaned out the discharge from the eye and the produced some lotion which Tom had not noticed in the box. He placed some in the eye saying ‘Close you eyes, blink a bit, That’s right.’
He discarded the cotton wool and replaced it with lint, on which he put the iodine. He began to treat the grazes round the wound and it stung Jo, who swallowed a cry and began to temble with the pain. Her hands twitched against Tom’s grip, trying to escape, to strike the source of the pain away. But he gripped harder and hushed her. ‘It’s for the best, you don’t want it infected.’ Once this was done, Joseph took some new lint and lifted the lip. ‘Are your teeth loose?’
‘A little’ moaned Jo.
‘The gums are cut.’ He dabbed some iodine on the gums too and the stinging went right through her setting up a spasm of shaking that made her clutch for breath. Joseph waited for Tom’s soothing to take effect. ‘Okay’ he said at last. ‘There’s one more thing I want to check. Will you let me examine your ribs. I won’t hurt you any more, I promise, I’m a paramedic.
‘Useful’ said Tom with a brave irony he regretted straight awY fearing a reprisal but there was none. ‘I trained in Tanzania.’ He explained. ‘I want to see if that punch did you any damage.’ Jo nodded her head and Tom let go of her wrists, putting his hands on her shoulders to support her. Joseph untucked and raised Jo’s T-shirt as high as her breasts. A large bruise was yellowing her left side. He reached up under her arms and followed the track of her ribs with his fingers pressing her gently under her breasts, watched by Carl a little distance away. Jo’s face was tense and Carl called ‘It’s okay kid. He looks like the business.’
‘I wish he’s stop calling me kid’ muttered Jo through her clenched teeth and both men beside her stopped and looked at her surprsied before smiling despite themselves. Joseph checked once more, pressing her stomach, making the bruise throb, but then he sat back and pulled the T-shirt down again. ‘I think you’re fine, just bruised.’ He wiped his forehead against the sun and stood up. We have five minutes.’ He said. ‘And we move out. We have to got ten maybe fifteen kilometres at a run’. Jo’s faced registered her horror. ‘It’s okay, I’ll look after you.’ In their present situation neither Jo nor Tom could think of that phrase as anything but a threat. Joseph stood up and walked away, back towards Leo who was packing up a rucksack. He gave him the box and spoke to Leo who looked across to Tom and Jo as Tom helped her to her feet. He nodded and then shouted an order, and the unit came before him.
The truck started with Frau Ziegler sat in the front bewtween two men now dressed much like Joseph in a T-shirt and jeans. The truck growled away waved off by the others. The tourists were brought into their group, Leo spoke to two older soldiers who nodded and without a word set off into the bush. ‘Decoy huh?’ A strategist.’ Leo smiled at Carl and bent suddenly to Craig who stiffened and stepped back but Leo grasped his shoulders and watched by Carl who stood, as if ready to draw a gun he said ‘Do you like piggy backs?’ The boy nodded seriously. ‘Hammid! John!’ called Leo. The two men moved forward, Hammid sulking, seeing what was in store. Leo pointed to them. ‘You’ll have to hang on tight for a long time.’ Craig and Marci both nodded now and Betty encouraged them. ‘You lucky kids, say thank you.’
‘Thank you’ they chorussed. Their eyes not on their carriers, whose faces broke suddenly into beams while they lifted the children onto their backs. ‘Fun eh?’ said Hammid grinning.
‘Yeah’ said Marci and Hammid readjusted his rfle so that it didn’t point at the child and then they were away.
The speed of their pace came as a surprise to them all. It was a little less than a jog and Tom felt his chest sting and wheeze almost as they had begun. Ahead Leo and three men, the children and their carriers and Betty obviously a jogger despite her weight or, perhaps because of it, padding behind, she was trained for this and she wasn’t going to let her children out of her sight. Behind Tom was Carl running alongside Joseph and Jo, just making sure. While two more men brought up the rear, sometimes stopping to hurriedly cover tracks.
Every step jarred Jo’s bones. At first the pain shatrtered her resolve and she thought it would be impossible, but after a few minutes she found a rhythm and the throbbing in her head and stomach eased slightly. She could not see well but Joseph stepped ahead of her, sometimes holding back the brush to protect her from a painful whipping back into her face and she was grateful for Carl’s presence. The pace of the walk or run, at that moment seemed easy and it felt as if they were covering much ground. The confidence of all the tourists was almost light hearted. The relief to be alive, coupled with their ability to keep up provided even Jo, with a sense of exhilaration.
But every marathon runner hits the “wall”. Every runner buckles beneath the heat, the lack of oxygen, the relentless jarring of bones, let alone injured and bruised bones. They rested at five kilometres and most were refreshed by the break. Tom’s breathing was painful but it did not worsen, each was given a little water and some high energy sweet of some kind, which tasted foul, especially to the children, who were now having a great time at the expense of their two carriers. They had formed themselves into a race between brother and sister and amid rebukes to be quiet, played jockeys on the backs of Hammid and John. Their capacity to treat the whole affair like a game, never ceased to amaze the others.
For Jo the “wall” came at the five kilometre point. She never got back her stride after the first break, the pain screamed at her to stop. She got a stitch in her wounded side. She staggered on watched by Joseph, who tried to help her but she hardly knew he was there. They began to fall back and Carl, torn between his wife, his now ever more distant children, and what he now perceived as Jo’s inevitable collapse, ran on.
Her legs buckled and she fell in the dirt. Joseph was beside her. He took some water from a private supply and washed out her mouth so that she didn’t choke and he pulled her up to her knees. ‘No’ she protested unable to support her own wight. ‘No, I can’t it hurts, it hurts!’ She swayed and threatened to fall back but he caught her and let her lean against him. “Breathe deeply’ he said. ‘Breathe! Breathe!’ he instructed, feeling her frame stretch with the effort for oxygen. ‘Is she all right?’ Leo stood a few feet away. The sweat poured down his face and soaked his fatigues. ‘No she’s not’ said Joseph. ‘You hit her too fucking hard!’ Leo did not react to the insubordination but called another of his soldiers. Jo felt the cold of shock run through, terrified that Joseph had brought about both their deaths. ‘Make blood’ said Leo in Swahili. The boy stared at him uncomprehending. ‘Make blood!’ He insisted, a strange impatience in his voice.
‘He wants you to cut yourself’ said Joseph. ‘He wants you to leave a trail of blood to give us time, if we’re being followed.’ The boy took his knife and made to slash his wrist but Leo caught him before he did so. ‘No, you fool! We are not suicide fuckers! We want you back alive, a small cut maybe, in your foot.’ The boy sat and lifted his foot. He aimed the knife and, watched by Jo, who stared in hideous fascination, plunged it in. She cried out as if it was she who had been cut and struggled against Joseph, who held her tight but she was little match for his strength. The boy could not stop his tears, but he stood up and Leo said. ‘Go via the Umbele Ford, once at Jonja find old Marata. He’ll look after you until there’s a chance for yout to get through.’ The boy nodded and smiled and then with a speed that belied his injury, he disappeared into the scrub. ‘Okay’ said Leo, Now in English. ‘He’s bought you some time. You can slow up but not much. We’ll meet at Schole Hill. We’ll move on from there six hours after we get there.’ Joseph nodded, Leo watched her for a moment and then said. ‘I’m sorry Josie’ and sprinted away.
The two sat in the shade of skinny tree and Jo tried to control the impulse to sob and cry until she could sleep. Sleep, she perceived, would not be her privilege for some time. Joseph did not sit for a while but scanned the flat and apparently deserted landscape. Slung at his side, was a rifle and strapped to his belt, a knife. Was he scanning the bush for pursuers or for witnesses to her murder? Was that thing with the blood a code, a bluff? At this point she did not really care – the idea of staggering another ten kilometres made death seem an attractive option. The inevitablity of it seemed hardly worth protestsing, but Joseph seated himself beside her and offered her some water, which she drank. They leant against the tree and Joseph said ‘You and I we have the same name.’ Jo chuckled it was weirdly lighthearted as a question.
‘Yes’ she said ‘no one’s called me Josie for years, not since college. It’s short for Josephine.’
‘Huh huh, is that how you know Leo, from college in England.
‘Yes, it must be seven years since I saw him last. How long have you known him?’ Joseph laughed and indicated a low height with his hand, ‘Since I was like the little Americans.’
‘Oh that long?’ she paused. A thought occurred to her which she half voiced. ‘So you must have known when I…’ She stopped and said ‘Is that why you shout at him?’
‘Oh yes we are good friends and that’s why I was taking him the van and myself. The police knew about us and were closing in on me.’ The mention of the police reminded Jo of her contact with them, of what she now considered a warning. She didn’t want to know more about it for now. ‘Did you go to college abroad Joseph?’ Somewhere she recalled that you should make friends with you captors. If they like you they may not kill you. People they like are harder to kill. ‘Hapana’ he said. ‘No, as you see our Leo has a little white blood in him. His father sent him away with his money. I went to Tanzania, which is abroad in a way eh?’ He looked at Jo. The black bruise on her face distorted her features and already sunburn was beginning to aggravate the pain. He watched her as she began, in the silence, to stengthen herself. ‘Okay’ he said and he lifted her to her feet, putting his arm around her for support so that they could stumble on. ‘Let’s go!’ and they limped comically into the mid-afternoon sun.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010