‘Shit!’ said Carl again. Frau Ziegler spoke this time to Joseph also in Swahili. Jo could not understand her words but she knew the woman was begging Joseph to drive on. ‘Hapana’ said Joseph and nothing more as he turned off the road following the way that soldier indicated. They drove about a hundred yards into the yellow scrub, until they were far enough from the road not to be seen or heard, and then Joseph stopped, but no one had signaled for him to do so.
‘Daddy look!’ Craig pointed and all heads turned. Out of the bush, as if from the trees, had gathered a unit of ten or so men. All were thin and dusty, none wore shoes but each was in a form of army fatigues, not a uniform as such, but a statement enough of their unity. A short distance away from them was a truck and by it was a huge pile of vegetation. It was hard to make out at first but it seemed to be a mix of sisal and maize husks. Somehow Jo did not think they had come to a market. She stared at it all, wondering if the truck and the enormous compost heap were some kind of mirage or an hysterical hallucination. A click from the car door brought all heads back to Joseph who got slowly out of the car. He jumped down, closing and locking the door behind him. He stood languidly by the van with an angry expression on his face. One of the soldiers stepped forward. He got right close to Joseph, like an aggressive sergeant major, and stared him out. The silence settled, like the dust on them and then the soldier burst out in a torrent of abuse. The tourists watched for a moment and then Carl turned to Martin and asked ‘What’s going down?’ Martin shrugged. ‘As far as I can gather, Joseph was expected to bring an empty van. Joseph is respectfully suggesting that they could have let us pass, apparently he’d have brought the van back this afternoon.’ The American looked back at the antagonists, who, having put their point were now facing the dilemma of what had happened. ‘So he is one of ’em’ said Carl. ‘Oh Carl, the children’ Betty stared at her husband.
‘Easy Betts honey, they’ll get it sorted. Nothing a bit of cash won’t cure.’ His reassurance wavered as voice cracked into a high note as he spoke. The frightened adolescent hovered.
Joseph was moving round the van and coming to the door. He swung it open, his expression was uncomfortable in the extreme. He did not look at them but indicated that they should get out and line up against the van. ‘Oh God!’ Jo heard Tom whisper under his breath, but she herself felt disassociated from the event, even the sight of Joseph’s sweat and the strange bite of the dust in her eyes, could not make the situation real. She was a secondary school teacher from England, not a woman about to die in a terrorist attack.
They went round the van and lined up against it facing the soldiers, about ten feet away. The two sides stared at each other, as if they had never seen their like before. They examined one another with the intensity that violence brings upon the perpetrators and their victims. The fat cat tourists in their clean clothes at least three of them overweight. The band of guerrillas with faces as uniform as their poverty appearing without fear or anger, each molded by their past. The tourists had not been made to suffer as their captors had, but they would. The moment was crucial, indecision hung above them, suspended by the tension.
Joseph stepped forward and there began again a long haranguing between him and the bandit leader. No one spoke. They did not need a translator, it was clear that Joseph was attempting to clear a path for them. He was trying to suggest a compromise, something that would mean that they could all get out of this situation alive. On occasion the discussion grew heated, hands waved, weapons were repositioned, the watching bandits, held their guns on the tourists, while they waited.
‘Do they need money?’ Carl intervened. His voice did not decrease the tension, both the arguing men turned on him. The bandit leader waved his gun in Carl’s face. Joseph reverted to English. ‘These people are not fools. This is not a robbery. They will not be bought for pennies. There is a plan here and you are not part of it.’
‘Can we at least sit down? The kids are tired.’ Joseph looked at Craig and Marci and the grey and shivering Betts. Joseph made the request, he nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You can sit down.’ The tourists, settled down by the van, Martin at its outer edge. The bandits also, squatted, guns still pointed at the “guests”.
The conversation continued, until at last there was some pause in the proceedings. The leader seemed calmer and after, what seemed like an age, but was probably no more than twenty minutes, he patted Joseph on the shoulder and wandered off, leaving the guards watching Joseph and the tourists. After a moment, Martin attracted his attention, whispering through gritted, angry teeth. ‘Is there a deal?’
‘There may be,’ replied Joseph. ‘I have to go with them, you have to wait, wait, maybe a day under guard, and then we let you go.’
‘In what way let us go, with the van?’
‘No, no van.’
‘What we just walked, the kids can’t walk….’ Betts’ high voice, injected her anxiety into the conversation. ‘That’s the deal!’ Joseph hissed, as the guards began to tense at the sound of her voice. ‘We’ll be okay,’ Martin reassured. ‘I can sort that out, once we are on the road. Where’s he gone, the Bwana Kubwe..’
‘He’s not the Bwana Kubwe, he’s gone to ask about the deal.’ There was a silence amongst the tourists, so this deal was not as yet finalized. Their situation remained precarious. Jo closed her eyes against the scene, the heat and the smell of fear still pervaded but, with her eyes closed, she could sense a different place, a safer place and wait there for the decision to be made.
A long and frightened moan issued from the boy at the missionary’s side and both sides were distracted. ‘Hush’ she said but he was beyond ‘hush’ and no one had seen him go that far. His face was screwed up in a terrible fear and the for the first time Jo saw the burn scars on is arms and she understood the compassion Frau Ziegler’s eyes, tears were streaking down her face. She was struggling to restrain the child Angus, his terror was so palpable, no one understood how they could have missed it. He had bitten his lip so hard that he was bleeding and he was moaning ‘Maman, maman.’ Frau Ziegler, clung to him, trying to calm him, as he struggled harder and harder to get away from her, from that place, from those men. It was only a matter of time before his strength would overwhelm hers and he would break free.
‘Hapana, Angus, hapana’ The woman, Ziegler’s voice grew urgent and she reached to grasp the child’s shoulders, but he succeeded and escaped her before she could grip, and he screamed at her a long angry howl. He screamed, screwed up the energy inside him and focused it. He turned to the line of bandits and, quicker it seemed, than light, he hurtled towards one of them, his fists flying, a knife brandished in one hand that none of them, not even Frau Ziegler, had seen before. She started to follow him but Joseph caught her just as the child made contact with his chosen opponent, slashing his arm, blood gushed from the wound, accompanied by an indignant shout from the victim. The answering shot yelled out in a second, flinging the child, howling, to the ground. He fell on a bush and the man shot him again. The convulsing body seemed to rise with life as the second bullet shattered his heart, but it was a mockery and the deflated child sank like a damaged balloon.
Then there was noise. The silence and calm so carefully constructed by Joseph’s negotiations was cracked with screams from the children and the moaning of Frau Ziegler as she dropped to the ground. Everyone stared at the body unable to comprehend what they had come to in such a short time, all stared at the child. Each one of them appalled by the evidence of this new reality they had entered. Jo looked for a second, but saw in Angus a thousand more privileged children she had taught, she could not bare it so she turned away. She thought she would find relief in blinding herself to the scene, but instead she saw something else, someone else.
A scenario she did not believe, a sick serendipity that made God the Joker in the pack was unfolding in the dust. A tall pale African was walking towards the scene. His face was pitted with anger and his clothes, although the bandit uniform, were strong and not ragged like the rest. The leader? Obviously, but more than that, Jo could not mistake that face. The high forehead and the almost baby features, the shallow acne scars on his neck. She could almost smell the aftershave. She could see the worn Gap jeans and the old Bench T-shirt. This was a man she recognized, this was a man she knew. What was happening to her in this empty wilderness? What force was playing games with their lives, unable to help herself, she whispered ‘Leo? Leo Botaleni?’ And he heard it.
He stopped and turned that face to her at the sound of his name, to seek out the source of the voice. He saw Jo and they stared at each other, slain by the idiocy of it all. Jo was enraged and thus suddenly unafraid. ‘Remember me,’ she said. ‘Leicester University.’ She challenged him with her fury. After a moment he moved forward to her. ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’
Jo’s anger and fear burst within her and suddenly the reality of the situation hit her. It was there in Leo Botaleni’s face. She hissed at him. ‘Is that justice Leo?’ He turned to look where her anger pointed. He saw the dead child. ‘Is that what English law taught you? Is this the world of freedom you were always going on about?’ His head spun back to her as if struck by a snake and just as fast he hit her. The blow came unexpectedly and the power of it sent her spinning with the pain into the dust by the side of the van. Botaleni stepped over her and pulled her up. She swayed like a rag doll so he shook her to align her bones and make her stand. ‘Justice eh? You want justice!’ And he turned again faster than her barely focused eyes could see and aimed the gun. With two shots, he felled Angus’s killer and Jo’s horror at what she had precipitated found no voice of protest, merely a strangled, animal howl. Her voice found chords she never knew she had. It reverberated amid the gathered people like the cry of a sentient lamb about to be slaughtered. The last shred of her innocence died with its echo.
And Martin saw his chance, all the attention was on Jo and the Botaleni man, while the second body still moving was shot again, this time, in the head, by a guard. Martin saw the other Englishman fall to his knees and vomit. This also distracted the assembled few and all Martin wanted to do was escape. It hardly crossed his mind that he would be leaving Jo, for fuck’s sake she knew their leader, was she linked to this whole scene? Had she used him? Did she know? Her knowledge of this man implicated her. He could not articulate his thinking, but he knew one thing, he knew it without a shadow of a doubt. He wanted to stay alive. He knew he did not want to meet the Maker, he advocated so strongly. There was no sign of Him in this. There was no guiding Pillar of Fire or Smoke. There was no stopping of the lion’s mouths. They were getting burned. The God of Abraham and Isaac was not picking up the tab.
If he could just slip behind the van without being seen, then they probably would not notice for some time that he had gone. This fiasco was exercising all their minds. He had seen the road sentry come in at the sound of the first shot. They were a disorganised and undisciplined bunch of blacks. If they were stupid enough to stop a full van, they were stupid enough to elude.
Jo went down, Botaleni had punched her in the stomach. ‘What the fuck did you come here for?’ Martin had heard the man cry as if she had broken his favourite pipe and he had hit her. All pairs of eyes were on Jo and so Martin slipped behind the van.
All pairs of eyes except one. Carl watched Martin go. He saw him move into the bush towards the road. He did not see him run on nor reach the road nor cross it, but he knew he did do that for no cry of pursuit was raised. Martin succeeded. His desire for self-preservation proved the ultimate motivation and he did not stop until he reached a distant baobab, where, at last, gasping and horrified with self-knowledge – he knelt in the dust and sobbed. ‘Jo! Oh God Jo.’
Carl turned back to the coughing girl in the dust. Botaleni had crippled her good, but not killed her. ‘What the fuck did you come here for?’ He had cried and Jo was not given time to answer, to tell him, as she wanted to that, she was no tourist, but partner to Martin. Somehow it seemed important to her to underline that she wasn’t a tourist. The blow took all the breath and energy out of her and she collapsed at Botaleni’s feet, drowned in the pain. Carl saw his chance. Botaleni was backing away and he moved in on the pretext of aid. ‘It’s okay kid’ he said aloud so that all could hear him. ‘It’s okay’ and then he put his lips against her and whispered. ‘Your hubby’s gone. Say nothing, just give him time to get help.’ Jo’s short gasping breath stopped for a second and she stared uncomprehendingly at the American who, having failed to drag her nearer to the van was backing away, for Botaleni was coming back.
It was Betty who distracted his attention this time ‘Please let us go, we have children here.’ Leo looked at the two young white faces and then at Jo doubled at his feet and he turned away again. He brushed his hand through his tight curled hair wiping away the sweat from his hand. ‘Hammid!’
Hammid was a problem. He frequently struck at Leo seeking leadership. Leo had to win this skirmish or he would lose his power base and no straggled tourists would be left living. The troupe watched and waited and in the distance a baboon bark heralded the presence of man. Like before they could only understand the altercation by implication not by the actual understanding of the words, but the implications were critical. All were, by now aware, that they were not intended to be standing or sitting in the sun, watching a struggle for their lives. By now they should have been sitting in Five Star lounge bar, and the only local faces around them should have been friendly, not angrily displaying their grievances with force enough to kill. Leo started to move away to indicate that the conversation had ended but his challenger was not finished yet. ‘Keep them alive?’ You’re going soft Botaleni!’ Hammid spoke in English and the surmise of the tourists was confirmed. The children began to cry. Up until then they had been almost silent witnesses of the carnage, too shocked to speak, to afraid to move. Now though, their terror got the better of them. Leo spun back at him in rage and levelled his gun at Hammid and waited. They faced each other. ‘Who gives the orders in this unit Hammid?’ Hammid was silent for a moment and then with sulky look at the gun he replied ‘You do boss.’ In a parody of a Southern States slave, Leo fired the gun and the bullet thudded past Hammid making him drop to his knees until he knew he was all right and then he raised his eyes to Leo who stood above him still aiming the gun. ‘So what’s it to be?’ He said. ‘Life or death?’ Hammid examined the barrel of the gun and the unstable face behind it and raised himself slowly to his feet. ‘Alive’ he said and Leo lowered the gun. He and Hammid stared across at each other and in that pause the challenge was recognised but Leo did not reflect on it for long. ‘Okay, we take them with us Ali, John, Joshua and Will do the truck as planned.’
Once again the vomit rose in Tom’s throat. The relief of a stay of execution seemed little comfort as the fountain of green spilled out of his mouth and stained the dust. He had noticed that Martin had gone, what would happen when they found out? He shook. All he could hear was the shots. All he could see was the hideously grey body of the child Angus, and now the old woman kneeling in prayer beside him. ‘God!’ he heard the American say ‘I didn’t know people still did that.’
‘Sssh Carl’ said Betty. ‘Have some respect.’ And then Botaleni did discover the absentee. Joseph had spotted the missing face. He ran back to Jo and forced her onto her feet again. ‘Where’s your boyfriend eh? He’s left you hasn’t he?’ And he pushed her down again. It was an anti-climax after all that had gone before Botaleni didn’t care and no more vomit rose in Tom’s throat. He dragged himself back to the shade of the van. ‘That man’s been sick mummy.’ He heard the girl say and Leo Botaleni began barking some more orders. ‘Joshua take the old woman with you in the truck. She knows the country. She’d be able to tell where she was if she came with us. One’s got away so dump her just before you cross the line. Do what you think best. If she’s any trouble…’ he went on in Swahili so that Frau Ziegler would understand, but no one else ‘Kill her.’ The old woman went on praying until at last she rose from her dusted knees and said to no one in particular, in halting English. ‘The Government police killed his mother. They tried to burn him alive. He couldn’t tell the difference between them and these men. All guns terrified him.’ And she wandered quietly towards the truck.
Tom sat in the sun. The van had now been commandeered and moved towards the larger truck. His heart was racing and the speed of his breath almost suffocated him. ‘You ought to breathe into a paper bag,’ said Carl unable to conceal his contempt. Tom was a weak man, who couldn’t stand a battle. Tom ignored him and concentrated on watching the bizarre scene unfold before him. The unit had stripped the van of its luggage, going through each bag and falling upon anything of use. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, aspirins, pencils paper and few women’s clothes, but no cameras or bags or anything too heavy, except Carl’s camera and state of the art laptop. They took those and placed them in the van – propaganda was a powerful weapon. Then they went round all the tourists and took their mobile phones, batteries and solar chargers – a pair of binoculars and a baseball cap that sported the title ‘USS Seawasp’. All else they discarded like only so much litter on the ground. Tom looked at his new trousers, which he had bought for the trip and not yet worn. They lay in the dust reddened in the soil, like blood.
Once the van was emptied, they let down a ramp in the truck and Joseph drove it on. Once in the truck the use for the pile of vegetation became clear, for they began to pack the sisal and the maize husks around the van, piling it into every gap until, at last, the van was concealed and there stood a battered truck full of local produce. Tom almost laughed, but the shortness of his breath denied him this amusement, and the sudden wheezing the minor effort brought on, made him shake with apprehension.
And all this time Jo lay in the sun, too frightened to move, not of Leo or their guards, but of the pain in her head and stomach. The pain that even through the slightest movement shattered her body like glass. Carl watched her, his arm round Betty, the children sheltering at his side. ‘Carl?’ Betty said.
‘I know honey’. They both looked at Jo. Then Carl checked out the site. His eyes flicked from man to man, each was busy with his own task. Only one soldier watched them. He crouched by a bush on the other side of the bodies, but he was young and uncertain. Carl smiled at him and began to move slowly towards Jo. The teenager cocked his rifle and pointed it at Carl, but Carl did not stop. Tom closed his eyes and summoned his courage forcing his breathing to some kind of regular rhythm and he too moved closer to Jo. The American got there first. ‘Come on girl, let’s get a look at you.’ Jo was still in the doubled up position that she had fallen in when Leo had felled her for the second time. Her face was in the dust, sand in her eyes. Carl turned her over and made her stretch out. She moaned but Carl rebuked her. ‘You ‘re not so badly hurt, believe me. I’ve seen a few fights.’
‘Carl’ Betty hissed reprovingly warning in her tone. He indicated to Tom to help get her to her feet. Tom followed his example and took one arm hooking it over his shoulders and gripping the free hand. They both got under her and with a wheezing struggle they got her to her feet. ‘Come on kid.’ Carl continued. ‘You’ve got to stand on those legs, I figure we’ve got some walking to do. I don’t see any limousines.’
Jo’s head flopped back on her neck as she tried to get her balance and Tom saw the huge spreading bruise over half of her face that swelled her lips, eye and nose. He and Carl exchanged a look and then he spoke. ‘Come on Jo’ he said, hoping the use of her name might bring her round a bit. ‘Come on love’ and she began to work her legs and together they walked with her ‘Atta girl’ said Carl. ‘Let’s get that stiffness out those joints eh?’ Then the three of them began a comic little dance in the sand beside the already fly ridden bodies of the day’s events. Jo jerking with pain and a hazy consciousness. ‘Martin?’ she said once.
‘He’s safe’ said Carl quickly. ‘He’s getting us help huh? You want to be around when he comes back don’t you?’ And Jo walked on gradually taking her own weight. Her eyes beginning to focus on the strange brush, a swelling blurring her focus in one eye. The figures of the uniformed men swung past her and then… she looked at the ground into the shattered face of Angus. ‘Leo?’ she said. ‘Oh Leo’ and pulled herself free of the two men at last. Shocked from the stunning pain and numbed comprehension she walked freely watched by the boy soldier. She walked with a steadier pace, staring round her as memory and comprehension reawakened her and she saw Leo, standing by a truck full of vegetables and staggered a little, still unsure of reality. She looked at the now seated figures of Tom and Carl and walked towards them treading in Tom’s vomit as she did so, but she didn’t notice.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010