The heavy chuck chuck of the helicopter is always a sinister sound, whether it is hanging above the traffic on a busy urban town observing the commuter chaos below, or chopping its way to an off-shore rescue. Even so, its role as a weapon is more exactly defined in the collective mind than is that of a jet or a rocket. Somehow its distinctive sound and its surveillance disconcerts the people under observation. In the sleepiest of towns, its chuck chuck will make the occupants look up and check, is there someone on the run? Or are the rich on the move, needing security? When the helicopter is above an ordinary town, without a view or spectacular beauty, its presences hints at secret authority. Years of fighting, years of cheap films about fighting have given it the reputation of a murderer, a representative of sinister power and now one hovered above them, scanning the Umbele River.
Leo peered through the gathering gloom at the low flying weapon as it swept up the channel of the river. It rose and turned again, tracking back along the path of the river. The tourists sat exhausted in the cover of the trees. The second day had proved harder for everyone except Jo: for Jo, today could only be an improvement on yesterday; for the rest however, the effort of coaxing stiffened limbs into action again, after only four hours’ sleep proved hard enough, but the endless effort of placing one foot in front of the other had grown harder with every inch of the way. Yesterday their adrenalin had run high. Yesterday they were angry indignant, yesterday they were afraid but now they were confused, tired, resigned. The children had had to walk a good part of the way, Hammid had been tasked to run ahead checking each clearing and assessing each sound and they had hardly stopped to rest. They had reached the thicker scrub by midday and this cover meant that they had no need to stop until they reached the river. The sooner they reached the Umbele, the sooner they could rest. Leo had offered this as a motivation for speed and endurance. The party could only cross the river at night. Now they saw why.
Tom rested against a tree his breath coming in the now familiar wheeze. He stared at the hardened feet of one of the soldiers and envied the hard dry pads of his bare soles. Nothing seemed to touch them, neither the heat of the ground nor the two-inch thorns that they sometimes trod on. The wide toes gripped the sand and gave them leverage, no leather impeded their speed, no blisters, just hard fashioned skin met the soil. Only Leo Botaleni wore any kind of footwear. He wrapped his feet in strong leather thongs that never seemed to bite him between the toes where they always gripped Tom. Gingerly, Tom unlaced his trainers and peeled away the sock to reveal a large blood blister about an inch across on his left foot. What he do with it he had no idea. If he burst it, would the raw flesh be so sensitive that it would lame him completely and would they then shoot him like they always did the weak ones in the films? He looked at the injury. It hurt but it was enclosed, better to leave it, it would probably burst on its own anyway.
Above them, the helicopter taunted Leo. It knew that below on the ground the enemy skulked. It knew that to let them pass at the Umbele would be an unforgiveable failure. It knew that there were few places for them to ford the river and this was one of them. It hovered, thinking, assessing, considering its next move.
‘He must run out of fuel soon, ‘ Leo murmured. Joseph squatted beside him,
‘Perhaps he’ll land here’ he said optimistically.
‘Oh fuck you!’ Joseph chuckled and stood up brushing the dust from his hands. ‘You worry too much, you know as well as I do they’re not going to waste good fuel looking for us. This is a token effort, remember that, they’ll be busy at Jonja by now.’
‘God I hope so. I hope nothing’s gone wrong! Fuck it we should be there!’ Leo gave up his scanning of the, by now, almost dark skyline. They could still hear the chopper and they would hear it leave, for the time being there was little they could do but wait and hide.
With the darkness came the cold, but they could light no fires so they waited by the damp river, sometimes moving about to fight off the hint of chill ‘I bet you never thought you’d be cold in Africa huh kid?’ said Carl to his son as the child snuggled closer to his father. The boy was too tired to reply. ‘I guess we must pretty high up here, is that right Joseph?’ Joseph smiled wryly and observed to the American
‘You still want a safari eh?’
‘Well it’s what I paid for, I may as well make the best of it.’ Joseph rubbed his hands and after a moment he replied. ‘The river runs down from the Umbele mountains onto a plateau. This is the Umbele river and we are on the Tenda Plain, the plateau. We are about two thousand feet up yes, high enough to be cold yes? It’s warmer on the coast.’
‘So we have made it to the Tenda Plain?’
‘Oh yes but we are not on the Reserve, we are cutting off the eastern corner of the plain. The reserve is more to the west. We wouldn’t want you running into a game drive after all.’
‘Are we likely to see any animals?’
‘It’s possible but they stay mostly on the reserve. They avoid the war.’
‘Wise beasts, I wish I had.’
‘If you wanted to avoid the war, why did you come here?’ Now it was the American’s turn to proffer a wry grin as he gathered his son closer to him.
‘Well I’d say your government…’
‘Not ours’ Hammid interrupted with intensity of a zealot.
‘Yeah well, that’s as maybe, the present government of this country was not all that honest about the way things are here.’
‘We wanted to see as much as we could while we here in Africa,’ Betty cut in now ‘and only Kinjii has Lake Maru.’ Her face still glowed red in the darkness from the sun and the effort of the day. ‘We’ve heard it’s very beautiful, the birds and the lake. Joseph nodded.
‘Yes it’s a very beautiful lake. I would have liked to have taken you there.’ A silence fell on the group full of “if only” and “what now?” And above the helicopter still chuck chucked overhead.
Jo sat feeling the bruise on her face with her fingers, following the track of a cut near her jaw and wondering whether it would scar and whether that would be relevant in a few days time. She moved her jaw and felt it click painfully in a way that it had never done before. She wondered whether that click would be permanent. She touched the sore skin around her eye checking for swelling. She must still look very ugly even so, she did not feel quite as ugly as she had felt the day before and not in so much pain. At least she had been able to walk most of the way and she had had little need of Joseph’s support, although his generosity with his own water supply had sustained, not only herself, but the children. She sat thinking about the day, remembering the heat and the new landscape of Africa that was now becoming familiar, even intimate. She watched Betty lie back on the ground with the same stiff movement that was common to all of them now, except their captors. Captors? She looked across to Leo who sat crouching still listening to the searching helicopter. His familiar profile, sometimes etched against the river as the moon lit the water, when he did he shifted slight, out of sight, giving her only the merest glimpse of her Leo.
Carol singing, God she remembered them going carol singing for charity. If she had know then what she knew now..? It wasn’t worth pursuing that line. He had come with them for the English experience. He had wanted to experience the Dickensian atmosphere and to feel cold, really cold, not like they felt now, just chilly and uncomfortable. He had been disappointed. There was no snow, not even a frost, just a mild wet and windy December night, which did nothing for the ambiance of their task. It was no spontaneous tramp. They had made arrangements to sing in a small village just outside Leicester. At each house they had stood and sung while the owner came to the door. Then they had been invited in for mulled wine and mince pies. They had sung some more and moved on to the next house. She remembered that Leo had had a deep bass voice and he had sung with a rich accuracy borne of familiarity. He had sung as if he had really meant it and his contribution had been much appreciated by the listeners. They had got steadily mellower and collected almost fifty pounds for charity. What was the charity? Jo wobbled her tooth with her tongue and then she remembered and memory made her cynical. It had been the NSPCC, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children oh ha ha! She looked across to the two exhausted children curled up beside their parents, what cruelty lay in store for them?
Leo had stood up suddenly. The note in the helicopter’s engine had changed. It had altered its course. Were they spotted? Everybody looked up and listened in the darkness to the activity above. For a moment the sound grew louder, as the helicopter sped directly overhead, but then its heavy sound started to grow more distant until it was nothing more than a whisper that disappeared. Everyone was relieved, both captors and captives alike, even though the captives thought their rescue lay in the helicopter. They knew that a shoot out in the dark would be no guarantee of survival for any of them.
Leo turned to the tourists. ‘We still have five kilometres to go tonight and most of it is up. We cross the Umbele and move up into the caves on the other side.’ He moved forward while the weary band began to pull themselves up, waking the children. ‘Oh daddy!’ They protested, but their father did not reply, he simply set the children on their feet and waited for Leo to start moving. The others also waited and Leo, with one more cursory check of the sky and river, began to lead the way down to the bank and the clearing.
They slipped and slithered into the muddy sides of the river, Leo turned and spoke again first to Joseph and a second man. These two leant forward to the children and heaved the sleepy packets onto their backs. The parents watched anxiously but Joseph and his colleague gripped the children securely. Leo set Hammid at the front and then turned to the rest. ‘The water flows quite fast but it’s not overpowering, at its deepest it’s about waist deep on me, the bottom is mud and rock. Now move quickly we don’t want to spend any more time in it that we need. We’ve no guarantee that that chopper won’t be back.’ He started to usher them forward past him and added as an afterthought ‘Don’t think that they will be able to tell the difference between white and black from up there.’
The group began to move out into the flowing water. The mud sucked at their feet, burying them up to their ankles in an unknown slime. ‘Are there any crocs?’ whispered Betty.
‘Don’t worry ‘ replied Carl. ‘They always wait for the last man, they think the next one will be better.’ Jo heard the comment and looked back, scanning as best she could the dark slither tracks in the bank. Leo stood on the bank waiting for them all to move in. ‘Oh God’ she heard Tom groan in front of her. ‘I’m a lousy swimmer.’
‘Stay cool,’ Leo heard her reply. ‘I’m not.’ He watched her enter the water with the confidence of someone who knew the element well. The black river swept around her but it was deeper than he had anticipated, it almost engulfed Betty. It must have rained in the mountains. He lowered himself in, holding his rifle above his head, tense and alert for movement in the dingy water that could indicate more than the water’s own eddying. Jo was talking to the man in front and to Betty ahead of him, who almost lost her footing. Leo watched and listened, her voice, soothing and calm, much calmer than she must be, this was no children’s swimming lesson in a British pool. He remembered now, but he tried not to think of her. He tried not to recall her teaching lifesaving to the children of a nearby school in Leicester. He tried not to remember how she had taught them to talk to the victim, to keep them calm reassure them of rescue. ‘Most of all’ she had said ‘keep your distance from the victim. Many people are drowned trying to rescue someone who’s panicking. Stay away from them don’t be convinced by their pleading – hit them if you have to.’
He watched her pull herself out of the mud at the other side and sit on her haunches rubbing her arms just as she sat with a towel wrapped round her, crouched down, rubbing her arms, waiting for the call to her race. It was yet another charity do, an inter-departmental race to raise funds for the university library this time, as President of the Union he had had a front row seat. He had watched her cut through the water with that same confidence she had just displayed in the Umbele. She had not won, but she had made a good fight of it, gaining fourth behind some serious competition. She had made one or two of the men speed up their complacent stroke and she had beat them yet. It had been a great race. Individual medley and by the end of the first length of butterfly, she had looked a real loser but she had come back fast in the breast stroke, catching up with the stragglers and getting ahead. The gathered crowd began to cheer her on, and she held to gains on the third length of back stroke. On the last length she powered down the lanes catching up with the fifth place man and overtaking him ion the last ten metres. Leo had recognised a competitive tenacity that he knew existed in himself and he had wanted to know it better.
He watched her on the bank. She was safe, he hauled himself towards her and reached her quickly while his thoughts jerked back to the present. Joseph stepped forward to drag him out, somewhere nearby an unidentified splash warned him, and Joseph took the lead for a moment, herding the others urgently up the hill. Leo scrambled out, got to his feet and backed away from the bank, his gun scanning the bush.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010