Leo Botaleni scanned the darkened wilderness, straining for one sound or sight of the struggling couple. He was left with four men, Hammid, John, Ali and Utulu. He had given leave for Hammid and John to sleep. They had staggered exhausted into the small camp, a little behind Leo. They were laughing and the children, although stiff and bruised from their unusual journey, were content, but not particularly tired and even now their father was amusing them with a game of knuckle-dusters to keep them reasonably quiet while their mother slept. Betty had only shown signs of strain at the eighth kilometre and she had carried on gamely, until Leo had spotted her and went to her and they had come into the camp together. Betty had leant on him without complaint, her determination getting her through the last stage for which she had not prepared. He could not believe that Jo would be any less determined, but in his mind he still heard the bitter thud of his own uncontrolled fist, taking the wind from her lungs. He had not a single idea as to why he had done that, except the thought that he denied: that she reminded him, that she presented him with his guilt. She had always done that, she had always been able to present him flaws in his argument and his personality.
But where were they? Joseph and Josie? The two Jos, Leo almost smiled at the thought and scanned again the emptiness. Carl could not resist a jibe. ‘Looking for your girlfriend eh? I think you blew it there!’
‘Hush Carl,’ Betty was not so fast asleep. ‘Don’t anger him.’ Leo turned towards the couple. ‘Yes Carl, listen to your wife don’t forget, in these situations Americans die first.’ The children stopped playing their game, something of the afternoon’s earlier threat had returned and they crept closer to their father while Leo paced the camp. The two sentries stood motionless listening, looking, placed one at each end of the group. Leo ran his fingers through his hair. The sound of Tom’s painful wheezing was getting on his nerves. It blocked the chance of hearing life in the bush. The Englishman exuded weakness, he exuded trouble and yet more guilt, guilt that Jo would not be slow to present to him. Moreover, Tom he was decent and Leo knew that such a man could be a foolish and dangerous one. It was too risky to light a fire. They might attract attention, but would Joseph find them without a signal? Would he hear if he was being followed? It had been an hour and a half since the group had made camp and now there was a strange crash in the bush. Leo tensed and cocked his rifle in its direction. He let out a low moaning howl and waited. ‘What’s that daddy?’ whispered Marci.
‘Hyena honey, you’ll see some real guys later one.’ Leo got the answer he desired. A strange breathless laugh and he howled again. Within a moment Joseph and Jo crashed into the clearing, collapsing at Leo’s feet coughing and gasping. Jo curled and doubled into a ball and Joseph sat, breathless and sweating. Leo took out his water and helped Jo to drink, handing it to Joseph. Tom watched the two men and caught a strange intense look that passed between them before Joseph, watched by Leo, tried to lift Jo so that she could drink. But she was too far gone, her face had ballooned and she could not get her lips round the bottle neck.
‘Is she gonna die?’ asked Marci. Joseph laughed, able to speak now.
‘No she’ll be fine’ replied Joseph. Their father reassured them ‘If she can get through today, she can get through anything honey, come on Josephine!’ He relished the name. ‘Sit up’ Joseph whispered to her, struggling with frustration, and he nodded to Tom who had come forward to take a closer look. At Joseph’s instigation, Tom pulled himself up and moved towards them, exhaling in surprise at the stiffness in every joint. He put his arms under her arms and at the protest of every muscle he managed to support her, while Joseph set her mouth in such a way that she could drink. After a moment, Jo began to support herself and she put her hands to the bottle to pour its contents down her throat. ‘She’s fine’ said Carl. ‘She can sure take a beating.’
‘Yes American she is, but now I’m going to sleep.’ Joseph put the bottle away and without making an effort to see if Jo was comfortable, moved himself into a space, lay down and was asleep within seconds.
Tom and Carl managed to move Jo to the tourist section of the group, and she rested back, at last able to speak. ‘Thanks, I’ll be okay now.’
‘Sure?’ said Carl and in a demonstration of a singular lack of inhibition, as far as Jo was concerned, he bent and kissed the uninjured side of her face. ‘Sleep well, kid’ he said and turned back to his family, which lay like a pile of puppies, pressed together for protection.
Jo closed her eyes. The throbbing in her head made her nauseous, but her stomach didn’t seem to hurt any more and she was more than pleased to feel, that although loose and painful, all her teeth in her mouth. Despite the pain there was a warm feeling of achievement reviving her and she was, whatever the circumstances, glad and to be there.
Tom lay a yard away from her, his painful breathing rasping in the night. At least now she had the confidence to know that the pain would stop and she would recover, but for Tom the pain was lifelong and the uncertainty of strength permanent. ‘Mum’ she heard a voice whisper. ‘I can’t sleep, that man’s snoring.’
‘Sssh, he can’t help it, be kind.’ Tom coughed loudly trying to clear the phelegm from his throat and so reduce the noise, but it made little difference. Jo heard him moan quietly and she knew he was in despair. ‘Be kind’ Betty’s words echoed in her head. The children didn’t exactly have a good example to follow that day. There was no reason to assume that being kind would ever do them any good. They had learned that lesson once and for all, irrevocably for the rest of their lives. Even so Jo reached out her hand to Tom’s and grasped it, not knowing whether he would reject her or fear her. He was comforted though and responded with a gentle squeeze of her fingers. They lay, still two feet apart, holding hands. Gradually, Tom’s breathing became regular and Jo knew he was comforted and sleeping. The warmth of his touch acted as a focus for peace in them both and soon she too found her pain subsided and she slept.
She was walking on a long dusty road and up ahead she saw Martin. She called and ran towards him but very quickly found that she was tired, exhausted and he ran ahead of her. Suddenly a wild wind got up and a spinning dust storm enveloped them both. It stung her face and eyes, but she opened them to see Martin right close to her. She jumped, startled and she stepped forward towards him, but the dust thickened and when it was gone, so was Martin and she was left in a red and angry desert. She was overwhelmed by desolation and called out in desperation ‘Martin!’ and sat bolt upright.
Leo Botaleni met her confused, half waking stare. He was crouched at her feet watching, for how long, she did not know and she did not want to know. She flopped back, a little too hard for her pain and closed her eyes, not wanting to see Leo instead of Martin. When she opened her eyes again, he was gone, slipping silently back to his dark corner of the camp, where he lay.
Leo had slept only a little that night. He had snatched an awkward doze after Joseph had got back with Jo. It would soon be time to move on, before dawn started to heat the ground. They must get another eight kilometres away from this site before the heat stopped them. It had not been quite time to move when he had finally woken out of his restless dozing and, attracted by the familiar face, he had stopped to look at Jo and wonder what had brought her here. She brought with her another world. A world he had not thought about for years, seven years to be exact. She prompted the memory of cold nights, of snow, of warm, cosy rooms filled with people and smoke, of innocent playing at adult games. It was a world where pain was the dentist, bereavement, cancer and futile violence a riot of a hundred people.
He remembered cocoa and coffee, skunk and Southern Comfort, faces he had not recalled for years floated past him, but he had always remembered Jo. He knew her the moment he saw her that afternoon. Had she planned it? Had she come looking? He smiled to himself. It was hardly likely that she had come looking, he was flattering himself to think so, one party smooch was not worth a seven year search. He tried to remember her as he had first seen her before this kick of time had wounded them both with its bitter joke.
‘It is therefore clear to me…’ He was standing in the lecture theatre addressing a full and light-hearted room of students. ‘That the Faculty of Law must remain in this balloon. For, and think on this, who is to blame for its faulty construction? If the lawyer is chucked out, the answer to that question will never be known. Who will sue for compensation?’ Everyone had laughed and the Chairman had called for speeches from the floor. Jo was up immediately, never afraid to speak out. He smiled again, not much had changed then. She had worn a bright patchwork skirt and luminous tights, a baggy jumper that almost hid her face, her pure unblemished face, and her hair slid down her back in a long and sexy dark plait. Now, he noted, she had a short straight style, a bob. He liked it, even if now it was reddened with her blood. ‘Mr Chairperson,’ she had started, confident and full of cheek. ‘What rubbish we have heard, especially from the Law Department. Did lawyers make the Law? No the Law comes from Christianity, the basis of our religion and our culture. Our whole system is based on the ten commandments ‘Thou shalt not kill etc..’ so my vote definitely goes for the Theology Department. Who else can call on the power of God for a miracle and lift the balloon above the laws of nature. After all God himself said “Let there be Light”‘ She said this with a flourish which was completed as someone switched on the theatre lights. The audience roared and she laughed at the success of her trick. ‘I rest my case’ and she bounced back to her seat.
They neither of them won that debate. He couldn’t remember who did, but they found themselves in the bar together, introduced and laughing at the afternoon’s end of term fun. They had sat and talked amid their friends, of Kinjii and exams. The two subjects seemed so natural then, how long had it been since he had thought of exams?
‘Who made you?’ A West Indian student had said for eccentric effect, in the accent of his home, deep and serious, with a twinkle in his eye. They were half way through the evening. ‘God made me’ Leo had replied
‘And where is God?’ the voice was still deep with meaning.
‘God is everywhere’ Leo had responded. Somehow the two of them had shared a background that now eluded the white students of England who sat round them and the evening dulled with the talk of God and memories of the Mission and all its implications for black and white relationships either in the home country or in the cold climates of Northern Europe.
Jo turned her head in a disturbed sleep and in a moment she was facing him, a haggard bruised reflection of the girl student. But then he was not unchanged, why should he expect her to remain the same? They looked at each other and she lay back. Leo caught sight of Tom, watching him. He stood and turned away.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010