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The King's Rifle
Two years into the war, on a day so hot and stifling the usually bustling thoroughfares of Cairo were all but deserted, a spare, dishevelled looking Englishman with a stooping gait staggered through the city's dark alleyways and bazaars, jostling with horses, camels, bicycles, mopeds, pushcarts, pedestrians and cars, looking, he said, for a chemist. To every hawker he approached and tried to speak to, on narrow, congested streets wafting with the odour of ginger, cumin, sandalwood and mint; and at every shisha-pipe-smoke-filled coffee house he wandered into, it seemed, as he struggled to speak but seemed only to slur, that he was looking for something which existed only in his fever-sapped imagination; that much was clear, that this strange man, dressed in a British army uniform that hung loosely on his shrunken frame, and wearing a major's rank, was in the grips of a fierce and crippling fever. He shivered under the blistering heat, his teeth clattering as if he were in the deep chill of an English winter's day.
'Chemist,' he mouthed. 'Atabrine.' But the words came out in a meaningless slur. Clearly the man was ill. And yet his deep-set, pale blue eyes glared defiantly from a bony, thin face overgrown with a shaggy beard.
Curses and insults followed him as he staggered from one side of the street to the other without looking where he was going, and as he crossed the road back and back again without any apparent concern for his life or for oncoming traffic. A donkey-cart messenger who ended up in a sewage drain when he swerved to avoid the man ran after him and heartily wished divorce on his parents; ajitney driver who stepped on his brakes only just in time leaned out of his car and threatened, firstly, to impregnate the officer's mother, and secondly, to make a cuckold of him, and thirdly, to run him over next time. Then, in swift contrition, and asking God to forgive him for the sins of his mouth, the driver bundled the crazed British officer into his car and, having failed to draw out a lucid response when he asked where to take him, drove straight to the Continental Hotel in the city centre, which everyone knew was packed with Allied officers. There he palmed him off to the concierge, like an unwanted gift, and dashed back to his car, speeding off before the loathsome offering could be forced back on him. The driver need not have worried. He had brought Major Wingate back to the right place.
The concierge's face was creased with worry.
'Is the major all right?' he asked.
The major was far from all right. But the ride in the car seemed to have given him back his tongue. 'Take your filthy hands off me,' he snapped. 'I am not a cripple.'
The concierge winced and then bowed apologetically. 'Of course, Major Wingate,' he said. 'Forgive me, sir. I was only trying to assist.'
Wingate was shaking violently, as if he was having a spasm. 'The only help I need right now,' he quivered, 'is Atabrine. I must have Atabrine.'
'Atabrine,' said the concierge. He considered the word, mouthed it a few times, tried various ways of pronouncing it, paused thoughtfully and then shook his head. 'The name sounds familiar, sir,' he said gravely.
'Atabrine, sir. Is he one of our guests?'
The world spun around Wingate as he headed into the lobby. He went to the reception desk, ignoring an officer calling out to him from the crowded bar. 'Tayib, Tayib,' he said with obvious relief when he saw the receptionist, 'get me some Atabrine.'
'But Major Wingate,' Tayib beamed solicitously, 'I got you a whole bottle of Atabrine only yesterday.'
'All gone,' Wingate muttered.
'All, sir?' A line of sweat broke out on the receptionist's brow.
'I took the last two tablets this morning.'
'That was meant to last a week,' Tayib said gently.
Behind Wingate, at the bar across the lobby, the colonel was waving.
'Someone is trying to catch your attention, sir.'
'Get me another week's dosage, will you, Tayib?' He sounded desperate.
'Colonel Mitchell, sir, is trying to tell you something.'
Wingate turned and looked, with evident distaste, at the colonel. 'Ape,' he hissed before swinging round again to face Tayib. 'Well?' he said.
'Doctor Hamid—' Tayib began.
'Indeed, sir. But the prescription I got you yesterday came from Doctor Hamid, and Doctor Hamid left Cairo only this morning to visit his father in Alexandria.'
'I need Atabrine. I'm putting my trust in you, Tayib. I'll be in my room.'
'I'll see what I can do, Major Wingate.'
The receptionist watched Wingate struggle unsteadily towards the lift. Then he called out to the concierge, 'Ahmed.'
The concierge sauntered over to the front desk.
'I need some Atabrine,' Tayib said.
'What happened to the batch I picked up yesterday from Doctor Hamid?'
'Can you or can you not get me some from your brother-in-law?'
'Why can't you get it from Doctor Hamid?'
'Why must you always answer a question with a question?' Tayib leaned closer and said, 'I got quite an earful from him yesterday when I telephoned for the batch you picked up.'
'Doctor Hamid loves the sound of his own voice. Especially when he's about to slap you with a heavy bill.'
'That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the major simply came to me and said, "Tayib, get me some Atabrine."'
'Naturally. He seems to think Atabrine grows on trees.'
'So I telephoned Doctor Hamid. And he said to me, "Where's the patient? Bring him here to my clinic," he said. "Tell him I want to see him."'
Atabrine was known to be toxic and unpredictable. Even when taken in the recommended dosage, the doctor explained to Tayib, it was sometimes impossible to tell its side-effects apart from the worst symptoms of the illness it was meant to cure. It had been known to induce a deep psychosis in some people and had sent others into a coma. It was crucial, Doctor Hamid said, to examine the patient before prescribing Atabrine. But Tayib knew that it was futile to go back to Wingate with such a message. The King's Rifle. Copyright © by Biyi Bandele. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.