– 1 –
‘I don’t like the idea,’ announced Wally Hendry, and belched. He moved his tongue round his mouth getting the taste of it before he went on. ‘I think the whole idea stinks like a ten-day corpse.’ He lay sprawled on one of the beds with a glass balanced on his naked chest and he was sweating heavily in the Congo heat.
‘Unfortunately your opinion doesn’t alter the fact that we are going.’ Bruce Curry went on laying out his shaving tackle without looking up.
‘You shoulda told them to keep it, told them we were staying here in Elisabethville – why didn’t you tell them that, hey?’ Hendry picked up his glass and swallowed the contents.
‘Because they pay me not to argue.’ Bruce spoke without interest and looked at himself in the fly-spotted mirror above the washbasin. The face that looked back was sun-darkened with a cap of close-cropped black hair; soft hair that would be unruly and inclined to curl if it were longer. Black eyebrows slanting upwards at the comers, green eyes with a heavy fringe of lashes and a mouth which could smile as readily as it could sulk. Bruce regarded his good looks without pleasure. It was a long time since he had felt that emotion, a long time since his mouth had either smiled or sulked. He did not feel the old tolerant affection for his nose, the large slightly hooked nose that rescued his face from prettiness and gave him the air of a genteel pirate.
‘Jesus!’ growled Wally Hendry from the bed. ‘I’ve had just about a gutsful of this nigger army. I don’t mind fighting – but I don’t fancy going hundreds of miles out into the bush to play nursemaid to a bunch of bloody refugees.’
‘It’s a hell of a life,’ agreed Bruce absently and spread shaving-soap on his face. The lather was very white against his tan. Under a skin that glowed so healthily that it appeared to have been freshly oiled, the muscles of his shoulders and chest changed shape as he moved. He was in good condition, fitter than he had been for many years, but this fact gave him no more pleasure than had his face.
‘Get me another drink, André.’ Wally Hendry thrust his empty glass into the hand of the man who sat on the edge of the bed.
The Belgian stood up and went across to the table obediently.
‘More whisky and less beer in this one,’ Wally instructed, turned once more to Bruce and belched again. ‘That’s what I think of the idea.’
As André poured Scotch whisky into the glass and filled it with beer Wally hitched around the pistol in its webbing holster until it hung between his legs.
‘When are we leaving?’ he asked.
‘There’ll be an engine and five coaches at the goods yard first thing tomorrow morning. We’ll load up and get going as soon as possible.’ Bruce started to shave, drawing the razor down from temple to chin and leaving the skin smooth and brown behind it.
‘After three months of fighting a bunch of greasy little Gurkhas I was looking forward to a bit of fun – I haven’t even had a pretty in all that time – now the second day after the ceasefire and they ship us out again.’
‘C’est la guerre,’ muttered Bruce, his face twisted in the act of shaving.
‘What’s that mean?’ demanded Wally suspiciously.
‘That’s war,’ Bruce translated.
‘Talk English, Bucko.’
It was the measure of Wally Hendry that after six months in the Belgian Congo he could neither speak nor understand a single word of French.
There was silence again, broken only by the scraping of Bruce’s razor and the small metallic sound as the fourth man in the hotel room stripped and cleaned his FN rifle.
‘Have a drink, Haig,’ Wally invited him.
‘No, thanks.’ Michael Haig glanced up, not trying to conceal his distaste as he looked at Wally.
‘You’re another snotty bastard – don’t want to drink with me, hey? Even the high-class Captain Curry is drinking with me. What makes you so goddam special?’
‘You know that I don’t drink.’ Haig turned his attention back to his weapon, handling it with easy familiarity. For all of them the ugly automatic rifles had become an extension of their own bodies. Even while shaving Bruce had only to drop his hand to reach the rifle propped against the wall, and the two men on the bed had theirs on the floor beside them.
‘You don’t drink!’ chuckled Wally. ‘Then how did you get that complexion, Bucko? How come your nose looks like a ripe plum?’
Haig’s mouth tightened and the hands on his rifle stilled.
‘Cut it out, Wally,’ said Bruce without heat.
‘Haig don’t drink,’ crowed Wally, and dug the little Belgian in the ribs with his thumb, ‘get that, André! He’s a tee-bloody-total! My old man was a teetotal also; sometimes for two, three months at a time he was teetotal, and then he’d come home one night and sock the old lady in the clock so you could hear her teeth rattle from across the street.’
His laughter choked him and he had to wait for it to clear before he went on.
‘My bet is that you’re that kind of teetotal, Haig. One drink and you wake up ten days later, that’s it, isn’t it? One drink and – pow! – the old girl gets it in the chops and the kids don’t eat for a couple of weeks.’
Haig laid the rifle down carefully on the bed and looked at Wally with his jaws clenched, but Wally had not noticed. He went on happily.
‘André, take the whisky bottle and hold it under Old Teetotal Haig’s nose. Let’s watch him slobber at the mouth and his eyes stand out like a pair of dog’s balls.’
Haig stood up. Twice the age of Wally – a man in his middle fifties, with grey in his hair and the refinement of his features not completely obliterated by the marks that life had left upon them. He had arms like a boxer and a powerful set to his shoulders. ‘It’s about time you learned a few manners, Hendry. Get on your feet.’
‘You wanta dance or something? I don’t waltz – ask André. He’ll dance with you – won’t you, André?’
Haig was balanced on the balls of his feet, his hands closed and raised slightly. Bruce Curry placed his razor on the shelf above the basin, and moved quietly round the table with soap still on his face to take up a position from which he could intervene. There he waited, watching the two men.
‘Get up, you filthy guttersnipe.’
‘Hey, Andre, get that. He talks pretty, hey? He talks real pretty.’
‘I’m going to smash that ugly face of yours right into the middle of the place where your brain should have been.’
‘Jokes! This boy is a natural comic.’ Wally laughed, but there was something wrong with the sound of it. Bruce knew then that Wally was not going to fight. Big arms and swollen chest covered with ginger hair, belly flat and hard-looking, thick-necked below the wide flat-featured face with its little Mongolian eyes; but Wally wasn’t going to fight. Bruce was puzzled: he remembered the night at the road bridge and he knew that Hendry was no coward, and yet now he was not going to take up Haig’s challenge.
Mike Haig moved towards the bed.
‘Leave him, Mike.’ André spoke for the first time, his voice soft as a girl’s. ‘He was only joking. He didn’t mean it.’
‘Hendry, don’t think I’m too much of a gentleman to hit you because you’re on your back. Don’t make that mistake.’
‘Big deal,’ muttered Wally. ‘This boy’s not only a comic, he’s a bloody hero also.’
Haig stood over him and lifted his right hand with the fist, bunched like a hammer, aimed at Wally’s face.
‘Haig!’ Bruce hadn’t raised his voice but its tone checked the older man.
‘That’s enough,’ said Bruce.
‘But this filthy little—’
‘Yes, I know,’ said Bruce. ‘Leave him!’ With his fist still up Mike Haig hesitated, and there was no movement in the room. Above them the corrugated iron roof popped loudly as it expanded in the heat of the Congo midday, and the only other sound was Haig’s breathing. He was panting and his face was congested with blood.
‘Please, Mike,’ whispered André. ‘He didn’t mean it.’
Slowly Haig’s anger changed to disgust and he dropped his hand, turned away and picked up his rifle from the other bed.
‘I can’t stand the smell in this room another minute. I’ll wait for you in the truck downstairs, Bruce.’
‘I won’t be long,’ agreed Bruce as Mike went to the door.
‘Don’t push your luck, Haig,’ Wally called after him. ‘Next time you won’t get off so easily.’
In the doorway Mike Haig swung quickly, but, with a hand on his shoulder, Bruce turned him again.
‘Forget it, Mike,’ he said, and closed the door after him.
‘He’s just bloody lucky that he’s an old man,’ growled Wally. ‘Otherwise I’d have fixed him good.’
‘Sure,’ said Bruce. ‘It was decent of you to let him go.’ The soap had dried on his face and he wet his brush to lather again.
‘Yeah, I couldn’t hit an old bloke like that, could I?’
‘No.’ Bruce smiled a little. ‘But don’t worry, you frightened the hell out of him. He won’t try it again.’
‘He’d better not!’ warned Hendry. ‘Next time I’ll kill the old bugger.’
No, you won’t, thought Bruce, you’ll back down again as you have just done, as you’ve done a dozen times before. Mike and I are the only ones who can make you do it; in the same way as an animal will growl at its trainer but cringe away when he cracks the whip. He began shaving again.
The heat in the room was unpleasant to breathe; it drew the perspiration out of them and the smell of their bodies blended sourly with stale cigarette smoke and liquor fumes.
‘Where are you and Mike going?’ André ended the long silence.
‘We’re going to see if we can draw the supplies for this trip. If we have any luck we’ll take them down to the goods yard and have Ruffy put an armed guard on them overnight,’ Bruce answered him, leaning over the basin and splashing water up into his face.
‘How long will we be away?’
Bruce shrugged. ‘A week – ten days’. He sat on his bed and pulled on one of his jungle boots. ‘That is, if we don’t have any trouble.’
‘Trouble, Bruce?’ asked André.
‘From Msapa Junction we’ll have to go two hundred miles through country crawling with Baluba.’
‘But we’ll be in a train,’ protested André. ‘They’ve only got bows and arrows, they can’t touch us.’
‘André, there are seven rivers to cross – one big one – and bridges are easily destroyed. Rails can be torn up.’ Bruce began to lace the boot. ‘I don’t think it’s going to be a Sunday school picnic.’
‘Christ. I think the whole thing stinks,’ repeated Wally moodily. ‘Why are we going anyway?’
‘Because,’ Bruce began patiently, ‘for the last three months the entire population of Port Reprieve has been cut off from the rest of the world. There are women and children with them. They are fast running out of food and the other necessities of life.’ Bruce paused to light a cigarette, and then went on talking as he exhaled. ‘All around them the Baluba tribe is in open revolt, burning, raping and killing indiscriminately. As yet they haven’t attacked the town but it won’t be very long until they do. Added to which there are rumours that rebel groups of Central Congolese troops and of our own forces have formed themselves into bands of heavily-armed shufta. They also are running amok through the northern part of the territory. Nobody knows for certain what is happening out there, but whatever it is you can be sure it’s not very pretty. We are going to fetch those people in to safety.’
‘Why don’t the U.N. people send out a plane?’ asked André.
‘No landing field.’
‘Out of range.’
‘For my money the bastards can stay there,’ grunted Wally. ‘If the Balubas fancy a little man steak, who are we to do them out of a meal? Every man’s entitled to eat and as long as it’s not me they’re eating, more power to their teeth, say I.’ He placed his foot against André back and straightened his leg suddenly, throwing the Belgian off the bed on to his knees.
‘Go and get me a pretty.’
‘There aren’t any, Wally. I’ll get you another drink.’ André scrambled to his feet and reached for Wally’s empty glass, but Wally’s hand dropped on to his wrist.
‘I said pretty, André, not drink.’
‘I don’t know where to find them, Wally.’ André’s voice was desperate. ‘I don’t know what to say to them even.’
‘You’re being stupid, Bucko. I might have to break your arm.’ Wally twisted the wrist slowly. ‘You know as well as I do that the bar downstairs is full of them. You know that, don’t you?’
‘But what do I say to them?’ André’s face was contorted with the pain of his twisted wrist.
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, you stupid bloody frog-eater – just go down and flash a banknote. You don’t have to say a dicky bird.’
‘You’re hurting me, Wally.’
‘No? You’re kidding!’ Wally smiled at him, twisting harder, his slitty eyes smoky from the liquor, and Bruce could see he was enjoying it. ‘Are you going, Bucko? Make up your mind – get me a pretty or get yourself a broken arm.’
‘All right, if that’s what you want. I’ll go. Please leave me, I’ll go,’ mumbled André.
‘That’s what I want.’ Wally released him, and he straightened up massaging his wrist.
‘See that she’s clean and not too old. You hear me?’
‘Yes, Wally. I’ll get one.’ André went to the door and Bruce noticed his expression. It was stricken beyond the pain of a bruised wrist. What lovely creatures they are, thought Bruce, and I am one of them and yet apart from them. I am the watcher, stirred by them as much as I would be by a bad play. André went out.
‘Another drink, Bucko?’ said Wally expansively. ‘I’ll even pour you one.’
‘Thanks,’ said Bruce, and started on the other boot. Wally brought the glass to him and he tasted it. It was strong, and the mustiness of the whisky was ill-matched with the sweetness of the beer, but he drank it.
‘You and I,’ said Wally, ‘we’re the shrewd ones. We drink ‘cause we want to, not ’cause we have to. We live like we want to live, not like other people think we should. You and I got a lot in common, Bruce. We should be friends, you and I. I mean us being so much alike.’ The drink was working in him now, blurring his speech a little.
‘Of course we are friends – I count you as one of my very dearest, Wally.’ Bruce spoke solemnly, no trace of sarcasm showing.
‘No kidding?’ Wally asked earnestly. ‘How’s that, hey? Christ, I always thought you didn’t like me. Christ, you never can tell, isn’t that right? You just never can tell,’ shaking his head in wonder, suddenly sentimental with the whisky. ‘That’s really true? You like me. Yeah, we could be buddies. How’s that, Bruce? Every guy needs a buddy. Every guy needs a back stop.’
‘Sure,’ said Bruce. ‘We’re buddies. How’s that, hey?’
‘That’s on, Bucko!’ agreed Wally with deep feeling, and I feel nothing, thought Bruce, no disgust, no pity – nothing. That way you are secure; they cannot disappoint you, they cannot disgust you, they cannot sicken you, they cannot smash you up again.
They both looked up as André ushered the girl into the room. She had a sexy little pug face, painted lips – ruby on amber.
‘Well done, André,’ applauded Wally, looking at the girl’s body. She wore high heels and a short pink dress that flared into a skirt from her waist but did not cover her knees.
‘Come here, cookie.’ Wally held out his hand to her and she crossed the room without hesitation, smiling a bright professional smile. Wally drew her down beside him on to the bed.
André went on standing in the doorway. Bruce got up and shrugged into his camouflage battle-jacket, buckled on his webbing belt and adjusted the holstered pistol until it hung comfortably on his outer thigh.
‘Are you going?’ Wally was feeding the girl from his glass.
‘Yes.’ Bruce put his slouch hat on his head; the red, green and white Katangese sideflash gave him an air of artificial gaiety.
‘Stay a little – come on, Bruce.’
‘Mike is waiting for me.’ Bruce picked up his rifle.
‘Muck him. Stay a little, we’ll have some fun.’
‘No, thanks.’ Bruce went to the door.
‘Hey, Bruce. Take a look at this.’ Wally tipped the girl backwards over the bed, he pinned her with one arm across her chest while she struggled playfully and with the other hand he swept her skirt up above her waist.
‘Take a good look at this and tell me you still want to go!’
The girl was naked under the skirt, her lower body shaven so that her plump little sex pouted sulkily.
‘Come on, Bruce,’ laughed Wally. ‘You first. Don’t say I’m not your buddy.’
Bruce glanced at the girl, her legs scissored and her body wriggled as she fought with Wally. She was giggling.
‘Mike and I will be back before curfew. I want this woman out of here by then,’ said Bruce.
There is no desire, he thought as he looked at her, that is all finished. He opened the door.
‘Curry!’ shouted Wally. ‘You’re a bloody nut also. Christ, I thought you were a man. Jesus Christ! You’re as bad as the others. André, the doll boy. Haig, the rummy. What’s with you, Bucko? It’s women with you, isn’t it? You’re a bloody nut-case also!’
Bruce closed the door and stood alone in the passage. The taunt had gone through a chink in his armour and he clamped his mind down on the sting of it, smothering it.
It’s all over. She can’t hurt me any more. He thought with determination, remembering her, the woman, not the one in the room he had just left but the other one who had been his wife.
‘The bitch,’ he whispered, and then quickly, almost guiltily, ‘I do not hate her. There is no hatred and there is no desire.’
Copyright © 1965 by Wilbur Smith.