The night here is hot, stuffy and continuous: ever present rather than surprising, and brutal rather than clever or deceitful. It wallows through the street onto the buses, and between the gaps in the buildings, and through bedrooms and bars. Its soundtrack is the high-pitched scream of the mosquitoes and the chafing of clothing against damp skin. It slowly saps moisture and energy from men and women alike, leaving their breathing as laborious as if done with sponge lungs.
Here in this wooden shack – more a series of rotting and cracked partitions than a real building – men crowd behind the thick cigar smoke in little pockets of darkness, shielded from the squares of light that stream through the holes in the roof. One large lady bounces around the room collecting glasses, her curved frame squeezing in between the gaps in the tables, and talking to the men during the gaps in their conversations. The smell of beer mixes with the stench from the bathroom, and only the roar from the busy street outside is able to overwhelm the sound of men talking and drinking.
The Sergeant, one speck of white marble in a sea of black jet, opens his baked and blistered prawn lips and croaks his order to the toothless barman. Sweat drips freely from his face and his red ringed stinging eyes reveal a man who has long since taken leave of his senses.
The bottle of warm beer slams onto the bar with a thump. Froth dribbles over the top of the newly naked neck and flows down the sides, running lines in the red dust. The rivers reach the bottom and fizz as they sketch out a small dark ring on the slimy wooden surface below. The Sergeant snatches it up, and prawn lips touch round bubbles that pour relief from his insomnia down his neck in rapid pulses.
He came here because he was told, or at least he believed that he was told. This country, surely the most wretched of places on this first plundered, then downtrodden, and now forgotten continent. He holds nothing but contempt for its people and culture and even its nature no longer brings him joy.
The only highlight is the girl. And what a girl! A flare of sexuality: intelligent, beautiful, young, confident… white.
Her lips are like fire and her eyes like water: rich and large red, deep and warm blue. Her hips swing in a soft rhythmic pendulum as she waltzes through the door and into his eye line. She knows her beauty and she flaunts it freely – though not for him. To her, the Sergeant is a relic and a pariah, a guilty actor in a past that forces her to live in a permanently apologetic and shameful state. She is there to right the wrongs she believes were committed by him and men like him. Were he not a necessary evil, she would not have ventured into any room in which he resided.
Her shoes lift the dust from the concrete floor and the gentle slapping of their soles on the hard ground is the only sound heard in the once raucous bar. All eyes rest on her figure as she slips slowly sideways onto the high circular stool next to the old war hero.
‘I, personally, only killed two of the enemy throughout the war,’ the Sergeant had once told her as they sat at that very spot.
Her lip had turned up and her forehead had moulded into a cross between confusion and anger. She had shaken her head and then turned to him, her blonde hair flicking back and revealing the smooth curve of her neck.
‘You all contributed though didn’t you?’ she said. The last two words were said through an exasperated sigh that escaped into the crowded bar thick with the sound of disappointment and judgement.
His stomach churned when he heard the downward cadence in those words. A sick sadness followed almost immediately by anger. He couldn’t believe that she could be so ungrateful. He sacrificed his life and his sanity for the freedoms she now enjoyed.
‘It wasn’t like that, you don’t know the half of it,’ he replied.
‘Tell me,’ she goaded.
The monstrous machine roared up into the dark navy sky. It was a cloudless night and the moon played small crescents across the surface of the fuselage. The plane contained fear and death in equal measure; boys sent to do the job of a man and bombs sent to maim and kill – 200 against just 20 for a vast piece of land that represented the constantly shifting frontline in the fight against fascism.
The early morning raids were hell for some but a luxury for The Sergeant. Waking up to the quiet of the desert ringing in his ears and a feast of fried egg and fried bread was heaven; providing welcome relief from the snores of 9 of his unwashed countrymen.
Every return journey was accompanied by the sunrise. It became an affirmation that they had survived and would have at least one more day to enjoy God’s creation. Unsubtle beauty, that one could not expect anywhere else, countered the hardship of the monotonous desert life. Its dirtiness, heat, sand and endless helpings of Bully Beef and biscuits were opposed by the eerie silence and solitude, and the miraculous sunrises that made beautiful colours shimmer across the dunes.
Strict radio silence as they headed for home left just the gentle throbs of the engines to accompany The Sergeant’s rapid heartbeat. He thought of death, but not his own; he was replaying in his mind the events of the previous week.
The shouts of that night echoed in his ears and he could hear the other plane’s engine whine as the air rushed rapidly past the downward facing propellers. That sound, one that he would forever associate with death, was so much louder than the continuous barrage of enemy fire. When he closed his eyes he could still see the streak of orange fire lighting up the night as it chased the crippled plane to the ground, leaving only a trail of smoke carving out a steep downward spiral towards the flowing yellow dunes below.
The shouts of the other men in his aircraft brought him back to the present. Alongside, the crippled Blenheim of his wingman was struggling to maintain its height. The throttle fluctuated in bursts, and it bobbed and dived like a small dinghy on a tumultuous ocean. The black smoke that poured from the aircraft’s vulnerable rear drew waves into the pale morning air.
A loud bang came from the rear of his own bomber throwing his arms violently from the controls. The whole plane groaned as shockwaves shuddered through its outer skin and the thunderous weight of the machine seemed to grab him by his shoulders and throw him towards the ground: the pale sand coming up quickly towards him.
The initial landing caught the wheel and tore off the undercarriage as though it was made from paper. The aircraft twisted and bucked onto the tip of the left wing and then over onto its back. The bomb doors flailed open and it came to a rest like a dead beetle, its legs lifted inanely to the sky.
The solitude and silence he had so enjoyed were now his torture as he surveyed the scene. Now he did not see the brilliant iridescence of the morning sky – instead he just saw the dark red stains on the ground. All his friends were gone.
He thought about the previous night when they had all sat around his bunk regaling one another with talk of home. His rear gunner had said he would not survive the next night. They had tried to talk him out of his silliness but he had been unrepentant. His eyes took on a forlorn lost look as he stared across at The Sergeant and said: ‘you will be fine. You’ll always be fine.’
The words haunted The Sergeant as he stared at the rear of the crashed aircraft for a few moments, taking in the newly devastated rear structure. He removed his parachute and folded it into a small cocoon against the side of the bomber. He knew he had to leave before they found him, but at that moment he was more tired than he had ever felt in his life. The sleep enveloped him – picking him up in its arms and laying him into the folds of the white silk.
The heat woke The Sergeant, the thick consistency of the parachute causing him to have a brief moment of panic. He collected the canteens, a firearm and a compass and set out towards the imaginary line that, once crossed, would mark his safety.
He soon found himself away from the dunes and into the coarse bush to the west. Its brambles and thistles pocked marks on his legs, but the firmer ground allowed him to increase his pace. The sun streamed down and his sweat stuck the dust to his face. His feet carved crevices behind him and his mind slid slowly into delirium. His loose head hung off the end of his neck and his unseeing eyes blinked away mirages. He dreamed that on the horizon, tanks with huge skull and cross bone flags were rolling by and firing their powerful guns into the distance; churning up dust to create dark clouds and shaking the very foundations of the land. He saw the gruelling past few weeks of conflict and continuing raids. He dreamed of home and its greenness: the sensation of gentle rain splashing onto his skin, and the soft crackles of a roaring fire in the wintertime. He dreamed of the sweet sound of Hattie’s voice and of the young smiling faces of friends he had lost. As the heat of the day approached, he knew he had to find shelter but just as he was about to stop, his boot struck metal. The gentle ringing that filled his ears snapped him back from the brink of unconsciousness. His eyes – aching at the nerve endings and only passing somnolent images to his brain – scanned the markings on the metal shape in front of him. It was the other Blenheim that had gone down a week before. Once a bold gleaming weapon of war piloted by the bravest men; now a twisted sculpture of scrap metal. He studied the buckled wing and bowed propeller closest to him as he walked slowly round to the front.
At the tip of the plane’s nose he pulled up short as he came face to face with an armed soldier on guard. Their eyes met and the other man registered his surprise. If The Sergeant had studied him, he would have seen the enemy soldier’s naïve eyes and innocent mouth hiding under his ill-fitting helmet. But instead, the sound of his commander’s words – ‘kill or be killed’ – echoed in his brain and moved his hand towards the gun he had strapped to his hip. The soldier’s eyes flickered with fear for just the briefest of moments: a weakness that consigned him to a dusty and unmarked grave.
The Sergeant begged God to never again allow him to see the whites of the eyes of a man he had killed. But God could not grant that wish.
He joined a boy and left a sergeant. Now this once innocent, ageing hero possesses neither strength nor money to escape: permanently confined to an open prison. He has become an anomaly, surrounded by people who nothing of his life, or the country in his mind that he calls home
Only she can relate to him, but the gap between their beliefs are too great and the country they share no longer exists in the way he remembers. On many nights he takes her fragile doll-like hands in his and pleads with her to tell him a story of the homeland he is no longer a part of. She thinks that he is being manipulative, but he only longs to be able to touch the soil of home again.
On this night, she leaves The Sergeant beating his fist on his chest; the noise of his gentle sobs echoing in a staccato anguish around the empty bar. With glass filled and teeth pulled into a horrid grin, he salutes an imaginary leader with an inebriated wave of his slack right hand.
‘Another,’ he demands. But there is no one left to serve him.