© BM 2008
Chapter Two – Episode 4
Francesca shook her head and Alex hesitated. “I’d like to urinate.”
The officer, if that was what he was, looked at him steadily for a moment. “That’s tough. Wait, or piss your pants.” He turned away to confer with the others.
They sat together at the side of a very large and apparently very old Russian lorry, judging from the great rash of flaking rust in which it was covered. They sat on the shaded side, and were grateful to be out of the sun. She sat to his right, her left hip in contact with his right, and the feeling was comfortable, even in their present disturbing situation. He reflected that it had been a very long time since he had touched any part of the female body, even something as innocent as a hip, and touched only between two sets of fatigues. He reached again for his water bottle, which caused their guard, a younger, more uncertain soldier than their previous captor, to raise his firearm in a threatening fashion. Alex hoisted his left hip off the ground, so the water bottle was visible. The young soldier nodded, and Alex unhooked the bottle, and passed it to Francesca, who drank deeply and nervously, before passing it back. He took a mouthful himself, and noted that the raising of the soldier’s gun had been sufficient to make the girl push herself closer to him.
He could not remember meeting her at the “fish and chips” evening at the British Embassy, but then he had had a drop to drink. At this stage of his life, women, in general, and young Italian photographers, in particular, held no interest for him, and had held no interest since his break up with Charlie. How long since he had seen Charlie? Eighteen months? Must be. Did he still miss her? You can bet your balls on that! Was it getting better? No, not at all. Oh God, if it had not been for Charlie, and their break, he might be safe at home in the Home Counties, writing on dog shows for the Reading Gazette, or Slough Messenger. Would he be better off? Yeah, maybe, but he knew also that there was some demon inside him that drove him to do crap jobs in crap places. It was that demon which had destroyed his marriage to Anne, and which had driven Charlie away.
Francesca spoke to him. “What do you think will happen to us?”
“Well, I don’t think they will kill us now. If that had been on the menu, it would have happened before. UNITA gets a lot of help from the South Africans, and are known to use white mercenaries, so we will not be the first white folks they have bumped into. You may remember that there have been plenty of stories, in the Western press over the years from both sides, and some pretty graphic pictures. By the way, where’s your Brownie?”
“Your camera gear, Brownie, Polaroid, whatever.”
“I suppose it is still in the Land Rover. I hope it’s in one piece.”
“Well the Land Rover isn’t in one piece, but they are strong buggers, and your camera might have survived. When laughing boy over there is ready to talk to us, let’s see if we can go and check. If they don’t top us, we are in pole position to get a hell of a story.”
She looked at him with something akin to horror on her face. “You’re crazy. We are sitting here, God knows where, in the middle of the jungle in Angola, there are dead bodies all around us, and we might be joining them, and you talk about a story. Who cares about a story, I want to get out of here alive, that’s all. You English are crazy!”
“First of all, bambino, I want to get out of here alive as much as you. I don’t have much of a life, but I don’t want it to end just yet, and I certainly don’t want it to end in this crap hole. Second of all, I am a journalist, not much of one admittedly, but a bloody journalist, and there is a story right here in front of me. And third of all, I am not bloody English!”
She glared at him, dark eyes blazing. “First of all, mister, I am not your bambino, nor anybody else’s. Second of all, I am a professional, too, and a dammed good one, and third of all, if you are not English, what the hell are you?”
“I am an Ulsterman.” He hesitated. “And if I offended or upset you, then I’m sorry.”
“What’s an Ulsterman?”
“It means I come from Northern Ireland. I am an Ulsterman.”
“Northern Ireland? You are an Irishman?”
“No, I am not. I am an Ulsterman, British, if you like, but not Irish.”
“You are one of those Protestants, then?”
“No, I’m not a bloody Protestant, I’m a Catholic. At least I used to be.” He spoke more in resignation than indignation.
“I don’t understand.”
He smiled at her. “Can’t say I blame you, I’m buggered if I can understand it myself most of the time.”
They sat like that for some time, not speaking much, and just watching as the UNITA troops made ready to leave. A number of vehicles, especially the newer ones, were being readied for removal, and Alex Millar’s trained soldier’s eye told him that the others, the older Russian trucks, were being fitted up with explosive charges. He watched with increasing alarm as the defeated Government soldiers were segregated, and he did not need the benefit of his former Army training to understand the division being made.
The FAA soldiers were also aware of what was happening and the thirty or so men were becoming desperate. Francesca had noticed nothing amiss, and had dropped off into a light and disturbed sleep, her head resting on his right shoulder. Now and then she stirred, her head jerking against him, and she talked in her sleep in a low, troubled tone, in what he supposed was Italian, a language with much in common with Portuguese and Lingala as far as he was concerned. He didn’t speak any of them. On reflection he realised that apart from good Spanish, passable French, a little German and English, he did not speak anything else.
He tried to stay very still; moving as little as possible so as not to disturb her and this action puzzled him. Why in Christ’s name should he try to protect a bolshie little Italian bitch from what was coming? He hadn’t invited her here, to bloody Angola in the middle of an impossible civil war. Why was she here anyway, what place had a woman in the middle of all this shit. His thoughts were abruptly suspended by a long burst of gunfire, followed by two more shorter ones. Francesca came awake with a cry, and he put his arm around her.
“Easy, lady, easy.”
“What was that?”
“Pretty certain that it’s gunfire.” He tried to sound unconcerned.
“Who’s shooting,” she said wildly. “And who are they shooting at?”
“I think it was the wounded they were knocking off.”
“They can’t do that.” She was badly frightened, her voice rising and the Italian accent becoming more pronounced.
“I think they believe they can do what they fancy. They have the weapons. But, if you want to, you can tell them that what they did was against the Geneva Convention.”
She started to get up, and he tightened his grip on her shoulders. “No, sit tight. Try to pretend we’re not here.”
Angrily she pulled away from him, and he regretted her leaving, as he had found some tiny comfort in the closeness of her body. “Are they going to kill us?”
“I’m fucked if I know, love. Probably not.”
About ten minutes later, the senior officer to whom they had spoken, broke away from the group of men, and came over to them. “We are going. You will come with us.”
They both got to their feet, Alex conscious of a variety of pains in his legs and back.
Francesca spoke. “Where are you taking us? Are you going to kill us too?”
The UNITA officer regarded her for several long seconds, as if deciding whether he should bark a command, or reason with her. He went for reason. “You can stay here, if you choose, but I don’t think you would last very long. You do not need to know where you are going. We will not kill you. We have no quarrel with you. You may be useful to us.” He turned to Alex. “Have you had your pee yet?”
“No. It didn’t seem a really good idea with the guy with the gun watching every movement. What should we call you?”
“You can call me “Major”. Major Martino Fernandes. Army of the Republic of Angola.”
Alex again decided that a handshake was probably inappropriate, but using the man’s rank would do no harm. “Major, the guys your men just shot probably thought they were members of the same army.”
Fernandes shrugged. “War is hell, so you journalists tell us. Those men were lucky; we were doing them a favour. All of them were wounded. We cannot travel in the bush with wounded men, and if we had left them behind, they would have died anyway. If they had won they would do it to our wounded, so it all works out even in the end. We are leaving in ten minutes. Go and have your pee. Be ready soon, we are walking.”
Alex relieved himself at the side of the truck, while Francesca disappeared into the bushes. Their guard paid little attention. Where could she go? Another soldier came up to them carrying what turned out to be Francesca’s camera gear, in an aluminium case. She examined the contents carefully, and declared it to be more or less intact. They set off with the UNITA soldiers, into the bush, and within half a mile Alex was carrying the case.
They left the road, and turned off into the bush. There must have been about a hundred UNITA soldiers, some thirty FAA prisoners, and Francesca and himself. Behind him, on the roadway, he heard the sound of engines starting as the captured vehicles were driven away, and a few minutes later, the sound of explosions as the unwanted vehicles were put beyond the Government’s use.
The bush got thicker, and the day hotter. The trees became higher and closer together. For long periods the green jungle canopy under which they travelled blocked the sun. Very occasionally, there appeared a long shaft of sunlight, slicing down to the floor of the forest. The sweat trickled down his forehead, stinging his eyes, and biting into his damaged mouth. It dribbled down the inside of his shirt, strangely cold against his rib cage, and soaking his lower shirt and trousers. He began to itch in the groin region, and his underpants were wet and sticking to him. His mind turned back to another walk in another jungle on the other side of the globe, with the green world extracting all the fluid from his body. That was another time, over thirty years ago, when he had been young and stupid, and expected much from life. Now he was old and stupid, and did not have any expectations of life, but the sweat still rolled off his body, and stung his eyes, and he was still bloody frightened. Some things did not change with age.
He thought longingly of throwing off all his clothes, and climbing into a cold shower with a can of colder Fosters. Those things might as well be on the moon, and the bloody march had only started. Francesca marched sturdily ahead of him, and even in his discomfort, he found time to notice that she was very attractive from that angle. He got level with her.
“Everything all right? Anything I can do?
She glared at him. “No, and I don’t need help from a man.”
He dropped back to where he had been, and studied her backside again. “Fuck me, Alex old son. You get stuck in the jungle with a woman, and she turns out to be a man hating, bolshie little Italian feminist!” He noted sourly that Francesca’s feminist principles did not see any conflict with his carrying her camera case. Women!
They walked on; it seemed forever, but in reality for about four hours, at which time Fernandes called a halt. Alex had quite early on realised that he was nowhere near as fit as he had been in his army days, and also that he was feeling the effects of being thrown out of the Land Rover. His leg, back and neck all ached, but more worrying was the sharp pain in his right side, where he had been kicked, and which he increasingly believed was a cracked rib. The bush had become more and more overgrown, and difficult to negotiate. The men in front were forced increasingly to hack the path clear with long machete type knives. He collapsed gratefully, and leaned back against a tree, Francesca sitting with her back to the same tree. He was breathing heavily, breath rasping harshly in his throat.
She turned her head towards him, her tanned face streaked with sweat and dirt, with a trickle of blood coming from above her right eyebrow, where she had walked into a branch. “Are you OK? Your breathing is very funny.”
He was not OK, he did not know how much further he could go, and the vision of the execution of the wounded FAA men haunted him. “I’m fine,” he snarled, “I don’t need any help from a woman.”
Her face broke into a slightly lop sided grin, lighting it up, and, suddenly, despite the dirt and the blood and the sweat, she looked quite beautiful. In spite of himself, and the pain in his side, he, apparently for the first time, noticed how incredibly dark and deep and attractive her eyes were.
“Fifteen all,” she said, and turned away.
“Francesca.” She turned back. “I don’t know what it is in Italian, but I’m sorry.”
She smiled again. “Me too. I’m just frightened. Truce?”
He also smiled. “Truce.”
She held up her hand and they weakly exchanged a “high five.” She then lay back and closed her eyes. Within a minute she was asleep.
He lay back and closed his eyes. He was awakened by Fernandes. He did not know how long he had slept, but sensed it had not been long.
“Please do not become too comfortable, Mr Millar. We will be leaving soon. We will stop again, for the night in two or three hours. Then I will tell you what I want you to do. Do not be concerned about yourself or Madame, neither of you will be harmed, and in a few days time, you will be taken back close to Luanda. You are troubled by our little march, Mr Millar. You are very unfit, I think.”
“Major Fernandes, you are right, I am very unfit. I have also been blown up a few hours ago in a Land Rover, one of your lads had his firearm in one of my ears for five minutes, I have been kicked and there are other places I would prefer to be, right now. But I have done my share of marching in the jungle.”
“When was that? You are in the English Army? You are a soldier?” Fernandes spoke sharply, suspiciously.
“No, I am too old to be a soldier now, but I was one once, for twenty five years, and I was in the British Army.”
“What outfit? What was your rank?”
“I was in the Paras, and I was a major. I left about eight years ago.”
Fernandes essayed a little bow. “So we do not outrank each other, Major Millar. That is good news. However your marching days are not yet finished. On your feet. We are leaving.” He turned away. Francesca was still sleeping, and Fernandes leaned over and quite gently shook her shoulder. “Come on, we are leaving.”
He walked away. Francesca asked “What’s happening, Alex?”
“Well, Francesca, some good news, and some bad. Only an other three hours marching.”
“Is that the good news, or the bad?”
“I think that may be the bad news. The good is that our next stop will be for the night.”
It was, in fact, a little less than three hours when they reached a small settlement, in a clearing, consisting of twenty or so mud huts. The smell from the village, if it could be described as such, was the usual bush mixture of too many people living too closely together, cooking, urine, excrement, decaying vegetation, and others, quite indefinable.
Fernandes appeared again. “That hut is yours. I’m sorry it isn’t the Inter Continental, but it’s all there is. My men will sleep on the ground.” They were too tired to say anything, wearily entering the hut and lying down at once on the two dirty mattresses on the floor.
“I won’t rape you, you know.” He spoke tiredly, his eyes already closed.
“No, and I won’t rape you, either. Good night, Alex.”
But he was already asleep.
Chapter Three – Episode 5 Tomorrow