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Authors: Larry Johns

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BOOK: Place of Bones
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*

 

My W/T squawked. “Base” Red-one.”  That was Augarde. “Yes, Red-one?”

“We’re here.”

He had reached the river. “Solid?”

“All the way. We’ve marked and are starting to cut.”

“Do it well, sergeant. Just like I told you.”

“Will do, sir. Roots and all. Out!”

Augarde and Bjoran had taken small details out along the tracks; Augarde to the east, Bjoran back west. Both carried with them cans of red, light-reflecting paint for marking the foliage. This, because there might not always be time to check for the Dicindra; or the lack of it. I switched channels. “Blue-one!”

“Ya, base?” Bjoran’s voice came mixed up with a lot of static. Not surprisingly. The jungle thickened east to west, and Bjoran would be further out in any case.

“How’s it coming?”

“Close, zur. Five or six kays, I t’ink.”

The west track would see a lot of traffic. “Mark it well, Bjoran. Do you need any help for the clearing work?”

“Nah. We fix.”

“Okay. Out!”  I switched the W/T on stand-by and checked my watch. We had been at Camp-One for hardly more than five hours and already the place was taking shape. I walked through the melee to where Brook was overseeing the unloading. He was standing atop the truck’s cab. He raised his clipboard in a loose salute. “You didn’t lie. sir. Bloody ‘ome from ‘ome, almost!”  Like everyone else he was stripped to the waist and sweating rivers. That was the worst time of day for physical exertion, with close to one hundred percent humidity in the stinking air. This meant that you were breathing as much water into your lungs as you were air - if it could be called air. The flies and the mosquitoes thrived on it, homing in on the unexpected banquet of bare flesh with their usual maddening intensity. One slap would kill five of them, but six more would immediately fill the gap. I had doled out anti-malaria pills like peppermints.

“Any problems?”

Brook shook his head and sweat flew everywhere. “No, sir. The genny and the SSB are over there.” He pointed. “Under the canvas.”

I nodded. The Single Side Band transceiver was to be our only link with Luang in Brazzaville. Brook added, “The aerial and the balloons are there, too. Shall I put someone on it?”

“Later. Let’s get everything under cover first.” I moved on.

I walked from group to group, remembering other groups, other faces, other names. “Cat” Souchet was a very real presence in my mind’s eye. So was Yance Elland. And Marty Shuman, the tough little German Jew. Some instinct prompted me to step over to what was now going to be Brook’s hut. I looked inside. For a split second I did not see the dirt and the fungi and the piles of monkey droppings and marching armies of ants; I saw pin-ups, a neat pile of clothing on a hand-made chair, letter-writing gear on an old table and a bed squared up with “boxed” blankets. I did not see Marty. Whenever I “see” him nowadays, his round face wears an expression of agony as he smothers in his own blood. I leant back out of the door and took a deep breath. I tried to conjure up a memory of something lighter. Luckily, I did. Over by one of the other portacabins I
saw
“Sharks-tooth” Mbibi, the mad Senegalese arms' dealer and mercenary recruiter. He had his pants down around his knees as he ran for the water tank, his backside lost beneath a layer of red ants. At the time, we thought it served the bastard right for disdaining use of the latrine pits; the branch he had been holding as he crouched down in the grass, had broken. He had sat plum in the ants' nest. And the red ants, apparently, did not think much of someone shitting down on them from a height. It was a pleasurable memory, for which I was grateful.

I spent some time helping the men clearing up what had
always
been a sad excuse for a parade ground; digging up roots and bushes, filling in the holes and stamping it flat. I thought about Brown. And Karen. Then I forced myself to stop thinking about anything but the job in hand. Oddly enough, I found myself able to do that fairly easily, if I concentrated hard.

I walked out beyond the perimeter. Our old crocodile warning system had long since disintegrated, though I did find one or two rusted tins filled with pebbles amongst the leaves and rot. I put four men on the job of fixing it up again; something I had forgotten about. That early warning system, primitive though it may have been, had saved lives. Then I checked the latrine pits detail. The job was coming on. The tract of solid land stretching from the elephant grass to the river, of which Camp-One was merely a widening, was clay and rocks as far down and further than a man could dig. Therefore there was no noticeable water table to content with. But by first digging the pits, then cutting a channel running out to the swamp, they would eventually fill by as much as you needed. Then the channel was blocked off and you had a reasonably sanitary latrine; provided the trelliswork seating arrangement passed muster.

I then helped a bit on clearing what was to be - what always had been - the cookhouse. Then the ammunition store, for which we had brought an air-conditioning unit to be powered by the ten kilowatt generator. Strangely enough, after one of the boys had worked on the old unit, which, left to my eyes, would have been consigned to the swamp, the damned thing actually worked!  I had it installed in my command portacabin, persuading myself with no difficulty at all that I was doing it for the sake of the SSB transceiver, which, ideally, needed a cool atmosphere to work on top line. To one of the boys putting it in, I said, “Rank hath its privileges,” to which he replied a short, “Yes, Nkosi,” but understood neither the words nor the wit. I think he understood a little of the injustice, though.

Then I wandered off and had a quiet smoke. Another of the privileges of rank is that it is never a good idea to be seen doing too much manual labor. Enough is just about enough. Whilst this is true for many, I have never found myself able to fully relax back into an overseer’s job.

In the middle of the afternoon Augarde roared in behind the wheel of the jeep. We all thought there was trouble, but relaxed when he announced that all he wanted was more pangas; they had worn theirs out on the roots. His hands were calloused and bleeding but he seemed happy enough. He grabbed fresh pangas and an armful of ten-in-one and was off again. Bjoran called and said he was on the way in, clearing as he came. He called again sometime before dusk. They had lost our first man to the swamps near the S’s. The S’s were part of the track that kept almost doubling back on itself, twisting like a puff adder, something like an alpine road, but on the flat. In some places only a matter of twenty feet separates the coils; twenty feet of lethal swamp that could suck you in quicker than a sharp intake of breath.

Slowly the arrows of sunlight turned yellow, then red. The wet heat began to dissipate tangibly and a cooling breeze wafted through the camp. Sweat droplets turned cold on the flesh and men started to put their shirts back on. We had a meal of ten-in-one on the hoof and got the genny rigged up before full dark. Bjoran came back in. He said the red paint showed up fine in the jeep’s headlights, but would have to finish the job next day. He seemed in better physical shape than Augarde had been. We fixed some of the floodlights in the trees and connected them to the genny. Camp-One turned into a football ground at night.

Work went on.

Brook volunteered to draw up a work roster and I told him to go ahead. Augarde came back with his detail. He would also have to finish the job the next day. I was surprised at how well they had done. The last time we had to clear the tracks it took us a full three days. There was a difference, of course. Last time we were also sending out regular sorties. I called a halt to proceedings shortly after midnight and the men fell about in exhausted heaps. Some of them made it to the Mylar tents and fired up their pressure lamps. The hissing drowned out the chunter of the over-silenced genny, which had been positioned way out on the perimeter.

I had not requested it, but my portacabin was the first to have been cleaned. It now smelt of disinfectant and rot, as opposed to monkey shit and rot. I always wondered about those damned monkeys; where the hell did they shit when Camp-One had occupants? The hastily renovated a/c unit packed up, but the man who had fixed it in the second place, a Kenyan, said he would see to it in the morning. I was not going to hold my breath. Generally, a good day’s work.

I woke up lying fully clothed on the floor of the cabin. I had not realized I’d even lain down. It was full dawn and the daylight blasted in the open doorway like a torch with a run-down battery. Such was a Camp-One dawn. I lay there for a while, sorting it all out in my mind. My body ached like ten men and what I had in my mouth, I couldn’t imagine. And the smell. Jesus! It was overpowering. The disinfectant caught my throat like acid. I creaked to my feet and made it to the door.

“Mornin’,sir.”  Brook. Bright and breezy and calling from somewhere beyond my ability to focus. I knuckled the gunge from my eyes. The men were already hard at it;  pangas swinging, shovels digging. I tried to say Good Morning but it came out something like, “Gharzhaaa.” Dondo, the cook, shoved a tin of something into my hand and was gone.

Now Brook was yelling for someone not to do whatever it was he was doing. It looked like bedlam out there. I sat down on the step and ate. Slowly, the world came together

I should have realized that Brook was going to be the organizer. I sat on the step and watched him organizing. The “parade ground” turned into a parade ground in front of my very eyes.

Chop! Chop! Chop!

I leant forward and looked up. A man was up in the trees overhead, hacking away at the branches. I got an eyeful of dust for my pains. That would be a hole for the aerial balloon to ascend through. I had mentioned that to Brook yesterday. I finished whatever had been in the tin. I figured that if everyone else was managing to move and work, I should, too. I tossed the tin over my shoulder, stood up, stretched several times, then got stuck in.

Augarde and Bjoran, Brook told me, were already gone with their details. He showed me the roster he had worked out. To my knowledge, Camp-One had never worked to a roster. I looked around at the intense, organized activity and wondered how come.

I don’t remember too much about that second day, except that it was hell on wheels. Brook was everywhere with his damned clipboard, sorting out who did this and who did that, and when and with whom. I left him to it. Each to his own. But I began to see why Brook lamented his probable Staff posting so bitterly. He was born to it.

Augarde and his detail came in close to midday; the east track was clear and marked. Brook promptly waved his clipboard at him and told him what was to be done next. Augarde shot me a strange look. I shrugged and turned away. Work went on

I took Augarde’s jeep out along the east track. It was not a highway, but it was serviceable. I took the opportunity of going all the way to the river. There, you could look the sun full in the face. I stripped off and let the water wash me as clean as Congo river water can. When I got back to the camp, Bjoran was there. The west track was also navigable

“Hey, zur!” Bjoran hissed, taking me to one side. “What wit Brook? He in charge, or somet’ing?”

I said, “I promoted him sergeant major.” Spur of the moment.

Bjoran raised an eyebrow and looked perplexed. But he went off and did whatever it was Brook had told him to. It was odd how Brook’s simple request to draw up a roster had turned into something else entirely, all by itself.

Then, just before dusk on that second day, it was all over. I was amazed. The last pile of scrub had been cleared; the last hut was habitable; the equipment was stored, and the water purifying plant was filling the tank with water fit to drink. The blankets had been issued and weapons were cleaned. And the a/c unit in my portacabin, against my expectations, worked again. A hell it may have been, but now it was a tenable hell. And in the air, mixed with all the other smells, was the aroma of a curry that Dondo was throwing together, by way of our first real meal.

My portacabin was nigh on spotless, though such furniture as had remained there was in pretty poor shape. The radio table was a honeycomb of ant holes, but it took the weight; just. The old office swivel chair, one that had been in residence when I had first seen the place, had rusted into unswivelability. But you could sit on it. The floor, though age-blackened and in places rotted, did not collapse underfoot. Someone had even resurrected the old bunk bed. I vowed then that, on my next command, I would install a “Brook” right off.

It was time for the first contact with Luang.

With me in the cabin were Augarde and Bjoran. Brook had sent up the aerial balloon then gone off to do his SM thing, sorting out pickets and the first training schedule. Bjoran sat on the floor, his back against the aluminum wall, his AK resting in his lap. Augarde sat on my bunk picking his calluses. Both looked like men who had undergone an assault course; mud-caked from head to foot. I felt wholesome by comparison. I switched on the SSB and the dials came to life.

“Well,” said Augarde tiredly, “that works at least.”

Bjoran mumbled something inaudible about Brook. Sour grapes. I checked my watch. It was exactly midnight. I tuned in to Luang’s frequency and the carrier wave hissed out of the ‘speaker. I knew that Brown would be out there somewhere, listening. I thought; and this is where it really starts. There were a few moments of relative silence as we waited. Then, crystal-clear and startling, the ‘speaker burst into life.

BOOK: Place of Bones
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