Либрусек (книги fb2)
MiG-23 Broke my Heart
The year is 1988.
Eighteen-year-old Thomas Green, weed smoker and would-be artist, has been plucked from his comfortable, suburban existence in apartheid South Africa and thrown onto the frontline of his country’s war against what it sees as terrorism.
As a conscript in the South African Defence Force, it’s Thomas’s job to watch the hot, sandy border for signs of the mysterious ‘red menace’.
There are no bars nearby, no art galleries, no cinemas and no air-conditioned shopping malls. Worst of all, there are no lithe young ladies willing to pose nude for an eager painter-in-training. What Thomas has found in plentiful supply are sand dunes, barbwire fences and landmines. He may as well have landed in hell.
When a man approaches on foot from Angola, the place where the terrorists are said to come from, Thomas discovers that life can still get a whole lot worse.
MiG-23 Broke my Heart is a war novel, a tale of action and adventure, a fictional road trip and—deep in its dark heart—a certain kind of love story.
Please be advised that the novel contains violence, hard-biting humour and sensitive subject matter that some readers may find disturbing.
This is a full-length novel, which in paperback form would be about two hundred and fifty pages.
AK Dawson MIG-23 BROKE MY HEART A War Novel
Thomas was bored. He was down on his stomach and elbows in a shallow ditch scooped from the side of a dune, his R4 rifle aimed at the border. He was supposed to be watching for terrorists but his eyes were on the only cloud in the sky, a little cotton swab high over the heat and sand of South-West Africa.
‘Hey, bru?’ he said, without looking away from his cloud. ‘Want to smoke a joint?’
‘Shut up, surfer boy. You’re not on Miami Beach.’
Thomas turned and squinted up to the lip of the dune. There, silhouetted against the sun like the periscope of some buried U-Boat, was the head, shoulders and rifle of one Pieter ‘Skeletor’ Venter. He was in the same nutria-brown uniform as Thomas and topped with the same standard-issue bush hat, but his uniform was free of creases and all the floppiness had been starched from his hat.
‘You sure?’ Thomas had been brought up to be polite. ‘It’s Durban Poison.’
Skeletor said nothing. He was obviously too busy looking for something to kill.
Rolling onto his right side, Thomas reached into his webbing. He produced a soft-cover NG Kerk Bible that he thumbed open to a random page, bent back against the spine to keep from closing and wedged under his thigh so that half of it stuck out. He dug in the pouch on his waist, the one that should have held spare ammo, and pulled out a bundle of newspaper that he unfolded and shook as though it were a spice bottle. A line of Durban’s finest poison settled in the spine of the Bible. Gently, Thomas coaxed the heads to form an orderly queue on the far side of the left-hand page. The stalks he brushed away. He rolled the page into a tight cone and tore it from the book. With a lick of the translucent paper, his work was done and he popped the joint into his mouth. The whole time, his right hand never strayed from his rifle.
‘You’re going to rot in hell,’ Skeletor declared from on high.
‘Hell?’ Thomas asked through pursed lips. ‘Be like Miami Beach compared to this place.’ He sparked a match with his left hand, held it to the joint and sucked.
‘You may as well light a signal flare.’
‘Can you smoke those?’ Thomas shook the match dead.
‘You should try,’ Skeletor said. ‘Put one in your mouth and let it off.’
Thomas went back to staring at his cloud. He inhaled and exhaled, blowing smoke to join it.
Then he saw movement, a flicker in the top right corner of the rolling sandscape. He blinked, hoping it was a hallucination, then swatted, praying it might be a fly.
‘Chips,’ Skeletor said in warning. He saw it too.
Thomas stubbed out the joint, grabbed his rifle with both hands and watched the speck grow from the direction of Angola – communist-controlled Angola. As it tracked through the desert towards him, it became bigger, more defined and definitely human. It had to be a terrorist. Who else could slip through the tangle of barbed wire and minefields just over the horizon? Who else would want to?
Wishing he’d taken more time to dig his foxhole, Thomas shrank down and tried to make himself small. His trigger finger trembled as he stared along the barrel of his rifle. The only thing he had ever shot at was a target in training, and he usually missed.
The terrorist was running, leaving tracks in the sand, a zigzag pattern as though he was frantic and delirious and had lost his way. He disappeared behind the closest sand dune.
‘I’m going to take him out,’ Skeletor said.
Lurching over the crest of the dune, the terrorist became visible again. His hands were in the air, waving. He must have spotted them.
‘Hang on, bru.’ To get Skeletor’s attention, Thomas raised his own hand like he was back in class, about to ask a question. ‘He’s signalling to us.’
The terrorist was close enough to make out the words on his T-shirt: ‘Bob Marley’. He was close enough to see the details of his face. That wide-mouthed expression reminded Thomas of a painting he’d studied at school only six months before. It was of a stretched-out figure on a bridge with his mouth contorted and his hands up in distress. As the terrorist hurtled towards him, Thomas tried to think what the painting was called. The artist was a guy by the name of Monk or Milk. No, that wasn’t it. It was Mink. That didn’t sound right either. If he hadn’t sparked up that joint he’d be able to remember.
The terrorist ran on, drawing a jagged line in the sand towards their position.
Thomas noticed something else about him and said, ‘Hey, Skeletor, I don’t think he’s armed.’
A rifle cracked. The terrorist snapped back like a cartoon dog reaching the end of his chain, and he fell, tumbling to the base of the dune.
‘Got him,’ Skeletor said, his shot still ringing across the lifeless landscape.
Scream, Thomas suddenly remembered. That’s what the painting was called. The guy who painted it, his name was Munch. He was afraid of women, thought they were sinister creatures out to rob him of vital fluids, suck him dry and leave him for dead.
‘You go first,’ Skeletor said.
‘I shot him.’
‘What if I step on a landmine?’
‘We can only hope, surfer boy.’
Thomas spun around and opened his mouth to tell Skeletor to get stuffed. But instead of speaking, he started shifting from his foxhole. Staring down at him was the unblinking, 5.56mm eye of an R4 barrel. You couldn’t argue with that.
Keeping his own rifle trained on the terrorist, or whatever he was, Thomas slid down the dune. He tiptoed, listening for the click of a landmine and waiting for the terrorist to rise up and attack.
‘Hurry up!’ Skeletor shouted. ‘Or you’ll join him.’
As if barefoot in the hot sand, Thomas sprinted the rest of the way. When he stopped, before the next dune began, he drew a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his eyes.
The terrorist lay on his back on the flat ground, his legs splayed open. His sandals were cut from car tyres, the straps carefully-threaded strips of leather. He wore suit trousers, rolled high at the ankles. Bob Marley, all wrapped up in dreadlocks, gazed serenely from his chest.
Thomas swallowed, took another long breath and made himself look at the terrorist’s face, to see if he was still alive.
It was a young face, unmarked by wrinkles, but on the smooth black skin of the terrorist’s forehead lay a neat bull’s-eye. His neck was twisted to one side and at the back of his head a bolognaise sauce of blood, brain and skull was seeping into the sand.
‘Hey, nice T-shirt,’ Skeletor said. He walked up and gave the terrorist a nudge with his boot. ‘Clean shot too.’
Flies were already starting to swarm.
‘I think he was unarmed.’ Thomas looked around at the sand and rocks for a weapon.
‘He must have dropped his AK when he saw us.’ Skeletor gave the terrorist another nudge for good luck.
‘He was unarmed. I’m sure of it.’
‘So what?’ Skeletor’s sneer pressed his cauliflower ears up against his bush hat.
‘He was unarmed,’ Thomas repeated. This was a big deal, wasn’t it? Was he the only one who saw that? He looked to Bob Marley for support.
Bob Marley held his silence.
‘Go wait in your foxhole.’ Skeletor got down on his knees and started yanking the T-shirt off the terrorist. ‘I don’t need you any more.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘What do you think? His sandals look too small for me.’ Skeletor kept pulling at his souvenir.
‘But he was unarmed, bru.’
Skeletor looked up, leaving Bob Marley creased over the terrorist’s head. ‘I’m going to count to ten, surfer boy. If you’re not back in your foxhole by the time I get there, I’m going to shoot you. Is that clear?’
Thomas couldn’t stop staring at the T-shirt.
He watched as flies darted in and out of the neck opening.
‘…three, four…’ Skeletor raised his rifle and took aim.
It was the smell not the threat that made Thomas want to leave. Noticing it, he covered his nose and drew away. He retraced the footprints he had made for Skeletor to use as a track through the potential minefield.
‘…five, six, seven…’
He curled up in his foxhole, away from the stench of a young body with all the life squeezed out of it.
‘…eight, nine, ten. You’re lucky, surfer boy!’
But Thomas didn’t feel very lucky. He felt hot, itchy and unsettled. Why him? Why did he have to defend the border against this mysterious red menace, a threat he hadn’t even heard of until a few months ago? He wouldn’t have cared less if the terrorist had trotted past their position, made it all the way to Pretoria and pissed on the stairs of the Union Buildings. He really, really didn’t want to be here. Anywhere, even back home with his overprotective mom and overbearing dad, would be better than this.
Shifting to his side, he reached for his Bible.
The distant snort of a diesel engine found Thomas hunched in his ditch, desperately sucking the last drag from his last joint of the day. He wasn’t nearly stoned enough to go back, but he pushed himself to his feet one-handed and dusted off his uniform. ‘Here’s the cavalry,’ he said.
‘I know, surfer boy. You think I’m blind?’ Skeletor had dragged the body over their footprints, leaving a smear in the sand, and was posed at the bottom of the dune with one foot on the terrorist’s bare torso.
Thomas flicked his stub of burning paper to the ground then slid down to watch the Buffel charge through the desert.
The heavily-armoured vehicle kicked up dust against the darkening sky until, with a sandy skid, it stopped and a side plate flew down. Whooping and cheering troopies poured out to congratulate Skeletor on his first kill. With a ‘One, two, three!’ the terrorist was hoisted up and strapped like fresh game to the front grill. Coils of sisal were wound tight around his neck, arms and legs, but that didn’t stop his head lolling forward as if he was drunk, exposing the gaping, sand-caked exit wound. Thomas winced as Skeletor gave a final twist to the knot around the terrorist’s neck.
Inside, Thomas found a space between two sunburnt, tired-eyed troopies and braced himself as the engine started and the game of human pinball began. He shook in his seat, smashed into his neighbours and rattled against the wall behind while the big transport galloped through humps, bumps and what felt like a herd of zebra. The Buffel troop carrier could withstand a landmine, shrug off a hand grenade and take a bullet without flinching, but it sure as hell wasn’t comfortable.
Skeletor didn’t seem to mind though. He spent the journey chattering to all who would listen about how he had killed the terrorist. ‘Should have seen him,’ he shouted above the engine noise. ‘Armed to the teeth.’
‘Jesus, Skeletor,’ a trooper muttered beside Thomas. ‘Jy’s a legend.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Skeletor snapped. ‘That’s the Lord’s name and I’ll not have you take it in vain.’
Instead of going straight back to base, the driver took them on a detour through the nearby village, a one-goat town of tin shacks and mud huts huddled around a fickle waterhole. Thomas gazed through Plexiglas at the inhabitants, mostly women and children, who stared without expression, hands slack at their sides, at the macabre warning tied to the front of the Buffel.
‘Ja, take a good look,’ Skeletor said, even though the villagers couldn’t hear. ‘This is what happens when you support the bad guys.’
Thomas wanted to tear off his uniform and cover his face in shame.
Outside the village lay a rubbish dump strewn with plastic, bottles, bones and other waste that couldn’t be recycled as building material. This was where their driver chose to stop.
Skeletor and three others jumped out and untied the terrorist. Thomas stayed in the Buffel, watching from the window while they dragged the shirtless man to a patch of oily sand and doused him with fuel from an orange canister. A match was thrown. Prongs of brilliant yellow stabbed at the sky, followed by sooty smoke, a fire that could easily be seen from the village.
Even from inside the Buffel, the smell of charred meat was strong, reminding Thomas of the farewell braai his dad had thrown the night before he reported to Natal Command. He dropped his head between his legs and tried not to breathe.
‘You missed a beautiful bonfire,’ Skeletor said when he came back, troopies chuckling like naughty schoolboys around him.
Thomas didn’t look up until the side panel slammed shut and they started moving, their hearts-and-minds tour of the village complete.
When the Buffel stopped next, its complement of troopies shot from it like fizz escaping a shaken Coke bottle. Thomas stumbled out last and instead of following the tide of soldiers going back to barracks, took a moment to steady himself. Maybe he was more stoned than he had thought.
He was in the vehicle depot, surrounded by sleeping trucks, jeeps and armoured cars. Branching out from this dusty square were wide, well-lit streets that led to the hard-packed sand walls of the base. In every street he saw brown-uniformed soldiers rushing to inspections, the mess hall or the post office, or simply running because an officer had told them to.
Moon Base Alpha, aka Fort Retief, had been his home for the last few weeks, his reward for completing basics. It was an old whaling station tucked away in the top-left corner of South-West Africa. Nearby was a beach lapped by water so cold it made sopranos of the deepest baritones, and otherwise the place was surrounded for hundreds of kilometres by sand, sad little villages, picked-clean bone and more sand. There were no bars, no cinemas and no pretty girls interested in posing for a young artist – no reason at all to apply for a weekend pass. And the worst thing was that he was stuck here for another seventeen months and eight days. Even then, when his duty to his country was discharged, he would still be eligible for call-up to more camps like this one. It was enough to make Thomas wish he had studied for his final maths paper and made it to university, even for the engineering degree that his dad had insisted he apply for instead of fine art. At least that way he would have been drafted into officers’ training after graduation, or gone to the air force or navy instead.
He chose the widest street, the one that ran to the main gates and trudged down it, saluting all he passed. It was army custom to streek, stiffen up, and salute those with rank, and to Thomas, a lowly Rifleman, that meant just about anyone who wasn’t him.
After making it to bungalow 4E, he crossed the veranda and stopped at the doorway.
Skeletor was already inside, strutting back and forth beside his bunk at the far end of the long room, his rifle and trophy T-shirt held aloft, the platoon gathered round like flies attracted to the scent of death. ‘I ordered the terr to stop,’ he told his audience, ‘but he kept coming. Crazed look in his eyes. Armed with rocket launchers, grenades, you name it.’
Still at the doorway, Thomas folded his arms. ‘I was there, Skeletor. I saw what happened.’
The platoon fell silent. Skeletor turned slowly, lowered his rifle to body level and emitted a death ray of a look.
Thomas swallowed, all the moisture gone from his mouth. ‘Ja, like I said, guys, I was there. Skeletor was a real legend today. Really brave.’ He made himself smile.
The buzz around Skeletor resumed. The crowd’s orbit grew tighter. Back slaps, high-fives and handshakes were exchanged as Skeletor recounted how he had blown the heavily-armed terrorist’s brains clean out of his head.
Thomas turned away. He walked down the road, saluting as he went, and crossed over to the prefab building that housed the post office. It wasn’t as if he ever got mail but he didn’t want to be around Skeletor at the moment, at least not until his drug-induced sensitivity wore off, and this was as good a time waster as any.
‘Number?’ asked the potato-faced Lieutenant behind the counter.
‘8800421567. I was on patrol, so I missed the call.’
The Lieutenant rose slowly from his plastic chair and dug through the hessian sacks dumped on the floor. ‘Thomas Green?’
‘That’s me, sir.’
‘What’s it worth to you?’
‘Five?’ His immediate thought was that it was a letter from his parents. He had received nothing from them, not even a postcard, since he had come here, and it was beginning to feel as if they had forgotten about him.
The Lieutenant tossed an envelope to the counter and said, ‘Worth at least ten that letter.’
The envelope was bright pink, the first pink thing Thomas had seen in all these months of brown, grey and green. And everyone knew what a pink letter meant. ‘Fine,’ he said, too quickly, ‘I’ll give you ten.’
‘I said, at least ten.’ The fat Lieutenant licked his thin lips. ‘I was thinking more like one hundred.’
Thomas aimed for nonchalance, but his voice came out high-pitched and desperate: ‘It’s just a letter from my mom. I swear.’
‘Your mother sprays her correspondence with cheap perfume?’ The lips curled into a sneer. ‘What kind of sick family are you from?’
Thomas looked down at the letter. It was postmarked 25-03-1988, a good three months ago, but from it he could still detect a promising floral scent. ‘Did you say one hundred, sir?’
‘I distinctly remember saying two hundred.’
There was nothing left for Thomas to do but pay the price. He rested his rifle against the table and lay face-down on the cool linoleum floor.
‘In your own time, troopie.’ The Lieutenant’s voice was ripe with the expectation of pleasure.
Thomas counted, ‘One.’ The first push-up was agony. ‘Two.’ So was the next. ‘Three.’ But as his joints loosened up and the pain subsided, he began to wonder who the letter was from. ‘Four.’ It wasn’t as if he had a girlfriend or even any girls he could call friends. ‘Five.’ His last two schools had been boys-only affairs. ‘Six.’ Then he had gone straight into the army. ‘Seven.’ But there was someone. ‘Eight!’ A girl he had met in the short holiday between. ‘Nine!’ It was from her. ‘Ten!’ It had to be.
‘Stand up,’ a voice said.
‘Eleven!’ Thomas kept counting, blocking out everything but the push-ups and the promise that waited at the end. ‘Twelve!’ Only one hundred and eighty-eight to go. ‘Thirteen!’ Pain splintered through his body and he crumpled to his side, clutching his ribs.
‘Get off the floor.’ Skeletor’s boot was poised to deliver another blow. ‘Major De Kock wants to see us.’
Back on his feet, Thomas felt dizzy and disorientated. He rubbed his rib cage, doing his best to massage the pain away.
‘Hurry up.’ Skeletor scurried out of the office, no doubt expecting to be followed at once.
But Thomas hesitated. He looked down at the envelope glowing pink with possibility on the counter. Then he glanced at the Lieutenant, who was scowling from his chair, his entertainment so rudely interrupted.
Without a thought for the consequences, Thomas snatched the letter from the counter and ran after Skeletor.
‘You the killers?’ Major De Kock got up from his desk and fixed his good eye on Thomas and Skeletor.
Thomas had only ever seen him waddling around the parade ground, but here, up close in his office, he was a formidable beast: big, bald-headed and sleek, with a hungry look in one of his eyes. The other eye was red and weepy, bisected by a pink scar that had been earned, according to base legend, in one of the brutal skirmishes fought to stop Southern Rhodesia from becoming Zimbabwe.
Thomas and Skeletor saluted in tandem.
This was all the confirmation the Major needed. ‘On behalf of State President PW Botha I would like to thank you men for your actions today.’
He was being sarcastic, Thomas thought. News travelled fast in Moon Base Alpha and the story of the unarmed corpse must have shot quickly to the map-covered walls of this office. He gritted his teeth and prepared for the worst, his mind racing through the potential punishments for shooting and looting an unarmed man.
A smile, incongruous with the scar, formed on the Major’s face. ‘Keep this up, boys, and you’ll return to South Africa with medals.’
Medals? He was definitely treating them to some good, old-fashioned army sarcasm.
The Major stiffened and his fingers touched his polished head.
This was such an unfamiliar sight that it took a moment for Thomas to realise what was happening: he was being saluted. It was the first time he had ever been personally saluted by an officer. In response, he and Skeletor snapped out salutes of their own. Maybe they weren’t in trouble after all.
Turning to the maps on his wall, the Major said, ‘Just out of interest, was the terrorist armed?’
‘No,’ Thomas replied at the same time that Skeletor said, ‘Yes.’
The Major spun around, his good eye closed to a slant. ‘Well, which was it?’
Thomas wanted to tell the truth. He really did. But he didn’t want to make his remaining year and a half any more difficult than it had to be. And besides, he could feel the frown directed at him from the troopie at his side, a non-verbal warning not to divulge what happened – unless he wanted a kicking.
Skeletor answered for both of them: ‘He was unarmed when I shot him, sir. But I suspect he dropped his weapon before he reached us.’
‘You suspect?’ The Major’s bad eye twitched.
‘Were there any explosives on his body? Grenades, limpet mines, mortar rounds, anything to link this man with terrorist activity?’
‘Not even a firecracker?’
‘So am I to understand that you just saw black skin and fired?’
It took a few moments for Skeletor to answer. ‘Yes, sir.’
Thomas, who had been silent throughout this exchange, shifted a little to the side, to dissociate himself from the killer.
But the Major smiled. He opened his arms and bear-hugged Skeletor as if he had found a long-lost child. When he was finished he stepped back and said, ‘You did the right thing, son. You trusted your heart.’
Skeletor gave Thomas a self-satisfied glance.
‘This particular terrorist was a dangerous customer,’ the Major explained. ‘Our Bushmen trackers have been on to him since he slipped over the border. We believe – as you do – that he dropped his weapons to lighten the load. But these communist infiltrators, they’re trained to kill with their bare hands. Give him half a chance and he’ll snap off your neck and use your spine for a toothpick.’ The Major held his chunky fists together and made a snapping movement. ‘Not the kind of person we want arriving unannounced in Pretoria, now is he?’
‘No, sir!’ Skeletor shouted back.
Thomas stood mute. It was hard to believe that the young man in the Bob Marley T-shirt had been a highly-trained terrorist. But it had to be true. There was no other explanation.
‘Boys of your calibre don’t deserve to be stuck here in the middle of nowhere.’ The Major moved back to his giant wall map of Southern Africa. ‘That’s why I’m sending you on a little trip.’
‘Where to?’ Thomas asked, pushing the dead terrorist from his mind and jogging his eyes along the bottom of the map, visiting peaceful seaside towns like Scarborough, East London and Port Elizabeth, trying to guess which one they would be sent to as their reward.
The Major stubbed a finger on a great swath of land above the green pin marking their base. ‘Angola.’
That didn’t sound like a reward to Thomas. Angola was the place the terrorists came from and where the base’s old hands, the ou manne in the faded uniforms, had done their fighting. But a truce had been declared, South Africa leaving the country to wage its civil war in peace. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘we’re not allowed into Angola.’
‘Not officially, no. But all those convoys that stop here to refuel, where do you think they’re going, boy? Disneyland?’ Major De Kock ran a finger in a north-easterly direction along the blue vein of a river just over the border. ‘I want you to find an old friend of mine.’ The finger stopped at a small mark, a pen-made scratch across the river. ‘He’s camped here, at this bridge.’
‘You can rely on us, sir,’ Skeletor said.
‘Good. His name is Colonel Stebbing.’ The Major strode over to sit behind his desk, the chair creaking from the strain. A drawer was opened, and a folded piece of paper withdrawn and slid across the desk. ‘Give this to him. It’s a message too sensitive to pass over radio.’
Skeletor lunged forward and claimed the paper.
‘You are to travel in civvies.’ The Major went back to rooting around in the desk drawer. ‘Take nothing that will incriminate you as South African soldiers. The UN is already whining about our nuclear weapons programme. The last thing we need is for them to find out we’ve sent more troops into Angola. So if you’re captured, I don’t know you.’ He found what he was looking for, a set of car keys that he tossed over the table.
With a metallic jingle, the keys landed on the floor.
‘I can’t drive, sir.’ Skeletor scooped up the keys and held them out to Thomas.
‘Me neither.’ Thomas kept his hands away, refusing the responsibility. ‘I’ve only just turned eighteen.’
The Major sighed deeply. He got up and reached over, snatching back the keys, his belly pressing down on the desk as he did so. ‘I’ll arrange for a driver to pick you up first thing in the morning, someone who knows the territory. Good luck, may God be with you, and whatever you do, don’t get caught.’ He stamped down hard, sending tears flying from his weepy eye, and treated them to another salute. Then he settled back into his chair. ‘Now get out. I’ve got work to do.’
Outside, Thomas muttered, ‘I don’t like this.’
‘You don’t like anything, surfer boy.’
After a sleepless night, Thomas stumbled bleary-eyed to the vehicle depot in a pair of jeans and a hibiscus-covered Hawaiian shirt. The jeans were his own but the shirt had been issued to him by the quartermaster with the assurance that it was the next best thing to camouflage – though Thomas couldn’t help feeling it was some kind of joke at his expense, a surf-style shirt for the kid from surf city.
Skeletor was already there, standing at attention in the semi-dark with his bedroll beside him on the tarmac. He was also in civvies, in worn jeans and a black shirt that hung loose over his gangly frame and didn’t quite reach his belt, and it was only when Thomas came closer that he saw what it was: the Bob Marley T-shirt.
Too tired even to be disgusted, Thomas lay down. He rested his head on his own bedroll and tried to squeeze some sleep out of the morning.
‘Up!’ Skeletor shouted.
Thomas rolled away from the impending boot and opened his eyes to take in the vehicle puttering out of the pre-dawn fog, a set of dim headlights doing little to illuminate the road. As it pulled up beside them, its engine suddenly cutting out, Thomas stood, gathered up his bedroll, and saw that the thing wasn’t exactly military issue. It didn’t even look roadworthy. It was a white Datsun bakkie, the pickup truck beloved of farmers on a budget and found on every South African road. This one was outlined in rust, bald around the edges of the tyres and minus a set of number plates. Worse, Thomas knew, was that it didn’t have four-wheel drive.
‘Great.’ Thomas pictured them stuck in a donga while those little wheels spun uselessly and vultures circled overhead, licking their beaks.
‘You get in first.’ Skeletor took both their bedrolls and hoisted them in amongst the jerry cans and boxes weighing down the back of the truck. ‘I’m not sitting next to the black. He probably stinks.’
‘Skeletor, bru. You’re wearing a dead man’s shirt and you’re worried about how someone smells.’
‘You think I’m some kind of animal?’ Skeletor looked hurt. ‘Feel.’ He grabbed Thomas’s hand and pressed it against the damp fabric of the shirt. ‘I washed it first.’
Thomas recoiled and rushed to get into the cab. Offering a friendly ‘Howzit’, he slid into the middle of the mock-leather bench seat and arranged his legs around the gear lever.
From the driver’s side came a heavy silence.
Thomas turned and said, ‘I’m Thomas.’
The man didn’t so much as blink. It was hard to get a decent look in the dim light, but he was old, possibly even in his mid-twenties, his cheeks lined with initiation scars and mouth surrounded by patchy, non-regulation stubble.
Slowly, in the manner of a Victorian explorer first encountering a native, Thomas repeated his name: ‘Tho-mas.’
‘I heard you the first time.’
Thomas kept smiling, eager to make a good first impression on his travelling companion. ‘Um, what’s your name?’
‘Maxwell.’ His hair was defiantly long, each frizzed strand maybe a full centimetre in length, almost forming an afro.
‘And where are you from, Maxwell?’
‘Hey, me too! That must mean you’re a Zulu. Sawubona. Unjani?’
‘I speak English,’ Maxwell said, which was probably for the best because Thomas had just exhausted all of his Zulu.
‘Is it all right if I call you Max?’
Thomas accepted this with a nod. He could understand why Maxwell sounded a little bit cranky. After all, no-one in their right mind likes to wake up before the crack of dawn to do anything, let alone venture into terrorist country. But he had a feeling that once they were underway the guy would lighten up and become a friend, maybe even a smoking buddy. Before leaving, Thomas had transferred the rest of his weed into a plastic bag and tucked it into his right sock. He could feel it now, the bulge against his ankle: his escape plan for if things got too heavy.
Skeletor slid in and slammed the door.
‘This is Maxwell.’ Thomas threw a thumb to his right. ‘Maxwell, meet Skeletor.’
Skeletor kicked the underside of the dashboard, making the whole truck rattle. ‘Will this skedonk get us to Angola?’
‘I don’t know,’ Maxwell answered. ‘I came in last night from the main base, to bring the mail. When I got here they took away my truck. They told me to pick up an unmarked white bakkie in the morning, take two men over the border. And here I am.’
‘Do you know how to get there?’
‘I’ve been to the operational area many times. Too many times.’ He shook his head in exasperation. ‘But never from this direction. They told me there’s a map and compass in the cubby hole.’
‘Well? Then what are you waiting for, boy?’ Skeletor slammed his palms on the top of the dashboard. ‘Drive!’
Maxwell, his face expressionless, stared across at Skeletor.
Skeletor stared back.
Thomas, caught in the middle, tried to defuse the sudden build up of tension: ‘Skeletor, you forgot the magic word.’
‘Now!’ Skeletor screamed.
‘Yes, sir.’ Maxwell spoke evenly, betraying nothing as he turned the key in the ignition.
Like a chain smoker getting out of bed, the truck wheezed and spluttered to life. Then it coughed, shuddered and died.
‘Engine’s still cold.’ Maxwell tried the key again, this time revving repeatedly to keep the engine going, and jammed the gear stick into first.
They were off, crackling over gravel.
Skeletor settled back into his seat, pushing Thomas’s arm out of the way to get more comfortable.
Thomas made no comment. He hadn’t joined the army to fight with anyone.
They puttered past rows of bungalows where troopies were only now emerging for another day of patrols, boot polishing and 2.4-kilometre runs. A guard gave a half-hearted salute as they passed through the gates.
Then they were in the desert, rocks and sand speeding by.
As the sun rose, gently warming the cab, Thomas felt his tiredness begin to thaw. Maybe things weren’t so bad after all. Here they were, three guys with a full tank of petrol, heading far away from Moon Base Alpha. He had weed. In his pocket was the mysterious pink envelope, a treat he was saving for when he had a moment to himself. With a little luck, he might even have time to do some drawing.
Skeletor may not have been the most sensitive soul in the world, but he must also have been touched by the significance of the occasion. He looked back over his shoulder and gave a wistful sigh. ‘I’m going to miss that place.’
‘Me too,’ Thomas murmured, ‘like I’d miss a hole in my head.’
It didn’t take long for the rising sun to make a sauna of the truck as they headed east, following the straight line of sand that was their road.
Thomas, stuck between Skeletor and Maxwell, was already sweating heavily, but at least he wasn’t out on patrol. To liven things up, he said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to play I Spy?’
Skeletor sneered. ‘No.’
‘How about we tell jokes to pass the time?’ Thomas launched into one: ‘An Englishman, an Afrikaner and a Zulu are driving in the desert. All of a sudden their truck breaks down.’
The cab was silent, an invitation, in army terms, for the story to go on.
‘They’re miles from anywhere,’ Thomas continued, ‘with no food, no water, nothing. So they get out and walk – it’s the only thing they can do. They walk for hours and as they’re about to collapse, the Zulu discovers a gold lamp in the sand. He rubs it and a genie appears. The genie tells him the lamp is good for three wishes. So the Zulu says, “I wish I was back home in Durban, drinking a cold beer and surrounded by beautiful women,” and, kazam!, he disappears. Then the Englishman rubs the lamp, wishing that he too was having a drink in Durban, surrounded by beautiful women, and, kazam!, he disappears. Finally, the Afrikaner is left on his own in the desert. He gets hold of the lamp and gives it a rub. He thinks hard before he says, “Ag, I miss my friends so much, I wish they were back here with me.”’
‘Very funny, surfer boy.’ Skeletor wasn’t laughing, and neither was Maxwell.
There was nothing left for Thomas to do but stare blankly at the scenery of scraggly farms and broken fences, and wait. He spent the time wondering about his letter, hoping that soon, maybe when they stopped for a toilet break, he would have enough privacy to read it. He should have read it last night, even if its bright pink presence provoked jeers from the barracks crowd. Growing impatient, he started tapping out a rhythm on the dashboard.
Skeletor slapped his hand away.
Turning to his right, Thomas said, ‘So, when were you last in Angola?’
‘Two years ago.’ Maxwell gave this answer without taking his eyes off the road. His SADF browns were faded and worn – anonymous. On the sleeves and chest were darker, rectangular patches surrounded by loose threads, places where badges and insignia had been torn off.
‘What’s it like there?’
Thomas waited for elaboration, but all that came from the driver’s side was the silence of a man in concentration. He didn’t know much about driving, but to him it didn’t look like there was much to concentrate on. The road shot straight ahead, all the way to the horizon. ‘Like how?’ he asked. ‘Is it full of landmines?’
An elbow dug into his ribs.
‘Leave him alone, surfer boy. He’s trying to drive.’ Skeletor craned his neck to read the speedometer. ‘And while we’re at it, you can go faster. We want to get there before the war is over.’
Maxwell kept the truck at the same speed. ‘We might hit a pothole.’
‘I’m not asking you to speed up, boy. I’m ordering you.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Maxwell coaxed the truck’s engine into a low roar, making a motion-blur of the fences marking the roadside.
‘That’s better.’ Skeletor went back to staring out the side window, but not before giving Thomas a conspiratorial smile.
Thomas cringed. He wished he’d had time to warn Maxwell about their companion. But then Maxwell, unsmiling and unblinking, looked like he’d encountered a few Skeletors in his time.
Maxwell spoke: ‘Why do you want to go to Angola?’
‘None of your business,’ Skeletor said.
‘We’re delivering a secret message,’ Thomas blurted out, because to him they were all on the same team, but he received an elbow from Skeletor as he said it.
‘And what is so important about this message that it cannot be transmitted over radio?’
‘Just keep driving,’ Skeletor said.
‘I was wondering the same thing,’ Thomas said, eager to use this opportunity, now that the guy was opening up, to get to know Maxwell. ‘I mean, what’s the point of having codes and things if we don’t use them?’
‘Communist spies are everywhere.’ Skeletor’s words came straight out of an army indoctrination speech. ‘They might be listening in on our radio frequencies.’ He arched his eyebrows at Maxwell. ‘They might even be sitting beside us.’
If Maxwell was rattled by the insinuation, he didn’t sound it. ‘I’ve been in this army six years.’
‘I thought you would have learnt a little respect by now,’ Skeletor countered.
It was left to Thomas to defuse the situation. Leaning between them, he said, ‘Guys, I’ve figured out why they won’t use the radio. It’s typical army logic, isn’t it? Why do something the easy way when you can send three men instead? This mission is one big rondvok.’
‘Watch your language!’ Skeletor’s voice detonated in the close confines of the cab. ‘All you need to know is that this mission is of the utmost importance to national security. You can be sure of that. Now I’ll have no more nonsense from either of you. Am I understood?’
‘Ja, whatever,’ Thomas muttered, feeling like a scolded child when they were the same age.
‘Yes, sir.’ Maxwell went back to keeping the speeding truck on the road.
‘And put your foot down, boy. Is this really the best you can do?’ Skeletor was answered with a terrible crunch.
Thomas was thrown forward, his nose smacking into the dashboard, his vision turning suddenly into a bright white wall of pain.
‘Jesus!’ Skeletor screeched. ‘What’s happening?’
The truck was spinning freely. From his precarious position, face pressed against the dashboard by centrifugal force, Thomas watched Maxwell’s forearms break out into knots of muscle as he wrestled with the wheel. A slithering noise rose up, a broken tyre struggling to grip sand.
As they bumped off the road, Thomas bounced back into his seat. They skidded to a halt between the goalposts of two gnarled trees. The smell of scorched rubber filled the air. Dust was all around them.
‘Now look what you did.’ Skeletor pressed his hands together and looked heavenwards. ‘You made me take the Lord’s name in vain.’
‘I warned you this would happen.’ Maxwell threw open his door and rushed outside.
Thomas staggered out after him, full of near-death dizziness, and flopped down to recover under the dappled shade of one of the trees. His nose, when he felt it, wasn’t bleeding or broken, but it hurt. He wondered how bad an injury had to be before they sent you home. He hoped he didn’t have to find out.
Skeletor shouted over the truck: ‘You did this on purpose, didn’t you?’
‘You should have listened to me.’ Maxwell was looking at the torn tyre. ‘The damage could have been worse.’
After a series of heavy footsteps, Skeletor dropped down to the ground beside Thomas. ‘Surfer boy, you see what he did? I’m telling you, man, he did it on purpose.’
Thomas kept his eyes on the torn band of rubber around the front right wheel. ‘Skeletor, you really should have listened to him.’
‘Not you too.’ Skeletor sighed. ‘This is all I need. A mutiny.’
They sat and watched while Maxwell fetched tools and the spare wheel from the back. Ordinarily Thomas would have helped him, but he was still recovering; the fiery pain across his face only now turning to a dull throb.
‘Hurry up,’ Skeletor shouted as the equipment was carried to the front of the truck. ‘We’re not sitting out here for our health.’
Maxwell shot Skeletor a sharp glance then went back to work, spinning the handle of the jack, raising the nose of the truck skywards. He undid the old wheel and rolled it off into the desert, then bolted on the new one. After letting the truck sag back to the ground, he went into the back.
‘One way or another,’ Skeletor whispered, ‘I’m going to sort him out. He’s too cheeky for his own good, that boy.’
Thomas could hear clanging and the sliding of boxes as Maxwell replaced his tools. Then he heard another sound, a clicking noise that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Skeletor shot to his feet. ‘What are you doing in there?’
Maxwell reappeared, his face grim.
‘I knew it,’ Skeletor said, raising his arms.
Thomas sat rooted to the spot, waiting for the shot that would end all his dreams. Good artists died young, he knew, but he would die before he even became an artist.
In his hands Maxwell carried an AK-47 assault rifle, the very weapon they had been warned about in training: the gravedigger, the insurgent’s friend.
‘You’re a terrorist, aren’t you?’ Skeletor asked.
Maxwell shook his head.
‘Then put the gun down,’ Thomas said. But as the AK swung towards him, he quickly added, his voice a squeak, ‘Please.’
‘This is Sector 10,’ Maxwell said.
‘So what?’ Skeletor‘s skinny body was drawn to its full height, but a telltale film of sweat had broken out on the back of his neck.
‘It’s not safe here.’ Maxwell twirled the AK-47 around so that it sat horizontally in his hands. Then he sent it flying through the air towards Thomas and Skeletor.
Skeletor caught the rifle with the practised ease of a rugby player.
‘Keep that with you at all times,’ Maxwell said, delving once again into the back of the pickup.
‘Yes, sir,’ Skeletor hissed after him. ‘You don’t have to tell me that.’
Thomas got to his feet and skulked towards the cab, anxious to be out of the way as Skeletor went through the workings of his new toy.
Maxwell, brandishing a rifle in each hand, intercepted him. ‘Do you know how to use one of these?’
‘I think so.’ Before Thomas could say that he didn’t actually want one, a rifle came spinning his way. He reached out and grabbed, but the thing slipped through his fingers. Picking the AK-47 off the floor, blowing away the dust, he found it lighter than his R4, and smaller too. He looked down the barrel, at the metal wedge on the end, hoping he would never have to see that view again. Startled at a sudden thump of gunfire, he cried out, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Making sure the black didn’t sabotage my weapon.’ Skeletor fired off another round, aiming for the more distant of the two trees.
‘Stop it!’ Maxwell shouted, waving his own assault rifle.
A look of delight on his face, Skeletor rattled off a burst of three bullets, chopping tree bark into splinters.
‘You must stop,’ Maxwell pleaded. ‘Someone will hear.’
‘Come make me, boy.’ Skeletor held his rifle high against his shoulder, like a huntsman after big game, as he searched for another target. The weapon may have been a gift, but that didn’t mean he was going to be grateful.
Thomas was about to intervene when he caught sight of something out of place in the landscape, a faint puff of cloud hanging low on the road behind. He watched for a few seconds, to be certain that it was what he thought it was, then shouted: ‘Car!’
The other two abandoned their standoff to follow the line of his finger along the road. The dust cloud was heading their way.
Thomas and Maxwell rushed to their seats. Maxwell shoved his rifle into the gap between his body and the door, before starting the engine.
Thomas kept his own rifle on his lap.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Skeletor was still outside.
‘Get in.’ Thomas leaned across and opened the passenger door. ‘They must have heard you firing.’
‘No.’ Skeletor stayed put. ‘I’m in command and I say we wait right here and see who it is.’
‘Come on, bru. If it’s terrorists they’ll kill us on sight.’
‘What if it’s not? I’m not running from our own soldiers.’
Maxwell revved the engine.
Thomas tried once more: ‘How do you think this looks, bru? We’re out of uniform, near the border and armed with AK-47s. Our guys wouldn’t think twice before shooting us.’ He didn’t say it, but that’s exactly what Skeletor would have done.
On the tips of his toes, Skeletor watched the approaching cloud. Then he scrambled to his seat and shut his door. ‘I’m only going along with you because the mission comes first.’
Maxwell reversed, changed gears and slammed down on the accelerator, clearly more worried about their pursuers than potholes. They shot off down the dirt road, the truck’s chassis rattling from the abuse, its old engine straining to bring them up to top speed.
Leaving his rifle on his seat, Skeletor leaned out the window to get a better look.
Thomas stared up at the rear-view mirror. Through the dust and smoke spewing out the back of their own vehicle, it was difficult to tell exactly what was behind them. All he could see was the top of the trailing dust cloud as it approached. A sensation gnawed at the pit of his stomach, what it must feel like to be a farmer seeing a swarm of locusts growing in the sky. ‘They’re getting closer,’ he said.
‘I know.’ Maxwell was watching the mirror too.
‘Faster!’ Skeletor screamed from outside, his T-shirt fluttering like a black flag.
Maxwell’s leg was stiff against the accelerator. ‘I’m going as fast as I can.’
‘Then pass my rifle,’ Skeletor shouted.
‘But you said they might be on our side,’ Thomas shouted back.
‘At this stage I don’t care who they are,’ Skeletor screeched above the wind rushing past the window. ‘I’m a reasonable man, but if they want to follow me they must expect to get shot.’
The last thing Thomas wanted was to witness was another killing. ‘Come inside, bru.’
‘Don’t tell me what to do.’
‘Sir,’ Maxwell called, ‘we don’t want to get into a fight if we don’t have to. Remember the message. That is why we’re here.’
At this appeal to reason, Skeletor slid back to his seat. He looked over at the driver’s side and said, ‘I don’t need advice from anyone. And if you think that I’m going to—’
He was cut off as the truck shuddered over a rough patch in the road.
Thomas kept his eyes on the mirror, trying not to think about what would happen if they hit another pothole. With the truck rattling from exertion and the dust cloud drawing ever nearer, he found his hand reaching for his pocket. He had wanted to wait for the right moment, but this might be his last chance to read the letter.
‘Sealed road up ahead,’ Maxwell said, and a second later the truck shook over a seam and onto tarmac, and their ride suddenly became smoother.
Without the handicap of the dust thrown up by their own tyres, Thomas could now see exactly what was chasing them: a wide, white saloon car, a rattling soapbox on wheels, of a vintage even older than the truck. And it was gaining on them.
‘I’m going back outside,’ Skeletor said, heaving up his assault rifle and turning to the window.
‘Wait.’ Keeping his gaze on the mirror, Thomas gripped the Bob Marley T-shirt, made a bunch of it in his fist, and pulled.
In the front seats of the Cortina sat a man and woman. They were laughing. Neither of them was really watching the road. Their attention seemed to be on something in the back seat. All of a sudden a face appeared between them, making the couple burst into another fit of laughter, their car swerving from side to side.
‘Let go, surfer boy. You’ll ruin my shirt.’
‘Wait, man. Please.’
The Cortina came right up close to the truck, filling the mirror. Thomas could now see that the face between the couple belonged to a little boy. He was playing peek-a-boo with his parents, disappearing back and forth behind their seats. He was the reason the driver wasn’t paying attention to the road, why he had come so close to the truck and not noticed the maniac in the Bob Marley T-shirt that had earlier been hanging out of the window.
‘Surfer boy, I’m going to count to ten. If you don’t let go by then, I’ll kill you.’
‘It’s a family.’ Thomas pulled harder on the shirt, twisted the fabric. ‘Not terrorists. The only thing they’re guilty of is dangerous driving.’
Skeletor crushed up against Thomas for a look through the rear-view mirror. ‘That’s what they want you to think.’
A great peel of laughter erupted from Maxwell. ‘Aish, Skeletor! Not every black man is a communist.’
In the mirror there appeared an orange blinking light, diluted by the sun to a pale shade of yellow, as the driver indicated to overtake.
Veering the pickup truck to the gravel shoulder and still smiling, Maxwell let the car through.
Thomas and Maxwell waved at the family as they passed. The parents waved back and the little boy made faces. Then Thomas noticed that Skeletor wasn’t joining in.
He was staring straight ahead and grinding his teeth, stewing in his frustrations. ‘Slow down,’ he snapped when they were back on the road. ‘Do you want us to hit a pothole?’
The Cortina sped off into the borderland.
Once again, they were alone on the road.
They settled in a restless silence; Skeletor clipping and unclipping the mag of ammo from his rifle, Maxwell stern again, his eyes peeled for obstructions, and Thomas left in the middle with only the engine noise and the air rushing in through the vents to keep him company. As the landscape floated by on either side, an unrelenting emptiness broken every now and then by a distant kraal or herd of scrawny goats scrounging in the sand, he felt his hand straying again and again to the letter in his pocket, touching it to reassure himself that it was still there, that it was real. He really should have read it the night before, because now he could barely restrain himself from ripping it open like a Bar One chocolate and devouring its secrets all at once. But he knew what Skeletor was like. The sight of a pink envelope would only provide him with ammunition.
‘You can’t stop thinking about it, can you?’
Realising he had been caught staring at Skeletor, Thomas tore himself away from his thoughts and focused on the bony face sneering back at him. ‘Sorry?’
‘I said,’ Skeletor hissed, ‘you can’t stop thinking about it.’
‘Catch a wake up, surfer boy.’ Reaching into his pocket, Skeletor pulled out his own letter, the secret message from the Major. He waved it under Thomas’s nose. ‘The reason we’re here in the first place.’
‘Oh, that,’ Thomas said, doing his best to ignore the folded piece of paper intruding in his personal airspace. ‘Not interested.’
‘Don’t play innocent with me.’
He may not have known the details, but Thomas had a pretty good idea what was inside: dates, times and co-ordinates, the whens and wheres of a helicopter or artillery strike. The message was a death warrant and he wanted as little to do with it as possible. ‘Bru,’ he explained carefully, ‘you’re the one who got us into this. So whatever’s in that message is your problem, not mine.’
‘That’s right, for my eyes only. Don’t you forget that.’ Satisfied, Skeletor slipped the message back into his pocket but not before rapping Thomas on the nose with it. ‘I know what you souties are like – always sticking your snouts where you don’t belong.’
Thomas sighed. He was wedged between Skeletor and Maxwell as tightly as the mortar between two bricks, his shoulders crushed into his torso, his knees battered from every unexpected gear change. The winter sun now loitered directly over the windscreen, beating down on his jeans, the heat making his shirt stick to his back, acting as a catalyst for the sweaty stench brewing up between the three of them, a smell that clung to his face like a mask, made him feel queasy. But all of these discomforts he could have handled if it wasn’t for Skeletor. They were only a few hours into their journey and already Thomas was sick of him. Why did Skeletor have to insult him constantly? If it wasn’t ‘surfer boy’ it was ‘soutie’, the name that Afrikaners like Skeletor gave to English-speaking South Africans like Thomas, who, it was said, had one foot in England, one foot in South Africa and their testicles dangling in the sea between, giving them a salty tang. He had a few insults of his own for Skeletor, but he didn’t want to share them, lest it start a fight.
Turning to Maxwell, who was staring resolutely ahead, Thomas tried to spark a conversation. ‘Are we nearly there yet?’
‘Listen to you,’ Skeletor said, ‘you sound like a child.’
Thomas turned back to his tormentor. ‘I just wanted to know, bru.’
‘Stop calling me that. I’m not your brother.’
‘Then stop calling me “surfer boy”.’
‘You have blond hair, you’re lazy and you come from Durban by the Sea. In my book, that makes you a surfer boy.’
‘But I don’t even surf.’ The sea scared Thomas. From an artistic point of view, he appreciated its changing moods and expressions, but he didn’t like to get too close. What frightened him was what lurked beneath the surface, the finned and toothy things that would punish him for being where he didn’t belong.
‘Then what would you prefer? Moffie? Soutie? Slapgat?’
‘Just leave me alone.’
Skeletor slammed his elbow down on the soft flesh above Thomas’s knee. ‘You started it. You were staring at me.’
Maxwell issued a loud, throat-clearing rasp that silenced them both. ‘I need one of you to read the map.’
‘I told you,’ Skeletor snapped back at him, ‘I give the orders around here.’
‘And I told you,’ Maxwell said, ‘that I don’t know the way from this direction. So I need a navigator – unless you want me to pull over and do it myself.’
‘No, don’t stop. I’ll take care of it.’ Skeletor looked to Thomas.
‘What?’ Thomas was busy rubbing the pain out of his knee.
‘Get the map out.’
‘Why don’t you?’
Skeletor tapped the passenger window with the tip of his rifle. ‘I’m on watch.’
‘Fine,’ Thomas said. While he was stuck there he may as well have some activity to take his mind off the pink envelope and, more importantly, get Skeletor off his back. He squeezed forward and pulled the lever of the cubby hole. Empty sandwich wrappers, crumpled Coke tins and cigarette boxes, the waste of countless journeys, burst forth, some of it spilling onto Skeletor’s lap.
‘Watch it, surfer boy.’
Handwritten on a cassette half buried in the junk on the floor, Thomas spotted a familiar word, the name of an old friend. ‘Rodriguez,’ he read, picking up the tape and dusting it off. ‘Can we listen to this?’
‘Out of the question,’ Skeletor said. ‘The boy needs to concentrate.’
‘I am not your boy.’ Maxwell grabbed the tape from Thomas and slammed it into the cassette player.
‘I can see I’m going to have to do some disciplining very soon,’ Skeletor said, but was ignored as a drum roll announced the start of I Wonder.
The bass guitar sauntered in, followed, fashionably late, as if it was running on African time, by the guitar, infusing the cab with a melody as chilled than any air-conditioner.
Thomas shifted his attention to Maxwell. ‘Whoever was in here before you must have had good taste, bru. Rodriguez was a serious musician.’ As the man himself started singing, stacking up big questions in a laid-back drawl, Thomas lowered his voice to a reverential hush. ‘He made the ultimate sacrifice.’
‘He gave his money to the poor?’
‘Better.’ Thomas squirmed out from under his companions’ shoulders, lifted a finger to his temple and fired an imaginary bullet. ‘At his last gig he went out with a bang.’
Maxwell didn’t look as impressed as he should have been. His eyes on the road, he said, ‘Why? Why kill yourself if you have a good job?’
‘I never said he was successful – just serious.’
Maxwell shot Thomas a sceptical glance. ‘You sure he did this?’
‘Absolutely.’ Thomas had overheard this piece of Rodriguez folklore so often that it had to be true. He always thought the story added a certain weight to the music, a van Gogh-factor that spoke of an artist prepared to live and die by his work. That was the kind of artist he wanted to be – as soon as he got out of the army.
Maxwell tutted. ‘I would have done something with my money.’
‘He wasn’t in it for the money,’ Thomas said. ‘Just listen to the lyrics, man. They’re really deep.’ Braving Skeletor’s wrath, he leaned over and cranked up the volume as far as it would go.
The song reverberated from window to window, the bottom end distorted by the tinny speakers.
Instead of complaining, Skeletor kept up his vigil, staring out the window for terrorists. Maybe he was enjoying it.
Mouthing along to those unanswered, grown-up questions about love and loneliness, Thomas noticed that Maxwell was sitting back and tapping out the beat on the steering wheel. The barrier had been broken. He had found an ally. They may have been trapped in an oven on wheels, on the way to who knew where, but as long as they shared this psychedelic common ground, everything was going to work out fine. He wasn’t sure whether it was the music or the camaraderie, but Thomas was suddenly visited by goose bumps. They tickled him all the way up his spine, as though he was being cradled by some travelling spirit, maybe even St. Christopher himself, whose medallion his mom used to Prestick to the dashboard for the non-stop argument that was the annual Green family trip to Kruger Park. He smiled at Maxwell.
Maxwell didn’t smile back, but he didn’t stop thumping on the steering wheel either.
Then the music squealed to a halt.
Thomas looked down in time to catch Skeletor with his finger on the Stop/Eject button. He watched, too slow to react, as the tape was ripped from the player and launched out of the window. It went spiralling, as though in slow-motion, through the dusty air, and hung suspended over the road for what seemed like an eon, the longest fraction of a second of Thomas’s life, before it was whipped back into the truck’s slipstream and disappeared completely.
‘What did you do that for?’ Trying to control his shock and anger, Thomas searched in the rear-view mirror for the spot where the tape landed.
‘This isn’t a school disco, surfer boy. We have work to do.’
Maxwell began to slow the truck.
‘Don’t even think about stopping,’ Skeletor said. ‘Or I’ll report you the minute we get back for interfering with our mission.’
The truck sped up.
‘What work do we have to do?’ Thomas shouted, unable to stop himself. ‘As far as I can see, we’re just along for the ride. Maxwell’s the one doing all the work.’
From the pile of cubby-hole rubbish that had settled around his feet, Skeletor found the map and thrust it into Thomas’s hands. ‘Here. Don’t get us lost.’
Thomas glanced at that smug, skull of a face and imagined putting a bullet through the middle of it, right between the eyes. He and Maxwell could bury the body out here in the bush and no-one would ever know what had happened. Then they could listen to Rodriguez and smoke weed and talk about girls and art all they wanted. And to hell with their stupid mission – when they got back to base, in their own good time, they would say they couldn’t find the Colonel. As punishment they might have to run a few extra kilometres, maybe wash dishes for a couple of weeks, but it would be worth it. It cheered him up just thinking about it.
‘What are you smiling about?’ Skeletor growled.
The map unfolded into an A2-sized wall of paper, covering South-West Africa and the southern parts of Angola. German and English place names were peppered across the lower half, Portuguese names sprinkled above, while the rest of it was spiced with elaborate African words that Thomas, despite being born and raised on the continent, didn’t think he would be ever be able to pronounce. From this unwieldy mass of locations, he managed to wrest Mapupa, the nearest town to their destination, but their current location he could only guess at. All he knew, as he folded and unfolded the map, trying to work how best to hold the thing, was that they were somewhere between their base and the border.
‘Which way?’ Maxwell asked at an unmarked junction offering three choices, all leading off into dust and dry bush. They had left the tarred road far behind.
Thomas took an uneducated guess. ‘Straight.’
‘Positive,’ he lied. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t know where they were. His military training had focused mainly on shooting, running and bed making, only briefly touching on map reading. And those courses that did involve navigation were so boring that the only way he could endure them was with a good dose of THC in his blood. Actually, he had spent most of his training stoned. School too, now that Thomas thought about it.
After shaking his head, his doubt plain, Maxwell carried on straight.
They continued in this way as the hours flashed by on the digital readout on the dashboard, Thomas directing, Maxwell driving and Skeletor overseeing. Thomas led them, fingers crossed, over a bridge spanning a muddy river, past a metal water tower with goats scrounging at its base for grass shoots and moisture, and near a kraal whose inhabitants waved merrily – until they saw the weapon cocked in Skeletor’s hands. Throughout this, Thomas kept on the lookout for a major river or town, a reliable landmark to link the real world with the flat representation of the map.
Midday drifted into late afternoon without them stopping for a lunch break and without Thomas being able to find that longed-for reference point.
They passed an abandoned petrol station, its green logo bleached white by the sun and forecourt roof sagging in from the weight of neglect. The place looked like it had been there for centuries, like the ruins of an ancient temple, but Thomas still couldn’t find it on the map. He wondered if the petrol company pulled out because of sanctions or the war, or maybe they just couldn’t find anyone willing to work out here in this sun-blasted landscape.
Adjusting his hand positioning, Thomas noted the clammy fingerprints he was leaving along the edges of the paper. He was sweating uncontrollably with worry, and getting hungry, his stomach growling to be fed, making it even harder to concentrate on the map. Soon, he knew, he would have to face up to the others, tell them the truth that he didn’t have a clue where they were.
They drifted alongside a barbwire fence punctuated with the question mark shapes of vultures.
Maxwell honked the horn and the vultures flew off, darkening the sky.
‘Quiet,’ Skeletor said, but with none of his usual menace. He sounded groggy and soon after this gave up on his guard duty, snuggling up to his rifle as though it was a teddy bear and settling in for an afternoon nap, head against the door frame.
Thomas thought that maybe he too needed a break. He lowered the map and looked up to Maxwell, glad to finally be able to speak without interruption.
‘Want to smoke a joint?’ he whispered.
Maxwell wrinkled his nose. ‘No.’
‘I understand. You need to concentrate.’ Thomas reached for another conversational gambit: ‘So, where about in Durban are you from?’
‘Before the army I lived in Chesterville.’
Thomas recognised the name. ‘Hey, we could have been neighbours.’
Maxwell looked at him strangely. ‘Mlungi, if you’re from Chesterville I will eat this steering wheel.’
‘I’m from Westville. That’s just over the hill, isn’t it?’
‘Westville.’ Maxwell spat out the town’s name as though it was rotten. ‘My mother used to work there.’
‘Oh, ja? What did she do?’
‘I am trying to drive,’ Maxwell said, loudly.
Skeletor stirred, spluttered then began to snore, drawing his rifle closer to his chest.
His cheeks burning, Thomas buried his face in the map. He thought first of the tree-lined lanes, glossy sports fields, tennis courts, swimming pools and double garages of his own suburb. Then he thought of the township tucked away like a dirty secret in the next valley, the regimented rows of plain brick houses that he had only ever glimpsed from the back seat of a car as he powered past on the way into the city. They were two different worlds and at the moment Thomas wanted desperately to find a bridge between them.
When the blushing subsided, and he was able to speak again, he lowered the map and gestured at the sleeping Skeletor. ‘I’m not like him, you know.’
Maxwell was silent.
It was only after a distance marker to Windhoek appeared out of the dust, with Maxwell throwing him a wary look, that Thomas knew he had to say something. ‘Um, guys?’
Skeletor snorted and bobbed his head. ‘What?’
Thomas frowned down at the map that was now spread out across the dashboard like a newspaper. His hunger had passed into a dull ache and he was able to concentrate, to work out vaguely where they were. He chose his words carefully: ‘I think we should have turned left at that last junction.’
‘I knew it. You’ve got us lost, haven’t you, surfer boy?’
‘Sorry.’ Thomas squirmed deeper into his seat, wriggling behind the shoulders of his companions, as he prepared for the onslaught he had been dreading since being handed the map.
‘Why didn’t you use the compass?’
‘I tried, but I couldn’t find any landmarks.’
Skeletor ignored him. ‘And you,’ he said, leaning over to get a better look at Maxwell. ‘I thought you knew where we were going.’
‘How many times must I tell you?’ Maxwell said evenly. ‘I’m normally stationed on the other side of the country, the east, near Botswana. If you put me in a car and tell me to take you to Angola from there – no problem. But from this side it’s another story.’ He leaned heavily on the wheel and at the same time pulled on the handbrake.
Throwing out an arc of sand, the truck spun. But Maxwell had this accident under control and mid-spin he re-engaged the accelerator pedal, blasting them off in the direction they had come from.
‘Surfer boy, listen.’ Skeletor yawned without covering his mouth. ‘When I wake up properly, I’m going to kill you.’
‘Look, man, I said I’m sorry.’ It occurred to Thomas that he had been given this tricky task, of finding their needle of a truck in the haystack of South-West Africa, just so that he could fail and give Skeletor another excuse to kak him out. ‘What do you want me to do? Lick your boots.’
‘That would be a start.’
They drove for only a few minutes, following the road through banks of sand and rock that were layered with different shades and hues to mark the ages, before Maxwell began to work down through the gears, bashing the lever with what felt like deliberate malice against Thomas’s knees.
‘Why are you slowing?’ Skeletor said.
‘We need petrol.’ Maxwell tapped the gauge, its needle hovering on the red.
They drifted off the road, onto flat, hard-packed sand, towards the only sign of life in this desolate place: the fat branches of a baobab tree reaching up like the arms of a prophet.
When the tree was big enough to dominate the entire view from the windscreen, Maxwell slowed down further. Then, under its branches, he brought them to a halt.
Thomas followed Skeletor outside, their joints creaking in unison as they stretched their legs, their feet crunching on twigs and dried flakes of sand. The brisk air made Thomas realise just how musty the cab had become, and how much he had become used to it. He watched as Maxwell hauled a jerry can from the back of the truck, undid the lid and sunk in a green hose.
‘Need a hand?’ Thomas asked.
‘He’s fine,’ Skeletor said.
‘I was asking Maxwell.’ Thomas raised his voice a notch. ‘Need any help there, bru?’
‘It is faster if I do it myself.’ Maxwell sucked on the hose, spat red liquid at the earth then shoved the end of the hose into the side of the truck.
‘Fine.’ Thomas spread the map over the top of the cab, preparing to have another go at being navigator.
‘Give me that.’ Skeletor snatched away the map and stretched it between his long arms. ‘You couldn’t find your way out of a sleeping bag.’
While the other two got on with their work, Thomas leaned against the bonnet of the truck, feeling like a spare part. Skeletor openly despised him, which was nothing unusual. But now it seemed that Maxwell had gone off him too, as though their conversation earlier had ignited some doubt about his character that this map reading disaster had confirmed. He shivered, looked up at the few rays of late-afternoon light trickling through the branches of the baobab and did up the top button of his Hawaiian shirt. That was the strange thing about winter in this part of Africa: it too hot in the sun and too cold in the shade. He couldn’t win.
Standing against the truck, hugging himself and wishing he was back in Durban where it was warm all year round, he suddenly remembered the letter. The cold and the frosty treatment from the other two didn’t seem so important any more. He stood up and began to edge away, towards the baobab tree, noting as he moved that its light-coloured, plaited trunk was big enough to hide behind.
Skeletor’s voice boomed out over the map. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’
‘Toilet.’ Grabbing his crotch, Thomas mimed the pain of a full bladder. He had been sipping water from his canteen all day, so the act wasn’t too difficult.
Thomas scampered out of sight behind the tree. He unzipped his trousers, took aim and wrote his initials, TG, in urine on bark. After finishing up and hastily wiping his hands on the back of his jeans, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the pink envelope.
Held up to his nose, it still smelt faintly of perfume, promising an escape from the universe of sweat, sand and shoe polish he had been living in for so long. He wanted to rip it open right away, but knew he had to restrain himself, take care not to damage his most precious possession. So, carefully, he slid a fingernail under the triangular fold, began to work it open. The glue came unstuck without much pressure, a sign that the army had been there before him. But Thomas had expected this and he focussed his attention now on the single sheet of ice-white paper exposed within. Hoping that the censors had been kind, his stomach churning in anticipation, he lifted out the letter.
‘What are you doing?’
Thomas looked up to see Skeletor leaning against the side of the tree, rifle slung over his shoulder.
‘Nothing.’ Thomas quickly stuffed the letter back into the envelope then shoved both into his pocket, trying not to wince as the paper crumpled.
‘Wait. What was that? What were you reading?’
Thomas shrugged, casually as he could, hoping the bass drum of his heart didn’t give him away. ‘Just a letter from my parents.’
‘We’re not supposed to bring anything from South Africa.’
‘It’s been censored.’ Thomas had already seen that the return address had been left intact on the back of the envelope, and knew that if challenged he would have to give it up, let it be destroyed.
But Skeletor didn’t seem interested. He stomped across, unzipped his trousers and pissed all over Thomas’s initials. ‘Do you know how to fix a compass?’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘I don’t know, surfer boy. That’s why I’m asking you.’
On the other side of the tree, in a section of sand past the truck, Thomas found Maxwell walking in slow circles with the compass held out like a divining rod.
‘This thing,’ Maxwell explained, ‘is too sensitive for its own good. The ground here is so full of metal, it doesn’t know which way is up or down.’
Thomas took the compass and had a look. The silver needle was spinning around the dial, directionless.
‘I reckon he’s lying.’ Skeletor stomped out from behind the tree, zipping up as he came closer.
‘No, Maxwell’s right. This thing’s stuffed.’ Thomas shook the compass, hoping to calm its jittery nerves, but still the needle spun. ‘Anyway, why would he lie to us?’
‘Thank you,’ Maxwell said, ‘but I can speak for myself.’ He seized back the compass then turned to stare at the orange orb, all that was left of the sun, hanging behind the gnarled branches of the baobab. ‘We will have to camp here tonight. Get our bearings from the rising sun.’
Skeletor stormed across and loomed, his neck bent down like a streetlight, over Maxwell. ‘And how do we know you don’t have friends arriving tonight, to kill us and steal our things?’
Maxwell held his ground. ‘Do you think my friends would be stupid enough to come all this way to rob two conscripts like you?’
‘Watch it.’ Skeletor stubbed a finger on Maxwell’s chest.
Maxwell didn’t flinch. ‘Without me you would be unarmed, as defenceless as a baby.’
‘Who are you calling a baby?’ Skeletor backed off a few paces, but he wasn’t going anywhere, merely giving himself enough room to raise his AK-47 and stare down the barrel at Maxwell.
Maxwell stared right back, bringing up his own rifle in reply, holding it at waist height.
Thomas realised that if he didn’t do something, soon, it would all end in tears or worse, blood. He rushed in between them and pushed aside their rifles. His own weapon was somewhere, forgotten, in the truck. ‘Come on, guys. Peace.’
‘Stay out of this, hippy.’
‘Yes,’ Maxwell said, ‘this is not your business.’
But Thomas had made up his mind and wasn’t going to back down. He was going to redeem himself in Maxwell’s eyes, prove that he wasn’t some spoilt white kid, but a nice guy, a good oke, a friend. ‘Skeletor,’ he said, making himself sound reasonable, like an adult, ‘I really think we should listen to Maxwell. I mean, he’s got more experience than both of us out here.’
Something hard smashed into Thomas’s side, in the exact spot Skeletor had kicked him the night before. He fell to the ground clutching his ribs, gazing up in incomprehension at his attacker.
‘I told you, I can speak for myself,’ Maxwell held his rifle butt ready to deliver another blow.
‘I was just trying to help. Jesus, man.’
Another bolt of pain shot through Thomas, this time from the other direction.
‘And that’s for blasphemy.’ Skeletor’s boot hovered in the air.
Lying there in the sand, curled into a protective ball between his attackers, Thomas didn’t just want to leave the army. He wanted to travel back in space and time, track down his ancestors and tell them not to bother coming to this hard, harsh continent, where they would only end up in buffer zones between armies and be used as punch bags, their every good intention misunderstood.
‘Stop being a girl,’ Skeletor said. ‘Stand up.’
Making an effort not to wince, Thomas got to his feet.
‘Are you crying?’ Skeletor’s top lip was curled in disgust.
Thomas wiped his wet cheeks. ‘No.’
With a shrug, Maxwell started back to the truck.
‘You, boy,’ Skeletor said. ‘I’m not finished with you yet.’
‘Who do you think you are, hitting a white man?’
‘I’m fine.’ Thomas rubbed his side and forced a smile. ‘He didn’t hit me that hard, really. It was more of a tap than anything else.’
‘I’m done with you.’ With the side of his rifle, Skeletor shoved Thomas away.
Letting kinetic energy carry his body, Thomas staggered to the truck, sidestepping Maxwell along the way, then turned and fell back heavily on the bonnet.
Skeletor, red faced and indignant, came after his prey. ‘Answer me, boy. What gives you the right to hit a white man?’
‘It was the only way he would understand,’ Maxwell said.
Skeletor’s rifle was aimed at Maxwell’s head. ‘Understand what? That you’ve got a death wish?’
‘Him.’ Maxwell gestured with his rifle at Thomas. ‘I know people like him. They think they’re here to help, but they don’t listen. They get in the way. And they cause trouble. Out here people like that can get you killed.’
Indignation made Thomas push himself up from the bonnet. He had made so much effort with Maxwell and this was his repayment, this betrayal. It wasn’t fair.
All Skeletor did was raise an eyebrow. ‘You talking about Englishmen?’
‘Why didn’t you say so?’ Skeletor lowered his weapon, interpreting Maxwell’s shrug as an affirmation. ‘I completely agree with you. They should keep these rooineks from Britain out of the army. They don’t care about our continent. Leave the fighting to the real Africans, like us.’
‘Hey, I didn’t ask to get called up,’ Thomas mumbled in his defence. It felt as if he was on trial for a crime he hadn’t committed. No, it felt as if his whole family was on trial, and all because they had arrived in the 1800s rather than a hundred years earlier with Skeletor’s people.
‘It’s settled then,’ Skeletor boomed, as though some unspoken agreement had been reached. ‘We camp here tonight and leave at first light.’ He moved on, passing Maxwell and the front of the truck. Once under the branches of the tree, he turned and pointed a finger back at Maxwell. ‘But in future, you tell me if you have a problem. Let me deal with it.’
‘If we all just remember our places, we’ll be fine.’
With Thomas watching from the bonnet, massaging his ribs, and Skeletor supervising from the vantage point of an exposed root, Maxwell went to work setting up camp. He dragged a groundsheet and pup tent from the back of the truck and set them up, hammering pegs into the hard ground and manipulating guy ropes with casual ease. Then he dug a fire pit in front of the headlights, filled it with kindling collected from under the tree and began surrounding the hole with a wall of rocks.
Thomas didn’t understand it. They shared a city, a love of music, and would no doubt find out that they plenty more in common. If it wasn’t for Maxwell’s prejudices they would have been friends already.
‘Surfer boy!’ Skeletor shouted from under the tree. ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get some food on.’
Thomas hauled his aching body up and wandered to the back of the truck. Leaning over the metal gate into the clutter of equipment, he searched for the familiar shapes of rat packs but found only a cardboard box filled with a collection of smaller boxes and tins. All the containers had their labels peeled off, doubtless so that none of it could be traced back to factories in South Africa. But this system made it difficult for him to know exactly what food he was dealing with. He held up a silver tin, shook it and tried to work out what was inside.
‘That is fruit salad.’ Maxwell pushed him aside, picked out a silver sachet and shook it. ‘We need protein.’
Over a fire kept low to avoid attracting the attention of scavengers or terrorists, or both, Maxwell placed a scratched, blackened pot. After bringing water to boil, he stirred in the contents of the yellow sachet, which turned into scrambled eggs, or at least the army’s version of scrambled eggs: a sloppy mess that looked like wallpaper glue and would probably taste like it too.
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