It was a dark and dismal day and New Zealand lived up to its soggy reputation. The driving rain lashed almost horizontally at the building site, driven by a ferocious wind that snaked and curled around the temporary structures causing them to rock and rattle on their equally temporary foundations.
A bus sat heavily in the muddy yard, its windows fogged and the slow metronomic swishing of its wipers indicating that there was possibly life within, not that any sign was discernable from the outside.
At irregular intervals men would dash from various offices and workshops around the yard pulling on heavy-weather coats or totally inadequate spray jackets; their pounding boots sending a spray of mud and water from the quickly growing pools that threatened to link up and cover the entire area. They leaped onto the steps of the bus, which rocked and groaned with ancient decrepitude and disappeared into the fetid interior.
Tom stood in the doorway of the site-office hoping for a break in the rain that would enable him to reach the bus without being soaked to the skin. The minivan he usually drove into Auckland was in the site workshop for an overdue service and he had left his heavy weather gear on the back seat.
He reflected on the circumstances that had brought him to that inclement land: sailing around the world in a thirty foot boat that was badly damaged in a storm off the Bay of Plenty, and the subsequent necessity to earn enough money to repair his boat and resume his journey. His job as an engineer on the Huntley Power Station paid well and another few weeks would see his boat repaired and refitted so that he could continue his trip. Only a few months previously he had been acclimatising to the heat and high humidity of Australia’s northern coast. Now he shivered in the wet cold winter of New Zealand. He took a deep breath, bent his head down and made a frantic dash for the bus that seemed ready to depart.
Entering the bus took more that just the physical effort. The stench of wet clothing and sweaty bodies hung suspended in the cigarette smoke that filled the interior, trapped inside the closed windows. Short bursts of phlegmy coughing sent the smoke swirling in short eddies around the afflicted. Tom peered into the gloom searching for an empty seat. He moved forward to where a thin gnome-like man sat and looked at him askance. Finally the man glanced up and with some reluctance removed his backpack from the seat and dropped it on the floor between his legs. Tom smiled his thanks and sat down; the man made no comment and turned to gaze out of the window.
“Not very nice weather!” Tom remarked pleasantly.
The man glanced briefly at Tom and muttered some indistinct comment, which to Tom’s ears sounded vaguely Germanic.
Another one of the many foreign labourers working on the project. Tom mused to himself. They comprised the major part of the workforce of several hundred men.
The bus gave a couple of spasmodic heaves and the smell of used diesel fumes wafted in through the rear door before it began to close, sealing out any possibility of fresh air. It seemed to Tom an improvement on the miasma that was already there.
Tom surreptitiously studied his companion as he stared out of the window. From time to time he used the sleeve of his jacket to clear a small opening on the fogged-up glass through which to peer at the passing scene. He had a thin face and a long narrow nose. His face was swarthy, with several days’ growth of beard darkening his cheeks and chin.
He had a black shapeless hat pulled low around his ears that looked as if it had been a trilby in its better days, but now resembled an old mob-cap; it had a greenish tinge in the dim light. He wore a bright yellow site-issue spray-coat two sizes too small, even for his meagre frame, allowing the frayed cuffs of his jacket to protrude at the wrists. Tom judged him to be in his early 50s.
“Terrible weather we’re having,” he tried again. “Only a few months ago I was up in Darwin, North Australia; a bit different from this, it was nearly 40 degrees up there!”
The man dragged his nose away from the porthole.
“Ah! Yes, Oi know, it gets roit hot up dar. But it’s not so mooch da heat, it’s da humility dat gets yer.” He turned back to the window.
Tom recognised the very broad Irish accent and realised his earlier mistake regarding the man’s origins. He watched him for a while wondering if he knew he had just uttered a malapropism, but there appeared to be no humour in the man sitting alongside of him.
“Yes! I agree with you there, the …,” he paused. He was going to say humidity but did not wish to embarrass the man. “the..ahh … moisture in the air makes a difference doesn’t it?” He finished lamely.
The man spoke without turning.
“Dat’s roit. O’ve got a smaall place in town ‘n’ when Oi’m lyin in me bed at noit Oi can see da condescension runnin’ down da winders, so Oi can.”
Tom looked at him sharply trying to ascertain if the Irishman was doing it deliberately, but his face held only the same blank look as before. There was not the slightest hint of a smile. Was he trying to get a rise out of him? He couldn’t tell.
“Of course, dat Darwin, it’s a long way furder nort,” he continued after a pause. “An’ da attitude makes a difference, ye see! It’s nearer to da ecuador.”
Tom shifted in his seat; uncertainty making him irritated. “Yes!” he replied with some asperity. “It’s only about 12 degrees south ‘latitude’ there. We’re almost 37 here. Darwin is much closer to the ‘equator’.” he replied callously, emphasising the two words.
The Irishman appeared not to notice.
Having vented his spleen Tom regretted his cruel attack. After all not too many people were etymologists, or even had the same chance as he, of a good education. He felt embarrassed by his lack of feeling and understanding. He thought to apologise but as the man seemed not to have noticed he let the moment pass.
“Have you been working on the site long?” Tom asked, by way of healing any perceived affront.
“Ah sure! me an’ me pals arrived here roit aat da beginnin’ loik. Dey was jist startin’ to set out da site den. Yes,” he mused. “We were roit here at its deception so we were, and Oi tink we’ll be here at da finish.”
Tom studied the man’s profile, attempting to find any signs of duplicity, but saw only tired resignation. The look of a man who had seen the worst life had to offer and expected no relief.
Tom changed the subject.
“I see you’ve got a woman for prime minister now. What do you think of that? Did you vote for her?” He smiled. There was silence for a while, then the Irishman turned to Tom with a shrug.
“Ah! It don’t bodder me none. She can’t do any worse dan da last lot.” He paused for a while. “Oi have nuttin to do wid dat lot, whoever’s in don’t make no difference to da loiks of me. Yas can abject as mooch as yas loik but it makes no difference, so why bodder?” He seemed to warm to the conversation. “You’ve done a bit of travelin’ den, ’ave ya? Ya moost ’ave seen a fair bit o’ da world den!”
Tom, like most adventurers, enjoyed recounting stories of his travels and for the next ten minutes he hardly drew a breath. Realising that he was hogging the conversation he smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry, I get carried away sometimes.” he said. “I’m probably boring you to death; you should have stopped me.”
“Not aat aall lad, oi loik ta hear odder people’s antidotes; very interesting,” He said kindly. “I wish oidda done summit loik it meself.” He turned back to the window.
By this time the bus was crawling painfully up the hill to Tom’s stop. He eased himself out of his seat. “Well, cheerio! It’s been … interesting talking to you” he said with a smile. Then some puckish whim took over and he added. “The way those politicians carry on is terrible; you’re quite right. No wonder we all become septics.”
He grinned at the Irishman. As he turned to leave the Irishman detained him with a gentle hand on his arm. “Oi don’t want to offend yas lad” he said, with a deferential look, “but da word yas was wanting was sceptics. Septic means that somtin’ is rotton loik. Yees used da wrong word. No offence intended. Oi taught yas would want to know.” He turned back to the window and as Tom went to move off he heard him mutter, “Geesus! Don’t dey teach dem nuttin’ in school dees days?”
Tom stood on the pavement shaking his head. He looked back at the bus but the Irishman was gazing out of the window and didn’t acknowledge his salute.
Bill drove slowly down the circular driveway that led to the house. He rubbed his hand wearily across his stubbled jaw and pushed his bush cap to the back of his head. Pulling up in front of the path that led to the house he reached behind him for the backpack and rifle that resided on the back seat. Swinging the pack strap over his shoulder he walked slowly down the path to the rear door that opened onto the kitchen. He had hardly stepped through the door when Sabina, the cook and house girl, relieved him of his burdens and stacked them in a corner where she knew that, when he was ready, he would clean them himself.
She looked at him noting the tired lines around his eyes, and she tutted in a soft croon,
“Ah, boss, you stink bad. I got yo favrit stew when yo ready. He smiled gratefully as his nose picked up the scent of kudu wafting from the pot. He sat down heavily on a rough wooden bench as Sabina eased her considerable bulk down onto the floor and began unlacing his veltskoens. The boots were badly scuffed and caked with mud from the many miles of tracking over the past two weeks. She removed the boots with a mighty heave and recoiled at the smell that pervaded the kitchen.
“Ah, boss”, she wailed, “I think yo feets is too sick.” She laughed, having performed this same function many times before.
The small farm was situated in the northeast corner of the country, near Mtoko and only a few miles from the Mozambique border, from where most of the terrorists infiltrated the country. Many farms had been attacked and many white farmers had long since departed the country, but Bill hung on with fierce determination, even though he realised that the battle was long lost.
Sabina reached up under his trousers and pulled down his socks that felt damp and sticky and with a shudder of distaste dropped them on the floor where they stuck emitting an obscene odour.
“Yo bath is ready, boss,” she said.
Bill knew it would be. She appeared to have some arcane knowledge as to when he would appear back from patrol and a hot steaming bath would be ready with an abundance of bath salts to cut through the grime that covered his body. He rose slowly and padded down the hallway to the bathroom, shedding his clothes as he went. His feet made sticky marks on the polished floor behind him. He eased his aching body into the tub with a short grunt of pleasure as he sunk slowly under the layer of bubbles. He surfaced with an explosive snort and lay quietly thinking of the past weeks.
It had begun two days before the actual patrol started with mock battles, shooting at targets hidden in the dense bush. There had been first-aid lectures where they had been shown how to plug a bullet hole in the chest with a tampon dipped in the casualty’s blood to make it easier to insert. They had practiced inserting a cannula into a vein to introduce a drip and how to tie a pressure bandage on an amputated limb. They had lined up their weapons on a target range and run, run, run. They had not been allowed to wash with soap, then, or for the following two weeks, as the smell could be detected in the heavy air of the jungle giving an enemy warning of their presence.
He smiled as he recalled the day he left. He had stowed his pack on the back seat of his car, ensuring that the two water bottles were full; the six full magazines were taped in reversed pairs to facilitate a quick change-over, and that there were 500 additional rounds for his FN rifle. He had cautioned Sabina to take care of the house, promising her a bonsala, a gift, if everything was in good order when he returned. As he started the car he called Kingston, the head gardener, to him repeating the same promise of a bonsala if all was well when he returned.
As he began to move off Kingston had dashed up calling out, “Baas, can I have my bonsala now?” Bill told him, no! He would have to wait until he returned. Kingston blurted, “But, boss, what if you don’t come back?”
As he drove off Bill had called back, “You take your chances the same as me! You skellum!”
He recalled the many times he had threatened to fire Kingston over the past sixteen years. There had been times when he would have done so and many more times when he had chased him with a pickaxe handle with every intention of breaking a few bones. He often disappeared for days on end to return to his tribe to bury his ‘father’, of which there seemed to be an endless number. All the men who were initiated together as youths were considered brothers, and as such were honorary fathers to each other’s children. He had pleaded with Bill to give him gumboots and an extra blanket during the cold, rainy season. Bill had done so, only to discover five days later that he had sold them for u-shwala, the native beer. Bill smiled as he recalled the way Kingston had reacted when he almost trod on a boomslang that was basking on the hot ground. He had given a wild shriek and leaped about six feet in the air. Bill had planted his boot on the creature’s neck and quickly severed its head with his panga. For a week after he had tormented the gardener with taunts, calling him isi khukhukazi, a chicken, and i-gwala, a coward. He had stopped when he realised that Kingston was deeply ashamed of his reaction. His tribal family were Shangaans, who had a very brave tradition as warriors. For weeks after he had taken quite unnecessary risks with snakes and other wild creatures in an attempt to convince Bill of his bravery.
Bill had fallen asleep when Sabina returned fifteen minutes later. Without any comment she raised one foot and proceeded to scrub it gently, endeavouring to remove the ingrained dirt from his heels and toes. Then she took out a small knife and cleaned out his toenails; he would have to trim them later. She did the same with the other foot and scrubbed up as far as his knees before attending to his hair which she covered with shampoo and worked it thoroughly into the scalp. Then using a ladle she rinsed it off and began on his back which was badly scarred from thorn bushes and rocks. She flannelled the septic cuts until they bled and patted them dry with a clean cloth. Finally he stepped out of the bath and waited as Sabina let the filthy water out and cleaned the tub prior to refilling it and adding yet more bath salts.
Bill stepped back into the water and revelled in the comfort and cleanness. Ten minutes later Sabina returned with a pot of ointment. When Bill had dried himself she applied the unction to the cuts and scratches on his back, then handed him the pot for him to treat the various rashes that spawned from armpits and groin.
He slipped into his pyjamas and dressing gown and hurried with anticipation to the dining room and the kudu stew. Sabina knew well that when he returned from patrol his appetite was much diminished for the first few days, but she always made a huge quantity of stew anyway. What he did not eat she and Kingston would finish off.
Completing his meal he wandered out onto the stoep and stood admiring the grand view down the valley to the Shamva Mountains, purple in the distance. He poured himself a ‘special’ from the icy jug that he knew would be there and sipped it gratefully as he sank into a wicker chair. Sabina’s specials were renown, or had been, in the area; always ready when visitors arrived. It was her own concoction consisting of a tall cold glass with four cubes of ice in the bottom. These were covered with lemon juice followed by one jigger of Gordon’s Gin and one and a h