by Craig Sterling
To Michael and Andrea Collins, with love.
He bent down to squint at the note someone had left under his door.
It was from Mr. Lumsden, complaining about smells from the rubbish chute. Well, if people wouldn’t bag their rubbish properly, what did they expect?
The man shuffled back down the corridor to his bed-sitting room with Mr. Lumsden’s note and the rest of his mail. Short-cropped white hair, rounded shoulders, huge frame worn down by age and disease, a wheezing cough – such was his life these days. Different from how he’d been forty years ago. Or thirty.
Apart from Mr. Lumsden’s note, the only mail – other than double glazing adverts and takeaway menus – was a note from the hospital about his next appointment. He threw the mail on a side table as he pushed open the door to his bedsit.
The bedsit came with the job: a “studio suite”, they’d called it, with separate bathroom and kitchenette. When he first came to London as a teenager they’d have called it a basement bedsit, because that’s what it was. But that was a lifetime ago – before he’d moved to Southern Rhodesia and joined the Military Police.
1963: he was just a calf, his head filled with dreams of making a fortune from diamonds. How was he to know he’d find himself running back to Britain twenty years later with nothing but fifty pounds in cash and the clothes he stood up in?
He lit a cigarette with his old steel Zippo and sat down in a lightly stained armchair, then pulled at his cigarette a second time, wedging it between huge, work-worn fingers. This job wouldn’t have suited most men because the hours were so irregular. He blew smoke towards the low ceiling in a long, thin stream and coughed gently, thinking about nothing.
If there was a security breach late at night, he had to take care of it. If the plumbing went, he organized the crew to come. Hard work, day and night. But he had room and bills and two hundred and fifty pounds a week, which was more than he needed, and Tuesdays off. On his day off he liked to go to a quiet golf course in the suburbs, his eighteen holes followed by lunch and a couple of pints in the bar. And they didn’t mind you smoking outside at that place.
The event he called “it” happened one day on that golf course. The thing. Three months ago. His sudden lapse. His weakness.
The first time he’d cried since he was a child.
He was finishing off a round with his pal Bob, a retired corporate executive – jovial and modest, not that old Bob had much to boast about after a career as regional supply manager for a seafood business. The sky was a little cloudy that morning, nothing more than a light breeze to take the edge off late May’s rising heat. Bob was in fine form, cracking jokes about maidens and tight lies and the rest, and after a couple of hours’ play they found themselves on the seventeenth green, a hot roast beef roll and a couple of pints of IPA in prospect.
Bob was one hole up with two to play. On the seventeenth, Bob made a mess of his approach shot and needed to sink a very long putt from the edge of the green if he was going to win. Otherwise it’d be sudden death – all square and one hole left.
The old man remembered how Bob set up his shot with tremendous mock-serious seriousness, eyeing up his line, measuring the shot using his putter like a gunsight, even kneeling to get a better sense of the ball’s trajectory. Then Bob stood up and addressed the ball, giving it a fair stroke. The ball whizzed across the green, slowing obligingly just before the lip of the cup. For a moment, it looked as though the ball would veer left, and the match would be squared. But the little white sphere slowed again, staggered over the lip of the cup, and in it went.
Something snapped inside the old man as the ball dropped in the hole. He started crying uncontrollably. Not weeping, or a few tears, or the kind of thing you could brush away; not crying in that sense. His entire body spasmed, skin hot, snot and tears dripping down his face. Bob abandoned a joke about being a sore loser mid-sentence when he saw his fellow player’s condition, then sat him down on a bench near the eighteenth tee to calm him down.
And that’s when a fresh torrent of tears emerged from the man’s sun-cracked face. A flood of words, too, things a real man wasn’t supposed to say. More tears, of course; but mainly confession. Feelings. Emotions. All the things he’d had boxed and beaten and drilled out of him at school and in the forces.
He remembered being teased at school because he couldn’t spell too well. The fact was that he couldn’t spell because of unrecognised dyslexia, because he’d been born in the Middle East and spoken Arabic to everyone except his English parents. After a while he’d used his fists to correct the bullies. At first, he’d lost against every boy he’d fought, but then he’d started to win. And after that, they left him alone.
He still never learned to spell very well, though. And he hated lessons, and most games except boxing, at which he excelled by the time he was in his fifth year at that third-rate public school in Devon. After abysmal fifth form exam results, there was never a question of staying on for sixth form, so his parents gave him some money and cut him loose back in London.
One year later, following a horrible relationship with a girl who’d wound him round her little finger – bed, more bed; rows, more rows, less bed, break-up – and too many nights in the pub, his father packed him off to Rhodesia to join the British South Africa Police.
Despite his experiences in London and at school, he was still fantastically naïve when he arrived in Africa. So much so that he’d made every mistake possible: walking through townships by himself late at night, arguing with his fellow NCOs and getting set upon by six colleagues in the mess for his pains: it was a marvel he survived three years in the police force, only to find himself bored witless by the routine and lack of action. Looking for more excitement, he joined the Rhodesian Light Infantry when he left the police.
If he’d been looking for excitement, he found plenty in the Army. A whole thirteen years of civil war. Of course, what no-one wanted to hear now was that the white soldiers thought they were defending their country against communism. Tell someone that in London today and they’d laugh in your face. You were white and you lived in Rhodesia. Of course you were racist. What else could you be?
So it was that the man learned to swallow his thoughts – again. All through the Bush War, and after. And now that the tears fell faster than his eyes could make them, he wanted to tell his mate Bob everything. Everything: those things no-one, not even his ex-wife, had heard from him.
He could have started his story anywhere: what difference did it make? He told Bob what he’d done when he first left Rhodesia in 1981, just after the hand-over to Mugabe. How that chubby American with a greying crew-cut and military fatigues approached him at the bar of Brett’s night club in Salisbury and offered him a job “freelancing” (his term) in Afghanistan. Him and a bunch of others who couldn’t settle to peace. Vietnam vets, Bush War vets, military freaks, drug-pushers and weirdos. All full of words like Gook and Slope and Munt, their voices betraying their fear whenever they described someone who wasn’t white, their ignorance inventing fairy tales of superiority.
Such was the quality of the men who became “advisors” to the Mujahedeen Taleban, Afghan mountain men who fought the Russians aided by the CIA in the late seventies and early eighties. Naturally, the CIA told the man these Mujahedeen were fighting for their freedom. Of course, the old Rhodie soldiers believed the CIA because they wanted to. Because they were getting paid to fight. Just like they’d believed Ian Smith when he told them their war was about communism. Because the alternative was to admit you were part of a racist regime, a place that looked like a donkey and cart in the modern world.
In practice, the man found that being an advisor to the Mujahedeen meant telling them how the Russian weapons systems they’d captured from invading Soviets – identical to the weapons used by Mugabe’s armies in Rhodesia – worked. That way the Mujahedeen could turn the weapons on their makers, saving the CIA some cash and matériel in the process. As well as stopping anyone from blaming the CIA for the insurgency against the Russian invaders.
The old man looked out over the eighteenth tee with Bob sat listening next to him. Bob’s comfortable, kind, healthy face turned toward him in an attitude of unfeigned interest and concern. The man’s eyes were unable to cry any more. He told Bob about that day in the mountains of Tora Bora, thirty years before it became famous as Bin Laden’s hideout. As he spoke he kept his eyes averted, his gaze scanning some imagined horizon at the other side of the eighteenth fairway.
Afghanistan, 1981. The sun up early that day, the air bleeding at such high altitude, the only sound their feet crunching on the scree and the odd terse command muttered in Pashto. The man hadn’t learned any Pashto and communicated with his “stick” of six mujahedeen as best he could, using the few words of English one of them spoke.
He’d been told to wait with his interpreter half way up a ragged incline of broken rock. He tried to ask what was going on but could get nothing out of the Afghan except “yes”, and, “wait”. He couldn’t see where the others had disappeared to further up the scrabbly hill. Then after two hours, to judge from the half-pack of Marlboro Red he’d smoked, the sound of movement from further up the slope. The sound of struggle. Of a young voice, a boy’s voice, crying.
Within minutes the rest of the “stick” – the other five Mujahedeen – reappeared from the scrub, one leading the way back down the slippery broken rocks with a rifle in his arms, safety off, the rest carrying the struggling form of a Russian soldier, his voice squealing through the thick gag they’d wrapped tight around his mouth. When the Mujahedeen reached the man, they threw the boy/soldier down hard on the battered earth. The Afghan who spoke a few words of English stepped forward.
The man looked at the Russian soldier’s eyes and saw raw fear. Barely old enough to shave, the kid had an adolescent’s spindly limbs and the wide, clear eyes of a child. Eyes that were as red and as raw as the old mans’ were now, sat on a golf-course with his friend in the suburbs of South-West London thirty years later.
That day on the golf course, the man had paused and pulled out a cigarette, drying his eyes as he looked out at the harsh green of the fairway in front of them. Bob wordlessly produced a gold lighter, flicked it open under the tip of his cigarette, lit the cigarette, then clapped it back into his pocket. The old man nodded his thanks.
Then he stretched his neck left and right, and told Bob about the sharp commands from the Mujahedeen leader back in Afghanistan, words that broke the still mountain air like shrapnel. As he spoke he smoked ravenously, exhaling gusts of tobacco odour into the morning air.
He remembered how they’d laid the boy out on a flat rock and ripped off his Army tunic with a dagger. How one of them produced a cutlass and a six-inch hunting knife from the folds of their herdsman’s dress. How the old man somehow knew what they were about to do, and pleaded with them not to do it. He’d yelled at them in English, Shona, Ndebele, Swahili, French, Arabic – anything he could think of to get them to stop.
And then the old man stopped talking. Bob touched his arm, asked him if he wanted to stop playing golf now and go for lunch. It had obviously been a distressing experience, to say the least, Bob said, and there wasn’t much point in trying to play the rest of the round. But the old man ignored him and, after another pause, started talking again, smoke spilling from his mouth as he talked, fingers clamped to his cigarette.
After they’d tied the boy to a large, flat rock, the Mujahedeen removed the gag from his mouth. Now his voice, a child’s scream really, was audible: Maaaaaammmaaaaa! Maaaaammmaaaa! Again the kid pleaded with the Mujahedeen. But they ignored him, either impervious to his pleas, or unable to understand him.
The old man described in vivid detail how the Mujahedeen disemboweled the Russian soldier and cut out his eyes. They left the boy there, his empty carcass tied to a rock, the fat sun rising to its apogee.They left the boy there, his empty carcass tied to a rock, the fat sun rising to its apogee. And as they half-dragged, half-led the dumb and lost man who was being paid to “advise” them down the slope, he could see the vultures begin to descend in circles. And the man vomited, hoping that he would throw up all the horror in the world, trying to retch out humanity’s sickness for that lost little boy in an army uniform dying a few hundred yards away, the vultures with him now.
He told Bob how he’d hit the deck at the bottom of the slope, his head in the dust, throwing up nothing. Nothing would come. He lay there with the Mujahedeen watching him, laughing, mocking, until the sound of a helicopter came, perhaps twenty minutes, maybe more. He remembered how the blades started as a whisper until the helicopter came overhead and the Americans appeared with a stretcher to “medevac” him. A Medical Evacuation.
The heli blades thudded like war drums from the kraals in Mashonaland when the Africans celebrated a terrorist incursion in Rhodesia. To save face in front of the Mujahedeen – both for the man, and for themselves – the Americans told the Afghans he was sick. They strapped him to a stretcher and put him in the chopper.
As the helicopter pulled away from the valley he saw the Afghans laughing and looking at him, the interpreter shaking his head as he jammed a cigarette from the pack of Marlboro the man had given him between his lips.
Six days later the man applied for immediate release from his contract with the CIA on health grounds. His release was granted because the CIA wanted no disgruntled ex-mercenaries telling tales. He got more money for signing a non-disclosure agreement with the US government than he had earned in all his years with the Rhodesian forces, then returned to what was now Zimbabwe to try to pick up the pieces of his life.
He spent long days on his porch in Harare drinking Lion Lager with his friends and imagining it was still 1963, the struggle for majority rule had not yet begun and Africa was wide open for an honest white man willing to work hard. His friends vowed they’d take to the bush, establish a partnership with the Matebele and take out Mugabe, then share power. But he knew they were fantasists and that the day-dream of Rhodesia was long gone.
Days spent drinking, smoking and spending the US government’s money ruined his health and his marriage. His wife left with their two children and he never saw her again; to this day, he saw his son and daughter only rarely, and whenever he saw his son he could never get the image of that Russian boy out of his mind. By 1983 his son was sixteen, roughly the age of that Russian boy in Afghanistan, and the man imagined the Russian boy screaming as his son slept beside him at night on his rare visits to his father’s one-bed in downtown Salisbury – sorry, Harare.
Eventually, he couldn’t see the point of going on in the new Zimbabwe. Not because of the race thing: the truth was everyone had known for years before Mugabe took over that the Bush War was unwinnable, and only the complete madmen – many of whom were in and around government – had a problem with majority rule.
So the man left, opting for London rather than South Africa or Australia, countries so many of his friends had chosen. He’d been warned, all right: warned of the cold, the rain, of how much things had changed in Britain since he’d left it in the early 1960s – but he didn’t care. He wanted a fresh start, as he’d put it, something away from the guns and fighting he’d known all his adult life.
The man ground out his cigarette, exhaling smoke into his bedsit. He reached for the letter from the hospital and slit it open with a thumb. He’d had these letters for over a year now, so they were routine. The oncology unit. Treatment. Surgery. Remission. How he should still consider stopping smoking and drinking alcohol, even at this late stage they were convinced it would make a difference –
Make a difference to what, he wondered. He put the letter aside and pulled another cigarette out of the pack. Ten AM. Another hour and he could plausibly have his first whisky of the day. Make a difference to me? Not even his children knew him now. His wife had long since remarried and hadn’t spoken to him for more than ten years, except to agree on the children’s affairs.
He dragged on his fresh cigarette, a haze of smoke wraithing his tired, drawn face, the lines cut deep around his eyes and mouth. No, the Doctors were wrong. Giving up smoking or drinking wouldn’t make a difference – not to the way people thought about him. Not to the way people saw him, an old, broken-down drunken wreck, kippered in tobacco smoke, working as a servant in the bowels of some posh flats in London.
And none of that bothered him – they could think what they want. But he still saw himself as he’d been when he stepped off that Vickers Viscount at Salisbury, Rhodesia, fifty years ago. Young. Fit. Proud as a lion, and determined to have a go. Determined to make something of himself, his life. If he’d been a failure, as he probably was, he thought, then it wasn’t entirely his fault. How was he to know the country he’d chosen could have gone so very wrong, so fast? Or that living there would mark him out forever?
London, 1983: the Thatcher years. Thatcher – the woman his friends said had sold out Rhodesia as much as Harold Wilson and the rest. She looked as though she was good for Britain, though – at that time. After he’d got this caretaking job, he’d tried to settle down and start again. By this stage his son was at school in South Africa and his daughter had run away from Africa and was living in Argentina, doing who knew what with God knew who.
There were women in the eighties, of course. Women he met tending door at the pubs and clubs of South-West London, where weedy yuppie types with posh voices and pretend-powerful cars got stinking drunk, then ending up snogging each other’s faces off in the alleyways and side-streets, puking and fighting like schoolgirls.
And the women he met all wanted to hear about Africa. About being a solider. About Rhodesia. He stopped trying to explain to them when their line of questioning – usually around five minutes in – went to why he had fought for Ian Smith. What they couldn’t understand was that he wasn’t fighting for Ian Smith. He was fighting for a country, for a way of life Britain had created, then abandoned. Like so many others, the old man found himself without a country, without a passport – and was forced to take such shelter as Britain, land of his birth yet like a foreign country, would give him.
Eventually he stopped trying to tell people how it had been in Rhodesia. And he never mentioned his time in Afghanistan. There were other Rhodies in London, but they drifted off, content to remember their English ways, convincing themselves that a drunken land of drizzle and greasy chips, credit cards and 24-hour TV was where they wanted to be.
But that was not for him. If his adopted country had disappeared, he would never give in. Never surrender the ideal of making something for himself, however much he’d failed completely in everything: marriage, money; life. But that kid, that kid the Mujahedeen had cut open under the boiling Afghan sun. That kid hadn’t failed in life; life hadn’t given him the chance to fail. Life had let the kid grow up, almost, then tortured him to death at the hands of men he didn’t know in a place he didn’t want to be.
The old man was half-way down his cigarette now. He tapped off the ash and leaned back in the armchair, its cheap fabric scratching at his neck. He really wanted a Scotch. Badly. So he decided to have a drink. Who knew how long he had left?
He put his cigarette in the ashtray and hauled himself up, wheezing for breath. They’d cut out half of one of his lungs six months ago. Last time he was in hospital a couple of weeks back they’d found “a worrying shadow” on a lobe of the other lung. So that was what this new appointment was about.
The man shuffled over to the sideboard where a two-thirds empty bottle of cheap whisky sat next to a half-clean tumbler. He unscrewed the bottle’s top with some difficulty and poured most of what was left into the tumbler. Then he dragged his feet back to the armchair and sat down again. He sipped at the whisky and the phone rang. He ignored its shrill alarm and eventually it stopped ringing.
The man took another sip of whisky and pulled on what was left of his cigarette before grinding it out with force, sparks flying off it, a cloud of dust rising from the ashtray like the red dust on a farm back in Rhodesia.
He sat for a while staring in to space, his mottled hand cradling the grease-smeared tumbler of whisky. Then he remembered a helicopter coming to pick up his patrol when he’d been on active service in the seventies, searching for terrorist camps near the border with Mozambique.
He closed his eyes and saw himself crouching low as the heli hovered a few feet above the ground, ready for him to jump on board and be carried to safety. And as his head slumped to the side, his hair touching the head-rest of the armchair, he climbed into the helicopter. Inside, he saw the young Russian boy from that morning in Afghanistan thirty years ago. The boy smiled at him and the helicopter flew off into the afternoon sun, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust in its wake.
–To Michael and Andrea Collins, with love.To Michael and Andrea Collin