The convoy of vehicles stopped in front of the orphanage and Madari and Drummond stepped out of the leading Land Rover.
“Lieutenant Ritchie, get the vehicles parked and set up camp.”
“Jules,” Drummond called to the man who’d taken over Abasi’s role commanding the Lodge security force. “Assist Mr Ritchie getting the camp set up, please.”
“Come on,” Drummond said to Madari. “Let’s go and say hello to the sisters.”
The front door opened as they approached and a smiling novice, a young African woman, greeted them.
“Hello, sirs. Mother Superior is expecting you.” She led them to the office of Sister Raphael, the Mother Superior who ran the orphanage and the school attached to it. She was a short French woman of stern demeanour and authoritative manner.
“Welcome again both of you,” she said, rising and shaking their hands. “Gentlemen, please, sit. Bring us some tea, please,” she said to the novice.
“Got your message about the building materials,” Drummond said. “Saw them outside.”
“And we received your reply that you’d be arriving today, so we have engaged the craftsmen to work from tomorrow.”
“Excellent.” Drummond rubbed his hands. “Good to get on with it. Been looking forward to it.”
Madari had visited the orphanage and found the children healthy and well treated, when he and Drummond came to see if the sisters had room for the orphans from Kizi. Some of the children rescued from Sefu had found new homes with relatives. But several, including Kibibi, had nowhere to go. Sister Raphael told them that she’d have been happy to take the children, but they had no room.
With the only option being to send them to a state run orphanage instead, Madari and Drummond decided that they would make room. They ordered building materials for an extension to the dormitory and classroom, told the sisters to engage local tradesmen and gathered some volunteers from their respective squads. More than one of Drummond’s men had grown up either here or in a similar place. They had no shortage of volunteers to help.
It took several weeks to bring everything together, but at last the building work could get underway and so here they were. Men to work as labourers, the officers to boss people around, and the orphans themselves. The orphans would remain here after the building work was completed, when the soldiers and security men would return to the Lodge.
Madari was looking forward to the days ahead. This would be a nice break from the grim work that was starting to wear him down. He had barely a month left in Zaire and though he’d be sad to part from the friends he’d made here, still he’d be happy to go home. But for now, working in the open air, working with his hands, on a practical project that would benefit these children would be a welcome change.
The campsite, in a field beside the orphanage, was almost finished when they went outside after taking tea with Sister Raphael. But it was too late in the afternoon to start the building work now. Best to check the materials, make what preparations they could and then get a good night’s sleep before starting work in the morning.
While the men set up the campsite, the Kizi orphans ran around, getting in the way. They’d been allowed to run too wild at the lodge, Madari thought, everyone indulging them, little heart to discipline them. But the sisters here would soon take care of that.
Kibibi spotted Madari and ran up to him at once, taking his hand.
“Kibibi,” he said. “Say hello to the Sister Raphael.”
Kibibi looked at the sister, eyes wide. She shouldn’t be afraid, Madari thought, she’d told him she’d started attending a school they ran. That had been a few months before the massacre stole her family and community from her. Sister Raphael was a more formidable specimen than most of course. She smiled at Kibibi though.
“Hello, Kibibi. Welcome.”
“She’s still rather nervous,” Madari said, when the girl didn’t reply.
Her recovery from her loss and the horror of what she’d seen amazed him and he envied her youthful resilience, and the ability it gave her to recover from such a trauma. However, he knew she was not entirely normal yet. He’d learned from Bennett that Kibibi sometimes woke up screaming. And sometimes even in the day she came to Madari and simply wanted him to hold her while she wept.
What comfort could he offer her? He said nothing at such times, no words anyway, soothing sounds he’d learned from Kahil. But what could he say to her? He had so little experience of children. Though it touched him that she came to him for comfort, he worried too, that their closeness could only to lead to fresh pain for her when he had to leave.
Bennett came up then and took Kibibi’s other hand.
“Hello, Sister,” Bennett said. “Nice to see you again.” She smiled down at the girl. “You being a good girl, Bibi?”
“Bring her inside, Karen,” Sister Raphael said. “I’ll show her around.”
“Come on, sweetheart,” Karen said, following the sister inside, leading Kibibi, whose hand pulled away from Madari’s, and who looked back at him with a serious expression on her face.
Madari watched them go, and turned back to Drummond, who wore an indulgent smile.
“You’re going to miss that little scrap,” Drummond said.
“I’ll miss all of them.”
“But she’s your favourite.”
He supposed that was true. Perhaps because she was still officially under his protection, perhaps because she was the youngest of the orphans he felt an extra responsibility for her.
“I am… fond of her.”
And in a month, he’d be gone. He needed to remember that.
The UN men and Lodge security had set up quite an elaborate camp, including a couple of field showers and a long bench with big water bowls for washing. Madari was one of the first at this bench in the morning, standing beside a couple of the men, as they washed and shaved. Bennett had permission to use the sisters’ facilities and as he washed his face, he saw her coming out of there, carrying a towel and a wash bag.
He tried not to watch her as she tossed those items back in her tent and went over to the cooking fire, where a couple of the men were starting breakfast. She took his eye more and more these days and she wasn’t the only one. At Christmas he’d reflected that none of the men ever caught his eye in that way, but now after five months of celibacy, that was changing. He hoped he had the self-control not to ogle any of them – being careful right that moment not to look at any of the shirtless young men standing beside him at the wash bench now, water droplets glistening on dark skin, the sun warming naked shoulders…
He kept on looking at Bennett, then realised he’d been looking too long and she might sense his gaze. He buried his face in his towel.
Sexual frustration, nothing more. He just had to stay strong for another month and then he’d be home, to Sophia. She’d replied to his letter, saying they needed to talk, but that yes, she wanted their relationship to continue.
Sophia would help him stay strong in the face of his other temptations.
The foundations had been poured already, so as soon as the local workmen arrived, the new buildings began to take shape quickly. A wooden frame grew up around the men working on laying the wooden floor. The bricklayers prepared their mortar, ready to build walls that would go up about four feet at which point wooden walls would take over.
Drummond, too old for heavy lifting, ensconced himself in a large basket chair, armed with a fly swatter and sheltered by a huge golf umbrella. A small folding table with a jug of iced lemonade and several glasses stood at his side, the ice rapidly melting as the morning heat intensified. He had a book on his lap, but so far hadn’t picked it up, too busy chatting to and pouring lemonade for passing children.
With work being done on their classroom, the children and sisters took classes in the shade of trees, far enough away from the work site that they weren’t bothered by the noise, but close enough that the workers could hear the children’s voices when they laughed or sang.
Bennett found Madari wrapping his kuffiyah around his head, to keep the sun off. She wore a beany hat with a handkerchief pinned to the back.
“Get some sun cream on too,” she said, handing him a bottle. “It’s fierce today.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Indeed it is. I never thought I’d miss the rain.”
She chuckled at that.
“I’ve left our kids with the sisters, sir. Sitting in on the classes. About time they got back to school.”
‘Our kids’ made Madari smile, as he imagined himself and Bennett as father and mother to a big, lively family.
“Good, thank you. Why don’t you go and keep the Brigadier company?”
“Thought you’d be doing that,” she said. “Senior officers and all.”
“I’m here to work,” he said. “Or I might as well have stayed back at the lodge and done paperwork.”
“Anything’s better than paperwork,” she agreed and went to sit beside Drummond. He knew she probably wouldn’t stay there for long, not one to be idle.
Meanwhile, there was work to do.
Jahni waved as the passengers from the LA flight came out of Arrivals and Murdock spotted him and waved back. He reached Jahni, dropped his bag and they embraced.
“Hey, kid,” Murdock said, slapping him on the back. “Great to see you again. Looking sharp there.”
“Thank you.” Jahni rarely wore his uniform outside of barracks, but he’d have to head straight back there after taking this extended lunch hour. So for today, he enjoyed the admiring looks he received. Some just for the sight of a handsome young officer, some perhaps recognising him. All the airport security men saluted him.
“Good to see you, Murdock. You look tired. Let me get you straight to your hotel.” He took Murdock’s bag and led him through the terminal.
“Let’s get some lunch first,” Murdock said. “My treat.”
“Murdock, you’re my guest,” Jahni protested.
“Yeah, but, thing is, I have kind of a favour to ask you.”
Jahni glanced at him. “Well, I’m sure I owe you a favour.”
“I think it’s the other way around,” Murdock said. “I still owe you for showing up with that chopper and rescuing me.”
“And I owe you for us getting out of that chopper alive.”
“Okay,” Murdock said, grinning, so it is my turn.”
“What’s the favour?” Jahni asked.
Murdock became serious again. “I need to go out to the old prison camp. I know you use it as a training base these days, so I guess I need your permission.”
“The prison? Why?”
Murdock glanced away. “Just some stuff I need to deal with. Can’t talk about it much, not yet. Maybe later. Just… need to be there to deal with it.”
“I see,” Jahni said. Murdock had been back to the camp before of course, but he’d kept well away from the blockhouse, Jahni remembered. “Okay, I’ll see what I can arrange.”
“Thanks. I don’t want to be in your hair. I know you’re a busy man.”
“Murdock, I’m always happy to have you here.” Too many lonely off-duty hours without Faris here. Filling in his time day dreaming about those final days in Zaire, the long afternoons holding each other. The kisses. He’d sworn that after Madari came back everything would be normal again. The kisses they’d indulged in then had been a kind of farewell. But the longer he waited for Madari to come back the more difficult the prospect of never kissing him again became to accept.
Well, having Murdock here would distract him from such thoughts. And that meant he couldn’t just send Murdock out there alone. He had to go with him. He wanted to go with him, because he saw that haunted look deep in his eyes. The same one Madari so often wore.
Murdock needed a friend with him. He wondered why Murdock hadn’t come out here with another of the team to help him through it. Well, he’d get Murdock to explain that eventually. They’d have time.
The sisters brought the workers food at lunchtime. The scent of baking bread had been tantalising them all morning and they were all soon tucking into bowls of soup, with plenty of the fresh bread and some cheese with a tangy taste that reminded Madari of home.
“This is excellent cheese, Sister,” Madari said, as Sister Raphael passed him with a basket full of bread, where he sat on the ground on a blanket, eating his lunch. “Is it goat’s cheese?”
“Yes, Colonel. We keep several goats.”
He smiled and nodded, recalling goats he had known.
“I am impressed to see you working alongside your men,” she said. “It is not so usual for a man of your rank.”
“Many hands make light work.”
“Indeed.” She held out the basket to him and he took another piece of bread to dip into his soup.
His shoulders and back ached from the unaccustomed heavy lifting work he’d done that morning, but despite that, he’d enjoyed it. As they all worked together, under the supervision of the local man acting as site foreman, his men grew more relaxed and informal around him, joking and bantering.
It tugged at his heartstrings making him nostalgic for the old days at the prison camp turned guerrilla base. How strange to be nostalgic about a place of so much suffering. But there had been good times there too, good memories. And he’d always insisted on working alongside his men there, even in the most menial tasks.
This place could not be more different in some ways. He looked around, at the lush green landscape, still too early in the dry season for it to be burnt brown by the sun. Most of the people, aside from his Australians, Drummond and a few of the sisters, were Africans. And the voices of children broke through often. Very different from his camp in the arid desert.
Yet there were similarities. Back then, they’d had to make do with what they had. They’d had to adapt and sacrifice. And they’d all had to work together, rank and privilege irrelevant when there was work to do. He saw the same thing here. Some children needed a place to live and people were getting on and making it happen. The local people, his UN men, Drummond’s men, the Sisters. All coming together and just getting on with the job that was in front of them.
He finished his lunch and went back to work. That night he slept more soundly than he had in years and he dreamt about the camp.
Jahni knocked on the door of Murdock’s hotel room and in a moment Murdock, in his bathrobe, answered it.
“Damn, I hoped you were room service,” Murdock said, but grinned and beckoned Jahni in.
“Sorry to call so early,” Jahni said, walking into the room. “But we should make an early start.” He glanced into the bathroom, instinct making him check out every corner and space he couldn’t see into.
“Stop casing the joint,” Murdock said, “I don’t have a woman hidden in here if that’s what you think.”
Jahni blushed, despite Murdock’s joking tone. He’d picked up foreign women in this hotel a couple of times. Had he been in this room before? He couldn’t remember.
“Murdock! That wouldn’t be any of my business.”
“So what is your business? Did you just come here to pinch my breakfast?”
“I’m coming out to the camp with you. We’ve got some men out there on exercises right now; they could do with a surprise inspection to keep them on their toes.”
“The perks of being in command, huh? Well, okay, great, it will be good to have you there, Kahil. I promise I won’t get in anybody’s way.”
“One of my helicopter pilots is out there too. Perhaps you could give him some tips? Colonel Rahama will arrange a consultancy fee if you do.”
“I’ll, um, I’ll see,” Murdock said, sounding unsure. “If I’m… okay to, that’d be great.”
“I’ve arranged a helicopter for us to fly out there. A Bell Long Ranger. That suit you?”
Breakfast arrived and Jahni realised the waiter was giving him slightly odd looks.
“Um, Murdock, sorry I called so early,” he said. “I’ll let you eat and meet you downstairs?”
“Oh you don’t have to…” Murdock began, but Jahni was out of the door.
They had the afternoon off. Though some of the local workers were still working, they had to wait for a while to allow things to settle, dry, and harden before work could continue. Some of the men rested, dozing in the sun, others played a scratch game of football with some of the older boys from the orphanage.
Those boys were lucky, Madari thought, as he sat on another of the basket chairs beside Drummond, watching the game lazily. Mostly peaceful around here, no armies or rebel bands to come and make them into soldiers before they even finished their schooling. Some might join the Army one day of course, it was one of the obvious options for orphan boys. And perhaps it beat working in a mine, or in a factory in the city.
“Got us a cold one,” Bennett said, appearing with a jug of lemonade, ice cubes bobbing in it. She poured three glasses and flopped into a striped deckchair that looked as if it had got lost on the way to Brighton beach.
“I am definitely having a beer tonight,” she said. “This heat is too much even for me.”
“It’s still humid,” Madari said. “Not amenable to us desert dwellers.”
“Do you know I’m onto my third beret?” Bennett said. “Damn things keep shrinking! Think I’ll leave them here, the girls can put them on their dolls.”
Drummond chortled at that. “You’re a card, Lieutenant. I think I’ll miss you most of all.”
“Now I’m offended,” Madari said, in a mock serious tone.
“Ah, you’ll always be my friend, old chap. But Karen has better legs than you.”
Bennett grinned and stretched out those legs, clad in shorts. Madari glanced at them for only a second. Smooth-skinned and well tanned, they were indeed fine legs. She’d grown leaner and stronger looking since they arrived here. He could see what had attracted Face to her. But she was under Madari’s command. Any such thoughts were entirely inappropriate for him. And it was only frustration, he reminded himself again.
“You never did tell me how you came to join the Army, Lieutenant,” Drummond said.
“I didn’t? Nothing exciting really. I didn’t have a lifelong ambition to join up.” She sat up straighter, hugging her knees. “I was getting itchy feet when I turned sixteen. We lived in a remote place and in the outback remote means practically on the moon. My parents got a bit worried I think. They thought I was going to run off with some passing truck driver, just to go see the outside world.”
“I’m assuming you didn’t,” Madari said.
“No,” she said, chuckling. “They sent me to Sydney to live with my Aunt Jackie, on the condition that I kept on going to school.”
“Yeah, Jacks insisted. Said a woman’s got to get an education, so she can look after herself and not rely on a bloke.” She grimaced. “She’d been left high and dry by a couple of blokes in her time. So I finished school and went on to uni, in Sydney. Kept living with Jacks, because she was more of a laugh than any of the students.” She grinned at the two men. “You think I know how to party, but I learnt it all from Jacks. You should meet her sometime.” She winked. “She’s single right now.”
Drummond guffawed, while Madari rolled his eyes.
“Oh, she’d love you, sir.”
“It doesn’t sound as if we’d suit each other.”
Bennett grinned. “Don’t worry, she’d loosen you up.”
“Ah, I don’t wish to be ‘loosened up’, thank you. It sounds quite uncomfortable.”
Drummond guffawed again and Bennett laughed and went on with her story.
“Anyway, I was trying to decide what I did after graduation and the Army had a recruitment stall at our graduate recruitment fair and… maybe I had the itchy feet again. I’d loved living in Sydney, but I wanted to see what else was out there, you know.”
“Perhaps you should have joined the Navy?” Madari said.
“I get seasick. And I wasn’t posh enough for the Air Force. So Army it was. Figured I’d sign up and at least see what it was like.”
“And you loved it?” Madari said.
“Yeah,” she smiled a nostalgic smile. “From the first day. Like I’d come home, you know.”
Just like Kahil, Madari thought. No long time ambition to become an officer. No family tradition of it. Almost an accident. Yet they both found where they belonged.
He glanced over at Ritchie, who was sitting in front of his tent reading a book. Madari would soon have to write reports about his officers, to go back to the UN and their own commanding officers. Bennett would get by far the best report. Mr Ritchie had been… mediocre. Too cautious, too rules-bound. He didn’t display the initiative Madari valued in a good officer. Bennett had talent, ability, flair. She could go a long way.
Just like Jahni, despite both having no military tradition in the family. Despite that? Or because of that?
“Never regretted joining?” Drummond asked her.
“Never. What about you, Clive?”
“Family tradition for me.”
“Me too,” Madari said. “I couldn’t really have done anything else. We’d been soldiers for generations.”
“So, you both went into the Army to do what your family wanted and I went into the Army to get away from what my family wanted.”
“You could put it that way,” Madari said.
“Do you ever wish you’d chosen something else? Gone against the tradition?”
“Only during artillery barrages,” Drummond said. “During those I used to make plans to open a greengrocer’s shop in Henley.”
“What about you, Colonel?”
“Not really. I don’t remember ever having any other ambitions but a military career.” What did that say about him, that he couldn’t rebel against Ahmed’s expectations even in his own mind?
“After what happened, you getting poisoned and everything, do you wish you hadn’t volunteered for this posting?” Bennett asked.
“No. We’re doing important work here.” He looked at Drummond and smiled. “And we’ve made good friends.”
“I’m certainly happy you volunteered,” Drummond said, smiling back. “Been a pleasure to have you around, all of you. Hope you’ll come back one day. Always get a welcome here.”
“And you are welcome in my home whenever you want to visit,” Madari said. “Both of you,” he added, turning to Karen.
“I’ve never been to the Middle East,” Karen said. “Might just take you up on that sooner than you think, Colonel.”
The chattering, high voices of the children made them look up them to see them coming back from their open-air lessons, back into the orphanage for tea. One of them broke off from the group and Madari soon saw it was Kibibi. She ran to where he, Drummond and Bennett sat and hugged Bennett.
“Hello, sweetheart. Had a good day?”
“I drew a picture.” She waved a sheet of paper at them and handed it to Bennett, who looked at it, her face suddenly becoming serious.
“It’s very nice, Bibi.” Her expression belied her words. She handed the picture to Madari and stood up.
For a moment, Madari didn’t see the problem. The picture was of two adults and a child, like a family, rough shapes in crayon. But he began to see Bennett’s point when he looked at the colours she’d used. The orange pinafore dress the child in the picture wore marked that out as a self-portrait, Kibibi’s favourite dress being an orange pinafore. The adults were a tall figure in green, whose face was done in a light brown crayon and hair in black. The other also wore green, but had a pink face and blue eyes and brown hair.
Madari winced as he saw what Bennett did, realised the implication of the picture.
“It’s very nice, my dear,” he said to Kibibi. She seemed happy with that and gave the picture to Drummond for his turn to look at it then, when Sister Raphael called out, she ran back to the orphanage. Madari stood up to step close to Bennett, who’d turned away to watch the girl go.
Drummond looked at the picture and then up at Madari, frowning. “Best nip this in the bud. That little one’s had her heart broken once. Doesn’t deserve to have it happen again.” He stood up and strode off towards where the men were starting to prepare food.
“Karen,” Madari said quietly, seeing her fixed gaze and set jaw. “Are you all right?”
“It won’t only be her heart broken,” she said, voice shaking.
“I know,” Madari said. He sighed. “I know. Clive is right. We have to start… preparing her for the fact that we are leaving soon.”
“Does she understand that she’s supposed to stay here?” Bennett said. “I know Eshe said she’d told all the children that’s what was going to happen. But Bibi is… well I suppose we’ve sort of treated her as different to the others. She might not understand that it includes her.”
Madari grimaced. That was very possible.
“Will you talk to her?” he asked.
“Colonel,” she said, voice tight and slightly choked. “I think you’re a courageous man. Please don’t make me change my mind.”
Murdock’s tips and advice on helicopter piloting took up pretty much the whole journey. When not passing on the benefit of his experience they swapped banter and anecdotes. Yet Jahni sensed tension from Murdock. He wasn’t relaxed. His jokes had a forced edge about them. Whatever he’d come here to do must be playing on his mind and though he was covering it well, his show wasn’t quite good enough to fool Jahni.
He smiled to himself, wondering when he’d become such an acute observer of subtle signals. When he’d become so… sensitive. That had to be down to all these years with Faris, so focused on him. Sometimes to the point he thought he could read Faris’s mind.
That usually lasted until Faris turned around and said something exactly contradicting what Jahni had thought he would say.
But he was sure his observations were right here. Murdock was on edge, and their talk was all surface and no substance. He could ask what was wrong of course; they were close enough friends for that. However, he doubted Murdock wanted to engage in any kind of highly emotional discussion through the headphones and microphone of the helicopter’s radio system.
Never mind. He could wait.
They arrived at the camp in the afternoon, after stopping off for a nice long lunch, in the officer’s mess of an Army base, one of the last installations they would pass near before the camp itself. As they approached, Jahni announced them on the radio and obtained permission to land – on the new landing pad outside the gates.
“Just making sure they know it’s me,” he said. “In case they get trigger happy.”
“Good plan,” Murdock said. “You want to take her in? Let’s see your landing skills.”
“Okay. I’ve got her now. Sit back.”
Murdock had landed the chopper when they stopped earlier for lunch and of course, the last chopper they’d shared had ‘landed’ in a tree. Murdock mustn’t have landed helicopters in deserts very often, he muttered in amazement at the flying sand that obscured everything around their landing site. Jahni, used to that, just focused on bringing them down gently onto the big red H in a circle on the concrete below.
Had to make a good impression on Murdock. Don’t bounce them around like peas in a jar. But he’d only flown the Long Ranger a couple of times and it was bigger than he was used to. His palms sweated on the controls, and he swore softly as the skids touched the ground with enough of a bump to jar his spine.
But Murdock smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. “Nice work, muchacho! Despite crappy conditions, no visibility.”
“Bit of a bounce,” Jahni said with a grimace as he cut the power and took off his headphones.
“Oh, please,” Murdock said, taking off his own headset. “Back when I had the same number of flight hours you have people were still losing their fillings when I touched down.”
As the rotor blades slowed and they carried out the procedures to shut everything down, the flying sand began to settle, and the camp came into view. So did the vague shape of another, smaller helicopter nearby, covered in a tarpaulin. Did they have a big enough tarp at the camp for the Bell? He should have thought of that. Damn sand got everywhere.
Once the sand had settled, men came from the camp to greet them.
“I’ll finish closing her down,” Murdock said and Jahni nodded and got out to meet his men. Lieutenant Haddah strode up and saluted. A couple of the men followed, hauling along a tarp.
“Hello, Lieutenant,” Jahni said, returning the salute. “Surprise inspection. And I have a guest.”
“Yes, sir,” Haddah said, glancing into the helicopter, curious at the sight of Murdock. “Most of the men are out on exercises right now, under the command of Lieutenant Fahd. Due to return by midnight.”
“Good. I’ll inspect the camp now and the men in the morning.” He turned back to the helicopter as Murdock got out and came around it to smile at Haddah.
“Hi. HM Murdock,” he said, offering his hand.
“Captain Murdock,” Haddah said, shaking the hand and switching to English. “Good to meet you, sir.”
“Has he been gossiping about me?” Murdock said, nodding at Jahni.
“The Captain and the Colonel both speak very highly of you, sir.”
“Knock it off with the ‘sir’, kid,” Murdock said. “Your boys can get the old girl tucked up for the night now.” He jerked a thumb back at the chopper and Haddah gave the order to the two men to get the tarp onto it. Meanwhile, the officers headed into the camp.
Jahni watched Murdock carefully as they passed through the gates. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see. That Murdock would stop and have to screw up his nerve to go through the gates. But that was ridiculous. He’d walked through them before, had been back here before.
So what did he want this time? What was different now?
Murdock didn’t flicker going through the gates, too busy chatting to Haddah. Still putting on a show as they headed into the guardhouse and the mess for some tea.
Jahni could wait. He’d learnt patience out here in the desert. He could wait.