Part 26: Work in Progress

Chapter 1

Spring 1993

Day 1

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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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.”

“Did you?”

“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.

“Really, Lieutenant.”

“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.

Chapter 2

Day 4

He had to wait until the next day. He spent the afternoon of the day they arrived inspecting the camp. As he did that, he saw that Murdock had gone to the small graveyard outside the wire. He stayed there for an hour and then went to the barracks. When Jahni went in there later he found Murdock on a cot, eyes closed, either asleep or pretending to be asleep. Jahni left him alone and went to do his workout for the day. Murdock only emerged at dinnertime and they shared that with the officers and men, so couldn’t talk alone. After dinner, the men on exercises returned and Jahni saw Murdock go into the rec room and sit in a corner seat with a book. Leave me alone for now, that said. Jahni did, busied himself with his work.

Now the night was over and Jahni was eating his breakfast, still there after the men had come in and gone again, ready to prepare for an inspection parade. He lingered over his coffee and waited. Giving the men time, but waiting too. For Murdock.

The mess attendant had almost finished clearing away when Murdock arrived. He brought a coffee to the table and sat across from Jahni, who had kept some bread and pastries and dates aside.

“You want some hot food?” Jahni asked.

“Some eggs would be nice,” Murdock said. “Sorry, I’m not used to the early rising any more. Went right back off after reveille.”

“That’s okay.” Jahni called the mess attendant over and told him to cook up an omelette for Murdock.

“Well,” Murdock said after they’d sat sipping coffee for a few minutes. “I suppose you’re losing patience with me now. Starting to think I’m just here looking for a free desert vacation.”

“Murdock, a man would have to be much crazier than you to want to come here for a vacation.”

Murdock grinned. “Yeah. Well…” he paused at his food arrived, thanked the attendant, in Arabic and started eating. Jahni waited again, until Murdock put down his knife and fork on his empty plate.

“Where was I?” Murdock said.

“Talking about me losing patience with you, which I’m not. When you’re ready you’ll tell me.”

“I’m ready. I’ve been having some… difficulties lately. Nothing too serious, but I’ve been bumping up the sessions with my shrink and he suggested I come out here.”

“You still see a psychiatrist?”

“My sanity is a work in progress.”

“Right… so, why here?”

“Because he thinks it’s about here, what happened to me here, me and Frankie.”

“That was a long time ago,” Jahni said and grimaced. “Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.” He knew better than that.

“Some things time doesn’t heal,” Murdock said, serious, then giving a small smile again. “And thing is, back then, with all the excitement when we got back, the whole Stockwell thing going public, I never really dealt with it all. I didn’t think I had to. I thought, I’d had a lot worse, this is like a bee sting in comparison, I can deal with it on my own. I was stupid. Mostly I didn’t deal with it, I just repressed it, almost pretended it didn’t happen.”

He sighed and rubbed his eyes and when he opened them again the pain was back, haunting the depths.

“I focused on helping Frankie deal with it and I neglected to deal with my own shit.” He paused looking at Jahni. “Can be that way, when you have someone who needs you to be the strong one. You can forget you need to take care of yourself too.”

“We’ve got a couple of therapists on full time staff now,” Jahni said, as if just passing on some interesting news, but of course, understanding what Murdock was saying to him. “Our job is stressful. They’re… useful.”

“That’s good,” Murdock said. He took a deep breath. “Okay, here’s the deal. I have to go into that room. In the blockhouse, where it happened. I have to go in there and close the door and I have to be in there for as long as it takes.”

“For as long as what takes?”

“For as long as it takes for me to find my way out again.”

Jahni gave a weak smile. “You make it sound as if there’s a maze in there.”

“Maybe there is.”

Jahni thought he understood. Part of Faris had never left the basement cell of the Security Police building and part of Murdock had never left that room in the blockhouse. Murdock had to go and find that part of himself and lead it back out.

“Do you want me to come in with you?”

“No. It has to be alone.”

Jahni rubbed his forehead at that, “Um, Murdock, that makes me nervous.”

“Kahil, I’m not going to hang myself if that’s what you’re worrying about.”

“Well, I was sort of…”

“Don’t. It’s nothing like that. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Okay… I trust you. But I don’t understand why you have to be alone. I can help you. Nothing you can do or say can upset me, I swear.”

“Kahil, why do you think I came here alone? Face wanted to come with me. So did Frankie. But I need to be alone. I can cope with it. I’m strong enough now.” He took a sip of his coffee, which must be nearly cold now. “That’s not to say I won’t appreciate you being around when I come back out.”

“I’ll be there,” Jahni said instantly. He glanced at the clock. “Okay, I have to go inspect the men. Take about an hour, then I’ll let you in there. Is that okay?”

“Sounds fine. And I want to watch you being all commandery.”

Jahni couldn’t help but laugh at that as Murdock slipped away from the serious demeanour back to the playful one. Remarkable to watch that transition. He could switch in an instant. Like changing a channel on the television from a drama to a comedy.

An hour and a half later, after he inspected the men on parade and then sent them about their tasks for the day, Jahni retrieved the blockhouse keys and led Murdock there. They stepped into the cool interior. The air smelled stale but not unpleasant, with a hint of cleaning materials. Bleach and soap. This must be the cleanest spot in the camp. Not even the cells, whose doors stood open now, retained any of the old smells, the smells of pain.

Murdock went straight for the right door, to the largest room in the blockhouse. He stood in the doorway, his breathing quickening; Jahni could hear it in the stillness. He put his hand on Murdock’s shoulder, but didn’t speak.

“Some bad things went down back then.” Murdock’s voice barely rose above a whisper. “Not just in here. Salim…”

The face came back to Jahni of the young engineer, who he’d barely known, only in passing as a fellow prisoner. And who’d died so senselessly. He lay in the graveyard outside the wire, beside many of Jahni’s friends, one, Hoshel, who’d died that day, the others later.

“Right.” Murdock straightened up and shook himself. He took off his baseball cap and handed it to Jahni. “Hold onto that for me, kid. See you on the flip side.”

He stepped into the room, turned on the light and closed the door. The clang of the metal door echoed around the concrete building. Jahni stepped away from it.

“Good luck, Murdock. Good hunting.”

He sat down, with his back against the wall, waiting. Murdock would need him when he came back out.


The building site was quiet. The men had eaten their lunch and most were now snoozing in the midday sun. Far too hot to go back to work yet. Too hot even to play football or catch with the children. Madari and Karen were still awake, though sitting dozily in their chairs beside Drummond, who was fast asleep. Ritchie had eaten with them, but gone back to his tent to shelter from the fierce sun. The doctor was off in the local village and Madari hoped he’d got a decent meal too.

Drummond muttered suddenly in his sleep, indistinct, but they definitely sounded like battlefield orders. Bennett looked at him then back at Madari from under her hat.

“Shame, with that big smile on his face I thought he was dreaming about Eshe.”

“Eshe? Really?”

“Well, she’s a widow. I’d put money on them being married a year from now.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“What’s silly about it?”

“Well for one thing she’s under… I mean, she works for him.”

Bennett grinned. “You were going to say ‘under his command’ weren’t you?”

“Force of habit,” Madari admitted. “But my point stands.”

“They’re not in the military, the no fraternisation rule doesn’t apply like it does to, ooh, say you and me for example.”

She was trying to make him blush, he knew. She always considered that a small victory. But he was wise to her now.

“Yes. That rule is the only thing that had prevented me from writing to your father to ask for your hand in marriage.”

She chuckled, apparently liking that even more. “So you want me to join your harem, eh?”

“Oh, my dear, if only I could afford a harem.”

They soaked in the sun for a while, before Karen spoke again.

“Were you ever married, sir?”

“Yes. A long time ago. We divorced.” His tone made it clear he wanted no follow up questions. She had some latitude, but there were limits. He glanced at her. “Were you? Or engaged or…”

“No,” she said with a mock sigh. “I’m just an old maid. An Army old maid.”

“Well, sometimes it’s best for an officer to be without ties. Especially one who likes to apply for overseas postings like you.”

“Good point. And you’re right, it’s probably better for my career. But sometimes I think it could be nice to have someone who’s… I don’t know, an anchor. Someone to go back to. There’s my parents of course, but that’s not the same. Once you grow up and leave home, you’re really only a guest when you go back. It’s not really ‘home’ any more.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“I don’t even have my own place. A house or flat I mean, back home. Seemed like a waste of money.”

Madari had his house of course and he looked forward to returning to it, but when he thought about going home, the first thing he pictured was the barracks, his unit, Jahni.

“Save your money, Lieutenant.”

“I have got a nice little stash in the bank,” she said, grinning. “Be even more after we’re done here.”

There’d been little to spend money on of course. Their pay would have accumulated nicely. Though his share of the cost of building work would take out a large chunk of what Madari had earned in salary during these months.

They glanced over at the sound of children’s voices to see the orphans coming out from having their lunch. Sisters and local women, their more colourful clothing contrasting with the sisters’ white and grey habits, shepherded them to the field on the other side of the building, away from the building site and the snoozing workers. Once again, Kibibi left the group and ran to Madari and Bennett. She climbed on Madari’s knee and hugged him before sitting down, leaning against him. She had no pictures or schoolwork to show him, just wanted to sit with him. He sighed and put his arm around her. The incident yesterday with her picture came back to him and he caught Bennett’s eye, to see she once again had a serious expression.

“I’m going to go get some water,” Bennett said, standing up. Clear signal there, Madari thought, watching her walking away. Giving him the opportunity to talk to the child, as he knew he had to.

“So, have you been having a good time here?” he asked Kibibi.

“I like school,” she said. “And painting. And reading the books.”

“That’s good. I’m sure you’ll do well at school. You’re a clever girl. Your parents would be proud of you.”

She didn’t answer that, just played with the tasselled edge of his kuffiyah that hung loose around his neck.

“Are the sisters nice?”

“Yes. Sister Lucy plays the piano and we all sing.”

“You like to sing,” he said. It wasn’t a question. Back at the lodge, she often sat in his office while he worked, drawing, or reading and sometimes singing. The sound of that didn’t disturb him, but rather comforted him, while he read reports of the worst things men could do to each other. Her innocence gave him hope.

“Kibibi,” he said, and paused, but found the courage to go on. “Do you know that I’ll be going home soon? Going back to my own country. And so will Karen.”

She nodded, but looked so sad he felt sure his heart was breaking.

“We’ll both write to you and send photographs. And you have to promise to write to me. I want to see how well you’re doing at learning your letters.”

“I have to stay here,” she said.

“Yes. The sisters will take good care of you. And Clive and Eshe will visit you.”

“Will you visit?”

“If… one day, if I can. I live a very long way away, my dear.”

“I don’t want you to leave.” Her eyes shone and he felt his own starting to get hot. “Why do you have to go?”

“I don’t have a choice.”

“I love you.”

He couldn’t speak and instead just hugged her tight. When he trusted his voice again he spoke.

“I love you too, my dear. I’ll still love you even after I have to leave. You’ll be in my heart all the time after I go.”

“When are you going?”

“We’ll leave here in a few days, but I won’t go home for a few weeks yet, so I’ll come and see you before I go, as much as I can.”

“Okay.” Her voice was very quiet. She’d started to cry, but wiped her sleeve across her eyes now and gave a weak smile.

“You’re very brave,” he said, smiling back at her. “Now you should go back and play with your friends.”

She hugged him again and slid off his knee. He ruffled her hair and made her laugh, and laughed himself to see that joy on her face again. She ran off to rejoin the other children. Bennett was approaching, still looking serious and he knew she intended to ask him how the talk went.

It ripped my heart from my chest and stamped it into the dirt. Any other silly questions?


Jahni snapped awake from a light doze when the cell door opened. He scrambled to his feet as Murdock emerged, his face pale, his eyes bloodshot and distracted. Jahni looked at his watch to see almost six hours had passed. Murdock glanced at the tray that lay on the floor beside Jahni, with an empty plate and coffee mug and a bottle of water.

“You stayed,” he said, his voice hoarse and scratchy.

“I said I would.” The furthest he’d been was the small toilet along the corridor. One of the mess attendants had arrived with a tray of food and drink at lunchtime, making no comment about the sounds coming from the cell.

Jahni had forced himself to sit through the yells of despair and rage, despite his urge to run in there and help his friend. Unable to sit idle through that, he’d paced up and down instead, trying to work out the tension.

It brought back feelings from so long ago, when Madari had started to keep him at a distance, to protect him, when their jailers would have targeted Jahni to hurt Madari if they’d understood what they felt for each other. Watching Madari suffer and being unable to help him had driven Jahni half-mad with frustration back then. Today those feelings felt so close again.

“Murdock, did you… find your way out?”

Murdock summoned up a weak smile.

“Guess I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Do you want to talk?”

“Not yet. Just need some sunlight right now. Later.”

“Okay.” Jahni linked arms with him, earning a look of surprise, but Murdock didn’t pull away. They stepped out of the dim and cool blockhouse into the glaring afternoon sunshine, the heat washing over them like warm water. Murdock stopped and tilted his face up to it, eyes closed, bathing in the sunlight.

He stayed that way for almost a minute then turned to Jahni, opening his eyes. “There’s always light to step back into. However deep the darkness, the sun will rise eventually. Remember that.”

“I will,” Jahni said, though not certain why Murdock was telling him. He let Murdock’s arm go.

“Do you want something to eat? You missed lunch.”

“Think I’ll just go and rest for a while, I’ll join you all for dinner.”

“Okay.” He remembered he still had Murdock’s cap and took it from his pocket to hand it back to him. Murdock placed it back on his head and gave a much more normal smile. As if he was putting the pieces of himself back together, Jahni thought. Murdock turned to go, but paused and looked back.

“Kahil. Thanks for staying there. I knew you would and it… made a difference to know you were there, if I needed you.”

“Any time, Murdock.”


“I didn’t think you were such a slow reader, Colonel.”

Madari looked up from his book, to see Bennett holding out a mug of coffee to him. Dinner was cleared up now and Madari had settled down in front of his tent to read for a while. At least to open a book and pretend to read. Seems he hadn’t fooled Bennett.

“You haven’t turned a page for nearly fifteen minutes,” she said.

Since she was carrying two tin mugs of coffee and wearing a speculative expression, Madari took the proffered mug and made a gesture for her to sit.

“Is it a dull book?” she said, sitting down.

“I doubt you think so, since you loaned it to me.” He held it up.

“Oh, Ender’s Game. Cool. Do you like it?”

“It’s not the kind of thing I usually read, but yes, I like it.”

“‘There is no teacher but the enemy’,” she quoted and he smiled at her.

“Ahmed used to say something quite similar.” He sipped his coffee and looked at the orphanage building, framed against the setting sun. The light was fading rapidly and he’d have to light a lantern to read soon. “We’ve made excellent progress with the work.”

“Should start getting the roof on tomorrow. And the glazer will be here for the windows. So, you talked to Kibibi then?”

Madari winced. “I’ve never enjoyed being ambushed, Lieutenant.”

“Sorry, sir.” She shrugged. “Just… we’ll be finished soon and…”

“I talked to her. I explained.”

“How did she take it?”

“She’s a child, how do you think she took it?” His snappy tone made her look down and he regretted it at once. “I’m sorry, Karen, but… it was hard of course. I should never have let her get so attached to me. I shouldn’t have become so attached to her.”

“You’re only human, sir. You can’t help how you feel.”

They sat in silence for a while, sipping their coffee. The sun dipped below the horizon and the sky darkened to an inky blue, a few early stars peeking through. The men were building up the campfire and settling down around it for the evening. Their voices and laughter drifted across on the still evening air that still carried the scent of coffee and their dinner.

“Perhaps you should take her home with you.”

Madari stared at Bennett, sure he’d misheard her. “I’m sorry?”

“Kibibi. You could adopt her. You’re a respectable guy, I’m sure they’d let you.”

He hadn’t misheard her, and he still stared.

“I’m a single man. I can’t take care of a child.”

“You could hire a nanny or something.” Bennett shrugged. “Better than being here. More like having a real family.”

Madari pictured himself arriving home with a small girl in tow, announcing to everyone that she was his adopted daughter. Installing her in his house, buying toys and children’s clothes for her. Enrolling her in school. It was a vision both seductive and frightening. Being a father was something he hadn’t thought about in a long time.

“I… don’t think it would be right… she’s a Catholic, mine is a Muslim country. I wouldn’t know how…” Of course, Sophia was a Catholic and there was a Catholic school in Az-Ma’ir attended mostly by the children of foreign residents. “It’s ridiculous,” he said as much for his own benefit as Bennett’s.

“I think you’d be a good dad.”

“You do? Why?”

“You can be all stern, but you’re a big softy too. Being a dad seems to be all about balancing those out.”

“I’m sure there’s more to it than that.” He sighed. “Karen, are you seriously suggesting I adopt her?”

Bennett held his gaze for a moment, then smiled and shook her head.

“Naw, I’m just messing with you.”

He snorted with impatience and put on the stern look. “I’m your commanding officer; kindly do not mess with me.”

“Sorry,” she said, grinning. “Made you think though, didn’t it?”

It had. Even now, his mind was full of pictures of it. Imagining what Jahni or Sophia would make of his turning up with her. And the regiment… Well Rahama would probably adore her of course. He spoiled the children of his friends as much as he did his own grandchildren and great-nephews and nieces.

But it was ridiculous, he reminded himself again. She was a foreigner, a Catholic and… a girl.

“It pains me to say it, Karen, but my country, my region is not really the best place for girls to grow up. They don’t have the opportunities that someone like you takes for granted. If I had a daughter of my own, I think I would probably send her to be educated in England or France.”

“I thought your country wasn’t one of the crazy ones… um, no offence.”

“It’s not,” he said, smiling. “But still, opportunities for women are limited as much by attitude, even if the old laws are gone. It will be a long time before that changes.”

Bennett sighed. “Even so… more opportunities than she’d have here.”

“Perhaps. But look at Dr Elimu. He’s from here and he became a doctor.”

“He wasn’t a penniless orphan though,” she pointed out.

“True.” He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “I don’t know what the answer is, Karen. Yes, I could take Kibibi home with me, and give her a better life. But don’t all the children here deserve the same?”

Bennett sighed too. “I know, I know. We didn’t come here to rescue the whole country.” She crossed her arms across her drawn up knees and rested her chin on them, looking gloomy.

“What we’ve done here, both our mission and rescuing the children from Sefu. And here, this building…” he waved a hand at the orphanage. “It makes a difference. Please, Karen,” he rested a hand on her shoulder, surprised at himself and earning a glance from her, though not an objection. “Don’t start to think that because we can’t solve all of the problems that our work hasn’t been worthwhile.”

She tilted her head on the side, looking at him, his hand still on her shoulder.

“I try to keep reminding myself of that. Just when it’s kids… it’s so hard to be, you know… detached, like we’re supposed to be.”

“Like you said, we’re only human.”

“Yeah.” She glanced at her watch. “Well, I have to go, I said I would tell the kids a story before they went to sleep and it’s bedtime for the little ones.” She gave a sheepish grin. “I know, not very detached of me.” She stood up and as he moved his hand from her shoulder, she caught it and gave it a quick squeeze. “Thanks, sir. You done with your coffee mug?” He passed it to her.

“Thank you, Karen.”

“Goodnight, sir. Enjoy the rest of the book.” She smiled and gave him a casual salute, possibly the most relaxed salute he’d ever had, more like a wave. Still, he smiled and returned it, just as relaxed. So informal these Australians.

“Goodnight, Karen.”


Bennett walked to the orphanage building, using her flashlight as it was dark enough now for her to fall over and break her neck. Though with the nearby fire and lanterns and the lights from the orphanage itself it wasn’t dark the way she was used to, back home in the outback. She missed that real darkness, thick as pitch on moonless nights. Stars spread on the sky like spatters of paint. And the sounds you heard out there! The land looked so barren under the glaring sun, but the darkness skittered with life.

“You think cracking on to the colonel will do you any good?” Ritchie. He was sitting on the porch at the front of the orphanage. “Trying to get yourself an especially good report to take home?”

“Shut up, Geoff,” she said, scowling at him. She’d had to deal with this crap from day one in the Army. One or two of her commanding officers had even hinted that if she wanted faster promotions she could earn them with something easier than the hard work her male colleagues put in. She’d never taken that route. She certainly did not intend to try to take that route with Colonel Madari to get a better final report once the mission was over. She’d done her best here; she could do no more than that.

“Barking up the wrong tree anyway,” Ritchie said, standing up, a smirk on his face. “I told you, Arabs are all poofters.”

“Oh just piss off, Geoff.”

His smirk changed to a scowl and she bit her lip, wishing she could take that back. A bit stronger than she usually gave out, but she’d had enough of this no-hoper.

“I could put you on report for insubordination.”

“Go ahead; I’ll be happy to explain to the colonel exactly what you said to make me get so insubordinate.” Now she smirked as he glared at her, knowing he was beaten. She’d beaten him a long time ago.

What was his problem anyway? He had something against the colonel, which Bennett couldn’t understand. Colonel Madari was a top bloke. His blood was worth bottling, as her dad said. Maybe Ritchie was just a racist. He certainly acted snotty around the men and the locals. What a dick.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said and he slowly stepped aside to let her pass. She headed inside, but at the door, she looked back over her shoulder. “If you think he’s a poofter, maybe you should try cracking on to him.”

Ritchie snorted and muttered something, but she didn’t wait around to hear it, heading inside. Ritchie had explained his theory about all Arabs being sexually messed up to her a few times. Because they didn’t let the boys and girls mix, he said. Karen felt certain that Arab boys and Arab girls were as ingenious at finding ways around those rules as the Australian boys and girls she’d grown up with. Of course, there was that handsome friend of his, Kahil… not that she thought anything funny was actually going on, but they were obviously very close…

She put that out of her mind as she reached the children’s dormitory.

Chapter 3

Day 5

“Morning, Cap’n,” Murdock said, emerging from the shower stalls and dumping his wet towels into a basket. Wearing a light cotton robe, he came over to the sinks, where Jahni stood, a long towel cinched around his waist and another over his shoulders.

“Morning, Captain,” Jahni said, as he soaped up his face with shaving foam. “You okay this morning?”

Murdock had already been in one of the shower stall when Jahni came into the room and was still there when Jahni finished his own shower. Well, he had no reason to hurry. Murdock took the sink beside Jahni and dumped his washbag on the shelf.

“I’m good,” Murdock said. “Slept great last night. I swear, I sleep better on a cot than a real bed. That’s what even just a few years in the Army does for you.” He ran hot water into the sink and extracted his shaving gear from the wash bag.

Jahni chuckled at that, yes, his bed did sometimes feel too big and comfortable after getting used to a cot. Of course, the cots they had here now were much better than when he was a prisoner and then a guerrilla here.

“It’s odd to think of you having only a “few years” in the Army,” Jahni said.

“You’ve probably got longer service than me by now,” Murdock said. “Funny though. Even a short time and really you’re Army the rest of your life.”

“I never thought of it that way. But then I can’t imagine actually leaving the Army.” Well, perhaps he could, but only under some very specific circumstances.

“They’ll make you retire one day. Of course, you’ll be a General by then…” Murdock grinned and Jahni laughed.

“You know how to flatter a man, Murdock.” He went on shaving. Murdock soaped up and started with his own razor. They were silent for a moment, the only sound being the whisper of razor on skin or splashing as one or the other of them rinsed off the razor in the sink. Jahni cast Murdock a quick glance now and then. He looked well rested and as much his usual self as if yesterday had never happened. He’d joined them for dinner the night before, entertaining everyone with banter and tall tales. Jahni didn’t find the act convincing. But he could wait.

“How about I take your pilot up for a spin today?” Murdock said. “Put him through his paces; teach him a thing or two?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, of course. I’ll come too.”

“No back seat driving.” Murdock winked at him in the mirror.

“Of course not.” Jahni rinsed away the last of the shaving foam and pulled the towel from his shoulders to dry his face.

“What the hell?” Murdock grabbed Jahni’s arm and pulled him around to turn his back to Murdock. “Okay, when the hell did you get that?” He slapped Jahni on the back of the left shoulder.

“What? Oh, the tattoo.”

“Yeah, the tattoo, Batman.”

“I’m not Batman.” Jahni said. He turned back to the mirror, found his comb, and arranged his damp hair.

“Okay, no, you’re Robin,” Murdock said, not elaborating on what he meant by that, despite Jahni’s questioning look. “So, when did you get it?”

“When I was training in England, you know, Selection.”

“Oh, you did Selection?” Murdock put on a mock surprised tone and Jahni splashed water at him. Okay, yes, he may use the words “when I did Selection” quite often in conversation.

“Hey, I like it,” Murdock said. “It’s… a fine tribute.”

“To Batman.”

“Ah, yeah. To Batman.”

Jahni looked at him narrowly, but Murdock was now intent on his toothbrush and toothpaste and said nothing else.

“Right, well, I’m going to get dressed,” Jahni said. “See you in the mess for breakfast.”

“Mmm-hmf,” Murdock muttered with a mouthful of toothbrush.


The roof made it real, made it become a real building. One by one, the workers secured the planks into place. Tomorrow they’d tar it to make it waterproof against the downpours that would come in the wet season. The children were once again taking their lessons outdoors while the men worked on their home. A couple of the men had hauled the piano outside and now one of the sisters played that while the children sang hymns.

The glazer arrived, and started fitting panes of glass into the frames, complaining whenever a window wasn’t precisely the size they’d told him. The smell of putty filled the air, alongside the scent of fresh bread coming from the orphanage’s kitchen.

Madari looked at the building with some pride and when Drummond stepped up beside him, he wore the same expression.

“Nice to see something solid like that come from your donation, eh?”

“Yes. It’s very satisfying.”

In only a week or so the extended classroom would have children’s drawings and painting pinned up on the wall and pictures, maps, whatever else they pinned to classroom walls. The dormitory would hold the small beds. He’d seen the existing dormitory when Sister Raphael gave him a tour. It held little furniture beyond those beds. The children kept their clothes and possessions in boxes stowed under the beds.

Soon Kibibi would be joining them, to live that way permanently.

He couldn’t help imagining what he could give her instead, if he took her home and treated her as his daughter. A bedroom of her own, a wardrobe to hold her clothes. New clothes too, not donated by charitable people far away. A bookcase to hold books he would read with her. Perhaps a little desk where she could do her drawings, a rainbow of crayons scattered over it. Other toys. Whatever she wanted.

He had to stop thinking that way. It couldn’t happen.

“Sir?” Bennett’s voice broke him from his thoughts. He and Drummond turned to see her with a local woman, who was carrying a baby. One of Madari’s men stood beside them.

“What is it, Lieutenant?”

“This lady asked to see you, sir.”

Madari looked at the African woman and gave her a polite nod. She probably had some kind of problem to report to him, as so many other people had and that he usually could do nothing about.

“What can I do for you, Madame?” he asked in French. His soldier bent and translated to the woman, into Swahili. She replied and he froze for a moment, and then straightened up, looked at Madari, then at Bennett and bent down to speak in Bennett’s ear. Madari glanced at Drummond, when he heard him making snorting noises. Drummond looked as if he was trying to suppress laughter. Before Madari could ask him what was so funny, Bennett was also stifling a giggle and he became impatient.

“Lieutenant? What does the lady want?”

“Ah… she wants you to kiss her baby, sir.”

In the silence that followed a shout from the glazer, cursing out the men who had built the window frames, was like the bursting of a shell. Madari regained his voice.

“Kiss her baby? Why would she want me to kiss her baby?”

Bennett had a brief conference with the soldier and nodded. “For good luck apparently. Or a kind of blessing I suppose.”

“Blessing? I’m not a priest. I’m not even a Catholic.” And good luck was superstition, which he certainly was not here to encourage.

“You’re Mr Chapeau Bleu,” Drummond said. “The man who saved the children. The people around here are grateful for that.”

“I think Colonel Smith deserves the credit for that operation.”

“Colonel Smith isn’t here,” Drummond said.

“How very convenient for him.” Madari made a sour face.

Bennett rolled her eyes, which he could consider an act of insubordination.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure he went back to America specifically to avoid the stampeding hoards of babies he’d otherwise be expected to kiss.”

She grinned and he knew she was teasing again. Should he let her get away with that, in front of the soldier? Sometimes she went too far. Though he gave her some leeway, he was used to more formal relations with his officers – well, most of his officers. Women officers of course, he was entirely unused to dealing with. More than once, he’d snapped a sharp reprimand at her while still growing used to the Australian method. Still, he’d give her no more than a glare now. She had earned some latitude.

He looked at the patiently waiting woman and her baby again. The baby slept, its plump dark face still, tiny fists peeking out from the swaddling wrapped around it. Impossible to say if it was a boy or girl. Oh, there was a point.

“Is it a girl?” Madari said. “It would be quite improper for me to kiss a female person I’m not related to.”

“It’s a baby,” Bennett said, still grinning. “Clive, tell him it won’t be considered an engagement or anything.”

“Quite safe, old chap,” Drummond said, sounding amused.

“She, or he, whatever, looks nice and clean,” Bennett said, scrutinising the baby. “Nice and healthy. Go on. You don’t want the lady to think you’re a snooty ba… bloke.”

He looked at her narrowly, and then sighed. “Very well, in the interests of good relations with the locals.”

He nodded to the soldier and he spoke to the woman, who held out the baby. Madari bent down and quickly kissed the child on the forehead, then straightened up, trying to regain his dignity in the face of Bennett and Drummond’s amusement. That attempt failed when the woman grasped his hand and spoke fast, too fast even for Drummond to understand it, a baffled look crossing his face. But the gratitude in her eyes was clear and went well beyond a thank you for the kiss.

“She’s thanking you, sir,” the soldier said. “For the operation, for what we did.”

“Thank you, Private,” Madari said. He smiled. “I think I got that much. Tell her it was my pleasure.”

As the woman left, walking in the direction of the nearest village, Drummond spoke in a mock-disgruntled tone. “Nobody ever asked me to kiss their baby.”

“You’d rather kiss the mothers,” Bennett said, making him chuckle.

“Indeed!” He slapped Madari on the back. “Excellent baby kissing, old chap. A career in politics awaits. Let’s get some tea on.” He strode off.

Politics. Madari winced at the thought. He had more than enough involvement in politics back home for his liking. It had been nice to take a break from it out here. He went back to supervising and helping the building work.


Murdock’s howl echoed in Jahni’s ears through the headset, followed by one with more fear in it, but just as much excitement, from Lieutenant Hersi, one of the unit’s helicopter pilots. Sitting behind them, Jahni hung on for dear life as the helicopter went into a fast plunge, dropping like a stone. If he’d been at the controls himself that would have ended with them spread over half a mile of desert in small pieces. But Murdock pulled it out when low enough to blow sand in a tornado around them as they rose again.

“Wow, Captain Murdock!” Hersi shouted, “You’re more crazy than Captain Jahni said!”

“There’s layers of crazy to me he’s never even seen.” Murdock glanced back at Jahni with a grin. “Good to know you’ve been talking me up.”

“I meant crazy as in daring and fearless,” Jahni said, realising he was still gripping his seat tight and let go as they were more or less level and travelling at a reasonable speed now. Murdock winked at him and turned back to the front, talking to Hersi, explaining how he’d pulled them out of the dive.

Was he showing off? Jahni wondered. Well, he might be, but why not? He was clearly having fun. But was it all to put off talking about what he went through in the blockhouse? Would he in fact talk about it at all? Perhaps Jahni misjudged how much Murdock trusted him. It made more sense that Murdock would go home and talk to one of the team about it. On the other hand, he seemed in no hurry to leave. He’d already asked Jahni what was for dinner tonight and they hadn’t even had lunch yet. Jahni had thought about heading back home that afternoon, but he decided to put it off a little longer.

He could wait.


Jahni woke as someone shook his shoulder and whispered his name. He looked at Murdock, standing over his cot in the barracks.

“I’m ready now,” Murdock said, and turned and headed out of the room. Jahni stared after him and then scrambled out of bed and into a pair of sandals and a robe. The night was still warm, he left the robe hanging loose, enjoying the cool breeze on his chest when he went outside.

A glance at his watch told him it was almost two in the morning. Never mind. He’d had many late night talks here. The tall figure standing at the wire looking out over the desert was Murdock this time, not Madari. But that made no difference. A friend who needed him. That’s what mattered.

He walked up and stood beside Murdock, who didn’t speak or even look at him. Was he as ready as he thought? Perhaps Jahni could give him a lead in.

“What you said earlier, about being strong enough now. It made me think about a letter Faris sent to me. He had… a dream, or a flashback perhaps, about something he hadn’t been able to remember before. Part of his torture. It was hidden for a long time and now he has to deal with it as if it happened only yesterday.”

His voice caught in his throat, frustration at not being there, pain for Madari’s distress. Murdock looked at him, didn’t speak, waiting for him this time.

“But he can cope,” Jahni went on when he regained control of his voice. “He’s stronger now. He can deal with it now.”

Murdock smiled and looked away again.

“I just wish I could have been there to help him,” Jahni said.

“But you were,” Murdock said. “You’ve helped him get strong enough to deal with it. You don’t have to be at his side when you’re…” He stopped and put a hand on his chest. “You know. In here. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am now without my friends. I’d never have made it without them.”

“It goes both ways,” Jahni said, smoothing down his hair, disarranged by sleep and the breeze that fluttered the robes they both wore, and recalling what Murdock had said to him about having a full caseload keeping the rest of the team sane. Perhaps that was a joke. Or perhaps not. “After my family was killed I was so full of rage and vengeance that I could have become a monster. Faris kept that from happening.”

“It’s other people that keep us human.”

Jahni agreed strongly with that. He’d lost his belief in a soul in the mystical sense. But if any part of him could be said to be his soul he thought it was his love for Madari. Without that, he would indeed be soulless, a mere killing machine. And as he said, it went both ways. The fact Madari loved him back showed him he was worthy of love, he wasn’t a monster. Not yet.

He had a soul. Faris was his soul.

He sighed. Time to stop thinking about himself; he was here to help Murdock.

“Talk to me, Murdock,” he said quietly. “Did you find what you wanted in that room? Did you find the way out?”

“Yes. Out of that room.”

“There are other rooms you haven’t found your way out of?”

“That’s right. Strange, they get kind of comfortable after a while. You get scared to leave them, because when you do, you become somebody else and getting to know new people isn’t easy. It’s easier to retreat, back into that cosy room, away from the new person.” He shook his head and looked at Jahni. “But you gotta face up to them in the end. Become them. If you can’t change then you’re already dead.”

“I’ve… changed so much since the day I came here.”

“You met him.” Murdock’s voice was soft, but Jahni glanced sharply at him. Yes, many of the changes were because of that. So long ago, and as clear as yesterday. Arriving here, full of anger, confusion and desperation, ready to fight anyone who even looked at him wrong. And in the midst of that, a strange instant of stillness when he met the eyes of the tall, thin man standing behind the fence.

“I found my soul…” Jahni whispered, then caught himself and swallowed down a curse. He hadn’t meant to say that aloud. “My… my purpose,” he said. “My duty… as a soldier.”

Murdock looked at him nodding.

“I remember the day I met the colonel. My colonel, I mean. Felt as if I’d known him all my life. Yet every day, he surprises me. Same with Face and BA.”

Could a soul be split four ways? Making them more than a team, different from a family.

“Is that why you guys can’t split up, not really?” Jahni said, knowing they’d tried, since their pardons, to make their own lives but they always came back together again. “Because without the others, you’re not… complete?”

“Yeah,” Murdock said, quietly. “Like part of me is missing when I’m not with them.”

Part of Jahni had been missing for the last five months. In another month, he’d be whole again.

“Do you feel that way now?” He asked Murdock. “Do you wish you’d brought one of them with you?”

“No. I had to do this alone. I had to know I was strong enough. Anyway, I can cope with being away for a few days. A few months… well, I don’t have to tell you that hurts.”

Jahni flushed and looked away. Murdock couldn’t know, could he? An insane urge to blurt it out to him took hold of Jahni. Would Murdock understand? Americans were so open-minded. Murdock had never appeared to have much in the way of religious convictions.

Still, he couldn’t risk it. Just in case he’d read Murdock wrong. In case he shocked and disgusted him, lost him as a friend. And he couldn’t control who Murdock might tell. He trusted Murdock personally, but he wouldn’t put Madari’s life in Murdock’s hands too.

There were times he wished it would all come out at last. If it did, if people knew the feelings they had for each other ever did come out, along with the things they’d done, the kisses – and people would surely suspect a lot more – then they’d be forced to leave the country. They’d be free.

But he couldn’t make that choice for Madari. Madari had risked so much telling Sophia, and despite her discretion, Jahni still carried some anger about that. But to risk the same by telling Murdock would make Jahni a hypocrite. In more ways than one. He’d told Madari he had a renewed sense of the importance of his career to him, intended to make sure he didn’t risk it again.

So for all those reasons he stayed silent. He gripped the wire and rested his head on his hand. Murdock’s hand rested on his back.

Jahni turned to look at him, trying to smile. “I thought I was supposed to be helping you here.”

Murdock patted his back. “You are helping.”

Day 6

Madari woke in his tent to the sound of the camp already up and about. Checking the time, he saw it was an hour later than he’d ordered the night watch to wake him. He suspected Bennett’s intervention there, could hear her now giving the order: “let him get some shuteye.”

She had a point. He felt better for the extra hour, after sitting up late last night. His visions of Kibibi had changed from sweet pictures of her drawing, singing, playing, to imagining her as a target for his enemies and that left him feeling sick with horror. To have Jahni, or even Sophia targeted because of his closeness to them would be bad enough, but a child? The thought had raised goosebumps on his skin despite the heat.

He had no choice. She’d be safer here.

That didn’t make it any easier to think this was the day he’d leave her here at the orphanage. He’d visit before he went home of course. But she was so young, would she start to forget him? He remembered Faraj’s pain at coming home after two years to find his son no longer knew him. Of course Mehdi had been younger than Kibibi. Or was it best that she did forget about him? Easier for her.

Pulling himself together, he gathered his things and left his tent to wash.

After breakfast, the work began and soon the air was foul with the smell of hot tar, as the workers sealed the roof. Other men worked inside, painting the interiors, others outside varnishing the exterior.

The day passed quickly, with so much work, but by lunchtime it was clear they wouldn’t finish soon enough to leave tonight. Madari gave orders to prepare for a final night here and to be ready to strike camp first thing in the morning. Perhaps he should have said at first light, before the children got up, so he could say goodbye today as he’d expected. Or should he make the most of a last few hours with Kibibi?

He sighed and shook his head at his mixed emotions. Did he actually want to leave today, or was he genuinely glad to have another night here?

“Come on everyone!” Bennett called, as they sat around resting after lunch. “Everybody up.” She was carrying her camera. “Gotta get some pictures while we still have the light.”

“Pictures?” Madari said.

“Souvenirs. Come on, you have to be front and centre, along with Sister Raphael.”

Madari shrugged at Drummond and they both got up and followed Bennett, who was arranging everyone, workers, sisters, security men, soldiers, officers and the children into a big group.

“Come on, everyone! Get into place.” Bennett had a tripod and fussed over the camera for a while, talking to a local man, who Madari hadn’t seen before, but who seemed to know how to use the camera. After a conference, he chased Bennett away and she came and joined the group, grinning and standing on Madari’s left. Sister Raphael stood at his right, with her sisters and the children ranged to her right and behind her. The workers, Lodge security men and soldiers stood to the side and behind Madari and Drummond. Kibibi stood in the middle, holding the hands of Madari and Sister Raphael.

After a few trips back over by Bennett and various other groupings, making Madari feel like he was at a wedding, she finished the photographs at last.

“Can we get back to work now?” Madari asked Bennett, who looked sheepish.

“You’ll thank me later,” she said. “Got some great shots.”

The children ran off back to their outdoor classroom, the sisters following them. The men went back to work. Sister Raphael turned to Madari and Drummond, still holding Kibibi’s hand.

“I want to thank you both now, not only for the money, but for how your men have done the work so fast.”

“Well your local workers did most of it,” Madari said. “We just helped out.”

“Believe me, they’d have taken four times as long without you keeping them going.”

“The military like things done sharpish,” Drummond said, smiling. “You’re very welcome, sister. Glad to do it.”

“I am too,” Madari said. “And it’s been very rewarding to actually be here helping to put the money into action.”

“You’re both generous men.” She raised her hand. “God bless you both. Come, child, back to lessons.”

Kibibi waved as she left with the sister and Madari waved back until she turned away.

“Got an idea to put to you,” Drummond said. Madari looked at him, wondering if he was also going to suggest Madari adopt Kibibi.

“What is it?”

“Eshe is fond of little Bibi there. Have to say I am too. Been thinking I could let her stay at the lodge. Wish I could do it for all of them, poor mites. But I have to make a living. There’s room for one though. There’s a decent school not far off, all the lodge workers’ kids go there. And, if she wants it, she’ll have a guaranteed job at the lodge when she gets older. What do you think?”

“Will you let me contribute to the cost of her keep and education?” If Madari couldn’t give her a home he could help to make sure she had what she needed.

“Not necessary, but I won’t turn you down. I think what she’d like best from you is letters.”

“Oh, certainly. Yes, I will write to her.”

“Good.” Drummond sighed. “I know, it’s not the same for her, but it’s closer to a family than living here. No offence to the sisters, they do their best here.”

“Yes. Family. Clive, thank you. I feel… better now about leaving.”

Drummond clapped him on the shoulder. “Thought it seemed like it was chewing on you a bit. You’re a sentimental fellow, aren’t you?”

Madari laughed. “I fear so.”

“Well, you can rest easier now. And you’ve got another month before you go home, so you can make sure she’s settled in.”

Another month.

Home. To Jahni. To Sophia. To his life. Leaving behind these strange notions about fatherhood.

That must be for the best.

Day 7

Jahni insisted on coming into the airport with Murdock, not just dropping him off. They’d come home the day before and last night Jahni had taken Murdock for dinner and a night on the town, both as light-hearted as if the last few days had been a simple holiday.

But they were more serious as they said goodbye, after Murdock checked his bags and headed for the security checkpoint. A quiet weekday and only a couple of people queued ahead of him. Murdock turned to Jahni.

“Thanks for your help, Kahil.”

“No thanks necessary, Murdock. I was glad to help.” He smiled. “Anything to get away from paperwork for a few days.”

“Ah, but now you have a load of it to catch up on.”

Jahni winced. “Yes, don’t remind me. Have a good flight.” He offered Murdock his hand, but Murdock pulled him into an embrace and spoke quietly to him.

“You walk a hard road, kid. Don’t forget that I’m here if you need a hand over the roughest spot.”

“Thank you,” Jahni spoke in a whisper and again felt that urge to tell him, tell someone the feelings that he had to leave in the silent darkness, for fear they’d destroy him. Again, he squashed that urge. He hated the secrecy, hated that it made him unable to trust even Murdock. Secrecy felt like poison. No, like a drug, that he relied on, wanted to stop, and was afraid to stop. Addicted to secrets. He sighed and stepped back and they smiled and waved their goodbyes, as Jahni watched Murdock go through security and head into the departure lounge.

The security men nodded to Jahni and one elbowed another, a man that Jahni hadn’t seen before and whispered something to him. The new man stared at Jahni, who just gave him a quick nod and turned away. Time to get out of here. Madari seemed to enjoy it when they came to the airport, for whatever strange reason. He liked to stop off at the coffee shop, or pick up a magazine, chat to the staff, perhaps visit the airport manager or security chief. Jahni was happier to get in and out of the place as quickly as possible.

But, in a month, he’d be here to greet Madari returning from Zaire. Now that visit he wouldn’t mind at all.


They struck camp late morning. Later than planned, but there was still final tidying up to do. And it was Sunday, and the local priest came to celebrate mass, so many of the men attended that. They had the mass in the open air, like the classes. Madari approved of that. He had always liked to pray in the open air, especially in the desert, where his soul felt at home. The priest’s voice, interspersed with hymn singing, accompanied the non-Catholics as they worked on clearing up the building site and dismantling the camp.

The goodbyes took a long time of course, the soldiers and security men all fond of the children, all with their favourites. The sisters and the local people all wanted to express their gratitude. They gave gifts of thanks, some made by the children, some gifts of food, all graciously received.

At last, as the sun was climbing close to noon, the goodbyes were done, the work over and Drummond’s and Madari’s people climbed into their loaded vehicles. Kibibi joined the officers and Drummond in their Land Rover and sat on Bennett’s lap, smiling and clearly delighted to be coming home with them.

Another month, Madari thought, as they pulled away, leaving behind the extended orphanage and its extra residents. The children waved until they were out of sight. After that, Madari heard Bennett sigh and looked at her to see her relax into the seat and hug Kibibi close to her, the two of them settling down for the journey, perhaps to sleep. Madari smiled at that. Bennett seemed as glad to have another month with Kibibi as he was.

A month and then he’d be home. Back to Kahil and Sophia, but leaving behind Bibi and Karen.

Life is bittersweet.