by Quentin Poulsen
Bob gazed at the long wooden table before covering it with the embroidered cloth. That table had been made from trees, he thought; which trees had grown in the forest. And the cloth he was covering it with was woven from fiber; which fiber had been part of a plant. But why did this occur to him now? He had eaten at that same table for as long as he could remember.
The silverware in place, Bob took his usual seat, opposite his brother and adjacent to his father, who occupied one end of the dining room table. His mother would occupy the other, once she had served up the food. It had always been that way. But it would not be so again for some time to come. And on this occasion they had guests; Uncle Oscar and Aunt Rachel to Bob’s left; Uncle Roger and Aunt Helen to the right of his brother.
Bob’s mother had instructed him to use the best silverware, and even the TV in the corner was off for a change. He ran his thumb along the serrated blade of a knife and gazed at his own reflection. The words ‘Stainless Steel’ were etched into one side. Was there any such thing as ‘real’ silverware? He wondered.
His brother they referred to as ‘Roj,’ to avoid confusion with his uncle, while he himself was known as ‘Bob,’ to avoid confusion with his father, Robert Schuster Senior. There had always been Roberts on his father’s side of the family, going back generations. But the fact his brother shared the same name as his uncle was pure coincidence. They were, at least, spared the additional complication of Aunt Helen being named after her mother, for Bob’s sole surviving grandparent had suffered a stroke that year and was no longer able to leave the nursing home.
Bob watched his father carve the turkey, placing the bird on the platter breast-side up, steadying it with the two-pronged fork, cutting downward with quick, firm strokes. The meat came away in tender slices; the flesh of a bird which, just a few days before, had run about on a farm. The wine was poured, a Californian dry white, and his father made the first toast.
“Another member of the Schuster household on the conveyer belt to success – with the best education money can buy: To my eldest, Robert Schuster Junior!”
They all knocked glasses together, smiling kindly, eyes glistening with pleasure. ‘Here’s to you, Bob…’ ‘To yir education…’ ‘To yir future career, son…’ ‘Here’s to yir success…’
“Be a good ambassador fir yir country,” Uncle Oscar told him, a porcelain gleam to his smile. “Don’t get caught up in any a that rebelry or revelry now. You got the family honor to uphold.”
“Study hard, dear, an’ don’t break any rules,” Aunt Rachel added. “This is a stepping stone to yir future career.”
Uncle Roger’s corpulent features beamed across the table. “And which career are ya plannin’ to go into, young feller?”
“Oh, Roger!” his wife remonstrated. “Don’t you remember?”
“Media Management and Middle Eastern History,” replied Bob. “I wanna be a TV journalist.”
“Sounds like an adventure.” His uncle’s balding head nodded.
“Good salary to be made thir, Bobby,” Oscar pointed out. “You’ll need to work yir way up to one a them prime networks, a course.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Robert Schuster Senior assured him. “The boy’s bright as beans. He can be anythin’ he wants to be, so long as he sets his mind to it.”
Aunt Rachel’s eyes appeared magnified behind the red-rimmed spectacles. Her hair was dyed auburn, cheeks shining with make-up, she was as colorful as a cartoon character. And the rosy scent of her perfume pervaded the air. “Maybe he’ll go into politics someday,” she suggested. “Jest like his gran’paw, God rest his soul.”
“Another fine family tradition thir,” Oscar agreed. “Senator in the state legislature, an’ his cousin Josh was governor.”
“An’ both as corrupt as hell!” Uncle Roger chortled through a mouthful of roast potato. “Wasn’t ol’ Earl impeached or somethin?'”
Large eyes rolled behind the red-rimmed glasses. “He was acquitted on all charges. They never proved a thing.”
“Maybe so, but he had to leave office. Fled the state too.”
“What medication are you on, Roger!? He retired of his own free will and live’ peacefully in Florida for the rest of ‘is days.”
Uncle Oscar wagged a fork at his brother-in-law. “Now, you know what they say. Never speak ill a the dead.”
Bob’s attention was drawn to a subtle change in his paternal uncle’s hair, about level with the top of his ears. It became straighter, shinier too. For a moment he was unable to remove his eyes. “I’m not sure politics is fir me. Least, I’d rather write about it than be involved in it.”
Uncle Roger nodded again. “Good fir you, Bobster! An’ how ’bout yir brother? What are you gonna become,’ young feller?”
Roj shrugged as he chewed his food, right cheek bulging. “Maybe I’ll be a stand-up comedian or somethin.'”
This was greeted with chuckles of surprise. Spectacles glinted beneath the electric lights, porcelain teeth gleamed, make-up shone, dyed hair glistened.
“Why in God’s name would you wanna be a stand-up comedian?” Oscar asked.
“Jest made y’all laugh, didn’t I?”
“Only ‘cos yir idea’s ridiculous!”
Roj piled more turkey onto his plate. “All the best comedians are fat. Look at John Candy.”
“Now that’s not true, son. Seinfield ain’t fat.”
“Ain’t funny neither.”
“Funniest man alive! Don’t argue. Besides, you ain’t fat like John Candy. Yir jest heavy-boned.”
“Chip off the ol’ block!” Robert Schuster Senior patted his youngest on the head. “Offensive lineman on the high school team, jest like I was. Gonna be a doctortoo. Don’t listen to any a this fool’s talk. He’ll grow out of it.”
They all chuckled again – all except Roj himself, who was too busy stuffing more food into his mouth.
The plates were no sooner cleared than Bob’s mother emerged from the kitchen with the apple pie, clutching the sides of the oven dish with a pair of white gloves. He gazed at the pie as she laid it on the table before them; the steaming pastry and fragments of apples protruding. Those apples had once been a growing, breathing part of the environment, he thought. The butter and milk had come from a cow; the eggs from a chicken.
“That’s what I call a fine American dinner!” Uncle Roger crowed. “You gone to an awful lotta trouble fir us, Julie.”
“Oh, it was nothin,'” she replied, though she’d spent the whole afternoon preparing it.
Following dessert, they all progressed through to the living room and sat in front of the big TV. The men drank beer; the women coffee or wine – Aunt Helen’s red, while Uncle Oscar and Aunt Rachel lit cigarettes and proceeded to fill the room up with smoke. On one wall hung the Stars and Stripes beside a framed portrait of the president; on another photographs of the boys: Bob with the various medals he’d won at state swimming meets; Roj in his navy blue football uniform. Above the TV hung a figure of Jesus on a cross, silver pewter on polished wood.
The wide, flat screen flickered to life with an image of wavy hair, bushy sideburns, a stiff white collar and copious jewelry. The shoulders shook, the hips gyrated. ‘Vivaaaa, Las Vegas! Vivaaaa, Las Vegas . . . !’
“Ya know, this movie grossed over two billion,” Uncle Oscar pointed out. “One in ten Americans saw it in the first few weeks alone.”
“It’s sure to sweep the awards,” said Aunt Rachel beside him. “Can’t wait till nex’ Sunday. The awards are always a highlight a the year!”
Uncle Roger’s bald head shook slowly. “Naw, this guy’s no good. Don’t look like Elvis; don’t sing like ‘im neither. Not sure what all the fuss is about.”
“Kind a tough to play ‘the King,’ Roger,” Bob’s mother suggested. “I mean, nobody sang like Elvis.”
“You know, I doubt he even sang all those songs himself. He certainly never wrote any of ’em.”
“Who claimed he was a song-writer?” Bob’s father inquired. “Elvis inspired millions, jest the same. This movie’s a tribute to a genuine American hero.”
“You ought a feel proud, Roger!” Aunt Rachel chided him.
“S’pose y’all believe he was a regular GI, too.”
Uncle Oscar winced at him, stubbing out his cigarette in a glass ashtray. “What medication are you on, Roger? Everyone knows Elvis served in the army. It was all over the news. You sayin’ the TV an’ papers were ‘lyin” to us?”
They all laughed at him then, and Aunt Rachel added: “You’ll see, Roger. It’ll sweep the awards.”
Bob’s eyes wandered to the photos on the wall, the flag and the silver figure of Jesus. From there his attention was drawn to a jagged crack in the skirting board above them. He hadn’t noticed it before. What would happen if it got bigger? he wondered. Might the whole ceiling just cave in?
“More violence in the Middle East,” a gorgeous news presenter announced, smiling radiantly out of the screen.
“Yir boy keepin’ safe over thir?” Bob’s father inquired.
“Eric’s jest fine,” Uncle Oscar assured them. “Stationed up north. This is all goin’ on in the south, roun’ the capital. We spoke to him Tuesday by phone.”
“Wish Paw could a lived to see it. Would a made ‘im proud to see yir boy servin’ over thir.”
“Yir boys goin’ in for military service?”
“Hell, no!” Roj shook his head. “TV sceen’s close enough fir me. I don’t wanna end up in a wheelchair like Gran’paw.”
“Yir gran’paw fought fir ‘yir’ freedom,” Aunt Rachel chided him. “Don’t ya wanna do yir duty too – like a good American?”
Uncle Oscar concurred. “Y’ought a be proud, Roj. Yir gran’paw was a genuine American hero.” He transferred his frown to Bob. “An’ how ’bout you, son? Not afraid, are ya?”
“Of what? We’re jest bombin’ ’em from the sky.”
“The kid’s right,” said Uncle Roger, seated in the armchair on the far side of the room. “What in hell are our troops doin’ over thir anyhow?”
“Defendin’ our freedom,” Uncle Oscar shot back. “Thir’s a tyrant over thir that’s gotta be got rid of. TV, papers, all say the same thing. America could be threatened.”
Aunt Helen scoffed. “You men are such warmongers! If it were left to us women, thir wouldn’t be no wars.”
“Ain’t that the truth!” Bob’s mother crowed, refilling the wine glasses. “All the same, God bless America fir keepin’ us safe.'”
“God bless America!” They all raised their glasses to the toast.
As Bob’s mother knocked glasses with her sister, a splash of the red liquid escaped and landed on the carpet. The mark it made on the cream-colored fabric resembled the shape of a dragon. But his mother merely smiled as she fetched a cloth and detergent from the kitchen; radiant as the news presenter on TV; and proceeded to rub away until the stain was reduced to the faintest pink tinge. Though still it remained, Bob observed; more like some winged parasite than a dragon now.
The commercials continued; rugged men and beer; the very brand they were drinking; sexy women and sports cars. Bob breathed in the smoke and watched Uncle Oscar adjusting the top his hair. His father cracked open another can.
It was approaching midnight when the guests got up to leave. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged as they all wished Bob the best. He was relieved to see them go. The excitement had given him a headache, and he needed to get a good night’s sleep, for his journey would begin the following day.
“Best take some a those painkillers ya maw uses,” his father advised him.
“Those are fir migraines,” she pointed out. “You think he ought a be usin’ ’em?”
“I’m a doctor, honey. Remember?”
“You’re an ‘oncologist,’ dear.”
“Trained in medicine all the same. Now, the boy’s got a headache an’ those things’ll get rid of it fir sure.”
“It’s bad,” Bob groaned, rubbing his temples. “Maybe I jest need a lie down.'”
“How many cans you have? Two? Three?”
“Two. And a glass a wine at dinner.”
“Take a couple of ’em pills,” his father insisted. “Won’t do ya any harm.”
Bob went through to the bathroom and located his mother’s migraine pills in a corner of the medicine cabinet. They were long and rubbery, and had a faint, tangy taste when he swallowed them. The headache continued to hammer away for ten or fifteen minutes as he lay on his bed, then slowly; mercifully, it began to recede. Images floated through his mind: a red, white and blue flag, a navy football uniform, a silver Jesus on a wooden cross, a jagged crack in the skirting board, a dragon-shaped stain on the carpet, the radiantly smiling presenter, bombs falling on the screen . . .
‘Another member of the Schuster household on the conveyer belt to success.’ He recalled his father’s words, as clearly as though they’d just been spoken again. ‘Study hard an’ don’t break any rules.’ His mother’s. ‘Sounds like an adventure.’ One of his uncle’s. ‘Good salary to be made thir.’ The other’s. ‘Maybe he’ll go into politics’ . . . ‘Another fine family tradition’ . . . ‘An’ both of ’em corrupt as hell’ . . . ‘What medication are you on?’ . . . ‘More violence in the Middle East’ . . . ‘Wish Paw could a lived to see it’ . . . ‘He fought for ‘yir’ freedom’ . . . ‘Yir gran’paw was a genuine American hero’ . . . ‘What medication are you on?’ . . . ‘Not afraid, are ya?’ . . . God bless America!’ . . . ‘God bless America! . . . ‘God bless America!’ . . .
Waving farewell to his family, he joined the long queue at security check. It was the third line he’d waited in that morning; the slowest being at check-in, which had taken fully half an hour. And he would soon be required to queue up again, this time at passport control.
The officers went about their job more vigorously than on previous occasions, emptying his luggage onto a metal bench after it had passed through the scanner. His half-empty bottle of suntan lotion was tossed into a trash bin, as was his tube of toothpaste. ‘No liquids on board.’ The officers shook their heads and scowled. Things were getting tighter, of course; what, with terrorism on the news almost every day. The world was changing.
Down the long passage he continued, riding the moving walkway past the duty free stores, the fast food outlets and the coffeehouse chains. He’d had two large cups of sugary frappe already, while waiting with his family in the main foyer.
‘Gate 22.’ He sat down with the others. Some he recognized from the queues: the stocky guy in the red ‘Bulls’ T-shirt; the bespectacled fellow in the business suit; the overweight woman with the crying baby. It were as though he’d spent half the day with these people, progressing like livestock from one pen to another.
At twenty-past-twelve boarding commenced, right on schedule, and once more he found himself waiting in line. The young woman in the sky-blue uniform glanced at his ticket, smiled brightly and waved him through. He followed the other passengers down the loading bridge and into the cramped interior of the plane. Bob was truly on his way now.
His place was near the back on the left-hand-side, next to the window as requested. The seat beside him was soon occupied by the balding fellow in the business suit . He didn’t seem too interested in talking. In fact, he appeared decidedly nervous – increasingly so as the seatbelt signs chimed on and the plane began to roll across the tarmac.
The hostesses in their sky-blue uniforms demonstrated the safety procedures, smiling brightly, while an airy female voice gave instructions over the speaker system. Then the engines roared to life and the plane hurtled down the runway, building speed with startling resolve. Bob’s neighbor gripped the arms of his seat, eyes closed tight; a veritable specter in a gray suit and cardinal tie.
Now the plane left the ground and rose up swiftly. Bob gazed out the window in fascination as the view unfolded below. How different things looked from the air! Green and red roofs, cars moving along the roadways; those same roadways he had travelled along with his family just a few hours before; schools, parks and sports fields, then the entire suburb became visible.
The aircraft was wheeling around, making a turn for the left, so that Bob found himself staring straight down at the terrain below for a minute or two. He almost feared he might drop out of his seat, facing downward like that, gazing directly through the window. It was the plane’s own velocity that held him in place, of course.
Before long the sea loomed up beneath them, stark blue and white flecked, here and there the miniscule forms of sailing vessels. The plane continued its ascent, into the whiteness, and then they were through the clouds, with nothing to see outside but the puffy shapes below and the pale blue sky all around.
The clouds, when viewed from above, were perfectly flat, like a vast, sprawling duvet. It was a vision of heaven as he’d always imagined it – minus God and His angels, of course. Bob pictured himself wandering around down there. Naturally the clouds wouldn’t hold him. And, even if they would, he’d either freeze to death or suffocate for lack of oxygen within minutes.
The hostesses came by with the refreshments trolley, and the fellow in the suit ordered a whisky. Bob noticed the perspiration on his neck and jowls. He himself requested a cola. It came in a plastic cup with ice. A few gulps and it was gone; a sweet, sugary liquid that moistened his throat and cooled his belly – if only for a moment.
“So what takes you to Yenug?” his neighbor inquired, peering intensely at him, eyes magnified by the thick lenses of his spectacles.
Bob’s head spun. Where was the plane going? And why ‘was’ he going there? For an instant he could not recall. But then there came a break in the clouds, and everything was clear. “I’m goin’ a college.”
“Good luck with that, my friend. You know about the war, I assume . . . ”
Bob’s mind went blank again. “No, I ‘don’t’ know about any war. Is it serious?”
“Well, it’s nothin’ new, a course. They been at it since independence a century ago!”
This Bob could only contemplate in wonder. Why hadn’t anyone told him before? Were they really sending him into a ‘war zone?’ “How ’bout you?”
“Strictly business. In an’ out, quick as I can.”
Just then the plane began to jump around, buffeted by strong winds. The seatbelt signs chimed on, the hostesses retreated down the aisle with their trolley, and somewhere further back a baby started crying.
The balding fellow clutched his seat and closed his eyes, and when the plane dipped suddenly he actually let out a whimper. “The pilot knows what he’s doing. Nothing to worry about. The pilot knows what he’s doing.”
Another sudden dip, then the captain’s voice came over the speaker system, calmly advising they had encountered ‘heavy turbulence’ and were ‘looking for a way out of the wind current.’
For the next few minutes the only sound among the passengers was that of the baby crying; like the pitiful bleating of a lamb. It were as if the infant had arrived in this world with some innate knowledge of all that was wrong with it, thought Bob, surprised at his own sense of gloom.
A few minutes later they were flying smoothly again, the seatbelt signs off, the hostesses rolling their trolley back down the aisle.
Bob’s neighbor ordered another whisky, before plugging in his earphones. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll watch the movie.”
“Sure.” Bob turned back to the window, reflecting as he did that not once had the fellow glanced outside.
An hour or so into the flight he got up to use the toilet. A tall, crew-cut guy was already waiting. He grinned down at Bob with boyish enthusiasm, his teeth large and horse-like. Around his neck he wore a silver necklace – thick as a dog-chain.
“First time to Yenug?”
“Third – sorta. I been stationed thir with the peacekeepin’ mission for the past year, but I get to go home every few months.”
“Yir a soldier?”
“Sure am.” The guy kept grinning, chewing his gum. “Seen active combat a couple a times, too. Yes, sir! Done my duty an’ won me a medal. Man, we sure took ’em son-of-a-bitches out!”
“Zuks, a course! You got any idea what’s goin’ on thir?”
Bob felt the trepidation again. “Not really. Jest that thir’s a war or somethin.'”
Horsey teeth chuckled down. It seemed everyone was laughing at him that day. How could it be that he’d never heard about any of this before?
The toilet door popped open and a middle-aged woman emerged. The soldier paused a moment before entering, silver necklace sparkling in the light, the strong scent of mint on his breath.
“Listen, man, Yenug’s a cool place: fine people, wunnerful food. But stay away from them Zuks. Thir pure evil. They ain’t even human.”
When he returned to his place, Bob discovered his neighbor had fallen asleep; head tilted to one side, eyes closed, mouth wide open. He still had the earphones plugged in and the movie was continuing, while behind them the baby was crying; if not so loudly as before. Bob had no choice but to wake him, of course, shaking him gently by the shoulder. The fellow came to with a start, gazing around in confusion. But his expression slowly returned to normal he realized where he was.
Another hour and they were descending through the clouds, and the first thing Bob saw when they emerged from the whiteness was the densely forested terrain of Yenug Island. The other passengers chattered excitedly, though the infant, at least, had gone quiet.
“Hallelujah!” his neighbor cried. “Looks like we survived this one, huh. Thank God!”
Another long queue at passport control. It seemed one or two other flights had come in just before them, and there were merely a couple of officers on duty. Bob found himself toward the back of slowest line – with no minor amount of queue-jumping going on up ahead. On several occasions arguments broke out, and one dispute actually came to blows before the security guards intervened.
It was hot and stuffy inside the terminal; not a pleasant place to be at all. The walls were bare cement – except for the giant portrait of an elderly man in a yellow baseball cap above the main exit. Yellow caps were in vogue, Bob observed, gazing at the people around him.
Only when he was within a few places of the front did two more officers arrive to assist their comrades. A beefy fellow took his documents without word or expression, flicked through his passport, scanned it on his computer screen and scrutinized the data that came up, before finally looking over his visa.
“Yir a student? What are you gonna study?”
Bob’s mind went blank. What ‘was’ he going to study? A sense of panic rose up within him. What was happening to his brain on this trip that he kept on forgetting things?!
The officer glanced up from the visa and fixed a cold stare on him. “Don’t you know what yir gonna study?”
All Bob could do was shake his head slowly. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember.”
The man was instantly on his feet, informing his comrade on the other side of the booth that he had encountered a ‘problem.’ And with that he stepped out and closed the door – drawing expressions of annoyance from those waiting behind Bob, who were now required to join one of the other queues.
“Come with me,” he said, and Bob dutifully followed.
Like a common criminal he was led away, around the corner and through a door marked ‘Police.’ Bob racked his brains. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. His student visa had been arranged months in advance. Was it his fault he couldn’t recall what subject he was going to be taking?
A middle-aged officer sat at a desk with sandwiches and coffee, a burly sort like his colleague, with a fleshy face and heavy frame. He was clearly irked by the interruption, frowning across at Bob as the situation was explained to him.
“Where are you gonna study?” he inquired.
Another pang of alarm. But, wait, Bob thought; he knew the answer to that. Suddenly it was all coming back to him. “University a Yenug.”
The middle-aged officer got up and approached the counter. “Which campus?”
“Crupsy. It’s the main campus. I’m takin’ Media Management an’ . . . Island History.”
The fellow examined the documents his companion had given him. “Why didn’t you tell us that in the first place? Who’s yir contact?”
“Student Liaison Officer? College Secretary? You must a been in contact with ‘somebody?'”
“No, I don’t think so. Not that I remember.”
A large fist crashed down on the counter. “Don’t mess us around, boy! We can send you back on the next plane, ya know!”
Bob dug desperately into his pockets. He might have a telephone number or address or something on him. Indeed, his fingers soon located a card. With relief he pulled it out and looked at the name.
“Professor Yelmi Hannah,” he read aloud. “Head of Faculty, Media Management, University of Yenug.”
The officer snatched it off him. “Okay. We’ll be callin’ her to check out yir story.”
Bob was taken to another room by the fellow who had brought him here. Containing nothing more than a few wooden benches, it was undoubtedly a holding cell. As though to confirm this, the officer gave him a rough shove in the back before slamming the door shut behind him.
‘Welcome to Yenug!’ he thought bitterly. What had happened to all the ‘fine people’ the horse-toothed soldier had told him about?
The minutes ticked by. Ten . . . fifteen . . . twenty . . . Why was it taking them so long? Perhaps this Professor Hannah hadn’t been able to help them after all.
Another twenty minutes, and Bob realized he wasn’t going to be making the train south that afternoon. He’d already bought his ticket online and could only hope he’d be able to exchange it. And that, of course, was provided they allowed him to enter the country at all – an increasingly uncertain prospect as he sat there waiting.
Fully an hour passed before they came and got him. Professor Hannah had confirmed his story. His passport and visa were returned to him. Bob was free to go.
The humidity engulfed him as he stepped outside the terminal, drawing the sweat from every pore in his body. The two hour flight sought had brought him to the edge of the subtropics. A shuttle service operated between the airport and the center. It took around thirty minutes, and deposited him right in the heart of the capital, just a few blocks from the train station.
Bob was immediately struck by a sweet, sickly fragrance that hung in the clammy air. It was the aroma of bananas. And once again he noticed the prevalence of yellow baseball caps. Almost everybody was wearing one. Many also carried giant paper cups, these too yellow, digging into them with long plastic spoons. As for the people themselves, they were invariably overweight – like the officers he’d dealt with at the airport. Some were veritable mountains of flesh, waddling along like giant battery hens in yellow baseball caps.
At the train station he tried to exchange his ticket, only to be told by the chubby-faced vendor that this would not be possible. No smile, no apology, nor even the slightest expression of sympathy. She appeared more machine than human; a chubby-faced robot blinking out through the lenses of her spectacles. In addition, she brusquely pointed out, there were no more departures south that day. Bob was not only going to have to buy another ticket, he was going to have to wait till morning – which meant checking into a hotel for the night. He cursed his ill-fortune – but at least he’d made it into the country, he reflected.
Outside he waved down a taxi and asked the driver to take him to the nearest cheap hotel. Next thing he knew they were speeding along a freeway, clearly heading away from the center. He should have seen it coming! He was a foreigner, and the driver was duly taking him for a ride.
“Hey! I wanna hotel in the cenner – not the other side of the island!”
The driver assumed a wounded expression. “But thir all five stars in the cenner. You said you wanted a ‘cheap’ hotel.”
“Well, take me back anyway. I gotta get a train in the mornin.’ I don’t wanna be stuck out in the suburbs.”
The driver begrudgingly did so, and ten minutes later they were cruising past the train station again, with already twenty Yenug pounds on the meter. Seven or eight bucks wasted, Bob calculated.
A few blocks on they stopped in front of a hotel. It had three gold stars across the front. “If you don’t like it, I’ll take you to another,” the driver assured him.
Bob glanced at the meter. Approaching twenty-two pounds. “No, it’s okay,” he said, and gave him the fare.
Slinging his backpack over one shoulder, he entered through the automatic sliding doors and crossed the polished floor to the reception desk. It was staffed by two young women in yellow uniforms, their corpulent features glistening with make-up. Ninety pounds a night. About forty bucks. No, that was more than he was prepared to pay.
“Is thir any place cheaper nearby? One or two stars, fir instance?”
The two women glanced at each other. “Thir’s a hostel on the next street,” one drawled. “Perhaps that would interest you.”
“It would!” he replied gratefully.
The taxi was still waiting outside. The driver even honked as he walked past. The guy had to be kidding! Bob thought. Quite apart from the fact he’d already been ripped off, the hostel was just a short walk away – apparently.
Indeed, he found it without difficulty; on the ground floor of an old, decrepit building with rusty iron grills in front of the windows. Twenty pounds a night, explained the overweight fellow who opened the door. The room itself was scarcely big enough for the single bed and wardrobe that were its only furnishings. But it would do for the night, Bob decided. He was in the center, after all – just a few blocks from the train station.
After changing into shorts and a T-shirt, he headed back out for a stroll around the city. The heat was suffocating, the sun continued to beat down. Overweight people went by with their yellow caps and giant paper cups – the contents of which Bob was soon to discover: On almost every street corner were ‘Banana Sundae’ stands.
He purchased one out of curiosity. Ice-cream and bananas. Nothing extraordinary about that. Other than providing a little relief from the oppressive humidity, he could see no particular reason for its overwhelming popularity. But those stands were everywhere; the cries of the vendors ubiquitous.
A long, palm-lined boulevard eventually brought him to the seaside. It was a crowded beach with bars and restaurants down on the sand. One-piece bathing suits appeared the fashion for women; baggy shorts and Aloha shirts for men; while the ever-present baseball caps were universal. The overall impression was one of double chins, flabby stomachs and cellulite thighs. Bob had never felt thinner.
A group of burly young men sidled up to him, yellow paper cups in hand. “Where you from, brother?”
“The Mainland,” he heard himself say, though why he’d told them that, he wasn’t sure.
The men nonetheless smiled, as if pleased at his reply. “We like Mainlanders. You help us fight the Zuks. Soon we’ll finish ’em all!”
Bob recalled his conversation with the horse-toothed soldier on the plane. “You guys in the army?”
They all exchanged glances and chuckled. “Yeh, sure we are, brother. An’ we love killin’ Zuks! Chop thir heads off an’ watch ’em die!”
Their grins were an image of broken yellow teeth. The one who had spoken bore a scar on his neck, pink and diagonal. At least two others had scars on their faces. Bob began to walk away.
But the burly youths followed. “Hey, Incabay, where you goin?'”
He walked faster, ignoring the question. Then one grabbed his arm.
“We’re talkin’ to you, Incabay!”
“Who’s ‘Incabay?'” He pulled his arm free. “That’s not my name.”
They merely laughed at him. “Where you goin,’ Incabay? Where you stayin?’ Grand Park? Ocean View?”
“Course not. I’m a student. I’m stayin’ in a hostel.”
Their grins became snarls; scar-faced snarls of broken nicotine-stained teeth. “Yir from the Mainland. Yir parents must be rich.”
At that moment there was a break in the traffic, and Bob tore through it like a fullback splitting the line. Across the road and up onto the boulevard he fled, running for all he was worth.
The young men gave chase, but they had no chance of catching him, of course – not with their heavy frames – and soon gave up.
The remainder of the evening Bob spent locked in his tiny room at the hostel, unwilling to venture out again – not even for dinner. They weren’t ‘fine people’ at all. They were completely insane! Besides which, he wasn’t hungry. The enormous banana sundae had completely filled him up.
Bob found himself seated next to a kid of about thirteen or fourteen. Half an hour or so into the journey, the fellow produced a hand-held video device and began playing chess.
“Hey, how ’bout a game?” Bob suggested. “I won a tournament at high school once.” Privately he resolved to take it easy on the youngster.
“Sure.” The kid shrugged his shoulders and re-set the program for two.
Bob advanced his queen’s pawn. “You from the south?”
“I’m from Yezuk Island.”
“That’s right. And you?”
“Mainlander,” Bob answered distractedly. “Say, isn’t it a little dangerous for you guys on Yenug? I heard thir was a war or somethin.'”
“Not a war, exactly. They attack our island sometimes.”
Another shrug of the shoulders. “It’s been that way since the Independence War.”
The kid’s eyes were dark as coal. They induced an image of smoldering ruins in Bob’s mind; an image he’d seen on TV, perhaps. Meanwhile, the youngster was proving a more difficult proposition on the board than anticipated, and Bob spent a good few minutes contemplating his next move. Time to bring out one of his knights. “But yir returning from the capital, right? Did you feel safe thir?”
“Sure. My grandma lives in Yenug. I put on a yellow cap and nobody knows I’m a Zuk.”
‘Zuk.’ The soldier on the plane had used that word, Bob recalled, and so too had the youths who’d chased him. “They called me ‘Inca-bay’ in the capital. Any idea what it means?”
The kid chuckled. “‘Foreigner. It’s from the old language. They don’t speak it much here, but we still use it on Yezuk.”
“But yir fluent in Mainlander.” Bob found himself wondering at his own choice of words.
His neighbor seemed to understand, regardless. “We learn it at school. It’s our second language.”
With that the kid drove his queen down the board and put him in checkmate. Bob was stunned. This was not what he’d expected. He’d completely underestimated his young opponent. Though he wasn’t sure whether he’d done so because of his age – or because he was a Zuk.
Arriving early in the afternoon, Bob’s first mission was to locate the ferry terminal. He was in luck, for his companion was headed in that direction too. The boats to Yezuk left from the same port and the youngster knew the way. They parted in front of the terminal itself, the kid smiling up at him with his coal-black eyes as they shook hands, and only after he’d disappeared into the crowd did Bob realize that, after all those hours, together he’d neglected to ask his name.
The fare was two Yenugian pounds. Bob purchased his ticket from a vending machine, passed through the turnstiles and went aboard. The upper deck was crowded, but he didn’t mind standing, having spent half the day sitting in a train. And he managed to find a spot near the railing, from where he could admire the view. A breeze wafted in from the nearby sea, providing welcome relief from the afternoon swelter.
The people around him were generally obese. They wore yellow caps and spooned banana sundae out of giant cups. No different from the capital. At both ends of the island they looked and behaved alike. He only hoped he wouldn’t encounter any more unpleasant characters, like the youths who’d chased him off the beach the previous day.
“Hey, Incabay! Where you from?”
Spinning around, he found himself confronted only by a white-bearded old man. The fellow barely came up to his shoulder. “The Mainland.”
“Thought so. What brings you to Rihesh?”
“I’m gonna study at the University.”
Nicotine-stained teeth grinned up at him. “You know, I served with a lotta Mainlanders in the war. Fine brave men, they were.”
“The Independence War?”
“‘The Independence War? Pah!’ That was nearly a century ago!” The old man broke into a rasping cackle. “And we were fightin’ ‘against’ the Mainland that time. No, no. First Inter-Island War. Blitzed ’em in six weeks.”
The nicotine grin gave way to an expression of confusion. “The Zuks, a course. Didn’t they teach you nothin’ at school?”
“I don’t remember.” Bob shrugged in apology. “But what were the Mainlanders doin’ in the war?'”
“Helpin’ us fight the enemy, of course. You need to read up on this, son. Those Zuks are pure evil. They attacked our villages an’ chopped our people’s heads off. They had to be punished, ya know – an’ punish ’em we did!”
Bob couldn’t bring himself to give the old-timer the praise he so obviously sought. He was thinking about the kid on the train who’d showed him to the ferry terminal.
“I’ll tell you somethin’ else,” the fellow went on, wagging a gnarled finger in front of his face. “Thir’ll be another war before long. Those Zuks can’t be trusted. They formed an alliance with Ugod, ya know. That could be dangerous. That could be ‘very’ dangerous!”
In mild amazement Bob blinked down at the white-bearded features – now fraught and trembling with rage. Was he dealing with a lunatic here? And where in hell was ‘Ugod?’ He made his way across to the starboard side of the deck and found another place to stand. The ship’s fog horn sounded, sending a warning to some minor vessel in its path.
Ahead lay a view of whitewashed houses scattered about the lower slopes of the dusty green and brown hills. A few tall buildings were visible closer to the river bank, where cars and other vehicles moved along some unseen road. The burning sun shimmered across the turquoise water, forcing him to squint. Gulls hovered and swooped on the air currents. They were already close to the opposite shore, for the river was less than a mile wide. Bob quivered with both excitement and anxiety.
Rihesh was about half the size of the capital but a great deal more vibrant. Music and laughter emanated from the bars, groups of people stood about talking, while gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives rumbled up and down the main thoroughfares. It was hotter too – baking hot – so that Bob found himself wondering how he was going to survive at college here. Yellow baseball caps, baggy T-shirts and nylon shorts were evidently in vogue – almost like uniform.
Along the crowded main street he observed an abundance of flags draped from the buildings, bright yellow with a lime-green crescent in the middle. On closer inspection he discovered the crescent to be the image of a banana. Presumably these were the national colors. He’d seen the same flag in the capital – only here it was an obsession. Dripping with sweat, he stopped at one of the stands to buy an ice-cream sundae; his second in as many days.
“Everybody’s eatin’ this stuff!” he said to the vendor, a whale of a man with a coffee-colored complexion. “Why’s it so popular?”
The fellow chuckled. “This was the beloved food of our founding father. That’s why.”
Extending a flabby arm, the vendor pointed up the street. “Papa Yenug, a course. See ‘im – in fronna the Yenug TV Plaza . . .”
Bob noticed only a towering structure with a giant screen flickering on top. It was clearly the tallest building around. But the vendor was not pointing at the screen. He was indicating something down below. And then Bob saw it: a rotund figure on a platform, glinting in the sunlight, a cane in one hand, what appeared to be a book in the other, and the unmistakable peak of a baseball cap jutting out of its forehead. “That’s the founding father?”
The fleshy features closed up into a frown. “You stupid or somethin?’ Course it is! Most famous statue in the city.”
Bob feigned embarrassment and thanked the vendor for his help. The ‘most famous statue in the city,’ beneath what appeared to be its tallest building. This was precisely the landmark he needed to arrange a pick-up from the university.
Drawing closer, he was able to make out the images on the giant screen. A military parade in the capital, soldiers in dark green uniform marching in perfect unison – like a well-oiled machine. Then came an ad’s break: ‘Yenugale,’ ‘Island Jeans,’ the latest four-wheel-drive, and banana ice-cream sundaes – just like the one he was eating. By the time he reached the plaza the military parade had returned; swinging arms and legs, jaws clenched in concentration, eyes staring straight ahead – entirely devoid of expression.
There was a phone booth nearby. Bob took out the card he had earlier produced at airport security: ‘Professor Yelmi Hannah, Head of Faculty, Communications, University of Yenug.’ He deposited a coin and dialled the number, then introduced himself to the female voice that answered.
“Ah, yes, Bob, we’ve been expectin’ yir call. What happened at the airport? They seemed very suspicious of you.”
“I had a memory lapse; couldn’t remember a thing. Will someone be comin’ to pick me up?”
“Well, that would be Coach Semja. I informed him of yir predicament. But unfortunately he’s unavailable till tomorrow.”
“I understand. Should I make my way to the campus by bus or taxi?”
“A taxi would cost you a fortune. And thir are no buses, I’m afraid. Best book a hotel for the night and wait for Coach Semja to collect you in the mornin.'”
Bob had passed by a hotel two or three blocks earlier. He promptly returned, only to be told it was full. They directed him to another, but they had no rooms either. Was there a hostel nearby? Not that they knew of. Cheap rooms in Rihesh were normally to be found in bars. There was one right on the corner.
He went directly over there and, indeed, they did have rooms, upstairs on the second floor. The middle-aged manageress, overweight and parading abundant cleavage, showed him to the rooms herself. As cramped and basic as the one he’d stayed in the previous day, they were actually five pounds more. But for a single night this would do.
Peeling off his sweat-soaked clothes, Bob collapsed onto the bed and breathed in deeply. Since coming awake at seven that morning, he’d spent the entire day travelling – the last few hours mostly on foot, a heavy backpack on his shoulders, the sun scorching down.
It was dark when he awoke. The small window overlooking the street revealed only the lights of the buildings opposite. Bob glanced at his watch and saw it had just gone nine. He’d slept almost four hours. And his stomach groaned with hunger.
There was no need to venture out in search of a restaurant. They served food in the bar. Sitting down at one of the tables, he ordered a hamburger and fries, along with a beer. The place was spacious and half-empty, though nonetheless filled with smoke. Up on the various wall-mounted TV sets a football match was showing; one team in yellow, the other in green.
“Twelve points up headed into the final quarter,” the fellow at the next table crowed, noting his interest. “We’re on a nine game streak against ‘em suckers.”
“Who’s the other team?”
“Tabi Island, a course! Guess you ain’t from around here. You don’t wear no hat.”
Bob studied the fellow a moment. The weathered face was deeply lined and surrounded by a wreath of disheveled, grey curls, which extended from the yellow cap he wore to the bushy whiskers covering his jowls. “Mainlander,” he replied.
“Well, take my advice, ‘Mainlander,’ and get yirself a hat. Or everyone’s gonna see dat yir a foreigner.”
“That a problem?”
“It could be. Don’t pay to be different here. I should know.”
“Yir a foreigner too?”
The fellow drained the contents of his bottle and got to his feet. Only this proved no easy task, for he almost toppled over in the process. Bob assumed the guy was drunk, but when he proceeded to lift a crutch off the seat, then hobble out from behind the table, it became apparent what the real problem was.
“Worse ‘an dat. I’m a yardam freak!” Clumping forward on his single leg, he lowered himself into the chair opposite Bob and indicated the stump where his other leg should have been. “Lost it in the war.”
“How does that make you a ‘freak?'”
“‘Cause I only got one leg. Dat’s why!” The man cackled toothlessly.
Bob winced as the foul odor of his breath. “But you were wounded in the war – servin’ yir country. Surely that makes you a hero.”
The shaggy head shook in wonder. “Dat what you fink? Folks are gonna admire me for it? Why, you Mainlanders hardly know yir born!”
The manageress came up behind him, carrying the burger and fries on a tray. Though old enough to have been Bob’s mother, she was still a good-looking woman; what, with her dolled-up features, porcelain teeth and the obscenely low-cut top. “Mamsy tellin’ you about what a big hero he was in the war?” she asked airily, chewing her gum. “Chargin’ the enemy in the heat a battle an’ all . . . ?”
The fellow cackled wickedly. “Ain’t got to dat – yet! Now get me another beer, will ya?”
“Don’t believe a word of it,” she warned Bob. “He lost that leg to frostbite while tryin’ a desert.”
“Dat ain’t true!” Mamsy remonstrated. “I got separated from my unit.”
“Too bad the army didn’t see it like that when they ‘discharged’ you!” The manageress laughed as she walked away.
Bob felt a little sorry for the guy. “That was a bit harsh.”
“Ah, she’s jest bitter ’cause ‘er husband left her.” Mamsy gave him a sly grin. “But she was right about my leg. I got lost up in the Yezuk Mountains, an’ by the time they found me it had turned black, right up to the knee. Dey had to amputate. So now I’m a one-legged freak. Can’t work, can’t vote, can’t marry.”
“Plenny a jobs you could do. An’ why can’t you vote or marry?”
“It’s the ‘law.’ Dat’s why. You got a lot to learn, Mainlander. I’m a yardam freak! Law says so.”
“An’ a convicted deserter into the bargain!” the manageress scoffed, having arrived with the two bottles of beer.
Bob read the label: ‘Yenugale,’ the same brand they were advertising on TV. But for the moment the game was on – and the yellow team had just scored.
“It’s gonna be ten straight!” the shaggy head crowed. “We’re jest too yardam good fir ‘em!”
“You must be proud.” Bob raised his bottle of Yenugale.
The game was followed by an interminable series of ad’s, then the news came on. Another skirmish on the Yezuk coast, the gorgeous presenter began, smiling brightly. Yenugian troops had come under fire from local resistance. Three ‘heroes’ and nine ‘killers’ had perished.
“Yardam’ Zuks!” Mamsy bellowed, thumping his fist down on the table. “Thir all killers! Wish I could go back an’ fight ’em again!”
Similar cries rang out around the bar, as jubilation over the football team’s win gave way to anger at the news. Wincing again at the odors of foul breath and cigarette smoke, Bob paid his bill and slipped quietly back upstairs to his room.
Squinting out into the hallway, Bob required a moment to realize who he was looking at. The manageress stood there in a night dress, appearing at least a decade older than she had the previous day, for she wore no make-up at this hour, her hair was untied, and the porcelain flash of her teeth was the only bright quality to her features.
“Coach Semja’s waitin’ downstairs. Wish you’d warned me he was comin’ so early.”
Bob checked his watch in the gloom. Quarter-past-seven. He’d hardly expected this himself. He quickly dressed, grabbed up his luggage and hurried down there.
A barrel-chested figure awaited him at the front door. He wore a bright yellow tracksuit; the words ‘YENUG FOOTBALL’ emblazoned across the front. The coach introduced himself and relieved him of his bags.
“Congratulations on the game last night,” said Bob. “I watched the last quarter in the bar.”
The coach chuckled modestly. “Well, you know yir in trouble when you can’t beat those chumps!”
After fitting the luggage into the rear compartment of his four-wheel-drive – also bright yellow, Coach Semja climbed up into the driver’s seat and told Bob to get in the other side. While they drove, he inquired about his trip down from the Mainland and the trouble at the airport.
“Well, we got a real nice place for ya back on campus. Actually, it’s not right ‘on’ campus. The Cemeks got a spare room in thir home jest a short distance away.”
“I’m stayin’ with a family?”
The coach gave him a wink. “Thank yir folks, son. Yir paw’s an ol’ friend a mine, ya know.”
Bob had no recollection of that. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be staying with a family either, away from all the other kids in the dorms. “No, don’t believe he ever mentioned it.”
“We shared a dorm in our senior year. Long time ago now.”
“Guess my folks don’t want me havin’ too much fun!” Bob chuckled.
“Well, the Cemeks are good people. And they got two boys ‘roun’ yir age. You’ll get along jest fine.”
Soon they were out of the city, among the farms and rolling hills of the countryside. Nothing but shades of green and brown as far as the eye could see. The morning sun shone directly ahead of them, its heat increasing with intensity by the minute.
They stopped in a small village, where Coach Semja purchased two banana sundaes, handing one to Bob, and a family-sized bottle of ‘Yenugade.’
“The boys love this stuff. Here, give it a try.”
Taking the weighty bottle from him, Bob unscrewed the cap and raised it to his lips. Too sugary, too fizzy, too cold – with only the faintest taste of lemon. “Not bad!”
Half an hour later they were cruising along the leafy streets of Crupsy: ‘Population 8,000, Home of the Yenug University Campus and the Bombers Football Team’ – according to a road-sign welcoming them into the town.
The houses were old timber two-story affairs, with wide lawns, colorful gardens and cabbage trees all around. Vehicles were parked out front, four-wheel-drives prominent, while yellow flags featured abundantly, just as they had in Rihesh. Coach Semja stopped the car in front of a house with a black dog tied up outside. The wiry terrier yapped incessantly at their approach, bouncing around on the end of its chain so that it threatened to hang itself.
“Feisty mutt!” the coach chuckled, making a wide arc around it.
“Oh, don’t worry about him – he’s harmless,” a voice called out.
Bob looked beyond the dog to see that a grossly overweight woman had emerged from the front door of the house. She wore a light grey tracksuit and fluffy pink slippers.
“Crazy mutt wouldn’t bite ya ‘less I told him to,” she assured them, patting him on the head. “Always loyal to his master. That’s why I love him!”
The dog twisted its back in pleasure, licking her face, the stunted tail wagging in a blur.
Coach Semja introduced Bob to Anicom Cemek. She straightened up again to shake his hand.
“So yir the son a the coach’s ol’ college buddy! I’ve heard a lot about ya!” She swivelled her enormous frame toward Semja. “Come on in and have some breakfast. I’ll put the cawfee on.”
Inside the odor of that beverage was already conspicuous, a warm earthy aroma that was by no means unpleasant to the senses. On the living room wall hung a framed portrait of the founding father – ‘Papa Yenug,’ as the ice-cream sundae vendor had referred to him. In addition to this were numerous photographs of clean-cut, chubby-faced men in military uniform, some black and white, others faint and grainy – obviously dating back a few decades.
Sitting down on the couch, they partook of the coffee that Anicom brought. The morning news was on TV – more about the skirmish on Yezuk. But she turned the volume down and indicated the photographs on the wall.
“My folks and Sinden’s; brothers, fathers, grandfathers, cousins and uncles – even a great uncle or two. All did thir duty. All served thir country like loyal citizens. An’ some a them never came back, Yar rest thir souls.”
She proceeded to point out which, and in Bob’s eyes their clean-cut, chubby features now took on a more tragic air.
“An’ here’s Sinden himself,” she continued, drawing their attention to a fellow directly beneath the founding father. “My, how handsome he was!”
She and Semja talked about Sinden for a while, sharing their memories and breaking into laughter at regular intervals. Meanwhile, the TV showed another military parade in the capital: soldiers in dark green uniform, marching along in perfect unison, like a well-oiled machine.
The breakfast was huge – eggs, hash browns, bacon and beans on toast, followed by waffles with fruit and cream toppings. Only at this point did the boys emerge from their room upstairs; a pair of crew-cut teenagers in baggy T-shirts and nylon shorts that reached their knees. Aside from their clothing, however, they appeared to have little in common. Tyram, fair-haired and tubby, gripped Bob’s hand firmly. Nitty was darker and frail; his grasp a conversely limp offering – which he withdrew a little too quickly, making no eye-contact at all.
Having devoured their breakfast, with vast quantities of ‘Yenugade,’ the boys announced they were heading to the park for some football. Though he’d yet to unpack his things, Bob invited himself along. It sounded like more fun than listening to Anicom and Coach Semja’s reminiscences.
He followed them around to the back of the house where two vehicles were parked in the shade of the trees; one a black four-wheel-drive, the other a two-door sports car, metallic blue. Approaching the latter, Tyram opened the driver’s door and slid in.
“Not a bad birthday present, huh?” He grinned broadly.
“Not bad at all!” Bob agreed with more than a touch of envy. “Are we drivin’ to the park in this?”
“You ain’t. I am!”
Nitty got in the back, leaving Bob the passenger seat. He felt strange lowering himself into it, a little ridiculous even, after the morning’s long ride, sitting high up off the ground in the coach’s four-wheel-drive. And that feeling quickly gave way to alarm as Tyram put his foot down and sent them roaring out of the driveway, skidding across the gravel.
“Hey, take it easy!”
“Ain’t scared, are ya?” Tyram laughed raucously. “Don’t worry. I know how to handle this baby.”
“I’m sure you do. But thir’s no emergency, man. We’re jest goin’ to the park.”
Tyram’s response was to change up gears and press his foot down even further.
“Woo hoo!” Nitty cheered from the back, hair dancing wildly in the wind.
“Woo hoo!” his brother echoed. “Enjoyin’ the ride, Bobby? This is what life’s about, ain’t it?!”
“Oh, sure!” Bob buckled up his seatbelt.
Against all odds, they made it to the park without incident. It had only been a five minute drive – and this despite the three squealing laps of a roundabout Tyram had performed at breakneck speed along the way. Bob wondered why they hadn’t just walked.
“How’s yir arm?” Tyram asked as they strolled out onto the pitch.
“Not so great. Mostly played lineback at school.”
“Oh, yeh? Well, I’ll start at quarterback then. Nitty can go out for the catch.”
Bob headed downfield and waited. On the first play Nitty came racing toward him, then angled out toward the sideline. But the throw was slightly behind him and he failed to take it in.
They tried again, the throw was better, and Nitty would’ve caught it had Bob not got a hand in the way, knocking the youngster over in the process.
“Yarzass!” Tyram yelled. “You gotta fight fir that ball, man!”
Bob rubbed his hand as he watched Nitty trudge back toward his brother, head lowered. The nose of the ball had stung the insides of his knuckles. The pitch was hard and dusty, the morning warm and almost silent.
On their third attempt Nitty hooked around for an easy pass from close range. Bob could’ve hit him as he took it, likely causing a fumble, but decided to let him have this one.
“At-a-boy!” Tyram cheered as Nitty scrambled away. “Okay, Bob, yir turn at quarterback.” He tossed him the ball. “I’ll go out for the catch. Let’s see that arm a yir’s!”
They played for another half hour or so, by which time they were drenched with sweat and panting from the exertion. Eleven o’clock and the heat was oppressive.
There was, inevitably enough, a banana sundae stand just down the road. Bob didn’t partake, having already eaten one with the coach that morning. He got a bottle of water from a nearby store instead. The brothers bought cans of ice-cold Yenugade.
Nitty had perked up noticeably. He wasn’t to have known Bob had been taking it easy on him, and his confidence had grown with every play.
“You’re quick,” Bob told him. “You could go places in this game.”
“I ain’t so interested in football.” The kid shook his head. “Tyram’s the athlete in the family.”
“He’s afraid a gettin’ smashed!” the older brother chuckled.
“Goes fir me too!” Bob laughed. “Where you play?”
“Tackle, mostly. Sometimes tight end. Coach Semja says thir’ll be a spot for me when I start college nex’ year.”
“I watched ‘em on TV last night. Good team!”
“Best in the league!” Tyram grinned, and shoveled another spoonful of ice-cream into his mouth.
Semja was gone by the time they got back to the house, while Anicom was in the kitchen, now preparing lunch. Before eating, the family went outside and knelt down on the front lawn, faces raised to the sky, where the sun blazed at its zenith.
“Great fire that created us,
Great fire that gave us life,
Yar, ruler of the universe,
Take us back when we die . . . ”
For several minutes they continued, eyes squinting upward, voices chanting in unison. Then the three of them returned inside and Anicom served up the lunch.
“You didn’t join us, Bob?” Nitty remarked.
“It ain’t my religion,” he apologised.
Anicom smiled in sympathy. “We understand, Bob. Yir not a Yenugian. But you won’t be taken back when you die, you know. Not if you don’t make the ‘Midday Oath’ while yir alive.”
Bob pecked away at his food. He really wasn’t hungry; not after the giant breakfast they’d shared, and the banana sundae he’d eaten with Coach Semja before that.
The afternoon he spent putting his things away, before taking a long nap. The bed was considerably wider than the last two he’d slept on; the ceiling fan an added luxury. When he opened his eyes again it was approaching five.
The boys were watching motor sport in the living room. There had just been an “awesome smash-up,” they explained. One of the drivers was being air-lifted to hospital.
“If thir’s one thing beats football, it’s this!” declared Tyram, clutching the remote control, eyes fixed on the screen. “Wish we had a track in this yardam town!”
The ad’s came on, ‘Yenugale’ and ‘Island Jeans.’ Bob’s eyes wandered from the chubby faces on screen to those in the pictures on the wall, and from there to a crack in the skirting board above them. What would happen if the crack got bigger?
They were still watching the race when a voice boomed out from the direction of the front doorway, deep and authoratative. Sinden Cemek appeared a moment later, barely recognizable from the picture on the wall. All that remained of his hair were clipped grey tufts behind his ears, while he now wore glasses, and the jowls were decidedly flabbier. A tall man, his body sloped outward to the point of his hips, which seemed impossibly wide, and the hand that engulfed Bob’s was big and soft.
Following a roast dinner, the bananas and ice-cream came out again. Didn’t they ever get tired of this stuff? Bob wondered, politely declining when Anicom offered him a serving.
“Food a the Founding Father!” Sinden cried, as though aggrieved. “Papa Yenug ate it after every meal – three times a day!”
“Once a day’s plenny for me, thanks all the same.”
“No wonder yir so skinny!”
Bob laughed in surprise. “Never been called that before!”
“Ah you’ll fill out, boy. Jest like Nitty here – skinny as a toothpick! But he’ll fill out later.”
“I weren’t skinny at sixteen,” Tyram pointed out.
“Well, yir Uncle Dyco sure was,” Sinden told him. “Yardam stick-insect when he was young!”
Nitty blushed as his father guffawed, almost as if the comment had been made about him, rather than the uncle.
The government was ordering a military response to the skirmish on Yezuk when they returned to the living room. A ‘punitive strike’ against Ugod was also under consideration, the gorgeous presenter added, smiling brightly.
Now President Naksab appeared on the screen, towering over the reporters who had gathered around him with their cameras and microphones. He must have been eight feet tall, Bob observed in amazement.
“Vengeance shall be ours!” The president raised a clenched fist. “The killers of Yenugian heroes shall be brought to justice! No mercy shall be shown to those who harbor our enemies! Good shall prevail over evil!”
“Yardam’ right!” Sinden thundered from his armchair, remote control in hand.
Framed portraits lined the walls, gazing sternly down, Papa Yenug’s most prominent. The others were all in the university blazer – bright yellow where the photos were color: former administrators and alumni. As for the hordes ahead, they were, with few exceptions, attired in yellow caps, baggy T-shirts and nylon shorts. Bob felt almost alien, following them down the long corridor in his normal-sized T-shirt, his denim knickerbockers, and without a cap on his head.
Room sixteen. The door was open, a few kids entering even as he approached. He stared at them curiously, for these were his future classmates. What kind of people might they turn out to be? Bob would learn soon enough, of course.
A hulking figure cut him off at the doorway, chuckling over his shoulder as he entered ahead of him, then made a B-line for the corner, where sat an attractive young woman, blonde and uniquely slim.
The teacher was a bespectacled, bearded, portly fellow. Behind him the white-board was flanked by the founding father’s portrait and a yellow national flag – with its pale green banana at the center. After brief introductions, Professor Schardir proceeded to outline the syllabus and the books they would be using. He then distributed copies of the ‘Yenug Times;’ an image of flames and destruction on its front page. ‘Killers Attack Yenug Troops,’ the headline roared. ‘Three Heroes Murdered.’
“Why are they taught to hate us?” the blonde shook her head sadly.
“‘Cause we’re free,” responded the hulk. “Zuks despise freedom!”
“The Cult a Karpot’s pure evil. Human sacrifices an’ all!” someone else commented.
“What can you expect from a people who worship the soil?”
Bob stared around at them. “They make human sacrifices?”
This was greeted by a chorus of titters, and even the teacher appeared amused as he peered down at Bob from the front of the room.
“Yes, Bob, they do. I guess they don’t teach you much about these islands on the Mainland.”
“Not that I recall, Professor Schardir.”
The humour left the teacher’s eyes. “Human sacrifices continue on Yezuk even to this day, among other vile practices.” He brandished the newspaper above his head. “So, what’s to be done? Is a military response justified?”
“Absolutely!” declared the hulk. “Wipe ’em off the face a the planet!”
This brought cheers from around the room.
“Shouldn’t we be talkin’ about the way this thing’s bein’ covered?” came a voice from the back of the room. “I mean, thir only tellin’ one side a the story.”
All heads turned to the speaker; a dumpy, bespectacled fellow with dark shaggy hair and a goatee.
It was the teacher himself who replied. “They murdered three of our Heroes, Darb. How else is it to be covered?”
“That’s stupid!” the hulk put in. “Yardam Zuks need a be dealt with once an’ for all. That’s what matters here.”
Darb threw up his arms. “Bombin’ ‘em’s what got this whole thing started in the first place, Kram. It won’t solve anythin.’”
“Oh, so we jest let ’em kill our heroes?”
“What were our ‘heroes’ doin’ on Yezuk in the first place?”
“Fightin’ the yardam killers, a course!”
Professor Schardir stepped in at this point. “Try readin’ the papers, Darb. We know you don’t agree with everythin’ they say, but that’s the only way to get an insight.”
“Tell you what,” snarled the hulk. “I aim to kill as many Zuks as I can when I do my tour a duty.”
Some of the boys grunted in accord. A few of the girls smirked their approval – among them the attractive blonde. She had dark eyes; dark as coal. During the introductions Bob had learnt her name -‘Eluji.’ His eyes wandered to the portrait beside the whiteboard, its yellow cap and fleshy features. Indeed, his first lesson, and he’d learnt many things.
The hulk who had cut him off at the beginning of the class now approached him in the locker bay afterward; a few of his companions behind him.
“Where’s yir hat, Incabay? Got somethin’ against the Founding Father?”
“Sorry. Didn’t know it was mandatory.”
“It ain’t. But it’s a sign a respect, all the same. Papa Yenug saved us, ya know. He freed us from Mainland rule. Guess ‘you’ might a preferred it the way it was before. . .”
“Tell me where to buy a hat. I’ll get one this afternoon.” Bob knew the guy was only making spor of him, and that his acquiesence was playing right into his hands. The spark of amusement was already evident in the eyes of the hulk’s companions.
“Ain’t no law about wearin’ a hat, dude!” came a voice from the crowd of onlookers, and only then did Bob notice Darb among them.
“Already told ‘im so,” Kram sneered back. “An’ why are ‘you’ wearin’ one, anyhow? You ain’t no patriot. We all heard ya speakin’ up fir the Killers.”
“’Cause I choose to.”
The hulk stepped forward and swiped it off his head. “Well, maybe I jest ‘choose’ to take it off ya!” And his companions guffawed in delight.
Darb made no effort to retrieve it. “That’s theft, dude.”
Kram chewed his gum and grinned. “You see, Darbo, you gotta learn to fight back in this world, or folks are gonna do nasty things to ya.”
“I’m not gonna fight anyone. I’ll jest report it to the president’s office.”
A muscular arm flew out and seized Darb by the collar, knocking his glasses to the floor. “I don’t see no witnesses,” he said, peering around at his companions. “Who’s gonna believe ya, Darbo, if thir ain’t no witnesses? I’ll jest deny it, see.” With that he cracked Darb’s head against one of the metal locker doors.
Bob picked up Darb’s glasses and attempted to hand them back. “Come on. What’s the point a this, huh?”
Darb was promptly released as Kram now turned his attention to Bob, grabbing him by the T-shirt. “I’m teachin’ the Zuk-lover a lesson, that’s what, Incabay. That’s the way we do things here.”
Beyond the large frame in front of him, Bob detected a pair of dark eyes watching, a short distance down the corridor. Yes, it was her. Impulsively he knocked away the arm holding him, an act which clearly surprised all present – not least Kram himself. He braced himself for a pummelling as the hulk recovered and hovered menacingly over him.
Once more the muscular arm flew out, only this time it came down on Bob’s head – roughly depositing Darb’s baseball cap there. “Got yirself a hat, Incabay. Congratulations!” And his companions guffawed again.
Following Darb out of the locker bay, Bob handed his cap back. Turned out they were both headed for the West Block.
“Thanks for steppin’ in back thir,” Darb said. “Not many folks’d stand up to Kram.”
“Well, he should pick on someone his own size.”
“He jest likes showin’ off. All that talk in the classroom, about wipin’ out the Zuks . . .”
“I figured he was out to impress that chick – Eluji.” Bob cocked an eyebrow. “Real looker!”
“Stay right away from her, dude.”
“Why? She hooked up with Kram or somethin?’”
“Lotta flirtin’ goin’ on last term. Who knows what happened in the summer?”
They came to a closed door, heavy timber with a dense glass pane. Wrestling it open, Bob stepped outside into the sticky heat. The West Block was on the other side of a dusty, sun-baked field, at the end of a concrete pathway. Other students were walking in that direction, all in their yellow caps and baggy attire. Bob and Darb fell in behind them.
Professor Hannah conducted her lesson from behind a large desk, the yellow flag and Papa Yenug portrait flanking the white-board behind her. She was middle-aged, grey-haired, bespectacled and decidedly elephantine. She inquired about his journey down from the Mainland and the trouble at the airport.
“Well, we’re so glad to have you here. An outsider’s perspective is jest what these kids need. Yenug is a very insular island, I’m afraid.”
“I got that in my first class.” He nodded. “But there was one brave guy, spoke out against all the others . . . ”
“Darb Reemy?” The corpulent features smiled knowingly. “Well, he’s a li’l different, you see. “Darb’s not from this island. He was born on Ugod. But keep that to yirself.”
‘Ugod.’ Bob recalled the name. He’d heard it firstly from the old man on the ferry, then once again on the previous night’s news – when the gorgeous presenter had talked of a ‘punitive strike.’
“No doubt you were discussin’ the conflict on Yezuk . . . “ Professor Hannah continued. “Be careful what you say on that topic, Bob. An outsider’s perspective is one thing, but best avoid upsettin’ folks here when it comes to war an’ politics.”
Bob chuckled. “I’m here to study Media Management and Island History, Professor Hannah!”
She smiled up at him again, an almost pleasing expression in her eyes – or so it seemed, behind the lenses of her spectacles. “I’m well aware a that, Bob. Jest be careful all the same.”
Trebor snatched Lardy’s cap off him and threw it into the washing machine, guffawing wildly. Lardy attempted to snatch Trebor’s cap and do the same, but he was too short and squat, and when he tried jumping Trebor merely stepped out of his range.
“Hot dang, Trebor! What am I gonna do now? Big Nats sees me without no cap he’ll fire me fir sure!”
By this time Bob had a cap of his own, bought during the lunch-break from the campus clothes and stationery store. He offered it to Lardy, telling him he could wear it till his own was dry.
“You do that fir me, Bobby?” Lardy gaped in amazement.
“Sure. Nats ain’t gonna fire nobody for not wearin’ a cap.”
“Gee, Bobby, I ain’t so sure about that. He gets real mad sometimes.”
Meanwhile, Lardy’s own cap had emerged from the other side of the machine, sopping wet. Trebor picked it up and inspected it, eyes bulging with mirth. “‘Bout time it had a clean, huh! Tell you what, Lardy, I’ll dry it for ya too!” With that he tossed it into the other machine.
Just then Big Nats ducked through the doorway. “Where’s yir cap, Bob?”
“Lardy got it!” Trebor grinned, his chin jutting out.
A look of genuine alarm entered Lardy’s eyes. “That ain’t so! This here’s my own hat, ain’t it, Bobby?”
“He tellin’ the truth, Bob?” Nats frowned down.
Again Trebor cut him off. “Lardy’s lyin!’ He’s wearin’ Bobby’s brand new cap.”
Bob didn’t know what to say. But the towering canteen manager read into his silence.
“Give it back,” he said quietly, and Lardy duly obliged, head lowered in shame. “Now, where’s yir own hat?”
“Dunnoh. Must a forgot it.”
“‘Forgot it?!'” Big Nats’s voice rose sharply. “What a ya mean, ‘forgot it?!’ Get on home now and fetch it, and don’t show up here without yir cap again!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Lardy stammered, and scrambled out the doorway.
“And you boys get back to work!” Nats thundered, turning from Trebor to Bob.
For the next few minutes Bob was too dumfounded to think straight. Nobody had spoken to him like that for a long time; not since his first years at high school. And why hadn’t Lardy simply told Nats the truth? Let Trebor suffer the consequences for his own behavior. Instead Lardy was on his way home to retrieve a hat that wasn’t even there. Bob could only conclude he feared his lantern-jawed workmate as much as he feared the towering canteen manager.
In fact, Lardy soon reappeared, just seconds after Nats had gone back to his office. Probably he’d been hiding just around the corner. Trebor, who’d kept grinning throughout the entire affair, now handed the cap back to him. It was still damp and crumpled, but Lardy put it on anyway.
They got to eat early, while the hungry hordes queued up outside the glass doors. Bob had the lasagne and vegetables, followed by pumpkin pie.
“Big Nats’s quite the sereant major, huh!”
“I ain’t afraid a him.” Trebor grinned. “Not like ol’ Lardy here!”
“Ain’t afraid neither,” Lardy insisted. “But he’s the boss. What he says goes. Boss knows best. Boss pays the wages. Gotta do what the big boss says.”
The lantern jaw grinned. “Naw, Lardy. Yir jest afraid!”
Bob was still eating his pumpkin pie when the doors swung open and the kids swarmed in. He hastened through to the kitchen, where he’d been instructed to help out on the serving line. A plump young woman tossed him an apron, dark blue.
“You take care a the veggies, I’ll do the meat,” she said. “Name’s Adokat. You must be Bob.”
Tying on his apron, he surveyed the trays before him – French fries, lima beans, carrots and broccoli. In the event, only the fries proved popular, and Adokat was kept about three times as busy beside him, scooping out the lasagne, chicken pieces and meatballs as the kids teemed by. But after a hectic half hour or so, things began to settle down.
“So, I hear yir an Incabay?” she said.
Bob nodded again. And for the first time he took a proper look at her. Tubby, pale as dough and covered in acne, she was certainly no beauty, though she seemed friendly enough; smiling as she chewed her gum.
“Me an’ all,” Adokat went on, lowering her voice. “I was born on Tabi. But keep that to yirself. Folks here call me a ‘Ladai.’”
“Naw, jest an ol’ word for ‘Islander.’ But thir Islanders too!” Her laughed betrayed a hint of scorn. “Nothin’ but a lotta name-callin.’ Most folks can’t tell the difference anyhow. You’d be surprised how many Incabays thir are here.”
“But these islands are practically at war.”
“That’s a complicated business. Goes back to colonial times. The Mainland totally messed things up for us.”
“I never heard anything about this!”
“Course you didn’t, Bobby!” She smiled, then hushed him into silence as a couple of stragglers came through. “So, you were workin’ out in the dishwashin’ room earlier, huh.”
“It you could call it ‘workin.’” He chuckled in reply. “Pair a real characters our thir, ain’t they?!”
“Well, be careful a Trebor. He’s a bit crazy.” She tapped the side of her head. “They say his paw used to beat up on his maw. He got psychological issues.”
“Seems a bit of a bully himself. Tossed Lardy’s cap into the machine – then let ‘im take the rap when Nats asked where it was!”
“That ain’t nothin.’ Trebor’s done a lot worse. But Nats won’t fire ‘im ’cause he’s a hard worker. And you know he pays those boys peanuts.”
“Too bad. Poor ol’ Lardy’s scared a both of ’em – Nats ‘and’ Trebor.”
Adokat lowered her eyes, carefully wiping a blotch of lasagna off her apron. “Lardy’s a nice feller, but he got issues too. His maw treated her kids real bad, and he ain’t got no paw.”
Another pair of stragglers came through, but they only wanted chicken. The lima beans, carrots and broccoli were still largely untouched in front of him. They’d all be thrown out afterward, he supposed.
“So, I hear yir stayin’ with the Cemeks off campus,” Adokat said.
“You heard right.”
The smile returned as she chewed her gum. “Anicom’s an ol’ friend a mine. I used to babysit the boys sometimes, when they were li’l.”
“Not so sure about that! Tyram gave me hell. The younger one was better. But you know they ain’t really brothers. Nitty’s an adopted cousin. His folks were wiped out in a car smash.”
Bob recalled how Nitty had blushed the night before, when Siden had talked about his ‘uncle.’ Now it all made sense.
“And you wanna know something else?” Adokat went on. “Nitty’s maw was an Incabay too; born on Yezuk. But keep that to yirself”
The lights of the corner store were on, and as he crossed the empty street Bob was able to make out the form of someone inside, through the open doorway. It was the slender figure of a young woman, she wore a light grey track suit and yellow cap, and her hair was blonde. His heart skipped a beat. Yes, it was her! In spite of the warning Darb had given him, he’d already developed an attraction to her.
“Out fir a run, Eluji?”
She looked around in surprise, then her dark eyes twinkled in amusement. “Been at the gym. How ’bout you, Bob?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh, yir on the team?”
“Got yirself a hat, too, I see. Now ya look like a Yenugian!”
Bob laughed with her. “After that run-in with Kram in the locker bay, I thought it might be wise!”
Eluji feigned a look of confusion. “Well, he’s a li’l psycho. But keep that to yirself.” Paying for her bottle of Yenugade, she started past him. “Gotta hurry. ‘The Islanders’ is on in fifteen minutes.”
Bob watched her leave, desperate for something to say that would make her pause a moment longer. But he could think of nothing; just watched her walk out the door, a slender figure in a light grey track suit.
As he continued along the empty street the sound of an engine came into earshot, then an orange beam illuminated the tar seal surface beside him. Looking around, Bob saw only a pair of glaring headlights coming toward him, and even as they bore into his eyes a car horn blasted. The vehicle flew by, the squeal of brakes followed, and next thing it was backing up the road; a two-door sports car with its roof down.
“Hey, Bob! Jump in!”
Not wanting to offend the kid, he climbed in beside him. “Thanks. But take it easy.”
“Ain’t scared, are ya?”
“Course I ain’t. But what’s the hurry?”
“‘What’s the hurry?’ ‘The Islanders’ is on at nine,’ that’s what.”
Fastening his seatbelt, Bob noted that this was the second time he’d heard ‘The Islanders’ mentioned in the space of barely a few minutes – and he had no idea what it was.
“‘The Islanders’ is awesome!” Tyram explained, chubby features grinning. “All about Yenugians. You wanna understand our way a life, Bob, you gotta see it.”
“So it’s a Tv Show?”
“Most popular show in Yenug. That’s why ya don’t see nobody on the streets right now. They’re all at home – waitin’ fir ‘The Islanders.’“
It was fortunate they were, thought Bob, the way Tyram was driving. And much too quickly for comfort they were back at the house, sliding into the gravel driveway.
“Jest in time, boys! ‘The Islanders’ is about to start,” Anicom greeted them as they entered the living room. She was on the sofa beside Nitty.
“Now, everybody quiet,” Sinden boomed from his armchair; a can of Yenugale in one hand, the remote control in the other. “No talkin’ durin’ the show. You know the rules.”
Bob was sure they did, and deduced, therefore, that the comment had actually been directed at him. It gave him an awkward feeling as he took a seat across the room.
‘Nabruk’ had a problem. Her companions believed her fiance was cheating on her. Not only that, they suspected he might be a Yezuk spy. Poor, simple-minded ‘Nabruk!’ She was too trusting and refused to accept any of this, even as the evidence mounted.
Bob’s attention wandered to the photos on the wall. He tried to remember which of those clean-cut soldiers had ‘not returned,’ but his memory failed him. Then his eyes found the crack in the skirting board beneath the ceiling. What was it the old man on the ferry had told him? ‘There’ll be another war before long. Those Zuks can’t be trusted.’ His thoughts were interrupted by loud voices. The ad’s had come on: ‘Yenugade’ in a super-size bottle!’ Bob got up and slipped out of the room.
“Hey, ain’t ya gonna watch the rest a the show?” Tyram called after him.
“Got homework to do.”
“Yeah, me an’ all. But ya gotta see ‘The Islanders,’ man. Everybody watches it.”
Anicom came to Bob’s aid. “Now, now, Tyram. If Bob ain’t interested in our culture, that’s his affair.”
Continuing through to his bedroom, Bob took the text books out of his backpack. Among them was a large volume on ‘Twin Islands History.’ He’d bought it that morning for his History class. He skimmed over the introduction: ‘four principal islands . . . Yenug the largest . . . shared language in pre-colonial times . . . various dialects spoken . . . Ladai the official language of Yezuk and Ugod . . . replaced by Mainlander on Yenug and Tabi . . . Civilization had begun two centuries ago . . . rebellion in the previous century . . . War of Independence ended in treaty . . . principal islands granted freedom . . . discovery of undersea gas fields . . . conflict among the islands . . . First Inter-Island War . . .
‘First Inter-Island War.’ Bob paused at the words, recalling once again the old man on the ferry. ‘They attacked our villages and chopped our people’s heads off,’ the fellow had told him. ‘They had to be punished – and punish ’em we did!’
Bob was not required to suit up. Instead he hung out on the sideline with the rest of the players, keeping the water bottles full. The heat was stifling that afternoon; the reek of linement oil sharp in the dusty air. The main stand behind him was a sea of yellow; the stand opposite mostly burgundy. Many of the fans had their faces painted up, like tribal warriors. At both ends of the stadium the customary stalls sold banana sundaes, hotdogs, Yenugade and Yenugale.
The flags flew high, the school band played the anthems, the cheerleaders came out to perform. And there she was among them – Eluji – forming human letters, shaking her pompoms, high-kicking with the others. Bob experienced both a sense of exhilaration at her presence and a pang of jealousy that he would not be out on the pitch himself that afternoon.
The ball sailed downfield, the Bombers’ kick-returner took it in, a yellow wedge formed in front of him, a burgundy player broke through but the kick-returner fended him off, another tried, then another, but the kick-returner just kept running – and then he was clear, raising his middle finger to the burgundy stand as he headed for the endzone, the home-crowd roaring him on.
The quarterback threw for the extra points but a defender’s arm knocked the ball down. Ugod’s first field-goal sailed between the goal-posts several minutes later, then midway through the quarter they added another. The yellow stand fell silent. And soon it was the burgundy fans’ turn to celebrate, with a third field-goal putting their team in front.
The offense came back out, the yellow running back scythed through a wall of burgundy defenders for a first down. The quarterback threw, the receiver took the ball in the air, but it bounced free as he was tackled and wound up in the arms of another defender. ‘Turn-over!’ announced the umpire, and the burgundy stand cheered. The defense cursed their team-mates as they marched onto the pitch; Kram himself slamming his shoulder into the receiver who’d coughed up the ball, almost knocking him over.
A gritty drive from the halfway line brought the Bombers’ offense to within ten yards of the Ugod line shortly before the interval. Two plays later the yellow halfback streaked across in the corner. The main stand went wild. They had a three-point lead, and when the kicker sent the ball soaring between the goal-posts it was extended to four: ’13 – 9’ read the big scoreboard, and so it remained at the break.
The players headed for the locker rooms, eyeblacked features frowning in concentration, their hair as wet as if they were just out of the shower. The fans poured down from the stands and headed for the food and drinks stalls. Some descended onto the pitch itself and began tossing their own footballs around, in immitation of the performance they’d just witnessed.
Bob noticed one of the cheerleaders sitting by herself in the front row of the main stand, drinking a bottle of Yenugade. His heart skipped a beat. Yes, it was her, sitting right there behind him!
“Sure is hot!” he said, strolling over to her.
“At least ninety. Must be hard on the players.”
“They ain’t doin’ so well. Defense is holdin’ up though.”
“Kram’s awesome!” she crowed, dark eyes contrasting with her permed blonde hair. “Best line back in the league, they say.”
Bob’s envy was surpassed only by his confusion. Hadn’t she denounced the square-jawed hulk just the other evening, when they’d met in the store? Now she was praising him. Of course, he was obliged to agree. Kram’s mean alright!”
The crunch of boots on gravel told them the players were returning, and when Bob glanced around he found himself looking directly into the defensive captain’ eyes. Even from that distance, he recognised the hostility.
Eluji flashed a smile Kram’s way before heading back to her team, leaving Bob to ponder if he weren’t simply being used. She’d just called him ‘awesome,’ afterall; ‘Best line back in the league.’ How could he, a mere freshman, hope to compete with that?
Early in the third quarter the Bombers’ quarterback skipped back from the line of scrimmage and let fly with a thirty yard throw to the endzone. A yellow player had got in behind the secondary and was there to take it, sending the home-crowd into raptures. The kicker again propelled the ball between the goal-posts, and the scoreboard read ’20 – 9.’
Early in the next series the Ugod quarterback unleashed a long-range throw of his own, but his receivers could find no way through the yellow defense and the ball landed harmlessly on the turf among them. He turned now to the big fullback, who had proved effective in getting them into field goal range. On this occasion they didn’t look for the three points, however. Again and again the burgundy runner ploughed into the line of scrimmage, edging his team forward a few yards at a time. Only a frantic goal-line stand kept him out, and when Kram’s giant frame collided with the fullback’s on fourth down, stopping him in his tracks, the roar from the main stand was deafening.
Back they came in the fourth quarter. The burgundy offense advanced to within ten yards of the Yenug line. The big fullback drew a swarm of yellow defenders before any of them realized he didn’t have the ball. The quarterback had flicked a lateral pass out to the stocky halfback, and that one wrestled his way across near the sideline, through the tackle of the isolated corner back. The visiting fans’ came to life, their jubilation was checked only slightly when the attempt to run the two point conversion in was stopped just short. ’20 – 15’ the scoreboard read with seven minutes to play.
“You boys kick some ass out thir!” Semja bellowed at his offense as they returned to the field. “Can’t lose to these bums!”
“Keep hold a the yardam ball!” Kram screamed hoarsely, trudging off the pitch. “No mistakes now. Jest wind that yardam clock down!”
“A field goal’ll put us out a range,” one of the guys beside Bob observed. “All we need’s a field goal.”
“Naw, it ain’t,” said another. “They could still catch us with a tee-dee an’ two-point conversion.”
“Well, that ain’t likely!”
But the offense couldn’t get out of their own half and punted away possession. Ugod took over deep inside their own half and went straight to the burly fullback. There wasn’t much time left though. If they failed to score on this drive, they weren’t likely to get another chance. The Bombers’ defense threw themselves into the tackles with gusto. Bob felt the sweat on his own back as he watched them. How they must be suffering inside those helmets and shoulder-pads!
The burgundy offense continued to advance, a few yards at a time. The cheering from the main stand grew desperate, while across the pitch the visiting fans were becoming more vocal.
“Come on, boys! Kick some ass!’ Coach Semja barked. ‘Can’t lose to these bums!’
Players on the sidelines hollered, the cheerleaders chanted. It was going down to the wire. Two minutes left and the visitors were twenty yards out. It was a relentless drive that would determine the outcome of the game – and everyone in the stadium knew it. The fullback took the ball and battled through the line of scrimmage again. Kram was there to meet him. Once more the two big frames collided. Only this time the fullback’s head was lower, and it was Kram who was driven back, the dust rising around him as he thudded into the turf. Even on the sidelines they heard his grunt of anguish.
‘First and goal,’ the umpire announced, and the burgundy crowd went into a frenzy.
“Quite a finish, huh!” cried one of the guys beside Bob.
“Who cares? Long as we win!”
“Ain’t that the truth!”
“Can’t lose to these bums!”
There was a problem on the pitch, however. The game hadn’t re-started and the medical staff were out there. Somebody was down – and Bob soon saw who it was. Kram clutched his left shoulder as they assisted him off, square-jaw clenched in pain, his eyes like those of a tormented beast behind the bars of his facemask. The yellow defense re-grouped for what should prove the final stand of the game. Confusion before the snap, one of the ends broke early, and the umpires’ flags flew onto the turf.
“Offsides. Half the distance to the goal-line,” came the verdict, to the further delight of the visiting fans.
“Yardam! They lost it!” somebody nearby cursed. “Kram goes off and suddenly they dunnoh what in hell thir doin!'”
“Kick some ass, boys!” Coach Semja kept yelling, his face a snarl, so that he seemed almost unrecognizable to Bob from the man who’d driven him up from Rihesh a week before.
The fullback busted through on the very next play, right where Kram would’ve been had he still been out there. The opposite stand erupted; everyone leaping about with their arms in the air. The sea of yellow was stunned into silence. There was no time for a comeback, and even as the visitors attempted the two-point conversion the home-fans were leaving the stadium, their melted face-paint now giving them the appearance of tragic clowns.
“Guys, this is good news,” said Narles. “Kram out injured and the defense messin’ up. Could be places up fir grabs.”
“We’d a won fir sure if Kram had stayed on!” Rasco cursed from the front passenger seat.
“They scored in the third quarter, didn’t they? Sucked our whole defense in.”
Rasco’s angular features peered around at them, an eyebrow cocked in skeptical amusement. “They ain’t gonna be callin’ up a couple a freshmen like you boys! Slenno’s the only one here with a chance.”
“Jest concentrate on the alumni game,” Slenno advised them as he drove. “Have a good game thir, who knows what may happen?”
They were driving through the busy streets of Rihesh. Thus Bob had returned to the city precisely a week after his first visit. The crowds and the music were as familiar as if the previous occasion had been the day before, as were the four-wheel-drives rumbling up and down the main thoroughfares.
The Yenug TV Plaza went by; giant screen flickering at the top; the corpulent figure of the founding father rotating on its platform down below – cap on head, book in one hand, cane in the other. A few blocks on they passed the bar where Bob had spent the night. He could see the small window he’d gazed out of that evening. It seemed like only yerterday, yet how much had happened since then. One week later here he was, driving by with his football buddies.
They came to a packed terrace bar. Shouts and laughter filled the air, and when Slenno parked right out front Bob was able to recognise some of the players – all in their yellow caps and ‘Yenug Football’ T-shirts, eating and drinking, more than a few of them smoking.
“Hey, Slenno got new wheels!”
“Where’d ya steal those from, dude?”
Slenno chuckled at them as he climbed out. “Traded in the ol’ buggy. You guys gave me so much hell!”
“Well, good fir you, Slenno! Looks a whole lot better.”
Room was made for them at one of the tables. Body odor, burning tobacco and a sweet herbal essence blended in the air. An abundance of small glasses containing a syrupy yellow liquid covered the table.
“Try it?” one of the players encouraged him.
“What is it?”
“You dunnoh?” The fellow grinned around at the others. “Why, that thir’s the drink a the founding father, Bobby!”
“Gotta have some, dude. Everybody drinks it on this island.”
“Okay, okay!” Bob raised his hands in acquiesence.
“How ‘bout a round,” the first fellow suggested, and they all drained their glasses.
There was a burst of laughter at the table behind them. Bob looked around to see one of the senior players sitting there with a white plastic toilet seat around his neck; his companions all guffawing at him.
“What’s that all about?” he inquired.
“‘Blooper’ award,” Narles explained. “That thir’s Namander. Replaced Kram on the final play and let in the game-losin’ touchdown.”
Another burst of laugher from the senior players. “Sure, Namander! Blame the line!'”
A black four-wheel-drive came rumbling down the street, horn honking, headlights glaring. It bumped to a halt across the road from the bar, and four large men got out; one with his arm in a sling.
“Hey, it’s Kram!” someone exclaimed. “How’s that arm a yirs, buddy?”
“Still thir. Good to see y’all gave Namander the Blooper. He earned it!
Namander chuckled with the others. “Thanks, cap’n!”
“So what’s the prognosis?” one of the senior players asked. “Gonna be okay fir nex’ week?”
“Course I am.” The square jaw grinned. “Jest a strain is all.”
The drinks arrived at Bob’s table, and a toast was made as they raised their glasses. “To Papa Yenug – who saved our nation! “
To Papa Yenug!” The others echoed, knocking their glasses together.
Bob sipped the fruity spirit with his companions – banana liqueur, sweet and syruppy. The alcohol left a burning sensation in his chest that was not unpleasant. The others turned their heads and gazed upward, a hint of suprise entering their cheerful expressions. Kram had appeared at the end of the table, a bottle of Yenugale in his free hand.
“I’ll drink to that, boys! But what I’d like to know is, why’s the Incabay drinkin’ to our founding father?”
Bob forced a smile. “Jest showin’ respect.”
“Take it easy, Kram. Bobby’s on the football team. He’s one of us,” Slenno backed him up.
“Not so sure about that,” Kram growled, and slurped his beer. “I heard he don’t make the ‘Midday Oath’ neither.”
“Ain’t his religion. You know he’s a Mainlander.”
“Yeah, I know that. So why’s he drinkin’ to our founding father?”
Bob realized he had to speak up for himself. Leaving it to Slenno appeared wimpish. Besides which, the hulk had his arm in a sling. Surely he wasn’t going to start a fight – not on ‘that’ evening, anyhow. “I’ll drink to whoever I want,” Bob told him, getting to his feet. “An’ I’ll pray to whoever I want, too. You got that, Kram?”
The bar fell silent. Everybody turned to look, faces frozen in amazement. A freshman – standing up to the captain of defense!
Kram appeared momentarily taken aback himself, before blinking away his surprise. “Brave now, ain’t ya, Incabay? Think I can’t take you with one arm, huh?”
He took a step forward, brandishing the empty bottle, but before he could reach Bob Slenno got between them.
“Come on, man. What’s yir beef with Bob? He’s one of us. We need him on the jay-vee squad.”
“He’s a yardam Incabay; that’s what. He ain’t ‘one of us.’ Never will be!” Kram continued to glower at Bob for a few seconds, the bottle in his hand, but made no further attempt to come at him.
With relief Bob watched him swagger away. A fight with Kram right then was the last thing he needed. There was nothing to be gained from taking on a guy with his arm in a sling, anyway, while defeat could’ve only spelt humiliation. Better to take a licking under normal circumstances. And quite likely, he acknowledged, that day would have to come.
They downed another round of liqueurs, then went inside as the cold set in. The place was crowded and full of smoke. With no place to sit they simply stood at the bar, drinking beer and talking among themselves. Bob gazed around at the wall-mounted TV screens. The Yenug military was preparing to strike. “The killers must be punished,” a grim-faced, silver-haired general was saying. “We cannot ignore these attacks on our heroes any longer.”
Some of the guys got talking with a group of young women in the corner. Bob watched them all break into laughter. Evidently it was going well.
“Hey, Bobby.” Rasco nudged him. “Let’s go join in.”
“You go ahead. I’ve had a few too many to talk sense to anyone.” Bob indicated his bottle (in fact, only the second he’d purchased).
“We ain’t goin’ over thir to ‘talk sense. We’re goin’ over thir to ‘score!’ You ain’t hitched-up or nothin,’ are ya?”
Rasco cocked an eyebrow. “Well, you sure kept that quiet.” And with that he plodded over to the corner by himself.
Bob could hardly believe his own mouth. Why had he said that? It was Eluji in his thoughts, of course, but they were hardly ‘hitched-up’ – and likely never would be. He was a freshman, and a Mainlander to boot; a ‘yardam Incabay,’ as the defensive captain had put it. The young women in the corner weren’t likely to be interested in him either.
The silver-haired general glowered down from the multiple TV screens. “Colateral damage is unavoidable! If these killers choose to hide among women and children, there will inevitably be civilian casualties. But the end shall justify the means. Good shall overcome evil!” He raised a clenched fist in conclusion.
The bar closed at two. Most of the guys were headed for a club, and the chicks in the corner were going with them. Bob decided to stick with Slenno, however, who was going back to Crupsy. They were joined by Narles and a bulky tackle by the name of Fegof. There were still plenty of people out in the streets, drinking and partying, though not the crowds there had been earlier in the evening. Once again they drove by the bar Bob had stayed in the previous week.
“Looks like a fight!” declared Narles.
Bob was beside Fegof on the driver’s side of the car, and probably had the worst view of any of them. At first he could make out only a tangle of silhouettes, but as the car went by he saw through the rear window a figure on the pavement; the others gathered around kicking him. Slenno applied the brakes and they all climbed out into the chilly night air; Narles and Fegof immediately charging toward the group. Bob intended to follow, but Slenno caught hold of his arm.
“Nothin’ you can do. Don’t get involved.”
Bob glanced around in confusion. “We gotta break up the fight, man?”
With that he pulled his arm free and started toward the skirmish again. Though what he saw then totally confounded him. Narles and Fegof had actually joined in the kicking, driving their feet into the poor wretch on the ground, of whom only a pink scalp and wreath of dishevelled grey hair were visible. Bob needed a moment to comprehend what he was witnessing. And then he noticed something else – a metal crutch, lying in the gutter.
“Hey, I know this guy!” he appealed. “Lettim alone!”
“He’s a yardam freak! Can’t you see?”
“Yeah, look at him, man. He’s only got one leg!”
“He lost it in the war!” Bob told them. “He was servin’ his country.”
“So what? He’s still a yardam freak!”
“Why are you defendin’ ‘im? How come you don’t hate ‘im too?”
At that moment the victim glanced up himself, a toothless grin on his bloodied features as his eyes found Bob’s. “Dat’s right, Mainlander. Jest like I told ya. I’m a yardam freak. I deserve it!” He began to laugh; a rasping cackle that gave way to coughs and groans as another round of kicks went in.
“Don’t be squeamish now, Bobby,” Narles called over his shoulder. “Like the freak said, he ‘deserves’ this.”
Slenno caught hold of Bob’s arm again. “Let ’em have thir fun, man. It’s the Yenugian way.”
“Guess Namander ain’t comin’ back, huh,” said Narles.
“Shoulder fractured in two places,” Rasco replied from the front passenger seat. “Really put his body on the line!”
“Well, no loss. Slenno should a been Kram’s back-up in the first place.”
“You guys did a good job today,” Slenno assured them as he drove. “Stopped the Alumni’s runnin’ game dead. Keep it up, you’ll be gettin’ a call from Coach Semja pretty soon!”
“We sure as hell did!” Narles crowed, exchanging high-fives with Rasco. “Second half they went to thir receivers every time!”
Bob gazed at the scenery outside, the hills and trees flashing by in the evening gloom, a little too fast for comfort on this narrow country road. He was thinking about Namander – the guy who’d been humiliated a week earlier for failing to stop the game-losing touchdown, now out for the season with a fractured shoulder, and all anyone could talk about was who was going to replace him.
It was fully dark by the time they reached the coast. The orange glow of a fire was visible down on the beach as they climbed out into the cool night air. A chilly breeze blew, the waves heaved in and out; rows of frothy white surf rippling in the moonlight. Bob gazed up at the stars; a multitude of galaxies glittering in the sky above them. It was all a little surreal.
As they made their way down the slope, a voice called out from the fire: “Hey, it’s Rasco and Narles! Let the games begin!”
There were about a dozen of them, burly shadows moving about in front of the flames, cans and bottles of beer in hand.
“Who’s he?” one of them asked, eyes fixed on Bob.
“Mainlander,” Slenno replied. “Ain’t joined yet.”
“This party’s exclusive to Wolves, boys,” said another.
“Bobby’s on the football team, alright?”
The two fellows who’d spoken glanced at each other. “He gonna snatch the sand?”
“Course he is. He’s one of us.”
They continued to stare, so that Bob felt compelled to add, “Yeh, sure I am.” Though he had no idea what they were talking about.
At this the pair grinned, and one of them handed him a bottle of Yenugale. “Welcome to the Wolves, Bobby!”
They all stood about drinking, some smoking, others toasting sausages over the flames. More people kept arriving, so that by ten there were at least thirty of them there, gathered around the fire. A crewcut mammoth by the name of Jumacho then raised his arms to address them all. He wore a silky, yellow and green striped suit, and from his neck dangled a cluster of gold and silver chains – all featuring a figure of the sun at the base.
“Time to get wet, gentlemen!” he announced, and everyone cheered raucously.
Rasco and Narles removed their clothes, beneath which they wore swim shorts, then pulled on black rubber wetsuits. Jumacho himself provided each with a small, resealable plastic bag, such as those used by scientists to collect samples – or detectives to collect evidence.
“Now, y’all know the rules,” he said. “Get across to Yezuk, snatch a handful of sand, and bring it back to us in these bags.”
“We know,” they assured him, zipping up their wetsuits.
The mammoth saluted them and stood aside. “Good luck, gentlemen!”
As Rasco and Narles strode down to the shore, looking strangely amphibian in their black rubber suits and flippers, Bob gazed across at the lights of Yezuk in the distance.
“How far is it?” he asked Slenno. “Looks like five or six miles!”
“To the nearest town, maybe. Coast is only half that distance. And at low tide thir’s a sandbank that juts out to within a mile or so a here.
“A mile ain’t far.”
“No,” Slenno agreed. “An’ thir’s rocks in between, if you can find ‘em. Tricky part’s avoidin’ the patrol boats. They come by every hour or so – both sides.”
“What happens if they catch you?”
“Well, you get caught by yir own side, they put you in jail.”
“And the other side?”
“Same thing.” Slenno grimaced as he swigged his beer. “But try to escape, they’ll jest shoot ya.”
“Yep. Happened once, many years ago. One of our boys shot dead in the water by the yardam Zuks!”
Bob gazed after his two companions as they waded into the sea. Were they going to make it back at all? He wondered. “How long does it take?”
“Did mine in two hours’ flat. Got the ‘Wolf Brand’ ‘an all!” Slenno lifted up his T-shirt to display the crimson scar on his chest. Most of the players had one; a brand in the shape of the beast.
“Must be agony!”
“Not if yir drunk enough!” Slenno laughed.
Bob registered that this, also, was something he was going to have to do in the future. He took a long swig of beer and winced as the icy liquid spiralled down into his belly. They all carried on drinking, smoking and eating barbecued sausages. Some placed bets on who would return first – Rasco or Narles. One fellow wagered they wouldn’t return at all, much to the disgust of his companions.
“Anybody ever drowned?” Bob asked.
Slenno looked pensive. “Thir’s a few that never came back.”
The first hour passed. The wind picked up, blowing much cooler now. They’d seen the patrol boats go by already – on both sides. And now the lights of the Yezuk vessel came into view again.
“Say, what a ya make a that?” Slenno got to his feet, peering out to sea. “They came back early.”
Bob stood up beside him. “You think they spotted ’em?”
“I dunnoh, man. Somethin’s goin’ on though.”
A few of the guys went down to the shore to get a better view, Jumacho among them. Slenno and Bob followed, leaving the warmth of the fire behind them.
“She’s circling round!” someone pointed out. “Highly irregular, I’d say.”
Even as he spoke the ship’s searchlight, a mere pinprick in the distance, flashed directly into their eyes. Bob felt the first genuine pangs of alarm. They were definitely looking for something.
By now everyone was down at the water’s edge; all staring out at the Yezuk patrol boat. Profanities were uttered, speculations expounded; facial expression locked in concentration. And each and every one of them stumbled back a pace or two when the first shot was heard; a far-off crack like thunder – though no flash of lightning followed. Another blast; then another.
The patrol boat remained there with its searchlight rotating. Meanwhile, the Yenug vessel reappeared – only this time it remained stationary after drawing level with its counterpart. Obviously they were in communication. Then the clatter of rotor blades came into earshot, and a chopper appeared over the Yezuk coast; its spotlight shining down on the water.
The guys retreated to the fire. Another hour went by, making it more than two since the swimmers had set off. It was past midnight. The chopper had gone, the boats had returned to their regular patrols, but still no sign of Rasco and Narles. How Bob wished he could leave; just go home and sleep in his comfortable bed – though he dared not suggest it, of course.
“What a ya think?” he asked Slenno.
“They ain’t comin’ back. Least, not tonight. If they weren’t shot or caught by the Zuks, they’ll be hidin’ somewhere on the other side.”
“So how long do we wait?”
Slenno frowned at the question. “We’ll wait till dawn, if we have to. Ain’t you worried about these guys?”
“Course I am! But the patrol boats must a seen our fire on the beach. They’ll put two and two together.”
“Let ’em come, Bobby. You run with the Wolves, you better show some loyalty.”
He could have reminded Slenno that he’d been invited along – with no clue what it was all about, nor that he might end up having to spend the whole night out on the beach like this; perhaps even get arrested. But, no, that wouldn’t have helped. There were some things best left unsaid.
He was drifting to sleep in front of the fire when a voice cried out beside him. “Hey! What’s that in the water? Think I saw somethin!'” And everybody hastened down to the shore again.
“Yeh, one of ’em’s back!” Jumacho yelled. “Looks like Narles!”
“It’s him alright!” Slenno called back, charging into the waves.
Loud cheers rang out as a few others followed. Narles was back! Rasco was surely close behind. Everything was going to be okay!
But all faded into silence again when Slenno waded out, a lifeless form in a black rubber wetsuit in his arms. Yes, it was Narles, his features languid and grey, a rip in the material behind his left shoulder – from which pink drops of watery blood still oozed.
Three more hours they waited for Rasco, till the sky began to pale and the drone of small fishing vessels could be heard. Then Jumacho told them all to go home. There was nothing more they could do. Only then did everyone pack up their things and leave.
The whir and thud of missiles striking, again and again. He could hear them through the door. But hadn’t Nitty told him he was going upstairs to do his homework? That didn’t sound like homework to Bob. “Hey,” he called, knocking lightly. “Can I come in?”
At first there was no answer, so he knocked again, a little more firmly.
“I’m in the middle of a game,” came the muffled reply.
“No problem. I’ll wait till yir finished.”
There was a crack like wood breaking, then the whirs and thuds abruptly ceased. A moment later the door opened a fraction and Nitty’s frail dark features frowned out. “What a ya want?”
Bob blinked a couple of times, taken aback. The boys had become more aloof over the last week or so, but this was the first time either of them had been openly rude to him. “Wanna go up to the park an’ toss the ball aroun?’”
Nitty lowered his head and half-turned away. “Tyram ain’t home. How would we get thir?”
“We’d walk!” Bob chuckled. “It’s only fifteen minutes.”
“Twenny,” the youngster corrected him. “Forty thir an’ back.
“So what’s the problem? It’s a nice day out.”
Nitty was back at his computer by this time, so that Bob had to enter the room to keep the conversation going. He found himself on the opposite side of a narrow unmade bed from the youngster. There was another bed across the room, also unmade. The curtains were closed and the walls covered in posters of football stars and racing drivers.
“It’s been a while since we tossed the ball aroun,’” he added.
“Well, like I told ya, I ain’t so interested in football.” Nitty pressed his keyboard and the whir and thud of missiles striking resumed.
“Okay.” Bob shrugged. “Guess I’ll hafta wait till Tyram gets home.”
“He’s out with his girlfriend. Won’t be home till late.”
Bob’s eyes came to rest on the curtains across the room, pulled together to prevent so much as a glimmer of sunlight entering. “You seem very sure about that, Nitty. . .”
At this the youngster slapped the joy-stick and turned to face him. “Look, Bob, we’re family – Maw, Paw, Tyram an’ me. An’ you ain’t meant to be part of it!”
Recalling what Adokat had told him, Bob merely nodded. “I understand.”
Nitty’s expression softened a little. “It ain’t that we don’t like ya. It’s jest that things ain’t the way they used to be no more. Maybe it’d be better if you found somewhere else to stay.”
“Already thought a that, Nitty.” Bob patted him on the shoulder. “Now, I’ll let ya get back to yir, er, ‘homework.’”
The kid winced and shut the computer down. “Yeh, I’m tired a that’ game anyhow.”
Returning downstairs to the living room, Bob slumped into the couch. Indeed, it had already crossed his mind to talk to coach Semja about moving into the dorms. It wasn’t working out here with the Cemeks. That was plain to see.
The muffled grating of a chair being moved around reminded him Nitty was up there, just a few meters above him, with that impenetrable strip of cement and plaster separating them, as solid as a prison wall.
Using the remote control he flicked on the news channel. Perhaps there would be a story about a missing student . . . found alive . . . washed up on the beach. But, no, still nothing. The gorgeous presenter spoke only about the crisis with Yezuk. Images followed of the carnage on that island; dusty corpses lying among rubble; children, women and men. ‘Three Heroes and twenty-to-thirty Killers’ was the official body count.
The silver-haired general was then shown congratulating his soldiers. “The enemy has felt the might of Yenugian wrath today!” he declared.
Next on screen was the president himself, towering above the reporters in front of him. “We shall prevail in this righteous struggle! We shall avenge the killers of our heroes!” he roared, prompting rapturous cheers and applause.
Bob stared at the wall as he sat there alone. ‘We need a teach these yardam killers a lesson!’ Sinden’s voice came back to him. His eyes wandered to the photos; those chubby crewcut faces staring blankly out of their frames. They seemed to have faded somehow? Which of them had not returned? He could not recall.
The familiar rumble of the four-wheel-drive engine startled him. And the dog’s excited yapping confirmed it: Anicom and Sinden were home. Switching the TV off, Bob slipped quietly into his bedroom.
Trebor plucked a utensil out of the drying machine and held it in front of Lardy’s face. “Fork burger!”
In response Lardy lifted out a plate and brandished it before Trebor. “Dish burger!” At this they both guffawed.
A light wooden board was the next item Trebor raised. “Tray burger!” And their laughter became hysterical.
Grinning wickedly, eyes bulging with mirth, they continued their game until one example of practically every type of object in that rack had been described as a ‘burger.’ Bob couldn’t help but chuckle along with them.
“Know what I want?” said Lardy. “I wanna ‘girl burger!'”
“Naw, ya don’t,” Trebor told him. “You’d hafta spit out all ‘er hair and teeth!”
“Maybe so. But I already got one anyhow!”
“You ain’t got no girl, Lardy. Yir dreamin!'”
“An’ yir jest jealous – ’cause you ain’t got one!”
Even as they horsed around like that, Bob experienced a profound sense of pity for the pair. How were a couple of buffoons like them ever going to find girlfriends? His thoughts then drifted to Eluji, for it was her image in his mind’s eye. He’d watched her across the room in Professor Schardir’s class that morning, as he always did, observing her in such a way that she would not notice. And he suspected she’d been watching him the same way. But they talked only when circumstance brought them together outside the classroom – which wasn’t often.
“Hey, Bobby, you goin’ to the Stonin’ a the Killers on Sunday?'”
“Huh?” He gazed at them for a moment, trying to comprehend what Lardy had just asked him. “What in hell’s that?'”
“Stonin’ a the Killers parade in Rihesh. Everyone’s goin.'”
“I’ll be thir!” Trebor added gleefully. “Right in the front row. Gonna teach ’em yardam killers a lesson!”
Bob laughed at them; a regular pair of lunatics. “The ‘Stonin’ a the Killers parade?’ So what happens: They drag the captured rebels through town and everyone gets to hurl rocks at ’em?”
“That’s right.” Lardy grinned. “That’s ‘exactly’ what happens.”
Bob kept chuckling. “You guys are completely nuts!” And there was a manic edge to his own laughter then.
They ate their dinner together while the kids were queuing up outside. Bob had the chicken roast – then banana sundae for dessert.
“Yir becomin’ a Yenugian, Bobby!” Lardy congratulated him.
“Puttin’ on weight, too!” Trebor guffawed. “Pretty soon you’ll look like us!”
Bob stopped eating. They were right, of course. If he kept this up he was going to be a human blimp by the time he finished his studies here. Pulling his yellow cap back on, he went through to the serving line, where Adokat was already at her station. She did the meat and he did the veges, and when the kids teemed through she was, as always, kept about three times as busy as him.
By quarter-to-seven the bulk had come through and they were down to the stragglers. Bob readied his spoons to serve what he supposed was one of the last – only to realise it was Lardy.
“Hey, Bobby, this here’s my sweetheart!”
Lardy slipped an arm around Adokat’s ample waist – and scarcely could Bob believe his eyes when she failed to remove it.
“Now, hush up,” she said. “Don’t go tellin’ everybody in the yardam place! And don’t call me yir ‘girl burger’ no more neither. I heard ya braggin’ to Trebor out thir.”
The arm around the waist became a hug. “So when ya gonna marry me?”
“Aw, Lardy, you know that ain’t possible. Would if I could, but it jest ain’t allowed.”
“I know.” Lardy pecked her on the cheek. “But maybe they’ll change the law some day.”
Bob was on the point of asking what law they were talking about, when their expressions suddenly froze over; bulging eyes fixed on the entrance.
“Yardammit, Lardy!” Big Nats’s voice boomed from the other side. “Ain’t I told ya not to come in here durin’ servin’ hours?”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” Lardy hastened back out.
“Get on back to the wash’ room, ya li’l rodent! Trebor’s doin’ all the work out thir, while yir in here makin’ a yardam pest a yirself!”
The canteen manager ducked through the entrance and hovered over Adokat. “And you ought a know better, lettin’ that yardam ‘reject’ put his arms roun’ ya.”
“He was jest bein’ friendly. And he ain’t no ‘reject’ neither.”
“Oh – yes – he – is! So don’t go leadin’ him on. You know it can’t go nowhere.”
At that moment Bob’s watch beeped. Seven o’clock; his shift was done. Time to head to football practice. Upon arrival at the pitch he was informed he’d be starting at middle linebacker for the JVs in their next game. No surprise there, but with Narles and Rasco gone, he could hardly get excited about the news. Nonetheless, here was his opportunity to get fully involved in a game and press his claims for a place in the senior team.
Coach Semja offered him a ride home after practice. Normally, Bob would’ve rather walked. It was a pleasant evening, the house wasn’t far, and the stroll always helped him wind down after the day’s exertions. Besides which (and more importantly) there was always the chance he might run into Eluji again. But he needed to talk to Semja himself, and if the coach was offering him a ride home, he undoubtedly wanted to talk too.
“Hey, Bob, you know Vaddi Monhaff, Professor a Classical Drama over in the West Block?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Well, he knows you. Least, he knows ‘about’ you.” Semja chewed his gum slowly. “Says he’s got a spare room over at his place. You might be more comfortable thir ”
Bob realized the Cemeks must have ‘asked’ the coach to find him another place. This both irked and shamed him. Undoubtedly the boys had said something to their folks. “Okay. I got class over in the West Block tomorrow. I’ll go talk with ‘im.”
A serious look came into the coach’s eye. “I’d advise you to do so, Bob. It’ll be best for all concerned.”
They drove a couple of blocks in silence, the roads empty, the squares of windows glowing behind the trees. Tiny bugs kept flying into the windscreen, disintegrating on impact and leaving a smear. Bob understood it all. The Cemeks didn’t want him there any more. He only hoped the whole town wouldn’t get to hear about it.
“Say, Semja, is thir a law against rejects marryin’ on Yenug?'”
“Dam’ straight,” the coach replied, chewing his gum. “You wouldn’t want ’em breedin’ anyway, would ya – multiplying thir kind all over the island? Even if thir kids were normal, how they gonna look after ’em?”
“That’s absurd! What if they married someone who ‘wasn’t’ a reject?”
Semja stopped chewing and gave him that serious look again. “Don’t ever call our laws ‘absurd,’ son. You’ll get yirself into trouble that way. Now, you talkin’ about Adokat and that reject who works out back?”
“You know about ’em?”
“It’s a small town, Bob. Everybody knows everythin.’ And that girl ain’t exactly normal either. She ain’t a reject – as such, but thir’s somethin’ mighty peculiar about a woman who carries on with one.”
Bob gazed at the carnage on the windscreen and forced a chuckle. “Know what they told me today, those guys out in the washing room? Thir’s gonna be some kind a parade in Rihesh this Sunday, where everyone gets to hurl rocks at the captured rebels.”
Semja parked the car in front of the Cemeks’ house. “That’s right, Bob. ‘Stonin’ a the Killers.’ I’ll be takin’ the family along, fir sure.”
Darb pulled up on his motor scooter and handed Bob a helmet. “Climb aboard!”
“This thing safe?”
“Depends who’s drivin!'”
“How long’s it gonna take?”
“An hour an’ a half.”
Fastening his helmet, Bob climbed on the back. It was going to be a long ride – and they’d have to return that evening as well.
Many cars passed them along the way, and some of the occupants Bob recognised – students from the university, headed into Rihesh for the ‘Stoning of the Killers,’ just like themselves.
It was a cool morning, the trees were losing their color and a carpet of golden-brown leaves covered the ground, though the fields and foliage were a richer shade of green than before, now that the dry months were over. The fresh air blew into their faces; carrying a hint of the chilly weather to come.
They arrived in Rihesh shortly before noon, and the sound of marching band music soon came into earshot – brass drums, cymbals and trumpets, clashing and piping in methodical unison.
Their first glimpse of the parade came via the giant screen atop the Yenug TV Tower. The crowds had gathered along the banks of the river; a bright yellow sea of waving flags and baseball caps. Parking the scooter in a side-street, they continued on foot.
“Strange I never heard of this,” Bob exclaimed, eyeing the multitudes. “Surely it’s against international law.”
“Course it is,” Darb told him. “But the Mainland press ignores it – and yir government always supports us. That’s how we get away with murder.”
They joined a queue at one of the banana sundae stands. The hotdog and yellow candy floss vendors were out in force, as were those peddling flags, balloons, T-shirts and Yenugade.
“So why do you come if yir against it?” Bob asked as they ate.
Darb glanced around anxiously. “Keep it down, Bob. Someone might overhear. Questionin’ the way things are done here can be a very dangerous passtime. Y’oughta know that by now.”
“I do. But nobody’s listenin’ to us.”
“It’s necessary to see this, whether yir for it or against it. We’re students. We’re here to learn. An’ one day this knowledge may be useful.” Darb took another scoop of ice-cream. “That’s why I invited you.”
“Hey, guys! Where’s yir flags?!” a familiar voice called out from behind them.
Spinning around, Bob found himself confronted by the radiant features of Eluji, standing there with a yellow flag in her hand.
“We jest arrived!” Darb protested.
“Been here long enough to buy banana sundaes.”
“We got our priorities.”
Eluji turned her gaze on Bob. “First time at the parade, ‘Mainlander?’ You must be excited!”
“Fit to explode.”
“Well, get yirselves some rocks. They’ll be comin’ along the quay any minute now.”
“You gonna take part in the stonin?'”
“Course,” she said. “Don’t you guys hate ’em too?”
Just then a hulking figure emerged from the crowd and leered down at them. “If it ain’t the Zuk-lovers! They’ll be cryin’ while the Killers are dyin!'” With that Kram put his arm around Eluji’s shoulders and led her away.
Bob tossed his empty tub in the trash. He’d intended to ask Darb something, but now it was forgotten. The girl he’d been dreaming of was walking away with a moron. Not only that: She’d revealed herself as a barbarian. His hopes had been dashed in more ways than one. They continued on in silence, observing the masses around them. Yellow sweaters were in fashion, nylon shorts had given way to ‘Island’ jeans. The baseball caps remained, of course, bright yellow like the flags they were waving on this day of vengeful celebration. Like a city of giant canaries, thought Bob, all gorging themselves on hotdogs, sundaes and yellow candy floss.
Another familiar face in the crowd; chubby, anemic, riddled with acne. Yes, it was Adokat, from the canteen serving line. In almost the same instant Bob recognized the two figures behind her – one fair-haired and dumpy, the other robust and lantern-jawed: Lardy and Trebor from the dish-washing room.
He was about to approach them when a helicopter droned across the cloudy sky and a defeaning roar rose up. Then the multitudes began to part, and out of their midst came the spinning blue lights of police vehicles: motorcycles followed by four-wheel-drives, armoured vans then more motorcycles.
“Where they goin?'” Bob asked.
“The stadium. That’s where the stonin’ takes place.”
The crowd fell in behind and pursued the convoy along the quay, all cheering and waving their flags. Bob and Darb were swept along with them. It would’ve been impossible to resist. For ten or fifteen minutes they continued, along the west bank of the river, until the sea itself became visible in the distance. The helicopter made a low swoop behind them, rotor blades clattering loudly, and only then was Bob able to read the initials on its side: ‘YTV’ – Yenug Television.
Then up ahead he saw the stadium; a giant, concrete bowl of archaic construction; its walls as rough and foreboding as a medievel citadel. A gate opened and the police vehicles passed through them, disappearing into the bowels of that colossal structure. The flag-waving hordes followed, pouring in through the innumerable entrances. The tickets were twenty pounds.
Once inside Bob saw that the pitch itself was dry and brown, surrounded by a salmon-coloured running track. Long wooden bench seats ran around the steep and rickety stands – though the vast majority of those who’d packed inside remained on their feet, gazing expectantly down at the dusty arena.
Again the crowd erupted, and it took Bob a moment to figure out why. But then he saw what it was that had excited them. At first glance he’d believed he was looking at some species of giant bird. In fact, it was a man, and from head to toe he was covered in feathers.
“Killer! Killer!” the crowd began to chant. “Killer! Killer!”
A shower of stones flew from the stands behind the captive – many finding their target – so that he sought refuge from them out on the pitch. At this bizarre spectacle, a wave of raucous laughter rolled around the stadium; a man in feathers scrambling onto the field below, flinching and hopping as the rocks struck him.
He was driven further and further across the pitch, until he came within range of the stands on the other side. And only then did the hordes around Bob and Darb begin to unleash their own ammunition. The bird-like figure scrambled back and forth, left and right, ducking and stumbling. He did so vain. There was no escape, and inevitably he went down. For a moment or two he writhed about on the turf, then his body fell lifeless.
Two men in helmets and protective suits ran out, seized a foot each, and dragged the limp body away as fast as they could; leaving a dark streak of blood and feathers on the turf behind them, as though there had been a slaughter of chickens. Into Bob’s mind that streak etched itself, and there it would remain for some considerable time to come.
Another deafening roar. Another man pushed out onto the running track, covered in feathers. Another blizzard of stones thrown from the opposite stands.
Bob felt his stomach heave. The stadium was rank with the odor of humanity; the air stale and clammy. He was on the point of vomiting.
“Let’s get out a here,” he said to Darb.
“More than enough. But I wanted you to see this for yirself, Bob. Some day you’ll be able to tell folks about it back on the Mainland; tell ’em what’s really goin’ on here.”
“I ought a call home tomorrow.”
“Wouldn’t do that.” Darb caught his eye. “Never know who might be listenin’ in.”
“Yir kiddin,’ right?”
His companion’s head shook slowly. “Best keep yir thoughts to yirself till you get off this island, my friend.”
Bob took a final glance down at the pitch. Same thing all over again; the bird-like figure trying in vain to avoid the countless missiles. Cameras flashed all around the stadium, while television crews filmed the whole thing from the safety of the front rows.
“Killer! Killer!” the crowd chanted – and somewhere nearby Bob heard a voice he thought he recognised.
Looking around, he soon located its source. Several rows above them stood the blimp-like figures of Anicom and Sinden; their bespectacled features shining in ecstasy as they hurled their stones. And it was the former who shrieked loudest; her voice which had got his attention. Bob ducked through the nearest exit before they had chance to see him.
How beautiful the city appeared from the sea, with all its shining lights; the office blocks, hotels, and shopping malls, traffic moving along the coastal roads, boats crossing the river. Only a few days before he had witnessed that horror inside the stadium, but now it seemed like no more than a bad dream. Gazing down at the glossy black water, he felt a momentary impulse to dive in, even though he knew it would be freezing cold.
They were back in Rihesh. Bob stood on deck with his jacket zipped up, viewing the city from this angle for the first time. Over on the west side he could already make out the Yenug TV Plaza with its flickering screen at the top, soaring high above all the other buildings, a perfectly symmetrical column of light.
“Welcome home!” Reshif grinned through his beard beside him.
“Splendid view!” Bob replied, knocking bottles with him. “But it’ll never be home to me.”
“Don’t say that. You did us proud today.”
“Sure did, Bobster!” Roly beamed from the other side. “How many sacks you get?”
Bob raised his hands in protest. “It’s junior varsity, guys! No big deal.”
“It’s a big deal to us,” Reshif told him. “It’s a big deal to the folks a Yenug. Yir representin’ this island when ya pull on that yellow jersey.”
“Ease up, Reshy,” said Roly. “Bobster was on fire today. Don’t matter if he considers Yenug his home or not.” He slapped Bob on the back. “Another game like that, you’ll be gettin’ a call from Coach Semja pretty soon!”
Bob recalled Slenno saying the exact same thing the night they’d driven to the coast, with Rasco and Narles. It sent a shiver down his spine. “Don’t imagine I’ll be called up in my freshman year, Roly. Thanks all the same.”
“Well, jest keep doin’ yir best,” said Reshif, raising his beer. “Who knows what may happen?”
They all knocked bottles together, toasting their success for the umpteenth time since leaving Ugod.
By the time they got back to Crupsy Bob was feeling the effects of the alcohol. They’d been drinking all evening. And the party was set to continue in the dorms.
“Gotta come along, Bobster. You were the star!”
He offered no objection. It had been a good day, the team had won, everyone was happy. Some of the guys’ girlfriends came over, and with them came other chicks. Bob was on the sofa in Roly’s living room when Eluji walked in, the tanned hue of her limbs assentuated by the pale green dress she wore.
“Hey, Bob. Heard you had a great game!”
“I did okay.” He nodded groggily. “But it were only the Ugod jay-vees.”
“Oh, yir bein’ modest. Everyone’s talkin’ about you.”
With that she sat down beside him, so close their shoulders came together. The sensation sent a current of indescribable pleasure through him. Nonetheless, Bob remained on his guard. This was the woman he’d seen with Kram at the ‘Stoning of the Killers’ parade; the woman who’d gone there to participate in the slaughter. He had to resist her; he had to deny his own emotions.
She seemed to understand, her expression turning serious. “You know, Bob, I really don’t like Kram at all. And I didn’t want to go to that stupid parade with ‘im either. But I didn’t know how to tell ‘im.”
“So you guys ain’t actually ‘together?'”
“It was jest a date. We didn’t even kiss.'” The smile returned to her features, and how gorgeous she was, with her smooth complexion and dark brown eyes.
“Not even once?” He raised an eyebrow.
“No. Kram tried – naturally. But I didn’t let ‘im.”
“Well,” said Bob, swigging his beer. “On that account, I can’t blame him!”
Their lips were together before he knew what was happening. And so, at last, he was kissing Eluji, the girl of his dreams – and she was kissing him back. Her passion surprised him; even unnerved him a little, causing him to break off before she was ready.
“Wow!” he gasped, and to make amends immediately kissed her again.
The party went on around them. A few faces glanced down and grinned, Roly’s among them. But for the most part no one seemed to notice. They were hardly the only couple kissing at the party, of course.
At one point Bob looked up to see Reshif peering in through the open doorway. No expression was visible on his fleshy, bearded features, yet Bob was vaguely troubled by the inquiring look in his eye.
She emerged from the dorm in a sky blue dress, fur-lined jacket and customary yellow cap. Her make-up glistened beneath the street light, like a model on TV. So mesmerized was Bob by the spectacle he neglected to get out and open the door.
“Seen a ghost?” She gave him a teasing smile.
“More like an angel.”
Eluji climbed in beside him, and they kissed for the first time since the party. Again Bob experienced a profound sense of amazement. Could this really be happening? His dream become real? He started the engine and drove out of the car park.
“So, is this yir car?” She looked surprised.
“Slenno’s. Loaned it to me for the evening.”
Eluji played around with the radio until she found a station that suited her. Electronic music, fast and repetitive – more appropriate for the dance-floor than a drive into the city. Bob gazed at the bugs flying into the windscreen, drawn to their fate by the bright glow of the headlights. The seat was a little unomfortable. He adjusted it to the point he was almost paralell with the steering wheel, though still it didn’t quite feel right.
Forty-five minutes later they were in Rihesh, cruising along the main streets, gazing through the windows at the crowded sidewalks; overweight people in jeans and jackets and yellow baseball caps. It was past ten, though the streets remained bright as day beneath the myriad lights of the buildings. A lengthy queue had already formed outside the cinema.
“Think we’ll get in at all?” Bob asked.
“Don’t worry,” Eluji assured him. “Our tickets are reserved. All we gotta do is pick ‘em up.”
They had to wait half an hour just to do that. Bob went and bought sundaes and Yenugade while Eluji held their place in the line. By the time they got in it was ten minutes past the scheduled start of the movie. The ad’s were still running, however – and they continued to do so for another ten or fifteen minutes more. Bob realized he wasn’t going to be getting home till about three that night, and he had class in the morning. But what the hell? – He checked himself. He was out with the most gorgeous girl on campus!
The cinema was completely dark, except for that great, shining screen in front of them, sucking all their attention in. The speakers boomed to life with sonorous rock music, then faded into silence again. As Bob scraped the last of his ice-cream out of its paper cup, the title of the film appeared: ‘Heroes and Killers;’ the same image he’d seen on the posters out in the lobby.
A group of soldiers in outdated military fatigues were grimly picking over the remains of a burnt-out village. The smoke was still rising in places, and among the debris were many corpses – each and every one of them decapitated.
“Hell, this is a bit gory!” Bob shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“It’s about the Inter-Island War,” Eluji whispered back.
“I figured that much.”
“This is what they did, Bob. They raided our villages an’ hacked the people’s heads off.”
“Yes. That’s why I wanted you to see this. Before you go judging us, you gotta know our history.”
A change of scene. The cinema grew darker. A group of middle-aged men in old-fashioned suits sat around a table in wooden chairs, smoking cigars and discussing the latest attack. A military response was justified, declared a broad-shouldered general with a vast array of medals gleaming on his chest. The grim-faced individual at the head of the table got to his feet and raised a clenched fist. “The killers of Yenugian heroes shall be brought to justice!” he cried. And Bob recalled that these were the exact same words he had heard the evening of his arrival in Crupsy.
Half an hour into the movie he needed to use the toilet. But how was he going to get out of this cramped row without disturbing anyone? It was pitch-dark and several people sat either side of him. Eluji would think him a buffoon! He’d just have to hold on till intermission, though that might be another half hour away – perhaps more.
Shouting and gunfire drew his attention back to the screen. The Yenugian squadron had once again been set upon by a band of screaming, wild-eyed killers. But these hapless fools they calmly mowed down, outwitting them, outmuscling them where necessary, and ultimately overcoming them. Only this time there was a twist; one of the heroes had been captured. The following scene was to find him inside a dingy jailhouse, being tortured by two sweaty unshaved officers, who sneered contemptuously at him the whole time. Finally he was dragged outside, paraded before a cheering mob, and unceremoniously beheaded.
“Seems a bit far-fetched!” Bob groaned.
“It’s based on a true story,” Eluji reminded him. “Now you can see why we hate ’em so much. They’re evil. They’re not even human!”
Bob had been right with his estimation; the film endured over two-and-a-half hours and by the time they got back to Crupsy it was approaching three.
“See you in six hours!” he quipped, pulling up outside her dorm.
She laughed back at him. “I ain’t goin’ a class in the mornin!'”
This did not greatly surprise Bob. She’d missed lessons before. He leaned over and gave her a kiss.
“Don’t you wanna come up for a night-cap? I got half a bottle a banana liqueur needs takin’ care of.”
“Well . . . I’m drivin.’ And I wanna make Professor Hannah’s class -”
She silenced him with another kiss. “Stop makin’ excuses. It’s only one lesson.”
Bob realized she was right. What in hell was he afraid of? The girl of his dreams was inviting him up to her dorm and he was worried about missing a class! As for the car, he could just leave it where it was. Vaddi’s house was scarcely ten minutes’ walk away.
They entered quietly, taking care not to wake her roommates, and the first thing he noticed when she turned on the lights were the pictures on the walls. Like the Cemeks,’ they featured chubby-faced young men in military attire, and above them were the standard yellow flag and portrait of the Founding Father. But mixed in among the photos were images of slain rebels – clippings from newspapers and magazines – many of them accompanied by headlines and opening paragraphs; young men, mostly, a few women too, lying where they had fallen, some covered in blood, others with gaping wounds, the worst of them barely recognizable as ‘human.’
“Are you crazy?!” He turned to her as she walked toward him, still holding the keys.
“What’s the matter?”
“This is sick! Why in hell would anyone put pictures a dead people on thir walls?”
“Thir Killers, Bob. You saw the movie. They got what they deserved.”
“They ain’t animals!”
She poured the yellow liqueur into two glasses. “Gonna help me finish this off or not?”
Bob downed his in a single gulp, surprising even himself. Eluji merely giggled and poured him another.
“Ease up, Bob,” she told him. “Yir an Incabay. You still don’t understand what’s really goin’ on here.”
The pleading edge to her tone stalled him from protesting any further. Where was the point with these people? They were so brainwashed the message would never get through. It would only be unwise to push it any further, he realized. His own friends had warned him against this – more than once.
“Another?” She held up the bottle.
They sat down on the couch together, resting their drinks on the circular black coffee table – upon which was a copy of the Rihesh Register. ‘Yenug Forces Bomb Killer Chief’s Home!’ roared the headline roared, accompanied by an image of a crumbling apartment building.
“So that should be the end of it,” Bob suggested. “They got thir leader. It’s all over.”
Eluji shook her head. “The killers will jest appoint another.”
“That’s what always happens. You ought a start readin’ the papers here, Bob, learn about what’s goin’ on. She topped their glasses up for a third time, then pointed at a picture in the bottom right corner. “Recognize that face?”
Bob examined it more closely. “Sure. He was in the movie we jest watched.”
“Been cheatin’ on his wife, they say.”
“And ‘that’ makes the front page?”
“Course. He’s one a the island’s top actors.”
“But it’s only a rumor, right?”
“Where thir’s smoke thir’s fire. These rumors always turn out to be true.”
She refilled his glass yet again, and Bob soon began to feel the effects. The images on the wall were no less surreal, though now like part of some strange dream in which he’d found himself alone with an irresistable seductress. And the seductress brought her lips to his once again; her eyes dark and mesmerizing as she gazed at him, slightly amused. Bizarrely, she still wore the yellow baseball cap.
He broke off too soon; just like the first time. “Sorry, but I never . . . “
“‘Never?'” She raised her eyebrows. “Wow, you Mainlanders sure are weird. Our religion encourages acts a love.”
Bob’s eyes returned to the wall in front of him; those clippings of mangled corpses, the photos of cleancut faces, the Founding Father’s portrait – all stuck to the wall. “I gotta get goin,’” he apologized.
A moment later he was outside in the cold darkness, Eluji watching him leave from the doorway. No more words were spoken. Everything was silent. It was half past three in the morning after all. Bob left Slenno’s car where it was and started walking.
“Anad’s quite a girl. Yir gonna love her, Bob!” Vaddi assured him as they clunked and rattled along. “She was my student before the summer.”
Bob cocked an eyebrow. “You snake in the grass!”
Vaddi was approaching middle-age. He wore a pony-tail though his hair had receded beyond the crown of his head, giving him the profile of some tribal warrior out of a movie. But when he turned to smile it was the more civilized visage of the university professor that gazed through the square-framed glasses. “Makes up for my horror-story of a first wife. Cleaned me out an’ got custody of our daughter too.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“You can see I’m still bitter!”
“Yep. So what’s the colored part of the eye called?”
Vaddi chuckled and returned his attention to the road. “I’m tellin’ you about my divorce an’ you wanna play ‘that’ game?”
“You love it, man. You always win!”
The warrior profile chuckled again. “The ‘iris.’ That’s easy. How ‘bout the pipe that shifts food down into yir stomach?”
Bob shrugged. “You asked me that last time – an’ I still don’t know.”
“That’s why I always win!”
The old van threatened to fall apart at every bump and dip in the road, and there were many, but somehow it got them to Rihesh and the river. Vaddi pointed her out as they parked in front of the ferry terminal: Tall, bushy-haired and obsese. Like the professor she wore large-framed glasses, which gave her a decidedly nerdy appearance as she waved cheerfully at them.
Bob climbed into the back, so that Anad could sit up front. And first thing she did when she got in was light a cigarette and roll up the window. Bob’s annoyance turned to confusion when Vaddi did the same. They’d lived together almost a week now and Bob had never seen him smoking. But when a sweet herbal fragrance filled the air, he understood what was going on.
“Wanna try one, Bob?” Anad passed the packet back to him. They were tailor-mades, just like real cigarettes, only a dark shade of green inside.
“No, thanks. I don’t smoke – an’ certainly not ‘that’ stuff.”
“It’ll do ya good!” Vaddi mocked him. “Hell, yir smokin’ it lready – jest by sittin’ thir.”
“So open the windows!”
Bob laughed at the absurdity of his situation. He didn’t want to smoke the weed with them, but stuck in the back like that, where none of the windows opened, he had no choice.
Anad looked over her shoulder again, a pink tinge to her eyes. “So yir a Mainlander? Folks smoke much a this stuff over thir?”
Bob’s mind went blank. With the herbal-scented smoke swirling all around him, he couldn’t recall a thing. “No idea.”
“You don’t know?” She stared at him in astonishment.
Vaddi’s bespectacled eyes caught him in the rear vision mirror. “Hey, what’s the capital of the Mainland?”
Bob thought for a moment, then shrugged again. “No idea.”
“That’s yir hometown, man!”
Anad broke into laughter. “Gotta know where yir from, Bob!”
All he could do was apologise. “I get memory blocks sometimes.”
Anad turned back to the front and giggled at the professor. “Think our friend’s a li’l stoned back thir?”
“An’ he claimed he didn’t smoke this stuff!”
They stopped outside the ‘Sweet n’ Healthy’ ice-cream parlour. Bob felt oddly thin as he walked past the other customers – though he himself had put on a fair bit of weight since arriving on the island. He wasn’t even sure what ‘normal’ was any more.
“Okay.” Vadd lowered his voice. “We’re gonna say it’s yir birthday, Bob. That way we get a free cake.”
“They don’t ask for I-dee or nothin?’”
“No, last time we told ‘em it was Anad’s birthday, an’ the time before that mine!”
Anad laughed quietly. “We get a free cake every time we visit this place!”
When the waiter came over, Vaddi duly informed him of Bob’s birthday, and shortly afterward a double-layer chocolate cake was brought to their table, complete with creamy icing and a single burning candle.
“Happy birthday to you . . . “ the waiter began, and Bob’s companions promptly joined in.
They really were a nerdy pair then, peering at him through their large-framed glasses, goofy smiles on their corpulent faces, singing ‘happy birthday ’ with the waiter – hopelessly out of tune. He had to chuckle despite himself.
“I’m not sure about this,” he protested when the waiter had gone. “Doesn’t seem right.”
Vaddi winced. “Who cares? Everybody does it.”
“How do you know? We’re betraying thir trust.”
“Oh, don’t be such a do-gooder, Bobby!” Anad mocked him. “The owners a this chain are filthy rich. So what if we get a few free birthday cakes off ‘em?”
The cake was a little gooey for Bob’s liking anyway. He declined a second piece and allowed his companions to gorge themselves. Meanwhile, their ‘super low-calory’ sundaes arrived, and these they also devoured with gusto.
“Smokin’ always gives me an appetite!” Vaddi said between mouthfuls.
“It’s called the ‘munchies,’” Anad explained. “Ain’t you hungry, Bobby?”
“A little,” he conceded, sucking a dollop of ice-cream off his plastic spoon. “I don’t want any more cake though.”
That evening a yellow four-wheel-drive pulled up in front of the house and out stepped the barrel-chested figure of Coach Semja. He wore a dark sports jacket and pants – as opposed to the customary ‘Bombers Football’ attire Bob had always seen him in. Vaddi went to the door and welcomed him inside.
“I dropped by earlier but you guys weren’t home,” the coach said, entering the kitchen. “Got some bad news, I’m afraid.”
Somehow Bob knew exactly what he was about to say next. Perhaps a premonition; perhaps just a good guess; but when the coach went on to inform them Tyram Cemek had died in a head-on car collison the previous night, it almost seemed to Bob as if he were personally drawing those words out of his mouth.
Anad made coffee and they all went through to the living room. It was growing dark outside. The wind rustled among the trees, carrying a few dry leaves along with it. Bob went through to his bedroom and put on a sweater.
“That’s really terrible news,” Vaddi was saying when he returned. “Poor Anicom and Sinden! What happened, exactly?”
“Lost control on a bend. That’s all they know.”
“Anyone hurt in the other car?” Anad inquired.
Semja removed his cap and ran a hand through his thick black hair. “Whole family wiped out – mother, father an’ two kids. Also, he had a passenger, one of his buddies from high school. Six dead in total – an’ all from this town.”
Bob recalled the last ride Tyram had given him. ‘Ain’t scared, are ya?’ the kid had mocked him, racing along at breakneck speed.
The gold-cladded pyramid shone brightly in the late-morning sun, high up in the hills among the trees. It was perhaps fifteen meters high. Bob leaned forward between Vaddi and Anad to get a better look at it as they clunked and rattled up the narrow road.
“Thir’s a vent at the top,” the latter informed him. “This releases the smoke directly up to Yar.”
“The temple’s a crematorium?” Bob gazed through the windscreen. “You believe all that stuff?”
“About the smoke?”
“That the sun’s a livin’ entity? Does it have thoughts and emotions?”
“No one can answer that who hasn’t been thir, Bob,” Vaddi replied, changing gears as the old van whined. “What we do know is Yar created the World an’ everythin’ in it. Science has borne that out. Yar brings light, Yar brings warmth, Yar heals the sick an’ make the crops grow. That’s why we worship him.’”
“An’ when you die, yir smoke returns to ‘Yar?’”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“Yir spirit returns to the world Yar created,” said Anad, lighting a joint. “Least, that’s what they taught us in school.”
As the van filled up with smoke, Bob realized he was going to get stoned again – whether he wanted to or not. There was no escape, stuck in the back of the van like that.
Barely had the joint been lit, however, than they pulled off the road into a parking area, already half full with four-wheel-drives and other vehicles. The view behind them resembled that from a plane; houses and farms appearing like miniature toys in the valley far below. A stiff breeze blew, cool and fragrant. Birds soared and glided through the air around them, piercing the tranquility with their sharp cries.
Vaddi checked his watch. “Midday Oath’s in five minutes.”
Crossing the parking area, they ascended a flight of concrete steps, and the first thing Bob saw when they reached the top was the shining gold pyramid. It now stood before them, in the middle of a grass field, high as a six floor building. And milling around in front were a large number of people, all attired in black – from their baseball caps to their shoes.
As they drew closer Bob began to recognize some of the faces, Anicom’s and Sinden’s among them, but there was no time for greetings or commiserations before the daily prayer began. All Bob could do was stand awkwardly by while they all knelt down in the grass before the temple; Vaddi and Anad hastening forth to join them.
“Great fire that created us,
Great fire that gave us life,
Yar, ruler of the universe,
Take us back when we die . . . ‘
Bob had heard it many times before, and still it struck him as a little odd. These people, so civilized and sophisticated, seemingly, still worshipped the sun like the ancients.
The first speech followed, delivered by Sinden himself. He spoke of his memories and the experiences he’d shared with Tyram, though mostly of the high hopes he’d had for his son. The listeners bowed their heads respectfully, a few of the women could be heard sobbing. It was never meant to be pleasant. The speeches were a farewell to the dead, an acknowledgement of their passing, and a means of putting things into perspective.
The wooden coffin was then carried into the base of the temple itself. Only the immediate family entered with it, so that Bob remained where he had been since his arrival, standing at the edge of the field. Another ten or fifteen minutes passed, before the first wisp of smoke came trailing out of the pyramid’s peak. The youth he’d shared a living room with just a few weeks before – the same kid who’d taken him for those reckless rides in his sports car – was now burning to ashes inside the golden temple.
Snacks and drinks were brought around as everyone began to mingle. The talk was formal, condolescences extended to family and friends, inquiries as to one’s relationship to the deceased, even the occasional joke – in good taste, naturally, with laughter kept to a minimum. It was as tedious as listening to the speeches, thought Bob, only this time he was able to slip away.
Strolling around behind the temple, he was surprised to encounter Nitty, gazing out over the valley. “How are the folks?” he inquired.
“Not so good,” the youngster replied. “Maw’s gonna have to go in fir some reprogrammin.’”
“Emotional rehabilitation. Lotta folks go through it after a personal crisis. She’s gonna need it.”
Bob nodded solemnly. “So how’s the football goin,’ Nitty? Remember that time we tossed the ball roun’ in the park? You went right by me!”
“Naw, you were takin’ it easy. I knew all along. But it still felt good!”
“You jest needed a li’l confidence. After that thir was no stoppin’ ya!”
Another figure had come up beside Bob while they were talking. He now turned his head to see who – though it took another moment to recognize the features behind the shades.
“Howdy, stranger! Gonna ignore me all day?” Eluji smiled mockingly.
“I had no idea you were here.”
“That’s ’cause you were in back the whole time. I saw you standin’ behind us while we were makin’ the Midday Oath. Ain’t you converted yet?”
“I’m an ‘Incabay’ – remember.”
“Then yir spirit will never be accepted back. You’ll be an Incabay in the after-life too.”
Though he was unable to see her eyes, there was the trace of a smirk on her lips. She was nonetheless attractive, and Bob found himself questioning his own sanity in walking out of her dorm the week before. He could have fullfilled his fantasies with her, yet something had held him back.
“Who was that you were talkin’ with?”
Bob prepared to introduce them – but Nitty had gone. “That was Tyram’s kid brother.”
“The adopted one?”
“You know about that too?”
“Course. Ain’t no secrets in this town, Bob. Everybody knows everythin.'”
They strolled back across the field together, much like a couple, partaking in the snacks and drinks, pausing to chat with acquaintances here and there.
“These occasions can be tryin,’ can’t they?” Eluji muttered after one exchange.
Bob gazed around distractedly. “Thir’s no old people here. I can see children and young people, middle-aged folks even. But thir’s no old people.”
“Cancer, heart attacks, diabetes. Somethin’ always gets ’em.” Eluji shrugged.
Another of the waitresses came around with a tray of cakes – chocolate, cream cheese, banana with butter frosting. Bob took a couple, though he’d already had four. There wasn’t anything else; no sandwiches, savories or fruit – just these sugary cakes.
He was forced to endure Vaddi and Anad’s teasing when he informed them he’d be leaving early with Eluji.
“You snake in the grass!” The former grinned slyly.
The hatchback seemed like a dream after the professor’s clunky old van. Bob sat beside her in the passenger seat; electronic music bouncing out of the stereo speakers, the sun shining in through the windows, a view of the patchwork farmland in the valley far below
“So, is this yir car?” he asked.
“It’s my roommate’s. Loaned it to me for the afternoon,” Eluji replied. “It’s a nice day. Let’s go somewhere!”
“The beach or somethin.’ Maybe take a walk.”
There was little traffic on the roads. They drove out to the same point from where Rasco and Narles had made their fatal swim several weeks before. The latter’s funeral had been held in his home-town – but Rasco’s body had never been recovered.
“Guess I gotta swim that strait soon,” Bob said, staring out at the water.
“You can’t be serious. After what happened to those boys?!”
“It was jest bad luck. Everybody says so. Lotta guys a made that swim.”
“So you gotta prove you can do it too?”
“No, I gotta make that swim to join the Wolves. Everybody on the team’s in the club. Ain’t no way ‘round it.”
They drove in silence for a while. Eluji kept glancing in the rear vision mirror, frowning slightly. “This may sound crazy to you, Bob, but I think we’re bein’ followed.”
“That does sound crazy!” He twisted around in his seat nonetheless, and what he saw then were two vehicles coming around the bend close behind them. The first was a regular four-door sedan, silver and blue; the second a black four-wheel-drive – the same as countless others on the island, yet somehow vaguely familiar. “Pull over and let ’em pass.”
Eluji did as he’d suggested, and the sedan flew by seconds later, but the four-wheel-drive slowed down and drew to a halt just ahead. And, sure enough, it was the hulking figure of Kram which stepped out of the driver’s side.
So preoccupied was Bob with this spectacle, he barely noticed when Reshif emerged from the other side.
“We better get out and talk to ’em,” Eluji said, turning off the engine.
Bob agreed. It would have appeared wimpish to remain in the car.
“Well, well, well . . . “ Kram greeted them cheerfully; his square jaw forming a twisted grin. “Out for a romantic drive, are we? ”
“That’s none a yir business,” Eluji told him. “Why you been followin’ us?”
Kram leered menacingly down at them. “I decide what’s my business. And when my girl goes off on a drive with some feller I got a right to know what’s goin’ on.”
“I ain’t yir girl, Kram. I told ya that already – how many times?”
“Whatever! You were kissin’ this ‘Incabay’ a week ago. I heard all about it. The whole town knows!”
Bob caught Reshif’s eye, remembering the way he’d peered in at them during the party two weeks earlier. “What of it?” he said to Kram. “Eluji ain’t yir girl. She jest told ya so herself.”
The hulk’s response was to seize him by the collar, so powerfully he was almost wrenched off his feet.
“Let ‘im go, you thug!” Eluji began hitting him.
But the hulk merely held her at bay with his free arm, until Reshif stepped forward and pulled her aside.
“We’re gonna take a walk on the beach,” Kram announced calmly, dragging Bob down the grassy bank.
Eluji was hauled along behind them, still protesting. “What a ya think yir doin?!’ This is kidnappin,’ Kram! You better let us go right now!”
“We ain’t kidnappin’ nobody! Jest arrangin’ a li’l contest, see. It’s gonna be me against the Incabay, winner takes all.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I ain’t the prize for some stupid fight!”
Bob glanced across at the neighboring island, its hilltops visible several miles away. “You wanna contest, Kram? How ’bout a swimmin’ contest – to Yezuk an’ back?”
Eluji gaped at him.”Are you crazy, Bob?! You don’t need a prove nothin’ to this dum’ass!”
“Hey!” Reshif shook her. “Don’t go callin’ nobody a ‘dum’ass!'”
She answered that by slapping his arms away, then took advantage of his surprise to scramble back up the bank.
“Let her go,” Kram told him. “The Incabay jest challenged me to a swimmin’ contest. Hear that? I’m gonna humiliate him in front a the whole yardam team!”
With that he released Bob and stood over him. “Tomorrow night after practise, Incabay. Jest make sure yir here. No one ever backs out of a challenge on this island.”
Bob could hardly have been more delighted or relieved. Whether he could beat Kram across the strait and back remained to be seen. But he’d been on the swim team at high school and would certainly stand a better chance in the water than in a punch-up on the sand. Besides which, we was going to have to make that swim one day. Might as well kill two birds with one stone – or try to.
Several vehicles were already parked up when they arrived. Slenno pulled over and they climbed out into the cool night air. A crowd was gathered on the beach below; footballers every one of them – seniors and JVs alike. And the cars kept coming even as they made their way down onto the sand.
From out of the hordes in front of them stepped a hulking square-jawed figure, flanked by two gargantuan linemen. “Winner takes all, Incabay! Don’t forget it.”
“He ain’t got a chance!” one of the linemen sneered. “Kram’s done this three times before.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Slenno told Bob. “Jest make sure you get back safe is all. You won’t have to do it again.”
Bob himself had other ideas. It was ‘winner takes all,’ as the defensive captain had said. If that was the way they settled things here, then he fully intended to be the winner.
The fire had been lit. The moon glowed luminously over the distant hills of Yezuk Island – almost a full moon. It was a clear, starlit night, just like the one on which Rasco and Narles had made their swim the month before. Bob gazed at the dark glossy sea and shuddered at the memory. But there was no way out now. This had to be done.
They were approached by the crewcut mammoth who’d overseen proceedings on that last occasion. He wore the same yellow and green striped suit, and the same cluster of gold and silver chains hung around his neck, each with a figure of the sun at its base.
“Time to get wet gentlemen.” Jumacho handed them both a small plastic bag. “Now, y’all know the rules. Get across to Yezuk, snatch a handful of sand, and bring it back in these bags.”
“We know the rules,” Kram assured him, zipping up his wetsuit. “Now, how ’bout we get this show on the road.”
“Okay, good luck, gentlemen.” The mammoth saluted them and stood aside.
Bob took one final glance at the beach as he waded into the icy surf. They were all standing there watching, a multitude of silhouettes gathered in front of the bonfire, like primitive tribesmen, waiting for the contest to begin.
A series of loud splashes alerted him to the fact Kram was already making good progress, propelling himself along with quick, powerful strokes. Diving into the waves, Bob pursued him, and for the next few minutes he struggled even to keep within sight of his rival. But after a hundred yards or so Kram slowed up, thereafter maintaining a pace more suited to long-distance swimming.
A few hundred yards on Bob spied the first rock – a slimy peak that barely broke the surface. Kram hauled himself straight up onto it, so that Bob was required to tread water while he waited for his chance to rest. By the time Kram got to the next rock, they were almost halfway across. There were more rocks beyond it, shimmering like jewels in the moonlight as the waves washed over them. Moreover, they were now within sight of the peninsula itself; a low, sandy shoal projecting from the coastline. Kram set off again, ploughing through the water toward another rock.
To this point Bob had merely followed him to learn the way. But this time,having rested again, he made directly for the peninsula. Upon reaching the sandbank, he looked around to find the hulking form still out there on one of the rocks. He sucked in the air, filling his lungs gratefully, confident now that victory was within his grasp. The moment Kram came ashore, he’d charge back into the water and begin the long swim back.
A gull flapped overhead, emitting a whistling cry. Bob straighted up and stared around, and great was his alarm when he saw the lights of the patrol boats; both of which had come into view – one to the west; the other looming up on the east. Dropping onto the sand, he rolled onto his stomach and continued watching them from there. It was a disaster, of course. He’d have to wait for them to pass, giving Kram chance to recover. Bob had lost his advantage.
But there was no sign of his opponent. He wasn’t clinging to the rock any more, and if he’d made it to the shore already, he was certainly keeping well-hidden. Bob shivered as he lay there, and dug himself into the sand a little. The vessel to the west seemed to be getting closer; its search-light sweeping the water just short of the pensinsula now.
For fully twenty minutes he waited like that, lying in the sand, wondering again and again how in hell he’d got himself into this mess. All for the sake of a challenge; for the sake of joining a fraternity; for the sake of winning a girl – though only in Kram’s eyes; not even his, and certainly not her own. Suddenly it seemed insane.
Then came the distant clatter of helicopter rotors; a sound that sent the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He was going to have to make a move now – either back into the sea or up the sandback toward the shrubbery. The patrol boat to the east had moved on. He would be able to conceal himself from view on that side of the peninsula – provided he reached the vegetation line. Bob decided to make a run for it.
He got less than halfway before the helicopter swooped in, its search-light glaring down and turning the sand white in front of him. His own hands shone as they pumped away, protruding from the glistening black arms of his wetsuit. A few more steps then he dived, and a loud voice crackled down from the sky above; the words entirely incomprehensible to him.
All he could do was lie there, face-down in the sand, as the defeaning drone of propellers told him the chopper was landing nearby. He soon felt the cyclonic wind on his back. What was it Slenno had told him the night Rasco and Narles had made their swim? ‘Try to escape, they’ll jest shoot ya.’ Bob knew he was going to have to surrender.
Captain Fatsuma sat across the table, smoking a cigarette, his eyes large and brown, his uniform beige khaki, his short cropped hair dyed purple. He was middle-aged and robust – though he seemed oddly thin to Bob after two months on Yenug Island. “So you do this as an initiation ritual?” He elevated his jet-black eyebrows. “That’s an extremely hazardous way to earn your membership.”
Bob felt the sweat dripping down his back. It was after midnight, yet it remained humid in that cramped little room, with the door closed, and only one small window. The smell of body odour pervaded the air, vaguely like onions. “I had no choice. To get into the club I had to do what they told me.”
The captain tapped his cigarette over the ashtray and broke into a disbelieving chuckle. “Thousands of boys must have swum across that strait right under our noses!”
“Not all of ’em made it. Jest last month two a the kids were shot in the water.”
“Really? I don’t recall anything about that?”
“One washed up dead on Yenug. The other’s body was never found.”
Captain Fatsuma frowned pensively. “The Coast Guard must have mistaken them for refugees. If they’d given themselves up, like you did, they wouldn’t have been shot.”
The walls were bare and grimy. Bob could see the lights of other buildings through the window. The chopper had brought him directly here, landing on a helipad out front. They’d provided him with a baggy grey tracksuit and sandles to wear. And the man who sat in front of him now was a soldier. Undoubtedly, then, he was a prisoner of the Yezuk army; perhaps a ‘Prisoner of War.’
The door opened and a young officer entered with a tray of coffee and sandwiches. He too wore khaki, and his short cropped hair was dyed purple. The captain poured cream into his cup, sat back and lit another cigarette.
“This is a poor country. Our neighbours have deprived us of our natural resources, and these wars have made us poorer. Every day there are people trying to flee this island.”
“By swimmin’ to Yenug?”
“It’s been known to happen.”
“But why shoot ‘em?
“Because we’re at war. They represent a security risk.” Captain Fatsuma pushed the tray of sandwiches toward him. “And that’s the message we’re going to send you back to Yenug with.”
“You ain’t gonna toss me in jail?'”
“No, we’re not going to toss you in jail.” The captain chuckled. “You’re a Mainlander, and we don’t want trouble with the Mainland. But make sure you inform your companions about this. Anybody caught swimming that strait in future will be shot on sight.”
The sandwiches turned out to be fried dripping, greasy and a little stale. But Bob had burned up a lot of energy that evening and devoured them without pause. In fact, he found, they were quite tasty.
“This conflict is so pointless,” said Fatsuma, waving away a fly. “We islanders are all the same, you know. It was the colonial period which divided us. So now we call ourselves different countries and fight with each other. But beneath the surface we are still the same people.”
Bob shifted uncomfortably in his seat, mindful of the role his homeland had apparently played in this – and of the role it was continuing to play by supporting Yenug Island.
The captain drew on his cigarette and gazed up at the slow-revolving ceiling-fan as he exhaled. “My grandfather was a Yenug Islander, you know. He fought here during the Inter-island War. But he couldn’t go back; not after losing his right arm to shrapnel. He’d never have worked again, never have married, never have had children. So he surrendered – ‘defected,’ if you like.”
“He was able to work and get married here?”
“Of course. Why not? Yenug’s laws are absurd.”
Bob had to agree on that count. In fact, the captain didn’t seem like such a bad fellow at all and was actually making more sense to him than anybody had for a while – a ‘long’ while. So they were sending him back with a warning for the others; not to try swimming the strait in future. But Bob would have more to tellthan this, once he returned to Yenug.
“Bob? Yir alive!” Slenno’s voice came down the line. “Hell, we’d given you up fir dead – jest like Narles and Rasco!”
“I got caught. But I’m okay. How ’bout Kram? He get back alright?”
“Sure did. Boasted about it all night too – even while we were waitin’ fir you to return.”
“Okay, don’t let on to anyone that I’m back, alright?”
The payphone receiver crackled with laughter. “What in hell are you up to, Bobby? Gonna play the ghost or somethin’ – come back from the dead to haunt ol’ Kram?!”
“Not sure yet. Jest keep it quiet though.”
“Okay,” Slenno agreed. “Guess you need a ride back to Crupsy.”
An hour later he arrived at the ferry terminal. They went for breakfast in a local cafe; eggs, hash browns and coffee. Slenno just couldn’t stop grinning at the sight of him.
“You look like an escaped convict!”
“Feel like one too! Least they didn’t send me back in the wetsuit an’ flippers . . .”
“So what in hell happened over thir?”
Bob gave him the low-down, stressing the warning Captain Fatsuma had provided him with. “It’s crazy to keep doin’ this, man.”
“Kram made it back alright. Can’t be ‘that’ dangerous.”
“Where did he come ashore? Did you actually see him emerge from the water?”
“No, it was further down the coast. He had to walk some.” Slenno gazed inquiringly at him, lines forming across his forehead. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t believe Kram ever made it to Yezuk, that’s why. I was thir, remember. Whatever turf he put in his bag he surely collected on this side.”
Slenno stirred his coffee, the lines on his forehead canine-like. “Well, thir ain’t no way to prove that, Bob. Best forget it. Least you made it back. That’s all ‘at matters.”
The eggs and hash browns were cold. Bob pushed the plate aside still half-full, reflecting that he’d enjoyed the dripping sandwiches more. He didn’t tell Slenno what was really on his mind, of course. But he knew who the first person he’d visit once he got back to Crupsy would be.
In fact, Eluji was in class when they returned, according to her roommate. Bob wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it seemed a little odd she’d gone to her lesson under the circumstances.
He took a nap on the couch while he waited, still exhausted from the events of the previous night. Some time later he was awoken by a hand shaking his shoulder. It was Eluji; dark eyes narrowed in irritation.
“What are ya doin’ here, Bob?”
Dazed by her tone, he promptly sat up and blinked back at her. “Ain’t ya pleased to see me, Eluji? Ain’t ya glad I’m alive?”
“Course I am. But you lost the race. You shouldn’t be here.”
“I was first across the strait. Only . . . the chopper came in an’ I got caught. But Kram never stepped foot on Yezuk. I’m sure a that.
“Well he showed up with a bag full a sand. That makes him the winner.” Eluji shook her head slowly. “You should a never accepted that challenge, Bob. Ain’t no way out of it now. I’m Kram’s girl.”
“That’s insane! You said so yirself. You ain’t no prize.”
“You don’t understand our culture, Bob. You accepted Kram’s challenge. You accepted his terms.”
Bob sprang to his feet. “What in hell are you talkin’ about, Eluji? The guy cheated! An’ you don’t need a be his ‘girl’ anyhow. It’s a free world, ain’t it?!”
“Yir so naive. This ain’t the Mainland, Bob. We have our own customs here.”
His eyes moved to the wall, the yellow flag and the portrait of the Founding Father, and all the pictures hanging beneath them – the crewcut, chubby-faced youths in their military attire; the slain rebels, covered in blood and debris, a few of them mutilated beyond recognition. “Some fine customs ya got, too. Like tarrin’ an’ featherin’ folks an’ stonin’ ‘em to death inside a stadium!”
Eluji took a step backward, her features contorted in horror. “Don’t insult us, Bob! We had to fight fir our freedom. It’s our customs that have kept us strong. Talk like that outside, you’ll get yirself arrested!”
“Let ’em arrest me. They’ll jest send me back to the Mainland. Back to sanity!”
“Sure, run home any time ya like. But this ‘is’ our home. An’ we have a comfortable life here. Who are you to question the way we do things?” She moved across to the front door and held it open. “It’s over, Bob. You lost the challenge. I’m Kram’s girl now.”
It was an overcast day. They zipped their jackets up and buried their hands in their pockets. A cold breeze blew, carrying the sweet, sickly essence of bananas. Helicopters droned overhead, at one point a supersonic jet roared across the sky, and from off in the distance came the brassy sounds of marching band music – growing steadily louder as they continued.
“Didn’t they have this same parade a few weeks back?” asked Bob.
“That was Papa Yenug’s Birthday,” Vaddi explained. ”This one’s Heroes Memorial Day.”
“Lotta parades, huh.”
“Next up it’s Independence Day, an’ after that we celebrate Victory in the Inter-island War.”
The road was long and narrow, closed to traffic that afternoon, though the parade itself was on a connecting street a couple of blocks away. The stores and offices were closed too, and there was an eerie absence of humanity.
“Why so nationalist?” Bob inquired.
“We ain’t ‘nationalist.’ We’re jest patriotic, like you. The Mainland’s got its own holidays, right?”
“We got a few. But not, like, every month.”
“Well, Yenug had to fight fir its freedom. It’s our patriotism that has kept us strong. We’re surrounded by evil enemies, Bob.”
“Yezuk? I was there a week ago, remember. They ain’t evil. Thir jest the same as you an’ me.”
Vaddi’s eyes appeared magnified behind the large-framed spectacles as he stopped and glowered down at him. “Sounds like ya got yirself brainwashed over thir. Those yardam Killers are attackin’ our troops every day, Bob. Best keep opinions like that to yirself!”
Another jet roared across the leaden sky, momentarily drowning out the clatter of the helocopters, not to mention the the pipes, cymbals and drums of the marching band. They walked on in silence.
“How many colors in a rainbow?”
“That’s easy. Seven. What are the three primary colors?”
“Red, blue and . . . “ Bob could only shrug.” I forget.”
Vaddi broke into a vindictive chuckle, the pony-tail bouncing slightly at the back of his balding head. “I win again.”
They turned a corner and the Yenug TV Tower came into view, its giant screen filled with the images Bob and Vaddi could now see for themselves in the street below – the military parade and the flag-waving hordes, many with sticks of yellow candy floss, yellow balloons and T-shirts. Vendors plied their wares. The aroma of grilled meat emanated from the hamburger stalls. Vaddi stopped at a banana sundae stand and ordered two.
“A li’l cold for this, ain’t it?” Bob shivered.
“Never too cold for the Food of the Founding Father,” Vaddi replied.
Light rain began to fall, and an icy, damp sensation soon alerted Bob to the fact he had a tear in the shoulder of his jacket – the only jacket he’d brought with him from the Mainland. He’d have to try and get it repaired, he realized. It was too good to throw away. Meanwhile, Vaddi produced a yellow cap and pulled it on.
“First time I seen ya in a hat,” Bob noted. “Ya look jest like a Yenugian!”
The professor grinned back at him. “Gotta do my patriotic duty. Besides it’s rainin!’”
The roar of the supersonic jet filled the air again, though the aircraft itself was nowhere to be seen on this occasion; flying somewhere above the dense bank of clouds. The soldiers were passing by them; army, navy and airforce combined, all swinging their arms and legs in unison. Loud bursts of applause greeted them. Cameras flashed, yellow flags fluttered, and balloons shot upward – released from their strings, to float swiftly away on the breeze.
The crowd fell in behind and followed the parade to the Cenotaph; a colossal stone monument at least ten metres high, bedecked with yellow flags and giant posters of the Founding Father. At the top were inscribed just two large words in shining gold: ‘Never Forget.’ Here the marching band halted and proceeded to play a solemn melody. A round of gun-fire followed, signalling the start of a two minute silence – which ended with another round of fire. The buglers then performed the ‘Last Tribute’ to the fallen soldiers, before the wreath-laying commenced.
Striding forth on impossibly long legs, wearing a plastic raincoat over his yellow suit, came the president himself, accompanied by an escort holding a large umbrella over his head, a TV camera crew, and several newspaper photographers – all dwarfed by the extraordinary height of the man. At the foot of the Cenotaph he lay his wreath, stepped back to salute, then swung around on his impossibly long legs and returned to the applauding crowd.
Next up was the mayor, as wide as he was tall, then the silver-haired general and the military chiefs. On and on it went, as the crowd stood watching in the drizzle; one official after another, placing their wreaths in front of the Cenotaph, standing back and saluting.
As it dragged on, Bob began to regret his decision to attend, what, with the cold and the rain seeping into his torn jacket. But finally it was over and the multitudes began to disperse. At last they could go home.
During the drive back to Crupsy Bob remarked on the president’s astonishing height. “He must be eight feet tall!”
“His legs were twice as long as his body – and they didn’t bend when he walked. He was obviously on stilts.”
The magnified eyes glowered again. “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard! He’s our president, not a yardam circus performer!”
Bob lapsed back into silence. More and more often he seemed to be saying the wrong things to Vaddi.
The windscreen wipers flicked back and forth, clearing the rain that blurred the view. Livestock grazed in the fields, oblivious to the elements. Dead leaves had piled up along the side of the road. The heater was warm against his legs, but Bob’s T-shirt and sweater were damp and uncomfortable. His jacket lay on the floor in back, torn and pretty much useless.
In fact, there wasn’t much to see; just the orange flashes of the bombs exploding, igniting the night sky, and the ghostly clouds of smoke they left behind. Aside from the blasts themselves, the only sound to be heard was the wailing of the air raid sirens. He imagined all the people running to the shelters; men, women and children; there to cower in terror as the bombs destroyed their city. But how many would never make it to the shelters?
It was almost midnight. The president had announced the start of the war on the six o’clock news; this, in response to the latest attack on Yenugian troops. Too many heroes had died. The killers had to be brought to justice. The news channel replayed his at the top of every hour.
They were celebrating in the capital that night. Live coverage came through at regular intervals: people dancing in the streets, waving their yellow flags, chanting anti-Yezuk slogans. Then back to the orange flashes of bombs exploding. The glare of the screen was all-consuming, mesmerizing and hypnotic in its effects, so that nothing else in that dark empty room seemed to exist at all. Bob flicked through the channels. Most showed the same thing – with the exceptions of a couple of Mainland stations he was able to pick up.
Switching the TV off, Bob took another pill and went to bed. Vaddi had gone to a basketball game but he’d felt too ill to join him. And for several hours his fever kept him awake, tossing and turning, those same images confronting him: orange flashes, clouds of drifting smoke, and the president’s words reverberating in his head: ‘Vengeance shall be ours! Good shall prevail over evil!’ – followed by rapturous applause.
Next morning he followed the hordes down the long corridor. Papa Yenug and all the other dignataries stared down at him from their portraits on the walls. The students in front of him wore much the same attire, everyone in the classroom took their customary places. Professor Schardir distrubted copies of the ‘Times;’ the headline ‘Yenug Goes to War!’ emblazoned across the front page, and invited them to express their opinion.
“Gotta defend ourselves, don’t we?”
“Those Zuks a got it comin!’”
“Yardam Killers! Wipe ’em off the face a the planet, I say!”
The professor smiled and turned his bearded features to Bob. “And you? What’s yir view as a Yabanci?”
“I think it’s tragic.” He wanted to say more, but something prevented him.
“It’ll teach ’em not to kill our Heroes!” Kram snarled from across the room.
“That’s right,” agreed Eluji beside him. “You jest don’t understand, Bob.”
He was too dazed to respond. She’d sided with Kram again – just like she had during that very first lesson, almost three months before. Hard to believe anything at all had happened between them since then.
“Bombin’ ain’t gonna achieve anythin,’” Darb spoke up. “It’s been done before – many times.”
“So what’s ‘yir’ solution?” the professor inquired.
“We gotta pull our troops off that island.”
Kram thumped his fist down on the desk. “This time we shouldn’t let ’em surrender! We ought a wipe ’em out completely! That’ll solve the problem!”
The professor smiled down at Bob and Darb as the others cheered. “Well, it seems you two are on yir own.”
After class Kram cornered Bob in the locker bay. “Should a stayed on that island, Incabay. You talk like a yardam Zuk-lover!”
“Jest said it was ‘tragic,’ is all. People are dyin.’”
“I’m startin’ to think you hate us!” The captain of defense stood over him; the square jaw twisted in a sneer. “Hell, maybe yir a ‘spy.'”
Eluji appeared at his side; the coal-dark eyes boring into Bob from beneath the peak of her yellow cap. “You don’t belong here. Y’ought a go back home.”
Again he was too bewildered to respond. He’d almost fallen in love with her. But now the whole affair seemed like no more than a dream.
Kram swiped Bob’s cap off his head and threw it on the floor. “Shouldn’t be wearin’ this either, Incabay. You ain’t no patriot!”
Darb stepped forward and picked it up – but Kram grabbed it off him and tossed it into the trash. “Three-pointer!” he guffawed, giving Darb a shove for good measure.
“Word’s gonna get around, Bob,” Eluji warned him. “Pretty soon everyone on campus is gonna know yir a Zuk-lover.”
Leaving his cap where it was, Bob turned and walked out of the locker bay. Darb followed close behind, a slight graze on his cheek, just above the level of his beard.
“Thanks fir steppin’ in back thir,” Bob told him, blowing his nose. “But no need to get off-side with Kram on my account.”
“I been off-sides with that thug for a long time,” Darb assured him. “You stood up for me first day a term, dude – remember?” He dropped his own cap in the next trash bin they passed.
Bob chuckled. “What a ya doin?’”
“I ain’t no patriot neither.”
“That’s gonna be tough, Darb. I’m a Mainlander. Kram took my cap off me ‘imself. But this is yir home, man. You gotta get along here.”
The bearded features shook slowly, a trace of swelling around the graze, a droplet or two of blood. The light reflected in his spectacles as they came to the heavy glass-paned door. “Hell, we’re bombin’ people, dude. I ain’t gonna wear that cap!” Darb pushed open the door.
They parted in the West Block and Bob continued on to Professor Hannah’s classroom on the second floor. He was early, though the middle-aged elephantine figure was already there behind the desk, the yellow flag and Papa Yenug’s portrait flanking the white-board behind her.
“Mornin,’ Bob. Lose yir hat?”
“Somebody threw it in the trash.”
“Has this to do with the war, by any chance?”
“It’s tragic! Thir bombin’ people!”
“I agree. But you must be careful what you say to folks here. They’ve been taught to hate Yezuk since the day they were born.”
Bob’s eyes moved to the yellow flag behind her, and the Founding Father’s portrait. Would she have wanted those on the wall had it been her choice? He wondered.
“Yir not the only one who thinks this way, Bob, believe me. This island’s stuck in the past. It’s barbaric. We worship a star, idolize the military and believe our president’s eight feet tall. We gorge ourselves on ice-cream and Yenugade and die before we’re old. It’s been this way fir generations.”
“You said an outsider’s perspective was what they needed.”
“It is. But don’t make ’em too angry. That can be dangerous.” She peered up at him from over the rims of her glasses. “Yir still naive about this island, Bob. Now, take my advice and get a new hat.”
Bob lowered his gaze to the tired, rheumy eyes, with their lines and shadows, and the heavy bags below. And though the semester was halfway over, he realised he had never seen Professor Hannah standing up.
Lardy did not even raise his eyes as he toiled, transferring the plates, cups and baskets of utensils from the dishwasher to the dryer.
Bob picked up a glass jug and held it aloft. “Jug burger!” But the grin fell off his face as Lardy walked away. He looked across at Trebor. “What’s the matter with Lardy?”
“Lost his girl burger. She run off!”
“It ain’t like that!” Lardy snapped. “I told ‘er to go. She was wastin’ her time with me.”
Bob stared at them both. “Adokat’s gone?”
“Go see fir yirself,” Trebor suggested.
He did just that and, sure enough, it was not Adokat he found setting up the serving line as always, but an older woman with round-framed glasses. Yes, she’d started that day. No, she didn’t know anything about the young lady who’d worked there before.
Bob returned to the dishwashing room. “So Adokat quit – jest like that?”
“Jest like that.” Trebor nodded.
Lardy fumbled a glass and it smashed on the floor. “Yardam!” he swore, and fetched the dustpan and brush.
A moment later big Nats ducked through the doorway. “Breakin’ things, Lardy? Be more careful in future – or I’ll start chargin’ ya fir ’em.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
The catering manager’s gaze now came to rest on Bob. “Where’s yir cap?”
“Somebody threw it in the trash.”
“Why in hell would anyone do that?”
“Said I wasn’t patriotic enough to wear it.”
The towering canteen manager ogled him a moment longer, registering that information. “Well, get yirself another. Can’t work here without no hat, Bob. You know the rules.”
“Campus store closed at five,” Lardy pointed out.
“I know that. Now get back to work, rodent. I don’t want anythin’ else broken today, ya hear!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
The pale blue eyes returned to Bob. “And you: Show up with a hat tomorrow – or don’t show up at all.”
Lardy walked back to the dishwashing machine. “You heard ‘im, Bobby. I’m a yardam rodent. That’s why Adokat couldn’t marry me.”
“You ain’t no rodent, Lardy.”
Trebor gripped his companion by the shoulder. “Yir my pal, Lardy. Big Nats fires you, I’ll be leavin’ too.”
“Me an’ all,” Bob added.
But there was no cheering Lardy up that evening. At one point he pulled a bunch of forks out of the basket and brandished them in front of Bob. “Gotta put ‘em in prongs-up, or else they won’t wash properly.”
“Aw, come on, Lardy, it don’t matter!”
“Sure it does. That’s the system. Gotta follow the system or everythin’ turns to chaos.” He began replacing the forks, one by one, prongs pointed upward.
Across the room, Trebor grinned from behind the drying machine. “That’s right, Bobster. Gotta follow the system or everythin’ turns to chaos!”
Most of the players were already kitted up when Bob arrived for training, all in their bright yellow uniforms, the word ‘Bombers’ emblazoned across their chests in lime green letters. The helmets were yellow too, hanging from hooks on the walls behind them. All eyes seemed to stare as he stepped into the gloomy clubrooms.
“If it ain’t the Zuk-lover?” one of the seniors called out.
“I hear you hate us,” said another.
“You hate ‘me,’ Bobby boy?”
“Where’s yir cap, Incabay? You disrespectin’ the Foundin’ Father?”
Bob unzipped his sports bag and began unpacking his kit. He could have ignored them, and they might even have left him alone. But something compelled him to reply. “I don’t hate nobody. An’ somebody threw my cap in the trash.”
Kram got to his feet, shoulder pads in place but his shirt not yet on, so that he looked like something out of a science fiction movie. “Who might that a been, Bobby boy?”
Unable to locate his gloves, Bob turned the bag over and dumped everything out on the seat. “Somebody who cheated in a swimmin’ race,” he answered.
“Yir a yardam liar!”
Kram lunged toward him but Bob stepped aside in the nick of time – causing the big linebacker to stumble into the bench. This infuriated him all the more, and the wild left hook he followed up with might easily have broken Bob’s jaw – had it connected.
“What in hell’s goin’ on!”
Bob could hardly have been more relieved at the sound of the coach’s voice behind him. Saved – if only for the moment. It wasn’t going to end there, of course.
“Kram, Bob, come to my office.”
Inside they found him seated on his desk, arms folded across the barrel-chest, the yellow ‘Yenug Football’ cap pressed down on his head. Behind him on the wall were the national flag and the Founding Father’s portrait – just like all the classrooms. Elsewhere there were trophies and stacks of football books on the shelves. The whole office was perfectly neat and organized, Bob observed – but for one blemish: The trophies were covered in dust.
“Keep yir fists to yirself, Kram, or you’ll be off this team.”
“He insulted me, Coach. Called me a ‘cheat.'”
“I don’t care. He’s a freshman. Pick on someone yir own size.”
Kram grimaced and turned toward the door. “That all, Coach?”
The deep-set eyes now bore into Bob. And that stare was more unnerving even than the sight of Kram coming at him had been.
“So what’s goin’ on, Bob? Everybody’s talkin’ about ya; sayin’ you don’t support the war an’ all. Need a be more careful what ya tell folks, son, or yir gonna wind up in serious trouble.”
“It was Professor Schardir’s class. I jest said the war was ‘tragic.’ We’re ‘supposed to’ give our views, right? Kram jest didn’t wanna hear it.”
“Kram and a whole lot of others,” Semja warned him. “Now, you know yir paw’s an ol’ friend a mine, and I feel obliged to look out for ya. But I can’t say what’s gonna happen if you continue to shoot yir mouth off, son. Think about yir family. Thir payin’ good money to send you here.”
Bob’s gaze fell upon the trophies once more, with their thin layer of dust. The Coach was right, of course. And so were the others who’d told him the same thing. Best to keep his opinions to himself on this island. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to cause no trouble.”
Semja leaned foward and gripped him by the shoulder. “Don’t pay to be different, Bob. I wanna winnin’ team an’ you gotta fit in with the rest of ‘em. Now, go get yir uniform on.”
Bob raised the spoon to his mouth and paused a moment before consuming the ice-cream on the end of it. His stomach felt like a sack of boulders, what, after the hash browns and eggs he’d eaten, the waffles and fruit topping, and now the banana sundae to follow. It had become his customary breakfast, but this particular morning he just didn’t have room. The cool ice-cream merely slid down his intestines and remained there, trapped in his digestive system, unable to enter the overflowing storage tank below. Another spoonful and he’d throw up for sure, and perhaps that would be preferable – just to get rid of it all.
When Big Nat’s approached he braced himself for another yelling at. But the campus clothes and stationery store wasn’t open yet, and something in the canteen manager’s expression suggested he wasn’t coming over to reprimand him about the cap anyway. There was more a look of defeat in his eye than anger.
“Got some bad news, Bob,” he said gravely, lowering himself into the seat opposite. “‘Real’ bad, I’m afraid. Lardy passed away last night.”
“‘Passed away?!’ How?”
Nats removed his own cap, placing it on the table and running a hand through his receding blond curls. “Tried to hang himself from a tree. Some folks found ‘im lyin’ in the grass with a broken neck and called the ambulance. By the time it got to Rihesh he was gone.”
Bob averted his eyes, recalling how Nats had rebuked Lardy just the previous evening. But no, he couldn’t hold that against him; nor even the fact he’d called him a ‘rodent.’ That wasn’t the reason Lardy had taken his own life, of course.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“The funeral’s tomorrow at noon, Temple a Yar.” Nats put his cap back on and returned to the kitchen.
Pushing aside the sundae, Bob stared blankly through the windows at the bare, windswept trees. So Lardy had hanged himself; prevented by law from marrying the woman he loved; a law that told him he wasn’t good enough to live a normal life.
For the second time in as many months, there would be a funeral at the Temple of Yar. Three months on this island, three young men had died – while a fourth was still missing, almost certainly dead as well. Bob tried to remember their faces but couldn’t; not even Lardy’s. He recalled their words and various incidents with absolute clarity: Tyram laughing at him in the sports car and asking if he was scared; Rasco and Narles zipping up their wetsuits before wading into the sea; Lardy’s blubbering apologies to Nats: ‘sorry, sorry, sorry . . .’ When he tried to remember their faces, however, he saw only the features of the cleancut soldiers in the photos on Anicom and Sinden’s wall – the ones who hadn’t come back.
Bob got up and headed for class. Though this was no more than instinct, developed over a dozen weeks or so of doing precisely the same thing; as routine as eating and sleeping. If he hadn’t been walking to Professor Schardir’s lesson right then, what else would he have been doing?
On this occasion he was early, no hordes in front of him as he made his way along the corridor. The only faces he saw were those in the portraits gazing down from the walls; Papa Yenug’s most prominent – baseball cap in place, jowls bulging, stern look in the eyes.
One by one Bob pulled those portraits down and threw them onto the floor, breaking the frames and shattering the glass. He’d got through six or seven before a voice cried out behind him.
“Hey! The Incabay’s goin’ crazy!”
Teachers emerged from their classrooms to see what was going on. Then, up ahead, Bob saw Professor Schardir himself; bearded features gaping in astonishment; eyes bulging behind the spectacles.
“In Yar’s name, Bob, what are you doin?!'”
That’s when Bob started to run, charging past the dumbstruck professors and out through the northern exit, across the campus and on toward the main football field. The cold wind drew tears from his eyes as he went. The ice-cream rose back up in his intestines, reaching his throat so that he could actually taste it again; sweet and sickly.
He could hear them yelling: ‘Keep sight of ‘im!’ . . . ‘Don’t let ‘im get away!’ Yes, he’d become a fugitive, on the run, and those in pursuit no doubt viewed themselves as the brave and righteous heroes.
Upon reaching the pitch, Bob had only one intention. Seizing the ropes of the metal flagpole he brought the great yellow rectangle of fabric down as quickly as he could, and tore it off. The first chaser reached him as he did so, a wiry fellow Bob recognized from the track team. They tussled for a moment, then Bob managed to land a blow. In almost the same instant his stomach heaved and out came the ice-cream and waffles, spraying all over the horrified victim on the ground beneath him. The next chaser halted a few yards away, understandably discouraged.
Bob immediately felt much lighter – much freer. Setting off on a diagonal route, he flew across the field toward the clubrooms, up the concrete driveway and out onto the road. From there it was downhill all the way to Vaddi Monhaff’s bungalow, a few blocks off campus.
It wouldn’t be long before they came for him, of course. Would they send him to prison? He could only guess what the penalty for smashing the Founding Father’s portrait might be. But one thing was for certain: Bob had no intention of hanging around to find out. He should have got off this island a month ago, he told himself, right after the ‘Stoning of the Killers’ parade had revealed to him exactly what kind of place it was.
The keys to Vaddi’s van were hanging on the hook beside the front door as usual. Bob’s first thought upon grabbing them was to head for Rihesh, then board a train and return the way he’d come. Too obvious, however. If the cops didn’t overtake him on the way, they’d be waiting for him at the station, for certain – or otherwise at the airport.
It were almost as though the van itself determined to take him west, along the narrow road toward the coast. Half an hour later he was there, at the same beach where his race with Kram had begun just two weeks before; the same beach onto which Narles’s body had washed up the night of his fateful swim. Bob drove off the road to conceal the van among the bushes. He had brought just two things with him: The professor’s own wetsuit, which proved too big – unsurprisingly, and a plastic bag containing his wallet and passport. With these he trotted across the road and down the slope to the shoreline.
The water encompassed him like a blanket of ice, freezing his bare head and hands so they imeddiately began to ache. The waves rocked him about, impeding his progress, forcing him to gulp in the air between strokes. It was going to be tough, he realized; much tougher than the last time. Of the bottom he could see nothing – only blackness.
When finally he rolled over to rest, floating on his back as the waves lifted him up and down, he anticipated finding himself somewhere in the middle of the strait. In fact, he had covered barely a hundred yards or so. And above him the clouds were growing darker. It was starting to rain. Bob turned back over and continued swimming.
Next time he paused for breath the rain was coming down hard. A distant drone could also be heard, though from which direction, he couldn’t tell. Nothing was to be seen in the grey mass of the sky. The Yenugian coast remained a shadow behind him, between two and three hundred yards distant.
He kept going, plowing the water with his arms. At one point the waves literally picked him up and hurled him backward. And the rain fell harder still. It was difficult to say whether he was making any progress at all. In addition to which, a current seemed to be dragging him eastward – out toward the open sea. Yet no current had been evident during his race with Kram. Bob realized it was possible he was well off course.
Even in this predicament he was startled by the clatter of helicopter rotors nearby. Filling his lungs, he sunk below the surface and propelled himself along frog-like. For twenty or thirty seconds he continued this way, before coming up gasping. Much to his relief, the lights of the helicopter were gliding away – headed for the Yenugian coast. He had done well to avoid detection.
He kept going, though his energy began to wane, though his shoulders burned with fatigue. Swarms of white jellyfish surrounded him, some tinged with blue, others almost transparent. But they, at least, proved harmless. He’d been in the water more than half an hour, and for the first time he wondered whether he was going to make it. If he was on course, he ought to be within a few hundred yards of the rocks. If he wasn’t, then he had no chance. And the latter seemed more likely, for that current was dragging him eastward, out toward the open sea.
His extremeties started to tingle, then lost feeling entirely. All Bob could do was keep plowing the water with his arms, keep kicking with his legs. By now he should have reached the first of the rocks, surely. But he knew that he was nowhere near them. The situation was hopeless. He could no longer control his movements. His whole body began to tremble wildly.
As he sank into the murky depths strange images appeared before him. They were the pale, chubby features of the soldiers in the pictures on Anicom and Sinden’s wall, three in total. But as they came into clearer focus he was able to distinguish their faces: Narles, Tyram and Lardy – floating around him like balloons on strings; underwater angels welcoming him with vacant smiles. The further he descended, the colder it became – unbearably so. He could now see the bottom, and there, curled up on the sea-bed, was his own likeness, sleeping peacefully.
But, no, he wasn’t ready for that. Looking upward, he saw another face above him; this one bearded and bespectacled; a graze on one cheek, a droplet or two of blood. Darb! Bob smiled cheerfully. The good fellow was there to save him, grinning down, beckoning him back to the surface! With the last of his strength he kicked away from the bottom, his need for oxygen driving him on. The faces disappered from view, Darb’s among them, but still he continued. And so desperate was he to breathe in the air, he did not notice the rain still falling when he emerged, nor the condition of his own body, and neither did he hear the voices that cried out close behind him. When they pulled him aboard the patrol boat, he was already unconscious.
Several times Bob had awoken; once believing he was at home on the Mainland, perfectly warm and snug; on another occasion shivering violently with the cold, in spite of the blankets that covered him. He recalled the momentary pain of the needle entering his arm, and the doctor standing over him – a middle-aged man with dyed purple hair – talking in a strange language that he did not understand. But who had he been talking to? Bob could not remember. The second figure had remained in the background, a mere shadow that moved once or twice. And it had replied to the doctor in a sonorous tone which, though low and muted, had echoed around the room.
The bed was narrow, the room small and bare; its walls a grimy off-white. Presumably he was in a hospital. His chest, heavy and congested, caused him to break into frequent coughing fits when he was awake, and he was entirely devoid of energy – so much so that it required a great effort just to roll over.
In this position he saw himself – lying at the bottom of the sea. And then it all started to come back to him: his escape from Yenug Island and attempt to swim the strait; the hard rain falling; the giant waves and the current that had carried him too far off course; the loss of feeling in his extremities; the exhaustion in his arms; and that dreadful moment when he had sunk toward the bottom, hallucinating wildly, seeing himself curled up on the seabed – as he did again now. Bob shuddered at the memory; that moment when he had foreseen his own death.
Only one thought served to comfort him as he lay in the narrow bed: Wherever he was now, it was the people who’d saved his life that had brought him here. Within a few days he ought to be back home again, with his family. And what a story he’d have to tell them! Perhaps he’d go to the newspapers. He could almost see the headlines – ‘Mainlander Escapes Horrors of Yenug Island!’ Yet somehow he sensed this would never happen.
Hard shoes clacked in the corridor. Men’s voices could be heard. Then the door clunked open, the light flashed on, and two slim officers entered. They were in military uniform, their short-cropped hair dyed purple. And both were smoking cigarettes. Bob began to suspect he was not in a hospital ward at all.
“Good afternoon, Bob. We trust you are feeling better,” one said, in the same sonorous tone he had heard before .
“You have been here more than twenty-four hours.”
Bob broke into another coughing fit as the smoke filled the room. “A doctor gave me an injection . . .” he wheezed, seeking an explanation.
“Antibiotics. You are suffering from pneumonia.”
“Where am I?”
“You are a Prisoner of War. We are officers of the Yezuk Island Army.” The fellow took a long drag on his cigarette. “Now we’d like to ask ‘you’ some questions.”
At this his companion produced a note-pad and pen. The cell was full of smoke by now, so that Bob was scarcely able to breathe without coughing. He wondered how they expected him to get through the interrogation like this.
“Why did you attempt to swim here?” the officer began.
“I was trying to escape from Yenug.”
“Escape from Yenug Island? Why?”
“Because I disagree with the war on Yezuk.”
The officer elevated a purple eyebrow. “That’s a nice story to tell. But this is not the first time you have tried to reach our island illegally. We have Captain Fatsuma’s report on your previous ‘visit’ less than one month ago.”
“Then you know it was a hazing ritual.”
“So you claimed. The first time you swam here it was to join them, now you swim here to escape them. Do you expect us to believe you?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, pausing to cough. “But it’s the truth.”
The officer stamped out his cigarette and lit another. “We are a nation at war. You have tried to enter our territory illegally. Why did they send you here?”
Bob almost burst out laughing, except it turned into more coughing instead. “I’m not a spy, if that’s what you mean. I’m not even Yenugian.”
“The Mainland has always been against us too.”
Bob recalled Captain Fatsuma’s comment: They hadn’t wanted to ‘antagonize’ his homeland. Surely that would save him this time as well. But first he had to convince them he wasn’t the secret agent they evidently believed he was. “Do you seriously think the Mainland would force their spies to swim here?”
The officer considered this for a moment, then gestured for his companion to put away the notebook. “You have attempted to reach this island from Yenug – not once, but twice. Given the fact we are currently at war with Yenug, you will excuse our suspicion.”
With that the two officers departed again, switching off the light, so that Bob was left alone in that dark room full of smoke. As their hard-soled shoes clacked away, he contemplated his fate. So he was a ‘Prisoner of War.’ Would there be further interrogations, then? Would they send him off to some kind of labour camp once he’d recovered? Scenes from old war movies began flashing through his mind. Perhaps they’d even torture him.
Half an hour later a young officer entered bearing a tray of sandwiches and coffee. The filling was the same as that he’d eaten in Captain Fatsuma’s presence a month before – fried dripping. And Bob devoured them with as much gusto as he had on that occasion too. It was the first time he’d eaten since abandoning his ice-cream sundae at breakfast the previous morning.
Afterward he slept soundly, and when they woke him again he found that he felt much better. His body temperature was normal; his energy beginning to return. The antibiotics had taken effect. The officers standing above him were not the same as before, he observed. Though attired in khaki uniform, their crewcut hair dyed purple, they were younger and leaner than the previous pair.
“Put these on,” said one, handing him a brown paper bag. “Then you will come with us.”
The bag contained a baggy grey tracksuit and sandals – like those he’d been given last time. All he had on beneath the blankets were some inelegant striped pyjamas. The officers waited outside while he got changed, then escorted him along the empty corridor, hard-soled shoes echoing off the walls. Through the windows Bob could see the lights of other buildings, and a few armed soldiers walking about in the courtyard below. He was back at military headquarters.
Indeed, they soon entered an area of the building that was familiar to him. No need to read the sign on Captain Fatsuma’s door. They found him inside, middle-aged and athletic, attired in a khaki uniform, his short-cropped hair dyed purple, his eyebrows dense and black. He was seated behind his desk, smoking a cigarette, just as Bob remembered him.
“Well, well, well! Hello again, Bob. Back so soon?” The large brown eyes glimmered with intrigue.
“I jest wanna go home, back to the Mainland.”
“Impossible, I’m afraid.”
Bob felt the sweat trickle down his back. Above them the ceiling fan revolved slowly. The purple-haired general glowered down from his portrait on the wall, beside the purple flag.
“So what’s gonna happen to me?”
The captain stubbed out his cigarette and lit another. “That depends on how much you co-operate.”
“First of all, I want you to tell me everything you know about Yenug Island.”
Bob greeted this with a guarded sense of relief. He would be more than happy to oblige. But would they ‘really’ let him go if he did?
“Sure. But I’m jest a student. I don’t know anything important.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“Will I be able to go home afterward?”
The nicotine-stained teeth smiled back at him. “Provided you co-operate with us, Bob, you will be released the day this conflict is over.”
“You pulled down the Yenugian flag? We should award you a medal!”
“Did you see any evidence of cannibalism? Do the Yenugians really eat human flesh?”
“Why do they hate us so much? What’s your view on that?”
Bob gazed around at the reporters in bewilderment. His eyes found the TV cameras trained on him at the rear. “No, I didn’t see any evidence of cannibalism. I doubt that’s true. Thir hatred is based on ignorance. They only know what thir taught.”
“They’re ‘taught’ to hate us? Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it to justify their wars, their exploitation of our natural resources?”
Bob gazed around at the reporters again. So his story was going to be in the newspapers after all – and also on TV, evidently – though not in the way he’d imagined. He shook his head in apology. “I don’t know.”
After the conference Captain Fatsuma approached him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You did well, son. I think they even took a liking to you!”
“But I couldn’t answer most a thir questions.”
“You said enough to help our cause. That’s what matters.”
Bob was a little uncomfortable with the captain’s grip on his shoulder, almost vice-like. Nonetheless, he was encouraged by this praise. Surely they weren’t planning to torture him after this, nor dump him in some labour camp.
“Merjey Darnok from the Yezuk Times has offered you accommodation. His apartment’s a little way out of town.”
“You mean I’m free to go?”
“Naturally.” The captain shook him by the shoulder and revealed his ginger teeth. “Merjey’s a good fellow. He’ll look after you. But don’t try to leave the island, Bob. That would be a mistake.”
Half an hour later he found himself speeding along the coast in the passenger seat of Merjey Darnok’s sports car. The lights of the boats lit up the black expanse to their left – big cargo ships, fishing vessels, yachts and launches. Now and then a plane shot overhead, rumbling noisily in the night sky. And once or twice Bob thought he heard the distant sound of thunder.
“They are destroying our city,” said Merjey, puffing on a cigarette as he drove. “Can you hear the bombs?”
Bob knew, of course, that the aircraft flying over them weren’t passenger jets. They themselves could be obliterated at any moment – if even one of those pilots happened to deem them a worthy target.
“Yes, I hear them.” He twisted around in his seat to see what was going on in the capital. The city was now hidden behind the forested hills behind them, though the half-moon high above it was cast in an orange-brown hue.
Merjey switched on the radio and listened to the strange and urgent babble coming out of it. His frustration was evident. “People are dying as we speak. We are brave people, but how can we defend ourselves against bombs from the sky? It’s not war. It’s extermination. The Nugs are nothing but cowards and mass-murderers!”
Bob wanted to tell him about Darb, and other good people he had met on Yenug, but speeding along the coast like this, with the Yenugian fighter jets roaring overhead on their way to bomb the city, obviously wasn’t the time. Besides which, he’d just escaped from Yenug and been as good as accused of spying. Opening his mouth in defense of the enemy was how he’d got himself into this fix in the first place. So he merely tightened his seatbelt and kept quiet as Merjey accellerated down the long straight.
Another jet swept the sky, followed soon after by the muffled boom of an explosion. Merjey shook his head gravely and puffed on his cigarette. He had the standard purple hair and ginger-stained teeth, and seemed extraordinarily thin – as they all did to Bob after three months on Yenug Island.
As they passed through a small village Merjey steered the car off the main road, and soon after parked it in front of a small bungalow overlooking the coast. “Welcome to my humble abode,” he said.
Once inside, he hastened through to the living room and switched on the TV. And there before their eyes were the images of burning buildings in the capital, orange flames shooting up into the night sky. The same strange and urgent babble Bob had heard on the car radio now boomed out of the television speakers.
“It all began with the discovery of gas fields off our shores,” Merjey told him. “The Nugs invaded and killed many of our people. That’s what started the Wars. So long as they continue to control our resources and occupy our land, how can this conflict end?”
Bob felt himself swaying slightly; his eyes beginning to close. It was past midnight, and he was still recovering from his illness. “Do you mind if I sit down?” he said, slumping onto the sofa.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Bob! You must be exhausted. Let me get you some blankets.” Merjey returned a few minutes later with a pile of bedding in his arms, as well as a large cushion. “Can I get you some food? A sandwich or something . . .”
“No, thanks,” Bob declined, despite the hunger grinding away in his stomach. He just wanted to sleep.
“Okay. You need rest. Tomorrow we’ll go shopping and get you some clothes and things.” With that Merjey switched off the TV and lights, and left him alone in the living room.
Comatose though he was, Bob remained awake on the couch for some time afterward, contemplating in a daze all that had occurred since he’d awoken in a cell at military headquarters that afternoon. He could’ve been tortured. He could’ve been sent to some kind of labour camp. At the very least, he’d expected to be locked up like the ‘Prisoner of War’ they’d told him he was. Instead he found himself in the living room of this amiable journalist from the Yezuk Times, unrestrained by any means, with only a verbal warning not to leave the island.
The sofa was firm but narrow, not wide enough for his knees when he tried to curl up into the fetal position. Besides which, the arm made for a harsh pillow, even with the cushion on top. And the hunger continued to grind away in the pit of his stomach. He should’ve accepted that sandwich after all. In his own home, he could have simply got up and made one, but what could he do here, in the house of a stranger? Bob listened for some noise that might tell him his host was still up and about, but heard nothing. And now he felt almost as trapped in that room as he had in the cell at military headquarters.
They ate breakfast together out on the porch; eggs, bread, tomatoes and sausages – all pan fried together in oil; and washed it down with fruit juice and strong black coffee. The morning sun glowed warmly upon them, and barely a hint of a breeze blew in from the sea. It was going to be a fine day, Bob observed, though it was almost winter. But what did winter really mean here, on the edge of the sub-tropics in this virtual island paradise?
Merjey pushed his plate aside and lit a cigarette. “Would you like one?”
“No thanks. Don’t smoke.”
“Well, you should try it, my friend. Calms the nerves and helps you concentrate.”
Bob took another sip of the bitter coffee instead. “What’s the news from the capital?”
“Hundreds killed. Maybe thousands.”
“Sure looked bad!”
“It’s easy for them to slaughter people in the city, but they won’t achieve anything that way. Yezuk Islanders are masters at guerilla warfare. We learnt this during the struggle for independence.”
“They speak the native language on radio and TV here. I never heard it once on Yenug.”
Exhaling a stream of acrid smoke, Merjey frowned at the horizon. “Yenug has all but reverted to its colonial status. Their army is funded and equipped by the Mainland, and their leaders are puppets of the Mainland.”
Bob reached around to scratch a persistent itch behind his left shoulder. “I never knew about any a this. You must hate us.”
“Not exactly.” The journalist smiled wryly. “The Mainland is like a wicked stepfather to us. Obviously there is deep resentment. But what can we do? We are only a small island. Yenug, on the other hand, is like a brother which has betrayed us; a brother which runs to the wicked stepfather for protection. It is the Nugs who we truly despise.”
Bob left Merjey smoking his cigarette on the porch and went inside for a shower. In the bathroom mirror he was able to see what the cause of his itching was: two angry red mosquito bites. He searched the bathroom cabinet for cream but found none. Perhaps he could get some when they went out shopping, he thought. But then he remembered: His wallet and passport had not been returned to him at military headquarters. Bob didn’t have any money.
When he came out of the bathroom Merjey was kneeling in front of the TV, listening intently. Bob assumed it was more news about the bombing, but the images on the screen were not of the capital. They were of a middle-aged gentleman, with purple hair and flowing purple robes, staring directly into the camera while speaking in the native language. On the wall behind him were the Yezuk flag and the same portrait Bob had seen in Captain Fatsuma’s office.
After a few minutes the speaker’s image gave way to green hills and forestry, and a slow tune began to play. Still on his knees, Merjey sang along with it – the words incomprehensible to Bob, naturally.
“Was that yir president?” he inquired afterward.
“That, my friend, was the High Priest Hamabar.”
Bob recalled a dicussion in Professor Schardir’s class, when one of the student’s had described the Yezuk Island religion as ‘evil.’
“Goddess of the Earth,” Merjey replied, and broke into a chuckle. “You really don’t know much about us, do you?”
“Sorry. We didn’t learn it at school.”
His host grimaced and looked him up and down. “Well, I think we best head into town and get you some new clothes. Can’t have you going about dressed like a convict!”
Along the way Merjey stopped at a newsagents and bought a copy of the Yezuk times. Sure enough, Bob’s photo was at the top of the third page.
“What does it say?”
“It’s in English, Bob. The Times is an English language paper.”
Bob looked closer and read the headline: ‘Mainlander Escapes Yenug Horror!’ – just as he’d imagined while recovering in the cell at the military compound.
“No misquotes, I hope.”
Merjey winced good-humouredly. “I don’t misquote ‘anyone,’ my friend.”
At the clothes store, Bob discarded the baggy tracksuit and sandals in favour of the clothes his companion bought him. “This Is very generous. Wish I could repay you but – “
“No need. Company’s paying for it all. You gave us a good story, my friend.” Merjey winked and led him out of the store.
Next stop the barber’s, where Bob’s hair was clipped short and dyed bright purple. He barely recognised himself afterward. Though his hair had been reduced to little more than stubble, so vivid was the colour it diverted attention from the rest of his features entirely.
“Now you look like a Yezuk Islander!” Merjey shook him by the shoulder.
It was about the last thing Bob wanted, but what could he say when his host – or the company he worked for – was being so generous? Instead he inquired about the portrait on the wall.
“The greatest soldier in history,” replied the barber, gazing up at the picture. “General Saparatruma won our independence. General Saparatruma held out against the Mainland in spite of all the odds. General Saparatruma served as first king of Yezuk until his death. General Saparatruma laid the foundations of the free and democratic society you see today.”
Bob turned his eyes to the mirror and studied his own purple hair. Yes, exchange the purple for yellow, the hair for a cap, and he could almost have been back on Yenug once again.
“Okay, let’s go to the supermarket,” said Merjey, leading him out of the barber shop.
Etan ordered another round of ‘General’s Rum.’ They were already on their third. It came with ice and ‘Yuzekola.’ Bob was beginning to feel the effects already. Up on the screen a soccer game was showing. The standard did not appear high, though a crowd of young men were gathered around in front of the wall-mounted TV set watching excitedly.
“Is it true they stone our captured soldiers to death inside a stadium?” Gerro inquired, puffing on his cigarette.
“Tarred an’ feathered ‘em first,” Bob answered. “Saw it with my own eyes.”
“Wow, that’s brutal! Just goes to show what savages the Nugs are.”
“And they think their king is eight feet tall!” Etan scoffed, downing his rum and crunching the ice with his teeth.
Bob nodded. “Also true.”
“Well, ours is nine feet tall!”
They were all chuckling now.
“So he claims,” Merjey told him. “But we’re not as naive as the Nugs.”
Gerro called for the next round. Bald and overweight, he would’ve looked more at home on Yenug than among these slim fellows with their dyed purple hair. “So what do you make of this bombing campaign, Bob?” he asked.
“I think it’s tragic. Those bombs are killin’ innocent people. What’s that gonna achieve?”
“Not a karpottam thing!” said Gerro, and his companions raised their plastic ‘glasses’ in salute.
Etan exhaled a long stream of cigarette smoke, which soon merged with the general haze. “I was there this morning. They were carrying out the bodies. Some burnt black, others with limbs torn off, kids with their skulls caved in. But after a while, nothing shocks you anymore. You just get used to it.”
A cheer rose up from the crowd in front of the TV. Replays showed a headed goal from a corner, then the score ‘0 – 1′ flashed up on the screen.
Bob watched as the red team celebrated, each of the players with purple hair. “Surprises me thir playin’ this game – what, with the war on an’ all.”
“There’s ‘always’ a war on,” Merjey answered, and downed his rum.
“Besides, it’s a derby,” Gerro added. “Call this game off and we’d be dealing with riots – as well as the bombing!”
“You a player, by any chance?” Etan asked Bob. “We got a team in the social league. Could use an extra pair of legs.”
“Sure. But I ain’t so good. Football’s the main sport back home.”
“Well, we won’t hold that against you – so long as you show up on Sunday!”
This time angry jeers rose up from the crowd in front of the TV. The white team had been awarded a penalty. And, sure enough, one of the players stepped up and calmly slotted the ball into the corner of the net as the keeper dived the other way.
“Karpottam ref’s biased!” Etan cursed, crunching ice with his teeth.
Bob glanced up as two men entered the bar and approached the table. And for a moment he was too dumfounded to speak. The yellow cap was gone, the hair dyed purple, but the face grinning back at him was unmistakable.
“Hey, Bobster, I heard you were in town!”
“Glad you fellows could make it!” Merjey welcomed them, and called for another round of drinks.
Bob was still staring. “Rasco . . . Yir alive! Everybody back on Yenug thinks yir dead!”
“Suits me just fine. I won’t be going back there.”
“Do yir folks know?”
“That’s who I ‘don’t’ want to know,” Rasco replied. “My father would kill me if he knew I was here.”
Merjey slapped Bob on the shoulder. “Thought you’d be surprised. Here, have another rum!”
Bob accepted the plastic glass but did not drink from it. He wanted to keep his mind as clear as possible, now that he’d met Rasco again. “So what are you doin’ here?”
“Working with these fine fellows.” He indicated Merjey and his colleagues.
“Yir a journalist?”
“Got lucky over here, Bobster.” Rasco lit a cigarette and kept grinning. “Got a place down the coast, wonderful girlfriend, scooter for getting around. Life’s good, my friend!”
Bob coughed from the smoke. “Apart from the war . . . ”
“Exactly. You see what the Nugs are doing here. It’s horrific!” He offered the pack to Bob. It was purple and featured General Saparatruma’s portrait on the front.
“You know I don’t smoke, Rasco. An’ since when did you?”
“Since I got here. Calms the nerves and helps you concentrate.”
“So how long are you gonna stay?”
Rasco puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette. “Truth is, I could go home any time. Nothing to stop me. But I no longer have the desire. ‘We’ are the Killers, Bobster – not the Zuks. You understand what I’m saying . ..?”
Bob nodded in agreement. But something nagged away at the back of his mind. This just didn’t feel right. The fact Rasco was smoking. The fact he’d lost his accent so quickly. And could he really have given up his home that easily?
The match had finished. The watching crowd dispersed, their expressions neutral, for it had ended in a draw. Advertisements followed: Cars, household appliances, banking services, fashion . . . There was even one for the same brand of rum they were drinking – with the general’s portrait on its label. Then the news came on, live from the capital. The bombing was continuing, more buildings aflame, the lights of the fighter jets sweeping across the night sky. Rasco himself ordered the next round as they all sat about watching.
Eggs, bread, tomatoes and sausages; washed down with fruit juice and strong black coffee. The morning sun shone, a faint breeze blew in from the sea. They talked about the war, the bombing and destruction, the latest estimates on civilian carnage. Each day began the same way, with the same routine.
Only on this occasion it was interrupted by the arrival of a beige saloon. It bumped to a halt in front of them, and out stepped Rasco and Trodie – his companion of the evening before. They were attired in dark suits and wore shades in which Bob could see only a reflection of the sky.
“Welcome to my humble abode!” Merjey grinned as they approached. “Let me get you some coffee.”
Rasco and Trodie sat down at the table, their backs to the street, and helped themselves to the food. “Merjey’s looking after you then!” the former observed.
“Wish thir was some way I could repay him,” Bob replied.
“Must be tough, not having money . . . “
“Downright embarrassin,’ I’d say!”
Trodie tossed a chunk of fried bread to the birds on the lawn and watched them peck away at the greasy substance. “Say, how would you like to come and work for us?”
“I ain’t no journalist!” Bob chuckled, both surprised and flattered by the offer. Moreover, he wanted to get back to the Mainland as soon as possible, and being invited to work for the Yezuk Times made his situation here seem much too ‘permanent.’
“Doesn’t matter, my friend. We’ll train you up,” Trodie assured him.
“Money’s good,” Rasco added. “And it doesn’t look like this war’s going to end any time soon. You can’t depend on Merjey forever.”
“I’m afraid he’s right,” said the host himself, returning to the porch with the coffee. “Got family coming to stay over New Year’s. It’s going to be awfully crowded.”
Bob understood this. He couldn’t leave the island, he couldn’t continue staying at Merjey’s, and he couldn’t live on nothing. He had no choice but to accept their offer.
“We can take you to the office after breakfast, if you like,” suggested Trodie, revealing a nicotine-stained smile. “Show you around. Unless, of course, you have other plans . . . “
Bob chuckled again. What ‘other plans’ could he have possibly had? “Sure thing!”
It was a bigger city than Rihesh, perhaps as big as Yenug City itself. Certainly there were as many tall buildings, albeit of a less modern variety – some of them downright decrepit, in fact, beige and grimy, at least several decades old. Giant screens, like the one atop the Yenug TV Tower, featured prominently nonetheless. Most of the buildings had them. And even as Bob stared, the High Priest Hamabar appeared on screen – right across the city – his hair and robes bright purple, the national flag and portait of General Saparatruma on the wall behind him.
Trodie stopped the car and turned on the radio, then he and Rasco climbed out and knelt on the sidewalk as the Prayer to Karpot began. All around them other drivers and passengers were doing the same thing. Bob felt something like a captured alien as he sat there, watching this strange behaviour from the back of the two-door saloon.
So Rasco had changed his religion too, Bob observed. He was not the same fellow at all. Perhaps, therefore, this was to be his own fate. Would he some day become like them? This he could only ponder as the sermon continued, the rhythm of the words matching the movement of the lips on the faces gazing down from the tops of the buildings.
The Yezuk Times Tower was located on the main boulevard in the heart of the city. The standard giant screen glowed at its top, while down below, in front of the entrance, was a bronze statue of a figure on a horse, one arm holding the reins, the other raising a sword. The glowering features of general Saparatruma were unmistakable, even without the purple hair.
As Bob followed Trodie and Rasco in through the revolving doors, a middle-aged, athletic fellow in khaki uniform made his exit. Their eyes met just for an instant, the officer’s large and brown beneath the dense black eyebrows.
Bob turned to Rasco. “Hey, wasn’t that . . ?“ He had a mental block on the name, and suddenly felt unsure of himself.
“The Captain. Jest went out the door.”
Rasco grimaced. “I’ve no idea what you’re on about, Bobster.”
“Someone you met at military headquarters, perhaps?” Trodie suggested.
Bob paused to look back through the entrance, but there was no sign of the fellow any more. “That’s right,” he said quietly, sensing something was amiss. “The captain in charge.”
His companions glanced at each other in amusement, as if they’d come to the conclusion he was delusional.
“The Commander-in-Chief is in charge over there,” Trodie told him. “And that wasn’t him!”
Rasco, placing a hand on his shoulder, gave him a playful shake. “Come on, Bobster, let’s head upstairs to the office.”
Bob received a visitor’s card at security check, then they rode the elevator up to the sixth floor. The doors opened to a sprawling office of purple-haired, suit-clad, cigarette smoking workers; some tapping away on their keyboards, others speaking on telephones. It was warm – a little too warm for Bob’s liking – while the dense haze of smoke was almost choking. The now familiar portrait of General Saparatruma adorned the walls, where large TV screens beamed images from the various news channels.
“This is the engine room!” said Rasco, sitting down at one of the desks.
“We’re just starting a new campaign,” Trodie told him. “The idea’s to encourage people to drink more Yezukola.”
“You mean an ‘advertisin’ campaign?’”
“Not exactly. The government wants to tie it in with anti-Nug sentiment. We need to be strong in the face of war.”
Recalling the sugary taste of the rum two nights before, Bob was more confused than ever. But something told him to keep his thoughts to himself.
“We could start you off right away, if you like.” Trodie revealed the nicotine smile.
Bob shrugged and lowered himself into the empty seat beside Rasco. “Jest show me what to do.”
His old pal grinned and shook his hand in a vice-like grip. “Welcome to the team, Bobster!”
Gerro lit a cigarette and winced through the smoke at Bob. “You got a girl back home?”
“No. But I dated a chick on Yenug. Didn’t turn out too well.” Bob downed his rum. “How ’bout you? Hitched up?”
“Come on, look at me!” Gerro laughed.
Bob did so, running an eye over his short, overweight frame, his bald head and bespectacled eyes, and the crooked, nicotine-stained teeth. “Yir a good guy. You got a lot to offer.”
“I don’t think you understand. It’s forbidden for fatties to marry on this island.”
“Obesity’s genetic, my friend. We want to wipe it out altogether. If fatties don’t marry, they don’t have kids.”
“That’s ridiculous! What’s so wrong with bein’ a few pounds overweight?”
“It’s the law, Bob. We don’t question these things.” Gerro ground his cigarette out and headed for the men’s room.
Through the haze of smoke the nearest wall-mounted TV showed silent images of bombing, destruction and carnage. Bob covered his mouth with his T-shirt to try and take in a few clean breaths, but still the foul taste remained in the back of his throat.
“Say, you must be the Incabay?”
Turning around, Bob found himself confronted by a tall, skeletal, dark-eyed woman, gazing directly back at him; a mocking smile on her lips. “That’s right. I’m from the Mainland.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve heard all about you.”
The woman extended a hand, as though she wanted him to kiss it, but which he shook instead. Was she flirting? He wondered. If so, he was going to have to disappoint her. She was at least a decade older than him, to start with.
She drew on her cigarette and raised an inky-black eyebrow. “So you escaped from Yenug to come and live on this island?”
“Is that what they told you? No, I wanna go home. But I’ve been warned not to leave till the war’s over.”
The mocking smile grew wider. “The war’s ‘never’ over, honey. Not really.”
Bob glanced at the images on the TV: Ambulances racing through the streets; victims on stretchers; buildings ablaze. “You mean I’m ‘stuck’ here?”
“I’m afraid so. Better get used to it.” She offered him a cigarette, which he declined. “Calms the nerves and –
“Helps you concentrate!” He finished with a chuckle. “I know. But thir’s enough smoke in this bar to take care a that!”
Just then Etan sidled up and put an arm around her waist. “I see you two have met.” He took the cigarette she’d offered to Bob.
There was the hint of a flicker in the tall woman’s eyes, almost reptilian, though by the time she’d turned to face him the smile was back on her lips. “Bob’s just been telling me how much he’s enjoying life here.”
“Best place on earth!” Etan declared. “Best people too – brave, honest, friendly!”
They raised their glasses and drank to Yezuk,’ then Etan pulled the tall woman closer and kissed her passionately on the mouth. “And the most beautiful girls on earth!” he said, leading her away .
Gerro had returned from the men’s room and now moved closer to Bob. “Keep well clear of that witch, my friend. Scuna likes to make Etan jealous. It’s like a game with the two of them. Sometimes ends up in a fight.”
“No danger thir,” Bob assured him. “She ain’t my type.”
“That’s not all.” Gerro lit another cigarette and peered up over his spectacles at him. “She’ll find out everything she can about you, then spread it all over town. That’s what she does.”
Shamot approached while they were talking. “Biggest gossip on the island. And she’s not even from here.”
“Where’s she from?”
“Ugod. Never trust anyone from Ugod, my friend. They’re all liars!”
“You know, they still eat people on that island,” Shamot continued. “Say, is it true they practice cannibalism on Yenug too?”
“Not that I saw.” Bob broke into a chuckle. “Actually, they have similar ideas about this island!”
“But you saw them stoning our captured soldiers, right?” Gerro asked, leaning on the bar to his left.
Bob nodded. “Yep. Stoned ‘em to death.”
“Well, then!” The purple-bearded features grinned triumphantly to his right. “Only stands to reason they must be cannibals as well!”
Shamot ordered a round of drinks. It would be Bob’s fourth of the evening already; Gerro having bought the previous three. But soon enough he’d have money of his own, now that he’d started working at the Times. He wouldn’t have to depend on his companions much longer.
The music pounded out of the speaker system, fast and hypnotic. The smoky haze drifted slowly around the bar, while up on the wall-mounted TV screens the images of destruction were continuing. Gerro bought another round, then Shamot again.
Yelling from across the bar drew their attention to a commotion. Scuna was at the centre of it, evidently trying to pull Etan out of his chair.
“Ease up, will ya!” he protested. “It’s football night. Just wanna talk to my team-mates for a while.”
“‘They’re your colleagues, Etan. You see them every day!”
“That’s not true. Now lemme finish my drink!”
Flinging his arm aside, Scuna turned and marched across the bar, high-heels clacking on the wooden floor. Before disappearing through the exit, she paused to hurl a final torrent of abuse back at him.
With a slow shake of the head, Etan got to his feet, apologised to all around him, and dutifully followed.
“Always ends the same way!” Gerro shook his head slowly. “Except when she gets him into a fight, of course.”
Two days before Christmas and he hadn’t contacted his family for almost a month. How would news of his disappearance have reached them? He wondered. Would everyone assume he was dead – like Rasco? He’d been too preoccupied with his own survival to think about them much since his escape from Yenug. But now he was settled, he had time to reflect, and of course he was going to miss them over the holiday period. It saddened him deeply to think of the grief his absence must have been causing them. There would be no celebrations at home that year, he knew.
“Hey, Bob, quit day-dreaming!” Rasco chuckled down at him. “Let’s get some coffee and see what the togs have brought in.”
Getting up from his desk, Bob followed him down the corridor to the coffee vendor machine, and from there to the photographers’ room at the end of the passage. Inside were a middle-aged fellow and a freckle-faced young woman; both of them bespectacled, and both chatting animatedly together while gazing into a computer screen. They glanced up as the two men entered.
“Take a look at these, guys,” the young woman invited them. “It doesn’t get any more graphic!”
What Bob saw then, as he peered into the screen, sent a shudder down his spine. There was so much blood and gore he feared he might vomit. One picture showed an old man carrying a girl out of the rubble, but her legs were mangled; the feet missing entirely.
“Will the paper use these?” he asked faintly. “Thir awfully shocking . . . “
The middle-aged fellow looked offended. “They most certainly will! This is exactly what we need, my friend. Shocking people is our intention!”
“Somebody’s got to show them the truth,” the young woman added. “The more graphic the pictures, the better.”
Her companion used the mouse to bring up another frame. “Here, take a look at this one.” A bare arm reached out of the dusty ruins, remarkably unscathed, and already turning blue. “Now that’s what sells papers!”
Bob felt the sweat trickling down his back. The room was stuffy with only one small window. Coach Semja, Slenno, Big Nats, the Cemeks, Vaddi and Eluji: Was ‘this’ what they were capable of? Even if they didn’t know it, the carnage before him was the result of their hatred. Reaching behind his left shoulder, he scratched a persistent itch. The repellent he and Merjey had picked up from the supermarket obviously wasn’t working. There were bites on his ankles too; where the veins were close to the surface. He’d have to try another kind.
Back in the office their colleagues had gathered around the wall-mounted TV screens, a haze of cigarette smoke hanging above them, through which the towering, purple-haired figure of the president could be seen on each and every set, flanked by a pair of grim-faced soldiers, neither of whom came up past his shoulders.
“What’s he saying?” Bob asked Merjey.
“Damage sustained during the bombing,” came the reply. “A lot of innocents have been killed by the murderers.”
The president’s tone appeared to change from anger to triumph as he continued. Indeed, these comments were greeted by a burst of applause and cheering from those gathered around the screens.
“What’s he saying now?”
“A successful operation was carried out last night by our soldiers,” Merjey replied, smiling as he joined in the clapping. “They ambushed a murderers’ patrol and executed all the captives.”
Even as Bob digested this piece of information, somebody in front of them cried out: “They can drop their bombs from the sky, but they’ll never defeat us on the ground!!” And everyone cheered raucously.
Bob had just returned to his desk when Trodie came by. “Hey, good news!” He beamed. “We’ve got a place for you down the coast, well out of the danger zone. It’s all set up.”
“My own house?”
Rasco gripped his shoulder and shook him playfully. “Looks like we’re going to be neighbours, Bobster!”
That evening the three of them drove there in Trodie’s beige saloon. Bob’s new abode was located a few miles on from the village he’d been staying in – and just two blocks from Rasco’s own home. It was a single-room bungalow of timber construction, almost identical to Merjey’s. And on the living room wall hung the standard portrait of General Saparatruma, beside a large flat-screen TV.
After his companions had gone, Bob lay down to rest a while. His new bed was heavenly after the couch he’d been sleeping on for the past few weeks. When he opened his eyes again it was dark; the luminous hands of his watch showing ten-past-eight. He’d slept more than two hours. Wandering outside, he breathed in the cool breeze from the nearby sea. The half-moon was up and the myriad stars shone brightly. Lights were on in most of the houses, though not a noise was to be heard. It was unimaginably peaceful. His predicament was surreal. For the first time since arriving on this island he’d truly been left alone, with nothing to stop him trying to escape if he wished to do so. No one would even miss him till morning, were he to disappear that night.
The buzz of an electric motor came into earshot. Bob looked around to see an orange headlight turning into the street; Rasco’s tall, athletic figure unmistakable even before his face became distinguishable beneath the street lights.
“Jump on, Bobster! Let’s go get some groceries.”
“Sure, but take it easy alright. I ain’t ridden one a these things before.”
Rasco promptly took off again once Bob was on board, almost performing a wheelie as he accelerated away from the pavement – then laughing raucously at his passenger’s alarm. “Relax, I’ve been riding this thing for years. Only ever had a couple of accidents.”
“Oh, very reassuring!” Bob called back, the airstream blowing into his face like a gale. Privately, he also noted the incongruity of that claim, for Rasco had only been on the island a few months.
They stopped at a takeaway for burgers and Yuzekola, then Rasco took Bob to a supermarket and told him to stock up on whatever he wanted. “Don’t worry about the money,” he insisted.
Bob offered no protest. He needed the groceries, of course, and his first pay check had yet to arrive. Among other items he purchased a mosquito coil and a different brand of repellent. A couple more bites had emerged since his nap that evening, and the itching was driving him to distraction.
For his part, Rasco added a case of beer, sausages and a loaf of bread. “There’s a party down at the beach tonight,” he explained. “Let’s go take a look.”
There being no room for the case of beer in the storage compartment under the seat, Bob was required to hold onto it all the way to the coast. Though it only took five or ten minutes, this was an experience he would rather not have endured. Several times he felt on the point of falling off – or, at the very least, losing his grip on the beer. It was, therefore, with considerable relief – and aching arms – that he climbed off the bike when they got there.
Rasco led him down the slope to a bonfire blazing on the beach, around which two dozen or so people stood drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and talking. It reminded him of the Wolves’ parties on Yenug, but these were no college students gathered to witness a bizarre hazing ritual.
No one but fishermen and their families had inhabited this stretch of coastline half a century before, one fellow explained. But with improved roads and public transportation it had become a popular residential area, away from the crowds and chaos of the city – and, more importantly, out of range of the regular bombings.
“So what do you think about this war, Bob?” another inquired.
“I think it’s tragic. Innocent people are dyin.’”
“Why do the Nugs hate us so much?”
“They only know what thir taught.”
“We saw that in the paper. Everyone reads Merjey Dernok’s articles!”
“So you know all about me?”
“That, we do, my friend.” The first fellow smiled, offering him a cigarette. “You’re the one who tore down the Yenugian flag!”
Bob declined the cigarette but accepted a hotdog from someone else. “That’s true!” He chuckled at the memory.
“You’re a regular ‘celebrity’ on this island, Bobster!” Rasco shook him by the shoulder.
“Gonda Nirsen,” a young woman introduced herself. “Night presenter for Capital TV.”
The smooth complexion glistened in the firelight, the dark eyes reflected the flickering of the flames, the fur-lined jacket gave a soft edge to her features. Bob was immediately struck by her beauty.
“We’d be interested in setting up a live interview with you, if you had no objection,” she added.
“I didn’t come here for the publicity. Jest wanna get back to the Mainland is all.”
“You’d be paid, of course.”
“Go on, Bobster.” Rasco nudged him. “Then you’ll be able to pay for your own groceries next time!”
“I don’t know nothin!'”
“You seem like a smart fellow to me.” Gonda inclined her head toward the shoreline. “How about a little walk?”
Bob shrugged and followed, chewing the last of his hotdog.
“You’re working for the Times?” she inquired. “Didn’t they give you an advance or anything?”
“They gave me a house. Not to mention a job.”
“They could’ve given you a little cash as well.”
“I wouldn’t wanna be greedy!”
“You’re being kept here against your will, Bob.”
“Not by the ‘Times.’ It’s the army that’s keepin’ me here.”
“Same thing. They’re all run by the state. And the job and the house are designed to make you comfortable so you won’t want to leave.”
Bob stopped at the water’s edge. The surf fizzled as the tide pulled away. A gull cried somewhere overhead. What was she saying? Why would they want to keep him here? And were Merjey, Rasco, Trodie and the others all involved in this too? It hardly seemed plausible. “Why are you tellin’ me this?”
“If you come on air with me, your story will gain credibility. Nobody believes The Times.”
“Why would anyone have cause to doubt it? The Yenugian army is pulverisin’ yir capital – remember.”
Gonda shook her head slowly, the sea-breeze toying with her hair. Bob caught a whiff of her perfume, sweet and alluring. Her only blemish was the characteristic ginger hue to her teeth, which were otherwise large and even. Even as he observed this, she took out a cigarette and, shielding it with one hand, lit it with the other. “I can see you don’t trust me.”
Bob watched her start back toward the bonfire. The fact he’d offended her, evidently, didn’t sit right with him at all. “Wait!” He ran to catch up with her, his heavy shoes digging into the sand. “I didn’t say I don’t trust you. And I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it either.”
“So you will?” The nicotine-stained teeth gleamed in the dark. “How about tomorrow night, after you finish work?”
“I ought a be home by six,” he told her, and reached behind his left shoulder to scratch the itch again.
She arrived in a red saloon identical to Trodie’s and many others on the island, square and basic, no embellishment added, like some relic of a bygone era. The dark eyes glistened as she greeted him, stepping out of the car in a blue dress and the same fur-lined jacket she’d worn the evening before.
“Those are for you.” Gonda indicated the back seat – where half a dozen or so plastic bags of groceries could be seen; a loaf of bread sticking out of one.
“I jest bought groceries yesterday!”
“For a few days? This will keep you going for a few weeks. And if the Times hasn’t paid you by then, better look for another job!”
“They’ll pay me,” he assured her. “An’ then I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t worry. Agreeing to this interview is enough.” Her smile broadened, revealing the slightly stained teeth.
Having put the groceries away, they returned to the car and set off for the television studio. Gonda turned on the radio and listened to the urgent babble coming out of it.
“They’re preparing for more bombs tonight,” she explained. “People are being warned to evacuate the east side of the city.”
“We’re drivin’ into a city that’s about to be bombed?!”
“Don’t worry. The studio’s on the west side, out in the suburbs.”
“Oh, very reassuring . . . ” Bob shook his head slowly.
Indeed, the Capital TV Tower rose like some colossal monolith out of the rows of decrepit apartment buildings on that side of the city; the inevitable giant screen flickering at its top. Leaving the saloon in the hands of the underground parking crew, they passed through security and rode the elevator up to the studios.
Bob was left waiting in a small room for over an hour. It had a table and desk and a glass front wall, so that he could see the staff walking by outside in the corridor – and they could see him. Some even paused to stare, as though he were an exhibit on display. The interview itself took twenty minutes, with a five minute break in the middle. It amounted to little more than a friendly chat about the things he’d told the Times at Military Headquarters; only Gonda broke off every now and again to summarise in Ladai for her audience.
“Hope it was okay,” he told her afterward, sensing he hadn’t explained much at all.
“You did fine,” Gonda assured him. “Now, if you take the elevator back down to reception, one of our drivers will take you home.”
“So it’s goodbye?”
“I’m afraid so. My ‘day’ has just begun here.”
With that she handed him a wad of bills, kissed him lightly on the cheek and walked away. Bob was too dumfounded to move for a few minutes – and not only because of the cash in his hand.
By ten he was back home, out on the porch, gazing at the stars and sipping the red wine she had brought him with the groceries. It were almost as though the entire thing – his journey to the the TV station, live interview with Gonda, and the kiss on the cheek she had left him with – had been some strange kind of dream. More than once he reached into his pocket to ensure the cash was still there; the cash she herself had given him.
At first he slept soundly, then some time around four came wide awake. And neither was he surprised to hear the sound of an engine, then the crunch of wheels on gravel, followed by the clumping of a car door opening and closing. He went to the door and let her in.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her features taut with distress. “But tonight was awful! They must have killed hundreds!”
“Let me get you a glass of wine. You can tell me everything.”
“No, I don’t want to talk about it. I want to forget it – if you don’t mind. At least for tonight.”
He poured the wine and handed it to her. “I couldn’t get you out a my mind.”
The dark eyes opened wider, though the expression gave nothing further away. “Through all the horror, I kept thinking of you too.”
Putting down the glass, she stepped into his embrace, and a moment later they were kissing passionately. Bob wondered only that the thrill wasn’t greater.
“Morning, Bob,” Trodie greeted him. “Great interview! I watched the whole thing live.”
“You certainly explained things well. Put it all in perspective.” Rasco smiled back at him from the front passenger seat.
“Guess it’s ‘cause I’m an outsider.” Bob shrugged.
Trodie’s eyes found his in the rear vision mirror as they pulled out of the driveway. “So it’s true what they say – about cannibalism on Yenug?”
“How do you mean? It wasn’t brought up.”
“Sure it was. The presenter claimed you’d witnessed it over there.”
Scratching his wrist, Bob felt something disintegrate beneath his fingernails; a mosquito, one of its wings torn off, wriggling in a spot of scarlet blood. He’d finally caught one, but that was his ‘own’ blood, he acknowledged.
“In Ladai,” Rasco confirmed. “Isn’t it true?”
“Come on, man. You ought a know. Thir yir people!”
“They’re not my people any more.” Rasco frowned back. “Please understand that. You’ve seen what they’re doing on this island . . .”
Bob flicked the dead insect off his arm, out the open window. He only wished he had some way to wash his hands. He’d get some more mosquito coils on the way home that evening.
At the office Bob spent much of the morning sitting at his desk, drinking black coffee and smiling bemusedly up at all those who popped in to congratulate him.
“We’d always suspected it,” Nerak crowed, puffing on a cigarette. “Some say they roast our captured soldiers alive. Is that true?”
Limilaw gave him a limp handshake. “You’ve shown great courage, Bob. We know it’ll be hard for you on the Mainland after this.”
“‘The Mainland?'” Bob slowly withdrew his hand.
“Well, this is certain to create controversy. Gonda Nirsen’s interviews are often picked up by the foreign networks.”
“They might not let you back in!” Nerak teased him, grinding her cigarette out in the glass ashtray on his desk.
Returning from the coffee machine early that afternoon, Bob was confronted by an image which stopped him in his tracks. Gonda was up there on one of the wall-mounted TV screen, dark eyes glistening, the purple hair tied back in a ponytail, a trace of a ripple on her brow as she reported on the bombing. Footage of buildings aflame in the darkness glowed on a screen behind her, orange sparks spewing up into the sky. For several minutes he stood there, completely transfixed. It was the face of the woman he’d made love to the previous night; and the face of the woman who’d lied about him on national television, apparently. Bob didn’t know what to think any more.
A firm hand on his shoulder interrupted his thoughts. “Say, was that her car parked in your driveway this morning?” Rasco grinned slyly.
Bob recognised the futility of denying it. Rasco had already guessed; and if he knew, Trodie surely knew as well. Pretty soon it was going to be public knowledge – and how much credibility was his story going to have then? “Jest sort a happened . . . ”
“Well, it’s not hard to see why!“ His companion cocked an eyebrow. “Still thinking about leaving this island, Bobster?”
He found it an awkward question to respond to, though the answer seemed clear enough in his own mind. All he could do was gaze up at the screen, absent-mindedly scratching his wrist again, another droplet of blood emerging beneath his fingernails.
She called him at the office that afternoon. “Bob, your bed is so comfortable! I’ve been sleeping all day.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“It’s my night off. I want to cook dinner for you this evening. So don’t get anything on the way home. Okay?”
There was a pause on the line. “Is everything alright, Bob?”
He slumped back in his chair. How could he stay mad with her? Whatever she’d claimed he’d said during the interview, there was nothing he could do about it now. “Jest a little tired is all.”
“And why might that be?” She giggled.
“What was the name a that wine we drank?” he asked, brightening up again. “I’ll pick up another bottle on the way home.”
“’General’s Favourite’ – dry red.”
“Of course . . . ” Bob replied, remembering that he also needed to get some mosquito coils.
A pall of white smoke filled the screen, obscuring almost everything else at ground level, though dark shapes soon began to emerge, moving about within it; a multitude of human forms. From the chatter around him Bob came to understand what was occurring. The students were staging an anti-war demonstration in the centre of the city. The police, unable to dislodge them peacefully, were now using gas.
“I don’t get it. We’re bein’ bombed by Yenug, not the other way around.”
“They blame the government for everything,” Rasco told him, adding a puff of his own smoke to the general haze. “Students always do.”
Gerro glanced at his watch. “How about we finish up early, head over there and take a look”
“Count me in,” Bob agreed readily. All he’d done the past few days was sit around typing up advertising copy. “So long as we don’t get gassed!”
“Don’t worry. We’ve got masks,” Etan assured him. “Never know when you’re going to need one on this island.”
Thus they set off together, four young men in shirtsleeves and slacks, driving across town in Gerro’s car. It was a warm, sundrenched afternoon, not a cloud in the sky. Within a few hundred yards of the centre they came to the police barriers and were forced to park up.
Rasco took Bob aside, out of earshot of the cops. “They’re not going to let you go beyond that point without a press pass. But don’t worry. Duck down the side-street on the left over there, take the first right, walk two blocks, and turn right again. You ought to come up at the YezBank corner. We’ll be waiting for you there.”
Bob followed his instructions, though by the time he got halfway down the side-street his eyes were stinging, his throat beginning to burn. Evidently there had been some recent activity in the area. Pulling on the gas mask, he turned right and continued. The street ahead of him was deserted, all the shops closed, and a yellow-tinged mist hung in the air. He could feel it on his skin; a hot prickly sensation. Two blocks on he turned right again, and even as he did so a swarm of youths came charging down the street toward him, many with masks like his own. He scrambled into a shop doorway to avoid being trampled beneath them, and it was fortunate that he did so, for a spray of projectiles followed, cracking into the wall beside him. Plastic bullets, he observed, picking one up off the pavement. A couple of the youths went down, one young woman shrieked.
Bob contemplated his next move. YezBank corner was at the top of this street – but so too were the cops. His best bet was to proceed to the next turn then circle back, if possible. In the event, the next street turned out to be crowded with protestors also, though there was no sign of the police. He decided to make his way up it and had almost reached the top when a line of officers in dark uniforms and white helmets appeared in front of him; one carrying a kind of short-barreled gun. Then everything turned white and he couldn’t see a thing, not even his hands in front of him. The gas scorched his bare skin like fire.
Someone grabbed his arm and yanked him aside. For a moment he feared he was being arrested, but the grip was neither strong nor aggressive, and he allowed himself to be pulled along. Soon the smoke began to clear, and blinking through the goggles of his mask he found himself among the protestors. They had led him into an underground shopping centre. The youths removed their masks and babbled away in the native language. The fellow who had dragged him to safety now addressed him personally.
“I don’t understand.” Bob shook his head in apology.
The youth’s dark eyes flew open. “Incabay!”
“Yes.” Bob nodded. “I’m a Mainlander.”
“Wait,” said a young woman in his language. “You’re the one who was on the news.”
Bob nodded again. “That’s right. I spent three months on Yenug Island. But I had to escape. Thir crazy!”
At this the youths all burst out laughing. Bob noted that a number of them had not dyed their hair, some of the boys even wore it long, and the teeth that grinned at him were white and unstained.
“So why are you here, Incabay?” the young woman asked him. “Why have you joined this protest, if you blame Yenug for the war?”
“I came here with my colleagues from the Times – ”
“Are you a journalist?”
“No,” Bob replied instinctively, the expressions around him turning hostile.
“The Times is a big liar!” sneered another of the youths.
“Go home, Incabay. Go back to the Mainland. We don’t need you here!”
Bob hurriedly put his mask back on. Nothing would’ve suited him better. These kids weren’t to know he was effectively a prisoner on the island, but it would’ve been too difficult a thing to explain to them. Besides which, his companions were waiting for him.
Creeping back out onto the street, he saw that it was empty, though his view of the top remained obscured by the yellowy haze. As he drew closer he was able to discern the forms beyond it: baton-wielding policemen in pursuit of protestors, here and there fighting with them. It were as if he had somehow transported himself into the midst of the scenes he’d stood watching on TV an hour before.
The YezBank corner was clear now, though he could see no sign of his colleagues. Then a hand grabbed his elbow and he whirled around in alarm. The faces behind the masks were neither those of the cops nor the students, however. They were the familiar features of Rasco, Etan and Gerro, and the expressions in their eyes told him they were grinning. Bob understood how startled he must have appeared.
Etan indicated with an incline of his head for Bob to follow, and they all set off toward the square. The clatter of helicopter rotors filled the air above them. Two flew by almost directly overhead, one in green camouflage, the other carrying the initials ‘YZTV.’
A little further on and the chanting came into earshot, then the protestors themselves came into view. They were two or three hundred strong, assembled on one side of the square with their banners and signs, while standing opposite on the other side were an equally large number of police. The cloud of gas had abated, meanwhile, to the point Bob and his companions were able to remove their masks.
“This could kick off at any moment,” Gerro warned them. “If we get split up, head back to the car.”
Rasco lit a cigarette and squinted ahead. “Look, the togs are on the far side. Maybe we can find Limilaw and Nerak over there.”
Peering in that direction, Bob’s heart skipped a beat, for among the photographers and TV camera crews across the square he spied the slender figure of Gonda.
She gaped in astonishment as he approached. “Bob, what are you doing here?”
“Came with Rasco and a couple of others from the office.”
“But it’s dangerous. Didn’t you see all the gas?”
“No problem.” He raised the mask in his right hand.
“The police are also using plastic bullets. That won’t help you.”
“I know.” He didn’t tell her he’d almost been hit by them. “But I ain’t here to protest.“
Before she could reply there came a loud boom. A smoking canister landed among the protestors, but immediately one of the youths picked it up and hurled it back at the cops. The reply was an entire salvo of canisters, and within seconds everything had turned a yellowy-white. Bob pulled on his mask again, as did most of those around him – though not Gonda. She was now speaking into a microphone in front of the Capital TV camera crew a few yards away, seemingly oblivious to the toxic haze that drifted around her. Limilaw and Nerak, meanwhile, had moved out into the square with the other photographers, gas masks on, focusing their camera lenses.
Soon the smoke began to clear, revealing a scene of swinging batons, students in bike helmets fighting back; others being dragged away by the cops. More youths came out of the side-streets as the cloud of gas lifted, these ones bearing rocks and broken paving tiles – which they proceeded to hurl at the police. A shower of plastic bullets cracked into the walls of the buildings behind them, and in the same instant several of the students fell to the ground, evidently hit. The noise of the helicopters grew louder as they hovered above the square.
When the police began to withdraw, the demonstrators cheered wildly, raising their fists in triumph. Had the youths won? Bob wondered in amazement, but the notion was dismissed almost as soon as it had occurred to him. For a long column of soldiers came trotting down the main street, all in khaki uniform and black combat boots, helmets and masks in place, rifles in their hands. Many of the protestors fled at the sight of them – but more than a few remained; a hardcore mob who stood resolute at the edge of the square, still waving their signs and banners. The soldiers at the front stopped, trained their rifles upon them and fired, so orderly and impassive that Bob struggled to make the connection when a number of the students dropped to the ground on the other side of the square. This succeeded in driving off the last of the students – those dead or writhing on the concrete notwithstanding. These last numbered perhaps a dozen. Bob saw this clearly, for the cloud of gas had lifted.
Again she came to him in the hours before dawn, only this time there was no red wine, and they did not make love. She merely lay in the bed beside him, pulling the blankets up over her head and burying her face in his arms. For his part, Bob had not slept at all; too traumatized by what he had seen that afternoon; too concerned for Gonda’s safety. He’d stayed up late watching news of the riots, including Gonda’s own reports on Capital TV, replayed over and over again. And though the content had been the same, each time he’d seen them had troubled him more.
“Why didn’t you report the massacre in the square?”
“Actually, I did,” she answered, without looking up. “We filmed the whole thing. But the station didn’t use it.”
“They have their reasons.”
Bob shook his head in disbelief. “They jest shot ‘em. No sign, no warnin,’ nothin!’”
“We’re at war – remember. The army needs our support. The police need to maintain order. This isn’t the time to encourage rebellion.”
“So they lie about it; pretend it didn’t happen . . . ?”
“Talk like that can be dangerous, Bob. People might think you’re a spy.” She got to her feet and started dressing again. “Perhaps I’d better leave.”
That he did not want. She’d only been doing her job, after all. How the network covered it wasn’t up to her. “I’m sorry. Don’t leave.”
Gonda paused for a moment, then sat back down on the bed beside him. “You’re so naive, Bob. You don’t understand this island.”
He smiled wryly, recalling that Eluji had told him the same thing. “I may be an Incabay, Gonda, but I’m not naïve – not anymore.”
He was still awake when the dawn’s first light penetrated through the curtains, forming vague outlines of the furniture in his bedroom. For a while he amused himself trying to figure out what they were. The red figures on his digital clock rolled over to ‘7:00.’ Normally an alarm would have accompanied them, but he wasn’t working that day, and neither was Gonda. They slept until almost noon, then Bob prepared a breakfast the way Merjey had done it – pan-fried eggs, bread, tomatoes and sausages, accompanied by juice and black coffee. And they ate together out on the porch, the sun glaring down from its zenith, a light breeze blowing in from the sea.
“There was no bombing last night,” Gonda informed him. “The Nugs must believe they have achieved their objective.”
“Pulverise the city till the people rise up against thir own government, you mean?”
She refilled their coffee cups and lit a cigarette. “It seems that way. But they won’t succeed. They never have.”
After breakfast they took a walk along the beach. Dark clouds loomed on the horizon, and the wind that blew in from that direction carried an icier edge now. The sea was gradually turning grey, white-flecked and choppy. Gonda pulled the hood of her fur-lined jacket up over her head, reminding him of the way she’d covered herself with the blankets in his bed the previous night. A pair of kayakers glided past, smooth and fast despite the waves. Watching them vanish into a bay some distance ahead, Bob found himself wondering how long it would take to reach the Mainland in one of those things. Probably a few days – and nobody but a trained athlete would’ve had the stamina to do it. Besides which, the open seas were likely to be rough at this time of year; too rough to cross in a kayak. But Tabi Island, on the other hand, was much closer.
“What are you thinking about?” Gonda inquired.
“How nice it is to be here with you.”
“Liar! You still want to go home. I can see it in your eyes.”
Bob chuckled, but probably they both knew it was true. He missed his family and friends and would dearly liked to have been with them again. The job and the bungalow were nice, but that wasn’t his future – and neither was Gonda, regrettably.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the clouds were getting closer. Now they cast a shadow over a significant stretch of the sea. Bob was on the point of suggesting they head back when Gonda stopped and pointed toward the hills above the bay into which the canoes had disappeared. Among the dark green vegetation, the white squares of houses were visible.
“That’s where I live,” she told him. “You can almost see my home from here.”
“Maybe we could walk it . . .”
“Not in this weather. It’s five or six miles.”
Bob squinted in that direction. It didn’t seem that far. “Too bad. I’d like to see yir place.”
Gonda peered out of her fur-lined hood like a dark-eyed eskimo. “One day, perhaps. But not yet.” With that she took him by the hand and turned around.
Like a scene from a post-nuclear holocaust movie, the shore was strewn with debris washed in during the storm and the mangled corpses of rats flushed out of the sewer pipes. The deluge had lasted only one night, but during that time enough rain had fallen to turn the beach into a soft and mushy wasteland. Carrying his shoes in his hands, Bob made his way along the rocky terrain overlooking the sand. The sun shone down from between light clouds, a fresh breeze carried the unpleasant odors of kelp and roar sewage, and the sea heaved in and out with a gentle, unbroken hissing. The coast was deserted of all but the gulls, which emitted their piercing cries from time to time. Bob paused to watch as one swooped into the surf, rose back up with a shellfish in its beak, and dropped it onto the rocks ahead of him. Descending again, it pecked out the meat and flapped away, pursued by two of its companions.
Finally he reached the bay into which the canoes had disappeared; the same bay Gonda had pointed toward when showing him the hills where she lived. Bob made his way up to the road and continued. Half an hour later he came to the village itself. There were bungalows, like his own, with verandas and wide overgrown lawns, and narrow tree-lined streets that continued for as far as the eye could see. He began to ponder the implausibility of his task, but barely had he gone another hundred yards than he stumbled upon what he was looking for. Down the side of one of the houses, through the open door of a garage, he spied the two kayaks.
The first time he knocked on the door no one answered. All this way for nothing, he thought bitterly, though at least he knew where they lived now. He could always return another day. But a second knock brought noises from within, the muffled sounds of somebody moving around inside. A moment later the door creaked open and the drawn, bespectacled features of a middle-aged woman peered out.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he began hurriedly, as she appeared on the point of closing it again. “Could I speak to the owners of the kayaks?”
The woman eyed him suspiciously, the chain connected to its latch in front of her. “Are you one of Temha’s friends?”
Bob hesitated only for a moment. “Yes, that’s right. I’m Temha’s friend.”
“You speak Mainlander. Are you an exchange student?”
The sunlight reflected in the lenses of her spectacles as she gazed up at him. “I see. Well, he’s gone to the store. Should be back soon.”
Bob smiled in gratitude, pleased to know his trip had not been in vain after all. “Thanks, I’ll wait out front.”
In fact, he waited more than an hour. A few people walked by. Now and then a car droned past. The only other signs of life were the birds among the trees, and a stray dog that sniffed around for a while before proceeding to its next destination. But finally two youths rounded the corner, a boy and a girl, both with undyed, dreadlocked hair, and he knew it was them by the plastic shopping bags they were carrying. They stared at him with curiosity as they approached.
“Saw you out thir on the water yesterday,” he told them.
“Are you a kayaker?” the young man – presumably Temha – inquired.
“Not yet. But I wanna learn.”
The pair put down their bags and introduced themselves. They were both around his age; twins, in fact, the girl told him. Her name was Pyneez, and her teeth were large and white when she smiled.
“Those are our boats in the garage,” the fellow said. “Our grandfather built them for us.”
“Karpot rest his soul,” Pyneez added. “He passed away last year.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Where do you live?” asked Temha. “I haven’t seen you around.”
Bob was grateful ‘not’ to be recognised, given the reaction of the protestors he’d encountered two days before. “Next village up the coast. But I ain’t been here long.”
“We can see that!“ Pyneez revealed her large white teeth.
They invited him in for lunch, and their mother made cocoa while they put away the groceries. The house was warm and full of the smells of cooking. A roast turkey was on. Bob’s stomach ground audibly as he waited in the living room. He’d worked up an appetite during his long walk that morning.
No portrait of General Saparatruma was to be seen on the walls, he observed; no national flag nor photos of male relatives in military attire either. Not since leaving the Mainland had he been in a house devoid of these items. And for one moment, as their mother brought in the cocoa, he could’ve almost believed he was back at home on the Mainland.
They all sat down with their cocoa and Temha flicked on the TV. The images were of the riot in the square; youths tearing up paving tiles and hurling them at the police. “We were there,” he said proudly.
“So I was I,” Bob informed them. “But it wasn’t like this at all. The army arrived an’ fired live ammunition.’”
“You saw that?” Temha turned to him with added interest.
“Sure did. At least a dozen a the kids went down.”
“Many more than that were killed.” Pyneez shook her head dolefully.
Temha was still looking at him. “You’ve got to tell them what’s going on here, Bob, once you get back to the Mainland.”
“That’s exactly what I intend to do,” he replied, sipping the hot cocoa. “Jest as soon as I return.”
The narrow vessel was lightweight, so much so Bob marveled at the fact it would be able to support him on the water. Temha steadied it for him while he climbed in. There was room to stretch his legs out all the way, while the back of the seat held his torso upright. Taking the paddle in his hands, he began propelling himself across the waves, the fresh breeze blowing into his face, now and then bringing a shower of icy sea-spray.
His companion shot by soon after, and Bob was forced to work the paddle vigorously to keep up. But he wouldn’t be able to continue at this pace for very long. And undoubtedly Temha knew it, for a few hundred yards on he lifted one end of his paddle out of the water and swiveled around to wait, flashing a broad white grin as Bob approached.
“I’ll take you out to the Radalas,” he said.
“Radala Islands, just a few miles down the coast. It’s paradise there!”
Out on the open water the wind grew stronger, and the waves rose higher, rocking the wooden vessels about like toys. Yachts and launches went by, a giant tanker sat out on the horizon, seemingly motionless, and at one stage they were overtaken by a passenger ferry pursued by a swarm of gulls. From this point Bob could see the coast of Yenug behind him. How easy it would’ve been to paddle there, he thought – provided one were able to avoid the coast guard, of course.
Blisters had formed on his fingers and palms by the time they arrived, fully an hour later. Every muscle in his body burned from the exertion, mostly his shoulders, while the shirt he wore beneath his sweater was now drenched with sweat. As they approached the first of the islands, a dark form rolled out of the water ahead, its dorsal fin shimmering in the sunlight, then disappeared beneath the surface again. It was followed by another. A school of dolphins – the stuff of dreams! The sky was clear above him, the wind had died down, and the first of the Radala islands lay ahead. Bob gazed around in delight. But his joy gave away to alarm when he saw the coast guard cruising by. The mere sight of the vessel sent a shudder down his spine, and instinctively he steered the kayak away.
All along the shore men were fishing, reeling up their wriggling catch and dropping it into plastic buckets. A sizable audience of cats observed attentively, receiving the odd morsel of head, tail or guts, while over by the stores horses stood feeding, harnessed up and attached to phaetons. From that direction came the sour reek of manure.
Temha led Bob to a garden cafe and ordered soup and tea. They ate hungrily, finishing off the bread that came with the soup so that the waiter brought them more.
“This is Kucku Island,” Temha explained. “Over there you can see Yubku, the biggest. On a clear day you can see Mount Tabi from there.”
“Mount Tabi – from Yubku?”
“That’s right. About fifty miles south.”
Bob sensed Temha had a reason for telling him this. “I’ve heard a lotta people try to flee this island. Do any of ‘em take that route?”
Temha nodded as Bob had known he would. It were almost as though he were talking to himself, such was the affinity they’d developed.
“Yes, many. The northern coast is heavily patrolled. Most of the smuggling boats operate between Yubku and Tabi.”
“They leave from Yubku regularly, though not all of them make it. The sea gets pretty wild out there.”
Bob studied the blisters on his hands. It was going to be a difficult enough exercise just paddling back to the Yezuk mainland, he observed.
The waiter came by with more bread. “Zini simrel sedrak?” he inquired.
Temra laughed and shook his dreadlocks. “Koy, koy. Ziral sadakra.” He turned to Bob and explained. “He thought we were brothers!”
Bob had already noted their physical similarity. “What did you tell ‘im?”
“That we’re friends, of course.” Temha flashed the broad white grin. “Come on, let’s finish this and go get some fresh fruit from the market.”
“Rembaha – hello, Surog – goodbye. Got it?”
“I think so.”
“Logas – thank you, neftul – please.”
“Okay. That’s enough for now.”
“That’s four words!” Gerro chuckled and slurped his beer. “Come on, Bob. You wanna live here, gotta learn the language.”
“Sure, but my memory ain’t so good.” Of course, he had no particular interest in learning Ladai, for he didn’t intend being on the island much longer at all.
The electric light shone on the crown of Gerro’s head as he puffed on a cigarette. Beside him sat Neleh, as chubby as he was, so that they might almost have passed for siblings. Outside the rain poured down, but the bar was warm and comfortable. The only drawback was the amount of smoke in the place. Bob figured he might as well light up a cigarette himself, for all the carbon monoxide he was breathing in.
“Don’t worry.” Neleh smiled at him. “You’ll pick it up in no time.”
For a moment he wasn’t sure what she was referring to. Then Etan and Rasco came up behind him.
“Trying to learn Ladai, Bob?”
“Jest startin,’ Etan.”
“I know, let’s call the waitress over, teach Bobby here to order a drink.” Etan smirked at the others.
“First thing any Incabay should learn!” Rasco chipped in.
“Rib arib, netful.” Etan explained. “Rib-a-rib, net-ful.”
“Rib-a-rib, net-ful.” Bob repeated it several times. “Okay, think I got it.”
They proceeded to summons the waitress; a slender woman with large eyes and a pinched-face; her purple hair up in a bun.
“Rib-a-rib, net . . . ” Bob stammered, unable to recall the final syllable.
She rolled her eyes. “You want a beer? Just tell me in Mainlander.”
At this his audience burst ınto laughter. “Forget it, Bob! Everyone here speaks Mainlander?” Rasco guffawed, shaking him playfully by the shoulder.
A few minutes later Scuna came over and lowered herself into the seat beside him. “So you’re learning to speak Ladai, Bob?”
He glanced across at Etan, who was now at another table with Rasco. “Not really. Just a few words to get by till this goddam war’s over.”
“The war’s ‘never’ over, honey.”
Bob stared at her for a moment; the pale complexion and dark, heavily made-up eyes. She almost sounded hopeful. “Well, they ain’t gonna keep me here fir ever, Scuna. Even if I have to ‘swim’ back!”
“Best keep those thoughts to yourself,” she warned him. “And don’t worry about Etan. He’s nothing but a drunk, trying to justify himself and his own weaknesses.”
Bob averted his gaze, taking a swig of beer as an excuse to break off eye-contact. The cigarettes she smoked gave off a peculiar, spicy fragrance – or was it her perfume? He wasn’t sure. Up on the wall-mounted TV, an ad for YezuKola was showing.
“What you need is a little grammar,” she told him. “I had to learn it myself when I was a kid.”
“I heard yir a Ugod Islander.”
She studied him for a moment, as though trying to figure out who might have told him. “That’s right, honey. I was born there. Maybe I could help you.”
Bob glanced across at Etan again. “Yir boyfriend might have somethin’ to say about that.”
“My ‘husband,’ actually.” She lit another cigarette and waved cheerfully at Etan, who now transferred his attention to them. “He’s a war orphan, you know. The Nugs bombed a wedding his parents were attending.”
“Why in hell would anyone bomb a wedding?!”
“False tip-off, likely. No one knows for sure. But that’s why he drinks, that’s why he needs his pals, and that’s why he married me when we were both too young to know better.”
She finished her cocktail, a bluish liquid with a slice of lemon on the rim of the glass, and gestured to the bar for a refill. Bob took the opportunity to order another beer.
“Say it in Ladai,” Scuna insisted.
Bob did so sheepishly: “Rib-a-rib, net . . . ful.” And the pinched-faced waitress rolled her eyes.
“See, you did it!” Scuna gave him an exaggerated smile. “Here, take my phone number. We should get together and work on your grammar some time.”
Etan looked over just as she scribbled it down, the unmistakable spark of suspicion in his eye. Scuna waved again.
Slow and hypnotic, the methodic rhythm pounded out of the sound system speakers. Bob began to feel drowsy. He asked her who was playing and she replied that it was a local band. He gazed up at the TV screen across the bar and sat back in the cushioned seat. The music went well with the carnage from the latest Yenug bombing raid, he observed wryly, almost as though it had been composed for the purpose.
Gerro leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder. “We’re heading out, Bob. See you at the office tomorrow.” With that he and Neleh got up, pulled on their coats, and left.
“Those two need to be careful,” Scuna commented, watching them leave. “Plenty of folks on this island will take exception to seeing two fatties together.”
“You’ve got a lot to learn about Yezuk, Bob.”
“Sure seems that way,” he agreed, and started to get up himself. “Come on, let’s go join the others.”
Scuna gripped his wrist and pulled him back down. “Stay here and talk with me, honey. Those guys are boring.”
Bob was about to protest, but there was no need. Etan, Rasco and Shamot were already on their way over.
“What’s going on, Scuna? You been talkin’ to Bob all night.”
“Oh, for Karpot’s sake, Etan! Don’t tell me who I can and can’t talk to.”
“Has the Incabay been chatting you up?”
Before she had chance to reply, Bob sprang up himself and confronted him. “What the hell, Etan? You accusin’ me of hittin’ on yir wife?”
Rasco and Shamot immediately stepped in between them, though this only appeared to incense Etan more.
“The Incabay’s been chatting up my wife!”
Bob glanced around at Scuna. “We were only talkin,’ right? Tell ‘im.”
She failed to reply; just exhaled a long stream of smoke and shook her head as though it were all too ridiculous to bother with.
“So what’s the note on the table?” Etan demanded. “I saw her pass it to you!”
Bob flushed as he realised he’d left the number there, in clear view of everyone. Shamot walked over and picked it up.
“Scuna was offerin’ a li’l help with grammar,” Bob explained.
“Really, Bob?” she asked dreamily. “I thought it was you that asked me . . . “
Etan’s wild right missed Bob by some distance, and he almost stumbled over in the process of throwing it. Shamot seized him from behind and dragged him away.
“Let me at ‘im!” Etan roared, his features bright scarlet. “I’ll killim!”
The pinched-faced waitress now came over. “What’s going on?”
“Let me at ‘im!” Etan shouted again. “I’ll kill the karpottam Incabay!”
“Are you causing trouble?” The barmaid glowered at Bob.
Rasco tugged him by the elbow. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.”
Getting out of that smokey bar seemed like a very good idea to Bob right then. He wasn’t concerned about Etan, who was obviously too drunk to pose any real threat, but wasn’t particularly keen on having to punch him out either. Whatever bizarre game Scuna was playing, he didn’t want to be the one caught in the middle.
No matter how deeply he slept, the familiar crunch of tyres on gravel, followed by the muffled thumping of a car door opening and closing, never failed to rouse him. His pulse quickened in anticipation. Within minutes she would be in his arms. But when she entered and turned the lights on, the look on her face told him something was wrong.
“What’s up?” he asked, and wondered that it sounded so guilty.
“I heard all about your little büst-up with Etan Twiner. What were you thinking, trying to chat up his wife?!”
“Gossip sure gets ‘roun’ fast, huh. Well, that’s all it is – ‘gossip.’”
Gonda sat down on the bed beside him, shaking her head slowly, dark eyes glistening with the first sign of tears. She took a tissue out of her handbag to wipe them. “But why would you even talk to that woman? Everyone knows she’s crazy.“
“Yes, ‘crazy’s’ the word. An’ she was talkin’ to me. Wanted to help me learn Ladai!”
“’Ladai?’ But everyone in this town speaks Mainlander. They’ll just ridicule you if you try to use the native language.”
“I got that. But how ‘bout Rasco? He’s fluent, ain’t he?”
Gonda searched his eyes. “Rasco’s not an Incabay. He was born and raised here.”
It required a few minutes for Bob to register that information. The entire discussion was absurd. He and Rasco had played on the JV team together at Yenug University. His gaze came to rest on a spiderweb in the corner of the ceiling. The spider itself was lurking a short distance away, within a jagged crack in the skirting board.
She slept with her back to him, so that he wondered why she had come at all. But at the sound of his alarm in the morning she rolled over and hugged him. All was forgiven, it seemed. He went through to the living room and called Trodie, who sounded unsurprised when Bob informed him he would not be coming in.
If Trodie chose to drive past his place that morning, he would see Gonda’s red saloon parked out front. But there was no reason for him to do so, now that Bob had called him. And later on, sharing breakfast with Gonda on the porch, the warm sun glowing down, he reflected on the wisdom of his decision not to attend work that day. As long as he were stuck on this island, he might as well pursue whatever enjoyment he could find.
“I still haven’t seen your house,” he reminded her as they finished their coffee.
“Okay. Let’s take the car.”
He laughed in amazement. “So why have you made me wait so long?”
“Because I don’t live alone.” She lit a cigarette and grimaced at him. “But I can’t keep you secret for ever, I suppose.”
“Why would you wanna?”
“I live with my cousin, Bob, and you’re an Incabay.”
“So yir ashamed a me?”
“That’s not what I said.” Gonda exhaled wearily, as though he were being foolish. “Just try to understand. This isn’t the Mainland.”
Bob glanced up and down the street. Bungalows like his own, doors closed, curtains drawn, no one else out on the porch enjoying the balmy weather as they were. The solitary sign of life were the pigeons on the rooftops, strutting back and forth, pecking at the guttering, now and then swooping away on some unknown mission.
Her home required only fifteen minutes to reach by car. It was up among the hills, with a picturesque view of the coast from the upstairs balcony. But inside it was cramped, and cluttered with toys and children’s books. General Saparatruma glowered down from the living room wall, beside the standard purple flag and photographs of cleancut young men in military attire. Beneath these was a large TV with a DVD player and several shelves of discs beneath it.
“That’s quite a collection of movies!” Bob pulled one of the DVDs out and looked at the cover. It featured only a hand-written name and date.
“Not movies. They’re all of me. Everything I’ve ever done for Capital TV – including my interview with you. Would you like to see it?”
“Maybe later.” He put the DVD back and wrapped his arms around her waist.
At that moment they heard the front door rattle open downstairs, followed by the voices of a woman and child. The pair soon appeared on the stairway; the former showing surprise at Bob’s presence there, the child looking positively terrified. The boy’s mother spoke softly to him and took him back downstairs.
“Zaya’s afraid of men,” Gonda explained quietly. “His father was a very aggressive man.”
“Enna’s husband was killed in the war.” She ran a finger slowly across her throat to emphasise the point. “The boy doesn’t know. He’s too young to understand.”
That evening Gonda was called out on assignment – nothing that would take more than a couple of hours, she assured him. Meanwhile Bob found the DVD of her interview with him and put it in the machine. Enna came upstairs as he was doing so, bringing two cans of ‘Yezukale’ with her.
“Hope I’m not in the way,” he said.
“Not at all. Zaya’s sleeping now.”
Bob started the video and laughed in embarrassment at his own image – on the set with Gonda, being interviewed like a celebrity or something.
“Are you old enough to drink?” Enna asked mockingly, handing him one of the cans. She had a narrow face and bushy purple hair.
“Of course,” he replied, though he wouldn’t be twenty till April.
Bob hadn’t seen the interview before, but now as he watched the entire exchange came back to him, as if it had only been a few hours ago.
“Do they really eat human flesh over there?” Enna inquired.
“I didn’t say that. I guess she misunderstood me.”
“You didn’t deny it either.”
“I wasn’t aware I’d been asked. Besides, I ain’t no expert.”
“Expert enough to be interviewed on Capital TV.” The narrow features mocked him again; eyes twinkling as she took another swig of beer. “Come on. The Nugs have been bombing our city for weeks. If they can do that, surely they’re capable of anything.”
“They say thir soldiers are gettin’ killed here.”
“They’re occupying our land, exploiting our resources, slaughtering our people. What did they expect?”
“I didn’t say I agreed with ’em.”
“You didn’t say you ‘disagreed’ either.” She gave him a sideways glance. “Are you sure you’re not a spy?”
“Neither a spy nor an expert!. Jest a kid from the Mainland who wants to go home.”
Enna finished her beer and returned downstairs to Zaya. Bob felt relieved to be left alone for a while. The woman had made him uncomfortable, like he were on trial or something. He could fully imagine her assessment: ‘Too young for Gonda.’ ‘Possibly a Mainland spy.’ Or was he just being paranoid? He put another DVD on and reduced the volume a little, lest it be heard downstairs.
It opened with a scene of bright green countryside, forest and hills, a house or two in the background. The camera was unsteady, the footage somewhat grainy. Then it zoomed in on a group of men, among them two captive soldiers with their hands tied behind their backs. This pair were forced to lie face-down on the grass while one of the captors sawed their heads off. What shocked Bob most was how casually they went about it, and how submissively the soldiers accepted their fate – offering no resistance at all as their lives were stolen from them. In the next scene a youthful soldier was thrown off a bridge. In the next five were tied together, soaked with gasoline, then set on fire as a crowd of villagers stood about cheering. And so it continued. The most fortunate were simply shot in the head. Such was the fate of Yenugian soldiers taken prisoner on Yezuk.
It was a fifteen minute paddle from Kucku to Inicku, and it were almost as though they had arrived at the first island again; what, with the men fishing along the shore, the cats waiting for their morsels, the horses harnessed to their phaetons, munching into canvas feed bags. And once more there was the same all-pervasive reek of horse manure – though not even this could detract from the tranquil setting.
After a lunch of soup and bread in the village, they hired bicycles and set off around the island. Bob marvelled at the view of the sea and the two islands to the south. How easily he could escape from here, he thought. They were no longer on the Yezuk mainland. Aside from Pyneez’s brother, not a soul in the world even had a clue where they were.
“Good road for cyclin,’” he remarked when they stopped to rest. “How long does it take to ride all the way roun?’”
“At this speed, about two hours,” Pyneez replied. “But you could do it in half that if you raced.”
“No thanks!” Bob laughed, wiping the sweat off his brow.
A stiff breeze blew despite the warm weather. Removing her sunglasses, Pyneez brushed her dreadlocks back and pointed toward the islands. Unucku, though dwarfed by Yubku beyond it, was significantly larger than both Kucku and Inicku. A triangular structure flashed silver at its peak. “The Temple of Karpot,” she explained.
“Sure don’t spare any expense on thir places a worship in these islands, do they!?” Bob muttered aloud, recalling the golden temple in Crupsy.
When they reached the southern tip of the island the mainland of Yezuk itself came back into view, just a short distance across the water. Further along the coast Bob was able to make out the shadowy forms of factories and tall buildings in the distance.
“What’s that?” he inquired, pulling up again.
“Gunee Dock,” Pyneez informed him. “It’s an industrial ghetto.”
“Really? Now that I’d like to see . . .”
His companion turned a doubtful gaze on him. “No place for an Incabay, Bob. And they don’t speak much Mainlander down there either.”
“Well, maybe I ought a learn the lingo then.”
“That could take years. You wanna go home, don’t you, once your studies are over?”
Bob took off his sunglasses and met her eyes. “I ain’t a student here, Pyneez. I’m a Prisoner a War. Can’t leave till the conflict with Yenug is over.”
She stared back at him for a moment, then her surprise gave way to a mischievious smile. “Looks like you’ll be with us for a long time then.”
“So they tell me!” Bob nodded wryly. “In which case, I may as well start learnin’ the lingo.” Putting his glasses back on, he turned his bike toward the road, unwilling to tell her more at this stage.
The rain came down harder and harder, gutters overflowed, even the road itself was hidden beneath the water, and the traffic moved slowly – windscreen wipers thrashing, horns blaring intermittently, as if it could help. Headlights glowed in the prematüre gloom. People hurried along beneath umbrellas, faces unseen, neither looking nor caring who they were pushing out of their way.
“Dam’ rude, ain’t they?” Bob cursed, dodging the spokes of the open umbrellas.
Rasco frowned out from the hood of his overcoat. “They’re just trying to get where they’re going.”
“Sure. That goes for all of us!”
“Come on, Bobster. People are no ruder here than anywhere else.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence; Bob contemplating Rasco’s over-sensitive response to his minör gripe. Several times he’d caught a wet umbrella in the face. He had a right to be a little annoyed, didn’t he?
Once at the bar they removed their shoes and socks and placed them on top of the radiator, then sat back and watched the steam rise. Rasco lit a cigarette and signalled to the bar.
“How’s the Ladai coming along?”
“Not so good. People don’t wanna speak it with me here. I’m an Incabay – remember.”
“Nonsense. You just need to perservere.”
Bob accepted his beer from the barman, though it was ice-cold, of course, and left it on the table. “So how did you learn to speak the language so quickly, Rasco?”
His companion’s eyes widened as he gazed at the heater. “What do you think, Bobster?”
“I think you were born here.”
“And who told you this?”
“Ain’t no secrets in these islands, man. You know that.”
One cigarette was stubbed out; another immediately lit. “That’s right, I’m a Yezuk Islander. But I thought it best not to let on in Crupsy. You can see how much they hate us.”
Bob watched the rain gushing down the window pane beside him. The blurred forms hurrying by outside were like shadows in a strange dream. Inside the dimly-lit bar was filling up quickly; the musty odor of wet clothing blending with the more customary reek of cigarette-smoke; the loud murmur of chatter overriding the burble emanating from the various TV sets.
“I’m curious about one thing, Rasco. What exactly happened that night you and Senji tried to swim the strait? You know he washed up dead . . .”
“I saw him get shot. They nearly shot me too – karpottam Nugs!”
“I was there – remember. And that’s why I never returned.”
Bob recalled clearly enough. It had been the Yezuk patrol boat they’d heard open fire that night. What kind of game was Rasco playing? But for the moment he let it slide.
The others soon began to arrive, hanging up their coats as they entered and sticking their umbrellas into the buckets beside the front door. Observing Etan among them, Bob shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It was the first time he’d seen him since the night they’d almost come to blows.
In the event, Etan merely sat opposite him, ordered a beer, and commenced ranting about Scuna. “She’s so karpottam jealous! I can’t even look at another woman without her making a scene!” Shaking his head slowly, he downed his beer in two giant gulps then promptly ordered another.
“Talk about making a spectacle of yourself,” Shamot muttered.
“Comin’ apart at the seams, I’d say,” Bob agreed. “What’s to stop ‘im gettin’ divorced, if he’s so dam’ miserable?”
Shamot grinned through his purple beard. “The settlement; that’s what.”
Gerro came over and squeezed in among them, the glass in his hand half-filled with a darker liquid. “Forget the ale,” he growled cheerfully. “This is the stuff for a rainy day.”
“Good thinking!” Shamot slapped him on the back and signalled to the bar.
Bob wasn’t sure he ought to be drinking rum so early but accepted his glass nonetheless. Sweet and syrupy, the drink left a mild, burning sensation in his chest that was almost pleasant. He paid for the next round himself; then another straight after that. His first month’s wages were secure in his pocket, after all.
“Looks like things are gettin’ serious between you an’ Neleh.“ He nudged Gerro.
“Yeh, but keep it to yourself, Bob. Remember what I told you about fatties on this island.”
“Sure, but we’re all pals here – right?”
Gerro winced as he took a drag on his cigarette. “Don’t be too sure about that, my friend.”
The bar was stuffy and heavy with smoke. What, with the heaters on and the doors and windows closed, the atmosphere was becoming decidedly oppressive. The chatter was louder than before, the odors more powerful, while the windows were fogged up completely so that whatever lay beyond could no longer be seen. Bob sipped his rum and peered around the bar. Cheerful, doughy faces stared back at him – or seemed to – their purple hair damp and dishevelled; their eyes dark and shining.
Another few rounds and Bob barely knew where he was any more. His head dropped forward and for one moment he believed he was at home on the Mainland again, listening to his parents and relatives talking around him.
It was Trodie who roused him, shaking him by the shoulder. “I’m headed home, Bob. Looks like you could use a ride.”
Only too grateful for the opportunity to leave, he pulled his warm socks and shoes back on, and a few minutes later they were out in the rain, hurrying up the street to where Trodie had parked his beige saloon.
“Too bad you drank so much!” His companion chuckled, once they were inside the car. “I’ve got a wife and kids to get back to. But the others will be out all night, it being pay-day and all.”
Bob shrugged indifferently. It hadn’t been much fun, he reflected, breathing in everyone else’s cigarette smoke and listening to Etan carrying on. Was that supposed to be ‘enjoyable?’
Trodie dropped him at a takeaways a mile from his house. He offered to wait and take him all the way, but Bob insisted on walking. The rain had eased up and the exercise would help clear his head.
The owner of the kiosk didn’t speak Mainlander, providing Bob with an opportunity to try out his Ladai. “Reg rubena trib, neftul.”
“Reg . . . ru-ben-a . . . trib.”
The owner blinked a few times, before the light of comprehension entered his eyes and he turned back to his grill. Bob’s mouth filled with saliva at the smell of the beef and onions frying. He hadn’t eaten in almost ten hours..
“Hey, Incabay, do you think you’re clever speaking our language?”
Only then did he notice the group of fellows standing around the corner, munching burgers and smoking cigarettes beneath the shelter of the overhanging roof. Their clothes were scruffy and their hair unkempt, while the grins on their unshaved jowls were an image of crooked, nicotine-stained teeth.
“But doesn’t he speak it well!” another intoned. “‘Reg ruuu-ben-aaah trib!'”
“Dyes his hair purple too!”
“You try real hard, Incabay,” the first went on. “But you’ll never be one of us!”
Mercifully his hamburger arrived at that moment. Bob hastily paid for it and turned around to walk away. But the men had come up behind him and were now blocking his path.
“We’d smash the Nugs if it weren’t for the karpottam Mainland!”
“We know the Mainland always supports them!”
“Give us a fair fight, we’d smash them every time!
All Bob could do was apologise. “I’m sure you would. The Nugs are crazy. I don’t like ‘em either.”
“Fine words!” the first speaker sneered, knocking the hamburger out of his hand so that it dropped onto the muddy pavement. “But you’re an Incabay just the same. Forget about dying your hair, forget about speaking our language. Just go home!”
Bob ducked past them and hurried away, the light rain blowing into his face, his stomach groaning with a hunger that had not been appeased. The taunts of the men followed him, and they would remain with him for some considerable time to come.
The crowd applauded, the marching band played, the soldiers moved slowly along the main street in sombre unison – camera crews and photographers circling around in front of them. Children ran ahead with purple flags, while others held banners featuring the words ‘Ziga Cayam Tunu’ – blood red against a purple background. Bob asked Rasco what it meant.
“‘We shall never forget,'” came the reply.
Of course they honoured their war dead on Yezuk too, Bob acknowledged; just as they did on Yenug and the Mainland and everywhere else. But his mind kept returning to the gruesome killings he had seen on the video at Gonda’s home, and he could not bring himself to join in the cheering.
A light shower of rain came down, and umbrellas went up like a field of purple mushrooms. The vendors plied their wares – candyfloss and purple balloons, T-shirts with General Saparatruma’s image on the front. Helicopters droned beneath the clouds, the initials of TV channels on their sides, and at one point a supersonic jet thundered overhead, sending the crowd into raptures and leaving a stream of purple smoke in its wake.
Bedecked with flags and portraits of the general, the Cenotaph was a soaring column of silver, perhaps thirty feet high, and inscribed at the top were the bold purple words: ‘Ziga Cayam Tunu.’ Here the parade drew up, the clashing sounds of the marching band ceased, and the buglars came forth to perform the final tribute. King Lark then strode forth to lay the first wreath; a purple-haired figure some eight feet tall, surrounded by bodyguards and policemen. His legs were at least twice as long as the rest of his body, Bob observed, and did not bend at all. But no one else seemed to notice.
Even as the king withdrew, the giant screens atop the surrounding buildings flashed to life. The High Priest Hamabar sat at his desk in a black robe, General Saparatruma’s portrait and the purple flag of Yenug upon the wall behind him. As the Prayer to Karpot began, booming out across the city, each and every person in the crowd knelt down on the wet pavement and fell silent. Awkward though it felt, Bob had no choice but to do the same.
Afterward he and Rasco headed for the bar. The wall-mounted TV screens were replaying images of the parade they had just attended. At one point Bob caught a glimpse of himself, an impassive figure among the applauding, flag-waving masses.
“So you heard about Etan?” Shamot inquired.
“No. Is he okay?” A range of possibilities flashed through Bob’s mind.
Shamot drew deeply on his cigarette, the glimmer of intrigue in his eyes. “He’s shot through, my friend.”
“Run off, you mean? Left Scuna?”
“We just heard from his brother,” Gerro confirmed. “Etan’s made it to the Mainland.”
Bob gazed back at him in horror. Etan was on the ‘Mainland?!’ Why hadn’t he told him? They could’ve done it together!
Neleh pursed her lips in disgust. “He’s abandoned this island to go and hide on the Mainland where he won’t have to pay out on the settlement!”
“I guess old Etan just couldn’t bare the thought of actually having to go to court with her!” Rasco chuckled.
Bob’s attention wandered to the window beside him, the grey drizzle beyond, and the blurred shapes going by. Etan was on the ‘Mainland!’ He had fled the island without even telling him. Bob could hardly have been more envious. But if Etan had managed to escape Yenug, then so too could he.
The warmth from the radiator was making him drowsy. Up on the TV screens the king was striding forth on his impossibly long legs to lay the first wreath on the Cenotaph. Cameras flashed, the crowd applauded, purple balloons shot upward and bobbed away on the breeze – airborne fugitives escaping to who knew where?
“A clown on stilts; that’s our king, ladies and gentlemen!” announced Gerro across the table.
“Pretending to be eight feet tall!” Neleh scoffed beside him.
But, look, here’s the nation’s ‘real’ leader,” Shamot pointed up at the screen, where an elderly soldier with copious medals now marched resolutely toward the silver column; a floral wreath in his hands. “General Tarum, head of the Army; he’s the one who runs the show on this island.”
“Better that way too,” Rasco concurred. “Kings don’t understand politics, and politicians can’t be trusted.”
Gerro puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette, his bald head nodding up and down. “Democracy’s a myth. People are just plain selfish anyway. They’ll vote for what they want, regardless of how it effects others; regardless of whether it’s good for the island or not.”
“So you let the army decide everything?” Bob gazed around in amazement.
“The army, at least, can be relied upon,” Shamot told him. “They’re the ones who defend our freedom. They have courage and integrity. That’s a legacy that goes right back to the days of General Saparatruma.”
The images Bob had seen on the video in Gonda’s home returned once again to his mind; prisoners being burned and boiled alive, their heads sawed off.
“Are you okay, Bob?” Neleh inquired. “You look a little pale.”
Shamot’s eyes widened, the hint of a sneer appearing on his purple-bearded jowls. “You don’t disapprove, do you? Disrespecting the army can get you into serious trouble here, my friend.”
“No, no,” Bob hastened to explain himself. “Jest surprised, is all. I thought everybody actually ‘believed’ the king was eight feet tall!”
They stared at him a moment longer, as though trying to figure out what language he was speaking. Then – much to his relief – they all burst out laughing.
“He’s a karpottam circus clown!” cried Rasco, and for an instant Bob wasn’t sure who he was referring to – himself or the king.
“And General Tarum’s a war criminal!”
The laughter stopped abruptly and everyone turned around. She had entered the bar behind them; a skeletal figure in a low-cut black dress that contrasted with the pallid hue of her skin, her dark eyes flickering with contempt. They were stunned into silence, as much by her unexpected presence there as the scathing tone she had used.
“‘Courage and integrity,’ my arse!” Scuna went on. “Is that how you describe rape and torture? You’re deluded; the lot of you!”
A glass fell off the table and smashed on the floor. Gerro and Neleh bent down to pick up the pieces, before the middle-aged barman arrived with a broom and dustpan to clean the mess up for them. Scuna, meanwhile, lit one of her scented cigarettes and continued to stand there before them.
“We heard about Etan, and we’re really sorry about that,” Rasco told her. “But insulting the army isn’t going to solve anything, Scuna.”
“Oh, I’m sure you ‘have’ heard about Etan. No doubt you’ve all been sitting here gossipping about it too. The man was a spineless alcoholic and a compulsive liar. Good riddance, I say!”
“We’re all disappointed in him,” Neleh assured her, pursing her lips. “Whatever we can do to help, just ask. But please refrain from accusing our soldiers of ‘rape’ and ‘torture.’ I’ve got two brother s in the army, you know, and my father was a captain.”
“It’s downright anti-Zukism,” growled Shamot. “You could get locked up for that.”
Scuna exhaled a stream of smoke and laughed merrily. “Locked up for telling the truth – while rapists and torturers are revered as ‘heroes?’ You’re pathetic!” And she was still cackling as she turned and walked back out the door, leaving a chilly gust of air in her wake.
Rasco ground out his cigarette in the plastic ashtray. “Crazy bitch! No need to put her in prison. She’ll be in an asylum before long.”
“Send her back to Ugod!” Shamot snarled. “Doesn’t she know there’s a karpottam war on?!”
“So let’s drink to Etan!” Rasco raised his glass. “Escaped the crazy bitch from Ugod and made it to the Mainland!” Though only Shamot joined him in the toast.
Gerro ordered a round of General’s rum and produced a pack of cigars from his shirt pocket. “Got news of our own,” he said, handing out the cigars. “Neleh and I have decided to tie the knot.”
Only then did they all notice the slender gold ring on Neleh’s left hand. Her chubby features flushed bright scarlet at the attention. “But keep it to yourselves, boys. I know I can trust you.”
“Of course,” Shamot assured her, while both Bob and Rasco nodded.
And the latter it was who raised his glass again. “So here’s to the happy couple, and trust among friends.”
The crunch of tyres on gravel; the muffled thumping of a car door opening and closing. Bob got up from his dinner in a state of mild confusion. The only person who ever made use of his driveway was Gonda, but that was invariably later, after her news show in the evenings. Peering out through the kitchen window, he was surprised to see the tall, raw-boned figure of Scuna approaching.
“Rembaha, Bob.” She smiled when he opened the door. “I was driving by and remembered our little chat about Ladai lessons.“
He rolled his eyes at her. “You mean, the night yir husband took a swing at me . . .?”
“Ex-husband,” she corrected him, still with the smile. “So, are you going to invite me in – or leave me standing out here all night?”
It took him a moment to compose himself. “By all means, come inside. Hungry?”
“Just eaten. But I didn’t come empty-handed.” With that she drew a bottle of ‘General’s Rum’ out of her shoulder-bag.
Bob considered this for a moment. What if Gonda came around that night? He’d have to be careful. But one or two glasses wouldn’t hurt, he supposed. “Okay. Let’s sit out on the patio then. It’s a pleasant evening.”
“Gorgeous!” she agreed.
No sooner had they sat down, than the hum of winged insects began to disturb them. Bob hastily returned inside for the repellent. “Goddam island’s teemin’ with these things!”
Scuna sprayed her pale arms and legs lightly, as though applying perfume. She wore a low-cut top, cotton shorts and sandals. “You don’t like it here much, do you?”
“I didn’t say that. But – “
“Come on, honey. It’s obvious! You don’t need to lie to me. I’m not a Zuk either – remember.”
He swallowed his rum and grimaced back at her. “I ain’t lyin,’ Scuna. It’s not such a bad place. But it ain’t home is all. Never will be.”
“And the Isabrom won’t let you go home,” she reminded him.
“‘Purple Heads.’ It’s considered an insult in Ladai.”
“Why? They all got purple hair. You an’ me too. Are we ‘Isabrom?’”
Scuna lit a cigarette, filling the air around them with its spicy aroma. “There’s a lot more to this island than Yezuk City, honey. People here are mostly well-off. Not so in the countryside. There’s a lot of anger. And those people ‘don’t’ dye their hair.”
Bob contemplated this for a moment. “I got good friends here – Rasco, Trodie, Shamot an’ all. They ain’t the ones stoppin’ me from leavin.’”
“Your colleagues? They’re all spies!” She laughed sharply. “Sorry to be the one to break it to you, honey, but The Times is nothing but an instrument of the military leadership of this island. Your so-called friends have been keeping watch on you the whole time.”
He blinked at her a few times, requiring a moment to digest this information. She was almost ghostly in the dim light of the patio, her eyes ringed with dark make-up – both accentuating and constrasting with the pallid hue of her complexion. Rasco a spy? His old college buddy on Yenug? It hardly seemed plausible. But then again, the notion he was a Yezuk Islander had once seemed absurd as well; not to mention the fact Bob had found him here alive, when everybody on Yenug had believed he was dead. Rasco had already lied to him once. Bob wasn’t sure ‘what’ to believe any more.
“An’ you?” he inquired. “Ever think a goin’ back home?”
“This ‘is’ my home, honey. Been here half my life. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself back on Ugod. It’s only a small island. Everyone knows what everyone else’s doing every minute of the day.”
“Don’t you have family there?”
“I do.” She flicked her cigarette away. “And the less said about them, the better.” With that she proceeded to re-fill the glasses.
Later they took a stroll down to the beach. Bob was already beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol and figured it might help clear his head. A gentle sea-breeze greeted them on the sand. It was a clear night with myriad stars and a glowing moon casting a silver, rippling pathway across the water. The foamy shore heaved in and out with a long hiss and the grating of pebbles turning. Staring out toward the dark horizon, he felt the pang of home-sickness once more. The Mainland was out there, barely a few hundred kilometres away, but he was stuck on this island.
“Jest how closely are my ‘spy-friends’ watching me?” he inquired.
Scuna smiled knowingly, the breeze toying with her purple hair, exposing the coal-black roots beneath. “Not ‘that’ closely, honey. If you disappeared tonight, they wouldn’t know until you failed to show up for work in the morning. That’s how Etan got away. I’ll give him that much credit, spineless alcoholic though he was. He kept his mouth shut and nobody suspected a thing.”
“Easy for him, I guess.” Bob shrugged. “Got on a plane an’ flew to the Mainland. But I’d never get past the security check.”
“Well, perhaps you’ll have to swim.” The smile became a mocking one. “Come on, let’s do it together – tonight!”
Bob could only watch in astonishment as she kicked off her sandles, removed her clothes and ran into the surf, wearing only her bra and knickers. Soon she was waist-deep, waving back at him. “Come on in! It’s gorgeous.”
“Hey, be careful. Thir’s a current along this coast.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Stop making excuses!”
Bob shook his head in wonder and chuckled at her. She was right, of course. They’d have to go pretty far out before the current became a factor. No harm in having a little fun close to the shore. Stepping out of his own sandals, he pulled off his T-shirt and charged into the surf.
“You lied!” he gasped. “It’s goddam freezin!’”
“Don’t be a baby! Come on, the Mainland’s ‘this’ way . . . “
He didn’t follow; just watched her swim away. And she paused to laugh back at him at intervals, egging him on and questioning his manhood when he refused to join her. Then she disappeared under the waves for several long seconds, and when she resurfaced it was not at the point he’d expected her to, but about ten or fifteen yards to the left.
“Bob!” she called out. “I think this current’s got hold of me!”
“Yir kiddin,’ right?”
She proceeded to splash around, evidently trying to swim back – though without getting any closer. If anything she was even further to the left than before. “No, it’s not a joke. I can’t fight this current. It’s too strong!”
Bob still wasn’t sure, but plunged into the water regardless. It quickly became apparent she had duped him, however, for the current was barely perceptible at this depth. The cackling laughter confirmed it as he reached her.
“I can’t believe a thing you say !” he protested; his voice trailing off as he noticed the bare, almost anaemic flesh of her upper torso.
“It was creating drag. Not shy, are you?”
“No, but my girlfriend might have somethin’ to say about this.”
“Gonda Nirsen? For karpot’s sake, Bob! Can’t you see she’s just using you?”
He blinked at her a few times. “Well, like I said, Scuna, I ain’t sure what to believe any more.”
With that he began swimming back toward the beach. Scuna followed a few minutes later, naked except for her knickers, the wavy hair made straight by the weight of the water. Bob himself wore only his nylon shorts, and was in the process of pulling his T-shirt on when he noticed the slender figure standing on the road above them, silhouetted by the street lights. Their eyes met only for an instant, then she turned and walked away. Bob was too dumbstruck to even go after her.
“Dont worry, honey.” Scuna came up beside him, still topless. “Like I said before, she’s only been using you.”
It was enough to break the spell, and Bob hastily set off at a run. But he was too late. Gonda was already pulling out of his driveway when he got there, tyres scraping over the shingle, read tail-lights swerving onto the road in front of him. Scuna’s sporty green coupe was left sitting alone in front of his bungalow. Things could hardly have turned out worse, Bob cursed; not even if they’d been planned that way.
Bob did see the cat that ran out in front of them, but he saw the slight grey blur shoot into the alleyway on their right. An instant later two dogs followed; one a large white beast, the other a smaller, black and tan mongrel. Then a third dog leapt out of a doorway and joined the chase.
“Looks like feline’s on the menu,” Rasco chuckled from the front passenger seat.
Bob twisted around to follow the action, but only caught sight of yet another dog bounding into the alleyway after the others. Surely someone would stop them, he thought. He’d have done so himself, except the car was already moving again.
“Let it go,” Shamot advised him. “Too many karpottam felines in this city anyhow!”
It was another overcast afternoon. A cool breeze fluttered in through the open window. Bob hadn’t been in this part of town since the day of the anti-war protest, when the soldiers had opened fire in the square, and as they parked up near the YezBank corner he relived the horror anew. This was the side-street in which he’d narrowly avoided being crushed by fleeing students and shot by plastic bullets. On this occasion, however, there were neither demonstrators nor police around.
Not until they were within a few blocks of the square did he notice anything out of the ordinary. First they heard the chanting, ‘Namsis, em nelve! Namsis, em nelve! Namsis em nelve!’ And then they saw the crowd that had assembled there, their backs to the street, evidently spectators to whatever was going on in the square itself.
As they drew still closer, a sickly odour reached them, something like burning rubber, and once or twice Bob thought he heard a scream above the chanting. Then finally they were close enough to see what was going on. The crowd had formed a circle all the way around the square, and in the middle – surrounded by armed police, camera crews and news photographers – were two chubby figures, staggering about with blazing tyres around their waists. A column of black smoke rose up above them, and the sickly odour was now so strong Bob had to cover his mouth with his shirt.
“What the hell?!” he bellowed at his companions.
“We had to inform the authorities, Bobster.”
“Fatties can’t marry,” Rasco reminded him, speaking in a matter-of-fact tone as though they were debating a refereeing decision at a football game. “It’s against the law. And General Saparatruma signed that one into effect with his own hand.”
All Bob could do was stare back at him in horror. What kind of man was this beside him? He really wasn’t sure. Certainly he didn’t seem like the same fellow Bob had known back in Crupsy. The hair was different; now purple and crewcut, while a cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth – when he hadn’t smoked at all on Yenug. He seemed taller as well. Or was he just leaner?
Another harrowing scream; it froze the blood in Bob’s veins. Neleh was trying desperately to wriggle out of the burning tyre, which had been attached to her somehow. A few yards away, Gerro was doing the same, bawling like an infant.
“That’s right – squeal, you swine!” Shamot yelled through his hands.
And the chanting grew louder: ‘Namsis, em nelve! Namsis em nelve! Namsis em nelve!”
Bob flew forward and attempted to free Neleh from the cause of her torment, but the rubber was aflame, black fumes pouring out of it, and there was little he could do. Besides which, no sooner had he reached her than he was seized from behind and dragged away. When he gazed up from the ground he saw only the barrel of a rifle.
“Incabay!” Rasco’s voice cried out above him. “Incabay! Misa-dakra!”
The rifle disappeared from view and his companion hauled him to his feet. The TV cameras swung around, the news photographers too, all turning their lenses on him, and among them, Bob noticed in a daze, were the familiar bespectacled features of Limilaw and Nerak.
“They’re fatties, Bobster!” Rasco shouted into his face. “They broke the law. This is their destiny!”
“No, it ain’t!”
Shamot slapped a hand over his mouth. “Careful, my friend, or you’ll be next, the way you’re going!”
“Take ‘im back to the car,” Trodie told Rasco, and handed him the keys
Bob could still hear the chanting as he was led away: “Namsis, em nelve! Namsis em nelve! Namsis em nelve!”
They were about halfway back to the car when he stopped and confronted Rasco. “How could you do that? They were yir friends!”
“Like I said, Bobster; they broke the law.”
“Yir worse than the goddam Nugs!”
At this Rasco seized him by the collar, but Bob seized him right back – which clearly surprised him. The square jaw clenched, the yellow teeth exposed in a grimace. “Better calm down, Bobster. I’ll overlook it this time. But you’ll get yourself into a whole lot of trouble talking that way.”
Arriving at the car, Rasco unlocked the doors and told Bob to get in. He then climbed into the driver’s seat beside him, lit a cigarette and turned on the radio. Though the babble coming out of it remained imcomprensible to Bob, he could hear the chanting in the background and understood they were talking about what was going on in the square. In any case, it was interrupted by the familiar cry of the High Priest Hamabar.
Rasco got back out of the car and knelt down on the pavement , and Bob saw his opportunity. Slipping across to the driver’s seat, he leaned over and locked the door, so that when Rasco sprang up and lunged for the handle he was unable to pull it open. Bob was ‘on the run’ again; just as he had been a few months earlier on Yenug. No turning back. They’d be coming after him soon enough, and he’d have to ditch the car somewhere. But right then he could think of only one direction to take.
In fact, he made it to his village without incident. No cops loomed up in his rear vision mirror. No helicopter droned overhead. Collecting a few items from his bungalow, he got back into the car and continued on. Five minutes later, passing through the town where Temha and Pyneez lived, the thought of stopping and seeking their assistance crossed his mind. He could’ve hidden the car from view, stayed with them until nightfall, then paddled out to the Radalas in one of the kayaks – as simple as that. But stronger than his desperation to get off the island was his need to see Gonda one more time. He had to know if there was a chance she would come with him.
He was fortunate, too, for he found her at home – just as she had been preparing to go out. Though the expression on her face warned him something was amiss.
“What are you doing here, Bob? Your picture’s all over the news!” The dark eyes bore into him.
“Let’s leave together, Gonda. This island’s an evil place!”
“You’re mad! Why in Karpot’s name were you interfering with the burning anyway?”
“They were my ‘friends,’ that’s why. Thir own pals turned ’em in an’ watched ‘em suffer. It’s depraved!”
“If you’re not mad, you’re a spy. Get out of here – now!”
Bob withdrew slowly from the living room, leaving her standing there, wild-eyed and furious, the portrait of General Saparatruma and bright purple flag on the wall behind her, the TV burbling away with the DVD player and shelves full of discs beneath it.
Only then, as he continued down the stairs, did he detect the faint drone of a helicopter. By the time he reached the bottom it was accompanied by the wailing of sirens. Scrambling back into the car, he started the engine and sped away.
Bob kept one eye on the rear vision mirror as he drove, waiting for the police cars to appear. What he hadn’t expected, was that they would already be in front of him. But there they were, two black and white vehicles, parked bumper-to-bumper across the road he was on, blocking the way ahead.
Spinning the car around, he started back toward the village, though what he found when he got there were more police cars racing toward him, blue lights flashing, sirens wailing. They had him surrounded. All he could do was stop the car and climb out with his hands above his head. The police cars drew to a halt also, and now the officers began to emerge – men in dark uniforms with guns in their hands.
They forced him down onto the stony road, cuffed his wrists behind his back, and hoisted him back onto his feet again. A as Bob stared around dazedly, he saw a group of photographers coming toward him – Limilaw and Nerak among them. To his further astonishment, he next caught sight of Rasco, Shamot and Trodie, standing in front of one of the patrol cars, smoking cigarettes.
“Yir all brainwashed!” he cried. “Can’t ya see that?!”
His companions merely shook their heads as he was dragged past them, while Limilaw, Nerak and the rest of the photographers kept working their cameras.
The cops were just about to shove him into one of the cars when the familiar red and silver saloon pulled up. Bob allowed himself to believe for a moment that she had actually come to help him.
“Gonda, this is insane! Tell ‘em I’m not a criminal!”
“No, Bob, it’s you who’s insane.” The dark eyes bore into him once more. “You’ve insulted our country, disrespected our customs and stolen your colleague’s car. Of course you’re a criminal!”
She turned and spoke briefly to the officers, and they responded with a word that even Bob could understand: ‘Logas, Gonda minah. Logas’
No glint of intrigue was evident in the large brown eyes on this occasion. Rather, they brimmed with contempt, eyebrows forming a dense black ‘V’ above them. Middle-aged and athletic, attired in a khaki uniform, smoking a cigarette, he was just as Bob remembered him. It could have been the day before that he’d last sat in this office; the general’s portait and bright purple flag upon the wall behind the captain.
“We gave you everything, Bob. You only had to play by the rules.”
“All I wanted was to go home.”
“You were promised your freedom – as soon as the conflict with Yenug was over.”
“The conflict will ‘never’ be over. You had no intention of givin’ me my freedom.”
“Nonsense. You simply weren’t patient.”
“I’ve been a prisoner since the day I arrived here.”
Fatsuma drew deeply on his cigarette and exhaled into the air, filling the room with smoke. “You broke the rules, Bob. So now you must pay the price. The most serious of your crimes, ‘anti-Zukism,’ is punishable by death.”
“‘Death?'” Bob stared desperately at the four walls around him, as though he might find some unexpected path to freedom. Of course, there was none. Like a scene from a nightmare, he was trapped in that stuffy little room, the purple-haired captain grinding a cigarette out in front of him. “No trial? Nothin?'”
A nicotine-stained smirk appeared on the captain’s features. “Why, you’re on trial as we speak. Your capture is being shown on television news all over the island. What was it you screamed? We’re ‘all brainwashed . . .’ He shook his head disapprovingly.
The captain called out something in Ladai and two young soldiers immediately entered the room; both in khaki uniform, tall and slim, their crewcut hair dyed purple. Seizing Bob by the arms, they hauled him out of the office, down the corridor and outside into the courtyard, where more soldiers were waiting. It was a cool, breezy day with no glimpse of the sky among the sombre clouds. The trees around the edge of the compound were dull and bare, entirely devoid of leaves. Bob wore only the baggy grey tracksuit and sandals they had provided him with the night before.
Captain Fatsuma approached, accompanied by two more soldiers carrying a large, steaming pot between them. It gave off a pungent odour reminiscent of a newly paved road. The pair holding Bob then peeled off his top, leaving him standing there in nothing but his pants and sandals. Then the pot was raised and its hot black contents poured over his shoulders, covering his torso, arms and thighs. He gasped aloud as the liquid burned him, searing his naked flesh, and was on the point of passing out when another soldier came toward him; this one carrying a bulky sack. He should have guessed: They were going to cover him with feathers.
“You have ridiculed our island.” The captain told him, the nicotine smirk on his face again. “Now our people will have their chance to ridicule you.”
The groan of a large engine came into earshot, accompanied by rattling metal. A moment later a dark green army truck pulled up in front of them, and Bob was pushed into the back. The soldiers climbed in with him, clucking like chickens and flapping their arms as the vehicle rumbled across the courtyard and out through the open gates.
“Shouldn’t have disrespected our customs, Incabay,” one snarled at him. “Look where it got ya!”
“This is how we deal with traitors on Yezuk!” added another.
Bob didn’t bother to ask where they were taking him. He wasn’t even sure where the military headquarters were located on the island, though it must have been quite some distance from the capital, for they kept on driving for at least an hour – the soldiers taunting him all the way. The tar on his body soon cooled, but he remained in considerable discomfort as it dried and contracted with his skin.
Finally there was a view of buildings beyond the rear exit, more and more of them, decrepit apartment blocks with multi-coloured washing hanging from the balconies. Ten or fifteen minutes later these gave way to shopping complexes and office blocks as they drew closer to the centre. When at last they stopped, Bob discovered they were just a short distance from the square. They’d brought him back to the very spot from which his flight had begun. Only now there were hordes of people gathered on the sidewalks ahead, holding purple flags aloft and posters featuring General Saparatruma’s image.
‘Anti-Zuk! Anti-Zuk!’ they began chanting as the soldiers dragged him down from the deck. ‘Anti-Zuk! Anti-Zuk!’ – their eyes full of hatred.
Camera crews and photographers circled around like wild dogs, and in his groggy state Bob could only gaze forlornly back at them, as hopeless as the cornered prey. And then, completing his amazement, Gonda herself appeared in front of him, attired in a heavy fur-lined coat, microphone in hand.
“So why did you do it, Bob?”she asked him coldly. “Why did you try to interfere with the burning?”
“Gonda,” he croaked, his voice barely audible. “Yir all insane . . . “
She turned to her camera man and laughed. “Iled madaub! Iled el kilnisek!”
Powerful hands slammed into his back, sending him careering forward, so that the photographers were forced to scramble aside. A sharp sting in his elbow. Then another in his thigh. Before long he was stinging all over. The crowd were throwing things at him; small, hard missiles. Some of it stuck to the tar and feathers he was covered in, and Bob saw that it was chicken feed.
‘Anti-Zuk! Anti-Zuk!’ the chanting continued. Then the grain-tossing ceased and some of the spectators emerged to prance before him, flapping their elbows and bobbing their heads theatrically; bringing laughter from the crowd.
The powerful hands drove him on, until at last he came to the square, where less than twenty-four hours earlier Bob had seen his friends Gerro and Neleh being burned alive; the same square in which he’d witnessed soldiers firing live ammunition at unarmed protestors the first time he’d come here, nearly two months before. And now Bob saw what awaited him. In the middle of the square a platform had been erected, and upon it was an upright wooden frame with a slanted blade suspended from the top. So this was his fate, he realised with a shudder. This was how they were going to punish him.
Instinctively he baulked, but the soldiers hauled him up onto the platform regardless, then dragged him to the guillotine.
“Nothing can save you now!” sneered one of them. “Better say your prayers . . . ”
In a few minutes it would all be over, he thought. At least it would be quick – and presumably painless. The crowd pressed forward to watch, waving their flags and posters. The photographers and camera crews were at the front, and once again Bob caught a glimpse of Gonda. Was this going to end up on one of her videos? He wondered bitterly.
But his death was not to be quite so sudden as he had imagined, for just then the Prayer to Karpot boomed out, and Bob gazed up to see the purple-haired features of the High Priest Hamabar filling the giant screens atop the surrounding buildings. Another few minutes he would have to wait.
The crowd fell silent and everyone dropped to their knees. Bob alone remained standing, though the soldiers quickly pulled him down and held him there by the arms. The high priest rambled on, attired in a black robe, the purple flag and portrait of General Saparatruma upon the wall behind him. And so loud was his voice that no one noticed at first the deep rumbling in the sky that came from the west.
Whatever it was moved swiftly, and was soon directly above them, concealed by the clouds. The first bomb dropped into the street they had just come along; the second demolished the top few stories of one of the nearby buildings, sending its giant screen tumbling to the ground; the third landed on the edge of the square, killing many instantly, injuring and maiming countless more.
In the minutes that followed there was nothing but silence. The plane had gone, the giant screens were blank, and the square was full of human carnage. Then people began to groan and wail. A few started screaming wildly. Those with their limbs still in tact commenced running about like lunatics. Most of them made for the side-streets. Scarcely a few stayed to help the wounded.
Another deep rumble arose in the western sky, and within seconds all those who were able had deserted the square, leaving the victims where they lay. So stunned and amazed was Bob, it took him a moment to realise the soldiers had fled with them, leaving him there alone, kneeling in front of the guillotine.
As the rumble grew louder, he clambered down from the platform, relieved a corpse of its coat, and staggered toward the nearest side-street. Exactly where the next bombs fell he wasn’t sure, but the buildings around him shook with each explosion, windows shattered, alarms rang out and a pall of black smoke was soon to be seen sweeping across the city.
How ironic, thought Bob, that his reprieve should come in this manner. Undoubtedly he was the only one in the vicinity to have actually profited by the disaster. He was a free man once more, and need only survive these bombs to attempt his escape again.
Temha ran a steaming bath and poured in a bottle of turpentine, while Pyneez prepared hot food and drink – the latter containing a certain amount of alcohol. Thus relieved of the cold and hunger, and withal the discomfort in his skin, Bob had never felt so relaxed in all his life. Within minutes his eyelids were closing, and all he could do was sit there in that tub full of hot soapy water, reminding himself again and again of just how lucky he was.
Next time he opened his eyes it was with the sharp odor of antiseptic cream in his nostrils and a burning sensation in his legs. A middle-aged woman was leaning over him. He was not in the bath but in a bed, and for a moment he allowed himself to believe it was his own bed back on the Mainland. But the bespectacled features of the middle-aged woman were not those of his mother. Slowly, delicately, she was peeling the tar away from his chest with her fingers.
“Almost finished,” Pyneez’s voice reached him, and raising his head off the pillow slightly he saw her standing near the end of the bed. “You’ll be okay in a few days.”
He tried to thank them but no sound came from his throat. His head fell back against the pillow and his eyelids closed again. Sleep carried him into a garden paradise where the scent of the salve became the sweetest fragrance in the universe.
Next time he awoke the room was empty. Climbing gingerly out of the bed, he looked at his bandaged body in the mirror. The burning sensation had moved to his chest and back, but he felt no pain. In addition to which, a little of his energy had returned. He was ready to get out of there; to escape from this island once and for all.
Temha came in with a bundle of clothes, and the familiar wide grin flashed across his features when he saw Bob standing there. “These are for you.”
A black tracksuit and sweater, thick socks and shoes. Bob pulled them on over his bandages and shorts. “You’ve done so much for me. How can I ever thank you?”
“Forget it. But we’ll need to get you out of here. It’s only a matter of time before they come searching for you.”
‘We could take the kayaks out to the Radalas tonight, if you feel up to it. I’ll tell you how to get in touch with the people smugglers there.”
“I wouldn’t wanna put you at risk,” Bob protested.
“Somebody’s gotta bring the kayak back.” The dreadlocked youth grinned, the bead necklace around his neck sparkling in the dim light.
Pyneez accompanied them down to the shore and there they said their farewells. She gave him a hug and Bob held her tightly, knowing that he would miss her more than he would Gonda. It defied every instinct in his being to let her go. But he had to. He didn’t belong in this place. And for some time after he had begun paddling away from the shore, she remained there waving; a slender figure on the beach, her dreadlocked hair silhouetted by the moonlight.
It was a windy night and the waves rose high out on the open sea. Bob tired quickly and struggled to keep pace, though Temha stopped every now and again to wait for him, which was fortunate. They were within sight of Kucku Island when a sleek grey form rolled through the water nearby, dorsil fin glistening in the moonlight. Pausing to gaze after it, Bob spied more of them further out; dozens of them – a veritable superpod! The sight was mesmerizing, but he was forced to wrench his eyes away as his companion called him on. The coast guard might pass by at any time.
No fishermen were to be seen on the coast at this hour; no cats or dogs, nor horses standing harnessed to their phaetons. There were only the gulls, strolling around in the darkness, pecking here and there at some unseen object in the sand. And few lights were on in the town, which appeared almost deserted. Bob dragged his kayak out of the water and followed his companion ashore.
“Go to the Kucku Hotel on the main street,” Temha advised him. “They always have rooms.”
Bob returned a doubtful gaze. “An’ are the rooms free?”
“But you have money.”
“No. Everythin’ was taken from me.”
“You don’t know?” The youth seemed perplexed. “Check your inside pocket.”
Doing so, Bob was astonished to find a soft, flat object there. Inside the black leather billfold was a sizable amount of cash. What, with his chest tarred and feathered, and now covered in bandages, he hadn’t even noticed it.
“I took this coat off a dead man in the square.” He shook his head apologetically. “It ain’t mine.”
“Keep it, my friend. You’ll never get off this island otherwise. Those people smugglers aren’t free either.”
Temha shook his hand and wished him luck, then turned around and set about tying the canoes together for the return journey.
Bob continued on into the village and found the Kucku Hotel. Indeed, it was still open, a little after midnight. An old man answered the door in his dressing gown and slippers, and showed him upstairs to an empty room. Bob observed that his hair was almost silver; he hadn’t dyed it. Neither was there a portrait on the wall, nor the purple national flag.
Cash up front sufficed. The old man did not request identification. After he had left, closing the door behind him, Bob threw off his coat and collapsed onto the wide double-bed, breathing heavily as though he’d just climbed a mountain. For the first time since his capture on the sandbar two months before, he began to sense his freedom.
The black leather billfold returned to his thoughts as he closed his eyes; a snapshot of the moment he’d opened it up and spied the cash within. Then he saw Temha coming toward him; slim and dreadlocked, flashing a broad white smile. And in his hand was a bundle of notes – the notes that had been inside the billfold. Only now they were being handed to him. Bob looked up to find the silver-haired manager at the door, also smiling, beckoning him out into the hall. But when he stepped through the doorway he found himself in the darkness; the manager’s face, the room, the hotel and the entire island of Kucku disappearing below, until the blue earth itself became distant; like a broken skin he would never climb back into. In panic he looked around for the door he had just stepped out of. There was no sign of it, however. He was floating in space, alone in the universe. A star glimmered above him, then another. There were dozens of them, thousands even; a multitude of galaxies surrounding him like a blanket, rolling him over and over again. When he opened his eyes again, the stars were all there – shining in through the window. Unsure if he was still dreaming, Bob drifted to sleep once more.
He took the ferry to Yukbu in the morning. The small shuttle boats ran between the islands several times daily. There were barely fifteen to twenty other passengers aboard. Bob stood out on deck and watched the scenery go by, the sea smooth as marble, the islands densely vegetated and green. He breathed in the cool, fresh air. Beyond all, it was peaceful. Even the drone of the motor had a relaxing quality to it, calm and steady.
It was approaching ten when they reached the fourth island, and so similar was the village at the port Bob could have been stepping ashore on Kucku again. Men fished along the coast; an audience of cats and a few dogs hanging around, waiting for their morsels; while horses stood harnessed to phaetons, munching into their feeding bags. And it was the sour reek of horse manure that filled his nostrils as he reached the end of the pier.
Entering the first restaurant he came to, Bob devoured an enormous breakfast of eggs, bread, tomatoes and sausages, and washed it all down with orange juice and coffee. He then rented a bicycle for the day and set off for the other side of the island. It was a journey of more than three hours, along the west coast, the glistening blue sea to his left, and beyond that, albeit far out of sight, lay the Mainland. A few more days and he ought to be back there, if all went according to plan.
Finally he climbed a steep hill, and from its crest saw the small fishing village on the other side. He had reached the southern tip of the island. It took him a few minutes more to realise the ghostly cone on the horizon was not another cloud – but the snowy peak of Mount Tabi, some fifty miles distant.
Temha had told him to find the ‘Naysi Bar,’ and this he achieved easily enough. In a village of this size directions were hardly necessary. Though it was not yet open for business, several men were at work inside, wiping tables and mopping the floor, one of them stocking the bar. To a man they were robust, heavily tattooed and unshaven; their hair long and undyed.
They glanced up in surprise when Bob rapped on the window, and only reacted when he knocked again. A tall fellow with a scar on his right cheek opened the door to confront him, a fierce look in his eyes, which were very dark.
“Rembaha. I want to go to Tabi,” Bob told him directly. “Can you help me?”
The other men emerged from the bar and immediately surrounded him, their surprise giving way to suspicion.
“Incabay? Mainlander speak?”
“Yes, Mainlander.” Bob nodded animatedly. “I’m tryin’ a get home.”
“No understand. Ladai speak?”
“Izab,” he replied, giving a so-so hand gesture.
“Nusroy ti si en?”
“Eve-kem tig si ti muroy,” Bob repeated what he had first told them in Mainlander.
The men continued to scrutinize him, blowing cigarette smoke into his face and muttering among themselves. Then one fellow said something that seemed to spark a debate, and much to Bob’s consternation a knife was produced.
“I got money,” he assured them, having no idea what the argument was about. Reaching inside his coat, he hastily drew the billfold out.
They all stared at him then, though it was not the billfold which had attracted their attention. A broad-shouldered fellow with a dense mustache stepped forward and pulled the lapels of his coat open. They were looking at the bandages.
“Di nalar ya?” the mustachioed one inquired. “You are hurt?”
“Yes, hurt.” Bob nodded. “They wanted to kill me.”
“The Purple Heads. They said I’d insulted thir country.”
He took a deep breath as the mustachioed fellow translated this, and waited for their reaction. The first to break into a grin was the mustachioed fellow himself, then all the others followed suit; even the one who’d pulled out the knife. And those smiles full of crooked, nicotine-stained teeth could hardly have been a more welcome sight to Bob.
“The Purple Heads are ‘lepcri!'” The mustachioed fellow spat on the ground. “Okay, Incabay, we will help you get to Tabi. But tonight’s boat is full.”
Now it was Bob’s turn to smile. He’d come to the right place. They were going to help him after all. But he didn’t want to wait, not even for one day.
“How much is the fare?”
“Five hundred suruk.”
It was a lot of money. Though he had roughly twice that much in the billfold. “I’ll pay a thousand if you get me on tonight.”
The men raised their eyebrows and muttered to one another, shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads doubtfully.
“Wait here,” the mustachioed fellow told him, then promptly set off up the street. Meanwhile, Bob was invited inside. They brought him hot soup and bread from the kitchen, along with a glass of tea. The nourishment he accepted gratefully, having worked off his enormous breakfast during the long ride around the island.
The scar-face approached him while he was eating. “Hey, Incabay, General Saparatruma big hero, yes?” He exploded in laughter before Bob could answer, his companions chortling along with him. “King Lark nine feet tall, yes?” Another burst of laughter, and this time even Bob joined in. “Love purple flag, yes? Hawww! hawww! hawww!”
“What you think, Incabay?” another asked him. “You love Purple Flag?”
The first word that came to Bob’s mind was a local one. “Lepcri!” he declared, and the men guffawed wickedly.
“Yes, Yabanci,’lepcri!’ Purple flag lepcri! King Lark lepcri! General Saparatruma lepcri!”
“Yezuk City lepcri!” the scar-face added. “Isabrom lepcri!”
“’Isabrom?’” Bob needed a moment to recall that word. Of course, Scuna had told him the night she’d come to his bungalow. “Purple Head? Yes, Isabrom lepcri! Yezuk City lepcri!” He gave a thumbs-down gesture, and they all laughed again.
He was on the point of adding the High Priest to the ‘lepcri’ list, but something told him this would be going too far. And it was fortunate that he did not do so, he soon came to realise, for when Hamabar’s image appeared on the TV screen a short while later, everyone in the place knelt down on the floor as the Prayer to Karpot began. In this respect, evidently, they were as pious as the ‘Purple Heads’ they so despised.
An hour or so passed before the mustachoed fellow returned, and he did so in the company of another man; this one middle-aged and bearded; his nose a crimson lump in the middle of his weather-beaten face. They led him over to Bob’s table and brought two more glasses of tea from the kitchen.
“You want to go to Tabi, my friend?” the newcomer inquired in a rasping voice; eyes pale and rheumy.
“Yes. Tonight if possible. I got money.”
The fellow scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Tonight’s boat is full. You will have to wait until Wednesday.”
Bob took his billfold out and opened it on the table. “That’s all I got – a thousand suruk and the clothes I’m wearin.'”
“You don’t have luggage?”
The newcomer scratched his beard some more, scrutinizing him with the rheumy eyes. Finally he lit a cigarette and released a long stream of smoke into the air. “Okay, Incabay. I will find a place for you on my boat tonight.”
For a moment Bob could only stare back in disbelief. So this was the captain himself, and he was agreeing to take him on board that very evening. By the following day he ought to be safely on Tabi.
They left at ten; on a rubber dinghy with an outboard motor, carrying over thirty passengers though there was scarcely room for a dozen. Women with babies and small children huddled in the middle, while the rest sat around the outside, exposed to the wind and the icy spray of the waves. With no minor degree of difficulty, Bob had squeezed himself into a spot near the stern, and for some time afterward resentful eyes remained fixed upon him. No doubt they viewed him as an intruder, he supposed, though he had pulled the hood of his coat up to hide his purple hair. In this manner he must endure the next six hours. But he was grateful now for the over-crowded conditions, as well as the bandages covering his torso and limbs, for a freezing wind swept across the sea, causing his teeth to chatter uncontrollably. Higher and higher the waves rose, lifting them up and plunging them down. No moon, no stars, just the glow of cigarettes in the darkness. And the motor droned on and on.
An hour passed. One sixth of the distance covered – presumably. It seemed to have taken forever. Several times already Bob had adjusted his position, trying in vain to bring some relief to his cramped legs and buttocks. And the muscles in his back had begun to ache from the constant shivering. Five more hours of this, he contemplated in despair. They were going to be the longest five hours of his life.
A short while later the motor fell silent. Bob gazed around anxiously, fearing they had broken down at this early stage of the journey. The other passengers appeared unphased, however. Those smoking cigarettes were flicking them into the water, somewhat hurriedly, it seemed. And now Bob saw why – the lights of another boat were visible in the distance. If the coast guard caught them here it would be a disaster. He’d be taken back to the capital and executed for certain. If they could just make it into Tabi waters it wouldn’t matter if they were caught or not – he’d simply be returned to his homeland. But at least two hours more he would have to wait before they got that far.
The motor puttered to life again. The waves rolled beneath them. Cigarettes were lit, and in the faint glow of the lighters Bob saw that shiny parcels were being passed around. One came his way. It was wrapped in tin-foil, and inside he discovered a portion of dry stringy meat. It smelt like chicken.
Indeed, the fellow beside him flapped his elbows and made a clucking sound. “Good! Good!” he assured him, stuffing his own mouth until his cheeks bulged.
But Bob wasn’t hungry, and neither did he find the appearance of the meat particularly appetitizing. He offered it instead to his neighbour, since he appeared to be enjoying his own portion so much.
“You no like?” The fellow frowned.
“Already eaten. I’ll be fine till we get to Tabi.”
His neighbour kept frowning. “This – my people food.”
Bob understood then that he would have to eat his portion, lest he cause offence. And he did so with gusto, feigning an expression of ecstasy for the purpose, so that the frown on his neighbour’s features turned into a smile again.
Plastic cups of steaming tea followed, and there was no need for pretence this time. The scalding liquid, though lacking cream and sugar, unsurprisingly, could not have been more welcome in the chilly conditions.
“Why go you Tabi?” the fellow beside him asked, at the same time offering him a roll-your-own.
“’Cause I’m an Incabay,” Bob explained, declining the cigarette. “The Zuks won’t let me go home. How about you?”
“My home Gunee Dock.” The crooked smile returned to the man’s face. “Go Tabi ’cause war, ‘cause no money, ‘cause Isabrom.”
Bob considered that for a moment. Obviously these people were poor, either unwelcome on Tabi or, like him, forbidden from leaving Yezuk. It had been selfish of him to pray only for their arrival in Tabi waters, he acknowledged. How could he ever rejoice in his own salvation if all these people on the boat with him were sent back to the misery they were attempting to escape from?
Another hour and the rain set in, the wind blew with added ferocity, the rubber dinghy climbed and plummeted, again and again, on more than one occasion threatening to capsize. These were terrifying moments, filled with shouts and shrieks and the wailing of children, while the sour odor of vomit soon reached his nostrils. Bob felt the wetness creeping into his shoes and clothing. If the boat didn’t overturn and send them all to the bottom of the sea, he was sure to die of exposure anyway.
Eventually the rain abated and the waves grew calmer. The rubber dinghy stabilized, the motor droned on and on. And in spite of his severe discomfort, Bob somehow managed to fall asleep. What he saw then were a group of men cavorting about in a field of long grass, tossing money into the air and laughing hysterically. Some had their hair dyed purple; and they all danced in an awkward jerky manner. Even as Bob watched them, their laughter transformed into harrowing screams of anguish. The dinghy was being thrown about even more violently than before, and when a giant wave washed over the stern at least two figures disappeared into the sea. More shouting and shrieking followed. He could not see the captain. Another huge wave lifted the bow so high it seemed they were going to flip over competely. Bob tumbled into the people behind, while those in front tumbled into him. They remained squashed together like that for a few interminable seconds, before the wave plunged down again and they all careered forward.
How far they remained from Tabi Island he had no idea. But even before the dinghy overturned, sending each and every one of them into the freezing water, Bob had already made up his mind to swim for it. Wriggling out of his coat and kicking off his shoes, he fought his way back to the surface and gasped in the oxygen. All around him people were doing the same, most of them trying to get back to the dinghy, which was upside down; the propeller of its outboard motor sticking up into the air.
Bob turned around in the water. There was a fingernail slice of moon. And then he saw it – the shadow of the mountain looming over them. The coast of the island couldn’t be far away, and at least he knew which direction to swim in. Leaving the others grappling with the overturned dinghy, he began to fight his way through the waves.
After a while he turned onto his back, and now he could actually see the stars, dozens of them, thousands even. The clouds were shifting, moving apart like curtains. Beneath the unthinkable galaxies, the waves rocked him back and forth like a cradle, and he understood then what it was to be truly alone – vulnerable and insignificant.
Before long his extremeties began to tingle. Then the feeling left his limbs altogether and he could no longer control his movements. He was shivering wildly, his breathing rapid and shallow. Bob recognised this as the onset of hypothermia. In all likelihood, the sea would become his grave that night. And as though to confirm it, a freak wave scooped him up, spun him around, then thrust him far beneath the surface, until his feet hit something solid, jarring his legs and spine. He came up gasping and coughing, eyes open wide. It was right there in front of him, barely a few hundred yards away: the dark shadow of the coast.
Fingers forced his mouth open and deposited two rubbery capsules – which he automatically swallowed. They had a tangy taste. He felt warmer. They’d covered him with heavy blankets. And he heard them talking quietly above him. This was not Ladai; the words were recognisable, among them one which was repeated several times: ‘Pneumonia.’ When he prised his eyelides open a fraction he saw the bespectacled features of a middle-aged man gazing down at him. His hair was grey and from his neck hung a stethoscope. It was enough to know he was going to be okay. Bob allowed his eyelids to close again.
Next time he awoke the room was dark and he was alone. A hospital ward? He wondered. Anywhere but an army compound cell. The bed was comfortable, at least; as comfortable as his own back on the Mainland. And his strength was returning. He had survived. But what about all those others on the boat? How many had made it ashore, and how many had perished? He wished only to know this.
The door opened, silhouetting a woman’s plump figure in the light. For a moment he imagined he was back at the home of the twins, being attended to by their mother, so familiar was her gait. There was the distinct burble of a TV set from the next room, and in the light cast by the open doorway he began to recognise various items – the curtains, the furniture, the lamp on the bedside table. In the same instant she leaned over and turned on the lamp, Bob knew whose face he was going to see.
“Yir awake, dear. Are you feeling okay?”
His astonishment could not have been greater. And it occurred to him she was much too casual, after all he had been through, after his escape from death, not to mention his escape from the islands. She must have known what he’d been through. “Yeh, Mom. I’m okay. How long was I out?”
“Five whole days! We almost took you to the hospital. But yir paw called Doctor Richards first an’ he explained what it was.”
“Did they airlift me here – from Tabi, I mean?”
“An’ what happened to all those other people on the boat? Did they make it?”
Just then a large frame filled the doorway, and Bob looked up to see his father walking in.
“Hey, look who’s finally woken up! How ya doin,’ son?”
“I’m fine, Paw. But what about the other people on the boat? Did they survive?”
His parents glanced at one another with unmistakable concern. Bob feared he was about to receive bad news.
“What ‘boat?'” his father inquired.
Bob looked from one to the other, bewildered that they did not seem to understand. Surely they’d been told about all this.
“Perhaps I ought a call Doctor Richards again,” his father said quietly.
“Yir right,” Bob’s mother agreed. “He’s obviously delirious.”
“I ain’t delirious!” Bob protested. “We were almost thir! A freak wave flipped the boat over. Everyone went under – men an’ women, kids an’ babies. We couldn’t a been more than half a mile from Tabi . . . ”
His mother placed a hand on his forehead. “A li’l warm but the fever’s gone.”
“Sounds like a crazy nightmare,” his father replied. “Maybe he jest needs more rest.”
“I’m okay,” Bob insisted. “I jest wanna know – “
There came the rattle and thump of the front door opening and closing. It could only have been his brother.
“Guess who’s finally woken up!” his father called out.
Roj hurried into the room, grinning broadly. “Hey, Bobby, feelin’ better?”
“Much better. But I’m real confused. How did I get here?”
His brother gave his parents the same look of concern they’d given one another a few minutes before. “You kind a passed out, Bobby. After the farewell party. We couldn’t wake you up in the mornin.’”
“We got you on the same flight next week,” his father assured him. “For a while thir, looked like you weren’t gonna make that one either. Had us all real worried, son.”
“Flight? Not back to . . . ?” Bob’s voice trailed off. Even as he spoke, the memories were fading. And they were fading much too quickly – like a crazy nightmare.
“An’ yir paw spoke to Professor Hannah by phone,” his mother put in. “You’ll only miss the first week.”
“Yelmi Hannah? Yes, I remember her!”
“‘Emily’ Hannah,” his father corrected him. “And you never met her, son. Not yet, anyhow.”
Roj chuckled down at him. “’Yelmi’ Hannah? You talkin’ in anagrams or somethin,’ Bobby?”
“Come on,” his mother turned to the others. “The boy needs more rest. If he’s still delirious in the mornin,’ we’ll call Doctor Richards again.”
With that his mother switched off the lamp and kissed him on the cheek. And the last thing Bob saw as he rolled onto his side to sleep again were the stars; dozens of them, thousands even, shining in through the window.
It was light next time he awoke; the color of his wall the familiar pastel blue, the wardrobe and dresser a dull shade of chestnut, the carpet beneath them faded brown. He gazed around in bewilderment for a while, like a blind man recovering his vision. A little dust had gathered on the dresser, he noticed, highlighted in a sunbeam. He’d make a point of cleaning his room later. And up on the ceiling beside the light fixture a tiny black dot opened its miniscule wings.
Climbing gingerly out of bed, Bob felt the itch on his left arm. Evidently the mosquito had left its mark. But how had it bitten him through the bandages, he wondered? Only when he felt inside his pijamas did he discover the bandages were no longer there. Neither was there any sign of his burns from the hot tar the soldiers had poured over him. ‘A crazy dream?’ Was that all it had been? He still wasn’t sure.
He changed into a T-shirt and shorts, then wandered through to the living room, pausing to gaze for a moment at the Stars and Stripes and the framed portait of the president on one wall; the photos of his brother in football uniform and himself with his swimming medals on the other. The TV burbled away at the front of the room as always, though there was no one else in the room to watch it. Bob switched it off, before continuing on toward the kitchen. The savoury odor of frying sausages reached him as he approached, while the clanging of pots and plates told him somebody was busy at work in there.
“Bob?” His mother greeted him with a surprised smile. “Are you feelin’ alright, dear? I was jest about to come an’ wake ya.”
“Sure, I’m fine,” he replied, though still a little dazed. “Where is everybody? What day is it?”
“Why, it’s Saturday, a course. Yir brother’s still in bed, an’ yir paw’s gone to pick up yir Uncle Roger an’ Aunt Helen. Thir comin’ over for lunch; yir Uncle Oscar an’ Aunt Rachel too. Jest like last week!”
Bob paused to register this. It had been six days ago, not six months. “Mom, you say I been out for the past five days, but what about the islands? What about the football team an’ all? Weren’t Coach Semja an’ Paw ol’ college buddies or somethin?’”
“’Coach Semja?’ I believe the coach’s name is ‘James,’ dear. You ‘are’ thinkin’ in anagrams!” She laughed teasingly.
All he could do was shake his head in disbelief. Some of the memories had faded, but others were still there, more real to him than the last four days he’d apparently spent sleeping. “You want me to set the table?”
“Please.” She handed him a basket of sliced bread and bright red tomatoes. “Could you take these out to the patio? We’re gonna eat outside, it’s such a beautiful day.”
Bob was momentarily dazzled by the daylight as he opened the front door. And when his eyes finally adjusted, he was surprised to see the familiar view of his family’s front lawn, the colorful garden and the cabbage trees, and the busy street beyond. And even as he stared, a bright yellow four-wheel-drive rumbled up and parked in front of the gate. It was not the coach in the driver’s seat, as he’d supposed, but his father; Aunt Helen beside him, Uncle Roger in back.
“Hey, look who’s up an’ about!” His father bounced out of the car.
“Nice to see you well again, Bob.” Aunt Helen smiled gaily.
“You been asleep a long time, young feller.” Uncle Roger shook him playfully by the shoulder. “’Bout time you woke up!”
Uncle Oscar and Aunt Rachel arrived a short time later, and Roj came down from his room. Bob’s mother then brought the sausages out onto the patio and everyone sat down to eat. With the warm sun on their faces, the songs of the birds and the scent of the flowers from the garden, it could hardly have been more tranquil.