By Dick Smith
Nearly always on a hot sticky night when sleep is difficult it all comes back to him. George lies on his back and thinks back to that time in 2000. That awful period when life as he knew it came crashing down and he felt the very foundations of his existence shake and shatter.
Nights are never silent in the village and he often lies awake counting off the sounds as he struggles with his insomnia. The grunt of a restless pig, followed by the bark of an awakened dog sets off a train of other animal noises. A feral pig looking for discarded scraps snuffles its way past his hut while in the distance he can sometimes hear the call of a strange bird or the more frightening noises made by larger predatory animals.
And then just as he finally drifts off to sleep it hits him between the eyes and crashes him back into startled wakefulness. The vision that has haunted his whole life for years. The events that caused him to change from a successful young medical professional in a bustling European metropolitan centre to a haunted physical wreck living in a mud hut in a dusty drought stricken North African border town.
He is almost in the arms of Morpheus and then he is running. Running like the fit young man he used to be to catch a train that is leaving the station. The train gives a toot and starts to move and he increases his speed till he is running like the wind. The train picks up speed and he calls to the driver to wait, all the time staring desperately into the carriages as they leave him in their wake. Then as he sinks to his knees in despair the train gives a final toot and flashes its three red tail lights at him as it vanishes into the night. He jerks back into wakefulness and lies restlessly and sleeps only fitfully. As he waits for the sun to herald another hot sweaty miserable day George recalls painfully the circumstances that sucked him up like a piece of flotsam and so befuddled him he was quite unable to make any rational decisions for himself. He knows absolutely that if he had caught the 6.15 train on that last fateful day he would not now be lying on a grubby mattress on the floor of a mud hut in the heart of North Africa. He sighs as he recalls with feelings that are a mixture of lust and horror the magic of the days he spent with Emalina.
When his thoughts turn to Emalina he finds he can only think in spasms and spurts. Her beauty, her blackness, her Africanness and her smell. Her height, her flowing hair, her carriage and her gentle speech. He is quite unable to sequence events or even make total sense of them. He recalls days with her but how many he can’t remember… perhaps it was two or maybe four, he doesn’t know. He recalls cups of coffee and walks by the sea. He remembers a picnic in the park and drinks at a pub. He recalls kissing and holding her but knows he went no further. Underneath it all he remembers the prickings of his conscience and the constant feeling that his wife was looking over his shoulder with sadness in her eyes while holding their two children by their hands as she followed him in his mind. He remembers also how each evening he managed to tear himself away and rush to the 6.15 to at least keep up an outward show of normality. He recalls the difficulty he had returning to himself when he reached his home.
And then his whole body trembles involuntarily as his thoughts approach that last day. Unlike the jumble of the preceding days that fateful Friday is etched indelibly on his memory. For one last day he had deserted his practice for the company of Emalina. For that one last day they had walked and swum and picnicked and kissed and fondled as they knew this would be the end. Emalina, the diplomat’s daughter would return on the morrow to North Africa. Against all their desires they had kept themselves in check and with the train about to leave they came together for a final embrace. It was hard to break apart and as they did so George heard a toot from the departing train.
He is running like the wind, he is calling to the driver, he is shrieking, he is yelling, he is giving a last burst of speed. He collapses in a mixture of pain and frustration and sinks to the platform. This is the last commuter train for hours and he knows that now there will questions that in his present state he will find difficulty in answering. He weeps in frustration at the prospect.
But Emalina is there with soft words, gentle caresses and comfort. She raises him up and takes his arm and guides him to a place of solace. George’s mind and his will are weak and the place of solace soon becomes much more, and together they are swept away in a torrent of passion that consumes them both like a bushfire in an arid tropical land.
But their passion does not last the night, for forces beyond their control have been summoned into play. The beautiful daughters of African diplomats are not like their counterparts in the west and are never totally free from surveillance or personal restriction. A team of minders have been watching Emalina since the day she left her homeland. They are under orders to give her freedoms she would not normally have at home but to intervene should she encounter moral or physical danger. A series of calls have determined that both are considered possibilities and they have been authorized to act.
And so it is that just as passions rise towards the point of no return an unholy triad of African political crisis specialists descends to quell them and to spirit the participants far far away to a land where the systems of justice have parameters that are deep, wide and different.
Of the journey into his personal oblivion George has little memory. He recalls pain from the injuries sustained in his capture and he remembers the harshness of the ropes that tied him, the discomfort of the third world transport and the humiliations and insults he endured from his captors. Of Emalina he saw or heard nothing; it was almost as though she had never existed.
His trial, if in fact it was that, was simply a record of the happenings of that unforgettable time, although from a perspective that George had hardly considered. His crime, if in fact it was a crime was really just a decree that through his actions he had caused enormous insult to a ruling family in the country to which he had been taken. Fortunately for him he was not given the opportunity to defend himself for there is little doubt that he would have only made things worse. His sentence was never fully outlined but when he was taken to a mud hut on the outskirts of a minor town he knew in his mind it would not be a brief or a pleasant one.
* * * * *
The long hot insufferable nights are the worst part of his imprisonment. As afternoon recedes dusk comes crashing down like the falling of an ancient forest giant and with nightfall come all the sounds and rhythms of an existence based on hostility and animosity. George lies there on his dirty mattress and cowers in terror as Africa invades his very being.
The night sounds are quite different from the day sounds. Sometimes in the daytime he hears people passing and their talk and laughter cheers him even as he is unable to share it. The grunting of a pig, the clucking of a hen or the sounds of a horse or cow sometimes come to him and give him moments of clarity as he imagines a place outside his hut with elements of normality. The gaoler who brings him food sometimes has a word or two for him and on the days he is allowed to wash and to take his slops away he sometimes feels human for short periods.
Then night falls and the terror begins. A feral pig snuffling past nudges at the walls of the hut and he imagines it forcing its way inside and attacking him. An owl gives a long mournful hoot that to him sounds like a call to embrace insanity. Sometimes the thatch above him rustles as small creatures hustle their way through the leaves. Occasionally one falls from the thatch and he wonders if it is a lizard or a scorpion and what it will feel like if it lands upon him. And always there are the furtive night time sounds that seem to come from nowhere, the distant call or howl or crashing sound of larger animals.
How long has he been here now? A week, a month, a year? How long will they keep him? Weeks, months, years? Perhaps forever or until he dies? Have they forgotten about him? He has no way of knowing. He wonders if his family has any idea of just what has happened to him or where he has been taken. And what of the police in his country. Is he just another missing person? A man on the approach to middle age who did not come home one night. “Yeah right,” the cops would have said, “Gone to France or Italy with the girlfriend no one knew about.”
And then he thinks again of Emalina. Her beauty, her blackness, her warmth, her long lustrous hair and her loving nature. He thinks of how he bade her farewell for the last time and how he tore himself away to chase fruitlessly after a racing train and how having failed to catch up with it and now completely under her spell he came so close to consummating a truly forbidden love. And he thinks again of the aftermath of unrequited love and the beatings and the harsh sentence that has followed and he lies there in the dirt and the heat and the desperation and he weeps until he sleeps.
With the coming of dawn the rays of the sun creep cautiously in through an open door. As his mind flutters back to his body after a night of mental incoherence he realises that something has changed. The chain that has anchored him securely to his bed has gone and the door is open. Is this an invitation to go? His mind races. Has he done his time? Has he paid his dues for the perceived insult to the regime? He goes to the door and looks out. Will there be someone to take him away, a truck or car to take him to a town? Will there be a waterway with boats on it? Will they take him to a port or a train headed for a city somewhere? He steps outside. Is there anybody around? He takes a few more steps and stops to look about him. His hut is a part of a small village with perhaps a dozen simple mud walled hovels with thatched roofs. The morning sun is shining hotly down on nothing more. No people, no animals, no chickens, no noises, nothing. Patches of low scrub surround the village and the only signs that it has even been inhabited are the ubiquitous scraps of plastic that are all that is ever left behind by nomadic subsistence living peoples.
It is plain now that they are finished with him. The terrors of his incarceration are past and he will no more have to endure the humiliations of imprisonment. He is free. But what is the price of freedom? He is dressed in rags, he has no food he has no idea where he is and he has nothing to protect himself within an environment that he is certainly quite unable to handle.
They have humiliated him and now they have sentenced him to death. Death by starvation, death through lack of water, death from dehydration and heatstroke or death at the whim of wild animals.
George goes back into his hut and lies down and weeps and when he wakes up the day has almost gone and nightfall is approaching. Now things are even worse. Not only is he alone in a hostile world but he is now also totally without food or drink. He thinks back almost nostalgically to the scraps of tapioca and the warm brackish water which has kept him alive for the time he has been here.
And that night is the worst one he has endured. He lashes the door firmly closed but it seems to him to swing slowly open and shut all night. The noises of the predatory nocturnal beasts seem louder than ever and the rustlings in the thatch more ominous. He wonders what it is like to die from the sting of a scorpion. Although the night is hot and humid he longs for a blanket to warm him enough to stop the shaking. When morning comes he is on the verge of madness.
And then he hears it ... the sound of a truck.