The brigadier struggles to keep his voice steady – he’s allowed himself into a room in his mind; a room too long kept locked and too painful to open. Why did he allow himself to be coerced into telling the story? But then again…he always knew he had to – at least once. He owes Alycia that, at least. “She…she was there, at my bedside.” He swallows hard. “And she held a damp cloth to my forehead.” He closes his eyes as the memories come flooding back.
The pain in his side was unbearable. He was burning with fever. His mouth felt like it was lined with sandpaper. He could smell the foul taste of death in his own breath.
“Shhh…,” she said. “You are very ill man. I help. Lie still.”
“Where…where am I”
“In my bed. Doctor will come. You need operation.”
The wounded man groaned and tried to fight the darkness. Later, he became aware of voices – whispering, urgent voices, speaking in Portuguese. He opened his eyes.
“Ah. You wake up. That not good.” The voice belonged to a man in a rumpled suit that once was white. “You lie still now. Is important, yes?”
You will not acknowledge pain! Sergeant-major Grove, on the parade ground. You are soldiers! Pain does not exist! Fatigue isn’t something you know. Giving up isn’t an option!
“You have bullet inside. I take out. If not, you die.”
He’s aware that he’s naked. His uniform…? No, he’s not a soldier any more. He’s naked, lost, wounded, dying.
Hands on his abdomen. Gentle hands, spreading something cold over his skin. Oh, God…they’re cleaning the skin for an op. What…?
“Bullet in stomach, Soldier Man. Alycia, she call me. What can I do? I have to help. Now I have to cut, get the bullet. See what’s wrong inside. Important you keep still.”
Block out pain, men; that’s what soldiers do. Pain wants you to fail. Pain is the enemy. Never, never give in to pain. Sergeant-major walking up to him to slap him – hard – in the face. Pain and anger…it’ll kill you. You are a machine, an invincible machine. You shall not give in. Is. That. Understood?
He tried. He felt the incision – down the middle, between his ribs and the navel – and cried out, fought against the restraining hands. Don’t be a coward, Soldier! Fight the pain! The woman – Alycia – took the damp cloth from his forehead and forced it into his mouth. Shhhh…. Then the world became a fluid being as a massive black curtain lowered itself slowly over his mind.
“I don’t know how long it took, or how long I was in that bed. I know I was hovering between life and death. Sometimes I though I was aware of somebody turning me, or trying to force water down my throat. Other times were…simply black.
“But, eventually, I woke up – in a manner of speaking. I wasn’t myself. I was a bundle of dried-out pain; a rookie on a parade ground, a nothing. A worthless piece of scum. I spoke to my sergeant-major, but he answered in a woman’s voice.”
“You alive, Soldier Man?”
He opened his eyes wide in surprise. “Yes, sir…”
“I no man, you stupid soldier. I woman. You call me Alycia.”
“Al-y-cia?” He tasted the word. It was sweeter than his breath.
“Yes. You have operation. Bullet out now. And Hernandes, he stitch hole in – what you call – intestino?”
“Okay. He stitch hole in intestino. Hernandes he very good. One day he be good doctor, too.” He was in too much pain to analyse this. “He came this morning. He say you can drink now.”
“I never saw Hernandes again. He wasn’t a doctor, Alycia told me later. He was an orderly in the hospital in Luanda, but he helped the villagers when he came home on leave. I was lucky – he happened to be nearby when I was wounded. And this…this orderly…did an operation on me, without anaesthetic, under the most primitive conditions. I should have died. And I suppose I would have, had it not been for Alycia.”
Lifting his shirt, he shows them the scar. Even after the passage of so many ears, the scar still looks angry, red, uncomfortable.
“It became septic, of course. There were no antibiotics, no painkillers. Alycia changed the dressings every day, washing to old ones and letting them dry in the sun. And she put on fresh honey to help the healing. She told me I was a sweet Soldier Man.” The brigadier manages a wry smile. “She had a sense of humour.”
After days – how many? – he started feeling better. It was the pulped paw-paw that finally ate away the last slough.
“Why are you helping me?”
She was inspecting the wound, wiping away the dead tissue. She thought about the question while she applied the paw-paw mulch, turned her head to one side, and eyed him critically.
“You man. How you say? Hu-man?” She nodded. “I person. You person. That why.”
“But I’m your enemy?”
“That your choice. I no decide that.”
The wounded soldier struggled to get into a more comfortable position. “Al-y-cia?”
“What you want, Soldier Man?”
“It turned out that our information was wrong. There were explosives in the church, but it was forced down on the villagers.”
This, like Gertruida tells the audience in Boggel’s Place, happens in every modern-day war. Vietnam, Sudan, Syria, Congo… If you don’t cooperate with whichever force wanting to use something in your town, you bear the consequences. In Alycia’s town’s case, their initial resistance cost them their mayor.
“The paraded the poor man down that dusty street, made him stand against the church wall…and shot him. After that, the villagers allowed them to use the church as a storing facility. On the night we wanted to plant the explosives, the villagers thought we were the Cubans.
“You see, that meeting we observed, was a meeting to decide what to do. They knew very well that storing the ammunition in the church was not only wrong, but that it might attract unnecessary attention to their little village. They had already lost their mayor – how much more did they stand to lose? So, they decided, they’d move. Leave the town and start over elsewhere.
“When the dog started barking, they all thought the Cubans were back. And one of them, a teenager with no training at all, got out an AK 47 and ran into the street, firing wildly. And that boy, not even a soldier, killed my mates and wounded me. In one burst of frantic fire, he snuffed out two lives and a dream.”
The brigadier shakes his head. Even after all these years, it is difficult to think that Cell Q – the elite cell in the secret war against terror – was destroyed by a mere boy, a child, somebody without any training.
“Bullets don’t ask questions. I leant that.”
His eyes get that distant look again. Yes, those were confusing times; times he still believed the TV, the newspapers and his superiors…even the church…
How things have changed…
“I grew stronger as the months went by. My wound started healing and eventually I could eat solid food again. Alycia was marvellous. But…we both knew I couldn’t stay.”
Boggel gets on his crate to serve a round of Cactus. “I think we might need these for the next bit,” he says.