Isolation Tales: Cupped Hands Part 2
Here’s the concluding part of ‘Cupped Hands’.
The sun vanished behind the water truck, and twenty minutes later the land turned blood-red. A deep star-ranged darkness dropped with the falling temperature. They had both packed mylar travel blankets, because they were light and folded up small. Huddled in the cab, unable to sleep, Neil tried to think of a plan that would get him out. He hadn’t been thinking clearly; now he remembered the abandoned motorbike. It was clapped out but the tank had been full, and there was a slim chance that it might make most of the journey to the next town.
Whittaker appeared to be sleeping deeply as he slipped the bike’s ignition key from the mercenary’s jacket. He shifted position but continued to snore as Neil quietly opened the cabin door and dropped down on to the road.
He knew that the Triumph lay a fair few kilometres back along the route out of town, but figured he would be able to make it before sunrise. There would be no chance of going on once that searing fireball rose above the arid landscape once more. At least, he thought, I have an arrow-straight dirt track to guide me back. As he walked, a deepening sense of dislocation settled over him. He was utterly alone, tramping across an inhuman landscape, the only sentient creature in a land where even snakes had a hard time surviving. When he passed the only landmark they had sighted from the road – a fat brown slab of rock pushed up from the earth in some ancient past – he knew he would never get there before daybreak. Checking his watch, he made some hasty calculations. In three hours he had walked less than halfway towards the bike. Whittaker’s delay in acting now became explicable. He had wanted to leave the only other vehicle beyond reach of either of them. Reluctantly, Neil turned in his tracks and headed back towards the water truck.
‘Know what they say about this part of Africa?’ said Whittaker, opening one eye and examining his companion’s dust-caked clothes. ‘If you come here trying to get away from yourself, all you find is yourself. There’s nothing here that isn’t already inside you.’ He rose and scratched, then dropped to the side of the road for a piss. He knew where Neil had been, and knew why he had returned.
‘Fuck you, Jack, I’m not part of your plans. It’s a lousy way to make a living, waiting for a bunch of kids to die of thirst.’ His voice was little more than a croak. He squeaked open one of the brass taps on the water tank and shoved his head beneath it, blasting the white dust from his face, allowing the cool liquid to cascade down his throat.
‘So now you have a conscience?’ Whittaker asked, intrigued. ‘It didn’t seem to trouble you when you got the girl pregnant. Don’t tell me she knew what she was getting into. The fact that you didn’t force her to fuck you doesn’t make it right. You were ready to leave her to die.’
‘I know, and I’m ashamed of it now,’ he admitted. Something about being trapped here in the desert with this utterly amoral man was forcing him to rethink his own culpability.
‘English schoolboys.’ Whittaker spat at the dry ground. ‘Your food, your women, you just never grow up. It makes you so easy to use.’ The sun climbed, and the shadow of the truck shrank beneath itself. The horizon bleached into a harsh dead glare until the ground shimmered, replacing itself with sky. Neil had only travelled across this landscape before, never become a part of it. The absence of life created an absolute that demanded a response. Whittaker’s was to become the kind of cold-blooded creature that survived in extremity. Perhaps there was no other way to prosper here. But then Neil thought of the people of Grand-Assour. A child with outstretched arms and cupped hands, implicitly trusting an adult to sustain him with life.
With nothing to do but wait, time lazily stretched and yawned. He crawled beneath the truck and fell asleep, waking only with the falling temperature of night. His last conscious image was of a dust-stained face, youthful and guileless.
The fierce morning sun burned his bare ankles. His legs had protruded from beneath the truck. Whittaker made breakfast, such as it was; another strip of dried meat and water from the truck’s tank, cooled by the night air. They remained together in edgy symbiosis now, barely speaking to each other.
Neil removed a shovel from the truck and tried to bury the driver’s body as best he could, but the ground proved too difficult to break. He looked up from the shallow pit he had created and wiped his forehead. ‘If this guy is so smart, he’s not going to turn up here unprepared. He’ll protect himself. And if he’s used to dealing with the Chinese, he won’t be too worried about taking you out.’
Whittaker pushed back his hat and watched him work from the cabin of the truck. ‘I’ve allowed for that.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If he tries anything, the town loses its water. You have to understand something about places like Grand-Assour. Most of the people who are born there stay on, no matter what happens. Adan’s entire family surrounds him. He’s not going to put them or anyone in the town at risk. It’s his weak spot.’
But he’s not going to give up his wealth, I thought.
The day passed on feet of molten lead as the blue, of the sky bleached through to an eyeball-drying whiteness. Nothing stirred. Every breath Neil took seared his mouth. He wondered how long the town could hold out. Whittaker was confident that Adan would arrive with the ransom today, but as the hours passed, their hopes faded. There were only two places to be; in the truck, which was stifling, or underneath it. Flies clustered around the tank’s spigot, sensing the only moisture for miles. The lowering sun brought a welcome drop in temperature. The mercenary would not be drawn into conversation, as though he was afraid he might have to admit defeat, and sat angrily smoking in the cab, oblivious to the heat.
Neil passed a second uncomfortable night beneath the truck. By now a colony of ants had discovered his hiding place, and had taken to leaving inflamed crimson lumps on his ankles and wrists that he was unable to resist scratching. The next morning he dragged himself out and massaged his aching neck muscles as a hallucinogenic red sun loomed large on the horizon once more. The natural cycle mockingly operated in extremis.
Whittaker was more talkative after dousing himself with water from the tank. ‘The bastard has to be here today. His kids will be close to dying by now.’ Neil felt sure something bad had already happened in the town. Why else had no one come? Behind the truck, the dirt had blown from Sefu’s face in the night, and his gaping mouth was filled with writhing iridescent flies laying thousands of tiny white eggs. Just a few days ago, Neil’s world had been calm and ordered. He saw that he had liked life in the town more than he had realised. Now, he was living in a nightmarish limbo where everything was dependent on outside forces. He could do nothing until someone came to help.
Suddenly, it seemed that he had switched places with the people of Grand-Assour, who spent their lives locked in a stasis of waiting for something better that would never come.
He checked his watch, but it appeared to have stopped imctioning. The hands had stilled on either side of midnight. He felt disarranged by heat and hunger. Whittaker was retreating into his own private world, and only occasionally glanced up to glower at him from the truck cabin.
It had passed noon when they saw the wavering brown shape walking towards them through ripples of rising heat. Whittaker scrambled to his feet and climbed down from the truck. ‘Stay close to me,’ he hissed at Neil. ‘You move, and I’ll kill you.’ He opened his jacket to reveal a small army handgun. As the figure came close, they saw that it was not Adan, but Najja. She wore a plain brown shift and sandals, a hide water bottle on her hip. Her hair was tied back from her face. Used to the glare of the sun, she kept her eyes wide, but Neil could see she was exhausted. She had walked all the way from the town. She stopped some metres before them, careful to keep her distance.
‘Where’s Adan?’ asked Whittaker. ‘What happened?’
She ignored him, looking anxiously at Neil. ‘I warned you. They gave me the test. My grandmother told Adan I am no longer a virgin. She begged him not to kill me, so he sent me out to this place. He does not want me now, because I am impure, and he knows that you do not want me either. This is my punishment.’
‘But he gave you something for me, didn’t he?’ Whittaker insisted. ‘Where’s the bag?’
She dug into the pocket of her shift and pulled out a crumpled brown paper packet.
‘Throw it over to me.’ He gestured back. ‘Neil, get behind the wheel of the truck.’
‘You can’t leave her here,’ Neil shouted. ‘She’s dead on her feet. You’ll be damning the entire town.’
Whittaker had had enough. Pulling out the gun, he aimed it at Najja’s face. Terrified, she threw the packet over to his feet. As Neil helplessly watched the transaction, he wondered how many more times such a thing would happen in this land He reluctantly climbed on to the running board of the truck and heaved himself inside, turning the key in the ignition as Whittaker tore open the packet.
A handful of gem-sized pebbles dropped from the paper and fell to the road, rolling apart from each other. Africa is a land destroyed by lies and pride. There were no emeralds. All the ground could offer up here was stones, for setting walls, for grinding into plaster. Whittaker had underestimated his opponent’s anger. Releasing a howl of rage, he fired as Neil slammed down on his arm. The sound of the explosion was muted in this dizzying open plain. The bullet punctured the tank, precious water spouting on to the road, blackening the dirt.
Whittaker grabbed at the truck’s riding handle to hoist himself up, and without thinking, Neil stamped on the accelerator. The mercenary was caught by surprise and fell back into the road, bellowing as Neil drove over his right foot. He heard only the roar of the engine as he turned the steering wheel and continued over the prone body, feeling the truck lift and buck as the great tyre beneath him crushed the bones in Whittaker’s leg, then smashed his hip. The screaming climbed high above the engine noise as the tanker rolled on, shattering the thorax trapped between rubber and stone, forcing bloody ribs through the cotton of Whittaker’s checked shirt. The truck dropped as it flattened the mercenary’s chest cavity, then popped his head like a thumb pressing down hard on the thorax of a beetle.
Najja held out her arms to Neil as he passed, and in that split second, darkened in relief by the sun, she was reborn in the image of the thirsting child he held in his head. His boot rose from the accelerator and switched to the brake. Reaching down his own hand, he pulled her on board, on to the bench-seat beside him.
They stopped to seal the leak in the tank with Whittaker’s old straw hat, shredded and mixed with earth. As they worked silently together, he knew he would have to take his chances back in town.
He began to turn the truck around, to bring water to the people of Grand-Assour.