Authors: W. T. Tyler
W. T. Tyler
To my youngest son, Hugh
I tell you, worthy little people, life's riff-raff, forever beaten, fleeced and sweating, I warn you that when the great people of this world start loving you, it means that they are going to make sausage meat of you.
Empire is over,
Bedlam's in chargeâ
Bushmen in tatters,
Consuls, and clerks;
Bagmen and narks:
Playing at farce.
Muster the trumpets,
Let the drums start
Jeer in the bagpipesâ
Play a rogue's march.
A warm wind blew over the Mediterranean from the Algerian littoral, where the saffron light of late afternoon hung like dust above Mers-al-Kabir. The near waters of the port were as lifeless as brine, but beyond the breakwater the sea raced in the sunlight, drawing the eye out across its broken silver surfaces toward the horizon, where distances were suddenly lost and no ships were, only the immense empty mirror of sea and sky. At quayside a gray Soviet freighter inbound from Odessa creaked in partial shadow between two rusty coastal steamers, unloading its deck cargo of trucks, jeeps, and shop vans. The Cyrillic letters on the stern read
. Four days earlier, it had sailed the Bosphorus declared for India. Now, under new orders, it was at Mers-al-Kabir. Anchored in the roads a hundred meters offshore was the East German freighter
, bound for West Africa.
On the quay stood a small olive-skinned Algerian, a clipboard under his arm, silently studying the Russian ship whose name he couldn't pronounce. His name was Hamoud. On his shoulders were the chevrons of an Algerian customs official. His lips moved as he re-counted the vehicles but stopped again as his eyes came to rest amidships, where a series of long wooden crates were tied down, their shapes unfamiliar to him. A group of Russian seamen stood on the fantail, some with their shirts removed to catch the last rays of the sun. Their faces were shrimp-pink, but their shoulders and bellies were as colorless as plankton. One was eating an orange, gouging out great mouthfuls of fruit like a dog. Hamoud studied them disapprovingly and looked back at the strange crates, searching their flanks for letters, numbers, or symbols; but he saw nothing. As he watched, a small dusty Fiat with official license plates led a canvas-covered army truck onto the quay, lifting ribbons of dust from the worn footpaths along the tarmac. Hamoud turned as the caravan stopped near a set of stone steps that led to the sea below where a lighter waited for cargo for the East German freighter Potsdam, its clattering diesel engine pumping thick black smoke out to sea.
Three men left the Fiat, two Algerian and the third an African, a head shorter, wearing an olive twill uniform and green fabric boots with rubber soles. The uniform was new, like the cheap metal suitcase and the portable radio he lifted from the back seat. In his small size and his wrinkled new apparel, he looked to Hamoud like a child being sent off to school for the first time, pencilbox in hand. Six Algerian soldiers dropped to the roadbed, unshackled the tailgate, and began removing the wooden boxes.
“You're late,” Hamoud said as he joined the tall Algerian near the Fiat.
“It's that way with these Africans.” The Algerian officer wore neither rank nor insignia, but his cotton uniform was camouflaged in the brown and sand of the Algerian commandos. He was a captain, hawk-faced, with short wiry hair and a weeping black mustache. His soft brown eyes had a curious shine, as if he were just recovering from a fever. A long scar curved like a sickle up the cord of his neck and ended in a small fishtail under his left ear. He handed Hamoud the shipping manifests as he turned to look toward the East German freighter bound for West Africa. The African was also watching the ship from the top of the stone steps, his small figure dwarfed by the flooding light from the sea.
“Just him?” Hamoud asked.
“The others have influenza.”
Hamoud looked back at the African, who made no move to help the Algerian soldiers struggling with the heavy ordnance boxes.
“I fought too,” he said, “but I carried my own guns.” From the offices and warehouses other customs clerks, inspectors, and laborers were leaving for the day, moving toward the gate where the buses would carry them back to Oran. Hamoud watched them resentfully as he unfolded the invoices. His own motor scooter was broken, and he would have to return home by late bus, arriving after dark. He glanced at the African again before he studied the manifest. “Agricultural implements,” the document read. He knew it was a lie. “Machetes, hoes, mattocks, shovels, and barrows, disassembled.” All lies. The heaviest would be mortars, he guessedâmortars and base plates. All destined for “Bernard Delbeques, FrÃ¨res, Pointe-Noire, Congo.” The deceit annoyed him as much as the crates' late arrival, and he blamed the African. He looked at him again as he stood at the top of the steps, a small frightened figure looking out to sea.
Congo? Hamoud wondered, memory releasing the image of a rain forest deep in the equatorial jungle. Where had he seen it? At the cinema? In the coffeehouse magazines? Rivers and swamps, fever, rain and more rain shrouding the sky. In the warm Mediterranean sunlight his imagination faltered and he remembered only the chilling winter rains of Algiers, relieved suddenly that duty no longer obliged him to go where the guns were going, like the little African, and that there was nothing left to his life that might force him to go.
Life had sucked him dry, his wife had accused two days earlier. He had his freedom now, yesâhe had earned it himself with his fellow Algerians, but now there was oppression of another kind. His useless motor scooter lay in the rubble of the rear courtyard in Oran, a piston broken. Chickens squatted on it by night, fouling the leather seat; his three daughters banged on it by day when his mother-in-law turned them out into the yard. She had broken her tooth on an almond and howled for three nights. “Can't you take pity on her!” his wife had cried after he'd threatened to push the old woman's bed out into the courtyard. “Has misery robbed you of all feeling? Has life sucked you dry!”
Attached to the documents on his clipboard were the secret manifests prepared by the ordnance officer at the Skida Commando School and countersigned by the ministry of interior. They wouldn't accompany the shipping manifest. The guns were listed in a single column: ten boxes of 7.62 assault rifles, Kalashnikov, folded and fixed stock; five crates of Degtyarey light machine guns; two crates of 7.65 machine pistols; two crates of 9-mm Makarov pistols. He removed the copies and returned all but one to the Algerian captain. “Who is he?” he asked, nodding toward the African.
“A friend from the south,” the captain muttered, moving away from the stone steps. A secretive man, like most of the Algerian military who fought in the maquis and still bore the scars of French brutality, he disapproved of Hamoud's indolent curiosity.
The African was the last to board the lighter. He passed his tin suitcase to one of the deckhands and stepped aboard uneasily, the radio cradled in his arms. The Algerian soldiers and dockworkers watched him silently. None of them could have afforded such a radio, and they looked on resentfully, as if he were a child bearing away the gifts paid for by their misery. The lines were cast off; the lighter drifted away from the stone steps and settled in the slough of the sea.
Hamoud watched from the quay as the lighter retreated in the distance toward the East German freighter. He had never been south of Djelfa, never beyond the Atlas mountains, and had never had the desire to go; but the thought of the African's long journey had a peculiar, repellent fascination for him. He thought of the rain forest againâthe leaden skies, the insect-filled hovels, and the sheets of devouring rain: lichen would multiply; ammunition would turn green, like moldy bread; flesh would rot from the bone.
He knew no more, imagination failed, remembering instead the brutal winter cold of the Italian mountains where he and other Algerian recruits had fought with a Moroccan infantry regiment. As homesick as a street orphan, he didn't know who the Germans were; they meant less to him than the French troops, whose officers he despised. In his right knee he still carried the fragments of a French grenade from his days with the FLN fighting the French in the streets of Algiers. He had helped liberate Algeria, but he felt no kinship with the black man in the lighter. They had fought the French with primitive
purchased in Europe and brought in by night over the beaches of the Rif coast. No one had given them shortwave radios, wrinkled green uniforms, and Russian-made automatic weapons. He didn't know the enemy the African would fightâFrench, British, Portuguese, or Americanâbut it didn't matter. They were all colonialists.
“Congo,” he muttered as the Algerian captain turned away toward the Fiat.
“Congo, then Angola,” the captain said over his shoulder.
“Angola?” Hamoud muttered dumbly as he watched the lighter draw alongside the East German freighter. He knew nothing about Congo or Angola, lying somewhere within that vast darkness to the south. But standing in the warm Mediterranean sunlight, he knew that there was nothing left to his own existence that would again make these foreign wars his own.
Four days later, on a Saturday, Hamoud was in the quiet back streets of Robertsau in Algiers. He entered an old apartment house in a cul-de-sac, climbed the narrow staircase, and waited silently for a few minutes on the third floor, looking down the stairwell to see if he had been followed. He rang the bell, and a dog growled fiercely from beyond the glass door. He rang a second time, the dog barked, and he moved away. The chain was drawn and Fachon's ugly face appeared, damp with perspiration. He was a short, powerfully built Frenchman, as bald as a stone, with thick lips and pale blue eyes, a UN technician who worked at the port. He'd been sleeping, and the imprint of the pillow lay like a fern leaf on his cheek. He wore a pair of shorts and leather sandals; his white cotton shirt hung open across his chest, covered by a cuirass of gray hairs. He'd been up at dawn for his daily exerciseâa walk along the deserted beach with his brindled German shepherd, followed by his morning swim in the chill gray Mediterranean. The dog now lay inside on the cool tiles of the areaway, the leash knotted to the handle of the inner glass door. Gouts of beach sand lay over the terrazzo floor; the brindled coat stood out in stiff spikes from the sea brine. The dog growled again, ears pricked, as Hamoud, frightened, followed Fachon across the entryway. The hallway smelled like a kennel to Hamoud, the flat beyond so tepid with its alien unknown Continental aromas that it smelled to him like sickness.
They sat on the rear balcony off the kitchen, out of the sunlight. Fachon brought a pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator, his bald head now covered with a handkerchief knotted at the corners. The lemonade was watery and sour, but Hamoud drank it as he described the Russian ship he'd seen at Mers-al-Kabir. Fachon's face was impassive as he told him of the deck cargo. He smoked a cigarette and then another, irritated at Hamoud's imperfect memory, for which he was prepared to pay nothing at all. The streets were silent; the sun beat down on the roofs and balconies.
Where was the Russian ship going? Did he have a manifest? How many crates were unloaded?
Hamoud didn't know. Fachon gave up in disgust, taking back the lemonade glasses and preparing to stand up. Only then did Hamoud take the damp papers from his waistband and hand them to Fachon, waiting hopefully as the Frenchman studied the secret gun manifest destined for Bernard Delbeques, FrÃ¨res, Congo. He saw the interest stir in Fachon's face.
“For the Congo and afterward Angola,” Hamoud added, trying to provoke additional interest from this Frenchman who had once lived in black Africa.
Fachon lifted his vulgar eyes toward Hamoud: “Guns for what?” he asked, taking the cigarette from his mouth. Hamoud's clumsiness made his voice even harsher. “For what? The revolution? Independence? For what?”
Hamoud didn't answer, studying the Frenchman's eyes. He remembered then where he had seen the equatorial forests. There was a large brightly colored painting of the African jungle in Fachon's salon. He had once lived in Cameroon. He had lived in a well-screened cottage shaded by jacaranda and flowering hibiscus at the edge of the coastal savannahs. His shadowy porch looked down laterite lanes winding between the trees toward the wide silk of parrot-green river which the afternoon sun turned to bronze when the women and young girls came to bathe. Now he kept a dog and walked the beach at dawn before the Algerian urchins and beggars came to claim it.