Demarara

‘Sit’, the head man said, and the patrol sat, half of them uncomfortable to be within the enemy lair, the other half delighted to be so welcomed by such a prominent man. Smithy looked around and realised that the only seat available to him was beside a young woman, a girl, really; and he knew that this might cause trouble unless he was extremely careful. He moved towards the settee and stood for a moment, waiting for her permission. Without looking at him she curled herself more tightly, leaving him plenty of room to keep a decent separation between them.

Davo, his partner, took his seat beside the head man, and immediately engaged him in conversation. Smithy stood his rifle close beside him, and took a glass from the tray offered to him by a servant. The drink was sweet and cool, predominantly coconut milk. He felt that it would be refreshing. He took another sip, and relaxed.

The area under the house was brightly lit, and moths and lace-wings beat themselves against the dusty lights. From a radio or gramophone somewhere above them in the house, music filtered down to them, not loudly, music so foreign to him that he didn’t know what to make of it: repetitive and with a firm beat, a singer who seemed to be wailing. Not for him, he thought.

Each night from dusk to dawn they patrolled the district in two shifts; the early shift ended at one in the morning, and Smithy preferred this shift: the patrol stopped for refreshments many times, their hosts delighted at the increased security they provided.

By the second shift the locals had all gone to bed, and it wasn’t as much fun to be hosted by a bored watchman.

Carefully, Smithy turned his head to see what the girl beside him was doing. She was younger than him, perhaps by five years. Dressed in a colourful robe, her hair hanging over her shoulder and across one breast in a shining black rope, she was curled in the corner of the settee, her legs tucked under her. She was holding a book, something about chemistry. She lifted her eyes from the page and smiled at him. He looked away.

He saw that the head man was watching him. ‘Revina,’ the head man said. ‘It might be better if you did your study in your room.’ The hum of quiet conversation died, and everyone looked at the girl.

She looked up and smiled at her father, uncurled her legs, closed her book and stood. ‘Of course, Father,’ she said quietly, and her head bobbed ever so slightly in a submissive bow. Everyone watched her as she swayed gracefully to the open staircase that ascended to the house. It wasn’t until she disappeared from sight that conversations started again. Smithy finished his drink, and the servant hurried towards him with a jug.

Smithy waved him away, and stood. ‘Time for us to be moving on,’ he said, and reached for his rifle.

The patrol stood and moved slowly back to the roadway. Smithy and Davo lingered for a moment while Smithy approached the Head Man. He held out his hand, and the head man took it. ‘I thank you for your hospitality,’ he said formally, and gave his own little nod of the head in recognition of the man’s standing.

‘You will always be welcome,’ the head man said. ‘Please come again.’

Smithy nodded, and moved towards the roadway with Davo.

Smithy and Davo were the only ones with firearms. The remainder of the patrol carried clubs of one sort or another, some with pick-axe handles, others with wooden clubs. They formed up as they had been shown, either side of the road, the racial groups carefully mixed so that each person was grouped with another of a different race.

Davo took the lead, his rifle cradled in his arms. Silently the patrol moved on out of the light of the house, eyes slowly adapting to the dark. Mosquitos hovered threateningly around their heads despite the insect repellant both of the soldiers had used to soak their shirts and berets. This was the worst of nights along the Demerara, particularly in this irrigation area: the mosquitos were even worse than the relentless humidity.

Leaving the village, Davo led the patrol along tracks dividing the fields, stopping every now and then, apparently to check his map, the tiniest red headlamp allowing him to read it without loosing night vision. At each stop, Davo would hold his hand up so that each member of the patrol could see it against the starlit sky, then lower it horizontally, a sign for them to crouch silently. Smithy smiled to himself each time, aware that these little military-like touches made the villagers feel as though they, too, were real soldiers. He thought, too, of the girl as he waited behind the patrol for Davo’s sign to move on.

She was remarkably pretty, Smithy thought. Pretty and smart, he guessed. The headman, he knew, was a doctor, a rarity in that district. There were three older brothers and another girl, younger, who had most likely already been sent to bed by the time the patrol arrived.

He’d have to be careful not to seem interested in her. He’d be on second shift the next night, so he wouldn’t have a chance to see her again until the night after. The evenings spent with the family under the house seemed to be a district custom, so he guessed he would see her again soon. Revina. Nice name.

An hour after they set off, Davo called a halt under a big tree that seemed to form the corner of an irrigation ditch. The patrol gathered close and sat, and Davo got out his water bottle and handed it around. Each man took a sip and handed it on. When the bottle reached Smithy he sniffed it first: Russian Bear, the moonshine rum brewed illegally in the mountains far inland. Overproof and powerful. A common drink amongst the locals. He took a tiny sip and handed the bottle on. He took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it carefully behind the shield of his hand, then cupped it in his hand to hide the glow. The patrol watched him, the whites of their eyes the only things clear in the darkness. Smithy took two deep drags, then handed the cigarette on, still carefully cupped in his hand. The patrolman took it doubtfully, trying to copy Smithy’s manner of shielding the glow. He didn’t manage too well, and Smithy smiled to himself again. It was all a game.

Quietly, Davo asked the patrolman beside him where he lived. In a whisper the patrolman told him. ‘And you?’ Davo asked the next patrolman. And so it began, the real purpose of the game.

As the patrolmen started a whispered conversation, the first they would have had with members of the other race in, perhaps, the whole of their lives, Smithy let his mind drift again to think of his wife, Sarah, far away on the other side of the world, left to get on with her life as best she could for the duration of his posting overseas. He thought of her lovingly, wishing he was back home with her. They had been married only a year, and he wouldn’t see her again for another eighteen months. He felt that tingle in his loins, and he longed to be with her, take her in his arms, wake with her.

He wouldn’t be telling her about Revina, he thought with a smile.

As it turned out, it was not until three days later that he saw Revina again.

There had been an incident meanwhile that had interrupted their routine, a search on horseback for a suspected terrorist. The search had taken twelve hours to complete, and ended indeterminately with one dead negro, shot in the head from a great distance. A great shot, but it left them unable to identify the man, nor what he had been up to.

Smithy was very tired approaching the head man’s house but even before the patrol entered the circle of light he spotted Revina in the same seat as last time, once again with a book in her hands, and his spirits lifted. This time he sat, when invited, next to her father, and one of the patrolmen sat beside her. She ignored him. The servant came with refreshments again, and Smithy told the head man about their search the day before. The head man listened carefully, nodding as Smithy explained details of the search.

‘A bad outcome, I fear,’ the head man said, and Smithy nodded in his turn.

A few minutes later, when the head man turned to talk to someone on his other side, Smithy raised his eyes briefly to Revina. She was looking at him, too, and she smiled, holding the smile for a few seconds before looking down once more to her book. Smithy felt his heart leap, but looked away immediately. This, he thought, was stupid.

As he called the patrolmen back to the road to resume their vigil, Revina rose too and walked purposefully to the steps to the house, passing close to him. She was only a step away when she dropped her book, which landed at his feet. He bent immediately to retrieve it, standing with a smile on his face. As she took the book from him she pressed a scrap of paper into his hand before thanking him politely.

Surprised, Smithy turned away before thrusting the paper into his pocket and returning to the roadway himself. The patrol resumed, 85 Demerara

and the next time he had to check the map he glanced quickly at the scrap of paper. It contained only a string of numbers.

His first thought on awakening in the morning was her note. Still in his bed, he reached for his trousers and felt for the scrap of paper.

The numbers made no sense to him. He lay back and considered what it might mean. Three groups of three digits. If it had been just two groups of three, he might have thought it was a grid reference; but three groups? He put the paper carefully in his wallet.

As he went about his morning tasks he pondered on what the numbers could mean, but nothing occurred to him. At eleven o’clock he was still no wiser, but decided to check out his first instinct. He took his map of the district, and checked the first two groups. 639 230 was a spot in the middle of the Demerara river, an unlikely spot for anything other than a rather dangerous swim.

230 856 was a long way away, and almost exactly in the middle of a rice paddy, once again an unlikely spot. Well, that hadn’t been much good, he thought. It wasn’t until half way through his lunch, sitting at the table with the rest of his troop, that it occurred to him that it might have been the first and last group that she meant.

Sure enough, 639 856 was at the front of her village post office. And could it be that the middle group, 230, meant 2.30? He thought it was worth a try. At two o’clock he suggested to their Sergeant that someone should take the Land Rover to post any mail they might have, and check if there was incoming.

Kenny came with him, driving. It was only about fifteen kilometres to her village, a dusty drive, and hot. Kenny pulled up in the shade of a big Brazil nut tree, and Smithy left him there and entered the post office. Revina wasn’t there. Oh well, he told himself, it was only ever a guess. He looked at his watch: 2.35. He took the bundle of mail to the counter, asking for stamps. The man took his money, and he walked to the table and sat down to affix the stamps to the mail. As he did so Revina appeared in the door of the post office.

Oh, Smithy thought. What do I do now? She smiled at him, and went to the counter behind him. Mechanically, he continued with the stamps. He could hear her talking to the man, but could not work out what she was saying. His heart was thumping.

All of a sudden she was beside him. ‘Hello,’ she said.

He got awkwardly to his feet, knocking the bench with the back 86

of his knees. He felt foolish, but she simply smiled at him. ‘Fancy meeting you here,’ she said, her eyes glinting merrily.

‘I, um, had to do a mail run,’ he stammered, and she laughed.

‘I too,’ she said, holding out three letters and the stamps she had just bought.

He gestured to the bench beside him. ‘Please,’ he offered, but she shook her head and moved to the other side of the table. Then she sat opposite him, and he subsided once again to the bench.

She tore one stamp from the strip and licked it slowly, her eyes never leaving his. ‘My name is Revina.’

‘I know. That is, I heard you father say your name.’

She chuckled. ‘Your driver is outside. Perhaps he is hot. Maybe you should take him a drink?’

‘He’s not my driver,’ he told her. ‘He’s just another bloke.’ But he got up and walked to the door. Kenny was sitting in the drivers seat, and a young man, an Indian, was talking to him.

‘He’s okay. Maybe I need a drink, too. What about you?’

‘They sell frozen coconut milk here,’ she said. ‘Have you tried it? And what’s your name?’

‘Mike,’ he told her. ‘Michael Smith. They call me Smithy.’

‘Funny names you have,’ she said.

‘Why did you give me the note?’

She sat back and looked at him. ‘I am interested in you. You look nice. I am not allowed to talk to nice young men. I wondered if you would work it out.’

‘A test? You’re pretty bright, aren’t you?’

‘Yes. We are all very clever in my family.’

‘Well, I worked it out. What now?’

‘Buy a coconut ice-block and meet me outside,’ she said. She stuck the stamps to the two remaining letters, got up and took them to the counter, then left the post office.

Smithy finished his stamps and waited a minute or two before taking them to the counter and handing them to the man. In exchange, he gave Smithy a small bundle of mail enclosed with a rubber band.

‘And some of your frozen coconut milk, please,’ he said. ‘Two of them.’

Silently the man turned to the freezer cabinet at the back of the post office, and took two white frozen blocks, handing them 87 Demerara

to Smithy. He paid and left. She was sitting on a bench under the verandah. Kenny was still talking to the Indian. Smithy went down and gave Kenny the ice block, and went back to the verandah, sitting beside the girl.

‘I can only stay for a few minutes,’ she said.

He nodded. ‘Won’t you get into trouble, talking to me?’

‘I’ll tell them I was just practising my English.’

‘Your English is perfect,’ he told her. ‘What else do you speak?’

‘Well, Hindi, of course. At home, most frequently, Hindi. But sometimes English.’

He raised his eyes. He had had no idea. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘what now?’

‘Shall we meet again?’

‘I expect so.’

‘No, I mean shall we meet again alone? Somewhere private?’

He felt that same tingle in the loins. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’m married.’

She chuckled. ‘I know.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Sarah Smith? Who else would that be?’

‘What...?’ Then he realised that she must have read the address on his letter. A very smart girl. But did he really want to get entangled with her? The sensation in his loins told him he did.

‘Where?’

She gave him an impish grin. ‘I’ll let you know...’

‘Don’t make it too hard to interpret. I might not be able to work it out.’

‘Then you won’t get the prize,’ she said, and rose quickly and left him.

Smithy watched her leave, and wondered again if he wasn’t being stupid.

‘Who was that?’ Kenny asked him as he pulled the gearstick towards him.

‘Dunno,’ Smithy said. ‘Just a girl.’

Kenny looked at him sideways. ‘Oh yeah?’ he said with a smirk.

Another string of numbers and a letter. She had reversed the order of the grid reference, he realised, and the P had to mean pm. Christ, she must be crazy. The shed she had chosen was no more than 500 metres from her house. He stared at the map. 88

The patrolmen were squatted together under a tree, Davo in the middle of them. Smithy looked at his watch. It was already eleven. This is idiotic, he thought to himself. I won’t go. He tried to put it out of his mind, and listened to what the man next to him was saying. This was the third week of patrols in that district, and already the tension that had existed between the two ethnic groups was relaxing. He could even see a smile or two on the faces of some of the men as they shared a cigarette, sipped some of the fiery liquor.

After ten minutes, Davo signaled that they should get ready to move. Smithy took a quick look at his watch, then moved forward and put his mouth close to Davo’s ear. ‘Look,’ he whispered, ‘I need a favour.’

Davo looked at him, surprised. ‘What?’ he whispered back.

‘I’ve got something I have to do. I’m going to slip away for half an hour, okay?’

‘What the hell...?’

‘It’s a personal thing. Look, you know where we usually stop next... that bend in the irrigation canal? I’ll catch you up there.’

‘Shit, Smithy, what the hell are you up to?’

Smithy put his finger to his lips and moved to the back of the patrol.

Davo clearly wasn’t happy, but he signaled the patrol on, and Smithy followed. After a few minutes he dropped back and watched as the patrol disappeared into the darkness. Then he took a deep breath and turned back.

The shed was in darkness and he approached with caution. He was five minutes late. He would have liked to have got there early and watch as she arrived, just to be sure, but too bad. Too late to worry about that now. He found the door, which was open, a black void in the darkness of the night, and listened. Nothing. She wasn’t there after all. Okay, he’d soon catch up with the patrol. He turned, and as he did so a hand covered his eyes from behind. ‘Boo,’ he heard her say.

‘Christ, you frightened the life out of me.’

She giggled. ‘Such a brave soldier. Come on, inside.’ She took his hand and led him into the hut. It was as dark as hell, but even so, after a minute he realised that he could make out shapes: a bed along one wall, a table, two chairs. She led him to the bed, and sat. He lowered 89 Demerara

himself beside her, resting his rifle against the wall.

‘You’ll get me sh...’ he began, but she took his shoulders and kissed him, smothering his complaints. She was soft and yielding, and smelled of oriental spices that he would remember for the rest of his life, but didn’t recognise. He put his arms around her and held her gently, his excitement rising. She was no newcomer to kissing, that was clear, and her hand behind his head made it clear that she didn’t want to stop. He ran his hands over her body, across her shoulders and down her arm, and thought that he had never experienced anything so wonderful.

They subsided slowly to lie together on the bed, still embracing, each breathing the other’s breath. He didn’t know how far he should go, how far she wanted him to go. He was too excited to stop, but at the same time he wanted to spin the experience out, not go too quickly. How long they lay together he had no idea.

Revina pulled away from him suddenly, sitting up. ‘You’d better go now,’ she told him.

‘What?’ he said, confused. ‘What do you mean?’

‘That’s quite enough for tonight,’ she said. ‘In any case, I have to get back. I’ll be missed.’

‘How did you get away?’

‘Bedroom window. There’s a tree.’

‘How’re you going to get back in?’

‘The same way, of course. Now, go. You have to catch your patrol.’ She took his rifle and handed it to him. ‘Wow, that’s heavy.’

Smithy stood and took the rifle. ‘This was madness,’ he told her. ‘I won’t do it again.’

‘Cowardy custard,’ she said and giggled. ‘So brave, the soldier boys.’ She slipped past him and out into the night.

Smithy stood for a moment, then shouldered his rifle and stepped through the door. After the darkness of the hut it seemed quite light, and the moon was just rising over the trees in the east, throwing more light. He looked around, but Revina was nowhere to be seen.

Would he be strong enough to resist her if she persisted? He would, he resolved. But deep down he knew he wouldn’t.

Home was a bit of an anti-climax after his time in the Caribbean. He had a month’s leave, and it had rained almost continually since the day he had arrived. Sarah was clearly relieved to see him, as though 90

perhaps suspecting that he might have deserted her. They had been childhood sweethearts, and he had been her only boyfriend. She had never understood why he had joined up, knowing that he’d have to serve overseas.

But now he was back, and they still had a week together before his next posting. They had a married quarter lined up, and they could say goodbye to the squalor of their tiny flat.

‘What’s that?’ she asked him.

He was standing in the narrow hallway with a letter in his hand. Whatever it was, she saw, it had shocked him. He stood with his head down as though reading and re-reading it.

‘What is it?’ she asked again.

He looked up suddenly as though only just noticing that she was there. He paused, as though thinking. ‘It’s... nothing.’

Sarah smiled at him. ‘It can’t be nothing, can it? I can see it’s something.’ She moved towards him, her hand out.

‘Sarah, please.’ His voice was trembling. ‘It means nothing. It’s just some silliness.’

She took the letter from him, and found a photograph pinned to the top of it. A photograph of a beautiful young woman, and in her arms, a tiny baby.

She didn’t need to read the letter. She raised her head and looked at him, realising full well that this was not just some silliness.