A Cuckoo in Bohemia – Chapter One

Thursday, 26 July 2007

(A Cuckoo in Bohemia has been complete in draft for several years now, but is undergoing its umpteenth rewrite. Please be free with constructive criticism here as elsewhere on this site)

Angola, 1979

The jungle has no friends. It treats everything with equal disdain.

For a few moments before the dawn, a hush falls. The insects that have buzzed and whined through the night fall silent; the birds stop their squawking; the creepings and rustlings and slitherings suddenly cease. Those small animals that have successfully escaped death for one more night have crept back to their holes, and those larger animals whose attention they have evaded retire to digest their meal and sleep. All that remains is the relentless, incessant drip drip drip of water on leaves in the thick, steamy darkness.

The rainforest is changing shifts.

The sudden lull brought Gordon instantly awake. He lay rigid in his bag, his senses alert, his brain fighting a murderous battle with the desire of his hands to scratch the infernal itches all over his sweat-drenched body, his ears tuned intently to the silence. Somewhere to his right a fluting whistle called out. Not a bird. The Captain. A hidden observer watching Gordon’s face closely might have seen the taut muscles relax just a fraction, before a sudden cramp in his back caused him to wince and tense his jaw. Beyond his feet a monkey let out a shrieking whoop. That was Jonno. Gordon allowed himself a terse little smile and counted to ten. Then he pursed his lips and let out a sound best described as a cooing, rising in pitch and ending in a short trill. He was proud of that. He’d practised it for hours. He waited, listening once more with renewed intensity. The forest was wide awake again now. To his left and behind his head the shriek of a parrot tore through the background hubbub. Fritz. That made four. Gordon allowed his muscles to relax and he smiled to himself. All present. All correct.

At that instant the sun broke through the steam and set the forest ablaze with colour.
The odd quartet, ragged, unshaven, squatted wordlessly over a spartan breakfast of foraged leaves and nuts and berries and the treated brackish water that tasted so chemically disgusting before hoisting their packs onto their backs and moving onward into the forest. For a whole morning they made steady progress through the vegetation; more slowly in those places where the trees thinned out and the extra light penetrating the canopy had allowed the undergrowth to grow thick and lush. His comrades were invisible. To know they were there was an act of faith. And of finely-tuned hearing. He cursed frequently under his breath the malevolent roots that clutched and the branches that whipped back into his face. The air grew steamier as the cruel sun rose higher in the sky, sapping the energy from his legs. In the boiling wet heat the sweat ran in sluggish rivulets down his face and dripped onto his body. Insects nibbled and probed for the scratches and scabs and tender spots of his skin. The heavy stench of death and decay clung to his nostrils. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists against the fingers of lethargy that stroked his brow and tempted him with the burning desire to crawl into the bush and fall asleep forever. Only the coded animal cries from the tangled undergrowth impressed upon him that the unity and interdependence of the squad was one with the complex web of forest life, and kept him to the relentless push forward.

Towards mid-afternoon, at a place where the forest became sparser, came the cry, the frightened chatter of a monkey, that told Gordon that a comrade had found something amiss. His instinct flung him to the ground, his ears alert and tuned. Another call. Move to the right. Careful, don’t make a noise. Dirt road here. Barely a track really. Nothing to see where he was. Something wrong. Maybe. Perhaps a trap. Circle round. Check for possible ambushes. Circle inwards, towards the centre of attention. In the bush he caught sight of the blackened face of his squad leader, who looked straight at him and then nodded to one side. He followed the nod to the body.

The African was stretched out along the track with his arms at an angle in front of him. Flies were swarming around the sticky black mess that stuck the once-white shirt to his back. This man had been fleeing from his killer. The Mission must be close now. Gordon knew that his comrades would now be filled with the same dread that filled him; dread of what they all knew they must find when they got there. They waited, but no ambush came. All the same, when they spread out and moved on, following the track on either side, Gordon’s ears were tuned ever more finely to the chitterings and squawkings and howlings, alert to anything out of place. His nose twitched, sniffing for the alien scent in the rank, decadent perfume of the jungle. There was definitely a new note to the smell now. Gordon found himself daydreaming of his boyhood . Absurdly he heard in his head the strains of With A Song In My Heart, and in his mind’s eye he saw his parents and sisters sitting primly around the family dining table, the girls in their best dresses fresh from Sunday School. It took him several moments before he realised what had prompted this vision. Hanging in the still, leaden air was the sharp smell of garden bonfires, and over the top of that the scent of roasting meat. He was jolted back into the present. This couldn’t be good.

The sun was dipping low in the sky when they reached the Mission compound. There was no sign of activity. No sign of life. You could never be sure though. There were certainly signs of death. The carcasses of two goats lay in the white dusty yard. They had not been dead so very long; even in this heat they had not yet completely decomposed, though the stench of rotting flesh made Gordon’s stomach heave. The door of the mission building swung ajar. With the other two remaining on guard, Gordon and the squad leader edged along the wall towards the door from either side. They paused and listened. The captain tossed a stun grenade into the open doorway. A deafening explosion and a blinding flash of light shattered the air. Gordon burst through the door into the blackness with his Ingram at the ready.

The Mission was filled with death. In a room that must have been the kitchen, an African woman sat on a chair with her face slumped in a pool of congealed blood on a table. On the floor another was stretched out. Gordon could do nothing for them. He passed on. In the chapel, a middle-aged European woman lay on her back on, her head dangling backwards over the edge with hideous limpness, hair matted with congealed blood, a black gash across her throat. Her nun’s habit was rucked up under her armpits; her naked legs were splayed. Gordon did not linger here either. He rushed out of the back of the house, where somebody had put a lot of work into creating an English garden. He stood still and listened. His finely-tuned ears picked up a soft, dreadful moaning, scarcely perceptible. He followed the sounds behind a wall to a tree.

There was a man there. An elderly European man, with a twisted pale face and a few strands of grey hair clinging to his scalp. He was hanging from the tree. His outstretched arms were tied to branches and transfixed by knives thrust through the wrists. His abdomen had been slit vertically and blood had soaked his priestly garb and dripped into a sticky pool on the ground beneath him. The blue eyes that looked imploringly at Gordon told that he lived still. Gordon felt pale and giddy and nauseous but had enough strength left to raise the Ingram and pump a burst of bullets into the old priest. Then he dropped the Ingram, walked over to the wall, retched once, and emptied the contents of his stomach to a livid stain on the parched white ground.

In the time it took to pull himself together, the years of discipline and training, that had not prepared him for anything quite like this, abandoned him. He was no longer aware of his comrades or what they were doing, nor did he much care. Turning his back on the wall, the tree, his life to date, he rose on unsteady legs and shambled off into the darkness.

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