The Living

The Living

The Living 1920 1536 Matthew Willis

That day in Addis Ababa, the sun rose first upon the faithful and the dead. It rose on the shining stone slabs of the Ferenji cemetery; on the pilgrims rising from sleep, unwrapping themselves from their white gabis like butterflies and fluttering to ancient churches; and on Wilfred Tait, hurrying past round, thatched tukuls and square asbestos-roofed European buildings toward appointments with death and with life. He kept the first — a last visit to his wife’s grave — and as a consequence, missed the second.

By the time he returned to the consulate, the sun was well up and the cars had already gone.

The Italians were coming. Perhaps they were already here. The gates of the consulate were chained. Tait sat on his suitcase in the street. All thought slowed, a river in dry season. He’d missed the chance to escape and the future held nothing. Where the imagining of it should be was a white blank. It was only when the armoured cars turned onto the street where Tait still sat that he realised he might have given some thought to getting out.

He was shackled and bundled into the back of a truck. Tait looked at the steel loops. There must be some mistake. They couldn’t do anything to him. Could they? He was a civilian. He was British. After a few moments an officer climbed in. Oh thank Christ, he’d sort things out.

“You are a spy,” the man said. “You will be shot.”

Tait’s mouth flapped in a moment’s disbelieving silence, and then babbled protestations and pleas all jumbled together in his mouth while his ears listened and his brain wondered how to stop.

The officer narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps you are not a spy. But how can I know?” He produced a map. “Perhaps if you can be helpful? Now. Where is the Ethiopian Army?”

Tait had just about managed to close his mouth, but this caused it to fall open again. “The…Army? I don’t know! I don’t know Idon’tknowIdon’tknow.”

The soldier peered, eyes shiny and hard. He did not move, other than to absently allow his hand to brush a leather holster which sat at his hip. “Where is Haile Selassie?”

“The…the emperor?” Tait heard the word come out as a squeak. His mind seemed to have split in two. The half that had control of his mouth babbled and gibbered. The other half looked on, unable to influence.

The officer looked on. Tait was deeply impressed by his impassivity. The only emotion Tait could discern from him was a hint of disgust, like the tang from a distant cooking fire caught on the breeze. The soldier tolerated the babbling civilian. He was not quite beneath contempt just yet. The questions continued. Tait could answer none of them. The inside of the lorry took on the character of a nightmare of civil service exams he had forgotten to revise for. More about the army. Something about gold reserves. It was all Tait could do to find something he could talk about. And he desperately wanted to talk. To find something that would make this imperious officer smile. Or nod. Just a nod. Exports. Imports. Mining companies. Mineral claims. Anything.

And then, it was over. Just as he thought he had condemned himself by his utter uselessness to the Italians, the officer called a guard, had his shackles unlocked, and booted him back onto the street. The gates were open now, and the consulate was swarming with men in khaki, hats at jaunty angles, creaking leather boots. His uselessness had not condemned him. At least not to anything sudden.

“Mr Tait, sir?”

He looked up. An Ethiopian was standing before him. It took a moment before he recognised the consulate groundsman.

“Oh. Er. Wodaje, isn’t it?” Tait’s chest felt as though it would burst. A sudden desire to shake the man vigorously by the hand rose up and he forced it back. One must observe the proprieties like civilised men, after all, even at a time like this.

“What are you doing here Mr Tait sir? The others have gone.”

He mumbled an explanation, all the while please don’t leave me! Please don’t leave me! echoed in his head. A jumble of unconnected thoughts battered him. The shine of the officer’s holster. The squeak in his voice as he pleaded for his life. The sense that it was all a silly misunderstanding and would easily be cleared up. The sense that it might not be.

Wodaje folded his arms. For a ghastly moment, the utter certainty that he was about to turn his back gripped Tait. And then the groundsman said “My brother-in-law has a car. I could take you to the pilot. If he’s still here.”

Tait followed Wodaje at a half-run, muttering thanks and apologies until the man told him to stop. The sun was well up. Tait had forgotten to wind his watch. It must be ten, or thereabouts. They stopped at a tukul and Tait waited outside, shifting his suitcase from hand to hand. The only word he could make out from the conversation within was ‘pilot’.

Who was he? This ‘Pilot’. Tait sniffed. A few weeks ago it was probably ‘The Tennessee Falcon’ or ‘The Leopard of the Ogaden.’ Every tin-pot Don Quixote from Saint Albans to Saint Petersburg had to have a ludicrous epithet these days. One should blame the Emperor – The Lion of Judah – for setting the trend, he supposed. But he had to get out, and if some budding Lancelot with a bicep for a brain would help him, then he could put up with tales of derring-do on the way. What a fool to miss the bus. But to leave without visiting Marjorie. Unthinkable.

Wodaje reappeared and bustled him to a battered fabric-bodied motor car, which might once have been blue. They puttered out of the city, swerving and slewing alarmingly, and once reversing course in a graunch of gears and Tait’s heartstrings when an Italian staff car happened by.

In no time at all, the car burst into a patch of dirt carved out of the forest and scrub.A small aerodrome. A dirt runway, a couple of stone bunkers for fuel and oil. And the pilot.

The car pulled up and Wodaje pointed at the only figure visible on the whole field. A man, rolling a fuel drum towards a little biplane, a modern type with an enclosed cabin. Wodaje muttered something; apology, perhaps, or warning, and virtually pushed Tait out of the vehicle, before speeding away in a yelp of tyres. Tait hefted his suitcase and walked out.

“Hallo!” he called at what he judged a polite distance to bother a man handling inflammable substances. The Pilot ignored him as he measured out fluid from the drum into the aeroplane. Eventually he closed the fuel filler, screwed the drum shut and looked up.

“Come to check my paperwork, have you?” He was British, then. A Scot?

“Er, no,” Tait scratched his head. “No, I was told that you…that I might…”

“Looking to get out of Addis, eh?”

“Yes.” Tait had money. He’d expected to be asked. Would it be vulgar to offer? “I was supposed to go with the consulate staff but…missed the bus.”

“You were lucky. Marshal Badoglio’ll be in the city in a few hours. Advance guard already is, probably. Stripping everything of value I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Yes. They are.”

The Pilot folded his arms and regarded Tait coolly. “Is that right? And you dodged them, did you? With your pal in the Morris?”

Tait explained that they’d asked him a few questions and then, too busy to bother, let him go. The Pilot asked what was in the suitcase and could he lose anything. Not really, it was all he had. Clothes, and money. He didn’t mention the keepsakes of Marjorie.

And just like that, he was going to Khartoum in a de Havilland Hornet Moth. The Pilot introduced himself as Munro, told Tait to stow his suitcase behind the seats and declared they’d be off presently. It was probably the suggestion of money that had changed Munro’s attitude. He was a mercenary after all. Tait nearly gave himself a hernia with the gymnastics required to get himself and his luggage into the little cabin. Munro strapped Tait into the right-hand seat, leaned across as he threw a switch here, a switch there, and passed him a map. “Hold that, and hand it to me after we take off,” the pilot said.

Tait frowned. As Munro had stretched past him, a scent reached his nostrils, mixing with the dust, eucalyptus and petrol. There was oil, sweat, old canvas, and something else. Something hard and medicinal that he’d missed in the open air.

In that waft, Tait knew every man Munro had ever been. Would ever be.

He watched the pilot as he worked, heaving the propeller slowly around, two, three times. He seemed in control of himself. But these people always did, didn’t they? Heaven knew he’d seen enough of it. Perfectly sober right until they weren’t. Good god. The map rustled as his hands tightened.

“Contact!” Munro yelled, and swung the prop. The engine sneezed into cacophony, and then, Munro coaxing the throttle, settled into a comforting brrrt-ah-brrrt-ah-brrrt-ah… It still came as a mild surprise to Tait when finally the engine opened to a bellow and the aeroplane hurried forward. The tail rose and for a moment it was just like riding a bicycle the first time when you’re balancing impossibly, and then the ground began to drop away, a shadow-biplane racing them across the earth. The acrylic canopy was full of undulating yellow-bleached grassland, dark spinnies, the crinkled form of hills. Only then did it hit him. This was it. He was going. Where? England, probably. Christ, he’d miss Ethiopia. This country. It was…well, it was home.

They were still low when the engine note dropped to a mellow burble and they levelled out. That was fine. Tait was enjoying the view, despite everything. He glanced at the map to check their direction then realised he should have passed it to Munro. The pilot took it with a grunt and started fiddling with it. Tait knew the map far better than the country itself, anyhow. Had to, for the mining survey. He looked back out. A tree-furred line of hills ahead, a little like the South Downs. A mottled plain opening up, and beyond that, the jumble of bigger peaks, haze-smoothed. Six years in this country and hadn’t really seen it for years. Not with Marjorie and her illness.

The illness he now found afflicted his pilot. How badly? When he stowed his suitcase there’d been a glass-clink from Munro’s bag. But Munro had no bottle accessible, so it would probably be all-

“Ach, Jesus.” Munro contorted in his seat, free arm darting down by the door. “Hold the stick, will you?”

“What? But I’ve never-”

“Just hold it. If the plane rolls one way, move it the other. You’ll get the feel. Keep the nose level. See the line on that instrument there? Keep it in the middle. All right?”

The ‘stick’ Munro indicated was like an oversized motorcar’s gearstick between the seats, branched into a Y with a grip on each branch. He took the right-hand grip gingerly and Munro let go. Oh Christ! The aeroplane transmitted its disapproval through his hand, rocking truculently. Tait daren’t take his eyes off the landscape ahead, even to check that instrument. In his peripheral vision he discerned Munro shucking off his harness and scrabbling on the floor.

“What’ve you lost?” Tait said through gritted teeth.

“Dropped the map,” Munro huffed. “Just you concentrate on flying. Watch the gyorizon, I think the nose’s coming up.”

“Blast.” Tait glanced at the instrument and found the line was now floating well beneath the centre. Tentatively he pushed the stick. The nose lurched downward, not far, but enough to make Munro swear and hurry back into his harness.

“I’ve got her,” the pilot said, though Tait had just about got the machine onto an even keel. “Thanks.”

Tait released the stick and exhaled. He glanced at Munro, who now had the map balanced on his lap. Outside, Ethiopia meandered by, natives in the inevitable gabi stopping to look up at them. Tait turned his head away but kept his eyes towards Munro, to see a rapid upward movement of the arm, a flash of sun off something metallic, and then the hand was back beneath the map while an astringent scent lingered momentarily.

“How come you got left?” Munro asked, as if sensing he were the focus of Tait’s attention.

“I was visiting the cemetery.”

Munro snorted. “What the blazes for?”

Tait’s face reddened. “My wife’s grave,” he said. “Don’t know if I’ll see it again.”

Munro laughed bitterly. “Ridiculous.”

Tait chest tightened. “What, may I ask, is so ridiculous about it?”

“If they’d shelled the city. You could have been killed, that’s what.”

“Some things are just…important.”

“What dead person’s worth a living one? You think she’d have wanted you to risk your life to put flowers near her remains? If she did, she wasn’t worth it.”

Tait’s mouth fell open. What right did this flying vagrant have…? “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Not when your business is…”

“What?”

Tait stared ahead. “War.”

“Maybe that means I should understand more than most,” Munro said, almost too softly to hear over the engine. “Well I don’t care what you think, Mister Diplomat. I. Don’t. Care.” As the final punctuation on the sentence, Munro pulled the flask from beneath the map and took an ostentatious swig.

The flight continued. The view of the plain crawled by and passed away behind. Occasionally there were animals, a tail of dust signifying a group of vehicles. The plain gave way to a plateau of pink rock scarred with wadis, which gave way to a freakish desert of pocked stone splattered with black, as though tar had boiled out of the earth.

A little after three hours in the air, the horizon unexpectedly tilted and the ground below filled Tait’s window. His stomach shifted and he realised they were turning.

“Tell me what you see,” Munro barked.

Tait stared. It was just featureless rock, surely? Wait. Was that…? As though his eyes had suddenly found their focus he saw a cluster of people. Then another. Then- Heavens, there was a crowd down there. Something off about it. They were all lying down, like the pilgrims in Addis sleeping in the open. But it was the middle of the day. He reported this to Munro.

“No,” the pilot replied, “I mean for Eyeties. Any vehicles? Soldiers?

Oh! He scanned around, not convinced he was seeing what was there. “No, I don’t think so.”

Munro was intent on the map, genuinely this time. “Terrain looks OK. We’re going down.”

The Moth’s wings swung level and the engine note descended an octave. The ground rose to meet them, and soon they were skimming over it. Munro tenderly eased the stick back and back, and the wheels wumphed down. They rolled to a stop.

Munro reached to his bag, drew out a bottle and a holster holding a revolver, meeting Tait’s eyes with a look that dared him to remark. Tait did not. He struggled out of the harness and followed Munro, who was already striding away. The pilot squatted beside a person lying on the ground. A body, Tait corrected himself, in Ethiopian military garb. The stench hit him then, as though it had taken physical form and reached down his throat. He gasped and swallowed. Munro moved from body to body, crouching by each. After ten or so, he stopped.

Alive.

The light in the man’s eyes was terrifying. He had lain here who knew how long, and now they’d blundered in with a gift of unimaginable cruelty. Hope. Even as it blazed, Tait saw horror following upon its heels.

“How bad?” the soldier rasped.

Munro hmmed. “Are y’in much pain?”

“Not much. Not now.”

“Then it’s not as bad as it could be.”

“Still bad. There’s nothing you can do for me?” The man’s voice had worn to a whisper just in the few words he had uttered, and he coughed viciously, flecks of red in the spittle on his lips

Munro shook his head. “Not nothing. What’s your name?”

“Kasa. Kasa Seyoum.”

Munro uncapped the bottle — a time like this! — but instead of darting it to his own lips, Munro squatted and held it out to the soldier. The man managed a couple of sips, coughed volcanically again and lay his head back down. The pilot produced a cigarette, lit it, and put it between the soldier’s lips. He talked for a moment, drawing out where the man was from, if he had any family.

“There’s a lot of men out here,” Munro said after a pause. “They need us too. It will probably be a few hours. For you, I mean. I can wrap things up now if you prefer.”

Kasa looked up at Munro. There was no hope now, or despair. Just a kind of wonder. “Don’t leave me,” he said.

The pilot nodded, and talked until the cigarette burned to a stub.

And then, like a man resigning himself to getting out of a warm bed on a cold morning, Kasa sighed, turned his head, closed his eyes. Tait wondered how he would think back on this in future, as if the now was not important in itself, just for what it would become. For Kasa, there was only now. This moment was the rest of everything he’d know.

Munro drew his revolver, cocked it, and then the thing was done.

The pilot regarded Tait levelly. “Don’t make it any harder than it needs to be, all right?”

They found twenty-six alive. Some with gunshot wounds. Most seemingly whole but unable to move. There had been perhaps three hundred. Enough rifles and ammunition lay around that Munro didn’t have to use up any moreof his revolver rounds. The pilot sat with each as long as they wanted. Talked about whatever they cared to, in English, Oromo, Amharic… Every time it ended the same way.

After the two of them were the last alive again, they sat by the Moth, smoking a cigarette before leaving the ghastly place forever, then climbed back in for the twenty minute hop to the landing ground to refuel. Half an hour after that they ought to be in Sudan and safe.

“Thought I was done with all this,” Munro said after he’d finished his cigarette. “I was flying an air ambulance, you know. A worn-out old DH Dragon. Never had enough doctors. We saved a few. Most of the time this was all we could do for them.”

Tait’s last reserve of resolve fractured and he began to sob.

“Caught in the open,” Munro went on as he primed the engine, ignoring Tait. “The Italian planes sprayed poison gas and then came back to strafe. Bastards.”

“What were they doing out here?” Tait looked at the expanse surrounding the cockpit. Through the glass it seemed unreal. “What is there to fight for?”

“A gold mine.” Munro sighed. “Apparently the Italians caught wind of it this morning and went for it. The Ethiopians tried to stop them.” He laughed. “They believe if they can increase their gold reserves to the level of a civilised country the League of Nations’ll help ‘em. Pity didn’t work, maybe capital will. Jesus.”

Gold mines. God. The questions that Italian officer had yelled. Tait’s terrible need to speak, to say something. The mining survey…he’d been writing back and forth to the FO about the locations of explorations. Was there one out here? Where were they? He sneaked a look at the map where
Munro’s finger rested and felt his throat close.

The Hornet Moth gathered pace and rose rapidly. Ethiopia receded behind, the recollection of it engulfed by a crawling mass that crumbled softly leaving nothing but soot and ash. The little aeroplane climbed higher, away, while the same sun began to set upon the dead on the plain and the once-faithful in the cabin.

Header photography © Jacopo Vassallo.

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