EIGHTEEN

Soon after Tim and I had eaten our packed lunch on the summit of Pen-y-Fan, the last of the clouds blew away and the band of rain gave way to a golden autumn afternoon. The sunshine, soft and gentle after the glare of Africa, encouraged me to keep talking and talking.

So did Tim. I didn’t tell him all the gory details, of course: for instance, I only said that Whinger had been executed, and that at the end Jason had shot Muende. But I gave him a pretty good account of what had happened. Several times I sent him running off round some minor landmark, to keep his blood moving and give myself a break, and when he came back he was always full of questions. The longer we talked, the more I admired his intelligence, and his desire to get things straight.

He’d almost floored me, early on, when he said, ‘If you die, Dad, what’s going to happen to me?’

The question caught me below the belt, and I tried to turn it aside by saying jokily, ‘Who said I’m going to die? I’m not planning on that yet.’

‘No,’ he persisted. ‘But where will I live?’

I told him he could stay on with his gran and gramp, or with his cousins.

But there was something pathetic about his anxiety. I could see he felt thoroughly insecure, and whose fault was it that he had no proper home?

It was better when we kept to Africa.

‘That scar on your cheek,’ he said. ‘How did you get that?’

‘Somebody slammed me with a rifle butt. Mart wanted to put stitches in the cut, but we didn’t have time.’

His next question was, ‘How did you get out?’

‘Luck, really,’ I told him. ‘I drove most of that first night. When it started to get light, I lay up again. I had food and water, remember. I was nearly out of fuel, so I was just planning to drive until the engine cut. But when I started again the next night, I came on a truck that had crashed into a ditch and been abandoned. Nobody had bothered to drain the tank, so I did it for them.’

‘How d’you drain a tank?’

‘With a piece of pipe. We’d been carrying one in the pinkie for that very purpose. You push one end down into the tank, and suck back until the fuel’s almost at the top. Then you bend the tube down until your end’s lower than the other one, and the petrol or diesel runs out into your can.’

Tim considered this, frowning, then said, ‘But why does it run?’

‘Gravity. Once you’ve got it going, it works fine. But you have to be careful not to suck too hard, or you get the stuff in your mouth, and it tastes horrible.’ I glanced down at him, and went on, ‘Anyway, then I had enough diesel to drive back to the place where we flew Andy’s body out from. Remember — where we cleared a strip of road? Luckily, the coordinates for that were still in Stringer’s GPS. With the satcom I got a message out to Hereford. They contacted the civilian pilot who air-lifted Andy’s body, and he came and picked me up in his Cessna.’

‘Then what?’

‘I thought I might get arrested if anyone saw me in Mulongwe. So I got him to fly me to Harare, which is a bit friendlier.’

‘Did you pay him?’

‘I couldn’t. I didn’t have a single kwatcha on me.’

‘What’s a kwatcha?’

‘Kamangan money. One kwatcha is worth about a hundredth of a penny.’

‘Who did pay him, then?’

‘The Regiment, I hope. I told him to e-mail a bill to Hereford.’

Tim scuffed his trainers together, and asked, ‘How big was the diamond, exactly?’

‘I can’t say exactly. But about like this.’ I held up finger and thumb. ‘It must be one of the biggest ever found. Worth millions if it’s sound. They have to cut tiny pieces off, to see if there are any flaws.’

‘You ought to have kept it, then.’

‘I told you, I had a feeling it would bring bad luck. I didn’t dare keep it. Somehow the witch doctor had put a spell on it. Look what it did to Muende and the German woman.’

‘What were they going to do with it?’

‘Good question. Apparently they were planning to do a runner — leave the country altogether. Interpol — that’s the police — found out they were going to do a bunk to Mexico. That shows you how powerful the diamond was. Is, I mean. For months Muende had been directing a civil war, trying to take over the country. He thought he was about to get his hands on nuclear weapons. If he’d managed that, he could have terrorised the north and taken charge of the whole of Kamanga. Then, suddenly, he had a fortune in his hands, and it went to his head. All at once politics didn’t matter any more. He threw everything over, just for money.’

Tim thought for a while, then said, ‘Were you going to kill them yourself?’

‘I was planning on it. I was that angry. But, luckily, Jason did it for me. In the end I was glad I didn’t have to.’

‘Did the police interview you?’

‘Of course.’

‘What did you tell them about the diamond?’

‘I said I threw it into a river because I knew it was unlucky.’

Another gap, and then, ‘You should have gone back to the witch doctor and made him take the spell off it.’

‘I thought of that. But in the end it didn’t seem possible. If I’d shown him the rock, he’d have tried to claim it for himself. And if I’d reappeared in that village, where the boy died, I’d have been torn to pieces.’

‘Were you scared of him?’

‘Yes, I was. So was Phil. When that cold wind came, there was something going on we couldn’t understand.’

‘Will Jason be all right?’

‘You mean medically? I don’t know. I’m afraid he may have got a dose of radiation from being so close to the warheads. I hope not, but I can’t be sure.’

‘I really meant with the diamond.’

‘Oh, I see. Well, he has magic spells of his own. All those medicines he was taking and giving other people. Who knows? Maybe one of them’ll protect him.’

‘How much will he get for it?’

‘Only a fraction of what it’s worth. He’ll be cheated, for sure. But still he’ll get enough to make him rich.’

Tim suddenly took off on another of his sprints, and when he came back, he panted, ‘Genesis.’

‘What about him?’

‘You never went back.’

‘Couldn’t. Not a chance.’

‘So he’s still there.’

‘Yes. He’ll be there for ever, now.’

‘Won’t the animals dig him up?’

‘I don’t think they can. There was living rock under him, and we put all those stones on top.’

‘He was a good man, though.’

‘Yes. Sometimes he annoyed us, but he was one of the best.’

‘Then why did he have to get killed?’

‘I can’t answer that. It’s one of the mysteries of life — why good isn’t always rewarded, why evil flourishes, why good people get diseases like cancer when they’ve done nothing to deserve it. Some people say God’s fighting the Devil, but the Devil’s pretty crafty and keeps hitting back.’

‘You know when you got charged by the elephants?’

‘Yes?’

‘How many were killed?’

‘People, or ellies?’

‘Ellies.’

‘Five or six, at least. There may have been more wounded that went off and died somewhere else. That was horrible.’

‘If you got swallowed by a crocodile, would you still be alive inside it?’

‘Not for long. If you hadn’t already been crunched, you’d suffocate from lack of air.’

The sun was nearly on the horizon. Time to go.

‘We’d better be off,’ I said.

‘But, Dad, why did you bother to load up the shells, if you could have blown them up anyway?’

‘I didn’t know enough about it. I thought if we did that, we’d create a major hazard and put half of southern Africa at risk. As it is, there’s widespread contamination of the area. The President’s complained to the United Nations. He’s suspended relations with Britain. It would have been better if we could have got them out.’

‘What d’you think happened to the old man at the mine?’

‘Boisset? No idea. I hope Joss didn’t get suspicious of him as well, otherwise he’ll have had him shot too.’

‘Was it a failure, then?’

‘What?’

‘Your mission.’

‘Our task. Well, we went out to train Alpha Commando, and we did that pretty well, for as long as they let us. But the civil war’s still going on, and yes, the whole thing did go belly-up.’

‘Was it your fault?’

‘I don’t think so. I made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes at times. But the man who really wrecked everything was Joss. Then again, I blame the diamond. If it hadn’t been for that, Joss might have stayed on-side.’

From behind us, a drift of cold evening air came blowing over the long, smooth slopes of the Beacons.

‘Brrrrrrh!’ I went, giving a violent shudder and jumping to my feet.

Tim stared at me in consternation. ‘What’s the matter, Dad?’

‘That wind on the back of my neck. Like I said, ever since our session when the little kid died, it’s given me the jankers.’

Still the boy was watching me. ‘Dad,’ he went. ‘Are you dying?’

‘What a question!’ I forced myself to make a joke of it. But all I could say was, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I’m not sure. The doctors don’t know, either. I got myself a bad dose of radiation, right enough. But so far it hasn’t done the damage they expected. They’re giving me a fifty-fifty chance.’

‘Was it that medicine Jason gave you?’

‘That’s going to save me? How do I know? Maybe it’s helped.’ I picked up my day-sack and slipped it on to my back. Long, purple shadows were stretching out over the folds in the mountains. Dusk was seeping into the valleys.

Looking down at the boy, I was disconcerted to see tears in his eyes.

‘Come on,’ I said, sweeping him up in my arms and sitting him on my left hip. ‘On the way home we’re going to drop in at Tesco’s and get some things for a good fry-up, because I’m definitely not planning to snuff it today.’

‘But Dad,’ he persisted. ‘Didn’t you say the German woman was the ninth white person to die because of the spell?’

‘If you leave out the two South Africans in the Beechcraft, yes.’

‘Then I hope you’re not going to be the tenth man down.’

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