The Open Arms of the Sea

ONE

 

The landscape of broken-glass rocks and parched earth stretched to the distant horizons. The noon-day Yemeni sun hurled a light so harsh that it bleached everything it touched and crushed the world to grey ash. At the furthest reach of the desolate plain the shark-toothed highlands pierced a cloudless, white sky.

Lieutenant Leslie Deacon of the 1st Battalion RoyalSussex Regiment stood on a low rise of baked desert gazing through his binoculars at the wonder of the Tihammah plain. He felt small in its presence, a mere speck in the vastness of the desert bowl, as insignificant as a particle of dust. The Tihammah had that power. The power to make you invisible.

He let his binoculars drop to his chest and rubbed his eyes with dust-gloved fingers. Shaking his head alert, he took a mouthful of warm, brackish water from his canteen and rinsed his mouth. He swallowed the resulting sludge in a forced gulp.

He trained his binoculars once more on the far mountains to search for the Adoo rebels. To hunt again for a tell-tale flash of coloured cloth or the glint of sun on gun metal. Deacon and his troop had chased the Adoo half way across the baking plain and now that the rebels had found refuge in the mountains ahead, he was wary of pursuing them further. The rebels had stolen mortars with them and Deacon was not planning to get caught in open ground and in range.

            He saw no colours or glints, only the ocean of rocks and the volcanic, black mountains at its shores. He was about to return to the truck when a small plume of desert dust and rocks erupted like a geyser from the desert floor about a mile in front of him. Deacon heard a soft boom echoing from the far mountains. Then another geyser erupted beside the first. The dusts fell slowly back to the plain.

Deacon stood still and retrained his glasses. He saw the faint trail of mortar smoke still drifting in the sky and tracked it back down to its mountain source. He marked its direction with his foot.

“Mark the grid and direction, corporal,” he said.

“They are bombing us, sir.”

Corporal Lockett stepped up beside him. He was a small man, barely coming up to Deacon’s chin, but he occupied his space with a confidence and youthful brio that made him appear taller. Lockett had been with him for more than six months but Deacon had never really settled in his un-servile care. The corporal had a way of always having an answer, or a question, and of always being there, like an eager shadow.

“I am aware of that, corporal. Just mark it.”

Deacon turned and checked on the troop. The men had been sleeping beside the truck under canopy shade, but the sound of the mortars roused them to a drowsy concern. Sergeant McNish rolled himself from his doze on the truck running board and blinked about him. His barrel frame strained at his jacket buttons and he farted loudly. Shaw and Ambrose were struggling into their shirts and Kenny crouched on one knee with the Sterling already primed and lapped.

“Pulling back, sir?” said Sergeant McNish.

“No.” said Deacon. “Relax lads. We are out of their range. They’re just firing their toys. They have 81mil mortars and the mountains are over four miles away. We’re safe here.”

The men groaned and slouched back to the canopy. They sank in its shades.

“Compass bearing eighteen degrees, sir,” said Lockett.

“Radio it in, corporal. Contact and grid,” said Deacon.

“It’s getting late, sir. Still four hours back toAden.”

“Don’t you ever obey an order, corporal?”

“Only inadvertently, sir.”

“I think they can still shoot you for that.”

“Army will shoot you for anything, sir.”

“Radio it in corporal. Now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Deacon watched the distant mountains for a while but there were no further mortar launches. The Adoo would be packing up and heading further into the highlands. No British Army patrol could follow them there. The mountains belonged to the Adoo, and the piard wild dogs.

Deacon wandered out onto the desert plain to have another look at the circle of rocks that the Adoos had used for their last over-night camp. A bare, scratched hollow among small boulders blackened by the petrol-can fire and littered with cigarette ends, goat bones and human dung. Petrol coloured flies hovered above it in small clouds.

They had discovered the camp while tracking the fleeing Adoo. Deacon and his men had been chasing them for almost a day and a half across the wadis and wastes of the Tihammah. The sun had beaten hard most of the way and the discovery of the camp was an opportune excuse for a break for chow, vehicle

checks and light dozing. It had been a long patrol and Deacon wanted the men rested and cooled before they made the long afternoon run back toAden.

Deacon walked the circle of the Adoo camp site, but found nothing of interest. It was when he widened his search that he noticed a glint low in the rocks. He squatted down and saw a small metal disc lying in the dirt. It was no bigger than a half-crown. He blew the dirt from around it with soft kisses of breath; then he carefully probed under it with his knife. The disc lifted without wire or resistance. It wavered in his fingers. His limbs were beginning to shake with fatigue. In the heat of the Tihammah every move was an act of will. The disc was light in his palm. Deacon wrapped it in his neck cloth and put it in his belt pouch. He rose up unsteadily and walked the camp again but found nothing more to take the eye.

He headed back to the truck. The sound Unchained Melody on Private Shaw’s transistor radio rippled in the heat towards him.

Lockett came out to meet him. “Message sent, sir. Receipt confirmed.”

“Right, we’d better get the men do a line west to east. Twenty minutes out, then back. And you can tell Private Shaw that if I hear that damn song again I will confiscate his radio. He knows the patrol orders. And I am sick of that damn song.”

Corporal Lockett grinned. “More a Rolling Stones man, me, sir. Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Now that’s a soldier’s song for you. I expect you are more of a jazz man.”

Deacon did not snaffle the hook. It was the corporal’s game to probe beneath the officer’s uniform. To unearth some fragment of his non-soldier self. It was Deacon’s game to not oblige.

“No, Kipling’s more my line, corporal. When wounded and left onAfghanistan’s plains and all that. That’s a song for the troops.”

And the women come out and cut up the remains.

 Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.

And go to yaw Gawd like a soldier.”

Lockett grinned puckishly and spread his hands to signal the end of his impromptu performance. Deacon tried to ignore him as he always did. Lockett was too independent of spirit and far too clever for a corporal. But for all his oddities he was a dutiful and efficient one.

“Where exactly did you go to school, corporal?”

“Anywhere there was trouble, sir. I sort of picked it up on the way.” Lockett adjusted his Arab-style headscarf and crabbed his fingers through his hair. Then he dusted off his smart army jacket with a few deft slaps. Even on the fourth day of a patrol Lockett looked as tidy as if it were his second. “Learned there is always time for a smoke though, sir.” He offered Deacon a flicked cigarette from his pack and a cupped palm for the light.

“Remind me why you joined the army, corporal.”

“Couldn’t disappoint the Queen, sir.”

Lockett was twenty, just four years his junior, but he made Deacon feel old. Deacon sucked on the cigarette and let the smoke burn through him. He returned to the truck.

“Sergeant. Line west. Get the men moving. I want to be heading back toAdenin an hour.”

Sergeant McNish gazed warily at the plain. “West, you say?”

Deacon hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “That way. Keep the twin peaks

for bearing.”

Sergeant McNish gazed after the thumb to the distant horizon. “Ah. The titties there. I see‘em. Right. And what are we looking for this time?”

“Your own backsides I expect, but if you could spot any Adoo stragglers prowling about out there then you have my permission to shoot them a bit.”

The Sergeant grunted and sloped off towards the men.

Deacon watched the men being roused from their half-slumbers under the canvas sheets that stretched between the vehicles. They gathered their guns and hats and emerged shirtless into the sun; a yawning, moody parade of tanned, muscled shoulders, broad chests and smooth trooper-bodies. The men steamed and glistened in the lime Tihamah light. Deacon felt a tightness grip his skull and the burn of his blood rushing in veins. It was a sensation he tried to curb but it spiked within him unbidden. The same passionate sensation born and released by the half naked Mr. Havers in the after hours school room and from whose guilt he had been trying to flee ever since. He had flown to hide in the army, covering his shame and disgust in the uniform of duty and servility. But it still spiked, letting him know that he hadn’t run far enough and that it still lurked in his shadow. The troop began pulling their shirts over the glistening flesh. Deacon pulled his gaze away sharply. At the corner of his eye he saw that Lockett had been watching him. The corporal quickly diverted his interest to the horizons, his face impassive. Deacon ignored him.

“Shaw!”

Shaw muttered as he clicked off his radio and unwound it from the truck cab bonnet. The men pulled on their shirts and hitched their guns. They grumbled among themselves and then sauntered out into the desert.

“Ta, Harry. More frying and fucking rocks,” said Shaw, almost privately.

Harry was the men’s name for him. Deacon liked it. It kept him from being who he was.

Deacon took his compass and map from the jeep seat and checked his grids. He felt Lockett at his usual shadow stand.

“Not out for a nice afternoon walk with the others, corporal?”

“Someone has to stay and watch your back, sir. Short straw again.”

“I suppose they will all hunker down behind some rock and fag the time out?”

“They are British soldiers, sir!”

Deacon looked at Lockett who grinned back at him. “Then let’s fix a brew and really piss them off,” said Deacon.

They sat in the truck’s shade and rested their backs against the comfort of the mortar bags. The billy-can tea was thick and comfortingly tasteless. AWessexhelicopter drummed somewhere in a far sky. A pair of vultures soared. They always did on the Tihammah.

“What on earth are we doing here?” asked Lockett.

“They threaten our canal so we kidnap Aden. Because of the oil. It’s always oil. It’s why we are here and why the Adoos like shooting us.”

“Oh, I know all that. I mean here. The Tihammah. Why are you so interested in mapping it? All those grids and compass readings. Even when we were chasing the Adoo. There is a stark beauty to the place but its just sand and rocks. What’s so interesting about the Tihammah?”

Deacon sat himself up and pointed off towards the far mountain peaks. “Rivers start up there. Big ones. But by the time they get here they have evaporated. In just a few score miles. This sun drinks them dry. Sometimes they flood and carve new gullies. Big enough to hide a camel train. But mostly they just dry out. Rivers that never get to reach their sea.”

Lockett gazed towards the unseen coast and the crescent bays of the Gold Mohur. “Lonely rivers that flow to the sea. Just like on the radio.”

“What?”

“Like on Shaw’s radio, sir. You know, that song. Righteous Brothers. Lonely rivers. Open arms of the sea.”

Deacon groaned. “Not that bloody song again!”

“So not lonely rivers then, just dry ones. Why is the army interested in them?”

“If I told you I would have to shoot you.”

“You already shot me this morning, sir.”

“Then you are beyond caring, aren’t you?”

“I reckon it’s something to do with the Adoo using the dry river-beds to move their guns and supplies. In secret. Across the plain.”

“Fetch my pistol, corporal. Head or the heart?”

“The heart, sir. Always the heart. That’s the one that never hurts.”

“It always hurts, corporal. The trick is not to feel it.” Deacon stood up on stiff knees and walked across to the jeep canopy. He pulled the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the eastern sector.

He saw it almost immediately, like a half-seen ant on a distant white wall. A fleeting shape that moved and was gone and might never have been at all. He

steadied himself and looked again. Two small shapes moved along a sunken dry wadi. They were about half a mile away. They were moving with ease and economy as if on a long afternoon walk; two red-chequered Arab head-dresses pulsing between rocks. Deacon marked them against a stunted distant peak and a compass bearing and quickly scanned for other shapes in front or behind them. There were none. He returned to the mountain and found the Arabs again quickly. Deacon wondered if they were spotters for the rebels in the mountains. In another ten minutes or so they would see the truck.

“Corporal, run west and get the men back. Do it now.”

Lockett was soon beside him.

“No smart words corporal. Just get the men back here. Very quick and very quiet. Do it now.”

“Sir.”

Lockett took his rifle from its lean by the radio and ran crouching out into the western plain.

Deacon watched the moving Arabs grow slowly in his lenses and felt the shiver of knowing that he was now alone. He looked quickly at his watch and at the fast disappearing speck of Lockett among the rocks.

Deacon’s mouth dried. His decision to try and take the Arabs himself was instant and unwavering. It was what an officer would be expected do and it was better than just waiting. Waiting got you killed.

He checked his Browning 9 millimetre pistol and headed towards the cover of nearby scree. He stumbled over the rocks and arced back behind the Arabs using the wadis and boulders as cover. The sun scorched all the way. He was soon drenched in sweat and his mouth felt cavernous and parched. He took a moment to

calm himself and to wipe the wet from his gun hand. He studied the Arabs who now walked ahead of him. They seemed oblivious to anything but their footing as they stumbled silently among the stones. Deacon took a deep breath and jumped into the dry wadi a few paces behind his quarry.

“Halt!”

The two Arabs spun round, saw the gun and cried out in alarm. The older one with a greying beard dropped the rifle from his hand and held up his palms, his eyes wide and yellow. The other Arab was young, not even out of his teens. He held his arms outstretched as if pleading on a cross and his pale, almond face was a rictus grin of panic. Both Arabs began to edge away from Deacon, the old man jabbering like aSterlinggun.

“Stop! Or I’ll shoot.”

The old man fell to his knees and rocked in manic prayer over the dirt. As Deacon moved forward he saw the man leap to his feet and his hand shoot out. Needles of grit stung into Deacon’s face and eyes and he choked on hot dirt. He spat his mouth clear and wiped his eyes and saw the two Arabs as a blur running away down the river bed. Deacon braced his feet and raised a sighting arm across his watery gaze and brought his pistol to a rest on his forearm. He fired two shots, one at each retreating, mirage figure. He heard a groan and saw one of the shapes stagger and fall. It was the young Arab. The older Arab took one quick glance at his comrade and disappeared under a flap of robes into the rocks.

Deacon stood over the boy who was in lip-clamped pain and holding his leg stiffly in clawing hands. The bullet had hit somewhere just above the knee. Deacon searched the boy with his boot, his pistol in both hands and pointed at the boy’s

head. The boy gazed up at him, wide-eyed and petrified. Deacon holstered his pistol.       

“It’s okay, son. Not an execution day today.”

 

Privates Shaw and Murdoch carried the wounded Arab back to the truck. Deacon picked up the Arab rifle, an old and worn Kalashnikov. The magazine breech was empty and its sun-baked metal was too hot to touch. The young Arab struggled and screamed the whole way back to the truck. They got him into the shade and Private Ambrose inspected the wound while the other men held the wailing Arab down.

“Can he travel?” asked Deacon.

“Lower part of the thigh,” said Ambrose. He was the patrol medic, a tall Canadian who wore a smouldering roll-up permanently at his lips. He claimed it kept the bastard mosquitoes away. “Need to get it out if we are going to get the bugger back to Aden in any shape to sing.”

The Arab boy bleated against his pain, his head thrashed the air.

“Lift him,” said Private Murdoch. He was a small, solid New Zealand commando with the leathered face of a veteran. He was known as Kenny to all in the company because he looked like Kenneth Connor from the Carry On films.

Everyone was someone else inAden.

Shaw and Ambrose hoisted the young Arab upright. He screamed. Kenny stepped up and pistoned a short, sharp fist into the Arab’s jaw. The boy crumpled, instantly limp and silent.

“Can’t do with that bleeding noise all the way back to Aden,” said Kenny. “Flick the bullet out and let’s get going.”

 

Deacon bounced in the jeep as it reared across the plains. Lockett sat beside him, wrestling the steering wheel as if on a rodeo bull. Behind them the truck and machine-gun jeep groaned and screeched in the wake of their dust. Lockett had to shout to make Deacon hear him.

“You shouldn’t have gone after them on your own, sir. Against all the orders.”

“Using my initiative, corporal. What they pay me for.”

“Dying is no pay, sir. They might have been desperate, or had grenades.”

“We are all desperate, corporal, or we wouldn’t be here. Bear right at the next gully.”

“Impressed the men though, sir.”

Deacon sat silent and watched the sun melting the plains to liquid caramel. At the distant curve of the world the mountain’s ice caps flickered like candles in a cage.

“Sergeant McNish reckoned it was just a lucky shot but Kenny wouldn’t have it. Proper soldier, is Kenny. The men listen to him. He paced it out. Eighty yards. He said it was good shooting. The lads know it too.”

Deacon continued to gaze.

“Just thought you would like to know, sir.”

 

They made fast way through the flat, brush-scrubbed sands of the Hodeidha Plain and it was late afternoon when they swung up onto the tarmac of the Aden road and were waved through the sand-bagged outer perimeter posts.  

They sped on past the Khormaksar Airfield where toad-bellied planes

squatted in shimmering lakes of vaporising fuel, and on past the blurring mesh and razor-barbed fences of the transit camp. The low white stone buildings and road-side stalls of outerAdenbegan to slide by. In the near distance Deacon could see Crater, the old port city of Aden, lying in its extinct volcanic bowl like a half-chewed meal. To the east the oil refineries and docks of Little Aden ghosted their skeletal derricks and the fat insect tankers queued in hover above the rippling skyline. By dayAdenwas all mirage; at night it was a cold and starlit well.

A group of soldiers waved them down as they sped through the narrow streets. Deacon brought the convoy to a halt and stepped out to meet the lance-corporal who ran towards him and skidded to a stop on a sharp salute.

“Andrews, sir. Second company. Red Wolves been at it again, sir. Bodies in the alley up there. No Brits, by the look. Need an officer, sir.”

“Where is Major Ross? He’s your officer.”

The lance-corporal hesitated. “Er. The Major is indisposed, sir. In the truck.”

Deacon followed his gaze to a truck parked a little way down the street.

“How far gone this time?” asked Deacon.

“Two Gordons and a Johnnie Walker that we know of, sir. He’s beyond waking.”

Deacon clipped the lanyard to his pistol. Sergeant McNish appeared from the truck.

“Three men with me, Sergeant. Rest guard the transport and prisoner. No-one past. Right, Andrews, you had better show me.”

They made their way slowly along a baked dirt track between squat white buildings. The local Arabs had vanished, even the young street urchins who

materialised to beg cigarettes whenever a soldier appeared.

A baleful quiet began to ooze and crush. Deacon heard the low drunken drone of flies and then saw the long shadows of feet stretching out from a nearby alley. He nodded “back watch” to Kenny. Kenny acknowledged with a raised thumb and dropped to his knee and shouldered hisSterlingmachine-gun to sweep their rear. Corporal Lockett strode forward towards the alley. Deacon noticed the oil barrel standing in the corner shade.

“Halt, corporal!” he bellowed. Lockett stopped as if he had hit a wall. “Don’t move.” Deacon crabbed lightly to the entrance of the alley and stood beside Lockett. He scanned the alley. Several bodies lay on their sides like felled skittles in the dirt. Scarves of brown blood entwined them. Flies frenzied above it all.

He counted three Europeans and four Arabs. All had their arms outstretched behind them. The European’s throats were cut. The Arabs had been luckier – shot in the back of the head. The Adoo Red Wolves had called again.

Deacon bent down in the dust and probed his hands forward. After a few moments he felt the cotton wire that stretched across the alley at shin height. He traced it with gossamer care back to the barrel. He removed the pin and tossed it to Lockett.

“Keep your care, corporal.”

Lockett relaxed with a shiver. He looked at Deacon

“I do,” he said.

They checked the alley for further traps and then pulled what papers they could from the bodies. A letter or two, a club token, but the passports and wallets were gone. The Arabs had no pockets to search.

Sergeant McNish dredged some bile from deep and spat it over the nearest Arab.

“Fucking Adoos!”

“No. These are our Adoos, Sergeant.” said Deacon. “Yemeni Arabs. Our friends. The bad Adoo are Egyptian Arabs. And any other Arab sod with a mind to kill us invading infidels.”

“Aye. And using our own fucking British guns to do it!” said the sergeant.

“Yes. A delicious irony I agree. But look on the bright side sergeant, it means that we will be slaughtered under two British Standards. That’s quality dying, that is.” He heard Lockett laugh behind him. “Radio it in sergeant and set a guard. Tell all the men not to touch anything. It might save their balls.”

“Maybes best if we wait for the booby squad. They’ll know what they are doing.”

Deacon eyed McNish. “I have given you an order, sergeant. And radio HQ and let them know our prisoner is delayed.”

Sergeant McNish shuffled to a vague attention. “Sah!” He turned on his heels and began shouting at the men.

Deacon holstered his pistol and sat on a low wall to wait for the mortuary squad. Lockett returned from up the street with two cans of warm Stim. They drank the sugared lemon fizz in silence.

Deacon watched theAdennight begin to swallow the squat houses and streets about him and listened to the buzzing flies and the hollow groans of the young Arab who was now coming to in his own little hell in the back of the truck. Somewhere a wild piard dog barked over the rooftops like a seven-spray mortar.

The city was closing in again. Deacon shut his eyes and wished for the comfort of the clear, white scorch of the Tihamah. The faint strains of Unchained Melody drifted to him in the gathering dark.

“Corporal!”

“Sir.”

“Go and shoot Private Shaw.”

“Head or heart sir?”

“Start with his balls.”

 

*

 

They pulled up in front of the Battalion Command HQ a little after twenty hundred hours. The brightly lit old colonial villa glowed like Christmas under the Yemeni night sky. A Military Police sergeant checked them through the razor-wired gates and on past the machine-gun emplacements. A captain and two lance-corporals met them at the top of the long sweeping driveway and directed them into a large flagstoned square. The captain was young and slim, his Sam Browne belt shone brightly in the courtyard lights and his cap peak shielded his eyes like a metal visor.

“Captain Ashley. Internal Security. We’ll take your prisoner. Give you any trouble?”

“No sir.”

“Pity. That means it will probably be a long night. Fetch him, boys. Sign this.”

Captain Ashley presented a clip board in one hand and a pen in the other. Deacon signed the form. The young Arab was dragged from the truck and hung limp between the strong arms of the two tall lance-corporals. Deacon’s men jumped out of the truck and watched, blank-faced. Captain Ashley scanned slowly across the men and came to rest on the Arab.

“He has been no trouble,” said Deacon

Captain Ashley turned to Deacon. “They are all trouble, lieutenant. Pity you couldn’t manage a gut shot. They squeal like pigs with those. A leg is never so persuasive. They know it’s all hospital sheets and hot goat curry. They won’t give up their kin for a leg shot. But we’ll give it a try.” A lamp of teeth lit under the cap and was then switched off. “You need to make a contact and full patrol report. In the Duty Watch office. And that Arab rifle needs to get to ATO. Do it before you go off duty.”

Deacon was aware of the shuffle of discontent among his men. They were already overdue for their end of patrol beer at the Troy.

“We have just finished a five day patrol up country,” said Deacon. The captain looked at him and then at the men.

“Your patrol isn’t finished until the paperwork says it is finished, lieutenant. Take the prisoner on!”

Captain Ashley turned on a sharp heel and marched at stride after the escort. The Arab boy’s legs hung limp, his feet floating above the flag stones. Deacon watched him disappear through one of the arched doors.

“Fucking army,” said Private Lee. He was a thin, young soldier, hardly out of his teens. His pinched face and yellowed teeth gave him the look of one of the Aden rats that scurried among the rubbish mounds that piled on every street corner. “We should have left the bastard to bleed and bake. Fucking Arabs. I’ve earned my beer.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the men.

Deacon searched in his pocket. “Sergeant, get the men down to the Troy and I’ll catch up with you later. I’ll file the report.” He handed McNish a few pound notes. “Mine’s a Tusker,” Deacon said. “Make sure it is cold.”

“Sah!” McNish saluted while pocketing the notes.

The men were already clambering back into the truck. “We’ll make sure no-one pisses in yours, sir” said Shaw, firing up the engine.

Deacon watched the small convoy disappear along the lanterned driveway until they were swallowed by theAdennight. He turned and found Lockett standing beside the jeep.

“You still here, corporal?”

“I’m your driver, sir.”

“I can drive myself, you know. I am not completely useless.”

“Not completely sir, no.”

“I can certainly type a report, corporal. Might take a couple of hours though. You better stay with the jeep. Get a coffee in the canteen.”

“Prefer a Tusker in the Troy in about an hour, sir.”

Deacon picked up the rifle and gathered his maps. “An hour! You’ll be lucky, corporal. Nothing speeds army paperwork that fast.”

Lockett held out his hands to the night air as if he were about to play a tall piano. His fingers rippled silently over unseen keys.

“Sixty words per minute does,” Lockett looked at Deacon and grinned. “But forty for dictation.”

 

*

 

Deacon checked the Kalashnikov and the metal coin into the Ammunition

Technician’s Office. An overweight, smoke-eyed lance corporal at the desk picked up the disc and inspected it with vague interest.

“What is this?”

“Don’t know. But I found it in an Adoo scratch camp on the Tihammah. Might be something.”

“Or nothing,” said the lance corporal. He sneezed into a large red hanky and his eyes watered with the onset of a bout of Aden flu. “Zign here. And here.”

Thanks largely to Lockett’s typing skills, Deacon completed his patrol report efficiently and they were in the jeep and speeding for the Troy Hotel within the hour.

Deacon let the coldAdennight stream into his face. He felt a weariness gnawing on his bones and the blissful relief of a finished patrol ached hard in his guts. In the distance white spotlights arced across the bay of Little Aden and yellow, tiger-eyed work lamps glowed among the forests of oil storage silos and quay-side cranes. The oil work never stopped in Little Aden. Somewhere in the night the muffled sound of small arms fire sounded for a few seconds and tracer bullets fire-worked into a far night sky. The air thrubbed with the faint sound of helicopter blades somewhere over the bay.Adennever closed.

Deacon’s need for a beer was almost lust. He had thought about the first taste of a tall, cool pint of Tusker from the first night of the patrol. And he had tasted it every hour since. The imagined gorge of the first swallow, of the scorch of

cold glass in his sand blasted palms.

“We are here, sir”

Deacon came out of his drift in the Troy Hotel car park. They were checked in by the armed guards at the door and then made their way across the polished tiled

floor and into the crowded and raucous bar.

The air-conditioned rooms of the Troy Hotel was a popular oasis for the garrison troops of Aden. It was one of many bars in the city but was favoured by Deacon and his men for its laxity of dress codes, the range of its beers and for always being open. It also served the best chips in Aden. The Hotel bar was a bright-lit series of large rooms cooled by slow turning ceiling fans the size of wagon wheels. It was always full of soldiers, Royal Navy seamen, commandos, RAF groundcrew and merchant seamen washed in from every colonial ocean. There were sometimes WRAFs from Khormaksar airfield or nurses from the RAF military hospital. But mostly, there was beer.

The men were at a corner table in the Wellington Room. They were in high spirits and had already laid waste to several rounds. They raised their glasses to Deacon in bleary-eyed welcome.

“Hope you got my name right, sir. Shaw. My Anita always wanted me mentioned in despatches.”

“Got a light, sir? Hobson’s fucking drowned the matches.”

 Deacon reached into his pocket for more money.

“Her Majesty’s round lads,” he said.

“But she has a fair pair of knockers,” said Private Lee. He giggled into his glass.

“Will she stretch to a few chips, do you think, sir?”

The table was littered with empty bottles and small pyramids of smoking ash trays but there was a full pint of beer standing in its centre. Lockett made space on the bench beside him. Deacon slid in and took a long moment to stare at the

brimming amber pint on the table. His men fell silent and watched him. Deacon took his cold beer and took it in one ecstatic gorge. He banged the empty glass on

the table and savoured the explosion of wet fire in his throat. He wiped his mouth of froth with the back of his hand and lapped it off.

“Your piss has never tasted sweeter, Shaw.”

The men laughed.

“Where’s Sergeant McNish?” asked Lockett.

“Bought himself a couple of beers and fucked off up Maalla,” said Kenny. He was grinning through a small platoon of empty bottles, his eyes drifting on a happy glaze.

Sergeant McNish was a regular customer of the brothels in the Maalla district. The platoon rumour was that he had promised marriage to at least two of his fancies.

“Hobson’s been telling us about London, sir. Says all the girls have gone sex mad,” said Shaw.

“I only telling ‘em what I saw,” said Hobson. He was a tall, slim young man with oiled hair that was slicked and parted to a precision. He had recently returned from home leave and was enjoying the momentary envy of his mates. “Mini-skirts everywhere. All the girls are wearing them. And wild parties and marijuana and everything.”

“How mini?” asked Ambrose.

“Well,” said Hobson, “all I can say is any shorter and they wouldn’t

be necessary.”

It took a while for the table to gauge Hobson’s measure.

“And we’re stuck here in fuckingAden!” said Shaw.

“Maalla pussy is just as sweet,” said Private Lee. He grinned yellow teeth around the table. “And a fucking sight cheaper.”

“Yeah, they must queue up for you,” said Shaw.

There was a quietening of the bar noise about them. All eyes were turned to the television in the corner of the room. The screen flickered the sight of heavy-packed young American army troops shoaling in file towards the whale jaws of two planes beached on a featureless runway, their monster props purring like gun fire. The young soldiers were mostly black. Some grinned for the camera, but most didn’t. The pictures were from one of the American Cable Networks.Adenwas a radio war,Vietnamhad the TV.

The newscast switched to the site of a jungle clearing where an American helicopter was hovering above swirling seas of tall grasses. Lime-green soldiers in large, netted helmets were jumping chest-high into the liquid green. They held their guns above their heads and waded off-camera to invade unseen jungle shores.

“Now that’s how to go to war,” said a tall, moustached commando sergeant who was leaning at the bar. “With a cooling breeze up your backside and a belt full of major kill armoury on the hip. Trust the fucking Yanks.”

“See they were packing that new infra-red night sight?” said a captain of Infantry. “Even the coons had ‘em.” He drained his glass and slid it to the bar. “Same again,” he said, “And we have to find our night Adoo with torches and a fly swat. No way to run a fucking war.”

“Yanks always were a bit too flash,” said a Royal Navy pilot joining them at the bar, “Navy’ll get these in lads. Same again, barman. And turn that damn thing off. Can’t hear yourself drink.”

The screen blacked to a white spot. The commando sergeant flicked a packet of cigarettes among his new friends. The captain lit them.

“Hear there might be some hot new WRAFs come in,” said the pilot.

“Yes. I heard that too.” The captain passed the drinks from the bar. “Cadets apparently. I’ve been told there are some lookers among them. Might check them out at the lido. When they go on parade.”

“One looks like Brigitte Bardot. So one of the RAF lads told me,” said the pilot.

“Hope he wasn’t from their bomber crew,” said the sergeant, “Cos with their bloody eyesight she’s more likely Olive Oyl.”

Their laughter rippled over Deacon.

He turned back to the table to find his men asleep. They were leaned head back or drooped on their benches like a ragged sweep of scythed corn. Ambrose slept with his cigarette still glued to the bottom lip of his open, rasping mouth. Kenny was snoring loudly into the table top, the reverberations purred under Deacon’s palm.

Deacon sipped his beer and gazed at his sleeping men. He was too tired to sleep. He sat in the busy, raucous bar among his men and knew that he had never felt more alone. It was a thought that often ambushed him when he was least able to fight it, but his fatigue had made him vulnerable. Deacon knew that he was always going to be alone and remote from the world. Remote from his men because of his education and rank, distant from the officer classes because of his lowly background, and forever at odds and uncomfortable with the world and society because of his nature and the feelings he could neither deny or ignore. He stared at his life as it was and how it was destined to be and knew he was to be always alone

and forever hiding; that he would never be free to experience the joy of true, passionate companionship or to share his life and his heart’s beat with another. Deacon knew he would never know such love. The knowledge ate at his insides like a cancerous worm. His life was to be hollow, painful and loveless and there was no escape and no hope that it might ever change or be otherwise. There was only the soldier’s uniform and duty and the desert.

Deacon sat numb and detached while the busy bar laughed and echoed about him and he felt his fatigue of pity and lonely despair begin to prick to tears in his eyes. He felt the slow, liquid trickle burn hot and heavy on his cheeks. He was too tired and forlorn to wipe it away.