An Idyll Too Far - Part 8

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Chapter Eight - The Higher Up the Mountain...

After a good night's sleep, on Friday morning as the first pre-dawn greying of the sky began to show, Bim was awakened by the sound of a heavy aircraft overhead. Jumping out of bed, he ran over and looked out of the window; after a minute or so he saw the silhouette of a huge aircraft circling over the area. There was a knock on his door and, on hearing Bob's voice, he unlocked the door and let him in.

'Have you seen it?' Bob asked excitedly. 'If that ain't a Hercules transport up there, I'll eat my hat — and it can only be one of ours (the plane, not my hat), I'd say, 'cos who else would be trying to land here? But I very much doubt whether the runway at the airport is long enough to take one of them.'

'Could be someone off-course or in trouble or just wanting to take on fuel, I suppose,' Bim suggested, but then added, 'Time we got dressed and went down, though. We asked them for an early breakfast, remember? And we'd better get a move on, because that'll be ready in less than half an hour.'

Following a hurried wash and shave, they met again at the breakfast table. After eating a quick cold meal washed down with plenty of good coffee, they left their hotel, Bim with a powerful pair of binoculars, thoughtfully provided by the man in Harrods, slung round his neck.

As they started up the street, Bob suddenly said, 'Seeing your field glasses has just reminded me: I know what it is that's so different round here. It's not only the climate and sand and smells and things. I've only just realised that apart from the seagulls, I've not seen a single bird since we landed here, let alone heard one sing.'

Bim thought for a moment and then told him, 'Well, they've got no surrounding countryside in the area to support them, have they? 'I mean, there's no wildflowers, so no caterpillars or anything. Just a few palm trees strung out along the shoreline. And whatever edible rubbish there is in this built-up part of the island is quickly shovelled up by all these seagulls - QED.'

They were well on their way to the barracks, where they had been told to report, when the two were met by an army driver in the Sultan's military Land Rover. He recognised them somehow, pulled over, and put his head out of the window.

'Jump in, gents! I'm your driver for the day,' he yelled out, to their surprise, in a very English, Cockney accent. 'An' yer can call me Alf, if yer like,' he added, as they climbed on board. Bim, who had assumed they would be driving themselves, told him that they did not really require a driver, but he replied, emphatically, 'Afraid yer stuck with me, gents. This pick-up comes under the army, and they won't let no-one else drive their vehicles, 'specially over the desert. Do yer know, in the 'eat of the day, although it's only ten miles or so to that there 'ill, if yer conked out an' tried to walk back over the desert, yer'd probably be dead afore yer got 'ere? An' though this 'ere truck is equipped with radio, if yer needed 'elp, yer'd probably not be able to work it.'

'So 'ere goes,' he told them a few minutes later, as they cleared the built-up area with its metalled roads and rolled onto the trackless desert, which the overnight winds had swept clean and smooth. By this time, the sun was well clear of the horizon. Before they had gone a mile, the heat began to build up. The driver made no attempt to hurry, sticking to a steady twenty miles an hour all the way. When Bob wanted to know why he didn't get a move on, Alf told them, 'Any faster than this 'ere, an' the bloody engine soon boils. Quite apart from the 'eat an' stirring the sand up so's it gets sucked into the carb and brakes, all these vehicles are maintained on a shoe string, an' by bloody w**s 'oo don't know 'ay from a bull's foot! So yer can see, the last thing we need is to run dry out 'ere.'

'But I thought this was The Sultan's own vehicle, and if it is, I'm surprised at him not wanting an Arab of his own race to drive it,' Bim observed.

'They're all The Sultan's, me old cock, an' 'as fer 'aving an Arab driving one of 'em, 'es got a lot more sense than that there. An' I bin tole, he ain't an Arab anyway — 'is ancestors is s'posed to 'ave come over from Persia 'undreds o' years ago.'

Soon they were able to see the mountain more clearly, with what looked like a halo of mist clinging to its summit. Twenty minutes later, having started onto the northern slope, the terrain began to change, as they left the desert sand and moved onto a gentle incline that surrounded the heights. Odd tussocks of coarse grass began to show on the thin layer of soil covering the underlying rock; it was interspersed with scrubby trees here and there. They saw a small stream descending the mountain and then disappearing into the desert sand.

'Look, there's a couple of birds — some kind of starlings I reckon!' Bob exclaimed, as a pair flew from an adjacent bush.

They were by this time able to see that the raised territory was much wider than they had anticipated — in fact, it was evidently several miles in circumference. Their driver was now following a rough, bumpy track that spiralled clockwise on its way upward. Dodging scattered rocks, it took twenty more minutes for them to reach the eastern side, which appeared to be about a quarter of the way round these uplands. They were perhaps a couple of hundred feet over the plain when they forded another small stream. Seeing a concrete structure of some sort adjacent to it, Bim asked Alf what its purpose was.

'That's where they extract all our fresh water. It flows out of the stream there down a gulley, and then travels by gravity all the way to Ambounadi in a foot-thick pipe under the desert. It's the only fresh water supply on the island and before the British engineers put that in before the war, I've bin tole that caravans o' camels used to cart it every day in pairs of goat's skins, slung over their backs. It was only after runnin' water was laid on that they could get Europeans to come 'an live 'ere.'

When they eventually came to a halt in a small cleared area, they were perhaps three or four hundred feet above the desert. Here the way ahead was blocked, as far as vehicles were concerned, with limestone boulders, which had evidently fallen from the sheer cliff face they had for some time been passing on their right.

' 'ere y'are then,' said Alf, as he handed them an army haversack. 'I'll be waitin' 'ere while yer amuse yerselves mountaineerin! Yer'll find plenty ter eat an' drink in that there. I don't know 'ow long yer' intending ter stay up there, but I ain't runnin' back over the desert between one and three o'clock, so if yer' back after one, we'll 'ave ter sit it out till the sun's got a bit lower in the sky.'

'Expect us when you see us then, and the nearest I can say, is that'll be sometime before dark,' Bim told him.

Descending from the Land Rover, they took stock of their surroundings. From this spot on the eastern side, the so-called city of Ambounadi was clearly visible ten miles away and now behind them. They could also just see two new factory buildings and some warehousing that formed a cluster further over to the west of the metropolis at the extreme limit of their vision. The airport, several miles even further over, was out of their field of vision, being blocked from view by the intervening cliff face, as was the oil-producing setup.

They could also see the seafront on the further side of the built-up area, with the coast disappearing into the distance in an easterly direction; but, again, over to the west the sea was hidden by the mountain. The site of the invasion, fifteen miles or thereabouts to the east, was still well beyond their horizon, however.

Bob slung the haversack over his shoulder and, starting out on their climb, they began to pick their way over the rocky ground, following a faint foot track that continued onward and upward. Here and there the rocky terrain gave way to scraggy grass and stunted trees. Now flocks of sparrows appeared, flying from tree to rugged tree as they were disturbed by the men's passing. The sky by this time was a pure clear blue, with not a cloud in sight; the air, sweet and cool; the summit, out of sight somewhere over the clifftop.

As they moved forward, they saw caves in the foot of the cliffs, but not knowing how long it might take them to reach the highest vantage point from where they might view the battlefield, they did not stop to explore them. The two eventually reached the back, or south, side of the mountain. It was by then half-past-ten. Since it was getting quite hot on this side in the full sun, they stopped for a brief rest. The cliff face had by this time been left behind them and they found themselves on a steep grassy slope.

'Look!' said Bob, always observant. 'It seems as if there's sheep or some other animals been feeding round here.' He pointed out some traces of dung on the ground.

'Could be rabbits,' Bim suggested.

'No — it's sheep, goats or deer.' Bob sounded positive, so his boss did not argue.

The land must have been pushed upwards by the shrinking earth's crust many years before, so that now the strata were cocked up at an angle of about 45° from the horizontal, forming with its face the slope on which they were now resting. The broken cliff section whence they had started their climb was now well behind them.

From here they had a fresh view, comprising the vast hinterland of almost unbroken desert stretching away to the south. Almost, because in the distance there was one small oasis, visible because of the palms. On the far horizon, they were just able to make out the hazy blur of the southern coast, fifteen miles away. The mountain was now between them and everything on the northern side. So they could still see nothing of the battlefront, but over to their right in the west they could just see the oil well and the pipes and storage facilities of the small refinery, with a flame issuing above it from the higher exhaust.

After a ten-minute break, Bim took over the haversack and they continued on their way, now travelling westward over scrubby grassland. Soon, they were surprised to see a few goats, perhaps thirty of them, grazing in the distance. Near them was a mule, tethered to a stake. Later, they made out the figure of a man, unusually for this island, dressed in flowing Arab clothing and leaning on his staff. As they moved further round the mountain, they could see another stream descending from the higher slopes, forming a pool where the ground levelled out temporarily. On this small plateau or step in the mountainside was a rough timber dwelling with several hutments behind it, all thatched with twigs and the coarse mountain grass.

When they were within hailing distance, Bim called out a greeting, but the goatherd, whom they could now see was far from young, instead of returning it, turned his back on them.

'I think I'd better make an exception to our rule about not letting them know I speak their lingo, as he's no way of spreading the information around from up here,' Bob said, and then made a point of approaching the fellow to wish him a good day in Arabic. Evidently very surprised, he turned round to face the newcomer and then, reluctantly, returned the greeting. Glancing into the doorway of his house, if one could call it that, which was now only a few yards away, the constable saw two dark eyes peering out at him from among the folds of a yashmak; he quickly turned his own eyes away, and addressed the man.

After talking to him for a minute or so, Bob came back to the inspector. 'What was his excuse for turning his back on us?' the latter asked.

'He said that they don't have strangers up here once in a blue moon and he's afraid we'll upset his herd and reduce their milk yield. When I asked how he got his milk to town before it went sour, he told me that his wife made it all into cheese and carried it down to the clearing once a month on their mule, where a vehicle came to collect it. He pays the Sultan a yearly rent and has the sole grazing rights up here, so he regards us as trespassers,' he concluded.

As they carried on with their climb and approached the southwestern side, the surface became broken again. On their right they could once more see an edge of the sloping strata exposed in the cliff face. Continuing round and up, they must have climbed at least halfway up the mountain, when they came to what looked to Bob like a huge bomb crater in the bottom of the cliff face with a scree beneath it extending a hundred yards down the mountain side, which they had to scramble over on their hands and knees.

'It looks as if a meteorite has hit the cliff here some time way back in the past,' Bim remarked.

'More like a bomb or land-mine,' was the reply. 'The Japanese must have occupied this place during the war, and our boys probably dropped one on them, if you ask me,' Bob replied. 'Look, it couldn't have happened so long ago, because you can see there's hardly any algae and moss growing on the area of the disturbed cliff face and this scree, like there is everywhere else. And the most likely reason for that is tainting by sulphur or some other chemicals deposited by the explosion which is inhibiting the growth.'

Bim said that he might well be right, but that as it did not concern them at the moment, they had better get on. As a matter of fact, he was wrong, there, as Bob pointed out. 'If this originated recently, we ought to know what caused it. I'll go back and see what I can get out of that Arab, if you like. I can get there and back in half an hour, and we've plenty of time, haven't we?'

The inspector agreed that they had. With that, the constable rapidly disappeared downhill. He returned in less than his estimated half-hour, looking quite pleased with himself, and reported that he'd had to part with twenty American dollars to obtain the story.

The goatherd told him that he was one of the few remaining of the indigenous people on the island and had maintained his herd on the mountain right through the last war, even when it was occupied by the Japanese, who, it seems, had at first paid him a good price for his produce. During the second year of their tenure here, however, when the Allies began to get the upper hand, the Japanese built a series of anti-aircraft posts on the mountain — well, the British had originally built them and caused no bother, but the Japanese took them over. At that time, there was quite a big cave where we are now; the Japanese army had greatly enlarged it and established a depot of some sort in this very spot, which activity severely reduced his milk yield.

'Eventually, as the Allied fleet took command of the surrounding sea, the invaders began to run short of food and made him kill all the young animals in his flock for meat. He says he knew little of what they got up to here, as they made this side of the mountain out of bounds to all non-military personnel and posted guards round it twenty-four hours a day.

'Now, this is interesting: not all that long after they captured the island, the Japanese and a gang of British prisoners were working day and night up here, enlarging this cave. They had to work as slaves with not much to eat, so lots of of them died on the job before it was finished. Some time during the second year of the occupation of the island, a load of stuff was delivered by sea; it sounded to me as though it might have been ordnance of some kind. Anyhow, it was ferried across the desert in trucks, and stored in those caves we saw lower down the mountain.

'Now we come to the strangest part of the story. Not long before the Allies landed and took the island back, the party of soldiers and prisoners came back to remove all this stuff from the lower caves and to carry it up the mountain and store it in this enlarged cave. It took them a month to accomplish the task. Then they blasted all the front of the cliffs at the entrance to bury it for good. He never saw what the stuff they were handling was, because they made him take his sheep and remain out of sight with them until they'd finished. As a matter of fact, they nearly died of starvation, because the only good pasture is on this side.

'This last bit must have some other explanation. He says that as the Japanese didn't want anyone else to know about this cache of stuff in this topmost cave, they put a curse on it and all those that had worked in it, so that all of them, both Japanese and prisoners, died before they could get back to their camp. So what do you make of that?'

Bim said that in the course of time he would have passed on this story, probably in a grossly exaggerated form, to those who collected his produce, which would again have gained plenty in the telling over the years, to account for these tales of mystery and imagination; or that, at least, was his guess.

Bob continued his story. 'Not long before this, the old chap said, the Allies had dropped a few bombs on the island, which may have had something to do with all this seemingly pointless activity. Shortly after it, he had heard when they came for his cheese again that a submarine had come and collected all the Japanese officers, leaving the other ranks to face the Allied troops alone, when they landed, which was apparently about a week after the officers left.'

'Good work, Bob,' his boss congratulated him. 'So it looks as though the crater was made by them blowing up their ammo and stores, prior to evacuating the island. And it could be that the so-called mystery that we were told to look into could simply have been some strange disease which took both races off — something pretty drastic like typhus — and which the locals were persuaded to have been a curse.'

The old soldier told him, 'It was cholera, that's my guess, because that terrible disease can carry strong men off in a couple of days or less. The crew of one of those boats that must have called regularly with supplies, or bringing relief troops, could have brought it; or it could well have been spread by a carrier with the dormant disease. The virus is almost impossible to destroy by ordinary sterilising processes, and it would only have taken a bit of stress to release the bloody thing — that's all it would have needed.'

'It's getting on for twelve o'clock, so don't you think we'd better get a move on, now, chief? There's one thing you said I can't swallow, though. They wouldn't have spent a month lugging all that stuff up here, killing themselves, it seems, in the process, only to blow it and the cave up. They could have done that just as easily down below. Though what the reason really was I can't begin to guess.'

By one o'clock they had reached a good vantage point high up on the northern face. It was still a few hundred feet from the summit, but quite adequate for their purposes and now clear of its early-morning mist. The pair had been so occupied with scrambling on their hands and knees through a steep, rock-strewn area, to reach this spot, that they had not realised what a wonderful view now lay before them until they sat down with their backs to a large boulder and took stock of their situation.

The enemy beachhead, fifteen miles over to their far right, was now just visible to the naked eye in the crystal-clear atmosphere. Over to the left they could now clearly see the airport, with its runway and two large hangars and ancilliary buildings, which was not much further away than Ambounadi, and the road from it leading into that city — the only decent road, it seemed, on the whole island.

'Lend me your field glasses, Bim!' Bob almost shouted. He excitedly snatched the instrument, glued it to his eyes and, once he had the lenses adjusted, told the inspector, 'You're not going to believe this, Bim, I can hardly believe it myself! Three Sea Harriers have appeared beside the runway from somewhere.'

Bim suggested they must have come out of the Hercules transport plane, which they had heard overhead early that morning.

'No way,' he was told. 'That runway's not nearly long enough — you don't realise how long it takes those monsters to get airborne — over a mile, even in a head wind. Hang on a minute, though. I'm damned if that huge aircraft didn't take off by running on the desert after it ran off the end of the runway! Look, there's a long set of tracks in the sand over on the far side of the airport. They've used it as an extension to the runway — it looks as though when it was built, they avoided having any buildings or other obstruction where it ends, on purpose. The wind's smoothed the tyre marks out a bit, but you can still see the remaining depressions in the sand quite clearly. By the time they ran onto the sand they'd be moving pretty fast, when most of the weight would be carried by the wings, so I suppose the desert would have carried them okay. Anyway, I forgot — by then they would have been empty.'

Bim took his binoculars back. Moments later, he agreed that he could see what Bob meant and added that he could also see a couple of men working on the wings of one of the planes.

'Yes, they would have had to send mechanics with them to fix the wings, which would have needed to be removed or folded back to get them in the air transporter — or transporters, rather, because I doubt whether one of them could have room for three Harriers. You see, no-one here would have been trained to do a skilled job like attaching the wings again, with all the necessary controls to the ailerons to adjust. They'd need to bring air-crews with them too, because Meteor pilots couldn't fly Harriers, which need special training. In fact, I've been told they're the most difficult planes in the world to learn to fly, because they can take off and land like a helicopter. What makes it more difficult is the fact that they can't use computers and auto-pilots to control them as with other modern aircraft, so everything has to be done manually.'

The constable added with a laugh, 'I bet the Ambouna prime minister's reckoning he's getting good value from the £3,000 cash he handed out to us yesterday! If he only knew they were already ordered and in the pipeline, he'd have been asking for it back!'

With the binoculars still to his eyes, Bim swung round to their right to try to take in the situation at the beachhead.

An Idyll Too Far Archive

Len (Snowie) Baynes

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