Creative Writing Ink December Story

The Million Shilling Boy

James Gleeson

Daylight washed in like a slow tide and there was little movement in the camp. The boy woke and watched through a tear in the filthy plastic window-sheet as the camel was led past, rumbling and disgruntled. A Berber man squatted on his haunches nearby with the reins of a scrawny donkey looped round his wrist, watching while the cook and two soldiers brought the camel behind the bunkhouse. The desert suffers little waste, and the waiting man would carry off the hide as part of the bargain struck once the animal had been butchered. The cook nodded and jabbed the blade downwards, and the hoarse braying of the beast echoed against the bunkhouse wall as the boys hauled it to its knees. The man braced his legs either side of the camel’s neck like a man shearing sheep, hooked an arm under the jaw of the beast, and drew the blade quickly across the animal’s throat in a single smooth movement. At first, blood puffed quickly into the air like mist, then the skin drew fully open and a great wash of thick, dark liquid surged from the wound and pooled on the sand like oil. The watching man was very still, his eyes intent over the cloth wrapped round his face, and a pair of plastic bags hooked on the thorns of a stunted bush by his head fluttered in the breeze like trapped bats. The camel groaned once more and rolled onto its side, shuddering as the lungs wheezed like the last gasp of broken bellows. The boy drew his lips back over his teeth like a dog as he watched the cook hack at the carcass and fling bloody great parcels of flesh onto a canvas sheet. There would be food.
Later that morning the boy sat on the wooden steps outside the cookhouse block and closed his eyes in the sunshine. The rising heat of the day would soon drive him to find shade, but for now he listened to the wind and felt the warming glow of the sun behind his eyelids. Swallows dipped over the rooftops and the boy dreamed of flying away with them to some far- off place of safety where he wouldn’t feel the constant hunger that gripped his insides almost every waking hour or the fear that never left him, always tripping lightly across his nerves like fingers feathering across a piano keyboard. Two soldiers, little more than boys themselves, in baggy uniforms that flapped against their thin legs and boots that looked huge on their bony feet, sidled close like hyenas, hollow-cheeked with hunger, their eyes glazed by their daily smoke. A stone bounced off his knee and rattled down the wooden steps, the pain scalding his skin. He stood wearily, resigned to pain, and heard a double tap, as slow and solid as an undertaker’s knock, on the door frame behind. A shadow fell across his legs, and he turned his head and squinted up to where the cook stood in the doorway. A machete hung loosely from the man’s hand, the blade sticky with feathers and blood. The tall man was silent, but the flat, hard look in his eyes simply said that camels, chickens, men or boys, it was all the same. The boy soldiers muttered to each other and shuffled away scowling. They were bored and feral, and in this desolate place there was plenty of nothing but time. More opportunities to hurt would come again soon. It had been almost six weeks since the boy had tumbled from the truck with the rest of the prisoners in the sharp cold of a desert morning and the cook had chosen from the first to watch over him the way an old prisoner might gather a jailhouse mouse in the palm of his hand. The cook was a long-boned Ivorian called Yanni with ironwood arms and shoulder muscles that rolled like cannonballs under his skin. He’d been a boxer once, and spoke the English of one who had spent a few short years with family in New York, though for the most part the man cared little for conversation and carried himself with a solid, quiet gravity.
Trawling round the camp in the loneliness of those first frightening days, the boy had saved a handful of half-burnt books from the rubbish fire at one end of the compound camp and spent his evenings reading in the soft glow of a lamp hung from a wooden beam that ran the length of the kitchen, gnawing on bones or scraping burnt rice from pots with his fingers. A tiny radio hung on a nail by the sink, and the boy read while the cook scoured the huge metal plates of the cooker and nodded along to rhythms on the radio. Sometimes the music would fade and they heard instead the loud voices of passionate men, and the boy came to recognise that noise for what it was: the sound of an unguarded microphone in a lunatic asylum broadcasting the hollow words of politicians and generals forever calling on others to offer some great sacrifice. For the boy, they were the voice of nightmares, the same sounds he’d heard invading the airwaves before the chaos of shattered lives that had brought him to this desolate place. The music would sweep back then like a cleansing wave, with ranks of uplifted, joyous voices defying the poisoned call to arms as sunshine follows a storm. The music made the cook smile and mumble, the scars on his cheekbones catching the light like knife nicks in leather. Clattering wooden spoons like drumsticks against a huge steel pot hung on the wall like a shield, he ducked and shuffled round the kitchen like a man happy in his own skin. One quiet evening Yanni was slicing the carcass of a goat while the boy hunched over an old atlas. The goat’s head rested on a table to one side, watching the boy with dull eyes under delicate lashes, the tip of its tongue sticking between rows of tiny teeth as if the animal had something to say. The boy sat hunched over an old atlas, the spine of the book battered and the pages loose from years of use. He scowled at the goat’s head and thought sourly of all the countries in the world and how easily a thousand miles could be spanned by simply turning a page while his world entirely ended fifty feet away at a camp gate laced with barbed wire. Looking at the goat’s head drew his mind back and he saw again, like a dark mirage, men in ragged uniforms swarming from the hills at dawn and breaking on the seaside town like a wave. In a chaos of screams and gunfire and the drumbeat of pounding boots, everything was lost. His grandmother had died without waking in the first rattle of gunfire and lay as if resting on a low cot by the doorway, and on the earth outside the hut a goat stood paralysed with fear in a glow of flames. As first light fell upon the burning huts, the trucks were loaded with prisoners and heading into the western desert.
Yanni sat and looked across the table. “What is it you want, boy?” said the cook.
“I want home,” said the boy. “I just want to go home. ”
When the cook spoke again his tone was solemn but not unkind. He shook his head. “Home is gone. Now your home will be wherever you go to next. For now you have only this. “He waved his hand vaguely round the room with the long tables and benches lined along either side. “The war is coming closer. If you stay here they will feed you only to make you fight, and they will make you die. When the fighting is over, then maybe we will have some change. Everybody will be happy and rich. Maybe. To have a long life you must go to another home. “ He slid the boy’s book across the table and flipped the pages until the great map of Africa lay open before them. Yanni traced his finger across the pale yellow spread of desert, over the light blue of the Mediterranean Sea and beyond to Europe. “Go north. Follow the food. Here,” he stroked a fingernail across the borderlines of Europe, “you will always find food.”
The boy smiled at the idea of gnawing like a rat through some great, beautiful mountain of food. “Sometime this war will end. Read a thousand books. Come back with fine words in your mouth and a beautiful suit on your back. When you speak the people will hear poetry. Maybe they will make you the president.” Yanni sat and began winding strips of cloth round his hands, then slipped on a pair of battered leather gloves. “Why do you love to read so much?” he said.
“Books take me away” said the boy. He looked through the open door. A couple of soldiers huddled by the fence to share a smoke, the glow of the cigarette tip like a firefly in the gloom. “Somewhere good. “
Yanni seemed to uncoil as he rose from the stool. “A wise man once said that he who saves a life saves the world. You can stay here and die or we can save the world.”
“The boy frowned. ”What do you mean?”
The cook replied. “I’ve heard the soldiers talking about men in the city in the north who can send boys to Europe. They say the price is a million shillings. You must go to the city, and maybe God will send you a million shillings.”
“Come with me,” said the boy. “We can go together to a better place. We can follow the food.”
The cook shook his head. “I must stay here. I am the cook,” he said, as if that explained everything. “I must stay here, but sometimes I can go away too. Now read,“ he said. “We will talk later when you are finished reading, when you come back.“
“Will you teach me how to fight?“ asked the boy.
The cook smiled and shook his head. “First you need to learn to fight with this.” He tapped the side of the boy’s head with his fingertip, then held up his fist. “Then you learn to fight with this. “ Yanni stepped across the kitchen and into the freezer room, moving between hanging carcasses to hang his radio on a spare meat-hook, snorting and huffing through his mouth, shuffling as he moved and ducking his shoulders from side to side. His breath burst in great plumes in the chilled air and his hands became a blur as he hammered a tattoo on the great slabs of meat. Sweat rolled and steamed on his skin until his half-seen figure moved in a cloud like a desert djinn.
Two nights later Yanni and the boy crept in shadow like desert foxes to a corner of the camp where the cook had made a boy-sized hole in the fence. He shoved a sack of food and a blanket into the boy’s hands and held the fence back while the boy scrambled through. Yanni laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder and whispered in his ear as he passed, and by the time the boy had slithered as far as the nearest clump of straggly brush and looked back, the cook had vanished. The boy kept moving until he reached a spot within sight of the compound where a clump of spare bushes lined the edge of a small hollow in the earth. He burrowed into the sand like a heat-hungry lizard, but the night-time desert holds only the memories of warmth, and the air was brittle with cold. He lay looking up at the sky, cocooned in his blanket, and thought he recognised the North Star among a million more. Follow this star and move north to the city and beyond, to the lands of plenty, Yanni had said.
The sun rose in the morning like welcome news but soon pressed like a hammer upon his head, and that day melted into another while he lay in patches of meagre shade, watching tiny rodents skitter past and the slow stalk of a single scorpion. His mind seemed to slide between sleep and sensibility, and it felt like a fever as he heard the cook speak through the mouth of a dead goat. “We go south in two days. Wait until the camp is empty, then walk north until you reach the city. Move only in darkness. When you see people on the road, hide in the desert.” On the third morning, before the heat could build, the camp moved out. The soldiers were heading south towards rumours of war like wintering birds, and the sound of growling engines grew loud before fading again as the drivers changed into a lower gear to send the heavy trucks grinding up the long incline to the hill-top. The wind stole the engine noise as each truck reached the crest and sat silhouetted briefly like some great beetle before dropping out of sight. A metal lanyard clanked and shimmied against the empty flagpole with a sound like a broken bell as the boy stood and looked around. All that remained was the soft swish of wind like silk sheets drawn across the earth and the quiet hiss of blown sand scouring the narrow ribbon of road that ran to the horizon. The boy adjusted the straps of his pack until it hung more easily on his bony shoulders, and he could still hear the cook’s parting words. Goodbye, Mister President. He stepped onto the road and began to walk north, coming home, coming here.