Tropical snakes in Swindon
The car park at the leisure centre was quiet as we passed, a sprinkling of cars, probably just a few families swimming. It was midday on a Wednesday, so I hadn't expected the car park to be well attended. I received the leisure centre's attendance figures every week, knowing already that the weekends here were popular, if not bustling. Monday and Tuesday nights were full in the gym, the rest of the week easing off as the days progressed, Friday night quiet. I moved the scuba clubs to Thursday and Sunday nights to even things out.
The gate security staff greeted us, and we picked up Mackey, now acting as full time airfield co-ordinator, his name often causing confusion with the other Mac. We drove the short distance to the rescuers training building and parked, Mackey showing us around a new permanent admin room, now with a young secretary, and two computers from our IT guy, Gareth.
'Can you understand his accent?' I teased her.
'His accent is hard sometimes, but his handwriting is the problem.'
'I'm learning to type stuff into the computer directly, ' Mackey said defensively. He led us next door, coffee in plastic cups sipped around the latest dummy; this one made breath sounds as it "died" slowly, liquid or blood squeezed out of two new lower orifices.
'The dummy had a write-up in a medical journal, ' one of the AMO lads explained. 'Now every fucker wants one.'
'Not at twelve grand a piece, they don't, ' I put in.
'Army was here the other week, they want one, ' the AMO staff told us.
'I'm going to donate two to them, ' Jimmy mentioned. Facing Mackey, he asked, 'Where's our gang?'
'Spread around, ' Mackey answered. 'Some out driving. We send them out on a hundred mile round trip, nay motorways nor dual carriageways allowed, so they're all back roads and maps.' Finishing our coffees, we thanked the AMO lads, ambling out of the building and to the finished greenhouse, six unlucky trainees now in residence.
'How's this working out?' I asked as we approached.
'Good, ' Mackey enthused. 'Wees stick 'em in for a week, but no one's quit yet.'
The door of a brick building opened to a changing room on the left and small training room on the right, wall posters of bugs, a few plastic bugs scattered about a tabletop.
Mackey explained, 'They change clothes on the left, putting on khaki green lightweights, taking in just what we let 'em, a backpack with enough supplies.' Taking off his coat, he turned the handle on the next door, leading us into a warmer room, the misted glass of the greenhouse now visible. With a grin he said, 'There's a wee steam generator under the floor, keeps it moist and uncomfortable in there.'
Jimmy hung up his jacket, so I copied, Mackey ducking his head and opening the door to an escaping pawl of mist. We ducked in quickly and closed the door, the air as warm as anything I had felt in Africa. But it was also moist, almost like a sauna, and a strong odour registered on your tongue. It was not something I recognised, but an unpleasant earthy smell. A shrill call shocked me, a small monkey the other side of fine wire mesh on the left, a large zoo-style cage. On the right ran a long line of glass exhibits, numerous snakes visible, and again reminiscent of a zoo. As we advanced across compacted brown dirt we stepped around a tree, Jimmy pointing out a tree frog and a Stick Insect. I picked another Stick Insect up off the floor and placed in on the next tree, saving squishing it. Five yards in and the room widened, a lazy wave issued from a lady trainee in a green hammock strung between two trees.
'Having fun?' I asked.
'Getting used to it, ' she said. 'Haven't had a bath or shower for five days.'
Stepping around a large bush, we found the rest of the trainees sat about a central fire, cooking pots hung from branches. Smoke rose to a fan in the roof apex, some natural light entering. Their green khaki shirts all displayed large sweat marks around their armpits, and I noticed that they all appeared very tired, almost downbeat.
'Getting much sleep?' I asked.
'Got the tree frogs for company, ' one said. 'But they don't keep you awake. It's the crawlies that wake you, something trying to crawl up your nose!'
'Even in the hammocks?' I queried.
'They crawl along the ropes, ' a man explained.
I pointed at a man in grey khakis and a hat. 'You the vet guy?'
'Bristol Zoo, ' the man answered with a smile. 'I pop in two hours a day. I ... get to go home!'
'He teaches us what's deadly, and what is just plain fucking dangerous, ' a trainee said. 'Get 'em wrong - and we get a rain shower.'
'Rain shower?' I asked.
They pointed at the sprinkler system running along the room above head height. 'It rains every day, ' they glumly explained. 'Then, just for fun, the security staff hit the button in the night. You wake up wet.'
'Good practise, ' Jimmy told them. 'But you'll be heading to a desert to start with.'
I pointed at a yellow snake crawling towards us. 'Lunch?'
'It's our pet python, Monty. Harmless, unless you're a mouse, ' they explained. 'Mackey drops us in a live chicken or piglet for lunch. Or a rat, just to freak us.'
A man asked, 'That helicopter rescue, stuff like that common out there?'
'Yes, ' Jimmy answered. 'There're a few civil wars brewing, so you'll see some action. And we're opening a base in Tanzania.'
'Didn't bring Katie Joe in with you, did you?' another man asked.
'No, but you'll meet her at the graduation party, she'll be there, ' I explained. 'So don't fail the course.'
With our faces now moist we left them to it, bracing the cold outer room and the relatively freezing outside world of Swindon, a long way from the Amazon. Big Paul brought up the car and we drove the short distance to the climbing wall. Six of our trainees were lowering an injured man in a stretcher, two people abseiling down either end of the stretcher. As they neared ground level the stretcher dipped on the left, a whistle blown.
'Head lower than feet. Start again!'
To curses and expletives we stepped inside the hangar, four trainees sat in the Huey, my old instructor pointing out things of interest to them.
'Take five, ' I told our people, closing in on my instructor and shaking his hand, greeting him warmly. With Jimmy chatting to the trainees, I jumped into left seat and closed the door. 'Seems like a lifetime ago I first sat here.'
'You've done well though.'
Scanning the instrumentation, I said, 'I took off without permission, no external checks, no flight plan, and flew at low and dangerous speeds, flying on with a fuel warning light, a temperature warning and a fire.'
'I read the book twice. I think the fire was oil on the hot engine, not a fuel fire.'
'I think so too. It was dosed too quickly.'
'You're my most famous student. And I get some work from it!'
We laughed. 'Good, you milk it.'
'Stuck a picture of you up in the briefing room, some pictures from the book. All the cadets around here want to meet you, you're their local hero.'
'How's Big Paul doing?' I knowingly asked.
'Failed the first three attempts. He can fly OK, but he's not good on checklists. Ask him a question and he knows, it's just that coherent forethought.'
'Keep him at it, ' I said. 'He'll get there.'
'One of this batch has a lapsed PPL. He's good, he could pass on this.'
'Yes?' I queried, giving it some thought. 'Do what you can, push him through, extra pilots are needed down there. And pop around the house at some point, don't be a stranger.'
We moved on to the cave, not knowing if there was anyone booked in, but finding a cave rescue team, two men on the surface.
Shaking their hands, a man reported, 'Fucking family of rats have moved in – very realistic!'
'They'll keep you on your toes down there, ' I suggested. 'How many in the hole?'
'Four down there; two seniors and two new lads that wanted a go. We come midweek, no chance at the weekend because it's busy as fuck. One of your girls freaked out down there?'
'Yes?' I questioned, concerned.
'She went back in the next day, completed it.' He shrugged and made a face.
'This isn't compulsory for them, ' I stated, staring into the muddy entrance. 'Just extra toughener and sickener stuff. They're more likely to be in a helicopter than a cave.' Turning, I said, 'You have fun.'
Stood on the side of the leisure centre pool, shoes covered in blue plastic over-socks, we observed five minutes of basic water rescue, trainees towing each other with floats and lifting people out of the water, kids splashing about on the other side of a rope.
In the café we settled with Mackey. Jimmy told him, 'When this course is complete, do a review and assessment, then we'll advertise again. Any new group of recruits more than ten and we'll put them through. And the next batch will include non-medics, but trained up to the AMO standard of patrol medic.'
'That's at least a week's basic first aid, then three weeks with AMO, ' Mackey noted.
Jimmy nodded, supping his coffee. 'I think a course of ... sixteen weeks at least would be needed. Why don't you work one out and send it over to me. But add two weeks for tropical medicine training at the end, and some basic patient care, at least a week. If someone doesn't have a medical qualification then they must be shit hot at driving and navigating.'
'What about the mine clearance school?' Mackey asked.
'That's a year away, ' Jimmy answered.
Driving away, I asked Jimmy, 'Why don't we spend more on this, get more people?'
'It takes time, not money. First we have to find the people, then they need training, then a few years experience, then they themselves can be useful instructors. Most of it they'll learn on the job in Africa, and you can't teach that here. A good instructor is a five year process from the get go.'
Kigoma, February, 1994
The Dash touched down smoothly at Kigoma airfield at noon, taxied around and halted. Stepping out into the heat I gazed skyward with a pilot's interest; one half of the sky threatened a hell of a downpour, the other half clear. Stepping away from the Dash, with my bag over my shoulder, the first thing I noticed was the background noise; drilling, hammering, banging, metal on metal clanking. It was the sound of earnest labouring.
The rubbish had gone, that inside the airfield, so too the poor dead donkey, and the remaining rubbish outside the perimeter was being picked up by locals and thrown onto a truck. The fence was up, enough barbed wire to deter all but the most determined of locals. I noted soldiers in jeeps, some on foot. A half-built hangar was reaching skyward with its metal frame, a dozen huts now lining the western fence, the concrete foundations for something large and rectangular being attended by numerous local builders.
The toot of a horn caused me to turn, finding Rudd in a jeep. Jimmy, Mac and I jumped in, Tubby refuelling the Dash. We made the short trip to the tower, jumping out and admiring the wondrous transformation. It even had a radio mast. Inside, we noted local workmen drilling and hammering in downstairs rooms, before climbing the newly painted stairs up to the tower, Rudd politely asking the workmen to leave.
'Not bad for two months, ' I said, staring out at the busy airfield. The runway cracks had been repaired, the edges had been flattened, grass now being seeded and watered, a mischievous flock of sparrows hopping along behind.
'It's good progress, Rudd, ' Jimmy offered. 'That new year break did you good.'
'I had the practise at Mawlini, ' Rudd modestly suggested. He pointed through the glass. 'The fence is done, patrols set-up. We have the huts with water piped in, no gas or electric yet, but soon. It's not far, the nearest connection, but they're slow. The hotel foundations are laid, the hangar foundations as well.'
'Don't forget the pool, ' I said.
'No room, I'm afraid, ' Rudd said. 'Not much space.'
'Put it on the roof, ' Jimmy suggested. 'Bar and pool then.'
'You are serious?' Rudd challenged, Jimmy nodding. He shrugged. 'OK. You want to see the hotel outside?'
Mounting up, we drove through the impressive new gates, three hundred yards in a straight line along a road lined with tatty houses, and to a period colonial hotel on the left, local workmen attacking it in force. Cables and tools were carefully negotiated as we entered, things being ripped out and replaced in earnest.
'Twenty rooms, ' Rudd explained, shouting to be heard. 'They'll be nice enough when finished. All the downstairs windows will have bars, the doors secure, a guard at the front.'
'Good work, ' Jimmy approved. 'Let's go see the camp before meeting the politicians.'
Rudd navigated us through the bustling town streets, tooting his way through quite aggressively, and south along a dusty road. We passed the UN camp and kept going for another ten minutes, soon to flat scrubland, the lake visible to the west. High gates were opened for us by a solitary police officer, letting us through to a large expanse of not very much, but very secure. Pulling up next to a lone hut we jumped down.
Rudd said, pointing, 'Five hundred yards square, one water well, one hut, an expensive fence and a guard, resident Meerkats – but they don't pay us rent.'
Jimmy scuffed the soil with his foot, testing it. 'Get some large UN tents, then some family size; store them at the airfield. That's all for now.'
'How many tents?' Rudd queried.
'Enough for fifty thousand people.'
Rudd stopped dead, a glance at me. 'You think that many refugees will come?'
'I make money ... by being able to see trends, ' Jimmy explained, scanning the horizon. 'It's a skill I can apply to more than just the stock markets. If I'm wrong, the tents will be used elsewhere - Africa is not short of refugees.' He faced Mac. 'How many Rifles now?'
'Just shy of two hundred, and the fucking regulars apply to join it now. Better pay, better kit, better training.'
'Better leadership, ' I said, making Mac smile.
'Aye, if you insist. We're getting the pick of their best lads.'
'Good, ' Jimmy offered him. 'And the Somali helpers?'
'Right fucking bunch; we find one good one out of ten. They kill each other, rape the women, and beat the kids. We got twenty-five half decent lads, rest I wouldn't trust.'
'Form them into a unit, ' Jimmy suggested. 'First aid training, weapons training away from the base, mine training in the base. Feed and clothe them, chuck them a small wage. Motivate them.'
'Kenyans don't like 'em much, ' Mac cautioned.
'Educate the Rifles ... to care about everyone. Get them on some simple refugee work, other than pointing their weapons at women and children, and keep the discipline tight.' He faced Rudd. 'Ask the nice Defence Minister if he would like a squadron of Hueys for the Rifles.'
'They don't have the pilots, ' Mac put in.
Jimmy nodded reflectively. 'We'll have to get contractors to start with, maybe advertise overseas. Some of the regular Kenyan officers could be trained up.' He faced Rudd again. 'Make the offer anyway, we'll worry about the pilots later.' Turning back to Mac, he asked, 'Rescue Force progress?'
'Got eleven originals, your new five plus nineteen in training, thirty something Kenyan nurses and four lads from the Rifles.'
'How they making out?' I asked, already knowing the answer. This chat was not about facts and figures, we got the faxes; it was about connecting to our people and getting their input.
'The five you sent over know the job anyway, just a matter of getting the mine training in. The second nineteen are progressing slowly but surely, some good at one thing, others good at another.'
'Make up teams of four people, ' Jimmy suggested. 'Aim for a doctor, a nurse, a basic medic and a driver or mine specialist. That way we cover everything.'
'Aye, was thinking along those lines.'
'And a helicopter mobile team would have two more, pilot and navigator, or just two in the back and stick to four, ' Jimmy added. 'Jeep teams should be four, plus overnight kit.'
'The Kenyan nurses are OK, ' Mac added. 'But slow on the jeep training, the mines ... and no fucking way they want to fly anything.'
'That's OK, but keep pushing them, ' Jimmy said. 'Everyone has to pass ordnance and jeep.'
'Dunnow got his Huey license the other week, ' Mac added. 'And I dunno how he did it.'
'And there is now Oxfam and Medicine Sans Frontier at the base, interested in this place as well, ' Rudd put in.
'Fine, provide them with huts, ' Jimmy ordered, checking his watch. 'Best go meet the Tanzanians.'
Forty minutes later we pulled into the best hotel Kigoma had to offer, the car park now quite full. Ambling through the pleasant gardens we took in the bloom, finding our hosts sat in the courtyard restaurant. They stood, Jimmy greeting them and shaking their hands, introductions made. I had no idea how I might pronounce their names a second time, should I have to, and couldn't remember who was who either. The waiters pulled tables closer and we sat facing each other, two groups of four.
'Your reputation precedes you, Mister Silo, ' the Minister said in a deep baritone voice.
'Have you played golf at River View?' Jimmy asked them.
'Indeed I have, ' the Minister enthused.
'Then I shall arrange a free stay for you and ... any guests you wish to take, wives or girlfriends.'
Our hosts laughed at length. 'You are too kind, Mister Silo.'
'Have you reviewed my proposals?' Jimmy asked.
'Very much so. And the airfield here is quite new and different, many jobs of employment for the local people.'
'I hope it helps the local economy, ' Jimmy offered. 'And there will be permanent jobs as well. Now, for the airfield – is there anything that you are not happy with?'
'No, no, nothing at the airfield is a problem, don't worry.'
'And the refugee camp?' Jimmy nudged.
'Well, how can we make a decision about refugees ... when there are no refugees? You see?'
'I think there will be problems in Rwanda, so I am planning ahead. If nothing happens, we have a big fence around a nice family of Meerkats.'
The Tanzanians laughed. 'A well protected wildlife project!' the Minister joked. 'If you wish to have an expensive fence around some dirt we do not have an issue with that.'
'And if there are refugees?' Jimmy pressed.
The Minister stopped smiling. 'Then my government would meet to decide at the time, but we would not be happy to see refugees here at this place – it is a poor area, there would be trouble.'
'Indeed. But if there was trouble, then having a good fence around them, and outside of town ... may be wise.'
'In that case ... perhaps some wisdom to it, yes.'
'I ask only for an agreement in principle, that if there were refugees causing problems here, I could house them outside of town. Could your government see any problem with that?'
'I do not think so, but it is a strange request.'
Jimmy eased back. 'Would your Air Force like a small aeroplane from me, a gift, so that they can patrol the lake?'
'That would be very generous, ' the Minister offered.
'When you have a pilot or two, I will get the plane for you straight away. And we'll pay the fuel.'
'Most generous. You live up to your reputation, Mister Silo.'
'I am generous ... to those who help me, Minister.'
The minister nodded slowly, and I wondered if a bribe was about to be offered. 'I will look forward to visiting the golf club again.'
'You and your friends will be my guests, all costs paid, and your airfare.'
'Most generous, ' the Minister repeated.
I guessed that was the bribe, or part of it. We enjoyed a cold drink, a chat about the lake traffic and about Tanzania, the minister and his group heading back for their flight thirty minutes later. We were not far behind them.
We flew directly to Mawlini, the limit of our fuel, landing in the dark and testing the improved runway lights. Tubby's wife was right about the rooftop bar, you could see it ten miles out. We dropped bags in rooms and headed up, a lengthy process of greeting our staff and being introduced to those who knew us either by reputation, or distorted story. It was thirty minutes before we sat and ordered food, Tubby stepping out with his wife.
Jimmy called him over. 'Tubby, how would you like to switch to Rescue Force?'
Tubby glanced at his wife and they sat. 'What's brought this on, you're bursting at the seams with new warm bodies?' I was taken by surprise as well.
'We need experienced people, not keen beginners. We need people who are ... seasoned.'
'What, both of us?' Tubby asked.
'If you're both interested.'
'Oh. Doing what?'
'General duties, the same as everyone else. You'd have to do the mine clearance course, we know you can handle a jeep, some crossover time on Huey – which you should fly through – no pun intended.'
Tubby and his wife glanced at each other.
'OK, ' Jimmy began, let me make it easy for you. 'You're sacked from the flying doctors, effective immediately.' They blinked.
I faced Tubby. 'So, what do you think you'll do next?'
'I think, squeezing into a white uniform, ' Tubby said, sat wide-eyed.
Jimmy handed over a wad of dollars. 'Have one tailored. And ... welcome to the team, you start in the morning. Pay is twenty percent above that which you were on, because you fly the Dash. Sue, we'll pay for your crossover to the Dash and Huey.'
'Sounds bloody good, ' she offered.
Jimmy explained, 'Rescue Force is being re-organised into teams of four, with a doctor in charge of each. You'll both have teams under you, a nurse and a driver, one other.'
Tubby made a face, looking pleased with the idea.
'OK, employee, you may go now, ' Jimmy dryly commented.
With Tubby standing, and bowing theatrically, Mac walked in with Rudd. They joined us.
'Tubby and Sue have joined Rescue Force, ' I told Mac.
'They have?' Mac puzzled.
'Just hired them, ' Jimmy explained. 'They'll train on the Huey, and Sue will fly the Dash as well.'
'More pilots than planes, ' Mac pointed out.
'Oh, three more Huey's arriving in the morning, ' Jimmy told Mac with a wink.
'I've paid for them today, ' Rudd mentioned, accepting a beer from a waiter.
'Four Hueys, ' Mac thought aloud. 'A squadron!'
'Best think up some squadron manoeuvres then, ' I told Mac.
'Oh, ' Jimmy added. 'Three RAF Hercules here in the morning.'
'RAF?' Mac repeated. 'Passing through?'
'No, dropping off a MASH unit. They'll set-up in the Rescue Force compound for four weeks, practice their skills on the refugees at the border - a joint exercise - so play nice with them. Your opposite number is a Colonel.'
'A fucking ponsy Colonel?' Mac grumbled.
I studied Jimmy carefully for several seconds. 'If these Army medics see Rescue Force close up, then when they leave the Army... '
'May be tempted to come our way, ' Jimmy finished off. 'Mac, you may want to organise a few competitions; driving, map reading, a joint exercise or two by Huey.'
Rudd asked, 'This new small building you have asked for, it's a clinic for Doc Adam inside the base?'
'No, ' Jimmy corrected him. 'I want a surgical bay here and a few beds for injured people, in case we get some of our people hurt. I want a base ambulance as well. And Mac, let's practise for a worst case scenario, like a Huey dropping onto a hut – mass casualties.'
Mac nodded. 'Lot's more planes and bodies these days. Some fucker's going to clip a Huey one day!'
At dawn, the tower received contact from the RAF - they were inbound, the sleepy drivers of the fuel truck and the fire truck made ready. The Hercules aircraft circled ten minutes later, as I stood in the rooftop bar with Jimmy and Rudd, the Dutchman up early.
'We should send jeeps?' Rudd asked.
'They're supposed to be completely mobile and self-sufficient, ' Jimmy pointed out. 'They have their own jeeps in the back, tents, the works.'
With mugs of tea in hand we stood watching, a few early-bird UN staffers interested in what was up. The first Hercules landed in what looked like a hundred yards, its tailgate down, its momentum halted with powerful reverse thrust, four jeeps soon driving out of the rear. With the jeeps halted on the apron, the Hercules powered up fully and took off on a dime, climbing steeply. If the people on the base were not already awake, they were now. The second and third Hercules repeated the process before disappearing to wherever they were going, the fuel truck and its sleepy driver not needed. Twelve jeeps sat on the apron, packed high with kit. They drove, steadily, around to the Rescue Force compound as we observed them, being allocated their own patch of sand. With the Rifles keenly watching through the fence, the jeeps unloaded, soon a few tents set-up, one large tent at the centre. Thirty minutes later and they had their own small camp, jeeps parked in a neat line. One jeep drove off, straight around to us. We soon had three guests.
'Colonel, ' Jimmy offered, shaking the man's hand.
'This is Major Dunn, Captain Susan Fleet, ' he introduced.
'Grab a seat, we'll get you a coffee, ' Jimmy offered. With a waiter closing in, we settled.
'You're Paul, ' the Colonel said towards me.
I nodded. 'And this is Rudd, our administrator in Kenya.'
'Good flight?' Jimmy enquired.
'Long ... flight, ' the lady corrected. 'Hercules are not built for comfort.'
'Where did you refuel?' Jimmy asked.
'Cyprus and Djibouti, ' the Colonel answered. 'That's where they're off to now.'
'We heard this place was comfortable, ' the Major noted. 'Is that a swimming pool behind the hotel?'
'Yes, but you're not allowed any creature comforts, ' Jimmy explained, a glint in his eye. 'Your bosses called ahead.'
'It's every soldier's duty ... to try and break the rules, ' the Colonel playfully suggested.
'Then Friday night is get falling down drunk night, ' I told him. 'And believe me, these UN doctors could drink you under the table.'
'We'll organise some competitions for you, ' Jimmy informed them. 'Against our lot. Your soldiers can shoot with the Kenyan Rifles, on their range, if they want.'
'How far is the refugee camp?' the lady asked.
'Thirty miles, ' I said. 'Ten minutes in a Huey.'
'But you won't be able to go there in uniform, ' Jimmy told them.
'No?' they queried.
'No, some of the Somali women freak out and run away when they see uniforms, ' Jimmy explained. 'You won't be able to treat many of them in uniform. But we have jackets you can borrow when you go.'
'We had a go on your dummy the other week, ' the Colonel mentioned. 'Marvellous training aid. The staff gave me a simulated heart attack.'
'And how did you do?' I nudged.
'Not that well, was waiting like an amateur for the damn thing to give up Agonal breaths and its dying pulse.'
'A common mistake, ' Jimmy agreed. 'The varying stages of shock are good if you stab it in the leg. Bit of a mess with the fluid, but the stages are accurate.'
'We only have the two of them, so we won't be stabbing them, ' the Major told us.
'We're working on a repair kit so that you can stab and shoot them, ' Jimmy explained. 'For now it's return to the shop. There's an early version here somewhere, still in use.'
'There's a lot more here than we realised, ' the Colonel noted. 'Quite a small town. I dug out an old picture of this place before coming out.'
Rudd keenly put in, 'Now we have Red Cross, Medicine Sans Frontier, Oxfam and UNHCR. Oh, and the flying doctor service. And of course the mine training school.'
'We'd like a go at the mines, ' the Colonel asked. 'Hear you have good dummy mines?'
'They make a bang if you miss them, ' Jimmy emphasised. 'Keeps you focused. We'll get your people in the sandbox when you're ready.'
Rudd said, 'There is a water tap on the side of the hut nearest you, toilets next to it. And the main buildings have water and electricity if you need it.'
'But really, ' Jimmy began, 'you should be digging latrines in the sand, you know, practising being tough soldiers an all.'
'Like I said, ' the Colonel responded, his nose in the air. 'It's every soldiers duty to break the rules.'
At 1pm we were sat having lunch with Tubby and his wife when the distant drone of Hueys caused us to lift our heads. From the south, a line of three Hueys came into view, already painted white and sporting red crosses and Rescue Force logos. The drone grew as they neared, causing other people to stand and watch, our new helicopters flaring and slowing before landing on the apron next to our lonesome resident Huey. I walked to the wall and stared down, four white Hueys now sat in a neat line on the apron. Slowly, my head nodded itself, a smile taking hold. Rescue Force was now indeed a force.
I made my excuses and drove around to meet the transit pilots, some of who I already knew from Nairobi airfield, accepting the aircrafts log books and maintenance schedules. From the rear of the Hueys we unloaded spare avionics and fabric sand covers, all stored in the hangar. There were now four Hueys, but just three resident team members who could fly them; Rachet, Spanner and Dunnow – and they lacked experience. Tubby and his wife would have to convert quickly. When a phone in the hangar went I was called over, summoned back.
'Pack up, we're heading down to Mombassa, ' Jimmy explained in the hotel reception. 'Mary passed away a few hours ago.' He lifted his head and sighed. 'Before I spoke to her.'
Tubby fired up the Dash half an hour later and we boarded, a little subdued for the two-hour flight. Cosy met us at Mombassa field and we headed over to the hospital to meet Anna, and to make arrangements. Mary's last six months had not been pleasant, but that was her wish; Jimmy would not inject her. Anna had respected that wish as well. Still, we'd paid her private medical bills so she got the best care, but Jimmy chided himself for not seeing her earlier. It was four months since we had popped in to see her last, and we both felt a little guilty.
In Mary's empty hospital room, Anna stood weeping, her pregnancy now clearly visible. 'She would not let me help her.'
We took in the empty bed, and I felt bad for having taken the Mickey out of her when we first met; and for the next few years. Facing Rudd, I said, 'The newspapers should give her a good write up.' Rudd nodded.
Jimmy added, now holding Anna's hand, 'Contact the government - I want some official representation at the funeral. And I want a nice plot inside Ebede grounds for her, nice big headstone. We'll do the service there, so have all our people drive down; I want all the white jeeps. Day after tomorrow, 9am sharp.'
Anna softly said, 'The people you arranged are at the orphanage, two American doctors and two nurses. I've said nothing to them.'
'I'll speak to them later, but let them help out.'
With Rudd and Cosy busy making arrangements, we drove to the beach hotel, just the two of us in a hired jeep, passing the extensive orphanage on the way but not stopping.
'You feel bad about her?' I asked.
'Would have been proper for me to have spoken to her again, but I think Anna helped Mary ... go.'
I turned my head. 'Yes?'
Jimmy nodded. 'Mary was in pain, probably asked for a release.'
'I wouldn't want to hang around like that.'
'We all say that, till we get like that, ' Jimmy wistfully noted. We booked in to our hotel - just a few spare huts available, and then for just a few days – before meeting up at the beach bar. The afternoon was hot, the sky clear, the ocean calm inside our breakwaters, two elephants at the water's edge entertaining the guests.
'Eight years we've been coming to Kenya, ' Jimmy noted, staring at the inviting ocean.
'Doesn't seem that long.'
'It was two years ago you were here with Judy.'
'Christ, two years, ' I realised.
With a sigh, he lifted up and used the bar phone. Sitting again, he said, 'I'll have to chat to the American doctors down here, I'm not going up there, not today.' He glanced at the guests enjoying themselves on the beach. 'Her death ... is a milestone in my plans. With the arrival of those Hueys we're a full two years ahead of schedule. And I wasn't going to make use of Kigoma for another three years.'
I considered his words. 'Does that mean ... that the sequence of events is altered somehow? Improved somehow?'
'Partly, but cause and effect is a tricky thing. If I do too much too soon I alter my own predictions ... and start tripping over things I can't plan for.'
'Might be a good thing, ' I offered.
He swiped away a fly. 'Or a bad thing.'
I glanced around, making sure no one was close by. 'Given what you said about 2025, I can't see how it could be any fucking worse!'
'No, ' he slowly let out. 'No, it can't alter that.'
Half an hour later the doctors appeared; civilian clothes, but with white utility waistcoats. They recognised us straight way, walking over and sitting, drinks ordered.
'I'm Rick Telling, this is Don Koblinkski, ' the first man offered. 'And we're ... well briefed.'
'Where're you staying?' I asked.
'Mombassa, we drive in.' They took in the beach. 'Nice here, very nice.' Facing Jimmy, Rick said, 'The orphanage was quite a surprise; almost eight hundred kids. You ... trying to adopt every damn stray kid in Kenya?'
'More or less, ' Jimmy replied, still facing the ocean. 'More the better.'
'Some of the relatives of the kids have reclaimed them, ' Rick pointed out.
'That's the law, ' Jimmy softly stated. 'And maybe good for the kids too.'
Rick added, 'Locals now send a few kids to study there. Day school.'
'Yeah?' I asked. I hadn't known that.
Jimmy turned his head to me. 'The new farm - it sends food out for free school lunches to the local schools.'
Rick said, 'You're a bit of a puzzle, Mister Silo. You're built like a pro- ball player, you got more money than God, and you spend most of your time doing charity work.'
Without turning his head, Jimmy asked, 'Did you get into medicine to help people, to ... make a difference?'
'Not really, it was a career choice. Money. I got a military sponsorship and stayed on working for Uncle Sam; biochemistry and immunology.'
'Don't waste too much time thinking about the blood, ' Jimmy suggested. 'You won't crack it.'
'No. Just test the cause and effect, do the epidemiological studies. Cracking the blood will take till 2015 at least.'
'If someone made it, they could ... just tell us.'
'And would you understand it?' Jimmy asked. 'If you can't demonstrate the science you'll never get FDA approval.'
'Well ... true. But there are other uses, ' Rick pressed.
'As and when you convince me of them, I'll assist, ' Jimmy stated.
'You know the science behind the blood?'
'No, but I know some about its uses. And potential abuses.'
Don eased forwards. 'You must know, that if the world gets hold of this, the population growth would be unsustainable.'
'Finally, an intelligent comment. Yes, I realise that, so does the creator of it. Which is why it was not released to the world many years ago, and won't be ready till 2015 - and then expensive.' Jimmy took a sip of his beer. 'Gentlemen, I have no intention of flooding Africa with it, because the food crisis would lead to war, death and destruction. Selective groups will receive it at selective times, that's all. And around 2016 fifty million people worldwide will be lost to strains of flu, thereby trimming the population a bit. And the one drawback with the blood ... is increased appetite.'
'To replace all the damaged cells every day you need more protein, ' Rick noted.
Jimmy nodded, still a little subdued. 'Your purpose at the orphanage, gentlemen, is to record the effects of direct injection. And to let Uncle Sam now about side effects on older kids – which are nil. Oh, you can make use of this place on the weekends, and the golf club if you like.'
'Wouldn't mind having a look over Rescue Force, ' Don told us. 'We both read the book the other week.'
'We'll be flying back up in four days if you want a lift. Now, any questions?'
'Are there variations of serum?' Don asked. Jimmy shook his head. 'You, Keely, the kids ... all the same?' Jimmy nodded. 'And it reduces fifty percent if passed on.'
'Are top-ups needed?' Rick asked.
'No, it works like an infection, self-replicating in the marrow. At heart, it's a retrovirus that invades the marrow cells and makes a core change to its DNA. The active element changes the design of your body.'
'Clever, ' Don noted. 'What about weaknesses?'
'You have to pack away a lot of beer to get drunk!' I said.
Jimmy said, 'Here's an interesting side effect for you: drug addicts ... don't get quite so high, or enjoy the drugs.'
They glanced at each other. Don realised, 'You inject a drug addict, they're cured.'
'Nope. You inject a drug addict, they inject themselves with so much dope to get high it kills them off.'
'It removes ... the ability to enjoy drugs, ' Don thought out loud.
'Is it passed on to offspring?' Rick asked.
'No. Only in rare cases.'
'So, even if the Africans were injected, the next generation would need more of it, ' Don realised, Jimmy confirming with a nod. 'It wouldn't alter the development of mankind's gene pool. Anything else?'
'I understand, that cigarettes are not as addictive.'
'We'll be keeping it from the tobacco companies then, ' Don joked.
'And it does not cure obesity, quite the opposite, ' Jimmy explained to a backdrop of screaming kids. 'Inject a fat American woman and she'll go to thirty stone quickly, but won't die from pressure on the cardiovascular system - a significant burden on your health services!'
'That's a drawback, ' Don unhappily noted. 'And someone like you ... in later life?'