Paklin River – 17 December, 1963
Nothing dried. They worked in the mist. It surrounded everything. Clothes were hung on ropes between tents, they stayed damp because that was the air. Sweat stayed on the skin and doubled the heat as it refused to evaporate and cool the body. Men worked in shorts with the legs tucked into their underwear. Their bodies were marked with red lumps from mosquitoes, shrapnel from the shattered trees the explosives squad had blown for the road, cuts the lengths of cigarettes paraded on their chests. And barely muscled: whatever fats and proteins they took onboard were sweated, shat or vomited out. Men complained of chafing and some were seen to bleed between their thighs. They became infected, were shipped out in a Land Rover across the twenty miles of impossible road to the air force base beside the Royal Engineers headquarters at Puan Yap. Relayed from the camp at the end of the road by helicopter to the coast where they would be lain flat on stretcher beds in a great tent. Drips dangling from the ceiling above beds, intravenous or otherwise. Soldiers and seamen carping-on, sitting up playing chess. Desperate not to return to the jungle. But they would return, almost always angry, confused how their aliments could betray them, confused how they had got well and had to sit in the Land Rover once more. Nostalgia for their death-bed, pity for their returning.
Reynolds would watch them and prod the swell at his ankle with a stick. He took to pissing there with the hope the ammonia might kill something off in his wound, whatever it was making it grow red and black at the edges. He’d ran out of Savlon and didn’t want to ask others. He told men to keep hydrated and to report any wounds. The two medics with the unit had both shipped out a week earlier. The men asked to whom they were supposed to report. “Tell your sergeant,” he said. “If you’re a sergeant, tell me. I’ll tell the captain.” And perhaps he’ll get someone to fly back here. But that was unlikely. There was nowhere for helicopters to land. The canopy too thick, the trees too tall. No-one told anyone anything until the reek of their wounds became greater than that of the mud and blocked latrines. By that time they were delirious and fevered. Walking in circles, whimpering in bed or just plan raving. They feared the ride over the mountain. A Land Rover had spilled over the edge of a slip a few weeks earlier. Men concussed with matching broken femurs. The rain made roading an impossibly blundersome task, bulldozers sat on the slope unable to move, their drivers sweating and fearing the drop down deep to the forest.
But amongst all this the concrete held firm.
Orang-utans climbed trees in the mornings to watch – as a man would run across a field these apes pulled themselves to the heights of the giant banyans. They played in the vines of a dynamited tree as if it were still standing. A private tried to befriend the animals. Walked into camp one morning holding the hand of a young female. The most beautiful of creatures. Until they start throwing their dung into the camp, which is what a group of jealous males did when they saw the two of them holding hands. Then you realise their babies look like the most ridiculous of old men. He wrote that into his letter to his father. When the chainsaws are going they disappear for a few days. A week later they return and act like nothing had gone on. Whether they ever noticed the erection of the first pylons for the bridge, Reynolds only guessed. They ran up the guidelines as if they were always there. They made their churlish sounds. People shouted at the apes, the sound of their voices colliding with the trees and ricocheting back at them in stunted echoes. Reynolds knew the forest, he knew it forced you to listen to your own voice, that eventually you’d have to change the way you thought about speaking out loud. Change the way you shouted and whispered at the man next to you – what he heard wasn’t always what you said. Echoes bring unwanted gravitas.
The men swam in the river; they picked off the leeches. The captain complained about their loud records. Tried to turn off the generator in the middle of the night. He was threatened with the latest fuselage of ape-shit. Reynolds didn’t move in the night. He had his legs up under the mosquito net. He read his book. The pain bored into the muscle and he knew at some point he was going to have to leave and get treatment. He read the book left in his care. The oil lantern flickered its light on the page and he lost his place often. He wrote his letter. He had been remise for sometime. He was reminded of its contents by the gyrational sounds of the men when they were drinking and calling out for Suzy Love in pangs for reminisced sexual outings. “Suzy, Suzy, Suzy, if only you knew how much I love thee,” the Scottish sergeant would sing, “Everything’s squirming and nothing’s free. Come dance the cooch and unfurl your looms at me.”
Ants crawled the conical expanse of netting to where a moth died that morning at the net’s apex; they marched past one another carrying away the carrion. Reynolds watched a lost little mite as it searched for the trail left by the colony, antennae twitching this way and that at the pheromones left by its colleagues in their wake.
In the morning, the ten tonne crane tripped in the mud, its wheels slipping from the road. Its arm pointing upwards like a desperate swimmer. They spent the day organising ropes and pulleys so the machine could right itself. Drag itself back up onto the road. Men climbed trees, drilled holes for the pulleys. Below a corporal attached a weight to a string and threw it high into the canopy. He did this over and over until the bastards caught it. They waved and smiled. It was a small triumph. They tied a thin rope to the string and the canopy dwellers drew it into the air. From that, they attached a cable and tugged it into the canopy. The men put it through the pulley and refused to come down.
“There’s a view up here,” they shouted to their supervisors. Every day the jungle is close. Every night it gets closer. They could see the walls of the valley. The clay smudge on the mountain where the road followed the ridge to the col.
He slept at eight and awoke at three. A bug in the tent. A foot-long centipede rustling through the papers on his desk. His tent-mate threatened it with his service revolver. He would have fired but for the fact the whole of the camp would have come running with their rifles ready and loaded. They were fourteen miles from the border. This was the closest anyone had had to a reason for discharging a weapon. If there was a war, it wasn’t anywhere near this bridge. He’d put that in his letter. The paper felt damp.
A fellow lieutenant had his ink run dry two weeks earlier and experimented with the black juice from the crushed carcasses of beetles. The beetles were two inches long, he collected them in his beret, stamped on them with bare feet. Washed the hat in the shallows of the river. He was surprised how it looked like a giant slug lazing under the eddies. The juice clogged his pen, but he kept experiencing in the night with elements of oil and blood pricked from his palm.
At dinner the captain waved his fork as he spoke. He used the word ‘runnel’ when describing the way sweat slopped off from his brow. He said names of ominous-sounding generals and campaigns and inspected the tines of his fork. Bent this way and that. He reported what he knew of the fighting. It was desperate and isolated, so much so it wasn’t worth bothering with. Reynolds had kept these rumours of distance quite. The captian wanted intrigue, speculation and gossip on the enlisted mens’ minds. “Keep them guessing lieutenant,” he said. A shred of beef fell on his lap and he looked down. “Let them listen to their thoughts.”
“I want them singing their songs under duress. The coarser the better.”
“Men relax. Dull air brings stupidity. They hammer rivets with peaceable swings.”
“I understand, sir.” Nodding Reynolds – with his horrendously gammy ankle blackened and poisoned – collapsed at the table, fell decorously into his neighbour’s shoulder and slid off into the dirt. Ants ran over his nose and face.
He took the next Land Rover out. Spent three days at the seaside, delirious and half-out of his mind. A medic prodded the wound and watched as pus began to juice from the swollen skin. “Sir, you are an idiot. Your whole unit is debilitated by idiocy. You can write me up, but this is my medical opinion.”
Reynolds slept for two days, the drip in his arm, pumped full of antibiotics. He awoke, was fed fresh fish and read his book. After a week he found the strength in his legs was enough to get him along to the sea side. He walked past the pier and ate in the lowly two table restaurant beneath the hotel. He found a man to post his letter. He drove back over the mountain the next morning. He slept in his tent and waved at the ants who had found a new load to lug in their pincers. The captain welcomed him back. The Scottish sergeant sang in the night, “Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue / Oh, how my heart yearns for you”. In the morning, as the sun heated the damp so it rose and swallowed the sky, he stood and looked at the beginnings of the new bridge across the narrow gap of the river. It sped at the gap, deep and furious.
The sun never really reached them in the jungle. Its thickness surrounded and borrowed the light from their lanterns. Their torches flashed in the night at the impossible completeness of their surrounds. Men bumping into one another as they sought the latrines. There was always optimism for a mythical rhinoceros. Everyone hoped and waited on the moment the beast would put its horn in through the kitchen tent and seek food. Wreak havoc amongst the inhabitants of the mess tent. Utensils crushed under its feet. Men screaming. But they never came visiting. There were no rhinoceros. And there was no way out but over the mountain and he couldn’t think how to prove it otherwise.