Edge had been on enough operations to know that the work was ninety per-cent routine and ten per-cent sheer terror and exhilaration. Two days later he had gone up in Huey that was doing an air test. The pilot asked him if he would like a bit of a flight. Edge had his worries about flying in the Hueys, but he reckoned that it would help overcome his fear.
The helicopter was at around 2,000 feet and the pilot trimmed it so it was virtually flying itself. Edge was in the left-hand seat and he had been taking some photographs of the jungle and the mountains, to show Moira what he had been up to. Sometimes, obviously, he couldn’t tell her Jack Shit.
The pilot was enjoying himself and he and Edge had been shooting the breeze in Spanish. His grasp of the language was impressive for such a short time. Suddenly the pilot asked him:
“Have you ever flown an aircraft before, Mr Edge?”
“No. I’ve jumped out of a few in my time.”
The pilot looked at him, “You must be mad!”
Edge smiled, “Sometimes it’s the only way to get in somewhere.”
“Rather you than me, Gringo.”
“And you fly these things, so it’s horses for courses, Skipper.”
The pilot reverted to English, “It’s good that you’ve never flown a fixed-wing aircraft, but you know how they work, the principles of flight?”
“Yes, lift, thrust, weight and drag.”
“OK, good. What provides the lift in a helicopter?”
This was fairly easy to answer, “The rotor blades.” Edge said.
“Good. What about the thrust?”
Edge had to think about this, “The rotors again I guess.”
“Correct. You notice when we take off and want to transition to forward flight, the helicopter dips at the nose. This is so the rotor blades can provide thrust. Down on the left side of your seat, you can feel a lever. Grasp it gently and follow what I’m doing.
“This lever is called the collective pitch control. As the blades pitch down to gain forward momentum, there is a reduction in power. In this helicopter type, the governor increases the revs to compensate for the loss of power, but in older, smaller types and when we need to take off, the power is increased by the twist throttle on the top of the collective. Sometimes, we need even more power than the collective can provide, so the twist throttle is rotated away from the pilot to increase power.
“Now the thing that comes up between our legs is the cyclic pitch control. This enables us to move forward, back, left and right. Grasp it gently with your right hand and once again follow me through what I do. You see how the helicopter can move left or right, forward and back?”
Edge nodded, concentrating hard on the pilot’s movements on the controls.
“Good, now how do we change direction? The rotors will provide some element of being able to bank, but that’s not enough and this is a helicopter and not an autogyro. Put your feet on those pedals down in the Perspex nose. Now you see how I’m heading 350 degrees north. I want to head towards that mountain. All it needs is a gentle nudge on the right-hand pedal. Not too much. See, we’re on a new heading. Now settle everything down. OK? You have the aircraft, Gringo.”
“Yes. I want my lunch. Gently, don’t fight it. Listen and feel what the aircraft is telling you.”
The pilot put his feet up on the instrument panel and pulled a packet of sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper, from the door pocket.
“Where the hell did you get those?” Edge asked, sweating with concentration.
“From a nice lady who works in the terminal. She demands payment by other means. You’re slowing down, push the cyclic forward.”
“Which is the cyclic again?” Edge asked slightly panicked.
“The one in your right hand. Don’t fight it. She will fly herself. Like any woman, she needs a nudge to keep her on the straight and narrow.”
Edge was sweating with concentration and his mouth was dry, probably because his tongue was out as he listened and felt the helicopter.
“OK, put us back on a heading of 350 degrees. You’re slowing, cyclic forward please.”
Edge made a nice turn and the Huey settled on its new course.
“Well done, Mr Edge. Good turn. So, you are in what they call the Special Air Service.”
“That’s what they tell me, Skipper.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Sometimes,” Edge admitted.
“Do you get frightened?”
“Not as much as I am flying this thing.”
“Mr Edge, she is an old lady, not a thing. You don’t want to upset her, she can bite.”
Edge grinned and suspected the pilot was a little mad. Perhaps they all were.
“Now, Mr Edge, please come to a heading of one-three zero, then I will take the aircraft and we can have a little fun. Nice, gentle turn to starboard, if you please, checking that it is clear first.”
Edge wasn’t so sure that he liked the sound of that, as he concentrated hard at moving onto a new heading, watching the compass intently.
“Don’t be fixated by the instruments. Pick a landmark in the approximate direction of travel. Aim for it and make any adjustments to your course as necessary. Enjoy the trip and maintain a good all-round observation.”
It seemed as though there was a thousand and one things to remember, like juggling three balls whilst on a unicycle. The pilots made it seem so easy.
The pilot carefully folded the greaseproof paper and put it in the side pocket. He belched discreetly.
“Thank you, Mr Edge, I have the aircraft.”
Edge took his hands off the controls with relief. He was sweating so hard he felt it running down his back. The pilot put the collective lever down and the Huey started to lose altitude. He levelled off at just about one hundred feet and increased the throttle. The Huey pitched slightly nose down as it chased its shadow across the fertile farmland in the foot of the Andes. Ahead a flock of birds took flight, dispersing like a bomb burst and the pilot steered away from them.
“Always a danger at low altitude, bird strikes. They can catch you unaware and really spoil your day. I suppose their day gets spoiled as well.”
The flight was so exhilarating that Edge forgot his fear of helicopters. To the right was the sprawl of St Juan de Pasto and up ahead was the airport. The pilot asked for permission to land and made a slow, medium altitude pass of the airport. There was a Cessna Caravan on the pan and as the Huey landed, he saw Rivera talking to Martinez. A part of him lifted as he saw her and the Huey landed, Edge grabbing his rifle from a clip behind the two front seats.
“Thank you, Skipper and thanks for letting me fly your bird.”
“Yes, I enjoyed very much. I’ll never think you pilots are just bus drivers again.”
Major Martinez was getting more and more annoyed with Clarita Rivera. She had pitched up unannounced and was now questioning his execution of his orders, his not hers or the CIAs. She was also behaving strangely and seemed distracted and short-tempered.
“Clarita, I would like to remind you that during your last visit, you reported to me that you had reports of FARC activity in the Cauca department. Langley would like us to do a sweep and see what you find. I warned you that was the area where that European company is doing onshore oil exploration. You said that Langley wanted us to, your words, take a look and make sure everybody was behaving themselves.
“And that’s what we did, Carlita. We found something so horrible, none of the men will talk about it. I don’t like burying innocent farmers, or cutting down babies nailed to a wall.
“And a couple of nights later one of my fire teams is attacked by the security contractors. Edge did a great job stopping them and they’ll never do it again,”
“Edge, Edge, fucking Edge! It’s always him, isn’t it? The new poster boy for the Green Berets.”
“Instead of swearing at me and criticising a reliable ally, why don’t you or your buddies at Langley, find out why a British company is willing to commit ethnic cleansing and the murder of Colombian civilians.”
“It was FARC,” she said, “That’s all there is to it.”
“Don’t be so stupid, Clarita. It wasn’t the FARC as you damned well know.”
She looked down with her hands in her pockets, scuffing the toe of her boots.
“Clarita, what the hell is wrong with you today? You’re just not thinking straight.”
She was about to say something when a Huey approached the pan, swung round and landed. The helicopter shut down and two figures got out.
“Oh, Jesus,” she said as Edge walked towards them.
He nodded to the Major, “Sir, Ms Rivera.”
“Hello, Edge,” said the Major. Clarita maintained a stony silence.
“Guess what I’ve been doing?”
“Get lost, Edge,” she said without even looking at him.
He walked away, carrying his rifle parallel to the ground. If she had upset him, he didn’t show it. Martinez did.
“Right Ms Rivera. I am formally letting you know that I intend to revert to my orders from the DEA, until such time as the CIA produces meaningful intelligence and a clear scheme of manoeuvre. You are welcome to stay, but I would suggest that you find Staff Sergeant Edge and apologise to him for your rudeness.”
“I’m just not in the mood for his smart-assed comments today, Thiago.”
Martinez turned on his heels and went into the command tent, leaving her alone on the pan. She brushed away an irritable tear and said: “Fuck!”
Edge was chatting with the Doc about prevalent diseases found in the jungle and their treatment. He sucked up medical information like a sponge. Rivera put her head round the tent flap of the medical tent and looked at Edge.
“Mark, if I haven’t upset you too much, would you come for a walk with me? Please.”
They walked to the far helicopter and sat in the open rear door. She sighed and watched an Airbus 320 make its final approach for landing. She turned to face him. Edge’s face was deadpan.
“Mark, I’m really sorry. I am troubled and it isn’t fair, you being on the receiving end of my feelings.”
“It’s OK. I’m sure you have your reasons.”
She played with a button on his smock, as though weighing up her answer.
“Ryan Campbell died last night. He went into a coma and he died of organ failure. I heard this morning by a Goddamned e-mail from Langley.”
She choked the last few words out and by now she was sobbing he put his arm round her and hugged her. She nestled into him, weeping openly.
“Clarita, I am so very sorry. Don’t feel the need to apologise.”
Edge could feel her grief, but he saw a positive to the tragedy, “Does that mean you will get a replacement for Head of Intelligence?”
“The e-mail said that Ryan’s post will be gapped until a suitable candidate comes along. But they will post in a junior, once they finish training. Great!”
“But even a junior can take some of the routine crap that comes your way.”
“But a junior for whom this will be their first posting. I miss him, Mark. He was…”
She was weeping again and he felt her tears soaking into his smock. He didn’t hurry her, just watched the Airbus swing onto the taxiway. Sometime later she sat up and dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
“I’m sorry about that. Stupid and weak.”
“Clarita, do you mind if I ask you a question? You can tell me to piss off, mind your own business, or even tell me to get lost again, less politely this time.”
She looked at him, but didn’t move away from his arm, “What?”
“Were you and Ryan Campbell lovers?”
“Yes. Have I gone down in your estimation? Do you think it was wrong?”
“I don’t judge people on their relationships. Life is messy and complicated enough, without me putting in my tuppence worth.”
“But you think it was wrong, don’t you?”
“No. It was perhaps unwise, but I know what a powerful emotion love can be.”
“Oh. I’m glad you don’t think of me as some kind of slut. I still love him, even though he’s dead and gone. Just some tiny insect bites. If only he’d gone for treatment.”
“You can’t change what has happened, Clarita. If it was visceral Leishmaniasis, the only symptoms would have shown up in a blood test, inflamed spleen and low platelet count. He probably didn’t realise he was sick until it was too late.
“And as for loving someone even though they’re dead, I still love a woman who has been dead for fifteen years. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t think about her. I’m married, I have kids, but I still remember a woman I met in a Bosnian forest.”
“How did you cope?”
“Not very well to start with. At first I wanted to commit suicide by Serb…”
“What do you mean, Mark.”
“The night after she was murdered, I took a light machine-gun and as many rounds as I could carry. I was going to the place the Serb militia had set up as their headquarters, and I was going to kill as many as I could, before I went down. I knew I was going to die, but I had nothing to live for.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No, obviously. I was stopped by my officer at gunpoint, and he told me to pull myself together. He said every decision you take in life has a consequence. You should know that as a soldier. That’s why it’s such a shit job. He called it the butterfly effect, chaos theory and that place was a perfect example of chaos theory in action. He talked with me all night into the dawn, sharing his bottle of whisky and suggested that my anger, grief and guilt should be funnelled into something productive. That’s why I applied for the Special Forces and much to my amazement they accepted me.”
“Perhaps they saw something in you. Your officer sounds like a good man,” she said, forgetting her own grief, “And perhaps I see it as well.”
They sat, watching the clouds forming on the mountains, clinging together like two little dots of humanity, sitting in the helicopter doorway.
“I should paint a picture of the mountains.” Edge said thoughtfully.
“Mainly watercolours but I didn’t bring my gear.”
“You are a strange, multi-faceted man, Mark Edge, she kissed him on his cheek, “Thank you for listening to me.”
Towards the end of the tents, the Doc left the ablutions and carefully cleaned his hands. He stared at the helicopters and saw Edge sitting with his arm round Clarita Rivera. As he watched intently, she stretched up and kissed him. He shook his head and headed back to the medical tent. I fear you are playing with fire, Mr Edge.
Edge came back inside twenty minutes later, “Right, Doc. Where were we? dengue, wasn’t it?”
“Or we could do sexually transmitted diseases. Right up your street.”
“Err, I’m not with you, Doc.”
“I’m no prude, Edge. I realise that a man away from home can feel lonely, but it’s what they leave behind that causes the problems.”
“Doc, I think you’re grasping the wrong end of the stick, Ms Rivera heard news in an e-mail from Langley that her boss died. She feels totally bereft and alone in the world. I was giving her compassion and listening to her.”
“At the moment, and then compassion becomes something else. I expected better of you, Edge.”
Edge stared at the Doc and wondered if he had faced what he was accusing Edge of, “Doc, please believe me that I have no ambitions or intentions of having a relationship with Ms Rivera, now or in the future. I like her as a person and she has been very kind to me, looking after me and providing company when I go to Bogotá.
“We are chalk and cheese. She is very young in comparison to me and I am a war-weary old cynic. I have no wish to undermine her sense of humanity by fucking her and leaving her in my wake. Whatever you think of me, I am not a philanderer and I am married with two children. Some men can live with the guilt. I couldn’t.”
The medical officer stared long and hard at Edge and said: “Please forgive me, Edge. I often look for the worst in people and take things at face value. If you are her friend, be a kind one.”
“You know I will. Now, Doc, what are the signs and symptoms of dengue fever?”
© Blown Periphery 2021