St Juan de Pasto Main Operating Base
Edge was getting drunk. They all were. Rivera heard their cheering and whooping from the command tent and Martinez smiled at her.
“Boys will be boys,” he said wisely, knowing he had done it himself in the past. His satisfaction at the release of all of the hostages was tempered by the disappearance of Corporal Ortiz.
She nodded, “I’m just going to see Officer Suco in the evac tent. I believe they are going back to the States tomorrow.”
The inside of the evacuation holding ward was warmer than the other tents. There were four inside, the badly wounded Green Beret, who Edge had worked so hard in the helicopter to stabilise was in a medically induced coma, two superficial injuries among the hostages and the CIA officer. Rivera asked the senior nurse if she could speak to Suco.
“Sure. Not too long, she needs to sleep.”
Suco’s leg had been set and the blood cleaned away from her eyes, so now at least she could see. Her lip was sutured, but still swollen. Rivera smiled and she opened her good eye.
“Hi Rivera. I never thought I’d see you again, or anyone for that matter.”
“They raped me, Rivera. They just kept doing it, one after the other, they were filthy and stinking, although I begged them to stop. One of them broke my leg with a rifle butt when I tried to run.”
“I’m really sorry…”
“I wanted to die, but the Englishman saved me, him and the other guys. I hated all men for what they did to me, and then he came out of the darkness.”
She was crying and Rivera held her hand.
“He was so gentle and calm. He got me some clothes off a dead FARC to cover me, he was singing in my ear… Fucking singing, and he carried me half a mile, constantly talking gently about English castles. Jesus Christ, castles. Can you believe it, but he made me forget the fear and the pain? Just a smallish guy, but so strong and hard. Half a Goddamned mile, Rivera, and he had a backpack as well. I wish I could thank him.”
“I’ll do it for you, Suco. Go back to the States and recoup.”
“I’m finished with this. I saw the other two killed. I can’t do this anymore.”
Rivera hugged her, feeling herself welling up.
“I don’t blame you. Goodbye, Suco.”
“Remember, thank him. I thought all the English were effete, decadent faggots. How wrong can you be?”
She closed her eye and looked for sleep, away from the nightmare she had been living.
Rivera looked up as there was a particularly loud guffaw from the mess tent. She was angry that they were getting drunk, when they had lost a man and there were casualties in the ward. Full of high dudgeon, she went towards the mess tent. Edge was stripped to the waist and he had three cans of Budweiser balanced on top of his head. He was going round an obstacle course they had made, the idea being not to spill any of the beer. They were clapping him as he limboed under a wooden bar and then climbed over a tower of lacon boxes. One of the Green Berets spotted her and waved her into the tent, pressing a beer into her hands.
“What the hell’s going on?” she asked.
“Edge is going for the record, three opened cans of Bud on his head.”
He stepped down from the last lacon box and the top can wobbled, fell and deposited a load of beer on his head. There were jeers and catcalls as Edge necked the other two cans in a oner, his forfeit.
“Edge, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” She demanded. She couldn’t help noticing his hard stomach muscles and the ragged wound on his side.
“Getting pissed,” he told her, with streams of Budweiser coming out of his long hair.
“Who stitched your lip?”
“I did. The Doc was busy with real casualties.”
“It’s a mess. Put your fucking top on and come with me!”
Edge turned to the crowd and winked.
“Now!” she insisted.
She dragged him outside to jeers and catcalls. Somebody yelled: “Give her one for me, Edge!”
He snickered and went to hug her.
“Get your hands off me!”
“Ohh Clarita. Is this our first domestic and we’re not even married?”
“You’re disgusting! Look at the states of you, stinking of beer like some hustler in a cheap speakeasy. Put the Goddamned shirt on!”
“Where are we going, Clarita? Are you going to take me to heaven and back?”
“No, you damned drunk. We’re going to the Doc’s to get your lip stitched properly.”
“Why should you care, Clarita?”
“I don’t know, but I do. More fool me! What would your wife think if she could see you like this?”
That hit home. She could tell it had by the way his face changed, as though she had struck him.
“I don’t know why, but Officer Suco told me to thank you.”
“Who the hell is Officer Suco?” asked Edge.
“Suco is the woman you carried for half-a-mile to the helicopters. The woman who was raped and beaten and you saved her. Well, all of you did, and I for one am very grateful to you. She told me to thank you. She said you were gentle and calm, but all I can see is this drunken bum that stinks of beer.”
Edge was quiet.
“You were busy, weren’t you? You worked on a wounded man in the darkness in the back of a helicopter. You put in a line and pumped fluids into him. The Doc said he’d have difficulty in doing what you did in a well-lit treatment room, let alone the back of a helicopter. If I live to be one hundred, I’ll never work out what makes you tick, Mark Edge. You’re a dichotomy, a walking contradiction.”
They halted outside the medical tent. “Go in. Get your lip stitched and then go to bed. I’ll see you when you wake up.”
The Doc had the suture set laid out and ready. Nguyen was sitting in a chair, waiting for his hand to be cleaned and immobilised.
“How’s the hand, Nguyen?”
“Throbbing. The Doc reckons I might have difficulty flexing my pinkie and ring finger on this hand. There’s some bone loss as well.”
“Better that than being hit in the torso by a 7.62 mm round. It really hurts.”
“Sit down, Edge,” The Doc shone a light on Edge’s suturing efforts, “Not easy in front of a mirror, is it? What happened?”
“The reserve chute and altimeter clouted me in the face, as I went through the canopy.”
“Do you need a local?”
“No, I’m pissed.”
“Pissed with who?”
“No, Doc. It’s English for drunk.”
“You don’t seem particularly drunk to me.”
“Well, the lovely Ms Rivera thinks I am. For a Latin, she is rather puritanical.”
The Doc cleaned his lip with an antiseptic wipe, “I’ll have to take out your efforts before I put the new sutures in. She cares for you.”
“I’m not used to people caring for me, Doc. In the most part they’re rather uncharitably trying to kill me.”
“Don’t hurt her, Edge.”
“I wouldn’t. Maybe I care for her too.”
The Doc finished the suturing and admired his handiwork, “Well at least your lip won’t match the rest of your face”
“Thanks, Doc. Do you need a help with Nguyen’s hand?”
“No, you go and get your head down.”
He stood up to go and as the Doc washed his hands, he asked a question, “What do you think happened to Corporal Ortiz?”
Edge sighed, “I really don’t know for sure, Doc. I hope it was a parachute malfunction and he died, or he went straight through the canopy. Being hung up, injured in a tree and stuck there, it’s just too awful to comprehend.
The Doc nodded, “I guess we got off lightly and completed the mission. That’s important.”
“Ortiz was important to his family. I believe he had a young wife.”
Outside it was early morning and Edge decided he was too tired to drink any more. Besides, he’d already given his urinary tract a hammering and didn’t want to be up and down, trudging to the ablutions. He slept with the tired members of the assault team, while the others kept the noise to the minimum and left them undisturbed. He didn’t even hear the aeromed flight as it taxied and took off for the States. He finally woke at 15:00 and went for a shower. He bumped into Wilson on the way back.
“Wilson. How’s it going?”
“It was damned frightening going through the canopy. As I let myself down, I thought: this is madness.”
“But we prevailed. We adapted, improvised and overcame.”
“I guess we did. Major Martinez would like to see you.”
“Am I in trouble, Wilson?”
“Trouble? Rivera told me it’s your middle name.”
Edge rather thoughtfully got changed into his British MTP combats, complete with his beret. He looked at his lip in the mirror and practiced an Elvis pout.
“Thankyouvermuch,” he said to himself and went to the command tent.
“You wanted to see me, Major?”
“Mr Edge, come in and sit down.”
The major slid a mug of coffee over the table to him.
“We or rather you got lucky.”
Edge was silent and sipped the coffee.
“What would you have done if it had all gone wrong out there?”
“Well, Major. I guess I would have died along with everyone else. But we didn’t. Major, I’m desperately sorry about Ortiz and I keep replaying what could have happened, over and over in my mind. I just don’t know, and that’s worse. They are all brothers to me now and I feel the loss as keenly as everyone else.”
“Why tree jumping, Edge?”
“Because fast-roping from the helicopters would have been a slaughter. They would have woken up and been ready for us, as we came down through the trees like Christmas decorations. You may have lost a cab as well. As for fighting our way in on the ground, getting out was pretty hairy.”
Martinez nodded thoughtfully, “But why did you tell us you’d done this kind of parachuting before?”
“I didn’t. I suggested an idea and everyone went with the flow, but I never said I’d done it before. Let me turn this on its head, Major. When you went into your first firefight, you’d never done it before, had you?”
“But you survived.”
Martinez shrugged and then admitted that was correct.
“Then I rest my case, M’lud.”
The Major smiled and raised his mug to toast Edge, “Here’s to being lucky.”
“Where’s Ms Rivera? Gone back to Bogotá?”
“No, she went into Pasto to do some shopping.”
“War is hell,” Edge muttered, “Is there anything else, Major.”
“No, not for now.”
Edge stood up and walked to the tent flap, then turned round and saluted.
“Thank you. For everything.”
Edge smiled, “You’re welcome, sir.”
Edge spent the rest of the afternoon helping the ground crews clean the helicopters. Some of the hostages had been sick, so he went about his mundane task cheerfully enough with a mop and disinfectant. Outside, the pilots’ downward looking Perspex in the nose, seemed to get dirty from the dust kicked up on landing. He was sitting on top of a Huey with a broom, when he heard a Humvee drive onto the pan. He turned round and saw Rivera clamber out with a shopping bag. Instead of going into the command tent, she looked across at Edge and waved, then beckoned to him.
“Perdóneme. Creo que me quieren,” Edge said to the crew chief.
He slid off the helicopter and walked over to where she was waiting for him, “Hello, Clarita. Been shopping?”
“Yes, these are for you,” she said handing him the shopping bag.
He looked inside and saw a pair of chino trousers and a shirt. He looked up puzzled, “They’re very nice, thank you, but what are they for?”
“Why, where are we going?”
“Yesterday you had visions of a nice night in with a good Bordeaux and some fillet steak.”
“And I said: Afterwards. My treat. Well, we can’t have a night in here, but there is an excellent grill and steak restaurant in Pasto. That’s where we’re going, Gringo.”
“I better clear it with the Major.”
“I already have. Tonight, we’re going to the Restaurante Sausalito, you for fillet steak, me for seafood.”
“Hence the chinos and shirt.”
“Correct. I got your measurements from your fatigues while you were asleep.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he told her looking in the bag again.
“I reckon you can wear your boots with the pants. Get ready, The Major said someone will drop us off in a Hummer. We can get a taxi back, or rather you can. I’ve had enough of a cot bed, so it’s a warm, comfy bed for me tonight.”
Edge had another quick shower and changed into the civvies that Rivera had provided. In just a shirt it was rather cool, the cold air spilling off the mountains. He walked to a Hummer that sat with its engine running. Corporal Morris was the driver.
“Hi, Morris. How’s the arse?”
“All the better not to have you poking at it. We’re waiting for Rivera, waiting for a woman,” He sighed.
“It’s a woman’s prerogative to be a little late.”
“You’re a lucky man, Edge. She’s a babe. Are you poking her?”
“No, I am not!” Edge said, as though the concept was an alien one.
“Pity. I would. It’s just the thing a lonely man…”
Whatever Morris had decided “was just the thing,” Edge would never know because Rivera pulled open the rear door and clambered inside.
“Where’s all your kit?”
“I took it to the hotel before I went shopping.”
“And the Krypto?”
“In my jacket pocket. Hello Morris.”
They drove south to the city of Pasto and into the centre. Morris dropped them off outside the restaurant. At the end of the street, the Rio Pasto swept by through the city, swollen with ice melt from the Andes. Edge who loved rivers, walked the couple of hundred metres to watch the waters surge past. As he looked at her, his eyes were shining.
“Beautiful,” he said, sniffing the freshness that seemed to cleanse the city, “But not as beautiful as you.”
“Get lost, Edge. You coming? I’m hungry like the wolf.”
He thought that was rather a strange thing to say and followed her back to the restaurant. It was not ostentatious, more homely with a large wood burner that threw heat into the room. It was still relatively early and there were not many patrons. They chose a table fairly close to it and ordered drinks of red wine, an Argentinean Shiraz. Somehow, Edge just knew they were going to be drinking a lot of wine and as he sipped the first glass, he felt his body thaw and smiled at Rivera. She held up her glass and he chinked it with his.
“Your health,” he said looking directly at her.
“Salud!” she replied, “Mark, why do you not smile more. When you do, your face lights up and it’s like I can see into your soul.”
“Because life is terrible and I have to confront terrible things.”
“Yes, just like her, but even worse things.”
“But you saved her life.”
“I guess so. I hope she uses the time she has left sensibly and in a fulfilling way.”
Rivera drank her wine and watched him over the rim of her glass, “She’s going to resign. Seeing fellow officers killed in front of her and then being treated like that, she’s had enough.”
“So have I,” he said quietly, looking across at the wood burner as a waitress fed more wood onto it.
She came and took their order. They both decided against a starter and Edge ordered the fillet steak medium, with fries and mushrooms. She went for a paella and they both had a tossed salad.
“Mark, are you suffering from PTSD?” she asked quite seriously.
“No. They check us after every op and I’m not even borderline. What I’m suffering with is corrosion of the soul.
“There’s a poem that sums up my general view to war and killing. I had to study it at school, but you know what kids are like when it comes to study. Years later I came across it again and was so moved I learned it, line for line. It isn’t a romanticised view of war, but truthful in the raw emotions it stirs up in me and reminds me of my own experiences.”
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
“She stared at him, “Oh, Mark, that’s horrible!”
“That was written by an officer in the First World War, Wilfred Owen when he was hospitalised with shell shock. He was killed in 1918 and the poem wasn’t published until 1920.”
“Please tell me you don’t feel like that.”
“No. I used it to illustrate how terrible war is. I may have joined the Army at seventeen with some romantic notions about fighting, I blame reading The Young Carthaginian and Beau Geste as a kid. Any stupid ideas were soon knocked out of me. Please don’t say anything to Major Martinez. I don’t want him to think I’m a burned-out Brit who wakes up screaming.”
“No. You were still a kid when you joined.”
“Yep, and a few days after my eighteenth birthday I was fighting and killing the IRA in Ulster’s border country. I’ve been doing it for about twenty years and I’ve had enough, Clarita.”
They paused when the meals were brought to the table and Edge spotted the wine situation.
“Podríamos tener otra botella, por favor?”
“Are you trying to get me drunk to seduce me, Mark Edge?”
“Of course, I am.”
He tucked into the steak, which was still red in the middle. He tried a piece that seemed to melt in his mouth.
“This is very good. Sometimes fillet steak is tender but tasteless. This has a robustness that the garlic and herbs bring out. The salad is a little lacklustre.”
“I’ll ask for a vinaigrette dressing,” she said agreeing with him.
“You like your paella.”
“It reminds me of Puerto Roco. We used to eat a lot of seafood back there.”
“Do you have any family, Clarita? You said your mother died and your father vamoosed.”
Her mouth was set in a line, “I have a sister who still lived on the island. She sends me e-mails saying I left her to look after our mother, while I went off to the States. It’s rubbish, but she’s a bitter woman. I looked after Mami as much as she did, but left after she died.”
“I’m sorry. Families can be terrible sometimes. I can understand your wishing to leave Puerto Rico, but why the CIA?”
“Good pay. An education and what I thought would be a glamorous lifestyle. It isn’t, just crunching data in an office, while the field officers get all the glory.”
“Me has pillado ahí! OK, there’s a lot to be said about crunching data. Unglamorous but safe. Enough of my boring life. Where were you born, Mark and how old are you?”
“I was born in the George Elliot hospital and grew up in Nuneaton. A post-industrial shithole. My father was… Is an overbearing bully and my mother was a sweet, kind woman who looked after me, when I was being bullied at school.”
“Yes. I have always hated bullies. My mother took me to karate lessons and I learned to look after myself.”
She smiled to herself. This rough and tough hombre was a Mammy’s boy.
“And you joined the Army? You went for Special Forces selection because your early love was murdered? How difficult is it to join your Special Forces, Mark?”
He finished chewing a piece of the fillet, “There were one hundred and twenty who applied. Four of us made it. Of those four, two are now dead.”
“My God! So how old are you?”
“Thirty-eight this year.”
“I wish I had known you when you were younger.” Before you got married.
“I’m not past it, you know.”
“I’m sure you’re not, Mark Edge.”
He noticed that the wine was beginning to affect her. She was a little flushed, her lips seemed fuller and he could have sworn her pupils were slightly dilated. It was affecting him as well. He felt much more garrulous than normal, but she was so easy to talk to. They talked a great deal and she became lost in him. Their night was coming to an end, but she wanted it to go on and on, so she decided on a dangerous course of action.
Edge just had a coffee after his meal. She had a crème brûlée and seemed to enjoy it a great deal.
“I don’t know where you put everything. You’re built like a racing snake.”
“Because when I’m back home, I hardly eat anything, grab a takeaway or have a can of soup. I make the most of going out for a meal.”
“That is a tragedy,” he told her and then looked at his watch, “Damn, you’ll never guess the time.”
“What time is it?”
She grabbed his wrist to look at his watch, but seemed reluctant to let it go.
“So, you’re heading back?”
He nodded, “Me back to the base, you to your hotel I guess.”
“Yes. Mark. If you don’t want to sleep on a cot tonight, come back to the hotel with me.”
He looked at her with amazement, “Are you serious?”
He put both his hands on hers and looked at her with a neutral expression, “Clarita, I can assure you that sleeping in a comfy bed, next to you is incredibly appealing. But I can’t and you know why.”
“You didn’t mind me asking?”
“I’m a human being. I am an aficionado of all things that are beautiful, believe it or not. I don’t mind your asking.”
She smiled a little sadly at him. “OK, keeps things nice and uncomplicated,” He’d passed her test, but what would she have done if he hadn’t. She decided that she couldn’t have cared less either way.
The waitress came with the cheque and Rivera went for her AMEX, “Not this time, Clarita. This is on Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.”
“Windsor to you.”
The waitress took the card at the table and handed it back to him, “Podría pedirnos dos taxis, por favor?”
They went to wait at the bar and Edge said she should have the first taxi. When it came, they stood up and she kissed his cheek, “This doesn’t have to be the end of the night, English soldier.”
“Who knows what the future holds,” he said perplexingly.
“Another lovely evening, Mark. You are so easy to talk to.”
“It was,” he agreed, “Goodnight, Clarita.”
“Goodnight, Mark Edge.”
When she had gone and he saw the rear lights disappear, Edge sat down.
“Bloody hell,” he said out loud.
In her hotel, Rivera got undressed and looked at herself in the mirror. Her neck was flushed with the wine and her body had become ready for an action that never came. What is it about me? Why doesn’t he find me attractive? Why did I set a test that I really wanted him to fail?
“You’re a wino slut,” she told her reflection.
Later in the darkness she imagined Sister Mary Ignacia’s disapproval and the portal to hell opening. She closed her eyes and saw him clearly, stern but smiling at her in his cryptic way. No sudden appearance this time. When she came, it was with an intensity that made her feel weak and slightly drunk.
“Vete a la mierda la hermana Mary Ignacia,” she told the portal. In the warm haze of the dopamin high, she let her breathing return to normal. Well that’s my little pepita well and truly whacked, but I’m still alone…
Poem @ W Owen Out of copyright
© Blown Periphery 2021