Preview Dying Days by Gillian Long.

Part One

Chapter One

Matthew Reid leans forward, his forearms weighted across the steering wheel of his rented car. Despite the heat a shiver crawls across his shoulders as he scans the house at the end of the steep driveway.

He shifts to loosen his shirt stuck to his back. It’s hot and Matt heard on the radio this morning that January 2013 is Australia’s hottest on record. A cooling breeze blows through his open window flavouring the air with eucalypt, reminding him of flu inhalers his Mum gave him as a child.

As he contemplates the house, he clenches his fingers going through the mental drill of close target reconnaissance, forcing muscles to relax. There is no physical danger in this mission, but he doesn’t want any ties or displays of emotion.

He only arranged this meeting to find out the truth. Now he’s not so sure he wants it. He consoles himself that he can always fall back on his cover story. It will be okay he decides, even though the man he’s meeting struck him as being a little eccentric when he rang from London.

On the phone Alan Fletcher had listen to Matt’s request and agreed to see him. He seemed quite normal until he gave directions to his house. He explained he lived in the mountains north of Brisbane on the side of a hill.

‘When you find the right street, look for an old Queenslander,’ he said.

Matt was sceptical. ‘This Queenslander, what does he look like? Will he be there waiting for me?’

There was silence, and then a strident intake of air with a noise like a braying donkey. Bewildered by Fletcher’s mirth Matt waited.

‘Sorry,’ Fletcher took a breath and said, ‘a Queenslander is a house. When you turn into my road you’ll see my house down the side of the hill. It’s two stories white with weatherboard cladding, a corrugated iron roof, and three sixty verandas.’

The house Matt is looking at now is down the end of a sloping driveway, and fits the description. It’s just as Fletcher described, colonial and gracious with bone-white walls and an iron roof, set into a hillside above a forested valley. Matt can’t see beyond the house, but he knows from the map that the hillside falls away steeply.

The house is raised above the ground to catch the cooling breeze, and has a white paling skirt modestly covering the gap. Verandas at different levels have white rails, and there is a staircase leading to the front door. It is supported by white banisters fixed to which is a mechanical wheelchair lift, marring what would otherwise look like bridal purity. It seems an odd choice of home for a war correspondent.

The garden bustles with flowering shrubs, many of European descent, but many Matt doesn’t recognise. They crouch below towering eucalypts or press against skirt palings. Blue hydrangeas have been cut back to prevent the chairlift’s entanglement. The whole place looks like a rural idyll just beyond the creeping grasp of Brisbane. Releasing the handbrake Matt lets the car roll forward.

Inside the house Alan Fletcher slouches in front of a large window using its light to read a newspaper. Leaning to the left, he’s uncomfortable in his borrowed wheelchair, and his temper darkens as he scans the paper. In growing fury, he reads that the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and his ruling elite ZANU have approved a new constitution enshrining their right to steal property. In another article, he reads the North Koreans are threatening to launch nuclear weapons against those they call the imperialist Americans.

Shaking his head he says, ‘and the two countries are as thick as thieves. When will the world learn?’ The paper rattles as he turns over a new sheet.

Wheels scrunching on gravel alert him to a vehicle in the driveway, and he goes to meet his visitor. He is curious about the real reason behind the Englishman’s visit. He doesn’t believe the man’s an author as he claims. Fletcher searched the web for his name and found nothing. He opens the front door and sees a tall young man coming up the steps. There’s something familiar about the way he moves.

Matt looks up and sees the reason for the chair lift. He was wondering about it. It looks newly installed with the wood scars still visible where it’s been attached to the painted wooden stairs. He didn’t know Alan Fletcher was in a wheelchair. ‘Morning sir, thank you for seeing me.’

‘Mr Reid I take it?’ Fletcher holds out his hand.

‘Yes, but call me Matt please.’ Matt feels the firmness of the large hand in his. The old man may be in a wheelchair and seventy years old as his bio said, but he’s got a good strong grip.

‘Fine, Matt it is. Come in. We are through here.’

Matt enters. He follows Fletcher down a passageway, wondering if he should help him negotiate the doorways with his wheelchair. Fletcher knocks paint off the doorjamb and Matt flinches.

The sitting room smells like a stationery cupboard from the mounds of newspapers and magazines piled on every available surface. Fletcher scrapes past a leather sofa leaving scuff marks along its side, and stops in front of a large window.

Through its panes Matt can see the distant forested hills, lush with recent rain. The morning sun floods in and shines through the old man’s thinning hair, casting shadows that hide his expression.

‘Take a seat.’ With a sweep of his hand, Fletcher indicates an array of options.

The room is large and airy with a comfortable lived in feel. Battered leather lounges and old armchairs wear their injuries with pride. Persian carpets, almost hidden by the clutter, cover wooden floors. Asian wall hangings interspersed with African masks, and unframed paintings fill any remaining wall space.

Matt’s taken aback at the cluttered decor of competing cultural artefacts and looks at the paintings with interest. Most are scenic realism. A painting of a desert takes his eye, its orange rocky outcrops pulsate against a deep sky, and he wonders who the artist is.

He takes the upright wooden chair opposite Fletcher thinking at least they’ll be on the same level. Sitting straight-backed arms folded across his chest he realises too late he’s positioned badly. He blames himself for allowing the old man to manoeuvre him into facing the flooding light.

For a moment no one speaks as Fletcher broods on the young man’s authenticity trying to stifle his rising cynicism. He wonders if he cares enough to worry. After all, it’s his hobby monitoring the Zimbabwean tyrant.

‘So,’ he says. ‘You want to know about the Rhodesian war do you? Surely you haven’t flown sixteen and a half thousand kilometres to get my perspective just for some book?’ Breaking off, he scrutinises the young man’s face looking for clues to his character.

Matt’s expression is solemn as if weighed down with the world’s burdens. His fine angular features, his clothing, and hairstyle all speak of his native British reticence. Fletcher wonders if he will even have the wit to understand. He’ll look back at history from his own modern perspective and never comprehend what it was really like during those cold war days.

Matt shifts on the hard seat and says, ‘what you have to say will be valuable but that’s only partly why I’m here…’ He doesn’t finish his sentence as Fletcher interrupts.

‘They couldn’t win you know? ‘It was a foolish gesture ever going down that path. They were tilting against an unstoppable avalanche of colonial remorse. The Americans made sure of that, insisting Britain honour her deal to de-colonise in exchange for their help in the War. That was before the Japanese bombed the crap out of them and they had no choice.’ He pauses, and his hand creeps towards a small tear in the plastic coating of the wheelchair, before dropping back to his lap. ‘Their meddling exchanged the benign if paternalistic British, for colonisation by a tyrant.’

Confused Matt says, ‘you mean the Chinese?’ The hackneyed prejudice bores him. He didn’t come all this way to debate Zimbabwean politics. Politics are not his game. Facts are what he needs. Facts either for his thesis, or about his heritage, he hasn’t decided yet.

‘No not the Chinese. They’re just collecting their pound of flesh for helping Mugabe seize power for the Shona people. MaShona are the new colonial masters. Do you know that Mugabe’s people have only been in that geographical area for about three hundred years? They’re just as much colonisers of that part of Africa as the British and haven’t been there much longer. They stole the land from the BaKalanga.

‘Okay, that’s interesting.’ Matt says.

With a jerk of his head, Fletcher glares at Matt. ‘Interesting! You think it’s merely interesting that people from another country invade and colonise in this modern day and you Poms helped them?’

‘Well no but….is that an invasion or colonisation? It’s just a different African tribe moving in— three hundred years ago.’

‘I’m sure you don’t mean that although it sounds incredibly racist to me’.

The irony of referring to the British as Poms and yet implying he’s the one being racist is not lost on Matt, but he keeps his own counsel.

Fletcher says, ‘you may as well say the Nazis were right to invade and colonise France because they are both white skinned Europeans. If the British were wrong to colonise Rhodesia the Shona were wrong to colonise Zimbabwe. You can’t have it both ways.’

Matt straightens and  wishes he had kept his mouth shut. The man is nuts but he can’t let that go. ‘The Rhodesian war wasn’t about colonisation though was it? It was about every man having the right to vote.’ Fleetingly he wonders if he should mention Australia’s colonial past, but decides the argument is probably not worth the trouble. ‘But I’m not here to discuss the rights and wrongs of war. My research is concerned with the tactics of twentieth century guerrilla warfare in Southern Africa.’

Fletcher looks grim for a moment and carries on as if Matt hasn’t spoken. ‘Everyone knows that Zimbabweans still do not have free and fair elections, but forget that for a moment and look at the history. The Bakalanga were invaded by the ancestors of the Shona tribes just as Britain, America and Australia were once invaded and colonised. That’s who we humans are. Even the BaKalanga took Zimbabwe from the !Kung territorial hunting grounds.’

Matt ignores Fletcher’s strangled clicking pronunciation and asks, ‘who are the Kung?’

‘The Bushmen, hunter gatherers of the Kalahari called San by some.’ Fletcher pauses expecting a response.

A narrow shadow cast by the window’s cross-beam shades Matt’s eyes as he leans forward, elbows resting on thighs, hands hanging between his knees. He wishes he could smoke.

Despite weeks of abstinence, he still feels tense. Pushing his fingertips together he focuses on self-control before answering, trying to steer the conversation to the subject more relevant to his thesis.

‘I’ve read a lot of different accounts about British spies in the ranks of the Rhodesian armed forces, and I wondered if you have an opinion. You may know the truth.’

Fletcher’s face takes on a pensive wariness. ‘Those were the dying days of war with a country in chaos. It’s all so long ago I’m not sure I can remember anything worth telling you. There were rumours of something shady going on. None of it makes sense to me. I know some people thought there were spies in the ranks. Others said they switched sides to survive the inevitable world of black independence.’

Drawing a breath Fletcher pulls his palm across his mouth sliding over the stubble on his chin, and down his neck as he feels the wrinkled leathery folds.

‘The whole sorry affair was the product of rampant cold war paranoia,’ he says. It was the kind of thinking by the Americans and the British that propelled the Americans into war with Vietnam. Their bureaucracies were full of compromise, and competing interests causing a war nobody wanted. It was British and American office politics dictating foreign policy, rather than any conspiracy relating to the CIA or MI6, if that’s what you are implying.’

Fletcher’s eyes become distant as he feels forgotten rage regurgitating its bitterness. ‘Look at its legacy. Look at the misery caused since Zimbabwean Independence, both to those who remain in the country and to a diaspora of lost souls trying to adapt, but unable to forget.’

The state of Zimbabwe still makes Fletcher wild with its pointless brutality. If the Brits had honoured their deal with Smith in 1971, none of the slaughter would have happened. Aware of his growing rage, he controls his outburst, picking at the small tear with a nicotine-stained fingernail.

Memories flood his mind. Things he thought he’d forgotten are after all just buried. He says, ‘the Americans and the British have a lot to answer. Do you know it was the British who created MaShona?’

Studying his booted feet Matt wonders how he can answer that. The British are blamed for everything along with the Americans. Who is this white Australian man if he’s not a product of Britain?

Fletcher is working himself into a passion his eyebrows drawn together in spiky demand for agreement. ‘They lumped all the tribes together just to produce a bible for the savages. Their words not mine. Idiots! Anyway, they called the language chiShona. Unfortunately the iKalanga language was lumped in with all the other dialects of the so-called MaShona. That was despite academic views that iKalanga was a different language group with different ancestry. The BaKalanga built the Great Zimbabwe you know, and lived in that region for more than a thousand years. I think Mugabe underestimates them, and unless he grants them concessions, he might well see a revolt.’

Shifting again to relieve his discomfort on the hard wooden chair, Matt watches the old man animated with indignation. He uses the moment to examine his face, taking in the nose pitted and bulbous. It’s the nose of a drinker. Will he look like that when he’s Fletcher’s age? Glasshouses and throwing stones comes to mind—he’s as bad. War does that to a person, drink or drugs or both obliterating memories.

Fletcher’s lips are those of a heavy smoker, thin with radiating cracks running into sagging folds at the crease lines of his smile. What’s left of his hair is a nondescript wispy grey. It’s the eyes that are his redeeming feature, alert, intelligent, and a startling light blue. Matt hasn’t inherited the eyes.

Fletcher juts his chin as if to say, what do you make of that then. Awkwardly Matt clears his throat to speak. He wasn’t listening, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Fletcher launches into a lecture on his favourite subject.

‘America was paranoid over the Russians at the height of the cold war. Cold war politics caused the Rhodesian downfall. Mugabe exploited dissent and division in the government ranks of both the Brits and the Yanks. To the Brits, the Rhodesian rebellion was an embarrassment, but the Americans saw it as a sinister backdoor Russian takeover of Africa. They gave into the Chinese backed Mugabe out of expedience.’

Fletcher pauses for a moment scratching at the arm of the chair. He clears his throat and continues. ‘Once Rhodesia caved to the political pressure, the Yanks moved on to their next crisis as they do, and the Brits went away congratulating themselves for their cleverness. While Mugabe, that cunning Jackal, thrust Zimbabwe into the current chasm of chaos. What for—his own North Korean style government.’

He pauses as if remembering, and then looks at Matt. ‘Mugabe will never let another tribe survive there unless they are subordinate. He wants Zimbabwe for MaShona exclusively, and his family particularly. In his mind he is the hereditary chief, its king. He has begun his dynasty. That’s Mugabe’s blueprint, even though his ancestors were interlopers, and the so called MaShona are a British colonial construct.’ Fletcher chortles with delight at the irony.

Amused Matt says, ‘I don’t suppose Mugabe would like to hear that.’

‘History is always written by the victors.’ Fletcher’s eyes become rheumy in reflection. ‘He admired them you know, the North Koreans.’

Matt listens as perspiration trickles down his back. He’s aware his armpits are damp, but after the grey London winter he’s glad to be warm. This is his first trip to Australia, and he’s surprised by the sun’s intensity.

It’s not the warmest place he’s been, but it’s brighter as if someone turned up the volume a notch. Perhaps the clear sky makes the light so intense or its depleted ozone. Perhaps, unlike Africa and the Middle East, there’s less dust or perhaps it’s the lower altitude.

Whatever the meteorological explanation he will buy sunglasses when he gets back to Brisbane, and perhaps a pack of fags. No, he’s quit. He refocuses his attention, waiting for the old man to finish speaking, watching the nicotine-stained finger scratching at the plastic armrest.

‘I was there for five years.’ Fletcher looks up from his scratching, ‘writing a book on the so called Australian mercenaries who saw themselves as capitalist ideologues. They were fighting communism you see. At least that’s how they justified their actions. After the dismal failure of politics in the Vietnam conflict they thought they were doing some good. In reality, I was a free-lance journalist selling my stories to whoever would buy them, BBC mostly. I didn’t want to piss in my own nest.’

Matt leans forward intrigued. ‘Did you ever write your book?’

Fletcher shakes his head, his mind back in the past remembering. He glances at Matt, noting the tightly coiled emotions under feigned nonchalance, the fingertips pressing together in a sure sign of agitation. A memory flashes into his mind taking him by surprise.

It’s like seeing a ghost from the past, almost as if Jake Ryder is sitting in front of him. Matt is older and more serious than Jake, but the resemblance is strong. He brushed away the notion of familiarity when Matt arrived, not making the connection. Now he sees it, but he also knows memory can be a contrary fool.

‘No,’ he says ‘I never wrote the book. Not that book anyway. After the Rhodesian war I chased other wars and never got around to it.’

Disappointment washes through Matt. A book like that would be interesting. He turns his mind back to his purpose for being here, noticing that Fletcher is looking at him with strange intensity. It’s as though he’s trying to see something hidden behind the fabric of Matt’s presence.

Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Matt looks away, wondering how he can frame his question. He feels foolish asking it. How can one ask a complete stranger something so personal? He shies away at the thought. It seems like a betrayal of his family, at least his mother. Once uttered the question comes into existence. It cannot be unuttered, cannot be withdrawn, and there is no guarantee he’ll get the truth.

Fletcher spots Matt’s indecision. A surge of excitement produces an almost forgotten sensation that he recognises as adrenalin squirting through his atrophied arteries. Call it intuition, a sixth sense if you will, but the kind of intuition that served Fletcher well in his days as a war correspondent. He recognises there’s something else behind Matt’s banal request. There is a story. Chin jutting he challenges Matt. ‘You’re not here to write a book are you?’

Matt flinches but all he says is ‘yes, as a matter of fact I am sir, but it’s not a commercial publication. I’m researching the history of guerrilla warfare in British Colonial Africa for my doctorate. I know you were one of the few outsiders who covered that period until the Rhodesian war ended in ’79. Everything I read has an allusion to British intelligence having infiltrated the Rhodesian command. But there’s another thing…’

Driven by scepticism, Fletcher interrupts. ‘You know as I grow older people look younger and younger, but even I don’t buy that you are just an English Uni student.’

With a low humourless chuckle Matt says, ‘no you’re right Sir, I’m thirty two, and I was in the British Army. This is part of my retraining. My re-entry to the civilised world I guess. If I have a PhD I can lecture in Military History.’ Looking down at his feet, Matt’s mouth scrunches to one side in wry self-depreciation. ‘It’s better than a job as an insurance salesman or security guard, and even those are a little scarce at the moment with the current financial crises.’

‘Are those the only jobs open to ex-soldiers in Britain?’ Amused, Fletcher is warming towards the man. He tries not to stare, but he knows his memory’s right. The features are so familiar they take Fletcher back to the past. It’s as if he’s talking to Jake all over again. He can see Jake’s mouth scrunch to the side, as he took the piss out of him for his patriotism.

Now he’s seen the resemblance, it is uncanny. There’s the same rangy physique, same brown hair, the type that gets bleached lighter by too much sun. He wears it shorter than Jake. No it couldn’t be. It would mean that Jake is still alive somewhere.

Fletcher sighs. He should let it go. Matt obviously has his own reasons for his visit, and if he doesn’t want to tell, then too bad. After all, he’s not going to tell Matt what he knows. The old journalist in him niggles, knowing there’s a story itching to be uncovered.

‘I still don’t get it,’ Fletcher says. ‘You’re telling me you’ve come all the way from London to speak to me about the history of a conflict the world has forgotten. That sounds like a load of old horse cobblers. There must be men living in the same damp English borough as you who actually fought in that war. They would be able to give you a firsthand account of some of the things they saw and knew. Anyway, there are dozens of books on the subject from factual histories to personal accounts of war experiences. I know I’ve read most of them.’ Fletcher feels his jaw thrust again and tries to rearrange his features to look less aggressive.

Matt’s steady gaze holds Fletcher’s seeing the emotional challenge for what it is, and he feels a little sorry for the old man. His spiky eyebrows remind him of his father, and he leans back in the chair to dry his palms on his jeans. It’s his father’s legacy that started his doubt.

Hearing a car in the drive Fletcher glances at the clock on the mantle. It’s beyond belief. Just when he’s on the verge of discovering something interesting she gets home early, but that’s typical. At least she is home. What a pity she can’t do it every day, but at least she’s made the effort for his doctor’s appointment.

‘I’m sorry but Polly’s home. I have an appointment,’ Fletcher says. He sees the disappointment in Matt’s eyes, and relents. After all, the bloke has come all the way from the U.K. and he did agree to see him. ‘Come back tomorrow and we can talk more. Maybe I can remember something of interest.’

Matt stands. ‘What time tomorrow?’

‘Come for lunch, and Matthew try to be more forthcoming.’

Matt glances at Fletcher’s face to see what he’s up to, but it remains expressionless. What a bizarre thing to say. ‘Yes thank you sir, I’ll look forward to it.’

‘And Matthew,’ Fletcher says again, ‘call me Alan, or Fletcher none of this sir nonsense. This is Australia not the bloody British Army.’

Matt hides his feelings as he shakes Fletcher’s hand. ‘Thank you for seeing me sir… um Alan.’

He knows he’s missed his opportunity. Tomorrow he’ll just ask outright whatever happens. As he walks from the sitting room he almost collides with a girl who dashes in thinking she’s late.

Surprised and mistrustful Polly stops short blocking his way. ‘Who are you?’

‘Ah…, I’m just leaving’. Matt tries to get out of her way stepping aside to manoeuvre around her.

‘I can see that, but that’s not an answer to my question. I asked who you are. And when you have answered that, you can tell me what you are doing here.’ She leans forward peering around Matt calling, ‘Poppa, you in there—you okay?’

Matt retreats inside the doorway thrown by the girl’s brusqueness. He looks back at Fletcher who is grinning at the confrontation. As he turns back to her, he can see that she is not a kid but a young woman.

She is attractive in a wild tangled haired way, but her clothes are a mess. Stains streak her jeans and there’s dried paint on her tee-shirt. A seam on her shoulder has lost its stitching leaving pale freckled flesh exposed. He meets her challenging gaze and is startled by the light blue intensity of her eyes. They’re like Fletcher’s, but on her they look psycho.

He tries once more to edge around her, but like a police officer at a road crossing she holds up a hand. She sees her grandfather grinning and it makes her wild. The man’s obviously a friend. Why couldn’t he drive Poppa to the doctor’s instead of her having to rush home?

Polly takes her anger out on Matt, and with her hands on hips she blocks his escape. ‘Well?’

‘Well?’ Matt’s brow furrows in bewilderment. ‘Ah, um, I’m Matt Reid. Ah… I made a prior arrangement to speak with your father.’ He feels chastised like a small boy. She’s rude and he’s angry. Blood surges colouring his neck.

‘Grandfather.’

‘What… oh, yes, I see—your Grandfather.’

‘What about?’ Polly says.

Matt glances at Fletcher, his expression an appeal for help. What should he say to this rude woman? He is about to tell her it’s none of her business when Fletcher intervenes.

‘Polly this is Matthew Reid, and he’s my guest so stop terrorising him.’

To Matt’s relief it draws Polly out of his path. She pushes past him to get through the doorway, leaving a trail of turpentine vapour in her wake.

‘You’re a difficult man Poppa you know that. What have you two got to talk about anyway? He’s not your usual type.’ She appraises Matt as if he were an inanimate object. ‘He’s a bit young for one of your old journo mates and he hasn’t been feeding you gin and cigarettes so what’s up?’

A cunning look crosses Fletcher’s face. ‘Make us lunch tomorrow and you’ll find out.’

‘God Poppa I have so much to do.’

‘What? All you do is hang-about in that grungy shed squirting paint at things.’

Relieved he’s no longer the target, Matt hurries to the front door, letting himself out before she revokes his invitation to return tomorrow. He realises his hands are shaking, and he concentrates on settling them. The encounter rattled him, letting the damn woman’s rudeness get under his skin.

A picture of her comes to mind like a photo still. Nice body if you like the wild type good legs, but not his style. She’s pretty, freckles across her nose, but not his sort. His wife’s immaculate blonde image replaces Polly’s and he suppresses it. If only he knew Fletcher was partial to cigarettes and gin, he’d be happy to oblige. He’ll bring a bottle tomorrow.

 

End of Preview

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