“What are you running away from? I’m sad too, you know. Leaving behind the only world that I’ve ever known. Scooter’s the name by the way,” said a thickset guy who had bagged himself a window seat. His muscles showed through his Sunday shirt.
There was an awkward pause before the response came.
“The woman I love doesn’t love me. We’re distant cousins. She wants to become a nun as a matter of fact.” There was another pause. “And Hulk’s the name”.
Hulk wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He was thinking of the great-uncle he had just buried, so, he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
“Is she beautiful, or is she a plain Jane, ordinary, or a choir-singing church girl?” Scooter prodded seemingly oblivious to Hulk’s antics.
Hulk shifted in his seat. “Of course, she’s beautiful.She can dance, she can sing, she does needlepoint, and she is a staunch Catholic who attends Mass like clockwork.” Hulk threw a curious glance at his questioner, a hint of interest brewing up in him. Women were a tricky subject for him. All his previous love attempts had been just that—attempts. Perhaps if there was anything he could talk about, it was that. Share his woes with this petulant stranger he was meeting for the first time in his life.
“You do know that there are only two ways we’re going home, right?We go home alive or dead,”Scooter paused as if to allow the message sink in. “We either go back as heroes, or dismal failures at protecting our country. At protecting the innocent men, women, and children of our country.” There was another pause. It’s not just our lives on the line here.”
“Soldier boy, we’re in the army now. What are you running away from?”Hulk scowled dismissively, the spark of interest beginning to fade.
Scooter turned to look at the other young people in the bus who had just finished high school as if to see if someone had been listening in on their conversation.
“In my own case, I’m running away from boring Sundays. Church on Sundays. There was never anything nice to eat at home, you know.I‘m running away from poverty, from being classed as being from a different race.”Scooter was speaking casually like he hadn’t noticed the Hulk’s disinterest.
“Can you believe this class system? They want to call you white, or black, or brown, or Hottentot, or native.” Scooter was not looking at anyone in particular as he spoke. His head kept moving from the window to a face, back to the window, to Hulk, back to the window.
“I’m thinking of my mother. She cleans churches for a living. She cried when I left in my uniform. She told me, between sobs, that I looked good and handsome in it. She just stood there in the doorway of my bedroom sobbing into one of my father’s handkerchiefs.”A nostalgic smile was beginning to develop at the edges of Scooter’s lips. He paused to gaze out of the window again at the night sky.
“I believe in Kingdom Come. I’m Catholic. Was an altar boy. My whole life is the church. After the war, I’m going to Italy. I’m going to become a priest. Even though I know it will break my mother’s heart.” Hulk blurted outin a melancholic, almost remorseful, tone. Something about Scooter’s monologue had stirred up the nostalgia in him.
The bus was quiet now. The incessant chatter had all but disappeared. Everyone was lost in their own world. Most of them were thinking of the start of basic training in Cape Town. Scooter turned to look at him, the hint of a smile still on his face. He didn’t appear surprised at all that the his hitherto disinterested neighbour had responded to his speech. Then he began his rotation again—this time even slower and more methodical— from the window, to Hulk, to a random face and back to the window.
“I think of my dad, and my brothers when I read the Book of Job,”he said. “My eldest brother sells vetkoek on the golf course on weekends. Dad was a barman on a Friday and Saturday night.”He had a faraway look on his face as he spoke, like he wasn’t really seeing anyone as his head turned from one face to the other, and back to the window.
“I believe in roast chicken. The pleasures of trifle.” A mocking voice came from the back of the bus.
“I believe in the innocence of roast potatoes.” Chorused another.
“That one means business. Come sit here. Tell me all about your sweetheart. I’ve got all the time in the world before we get to Cape Town. I always wanted to go to the Mother-land. And you?” came the mockingvoice from the back of the bus again.
“You’re rolling your eyes at me now. Now you’re shrugging your shoulders. Oh, what’s that rustling sound. I thought it was a chocolate wrapper. Geez, Louise, I’m hungry. I’m starving.” Scooter made his way to the back of the bus with his padkos.
“Smoke?” Hulk asked nobody in particular.
“What did you say there?” came Scooter’s voice like an echo.
“I asked you if you wanted to smoke. I roll my own cigarettes. My old man had a pipe, smoked tobacco. It was really bad for his lungs. He passed. Last year. The cancer. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I wish he were here; you know. Wish he could see me get married. Meet the perfect girl.” Hulk said sadly.
“Boys, listen up here. This is a non-smoking bus.Where is the exit route out of this place?” Scooter said from the safety of the back of the bus.
“I have a girlfriend. I loved how when we went to the beach, for instance, the sunlight would play upon her hair. She set me free. All I just wanted to say was that I never felt like this before, but my cries for help went unanswered, and that in itself is an answer, isn’t it?” said Scooter watching for a reaction on the face of the young man sitting next to him.
“Ah, a poet for all the nations. We have William Shakespeare in our midst. Sir, pray do tell, can you recite sonnets as well as prose for all of us.” Hulk jeered at Scooter.
“Nothing is real anymore. I think about her all the time. I dream about her. And I wonder what she’s doing. I told her not to wait for me.” Scooter continued to his audience of one.
“The stench of war is out there, waiting for you, waiting for me, waiting for all of us.” Nathaniel said softly to himself. “Pay no attention to this riff raff. Ignore this this duffle bag on my shoulder. But my family insisted on me packing some winter and summer clothes, two shirts and a tie in case I meet a member of the opposite sex in Kenya. The uncles insisted.Jones. I’m Nate Jones. Pleased to meet you.” Said Nathaniel with his hand outstretched.
“I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. The name’s Cato.” Cato mumbled. He reached out his hand. Shook Nathaniel’s hand. Smiled in a friendly manner.
“My Christian name is Nathaniel. Do you have a sweetheart?” said Nathaniel biting his bottom lip, but Cato ignored him.
“So, where are you from soldier boy?” Nathaniel said again, eager to start up conversation.
“A windy city.” Cato mumbled again.
“Does she mean a lot to you?” Nathaniel put his arms behind his head, and whistled.
“Who?” Cato said peevishly, as if he didn’t like where the conversation was heading.
“Your sweetheart. Are you going to write to her?” Nathaniel asked, his eyes glued to a speck of dust on his trousers.
“No.” Cato said glibly.
“The strong and silent type. No crime against that soldier boy. So, you’re here because you want to see the world. Looking for adventure?” Nathaniel answered. Brushing the invisible speck off his pants with his right hand
“You could say that.” Cato mumbled again. “Something along those lines.”
“Don’t talk much. I’m tired. I don’t sleep very well. Wake me up when we get to Cape Town. Just tell me one thing before I doze off. Are you in love with her, is she the love of your life?”Nathaniel’s tone changed. He felt sorry for Cato.
“I’m going to marry her. I want her to be the mother of my children.” Cato said with a certain kind of pride in his voice.
“I’m a tortured soul too.” Nathaniel said looking into the aisle of the bus. Watching guys making their way to empty seats.
“You?” Cato said surprised.
“My girl died. Tell me when the sun is out.” Nathaniel said quietly, closing his eyes.
“Our lives are about to change forever.” Cato said staring out of the window. Watching the world go by.
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Nathaniel coughed a little.
“Believe me, the sun will breathe. Leaves will fall to the ground. Another winter has come and gone, and summer is all too beautiful.” Cato said with an otherwise expression in his eyes. He was becoming fond of Nate Jones.
“I bet you the drill sergeantwill say something along these lines. Boys, repeat after me. A soldier breaks all the rules out in the field.” Cato laughed.
“A soldier breaks all the rules but not in my camp. Something funny, sonny?” came Nathaniel’s voice.
“No, sir.” Cato started to play along with Nathaniel. Beginning to enjoy this game.
“A soldier is an actor.” Came Nathaniel’s voice again.
“A soldier is an actor.” Repeated Cato, guffawing and snorting in mock-derision.
“A soldier is a man who honours tradition.” Nathaniel saluted Cato.
“A soldier is a man who honours tradition.” Cato saluted Nathaniel back.
“No women? Seriously! Geeze, Louise.” Came Scooter’s voice from the back of the bus.
“No women out there for you, my friend.” Hulk guffawed.
“Hey, you. Hulk, I’m talking to you. You talk now as if we’re old friends. We’re not old friends.” Scooter said indignantly.
“This is a war we’re fighting. We’re not going to a church dance in a church hall.There’s nothing but sand, and more sand, and desert, and more desert where we’re going.” Hulk said unsmiling.
“This is meat and potatoes country out there. Is that what you’re saying?” came Scooter’s comrade’s voice.
“Don’t listen to everything that he says. He might be pulling your leg for all that you know.” Scooter admonished.
“Nobody was speaking to you.” Hulk said in a loud voice.
“You’re very good-looking, handsome even, I must say.” Scooter giggled, feeling slightly foolish, but brave too.
“Like I was saying, there’s no mystery girl out here with red lips, and smelling like perfume. It’s just wilderness.” Said Scooter’s comrade.
“Can’t say the same for you. I think it sounds like paradise. Heaven on earth. No father beating the hell out of you, and your old lady on a Friday, and a Saturday night.” Hulk said choosing his words with care.
“Slow and tender. I like girls with curlers in their hair. Kiss them slow and tender. Hold them in your arms, like this, they go crazy-mad for it. Fall for my line every time.” Scooter said smooching the air.
“The world is about to go to war, and all you can think of is girls. Shame.” Hulk literally spat the words out.
“Shame for you. I can tell you’ve never been kissed.”Scooted laughed out loud.
“Oh, really now. You some kind of fortune-teller?” Hulk said. He crossed his arms across his chest somewhat defensively.
“What are you thinking of, soldier boy? You thinking about a girl that you had to leave far behind. Describe her. Describe her to me, please. Was she the love of your life?” Nate asked Cato, but Cato pretended as if he didn’t hear the question.
“You think they’ll give us all rifles.” Scooter asked with a dumb grin on his face.
“War is not about running around with a gun, and shooting up people.” Hulk said. This statement changed the entire atmosphere on the bus.
“I know that. I was just making a joke. Sorry. Apologies. No need to be so serious. Lighten up.” Scooter said with a helpless look on his face. He began to crack his knuckles in an attempt to lighten the mood somewhat.
“I don’t need you to tell me to lighten up.” Hulk said somewhat aggressively.
“Sorry. Apologies. I thought since we’re all guys here, and everything I’d lighten up the mood.” Scooter shrugged his shoulders. He was a tall fellow. Stooped his shoulders whenever he walked.
“You thought wrong. It’s the principle. There’s a Hitler, and a Mussolini out there hellbent on starting a war.” Nate through his hands up in despair. He shared a look with Cato. They both laughed at this short exchange of words.
“My father was from Saint Helena.” Cato said looking out of the window, momentarily blinking back tears.
“He speaks.” Hulk said with a snigger.
“Saint Helena, where is that exactly? Never heard of it.” Scooter wore an interested look on his face, but pretended as if he had heard it all before.
“It’s an island in the middle of nowhere. Just sea, sea, and more sea for five days until you reach the shores of the Cape, or land, whichever first.” Cato said, as if he was reminiscing about better days.
“There’s no grass where we’re going. Guys, don’t worry about getting grass stains on your uniforms.” Nate commented, smiling broadly at Cato. He had good teeth.
“No grass, you mean like no grass. No grass under my faded shoes.We get a uniform, you say, with boots and all.” Scooter said with surprise in his voice.
“My mother, she couldn’t stop crying. My sisters, they couldn’t stop crying.” Hulk sounded pensive. One minute the centre of attention. Next, withdrawing from the group.
“There’s no wind where we’re going. No mountains, or rivers. Just sentry duty, and driving ambulances, carrying stretchers with young boys who are going to be amputees one day, carrying the lame, the wounded, the sick, and the dead. Putting the dead in body bags. Burying the dead. Marking gravesides with the cross.” Nate said leaning his entire frame into the seat. He pretended to make himself comfortable.
“Soldier boy, anybody ever tell you that you have a lovely personality, you know.” Scooter said wearing a curiously serious look on his face.