She’s not in her tent. Not that there’s much of it left. What had been her medical bay is torn and spattered with mud as if a shell landed nearby.
Everything is filthy and dark, the only light coming from fires fuelled by debris. It’s more crowded than I remember, but still and quiet as if hope has fled. My relatively clean clothes are stared at by women clutching thin and wide-eyed children.
Rutted and puddled, the paths between ranked tents and huts of waste tin or wood are slimy and treacherous. The sanitation, water and electricity I knew here are gone now. The stink makes me dizzy even in the cold of this bleak night.
She’s leaning on a balustrade – the only bit still standing of what had been offices. Bottle in one hand and mug in the other, she stares at nothing until I come close. Sweeping lank hair aside she turns her head. “Jules … Jules! What the fuck?”
“Hi, Jackie, long time.” I stand beside her, almost shoulder to shoulder, my hand touching hers: the closeness of old comrades and lovers.
She shakes her head; distant firelight illuminates cuts on her wrist and jaw. Lifting the bottle she says, “Ethanol and water. Watch out. I made it strong. You have cigarettes?”
I lift a packet from a chest pocket. “Here.”
She takes it, draws two out and lights them side by side. The sparks of her lighter showing me a gaunter face than I’ve seen before. Coughing hoarse and sharp, she passes me a cigarette. “I thought you were dead.”
“No, treated for burns and shrapnel, stuck in a psychiatric ward and forgotten. How’s it been?”
“See for yourself in the morning.” She puts the rest of the cigarettes in her pocket as she always does. Pushing the bottle to my chest she adds, “It’s worse than you could imagine. Why did you come back?”
“I bought medical supplies and a working fridge at piracy prices.”
“Good, we’re out of everything but boiled rags for bandages. Supplies were your ticket in, but why are you here, soldier?”
“I’m not a soldier now, but I’m still a bloody medic and I came here because of you.”
To my astonishment she laughs. I bet that caused a few heads to turn in this place. She says, “Moron. Do not make an attachment to me. I’m nearly fifty – far too old for you, too wrecked physically and emotionally. I’m an alcoholic, I poison relationships and sleep around whenever I can. What we did in my tent was only to take my mind off things, all this fuck-up, for a while – nothing more.”
“It suited me.” I take a swig of her concoction. Shit, it must be half-and-half.
She takes the bottle and goes to pour some but the mug falls away from its handle, smashing on dirty concrete. Saying nothing, Jackie stares into the darkness for several minutes. “I’m pissed. It takes less and less these days. No… No, there are some people…” She falls silent again staring at nothing. “There are some children who grow up confused and bewildered by a world run by psychopaths. The children’s parents and other adults all believe what they’re told, and think as instructed until they’re brainwashed into accepting needless suffering as part of life, that greed, poverty and suppression can all be ignored – that it’s not their business. The poor child who still sees the truth is propelled on the conveyor belt of inculcation inescapably into an adult world of cruel insanity.” She pauses to smoke and take another drink. “The lucky ones, the sensible ones, have committed suicide by that time. The rest, some of them, do it more slowly with drugs and alcohol. Then,” she pauses for a deep drag, smoke escaping as puffs of words, “there are the stupid ones who discover caring for others eases the pain. They flood hospitals and become doctors and nurses, not realising that it’s only a temporary escape and the horror will always drag them down. They end up here, in refugee camps, in war zones, doing pitifully little for people who need everything.” There’s a flash and rumble of artillery fire in the distance behind hills. “Unaware what they’re doing, they smoke, drink, take drugs, sleep around, put themselves in danger again and again… It’s all yearning for the release the lucky ones chose as teenagers.” She stops to light a cigarette from the first. “I hope you weren’t thinking of taking me away from this. We’re down to maybe two thousand. Dysentery and typhoid of course. No food, no clean water. It’s always the civilians who end up worst – savaged, desolate and forgotten. I’ve had enough. This ship is going down and me with it.” Jackie shivers, flicking the stub away where it spins in the darkness, glowing, hits something and falls in a shower of sparks snuffed in foetid water. “There is no escape for me if it means going back into the cause of all this.”
I strip my jacket off and wrap it round her too-thin shoulders. “Is that child me or you?”
“That’s why I’m here. You’re the only person who understands. I’m so alone without you. The psychiatric staff only think you are sane if you are deluded as you’re taught to be.”
“You’re…” she chokes for a while, waving the cigarette in luminous zig-zags. “You’re staying?”
“With you, yes.” In the silence I add, “On your terms – it’s only ever on your terms – but I’m here now: with you.”
She laughs again, a cynical croak. “Well, fuck me!”
“In your tent if you like.”
She pushes back from the balustrade. “Let’s go before I pass out.”
©Gary Bonn, 2019