Star of Africa, p.4Scott Mariani
The other was a young British ex-infantryman who went by the name of Tuesday Fletcher. He was twenty-four, had done three years with the Royal Fusiliers and seen some warm action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. His ambition, though, had been to become the first British Jamaican ever to qualify for 22 SAS. An ambition he might have achieved, if he hadn’t taken a bad fall during the endurance phase of selection testing in the Brecon Beacons. Tumbling down a rocky hillside with fifty kilos of gear on his back, Tuesday had broken four ribs, his left wrist, his left femur and his tibia in two places. When he’d bounced back two months later, still temporarily on crutches after complications and surgery, his military career was over.
‘He got a shitty deal from them, if you ask me,’ Jeff said. ‘But that’s the army for you. Won’t be long before they’ve got more Health and Safety officers than they have combatants.’
‘What’s he doing here?’ Ben asked.
‘Sniper trainer,’ Jeff said. ‘He’s got some skill with the rifle, I tell you. Better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Better than you, even.’
‘No, I mean, what brought him here?’
Jeff smiled. ‘He wanted to work with you, Ben. I had to tell him your absence was just temporary, or he wouldn’t have taken the job. Said they still talk about you in the Sass. Said you’re his idol. Said—’
‘I get the message,’ Ben said irritably.
Jeff smiled wider. ‘You never did take compliments well. Tough shit, ’cause I’ve got another one for you. I suppose you must’ve heard the news about old man Kaprisky?’
Auguste Kaprisky was an eighty-one-year-old Swiss-French billionaire with a château and estate near Le Mans, who couldn’t spend enough on personal security. While still at Le Val, Ben had provided advanced VIP protection training to his small army of bodyguards.
‘No, what about him?’ Ben asked.
‘It was all over the TV for a while. You must have been, um, busy.’
‘You know I don’t watch TV.’
‘You know I don’t read those either.’
‘How can you know what goes on in the world if you don’t follow the news?’
‘Because the less you follow the news,’ Ben said, ‘the more you know what goes on.’
‘You’re weird, you know that?’ Jeff shrugged. ‘Anyway, couple months back, a business rival of his went crazy over some lost deal or other that cost them a packet, got hold of an Uzi from somewhere and took a pop at the old boy.’
‘Is he dead?’
Jeff shook his head. ‘About a thousand holes in his house, but the ninjas took the bad guy down in short order. Nice job, too. Kaprisky swears he wouldn’t have survived it if we hadn’t trained up his team so well. You got a very nice letter of thanks, which I took the liberty of opening in your absence. Usual kind of thing, “Ben Hope saved my life; Ben Hope kicks arse; Ben Hope walks on water”, etc., etc., blah, blah, and there’s nothing he won’t do for us in return. He’s also recommended us to a bunch of his rich pals, three of whom have already been in touch wanting to make bookings.’
Ben disliked the spotlight, but he was pleased to hear things were going well. So far, though, he noticed, Jeff hadn’t said anything about Jude being there. Which Ben thought was a little odd, so he decided to raise the subject himself.
‘I gather you have a visitor?’ he said. ‘Someone I might know?’
Jeff’s hesitation in replying gave away what Ben already suspected. ‘He told you not to tell me, didn’t he? Why? Where is he?’
‘He’s not here,’ Jeff said.
‘Don’t fuck about with me, Jeff.’
‘I’m not. He was here, for the last seven weeks. But you missed him. He’s gone.’
‘What was he doing here?’ Ben asked. ‘Seven weeks?’
‘He wanted to do some training. That’s what we do here, isn’t it?’
‘Training for what?’ Ben said suspiciously.
Jeff looked at him. ‘What is it with you two? First he’s all cagey about you finding out he was here. Now you’re firing questions at me, like it’s such a big deal. Why get so het up about what Jude wants to do? He’s over twenty-one, isn’t he?’
‘So what? I know you were close with his folks, but—’
‘Training for what, Jeff?’
‘Navy,’ Jeff said with a sigh. ‘Why he asked me not to tell you, it beats me. But now I have, so do me a favour and keep it to yourself, okay?’
Ben set his wineglass down. ‘He wants to join the navy?’
‘That’s what I said. He’s serious, too. Got the initial interview lined up in February, then the medical and PJFT two weeks later.’ Jeff was talking about the Royal Navy’s strenuous pre-joining fitness test, which all recruits had to pass before they could even commence the ordeal of basic training. ‘So when he called me and said he wanted to get in shape and talk to me about what navy life was like, I said no problem, come over.’
‘I see,’ Ben said, tapping his glass with a fingertip.
‘He’s a natural,’ Jeff said. ‘Always saying how much he loves the sea, so I took him up to the Pointe de Barfleur to watch him swim. He’s like a bloody fish in the water. Then we did weapons training, physio, technical knowledge, the works. He won’t have a problem getting past the tests. In fact I’ll eat my boots if he doesn’t come top of the class in all of them. Where he gets it from, vicar’s son and all that, who knows?’
Jeff went on, ‘So, yeah, he hung around for a few weeks, helping out around the place to earn his keep. I enjoyed having him here, and he had a good time too, even if I worked him like a bastard. Like I said, you just missed him. He left for Africa this morning.’
Ben blinked and thought for a second that he must have misheard. ‘Africa?’
‘Strictly speaking, he left here for Oman,’ Jeff said. ‘And he won’t be in Africa unless he goes ashore when they touch at port, he’ll be off Africa. South from the Port of Salalah, around the horn and down the east coast to Mombasa. He’s got himself a crewman gig on the MV Svalgaard Andromeda.’
‘A merchant vessel?’
Jeff nodded. ‘Big Yank container ship, one of the Svalgaard Line. It’s a good way for him to get the feel of things, learn about life at sea before he goes in at the deep end, so to speak. Wants to put a bit of money under his belt, too.’
‘And I suppose it was you who set this up for him?’ Ben asked.
Jeff nodded again. ‘I know a guy who knows a guy, the usual thing. All it took was a couple of calls. Where’s the bloody harm?’
Ben felt his rising frustration reddening into anger. ‘Jude doesn’t need to take a job like that to earn money. He has plenty already. He inherited everything from his parents when they died.’ It still upset Ben to think about his old friends, and the car smash that had claimed both their lives that terrible December night, just a few miles from their village in rural Oxfordshire.
‘Not what he told me,’ Jeff said. ‘He said he’s skint. Doesn’t have the nails to scratch himself with. All he has is the house, and he doesn’t want to sell it. They didn’t leave him much else. I don’t think vicars earn a heck of a lot.’
‘Anyway, that’s not the point,’ Ben said irritably. ‘I don’t want him joining the navy. Or the army, or the RAF, or anything else.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘It’s just not the kind of life I see for him,’ Ben said.
‘The kind of life you see for him? What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You heard me,’ Ben said. Their voices were rising. ‘I’m not happy about this, Jeff. You should have cleared it with me first.’
‘Oh, right. Like I needed your permission to show him a few things and help him on his way doing something he’s got his mind set on?’
‘That’s the whole point,’ Ben said. ‘He’s stubborn, and he’s wilful, and he’ll throw himself into any risky situ
‘What are you getting so uptight about anyway? Jesus Christ, you talk as if he was your bloody son.’
Ben was silent a beat.
Then said, ‘Jeff, he is my son.’
Jeff sat back in his chair, stunned. ‘Are you kidding me? How can that be?’
‘It just is,’ Ben said.
Jeff stared at Ben, scrutinising his face as if he was seeing him for the first time. ‘It’s obvious, really, when you think about it.’
‘He’s got your eyes. And your chin. Hair colour too.’
‘If that was all he had of mine, it wouldn’t be a problem.’
‘But now I’m confused. Only a minute ago, you said his parents left him money when they died.’
‘That’s just what Jude thought.’
Jeff frowned, even more confused. ‘So … his father wasn’t a vicar at all.’
‘That’s the whole point, isn’t it?’ Ben said. ‘I wish he had been. Simeon was a good man. A better one than me, that’s for sure.’
‘Then … what about his mother?’
‘His mother was his mother. Michaela Arundel.’
‘Then you and she—’
‘You’re the last guy I’d imagine believing in Immaculate Conception,’ Ben said. ‘Obviously, yes.’
‘When did this happen?’
‘Uh, at a rough guess, I’d say Jude’s age plus nine months ago,’ Ben said. ‘It was when we were all students together, long before she and Simeon were married. Simeon knew all about it. She never tried to pretend that it was anything other than it was.’
Jeff was staring at him in amazement. ‘And what about Jude, does he know?’
‘It was agreed to keep it secret from him. He only found out the truth by chance, after they died. It was a bit rocky at first, but he accepts it.’ Which wasn’t strictly accurate, but it was the best Ben could do to describe their faltering relationship without getting into the painful details. The reality was that they hadn’t spoken in well over a year, and Ben could easily imagine more years going by before they spoke again, if ever. The last words his son had said to him still resonated in his mind.
‘Oh, just fuck off, Dad.’
Jeff was still stunned. ‘Who else knows about this? Does Brooke know?’
‘Him too,’ Ben said.
‘Then how come you never told me?’
‘You were there when I told Boonzie.’
‘Right after the thing in the Gulf of Finland. Can I help it if you weren’t paying attention?’
‘I’d just taken a bloody rifle bullet in the leg,’ Jeff said.
‘It hardly touched you.’
‘I was unconscious, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Then you should have woken up. I can’t be repeating myself all the time.’
‘It’s not fair. How come I’m always the last to know these things? How come the others never told me either?’
‘Maybe they thought you lacked the emotional maturity to be able to handle it,’ Ben said. ‘So now you know. And that’s why I don’t want him joining the damn services. The last thing I need is Jude following in my footsteps. Next thing he’ll be wanting to do something even more stupid, like get it into his head to try out for Special Forces.’
Back in Ben and Jeff’s day, SAS and SBS recruits had undergone separate selection processes; nowadays it was all run together under the joint auspices of UKSF. The few who survived the ninety percent failure rate were then streamed into their different divisions. In addition to the torture of hill marching, jungle combat, parachute, survival, evasion and resistance to interrogation training, Special Boat Service candidates were put through battle swimming and progressive dive tests in order to qualify as Swimmer Canoeists, before ultimately going on to join an operational squadron.
Jeff went quiet.
Ben narrowed his eyes. ‘He didn’t. Did he?’
‘He did. I’m sorry. He went on about it quite a bit.’
‘And of course, you didn’t try to talk him out of it. Did you, Jeff?’
‘Give me a break. He wanted to know what it’s like in the SBS. How to apply to get in, what the training involves, what it takes to get badged, the kind of life it is, and all that sort of stuff. What was I supposed to do, refuse to tell him? He could’ve found most of it out online anyway. All I did was add in a few details. The kind of stuff you’d only know about if you’d been there and done it. I had to give him a proper idea, didn’t I? I mean, he asked me, for fuck’s sake.’
But Ben knew there was little point in arguing. Jude was gone, and as usual, Ben hadn’t been there for him. It was the story of their whole relationship, from day one.
‘He’s got a fire in the belly, Ben. Just like we had at his age. You can’t stop him, if that’s what he wants to do. Maybe it’s in the blood.’
‘Yeah. I know,’ Ben said. ‘That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.’
Port of Salalah, Oman
Two days later
When he climbed out of the taxi, still lagged from the long flight, and followed the directions he’d been given through the thirty-degree heat and clamour of the bustling port to where the Svalgaard Andromeda lay moored at the dockside, Jude’s first impression was of the ship’s sheer enormity. He’d expected it to be large, but checking out images on Google and seeing it for real were two completely different things.
For a few moments, planted on the dock clutching his backpack and surrounded by busy workers running here and there, forklift trucks zapping to and fro and the general noisy activity of the largest commercial seaport in Oman, all Jude could do was boggle at the overwhelming vastness of what was to be his home and workplace for the next little while.
It looked more like a floating city than a boat. Stretching over nine hundred feet from end to end, it was longer than the Trump World Tower in New York laid on its side. The black, rust-streaked sides of its hull towered over the dock with SVALGAARD LINE, the name of America’s fifth-largest shipping company, painted in white letters twenty feet high. Most of the vessel was deck, which by the time Jude arrived at port was already in the final stages of being stacked high with cargo by the ship’s on-board forty-foot cranes. As he already knew from his web browsing, Andromeda had been built in 2007 and was listed as a Panamax-class vessel rated at 4,000 TEU capacity, which meant simply that she could accommodate four thousand twenty-foot-equivalent units of intermodal shipping containers. As he would later learn, the mixed cargo on this voyage consisted of vast quantities of electrical goods, generators, building supplies, agricultural equipment, tyres, and a million other items due for delivery to the various ports they would be visiting as they cruised southwards across the Indian Ocean on what was known as the East Africa run: stopping off at Djibouti, the Kenyan port of Mombasa and, finally, Dar es Salaam.
‘Well, here I am,’ Jude muttered to himself. This was it. There was no turning back now. The slight nervousness he’d felt ever since Jeff Dekker had lined him up with this job was intermingled with excitement at the prospect of going to sea for the first time as a real mariner, one of the ABs, short for able-bodied seamen, who crewed the ship along with the engine room team, the mates and the captain himself.
As he walked up the gangway he was met by a ruddy-faced, sandy-haired American wearing an open-necked khaki shirt and a look of harassed urgency, who briskly welcomed him aboard and introduced himself as Jack Skinner, ship’s bosun.
‘No time to give you the guided tour right now,’ Skinner explained. ‘Just do what you’re told and try not to get in the way, okay?’ Which was fine by Jude, even if the guy’s manner was a little short. Jude figured he’d have to get used to that kind of thing if he wanted to join the Royal Navy. Skinner quickly handed him
‘You a Limey, right?’ Mitch asked with a gap-toothed grin. ‘I sailed with Polaks, Krauts, Gooks, Jappos, Eye-ties, all sorts. Never sailed with a Limey before.’
Welcome to the United Nations. ‘Got a problem with it?’ Jude said.
Mitch shrugged. ‘So what’s your story? You don’t look like no sailor to me. More like a college boy. Daddy’s a lawyer, right? Or a doctor. Wants you to join the family firm and this is your way of telling’m to go screw himself.’
‘I’m not a college boy,’ Jude said firmly. ‘I’m anything but that.’
Mitch grinned again and punched him in the arm. ‘Hey, just fucking with you, man. Lighten up. Betcha I’m right, though, huh? The daddy thing?’
Jude felt like telling him to keep his nose out of his business, but that didn’t feel like the best start to a happy working relationship with his fellow crewmen.
‘My father’s dead,’ he said after a beat, and then repeated it, as if somehow he had to make it doubly true. To have lost one father, only to discover another you didn’t want to know – that had been a difficult and confusing time and he wanted to put it behind him. Closure was the best way. ‘My father’s dead. So’s my mother. There is no family firm. No family at all. Just me.’
Star of Africa by Scott Mariani / History & Fiction have rating 1 out of 5 / Based on2 votes