My mother was the war, he thought. She was a witch, a terrible demon, an eater of people, but she looked after me. It’s not my fault that I loved her.
The trail of smoke lay horizontal in the almost windless air, dark, cindery, humped into writhing snake-shapes which slowly lost their outline at the further end while the train puffed fresh hummocks into the scrawl as it took the long curve below the hills. Jilli and Paul had seen it coming for miles. Now they could hear it too.
They lay in a hollow they had scooped at the top of the embankment above the section of double track. The train they could see was bringing empty ore-trucks up from the coast. It would steam into the siding, halt and wait for the other train, laden with ore from the Baroba mines, to pass. Jilli and Paul had watched the procedure yesterday, from the other side, hiding in the nearest patch of uncleared bush, fifty yards away. Boarding the train wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as Paul had hoped.
All down the line the bush grew close along the track, but round the siding it had been poisoned and burnt. And though the war was over there were still armed guards on the trains, two men with AKs and two with a big machine-gun. The sides of the ore-trucks were higher than he’d expected, and once inside one you’d find yourself in a sort of giant’s cooking-pan under the tropic sun. You wouldn’t stay alive in there long. Yesterday’s up train had pulled a few goods-wagons behind the ore-trucks, three of them with tarpaulins. If you could get under one of those. . . But they’d been at the rear of the train, almost next to the guard’s van, where the machine-gun was set up. The top of the embankment that end was a stony outcrop. There was no hiding there.
Yesterday there had been just one moment when the other train had come through, and the bored men on the waiting train had leaned out and yelled greetings and insults to their friends, and craned further for a while, watching the other guard’s-van dwindle towards the coast. It would have to be then.
And it would have to be today. Joel had given them a spare flask and they’d brought all the water they could carry, caching most of it while they fetched the AK, but now it was almost gone. There was just about enough to see them through to tomorrow morning.
The train neared. The wail of its whistle drifted through the roasting air. Now they could hear the hammer of iron wheels on the rail-joints. The rhythm slowed, then stopped in the bang-bang-bang of closing buffers. The two Warriors lay still, not raising their heads, knowing that this was a moment of alert, with the soldiers looking around while the fireman climbed down to change the points.
With a fresh whoosh the train came on. The links between the trucks banged taut. The hiss and thud of the pistons and the whump of expelled gases passed below. They smelt the coaly breath, felt the shadow of the smoke pass over, heard another big sigh of steam, ending with the triple wail of the whistle.
Paul counted to a hundred, then lifted his head till he could see along the top of the embankment with his right eye. Nothing. And nothing the other way. Delicately he peeped further. They had spread the spoil from the hollow they’d made into a low mound which looked flat from any distance, but had left notches in the parapet through which they could see the line below. None of the soldiers yesterday had bothered to climb the embankment. It was mid-afternoon, in the hot season. The war was over.
Directly below stood the line of empty ore-trucks, battered and rusty, the metal of their tall sides seeming to quiver with heat as they absorbed the sun. A soldier was leaning out of the van behind the tender, talking to the fireman. The other way, at the rear of the train, as yesterday, were a few goods-wagons. Only the leading one, which was a flat-top, had a tarpaulin, covering some kind of large crate at the rear and sloping at the front down over something lower and more curved. It might have been a small car. There’d be room in beside it, anyway, for a couple of bodies. If they could get there.
A soldier was examining the lashings on the tarpaulin. As he straightened Paul saw that he was a corporal, in good new fatigues, and wearing a bright purple beret. Paul could see two men at the machine-gun in the open-sided guard’s-van, so he wasn’t one of the regular guards. They were a slovenly lot, anyway.
Now across the silent bush, faint but clear, floated the sound of a whistle. The waiting train answered with a double hoot. Paul’s heart began to hammer, as it always did before action. He could feel the adrenalin tingle through his bloodstream. The distant whistle came again, nearer now, and now they could hear the noise of the train itself, pounding steadily on down the slight gradient. Paul nudged Jilli to get ready and heard her answering murmur. The coming train barely slowed. He checked that the sling of the AK was settled on his shoulder over the satchel strap, gripped the handle of the flask and tensed. The next whistle-hoot was almost on top of him. The engine came hammering through.
‘Now!’ he yelled, rose, and careered down the slope, straight at the nearest truck. Reaching it he turned right and raced along beside the track. The slight curve of the siding meant that the trucks themselves hid him from the soldiers at either end, but the cover narrowed the closer he came. There’d be a stretch where he’d be in view from the guard’s-van if anyone was looking this way. With two ore-trucks still to go he ducked in under the buffers and started to wriggle his way through.
The bodies of the trucks were slung lower than the axles, sloping down at the centre till they barely cleared the sleepers, but there was just space to squirm through on elbows and knees, after sliding the AK round so that it hung along his chest. He dragged the water-flask through after him. It was slow going. He could hear Jilli, less encumbered, gasping close behind. The noises of the other train were dwindling away. Men’s voices were calling. He was halfway through under the last truck when he heard the rattle of points. He wriggled on. The whistle sounded as he rose into the gap in front of the first goods-wagon and slung the flask up on to the loose slope of the tarpaulin. Jilli rose panting beside him. He grabbed her under the arms and lifted her bodily up as the bang of tautening links closed in. Just as the wagon jerked forward he heaved himself up and hung with his belly against the edge of the flat-top and his legs dangling.
Jilli hadn’t been ready for the acceleration, which sprawled her back on to the slope of the tarpaulin. The water-flask began to slide. He slung a leg up and stopped it with his knee.
‘Help! Quick!’ he called.
She wriggled herself across and grabbed the handle, then lay there while Paul twisted himself round to perch on the edge of the flat-top. He helped her up to sit beside him. The rails and sleepers swept dizzyingly below. The bush spun past on either side. The wall of the ore-truck in front blasted the sun’s heat at them. The wheels hammered deafeningly on the uneven track. Their spines juddered at every rail-joint.
Panting, Paul looked across at Jilli. She’d never done anything like this before, never known this clamour of man-shaped iron or felt such shaking onrush, such obvious danger if she should fall beneath the pounding wheels. He could see she was scared, but still she was laughing with triumph.
‘We’re going to Dangoum!’ she crowed.
Paul laughed too. He gripped the rim of the truck with his left hand, lifted his AK free and raised it overhead in the guerrilla salute.
‘Basso-Iskani!’ he shouted. ‘You’d best watch out! The Warriors are coming to get you!’Excerpt from AK, copyright © Peter Dickinson 1990