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This Side Jordan

This Side Jordan

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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One  The six boys were playing the Fire Highlife, playing it with a beat urgent as love. And Johnnie Kestoe, who didn't like Africans, was dancing the highlife with an African girl. Charity's scarlet smile mocked his attempts to rotate his shoulders and wriggle his European hips to the music. Her own fleshy hips and buttocks swayed easily, and her big young breasts, unspoiled by children and only lightly held by her pink blouse, rose and fell as though the music were her breath. Johnnie grinned awkwardly at her, then he jerked his head away. 'Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah- ma,Fiyah deah come – baby!Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah- ma,Fiyah deah come – ah ah!I went to see my lovely boy,Lovely boy I love so well –' At one of the tables around the outdoor dance floor, a young European woman watched thoughtfully. At another table an African man watched, then turned away and spat. Both were angry, and with the same person.  Music was the clothing of West African highlife, but rhythm its blood and bone. This music was sophisticated. It was modern. It was new. To hell with the ritual tribal dance, the drums with voices ancient as the forest. The torn leaves of the palm trees shivered in the wind and the strings of fairy lights glittered like glass beads in the musty courtyard. The dancers themselves did not analyse the highlife any more than they analysed the force that had brought them all together here, to a nightclub called 'Weekend In Wyoming', the wealthy and the struggling, the owners of chauffeur-driven Jaguars and the riders of bicycles. They were bound together, nevertheless, by the music and their need of it. Africa has danced pain and love since the first man was born from its red soil. But the ancient drums could no longer summon the people who danced here. The highlife was their music. For they, too, were modern. They, too, were new. And yet the old rhythms still beat strongly in this highlife in the centre of Accra, amid the taxi horns, just as a few miles away, in Jamestown or Labadi, they pulsed through the drums while the fetish priestess with ash- smeared cheeks whirled to express the unutterable, and the drummer's eyes grew glassy and still, his soul drugged more powerfully than the body could be. Into the brash contemporary patterns of this Africa's fabric were woven symbols old as the sun- king, old as the oldest continent.

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True Patriots



Claire gave the order. She could feel the gaze of her crew. Would she deliberately kill? She’d been captain for barely two months. Too junior. Not tested. And a woman.

Only minutes earlier, she had watched endless waves pound a small fishing boat, the spray and incessant snow rendering it invisible at times, despite the blazing cone of light from the helicopter above. Off the coast of Nova Scotia, the winter nor’easter that had paralyzed New England with two feet of powder retained enough of its fury to imperil any ocean vessel.

A kilometre away, the CH-149 Cormorant, shaking violently a few wave heights above the turbulent ocean, was trying to keep its searchlight fixed on the ship that bucked between mountains of water.

“It’s the MV Atlantic Mariner. Out of Boston,” the pilot said over the radio.

Claire squeezed the microphone dangling from the ceiling. “Captain O’Brien, do you see anyone on board?”

A moment of white noise and then, “There must be. Will advise.”

The sailor manning the radio on the bridge of the coastal patrol vessel HMCS Kingston, Petty Officer Second Class Sullivan, turned to Claire. “Maritime Command said that the vessel never acknowledged radio contact, ma’am.”
“They never asked for any help.” Lieutenant Wiseman, executive officer and second-in-command, brushed past in the tight space, as Claire sat in the captain’s chair.

“Doesn’t matter, XO.” Something’s not right, Claire thought.

“There’s no transponder signal,” Sullivan said.

“We’re not going anywhere.” My first rescue.

“It must have drifted.”

Wiseman nodded. “And it looks like a lobster boat anyway.”

“Isn’t lobster season here in the spring?” Sullivan kept his gaze on the radio’s lights and buttons.

“Agreed.” Claire leaned forward in thought. “There’s something weird about this. We keep trying.”

“They shouldn’t be out in this storm, ma’am,” said Sullivan. “How could they not have seen it coming?”

O’Brien’s voice crackled on the radio: “No one sighted. Do you want us to continue?”

Claire framed the distressed vessel in her binoculars for a moment, lowered them, then pointed to Wiseman. “Distance to target?”

“Weather’s interfering with radar accuracy.”

“Best guess.”

“Three thousand metres and closing, ma’am.” She noticed a new spike of stress in Wiseman’s voice.

Claire raised her binoculars, flicked some loose strands of hair out of the way, and continued looking at the tiny shaft of light blinking between shifting mounds of black water. My first chance to do something good. She’d wait it out. She grabbed the microphone again and squeezed the button. “O’Brien, this is the Kingston. Hold position. Continue the search. Advise when low on fuel.”

“Acknowledged.” A moment later, the pilot’s voice returned with a new edge. “There’s someone down there.”

Claire saw it, too. A single dark figure emerged from the bridge of the helpless vessel. The helo narrowed the spotlight until the person stood like an actor alone on a stage. The man — he walked like a man even at this distance — took a few steps and held what appeared to be a short pole.

Wiseman turned to her. “Vessel at two degrees starboard, ma’am. Range, one kilometre.” A change in the familiar background rustle told her that the six-person bridge crew had moved into a higher state of readiness.

She saw the fishing boat suddenly spring to life, with running lights bright. The boat swung toward the Kingston, appearing as a small supernova against the black of the frothing sea.

This was not a normal reaction. “XO, report,” she said. Wiseman watched the radar display for a moment. “Target approaching. Ten knots and accelerating.”

Don’t they want to be rescued? “Collision course?”

Wiseman turned to face her. “Roger, ma’am.”

Was the boat deliberately trying to collide with the Kingston? They were supposed to be on a rescue mission. None of the threat simulations during her training at CFB Esquimalt had ever foreseen this situation. She remembered what her instructor had said: When in doubt …

“Sound action stations,” she ordered.

A perceptible pause told her they were wondering if she was serious. Then the XO acknowledged her command. “Roger, ma’am. Sounding action stations.” Most of the crew was older than her thirty-one years, and she wasn’t sure how they would react to a new and untested officer in what might become a crisis.

The looping klaxon blared on the bridge and throughout the ship.

“Ship-to-ship.” She pointed to Sullivan.

“Ready, ma’am.”

She gripped the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner. This is the captain of the HMCS Kingston. We are here to assist you. Acknowledge.”

Only static crackled on the speaker.

“Repeat message every thirty seconds.”

“Aye aye, ma’am.” Sullivan scribbled the message on a small pad.

She didn’t have much discretion as the captain of a coastal patrol vessel. She needed permission from her superiors back in Halifax to use the Bofors 40-mm cannon that could annihilate the boat in one shot. With a long chain of command that went up to the minister of defence, she was unlikely to get it within a day. Until then, she could use the M2 0.50-calibre machine gun mounted to the starboard side of the bridge.

She had a single machine gun to defend the ship.

But was the fishing boat a threat? Its action was strange and unexpected, but she wasn’t sure if it posed a danger or if there was some other, more innocent explanation. Maybe the boat’s crew was merely trying to get closer to aid in their rescue.

Any threat situation had to meet three criteria. First, there was intent. The boat hadn’t threatened anyone. It seemed to ignore the helicopter with the blazing light.
“Let’s see if that ship is deliberately trying to ram us. Steer one three five.”

The helmsman repeated her command and swung the wheel.

She grabbed on to the overhead handle as the ship veered dramatically to the right, still pitched by wave after wave. She watched the fishing boat’s reaction.

“Midships,” she said. The light from the Atlantic Mariner dimmed for a moment, then quickly brightened again.
“Target is following our move, ma’am,” said the petty officer on the bridge, scanning the fishing boat from the bow.
So that’s intent, Claire thought. Or do they just want to get rescued? Why didn’t they acknowledge our hail or the helicopter hovering above them? Her indecision felt familiar: Should she pursue a law degree and satisfy her parents’ ambitions, or join the navy?

Simple. Keep it simple. Stick with the three criteria, she told herself.

The second criterion was proximity.

“Distance?” she called.

“Six hundred metres. Closing at thirty knots,” said the navigator. A quick mental calculation and she estimated that the boat would penetrate the ship’s three-hundredmetre safety perimeter in less than twenty seconds. Then she would consider it a mortal threat.

Seconds to decide.

O’Brien returned on the radio. “There’s something else, Kingston …

She watched the man and saw the pole shift until it pointed directly at the helicopter.

“RPG! RPG!” O’Brien’s voice sounded more angry than scared.
A flash from the ship ahead.

The rocket-propelled grenade ripped past the chopper as it banked sharply to the right, dipped, and accelerated away.
“Confirm RPG,” Claire said into the microphone, suddenly oblivious to the klaxon blaring in the bridge.

Captain O’Brien answered in short bursts over the radio. “RPG. Confirmed. Taking evasive action.” She could see the helicopter veer away from the boat at an extreme angle.

“Did they just fire at the helo?” said Claire to no one in particular, standing in disbelief.

Wiseman looked at the tactical screen in front of him. “They missed, ma’am. The helo is leaving at high speed. Recommend we do the same.”

She hopped back into the captain’s chair and glowered at the XO. The MV Atlantic Mariner now satisfied the third criterion: capability. They had a weapon that was a threat to the ship and her crew. One RPG could do serious damage to the bridge or the engines, or blast a hole below the waterline, potentially sinking the ship.

“Close up, M2,” she ordered. It was the only weapon she could command in the time that she had. You couldn’t stop the boat with the gun, but you could stop her crew. “Target their bridge. Now.”

She stared into the XO’s eyes until he repeated the command.

The sailor hesitated for a second before answering “Aye aye, ma’am” over the commlink. She could feel the gaze of the other crew on the bridge. Their unease about her qualifications as captain weighed on her like a physical force. Too young. Too inexperienced. Too female. She fought her drifting doubts. “Ship-to-ship,” she said to Sullivan.

He flicked a switch on the radio console. “Ready, ma’am.”

She yanked the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner, this is the Canadian warship HMCS Kingston. We are trying to assist you. You have fired on our helicopter without known reason. Do not approach this ship. Stop your engines, cease fire, and acknowledge, or we will fire upon you.”

She stood up again. “Range and speed,” she said with a distinctly more serious tone: one she knew the crew would notice.

“Four hundred metres. Thirty knots.”

She squeezed the mike in her hand. “I say again. Stop your engines and acknowledge or we will fire upon you.”

Only a few seconds before it got too close.

“Three hundred metres.”

The boat had just entered her exclusion zone.

“Any change?”

Wiseman said, “No, ma’am. Collision course. Recommend —”

“M2.” She heard herself gulp over the noise of the bridge. “Open fire.”

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It was not gradual. For at least several seconds Lota lingered, drifting among images from dreams she no longer recalled. But then the images vanished, the dream dissolved. She sat up in bed, already fully awake.
   Her clothes had been laid out carefully the night before and now she dressed quickly in a pair of army-green cargo pants and a cobalt football jersey with the Brazilian national team’s logo on the front nearly rubbed out.
   The room was rented. Up three crooked flights of stairs in an old cable company building that used to house the foreign workers. These days, foreigners hardly ever came to the island and, whenever they did, they were flown in and out at the north end. They did their work at the new cable station that had been constructed there, and never actually set foot in town.
   Lota had been in the room six months, but it was still nearly as bare as when she’d first arrived. She’d hardly unpacked, was still living out of a single suitcase. There really was nowhere to unpack, even if she’d wanted to. The room had no closet, or drawers of any kind — only a single bed in the corner and a small table beside it, which supported a cheap porcelain lamp. Also on the table were Lota’s mobile phone and a glass of water, half drunk. Her suitcase, in the middle of the floor, gaped.
Opposite the bed and next to the door were a small sink and mirror. A bar of soap, a comb, and a toothbrush balanced on the rounded edge of the sink. Lota stood in front of the mir­ror now, gazing at her reflection in the spotted glass. The room was so narrow that if the door beside her opened she would need to step aside.
   But the door never opened, except when Lota herself en­tered and left the room. No one came to visit, or even knew where she lived. Her family in the village believed she lived with her auntie Toni, in the shopping district. No one had in fact spoken with Aunt Toni in many years and she didn’t have a tele­phone. It was safe, therefore, to say, “I am living with Auntie.” Nobody questioned her, but neither would they have known where to look for her if they’d needed to. Lota went back to the village frequently enough that the idea never crossed their minds. She saved just enough of her salary, and she brought it home every two weeks, along with tinned meat, potato chips, toilet paper, and other odds and ends from town.
   She worked at the fish plant, fifty hours a week, and when she wasn’t working she was either at the gym or at headquar­ters. By the time she got back to her room, she just fell into bed —sometimes without taking off her shoes.
   Lota splashed cold water onto her face and examined her reflection. The mirror was chipped in the corner and the glass rusted. In places it was difficult to tell what spots were the spots on the glass and what spots were her own. She was naturally freckled, like her redheaded grandmother.
   It was not white blood that ran in their family, her mother used to say: it was fire. The family could count back one thou­sand generations, knew how they were related to the sea, the sky, and to the hot lava that boiled beneath them. But like prac­tically everyone else on the island, her mother never spoke of the family’s white ancestors: the Irish and German settlers who’d come for the sugar trade, their colonial masters, or those — from all over Europe and America — who’d arrived on the island along with the first telegraph wire.
   In the old days, “white ghosts” had flooded the island and practically every islander was employed by one. The grandparents recalled this time fondly now, but whenever they spoke of it it was always as if the “white ghosts” had just been passing through. As if they belonged — and could only belong — nowhere, to no one.
   Yes, in those days, the old people said, there’d been a sta­tion, long since demolished, nicknamed “the old chateau.” It had had something like fifty rooms, including a billiard room, a dance hall, and a library. There’d been little electric bells in every bathroom that when rung would almost instantly sum­mon a Chinese servant.
   After the war, a new station was constructed with none of these finer points. It was located underground in an old fallout shelter with twenty-four-inch-thick walls; the only luxury in the place was a wall of showers where employees could wash off radioactive material in case of a nuclear attack. But at least there were still jobs. Lota’s father had been em­ployed there, briefly — and her grandfather and great-grandfather before him. But in less than a generation, everything had changed. Ø Com, the Danish outfit that acquired the station in the late seventies, laid off nearly all local workers, then simply stopped hiring.
   They built an even newer station on the island’s north end, so that what had once been the “new station” became the “old” or the “main” station and the even newer one was referred to as the “outer station” — if it was ever referred to at all.
   Mostly, because no one who lived on the island had ever set foot there, they didn’t call it anything, and half the time they even seemed to forget it existed. The work at both stations was done remotely these days, using computers, or else was too specialized for the undertrained local employees. Technicians and engineers were flown in for monthly service trips, and though a handful of islanders had been hired at the main sta­tion as janitors, desk clerks, or guards, no one but foreigners ever visited the outer station. It was as if, even before it was constructed, it had already disappeared: every official depiction of the island after 1982 left the entire northern end —occupied by the Empire, and by Ø — entirely blank.
   The island’s history was another blank spot. Except on very rare occasions, no one spoke of the day that, nearly fifty-five years ago, they’d looked up and — miracle of miracles! — seen snow raining down slowly from the sky. Or about the sixteen years they’d spent after that living as refugees on the Surigao coast. 
   They didn’t talk about the war, either — in which more than half of the island’s young men had fought and died on behalf of the Empire. Or, except in passing, of the telegraph days, or of sugarcane, or of sandalwood, or of coconut oil. It was really no wonder, then, when you thought about it, that, aside from sto­ries of boiling hot lava and fire, no one seemed to recall exactly how light skin and red hair had got into the blood.

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