At last, water. One plastic cup, three-quarters full. He hands it over and a tremor assaults me, causing the surface to ripple. Instinctively my grip tightens and the plastic crinkles, the water rising to the lip. Snatching a breath I loosen my hold, my eyes locked on the cup – the roll and break, miniature waves crashing. I try to steady myself with a deep breath…but some water spills. He then smacks my hand with his baton and the cup falls.
He stares at me, the silence between us thumping in my ears. I avoid eye contact and look down, the tip of his baton on the cup, crushing it. Sweat drips into my eyes and I feel unsteady. Outside, beyond these four walls, dogs bark…and a man screams.
I force a smile, still trying to play the game. ‘Your friends are having more fun than you, huh?’
‘You want me to take you to them?’
Feeling light-headed I close my eyes, his words dislocated, disembodied, bouncing around my empty head. Drunk with fatigue, I laugh, ‘You know you can’t do that.’ I mop my brow, sufficient sense returning to feel him bristle. With a rare point scored my laugh deepens before he whacks me on the knee.
I crumple, cradle myself. ‘Don’t get too comfortable,’ he states, standing astride me. ‘There’s plenty I can do.’
I gulp for air in between waves of tropic heat. Holding my knee with both hands, sweat once again runs freely down my face.
‘For you, time is running out. My bosses will soon expect answers. And if they aren’t happy, we hand you over.’ He stays standing over me, a bag of bones on the floor.
‘So that’s easy for you, then. Wash your hands of me…give your Sponsors what they want.’
‘To hell with what they want. Is that what you want?’
His faux concern throws me; an unexpected move in this game. I try to process, digest his words, but that lost cup of water is now haunting me. When I make to speak, my tongue feels like sandpaper in my mouth.
‘Why do you care?’
He raises his baton to strike me once more, his eyes furious.
Unable to rise, I hold up a hand. ‘Stop…please.’
He hesitates, adjusts, then rams the butt into my stomach. Bent double I wretch, but there is nothing to expel.
‘I don’t care for our Sponsors…it’s our country that matters,’ he yells. Pain, thirst and the blast of noise crash inside my head. I keel over. He steps toward me, the cap of one boot nuzzling my body. Curled up at his feet, I can only play dead. ‘And my guess is, you feel the same way. Am I right, ‘Bro’?’ Sniggering at his own joke he nudges me with his boot, like one might do with roadkill.
That entitlement…the surety of the well-fed lackey. It burns me now as it did as a kid, as an urchin, as a nobody. Before ‘The Movement’ began – all those years ago. “If you cared for our country, you’d be with us. Not propping up our enemies for thirty pieces of silver.”
He withdraws his boot and meets my eyes, holding his downward gaze. I look away, readying myself for the end.
‘You should know that your recipe is already cooked. For our Sponsors, you are…how do they say it…the “main man” ’. And for a moment he is elsewhere, tickled by foreign words. The spell breaks when he catches me observing him. He expels phlegm, the glob of sputum missing my face, though mist from his spittle sprays me. ‘If they weren’t so interested in you, I’d have fed you to the dogs.’
‘Go ahead,’ I say, swallowing a mortal dread. ‘You’ll only strengthen The Movement.’
‘And what is The Movement for? What are you fighting for?’
‘Freedom. From you, your bosses and your Sponsors.’
‘And what will you do with your freedom?’
‘It doesn’t matter. We want to be free…not under the yoke of some foreign power.’
‘But I insist, what will you do, once you are free? You must have some plan, no?’
He places a foot on my head. Though he applies no pressure I instantly recoil and try to stand.
‘We will build a just society. One that gives pride to the common man!’
His laugh runs deep, is unscripted – not part of this game. When re-composed his eyes seem lighter, his menace lifted, and that hurts more than the baton.
‘But we were free before, no? Before the Sponsors came, bearing the gift of democracy. Did the common man have pride then?’
‘Our leaders were puppets…have always been puppets.’
‘And in your new dawn, they won’t be? Who will you raise up? A secularist? Or someone from the clergy?’
‘What matters right now, is gaining freedom.’
‘But don’t you get it? We’ve failed at freedom. We’re too fucking stupid to be free. At least under a foreign yoke, we have someone to blame.’
‘Enough! Just hand me over!’
Again a baritone laugh, filling these four walls. ‘As you well know, our beloved nation gives few things to the world. But we excel in laying a man’s soul bare. And you, my friend, have been loaned to us. To me.’
I’m on all fours, still willing my body to stand. He puts a foot on my shoulder and applies just enough pressure so I again topple.
Face up, I lay splayed out before him. ‘Please, I need water.’
And for the first time, he looks unsure. ‘If it was up to me, I’d kill you now.’
He blinks out of stasis and moves away, swiftly leaving the room. When he returns he holds another plastic cup, re-triggering my spasmodic response. I try again to stand, at least regulate my breathing, but nothing is within my gift. And these four walls, my torturer, The Movement – at this moment, none of it matters. I want for nothing but control over this spastic body.
He stands askance, a curious onlooker – observing my dance. He’s still holding the cup and the thought of further reprisal, of him throwing it down, only heightens my body’s rebellion. Placing his baton on the ground he grabs my jaw and holds the cup to my mouth. He tips it gently and I gulp, gulp and gulp again, my mind vacant, merely a valve, releasing the body’s craving. He keeps tipping the cup until upside down, my tongue searching for the last drop.
I rock back, panting.
‘Do you want more?’
With wide eyes I search for the terror that must surely be coming, but that I cannot yet see.
‘I said, do you want more water?’
He stands still, an outstretched hand holding the empty cup. His baton remains on the floor.
‘For the last time…’
He again walks out and for the first time in years, I beg for God’s mercy. I look around these four walls, where I have been held. I rest up against a bathtub from which no water runs, but to which I am often chained. A slop bucket and a threadbare mattress are the only other furnishings. We are less than an hour from civilisation, but I know not where. Strobe lighting never gets switched off. I touch my shrunken face, buried under unkempt hair. Morbid thoughts threaten to take shape but quickly dissolve, the urge to sleep overwhelming me.
‘Water’, he states simply. Slowly, I open my eyes. Seconds pass before the full weight of my situation re-crystalises. I make to stand but again fail. He squats down in front of me, a full cup outstretched. I don’t meet his eyes but, like the coward I now am, I take the cup. I drink, more slowly this time, losing myself in sensation – of ice-cold water on a burning tongue.
‘Thank you’, I say, placing the empty cup down. And a dread which I cannot suppress finds expression: ‘so what now?’
‘Well, here’s what we think – you are smart. People like you; follow you. The Movement, the losses dealt to our Sponsors – you are behind it.’
My thirst somewhat abated, hunger now shreds my thoughts. I try to rise above it, as I have since my capture.
‘It’s true. All of it.’
He sits down on the floor, opposite me. ‘So, what is it that you want?’
‘Something to eat would be nice.’
He smiles, relaxing into his victory. ‘No, what I mean is, what is The Movement really hoping to achieve?’
‘I told you already – total, unqualified freedom.’
‘But you must know that’s impossible.’
‘Then we die trying.’
‘Except you, it seems. A day’s thirst was enough to melt your resolve.’ I look away, ashamed, and he does not hide his victory. ‘Death is easier in the abstract, wouldn’t you say?’
He slaps me on the knee, playfully, like he’s already missing the game.
I absorb it, silently, my mind wandering. ‘Have you heard the story of this King, a good King of old, ambushed by a rival in the desert?’
Rolling his eyes he puts his baton aside, decides to humour me.
‘Cut off from reinforcements, the King and his small band were heavily outnumbered. For his enemy, this was the chance to end their bitter stalemate. But were the King to have submitted, sworn allegiance to his rival, he could have walked away – his life, his freedom and wealth intact. But days passed and the King did not acquiesce – he stuck to what he believed was right.’
‘So, what happened next?’
‘To force his hand, his access to the nearby river was cut-off, leaving him and his company without even a drop of water, under the burning sun.’
‘And did it work?’
‘After three days in the desert without food or water, and the King still holding firm, they were slaughtered. Starting with the King’s companions, then his family, before the King himself was beheaded with a blunted knife.’
‘When facing certain death, the King asked one of his company, a young man, about dying – dying for his cause. And the youth answered, “Oh, King! Death like this is sweeter than honey.” ’
‘That’s a lovely story.’ He faux gushes, openly mocking me. ‘Shame you’re no comic book hero, eh?’
‘No, it really happened.’
‘I’m sure it did.’ Standing up he reaches for his baton and folds it under his arm. ‘I’ll let my bosses know you’re co-operating. You can expect a meal tonight.’
‘The Movement will go on. I did my best for them.’
‘Well don’t beat yourself up’, he says, patting me on the cheek before walking to the door. ‘Leave that to the experts.’
The door shuts and I hang on to his footsteps, terrified of the silence filling the space he has left.