The Last Man Out Of Gaza
Or, ‘The Contradiction Of Value In War’
by mystery-thriller author Mark David, imaginator of The Elements
image credit Lemurrín Langtíburtistan
Wadi El-Arish, April 1917
The animals were dead, the natives gone. The Wadi El-Arish was the name given to the plains that carried the flood waters of the Sinai desert to the sea of the Mediterranean. On this day in April, the heat shimmering, shifting in pools of refracted vision, hovering, intermittently; a light wind blowing dry and hot above the packed sand and the loose stones of the desert floor. The car, a stripped-down utility vehicle of spoked wheels with battered running boards and dented arched wheel-guards, that despite the metal springs under his seat squeaking with regular monotony, was large and surprisingly comfortable. Despite even, the thick layer of dust that coated every square inch of exposed surface, or the upholstered seats long since removed to make way for wooden benches, stained where they had been used to transport the bodies of men injured in battle.
It was two hours before the driver slowed, unsure what it was that lay in the middle of the haze playing tricks with weary eyes, the shape appearing to float above the apex of the road before him. Laid across his shoulder a rifle, leaving the driver with the question as to who the rifle belonged to — one of ours or one of theirs?
He reached across with one hand for his rifle. Prudence being the better measure of judgement, he slowed, and let the car roll to a stop with the rifle across his lap. Whatever it was, whoever it was, showed not the slightest sign of being aware of the vehicle’s presence. Half-expecting it to drop to the ground, he reached out his leather-gloved hand, folding down the metal frame of the windscreen to see better, the engine sending waves of vibration through the metal and raised his rifle, crouching low as he waited, not sure whether he should shoot him, or wait — letting him continue down the dirt road.
The driver reached for his rifle, sliding back the bolt, taking a cartridge from the leather pouch threaded on his belt and removing two, loading one in the Lee Enfield magazine, the other into the breech, leaning the heavy oak stock on the down-folded windscreen, finger moving forwards, eyes sighting for a kill.
The man wore a pack strapped to a sweat-drenched back, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. He stumbled more than walked, limping occasionally, keeping to a line down the middle of the dusty road. He carried not a rifle but the stout sections of his tripod upon his left shoulder. When he saw the vehicle, the last of his water long lost to vapor he didn’t cry out, his throat too dry, incapable of forming sounds, let alone words. Neither did he stop, fearing that to break his rhythm would be to take away the last of the strength left in his strides. And so it was that it was the sand and stone erupting at his feet that brought him to an abrupt halt, the man freezing in the heat, wondering if the next shot would mean the end of his life.
The vehicle sent by The Egyptian Expeditionary Force found the last archaeologist alive out of the wreck of Gaza; it clattered past date palms, the odd burned-out wreck of a car caught out in the open when a biplane happened to be passing by. Here, there, the stinking dried carcass of a dead horse and other, more indistinct remains foul of stench, swarming with flies that marked the road to El-Arish. The town seemed to grow out of the sands of the desert, the walls of mud brick little changed in its construction since the days of Saladin, the low walls and flat roofs of sand-colored dwellings relieved by the fronds of a courtyard palm and the taller tower of a solitary minaret. A military camp of canvas tents, horses and pieces of artillery queer and unattended pointed skywards, up to a burned sky.
The 45th Stationary Hospital had been formed from the remains of the Ottomon citadel, bombed by the British earlier in the year so soon after the aborted operation to take Gaza. El-Arish had been transformed into a butchers shop reeking of death, clusters of men lay wounded and dying, their bodies covered with the dried fronds of palm leaves to keep off the flies, flies and other insects that hovered and buzzed constantly, giving the dead and the dying little prospect of the sanctity of peace.
‘Anzacs,’ the driver said. ‘Poor buggers fought bravely. We nearly took the bloody place,’ the Australian said, parking the stripped-down car. ‘Von Kressenstein is dug in now all the way from Gaza to Beersheba, all because the bloody Pommies wimped out at the last moment,’ he added with bitterness in his voice, pulling the hand-brake and turning off the clattering engine. The dispatches he carried with him in a faded canvas satchel, hanging from his neck by a scuffed leather strap.
The driver climbed out, dusty boots awakening more dust lit golden in the afternoon sun. ‘Over there you can fill your water bottles.’
Joachim shouldered his pack and stood out of the car, the water from the driver’s canteen having eased the worst of his discomfort. He made his way to the well, looking down at his sweat-damp, dusty stained clothes and wrinkling his nose at the water, at the green scum lining the surface. It stank, badly, but not bad enough that he would have to pass it by, if needs really must.
An officer appeared. ‘Who is this man?’ He asked curtly, approaching with long strides; britches ending in boots that had long since lost the shine of polished leather. ‘Good god, where the hell have you been?’
The driver called out, ‘Swedish fella. Suffering a bit from sun stroke I reckon, er, sir. Ran out of water. Photographer he says, or whatever he is,’ came the reply. ‘Bloody lucky to be alive, he is. Found him out on the Gaza road.’
Joachim turned his back to the well, walking to the officer extending a dirt-stained hands. ‘I am Joachim,’ he said. ‘I was studying in Gaza.’
Swedish fella. Joachim was an archaeologist.
‘What’s that you got there mate?’ The sergeant said.
Joachim thought he was talking about his camera equipment, then realized he was pointing down at the tail of his shirt, hanging loose over his trousers to let him breathe. Joachim looked down at the holes in his shirt, each ragged and lined in black. ‘I don’t like the heat,’ he said, looking past curious eyes.
‘Jeez,’ the officer said, looking up sharply at the name of the town. ‘Gaza eh?’ He eyed the equipment in the car, then panned back to find some kind of confirmation in the still curious eyes of the driver, a not unfriendly face tanned dark by an Egyptian sun. ‘A bloody student out here?’ He looked back at Joachim. ‘What’s your business then?’ He said, hesitating before taking in the cracked lips and sun blisters that covered Joachim’s face, looking at him as if he was a walking infected.
Joachim looked down at the sword hanging from the belt at the officer’s side. ‘I would like, very much… to,’ he tried to swallow, ‘get to Cairo.’ He replied, looking back at the vehicle. ‘And, I am an archaeologist, not a student.’
‘What’s in there?’
Joachim shrugged at the canvas pack hanging from his shoulder, then blew out through his nose as if he had heard the question a thousand times before. ‘Nothing but old trinkets.’ He reached a hand inside his pocket, handing over credentials in the form of the letter to which a photograph had been attached, the ink worn away in places where the paper had been creased; someone else’s letter with someone else’s name on it.
They had been three Scandinavians, a Count and five Germans, not including the master, Vesterberg. He never knew what happened to his best friend; he prayed he had escaped. He couldn’t tell them who he really was, of course, the very mention of working on a German dig leading to, well, to something not desired. The letter stated he had merely been given leave to cross into the territory of the Ottomons, by the British Embassy in Cairo. ‘Passport?’
Passport. Joachim stared at the Captain for a moment.
‘I’m going to need a passport…’
Right, passport. Reluctantly, Joachim reached his hand up towards the brass button of his top left shirt pocket, pushing it through the buttonhole, flipping up the desert-and-sweat-stained cotton, removing the blue, battered passport with the three yellow crowns of Sweden. He handed it to the officer, who took it, opening the front page. He looked at the photograph, looking at back at Joachim. ‘A little prettier back then I can see…’
He nodded, then handed it back to Joachim. ‘What the bloody hell were you up to back there?’
Joachim smiled a weary smile. ‘Not as much as I had hoped.’ Seeing the Captain wasn’t to be put off so easily he added, ‘collecting old junk.’ He slid his pack off his shoulder, opening the flap, handing it to the officer so he could look inside, struggling to remember the English words, for stolen. ‘I… nick it off some poor old bloody German bugger,’ he said.
At first the officer stared at him, confused. Then he looked down into his satchel. ‘You nicked these?’ He picked out a small pot, completely intact, despite having been buried in the ground for the best part of five millennia.
Joachim stood corrected. ‘Yeah, I nicked it,’ he said, getting the hang of the accent better this time.
It was humble affair, small, squat and round and very rare. To Joachim, it was beauty incarnate.
‘From a German bugger?’
Joachim refrained from telling him that it featured an uncharacteristic lip around the rim and a small ram’s head on the side. That he had been found by a local man with half of one arm blown off. That this man’s last dying wish was to find him a new shirt from within the mess of that town and to carry this pot away to someplace where it could be cherished.
The man had died.
He was the last man out of Gaza. Instead, he nodded, looking around the camp.
One side of the Captain’s upper lip curling into a smile, ‘right mate.’ He threw the pot into the air.
Joachim heard it break on the ground.
‘Don’t want no German rubbish in here mate,’ he said, glancing past Joachim to his camera equipment with a sniff.
Joachim stood still, still weak, rocking slightly with exhaustion and tried to swallow, his throat still as tight as parchment. He gathered enough strength to look back at the well. Instead of walking to it, he walked past the Captain and bent down, picking up the pieces.
‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’
They were many and he took his time, eyes scanning the ground for the smallest fragment, getting down on his hands and knees. He closed his eyes, lowering his head to prevent himself from fainting. When he was done, he stood up and walked towards the wall, ignoring the puzzled expression pinned in his direction.
The officer looked across at the well and wrinkled his nose. ‘Wouldn’t drink that,’ he turned and nodded towards an enclosure where men and horses were gathered, talking, drinking, some sleeping if they didn’t mind the flies.
Only the Aussies could stand the flies.
‘Over there is the decent stuff.’ He looked back again. ‘This muck is for the natives.’ Then, with a nod of his head he said no more, turning to return to the business of cleaning up the mess of war.