By the Skin of my Teeth, A novel about resilience and victory. Chapter Two Part Five.

By the Skin of my Teeth, A novel about resilience and victory. Chapter Two Part Five.

A governmental car drove to a stop at the pavement outside a Manhattan hotel. A messenger showed Johnny out of it and across the pavement. The survivor let way through a marble foyer and into an old elevator with sliding cage door. Into a higher room off a carpeted hallway. His insurance money paid out and doctors had finished their work on him at a hospital. It also paid the bill for his time staying in the hotel. He was alone in the room after the messenger had departed empty handed after pleas for tips.

 He checked around. A nice comfortable set of bed with quilted duvet, leatherette couch and ottoman. A glass top table next to these. Through a thin door coffee canteen, kitchenette and tiled bathroom with a mirror. He looked for his reflection. He saw a scalded and ashen man. Dried blood encrusted his lips and eyes. His fingernails were black. The major parts of his skin were of a grey tinge. The heat aboard the plane had been so fierce.

 He moaned but found it difficult to speak. He found the telephone and picked it up and heard a single click on the line. He put it down again and looked out the window. He was five levels above street level in a busy cityscape. A sky riser canyon hid the sun behind monolithic concrete edifices. Cars jostled and sounded horns half way through a day which could have been any in the urban jungle. He paused to catch his breath. A realization occured that he had achieved a mean feat. This was like only a dream for most of the people he had ever met. He was an expenses paid guest in New York. He turned back to the bugged telephone and frowned, wondering what he should do next. 

 A heavy feeling from behind reminded him that he had a little work to do. He went to the toilet and strained and heaved until he had retrieved the charger. He washed it in the hand basin, and screwed it open in the kitchenette. He had carried this in secret since Strazhista. As the United Nations staff had said, inside was a plan on lightweight grease proof paper. It also held dollar notes in Bulgarian currency.

 He considered his options available to help him survive this new situation. The foreign money was useless to him and the plan also. He could call the English embassy and try to cross the Atlantic again to work there. He called directory and asked for a journalistic contact. He waited until the phone rang. It was a reporter wanting an interview. He agreed and soon a man arrived at the hotel room. After talking they caught a cab to a photographic studio. Johnny’s image in Army jacket and trousers, he holding an American rifle, circulated. The picture fronted the biggest weekly current events magazine. An article about the end of the arms race followed. For years following, the publicity caused an effect. Complete strangers would say that they had seen him somewhere before.

 The editor paid him and with the money he took a taxi ride on his own impulse. He rode out of the city and to a beach land on the north coast. There were large houses with wide glass ranch slider windows on the dunes. He saw at sea a lone skibob rider playing past the breakers. He walked back to the islands by the Hudson River. The central city moaned constant with traffic noise. By the river bank he met two homeless men, and sat down with them. They wanted more than anything cans of beer. They lived in a trash yard where rusted old machines returned to nature slow. They joked about having a pet alligator, and had not washed or earned anything for a long time. One said that his mate had a mental illness and that this was the place in the world which he had found. Across the river the skyscrapers of Brooklyn Island loomed. Their grid lights etched still and monumental silhouettes into the night.

 Once he got back to the hotel room, he decided that he should not try to stay in America. He began making plans to leave for either England or back home to New Zealand. A phone call to the English Embassy left him with a promise of work in data processing in that country. Yet down under was the family he knew. He did not know the whereabouts of Mia. A newspaper listed shipping times and a ship was leaving port destined for Argentina and beyond in two days’ time. He wanted to go home.

 In the meantime, there was nightclubbing visits to get done. A musician he had listened to on album was playing a gig close by, so he went to see and hear the rock act. Most of the punters dressed in black leather. He bought a gin and listened for a while, but things didn’t go well for him. He knew no-one there, and someone turned on him and knocked him out. Men in white coats revived him and he returned to the hotel room and prepared to leave.

 He walked aboard a ship and bought a ticket for a cabin. The journey was going quiet for him until the second day when the ship was on the Caribbean Ocean. He tried to keep a low profile. Now that the military jurisdiction did not control him, he relaxed. By a wall in the passenger corridor was a cigarette dispensary machine. He counted his coins to five dollars fifty and deposited. The machine jammed. He had missed a button.

 He went down to the engine room and borrowed a screwdriver. In the corridor, he bent open the slide cover and retrieved his cigarettes. He walked back to his cabin.

 He had not seen the witness to his small damage. Before he managed to close his door, a plain clothed man pulled it wide on the hinge. The man pointed an index finger at Johnny. "I saw that," he said.

 Johnny saw that he had a pistol pointed at him. He went from the merchant navy to the marines. They cuffed him and shoved him down a ladder and onto a smaller boat. It drove overnight to Cuba. They hauled him out from beneath a tarpaulin and marched him into prison.

 Inside the next wire perimeter was a gate, then a cordon with wire, then a gate, through that lay a corridor. He followed down this accompanied by three armed Marines. He saw on either side of him single lines of men. They were each standing with their backs showing to the main chamber of the corridor. Only one of them wore pale blue denim shorts, the rest of them were butt naked. Their hair had not cuts or trims and was long at neck and chin and ass. The reason they stood upright was for the chains wrapped and locked around them. Some had their arms raised, some had their arms held in front, and all had their legs set apart. The concrete they stood on washed and wet with water and wastes. There was no air conditioning in the building. Everything was as tepid and stagnant as any foul day in the tropics.

 The marines pushed Johnny through the end of this corridor and into a closed room. Desk, bucket, rifle rack and leather straps on the floor. The marines gagged him and undressed him and knocked him down. They put his ankles and wrists into the straps unclothed. Once again in this rude experience of American marshal power, spreadeagled. He lay shackled.

 He asked the five men in the room whether they liked their victims like that. The best dressed of them replied that he did. This man relieved the first three men. They uttered the perfunctory ‘Sir,’ and exited back into the central corridor. When the door to the room had slammed and then barred, the best dressed then took off Johnny’s gag rag. He leaned forceful kicks into him with his jack boot and broke eight ribs. He said that he liked to hear them scream. When the kid came around again after his knock outs, the man was leering at him from above.

 “Hell, he’s only eighteen. He looks like a monkey and has less sense than a reptile, but let’s cover up the virgin man,” he said. The second guard had been sitting behind the desk. He retrieved a rough fabric cloth from beneath the lid and placed this on top of the young man. Then he poured water as cold as ice all over it. The first man ground the heel of his boot into John’s right hand and foot, twisting them and snapping small bones.

 “Is this because I have done crimes against America!?” screamed Johnny.

 The man’s reply was a thick slang. It amounted to his being not worried about that. But that John should have been more careful about how to ask for cigarettes from the merchant navy.

 “...there’s been a war, a nuclear war,” stuttered Johnny.

 “We don’t care about that either. Half the populations aren’t dead, and they don’t have any electricity. That’s all. They’ll recover. I don’t know about you though,” and he spat on his face.

 “Are my balls still there?” asked Johnny.

 The man smiled again. “Yeah, they’re there. We aren’t beneath stealing a man’s family jewels. Don’t worry.” He kicked him around the legs. “You’re acting like a monkey now aren’t you? A reptile has more thoughts than you. And monkeys have higher morals. Your standard filth. Praises are to Jesus. Be careful what you do with those cigarettes that are all.”

 It was half way through this lambasting when the man paused to take a few sips from a flask of water. Johnny managed to slip his left hand through and out of the leather strap, even under the watching gaze of his dom. He rolled around and reached his arm across and over his right hand side. All the way up to the belt holster of the guard.

 The thick set and swarthy fellow kept a large calibre steel pistol in it. Johnny was deft. He picked it out of the holster. As he rolled to the left again pulled the lever back with his thumb. He shot the torture master three times in the chest. While the second man who was at the desk shouted curses in Portuguese, he strained the arm to aim and shot him twice.

 Both men fell. One on the floor next to him with ample blood flowing onto the concrete. The other had first backed against the wall. His whole upper body bounced to heave down onto the table where his elbows had been. He moaned wordless.

 John put the pistol down and moved his hand around the belt of the fallen man to find keys or a knife. He grinned like a march hare when he found both, and freed himself from the remaining three bonds. He felt dull thudding pains when he stood and he stripped both men. He washed the blood out of the shirts by dunking them in the bucket of ice water. Then he redressed in the most accounting attire from a choice of rank uniforms. Every shirt, jacket, trouser and boot assessed. Choices made for a match off between seniority and practicality. He belted the hand gun and the knife and keys, and found beneath the lid of the desk another set of keys. He searched a drawer for replacement bullets. They fit and he loaded them. He then filled his pockets with handfuls of the spare ammo. He considered taking a rifle down and carrying that with him. He knew that in a prison break which demanded dexterity a two handed weapon would only slow him down. He breathed an air full and lifted away the steel bar from the door.

 To his relief there was not another guard in sight. The same lame and chained men occupied the corridor on the other side. They had been standing there for who knows how long. As he hurried along the corridor, a man said the word, “Socorro.” 

 That was all it took to send him over the edge of reason. If this was the only life offered, and salvation seen as their only resulting alternative. After such an incarceration, then Johnny thought that he could do their souls a favour. He could hurry them along to meet The Lord. So as he did that, he also shot each man square in the back when he passed them.

 A dozen and score prisoners shook and slumped as far as the tight chains would allow. Until the gunman saw that he was at the first end of the corridor again and facing a timid and speechless guard. This other man was only one or two years more advanced than he in age. As their glances met eye to eye the temper of fighting rose quick. Johnny flashed out his dagger and dealt him six thrusts. Before his opponent could shout aloud, he was lying dead on the floor. John frisked for keys and found them.

 Now he was shaking in fear of anticipation for what came next. In Guantanamo Bay medium security lay nineteen victims. The end result of his dash for freedom was such an easy provision. Johnny assumed that there had been a miracle. Or at least that the prison management was allowing him to escape. He had duped not only them, but himself. Not at present realizing that he had most likely already killed the managers of this wing of the jail.

 He ran on grass along the mid inside corridor on the far side of the gate which his dead opponents laid. Rifle shots rang out and he was running in a crooked line. He passed a covered unit which by description would be a switchboard, and shot it five times. An alarm siren finally blared into the balmy morning air. He tried two sets of keys before he found the correct fit in the next gate.

 Here he had come around a corner. This hid him from the gaze of a watchtower and obstructed the straight path of shots. To his continued relief a spoken command came not to fire. The stolen uniform must have worked their chosen effect on the sentinels. Those above had not seen the fire fight inside the building.

 Johnny came to a grassy area where two men leaned on their high chairs at a gate before another wasteland. The effects of urgency lead him to shout at them his next words. In Portuguese he demanded that both of these men return to the compounds' inner quarters. As they jerked to a waking state and did as he told, he rustled through shelves in the sentry box. He found a large long overcoat. He used its straps to sling it onto his back and prized open the keys to the open yard.

 During drill training, sergeant majors had described this place to him in detail. First in New Zealand and next in England. It was here that he must use the minefield crossing technique. Two hundred lateral meters lay between him and the sea water’s edge. Silent invisible guards hindered. A false step would cost him his life. It is by the blessings of mother nature that he was not struck down in this open field. The last step leads him to rocks piled in a low wall on the coast. From there he hurried to a short wharf where tied and bobbed a dinghy.

 The escape had gone well so far and it did not change. The boat had a rudder, tiller, motor and petrol. It primed and started. He threw the rope tie into the boat and it was free from the wharf post. He accelerated fast away from the shore. He guided in a perpendicular line away from the shoreline. He wanted to put as much distance away from the prison and himself as he could in as little time as possible.

 The wake foamed in a triangular arc behind him, and he hunched down on the bench seat to reduce wind friction. When the coast was out of sight he slowed and estimated his course. By memory of maps and place of sun and direction of the wind and waves he must pick a guidance line. He summed these to take him to the Central American mainland.

 He knew that the distance he intended to cross was far further than the two petrol tanks could drive. But he also knew that now he was a wanted man. If he failed the crossing, he would perish at sea, but if recaptured then it was sure that he would get shot dead. There were chances of intercepting another seagoing vessel somewhere on that ocean. This was attractive enough for him to commit to his plan.

 The weather was kind, with a low flat swell on the surface and only a light wind. He prayed that it would not change for the worse while he was afloat. He took the tack which carried him over wide rises and falls of the sea as gentle as a mother would rock her baby. With no land visible to guide him, he checked by estimation every fifteen minutes. By eye from the place of the sun and position of clouds.  He was traveling with the prevailing winds. Annual they circled lazy around this ocean in a wide elliptical spin. It was time to breathe easy and deep, and listen to the mechanical grind of the motor while he crossed the sea. The cerulean blue of God’s inhuman environment gave the man a profound and unsteady calm.

 The petrol gauge level was falling on the engine. He slowed and began a series of slight direction changes. While doing this he scanned the surface for any different signs. Reading an ocean was a skill he had learned while driving Naval boats in previous years. He found some floating plant matter and fished it up with his hand and ate it. It was after his meal when he saw a thin slick of oil. Immediately he drove around through it trying to assess from what direction it had come. When he saw where it led, he changed tack and followed it at a steady pace. After an hour of this, he was within a dirty wake. The sea broiled with rising water, and a familiar sight of a green painted steel hull rose to the top.

 He was motoring behind the sub’s conning tower which flowed above water. The hatch opened and three men in Russian uniforms came to see what they had been stalking. Their quarry was only a lost man in an American military dinghy. Johnny called out to them in their language in response to their inquiries. He had learned enough of the Russian dialects to communicate. He related his recent history and present plight.

 The sailors gave the compulsory mercy, and two of them went beneath and came back with a can of fuel for the boy. Once that was aboard the smaller craft, Johnny asked for them to point in the direction of Panama City. The Russians took a brief checking of a compass and hailed him in a particular direction. That was the total of their encounter. Johnny turned away and the sub descended again.

 He refilled the reserve tank and screwed the cap closed. Then scrutinized the clouds in the distance at the place where the Russians had pointed. He squinted at the lowering sun and revved the engine to pace ahead again towards his only hope. Throughout the night he did not shift the tiller. The next day rose to a determined foreigner nearing the Central American mainland. The stolen dinghy cut its way through breaking waves in warm tropical drizzle.

 A ramp led up from the sea at a walled place on the Panama City waterfront. Johnny guided the boat onto this. When it hit and skidded up the ramp he did not hesitate to abandon the ship and walk fast away from it. People called to him and he ignored them. He walked along stone pavements and with intent became lost in the maze of an unfamiliar city. Behind him, a coast guard alarm horn blared a warning. He headed uphill when he had found a path which took him away from the coastal hubbub. He dodged around motor scooters and utility vehicles and bicycles. He wore the uniform of a prison guard with a long overcoat above it.

 The hill led to a terraced plaza area where no one bothered him, when he rested in hiding in one of the flat courtyards. While he was hiding, a fleet of three motor vehicles rushed up the street off which he had ducked. The vehicles were four wheeled motor bikes. On each of them was an Army staff with pistol at their hips and rifle tied to the backs of the bikes. They were looking for him.

 At midday a lady who lived there gave him a plate of cooked rice with raw bean sprouts. She asked him who he was looking for.

 “A bad man,” he said.

 After that he set off again on foot. Still going in the direction that the bikes had gone and in the same way before he stopped. He hoped that their search would sweep in directions forward and not back. He hoped that they would not search along routes they had already covered. That way, he could stay behind them. This could work as long as the locals did not tell them where he was. It was a risky plan.

 By nightfall he was high up on a tree lined avenue above the lower urban places. The houses were mansions here. He estimated by eyesight a possible route down again and to the lights of the port miles away.

 He approached a rock wall and stairway at a no exit road on the estate. He heard the engine of one of the motorbikes coming near. He hid in the shadows by standing next to a wide tree trunk beside the pavement. As the headlights flashed across the road, he moved around in the silhouette. This would obscure his body from the light. The rider stopped at the end of the road. Johnny quieted his breath and listened.

 A resident who had come out of his safe and secure lodgings to investigate what the noise was about. The rider said a few things to him. He said that he had the authority of a United States search warrant to find a fugitive. That the target had arrived in the city that morning. That he had no identity, but if seen he had the authority to shoot him on sight. He told him that the government wanted the fugitive dead. He told the resident to keep family indoors until the warning had passed. That he and his team were doing their best to rid the city of this danger. He bid his fellow countryman a safe evening.  Then he motored the bike away back down the avenue while holding an electric torch and gun. John remained standing still and quiet until he heard the resident close his gate. He heard him stroll up a path and into his house again.

 He hurried down the stairway and off the avenue. He was now on another road. A plain and undecorated raised highway led downhill and back into the poorer areas. He hurried down this. A mile downhill he came to a large brick Catholic Church building. He assessed by the amount of weathering on its outer surfaces that it had stood there for hundreds of years. It looked unused and was in a mild degree of disrepair. Trash littered the entrance way and paint had peeled in rough sections. He chose not to go to the main door at the congregational level. Instead he walked to the crypt door further down the street.

 He pushed the wooden panel and it swung inwards. Inside he found a dirt floor around foundation pillars. The verticals followed the line of structural weight above. Within the dirt level which extended about the perimeter was a sunken basement level. A rock wall surrounded the low pit of the lower level. It was dark and the air was still in there, and appeared to be a worthwhile hiding place. Johnny swung the door closed behind him. Waited for his eyes to adjust to darkness. In the few brief minutes that this took, he heard a squeaking and rustling sound. When his eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, he took another look at the pit. He saw that in it were hundreds of rats, scurrying and running all over each other. 

 He folded the hood of the overcoat up and over his head and buttoned it tight. Then he took the strap at the lower back of it and looped it between his feet and buttoned that to the front lower part. Folded and buttoned the cuffs on both sleeves over and closed. He jumped into the pit. He remained silent lying flat on his belly and face.

 His landing had smashed a rat prone beneath a boot. As he lay there the other animals in the pack set upon it and ripped it apart and devoured it. They continued scampering all over Johnny. Military overcoat beneath them protected the lame human. Outside, the bikes arrived. An Army staff opened the door of the crypt and cast torchlight across the melee of small rodents. He said to his colleague that no one could be alive in there. The green shade of the Guantanamo clothes added camouflage to obscurity. The soldiers walked out and continued their patrol. Johnny lay stifling under the pestilence until morning light. 

 After the traffic at the break of day he roused himself from beneath the weight of rodents. He climbed the wall and opened the door again. He was intent on reaching a seaward passage out of there. He walked unsteady downhill towards the flat land which surrounded the canal. He reached a wide dirt field where the homeless and dissolute gathered. A scrap of newspaper on the ground caught his attention and he picked it up and read on it an out of date shipping times. This gave him the idea for how often freighters passed through the canal. Though it did not list their destinations, only their cities of registration. He talked with a sun baked drifter who rested on the ground and had called out to him. The man said that there were many like him. Nobodies who had arrived in the city a decade ago and had still not been able to get away from it and remained stranded.

 Johnny told him that he needed to escape. When asked where he thought he was heading, he replied ‘New Zealand.’ It was then that the drifter provided him the information which saved him. A freighter with that destination was to pass through the canal in forty-five minutes. Johnny hurried to the edge of the steel walled shipping channel.

 The top of the wall matched the height of the top of a block of passing containers. They stacked on the deck of a ship moving at a steady pace along the canal. With an intake of breath, Johnny ran at the edge of the earth and leaped. He used as much impetus and stretch as his worn out, bruised and tired body could give him. His feet set down on metal. He lay flat. He was on the top of a parallel stack of containers. The freighter that carried them passed beneath a bridge. Its horn blew as it carried on through the landlocked channel.

 He prayed for a safe passage as the waves of the Pacific lifted the boat in gradual momentum. He saw the end of Central America dip under a horizon. The day was without reference or an emphasized remark from anyone. 

 The weather lashed him and baked him for five days as the ship crossed the ocean. The merchant navy seamen on this frigate were kinder to him than they on the passenger ship had been. They passed him up food and water and a harness. He tied onto metal couplings to keep him from falling off the top of the container. The ship rose and fell over the waves.

 Law prevented him from entering the cabins. He had had a nasty encounter with the law already. He stayed where he was for safety’s sakes throughout the entire passage. Still the sun beat and salt withered him and sea birds gathered out of curiosity. After five days the frigate slowed and entered Littleton Harbour in his home country. He suffered exposure and a mental desperation to set feet on familiar land again.

 The ropes were cast and tied to the port bollards. He was like a cat leaping off a roof. He trusted to the short push of gravity and jumped off the container stack. From the deck he shimmied down a rope to the wharf. He hobbled to the pavement on the base of the hill next to the Captain Cook Tavern. He sat with elbows on his knees and his head hanging down. His mind was delirious with spinning and relief.

 A woman approached and called to another person there. “What’s up with him?” she said.

 “I’ve survived the worst. I’ve been away for nine weeks,” he could say little else in his wasted state.

 “Come in and have a drink mate,” someone said.

 That night he rested in his apartment in Linwood. His step father Doctor Greyson leaned over him and looked into his face. He asked him whether he had taken any drugs. Johnny recounted to him that he had been on the eastern front. He asked him to call the veterans ministry and tell them that one of their troopers had come home.

 A week later two women from veterans’ affairs came to his room and congratulated him. They had with them a cast bronze medal, designed in a flared cross around an oval jasper inlay, with a lion above. The lion cast so that it was walking with one front paw lifted. It had a mane. The women told him in a hopeful tone that it was a Victoria cross. She then laughed a little and told him that they'd decorated him with the purple heart. The lion represented Judah.  

 He received a haircut and a shave and he had his photograph taken and they interviewed him. He told them about the promises of freedom and about the countdown and the botched plane ride. He featured in a magazine, the simple title of it, ‘Army.’ He tried to set about his usual daily business otherwise. The reputation he'd earned prevented this somewhat.

 He returned to live with family in Auckland, and recovered from a pestering cancer. From the help of doctors and rest given at a monastery. He smoked the prescribed hooch and drank tea with friends. His friends admired him and laughed at his hyperbole and genuflection at politics. They agreed that a military staff role was tragic. In the way that military staff take the brunt of irresolvable national disagreements. They philosophized about the impossible nature of world destruction. He and Mia attended a Returned and Services party in Wellington at the end of the year. Mark continued to teach the Torah to children with his own people in Auckland. He remained reeling from the expedition for years to come. The events would repeat in his mind like a scratched record, and he mused over them and remembered. The medal became a talking piece amongst groups at his mother’s house. It would allow him to recall to others what he had done. Within two years Dr Greyson had sold it to a collector and spent the money on lunches with Johnny at city cafes. 

Dove Grey
Dove Grey

I'm an author.

One step forward, two steps back.
One step forward, two steps back.

We can say by metaphysics that our lives are planned and predictable, though seeing the events and situations in our lives in the reality of what they are ontologically there is no interpretation of them that implies greater meaning. From a nihilistic point of view we do not have any lives and there is no meaning. So this is about my views on life.

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