The Road to Fernando Nunes- Chapter 1- SRB Johnston

This is the draft first chapter of my novel, The Road to Fernando Nunes, an espionage story set in Portuguese East Africa during World War Two.  The finished novel  will be available in electronic format shortly.

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Tanganyika, German East Africa, November 1916

Surgeon Father Eckhardt finished stitching the patient’s wound and peered through the mesh of the tent window.  At first he thought the booming was an early evening thunderstorm.  But the lightning glowed more orange than white, the thunderclaps sounded too crumped.   Soldiers grabbed rifles and ducked behind sandbags.  NCOs screamed orders to extinguish lamps and put on helmets.  A pathetic native labourer cowered by the tent entrance, eyes closed, mumbling away in Makonde.  The shells whistled closer.  A column of mud and rock spouted skywards by the camp perimeter.  Eckhardt wiped his brow with a bloody sleeve, donned a spiked helmet, and turned back to the operating table.  Stretcher bearers unloaded the next patient, who emitted a dull groaning.  The fever, incoherence and shivering confirmed the diagnosis before Eckhardt read the tag.  Cerebral malaria.  No response to the quinine or salt treatment.  The patient had one of these large farm boy faces common to Saxony or Eastern Bavaria.  The army must be desperate-the boy would have been a drooling idiot even before he even contracted malaria.   Eckhardt injected a lethal dose of morphine, and signalled the orderly to return the patient to his bed.

“But Herr Doctor…” Maria the nurse, or rather the whore, glared at him.  He stared back.  A jumped-up housemaid whom someone sponsored to train as a nurse.  Typical native, a slither of authority, and she acted like a General in the Kaiser’s army.

“I’m afraid he was beyond saving Maria.  I share your compassion, but ours not to question why.  Right, next patient.”  He looked at Maria.  Locks of curly hair escaped from the blue headscarf.  Her belly bulged like a zeppelin, her milk-laden breasts pressed her apron up at the throat.  The bastard would be born any day now, he supposed.  Worse still, he’d be the one to deliver it.   This twisted inevitability terrified him more than the artillery shells.  How could he even touch her down there, where the sin had entered to pollute her body?  It would be like dressing a contagious boil.  He would become soiled and impure, just like her.

“I suppose not Father. But the poor soldier-”

“I know Maria, it’s most unfortunate.  Nonetheless, I cannot waste more quinine on hopeless cases. We must think of the others.”

The orderly looked at Eckhardt and Maria, nodded, then instructed the native bearers to remove the dying man.  Eckhardt prepared for the next patient.  Maria kept staring at him.  He felt her unadulterated hatred, as if she imagined he had just murdered a child in cold blood.  They ducked in unison as the ground reverberated.  A hot wind blew through the tent.  Something whistled past his ears.  Lanterns danced on their strings, some puttered and died.   A few of the wounded leaned up on their beds, alarm in their eyes.   Eckhardt straightened his helmet and got up.  He noticed two slashes in the tent wall, as if a passing leopard had clawed an opening, lured by the smell of blood.  Maria remained prone.

“You may get up, it has passed,” he said.

He looked below the table.  She lay staring at the ceiling, as if hypnotised by the swaying lanterns.  At first he thought her dazed; that the blast had knocked the wind out of her.  But as he knelt, he recognised the gaze he’d seen a hundred times before.  He rolled her onto her side.  Blood was seeping from below her headscarf.  It drained through the floorboards onto the earth below.  He lifted her head.  The shell splinter had left a hole where the neck tendons met the cranium.  She must have been dead before she fell.  There would be no pulse, but he tried anyway.  Nothing.  He felt her stomach.  Something prodded his hand.  He called the orderly and they lifted the body onto the operating table.

“The bastards, sir,” the orderly said.  “Poor Maria.  Do you think the baby is still alive?”

“I’m afraid I couldn’t feel anything.  After such a heavy fall…”

The orderly looked at him.  “With a head wound I’d have thought…but what do I know?  Sorry sir.  I’ll sew up the canvas.  Better keep out the mosquitoes.”  He gestured towards the shrapnel slashes and walked away.

Eckhardt looked into Maria’s eyes.  Neither serene nor terrified, they looked annoyed, as if sudden death was an inconvenient distraction during a busy day.  Perhaps concern for her unborn infant was her final thought.  Not that it mattered.  Her soul would be with the Lord.  He would be deciding her eternal fate.  She could confess her thoughts and sins to Him.

When the orderly finished stitching up the canopy, Eckhardt would have him carry Maria’s body to the burial area; just another corpse for the native gravediggers.   Nobody would question whether the unborn child could have been saved, least of all that godless reprobate Colonel Streicher.  He looked over at the orderly.  But for his weakness at retaining names, he would call him over now.  Instead, he thought about the letter he’d be obliged to write to Maria’s previous employers.  They would know she was unmarried, but not that she was pregnant.  Too bad, he could not conceal the truth that she died a whore.  He would have to tell them the bastard was lost.  He tried to remember her surname, but it was some unpronounceable Swahili abomination, so she just went by Maria.  There’d be a record at Divisional HQ if no one else could remember.  Another shell exploded nearby.  If Divisional HQ still existed.

He returned to the moment.  The baby would soon die.  As a man of God, his duty was to preserve souls, not lives.  He looked at the bloodied and frayed sleeves of his surgeon’s scrubs.  But by decreeing him a Doctor, the Lord had vested a secondary duty on him.  Judgement passed, Maria’s soul would be on its way to eternal damnation.  Yet how would God judge him if he allowed the baby to die?  It could be a test.  Another shell exploded nearby.  A warning?

He picked up a scalpel and ran it from the top of the skirt to the neck.  Curious.  If the scalpel nicked her, she wouldn’t feel pain.  He pushed the blue apron aside.  Her belly poked up.  A patina of perspiration made the ebony skin glisten.  A line of black hairs ran from the solar plexus to above the pubis.  He stared; they were abundant, like on a hirsute man.  Most off-putting.  To compensate for this masculine affliction, her breasts seemed twice their normal size.  As he contemplated this, a tiny elbow or foot kicked from above the navel.  He touched the spot.  It felt hard and moved again.  He kept staring at the belly.  He pictured a baby girl, big-eyed and attractive in that coarse, native way.   If Maria’s employers adopted the infant, it might grow up to train as a nurse like its mother.  He recalled Maria mentioning they were a family of old settlers from Bremen…whose port was Bremerhaven.  Bremer.  That was the orderly’s name.  The resurrection of his memory was God’s blessing.  He looked up at the tent ceiling, seeing not the spider webs and mould, but the Lord in Heaven with Maria by his side.  A whore she had been in life, but in death the Lord was prepared to forgive.  He ducked as another shell burst nearby.   Yes, the birth of a future German nurse would be his victory against the accursed British.  Then again, it could be a boy.  Even better; if God willed it, then he would grow up a soldier and avenge his mother.

“Bremer.  Get me a nurse fast as you can, one with midwifery experience.”

Bremer darted out the tent.  The doctor retreated to the pharmacy, a corner of the tent screened off from view.  He filled a syringe with morphine, rolled up his sleeve, bound his arm with a belt and injected.   The wave washed over him and he sat listening as the shell explosions grew more intermittent.  He pictured the Lord and Maria looking down on him from Purgatory.  He pulled himself up and floated back to the operating area where the breathless Bremer was waiting.

“Doctor Sir, Colonel Streicher said he couldn’t spare a nurse.  And you’re not to waste time trying to save a baby while fighting men are wounded.  He said that was a direct order, sir.”

“Did you tell him Maria was dead?”

“I told him she’d been hit in the head by shrapnel sir,”  Bremer said.

“That’s not quite the same thing.  If you swear never to mention that she died instantly, we may proceed.  Do I have your word?  For the sake of the infant?”

“I’m not sure sir,”  Bremer frowned.

“If a patient is still alive, I can prioritise them if they might survive.  The French call it the triage system.  Their one useful contribution to modern medicine.  In this case two lives are at stake.  Thus if you do not contradict me, the Colonel has to accept I invoked triage.”

“I see sir.”

“Do you also see that the Colonel is a non-believer?  A sinner beyond repentance?  A man that would condemn an unborn child to death?   He’d do better to side with the British, the greatest race of sinners and murderers known to God.”  Some of the wounded were staring at him.  He glowered back at them until they averted their eyes.  “Do you see Bremer, that if Streicher cares not for this unborn soul, that earthly duty falls to me?”

“I er…I suppose…”  Bremer stared at the floor.

Eckhardt patted him on the shoulder.  “Look, sorry.  The Colonel is not your concern.  Forget what I said.  Only I am terribly upset about Maria.  To see such a good person killed before one’s eyes…”

Bremer nodded.  “I understand sir.  But shouldn’t we cover her…modesty?  She’s the only woman present, surrounded by all these men.”

“I do not think that necessary.  Once the soul has departed, the body is incapable of sin or provoking temptation.  Don’t you read the Bible?”

“I never have the time.  I still think exposing a dead woman so openly seems wrong.  I’m upset she’s dead too sir.  At least we could preserve a little dignity for her, Father.  Sir?”

He stared at Bremer.  The man was a moron.  So what if a few wounded soldiers could see Maria’s breasts and grotesque hairy belly?  They had more on their minds.  Half of them would be joining her soon.

“You are quite right Bremer.   The least she deserves is a little decency.”  He covered her breasts with the sliced apron.  “Now, have you ever witnessed a Caesarean section?”  Bremer looked at the belly and shook his head.  The doctor picked up the scalpel.  “Then that makes two of us.  Right, fold the clothing clear.”

Bremer pulled down the tops of her skirt and bloomers, and stepped back, eyes averted.  The doctor inserted the scalpel near the left hip and cut to the right.  It amazed him how little blood escaped.  He made a vertical incision above the pubic hair and eased back the flesh.  The baby’s head moved. “God willing, I think I can do it.”

Howling filled the hospital tent.  Some patients pulled themselves up and gawped.  They broke into smiles, one even applauded.  Eckhardt cut the umbilical, tied it off and held the baby at arm’s length.  Covered in a film of white powder, the boy screwed up his eyes and screamed his lungs out.  He had five tufts of black hair, the complexion not ebony, but rather coffee with a splash of milk.  Eckhardt swaddled him in a blanket and held him out to Bremer, as if returning an unwanted gift.  “Wash him and keep him warm.  Find a sock for his head.  Cut one of Maria’s stockings for a sleeping bag.  Then find him some sustenance.”

“How Father?  I mean Maria is-”

“Dozens of natives must recently have had babies.  That lot breed like…I mean they have many children.  Find a recent mother and take him to her.  Get her to make some clothes.  Give her a cup of rice, and report back to me tomorrow. We have done enough for today.”

Bremer cradled the baby and left.  Eckhardt turned back to the operating table.  A mosquito was sucking blood from the corpse’s thigh.  He swatted it.  A soldier with a head bandage stared at him.

“What are you looking at Private?  You look like you can walk.  Come here.”

The soldier plodded over to the operating table.  They carried the corpse past shell craters and dead horses.  The burial ground was deserted, the native grave diggers either dead or taken flight.  They dropped the body.  He dismissed the Private and began digging.  He considered saying a prayer, but didn’t.  God would understand.  Instead, he plunged a spade into the soft earth and began cursing the British, Colonel Streicher, the natives, whores, and the rest of humanity.

  • ***********

At dawn the Colonel’s adjutant shook him awake.  Eckhardt pulled on his surgical apron, still damp below yesterday’s crusted blood.  Without the chance to administer his morning dose of morphine, he could tell it was going to be a bad day.  He followed the adjutant to the command post. He held his nose as they passed dead bodies, laid out on stretchers below fly covered sheets.

Inside the command tent, Streicher was drinking coffee, and studying maps.  He waited for the adjutant to leave. “Surgeon Father Eckhardt.  You realise the gravity of the situation you have provoked?”

“Come now sir.  Hundreds are dying here.  I saved a life.”

“You contravened explicit orders.  You neglected the care of wounded fighting men for a sentimental and futile gesture.  You have committed a court martial offence.”

“I was expecting you to commend me for bringing a future German soldier into the world.  Alas, I see my good intentions are unappreciated.”

The CO held up a hand. “Eckhardt, your grasp on reality is even more precarious than I thought.  Don’t you see Germany will have lost this war before the child can even talk?  How dare you pass off your actions as patriotism.  You saved the child simply to spite me.”  Streicher pounded his desk.  “I have no use for men who listen to their imaginary Gods before they follow orders.  Men whose attachment to morphine goes well beyond the medical.  You’re finished on my camp, do you hear?”  He slammed his coffee cup down.

“I am to be charged?  I protest most stro-”

“No. I would not have a man shot for delivering a child, even you.”  He picked up some papers.  “Instead, I am discharging you on compassionate grounds.  At once.”

“You are transferring me back to Germany?  Thank you.”

The Colonel smiled.  “No Eckhardt, I said discharging, not transferring.  Berths on ships are reserved for combatants and the gravely wounded.  You are the sole guardian of a helpless infant.  As a civilian, you cannot remain in a war zone.  Nor can you return to Germany.”  The Colonel held out a telegram.  “Anyway, it is decided.  Imperial Army HQ has authorised my decision.”

“But sir, I am not the baby’s guardian. He has nothing to do with me.  Besides, where would you have me take him?”

“You’ll find a berth on a ship at Mombasa, Tanga, or Dar es Salaam.  I don’t care where it’s sailing, as long as you leave Tanganyika.  Anyway, nobody will turn down a doctor with a baby.  Particularly one who is also a man of the cloth.”

He stared at the Colonel.  “Unless Colonel, there are more men like you in this part of Africa.”

“I might not have you shot for delivering the child, Eckhardt, but insubordination is a different matter.”

Eckhardt said, “Sir, I am merely pointing out that you are handing the child and me a death sentence; casting us into the bush where the British lie in wait.  Please, you must reconsider.”

“They will hardly fire on a Minister carrying a babe.  Take a white flag.  Besides, I will provide you a horse. You should be able to reach the coast in a few days.”

“What about the child?  There is milk here.  How will I feed him?”

“You brought him into the world against my orders.  So he’s your burden now.  Bremer has secured a pitcher of breast milk.  When it runs out you’ll just have to improvise.”

“In a battlefield?”

“There are thousands of women out there.  You have money.  So, pay for their maternal services.  And don’t try to abandon the child to the locals.  I hear he’s not completely black.  They’d think the little blighter a demon, or part albino, and kill him.  I shall have you hunted down if I find out you even tried.”

“Colonel, I am insulted you think me so heartless.  Your actions are placing the child in peril, not mine,” Eckhardt said.

“One more such insinuation and I assemble a firing squad.”

Eckhardt stomped to the awning and gazed over the dusty plain.  A watery sun was climbing above the scrub and low-lying trees.  A giraffe ambled by the camp perimeter, oblivious to the barbed wire and craters.  On the map desk that lay between him and Streicher, a revolver sat by the lamp.  It could be made to look like suicide.  As if sensing his gaze, Streicher walked over and holstered the pistol.  “Bremer is preparing the horse.  He has milk and supplies.  If you are still in camp in one hour, I will have you court-martialled.  I expect you will not sign your discharge papers?”

“And make this even easier for you?”

“No matter.” He scribbled on the forms.  “There.  You are now formally discharged.”  He folded the papers into an envelope.  “Oh, one final question Eckhardt.  Who is the father?  I promise you there will be hell to pay for him, taking advantage of that poor girl.”

He turned to face Streicher.  “Why the Lord of course.  Who else Colonel?” Eckhardt stomped out, leaving Streicher shaking his head.

An hour later, Eckhardt mounted a horse, while Bremer eased the swaddled baby into a leather ammunition case fastened to the saddle.  A padded strap offered support for the infant’s neck, but as he slept, his head still lolled forward.  Bremer stood back and inspected his work.  “I lined the ammunition case with felt.  He won’t fall out if you ride slowly.”  The horse neighed and swished its tail.  Bremer calmed it, and looked up.  “You’ll take care of him sir, I know you will.  Look at the little beggar… I suppose he’s your son now sir, in a manner of speaking.”

“He may be my burden Bremer, but he is certainly not my son.”

“What happened to Christian charity, Father?  He’s alone in the world, innocent and defenceless.  Have you thought of a name yet?”

“I imagine he’ll be with the Lord soon.  The Lord can name him.”

Bremer threw Eckhardt his bag.  “Come now Father.  It’s only right, for Maria’s sake.”

“All right. Fine.  What’s your Christian name, Bremer?”

“Hans Joseph.”

“Fine.  He can be Joseph, named after the provider of sustenance in the hour of need.” Eckhardt looked at the pitcher of milk lashed to the saddle by the baby’s head.  It wouldn’t last long in the heat.  The boy was sleeping below his sock hat, his face creased up.  Only the Lord knew if he would survive.  Eckhardt snapped the reins and trotted off.  At the command post Streicher was watching, a smile below the waxed moustache.  Eckhardt glared.  Streicher bowed, and with a theatrical flourish, made the sign of the cross.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After a day’s ride through bush-veld, Eckhardt reached a signpost for Mombasa.  He turned east.  The road descended onto savannah.  Here, British military vehicles sometimes pulled alongside, but on spotting the Minister’s collar, the occupants bid him safe journey, and sped away.  Troop columns and horse drawn artillery units passed, the soldiers singing what he guessed were musical hall favourites.  At native villages, he explained his plight in a mixture of gesture and pidgin language.  Tribal elders summoned women to feed the baby, and found water and grass for the horse.  Eckhardt ate indescribable food and sipped dank water.  In return, he would bless the elders and their village, or read a passage from his German Bible. The savage congregations, illiterate to a man, stared open-mouthed.  Yet one person seemed to grasp the gist, if not the words.  For whenever he read from the Scripture, Joseph stopped crying.  This phenomenon proved what he suspected-the boy’s destiny was preordained, not as a saviour, but as something else entirely.  And God had chosen Eckhardt to care for the child until that destiny was realised.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

At Mombasa, filthy and exhausted, Eckhardt presented himself at British Military HQ.  A clerk sent him to The Office of Displaced Persons at the harbour.  Here, a receptionist fussed over the baby, gave Eckhardt water, and helped dust down his clothing.  He nudged her away, embarrassed by his body odour and perspiration stains, and by the physical proximity of an unknown woman.  She led him to a Lieutenant Hill, the officer commanding.

Hill listened to Eckhardt’s account, then stood up.  “An unfortunate case, Father.  I fear, however, that I am unable to intervene.”

“But Lieutenant, a British Major I encountered promised your help.  I would not otherwise have come all this way.”

Hill leaned forward. “What Major?  What was his regiment?”

“I do not recall.  I was exhausted and flustered; I feared he would arrest me.  But when he heard that the child’s mother was killed by a British shell, he was aghast.  He wore whiskers and rode a magnificent horse. I expect he was cavalry.”

Hill said, “All our senior officers wear whiskers and ride horses.  Dehydration can cause hallucinations.  Are you certain this Major was not a mirage?”

“Of course not.  He mentioned you by name, Lieutenant.  He showed great concern for the poor boy.”  He gestured to the baby, asleep in a wicker basket.

From the port a ship’s horn blasted three times.  Hill pushed back his chair.  “I did not realise my name was known to any cavalry Majors.  I am surprised this officer did not furnish you with a letter of introduction. I find your story slightly fishy.  Were you not a man of the cloth, I might accuse you of playing loose with the facts.  What would you say to that, Father?”

“I swear upon my bible I am telling the truth.  If you are man of Christian principle Lieutenant, I know your heart will recognise the veracity of my account.  Please, you must be able to secure us a passage to a neutral country in Europe.”

Eckhardt watched Hill file a card on which he’d been scribbling notes.  Hill walked to the window and gazed at the masts in the port, where a freighter was slipping from its berth.  “There is no question of sending you to Europe.  Nor may you remain here, because of the war.”

Eckhardt ran his hand through his black hair. “Please Lieutenant, there must be somewhere-”

Hill held up his hand. “Do pipe down.  Strictly, I should incarcerate you and the boy as enemy aliens.”

“You would imprison a Minister and an orphan?  I was a missionary here, pressed into joining the army because I was also trained in medicine.  None of this is my doing.”

Hill frowned. “I said ‘should’ imprison you here until hostilities end.  On reflection, I am prepared to help secure you a passage, given the extraordinary circumstances.  I would not want to disappoint a Major, after all.”  Hill smiled.  “I shall require, however, your word before God that you will continue to extend the boy appropriate guardianship.  That means remaining for at least two years in your new host country, whichever that turns out to be.”

Eckhardt said, “Of course.  As God is my witness, I give my word.”

“Good.  And in case God is indisposed, I shall draft affidavits naming you as the child’s legal guardian.  I shall give you copies and retain the originals.”  The Lieutenant pulled some forms from a manila folder and dipped his pen in an inkwell.  “The child’s name, date and place of birth?”

“Joseph.”

“Surname?”

“His mother had a Swahili name.  She was part native, part Indian, part Arabic.  A mongrel, like most of them are.  I do not know what her full name was.  I knew her only as Maria.”

Hill stopped writing and looked up.  “Your hesitation does little to encourage the trust I am extending.  I suggest you provide all details forthwith.”

“Then he can take a proxy surname.  Joseph Muller, born 17.30 on November 8th 1916, at the German Field Hospital in Shinyanga.  Mother Maria Muller of Dar es Salaam, nurse in the German Imperial Army, killed aged 25 or so by a British shell, pre-partum.  Father unknown, but likely a German soldier.”

Hill stared at him.  “You delivered the child from the mother’s corpse?”

“Under the guidance of the Lord.”

Hill stepped towards the infant and removed the sock covering its head.  “Quite uninjured, eh?  Remarkable. Must be a charmed little fellow.”  Hill replaced the sock.  Joseph slept on.  “Well Father, British Majors not withstanding, let me see what I can do.”  He telephoned the Port Authority.  Following some minutes’ discussion, he hung up.  “You’re in luck.  I have secured you a berth on a freighter.  The SS Venus. It leaves tomorrow.”

“Where is it going?  To Egypt, the Levant? Turkey perhaps?”

“No.  For the sake of the boy, a shorter voyage is best.” Hill walked to his wall map and pointed.  “Portuguese East Africa, Father.  Lourenco Marques…look there it is.”

“Lieutenant, I appreciate the consideration, but you’re sending me to a Roman Catholic country?”

“Look upon it as God’s will.  Besides, just think of all the souls you can save.  After all, God’s work is never done.  Don’t you say that in German too?”

“We also say the devil takes many guises.  Portuguese East Africa?  For the sake of the boy, there must be a better solution.”

“It’s either that, or a camp for both of you, I’m afraid.  Tell me, how long was Maria posted to Shinyanga?”

“A year or so, why?”

“Then the child was conceived there.  I find it odd you do not know the father’s identity.  I imagined that a resident cleric would have a good eye for the moral health of his flock.  And an even better one for their misdemeanours.”

“Any of a thousand soldiers could have fathered the boy,”  Eckhardt said.  “Sometimes I was too busy saving lives to notice I was losing souls.  That human error is between me and God.”

“Well, quite.  Now, you are legally obliged to present yourself and the boy to His Majesty’s Consul in Lourenco Marques on say… February 15th and August 15th.  For the next two years.  I shall telegram our Consulate in LM to expect you.  I insist you bring these affidavits. Understood?”  He handed over copies.

“What if I am indisposed on these dates?  After all, God’s work comes first.”

Hill folded his arms.  “Then I shall see to it that you are arrested as an enemy fugitive, and imprisoned in South Africa.”

“Good gracious Lieutenant, here I am a Minister, yet you address me like a common criminal.  I do not see why I merit such treatment.”

Hill stepped towards Eckhardt.  “I am helping you solely for the sake of the child. I think you are a liar and a renegade.  You may even be a spy or a deserter, for all I know.  I’m not even certain you are a cleric.  If you are, your church has low standards indeed.  If you are not, you are an odious and devious wretch; an enemy not only of the British Empire, but a testament to the moral degradation of your compatriots.  I trust that clarifies matters?”

“You British and your moral superiority.  You are responsible for murdering the mother, you-”

“Enough.  Get out of my office before I have you arrested.”

“With pleasure.  But you have made a terrible mistake Lieutenant, I promise you that.”

Eckhardt grabbed Joseph’s basket and strode to the door.  He thundered down the stairs, ignored the startled receptionist, and stormed outside.

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