The little soldier frowned as he examined his feet. Good trainers were hard to come by. Sturdy, comfortable trainers with neither too much give, nor too little? Almost impossible.
He had always been rather small for his age. Maybe that was why he could slip around unnoticed. Thin as a reed, he was completely plain. Plain round, brown face. Plain tight black curls shaved close in a nondescript Number One. And for the mission at hand, plain civilian clothes. He had a knack for slipping through crowds without generating a second glance.
Being so small, he often found himself in a strange no-man’s land when it came to shoe size.
If they were not too small they were far too big. Of course, the too-big ones were the ones his widowed old mother bought. Pennies needed pinching, just as growing boys would need bigger shoes. Why not buy them in advance?
His fondest memories growing up involved Christmas decorations, cakes, fried chicken and sweets.
The worst always involved shoes.
Now, in a war, he was looking at a large tear across the top of his dusty white training shoes. Look at that, he sneered. They say a presence on the ground is the backbone of any revolution. I fear a terrible split in my left wing.
He almost laughed aloud but remembered where he was and gathered his wits. This was no time for jokes.
A torn pair of tennis shoes was replaceable. A soldier with experience in reconnaissance, espionage and counter-surveillance, not so much.
The thought of having to explain his appearance to the superiors gave him momentary pause. Resources were so stretched that every single piece of equipment was closely monitored.
So much older, he mused, and still making memories around shoes.
He quit worrying about what was to come and focused on his current problem. According to the plan, he should have been home free by now. He should have been clear across town, behind a locked gate in a secure location.
That safe house now seemed a world away. Somewhere along the line his entire plan had gone to shit, like the best of plans often do.
It was not enough to have sweated through his civvies on the dry, dusty streets of this town. The universe was also conspiring to have him captured, and on the wrong side of the tracks.
A highly-trained secret agent stuck alone behind enemy lines in a shoddy disguise, lingering near a derelict shed alongside a disused railway track and waiting for a scorching, stubborn sun to give up his losing fight and finally set.
This was the same railway shed where the plan had disintegrated. From a slick, well-timed operation to the shambles it was now. The op was never going to be simple; sneaking through a town was hardly a walk in the park.
But he had managed without incident, as usual. His comrades told stories about his prowess at making it through enemy territory unscathed. One version had him sneaking about as an old woman, hawking shrivelled tomatoes from a ragged old basket.
He found the notion completely ridiculous. An old woman? Where ever would he find the shoes?
He had spent the entire afternoon with his contact, working on war scenarios. Having arrived at the target location, they exchanged intelligence. When they role-played all the various outcomes, everything had run like clockwork. Everything until he had to disengage and head to the safe house.
The escape plan had been simple in its elegance. When the sun kissed the horizon, he was to walk five cramped blocks through the densely populated township. He would cross a strip road and the ancient railway line parallel to it, and then blend with the throngs at the market and bus station.
Then he was to make his way down the market road. After crossing the busy public highway, he would circle a once-thriving, now-derelict public pool. He would slip into the overgrown park, using tall grass for cover all the way across.
From there it was just a quick-march down a tree-lined avenue in the dusk, right up to the safe house gate, which was to remain open for him until the last light faded.
Simple and elegant; that is what he thought when he drew up the escape plan. But simplicity never considered unexpected complications.
In this case, he found the complication just before he reached the railway line. A three-person enemy patrol was heading in the same direction. He spotted the trouble just as he turned a corner. They were just across the road, in the middle of his next waypoint; one disused railway shed.
Packs resting against the outer wall, they were chatting in hushed tones. He recognized these particular three. The heavyset one was of a particularly mean temperament. The soldier had once seen her assaulting a disheveled youth in the street. Just her bulk made her intimidating—the mean streak was an unexpected bonus.
The little man of unimposing stature knew what would happen if he were captured. He lounged in the concealment of a concrete wall and waited for them to resume their trip.
A glance at their packs told him they were on a schedule and could not afford to rest for long. They finally hauled their packs and made to cross the train tracks. The smallest was grumbling about having to stop in the market with blistered feet.
He checked to be sure they made it across the tracks and into the throng. Hands in pockets, he ambled across the road trying not to draw suspicion.
Next to the shed, he forced himself to confront the enormity of his predicament.
From what he had overheard, he knew the patrol was in the busy market just across the tracks. He had no way to predict or track their movements. He had no support, no diversion to guarantee a clean route through the crowd and out the other side.
Experience forced him to discard the initial plan. Sharp thinking was why he was on this mission in the first place, so he began to improvise. He was only going to make it home by instinct, and it had never let him down before.
He scooted across the railway line, blending into the edge of the sunset crowd. He kept a lookout for the soldiers he now knew were in there somewhere.
He kept to the fringes and circled his painstaking way around the left side of the market. He moved from group to small group, stall to stall, all the while keeping a sharp look out.
He stopped next to a vegetable vendor and assessed his situation. All around him, the steady hum of the sunset market was unbroken. That meant no alarm. That also meant no cowed pockets of silence where groups of soldiers passed.
He moved on through the crowd, heading towards the bus station. Ducking behind an almost-empty bus, he forced himself to remain calm and use his training. A scrawny tout screamed at nobody in particular about the superiority of his transportation services.
He extolled the entertainment value in visiting the capital a hundred clicks away. He waxed lyrical about how smooth a ride his bus could provide. He spoke at length on the nutritious and filling repast available on the trip. The sallow face and emaciated frame screamed of a society robbed of all decency. Shame was the first casualty of the nation’s politics, irony the obvious second.
He paused in the crowd waiting to fill this chariot to paradise. He knew he had to keep his brain on task and his head off a swivel. The surest route to torture was acting nervous; furtive behaviour was a quick suicide.
Certain the coast was clear, he followed a secondary road out of the market. He abandoned all thought of reaching the temporary safety of the park. His only solution was to quick-step his way directly through the centre of town. He kept to himself, avoiding any interaction with the poor masses hurrying home for the night.
His head remained low but the sharp eyes worked hard in the gathering dusk. For an enemy agent, to bump headlong into an evening patrol would be fatal.
When he finally made it to the edge of the main highway, he took a moment to get his bearings.
To his immediate left was the local government office, a squat, dull-brown edifice planted square in what used to be some sort of garden. Across the road was the local post office – an ugly red-and-white bungalow shuttered and abandoned at this late hour.
To his right was one of the few remaining banks, also daubed a gaudy red. The tiny little pharmacy was still open, so was the supermarket just up the street.
Squinting in the half-light, he could make out where he should actually have been. The fading green paintwork of the old public pool, looming out of the gathering dark was almost a whole click up the highway. It was almost invisible, and that was his sign to hurry.
He shrugged off the growing anxiety, checked for traffic and hurried across the highway. Slinking into the comforting shadows of yet another avenue, he contemplated his next move.
He recognised this area and picked up the pace, knowing the chances of running into inquisitors were remote.
The people around here were a rare breed for a country torn apart by strife. Snobs, who shut themselves in the moment the sun touched the horizon. They dined on contraband beef, poached from the neighboring farms by enterprising young townsfolk. These bolted doors and shuttered windows only opened to the sunlight. For now he was safe.
Despite his distaste for shutaway snobs, he somehow could not blame them. Who would not want to retire to the comfort of cheap electric power and fine dining at sunset? They were living in dangerous times, after all. For young soldiers with chequered pasts and records of ill-discipline, doubly so.
It was that magic hour that had inspired lies and poems ever since men first drew breath. That moment when it was just a little too dark to see, but still too bright to waste the streetlights. “When Day sighs farewell to wasted life, heralding Night and all her terrors,” or some such nonsense.
It meant he could hustle along with little chance of recognition. Any enemy spies on the lookout would pass him for just another supper-searching soul.
He reached the tiny local school without incident, thankfully deserted of an evening. It was nothing but brick classroom blocks and a playground, since all schools were currently closed. The adjoining road was narrow and unlit. Across from the school was nothing but tennis courts, with not a single light in sight.
Knowing the chances of finding the gate still unlocked were dwindling by the second, he broke into a light trot. He was past the empty school blocks and skeletal playground in no time.
He angled right to hop the low fence separating the road from the school sports fields. He mumbled a prayer to all the African gods, all at once, to keep his torn trainer intact.
He manoeuvred around cricket nets inexplicably surfaced with concrete. He surmised that this was to ensure greatest possible damage to any fledgling batsmen. He smiled, and broke into the sprint he had been holding inside for the better part of an hour.
All the way across the fields to the opposite fence he ran, knowing he could be in the safe-house within minutes. All he needed was a little good fortune and no wrinkles in his carpet.
The original plan had him approaching the house from the other side, from a path lined with overhanging trees.
This side of the block was entirely another matter. Some underpaid genius had decided to finally switch the streetlights on. The entire street corner across the schoolyard fence bathed in a bright yellow glow.
There was an added risk if one occupant of the buildings between himself and the safe house spotted him. It almost guaranteed a challenge and eventual discovery.
He sat on his haunches behind the low fence to catch his breath, and that was how they got him; Fear and Doubt, the twin nemeses of any good agent, attacked him with fangs bared.
Was the safe house even safe anymore? He could imagine them in there, lounging about. They would be sitting around drinking hot tea and laughing quietly. They would be waiting for him to traipse in, only to seize him and beat him to a pulp.
He was not going to do any traipsing, he decided. If he did make it to the house, he would approach with the same caution he had used all day.
He shelved all thoughts of ambush, and hopped the fence from the school fields. He tip-toed around the pool of light to the street sign and took a knee.
He could see the house from here, and the gate was shut tight. A tightly-shut gate meant he needed to find another way in.
Staying low and keeping to the hedge, he made his nervous way past the adjoining property. He paused at the corner of the safe house wall and looked up. The barrier was almost chest-height, with the top thankfully devoid of glass and spikes.
If he could just get over without incident, into the cover of the mango trees, he would be safe.
He had made it through a town populated by people who would tan his hide for a laugh. He was not going to let a pre-cast wall get in his way.
Grateful that his left foot was somehow still shod, he prepared for the fun part. Getting a firm grip on the top of the wall, he hoisted himself up to his waist. Quick glance about, then he swung his right leg over and vaulted across to land on the soft grass.
He made his way through dark mango trees and around the back of the house. After a light tap on the kitchen window, he breathed a soft sigh when the door opened ever so slightly. Safe to enter.
Slipping into the kitchen and quietly latching the door shut, he exchanged a quick greeting and a smile with the maid. He turned right into the corridor and headed for his assigned room.
He was grateful to shed the clothing he had worn all day. The dusty shorts and sweat- streaked tee shirt he deposited in a nearby washing basket. The trainers he shoved under the bed, wondering how good his surgical skills were.
He threw open the cupboard and stood there barefoot. Whistling to himself, he rifled through the bottom shelf for something comfortable to wear.
With his pyjamas on, he sat on the edge of the bed and heaved a sigh of relief.
From the intelligence he had gathered so far, his parents were not home yet. His older brothers were in the lounge, arguing over who was the best athlete in the World Wrestling Federation.
He felt lucky. After a long afternoon playing with his friend, he had made it home without bumping into any of his mother’s friends, neighbours, church-mates, work-mates, storekeepers and strangers.
All would have scolded, or even smacked, him for being out of the house at night.
Life as a small-town kid was tough enough for the little soldier—having to navigate the entire place like a war zone just made it harder.
Deep down he knew the adults cared, but why did kids outside after dark have to be fair game?
Confused about the idiocy of grown-ups, he gathered up his homework. He headed to the lounge, mentally preparing himself for another battle. This mission might prove to be his toughest yet, so he had to prepare.
He entered the lounge, and began to loudly educate his brothers on the skill and invincibility of Macho Man Randy Savage.
Post image by Georgie Pauwels via Flickr.
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