Almost as soon as Étienne and Françoise walked off, the rest of us began to wander across the clearing. There was no further discussion about Karl. As far as the others were concerned, I think they were all aware that the calm since Sten's funeral was in jeopardy, and a huge exercise in denial was underway. Instant, informal, an intuitive consensus so that talking about anything remotely contentious was out of bounds. No problem for me. It meant that no one asked me to elaborate on Karl or brought up the topic of the gunshots. The only downside was having to labour through a few contrived conversations, which seemed a fair trade-off.
The strangest of these exchanges was with Jean, not least because he almost never spoke to me. He came over with a shy smile and asked the kind of stupid question that can only come from uneasiness. 'You are working, Richard?' he said.
At the time I was having a smoke outside the kitchen hut, trying to reconstruct my splintered nerves. 'No, Jean,' I managed to reply, relatively steadily. 'Not at this exact moment. I'm smoking a cigarette.'
'Would you like one?'
'Oh no!' he said hurriedly, looking quite alarmed. 'I do not want to take your cigarette.'
'Go ahead. Keaty's bringing me some back from Hat Rin.'
'No, no. I can smoke grass.'
'...OK.' I returned his smile, willing him to fuck off with all my heart.
But he didn't. He scratched his head and shuffled his feet a bit. I had the impression that if he'd owned a cap he'd have been holding it in his hands. 'You know, Richard, I was thinking.'
'Perhaps you would like to see the garden one day. Sometimes you would come to see Keaty, but now it has changed. After Keaty was fishing, I made the garden even larger. Now it has seven areas.'
'Seven?' I said tightly. 'Great.'
'So one day you will come to see it?'
'It's a date.'
'A date! Yes!' He let out a roar of laughter, so theatrical that for a few seconds I thought he was taking the piss. 'A date! Then we will see a film!'
'A date,' he repeated. 'See you on our date, Richard!'
'See you then,' I replied, and mercifully he began to back away.
I avoided visiting Jed until darkness was beginning to set in. I didn't want to be seen entering the hospital tent. I knew that this would be a tacit acknowledgement of Christo's existence - which, under our consensus, was perhaps the most important of the Things To Ignore.
If possible, conditions were even worse inside the tent than they had been before. Stench-wise it was the same deal, but the trapped heat seemed more intense and there were puddles of dried and drying black liquid everywhere. Blood from Christo's stomach, soaking in the sheets, collecting in the folds of the canvas floor, and smeared across Jed's arms and chest.
'Jesus Christ,' I said, feeling sweat begin to prickle my back. 'What the fuck's been going on in here?'
Jed turned towards me. He was lit from below by his up-ended Maglite. It made the stray hairs of his beard glow like light-bulb filaments and hid his eyes in absolute darkness. 'Do you have good news for me?' he murmured. 'I'm tired of bad news now. I only want to hear good news.'
I paused, squinting at the shadows in his eye-sockets, looking to see some form inside them. Something about his manner was threatening and his demonic glow made me wonder if I was having a hallucination. So much so that I felt I should confirm his realness if I was going to stick around. Eventually I reached for the Maglite and shone it directly at his face. His hand flicked up to shield the glare, but I saw enough flesh to reassure me.
I rested the torch back on the floor. 'I've got news. Zeph and Sammy are dead.'
'Dead,' Jed said without emotion.
'Shot by the dope guards.'
'You saw it?'
He cocked his head to the side. 'Disappointed?'
'No. I saw them get beaten and
'That was enough for you.'
'...It made me feel sick,' I finished. 'I didn't expect it to, but it did.'
'Oh.' The bright filaments of Jed's beard twitched as some invisible expression passed across his features.
'...Aren't you pleased? Not pleased, I mean relieved...In a way.'
'I'm not relieved at all.'
'But it means the beach is safe. Tet and morale... and our secrecy...'
'I don't care about the beach any more, Richard.'
'You... You don't care about the beach?'
'Would you like to hear my news?'
I shifted my weight to disguise my unease. '...OK.'
'Today's news is that there isn't any.'
'That's right, Richard. No visitors. Again.' He cleared his throat. 'I haven't seen a single soul, except his and maybe mine... Can't stop thinking about why that might be... Why do you think it is, Richard? Me and Christo, waiting here all day long, with no visitors...'
'Jed... We've been over this before.'
'Are you in a hurry?'
'So we can go over it again.'
'...OK. It's just like you said, people are trying to get back to normal. They don't want to be reminded.'
'And it would be the same if it was Sal in here.'
'It might be different if it was Sal. She is the boss. But I don't think...'
'What if it was you?' he interrupted.
'In here dying. What if it was you?'
'Some people would come, I guess. Françoise and Étienne. Keaty...'
'Yeah. You'd come.' I laughed weakly. 'I hope.'
Jed let the laughter hang in the air, making it sound unpleasant and alien. Then he shook his head. 'No, Richard, I meant what if it was me in here.'
'Well... people would come to see you.'
'But I am in here, Richard.' He leant towards me, blocking the Maglite, throwing the whole of his upper body into shadow. I pulled back at once, unsure of how close he was. When he spoke, hissed, he can't have been more than five or six inches away. 'I'm in here all fucking day and all fucking night. And nobody comes to visit.'
'I come to visit.'
'But no one else.'
'I... I'm sorry.'
'Yes. I'm sorry too...'
A couple of seconds later he sat back, and we watched each other across Christo's stained body. Then his head dropped and he absently began rubbing flakes of dried blood off his forearms.
'Jed,' I said quietly. 'Do me a favour.'
'Get out of the tent for a while. I'll stay here with Christo and
He waved a hand dismissively. 'I think you miss the point.'
'You really should...'
'I don't want to see those fuckers outside.'
'You wouldn't have to. You could go down to the beach.'
'Why?' he said, suddenly sounding very clear and definite. 'To clear my head? To get me thinking straight and keep me sane?'
'...If you like.'
'As sane as everyone else?'
'It would help you get some perspective.'
'It would help nothing. It doesn't matter where I am. I'm still in this tent. I've been in this tent since the day I got here, just like Christo. Just like Karl and Sten. The tent, the open sea, the DMZ. Out of sight and out of...'
Just for the briefest moment I heard a thickness in his voice. I held my breath, oddly panicked by the prospect of him in tears, but he appeared to regain control and continued.
'When the Swedes arrived and Daffy freaked... Daffy vanished... I really thought it would change... With him gone, I thought it would change... But he was so sly... He came back... so sly...'
Jed's voice faded to an indistinct whisper. Then he rocked forwards and touched his temples with his fingertips.
'Jed,' I said, after a pause. 'What do you mean, he came back?'
'Killed himself,' he replied. '...Came back.'
I frowned, dislodging the build-up of sweat in my eyebrows. It ran down my face and stung the corners of my mouth. 'You've seen him?'
'Seen him... yes...'
'Ko Pha-Ngan, first... Should have seen him earlier...'
'You saw Daffy on Ko Pha-Ngan?'
'With your friends. Your dead friends...'
'With Zeph and Sammy?'
'He gave them the map.'
I hesitated. 'Jed, I gave them the map.'
'I'm telling you, I gave them the map. I remember doing it clearly.'
'No, Richard.' He shook his head. 'Daffy gave them the map.'
'You mean... They had the map before I gave it to them?'
'I mean he gave them the map when he gave it to you.' Jed sat upright again. The movement drew the canvas floor tight and unbalanced the up-ended Maglite. As it fell it briefly dazzled me, then rolled to rest as a single beam. 'He gave the map to Étienne,' he said, carefully replacing the torch. 'And to Françoise, and Zeph, and Sammy, and the Germans, and all the others...'
'The ones we haven't seen yet. The ones that will arrive next month, or week, and the ones that will arrive after them.'
I sighed. 'Then... you see Daffy when you see me.'
'Not so much before... But now, yes.' Jed nodded sadly. 'Every time I see you... Every time...'