Friday, January 26, 2018

Philip's Beaches by Bruce Harris

A British diplomat drops everything to rescue his reporter brother from a war zone, and reflects on their relationship; by Bruce Harris.

The door to the pilots' cabin is slightly ajar, to enable immediate communication if it becomes necessary, and I am only a few yards behind them, so any crisis arising can be dealt with. At last, that sense of events hurtling rapidly out of my control has subsided a little. I have even occasionally managed something like dozing in the last twenty minutes, a rest for my aching body and mind.

The big air ambulance has one patient centrally placed and medical equipment, including monitors, on both sides. Incongruous as an armed ambulance may be, we are still in dangerous country and we do have a few sophisticated armaments, including machine guns and even a few small missiles, the airborne equivalent of mortars. My sister in law Ellen, along with Olawale and Kebe, a doctor and nurse respectively, are in the centre with me; at the back, in front of a complex dashboard, a thin young guy called Peter Gibson is keeping a careful eye on what's happening on the ground and in a twenty mile radius around us. Though he looks only recently emerged from adolescence, Peter has already demonstrated his considerable tracking and hacking abilities and he has had a lot to do with our success so far. Olawale and Kebe are Nigerian, as are the pilot and co-pilot; Olawale is once again checking his patient to ensure he is moving as little as possible, even though the best of pilots cannot avoid causing some movement.

The unconscious figure on the bed is my brother Philip. My name is Simon Harrington, and Philip is my elder by two years. We are by no means away yet from the possibility that the second 'is' in that sentence might shortly become 'was.' However, I am so tired now that I do not have enough physical or emotional strength to dwell too closely on the possible loss of my brother, to whom I have always been devoted, if in a sometimes critical and exasperated spirit.

I glance across at his wife Ellen, who shares both devotion and exasperation, even if her devotion is of a different nature - they have never made any secret of their passion for each other. Ellen is bright eyed, good-looking in a clean cut, outdoor girl way; she is generally effervescent, thirty something and full of life, curiosity and energy, but now she is pale, streaked with sweat and exhausted. At last, she's asleep, propped up against the side of the 'copter, her head fallen forward and her breathing more regular.

I look up again at Olawale, who is very tall and very thorough in his constant checking of monitors and life signs. He doesn't look at me, and I wonder if my constant questions and anxiety are irritating him. Kebe, a more naturally communicative soul and a pharmacist as well as a nurse, is putting ingredients together to make the medicine required; she manages to grin and nod at me. Philip is so bereft of life and colour that I cannot be other than anxious. But the doctor has noticed me again.

'No change, Simon. I will say if there is, I do assure you,' he says, loudly enough to register over the noise of the 'copter.

I nod and close my eyes to try and doze again. I am so used to Phil's animation, his careful, assessing eyes turning to me, his head tilting slightly as he prepares to listen. And he is - that dubious present tense again - a good listener, assimilating and reacting. This statuesque, pallid body is difficult to associate with the multi-faceted being of my elder brother.

I move carefully towards the rear, where Peter is watching the terrain below us sweeping by, as well as checking his various contacts. Once again, he seems to detect my arrival without looking round, but his voice is as steady and sympathetic as ever.

'You're looking to check on where the hell we are, I take it,' he says, 'and whether anything is coming up to follow us or tracking us from below. As far as I can see, 'no' and 'no.' We will shortly be well clear of the West African coast, and heading rapidly for Gibraltar, where we can whip your brother straight into hospital and hopefully soon see him up and about again.'

Hopefully. The crucial word which serves to throw cold water over his reassurance. I am still feeling pangs of anger, directed mainly at Philip.

You never have been too good at taking into account the consequences of your actions, Phil. An African President, ruling a small country which most of your British readers probably haven't heard of, is spending his time busily disposing of anyone who crosses him and making life a misery for his people, some of whom are resisting as best they can. He says no Western journalists are allowed in to cover the election he's rigging. For most media people, it's enough to leave it to the diplomats, isn't it, rather than get your head shot off for a far off country which isn't and never has been yours. But not for you, brother, eh?

Not for you. You have to steam in there, filming undercover, sending live dispatches, helping the resistance, until one of the big man's hoods puts a bullet in you, predictably enough. Or, more accurately, two bullets. As soon as I heard headlines about a shot British journalist, I knew who they were talking about. Day after day, sublimely settled in my diplomatic office, for once home based and not subject to ambassadorial demands, I found myself getting panic calls from Ellen, whom I love almost as much as I love you, you mad bastard, for help in getting you out of a place I didn't even realise you were in, her voice desperate. As usual, you choose to work freelance, meaning, yes, you can give your work to the people you judge best able to use it, but also that no-one will take responsibility for you.

So I found myself having to drop everything, including preparations for a crucial foreign ministers' conference, and temporarily desert my own understandably nervous family to help save your crazy skin. I went to Nigeria, the easiest place within striking distance where Ellen, Peter and I could hire a suitable helicopter and make the kind of contacts we needed to get Phil out.

Firstly, his messages to Ellen stopped, which started ringing Ellen's alarm bells, but not too loudly to begin with; the kind of places Phil goes to does mean he has to cut off contact from time to time. However, after four days, she started to get very worried and ask some of the people he reports to; eventually she and they tracked down a message, vague and jumbled but soon sorted out, saying that Peter had been shot and had two bullets in his thigh. We knew from an earlier message that he had been with a section of the rebel army, who had been so impressed with the way this Englishman, the only western journalist in the country at the time, had got word of what was happening through to the outside world that they were prepared to do whatever they could to get him out of the country to carry on his work before the government troops had another go.

I phoned and messaged through the diplomatic services, Peter tracked and hacked, Ellen contacted known press and television associates of Phil, and in a couple of days, we managed to track down the airfield the rebels were taking Phil to, just across the border in the adjacent country, though we knew that wouldn't necessarily stop government troops crossing the border if they thought they could get away with it. Philip had been a very large thorn in their side for some time, and the country's hard man knew very well that what he was up to might have gone largely unnoticed but for Phil's efforts.

By calling in a few favours and doing a little judicious diplomatic arm-twisting, I got the authorities in the adjacent country, which is a member of the Commonwealth, to dispatch a few armed troops as extra guards at the airport. Peter even managed to contact the doctor with the rebels who'd patched Philip up; the bullets were out, we understood, but Philip was weak with loss of blood and shock and it was still not certain whether or not the leg would be saved. The idea of a man like Philip maimed for life was so appalling to me that I charged around getting matters sorted out as quickly as possible.

Just over three hours ago, we flew into the airfield, and field about sums it up; the stretch we were to land on was half concrete and half what looked like running track, and the only building we could see was a low slung hut on the edge of the field. There were a few armed men dotted around the perimeter of the runway, and our pilot was initially reluctant to go in, both because of them and because of the state of the runway. However, I'd made it my business to know what the uniforms of both countries looked like, and was able to demonstrate to him that the men, about twenty of them, were this country's troops, not the government troops from next door. I also flattered him with talk of how he had been hired because of his exceptional abilities, which wasn't entirely untrue, though his exceptional abilities hadn't come cheap.

So we touched down, not without a bit of bumping and bruising. There was a period of about twenty five minutes which seemed like several eternities, when nothing seemed to be happening. The soldiers around the runway were shifting from one leg to the other and exchanging nervous glances, while the officer in charge kept clicking away on his phone and wouldn't offer anything in our direction but a few terse words about being patient.

Eventually, a van with a red cross on it and a big white flag flying on the roof came clattering from the surrounding greenery on to the runway. We could hear shots in the distance, and the officer ordered his men to move behind the plane to give themselves cover if enemy troops should appear. But as the van pulled right up to the door of the plane, the guys with Phil said the government troops had stopped at the border about a mile away and were just letting off steam. Someone, they said, in a high position in our refuge country had issued a very uncompromising warning to their neighbour not to invade their space, and since this country's military were both superior and more numerous than the government army next door, the would-be pursuers ultimately hadn't dared. At that, both Ellen and Peter looked in my direction; they knew who the guy was I'd phoned. After a few warm handshakes with the rebel guys, we carefully edged Phil's stretcher on to the plane. The pilot didn't waste a single second and the 'copter rose rapidly, as we did our best to keep Philip still. As we headed off, his eyes opened for a second and my face happened to be right in his eyeline. He mouthed the word 'Simon,' and pulled an expression intended to be a smile, but then his eyes closed again and he fell unconscious even before he'd had time to see Ellen on the other side of him.

As motion steadied, I glanced out of the side windows to see that men who came with the van were not going to return to their own country and almost certain death. They were leaving with the host army's soldiers, suggesting the asylum arrangements I had made had been respected. I must not wait too long before calling my high-ranking contact with profuse thanks and gratitude. That's the way the creaky diplomatic engine keeps itself fuelled and ticking over.

Since take off, Olawale and Kebe have checked Phil constantly, and while they have confirmed that the bullets are out, his improvised bandaging has been breaking down and he has lost so much blood that transfusion is going to be a long and difficult job. Ellen, fortunately, knew his blood group, so we have the right stuff and plenty of it. But he has clearly been jolted and bumped about, and still has not regained consciousness.

'He has used all his considerable resources of toughness and durability to make it as easy as possible for his companions to get him to the plane,' Olawale commented. 'I suspect many lesser men would already be dead, but nevertheless -' with a quick smile, first at Ellen and then at me - 'I think there's a good chance we may have got to him in time. Even the leg might survive.'

And now, there is nothing for Ellen and I to do but wait and hope, while Peter covers our rear and Olawale and Kebe do what's necessary for Philip. Soon we will be in Gibraltar, where it will be possible to treat Phil with all the facilities of a large hospital to hand, and it looks increasingly likely that my brother will hold on until at least that point.

I glance at him, and once again he gives me a familiar cocktail of pride and irritation. Yes, there is a nobility about it, bringing outrages into the light of day to help the oppressed and make life difficult for the oppressors; yes, it is spirited, brave and good in the deepest sense of the term. But what about Ellen and what she must have to go through, every day he's out of the country? What about his three kids, the youngest, Martin, only just entering his teens? He is not old, by any standards; he's forty three, and I can remember his teasing delight to see me pass the big four-o not long before this latest expedition of his. But how long can he carry on doing this stuff for? And how old will he need to be before something - ageing reflexes, misplaced confidence, tiredness too great for making the right decisions (which might have been what happened this time, I don't know) - causes his luck to finally run out?

I don't know exactly how many near death experiences he has been through - he is notoriously cagey about discussing work like that. He will send evocatively descriptive accounts and reports for publication and broadcast, but the detail of how he got to and from the venues of his reports is usually kept quiet, sometimes for very obvious reasons, such as not incriminating the people who are helping him. But one of his earliest dangerous experiences put my life as much at risk as his.

He was seventeen and I was fifteen. I've sometimes wondered where he gets his lust for foreign travel and experience from, because it certainly wasn't from our parents, who were both deeply suspicious of foreign places - 'over there,' our mother called it - and almost invariably took their holidays in Devon, with one or two in Dorset and once, highly exotically, on the Norfolk Broads.

This particular holiday, in between Phil's A level years, was in south Devon, in a little place near a cove, with a lot of swimming and walking available, if not much else. As usual, we hadn't been there before; my parents were enterprising enough when it came to different British venues.

The relative quietness of the holiday was enhanced by the absence of our elder sister Joanna, who had started university the previous October and set up a flat share nearby. Jo had got the A level grades she needed, as everyone knew she would, but while she was academically very competent and well organised, she was also a lot of fun and could bring anywhere alive with her infectious, wicked grins and her easy wit. She was also, though neither of her brothers was about to tell her, very attractive, with her large hazel eyes and unblemished outdoor girl complexion. We suspected there was a guy in her life, which she'd hinted at to us now and then, though with awful threats concerning what she would do if we so much as breathed a word to Mum and Dad, who were jittery enough as it was about her heading off to a flat share in a big city.

Phil had about four friends to every one of mine, and I knew he'd had several offers to go off with some of them, but he didn't have the heart to push the rest of us even further down in the dumps than we already were, having lost Jo for the holiday. Jo and Phil were the live wires of the family, having been made in a different mould from the other three of us. They were both, my mother used to say, like her mother, the grandmother none of us could remember very much about, since she died when we were six, four and two respectively. Mum's family could never talk about her without pursed lips and quiet smiles, and it seemed the lady was an adventurer and an one-off character.

I knew Phil was going to miss Jo on holiday, and I knew I would be an inadequate substitute. The two of them always made things happen and my role was usually about going along with it, though at fifteen I had put my foot down a few times, including occasions when Phil wanted to try cigarettes (I was eleven) and Jo got hold of a few cans of beer (I was twelve). I had also, at the age of thirteen, refused point blank to accompany Phil on a holiday camp expedition when he proposed to peer through some peephole at the back of the women's shower block. He, of course, went ahead and did it anyway, though it turned out a group of six or seven girls had come out of the block and found him. What happened then he simply wouldn't go into at the time, though he confessed years later that it wasn't the girls who finished up having their naked selves examined, with one or two afters to follow, which wasn't, I suppose I should say, all that surprising. Phil has always been almost as good-looking as his sister, and he started the adolescent growth spurt early. His sporting and fitness activity made him very fit and he looked it. He didn't really need to go peeping at girls, who seemed interested in him anyway; it was just part of his general devilry. I think part of my moral outrage, then and subsequently, was jealousy. At fifteen, without being so devoted to the outdoors, I was right in the middle of the whole adolescence business, and was still more boy than man, if a bit less of the pale, skinny squit of a kid than I'd been.

But something about Phil worried me deeply and set him apart from Jo. For Jo, the sport and the cavorting were fun to have when she wasn't working; in a sense, they were her antidote to work, her safety valve which kept her doing the work. But for Phil, the sport and cavorting were about all he did; academically, he was failing badly and he already seemed to be getting fatalistic about it.

And he had a kind of craziness about him. The cigarettes and the peephole were classic examples; once they arrived in his head, he had to do them and, unlike Jo, he didn't do such things just for a laugh, he did them because of some kind of compulsion. For Jo, they were giggles to enliven the day; for Phil, they were dares which would leave him inadequate and defeated if he didn't try them.

We limped on through that holiday fortnight, both of us feeling bored and let down. Phil was convinced he was already too far behind to get decent A levels, and Mum and Dad made unsubtle comparisons between him and Jo and even, to his mounting fury, him and me, because while I lacked Jo's barnstorming approach to life, I was already starting to emulate her academic success. Phil was observant enough to see that, as we got older, Jo might be more prepared to have a fool about with him, but when she actually felt like talking about something, it would more than likely be me, baby of the family or not. I remember, not long before Jo got her offer of a university place, we were in the kitchen together, having a conversation about the ups and downs of studying different historical periods. Phil came in halfway through it, and though we didn't mean to exclude him, we were too taken up with our subject matter to pander to his thin-skinned ego, and after ten minutes or so, he went out again, his face like thunder.

By the penultimate day, Phil was regretting not holidaying with his friends and told me so, though he held back on saying it to Mum and Dad. Our parents had gone shopping, which they seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time doing, perhaps, looking back, to get away from us. We sat in our poky holiday cottage on an unpleasant grey day, August or not, and as soon as the day started improving, it rapidly became clear that Phil wasn't going to sit in it for much longer. He never did stay indoors for very long anywhere.

'It's perking up,' Phil said, his face relaxing from the scowl of recent days. 'Let's have a run along the beach, Si; maybe a swim, if we're lucky.'

Both Phil and Jo were already fitness fanatics in those days, and I was very much under their influence. In any case, it seemed a better idea than sitting doing nothing.

We set off down the coast in running kit, including shorts which we could swim in if need be, and he seemed to have a lot of energy to get rid of; we'd covered a lot of ground within twenty minutes, and moved much further down the coast than we'd been before. His need to lose the boredom and inactivity of recent days was very apparent. But by the time we'd been running for almost half an hour, the day was reverting back to its former greyness; in fact, it was deteriorating quite badly, and the growing waves and spitting rain were already making the swimming idea unfeasible. I had had just about enough; this was, after all, supposed to be a holiday. I slowed down.

'Is that it, then, Phil?' I said. 'Should we head back?'

'To do what? Sit inside? Watch TV?'

My rebellious instincts, still rare, resurfaced again.

'I haven't come on holiday to spend my time shagging myself out on marathons, Phil. This is a summer holiday, not the bloody S.A.S.'

It was the wrong thing to say. His frustrations finally transferred themselves to me.

'You're a pain, Simon, you know that? You've had a face on you for most of the holiday, you're no fun to be with, and you never want to do anything much but sit around on your backside. Go back if you want to. Just stop moaning all the time.'

He started running again, and of course, still largely his lap dog, I ran off after him, trying to bring him back from his angry silence. All the same, my anxiety was mounting; the incoming tide, along this unexplored bit of coast, was now very obvious, and I felt we needed to be moving back.

At last, my temper finally snapped. I stopped dead and yelled at him.

'Phil! We should be going back, and I mean now. If you're not, I am!'

He turned right round to me, and I have rarely seen a facial expression change as rapidly as at that moment. His face was initially contorted with anger, and for a few seconds, I thought I was going to be treated to a demonstration of the width and depth of his vocabulary. Then he looked over my shoulder rather than at me, and the blood drained from his face.

I swivelled round to look in the same direction, and immediately felt the same fear. The headland we'd ran round ten minutes ago, making our way as best we could through the rocks, was now covered with water. It would be impossible to go back that way now. We both turned at the same time to look in the other direction, and saw that the quite distant headland we were moving towards would very shortly be the same. We were cut off. Preoccupied with our arguments, we'd forgotten and ignored the repeated warnings of our parents about how easily this can happen on the Devon coast. Perhaps the repetition of the warnings had somehow caused us to switch off.

For a moment, we looked at each other in panic. The direction of the water and the power of the wind and waves would make it impossible for us to swim away. Then he pulled himself together; whatever else he was or is, he's no coward. He started looking towards the cliffs forming the cove we were in, his eyes searching for some steps, some path, however steep or rudimentary. There looked to be nothing but solid rock, rising for what must have been nearly two hundred feet, with the top third so smooth and sheer that not a single hand or foothold was available.

While we were looking at the cliffs, a wave hit us forcefully at shin height. How fast and how high this tide came in was already obvious. Phil ran towards the cliffs and I followed him.

'We have to climb, Si. There's no other way.'

We looked up. Such ledges as we could see were thin and precarious, with little more width than a single shoe, but behind us the beach was diminishing fast. The base of the cliff was the only part of it which offered any possibility of ascent; we scrambled up it as best we could. Phil had done some climbing on one of his outdoor pursuits things, and he managed to find a ledge just thick enough to stand on, and by edging his way along, he came to a brief crevice in the rock which allowed him to burrow his way a little further in. I made my way up to him as best I could, and he somehow managed to reach an arm down towards me and bodily haul me up beside him. I wondered at his sheer physical strength.

The wind continued to rise and the waves were now closing in fast on the rock. It was clear enough, from looking at the headlands on either side of the cove, that the tide here came a long way in, far enough to temporarily obliterate the cove altogether. We clung awkwardly on to the cliff. I was angry, both with myself and Phil, but it became more urgent with every second that we should try to think of something, anything, we might do.

I shouted above the rising wind, hoping the terror inside me was not showing too much in my voice, 'It's only going to rise so far before it starts going down again. If we can just keep our heads above long enough, tread water on the rocks or something -'

'Maybe,' he said. 'But the force of wind and water might knock us off the cliff, and then batter us into the rocks.'

He stood thinking for a few minutes while the panic mounted in me; the waves were coming in higher, the wind was intensifying, and yet he could stand there calmly analysing the situation. Not for the first time, but perhaps most emphatically yet, I saw his qualities, his courage, his ability to face a crisis and act, even if it was a crisis of his own making.

He looked carefully to his left and right, and saw, about five yards to his right, something of a recess in the rock, presumably where some rock had fallen away. There was a gap, no more than about eighteen inches wide, and the recess fell back a couple of feet. But though five yards doesn't sound much, the thin ledge we were on didn't go all the way across; there were spots where we would have to stretch our legs across. We were only six feet or so above the water, and losing balance and falling in might not matter too much, but if we struck rock, it would, and we would also have the problem of having to find a way back up. He started edging to his right and threw his hand out towards me; for an awful second, I thought it was some kind of dismissal, some contemptuous farewell, then I realised how absurdly that would fit my brother, and I put my hand into his. We edged, inch by inch, towards the recess, having to stretch across as much as eighteen inches of bare wet rock at times; I almost lost my footing twice, and each time his grip tightened and helped me regain the ledge.

Eventually, we wedged ourselves into the recess and felt more secure; we could stand securely and had at least some protection from the weather, getting steadily wetter and windier. The water looked as though it had risen another foot, and we had absolutely nowhere else to go; moving up, down or sideways would be completely impossible, but we had at least some breathing space. I looked at his face and saw a pallor there, and an unusual level of what looked like self-hatred. We were very close to each other, and we could speak in normal voices.

'I'm sorry, Si. I'm really sorry. Both you and Jo - you deserve better than the pig-headed berk of a brother you've got. This is my fault, all of it.'

'I'm a free creature, Phil. I did what I did because I chose to. It's as much my fault as it is yours.'

He shook his head sadly and looked down at the water, still rising steadily. His hand closed around my arm, one of his few displays of physical affection towards me. Almost at that exact moment, I heard a noise to my right, something like an angry bee, but a very angry bee, a bee loud enough to be heard over the wind and the water. I looked to my right and saw a small plane, probably a private hire job, making its way across the front of the cove from west to east. I pulled my top off and waved it over my head; the shirt was almost entirely white, and I thought bound to show itself against the darkness of the cliffs and waves.

Phil was examining the cliff face to his right, and he looked at me as if I was mad for a few seconds, then he realised what I was trying to do and joined me, waving his own top. We were town boys, and our skins were still fairly pale even allowing for the amount of holiday time we'd spent outdoors; the weather hadn't been too good for much of the holiday, and sunbathing had few attractions for either of us at the best of times. So hopefully the pilot would see several splashes of pale against the dark rock, even in this weather. We both stretched up as well as we could and shouted and screamed at the top of our voices. The plane was much too far away for us to see whether or not anyone was looking in our direction, and our shirts and our spirits slowly lowered as the plane continued its steady and apparently unconcerned way out of sight past the eastern headland.

We put the shirts back on - it seemed to be getting colder by the minute, and even a few bare-torsoed minutes had left us with our teeth chattering. The plane's total lack of reaction seemed to amount to a final defeat.

The desperation of the period which followed, however long it was - even to this day, I find it impossible to estimate - was a living nightmare, and it has recurred as an actual nightmare more than once since. Only Phil held me back from wild panic. The water came nearer and nearer, until it had reached our feet, and as it mounted my calves, I started occasionally losing my footing - the power of the water was increasingly difficult to resist. We were hand in hand again, and every time one of my feet gave way, Phil's arm went taut and his strength helped me regain the surface.

By the time the water had reached waist height, it seemed clear enough that we would soon be washed into the water, and under those turbulent waves, it would be too dark and confused to avoid the rocks. We would both drown slowly or be battered to death against the hard rocks. Phil's hand held tightly on to mine, and he kept saying, 'Stay with me, Si,' 'Stay with me, please,' 'Hold on, Si, hold on.' Gasps and sobs kept leaking out of me, in spite of my best efforts at stoicism; kicking and struggling under water, it could be a long and painful death.

I looked across at Phil's face as the water kept on rising and the wind battered around our ears. Yes, he was pale, almost deathly pale, but his expression showed complete determination, an undefeated defiance that this would not end us, even if we had to cling on here being smashed about for hours until the tide started going down again.

When the water had reached our chests, an odd and initially unnoticed big black dot appeared around the eastern headland, seemingly moving not far above the sea. Phil saw it first; he nudged me and pointed; I couldn't see anything, but after a few seconds, I got it. It flashed through my mind, anxious and terrified as I was, that perhaps it was some big vicious bird of prey like an eagle which had seen a chance and was about to make things even worse, impossible as it might seem.

But no bird I'd ever seen moved like this thing, steadily, remorselessly. It took both of us several minutes to realise what it was - a helicopter - and two more heart-stopping minutes to firmly acknowledge to ourselves that its course was aimed directly at us. If it, too, had headed right across the cove and out of sight on the other side, I think we might have jumped in and had done with it.

But it didn't. The following magical, incredible minutes were the pinnacle of my boyhood, as it dawned on us that this really was rescue, that these guys weren't going to give a stuff for any cliffs and tides; they had the aircraft and the know how to get us off there and then.

And they did. And for all we'd already been through, the moment which stays with me most, to this day, is Phil saying, to an incredibly large guy descending on a very firm harness and swinging towards him, 'My brother first, please. Get my brother off first.'

Staving off unconsciousness proved difficult as I rose slowly in the air, wrapped around my rescuer; he'd harnessed me in pretty securely, but I was holding on tight for dear life and steadfastly not looking below me. Even laying down on the stretcher, I couldn't give way to my fatigue until I knew Phil was back in there with me, and only after he was and we'd shared the first uninhibited bear hug that had ever passed between us did I pass out. I knew nothing at all, not even dreams, until I woke up in a hospital bed and saw Phil stretched out on the bed next to me, snoring quietly.

After their anxiety had subsided, my parents were furious, in the quiet, injured way they could be, for days, even weeks, on end. Jo came to see us in hospital; we were only in there for a couple of days, so it was a sign of how alarmed she was and how quickly she reacted. She embraced Phil for a long time, and then me for a long time, and then she stood between the beds and spoke loud and clear, like she does.

'If either or both of you ever pull a stunt like this on me again, do you know what I'm going to do?'

Jo then told us, in her own initimable way, in words of one syllable, what she would do, while the other men in the ward stretched their eyes or grinned. Then we all relaxed a bit; she wanted to see such bruises as we could decently show and she made a nurse tell her what our charts were saying. She even tried to get Mum and Dad not to be too cut up about it, and gradual efforts on behalf of all of us did restore some family harmony.

However, the family holiday was over from that year onwards. Jo was now firmly locked into her university routine anyway, working out her summer in the university city. Our parents, while they had unwound a good deal by then, booked another Devon venue, but made clear enough they thought it was time we looked after ourselves, which it was. Phil went off on another of his Outward Bound things, and I surprised all of them by being the first member of the family to holiday abroad, on a school camping trip to France.

Peter Gibson turns round from his computers. 'Gibraltar in fifteen minutes,' he says. 'Our pilot's in radio contact; we'll be going down shortly. Ambulance already arranged.'

He startles me, and I have to make an effort to remember where we are and what we're doing. I am a little hesitant about questioning Olawale and Kebe yet again, as sooner or later their professionalism will resent it, but the memory of Phil, standing pale but firm on that Devon rock - 'Stay with me, Si' - has returned powerfully to me, and I have to know for definite that he will make it into Gibraltar, even if still unconscious.

But Peter, it seems, hasn't finished.

'Your brother's revolution has been successful, Simon. The President, or rather ex-President, is now on a helicopter of his own, heading away from the country at a rate of knots. If Phil ever goes back there, it will probably be to a hero's welcome.'

More of the tension seeps out of me, and I have to remind myself that comparisons with the seventeen-year-old Phil are, in some ways, deeply unfair. An occasional miscalculation still, no doubt, but he has a much firmer and more sophisticated idea of what he's doing than he had then.

The reflection makes me all the more anxious that he should make it, and as I glance at him for the first time in a while, I am gratified to see Olawale looking back towards me and smiling. Kebe has her back to me, preparing some liquid medication, but when she turns, she is smiling too.

'He may well wake before we land,' Olawale says. 'His life signs are stablising very rapidly now. Perhaps he has some inner instinct about when he's reached safety.'

Ellen is leaning forward in her chair, her head down almost as if in prayer, though I have never known any overtly religious side to her. I edge across to sit beside her, putting my arm around her. Her face raises, and her eyes are masked with tears. Then she rests her head on my shouder, and at that moment, we hear a crackling from the pilots' cabin of full contact with Gibraltar air traffic control. Ellen hears it, and a kind of half smile passes slowly over her face.

That Devon experience had a lot to do with setting the patterns for our future lives for Phil and I. For me, it meant looking out for trouble and dealing with it before it arrived, and if it did arrive, finding the most pragmatic and straightforward ways of dealing with it. Diplomacy was a logical development, especially after my exam results put even Jo's in the shade, a development which surprised me almost as much as it surprised everyone else.

But, for Phil, it was the first blast of the trumpet, the first call to arms. Meeting the danger head on, getting the adrenalin rush, daring the world to defeat him, especially when he has sided with a good cause, became his meat and drink. I heard, read and saw in his articles and broadcasts where he was and what he was doing, and I knew from other sources that he only ever told the half of it. Every new crisis, every new war or natural disaster, were christened in my mind as Philip's beaches; I slowly counted them as the years went on. The sense of immediate, crushing disaster served only to bring the best out of him, as it did when we were stranded on the Devon rocks waiting for the English Channel to wash us away. That was his first beach, his first edge of danger, looking out on the great threatening mass readying itself to engulf him.

As expected, he didn't do very well in the exams, and he started on his first paper, a local weekly, more or less as a teaboy straight out of school, but it didn't take them long to realise what had landed amongst them. By the time I came out of university with a First and headed straight into the Diplomatic Service, Phil was working for one of the London dailies.

As we see the Rock looming up at us, Olawale grins over at Ellen and I again. He moves to one side; Phil's eyes are open and there's an exhausted smile on his face.

I turn away while he and Ellen kiss and embrace as much as his immobility will allow. I don't want to mess up their moment, and I stay as I am until a voice comes at me from the bed. Phil's voice.

Ellen has moved to the end of the bed and is carefully mopping his brow. I walk over to him and take his hand.

'Stay with me, Phil,' I say quietly. 'Stay with me.'

For a moment, he looks blankly at me. Then he remembers, and the grip on my hand, cold but firm, tightens. As the 'copter touches down, he speaks to me, his voice hoarse and cracked.

'No more beaches, Si. Home and kids now.'

I nod. There is still, inside me, more hope than belief, but I nod anyway.

2 comments:

  1. A thoughtful study of the relationship between two brothers - embedded in a tense narrative that is engaging and vivid -fraught with jeopardy. Fine characterisations. Many thanks, Ceinwen

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  2. this really is a compelling read, the background of the brothers chiming convincingly with their development in life. it seems to me it could be developed into book length?
    Great read
    Mike McC

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