Jack Higgins – In the Hour Before Midnight
Jack Higgins – In the Hour Before Midnight
For Ken and Janet Swinhoe-and the other Amy
I suppose he must have died during the night, but I only became aware of it in the heat of the day.
Not that it made much difference, not even the stench of putrefaction. In that place everything died except me, Stacey Wyatt, the great survivor. There had been times when I would have greeted death as a friend, co-operated with him actively, but that was long ago-too long. Now, I waited in a limbo of my own devising, proof against all they could do to me.
I’d been in the Hole for three days now, which was what it was called by prisoner and guard alike-a place of darkness and furnace heat where you rotted in your own filth and died from lack of air.
It was the fourth time I’d been put down since they’d brought me to the labour camp at Fuad, each dose co-inciding with one of Major Husseini’s inspections. In the June war he had been one of the thousands whipped in Sinai and left to stumble home through one of the worst deserts on earth. He had seen his command crumble, men die around him by the hundred from thirst and the sun had burned its way into his brain, starting a fire that could never be put out, leaving him with a hatred for Israel which had developed into a kind of paranoia.
He seemed to see Jews everywhere, a constant threat to Egypt’s safety. As I was an enemy of his country,
tried and convicted by law of subversive activities, I too must be a Jew who had somehow managed to con-ceal the fact from the court.
The previous July I’d brought a forty-foot launch in from Crete with gold bullion for a gentleman from Cairo who was supposed to meet me on a beach at Rƒs el Kanƒyis, part of a complicated exchange process by which someone, somewhere, finally made a fortune. I never did find out exactly what went wrong, but a couple of U.A.R. gunboats appeared rather incon-veniently, plus a half company of infantry on the beach. The economy benefited to the extent of half a ton of gold and John Smith, this year’s unknown American citizen, went down for seven years.
After six months in a city gaol they transferred me to Fuad, a fishing village ninety miles from Alex. There were about thirty of us there, mostly political offenders condemned to work on the roads in chain gangs, although in this case we were building a new pier. We were guarded by half a dozen peasant conscripts and a civilian overseer called Tufik, a large, fat man who sweated a lot and smiled all the time. He had two wives and eight children and treated us with remarkable gentleness under the circumstances, although I think he was due a bonus if we finished by the end of July, which meant that he needed all the labour he could get and didn’t want anyone to die on him.
The man who had gone to a happier place during the night had been a special case, a Bedu from the south who had repeatedly tried to escape, a fierce, proud animal who had never slept under a roof in his life. For him, any kind of prison had been an automatic death-sentence and everyone had known that, even Tufik. But there was general camp discipline to consider and he’d gone into the Hole to encourage the others. He’d already been there a week when I joined him.
I was wearing a kind of wooden halter padlocked around the neck, my wrists chained to it at shoulder level. It was impossible to lie down or even to stand, for if I tried within those narrow confines the ends of the halter caught against the rough walls, jarring my neck painfully. So I sat there in the heat, floating in my own dark limbo, reading my favourite books page by page, an excellent mental exercise, or when that palled, returning to the next phase of a monumental and highly personal course of self-analysis. I had started with childhood, the earliest memories-Wyatt’s Land-ing ten miles from Cape Cod and my father’s family who had never liked me although I hadn’t realised that fact until his death in Korea in nineteen fifty-three when I was ten. It was only afterwards that it was made plain that the Wyatt blood in me was tainted, for my mother was Sicilian. So to Sicily we went, to the great cool villa on the cliffs above the sea outside Palermo, to my grandfather, Vito Barbaccia, to whom men touched their hats, who ordered the police from here to there like chessmen, who scowled and made the politicians tremble.