“Emmanuel Sterne, Mr Mallory,” he said as I dropped to the ground.
“Neil,” I told him and held out my hand.
He smiled then, very briefly and thunder rumbled across the river, the first heavy spots of rain staining the brown earth at my feet.
“Here we go again,” Hannah said. “Let’s get this thing inside quick. I don’t think this is going to be any five-minute shower.”
He gave a yell and the other two men arrived on the run. They were simply day labourers who helped out with the heavy work when needed for a pitance. Undernourished, gaunt-look-ing men in straw hats and ragged shirts.
There were no doors to the hangar. It was really only a roof on posts, but there was plenty of room for the Bristol beside the Hayley. We had barely got it in when the flood descended, rattling on the corrugated-iron roof like a dozen machine-guns. Outside, an impenetrable grey curtain came down between us and the river.
Mannie Sterne was standing looking at the Bristol, hands on hips. “Beautiful,” he said. “Really beautiful.”
“He’s fallen in love again.” Hannah took down a couple of old oilskin coats from a hook and threw me one. “I’ll take you to the house. You coming, Mannie?”
Mannie was already at the engine cowling with a spanner. He shook his head without looking round. “Later – I’ll be along later.”
It was as if we had ceased to exist. Hannah shrugged and ducked out into the rain. I got my canvas grip from the obser-ver’s cockpit and ran after him.
The house was at the far end of the field, not much more than a wooden hut with a veranda and the usual corrugated-iron roof. It was built on stilts as they all were, mainly because of the dampness from all that heavy rain, but also in an attempt to keep out soldier ants and other examples of jungle wild-life.
He went up the steps to the veranda and he flung open a louvred door and led the way in. The floor was plain wood with one or two Indian rugs here and there. Most of the furniture was bamboo.
“Kitchen through there,” he said. “Shower-room next to it. There’s a precipitation tank on the roof so we don’t lack for a generous supply of decent water, it rains so damn much.”
“All the comforts of home,” I said.
“I would think that something of an overstatement.” He jerked his thumb at a door to the left “That’s my room. You can share with Mannie over here.”
He opened the door, stood to one side and motioned me through. It was surprisingly large and airy, bamboo shutters open to the veranda. There were three single beds, another of those Indian rugs on the floor and there were actually some books on a shelf beside the only bed which was made up.
I picked one up and Hannah laughed shortly. “As you can see, Mannie likes a good read. Turned Manaus upside down for that little lot”
The book was Kant’sCritique of Pure Reason. Isaid, “This must have been like putting his pan in the river for water and coming up with a diamond.”
“Don’t tell me you go for that kind of stuff, too?” he looked genuinely put out. “God help me, now I do need a drink.”
He went back into the living-room. I chose one of the unoccupied beds, made it up with blankets from a cupboard in the corner, then unpacked my grip. When I returned to the other room he was standing on the veranda, a glass in one hand, a bottle of Gordon’s gin in the other.
The rain curtain was almost impenetrable, the first few wooden huts on their stilts at the edge of town, the only other sign of life.
“Sometimes when it gets like this, I could go crazy,” he said. “It’s as if this is all there is. As if I’m never going to get out.”
He tried to re-fill his glass, discovered the bottle was empty and threw it out into the rain with a curse. “I need a drink. Come on – if you’re not too tired I’ll take you up town and show you the sights. An unforgettable experience.”