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A Jungle Day

 

Chrish was on leave so, as we were stood down (no ops that day) I was at a loose end after the 'mepacrin parade'. Mepacrin parade. There's an name to conjure with. As long as the medication was taken daily, malaria could be held at bay and anyone contracting it would therefore have committed a punishable offence. We felt sure that it made us feel listless and unwell which it may well have done but one only had to look at a man under medication. It was all explained to us that the molecules were very small and like a dye to enable it to penetrate every cell in the body. Our very sweat and even the whites of our eyes were suffused with a dull yellow.

The coastal strip of the Arakan was highly malarial so the matter was of great importance. Japanese intelligence had spread the rumour among Indian other ranks that the medication caused impotence with the result that we had to enforce compliance. The 'other ranks' were drawn up in a line, each man with a mug of water. A tablet would be placed on the outstretched palm, it would then be put in the mouth and the mug of water washed it down. An officer accompanied by a sergeant and a corporal would stand in front of each man in turn. Every trick in the book was used to avoid taking it. It could be thrown over the shoulder instead of into the mouth; or the thumb could be moved across to retain it in the hand; it could be held between the gum and the cheek to be spat out later. It could even be ejected into the mug. A medical orderly was on hand to yank cheeks away from gums of any man looking remotely suspicious. We naturally hated this duty so we took it in turns.

I went to stores and drew a 12 bore shotgun and a box cartridges. We were encouraged to take every opportunity of practicing deflection shooting whether it be clay pidgin shooting or game. Our food was appalling so I was determined to improve the selection with a bit of game if I had any luck. I collected my young bearer and was just about to leave the camp when I was hailed. "Sir?" I turned and saw P/O Beardsmore one of the new pilots who I had been delegated to 'take under my wing'; in any case he had no reason to call me "Sir". "What's on your mind?" "Nothing Sir but are you going shooting Sir?' 'Can I come with you Sir?' 'I won't expect to shoot Sir.' 'I will carry your bag Sir."

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There was no refusing the damned man. He was short, and with that particular pallor and pale light eyes that many Anglo-Indians have but he was a promising pilot and damned keen. "Alright but keep absolutely quiet, keep behind us and stop calling me Sir". "Yes Sir".

It was quite promising jungle territory with dense undergrowth alongside swampy areas. Suddenly there was a flash of red in the undergrowth; it was not a question of following through but estimating the direction I was ready for the next glimpse. Yes! I fired, my bearer leaped in like a retriever and came out with a fine young jungle fowl. They are almost certainly the precursors of our domestic fowl and make wonderful eating. One snag however was that there was a miserable corvine creature that also had a flash of red in the wing that could all too easily mean a wasted shot. About 50 yds later and another and just time to reload and a couple of snipe jinked away, I fired and one fell, I think it was the one I had aimed at! Beardsmore looked at me with pride. After all I was his AFI (Air Fighting Instructor) . I signalled to the bearer that my pupil would carry the birds.

I could do no wrong, several snipe with that infuriating evasive flight, a brace of birds that looked like woodcock and a clutch of jungle fowl. Every time a bird fell I murmured to myself "Just one more shot" My luck held and bird after bird fell. Just as I thought that my luck would hold out for ever I missed a snipe and called it a day and what a day. My bearer was silent but his eyes were shining, Beardsmore, sworn to silence, was making strange sounds from time to time, half way between a chuckle and a gulp. As we went into the camp I asked him to take them to the cook and my bearer scampered after him. I signed the gun back in . "Any luck Sir?" "I suppose you could say that." Nothing remotely approaching it had happened before and neither did it again.

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A couple of days later I slipped out of camp with my bearer without being noticed. We searched high and low but there was nothing to be seen. My bearer looked disconsolate and I felt tired and frustrated as we walked towards home. We had each gathered a leech or two and there was no master or servant as we divested each other of the repulsive things with a "leech stick".

Just on the other side of a stream five or six yards across a huge stork on one leg looked at us with his beady little eyes. He put the other leg down, stretched his neck and lifted an enormous beak. I lifted the gun and brought the brass bead on the end of the gun to the middle of his white, insolent neck. I was not prepared for the recoil. Everything happened in slow motion. A spot in the middle of the neck expanded, turned red and become a hinge. The huge beak fell down against the body with it's bit of neck, the remainder of the neck remained vertical. As in a nightmare the rest of the bird seemed unaware that it was dead. After what seemed an age the whole bird crumpled, all legs, beak and quivering feathers.

I looked on, uncomprehending for a few moments; then I stopped my bearer who was just starting to wade across. He turned and looked at me in an agony of reproach. My second finger had contracted on the choke trigger. I had fired the bloody gun.

We walked back in silence and he was no longer proud of me.

That damned bird has lived with me ever since in a dark little corner of shame.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002