William sat cross legged on the dirty floor of his tent, shading himself from the late afternoon sun. Even though it was showing signs of lowering its blazing glare, he could still feel its intensity through his stiff dirty shirt. Three or four of his mates sat on their haunches in front of his tent, waiting for a pot of bully beef to boil over the fire. Interspersed between the rattling of tin cutlery and plates, and the intermittent snorting of horses tethered nearby, was a lethargic flow of talking. The voices were weighed down with the same exhaustion William felt pressing on his shoulders. Holding a pencil in his hand, he tried to will it to speak; to say something to his Mother at home.
There were too many images and emotions filling his weary head to focus on any one thing. He stared down at the paper that he rested upon his rolled swag. Sprinkled with rusty fingerprints, it was still void of words. Positioning his hand and pencil on the paper he began to write…
I trust all is well at home. So far, I have managed to avoid any harm, although others have not been so lucky.
You should see me now! You would not recognize me all painted with layers of thick red dust. It gets into the pores of your skin and hair. My clothes are stiff from it and instead of looking khaki, they are now dark brown. You would be forgiven for mistaking me for a native. Water is scarce out here and we are only given bathing water once every 4 days. As for drinking water, it is also rationed. Our poor horses are also doing it tough. Some have not survived the long treks in the heat. Others have succumbed to disease. And some poor creatures have been shot.
Ma, I could really do with some of your home cooking. Food is terrible. Breakfast is usually coffee and bread. Sometimes hardship biscuits which are also rationed. We get tinned bully beef for dinner some nights and sometimes soup, if we’re lucky. I really hunger for some jam. Complaining won’t do me any good as there is nowhere to buy anything. And well, our tucker here is often better than that we were given on the ship from home. Even the threat of a loaded gun wouldn’t entice you to eat the questionable meat and mouldy bread that appeared some days!
William stopped writing and wondered how much of the truth he should tell his Mother. Should he tell her that there have been times when they have been starving due to food shortages. There have been days when they have nothing to eat from sun up to sun down. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her that they have had to raid farmhouses for food; that he has lost so much weight that his clothes hang on his bony frame. Suddenly, he felt pangs of hunger grip his insides as the smell of warm bully beef wafted in from the fire, reminding him that he had not eaten all day.
He stared out at the dry barren land, a land that was not conducive to life, except for vultures who thrived on the dead. His thoughts briefly touched on those friends who have fallen. One can only afford to indulge in their memory for a split second. His Mother would not understand how the regular occurrences of death and injuries hardens you. When a mate pays the ultimate price, they are buried and life continues on in the same drudging way. There is no time for contemplation or grief, for that might cost your own life. They have become machines, they just keep rolling on with very little to sustain them. Little food, water and often no sleep for more than 24 hours. Sometimes he has fallen asleep in the saddle at night, awaiting an order to dismount. But…even the best of machines can only take so much neglect.
The incident where the Mother and her two children were killed by British soldiers continues to haunt William’s waking hours. As much as he tries, he cannot erase the image from his head, and he has seen much worse since arriving in South Africa. It is bad enough when those beside you in on the battlefield are killed, but that family was only guilty of not understanding the English signs. Yes, he had seen so many injustices, but what can one say?
There was no way that a written account of how the British command were ordering the burning of the Boers’ farmhouses and sheds would reach home shores. Nor would the truth about the concentration camps filled with women and children be allowed to leave this God forsaken place. Those poor beggars have been rendered homeless and are now starving and dying from disease. No, he knew that he could not mention any of it to his Mother as it would be censured for sure.
He closes his eyes and inhales the smoky meaty aroma of bully beef, imagining it to be a succulent roast dinner in his Mother’s kitchen. As much as he is tired of tinned beef, he knows it might be his last reasonable meal for days. Opening his eyes, he sighs, trying to muster some positive news to appease his Mother’s fears. A moment or two passes before the pencil, guided by his long thin brown fingers, begins to unload his censured thoughts, along with more rusty fingerprints, upon the grubby page. He knows that any news will be welcomed by his family back home.