© Jasper Dorgan
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The Open Arms Of The Sea
The arid landscape of broken-glass rocks and parched earth unfurled to the distant horizons. The noon-day Yemeni sun hurled a light so harsh that it bleached everything that it touched and crushed the world to shards and bronzed dirt. At the furthest reaches of the desolate plain the shark-toothed highlands pierced a cloudless white sky.
The Tihamah plain glared back at him. He felt a comfort in its scorch.
I’ve hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time
And time goes by so slowly
Lieutenant Leslie Deacon of the 1st Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment pulled back from the binoculars and rubbed his eyes with dust-gloved fingers. He took a mouthful of warm, brackish water from his canteen and rinsed his mouth. He swallowed the resulting sludge on a forced gulp.
“Mark the grid, corporal. Dry river five. We’ll have the men patrol,”
“It is getting late, sir. Still four hours back to Aden.”
Corporal Lockett stepped up beside him. He was a small man, barely coming up to Deacon’s shoulder, but he occupied his space with a confidence and youthful brio that made him seem taller. Deacon was never quite undisturbed by his corporal’s presence. Lockett had been with him for more than six months but Deacon had never really settled in his un-servile care. The corporal had a way of always having an answer, or a question, and of always being there, like a puckish and eager shadow.
“Don’t you ever obey an order, corporal?”
“Only inadvertently, sir.”
“I think they can still shoot you for that.”
“Army will shoot you for anything, sir.”
“Well, you can tell Private Shaw that if I hear that damn song again I will unchain his melody and shove his transistor radio where even this righteous sun don’t shine. He knows the patrol orders. And I am sick of that damn song.”
Corporal Lockett grinned.
“More a Rolling Stones man me, sir. Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Now that’s a soldier’s song for you. I expect you are more a Byrds officer. ”
Deacon did not snaffle the hook. It was the corporal’s game to probe beneath his officer’s tunic carapace. To unearth some fragment of his non-soldier self. It was Deacon’s game to not oblige.
“No, Kipling more my line. When wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains and all that. That’s a song for the troops.”
“And the women come out and cut up the remains.
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.
And go to yaw Gawd like a soldier.”
Lockett grinned boyishly and spread his hands to signal the end of his impromptu performance. Deacon ignored him as he always did. Lockett was too independent of spirit and far too clever for a corporal. But for all his oddities he was a dutiful and efficient one.
“Where exactly did you go to school, corporal?”
“Anywhere there was trouble, sir. I sort of picked it up on the way.”
Lockett adjusted his makeshift Arab headscarf and swept a hand through his short brown hair. Then he dusted off his smart army tunic with a few deft slaps.
"Learned there is always time for a smoke though, sir"
He offered Deacon a flicked cigarette and a cupped palm for the light.
“Remind me why you joined the army, corporal?”
“Couldn’t disappoint the Queen, sir,”
Lockett was twenty, just four years his junior, but he made Deacon feel old. He sucked on the cigarette and let the smoke burn through him.
“Sergeant. All-compass perimeter patrol. Half-hour then turn back,”
Sergeant McNish pulled himself up wearily from the truck’s running board and stretched. His barrel frame strained at his tunic buttons and he farted loudly.
“Sir. And what are we looking out for this time?”
“Your own backsides I expect, but if you could spot any Adoo prowling about out there then you have my permission to shoot them a bit,”
The Sergeant grunted and sloped off towards the men.
“Don’t forget Shaw, Sergeant.”
Deacon watched the men being roused from their half-slumbers in the truck’s shade. They emerged shirtless into the sun; a yawning, dawdling parade of tanned, muscled shoulders and broad chests and smooth trooper-bodies scratched in dark hair. The men steamed and glistened in the lime Tihamah light. Deacon felt a tightness in his skull, of his blood rushing. He pulled his gaze away sharply. At his corner eye he saw that Lockett had been watching him. The corporal quickly diverted his interest to the horizons, a smile not forming on his marble face. Deacon ignored him.
Shaw clicked off his radio and unwound it from the truck cab mirror with a mutter. The men pulled on their tunics and hitched their guns. They grumbled among themselves and then sauntered out on patrol.
“Ta, Harry. More frying and fucking rocks,” said Shaw, almost privately.
Harry was the men’s name for him. Deacon liked it.
He retrained his binoculars onto the horizons and moments later felt Lockett at his usual shadow stand.
“Not out hunting, corporal?”
“Someone has to stay and watch your back, sir. Short straw again.”
“I suppose they will all hunker down behind some rock and fag the hour out?”
“They are British soldiers, sir!”
Deacon looked at Lockett who grinned back at him.
“Then let’s fix a brew and really piss them off,” said Deacon.
They sat in the truck’s shade and rested their backs against the comfort of the mortar bags. The billy-can tea was thick and comfortingly tasteless. A Wessex helicopter Dave Clark drummed somewhere from a far sky. A pair of vultures soared. They always did on the Tihamah.
“What on earth are we doing here?” asked Lockett.
“They closed our canal so we took Aden. Because of the oil. It’s always oil. It’s why we are here and why the Adoo’s like shooting us.”
“Oh, I know all that. Why this place? Today?”
Deacon sat himself up and pointed off towards the mountains.
“Rivers start up there. Big ones. In the highlands. But by the time they get here they have long since evaporated. In just a few hundred miles. This sun drinks them dry. Sometimes they flood and carve new gullies. Big enough to hide a camel train. But mostly they just dry out. Rivers that never get to reach their sea.”
Lockett gazed towards the unseen coast and the crescent bays of the Gold Mohur.
“That’s rather sad,” he said. “But why the army interest?”
“If I told you I would have to shoot you.”
“You already shot me this morning, sir.”
“Then you are beyond caring, aren’t you?”
“I reckon it’s something to do with the Adoo using the dry river-beds to move their guns and supplies across the Tihamah. In secret. To the coastal plain.”
“Fetch my pistol, corporal. Head or the heart?”
“The heart, sir. Always the heart. That’s the one that never hurts.”
“It always hurts, corporal. The trick is not to feel it.”
They heard the sound of California Girls drifting in from the desert.
They entered into Aden along the winding Wadi Taym road and were waved through the sand-bagged perimeter posts with an hour of daylight still left.
Deacon checked that his small convoy was in good order behind him. The heavy truck and machine-gun mounted jeep sped in his wake along the sand-dusted tarmac road.
“Step on it corporal, I need to bathe in beer,”
The low white stone buildings and road-side stalls of outer Aden blurred past. In the near distance Deacon could see Crater, the old port city of Aden, lying in its extinct volcanic bowl like a half-chewed meal. To the east the new oil refineries and docks of Little Aden ghosted their skeletal derricks and fat insect tankers in hover above the shimmering skyline. By day Aden was all mirage, at night a cold and starlit well.
A group of soldiers waved them down as they sped through the narrow streets. Deacon brought the convoy to a halt and stepped out to meet the lance-corporal who ran towards him and skidded to a stop on a sharp salute.
“Andrews, sir. Second company. Red Wolves been at it again, sir. Bodies in the alley up there. No Brits, by the look. Need an officer, sir.”
“Where is Major Ross? He’s your officer.”
The lance-corporal hesitated.
“Er. The Major is indisposed, sir. In the truck.”
Deacon followed his gaze to a truck parked beside a tavern a little way down the street.
“How far gone this time?” asked Deacon.
“Two Gordons and a Johnnie Walker that we know of, sir. He’s beyond waking.”
Deacon clipped the lanyard to his pistol. Sergeant McNish appeared from the truck.
“Four men, Sergeant. Rest guard the transport. No-one past. Right, you had better show me.”
They made their way slowly along a baked dirt track between squat white buildings. The local Arabs had vanished, even the young street urchins who materialised to beg sweets whenever a white eye appeared. The area was deserted and a baleful quiet began to ooze and crush. Deacon heard the low drunken drone of flies and then saw feet sticking out from an alley. Corporal Lockett ran forward, his gun fisted. Deacon noticed the oil barrel standing in the corner shade.
“Halt corporal!” he bellowed. Lockett stopped as if he had hit a wall. “Don’t move.”
Deacon crabbed lightly to the entrance of the alley and stood beside Lockett. Several bodies lay like felled skittles in the dirt and large magenta pools of blood were feeding on them. Fokker flies frenzied above it all.
He counted three Europeans and four Arabs. All had their arms outstretched behind them. The European’s throats were cut. The Arabs had been luckier. They had been shot in the back of the head. The Adoo Red Wolves had called again.
Deacon bent down in the dust and probed his hands forward. After a few moments he felt the cotton wire that stretched across the alley at shin height. He traced it with gossamer care back to the barrel. He removed the pin and tossed it to Lockett.
“Keep your care, corporal.”
Lockett relaxed on a shiver. He looked at Deacon and forced a smile. His face was blanched and his Arab headband was lassoed in dark sweat.
“I do,” he said.
They checked the alley for further traps and then pulled what papers they could from the bodies. A letter or two, a club token, but the passports and wallets were gone. The Arabs had no pockets to need searching.
The sergeant spat on the nearest Arab.
“No. These are our Adoos, Sergeant. Yemeni Arabs. Our friends. The bad Adoo are Egyptian Arabs. And Syrians and Jordanians and any other Arab malcontent with a mind to kill us invaders.”
“And using our own fucking British guns to do it!” said the Sergeant.
“Yes. A delicious irony I agree. But look on the bright side Sergeant, it means that we will be slaughtered under two British Standards. That’s quality dying, that is.”
He heard Lockett laugh behind him.
“Radio it in Sergeant and set a guard.”
“Maybes best if we wait for a proper officer,”
He eyed the Sergeant. Deacon’s non-attendance at Sandhurst military academy was well known among his men. Croydon Secondary was no substitute and his men seldom missed the opportunity to register their disdain at being so ignominiously led. Deacon might be the best desert navigator in the regiment but he could never be a proper officer.
“I have given you an order, Sergeant.”
Sergeant McNish shuffled to a vague attention.
He turned on his heels and began shouting at his men. Deacon holstered his pistol and sat on a low wall to wait for the body squad. Lockett returned from the tavern with two cans of warm Tizer. They drank in silence.
Deacon watched the Aden night begin to swallow the squat houses and streets about him and listened to the buzzing flies. The city was closing in again. He shut his eyes and wished for the clear, white skies of the Tihamah.
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
“Go and shoot Private Shaw.”
“Head or heart sir?”
“Start with his balls.”
Deacon drifted away under the hot-needled shower and watched the steam cloud rising up to body-bag him. He let the water drum on his head and the hot rivulets snake down over his body. He wished for time to stop. For just a moment more.
The corporal coughed beyond the curtain. His hand reached in and turned off the water.
“Sorry, sir. Colonel Jennings is here.”
Deacon watched the last of the water slither away. He stepped out of the shower and into the towel held by Lockett, who found studied interest in a far wall.
“He has a gentleman with him, sir. I have your tunic fresh laundered. I will arrange coffee. They have already breakfasted. You in trouble, sir?”
“We are in Aden, corporal. Everyone is in trouble.”
Colonel Jennings, and the man he introduced cursorily as Captain Jack Banner, stood in the small dinette of Deacon’s modest billet. They had a small table, a wooden folded chair and a travelling clock for company. It was just after nine in the morning. Deacon had slept fitfully. He always did in the city.
“Good job I hear up on Tihamah,” said Colonel Jennings. He was a tall man with a mustard-blond moustache and bloodshot eyes. He stared around the sparsely furnished room as if looking for something that had been secretly hidden from him. “Keep the place tidy, eh. Functional. You were at the Red Wolves party last night? Officer on the scene and all that? Rum do. Banner’s territory. A few questions. Then show him the sights and what. Short trip up territory. Few days. Pop any Adoos?”
“Not this time, sir no.”
“Well, ‘spect you did your best.”
The Colonel searched the small room once more, offered a hrrhrf, and left. Deacon turned to find Captain Jack Banner’s dark green eyes watching him with steady interest.
Jack Banner smiled warmly and flicked open the wooden chair.
It was neither command nor request. It was all offer. Deacon felt himself sit.
Captain Jack Banner was an imposing and exotic presence in the small room. He was tall and broad shouldered and dressed in a pale cream linen suit and a light blue collar-less shirt. He wore a wide-brimmed fedora hat under which a square, tanned face looked out with a half-smile already warmed. Jack Banner had the solid, muscled build of a soldier and his movements were light and sure.
The Captain removed his hat and gazed around the spartan room with interest. His dark hair was swept back long on his collar and a four-day stubble shaded his jaw. He spoke with a quiet and assured calm.
“Captain Jack Banner. Excuse the civvies. Just flew in from London and BOAC still have my gear. Dare say it will find me. Tell me about the Red Wolves last night.”
Deacon told him all he could. It was some moments before it dawned on him that Captain Jack Banner was actually quite young, maybe not even thirty. Merely a couple of years older than himself. Deacon felt himself a schoolboy.
“So. What is your take Lieutenant? Leslie is it?”
“Harry, sir. My men call me Harry.”
“They say I look like Harry Palmer. From the films. Ipcress File.”
“Yes, saw that in London last week. Rather good. See what they mean though. Harry it is. Well?”
Deacon tried to think.
“The outstretched arms. Behind them. That was odd. They were escorted out. But why go with them?”
“Yes. That’s the way with them all. Over forty dead now. The Wolves pluck their Europeans and then take them out and slit their throats and are gone. Arab guides get it too. Two Dutch trade delegates and a German charity worker were your poor sods last night. Just having coffee in a bar. Oil Johnnies all kicking a stink. So is HMG. So we stop it now.”
Deacon sipped his coffee. Captain Jack Banner watched him.
“An inside job maybe?” said Deacon.
Jack Banner’s square tanned face broke into a wide grin.
“They told me you were clever. Navigator too I hear. Look I know you must be beat after the patrol but this can’t wait. Just got in yesterday and I need to be back in London in a fortnight. I am your commander for the next few days and we are going up country on a trip. Need a navigator and you are it. Sorry about that. Perhaps you can show me Aden in the meantime. Plenty of time for sleep later. Ah coffee!”
Corporal Lockett came in with a tray and placed it on the table. He glanced at Deacon. His look was ignored.
“Thank you corporal,”
Lockett faded slowly to the corridor and shut the door quietly.
Deacon hardly recognised Jack when he and Lockett picked him up from Battalion headquarters barely an hour later. The Captain was now shaved, his hair had been trimmed and he had borrowed a smart combat uniform of a Captain of the Commando.
Jack Banner slid in beside Deacon in the back of the jeep.
“Where to?” asked Lockett. He sought instruction in the mirror.
“Show me Aden, Harry,” said Captain Banner.
They wove among the warren streets and Dutch-built merchant warehouses of the Crater district and on down to the old colonial steamer port of Tawahi. They took in the barren oasis of Al-Mansura and sped along the isthmus road to Little Aden. There the new quay-side jetties of cranes and oil storage silos and man-tall pipes grew like a giant’s junkyard out of the sands and the green-hazed bay floated ships as far as the eye could see.
“Now show me something worth seeing,” said Jack.
Deacon took him to the Tawila Tanks. They drove through the early afternoon scorch of the sun and up the deserted, winding road into the Shamsam mountains of Tawila. They parked on a high, road-side bend and gazed down upon the vast natural cisterns that had been carved and shaped like a dinosaur’s heel prints down the full sweep of the mountain’s slope.
“There were fifty-three of them. In the ancient times. Wonderful engineering. All interconnected and controlled by sluices. They collected the river water and stored it above the city for times of drought. And when the floods came it defended the city from the worst of it. Only thirteen tanks remain now though. I calculated that they would have held a good twenty million gallons.”
Deacon turned to see Jack watching him with a something of a humour. Deacon felt himself redden.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to go on.”
“No, it’s wonderful. I can quite see why you admire it. And just look at that sun.”
They wandered among the tanks until an impatient Corporal Lockett shouted down to them.
“It’s getting late, sir.”
They rode back in silence. Captain Banner ordered a stop at a road-side café that boasted a telephone. He made a call and then ordered coffee for two.
“Stay with the jeep, corporal,” said the Captain. “Keep alert.”
Lockett looked at Deacon. Deacon nodded. Lockett drove the jeep into nearby shade, flicked a smoke and stared at the distant ships rippling over sand.
The coffee arrived and Captain Banner told Deacon of their trip. They were to leave for the Radfan Hills before first light and get to Monks Field camp by nightfall. Then out next day about eighty miles north for a meeting with the Qutaibi Arabs and then back the way they came. Four days. One truck and with a four man guard. Jack pulled out a map and gave Deacon the grid reference. Deacon studied the map.
“Can you navigate me there?”
They drove back to Aden. Deacon watched sand. He could see Lockett searching the mirror for him. Deacon stayed hidden.
For the first time in a long, long while Deacon had had a happy day. He couldn’t remember the last one. To have felt something this close to pleasure. With Jack he had almost seen Aden anew. He knew he should be tired. But he just wasn’t tired at all.
They dropped off Jack at Headquarters and returned to Deacon’s billet.
“Needing a driver tomorrow, sir?” said Corporal Lockett. He was hanging the new thermal fatigues on the back of Deacon’s door. It was only nineteen hundred hours but Deacon was going to store-up some sleep.
“No. Captain Banner’s show.”
Lockett brushed the fatigues with stiff palms.
“He called you Harry, sir”
“That’s not right. I mean it’s the men’s name, sir. Can’t anyone be using it,”
“Why on earth not, corporal?”
“It’s just not proper, sir.”
The gritted sand whipped around the trucks open cab and the wheels jumped and whined beneath them. Deacon had directed them off the tarmac of the Wadi Taym road soon after leaving the last outpost guard. They turned onto the flat sand plains. The Adoo could not road mine the sands.
Deacon felt the presence of Jack at his side all day but tried to focus all his thoughts on the navigating. The plains were a treacherous place and Deacon prided himself on his skills. He did not want to let the Army, or Jack, down.
They arrived at Monks Field Camp a little after four in the afternoon. The camp was a small outpost of a few stone huts and tents encircled by a chest-high wall of sand bags and boulders. It was not much bigger than a small field and was home and fort to some fifty or so men. Machine gun nests swept out across the full perimeter and sentries with binoculars scanned the compass points.
A small, round Major in a tin hat greeted them.
“You made fine time! Thought another hour at least. Welcome to Rorke’s Drift. Major Carter. We’ll be able to chow you but you best sleep in your truck. Accommodation somewhat limited. That OK? Fine. Holocaust in an hour. But dare say some shepherd’s pie first eh?”
There were about twenty soldiers manning the walls, others were cooking or sleeping or cleaning their guns. A tin-roofed toilet hut lay a hundred yards beyond the sand bag walls. It was not used after dark.
“Chopper dropped off a crate of Merlot yesterday,” said the Major.
“Splendid,” said Jack Banner.
The meal was gorged. Deacon was so hungry he tasted nothing. The Major gulped the last of his wine.
“Drink up chaps. It’s holocaust time!”
They followed him out into the dusking night and went to the north-eastern wall where the entire outpost of soldiery had taken station at the sand bags, even the cooks. They cradled guns of all kinds. Machine guns, automatic rifles, pistols, sten guns. The Major grinned. He gave Deacon and Captain Banner a machine gun each.
“Two minutes of holocaust fire power. Just to show ‘em what’s waiting. Join in. Does wonders for the blood.”
The Major barked a laugh and then flicked his watch and raised an arm. The line of soldiers and cooks watched for his signal. The Major’s arm dropped.
The Yemeni night sky erupted in noise and fire. The air thundered with cracks and rat-a-tat-a-tata and whoomphs and arcing meteor traces of blue and red and white light scarred the sky. The stinging smell of cordite swirled as thick as cauldron tar.
Captain Jack Banner turned to Deacon. He had a look of absurd, boyish delight on his face. He stepped up to the sandbags, hipped his gun and let it roar.
Deacon laughed out loud. He could not hear it for the noise.
He pulled his gun to his shoulder and just screamed it all out to the stone mountains.
That evening Deacon lay on his back inside the truck. The tailgate wedged him on one side and Jack Banner’s shoulder and hip lay pressed beside him on the other. Beyond them four soldiers lay whispering and snoring in the dark cave of the truck.
Deacon lay still and alert. Jack lay motionless beside him, his eyes closed.
Deacon steeled himself not to fall asleep. To not drift away into the dark. For if he did he knew that he would find his head at rest on Jack’s shoulder. That his arm would seek cradle on his tunic chest. And that he would be lost.
Deacon sat up sweating in a cold shiver and jumped lightly out of the truck. He lit a cigarette and leaned huddled against the tailgate. The blue-black Yemeni sky was silken and pricked with stars, like a cascade of snow’s first flakes on a dark winter's eve. Deacon felt his eyes swelling, his mind burning.
“Everything OK, Harry?” said Jack from the truck.
“Fine, sir. Thought I’d take my share of guard”
The next day’s mission was a squib. Most Aden missions were.
They left for the rendezvous before dawn and reached the grid reference at noon without incident. No Qutaibi chief was there to greet them. The plain was full of nothing but sun and dirt and rocks. A pack of wild baboons had scampered among distant rocks, but there had been no tribal chiefs. Jack Banner had kicked the truck’s wheels in frustration.
“Lousy Arabs,” he said. “Worse manners than the monkeys.”
He laughed and slapped Deacon on the shoulder.
“What it is to be a soldier, eh?"
Captain Banner made a radio call and an hour later a Wessex helicopter came and stirred the dust to a frenzy about them.
“My ride,” said Jack. He smiled and shrugged at Deacon. “Sorry about this but I need to get back pronto. I’ll leave my kitbag with you in the truck. Call me when you get back and we’ll have a drink, eh? Name the bar.”
“Qadir’s Bar,” said Deacon. He forced a smile. Jack held him lightly on the shoulder, smiled and then turned and disappeared into a dust storm of blades.
The truck journey back to Aden was slow and hot and strangely lonely. Deacon navigated on auto-pilot. He watched the rocks without seeing them and he could feel all his senses melting away until only the feel of Jack’s pressed shoulder remained. He rested his head until Aden.
Corporal Lockett greeted his return.
“I’ll run you a nice bath, sir. Fresh linen on the bed.”
“Thank you Corporal. Can you launder my kit. And Captain Banner’s too.”
Locket looked at the kit bag.
“I’ll just smile, smile, smile, sir”
Deacon slept though to the late morning. When he woke he telephoned headquarters and spoke to Jack.
“Qadir’s Bar at noon. Fine Harry. See you then.”
Deacon decided to ignore the clean uniform hanging on the back of his door and dressed in a cotton shirt and linen trousers. He was in the mood to relax.
Lockett made no spoken comment but handed him Captain Banner’s cleaned uniform.
“He left his ID card in the pocket, sir. Very unprofessional.”
Deacon took the card.
“I’ll see it returned.”
Deacon sat nursing a tall, cool beer in Qadir’s Bar. Lockett stood at the counter watching American troops boarding Vietnam bound planes on the ceiling mounted television. The bar was full of the usual mix of local trades people, junior officers, merchant seamen and street hawkers. The sound of chatter and laughter drifted about him and a juke-box played softly. Deacon sat under the canopy shade and gazed far down the street and across the large square looking for Jack to appear.
He was aware of a sudden silence about him and looked up to see the bar filling with young Arab men carrying guns and short swords. They had cloths wrapped across their faces. Three Yemeni officials in smart tunics, red fezzes and pressed shorts stood in the bar. One of them stepped forward.
“There is no need for alarm, gentlemen. Please to stay seated,”
The young Arabs and their guns encircled the tables. The policeman consulted a notepad.
“Captain Jack Banner. Is he here?”
No-one in the bar moved. The television was switched off with a gun butt. In the silence the juke-box music seemed to swell.
Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh, wait for me, wait for me
Down the far street Deacon saw the shimmering speck of Jack emerging onto the sun-baked square, his strong and easy stride wading the rippled tide, eating the distance. Deacon smiled. He stood up.
“I am Captain Banner.”
Lockett sprang from the counter.
A large Arab winded Lockett with a punch and then grabbed and pinioned him in a neck lock so that he could neither talk nor move. Lockett groaned, his eyes wide and white, his small hand clawed in despair.
“Keep your care, corporal,” said Deacon.
He took the identity card out of his pocket and showed it to the policeman. The policeman inspected it, nodded slowly and stepped back. Two young Arabs grabbed Deacon by the arms and marched him out through the back of the bar. He could hear the muffled snorts of Lockett fading behind him and weaving with song.
I need your love, I need your love
God speed your love to me
Deacon stepped out into the bright alley with his arms pinned stiff behind him. He strode tall as a soldier. An unseen hand jerked his head back and he gazed up into the dazzling beauty of a white and cloudless sky.