The Head of the Snake
Still inexperienced but significantly tougher and with the confidence of a lucky start behind her, Sarah strikes out on her own in wartime Sierra Leone. Her blinkered obsession with justice leads to tragedy and the death of one she loves. Will she run away home to escape the daily horrors of war, or stay and fight? For Sarah, there is only one choice.
The humidity hits like a brick wall.
Stepping out of the plane onto the rickety staircase, Sarah flinches at the face-on
affront. Air thick enough for gills. And the smell - a clamorous cooking pot of sap, hot tarmac and blossoming mould. Blood rushes to her skin and her sweat pores switch into overdrive to match the atmospheric dampness.
A giggling red-faced stewardess pushes her through the door. “Welcome to
Freetown,” she sings, “is it your first time love?”
“Um, yes.” Sarah answers between deep gulps of air.
“Whatcha here for? Diamonds or do-gooding?”
“Really? Well, see you on your way out.”
The crew of the charter airline had looked dishevelled in Gatwick five hours
earlier. As the plane soared over the Sahara sands, their cheeks had begun to glisten, their gait grown unsteady, and their mumbled announcements into the microphone were choked out through stifled giggles. Dutch courage must be a prerequisite for landing in a war zone.
Sarah tightens her grip on the metal handrail before following the stream of men in
crumpled suits down to the tarmac below. Even the ground feels spongy: cement and tar at saturation point from the tropical air. A strong hand clamps around her bicep and a young man, perhaps boy, grins at her with a smile that is all cheekbones. He wears loose camouflage-print trousers, a faded t-shirt advertising a summer camp in Colorado and bare feet.
“Miss Sarah?” The vowels come out long and soft, the two syllables of her name
made equal length, “Welcome to Salone.” The boy fishes a piece of crumpled paper from his back pocket and smooths it against his chest - a large, roughly cut heart in pinky red. “Mr Elias said to give you this,” he says, proudly handing her the drooping valentine.
“Tell Mr Elias thank you,” she stifles a giggle. She reads the message written on
the paper: ‘Follow your heart’. Typical Elias. Nothing with him ever comes close to conventional. He had promised to meet her at the airport and help her across to Freetown - none of the ways to cross the wide estuary that separates Lungi airport from the capital city inspire confidence, and she is glad not to be doing it alone. A board with her name would have been too obvious.