“Hello, what’s this?” Doyle surveyed the mail he’d just tossed down on Bodie’s kitchen table.
“What?” asked Bodie, distractedly. He was trying to arrange two kitchen chairs so that he could put his bandaged ankle up on one, while sitting on the other. ‘Just a sprain,’ the doctor had said, but it was hobbling him every bit as effectively as a break, and without the solid support of a cast to walk on.
“I think you got some other bloke’s mail,” said Doyle. “No, hang on. It’s addressed to you…” He held up an envelope and frowned at it, puzzled.
Bodie fell back into his chair with a graceless thump. He looked up. There was a brief pause as he focused on the envelope in Doyle’s hand, and then his face became utterly expressionless. “Yeah, that’s mine.”
Something wicked took possession of Doyle. “You’re sponsoring an African child? You?” He made a show of looking around the kitchen. “Got the pictures tacked up on your fridge, do you? Get regular letters from the little dears? I suppose you include them in your prayers…”
“Give me that!” Bodie tried to snag the envelope out of Doyle’s hand, but the other man stepped back out of reach. “Yeah, okay, have your laugh, then. But you’re not one to talk. Look at all the time and money you’ve put into that sports club of yours.”
“That’s different,” said Doyle, still grinning. “This is a scam! It’s the kind of thing old widows and pensioners go for.” Mocking, he said, “Your precious child is little Nbumbo. He’s living in a five by five cardboard shack in a malaria-infested rat-ridden slum with his thirteen brothers and sisters. He walks ten miles uphill each day just to get clean water, and his dream is to be able to go to school and become a neurosurgeon, so he can cure his littlest brother’s epilepsy.”
“It’s not a scam,” said Bodie, biting off each word. “I looked into it.”
“When?” asked Doyle, pulling out another chair.
Bodie scowled at him. It was the kind of look that made hard men tremble in their boots.
Doyle stayed where he was, grinning. Bodie was too far away to hit him, and too crippled by his ankle to tackle him. He had the advantage and he meant to make the most of it. “When?” he asked again.
There was a momentary pause, and then Bodie visibly relaxed. He slouched back in his chair, and folded his hands over his chest. “I’ll have you know I’m a modern, sensitive, and caring man, in touch with his feelings. This whole hard-bitten, conscienceless, but irresistibly handsome, mercenary image is all a ruse.”
Doyle sniggered. “I’d say you’re right about handsome being a ruse. But you haven’t answered my question. When? How long have you been giving money to these people?”
“Christ, Doyle. When you get on the scent…”
“Yeah, that’s me. A bloodhound. When Bodie?”
“A year.” Bodie shrugged, elaborately. “So?”
Doyle tapped the edge of the envelope on the table, thinking back. A year ago, Bodie was… “Good god, you don’t do things by half, do you?”
“Look, why should you care where my money goes?” Bodie picked up an envelope at random and winced. “Soddin’ 'ell, is the gas past due already?
“It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing,” persisted Doyle. “If you’re feeling guilty about the things you said to that black doctor when you were off your head with a temperature, there are better ways to make amends.”
“You’ve missed the point by a mile, old son,” said Bodie. “I apologised to the doctor, and took the nurse out to dinner.”
“Right, because there’s nothing women want more than a chance to be wined and dined by you. You’re such a philanthropist.” Doyle pushed his chair back and went to fill the kettle. Over the sound of running water, he said, “Foster children programmes breed inequity. They favour one child over another, and they don’t do a thing for the root causes of poverty.”
“Solving the world’s problems is your mission, not mine,” said Bodie. He reached across and retrieved the letter Doyle had abandoned on the table.
Doyle switched the kettle on and turned around to look at Bodie. He’d opened the letter and was going through it, making tching sounds under his breath.
“If you wanted to help kids, you could do it right here,” said Doyle. “Or didn’t you think you could pick a charity any further away from home?”
“What do the kids here need?” Bodie flapped the letter at Doyle. “See this kid? His mum and dad were raped and murdered right in front of his very eyes. And then they tried to burn his house down around his ears.”
“Where does it say that?” Doyle grabbed the letter and quickly scanned it. “It doesn’t say a damn thing about rape!”
“You've just got to read between the lines,” said Bodie. “Says his mum and dad were killed by rebels right? Well, from the rebels’ perspective shooting ‘em would be a waste of perfectly good bullets. And the mum… Even if she was getting old and dried up, they’re not going to let her go to waste, right?”
Doyle dropped the letter as if it were poisonous. “You’re twisted.”
“It’s a twisted world we live in,” said Bodie, easily. “Anyway, some of ‘em might be mine.”
“You never!” Bodie was a lot of things – stubborn, racist, more-than-occasionally homicidal – but Doyle was certain he wasn’t a rapist. If he was, Doyle would have to accept that he didn’t know the man he’d been partnered with these past years at all.
Bodie gave him a disgusted look. “There’s a pile of papers over on the coffee table. Get them for me, will you, mate?”
Doyle almost told him to get them himself, before remembering Bodie’s gammy ankle. By the time he’d collected the pile and deposited it on the kitchen table, the kettle was beginning to boil. He left Bodie to sort through the stack of bills, junk mail, and, evidently, communications from his charity.
He was rinsing the teapot with hot water when Bodie made a pleased noise.
“Here it is!”
Doyle dropped a couple of teabags into the pot and poured on the boiling water. When he turned around, he found Bodie waiting with a grin. He held up a colour photo.
“See this one? Name’s Akins. He’s got no dad.” Bodie handed the photo to Doyle. “But actually the bastard who abandoned him might as easily have been me.”
Doyle examined the picture. “He’s black!”
“So’s his mum!”
“I mean, he’s really black,” said Doyle. The smiling boy in the photo had skin so dark it was almost blue. “I don’t think that kid’s had a drop of white blood in his ancestry for two thousand years. Probably never.”
“Yeah, maybe,” conceded Bodie. “But what about that new one? He’s a lighter shade of brown.”
Bodie shrugged. “See the thing is, I don’t know how many of the little buggers over there might be mine. And I can’t exactly send their mums maintenance.”
“What?” asked Doyle. “You mean you never took precautions?” He sat down across from Bodie and took another look at the photo. The kid appeared surprisingly healthy considering his circumstances, but a bloke would have to be daft to think he was any relation of Bodie’s.
“Rubbers were like gold. You didn’t waste them on sex.” Bodie paused, and then added, “Penicillin was a lot cheaper, and we didn’t really think about the other at the time.”
“What the hell did you use condoms for, then?”
“Traded ‘em. Weapons, ammunition, food, sex… Whatever was needed.” Bodie’s lip curled. “Rubber doesn’t last well in the heat. Damn things broke half the time anyway.”
Somewhere along the line, Doyle had lost control of the conversation. Trying to get Bodie to open up about his mercenary days was a favourite pastime, but this wasn’t what Doyle had had in mind. “I don’t need to know about the underground condom market in deepest darkest Africa.”
Or about Bodie leaving a trail of pregnant birds across the continent.
Bodie leant forward on his elbow, one eyebrow quirked. “The younger the better,” he said, smirking. “But never too young, of course. I’m not a practice dummy. Any bird I bed’s got to know what she’s doing. Oh, since I didn’t care to be on penicillin all the time, she had to be healthy. So, a good close inspection… smell’s a good way to tell.”
“You-.” Doyle caught himself on the verge of exploding angrily. Something wasn’t ringing true.
Bodie was watching him expectantly.
Doyle shook his head in reluctant admiration. “You bastard.”
Bodie’s tongue caught between his teeth. His eyes were sparkling, as he said, “Why don’t you pour us some tea?”
“I don’t believe it,” said Doyle. “You’re not going to convince me that you’re fostering… how many?”
“Four,” said Bodie.
“Four African children, because you think there’s a chance you might be the father!”
“Okay,” said Bodie, agreeably. “Then I got into it because there was this bird who was keen on it, see, and…”
“Yeah, if you’d told me that first, I might have believed you,” said Doyle. He drummed his fingers on the table as he considered the evidence. “I’m right. You feel guilty!”
Bodie looked offended. “Bollocks! I’m the cool, sophisticated one. You’re the bloke who goes about with all the world’s troubles on his shoulders. Guilt is your game, not mine.”
Doyle got up and found the last two clean mugs in the cupboard. As he poured the tea, he said, “You’re pretty cagey about your past. I think getting stabbed last year, and spending that time in hospital, gave you an opportunity to think about what you’ve done. And you didn’t like what you saw.”
“Africa was A Boy’s Own Adventure Tale, don’t you know? I loved every minute of it.” said Bodie.
Doyle put the mugs down on the table, and sat back down. “If I’m to believe any of what you told me, it was more like A Boy’s Own Dirty Weekend.”
Bodie sipped his tea, looking at him over the top of his mug. “Well, now that you’ve worked it out, you can stop twitching your nose at me. You’re off the scent.”
“I still think there are better ways you can give away your money,” said Doyle, doggedly. “Individual sponsorships are bad for communities. They create two classes of people, the ones who get money and the ones who don’t.”
“Christ, Doyle! What do you expect me to do? Tell the little buggers, sorry mates, I’m cutting you off in order not to perpetuate the class system?”
“Well…,” Doyle unexpectedly found himself boxed into a logical corner. Trying to cover his confusion, he examined the interior of his mug.
“Right,” said Bodie. “You look after your kids, I’ll look after mine.”
Despite himself, Doyle grinned. “That hard exterior and all you are is mush inside.” He picked up the first letter, the one that had started everything, and looked at it again. “Christ, did this kid really carry his little brother to the aid station all by himself? With third degree burns on his back?”
“You could sponsor him,” said Bodie. “It’d be easy enough to arrange.”
“I’m not going to sponsor an African child!”
“I’ve got an extra application form here,” said Bodie, digging through the papers heaped on the kitchen table.
“You can try to fight it, but you know that face is going to stay with you. You’ll be lying awake in bed thinking about little…” Bodie paused and tugged the top of the letter in Doyle’s hand down until he could read the name. “Kofi. You’ll be wondering whether he’s got food to eat, shoes on his feet, or a roof to sleep under. Makes your underprivileged inner city kids look like spoiled little brats, doesn’t he?”
“You’re an arsehole, Bodie.” Kofi’s dark eyes seemed to be staring straight at Doyle. He turned the letter over.
“I could tell you about this other kid, Banga…”
By midnight, Doyle was lying awake in bed and cursing Bodie.
It was one thing to stand on principle, it was another to think that your principles might be standing in the way of some kid getting shoes. Or clean water.
The faces of ragged, hungry children stared at him accusingly every time he closed his eyes. Where were the ugly children? Did that damn charity only offer sponsorship to the good-looking ones? Censored all their letters, no doubt, if it didn’t outright dictate them…
On the other hand, he’d learned something new about Bodie, hadn’t he? A year ago, Bodie had apologised to that black doctor, and made an effort to clean up his language, but he still got stiff around Africans who had money and power. And the dozy git actually seemed to think that going out with one black nurse made him less of a racist.
But apparently he had felt bad enough about his behaviour during that op that he’d gone out and found four African children to foster.
It was endearing, somehow.
Doyle smiled, turned over and closed his eyes.