Jonathan Bennett The Colonial Hotel

ISBN 13: 9781770411784

The Colonial Hotel

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9781770411784: The Colonial Hotel
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In this powerful novel of love and family, a doctor named Paris follows a nurse to a country on the brink of civil war. When a confrontation does break out, they are swept up by rebel forces and separated. The nurse, Helen, is pregnant; she escapes, but Paris is left behind, imprisoned by rebels as war rages.

A narrative of brutal power, but also of parental bonds, forgiveness, and identity, The Colonial Hotel recasts for the 21st century the ancient story of Paris, Helen, and Oenone. While the action might be ripped from international headlines, Bennett creates a wholly new take on an age-old tale set in the bleakest aspect of our unstable, yet remarkable, world.

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About the Author:

Jonathan Bennett is the author of six books including the critically acclaimed novels Entitlement (ECW, 2008) and After Battersea Park, and is a winner of the K.M. Hunter Artists’ Award in Literature. Bennett’s writing has appeared in many periodicals and journals including the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Quill and Quire, This Magazine, and Descant. Born in Vancouver and raised in Sydney, Australia, Jonathan lives in the village of Keene, near Peterborough, Ontario.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From Part 2
Paris

They had walked purposefully placing six knives in the dust of the compound. I was among two dozen or so men. We all stood back until they left.

This is a test, said someone.

We are watched, said another. The knives are not to be touched. This was what we all agreed. For the rest of the afternoon we walked around them. Always eyeing them slant, leaving them unreferenced in whatever conversations we had. The first night, many, including myself, did not sleep much, if at all. There was nothing to prevent one or even six men from rushing, grasping, and brandishing a weapon against the others. I cannot be the only one to have had thoughts of the relative merits of offence versus defence under the circumstances.

Where was Helen?

Days passed. It was indeed some kind of test, or else a game, since they no longer brought us food. It would only be a matter of time before the natural divisions between the captives showed up. Six police from the South; nine white foreigners, the blind; several of their own people from the North whom we understood to be sympathetic to the opposition, or else some kind of criminals in their own right; and, six soldiers from the South captured some years ago, apparently, after a skirmish at a border village. One among them spoke English well. He told me that they were all thought to be long dead. Of course we are dead, of course, he insisted. I learned the southern word for ghost, which is how they describe themselves.

On the third day, I woke to a punctured scream and a sound I could not properly place. One of the knives had been self-employed a ghost solider. An estuary of blood pooled, split, and ran in several directions, picking up dust as it slowed.

He lay among the knives. He was not moved. In the morning they entered. We were divided and interrogated singularly.

Did you kill the man?

No, I did not.

You?

No.

From then we were chained together at the leg. We would be made to work. Along with several of the police officers and two of my blind compatriots, we were put into a truck and taken deeper into the mountains. For several weeks we were forced to join their soldiers in clearing, excavating, and then building a barracks. The leader of the soldiers at the camp was the Colonel.

It became known that I was a physician. Perhaps at the Colonel’s instruction, it afforded me some surprising respect from the guards and soldiers, many of whom had never experienced Western medicine firsthand. From time to time the Colonel asked me, in his broken English, to look at one of their number. Infected cuts mostly, which I would wash, stitch, or dress from a depleted first aid kit.

I did not know their word for antibiotic, if they even had one. I spoke to one of the ghost soldiers who I had come to know better than the others. I was struggling to communicate as I was providing care.

Can you help me translate? I asked him.

I will not help them.

There is a man who will die without antibiotics. He needs a hospital.

Better he die, than all those of my brothers he will go on to kill if he lives.

His logic of war was up against my professional ethics, which were still then intact. I looked him in the eyes and thought that I could play at his game, to get him to come around, so I said, When the day comes for you, I will not save you if you do not save him. But he had seen enough foreign doctors in his time.

Yes, you will, he said through his teeth in a grin.

Please, I said.

My brother’s blood is on your hands, he said. Then he spoke in their shared language to the Colonel. I heard the word doctor and the word for blind, in a gentler tone. The Colonel looked at me. I pointed to the sick man and nodded with a serious look on my face, pointing right down at the expanding infected area. Then I pointed to the horizon and nodded. He had the man taken away; I do not know if he made it to a hospital for treatment in their territory on the other side of these mountains. I do not know if he lived, nor do I know if he went on to kill others.

Thank you, I said to the ghost soldier. What is your name?

Hector, he said. I am already a dead man but maybe that young man will grow to be a priest after this war.

You see, daughter. Life was not simple. But the ghost does live. Hector is my brother in the village. He and I speak of that sick man from time to time still. He says it was the first act of kindness he had ever shown them. Hector says now it was the beginning of his pathway to strength. If that sick man did die, it was not in vain. My brother did not go on to kill again.

In order that foundations could be laid, rock had to be removed. Blasts were set off with dynamite. Before each explosion, we were re-chained together and taken far enough away. Much shouting would occur before each detonation. On one such occurrence, we were removing rock and soil in buckets from the far side of a large mound, when the shouting began. We had not been chained and removed, as had been the case on each previous occasion. The explosion, so close, was a winding punch to the body and a bright, hot flash in my face. Then an eruption of rock shards, clay, and water covered my body.

As we unearthed ourselves, gasping for breath, several of us, myself included, could not see. In my ears, a roaring, a riot of tinnitus. And I could feel blood in my hair and on my face as my hands worked their way over my body. I heard the word for doctor in their language.

I regained partial sight by that afternoon. They left us chained to a tree. A man who had been with us since the hotel café was killed in the explosion. Unluckily he was smashed in the face with a large piece of rock. Our regular guard was injured too. I could not properly see, and there was nothing I could have done to help him. Others needed first aid. I was given some bandages and clean water and I dressed wounds as best as I was able, instructed people to apply pressure to wounds to stop hemorrhaging. As night fell my vision clouded further and my head felt light. We slept there, chained to one another. I realized I was concussed. At some point I drifted off.

In the night a panther came upon us. The blood must have attracted it. It circled. The guard was next to me. He seemed to have fallen asleep. Perhaps his injuries were worse than I’d thought. My eyesight was poor; all I could see were vague shapes and movements. I shook him awake. The cat pounced, the attacking noise of it primeval. One of our number must have kicked it off as it backed away, re-circling. There was shouting. Someone said they had a stick and would fight it off if it came back. The guard would not wake up. It was dark. I placed my hand on his neck. He was without a pulse. I reached down, impulsively, and felt for his handgun. It was beside him on the grass. Those I was chained to were now on their feet, so I stood.

The Colonel came bursting out of his tent, screaming orders. He fired his gun at the cat and into the air several times. Shadows and shapes came and went before me. There were other shots. I could hear the Colonel, his hateful voice. Every time I heard his voice I pictured him urinating on the bald man’s body.

My daughter, in the heat of the moment, con-cussed, shots flying, while we were being attacked by a panther, I lifted the handgun and fired it in the direction of the Colonel. I then hurled the gun away behind me into the thick forest at our backs. I understood from those about me that the cat had darted away. Had I been seen firing the gun? I collapsed onto the ground.

In the morning I was unchained and was brought before the Colonel. He had been shot in the ankle, I was informed, and I was to treat it. My eyesight was cloudy and I had to place my face close to the wound to properly see it. The Colonel lay still. He had a first aid kit with creams and gauze. It was only a flesh wound and hadn’t broken the bone. I dressed it. Nothing was said.

During the coming days, my eyesight did not improve. I could see up close if there was good light, and some shapes in the middle distance, but nothing beyond that. It was hard for me to labour, and I was taken away and made to help in the kitchen, cleaning pots and dishes after meals. At night I was re-chained to my group.

Once the building was finished we were moved about again, from the new compound to a tent barracks, and divided into smaller groups. Then, one by one, we were separated, assigned to different roles, soldiers, and camps. We would see one another from time to time on the road, occasionally made to work for a day together then not. We would exchange whatever gossip we knew, and would hungrily ask after one another.

After about a year, I was restricted to the larger camps. This was, I came to understand, due both to my poor eyesight, which limited my ability to work physically, but also it allowed the Colonel to extract the most from his only doctor. I treated wounds from battles and accidents. New and ever younger recruits continued to arrive in. I delivered three babies all alive birthed by local village women living with no men about all husbands long dead or gone to fight. I could only assume these were babies born from a night of pleasure with, or violence from, a soldier. Each mother took the child to her breast though. Did they see these children as hopeful gifts? If they did, I do not know how, given the demands a baby makes of a lone mother.

Where were you and Helen, I wondered, other than in my dreams?

Then the war took a turn. We heard that foreign troops had come to help the other side stabilize the fighting. Both sides needed time to regroup. It was during this time of uncertain enemy lines that I was almost rescued. I saw the outline and shape of a jeep. Whispers around me were that it was driven by two white soldiers. They were coming toward the makeshift camp. Perhaps they were lost? Warning shots were fired and they spun around and retreated not to return. But they saw me because one screamed out a one-word question: English? Was there surprise on their faces: a foreign white man, a prisoner among the enemy? Was word sent to embassies? A foreign national was sighted! Was I seen long enough to be described? Was it reported in the newspapers, picked up on the wires? Did I warrant news?

With my whereabouts now roughly known, I was quickly returned to the main compound.

Blind Doctor, said the Colonel, you are money when the time comes. Not now. You will go away.

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