Authors: Martin Pevsner
Tags: #war, #terrorism, #suburbia, #oxford, #bomb, #suicide, #muslim, #christian, #religion, #homeless, #benefit, #council, #red cross
To Jean-Louis, Munia, Nicky, Joe, Ella, Patrick, Awat, Kate, Mike, Milan, Tom, Inge, Ataullah Khan, Jim and everyone else who helped in one way or another. And of course to you, Elaine. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
First published in 2011 by
Signal Books Limited
36 Minster Road
Digital Edition converted by
Andrews UK Limited
© Martin Pevsner, 2011
All rights reserved. The whole of this work, including all text and illustrations, is protected by copyright. No parts of this work may be loaded, stored, manipulated, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information, storage and retrieval system without prior written permission from the publisher, on behalf of the copyright owner.
Quotations in this novel are taken from the following: The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an (Tenth Edition), Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Amana Publications, Beltsville, Maryland, USA, 1999 The Holy Bible, Collins, London, 1952
Production: Jennifer Krebs Cover Design: Brianna Corbett Cover Images: javarman3/istockphoto; Brianna Corbett Printed in India by Imprint Digital
So this is how it will be.
I will arrive at the airport by taxi. I will be dressed in a charcoal suit, white shirt, blue tie, black leather shoes. They bought the outfit yesterday morning and I put it on for them when they got back. They examined me carefully, made me walk up and down the room, finally nodded their approval. The shoes pinch but I did not tell them.
I will pay the taxi-driver with two one-hundred rand notes, pocket the change. I have a third note if the taxi driver tries to overcharge me. Apart from the money and the mobile phone, I will carry nothing on my person except the locker key.
From the taxi rank, I will head straight into the airport, turn left and head for the left-luggage lockers. I will find locker number three-four-three, open it with the key, take out the briefcase.
I will follow the departure signs, check in at the desk. I will hand over my ticket and passport while they confirm my booking. The airport will be air-conditioned. The counter staff will be cool, indifferent.
Once I have checked in, I will wait exactly thirty-five minutes before going through immigration. To kill time I will visit the airport boutiques and drink a cup of espresso. Then I will brace myself and pass through the gates.
I will place the shiny maroon booklet on the counter of the cubicle. The immigration officer will take the document, flick through to the page with the photo, scan it through some computer system, look up briefly to match face with picture. He will give me a fleeting but professional glance, then slap the passport back on the counter. The passport will be clean, its owner seemingly composed, showing none of the tell-tale signs of suspicion that the officer will have been trained to spot. As I bend to pick up the briefcase, the officer will already be looking beyond me to the next in line.
After immigration, the next hurdle will be security. I will pick up my briefcase with my left hand, the passport with my right, walk straight ahead following the line of travellers. If all has gone to plan, there should be three security checkpoints, each manned by a pair of officers. I will go for the checkpoint on the left. The officer I’ll deal with will be expecting me. I will know it is him because he will have something wrong with his mouth, a cleft lip or similar deformity that has been operated on, half-repaired. I have seen a photo of him. He will be mixed race, greasy-skinned, cool in white short-sleeved shirt and navy slacks, his ID badge hanging from a thick, black lanyard.
His job will be to ensure the safe passage of myself and the briefcase. That is all I know about him. It is all I need to know.
After that, it will be plain sailing. Through to the departure lounge, wait for the flight to be called, make sure I have the boarding card ready. The flight attendant will smile at me and I will smile back.
And then we will be gone.
The end of my pain.
The end of my story.
This is how it will be.
Woosh! Like a deep sea diver breaking water, ripping through from the shadowy depths, the relief of the familiar, the escape from the unfathomable, he surfaces into a kind of semi consciousness. He knows he’s returned from an uneasy place, but he can’t remember what or why, only that his apprehension is justified.
He’s still only aware of physical sensation in the loosest sense, a feeling of wholesale trauma to his entire body so cataclysmic that it has resulted in neurological shut-down.
One part of his brain registers a vague sense of anxiety, a knowledge that something has happened that is so awful that there may be no pieces left to pick up.
But the shock to his system has numbed the pain and the blow to his head scrambled his thoughts and so he’s able to shelve his doubts, surrender to this foggy upheaval with calm resignation. It is an acquiescence made easier by a hazy belief that what he is undergoing is not shared by any significant loved ones.
Yes, there are loved ones, he knows that with absolute certainty, they exist in some other place, though he can’t for the moment think who or where they are.
So his overriding feeling is one of submission. Physically he’s temporarily out of order, circuits broken, wiring fried. Mentally he’s drugged on brain chemicals, befuddled by trauma to the head. There are no coherent questions flashing through his mind, no Am I dead or alive? no Is so-and-so OK? no What should I do next? He floats on a wave of passive acceptance until...
Woosh! He slips back into the murky twilight of oblivion.
Again the cavernous obscurity, the bursting into light. This time he’s more receptive, the shock-induced, pain-killing adrenaline has long-since receded. He’s lying down, that much is clear. On a hard surface, an uneven surface. His eyes are closed and he doesn’t yet feel disposed to open them. All in good time.
He has no idea how many minutes or hours have passed since he last dipped into consciousness, or indeed since whatever devastating event occurred to bring about his current predicament. As he lies there on the rutted, unyielding surface, the journey from the comfort of ignorant stupor to the burden of wakefulness nearly complete, he can feel each bodily sensation returning, the nerve endings switching on like an electrical circuit – click, click, click – the pain receptors powering up after a period of inactivity.
The change is sudden and brutal, from dulled anaesthesia, through angry discomfort to the present sensation of jagged, furious, all-consuming pain.
He has a sudden bad feeling about what he has woken up to, makes a half-hearted effort to will himself back into his soothing coma, but the hurting is too great.
He becomes aware of a sound, a low sporadic groaning. It’s chilling and pitiful, and he is about to force open his eyes to investigate the cause of this suffering when he realises that the moans are coming from his own mouth.
The pain is like a wild-eyed, whip-wielding dervish, howling and slashing mercilessly. He tries to isolate the different sources, running a mental ruler down his body. There’s a throbbing in his lower abdomen, just above his groin, as if someone has given him a tremendous kicking. The left side of his face from cheekbone to temple feels as if it has caved in. He wonders idly what could have caused such trauma – a hammer blow? a roof-top fall? a car accident? – but as yet has neither the strength nor inclination to investigate further. He pictures a crumpled skull, tufts of bloodied hair glued to flaps of shredded skin, oozing brain matter. He’s too frightened to reach up and touch himself.
His head is throbbing viciously, the principal refrain in an all-encompassing symphony of the aching, the sore, the tender. As yet he’s done little more than shift his body in microscopic movements, but it’s enough to know that it has taken a massive battering.
He becomes aware of a particular source of discomfort, a sharp stabbing from behind his right knee. For the first time, he makes a proper movement. He discovers that his right arm is hanging by his side and he sends it down to investigate the hurt. He pictures ruptured ligaments, crushed cartilage, but discovers that the source of the discomfort is external, that his knee is pressing down on a sharp stone. He shifts off the stone and the stabbing gradually recedes.
Time to open his eyes. Another effort, but in so doing, he registers two more facts about his circumstances that have so far eluded him. Firstly that he is outside. It is not so much the rocky soil he’s lying on that gives it away, but more the outdoor smells – the scent of dust and heat and unknown herbs – and an almost imperceptible breeze. Secondly that the temperature is fairly high, that he’s somewhere warm.
And so he opens his eyes and these two truths are confirmed. He looks up at a cloudless sky. His vision is at first blurred and shifting, the result, he suspects, of whatever damage has been done to his head. But it soon settles down and for a few minutes he makes no effort to look around, is content to gaze upwards at the heavens. A realisation that he is still alive, that he has survived something ruinous, brings relief.
He tilts his head slightly and sees that lower down towards the horizon the sky turns from azure to a deep savannah orange, licks of golden flame heralding a sunrise. Sunrise, yes. Not sunset. The air’s too fresh, not balmy enough, the dusty soil at his fingertips not warm nor dry enough for dusk. He can put it off no longer. He needs to get up and realises that this may prove more of a challenge than usual. He’s aware, too, that he needs to empty his bladder urgently. The throbbing in his head won’t subside.
I’d better get up. I don’t want to piss myself.
Just wait a bit longer. Just stay exactly where you are. You’re in limbo. You’re safe. Once you get up, you’ll have to confront whatever world you find yourself in. And I have a hunch it’s not going to be a picnic. So what’s your rush?
But I’m going to piss myself.
OK, OK. Have it your way. But don’t say I didn’t warn you
And then like a punch to the stomach the memory rises out of the quagmire, and he remembers how he got here. And all at once he’s back in the plane, headphones on, flicking through his ipod for something lightweight, some Louis Jordan perhaps, or Count Basie, aware that the bony, thirty something black woman sitting next to him doesn’t like him, something in her tight-lipped smile when he asked her to let him get past to his seat, then her sigh the first time he had to edge past the other way to get to the toilet. He remembers the secret relief at her rejection as it closed off the possibility of banal airplane conversation.
He remembers what was on his mind, a problem with a painting he’d been working on (where?), a head-and-shoulders profile of a young girl (who?), a difficulty with the tonal values of her face.
And then he remembers what happened next. Just as he finds the Louis Jordan, the muffled blast of the explosion, the jolt of the plane, the drawn out seconds afterwards, the first screams, the twisting of the aircraft, the rushing air. Then the shaking, the plummeting. Someone flies past, spinning down the aisle. The man next to him in the window seat muttering something in Xhosa or Sindebele, a prayer perhaps, but it’s all muffled by the deafening roar. The man directly in front trying to rise, shouting in panic, struggling, too shocked to deal with his seatbelt.
And then, ipod still in hand, he turns to the woman in the aisle seat, the one who doesn’t like him, and looks up at her face, the fine features frozen by fear, her eyes bulging, lips pulled back in a rictus of terror. And as the plane twists into a nose dive, judders and jerks, he puts out his hand to steady himself, holds onto his tray flap, then feels the woman’s right hand reach out to his. It’s an unconscious reaction, a desperate need for human contact in the face of imminent death. She squeezes, and he remembers his shock at her strength, her nails digging into his flesh. Jesus, that hurts, he thinks. He looks down at his enveloped hand, her claw-like grip. She’s digging deeper and his eyes begin to water. Shall I say something? he thinks. Or just pull my hand away?
And then, from one instant to the next, the lights go out on his world.
His mouth is parched, his tongue a desiccated sponge. He tries to run it across the roof, over his teeth, but it feels unwieldy, an alien and unresponsive object. His earlier determination to get up seems recklessly ambitious. By lying absolutely still, his eyes clamped shut, he has reduced the waves of pain to a dull throb, the angry demands of his bladder to a niggling ache
Everything is muzzy, soggy mush. He has a sudden picture of the contents of a breadmaker churning the spongy dough in preparation for baking. It’s set up on a kitchen table, white formica, somewhere familiar, looking out onto a cold wet garden landscape. Somewhere far away, a past life.
He pictures his brain as a broken computer, an endless sequence of zeros and ones, damaged by some malevolent virus, a logic bomb or ruthless trojan, the connections snapped, the memory busted.
Work with what you’ve got, he tells himself. He tries to concentrate on the image of the breadmaker, to mentally pan away from it. He sees the kitchen laid out around him, whitewashed brick wall, stained wood kitchen units, fridge adorned with magnetic butterflies. There’s a silver microwave, half-filled cat bowl on glazed lemon floor tiles, a set of shelving cluttered with radio, scattered CDs and tattered recipe books. The breadmaker hums gently in the background.
He’s tired again, weary from his efforts. His second wind has been and gone. His temple is throbbing from the blow, stinging from what must be a cut or graze. His teeth ache. Perhaps I’ll just have a short rest. Again, he surrenders to his body.
Minutes pass as he floats in a halfway house of confusion, but soon he stirs, returns to the here and now. What happened there? he asks himself. Did you give up? He’s thirsty now, would give anything for a sip of cold water. Come on, he tells himself. Be strong.
He works himself back into the kitchen and looks out through the sliding glass door. Outside, the garden is gently neglected, the beds accommodating both shrubs and weeds, the lawn strewn with bats and balls, a plastic wheelbarrow and overturned see-saw, everything wet with overnight drizzle. The sky is leaden.
He turns away from the garden view and as he does so, he realises that he’s no longer alone. And there they are, standing at the entrance to the kitchen. She’s looking at him, smiling, flanked by both of the children.