Good Morning, Midnight
1 BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON
The war had been over for three weeks. Eventually the process of reconstruction would begin, but for the time being the ruins of the plant remained as they had been twenty-four hours after the missiles struck. By then the survivors had been hospitalized and the accessible dead removed. The smell of death rising from the inaccessible soon became intolerable but it didn’t last long as the heat of the approaching summer accelerated decay and nature’s cleansers, the flies and small rodents, went about their work.
Dust settled, sun and wind airbrushed the exposed rawness of cracked concrete till it was hardly distinguishable from the baked earth surrounding it, and a traveller in this antique land might have been forgiven for thinking that these relicts were as ancient as those of the great city of Babylon only a few miles away.
Finally, with the smells reduced to a bearable level and the dogs picking over the ruins showing no signs of turning even mangier than usual, some bold spirits living in the vicinity began to make their own exploratory forays.
The new scavengers found a degree of devastation so extensive that even the most technically minded of them couldn’t work out the possible function of the plant’s wrecked machinery. They gathered up whatever might be sellable or tradable or adaptable to some domestic purpose and left.
But not all of them. Khalid Kassem, at thirteen counting himself a man and certainly imbued with a sense of adventure and ambition which was adult in its scope, hung back when his father and brothers departed. He was small for his age and slightly built, factors usually militating against his efforts to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he felt they could work to his advantage. He’d noticed a crack in a collapsed wall which he felt he might be able to squeeze through. Earlier while scavenging in the ruins of an office building he had come across a small torch, its bulb miraculously unbroken and its battery retaining enough juice to produce a faint beam. Instead of flaunting his find, he had concealed it, and when he spotted the crack and shone the light through it to reveal a chamber within, he began to feel divinely encouraged in his enterprise.
It was a tight squeeze even for one of his build, but eventually he got through and found himself in what looked to have been a basement storage area. There was blast damage here as there was everywhere and much of the ceiling had been shattered when the floors above had come crashing down, but no actual explosion seemed to have occurred in this space. Among the debris lay a scatter of metal crates, some intact, one or two broken open to reveal cuboids of some kind of lightweight foam cladding. Where this had split, Khalid’s faint beam of light glanced back off dully gleaming machines. He broke some of the cladding away to get a better look and discovered the machine was further wrapped in a close-clinging transparent plastic sheet. Recently on a visit to relatives in Baghdad, he had seen a refrigerator stacked with packets of food wrapped like this. It was explained to him that all the air had been sucked out so that as long as the package remained unopened the food inside would remain fresh. These machines too, he guessed, were being kept fresh. It did not surprise him. Metal he knew was capable of decay, and machinery was, in his limited experience, even harder to keep in good condition than livestock.
There was unfortunately no way to profit from his discovery. Even if it had been possible to recover one of these machines, what would he and his family do with it?
He turned to go, and the faint beam of his torch touched a crate rather smaller than the rest. A long metal cylinder had fallen across it, splitting it completely open, like a knife slicing a melon. It was the shape of its contents that caught his eye. Obscured by the cylinder resting on the broken crate, this lacked the angularity of the vacuum-packed machines. It was more like some kind of cocoon.
He put his torch down and, by using both hands and all his slight body weight, he managed to roll the cylinder to one side. It hit the floor with a crash that raised enough dust to set him coughing.
When he recovered, he picked up his torch and directed the ever fainter beam downward, praying it might reveal some treasure he could bear back proudly to his family.
The light glanced back from a pair of staring eyes.
He screamed in terror and dropped the torch, which went out.
That might have been the end for Khalid, but Allah is merciful and bountiful and permitted two of his miracles together.
The first was that as his scream died away (for want of breath not want of terror) he heard a voice calling his name.
“Khalid, where the hell are you? Come on, or you’re in big trouble.”
It was his favourite brother, Ahmed.
The second miracle was that another light came on in the storeroom to replace his broken torch. This light was red and intermittent. In the brightness of its flashes he looked again at the vacuum-packed cocoon.
It was a woman in there. She was young and black and beautiful. And of course she was dead.
His brother shouted his name again, sounding both anxious and angry.
“I’m all right,” he called back impatiently, his fear fading with Ahmed’s proximity and of course the light.
Which came from… where?
He checked and his fear came back with advantages.
The light was coming from the end of the metal cylinder he had so casually sent crashing to the floor. There were Western letters on the metal which made no sense to him. But one thing he did recognize: the emblem of the great shaitan who was the nation’s bitterest foe.
Now he knew what had come crashing through the roof but had not exploded.
He scrambled towards the fissure through which he’d entered. It seemed to have constricted even further, or fear was making him fat, and for a moment he thought he was caught fast. He had one arm through and was desperately trying to get a purchase on the ruined outer wall when his hand was grasped tight and next moment he was being dragged painfully through the gap into Ahmed’s arms.
His brother opened his mouth to remonstrate with him, saw the look on his face and needed no further persuasion to obey when Khalid screamed. “Run!”
They ran together, the two brothers, straining every sinew forward, like two champions contesting the final lap in an Olympic race, except that in this competition whenever one stumbled, the other reached out a steadying hand.
The tape they were running to was the Euphrates whose blessed waters had provided fertility and sustenance to their ancestors for centuries.
Time meant nothing, distance was everything.
The only sound was their laboured breathing and the swish of their limbs through the waist-high rushes.
Their eyes stared ahead, to safety, to their future, so they did not see behind them the ruins begin to rise into the air and be themselves ruined.
But they knew instantly there were now other faster competitors in the race.
The sound overtook them first, rolling by in dull thunder.
And then the blast was at their heels, at their shoulders, picking them up and hurling them forward as it raced triumphantly on.
Down they crashed, down they splashed. They were at the river. They felt its blessed coldness sweep over them. They let the current roll them at its own sweet will. Then they rose together, coughing and spluttering, and looked at each other, brother checking brother for damage at the same time as the impulses signalling the state of his own bone and muscle came pulsing along the nerves.
“You OK, little one?” said Ahmed after a while.
“I’m OK. Hey, you run well for a tadpole.”
“You too, for a frog.”
They pulled themselves on to the bank and sat looking back at the column of dust and fine debris hanging in the air.
“So what did you find in there?” asked Ahmed.
Khalid hardly paused for thought. He had no explanation for what he’d seen, but he was old enough to know he lived in a world where knowledge could be dangerous.
Later he would say a prayer for the dead woman in case she was of the faith.
Or even if she wasn’t.
And then a prayer for himself for lying to his brother.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just the rocket. Otherwise nothing at all.”
March 20th, 2002
1 • dropping the loop
It was the last day of winter and the last night of Pal Maciver’s life.
With only fifteen minutes to go, he was discovering that death was even stranger than he’d imagined.
Until the woman left, he’d been fine. From the first-floor landing he had watched her come through the open front door, trailing mist. She tried the light switch. Nothing happened. Standing in the dark she called his name. After all these years she still almost had the power to make him answer. Now was a critical moment. Not make-or-break critical. If she simply turned on her heel and walked away, it wasn’t disastrous. Getting her there could still be made enough.
But he felt God owed him more.
She turned back to the open door. Winter, determined to show he didn’t give a toss for calendars, had rallied his declining forces. There had been flurries of snow on the high moors but here in the city the best he could manage was a denial of light, at first with low cloud, then as the day wore on with mist rolling in from the surrounding countryside. But still enough light seeped in through the narrow window by the door for her to see the stub of candle and book of matches lying on the sill.
His fingers touched the microcassette in his pocket. Without taking it out he pressed the “play” button. Two or three bars of piano music tinkled out, then he switched off.
Below in the hall it must have sounded so distant she was probably already doubting she’d heard it at all. Perhaps indeed he’d overdone the muffling and she really hadn’t heard it.
Then came the sputter of a match and a moment later he saw the amber glow of the candle.
God might not pay all his debts, but he kept up the interest.
Now the candle’s glow moved beyond his range of vision but his ears kept track of her.
Ever a practical woman, she went straight down the passage leading to the kitchen where the electricity mains box was situated high on the wall. He pictured her reaching up to it. He heard her exclamation as the door swung open, releasing a shower of dust and debris. She hated being mussed. He heard the mains switch click down, could imagine her growing frustration as nothing happened.
The glow returned to the entrance hall. Lots of choice here. The two big-bayed reception rooms, the dining room, the music room. But her choice had been preordained. She headed for the music room. The door was locked but the key was in the lock. She tried it. It wouldn’t turn. She tried to force it but she couldn’t make it move.
She called his name once more, nothing uneasy in her voice and certainly nothing of panic, but with the calm clarity of a summons to supper.
She waited for a reply that by now she must have guessed wasn’t coming.
He would have bet her next move would be to cut her losses and walk away. Even if she had the balls for it, he doubted she’d find any reason to come up the gloomy staircase with an uncertain light to confront the memories awaiting her there.
That was exactly what she was doing.
He almost admired her.
As she advanced, he retreated to the upper landing, matching his steps to hers. Would she want to visit the master bedroom? He guessed not and he was right. She went straight to the study door and tried to open it. Oh, this was good. When it didn’t budge, she stood still for a moment before stooping like a comic-book gumshoe to apply her eye to the keyhole. By the vinegary light of the candle, he saw her steady herself with her left hand against the central oak panel.
This was better still! God was truly in a giving vein today.
Suddenly she straightened up and he took a step back into the protection of the black shadows of the upper landing. Now she was nothing to him but the outermost edge of the candle’s faint aureole on the landing below. But the way she’d stood up had been enough. So had she always signalled by some undramatic but nonetheless emphatic movement-a twist of the hand, a turn of the head, a straightening of the shoulders-that a decision had been reached and would be acted on.