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nineteen months

I hear them each night as they pass over. They are heading
northwest. From bases on Darman, they scream high and whistle
eerily. Under cover of dark, they follow their mission trajectories. Their
flight path shakes the skies over the city. It displaces the air we
breathe. I think of them as the wraiths of night.

When I lie in my small bed I try to imagine the pilots. They are men
trained to millimetre deep feeling - small angle focus. Over the
airwaves, their voices are strangled into grunts and tautologies.
Reflective visors hide the whites of their eyes. Rarefied and tanked air
fills their lungs. Their targets ghost across infrared screens: numbers
and marks in a deathly arcade game.

I think of a friend; a painter. He has just left the interrogation


centre. His works have been proscribed. He has been denied a public.
He climbs the stairs to his apartment. He goes to the bathroom.
Beads of cold sweat gleam on his brow. Lines have been etched by
months of harassment. He spits into the white enamel sink: stares into
the mirror above the taps. The thin hand-tissue breaks on his damp
brow. His eyes have grown more distant each day of this very long
year. What is it that stares back at him? Madness? Despair? The
darkness before dawn? Or is just the darkness?

He takes the pistol he has hidden behind the drugs cabinet. He


releases the safety-catch. The blood stains the white enamel. The bits
of brain coat the mirror with the speed of their impact. The body
slumps to the tiles.
It will be a small piece in the morning’s underground press. It will
not merit mention on the news networks of AM-TV. It is another nail in
some manner of coffin: our civilisation’s funeral.
Curfew begins at nine. I try to sleep in my small room. No one
should know I am here. Only colleagues, those who are looking after
me can confirm my actual existence.
The room is in a poor quarter. It is near the waterfront. The smell of
the sea is in everything. It is in the oil, the dust, the fumes, and the
scorched metal of repair yards. A tram rattles on cold steel rails.
When I first came here I would look out the window. On those first
mornings I parted the musty, yellowed curtains and looked onto the
street. Sometimes a dove came and settled on the grimy ledge. It
cooed and strutted. It was as though it were looking for somewhere to
go, as though it were pining for a forgotten world.
At night there is silence. After the cafés have emptied, after the
streets have cleared, there is little activity. The Corician Militia patrols
the city. They strut carelessly and disdainfully. They stare from under
helmets and visors suspiciously. They are taut and ready.
Tonight shallow moonlight falls on the threadbare carpet. The old
moon, the old moon is lost. The moon of dreamers, the moon of music
and laughter, the moon that lit busy streets has gone.

Tonight I risk a candle. I cannot sleep. The aircraft have already


passed over. I read by candlelight while they fly by radar, guide their
weaponry by laser, project their voices over encrypted radio waves.
I wrap the few blankets I have, tight about me. The book is an old
copy: the Jade Lotus – a book about a man’s search for wisdom. My
grandmother gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. It is little known.
Probably now it is forgotten or rarely read. Still I lift it and open the
pages. I find its first lines. And begin to read as I read when I was
sixteen.

It was sudden but not unexpected. The Benali Republic and western
Aratä were already occupied. Quryah was the first to fall. Its defences
easily overrun. They entered on security grounds: a fatuous reasoning.
Quryah is an inward-looking country. It has little design on its
neighbours, little interest in its regional standing. They evoked the
Curusün Treaty of 3214. Claiming they had evidence recent terrorist
attacks on their territory had been the work of enemy agents. Only
Niar, to the south, large and resolutely independent escaped their
attention.
We saw the TV reports each evening. We read the morning papers.
We watched as their influence grew. As their president, a man large in
stature but small of intellect rose to power. The Leader they called
him. Leader Kyndos of the Curusün National Caucus: the CNC.
It was he who rested power from an elected government: nothing
short of a coup. He cited the CNC’s desire to return Coricia to a law-
abiding country, a country of simple morals, a country of traditional
virtues: above all a centralised power. He appealed to the population.
He cited their disaffection with complicated ethical debate. He touched
their fear Coricia was losing its place as an economic power. Then
came the civic unrest. In the spring of 3223 there was widespread
rioting. An election was called: of the one hundred and seventy-five
seats, the CNC won sixty-eight. It was then he called on the army. It
was then he declared a state of emergency.
Leader Kyndos claimed there was evidence the main party of
opposition was involved in secret negotiations with the countries of the
Hansa delta north. They were planning to compromise the state’s
integrity by drawing it into a treaty that would make it vulnerable to
outside influence. He branded the opposition leader a traitor and a
philanderer. He called on the minority parties to support him. He
disbanded parliament. The electoral process would be restored when
he was satisfied elements within the state working to its detriment had
been eradicated. It did not matter the evidence was fabricated. He was
promising the disaffected power. He was appealing to ignorance. Sadly
many wanted the simplified and brutal world he was offering.
So began this darkness: a darkness that has spread outwards. It has
seen Coricia enter Quryah, annex the Benali Republic, enter Aratä, and
then attack Nussayim. The CNC heralded the beginnings of a New
Curusün Order.

I wake this morning to grey light. My eyes open onto bare and faded
walls. The cold bites through the thin blankets. I have slept as well as
is possible. The half-burned candle, the wax run and gathered, is on
the floor. Beside it is the yellow and turquoise cover of the book. It is
decorated with fine lines and coils.
I lie back and think of the day my grandmother gave it to me. I
remember the sunlight and the breeze swaying through trees: the
lindens, the cypress, and the soft grass.
We were in the communal garden behind my grandmother’s
apartment. We sat on blankets and talked: my mother, my father, my
two sisters and an aunt. There was wine and flat bread in a basket.
There were vine leaves and rice, olives, goat’s cheese and honeyed
cakes. My mother had just fetched a flask of coffee. We laughed and
our laughter mingled with the leaves. Our talk chimed on the breeze.
My sisters were dressed in matching jeans and light cotton blouses.
They teased that they had done this for me. My mother was wearing a
loose silk-printed dress. Her long chestnut hair, hiding shadows of grey
at its roots, was tied back from her face. It showed off her features.
Sharp and fine boned. Her eyes flitted from one thing to another. My
father was, as always, serious. He sat, his legs crossed, his arms
resting on his knees. He was wearing a white cotton shirt and dark
grey trousers. A maroon tie was his only colour. And my grandmother
sat quietly on a foldaway chair. A saffron shawl covered her frail
shoulders. Her body was hidden by traditional dress: long and
patterned, subtle in colour. It was made of silk of the north. Her hair,
once long and dark was wound about her head. It was silver-grey and
caught the sunlight. Her eyes though old had serenity. Perhaps having
seen so much of life she had come to look on everything with a certain
detachment. It was the look of someone for whom the trivial has long
ceased to be of concern. The striving, the grasping have ceased to
have relevance.
My mother poured coffee or offered wine. As it was my birthday I
was permitted to drink with the family. My father proposed a toast.
Then my grandmother produced the book.
‘Omdïan,’ she said, ‘I must give you this gift.’
She explained she had found it in an old bookshop. It was a
favourite when she was young. She found it quite by chance, in the
western part of the city.
“A small place, dusty and somewhat decrepit,” she added, “on a
busy boulevard. The owner, a man of my own age haggled over the
price. I stood firm. Such a practice in today’s world.”
Then she looked straight at me. Her eyes had a strange light.
“I want you to have it,’ she said. ‘Read it now. Read it later. Read it
when you will.’
I noticed my father look at her. Perhaps he was seeing a side of his
mother he had not seen before. I thanked her.
‘Thank you grandmamma.’
I was moved. I do not know why. Perhaps my young mind sensed
there was some other resonance to this act. She had seen something
in me I myself was not aware of.
It was not until we heard the scream of the aircraft we believed:
first the scream, then the light: haunting, phosphorescent flashes.
They were too brutal, too naked to be beautiful. The only thing they
invoked was shock: a primal shock. Then there was the sound of the
explosion. It entered your body like terror. It was the sound of air being
torn apart.
All day the news channels had reported hourly. There were
emergency cabinet meetings. Appeals were made to the Curusün
Treaty. Requests for help were sent to those of our neighbours still
free. Diplomats shuttled back and forth between capitals.
On Sinalnar’s streets crowds gathered before TVs in department
stores or cafes. By late afternoon evening the highways out of the
cities were grid locked. Images flitted across screens of family cars
loaded down with personal effects - everything that could be carried
strapped to roofs, bulging from trunks.
On the early evening news the president made a nationwide
broadcast. We would fight, she said. She called on Nussayins to be
strong. ‘We must’, she stated, ‘remain true to all we hold important.
Even in the darkest hour there is always hope’. By nine pm the TV
channels were off air. Only the radio carried bulletins. Those who had
computer access heard the online talk of impending attack. Rumours
flew between users of air-force mobilisation south and north, of
hospitals being readied. Some said the president herself had left
Sinalnar. Others claimed the government were already in war-cabinet
at a secret location.
I sat on the balcony of my apartment. The spring air was warm. To
the west there was a turquoise glow. I could see the first stars. In
shorts, a can of beer in my hand, I lit a cigarette. There were books
scattered on a small table. Sadly I gazed out over the city. I thought of
its high-rises, office blocks, mazes of streets, boulevards, old quarters,
and government sectors. Behind me I guessed the bay would be
darkened and quiet.
I looked north to the suburbs. The dark and indistinct shapes of the
inland mountains rose. I let the smoke from my cigarette drift into the
night air. In the apartment next to me I heard voices. A mother
remonstrated with her children. An occasional voice rose from the
street, or a car drove quietly away. Now and then I heard an
ambulance. Trams rattled around corners.
There was no music. There was a half-silence. It was as though the
city were trying to hold its breath; as though the city were hoping by
being quiet danger might pass over.
Around midnight I drifted into a light asleep. I had stretched out on
an easy-chair with a blanket over me. I was looking up into the sky and
dreaming. I was looking at stars I had looked at since I was a child. It
seemed I could forget. There was no emergency. Days I had spent on
the shores north of the bay appeared before my eyes. I was swimming
in the sea on a summer’s evening. I was just a boy running in the sand
as sun set. From somewhere I could smell fire – food cooking. And then
I was falling.
I awoke suddenly. Alarms wailed into the night. Lights were going
out. I looked at my watch. It was just after one. I stood and steadied
myself. I knew the procedure. I should go to the basement. I should
take shelter wherever I could. Remain away from windows and open
spaces. Yet I stood there. I crouched by the balcony railings.
For some moments nothing happened. A distant rumble and then
there was a whistle: a ghostly sound. As though the night were being
drilled into. To the northeast, where the ministries were, a sudden flash
lit the sky. It burned itself painfully onto my eyes. Then came the
explosion. So low and deep, so fear inducing it seemed to turn my
bones soft. It echoed, a dark unseen wave. Windows shook and doors
rattled. I could not move. I crouched there. Watching. The flashes
increased. Northwest, northeast, they spread to the vicinity of the
airport. The explosions became one explosion. Missiles launched from
out at sea. Perhaps even from occupied Aratä. Then came the jets.
Screaming high. The sky filled with tracer. Its luminescence dashed
into the dark: arcing streams of molten lead. They were interspersed
only with the sound of alarms, of crying children, crying adults. I
crawled and fetched my pack of cigarettes. My hands trembling, I lit
one.

I get up and pull on my clothes. The air is chilled. I go to the


window. I pull back the sheet, then the lace curtain. Its stale smell
comes to me. There has been frost overnight and in the street people
shuffle, wrapped in scruffy down-jackets or overcoats. They wear
scarves wound about their heads or long ear-covering hats. A battered
truck passes, its exhaust tied up with chicken wire. A police car follows,
the azure stripes on which once the insignia of the SA-PD appeared,
now emblazoned with the words Civil Guard: the newly installed police
service of the puppet government.
Two armed agents of the Corician Militia are questioning a young
man on the far pavement. They look though his papers, ask him to turn
out his pockets. They make him spread his arms and legs and body-
search him. I close the curtain.
In the kitchen I brew coffee. I am still cold so hold my hands about
the mug to warm myself. The bakery will be already open. It is
Thursday so I can treat myself. Thursday is treat day. The day I buy
cigarettes at the dockworkers café. It is also the day I buy what food I
need. So I will buy myself some honey-pastries from the baker, see if I
can get some cheap cans of beer at the waterfront supermarket.
I pull on an extra sweater: an old favourite. My clothes are
becoming threadbare. Friends keep me supplied as they can. Mostly it
is clothes from charity-stores, cast-offs. Not to say there are not some
surprises. Last month I was brought an overcoat: camel brown and of
finest cashmere. It had silk lining and, to my eye, was hand cut. I
accepted it gratefully. Later I wondered to whom it had belonged:
perhaps a dignitary, a diplomat, a government minister. Where was he
now? Was he one of the bodies lying in the rumoured shallow graves?
Those who refuse to bow to the new regime, those executed as
traitors?
I look at my watch. It is not yet ten-thirty. The coffee is hot and
begins to warm me.

It is now past midday. There is a small heater, but I have only so


many tokens. I must be careful.
I stand. My legs are stiff. I think of the times when I could exercise,
when I could freely walk the park, or swim, play tennis in the public
pavilions. When I could call a friend, or take my son when he came to
visit. They were good days.
I have heard those same pavilions are being closed. Handed to CNC
ministers, collaborators, the new regime’s stage-elected elite. What
was once a public amenity, a place of communal enjoyment is now the
preserve of a small clique.
My son I have not seen for eight months. He is with his mother in
the free zone, northwest. Where the remains of Nussayim’s military
still hold out. Where the mountains and the fiercely independent
nature of the people refuse surrender. Though if the press and TV
channels are to be believed they are losing ground by the day. I hope
he and his mother have managed to leave the country. I hope they
have found passage aboard a ship. It is known there is a steady flow of
refugees to the unoccupied zones of Aratä, to Sha’anar and to Jindair.
When last I saw them they were making plans. I gave his mother, my
estranged wife, all the money I had with me. Now that I am in hiding I
cannot risk the paperwork involved to travel. Besides it is difficult and
dangerous. Neither can I risk contact by telephone or mail. I can only
hope one day I will receive news through friends. I can only hope they
are well and somewhere else.

I put on the cashmere overcoat. It looks incongruous next to my


cheap jeans and scuffed walking boots. I check I have my papers, my
identification. False though they may be I cannot leave without them.
Even if stopped by a simple Civil Guard I must be able to produce
them.
I button the coat as tight as it will go and fetching a scarf and
woollen hat with earmuffs I prepare to leave.
The door locks stiffly behind me. My steps echo sharply off the
uncarpeted stairs that lead to the street. Sometimes a neighbour peers
from a door or a mother climbs with a couple of children. Yesterday a
streetwalker lounged in the dusty foyer, her scarlet lips clenching a
hash-pipe, her black stockings torn. She looked at me distantly from
under a sports cap. I passed her with a curt nod. These days it is best
not to be too familiar.

The sunlight hits my eyes. I pull a pair of sunglasses from my


pocket. I dig my hands deep into my pockets and begin to walk.
The bakery is on Pine Street, due west. It will take fifteen minutes to
reach. I could take a tram but I prefer the exercise. There are often
Civil Guards or militia on public transport. The walk will save me
money. Beyond the bakery, heading north is the supermarket. On
Sawin Street. Sawin leads onto Tüz Boulevard. When I have finished
shopping I will return to Bar-het St, the street I live on; there on the
corner of Woodmans Quay and Waterfront South I will step into the
café to purchase my cigarettes: to drink some raki. I will pass the hours
before curfew reading the newspapers.

The bakery is about to close when I reach it. It took longer to walk
than I expected. At the corner of Pine and Sawin there was a Militia
patrol. They were checking papers. Two men and a woman, agents,
impassive in their darkened glasses, their round hard-hats, their
fatigues and semi-automatics stood before a line of people. I took a
detour, passing along small alleys, backstretch, past dilapidated
warehouses until I arrived at a junction. I loitered, pretending to look in
shop windows where they existed, even buying a cheap Corician
newspaper and sitting on a dusty bench to kill time.
I have been told my papers will pass anything but expert
examination. But the less the Militia or Civil Guard knows of me the
better.
When I got back to the junction they are gone.

The baker is just about to pull the steel shutters when I arrive. He
knows my face. He knows me by my false name. I suspect he also
knows me by my real name. Though he never indicates this overtly, he
has often a gleam in his eye. Occasionally he places more than I can
pay for in the plain paper bag. Then refuses to accept anything other
than that I take what he is offering. He says then, as though a code
between us, ‘a man as yourself is a man who knows the value of
things. These are hard times friend. We are all brothers and sisters
beneath the skin.’ He smiles warmly. If truth were told I am grateful.
Perhaps he is known to my friends – perhaps he is a member of the
Underground. I do not know. But he is kind and I have come guardedly
to trust him.

This afternoon he looks surprised, and then relieved, to see me. He


beckons me enter the shop. It is dark inside. An un-shaded light bulb
and an old TV in the corner are the only light. There is a smell of bread
and pastry, of cigar smoke and coffee. He produces some honey
pastries from beneath the counter. ‘My friend, always I keep some
back for those who deserve. Take.’ I thank him profusely and reach
into my pocket. He raises his hands and shrugs helplessly. ‘You see the
register is closed. I cannot accept payment. It would be against the
laws of our land.’ ‘Then you must take it personally I protest.’ He
shakes his head in mock gravity. ‘You will pay me next time, no?’ I
agree and turned to leave. ‘Friend’ he calls suddenly, ‘I feared you
were not coming today. You know how it is. In these times people
come, they go. You hear no more. Only the rumours. Be careful.’ I nod,
warmed by his concern. Touched by this sudden interchange of
camaraderie. Then I close the door quietly behind me.

I reach the café as darkness falls: November dark, misty, brown and
damp. There is fog coming from the sea. The streetlights have haloes.
Faces are pale and indistinct.
As I pass through the door I catch sight of my figure in the window. I
have changed. My hair is badly cut, grey and silver in places. The
beard I once proudly wore, has been shorn to prevent recognition. My
eyes are dark and ringed. And the strange incongruity of the coat I
wear, so elegantly cut, though a little large, wrapped about my thin
body.
In the café there are familiar faces. The waiter greets me as always
with a business-like smile. He is an angular man with waxy skin. Over
pinched lips he sports a neat, curled moustache: something in the style
favoured by those of Aratä. He is given to quick movements, to silently
appearing at your elbow and softly enquiring as what you wish to
drink. He knows my habits. On entering he simply nods his head when I
ask for my usual. The warm tea with liquorice and honey arrives
accompanied by a glass of raki.

I find a seat. A TV above the counter is showing the evening


bulletin. A self-important announcer read reports of the previous
night’s fighting. Figures are brief. Images follow that suggested a tidy
war, an honourable war: a war that proceeds logically and
determinedly toward an obvious conclusion. The rebels in the north are
daily losing ground. They are nothing but a ragged coalition of
terrorists, gangsters, rapists and murderers. Innuendo follows
innuendo. The leaders of the resistance, when apprehended will be
tried for crimes against the people of the New Curusün Order.

Then comes the domestic news. Carefully selected images of the


Corician capital, Maris-ma, of leader Kyndos addressing parliament, of
leader Kyndos greeting school children, talking with a foreign dignitary.
The TV announcer, a familiar face to most of Nussayim, finishes with
the now customary eulogy to our benefactors.

I turn from the screen. That same face, less than nineteen months
ago was telling us there was no threat. Nussayim would retain its
sovereignty whatever happened. Dutifully, each evening, he informed
us our government was deep in negotiations with the Coricians to avert
any attack on our nation. Those warning against imminent occupation
had little grasp of the reality of the situation. Each evening he read the
official line: a line that held until the first days of that spring. Then it
became obvious there were those in our government who not only
were willing to appease the Coricians but also actually welcomed
deeper involvement. We had a cabinet in disarray. The group was
ousted. The Prime Minister in a TV broadcast, grave and shaken
promised the people of Nussayim he would not accept invasion. We
would fight where we could, how we could, as best we could. It was
then he told us the defence forces were on full alert. It was unlikely
there would be further negotiation.

We listened that spring: most of us silently. We knew our cause


would be difficult. If it were to be a sea battle we might hold out: at
least for a time. Yet Coricia’s tactics were those of the heavy air-
bombardment: of the ruthless crippling of a country’s infrastructure. In
the air they outmatched us three to one. They had superior missile
systems, lightening-fast land-assault forces, and superiority in
numbers. Though we are an independent-minded people our chances
of survival were slim.

That face. It spoke to us then. It spoke to us still.


I lifted the glass of tea to my mouth and pulled a book from my
inside pocket.

Near to nineteen months we have been occupied. Nineteen months


of seeing our lives diminish.

It was the little things at first. Opening the tap and nothing but
brown gritty drops, then a dry rattle. Pushing a light switch and
emptiness: or the same light burning out of nothing at about three in
the afternoon.
Each night we were subjected to the aircraft above us. Tracer lit the
sky: fireworks without the pretty colours. These fireworks came with
the primeval scent of a blunt instrument, of the raised bone.
The small things gave way to the big things. Food shortages
became prominent. The sanitation gave way. Panic spread. Then came
the shelling from the sea: a double-edged action. It meant the
Coricians were not far from our shores. It meant they were readying for
invasion.

It had taken only weeks. Day after day, night after night of missiles
slamming into buildings - their explosive force travelling back along
the vector of their flight, of aerial bombardment, of dawn attack and
we crumbled. The city was simply burnt metal with crumbled concrete:
dust and destruction: dead bodies: shattered bodies: torn lives.

It was a grey morning in the fifth month. Mist lay over the torn city.
It clung to the fallen buildings, the scorched streets.
I had been to visit friends the previous evening. We had talked of
the situation. Argued as to what we should do. What we could do.
Our airpower was all but destroyed. The communication
infrastructure barely functioned. Yes, the army would fight but would
they hold. Food was short. Aratä and Benali could offer no help. Dar-
man, divided itself had little in the way of military capability. And its
western sector had long standing connections with Coricia. Jindair, well
Jindair was biding its time: waiting to see how the dice would fall. If the
Coricians moved further east then Jindair would act. Were Coricia to
look to Sha’anar, a country where Jindair had extensive oil and
business interests then it would help. Still Jindair was Jindair: large,
difficult to understand. Perhaps hope lay with Niar. Niar had always
held itself aloof from Curusün affairs. Though it had access to the sea,
it considered itself part of the southern landmass. Its influence
stretched into the continental heartlands. It was unlikely to involve
itself overtly in a conflict it would consider beyond its sphere of
activity.
I cycled home that night sadly. My friends urged caution, would I not
stay till morning. ‘No,’ I answered, ‘I had a radio interview the following
afternoon.’ I wished to sleep in my own apartment.
I manoeuvred the bicycle around the blast-holes, the fallen
masonry. I wore a light raincoat over a white t-shirt and jeans. A
sudden shower fell. My raincoat clung to my arms and water trickled
down my neck. The rain opened the earth. I smelt the familiar scents of
summer. The night flowers, the wide green leaves of trees; their scent
came over the acrid tang that now hung in the air day and night. I
whistled to myself. Absurdly. A tune from a song I had known since
childhood. Perhaps it was the couple of glasses of cheap wine, the
hunger, but I only vaguely noticed the quietness. The tracer that
normally filled the sky from instalments to the north was silent. There
were no aircraft overhead.

I woke that morning to a new sound: the sound of automatic


gunfire. It was coming from the south. I jumped from my bed and ran
to the window. I could see nothing. Just the deserted streets and mist
covered buildings.
I pulled on a t-shirt and turned back to the living room. I tried the
TV. It came on with a flash and then things were clear.
A general, a Corician general with a shaved head and aviator
glasses, addressed the camera. At five-thirty local time a Corician
Airborne Regiment had seized control of the Television and Radio
networks. Nussayim was now in the process of being liberated by the
Corician Armed forces. Sea-borne divisions were landing in the capital
Sinalnar and in the eastern port of Mazal. Civilians were urged to
remain in their homes. Resistance would be dealt with swiftly and
forcefully. Victory was assured. Nussayins should welcome their new
governors. Nussayim was now part of the New Curusün Order.

Later that morning the first of the transport planes were heard.
Unlike the jets, they growled. They laboured as though their cargo of
flesh and bone weighted them in the air. These were the winged oxen
bringing the humble warriors to their meeting with fate: the humble
warriors who would do the dirty fighting. Street to street: corner-to-
corner if necessary. They would live daily with a population’s hostility,
its distrust.

Something within me that morning was torn free and thrown away.
Now it was a different reality. The togetherness, the shared sense that
held us as we endured the bombardment would shatter. Daily life
would come to the fore and opinions would split. There would be those
who would co-operate, seeing the turn of events through fateful eyes.
There would also be those who would profit, who would find
opportunities previously denied them. And there were those who
perhaps sympathised. Who wished to see Nussayim follow the CNC’s
example. Who yearned for a return to dim-witted ways, old values.
Who shunned what they considered the sophistry of intellectuals,
dreamers. Who found refuge in brute force.
By afternoon the street fighting had grown. Automatic fire could be
heard from most parts of the city. There was shelling and small scale
air support. Rumour spread that fighting was fiercest in the harbour
quarter. There were many casualties. By evening the TV was reporting
government buildings had fallen. It was expected that within forty-
eight hours the waterfront and docks would be secured.
I watched disbelievingly. I had expected more resistance. Yet it
seemed Corician Strategic command had prepared the ground
carefully. Highways and bridges into the city were non-existent.
Military communications were compromised. Our Generals had
expected a first attack in the northwest. Where the island’s sea power
was based. They had expected the Coricians to attempt to neutralise it
before attempting a land-based offensive. And, it seemed, the
Coricians had been happy to provide evidence that this indeed was
their intention by building up a huge flotilla just off Nussayin waters.
Yet that very morning the northern ports of Niawend and Khotin had
been subjected to fierce aerial bombardment. Paralysing
communication, holding infantry divisions down. It was time enough for
strategic sites in the south to be seized. Including parliamentary
buildings. Forcing, as we would learn later, the government to retreat
north, unaware of the situation there.
As darkness fell the air was full of the incessant detonation of anti-
personnel weaponry, shells, of automatic and semi-automatic fire.
Plume after plume of smoke rose into the air.
I tried to sleep. Yet summer heat and the tension kept me awake.
The TV still showed the same report it had been showing since
morning. As though there was anyone in the city who had not by now
seen it. I felt paralysed. Powerless. Caged within the walls of my
apartment. I did not know whether I wished to fight or wished to flee.
When I decided I should resist I wondered then what it was I thought I
could do. I was not trained in using a weapon. I had no idea what street
fighting entailed. As to where to go or how to go about it, I had no
answers.
Just after two came a low knocking on the door. At first I thought I
was hearing things. I thought it was reverberations from the shelling.
Yet it persisted: a steady and strangely human sound.
I got up and, a little nervously, opened the door. A neighbour stood
there. Holding a candle. She apologised for the lateness. She asked if I
could help. Her face was strained and anxious. It was etched with an
ancient fatalism and melancholy. I had seen this woman a number of
times in the lifts. I knew her to be a mother with two girls and a
teenage son. She wanted to know if I could come with her. She had
knocked other doors but no one answered. Perhaps they were afraid;
perhaps they were not there. She said this as though it were possible.
That everyone could so suddenly disappear.
“Why,” I asked, “Why? What do you want me to do?”
“Come please,” she said, her voice taut and urgent. She had a slight
accent.
“Come. I see you in the lifts. You are a kind man. I know. University
man. Please. Come. You will see.”
Something in her manner suggested it was not a trifling matter.
Even when whispering, she had gravity, a seriousness that touched
me.
“One moment,” I replied. “I need to pull on some jeans and shoes.”
I went with her. Padding softly down the darkened corridor. The
light of the candle cast our shadows on the wall. “Thank you,” she said.
We came to her door and I could hear a curious moaning. It was an
almost animal sound. Her two young daughters stood in the hallway.
They appeared terrified.
“It is my son,” she said. “My son.” There was a sudden break in her
voice. I wondered if she was going to cry.
“What?” I said. “What is the matter with your son?”
“Come,” she said again as though it were a mantra. “Come and
look.”
I stepped into the apartment. It was one of the family apartments
on the west-face. The woman lifted the candle higher to light the room.
On the floor lay a young man. He was holding his hip, doubled in two
and it was he who was moaning. The bottom part of the leg of his jeans
was torn away. There was blood all the way down, some already
congealed. I could dimly make out torn flesh and shattered bone.
There was the beginning of a dark stain on the carpet.
“I cannot lift him,” said his mother. “He is heavy. Will you help
please?”
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“Please,” she persisted. “Help him.”
I bent down. Then I gently touched the boy’s shoulder.
“Can you hear me?” I asked.
His breathing was difficult. He nodded weakly.
“What happened? Where are you injured?”
“My leg, my hip,” he managed. “Shell on Boulevard Faouine.”
He turned his head to face me. Pale, his eyes were shadowed and
feverish.
“Kahsif,” he gasped, desperately. Kahsif is dead.”
I beckoned to his mother to help. She had already placed a blanket
on a sofa.
“We are going to lift you,” I said. ‘It may pain. But we must.”
We lifted him to the sofa. He cried out. It was clear he was suffering.
I turned to the mother.
“He must go to a hospital.”
A look of fear sprang into her eyes.
“No,” she said. “No.”
I did not understand. It was dangerous of course. Para-medics were
most likely overstretched.
“He needs medical treatment,” I continued. “He is injured. Perhaps
seriously.”
“No,” she said again. “No. His father works nights. He will be home
in the morning. We wait till then. We go in the morning.”
“The morning may be too late,” I countered. I did not wish to panic
her. Yet I suspected there had already been considerable blood loss.
“If I call an ambulance?” I offered.
Still she refused. She was scared of something. I attempted to
reason with her but she would not yield. She folded her arms across
her chest and shook her head. Then the son spoke.
“My mother,” he said, “my mother is. . is Corician.”
I grasped her by the arm. I pulled her into the small kitchen. It was
lit only by the night sky. I showed her my University pass: lecturer in
Linguistics.
“If I come with you,” I said, feeling the emptiness, the confusion of
the day return to me. She hesitated.
“It will be safe. You will be in no danger because of your nationality.
Your son is injured. He will be looked after.”
She let her head fall to her chest. A strangled sob escaped her
throat. Only now I saw she clutched a light bathrobe around her. The
slack, somewhat over worked figure, the downward drift of her breasts,
the greyed roots beneath the hennaed hair spoke more than any words
could of her life: a wife and a mother whose body had been first given
to her husband and then to her children.
“Get dressed,” I said. “I must return to my apartment for my jacket
and some money. I will come back here as soon as I can.”
“Money,” she said, looking up. “I have money.”

We drove in a taxi along deserted streets. The taxi driver was


clearly nervous. He proceeded slowly. As though that made it safer.
The boy lay on the back seat with his mother. He was now only semi-
conscious.
In my apartment I had managed to get through to the emergency
services. They informed me it would be a couple of hours before an
ambulance could be with us. I knew it was foolish to wait that long.
I went down some floors and banged on the door of a man I knew
the University often used for his taxi service. I did not attempt to
persuade him. Instead I waved a 50 Dinar note and told him it was an
emergency. I needed to get to the Bar-het Municipal Hospital as quick
as possible. He grunted his acquiescence, and, his thin hair standing
on end, told me he would be with me in a moment. I heard his wife call
from inside the apartment and him reply, testily. I shouted in that I
would be above on the ninth floor at number 376.
The night was clear and yet the stars were barely visible. A pall of
smoke, acrid and dark seemed to drift over everything. The sound of
gunfire had abated, yet every now and then a volley rang out; or the
ground shook and the flash of an explosion would flicker over the
inside of the taxi.
At the hospitable there was chaos. The injured sat where there was
space. Staff attended them as best they could. Ambulances no sooner
pulled up to Admissions than they left again.
We waited about ninety minutes before a doctor came. The boy was
taken away. I knew by the doctor’s manner it was not a minor wound.
He took me aside and asked if I was the boy’s father. I told him I was
not. Then I explained the circumstances. He assured me there was no
need for the mother to be concerned.
“We are doctors here not politicians,” he said tiredly. “We attempt
to heal the wounded.”
He advised me take the mother home. The boy was in a stable
condition. She should return the following morning. We left silently.
This morning there was an arrest in the building. I heard shouting
and went to the window. Two Civil Guards, accompanied by Militia,
were manhandling an old man through the door and onto the street.
He protested, struggling with them. His hands were bound with flexi-
cuffs and he had been blindfolded. His wife came after him. She cried
out and struck one of the guards. He turned and knocked her to the
ground with his truncheon. The old man was bundled into an armoured
vehicle. Then a militia man, in a flak jacket and visored helmet,
emerged clutching books and papers. He also held a small gun that
had been sealed in a zip bag. I felt an icy chill run the length of my
spine.
The Militia remained alert, patrolling the street. They pointed their
automatic weapons at the roofs of nearby buildings. They were clearly
nervous. When finished they jumped into their APV, and with the wail
of sirens, sped off, leaving the wife bleeding on the pavement. A
strange silence enveloped the street. It was some fifteen minutes
before anyone came to assist the woman.
I wanted to run below. I wanted to help. My fingers hurt as I grasped
the window ledge in anger. My powerlessness. My position. I have been
warned I must not attract attention to myself.

It was some weeks before the enormity of what we were facing sank
in. Once the city had fallen the reality became apparent.
There is a strange sense of a fallen city. It is a sense of reality and
unreality. The city has not gone it is there. Yet suddenly its intimacy is
strained. It is as though a barrier comes to exist between citizen and
city. It is no longer mediated by familiarity. Now others determine its
direction. For them it is ambiguous thing. It is something stolen and
under the watchful eyes of those who really own it. They understand it
better, but must be careful how they speak.
I went about my business as best I could. Returning to the faculty at
which I worked. I did not know whether I would have students, or
whether there would be lectures to give.
The mood was sombre. There was news of those who had lost their
lives, news of those who had died in defence of the city. There was the
damage to the campus grounds, the buildings shelled or bombed, the
pockmarks of small arms fire on walls. The faculty of humanities had
taken a missile hit. It lay in ruins: a crumbling pile of masonry and
steel. And we waited. Not sure what the status of out institution would
be.

In the sixth month I returned to my apartment early one afternoon.


I was hoping to catch up on some work. Clouds hung over the city.
The light was cool and lingered on things. I felt a weight press on me. I
switched on the TV. It was showing a game show: the type of trivia
that dominates daytime broadcasting. I had just sat back when
transmission was interrupted. There was to be a government
announcement. A stern man came on.
He spoke gravely. Narrow, but clever eyes stared direct to camera.
He was Nussayin. The announcement began with the usual
expressions of gratitude to our new masters. He spoke of the return of
simple values, the eradication of decadent habits, the bright future
that awaited us.
Since the fall I had become used to this manner of broadcast. It
seemed everything was somehow self-referential. Placing itself within
the context of the triumph of the CNC. One evening an historian from
one of Coricia’s largest universities declared his country’s victories
heralded the finality of history. Despair rose like swamp-fog in the
room. He meant only one thing: the end of dialogue. He was signalling
the beginning of intellectual tyranny.
This afternoon I half watched. I thought we were being treated to
another round of self-congratulatory announcements on further
military victories. It would end with the usual hand-on-heart
declaration of gratitude to the Curusün prophets. However, this
afternoon, this narrow-eyed spokesman began with a montage of
images. We were shown children happily learning in bright new
Corician schools. Children at play on well-equipped playing fields.
There were children preparing to study in University. Lines of
graduates queuing for their diplomas. ‘This, the spokesman declared,
‘is how it is in Coricia. This is how it will be in Nussayim. As of the first
day of the seventh month,’ he continued, ‘all education is to be taken
out of public hands and placed under control of the state. The
Corporate sector, the military and certain religious groups will be
allowed to tender for contract. Every institution will need to apply for
a charter directly from the Learning Ministry. Without this charter an
educational institution will not be recognised.’
I stood. My heart raced. I had expected some level of interference
but nothing like this. It was a very subtle form of control. It was clever.
And frightening.
That alone would not have sealed my fate. The announcement
followed with list of authorities on education that would be forthwith
banned. Any person in possession of their work, propagating their
work or who had directly been involved in publication or the teaching
of their work was liable to a charge of treason. They were to be
considered enemies of the state.
I looked with disbelief as the picture of the head of my department,
a man I respected deeply and whom I had often publicly supported,
appeared on screen: professor of Linguistics and Semantics, formerly
of Is-Suran University.

I am to meet her today. There was a note slipped beneath the door
yesterday evening. It was a plain white piece of paper, folded and
stark. I read the words hungrily. They were written neatly over the pale
blue lines. As though it were a note passed between friends in a
classroom. We shall meet in the café, on Waterfront South at five-
thirty. I look forward to it. Perhaps she will have news. Maybe she will
know of what is to happen to me.
I enjoy these brief moments of company. I like to watch her face as
she speaks. When she removes her beret, her chestnut hair falls
loosely over her face. Her eyes are autumn brown. They have depth. It
is the depth of strong feeling. She hides this. Her finely formed mouth,
traced in red, weighs each word carefully: aware of its importance and
perhaps its danger.
Is it strange to think of things of the heart when one’s life is in
danger - when one’s existence is under threat? Yet I do. I think of her
often. She has been my contact with the Underground since my first
weeks here.

It was friends who insisted. They called or came to my apartment


within hours of the announcement. Some came at risk to their own
standing.
I contacted the university and was informed nervously the professor
was not in his office. I was to learn later he was taken that same
afternoon. Stopped in his car, in the north of the city. He was in a
holding centre, in the western suburbs, awaiting interrogation. News
bulletins would later claim he had been arrested while in possession of
explosives and an automatic machine gun.
My friends insisted I needed to act quickly. There was no time to
consider the implications. Some urged me to leave the city. One
offered money. Another said she could get me a car. If possible, I
should try and make it to the free-sector. As I listened to them, I
realised some had already thought this type of scenario through.
Still I was unsure. I argued the roads would be heavily patrolled.
There were already severe restrictions on air-travel. Obtaining passage
aboard any sea-going vessel from Sinalnar was subject to papers. And
the government would expect those not in custody to run. They would
be checking and double checking all exits from the city. I was low on
the list. Not a prominent figure. Perhaps I still had a couple of days.
Perhaps they would leave me alone.
That evening I had an unexpected phone call. It was from an old
school friend: a detective with the former SA-PD. He spoke quietly. He
told me I was in danger. There were papers being processed that
authorised my arrest. I thanked him. He suggested we meet in a small
park across from my apartment. I went. At first I was fearful it could be
a trap. Still, I reasoned if the government wanted me they would come
straight to the front door. So far they had shown little subtlety in taking
in those they pursued.
He was sitting on a bench before a skateboard ramp. In a light
jacket and with a tattered sports cap pulled down over his eyes. We
exchanged pleasantries. Then he came to the point. If I wanted he
could help. He had friends. They were already organised. It was a
fledgling resistance. Many ex-SA-PD personnel deeply resented the
presence of the Coricians.
If I wanted to take up his offer I should return to my apartment
immediately. I should pack some basic things and meet him within an
hour at the bar of a soccer club he frequented. I wanted to know how I
could trust him. He smiled. A smile that was both angry and
reassuring. ‘I can say little.’ he whispered, ‘I am simply a contact. Yet
can you say you have ever known me to be a friend to anyone but a
Nussayin?’
I laughed at that. It was true. Many times when students we had
argued over this very subject. This friend was an ardent isolationist.
“Make no phone calls,” he instructed. “Tell no one. Be there and you
will be looked after.”
I stood to leave.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“Let us say,” he continued, “for an old friend.” Then he paused.
“And for the future,” he added. “An enemy of Coricia is a friend of my
friends.”
I left him and returned to my apartment. I packed my things. Three
hours later I was being driven, via a circuitous route, to my present
address. My hair cut, my beard shaved, in strange clothes, I was
accompanied by a man whose face I now see daily staring at me from
countless wall posters: Nussayim’s most wanted man. Elacan Idern. He
was tall, bearded and wearing a pale-blue beret.

I leave my room. Quietly, I close the door after me. It is already


dark. The sky is overcast. Dirty, ragged clouds scud east. A light rain
falls. It is cold against my skin. The streetlights are diffused and dull.
They leave splintered reflections on the ground.
I pull the collar of my coat high and the tweed cap I am wearing, low
over my eyes. I put my hands deep in my pockets, clutching my
papers. My stomach aches: a deadening pain, perhaps both hunger
and anxiety, grips me. I walk quickly toward Waterfront South.

On Waterfront South a Militia APV is parked across from the café. Its
darkened shape unnerves me. I stop short and fall back into the
shadows. There are two silhouettes in the cabin. At the rear of the
vehicle, a young soldier mans a heavy machine gun. His innocent eyes
gaze up and down the street. A scuffle breaks out further up the
pavement. Two Civil Guard cars race past. The soldier turns the gun in
their direction. The figures step from the cabin to watch. I see my
chance and step into the light. I quickly cross the street and hold my
breath. Nobody calls me.

The café is busy. Bodies press to the bar. She is already there. She
sits, near the back, by a second door. She looks up when I enter and
gives a discreet smile. She is wearing her old beret, navy coloured, and
a loose fitting beige jacket. It is open, revealing a maroon turtleneck
sweater and heavy wool cardigan.
I order a sweet-tea and wait for it to come. She says little. She asks
only how I am, how I have been. Then she comments on the general
state of things. She appears thin and tense. Only when the waiter has
come and left my drink does she lean close and whisper.
“We have arranged for you to be smuggled out of the country. It
may be dangerous.”
I take a sip of my drink. It is pleasantly warm.
“How?”
“On a ship, a merchant ship. Sinalnar to Jindair. We will pass you off
as a crew member.”
I let this information sink in. Her eyes remain focused and intense.
They are black as she watches me. She is gauging my reaction.
“When?”
She raises her eyebrows. Her look is hard, - a look of assessment.
“In about two weeks. The final arrangements have still to be made.
We need your answer first.”
“Now?”
“Within twenty-four hours.”
“Twenty-four hours is not much time.”
She hunches her shoulders. She clasps her hands on the table.
“Time is not a luxury we have. There is documentation required.
The manifest to be taken care of.”
Her voice is strained.
“How much money do you have?”
“I have about three-thousand Dinar in my room. It is hidden
beneath a loose floorboard. I can attempt to get more but it would be
difficult. I dare not access my bank account.”
She shakes her head. Her manner softens.
“No. Three thousand is enough. You will need cash when you travel.
We should be able to arrange the documentation for about one
thousand. Once outside the country you can attempt normal banking
procedures to access any other money you have. However I must warn
you, if you are on a government list of wanted-persons, it is likely your
accounts and cards have been frozen.”
Perhaps my anxiety shows. My caution. For I feel it. She moves
forward, reaches out and touches my arm.
“You are not the only one in this position,” she whispers fiercely.
“There are others. This is a difficult time for many.”
Then she relaxes. She gives a quick smile. Her hand still rests on
my arm. I want her to leave it there. I want to put mine over hers. I
remain silent. I realise my fears, my hesitation, are nothing compared
to the risks she must take day in day out. Discovery for her would
surely mean interrogation by Coricia’s elite Protection-Strike-Force: the
PSF. They are known to employ torture. They are authorised in ex-
judicial execution.
“How shall I let you know?” I ask.
“Have you any books in your room?”
“Yes. I am reading one right now. The Jade Lotus.”
“Place a message between the pages of this book. Make it look like
a shopping list or letter. It does not matter. But somewhere place one
simple tick for yes or cross for no. No other marks. Place the book
beneath your pillow. Go for a short walk between six and six-thirty
tomorrow evening. Do not lock the door. Someone will retrieve the
message. If your decision is yes, then, two nights from now, go to a
street named The Street of Wells. Due east. There you will find a small
café called The Linden. It is frequented by dockworkers. Wait there
from seven to seven-thirty. Bring the book you chose for the message.
Pretend to read it. Someone will come and talk to you. They will
mention an incident or a character from the opening chapter of the
book. This is your sign. If no one has approached you by seven-thirty,
leave. Do not wait. Another arrangement will be made.”
I put my hands in my pockets. The sweet-tea remains in the glass. I
feel that the low lights of the café burn into me. The conversations
from the bar ratchet my brain. Then she stands. She bends down. Her
chestnut hair brushes my skin as she places her mouth to my ear. She
has a sweet smell, the smell of earth, of spring flowers.
“Give me about thirty minutes before leaving. Do not look over, but
be careful. The man at the table to our right, in the ski-jacket and
leather cap is a Corician agent. I do not think he is aware of us. If he
follows you, go anywhere but your room.”
Then as soft as feather, she adds.
“Be strong Omdïan.”
I start. She has never yet used my real name. Even as the question
springs to my lips, she moves, and placing both her hands on my
cheeks, kisses me lightly on the lips.
“Be strong,” she repeats. “Be strong.”
I look up at her. I place one hand over hers to stop her pulling away.
“I do not even know your name,” I say.
Her expression is uncertain. Then she murmurs. .
“I have no name.”
“I shall call you Safra then.”
Her expression is puzzled.
“An unusual choice.”
“It is from a book. . .”
She places a finger over my lips.
“If you like.”
She leaves, pulling on her beret and buttoning her coat. Her back
disappears quickly through the door, into the rainy night: into the
winter dark.

I have been sitting in The Linden some twenty minutes. I stare at


the pages of the book. Attempting to read. It is difficult to concentrate
when nervous.
The café is only half-full. Its clientele are mainly dockworkers.
Rough, sullen and above all private. They ignore me. They sit playing
backgammon, cards, speaking among themselves.
It is close to seven-thirty when the door opens. A man comes
through it. He is small and sallow skinned. He wears a leather coat and
a woollen scarf. I notice him look to me but then he goes to the bar. I
am about to get up and leave when he is suddenly standing by my
table. He speaks slowly and clearly. There is a northern edge to his
accent.
“The Jade Lotus. Yes. Vizier. . .what is his name? No do not tell me.
Sawin. Yes. A wise ruler. I cannot remember. Does he tell the poet to
go?”
I look at him. His eyes stare back at me. They are masked as though
he were indifferent to my presence.
“Yes. He relieves him of his position.”
“May I sit?” the man asks.
He indicates the scuffed, empty chair.
“Of course.”
I close the book. The man appears to study me.
“An unusual choice of book.”
“It was a gift,” I explain.
“Do you like to read?” he asks politely.
“Yes,” I answer. “It is one of life’s pleasures.”
“Indeed.”
He fingers his drink. His voice abruptly drops to a whisper.
“We can get you on a merchant ship going to Jindair. It leaves in
about nine days. It sails first to Madar, then to Tüz. You will be given
papers. You will, officially, be a kitchen hand of Nussayin nationality
with Aratän residency. That will give you the necessary transit rights.”
He halts. As though expecting me to say something. I simply look at
him.
“You are in agreement with this?” he asks somewhat formally.
I nod.
“Someone will contact you in the next days. We will need a
photograph if you can get one. Also your medical history if possible.”
“That is it?” I ask.
He smiles.
“That is it.”
We talk for some minutes. Small talk. He finishes his drink.
“I am going to return to the bar now. Wait a couple of minutes, then
leave.”
He stands.
“Remember. Be careful in the coming days. You may be watched.
We can never tell how much Corician Intelligence know.”
He turns around, then stops and speaks loudly.
“Thanks. I’ll be certain to look for a copy.
Today rain falls heavy. Gusts of wind blow down the street. They
drive the drops against the window. The room is cold. The small heater
is not enough to keep the chill away.

I met her in the café yesterday evening. She was wearing a man’s a
beige raincoat. She sat, nursing a drink. Her face was drawn.
My papers have been arranged. I will be a merchant seaman – a
man who has been making the journey between Sinalnar and Tüz for
the last year. Officially I am Nussayin by birth, though with Aratän
residency. It is risky. Nevertheless it is a suitable cover, as it will
explain my familiarity with Nussayin habits and my accent. I will be
given the necessary documentation. I should take whatever cash I
have. Everything else I must leave behind.
Yesterday evening she told me I should have no contact with my
son and his mother. It is wiser. She promised she would attempt to get
a message to them.
“You said they are in the free sector,” she added. “Perhaps they
have already left.”
“I do not know,” I answered. “I hope so. I hope for him.”
She was quiet.
“Your parents. Where are they?”
I explained my father died when I was in my twenties and my
mother returned to the north. She died there later. It was where she
was born. My father’s family are Darmanis.”
“You were not a close family.”
“No. My son is important.”
“What made you choose the book?”
“Have you read it?”
“Some of it.”
I told her about my grandmother.
“To where have you read?” I asked.
“To where the poet returns to Tüz. About a half.”
I stared through the window to the near empty streets. A militia
patrol was slowly driving west. The APV was grim and depressing.
Lights from the harbours shadowed the buildings.
“In a strange way it parallels my position at present,” I said.
“How do you mean?”
“Something happens. You feel you should be somewhere but are
not. You must leave. Go somewhere else. Fate, perhaps, intervenes.”
She tightened her lips. She let her eyes fall to the table. Then
turned them back to me.
“I feel I have always been meant for this moment.”
I say nothing.
“I was always meant for it. It was coming and I was ready for it.”

I have noticed him before. It may be the same man who was in the
café that night. He is wearing a similar down jacket. He stands across
the street. Sometimes he appears to be waiting for someone. Or he
reads a newspaper. There is a betting shop nearby. I have seen him
stand in the door.
I step into the street. The afternoon is cold. The sky is clear. Thin
strands of grey cloud are building to the north. Where rain has
gathered there is a light covering of ice. No doubt it is snowing on the
high ground inland.
I begin to walk west. I have no particular destination. I simply need
to be out. A room can be a prison.
I walk along Bar-het Street. Every now and then I stop and turn
around. I bend and tie a bootlace or I pretend to drop something. The
man appears to be following me. Then he disappears.
I come to the junction of Waterfront South and Woodmans. I cross
to a tram halt. The raised section of street is busy. It is crowded with
old women, immigrants, the poor of the city. They wait silently. They
are withdrawn and tight lipped. Their eyes are suspicious. I pull the
collar of my coat high, the earmuffs down. A sharp wind cuts over the
junction.
The tram arrives. It swings round from the harbours. Its wheels
screech on the cold-tightened rails. Its blunt nose pushes out of the
afternoon air. Dumb, yet familiar.
I step in and stand by the door. I grasp the leather strap above my
head. We cross streets, junctions, squares then move into the old city.
I see buildings I have not seen for many months. Department
stores, hotels, airline offices, cafes, cinemas, all pass me by. I notice
the damage in places. Bullet shredded walls, artillery bludgeoned
cornerstones, shattered windows. I see the flag of the CNC flutter over
offices. Two red bands broken by white, a ring of black stars at its
centre. It looks strange. Inept.
We come to Tüz Boulevard. Wide and plane lined, the thin leafless
branches reach into cold cerulean. It is such a familiar winter scene.
I get off at the north end - two stops from the Main Rail Station. I
spend some time in a café. I drink good coffee. I smoke a couple of
cigarettes. Then I decide to walk south. Perhaps I can see a movie.
It happens quickly. I do not even see them at first among the crowd.
They are stopping people. Asking for papers. There are two of them:
civil Guards, Nussayins. A Militia detail stands close by. Another off-
duty Guard drinks from a flaks of coffee and talks with them.
It is a random screen. I am almost on top of them before I realise.
Before I see the hand raised, hear the curt demand for identification.
I fumble in my pockets. I go through my things. I produce the piece
of card - stiff in its plastic casing.
They are just about to hand it back when a voice calls out. I look
and see the off-duty Guard come toward me. He is putting on his cap
and pointing. I stare at his face and take in its features. He is a former
security guard who worked at the University. He has clearly recognised
me. His voice is raised. He gesticulates to the two Guards in front of
me. The two Militia men click down their visors and follow him.
I begin to sweat. I remain courteous, attempting to appear relaxed. I
ask the Guards if there is a problem. From the corner of my eye I
watch the others come toward me. I am thinking of my chances. I
understand my true identity is about to be uncovered. And it comes to
me quickly. Run. I do not know if fear or foresight drives me; or if it is
simply panic. I lunge at the Guard. I grab my papers. Then I throw as
much of my body weight as I can against him. He stumbles back. He
loses his balance. He falls on his side, trapping his gun beneath him.
For a moment the Militia are unsighted by the crowd. I push forward; I
push through the surprised faces. I knock bodies. Someone curses. I
tell myself there is a turning close by. It leads off the boulevard and
into side streets.

I turn off the boulevard to shouting in my ears. It seems to come at


me from far away. As though I were in a dream. I know by running I
have drawn a line. There is no going back. My mind is calm. It waits for
the shots. It imagines the lifted weapons, the safety catches released,
the barrels being pointed.
I find myself on a narrow side street. Faces loom at me. In a city
that has become accustomed to shocks, to its normality being pulled
asunder, I am just another fugitive.
I feel my heart tighten and the muscles of my legs stretch. The side
street is short. It ends in a large street running parallel to the
boulevard. I know it leads to the National Art Museum.
I swing right and head there. Perhaps I can lose myself among the
crowds. The pavement is unforgiving. I am no longer fit and the stone
seems to jolt up into my body. My legs begin to hurt.
I cross a street - dodging cars. A bus brakes and I dart in front of it. I
keep to my right and head down Khotin Street. I see the museum
buildings rise in front of me. Their white stone subdued in the now
greying light. I enter its grounds. There is a small park to my right. It is
laid out in squares, all at different levels. Each descends and at its far
end I see an exit. I guess it leads toward the river. It should give onto a
maze of alleys.
I take the levels two at a time. From the corner of my eyes I am
aware of the winter grass, thin and yellowed, I am aware of leaves are
piled up at edges. The pale blue sky of earlier is now steely grey. I look
over my shoulder to see if I am being followed. Just coming through the
ornate gates of the museum grounds are the two Militia men.
I bolt through the exit. I turn left and down a long line of steps. The
railings that run along their centre are cold to the touch. I reach the
bottom and have to stop. Suddenly my chest aches; my sides are
cramped. I have to bend over double. I gasp for breath. It comes in
clouds of sweated steam. I open my coat. I wonder if I can go on.
Maybe I have lost my pursuers.
There are shouts from the top of the steps. I glance up and see one
of the Militia begin to descend. The other is talking on a radio. Then I
hear the low whine of rotors. A helicopter. I begin to run again. My legs
seem as heavy as lead. My feet are awkward on the cobbled surface. I
am now among the many small alleys that back off the offices and
residences that line the river.
I stumble forward, slipping, my sight starting to blur. I go right. I go
left. I cannot yet see the helicopter, but I can hear it. I am about to
give up when I see her. Just ahead of me. She steps from an entrance.
Her face sways in front of me. Dark skinned. Here eyes are calmly
watching me as I approach her. I fall against a row of garbage cans.
She looks up quickly, steps forward and gives me her hand.
“Quick. Come. Follow me.
We enter a narrow doorway. A stairway winds up into darkness. We
begin to climb. Quietly, up, over bare boards. It smells musty and old.
We come to a small, badly painted door. She turns around to me and
puts her fingers to her lips.
“When we get inside, take off your clothes and get under the
shower. Do not come out until I tell you.”
I agree. Willing to do anything she says. I will do anything to stop
running, just to catch my breath, to have the blood cease painfully
pounding in my head.

The shower is painted a pale green. The walls are chipped. Patches
of dank mould stain corners. I just sit in the corner, hungrily taking
breath. I collapse to the ground. I reach out and turn the tap. It
squeaks. A thin trickle of water falls to the faded tiles.
I listen as she moves about the room. She is quiet. The sound of
the helicopter comes through a small, cracked window. I imagine it
combing the area. Heading down to the river, then back up toward the
park; all the time circling. The sound I dread most is a pounding on the
door or the heavy thud of boots on the stairway.
It seems an eternity before there is a knock and a soft voice speaks.
“Come out now. You are clear.”
The door opens a little and I am handed a towel. I wrap it around
me and tentatively come out.
I am in a small room, barely furnished. There is a large lamp on a
stand, red tasselled, a bed with a gaudy pink cover and a small
leatherette couch. At the far end, overlooking the alley is a half open
window. She is standing there, looking out, a slim cigarillo between her
fingers. In her other hand she has a small pair of field glasses. She
looks at me.
“My apologies for the undressing. If they came looking it was good
cover. ‘My client is just taking a shower sir.’ The Militia do not always
ask questions of working women. It was thin but it may have worked.”
“Thank you,” I say, “thank you. I owe you my freedom.”
She raises the field glasses and gestures with them.
“I was watching you come down the steps from the park. If it had
just been the Civil Guard I would have left you to them. Then I saw the
helicopter. You must be important.”
I shake my head.
“I, I don’t know.”
She puts the field-glasses down and comes toward me. I notice she
is wearing only a thin nightgown. I can see her underwear beneath it;
black lace. She stubs the cigarillo out in a shell shaped ashtray.
“I do not understand,” I say. “You are. . ?”
“Not what I seem to be,” she answers. “And you?”
I tense. I do not know how much I should say.
“You are going to have to tell me something,” she continues. “I
need to know. If I am going to help you I need something.”
“How can I trust you?” I ask.
She makes a little gesture of expelling air through pursed lips.
“How can I trust you?” she responds.
I sit down on the side of the bed. Suddenly I am freezing. I begin to
shiver.
“I have already risked interrogation by the Militia for you,” she says.
“If they had found you I would have been considered an accomplice. I
need to know what I took that risk for.”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes.”

When I wake it is dark: an eerie dark. The distant glow from the
lights that line the river casts strange shadows in the room. For a brief
moment I feel I am falling. Falling into an abyss. I am swirling about,
my hands clutching futilely at ghosts, insubstantial things.

I told her what I considered wise. I watched her as I explained and


knew she understood I was not telling all but was giving her enough for
the moment. She asked me some questions about my university post,
my professor and then, who was helping me. When I would not answer,
she looked me straight in the eyes, a penetrating look, and said, ‘the
Underground’. I was silent.
She wanted to see my papers. I showed them to her and she
examined them, holding them to the light. Then she handed them back
to me. ‘They are sufficient’, she agreed.
“The Resistance are still not well organised. They do their best. If
you were recognised, then it is your word against theirs. Still a simple
DNA test at an Interrogation Centre would have identified you.”
I wanted her to tell me something of her position. She was vague.
“The less you know the better for you. I am not Nussayin. I am not
Corician. However the PFS would be very interested to know of my
existence.”
“You are from Niar?” I ventured.
“It is a possibility of course. . .”
“Yet you speak with a perfect Nussayin accent. .?”
She stopped me there.
“I said the less you know the better.”

She had hidden some of my clothes, my coat with my papers in a


recess behind the couch. It involved her taking away a section of
skirting board and then opening a panel in the wall. She handed me
the clothes and returned the field glasses. She then took out a small
laptop computer and a mobile communication device.
“I shall be back,” she said. “There is food in the kitchen.”
She handed me a pack of cigarettes.
“Probably it is best to stay here. The neighbours keep to
themselves. They are mainly immigrant workers. There are also some
genuine working girls. No one should disturb you. Be careful.”

I walk to the window. I can see down to the street. It is deserted. A


red light glows in a doorway across from me. I turn back to the room.
There is a cheap TV on a stand. I press the switch. A reporter is
recounting an incident in the north of the city. There has been an
explosion at a CNC holding centre. ‘A terrorist attack,’ he claims
portentously. ‘The work of enemy agents.’ Then the piece cuts to
pictures of children and women in Coricia’s capital, Maris-ma. Wailing
and distraught, the victims of a simultaneous bombing call for
vengeance. ‘The work of the enemies of freedom,’ the reporter
announces. His face adopts an expression of exaggerated concern. I
press the switch again and deaden the screen.
The room is cold so I put on my coat. I open the window a little and
pull up a shabby chair. I reach for the pack of cigarettes and light one. I
sit there, quietly, staring out over the shadowed city.

We take a back route. First we walk to the river and then east. It is
good to see the river. I have almost forgotten its smell, its sound. I
have almost forgotten how its winds from the north, dark and green.
Its movement is heavy on this winter day.
Light flurries of snow brush against us. The sky is heavy. I pull my
coat tight around me. She links my arm, smiling. ‘Two bodies are
better than one against the cold,” she explains. “We should walk for a
while. Make sure we are not being followed.”
We walk until we come to the Third Millennium Bridge. My feet are
frozen, my face and neck, wet and cold. She stops. I look back and see
the snow is beginning to stick on the pavement. Our footsteps wind to
where we stand.
“Where do you live?” she asks.
I tell her.
“We should try and go there. It is unlikely you could have been
traced on so cursory an inspection of your papers. Are you registered
as living there or elsewhere?”
“I am registered as living in Niawend but unable to return there
because of the security situation.”
“The address should be safe,” she concludes. “Even an occupying
bureaucracy is slow to move.”
She points across the street to where there is a line of yellow cars
with chequerboard sides.
“We can take a taxi.”

We cross the street. She leans to a window and knocks lightly. The
driver looks up from his newspaper. He sips from a plastic coffee cup.
His eyes are lazy and bored.
“Bar-het Street,” she says.
He folds his newspaper, leans forward and clicks on the metre.
We drive east. Crossing back over Sawin Street and then to
Waterfront South. The heating in the car is on full. It rattles. Smoke
from the driver’s heavy cigar drifts back, making us cough. We pass
the junction at Woodmans Quay, the café, and then we are on Bar-Het
Street. We pull up near the entrance of the room. She puts her hand on
my arm.
“I shall go in first. It’s not me they’re looking for. Tell me which
room is yours.”
I nervously watch as she walks the short distance to the doorway
and then disappears through the entrance. Her long quilted coat
vanishes as though into a void. The streetwalker with the hash-pipe is
standing in her usual spot. The old woman whose husband was taken
away crosses the street with a meagre bag of shopping.
I wait. Tapping my feet. I notice the man in the down jacket
standing on the far pavement. I tighten. He folds a newspaper and
saunters up and down. At regular intervals he looks toward the door. I
look at my watch and wonder what is taking her so long.
The driver turns up the radio. A piece of overwrought orchestral
music fills the car space. An announcer’s voice speaks as it tails out.
‘That was the Corician National Philharmonic with their interpretation
of a well-known folk melody of the Curusün Region.’
The man has stopped. He is lighting a cigarette. Then I see her
come out the doorway. She stops briefly and talks to the streetwalker.
Then she comes back to the car.
I step onto the pavement. The driver winds down the window. She
leans in and hands him a 10 Dinar note. He looks at her with a surly
expression. She produces another and then says, ‘you never saw us.’
He gives a phlegmatic shrug, rubs his unshaven chin, and repeats, ‘I
never saw anyone. I’m a blind man.’
As he pulls the car away she puts her hand on mine.
“It appears clear.”
“What were you saying to the street-walker?” I ask.
“Asking her what she sees.”
“And?”
“Nothing much. She’s just a street-walker.”
I point discreetly to the man across the street.
“I see him frequently,” I say.
She looks at me. Her expression is puzzled.
“I saw him when we pulled to the pavement. I would imagine he is
one of your people. There to keep an eye out for you.”
“Thank you.” I say. “Thank you for all you have done.”
“Good luck.”
“Where are you going?”
“To take a tram. I have things to attend to.”
With that she walks briskly away without looking back.
I pace the room. I was supposed to meet Safra yesterday evening
but she did not show. I sat for near to two hours under the low lights of
the café. I drank a couple of beers. I felt empty. It was only as curfew
approached, I left. Hurrying back to my room, keeping to the shadows.
I am anxious. I have taken to checking the street almost hourly. The
streetwalker has not been there today. Neither has the man in the
down jacket. Now I am suspicious. I am edgy.

It is nearly seven. The lights from buildings reflect off the street.
Twice I have seen Militia vehicles race toward the harbour area. Their
blue lights flashing, their sirens wailing into the evening. Earlier I
thought I heard gunfire. I have not enough tokens left for the heating. I
get underneath the blankets and try to sleep.

A low knocking on the door wakes me. I do not know how long I
have been asleep. It persists. Then I hear a voice: insistent and
familiar.
“Omdïan. Can you let me in?”
“Who is it?” I call back
“It’s me. Safra. Can you let me in?”
I spring from the bed and pull on some clothes. I fumble with the
lock. When I open the door she is standing there, the same raincoat on,
the black beret, a scarf over her mouth. In the shadows her face
appears taut.
“What is it?” I say.
“Please. Please. Just let me in.”
“Of course.”
I step back.
“Close the door,” she whispers urgently.
“What is it?” I ask. “What is it?”
She shakes her head from side to side. Her body begins to tremble,
to shake like a leaf in an autumn breeze.

I pull out a chair for her. She takes it as though in a daze. She sits
unsteadily and puts her head in her hands and suddenly begins to cry.
A low, strangled sobbing comes from somewhere deep inside her. I do
not know what to do. I want to go to her. I want to put my arms around
her.
“What is it?” I ask. “What has happened?”
She says nothing. She just sobs and then stares at the table, her
eyes fixing on a plate with the remnants of some rye bread on it.
“It was terrible. We were in The Linden. They came through the
door. There were about ten of them. They had their visors down,
automatic weapons at the ready. I was near the back, near to the bar.
Otherwise I would not have escaped. The barman got me out and into
the cellar. Still I had time to see what was happening. They opened fire
on the table where moments before I had been sitting. There was no
word of warning - no challenge. It was just the barrels of their guns
crackling. Elacan was there. They must have been tipped off. I saw him
dive for cover. The others scattered. My colleagues, friends, I do not
know how many of them have been taken, how many are still alive.”
She pauses. I get her a glass of water.
“I stayed in the cellar for near to two hours. I could hear the Militia
above. They searched the building but there is a secret compartment.
They were not thorough. I presume they had done the job they had
really come to do.
“When they left the barman brought me upstairs to his apartment.
His wife gave me something strong to drink. She was watching TV. The
reports were already running. ‘Elacan Idern has been shot dead in a
fierce gun battle in the waterfront area of Sinalnar,’ they claimed. ‘He
and a band of insurgents had attacked a Militia patrol. The patrol
returned fire, killing Idern instantly. Five people are known to be dead -
three insurgents and two members of the public caught in crossfire.
One of the Militia sustained light injuries.’
“The barman could not confirm these facts. He thought there were
more than five dead. He had personally seen Elacan injured, lying on
the ground. According to him, a man with a beret and dark glasses,
entered behind the patrol. On locating Idern he pointed a hand weapon
at his head and shot him at point blank range. The barman suspected
he was an undercover PSF agent.”
She looks up at me. Her eyes are red and her skin pale.
“He was foolish,” she whispers vehemently. “Proud. His belief in our
cause was so strong he took unnecessary risks. He had been warned
about being seen in public. He had been warned about infiltration.”
I am aware of a deep feeling of relief comes over me. A deep sense
that her death or capture would have signified more to me than the
simple loss of a contact. My body is trembling. I am glad she is sitting
before me; empty as she is, shaken as she is, she is still alive.
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I should do. I came here because I
am scared to go back to my own home.”
The following day dawns leaden and somber. An icy wind blows
through the city. Dark shadows rest on the streets. They dirty the
frozen snow and ice. She leaves early. She slips out and loses herself
among morning workers. I watch her walk toward the tram halt.
As morning goes by, there is increased Militia activity. I see APVs
come and go on the street. Overhead helicopters hover. The Civil
Guard increases its stop-and-search actions. I decide it is better to stay
inside.

Just after five comes a heavy knock on the door. I open it to find a
man in plainclothes accompanied by two Militia. The plainclothes man
smiles professionally from under a soft hat. He is wearing a belted
overcoat. Its top buttons are open to reveal a flak jacket over a white
shirt and green silk tie. The Militia are visored and their automatics are
at ready. Red spots of light rest where their barrels point.
The plainclothes man flicks open a PSF iD. He speaks with a Corician
accent and asks for my papers. He is courteous, yet it is courtesy is
laced with malice. It suggests that the gloved hand proffered to receive
my papers is a hand that could as easily snap its fingers and a fate
would be sealed. It suggests a man who signs secret orders, a man
who carefully dots each i an on execution order.
I turn back to the room. My heart clenches. I hear him ask if they
may enter, and without waiting for a reply, step across the threshold. I
turn and he is gesturing to the Militia to search the room. He smiles at
me icily.
“Seen anything strange lately?” he asks, taking my offered papers.
“Such as?” I answer, trying not to let tension creep into my voice.
He examines my pass, my permit.
“You know. Agitators, low-lifes, resistance.”
He lets the last word hang in the air. The light drains from his eyes.
“No,” I answer as evenly as I can.
“Nothing at all?” he adds as though in surprise. His manner is
mordant.
“Last night,” I offer. “There were gun shots from the harbour. Today
there has been a lot of Militia activity.”
“I see.”
The two Militia are searching the room and kitchen. We wait as they
go through things, open cupboards, ransack my few clothes. They
return to where we stand, their heavy boots, muddying the threadbare
carpet.
“Nothing,” one of them reports.
The PSF man nods. He takes off a glove and retrieves a photograph
from an inside pocket. He holds it up. I find myself looking at the man
in the down jacket.
“Have you ever seen this man?” he demands.
“No.”
“Never?”
“I just said. I have never seen this man.”
“Good,” he says, returning the photograph to his coat. If you had,
you would have reported it of course. A stranger hanging about the
streets like that.”
I nearly walk into it. For a dreadful moment I am about to agree. He
stares at me, his eyebrows raised slightly as though offering me
encouragement.
“I told you I have never seen this man. How would I know if he was
hanging about the streets?”
The PSF man raises a hand as though to acknowledge a point
scored.
“Very good,” he says. “Yes. Very good.”
He orders the Militia to the hallway and turns to go. Then he notices
my grandmother’s book lying on the bed. He lifts it and opens a page.
“He wakes on the trail. Dark birds circle his head. What was smooth
is now rough. What was whole is broken,” he reads out loud.
“Very poetic. It is a strange thing for one in your circumstance to be
reading. Would you not say?”
He glances disdainfully around the room.
“It is an Nussayin classic,” I reply. “Perhaps you would not
understand.”
He puts the book back on the bed. He walks stiffly to the door. He
turns and gives a callow smile.
“You know where to find us. And of course we know where to find
you. Be vigilant. It is your duty as a citizen.”
I nod. He does not close the door. I stand there in the darkening
room, empty and cold. Their footsteps move down the hallway. I want
to retch.

I am to meet Safra in the café at six. I take a roundabout route. I


examine every suspicious face I see. I glance behind me frequently. I
slip into darkened doorways and wait for strange footsteps to recede.
As a consequence I am late.
Safra sits in her usual place. She looks up when I enter. It is a look
of relief. She tells me her resistance colleagues are in disarray. There
have been raids during the day. In a safe house in the south of the city,
two people were shot. Others are in detention.
I tell her about my encounter with the woman from Niar. I tell her
about my visit. Her eyes contract. Lines of anxiety crease her forehead.
She confirms the man in the down jacket is Underground. When I tell
her about the photograph, her head drops. Then she looks gravely out
the window.
“You are in danger,” she says. “They are watching the building.”
We sit for a time, silently. I can feel her agitation. I take a cigarette
from my pack, but do not light it. I drink back my raki in a mouthful. A
jukebox in the corner begins to play a slow tune. I would like to turn it
off. An old man sighs to himself, and then calls the waiter. His eyes are
bleary and sad. Suddenly she has decided something.
“You should not return to your room tonight.”
She gets up.
“I will make a phone call. Wait here.”
My eyes follow her as she walks across the café floor. She appears
fragile. Her body is thin and tense. I see her long fingers push the coins
into the slot of the telephone box. Her hair falls over her face as she
speaks. The hesitations, the pursuit, the agreement in her lip
movements, all come to me. Her eyes are intense one moment, distant
the next. These things are the sum of her. They are her as she is. She
returns.
“You will stay with a colleague. It is a safe-house.”
I thank her.
“What about you? What will you do?”
“I move around.”
“What about my money?”
“Go now to your room and get it. Be careful. Take only the money.
Do not spend time on anything else. If you are followed walk for a
while, then return here. If it is clear, light a cigarette and I will know.”

We take the metro. The safe house is in a wealthy suburb to the


west of the city. I sit by the window. Reflections of familiar stations
form a montage as we pass. I have a strange feeling. I should be
anxious. I should be concerned. My one place of safety I have just
given up and my life may be danger. It is likely the PSF are closing in
on the resistance cell. Yet I feel strangely assured. I feel something
greater than myself is at play. Fate, somehow, has pushed me to this
place. It has taken something from me but given me something in
return. It is not an easy situation. It is not necessarily a choice.
“Do you believe in destiny,” I ask Safra as we enter a station.
She holds a shoulder bag tight over her knees.
“What?”
“Do you believe in destiny?” I repeat.
She stares straight ahead.
“I believe we are all connected in some way. Destiny is too strong a
word.”
“What do you mean?”
“I simply believe there are connections and that at any one time we
are faced with choices and decisions. Perhaps they are related to our
pasts. They will certainly influence our futures. Destiny implies
something already decided. That seems impossible to me.”
“And?”
She crosses one leg over the other and smoothes her dark trousers
at the knee.
“I believe at any time there are a number of paths open to us. We
take the one we are able to take. Or the one we think best. Who knows
what influences we bring to bear on such a decision.”
“Does that not imply destiny?”
“Perhaps. You are the academic.”
“True. . “
She turns suddenly. Her eyes find mine. I see a hidden fire in them,
deep and long burning.
“I believe love is what we search for in life. We have to search. It
does not come easy. If it did it would not be love. It would be
convenience.”
The train enters the tunnel. It sways. Its lights flicker as we cross
points.
“So you believe love is our destiny?”
“I believe love is our strongest state of being.”
“Love is strength then?”
She smiles. She turns her head to where a lone man is struggling to
his feet, buttoning a workman’s overalls and shuffling toward the door.
“We have three stops to go,” she says.

She is sitting on a bench at the north end of the park. Her face is
pale and soft beneath the winter sunlight. Against the tall pines and
leafless poplars her body is small and seemingly frail. Her knees are
together and she sits as though hunched against the cold. She is
holding a book in her hands. The Jade Lotus, the book my grandmother
gave me.
I walk up to her. My feet crunch off dead leaves. She looks up at me.
“I have been reading it for some days. I managed to find a copy in
the library on Tüz Boulevard. I was curious.”
“And?”
“I don’t know.”
“It is an old story.”
“Like many old stories it is really about love.”
“How do you mean?”
“I am reading about where the narrator, Çevet I think comes back
from his wanderings to find Safra, but she has gone, she has not
waited for him.”
I sit. I take her hand. She leaves it in mine.
“Why do you think she does not wait for him?”
She tightens her grip.
“It was one of those choices. Or paths. Or she was afraid of her
love.”
I look at her. I take in the chestnut hair falling from the side of her
beret, the bark-brown eyes, and her mouth soft and pliable.
“I am not afraid,” she says with quiet passion.
I lean over slowly, aware of the tension in the moment. I am aware
of her closeness. Then I kiss her lightly. She reaches up to me. Her
mouth closes on mine, holds my lips on hers. Her hand caresses my
face, gently discovering its contours.
“You have courage. You hold my destiny in your hands,” I say.
Her eyes are dark with intense feeling.
“No. I hold both our destinies in my hands,” she answers.
“What is your real name?” I ask.
“Daríya,” she answers.

The plan has been changed. We are not to leave from Sinalnar. We
must travel to Mazal: a smaller port on the northeastern seaboard. We
will take a train. In Mazal we will board a freighter bound for Aratä and
then on to Tüz. Daríya is to come with me. It has been her choice. Her
position in the Underground is no longer safe.
We have a nineteen-thirty departure; an express that makes only
two stops before Mazal and then heads north-west to Niawend.
The station is busy. Despite impending curfew there are still many
people. Militia agents and Civil Guard are everywhere in evidence.
They patrol in numbers, in twos or threes. The Militia are all heavily
armed. Well-heeled men stand about in pairs, in tailored, woolen
overcoats. ‘PSF agents,’ whispers Daríya.

The platform is at the north end of the station. Arc lights flood the
high-roofed building. They expose the girders and steel: they light the
places where city birds once roosted. CNC banners hang over walls and
large screens bring political and business news from Maris-ma.
We are to stand separately in line. It is safer we do not attempt to
board together. Our papers are transit papers. They permit us to make
the journey, giving us twenty-four hours for its completion. In principle
once in possession of a travel permit, it is a formality whether we can
board the train or not. However the PSF are known to monitor who is
traveling and are permitted to ask questions or to take people of the
train, as they deem necessary.

We wait in a line. An assortment of people, workers, families,


couples wind back from the platform entrance. The lights of the station
give a wan pallor to faces. With the winter cold, there is something sad
and empty about things. Something displaced about it all. As though
there were two worlds. The world of those herded from one place to
the other, those who never question: and a world of refugees.
The rail inspector is checking papers. Behind him stand two men.
They are dressed in plain clothes and wear the ubiquitous heavy
overcoats. Their faces are set. One is heavy jowled. His shadowed
mouth works relentlessly on a piece of gum.
Daríya is ahead of me. She stands between two families. They talk
and argue among each other. They switch suitcases, remonstrate with
the children, unpack food then pack it again.
I watch as she approaches the inspector. He examines her ticket,
her papers, and pauses a moment before he nods and turns his
attention to the family behind. I watch with relief as I see her walk up
the platform towards a carriage.
The man in front of me is a worker of some sort. The inspector asks
him to open his bag. It contains a variety of tools. I see hammers,
drills, a spirit level, various building implements. The inspector looks
through it, holds it at an angle so the two plainclothes men can see.
One of them steps forward. He beckons the worker aside. He points to
the bag and tells the man he may not take his tools on the train. They
begin to argue. The man becomes angry. I look on, the raised voices
unsettling me. They sound ominous to my strained ears. The inspector
calls me forward. He asks for my ticket, for my permit. He turns the
ticket over in his hand, puts it aside. Then he examines my permit,
looking first at the photo, then at me. He is just about to hand them
back when the second plainclothes man comes forward. He indicates
to the inspector he wishes to see my papers. The inspector hands them
to him. He speaks to me. His accent is plainly Corician
“You are going to Mazal?”
“Yes.”
“What is the purpose of your journey?”
“I am a merchant seaman. I am to board my ship early this
morning.”
“You are a resident of Nussayim?”
“I am resident of Aratä, Tashmin. I have Nussayin nationality.”
He looks at me. His jaw does not stop moving.
“What was the purpose of your being in Sinalnar?”
“Visiting family.”
He examines my permit.
“Just one moment. Please wait here.”
My heart sinks. From the corner of my eye I see Daríya step onto
the train ahead of me. The plainclothes man walks off into a small
office. He is silhouetted in its brightly lit window, his jaws still chewing
and his small eyes moving from side to side as he speaks into a
telephone receiver. I shuffle uneasily as he bends and appears to
punch something into a computer terminal. Then he returns. He spits
his gum onto the ground.
“You may pass,” he says. “Thank you for your patience.”
I nod and walk past the inspector and onto the platform. I wish to
speed up my step but manage to appear nonchalant, breathing deeply
as relief floods my body.

I find Daríya and take a seat next to her. We are in a second-class


carriage. It is near to full.
The train pulls out of the station on time. It shunts and begins to
curls through the city. We pass buildings, some lit, some darkened,
until we are rolling through suburbs. Soon we are in countryside.
The night is dark. Low clouds have swept in from the east. They
break now and then to reveal a near full moon. The hills, the forests
north of Sinalnar roll past. I wonder to myself if I will ever see these
hills and forests again?
The carriage warms. I sit back, loosening my coat. I lean my head
against the window and try to sleep. Yet sleep does not come. I sense
only a strange emptiness, an emptiness then filled by the warmth of
Daríya sitting next to me, of her body leaning against mine.
Within an hour or so we reach Ke-irn, the first of our stops. The
carriage has become sleepy. Passengers have quieted. They have
settled for their trip. Some get up to leave. Others get on. Daríya hands
me some bread with garlic sausage. She has also brought a flask of
black coffee.
I drink the coffee and wander the aisle to the end of the carriage. I
lean out the door and smoke a cigarette. The platform slips away, the
lights, the buildings, the houses of Ke-irn, receding behind us. I have
only been there once. I was then a student. Ruefully, I realise there are
many parts of Nussayim I do not know well.
Forty minutes later, the train begins to slow. Soon we are crossing
junctions, lights are appearing, apartment blocks rising. This is Atyas, a
major east west connection. Here we will stop for thirty minutes. Here
the train will separate: the part we are in will continue to Mazal, the
rest to Niawend.
We are about to pull out when I notice four men run to get on. Two
of them are dressed in PSF uniforms. The other two wear the long
overcoats. I point them out to Daríya.
“Perhaps it is nothing. We could move. Let’s wait.”
We remain sitting. Each time the door between carriages slides
open I tense, expecting to see four faces staring straight to me:
expecting their expressions to be accusing, their eyes to be cold. I
watch the light over the door display whether the toilet is occupied or
not. Wondering if we could hide. They would hardly be so slow.
The train picks up speed. It begins to move through low coastal
hills. The clouds clear and the moon appears giving everything a soft
sheen. A woman across from me reads a magazine. She has dark,
wavy hair and is somewhat heavily built. At regular intervals she takes
out a vanity case and applies make-up. I wonder if she is perhaps on
her way to meet a lover. Maybe she is to be reunited with a husband.
She holds a small mirror up to her face and gazes intently into it. As
though, through it she could see into another world.
To pass time I get up again and smoke another cigarette. Pulling
hard, I draw the smoke in as though to give myself added resolve. Yet
each passing glance, each passing face unsettles me.
To my left is the long closed off corridor of first-class. Occasionally
one of the doors opens and a figure emerges. Well heeled. Possibly it is
an official. Certainly it is someone wealthy or privileged. Nothing
touches these people. They survive every change of rule. The CNC, as
any power, is not immune to the persuasion of money. It chooses its
victims carefully. Its enemies are not the wealthy, the affluent, but the
questioning. They are the humble, the hard working and the thinking.
They draw their support from those frightened of change. They speak
of equality but reward inequality. They speak of family yet tear families
apart. In truth they believe in power - their power. They believe in
control - their control. And they believe in just reward - their just
reward.
I have just flicked the cigarette butt out the window, sparks flying
back into the dark, when I see the uniforms at the far door. They are
entering first-class. The leather jackets, the shoulder holsters, the
shiny peaks of the caps, whisper of danger. The uniformed men enter
the compartment while the plainclothes men wait outside. I can tell
from their manner they watch everything. Their eyes are focused and
suspicious. It seems they are looking for someone.
I pull the collar of my coat up and return to the seat. Daríya takes
my hand and whispers, ‘relax, there is nothing we can do’. For what
seems an eternity I watch the door, waiting for it to slide open. Then
they are there. Calling out for papers, asking for our co-operation.
Their presence sends a ripple of uncertainty down the sleepy carriage.
The uniformed agents take the offered papers, examine them and then
hand them back. Occasionally they give them to the plain-clothes men
who take a further look, ask a question or two then pass on.
As they loom over us, I try to appear nonchalant. Their voices are
crisp and full of the sublimation of their power. I watch from the corner
of my eye as they approach our seats.
One of the uniformed men asks Daríya for her papers as the other
turns his attention to the woman in front of me. I hear the officer say to
Daríya, ‘only permit and iD madam.’
The woman is searching through her things. She becomes flustered.
She has just found her iD when one of the plainclothes men suddenly
points in our direction.
“You,” he says, “halt!”
For a moment I think he is pointing to me. I feel the sudden thump
of my heart. My mouth goes dry. A wave of fear sweeps over me. Then
anger. I feel cornered. I feel all my hope collapse. All my tension knots
and then dissipates in despair. But he is pointing at the woman. Or is it
Daríya? He gives the two officers an order.
“Arrest that woman.”
The officer checking Daríya’s papers reaches for his gun. The other
stands back while the two plainclothes men come forward. They turn
their attention to the woman in front of me. They demand her papers
and that she hand over her vanity case. They gesture to the officers to
search her travel bag. Before our eyes they empty its contents. To my
amazement, among her personal things they find rolls of Corician bank
notes, two packages of a white powdery substance and a small
handgun.
“You must come with us,” one of the plainclothes men barks.
The woman protests her innocence.
“I was only carrying the bag. It was for another passenger.”
He asks her to point this passenger out. She turns and raises her
finger, in a direct line with the angle of her mirror. The seat is empty.
She is searched again and more money is found in her coat pocket,
this time Nussayin currency. The plainclothes man produces handcuffs.
The other takes one of the uniformed men and, quickly, goes back
down the train. The remaining officer gives my papers a perfunctory
glance.
“In transit to Aratä?” he asks.
“Yes,” I answer. “I am a merchant seaman. Going to Madar.”
“A great city sir. Best girls of the Curusü.” His oversized face leers.
“Yes. Yes. Of course,” I stammer back.
Then he is moving away. Daríya is squeezing my hand.
“What do you know about the girls of Tashmin?” she whispers.
“Not much,” I answer, smiling. “Not much.”
I am thinking of the woman and the sallow, thin man who was been
seated two rows to our left. I am thinking of the strange coincidences
of life.

The station in Mazal is bleak. Dim lights shadow the platform. The
main hall is dusty and neglected. A CNC banner hangs over its
concourse. Uneasy-looking units of Militia stand guard. Groups of
young men stare as we exit the platform and an old woman pushes a
shopping cart full of personal belongings slowly over a tiled floor. There
is something grim and defeated about it all.
“A port town,” Daríya says. “An occupied port town.”
We are to board the ship before 2 am. Daríya’s colleagues have
arranged our contact – the ship’s purser, a Jindaran.
We step out of the station and find ourselves on am empty cement
approach. It is cold. The moon is now high. The buildings of the port
appear somewhat ghostly. Yet I think of moonlit nights in Sinalnar. Of
nights in cafés, nights walking along boulevards, nights looking out my
apartment window at the shadowed trees of the park. It makes me
long to be in Daríya’s arms. I want to be somewhere secret with her
and feel her body, warm, against mine, her hair, loose, and soft on my
skin. I want to hear her satisfied breathing and see that same
moonlight pale on the walls of a room.
I glance up at the station clock. It is just after midnight.
“We should take a taxi,” Daríya says.
To our left are a couple of battered looking cars. A telephone rattles
alone beneath a sign. The sign flashes on and off in red neon.

We get into the taxi. The driver says little. He emits a surly grunt as
Daríya gives him our destination.
We drive slowly from the station and toward the harbours. Soon we
are clear of the city and moving along a deserted road, straight and
bordered by rail lines. I see gantries, cranes and warehouses. Now and
then a ship’s hull appears between buildings, red or black, quayside
lights illuminating its v shape. We arrive at a small building in front of
three large warehouses. I notice a large oil depot to its left. ‘Quay 23,’
the driver says, bringing the car to an uneven halt. He takes our fare
with barely a thank you. Then we stand there. Alone. Before us are the
offices of Jindaran Freight and Trading PLC.

We enter the office. I show my papers to the desk clerk. I ask for the
man we have been told to contact. The clerk looks at me, a little
warily. He asks us our business.
“A new start,” I reply. He nods, as though understanding, and
informs us we should wait. Carefully he dials a number on a telephone.
We take a seat along an empty wall. It is made of plywood. The
seats are plastic and bolted together. I pull out a cigarette and am
about to light it when the clerk, getting up from his desk, coughs lightly
and points to a ‘no-smoking’ sign. Reluctantly I return the pack to my
pocket. He then disappears through a door. I watch his back move
away from us.
“Do you think he suspects?” I ask Daríya.
She looks down at her hands - elegant but cold. She rubs them
together. She puts them in her sleeves of her coat.
“I’m sure he has some idea. He is Nussayin. We are unlikely to be
the first to come through in this situation.”

We wait quietly. Only the sound of an occasional crane swinging


back and forth and the tinny voice of a radio playing a popular song,
punctuates the dry office air. Within a couple of minutes the clerk
returns. He informs us someone will be with us shortly.
Soon a thin man appears. He is dressed in a uniform. On his head
he wears a traditional Jindaran headdress: a turban. He greets us
politely. Then he nods to the clerk. He tells him he will be looking after
us. The clerk indicates he is happy with this.
We follow the man. He introduces himself as Arvesh. We leave the
office and enter a warehouse. We cross its vast space. I see containers
stacked one on top the other. They are rusted and marked with the
names of companies: Aratän, Jindaran, Nussayin. The man leads us
onto a quayside. There, before us, is the ship. It is a large freighter,
maroon and black. Its cranes are stark against the night sky. Its bridge
and living quarters, to the aft, are lit and warm. Tired, cold though I
am, a wave of relief sweeps over me and of excitement. Then comes
the tension. Now we are near. All we have to do is climb the gangway.
Within three or four hours we should be safe.
Arvesh turns to us. He smiles.
“Rest assured, you will be safe. The crew is mainly Nussayin and
Jindaran. There are few friends of the CNC among us,” he confides.
Daríya thanks him and grasps my hand tightly. I can feel her hope.
She appears to be leaning forward. As though she wishes to walk up
that gangway as quick as she can. The Curusü outside the harbour is
now our refuge. It is the purpose of our journey more than just a plan.
Just then there is a noise to our right. I look and see a women
running. A man follows her. They are keeping low. Their bodies are
bent. They duck and weave from side to side. Suddenly there is
shouting. A floodlight comes on. It flashes over the ground and in our
direction. The two figures are silhouetted. They appear to be carrying
something. I strain and see they have automatic weapons held close to
their bodies. Then shots ring out. They are hollow in the night air. I
freeze. I feel Daríya pull against me. Arvesh murmurs to himself. From
the corner of a building, into the harsh glare of lights, two APVs and a
car appear. The APVs have their headlights on. Their warning lights
flash, their sirens only challenged by the sound of a loudspeaker. It
calls on the two running figures to stop or they will be shot. Arvesh
begins to urge us to move. We should make for the gangway. Guns
open, automatics mounted on the APVs. A volley of shots echoes into
the night, ricocheting sharply off the ground. One of the figures, the
man, stumbles, then falls. I can hear him shout out, urge the woman to
go on. She runs forward, and as she comes close, I gasp. I recognise
her. It is the Niarian woman. Her dark face is clear before me. The fine
bones, the short hair, the intense eyes. I see that she too has been hit.
Blood is coming from her side and shoulder.
The two APVs stop. Militia jump to the ground. The car pulls to a halt
just a little way from us. Its doors swing open and two plainclothes men
leap out. They run toward us. One of them has his hand weapon raised
and is shouting to the Niarian woman. He calls to us to put our arms in
the air, not to make a move. On the ground the Niarian woman’s
colleague has lifted his gun. The discharge is quick. Two short flashes,
two cracks, harsh. One of the plainclothes men staggers, and then falls
to the ground. The Niarian struggles on and reaches us. I step forward.
She sways and instinctively I drop my bag, put out my arms to catch
her. I know it is foolish. I know there is nothing I can do. Yet that
human instinct is strong I cannot resist. I hear Arvesh curse loudly
behind me. I feel Daríya grab my arm. But it is too late. The Niarian
woman is already in my arms. The plainclothes man is steadying
himself and pointing his gun at all of us. His eyes are two stones, his
voice even. ‘Do not move. No-one should move.’
For some moments there is a taut silence. It is as though we are all
in a stage performance and waiting on the next line. From the direction
in which the figures have just come, there is suddenly a blinding flash.
A huge fireball shoots into the sky – a great, glowing ball. It is followed
by an ear-splitting sound. Then there is the sound of steel and cement
being torn apart. Of structure, girders, beams, support being shattered.
“The Oil Depot,” I hear Arvesh say. “They’ve blown the Oil Depot.
I stand and stare. Debris begins to rain down. I see that the two
APVs are trying now to back away. One is immobile and has caught
fire. There is a second discharge. The fleeing APV is knocked to its side
with the force. I feel the heat on my face.
Behind me I am aware Daríya has produced a small revolver from
somewhere. As the first explosion rocks us the plainclothes man has
been distracted. Now she points it at him. ‘Drop your weapon,’ she
demands. He stares back at her. His gun is still held high. He points it
at me. As the second explosion rings out, he staggers. It is Arvesh who
acts. He suddenly moves forward and kicks the weapon from the
plainclothes man’s hand. Then, grabbing the revolver from Daríya, he
brings it up in a swift movement and placing it next to the man’s
temple, pulls the trigger. The report is low. A single shot. The
plainclothes man crumples. His legs go first. There is nothing in his
eyes but a vague look of surprise. Then he is on the ground with blood
running down over his face.
“Come,” says Arvesh. “Now is our chance. He was the only one who
could have identified us. We must get on the ship.”
The Niarian woman is still in my arms.
“But,” I object, “what about her?”
She struggles free and attempts to stand. Her voice is weak. She
calls to Arvesh.
“Give me the weapon,” she requests.
He hesitates.
“You are sure,” he says.
“Yes. It is better. They will blame his death,” she points to the body
of the plainclothes man, “on me. They will conclude I then turned the
gun on myself.”
He hands it to her.
“But,” I say again, “that is absurd. Is there not something we can
do?”
I turn to Arvesh. The Niarian woman grabs me. She turns me to face
her.
“Don’t be a fool. There is nothing you can do. I am badly wounded
and a Niarian agent. I am trained for this. If they take me, at best they
will hospitalize me only to torture me at will. Take your freedom. Go
now!”
I stare at her for what seems like an eternity. She is now holding her
side, barely able to stand. Her eyes are emptying.
“Go,” she shouts. “Go. Your friends are counting on you.”
I turn. Daríya and Arvesh are already on the gangway. Daríya is
calling to me.
“Come Omdïan. Come.”
I begin to climb the gangway. I reach out to Daríya’s extended
hand. I see personnel from the ship moving ahead of us. I see Arvesh
give them orders. He beckons us to hurry. There is a shot. A single
shot. Somehow among the commotion, the burning depot, the sirens of
approaching fire-services, it is cushioned by a strange silence. I do not
turn around until I am on deck and the captain has appeared and
instructed the crew to make ready to sail.

I glance at my watch. It is 1.43. The pilot boat has just left us.
Through the porthole I see the harbours. I see the fire still burning. In a
couple of hours we will be outside Nussayin waters. We will be on open
sea.

We have been at sea now two days. Late this afternoon we should
reach the port of Madar in Aratä.
All day we have listened to radio reports about the situation there. It
appears the Coricians have made incursions over its western borders.
However there is unlikely to be any real escalation of conflict for some
months. The Aratäns are better prepared then we were. Their high
mountain ranges make a land offensive difficult. Tashmin, their capital
is inland and to the east. So even if the western part of their country is
occupied, its administrative centre will still be free. Their defence
forces are active. Any battle for the eastern zone, for the capital
Tashmin would be lengthy and bloody. As Madar is on the eastern
seaboard we should safe for a while.

I stand on the deck. Daríya is next to me. We have been given


seaman’s clothes to keep us warm. We are wrapped in brightly
coloured oilskins. Between us we have only a little money and the
things we stand in. Who knows what sort of life is before us.
We lean over the side of the ship. I look down into the sea. It is a
cold day and clear. Thin strands of cloud stretch behind us high into
the sky. We head north.
“What are you thinking,” Daríya asks.
I shake my head.
“I am still thinking about destiny.”
“The different pathways we can take,” she answers.
“Also it is being close to death. You see someone prepare to die
before your eyes. You turn around and in that moment their life ends.
And another begins. Our life. It is so final.”
“We were lucky.”
“Yes, we were lucky.”
“If Arvesh had not acted as he did the ship could have been
boarded.
“And we could have been found.”
“An escape route would have been compromised. Who knows how
many other lives will be saved because it is there. These are the
choices of war.”
I am silent for a while. A fiery winter sun is beginning to sink to the
west. The surface of the sea is blue-grey. The ship’s engines throb
beneath us. There is the crackle of a radio from high on the bridge.

Madar comes into sight. Its harbour lights, its buildings, twinkle in
the distance. Darkness is already falling. The western sky still glows.
The last traces of sun burn up in amber and crimson. Above us, in the
cold night air, the first stars shine. A full moon rises in the east.
We pack our few things and wait. We stand together on the deck as
the ship prepares to berth. Sounds come from the quayside: calls, the
shouts, the whistles, radio commands going back and forth. Then we
are there. The gangway is being put down.
We walk ashore. Our passports are looked at with only a cursory
glance. ‘Welcome to Aratä,’ the official says.
Then we are standing in another country, alone with two small
travel bags at our feet.

Across from us the lights from a café seep onto the street. They are
warm. Advertisements for strange beers flash in neon. People walk
past with a lightness in their step. The door of the café opens and a
couple come out. They laugh and joke together. The sound of a band
floats to us. It is playing a lively tune.
“Can you dance,” I ask Daríya.
“Dance?”
“Yes. Can you dance?”
“I’m. .I’m not sure. . “
“Come, I’ll show you.”
I take her hand and we push the door open. We step into the
warmth and noise and the racing music. She smiles and looks shy.

Yes, we will lose ourselves for an hour or two. We will dance and
forget our worries. We will dance and be as we were meant to be. We
will dance as we have always danced. Dance from the beginning of
time. Dance to the end of time. We will dance in a place where people
are together and free: in a café in a port. It is a simple moment on a
journey, the simple moment lovers everywhere know. The moment
when the world becomes clear, when they have chosen what they
know they must choose.

Copyright © Peter Millington 2009

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