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on the teak coffee table, stretched out on the couch, closed her eyes and drifted back twenty-five years… “Shut the door and keep the heat out!” they all called out to the children in reflex as they’d come thundering in like a herd of baby elephants for the umpteenth time. They didn’t listen of course and were soon thundering out again, slamming the door, oblivious to the adults who simply did not exist in their childhood world of play. It should have been an Orwellian nightmare. 1984. Gadaffi’s Libya during the worst of that regime’s excesses. And yet it wasn’t. Her memories now were of dazzling white wide beaches, windsurfing, barbeques, parties. Frankie goes to Hollywood and Jane Fonda’s workout. Can you feel it, can you feel it, can you feel it? Even now these words, followed by the anticipatory pause and then the familiar beat would invoke a Pavlovian response every time she heard them. It had been almost like Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The more the state clamped down on freedom the wilder and more hedonistic their lives became. Sod you totalitarianism, we’re going to have fun! She and her husband had arrived in the early spring of that year, young, naïve and ready for adventure, her own burgeoning career on hold to accommodate his. The Year of Living Dangerously They’d even watched the video in Libya, one hot summer’s night. Mel Gibson before he’d become American, or on one disastrous occasion, ersatz Scottish. Rookie expats. She recalled her bemused encounter with a seasoned member of that ilk on the day she arrived. The woman stood framed in the doorway that first evening, elegant white understated summer dress draping her bony frame. String of simple pearls, diamond earrings matching engagement ring. The carefully applied powder mixed with perspiration only served to emphasise the criss-cross of fine lines on the crepe paper skin. “Darling, it’s just awful here,” she exclaimed, dark eyes widening, as she paused for effect, “ No servants!”
They’d arrived in late afternoon at the little compound of dirty off-white prefabricated bungalows that would be their home for a year. A metal and concrete fence separating the Europeans, both East and West she was to discover, from the natives. They’d passed some tennis courts close to the entrance and she’d noted just outside the perimeter a luxury hotel, complete with swimming pool and sun loungers, a pleasing facsimile of Western luxury and comfort, which she was to discover, was almost always empty. A façade. She found it impossible to imagine ever being able to call this place ‘home’. The 100 mile journey east along the brand new coast road from the airport at Tripoli that afternoon felt like the hazy remnant of a slightly disturbing dream. A slide show of images played through her head; countryside, sandy, but also greener than she’d expected, serried ranks of olive trees as far as the eye could see, tall swaying palm trees, sandy villages gone in a flash, substantial, single or two storey concrete villas, partially hidden behind high walls, with ornate but forbidding wrought iron gates, geometric patterns. Huddles of men dressed in white robes, women similarly attired but with heads and faces covered by the hijab. Occasional clutches of teenage soldiers in desert fatigues, casually caressing the automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, as if placating capricious lovers. Nearly all the vehicles seemed to be white too, including the ubiquitous pick up trucks, usually driven by the head of the household, one arm stretched out of the driver’s window languidly trailing a cigarette, while wife, unnumbered offspring, and the occasional goat, huddled together in the back, exposed to the hot, grimy elements like inconsequential cargo. Slowly in the days and weeks that followed she’d adjusted to her new situation. She got used to the ridiculously exotic view of the tall date palms from her kitchen window and the animated biblical tableau that greeted her every evening as she prepared dinner. The scene washed in throat-catching oranges, blood-reds and elongated shadow. Dishevelled goats in a mixture of tones, cream, brown and black, bleating in caprine musical round to the accompaniment of tinny dissonant bells. The goatherd clad in white robes, shepherd’s crook in one hand, uttering occasional guttural commands as he urged them home before sundown. And there was no greater reminder of place and the culture in which she found herself than the evocative call to prayer as it echoed through the town, haunting, as if the cry of a ghost from ages past, yet at once so much in the present, and so regular, that you could set your watch by it. The cry of the muezzin, “Allaaaaahu Akbrrr”, pause for two beats, “Allaaaaahu Akbrrr!” She adored the taste bud tingling smell of freshly baked bread wafting from the bakery next door, laughed each morning, as her young husband would return juggling a piping hot baguette for breakfast. They’d been married almost three years and he was a civil engineer. A good looking
fair-haired meat and potatoes kind of guy, practical, who didn’t say much unless it was about work, or sport, which fortunately she also enjoyed. They’d married ridiculously young, of course, but if their relationship had flaws she’d been too naive at that stage to recognise the emerging fault lines. She loved him, or looking back with mature hindsight, had been at least in love with the idea of being in love. He was the kind of man she believed she ought to be in love with. She lived in Voltaire’s ‘best of all possible worlds” and was not experienced enough in life to realise that the best of all possible worlds would turn out in the end to be distinctly average. The British company he worked for offered their expertise to the town government, and were known as the Technical Support Team , or T.S.T. She met more of her expat neighbours, fortunately none of them in any way like the brittle caricature of that first evening’s encounter. In fact, thank goodness, “I’ve been everywhere ma’am”, as she was known, left for parts unknown the very next week, somewhere presumably with servants. She was to make some lasting friendships among the expat wives, very few of whom worked in this male-dominated country. A number were English. She’d had to cross the usual barrier with one or two who inevitably asked what part of England she came from. She would watch that oh-so-familiar flicker of irritation cross their faces as she corrected them – “Scotland”. She knew they thought she was been typically Scottish, over sensitive and uber patriotic, when she was merely pointing out simple fact. After all they would have been baffled if she asked which part of Wales they were from. Once that perennial hurdle was negotiated they got on fine. Many of the families were from the Irish Republic. No one felt like suggesting that the proportionately high number of Irish families was in anyway connected with Gadaffi’s overt support for the IRA, and anyway she found the Irish open and easy going and friendly and good fun. She settled into a routine of coffee mornings and ‘going for the burn’ with Jane Fonda. Every time she saw ‘that woman’ in the present day she would first envy her bone structure and good looks, inherited from her father, and then would blame Jane entirely for the horrible state of her middle-aged knees. The majority of the other women were older than her and had children. She’d faced the usual questions about whether she intended to produce. “We’re not in any rush,” she would lie. Couldn’t they tell she was from the planet Zog just by looking at her? She indeed felt alien, forcing a jaw-cramping smile during inevitable conversations about the best month to give birth or the optimum gap between offspring. They played tennis and everyone soon discovered that she’d played the sport to a high level. This led to her being called into service as unofficial tennis coach. Word spread and her clientele soon included, Turks, Germans and Bulgarians as well as Irish and English. Friday was the Muslim day of rest so it stood to reason that Thursday night was party night. That first party. “Here you are darling. Welcome to Libya, dry as the Sahara!”
A skinny guy, mid forties, greying at the temples, attired in pink t-shirt, RELAX emblazoned across it in large black elongated letters, and excruciatingly tight jeans painted on to drainpipe legs, shoved the small glass containing clear liquid and ice into her hand with an encouraging smile. It looked like straight vodka or gin or even water. Not wanting to appear rude she took a bigger gulp than she’d intended, and immediately gagged embarrassingly. What was the stuff? She was to learn that it was called ‘Flash’, lovingly home distilled and with virtually lethal alcohol content. She felt obliged to drain the glass. He watched like an expectant puppy as she swallowed each searing mouthful. Before long the room was spinning and fading – she lurched to the front door, in urgent and absolute need of fresh air, gasped as the cold clear night hit her lungs depriving her temporarily of breath. Somehow she found the strength to haul open the compound’s heavy steel entrance gate. Then she staggered blindly - she hoped not permanently - along quiet dust and sand back roads trying to walk off the effects of the alcohol. Of course, she was in no state to remember the curfew that was always in place for God knows what reason. Control she supposed. Then without warning she tripped, crying out in shock as she landed heavily on – something. It was solid and lukewarm. She moved her limbs gingerly, momentarily relieved that she appeared uninjured, in the way of drunks, just a little numb. She felt a soft furry texture brush her mouth almost lovingly. She tried to focus. A gleaming blank lifeless eye stared back at her in the moonlight. Filling up with unspeakable gut churning horror, gagging and retching, as it dawned on her that she was sprawled across a large and very dead dog. Her piercing scream ripped through the clear sharp night. Living relatives of the deceased creature responded in kind, their mournful howls echoing back at her in tragic chorus. Without conscious thought she jumped to her feet, bounded back along the dusty road, head turning wildly this way and that, trying desperately to get her bearings. She whirled round a corner, gasping with renewed shock as she collided with a solid shape in white robes. “Shinu fe hinna!” The old man caught her in his arms, his kindly smile morphing ever so slowly into a leering toothless grin as she felt his bony hands caress slowly and deliberately over her breasts. She tugged at the thin arms, struggled to escape, finally shaking him off in disgust. She stumbled off in panic, the old haj’s pleading guttural patois slowly fading into the dark places of the night.
Eventually she found her way back to the correct bungalow, easy to pick out. In her inebriated state she imagined it actually bouncing. She entered the room struggling for breath, heart pounding alarmingly. By now the party was in full swing, a heaving mass of noisy humanity, music booming, incessant. No one was in any state to notice she’d been gone. “Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon. You come and go, you come and goooo,” segued seamlessly into the throbbing, pounding anthem that would always take her right back every time she heard it. Relax don't do it When you want to go to it Relax don’t do it When you wanna come… You gotta live those dreams Scheme those schemes Got to hit me Hit me Hit me with those laser beams… She collapsed utterly spent on some cushions scattered Libyan style in a corner of the room, the only space available, as a tall glass of lethal fruit punch was thrust into her hand. Life fell into a pretty pleasant, easy routine. The worst thing about Libya in the ‘dark days’ of the eighties was the lack of shops. In the year before they’d arrived all the little shops, the lifeblood of any town, providing colour and variety and social focus had been unceremoniously closed down. She would pass rows of boarded up, shuttered premises, a haunting echo of an entirely different place that she tried to imagine but would never know. Civilisation for locals and Europeans was on hold. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. Some edict of the Leader of the Great First of September Revolution. Shopping for essentials meant scouring the bland, poorly stocked state owned supermarkets. You could get milk, eggs, couscous, rice, pasta, chickpeas, tins of powdered spicy harissa, or butter and yoghurt past their use-by dates. Rice and sugar and flour came in large sacks and had to be sieved carefully for a surprising variety of creepy crawlies before use. One essential item that was always in plentiful supply was a product called Bio Malt – a dark yeasty, molasses-like tonic for infants, which came in large tins. If the state appointed managers of the premises wondered at its popularity they never said, just ordered more. It was of course the basic ingredient of a pretty foul home brewed beer, known to the expat community as ‘Pepsi’, for obvious reasons. For luxuries; chocolate, biscuits, ketchup, toilet roll, Tampax, all you could do was bring supplies with you, or order them from anyone going home, or to other parts of Europe on vacation. There was one oasis of local colour, the vegetable market, or
Veg Souk as it was affectionately known. Here she found a proper glimpse of ancient North African tradition, and a plentiful supply of seasonal vegetables and fruits. Local suppliers with wizened broken-toothed grins would sit cross-legged and be robed on the ground and present their wares, in a timeless fashion that had replayed in a loop over and over throughout the centuries. She and her new friends would play at haggling in minimal Arabic, although it was not really required. “Salam-alaikum” “Araba’ah?” “Hamsah!” “Hamsah?” “Aiwa” “Shukran.!” “Ma'asalam” Looking back she realised that the result of all this deprivation was a pretty healthy diet, and the added bonus of a new creativity to her cooking that would last evermore. To this day she invented dishes with the ingredients available without the need for recipes. The working day began early in Libya and was over by two, which meant that another favourite expat pastime could be indulged on a regular basis. The Beach It was vast, empty, of fine almost pure white sand, and entirely unspoilt, Backed by rolling dunes. A throwback to Mediterranean beaches before the package holiday boom. Here you could live the hedonistic western life, in skimpy bikinis and Speedos without interference from the local community. Well, occasionally she would glimpse some local youths leering from the sand dunes, but it was clear that everyone had made an unspoken decision to remain oblivious and she meekly acquiesced in the ‘omerta’. The happy band of multi-national expats would sit around in little groups, working on their perma tans, gossiping, putting the world to rights, or gently flirting, as they enjoyed bottles of ‘Pepsi’ or other fruit flavoured sodas, often fortified with a little ‘Flash’. The only ‘stain’ on the idyll the occasional jet globule of stubborn oil sticking to flip flops or bare feet, courtesy of the leviathan oil tankers on the horizon, a permanent reminder of Libya’s oil wealth. A wealth that somehow didn’t filter down to the people, although she’d heard that virtually every family now had a home and a car, a vast improvement on the past. It was not all lotus eating. The sport of choice was windsurfing, at least among the men. Her husband bought second hand equipment not long after they arrived and was soon proficient. She watched partly amused, partly annoyed as he unconsciously preened himself in front of the gorgeous golden Danish girls. She started to show an interest in the sport, edging her way between her husband and the Scandinavians – why did they have to wear the tiniest bikinis – and got him to teach her the technical
basics. Then one day she heard a troglodyte utter the words, making sure he said it loud enough for her to hear, “ No way! They can’t windsurf. Women? I’ve been here two years. Never seen one of them master it yet. Don’t have the strength.” A red rag to a bull. When her husband had finished her lesson and was sprawled on the beach with his friends as they played card games with the girls – was she imagining the men’s tongues actually hanging out? - she would drag the board and the sail out to sea. Then, having first mastered the tricky skill of climbing on to the bobbling board and somehow remaining upright, she would lean back as a counter balance and haul the tall mast and sail out of the water with a long rope that left livid burns on her palms and fingers, heaving at the rough knotted hemp with every ounce of strength until her arms were numb, fighting against the solid weight of water. She would try to anticipate that precise tipping point when the mast finally emerged from the sea, and the sail became suddenly feather-light and flapping in the breeze. At that moment she would have to quickly have to grab the boom, adjust her balance and stance and point the mast at the correct angle to catch the wind. The wind that would fill the sail and make it rigid, giving her forward momentum. Time after time after time she got it wrong, plunging backwards (and sometimes more alarmingly catapulted forwards) into the churning surf, gagging on the salty water that stung her eyes and surged painfully up her nose. But she never gave up. She tried not to panic; fighting claustrophobia, when on occasion she found herself trapped under the large sail and had to hold her breath for an excruciating length of time while she swam underwater to safety. Then one day she mastered it! Oh the thrill, the exhilaration of ploughing through the water, with a surprising speed to the shore, in control and with a new found confidence, as each wave slapped against the board in watery applause. A little knot of her friends gathered on the beach to congratulate her. Take that troglodyte! He actually had the decency to apologise and, she sheepishly admitted to herself, she enjoyed the little moment immensely. Every so often they would arrange an impromptu beach barbeque. Surreptitious booze, fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, beach volleyball - and minced meat produced from somewhere, black market, its animal of origin dubious, possibly – whisper it – camel. How many people, she wondered, could say they’d enjoyed flame grilled camel burgers? One day, around a month after they’d arrived it was barbeque time again.
A new member of the Technical Support Team had recently arrived and she’d yet to meet him. This party was in his honour, to introduce him to the gang. They’d turned up a little late and the party was already in full swing, music pounding, boisterous game of volleyball on the go. He was part of the little group of men by the barbeque, helping to serve. Her very first memory of him was of a collection of limbs, clad in fashionably short shorts. He turned round, and she could only stare as deep dark doe eyes and impossibly long dark silky lashes gazed back. Everything went into slow motion – damn it! He greeted her with a cheerful hello and she mumbled back something incoherent, painfully aware of her burning cheeks. “Oh God, how embarrassing!” She closed her gaping jaw with an effort. She’d had a weakness for the slim and doe-eyed for almost as long as she could recall. Remembered telling her sister how much she loved any boy in a children’s novel immediately he was described as ‘wiry’. Her sister had scoffed. In her sister’s view ‘wiry’ meant, feeble and soft and too thin. But in her childish imagination she saw a light, quick, lithe boy, slim and attractive with a hidden easy strength and graceful agility that was far more beguiling. God she thought - was she in love with Peter Pan? Put that in your pipe and smoke it psychologists. Well maybe just in lust, because ultimately even at a tender age Peter Pan’s refusal to grow up and face reality had irritated her immensely. She barely needed the fingers of one hand to count the number of times a man had made her forget to breathe. They were a rare breed. There had been that blond darkeyed Greek at Athens airport, on her honeymoon of all places, an Italian waiter in a restaurant in Cambridge and in younger days that French crooner who’d won the Eurovision Song Contest with a ballad of unrequited love. There had been many attractive men, who’d caught her eye, including her own husband of course, but only a tiny few of the drop dead gorgeous. He introduced himself to all as he handed out plates of food. She noticed he was having a similar effect on all the girls including the Scandinavian sirens, who were in reality very nice people; she’d had to admit it to herself through metaphorically clenched teeth. She took her laden plate carefully back to the blanket she was sharing with her husband, joined in the easy chat and laughter with friends. Every so often she felt her eyes drift unbidden to the right, surreptitious glances at a dream. He’d been commandeered by the delicious Danes - they weren’t actually feeding him pieces of food, she knew- she was just picturing it. Perfect golden blonde sirens and dark Adonis. Trouble was, she was eventually going to have to converse, even socialise with this particular Adonis, somewhat trickier than drooling from afar.
“I’ve been looking for you.” Only she hadn’t expected to have to get over that particular hurdle quite so soon. He was suddenly standing over her, which meant she had to look up the full length of his beautiful body to converse with him. “Looking for me?” she gushed stupidly, feeling sixteen again. She felt the beetroot flush surge from her neck right to the roots of her hair as she tried desperately to keep her eyes from following her mind. “Yeah, I’ve been told you’re a tennis coach. Always promised myself I’d learn to play properly one day. What do you think? Could you fit me in?” As she looked up at him she hopelessly attempted to recall the report she’d overheard on the BBC World Service that morning about pork belly futures. She found herself somehow arranging to meet up with him the very next morning and for the rest of the day she hugged that glorious knowledge to herself like a silly schoolgirl. The business of teaching him to play tennis gave her something else to concentrate on, take her mind off his stunning beauty, but even then every so often he’d give her a quizzical sideways glance or move his body in a certain way that would make her stomach lurch. She knew she laughed far too much whenever he said anything even remotely amusing, but by and large she got by. He wasn’t a natural. He held the racket like a frying pan no matter how often she tried to show him the correct grip, but what he lacked in ability he made up for in enthusiasm. Afterwards they went for coffee in the only place in town. Men with lined leather faces and squinting bleary raisin eyes sat outside in the shade intent on hookah pipes. As she entered she could feel their black eyes boring into her back, an uncovered Western woman brazenly entering an all male establishment. She hesitated, but he’d urged her on, even touching her back lightly, impersonally, in encouragement. Over tiny cups of treacly black coffee they got talking. She loved the way he looked at her with a direct intensity when talking about his passions, his innate certainty of the truth he was speaking. Her heart would do silly things when she looked at him, but at least now she had her feelings under enough control to engage in fairly normal conversation, well most of the time. It helped that he had interesting things to say. He was politically to the left of centre, like her, liberal with socialist leanings in the Western European democratic definition of that word. He had an intense hatred of injustice, man’s inhumanity to man in all its political manifestations, which she thought endearing and noble. He hated America’s ties to the military industrial complex, it’s need to retain tension with the Eastern Bloc. And he’d read Solzhenitsyn – “The Gulag Archipelago” and urged her to so the same. Soviet Communism in 1984 was in its last throws, as represented by relics of a dying era, literally in the case of Andropov and Chernenko, though nobody knew it then. This was the year of the TV movie “The Day After Tomorrow”, and the threat of nuclear
war was still very real. No one had yet heard of Gorbachev or glasnost and perestroika. Frankie goes to Hollywood would sing about it in their next hit single. “When two tribes go to war…” They found themselves in deep and animated conversation. He had a way of articulating thoughts that she had only half formed. She was aware of that uniquely satisfying sensation you get in earnest discussion with someone with whom you are in absolute agreement, a powerful feeling as if together you would have the strength to take on the world and prove to it the error of its ways. His other passion was history and he was enthusiastic about Libya’s rich Roman heritage. He had plans to visit the cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha, which rivalled anything in Italy, as soon as humanly possible. “Then of course there are the fortified farms at Ghriza”. She hadn’t heard of them. She’d read all about Lepcis Magna and was keen to visit herself but the name Ghirza was unknown to her. “I’ve a book all about it. I’ll bring it to tomorrow’s tennis lesson. You can have a look. See what you think.” “Hey”, he said, his eyes dancing happily. “Wanna see some Roman ruins right now?” She’d hardly had time to nod in agreement before he’d grabbed her hand, dropped some US dollars on the café table -he knew how to keep the owners onside – and rushed her outside. They got into his battered old car and within minutes had reached the sandy track to the beach. There was a knack to driving on it without getting stuck in mounds of soft sand that appeared in the path every so often without warning, an insidious threat to tyres and suspension, and although a newcomer, he’d already mastered this essential skill. Soon they were by the dunes above the beach, a little farther west than the usual hang out. He took her to a clearing a little way off the track above the dunes. He crouched down, and started to scrape fastidiously at the sand. The ground was hard underneath the fairly thin layer of sand. She watched his deft golden hands at work, aware of all the little hairs on the backs of them. He had beautiful hands she decided. Then he hesitated, dug his fingers deeper into the dust, delving into the small spaces in the stone just beneath the surface. Finally after some effort he eased out something small and indistinguishable that had been jammed there, grasping it carefully between forefinger and thumb, triumphant look on his face, dark eyes dancing. “This is yours,” he announced with an attempt at solemnity as he gazed into her eyes, “your own personal Roman relic”, but she could see the sparkle there that made you feel that laughter was never far away. She felt herself drawn to him and time briefly stopped. It was as if they had become an essential part of the environment in which they found themselves. The waves crashing on the shore, the warm salty air, the rush of the wind
that played with his hair, tousling it sweetly, the knot of exquisite pain in her chest, the look in his deep dark eyes all became one. Something elemental, deeper than mere physical attraction and more ancient, bound them in the moment. They had always been here and always would be, in this place without time. With an effort she turned her attention to the little object as he placed it carefully in her hand. It was made up of tiny squares of black, white and grey marble. Mosaic, a tiny part of the floor or wall of a Roman villa that had stood undisturbed on this spot for centuries, he told her. He’d heard a rumour from a local man and had discovered some of its hidden treasures for himself just a few days before. Anywhere else this item would have been catalogued and recorded and stored. Here it was treasure trove, finders keepers. She thrilled at the thought of this secret place that was in some way their very own, that the last hands to touch the mosaic apart from hers – and his – had probably been Roman. Later he dropped her off at her bungalow, reminding her to think about the trip to Ghirza, and she entered to find her husband listening to the football results on the BBC World Service, the usual Saturday afternoon ritual. He looked over and she went to sit beside him on the couch. She realised she hadn’t thought of him once all day. “Partick Thistle lost”. Well, it wasn’t surprising news, but she was suddenly aware of how like a little boy he looked as he said it. He’d probably being uttering that phrase ever since childhood too, she thought. Then she was engulfed in a heavy sickening guilt that gnawed at her gut, although she had done absolutely nothing wrong. He put an arm round her, more to comfort himself. She looked at him anew. The thick shock of fair hair atop an open pleasant face, archetypal good looks, well defined straight eyebrows on a prominent brow that shaded deep-set green eyes, tall, strong, broad shoulders. Her friends envied her, she knew. She’d been starting to take him for granted she admitted to herself and suddenly felt a powerful need to do something to win him back, although she hadn’t lost him. She entered the kitchen and raided the large fridge and the vivid orange painted cupboards for provisions. Then she laid each item carefully and deliberately on the counter, spacing them evenly as if in preparation for some obscure religious ritual. She looked at the result of her efforts. Sweet peppers from the Veg Souk, an enormous knobbly potato, no selection by size and shape here, a dented tin of tomatoes, jar of dried oregano, well squeezed tube of tomato puree, brought from home. Cheese, spicy harissa, milk, flour, butter, wholewheat pasta sheets. She’d make a sweet pepper and potato lasagne. Lasagne was his favourite. Even sieving the flour for weevils somehow became a labour of love and perhaps of atonement for her mental infidelity. When it was ready she presented the piping hot dish with a flourish and he tucked in straight away, with gusto, too distracted by the evening football match to say
anything bar a mumbled thanks. The howls of the far away crowd faded in, suddenly booming, then out again to almost a whisper on the weak signal, accompanied by jarring whines and whistles like some avant-garde symphony. She could see he was enjoying the meal, somewhere appreciated the effort she’d made. She really didn’t need to hear the words. Next day she didn’t linger after the tennis lesson, ignored the twist in her stomach at Adonis’s sudden dimpled smile. He’d handed her the book on the “Treasures of Tripolitania”, the page on the fortified farms of Ghirza marked by a careful little fold in the top corner, and she’d promised to read it. She went home in time to listen to the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race with her husband. They’d sat in the porch in anticipation, wind chimes singing in the ever-present breeze, and listened to the voices from England set the scene on the Thames, far away. Her husband was supporting Cambridge. The Light Blues’ boat managed to crash into the starter’s barge and sink before the race even began. She hoped it wasn’t some kind of omen. The trip to Ghirza began to take a coherent shape. A number of people were interested in taking part in the excursion and the event entered the planning stage. Then one morning something happened that ripped the flimsy fabric of their cocooned lives, a jolting reminder of the precariousness of their easy existence in a very foreign land. Clipped BBC tones from the World Service newsreader. “A policewoman has been shot and killed during a demonstration outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in St James’s Square, London.” She found it impossible to drag herself away from the radio. Couldn’t get enough of the news, even when in these first hours there was virtually nothing to report, the same words repeated ad nauseam until she knew all of them by heart. She found herself perversely dependent on the instrument that brought the news that might tear her happy world apart. She had become its creature and could not escape. She decided that it was like battered wife syndrome, as she clung with hopeless neediness to the very thing that brought her pain. She would carry the radio with her everywhere. Looking out of the kitchen window, even the familiar palm trees opposite, swaying in the strong wind today, seemed somehow threatening as they tossed and bent impatiently. The World Service News theme tune, Lilliburlero, would erupt on the hour, every hour, silly jaunty jig contrasting absurdly with the alarming events. One hour since the shooting of the policewoman, two hours, three… The facts were, as far as they could be ascertained, that a demonstration of Libyan dissidents had taken place that morning outside the Libyan Embassy, recently renamed with inadvertent revolutionary irony, The Libyan People’s Bureau. At some point shots had been fired directly at the crowd, from the embassy it was reported. A number had been injured and tragically a policewoman on crowd control duty, caught in the crossfire, had been killed. It was unclear exactly what had happened, and Kennedyesque conspiracy theories would abound about who fired the shots and exactly from where. There would still be debate twenty-four years later.
Over the next week and a half normal life was on hold as they waited for news. Yet, outwardly there was no ostensible change. No signs of soldiers or guns. In those early days, she’d lain awake in bed, half waiting for a knock at the door. Imagined sinister Gestapo-like disappearances in the night. Yet, the only difference she discerned was a tendency of the local Libyans to be warmer and friendlier to the Brits than ever. The men reported that as they worked surveying the land for new roads, the locals would come out more often with glasses of strong tea. Brittani quois - Brits good Then an ominous new statement started to appear on the hourly news bulletins, repeated hour after hour, day after day, like a mantra. “There are fears for the safety of the 8,000 British citizens resident in Libya.” She could imagine the reaction of her mother at home when she heard that. Yet, it didn’t fit at all with what they were seeing on the ground. Later on she decided that a ‘quote’ had been elicited from someone in officialdom. The news anchor would have asked, “Are the British inhabitants of Libya in any danger, can you tell us?” and he or she would have felt obliged to concede that their situation might be a little precarious. This had morphed Rashomon-like into stark warning. It soon became apparent that, as with the initial tragedy, the epicentre of the ensuing drama was London, thousands of miles away, and not Libya. Their little world had not been touched. A siege of the People’s Bureau ensued and it lasted eleven days until the British Government controversially agreed that all the occupants of the building could claim diplomatic immunity and leave. They were escorted from the country forthwith. Then early on the evening of that same day the BBC announced with great solemnity, “There follows a message for all British citizens currently residing in the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahariya . There will be an important announcement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be broadcast at 8pm British Summer Time”. Stunning to hear the BBC World Service speaking to them directly. The message was repeated regularly over the next few hours allowing more than adequate time for wild speculation. Then at ten pm Libyan time, everyone sat by their radios, agog. Her feelings about the whole situation had evolved in the eleven days since it’s start. She became slowly aware of a new ill-defined sensation growing within her. Suddenly she realised what it was. Despite the very real fear and uncertainty, this was utterly thrilling. The announcement.
“The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will cut off diplomatic relations with Libya at midnight tonight. British citizens of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahariya are advised to consider their position.” Unsure of exactly what this meant she followed her husband, who went outside immediately. Would they have to leave – perhaps tonight? Where would they go and how would they get there? So many questions. Others were emerging from bungalows, joining them, talking, discussing. There was an absolute necessity to be with other people, to group together as some sort of instinctive defence against an unseen and unimaginable menace. Form the wagons in a circle. She felt as if the ground was slipping away beneath her feet, no solidity, nothing to hold on to. She hugged herself, shivered uncontrollably with something that, yes, she knew for sure was fear, but within it too, a little seed of excitement growing. She wondered if any of the others felt the same, or if it was just her? It was very immature of her, she knew, but she felt more than anything that they were starring in their very own movie. That nothing was real. That she was invincible. Was her reaction just some kind of primeval defence mechanism in the face of a clear and present danger? Adrenalin. Fight or flight? Did heroes feel the same way just before they rushed headlong into acts of foolhardy derring do, she wondered? Was that all it was? Some chemicals in the brain roused by ancient memory? Or was it just that her only experience was of a life so bedded in security, with no inkling of real terror or knowledge of tragedy, that she was unable to grasp the reality of it? Everything would work out in the end because it always had so far. After all she’d always been taught and believed without question that she would be cared for in times of trouble by a beneficent God. She had yet to subscribe to the view that God or no God, she stood on a tiny planet spinning out of control in the vastness of space, in a life that could change utterly, or even be snuffed out on a capricious whim. She found herself staring at the diamond stars that pierced the cloudless night sky, then at the deep blackness surrounding them. She was a child again as she tried to imagine, convince herself, that the inky velvet darkness was softly, cosily, cushioning the stars, protecting them and holding them secure, as if in loving arms. She searched for the texture and mass that her brain told her must be there, daring to look deeper and deeper into the blackness until her stomach lurched as the truth became inescapable. She was peering into a void. Nothingness. She suddenly felt very far from home. Then the leader of the British section of the Technical Support Team urged everyone into his bungalow. He told them the stark news. Earlier that day he told them earnestly he had withdrawn all the company money from the bank in town. He asked everyone to pack; absolute essentials only, fill up their cars with petrol and await further instructions. If the call came they would immediately form a convoy of cars
and make for the Tunisian border, several hours drive away. Strangely, as she looked at his kindly, solemn face, she had to fight the urge burst into uncontrollable, utterly inappropriate fits of giggles. That night as her husband snored peacefully beside her she lay wide awake, thoughts galloping. She tried to imagine driving to Tunisia in the dead of night. Would there be roadblocks? Would men with guns threaten them? Arrest them perhaps? Toss them into some stinking, fetid prison, to be forgotten or bargained for. Or would they make it safely over the border? If they were not allowed to take their Libyan cars across the border, would they have to march to safety on foot? Would she feel the urge to sing “Climb Every Mountain” like some wildly inaccurate desert-based incarnation of Julie Andrews? She felt hysteria rising again. Then she thought, soberly, that it would be particularly difficult for the families with kids. Her ears strained, all senses heightened, at full alert, in anticipation of the knock at the door that would tell them it was time to leave. It never came. The next day dawned bright and clear and the wind had died to a dusty swirling breeze. Her husband had gone off to work as normal and she spent the morning either pacing the floor or checking for the umpteenth time that they had packed all the essentials. The phone lines were temporarily down, which meant it was impossible to contact anxious relatives at home to reassure them. She knew guiltily that it was far worse for them. It had been impossible to find the words to convince them, to make them understand or believe that so far they were ok, and not about to by lynched by the local populace. She waited, counting the minutes, then the hours, for her husband to return. Finally she heard his key in the lock at the usual time, around half past two. She was aware of a strong steady pulsing in her throat. “We’re staying,” he announced a little flatly. Had he been hoping somewhere for the “Escape to Tunisia” adventure too, she wondered? “Why? What happened? Don’t we have to leave?” It turned out the Libyan bosses in the town council (Baladiya) had gathered the men together in a room that morning for a special meeting. The atmosphere amongst the British workers was tense, and filled with uncertainty. These Libyans were different from the people she saw in her daily life. They were westernised, smooth, wore business suits. From what she’d heard they attended a lot of meetings, talked for hours on the phone and drank a lot of tea, ostensibly in charge, while the foreign workers got on with things. But they had smiled and offered all the Brits glasses of the usual
pungent cloying sweet tea and then asked them simply to stay. The quarrel was between governments not the people. The people were their friends. They were completely safe. End of story. So was that it? Was the drama over? She realised guiltily that it felt like an anti climax. The big adventure that wasn’t. Everyone was edgy and nobody felt like staying home or sitting still. There was a need to let off steam, so they did, and how. The result was the infamous “Day we cut of Diplomatic Relations” party. It started on the beach. Lots of photos were taken to show relatives at home the hell they were living under. White sand, beach volleyball, windsurfing, loud music, illegal alcohol, the pungent unmistakable odour of pot mingling in the air with the salty sea breeze. After all it was North Africa. The other nationalities were only too happy to join in as honorary British citizens for the day. Somehow she had the feeling this type of event was not the sort of item that would turn up on British news reports. It was as if both sides in the dispute had an agreed script, both equally complicit in corroborating the quasi-fiction. There was a certain view of the world that the benign but innately prejudiced majority of the people back home expected and understood, and it was the purpose of the news media to confirm, uphold and perpetuate that view. Nobody seemed to care that yet again truth was the first casualty of war, or in this case cold war. It was at this time that her unshakeable belief in the grand old dependable Beeb, as the BBC was affectionately known, began to falter. After all she had the proof. A few days earlier foreign correspondents had reported the dramatic news that the British Embassy in Tripoli had been surrounded by troops. Quite sinister stuff, until friends who lived there explained the reality. The troops had indeed surrounded the Embassy while the cameras were rolling, but pretty much as soon as the reporters left the troops departed, leaving a couple of bored guys smoking by the gates. You could say it made her cynical, but from that day on she took every news report with a very large pinch of salt. A few days after the severing of diplomatic ties, and after the wives of the British diplomats had been filmed defiantly singing “Land of Hope and Glory”, as they were marched up to the plane at Tripoli Airport – that was shown on the news - the Technical Support Team would receive an interesting letter from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which, when translated from government-speak stated, “We will need to act as expected and make public statements decrying the Libyan regime, but in the meantime you are perfectly safe, so could you all be good chaps and carry on earning export dollars for Blighty.” The beach party morphed seamlessly into a house party. In a semi-stoned fit of generosity she’d asked everyone back to their place. It turned out to be one of the wildest, most hedonistic there would be, at least the parts of it she could remember.
The doctors’ surgery in town was run by Eastern Europeans who notoriously over prescribed. She would find this out for herself some months later when she suffered from a kidney infection and was sent away with enough painkillers to fell a small horse. The result of this generosity was an unlimited supply of spare pills for recreational use. They became a welcome addition at parties. The events of that night would become a series of blurred images. A fight broke out at one point and she remembered foolishly getting between the burly protagonists, pleading with them to stop. She distinctly remembered some people leaving by the tiny bathroom window for some unfathomable reason, which presumably made perfect sense at the time. Later, or was it earlier, a rugby ball had appeared from somewhere and there had been an impromptu indoor match, in which she’d briefly participated, until the fashionable large round paper shade in the living room was ripped to shreds and the light bulb smashed. The pills mixed with Flash made lots of people really ill. Both bedrooms were in almost total darkness, give or take little shafts of moonlight leering through the slats in the blinds, revealing the ever-changing stream of dubious couplings. She’d stumbled in there drunkenly a number of times in search of respite, only to withdraw immediately in haste. And, oh my God, at some point he had arrived – her Adonis. He lived in an apartment in town, rather than in a bungalow in the compound. He’d not been at the beach, but when he’d turned up at the door, stunningly beautiful as ever, her heart had leapt and she’d welcomed him with open arms, literally and a little too loudly. She remembered making a sterling effort to sober up; her urgent need to remain classy in his eyes. Some point later that night she’d danced with him. Just a friendly gesture on his part, she was sure. Yet, next day she remembered the feeling of his cool hands gently resting on her back, only the thin fabric of her white blouse between him and her skin, the touch of his fingers as he brushed stray strands of hair from her face. The look on his face as he gazed briefly but directly at her, liquid eyes seeming to melt into hers for a moment. Finally wrapped in each other’s arms, her head on his shoulder, the feel of his heartbeat, strong against her breast. She remembered that. Lionel Ritchie sang. I've been alone with you inside my mind And in my dreams I've kissed your lips, a thousand times I sometimes see you pass outside my door Hello, is it me you're looking for? His behaviour had been affectionate and warm, but entirely seemly and decent, and he’d gone off home soon after. Oh yes, she would have remembered if it had been otherwise. His gentlemanly conduct and inherent refusal to take advantage of her drunken vulnerability cleaved her to him even more. Perhaps too, he guessed the complications that might have arisen had he stayed. At least, she secretly hugged the hope of that to her heart. Oh God, she had it bad. She’d reached the stage where all the songs, especially the cheesy ones, had meaning.
Within a couple of days Ghirza was back on the agenda. “ Sixteen of us. Dave’s coming too – and Helen. They got a baby sitter.” “It’s no trip for kids.” “We’ll go in four cars. Hamid, d’you know him? He said he’ll be our translator. Could be roadblocks. That guy could talk his way out of a paper bag.” They were in the café again and he held her gaze intently, his eyes suggesting that merest hint of amusement in the way they always did, as he chatted happily about the trip, only two days away now. She was caught up in his sheer enthusiasm for the place they were about to visit. She’d read all about Ghriza. 150 miles south east of Tripoli, and around 50 miles from their little home from home. In the 4th century Tripolitania took in all of Libya and some of southern Tunisia and was still part of the Roman Empire. The fortified farms were the biggest and best-preserved sites of their type. The soldier farmers were native Libyans, prosperous Berbers, who’d happily assimilated the Roman way of life, even taking partial Roman names. They’d farmed the barren scrub of the ‘pre desert’, carefully utilising the meagre flow from two wadis, always prepared for the threat of attack from tribesmen from the south. Ghirza was an astounding place he’d enthused. She could see him picturing it in his mind as he told her, eyes alight and gut wrenchingly beautiful. Southernmost outpost of the Roman Empire. Around thirty-eight buildings give or take, set in the middle of nowhere, some of them over 7 metres high, wooden door lintels still survived on some buildings. And as for the tombs, he was looking forward to seeing those most of all. Preserved virtually intact in the arid conditions, in a way she’d have to see to believe. Classical style, clean lines in the Greco-Roman tradition. No reconstruction here like you got in Pompeii or Herculaneum. It truly would be like going back in time. He particularly wanted to visit the tomb of Marchius Chullam. It was beautiful he explained eyes dancing. He was gonna go in there and say hi. She found herself somehow all at once caught up in the beauty of him and the excitement of the trip into the desert. Her heart suddenly soared. She felt light as a feather as if she could leave the café and glide off into the air, over the dusty road and the houses and the olive trees without any effort. Was this the reason she suddenly grasped hold of his hand? He didn’t let go. He dropped his gaze to where their hands lay; locked together on the chipped turquoise Formica table, fly buzzing lazily around them, the scene mottled by shafts of intermittent sunlight that squeezed through the slatted blinds. Then slowly he raised his eyes to meet hers, entirely serious for once. They sat like that for God knows how long. Looking at him like that, eyes locked, gaze never wavering, it hit her with sudden certainty that she knew him like no other, not her parents or her siblings, not her best friends, not even, God help her, her husband, sitting at home contented and
oblivious, listening to the cricket. His face almost entirely in shade now, brown eyes gleaming black in the low light. She saw the long silky lashes framing them exquisitely. “Windows to the soul” an over used expression, but entirely appropriate now, at this moment, for she could see his soul and knew that it was her soul too. “What are we going to do about this?” He was first to break the thick heavy silence. “I..I don’t know.” When she got home her husband was waiting for her impatiently, so she had no time to feel guilty. He had news to impart. “Tom’s asked us up to Tripoli on Friday.” “This Friday?” “There’s a football match. You know, against those Libyan guys I told you about, the pilots who trained in Perthshire? Well, the Brits want me as striker. Tom practically begged me. It’s a big deal for them. And remember it’s Seona’s party after, her thirtieth. I couldn’t say no, could I?” “I said you’d be coming too,” he added before she could interrupt. He moved up close to her in that way she recognised so well, arms encircling her, little boy look that always got to her, brushing his lips over her ear, kissing her cheek, expecting her to concede as she usually did. She pushed him away, felt the usual annoying tears, too readily pricking at her eyes, stinging them. She made a sterling effort to hold them back, not wanting to appear weak or needy. “It’s the Ghirza trip on Friday.” She could hear the bleating plea in her own voice. “We can go there another time. Look, it’s been there all these centuries. It’s not going to go away, is it?” He was being patronising, making her feel small and stupid. Yet somewhere she also knew though he’d never admit it that he did need her to be there with him, cheering from the sidelines. Wasn’t that her duty as his wife? It was what he seemed to be inferring, and she wondered guiltily if he was right. Why was he incapable of understanding just how important this trip was to her? She knew he thought it was just a pile of old stones in the desert. At that moment it felt to her like the most important thing she would ever do in her life. And oh God, she thought with sudden gut-wrenching guilt, it wasn’t really about the desert and the buildings and the tombs at all, much as she longed to see them. “Ok, I told Jeff too, we’re both coming to Tripoli,” he stated with calm finality.
It was as if the scales had been removed from her eyes, and she was furious. She saw the accumulation of his many little acts of casual thoughtlessness, his innate selfishness, his absolute expectance of her acquiescence. She could feel that oh so familiar sudden surging flash of anger that she wished she could learn to control. Her next words were a stream of tearful invective and stinging barbs, so engulfed was she by a sense of injustice. Then, as her hot anger discharged then subsided and died, as it always did pretty quickly, a little thought then echoed back at her. In her heightened emotional state was she instinctively manipulating the situation? Why couldn’t she just calmly tell him she was obliged to go on the Ghriza trip? Have a rational, civilised conversation with him. He hardly ever raised his voice; chances were if she’d kept calm he’d have acquiesced relatively easily. Was she unconsciously forcing disharmony, moving all the blame on him, making him out to be the bad guy, in attempt to assuage her guilt when, after all he couldn’t possibly be aware of the undercurrents? She knew him well enough, had argued with him often enough to know he genuinely thought he was being perfectly logical and reasonable. But, oh his patronising certainty and unthinking lack of understanding of her needs and interests sometimes did annoy her so. With her next words she made the utmost effort to keep her voice level. Her selfish side needed to get back on the front foot. Her fair, rational self knew the importance of reverting to civility, to keep emotion in check, to salvage some vestige of dignity. She was not sure that she succeeded. “Well, you’ll just have to go on your own, I’ve promised Helen and…everyone. I .. I can’t change my mind at the last minute. That would be unreasonable. Anyway, I’ve already spoken to Seona about her birthday. She’s completely cool with it. She understands,” she added pointedly, oh God, unable to help the jibe. “I’m going to Ghirza!” She pushed her hands behind her back as, to her annoyance, they’d started to shake. *** Beneath a piercing azure canopy, the landscape was entirely flat, the two lane road a black line stretching off into the shimmering haze; arrow straight, for all the world as if someone had drawn it with a ruler, which, when she thought about it they probably had, behind some shaded window in town. No need to curve and wind it around hills and mountains as they did back home. As she watched it fade and melt in the distance she whimsically imagined them coming to a sticky halt when they finally reached the tarry liquid mess on the horizon. A mirage; reminding her that they would soon be driving in actual desert. She sat in the passenger seat of the final car in the convoy. He was driving, her Adonis, and in the back were throwback hippies, Dave and Helen, jovial and joking as
ever. Pleasant travelling companions, although of course she wished it could have been just him. She felt excitement yet also a deep contentment in each moment, as they passed quiet villages, dusty hamlets, populated more by scruffy goats it seemed than people, where the heavy silence of a rare still morning was broken only by the sudden staccato call to prayer resonating from a tall minaret. In between little groves of date palms bordered the road at irregular intervals providing a welcome respite from the interminable regimented rows of olive trees. Eventually all signs of human existence petered out as the landscape slowly turned to dust and sparse scrub, dwarf bushes clinging stubbornly, and occasional boulders and outcrops of rock. This was the farthest she’d ever been from the coast and before long she realised the arid sandy landscape spread around them for miles in all directions, the liquorice road the only sign of man’s intervention in this lonely land. This was she presumed what the guidebooks meant by ‘pre desert’. It certainly wasn’t the desert of her imagination, Lawrence of Arabia galloping past high dunes of soft fine sand. It reminded her more than anything of the first colour pictures she’d seen a few years earlier of a Martian landscape. Then the tarmac road stopped. Dead. There was nothing around them, literally nothing, but desert. The convoy of assorted cars ground to a halt. Even the guide Hamid in the lead car, who’d got them through the one road block they’d encountered just out of town with aplomb, was stumped. They consulted the map, which showed a thin dotted line from where they’d stopped all the way to Wadi Zem Zem and Ghirza, but they could see no trace of even a rough track in the real world. They’d counted on there being one. A couple of the guys walked onto the hard sandy ground and strode out for about fifty yards or so, then returned. They reported seeing tyre tracks, but they were crisscrossed in so many directions that there was no indication of the correct way to go. No one had thought to bring a compass. To set out blindly into the desert as they approached the hottest time of the day would be suicide. Was that it? Had all their plans come to nothing? She could have wept. Everyone had got out of the cars, as if somehow they needed to make a show of doing something. Her companion put a comforting arm around her, just briefly, consolingly. She stood close beside him as they leaned on dusty car sipping at bottles of water, while their back seat passengers wandered back off down the road revealing signs of an unexpected impatience given their normally laidback outlook. They heard Dave shout out something indistinguishable. Then followed where he was pointing to a tiny dot on the shimmering horizon back along the road they’d just travelled. Maybe this was an actual mirage? No, it was getting closer and very gradually but progressively bigger. She was immediately reminded of that famous scene with Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s ‘North by North West’, when he’s waiting by the lonely Midwest highway for the elusive George Kaplan and watches as a car
approaches slowly from the distance, in real time. But there was no cornfield to run into here, if the occupants of the vehicle turned out to be unfriendly. They were totally exposed in this barren flat landscape. They all watched transfixed as the car got nearer, listening to the buzz-saw of its ancient engine roar ever louder as it approached their little group. Finally the car stopped to the harsh sound of the handbrake being pulled a little too firmly. Then they witnessed a surreal little scene as it played out in front of them. Two men in western business attire got out, the desert backdrop as their set. One was the driver who was shaking hands with the passenger, then hugging him as if in farewell. The passenger was a dapper little man, dressed in a neat short grey raincoat over a clean white shirt and black tie, perspiring only slightly in the growing heat of the morning sun. He carried a small battered brown suit case. She felt for all the world as if she was watching experimental theatre, and was too obtuse to grasp the deeply significant message the director was attempting to convey. It turned out this quiet spoken little man was to be their saviour. He was a Bedouin, on the way back to his home – in the desert – of course. He had a short and urgent conversation in Arabic with Hamid, who then turned to the group, now all agog. The Bedouin had agreed to show them the way to Wadi Zem Zem in return for a lift. If they could just drop him off at home, that would be very kind. It would save his brother the trip. So, hardly able to believe the strange turn of events, they all piled into the cars again, started up engines and headed into the desert. Before setting off her particular driver gave her a secret little half smile in anticipation of the adventure to come that made her heart turn over. It turned out it wasn’t nearly as tricky to navigate as they’d thought. The Bedouin had pointed out a black oil drum away on the horizon. All you had to do he’d explained was follow the oil drums. From then on the journey was fun, for the human adventurers if not for the cars, old battered two-wheel drives that creaked and squeaked over the bumps no matter how careful the driver. Still she thrilled at the thought of heading into the unknown, travelling in an utterly alien landscape. Her heart was thumping and she had to admit she didn’t feel entirely safe until she glanced at the driver, his face frowningly intent on the road ahead, and she realised with a jolt that had nothing to do with the bumpy terrain. A truth; that no matter how far from the familiar she found herself she would always be at home with him. Before long they saw the outline of something dark on the horizon that wasn’t an oil drum. It was the larger asymmetric shape of a grove of date palms. As they approached Wadi Zem Zem, as well as the palm trees they could see more evidence of greenery and growth. They’d found a sweet, welcoming little oasis. They parked the cars up beside the river valley, no water in the wadi of course, but the evidence of it’s beneficence was all around them displayed in all its glorious greenery. The Bedouin took his leave, shaking everyone’s hand in formal Arabic style. At first she was perplexed. Where on earth was he going? Then she looked further along the valley to
the north a saw a huddled row of roomy black tents, dromedaries tethered outside. He was home. They decided as one, without the need for discussion, not to approach the tents, all feeling instinctively, despite their new friend’s western attire, that it would be inappropriate and in poor taste to approach in decadent shorts and tee shirts. She felt herself that to do so would sully and somehow dilute an ancient culture. Just as he left them, having accepted their profuse thanks and some very welcome US dollars, which he said he would spend on his family, the Bedouin pointed to a large rocky outcrop. “Shuf!” She was uncertain what he meant, but they all set off round the rocks, her companion grasping her hand and briefly squeezing it as they did so. There it was, better than she could ever have pictured it – Ghirza. Her first impression was of a solid rambling village. In fact it looked a far more suitable place of habitation to her Western eyes than a row of tents. She half expected people to come out and greet them with glasses of strong tea, so well preserved and in the now did everything look. And beyond the village to the south, nothing but Sahara for hundreds of miles. The thought of it brought a catch to her throat. She glanced at her dear companion and the kindred look of wonder she would always remember seeing in his face made her heart soar still, as she recalled the moment across the years. Her older self wondered if it was then that she first became aware of the direct link between his happiness and hers. As they moved closer she realised that the village wasn’t quite as habitable as she’d first believed. Some of the fortified farm buildings were tumbling into ruin, partial roofs, parts of walls missing, piles of strangely modern looking rust coloured bricks in their stead. But in general it remained remarkably preserved. What excited her most as he’d predicted, was the cemetery. Here they came across the spectacular monumental temple tombs. They were entirely intact, just as people had left them centuries back. According to the guidebook, Ghirza had been abandoned in the Middle Ages and left to the desert and no one had thought to disturb it. No signs of looting. She adored these pleasing square classical, columned structures as he had said she would, despite their association with death. Rather they seemed a celebration of life. In particular she loved the freezes round the tops of the temples, relief sculpture that was as charming as it was naïve. They sweetly depicted daily life for the late inhabitants of Ghirza. Her Adonis happily pointed out some of the friezes they’d studied in the guidebook. Farmers driving ploughs, carrying the fruits of their labours, someone handing a gift to a friend, another comforting a child, a man plunging a spear into a wild animal of unclear origin and yes, some warlike images were also on view. Farmers determined to protect their livelihoods and their families.
Above all she felt the reality of these people. It was as if the barriers had broken down and she saw time for the fiction that it was. She felt she could almost reach out and touch the late inhabitants of Ghirza. These were not remote unbelievable iconic representatives of an ancient civilisation. In life they had been solid, real souls, prosperous and successful yes, able to afford grand burial grounds, but they were also frail, vulnerable fellow human beings, clinging to the planet as precariously as the rest of us, in a way she was just beginning to comprehend, and she felt a kinship with them that she knew he shared without the need for words. They hadn’t yet discovered the temple belonging to Marchius Chullam. It was now time for a picnic lunch back at the oasis and a welcome rest from the harsh yellow early afternoon sun. Afterwards a handful of people wandered off in little groups to explore. She watched as they returned a short while later. Most were content to remain in the shade during the hottest part of the day, dozing, reading or smoking. It was around then that he asked her to come with him to look properly for the tomb of Marchius Chullam. She followed him willingly. He had gone a little ahead up to the rocks and she walked behind them, forgetting to breathe for a moment or two, as she watched the exquisite way he moved, slim hipped and lithe and easy and relaxed. She caught up with him and they rounded the outcrop. Once he knew they were out of sight of the others he took her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it softly, almost shyly. As they walked past the deserted village in the heat she found it easy to imagine that they were the only people in a world out of time. No such thing as responsibility or worry or guilt. It took some time, then he found it, the tomb he’d come to see, Marchius’s name inscribed in the stone lintel. The examined the external frieze for a while, a poignant timeline of Marchius’s life, and then he let go of her hand and entered the dark interior. He turned to her just before doing so. “Come and say hi to Marchius”, he invited her, and the look he gave her as he said it made her melt. She let him enter alone. She stared at the threshold of the dark mausoleum, in reality for a few brief seconds, but it felt like a lifetime; heart thumping in her throat, certain in the knowledge that the thin dividing line between inside and out was her own personal Rubicon. A vast surging river in full spate. The opposite bank hazy, its reality impossible to distinguish. To this side in the searing sun was safety, security, boredom, yearning and disappointment. On the other side, what? Dare she take to the flimsy raft, grasp the paddle and attempt to row across. She didn’t know whether to praise or blame the classical education that allowed those rambling metaphors to spring so easily to mind. Ok, there was not a lot that could happen physically in that small dark area. After all they could be disturbed at any moment. It was what it represented. Symbolism was all. For now they could ascribe to the fiction that this was just a mutual crush, fun,
frivolous and a little silly, although deep down they both knew it had moved way beyond and far deeper than that. But to take those few small steps would mean everything would change utterly, no chance of going back, ever. She would be guilty in deed as well as thought. Would it even spoil the tentative beautiful thing that was growing between them if it became mired in secrecy and deceit? She felt that the world had frozen in the moment. Some higher power had set the pause button, in an effort to give her more time to decide. She looked down at her Roman sandals. Stared at them as if she didn’t know what they were. Alien creatures no part of her. Then she watched detached as they started to move slowly forwards, some unseen primeval force pulling her feet towards the threshold and she knew then she had no will left to refuse them. They were in control, she merely following and for what purpose? Lust? Passion? Or true love without preset boundaries or limits or compromise? Then again, maybe he did just want to show her the inside of Marchius’s tomb? But no, the look on his face just before he entered had been unequivocal and unambiguous. He wanted her just as much as she wanted him. She entered. “There you are,” he said, the hint of laughter in his voice as ever, but when she looked into the dark eyes she could see he was serious. He tentatively touched her cheek and she put a finger to his lips. He took it and kissed it, then brushed her hair from her face, continuing to move his hand softly through her hair. Suddenly they were in each other’s arms holding tight as if afraid to ever let go. She felt all the contours of his beautiful body crushed against hers. Oh, it was beyond wonderful! They kissed with a passion and a joy she had never felt before, and she imagined them rising up as the world disappeared. It was as if at last in that ancient holy place, they had followed Marchius to paradise. The phone suddenly rang back in the 21st century, harsh and dissonant, breaking the spell. Her heart was pounding in shock, so engrossed had she been in memory. She struggled to her feet in the near darkness and stumbled over to answer it before it went to the machine. One knee cracked ominously. Thanks Jane! It was her elder daughter calling from England, where she was about to graduate from a prestigious university. She had a long list of items she wanted her mother to bring when she came down. It was some time before she was able to lie back on the couch again, and return to her reverie. The battered old Audi swerved to avoid the deep gash in the ground, screeched and groaned as the handsome young driver braked sharply, found second gear, rammed his foot on the gas and the car roared, seemed to rear up then surged on again. They were on the journey back to the tarmac road, following the trail of oil drum way markers, this time no thought of care as the cars bounced and dipped over the semidesert, that had now become their vast personal playground. Stones pinged up on the underside of the vehicle and every so often they would skid on a softer stretch of sand. She giggled helplessly like a child, as the car leapt over the bumps and pot holes that scarred the terrain. Couldn’t remember when she’d last felt so free, so damn
happy. The convoy was no longer a convoy but had spread out across the dust in a wide arc, as they raced each other, the next black oil drum a substitute chequered flag. Often their car would get perilously close to the vehicle beside them. One time she rolled down the window and started tossing stale pieces of crust at the dark blue car just a few feet from her. The occupants of the Fiat returned fire with pieces of orange and other indistinguishable fruits. Dave and Helen in the back joined in the food fight and till everyone was doubled up, weak with laughter, including, worryingly, the driver. She hoped that hardy wandering desert creatures encountering the strange scattered crumbs would enjoy the surprise bounty. The driver flashed a warm, secret smile at her, so sudden and so beautiful that she imagined herself blasted back by the physical force of it. She returned the smile in kind, and knew she was in paradise. She felt like singing out loud in sheer delight. No thought of tomorrow or yesterday because, you know, for now they didn’t exist. All that mattered was this time and this place and oh, it was wonderful! She took a deep breath and warbled the first familiar notes of an old favourite. Soon they were all joining in a very loud, joyful cat’s chorus parody of Don MacLean’s iconic “American Pie”… …drove my Audi to the wadi but the wadi was dry Them good ole boys are drinkin’ Pepsi and chai And singing this’ll be the day that I die, This’ll be the day that I die The car bounced and squealed in accompaniment. Eventually everyone quietened down. She sat back content, absorbing the atmosphere and the remains of the day, determined to drink in the last minutes in the desert, knowing they would soon be at the tarmac road again. The car didn’t have air conditioning and the late afternoon was heavy and hot. When she glanced up at the sun she noticed it was partially obscured now by a yellow haze. In fact, she realised a little alarmed, the sky had darkened considerably. Here and there the dust was forming devilish little whirling clouds, dotting the landscape surrounding them, the view ahead turning increasingly to dirty dark yellow-orange fog. The wind seemed to be strengthening by the second until the sand was swirling fiercely, angrily around the car. Ghibli! She always thought if someone had bothered to give a wind a name then you knew it meant business. Sirocco, Meltemi, Mistral. To go to the trouble of naming it meant that human kind were awe of that wind, respected its force, feared it, revered it and worshipped it like some vengeful pagan
god, quick to anger, who could beat them down, extinguish their puny existence at will. Ghibli was the Libyan name for the Sirocco, the hot wind from the Sahara that blew up quickly and unexpectedly. She’d experienced a few that spring, but always from within the comfort of the bungalow. You just didn’t venture out in a Ghibli. Yet here they were at the mercy of the open desert, about to be ravaged by one of the Sahara’s legendary sandstorms. The cars formed into close convoy again as best they could, afraid to lose sight of each other in the gathering gloom. That phrase “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face” sprang to mind. She felt every muscle in her body tense and strain, her jaw locked tight, teeth grinding as she prayed for the tarmac road. They reached it within a few minutes, but of course it was a false comfort, it’s solidity and precision a façade, in reality a symbol of frail human kind’s futile attempt to tame the wilderness. For they were surrounded by desert still, on all sides, several miles from the nearest human settlement, the first hope of sanctuary or succour, utterly exposed and at the mercy of Nature. Then came the hailstones. Sudden and fierce and angry, bigger than any she’d ever seen. She’d heard stories of them killing goats. The drivers had no choice but to halt and switch off engines. She grabbed his hand, held it tight on her thigh, then he put an arm round her shoulder and hugged her to him as the wind howled and roared banshee-like and the ice stones thundered on the windscreen and roof of the car, hammering like some multi-fisted malign spirit demanding entry. She shut her eyes, burying her face in his chest, and experienced a rare raw fear, praying for salvation as the car rocked ferociously, clinging to him for solace. Oh God please don’t let the words of ‘American Pie' turn out to be prophecy. How bizarre that what she had so recently thought paradise should turn so quickly and unequivocally into hell. How much worse it would have been if he hadn’t been there, her love. How she clung to the hope of him. There followed a long slow terrifying half hour until, thankfully the hailstones stopped pounding the car, and the wind died down to a swirling gale. They could at last see the road ahead of them for about 20 yards or so, give or take. The driver of the lead car got out, staggering back at first as the force of the gale hit him, then he stumbled to each driver in turn, a towel wrapped around his head and face Keffiyehlike for protection. It was time to move on. Had the engines survived the storm? There was a real danger that would have become clogged with destructive devouring abrasive sand. Miracle of miracles each engine fired up and they started off again, tentatively, staying in close formation, prepared for the return of the storm at any time. They made it safely to the first hamlet, no more than a scattering of dwellings rising naturally from the scrub, scarred with blown sand from the recent storm. They were shaken and a little subdued but otherwise ok, and kept moving on, gaining in confidence as the wind died to no more than a petulant breeze. She would glance over at him from time to time, her eyes drawn to his mouth. She would look at the strong straight line of his bottom lip and be filled with an overwhelming urge to kiss it. They drove on for several miles until they were stopped at the roadblock they had first
encountered that morning. It felt to her like several lifetimes ago. As they drew to a halt Hamid was already out of the lead car talking to the elder of the two soldiers on duty. The men dipped their heads at each car in turn, checking on passengers. Their car was next. The ever-willing Hamid quickly translated the guttural North African dialect. “You!” Pointing at their driver. “Why do have three women in the car?” Three women? Her beautiful driver shook his head and looked perplexed. The soldier pointed at the back of the car, speaking in strongly accented English this time. “Three women.” She had to stifle a guffaw as she realised the mistake. The soldier had mistaken hippy boy Dave lurking in the shadows in the back, long blond hair draping his shoulders, for a woman. Helen nudged him in sly delight. Dave tossed back his blond locks, then slouched further into his seat, throwing his wife a mock peeved look. Hamid tried to explain. But the soldier was not finished yet. He told them all to get out of the car. The laughter died. The boy soldier stood to one side, weapon slung over his shoulder in the usual way. She watched surreptitiously as he took hold of it, still casual, but with one hand clearly on the trigger. She’d never come across this before. She was suddenly overwhelmed by a perverse compulsion to run, knowing that if she did so she would be raked with reflex bullets. It was a kind of OCD thing that she’d felt before when she became acutely aware that death was a hair’s breadth away and within her grasp. She used to get the same way on the narrow platform of the Glasgow subway, sensing an almost overwhelming urge to throw herself in front of the oncoming train. A strange, heightened awareness of the sudden stark choice of life or death. A kind of hysteria she supposed. Then again in English from the older soldier. “Is this your wife?” “Pardon?” “It is a simple question, my friend. Is this your wife?" The soldier jabbed a stubby finger in her direction for all the world as if she were a prize goat. “Yes,” he replied quickly and quietly. She was shocked to hear him say the words. He had obviously decided to take the path of least resistance. “She is your wife.” It was a statement.
“Yes”, he repeated the word, calm and confident this time. “Where are you’re papers? I need to see your papers. Papers please!” She felt the wash of physical fear as it surged through her body. She had her passport stamped with the Libyan entry visa in the handbag hanging over her shoulder. She could feel the edge of it digging into her side, nudging her, needlessly reminding her of its presence. The truth would be revealed. He was with a woman not his wife. He had lied to the authorities. She could feel the bile rising to her throat. Hamid spoke urgently into the soldier’s ear, guttural Arabic. What was that? What was he saying? She watched the boy soldier stroke his weapon unconsciously, faintest of smiles playing at his lips. She tried to look casual, a difficult thing to do as her breathing became shallow and too fast, making her head spin. For a moment the scene froze. A strange tableau the little group made, desert and scrub backdrop, dusty restless wind moaning once more in discontent as it played with clothes and hair. She could hear the seconds of their lives ticking as they passed. Tick tick tick. Then she saw some US dollars pass between the men, quickly and discreetly. The older soldier smiled suddenly and incongruously, a wide grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes, revealing the usual dubious dental work. He urged them quickly into the car again, almost shoving them in. They were only too happy to oblige. Engines fired up thankfully and the convoy drove off. No one dared to look back. The rest of the journey passed without mishap. Soon they were back in town and everyone hugged in farewell. Her husband was staying in Tripoli that night and would not return until the next evening. “Come back to my place.” He said it so softly with an expression on his face that was impossible to resist. Truth be told, after the events of the day she was afraid to be alone tonight. She needed him and oh how she wanted him. Then she paused, the earlier scene flitting through her mind.
“Is she your wife?” “Yes.” The first lie. And when her husband got back there would be the second lie, and then a waterfall of lies cascading down drenching and ruining a beautiful tentative thing. Her thoughts were in turmoil. She thought back to the marriage vows she’d made just over three years ago. She’d meant them with all her heart and they were vows after all, solemn promises made before God and the law, not something to be carelessly discarded the moment you found something better. “Forsaking all others” No she didn’t have it in her to break these, no matter how great the temptation, no matter how right she knew they were for each other. “Take me home.” She breathed out the words on a long sigh, voice cracking on the last. He looked momentarily puzzled and a little hurt, but she knew that somewhere he understood, for they always understood each other. Words were a mere embellishment. He stopped the car outside her bungalow, pulled on the handbrake. He got out and walked round to the passenger side and opened the door for her as if to emphasise the gentleman that he was. “I can’t do this. It’s not how I want us to be.” She dragged the words out from deep within her. He gazed directly into her eyes for an age as if searching into her heart, saying more to her than words ever could, and then they hugged fiercely, crushing each other, burying their heads, clinging as if to a raft on a boiling sea without hope of rescue. At last she let him go, turned on her heal, not daring to look back and let herself in by the front door, her shaking hand struggling with the key in the lock. She heard the car’s engine roar into sudden life, then pull away quieter now, tyres scuffing slightly on the gravel surface, listened to the sound of it disappear in the night, straining to hear the drone quieter and quieter until it became a gentle purr, then softer still until she had to admit to herself that all she could hear anymore was the blood hissing mournfully in her ears. The Rubicon turned out to be a tame little babbling brook after all. He was gone. And he could never come back. Because she knew she would not have the strength to
refuse him a second time. Her husband returned the next day, face aglow with tales of footballing triumph. She did her best to get caught up in his enthusiasm, be the supportive wife, the role she’d chosen after all, but she couldn’t shake the leaden weight of sadness and lethargy. It manifested itself as a physical knot in the pit of her stomach that stayed with her constantly. The nearest she could describe it was a feeling of homesickness, which when she thought about it made sense. For the next few weeks and into heavy high summer everything seemed to be shrouded in a veil of grey despite the blazing skies. She announced to all that she was stopping the tennis lessons, citing the recurrence of an old ankle injury. She continued with the coffee mornings with friends but avoided Jane Fonda. They started a backgammon league. Of course she was acting a part and the strain inevitably took its toll. Her mental torment transferred perhaps inevitably into physical ailment as she went down with a kidney infection and retired to bed for a week. She avoided him and he avoided her. He was no longer part of their social group. People missed his cheerful presence and mentioned the fact from time to time. Someone said he’d taken up with some of the local Libyans. Then one day she began to draw It was something she hadn’t done since childhood. She’d stumbled upon an assortment of grubby pastel crayons and a couple of soft leaded pencils along with a fresh drawing pad jammed at the back of a dusty unused drawer, abandoned, she presumed, by a prior occupant. She’d made a noise of disgust at first, saw them as a nasty mess to be cleared away, had been about to toss them into the wastebasket. Then she’d changed her mind at the last minute. Eventually she found herself experimenting with them, tentatively at first, absentmindedly, distractedly, then more boldly. She came to realise with delight how versatile the crayons could be, the wonderful variations of tone and texture she could achieve simply by pressing harder or lighter on the thick parchment, by mixing colours, or by using different parts of each crayon. Some of her drawings were in pencil too, works of smudged contrast in shade and light. Her subject matter was the world surrounding her. The flowers in the tiny garden, the house, the furniture, still life, fruit and vegetables, even the army of ants that lived in a hill in the flowerbed. Eventually teaching herself about perspective as she attempted landscapes of geometric houses and olive groves and swaying date palms and skyscapes of scudding clouds and glorious sunsets. She became utterly lost in the detail of the objects she drew, achieving something close to a trance like state, so deep was her concentration. Looking further and deeper than ever before, and seeing with a new precision and clarity and truth. The rest of the world would fade and disappear and would be deprived for a while of it’s power to taunt or tease or disappoint. Tiny nuances of shadow and texture and light became her world, her focus, her escape. In unthinking deference to the culture in which she found herself she avoided any human representation, although she did make an impressionistic attempt at the goatherd and
the goats. Sometimes though she would drift off into little daydreams, thoughts meandering aimlessly, and when eventually she looked down at her drawing pad, she’d find she’d made little doodles of a face, side view, three quarters or full, the curve of a cheek, tousled dark hair, a jaw line and deep dark eyes sparkling with flecks of light, always framed by long thick silky lashes. Then she’d tear out the paper roughly and toss it away. Life for the Brits in Libya continued easy and soft despite the severing of diplomatic relations. The same could not be said for the Libyan dissidents. For some reason they had sensed, wrongly as it turned out, that their moment had come and they became daily bolder and more vociferous. Excitement swelled just for a day or two as reports emerged of an attempted coup in Tripoli. Expat returners reported extra restrictions at the airport and a trebling of roadblocks on the journey down from Tripoli. Then it subsided. Before long, however, there were sotto voce rumours of disappearances among the local Libyan population, and even, unspeakably, hangings. In August she went off on holiday with her husband to Malta, just a short plane hop away. She even managed to enjoy this temporary sojourn in civilisation. It would have made her life choices so much simpler if her husband had been a thoughtless, uncaring man. But he wasn’t. He had done nothing wrong, and he cared for her and above all he loved her. Yes, he was human, he had failings, but all in all he was easier to live with than most. It was not his fault that she had in later time met a kindred soul who’d stolen her sleeping and waking thoughts as well as her heart. They’d enjoyed the walled city of Valetta; it’s narrow back streets, the overhanging wooden balconies. They’d gone shopping and behaved like kids in a toyshop at the sight of Western abundance and luxury. She bought three summer dresses, two handbags and several pairs of shoes, oh, and some earrings that caught her eye, and needless to say the matching necklace. He even followed her fairly willingly around the walled silent city of Mdina, acquiescing tolerantly to her shiny-eyed assertion that everyone must feel in the very air that they breathed a tangible connection to its late inhabitants. Although she knew he would never ever get the mystery and the magic. She marvelled with him at the classic fifties cars that filled the streets, remarkably preserved throwbacks of muted paint, running boards and gleaming chrome. They came home to Libya laden with bounty, luxuries and Western essentials for themselves and their friends. A few days later her husband was called to London on business. He would be away for two weeks. She entered into her life of coffee mornings and backgammon with gregarious gusto. Her friends were good fun. And she continued to draw. One night she was fast asleep in bed. Her husband had been away for around three days and she had taken the opportunity to sprawl diagonally across the bed. She woke suddenly. What was that? She listened, straining to hear above the insistent hum of the air conditioning unit and the rhythmic chirruping of the crickets. There it was again. A soft insistent tap tap sound. It hadn’t been a dream. She held her breath, ears
straining. The tapping continued. She climbed carefully out of bed in the dark, putting each foot tentatively in front of the other, afraid of treading on one of the cockroaches that lived in the dark corners of the room. She kept her mouth closed too, remembering that day when she’d realised with horror that they could fly. She reached the window silently and turned her head to the left, straining to see. It was a rare overcast night. Starless. She could just make out the outline of two people, men. She was alone in the house and utterly terrified. She opened the window an inch, tremulous fingers fumbling with the catch, heart pounding. “Who is it? What do you want?” Adding hopelessly, “Go away!” Her anxious words pierced the night and seemed to briefly hang there. “Shhhh! It’s me!” The reply was urgent yet soft. “Please let us in – quickly!” It was a voice from her dreams, but with a strange note she’d never heard before, compelling, and something else she couldn’t quite place. She drew her dressing gown tightly about her, tied the belt and rushed barefoot to the front door. The two men stepped in closing the door quickly and quietly behind them. She moved to the lamp on the coffee table. “No!” It was a command, “No light!” Their conversation continued in no more than harsh whispers. Even in these utterly bizarre circumstances she found herself momentarily thrilling to be near him again. He explained that his friend, Hussein, was a colleague of some Libyan dissidents who’d been peripherally involved in the recent unsuccessful coup attempt. Hussein was entirely innocent, he knew that beyond all shadow of a doubt, but somehow the local police had got hold of his name and were gathering fabricated evidence in an attempt to prove to the authorities in Tripoli their determination to root out terrorists. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked directly into her eyes. In the near total darkness they looked like black chips of coal. He told her quickly and quietly that Hussein’s apartment was being watched and probably his own too. He said that he hated to mix her up in any of this, but that she the one person he could trust in all the world. He was going to drive Hussein over the Tunisian border that night and please, could he borrow her car? “ I daren’t use my own. If anyone stops us and traces the car back to you, I’ll say I hot wired it and stole it.”
“But…”. “No one knows of any real connection between you and me,” he continued, oblivious to her tentative interjection. “ We’ve not been seen together for weeks. Everyone’s suspicious of me now, because of my connections, even the Brits. I’ll have it back with you by tomorrow evening. I’m so sorry to involve you. It’s just that – we’re desperate.” Her thoughts were in turmoil, not about lending him what was actually her husband’s company car, but because of the danger into which he was about to place himself. Of course her husband was unlikely to be implicated for he was out of the country. She believed his story without question, because it was him, and she believed in the innocence of his friend too, simply and purely because he did. When it came right down to it, fearful, terrified as she was for him she knew had no choice. He would not be diverted from his path and she had no right to make the attempt. She could not leave an innocent man to face imprisonment and possibly death any more than he could. She said quietly, “Take the car.” She went over to retrieve her handbag and rummaged deep down for the keys with trembling hands. She handed them to him and he pocketed them immediately. Hussein, who’d been standing there, fearful, shivering and silent shook her hand strongly and thanked her profusely. She turned back to her love and they stood there together in the darkness for a few moments, silence all that was required. Then he enveloped her in his arms and hugged her to him with a comforting strength. He kissed her hard on the mouth. “Come back to me.” she whispered in his ear. “I love you”, he whispered back. Then they were gone. For the rest of the night she paced the floor in the darkness, too anxious to go to bed, too terrified to turn on a light. She had no idea how far it was to the Tunisian border, how long it would take to get there and return, how many roadblocks there might be? These questions, along with some other unthinkably awful ones churned through her mind. Thoughts whirled through her consciousness in gyroscopic repetition. She felt like a hamster on a wheel, running round and round, no hope of answer, no hope of salvation or respite until he came back through the door. She didn’t dare imagine that moment. It seemed unlucky to begin to think of it as even a remote possibility. This
was real life, harsh and brutal and cruel and unfair. She became hyper sensitive to all the night sounds, normally a comfort to her. Now each squeak and screech and creak and moan and scutter and distant howl threatened danger. There was a strange fast ticking sound just on the edge of her hearing that she’d never noticed before, but which drove her to distraction. She had never felt so entirely alone. Once it was light enough to read she rummaged in the bottom drawer of the dark wood and glass wall cabinet and pulled out a well-worn map of North Africa. She laid it out on the dining table, flattening it out as best she could, taking care especially where it was ripped along its folds. She tried to work out the mileage to the Tunisian border, mentally adding the numbers marked on the map on the sections of road between each town, getting it hopelessly wrong several times and having to start all over again. Eventually she decided that it would take around four hours to get there give or take. There was never much traffic at any time of the day, or night. He could be back in a few hours. For a moment her heart leapt in her chest in the hope of it, but she strangled the dangerous beguiling thought at birth. Of course that would be without stops or other delays. She guessed he would wait to make sure Hussein made it safely to Tunisia and had no idea how long that might take. Her only task that morning, indeed all that day, was to worry, and she did so with dedication. At around 10am she heard the familiar jolly voices of her friends approach her bungalow. The echo of a happy carefree world she could barely remember, although she herself had lived in it just a few short hours before. The doorbell sounded. She knew it would be impossible to speak to anyone without betraying the fear and tension in her. She drew her body deep into the shadows of the living room. Surprisingly they didn’t try the bell a second time and were soon walking away, chatting happily. She felt perversely disappointed and annoyed with them; a desperate need for the human comfort she knew was forbidden to her. Then she realised why they’d left so readily. The car always sat parked at the front of the bungalow. Her friends had noticed it was gone and had logically surmised that she’d gone out. Time ticked on into the afternoon. All was silence, save for the creaks of the house as it occasionally stretched itself painfully on this hot and languid day, for once not even the hint of a breeze. No one else approached her door. Her ears pricked up at the rare sound of a car engine but none ever approached her bungalow. She began to cling to the old adage. No news is good news. It was without question the most terrifying day of her short life. Around 7.00pm she suddenly realised that she’d had nothing to eat all day, save a half hearted gnaw at a slice of yesterday’s bread at first light, and of course she’d had little more than two hours sleep the night before. She found it impossible to sit still and had been pacing and fretting for hours. Now she felt light-headed, lethargic and semi-
detached. Concentration had become difficult. She realised with a start that she’d had very little to drink too, surprising when she considered the numbers of nervous trips she’d made to the bathroom. Had there been alcohol in the house she might well have been tempted, but the home brewed beer bubbling away satisfyingly in the spare bedroom would not be even half drinkable for at least two more days. The air conditioning kept the bungalow at a steady 21 degrees Celsius, but she was undoubtedly well on her way to dehydration. This would never do. Slowly and deliberately she drew herself up to her full height, drew back her shoulders, then tried to relax them, shaking her arms loosely by her sides. She took a long, deep, only slightly ragged breath, and solemnly resolved from that point on to be Brave. It was all that was left for her to do. The alternative, collapsing to the floor a shivering, drooling, useless wreck was not an option. Somehow the conscious decision to do something rallied her, gave her focus and purpose. She retrieved a Pepsi from the fridge – an actual Pepsi - rummaged in the cutlery drawer for a bottle opener and, tilting back the familiar shaped glass bottle, let the ice-cold fizz sear the back of her throat. It revived her a little and as ever took her right back to the youthful memory of that glorious first draft of Coke from the dispenser, mingled with the old wood and polish smell of the clubhouse, after a sticky summer’s tennis match. The next step was to set herself a task. It required to be something of practical benefit. That ruled out drawing. She needed to lose herself in an activity that was austere and disciplined. Her thoughts turned to cooking, initially dismissing it out of hand. It ticked the first box, practical benefit, for sure. But cooking was for her above all a comforting, tactile, sensuous activity. No, to be of any use, to be in any way cathartic and or at least diverting, this cooking would have to be different. She believed she had the answer. She would draw on early experience. School days. She’d been taught by a dragon woman whose main purpose, it appeared to her youthful charges, had been to terrify, to hack down and destroy any tentative shoots of adolescent confidence and self-esteem. Imagination and flair were anathema to her. But the benighted woman had also brought to the process military planning, strict discipline, and an absolute requirement for precision and order and efficiency. She would prepare a pot of vegetable soup. First she found a traditional cookery book from home and turned to the correct page. Yes, she had all the required ingredients, although rice would have to replace lentils. None of the usual cavalier ‘making it up as you go along’, my girl! She weighed and measured all the ingredients carefully and set about chopping, French chopping, as taught at school, the only way anyone should ever be allowed to chop, right hand grasping the handle of the knife, thumb and forefinger of the left hand on top of the blade, that must never at any point leave the surface of the chopping board. She concentrated on dicing each vegetable to within an inch of its life, no room for any thoughts other than the task in hand.
It worked. She finished the task drenched in rich tones of dreamy golden sunset, produced by a celestial director utterly oblivious to the prevailing mood. By the time the rice and vegetables had come to the boil and been set to a gentle simmer, night had returned. The task was done. Only then did her resolve fail her. Repressed thoughts inundated her mind, like a dam burst, gushing, sweeping her away, choking her with anxiety until it hurt her lungs to breathe. Oh my God! It was sheer agony. WHERE WAS HE? Then as if in answer to a near blasphemous prayer, she heard the noise of a handbrake. She hadn’t heard the car approach. In her memory now she was opening the front door on the next beat, no idea of how she got there. There he was. Pale and drawn beneath the tan, exhausted, sticky, sweaty, dishevelled. Alive! He fell into her arms in a fierce embrace right there on the threshold. She pulled him in and shut the door with her foot, clinging on, unable to take in the reality of him, terrified to let him go, even for a second. He was kissing her face all over, her neck, her shoulders then trailing back to her mouth like a man in the desert slaking a fiery thirst. She responded in full. She led him to her bed. They undressed each other on the way, fumbling and awkward, leaving a trail of garments, no thought of anything but each other, the need for comfort and succour, and to celebrate the joy, the delightful surprise of being alive. She lay awake wrapped in his arms in the wee small hours of the morning, in their shared little private heaven. She clung to him, never wanting to let go. Couldn’t help a smile as she looked beyond him to the table by the window. She could just make out the outline of two discarded unwashed bowls, spoons jutting at different angles. She’d remembered eventually to feed him the thick, hearty soup that had just begun to stick to the bottom of the pot by the time she rescued it. She realised then that she’d been making it for him all along, and in a whimsical corner of her mind she felt as if by doing so she had somehow played a pivotal role in ensuring his safe return. As she watched him sleep feelings of deep contentment and boundless love surged through her. He had been a passionate yet tender lover, as she had always known he would be since the first time she’d looked into his dark liquid eyes. He was unselfish too, intuitively responding to her desires. He was an irresistible mix of loving and giving and wanting and needing. And she responded to those wants and needs in a way she had never dared before. In him she’d found that rarity, someone with whom she could completely be herself. Their physical union felt like an entirely natural progression, an ecstatic expression of the deep love she felt for him and she knew he
felt for her. He stirred in his sleep, mumbled. She was aware of him opening his eyes, rubbing them, forcing himself awake. He stared at her in the dark for some moments, as if scarcely able to believe she was there. Then he nibbled gently at her ear, brought his lips to her face and then her mouth kissing it hard, and they tumbled into ecstasy once more. There followed four days of madness. She pushed any thoughts of guilt right back, squeezed them into the farthest recesses of her consciousness. This was so right and too good and true to ever be wrong. Above all so connected to the knowledge of the fragility, capriciousness and absolute privilege of life, the need to seize each chance in the certain knowledge that it could just be your last. He stayed with her at the bungalow the next day, the time spent mainly in bed, only partly because it made them feel safer, talking about anything and everything, laughing, joking, finding renewed joy in each other. The day after that they dared to return to his apartment. Fortunately, they were never disturbed by the authorities. They began to believe that he’d got away with it. In little mini chapters he’d told her his story. The journey out to Tunisia had been surprisingly easy, the checks at three roadblocks fortunately cursory. Their story of an early morning business meeting in a frontier town had been believed in this land of long lazy afternoons. When they’d reached the border in the dawn they had been forced to abandon the car, for insurance reasons, weirdly. He’d always intended going through the frontier post with Hussein, his mission to see him safely on his onward journey on the other side. He’d insisted on it, deaf to the Libyan’s protestations. They passed the Libyan checkpoint first. He didn’t say much about it but she fully understood that this had been a terrifying moment for both men. Thankfully Hussein’s name had not yet been placed on any proscribed list and they’d been allowed through. "Yes, short business trip followed by some R and R on Djerba." Djerba, she mused, momentarily distracted from his tale by the irony. The Tunisian island haven of the Lotus Eaters of legend. Their passports had been stamped with a flourish by the guard and he'd returned them without looking up. Speed had been their game plan and thank God, it had worked. The alternative, taking the time to somehow acquire false ID would have been twice as foolhardy. Even so, it had remained a huge and potentially suicidal gamble. He described walking across the barren scrub of no man’s land, glancing back at an enormous smiling picture of the Leader of the Great September 1st Revolution waving to them, as if in cheerful farewell. The Tunisian border guard had been surprised to see a British man enter from Libya. He formed his thumb and forefinger into a gun and pretended to fire, point blank,
casting his eyes back in the direction of Libya and peering quizzically at the crazy Englishman, his expression rendered almost comic by a wandering lazy right eye. They’d eventually made it through to the border village of Ben Gardane and found a taxi driver. French was the second language here. He finally agreed to take Hussein all the way to Sousse. Not for the first time or the last hard currency, in the preferred form of US dollars, had smoothed the way. With Hussein safely on his way he’d intended to rest somewhere for an hour or two before attempting to return to Libya. Shelter was hard to come by in this flat sandy border land, but he did find a semiruined wooden shack which smelt strongly of goats and snatched some brief but welcome oblivion in the pungent hay. On the way back across the border things hadn’t been so simple. The Libyan border guard examined the exit stamp on his passport and passed it to his unsmiling assistant. The men were unable to comprehend why he had stayed such a short time in Tunisia and he’d been questioned for several hours. They took exception to the small Rucanor sports bag he carried, containing his battery operated shaver, bottles of water, a towel, some toilet roll and a change of underwear. Its logo was a squat five-pointed star, nothing like the six points of the Star of David, no conceivable connection to the pariah state of Israel, so abhorred that it was blanked out of maps in the TV news, but they’d used it as a flimsy excuse to detain him. Eventually, well into the sweaty flyridden afternoon they’d agreed to let him go, but only after a telephone call to the Technical Support Team in the Baladiya confirmed that he was who he said he was. He’d arrived back at the car exhausted, steeling himself for the four-hour drive, only to find that the near side rear tire had sustained a puncture. Further dust and grime and delay. Then on the way back he discovered that roadblocks had sprouted in the hours since he’d last made the journey. At one he’d been stopped by one of the ubiquitous semi-automatic wielding boy soldiers. The near child had hardly been able to contain his glee as he retrieved some suspicious powder from the car boot, waving his weapon around carelessly as he questioned him in a mixture of Arabic and Pidgin English. She couldn’t understand what on earth the substance might be until he explained that it was a tub of curry powder. Oh God! Part of the bounty from Malta, abandoned and forgotten. They had not begun to consider the consequences and repercussions of their days together. They were living in a world of their own choosing, pretty much detached from reality, lost in each other. Reprieved from danger and anxiety it felt, to both of them she knew, as if real world rules no longer applied. On the third day they got a message from Hussein, via a family member, that he had reached Sousse safely and would be forever in their debt. Then on Friday reality returned like an unwelcome relative. He’d been summoned to meet with the leader of the British section of the Technical Support Team in his neat bungalow. Word had spread of his unsanctioned trip over the border and awkward telephone conversations between town council officials and border guards. The kindly middle-aged man was deeply concerned. After all he was responsible for the tricky and essential task of maintaining good relations with their Libyan masters, but above and way beyond that, the safety of all British staff. In addition he’d lately heard an alarming tale from a colleague based in Tripoli. The man had been waiting for someone in the lobby of the Al Kebir, the Grand Hotel and had quite literally bumped
into Kate Adie, ace BBC reporter, and a woman with a nose for the world’s next trouble spot. There were as yet unsubstantiated rumours that a number of British businessmen had been stopped at Tripoli Airport and detained. He could very easily have found himself one of their number. He was asked to leave. Then she got a note that her husband was returning to Libya earlier than expected, the day after tomorrow. She was washed in equal quantities of guilt and sorrow, tossed about in a rinse cycle. Truth be told of course there was no question that she would do anything other than remain with her husband. She was a woman in a very foreign land in an alien culture, thousands of miles from home. Decisions about her future could not be based on a few days of heavenly insanity. They had met simply at the wrong time and in the wrong place. For the past few days the world had been painted in brighter colours, sounds were shaper, smells keener, life full of hope and freedom. A high impossible to sustain she knew in the drab, ordinary, frustrating, repetitive mundanity of every day life. In a capricious world their lives had touched, connected and separated again. It was as simple and as dreary as that. An infinitesimal blip in the fabric of a vast universe. One last day together. Without discussion or declaration they both knew they should do everything to make this day natural and fun, as if when it was over they would see each other again, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. They visited their café, moving quietly past the wary black-eyed Arab men and their hookah pipes They drank thick black coffee from tiny white cups and watched the flies zig-zag lazily over the chipped turquoise Formica, and gazed at each other, hardly daring to blink, fingers entwined. He drove her in his battered white car to the beach, a little further west than usual. As he navigated the track, expertly avoiding the soft sandy potholes that could ruin tyres and suspension on a whim, she looked at him in shaded profile, observing deeply, as if in preparation for drawing him from memory. The high cheekbone, the familiar curve of his cheek, the faint dark stubble, the line of his jaw, the edge of his lip. As she watched him frown in concentration she felt something grip her stomach, twist it and squeeze it tight. Longing, homesickness. And she knew that she mourned him although he hadn’t yet left her. She shook the feeling off, determined to enjoy the day, make it a good thing to remember. He parked the car. The wind swirled this way and that, uncertain, as if almost embarrassed by its presence today, like a third wheel, unsure if it should be allowed to witness this most private of occasions. They walked a short distance until they reached the flat, dusty clearing and the remains of the Roman villa, that place out of time where they would always be together. He held her in his arms and brushed back the playful strands of hair from her face. His deep dark eyes looked into hers in that direct, oh so familiar way. If you miss me come back here in your mind. I’ll be waiting. He was saying it without words. The actual sound of them would have been
superfluous even intrusive. Then he kissed her softly and sweetly and she kissed him back, clinging to him. She had no recollection of how long they stood there in each other’s arms, a few minutes, a lifetime? How could she begin to guess in that timeless place? Momentarily she was a child again, reading a beloved novel for the umpteenth time, ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, and the inscription on the clock. ‘Time no longer’. She only knew that they did eventually return to the car to collect blanket and food and drink and mini barbeque. They laughed and teased as they prepared lunch. After a meal of grilled fish and fruit and ‘Pepsi’ they lay on a blanket together on the beach for a while, no sound or space between them. Then the mood changed. He jumped up grabbing her hands and hauling her towards him. His eyes danced in that delightful way that they did. They pulled off their sandals and dashed down to the sea, chasing each other along the shoreline, dodging the surf, sometimes not succeeding, laughing hopelessly as the waves splashed over shins, knees, clothes. They met no one, as if on this special day the place had been loaned to them exclusively; the salty wind, the sand, the surf, the sky; rent-free. Finally he dragged her in fake protest up the beach and into the dunes. He fell back, pulling her down on top, and for a while they lost themselves in each other as the sun set over the deep soft sand and long wispy sea grass. They went back to his place, showered together for fun and to remove sand that had found its way into the most awkward places. She spent the night in his bed. In the morning he dropped her off in a hurry, on his way to work to clear his desk. Their goodbye was short but very sweet. He was gone from her life. Two days later he left Libya for the last time, the manner of his leaving branded in her memory. Dusk was just about to descend in its usual rush. Everyone stood in an awkward, uneven semi-circle in the open area in the centre of their section of the compound, surrounded on all sides by the slightly grubby, sand scarred off-white bungalows, swaying palm trees a backdrop, dusty breeze moaning fretfully, carrying with it the occasional goat bleat or distant shrieking of brakes. He passed each person slowly, shaking hands in turn, formally in the Arab tradition that had spilled over to the expats. Eventually he reached her as she stood by her husband. He shook her hand politely, but with just a secret little press of the thumb into her palm as a little token reminder of their special connection, of their love. The look in his eyes as he gazed at her directly for the very last time was careful and guarded. It said nothing. It said everything. It lingered imperceptibly. She felt her face burning and she was sure others would notice. She expected there would be talk about them somewhere. Did it ever reach her husband? If it did he never said. The two men shook hands pleasantly, perfunctorily. A surreal, frozen little moment. He carried on round, saying goodbye, promising to keep in touch. Then he hopped into his car in his usual lithe and graceful way, turned round, his eyes brushing hers briefly, gave a wave and was gone.
In her head she was Celia Johnston at Milford Junction, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto Number Two, in C minor, first movement swelling through the evening air. She could have sworn she heard the shriek of the express train. For several days she sunk into a black melancholia that nothing could shake off. Everything felt insipid, drained of colour. Nothing could lighten her mood, but somehow she carried on, an automaton, playing her part as written. And in the presence of her husband she was bathed in murky, grimy guilt that nothing could wash off. Out, damn'd spot! Out… As she currently had no alternative she picked up the pieces of their marriage and did what she could to salvage things, but it would never be the same. Once her love was gone she discovered that most people became semi-complicit in rewriting the recent facts. They’d all liked him of course, he’d been fun, and on my God, gorgeous, but he was a bit, well, impulsive, wild, egocentric? Her husband saw him as a maverick, foolhardy. Oh yes, her husband was never other than eminently sensible. She listened to these tales, almost forced herself to believe them, as if in search of armour and a means of accepting that he had gone from her life for good. It would never have lasted, would it? The affair had been madness, separate from the solid world of responsibility and honour and duty. Their love, their deep friendship had been strange and wild and exotic befitting its setting. She clung to this fiction for survival as a lost mariner to a raft for survival, but she knew, would always know, that she’d found her kindred soul, and she’d lost him. No she never met him again. He wrote once from Dubai where he’d found work, but it was a friendly chatty letter to both of them. He didn’t dare send anything else. In her jealous heart she imagined he’d found someone new, someone who could make him forget her. Then she would almost immediately dismiss it. He loved her. She knew that. One day her friends told her excitedly about the Roman villa and how a friend of a friend had discovered it. They all set off one afternoon for a visit. She pleaded a headache. Tears pricked at her eyes. Silly she knew because it was inevitable others would find it, had found it before, but she couldn’t stand to think of it trivialised and sullied. No, she never went there again, well not in reality. The version she visited was theirs and theirs alone. She returned to that place again and again to be with him. Time no longer. Life carried on, as it tends to, until in early December it was time for them to go home. By that time there were other distractions in her life. Something that forced her to look forward and not back. Miracle of miracles someone had freed her from her stinking lonely dungeon on the planet Zog. She was pregnant. She thought of everything that meant; new life, love, fear, responsibility, belief in the
future, hope. She was beyond delighted, couldn’t believe she’d joined the human race, had been allowed join in the game with the other kids in the playground. She managed to push doubts and worries down to the murky depths every time they tried to swim to the surface. Her husband was on top of the world and it did make her smile from behind the guilt. She forced her self to think it. The baby might not be his. She feared it and somewhere deep down secretly hoped it too. “It must have happened while we were in Malta!” he enthused. They left their little bungalow home for the last time, shaking hands with all their friends, promising to keep in touch, meaning it. She took in every little scene, committing it to memory. Friends shouting and waving in farewell, some it tears, running after their car, their hands slapping on the paintwork, knocking on windows, trying to keep up, then finally giving up and continuing to wave as it gained speed. She looked back at them gesticulating in return, and then over at the date palms across the road. They passed the tennis courts. The luxury hotel that nobody visited. They turned up the familiar dusty track to the main road, then around the roundabout with the poster of the Great Leader in military garb and sunglasses in the middle, on past the next junction, the road on the right leading to the beach. For a while they became stuck behind a pick up truck, two camels tethered in the back on their knees, tragic-comic, but staring at them with an air of supercilious wisdom in their eyes, as if the keepers of a deep truth that humankind would never comprehend. In fact, she mused, it was entirely the other way round because she knew something they didn’t. They were on their way to the abattoir. Then again maybe they did know better. After all, weren’t we all just on our way to the abattoir, hoping for some purpose to punctuate the mundanity, perhaps some fun, memorable experiences, and hopefully friendship and love, mutual support, caring, certainly tragedy, but also moments of joy along the way? Even somewhere making a difference? At the airport they joked with the security guards who saw they were travelling to London. No, no, they insisted, not English. Scottish! They both laughed merrily in agreement when one of the guards joked, his hand a gun, “English, bang bang!” Anything to get safely through to the plane home! They arrived home to discover that horrible things had been happening to the south and east of them that year. Bob Geldof and friends never tired of reminding her as she tried to settle back home that strange cold December that ‘there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time’. They would ask pointedly, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?’ Dreadful that the words should resonate with her when the biblical famine in Ethiopia was a tragedy on a scale so epic that she could never even begin to comprehend it. The hedonistic life of expats in one of the richer countries of that benighted continent was exposed for the shallow decadent sham it had always been, her worries and joys as insignificant as the flies that used to buzz over turquoise chipped Formica table tops. But she knew for certain that somewhere in Dubai a drop dead gorgeous young man, with amused liquid eyes and an easy grace was doing what he could to rally support for Bob’s cause.
Her daughter was born in late spring as the last of the blossom still clung to the trees, fair haired and pale skinned, more like her husband than anyone else, though not even much like him. But even as a tiny baby she would gaze at her with eyes that were going to turn dark and had a hint of sparkling amusement in them that made her seem wise beyond her years. In those days before DNA testing she didn’t take it any further, never tried to contact him, too many boats would be rocked, and anyway they could never be certain. Deep inside she guiltily hugged the knowledge of it to herself. And just like buses another baby girl came along the next year, chestnut hair like her mother this time and light eyes like her father. She went back to her career as a lawyer when the girls were still toddlers and flourished in family law, became pretty celebrated in a local way for her caring, thoughtful and fair approach to marital disputes. She eventually rose to be partner of a venerated firm. They moved into a solid Victorian house in Kensington Gate, Glasgow. In the end the marriage lasted fifteen years. If it hadn’t been for the girls it might have withered sooner and died a natural death. He was a good man and a wonderful father to the girls on whom he doted, just as she did. After all, surely everyone could see, they were the most beautiful, accomplished, funny, wise, amazing children in the whole world? But there was always something lacking. It was as if they just didn’t quite meet in the middle. Why did the marriage last so long? Fear, laziness, perhaps, and yes there was love, a love grown of years of shared experience, a wish for security for themselves, but especially for the children. It wasn’t a stormy marriage; it wasn’t hell for the kids. Friends continued to think they were one of the success stories. Eventually they just passed each other by, ran out of things to say. It was an old and very familiar story. The only part of their lives they shared was as parents. Once the girls were older, less in need of full time attention, and it was the time to rediscover each other, they both realised there was just nothing left to salvage. The separation and eventual divorce were civilised and amicable and very sad. A couple of years later he met someone else and she hoped this one was his kindred. She had several relationships of her own, which were fine, albeit temporary. Trouble was she had to compare everyone else to the very best. One night in early May 1997 she sat alone watching television. Her husband had gone to collect the girls who were out extra late with the guides, visiting a mosque, strangely. It was to be a night of hope and glory and a certain amount of schadenfreude, watching as famous faces lost deposits. She guessed then of course that wild expectation would never quite match up to reality, but that didn’t take away anything from the enjoyment of a glorious night. Suddenly there he was - on the screen in front of her! Oh the shock and the surprise of seeing him so unexpectedly. She gave a little gasp.
Her head was spinning and her heart thumped alarmingly. She was glad that she was alone. She sat riveted to the screen for the few minutes he was on, scarcely daring to blink. Unmistakably him, in early middle age, looking older than her memory of him, but not old, eyes a little crinkled round the edges, but still liquid and amused and, tonight, sparkling in triumph. He’d gained a little weight but it looked good on him. He was still slim and so handsome, charismatic too; she could see that now as she watched him from a distance. He raised his arms in acknowledgment of the ecstatic applause from his supporters. Then he hugged the petite blonde woman by his side, his wife according to the voice over. She felt a flash of jealousy as she looked at this woman who was nothing like her. After that she’d quietly followed his career, his successes, his failures as they were reported in the media. She would stop short, momentarily forgetting to breathe, on the chance occasion she heard his voice, saw his face, on the news, or in a discussion programme, time briefly falling away. Two years ago she heard his wife had cancer. The prognosis wasn’t hopeful. According to reports he nursed her at the end, stepping back from public life for the duration. She sat bolt upright, as if waking suddenly from an unnerving dream. She cautiously manoeuvred her neck. She’d been lying with her head at an awkward angle and it had become unpleasantly stiff. The room was in darkness, save for the yellow white beam of a street light though the window. She’d never got round to drawing the curtains. Had she been asleep? What was the time? She stretched over to the lamp. Oh God, she groaned out loud, 4.50 am! Next morning, having managed little more than four hours sleep in her comfortable bed she found herself pacing the house like a caged tiger. From the kitchen to the hall, back into the dining room, she prowled, to the family room, really it should be renamed the permanent junk room, back down the long hallway and into the kitchen once more. She had her phone in her hand. She could feel it’s weight and it’s heat, its impatience as it waited for her decision. Finally she started dialling before she could change her mind again. “House of Commons. How may I help you?” The day after that she sat at her desk, nursing her suddenly painful right knee and wrote a long and very carefully worded letter. *** She stood beside her beautiful daughter in the quad, knowing that she’d never in her life felt more proud. She found herself looking at the willowy girl anew, as she stood in gown and mortar board, clutching her degree scroll, the cobalt blue of the dress underneath only serving to emphasise her deep dark eyes, dancing today in delight. Something made her turn round. She wasn’t sure what. A sudden rush of wind flitted like a ghost through the ancient trees in a copse beyond the far end of the quad. He stood on the path at the opposite side of the manicured lawn. Then, mindful of the
‘Keep off the Grass’ sign he walked round with a lithe easy relaxed stride until he reached them. She had time to take in his appearance as she watched him approach, observing closely, seeing him in person for the first time in nearly twenty-four years. Older yes, a little crumpled, careworn, knocked about by life, but still retaining unmistakable essence of the boy who’d held her that last day at the Roman villa all those years ago. Her heart thumped in her throat as he came right up to her and shook her hand formally, impersonally, like the politician he was. He looked into her eyes in that direct open way of his, and she could see the hint of amusement in the liquid gaze that was never far away, and the warmth, and today something deeper beyond that – forgiveness. Rachmaninov Piano Concerto Number 2, in C minor, first movement, began to play in her head, quietly at first, then slowly rising to crescendo until for a few moments she could hear nothing else. She turned her body a little to indicate her daughter who stood behind her, friendly and a little curious. “I’d like you to meet Flora.” The End Louise Angus - 2009
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