John’s childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Let’s sit with that a while. A boy grew up, like so many other boys all over the world, watching the skies, imagining himself in the endless blue. What do all these boys dream of? Of watching the world from above, of air starts and power-off glides, of aerial somersaults, of moonlit sorties, of racing through the clouds in 15,000 tonnes of machinery, of the attractiveness of being a man in uniform? Universal dreams, and not only boys dream them, of course. As universal as love, as family loyalty, as friendship, as kindness, as fear. And like love, loyalty, friendship, kindness and fear, the dream of being a pilot – however universal in its outlines – must exist and play itself out in very particular circumstances. In John’s case, the circumstances start with place – the country of his birth and upbringing _______. And ______ is where he started the story, when we met in London in a room made smaller than it needed to be by the excessive furniture – round table, too many chairs — crammed into it.

‘I’m from _______,’ he said. ‘It’s a small country. The_______ government is a kind of a dictatorship. It used to be a military dictatorship before supposed democracy came back in but it isn’t really a democratic country. The President has been there for a very long time. So things are not as outsiders would see.’

When he started to speak in his ordered, concise sentences I knew immediately that he had told this tale before, and had learnt how to shape it. It came as no surprise, near the end of our time together, when he said that telling his story was part of his CBT therapy. As a writer, I know the usefulness of stories when confronting our lives. Stories allow us to structure our experiences into beginning, middle, end, and decide which parts to skim over, which to go into in detail; stories allow us to put forward our own points of view and interpretations; stories, in short, allow us a measure of control over our memories. In lives such as John’s, when control is so often in other people’s hands, the value of that must be enormous. It must also be difficult to achieve. As we sat together and his tale unfolded, the ordered re-telling began to fracture, gaps appeared, the story doubled back on itself. At various points, John cried. I didn’t ask him to fill in gaps or expand on details – the reasons should become clear, if they aren’t already.

I am delaying here. I want us to sit with John, the boy who looked at the sky and dreamed of flying through the constellations. But when we met, John did not stop on that any longer than it took to say, ‘When I was young, in primary school, my ambition was to become a pilot. So that was my childhood ambition — to be a pilot. But my Dad was involved in politics.’ And so we hurtled into the lover’s tale.

John’s father was not a politician himself, but he financed opposition politicians. This didn’t stop John from wanting to join the air force — just as it hadn’t stopped his step-brother from joining the army. The route to the skies went through a school that was difficult to get into for anyone who wasn’t rich or well connected, but John scored some of the highest marks in the country’s national exams and was admitted. The school was close to the army barracks, which meant John went to live with his step-brother, the soldier, who was stationed there.

Soon there was another exam, and John was among those ‘selected’ at the end of it. Like the others selected with him, he assumed he had scored well — ‘We thought, OK, because we’re brilliant,’ he said, and I briefly glimpsed the confident, bright, would-be pilot — but instead of entering classrooms for the gifted, he and the others were taken to the countryside and made to undergo rituals, such as drinking dogs’ blood. They were cadets now, they were told, and each one of them was assigned to an army officer who had them clean their shoes, their houses, and ‘do the dirty things that rich people will not do.’ They were being taught obedience, and its flip side: fear. At what point, I wonder, did all the brilliant young men who’d been specially selected realise they belonged to the same tribe — the largest tribe of______, which was not the President’s tribe, and from which significant opposition to his rule arose? At what point did they realise they had been selected to spy on, and betray, their own people? ‘Gradually we were getting the sense of what was happening,’ John told me — gradually, their ‘responsibilities’ increased from cleaning shoes and accompanying their officers on patrol to befriending people from their own tribe, discovering where their loyalties lay, and reporting them to the authorities if they didn’t support the government. Other times, the ‘responsibilities’ would include planting evidence – ‘a pistol, a gun’ – in the home of someone they had befriended, just before the police arrived with a warrant to search the house. ‘People are picked up and disappeared, they kill them, they do whatever they do to them. I wasn’t happy with it. A lot of us weren’t happy with it. That wasn’t why we were there.’

By now, John’s father was dead but his brother had taken up his political activities. It wasn’t John but his step-brother, the soldier, who was ordered to bring that brother in for questioning. The step-brother told a friend he wasn’t prepared to do it. For this act of familial loyalty he was imprisoned in a room called ‘a punishment room’. John, recounting this, gestured around the room we were in, made crowded by a table that could seat at most eight people around it — ‘If you divide this room into four, that’s the punishment room. You can be in there for weeks.’ Within this room, the step-brother fell ill. John was allowed in to see him, and given some medication for him. ‘I didn’t know it was poison so I gave it to him, and he died.’

This is only the beginning.

Words like leaves can fall so easily off our tongues, but John had ‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’ After he was turned into his brother’s killer, he was given several different assignments, moved around from one place to another. Eventually he ended up assigned to one of the sons of the President. He was there when there was a day of celebration in honour of the President. In the evening, after the official celebrations were over, the President’s son returned to his house ‘to have fun’, along with his men, including John.

A woman was brought into a room where the men were gathered. They were ordered to strip her naked. A certain unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘It was really, really bad. It was really bad,’ John said, his voice very low, and cried for the first time.

The girl was taken away, ‘put in a room to die – or whatever happened’ and then her brother was brought in. Another unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘There was blood everywhere. He was really… emotional.’ All this, it later turned out, because the girl hadn’t complied with a Presidential demand. So a message had to be sent – to all the girls who might think to refuse such a man, and to all their family members, too.

This was, said John, ‘the turning point.’ He asked to be re-assigned – if this involved a personal risk he didn’t say so; at no point in his story did he pass judgements of praise or criticism on his own actions. He merely recounted events.

He was assigned the job of guarding an elderly couple. He guarded them for ‘a very long time,’ and as he says, ‘the man became like a father to me. He tells me, “you’re like a son.” He talks to me like a son.’ One day when John was with the couple, soldiers came in and shot them dead. ‘I thought I’d lost my dad. I was going crazy,’ he said, crying again.

The couple had committed no crime. Their son, though, was wanted by the government — John never knew exactly why. The couple were being held to lure the son out of hiding. It didn’t work.

And finally — after all the spying, the murder of his brother, the torture of the girl and her brother, the death of his second father – John fled______ , for a life in a country nearby.

This is nowhere near the end of the story.

Homesickness and hope can be a dangerous combination. John had some kind of life in this other country – he taught at a school to students who taught him English in exchange – but he was lonely, and when there were demonstrations in______and the President promised reform, change started to seem possible. John returned to______ , but he kept himself hidden, staying with a friend. On Sundays, though, he went to church. It was here that he met Sarah.

‘Met’ is the wrong word. They knew each other already. Sarah’s father was an important government financier who lived within the protection of the barracks where John had once been posted. John’s life was separate from that of Sarah and her family – ‘I couldn’t talk to them; they were the rich people’ — but there was obviously some contact, some connection, because when Sarah saw him she called him by the name he’d had when he was in the barracks. This name was not his traditional name, and it was not the name ‘John’ which he later took on. It was a name given to him by the army during his initiation, and inscribed on a bangle that he had to wear on his wrist at all times. He was terrified to be recognised, and it couldn’t have helped to hear her say that everyone had been looking for him.

He could have run, at this point, though he never said so to me – perhaps it never suggested itself to him as a possibility. Instead, he told her everything. He told her why he had left, and of the loneliness that had brought him home. She was sympathetic. She gave him money. He told her, ‘My name is John now.’ Every Sunday he would wait for her to come to church. She brought him food and money, and eventually they became, in his words, ‘very intimate’.

One day he was standing by the church with two other men when a jeep pulled up, followed by a car. Someone in the car asked, ‘Who is John?’ He knew, even before this, that something was wrong. Knew it as soon as the car pulled up. Sarah was in the car. She gestured to him to run. But the men caught hold of him and took him back to the barracks. Here he found out that Sarah was pregnant and her father knew.

Her father — the government financier — was angry for reasons beyond the usual reasons that make certain kinds of men angry when they discover their daughters have a life beyond their control. He was a leading member of a tribe that practiced female genital mutilation. But his daughter had not been ‘cut’, and now he believed her pregnancy would alert people to this fact, and he would be shamed. He wanted the foetus aborted. First though, he came into the cell where John was held, and slapped him. Then he went away but John remained in the cell where he was ‘very maltreated.’

While he was being held, Sarah went to a man she knew – a soldier, who was a friend of her father – and told him what was happening. The man said he couldn’t stand by while his friend forced an abortion on his daughter, but there was a limit to how much he could — or would — do. He smuggled John out of the barracks in his car, gave him the equivalent of £25, and said, ‘Whatever happens to you after is not my problem.’ Still, what he did was enough. John met Sarah at a pre-arranged location — a drinking hole — and together they returned to the country to which John had fled.

This still isn’t near the end of the story.

While in exile, John met an American soldier he knew – a logistics expert called Frank who had been assigned to assist the army in______ when John was serving. He said John should be leading a different life – he suggested emigrating, and offered to help with the costs of getting a visa. Frank’s first suggestion was that John go to a particular country in mainland Europe, but John was adamantly opposed to the idea. ‘I didn’t trust them because I know that whatever happens in______ , they know it; from A to Z they know everything, but they wouldn’t stop it. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to.’ Instead, John went to the British Embassy.

In order to get a visa from the British Embassy, John had to prove he was from the country to which he had fled. The passport that Frank was able to procure for him didn’t get past the British visa official who handed him over to the immigration authorities. Once again, he was imprisoned and told he had to stay in a cell while the authorities sorted his case out.

Then, without explanation, he was released. ‘Why?’ he asked, and they only said, ‘You are free to go.’

He walked out of the prison, and a car was waiting for him. He was kidnapped, and driven back to_______.

‘That was really horrible. I thought that was it. I really thought that was it. It was difficult for me. They nearly killed me.’ At every other point when John cried he carried on speaking through the tears but this time he stopped, apologised, took some time before he was able to continue. It wasn’t Sarah’s father who had him picked up this time, but someone far worse – the President’s son, to whom he had once been assigned. ‘He has a house like a stadium, and it has prisons and all the torture things you can think of.’ That’s all he said the first time, before moving on to the next part of his story. Later, when he had finished his tale, but it was clear there were things still to say, things that he hadn’t worked into a narrative over which he had some control, he went back in his mind to that place, to the house like a stadium, with ‘all the torture things you can think of’ and said some of the things that were done to him. I will not write them here. I’ll only say there were many different ways of inflicting pain, and he couldn’t have known if it would continue on for weeks or months or years.

After they were done – at what point do torturers decide they are ‘done’? – they sent him to an army camp to become a Commando. Perhaps they thought they’d tortured enough fear and obedience into him. The Commandos were men without families, expected to kill or die without a second thought because ‘there’s no one for you.’ He was taken to the Captain of the Commando camp – and the man turned out to be an old friend of his, who had been recruited to the army at the same time as John. John told him he wasn’t a man without a family, a man ready to die, but that, instead, he had a wife and a child he needed to get back to. And this friend – ‘He just wanted to help me,’ John said. ‘And so he said, “OK”. Well, he put his life at risk for me. He let me go.’

For the third time, John returned to his country of exile.

How could this possibly be the end of the story?

Because he allowed John to escape, the Captain’s hands were placed in wet cement, which was left to dry, and he was dropped into the sea. His dead body washed up on a beach. John received news of this when he was in exile.

Frank, the American, must have known that his earlier attempts to get John out of the country had gone disastrously wrong. When John was returned Frank came to him again. This time he had a signed document from a friend who worked in the high court to verify that John had renounced his original nationality and was from his country of exile. With this document, John was able to apply for — and receive — a six month UK visa.

This is the beginning of the end of the story, but only the beginning.

John’s brother – the one who his step-brother was supposed to bring in to the barracks for his role in opposition politics – had long since escaped to mainland Europe and, from there, had come to England. John met up with him, in London, and told him of his intention to apply for asylum. But his brother talked him out of it – he’d applied himself, and been rejected, and was adamant that John couldn’t trust the system, never mind how many supporting documents he had. So John moved in with his brother, and didn’t seek asylum. His greatest concern was sending money back to Sarah, who by now had had another child. His brother kept saying he would help out, but he didn’t, and finally John started to work illegally as a kitchen porter. One day while he was working, the police arrived and arrested him. ‘I told the police officer, what’s happening to me? And all the police officers just said to me, “Well, you are one of them.” I was put in a car, and they took me to the police station, and I applied for asylum there. By that time, too, I had incontinence through the torture I had back home. They [the men who tortured him] tied my penis and then I had to drink something that makes you want to urinate, but you can’t urinate. When that happened I passed out.’ John was in prison for six months. From there he was sent to a detention centre and placed on his own in a disabled cell. ‘I was on my own,’ he said, twice, remembering that time. But he also recalled ‘some good people’ from his period of detention. In particular, he mentioned a priest who supported him when he thought of killing himself, and who also found people to help him with his incontinence.

His asylum application was rejected. He appealed. An Australian professor, based in America, who had done a lot of work on______, came to know of his case. This man first spoke to him on the phone and then wrote to the Home Office detailing the situation in_______ and said that if John was sent back there he would be killed. ‘He really saved me,’ John said. He was granted asylum.

But in all this, John had lost track of Sarah. Their lives in exile had always felt fearful — they moved every month, never let anyone get close enough to ask questions about their lives – and while John was in the UK someone came around to where Sarah was living, asking questions. It was enough to make her flee with her three children — John hadn’t known when he left for the UK that Sarah was pregnant again.

In John’s tale, there is great brutality but there are also stories of kindness, sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from acquaintances and strangers. A charity in the north of England started to work with Frank who was now back in America, to try and trace Sarah. When they found her where she was exiled she was ‘in a hospital, dying.’

Of all the parts in the story that he didn’t want to tell this is the one he most completely skimmed over. ‘They are here now, they are here,’ he said in response to whatever look I gave him when he uttered the word ‘dying’. I was left to surmise that someone who is ‘dying’ in one hospital can turn to ‘recovering’ in a place with better facilities.

Sarah is well now. She is in England, with John and their three children aged 7, 8 and 11. After all their years of being together, and apart, and together while apart, they married in London. The Church has become their family, and the Bishop who married them is someone they count as a friend. There’s even been some kind of rapprochement with Sarah’s father. A cousin of Sarah’s, who she found via Facebook, was the intermediary in this — when he heard about the wedding he said Sarah should get in touch with her father. She did; she wrote to him about her wedding, and her three children, and he gave her his blessing. They haven’t seen each other, but they speak on the phone. And John is a full-time undergraduate maths student in a London university and hopes to be a teacher one day — ‘That’s all I love doing,’ he said. He gestured around the room we were in, which was located on the King’s College campus. ‘I’ve applied to a teacher training programme,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting for the results.’

It isn’t easy, though. Torture and imprisonment don’t let go of a man that easily — ‘I’ve come a long way,’ he said, but the trauma is still there. ‘So many things happened to me. I don’t like looking at it anymore, I just don’t like looking at it anymore.’ But the counselling makes him look at it. ‘It helps,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s tiring.’ Then he started to talk about the torture. Telling me this story brought things up again. But he said again, yes, there are things he has to sort out, but the CBT is helping and he’s fortunate in his wife and his family and his church who are supportive of him.

I turned off the recorder, at this point. The story was over, I thought. The life will carry on with its struggles and its hardships, but the worst of it is done, a certain kind of narrative of his experiences has come to an end, and his mind can work towards recovery now. I shook his hand, and thanked him, and then he said — I don’t remember how exactly it came up — that earlier in the year he had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, and been denied.

I switched the recorder back on. The whole family applied, he said. His wife and children received Indefinite Leave to Remain but his application was rejected on the grounds he’d been in prison. For working illegally, all those years ago. He would have to wait another 15 years before he could apply again. Surely not another 15 years? He must mean 15 years in total from the time his asylum application was accepted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it starts this year, so another 15 years.’ From his wallet he pulled out the Residence Permits for himself and his children. ‘We keep things around,’ he said, and I understood he meant that he always had the cards on his person to prove he and his family were legal. The permits for his children all had ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ written on them. Soon they’d be able to apply for citizenship. John’s card said ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’ — he will have to keep re-applying for an extension every 3 years, for the next 15 years. Every re-application bringing with it the threat of a rejection.

‘The system is bit…’ He doesn’t have the words, and neither do I. ‘I don’t understand it.’

 we aRen’T aT all like you. They keep us apart, for your protection. There’ll be a blue sign at the entrance to any ferry port or motorway services: you take this lane and we’ll take that. Fifty feet on there’ll be red-and-white MarroBar between the lanes, in case you have a last-minute change of allegiance. You won’t, though. You’ll keep right, our lane will turn left, and you’ll never think of us again. In your life you’ll have more conversations with optimists and murderers than you will with lorry drivers.

And yet there are more of us than there are of farmers, police and teachers combined. Our average age is 53. We’re male, and white, and we have bad backs. We’re twice as likely as you to be divorced or separated. But we don’t ask for your sympathy. Read the stickers: all we ask is for your cyclists not to pass us on the inside. There are 700,000 goods vehicle drivers in Britain and we are all self-medicating with bacon rolls. We’re three per cent of the workforce, 20 per cent of the studio audience for Top Gear, and 40 per cent of the petition to have it put back on TV. They say we’re the core of the UKIP vote, but they shouldn’t take us for granted. As the lorry driver said to the politician: if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.

When it comes to illegals, we know what the media won’t tell you. We catch them sneaking round the back of our trailers. We find them crawling behind the cartons in the load. You probably know the global economic push factors or whatever, but we know how they smell. We’re the ones who have to drag them out of the space above the axles. They’re in the shadows whenever we turn our back — it’s like a horror film. As long as their country is a nightmare and ours is a dream, they’ll come in the night. But you’re the ones who are sleepwalking.

On this one trip I’ll tell you about, I was doubling with another driver and we were homeward bound through Calais. If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. You see them out of the corner of your eye at first, when you’re still a couple of hundred kilometres out. Say you’re pulling in to Saint-Quentin for diesel. You give them the hard eye and they act casual, hands in their pockets — but no one’s fooled. Because they’re Somali and Rwandan zombies, not Parisian zombies with berets and baguettes. A blind lefty could pick them out of a line up.

The illegals can pick out the lefties, too. They’re the ones driving home from a little place with lavender and wi-fi. They always call it a ‘little place’. If it was their own lady parts they were referring to, they couldn’t be more coy. They keep to their side of the services, topping up their tanks while the euro is so weak. They think the illegals should be allowed in, but when they say ‘in’, they don’t mean in their car. It would be easy to do — it’s not as if the Border Force ever look in the boot of a family motor — but that isn’t how liberals think. They’re intellectually fearless, rather than actually brave.

So the zombies creep towards our lorries instead. We’ll be in Saint-Quentin, filling up, and all the time we’ve got one eye on the pump and the other on the illegals. Take your eye off and they’ll sidle up to the trailer and do the stupid stuff they do. As if we’re not going to look in the back before we get to the ferry port. As if we’re not going to go up on the gantry and find them clinging on, and tell them to eff off. If there’s one English phrase they’re going to learn, it’s that. I feel sorry for them, for what it’s worth. They’re desperate and they’re not very bright and I know this because there are three easier ways of getting across the Channel than stowing away in an HGV.

On this one trip I’m telling you about, we were double manning, as I say, and so my co-driver — I’ll call him Mr Hyde because he’s yellowish and rough — he could stand on the other side of the trailer and shoo the illegals away while I filled up the diesel. And on this trip we had a journalist along too. I’ll call him Clark Kent but you know his name — he’s famous for slagging off restaurants. And once every six months he writes about a burning social issue so people won’t start thinking: hang on, you’re just a tiring man who doesn’t enjoy eating out anymore.

I suppose the six months had come up on his tachograph because here he was, sitting up in the cab, dropping his aitches to make us feel at home. The boss had said to be nice to him. She’d given me 500 extra in cash, with a warning that she’d take it back off my wages if the famous man didn’t have a nice day. The 500 was still in its manila envelope, safely tucked under my seat.

Once I’d done the diesel fill I climbed into the cab. Clark Kent had set up a webcam on the dashboard because apparently he was live-streaming the whole thing. Mr Hyde didn’t want to be in the shot, so the camera was just on me and Clark. It sat there on the dashboard like the unblinking Eye of Islington.

‘So what do these buttons do?’ Clark was saying. ‘Do you have alarms and whatnot?’

‘Those are the temp dials for the trailer. That one turns on the stereo.’

‘Oh, do you listen to music?’

I wondered what he thought we might listen to — the speeches of Enoch Powell — but the camera was on so I just said, ‘Yeah, whatever’s on the radio.’

‘Mind if I twiddle?’

‘Be my guest.’

‘I haven’t used one of these things for years,’ said Clark, prodding away. (I honestly don’t know what he meant. His fingers, maybe.)

He found Autoroute FM, which does bad French songs on a playlist, and he thought it very droll. We all laughed about it. It was hilarious that foreigners had radio stations featuring hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s. We rolled on towards Calais.

‘You don’t talk much,’ said Clark to Mr Hyde.

In fact I’d told him not to talk, because I knew how that would end.

‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He was on until we picked you up in Reims.’

‘You take the driving in turns, do you?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘we take Benzedrine and fondle each other to stay awake.’

Actually I said, ‘Yeah, in the EU it’s four-and-a-half hours each, then switch. We have a digi-card that keeps track of our hours.’

‘It must get tiring.’

‘No worse than journalism, I suppose. You have deadlines, don’t you?’

‘Tell me about it. Before I came out for this trip I had to do a Michelin-starred place in Maidstone. It was utterly bogus, and then I had to write it up on the ferry. I couldn’t work out if I was furious or seasick.’

‘Still,’ I said, ‘I’d swap with you.’

‘You say that, but there are only so many menus a man can read before he wonders if this is really his life’s main course.’

I wondered if he talked like that when the cameras weren’t on. I had a flash of what it would be like being married to him. I was exhausted already, and we’d only just met.

We reached the turn-off for Arras, which is where the zombie menace starts to be obvious. There was a bunch of them lurking on the slip road, all bones and nylon parkas.

‘Christ,’ said Clark. ‘You weren’t joking.’

‘No one believes it until they see with their own eyes. It’s a plague.’

Clark talked to the webcam. ‘I can see one or two dozen dark-skinned males, loitering by the exit from these services.’

‘More like three or four dozen,’ I said. ‘There’ll be more of them hiding behind that toilet block.’

‘Do you feel sympathy?’

‘We can’t, can we? It’s us who get punished when one of them stows away. We get an eight grand fine. Two strikes and we lose our licence.’

‘Still, they’re human beings. Don’t you feel compassion?’

He gave me the same look as when he’d seen my UKIP flag on the back wall of the cab — as if I wasn’t necessarily evil, but that I couldn’t be expected to know any better.

‘I have to think of my career,’ I said. ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’

He laughed, at least. ‘But seriously, don’t you feel any empathy?’

‘Do you? When one of your reviews shuts down an eatery?’

‘That’s different though, isn’t it? No one forces a Michelin chef to serve me a flightless vol-au-vent.’

Mr Hyde scowled at him and said in his Italian accent, ‘No one forces these scum to hide in my lorry.’

Clark turned to look at him. ‘I feel like we haven’t met.’

I laughed to calm things down. ‘Ignore him, his mother’s an I-Tie – he’s practically an immigrant himself.’

‘I’m a racist,’ said Mr Hyde. ‘There. Put that in your bloody newspaper. I hate illegals because I love the UK.’

I shushed him. ‘He means that if it was your mother the illegals were moving in next door to, you’d see it differently. If your kids couldn’t get a flat because immigrants get higher on the housing list, you’d be sick of it.’

‘Then you’re complaining about a social housing shortage, aren’t you, not an immigration crisis.’

‘You say potato.’

‘Actually I say croquette of heritage King Edwards a l’hollandaise, and I wouldn’t mind if these people made a new life next door to me.’

Mr Hyde opened his mouth but I shot him a look to shut up.

‘Please,’ I said, ‘you’re in the wrong lorry if you want to talk about the philosophy of it all. All we can do is show you what it’s really like out here on the frontline, and your readers can make up their own minds.’

‘Alright, fair enough. Then I think my first question would be: how do the stowaways make it through, if you’re always checking your lorries?’

‘Some drivers are careless, aren’t they? Me, I won’t stop within a hundred kilometres of Calais, but there’s always some Charlie who lets his hours expire and has to pull over. By the end of your statutory break, you’ll have illegals in your load, in your wheel arches, in your engine compartment. You’d be amazed at the gaps they squeeze into.’

‘Don’t the border guys find them? They have scanners, no?’

‘They’re only human. Zombies will always get through if they’re well-enough hidden. And some of the drivers, for a fee, have ways of hiding them.’

‘Really? There are drivers who’d risk that?’

I had to smile. ‘Listen, what do you make in a year?’

He winked at the camera. ‘I make 52 Saturdays less dull.’

‘Well I make 28k, with an ex and a current and four teenage kids. If I was unpatriotic, I could triple my money. Not all illegals are skint, you know.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘The situation is what’s serious. Ever since the Trojan horse, there’s been people smuggling. Ever since Han Solo took Obi Wan Kenobi’s money, in a galaxy far, far away.’

‘I’m warming to our chauffeur,’ said Clark to the camera. ‘I came expecting that a lorry driver would be unreconstructed, but maybe there’s more to this profession than I gave it credit for. Have your say by using the hashtag #stowaways.’

We drove through the outskirts of Calais. I pulled into the HGV lane and we joined the queue for the ferry port. In their own lanes the normals rolled past, refugees from their little places. Behind the glass you could see their lips moving as they argued whether there would have been time to stop at the last supermarket, to stock up on saucisson and those French school exercise books, the ones with the graph paper pages.

Clark said, ‘What would you do, if you found someone in the back of this lorry right now? What would you say to them?’

‘Well for a start I’d need to scrape the Brie off them. We’re carrying eighteen thousand kilos of it.’

‘But seriously?’

‘Seriously?’ I put my hand over the webcam, making sure to cover the mic as well as the lens. ‘The two of us would drag him out and give him a kicking. Because one, the load would be contaminated and the company would have to write off a hundred grand. And two, you need to get the word out that you don’t mess with British lorries. An old-fashioned kicking sends that message in every language the illegals speak.’

‘God! Have you ever done that?’

‘All of us have done it. It’s standard.’

I took my hand off the webcam and he said into it, ‘Our driver has just told me something profoundly shocking about what happens to stowaways if they’re discovered.’

‘Your readers should try being out here before they judge us.’

He looked into the camera again. ‘Now I don’t even know what I expected. I thought we’d found some common ground, but I have to say I’m shocked and disappointed. It’s as if these lorries have space for 40 tonnes of cargo but no room for basic humanity.’

‘Nice. Did you write that one before you came out?’

Now he put his own hand over the camera. ‘Look, don’t take it personally. You show up with your UKIP flag and talk about beating up the little man, of course I’m going to make you look like a dick. What did you think? I’m doing my job, same as you.’

It was awkward after that, in the cab. At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing, sighing noises — as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. The Border Force people put their scanners over the load and then gave us the manual checks, starting at the back of the trailer and working their way forward to the cab. When they saw Clark Kent it was like Christmas for them. In their commando jumpers, bless — they couldn’t get enough of him. And in fairness he was a gentleman — he signed autographs, and posed for selfies, and turned the webcam round to live stream them. They mugged for the camera and they weren’t even bothered with our passports — we could have travelled on our library cards.

Afterwards on the ferry, Clark seemed subdued. The fans had been spun sugar for him, and we were kryptonite. We took him to the lorry drivers’ lounge, away from the hoi-polloi, and I even bought him a coffee and a Chelsea bun. I wondered if he was going to review it, but he only set up his phone to film us, then sipped his drink and stared out at the waves.

‘Cheer up,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see us again after Dover.’

‘There is that, I suppose.’

‘Then why the long face? Do you have a terrine that you’re overdue to be angry about?’

‘It’s just that I feel so sorry for them. They’re so thin, aren’t they? And their eyes, when they were waiting on that slip road. Just so absolutely despairing. Imagine not being allowed into the country.’

‘Imagine having to come into the country, though. Imagine having to drop off 90,000 rounds of brie and drive home to Ruislip in the rain. Imagine having to read your restaurant reviews every Saturday morning.’

‘That’s life though, isn’t it? Turns out people will cling on to your axles for a chance at it.’

‘I suppose I’m just used to seeing them.’

‘Well I’m not. Seeing them desperate for what we have, it makes you realise what we’ve got.’

‘There you go — you’ve taken the first step. The next is to admit they’ll destroy what we have unless we keep them out.’

He shook his head. ‘I won’t ever take that step. That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.’

‘We’re different, I’ll give you that.’

We looked out together through the scratched Perspex windows. I’ve never got why people like the sea. It’s cold and unreliable. On dry land it would be a cat or an economist. Luckily we were almost into Dover already — it’s barely a ditch, the English Channel. If I was an illegal I’d rent a pedallo.

‘Is there any ground we haven’t covered today?’ said Clark. ‘Anything you’d like to say that you haven’t had the chance to?’

‘Just that I hope this has let people see what it’s really like. Out here we’re simple people, operating on the simple facts, and the fact is we can’t be having stowaways.’

‘Well, thank you for your time,’ said Clark, turning off the camera on his phone.

The three of us went to the lorry deck, down through the layers of car drivers to where the real business of the day was parked. While we waited to disembark, I made Clark pack away the webcam. When the ramp came down, we rolled out through the port. There was a chippie van in the first layby — First Plaice — and I pulled in because it was late and we hadn’t eaten.

I sent Mr Hyde down to fetch us all fish and chips. I gave him the manila envelope of cash from under my seat. I told him to keep the change. He shook my hand and that was it — he was gone. I watched him disappear in the off-side wing mirror. I watched until he was just a speck — just a germ — although it’s worth bearing in mind that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

The layby was quiet. A few seagulls stalked about, stabbing in the dust for old chips. You could see the white cliffs over the roofs of the warehouse buildings. In fairness, they’re off-white.

After five full minutes, Clark Kent finally got it. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’

‘Not unless he gets homesick and wants us to take him on the return trip.’

Clark began laughing and shaking his head. ‘My God.’

‘You write one word about this and I’ll swear you were in on it.’

‘Right. Of course. But I mean… Christ. Do you know where he’s from?’

‘Syria. Most of them can pass for Italian. I’ll only take them if they’ve got convincing papers.’

He said nothing, only shook his head and looked out at the gulls.

‘You know what?’ he said after a while. ‘I haven’t had fish and chips for I don’t know how long.’

We got cod-and-large times two and leaned against the bumper to eat them. I splashed vinegar on mine. Clark drizzled it on his. He sniffed the bottle and winced. The seagulls made those calls they make, of dead souls mocking the living.

‘How many times have you done this?’

‘Enough.’

‘Do they pay you for it?’

I shook my head. ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re the first passenger I’ve taken a fee for.’

‘So why do you do it?’

‘It’s the kick, isn’t it? To be different inside. Last freedom we’ve got.’

‘What made you start?’

‘Like you said, it’s different once you’ve seen their eyes. You realise if they can carry all that, maybe you can take some of the load. You might as well help — life’s over so fast.’

‘It’s a short trip in a long vehicle.’

I sighed. ‘You do write this stuff in advance.’

‘It was going to be my title for the piece.’

The gulls went up a gear, distraught at all their liberty.

‘How are your fish and chips?’ I said.

He frowned at his Styrofoam tray. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘A little rustic.’

It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.

She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.

Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”

Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”

She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”

She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.

A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.

“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”

Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.

But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.

The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.

Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.

“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.

“I’m dying,” said the girl.

“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”

Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.

When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.

We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.

The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”

I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”

With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.

In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.

At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.

I

Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.

In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that pos­sibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the pic­ture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.

 

***

 

My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her fam­ily. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.

There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.

 

***

 

Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.

In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but ele­gant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her look­ing around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.

Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.

Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?

 

II

 

It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treat­ing myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.

I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remem­ber at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambiva­lent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I trans­ferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?

What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.

I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no ques­tion that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange

and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,

he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.

He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.

He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Satur­day night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.

This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were pre­sumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cock­tail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.

The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by cur­tains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.

We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.

When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.

I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then

that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a

sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,

wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.

The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.

“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.

“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”

“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.

And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmen­tioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apart­ment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hall­ways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.

 

***

 

Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happen­ing and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.

“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”

 

***

 

The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events them­selves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.

My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting veg­etables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.

“Coffee?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.

Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.

“Mom, what happened?”

She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”

“During the war, what happened?”

For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.

The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.

“Why are you doing this?”

“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”

She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.

 

III

 

How much time is left?

Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?

I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.

Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.

In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.

One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fab­ric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.

 


*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon

I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see.

José Saramago

 

Saeed, drunk, opened the door. The rabbit hopped inside. The kicking started. Both were yelling.

“What are you doing here? It’s my place.” With that Saeed was violently booted out of the broken-down electric fridge…

 

***

 

This country has a specially powerful and high-voltage electricity supply. When you try to turn off the light the switches don’t work. Electricity, like air, is compulsory. An electric sun blazes night and day; there’s no such thing as a dim light. Lots of equipment is broken because there’s no way to repair it. Repairs mean turning something off, so the repairman doesn’t get an electric shock.

Buildings, houses, and hospitals take measures to make the light less bright when needed. To lower the lighting, hospitals put cardboard boxes painted black over light bulbs and nail them to the wall. In people’s homes, incandescent bulbs are covered with pieces of thick canvas or coarse black cloth, which put up the price of coarse black cloth.

 

Saeed was aggrieved at being kicked out of his house. He squatted on the ground slapping his right thigh.

It was me who cleaned up the house when that damn cat was sleeping in it. I kicked her out. My friend Sameer helped. He gave me some cleaning products and told me I had to clean the place up. I don’t understand how that blasted Qassim could steal my house so cynically. I’ll complain to the police. It’s my right, people, my right.

Qassim was my friend until a few days ago. What made him renege on our friendship? Where am I going to find another fridge on such a cold night? What have I done to deserve all this?

 

The rabbit of the pavements started wailing and sobbing. He tried to pull his faded dishdasha tight around his body to block the holes. He wiped away his tears and, suddenly, as if he had remembered something, he rubbed the tattoo on his right arm. A surge of long-lost warmth lit up his tears.

He crossed to the pavement opposite, to the café whose owner had forgotten to turn off the radio. The newsreader announced: “Parliament is due to vote tomorrow on the decision to allocate residential plots to government officials.” Saeed collected a few plastic bags strewn nearby. He gathered them into a ball, put it down as a pillow, and lay on the ground. He gave a sigh, relaxed, and dozed off. The sound of his shivering bones mixed with his snores. He laughed and guffawed in his sleep. Perhaps he was dreaming?

 

***

 

The Bridge

 

The crowds were getting ready to plant the seeds of their dreams on the journey ahead. Samar raced behind the beautiful rabbits. One of them disappeared into its burrow. The little girl cried as she waited for it to emerge. She lowered her head and peered into the rabbit hole between the trees in an effort to find it. One of her four rabbits was missing.

Seagulls flapped over the Tigris. The bridge opened its gates to a crowd of thousands: tender heads whose time for reaping had not yet come and heads heavy with worry and sorrows. O God, O Helper, O Champion of the downtrodden, grant us, the poor and deprived, our desire. Iman pulled up her dusty, old abaya and pushed the children, Ahlam, Omar, Mohammed, Zayd, and Ali in front of her: “Hold on to me, kids. The Lord calls, and we have to obey. Bab al-Hawaij,[1] the one who grants, refuses no one.” The children move with the crowds towards the roadway.

 

***

 

Friendship

 

Saeed woke in the morning. He roamed around Mutanabbi Street. Everybody was his friend, but he had no friends. Sameer, who worked in one of the bookshops, took pity on him and gave him a cup of tea and a piece of bread.

“I swear by the Tigris and the Euphrates – I don’t distinguish between them – Qassim robbed me while I was sleeping. I had some money and when I woke up it was gone. That wretch Qassim who stole my home.”

“Saeed, calm down. It’s Friday today. The day you make money. God will compensate you. We’ll find you somewhere else. Guess what? Yesterday a friend left you a new dishdasha and some food. You have to come with me and take a shower and put on your dishdasha.”

“Today’s a work day. If I wear a new dishdasha I won’t make any money. You’re my friend and I like you because you’re kind and don’t steal.” He was silent for a while then continued, “Listen, yesterday I went fishing with a friend. Whenever he lifted his line he’d catch a big fat fish, but always threw it back in the river. Whenever I lifted mine, I’d hook some weeds or Qassim al-Tanbouri’s[2] torn-up shoe. I asked him why he was throwing the fish back. He said he only had a small pan for cooking fish and wanted one that fit.”

Sameer laughed.

“Listen. I’ve got good news for you. They gave me 9 million dinars and I repaired my house after it fell down. But government officials ignore me and travel to Egypt or Syria or I don’t know where. They’re always travelling and dropping my case. Even though all the papers are in order I still owe them 3 million dinars!”

“You’re talking nonsense, Saeed. What strange things you’re coming up with today.”

“If you add jam, it becomes really delicious. Should I buy you some? Give me the money then, I don’t have any.”

 

***

 

Souvenir Photo

 

Saeed moved off to perform his daily rituals. He started with the Tigris. He raised his hands, recited the Fatiha, cupped his right hand and filled it with water. He brought the water to his nose, kissed it, then tried to put it back. He touched the tattoo on his upper arm. He turned around and was annoyed as they passed. All he could do was shout in English, “Why you inside? Come here so I can have a souvenir photo with you.”

He leapt into the midst of the people with white skin and blue eyes and the few dark-skinned ones with them. They smiled warily at him, and he called out to Sameer, “Come here for God’s sake. Take a picture for me with your camera.”

Smiling, Sameer did what he was asked. Saeed, however, intended to hang the picture in the toilet after spitting all over it.

At last, Samar’s rabbit came out of its hole to play with his friends. The rabbit of Mutanabbi Street disappeared. Nobody knew exactly where to find him. He might be sitting in some corner drinking alcohol and weeping over his old love.

 

***

 

Last Request

 

Iman, don’t forget to pray for me. Perhaps God will guide me to give up drinking. Perhaps Kadouri, the shop owner, will raise my day’s wages rather then threatening to get rid of me. Perhaps God will provide me some other work, better than that blasted Kadouri. You know I’m a great metal worker, but for the drink. I love drinking Iman, like I love you, a lot. Watch out for the children, and pray for me there. Ask for your wish. Go in through Bab al-Hawaij and tie this green ribbon onto the window lattice. Don’t forget. Let all our needs be known there. Believe me, the Imam Musa bin Jaafar really loves me. I feel he will intercede for me this time. Trust me. He knows I’ve never robbed anyone and that I love him a lot. God be with you now.”

 

***

 

Long life!

 

The convoy of a well-known security official was passing and Saeed turned up. The official got out of his car and was immediately followed by a great many police officers. They crossed Mutanabbi Street towards the river. When they got closer, the rabbit ran quickly behind them repeating in a loud voice:

“Tantantara, tantantara!

Long life! for I died after you

Spurn me as long as you wish

What remained of love in my heart

Went out forever with you.

He closed his eyes and waved his hands, totally immersed in his singing. Some of the officers tried to block his path and prevent him walking behind them, but one of them said to another, “Leave him be. He’s just a beggar.” Saeed heard them: “Shut up. You shut up, not a word.” The officer ignored him, and he carried on singing.

 

***

 

First Love

 

“I fell in love with a girl thirty years ago, a beautiful Indian-looking girl from Basra. She was called Suheir Mohammed. I spotted her working at a ladies’ hairdressers and spent two and a half hours every day waiting for her to come out of her workplace just so I could watch her from afar. Then I confessed my love to her and we were in a relationship for a year and a half without me touching her. I swear by God Almighty, I didn’t touch her. She did once go with me to Zawraa Park, and I brought her kibbeh, but her family forced her to marry her cousin. Time has made today’s love stories horrible because men have become love fiends. They’re randy donkeys.”

That’s what Saeed told me. He gave off alcohol fumes, swaying so much he could hardly walk. He was quiet for a little then continued as if far away, “But Iman…”

His eyes filled with tears and his voice choked off. He looked away and vanished.

 

***

 

Pilgrims

 

On Fridays, pilgrims head to Mutanabbi Street, casting stones at the Devil in their various ways. All the roads were blocked, because it was also time for pilgrims to head to the bridge that leads to Bab al-Hawaij. When the tunic of Uthman[3] took the road to Mecca, the road to God, it started in Baghdad. Uthman’s tunic was also stoning the Devil.

What are you talking about? What Friday? What road? What bridge? It’s all out of context.  Uthman was martyred millennia ago. Absolutely not, Uthman was martyred a few years ago! No! Uthman was a boy in first grade at the Tigris Primary School! Sameer is crying on the banks of the Tigris: You’re not Naathal[4], Uthman. You’re the shining star of Iraq floating on the river.

 

***

 

Hot Water

 

The rabbits preened their fur after the little girl had washed them with the finest shampoos and dressed them in coloured ribbons with coloured stones and a blue bead in the middle. When one of the rabbits bit a large carrot the little girl clapped in delight.

“Mama, please tell me what do constitution and demonstration mean? Why are people going out into the streets everywhere and holding up signs? I saw it on TV yesterday.”

“Oh darling, the people are demanding their right to a decent life in which they can have food, medicine, and security.”

The little girl Samar got lost in deep thoughts…

Sameer went with Saeed to get him cleaned up and put on his new dishdasha. Saeed refused to have his long hair cut.

“Kebab. Kebab. Today I won’t scrabble in the rubbish. I’m going to have kebab, just like a VIP.”

While he was eating, scalding water suddenly poured down on him. He screamed as terrific heat surged through his entire body. His lower limbs seemed to boil. The rabbit fell to the ground yelling and screaming, “Sons of bitches! Ow! Ow!”

His new dishdasha was torn. The food was spilled. The skin was stripped from his body, like a sheep being flayed. The rabbit’s pelt was all burned. Blood spurted. A large empty bucket lay there.

The little girl Samar clapped. Her rabbits had finally crossed the path she had drawn for them. She called it the bridge and they crossed it with ease.

 

***

 

Uthman’s Tunic

 

Devotees scrambled to jump into the Tigris. A rumour had spread: a suicide bomber in the crowd. Panic ensued. New openings for longings were announced in the depths of the Tigris. Prayers drowned in the stampede before they reached their intended path. Clothes floated. The Tigris was dressed in black abayas. Shoes were scattered. Many cried out for help from the midst of the river: “Uthman, Uthman, save us, Uthman!”

Uthman jumped, followed by his friends. Shout clung to shout; abaya clung to abaya, until the weight became too much for Uthman. The rocks dragged him down. Was he chasing away the blackness? Did he want the surface of the Tigris to be pure white?

Iman and her little ones and thousands of others slept cared for by the shark of needs, until at last the surface of the Tigris became white with Uthman’s tunic. Sameer beat his chest and shouted, “Our agony… for the past thousand years, Uthman’s tunic has been floating on the Tigris.

“If I knew who burned me I’d burn down his house. What do they want from me? Do I own a royal palace? If they’d asked I’d have given them the dishdasha as a present rather than all that!”

Saeed was crying in pain. Sameer handed him ointments and medicine. Al-Jawahiri turned in his grave and emerged, pointing his finger at the Tigris: “O apoplexy of death, O tempestuous storm, O dagger of betrayal, O olive branch.”

The forensic department in Baghdad answered al-Jawahiri’s call, declaring days of mourning and opening refrigerated burrows for the rabbits that had drowned in the Tigris and the rabbits yet to be born, so that they could go home without kicking. Saeed continued to guffaw in his sleep despite his burns.

 

***

 

Demonstration

 

Samar tugged at the hem of her mother’s robe. “Mama, come and look at the rabbits, please come!”

Her mother moved towards the garden saying, “You are making a lot of demands these days, my dear.” She was taken aback to see the rabbits running in the garden. On their backs were pieces of paper tied on with coloured ribbons. Her mouth opened in shock and disbelief. She went closer to the rabbits and read the slogans scrawled on the pieces of paper:

— I want a big carrot

— I want a bunny to play with

— I want a bed to sleep in

— I love Samar a lot

Her mother burst out laughing. “What’s all this, Samar? A rabbit demonstration?” Then she clapped her hands together and said, “God preserve us. We have to get rid of these rabbits before you go mad. They’re all you ever think about.” Meanwhile the little girl was shouting …

 

***

 

Spring Will Come

 

I hate the world and I don’t want anyone to hate the world. Life is beautiful. Spring will come to Iraq, despite the autumn. He raised his palm towards the river and called, “Abu Ahmad, Abu Ahmad. Watch out, your boat is crowded with people. Take care, there are children on board.”

He touched his arm and smiled sadly to someone far away. He rolled up his ragged sleeve for me to look at the tattoo: a large heart with the names Iman, Zayd, Omar, Ahlam, Mohammed, and Ali written inside it.

Saeed left me and headed to the middle of Mutanabbi Street shouting, “I want a pillow! I’ve decided today I’m going to sleep on a pillow. I won’t sleep on the pavement. I want a pillow! I want a pillow!”

He laughed loudly when someone handed him a pillow. He threw it on the pavement, lay down, and put his head on it. He started to laugh and cry. “Life doesn’t deserve respect,” he said. “Only love.” He closed his eyes. He closed his eyes for ever.

 

Samar’s rabbits are still demonstrating in the garden, but this time they carry signs reading: “No relocation.”

 


[1] Bab al-Hawaij, literally the Gate of Needs, refers to the mausoleum of Musa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, the seventh Shia imam. Pilgrims visit to petition the Imam. His mausoleum is accessed by the Bridge of the Imams across the Tigris. In 2005, a stampede on the crowded bridge resulted in around 1,000 deaths.

[2] Abu al-Qassim al-Tanburi was a rich and miserly Baghdadi merchant who continually patched his shoes rather than buy a new pair. These shoes caused him much misery, imprisonment, and impoverishment. He finally had a legal document drawn up to exonerate him from any of the crimes committed by his shoes. For a version of the tale, see: http://www.knightsofarabia.com/arabian/001/arabian00009.html.

[3] Uthman’s tunic was the blood-stained shirt in which the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered. The tunic was subsequently used by Mu’awiya to incite the people against Ali, whom he accused of being behind Uthman’s death.

[4] Naathal was a Jewish man who lived in Medina and who resembled Uthman. Uthman’s enemies called him Naathal to mock him and encourage people to kill him.

Old Nannie sat hunched upon herself expecting her own death momentarily. The Grandmother had said to her at parting, with the easy prophecy of the aged, that this might be their last farewell on earth; they embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks, and once more promised to meet each other in heaven. Nannie was prepared to start her journey at once. The children gathered around her: “Aunt Nannie, never you mind! We love you!” She paid no attention; she did not care whether they loved her or not. Years afterward, Maria, the elder girl, thought with a pang, they had not really been so very nice to Aunt Nannie. They went on depending upon her as they always had, letting her assume more burdens and more, allowing her to work harder than she should have. The old woman grew silent, hunched over more deeply – she was thin and tall also, with a nobly modeled Negro face, worn to the bone and a thick fine sooty black, no mixed blood in Nannie-and her spine seemed suddenly to have given way. They could hear her groaning at night on her knees beside her bed, asking God to let her rest.

When a black family moved out of a little cabin across the narrow creek, the first cabin empty for years, Nannie went down to look at it. She came back and asked Mister Harry, “Whut you aim to do wid dat cabin?” Mister Harry said, “Nothing,” he supposed; and Nannie asked for it. She wanted a house of her own, she said; in her whole life she never had a place of her very own. Mister Harry said, of course she could have it. But the whole family was surprised, a little wounded. “Lemme go there and pass my last days in peace, chil’ren,” she said. They had the place scrubbed and whitewashed, shelves put in the chimney cleaned, they fixed Nannie up with a good bed and a fairly good carpet and allowed her to take all sort of odds and ends from the house. It was astonishing to discover that Nannie had always liked and hoped to own certain things, she had seemed so contented and wantless. She moved away, and as the children said afterwards to each other, it was almost funny and certainly very sweet to see how she tried not to be too happy the day she left, but they felt rather put upon, just the same.

Thereafter she sat in the serene idleness of making patch-work and braiding woolen rugs. Her grandchildren and her white family visited her, and all kinds of white persons who had never owned a soul related to Nannie, went to see her, to buy her rugs or leave little presents with her.

She had always worn black wool dresses, or black and white figured calico with starchy white aprons and white ruffled mobcap, or a black taffety cap for Sundays. She had been fincking precise and neat in her ways, and she still was. But she was no more the faithful old servant Nannie, a freed slave: she was an aged Bantu woman of independent means, sitting on the steps, breathing the free air. She began wearing a blue bandanna wrapped around her head, and at the age of eight-five she took to smoking a corncob pipe. The black iris of the deep, withdrawn old eyes turned a chocolate brown and seemed to spread over the whole surface of the eyeball. As her sight failed, the eyelids crinkled and drew in, so that her face was like an eyeless mask.

The children, brought up in an out-of-date sentimental way of thinking, had always complacently believed that Nannie was a real member of the family, perfectly happy with them, and this rebuke, so quietly and firmly administered, chastened them somewhat. The lesson sank in as the years went on and Nannie continued to sit on the doorstep of her cabin. They were growing up, times were changing, the old world was sliding from under their feet, they had not yet laid hold of the new one. They missed Nannie every day. As their fortunes went down, and they had very few servants, they needed her terribly. They realized how much the old woman had done for them, simply by seeing how, almost immediately after she went, everything slackened, lost tone, went off edge. Work did not i accomplish itself as it once had. They had not learned how to work for themselves, they were all lazy and incapable of sustained effort or planning. They had not been taught and they had not yet educated themselves. Now and then Nannie would come back up the hill for a visit. She worked then almost as she had before, with a kind of satisfaction in proving to them that she had been almost indispensable. They would miss her more than ever when she went away. To show their gratitude, anti their hope that she would come again, they would heap upon her baskets and bales of the precious rubbish she loved, and one of her great grandsons Skid or Hasty would push them j away beside her on a wheelbarrow. She would again for a moment be the amiable, dependent, like-one-of-the-family old servant: “I know my chil’ren won’t let me go away empty handed.”

Uncle Jimbilly still pottered around, mending harness, currying horses, patching fences, now and then setting out a few plants or loosening the earth around shrubs in the spring. He muttered perpetually to himself, his blue mouth always moving in an endless disjointed comment on things past and present, and even to come, no doubt, though there was nothing about him that suggested any connection with even the nearest future . . . Maria had not realized until after her grandmother’s death that Uncle Jimbilly and Aunt Nannie were husband and wife . . . That marriage of convenience, in which they had been mated with truly royal policy, with an eye to the blood and family stability, had dissolved of itself between them when the reasons for its being had likewise dissolved . . . They took no notice whatever of each other’s existence, they seemed to forget they had children together (each spoke of “my children”), they had stored up no common memories that either wished to keep. Aunt Nannie moved away into her own house without even a glance or thought for Uncle Jimbilly, and he did not seem to notice that she was gone . . . He slept in a little attic over the smoke-house, and ate in the kitchen at odd hours, and did as he pleased, lonely as a wandering spirit and almost as invisible . . . But one day he passed by the little house and saw Aunt Nannie sitting on her steps with her pipe. He sat down awhile, groaning a little as he bent himself into angels, and sunned himself like a weary old dog. He would have stayed on from that minute, but Nannie would not have him. “Whut you doin with all this big house to yoself?” he wanted to know. “’Tain’t no more than just enough fo’ me,” she told him pointedly; “I don’ aim to pass my las’ days waitin on no man,” she added, “I’ve served my time, I’ve done my do, and dat’s all.” So Uncle Jimbilly crept back up the hill and into his smoke-house attic, and never went near her again . . .

On summer evenings she sat by herself long after dark, smoking to keep away the mosquitoes, until she was ready to sleep. She said she wasn’t afraid of anything: never had been, never expected to be. She had long ago got in the way of thinking that night was a blessing, it brought the time when she didn’t have to work any more until tomorrow. Even after she stopped working for good and all, she still looked forward with longing to the night, as if all the accumulated fatigues of her life, lying now embedded in her bones, still begged for easement. But when night came, she remembered that she didn’t have to get up in the morning until she was ready. So she would sit in the luxury of having at her disposal all of God’s good time there was in this world.

 

*

 

When Mister Harry, in the old days, had stood out against her word in some petty dispute, she could always get the better of him by slapping her slatty old chest with the flat of her long hand and crying out: “Why, Mister Harry, you, ain’t you shamed to talk lak dat to me? I nuhsed you at dis bosom!”

 

Harry knew this was not literally true. She had nursed three of his elder brothers; but he always said at once, “All right, Mammy, all right, for God’s sake!”—precisely as he said it to his own mother, exploding in his natural irascibility as if he hoped to clear the air somewhat of the smothering matriarchal tyranny to which he had been delivered by the death of his father. Still he submitted, being of that latest generation of sons who acknowledged, however reluctantly, however bitterly, their mystical never to be forgiven debt to the womb that bore them, and the breast that suckled them.

 


 

*Katherine Anne Porter, “The Last Leaf” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.

 

1

The three men headed out to Tel Aviv on the rough road. Two Palestinians and a Jordanian—or rather a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport, to be precise.

“50 shekels.”

“At least.”

“If one of them wants you to stick it in him, tell him ‘allawi. It means more than 100 shekels.’”

“And if one of them wants to stick it into me?”

“Don’t be stupid! We’re just the men they fantasize about. We don’t take it, and we don’t give in to the world of dicks and all their pleasures.”

“Try to make it so they just feel you up for 50 shekels, and don’t cum so quick or they wear you out after two times around, and take your cash in advance so they don’t jip you and run.”

“If we say ten customers per hour…”

“Believe me, I’ve worked here for five years and those foreigners really can’t get enough—  they love their Arab stallions! You’ll be able to work over more than ten, believe me.”

The Jordanian, called Jihad, stared at the veins that criss-crossed his palm and said:

“You’re sure? What about the police? I’m worried you’re going to screw me over…”

(A man walks along a winding dirt road to avoid trouble at the first checkpoint, then crosses a long wide river of turquoise stones and golden spray to avoid death.)


2

‘Awni decided to take this day off and spend it in Tel Aviv, a city that meant nothing to him aside from the possibility of hooking up with transient men who often had Northeastern European features. They left just a light titillation running through his body for a week at most, without any risk or a scandal like the ones in one of Nazareth’s forests or in the dark corners of who-knows-where.

Awni lied to everyone today. He took a day off with no real excuse on a day as ordinary as any other, not even a national or religious holiday in some distant country as a pretext. He told his wife that he was taking a training course on “pediatric psychological health in modern society.” In response to questions from his mother, who lived downstairs, he said that he was on his way to an important conference about “globalization.” Likewise, he told his one close friend, Aziz, that he was applying for a work visa at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. Aziz looked doubtful and was immediately consumed by jealousy.

What a delicious lie, like a breeze tickling the back of his neck!

The shared taxi headed out from the garages in the center of Nazareth, carrying Awni to Arlozorov Street, near the train station. He was in the middle of an urban jungle that he frequented once a season, usually for the same reason: men.

Your breeze is amber and your land is sugar and I love you more. Your hands are trees but I do not sing like all the other nightingales. The chains teach me to fight…

This is what was running through Awni’s head as he plunged into Jabotinski Street, heading west: “a song by Umayma al-Khalil… finding love on the passages of the hills of old Amman, at times dark and at times smooth… If only we would let things last a little, after they’ve peaked, then I wouldn’t be headed down this strange and twisted path… Mu’anas al-Shibl… or any other name I could convert into gold at one of these ATMs in my veins.”

 My songs are daggers made of roses, my silence a childhood’s thunder… And you are the soil and the sky and your heart is evergreen.

“Excuse me – how do I get from here to the intersection of Dizengoff and Frishman Street?”

Your heart is evergreen… How could I not love you more?

 

3

Most people leave their houses in the morning, head to work, return in the evening and, depending on the type of work, plop down in front of the television and such. A life preserved in a jar of pickles, sometimes adorned with things such as: money, a spouse, children, strange hobbies, or extreme conflicts.

What a thing for a “prestigious” mustachioed man to set all this aside and head to a city he had never heard anything about, or at least anything good, in order to mingle with its men (easier than mingling with its women) and receive a decent sum of money for his pleasure (taking into account the gap in the standard of living between these places that are so deadly close to each other—Israel, Palestine and Jordan.)

The “prestigious” mustachioed man has green and/or honey-colored eyes that characterize many of Palestine’s historic and a historic inhabitants. He wears a slightly worn formal suit that conceals the body of a young man despite the signs of his advancing 40s apparent in his white tufts of hair. His shoes shine despite the dust of the road, leaving only a memory of the original shoe shine. The man looks like he has arrived to sign a deal for some cheap cosmetics; half of the men in Tel Aviv wouldn’t give him a second thought.

The three men went into the streets of the city, heading instinctively west towards the Kaplan intersection.

“You’re sure you know the address?”

“I told you, I know Tel Aviv better than the people who live here, better than Barak, even. Look, we’ll take this path…”

The three men glanced over the posters that surround the buildings of the Ministry of Security and the General Command of the Army, as a song by the Syrian singer Asala floated by:

If only you knew how much we loved you, and cherish you…ta ta ta…Value even the earth we toss out for you to tread on…

The three drew near ibn Gabirol Street, the true heart of the city…

“When they finish the subway very soon this will all be much easier.”

“Subway? I can’t see any stations, or anybody digging to make way for it.”

“What do you know? They’re like the Germans; they only work at night when people are sleeping. Nobody notices them.”

The third, the silent one, roused himself from his thoughts:

“Abu Khalil, the truth is that your dick could carve out twelve metro lines in a single night.”

The three chuckled out loud. Abu Khalil, the green-eyed one with the moustache, said:

“What do you think, do I have to get it up first?”

 

Their laughter rolled down an elegant narrow street crowded with the patrons of European cafes. The three sang the refrain of Asala’s song:

Don’t persuade us not to love you, you are always in our heart. Nobody cares about you more than we do…

Suddenly the guide shouted in a strangled voice:

“Run – the police!”

4

The moon appears in the morning from the East, like the sun. It heads to the last wave, where it shatters and turns into a bird circling towards an engine of an airplane leaving the land of broken promises or ones that ended in a mysterious death. The moon dawns there in the East and casts a gloomy shadow. Then the promiscuous nightly encounter in an old Jaffa hotel turns into a pool of pure clean blood.

5

Awni thought to himself I can’t possibly have travelled all this way, lied all of these lies, wasted an entire day off like an idiot to come here and have no one signal to me or turn to me…Even that old man with the limp dick won’t respond to my glances. My eyes are already starting to look inward and call up the kind of man I can only find in my dreams! One after another they appear, but the only ones left here are the old, the disfigured, the shifty, and the ones I hate the most, the everyday sluts. “Lord, is this all because I’ve put on a bit of weight?”

Awni drew near one ugly specimen, as if begging for a last chance at success before dying of despair:

“Good evening”

“[In broken English] I’m sorry, I don’t know Hebrew.”

“Where are you from?”

“Romania.”

The smell of beer poured out of the man’s mouth, mingling with the scent of vodka, tahini, and great desperation:

“Do you want me…?”

“I have a thing… maybe later…”

This was in the famous sauna club for gays of all shapes, types, social classes, and identity intersections in the middle of Tel Aviv.


6

In that same club, the three men took up their positions, each according to his role. The guide stood outside the secret rooms, the last stop for those who hadn’t yet attracted another’s gaze. In barely audible Hebrew, he’d set an entrance price in a tone that did not encourage bargaining, a price on tasting formerly forbidden fruit.

The silent one took up his place in one room, with Abu Khalil splayed like a peacock in the room facing him. It was as if there were appreciable gaps between the ambience of the place, the job they were doing, and their motivations—all reflected in the garish smile that hovered beneath Abu Khalil’s thick, grey moustache.


7

Those young men are drawing back from the point where I’m standing, crossing the frame of a cinematic long shot… just like that my days and hours fall away… and the diary of my lips… and I sweat… and I sweat…

8

Awni entered the room of the man called Abu Khalil, after desperately agreeing to all the terms and the degrading price. Abu Khalil was crouched like a cat waiting for its master to bring him some food.

“Do you like Arab dicks?”

“I don’t have any ethnic obsession with them—I’m Arab.”

“Really! You don’t look it.”

“I’ll leave you completely satisfied… where are you from?”

“Nazareth.”

“From which family?”

“Watch it…”

“I have a lot of relatives in Nazareth.”

“Which family?”

“Tell me first and then I’ll tell you.”

“Who do you know there?”

“Do you know the Khalaf family?”

“I’m from the Khalaf family.”

“Who’s your father??”

“Qassim!”

 

Qassim Khalaf was the half-brother of Abu Khalil. But the old accumulated family disagreements and political barriers led them all to forget that vital and important matter.

Abu Mustafa parked his carriage next to the sidewalk. With a large, gnarled hand he patted his horse’s head, then headed into the nearby shop. He began hoisting bags of firewood on his back and carrying them to the carriage.

The horse was angry for no reason. But his anger began to subside after finding a piece of watermelon rind that he chomped in silence.

Suddenly the horse noticed a small boy standing nearby, staring at him and smiling. The horse said to himself: “I don’t know this boy. If he comes closer, I will kick him. I will kick a kick that’ll break his head.”

Shortly the horse finished chewing the watermelon rind, and self-pity set in. He began to stare at the boy with hatred, saying to himself: “I am going to kick him.”

During these moments, Abu Mustafa was absorbed in moving the bags of wood and placing them on the roof of the carriage.

The horse was tired and complained to himself: “Justice is lost.”

The horse had been born in the city, and he had spent his whole life on its asphalt roads. He had never once left. His ancient grandfathers used to romp free through the wide prairie where there were no buildings or walls or stones. But they were all dead.

The boy bent down and picked up a watermelon rind that was out of reach for the horse. The horse backed away but out of courage did so slowly. The boy held out the watermelon rind near the horse’s mouth. The horse hesitated for a brief second, then snatched the rind in surprise, and started chewing rather happily. Then he let the boy stroke his neck with a small, gentle hand.

Abu Mustafa finished loading the wood on the carriage. When he noticed the little boy near the horse, he yelled: “Get away, you monkey.”

Then he waved his whip through the air and let out a cry, commanding the horse to go. The horse started forward, slowly pulling the heavy carriage.

The carriage passed through a number of streets, eventually coming to a wide street lined with stone buildings on both sides. Before it could get part way down the street, a policeman blocked its way. Abu Mustafa yelled a long-drawn-out “hish” at the horse.

The policeman said: “Don’t you know that carriages are not allowed on this street?”

Abu Mustafa replied: “I know.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“My horse, look at him. My horse is worn out. If I took the other street, then I would be asking too much from him.”

The horse felt deep sympathy. The policeman said: “Carriages are not allowed on this street. Only cars and pedestrians.”

Abu Mustafa said: “I know.” He licked his lips and continued, saying: “The horse is tired. If he dies, my livelihood is stopped. I will starve to death, and so will my children. I have four children.”

“Go back, and I won’t punish you for breaking the system and the law.”

“I have four sons who eat rocks,” Abu Mustafa said, getting down from the carriage. He let out a short, dry laugh that was like a small, violent knife. He said: “I’m telling you the truth. I don’t fear for my children, I fear for their mother.”

Curious, the policeman asked: “Why do you fear for her?”

The trees were green along the sides of the street. Blue vastness stretched across the sky. And Abu Mustafa replied: “I fear that my children will eat their mother if they are starving. Their teeth are monsters.”

A car passed at high speed so the policeman blew his whistle, but the car did not stop. The policeman was able to read the license plate number before it disappeared, he wrote it on a page in his notebook, and then – his face swollen with anger – he turned to Abu Mustafa and said: “Now, go back.”

“Please let me pass, just this once.”

The policeman said sternly: “Did you hear me? Go back.”

“Just this once.”

“Go back. The law is the law. No use in pleading.”

“My horse is tired.”

“Go back now.”

“May God keep you, for your mother’s sake.”

“God, do not keep me! I do not make the law. I do what I am commanded to do, and you must obey these commands.”

Abu Mustafa said nothing. He imagined the law to be a massive creature with thousands of hands: the law commands the policeman, so the policeman obeys; the policeman commands Abu Mustafa, and Abu Mustafa must obey all commands.

Abu Mustafa stood there for a few moments, until the policeman yelled: “Go back. If you do not go back now, you will regret it.”

Abu Mustafa turned toward the carriage. But the horse’s anger had become explosive: with all of its might, berserk, it charged forward. The policeman saw the carriage coming at him, he tried to jump onto the sidewalk, but did not make it. The horse crashed into him, throwing him onto the ground on his back. The horse’s hooves crushed the policeman’s chest, then the wheels of the carriage ran over him, becoming red with blood.

The horse was surprised to see that his owner was not happy, that he was panicked and morose, and that he then took off running, fleeing.

A moment later people came running and circled the carriage. Their eyes shone fear mixed with hidden desire, as if the crushed policeman was the body of a beautiful woman.

The people did not leave until policemen arrived, who then set out to catch the murderer.

The judge was just; he sent the horse to a major stockyard. It seemed to the horse that this must be what was left of the prairie.

The horse stood there in the yard and he was happy – on his way to the stockyard he had travelled through wide streets that he had never been permitted to use before. But his bliss did not last long because soon he was hanging by his neck.


*The story was published in the collection Al-Ra’d (The Thunder), 1970, and in this English translation in Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature No. 53, 2015.

As soon as he saw his friend, who had just arrived from back home, in the airport arrivals lounge, he asked him, “Did you bring it?”

His friend gestured to the backpack hanging off of his shoulder as if he was waiting for this question. “You drove me nuts with all your phone calls asking me to bring you a handful of dirt. Do you think you’re the first person to move away from home?” He pulled a bag of dirt out of his backpack.

He looked expressionlessly at his friend who had just come back from the homeland and took the bag of dirt from him. He walked off silently toward the train platform.

He remained silent on board the train as well. He couldn’t hear the creaking of the train’s wheels or the giggling of the young redheads with septum rings or even the shouts of the lads cheering on their football squad. He was staring at the dirt-filled bag in his hands.

The people who walked past him quickly stared at him, thinking he was either drunk or asleep. Even when the conductor asked him for his ticket, he took his ticket out of his pocket and handed it to him without taking his eyes off the bag of dirt. The conductor pursed his lips and scowled as he placed the ticket back into his hand, which was still hanging in the air. It had been three years since he’d left home. In this new country, which would never be home, he’d faced all manner of difficulties. He had spent an entire year in a shelter for refugees and the past two years in a house that felt more like a hovel. He hadn’t had a chance to learn the language of this new place, he hadn’t made any friends, and he couldn’t find stable work that suited him. Days in this new city, which constantly kept him at arm’s length, passed slowly. He’d have gone crazy a long time ago if it weren’t for his mobile phone. His mobile only rang sporadically, but it was a good entertainer. When he dialed a phone number at random, he would instantly apologize: “I’m sorry. I dialed the wrong number!”

 “Don’t let it happen again,” the angry voice on the phone would often reply. But it wasn’t a game that he could easily give up. He needed to hear another human being’s voice, if only for a few seconds.

The social services office in the city was pressuring him to get a job, but his first priority was to learn the language, even though there was no one to help him. One day he broke down in the socials services office in front of the social worker whose head looked like a ball with two blue eyes and a sharp tongue. “Please, I’m begging you, give me a chance to learn the language before I start working”.

He took a language class for three months. By the end of it all he could say was “I’m so-and-so, from such-and-such country,” and a few other sentences for everyday life.

Letters from social security began once again rain down on his cold, mute mailbox that only ever contained those dry and emotionless letters.

He had to take a job doing door-to-door advertising. He spent hours walking through the desolate, graveyard-like streets handing out flyers for restaurants, barber shops, and even sex workers. On Wednesdays and Saturdays he distributed the classifieds section too. His toenails turned black and then fell off. The dogs that barked on the other sides of doors as he tried to stuff flyers through the letterbox terrified him. A bitter taste in the back of his throat would nag at him as he continued his route. It wasn’t just the dogs. It was the dogs’ owners, too. They shouted at him, without bothering to look at him or acknowledging his morning greeting: “Don’t put this shit through my door!” Then they would drive off. He would lower his head, bite his tongue, and move on to the next house.

 

***

 

The train stopped at the station before his Some people got off and others got on. The redheads with the septum rings were still laughing as before, but the football fans cheering on their successful team got off the train, holding their beer cans aloft.

He glanced at the girls and then back at his bag. He tightened his grip as though he was worried that someone would steal it from him. The train set off.

He felt alone wherever he went. On trains, in restaurants, at block parties, in crowded shops. He couldn’t bring himself to look other people in the eye. He was worried that someone would speak to him in that language that he couldn’t understand, so he never responded to anyone. He just pretended that he didn’t hear.

He wasn’t speaking his own language either, so he began to worry that he was going to become mute. He started talking to carpets and windows, to clouds and the crosses on top of church spires. He even began speaking to the mannequins in display windows outside shops.

When he got home, he unlocked the door and whispered to the silent dirt lying in the bottom of the bag he was carrying, “Come in.” After he walked in, he said, “I’m sorry for making you leave our country, but I needed you.”

He took the bag into his bedroom and lay it down on his pillow. “No, that isn’t the right place for you!”

He moved the bag into the living room. He didn’t like that either. He was confused now. He tried placing the bag all over his little apartment until he finally decided to keep it in the bathroom. He poured the contents of the bag of dirt onto the cold, humid floor. That tiring, dry, silent dirt, which had witnessed thousands of his footsteps, rose up into a mound on the floor of the bathroom. He could almost hear the dirt wailing as it was poured out, speck by speck, on to that unfamiliar floor.

His heartbeat began to race and tears filled his eyes. He stared at the mound of dirt and as his voice trembled, he said, “I smell the scent of destruction in you, the earth of home.”

He took a big swig from the can of beer he was holding. “It’s been three years since I left you. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten how I used to speak to you. Forgive me if I’ve been rude to you on this dreary evening. Do you remember when the police surrounded our house and then stormed into my bedroom? Do you remember when they broke my pens and burned the pages on which I’d written about my love for you? They did it in front of our very eyes. Do you remember how they confiscated my books and carried them off in dirty bags like frightened rabbits? They handcuffed me in front of your eyes—if you have eyes, I mean—and took me away, kicking me, throwing me like a bag of straw into the back of a Jeep that was almost the same color as you. You stayed silent, Dirt, licking the boots of the security services, failing to feel the pain of my handcuffed wrists!! When they brought me back in the same Jeep a week later, I saw you through the window. My heart almost broke when I saw their tires defiling you.

You watched in silence as the Intelligence Service’s boots drew horrific scenes across your surface as you languished in your soil-silence, your soil-sleep.

Do you remember that autumn when my heart broke?

Yes, of course you do. My darling used to leave a trail across you every afternoon as she made her way to my room. She would put her hands over my expectant eyes and say, laughing “Guess who?” I always played dumb. I traced her hands with my own. They were like two tame pigeons. Then I ran my fingers across her full lips and down to her apple-breasts and her thighs… I’d say, “You’re a fairy!!”

We rolled around like two surging clouds being buffeted by maniacal winds.

My beloved’s footsteps wove a tissue of lies every afternoon. You knew all about the traps that she set out for me, but you never once whispered in my ear: “Watch your step!” You never once said to me, “You fool! Don’t fall for a mirage. Your heart will die of thirst.” You never said, “Put an end to this game. Your heart will be crushed.” We were friends, Dirt. I wrote my best poems about you. I used to smell you as hard as I could. I used to leave your dust on my eyelashes and clothes for weeks at a time, never brushing you off.

I used to say, “This dust is sacred, this is dirt’s dust, the dirt that slumbers outside my front door, the dirt that embraced my suppressed childhood and wasted youth.”

His eyes became redder and redder and the line of beer cans on the mirror shelf emptied one by one, but he continued to stare at the mound of dirt on the bare, silent bathroom floor.

“Now I just drift from place to place. I carry my broken heart with me, but I still haven’t found anyone who can put it back together for me. You’ve seen me bewildered dozens of times—if you can even see that is—but you’ve never once broken your silence. Why didn’t you rise up from beneath my sad footsteps and fly into the sky to tell everyone in this criminal city of my heart’s pain? Why didn’t you warn me about all the traps that were laid out in front of me? I was the one who used to think of you as a mother, as more than a mother.

“I set fire to my house and all my books to protest against my miserable life. I nearly set fire to myself. You observed me silently. Maybe you secretly said to yourself, laughing, “The boy’s lost his mind.”

Protecting you and loving you gave meaning to my life. It used to drive me crazy whenever I heard anyone insult you. I would try to hide you in my eyes and shield you with my gaze. I was ready to give my life for you. But you? Ah. What do you expect me to say now?

“Tell me, what did you do for me when the world came for me and when the mills of hope crushed my heart and made it into a burning paste? What did you do for me when you found me pathetic, miserable, and hungry? I wept for you. I defended you from the wind that wanted to blow you away from my front door. I didn’t sleep so that I could keep the dirt thieves from abducting you and taking you to some unknown land. Tell me—if you have a tongue what did you do for me when I fled to this country that will never be my country?!

“You just watched me—if you can see that is—go from place to place searching for my wandering sense of self, searching for a quiet life, an uncomplicated love. But you couldn’t be home to that life, or to that love.

“You stayed quiet. Just as you are now on the cold, bare floor this silent night. Don’t come to me later and ask, “Why did you bring me to this exile?”

“You’re the one that led me to this sorry state. You’re the one who exiled me. This is all your fault, Dirt. so don’t think that I’m going to put you beside my pillow so that I can smell you every morning and say, “Ohhh, I can smell heaven in your every speck!!” No. No, never. But I will—”

Suddenly undid the buttons of his fly and quickly pulled it out. He began urinating on the mound of dirt; a silent whine reverberated against the cold, moist bathroom floor.

Most of all I hate the sun, loud human voices, and pounding. Rapid, rapid pounding. I am so afraid of people that if I hear someone else’s footsteps and the sound of voices in the corridor in the evening, I start to scream. Because of this I have a special room, the quietest and the best, No. 27, at the very end of the corridor. No one can get to me. But in order to protect myself further, I kept begging Ivan Vasilievich for a long time (actually, I cried in front of him), to give me an official typed authorization. He consented and wrote that I was under his protection and that no one had the right to take me away. But, to tell you the truth, I did not have much confidence in the weight of his signature. So he persuaded a professor to sign it too, and affixed a round blue seal to the paper. That made all the difference. I know of many instances where people have avoided death solely because they had a piece of paper with a round blue seal on it in their pockets. True, that worker in Berdyansk with the cheek smeared with soot was hung from a lamppost after they found a crumpled piece of paper with a stamp on it in his boot. But that was altogether different. He was a criminal Bolshevik and the blue seal was a criminal seal. It reserved him a place on that lamppost and the lamppost was the reason for my illness (don’t worry, I know perfectly well that I am ill).

In fact, something had happened to me even before Kolya. I walked away in order to avoid seeing a man being hanged, but fear walked with me in my trembling legs. At the time, of course, there was nothing I could do, but now I would boldly say, “General, you are an animal! How dare you hang people!”

This alone shows you that I’m no coward. I did not go on about the seal because I am afraid of death. Oh, no. I am not afraid of that. I am going to shoot myself, and it will be soon, because Kolya will drive me to despair. I will shoot myself so that I do not have to see or hear Kolya. As for the thought that other people might come… It is loathsome.

For days on end I have been lying on the couch and staring out the window. Above our green garden is an empty void. Beyond it the yellow bulk of a seven-story building turns its deaf, windowless wall to me, and right under the roof is a rusty square. A sign. Dental Laboratory. In white letters. At first I hated it. Then I got used to it and if it were gone I might even miss it. It can be seen clearly the whole day. I focus my attention on it and ponder many important things. But evening is falling. The cupola darkens, the white letters fade from view. I become gray and dissolve in the gloom just like my thoughts. Twilight. A frightening and portentous time of day. Everything fades, everything becomes indistinct. A pale ginger cat begins to slink along the corridor with velvety steps and from time to time I scream. But I will not allow a lamp to be lit because the glare of the lamp will cause me to wring my hands and sob all night. It is better to wait submissively for the moment when that most important last picture begins to burn in the quivering darkness.

 

My aged mother said to me: “I can’t go on like this much longer. All I see is madness. You are the oldest, and I know that you love him. Bring Kolya back. Bring him back. You are the oldest.”

I said nothing.                                                                                      ٠

So she put all of her yearning and all of her pain into her words.

“Find him. You pretend that nothing can be done. But I know you. You are intelligent, you have long understood that this is all madness. Bring him to me for a day. For just one day. I’ll let him go again.”

She was lying. Would she really let him go again?

I said nothing.

“I only want to kiss his eyes. I know he will be killed. Don’t you understand? He’s my baby. Who else can I ask? You are the oldest. Bring him.”

I could not stand it, so avoiding her eyes, I said, “Okay.”

But she grabbed my sleeve and turned me around so that she could look into my face.

“No, you will swear that you will bring him back alive.”

How could I swear any such thing?

But being the insane person that I am, I did it: “I swear.”

 

My mother is fainthearted. With that thought I left. But in Berdyansk I saw the crooked lamppost. General, Sir, I agree that I was no less criminal than you, I accept great responsibility for the man smeared with soot, but my brother does not have anything to do with it. He is nineteen years old.

After Berdyansk, I resolutely fulfilled my oath and found him by a small stream twenty versts away. The day was unusually bright. Along the road to the village, from which came the smell of ashes, a cavalry column moved slowly, stirring up clouds of white dust. He rode at the end of the first rank, with the visor of his cap pulled down over his eyes. I remember every detail. The right spur came all the way down to his heel. The strap of his cap stretched across his cheek and down under his chin.

“Kolya. Kolya!” I yelled, and ran down to the roadside ditch.

He started. Along the ranks the sullen, sweaty soldiers turned their heads.

“Ah… brother!” he cried in response. For some reason he never called me by my name, but always said brother. I am ten years older than he. And he always listened carefully to what I said. “Wait, wait here,” he continued, “by the little wood. We’ll be back right away I can’t leave the troop.”

At the edge of the wood, a little away from the dismounted troop, we smoked greedily I was calm and insistent. Everything was madness. Mother was absolutely right.

I whispered to him, “As soon as you return from the village, come with me into town. Then get out of here and never come back.”

“What are you saying, brother?”

“Be quiet,” I said, “Be quiet. I know what I’m saying.”

The troop had mounted. They were swaying, moving at a trot toward the billowing black smoke. In the distance a pounding began. Rapid, rapid pounding.

What could happen in just an hour? They would come back. I settled down to wait by the tent with the red cross on it.

 

An hour later I saw him. He also returned at a trot. But there was no troop. Only one horseman with a lance galloped on either side of him, and one of them, the one on the right, leaned towards my brother periodically, as if he were whispering something to him. Squinting into the sun, I watched the strange masquerade. He had left in a gray cap and was returning in a red one. The sun was setting. Only a black silhouette crowned with brightness remained. There was no hair and there was no forehead. Instead, there was a red crown with yellow spikes in clumps.

My brother, the horseman, wearing a ragged red crown, sat motionless on a lathered horse, and if the horseman on the right had not been carefully supporting him, he might have been on his way to a parade.

The horseman sat proud in the saddle, but he was blind and mute. There were two red blotches with streaks where an hour ago bright eyes had shone…

The horseman on the left dismounted, his left hand clutched the reins, but the one on the right very carefully led Kolya by the hand. Kolya swayed.

A voice said, “I’m afraid our volunteer… he’s been hit by a shell fragment. Orderly, call a doctor…”

The other sighed and said, “Sure… but why call a doctor, buddy? Better a priest.”

Then the black veil thickened and everything was obscured, even the head gear…

 

I have gotten used to everything. To this white building of ours, to the twilight, to the ginger cat who purrs at the door, but I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened, when I was still living downstairs in No. 63, he came out of the wall. He was wearing the red crown. There was nothing terrifying in that. I had seen him like that in dreams. But of course I knew that since he was wearing the crown he was dead. Then he spoke, moving his lips, which were caked with blood. He eased them apart, clicked his heels, put his hand to the crown in a salute, and said: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop.”

Since then it is always the same. He comes wearing his field shirt, with straps across his chest, with a curved saber and silent spurs, and says the same thing. Salute. Then: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop. “

You cannot imagine how it affected me the first time it happened! He gave the whole clinic a fright. Anyway, it is all over for me. It stands to reason that since he is wearing a halo, he has been killed, and if the dead come and talk to me, it means I have gone mad.

 

Yes. Now it’s twilight. It is the hour of reckoning. But once I dozed off and saw the living room with the worn red velvet furniture. The comfortable armchair with a cracked leg. The portrait in a dusty black frame on the wall. Flowers on stands. The piano was open and on it was the score from Faust. He stood in the doorway, and a wild happiness warmed my heart. He was not a horseman. He was as he had been before those accursed days. In a black double-breasted jacket with a smudge of chalk on the elbow. His lively eyes smiled playfully and a lock of hair hung down over his forehead. He was nodding to me.

“Brother, let’s go to my room. Do I have something to show you!… “

The rays from his eyes lit up the living room, and the burden of remorse melted inside me. That ill-fated day when I told him: “Go” had never existed, there was no pounding or acrid smoke. He had never gone away and had never been a horseman. He played the piano, the ivory keys tinkled, the golden rays of light touched everything, and his voice was expressive and he laughed.

 

Then I woke up. There was nothing. No light, no eyes. I never had that dream again. Then that very night, to compound my unbearable torture, he came anyway, stepping silently, the horseman in full military regalia, and he spoke to me the way he has decided to speak to me for eternity.

I decided to put an end to it. I said forcefully, “What are you, my eternal torturer? Why do you come? I admit everything. I take the blame for sending you on that doomed mission. I also take the blame for the hanging. Since I admit all this, forgive me and leave me alone.”

I tell you. General, Sir, he said nothing and left.

 

So I became bitter from this torment and wished with all my might that he would come to you just once and put his hand to the crown in a salute. I assure you, you would be finished, just like me. At one stroke. However, perhaps you, too, are not alone at night? Who knows, perhaps you are visited by that soot-smeared man from the lamppost in Berdyansk? If this is so, we suffer it as we must. I sent Kolya to help you carry out the hanging, but you were the one who actually did it. By verbal order.

So, he did not leave. Then I scared him away with a scream. Everyone woke up. The attendant came running, they woke Ivan Vasilievich. I could not face the next day, but they wouldn’t let me do myself in. They bound me with canvas straps, tore the glass from my hands, and bandaged me. Since then I have been in No. 27. After I was drugged I began to doze off, and heard the attendant talking in the corridor:

“A hopeless case. “

It’s true. I have no hope. Futilely, in burning anguish, I wait in the twilight for the dream to come – that old familiar room and the peaceful light from those radiant eyes. But all of that is gone forever.

The burden does not ease. And at night I wait submissively for the familiar horseman with the sightless eyes to come and say hoarsely: “I can’t leave the troop.”

Yes, I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave.

1922