In his dream the night before Ahmed was sitting n his uncles car. It was market day in the village . It was early morning and the hill farmers were herding their goats along the street into the village square. The vendors were setting up their various stalls , silk , linen, leather goods. ,stalls of nuts and spices and further on the butchers and the artisans.
In his dream he was looking in the reverse mirror in the car . He was alone when he saw her.
He saw her hurrying along with the bustling crowd and he cried out . Ma ma ..and rushed out to meet her .
And the sound of his own voice his awoken him.
She had been dead for 2 years now. And as he lay on in bed he yearned to be back in the dream.
He tried to dream her back into his sleep but sleep would not come.
He fought bravely against his grief but his whole body shook until the sun came up .He then got up and dressed still troubled by the dream. His heart had surged when he saw her and he had jumped out of the car and run across the street calling to her , all the time knowing she had been killed n the bombing , but if he could catch up with her all could be as it had been before . As he ran towards her darting through the bustling crowds she looked at him as if nothing had happened. He wanted to grab her and bring her home . He wanted to tell her to tell the people that she had not been killed when their home was blown up. It was all a mistake
And he wanted her to tell them it is was so. But always she eluded him and he awoke before he caught up with her, calling out Ma ma !!
Why did she betray him .His first feelings after her burial was that she had betrayed him and now she was doing so all over again in his recurring dream.
She had told him many things ; some of which he understood , others he did not . She had told him he must be brave as a lion in the day and wise as an owl in the night .
But is was always at night when she visited him , and with the dawn she betrayed him.
It was a recurring dream . Always , seeing her through the rear mirror .And sometimes in his dream he knew it was a dream but if he only could get to her before he awoke , she might be back. But she always eluded him. It was all he had left of her now ; this dream. And sometimes his resentment raged to such a passion that he was tempted to tell her to stay away from his dream. The agony he suffered on awakening was too brutal for him to bear.
But now the unrelenting sternness of a new unwelcome day was dawning . The sounds of the marker carts rumbling along the dusty roads brought on a new day a new day that beat down inextricably in upon him through his open window . There was a severity about the sun as it rose and cast long its long shadows from the east as he knelt to pray .
He prayed ; but what use was that. She told him to guard his promises in his heart. And then she had left.
The sounds and smells of the market commerce were drifting though his window which looked across the market square; spices ; and the ever present pungent smell of goats , which would linger in the village for days
He had made his own break feast when his father came in.
- I am going to Tulin today Ahemed . I’ll be away all day. If you need anything go to your aunt .
There was no school today . Ahmed looked at his father with a resentment which he carried from his dream. He could scarcely conceal it . He could not tell his father about it. It made no sense . Now he was almost a man and he held his fortitude .
- You heard me Ahmed- his father said , impatiently and without any affection
- you can open the shop after the prayers . And the soldiers , they will be wanting beer today. You know where it is .
- yes Papa
- and mind you bring it up the back stairs .- I don’t want the people talking .especially the holy man .
He threw a five dollar bill on the table and looked at his son
- And the Hakim , he’ll want some vodka , there’s a bottle in the cellar Just bring it to him . Don’t use that hoist thing he’s invented . It’ll surely fall off . Like all his inventions its crazy.. Good doctor crazy inventor . Might take your head off - He smiled at his son affecting but failing to convey any warmth and Ahmed returned it with a sullen scowl.
. - Be careful - I don’t want to be taking you out of the hospital fridge !The boy looked at him sideways through his long eyelashes , which his concealed his bony eyes burning with contempt.
His father rustled his hair and went out .The woman was waiting for him in her old Mercedes , and looking furtively about him his father got in and they drove off together up the congested the little street , which led up to the top of the hill, where there was a water hole and where the Sheik would promulgate his deliberations on the prisoners taken up from the police cells, after prayers.
The imam was wailing from the mosque and the square fell silent.
Only the sounds of goats hoofs clattered through the air. The prayers ended and a wave of bustle rumbled with gathering momentum,
He went to the drawer where his father kept the pistol. He took it out and with a dexterity which belied such small hands he deftly spun the chambers , then flicked it open. It was loaded and there was a box of shells in the drawer
Ahmed was 12 years old . He was 10 when the air strike hit. He remembered being bundled from his bed in the dark of night. And then being taken over to the basement of the hospital across the road. When the shell hit they were not to know. His mother was not among the people taking refuge in the dark dank basement . When the strike was over the people emerged from cellars from dungeons, form behind home made rocky fortresses .
Ahmed ‘s terror pulsed harder. She could be with his aunt. He went out with his father and they crossed the street to the rubble that remained of their house and shop. It was razed to the ground , as were so many other houses, the wailing and screams of people discovering their mutilated loved ones from the rubble seared through the street like a knife going through him. His father said nothing. He was rummaging through the rubble
- your mother - see if she is with Fatima . - he said wretchedly .
There was no tear in his eye or tremor in his voice; no emotion that Ahmed could discern at all .
Ahmed went to his aunts . No she had not seen his mother , could she have gone to one of the UN shelters . Surely she would.
As the dawn rose the digger reached their dwelling . He began to despair and pray at the same time . Mama be alive . I will do anything if you are alive Mama. I will be like a lion .. But the hope had left him. . When he saw the digger turn the rubble he recognised her the cloth of her robe instantly and let out a scream that he had held back against the bursting tide of his restraint. His father turned him away and a neighbour took him across the street His spirit was crushed like the crumbled dwellings.
He thought of her now and the emotion swelled up inside him anew as if like a great wave . He sought to distract himself by lighting the primus stove . He poured the arak into the gunnels and lit the well .
He watched the flame grow orange and stayed as if entranced by its magic . Across the street the villagers who came to the market usually made a trip to the hospital, especially now that the UN doctors were there. The medicines were free. And besides they also got a free second opinion.
It would be a busy day for the Hakim.
Looking across the street he saw the contraption the hakim had devised. It was fashioned out of a crate and two pulleys . For beer going up they would put a heavier weight on the down rope, and the reverse sending empty bottles down. But the trade of beer was met with disapproval from the imam.
There was something both hideous and inventive about it. The Hakim had many ideas. They all nearly worked , but the soldiers took no chances with their beer . They preferred to have it hand delivered . The Hakim had lost sever al bottles of vodka using his failed contraption , but he persisted with his experiment until someone convinced him that if he were to use either bottles of water or simply stones it mightn’t be quite so expensive an enterprise.
But he persisted. The hakim would want a paper , so he would have to go up the street to Smokey Joe’s for the paper or magazine. Smokey Joe kept those girl magazines which he kept hidden under the counter. Several times the Imam had sent the men around to confiscate the magazines but he just got some more.
He would usually be outside his shop at this hour smoking his bubble pipe watching the village life as if from a different place. But he hadn’t been seen of late . Then he’d heard he had been sick for a few days.
He went out and up the street to Smokey Joe’s
- the paper for the Hakim .. And his magazine.. he asked of Smokey’s son
- there is only yesterday paper , and he has read last week Time . I will give him this instead .- he said passing a paper and a magazine to the boy , and bending down he took a parcel from beneath the counter - And these are for the sergeant . Ahmed recoiled . He didn’t want to take one of those girl magazines.
- don’t worry he doesn’t bother with these . But maybe he does ? - he said smiling sideways at Ahmed
The hakim had a standing order of some kind with Smokey Joe , so having collected the magazine he returned to the shop. As he had the shop to himself he took out the girl magazines, and though he knew it to be sinful he opened one . His heart beat with a strange excitement in his chest, There was something revolting and yet he was urged to turn the pages with a baying hunger. He’d never seen a grown woman’s body .Not like this and then there were the pictures of the men and women.; the things they were doing made him flush with a hot shame .He’d heard about this but had never dared imagine what it would be like .
He thought of his father and he was filled with disgust . He pushed the magazines away and went on his knees and in the fuming tumult of his mind he tried to think and not to think. He could not pray . Not like this.
The shoppers , having sold and bought their wares were clearing up. The tradesmen taking down their stall; the victuallers unhooking their freshly slaughtered carcasses . He would be busy for the next 2 hours as theirs was the last shop at the bottom of the hill , where the people would call often to make their forgotten purchases.
They came and his trade was frenzied to the point of all his distractions for the 2 hours .And then the crowds dwindled . The last carts were packing up as the last patients emerged from the hospital.
Ahmed took the papers and the magazines ,not daring even against a strange pressing impulse to take one more sinful look.
He found the hakim on the roof , where he was already bare-chested immersed in his latest contraption. There beside him in the midst of the rubber hoses and attachments , pipes of various sizes. He was looking at a tar barrel trying how best to rig this up to the hospital plumbing system.
Ahmed couldn’t help but laugh at the man’s persistence. He was looking through the vast confusion of schemes while at the same time trying to light a bubble pipe and didn’t notice Ahmed until he stood in his shadow.
- Ah Ahmed - good lad- any papers for me .?
- yes . He didn’t have the one you wanted he gave me these two
- Fine fine - put them in my room would you , please .- And as he turned back into his endeavours with the bubble pipe he asked
- is your father back yet
- no he is gone to Tulin.
- Tulin ? - Oh ?
- he went this morning with a woman .
- I see - the hakim looked a little perplexed .He seemed to give this some thought and then returned to his more recent invention abandoning the bubble pipe .
He had a tar barrel mounted on some blocks and under the tar barrel abutting against the bottom of the barrel he had fixed a steel plate . Beneath that he had set up a gas burner . The hoses would feed from a tap he had screwed into the base , and this he was now trying to attach to the hospital old plumbing system .
- how long will it take for one shower Ahmed asked holding back the laugher
I ve been wondering about that .. - he paused and looking at Ahmed he said ponderously
-I think about 4 hours .
- for one shower .
He seemed to be making some calculation and was thinking as when they heard the drone .
- now ! that’s all I need .. Where the hell is that .!! Now we’ll be in ..Oh bloody Ground hog , !! Dam !! Dam ,incarceration again..!!
- Look I see her - Ahmed pointed .
The drones were about 15 feet long and moved quite slowly through the sky. Camouflaged as they were it was impossible to see against the greying sky and the mountain ridge as the sun went down .
- I suppose the major will be on the bloody prowl again dammit !! it’ll be groundhog the minute I finish - you’ll see - he said in deep exasperation .. Any minute now.!! And I nearly had it finished - !! he cursed , excused himself and sighed with abaondon.
- Another one !! - said Ahmed
- there ..
He followed Ahmed’s finger as it traced the course of each drone , then looked at his curiously
- can you really see them ?,I cant see a dam thing .. But I can sure hear them
It was often difficult to determine with the echoes from the wadi against the opposing mountain ridge where the sound was coming from. Much less whether there was one or more . The sound rumbled in on one as if one were in the middle of a sound box.
- there she is look !!
But he couldn’t see.
- look Ahmed . You’d better come down with us if there’s a ground hog.
He had scarcely finished when the siren went off , and the urgent voice over the tannoy system ..
- Groundhog ground hog .!! . I say ground hog.. All stations .. Report to zero . All stations I repeat report to zero.!!
-Dam .. Dam…!! Anyway ..I’m going to light the dam thing.!!
He looked at Ahmed as if for approval.
- well it’ll be heating up.. What’d I say .. 4 hours..just give me a hand here Ahmed I have a primus stove as well as the gas . Can you get it going..?
Ahmed though amused at the hideous contraption was eager to be part of it nonetheless and set about priming up the kerosene as the doctor lit the gas ring.
Ahmed had the stove lit in minutes as the doctor now with blackened face struggled under the barrel to light ..
- Cant seem to get the angle .. He came from under the barrel spluttering soot
Ahmed would you mind .. There’s a good fellow ..would you have a go .. I’ll turn the tap.. You tell me when you get a good glow..
- Ahh Jasses sir.. !! .. didn’t ye hear the ground hog sir!! Yer supposed to be in ground hog..
It was the Sergeant Major whose responsibility it was to scour the area for anyone not in their respective bomb shelter. It was his one moment of bravado , and he took to his task with a legendary zeal.
- Ahh .. Major.. No .. didn’t hear any thing .. Did you Ahmed .?. ( have you it lit boy ? - he stooped and whispered ungently )-
- No funny the things you miss. Ground hog you say.! Ahh well .. Yes.. Well .. We’d better hurry up so.. Ahmed !! You hear the Major.. Hurry up lad ..
-Sir if I had the time to ask ya ..I’d respectfully.. I’d say what in the name of jases are ya doing .. Why don’t you get the fitters to do these things …
Ground hog ground hog all personnel…!!!
Sir yer supposed to be down below..
- Quite right too major.. Right Ahmed ( get her going ..?) the boy nodded smiling in his little triumph
The dank cellar was steaming from the huddled figures. This was the basement of the hospital. The fridges where they put the remains gleamed ominously in the near dark.
Ahmed was beside the hakim, and looked with an empty sickness at the doors of the fridges. Was there any in them now. It was where they put his mother ,
And he thought of her words about being brave as a lion in the day.. What was this .. Was it even day in this deathly place. It smelled of antiseptic, but hidden behind that smell ,he knew was the smell of death itself.
Someone had started on the appropriately named squak box
- this is location 2 one zero
And the major duly reported the personnel in his bunker. When it came to Ahmed ‘d name .
- Name please spell .. I repeat please spell
The sgt major looked at the doc . Could he get into trouble over this.?
-say Jerry Oscar Echoe ... J.O E. - say it for God’s sake .. What’s the difference!-the doc said with tired resignation
-You say it sir - of you don’t mind - The major handed the doc the mouth piece
-This is Starlight … over
- Go Ahead over ..
I spell J.O E.. Jerry Oscar Echoe
- Zero .. Sorry sir! Could you repeat over .
- Murphy , Is that you ? Are you listening ..over it the guy across the road kid ; spell it whatever way . Now Over ..Ok ?
- Zero - affirmative over .. Could I please speak to the major gain sir over ?
- why - over ?
- it’s a civilian child doc ?- another voice was on the phone
-right !.. Out ..!
- Name ..please spell-over
- No I give up over over and out - the doc said . He’d had enough.
- roger to you starlight..
A ripple of mirth went round the cellar at the irregular and casual approach the doc took to voice procedures , as the reporting continued from all the adjacent areas.
Then it began.
- all stations .. Increps ..shoot reps to follow…
Then from out of the falling light outside the night was ruptured with a thunderous rumble which rattled the cellar ; the unmistakeable sound of the jet searing up from the south , breaking the sound barrier ; the noise amplified in the cavernous sound box between the mountain ranges on either side . Each unblinking eye in that dark shelter awaited . And then it quickly it followed ; the deafening sound of the blast of the first bomb , swiftly followed by a second , and as the ear adapted again to the squelch box..
- attention all personnel - two ariel strikes in Tulin area .. I repeat Tulin area ..
Then another jet roared up the wadi . The sound fading slightly before the second blast and tremor that shook the building once more .
The squak box again gave the location of the strikes and in the momentary half silence that followed the boy had thrown him self against the doc in a desperate tremor..
- my father . He is in Tulin
The doc tried to comfort the boy , but his scream was fierce and shrill above the continuation bombardment
- no no my father he is in Tulin
His passionate confusion raged and he thumped the docs chest and he began to writhe with fear and terror.
His mother was taken on a day like this. Now his father.. And he would be with that woman..
-No no .!!. Find out - he wailed -
Is my pappa safe !! - he implored .
- wait Ahmed .. Wait.. Till we hear
No No… he is dead I know .. And he collapsed into the embrace of the doc not knowing whether to bolt out into the night or surrender into this comfort
-As quickly as it had started the bombing had stopped , and the voices began to find one another in the dark again.
The squak box ordered all personnel to remain at their locations .
Ahmed was inconsolable .
He whispered as he held the boy .
-Ahmed .. Come with be .. Be quiet !!
He took the boy by the hand as he slipped out of the shadows , into the stair -well and back up on to the roof .
-Ahmed - he said to the tremulous figure
And the jets came again .before he could continue . They both covered their ears and this time there was no bombing .
After the peal had passed and the tumult settled they saw the six blazing after-burns dim to orange specs , and for a moment they looked like six suspended stars
The boy soul was quickened anew .
- You don’t know .. Nobody knows !!.. Where is papa !!!
-Ahmed .!! He held him firmly .
- Listen !your papa was not in Tulin today. -he said slowly
- Why You don’t know .. You are the crazy doc .. What do you know.. My papa is gone maybe dead !! -. - His despair gave way to a vicious anger and his flared anguish deceive him . His confusion the manly defiance he had learned to impose on himself had deserted him, completely.He looked somewhere else for solace , and found only the expression of vengeance.
- you drink the vodka all day.. I know..!!- his vengeance had found his unexpressed vituperation.
The boy had wandered across the roof to where the plumbing adjustments were
- You ! Know nothing .. I know .!! - he sobbed fitfully and his voice came in broken little staccato bursts , already rueing the rage he’d let escape him
- He went with a woman to Tulin. I saw him . He told me,
As the bombing had ended the chaos of military life had resumed ..the tannoy system cackling into life again , demanding a body count for everyone in each shelter.
The boy was between his sullenness and his despair .
- Ahmed - he said coming over to the barrel which he touched to se if it had warmed up at all
- Ahmed I know where your father is .
- you don’t know anything .- he looked up , broken now. Could he know . The hakim knelt down beside him . He looked into his tired eyes .
-I asked him to get me a special medication today. He went to Tyre .For me .
The boy looked at him perplexed . Was this another dream like the one he saw of his mother in the mirror of the car .Was it another betrayaal. When he knew his mother was dead in the rubble they said ,no she was still alive , there was still hope .But he knew they were lying to him .
- yes - the hakim continued ,
- I asked him to get me a special medicine for Porno Joe .
The boy was glaring at him in the half light , distrustful and hopeful at the same time
- Smokey Joe is very sick. He cant take the medicines I give him any more . His body is rejecting them . I asked your father to get me something I cant get . It’s’ a drug . And the woman knows where to get it .- The boy was transfixed .
This is hard for you to understand but I am going to make a brew for Joe with this drug and one of my own One that he can swallow . It will ease his pain. That’s all. That’s all I can do for him . But it is an illegal drug for me to get . So I asked your father if he could get it for me . I can brew it down here .- Things began to make sense . Another one of his crazy inventions . His father had said he was a great doctor but a bad inventor .
Just then they heard the clatter of boots coming up the stairwell .
The major was the first to emerge onto thee roof .
- Jees sir .. You’re a hard man to track down sir ! We’re still in groundhog.!!
- ahh Major.. We just came up for a breath of air .. Claustrophobic down there… Couldn’t stick it much longer . How do you do it major ..aha.!! Surely its over now .. the groundhog ?
Before he could even to begin to berate the doc the major was pushed aside by the man emerging from the stairwell with the fierceness of determination and despair .
Then the father emerged and saw his son
Ahmed Boy … !! -
The boy ran to his father and in that moment of union and they embraced fiercely. All his troubles of the day from taking out the pistol that morning and all the ways he was going to punish his father seemed to dwindle from the viciousness of his passion in the warmth of his fathers embrace .
It was the first time he had ever embraced his son and as neither knew how to deal with this moment , much less to speak , they daren’t disengage . He took his son in his arms and turning to the hakim he began to speak . But words choked in his throat.
He nodded ,vehemently several times , then shrugged , as if to say in one long sentence which he could not have articulated any way -- but if he were to have spoken it would have been to say - I have not known until this moment how I loved this son; How I despaired when I heard the bombing ; I do not know why I held back my affection for him for so long ..I just don’t know - I was so wrong especially after his mothers death ..you know these feelings !! I know you do ..! Now I must take my son home .. And yes I have your medicine . Will you call over later .-
But other than the nods and shrugs there were no words . And as the doc acknowledged in the same unspoken language he hurried down the stair-well.
It was as if the smouldering heat of the tepid tar barrel had suddenly flared into the intensity of the blue flame of the gas ring.
Innocence and proclivity for cynicism sometimes stand much nearer than we think. Much more than we fell comfortable with .and yet these polar opposites when they are so close seems only to emphasise the powere of the forces between them.
And love is all embracing even in the sweatiest foxholes , the lowliest of faith , in the caverns that confine us within this mortal finite small space - the monumental and the minutiae that keep us apart with enmity and slow burning resentment can all be over come .