There are flowers now, they say, at El Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.
He pounced as soon as Urtid walked into the tent, seizing his hands, a strange wolflike ferocity in his eyes. “My god,” he said. “You must be Urtid. To finally see your face after all this time. To be able to speak to you in friendship.”
What on earth are you meant to say to that? “Lutine Dezoic,” Urtid said. “Christ. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.”
Lutine wouldn’t let go; his thin lips drew up to above his canines. “Can we get a photo? I want to capture this moment for eternity. Our reunion, here, in al-Emlekh Mehbl.”
A dark-haired photographer girl crouched down to take a photo, but there was clearly something wrong with the shutter. She fiddled with the film advance lever for a few seconds until the little machine suddenly ejaculated a flurry of clicks. Throughout the whole ordeal Lutine stayed frozen, grinning, clasping Urtid’s hands. Of course, Urtid realised. The great poet was obviously insane.
The tent was tall, decked out in various shades of military khaki. A big black and white poster of Lutine in his old army uniform hung from behind the podium. On a few circular tables copies of his book were stacked in neat patterns. The tent was full of people: journalists, photographers, people from the publisher’s, preening flamingo-people in one-buttoned blazers, armed guards trying to look as discreet as possible; sweat hung in the air. There were also a few of Lutine’s friends, high lords in the aristocracy of letters. That portly British novelist, one of those ex-Trotskyites who may have long given up historical materialism but continue to wage class war by not tucking their shirts in and smoking roll-ups long into middle age. Urtid hadn’t read any of his books. Chatting to him was that American, with a velvet smoking jacket and pince-nez, the one whose stories were all about Jewish academics sleeping with their analysts. Near them stood the French philosopher who had described high heels as ‘fractal phalluses, sigils of patriarchal dominance.’ She was, Urtid noticed, wearing a pair herself, furiously clutching a glass of wine. There was also Lutine’s newest boyfriend, Anton, a pale lad who didn’t look a day over seventeen: the famous omnisexual was, of course, basically just an old-fashioned pederast. Lutine introduced Urtid to everyone, as if he had known him for years; they all asked the same questions. Was he still writing, like his old collaborator? Did he have anything out they could go and read? No, he told them. He taught history at a secondary school, he hadn’t written a word in decades, he watched TV: he was content. This seemed to take them all rather by surprise. Well, if he ever chose to start again, being fictionalised in the Poet of Peace’s first novel would make sure he’d have no problems with publication, wouldn’t it? Lutine’s greatness would be sure to rub off on him; he’d certainly win a prize or two, even if just by association. And from the book, Urtid certainly seemed to have been an excellent poet…
The fucking book. The Sand and the Wildflower, by Lutine Dezoic. Urtid had received a free copy, of course, signed; he’d tried to read it on the flight over to Khalatiqa City. He hadn’t got very far. The cover was emblazoned with the same photo that now hung from the ceiling of the tent: Lutine in his uniform, his big clear eyes looking out from under his peaked cap. Urtid had a similar photo: himself and three of his friends leaning nonchalantly against an armoured vehicle. The young Urtid’s cap was at a slight angle, he had a cigarette jutting proudly from his half-open lips; on the whole he looked dark and mysterious and, if he did say so himself, pretty damn sexy (the other three men had all died in the war). But Lutine looked exactly the same as in his photo – his skin was not so taut, and his eyes were not so clear, but he was essentially the same – while Urtid was now fat and moustachioed, with veins in his nose, hair in his ears, and yellowing pegs for teeth. That had been enough to put him off the whole endeavour. But he soldiered on, and opened the thing. Then he’d come to the dedication. It read:
This book was written with the deepest and most profound love for all humanity, and the deepest and most profound sadness at the things we do.
To Urtid Batset, who taught me how to love my enemy.
At that point, Urtid gave up. He’d flicked through the book to find some of the parts about him, but they weren’t really about him at all. They were about someone called Jostin Batrica, someone Lutine had made up who just happened to have done some of the same things that Urtid had done. The book wasn’t really about love for humanity at all, he’d decided. The central message of the novel was this: I’d like to win the Nobel Prize now, thank you very much. And it was surely very easy to love humanity when you had as little contact with it as possible, flitting around with literary celebrities instead of rolling in the muck of common pettiness. Urtid didn’t hate humanity, it was just there, an unavoidable fact of life, like shitting or cauliflower. He’d spent most of the journey just looking out the window as the endless corrugated surface of the Mediterranean churned past.
After a while Lutine gave a speech before reading a chapter from the book. He fixed his lapels, awkwardly, and tapped on the microphone. “My brothers and sisters,” he said. “Thank you all so much for coming today. I cannot possibly express how much it means to me. I just have a few words. My publishers, you know, they wanted me to do the book launch in London or Paris or New York, they were really quite insistent on that. But I held fast. I knew I had to do it here, in the great nation of Khalatiqa, in al-Emlekh Mehbl, where so many men dear to me lost their lives. I think that Khalatiqa needs The Sand and the Wildflower and its message of peace. Across these sands, where I and my brother Urtid Batset fought, the cruel bells of war are once again sounding. Boko Seke is, I hear, a very educated man. I can only pray that the words I have written reach him. I pray that they turn him from his path of destruction, that he is moved to put down the sword and settle his disputes with the democratically elected government in brotherhood and humility. I tell you: I really do feel this was a story I had to write. From the moment we withdrew from the Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl, the significance of this story burnt in my mind like a flame. In all my years as a poet, I was pregnant with this story. And – with no disrespect to my fellow poets, brothers and sisters – it was only through the medium of the novel that I could write it…”
And so on.
The tent hadn’t been pitched in the desert; it had, in fact, been put up in the car park of the Golden Oasis Hotel and Spa, but from its entrance Urtid could see the flat white sands stretching out until they reached their scorching union with the sky. His friends were out there, their bones bleached by the sun and ground down by the storms, melting into the amnesiac desert of Khalatiqa. Bullets he had fired were buried somewhere, gently rusting away; men he had killed were dancing in fine particles on the winds. He nodded in a silent salute. And not too far away there would be the great carcasses of the tanks… he tried not to think of that.
Al-Emlekh Mehbl was a little different from when he had last been there. During the war it had been eight or nine buildings clustered around an oasis, boxy little things blasted into spindles by both sets of cannon. As for now, the tourist pamphlet put it better than he ever could:
Welcome to al-Emlekh Mehbl, a one-of-a-kind resort, a jewel set in the shining sands of Khalatiqa’s White Desert. Al-Emlekh Mehbl – ‘the Royal Garden’ in Khalatiqan – is so called because Queen Josephine, the beautiful French wife of the eighteenth-century Sultan Mehmed VII, famously took regular trips to the healing waters of the oasis. Now you too can experience their miraculous health-giving qualities in comfort fit for a Queen. At one of our many glamorous hotels, you can enjoy fine cuisine inspired by the age-old culinary secrets of the desert tribesmen, lose yourself luxuriating in the pure oasis waters, take an adventure trip in the desert with stunt bikes or dune buggies – or just relax by the poolside and watch the sunset. In al-Emlekh Mehbl, anything is possible: our wish is your command.
That wasn’t all true. For a start, Urtid had heard from reliable sources during his last visit to the place that al-Emlekh Mehbl in fact translated as The Queen’s Cunt. And there would be no bouncing about the desert on dune buggies – what with Boko Seke’s insurgency, the resort was all but empty, with only a skeleton staff serving the book launch party. Tourists visiting Khalatiqa were for the most part loath to stray too far south from the coast: everyone knew the guerrillas had an unfortunate tendency to kidnap any Europeans they could get their hands on and leave beheaded corpses by the side of the motorway. More bodies for the ever-hungry desert.
His war had been so much simpler. Civilians had died, but that had been with the brute idiocy of an artillery shell, not the cold steely incomprehensibility of a sword to the back of the neck. Heaven knows what the Khalatiqans must have made of the whole business, waking up one morning to find two foreign armies roving around their soil. The government had protested angrily at the Forum of Nations, but the locals had seemed happy enough to supply both sides with guides and prostitutes.
Urtid hadn’t really known what to make of the war either. It was a ridiculous little affair, over almost before it started, fought by two insignificant little nations who didn’t even have the decency to speak different languages, practice different religions, or operate under different forms of government. The Americans and Soviets hadn’t even bothered picking sides. It was hard to remember what had started the whole business: some kind of trade dispute, compounded by the assassination of a minister or an ambassador, something like that. The European front had been a rather genteel affair: a few skirmishes up and down the border, and some half-hearted attempts to lob flying bombs at each other’s population centres; then the enemy had marched right in to Urtid’s city without much opposition, forced a surrender, and everything went back pretty much to how it was before. Africa had been different. Each nation had its colony to the east and west of Khalatiqa, and for some reason both governments had decided that the capture of the other was of paramount importance to the war effort. Urtid’s side had succeeded, in the end, for all the good it did them.
Urtid hadn’t wanted to go to war. He remembered the tourist adverts plastered on trams around his city not long beforehand: It’s right on your doorstep. Hop on over! He was mildly confused by the idea that he was now being expected to hop on over in military fatigues with a bolt-action rifle in one hand and a bomb in the other. But on being conscripted he’d gone without question, because Urtid Batset had always, more or less, done as he was told. (He’d been a very serious child, one of those very serious boys from poor but respectable families, the ones with freckles and round faces who shut themselves up reading books and observe the other children at play with unconcealed disgust.) Besides, he’d always wanted to be a poet, and everyone knew that going to war made you a great poet.
At first it had been fine. The two armies had blundered about the vast empty desert trying to find each other, like lovers separated in a discotheque, sending out swarms of flimsy little biplanes to scour the sandstorms for tank tracks. Urtid had been a bit detached at first, but his new comrades soon helped him get over his priggishness, introducing him to booze and cigarettes and whores. Actually, it had been quite fun: he’d liked being away from the overbearing presence of his mother, he’d liked the regular exercise, he’d liked having an appreciative (or at least a captive) audience for his poetry. He spent a lot of time lying shirtless in the sunshine, smoking, trying to imagine himself into a modern-day Byron. It couldn’t last.
The armies met at a godforsaken slimepit of an oasis called al-Emlekh Mehbl, neither really expecting the other to be there. Urtid remembered seeing the tanks rearing out of their dust clouds, roaring mammoth silhouettes that burst his new friends into messy splats of blood and offal with an entirely unreasonable suddenness. The sands blazed red. The skies growled black. The air was acrid with burning petrol and smouldering flesh. In a fit of bravery, he ran forward into the smoke, firing wildly, only vaguely aware of other human bodies running beside him, towards him, shooting, being shot. He didn’t stop until he finally hit a man, a loosely human shape that crumpled to the ground when he fired. Then he stood stock-still in the middle of the battlefield until the call to retreat went up. He was twenty years old and he’d killed someone. He’d killed someone and he didn’t even know his name.
Lutine insisted that Urtid dine with him and his friends that night. They all sat on a Khalatiqan rug, eating rustic food from earthenware bowls, drinking French wine. The other giants of literature made normal conversation, all sly boasts and false compliments. Not the Poet of Peace. He seemed to actually care what everyone had to say, he ate it all up with his big kind eyes, fascinated. With Urtid especially. He was genuinely concerned, he wanted to know everything: about his wife, about his home, about the school. It was repulsive.
“I don’t suppose you teach the war there,” Lutine said.
Urtid was somewhat taken aback: throughout it all Lutine hadn’t mentioned their shared experience once. “No,” he said. “We don’t really cover recent history. We do all the normal stuff. St. Bederic, the Union of Cêrfi, the Ottoman invasion. And a new module on the French and Bolshevik revolutions.”
“Isn’t it just awful the way history is taught?” said the American. “All this nationalist mythopoeiac nonsense.”
“Kings and dates and battles,” said the Englishman.
“Exactly. And if some poor kid gets the date of the battle wrong he’s marked down, as if the number itself were more important than the people who fought in it.”
“Babylon, many times demolished,” said the Englishman. “Who raised it up so many times?” And then, looking at Urtid, he added, with a sympathetic smirk, “Brecht.”
“I know the line,” said Urtid.
The American toyed with his fork. “I’ve always felt that history must be taught in such a way that children are encouraged to critically interrogate their own genealogy. You can’t just teach history, you have to instil a sense of historicity with it. You can’t just teach about the leaders, you have to teach the people. Don’t you agree, Urtid? How do you manage it?”
“I help my pupils pass their history baccalaureates so they can go on to be productive members of society,” said Urtid. “I thought that was the whole point.”
The French philosopher looked up from her wine-glass. “You know, I agree,” she said. “It is. You all speak as if the past is recoverable, as if you can disinter a trace of true critical history from beneath the technological regime of archival inscription. It’s as epistemologically rigid as the people who set Urtid’s curriculum. You’d substitute one meta-narrative for another. The past is dead, gentlemen. So why not just teach kings and dates and battles? So people are free to concentrate on life and joy and sex and what’s important to them.”
“And the war, then?” said Urtid. “The war didn’t happen either?”
“I’m sure it happened. But as Event, it can never be reduced to a narrative. The transcendent Truth of it may be out there, in the noumenon, but it will always be wreathed in shadow. I’m sorry, Lutine, baby. I know you try.” She laid a little stress on the words Event and Truth, as if to underline the fact that they were to be read with capital initials.
Urtid wanted to say: the transcendent Truth of it is that, not far from where you’re sitting, thousands of bones lie, not wreathed in shadow but buried in the sand; if you doubt that, we can go and dig them up. I know some of their names. But he didn’t.
“Not at all,” said Lutine. “My novel is a symbol. It just so happens that its events took place. And I’m sure my brother Urtid here can attest to that.”
Urtid had been sitting uncomfortably throughout dinner. He’d thought it was just the company, but looking in the mirror back in his hotel room, he discovered that he had an enormous spot on his arse, rising from its curve like an obscenely swollen nipple, its dull red areola fading smoothly into his pallid skin. For some reason it made him think of Mathilde. He missed her; not just for her obscenely swollen nipples, but for her company. He missed the meals they ate together, not speaking too much these days, languid in the comfortable silence of their shared disappointment. It was odd: she’d convinced him to go to the book launch when he’d been reluctant, but as soon as the plane had touched down in Khalatiqa City she’d got cold feet. He should go on to al-Emlekh Mehbl, she would only get in the way, she wasn’t much of a literary type anyway. Maybe she was scared of Boko Seke. Urtid imagined his wife drifting through the souks of the city, her fat hands trailing along colourful fabrics. He saw her reclining in a little café, drinking mint tea and watching rickshaw-drivers flit past. It was a comforting image. Maybe he could go downstairs and use the hotel’s phone to call her at the Hilton. He decided against it. He didn’t want to disturb her sleep, and besides, it would be something for him to look forward to.
Urtid had met Mathilde not long after the first day of battle at al-Emlekh Mehbl. Running blind through the burning tanks, he’d caught a piece of shrapnel in the shoulder; nothing serious, but enough to get him sent to a hospital camp a few miles from the front. There, where the constant thudding of artillery was nicely drowned out by the clattering of trolleys and the snoring of the other invalids, he amused himself trying to seduce the nurses. Urtid spun his awkward three-minute fumblings with War into a grand poetic conquest for Mathilde’s entertainment, dreaming up tales of his valour and inhumanity set against a landscape drenched with blood and fire as she changed the dressing on his wound. She’d known that very little of it was true, but she was still enchanted; Urtid had a way with words, there was no doubt about that.
Mathilde was eighteen years old, and beautiful in a peasant-wench kind of way; he’d liked her soft pale skin and long supple legs, but beneath that she had an immense reservoir of kindness. She loved small animals and wounded men, almost without discrimination – she would coo and stroke a scarab beetle as affectionately as she would a kitten. She was happy, and wanted the people around her to be happy too; she had, she said, taken up medicine for no other reason than that she liked to see sick people get well again, and she was perplexed by Urtid’s sardonic laugh. She might have had some small buried desire for danger and excitement – she had, after all, joined a nursing unit in the middle of a warzone – but it was one that didn’t really want the company of someone tempestuous and wild so much as someone pretending to be tempestuous and wild – in other words, someone like Urtid Batset. It had been a game a first: Mathilde’s love for him was blatant and shameless; she was no good at concealing herself and seemed barely capable of understanding the concept of deceit. He, the poet, thought her a little prosaic; he mistook her all-encompassing kindness for simplicity. He’d play cruel tricks, talking about the other nurses’ charms and pretending not to notice the wounded expression that would flash across her face. When he did finally kiss her he did it roughly, grabbing her by the shoulders and pressing her against the cinderblock wall of the hospital, to see if she would still love him even if he were a brute. She did; he’d almost hoped she wouldn’t. He had killed a man, he was a monster. But in the days that followed he started to feel a profound gratitude. He couldn’t really be a monster: Mathilde was good and pure and she loved him, he must be good and pure as well. Mathilde was glad. She had finally made her libertine soldier-poet as happy as she was.
They were married soon afterwards; both of them felt somehow that it was the done thing. Mathilde sent a telegram home to her parents. Grudgingly conceding that Urtid’s family was respectable if not illustrious, her father gave them his blessing. (Urtid didn’t tell his mother.) He bought a silver ring from One-Eyed Al, a Khalatiqan who hung around the camp selling knickknacks and pornographic playing-cards. The wedding took place in a small tent that served as a chapel; the chaplain took time off from conducting the Last Rites over the beds of the wounded to officiate. His shirt still had the faint whiff of antiseptic and gangrene to it. They didn’t mind. Afterwards some of the other nurses hugged Mathilde and she cried; the officer in charge of the hospital camp congratulated Urtid with a few words mumbled through his moustache. The next day, by way of a wedding present, the government ordered that Mathilde’s division was to be redeployed to the home front.
“I expect you’ll have a gay old time back home,” Urtid said on the day she was to leave. “There’ll be plenty more soldier boys for you to play with.”
“Oh, don’t say those things,” she said. “You know I could never look at another man.”
“I know. I know.” Urtid smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you,” she said, folding her arms around his neck. “Please be safe when I’m gone. Don’t do anything foolish. Don’t – don’t rush into the fight. Don’t do any of the silly things you love to do. Don’t – if I were to lose you… I’d…”
“I won’t. I could never. Not if it would hurt you.”
They were like that: idiots in love. A few hours later, Mathilde stepped onto the truck that would carry her away. She leaned out the back, blowing kisses, her cheeks red with tears. And soon after that Urtid went back to al-Emlekh Mehbl, to meet Lutine Dezoic.
Urtid was woken early in the morning by a commotion in the hotel: the literary journalists were evacuating al-Emlekh Mehbl. Peering through his window he saw them swarming in front of the entrance below him, pushing past each other to get to the convoy of armoured cars that would take them back to the safety of Khalatiqa City. Urtid hadn’t expected it to be over so soon; he was booked into the Golden Oasis for another two nights. Some of the reporters were looking fretfully out into the desert, as if Boko Seke’s band of fanatics would appear at any moment to mow them all down. Beyond them, the resort town looked like an architect’s drawing, its pristine pathways and mathematically straight lines of palm trees utterly deserted. The oasis itself was only half full, a brownish puddle in a yellowish pit, receding to reveal the pipes the resort authorities used to keep it topped up. The swimming pools in the other hotels had been drained, the golf course at the edge of town was starting to wither into the sands. Urtid could see a single bird in the still-pinkish skies, an eagle or a vulture, its great broad wings buoyed upwards by the thermals rising from concrete roofs. He went downstairs for breakfast.
There were only a few people in the room – two West German war journalists wolfing down their Continental breakfasts, and Lutine.
“Urtid!” he exclaimed. “I’m so glad you haven’t left. Anton and I were going to drive out into the desert, to see the battlefield. To give one last salute to fallen comrades. You must join us. I’d be honoured.”
It wasn’t as if he had much else to do with the day; he hadn’t even brought any books apart from Lutine’s. The Poet of Peace and his boyfriend argued throughout the short but bumpy trip out to the minefields, Anton in an unceasing stream of babbling French, Lutine slower and more deliberately. Urtid didn’t understand a word, until as they crested a dune Lutine suddenly turned his head around and snapped, “Anton, non. Pas devant Monsieur Batset.”
That shut him up. For the rest of the journey, Anton was silent, making occasional reverential glances at Urtid. Eventually they drew up in a part of the desert that looked just like any other. A hazard sign in Khalatiqan warned of landmines.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been back here,” said Lutine. “When I was researching the novel, I travelled here several times. Can’t you feel it? The ghost of everything that happened in this place. It’s an almost religious feeling, I think.”
Urtid didn’t recognise it at all. There were some narrow grooves running through the ground where trenches had once been, but he found it impossible to map the place onto the site of his memories. The al-Emlekh Mehbl he remembered was full of noise and dust and people. This place was silent but for the winds that were hissing their way towards the resort, a tiny jumble of glassy buildings in the near distance.
“It’s so strange to think,” Lutine continued. “You and I slept here for months, mere metres from each other.”
Urtid was certain he had never before been to this place in this life.
Lutine kept on like that for a while: it was so strange that the two armies had spent months trying to advance across a patch of land that the two of them could stroll through in minutes, it was so strange that people had been peppered with bullets by men they might have quite liked had they met in other circumstances, it was so strange that it had all taken place for a cause so obscure that nobody could remember if it was just or not, it was so strange. As they walked over the former battlefield Urtid found it almost ridiculous that the excitable man next to him could be a world-famous poet. He was aware of Lutine Dezoic, of course – Mathilde had a few of his volumes, and she was no great reader; he knew that there were plenty in the literature faculty at the school who greatly admired his work. The poet had done noble things: he was forever jetting off to some impoverished malarial swamp made Hell on earth by the clunking gears of mechanised infantry and the callous disregard of roving mercenaries; he’d read out his pleas for peace and brotherhood in front of every gang of cold-eyed guerrillas on the planet. But at the same time, how come he, Urtid, had been forced by sober reality to put down his pen and concentrate on the far more important business of work and life and family, while Lutine was allowed to float off into international stardom? And what gave Lutine the right to dig up the bodies of his fallen comrades and turn them into his zombies, to make a hollow fictionalised marionette out of Urtid and pretend that he was somehow doing him a favour? It wasn’t as if there was any great difference between them. Some of Lutine’s wartime poetry had been, admittedly, quite powerful:
They had me digging graves today
A cushy job, and far away
From where the gunshots sound.
Eighty holes, all neat and square
For people still quite unaware
These pits will hold their bones.
And not far off, the bullets fly
So other men like me can die
– And so I can dig their graves.
There was one piece in particular, however, that stuck in his mind:
In a flash I see the furious swarm
Of fragments of iron and grains of sand
Swirling, arrange itself and transform
Into an ancient scene in a far distant land.
The thunder of guns drops dead! I hear
A funeral silence descending on me
And see a stag that stands without fear
By the sacred boughs of a silver birch tree.
Its leaves all lie scattered, but where they once hung
Hang thousands of men in khaki and green
Their eyes are all closed now, the songs are unsung
Of who they once were and who they could have been.
And the great stag is moved, and muzzles them down
Picking them softly from the old sacred tree
And where the men fall on the cold frosty ground
Their eyes fall open, and they play, wild and free.
Then they take up their guns and form into lines
And hoist up their colours in azure and red
In the tumult their bullets rip across the tree-shrine
The stag is struck, and falls down dead.
And then a voice calls to me through the ages
Dissolving the tree and the holy dead stag.
“Get up, you bastard! – he’s been knocked to blazes.
He’s in need of a bandage – pass me that rag.”
Urtid hadn’t understood what it meant, and he’d said so. Lutine, in his reply, had told him that the poem was based on the pre-Christian mythology of their race, the story of the Tree of Souls and the stag-god Hëtyg who plucked the righteous from that tree and carried them off to the next world. Still Urtid had struggled to make sense of it: did Lutine mean that because of their obscure little war, nobody would ever again get into Heaven? Was he blaming the common soldiers for continuing to fight and kill each other, as if the war was somehow their fault? And besides, he got the sneaking feeling that Lutine actually rather liked the war, because its horrors offered him the opportunity to sink into deep meditations on how awful the whole business was, pseudopacifist ramblings about holy stags and sacred birch trees. He liked to talk about War a lot, in the abstract, he had less interest in the actual business of war itself.
At the same time, Urtid had been more than a little in awe of Lutine at the time. Next to Lutine’s his own works had always seemed crude, their backs bent under the weight of the here and now. One of his wartime pieces, for instance:
Bury me in the oasis’s thick slime
Bury me under the white desert sun
Give me no prayers, no church bell’s dull chime
Bury me deep, and don’t tell my mum.
Or another one he’d written, entitled To the Enemy:
Our sergeant-major’s a fucking cunt
He barks and squeals, the little runt
When you o’erwhelm our front
I hope you shoot him dead.
I’ll be a thousand miles away
I’ll swim to Beirut or fly to Bombay
Leave him to be minced up in the fray
If I don’t, then please shoot me dead.
That had been the poem that started it all off. When Urtid returned from the hospital camp the initial giddy passion of the Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl had settled down into a steady, grinding routine. The two armies had dug themselves firmly in and were busy pounding each other with artillery to little real gain (although they did occasionally contrive thoughtful little surprises for each other to keep the engagement from going stale). The barrages were near-constant. Every other second, somewhere along the front, a round was slamming into the dirt. You learnt to cope with the noise soon enough: in his dugout Urtid would let the earth-shattering thuds lull him to sleep; he imagined they were Red Thursday fireworks, or, as he drifted further into unconsciousness, that they were the rattling of a rocking-cradle or the thumps of motor-cars on a cobbled street. It was the sand that was intolerable. Each round sprayed vast volumes of the stuff into the air; rather than settling down it stayed up there, until it formed a huge cloud that cast a sepia monotone over the sky, obliterating any object more than an arm’s reach away, leaving them to fight in a constant twilight. The sand got in Urtid’s hair, in his eyes, in his mouth and nose; it added a savoury crunch to his food and prickled him awake at night. The dust infested every corner of his life; he wrote poems about it, even, because there was nothing else visible to write about. The sand was the real enemy, a monstrous roaring war-demon. The poor bastards in the other trenches were just there to be shot at; surely they had to contend with the sand as well.
There was one, brief, daily respite. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the night-gunners and the day-gunners switched shifts. For about half an hour an unofficial truce was declared. The sand-demon sunk back into its chthonic lair, and under the dimming sky the soldiers would have a few minutes to play cards or kick a ball about on the flat desert, until a throaty rumble from somewhere down the line had them running to fetch their helmets and rifles again. Urtid would make use of that time to write poetry. And, sometimes, he would read it out. The men would crowd round and listen: every trench had its poet, and people liked to be near them; it was assumed that, by some principle of astral justice, they would be certain to survive the war.
It was in such circumstances that Urtid presented his comrades with his poem To the Enemy. Throughout the whole ordeal the sergeant-major in question sat, grinning nervously. Urtid knew the man would have dearly loved to take him out into an empty trench and shoot him, but he was protected. The top brass, in their Principles of a Liberal-Democratic Military, had decreed that ‘all great art is by its nature transcendent and apolitical. For this reason, the free artistic expression of the soldiery is not to be interfered with unless it actively contradicts their duties as a soldier.’ The poor man even had to join in the light applause that followed.
“Lovely ditty,” he growled. “Very poetic, Private Batset.”
At that point, a cheer went out from the enemy trench, not a hundred metres away.
“Encore!” someone shouted.
That set the sergeant-major off. He fired his rifle into the air. “Enough! Where are the goddamn gunners? Get over here, you fuckers, your break’s over!” And the cannon started up again.
The next day a small metal cylinder was lobbed into Urtid’s trench from across the enemy lines. Instinctively, he ducked away from it, and spent about a minute crouching at a safe distance until it very conclusively failed to explode. As further inspection revealed, it was, in fact, an empty can of corned beef. Inside there was a note:
To the poet,
I very much enjoyed your piece last night. Allow me to present my feeble efforts in response.
Your sergeant-major’s the model of ours:
An impudent wretch with a stick up his arse.
Fastidiously ‘stached, with a pin in his hat
He spends his leave money on polish and wax.
I’d wish death on no-one, but if our line bends,
Please shoot the officer, and please spare your friend.
Thus began the correspondence between Urtid Batset and Lutine Dezoic.
Lutine never signed in his own name, like Urtid did, he always used l’ennemi or votre ennemi (and, towards the end, ton ennemi). His early jovial tone soon melted away; he started sending Urtid long poetic meditations on Man and War and Death, and similarly long exegeses on Urtid’s own works that never failed to discern the same themes: ‘What I think we share, my friend, is a sense of the sheer Absurdity of the fact that, were I to present myself at your trench for a chit-chat, you would be obliged to shoot me, & that the same holds true for you – I feel this is not an Absurdity contingent on this particular War, rather perhaps something innate in the Human Condition… we are rotten creatures, maybe at core, but I cannot help but love the human race, and in the humour of your poem I feel the germ of a similar Love.’ Urtid tried to keep pace; he even resorted to using the word ‘splendiferous.’ He didn’t show anyone their correspondence, of course: what he was doing hovered ambiguously around the edge of treason, and he’d no desire to give the sergeant-major an excuse to have him shot.
Their tiny poetry club had been a nice diversion from the messy business of war. When the messages suddenly stopped, Urtid agonised for a while. He was certain that he’d killed his fellow poet, that Lutine had been one of the dozens of men he’d turned into splats of mere matter with a thoughtless squeeze of his trigger; that would certainly have an appropriate poetic balance to it. It wasn’t until after the final victory at al-Emlekh Mehbl, an orgy of gore and smoke he had spent decades trying to forget, that Urtid managed to put his fallen collaborator out of his mind. Of course, before the victorious army had even made it to the enemy’s colonial capital their home defences had crumbled and their government had surrendered. Urtid was secretly glad. He was sent back, to Europe, to his home, to Mathilde. His writing had provided its function, it had let him survive the war. Sometimes, when Mathilde would remind him teasingly of the brooding poet he had been, he’d think of himself in that hospital bed, reading out tales of his deeds in iambic pentameter. He didn’t think of the trenches; he tried not to think of the trenches at all.
Or at least until an unexpected letter revealed to him that the man he had once known as l’ennemi had not only survived the war but was, in fact, none other than the world-renown award-winning poet Lutine Dezoic, that the fabled Poet of Peace had decided to base his first-ever novel on their historic encounter, an encounter that had been woven into a grand and rich narrative, the central thread of which was the love of peace and the love of all mankind, and that Urtid would be most welcome to attend the book launch as the author’s guest, at al-Emlekh Mehbl, in Khalatiqa, where they had once been enemies.
That night in the hotel, Urtid opened The Sand and the Wildflower again, wondering exactly what Lutine had made of their encounter. He flicked through until he found the name of Jostin Batrica, his surrogate:
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Griseld said. “When the sun sets, and you can see that the desert isn’t white at all, it’s a thousand shades of amber and red, it just needs the right light… you can almost forget that we’re at war here.” She let out a long sigh. “You can feel yourself melting away into it.”
“It is,” said Jostin. “It’s beautiful.”
They were walking with linked elbows around the main hospital building. Slowly, Griseld’s hand slid down Jostin’s arm and clasped his own, stroking his rough skin with its pale sensuousness. She gazed at him, her eyes burning with all the unspoken nakedness of her tender love. “If only people could see this as we do… if only people could just stand and watch it, if only they came to this place for its beauty and not to kill each other…”
Jostin couldn’t stand to see her like this; he couldn’t stand to see her frail little body giving itself over to him so willingly and so pleadingly. Suddenly he pushed her up against the wall of the hospital. She let out a little gasp. He kissed her, not tenderly, as he wished he could, but roughly, as a bawd, tugging her plaits with one hand, pressing his hips against her squirming frame…
He turned a few pages.
…her freckled forearms, her large brown nipples, the swelling sea of white flesh below, dimpled just above her navel…
Urtid slammed the book shut. He’d never mentioned Mathilde once to Lutine, he’d certainly never told anyone about that kiss. How could he know? What on earth was going on?
Urtid and Mathilde had moved out of the capital a long time ago. Their nation’s second city was so much more accommodating: property was cheap, there were fewer immigrant kids blasting out dreadful American-inflected music (not that they were racialists, anything but: Urtid had always voted Socialist, he had an impeccable record), the countryside was always close at hand. Whenever he was fantasising about strangling one of his pupils a little too fixatedly, or whenever his and Mathilde’s silence in front of the TV slipped from comfort into awkwardness, he’d take out his dinky little Japanese motor-car and go out driving. Humming down the two-lane highways that wound along the coastal cliffsides, he had a strange feeling – not peace, exactly; not contentment, because he already had that; something like disassociation. The wheels would spin round and the tarmac would roll by underneath, it was as if he didn’t need to be there at all. He felt as if he were utterly passive in his own existence, like some kind of omniscient narrator that could callously observe his life without ever being particularly involved. Sometimes he’d wonder what it would be like to deliberately miss a turning, for the car to plunge out from the cliffside into the glittering waters, for him to rejoin his long-lost ancestors in the sea.
The Golden Oasis offered a car-rental service. Urtid took one out the next morning.
The clerk had a pained expression as he filled out the paperwork. “You are driving to Khalatiqa City?” he said.
“Oh, no. I thought I’d just explore the local area a bit.”
The clerk drew out a map. “From al-Emlekh Mehbl there are two roads. Highway twelve goes north, direct to Khalatiqa City. Then to the south, you can go to Masdat. Here, by highway eighteen. Masdat is safe to go. But you should not go any south from Masdat. That place is Boko Seke’s.”
“What’s Masdat like?”
He shrugged. “I’ve never been. I am from Khalatiqa City. There is a big oil refinery, I think. The drive is three hours to get there. But you must be back here by night. No roads are safe at night. Not even highway twelve.”
As Urtid pulled out from the hotel’s car park, he noticed a black man in a business suit standing on a street corner, staring fixedly at him. Hotel security, he reasoned – although he’d never seemed him before, and all the other employees he’d met in al-Emlekh Mehbl had been Arabs. In any case, the infinite monotony of the White Desert quickly put it out of his mind. The place was aptly named. It had no mountains, no gorges, not even many dunes, only the continual black triangle of highway eighteen and the line of electricity pylons running alongside it.
There was no reason to go all the way to Masdat, he decided. He could drive for an hour, maybe, until he felt better, and then just turn the car around. With that decided, he tried to slip away into his familiar driving trance, but something held him back. The question was like an itch in his brain. How had Lutine known about him and Mathilde? Did he have a poet’s telepathy? Could it be that he had just guessed?
Another car was speeding towards him in the hazy distance. Without warning, it pulled up sideways, blocking the highway. Urtid braked sharply in front of it and pounded his horn. The other car’s door sprung open. A single shot shattered his windscreen. Suddenly men in balaclavas and military fatigues surrounded him. Urtid felt paralysed, as he had when he’d first killed a man at al-Emlekh Mehbl. There were shouts: Allahu akhbar! It was as if he were underwater. It was all so far away. As the bag went over his head he thought: this isn’t happening. This is Lutine, this is something he’s contrived, this is something he’s planned to teach me how to love humanity.
When the hood was pulled off Urtid found himself tied to a plastic chair in a windowless concrete room lit by a single flickering bulb. His face was clammy with sweat, it was heavy in his moustache, its salt burned in his eyes. He was certain the spot on his arse had popped. Two men in balaclavas stood in front of him.
“Lutine Dezoic,” said one. “You are a prisoner of the Armed Islamic Group for the Propagation of Virtue. You have been brought here to answer for your crimes against the people of Khalatiqa.” This was said with a jolting cadence, as if it had been learned by rote.
It took a moment for the splinters of what had been said to rearrange themselves in Urtid’s mind. What had they called him? “I’m not Lutine Dezoic,” he said.
The world went dark again. Someone kicked against the chair. Urtid’s head slammed against the floor with a sharp crack. A spasm of ice-cold pain rippled across his skull.
“I’m not Lutine Dezoic!” shouted Urtid. “Please believe me! You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not Lutine Dezoic. My name is Urtid Batset and I’m-”
The chair was righted. Off came the hood. “Lutine Dezoic. You have been brought here to answer for your crimes against the people of Khalatiqa.”
“Please – please listen-”
The hood was pulled back on. This time when he was kicked down Urtid braced himself; it didn’t hurt any less. He felt dizzy as he was pulled up again.
“It’s not me,” Urtid whimpered. “It’s not. I’m not Lutine Dezoic.”
One of the balaclavas leaned in to him. “If again you interrupt me, I will shoot you. You understand, yes?”
Urtid nodded his assent.
“You are Lutine Dezoic. You have been brought here to answer for your crimes against the people of Khalatiqa. You understand, yes?”
Urtid nodded again. “But I’m not Lutine,” he mumbled.
“If you are not Lutine Dezoic, then why should I not just shoot you now?”
Urtid could taste the blood in his mouth. “You’re going to shoot me anyway.”
A callow laugh. “Maybe I will.”
He kicked Urtid down again, on the other side this time. When he opened his eyes Urtid saw that the two men had left. He struggled a bit against his bounds. The rope cut into his wrist; he soon gave up. Was this Lutine’s idea of a joke? Why couldn’t he have stayed in al-Emlekh Mehbl? Why couldn’t he have remained in Khalatiqa City with Mathilde? Why couldn’t he have refused the publisher’s invitation and stayed at home? Why couldn’t he have just fought his war like a normal soldier? Why in God’s name did he have to write poetry about it?
When Urtid woke he had a dead arm, and his hair was clotted to the ground with blood. He’d been untied, at least. The room was long and narrow, narrow enough for him to trail his hands along both crumbling walls. A chamber-pot crouched in one corner, with a few rolls of toilet paper. A window had been bricked in; a few shards of charcoal were scattered on the windowsill. He paced up and down for a while. It was odd: he’d lost his terror all of a sudden, now he was just bored, distantly bored. It was almost like driving alone on the roads around his hometown, except now he knew exactly what was going to happen: whatever happened here, he would not leave his cell alive. Until then, it was almost like a game.
He was fed, eventually, through a hatch in the door. No Khalatiqan specialities: he had two slices of white bread and a beaker of cold tinned potato soup. Maybe, he thought, they were trying to accommodate his cultural preferences. After he finished eating the guards came in and beat him again.
“What is your name?” they shouted.
“Urtid Batset,” he said.
It went on like that for quite some time. Every time he’d insist that he was not Lutine Dezoic. He wasn’t even sure himself why he kept on denying it. Part of him was scared that as soon as they’d forced an admission out of him, Boko Seke’s men would cut his head off and leave him by the side of the road. But at the same time he was just stubborn. Not only was he emphatically not Lutine Dezoic, he frankly couldn’t stand the man.
Urtid soon lost track of days. He gave up pacing after a while; it didn’t help. He missed his wife. Sometimes he’d sob a little, before he slept, but mostly he just sat in a kind of rather agreeable boredom. He marked out his meals with a tally in charcoal just below the windowsill, because he felt somehow as if that was what one did when one had been imprisoned, but he didn’t get much satisfaction out of it. In any case, the meals and beatings seemed to be spaced out entirely randomly.
He had been fed eighty-six times when he found himself one day being visited, not by the two masked guards, but by a tall thin black man in a long white robe.
“So,” the man said as he entered. “It appears you seem to have forgotten who you are.” Seeing Urtid’s averted gaze, he crouched down next to him. “Oh, you can look at me. I’m just here for a chat. You’d do better to save your shame for God, Mr Dezoic.” He stood up again. “I must say I’m rather disappointed in you. We had this room set up very carefully – the toilet paper, the bits of charcoal, all of this so you could write a few furtive lines of touching genius… and yet you’ve not penned a word. Hardly the behaviour that behoves a world-famous poet, I must say. I was quite looking forward to reading your works. They do say peril hones a man’s creative talents, after all.”
“I’m not Lutine Dezoic.”
“So I hear! Except if you were not Lutine Dezoic, that would mean that I had made a mistake, wouldn’t it? And I do not make mistakes. You know who I am, I take it?”
The man was unmistakeable. His seven foot frame, his designer sunglasses, his carefully honed accent – Urtid had seen his image dozens of times, in newspapers, on the TV. “You’re Boko Seke,” he said.
“I am Abdulrahman al-Ghadeb ibn Saleh ibn Mohammed al-Khalatiqi. Commonly known, yes, as Boko Seke. You know, when I was at Stanford, I briefly took an interest in this kind of thing. Cryptopsychology and paraneurology and so on. Some most extraordinary case histories. One poor fellow was convinced he had a twin brother that was being kept secret from him. Or another, who was adamant that all his friends and family had been replaced with lifelike automata… of course, the one clinical lesson that was always underlined was this: you must never directly confront the patient with anything that contradicts their delusion. Doing so can cause untold psychological harm. But you’re not my patient, Mr Dezoic. You’re my prisoner. So I had one of my people nip up to al-Emlekh Mehbl and bring back this.”
He lightly tossed an English-language edition of The Sand and the Wildflower at Urtid’s feet. The young Lutine stared out from the front. “I didn’t write this.”
“Look in the inside cover,” said Boko Seke.
On the inside flap was a short biography of the author: Lutine Dezoic is an award-winning poet, vegetarian advocate, and peace activist living in Paris. His works have been translated into over 50 languages. The Sand and the Wildflower is his first novel. And above that, a photo, in which a man he recognised instantly was trying to pull a sympathetic face, making the best out of his sagging cheeks and sunken eyes and untidy moustache.
“Do we need to fetch you a mirror?” said Boko Seke.
He shook his head, silently.
“What is your name?”
Batset, he wanted to say. Urtid Batset. He felt as if he was going to throw up.
“I said, what is your name?”
“Lutine,” he managed. “Lutine Dezoic.”
“And who wrote this book you have in front of you?”
He couldn’t remember writing it. He tried to picture himself sitting down at a typewriter, ensconcing himself away for days on end, emerging months later having written a novel – it was an absurd image. “I did.”
Boko Seke smiled. “Good. Good.” He looked almost cherubic under his sunglasses. A distant hope rose – maybe this was it, maybe he’d be let go now. Suddenly the two balaclava’d men rushed through the door. One kicked him in the seat of his belly; a little splash of vomit burst through his lips. Boko Seke whirled on him, roaring: “And does that not make you responsible for its contents?”
The poet gasped. “I- I-”
“I would like to read a little section from your little story,” Boko Seke said, adjusting his turban. “If you’ll permit me. I found it deeply touching.” He picked up the book and flicked through it. “Ah – here we are. Near the end. Your army is in retreat from the Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl. A sorry band, their spirits broken by the terrors of war. Dreadful business. And you write: The enemy were to find no shelter or supplies on their march West. On the fourth day, we chanced across an anonymous village, its adobe buildings, consanguineous with the blistering sands, bleached by the sun until they seemed little arches and domes of the desert, formed by the atelic winds. Again.” The guard landed another kick on the poet’s stomach. “Wearily we loaded the shells into our artillery guns, and swivelled their hungry mouths, internecine voids that spit metal and suck life, towards the village. After we were done – Again!” This time the guard’s foot landed on his chest. The poet spluttered. “After we were done,” Boke Seke continued, “I and a few other men were sent down into the ruins to dispatch the villagers’ livestock. The goats looked at me, not with pleading in their eyes, but with an angelic animal incomprehension. Even as I pulled the trigger, one delicate creature, barely a kid, lifted his baby-pink snout lovingly up to my hand, expecting food and love and all the kindness I was capable of giving. Instead, my gunshot sounded across the broad valley. We burned the goats on a pyre, a monstrous monument to the inhumanity of which we, alone among the animals, are capable.”
Boko Seke swooped down on the poet and seized his hand by the knuckles, slowly crushing it. “That was not an anonymous village, Mr Dezoic. That was the town of Mafeké. That was your country’s very own Oradour-sur-Glane. But the inhabitants only had themselves to blame, am I right? They should have written little poems for you. They should have looked at you with the credulousness of a baby goat. Then, maybe, their deaths might have prompted a nice little bout of soul-searching in your nice little book.”
When Boko Seke next visited he was carrying a silver tray with two glasses of tea and a copy of The Sand and the Wildflower. He sat down crossed-legged in front of the poet.
“You are a writer,” he said. “Well, I like to think of what I do as a kind of literary criticism. Criticism with Kalashnikovs, maybe. You know, when my father sent me off to university, I expected to study engineering or geology. Something that would help with his business. I expect you know about my father’s riches. This man, Saleh ibn Mohammed, grew up in a tent in the desert. I was born in a tent in the desert. He had a few goats, and a few camels, and he went from place to place, until he chanced upon the biggest oilfield in North Africa. But when he decamped to Khalatiqa City and bought himself a nice mansion there, nobody cared that he was the fifth richest man in the country. There are families up there who say they can trace their lineage to the Prophet. To them, he was just another nigger from the south, you understand. So he insisted: I would go to Oxford, and I would study literature, and I would learn to quote Shakespeare. And so now I can quote Shakespeare.” For a moment the poet expected Boko Seke to extend a thespian hand and read out a line from King Lear to demonstrate. Instead he nodded vaguely and continued. “Baliol College. Have you ever been to Oxford, Mr Dezoic? I expect so. I have fond memories of the place, I suppose. It was all rather confusing at first. Try explaining subfusc to a boy from a desert tribe. And nobody ever told me that you’re not supposed to eat with your hands at formal dinner. Of course, I ended up with a rather odd group of people. People who could quote Shakespeare very well, if they chose to, but spent most of their time quoting Lenin instead, despite him being nowhere near as good a writer… these days the only book I study is the Qur’an. It can’t be translated into your language, Mr Dezoic. When it’s translated it is no longer the Qur’an… but in the Arabic there is such beauty. All the poetry of this Earth is not equal to a single line from the word of God. It’s not equal to a single dot over a single letter.” Boko Seke stared into the distance, faintly smiling. The poet opened his mouth. “But,” said Boko Seke, snapping his head back round. “Still I like to maintain something of the analytic approach I learned out in Oxford and Stanford. Have you heard this idea that Western civilisation is a discourse, that it’s structured like a text? I rather like it. And, of course, it is a text surrounded with helicopter gunships and nuclear weapons. They’re part of the whole discourse. So what I’m doing, here in Khalatiqa, is fundamentally hermeneutic. I am writing a particularly scathing review of Western civilisation.” Boko Seke took a sip from his tea. “Still a little too hot,” he said.
“They’ll look for me,” said the poet. “If I’m Lutine Dezoic, people will look for me.”
“I should hope so,” said Boko Seke. “After all, your book was very well reviewed.” He picked up the book from the tray. The poet flinched.
“I have it bookmarked somewhere,” said Boko Seke. “Here we are. I wonder what on Earth possessed you to write this line. For all the flowery pronouncements of our leaders, we had ended up rolling in the sand of Khalatiqa like brute savages. Interesting little opposition there, don’t you think? Well, as disappointed as Professor Masseline would be, I’ll defer to the author. Is this true, do you think?”
The poet thought of his dinner in al-Emlekh Mehbl, with his friends: the fat Englishman and the skinny American and the Frenchwoman who had said that the war had never happened. She and Boko Seke were the same, when you got down to it. “Were you there?” he said. “Were you there during the war?”
“I was a boy,” said Boko Seke. “We were pastoralists. I didn’t even know it was happening.”
“Then you don’t know what it was like. What he wrote – what I wrote – it’s true. We were like savages there.”
“Have you ever met a savage? That’s what the Arabs up in Khalatiqa City thought my father was. But it’s strange. His tribe never fired artillery shells. They never tried to kill thousands of people with poison gas. Oh, we’d fight our little wars, and kill each other sometimes, but never quite so gleefully as your tribe. What you don’t seem to understand, Mr Dezoic, is that your flowery pronouncements and your bestial warfare are the same thing. You should have written: we rolled in the sand like civilised men.”
The poet crouched over, expecting the guards to come through and underline Boko Seke’s point with another beating. Instead the man stood up and made for the door. “I’ve enjoyed this little chat,” he said, taking up the glasses of tea, leaving the book. “It’s nice to talk with another man of letters.”
In the days that followed the poet’s moustache drooped over his lips; he started to grow a tangled beard; his teeth grew loose. Occasionally he tried to remember himself writing The Sand and the Wildflower. There was a long chapter describing his convalescence at the hospital camp, packed with tiny details only he and Mathilde knew. Only he could have written it. But still he didn’t much like the book: he didn’t like the prose, he didn’t like the dialogue, he didn’t like the endless sermonising about love for all humanity and the endless moralising about peace. It was all very pretentious. Boko Seke was right: it wasn’t a very good book. Well, maybe he, Lutine Dezoic, wasn’t a very good writer. Even so, there was something perplexing about it. The novel seemed to point to some secret truth that its own author couldn’t quite understand. If he had seduced Mathilde, who was the man he had written poetry with across the trenches? Could it be that the reason he didn’t remember writing the book could be found in the book itself? In any case, after a few weeks in that concrete room the outside world started to seem like a fantasy. He had been at a book launch in al-Emlekh Mehbl, he was sure of it, but whether or not he had an apartment in Paris and a shelf of literary awards was anyone’s guess. The only window to the brightness outside his cell was The Sand and the Wildflower, and the view it gave wasn’t a very clear one.
The guards still beat him occasionally, but half-heartedly. They weren’t feeding him much either; the poet could soon loop his thumb and index finger around his wrist. It had seemed as if Boko Seke wanted to give the poet some kind of moral instruction, he had some kind of plan for him. Perhaps – and this was suddenly a terrifying thought – he had been killed. Only Boko Seke seemed to know what was going on. Only Boko Seke seemed to understand The Sand and the Wildflower. Without him he could starve without ever learning the truth.
When Boko Seke did finally return the poet wanted to leap up and embrace the man. He didn’t, though: he was carrying another tray, once again with two glasses of tea and a book.
“I’d like to talk with you about peace, if you’ll allow me,” he said. “I have several half-brothers up in Khalatiqa City, you know, fourteen or fifteen – it’s hard to remember. My father’s tribe is monogamous, but he did try so hard to fit in with the locals after my mother died… My half-brothers are men of peace as well. You might have seen them. They’re forever giving interviews to the Western media, talking about how I’m a mad dog and I must be stopped, about how the kleptocrats up in Khalatiqa need more tanks and more fighter planes – for the sake of peace, you understand, for the sake of peace. I don’t think they believe a word of it, to be honest. They just want to see me crushed, so they can go back to their yachts and their girlfriends. All they know is that your people are always very receptive to talk of peace. Rather odd, isn’t it, don’t you think? Europeans spend several centuries making war against just about everyone else on the face of the planet – but then you have your Somme, your Stalingrad, your al-Emlekh Mehbl, and suddenly the whole world has to know how important it is to make peace. And so you, Mr Dezoic – you go flying off across the world to tell people about peace. You stand there in a suit and a wristwatch and tell people who have to fight just to stay alive that they should practice peace. You come here, to Khalatiqa, and try to tell me about peace. Do you know what I call that?”
“It’s arrogant,” said the poet. He hesitantly reached out to take a sip of the tea. Boko Seke nodded. It was warm and very sweet and very good. “It’s condescending, it’s arrogant…”
“True,” said Boko Seke. “But most of all, it’s symptomatic of a culture in terminal decline. You see this book here?” He picked up the small volume lying on the tray. “This book was written by a man called Yusuf Benaziza. He’s a Cyrenaican, I think, but he lives in your country now – in fact, he represents a district in your country at the Senate of Europe. And like you, he’s written a nice little book. This one is called Jihad: the Abuse of an Idea. And this man, who calls himself a Muslim, is trying to argue that jihad has nothing to do with guns and swords, that it’s all about the inner battle against impure thoughts… he wants to turn Islam into Buddhism, something nice and friendly that your people can digest easily. He wants to demonstrate that Muslims are not at all like Sayyid Qutb or like Abu Nidal or, well, like me. And he has to do this because your people have no stomach for the Absolute any more. As soon as someone comes up to you with a single transcendent truth, you call him a madman. Instead you have all these little contingencies, these tiny maybe-truths. Freedom – but not too much. Democracy – through elected officials. Peace. You lived through war, Mr Dezoic. Wasn’t it the truest thing you ever did?”
The poet found himself bursting into laughter. “I spent half the war writing poetry,” he said through his tears. “I wrote poetry…”
“There’s still hope for you. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I’d like that.”
“You can do something for me.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Boko Seke sniffed. “Oh, there’s no point. You’re weak. You’re far too weak. An old man who watches TV. A man who spent his war writing poetry. It’s sickening. But do you know what sickens me most of all? What you did to Urtid Batset. What you did to his wife. What you didn’t describe in your book. How could you?”
“How could I do what?” said the poet.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do,” said Boko Seke. “You know what you did at the end of the war.” He stood up to leave.
“I don’t know! What did I do to him? What did I do?”
He continued shouting like that long after the door had clanged shut.
When the poet next awoke, the door to his cell had been left wide open and he found himself dressed in clean clothes: a white shirt and khaki trousers. A small .22 revolver was lying on a cloth next to him. It was loaded. He sat in the corner of the room, watching the sunlight on the concrete floor of the hallway outside, watching the little whorls of hot air rising. There were sounds, too – the faint buzzing of a hundred conversations, impossibly distant. He was in some kind of trap, he was certain of it. He checked the gun again, and lunged for the door.
Through a dust-caked window, the real world shone. The compound where he was being kept was in a small desert town – maybe he was in Masdat: the hazy rounded outlines of distillation towers rose up above the sand-coloured buildings outside. Past them, visible in the cracks between houses, was the endlessness of the White Desert. In the square outside the window people were passing, pulling carts and barrows. Two fighters in turbans stood across the square in the shade of an awning, their guns propped against a wall. If they noticed him peering at him they didn’t do anything about it. The corridor bent around the poet’s cell. His fist white around the revolver’s grip, he half-walked, half-crawled around the corner.
There, in a small room whose door opened out to the street, was Boko Seke. He was kneeling on a carpet, facing away from the poet. “Ah, he said, not turning around. “Urtid. You’re awake. You’re free to go, if you want. There’s a car that will take you back to Khalatiqa City.”
The poet steadied himself on the doorframe. “Urtid?” he said.
“Oh, we know who you are. It was an unfortunate necessity, I’m afraid. You have the gun, I take it?”
The poet raised it to Boko Seke’s head. He pulled back the hammer.
“If you want,” said Boko Seke. He turned, finally, to look at the poet. He was smiling, that same faint transcendent smile he had worn when talking about the Qur’an.
“No,” said the poet. “I don’t.” Still he didn’t put the gun down. “Why me? If you wanted Lutine Dezoic, why not just take him?”
“What does it mean if I kill the Poet of Peace? Nothing, nothing at all. I’m a man of violence, after all. But if you do it… if the subject of The Sand and the Wildflower does it…”
“I’d have done it anyway. You only had to ask.”
“You wouldn’t. We had to tear you out of yourself. Your car’s waiting, Mr Batset.”
The poet turned to leave. “One thing,” he said. “Do you love humanity?”
“Yes,” said the terrorist. “Yes I do. I really do.”
Madness shone in his eyes, bright and all-consuming.
Highway twelve was packed. On one side of the road, a sorry slow-moving train of refugees, in dented cars and donkey-carts. Some carried bales of hay, some had all their possessions wrapped up in carpets or tarpaulins, some had rifles slung over their shoulders. A few small herds of sheep and goats plodded by the roadside.
Moving in the other direction, an endless column of tanks.
“They’re going to fight you?” said Urtid.
“The apostates will try to fight us, yes,” said the driver. “There will be a second Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl. We will win.”
It was night by the time they arrived in Khalatiqa City.
“You must go,” said the driver. He’d pulled into an alley in what looked like an industrial district, all blocky apartment blocks and empty lots surrounded by wire-mesh fencing. The streetlamps flickered. The engine was still running; the headlights lit up a triangle of rocky ground between two boarded-up buildings. “Curfew is in twenty minutes.”
“Curfew? There wasn’t a curfew before.”
“The Army overthrew the government last month. Now it is curfew at nine hours and thirty. We know your wife is still at the Hilton, room twelve three three. It is a few blocks south of here. You must go now. Ma’assalama.”
His wife. Urtid had almost forgotten her face; he’d been convinced he was someone else for so long. She would be pink and round and infinitely comforting, she smelled faintly of soap and she loved him. Urtid walked, half in a daze, down the middle of the potholed street; through the hum of electricity substations, the grunts of old men and chirps of scrawny boys peering through windows, the rising sound of insects in the lime trees whose roots buckled the paving stones. Rising up in front of him was the gaptoothed skyline of Khalatiqa City’s New Town. Through one of the windows in one of those towers, he knew, Mathilde was waiting.
As he crossed over the bridge leading into the central business district he saw the soldiers; five or six of them. He slowed his pace; one of them flashed a torch in his face and waved him on. He muttered something in Khalatiqan. Urtid thought he heard his own name. No matter. He limped on. The Hilton was ghostly-pale in the dark, its windows unlit, but still glowing faintly. There were cars now on the roads, and trucks full of soldiers. “Hezir taja’ul!” they shouted. “Curfew, curfew!” No matter. Across the big roundabout that surrounded the hotel. Through the doors, into the lift. And then, in the intermittent fluorescent light, the numbers on the door. He knocked.
And there was Mathilde in her nightdress. He stared, mute. “Urtid?” she said. “My God, Urtid… is it you?”
“Mathilde,” he said. “I-”
“Tiddy!” She wrapped her arms around him. Urtid buried his face in her shoulder. He could feel the pain in his lacerated skin and bruised bones receding, fading away into his big cushion of a wife. He could have slept there. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said. “I thought I’d lost you forever.” And then, drawing herself back, “But what did they do to you? Your face! And you’re so thin!”
“They broke me,” said Urtid. “I forgot who I was. They made me forget who I was.”
Mathilde drew her into the candlelit room. “I’m making you a drink,” she said. “Because you look like you need one. And then you’re to go straight to bed. And tomorrow you can tell me what happened.” She knelt down in front of the minibar. “There’s no ice… there’s not been much power since the Army took charge.”
The whiskey stung the cuts on Urtid’s lips and inside his cheeks, but he drunk it down. Mathile helped him take off his shoes. And then there was the bed, with its soft quilt and cotton sheets, and his wife curled up against him, surrounding him, and the steady tug of sleep. He was safe.
When Urtid awoke it must have been late afternoon: the light peeking in above the curtains was already a solemn crepuscular orange. Mathilde wasn’t in the room. As he fumbled on the floor for his clothes Urtid brushed one hand against his trousers, meeting the coiled hardness of the revolver in its pocket. He took it into the bathroom. The light inside wasn’t working, but the hotel staff had provided a box of matches and two candles with the Hilton logo stamped into them. He lit one, then put down the toilet-lid and sat down, cradling the thing in his hands. There was something he was meant to do. He knew what it was. He was going to walk out onto the balcony and fling the gun away, he decided. Then he and his wife would go home, and he would never think of Khalatiqa or Boko Seke or The Sand and the Wildflower again as long as he lived. The whole horrid business would be just like the war: something that had happened, something that couldn’t be made to un-happen, but something that would be spoken of as little as possible. He had decided. So why was it so hard for him to stand up and walk out the bathroom? Why was the revolver still in his hands?
The hot water, at least, was still working, and after a long shower Urtid felt a little better. Mathilde was there when he came out. She kissed him on the forehead, and showed him the dinner she’d brought up from the restaurant: beef and parsnips, the gravy was ersatz but still Urtid ate until he felt his gut stretching. And then, after a little prompting, he began to try to tell her about everything that had happened – but instead he found himself lying. He told his wife about being kidnapped on the road to Masdat, about the cell he’d been kept in, about being beaten. She winced with him, and cried, and said, “Oh, my brave man,” with a hand on her chest. But he didn’t tell her that he’d met Boko Seke, or that they’d let him go. He’d escaped, and hidden in the cart of some refugees carrying all they owned up to Khalatiqa City. He wondered why.
“We’ll have to phone the police here,” she said afterwards. “And tell them that you’re OK, And Lutine, of course.”
“Of course. He’s been brilliant, he’s been here in Khalatiqa the whole time. He’s set up this whole campaign, the Urtid Batset Appeal. Meeting with all these ambassadors and ministers and getting all his famous friends to write letters. He’s hardly stopped…”
Lutine. Suddenly everything was coming together.
“He introduced me to General Taleb, and the radio says all this stuff about him doing a coup and overthrowing democracy, but he really did seem like such a nice man, and so concerned about you…”
Lutine. Boko Seke was right, Urtid thought; he had no stomach for the Absolute, to be honest he wouldn’t know the Absolute if it hit him in the face, but still he had his pride. Boko Seke and Lutine Dezoic might love humanity, but he loved his wife. “Did you sleep with him?” he said.
She laughed. “I don’t think the General’d be much interested in me. He’d probably have a harem, I’ve no doubt, one of those things-”
“Not the general,” Urtid said. “You know who I’m talking about. Lutine.”
She had to suppress a little gasp. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean,” she said. “You must be so confused…”
“But you did. You did. Before. And he didn’t- it wasn’t… you wanted to.”
“Tiddy, I don’t know where you got this idea,” Mathilde said. But her brow was cracking; she’d never been any good at lying.
Urtid sat down on the end of the bed. “Please, Mathilde. Just tell me. I know you did.”
Mathilde burst. Her words came out in a rattling sob, she half-kneeled in front of him. “Oh Urtid, I was so scared… I was only a girl, and there were shells landing everywhere, all over the city, and people were talking about a last noble stand… and then there were all these soldiers on the streets, and I thought we were all going to die, I thought you’d already died… and they took us all to this prison camp, I thought we’d be shot. And this young officer comes up to me and says, Batset, that’s a very unusual name, isn’t it? I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’re a relation of Urtid’s? And he was so kind, and so good to me. He took me out of the camp and found me somewhere to stay, and he was always so interested, he wanted to know all about you and how we’d met and what you were like, he noted it all down in a little book, he said he’d be famous one day, he said he’d met you in Africa but that he didn’t know what had happened to you. And then…” Mathilde’s hands trembled. “When he tried to kiss me I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. And when they signed the treaty I never heard from him again. I was a girl, Tiddy, I was only a girl…”
“You kept his books in our house. You let me come out here and meet him without telling me what he’d done.”
“Please don’t be angry.”
“I’m not,” said Urtid. And it was odd: he wasn’t, he wasn’t angry at all. He just knew what he had to do. He stood up and went for the door.
“Where are you going?” said Mathilde.
“I’m not angry,” said Urtid again. “I’m not angry at you.”
It was odd, he thought. Lutine had gone on about how strange war was, but in the end he had it all backwards. Peace was strange, peace didn’t make any sense. What he was about to do was a crime, but if he’d done it twenty years ago they’d have given him a medal…