I DON’T UNDERSTAND – by Tina Bexson (short story)

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It was in the first month of her abstinence. It was two weeks since she ran away from her family in England. It was 4 am and hot. She sat in the sand of the Sinai desert, her back to the cool stone wall of the Al Huda Mosque. She was waiting for Adnan, the call to prayer. From the minaret the muezzin sang mesmerising patterns into the microphone. They helped her forget who she was and where she had come from. They helped her to stop shaking.

‘Why do you come here every morning,’ a lithe man asked squatting down beside her. ‘You must know you are not allowed inside the Mosque.’

She didn’t say anything. He said his name was Ashraf and asked for hers. She told him it was Mary. He wore a torn Keffiyeh wrapped around his head and a pale brown Gabaleya that reached his ankles. She recognised him as one of the men who brought their thin Arabian horses down from the Nile Delta for the tourist season. She often passed him in the village. They would nod, exchange pleasantries. This was the first time he had told her his name. Now they were so close she wondered how old he was. Older than her for sure though it was hard to tell as his beard was quite heavy and his eyes were shielded by green reflecting sunglasses. She waited silently for him to enter the mosque and pray but he remained in place. He had the stillness of a Rodin statue. She tried to recall its name. ‘The Thinker’. Perhaps.

‘The call for the dawn prayer, it’s beautiful,’ Ashraf muttered in Arabic. He starred across the white sand towards the grey granite mountain range.

‘Ana mish fahma,’ she replied.

He laughed.

‘So, you have come to learn some Arabic since you’ve been here then,’ he said.

‘No, I just know how to say I don’t understand.’

His laughter called out as she made her way back across the desert. Why had he had sat beside her instead of entering the mosque to pray? Why had he been wearing sunglasses in the dawn light? And why hadn’t she let him know she understood Arabic?

When she arrived at the Mosque the next morning Ashraf was already there.

‘You’re late,’ he said. Without his sunglasses his eyes looked red and tired. She also thought they looked agitated, restless. Though again, his body squatted in the sand in a way hers refused to do. Later she knew she would fix his frame into her mind and study it.

‘Our prayer before the sun rises is the most important one of the day,’ he said.

‘Why, tell me?’ she said, surprised, quite suddenly by something urgent she did not recognise as her own. He turned swiftly towards the mosque. She saw the corner of his mouth twitch. Was this a smirk or a smile?

‘Well, you may have time but I don’t,’ he said quickly, rising to brush the sand from his Gabaleya.

‘Now I must go and pray,’ he hissed. ‘I missed it yesterday, remember.’

Was he blaming her? But why? She hadn’t encouraged him to stay. Then she felt his hand touch her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his tone now soft. ‘We will talk again.’

She lit a cigarette, watched a thin layer of smoke hover in the dawn light. A image came to her. One of a fragile glass pipe filled with a small rock of crack tinged blue green like the inside of a cave lined with ice.

The sun rose. She pulled the scarf from her head, arched her neck, let the heat hit her face. Then she imagined him chanting; rhythmically bowing. Touching his head to the ground. Again and again. Today she would wait until the prayer was over before she made her way back home.

His rigidity struck her as he came back down the mosque’s pocked stone steps. She had expected to witness a sense of calm. Perhaps similar to those she’d once seen reciting The Serenity Prayer. Then she thought of Sinead O’Connor singing it to start a song she used to listen to. ‘Feel so Different’? She couldn’t remember.

‘You have a television in your home,’ he stated bluntly as he reached her.

‘Why?’ she said.

‘For the Qur’an channel. I will find the one with English subtitles. It will tell you about all of our five prayers’

‘But I must get ready for work,’   she said.

‘No, you have time. You train those rich German woman’s horses don’t you? They can wait.’

She didn’t say anything.

They headed inland, through the dry wadis, past the camel corpses and the howling dogs scavenging among the dunes.

‘So you cover up’ he said, scanning her long dark skirt and lose scarf now hanging covering her head and shoulders. ‘This is good.’

‘Why?’

‘What do you think most men would prefer: a bar of chocolate without a wrapper, or one with?’

She coughed. He was playing with her now. Surely.

‘I’m just trying to help you.’ he said. ‘If you want a husband, you must be good.’

‘But I don’t. Why do you think I do?’

When they reached the main hub of the dusty village they saw men dressed in pure white galebeyas sipped Turkish coffee on scattered plastic chairs as they puffed away on shisha pipes. Before they reached them Ashraf immediately increased his pace so he was in front of her.

‘Why can’t I walk beside you,’ she asked.

‘It is the Muslim way for the woman to respect the man. And for the man to avoid… now what is the correct word in English? Excitement?’

She wondered what he meant and asked if he had a wife. He nodded and said he had six daughters.

It was dark when they entered the long winding narrow ally she lived on. He relaxed and halted so she could walk beside him and lead them to her door. Once inside her house he strode straight for the remote control. Within seconds he had found the correct channel on her television. .

‘That was quick,’ she said. ‘There are hundreds of channels. So you must watch the Qur’an in English too?’

‘No, I only ever watch it in Arabic,’ he said, watching the screen.

She handed him a tiny glass cup of steaming amber Egyptian tea. He smiled taking his first sip. She had put around six spoonfuls of sugar in it. Then he asked if he could use her shower. Suddenly, for a reason she had yet to realise, she felt guilty, ashamed even. She knew most of these men lived in their stables and washed with the buckets they used to water their horses.

She led him to her pale blue tiled bathroom.

‘Ah, I see you have a Shataffa,’ he said. ‘You should always use it after the toilet. Never use paper. But, tell me, where are your shoes?’

‘What shoes?’

‘The ones for the bathroom. Under Islam, you must always have a separate pair for this.’

‘But I’m not a Muslim.’

‘This is the room where you wash. It is..now what is the word in English?’

‘Sacred?’

‘Yes. Sacred.’

She closed the door.

Back on the Qur’an Channel the Iman was talking about the pillars of Islam while a sweet Adhan sang in the background. Sitting crossed legged in front of the television she felt a gentle hypnotic pull, like that of the perfect rap tempo.

He shouted from the bathroom. ‘Come.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Come in.’

When she opened the door, he yanked back the shower curtain. His hair and body were covered in lather.

‘Do you want to swim with me,’ he asked.

‘Swim?’

‘Yes, swim! Look.’

She followed his gaze down to his groin.

‘Jesus.’ She slammed the door.

‘Don’t say those words!’

Should she tell him to leave? Call the police? But what police? She had never seen any. She sat and wondered why she did not feel more afraid.

He was fully dressed when he returned from the bathroom and sank into her sofa, staring at the television. Blank eyed.

‘So,’ she said, ‘Does the Qur’an allow you to have sex outside marriage?’

‘Okay, I am not always good,’ he said, sinking further.

‘I am allowed four wives though.’

‘Oh, really? Can Muslim women have four husbands too?’

‘Don’t be stupid.’

Boiling the water for more tea, she thought about all the things she had wanted Ashraf to tell her about the prayers. Should she start asking him her questions? Yet she knew so little. She would sound stupid and naive. And now he seemed agitated, angry even.

‘Where did you learn to speak English so fluently,’ she asked instead.

‘Here of course. From tourists. And from girls like you.’

‘You’ve never visited England?’

‘What do you think? You think they would let in someone like me without an English wife? Your country want engineers, surgeons, scientists. And then only if our ones are much better than yours.’

He lit a cigarette, took a long hard drag. ‘My country will let anyone in of course.’

She reached for her own packet.

‘It’s not so great there these days, you know,’ she said quietly.

‘I don’t care.’

‘We can’t even smoke anymore.’

‘No?!’

‘Well, we can’t smoke inside cafes and restaurants like you can.’

‘Well,’ he said, sarcastically, ‘the Qur’an doesn’t allow me to feel sympathy for non-Muslims.’

Then he giggled. Quite hysterically. She considered his mood swings. So sudden. Did he inject or smoke? Did he suck opium? Or did he just take Tramadol? She knew most of Egypt needed Tramadol just to get to work each day. She wanted to ask him about this too. But she did not.

‘Fine, but what about Muslims, Ashraf? Your brothers? They can’t smoke in England either, you know.’

‘Oh, yes, that must be terrible for them,’ he said solemnly.

‘Yes,’ she said, looking up to smile at him. ‘You know what, she added quickly, hoping to lighten his mood. ‘The owners of a Shisha pipe cafe in London were raided last winter. The council even used a ram to batter down their door. You know what they found? A sliding wall hiding a Shisha den.’  She laughed. ‘The wall was just like the one from that eighties TV show ‘Blind Date!’ But anyway why didn’t they realise the council would find out what they were up to when they’d named the cafe ‘Tutun’. ‘Tutun’ means…’

‘Yes, yes, I know Tutun means tobacco in Turkish,’ he said impatiently. ‘But, tell me. What is a ‘Blind’ Date?’

(To be continued.)

Ghost Girl

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After the unease became unbearable and he’d paced the narrow room as if it had been a racetrack, Joel stepped out into the night where only foxes could eye him from the sidelines, penetrating the air with their activities of the night. Like a cat burglar during his most productive hours, he prowled the streets with omnipotence. His darkly clothed lithe frame, wide stride and soft steps ensured silence and invisibility. The final Cherry Blossom of the season showered lazily while he ran. The leaves of these rich deciduous trees oozed moisture after a long night’s drinking session to the bowels of the earth. He soaked in the scent before sprinting to the top of the hill where St Mary’s church overlooked the flickering haphazard lines of light across the city. This was one of the views he had been thinking of for thirteen years.

Although his confusing anxiety had begun to dissipate, he had expected to feel a different sensation once he’d returned home. Something calmer, happier even.

So he waited, urging the right feelings alive by noting the details that ran in a curve from Canary Wharf to Battersea Power Station. Ignoring the shiny elongated pyramid and other new buildings, he concentrated on what was familiar. Condensed black smoke from Guys hospital’s incinerator pierced the grey horizon. What he’d long ago nicknamed the ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’ tower blocks, were still reminiscent of innocently surreal children’s television programmes. Each of their oval-shaped roof top heating rooms was decorated with TV aerials, masts and pilot lights. They could have been three gigantic birthday cakes in the sky.

Then something happened. Slowly, the ghostly outline of a murmering child emerged from a haze of fog. Joel craned forwards and noted it was a small girl, lean and tanned with light hair and pupils too wide. She just stood and stared. Her eyes focused at a point in the distance, way beyond him. With her soft white jeans and tight triangular patterned blue and yellow tank top she could have stepped out of the Seventies. Her thin arms looked hard and sinewy. She had some kind of stick, bent and wobbly, and let it swing freely in her hand. Apart from the stick’s gentle swishing through the uncut grass, only a cuckoo sporadically broke the silence.

When she brought her head down and caught his eye he saw she looked as frightened as he himself had began to feel. There were a thousand things he could have said to ease the dreadful discomfort but he failed to utter even one of them. He looked away to reject the girls stare and as he did so, her outline slowly retreated, swallowed by the low lying mist of the approaching dawn.

But still he felt her. Blood hammered the walls of his heart. Movement became impossible. ‘Hide, hide. Find a place to hide.’ The mantra pierced his limbs until he began to move in obedience. Within the undergrowth of a small dense copse he found a secret hiding place. It was still too early for the sun to rise and the ivy invaded log he hid behind reeked heavily of the night. Beyond the log an assortment of hawthorn, blackthorn and elder trees provided another layer of cover. And there were these sporadic clusters of shrubs too. Their bright orange berries gave him an idea of the distance he’d have to cover to escape from the copse if the ghost girl found him again.

tbc

HEMINGWAY IS FISHING FOR ‘SOMETHING’ …

Hemingway is Fishing for ‘Something’ …

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The seas were too heavy to sail again today. Anyhow, Papa was exhausted from months of fruitless fishing for Marlin or U-Boats whilst the Brisa wind walloped his beloved Pilar off the coast of Cojima…r in the Gulf stream, so he headed east. To the Milk lagoon. An oasis of calm in the wetlands where the trade wind would blow itself out by nightfall. And he found his little blue flaking rowing boat safely nestled amongst the flocks of pink flamingos and bright white pelicans with their inky black wingtips. Gliding across the expanse of calm cloudy freshwater, a spray of fine rain brushed his face. The clear Bunsen burner flames of light from the village’s bars on the far shore became a blur of dirty yellow, no longer able to guide him towards warmth and hospitality. He released both oars, removed his glasses and wiped the lenses dry. It was difficult, since the rain, though soft, fell towards him. The boat wobbled and he struggled and cursed. On his way again, he noticed a movement from the shoreline. Running along a path by the side of the lake was a pale thin horse. Like an arc of crystals, its mane gleamed under the moon-lit sky. Behind its tail trailed a line of dust as fine as smoke. Its head stretched forward as though it too were journeying towards the village. Papa laughed. Ha! Only from the lake was it possible to see that the path would soon suddenly drop into a forest of spiky rocks. Then the rain picked up and he grew so weary and felt so utterly desolate that he lay down on the boat’s damp wooden floor and fell asleep.

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Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

‘ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE’

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Lieutenant Joel Graves snapped his eyes away from one of the department store’s magazines to inspect his wife. She stood in front of a gilt mirror, carved deeply with love birds.

‘Well?’ she said, …keeping her eyes fixed on her reflection, pointing her stilleto clad feet towards him, ‘Will these do?’

As he craned his head forwards for a closer look, a waxed lace brushed his brow from above. He glanced up to see a row of heavy black boots, hanging from a steely rod. Then the store began to close in on him like the walls of a stalling train inside an unlit tunnel. He stumbled, struck by an unexpected memory. One of soldiers. Hundreds of them. Limping in leather and compressed cardboard boots. Boots that were biting into their feet as they fought the furious, freezing squalls that belted across the pampas of that wretched colonial hangover.

Laden with 100 lb Bergens, and General Purpose Machine Guns, the men tabbed eastwards. Grey-green grasses gave way to tussac clumps and fields of granite rock punctuated by the stark beauty of arctic poppies. The distant mumbling of exploding mortar shells drifted across the winds. Flocks of Upland Geese, unaccustomed to such unbroken tranquillity, wheeled restlessly above.
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A river needed crossing and Joel urged his platoon to tap dance over any stones visible beneath the heavy mist of dawn. Then they hit the lower ground of marsh and peat bog and their feet began to slide around inside the sodden boots, leading to the itching and tingling of trench foot. They had been marching for weeks, sometimes in complete circles since although routes were clearly marked on maps, none of them were visible on the landscape. Often it was not until someone spotted a scar in the marsh from tractor wheels that they could find their way again. Otherwise they relied on peaks, rocks or a line of fencing indicating settlement boundaries, to navigate.

The weak winter sun began to rise, and Joel ordered his men to rest up on a small hill. Mimicking their trusted Sergeant, Gordon, the men carefully sunk between clusters of dripping gorse and heather and used their ponchos to shield them from the rain. Some of them attempted to patch up their feet, retching at the odour of decay if narcosis had set in, before fumbling for damp matches and cigarettes.

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Joel moved away to check on the remainder of B Company, strung out in a meandering line along the valley below. Like an army of doped ants, they snaked up the hill. He wondered what they could be thinking. Before they had begun the seven week voyage from England, few of them had even heard of this splattering of small islands in the middle of the south Atlantic, let alone been able to find them on an atlas. And despite all the training, he knew they hadn’t developed an ear for the sound of artillery, and most still couldn’t tell the difference between outgoing and incoming fire. He himself had what felt like a life time’s preparation for an opportunity like this, and he cursed their seeming vulnerability.

By nightfall the platoon had reached the steep slippery hillocks by Mount Longdon, the site of their forthcoming battle. They shifted their fearful but eager eyes up to the splintered spines of rock stabbing the clouds from the summit.
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Joel ordered them to ‘dig in’, and clean their guns and bayonets. By now, if anyone found a corpse or severed leg, he would gratefully squeeze out the foot from the superior boot of the young dead Argentine as though it had been toothpaste from a tube.

Awaiting further orders, they sat around in the sleeting rain. Then Gordon began to sing a song, one from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: ‘Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side-Of-Life’. Sensing the start of a forthcoming unspeakable bond, the others gravitated towards him, their eyes softening with laughter and affection. Joel observed each of their faces from the sidelines. His smile flickered from amusement to anger. Paras should love no-one, he thought. Not here. Not now.

Back in the store, his wife interrupted his reverie with a sharp cough.

‘I was just remembering our boots,’ he said finally, as some form of futile explanation for his dissociated state. ‘Even these are better than the ones we had out there.’ He reached up to slap one of the dangling black boots with the back of his hand. The whole row began to sway, creating a soft THUD, THUD, THUD.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHPOzQzk9Qo

 

 

Calling the Faithful

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Calling the Faithful

The man located the outline of a figure hovering in the brightly decorated minaret that towered the village of Teznat. He fitted his telescopic sight and zoomed in on the muezzin sipping mint tea before he began adhan…, the call for prayer.

The man had always found its haunting sounds soothing. He remembered his first visit to the Ameln valley. Then he had thought the reason he heard each of the dozen villages calls for prayer a few seconds after those of their neighbouring village was because the muezzins’ had not set their watches in unison. When he realised it was because they were listening out for their neighbour’s crier’s chants as a signal to start their own, the man had felt deeply comforted. It meant that every village was in a regular stream of communication prior to Salat, the five-daily prayer, in a way that a set time could never produce. The first crier’s opening chant of adhan acted like an oratory version of a flickering beam gradually lighting up the whole valley.

It was exceptionally hot for a May morning in southern Morocco and a stream of sweat stung his eyes and obscured his vision. So he settled back on his haunches to guzzle the water he’d collected from the spring during his climb up the slippery quartz mountain range. Gazing down at the view he saw that everything looked just as it had done five years ago.

In the far distance the local women still appeared as majestic insects rotating in a near perfect circle while they deposited lavender grass in baskets enveloping their backs. Immediately below him the houses of Teznat, made of layered red rock, sand, and white quartz stone, were still as haphazardly scattered on the slopes between the spring line and the valley floor. No new buildings had been built to fill in the gaps during his time away. He would easily be able to track any movement he spotted along the path leading to the orchard. Its almond trees produced a thick cloud of pink blossom – the perfect spring camouflage for courting couples or an illicit affair.

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The man knew that once midday had past and the sun began its tilt downwards, adhan would commence for the second prayer of the day. By then his target would be in the orchard with Houssine. He had a while yet, but he would have to be prepared. He had not managed to get hold of a silencer, and although the call for prayer would camouflage the sound of the gun, it only lasted for a few minutes.

He re-positioned his Lee Enfield Mark 5 rifle between two jagged edges of rock, re-adjusted the telescopic sight and calculated the lines of fire. He pushed the cartridges in, pulled the bolt back then moved it forwards. The clicks were reassuring, and he sat patiently in wait.

This methodical process of loading weapons had been missing whist he served in the army. There they had primarily used Self Loading Rifles though these had proven invaluable on the streets of Belfast and the windswept islands of Las Malvinas. Exactly where he’d last fired a weapon, the man was uncertain though he had never forgotten the time he had learnt to take his first shot.

‘My little warrior’, that’s what his father had said to wake him on that special day so many decades ago, his mouth still reeking of the night, his brown flying jacket freshly buttered with saddle soap. ‘How’s my fucking little warrior boy?’ Then, on a flat frosty shooting range in rural Essex, his father had leant over his shoulders and teased his thin arms and frozen hands over the Purdey double barreled shot gun. Once his reluctant trigger finger was re-positioned, the target – a solitary clay pigeon in the form of an inverted, fluorescent orange saucer – was thrown from an airborne styled ‘trap’. The ten-year old boy had experienced an unexpected excitement and unknown urgency. With the trigger pulled clear, he’d reeled under the recoil, but kept focused, anticipating the pieces of pitch and pulverised limestone rock splintering and cascading across the milky dawn sky before tearing through the glistening white shrouds covering a cluster of elderberry trees. But there had been no cascade. The brightly painted ‘pigeon’ had continued arcing – uninterrupted. A member of his father’s entourage had hesitatingly called: ‘Bird Away’, before scribbling briefly onto a hand-held score board. The man had never forgotten his father’s suffocating sigh of despair.

The muezzin’s echoing bellows of ‘Allah’ calling the faithful finally began and the man immediately re-focused on the task at hand. His telescopic sight picked up the orange glow of a head scarf gliding through the orchard towards Houssine and the man zoomed in on the point between his wife’s beautiful blue-grey eyes. But his hands began to shake. And he could not understand why all of a sudden he felt so, so cold. Despite the over bearing heat, it was as though his whole body had become encapsulated in a coffin of arctic sea.

tbc …