Ahmad Saidullah
PROSE
 
Flight Into Egypt


He leaped over the wall with his bag into the night and ducked into a shed. He pressed his arm to stop the bleeding and watched the window pane turn poxy with drops. The face that stared back at him was sleepless, twisted, scratched. Must get rid of the beard and the gun, he told his reflection as he wiped his brow. He counted the intervals between the flashes and the thunder. 4-5-9-12-16-19-22. The storm was moving away; the rain abated.

Outside, the shadows stretched and clawed their way across the wet patches of light. Through the sweat and drizzle, he saw the constables standing under the canopy with their lathis and carbines. He heard the tall one say something and the others laugh. Inching closer, he saw the scene reflected in their pupils: the fireworks in the slanted rain and hot wind, and figures setting fire to the shops, dragging the inhabitants out and throwing them on the ground. Then, machetes, spears, mattocks, axes and scythes were illuminated in their work for a moment as the sky split to the sounds of riotous laughter, cries, blows, moans, and whispered pleas. Fear coated his mouth like chalk dust. Feeling sure that he had not been seen, he edged away.

Tiredness bore his body down but he almost ran towards the station and the clinic, cradling his elbow and putting his weight on his right leg as he sloshed through the water. He knew he had to get away immediately, get to Bombay, but he also knew that he mustn’t panic. There wouldn’t be any trouble from the police, the politicians had assured them. Everything had been arranged. One of them had offered him arrack but he could not abide the smell. Maybe it would have helped with the pain. Why had they insisted on him this time, not his men? He could hardly refuse. The bait. The photographs and negatives. Where were they? Pray, try praying, better than a thousand nights, but the words stuck and would not form.

He knocked on the dispensary door and asked the girl who unscrolled the corrugated-iron wicket for a razor, some gauze, cotton wool, antiseptic and drugs to kill the pain, the strongest they had. She brought them out —“codeine,” she said — and glanced with concern at his scratched face and the stain on his arm.

“You really should see a doctor. Do you want the compounder? He’s here. He can give you morphia. An injection. Wait a minute,” she said as she disappeared in the darkness.

Those gentle, brown eyes and that low, soft voice reminded him of her. He winced and weakened but grabbed the items and left some money on the counter without waiting for change. Turning as he sprinted, he saw her emerge with a man from behind the beaded curtain and look, bewildered, all around her.

In the lavatory, he tried to take off his jacket but, despite the sweat, the lining stuck to the sleeve. After soaking the shirt repeatedly with wads until it came loose, he saw that the wound had turned black. He cleaned it as best he could, applied the ointment and tore the gauze into strips with his teeth before tying it. He clutched the sink, which was now clogged with his thick hair, after a feeling of nausea and weakness overcame him. He scooped the hair out with his hands and plopped them into the toilet bowl. He drank from the tap and splashed his face. He gulped two of the white capsules and flushed the waste down, taking his time to pull the chain until it had all disappeared. His hands were shaking as he stored the razor carefully and closed his bag. The face in the steel mirror looked drawn and weak without the beard. He was surprised he had made it so far. The run had tired him, his arm throbbed, and soon the drug would have its effect. Oh, for some sleep. Shaking his head, still weak, he told himself, he must eat something but first there was this inexplicable ache for a cigarette.

Somebody was hammering on the door. He unlocked it. A sikh turned around and glared at him with suspicion. In front of the station, he saw them with their scythes, tridents and white marks on their foreheads but no policemen. Probably at the riot, he thought savagely. Still, he was watchful as he threaded his way to the queue, aware of the world spinning around him. He mustn’t miss the train.

The tannoy had crickled and crackled that his train would be on platform five but, as the rain fell against the siding in a cascade, he could not find that written anywhere on the carriages. When he climbed on, he asked two men if this was the right train. They did not answer or even acknowledge him. He felt like shouting “do you know who I am? Do you know what I have done? Don’t you have any idea what I can do to you? Have some respect.”

Stifling his anger, he moved down the airless carriage where the heat bounced off the metal walls. Ahead, there were some soldiers on the top bunks who were chuckling and lifting items from a vendor’s basket and passing them around while the boy circled in despair. He panicked. He lowered his head and moved past them towards another group.

“Is this the train to Bombay?” he asked, wiping his face. Fever, now?

Families did not look up from unpacking their bedding and dinner. He glanced at his watch.

“Please, this the Bombay train?” he repeated in a shriller voice. Stay calm, he told himself.

An old man with spectacles and a pigtail looked up and gestured at the train adjacent that showed signs of moving.

“That, Mumbai” he said, scanning him with contempt.

“But they said five,” he protested.

The man returned to his book in silence.

Passing the first-class cabin in the sickly light, he caught another glimpse of himself in the glass. The shoulder of his light jacket was torn and the padding poked through. He could see the discolouration on the arm and the rucksack stain that had grown into a large brown patch. He moved towards the doorway with a sideways gait, keeping his arm cramped to his side and the bag near his feet. He wrestled with the door moaning once or twice when the hot metal touched his body but it stuck to the jamb. The handle would not turn and his strength failed. As he wiped the sweat with his sleeve, he noticed that the door on the other side was open. He jumped on to the platform and ran to the end of the carriage while the rain rapped its knuckles on the metal roof.

“Ey, where are you going?” asked the guard when he saw him hop down, duck and run under the coupling which was slick with grease and water.

“My train,” he gestured.

He raced alongside the track until he felt hands tug and lift him up. His bag waved alarmingly and a white-hot pain shot through his shoulder socket. He landed in the carriage entrance collapsing on top of other passengers whose weight bolted him upright. After an apology and thanks and watching the train he had left gain speed, he palpated his arm, pulled out his ticket and, careful to lead with his right shoulder, walked through the crowds looking for his bogey.

He stumbled into a seat. Next to it, someone had placed a money plant in a pot. His body felt hot, his throat dry and sleep pricked his eyeballs.

“Yours?” he asked.

Seated across from him, a man neatly dressed— a clerk? — with a tilak, oiled hair and a moustache shook his head.

Bewildered, he asked, “Can’t find my seat. Excuse me, Bombay train, no?”

“Bhusawal-Indore Typhoon. That’s the Bombay express,” gesturing at the train that was flying past on their right.

“But I was on that and they told me this was it.”

“No, a lie, a prank. This is the Indore line,” the clerk said, his eyes full of humour.

“It’s not funny. I must get to Bombay urgently. An emergency. Motherfuckers.” He was close to tears.

“Ah. Why don’t you take your jacket off? It’s very hot.” He nodded and wiped his brow.

He palmed the capsule with the same delicacy that Father Eugenio dressed in his cassock had, at his conversion, shown to placing the stale wafer, and swallowed it. Was it the rites that had led him to this: the dripping sacred heart, the eating of flesh, drinking the blood?

A young man strolled into the cabin, looked at the plant and rolled his eyes. “Oh, did it pay full fare or did it come in as a student?” He laughed aloud at his own wit and, after looking at his ticket, moved towards him with hard intent.

“This is my seat, sir.”

The clerk hushed the youth and explained the confusion about trains. He told him that there were a couple of seats available in the next cabin. His cousin and his family for whom he had bought tickets had not shown up. The clerk exchanged a ticket with the young passenger who gave him a sharp glance before his humour revived with another look at the plant.

“Must have come on a discount. Clever,” he said with a grin as he moved through the door.

“Stifling.”

The clerk handed him that ticket and raised both hands in protest as he tried to pay him.

“Life’s full of these. Who knows? Maybe one day, I’ll need help.”

A man came by to take orders for meals. This woman on the rajdhani heard someone offering blankets at night, the clerk said. She asked how much. When he said “ten rupees,” she said, “give me fifteen blankets.”

He laughed dutifully. The clerk unfolded the newspaper and offered him a zwieback and tea from a thermos. Too rattled to refuse, his body eased a little as he sat back and ate and drank and talked absent-mindedly about the monsoon and cricket. The rocking and rattling was soothing but it compelled him to swallow another capsule. The bitterness returned. He propped the window open and gulped the air streaming in. He was bathed in sweat. The clerk switched on the fan and waved the newspaper for a breeze (“this heat”) before offering it to him. He declined and said with a groan that he was going out to stretch his legs.

In the toilet, he pulled the flush until the bowl was clean. He dropped the revolver into the hole with a clang but it got stuck. He plunged his hand in and tried to force it down but the opening was too small. He picked up the weapon with his index finger and thumb and shook it, taking care to avoid the drops. He forced the window open with a gasp and dropped the firearm through the bar. It fell with a plunk and he heard it bounce twice metallically. Gone. He ran the tap and scrubbed his hands with the soap until they were raw. Another anodyne? Hold on. Stay awake. He checked the bag. Yes, the money was still there. He gathered himself with a deep breath and closed his eyes. He saw the body tumbling, the face in a rictus, hand clutching at the chest where a large stain appeared on the blank shirt, tumbling but never touching the ground, upright and again tumbling, and looping again, all in black and white. A shot, that was all. Death had left him drained and burning. We all bear our stigmata, our crosses, and there’s suffering at every station.

He had been calm then. He had not seen the bayonet but it now lived in his side. He remembered the bodyguard’s expression, though, as the bullet shattered his forehead: the eyes crossed with shock, almost comical, the hibiscus that blossomed between his eyes. He remembered his handlers congratulating him. What had they said when they bundled him into a jeep? A true patriot. We were right to ask for you. The best. A clean job. A politician, such an important figure, that son of a whore. A victory for the cause. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the rest of his family, they had said, with a laugh, hands stroking their groins.

They had given him the money. The rest with the photos and negatives would be there on arrival in Bombay, along with a passport and ticket, where he would work in a hotel in Siwa. Why hadn’t they taken him to the station? Oh, yes, the riot. Was it all planned? He drew another deep breath. Close your eyes again. Think.

Another, earlier. He found his quarry with ludicrous ease. They had called him an “anti-national, a communist.” Odd but he didn’t look dangerous. There he was: thin, pale, glasses, a widow’s peak, in a blindingly white shirt with some trace of bluing, standing alert behind his office desk. The only evidence of nerves, his quick, short breaths.

“All these years when I’ve thought of doing it myself, should I be afraid now?” the scientist said, more to himself. “Is that what you are here for? I’ve been getting the threats, you know.”

He nodded in a silence that engulfed them in perfect understanding, a silence that drained the glugging ceiling fan, the blare of lorries and the scooters in the street.

“Look,” he spoke as if to a child, “Do you want to pray? No? People like you don’t, do they? It won’t hurt if you do as I say.” Pause. “Take a deep breath in and then expel it all. Remember, if there’s any air left, it’ll be painful and you’ll struggle. Understood? Nod. Your specs. Good, do it now,” he went through the drill, putting on his gloves. He remembered how the fingers had drummed on the desk and the right heel thrashed in reflex before the body went limp. Then he had removed his hands. Methodically, he had closed the bulging, bloodshot eyes, tried to push the tongue back, pulled the collar over the throat to cover the bruising and had laid him down carefully so as not to touch the leg where the man had soiled himself. He had checked the wrist for a pulse. And then he had left.

Back in the carriage, he saw the clerk had fallen asleep using the newspaper for a pillow. He forced the window higher and watched the sunrise blur the landscape as it spun, wheeling away from the train. At the end of the curve, he saw the caboose swing by and the river on which fishing boats drifted like gulls. He could see nets being cast, fanned and hauled. Finally he slept. He had died. Someone placed coins which burned on his eyelids. Women wept near his bier. Then he was surrounded by djinns who goaded him with bayonets. He cried out in pain and woke up. Someone had gripped his arm. It was the ticket inspector. The clerk explained and the official wrote something on the back of the ticket that the clerk had given him. He put it away in the folder.

“Terrible about this riot.”

Was it his imagination or was the clerk eyeing him with suspicion?

“Yes, crazy times. How long to Bhusawal?”

“Three hours.”

“Is there a direct train to Bombay from there?”

“No, from Indore. Not sure when the next train comes. Noon, I think. Your best bet is the ticket office. Tell them what happened and ask for a refund too. Looks like we can beat the Australians this time. That young boy from Bombay—what’s his name? —is really good. The best.”

When the train restarted after decanting a few passengers, they became aware of the whirring and flurries.

“Oh, a bird. Must have got in when we stopped. I didn’t see it.”

“It’s a sparrow. I didn’t see it either.”

It was trapped. It flew blindly in a panic, caromming off the window and the door, desperate to escape. They tried to let it out through the second window but failed. When he tried to catch it with his hands, it flew up. There was a thunk, a clatter and a grating sound when the bird hit the fan. It dropped on the seat, neck broken and bloody, eyes milky in death.

He picked up the body, swept the feathers and wiped the blood, and wrapped everything in the newspaper and thrust it out of the window.

“How sad,” observed the clerk. “But this is life.”

“Trapped alone in a box until you go,” he added sourly.

After a while, he napped.

They would have arrived earlier but the train shunted for twenty minutes before the green light lured it into the station. “Indore” was stencilled in black on the ochre walls. He shook hands with the clerk who stood in the entrance as the coolies came rushing towards him. “No luggage, no luggage. Take his,” he said, pointing at the clerk and nodded his thanks.

He made his way to the office. He pulled the ticket out of the folder and the brochure fell out. The teller seized the supplement and the ticket with an “ah,” his gold tooth gleaming. “Look,” he said turning to his colleagues who had gathered under the fan and thumbed through the photos of the feluccas on the Nile, the sphinx, the serapeum at Saqqara, Giza pyramids, and the belly dancers a dozen times, swearing on each other’s mothers and sisters. Finally bored, Goldtooth returned and looked expectantly at him while he explained the confusion. The teller looked disgusted, examined the writing on the back of the ticket and, in silent fury, stamped out a refund and another ticket.

“There. Four o’clock, platform two,” holding up two fingers to make sure. He smiled.

“No, no earlier train.”

“My brochure.”

“Ah, yes, sorry.” He handed it over and turned back to his colleagues.

He walked out of the station and felt the blast coil about his person. The tarmac shimmered in the heat. Sidestepping the puddles that glinted in the sun, he made for the café with the awning on the street corner. There came a waiter in a filthy white jacket and an equally grimy rag which he ran over the table. He ordered a dosa, a custard and a cold coffee and said “no” to the flower seller and the girl with trinkets who approached without much hope. They moved to another table.

The boy had crept up without his knowing it. He sat down in the wicker chair across from him and asked with his eyes for the sweet. He pushed it across the table, more amused than offended.

“Where’s your family?”

“Dead,” he said without a pause, pulling a long face and lowering his long kohled eyelashes with such blatantly practised skill that he laughed aloud. The boy grinned, flecks of custard in the corners of his smile. He lapped up the rest quickly and lifted the plate to his mouth and drained the syrup. Eight or nine, he guessed. Wait, there was a nimbus of white around his irises. Starvation? Worried, he beckoned the waiter who tried to cuff the boy away with an “arrey, hut. Bad boy, this.”

“No, another dosa, coffee, a custard and an orange juice. Lots of water.”

The man went away grudgingly, scowling and muttering.

“How old are you?”

“Fifteen,” the henna designs on the palm flashed thrice like signals.

The food and drinks came. The waiter stood sneering behind the boy ready to send him off.

“Ok?” he asked. He pressed the icy steel tumbler against his cheek, then his temples.

The boy nodded, absorbed in eating and drinking.

Done, the boy smiled and huddled closer to him, smelling strongly of attar and sweat.

“You like me? I like you.”

“What do you want?” hoarsely, his breath scuttling like a rat among the ashes.

“I show you the old town. Good time. Ganja. Opium. Girls, boys. Nice, cheap.”

“No. Go away. Now,” he muttered in a low angry voice.

“Why not, please, why not? I, very cheap. For you, not so expensive.” The hand was stroking his thigh close to his groin. Suddenly, he was aware of the eyes watching him. He lifted the hand away.

“No. Here, take this. Go away.” Repelled, he handed him some money.

He got up under the waiter’s sardonic gaze. His arm throbbed while he fished for change for the tip. Nervously, he left all of it. Walking away, he turned to see the waiter pocket the coins, stare back at him, and spit on the ground. The boy was nowhere. As an afterthought, he rummaged through his bag. The rest of the money was safe. The boy hadn’t touched it. He smelled the hot tar as he walked past the clock tower. The smell reminded him of a dog’s breath. He noticed the railway shed where the engines stood.

Putting his bag under his head, he slept on a bench in an arbor until the PA system woke him up. His body felt parched and quavery as paper. He carried his bag in front of him as the guide book had advised. Inside, Goldtooth flashed him a smile and held two fingers aloft. He nodded, raised his own two, and crossed the waiting area to have his ticket examined. He thought he would have to cross the bridge but found the name on the reservation sheet next to the door of the carriage.

Instead of taking his seat, he walked over to the book stall and spent a few minutes scanning the newspapers. A report on the death. A short, accurate description. He checked the platform. It looked safe. He paid for a novel with a picture of a corpse hanging from the rafters on the cover and walked out. He checked his arm in the bathroom. The bleeding had stopped but it still throbbed. Later, he took another capsule with a glass of tea in the canteen and bought a chocolate bar and sun shades.

When he boarded the bogey, he found his seat taken. Annoyed, he removed his shades and asked the passenger to move. The man was thin and nervy. His moustache, a lit green cigarette and adam’s apple bobbed as he apologized and moved across to the facing seat. The car was full of his coloured, herbal-smelling smoke. He sniffed suspiciously. Hashish? He coughed and struggled to open the window. The man leaned across and opened it after his efforts made him faint. He recoiled from the man’s foetid breath.

“Sorry, turkish cigarette. Want one?” His teeth were black and rotted.

“No, thanks.”

The man then flicked the switch.

“Not on. Maybe the fan’ll work when the train starts. Aren’t you hot in your jacket? Should have gone AC second. Hot, hot.”

He did not respond and, instead, pulled out his novel. He saw the man glance at the cover and bite his lip before puffing on the cigarette. He looked up from the book and coughed exaggeratedly. The man grinned.

The signal went, the guard waved his flag and blew on the whistle. The train eased out of the station. The power came on with a roar and he relaxed. In the fading light, he could see well-wishers’ hands and handkerchiefs being waved and tears being dabbed away. Furious and close to weeping, he returned to his book until they had cleared the town but he couldn’t concentrate. He was aware of the man’s steady stare.

The scenery unfolded. The countryside with its dusty twisted trees, herds of goats, small boys who laughed as they threw pebbles at the train, the clanging and lights at a signal crossing and children waving, a few defecants along the track, reappeared with a different cast whenever the train pulled out of a station. The river always lay beyond, shining its dark mirror into the eye of the sky. The chevrons of gulls were stitched on the sky.

He paused to recollect the events. So much had happened that he couldn’t get them in the right order. Somebody is walking on the universe and it’s as if we can hear the footsteps echo faintly, that’s all. Are there any footprints to follow, any spoor to track? Can anyone hear me? He swallowed another capsule.

“Are you sick?”

“No, just a fever. The rains, you know. I’d like to sleep. Maybe that’ll help.”

When he opened his eyes, he smelled before he saw that the man was very near, almost peering into his face, close to his bag. He sprang away.

“What?”

“You cried out in your sleep. I wanted to make sure you were all right. Are you?”

He watched the man draw his shoeless legs on to the seat and sit massaging his toes as he started on a monologue, his face mobile and eager. The eyes gleamed.

“We’re coming to the place where they manufacture shoes” pointing to a large grey shape that went by them in the dark, adding “did you know that this was a village of fisher folk once?” When they rolled past a large temple lit with lamps and festooned with bunting, he remarked that it had been built on the site of an important battle.

The man spoke of his days in countries where he had worked.

“Ah, well, it’s different in the west. Here it’s more difficult but in some ways it’s easier too. You can walk arm in arm, kiss and hug each other and nobody will say a word. But the other business. All that has to be secret and indoors. You married?” he asked suddenly.

“Yes,” he lied, “yes.”

He could feel the man’s disbelieving stare rake over his left hand.

“There you can do it in parks and nobody cares, one, two, three or more people. I was in Erzurum, Turkey — you know Turkey? — very cold. I was there for a year. You can go to the baths for it. Put your towel over your right shoulder and they’ll know. All those sort of signals. Very easy but they don’t like Indians. They mistake us for Arabs and they don’t like Arabs, you see. Of course, we think they are Arabs and you know we dislike them, too. Isn’t that funny? Any children?”

“Yes, three.” Lies again.

The man looked angry but quiet. His eyes glowed to a point.

The glare of the sunlight had diminished.

“Nice boys here, if you like that sort of thing. Keep an open mind. They say it isn’t normal. It’s normal there. It’s normal for me. What’s normal? Are you normal? Am I not normal?” daring contradiction as his voice rose.

Normal, that night in Kalimpong? He had waited in the makeshift room, the walls made from deal wood cartons. He could hear the sighs and moans round him that tightened his groin. The woman had brought her into the room, a small, frightened child, and had slapped her when she cried. After he had given the woman the money, he tried to calm the girl. She had huddled in a corner, her fists tight near her chin. Her name was Kusum. She had whimpered and shivered with fear and cold as he undressed her and stroked the vaccination scars on her arm, ran his fingers over the ribs on her thin body, and tongued her nubbly breasts.

He had laid her down on the sodden mattress which squirmed under them as if alive and touched the crease between her legs, the few hair sprouting like wool, and had taken her gently at first but then with harder, urgent thrusts. She had gasped in pain. When it was over, she had cried, her head on his shoulder. When they had lifted the mattress, they discovered the frame crawling with cockroaches. After they had shaken them off together with disgust and laughter and dragged the mattress to the corridor, her mood had lightened. Before the sky became overcast, a moon had looked down on them. They had talked for a long time as they lay entangled.

In the morning, he had woken up in a fog until he realized that a rain cloud had drifted into the corridor. He was drenched. He had lifted her head off his shoulder, tucked some bills under the pillow, and left her sleeping under the quilt to go downstairs into the downpour. He had sat in the station canteen while he waited for the bus. He had watched the man who worked the tables with his two steaming kettles which he poured simultaneously into customers’ glasses without spilling a drop: coffee from one and hot milk from the other. Where was she now, what was she doing? Probably grown into a raddled, painted copy of that woman, running her own show, he thought with an ache. He then thought of the other. Those eyes. Brown. That laughter. I am that I am. Alone. Again. None shall know me. Empty as a husk.

The train was running closer to the river. The sun had turned the water red. On the other bank, he saw a necklace of lights moving in the opposite direction. Is there another me on that train looking at this one, abandoned, fleeing and dreading to arrive, he wondered.

“Do you have a place to stay?” the man asked.

“Yes, thanks, I’m being met,” he half lied again.

“I have a hotel near the station. You can stay there, cheap. Anything you like. I get all kinds of people. Travellers too.”

He murmured his thanks before turning to his book. The man looked angrier.

“Your book. Is it a good book? Is it about killing? What do you do? Have you been to Egypt? I was there too, you know.”

Suddenly, his mind was a hair trigger, his body coiled to strike. Why had he said that? He was aware that he was sweating, despite the fan. No gun. Just a razor. The man had pulled his own newspaper out and started discussing the assassination. A reward. I hope they catch him but that fucker got what was coming. They all did. Time to teach them a lesson. Bastards all. Agreed? It’s a war, isn’t it? Finish it once and for all.

“Where are you coming from?”

“Indore. Visiting relatives.”

“You don’t sound as if you’re from here.”

They talked about the rains and mango crop until the man lapsed into a sullen silence. In the shadows, the man’s face looked longer, his eyes predatory as a vulture’s. He’s waiting for me to stop moving, he thought. He felt faint and thrust his head out to gobble the air and feel the cat’s paw on his face but the rush of air left him breathless. He got up and stood for half an hour in the corridor lulled by the rocking clatter of the carriage.

The train ran like a double-bladed scalpel into the darkness leaving twin incisions in its wake. He returned to find the man asleep. His fists were balled in his lap. Revived and somewhat relieved, he switched off the light. The carriage was wrapped in gloom. In the window, his eyes stared back at him, black, accusing and questioning. He looked at his watch. The numbers that indicated ten glowed in green. There was still some time. How would they find him?

He yawned and fell asleep with a vision of the engines in the shunting yard, uncloaked from the night and the steam that curled about them like wraiths: hellish machines with metal feet and clanging pulses where devils with shovels fed souls chugachug into red, flaring maws and pumping iron hearts. He dreamed of goats and of little boys with towels over their shoulders and of revolvers in hennaed hands.

The slogans of the tea and biscuit sellers woke him up before they reached the station. After the capsule, the chocolate, which had almost melted in his bag, was rich and dark and sweet in his mouth, the taste of redemption, the taste of hope.

The man was awake.

“You know you’ll be safer there. You’d better stick with me. No police.”

“What do you mean? Safer? The police?” he laughed hollowly and cleared his throat.

He was aware of the man’s scrutiny. Act naturally. His lips formed the words from the prayer but, again, they would not come. Abandoned again, he thought bitterly. Was it his fault that he couldn’t believe anymore? Why blame him? Faith was given, Father Eugenio had said; it was not a lack. He had tried. What had he killed for, if not to atone? Save me from the accusers. Send them away. Let someone else judge. Let her. They’ll be looking for me, he guessed. Will they wait? They had said that the passage was booked for tomorrow. What had they laughed about?

Then the city began to appear in the dark. The weave of overhead cables, rubbish mounds with rooting dogs, shanties, tenements, the looped entrails of city streets, fuming buses, scooter rickshaws and cars in the blackening pall. Soon, the train drew into the station and the noises swelled atonally like an awry chorus: announcements over the PA, tea sellers, vendors, coolies’ shouts, travellers and people waiting to greet the arrivals, just a few at first, then thirty deep as the train pulled in.

“Look, come with me.” The carid breath left him reeling and weak. The talons gripped his bicep and he did all he could not to yelp with pain. Shaking him off, he jumped on the platform and, ploughing through the crush, raced towards the exit. He searched for the faces he did not know, glancing back in terror. The crowd had thinned and the man — the man had disappeared. He walked out into the glutinous, acrid air.

Near the cycle stand, three men walked up to him, hands in their pockets. One talked into a phone which blinked bluely. Another — he had big ears and a red slash for a mouth — softly spoke his code name. He nodded, shoulders relaxed and took a deep breath.

“This way.”

They had turned towards the taxi rank but were now walking past it.

“Where are we going? Where’s the money, the package? The commander?”

“In the jeep. This way.”

“What took you so long? We’ve waited for seven hours. We thought you’d given us the slip.”

Something in the wording and the tone made him pause. Were they just angry at the delay? He turned around. The pair was behind him. The backers stood still. One pointed straight ahead reassuringly. The road unrolled ahead like a tongue into the darkness of an unseen mouth.

“Don’t worry about your injury. Everything will be taken care of very soon.” Had they been told?

There was a tension, a lightness, and a slow, watchful purposefulness that he did not understand. He paused to take out a capsule which he put in his mouth. The man in the front had disappeared. The two at the rear had melted into the darkness. What was happening? He wheeled in terror.

He started running straight into the gloom, unable to swallow, the medicine bitter in his mouth. He could see the painted white stripes on the road leading into the darkness and heard the sound of the waters lapping and somewhere a dog barking. He ran harder, with short breaths, leaning on his right side, arm jarred, something dropping from his pocket — yes, the shades — heading into the darkness of the unpaved alley and felt the stubble under his feet as he almost tripped. He paused. For a while, he thought he had lost them. Then he heard a whistle and voices somewhere in front, the strike of a match and ahead a glowing point of red and a wisp of green smoke curling against the dark. Steps quickened. There was a movement to his left.

“Come,” he heard it, soft and insistent. “Here.”

His jacket shone like a flag. Too late to turn, he saw the flash before he heard the thunder which clawed at his chest and the second, sharp entry through his neck which shook his breath before he felt the pain and then the oozing warmth. He fell to the ground on the bush and the rubbish pile, the capsule still in his mouth, his nose filled with the smell of rot and sodden earth.

He had a moment of clarity. I go to my death not as a soldier or an executioner but as a victim, a sacrifice, like him but unknown, unmourned, bound like a beast on an altar awaiting the knife. He saw the shaven priests with bowls of incense and adzes, the Nile lying sullenly in bed, the wind lifting from a stale censer, the bulls of Apis in their stone graves, bled, the painted sarcophagi, the dark shed, the scuttling of the rats, the sawdust under his feet, the tuck of the scooter and the laughter of his friends at cricket. He wanted to say this is not me, I give up my body, take it, save me, let her, bring me home, the place is rotting and I am sinking but they were around him.

“Selma,” he cried. “Selma.”

“What was that? What did he say?”

“Cried for his whore. Son of a bitch.”

A boot thudded into his side.

Someone had opened his bag and was searching it with a torch.

“Couldn’t wait to spend the money.”

He smelled the herbal cigarette and heard the man complain.

“Almost got away.”

“Sisterfucker.”

He thought he recognized the speaker. The master’s voice, here, but his laugh came out a scarlet gurgle. He saw a light moving away from him; it was getting dimmer. He was emptying; he was far away. He felt faint. The darkness roared in his ears.

How many lives can one have when you are already dead, how many deaths? His last thought surprised him. The man must have knelt and aimed before he shot him. Not dead yet. He tried to swallow the capsule to cut the pain but knew it wouldn’t be any use. His mouth lolled open and it rolled out in a trail of saliva as his senses ebbed and fused with the darkness.

“Oh, look, a pearl.”

He did not hear the final shot.


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