Jahni handed the folder of transfer papers to Rahama, who sat for a moment, checking them. Then he closed the folder, put it on his desk and stood up.
“Welcome to the Royal Guard, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jahni said, standing at attention. “I will serve the regiment to the very best of my ability.”
“I know you will. Now, you need to get into uniform.”
“I’ll take him to the quartermaster now, sir,” Madari said.
“Thank you, Major. Lieutenant, wait for the major outside for a moment.”
“Sir.” Jahni turned and left the room, marching as smartly as a newly graduated cadet.
Rahama smiled after him then turned to Madari.
“Enthusiastic. I think I was that young once. Now, Faris. I’m working on who to place in command of the companies, and the Light Company is yours, if you want it.”
Madari’s eyes widened with surprise and joy. His grandfather had commanded the Light Company of the regiment for many years.
“I want it.”
“I thought you would. You’re a hussar at heart, my friend. Always were.” He patted Madari’s arm. “Keep it quiet for now, no official announcement for a few days, lots of assignments still to be finalised. You will have Mr Jahni of course. And I suppose you want Faraj?”
“Yes, sir. I’d like Faraj as my second. I know he’ll be sought after by other commanders, but I hope he’ll want to stay with me.”
“I’m sure he will. What a team you three bandits will make.” He laughed then went more serious. “Jahni will do well, Faris, I am sure of it. You have done the Guard a great service bringing him in. Never let anyone tell you any different.”
Madari left the room smiling then, at the faith Rahama had, both in Jahni and in him. Jahni fell into step beside him as they walked.
Major Madari, commander of the Light Company of the Royal Guard. Ahmed, if you are watching me, my feet are back on the road.
Madari took Jahni to the stores. The Quartermaster fussed around him, taking measurements and shouting them back to the storemen, who would disappear into rows of shelves and come back with shirts, jackets, trousers, shoes.
“I hope I’ll look as good as Idris does,” Jahni said, smiling at the thought.
“Unlikely,” Madari said. “His is tailor made.”
Once the clothes were all assembled and Jahni took them into a changing booth.
“First or second, sir?” Madari turned to the Quartermaster, a questioning look on his face. “First or second lieutenant, sir?’
The Quartermaster started assembling insignia. Madari picked up the shoulder pips. In a few moments Jahni emerged, fastening his belt. He gave Madari a questioning look, waiting for his reaction. Madari nodded his approval.
“I think you were born to wear it, Lieutenant. Come here.” Jahni stepped up to him and Madari started to fix the pips to his shoulder boards and spoke quietly, seriously. “Truly, Kahil, it suits you very well. I am so proud of you today.”
Jahni flushed and looked down, smiling. Madari stepped back and Jahni turned to look in the mirror. After a moment of straightening and smoothing, he spoke to the Quartermaster.
“Cap?” The Quartermaster handed over the cap and Jahni put it on, adjusted it to the right angle in the mirror.
“If you’re happy with the jacket then we’ll get the insignia and decorations sewn on, Lieutenant.”
Jahni nodded and took off his cap and jacket, handed the jacket to the Quartermaster. While one of the storemen sewed the insignia on, others assembled the rest of Jahni’s kit. Field uniform, fatigues, desert boots. Soon he had a large crate full of clothes and other gear and the storemen labelled it up with his name to collect later.
He put the jacket on again, now complete with his insignia and decorations, had another minute in front of the mirror adjusting that and the cap, then he and Madari left the stores.
Madari smiled as they walked. Jahni was strutting, no other word could describe it. Chest puffed out, shoulders back. Taller than he looks. He wondered if he’d done the same thing himself a couple of days ago when he’d put the uniform back on for the first time in so long.
They went to the mess and found Faraj there. Madari studied him as he came up congratulate Jahni. Did he still have doubt in his eyes? Madari hoped that doubt had started to fade, hoped Faraj had come to accept the transfer as a good thing. Faraj’s support would be important to Jahni.
Other men joined them all shaking Jahni’s hand, and Madari felt glad of their current fame, since it made men who might otherwise have ignored Jahni want to meet him.
Proud and happy, Madari stood by Jahni, a hand on his shoulder, as Jahni talked to the men surrounding them. Faraj moved out of the crowd and after a moment Madari saw him standing over by the window, watching. Not watching the crowd, not watching Jahni, quite specifically watching Madari.
Madari took his hand off Jahni’s shoulder.
That afternoon, Madari contacted his mechanic to have the Volvo picked up for repair and then a property agent to find a suitable flat for Jahni.
The car he looked forward to seeing again, but the idea of Jahni leaving, that he did not look forward to. His feelings about that were mixed, a mess. He knew it had to happen. And that it was best for both of them. What had happened at the Southern Ranger barracks proved that. Madari’s resolve to keep his relationship with Jahni as a close friendship, but nothing else, had been tested to its limits there. He had passed that test, but still felt vulnerable.
Perhaps Jahni did too. Perhaps he recalled enough of what had happened to fear being in that situation again. That night Madari clawed out of a nightmare, to find Jahni comforting him and, as before Youssef standing by the door. But this time Jahni didn’t yell for Youssef to leave. In fact he called for Youssef to help him get Madari up and into the living room. Madari sat on a sofa, wrapped in a blanket and the three of them drank honey sweetened tea together. Jahni held him, but Youssef was there, sitting close to them.
Chaperone. The word broke through the dark images from the nightmare still whirling in Madari’s head. Jahni knows the danger now.
So Madari knew Jahni’s imminent departure was for the best, for their own safety. But he feared it too. He feared facing the night without Jahni there to comfort him when the nightmares came for him.
It made him sick to feel that way, to feel like a child afraid of the dark, a child who cried out for his mother to hold him, for his father to come and defeat the monster that lurked under the bed. How had he come to such a pass? How had he become so dependent?
Madari had resisted most of the party and dinner invitations he had received since arriving back at barracks, but he did not resist one from Faraj, when the day after that last nightmare Faraj invited him and Jahni to have an informal evening at his home. That invitation he was delighted to accept.
Still driving Elahi’s Mercedes they arrived at Faraj’s town house, in one of those fashionable districts Jahni could not afford. Jahni made impressed sounds about the large and beautiful house as they got out of the car. This made Madari smile and imagine what Jahni’s face would be like when he got to see the family home outside the city. The house that almost, almost, deserved the name “palace.”
A servant opened the door to them, but Faraj and his wife and son were in the entrance hall and turned to greet their guests. Madari and Jahni each handed small gifts to Faraj, who introduced his wife to Jahni. Madari already knew her of course and had always liked the intelligent and elegant young woman.
“Janan,” Madari said, bowing his head to her. “How good to see you in your home again.”
“Major.” Her tone seemed rather cool Madari thought. Still she had not seen him for some time now. He waited for a second, but she didn’t say anything else, so Madari looked down to smile at Mehdi, five years old now, but standing close to his mother, nervous looking, wary of the two men.
“Hello, Mehdi. You are growing so fast. You will be as tall as your father soon.”
The boy frowned and moved closer to Janan.
“I don’t think he remembers me,” Madari said, looking up at Faraj.
“No,” Faraj said, making Madari frown at his choked tone. But Faraj turned away and spoke to Janan. “I think it’s time Mehdi went to bed now.” She nodded and led the boy away. He didn’t protest.
“He really has grown so much,” Madari said to Faraj, when he turned back to them.
“Yes.” Again the choked off sound in his voice. “Come through now, have some coffee.”
They had a pleasant evening and an excellent dinner. Some of the officers from the camp were there, those who lived in the city and so they all had news to exchange. Other Royal Guard officers present meant Jahni had the chance to make new friends, establish useful relationships.
After dinner Madari stepped outside onto a terrace, with a cigar. He stepped up to the rail that looked down into a small courtyard. A fountain played there, the water twinkling in the moonlight.
The low voice made him turn quickly, and he found Faraj sitting there in the dark, on a wrought iron chair, that stood by a matching table.
“Idris. I’m sorry. Am I disturbing you?”
“Is something wrong?”
“Wrong, Major? No, of course not.”
Madari found that hard to believe. Faraj had always been a perfect host. A perfect host did not sit outside in the dark, ignoring his guests. Madari went over and sat on another of the chairs. He wished for more light, wished he could see Faraj’s face better. Did his eyes shine a little in the moonlight?
“What’s wrong, Idris?”
After a long silence Madari was about to speak again, but Faraj’s voice came quietly.
“You are not the only one Mehdi doesn’t remember.”
Faraj looked away and now Madari felt sure he saw tears glistening. He recalled the small twist of disappointment he’d felt when the boy looked at him without recognition and imagined that magnified a thousand, a hundred thousand times. Finding no words to say in response to this, Madari reached across and took Faraj’s hand, squeezed it gently. After a moment he gained enough control of his voice to speak.
“I’m so sorry, Idris. I should never have brought you into the conspiracy.”
“I never held you responsible for my imprisonment, Major.”
“You are good to say that, my friend.”
They were silent for a few minutes. Then Faraj spoke quietly.
“About Jahni. Bringing him into the Guard is a mistake.”
Madari cursed under his breath. He had hoped Faraj would be coming around to the idea by now. He sat back, letting go of Faraj’s hand.
“Idris, I know he’s far from a typical Guard officer. But you know the talent he has. An officer of his abilities will be an asset.” In the moonlight he saw Faraj turn to look at him.
“That’s not why you had him transferred though, is it?’
“What do you mean?”
“You have to have him at your side. You can’t stand to be parted from him.”
Madari stared, shocked and suddenly rather afraid. He stood up and walked across the terrace. A flight of stone steps down to the courtyard lay in front of him. Looking back, he saw Faraj rising too and coming towards him.
“I think we need to discuss this somewhere away from the windows,” Faraj said.
Madari nodded once and walked down the steps, perhaps too fast, lucky not to fall. As he descended, his anger started to rise, fuelled by fear. Anger is the right response to this he thought. Hold on to that anger. Cling to it. He stopped by the fountain and swung to face Faraj when he arrived.
“Explain what you mean, please,” Madari demanded, trying to keep his voice low.
“I mean exactly what I say.” Faraj’s voice was defiant. “You cannot stand to be parted from Kahil.”
“All right, what do you imply by that?”
Faraj frowned. Moonlight and the light spilling over from streetlamps made the courtyard brighter than the terrace, Madari could see how pale Faraj was now.
“You have bought him a house.”
“A flat. It’s a flat.” The correction felt ridiculous. “He needs somewhere to live.”
“And you bought it for him.”
“Don’t you understand? He has no money. The government stole it all. He has nothing. Would you have a Royal Guard officer renting a room in a boarding house full of labourers?”
“No, but –”
Faraj looked back at Madari and lifted his chin. The doubt had gone from his face now, no indecision there, only resolution. Determination.
“The house, or flat if you insist, is not the issue. What I have seen for the last few months is the issue.”
Cling to the anger, Madari told himself. Feed it with the fear, because you are about to need it.
“I am sorry I have to ask this, sir. But I must. For the sake of the regiment, I must ask this.” Faraj paused for a moment, but only a moment, the time to take a breath, then went on. “Is Kahil your lover?”
The question exploded between them like a shell. Madari took several steps towards Faraj, raising his hand. Faraj flinched, but stood his ground. At the last second Madari stopped, regained control and lowered his hand. But when he spoke, his voice came out as a hiss.
“If you ever ask me that again our friendship will end.”
Madari took a step back, shocked. Faraj had actually shouted at him. He could not recall Faraj ever raising his voice to him before, challenging his authority. But he recovered and answered, folding his arms as he spoke, keeping his voice cold.
“Kahil is not my lover.”
Faraj didn’t answer, instead he studied Madari’s face, looking for a lie. Madari held his gaze, until Faraj looked ashamed, and turned away.
“I’m sorry, sir. I had to ask. If there was a scandal –”
“There will be no scandal. There is nothing for there to be a scandal about.”
“I am sorry.” Faraj said again, quietly. “Do you… do you understand why I had to ask?”
“For the sake of the regiment,” Madari said, voice still chilly. “Yes, I understand.”
Faraj looked back at him and Madari knew that he had other reasons, and in that second he realised that he should not have kept his control a moment ago. For once he should have allowed himself to lose control. He should have struck Faraj.
He expected – no – he wanted me to hit him, Madari thought. My anger would have convinced him more than any denial can. But the anger had gone. It had gone because he was not entitled to feel it. It had been fear that had made him almost hit Faraj. Well if he had no anger left, he could only try an appeal.
“Please understand, Idris. I do have a bond with Kahil. He is very important to me. But as a friend, as a friend only.” He hesitated for a moment. Faraj had had the nerve to ask the question nobody else had dared to. Even Noor had stuck to innuendo to give him that warning back at the camp. Such a courageous question deserved an honest answer. Technically honest. “I do love him, Idris, as a friend. But I give you my word that he is not my lover and never has been.”
Madari hesitated, waited for Faraj to speak, but he didn’t. Madari knew things were different between them now, but he respected Faraj’s motives, knew he wanted to protect the regiment, and to protect Madari and Jahni too. He needed to show Faraj he still considered him a friend, still wanted Faraj at his side.
“Captain, Colonel Rahama has offered me command of the Light Company. I had intended to ask you to be my second in command. Would you accept that assignment?”
Faraj stared at him. “Jahni isn’t to be your second?”
Madari stared at him in return, amazed he would think that. Hadn’t he seen Madari had always been careful not to show favouritism to Jahni? Did he think that would change now?
“Of course not. Kahil is a good officer, but he is young and still has much to learn, especially about the way things work in the Guard. I can think of no-one better than you to help me teach him about that.” He held out his right hand to Faraj. “Serve with me again, my friend.”
Faraj hesitated, and then he stepped forward and took Madari’s hand.
“Thank you, Major.” He glanced up at the lighted window and the terrace above them. “I should return to my guests.”
“Of course. Captain, if you still have any worries about –”
“You’ve given me your word, Major,” Faraj said. “I won’t raise this subject again.” He turned and walked fast back to the steps. Madari watched him climb them and vanish back into the house. A small voice still whispered in his head that he had made an error. An error of omission.
I should have struck him.
The property agent Madari engaged found a small but cosy flat in a pleasant modern apartment building and within a few days Jahni had the keys.
Madari and Faraj helped him to move in, Madari bringing him and his few belongings from Madari’s house, and meeting Faraj there to supervise the delivery men who brought in the furniture and the kitchen appliances. Boxes and crates of other items, kitchen equipment, bedding and other essentials stood around on the floor, waiting for unpacking.
Starting from scratch like this meant the flat had a minimalist feel. Not very much furniture yet, essential items only. No pictures or other decorations.
Jahni claimed to be in no hurry to accumulate a lot of possessions, saying the less he had to dust and tidy up the better. Madari supposed he had simply lost the habit of owning things after so many months when he could carry everything he possessed in one small pack. And he wondered if his own modestly furnished and decorated home had given an example Jahni wanted to follow.
After the delivery men left, the three officers unpacked the boxes and crates, made the bed, unrolled rugs onto the wooden floor. Faraj unpacked and hung up Jahni’s uniform, along with the clothes Madari had bought for him, and the ones he’d brought back from the Ranger’s barracks. They filled barely half of the wardrobe and only a couple of drawers. Madari unpacked a few books he had loaned Jahni and they looked almost lost on one bookcase shelf. Jahni set a radio and a small television, the latter a gift from Faraj, on a table in the living room.
The sun had started to set when they finished unpacking and arranging everything. Madari flopped onto a sofa in the living room, tired now, after another poor night’s sleep.
“Can I offer you coffee?” Jahni said, smiling at his guests, enjoying his first chance to be a host.
“Do I ever say no to coffee?”
“In a moment,” Faraj said, glancing at his watch and then at the open window, the dimming light. “It’s time for prayers. Will you lead us, Major?”
Madari nodded and stood up and felt ashamed that he would rather have had his coffee.
Madari’s housewarming gift to Jahni had provoked smiles from Jahni and Faraj. An ibrik for making coffee the old fashioned way, just as he liked it.
“Is this a gift for me or yourself?” Jahni had teased. Then he had laughed, to Faraj. “I think he expects to spend a lot of time here.” Faraj hadn’t laughed.
They drank coffee, as it grew dark around them, still in their habit from the camp of saving electricity by waiting until the last possible moment to turn on a light.
Madari knew he was talking more than usual, putting off the moment of going. The moment he went home alone. Something else became clear too. Faraj wouldn’t leave until Madari did.
Once Jahni started offering them dinner, Madari decided he had stayed too long. Jahni’s kitchen had only a couple of day’s worth of groceries in it, Madari had unpacked them himself. They couldn’t impose on him to feed them until he had time to stock up.
It felt so strange, the moment when all three of them prepared to go their separate ways for the first time in so long. Madari wanted to embrace Jahni, but Faraj’s presence inhibited him. Yet how could he not do it? They werefriends. Friends would embrace in this situation. Should they stop acting like friends just because Faraj had… suspicions?
But Jahni solved the problem for him. He went over to his old pack, which lay in a corner and took out his sash, neatly folded, freshly laundered. Jahni approached Madari and held the sash out to him.
“Kahil?” Madari said, not quite understanding.
“You presented yours to the King. I want to present mine to you. For your hospitality to me, these past few days. This is… the most precious thing I own. I would like you to have it.” He stopped. His voice sounded choked. Then he gave a slightly forced laugh. “And it would be too strange for you of all people not to have one. Don’t worry.” He held up his hand and pulled back the sleeve of his shirt. A narrow strip of blue cloth cut from the sash was tied around his wrist. “I have a piece of it.”
Madari had to swallow several times before he could speak. He took the sash.
“Thank you, Kahil. You honour me.”
And he did embrace Jahni. Faraj could think what he liked.
But when Madari looked at Faraj he saw no suspicion on his face. Instead he looked moved and his eyes shone. Jahni smiled at him and held out an arm and Faraj moved close, put one arm around Jahni’s shoulders and one around Madari’s. They stood in a tight circle, heads close.
“My dear friends,” Madari said, quietly. “Change is never easy. This has been a difficult few days for all of us. But I believe our future is bright. I know you will both go on making me proud. It will be an honour to be your commander.”
“Thank you, sir,” Faraj said. “If God wills it, I hope we will serve together for many more years.” Jahni nodded his agreement. Madari could see him gulping. Perhaps he didn’t trust his voice to speak. Madari barely trusted his own. After a moment he straightened up, squeezed the shoulders of the two younger men.
“It is getting late. And we have to report early tomorrow. Time to go.”
Jahni stood at his door and watched until they were out of sight. As Madari and Faraj walked down the stairs, Madari heard the door to the flat close and he suddenly felt desolate. Alone.
As they found their cars in the underground lot, Faraj spoke.
“Sir. You are welcome to come to my house for dinner, and spend the night. If you wish.” He understood, Madari realised. He knew Madari feared being alone in the night.
“Thank you, Idris. No. I will be fine. You get home to your family now. I’ll see you in the morning.” Faraj nodded, got into his car and left.
Madari got into his car. No longer the Mercedes, but his repaired, though not yet re-sprayed Volvo. He put the sash down on the passenger seat and started the car. Then he paused, picked the sash up again and laid it across his knees. He drove out of the parking garage.
Negotiating the city kept him from thinking too much. But once he was out on the lonely north west road he had little to distract him as he drove through the dark, a tiny island of light in an ocean of blackness.
Ridiculous, he thought. After the things I have faced, am I now afraid of the dark? He had been as a little boy. Sometimes he had cried in the night and sometimes his mother or grandmother would come and sing to him to soothe him. And sometimes his grandfather would come and tell him to be a man and grow a spine and then tell him stories about war. And sometimes his father would come and in the darkness would recite poetry until little Faris fell asleep in his arms.
Strangely all these approaches worked as well as each other. It was the presence, the voice of someone who loved him that soothed him, Madari knew, not what they said. Sometimes the poems his father recited were in English or French and the child Madari barely understood them, but just the sound of his father’s voice, his touch, his presence was enough.
Madari shook himself from the memories as he approached his home. He had told Youssef not to wait up for him and the old man had gone to bed, but he had left out some supper for Madari, who ate it in the kitchen. After that he went to his study and packed his briefcase with papers for a meeting he had scheduled at the Defence Ministry tomorrow. Meetings. Could a man never escape them?
Seeing the clock approaching midnight, he went to his bedroom, taking a book, in case he couldn’t sleep. And he took the sash. He had been carrying it around since he came in the door, taking it into the kitchen, then the study. Now it accompanied him to the bedroom and when he got into bed he put it on the bookcase beside the bed. For a moment he ran his fingers along the newly cut edge where Jahni had cut off a strip. He would need to hem that or it would fray.
He read for a few minutes until his eyelids grew heavy. As he reached out to turn off the bedside lamp he laid a hand on the sash, just for a second. It felt good to know it was there. Madari slept.
And the nightmare came. No images, just flashes of sensation.
Blind. A hood smothering him. Smelled of dried blood. Not his blood. Hard to breathe. Muffled voices in Russian and Arabic. Yelling at him. Screaming at him.
All of the time, blows. Never knowing where they’d land next.
Please, stop. No more. Please.
Naked. Cold. Bleeding.
He came awake gasping, not screaming, the darkness smothering him like the hood. Clumsy and desperate he fumbled for the bedside lamp and in a second the soft light flowed over him like warm water.
Without even thinking about it he grabbed the sash and pressed it to his face, wiping away tears and sweat and blood. No, he told himself. Not blood. No blood. That was the dream. This is real. Real. Keep your eyes open now and look at the sash, look at the colour and know it is real. Kahil can’t be here to tell you what is real. Let this tell you instead. Let this represent him. He wore it every day for nearly a year, it is almost part of him.
For a moment a small voice reminded him that this wasn’t the first sash Jahni had worn. The original one had been lost when he was held prisoner, and Madari cut a new one after they rescued him. This one. But that didn’t matter. It never had. The sashes had always been symbolic, always.
A few minutes later Madari had calmed down enough to try to sleep again. But he left the light on. He kept the sash in his hands
Dawn woke him before his alarm clock or Youssef could. He sat up and turned off the bedside lamp. The sash lay on the bed beside him. Now in the daylight he could convince himself the night had not been too bad. He’d coped. Perhaps he would leave the light on every night. And of course he would keep the sash close. If the nightmare made him wake screaming then Youssef would come to him. That wasn’t the same as Kahil, but he knew Youssef cared about him. It would help.
He would cope with the darkness. He would cope.
“I don’t recognise the name of this building,” Madari said, as he and Jahni left the barracks at nine-thirty that morning. He thought he knew all the Defence Ministry buildings. This one must be new.
“I’ve got the address,” Jahni said. “I’ll drive.”
They took a Royal Guard Land Rover and drove into the city centre. Madari reviewed papers while Jahni sang along to the radio and sometimes asked Madari for directions.
“Here we are,” Jahni said. “Al-Ibrahim Plaza. It should be on the right.”
Madari’s head snapped up. Al-Ibrahim. No. No it couldn’t be. It couldn’t.
“That’s it.” Jahni nodded at a building with polished granite facings. It had a new sign over the door, a temporary one apparently, painted, but Madari knew what lay behind the new sign.
Security Police Headquarters. The Defence Ministry must have taken over the building. Madari’s head started to spin.
Jahni didn’t notice Madari’s shocked reaction to the building, too busy looking for a parking spot, so Madari tried to pull himself together.
It’s just a building, he told himself. We won’t be going into the underground cells, just some conference room. With light. Windows. It will be fine. I am strong. He glanced down at his sleeve, reminding himself. I am wearing my armour.
As they walked towards the door, Jahni did notice Madari’s agitation. He spoke quietly.
“Are you all right, Faris? You look very pale.”
“Tired,” Madari managed to gasp out.
Two years, he thought as they approached the main entrance. Two years ago I walked through these doors, in handcuffs. I had my head high. I was frightened but much too proud to show it. Three weeks later they carried me out of the back, a shattered, barely human wreck.
A flash. Not of light but a flash of sudden darkness. The hood. Voices screaming the same things again and again. The names! The names! Give us the names! And the pain. Always, the pain. Always. Always. Always.
Madari reeled. Polished granite and blue sky spun around him. Someone called his name. Darkness. Pain. Cold metal under his naked back. Leather straps tight around wrists and ankles. Wires. Electrodes. Pain. Pain. Pain.
Then he was sitting. He tried to rise, but someone pulled him down, held him down. Gradually, he became aware of words.
“Faris. Faris. It’s all right, you’re safe. Look at me.”
Madari turned to see Jahni looking at him, eyes wide. Looking down he saw Jahni’s hands on his arms, holding Madari’s wrists down. He saw why, saw his hands clenched into fists around clumps of his own hair. He shivered.
“Faris,” Jahni said, voice soft. “Are you here? Are you back? Do you know me?”
“Yes.” Madari gulped a few times, his voice stronger when he spoke again. “Yes. I’m sorry, Kahil.”
Jahni let go of Madari’s wrists and put an arm around his shoulders. Madari opened his hands and the hair blew away on the breeze. The adrenaline rush began to ebb, leaving him sick and dizzy. Reality, awareness of his surroundings, slowly returned. They were sitting on a stone bench near the doorway of the building.
“I can’t go in there,” Madari whispered. “It used to be the security police headquarters.”
Jahni gasped. “Where you were tortured? Why didn’t you say?”
“They changed the name. I didn’t know.”
“Sir? Is everything all right?” They both looked up at a soldier, one of the guards on the entrance, now looking at them concerned.
“He felt unwell,” Jahni said, with masterful understatement.
“Do you need a doctor? If you come inside I can summon one.”
“No!” Madari cringed to hear the panic in his voice.
“I can handle it, thank you, Sergeant,” Jahni said. The soldier saluted and retreated, but kept an eye on them from a distance. Madari sat forward, burying his face in his hands. Darkness still whirled around his head, trying to pull him down.
“Faris,” Jahni said, “let me take you back to barracks.”
“No.” Madari couldn’t do that. He couldn’t go back to barracks in this state, let the men, the other officers, Rahama, see him like this. “Meeting.”
“Forget the meeting.”
“No.” Madari sat up. “Duty. Important.” Words came only singly. He couldn’t see straight. He couldn’t think straight.
Jahni looked around, a desperate expression in his eyes. Then he took Madari’s arm and helped him stand.
“Come with me.”
After a pause to retrieve Madari’s cap and briefcase from the ground, Jahni took his hand led him across the plaza. In a moment it became clear what Jahni was making for. A coffee house. Small, old-fashioned looking. Madari thought he might have been in there before, years ago.
He stumbled as they crossed the threshold. Jahni manoeuvred him to sit at a table near a window. Window, a good idea, the deep interior of the shop too enclosed, claustrophobic. On the other hand he didn’t want to be on display, so turned his chair until it faced away from the window. There were several other soldiers and officers, from various regiments in the coffee house. They looked curiously at the two guardsmen and some spoke quietly to each other, looking at Madari.
“Sir?” Jahni said. “I will go to the meeting. You stay here. You’re safe. Just rest and I’ll be back as soon as I can. Is that all right?” Madari didn’t want him to go, and he could see from the torn look on Jahni’s face that he didn’t want to leave either. But the meeting was important.
“I’ll be fine, Kahil. Go. Take my briefcase.” Madari breathed deeply, taking in the scent of coffee, trying to fill his mind with sensations from the present. Trying to anchor himself in the now.
Jahni picked up the case. On his way out, he approached the proprietor of the shop, who had seemed hesitant to approach them at first, and spoke to him for a moment. Then he turned to look at Madari once more, with a worried expression, before leaving finally.
The proprietor came up to Madari. “The lieutenant said you aren’t feeling well, sir. We have a very nice spiced tea that may help.”
“Thank you, yes, please.”
The tea did help and Madari relaxed as he drank the first cup. He gestured for more tea and sat back in his chair, closed his eyes. But he opened them again at once. The darkness was too full of pain and screaming. A waiter refilled his cup and he drank more tea. A few drops spilled onto his jacket and he brushed them off quickly.
His uniform, his armour. It was the first thing they had taken from him. When they took him downstairs into the concrete cell Sevchenko had ordered the men to strip Madari. Madari resisted of course, but he was outnumbered and overpowered. In a moment he stood naked and cold. Shamed. The pride he had walked in with being stripped from him along with his clothes. But then he had rallied. No, they intended him to feel shame. He would not give them what they wanted. He gathered the pride and looked back at Sevchenko, unflinching.
Sevchenko turned to one of the others and gave them an order in Russian. They passed him Madari’s uniform jacket and he examined it with apparent interest, closely inspecting the insignia and decorations.
“You are proud to wear this, aren’t you, Major?” Madari didn’t answer. Then Sevchenko ripped off the rank insignia, tossed it away. The decoration ribbons next, torn off, thrown away into a corner, like rubbish. Sevchenko dropped the jacket, stepped onto it and wiped his feet. All the time he looked at Madari, waiting for his reaction.
I will not give them what they want, Madari vowed. The uniform stood for so much, but the actual garments that made it up, jackets and trousers, they were merely physical things, disposable, when they wore out or were damaged in action. The uniform wasn’t the garments but rather a symbol, an idea. Sevchenko didn’t understand that, thought he could enrage Madari by defiling a garment. That made him want to sneer at the Russian and when he spoke the sneer came out in his tone.
“It is only a piece of cloth.”
A gesture from Sevchenko and they had put the hood over his head.
He had not seen a Royal Guard uniform again for another two years.
Jahni tried and mostly failed to pay attention to the meeting. On arriving he had offered apologies for Madari’s absence and sat down with the papers, tried to look attentive, but all he wanted was to get back to Madari. He’d hated leaving him, shouldn’t have left him, but Madari had insisted on duty.
As soon as the meeting ended Jahni left, pleading other commitments to avoid the social gathering afterwards. He hurried down to the lobby, taking the stairs, as standing still in a lift just frustrated him. In the reception area he had to sign out and hand in the visitor pass, and while he did this, he noticed a group of men, senior officers and civilians, gathered around the doorway to the stairwell. One of the civilians Jahni vaguely recognised from the television as a newly appointed minister. They were close enough that Jahni could hear their words.
“They cut off access via the lifts,” one man said, speaking to the minister. “The basement is only accessible by the stairs.”
“And when you first went down there, you found bodies?”
Jahni shivered as he realised what they were talking about. The torture chambers under their feet.
“Yes, sir. Some people were alive still, but they were…” He shook his head. “In the end they all died.”
My God, thought Jahni, Madari was actually lucky. He got out alive. How many men and women died down there? In that instant Jahni wanted to do two things. First he wanted to pull the fire alarm and make everyone leave the building. Then he wanted to put a match to it and burn the place to the ground. If it wouldn’t burn, he’d see if the heavy artillery would loan him a tank and some shells. That should do it.
“How long will it take to sweep it for evidence?” The minister asked.
“Perhaps a month, sir. After that –”
“After that fill it in with concrete.”
The minister and his group turned to stare in astonishment at the young officer behind them. The minister’s bodyguards looked twitchy, but he held up a hand to restrain them.
“Jahni, sir. Royal Guard. Don’t let them turn it into a file store, or something like that. No one should go into those rooms again. People were tortured and murdered there. Let them rest in peace.” Jahni remembered himself and saluted. “Excuse me, sir. My apologies for interrupting.” He marched off smartly and heard a voice behind him.
“I’m sorry, sir. Typical Royal Guard. They’re all arrogant…” The voice faded. Jahni grinned as he left the building and headed across the plaza to the coffee shop. So he had come across as a “typical” Royal Guard officer, had he? Idris would be proud of him.
A newspaper lay unregarded on the table in front of Madari. Only when Jahni sat down across from him did he look up and smile.
“How was the meeting?”
“Dull,” Jahni admitted. “I said you’d been taken ill. They all asked me to pass on their regards.” The proprietor brought Jahni the coffee he’d asked for when he came in. “You look much better.”
“I feel better, thank you, Kahil.” He rested his hand on Jahni’s for a second. “Now drink your coffee and let’s get back to barracks. And I want a full report on that meeting on my desk by lunchtime.”
Jahni groaned, making Madari smile. “Welcome back to the real army, Lieutenant. We have this thing called paperwork.”
“Don’t remind me.”
Jahni finished his coffee and they drove back to the barracks. Madari stayed quiet, but tried to smile if he caught Jahni’s concerned gaze, hoping to reassure him.
“I’m going to see Colonel Rahama,” Madari said as they re-entered headquarters. “I’ll see you at lunch, go and write that report.” Jahni looked surprised, but did as Madari ordered.
Rahama had some people with him, but would be free in a few moments his Adjutant said, so Madari took a seat and waited. Ten minutes later the office door opened and Rahama emerged with a group of officers. They took their leave, shaking hands. Madari stood up as the other men left.
“Can you see Major Madari, sir?” The Adjutant asked Rahama. “You’re free until lunch now.”
“Of course.” Rahama looked at Madari, at his serious expression. “Come in, Major.” They went into the office and Rahama waved him to an armchair and took the seat opposite him.
“You’ll be pleased to know I’m going to announce all the assignments this afternoon. So you and your fellow bandits will be able to get down to some real work.” He smiled at his small joke, but Madari remained serious.
“Before you give me a command, sir, there’s something you need to know.” Madari took a deep breath. He should have said this before to Rahama. His C.O. needed to know this. His friend needed to know. “I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” He had never said the words before. It was a mental illness and admitting to a mental illness felt shameful.
“I see,” Rahama said. “Has this actually been diagnosed by a doctor, or have you been reading medical books?”
“It is real. I have seen my medical records from the prison camp. When I arrived the doctor there diagnosed it.”
“Two years ago,” Rahama said. “Have you not improved since then?’
“Yes,” Madari said, shuddering to think of the condition he used to be in. “But I still have symptoms. Nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks. I had a flashback today.” He had thought those were in the past. He’d not had one for weeks. Until today. “I may not be fit to take up a command position. You need to be aware of that.”
“The regiment’s chief medical officer passed you fit for duty,” Rahama said. “You had an examination only a few days ago.”
“Physically fit,” Madari said, “mentally fit may be another matter.” The CMO had not asked Madari about how well he slept. He hadn’t asked if Madari had claustrophobia. He hadn’t asked if Madari regularly woke screaming.
Rahama stood up and paced around for a few moments, hands behind his back, before he looked at Madari again. “Faris, do you honestly believe you are unfit for command? What have you spent the last year doing? You successfully trained and led a company of men, many of them civilians, and played a major role in the restoration. And you did this without the authority of the army behind you. Those men accepted your leadership based on what they could see in you. Your strength of will. Your natural ability to command.”
He came back to his seat and sat again, leaned forward, his face serious.
“I could make you a staff officer. And you could sit behind a desk all day and take two hour lunches in the mess. But that would be a waste of your talent. You belong in the field, commanding men. It’s what you were trained for. It’s what you were born for.” He laughed. “Old Ahmed would never forgive me if I had you doing anything else.”
Rahama sat back in his seat and sighed, still looking at Madari, who waited for him to go on. Rahama’s words made him proud, that his commander and friend believed in him so strongly. He just wished he had the same belief in himself.
“Faris, if it makes you feel better I’ll have the medical officers do a full psychiatric assessment on you to confirm your fitness.”
“It would make me feel better.”
“And if you need any treatment, then of course they will arrange that. Meanwhile I will go ahead and make the announcements this afternoon as planned.” He raised a hand to silence Madari’s protest. “My friend, I have confidence not only in you but in myself. I am confident that I know who is and is not fit for command.”
He stood up and Madari did too, shook Rahama’s hand when he offered it.
“Faris, please, trust me as I trust you.”
Hooded. Blind. Feet dragged as they hauled him along, strong hands gripping his arms. Dropped into a chair, knees banged against a table in front of him. Heard orders, orders to others.
Light gouged his eyes when they pulled off the hood. Someone grabbed his hair, pulling his head up straight.
He heard the voice clearer now. That voice. More orders to the men surrounding him. They obeyed, pushed his hands flat on the table. He had no strength to resist.
Voice again. He could not see Sevchenko, but he could hear that voice.
“This is your last chance, Faris. What I do next you will never recover from, I promise you that.”
“Fuck you.” A gasp only, no strength to shout it, mouth too dry.
This nightmare always ended with the next word Sevchenko spoke. It couldn’t continue because it would lead to a place he could not go. A memory he could never relive and stay sane.
Screaming. Someone spoke softly, trying to ease his pain. A hand stroked his arm. Kahil. He wanted it to be Kahil, needed his voice, his strength. But when he could see and hear, he recognised Youssef.
“It’s all right, Master Faris. Just a dream.” The old man said, gently, talking to him like a child. Safe now. Safe except from his own memories.
Once again he kept the light on all night. It helped.
Two days later he walked into the regiment’s infirmary and the Chief Medical Officer introduced him to another military doctor. A psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, Doctor Fouad took Madari into an office and they sat down.
“Major, we have as long as you need, we will not be disturbed. And nothing you say goes beyond these walls. Not to your C.O., not to your medical officer. I can make recommendations, but I cannot and will not tell anyone anything you say unless you give me express permission.”
Madari didn’t speak, watched him, assessed him. Fouad spoke again.
“You can call me Doctor or Aziz, as you wish. And you can tell me anything. Nothing you can say will shock me.”
Madari stood up. For a moment the doctor looked worried as if fearing his patient was about to bolt, but Madari walked to the window, looked out at the desert.
Nothing will shock you, Doctor? He wanted to laugh. He’s Army. If he thought nothing Madari said would shock him he was wrong. An Army doctor would surely be shocked to hear the Major was in love with one of his junior officers.
No, he won’t be shocked, because he won’t hear that, Madari decided. That’s not what he’s here to deal with.
Aziz. You want me to call you Aziz as if you are my friend. But you are not my friend. You are a professional. And I promised to seek professional help, he recalled. He’d promised that to Doctor Al-Hijazi, who was a friend as well as a doctor. Madari had promised he would not try to cope alone and he would not rely only on his friends to help him. That would be unfair on them. There were some things you had to call a professional for.
He smiled. Like his car. He and Jahni had managed some of the repairs, but the more serious problems needed a specialist. He wanted to laugh then, imagining his damaged mind as his battered old Volvo, imagining Doctor Fouad sucking his teeth in a hiss and shaking his head like Madari’s mechanic had at the sight of the car.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the doctor, who sat watching him, waiting, with that “I can wait all day” look on his face.
Could this be a mistake? Could he really tell this man, this stranger, that when he did sleep he woke sobbing or screaming. And what if the doctor did indeed decide he was unfit? What if they took away his command? Why had he volunteered for this, risked that? Because if he was unfit then he should lose his command, because that was better than losing his men in the field.
Madari turned back to the doctor. He took off his jacket and placed it on the back of a chair, then sat down.
“I am afraid of the dark.”