The days at the barracks felt so long, even though Madari left as early as possible. He must make up for that one day, stay and put in extra time. The colonel has been a good friend, and turned a blind eye to some paperwork coming late. Idris has covered for him. And all so he could rush home, to walk into his house to find Kahil waiting for him.
This time he didn’t find Jahni in the living room.
“He is in the diwaniya, sir,” Youssef said, coming into the room, seeing him looking around. “He found it too warm in this room this afternoon.”
It did feel warm in here. Glancing up at the ceiling he thought about having some electric fans installed before summer arrived, then he went into the diwaniya. Kahil lay on a kind of nest of rugs and cushions, asleep, a book discarded at his side, an empty cup near him, tipped over. A blanket covered him. For a moment Madari wanted to leave him like that. He still needed rest, though his strength was returning, thanks in part, Madari was sure, to two weeks of Youssef’s home cooking. But he must have heard Madari come in and he started to stir and his eyes opened. He smiled.
“Faris. You’re home. What time is it?”
“Almost six. How are you feeling?”
“Hungry.” He sat up, and rubbed his eyes with both hands.
“Imagine my surprise,” Madari said, laughing. “I’ll have Youssef prepare something. Just a snack though. Save your appetite for dinner, Idris will be joining us remember?”
Madari crouched down beside him and picked up the cup, touching the carpet to see if anything had spilled from it. No, it must have been empty. When Kahil started to rise, Madari shook his head and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Stay here, I’ll join you. It is pleasant in here.”
He left him and found Youssef in the kitchen, brewing coffee. Various ingredients for dinner lay around on the table.
“Kahil and I will have some cake with our coffee, in the diwaniya.”
“Youssef, I want to thank you for how you’ve taken care of Lieutenant Jahni while he’s been here.”
“It’s no trouble, sir.”
“Nevertheless, I intend to pay you a bonus for the extra work. And I know Kahil is very grateful too.”
“I appreciate that.”
Did he? Madari wasn’t sure how much he really approved of Kahil. Like Idris, Youssef thought Royal Guard officers should be the right sort, the officer class. More than that, the elite of the officer class. It was impossible to say though, since of course he would not express his opinion about that to Madari. Well, his approval did not matter. Madari knew he’d do his duty. And on a personal level, well perhaps Kahil had charmed him during his stay.
He re-joined Kahil and they relaxed in the diwaniya until they heard a car pulling into the compound.
“Idris,” Madari said, when he went to offer Jahni his hand to help him rise. “I don’t think you’ve seen him since you came home have you? Left the hospital I mean?”
“No, he hasn’t been out here and I haven’t had time to see him when I’ve been in the city.”
“Ah, then it’s a reunion.”
They had dinner quite early, not long after Idris arrived, since Jahni still went to bed early for now. Madari made most of the conversation at dinner, unusual for him, but Idris was quiet, almost sulky, making Madari worry about him. Did he have problems at home? He wouldn’t call to cancel the dinner for anything less than an emergency, but if he’d rather be elsewhere, Madari wouldn’t insist on his saying long afterwards.
When Idris did talk, he spoke mostly about work, or asked after Kahil’s health and about when he’d likely be fit to return to duty. Then he paused for a moment and looked between the two of them, an almost calculating expression on his face.
“I’ve been thinking about something. I wondered if perhaps once Kahil is well enough that we might all make the Pilgrimage together.”
“The Pilgrimage?” This took Madari by surprise. Kahil didn’t answer, turned away to pour himself some water.
“I thought it would be a good time to do it,” Idris went on. “As a way to thank God for Kahil’s life, and for the restoration of the king, our victory. It feels like the right time to me.” He looked at Madari. “You haven’t made the Pilgrimage before.”
No, he hadn’t. He knew he must get around to it one day. But it has always been “next year”. Like Ahmed. It was always going to be “next year” for him. And then it was too late.
“No,” Madari said, “I haven’t. Of course, you are right, I should make the time. I will think about it. Kahil?”
Kahil looked up. “I’ve seen TV pictures, of the crowds. I don’t like crowds much.”
“It is an obligation,” Idris said, his voice stiff and Kahil flashed him a glare.
“I meant, while I’m not at full strength.”
“That is a good point,” Madari said. “It can be arduous. Depending on the time of year too, the heat. I wouldn’t want Kahil to push himself too soon.”
“I did say, when he is well enough.” Idris’s voice was low, soft.
“Of course. And there is no hurry. Perhaps…”
Idris’s voice still had that low tone, and something else now, a hint of sarcasm. He must have heard Madari say that before about the Pilgrimage. Next year. Madari scowled. And who did Idris think he was to decide when Madari, or Kahil, should make the Pilgrimage? That was their business, not his.
“When he feels ready,” Madari said, his tone colder than Idris’s now.
“Of course,” Idris said. “It’s all about Kahil.”
A rattle of cutlery on a plate and the scrape of a chair made them both turn, startled, to Kahil. He looked flushed, glaring, as he stood up.
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
Madari stared and stood up, concerned.
“No,” Kahil raised a hand, as Madari reached for his arm. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m sorry to be rude. I just have to go.”
He walked out of the room, leaving Madari staring after him. When he turned back to Idris the look he saw him direct after Kahil shocked Madari. A grimace, near disgust. The expression vanished when Madari caught his gaze.
“I think I upset him.”
He had. Madari was not sure exactly how, but still he wanted to slap Idris for it.
“He’s just tired. Out of sorts.”
“Well, perhaps I am too.” Idris rose from the table, tossing down his napkin, although they had not even finished the main course. “I think I will go home.”
“Oh. Well, of course, if you want to.”
He accompanied Idris to the door, opened it, letting in the cool night air.
“Idris, is something wrong at home? Anything you want to talk about?”
“At home? No. What could be wrong?” He laughed, a bitterness in it that Madari could almost taste. “My son is almost convinced that I’m his father, my wife has almost stopped treating me like a guest in his own house.”
“Idris, I am sorry, you are having some trouble readjusting. Please, if there is anything I can do, tell me.” He raised a hand to put it on his shoulder, but Idris stepped back, out of his reach. “I know the shooting has all of us shaken up too.”
The disgust appeared on his face again and he snorted. He stepped closer to Madari again, but Madari certainly didn’t want to put his hand on his shoulder this time. Not with the fury in his face. Not with the way his voice intensified into a hiss as he spoke.
“Major, you fail to understand something. Not everything is about Kahil. At least, not for everyone. For you perhaps, but not for the rest of us. For your sake and his, you should try to refrain from speaking of him every time you open your mouth!”
The last words Idris almost spat into his face and Madari gasped and stepped back. An amazed look crossed Idris’s face, and he stepped back and spoke more quietly, voice shaky. “My apologies, sir, I am… upset. I did not mean to speak out of turn. Goodnight.”
And he was gone before Madari could recover his composure, his car door slamming. In a moment the engine roared, the lights came on and the vehicle swept out of the compound, making sand fountain up from the tyres.
Madari walked slowly to close and bar the gates. For a moment, he looked at the rusted padlock that had once secured the gates. He should invest in a new lock. Then, still feeling stunned, He walked back into the house.
Jahni heard Idris’s car leaving and wasn’t surprised when a few moments later he heard a soft knock at his bedroom door. He’d been lying on the bed fully clothed, but sat up, called out.
He took his shirt off and went to the door. What made him do that he didn’t know for sure. Perhaps he wanted to make Faris think he had started to get ready for bed. So he’d think Jahni was actually tired and not just sulking.
“Ah.” Faris looked taken aback for a second when Jahni opened the door. “I’m sorry. You’re going to bed, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“No.” Jahni stepped back, opening the door wider. “Please come in.”
He did, after only a tiny hesitation and a glance over his shoulder. Where might Youssef be right at this moment? Clearing up the dinner things, probably.
“Idris left?” Jahni sat down on the bed, leaving enough room for Faris to sit beside him. He didn’t, just hovered near the closed door.
“Yes. I think he’s…” He bit his lip, frowning. “He’s just not in a good mood.”
“Because we failed his little test.”
“What?” Faris stared at him.
“That stuff about the Pilgrimage.”
“I don’t understand.”
Jahni just shrugged. Faris would work it out eventually, as Idris already had, would understand. Perhaps tonight was the time to tell him. Jahni could have died and Faris wouldn’t have known this about him.
“What do you think about the idea of making the Pilgrimage, Kahil? Together. I don’t mean soon, not even next year. But when you are ready.”
“I would go anywhere with you. But I would only go there for you. Not for myself.”
Faris seemed baffled and finally came over to sit beside Jahni and gave him a puzzled smile.
“Kahil, you’re talking in riddles tonight.”
That made him laugh. “I don’t need to make the Pilgrimage. Can’t you see why?”
“Don’t need? All Muslims –”
Apparently he couldn’t see why.
“Faris.” Jahni turned, looked right in his eyes. “Faris, I’m not a Muslim. I haven’t believed for a long time now. Months. Perhaps I never really did.”
Faris stared at him, eyes wide in the dim light thrown by the bedside lamp, stared as if he’d spoken in an alien language.
“I don’t understand. Are you saying you have converted? To what? Christianity?”
“No.” It would take Faris a moment to understand it, Jahni could see. “I haven’t converted. I don’t just mean that I don’t believe in the teachings of Islam any more, I mean I don’t believe in God.”
Faris jumped up so fast that he stumbled, and had to grab at a cabinet to keep from falling.
“Kahil!” he gasped. “Kahil.” Speechless but for his name.
“Faris.” Jahni resisted the urge to get up and take his arms, or his hands, to try to calm him. “I’m sorry if this shocks you. But it’s the truth, it’s me. You are… You are part of me and you need to know about it.” He stood up and moved to Faris. “How could I go on believing, after what happened to my family? If God existed how could things like that happen?” His voice had started to rise. He didn’t want to shout, not at Faris. He choked down the words.
“Kahil.” Faris had an agonised expression on his face. “It is normal to feel angry, even with God, when terrible things happen, but your family is waiting for you in Paradise.”
“No! I’m not angry with God. That’s not it. At first, I thought it was. But it’s not. I have no faith. I don’t think I ever had, just… habit. I was trained to pray, to observe, to mouth the words, but it never felt real. Never.”
“I… Kahil, I don’t know what to say.”
What Jahni said then he knew amounted to a challenge. He knew it could insult Faris. And he wondered if it was only wishful thinking. But he had to say it.
“Say that you feel the same.”
“What?” Outrage in his voice. But Jahni pressed on.
“You’re an educated, sophisticated man. How can you believe in these superstitions?”
“I have faith.”
“You have a position in society you have to maintain, you can’t admit to anyone else that you don’t believe. But you can tell me. Please, trust me with the truth.”
He had moved quite close to Faris, who had backed away, against the cabinet.
“No. I believe,” Madari insisted. “I may not be strict in my observance, and I know I am… weak. A sinner. But I believe in God.”
“Kahil!” His voice was stern now, the command voice, and angry, yet had a tinge of desperation in it. “I have given you my answer. Do not challenge my faith again.”
Feeling dazed, Jahni stepped back. Had he made a mistake in telling Faris? What if turned Jahni out of his house right now and never spoke to him again?
“Faris,” he said, whispered. “I am sorry. I thought perhaps you… I’m sorry, I won’t challenge you again. But I can’t take back what I told you. I have no faith. I can’t lie about it any longer, not to you.”
His knees felt weak, and sat on the bed again. A moment later Faris came and sat beside him. Jahni didn’t look at him.
“Kahil. I’m sorry you have lost your faith. I’m sorry that you don’t believe you’ll see your family again, that you don’t believe that we could be companions for eternity in Paradise. I believe it, and I want you there with me.”
“Don’t,” Jahni said, feeling the anger rise. “Don’t put off what you want to say until we are both dead! I will never hear it.”
He didn’t answer that and Jahni turned to see a look of pity that made him sad and angry. He wanted Faris to see the truth as he did. He didn’t want Faris to pity him for his lack of faith. He wanted Faris to respect him for his honesty.
“Kahil, you understand you need to keep quiet about this to others. I see your heart is set, for now anyway. I hope that will change. But you understand how others would view this, as apostasy.”
“They’d be right.”
“Yes, well. You know it would cause problems.”
“Don’t worry, Faris, I intend to keep up his façade of hypocrisy in public. I’m quite practiced at that now. Quite the expert.”
“You can talk to me about it, whenever you want.”
While you try to persuade me back onto the straight and narrow road? While you deny your own doubts? I know why you cling to your faith, because it’s a line of defence against what you really want. Because it stops you giving in to that sin and weakness you fear in yourself.
He didn’t say any of that.
“Thank you,” Jahni said.
Faris moved as if to stand up, but then stopped.
“Kahil, if you don’t believe, then why do you put off things you might want to say? What you might want to say to me.”
He looked poised, ready to run if Jahni stepped up to this challenge. And it was a challenge, as mine had been, as Idris’s had been.
“You think I have something to say to you?”
He took Faris’s hand, raised it to press against his chest. Faris tried to pull it away, until he realised it rested on the fresh scar from Jahni’s injury.
“I already said it. Didn’t you hear me?”
Faris didn’t speak, as Jahni let his hand go. He rose from the bed. At the door, he turned back and spoke.
“Yes, I heard you. Goodnight, Kahil. I know you don’t think it will do any good, but I am going to pray for you.”
Was he right?
Was Madari’s so-called faith nothing more than habit and appearance? Was he a hypocrite? And too much of a coward to admit that even to Kahil? Or even to himself.
It was true that religion has never been especially important to him. It never was to Ahmed. Father had been more spiritual, even interested in mysticism, in Sufism. But even he never talked much about religion. It has always just been something… there. Just part of the background of life.
Yet Madari had seen things, the real faces of the things that lived inside the men that tortured him. The demons.
Hallucinations. They had to be. In that place, drugged, dehydrated, deprived of sleep, probably concussed, certainly suffering from blood loss, and half-insane from terror. They had to be hallucinations. Like the visions he’d had of Ahmed, or his father killing his tormentors and carrying him out of there. They weren’t real, the demons can’t have been real either.
They felt real. Their hands that dragged him to the next torment had claws. They smelled of hell and death.
He had turned off the light in his bedroom, kept only the bedside lamp on, but now he switched the overhead light on again. His fear of the dark had almost gone, thanks to his work with his psychiatrist. But tonight the darkness felt too crowded. He feared a nightmare and that his screams would bring Kahil to him.
He feared that because he knew now that he had one less reason to trust Kahil’s restraint. If Kahil had no faith, then he didn’t believe that making love to Madari was a sin. He had other reasons not to do it, but Madari had assumed religion to be one of the strongest. Now he felt the same as he might if were to rise in the morning and find he hadn’t locked the doors of his house overnight. A feeling of realisation that he had been vulnerable and never known it.
No, he was being unfair. He had to keep on trusting Kahil. A man can still have a morality even if he has no religion. There was an unspoken promise between them now, he was sure of it, that they would not… change the nature of their relationship. And Kahil has kept to that. Despite having no faith, He had kept that promise. Madari could trust him.
But was going to lose him. Kahil didn’t expect them to be together after death. He believed they had only the years in life and that only oblivion awaited after that. And what did Madari believe? The thought sickened him. He believed that this meant Kahil would go to hell. Perhaps eventual forgiveness, but before that, hell.
He groaned and sat on the bed, his head in his hands. Worse than losing him in this life, worse than the thought of their brief years of life being the only time they’d have together. That he’d suffer and Madari couldn’t stand that.
He couldn’t let it happen. It was his fault. If he’d been stronger in his own faith, given a better example, not let temptation ravage him so much, then he could have helped Kahil. Was that why he never told Madari about his doubts? Because he didn’t believe Madari could help him?
Tomorrow he would insist Kahil spoke with an Imam, take some instruction. Was he even a member of a mosque near his home? Madari had never asked him. Why hadn’t he thought to ask? Weak, so weak in his own faith he never saw Jahni’s slipping away.
All he could hope now is that there was something left. Even if it was anger with God. Kahil claimed that wasn’t the case, but Madari saw a lot of anger in him. That had to be the one chance, the last shred of faith he still carried in his heart.
Madari would help him turn that anger back into love. He had almost lost Kahil here in life because of that bullet. He would not lose him for eternity because of his own grief and pain.