“You know England well,” Jahni said, glancing out of the plane window, seeing only clouds, then back at Madari. “Is there anything I should know? About how to behave?”
Madari frowned. “Well, much of it is the same as in America, so you’ve had some practice. Avoid touching people too much, short handshakes are enough. And mostly exchanged only for introductions. Be careful not to stand too close to someone; they like more space than we are used to. Arms length is a good guide. And don’t stare at the women.”
Madari tried not to smile at the tone of protest in Jahni’s voice. Of course they were trained from birth not to stare at women, but that was in their own country, where the women were more covered up.
“You were staring in Los Angeles.”
“I was not!” Jahni grimaced and went on. “Okay, I was. But they walk around half naked!”
Madari laughed and shook his head. “Not much chance of that at least, not in London in January.”
“Okay, anything else?”
“Well, it’s normal to see men and women holding hands in the street, even kissing. But men would never hold hands or link arms.”
He heard Jahni sigh at that and wanted to do the same. He would miss the feel of Jahni’s hand in his.
“Social life revolves around bars, which they call ‘pubs’. Beer is very important to them.” He gave Jahni a severe look. “Of course we won’t have much time for socialising.”
“Speaking of things to drink, the coffee is appalling. The tea is tolerable once you get used to how strong they like it. Just don’t let them put any milk in it.”
“Milk!” Jahni twisted his face in disgust. “What are they, barbarians?”
“Oh, not at all. Most of them are very polite. They apologise often, they queue for things without protest. Don’t push your way to the front of a queue. Then they might become… impolite.”
Jahni had a serious look on his face now, taking all of this in. Good. He wanted to behave well, make a good impression. As he had said goodbye, Rahama had reminded them they represented the regiment and the country, they must remember that.
“You already know that they have a Queen. Do you know though that the Prime Minister, who runs the country, is also a woman?”
“Oh, now you’re just making things up.”
The first thing they had to do when they arrived in London, just after lunchtime, was go shopping. A newspaper was the first item, to convince Jahni that “Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher” was not a joke Madari was trying to play on him.
They dropped their luggage at their hotel and headed to Oxford Street. A department store seemed safest, and they found the men’s clothing section. While both had western style clothes there were still things they needed, to see them through several weeks in the British winter.
They had warm coats already, but the “accessories” could be difficult to buy at home. One could buy many different types of gloves in Qumar. Leather ones for riding or driving, protective ones for various jobs, or sports. Formal ones worn with dress uniforms. But gloves simply to keep the hands warm were much harder to get hold of. The same thing applied with scarves and hats and even thick warm socks.
“Do you like these ones?” Jahni held up his hands, clad in woollen gloves.
“Ah, they’re rather colourful.” Was there any colour not on them? Madari wondered.
“That’s why I like them.”
Madari smiled, shook his head. “Put them in,” he nodded at the wire basket they were filling with various small sartorial items. “But get some that are a little more sober too.” For himself he’d picked out plain black and brown ones. “Some warm pyjamas now. And I think we should get some thermal underwear.”
“It’s that cold?” Jahni frowned. “Didn’t seem to be outside. More damp.”
“It can get very cold. It’s changeable. And I checked the weather forecast, snow is expected in the next few days.”
“Snow?” Jahni looked at him, intrigued, turning away from his reflection in the mirror as he tried out a blue and green scarf.
“You’ve never seen snow?”
“In the distance,” Jahni put the scarf into the basket. “On mountaintops. I’ve never seen it falling.”
They tracked down the thermal underwear and then had quite a conference about sizes, since all the labelling was different than they were used to. The hats and gloves and scarves had been much easier.
“Can I help you, sirs?”
Madari stared, shocked, at the woman in her crisp blouse and skirt. She wore a professional smile. Waiting to be helpful. Jahni started to laugh at the look on Madari’s face and he pulled himself together.
“I… no, thank you, we can manage.” He bowed his head to her and felt relieved when she nodded.
“Feel free to ask for any assistance, you need.” She moved away, still smiling.
“You should have asked her,” Jahni said, mischief in his eyes.
Perhaps he should have, but should and could were two different things. If he couldn’t spot a male shop worker he’d make his best guess on the sizes and hope for the best.
They had plans for the evening, had been invited to their embassy for dinner. And Rahama made it clear the invitation was compulsory. The Qumari ambassador to the court of St James was a good friend of the king.
It wasn’t a big party, just the ambassador and some of his senior staff. Mostly they pressed Madari and Jahni for news from home, though the military attaché was more interested in the new unit and cornered Madari before dinner, for what felt more like an interrogation.
Jahni, talking to the Ambassador himself couldn’t get away to “rescue” him and Madari resigned himself to talking about work, with a glance now and again at Jahni, looking handsome in his dress uniform, laying on the charm. He’d learnt a lot in his months in the Royal Guard, including about networking. Or “sucking up” he called it himself, to anyone who might be a useful ally. You never knew when such a person might be in a position to help your career.
“Major?” The military attaché frowned at him, glancing around too. Madari quickly brought his attention back to the man, before he could see what Madari had been looking at. Raslan’s strange warning came back to him. Heed that warning. Whatever Raslan’s game is, he seems to know what he’s talking about.
They ate dinner late and the party quickly broke up after that. As they stepped outside, putting on their coats, Jahni exclaimed with delight.
“Oh! This is snow, isn’t it?”
Madari smiled, nodded at the big flakes drifting down. Dark when he looked up, under the heavy grey clouds, then golden in the orange glow of the street lamps.
“Yes. This is snow.” They walked to the end of the quiet street, turned on to a busier one and Madari moved to hail a taxi, but Jahni took his arm.
“Can we walk? It isn’t far.”
It was quite late, but still, Madari didn’t want to deny him.
“Of course.” He looked around, orienting himself. “This way.”
They strolled through the streets, still busy even at this late hour here in the centre of London. The route came back to Madari’s mind after so many years away. As a student he’d visited the embassy a few times, sorting out visa problems and so on. He remembered his way from there to the street where their hotel stood.
He had to resist the temptation to hold hands as they walked, as they’d often do at home. It wouldn’t go over at all well here. Not the custom at all.
“It’s really beautiful,” Jahni said, watching the snow. It didn’t lie on the pavement or roads, but it dusted any patches of greenery they passed, like sugar on a cake. “Oh, look at how it piles up on the branches of that tree. And those railings.” He stopped and scooped some that was piling into a thin wall on the top of a line of iron railings. After a moment it melted and he shook the water from his hand, then thrust his hands in his pockets. “But you’re right about the cold. I should have brought my gloves.”
“Those brightly coloured ones?”
“What, you don’t think they’d have gone well with my uniform?” He smiled, and shrugged his shoulders inside his coat, snuggling deeper into the warmth. “So, we have most of tomorrow free, what are we going to do?”
“They have open topped bus tours around the city. Would you like to do one of those?”
“Open topped bus? We’ll definitely need the thermal underwear then. Yes, let’s do that. Then could we go to where you lived when you were a student here?”
Madari looked surprised. He’d talked about those days of course, but couldn’t imagine Jahni would be so intrigued as to want to go to see a boarding house in Kentish Town, when he could be touring the famous sights of London. But why not? It would be nice to see the place again.
“If you want to, of course.”
“Can we go on the Tube?”
Madari laughed now, at the tone, like a child asking for a great treat. The London Underground had quickly lost its novelty for him, once he used it every day. But Jahni asked to go on it as though it was a fairground ride.
“Of course. After all, Colonel Rahama will get very upset if we present him with an excessive number of taxi bills when we submit our expenses.”
Thinking of their expenses, and not wanting to be extravagant with money that wasn’t his, Madari had booked only one room at the hotel, with a pair of twin beds. He’d worried about it for a while, but he chose to trust himself. He chose to trust Jahni. They’d had any number of chances to give in to temptation now and hadn’t.
So he came out of the bathroom, wearing his new warm pyjamas, which made him feel as if he was going to bed wearing a suit. Jahni was in bed already, sitting up drinking tea. He held a book.
“I found this Bible in the drawer. There was one in the hotel in Los Angeles too. Is there some kind of law in Christian countries that hotels have to provide Bibles?”
“No, they’re put there by evangelicals, called the Gideon society.”
“To spread the word of God.”
Jahni rolled his eyes. “Well, yes, obviously.” He scowled. “Christians can’t leave people alone either.” He muttered that, darkly. Nevertheless, he closed the Bible carefully and put it away. The newspaper they’d bought earlier lay on his bed and he read that, the sports pages at the back, and ate a couple of biscuits that came in a small packet provided by the hotel.
“I’d love to go to a football match over here.”
“Go to sleep now, Kahil, it’s late.” Madari got into his own bed, put his watch down on the night stand and set the small travel alarm clock to wake them at seven thirty. A time that seemed like a shocking luxury, for men used to rising at the crack of dawn. Jahni settled down, brushing crumbs from his sheets and placing the paper into the open shelf of the night stand.
In a moment they were in darkness and said goodnight. Madari listened to Jahni’s breathing slow, his movements stop, while he himself lay awake. Only feet away, the sleeping man who he’d once slept beside in his own bed. For one night, a night that frightened him to recall now. The four feet of carpet that lay between them here might as well be a mine field.
He’d listened like this in Los Angeles too, in another shared hotel room. They’d never get any closer to sharing a bedroom than this, he accepted that. He had to enjoy the small pleasures this gave him, however meagre they felt.
The morning bus tour left them feeling frozen solid, but Jahni was suitably impressed by the sights, hanging over the rail as they passed Downing Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of this Mrs Thatcher he still seemed to think Madari must be lying about and had somehow produced a fake newspaper to back up his joke.
“I told you not to stare at the women,” Madari said, hauling him back to sit down.
But a hearty lunch warmed them up. Jahni, wanting to experience British food, insisting on steak and kidney pie. He followed the lead of other diners and finishing off the gravy from the empty plate with some bread. The British bread tasted like air with a crust to them, used to more dense breads. Madari, enjoying himself now, ordered treacle pudding for dessert, with custard.
“Crème Anglais,” Madari said, though Jahni still shook his head, baffled. “Well, you’ll like it.”
The suet based dessert tested even Jahni’s stamina as a trencherman and after he finished, he sat back with a groan.
“Well, this food at least fills you up.” The complaint he had about the French restaurants he’d been to in the past, was that the food tasted fine, he just wanted twice as much.
“It’s perfect for the winter.” Madari signalled the waitress and they finished with a pot of tea, leaving the milk jug untouched.
When they recovered enough to move, they headed out to the nearest Underground station, negotiated the ticket machine with the unfamiliar coins and boarded the Underground train.
Jahni still looked impressed by it, studying the map of all the stations looking amazed. Familiarity breeds contempt, Madari supposed, recalling the amount of time he’d spent complaining back then about the “bloody Tube.”
But it delivered them uneventfully to their station and Madari didn’t even have to look for the exit signs to lead the way out of the station. Imprinted on his brain till he died, he supposed, habit wearing deep paths in his memory.
The boarding house lay a short walk away from the station. They shivered in the chilly wind, the snow of last night gone now, giving way to iron grey sky that promised freezing rain. Then they were there, standing in front of the tall terraced house, that again Madari knew he would remember until the day he died. After taking it in for a moment, he pointed at a window on the second floor.
“That was my room.”
“Is it still a boarding house?”
It was hard to say. Mrs McLeish had never hung a sign outside advertising rooms to let. She usually only took the “young gentlemen” as she called them, on personal recommendation.
But even if it was still a rooming house, surely Mrs McLeish couldn’t still be there, could she? She must have retired.
“If you’re looking for rooms, I’ve nothing available at the moment.”
Madari turned startled at the woman’s voice behind him, the slightly harsh Scottish accent. It was her. Hair as iron grey as the sky now, and face a mass of fine lines. But her back was still as straight, straighter, than half the men in the regiment. She carried a canvas shopping bag, bulging with vegetables.
“Mrs McLeish.” He remembered himself, and offered his hand. “I used to room here, from ’68 to ’71. Faris Madari.”
“Faris…” She shook his hand in return and Jahni’s when he offered it, introducing himself, bowing his head. “Faris Madari. Oh!” Her face lit with recognition. “Ahmed’s lad!”
“You remember my grandfather?”
“Aye, well, he was a man who liked to be remembered I think.”
Madari smiled at that. He was. He’d only visited a couple of times, but clearly he’d left an impression.
“Well now, don’t stand out here in the cold, yer young friend looks half frozen.”
“More than half,” Jahni said. “May I take the bag, ma’am?” He relieved her of the shopping bag, and they followed her inside, and on into the kitchen.
I could have been here, yesterday, Madari thought, gazing around the old fashioned kitchen, which looked exactly as he remembered it. Some of the huge pans on the stove could be the same ones she’d used to cook for when he was here. Glancing up to the top of a Welsh dresser, loaded with plates and cups, he was startled to see a cat, a grey tabby, sitting up there. Now that couldn’t be the same cat. Unless it was stuffed. An ear twitch made him dismiss the gruesome thought. No, a few generations down the line. A new cat fitting in to the old spot.
“I heard when Ahmed passed away,” Mrs McLeish said, as she bustled around, making tea. “Another lad from your country told me. And you went into the army of course…”
They talked of old times and brought each other up to date on news. She seemed less formidable now than she had then. Perhaps age had mellowed her, or she was only strict with the young lodgers, seeing it as her job to keep them in line. She’d done that well. She’d have made a fine drill sergeant, Madari had sometimes thought.
He missed some things out of his own news, though he saw her react to the sight of his fingernails when he took a teacup from her. For a moment she was flustered, and turned away to cut them a piece of cake.
Unlike everywhere else since they landed, Mrs McLeish didn’t offer them milk for their tea. After a moment, she came back with pieces of a dense rich fruit cake. Madari heisted a moment, not sure he had room for it, after that lunch.
“There’s no brandy in it,” she reassured him, misinterpreting his hesitation. Jahni had no qualms either way and his piece quickly vanished, prompting her to offer him another.
“It’s the cold,” he claimed, when Madari looked at him. “It makes me hungry.”
It was still as cold, when they came back out, after over an hour and several more cups of tea, and, for Jahni, more pieces of cake.
“It’s a good thing this is our last day in London, or you’d end up the size of a house,” Madari chided.
“I like the food,” Jahni said. “It may be bland, but it’s solid.” He wrapped his scarf around his neck once more, against the freezing wind, and then stared at the sky. Something very unpleasant was happening. Madari had grown used to it, but Jahni faced it for the first time.
“What the hell is this?” He held out and hand and watched the small hailstones bounce on his palm. “This is ice! Ice is falling out of the sky!”
Madari grinned at his total outrage.
“It’s called hail. Consider it snow’s evil brother.” He started walking back towards the station, turning up the collar of his coat.
“You mean… this is normal?” Jahni said, hurrying to catch up. “It’s not one of those freak occurrences, like rains of frogs or blood?”
“You’ll get used to it.”
After dinner at a nearby restaurant, they went back to their hotel and prepared to depart early the next day, packed all but what they needed to get dressed in the morning. They’d have little time to themselves over the next month, Madari knew, little time to spend together. For now he was happy to just relax in the hotel room, talking of their mission, enjoying each other’s company.
Again he listened to Jahni go to sleep when they went to bed, but lay awake for some time himself. He had started to wonder what Ahmed would think of the new Special Forces unit. Madari wanted to believe he would approve, but was that wishful thinking? Was it actually a dishonourable way to fight, as Faraj said?
But Hannibal Smith and his team, they were honourable men. And the men Madari’s unit would specialise in fighting – terrorists – they certainly weren’t. Bombers, hostage takers, hijackers. Murderers, who would kill innocents in the name of religion, would kill women and children. Was it right to fight dishonourable men in a dishonourable way?
Sometimes necessity trumps honour. Madari knew that to his cost. He winced in the dark, hearing again the echoes of the soldier screaming. Tortured under his orders. His honour was already tarnished. Could he afford to lose more of it and still call himself a good man? A mostly good man.
Perhaps his old fashioned sense of honour made him the right man to head the unit. He could keep them from slipping, into expedient but wrong practices. Of course, they would often have to be ruthless. But there was be a line, between ruthless and vicious. A leader had to rein his men in from crossing that line. Men needed no training to be cruel, it came naturally. They needed training in restraint.
His mind went to Smith again, a leader who’d maintained the honour of his team. Madari believed, from reading Amy Allen’s book about the team, that they had indeed robbed the bank under orders. Even so, it counted as a war crime. Yet that was the only war crime Smith’s team were involved in. Madari had read of atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam, but had never come across any tales of the A-Team being involved in the most heinous of such crimes, massacres of civilians, destruction of villages. Perhaps their honour was tarnished, like Madari’s, but not destroyed. And they’d been the victims of war crimes themselves, in the POW camps.
He used to believe honour was absolute. You had your honour, or you didn’t. But perhaps that was naïve. Perhaps his time as a guerrilla had taught him it could have degrees. And perhaps he wanted to believe that, so he didn’t have to face his own dishonour.
A sound came out of the dark. Jahni, turning over and muttering something? My name? Madari thought he heard it. But again wondered at his own power to delude himself. Sleep, he ordered himself. Early start and long day tomorrow. To meet men who likely had little regard for the finer points of honour. Any self deluding notions he had would be torn down by them.
Reality didn’t come more real than an SAS trooper.
Madari hadn’t driven in England for a long time, and Jahni not at all, and anyway, the idea of having Jahni drive him through London’s insane traffic scared Madari half to death. So they took a train to Hereford, first class, thanks to their expenses. They wore civilian clothes, not looking for attention from the other passengers. Madari even insisted on speaking in English. Practice, he said to Jahni.
As they neared Hereford, he took the opportunity for some last minute advice and reminders.
“Kahil.” Jahni turned away from the window to look at him across the table. Papers lay scattered on the table, plans for the work ahead. “Kahil, I know I probably don’t need to, but let me remind you anyway, about what Colonel Rahama said. We represent our regiment, and our country while we’re here. We must be the best ambassadors we can.”
“Be careful not to take offence at misunderstandings, culture clashes. And remember what I taught you about criticism.”
We Arabs aren’t good at taking criticism, Madari knew. We take it personally, we take it as an insult, even when it is meant to help us improve. Jahni had a short temper and would be around men who were blunt in their criticism, Madari hoped he could restrain that temper.
“We’re here to learn. Don’t resist learning because you find it hard to be told where you can improve.” He hesitated a moment, went on. “It’s possible you’ll have to deal with prejudice, even racial slurs. Remember that, while some of that might be down to ignorance, some of it may be deliberate, to assess our reactions. They are going to learn from us too, our strengths, our weaknesses. They will push us, they will test us.”
Jahni nodded, face serious. While Madari would spend most of his time with senior officers, learning about higher level strategic and operational matters, Jahni would be the one doing the most “hands on” work. His mission here was learning about training and techniques, learning tactics for on the ground operations. And the men teaching him that would be much less polite than those Madari would deal with. If Jahni really was a sergeant at heart, now would be the time to let that come out. The thought made him smile.
“Are you looking forward to it?” Madari asked and the serious look vanished from Jahni’s face, to be replaced by a grin.
“You know me. I love training.”
The train’s PA burst into life then, announcing they were approaching Hereford. Madari and Jahni stood up and collected their luggage. Moments later they were off the train and striding along the platform to the exit barrier. They looked around for the driver they’d been promised would collect them.
After a moment, Jahni said, “There.” A man in British Army uniform stood just outside the exit barrier, holding a piece of white card, on which was written ‘Madira’. Jahni grinned. “Come on then, Major Madira, our lift is here. Madira, isn’t that a place?”
Madari rolled his eyes and followed Jahni to their driver.
Here we go.