In a near-daze, Madari followed the medics and Jahni to the Intensive Care Unit and watched them setting him up on yet more machines. When they put the tube down his throat, Madari had to look away. The induced coma meant he had to be on a ventilator and Madari hated to see that. It was like a living death. If only a machine kept a person breathing, then were they already dead?
Was Jahni dead in another way? That instant in time came to him again. He didn’t recognise Madari. What if the head injury had destroyed Jahni’s memory? No, Madari thought, it hadn’t destroyed it totally. He still remembered how to speak, in Arabic and English. But could he have lost the memory of his own identity? And of everyone he knew?
“He is doing well,” Choudhary said, coming up to Madari, who stood watching from the nurse’s station. “We’ve established him on the vent and his blood oxygenation is good. He’s stable.”
“Doctor.” Madari feared asking it, but he had to. “When he regained consciousness before he seemed… confused.”
“Yes, he was altered somewhat. That’s to be expected with this kind of injury.”
“And I noticed, he looked at me, and… he didn’t seem to know me.”
The doctor nodded and made a note on his chart. “Oh yes, again, to be expected. Once the swelling recedes he should be fine.”
“Well, with a head injury, we usually can’t assess the full damage until the patient regains consciousness.”
“So, there could be long term effects?”
“Possibly. But I’m confident of a good outcome in this case. Excuse me a moment.” He went back to Jahni’s bedside, speaking to the staff, their talk too technical for Madari to follow.
But only one word filled Madari’s head now anyway. Should. Jahni should be fine. Not will be for sure. Well of course the doctor couldn’t know for sure, and they always hedged anyway. They never made promises.
What if in this case that caveat took effect and he wasn’t fine? If his memory didn’t return? Would that be worse than his death? He’d still be walking around, Jahni’s face, Jahni’s voice; but his personality, their history together, all gone.
It would be as if something had possessed him, stolen his body. It would be as if he had become a zombie. Walking dead. Madari shivered. Horrible. His identity just… gone. Mind, personality, life, their feelings… He choked, and put a hand over his mouth, fearing he would vomit as the full horror of it rose like bile in his throat.
A voice came from beside him. Sijad. Madari took a breath to bring himself under control and turned to his driver. Sijad’s expression changed to concern at once, but he didn’t say anything. Initiative was one thing, but impertinence was another. Stick with business.
“Sir, Colonel Rahama called. He’s waiting for your report.”
Madari knew he had to go back to barracks, check on his men, and report to the colonel. He had to leave Jahni alone again. That made him sick and afraid. But he had no choice.
At the barracks, Madari went first to the infirmary, to check on the other injured men. Only Kadry and Hurun remained there and they were more concerned about Jahni than about their own injuries. He told them what he could, and reassured them he’d keep them updated.
The rest of the unit were still awake and waiting in their barracks. Like the injured men, they wanted to know about Jahni.
“I’ll update you with any change,” Madari said, after reporting what he knew. “Now, I’m ordering you all to rest. We’ll have the full debriefing later.”
One debriefing wouldn’t wait though and he headed for Rahama’s office, to find the Colonel in a sombre mood.
“Faris,” he shook Madari’s hand, holding on to it for some time. “A bad business. I’ve had reports from the scene. Please, sit, there’s coffee here.”
Madari sank into a leather armchair with a sigh, grateful to get off his feet, and very grateful for the coffee. As the rising sun crept across the floor of the office, he gave his report, first on Jahni’s condition and then on the operation.
“I’ll be having an emergency meeting today with the police chief,” Rahama said. “I’m not happy with their intelligence failures.”
“We’d have approached the mission differently if we’d known there were likely to be explosives there or that we were dealing with…” Madari searched for the right word. “Fanatics.” Yes, that seemed right. The police intelligence reports had called the men radicals, but a mere radical, or even an ordinary terrorist wouldn’t kill himself like that, would he? Only a man gone beyond radicalism and into something irrational could do that.
“It’s a very disturbing development,” Rahama agreed. “Not something we’ve seen here yet.”
How many more men might there be out there ready to do that? Madari wondered. They needed better intelligence about these groups.
“Do you want me to accompany you to the meeting with the police?” Madari asked.
“No, you’ve been up all night, you need rest. And to clean up.”
Madari winced as he realised he was still in field battledress and covered in dust, dirt and blood from the scene.
“I’m sorry, Colonel, I haven’t had time yet.”
“That’s all right. But, I mean it about rest. And not in a hospital waiting room. I want you to go home. I have sent a man to the hospital to stand guard. He will report to me at once if there is any change and I will page you.”
Madari accepted the order, as he realised just how weary he was now. He went to the officer’s locker room, hoping a long shower would give him time to collect himself. But as he stood under the hot water, that moment kept coming back to him.
He didn’t know me.
If Jahni had forgotten him, then he’d forgotten their recent… indiscretion. Recent? Not so recent, almost four months ago. It felt like yesterday. Madari thought about it every day, even though neither of them ever spoke about it. If Jahni had forgotten him, then he’d forgotten the feelings that led to that indiscretion.
Could that be a good thing? Perhaps then they could build a new friendship. A more socially acceptable one. A more professional one. Could that really happen though? Even if Jahni no longer had those feelings, Madari still did. He was the one who had lost control that night after all.
What if he lost control again and this time Jahni reacted with horror and disgust? That would be… well, he didn’t think he could survive having his heart ripped out and shredded in front of his eyes. At least on that insane night he’d known – or almost known, been almost sure – that Jahni returned his feelings. Without that certainty, he’d never have dared however crazed he’d been.
Leaving the shower, he dried off and put on his uniform, hoping for the strength that came with it.
How much worse it would be to go back to those long ago days, when he knew he loved Jahni, and didn’t dare to believe those feelings were anything but unrequited. Lately, despite the constant pain of loving someone he couldn’t be with, he took a kind of comfort in knowing that someone loved him in return. In knowing that they had something at least in the abstract.
Could he believe Jahni might fall in love with him over again? Was he vain enough to believe that could happen? How much of love depended on timing and circumstances? Two people, who might not give each other a second glance in one time and place, might find each other in different circumstances and consider themselves soulmates.
Soulmates. Yet Jahni believed he didn’t have a soul.
Madari sighed, doing up the last button of his jacket. He must stop letting his thoughts take this dark path. The doctor was confident. The confusion would almost certainly just be temporary. It made no sense to relive that moment over and over.
He looked in his pockets for his pager, but didn’t find it. It must be in his office. He hurried there, suddenly desperate to have the small machine in his hand. He’d grown tired of it a couple of days after he first started carrying it, once the Special Forces Unit became active. But now, he felt as if it connected him directly to Jahni.
He found the pager and stood by his desk, inserting fresh batteries. Just to be sure. In fact he slipped a couple of spare ones into pocket. Just to be sure. His fingers brushed against his worry beads wristband in the pocket. He usually carried it in there when in uniform. He let his fingers run over the shapes of the beads for a moment. Then he took the wristband from his pocket and put it on, pulling his sleeve well down over it.
Could Jahni forget giving that to him? They say with gifts that “it’s the thought that counts”. What happened when the gift remained and the thought behind it was lost? How could such a strong emotion be so fragile? He’d like to think that only death was stronger than love, but that could be mere romantic fantasy.
Love could be created in an instant. At first sight, as the saying went. Something he felt sure had happened to him, however long he had tried to deny the feelings for Jahni. Could love be destroyed in an instant too, by a simple bang on the head?
But it wasn’t a simple bang on the head was it? And death was involved. The death of the man who blew himself up. If his death had robbed Madari of Jahni’s love… If it had robbed Jahni of his memories, of his family…
“Still here, Faris?”
Rahama’s voice made him turn. He held up the pager. “Just picking this up, sir.”
Rahama studied him for a moment. “Have you eaten anything today?”
“I’ll get something when I get home.”
“No, you’ll join me in the mess for breakfast, I think.” He had a look on his face, somewhere between disapproval and concern. But after a moment, it softened into a smile. “You have to take better care of yourself, my old friend. Or perhaps while your usual guardian is in the hospital, I will take care of you.”
They walked together while Madari worried about Rahama’s words. Did he give the impression to his commanding officer that he needed to be taken care of? That couldn’t be good. But this man was more than his commander, he was a friend, had been for a long time.
Faris had been thirteen when his grandfather first brought Rahama home. He often brought guests home now, Royal Guard officers usually. Faris’s father had died only a few months earlier and Ahmed missed his son’s company in the evening. He sought out a distraction, or even a substitute. That day, late in the afternoon, Ahmed called Faris over from where he sat in a shady spot in the garden, reading.
“Faris, this is Lieutenant Rahama,” Ahmed said, introducing a young man, not yet thirty, who smiled at Faris. A more genuine smile than the ones from other officers Ahmed had introduced him to. Most of them took no interest in the boy, unless they thought being kind to him would put them in Ahmed’s good books.
“Hello, Faris, it’s good to meet you. Your grandfather talks so much about you that I feel as if I already know you.”
Ahmed looked almost flustered then. “Don’t flatter the child’s ego,” he chided. “He thinks quite enough of himself already.”
Rahama bowed his head to Ahmed, but turned to Faris again. “What are you reading?”
Faris showed him the book of poetry.
“Oh, Jean de La Fontaine.” Rahama leafed through the book. “En Francais?”
“My father taught me French,” Faris said. Rahama looked delighted.
“I went to university in Paris. I hope we can talk about poetry sometime.”
Faris just shrugged and looked away. No. He had talked about poetry with his father. This wasn’t his father.
“Come along, Lieutenant,” Ahmed said, tapping his shoulder. “I want a cigar.” He walked off towards the house.
“Yes, sir,” Rahama said. But he didn’t follow Ahmed right away. He handed the book back, though held onto it when Faris reached for it. “I only met your father a couple of times, Faris. But I wish it had been more. He was very well respected in the Guard. I am glad to meet you.”
He let the book go then, and followed Ahmed. Faris watched him go. None of the other officers that came here had said that to him. In fact they all avoided the subject of his father. Frightened to upset him perhaps. None of them wanted to deal with a crying boy.
They needn’t have worried. Faris had not cried since the day of the funeral.
This one was different than the others. He had a courage that went beyond the battlefield. Perhaps they could indeed talk about poetry.
They had talked about poetry many times since then. And about so much else. Since Rahama became the Colonel of the regiment the two of them had maintained some suitable distance, but he hoped the old affection remained. And seeing him now, carefully watching to make sure Madari ate a decent breakfast, he felt reassured on that score.
If he hadn’t been under that scrutiny, Madari might not have eaten at all. Food had little appeal at the moment. But he ate to fuel himself, just as he filled his car with petrol. Rahama seemed satisfied with his own breakfast and Madari’s and led him back out of the mess.
“Now, Faris, I promise I will page you if I hear any news from the hospital. Your men are resting, go home and do the same.”
Madari couldn’t leave the city. He tried to make himself take the northern road out of Az-Ma’ir, but turned off and doubled back towards the city centre. Towards the hospital.
At the last moment, he drove past the hospital entrance. He’d been given a warning once about rumours and there was no reason to stop heeding that warning, despite its source. No need to fuel the rumours.
Still, he wouldn’t leave the city. If he received a page, or a call it took too long to get back. If something bad happened, if Jahni took a turn for the worse, if he even…
Impatient with his own morbid train of thought, he found a parking space near a park and strode into the open space, the grass, spring flowers and trees a welcome relief from the city’s stone, concrete and glass. He breathed easier than he had for hours, as if the fresh breeze finally cleared the last of that stone dust from his nose and mouth. Here in the spring morning it felt easier to be optimistic. He slowed his stride and strolled instead, watching people. Friends laughed together. Families walked, or sat, while their children played. Children with their lives ahead of them, their minds still forming. All those memories that would make them the people they became.
Jahni’s family existed only in memories now. If he lost those memories, then those people were finally truly gone. On the other hand, he’d lose the pain of their deaths. He’d forget all that shock and grief.
A trade-off. Madari wondered if he’d be prepared to make such a trade himself. His torture had driven him close to insanity, the memories of it still haunted him. What if he could lose those memories? But what if the trade-off was losing the good memories, of his history with Jahni. Of his love?
What of that love? Didn’t it make him miserable? Didn’t it make his life more difficult? Yes. But sometimes, just sometimes, it exalted his soul. Losing it wasn’t worth the price.
If he lost the memories of the torture, he would be a different man. Perhaps the same man he’d been before it happened. Would Jahni have fallen in love with that man? Would that man have fallen in love with Jahni?
His tiredness caught up with him suddenly and he sat on a bench near a small pond, gazing into the sun-dappled water. Was his personality the sum of accumulated memories? If so, then the bad memories were an essential part of him too.
A bad memory like the moment he had realised his father was going to die.
Razaq Madari had never been a strong man, and a serious case of influenza left him so weak that the doctor visited twice a day, and the rest of the household spoke in hushed whispers. Faris wouldn’t leave his side, sitting or lying on the bed beside him, talking to him, or just holding him.
One day, he wouldn’t wake up and a servant ran for the doctor, who came and listened to Razaq’s heart. Faris still stayed beside him and wouldn’t be sent away, so all the adults went out of the room instead. He couldn’t hear their voices outside the closed door.
Ahmed came back in after a while. He wore a distracted look, and didn’t speak to Faris, just sat down on the bed on the other side of Razaq and took his pale hand. He sat there for some time without speaking. Then he bent over and kissed Razaq on the forehead.
That had been the moment Faris knew his father was dying. Ahmed was an affectionate person, but it was a manly affection, of bear hugs and rough games. Faris had never seen him be tender.
So he knew.
At that moment, Faris saw the world anew. He saw reality. Reality hurt. But he couldn’t regret the clarity it brought him. For the first time he saw the world as a man, not as a child.
If he lost the painful memories, would he lose that mature vision of the world he’d gained in that moment? Did Jahni have a similar moment somewhere in his past, where he left childhood behind? If he lost that, or all of the smaller moment that built the personality that became Kahil Jahni, then he would be a different man. Would Madari even still love him if he was?
Madari sat up straight suddenly. Now that hadn’t occurred to him. He’d imagined himself in unrequited love with a new Jahni who had forgotten his feelings for Madari. But it might not be that way. He couldn’t imagine not caring about Jahni, after all they had been through. But that was a different thing than loving him and wanting him. His own feelings might change along with Jahni’s personality.
He didn’t mean if Jahni was… damaged by the injury, disabled. Then Madari would take care of him for the rest of his life and he’d still love him, even if all chance of that love coming to anything had vanished entirely.
But if he remained fit and active, just no longer himself, then would Madari first mourn the Jahni that had gone and then fall out of love with the Jahni that remained?
And would that in fact be a good thing?
He stood up from the bench, his head actually spinning at that thought. What was he supposed to hope for now? That Jahni would actually lose his memory permanently? Because then both of them could have the chance of a new life, a new friendship, if God willed that. One without the burden of their hopeless love.
No. He could not possibly be standing here wondering if it was a good idea if his dearest friend suffered permanent brain damage. His head was spinning and he realised why. He’d been up all night and hadn’t slept well the night before that. He needed rest.
He should go home, as Rahama said. Still, the same objection to being so far out of the city came to his mind. And the long journey, under the hot sun, when he was almost ready to fall asleep, not a good idea.
Twenty minutes later, he knocked at the door of Sophia’s apartment.
She didn’t seem to need much explanation. Of course the operation had to have been on the news this morning, including the explosion. He told her the rest, Jahni hurt, in the hospital, in a coma, and she held him, saying soothing words. After that, she helped him out of his uniform and left him alone in her bed, his pager on the night stand where it would wake him if it went off.
Exhaustion gave him the oblivion he needed.
He dreamt of hearing his pager beeping for him and being unable to find it, searching frantically. But when Madari woke from the dream, it lay on the night stand where he left it, and had no messages in its small display.
He sat up. Sophia’s bed, he recalled. The scent of roast lamb wafted through the partly open door. He rubbed his eyes, still feeling groggy. Hard to sleep in the day. Traffic noise outside, too much light coming through the curtains. Enough sunshine for Sophia’s cat to find a warm spot on the carpet to bask in.
“On guard, Giotto?” Madari said, smiling down at the cat. It ignored him, as usual, stretched out in the sunbeam. Madari checked his watch, guessing from the angle of the sun that it was afternoon now. Yes, almost 3pm.
He couldn’t find his clothes, so put on the white linen robe Sophia had bought him and dropped his pager into the pocket. Stepping carefully over the stubbornly unmoving Giotto, still enjoying the sunbeam, Madari left the bedroom. He found Sophia in the living room.
“Faris, how are you feeling?”
“Better, thank you.” He sat beside her on the sofa and she took his hand.
“You need to eat before you go anywhere. Wait a moment.” She left him to go to the kitchen, and he sat back with a sigh.
He did feel better. The sleep had cleared his head and left him more optimistic. Though he still wanted to rush to the hospital to be at Jahni’s side, the impulse felt easier to restrain. More so than when Jahni has been shot. The memory of his hysterical behaviour on that day still shamed him. He hoped he’d grown stronger since then. However frantic he felt, he had learned once again how to keep it inside. Most of the time.
No sense in going to the hospital anyway. He trusted Rahama to inform him at once of any change in Jahni’s condition, so could only assume there had been none.
No change. What if there never was any change? What if Jahni never awoke? No that was foolish. The coma was induced by drugs. They simply had to stop those drugs and he would wake. But still, what if he didn’t? Was that better than him waking up and not being himself? What if he was already not himself? Did he have the dreams of a stranger in his mind now?
No, how could it be better for him to lie unconscious and wither away, simply to spare Madari that blank look in his eyes again? He couldn’t see Jahni preserved as a living corpse, just to prevent that. He stopped those thoughts as Sophia came back in, carrying a tea tray.
“We’ll eat in about fifteen minutes. Enough time for some tea first.”
This time when she sat down she slid an arm around his waist and snuggled against him. He put an arm around her and held her close. They stayed like that for a while, not speaking. Her presence comforted him without words.
He could only be grateful that she and Jahni hadn’t become enemies. That had worried him for months before they finally met. They weren’t friends, he knew that. But both seemed to accept the other, or rather, accepted his relationship with the other.
Again he wondered how aware of the rumours about him and Jahni Sophia might be. Perhaps she didn’t believe them. Well, she surely didn’t. He’d promised to be faithful to her, and she had never confronted him with any accusation that he hadn’t been. And she would, he felt sure of that. She was European. Liberated. They might not be in love, but still, he had made a promise to her and she’d expect him to keep it.
And he hadn’t. The guilt stabbed him and he stirred in her arms.
“Our tea is getting cold.”
After lunch Madari found his uniform, pressed, waiting in the bedroom along with his freshly laundered shirt and underwear. Sophia thought of everything, of course.
He went to the hospital, arriving there at just after 5pm. He’d restrained himself as long as he could. Besides, he was Jahni’s commanding officer and it was perfectly normal that he’d want a personal update on his second in command’s progress.
The soldier at the hospital, sent over by Rahama, reported that the Colonel himself had been to visit, as well as several men from the Special Forces unit, and other Royal Guard officers. Madari smiled to hear it. How foolish he had been to think he had to be here day and night. Jahni had other friends and colleagues who cared about his welfare.
He didn’t smile when the soldier reported that a journalist had tried to get in too, pretending to be a civilian friend of Jahni’s. The new unit attracted some attention in the press, to Madari’s annoyance.
Madari dismissed the soldier to take a break and went into Jahni’s room, moving quietly. The room, a cubicle really, open at one end to the ICU nurses station, was dimly lit, and in the hush of the ward, the machines sounded loud.
Should he talk to Jahni? Madari had heard of people talking to their loved ones to bring them out of comas. But in this case the coma was deliberate, therapeutic. Instead, he just took Jahni’s hand, hoping if Jahni felt it, that it comforted him.
No more than that. If Jahni could hear it, then it was enough. What more could he talk about? The weather? The football? No point in that. Anyway, Jahni’s favourite team had lost a match that afternoon; Madari had heard that on the radio on the way over here. Jahni didn’t want to hear that.
A doctor arrived after a while. Not Choudhary, one of the younger men who had attended the senior doctor yesterday.
“He is doing very well,” the doctor told Madari. “The pressure is reducing steadily. Dr Choudhary thinks we may be able to bring him around as early as tomorrow evening, if he continues to progress at the same rate and his condition remains stable.”
The doctor’s words should have been good news, but Madari felt as if he’d just been given a time for Jahni’s execution. While Jahni lay here like this, he was still the man Madari knew, just sleeping.
Tomorrow evening, he could open his eyes a different man.
Sophia arrived at the hospital at eight o’clock that evening, and Madari doubted she’d even bothered to call his home first. She knew where he’d be. They sat together in Jahni’s room for a while, not speaking much, and then they ate the cold food she’d brought, out in a waiting room. She thought of everything. He could only be grateful for her support, for her ability to be practical and take care of him, so he didn’t have to think about mundane matters like food and laundry.
They left the hospital together, as a soldier arrived to relieve the one on guard. Madari checked that the man had his pager number.
“I don’t have that pager number,” Sophia said as they walked through the car park.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m under orders not to give it anyone except for Army business.”
“I’m kidding,” she said. “Don’t worry. I can usually manage without having to track you down at a moment’s notice.”
She could. He admired that independence and it suited him. Some women demanded so much attention. Perhaps he was selfish, but a man needed his space, and Madari needed his time with Jahni. Thankfully, she understood that.
“Come home with me tonight,” she said. “Easier for you in the morning, you won’t have to get up so early.”
She also understood that he didn’t want to be too far from the city. But she didn’t say it. So discreet. If things were different, for both of them, what a wife she would make.
He flushed. No sense in those thoughts at all. That could never be. He didn’t know if he really meant it anyway. He was thinking of it almost as a business partnership. He didn’t want a wife. Not now. Too late.
Of course a wife would really stop those rumours once and for all. And if Jahni woke with his memory of their love gone, then Madari would be free to do whatever he wanted, without fear of hurting him. Of course, Sophia wasn’t free.
He brought his attention back to her. “I’m sorry. Thank you, I will stay.”