“Remind me again why we decided to do this in high summer,” Madari said. Jahni looked back at him. The breeze whipped his hair around, but it brought no relief from the fierce August sunshine and sweat ran down his face.
“Toughen up these soft bastards,” Jahni said, gesturing at the group of men currently resting in the yard of their desert training base, the old prison camp and guerrilla base. Half the unit was here, the other half back in the city, on standby.
“I’m sure I’ve told you before that ‘bastards’ is not a suitable word to use for your men.” Madari scowled and put his sunglasses back on. Jahni sobered at the reprimand, glancing around to see if anyone had heard it. Apparently not. The men were too busy snatching every second of rest between training exercises.
“No, sir.” He decided to show some mercy to his soft bastards. “Break for lunch now?” It was still early, just after eleven, but the sun would be unbearably hot soon.
“Yes, alright,” Madari said, nodding. “We’ll resume at three. Tell the men to rest, we’ll be working until late in the evening.”
Madari turned away and headed towards the guard house. Jahni watched him for a moment. He’d been snapping at Jahni and everyone else for a couple of days. Time to ask why.
He passed the orders and the men dismissed, grateful for the respite. Jahni hurried to the guard house. He checked the mess first, but found only two mess crew working on the lunch, so took two cups of coffee and went to Madari’s office.
He was in there and had his arms folded on the desk. Jahni guessed at once he’d had his head down on them before Jahni knocked. Knew that as surely as if he’d been able to see through the door.
“You seem out of sorts, Faris,” Jahni said, sitting down.
“And you seem impertinent, Captain.”
Jahni raised his eyebrows. Like that eh? This was a very bad mood indeed. He refused to take offence at the remark, knowing Madari was just trying to make him leave. Not that easy. He just looked back steadily, until the glare softened and Madari shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Kahil. I’m just tired. The heat. And perhaps I’m a little jetlagged.”
“You can’t get jetlagged just going to Dubai.”
“All right then, worn out from walking the length and breadth of every shopping mall in Dubai.”
“You should have stayed here and come to the football with me.”
“Sophia especially wanted me to go with her.”
“Couldn’t she have hired a man to carry her bags?”
A tone of warning there, that Jahni took more seriously than the one a moment ago. Madari did seem quite attentive to Sophia at the moment, and she a little reserved towards him. Had they had a fight and he was on some kind of probation with her? Jahni could only hope. He dismissed that last thought as unworthy. It wasn’t that he actively wanted them to break up. He didn’t spend his days thinking about it, and certainly didn’t try to make it happen. Still, if it happened, he wouldn’t cry about it.
“What about you, Kahil? Any headache?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Madari still asked him that least once a day, even now months after he’d had that little rap on the head. It seemed to bother Madari more than it had bothered Jahni. He’d had a couple of week’s medical leave, a month of desk duties and suffered a headache now and again. Nothing serious. And he got another bravery citation out of it.
They sat in silence for a while, drinking their coffee. Eventually, Madari spoke again.
“I am a little out of sorts, it’s true. There’s something, well, I didn’t really want to tell you about this.”
“What is it?”
“I had a row with Hannibal. I didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t want you to be angry with him.”
Jahni scowled. Fat chance of that. “What did he do?”
“I still don’t want to go into detail. We’ve discussed it and sorted it out. The matter is closed and all is forgiven.” He took a sip of coffee.
Jahni waited for more. What could Hannibal have done that needed forgiveness? Was that why he had turned up at the barracks without warning that time and then followed Madari to Venice, to that weapons fair? Dammit, why wouldn’t Madari tell him? When had they started keeping so many secrets from each other?
Madari sighed. “Now, I’m just rather worried about him. I think he’s put himself in danger, moral danger I mean. He could find himself having to do things that are against his principles.”
Jahni shook his head. “Not Hannibal. Whatever the danger, he’ll face it down.” He grinned. “And then laugh at it. And ask if it has a light.”
Madari smiled. “I hope you’re right. I’m sure you are.” He glanced at the clock. “Let’s get some lunch.”
There was more, Jahni knew it. More eating at Madari. But all in good time. Jahni would get it out of him. Out here in the desert, in the old place, where they first met. Out here there were no distractions, no Sophia. They could talk as they once had.
“I don’t like the look of the sky.” Madari stood frowning off to the west. The wind had grown much stronger now.
“Looks very red,” Jahni agreed, squinting through his sunglasses at the horizon. “I’m getting a chalky taste in the air too.”
“Sandstorm,” Madari said. “I think we’d better call off the rest of the exercises for today.”
Jahni nodded. They’d been through enough sandstorms here at the camp to know the signs. He could feel grittiness in his mouth already. The horizon looked foggy and indistinct. Just heat haze? Or clouds of sand and dust?
“I’ll have the radio operator check with the base at Fujin,” Jahni said. “They’re west of here. See if they’re having any trouble.”
“Good. Do that now.”
Madari turned away back to the men and Jahni hurried into the guardhouse and found the radio operator. Moments later, he returned to report. The men were clearing up equipment from the yard. The wind tore at their clothes and hair and at anything not fastened down.
“Sir, Fujin reports they are in the middle of a huge sandstorm, and they can confirm, it’s heading east. They say the storm front is travelling at least fifty miles per hour.”
Madari swore. A huge sandstorm moving that fast was occasion to swear, even for him, Jahni conceded.
“Sergeant,” he called out. “Get the vehicles under cover now. Everybody else, move faster. Secure everything that might blow away.”
Their speed increased, sergeants and junior officers hurrying the men. Everybody, Madari included, grabbed equipment, or moved the vehicles into shelter.
No question the horizon was definitely foggy with dust now, Jahni saw. He wiped his gritty, sweating forehead. The hot air, heavy with fine sand made it hard to breathe even for him. A couple of the less fit men were already gasping for breath.
A sergeant hurried up to Madari, and Jahni saw him pointing towards the blockhouse. He knew at once that the man was suggesting they take shelter in there. Good idea. It would get stuffy, but he knew from experience it was better than the guardhouse in a sandstorm. Barely any sand got in. And however strong the winds grew, they couldn’t knock those thick walls down.
But he also knew how much Madari hated it in there. The small, dark cells, with no windows, brought on his claustrophobia. Of course, he would do what was best for the men and Jahni saw him nodding and giving orders to the sergeant, who at once grabbed a few men and ran to the barracks. A couple of men ran to the guardhouse, and Jahni guessed Madari was sending them to bring the mess crew and food supplies. At least the blockhouse had its own water supply. Jahni finished securing the equipment he’d been carrying and hurried to Madari.
“We’re going to shelter in the blockhouse?”
“Yes. It’s the best place.”
“Of course. Will you be okay?” He said the last part more quietly, leaning closer.
Madari nodded without speaking, though Jahni saw him gulp a couple of times. He rested a hand on Jahni’s arm.
“You’ll help me?”
The men who’d gone to the barracks came running back carrying blankets. Jahni recalled how cold it could get in there, especially sitting on the floor. One man carried pillows bundled in a sheet. A pillow escaped and the wind snatched it up and threw it against the perimeter fence.
“Here it comes!”
The voice came over their radios, from a watchtower, and a moment later the man who’d been in there came down the ladder fast. Those still outside saw the storm front clearly now. A great billowing wave of sand bearing down on the camp. It ate up the ground, moving faster than anything not living had a right to.
“Inside now!” Madari yelled. “Move!”
Men rushed from the guard house, arms full of supplies, carrying a couple of big baskets. They sprinted for their shelter. The man from the lookout tower ran past Madari and Jahni, not even attempting a salute. Others dropped any unsecured equipment or ran with it to the blockhouse.
Madari and Jahni were the last ones in the yard. Two men hung on to the blockhouse door as the wind tried to tear it from their hands.
“The men are all inside, sir,” Jahni shouted. A gust sucked away his voice, so he didn’t know if Madari even heard him. He only looked around when Jahni took his arm. “Time to go!” Jahni yelled over the howl of the wind. He didn’t know if Madari was just afraid of going into the enclosed space, or if he wanted to get a final close up look at the storm about to engulf them.
Perhaps Madari found it awe inspiring. But Jahni hated sandstorms, since being caught in one a long time ago as a mere second lieutenant, leading a night patrol. Sandstorms had been rare where he grew up, and it took him unawares and with no idea what to do. Thankfully, the experienced sergeant in the group had known how to shelter from it. Jahni could still remember the pain of trying to breathe while the sand tore at his skin. He never wanted to go through that again.
So he didn’t wait for Madari to move. He dragged him by the arm, until he broke into a run at Jahni’s side and they ran into the blockhouse together. The door clanged shut behind them, and the air at once tasted sweeter. Some sand had blown in, but at least it lay on the floor and didn’t hover in the air, to coat his throat, or blast hard into his skin and eyes.
The men stood around in the corridor, looking tense as the sound of the wind penetrated even in here. Jahni saw Madari take a breath, steadying himself. He took off his sunglasses and ran a hand through his hair, combing out the grit, before he spoke.
“We may be here for several hours, so make yourselves as comfortable as possible. I know it’s close quarters, but the cells are clean. We have power, fresh water and toilet facilities. Distribute the blankets and settle down. Sergeant Osman, see what your mess crew can prepare for dinner later, in case we are still in here then. The rest of you, I suggest you get some sleep.”
They dispersed, moving out of the corridors and into the cells, leaving the doors open. Jahni stood in front of the door of one cell and didn’t let anyone else come into it.
Madari looked at him, and Jahni nodded. Madari understood. He’d kept that one for Madari, to give him some privacy. Madari picked up a couple of blankets and pillows from a heap the men were all collecting them from, and carried them to the cell. Jahni stood aside to let him enter, and followed him inside.
“Should I close the door?”
“Not yet,” Madari said. He looked torn. But until the men settled, officers may come to report or look for orders. So for now, they left it open. In a moment, they had the blankets spread on the floor by the wall and used the pillows to rest their backs on.
“I should have brought some paperwork from the office,” Madari said. “We could have got a lot done.”
“Oh, dear. What an awful shame you forgot.”
Madari rolled his eyes at the mock sad tone in Jahni’s voice. “In an hour, you’ll be so bored you’ll be dying to do paperwork.”
“I’d lay money against that happening.” He looked around. “I could exercise.”
“Oh yes, because sharing a small room with you once you’re all sweaty is very appealing.”
Jahni grinned. He was pretty sweaty anyway, after the heat outside.
“Perhaps I’ll see if I can scrounge a deck of cards off someone,” he suggested.
“Yes. Good idea.”
It would be a good idea, Jahni thought. Perhaps take Madari’s mind off the small room. He already gave the too-close walls and nervous looks. He’d only been sitting for five minutes, but abruptly stood again.
“I just thought, I should tell the men not to smoke, there’s not enough ventilation. And I should check they’re all settled. Go and fetch us some water.”
This time when they returned, Jahni closed the door behind them. He had brought water and some bread and dates, which would keep them going until dinner. He’d also borrowed a deck of cards from one of the men.
The men had all settled down now, grateful at least for the enforced rest. Jahni hoped they wouldn’t be stuck in here too long. The resigned but jolly atmosphere could change and tempers fray if they were in here too long. Sleep was the best idea and many had already opted for that, settling on their blankets.
“Everyone seems settled in,” Jahni said as he and Madari sat down again. “And, I found some cards.” He held up the deck. “So what do you want to play?”
It took them two hours to get bored with cards. Well, it really only took Jahni an hour, but the games kept Madari distracted and calm. He seemed to be having no trouble so far dealing with the confined space.
Even when he finally decided he’d had enough of cards, he seemed happy enough to sit and talk. They chatted of Army business, recent missions, training. It took a while to get around to something more personal. Something that took Jahni quite out of the blue.
“Kahil,” Madari said. “There’s something I haven’t told you about, that I think I should.”
Something else? Another secret? Like the row with Hannibal? Like the whole thing with Sophia. There seemed to be too many things lately he hadn’t been told about. But he managed to keep any bitterness out of his voice when he answered.
“What is it?”
“When you were injured, your head injury, there was a moment, in the hospital, before they put you in a coma that you were conscious. I was there, but you didn’t know me.”
“I don’t remember that.” Jahni frowned. He remembered very little about the whole thing. The last clear memory had been the mission briefing. After that, only fragments of the mission itself. Then he’d woken up in the hospital, with a nurse smiling down at him, who’d said ‘welcome back, Batman.’
He looked at Madari. They were sitting side by side, backs against the wall, but Jahni shifted to lean on his side and Madari at once did the same so that they faced each other.
“That must have been strange,” Jahni said.
“Yes, very. I was afraid you’d lost your memory. That when you woke from the coma you wouldn’t know who I was, or who you were.”
Jahni stared as he realised what Madari was saying. He’d lived through those days while Jahni was unconscious not knowing if he’d recognise him when he woke. That went beyond strange. That was… horrible. What an incredible, terrible thought; that he could forget Madari! It seemed impossible. Forget the friendship they’d built? Forget the feelings that went beyond friendship? How could a man forget he loved someone?
Perhaps his injury hadn’t been just a “rap on the head” as he kept calling it. To make him forget Madari even temporarily… He reached up and stroked his fingers through his hair. He’d done that many times since, trying to decide if the bumps of his skull were any different now than before. One bang on the head and his memory could be lost. His love, for Madari, his family, all the memories of them. For a moment he felt sick.
“Can we buy even better helmets?”
Madari laughed, some relief in the sound. Then his face went serious again.
“It was a difficult time. Sophia was a great support to me.”
Jahni nodded, only gritting his teeth a little. She’d visited Jahni in the hospital after he came around. She brought him fruit and sweets and other treats. Very supportive. He should be glad Madari had had her to help him during those days. He should be glad.
“And, well, I need to tell you this. I shouldn’t have waited this long. I had to tell her. Now I have to tell you that I told her.”
Jahni frowned and wanted to ask him to spit it out. But you couldn’t tell your commanding office to ‘spit it out’ while the two of you are in uniform, so he tried to be patient. He couldn’t imagine what Madari was about to say. What had he told Sophia that he needed to tell Jahni about it?
“I told her about us. About… the incident at your flat. I told her about our feelings.”
Jahni didn’t even recall getting up. He just knew that one moment he’d been sitting beside Madari, the next, standing, staring down at him.
“You did what?”
Madari rose too and glanced towards the door. He put a hand on Jahni’s shoulder and made a ‘shush’ gesture, a finger to his lips.
Jahni realised he’d shouted, so lowered his voice. He lowered it to a hiss.
“Have you gone mad?”
“Kahil, listen. She challenged me directly about the rumours about us, I had to answer her.”
“Then you should have lied!”
“I’m a little tired of lying.”
“Well get un-tired of it.” Jahni knew he was overstepping his bounds here, in every part of their relationship, but his fury filled his head and filled his mouth. “Lies are the only things keeping us safe. If our lives are not lies, then our lives are over.”
It was more than the danger Madari had put himself – both of them – in that fuelled Jahni’s rage. Madari had shared their secret. Their secret. Precious to them. He couldn’t have been angrier if Madari had given her the amber wristband.
He pulled away and strode across the room, pressed both hands to the wall, as if he wanted to push it away from him. Make the room larger, so he could get away until he managed to control his rage. Perhaps he should walk out of the door. And do what? All the men were out there. They’d see his anger, they’d know…
“Kahil,” Madari put a hand on his shoulder. “Please understand. I trust Sophia completely. I trust her with this.”
Jahni turned to face him, his back pressed up against the wall now.
“Even if you do, you had no right to decide that for me too. She could ruin both our lives.”
“She won’t. She wouldn’t use this against me.”
“Not as long as you behave. As long as you don’t give her any reason to get angry with you. As long as you stay with her!” She controlled him now. She owned him. “You can never break up with her. She has too much power over you.”
“Then you would break up with her, would you? Now? Today?”
“Why would I do that?”
“If I asked you to, would you?”
Madari shook his head. “No. Not if you asked for no reason, for… spite.”
Jahni turned his face away, couldn’t look at him.
“You’d choose her.”
“That’s not what I said!” He sounded exasperated now and was frowning when Jahni looked back at him. He stepped away from Jahni. His voice had risen too loud, so he lowered it again. “If you meant leave her so that we could be…” he whispered the next word “together, then yes, of course. But we can’t. We’ve both accepted that.”
They had accepted it, after what they still called ‘the incident’. Jahni had been sure this was the way things had to be. But sometimes he had doubts. Sometimes he wondered if there could be a way to have it all. His career, his life, and Madari. If they could be careful enough, perhaps it could happen. But now Madari had guaranteed that it never would. If he tried to leave her, Sophia could expose them out of bitterness. If he cheated on her, and she found out… even worse.
“Kahil, don’t you understand that at least part of the reason I see her is because of those rumours? I have to keep seeing her for your sake.”
“That’s very convenient for you.”
Madari hung his head, perhaps somewhat ashamed of that. Of using her, or of his claim that he did so because of Jahni. Jahni walked away, back to the blankets and sat down, staring straight ahead at the wall, through the wall, picturing the desert out there, smothered in flying sand. Az-Ma’ir rarely suffered a sandstorm. Life there was easy, especially for the wealthy. But out here in the desert, life was very different. Harsh and painful.
Sophia never came any further into the desert than Madari’s home.
Madari sat down beside him again, though a little further away than before. Jahni didn’t acknowledge him, continued to stare, his hands clasped in front of him, elbows resting on knees.
They sat in deep silence for a long time. The muffled voices of the men came through the door. Talking, laughing, someone singing. The sound of that cut off suddenly, as a door banged closed.
“Kahil,” Madari said, after at least ten minutes of silence. “Have you never thought that perhaps you could find someone like Sophia?”
“Find myself a very undemanding girl, who isn’t free to marry?” Jahni snorted. “Do you think Az-Ma’ir is littered with women like that?”
“Perhaps Sophia could introduce you to some of her younger friends.”
“Perhaps I could go one better. You know Colonel Rahama’s wife is always introducing me to suitable young ladies. Perhaps I’ll take a wife.” He spat the words, knowing he meant none of them, just trying to wound Madari. “A wife, who never asks questions about the time I spend with you. Who never objects if I say the wrong name in bed.”
He’d gone too far. Madari turned a scathing glare on him.
“I would strongly suggest you stop talking now.”
The glare and the tone in Madari’s voice were like ice water on the flames of Jahni’s anger. He regretted his words. He’d insulted Sophia, and that made Madari angrier than any insult to himself. Should he apologise? But now Madari was staring straight ahead, unwilling to speak again.
No. He wouldn’t apologise. Not yet. He felt justified in his anger, if not the words he’d used to express it. Later, when they had both calmed down, then he would see if Madari would accept an apology at least for the words.
So this conversation was over. All conversation seemed to be over now, in fact. Madari had become a statue.
Jahni just wanted to retreat. He couldn’t leave the cell, the same reasons as before applied, so the only other option was sleep. He arranged the pillow for his head and lay with the blanket under and around him, his back against the wall.
Would sleep come? In this emotional state? Still, he’d had a long day in the hot sun and as soon as he lay down and closed his eyes he started to drift. Ideas floated through his mind. Perhaps Madari had a point. Perhaps Jahni should find a woman. A pretence of a relationship to fend off the rumours.
And a real relationship. Not just a one night stand, like the women in the hotels. Lisa from Texas had been the first of those, but not the last. He had physical needs, only human. About once a month he went to one of the international hotels, late at night, and took a seat in the bar. Some of the barmen were getting to know him now.
It satisfied a physical craving, but nothing beyond that. Would an actual lover give him something more, however artificial the relationship? Give him what Sophia gave Madari?
Jahni sighed and felt sleep pulling him closer now. Hopeless to think about. Women like Sophia didn’t fall from the sky.
The scuffing of footsteps woke him. Jahni sat up, wincing at the stiffness caused by lying on the stone floor, and found Madari pacing the room. He spoke under his breath and Jahni could just make out the words.
“This will pass. This will pass.”
Jahni knew what the words meant. Madari used that mantra to cope if he started to feel a flashback or panic attack coming on. The Army psychiatrist he used to see had taught him the technique.
Jahni stood up. “What’s wrong?”
“This room is too small. It is too small.” He was sweating and his eyes had a panicky look in them. He paced past Jahni and pressed his palms on the wall for a second, then turned back to head for the opposite one.
“Do you want to go out into the corridor? Or one of the larger rooms?”
He wanted to, Jahni knew. But he wouldn’t let the men see his fear. He couldn’t lose his dignity and their respect. He had to stay in here.
And Jahni had to help him cope. He fell into step with Madari and took his hand.
“It’s okay. You’re safe.”
“This will pass.”
“Yes. It will. Just breathe.”
“Too hot. Can’t get a breath.”
“I know.” They couldn’t do much about that. The storm still raged outside, making the air even in here thick and hot. “If you sit down you’ll breathe easier.”
Madari stopped, right at the wall and then turned and slid to sit down against it, trying to pull in deep breaths.
“Slowly,” Jahni said, gently. He put one hand on Madari’s arm and stroked it. “Try to breathe normally.”
It felt like the old days. To have to do this, bring him down, keep him calm, here in this place. So many memories here. Memories Jahni could have forgotten. Perhaps, he thought, he could try to distract Madari from the panic. Make him think of something else.
“Faris, what would you have done if I had lost my memory?”
Madari looked at him, as if baffled for a moment at the change in subject, but he rallied and gulped a couple of times. “It would depend on what you forgot. Just me, or your whole identity, your training.”
“Would you have sent me to do Selection again?” Jahni smiled.
“The regiment isn’t made of money.” Madari frowned. “You might not have even wanted to be a soldier. Given the chance to make the choice over again, you may have decided to leave the Army.”
“I can’t imagine that. I’d have to be a very different person not to want to be a soldier.”
“But you always say you didn’t even want to join the Army in the first place. I know once you joined, you loved it. But before that…”
Jahni shrugged. “Well, you know I just expected I’d work for my father and take over the business one day. Apart from that, I remember I used to want to be a Formula One racing driver and a professional footballer and a secret agent.” He grinned. “All of those together. Which would have been a busy lifestyle. Of course, I was ten when that was my ambition.”
“A Special Forces soldier is certainly as – um – cool as any of those.” Madari smiled now. A good sign, Jahni thought. His breathing seemed easier. “Perhaps… Kahil, perhaps it would have been good if you had forgotten… me. Us. The incident. What we feel.”
Jahni scowled. He’d slept off the heat of his anger from before, and when he saw Madari so agitated, had dismissed what remained of it. But it tried to break free again now.
“How can you say that?”
“It makes our lives difficult. It could destroy us.”
“Then it needs to be secret, not forgotten.”
Madari winced, at the reminder of their earlier argument. “Please, trust Sophia,” he said.
“I don’t have much choice.” Jahni looked away from him, gazed off into the distance for a while. “Trust isn’t easy for me any more. After Faraj. And even what you told me today, about Hannibal. I’m starting to think the only person I can trust is…” He thought of the secrets Madari had kept from him and put his head down. “Myself.”
Silence again stretched out for a long time. Jahni glanced at Madari occasionally, to check he had calmed down fully now. He seemed to have headed off the oncoming panic attack. His breathing was normal. His skin still shone with sweat, but understandably in the stuffy room and hot conditions. He closed his eyes eventually and sat with his head back against the wall.
“Do you think I regret it?” Jahni’s voice was so quiet that he wasn’t even sure he meant it as a question for Madari and not himself. But Madari heard, and opened his eyes.
“All of it. Meeting you. Falling… Feeling what I feel for you. Everything that’s happened between us. Everything. Do you think I regret any of it?”
“You think I consider it a burden to be taken away? Why would I think that? Is a family a burden?”
Madari shook his head. “I’m not your family.”
“But you are, to me.” Jahni hesitated, not sure how to explain it. “I lost them, but I found you and you mean as much as they did. You’re not blood, but you became my family. Replaced them, I suppose. Not just you, the others from the old days, here at the camp.” He sighed. “So many of us from those days are gone now. But, you’re here. You’re all the family I have left.”
He turned to look into Madari’s eyes.
“I don’t regret anything that’s happened between us, Faris. Not one second of it. If you think I’d give up any of that to make my life a little easier, then you don’t know me the way I want you to know me.”
Dangerous territory. A minefield. Madari’s eyes were so deep and dark and he could lose himself in them gladly. And the last of his anger had gone. Acceptance came. So Sophia knew. He had to deal with that. He couldn’t change the past. That’s what he was just saying after all. The past was too important, too precious to change or forget.
More than he wanted his next breath, he wanted to lean across and kiss Madari. Just like on that wonderful, terrifying night. But he chose not to. Every moment, every day, he made that choice and shaped his life around that choice. Shaped both their lives.
One day, he might make a different choice. But not today.
“The storm is over.”
Jahni looked up at the ceiling when Madari spoke. The sound of the wind had dropped.
“Let’s go and check outside,” Jahni said.
In a moment the men spilled out of the blockhouse, grateful to escape the stuffy interior. Some sand and dust still hung in the air, settling slowly, but the storm had gone, moving on eastwards, a cloudy mass on the horizon. Drifts of sand covered the camp, the buildings choked and battered by it.
“Well, we’ve had an express delivery of extra sand all right,” Jahni said.
“We have a lot of digging and sweeping to do.”
“Forget that. I’ll call Face. He can sell it – to the Saudis.” Jahni grinned.
Madari rolled his eyes at the joke, and looked up into the sky. “It’s still very gloomy. I think we might…”
A flash of lightning and an almost instant rumble of thunder cut him off.
“That’s way too close!” The shout came from one of the men.
“Everyone inside the guardhouse!” Madari ordered. They obeyed, all hurrying in that direction. The rain began even before the first man made it inside. A torrent, that at least washed away some of the sand from the roofs and other places the storm had dumped it.
Jahni was one of the last left outside. And Madari of course, counting the men in, making sure they were all safe. In a moment, they were the only two still in the yard, already soaked through by the rain.
“Kahil!” Madari almost had to shout, above the noise of the rain. “I’m sorry I told her.”
“No,” Jahni called back. “Don’t be sorry now. Just hope she never gives you – us – any reason to be sorry later.”
For a moment the relief of the ending of the storm and the catharsis of their argument and reconciliation, made Jahni strangely euphoric. He could breathe again. He stretched his arms up into the hammering rain, his face turned up to it. The water washed away the dust and sand, the sweat and the anger.
“I can breathe!”
Another lightning flash brought him rapidly back down to earth and the two of them almost dove through the door of the guardhouse. They stood for a moment panting and then laughing in reaction. Jahni dashed his wet hair out of his eyes.
“I think that one was actually inside the wire.”
“And even you can’t protect me from a bolt of lightning, Kahil.”
“Oh yeah? Bring it on.”