Jahni woke when the announcement came over the plane’s PA system that they were about to land in Sydney. A long flight had given him much time to brood. But he was also still recovering and his brooding had quickly turned to sleeping, interrupted only by the food service and PA announcements.
After far too long getting through customs, he left baggage reclaim with his suitcase and spotted Karen waiting for him, in uniform. She waved and ran to him.
“Kahil! I’m hugging you. I don’t care if you don’t approve of that, stand still and be hugged.”
“I totally approve,” he said, dropping his bags and letting her fill his arms, holding her close.
“You daft bastard,” she said, quietly, her voice a little choked. “Putting us all through that. Thought you were a goner.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I never intended to upset people, I just… can’t explain it all here.” He let her go, looking around at the bustling terminal. “I’m sorry to land on you like this. You know I can go and stay in a hotel.”
“Oh, sod that. I told you on the phone – you’re staying with us. Jacks can’t wait to meet you.” She grabbed his flight bag and he took his case, following her towards the car park. “I’m trying to wangle a couple of days off, so I can show you around Sydney,” she went on. “But don’t worry, even when I’m not there, Jackie will keep you busy.”
“She doesn’t have to entertain me.”
“Who’s talking about entertaining?” Karen said, grinning. “There’s a lot of gardening and some heavy jobs that need doing around the house.”
“Oh, well, I’d be happy to help.”
“I’m joking!” she said, shaking her head at him. “You’re convalescing. The colonel called and I got the feeling if I don’t make sure you rest that he’ll have my guts for garters.”
So Madari had called her, had he? What else might he have told her to do besides make sure Jahni rested? Report back to him perhaps? And would she do what he asked her? She was loyal to Madari and inclined to take his orders, Jahni knew. But then again, this was her home turf and he wasn’t her commanding officer any longer. And he knew first hand that she had a lot of initiative – as a good junior officer should. She’d do what she thought best for Jahni.
They found the car that she said belonged to her aunt and she drove him through Sydney, taking a scenic route, pointing out sights, promising to give him a proper tour before he went home again. The day’s heat was cooling now in the early evening. A spring evening, he had to remind himself. Autumn back home, but spring here. Strange. Like travelling in time.
If only he could go back and erase this last summer, reset to the spring, take another try at it, walk another path.
They left the centre of Sydney with the tail end of rush hour traffic, driving into a suburb of mostly one-storey wooden houses, with large gardens and yards. No high walls surrounded them, the Australians clearly not as mindful of privacy as his own people. Many of the gardens had children playing or adults relaxing in them. The scent of cooking would drift across now and again from someone having a barbecue dinner on this fine night. Sometimes there’d be snatches of music from radios and TVs in houses with all the windows open.
Was this his path? A life like this one. A nine to five job, then coming home to relax and enjoy the evening. Getting fat. He smiled. He’d skip that part. And who would share that life with him? Faris? Karen? No-one? Solitude was one path to peace.
“Here we are,” Karen said, turning up a driveway and parking outside a well maintained house, painted pastel blue, with cream coloured door and window frames accenting it. A green lawn lay out front, the weather not yet hot enough to parch it to brown as it would later in the year. That grass invited him. He wanted to take off his shoes and walk on it barefoot, equally tired of sand and of city streets.
A woman opened the screen door of the house and hurried out. Hard to gauge her age, Jahni thought, her clothes perhaps too young in style for her. But the smile on her face made her younger.
“So, this is Kahil, eh?” She held out her hand to shake his. “Jacqueline Lawson.”
“Ms Lawson,” Jahni said, cautious about the title, unable to recall if she was still married. Karen had probably mentioned it, but he had forgotten. “Thank you for inviting me into your home.” He bowed his head to her.
“Strewth,” she said, staring a moment, then smiling. “Bit of a formal sort, isn’t he?” she said to Karen.
“It’s just his way,” Karen said, unloading his bags from the car. “Very polite these Arab fellas.”
“Well, you can drop the ‘Ms Lawson’ at least,” she said. “And it’s Miss anyway. But you can call me Jackie, or Jacks, whatever tickles your fancy. Come on, you both look choked. Let’s have a cold one.”
“A cold what?” Jahni asked Karen as they followed Jackie inside. She chuckled.
“Beer, you daft bugger. Beer!”
Beer wasn’t all she offered in the kitchen. Soon, Jahni was sitting at the table with Karen, both drinking chilled lagers, while Jackie bustled around making Jahni an enormous sandwich, ‘to keep him going until dinner.’ He thought it might keep him going until breakfast, but accepted it with gracious thanks and was glad when Karen scrounged some of it. He cut off a good third to give her.
“You’ve remembered not to give him any pork, right?” Karen said, examining the sandwich suspiciously.
“Of course,” Jackie said. “Though I thought you fellas didn’t drink beer.”
“I’m not very religious,” Jahni said. “I think I only really avoid pork out of old habits now. I sometimes think…” He stopped. That he should try it? Was this the place to do that? And what exactly would it mean? He’d lost his faith long ago; it wouldn’t mean anything about that. But would it mean he was giving up even the customs of his homeland? Then he might as well stay here after all. “Well, I just don’t really eat it anyway.”
“Okay,” she said. “Now, Karen, what have you got planned to keep our handsome guest here busy?”
He sat and watched them bantering back and forth, and saw the similarities there. Not only in their looks, though there was a resemblance in their profiles he thought, though Jackie was smaller and darker than Karen. But the outlook and personality. He saw now where some of Karen’s had come from. And if Jackie had, as Karen had said before, taught Karen everything she knew about having fun, then this could prove to be a very entertaining visit.
They didn’t rush into entertaining him. He still needed to rest, recovering from his ordeal in the desert, so they let him take the time to do that. Karen had to go on duty anyway, spent most of her day on her base, arriving back in the evening. Jackie had a job a few blocks away and came home at lunchtimes to make sure Jahni was okay. He spent a lot of that time sleeping, or brooding, often on a sun lounger in the garden.
At first he couldn’t sleep well out there. Any sound – a car driving past, a barking dog, a child bouncing a ball – woke him with his heart pounding and his hand reaching for his absent sidearm. But after a couple of days these non-threatening sounds barely even disturbed him anymore. On the fifth day, Jackie had to walk up and shake his shoulder to wake him.
On the sixth day Karen woke him, in his bed, not the garden, at six-thirty in the morning. He was sleeping on a cot in the living room, though Jackie had hinted that if he wanted to sleep in Karen’s room she had no objection. Jahni hadn’t presumed so far, and Karen hadn’t offered, perhaps cautious of his state of health, mental or otherwise.
“Come on,” she said, not in uniform today, just shorts and a T-shirt. Her day off, he recalled. “Wanna get on the road before the traffic builds up.”
“Where are we going?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and following her into the kitchen.
“Picnic,” she said, plonking a mug of coffee in front of him. The toaster popped and in a moment he had a plate of scrambled eggs on toast in front of him too. “You get that lot down you and have a shower, while I put the food together.”
“Is Jackie coming?” Jahni asked, salting his eggs.
“Nope, just you and me. I know a lovely quiet spot.”
A lovely quiet spot didn’t seem like Karen’s ideal place. Which meant she was probably going there for his sake.
“You know I’m all right now,” he said. “I know I’m sleeping a lot, but that’s just… things to work out in my mind. Physically, I’m fine.”
“Yeah, now you’ve grown a new layer of skin on your face,” she said. “I’ve seen some sunburn in my time, but bloody hell, Kahil, you looked like a boiled lobster when you arrived. I wanted to cover you in drawn butter.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“Don’t start, it’s too early in the morning.”
He smiled and ate his eggs as she moved around putting their picnic together. If this wasn’t about him getting some more rest, then what was it? The other things on his mind, it must be. She wanted him to talk. Bloody hell.
He took a shower and got dressed, suddenly annoyed that all of his western style casual wear was black. They were going on a picnic, not a raid into enemy territory. Karen apparently thought the same thing when he came out onto the drive to find her loading a cooler into the boot of the car. She looked at him and grimaced.
“Do you have anything in your wardrobe that isn’t from the designer ninja collection?”
“Sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin, passing a hand self-consciously over his tight fitting black T-shirt.
“Never mind,” she said. “If you’re ready, hop in.”
“I’m ready.” He put on his sunglasses and while she popped back into the house to say goodbye to Jackie, he got into the car. Karen returned a moment later and started the engine.
“Blue Mountains, here we come.”
The lovely quiet spot turned out to be all she promised, nestled in a small valley in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. A shallow river gurgled over rocks, the banks on either side a carpet of lush grass and scattered flowers. The actual lovely spot itself lay nearly a mile from the road and they had to walk there, lugging their picnic basket, cooler and a blanket to sit on. But both had sturdy walking shoes and were in good shape.
Jahni would have been hotter, but he’d swapped his black T-shirt for one Karen bought him at a gift shop on the way. It had a kangaroo wearing sunglasses and carrying a beer on it, along with the words, ‘Welcome to Australia’ above that.
“Here we are,” Karen said, stopping at a well-sheltered spot with a flat area of riverbank to sit on. “Let’s get comfy.”
They spread the blanket, tuned in a radio she’d brought and lounged on the blanket, drinking cold beer.
“Don’t let me have any of these after lunch,” Karen said, waving her beer can. “I have to drive back.”
“Okay,” he said. It was late morning already, but they’d taken a slow drive up here, enjoying the scenery and chatting about nothing much. That wouldn’t last, he felt sure. In fact she had a speculative look on her face now, as if working up to asking him some awkward questions. So he jumped up and pulled his shirt over his head.
“I’m sweating from that walk!” he declared. “I’m going to splash some water on me.” He dumped his shoes and rolled up the trouser legs to mid calf.
“Careful! Don’t slip.” Karen said, as he stepped into the stream of surprisingly cold water.
“This water is freezing!”
“Mountain run off,” she said. “Cools you off all right.”
He clowned around for a while, making her laugh, keeping her distracted from her mission to Make Him Talk. She joined him after a bit, leading to much horsing around until both of them were thoroughly soaked.
“Great,” Jahni said, getting up after falling down, as she doubled up with laughter at him, climbing out onto the bank, her own clothes dripping wet. “Now I have to sit around in soaking wet jeans. They’ll need to be cut off me!” He climbed out onto the bank and tried to squeeze some water out ineffectually.
“Take ’em off and hang them on a tree branch,” she said, following him out. “Sun will soon dry them.”
He looked at her, wondering where this might be going. Well nothing could happen here. They were in a public place, even if it was isolated. There could be hikers or anyone around.
“Don’t be shy,” she said. “It’s not like I haven’t seen what you’ve got before.”
He blushed at that, but shrugged and stripped out of his jeans. Karen took them and hung them over a tree branch where they’d catch the sun.
“What about you?” he asked, but she answered him by unselfconsciously shedding her shorts and T-shirt to reveal a bikini underneath.
“I should probably have taken them off first,” she said.
“Um, yes, it might have been a good idea.” His gaze fixed on her body, as lean and toned as ever, and his mouth seemed suddenly parched. “I could use another beer.” He hurried to the blanket, retrieved one from the cooler and lay on his front while drinking it, until things had… cooled off.
Karen sat down beside him, leaning back on her elbows, her hair loose, the ends of it wet and hanging down behind her. Eyes closed, enjoying the sun, she sighed.
“It’s nice here,” Jahni said.
“Thanks for letting me come to stay.”
She turned to him, a kind smile on her face, different than her usual cheeky, teasing or just purely joyful one.
“That’s okay. You’re always welcome.”
He could reach for her; he knew that. She’d casually mentioned a couple of days ago that she wasn’t seeing anyone right now – no time she said, so busy with her career. But she’d welcome him again. Her body enticed him as usual, and the mad plans came into his mind again. Ask her. Make her his wife. It didn’t have to be revenge. It could simply be the choosing of a new path. A new companion to walk that path with, now he’d lost Madari.
His throat closed at that and his eyes blurred, an extraordinary weakness, and he turned away from her to rest his face on his arm. Her hand touched his shoulder, sending a thrill down his spine in reaction to her touch. The hand moved to stroke his damp hair.
“What happened, Kahil? Why did you go into the desert?”
He didn’t answer for a long time, but she didn’t press him, just went on stroking his hair. At last he found words.
“Because of the wedding. Because I… lost him.”
“Colonel Madari?” She was silent for a long time. Her hand stroking his hair faltered for a moment. “Oh! You two? Oh. Wow.” She started stroking his hair again and sighed. “But it’s impossible, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” He turned his head to look at her. Her hand didn’t move away, went on stroking his hair, traced around the curve of his ear. He sat up, face to face with her and took her hands.
“A while ago, I asked him to leave with me. But he chose not to. I don’t think I really understood what that meant until… the wedding. He’s chosen his future. I’m not part of it. At least, not in the way I want to be.”
“So, you went into the desert to what? Die?”
He shrugged. Not an answer. A maybe. But she knew him too well to accept that.
“No. That’s not it. If you wanted to die, well, you have a gun, don’t you? You’d be dead. But you left your gun in the lockbox.”
“That had everyone baffled when they found it.” She frowned again, bit her lip, still working through this puzzle. “And even without a gun, well, why didn’t you die? You were out there six days; you should have died of thirst, or heat stroke. The fact you didn’t means you found water and shelter. You were trying to survive. You even evaded the search parties. You didn’t go there to die. What were you looking for?”
That final question was in the officer voice. Had she learned that from Madari or did it come naturally? It straightened Jahni’s spine and he wanted to stand at attention. But he smiled, glad she’d worked it out. Glad someone understood him well enough to do that.
“My… self.” Soul didn’t sound right. Sounded like something else. “Part of me was lost and I had to find it.”
She nodded. “Interesting. Sounds like you went on a walkabout.”
“It’s a kind of… spiritual quest. The Aborigines do it, a kind of coming of age ritual. Friend of mine said that you have to walk until you meet yourself.”
Jahni smiled. Yes, he supposed that’s what he’d done. Met himself; several versions in fact.
“So, did you find what you were looking for?”
“Now, I don’t know. I’m still deciding. I wanted to leave… but with him. Without him, why bother? But to stay there, so close to him, working with him. I don’t know if I could stand it.”
The feeling of freedom, talking about it was heady. Different from with Murdock, when it felt forced from him and he’d feared a disgusted reaction. Was that because she was a woman? Because they’d been lovers and he didn’t have to prove anything to her?
“So you came here. To think it over? Or because you think maybe Australia might be a nice place to live?”
“Australia certainly seems like a very nice place to live,” he said with a smile, looking around. “But, I haven’t made any plans to stay yet.”
“I’d help you work it out if you did decide that. Immigration can be kind of a hassle, but hey, I’ll marry you if I have to.”
He flushed, but smiled. “Karen!” God, if she only knew.
“That’s assuming you’re bisexual that is. Because, I think I can assume that, right? Since we’ve slept together.”
“I… don’t really know about all those labels you use here. But, if you mean was I sincere when we went to bed together? The answer is yes.”
“So, there you go then. You fancy girls too, so we could get married. And I think the colonel tried to matchmake us a couple of times already,” she said, then frowned. “Which is pretty weird now I think about it. What the hell was that about?”
“Karen, it’s a very long, and ridiculously complicated story. And I want to eat now.”
She laughed at that. “Okay. But after we eat, you’re going to tell me.”
He thought he would. All of it. From the prison camp to Paris – that he went to only in his mind. Tell her all that he and Madari had been to each other, because it was over and perhaps someone else ought to hear the story before it vanished at the hands of an enemy bomb or bullet.