Visitors were hardly an every day occurrence around here, so Madari hurried to his office. A man stood guard at the door and nodded to him as he passed.
The visitors surprised him. A Bedouin man, who introduced himself as Zahrat. Not one of the warriors, but an older man Madari recognised from Halais’s tribe, and with him a young woman. Madari suddenly had a very bad feeling and the man’s words confirmed his fears, after a polite but terse greeting.
“Major, I have a complaint.” He waved a hand at the young woman. “This is my daughter, Samina. She is unmarried, but she is with child and one of your men is responsible.”
Madari stared at the woman for a moment, his worst fears confirmed. She didn’t look back at him, her eyes cast down and her arms folded across her stomach, but unable to hide the bulging shape there. After a moment, Madari caught her father’s scowl and looked away. He bit his lip and reined in the various questions that tried to escape him, since some of them would probably get him killed. ‘Are you sure?’ being the top choice of things not to say.
“Does she…” Again he stopped himself. ‘Does she know his name?’ would be another sure-fire invitation to lethal retaliation. “Has she given you his name?” He managed, more diplomatically after a moment. If she had, then Madari hoped like hell the name did not belong to a man already married.
“Yassin,” Zahrat said. “She says he said he is an officer.”
Yassin. Damn. He’d hoped it wouldn’t be one of the officers. Had hoped he could trust them to behave. It wasn’t the worst name she could have given, but it came close.
He strode to the door and opened it; spoke to the man guarding it.
“Find Lieutenant Yassin.” The guard started to move, but then Madari snapped, “Wait.” He glanced back in the room for a moment and stepped outside. He didn’t like to do this, but he needed to be certain. “Bring one of the other men, too. Someone around the same age as Yassin. Have him come into the room first please.” The guard frowned; looking puzzled, but nodded and hurried off. Madari went back into the office.
“Yassin will be here in a moment.”
They didn’t answer and Madari sat at his desk again. He wondered about Zahrat’s intentions. What exactly would he want from Yassin? Or from Madari? Was he here for compensation or vengeance? Madari thought briefly about the pistol that lay in the top drawer of the desk. Loaded of course. Not that he wanted to start waving a loaded gun around, especially not with the girl in the room.
A knock at the door broke a long awkward silence that Madari estimated lasted about a week.
“Enter,” Madari called, relieved.
The door opened and a man entered. Not Yassin, but Kuresi, one of the ex-medical students who had become part of Dr Al-Hijazi’s staff. He glanced at the visitors and they looked back at him. Zahrat scowled, but Samina simply turned away again, with no sign of recognition.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Kuresi asked.
“Ah,” Madari hesitated, then opened a drawer and took out some paper, wrote on it quickly as he spoke. “Take this message to the doctor for me, please.” He folded the paper and handed it to the baffled looking Kuresi.
The medic left again. Madari saw Zahrat looking at him with narrowed eyes, not fooled by that little charade and probably adding it to a list of insults to be answered.
Another knock on the door, which Kuresi had left open, and Madari saw Yassin waiting outside. He beckoned and Yassin came in. The expression on his face and the answering one on the girl’s gave Madari all the confirmation he needed.
She burst into tears and Zahrat rose threateningly. Madari jumped to his feet.
“Sir, this is my officer, I will deal with him now.”
“Honour demands –”
“I know what it demands. I will speak with him alone.”
“I will not let this go unanswered, Major.”
“Nor will I. Please, will you go to our mess hall for some refreshment? And if your daughter wishes she may see our doctor, to check on her health and that of her child.”
Zahrat scowled then snapped at his sobbing daughter to follow him. She did, still looking back at Yassin as she left the room. Yassin, pale and shaken, sank into the chair she had vacated, without waiting for permission. But sitting without permission was the least of the things Madari wanted to discuss with him now. He strode around the desk and slammed the door shut, making the walls shake and Yassin flinch.
“Sir,” Yassin said, looking at Madari, when he bent close, one hand on the desk and one on the back of Yassin’s chair. “Sir, I –”
Yassin flinched again as if a landmine had just exploded a few feet away.
“Be quiet! Do you know how delicate our alliance with the Bedouin is? Do you know how long it took to get them to join us? Do you know how touchy they are?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, I –”
“Be quiet! Do you think I went through months of negotiations only so you could destroy it all because you cannot control yourself?”
Yassin looked away, flushed, shame in his eyes. For a moment, Madari felt like a hypocrite, yelling at a man for sexual impropriety when he personally harboured desires far more sinful. But no, he had managed to keep himself under control, he had every right to be angry. He straightened up.
“What do you intend to do about this, Lieutenant?”
Yassin looked lost, shook his head.
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you know. You know the only way you can make this right, the only way to save her honour and yours. You have my permission to get married.”
Yassin stared. “Married? But I, I barely know her.”
Madari snorted. “You know her rather too well, Lieutenant.”
Yassin shook his head, a look so miserable on his face that Madari did feel pity for him. However, actions had consequences and a man had to face them if he was to call himself a man. If he left her pregnant and unmarried, dishonoured, the scandal could destroy the alliance with Halais’s tribe. The Bedouin took these things very seriously.
“Can I have some time to think about it?” Yassin asked.
“An hour,” Madari said. Such a short time, to decide a man’s whole future. He hated to force him to make such a choice so quickly, hated to sacrifice Yassin’s future to the good of the alliance, but that had to be Madari’s priority.
Yassin nodded and stood up. “Thank you, sir. I’ll see you in an hour.” He turned to go.
“Yassin,” Madari said, made his voice less harsh, more sympathetic. “I know this is hard, but remember, she is carrying your child. Do you want your child to be nameless?”
Yassin didn’t answer, just bit his lip and turned away, then left the office. Madari flopped tiredly into his chair and rubbed his eyes. Coffee. He needed more coffee. A moment later, he was in his sitting room, brewing it.
The bell rang for afternoon prayers and Madari went to the rec hall again. Yassin stood at the other side of the room and Madari hoped he prayed for guidance and strength.
As usual, Jahni stood at the back and left quickly when the prayers finished. Madari followed him out. No, he thought. Not following. Just happen to be going in the same direction. To supervise more training.
This afternoon the men trained in hand-to-hand fighting. Of course the young men were highly competitive about it and Madari felt sure he saw money and cigarettes change hands among those not actually grappling at that moment. Well Noor said he had any gambling under control, so Madari didn’t officially notice anything.
They practiced on mats they’d dragged outside, into the winter breeze, the rec room being too stifling once the men started working hard and sweating. He joined the session himself, needing to stay in shape. Noor partnered up with him, as he usually did, since he was the only one Madari trusted not to go easy on him. He didn’t dare to partner up with Jahni of course. Not only because Jahni very likely would indeed go easy on him, but for other reasons, other potential problems.
Madari knew very well what the problem would be as, after a bout with Noor, he sat panting on a mat and watched Jahni, who stood, drinking from a canteen. Jahni had his shirt off and water drops from the canteen dripped onto his tanned and well-muscled chest and shoulders. Scars from the wounds Ghaith had given him during his imprisonment still marred his skin in places.
Jahni poured the rest of the contents of the canteen over his head, so the water dripped off his hair, glinting in the sunlight. He’d recently shaved off the short beard he’d been wearing and looked younger for it. Madari had wanted to ask why he’d shaved, but it would be too foolish a question to actually speak aloud. Jahni shook his head, sending water droplets flying.
“Up you come,” Noor said, giving Madari his hand and pulling him to his feet. “Go again?”
“No…” Madari said, managing to look away from Jahni and back at Noor. “No, I have to, um, work to do. Thank you, Captain.” He walked away quickly.
A moment later, he closed the door behind him and lay on his bed. Then he sat up again and pulled his shirt off, dropped it on the floor. He needed to close his eyes for a few moments. He often needed a rest at this time of day lately. The stifling heat made it hard to rest though and he drifted uneasily around the edges of sleep. Images, half dream, half memory, came to him. His wedding. His wife, her face not dim, like the pictures of Faraj’s wife and child, but clear and sharp, like a new photograph.
Waking again, he frowned. Wedding? He had not thought of that for a very long time. Yassin’s dilemma had put that in his mind, surely. Had he ever mentioned his marriage to Jahni? He couldn’t remember. They had talked of so many things, and yet so many things they had never spoken of. Could never speak of. He closed his eyes again.
Only kiss you in my dreams.
Can a dream be a sin? A man can’t control what he dreams about. If he never does anything to make the dream a reality then how can it do any harm? He could almost feel it, Jahni’s hand stroking down his neck and chest, his warmth and weight beside Madari, his mouth touching Madari’s own, lips and…
Madari sat up abruptly, swinging his legs off the bed. No. That is not a dream. Lying on a bed with eyes closed does not make it a dream. A dream may not be a sin, but such thoughts, waking thoughts surely were.
He rubbed his hands over his sweating face. He needed a shower. It would be a cold one at this time of day. That would definitely be for the best.
The shower and another cup of coffee made him more alert, more in control. He remembered Yassin. At least two hours, nearer three, had passed now. The sun had sunk low in the sky.
He found Yassin in the armoury, cleaning weapons. Some of them looked clean already, but clearly, he needed something to do, away from everyone else.
“They’ve gone,” Yassin answered when Madari asked about the Bedouin. “I thought about it and I’ve agreed to marry her.” His face didn’t change as he spoke, remained set in a serious expression.
“Her father is satisfied?” Madari asked.
“Yes. He is arranging it. They’ll return in a few days and we’ll be married and then –” He gulped. “Then I will send her, with a letter, to my parents. They will take care of her until I return home, if God wills it.”
Madari went up to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“You are doing the right thing, Lieutenant. For your child.”
He wondered if Yassin was at all convinced that Madari gave a damn about the child, and not just the alliance. Could he say anything to make the young man feel better? Jahni had once complimented him that he always knew the right thing to say, but not now he didn’t.
“It may not be the ideal start to a marriage, Yassin. But many marriages do start this way.”
“Many marriages are unhappy,” Yassin said in a low voice.
Madari sighed. “Yes they are.” What could he give in the way of reassurance, anyway? His own marriage had not been unhappy exactly, but loveless certainly. “But your child will be happier than they would have been otherwise.”
“Yes.” Yassin nodded. He gave a small smile. “The child. The doctor examined Samina. He says her baby is strong. It should be born in about four months. I just hope, well, that I at least get to see the child one day.”
Madari squeezed his shoulder again, not sure how to answer that. In the end he didn’t. He let go of Yassin’s shoulder and eventually spoke again.
“She is… She is a pretty girl.”
Yassin smiled again. “Yes. And she’s, well she was kind. I… well at the time, sir, the fighting still scared me so much. I felt sure I would die soon, I just felt so afraid and she was so kind.” He broke off, perhaps feeling he’d said too much. Madari understood him though, and didn’t disapprove. He nodded.
“Well, we will have to see what we can do for your wedding. Try to celebrate it somehow.” He laughed. “I never imagined us having any weddings here.”
Yassin smiled wider now. “I only wish my parents could be here. My mother has been nagging me for a while to get married and make her a grandmother! At least she will be happy to have the baby to help take care of.”
“I will write them a letter too, for you to send with yours.”
“Oh, thank you, sir. I don’t think there’ll be a problem about it though. They’ll be good to her, I know it.”
“Ah. Good. Well, it is time for dinner, Lieutenant, please join me.”
So he sat with Yassin at dinner and talked until after the meal they left to wash for sunset prayers, as darkness began to drape the camp.
After prayers, Madari stayed in the rec room to sit for a while, talking to men, most for a few moments at a time at most. He read for a while. A radio played music in the background and men, their days work done played games or chatted and laughed together.
Such a normal day. He could almost have been back at the barracks, dealing with the normal business a commander dealt with between missions. Perhaps one day soon he would indeed be having normal days like this, but wearing his uniform again. For so long he’d missed his uniform. Now he thought that when, if, he got back into that, he would miss his sash instead. Glancing around he saw some of the men wore theirs. Not all of them. Some wore them only on missions; others wore them all of the time. Like Jahni.
He realised he’d not see Jahni since sunset prayers. He must be out setting up the night patrols. Working hard as usual. Too hard. If they had been back at the barracks and been a normal military unit Madari would order the men to go on leave. That couldn’t happen here, but at least a few days like this one gave them a break. Perhaps the wedding would also be a welcome break in the routine. They would have as much of a celebration as they could manage.
A man came up to Madari and saluted.
“Lieutenant Jahni’s compliments, sir. Night patrols are deployed.”
Madari frowned, but nodded. “Thank you. Dismiss.” The man left and Madari sighed. He had hoped that Jahni would join him. This was one of the few times and places they got to talk together now. A public setting which meant their topics of conversation were restricted, but better than nothing. The nearest they got to being alone was in his office with the door left wide open, while they sat on opposite sides of his desk. Jahni had taken a few days to understand, Madari not daring to explain this new distance he’d put between them, but in the end he seemed to get the idea.
Noor laughed, making Madari glance over at the table where his second sat with several other men. The laugh sounded loud and vulgar and annoyed Madari. He stood, dropping his book onto the chair and strode over to the table. The men fell silent.
“I am retiring for the night, Captain.”
Noor glanced at the wall clock and Madari followed his gaze. It was only a little after eight p.m. but what was the point of staying here waiting for someone who wasn’t coming?
“Right, Major. Goodnight, sleep well.”
Madari wanted to slap him for those last two words.
Madari entered the infirmary quietly, to avoid disturbing the sleeping Faraj. He tapped on the door of Al-Hijazi’s office and stepped inside.
“Ah, Major.” The doctor looked up from paperwork he was writing up. He glanced at his watch.
“I know, it is early,” Madari said. “I’m tired.”
“Right.” The doctor opened a drawer of his desk and took out a pill bottle. Madari poured himself a glass of water from a jug on the table. Al-Hijazi handed him a pill and Madari washed it down with the rather flat and warm water.
“Are you still getting side effects?”
“It is hard to concentrate,” Madari said. “And that strange taste is still in my mouth.”
“Drowsy during the day still?”
“If the side effects are too bad you will have to stop taking them.”
Madari shook his head. He hated the sleeping pills, but nothing else suppressed the dreams, kept him from screaming out. Screaming out for Kahil. He had to take them. Somewhere, somehow, he had made a deal. The pills helped him stick to that deal.
“I can deal with the side-effects.”
“All right, Major. I will take your word for that. Goodnight.”
Madari turned to the door.
“Faris.” The doctor’s voice, quiet now, made him turn back. “Give me your word on one more thing. That when this is over you will seek professional help. Pills cannot cure you, you understand that.”
“I have never been a believer in psychiatry, doctor. If a man has friends –”
“Friends certainly may be all you need to deal with the normal bumps in the road of life. But not for what you have been through, Major.” He paused a moment, then spoke more quietly. “Nevertheless, I know Lieutenant Jahni is a great comfort to you.”
“I –” Madari was taken aback a moment. “Yes, he and –”
“You would not have recovered as much as you have without him. He is a source of strength to you.”
Madari nodded and moved away from the door. He sat down opposite the doctor, feeling very weary. “Yes.” He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. A source of strength, but a weakness too. A temptation. “Yes, he is.”
“Major.” Al-Hijazi leaned forward. “Do not let concern for appearances deprive you of that strength. Trust yourself and let him help you.”
Madari stared. He knows. How can he know?
“Doctor, are you certain you are not a psychiatrist?”
Al-Hijazi laughed and sat back. “I am not. However, I am your doctor and I see you every day. One qualification they insist on for surgical training is that one should not be blind.”
Madari laughed nervously at the joke, then the doctor spoke again, his face more serious.
“However, Lieutenant Jahni is not a professional. He cannot maintain the detachment professionals are trained to maintain, for their own sake. You could put too much of a burden on him.”
“I understand, Doctor. When this is over, if I survive, I will do what you recommend.”
Both men stood and Madari offered the doctor his hand. Smiling. Doctor’s orders, he thought. Doctor’s orders to spend more time with Jahni. He almost laughed. Perhaps spending time with him would mean he spent less time thinking about him, the two seemed to be in inverse proportion.
“Goodnight, Doctor. Until tomorrow.”
Madari washed and, repeating the morning ritual, but this time in the dim light from a lamp by his bed, he unrolled his prayer mat and said his evening prayer.
The sleeping pill had started taking effect before he finished and he had to control himself carefully to keep from yawning. Once he finished the prayer, he quickly rolled up the mat and put it away, then undressed and got into bed.
The onset of sleep came blessedly quickly tonight despite the memories stalked him. Faraj sobbing as Madari extracted shrapnel from his flesh with hands that only pure will kept from shaking. The soldier screaming for mercy in that truck while Madari bargained with the desert. But the memories soon vanished into darkness that came over him like a sandstorm, wiping his mind blank.
The explosion at two-fifty six in the morning woke him even from his heavy, drugged sleep. It would probably have woken him if he’d been dead. He almost fell off his cot as the roar died away, to be replaced by the alarm. A shell it had to be. He dragged a shirt over his head and ran, barefoot, out into the yard, holding his pistol in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other.
The floodlights from the towers illuminated the men rushing about, getting into defensive positions. Officers yelled orders. Madari grabbed Noor as he saw him run past.
“Which direction are they coming from?” He shouted over the noise of the alarm.
Noor shook his head. “I don’t know. The towers can’t see them.”
“Sir!” Madari glanced round to see Darak at his side, a wild look in his eyes, which made Madari scowl. Darak should be calmer, ready to lead his squad. He held up a hand to tell the lieutenant to wait and turned back to Noor.
“No sign of aircraft,” Noor reported.
“Then where the hell did it come from?”
“Sir!” Darak shouted again. “Sir. It’s Isra. It was Isra, I mean.”
Madari and Noor both turned to stare at him.
Darak pointed and Madari realised where the explosion had been, where small fires crackled as men ran to put them out with buckets of water.
The goat pen. The one that had been lined with sandbags. The sandbags lay scattered across the yard now, ripped apart. Other things were scattered across the yard too. Altogether stickier things. The other goats in their separate pen stood crammed into a corner, bleating pitifully.
“Bloody hell!” Noor said, an expression he’d undoubtedly picked up from Faraj. “The bloody goat exploded!”
“It…” Madari had to wait a moment before he could speak. Darak’s face was distressed. He’d been fond of the animal. Madari put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure? It could have been a shell that hit there.”
Noor spoke on his walkie-talkie again for a few minutes then turned to Madari.
“The towers and patrols confirm it, there’s no sign of attack.” He spoke into the radio again. “Kill the damned alarm!”
The men started to falter in their rushing about as the alarm stopped and then a moment later rang in three short bursts to signal all clear. Noor still gave orders over the radio and Madari soon heard officers shouting orders to stand down. As the truth of what had happened started to spread, Madari heard laughter among the men. He wanted to laugh too, but he hoped that was down to the relief that they were not in fact under attack.
Darak had moved away, closer to the pen, staring at the destruction. Madari walked up to him and put his hand on Darak’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Jalal. I know you were fond of her.”
Darak nodded, didn’t speak.
“Go to bed. We’ll clean, ah, things up in the morning.”
“Yes, sir, in a moment, sir.”
Madari patted Darak’s shoulder. He marvelled at the self-control that kept his voice so steady and level.
He turned away, walked back towards the guardhouse, watching the ground and being extremely careful where he put his bare feet. He passed Noor, still talking over the radio.
“Get those floodlights off. Are we made of electricity?”
Noor caught Madari’s gaze and rolled his eyes, but said nothing to Madari, just raised his hand in a goodnight gesture as he went on giving orders to get everyone back to their barracks. Madari nodded to him and walked on.
He only looked up from checking the ground as he walked when he almost bumped into someone.
He stood by the guardhouse door. Taking up a guard position, or waiting for Madari? Madari looked up into his face and their eyes met.
The floodlights went off.
In the sudden blackness, Madari gasped when he felt Jahni move close, felt him put a hand on Madari’s shoulder, perhaps orienting himself in the darkness.
I can only hold you in the darkness.
Did he simply misjudge the distance, Madari wondered, as Jahni’s body pressed against his, just for a moment, just long enough for Jahni to whisper into Madari’s ear, his breath stirring Madari’s hair. Words spoken in a soft voice before he moved away again. Gone.
“I miss you.”