© Kit Habianic
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If you enjoy reading this, please check out the opening chapters of my first novel, Bwci-Bo, also listed on the YWO website.
You stare across the Tigris, and the light and heat could kill a man. Your eyeballs are melting, jackhammers pounding inside your skull and you look at the other lads – your mates from the Taff; new faces from the Thames, the Tees and the Tyne – and they look none too clever either. And you reckon they got mullered last night and all.
For all the training, you never expected the call. Spend the last night getting hammered. With them rag-head Muslims not drinking, and all. And you and the lads had a right laugh. And the birds were loving you, war hero and all that. Well, not a war hero yet, mind. But give it a couple of months and a chest full of ribbons; you’ll be beating them off with a stick.
You’ll be back for that redhead, mind. Name’s Gwenan, she said. Cheeky cow, she is. Looked into your eyes, bold as brass. ‘Oooh, I loves a man in uniform I do,’ she teased. But you didn’t wake up with Gwenan. You woke up on Slugger’s sofa, clothes smelling like a tart’s boudoir, shirt spotted with blood. And all the lads pissing themselves at the joke. And there round your neck is the new tattoo. And it isn’t bloody funny, and you damn near burst into tears.
‘You sick bastards,’ you yell. ‘My mam’ll cane me if she sees this.’ And you borrow a tie and collar to go home.
You leave on the train, and your mam’s eyes are red. Best not to remember; focus on the knot in your stomach and the drumming in your head. And you fly all night and the engine noise is murder, and your neck is pins-and-needles raw. And when the carrier lands, you stand in the door and the heat hits like a SAM-6 missile. And there’s this smell, a dirty, farmyard smell. And it smells like oil, and blood, and death. And then you pull yourself together sharpish.
Only doing your job, mind. And not paid for bloody opinions.
Settle in soon enough. Wake up, breathing and spitting sand, wash your gritty head, rush to mess for breakfast. Then on with the kit and out on patrol, winding through the back streets behind Friday mosque. And you sweat under the vicious morning sun, with your gun and your beret, and the pretty Iraqi girls turn away, melting into the walls when you pass. All wrapped up like birthday presents they are. But there’s a cheeky one who stares right back. Sweet on the sergeant, you reckon.
‘Fancy playing pass the parcel, love?’ says Sarge.
And the old men sit in the doorways and stare and mutter in their language, lots of ‘ch’ sounds, just like Welsh, and spit in the dust when you pass. Fair dos mind; you’d do worse than spit, if a bunch of Iraqis walked through Splott waving guns. Little beggars, the kids are, shouting ‘Gimme sweet! Gimme pen!’ And Sparrow the Cockney lad teaching them new words. Next morning, all the little lads running at you, screaming ‘lovely jubbly’ and ‘leave it, you muppet’. And Sparrow creasing himself, trying not to smile.
Then he’s on at you to teach them Welsh. Not that you talk Welsh, mind. Couple of years in school, and what good learning another bloody language, says mam, when you don’t talk English proper? So you start with Welsh geography; Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllantysiliogogogoch. Long name for a tiny bloody village, that. And all the little girls laughing, struggling to say ‘ll’.
So you teach them Welsh poetry: ‘Cardiff born and Cardiff bred, and when I dies, I’ll be Cardiff dead’.
Back in camp, you shower off the heat and dust. There’s soccer, Geordie lads thrashing Sparrow’s lads – soft bloody southerners – and you watch British TV and call mam on the satellite. And later, you lie back in the cold night air, and the black veil sky has a million stars, the local villages having no electric, and it’s not so bad; not like war, or nothing. Them Arabs respect the British, see: talk to them nice, they talk to you nice. Not like further north, and them shit-for-brains Yanks.
But some days, there’s no patrol. It’s special operations. And it’s not bloody funny, up before dawn driving round marshes that smell like rotting flesh. And that morning you're not properly awake when the bomb hits, and Sarge takes it full force, body shattering like a comet. And the grenades are coming at you, bullets bouncing round your feet. And no time to register, just grab your mate and your gun and run from hell. But your mate’s arm is missing the rest of him. And you stop dead, holding this bloody arm covered in Leyton Orient tattoos and a blue ink love heart for Sparrow’s teenage sweetheart. And there you are, stuck in a turkey shoot, legs turned to stone. And nothing to do but laugh.
Next day, you wake up to jackhammers all over. But no heat and no sunlight, eyes in a blindfold and a chill on your spine from lying, hog-tied, on stone. And all you see is feet and ankles. One pair of Nike daps, white, seen better days, no socks and two inches of skinny, brown ankle under drainpipe jeans. Two pairs of callused feet in sandals, one foot with a purple toenail, long and cracked like slate, white hems stained with dust. One pair of tough US army boots, all shined up proper smart, under khaki fatigues. Handy with their fists are Stone Toes and Sandals; smack round the chops, just in passing. But Puss-in-Boots is the worst. Proper sadist, that one. When he comes by, you curl up small and quiet, head behind arms and kidneys pressed into the wall.
Later, they put you in a cage, right arm handcuffed high above your head and Puss-in-Boots gets in, and gives you a pasting. Twenty minutes of fists and feet, and he says not a word, just grunts before he goes in hard. And it’s psychology, that; he wants you to scream. So you grind your teeth and pretend that he’s the one in chains and it’s you dishing out the GBH. After a while, when it hurts too bad for mind games, you focus on mam, and the lads, and Gwenan, and Sarge, and Sparrow, and then Sylvester Stallone jumps into your head. Old Sly, playing Rocky, up against the ropes, eye hanging from socket, taking it like a man. And you’re close now, blue and black from neck to knees. Ready any minute to start sobbing like a girl, but Puss-in-Boots misjudges and tires before you break.
Stone Toes walks in, and they take off your blindfold, and you’re in an outhouse. Puss-in-Boots is shorter than you guessed, face masked by the folds of a scarf, and a twisted part of you wants to know him. So you raise your head and square your shoulders at him. And he stares you down, unbuttoning his khaki shirt and slipping it down his arms. And you see his back, brown skin criss-crossed silver and red, scars and burns like snakes-and-ladders. Then he holds out his right hand, each digit missing tip or nails. And you look into the deadest eyes you ever saw. And you know what terror is.
Nike Kid has the camcorder. He gets Puss-in-Boots and Stone Toes to stand next to your cage. Five masked men walk in, bristling with guns and knives, and line up for their close-up as Puss reads to camera. And he’s giving it plenty, with yelling and waving of fists, and you nearly spoil it by giggling. But you think about your poor mam, and what’s left of your dignity damn near chokes you. Camera still rolling, Puss-in-Boots aims a last casual punch. Your head rolls limp, his laughter insulting your ears.
The filming stops, and the men pile out. Nike Kid strolls over and leans his hip against the cage. He looks at you serious, like; not taking the piss. His scarf has slipped, and you are looking up at a lad even younger than you, skinny little bugger, hair shorter than his eyelashes. Angel eyes.
‘I apologise,’ he says.
You look at the kid, gobsmacked. These people have blown up your truck, killed your mates, tied you up in a pigsty, beaten you to pulp and – to make your week completely fucking perfect – filmed a video nasty to send your mam.
‘You apologise?’ you yell. ‘Where I come from, butty, sorry don’t cover it.’
Kid looks at you, ironic. ‘You’re not wrong, English,’ he says, sparking a roll-up and handing it through the bars.
‘Welsh,’ you say. Like it matters.
You inhale slow and deep, smoke curling in your head, a dark green haze filling the space above your eyes. Three drags later, you’re glowing like the Ready Brek kid, screaming bruises tuned down to a gentle throb. For a spliff-packing, god-bothering Iraqi, he isn’t such a bad lad, you reckon. And you tell him that, and all.
‘I’m not Iraqi,’ the kid says. ‘I come from Palestine. But I will never see my country in this life. Tomorrow, it ends.’
He waves towards a backpack, half-collapsed against the wall, loose wires trailing in the dust. You stare at his skinny teenage neck, torn and dirty Ronaldo football strip and wisp of a moustache. The clouds are sucked right out of your brain and a small, cold knife runs the length of your spine, planting itself in your guts.
‘Sick bastard, Mohammed, or just plain evil?’ you ask.
‘My name is Yusuf,’ he says. ‘And the brothers would say that’s for God to judge.’
He assembles another spliff, and tells you about a seaside village he will never know. The cool sea air tastes of pine needles and bitter oranges, olive trees hugging deep, red earth, his great-grandparents’ house bleached like pebbles against a turquoise sky. You close your eyes, and hear the seagulls, and drift off to your own lost beach and the girl with the long black hair.
One night, he tells you, the militia raids the village, and the women stuff their jewellery into their bosoms, grab the children and run. Everything is abandoned, save the heavy silver house key: the family hope to return in weeks, if not days. But later, Yusuf’s great-grandmother is buried without a prayer in a roadside grave, her baby wrapped in bloodstained robes.
The silver key is passed down four generations, each inheriting the bitterness of the fathers. Yusuf tells you about his grandfather, whose dowry was lost with the family olive groves, who beat the mother of his nine children every day for not being the woman he could have had. You were fourteen when they jailed dad for beating mam and this story makes you sick.
Five years before Yusuf’s birth, the bloodstained alleys of Sabra and Chatila shame a complicit world. Yusuf’s father escapes to a shiny, new haven where, stateless and despised, he drives rich Saudi housewives from mansion to mall. Yusuf describes his school days, improving his English by watching CNN, frozen with guilt to see bullets and bulldozers tear his people apart. And then his father’s taxi hits the imam’s son’s Ferarri, and everything is lost to a blood debt.
God and priests are merciful, they say. Yusuf’s parents have five daughters, and the magic kingdom shows no mercy to fatherless foreign girls. Forced to choose prison or poverty, Yusuf’s father offers the imam his only son. The imam has lost three sons to the minefield mountains of Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir.
‘Careless of him, that,’ you interrupt, sarcastic.
The score settled, Yusuf’s family is deported, pockets empty yet again. That year, four hijacked aircraft return destruction to sender. Now, everything is possible, he says, if only you believe enough. Fourteen, furious and abandoned, Yusuf has nothing but the silver key and a belief in divine justice.
Yusuf exhales. ‘And so, it was written. They sent me to Iraq to die.’
His face is tired now, and closed, and he looks away. You reach out your free left hand and touch his arm. He looks down, shocked, then cups your hand with his own.
‘Stupid English,’ he says, almost affectionate. ‘Believing nothing except money.’
You laugh. ‘Bullshit, if you knew what the army pays.’
He grinds the dead spliff under his grey-white daps. You look at the backpack again, and you’re closer now to knowing what it takes to load it with nails, fix the wires, fasten the buckles. Say goodbye. But still… Would you choose your target, scanning the crowd for a man whose profile, silhouetted against the sun, reminds you of your dad? Or would you wade out, eyes squeezed shut, into a faceless tide of people and leave that decision to fate?
Distant voices hover in the still night air. A baby wails and a woman’s voice is raised in anger. There are villages hiding in the darkness. And no-one to help if you scream. Yusuf is staring, his head cocked to one side.
‘What does love feel like?’ he asks.
‘To hell with that, mate,’ you say, punching his arm. ‘It’s a shag you want, not some bird nagging you home from the pub.’
He blinks at you. ‘You never loved a woman?’
You think about the girl from Cyprus, black hair in salty tangles, aniseed lips. Three summers and winters you waited, and only the torn letters, mailed back by her dad, to show for it. Went back to fetch her last year, you did, and she’d married her cousin two weeks before. Too scared of the unknown to follow her heart.
‘No,’ you lie.
He looks at you directly. ‘Before I die,’ he says. ‘I want to get laid.’
You look at your watch, still set to GMT+1. Must be nearly midnight.
‘Well best get on with it butty, to keep tomorrow’s date with paradise.’
He fixes you with angel-devil eyes and your guts leap into your ribs. Shit – not that.
‘Steady on mate. I meant, let’s go find you a woman. And then I go back to my mates and you go meet Baby Jesus.’
His eyes are wet and he turns away.
‘If one among the pagans asks thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of Allah, and escort him to where he can be secure,’ he whispers. ‘If I save one life, could that make a difference to God?’
You clutch his dilemma like a drowning baby.
‘These guys will kill me,’ you plead, gripping his arm. ‘You don’t want that. We’re two lads trapped in a bigger game. You and me, we’re the same, and it’s in your power to let me go.’
He pulls away. ‘We are not the same,’ he says. ‘My fate is written. Tomorrow, I die. You give me what I need: I help you escape.’
You’d sooner pull your own eyes out with a corkscrew than touch another fella. Nothing personal, mind. But Yusuf is unlocking the cage, and there's a light in his eyes that reminds you of your dad. And there’s a part of you knows it’s no big thing, not really, if there’s even one chance in a billion he keeps his word. But he walks into the cage, and you back away, bruises slamming hard metal.
‘No way,’ you say.
Your reflection is swirling in the black depths of his irises and when you drag your eyes away, you see the dagger shimmer in his hand. And he comes closer, until there’s nowhere to run and your every muscle is wire-tense, waiting for the kiss of steel, and you close your eyes and hope it comes soon. But he leans his whole body up against you, eyelashes like velvet moths against your cheek, and presses the mother-of-pearl handle into your palm.
‘Show me the source of death,’ he whispers. ‘Is it the dagger or the lie?’
You raise the small, curved blade to his face and run the gleaming tip along the planes of his cheekbones. He stands there, eyes half-closed, as the knife chases the shadows of eyebrows and lips. He’s already there, under your skin, the woodsmoke-cardamom scent of his moustache filling your head like water. You wrestle your demons a while longer, but your fingers open and the knife drops to the floor. His hands move down your face to the buttons at your throat, but stop at your tattoo. He places one shaking finger below your Adam’s apple, tracking the indigo dotted line that snakes a path through the softest skin on your neck, two words inked on your pulse point in a Celtic typeface; torri yma.
You pull him close and feel him trembling. ‘Cut here,’ you whisper.
‘I could never do that,’ he says, lips at your throat.
Then he kisses you, and your bodies melt together like oil on water. And you are whirling together in a midnight sky.
But then, the sky tears open, as mortars slam the walls. You hear the metal whine of bullets, beyond the howling of dogs and the screams of the women, and as god-knows-what unfolds outside, you hang like a practice target off an iron chain. Yusuf’s gun and backpack are near, but he stays there, clinging like a human flack jacket as the doors burst open and it's the rescue squad, a shouting tide of khaki filling the room with bullets.
And as the bullets punch through his body and into yours, purple explosions burst like sea anemones under his yellow shirt. His hand, twitching and bloodied, is gripping the silver key, and his eyes widen in shock.
‘Jinnah,’ he gasps.
As his body melts and puddles to the floor, you pray that someone will tell your mam that this fire was neither foreign nor friendly. You want her to know, and to tell the world. One by one, the women’s jagged screams judder into silence. And you hang there, slumped from your chain, molten liquid seeping through your brain, your life dripping slowly into Yusuf’s broken doll corpse.
And your dying breath whispers, ‘No.’