Sometimes you’ve got to laugh…Columns, columns, endless columns.

I don’t know if it’s just my twitter feed that I need to shake up, but it seems to me that my world has been filled with the opinions of columnists of late. I’m sure they’re making valid points about something, but it’s all becoming point-scoring white noise in my head. Sometimes I wonder if anything is about anything any more other than being heard the loudest. Or using the right phrase. Or being ripped apart for using the slightly wrong phrase regardless of context. 

 Sometimes it all makes me laugh so hard I want to cry. People so keen to ascertain their ‘working class credentials’ (what does that mean anyway? So someone born into one set of circumstances has an immediate validity over someone born into another set of circumstances regardless of personal intelligence/emotional intelligence/personality? Oh fuck off..)  while coming across as so middle-class smug. As I grit my teeth and read I’m reminded of my own middle-class smugness and I hate them all the more for that and their endless battles of semantics. 

Like anyone real actually cares.

I love words. Words are my business. Yet I hate the acid reflux of words that seem to fill my feed. The importance so many people attach to these weekly outpouring of words – then the twitter reactions that sometimes makes me imagine these women – nearly menopausal in their expensively bohemian cardigans and clutching wine at three in the afternoon and despairing of how they were simply trying to point out the ‘right’ way to the rest of us – when really, in the most part, it’s just whimsy. It doesn’t matter. It’s here and gone. A puff of hot air. 

Most people do not browse columns on the web all day. Most people are juggling families and jobs and shopping and marriages and keeping their heads above water. Some are out there (very few- most of us are filled with the 21st century ennuie that thinks that if we talk/write/bitch about the world’s problems for long enough then we’ll solve them) are out there doing something about making other people’s lives better.

But mainly, the people who think they’re changing things are actually sitting at home writing columns and getting paid to voice an opinion. Good luck to them. Sometimes they’re entertaining. Occasionally they make a valid point. But man, am I bored of the smug self-importance that comes with clicking so many of the links.

There are a thousand types of feminist – each of my female friends has a different view to me on the subject, and I to them. That’s as it should be. There’s no one way to be a woman. You just have to be happy in your way of doing it. Each to her own. That’s my view anyway. It bothers me that my instinct to rebel makes me read so many many column inches and think – you know nothing of my feminism. And stop sounding so goddamn self-righteous. I know girls who had babies at 15 while trying to do their GCSE’s and sharing rooms with several siblings.  I’d take advice from them. Middle-class, middle-aged liberals-and-dont-you-forget-it-cos-they’ll-fight-you-over-the-unintentional-use-of word-if-you-let-them. Not so much.

I guess I just need to vent an irrational anger I have.  Even as I write I’m trying to figure out what it is that makes me grit my teeth and make me want to laugh or cry. Maybe it’s because my heart is in the gutter. Where you can taste the earth, gritty and real. Maybe it’s just the sense of the over-importance of words. I love words. I love the shape of them. I love reading them. I love the sound of them from the mouth of someone I love.

But they’re just words. Breaths of air. Here. Gone. Skimmed. Deleted. Sometimes I wish everyone would shut the fuck up and get out there and do something if they care so much.

And then sometimes I remember, you’ve just got to laugh…

SP x

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It’s a kind of magic…

When I was a little girl I spent a lot of time looking in the backs of cupboards for Narnia. Sometimes, if no one’s looking and the cupboard looks right, I still do. I don’t even know why.  I guess, when I was little and at boarding school, I was unhappy a lot of the time. Looking for escape. Where better to escape to than somewhere with a lamp post in the snow, and adventures at every turn. A different world. No lights out. No kid taking my pocket money every week. No being locked in a room for talking after lights out and being forgotten for hours. No long haul between one trip home and the next. I really wanted to find that world on the other side of the old wooden back behind the crush of clothes and coats.

I can understand why I did it as a child. But as an adult?

Why do we think another world would be more magical than our own? As if somewhere else can hold more adventure than our own lives? It’s silly really. But we all want it, I guess. Something magical. Something different.

Last night a friend took me to my first ever red carpet premiere. Even though I know that it’s all just a bright gloss over life, I laughed and ooh’d and aah’d every time a new famous face came into the bar and was like a child a christmas. Not my normal Monday night. A strange but wonderful peek into a world that seems so very different from my own. If not a step through the cupboard, then a cold breeze and the hint of hooves scurrying through the snow.

It was freezing last night but Leicester Square was filled with people wanting autographs and photos (not of me, obviously – damned philistines;-)), and as my friend did his work charming someone with a baby, a lady in a wheelchair told me she’d been there for hours. HOURS in the cold, waiting for Tom Cruise and other sparkly beautiful people to smile at her, say a few words and sign something. Maybe get a picture.

Sometimes I think movies are the magic for grown-ups. There is a light about them and those who work under their spotlight. It’s easy to think that they have charmed lives. Magical lives. They don’t, of course. People are just people. Lives are just lives. We all just try and make sense of shit as it happens whoever we are. Bad things happen. Good things happen. If you’re lucky then the latter outweigh the former, but it’s all just random.

But movies…stories make sense in movies. In movies the hero is never just in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets pushed onto a subway track and no one pulls them out in the long and terrifying thirty seconds before the train comes. In movies, scary or otherwise, there is a point to everyone’s story. A logic. The boy gets the girl. Or doesn’t, but loses her nobly. The bad guy gets his comeuppance. Something is learned at at the end.

When we’re little, we think when we grow up it will all make sense. We’ll have the answers. Then comes the lonely moment when you realise there aren’t any answers, you’re just older, wiser, more cynical and still wanting just a moment of magic. A moment of something making sense. Of a random encounter that becomes an adventure. A moment where anything could happen and it could be breath-takingingly wonderful.

But life so often isn’t like that, because we settle into it, forgetting just how short it can be. How little time we have to get it right. To have our adventures. Now I’m a grown up, I escape through the metaphorical cupboard to worlds of my own make-believe and I’m lucky enough to get paid for it. Mostly those worlds are pretty dark though.

I like adventures. I like happy endings.

I’m not so good at the real world.

Thank god for the movies…I love their magic.

SP x


The Next Big Thing preview: MAYHEM

So, last week, fabulous horror novelist Adam Nevill tagged me as part of the next big thing round robin blog – you can see his here –  http://www.adamlgnevill.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/house-of-small-shadows-preview-as-part.html

And so here are my answers on my Next Big Thing!

What is the working title of your next book?

The title of the next big novel is Mayhem. The second part which will be out the following year is Murder.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

While coming up with new pitch ideas after finishing the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, I read Dan Simmons’ ‘The Terror.’ I really loved the way he’d used real events from history and real life characters but had woven his own version of their fates into it. That was my main inspirations I think. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, so at some point I was going to try it. The two things combined and the pitch for Mayhem/Murder was the result.

What genre does your book fall under?

As with a lot of my more recent work, this is a difficult question to answer. I would call it Historical Crime, but there is a very creepy element to it so I guess supernatural thriller would also work. I really enjoy crossing genre boundaries and pulling bits from different ones that suit the story. It’s a pain in the ass for marketing people though.;-)

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

It’s not something I give any thought to. I never actually ‘see’ the faces of my characters when I’m writing them, plus I think readers should be able to form their own image of them without anyone suggesting particular people. Although obviously I’d prefer really HOT actors. There would have to be set visits. Where I could lick them.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

I got away with selling it without one, so I don’t have one! Um…

As Jack the Ripper terrorises London, another serial murderer is at work, dumping dismembered bodies in the Thames. Dr Bond, working both cases, becomes drawn into a private hunt for the killer…but is he a man or a monster, or both?

Summat like that anyway…

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Mayhem comes out in hardback in May 2013 from Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus). You can read more about the imprint and Mayhem here: http://www.jofletcherbooks.com

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’m quite a planner so my first draft is normally just tidied up and then sent in. This took me longer than most books because of the historical/factual nature of the subject matter. I’d say six months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m not really sure! But if you like creepy fiction and history – especially the Jack the Ripper period, then you’ll like this!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m a very driven person and I always try and challenge myself with new projects. I wanted to take my writing to a new level with this book, both in its structure and content, and I think I’ve achieved that. I’m mainly inspired by other writers’ work. John Connolly is, and always will be, a huge inspiration to my work even though this book isn’t like his work, he blends supernatural into crime with such flair and skill, and I’ll never match his ability but I will always aspire to. In terms of narrative structure, Dan Simmons’ The Terror was definitely an influence – moving between points in time not always chronologically – first person sections and third person sections. That kind of thing. I think that this is a far more crafted novel than any I’ve written before.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The wonderful thing about writing about true unsolved crimes is layering your own solution into history. Most of the characters in the novel were real people and I’ve tried to stay as true to their movements as possible, while fitting them to my story. Although it’s not a Jack the Ripper novel, its in the same timeframe and there are cross-overs with the two sets of murders. I think I’ve got a really unusual take on the crime/horror novel in this book. Creepy, not gory.

 
Okay, so that’s me waffling about my next book – I’ve had to tag five others. Being me, I’ve only tagged four. I will no doubt burn in hell for this! But next week you can read about the books coming from the following authors:
Bill Hussey is an awesome YA author whose grisly Witchfinder series is well worth reading! Kids everywhere love it – adults too. Strange that someone so chirpy can write the death of children so well. That’s probably why I like him.
Suzanne McLeod is an urban fantasy writer (if we must use genres!) whose Spellcracker series from Gollancz have done tremendously well. A saucy minx. We drink together.
Jonathan Green is a prolific fiction and non-fiction writer who has covered a range of styles and genres in his time. He’s a steampunk king and a disco diva. I heart him.
Alexandra Sokoloff is a kick ass writer who grabbed my attention with her first novel The Harrowing, and we have been firm friends ever since. She’s blonde and mental in all the best ways. What’s not to like?;-)
So, that’s it from me. Wow. A blog actually about work. That’s a first.
x

Free story: Our Man in the Sudan

SARAH PINBOROUGH

_____________________

Our Man in the Sudan 

 (1st published in The Humdrumming Book of Horror and then in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror)

 

“I WANT TO SEE the body,” Fanshawe said.

His eyes burned and his sockets were gritty as he blinked, as if the infernal dust that covered everything in this back end of beyond hell hole had somehow also coated the inside of his eyelids. Sat stiffly as he was in the leather-backed chair in Clift’s office, sweat itched under his collar and he fought his fingers” urge to creep up and at least loosen his tie. Instead, he just lifted his chin slightly and made a valiant effort to ignore it.

His shirt clung soaking to his back. It wasn’t helping his rising irritation. He was tired, not so much from the flight that had landed at two o’clock that morning, but from the constant heat. It had been a baking black furnace when he’d walked across the runway to fight for his suitcase in the tatty terminal building, and there’d been no respite since. It seemed the air-conditioning on some floors of the Nile Hilton was refusing to work and unfortunately, he’d been placed on one of those floors. He suspected from the weary expressions of all those who made it to the buffet breakfast, that it was all rooms that were affected, but the management refused to confirm or deny.

Blasted heat. He hated it. Crisp, elegant European winters were his choice; civilised and organised. This African climate left him cold, and even his own poor joke couldn’t raise his mood.

On the other side of the desk, Clift smiled. But then it was probably easier for him to do so, dressed casually as he was in shorts and a T-shirt and making no apology for it. The First Secretary poured thick sweet black tea from a tall metal pot.

“We’ll have to have it local style today, I’m afraid. Had a blasted power cut and the night watchman didn’t start the genny.” He slid a cup and saucer across the desk. “He was probably asleep. Wouldn’t be the first time. Anyway, all the long life’s gone off.”

Fanshawe stared at the cup but didn’t touch it. How anyone could drink anything hot in these temperatures was beyond him.

“The body?” he repeated.

“Ah yes. The body. Well, that is a touch embarrassing as it happens.” Clift took a sip of his own tea and sat back in his chair. With his tan and easy grin he didn’t look at all perplexed by the heat. It didn’t endear him to Fanshawe. Neither did his next sentence.

“I’m afraid we don’t have the body. Not anymore.”

Fanshawe stared. Outside, in the white brightness below, car horns blared loudly and two torrents of guttural Arabic raged over each other.

“What do you mean, you don’t have it?” His own Queen’s English was as dry as the occasional patches of Khartoum grass and scrub that he’d passed on his way to the Embassy.

Spreading his fingers, Clift shrugged. “It was the coffin, you see. God only knows where our standard issue has got too. We haven’t needed one since that poor sod flipped his Land Rover and broke his neck on the way back from Port Sudan, and that was a couple of years ago now.” He shook his head slightly and frowned. “I’m not even sure it was replaced. I’d only been in post a couple of months then, and you know how these things are.”

Fanshawe wasn’t entirely sure that he did. In the cool sophistication of Europe’s Embassies, those on her Majesty’s diplomatic service wore suits and ties and typed everything in triplicate. He swatted a fly away and raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”

Clift took another sip of his tea and leaned forward, his arms resting on the desk. “We tried to borrow one from the Germans but then one of their buggers bloody went and died too and so they needed it back. Didn’t want to ask the Yanks or the Russians. They’d have had a bloody field day with that.” He peered at Fanshawe. “We telexed the FCO. They said he had no next of kin so, to be honest, we didn’t think anyone would be that concerned. In the end we just buried him.”

Fanshawe sighed and looked over to the window. Even through the thick mosquito gauze stretched across it, he thought he’d have to flinch in the white of that sun. Maybe it reflected back up from the dusty, dirty cream of the ground. Perhaps that’s why it seemed so endlessly bright under the empty blue skies of North Africa. He chewed the inside of his mouth slightly. He’d wanted to see the body. There were things he needed to verify.

Clift rummaged in the desk drawer and pulled out a folder. “The doctor examined him and was pretty sure he’d had a heart attack.” He slid the death certificate over so that it sat next to Fanshawe’s untouched tea.

“Local doctor?” Happy to bring his eyes back to the more comfortable view of the seventies furniture that had seen better days, Fanshawe picked up the paper.

“Yes, we’re a minimum staff in a post like this. He’s a good chap, though. Did his training in London.” Clift lit a cigarette, the match barely touching the side of the box before bursting into flames. “I have to say, I don’t really understand this interest in Cartwright’s death. He seemed like an ordinary Second Secretary. So, what’s the story?”

Fanshawe refused the offered cigarette, even though he was a smoker himself. The smoke and the dust combined would probably make him choke. Watching Clift, he wondered how long you had to spend in a place like this before you acclimatised. Too long, was the only conclusion he could reach.

“He was MI6,” he said, eventually. “He’d had some trouble behind the Iron Curtain so he was laying low here. Having some R and R while things quietened down.”

Clift laughed. “Well, a year out here is certainly long enough to be forgotten. Are you worried the Russians tracked him down? If so, I wouldn’t be overly concerned. It’s too hot for spying games out here. I doubt they’d have the energy for it.” He laughed again.

Fanshawe smiled tightly. “Probably not.”

“It seems like you may have had a wasted journey. Sorry about that.”

Fanshawe stood up and shrugged. His shirt was still stuck unpleasantly to his skin. “It’s a week until the next BA flight back to London, which gives me time to take a look around. Perhaps check his files. Just to be sure.”

Clift nodded. “Of course. Anything I can do to help just let me know.”

“I’m going to want a full report on his death and this . . . irregular burial procedure.” He paused. “Where did you bury him? The cemetery?”

Under Fanshawe’s superior tone, Clift lost a little of his laid-back manner. “Um, no. It takes forever to get the paperwork for a foreign national to get a plot there, and in this heat and with the power cuts we’ve been having . . .” he paused. “Well, you just can’t keep a body in it for long.”

“So, where did you bury him?”

As he fed a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter before answering, Fanshawe noted that at least Clift had the decency not to look up as he spoke.

“Out on the edge of the desert near where he lived. Like the locals do. There are bodies in unmarked graves all along the border of Omdurman and the Sahara.”

Unmarked. Fanshawe reconsidered the cigarette.

 

The first time Cartwright had telexed back to London they’d had the whole team working for ten hours trying to unscramble the message. He wasn’t supposed to be in any kind of contact while lying low in Khartoum let alone sending encrypted sentences at two o’clock in the morning local time. Fanshawe had smoked a lot that night. Cartwright was one of the best. It wasn’t unfeasible, if a little against the unwritten rules of play, for one of his opposite number to have tracked him down.

Eventually, a very tired young woman knocked on his office door, shaking her head. “We’ve been through all the codes, sir. It doesn’t make sense in any of them.” She shrugged and Fanshawe waved her away. He looked down at the original sheet of telex paper with the single sentence printed out on it:

 

IT’S ALL IN THE SAND.

 

What the hell could Cartwright mean?

As it was, Cartwright was silent for just over a month before the next telex landed on Fanshawe’s desk. It had been a long five weeks at the London end, during which Fanshawe maintained the protocol of radio silence to protect his hidden man. If Cartwright had something to tell them, he was going to have to get in touch again. In the meantime, all the encryptions were frantically being re-written. Perhaps they were compromised. Perhaps that’s why Cartwright had chosen an ambiguous statement instead of using his allocated code. When the next message came it was as indecipherable as the first:

 

I CAN HEAR THE THUNDER OF HOOVES;

THE SCREAMING OF THE DYING BEASTS.

 

After staring at both messages side by side for far too long for sanity, Fanshawe was ready to scream himself. He felt as if he were stuck on the last clue of the Times crossword with no hope of getting the answer. The sentences were imprinted on the back of his eyes. He carried them everywhere with him.

He waited for Cartwright to get in contact again. But there was nothing. Instead, two months later came the Telex that said he’d been found dead in his house in Khartoum. And so here Fanshawe was. Hot, bothered and no closer to being able to solve the puzzle.

“I think I might go back to the hotel for a while. Catch up on some sleep.”

Clift nodded, and Fanshawe was sure there was just a touch of relief in the way the younger man’s shoulders dropped slightly.

“The driver downstairs will take you, sir. Call me if you need anything. Otherwise I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning on my way into the office.”

 

By the third day Clift picked him up from the Hilton, Fanshawe had given up on the shirt and tie completely, settling in favour of an aertex collared T-shirt over cream slacks. His eyes burned from lack of sleep. It seemed that no one in the building had been capable of fixing the air-conditioning beyond the ground floor level. Fanshawe had stopped asking when that might be rectified. This was primarily because he was mildly concerned that he might commit an act of murder if anyone else was foolish enough to give him the answer “Bukrah, in sh’Allah. Tomorrow, if Allah wills it. So far, Allah was very much against the idea.

As the Land Rover bounced across the uneven, rocky and pot-holed dusty tracks that served as roads, Fanshawe squinted out through the open window. Beyond the shallow ditches that ran along each side of the street, old women sat on low stools hawking their piles of paper bread and watermelons to any passers by. Their skin was as cracked as the ground they came from, eyes black suspicious raisins in a desert of wrinkles as they watched the two white men drive by.

Clift paused at a cross roads, waiting for the melee of trucks and buses so over-loaded with people hanging from the sides that they looked like they might tip right over to stop blaring horns and figure out whose right of way it really was. Fanshawe was so busy trying to decide which potential accident was going to happen first that he didn’t see the man approaching and jumped when he appeared at the window, waving the necklace at him.

“Jesus Christ.” He pulled in a little, away from the leathery hand intruding his space trying to force him to touch the jewellery as if perhaps that would oblige Fanshawe to buy it. The metal and ivory pendant dangling from the shoelace strap looked tarnished and battered.

Y’ella,” he muttered in disgust at the skinny man on the other side of the car door, whose free arm below the hem of the well-worn Adidas T-shirt, was loaded with necklaces and bracelets all with the same charm attached. The man’s response was to lean in closer, words rushing in thick guttural Arabic, too fast for Fanshawe to follow.

Clift revved the engine and pulled the Land Rover forward, leaving the man standing in the street behind them, still waving and shouting at the dust trails of their tyres.

“Sorry about that,” Clift said. “Seems they’ve been selling those bloody things everywhere. Must be the latest local fashion.”

Winding the window up a little to prevent further intrusion, but to still allow in whatever hot breeze the car’s motion could create, Fanshawe shook off the unsettled feeling and stared at the strange dips at the side of the road.

“What are the ditches for?” he asked Clift. Around them the huts and corrugated iron shacks slowly turned into rows of low, one-story buildings that made up the houses and shops as they came nearer into the centre of the capital city. They looked like they’d been forged from the sand around them. Maybe there was brick and plaster somewhere under their creamy surfaces, but it was well-hidden. The dust had claimed them, as it seemed the dust claimed and coated everything.

“There’s your answer,” Clift nodded over to the right. A thin man who could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty lifted the folds of his white jelabiah and squatted at the edge. Fanshawe frowned.

“Is he . . .?”

“Yes, ’fraid so.” The car bounced past the man. “The ditches are the closest you’ll come to public lavatories in Khartoum. Damned health hazard, but there’s no telling the locals.” Clift continued, swerving to get past a battered truck that pulled out without even pausing. “The German that died? That was because of those ditches. We had the first of the big rains. Came out of nowhere and flooded the roads. The German’s jeep got stuck in a pothole and he got out to try and clear the wheel. Found himself knee deep in sewerage. He must have had a cut that got infected, because it was dysentery and then blood poisoning and then all over. Poor chap.”

Fanshawe said nothing for a while. He couldn’t imagine water in these streets. The ground must devour it within a day; no amount of rain could be enough to quench the thirst of this parched land. The car made its way through the increasingly busier streets. Wild brown dogs panted under parked cars, ready to dart out to claim dropped food or to snarl at anyone that got too close. Men and women talked and laughed and sat outside shops or on the wrecked pavements in dusty mixes of tatty western clothes, Arab jelabiahs and bright tribal dresses; a melange of fabric and dark skin. Flies settled unnoticed on dark flesh.

Somewhere in the distance a Muezzin began a call to prayer. Slowly all activity ceased and prayer mats unfurled, for a few moments the majority of the city on their knees, facing Mecca. Fanshawe wondered if the man crouching by the ditch had finished in time. Turning into the Embassy car park, they passed three exceptionally tall and ebony black men who stood frozen on the corner, staring impassively in at Clift and Fanshawe. They carried long sticks, which for a moment Fanshawe thought might be spears. Tribal men, not Arab men.

He sighed as the Land Rover came to a halt. “It’s not quite Bonne, is it?” he said, eventually.

“No, sir.” Clift stepped out into the heat. “It’s not quite Bonne.”

 

By mid-day, Fanshawe had finished his second sweep of Cartwright’s office. He’d taken the phone apart, checked the light sockets and even the air-conditioning vent and there was no sign of any bugs. Sweating and fed up, he sat back in the desk chair. Maybe Clift was right. Maybe it was too damned hot out here for spying games. Maybe Cartwright had just got a touch of sunstroke and then died of a heart attack. These things did happen.

He pulled at the top drawer of the desk, tugging it open even though it was stiff. He wasn’t convinced by his own argument though. Cartwright had undergone a full medical after the fiasco in Moscow and passed it with flying colours. His heart had been in perfect working order.

He yanked the drawer open and checked its contents again. Pens, paper, a stapler. All basic and ordinary and as expected. He pushed the drawer and it caught again. Something was stopping it running smoothly. He frowned as he slid a hand over the rough surface of the drawer’s base. An envelope was cello-taped there. Fanshawe ripped it free and emptied the contents onto the desk.

Photographs. At least twenty. Spreading them carefully out so he could study each one, Fanshawe clenched his teeth slightly. They were pictures of the desert. There wasn’t a single soul in any of them, just the endless sand and occasional black rocky outcrop under the bright cloudless sky. He searched their edges to see if maybe they lined up, like some kind of jigsaw puzzle, but it was a fruitless task. To all intents and purposes, they were just random images, holiday snaps. So why had Cartwright felt the need to hide them? Were the Russians or East Germans planning to use part of the desert in some way? It didn’t seem likely. So what the hell had the man been playing at?

The office door opened and a trolley appeared, carrying white mugs and a large urn, and pushed by a grinning Sudanese man, the darkness of whose skin was emphasised by the crisp cleanliness of his white jelabiah.

“Tea, sir?” There was surprisingly only a hint of the thick Arab accent in his intonation; a far cry from the dusty Sudanese who had thrust his arm so rudely into the Land Rover that morning. The second surprise was that Fanshawe did indeed feel like a cup of tea, despite the acrid heat.

“Yes please. With milk if there is any.”

“Certainly, sir.” With one hand he poured a splash of milk into a cup and then placed it under the urn. The tea poured, hot steam rising up from it, and then with the same hand the man carefully placed it on the desk. He looked at the pictures and smiled.

“Interesting photographs. Deceptive, aren’t they?”

Fanshawe had been about to sip his tea, and he paused. “How do you mean?”

“When you see the desert like that it looks flat. But of course, it is not.”

Fanshawe stared at the images spread out in front of him. The ground looked level to him.

“Look there,” the tea wallah pointed to a slight undulation in the sand. “It looks just like a ripple on the surface, yes?”

Fanshawe nodded in agreement.

“But,” the local continued, “it is not. Just beyond that is the drop of a dune, maybe six feet or more. The desert is full of them.” He shook his head slightly. “But to those that do not know the Sahara, it appears flat.”

Fanshawe stared at the picture more closely and thought he could just see, in the hint of the shadows on the golden ground, what the man meant. “Tell me,” he said. “Are there such drops in all of these photos?”

The man’s eyes scanned the display and nodded. “Yes, I think so. When the Mahdi fought the British at Omdurman, they used the land’s deception as part of a battle strategy. While some stood and lured the British forward on the flat sand, others would wait in the drops between the dunes with their swords ready. As the cavalry charged at the enemy they didn’t see the drop until it was too late. The Mahdi’s men would hack at the surprised horses’ feet with their swords as they galloped and both beast and man would fall screaming into the pit.” He smiled at Fanshawe. “Not bad for native thinking, eh, sir?”

Fanshawe nodded. “Not bad, at all.”

Looking at the clean cups, the perfect whiteness of the man’s outfit and the way he stood tall and with dignity, Fanshawe’s curiosity got the better of him. “You seem a little over-educated for your current position. And your English is perfect. Surely you could be better employed elsewhere.”

The man shook his head sadly and then revealed the stump at his right wrist. “Like many others, I’ve moved up from the South. I was a teacher of Politics at the university in Juba.” He shrugged. “But then, apparently I stole a small item from the market and despite my protests of innocence . . .” His words drifted off, and Fanshawe stared again at the man’s missing right hand.

“A man with a criminal record finds it hard to get good employment, even here in the north. But I can’t complain. I have good pay and conditions.” The tea man smiled. “God save the Queen.”

“Yes, quite,” Fanshawe muttered, but any slight empathy he’d felt for the man disappeared as something else he’d said gripped his thoughts. He sipped his tea as Cartwright’s second telex typed itself out in his head.

 

I CAN HEAR THE THUNDER OF HOOVES;

THE SCREAMING OF THE DYING BEASTS.

 

“Tell me,” he was surprised to find the tea was good; strong and hot and not even a hint of sourness in the milk. “Did you know the man in this office? The man that died?”

The tea wallah’s eyes slipped away and he shrugged. “A little.” He paused. “Did he take these pictures?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so.”

Fanshawe frowned. “How did you know they were his?”

The man sighed. “They say we all walked out of Africa in those first days of mankind and then spread to the four corners of the globe. Perhaps the desert calls some of us back. I think maybe your friend was one of those people.” He started to wheel his trolley out. “I think he became fascinated with the desert. The sand was in his eyes from his first haboob. He became different.”

 

The Sudan Club was a small oasis of green in the middle of the dry city. Sprinklers turned on the vast lawns and from where he sat in the bar, Fanshawe could see the swimming pool glinting blue under the floodlights that kept the dark away. Perhaps somewhere else, people would notice the tattiness of some of the paint-work and the chips in the floor tiles, but after four days of African dust and heat, even to Fanshawe, the private club whose membership was only open to those with British passports seemed like an idyll; a visit back to the glory days of the British Empire.

And at least the air was cool, fuelled by a generator that ran somewhere out at the back of the building, its throb like gentle background music. It seemed that the city danced to the beat of the generator drum, always one or two roaring somewhere, so that in the end you barely heard them. Maybe the silence of bare feet on sand would be more disturbing.

He leant on the marble bar and sipped his drink. It was the perfect mix of gin and tonic, just a large enough splash of the first, poured over huge rocks of ice, before being topped up with mixer. Enough of these and he wouldn’t need his anti-malaria pills. Still, it felt like it had been a long day.

He’d spent the afternoon at Cartwright’s house across on the western side of the wide muddy Nile, out past the edge of the town of Omdurman. He’d hoped to find an answer there for why the agent had moved from the centre of Khartoum, to the dustier, disappeared streets that bordered the desert, where only scrubby dry grasses and bare-footed goat herders lined what should be the pavements. At least in the capital Cartwright could have gone to the hubbub of Street 15 and bartered for eggs, sure that at least two or three of them wouldn’t have been broken on the uneven journey by the time he got home. Instead he’d moved to the back end of the back end of beyond. It didn’t make sense.

Impressive as the Omdurman house appeared – rising up on two levels, with a balcony that ran all round the top floor and three gates to get in – there was a sense that it was unfinished. Where there should have been gardens surrounding the building, there was only dirt, the lawns never having been laid, and although at the front of the property there was a high, metal gate and impressive walk up to the double fronted heavy wooden door, it seemed that Cartwright favoured the low gate at the back that squealed open onto a short path leading up to the servant’s quarters on the right, and the door into the kitchen, straight ahead. It was by that gate that his car was parked.

The servant’s quarters were empty, although there was evidence that Mahmood, the boy, was still living there even though Clift claimed not to have seen him since Cartwright’s death. A small jar of coffee and a pot of rice sat on a low chipped Formica table by the narrow camping bed, above which, on the uneven walls that looked made of mud, hung an amulet of ivory and tarnished metal. Its diamond shape was less regular than the one that had been thrust so rudely through the Land Rover window that morning. This one looked older. The symbols or letters that were battered into its surface made no sense to Fanshawe and he left it where it was and headed to the main house.

In the spotless kitchen, the fridge was empty apart from a bottle of Gordon’s gin. A case of Shweppes tonic sat on the clean tiles alongside it and for a moment Fanshawe stared at them. The city of Omdurman, unlike Khartoum and the Nile Hilton, seemed to be fine for electricity. The gin was cold and smooth blocks of ice filled the trays in the small freezer section. Tempted as he was to pour himself a drink, as much to fight his frustration as cool himself down, he resisted, and instead methodically did as he was trained to do, and worked his way through the various electrical appliances, searching for cameras and bugs, sweeping each room. It was painstaking and slow work, but as with Cartwright’s office at the Embassy there was nothing.

All he found was precise neatness, a well-made bed, and ironed shirts in the closet. Not even any photographs, although there were slight tacky marks on the walls of the second bedroom as if perhaps pictures of some kind had been stuck up until recently. He’d stared at those marks for a long time but they refused to speak to him.

Eventually he went out on the balcony. The sun-baked tiles burned his feet through his shoes and shading his eyes with his hand, he looked out over the ocean of the desert that filled his view. Was this why Cartwright had moved? Simply to be closer to the desert? He stared at the dunes which looked flat even though he knew better and bit the inside of his cheek. But why? What was so special about the desert? The desert glared back at him.

Clift had picked him up at 5:00 pm, just as the heat of the day was turning its rage inwards, and they’d driven in almost silence to the club. Fanshawe was sure there had been a slight edge of smugness in Clift’s expression as he’d peered over and asked, “Everything in order?” Fanshawe could hear the unspoken words echoing underneath the louder ones. Sometimes heart attacks just happen. Maybe it was just the heat addling his tired brain, but experience told him that smugness like that normally came from someone who thought they’d got away with something.

He wiggled his glass at the barman who nodded and waited for Clift to finish the last mouthful of his food before he spoke.

“So why did he move from the first house? Omdurman’s a good forty-five minutes drive from here. It doesn’t seem practical.”

“He got an infestation of ants. Red ones. Those bastards really sting when they bite.” Clift pushed away the remains of his chicken and chips in a basket so that it sat next to Fanshawe’s, ready to be silently cleared away.

Fanshawe stared at it, as he mulled over Clift’s words. Meat still hung uneaten from the tiny half-skeleton; just more greasy Western waste in a starving country. No one would boil those bones for chicken stock. Fanshawe idly wondered how the local men that worked at the club continued with their benign smiles and nods of subservience. Perhaps one day someone would drive by the Sudan club to find confused white heads stuck on poles at its gates, mimicking Gordon, brows still furrowed. What did we do?

“He moved out while it was being exterminated. And just never moved back.”

Fanshawe looked up from the basket, firmly back on his very Western business. “There was no mention of ants in his file. That just shows that he requested a move. To that particular house, in fact.”

As if appearing to support Clift’s argument, a small black ant industriously carried an impossibly unwieldy crumb over to the far edge of the bar. It seemed to Fanshawe that ants and flies were a way of life in this part of the world. Ants wouldn’t bother Cartwright, however painful their bite was. And he would know better that to draw attention to himself, even in a minor way.

“Paperwork isn’t one of our strong points.” Clift shrugged. “Not on the admin things like housing. The Embassy’s too small for a dedicated housing officer.”

The barman replaced Fanshawe’s empty glass with a fresh, full one. Around them the room was relatively quiet apart from a fat man sitting further down from them who was laughing loudly, either with or at, a much thinner middle-aged man and his rather bored-looking pale wife. Fanshawe thought that perhaps Khartoum was not the best place for the pale-skinned to find themselves. He had a feeling you could burn in the shade here if your skin was so inclined.

“What’s a haboob?” he asked suddenly, and was sure Clift twitched.

Haboob?” The twitch again; a small tic in the man’s cheek. “Where did you hear that word?”

“It was something the tea boy said.” Cartwright changed after the first haboob. That’s what the chai wallah had implied.

Clift lit a cigarette. “It’s the local name for a desert sandstorm. We’ve had a few over the past couple of months. The season for them really starts now. You can feel the potential for one in the air most days.” He drained his glass; almost half his drink gone in one go. “They’re quite a sight.”

Fanshawe thought he could make out the first beginnings of a bead of sweat on the younger man’s hairline, even within the cool embrace of the chugging air-conditioning. He lit a cigarette of his own.

“The tea boy said Cartwright was quite fascinated with them.”

Clift’s eyes slid away. “Yes, I suppose . . . although he only saw his first one a couple of months ago. By the end of the season I’m sure he would have got used to them.” He sucked almost a centimetre of the Marlboro into blazing red and orange.

Fanshawe watched him. How old was the first secretary? Thirty maybe? He suddenly looked younger. Clift may well go far within the ranks of her Majesty’s Diplomatic service, but he would never make MI6. Not with that tic telling in his cheek. He sipped his drink. It really was very good.

“Perhaps,” he said softly, “he moved to be nearer to the desert?”

Clift stared at the bar. “Maybe.”

Behind them, the thin man and his pale-skinned wife said their goodbyes and headed out into the night. The fat man stayed where he was, a fresh drink placed in front of him. He smiled at the barman.

Shookran.

Afwan.

Afwan yourself.

Over Clift’s shoulder, Fanshawe could see the barman laughing along with the man’s English/Arabic joke, but there was a sense that he’d heard it far too many times before. He took the tip though, before returning to cleaning and polishing glasses.

The bar paused in silence for a moment and then Clift pushed his stool away and stood up. “I think I’ll head home.” He busily picked up his wallet and car keys, avoiding eye contact. “Do you want a lift to the Hilton?”

Fanshawe shook his head. “I’ll get a taxi later. Think I’ll enjoy the air-conditioning for a little while longer.”

Clift nodded. “I’ll pick you up in the morning then.” As Clift moved, Fanshawe caught a glimpse of shoelace around his neck. Thin, black and local.

“I’ll be there.”

Sliding his glass round in his fingers, enjoying the cool condensation, Fanshawe watched him go. Heart attack. Haboob. Omdurman. Sahara. All of those words were wrapped up in the tic in his young colleague’s face. But what was he hiding? Cartwright going mad? Maybe he was poisoned with a slow-acting agent. Maybe that’s why he changed. After his first haboob. And why was Clift wearing a pendant like the one they’d seen this morning?

He turned back to the bar and found that the fat man was watching him, sharp eyes peering out from sockets dragged downwards with the weight of his cheeks. Despite the jowls, he managed a grin.

“Jasper Vincent. Freelance journalist.” He raised his glass as a welcome. “How are you finding Khartoum?”

“Is my newness that obvious?”

Vincent laughed, and although it was loud and brash, there was an earthy warmth there. “Your skin doesn’t look like leather yet.”

“Fair enough comment. Alan Fanshawe. It’s a flying visit for me. Just checking up on some things at the Embassy. Routine paperwork stuff. Freelance, you say?”

Vincent nodded. “Even the BBC doesn’t keep a man out here full time anymore. Not now things have calmed down. I started out with them, but then went native and couldn’t face heading back to London anywhere else for that matter.” He paused. “I presume you’re here about that British dip that died.”

Fanshawe carefully sipped his drink. “You heard about that?”

“It’s a small town. Where ex-pats are concerned, word travels.” Ice that clung to the last hope of solidity clinked within his glass. “And I was in here when that chap that just left and the doctor came in afterwards. They seemed pretty shaken up. They drank a lot at any rate, and neither of them was laughing.”

Signalling the barman to replenish their glasses, Fanshawe was far too well trained to push for more information. It would come soon enough he suspected, from a man like Vincent. And asking was often the very best way of not finding out.

Vincent stood up, sweat holding the creases and crumples in his linen trousers from where he’d been sitting. “Let’s take these onto the terrace. It should be pleasant out there now.”

They left the cool brightness of the bar and Fanshawe followed the fat man out to a metal table and chairs on the red dusty tiles. Yellow bulbs gave out a warm glow above them, and although the air was hot there was just the lightest touch of breeze. As he took his seat Fanshawe listened for a moment to the loud calling of the crickets and other insects who, in the gloom of the lawns and cacti and bushes, seemed determined to drown out the generator’s soft thrum.

Under the glow of one of the lamps, a small sea of black lay in the pool of light. He tossed an abandoned bottle top into it, and the mass rose as one for a moment before fragmenting, the huge flying ants clattering their wings into each other as they hovered before settling back down, drowning the discarded metal disc. Fanshawe shivered a little in disgust. The place was all wrong; dark, alien and wild.

“How on earth could you choose to stay here rather than go back to London?”

Vincent stared out into the darkness, his stomach and arms overflowing from the metal confines of the chair.

“Africa is a strange place,” he said, eventually. “And maybe Sudan is one of the strangest within it. Some people view it as a kind of terra media, lying between and linking Africa and the Arab world. Others see it as lying on the fault line between two peoples, torn between them and unable to unite. Maybe it’s both of those things. They certainly have their share of problems with the South. That’s what brought me here in the first place, reporting on the civil war. But Sudan is more than that. In the face of the white man its peoples are all one. The Dinka, the Arabs and the Nuer and the other smaller tribes, they can do what we can’t begin to – they all understand the land. They understand the power and truth of living on the edge of poverty and with the vast Sahara challenging them to survive it.”

He paused, and Fanshawe smiled. The man had a way with words. He could have made a good career for himself away from this filthy hellhole. “And you fell in love with that challenge?” Fanshawe was cynical. With his wide girth and the ruddy face of someone destined for an early grave due to far too much enjoyment of the finer things in life, Vincent did not look like a man that wanted the challenges of living on the edge of poverty. In fact, he looked like a man a year away from a heart attack. Fanshawe would believe that death of this man with as much conviction as he couldn’t believe it of Cartwright.

Vincent grinned. “No. I fell in love with a Dinka woman. A tall, ebony beauty full of the strength and quiet promise of the desert. You don’t get women like that back in England. Trust me.”

Fanshawe watched Vincent’s chubby wrist as it reached for his glass and his own smile fell a little. Around it hung ivory and battered metal.

“What is that bracelet? They seem to be everywhere. Some damned local tried to sell me one today and even Clift’s wearing one.”

Vincent’s chubby fingers teased the charm for a moment. “Ah, my magic charm. The wife gave it to me. She insists I wear it in haboob season, and I’m not going to argue with her.”

That word again. Haboob. Fanshawe’s jaw clenched. “I don’t understand the fascination with the bloody desert and the sandstorms,” he muttered, the gin not strong enough to relax him.

Vincent’s convivial appearance had melted away. He looked thoughtful. Almost pensive. “Your man lived out in Omdurman, didn’t he? I heard stories about him, you know. Wandering out in the desert in the full heat of the day, taking photograph after photograph of the dunes.”

Fanshawe sighed. In his years in the service he’d learned there was no point in being secretive with information that was already out there. “It would appear that he had become a little obsessive about the desert in the weeks before his death, yes.” It’s all in the sand. He paused. “After his first haboob.

Vincent nodded as if all the things that were leaving Fanshawe so confused, were making perfect sense to him. “Yeah, the natives said the spirits in the haboob had got him.” He sat back in his chair, comfortable in the heat.

“People think that Sudan is a Muslim and Christian country, most of its people one or the other. And in some ways that’s true. It seems so the Western world anyway, where we have a habit of only seeing the people we think matter. But the Dinka and the other tribes from the south, they have their own religions. Older ones. And maybe darker and more powerful ones too.”

The crickets roared louder and Fanshawe could help but wonder if they were trying to silence the journalist who considered himself native, but was so obviously not of this land.

Haboobs are amazing to see.” Vincent looked up into the night sky around them. “You might see one tonight if this wind holds to its promise.” Fanshawe lifted his head. The other man was right: the breeze was getting stronger.

“And sandstorms are all haboobs had been for maybe centuries, until the Dinka started fleeing from the south, crossing the desert and bringing their old religions with them. It was as if perhaps they woke something with their steady march across the sand. Something that had slept for too long and was happy to be woken.” He smiled. “The true religion of the desert dwellers.”

Fanshawe wondered for a long moment if the journalist was slightly mad or maybe had a touch of sunstroke or was just plain drunk. Perhaps there was no real information to be had here. The flying ants shifted a little in the pool of light and he fought a ripple of revulsion.

“What did the doctor say was the cause of death?” Vincent asked.

Fanshawe peered over at the fat man. “Heart attack. Why? What else could it have been?”

Vincent laughed a little. “Well, that would depend on whether you believe in the spirits in the desert.”

“I don’t understand.” Fanshawe wondered if perhaps he was just being lured into a game with the jaded ex-pat; some old public school trick of getting one over on the new boy.

“The Dinka believe a great God lives in the hot earth beneath the endless layers of sand. Most of the time he sleeps in the coolness of the ground away from the sun. But for two or three months of the year, he’s restless and sometimes wakes and reclaims the land, striding through the desert and leaving a huge rolling storm of dust in the wake.”

Vincent looked over at Fanshawe. “The Dinka say that when he walks the desert so do the spirits of those that died in it, all of those that fell or are buried there. They can revisit the living, carried in the cloud. That’s why some of the locals bury their loved ones out on the edge of the city – they hope that they’ll return.”

Fanshawe sniffed. Bloody native hokum-pokum. “That’s an appealing legend.” Perhaps he should have got a lift back to the hotel from Clift. “But you don’t expect me to believe it, do you?”

Vincent grinned, his cheeks squashing his glinting eyes. “No, I don’t. But I’ll tell you this, just so you know.” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “It wasn’t Clift and the Doctor that buried him out in the desert. It was Mahmood, his servant.” He paused, Fanshawe was sure for effect, before continuing.

“The story goes that your man wandered out in that last haboob, right into the middle of it, to see if the things he thought he’d glimpsed and heard were true. He came back hours later, a walking dead man; his eyes and ears full of sand and muttering incoherently.”

Fanshawe stared. If Vincent hadn’t used Cartwright’s houseboy’s name he’d have been laughing and on his way to find a taxi. As it was his mind was racing. Could Vincent be in the pay of the Russians? And why would the Russians create such an elaborate story when he’d already been told by his own people that Cartwright had died of a common place heart attack? Around him it seemed that the hot black night crept closer, threatening to smother him.

“How do you know this?”

“I told you, word travels. And I’m married to a Dinka. The white man who thought he saw the dead walking in the haboob has been the talk of the Dinka for a few months. They take these things seriously.”

Fanshawe appeared smooth and relaxed as he leaned back in his chair, despite the edge in his nerves. “Go on.”

“Mahmood wanted to call the Faquih to purge the spirits, but the Englishman collapsed on the floor and filled with sand, gripped his arm and wouldn’t let him go. He held him like that for a full five minutes until the desert really claimed him and he died. They had a pact you see. Mahmood had promised that if anything happened to him, he’d bury him in the old traditional ways out by the desert. He called the Embassy man out and when he saw the state of the body and went for the doctor and was in a panic about a bloody coffin, Mahmood took the body to the edge of the desert and buried it before disappearing with whatever money your man had given him.”

“Isn’t Mahmood an Arab name? Why would he believe any of this?”

“Arab father, native mother,” Vincent shrugged. “Most Sudanese have a healthy respect for all the religions. When you live in poverty and with disease and death always ready to grab you, it’s advisable to keep your options open.”

They sat in silence, and behind them a light bulb flickered but kept its hold on the rare stream electricity. The outside of Fanshawe’s gin and tonic glass was damp under his fingers as he finished his drink.

“So, you think Cartwright really believed that the dead walked in the haboobs and wanted to become like them? And you believe that?”

Vincent shook his head slightly. “I believe that he believed it.” He held up his fat wrist with the charm on it. “The amulet is supposed to keep the desert spirits from touching your soul. It protects you from the haboob.” He smiled. “Maybe I’ve been here long enough to start hedging my bets too.”

 

It was at about five o’clock in the morning that Fanshawe felt the breeze carrying the tiniest particles of dust through the mesh of the mosquito gauze stretched across the open hotel room window. He sat up, his heart thumping hard in his chest for no good reason. Wind tickled his face. More breeze than he’d felt in nearly a full week in the Sudanese capital.

He pushed back the covers, pulled on his trousers and without stopping for a shirt strode to the balcony doors and stepped outside. Despite the hours of darkness that had passed, the tiles under his feet were still pleasantly warm as was the metal rail that he gripped with his fingers. He barely felt them though, as he stared out at the land on the other side of the river, the wind dancing around him, teasing him, laughing at him.

He’d never seen anything like it. In the distance, small white one level houses disappeared into the foaming sand that surged across the land. A tidal wave of brown stretching across the width of his view thundered across the furthest parts of the city. Watching it rise up from the flat cream land, its facing edge billowing like clouds ballooning forward, Fanshawe could only guess at its height. Maybe fifty feet? Sixty? Or was it as much as a hundred feet in the air, endlessly rising towards the African sky.

Fanshawe’s mouth dropped open in awe, as it claimed more of the city below, battered trucks and cars lost beneath its rolling movement, the desert like a murky cloud so huge and heavy that it had dropped from the sky, spreading out on the land and swallowing everything it touched in the whistle of its wind.

Against the silent backdrop of the pale pink horizon, the haboob raged. Fanshawe squinted. Despite the grit that pelted painfully into his bare skin he leaned forward. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. For a moment out in the wild madness that had been the desert, he thought that the sandy shape of a huge horse’s head, its mouth wide against the bit as it galloped, rose up through the cloudy edges of the sand storm before collapsing back below, as if something had . . . cut it down.

Gripping the edge of the balcony so tightly the bones of his knuckles threatened to tear through his skin, he blinked the screaming horse away. It was replaced by another. And another. And as the sand charged forward, Fanshawe was almost sure he could hear the battle cries, both orderly and foreign carried on the wind that brought the sand from Omdurman to the borders of Khartoum and was sure, just for a second, beneath the wailing and screeching of the wind, that the cry of “Al nasr lana!Victory is ours.

He stared until his eyes were bleeding water from the onslaught of dust, and then just as the foamy surf of the desert tidal wave reached the far shore of the Nile, the wind dropped. Within moments the desert had fallen, becoming simply silent dust and sand covering everything it had touched.

He stood there for a long time, feeling the small particles of crushed ground fall slowly through the still air, pulled back by gravity, their tiny weight still too heavy to sustain their flight without the power of the wind. They tickled at Fanshawe’s skin and scalp. It seemed to him that in that dawn moment of complete peace, the city sighed.

 

The day was quiet in the city. Fanshawe made some pretence of working in Cartwright’s office, but in fact spent much of his time staring at the desert photographs, spread out in front of him, a code within a code. Clift seemed relieved that he had no more questions for him and kept himself hidden away, and when the chai wallah came round he merely watched Fanshawe cautiously for a moment or two before sinking into his subservient role and pouring out the tea and milk with his one good hand before wheeling his trolley away again. Fanshawe caught a glimpse of metal and ivory around the man’s neck just before the door closed behind him.

The burning air was thick as honey and seemed so still that Fanshawe thought that not the breath of any god could lift it, but at four in the afternoon the slightest hint of a breeze teased its way into the hubbub of Khartoum. Away from the desk and looking out of the window, the glass panes blurred with dust in front of the mosquito screens, Fanshawe chewed on his lip and was convinced that he felt the city and its various people tense up.

He slipped out of the Embassy without saying a word to Clift and told the reluctant driver to take him to Omdurman. Staring at the shapeless streets and hawkers that lined them, he watched the wind tug at the jelabiahs and yashmaks and Adidas T-shirts, making its presence increasing felt. Somewhere beyond the pretence of civilisation the desert was stirring. Breathing. Claiming its life.

At Cartwright’s house, he let himself in. His heart thudded to a stop for the briefest moment before he slowly closed the door behind him and crouched to examine the floor more closely. His eyes narrowed.

Where the day before the marble had been spotlessly clean, sandy footprints now wandered aimless through the house, as if they’d come looking for their owner.

Fanshawe’s cool MI6 trained eyes scanned the room, and he walked carefully to the sink, picking up the glass that sat on the draining board. Around its edge were crusty brown lip prints that glittered in the fading light.

With the glass in one hand, he stared at both it and the footprints scattered on the ground and thought of the photographs still in his pocket, and the horses heads that had rose through the storm that morning, and that final cry of Al Nasr Lana, until eventually the wind outside howled as the sun set and his reverie was broken.

He left the lights off and put the dirty glass down. He took a clean one from the cupboard and made himself a large gin and tonic. The ice cubes tinkled loudly as he padded into the gloom of the large lounge. In the cushioned high back chair, he casually crossed one leg over the other, sipping his drink before letting the glass rest on the scratched wooden arm of the regulation Embassy furniture. He’d mixed it perfectly and as the gin tingled to his head, the tonic buzzed sharply on his tongue.

After half an hour the first tendrils of sand began to whip at the sides of the house. Fanshawe, perfectly still in the chair, smiled. He’d come to Khartoum for answers. In the encroaching embrace of the desert haboob, he wondered if perhaps he’d get them from Cartwright himself.

 


‘The Give’ and the Turnham Green zebra crossing.

Down by my tube station there’s a zebra crossing. It’s on a relatively busy road with people constantly scurrying to and from the trains or buses and trying to get to the shops and delis on either side. 

I’ve started to study that zebra crossing a little bit. You see, that zebra crossing tells me a lot about life and people and who we are. 

There are cars that just don’t stop even if the traffic the other way has.

There are people who don’t even look to see if the cars are stopping before they step onto the road.

And there are the people who don’t even look at the cars as they cross. 

Then there are the queues. Traffic can build up at a busy zebra crossing as people trickle over.

It’s the queues that get me. Every time. Sometimes, when I reach the edge of the green I can see that those cars have been waiting ages. You know what I do? I loiter a bit. Pretend to read a sign. Look in a shop window. Give the cars a second to go. If I do hurry across in the wake of a yummy mummy or mobile phone attached estate agent I always mouth a thank you at the cars on either side. Sometimes I get a smile back, and sometimes nothing but a frown, but that tells me as much about the world as the pedestrians do.

Yeah, I know it’s my RIGHT to cross that road. I know I should be able to step out and make them wait as I amble across, texting or emailing, as if they don’t exist. But sometimes, life is all in the give. In fact, life is ALWAYS in the give.

We’re a people obsessed with our rights. It’s my right to say whatever I want. It’s my right to have clean drinking water. It’s my right not to be murdered, raped, beaten or broken. Look at Twitter. We’re an angry first world pushing our rights, our values, onto each other. 

But you know what? We have no rights. None. If you think you do, then you’re the sort that steps onto the crossing without looking. We’re animals and the way we work is pack rule. We do what the biggest pack in the vicinity dictates and that becomes the law. Our rights are whimsy; they’re ethereal things. You can’t touch them. They can change. They’re dust in the wind.

I read an article on the Guardian website about people living under constant US drone attacks targeting the Taliban. Those people have no right to a decent night’s sleep. They have no right to go about their business.  They have no right to live without fear. One drone hit a bakery, killing the man and his family. He had no right to earn a living. And all because they were born in the wrong part of the world. Stories like that abound everywhere. Women with no right to fuck outside of marriage. Men with no right to speak their opinions out loud. People everywhere living in fear.

If you think you have rights, then think again. You know what we actually have? We have ‘the give’. The space between. We have to rely on our human decency for the rights we accord each other. Sometimes the world is about going without something you think is your right, so that someone else can have some peace.

And I guess that’s why I loiter at the Turnham Green tube station. And I guess that’s why I smile and say thank you to the cars that stop. It’s a nod to their rights and mine.

Because life is all in the give.

SP x

 


Please don’t ram your life down my throat, I’ll spit, not swallow.

Last week, at a late-night party, I made a woman cry.

I’m not exactly sure why (there was a lot of alcohol involved) but she had been discussing my ovaries – as women seem to feel they can do. She was overly distraught that I hadn’t used said ovaries. There was ‘still time’, apparently.  Even without a husband. (And why on earth wasn’t I married?) She squeezed my knee. But I don’t want children of my own, I said. She squeezed my knee again. This time with pity. With a sense that there was a whole part of the world I was foolishly missing out on.

She presumed, you see, that I didn’t like children. If I had one of my own apparently, this would rectify that. Preferably with a husband attached. And a house, big mortgage, semi-detached.

I swallowed a large mouthful of Mojito through gritted teeth. It’s such a presumption, isn’t it? Just because I don’t want to birth a child, it doesn’t mean I don’t like them. We’re all Cruella Deville to some mothers – us single women of a certain age. For the record, I once lived with a man for longer than I should have because I simply couldn’t bear the idea of no longer having his children in my life. When we finally broke up I became slightly obsessed with the possibilities of adoption. I was a teacher for 6 years – ‘inspirational’ according the the great God Ofsted – you can’t be that if you don’t like kids. I’m a pied piper with most kids. They like me. I like them. End of. I just didn’t push one out. So sue me.

There are a mulititude of private reasons I’ve chosen not to reproduce and most of them are due to various levels of personal fuckupery and nothing at all to do with small people. Mainly though, ladies, my reasons are not your business. Children and me are just fine. Mothers and me, not always. The older I get the more they look at me funny. ‘Why isn’t she married? Why does she find it so hard to make things work? But the last one was so nice.’

Anyway, In the end I pointed out to this drunkenly wasted-ovary-concerned woman that I was actually very happy in my life, had no child-envy, had exciting things going on, and my pelvic floor muscles were intact. Life was good. (I’ve got quite used to giving this speech). Her smile stretched further (picture Samantha Brick in full flow and you’re pretty much there) and she said, ‘Good for you! Let’s hug.’ 

‘Let’s really not,’ I answered.

She promptly called me a hard bitch and burst into tears.

A hard bitch. It stung a bit. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe her easy tears said more about her own life than they did about my poor ovaries. Or maybe a bit of both. I know some married people with children who are happy but I also know  a lot who swallow anti-depressants like Nurofen and are on the wine by three. Admittedly, I too can be at the wine by three but that’s just for the sisterhood. No, really.;-)

A old friend of mine (well the friendship’s old, she’s 33, hot and single) rang today and we had a long talk about life, the universe and everything (for this read ‘men’, obviously), and she pointed out that when she’s out in bars and men ask if she’s single and she says yes there is a long pause and they say, ‘Why? What’s wrong with you?’ 

I smiled and told her to wait till she’s 40. Boy, do people look at you funny then.

But the thing with me and Kelly is, we’ve been through the mill. She did the 13 year relationship. I went from man to man to man for years. But times change. People change. You get stronger. More confident. More secure. We are now very clear on what we want. We’re very happy with who we are. You can not just rock up and we’ll be impressed. We do not need anyone else to ‘complete’ us; not husband, not child. We are who we are. We’re free.

I’m happy for people who have happy families. I really am. But don’t presume that yours is the only way to live. Let the rest of us BREATHE. 

Am I a hard bitch? God knows.  But I did cry A LOT at ‘Once upon a Time’ when Rumplestiltskin realised Beauty was still alive (You know the episode..*sobs*) so maybe not. I think I’m just driven. I’m attracted to driven people. The semi-detached house is not so important to me. The spark between two people, however, has to stay alive. That’s what matters to me.

Do I believe in love? Yes. Most absolutely. 

Do I want to be in love? Yes. Absolutely. 

Do I want to settle? Absolutely not.

 Rant over. 

SP x

 

 


Topol, Time and Temperature . . .

Clear skies stained watercolour blue. The world backlit by sunshine. Heat suffocating the birds till dusk. Tingles on pink skin. Air indoors too thick to breathe. Salad bars scraped clean in supermarkets. Barbecues. Paddling pools.

All this in one day.

Summer has arrived in London. Finally.

The tension seeps out of me. I’m a smiley girl once again. I purr like a cat even when I’m on my own. Or perhaps especially when I’m on my own. I love the warmth. I live for summer. Maybe it’s a hangover from a childhood growing up in dusty dry heat, more likely it’s just human nature. Summer is a kind season. Aches and pains recede. The days are long and full. We take time to relax. Picnics. Pubs. Parks. Laughter.

I have a love affair with summer. I have love affairs in summer. It’s a cheeky season, that’s for sure. Why can’t summers last forever? Like they did when we were kids? Why can’t summers last until we’re so bored we’re sure we’ll die from it? Remember those days? Yesterday and not yesterday. Too many years gone by.

I went to LA last November. It was beautiful T-shirt weather the whole time. That was apparently the coldest it got. I always thought I’d like to live in a place like that, where the sun pretty much always shines. A place where you could face the morning with a smile. Endless summer. I hate the grey days of Autumn. The bleak, cold days of winter. I can be an Eeyore of a person and it’s invariably when the days get colder and darker that the black dog comes sniffing at my door. Christmas is a little bright light in the middle, but then it’s the long haul through the slush of February before spring and the promise of another summer on the way.

I spend a lot of time looking out the window and waiting for summer.

I might still go and spend six months in LA next year. But live there? No, I don’t think I could. That endless summer felt all wrong. It unsettled me. I need the seasons. We all need the seasons. As much as I might hate the autumn, get irritated with winter and barely tolerate spring, in a lot of ways they make summer more special. Like the bad times make the good time amazing. Like the memories of broken hearts make you love stronger the next time it rolls around.

More than that – and most importantly – the seasons give me the fear. They remind me of time passing. As soon as the chill creeps in and my heart tightens, I know its time to take stock. What haven’t I achieved? What didn’t I do? How much time have I wasted dicking around on Twitter and Facebook when the real things that are important to me are not to be found there. How many stories haven’t I written or read? How many friends haven’t I laughed with?

Every year that passes I need those seasons more. Every year that passes the time they signal gets more precious.  Yesterday and not yesterday. 10, 20, 30 and now 40. The seasons give the fleeting years deadlines. They give my life deadlines. The seasons are a constant reminder that summers don’t last. Nothing does. Not even you. Not even me.

When I was a kid my mum used to iron while watching a video (yes, a VHS) of The Fiddler on the Roof. I still love that musical, even though it kind of makes your heart ache. There was a song in it that always made me feel both melancholy and afraid. Just like autumn does. Even without the lyrics there was something in the music that spoke of sad truths. Of time, always just out of reach, running too fast to catch. The older I get, the more the song makes me shiver a little.

But still, a touch of fear can be good for the soul.

It’s why I couldn’t live in an endless summer. I might forget that the clock was ticking. I might forget the cold winter that gets us all eventually.

Anyway, here’s the song. Have a listen. It’s beautiful and haunting. Think about your time. Take stock.

Then smile, remember you’re still gloriously alive and get out there and enjoy the sunshine.

While it lasts.

SP x

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzK3Jl64dyc