ISSUE 32
June 2006

Martin Thomas Malone

 

Martin Thomas Malone Martin Malone is the author of three novels: Us, After Kafra (Poolbeg, 2001) and the IMPAC nominated The Broken Cedar (Simon & Schuster, 2003). His memoirs, Dogface, The Lebanon Diaries, is due for publication in Spring 2007 from Maverick House Publishers, and upcoming is a collection of short stories, due to be published by Blackstaff Press. He is a former Irish military police NCO who has served in Lebanon and Iraq.

A Withering Of Courage

 

 1

So far Frances has stopped three times to confer with their map. Not so much a map as an A4 page with a rudimentary sketch of turns and villages improperly spelt. Each time she said she was fine. Just checking. Each time he'd grunted, eyes intermittently flickering open.

The road they travel carries no pedestrians, no cyclists, no old men astride pannier laden donkeys, no women balancing baskets of pomegranates on their heads, no other motorists.

The landscape is bleak with the trunks of severed pine trees scarred black by shellfire. A spine of grey rock splits a grassy hill. Sparrows perch on a fallen pylon and a bullet-punctured and bent-in road sign that says, in blue on white, Governorate of As-Sulaymaniyah. Iraqi Kurdistan. Ominous skies are threaded with silver above near mountains. 11 a.m. They have been travelling for almost five hours.

Sleep comes for him again and he is powering down. And as this is happening, Frances says, 'This is the way, I'm sure.'  She veers the white soft-skinned Peugeot off the asphalt on to a dirt road, and his eyes open to this before his mouth. Too late.

The small explosion jerks the Peugeot into a skid; the engine cuts out. There's a cloud of black smoke, a reek of burning rubber. A second where nothing is said. Then Frances shouts shit about five times. Landmine—anti-personnel. AP. Alfie knows.

'Jesus!' she says.

His thoughts scramble for order. His stomach ices over, nerves are minced. Right leg shakes; his hand no steadying influence. His fear surprises him for he knows the nature of the beast and should not be surprised.

He inches open the canvas door and puts his foot to the ground, remaining half-standing and half-seated. Right off he realises he's in serious trouble. The first drops of rain fall tentatively. Serious drops indicating downpour. He tells Frances about the trouble. She leans by his shoulder and looks down at his foot.

'I see it, just about,' she says breathlessly.

He notices how her lips always move after she's spoken, like there is more she has to say but her tongue has derailed the words.

He has flown in the face of all sound advice imparted to him. Advice he himself had delivered on countless occasions: Watch your step before you step. 

Now he is watching after he has stepped. This shouldn't be happening to him. The lion tamer should not allow himself to be eaten by the lion. Still, it happens. Fuck. To bad lion tamers.

 

2

Blue Gore-Tex trekker on a steel platform—the anti-tank mine, AT, is shit brown in colour, the circumference of a dinner plate and the depth of a deep-pan pizza. Suddenly he begins to breathe a little easier.

No problem, he thinks, immediately contradicting himself. Mines are always a problem. They sleep with their eyes and mouths open. Got these teeth inside that are primed to burst out of their skin and shred you.

If it had been an anti-personnel mine he would be either dead or maimed, though he could have drawn a dud. He draws comfort from the fact that sometimes what should kill a person doesn't.

The type landmine his foot rests on usually requires a heavy pressure to detonate it. The weight of a truck, a tank, a soft-skinned Peugeot... There are things to do. Compose. Focus. Think...  Remain calm, Captain. Calm. Get a grip. Think. 

Frances asks if she can help. He doesn't answer. She asks again. And he snaps at her to shut the fuck up. What was she thinking of—driving down a dirt track?

'I wasn't fucking thinking, was I?'

'I'm going to lift my foot—maybe you should go back to the road—walk the tyre track—there's a risk, too—but it might...'

'No, I'm staying here, with you', she says, tears falling, words shaking on a breath of fear.

 

3

Her crying irritates, and he asks her to stop crying in the best-mannered tone he can muster, while his mind screams for her to get a fucking grip. The rain turns serious, spattering hard against the canvas, muddying the earth—creating a slick trail for the mines to shift?

Plans, he thinks. Never trust a plan. Mosul was their plan: spending the night in a hotel and the next morning visiting Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian world. They share a common interest in the old bones of things. Unearthing things; if not mines, artefacts.

Think—concentrate! But his thoughts are renegade and difficult to call to order.

Frances leans across the seat and squeezes his hand, and by accident kisses the ring on his finger. She's still crying, but it is a quiet crying and does not pick at his  temper.

'This isn't what I meant when I said I wanted a good bang,' Frances says, her breath coming in tiny gasps through her chattering teeth.

'Don't make me laugh, Frances, please.'

She touches his face. Mentions how pale he has become. Cold. Clammy. He is the hot and cold man. 

The small flesh-coloured birthmark in the middle of her forehead she calls her 'Third-eye.' He wants to tell her that in light of what has happened it is no such thing, but says nothing. This experience is for him a living slide into his worst nightmare. It is something, he thinks, he might not have to live with. A peculiar solace.

 

4

Okay. Right. Bearings: he is half-sitting, half-standing, so all his weight isn't on the mine. Good.  The mine should not explode. The odds are stacked in their favour. But they won't know if these are accurate until he lifts his foot. They'll have an instant result.

Frances whispers the Lord's Prayer. He loves her accent, the burr in it, its flavouring of mint breath. 

He tries not to think of body bags. But it is hard not to imagine. And he thinks, too, of fate, how a fraction of a second either way can mean a difference between living or dying: be it on motorway, an airplane or, in a bad call, to travel down an Iraqi dirt-track.

Body bags holding body parts. What sum of parts constitutes a body?  There's a general rule of thumb, he imagines—pun—thumb—he supposes any part that can be found.

Losing it.

Lift your foot. Do it quickly. 

Now!

A forever moment.

'FUCK!'


Done.

Relief. They laugh so hard, cling to each other. His knee can't stop shaking. His heart has resumed beating. Greedily they suck on Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Excited—so fucking excited. Alive. He ignores the darting pain from his cold sore. Alive. Alive...alive o.

 

5

She rests her head against his shoulder. They don't speak. The rain has passed. In its wake a smell of dampness, of soaked earth, a coldness and worst of all, a  complete and utter miserableness.

He wonders sometimes if fear and not love drove them into each other's arms. The realisation that death was literally a step away had refined their senses, stripped them to the naked wires? Perhaps they did what scared people do—search, cling, fornicate.

Frances opens her door. He grabs her arm.

'Where the fuck do you think you're going?'

'I need to pee, Alfie.'

'You know the drill.'

'So did you...'

Drop it, he thinks, just drop it.

'What now?' she asks, easing the door shut.

He shrugs and says they're okay. Not to worry. He's full of conviction, though he doesn't know where this comes from. He does not know for sure if under and around the jeep is clear, if the slightest movement will trigger another mine. He simply does not know.

Clambering into the back he rolls up the canvas flap. They are about 25 yards from the asphalt road, on a slight incline. Their tracks are clearly visible. Gently, he lowers the tailboard; its link chains straighten and fix parallel to the ground. Then he kneels on it and scans the dirt below for a visible sign of mines. Lowering his two feet into a tyre rut he eases to his hunkers and calls her with his hands to join him.

 

6

Stick to the rut all the way to the road. You'll be fine. I'm going to reverse out—you'll guide me.'

Frances crosses herself. They kiss before she commences to walk. She wears a silver cross and chain. It lies between them when they make love.

When Frances is on the road, he begins to reverse, inching his way under her wave, her advice, all of which he finds annoying. He has left something of himself behind, he knows, and brought something new with him.

Frances stands with her arms folded, watching him jack the jeep and switch wheels. Surprisingly, beyond paintwork and a ravaged tyre, little damage had been caused: part of the rim a pout.

Stopping on the outskirts of Kirkuk a half hour later they enter a bleak café of the sort he had seen along a highway in the Arizona desert. He orders pita bread, black olives and sugary black tea. When Frances returns from the bathroom, she says this is a quaint little place and in her next breath, 'We'll catch Mosul another day.'

'Yeah, I know, you didn't have to say it.'

'Just in case you get any bright ideas about carrying on—you don't ignore a warning. We got a big warning.'

He nods.

Their near-death experience refreshes Life's taste buds and they are giddy at having survived. Right now he wants normality back in his life. Frances, too.

 

7

Exiting the café Frances crosses the road to a roadside trader and bargains at length with him over a wine-coloured rug.

'For you, Alfie,' she says.

'Me?'

'I am allowed to buy you something, I think?'

'Feel free,' he laughs.

'Who's he?'

'Saucy cow.'

At a Kurdish Pershmerga checkpoint an officer wearing a black and white keffiyeh scrutinizes their travel papers. He waves a fly from his eyebrow, looks past Alfie's shoulder into the rear of the jeep. He wears a Browning pistol encased in a leather holster and a bright green lanyard. The magazine is prevented from accidentally leaving its housing in the handle by a lick of black sticky tape. Under armed guard in bamboo cages sit three young men: dishevelled, dispirited, bruised and bleeding from abrasions. Frances questions the officer in Arabic and frowns at his response.
'Terrorists—Iraqi soldiers,' she translates for Alfie.

If she has noticed what he has brought with him and what he has left behind, she does not say it openly.

In central Baghdad, returning the aged jeep to the hire depot, Frances talks about their blow-out to the dealer from whom she rented the Peugeot. They give him a few dollars extra, not as much as he'd asked for but more than he'd expected.

'My place?' Frances suggests.

'Sure.'

There they shower together. The mutual cleansing a ritual, a celebration at having survived. They don't kiss because of the cold sore tucked in the corner of his lips—a while ago fear of contagion didn't matter.

Coitus Delectare, Frances says.

'Yeah,' he says, as if he knows Latin, 'I know a little French, that's all. Say it in French.'

'No. It's something good. You know that much, surely?'

He shakes his head, 'You'll have to teach me the hard way.'

At night he leaves a sleeping Frances in the bedroom and moves into the living area, sitting on a sofa while waiting for the kettle to boil. In this waiting for the water to sing, he holds his hands out in front of him and watches them shake. It is as though the tremor in his heart had travelled to his fingers. He feeds his nerves a cigarette and stares into the TV, at its dull green quietness, at his reflection.

His hands tell him he is no longer of use in the devil's gardens.

 

 

Martin Thomas Malone: Fiction
Copyright ©2006 The Cortland Review Issue 32The Cortland Review