Authors: Christopher Priest
Print edition ISBN: 9781781169438
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781169445
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: April 2014
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Christopher Priest asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Copyright © 2013, 2014 Christopher Priest
First published by The Orion Publishing Group, London, 2013
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ALSO BY CHRISTOPHER PRIEST
LA RUE DES BÊTES
THE COLD ROOM
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
TIBOR TARENT HAD BEEN TRAVELLING SO LONG, FROM SO FAR,
hustled by officials through borders and zones, treated with deference but nonetheless made to move quickly from one place to the next. And the mix of vehicles: a helicopter, a train with covered windows, a fast-moving boat of some kind, an aircraft, then a Mebsher personnel carrier. Finally, he was taken aboard another ship, a passenger ferry, where a cabin was made ready for him and he slept fitfully through most of the voyage. One of the officials, a woman, travelled with him, but she remained discreetly unapproachable. They were heading up the English Channel under a dark grey sky, the land distantly in view – when he went up to the boat deck the wind was stiff and laced with sleet and he did not stay there for long.
The ship came to a halt about an hour later. From a window in one of the saloons he saw that they were heading not for a port, as he had imagined, but sidling towards a long concrete jetty built out from the shore. While he wondered what was happening, the woman official approached him and told him to collect his luggage. He asked her where they were.
‘This is Southampton Water. You’re being taken ashore at the town of Hamble, to avoid delays at the main port. There will be a car waiting for you.’
She led him to an assembly area in the lower crew section of the ship. Two more officials came aboard and he was led by them down a temporary ramp and along the windswept open jetty towards
land. The woman remained on the ship. No one asked to see his passport. He felt as if he was a prisoner, but the men spoke politely to him. He could only glimpse his surroundings: the river estuary was wide, but both shores had many buildings and industrial sites. The ship he had been on was already moving away from the jetty. He had boarded it during the night, and he was now surprised to see that it was smaller than he imagined.
They passed through Southampton in the car soon afterwards. Tarent began to sense where they were taking him, but after the last three days of intensive travel he had learned not to ask questions of the people assigned to him. They went through countryside and came eventually to a big town, which turned out to be Reading. He was lodged in a large hotel in the city centre. It was a place of stultifying luxury within a cordon of apparently endless levels of security. He stayed only one night, sleepless and disturbed, feeling like a prisoner or at least a temporary captive of some kind. Food and non-alcoholic drinks were brought to the room whenever he asked, but he consumed little of it. He found it hard to breathe in the air-conditioned room, harder still to put his mind at rest, and impossible to sleep. He tried to watch television, but there were no news channels on the hotel system. Nothing else interested him. He dozed on the bed, stiff with fatigue, suffering memories, grieving over the death of his wife Melanie, constantly aware of the sound of the television.
In the morning he tried breakfast but he still had little appetite. The officials returned while he was at the restaurant table and asked him to be ready to leave as soon as possible. The two young men were ones he had not seen before, both wearing pale grey suits. They knew no more about him or what was planned for him than any of the others. They called him Sir, treated him with deference, but Tarent could tell that they were merely carrying out a task to which they had been assigned.
Before they left the hotel one of them asked Tarent for identification, so he produced the diplomatic passport issued to him before he travelled to Turkey. One glance at its distinctive cover was enough to satisfy the enquiry.
He was driven to Bracknell and at last he was sure where he was being taken. Melanie’s parents were expecting him at their house on the outskirts of the town. While the official car drove away, Tarent and his two in-laws embraced on the steps outside their house. Melanie’s mother Annie started to cry as soon as he arrived,
while Gordon, the father, stayed dry-eyed but at first said nothing. They led him into their house, familiar to him from previous trips, but now it felt cold and remote. Outside, a grey day brought heavy showers of rain.
After routine polite enquiries about his need for the bathroom, drinks, and so on, the three of them sat close together in the long sitting room, the collection of watercolour landscapes, the heavy furniture, all unchanged since his last visit. Melanie had been with him then. Tarent’s bag was outside in the hall but he kept his camera equipment beside him, resting on the floor next to his feet.
Then Gordon said, ‘Tibor, we have to ask you. Were you with Melanie when she died?’
‘Yes. We were together the whole time.’
‘Did you see what happened to her?’
‘No. Not at that moment. I was still inside the main building at the clinic, but Melanie had walked outside on her own.’
‘She was alone?’
‘Temporarily. No one knows why she did that, but two of the security guards were on their way to find her.’
‘So she was unprotected?’
Annie tried to suppress a sob, turned away, bowed her head.
‘Melanie knew the dangers, and you know what she was like. She never took an unnecessary risk. They warned us all the time – no one could be a hundred per cent safe if we left the compound. She was wearing a Kevlar jacket when she left.’
‘Why did Melanie go out on her own? Have you any idea?’
‘No, I haven’t. I was devastated by what happened to her.’
Those were the first questions and they ended like that. Annie and Gordon said they would make some tea or coffee, and they left him alone for a few moments. Tarent sat in the thickly padded armchair, feeling the weight of his camera holdall leaning against his leg. Of course he had intended to visit Melanie’s parents, but not as soon as this, the first full day back in England, plus living with the guilt about Melanie’s death, the loss of her, the sudden end to their plans.
After the non-stop travel and temporary overnight stays, the familiar house felt to Tarent stable and calming. He consciously relaxed his muscles, realizing that he had been tensed up for days. Everything about the house looked unchanged from before, but it was their house, not his. He had only ever been here as a visitor.
He came awake suddenly, the smell of cooking in the air. There was a mug of tea on the table in front of him, but it had been cold
a long time. He glanced at his watch: at least two hours had passed while he slept. Sounds came from the kitchen so he walked in to show them he was awake again.
After lunch he went for a long walk with Gordon, but the subject of Melanie’s death was not discussed. Their house was on the Binfield side of the town, close to the old golf course. It was late summer but both men wore thick outer coats. When they left the house they had to bend their heads against the chill blustering wind, but within an hour the weather had changed and both men took off their jackets and suffered the glaring heat of the sun.
Thinking of the heat he had endured while he was at the clinic in Anatolia, Tarent said nothing. It was uncomfortable to be out in the sun, but it was better than the cold wind.
They walked as far as what Gordon described as the decoy site, one of dozens that had been built around London as a fire lure during the Second World War, to try to keep the Luftwaffe bombers away from the city. Bracknell then had been a village three miles away, and the decoy was out in the wild. There was not much to see: the remains of a dugout shelter, bricked up and overgrown with weeds, and some half-visible piping firmly buried in the soil. Gordon said he took an amateur interest in these old decoy sites, and described how they had been used. He sometimes went to look for other sites. Most of the big industrial cities had installed decoys in 1940, but nearly all of the sites had disappeared since. This was one of the less well preserved ones, but some of those up north were in better condition.
Walking back towards the house, Gordon pointed out the hospital where he was a consultant surgeon, and where Melanie had also worked for a while. It was before she and Tarent met. Gordon told Tarent a long story about an operation he had performed several years earlier. Every procedure had gone wrong almost from the start, and although the surgical team did everything possible it was one of those cases where the patient had just died, no matter what they tried. The patient had been on the table for more than eight hours, a young and attractive woman, a dancer with a touring ballet company, apparently healthy, in for minor abdominal surgery, little risk of infection or other complications, no reason to die. That day Melanie had been training as a theatre nurse, on secondment from her ward nursing, and she had been beside him the whole day.
‘I love that girl more than I can ever say,’ Gordon said, and he and Tarent walked on down the hill in silence. By the time they were
approaching the house the cold wind had returned. Gordon’s story about the operation was, for the rest of that day, the only mention anyone made of Melanie.
The next morning Tarent awoke in the guest bedroom, refreshed after several hours of deep sleep, but wondering how much longer he was to stay with the Roscoes. From the time he had been evacuated from the clinic in Turkey his life had been taken over by the authorities. The people who accompanied him never said who they were, but Tarent’s licence to go abroad had been authorized by OOR, the Office of Overseas Relief, so he assumed the bland young men and women who ushered him around were from there. It was they who had brought him here, and presumably they would collect him. But when? Today? Or the next day?
Gordon was already out of the house, away on call at the hospital. Tarent showered, then went downstairs and saw Annie, so he asked her if it was OOR who had warned them he was being brought to their house – she confirmed that it was, but that they had said nothing about when he would be collected.
After breakfast, feeling that he should, he said, ‘Would you like me to talk more about Melanie?’
Without turning towards him, Annie said, ‘Not while I am here on my own. May we wait until this evening? Gordon will be back then.’ She too had a medical background: she was a midwife who worked in the same teaching hospital where Gordon had trained.
Tarent spent the rest of the morning in the guest room, making a start on the immense task of sorting through the thousands of photographs he had taken during the trip. At this stage he restricted himself to looking for the dud or unfocused shots and erasing them. Fortunately, the signal was strong in the Roscoes’ house, so he could access the online library without any problems. He kept all three cameras on recharge, because online editing quickly depleted the batteries.
He took another walk in the afternoon and when he went back to the house Gordon had returned. The three of them sat around the bare pine table in the kitchen, a place of family meals, easy conversation, but today it was different.
Gordon said, ‘Don’t try to spare us details, Tibor. We are used to details. We need to know how Melanie died.’
Tarent began his account with a white lie: he said that he and Melanie had been happy together. Instantly he regretted it, but it did not seem to him likely to affect what her parents wanted to know.
He described the clinic in Eastern Anatolia, situated close to a town but also within reach of four or five villages in the hills. It was one field hospital among several that had been opened in Turkey – they weren’t in direct contact with any of the others, except when a Mebsher called with supplies or relief staff, or one of the helicopters came in with extra medicines or food.
He showed them some of his photographs, ones he had found while scanning the mass of others that morning. Mostly he had selected shots of Melanie to show them, but for reasons he was never going to explain to her parents there weren’t as many of those as perhaps they expected. There were thousands of others, all without Melanie, many of them duplicating each other, some showing the worst victims of the situation in the region, the children mostly, and the women. There were dozens of amputees because of the land-mines. He had photographed many skeletal bodies, babies with diseased eyes, wasted women, dead men. Because the Roscoes were a medical family he felt no qualms in showing them what he had seen. Gunshot or blast wounds, dehydration, diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid were the most common injuries and diseases, but there were other horrors that seemed untreatable, new strains of virus, different bacteria. In many cases starvation took the victim’s life before a more serious disease took hold.
He had taken photographs of water – it was a novelty to come across areas of standing water of any size. He found damp patches under trees, a filthy puddle, a vile swamp littered with abandoned vehicles, rusting oil drums and the corpses of animals. The one river in the area had become a dehydrated track of crazed and hardened mud, with sometimes a trickle of brown water near the centre. Everywhere else for miles around was a continuum of dust, wind and found corpses.
Annie admired one of the photographs he had taken, of Melanie working in the clinic surrounded by desperate people waiting to be treated. Her expression was composed, neutral, intent on what she was doing. The small boy she was treating was lying limp and still while she unwound a long dressing from his head. Tarent remembered the circumstances of taking the picture: it was a day when not much had gone wrong, on the scale of routinely awful events at the clinic. He had stayed inside the building with Melanie because there was a warning from one of the militia groups. It was a disrupted day, men with automatic rifles on the balcony and in the yard outside, alternately threatening the staff and pleading
for drinking water. Every now and then a couple of the younger bloods would fire rounds into the air. In the evening a pickup truck arrived, bringing some kind of leader of the militiamen, and there was another volley of bullets, prolonged in welcome. This was towards the end: Tarent had had enough of taking risks for the sake of photographs, of being there, of hearing guns going off and landmines exploding in the near distance.
He remained silent as Annie held the digital viewer, Gordon at her side, while the pictures flicked past.
On the evening of the day that photograph was taken, he and Melanie fell into another bitter argument. It turned out to be their last row, so everything between them ended in anger. He remembered his frustration, not necessarily with Melanie but focused on her because she was there. He simply wanted to cut loose, head back to England somehow. He could no longer tolerate the endlessly killing heat, the scenes of desperation, the cocksure and unpredictable gunmen, the dying children, the threats and misunderstandings and random beatings, the women with bruised loins and broken limbs, the total lack of any kind of support from the Turkish authorities, if there still were any. Everyone said there was no longer a central government, but the relief charities who sponsored their work should have known what was going on. There was no way he could travel home on his own, so he had to wait until a group of the workers was evacuated, and even then he could not join them unless Melanie decided to leave too. He thought she never would. It depended ultimately on a team of relief volunteers being sent from the north, but there was not even a hint that anyone was coming.
That night, Tarent was convinced they would have to stay at the clinic indefinitely. In one sense he was right, because it was to be their last night together. After Melanie’s death the other medical and relief workers were so demoralized that they began to close down the clinic, abandoning the local people to the heat and the drought and the militiamen.
They never found Melanie’s body. She walked out in the afternoon of the day after their argument, seething with rage at him, saying she wanted to be alone. He said nothing, let her go. Their rows always hurt them both, because underlying the differences was a genuine bond of love and long-term commitment. For Tarent, one of the most urgent reasons for wanting to escape from the field hospital was his wish to repair the damage the episode was causing them. But that day, knowing he was watching her helplessly, Melanie pulled on the
Kevlar vest over her nurse’s uniform, packed a rifle, took a canteen of water and a radio, followed the rules, but she was leaving the safety of the compound at one of the most dangerous hours of the day. When the explosion was heard in the near distance there was the usual immediate head-count, and they knew she was missing. No one had actually witnessed the attack, but one of the orderlies said that immediately before the explosion he had noticed a point of light in that direction, something in the air, higher than tree-height, and so bright it had hurt his eyes. All the security guards, and some of the medical team, drove out in reinforced vehicles to investigate. Tarent was in the front vehicle, his gut instinct telling him it had to be Melanie, that it was all over, but because all they could find was a huge triangle of blackened earth and no sign of a body, her death seemed at first to be uncertain. There was just the weirdly regular scar caused by the explosion, three straight sides forming a perfect equilateral triangle, an inexplicable shape for a crater, with no sign of other wreckage, no blood anywhere, no human remains at all.
By the end of the following day Tarent and the others knew she had to be dead. Even if she had somehow survived the explosion, one so powerful that it appeared to have wiped out everything in its immediate vicinity, she would have been morbidly injured. Without medical treatment, without fresh water, without protection from the daytime heat, it was impossible to survive.
THE OOR PEOPLE CAME TO COLLECT HIM THE NEXT MORNING
– they telephoned the house thirty minutes before he was to be ready, and arrived at the exact moment they specified. Tarent was still upstairs, carefully packing his cameras, when he saw the car drawing up outside the house.
His farewell to Gordon and Annie Roscoe was more hurried than any of them would have liked. Gordon shook his hand, but then unbowed and gave a hug – Annie held him closely and cried.
‘I really am so sorry about Melanie,’ Tarent said, again at something of a loss as to know how to say the right or true thing, and settled for the true. ‘Melanie and I were still in love,’ he said, ‘after all these years.’
‘I know, Tibor, I believe you,’ said Annie softly. ‘Melanie always said the same.’
Tarent joined the others in the car. This time his minders were a man and a woman – the man was wearing a grey business suit, the woman a
The driver was another woman, glassed off from the main compartment of the car. An attaché case parked on a rack at the back of the passenger seats bore the OOR insignia, but that was the only clue as to the identity of these people.
During the drive that followed neither of the officials said anything casual or unguarded to him, and the woman never spoke at all. She faced Tarent most of the time, regarding him opaquely from within her shroud. Soon after leaving the Roscoes’ house the young man spoke to pass on instructions.
He said that they were taking him to London where there was an apartment he could stay in overnight. He gave Tarent a key, and told him where he should return it when he was collected the next day. He would then be driven to a debriefing office in Lincolnshire, where he would be expected to file a detailed report of his experiences in Turkey. This would include him having to hand over the original datafiles of every photograph he had taken. Tarent bridled, as he had a freelance contract with his usual syndicating agency, but he was curtly reminded of the agreement by which he was to be allowed to accompany his wife on her mission. Tarent could retain commercial rights to the pictures, but he would be told if there were any that were not to be published. There would be no argument.
The official then established that Tarent was not carrying a smartphone, so he handed him a new one. The compartment it was removed from at the back of the vehicle contained several more identical handsets. After he had familiarized himself with the phone’s most basic features, Tarent stared out of the smoked-glass car window, a dimmed, darkened view of the Thames Valley. There had been storms in Britain while he was away – Gordon and Annie told him about a particularly violent one just over a week earlier that flattened thousands of trees in the east and south of the country. It was known as a temperate storm, the product of a new kind of climatic low-pressure system. The visit to Melanie’s parents now felt to him like an isolated snapshot of his life: two snapshots in fact. There was the old past, the first years of the marriage, the conventional visits to see his in-laws and to spend a little time with some of Melanie’s old friends and nursing colleagues. Those days were of course gone forever. Then there was the more recent sliver of experience: staying in the Roscoes’ house, recounting for them the last few days at the clinic, Melanie’s death and his abrupt return to the IRGB. So much
had happened in between those two points. Gordon and Annie saw only a part of him, knew little about the rest.
The journey was slow, with several time-consuming diversions into side roads, caused by barricaded sections, and they made two stops. The first was what the male official called a comfort break at a service station. Armed police patrolled. Tarent wanted to buy some food and drink, as he had eaten nothing since a light breakfast at the house, but he was told there was no time. He had no money of his own. The silent woman produced some coins for him, so he went to a kiosk and was able to buy a bottle of water and something wrapped in cellophane that had nuts in it. Another halt was a prolonged one at anonymous buildings that looked like offices but had no identifying signs outside. The woman in the
left the car here and was replaced by a man. He was older than the other, and by his manner appeared to be his superior. Both men sat away from Tarent, one working on a laptop computer, the other reading slowly through a sheaf of papers.
After about three hours, by which time Tarent felt sure they must be approaching London at last, the older man began making calls on his mobile phone. He spoke in Arabic, a language Tarent did not speak or understand. However, he heard his surname several times, and realized the younger man was regarding him, perhaps to see if Tarent was following what was said.
They passed through increasingly built-up areas, approaching the capital. The younger official leaned forward to the driving compartment, said something quietly to the driver, and almost at once the smoked-glass effect deepened on all the windows as well as the dividing glass, making it impossible to see outside. Two dome lights in the car’s roof came on, completing the sense of isolation.
‘Why have you done that?’ Tarent said.
‘It’s beyond your security clearance level, sir.’
‘Security? Is there something secret out there?’
‘We have no secrets. Your status enables you to travel freely on diplomatic business, but national security issues are a matter of internal policy.’
‘But I’m a British citizen.’
The vehicle was moving more slowly now. The road surface was uneven and the vehicle jolted sharply several times. Tarent could see his face reflected in the darkened glass of the window, shuddering as the car rattled along.
‘Where are we now?’ he said. ‘Can you tell me that? And what’s the rest of the route?’
‘Of course, sir.’ The older man consulted his handheld electronic device. ‘We are in west London and have just passed through Acton. We are taking you to an apartment situated near Islington, in Canonbury, but we are having to make a slight detour. After that it will be a straight run through. We do not have much time – we have been warned that another storm is likely to affect south-east England later today.’
At that moment his phone rang, an insistent, high-pitched squeal. He took the call, grunted his understanding of something that was said, then spoke in Arabic again. Still holding the instrument to his ear, he nodded to the other man, who tapped again on the pane of glass that divided the driver from the rest of the car. The dome lights went off, the smoked glass lightened. Both men stared out of their side of the car.
Tarent looked out of his own side. For a few seconds he glimpsed the landscape outside the car. It was a blackened plain, flat, featureless, stretching away as far as he could see. There was nothing out there – everything had been levelled, reduced, annihilated. Were it not for the fact that much of the sky was visible and a low sun was glinting, Tarent could have imagined that the windows of the car were still blacked out.
He had seen this before, on a much smaller scale. The place where Melanie was killed had looked just like it.
Tarent turned towards the other men, seeking an explanation, but already the windows were being opaqued again. He briefly saw part of the sky on their side of the car: a deep, threatening purple. The shades were falling out there, while on his side the devastated landscape had been bathed in bright sunlight.
The glass quickly darkened again, cutting off his view.
HEAVY RAIN WAS POURING FROM A LOWERING SKY WHEN THE
car came to a halt outside a block of apartments on the Canonbury Road. The large car shook with the impact of the wind. The two men went with him to the main door, but did not enter the building. Tarent stood at the door, watching as the two men hurried back to the car, splashing in the rippling sheets of water blown along the street.
Although the apartment building was an old one the flat itself had been recently modernized. When Tarent turned on the lights he found a clean, livable space, with every modern convenience. He put down his bags, grateful to be on his own for the next few hours. He sank into one of the chairs and picked up the TV remote.
The storm had been dubbed TS Edward Elgar, by the World Meteorological Organization. Tarent discovered this when he turned on the TV, and although outer bands of heavy cloud had already hit London and the south-east of England the full central force of the storm was not due to strike until the early hours of the morning. It was expected to reach Level 3 or 4 at its height. There were repeated warnings to take shelter, and not to venture out in the storm. Hurricane-force winds were expected, with flooding and structural damage almost inevitable. To underline the message, the TV station played footage from an earlier storm, the Level 4 TS Danielle Darrieux. This had struck land in Ireland, crossed over into Wales, then travelled east towards Lincolnshire before moving out into the North Sea. It had eventually blown itself out as it encountered the colder and shallower waters off the coast of Norway. Blizzards had isolated the Norwegian town of Ørsknes. It was the beginning of September in Europe.
He looked in the kitchen: the refrigerator was working, but there was no real food inside. There was a bottle of soured milk, a carton of margarine spread, three eggs, a half-eaten bar of chocolate. Tarent was hungry. When he went to the main window of the apartment, which looked down into Canonbury Road, he discovered it had stopped raining. He decided to see if he could find a restaurant that was open, or at least a grocery where he could buy something to get him through the evening. As soon as he was in the street he realized there were almost no shops open. Most buildings were dark, or shuttered. The only restaurant he could find was closed – two streets away there was a small grocery still open, but three men were hurriedly boarding up the windows. Inside the shop, Tarent found a ready meal he could heat up, but the man who owned the shop warned him that power outages were likely. Thinking his stay would last for one night only, Tarent bought two bread rolls, some processed chicken and a couple of oranges. He remembered too late that he was carrying almost no cash, but the shop owner accepted a card from him.
As he left the shop, the power went off.
The flat was in darkness when he returned, and neither the fridge
nor the cooker would work. The power stayed off for most of the remainder of his stay in the flat, which instead of lasting one night only, extended to more than two days. There was no way he could leave. The storm broke in full force, as forecast, during the first night of his stay, at about two-thirty in the morning. The old apartment building was solidly built and was left relatively unscathed by the gales, torrential rain and hurtling pieces of wreckage, but Tarent was cold and hungry. In a small cupboard in the kitchen he found two unopened cans of food (one a mixed fruit salad, the other a supermarket-brand chili con carne), and he eked these out as long as possible. Without electricity he had no radio or television, and the digital network that he used before he went to Anatolia was down. On the second day the battery of his new smartphone became exhausted, and there was no way he could recharge it.
It was impossible to venture out. He spent hour after hour sitting by the window, looking down Canonbury Road, watching fearfully as the violent squalls skirled along the street, carrying water and debris, thrashing against the concrete stanchions that blocked the roadway and shooting cascades of water against the walls of the old buildings. A small office-block directly opposite his apartment window was demolished on the first night, and every scrap of its wreckage and contents was swept away by the gales. Sheets of metal, cables, parts of car bodies, traffic signs, branches of trees, skidded endlessly along the street, adding to the cacophonous racket of the howling gale. The sight of the endless damage was awful but the screeching of the wind was the true terror. It seemed never to let up, never to vary, except, impossibly, to worsen. Tarent had rarely felt more alone or vulnerable than during those two days and night. He was no worse off than anyone else, or so he imagined, and that became a consolation of sorts. For all that he remained uninjured by the violent weather, and indeed safe and dry, he suspected he came through the storm better than many. The building stayed intact, the windows did not blow out, or at least not those in his apartment, and he was too high above street level to be affected by the flooding.
On the second night he slept for a few hours and when he awoke at first light he discovered that by some miracle the electricity supply had returned. He found his mobile phone charging – he had left it plugged into the mains in the eventuality the power might come on again. He cleared all the uneaten food out of the refrigerator and threw it away. He then phoned the number he had been given, and gave the necessary code word.
A Mebsher, he was told, was passing through north London at that moment. It was quickly arranged that it could divert to the Islington area to collect him. His location was known. All he had to do was wait for a coded message on his phone, and he would find the personnel carrier waiting for him in the street outside.
He returned the phone charger to the power source and less than three hours later a message came through. When he went down to the street the Mebsher was waiting. The floodwater was receding, but even so it reached above the axle level of the huge wheels. Tarent waded across to the extensible access steps. Dripping water from his legs and shoes, he clambered inside and took a seat.
THE MEBSHER WAS ORIGINALLY DESIGNED FOR MILITARY USE
: a means of transporting troops and matériel through hostile territory in a vehicle that could withstand most forms of violent attack, including RPGs and IEDs. As conditions around the world deteriorated, Mebshers were used increasingly by aid agencies and government departments, and civilian variants had been developed.
Tarent was familiar with the Mebsher, because in places like drought-stricken Eastern Anatolia, with insurgent militias roaming the hills, it had become the vehicle of necessity. The interior of a Mebsher was utilitarian, every metal surface painted a drab grey, or left bare. Visibility to the outside was restricted, and the few windowed apertures were made of thick, toughened glass. There were always minor variations in the number or type of seats, the interior fittings usually on a scale from rudimentary to broken or not working.
The seat he took was next to one of these tiny windows. He apologized to the three people already on board as he clambered in, his luggage bag and cases of camera equipment bulking through the narrow doorway, floodwater draining from his legs and pooling around him. The other passengers briefly acknowledged him. The Mebsher was under way almost as soon as he had seated himself. He fidgeted around for a while, stacking his bag in the rack at the rear, placing his cameras close to him and trying to find a spare cushion of some kind – there was nothing to be had, so he took a towel from his luggage and rolled it up to make a head-rest. He leaned his head against the metal wall, closed his eyes and tried to
relax. The vehicle rocked and jarred constantly, but there were no extreme movements: the Mebsher was designed for rough terrain. Tarent did not care about the discomfort – he just wanted to be taken to wherever it was intended he should be, and not to think or do anything until he was there. Gradually, his soaked lower legs and feet began to dry out.
It was as usual noisy inside the compartment. The huge turbine engine was in theory surrounded by sound-proofing, but the roaring whine of it could always be heard. The intercom from the driver’s compartment, which was hidden away from the passengers in the front of the vehicle, was switched on. The voices of the two drivers could be heard, communicating in Glaswegian accents. From time to time a radio voice from somewhere else burst in, screeching with static.
Tarent let himself doze for about an hour although real sleep was an impossibility. He drifted for a while, but he was constantly aware of his surroundings. When he opened his eyes he regarded the other passengers, looking at them properly for the first time. There were two men and a woman.
One of the men sat alone in the front row of seats, a laptop computer plugged into the cable socket, and various papers spread out on the other seats beside him. He had short grey hair and what looked like a muscular build beneath his clothes. He had a lip-mic clipped somehow to his jaw and as he read data off the computer monitor, which he held at an angle so that no one else could see it, or from some of the papers, he muttered into the mic. He was using the recognition language applied to certain kinds of software, not English nor any spoken Euro language but a kind of machine jargon, a dialect of code.
The other man and the woman appeared to be travelling together: they sat beside each other in the row in front of him. From time to time they spoke quietly to each other. As Tarent stared at them the man turned slightly away from her, pulled on a black sleep mask and screwed in earphones. He let his head droop forward and he relaxed in his seat, rocking with the endless jerking movements of the Mebsher.
Tarent regarded the woman. He had not yet seen her face. It was half shrouded by a scarf or shawl, a concession many Western women made to Islamic convention, but not formally
The woman had not yet looked directly back at him, nor even shown any awareness he was in the row of seats behind her, but he sensed
that she was as alert to his presence as he was to hers. Her shoulder-length hair, partially revealed where the scarf did not cover her, reminded him of Melanie’s.
Inevitably, he started thinking about Melanie again, what the first attraction had been. Her hair, straight and fine, not too long, had framed her face well. He simply liked the way she looked, and on that afternoon in Bracknell, where he had just completed a photo-shoot, he struck up a conversation with her. It was then they discovered the link between them that had created the initial superficial bond: they were both semi-foreigners.
Tibor Tarent – American father, Hungarian mother, born and mostly brought up in England, feeling British, but always with that revealing European first name, and because of his father speaking with an ineradicable sound of East Coast USA. Melanie was more remotely descended from another culture. Her grandfather had moved to Britain from Poland after the Second World War, married a British girl and changed his name from Roszca to Roscoe. His son Gordon had been brought up without any knowledge of his Polish background, and only discovered it from family papers after his father died. Melanie had even less awareness than that of her distant heritage, saw it as amusing and irrelevant, and had never really thought about it until she and Tarent met. Yet he discovered, early on, that some of her friends called her by an affectionate nickname, Malina, or Mally. Malina was a Polish name meaning raspberry, Melanie said, quietly making the rude noise with her mouth. They were married a few months after they met.
Tarent was less comfortable about his background. It led him to the habit of feeling different, an outsider. He had known it all his childhood, and it worsened when his father was killed in Afghanistan, in circumstances never explained, even by the US State Department for whom he had worked. Tibor was a child at the time, only six. The concealed bomb beneath the roadway that destroyed the armoured Jeep in which his father was travelling was in its own way comprehensible through the familiarity of so many other similar incidents, but why his father had been out there at risk in the rugged hills was never established, or at least never made known to his family. Officially his father was a diplomat but clearly he was more than that, or less. Something other than diplomacy was going on, putting him in a role that sent him out there to a mountain road, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
Tibor’s mother, Lucia, also a diplomat, remained in Britain
afterwards. She was a cultural attaché at the Hungarian Embassy in London, so never in the same kind of danger as her husband, but she too died a few years later, victim to breast cancer, as Tibor was leaving university.
That sense of foreignness became more remote as he and Melanie began a more or less conventional married life. No children appeared. She worked at a hospital in London, but his freelance photography caused him to travel, took him away from her, sometimes for a week or more at a time. After ten years in London, Melanie found the hard routines of hospital work were telling on her. She enrolled with Médecins Sans Frontières, loved the work, but it took her away too, often for many weeks at a time. Their marriage began to crumble. The expedition to Eastern Anatolia, not with MSF but with a new aid body set up by the British government, had been a last-ditch attempt by them both to try to cement themselves together again.