Then We Fled

When the sound of the firecrackers morphed into the sound of explosives, I knew it was time. My uncle’s shop, the opening of which the firecrackers was intended to bless, went up in a single sheet of white flame, the target of a shoulder-held missile. I quickly shaved my head, assembled my possessions (the book, the pencil, the headscarf) and tumbled down the stairs, to join the seething mass of panic in the streets. Just outside my apartment door, on the wall half-covered in yellow paint, half the colour of concrete, someone had scrawled a string of digits, possibly a telephone number. I mentally noted the first, third, fifth and seventh numbers, and discarded the rest. None of the city’s telephones were working anyway – and it might have been a cipher, or a code. Perhaps Ali. On the street his face was impossible to recall, shrouded now in smoke from guns and falling people. Somehow you were standing where you said you would be, by the lamp-post in the centre of the roundabout. We embraced, swiftly, then wheeled your bicycle out into the oil-soaked road. I didn’t think we’d make it to the station but all the way I whispered encouraging words into your ear, playing with the strands of your hair and tucking them gently behind your ear. Occasionally I’d kiss your neck, the unruly strands flying into my mouth even as my lips reached the warm shores of your skin. You too wondered whether we would see him again. As we dodged the broken bricks and never-to-be-completed sidewalks, now just gaping mouths or gashes in the skin of the city, you let fly with a string of curses. I could practically feel you blush. The injustices, the sovereign neglect of the crescent moon. All of it, like a fire fuelled by black beetles. Survivors were running from the rubble of tenements, holding sticks of bread aloft like batons, as if wanting to bring the dried crusts down on the heads of passers-by, radicals, gun-toting grandmothers. Everywhere, small girls screaming, old men pleading, grinning youths checking identification papers methodically, as if they were rare chapbooks. Entering the pristine boulevardes of the protest, the enormity of our struggle became opaque: before us, flags burning on their poles; behind, the sordid rush of eradication, the fires of a thousand impossible plans. Ali, I thought. There somewhere, hopefully no longer hiding in the compound. Someone would eventually find him there, following the scent of an addled dog. I prised my hand from your shoulder for long enough to push my headscarf back, to feel for one last time the ashes and intent of the heated storm. That old woman covered in oil, coercing our eyes into pity. That burnt donkey, stiff as a pinata. That pipeline above the street still pushing its precious menace towards the port, all black doom. At the station, seven million heads bobbed, sometimes disappeared, then recurred. There would never be enough seats. The trains had stopped coming anyway. That much was clear. You braked suddenly, unable to get any closer to the terminus of today’s incendiary events. Maybe the port, you began but stopped short, seeing a river of blackened heads moving that way already. The thought of the sharp blue waters filled with desperate dog-paddlers brought us back to the reality of things, like dusk. There was no longer even a way to go back, retrace our passage. The story had come to an end. We dodged flying bullets, climbed a lamp post and somehow managed to secrete ourselves inside an abandoned coffee shop. Posters on the wall had begun to smoulder, as if soaked in lemon juice and carefully set alight, like pirate treasure maps. We stayed there, crouched below the level of the window, for most of the night. Intermittent crowd roars followed arcane arabesque massacres, or so it seemed, until the quiet of night’s depth convinced us otherwise. Just the sound of logs and steel being pushed off transport ships, you said. I couldn’t help thinking of Ali and his pet rooster, the animal’s caustic pecking and Ali’s adolescent cries. I thought of the small coup at the rear of the compound, where the chickens had been incinerated by the heat flash. I thought of your hair, and how it would break my heart to see it set on fire, a fate you had miraculously been spared, thus far. Just before dawn I burnt the book, page by page. The pencil would come in handy, I thought. I used it to draw the four numbers I had memorised on the wall, hoping insanely that Ali might pass this way, instinctively enter this room, distinguishing its musty code from those of all the other wrecked rooms in the occupation. We made love wearing our headscarves as blindfolds, hoping to warm ourselves against what was to come. Then we spoke quietly for a few moments in your language, words we hadn’t used for days echoing sadly in the still room, all of their meanings deferred. Then, at first light, the explosions started up again. I wiped away your years, you mine. Then we fled.

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