Chapter 1 - Out of Battle by A.J. Hall
The haze over Mareotis was a solid wall in the sluggish heat of late afternoon. A persistent dull rumbling came from the west, like the preliminaries of a building storm.
Miss Haliburton knew it was not, in fact, thunder.
She turned under the sheet, trying to find ease in the clammy, oppressive heat of the City, and wondered, not for the first time, what had possessed her to uproot herself from the old certainties and come so far, so perilously, with so little chance of doing good.
She had come out with such high hopes. Long ago she had concluded that the men and boys who had stumbled into her domain, their limbs awkward and distorted with the effects of long-carried wounds, would have been infinitely advantaged had she been able to get to them sooner, before their bodies became frozen in the patterns imposed by rough dressing-station improvisations and the easily-acquired routines of pain.
So she had set out for the field of war, burning with the clarity of her vision, and the assurance that everyone else must see the wisdom which seemed so plain to her.
For five months now she had been choked in red tape, fobbed off by a hostile and indifferent bureaucracy, who saw her as a useless old maid, an imposition on their good nature, an obstacle to be avoided.
For the life of her she could not remember fully why she had come.
There was an answer, of course. She supposed it had to do with that afternoon she had come back from the hospital. The raid had passed her by almost unnoticed, soothed and rendered innocuous by the banality of routine. The hospital, she had remarked to Doris once, had a routine for everything; including, most especially, death.
She had not known anything wrong until she turned the corner towards home, and felt her feet quicken the pace even when her mind was still denying, still filling in the gap in the houses that she knew - no matter what her eyes might be telling her - could not possibly be there.
The string across the road - the ARP Warden keeping back the concerned and the merely curious - the change in his face as he recognised her (it was Mr Jenkins, the greengrocer from round the corner, but somehow a helmet and shoulder patch had made him a stranger, someone who held, suddenly, the keys of heaven and hell and would not relinquish them for any pleading) had told her all she needed to know, even before his few muttered, embarrassed conventional words. During the seconds before he brought himself to utter them she had firmly insisted to her screaming mind that it was only the still-unsettled dust in the air that caused her eyes to water.
Dust indeed: we are but dust and to dust we return .
There was a faint stench drifting in from the open window in the bedroom: the open drain in the street outside, and a sweet-sickly hint of decay. But for all that the air was less thick in her lungs than it had been that day, as she followed, hopelessly, the directions given back to the hospital, and then on to the morgue, only to be stonewalled by the impersonal courtesy of inflexible routine. Neither spouse nor next of kin? Then no entry. No appeal.
An angel with a fiery sword would at least have shown her that God treated her exclusion as a matter of some importance.
So she had never seen Doris’s face again. Doris’s weak, rabbit-featured sister and the suburban accountant she had married thought that allowing people to view the body was “morbid” and “unhealthy” and they, of course, had the authority to deal with the undertakers which she had not.
She had known then, sitting lonely in the pew as the words of the funeral service drifted over her, that she needed to get away.
She had just not expected to come so far.
There was no point in trying to sleep any more. There never was when her thoughts turned in that direction, whether at afternoon or in the depths of night.
Miss Haliburton rose, throwing on the loose djibbah she had adopted since arriving in Egypt, saving her western tailor-mades for the endless interviews with indifferent officialdom. In the vain hope a cool breeze might have found its way into the courtyard, she went outside.
She almost tripped over the litter lying in the shade of the almond tree.
Recently the local people had started bringing her patients to treat. Grim-faced, she had brought her expertise to bear on the botched efforts of local bone-setters. “Mediaeval” she might have called the medical care available to the poor of the City, had she not known that during Europe’s Dark Ages the City’s medical knowledge had lived on, a beacon in a the night. Only in modern times had it failed its people.
At least her neighbours’ faith allowed her to feel a faint sense of justification for her presence here, while they trusted her with their hopeless cases.
This, whatever else it might be, was not one of those.
His clothes were simple enough - some thin linen tunic. Miss Haliburton, djibbah-clad, was not inclined to cavil at what anyone might choose to wear in the searing heat of the City, and the refugees who thronged the streets wore whatever they had saved from the wreck of their past. Every crevice of skin and cloth was laden with driven sand - the scorching wind had howled overnight, and Miss Haliburton had cringed, inwardly, for those exposed to the desert’s fury. But the beautifully shaped hand that fretted at the cover someone had thrown over him as he lay on the litter bore a massive, archaic seal-ring of wrought gold, and the dry skin stretched across a face wasted back to skin and bone by who-knew-what privations had been shaved with a precision that would have shamed a Jermyn Street barber. Even the tossed blond hair was clean, if you overlooked the sand.
He turned a little as she dropped a hand to his shoulder. His lips were cracked with thirst; the cracks were black with dried blood. He had, she thought, bitten at his lips in some extreme of fear or frustration; mere wind and weather could barely have achieved such wreckage.
Miss Haliburton abandoned what she had been planning to say.
“Wait here,” she said abruptly. His face, the wide pale eyes suddenly vivid and intent under the beautifully shaped brows, looked up at her uncomprehendingly. Not an English speaker, then. “Wait here,” she repeated with careful emphasis. Her experience with dogs had taught her that tone and body language were capable of conveying much.
She had boiled half a gallon of water before retiring for her siesta; it had cooled to tepid now. She poured a quart into a jug, and collected a couple of crude earthenware cups from the shelf above the sink. Ali Bey, the houseboy, had destroyed all her good glassware in the first few months, but he was loyal, thorough in his cleaning - at least as things went round here - and a pearl beyond price when it came to scrounging food supplies. No doubt he would be back from his own siesta soon.
The patient had, as she had suspected, been desperate for the drink. The cracked lips closed over the lip of the cup, and he gulped down the cupful, a refill and half another cup before he looked up again. But her estimation that he had been brought up a gentleman held; before he even touched the water he had looked to see there was enough for both of them. She had learned enough of Middle-Eastern hospitality to slop a little into her own cup before she handed him his, and he had looked back to his own cup, honour satisfied, before downing its contents.
She had moistened a flannel while still in the kitchen. After he had drunk she produced it and dabbed it at his face, relieving him of the worst of the encrusted sand.
Brought alive by the refreshment of the water he gestured around the courtyard. He asked a question in some language or accent unknown to her, but the body language made everything plain enough: Where am I?
“Alexandria,” she said. His face twisted in an odd grimace, almost a smile. She realised, belatedly, that she ought to have been more specific; no doubt he wanted her to say where in the City he had been brought, not tell him something he must know already. But the language obstacle was too profound, and in any event he could not have been brought here had there not been something for her to do.
“Well?” she said brusquely. “What am I to do for you?”
He looked puzzled, but as he pushed himself up on the litter to turn towards her in conversation the suddenly indrawn breath and the awkwardness of his movement gave her all the insight she needed.
“So that’s it, is it?” she demanded, gesturing towards his midriff. “Let’s see, then. Oh, don’t worry about my modesty, young man. I can’t do anything through your clothes, trust me.”
The pale eyes widened; for a moment she felt a cold edge of fear. This was a stranger from a strange land: who knew what cultural taboo she might be transgressing? This was not England: she had felt the weight of six thousand years of civilisation breathing down the Nile, and of something primeval howled on the edges of hearing in the velvet dark of the night.
But then Hector, the half-grown mostly-Labrador puppy, came wandering out from his bed in the kitchen, and thrust his damp nose into the stranger’s hand.
He looked down and smiled, scooping the puppy up into the crook of his arm. Hector wriggled down against his chest with a small whimper that in a human might have been thought to be a sigh of contentment. Miss Haliburton suspected he had been missing male companionship since his original adopters, a tank crew who had rescued him from drowning in a flooded gutter, had been ordered west. The beautiful hand came up to caress the dark fluffy ears, and, in return, a small pink tongue flicked out and licked the stranger’s nose, and the resulting smile blazed across his face. Miss Haliburton saw, then, that she had misjudged his age; the streaks of grey in the bright hair and the etched lines of authority in the weathered face had made her think him nearing the forties, but he could be barely thirty, if that.
The assurance which came from being twice his age, and the comfort of having “placed” him as emphatically a dog person emboldened her; she gave a harsh cackle of laughter and said, brusquely, “Come on, lad! Off with that tunic and look smart about it.”
She gestured, showing what needed to be done. The awkwardness of his movement as he took the tunic over his head told her all she needed to know, even before she saw the mess of his rib-cage and took a quick in-drawn breath.
There had been who-knew-what guerrilla fighting all over the theatres of war in Europe. The Greeks, for example - there were plenty of Greek refugees in Alexandria, and the stranger’s appearance and speech suggested some sort of Balkan origin. The Greeks had fought their way with inconceivable gallantry inch by inch down from the pass of Thermopylae to the last defensible rock of the Pelleponesian peninsula.
His arms and upper chest bore tribute to the battles he must have fought to come this far. But as for the mess of his rib-cage - if that lung weren’t partially deflated she was a Dutchwoman. A commando knife or something like it had been in there - maybe a part-spent bullet, too. She made him get up to turn and show her what level of rotation the pain had left him. It must be intense - she knew that - the effort of will he was exerting to show her there was, in fact, nothing but a minor discomfort from that region was transparent to her experienced eyes, and, anyway, his concentration on that left him, betrayingly, little room for minding anything else. Somehow in the next half-hour he let the cover he caught up around his hips as he had risen from the litter fall to the ground.
Much later in that live-long day he had realised his nakedness and been almost self-conscious, but she had done well enough without words to show herself a Healer first, and nothing second. Amusedly, granted her age, she acknowledged it was generous of him even to ask the question. How Doris would have laughed!
That thought shook her back to herself. She turned to the patient. She made him raise and lower his arms until the grey-white pallor became too obtrusive to ignore. At that she allowed him to sit down on the litter, and took another deep breath.
She rubbed his ribs with embrocations of wintergreen and eucalyptus. She drew diagrams on sheets of paper showing exercises he should take, which he took with a strange gentle courtesy and wonderment. After an hour or more of it she could see him flagging, and went to find them bread, olives and the sharp cheese of the country. Also, since it was in a sense an occasion and she had absorbed her father’s dictum about never drinking alone, without working out how one translated it to a life essentially and deeply solitary, she proffered a stiff double of her preciously hoarded gin for each of them.
She was in the midst of crying harshly at him, “You need rest, of course, more than anything” when the blessed phone, sole remnant of civilisation in an unhinged reality, chose to ring.
The wide pale eyes spread. Gently Miss Haliburton stroked his brow. Being disconcerted by sudden loud noises was not, after all, unusual in young men whose bodies bore the stigmata of a long harsh war.
He raised his hand imperiously, somehow giving her permission to go. As she looked back she saw him smiling encouragement, Hector still making an unconscionable nuisance of himself and climbing all over him. She grinned back, faintly, before turning indoors.
It was a Brigadier on the line. His Medical Officer had once done her the courtesy of listening to her exposition throughout an interminable evening at a party in someone’s stuffy flat. An Air-Vice-Marshal was breaking his journey in the City that very evening - by the fortune of war one of her memos had indirectly come to his desk, and he had found it chimed with his own long-felt concerns. Might she be able to do them the honour of presenting her case in person? Perhaps something could then be done. It was regrettable that the notice was so short, but -
In the flurry of dealing with the call - looking out a presentable set of clothes for the upcoming interview - and the dizzying sense that events were, at last, moving in her favour after so long, she almost forgot her patient. It was half an hour or more before she returned to the courtyard, and by then it was empty, save for Hector, sniffing around where the litter had lain, and making small, bereft whimpers.
There are guests from Susa at Court. King Ptolemy invited me, as is his custom on such occasions, to join the feast yesterday evening. He knows it refreshes me to hear the speech of my own land on the lips of my countrymen, and to hear talk of places I will, no doubt, not see again. Also, the King well knows that with the wars in Asia as they are, the safety of his kingdom may well lie with chance-heard intelligence from those parts and the decoding of nuances of meaning which would be opaque to one not native born.
He has been generous, and I requite his generosity as best I can.
There was a youth who shared my couch, civil and deferential, evidently someone of good family sent off with the Susa envoys to learn the ways of diplomacy. I was told his name, but as chance had it the herald was at that moment announcing the toasts, and I did not like to ask again. His were the classic looks of the antique Persian nobility: his sword-straight profile woke something on the edge of memory. Late in the evening, after the dancing had started (quite good, I thought, for Egypt) he caught my arm, and made to lead me onto the terrace. I almost laughed, and thought of telling him those days are long past - I’ll not see forty again, and what beauty I once had is but a memory. But I saw, in time, it was not his intention, and so allowed him to draw me out into the darkness, flared by the barbarous flames of the leaping cressets, for whatever speech the hall might not be thought fit to hear.
I had been prepared for almost any question but the one he chose to ask. Awkwardness warred with eagerness in his expression as he spoke; whatever was coming was something that had touched his soul, and, as I guessed, he had not spoken of aloud to any other living being.
“Tell me; you knew the King well.”
No need to ask which King he meant; there is a special sound people use when speaking of him, even now. I nodded. The youth’s voice dropped.
“The Divine inspired him, they say, and in truth his deeds show it. But - did he ever say - did he ever tell you - in what form did the Wise God manifest himself to him?”
My face, I suppose, must have spoken volumes. The youth backed away, stammering apologies - it would be forgotten, his words die on the wind as if never spoken. But his face under the torch-light woke in me a fugitive memory, and a sense of obligation. Kalanos, doubtless, would have said I had been his debtor in a former life.
There were some things I had learned from my lord that went too deep to be spoken of; a trust I would carry to the river of fire unuttered. But there were others which, while private, were not sacred. And there remained a faint, fleeting sense of obligation.
“There was a time, once, in the desert,” I said. The youth turned back, caught, hanging on my words. I must have dropped my voice like a market teller of wonders.
“We had despaired of ever finding our way; resigned ourselves to death. He called a council of war, told them he was going to strike out for the sea with thirty men and our last surviving horses. He made it through with five; it saved all our lives.”
Thinking back, even after the feast and with the cool breeze coming up across the terrace, my tongue flicked out across my lips, as though they were still parched and cracked with the burning wind of Gedrosia.
The youth hung on my words.
“Afterwards, I asked him how he’d been so certain what he had to do; that he’d find fresh water. He said that he’d had a prophetic dream, that last night in the desert; that the God had taken him to a strange place which he knew, somehow, was his own place. By the sea; he grew up by the sea as a boy, and he said he could tell, by the feel in the air. He felt at home there.”
My eye was drawn down from the terrace, to another place where cressets blazed in the darkness. They keep the flame lit there day and night; it is no more than his due. The youth followed the direction of my gaze. He would have been taken, no doubt, to the house of gold by the shore earlier that day. It is always the first thing visitors to Alexandria ask to see.
“Was there more?” the youth asked, carefully respectful; I suppose my reverie was becoming prolonged.
I smiled. “Yes. There was a Sibyl. She’d taken the form of a well-born crone, but he said you could tell the divinity beneath, shining through like a light in a clay lamp. She bound up his wounds and gave him food and drink; that was how he knew the Wise God needed his strength for something more. When he woke he knew exactly what he had to do.”
I had said enough; the youth was aglow with it, his face like eager flame. As he turned away, murmuring thanks, the torchlight falling on his face finally lit the blaze of memory within me, and I realised by what torch-light long ago I had seen those sword-straight features before.
I appreciated, too, why it might be thought prudent in his father’s son to incline himself more towards philosophy than soldiering. I almost called him back to send a message, but thought better of it in time. It had been very long since that night in a rough-built timber and thatch hut above Zadrakarta, and all men know that the river of time flows in but one direction.