Sun glinted on steel, head thudded on sand, too far to hear. Casing the black Ross Stepsun 12×50 binos, lenses shaded by leather hood, he started the long crawl backwards, elbow by elbow inching down the reverse slope, brushing his trail from the sandy ground with a horsehair whisk, souvenir of another campaign, another continent.
What memento would he take from this? Brain-seared images: twisted features of a screaming girl dragged into his field of vision, face naked, body shrouded in torn black abaya that did nothing to shield tender flesh from a hail of stones until, hands clutching head, she dropped? Or the helpless watching man in white thobe and ghutra, arms pinioned and fear-filled face gripped so he could not turn away? Until forced to kneel, ghutra lifted to bare his neck. The curved blade rose, glittered, hovering a moment like a bird of prey sighting its target, then swooped: a crescent of light. They were not the first to die for love. Nor the last.
Sweat dripping into sand-colored dust, Lieutenant West reached the abandoned well. He mopped his face with green-and-brown camouflage scarf, leaned over the circular wall of stone grooved from generations of rope lifting camel-hide buckets, and retrieved his water-bag and radio. After moistening cracked lips and parched tongue he tuned in to Khormaksar Control, confirming his own position and the location, already marked by circling hawks, of the village where, just before the incident of what he guessed was a terminal case of domestic violence, he had spotted his quarry, the dissident leader Abu Haddad and his followers loading kneeling camels with Soviet landmines.
Harry West took shelter in the well, shelter from a desert sun, shelter from the rising din of war.
Rarely did his mind return to that harsh land until, what seemed a lifetime later, an identical incident of terminal domestic violence, witnessed in grainy images around the world, resulted in a decree that their women could travel abroad only if accompanied by a close male relative: father, brother, husband or son.
Waiting for a client making her last flight before the ban came into effect, ex-Captain West stood in Arrivals at Heathrow, holding a name-card, and wondering what she would be like. Her uncle had given him no more information than flight number, the name she traveled by, and that the family were transferring her to a girls-only boarding school in the English countryside. New York, he said, was getting too liberal.
Uncle, a minor prince with a major appetite, spent most of his time wheeling and dealing in London: engineers and lawyers by day, dancing girls by night: Omar Khayyam in Regent Street, Cashlite in St James’s, Pars Persian in Earls Court.
With a brief ‘Get a movie set up for later,’ the Prince set off with one of the hotel drivers on a round of contract hustling while Harry headed for Heathrow by way of Clapham, where a garage-operator ran a sideline: a projector-hire business with a stock of films to the taste of princes.
Trolleys piled with Gucci and Louis Vuitton rolled by as First started to come through. Professional anxiety pervaded the Terminal 2 chauffeur group: anxiety for clients to be alert for name-boards, not wander past to be hustled by some random pirate who would charge them half and think he was ripping them off.
Harry saw her.
‘Jee-zus,’ he heard from a Hertz driver, ‘just look at that.’
These many years gone by he sees her now as clearly as he saw her then, walking with thoroughbred grace through the concourse of stares and lip-licking tongues.
She comes closer. His body goes hot inside the charcoal suit, his neck fills the collar of his white shirt, and his throat dries up.
She stops in front of him, looks up at the placard. Can she hear his heart?
Face and body of a young Liz Taylor, rock-chick hair. Sparkling eyes black as jet. Honey-colored skin, generous lips. A smile to make deserts bloom, please God…fleeting thoughts tumble round his brain. If he lost his head he could lose his job. And his head for real. She could be stoned to death when, if, they got her back.
‘Hello-o. Anybody there?’ She must have been used to the effect she had on men. Laughing sexy voice, soft American accent.
‘Er. Sorry. Yes, yes, I’m here to meet you, Princess. Your uncle …’
Her face darkened slightly.
‘Sorry, ma’am. The Prince…’ She shrugged. ‘Cool!’ He took the trolley, led her to the parking lot, opened the back door to the Cadillac. Not a happy family, then.
‘Can I sit up front?’
‘Of course, ma’am.’ Back in role.
‘Get you, man! Your name wouldn’t be Hudson?’ Harry’s mind pictured the TV butler, a comparison with His Smugness he really did not appreciate.
‘No.’ stiffly, ‘my name is West, Harry West.’
‘Harry.’ Dazzling him with a grin. ‘I guess you call my uncle Your Excellency? Your Highness?’
‘He instructed me to call him by his name.’
She giggled, ‘You Brits,’ and turned her voice to posh English, ‘So, Harry, I instruct you to call me Dawn.’
He melted, held the door. She sat, swung her legs in. Dark flowered skirt, inch of white lace, dark pantyhose, patent shoes. An Arabian Sloane.
He didn’t call her anything for a while. He knew many of her people: princes, princesses, bodyguards, slaves, businessmen, but had never been alone with a young westernized girl.
She pushed the radio button. Kenny Everett crooned, ‘Just cram your finger in the phone,’ plugged a product and played Dancing Queen.
He kept quiet. He liked them. Delivering takeout to the Montcalm he got told off by Agnethe for bringing the wrong flavors. ‘Don’t mind her,’ said Benny, ‘she’s missing her kids.’
Dawn played push-button and complained of the lack of music stations. Harry made listening noises as they joined the traffic into Central London. He felt excited she was there, beside him.
Harry loved his Cadillac. It had space in back to lie full length on the floor, where he would provide full limousine service to the Prince’s girls either after their duty done, or warm-up beforehand. But they were working girls and the one beside him now was altogether a different story. Life in the front seat, mostly solitary, had its moments: Ingrid, Grace, legends, sitting behind but talking with him, seeming interested. And other conversations, overheard. Last week, tennis stars: ‘What happened in the restaurant? Where d’you go?’ American, Boston.
‘Out back. In a closet upright we did it.’ European, guttural.
‘Howja know she would? Maybe she just wanted your autograph.’
‘She held my look that little bit too long. Autograph she did not ask.’
‘Did she say anything?’
‘No. We made sex in silence.’
‘Like, was she on the pill? Did you use anything?’ No response. Boston went on, ‘Maybe she did get your autograph. Maybe she’ll look you up some day.’
‘Ach, it was too quick for that.’
It was dark when they reached the hotel. The concierge called the suite. ‘The Prince has been delayed, Harry. He will return later.’
‘Thanks, George. Can you call up?’
‘Certainly.’ The understanding between servants, unspoken and crafty.
Dawn came out of her room, hair wet. She’d changed into an electric-blue dress, tight lace-up front showing the upper swell of her breasts.
‘Like it?’ She twirled. Yes, Harry thought, I do understand her family’s concern about the liberal ways of the west. They’d have been more concerned about the libertine ways of ex-Captain West. But had he paused to think how it would end, would he have begun? Or was it written? He wondered how hard she found returning home for vacations. How did she adapt to a culture where woman was ‘lower than a lame camel’? Or was he just part of the furniture here anyway, a safe reliable retainer she could show off to.
‘Wow,’ he said carefully. She pulled a face.
‘You don’t like it. I’ll change.’ Her voice went croaky.
‘No, I do like it. I really do. It’s beautiful.’ To hell with it, he thought, to hell with the Prince, to hell with me. He looked straight into her eyes. ‘I like it, Dawn. It is beautiful.’
Should he go on? Dare he? She stood one hand on the back of a brocade armchair; she stood very still and looked at him a long time. He felt he could have touched that silence. ‘And I think you are beautiful.’ His heart was thudding. He held her gaze. He was almost sure he hadn’t offended her, but only almost. If he had, and if she told her uncle, he could be more than fired. There were others like him who could get these very rich men anything they wanted at very short notice.
He saw her breath quicken, heard her voice thicken.
‘Where is my uncle? When will he come?’
He felt a lurch in the gut.
‘Later. I don’t know. He’s been delayed. I have to set up a movie for him.’
‘What kind of movie?’
‘I haven’t seen it.’
She reddened. ‘I know what kind of movies my uncle and his friends watch.’
‘Have you seen any?’
‘No…’ serious face turned bright with mischief, ‘Hey, shall we? Or will you get in trouble?’
He shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. ‘If I get in trouble he’ll just get another driver for you. Anyway George will call up when he comes.’
‘I don’t want to get you in trouble.’
‘I’m in trouble already, Dawn.’ He kept his eyes on hers. ‘Dead trouble.’
Face serious again, she came round the chair and sat, smoothing the dress beneath her.
‘I’m sixteen. I’ll probably have to get married next year. I’ll be locked away to make babies. I don’t resent it. It is written. But first I want to have some fun.’
They both knew what her life would be, hand rocking cradle.
In a cold sweat he set up screen and projector, slippery fingers threading the film through little wheels and spools. He went to the door, hung out the Do Not Disturb sign, and locked it.
They sat side by side on the carpet. He put his arm round her shoulders. Dawn leaned her head back, wet black hair cool against his cheek. The movie ran. He felt her tense, then relax, as they watched a group of hippies making out in a trailer. She whispered, ‘I’ve never done it before.’
That one word, before, told Harry what he was aching to know.
‘Do you want to do it now?’
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