Monday 6 February 2012

The Road To Nowhere

The road to nowhere winds along through the red desert, through the featureless immensity, with nothing to show where it begins and where it might be headed.

I’m at the wheel of the burned-out car with the missing windshield, clutching the steering wheel which has melted and buckled from some forgotten fire. The bonnet of the car is loose, and flaps up and down with every jolt and every pothole, and the road to nowhere has many.

The wind off the desert blasts at me through the frame of the windshield, hot and dry and full of the cruelty of the desert. This desert is cruel beyond all others, hostile to anything even remotely resembling life, and the rocks that make up its substance resent even the passage of my destroyed car over the road laid across their bosom.

I think I’ve dreamt this all before.

The first time was, oh, I don’t know, twenty years ago, and I’ve dreamt it maybe twice or thrice a year, I think, since then. I can’t say for sure, because when I wake up it’s only a fast-fading memory. Afterwards, I can never remember it: until I begin dreaming it again.

It’s one of those dreams where I know it’s a dream, right from the beginning, but at the same time it’s real, so that I’m in the dream, and the things that happen are happening to me, and I’m powerless to break free of them.

It always begins the same way, this dream. There’s the old desert landscape of eroded bedrock, and sunset-red skies. I’m driving along the road to nowhere, through the red desert, under the red sky.

Far in the distance, I see the place where I must stop. The sight never fails to send a thrill of apprehension down my spine, and each time I see it I try to drive past. It ought to be easy to do that, since I’m in control of the car, for all that it’s a burned out hulk, but somehow I never can. My hands swing the steering wheel, automatically, and the car turns off into the driveway, and I stop in front of the house.

Even though I know what’s to come, even though I know the source of my fear isn’t in the house itself, the building has always terrified me. Tall and blank-faced and white as bone bleached by this desert sun, it crouches like a predatory bird, a couple of windows staring out across the desert from an upper storey. At some time in the past, it must have been burned, and a great scorch mark defaces the near wall. The scorch mark almost looks like a Christmas tree, or the distorted shadow of one.

As I get out of the car, music begins playing. This is always the first sound I hear, because until this point the road to nowhere knows only silence. The music is slow, mournful, and repetitive, playing a single series of notes over and over. In between, there is a second note, a sound I can almost hear, but not quite. This second note makes me, always, worried and apprehensive, because I know what is to come.

I walk round the side of the house, staying as close to its wall as possible, away from the brooding malevolence of the desert. The desert has songs I don’t want to hear, songs that are set to the music, dirges that destroy the soul with the weight of their sorrow. I stick to the wall and hurry because I don’t want to hear the music.

The door is at the back of the house, and it’s always open. Sometimes it’s a perfectly ordinary door, slightly ajar. Sometimes it’s splintered and hanging, shattered, from its hinges. Sometimes it’s rotted away and falls to pieces at a touch. And once or twice it’s been made of heavy metal, like a bank vault, but opened easily at the pressure of a hand. Today, it’s of some dark, heavy wood, and there’s a vertical crack down the centre. When I push, it falls into two pieces, sagging, but leaving enough space for me to squeeze through.

As always, I stop inside the door for a few moments, getting used to the shifting play of light and shadow on the walls and ceiling. It’s like being inside a beating heart, with the red pulsing light and the slow throbbing music. There’s the corridor straight ahead, which leads to the hidden recesses of the house, which I have never visited. And, on the right, there are the stairs which I must climb, though every fibre of my being cries out in protest.

This is always the point I find myself, after climbing the stairs, a climb I never remember: standing at the windows looking out over the desert, out over my burned out shell of a car, and over the road to nowhere.

But now the road is no longer empty, no; the road is crammed, jammed fender to fender with vehicles of all kinds, cars and buses and lorries, tanks and troop transports and vans, vehicles in such numbers that movement is all but impossible. And as I stand there looking at them, the music rises, slowly, louder and louder, and then the music fills the world, and the years roll away. I’m back in February 1991, flying over Kuwait. The years fall away, and then is now.

Again, I’m looking down at the road to nowhere, but this time from the cockpit of an A-10 Warthog, the heavy plane moving at the merest touch of my fingertips, and below me, the trapped line of the Enemy, helpless in their column of vehicles, trapped in their withdrawal. Far ahead comes the pall of smoke where other planes have already bombed, and now it’s my turn.

Here I come, flying at just above stall speed, because the Enemy are not shooting back, just staring helplessly up at the winged doom coming down on them, and I fire, the huge GAU-8 Avenger Gatling cannon blasting death down onto the Enemy, tossing entire vehicles up into the air like matchbox toys. Here I come, laughing excitedly into my mask because the Enemy is trapped and it’s fun to kill him, and it’s safe too, because the Enemy is withdrawing, not fighting, and is utterly incapable of defending himself.

Here I come, and the cluster bombs drop free from my underwing racks, exploding like blossoming flowers, and the Enemy is obliterated in smoke and flame as I pull smoothly into a climb, banking to come round again, listening to the air controller’s instructions in my earphones, because there are so many of us over the target that there’s a virtual traffic jam. And I look down at the road, and the Enemy burning to cinders, and I’m laughing, laughing.

Abruptly, I’m back, back to the present. Somehow, at this point, I’m always out of the building and back behind the wheel of my car, pulling away from the bone white house with the Christmas-tree scorch on the wall. And now as the music fades, as I know it will, the undertone takes over, whispering, and it’s the song of the desert, and try as I might to shut my ears, I am compelled to listen.

Up ahead, the road to nowhere is jammed, as I know it will be. Now I’m part of the jam, too, vehicles to left and right, cars so close their bodywork almost kiss mine. Figures sit inside these vehicles, just too dim to see clearly, silhouettes which nod and move their hands on their wheels and look at me with faces that stay in the shadow.

It’s always at this point that I feel compelled to look to my right, towards the burned frame of the passenger seat. Always, always, I try to look away, but my head turns despite every bit of willpower I can muster, and I see him.

He sits in the passenger seat, lolling against the far door, what is left of his face turned towards me. He’s no longer human, not in any real sense of the word, unless a charred corpse counts as human, but he sees me, and is aware of me, the burned eyeballs in his skull regarding me calmly. He raises one hand and caresses the edge of the dashboard, and his fingers leave tracks on the metal, as though it’s as soft as putty. And, each time, I am terrified that he will reach out and touch me, but he doesn’t. Instead, he leans towards me, the remnants of his lips moving, and the scene dissolves...

...and I am in a small house, the whitewashed walls bare of decorations. Outside the window, I can see a palm tree, nodding, and if I get up from the bed and walk over to the window, I shall see the Euphrates, a strip of vivid blue running through the land. But I have no desire to get up and go to the window, because I’m lying back in the soft afterglow of love, with my beloved lying in the crook of my arm. Tomorrow is another day, and who can know what the future can bring? But now I have my beloved, and in the aftermath of our lovemaking, life is sweet indeed.

My beloved moves beside me, the soft spread of her hair on my chest, and I kiss the top of her head and trace the line of her shoulder with my finger, content. Tomorrow, ah, tomorrow is another day, and the desert wind blows through ancient mausoleums, but love is love as long as it should last, and I am content.

...and I am back behind the molten steering wheel of my car on the road to nowhere, and I know now how it got burned, the fire is no mystery to me, and he, my passenger, is leaning towards me, trying to speak, and I must listen, I must listen to him, if I am ever going to find a release from this. I must hear what he’s got to say.

And then the sky splits open with a banshee shriek of jet engines, and the planes come hurtling down.

(In tribute to the victims of the war crime known as the Highway of Death, Kuwait/Iraq, February 1991.)
Photo by Kenneth Jarecke

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

1 comment:

  1. As I think I said about one of your other pieces, a magnificent tribute.


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