The road is a ribbon of black, a thread that someone has thrown down on the desert.
It is a big desert, flat and stony, with no rolling sand dunes to give the eye relief. There is no break in it, no tree, and no distant line of hills. The sky starts out grey with dust at the horizon, and as it climbs up towards the vault it takes on a shine, like steel, until it is too bright to look at directly.
Somewhere up there hangs the sun, sending down heat that makes everything shimmer and waver.
The car comes driving down the thread of the road, small and white from a distance, growing to the size of a box and then abruptly life size, the noise of its engine rising to a crescendo before it roars by trailing a thin cloud of dust. It is a large and bulky SUV with windows covered in a dark film to keep out the glare. It keeps going at steady speed towards the horizon and is finally lost to view. The dust settles again and the heat haze makes things flicker and waver as before.
The station on the highway is small, just a handful of buildings to the side of the road with a forecourt big enough for large vehicles to park. There is just one vehicle there now – a huge articulated lorry towing a blocky white container, MAERSK on its side. The days when the route would be busy with streams of vehicles are long gone. The station shows the clear signs of economic downturn – walls covered with peeling plaster, the signboards with their Arabic lettering dirty and faded. Nobody is to be seen outside.
The white SUV draws into the forecourt and pulls to the side, as near the shade of the buildings as possible. The driver, a scrawny man brown from the desert sun and weathered by its winds, hops out and opens the rear door for the passengers. For a long moment nobody emerges, and the driver stands by the door holding it open.
The first one to come out is tall and lean; the years have turned his hair white as spider silk, his skin ivory and fine as thin old paper, but his eyes are blue as the sea and still very sharp. Despite the heat he wears a suit, blue-grey and well-pressed, over a tie of the exact same colour and a white shirt. The shirt is so white that it reflects the sunlight hard enough to hurt one’s eyes. He straightens up and rubs his back, looking around. His movements are an old man’s movements, slow and careful.
Close behind him follows a woman in a flower-patterned dress of black silk. Although she is much younger and short and plump, there is enough similarity in the features, primarily in the cast of the blue eyes and the shape of the mouth, to mark her and the older man as blood relatives. She turns and says something into the interior of the vehicle; with obvious reluctance the three children emerge one by one. There are two girls of the same age, about ten. They are blonde and pretty and rather alike – fraternal twins; and they are followed by a rather younger boy.
“Was it here, Dad?” the plump woman asks the older man. “Was it about here that it happened?”
“Yes…” the older man referred to as Dad looks out across the desert on the other side of the highway. The horizon is indiscernible, buried in heat haze. “The trenches were there, on that side. I remember crossing this highway afterwards.”
“I don’t see anything.” The woman looks out across the desert, following her father’s gaze. “I still don’t understand why you wanted to come back out here, Dad. It was all so many years ago, after all.”
“You won’t.” The old man pats her shoulder affectionately. “I don’t expect you to understand. You weren’t there. Lord knows I’ve told you often enough…but I still don’t expect you to understand. I just had to come back, once, after all these years.”
“And…now that you have? What now, Dad?” Dark patches of moisture have appeared at the armpits of the woman’s dress. She turns to look at the children, who are wilting in the heat. “What do we do now?”
“Mom,” says the boy, “can we go?”
The old man says nothing for a moment. He walks, slowly but steadily, more steadily than he has walked for a long time, out of the station’s court and to the edge of the highway. He stands looking down the highway as if for a ride to hitch. The heat shimmer over the road surface fascinates him.
“It was winter,” he says to no one in particular. “We didn’t see it like that.”
He turns his head towards his daughter and waits until she joins him. Her face is red and sweating, but he does not seem to feel the heat. The very old are not troubled much by heat. It is cold that bothers them.
“Dad,” the woman says again, “the children want to get out of the heat.”
“I can remember it well,” the old man tells her, speaking as though he has not heard her say a word. “I’m sure I’m looking at the exact spot, it’s somewhere there on the right. I remember seeing this place – these buildings, only they were new then – on our right when we came to the road, so it was just over there. I wish I could walk over and check, but if I did I’m sure I wouldn’t find a thing. They covered it up pretty thoroughly. Besides I really don’t think I could walk so far.”
He shuts his eyes and sways slightly, and the woman, alarmed, grabs his arm by the elbow to steady him.
“It was night,” he says. “But the flares all lit it up like day. Have you seen flares? It was brighter than daylight, really, because the light came in from all directions and not just from one like sunlight. The poor bastards really didn’t have a place to run.” The woman looks up at his face, his shut eyes, not listening to him, just looking at his face and trying to decide if he will collapse. One of the girls walks over to them, her hair already hanging limp with sweat, and stands by her mother’s side. Neither of them says anything.
The old man’s lips keep moving, but no sounds emerge. His face is pale and his hands clenched. Behind his closed eyes it is no longer a blazing hot summer day and the time is not now. It is night and freezing cold and the years have rolled away as though they have never been…
They had trained for it over and over on the dummy trenches down south, so they knew exactly what the mechanics of the operation would be like. “Make sure you can do it with your eyes closed,” the officers told everyone, and the NCOs told the enlisted men. The enlisted men had nobody to tell it to, so they had got down to learning doing it with their eyes closed.
They had come in from the side, the old man, who had been young and brash then, sitting in the loader’s hatch of the turret of his M1A1 behind his 7.62 mm machine gun. The gun was hammering and getting hot right there in front of him but the noise so incredibly loud that even through his headphones and tank helmet he could not hear it. To his right and above him the tank’s commander was standing in his cupola, his own larger 50-calibre gun firing too, hosing back and forth into the ranks of the enemy. When one of those huge bullets hit a man, he exploded, splashing blood and guts and faeces and the stink of being human out into the world. The commander’s bullets had done a lot of exploding that night.
Behind them came the other tanks. Right up towards the front they could see the tanks of the other arm of the pincer advancing towards them, their guns flashing as they fired, the flashes and the lights of the flares turning the smoke white and pink and other pretty shades of pastel.
Down in front of them the huge bulldozer blade in front of the tank had bitten into the sand easily, pushing it into the trench line and down over the scrambling khaki-uniformed enemy. The enemy soldiers and the sand had been the same dun colour and the bulldozer blades had mixed them up impartially, earth, stones, and bullet-shredded corpses.
The old man remembered seeing one of the enemy soldiers, still alive and defiant to the last, shooting back at the tank with his AK 47. His bullets had been useless, of course, bouncing harmlessly off the dozer blade and the tank’s glacis plate, and the blade had shovelled a mass of sand down on his white crazed blur of a face and the tracks had pressed him under. The old man had felt satisfaction at the time. It had felt great to be able to do that. He had imagined the scene from the enemy soldier’s viewpoint, the huge black mass of the tank rolling down on him, shutting off the sky and air and coming on inexorably in an avalanche of rock and sand. Firing back was idiotic, and the man had deserved whatever had happened to him.
There had been other enemy soldiers too, many of them, who had not been machine gunned to pieces or firing back in stupid suicidal bravery or making futile attempts to escape their oncoming death. They had thrown down their weapons and were waving white flags, handkerchiefs, even sheets of white paper – anything white. It had not helped them. The orders had been to get the job done, not to waste time and effort on prisoners.
“Until their surrender has actually been accepted,” the old man and the others had been told, “they aren’t, technically, prisoners anyway.” So the men who had stripped to the waist to rip off and wave their white vests got buried along with the rest.
Many years later the old man had finally begun to talk of the battle. “It wasn’t really a battle, of course,” he said. “It was a massacre, to be honest. But then I was young and charged up and trained not to think, so I did what I was told. It seemed to have gone exactly according to plan, a textbook battle. We rolled the whole trench line up in one night, without losing a man. How much better could it have gone?
“Do you know when I felt that the whole thing wasn’t something to be proud of? After we finished rolling over the trenches, I found they had brought in earth movers and were smoothing everything over. After we had passed, there were all sorts of things sticking out of the sand, legs and arms and rifle butts and helmets and things, and they brought in these earth movers and covered everything over. By the time it was dawn, you could hardly see that there had ever been a trench; they did so thorough a job. It was as though it was something to be ashamed of, to hide.
“I saw a few of the prisoners we had taken. This was at dawn, when we hit the highway. They had somehow got out of the trenches and been captured afterwards. They looked very small from the turret of the tank, very cowed and weak and puny. I had to remind myself they were the enemy, or else I would have started feeling sorry for them. The captain had warned us about this again and again. We shouldn’t feel sorry for the enemy, or we wouldn’t be able to fight well enough.
“We didn’t see any real fighting after that, in any case. The war ended a couple of days later. We were in the middle of the desert, following up on another armoured division, when we were ordered to stop. By then the sky was so black with smoke from the oil wells it wasn’t possible to tell if it was day or night, not really. We stopped right beside a burned out enemy T-55. The driver’s body was lying next to it. I took a photo of him and kept it a year or two before I lost it. I kept none of the photos from the war. Some I lost. The rest I threw away.
“I’ve had a good life, I suppose,” the old man said. “I wasn’t poisoned by depleted uranium and I didn’t end up with PTSD or get made homeless or anything like that, and I enjoyed the parades when we got home, but I never really forgot what we’d done. Over time it’s begun to bother me more and more. I don’t really know how to get it out of my system. Maybe it would help if some day I could go back.”
The Arab driver of the truck parked outside the station sits behind the window of the cafeteria and looks out at the American family standing at the roadside. His mind is pleasantly blank while he waits for his assistant to return from the counter with their orders. He has learned the trick of blanking his mind. On the long drives it is one way to relax.
The driver has been travelling this road for many years. First he had done it as a soldier, and after that as a civilian. He has changed employers time and again, but travelled this same highway, sometimes all the way down to the distant coastal ports and then back. The road is rich with memories. He has learned to try his best to avoid a lot of those memories, but sometimes they come back.
They had already been totally demoralised by the air raids then, in their positions near that city to the east, the city that had been liberated and made part of the homeland again. They had slept out in the open, in the cold of winter, because to sleep in barracks was to invite death. The buildings they had first occupied were bombed out ruins. In the end the raids had been so constant that it had seemed strange when a day went by without them taking place.
He had been a truck driver even back then, trained in the skill by the army when he had been conscripted. He had never been given a gun of his own – his military experience had been that of those who serve the fighting men. He had spent the days before the war driving up and down the highway, carrying sacks of food and bales of clothing or boxes of bullets and sometimes livestock as well. Once or twice he had driven truckloads of soldiers too, fighting troops in their khaki combat fatigues who had jeered at him for being part of the rear echelon. By that time he had been long enough in the army to know when he was well off, so he hadn’t said anything.
When the raids had started he had just arrived, as part of a convoy, in the liberated city. They hadn’t been allowed actually to enter the town – the base had been just outside, but the city was clearly visible on the horizon, the tall white buildings rising like mountains out of the morning mists and catching the dawn’s sun. He had never got to enter the city. Once the enemy had begun bombing, he had been told to stay where he was and stand by.
During the days and weeks of raids some of the men had deserted. He had heard that some of them had been captured at the former border, north, and shot for cowardice. He hadn’t really reacted to the news, though it had deterred at least a few of the others in his transport section from contemplating deserting. Some of the others had been given leave, but only a very few. His turn had never come round.
Those were days when he had written letters, many letters, to his parents and sisters. His father, a baker, had been alive then; he had not found out till afterwards that an American Tomahawk missile had killed the older man in the street on the first day of the ground war. Just once he had received a letter from home. It had told him nothing, the words stiff and formal as they always were when either of his parents wrote a letter.
Then, suddenly the order had come to move out, to clear out completely and immediately. The Americans were moving in from the south and west, the divisions on the flank had been overwhelmed – rumours were flying in from all sides. Nobody knew anything for sure. Everything was in a panic, men rushing around to load up trucks and cars and transporters for the move out.
His own truck had been spared the bombs but was without fuel. Along with a couple of men, whom he promised rides to the north he had got a few cans of diesel from wrecked vehicles, enough to partly fill the tank. By the time he had driven out the road was a single, gigantic traffic jam, and the smoke clouds had lain heavy overhead, thick and dark and oily. The traffic
didn’t crawl forward. It lurched, like a drunk, as knots of vehicles untangled and formed again. He did not know either of the two men sharing his truck’s cabin, and they had not known each other. Nobody talked. It had not been safe to talk for some time, because there had already been rumour of rebellion and mutiny against the President. Nobody knew who was on which side.
The American planes had come down then, like hawks on their prey. He had seen them through the smoke, in flashes, flying like silver birds through the smoke, and the bombs had fallen from them like teardrops. He and his fellow soldiers had been helpless – there had been no way to fight back, no way at all. They couldn’t even manoeuvre their way through to safety. The bombs had fallen and burst in huge spectacular fireballs and sent showers of flame raining down on them in their vehicles.
He had got out just before his own truck was hit. Before him a car had been turned turtle by the blast of a rocket, its fuel tank on fire and the blazing petrol flowing on to the road. To his right a flatbed was a mass of flames. Somewhere to his left was the edge of the highway. The two men with him had already left, just before the car was hit. Unable to think, choking on the smoke, he had felt the heat coming through the floor in waves and had thrown open his door and jumped, landing on blacktop turned sticky from the heat. He had stumbled blind towards the edge of the road, stumbling over something and almost falling. In the light of the fire he had caught a glimpse of what he had stumbled over. Below the shoulders it was a charred mass of ash, but the face was that of one of the two men who had come with him.
Somehow or other he had come out into the desert, out of the wall of fire behind him. An American Thunderbolt had come roaring by low overhead, its massive cannon flashing as it strafed the tortured mass of metal and humanity on the highway. He had not paused to look back, just stumbled on as fast as he could to get as far away as possible. He had stumbled past and over other charred bodies, some of them still alive and moving, but not looked at them either.
At some stage he had found himself among other survivors, all moving in the same general direction, past smoke and flames and broken equipment. They saw no more planes. And then, pausing to take a breath, he'd felt that he was barefoot, but looking down he saw that he still had boots on, so he decided he was imagining it. Only later did he find that his boot soles had almost been burned off by the heat of the highway, and the abrasion from the sand and stone of the desert had finished off what was left.
In the end they had finally got back beyond the border, without being attacked again, and found some organised, complete, army units. He had been given some food, new shoes, and stuck behind a steering wheel and sent straight into action. The war was over but the south was in rebellion. He had done as he was told. It had been months before he had been allowed to go home again.
“Dad?” asks the woman anxiously. “Are you all right?”
“They called it shifting the sand,” the old man mutters. “Just shifting the sand. Don’t think about it as any more than that, is what they told us.” He opens his eyes and sways slightly. “As though we were construction crew.”
The woman nods, not understanding.
“I think we can go now, dear,” says the old man. “I think I’ll be all right now. It’s over now.” But he knows it isn’t over. One can come back to where it all happened, but one can’t give back the past. The baggage stays with one, always and forever.
“Mom,” says the girl, tugging at the woman’s sleeve, “it’s hot. Can we have a Coke, please?”
The Arab truck driver at the window moves his heavy, still muscular, shoulders and watches the American family walk back towards their hired car. He watches the American family, good-looking, well-dressed and obviously rich, and he wonders why, with all that he has, the old man is crying.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011/12