Maura was slowly awoken by an absence of sound. It was the same early hour that she usually woke, but she was not in her own bed this morning. She blinked at a large ceiling fan whirling above, and remembered she was on the coast. The roar of the MiG jets was missing. Every dawn for weeks now in the capital, she had been awakened by that distinctive scream of burning fuel made on take-off by the nation’s fighter planes. They sounded like giant blowtorches scorching out over the air base, the soundtrack to what the BBC had described as ‘the impending renewal of hostilities’.
She threw the sheet away from her and lay on her back. There was a sound, though, muted and repetitious. It inspired rest; it complemented this state of half-sleep. She relaxed again, and returned to it with slow recognition—the sea. The creep of water up a beach, the neat slap of the tide against the sand, and the swirling, mellifluous drag backwards to meet the next surge.
The relief of a day without the bombs and dust of the city made her not want to waste it. She walked into the bathroom, checked for scorpions in the shower and let the water rinse away the heat of the night. Then she pulled on a pale linen dress and her hat and grabbed a towel.
At the back of her mind, the reason for her visit lingered like a bad dream. But since it was a Sunday, she at least had twenty-four hours before she had to address the task ahead. To keep a low profile, she had chosen one of the older local hotels. The brand new concrete and glass one in town was for the sociable set; the so-called ‘resort’ out on the beach was off the main drag and pretty run-down. It catered to volunteers, illicit lovers and gun-runners.
She herself had come as hatchet-bearer. Following orders from the People’s Democratic Republic of Zohmea that all international aid organisations leave the country within ten days, she had been sent to close the organisation’s coastal field office. The Zohmean staff who had worked so hard for five years with some of the country’s most vulnerable war victims would not only lose their jobs, but risk detention as collaborators after the exodus.
The door dragged along the stone floor as she tried to open it, pulling in sand that had scattered across the veranda in the night. Its wood was old and warped, almost no paint left to speak of, since the hotel had lain vacant during the decades of war. A jumble of roses had grown wild over the filigree woodwork of the balcony and in an open sky the sun was ascending from the horizon of a calm, blue expanse.
Maura looked around and closed her eyes, imagining what it must have been like when it was a resort. The garden surrounding the massive Italian villa would have been splendid. At one end of the shallow bay there was a pier that must have been bobbing with boats, and at the other, where her room was, the cabins facing the shore would have been modern and bright. Now there was a forsaken enchantment to the early morning beach. Mare Rubrum—the Red Sea.
She walked down and sat a few feet from the waves, imagining the galleys that had once brought spices and silks from Adulis to Asia Minor, and on to Persia and China. How many wars since then? How many lives and dreams lost below the same horizon? It had been a while now since her mind had wandered like this, and she happily let it stray.
Watching the strengthening light shimmer like liquid across the surface of the water, she gradually felt the heat build on her shoulders and head. She let her hands rest on her knees until the quiet began to break up with the sounds of port machinery down the shore; shards of conversation from the dining room in the villa.
The port was partially operational, but like the whole country, its potential had never been fulfilled due to the conflict. Cargo cranes stood motionless along the quays; the roads in and out of the town had almost no traffic. It struck her that living here sometimes felt like heaving through the last days of a cancerous patriarch, who was strangling his own children in death’s throes. A salt and seaweed tang filled her senses and then the familiar cry of a seagull brought her back into the present.
Out of the corner of her eye, she became aware of a man walking slowly in her direction along the water’s edge. Interesting, she thought. Blond-headed, another ferenji. Part of her was irked at having to share the beach, and another part was intrigued at who would be up this early on a Sunday morning. The man stopped and smiled, crooking his head, as if requesting her approval to approach. She smiled back, not moving. He walked slowly toward her, bent down at her side and stretched out a hand. In his palm, a tiny green and black starfish quivered, droplets of salt water in its intricate patterns.
‘Oh!’ she said. She was completely captivated. He gestured and she let him take her hand.
‘For you,’ he said, resting it into her palm.
She looked at the starfish, then at the man, who was watching her and smiling.
‘Beautiful?’ he asked.
‘Yes, beautiful!’ She examined its convoluted design. Shades of gold, black and lime all glinted from its tiny form. She had never seen one before and it was quite perfect. The man’s eyebrows crinkled into a quizzical arch, as if now seeking her consent to stay.
‘Thank you.’ She smiled, and then again more broadly when he sat down. His hair, close up, was more silver than blond, and his eyes shone with a blend of scepticism and surprise, as if he were as astonished to find her as she was to see him.
She brushed the starfish with her finger, and when it moved she felt an army of tiny sucker pads move on her palm, squealed and started to laugh. His own infectious laugh billowed around her and she found herself curiously at ease. He said nothing for a while, and it was clear that he spoke almost no English. But he was willing to make the most of what he knew.
‘Beautiful!’ he said, indicating the sea in front of them.
‘Waves,’ she said.
‘I love. Always.’
‘The oldest sound.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But also new. Every time new. And new and new and new.’
He said it with drawn-out, somewhat grandiose emphasis, echoing the movement of the surf with small gestures of his hand and head.
‘You are from Russia?’
‘Hmm…something like that,’ he said, grinning as if challenging her to guess. Maura tried to remember which post-Soviet independent ran the planes for UW.
He clicked his tongue and threw his eyes up to heaven, in mock horror.
‘Ukraine!’ she corrected.
He nodded his head. ‘You are English?’
‘Nothing like that!’ she frowned, mimicking him.
‘Ha! Irish!’ He was chuffed that he’d guessed correctly, and they shook hands in a conspiratorial bargain. So, he was one of the pilots on the United World carrier flights. The crews based in Khartoum rented cabins in the hotel on a long-term basis and their mates from routes around Africa joined them from time to time on R&R. They piloted old Russian Antonovs mostly, transporting anything from supplies, aid workers, military, refugees and often, according to rumour, armaments.
He didn’t seem like a typical military man, but that didn’t mean much. She had given up trying to define people out here. In the field you never knew. Right now he was just a guy in a bathing suit, with a great face and a skewed sense of joy that she did not care to fault.
They left the starfish on her towel and walked along the beach. Communication eased into a flirty blend of gesture and speech. He had a habit of repeating certain words to emphasise them, and he didn’t seem to tire of trying to make her laugh.
‘I drive plane.’ He indicated this with full visual embellishment.
‘Khartoum – Juba. Juba – Khartoum. Lokichoggio – Darfur … ’
‘Oh, the nice places?’ she asked.
‘How about a flight for me?’
‘Hmm… Sure. Where you want, Madame?’
‘How about Hawaii?’
‘No problem, I take.’
‘Sure. For you, first class. Vodka: free, free—no question asked.’
‘No question asked.’ She was delighted. ‘Frequent flyer miles too?’
He grinned back, not comprehending.
After a late breakfast of sugary black tea and flat Arabic bread with honey, they set out to walk along a ghost promenade nearby. At one end, they broke into a decrepit bungalow that overlooked a private jetty, once the holiday home of the former dictator. There was still even a cluster of tubular steel bar stools visible in their watery grave beneath the balcony, the end to a party that the revolution had quashed, and never forgotten.
At the end of the pier, he took her hand and without words they walked in a pleasing silence. When it got too hot, they went for a swim, the calm allowing them to venture quite far from the shore. The biblical sails of some wooden dhows, ancient as the sea itself, bobbed back and forth in the distance, and every now and then she caught sight of military trucks making their way up the long coast road from the airport. But besides that they were alone; even the choppers were taking a day off.
‘Of course, no swim Mogadishu,’ he told her.
‘No. Plenty shark.’
He began to laugh.
‘You think there are sharks here?’
‘No—they on holiday Somalia.’
‘Jesus…’ she splashed as fast as she could back to the shore.
They went to her room to shower, and stood in a besotted embrace beneath the water before moving to the bed. He caressed her face with his hand, crinkling his eyes, pronouncing, ‘beautiful!’ They spent the rest of the afternoon under the whirr of the ceiling fan, closing the shutters to deflect the intensity of the daytime heat.
She surfaced somewhere around five in the afternoon, and watched him in the fading light as he slept. He wasn’t young, and in fact quite a bit older than she had originally thought. He bore deep lines on a face that was still striking and had probably been handsome, but had lost its way somewhere down the line. It was the face of a junkie, or an actor.
When he knocked on the door later to pick her up for dinner, he was wearing plain khaki pants and an old-fashioned waistcoat, adding a somewhat surreal touch of Graham Greene to the evening. And why not, Maura thought, shielding her head against the mosquitoes with a cream-coloured cotton hat. They walked through a maze of narrow, winding streets with whitewashed walls. In the absence of street lighting, sporadic haloes of oil lanterns illuminated the craggy faces of men in conversation on the steps of carved wooden doorways. Smells of spicy frying came from a myriad of courtyards and above them, minarets and crosses alternated against the sky.
In a small plaza at the meeting of three streets near the harbour, they found seats at one of four tables lit by a string of low-watt bulbs slung overhead. They ate fresh white fish that had been brought in that day on the boats, served off an open fire. Lemon juice and bottled water accompanied the meal, since the fishermen did not serve alcohol. Every now and then he poured an inch of potent vodka into their tumblers, adding an illicit edge to the proceedings.
A three-quarter moon had risen by the time they made their way back to the resort to play at being lovers: no better game. They opened the shutters in her room and climbed in under the net. Questions simmered somewhere in her mind: family, future, past. She bet he knew the current wholesale rate for a functional RPG-29, but why would she ask.
‘Tomorrow, I go Khartoum,’ he said later.
‘Okay. I have never been to Khartoum.’
‘I not stay there. Go Chad.’
‘A new route. Not so good,’ he grimaced, shaking his head.
‘What mean?’ he asked, frowning. Maura made a few attempts to explain herself, and settled on ‘I understand.’
‘Ah,’ his eyes crinkled.
‘I’m leaving too. I’ve been PNG’d,’ she told him.
‘When the Government decides you are a bad person—and you must leave the country. They say you are persona non grata.’
‘You very bad person!’ he challenged, laughing.
‘No seriously—they throw you out. After five years, I have to leave.’
‘I am sorry. Where go?’
She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. ‘Oh, you know — Khartoum, Juba. Lockichoggio maybe.’
‘The nice places?’
She pushed him back on the pillow and tickled him in the ribs.
Her sleep was fitful, and despite the ceiling fan, she was too warm. Waking with a start before dawn, she was filled with nervous anticipation, waiting for the roar of the warplanes. But only a foghorn sounded out in the bay. For a moment it took her right home; she longed for the cold, pure mist of her own sea. She turned around onto her back. He had felt her restlessness, and stroked her face.
‘Every morning, in the capital, at this time,’ she explained. ‘I hear the sound of MiG jets taking off. They always wake me.’
‘MiGs? I drive!’
She waited a moment, not sure she understood what he meant.
‘You fly MiG jets?’
‘Before where?’ It came out too sharply.
He hesitated. ‘Afghanistan…’
Maura sat up in the bed, frowning, and drew her knees up under her chin.
‘Before, long time…’
‘Ah.’ She couldn’t think of any way to respond, and just stared through the mosquito net into the darkness.
He turned his back to her and rolled on his side, facing out towards the sea in silence. When she lay back down, he didn’t turn to embrace her. She didn’t touch him.
She considered this stranger. Earlier, she had watched his face in sleep. Admittedly, there was something about it that she had half-hoped would never be explained to her. And yet. Here is a man who brought me a starfish on a beach at dawn. No more and no less. Enough, maybe. She thought of how they’d found the starfish on the way back from dinner, where she had abandoned it on the towel at the water’s edge. They’d returned it to the sea, but it was dying; its vibrant colours bleaching down to faded ochre. She pulled up close to him then, reached her arm around his chest to hug him. He took her hand in his and held onto it, and they stayed like that until they slept again.
Around dawn, he lifted the white net carefully and slipped outside it, pulling on his clothes and shoes. She feigned sleep. Before he left, through the mosquito net, he kissed the back of her hand, and she felt the star of his breath on her skin as the door of the room closed behind him.
She listened to the waves through the open window, to this sound they both loved, apparently; the oldest sound, but also new, and new, and new…