I open my eyes. Everything is black. I blink. Still black. I reach out, tentatively, hoping to discover again her curved, comforting, sleepy and sensual form, ready to cosy up to her, just as I normally do on waking.
But the bed is cold. No-one there.
I am flat on my back, and so I try to roll over onto my side. A sharp pain rips through my chest. I fall back. Why am I in darkness, in pain and alone? Then it hits me – this is not my bed.
I try to think – where was I last night? Nothing.
A blank. Then I remember.
Yesterday afternoon, in the blazing sun, adorned with silk headscarf and wielding banners of truth, I was marching with my brothers against the regime. We were chanting, laughing and shouting. Our spirits were high. Change was in the air. I remember holding my brother’s arm as we chanted. My brother-in-law that is, not one of my many other brothers brought together as one family by our debauched, deluded and deranged ruler.
A pain in my heart now: my brother-in-law – a bad feeling. Very bad. No details, no facts. Just a nebulous, dull ache. I realise: something went badly wrong yesterday… What was it? Now I move my hand over my chest, near my heart – the wound I can feel there is weeping. I am not worried – I have suffered many physical insults before in the name of freedom. Nothing one of my capable brothers – or sisters – cannot fix for me. But this dark feeling – this is one I have not felt before. A dense black ball of pain, obscure and uncertain as the night, yet one that pierces my heart and mind with the brilliance of a malign death-star. I feel I could cry forever.
I remember now. The section of the crowd I was in had finally reached our rallying point, in front of the palace, all triumphant and delirious with collective anticipation. The brutal agents of our dear leader were no longer in evidence, taken by surprise no doubt by the massive uprising that seemed to have come from nowhere. No snipers on the rooftops, no troops to greet us with guns, tanks and brutal intent.
Yes, we had finally won.
She was there. Not part of the surging, chanting mass of brothers and sisters merging into a confluence of joyous celebration in the centre of the massive central square, but calmly waiting for my brother-in-law and I, over in the far corner, underneath the crumbling colonial façade of the government building.
I remember thinking: why is she is not smiling back at us?
Then it was the massive roar. We surged back towards the centre of the square, where our hated leader, so contrite, so humble, on the pristine white balcony of her sumptuous palace, faces the crowd. Still trying to claim some kind of reflected glory, a sickening attempt to steal a victory (or maybe just her own life) from the jaws of ignoble, shameful defeat – my beloved nation, she opines, this is what I wished for you all along… maybe she actually believes what she is saying. Maybe. But the hundreds of murdered children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and political opponents all beg to differ, as they turn in their graves.
Whether delusional or just lying self-preservation, our soon-to-be-deposed leader’s abdication speech is almost drowned out by the ecstatic and increasingly impatient crowd, until at last she shakes the hand of our revolutionary and adored leader, who despite the many wounds and incarcerations he personally suffered at her hands, graciously accepts the reins of power, and with this takes the heart of our entire nation into his hands.
And now another memory: in the celebrations, I’d somehow become separated from my brother-in-law. I supposed either that he had simply got lost in the crowd, or perhaps that he was still at the government building where we had seen my wife – his sister – maybe half-an-hour earlier. Naturally, I wanted to share this moment, the happiest day I could ever remember, with both of them – we’d all been through so much pain together at the hands of the regime. So I worked my way back through a sea of green, red and yellow scarves, smiles, hugs, tears, laughter, chants and victory dancing, eventually reaching the edge of the sinister old building, where we all knew so many lives had been routinely dispatched. No sign of my brother-in-law, but my wife is still standing there, on the corner. She takes no part in the celebrations, and seems instead to be waiting anxiously for something, or someone.
It cannot be me she waits for, I sense, for when she sees me, she does not welcome me. She seems shocked.
Before I have chance to call her name, a black Mercedes, bullet-proof and with impenetrable dark windows, clearly a carriage of the now defunct regime, sweeps into view from a little side street that runs adjacent to the building. I cannot believe what happens next. As the evil-looking car slows, a rear door opens, a man leans out and hastens my wife to get in. I recognise him as my brother-in-law. He does not see me, but hurriedly stepping out from the building and onto the kerb, my wife turns toward me. With a fraction of a wave and an expression I have never before seen on her face – one that will surely haunt me for the rest of my days – she gets into the car and is swept away, far from the madding crowd and out of my life forever.
Then, the last thing I remember: a heavy, hard object – maybe the butt of a sub-machine gun? – is slammed hard into my chest and everything goes black.
Now, a vertical white line of intense light, connected at right angles to short, horizontal one, describes the outline of an opening door. Widening, a familiar silhouette appears, and tells me that I am at my mother-in-law’s house, for it is she who now enters the room bearing a tray of iced coffee and fresh figs.
“You were very lucky” – she says, tenderly stroking my forehead. “You were nearly killed”.
“How did I get here?”
“My brother found you knocked to the ground. They thought you were a death-dealer. You were about to be trampled to death”
Then with deep sadness and defeat in her eyes: “Have you seen my daughter? My Son?”
I cannot bring myself to tell her that her own flesh and blood were with the now-defeated regime, the one that took her father, her sister and countless friends. Nor can I bring myself to tell her that most likely she will never see her children again.
But I do not need to – my silence, my face, tells all.
Deep down, she knew all along.
She moves silently to the shuttered window and opens it, as if in slow motion. In the distance, as tears begin to stream uncontrollably down my face, the riotous sound of the victory celebrations continues, unhindered by our grief.
© Simon Atherley, August 2011