The world is painted black and red. It runs down the walls and across the dusty floors. They came here. I tell the man. They came here, can you not see? Are you colour blind? Look at the walls. You can touch them now, go on, get it on your fingers. They have dried of course but they were hot and wet. This is my family. It was their home. Do you not see? Can you not see where it is heading? Follow the cloud of dust or this will happen again, it will, if you care, if you care…
At first it is just a haze on the horizon but then it grows: a cloud of dust, moving fast, skittering across the desert sands: and then the noise: at first a hiss, or a sucking sound, and then a clattering and a rat-a-tat-tat. Soon the noise degenerates into a succession of booms and crackles and finally, finally come the engine roars. The engine roars are worst. It means they are near. It is that minute of fear, where what was distant blasts into reality, shattering all hope and dismembering thought. I cannot think. I want to die. I might.
It is the international day for biodiversity and the ants are back in their colony; the dust mites sleep still; a shoal of mackerel flashes by; lions yawn; a lone curlew prods the shoreline with its bill; cows head towards the gate; a sheep chews dry grass on a high promontary; the bats hang till dusk; antelope twitch; a crow crosses the river; a dolphin cuts the surface with its fin; a monkey cheers; a human traverses a dusty road, enters an air-conditioned building and sips a cool water. He coughs, winks, and then he orders: let the onslaught commence.
On the polished table was a huge salmon; bowls of spring vegetable soup; Scotch eggs; asparagus and hams; potatoes from Majorca; goat’s cheese tartlets; prawns with caviar; pea-shoot jellies; scallops with spiced cauliflower puree; roast chickens and guinea fowl; confit duck; sherbets and ices; five kinds of trifle; a tower of profiteroles and more cheeses than he had ever seen.
* * *
He lay in his bed, visions of dishes lurching round his mind. From his toes to the hairs on his head he felt obese. The best evenings were sordid, he thought, and oh what a feast: he deserved it all.
What a sad old duck it was paddling round the pond. Was it a mallard? Ducks had names – there were all kinds. Short little things the size of a tennis ball or others with long necks, elegant, with all different colours. Oh ducks could be sleek, really dapper, dressed up for dinner like.
That made him laugh. Duck for dinner. He chewed his sandwich and swallowed hungrily. The last thing he’d eat till tomorrow. The duck was eyeing him. He looked at the small corner of bread, half squashed between his finger and thumb and threw it in the pond.
At first it happened slowly, blistering the skyline and the dusty roadside only occasionally. People turned to look, crying out. But soon, more and more little outbursts came, a ceaseless bombardment, and the city became quickly transformed. The past was forgotten.
There were little explosions of colour all across Homs, cherry blossom firing spring into consciousness. The blossom was soon lying thick on the streets and the children said it looked like snow from the movies on TV. Delicate pinks and ethereal whites were strewn across the avenues and clung to the little houses, and all, for now, was good.
They say we have no solutions; that we are in disarray, confused, guileless; we have no plan; we are so loose a collective as to be redundant.
But what a cockeyed view that is: of course, we are all those things. We have been pulled this way and that, confused past our wits, futures beaten away, our aspirations mocked, torn apart and isolated.
Of course we have no solutions. We are not paid to find them. Our wages pay for others to do that. It is they that turn from responsibility, not us. We can only protest, remain, shout, hope.
Oh but the rains I remember, alternating with the regular insistence of windscreen wipers: downpour, drizzle, downpour, drizzle, downpour, drizzle. They seem so long ago. Now, the way I see it, the world is brighter. Plants bud sooner, the birds always sing. There are children playing in the cul-de-sacs and everyone, at any time, can glimpse the tiniest speck of summer. In February the sun is warm on my neck. If it rained last week I can’t remember. I walk to the shops, meet friends. I have no jacket with a hood, no umbrella. The reservoirs, they warn, are dry.
In the park the dog was wrestling with a bone. Hey, said the man, throwing a ball into the sky. The dog ran across the frosty grass and the ball soared into the winter blue, rising above the trees. Upwards from the tops of the oaks and birches a bird flew – maybe it was a dove – towards the gold-flecked river; and out in the distance, across the water, was a thin white plume. Aeroplanes. Horizons in Europe, the Indian Ocean, warmer climes, desert sun, heat. The heat – a missile caught in a tragic arc, screeching to earth. Earth, flesh, bone.
It is the 12th of December. The passing of steady time is played out with a handball game in Doha, the King of Bahrain at Downing Street and Iraqi soldiers graduating into action after a mere month’s training in Kirkut. Was it Kirkut? The name remains, lingers like a strange flavour in the mouth. And from behind a grate there is heard a scratching, shuffling sound. Something is coming; some rough beast in a vast image, a revelation in these parts. But now clear, black and white, moving its slow thighs, Tian Tian the panda appears – and we forget all.