Nadim Safdar

Akram's War

For Sahar, Zain, Iman and Zakariya

Prologue

Grace stood directly before the memorial steps. A slow wind buffeted her bare legs and the cold of the tarmac had seeped through the thin soles of her shoes, spreading upwards until her legs felt like stone. The memorial had three steps on each of its four sides, leading to a square plinth several feet high, and above that, as though reaching for the heavens, stood a tall grey cross. One simple wreath decorated the base of the plinth, surrounded by red paper poppies stirring gently in the breeze. Her gaze shifted down a granite face carved in relief; towards the bottom of a long list it stopped at PRIVATE A. HARTLEY, THE QUEEN’S OWN YEOMANRY, 2003. She clenched her teeth and closed her eyes, feeling a renewed blast of damp air against her cheeks.

At precisely nine that morning, Grace had telephoned the social worker who was to bring her daughter Britney and supervise their contact. Nervously, Grace had suggested a change of venue, hoping the voice at the other end of the telephone wouldn’t object. For two hours on the second Sunday of each month Britney was brought to her at McDonald’s, the only place the social worker could think of that was reliably public and warm. The woman had been brusque, complaining that she would have to find a winter overcoat and provide breakfast for the child before they left the home. Before Grace could go into a long, rehearsed soliloquy of her reasons for the alteration, there was a deep sigh at the other end and the call was terminated.

Grace had arrived early, the chill slowly freezing her face into an expressionless mask with a brim of stinging ice settling on her lower eyelids. She had witnessed a white coach pull up. From it the members of a military band had alighted. After putting out a trestle table, bread rolls and a large urn from which steam rose, they had quietly breakfasted standing. Then from cellophane wrapping they had pulled out splendidly bemedalled tunics in hues of brown and green and black, pulled them on snugly over their fleshy girths, and it seemed to Grace that with each brass button fastened the men and women stood further towards full extension. Finally, as though to affirm a sort of confident power, peaked caps with polished badges were squeezed onto heads.

The band had tuned their instruments, the sharp notes mixing with the voices and footsteps of the gathering crowd. Afterwards the band members had filtered through the growing assembly, trading jokes and laughter and pressing hymn sheets into waiting hands.

Stepping away from the memorial, Grace looked around, her spine as erect as anyone’s there present, and searched expectantly among the crowd. She observed the purposeful stride of young men in uniform, some with their girlfriends or wives and children. She saw elderly men propped on walking sticks or sitting in wheelchairs, behind them stoical women, their heads wrapped in silk scarves. Brass instruments and buttons glittered in the cold sunshine, and shiny medals and colourful ribbons dangled off chests; the emblems these people carried, she thought, to them they represent life.

However, among a shifting focus of stiffened backs in ceremonial dress and peaked caps gazing poignantly upwards, Grace did not see the particular peaked cap she was looking for. She was troubled. Here, a solitary brown face should be easy to spot — so where was he? He had said he would be at the ceremony. She hardly knew him, had only met him in the early hours of the morning, and had slept for some of their time together. But still, the thought of introducing him to Britney, as she knew she would, filled her with tense anticipation. Fleetingly she pictured the three of them standing before the cross like witnesses bound by some solemn oath.

The band sergeant issued a sharp order, followed by a crack of boots as some stood to attention. Immediately, the assembly, both civilian and military, removed their hats, tucking them under an arm or holding them solemnly at the waist.

The call of a bugle started up. Its lingering, spaced notes left goosebumps on the nape of Grace’s neck and somehow made her feel important. She realized that if the notes were for Adrian Hartley then they also belonged to her.

With the last note of the bugle still ringing in her ears, there followed a silence broken only by the occasional muffled cough and, once only, the cry of a baby. The silence amplified the sound of the wind and she thought about Adrian Hartley, suddenly grateful that in a profound way, one she had discovered only hours earlier, he had left her with something that she might use: hope.

She had hardly slept and had woken with a fog of fatigue circling her head, and that morning she had forgotten to take her pills. While she wasn’t entirely convinced that everything had changed overnight, for once — if only for today — she felt part of something, although she couldn’t articulate what it was. She listened intently as a prayer was read.

Ever-living God, we remember.

The words seemed to pass through her like an instruction written in electrical current, and she vowed that now she had missed her dose she’d give it a week and see how she felt.

. from the storm of war into the peace of your presence.

Grace felt a small squeeze of her hand and turned away from the cross. ‘Hey,’ she whispered. Her heart leapt like cold steel in her chest and a grin spread across her face. Taking half a step backwards to accommodate the short space between herself and the girl, she stared lovingly into her daughter’s eyes.

Britney’s hair had grown, the wind picking at fine blond filaments across her brow. Her cheeks, suffused with cold pink, momentarily trembled and then, screwing up her face as though deep in thought, she said, ‘I’m cold. Why are we here, Grace?’ Her voice too seemed to have changed, her words articulate with a confident glottal stop.

The social worker held the girl with an arm around her shoulders. Britney shook free of her chaperone. She retrieved a poppy from her coat pocket and held it out towards her mother.

The prayer concluded: Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Grace swallowed hard and checked her tears. ‘Amen.’ She took the poppy and reached for her daughter’s hand, feeling the small fist curl into her own.

Britney seemed to be searching for words. Anxiously the child tucked the loose hair on her forehead into a woolly hat and cocked her head up at the social worker as though seeking permission. Then, addressing Grace, she said slowly, ‘Mum.’

Grace felt a surge of pride. Mum. There it was. She was Mum. Again. For two brief hours: Mum. She tasted the word in her mouth.

As conductor, the sergeant major threw his hands into the air, summoning a short triumphant chord from the horn section that punctured the cold atmosphere. The remainder of the band raised their instruments to their lips and the crowd seemed to brace itself.

‘What now, Mum?’

Grace bent down and whispered, ‘Do you still like to sing?’ She enjoyed saying that. It seemed like a connection between the two of them, however small.

Britney nodded, a bashful smile quivering on her lips.

Grace looked down at the hymn sheet clutched in her fingers. The paper flapped in the breeze. Summoning what seemed to Grace the sort of mother’s voice the social worker might approve of, she said, ‘Now, my love, now we sing a hymn.’

1

I am Akram Khan, formerly Sergeant Khan of the Queen’s Own Yeomanry, and in a short number of hours, at a place not far from here, loaded and enabled, I will submit.

My wife Azra sleeps in our bed, a white linen sheet pulled tightly around the bony geometry of her figure. Her thin hand, curled into a fist, is wrapped in the sheet, her wrist weighted with gold bangles. In profile, her nose is studded with a pinprick of gold. I lie next to her, every muscle contracted towards a knot in my gut, and although our bodies at their nearest point are merely an inch apart, I am careful not to touch her. I lie as though trapped, perfectly still under a shared sheet. When Allah wills it, and soon He will, it will be my time for eternal sleep, my conclusion. As I pass into the hereafter the brothers will wrap me in a shroud of linen, and they will chant the names of Allah as they lower my remains into the earth. And over my body they will heave a single slab of stone.

For Azra the membranous sheet is protection against my efforts to consummate our marriage. I have tried. For a time my hands were hopeful: brushing against her shoulders, playing with a loose strand of her hair, twisting it around a digit as tightly as I dared; when feeling bold my fingers would trace the bony contours of her spine. In the cold house, listening to the rain lash against the bedroom window and feeling lonelier than I imagined possible, again and again I would try.

The strength of my want surprised me. Even as I trembled, perspired, clutched myself to still my jerking muscles, the sensation felt decent. Later, shamed by her and branded a failure, a humiliation tempered only by the cumulative incantation of a thousand Bismillahs, I abandoned my earthly desires and accepted the inch or so between us. She snores lightly, contentedly, still a virgin.

She is not for me. Not in this li ...

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