|Albion Publishing Ltd new books, new visions|
|New books, new visions by Richard Dell|
|To access other books please return to Home page|
To buy 'The Other Magus' as an Ebook click on the relevant link below:
To read the first pages of 'The Other Magus' see below:
‘And know this, Jamila of my heart. Love Harold for ever. And in your love, know love. And in knowing love, give love. And in giving love, surrender love. And in surrendering love, be love. And in being love: be Jamila at last.' (Chapter 21)
British Army officer Harold's destiny doesn't just belong to himself. His journey isn't just his own. Many souls are linked, as war owns them all; as they all seek to belong. Told by a Cairo Magus that his destiny is upon him, it is in war torn Bosnia that Harold finds love and seeks Bosnia's ‘Other Magus'. Jamila, whom he left in Cairo , never ceases to be linked to him, as her own extraordinary and ‘inner' journey begins.
The physical plane and the inner planes, the struggle of war, and the struggle of the spiritual quest, are all interwoven and interlinked as Harold's journey takes him no nearer home, but ever nearer to himself.
Harold is wary. The man might be beckoning him to a trap. But it is more dangerous than that. The man is beckoning Harold to his destiny. (Chapter 1)
The Magus is a man of God. The Magus is a seeker of secrets. But only as a father did he know the secret of God's love. (Chapter 8)
‘She is a whore,' Madam growls. ‘A young whore I rescued from the pits of Giza .'
‘Mother!' the Magus roars. ‘Only a whore can love the entire world!' (Chapter 10)
‘I must be afraid, Master. Because it is not for me that I am afraid.'
‘Then your fear is your answer.'
‘No, Master. My fear is my question.' (Chapter 9)
The Other Magus
First published 2012
‘Come up these steps, honoured sir. Please. I beg you, sir. For up these steps, in the hands of my dear friend, is an ancient book. It is a book, sir, that captures destiny.'
The alley in old Cairo has many books. And Harold likes books.
He is tempted. The little bookseller has eager eyes. And honest eyes surely.
‘Just up these few steps, honoured sir.'
Harold has been enjoying a day to himself. There has been talk of the Army needing him in England . Some say Italy is beckoning. So yesterday he was called in.
‘I think they'll be wanting you to forget your Arabic, Harold,' his CO had said. ‘How's your colloquial Sicilian? And for God's sake forget I said that! Have a day to yourself, old man. You've earned it. When I say that to some of my chaps, I immediately picture them in a brothel. But not you, I think. Seen many of the mosques?'
Harold had shaken his head.
‘The Coptic area?'
‘No, I suppose not. Too many foreign embassies and too many official residences and too many dark Turks in dark corners, I suppose. What about the pyramids? Say the word, and I'll line up some transport.'
So Harold has spent the morning wandering: exploring the mosques; taking coffee at the citadel. And now he is in the alley of books. Many of the books are in Arabic. Many are in French. But even though Cairo swarms with British soldiers, few of the books are in English. But this doesn't matter. Harold can read Arabic fluently. He can read Farsi and Urdu and many other languages fluently. Once he was an Oxford scholar; one of the youngest. Now he is a British Army captain.
Harold has bought a book: old prints of Egypt and the Holy Land . It is bound between wooden boards. He buys another. Sufi Poetry. Part Arabic, part Urdu. The bookseller is pleased. He is counting out the change. And he is telling Harold of this other book, a book that he knows the fine British captain will appreciate. After all, he is a British captain who speaks Arabic just as if he has stepped from the Arabian Nights themselves. The book is up the stairs. The bookseller has many fine books up those stairs.
‘This is a really old book, sir. It is a book of ancient wonders. Persian, sir!'
Harold is wary. He should be. The eager little bookseller might be a German agent. He might be beckoning him to a trap.
But it is much more dangerous than that. The bookseller is beckoning Harold to his destiny.
Razija, whom Harold has never met, is not up those stairs. Razija is far away in another land. She is cooking food for her lover. She is clearing the table they eat from, telling him to put the guns somewhere else. Razija knows something is happening. Destiny is something she can feel. She looks up. For a year her lover has been this man with the guns: this man who fights the Germans and the Chetniks; who reads Marx. But suddenly she feels Harold's danger. She feels him going up those ancient steps. She cannot see him. But she senses that she knows him. She knows too that he is beautiful. His skin is hardly touched by the sun, though he is no longer new to Egypt . Yes, of that she feels certain. His face is round. His arms and legs are strong and smooth. His eyes are soft like a lover's eyes should be. Not hard like this man of hers with the guns. Oh yes, the beautiful man is there: somewhere far away, where he climbs steps towards two arched doors. This beautiful man's eyes are as deep and mysterious as destiny itself. Razija falls for this feeling of Harold. She stirs her stew. And she feels sick for his danger.
‘This way, honoured sir. My Cairo has many British soldiers. But you are different. You speak and read our beautiful Arabic. You are a scholar, I think.'
‘Before the war.'
The bookseller nods. ‘Ah yes. Much has been lost because you have gone to war. Much of your British treasure it brings to us. But from you it only takes.'
‘What is the book you want to show me?'
‘I am a poor scholar, sir. I do try to improve myself. But I know that I sell jewels and think they are paste; and that I sell paste and think they are jewels. The latter is fine, sir. With the latter I make more money than I deserve. But to sell a jewel when I think it is only paste, well then I do not just lose money. I lose a treasure of the soul. An opportunity to improve myself.'
Harold smiles. He is still wary. But he likes this small, almost wizened man. ‘You have a treasure but do not know it is a treasure? Or is what you are going to show me merely paste?'
The bookseller laughs and wags his finger at Harold. Both men are enjoying themselves. But the bookseller knows what is behind the right hand door. He can afford to laugh. Harold does not know. He cannot afford not to be wary.
‘It is my friend, sir,' the bookseller explains. ‘He is a scholar like you. And he tells me this book is a jewel beyond price. He sits with my best books now. He will show you and explain. He is my friend, sir, but he is not always the best of friends. For sometimes he tells me which books of mine are jewels and so I can sell them for the price of a jewel. But sometimes he tells me nothing, and so I never know the money I might have made. But with some books, sir, and this is one of those books, he tells me the book is such a fine jewel that it would be wrong to put any price on it at all. He tells me that the most precious jewels must be free. It is not advice that I enjoy to hear, sir. But he is a great friend, and a great scholar, and I am beholden to him.'
‘And he waits up these stairs?'
‘Behind my door, sir.'
Far away, Razija knows. This beautiful man's destiny waits behind the right-hand door.
But it is not the right-hand door that opens. It is the door to the left: the low arched door that has been painted red. Razija does not like this. There is destiny behind that door too. She stares at her barrel-chested man with the guns. He is bent over a radio, listening to the news from Moscow . She does not understand what is happening. The left hand door's destiny does not threaten the beautiful man. It threatens her . And that, she knows, is madness.
‘It doesn't make sense,' she whispers. ‘Besides, I left the journey long ago: when I took up with Vlado; when I decided to go to war. I should not be seeing things anymore.'
Out of the red painted, left-hand door, two men appear. They might be drunk.
They are dressed in RAF uniform. One, a large bull-headed man, is an officer. He is dragging the other man, who is small and slippery, out onto the steps. The small man is complaining. He is trying to go back through the door. He is yelling to someone inside to help him. But the officer is strong. He heaves the little man clear of the door. He throws him down the steps, straight into Harold. Harold grabs him; stops him falling further. The little man starts to point at his three sergeant's stripes. But then he spots the three captain's pips on Harold's shoulders. He manages to stand upright. He gives a ragged salute.
‘Sorry, sir.' He has a London accent. Then a smirk fills his face. He nods his head towards the red door, as if Harold will understand. ‘On operations in there, sir. Never much good when you're a lone plane. Bull's-eye of course. We're the best Lancaster crew in Bomber Command. But enemy action, sir. Flak. Night fighters. And the biggest Madam in the business. A bottle too much, sir. I regret to report that I propositioned the Madam,' – he could barely get the word ‘proposition' through his smirk – ‘even offered to introduce her to my mother, and you can't say fairer than that. She walloped me, sir.' He tapped his eyes and winked. ‘I can recommend Fatima, sir, though to be honest I think they were all called Fatima . But just mention my name, sir. Say you want the Fatima recommended by Alf. I offered to introduce Fatima to my mother as well. Probably a mistake, but…'
There is a roar from the RAF officer at the top of the stairs. ‘Shut it, Alf!' Then he beckons Harold up to him. He and Harold are of the same rank. He is a Flight Lieutenant, Harold is a Captain. But there the similarities end. The Flight Lieutenant is built like a bull. And his uniform sports a pilot's wings and decorations for bravery. He is a warrior. He has seen action. He also knows how to command.
‘One more to get out,' he says. ‘I'll need help.'
The bookseller is worried. ‘That is not a good door, sir.'
‘Edgar Morgan,' the Flight Lieutenant says. He stretches out his arm. The two British officers shake hands.
‘Who are you with?'
‘I have come to look at a book.'
The bookseller interrupts them. ‘An ancient book, sir. And my scholar friend waits for us.'
Edgar Morgan laughs. ‘If it's something ancient you're looking for, then I recommend the Madam. But Alf there, who has got to be sober enough to operate our radio, is already betrothed to her. But then, I don't think that'll bother her too much.'
Harold hesitates. Behind the red door is a brothel. He has never even seen a brothel before, let alone entered one. His instincts tell him he should not go in. But Harold is not without his pride. He will never see action. He serves his country by analysing documents, by talking in the myriad languages at his command to a myriad assortment of people who might know something useful, or whose mere goodwill might be useful. Now a fellow officer is offering him action. Well, action of a kind. More preciously, he is offering him something of that brotherhood that can be born of action.
So Harold nods in agreement.
Edgar slaps his arm. ‘Good man.' Then he turns and plunges through the red door. Harold follows him.
It is dark. Oil lamps make dim islands of smoky light. Shapes of young women haunt the islands of light like castaways. They haunt the shadows like ghost ships. Broken laughter comes from the deepest recesses where all is lost in gloom. Near the door, and beneath the only electric light, a huge Egyptian woman is flicking through a wad of banknotes. She glances up at the two officers. She names a price.
‘Already paid,' Edgar says.
She raises an eyebrow and stops counting. Edgar is big. But her eyes say that big though he might be, if he's come to complain then she is bigger.
‘No!' he cries. ‘I want a man!'
Another eyebrow rises.
‘No! One of my men! That one.' He points to where another RAF officer is trying to persuade several Fatimas that having paid for two, he ought by rights have a third one free.
‘Ah that one,' the Madam says. ‘Get him out. Don't bring him back. Next time come on your own. You are a British gentleman. That one is a British dog.'
Harold is out of his depth. But the depths are within him. He can smell sweat. He can taste his own arousal.
One of the Fatimas , far back in the gloom, is staring at him. She is smiling. And she is not unattractive. There is an older Fatima with her; a plump, matronly Fatima . This older Fatima whispers something in the younger Fatima 's ear. The younger Fatima nods. And now she is coming to him. She gets caught in the glow of an oil lamp, becomes a sequined ghost ship. Her face is oval. Her eyes are black almonds. Her dark hair falls down her back to her waist. Beneath the sequins trailing from her neck, she is bare breasted. Her breasts are small: almost those of a child. But he cannot take his eyes from them.
Harold feels a terrible desire for her. He feels himself meld with the oily, perfumed sweat of the place. This girl, and he sees she is but a girl, could be his. All he has to do is hand over money. No ambiguity. No rejection.
‘ She's ten times the price,' the Madam grunts.
Edgar is grasping his navigator's arm. ‘Come on, Stan. We've got an op.'
The navigator clutches the thigh of one of his Fatimas . She squeals with pain.
The madam lifts a huge brass bubble pipe. For one moment Harold thinks she is going to throw it at the navigator. But she plonks it down on her money. Then she steps from behind her counter.
‘For Christ's sake!' Edgar hisses at Harold. ‘Help me get him away before Madam does it for us. She isn't gentle. She leaves scars.'
Harold is shaken into action. He lunges forward and grasps the navigator's other arm. But the navigator doesn't like that. He is strong. He is the sort who excels on rugby pitches. He jerks his arm away, breaking Harold's grip. But this navigator is Harold's salvation. The girl has eased back into the shadows again. Harold knows she is there. And he knows too the depths within him that are there: desire that is beyond consequences; a self beyond his understanding.
He feels a sickness inside him for the girl.
With a roar Harold throws himself at the navigator. He grabs his arm again. Grabs it tight. Lets his nails dig into the skin. Draws him off the divan. The navigator's blue RAF battledress is undone. His trousers are down at his ankles. Harold hurls the navigator to his feet. He yells at him to get his trousers up, to do up his battledress, to straighten himself out. He pushes him against Madam herself. Madam grins. She kisses the back of the navigator's ear. Then she wallops him.
‘Get him out,' she says to Edgar. ‘He does not respect my girls.'
Now she turns to Harold. ‘Ten times the price for the little one. You will respect her. I know you will respect her.'
Harold is still clutching the navigator. The navigator stares at him in disbelief.
‘Out!' Harold barks. ‘Out!'
Harold bends his head. He shoves the navigator through the door. The sudden intense brightness is like a slap across the navigator's face. He stumbles against the bookseller. He tells him to get out of the fucking way. Then he pulls at his trousers and begins to button them up.
The other crewman watches from the bottom of the steps. He hardly seems interested.
Edgar turns to Harold. ‘Thanks. Are you really Intelligence Corps? Christ. I thought you fellows just sat behind desks.'
Harold smiles. ‘It depends where the desk is, doesn't it?'
He takes Harold's hand and shakes it. ‘That girl's waiting for you. You've earned her.'
‘No, I was…'
‘He was coming with me, sir,' the bookseller says.
Edgar's eyebrow shoots up: just as Madam's had.
‘To see books, sir. He is a scholar. He knows my language better than my mother does.'
Edgar nods. His eyes turn on Harold. ‘A scholar?'
‘Before the war.'
‘ Oxford .'
‘Christ. Did you get a Blue for boxing?'
Harold grins. ‘First fight I've ever been in.'
‘Well, old man, if there's any more, please make sure I'm on your side. So you're not going in for that girl?'
Harold does not answer. He is outside now. The sun is high. The alley is white with light. But he can picture the girl. Sequins sparkling across her small breasts. Her black almond eyes searching for him.
He feels an intense need for her: a new experience for him. He looks back at the red door. The bookseller watches him. He says nothing.
Then the navigator thrusts himself at Harold. But Edgar stops him with his arm. ‘Superior officer,' he barks. ‘Don't be an idiot. Now get down those stairs. We're reporting for duty.'
The navigator is a type. All muscle and masculinity. He has a bull neck and a boyish face. He has feral eyes.
‘What's up?' the navigator says to Edgar. But he glances at Harold. There is a malevolence in his look. It has nothing to do with thought. It is instinctive. It is animal.
‘I wouldn't tell you here, even if I knew,' Edgar snaps. ‘Now let's get moving.'
Edgar hurries down the stairs. At the bottom he turns and looks back at Harold. ‘I'd liked to have talked,' he says. ‘About books, I suppose. About learning. This damn war.'
Harold nods. Only war could have given him comradeship with a man who was stumbling from a brothel. In another life this could not have happened. But the girl is a reality. She is still in there. As she moves between the islands of light her sequins will shimmer, her pale skin will glow. Her eyes will seek the shadows for him.
Edgar laughs and pushes his two crewmen down the alley. ‘Well, bookman,' he calls over his shoulder. ‘I'll leave you to your dilemma.'
‘What dilemma?' Harold calls after him. ‘What do you mean?'
Edgar turns. He continues walking backwards. He has his crew heading in the right direction. He does not want to lose his advantage. ‘It's got nothing to do with meaning. Everything to do with being. You know what? If it wasn't for this fucking war, you could have been my tutor. I was due to come up. Classics, would you believe? But instead I got RAF College at the ‘University of Shit-Your-Pants-Every-Night-Over-Germany'. I didn't get a junior common room, I got an officers' mess. I didn't get sherry parties, and Shakespeare in the gardens, I got four Merlin engines to nurse home, six crewmen to keep alive, and for a change from Germany , Cairo brothels.'
Harold nods. This to him is the utter horror of war. If you are unlucky it kills you. And even if you are not unlucky, it kills what you love, kills what you have dreamt of being. ‘Do you think we'll ever find any meaning in it?' he calls.
But Edgar and his crew have gone.
‘There is always meaning, my young friend,' a new voice says from behind him. ‘It is why the bookseller was so insistent that you meet me.'
‘We shall drink tea, I think,' the old man says. He leans forward and pats Harold's arm. ‘You know, Egyptians drink tea as much as you English. But we like it without milk. And we like it with leaves of fresh mint.'
‘But of course. You know these things.'
It is the bookseller who pours the tea. Harold is immediately struck by the bookseller's reverence towards the old man. It is not the subservience of a servant. It is something deeper.
‘Now tell me, my friend. Tell me your name. I have been expecting you for quite a time. But I have never known your name.'
The old man waves his hand between them. It is the sort of movement someone might make to whisk a fly away. But it is Harold's question that is whisked away.
‘My name is Harold.'
‘And it means?'
‘Does everyone know the meaning of their own name?'
The old man laughs. ‘Your Arabic is all but perfect. And I think that if I chose to speak in Farsi you would have no difficulty?'
‘My young friend, he who has such command of many languages, will know his own language very well. So I think you know the meaning of your own name.'
‘I do, sir.' Harold immediately notes his use of the word ‘sir'. So different from its military use. Such a different feel. Somehow there is contentment, even reverence, in it. ‘My name means ‘army leader'.'
‘Ah. But I think you will not be leading your army. I think your General Montgomery will not be handing his victorious soldiers over to you?'
Harold smiles. ‘You think correctly, sir.'
There are only a few books in the room. And there is no sign of a book that could be described as ancient. There is an upholstered bench around two walls and an intricately carved table upon which the bookseller has placed their tea. Upon the white walls there are framed sepia photographs: mainly portraits of men staring straight into the camera. There is a Turkish rug on the wooden floor. And there is the old man.
The old man is tall and slim with fine, oriental features. Harold wonders if he is actually Egyptian. There is something of Persia about him. Though with his grey beard, that has been allowed to grow long and unkempt beneath his chin, he looks almost Chinese. His hands are intensely delicate, almost feminine. He has slender fingers. A pianist's fingers. Yet this is a man who needs no instrument. There is an indefinable sufficiency about him.
‘There are such men in the east,' Harold thinks. ‘We westerners know how to make machines; and too often machines of war. But could we ever make such a man as this? Yet the stories of the east are filled with such men. And now I have found one. This I truly know. Or more to the point, he has found me.'
‘You have not found me,' the old man says, breaking into Harold's thoughts. ‘You have found yourself. Or at least, you have begun that journey.'
The old man sips his tea. But his eyes do not leave Harold. ‘I shall bring the girl to you,' he says. ‘The girl you almost met next door.'
Harold stares at him. The bookseller pours more tea.
‘She will be your guide.'
‘My guide! Good God! For what purpose?'
‘Ah.' The old man chuckles. He brings his slender fingers to a point. ‘The purpose is not ours to reveal. The destination is not ours to decide. But the journey belongs to each of us alone. I know where ultimately you are going. How you get there, I do not know. Ultimately, the purpose is the same for us all. Here and now, purpose is found in how we make our journeys.'
‘You know this girl?'
‘She is my neighbour. Why should I not know her?'
‘Is she a good person?'
‘I do not know how to judge myself.'
‘And yet you expect me to judge another. Come, Harold War Leader who will never lead in war.' He smiles. ‘Drink your tea.'
The bookseller is sent to get the girl. Harold drinks his tea. He had feared German agents. But instead he has found an old man. And now a greater fear takes hold of him. He knows what he felt when he first saw the girl.
‘Why the girl?' Harold asks. ‘I came into the alley looking for something to read. I came up the steps looking for an ancient book. It is a book of destiny, I was told by the bookseller. Instead I found you. And now you will make this girl my guide? It doesn't make sense.'
‘That is good. If everything made sense, would we ever step from our door?'
‘We might step outside to get food.'
The man laughs. ‘True. But I speak in metaphor.'
‘I am sorry. Of course you do. But, sir. The girl. I barely saw her. But she… Well, to be brutally honest, she aroused me.'
‘And that is bad? Tell me, are you such a slave to your Christian religion, which is a religion that so readily commits the sin of seeing arousal as a sin?'
‘Well, I suppose there is arousal in marriage, which…'
‘Which your Christianity so often condones rather than celebrates.'
‘And there is arousal in love.'
‘Could you not love this girl?'
‘It was not love I felt.'
‘That was not my question.'
‘Then my answer is, I do not know. All I know is that I stumbled into a brothel to help an RAF officer extract one of his men. I saw the girl across the room, and I felt… I felt things that I have hardly felt before. Before the army, my life was devoted to my studies.'
‘And your studies were left aside so that you could serve in your country's army?'
‘Did you think that thereby your learning would end?'
‘I suppose I did.'
‘And has it?'
Harold laughs. ‘No! But so different.'
‘Tell me. After a day, after a week, after a month or a year of studying your books, was much learnt?'
‘A great deal. And I was writing a book of my own.'
‘And was much learnt about yourself ?'
‘Myself? Hardly. That was not the purpose.'
The old man cups his tea in his hands. He watches the mint leaves slowly turn. He seems to absorb the patterns. His eyes even seem to dream with the patterns. ‘Well, my young friend,' he murmurs. ‘Now it is.'
Harold finishes his tea. He puts down his cup. ‘Why?' he says to the old man. ‘Why me? Why were you expecting me? How were you expecting me? What am I doing here?'
‘I do not know.'
‘That's not good enough. You said you were expecting me!'
‘I was. But it does not follow that I thereby know why. I told my friend the bookseller that someone needed to see me. He asked me how he would recognise this person. I told him I did not know. He told me that if I did not know then how was he supposed to know. So I had to explain to him that if he did not know when the person came, then the person did not really need to see me.'
‘That is a mere surrender to fate!'
‘Is there anything else we can do with fate, other than surrender to it?'
‘Perhaps not. But we should only surrender to the reality of fate when we have truly discovered that there really isn't anything we can do about it.'
The old man laughs. ‘That is very well put, my friend. And there we have one of the great dilemmas. One of the great paradoxes.'
The door behind Harold opens. Harold glances round. The bookseller is not there. But the girl is. There is no sign of sequins. No sign of the soft mound of her breasts. She has covered herself with a loose dress that is secured by a leather belt rather as a western dressing gown is secured. A hijab covers her hair. The hijab falls either side of her extraordinary face, trailing down to her feet, serving as an outer robe. Her eyes, deep as the night, stare at Harold. Her lips, that are soft like peaches to him, seem to form a question. The question is indecipherable. The answer is unimaginable.
Harold turns back to the old man. ‘What dilemma?' he breathes. ‘What paradox?'
‘At such a time, you ask this? Even when your young guide awaits you?'
The man sighs. But his eyes sparkle with amusement. ‘Very well.' He brings his fingers to his lips. He seems, for a moment, to be in prayer. ‘It might be said,' he says at last, ‘that we in the east surrender and that you in the west discover. It might be said that we in the east are at peace, are at one with our world and all that it might throw at us. It might be said that we in the east are reconciled.'
Harold nods. ‘Some,' he whispers, ‘would not use the word ‘reconciled'. Some would say you are resigned.'
‘Indeed, my friend. And I am beginning to understand now why you had to find me and what I might do for you. Indeed, why Jamila here must be your guide. But let me tell you of the west. If we in the east are at peace and are reconciled, then it might be said that you in the west are continually troubled, continually at war with the world in which you find yourself. Troubled because you do not understand it. And at the same time intrigued by it. Troubled because you cannot control it. So you have learnt to dominate it. Indeed, you have attempted to separate yourself from your own nature.'
‘And the paradox is?'
‘The paradox is that the way of the East is the better way. The paradox is that the way of the west is the effective way. The paradox is that by both ways being right, both ways are thereby wrong.'
‘You accept that our restlessness has achieved many great things?'
‘Extraordinary things. Discoveries of wonder. Inventions of great utility.' He smiles. ‘I have to tell you that I consider your sanitation systems, and especially your water closets, as among the greatest of gifts given by the west to the world.'
The old man waves his hand between them. ‘I have travelled in your West. I admire your cities. I admire the fact that everything works. I cherish the greenness of your countryside. All your lands are oases. Yes, my friend; we indeed must learn from you. We must learn not to accept the fact that our children might die. Like you, we must seek to understand disease and cure disease and thereby save our children. But so you must learn from us . Your people have been restless for too long. You have made great discoveries and invented extraordinary machines. Now you are powerful. But still you are restless. You are wealthy, and yet still you are dissatisfied, and thus fight each other for more wealth. You are all-powerful, yet still you fight each other in order to dominate. I want my people to be intrigued again by their world. I want your people to be reconciled with it.'
Harold nods. ‘You do know that most of the British soldiers you see here in Cairo are not willing soldiers? They long to return to their homes. They don't want brothels. They want wives and firesides. They want to bring up children.'
‘Isn't that what makes it even more of a tragedy?'
‘Yes. But, sir. You have told me what west and east needs. What about me? For it seems that I am here for a purpose.'
He laughs. ‘You are a scholar, I think?'
‘At some great English university?'
‘ Oxford .'
‘Ah yes, of course. I have happy memories of Oxford .'
This surprises Harold. He wants to know more. But the look in the old man's eyes tells him to remain silent.
‘You struggled with your mind to understand your academic sources. Now I want you to be reconciled with your heart. For your heart is the only source that truly matters.' He looks up and beckons the girl to him. ‘Come here, my child.'
The girl comes forward. She stands beside Harold.
Harold does not look at her. But her presence cannot be ignored. He knows he desires her. But he needs too to understand why he is here. Why this old man of the east has been expecting him.
‘She is your guide.'
‘Guiding me to what?'
‘Do you not know?'
Harold shakes his head.
‘Perhaps you will only know when the journey ends.'
‘And what is the journey?'
‘Ah, the journey. Now we come to it.' The old man's eyes narrow in thought. ‘All are on a journey, my friend. And now I understand why you have been brought to me. All are on a journey, but few know that truth. Most of the time, most do not need to know. But all, at times, do need to know. Yes, at times. And this is one of your times. Something awaits you. And only he who knows he is on a train can recognise the stations. Only he who knows he travels can understand arrival.'
Harold is listening. But he can feel the warmth of the girl beside him. He can smell the perfume of the brothel on her. He can feel his need for her. An ache and a hunger he has never known before.
‘You awaken,' the old man says.
‘The girl awakens you to yourself. This I see. And as for me? Well, I awaken you to your destiny.'
‘What is my destiny?'
‘Other than your destiny always being yourself? I do not know that. I knew that someone must come to me. You have come. I now know that my purpose was to awaken you to the fact of your journey. That I have done. Be aware, my young friend. Mostly we travel upon our journey like automata. Living, breathing. Loving and dying. But for all of us, sometimes, our journey requires of us our presence . Our awareness . Ultimately, of course, we shall always be aware.'
‘Are you aware?'
‘I am not the purpose of this meeting.'
‘But I am?'
‘Indeed. So be aware. Destiny awaits you. But when destiny intrudes upon our journey we must honour it with awareness. Consciousness. Engagement.'
‘Very well. That is all you can tell me of my destiny. You awaken me to its possibilities. Then what of myself? What of me that this girl, you tell me, is awakening me to? For I feel a greater peril in that.'
He smiles. ‘Do not disentangle the two, Harold army leader. She will take you beyond books.'
‘Ah, such questions from the young scholar. Into self-awareness? Into pleasure?'
‘She is young and she is beautiful.'
‘Does she know she is on a journey?'
‘No. She sleepwalks: like most people. No moment of destiny is at present upon her. But show her kindness and you might awaken her.'
‘Could I show her kindness by respecting her and not using her for pleasure?'
‘You could. Though whether she will thank you if she does not have food tonight, well…'
‘I could give her food.'
‘You could. These are your choices.'
‘Whatever happens,' Harold whispers. ‘I am already sullied.'
‘Because your body, indeed your entire being, yearns for her.'
‘I am sorry, my friend. Awakenings are rarely comfortable.'
‘What should I do?'
‘First learn not to ask such questions of others. Ask yourself.'
‘I am frightened of my answer.'
‘Good.' The old man laughs. ‘Harold, my friend, you should be frightened. How am I to explain to you what is going to happen? How can I put it? You see, I understand the pattern, but not the detail.'
‘Then tell me the pattern.'
‘Ah the pattern is simple. You are sleepwalking. Nearly everyone sleepwalks. But there are moments when we are awakened. Most men are not awakened by lust. You have been. Most men are, however, awakened by love. For a while. Most men and women are awakened by the birth of their child, or by the death of someone they care for. And in those moments they enter a new awareness. In those moments their consciousness is raised beyond worldly things, beyond toil and tribulation. In those moments they catch echoes of the infinite.'
‘I lost my sister who I loved. And my parents. They were killed in the bombing.'
‘You will not like it if I say to you ‘congratulations'. For in that loss you awoke. For a while. So I do not say it, for your loss still haunts you. Indeed, you have not been entirely sleepwalking since that loss. It is clearly part of your journey. So is Jamila.'
He smiles. But his eyes are serious. They are deep now with a mystery that Harold cannot even guess at.
‘There are other awakenings. More profound. More permanent. Stations upon the train journey of the soul. These are nodal points more powerful than any bombs your western air forces can unleash. For they touch the eternal self. Be ready for them.'
‘But why me?'
‘Why not you?'
Suddenly the old man stands. His eyes are ablaze. His smile seems to be a blessing. ‘Now I see. I can set you on your road, for now I see. The pyramids! You must make for the pyramids. Jamila, my child. Where is home?'
‘ Giza , sir.'
Harold has not heard her speak until now. Her accent is of the fields and of the Nile . But the tone of her voice is sweet. Like the bells of Alpine cattle he thinks. But touched with something of her country's endless past.
‘ Giza ,' the old man says. ‘And what might our British soldier find at Giza ?'
She laughs. ‘Why, the pyramids, sir! We lived in the fields right near them. My father grew wheat and melons. But he died.'
‘And so you came to Cairo ?'
‘Now I want you to go home.'
‘To stay, sir?'
‘How will I live?'
‘I cannot say. But you must go home. It is your destiny. For you must become a mother. Our British friend must go to the pyramids. You must take him to the entrance of the Great Pyramid itself. It is his destiny. For he must become a father.'
Jamila glances at Harold. Harold stares at the old man.
The old man laughs. ‘‘In my father's house there are many mansions'. Is that not told to us in your Christian scriptures?'
‘And in your Christian faith there were the early church fathers ?'
‘Then understand this. Our beautiful Jamila must become a mother. I see too that she will be a good mother. Perhaps one day an honoured matriarch revered by all. For her , motherhood means babies growing in her, coming from her to breathe and live and be cherished. But for you , Harold, army leader, the word ‘father' is a mystery. Its meaning will be deeper.'
He reaches out his hands. ‘Jamila, come to me.'
The girl steps forward and places her small hands in his. ‘The time has come to leave this place. Tell all who ask that you were in my care. Speak not of next door.'
He brings his head forward and gently kisses her forehead. ‘You have an old man's blessing, my child. And in my blessing, I give you the blessing of God.'
Now he looks at Harold. ‘Will you shake an old man's hand, my son?'
Harold reaches out his hand. But then he says something that surprises himself. ‘Only if it comes with a wise man's blessing.'
‘Ah, who knows if it does? But I will say this. My hand comes with an old man's blessing.'
‘Then it is a blessing indeed.'
‘Then go, children. Our bookseller friend will call a cab. Perhaps he will accompany you. He will sell no more books today.'
Harold and the girl leave. They go out onto the steps. They stand there, between the two doors. The red one is propped open. Harold can see inside the brothel. He cannot see the Madam, but he can see her hands on the counter. She is counting money. Her fat fingers are festooned with gold; her nails are dirty from the banknotes.
The girl also stares into the brothel. Harold cannot guess what she sees. Perhaps he does not want to guess.
She backs away. She wants to turn. The book seller is at the bottom of the steps. He is waiting for them. The bookseller can see that the girl is frightened. But Harold does not see this. The girl reaches out her hand. She is shy. But she catches hold of Harold's shirt. She wants to pull him away.
But Harold does not notice. Harold is sleepwalking. Jamila loses her grip on his shirt. He does not notice that either. He is deep in a sleep. And, perhaps because he is, he steps through the red door into the brothel. The Madam eyes him. She places the great brass hookah over her money.
The girl starts to cry. Far away in another land Razija can no longer cook. She crawls to a corner of the room. She huddles there and tries to stifle her tears.
‘What is wrong?' her man with the guns asks.
‘Nothing. I am sick.'
The Madam raises an eyebrow. She licks her lips. And from out of the oily gloom, two Fatimas emerge.
It is a quick transaction that takes place. Money is exchanged, and as money is exchanged, the Madam laughs. Harold is called a fool. The biggest fool in any army she has ever seen. And Madam has seen many armies, and many fools. The two Fatimas merely shrug. They merge back into the gloom until they can no longer be seen.
And no longer is Razija curled up in a corner. She has turned. She is sat now with her back to the wall. She stares into space, into the drifting shades and shapes that only she can see. Her man has finished cleaning his guns. But he stays silent. He knows Razija's ways.
‘He is safe,' she whispers.
‘Who is safe?' her man then asks.
‘It doesn't matter, Vlado. It doesn't matter.'
But it does. She does not know why or how. But it does. It matters more than their fight with the Germans. It matters more than her man's surrender to Marxism.
She glances across at him. ‘Why is it me who feels safe?'