Authors: Gerald Seymour
HOLDING THE ZERO
This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Copyright © Gerald Seymour 2000
Gerald Seymour has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
Microsoft Reader edition, 1843450607
Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader edition, 1843450615
This edition published in 2001 by Random House eBooks
First UK print edition published in 2000 by Bantam Press Second UK print edition published in 2001 by Corgi
Bantam Press and Corgi are imprints of Transworld Publishers, a Division of The Random House Group Limited
For Jacqui and Susie
What he feared most was fire.
He was wedged into a shallow space between the slight angle of the tin roofing and the beams to which the rough planks of the room’s ceilings were nailed.
The darkness around him was total.
If the hut were set ablaze, if the flames licked up and the smoke surged, he would be flushed out, roasted or suffocated to death.
Where they had put him, he thought, was the most precious and secret place in the village, where an honoured and respected guest would be hidden from danger. He lay on their cache of rifles, angular and hard under his body, and was pressed against the sharp shapes of the ammunition boxes. Because he was the guest, he – alone – had been thrust up with their hands, as his feet scrabbled for a grip on their shoulders into the hidden cavity. He had been granted their hospitality and therefore his life was more important than their own.
He could hear the voices around the hut, some raised and abusive and some that wheedled and pleaded.
It had been late in the communal meal he had shared with the village men when the jeeps had come up the barren stone track towards the village, their lights shafting ahead and on to the mountain scrub flanking the track. As the guest he had been sitting cross-legged at the right side of his friend, sipping the juice that was poured for him, dipping his fingers into the iron pot to search for scraps of meat, scooping the palm of his hand into the rice bowl, and then the jeeps had arrived. Moments after they had heard the engines, as they had seen the lights, he had been plucked up and dragged like a rag doll away from the rug on which he’d sat, and the clutch of men around him had stampeded him into the hut, had opened the trapdoor and pushed him into the small cavity. The trap had been closed and he had heard scraping fingers smear mud and charcoal over the outlines of the opening. The darkness had been around him and he had lain so still, barely daring to draw breath. He had listened and he had prayed that the hut would not be fired.
He heard the abuse of the soldiers, the pleading of the village men, the screams of the women, and the single shots. He did not know the language of the soldiers, or of the village men, but he understood the sounds of the women’s screams and the message the shots sent.
The soldiers would have come from the garrison town of Amādīyah to the west or from the camp at Rawāndiz to the south. The information would have been given, for reward, that he was in the village. He would be a prize capture. He would be portrayed as a spy, not as a harmless, innocent guest of the mountain people. He understood, lying on his stomach on their old firearms and against their ammunition boxes, that the soldiers shouted at and abused the village men to make them reveal his hiding place. The men would be pleading that they did not know, had not seen a foreigner, a spy, and they were beaten, taken from the main corralled cowering group, while the women screamed for their lives as they were shot.
There was the smell of fire and the crackle of it from other huts in the close-set village that perched above a patchwork of fields and below the steep orchards. A few huts, chosen at random, were burned but it was a still, cool night and the flames did not spread from those to the adjacent ones.
The soldiers were in the hut, moving below him. He heard them rummage in the bedding and there was the crack of plates breaking as a cupboard was emptied. He stifled his breath. As a spy he might be hanged or shot, he might be tortured, and his protestations of a simple friendship would be ignored. When the soldiers left the hut in which he hid, the sound of the chaos they brought continued. Any of the village men who were condemned, or their women, might have saved themselves by denouncing him and showing the soldiers the camouflaged trap-door. He was in their hands, they held his life.
He lay in the roof space all through the night, and he was not betrayed.
The jeeps drove away down the track and headed back to the garrison at Amādīyah or the camp at Rawāndiz. He was in debt, he owed his life to the silence of the people of the village.
The trapdoor was opened.
The light of the dawn flushed onto his stiff, shivering body.
He was helped down. He walked out into the low early-morning sunlight.
They had already started to dig the graves in the burial ground beside the grazing meadow that was closest to the village. He saw the sweat beading on the faces and chests of the men who swung pickaxes to break the concrete-hard ground, while others shovelled away the rocky earth. The women cradled the heads of the dead and keened their sorrow. He stepped around the ejected cartridge cases and the pools of drying dark blood that had been spilled so that he, their guest, should live.
The burden of obligation crushed him.
He said to his friend, ‘Tell them that I will always remember the value that they have given my life and the depth of their sacrifice, that the shedding of their blood for me is something that I will never forget to my last, dying day. Tell them that I will, and I do not know how or when, repay the debt of blood and life.’
His friend translated, but the repetition of his words in their own tongue seemed not to be heard by the people in their grief. Then, his friend said quietly to him, ‘It is time to go, esteemed Basil, time to leave.’
‘I meant what I said.’
‘Of course, esteemed Basil, of course – but you did not say how or when.’
He was put into an old, rusted truck and driven away from the village, where some of the huts smouldered, away from the deepening grave pits. They would have thought his words were empty and his promises worth nothing. They drove towards Nimrud where he had left his car in the care of the archaeologists before taking the journey into the mountains in his friend’s truck. He would be back at the base beside the Euphrates river by nightfall, in the officers’ mess in time to celebrate the third anniversary of his Queen’s accession to the throne that night, and the talk around him would be of Prime Minister Churchill’s health, and rising taxation at home, and the worsening security situation in Kenya, and the new Bob Hope film. He would say nothing to his fellow officers of where he had been, and of the debt that he owed.
Many times, as they went down the track, he looked back at the smoke spirals and the diminishing figures of the men who swung the pickaxes, and he thought of the blood that was dry on the earth and the bright sheen of the cartridge cases.
He had pledged his word.
Their home was a single-roomed building for the family to live, eat and sleep in.
Augustus Henderson Peake sat cross-legged on the floor of stamped-down earth within the circle of women around the fire.
The stones of the walls, some roughly shaped and some rounded by the torrent in the gorge below the house, were held in place by mud substituting as cement or mortar. In places there were gaps through which the wind off the mountains came in stiletto stabs.
There were no windows and the door of crude-cut wood planks was closed on the night, but the wind shook it, and the penetrating blasts whipped at the smoke from the fire inside the circle. It scurried up towards the room’s rafters of tree branches with peeling bark. Nailed above them was a sheet of flapping white plastic, and through the plastic’s ripped tears he could see the dried-out underside of the turfs that were laid over the roof.
There was a hole in the centre of the roof through which the smoke escaped.
Against one wall was an old mattress covered by scattered sacking and blankets, and he thought it was where the parents of the children would sleep. The children’s beds were at the wall facing the closed door, more sacking and blankets but no mattress; there were four children pressed close to each other for warmth and each of them, in turn, hacked deep coughs from their chests and throats. The light in the room, by which the women worked, was from a single stinking oil lamp that threw cavorting shadows of the women’s heads and shoulders against the upper walls and into the ceiling where the smoke gathered before finding the release of the hole.
There were no hand-woven tapestries on the walls, nor any photographs, but on the wall in front of him, hanging from a hook where it was at an easy height to be snatched down, was an assault rifle with a magazine fitted.
Behind him, against the door, the men watched in silence and waited for the women’s work to be done.
Gnarled fingers with broken nails and dirt-grimed wrinkles fought with needles to gather in pieces of the garment. It had once been a suit of overalls that a mechanic would have worn; it was drab olive green. Two women were busy sewing the heavy canvas strip that had been cut from an old tarpaulin to the front. Another pulled for possession of the knees and elbows, to sew smaller canvas squares onto them. Another stitched a veil of soft, sand-coloured netting to the front of the hood, which had already been fastened to the collar. Three more women clawed at the back, shoulders, body, legs and arms, wherever he pointed, and sewed to them short-looped straps of hessian fabric. The garment was wrenched from hand to hand, over the smouldering fire of wet wood, past and around the hurricane oil lamp. Each time a strap was in place and the cotton snapped, the eyes would look to him and he would point again to a place where the surface was not broken, the hessian strap would be torn for the necessary length and the needles would dive and flash in the light. They talked softly among themselves. It was a language of which he knew nothing, but when they caught his glance the older women cackled, gaptoothed, in amusement, and the younger ones, who were little more than girls, dropped their heads and giggled.
The fire gave little heat, only smoke; the lamp gave a small light and many shadows.
The smoke was in his eyes, watering them, and the smell of the oil from the lamp was in his nose and his mouth.
The shape of the overalls was changing. The clear lines of the body, arms and legs were gradually distorted by the mess of hessian straps; the sharpness of the outline was broken in a hundred places. The needles darted, disappeared, then rose again. Each time the garment was pulled by a new hand the smoke billowed under it and fanned into their faces and his. It was good work, and he could not have accomplished it himself. When they were finished he thanked them. There was laughter all around the room as he stood and held the garment against his body.
A man stepped forward and tugged at his arm, as if to tell him that his time had run out.
Gus untied the laces of the old hiking-boots he had brought with him, then kicked them off. He pulled on the loose overalls over his denims, shirt and sweater. He wriggled and shook into the garment, pulled up the zip from crotch to throat. A woman broke the circle around the fire, went to the mattress bed, took a small broken shard of mirror from a plastic bag of her treasures, and handed it to him. He stood to his full height, his head close to the plastic-sheeted ceiling, and the smoke curled around him. He looked into the mirror to study the front, then held it out to the side at arm’s length and tilted his head so that he could see part of his own back. He pulled up the cowled hood and dropped the veil over his face. There was more laughter.
He told them that, in his own country, this was called a ‘gillie’ suit, and he said it was the best he had ever seen and that, pray his God and theirs, he would be invisible to the enemy of them all – and they seemed not to understand a word he said. And he thanked them. With his hands and his eyes, he thanked them, and there was a murmur of appreciation. The oldest woman pushed herself up arthritically from her place by the fire and touched his arm, a gentle, sweeping brush as if now he was understood.
After he had laced his boots, the oldest woman took the mirror from him and held it where he could best look into it. He lifted the veil then bent to take the small tubes of camouflage cream from his rucksack. He smeared lines of ochre, black and green on to his hands and throat, his nose, cheeks and chin.
The door opened behind him. The wind howled into the room, guttered the fire, spread the smoke and flickered the lamp. The children cowered under their tent of sacks and blankets.
‘It is time, Mr Peake? You are ready?’
‘Yes, Haquim, I am ready.’
Kneeling beside the rucksack, he put the tubes of cream back into a side pouch and gazed down at the rifle around which the hessian bandage was already wound. The lens of the telescopic sight flickered in the lamplight. Abruptly, he zipped shut the camouflaged, padded carrying case that held the rifle. He turned for the door.
They would be finished now. The night would have fallen heavy on Stickledown Range, his colleagues of the Historic Breech-loading and Small-arms Association would be gone. They would have had their last beer, worried over their scoring charts, packed their cars, locked up their caravans, and would be on the crowded roads going their separate ways to their homes. He doubted that they would have missed him … The owls would be out now over the quietness of the range, hunting for the rabbits that would have emerged once the boom of the old rifles was silenced. He breathed hard then rocked slowly on his feet before slipping the strap of the carrying case over one shoulder and the loop of the rucksack over the other. His shadow leaped from the assault rifle on the wall towards the children shivering on their bed. He wondered if any of those in their cars at the end of their day’s target shooting knew the true force of fear. But it had been his choice to come, his decision … Without a backward glance he went out through the door.
The men were around him. The wind gripped at the hessian straps and caught the billows of his gillie suit. He thought of the Lee Enfield No. 4 Mark 1 (T) in its secure cabinet at home, and the collection of silver teaspoons, awarded for competition marksmanship, in the sideboard drawer. He walked towards the lights of the vehicles.
Close about him was the darkness, the smell of fighting men and the scent of struggle
… It had been his own decision, his own choice.
It is a place that is an afterthought of history.
The Tarus and Zagros mountains are the kernel of this region and its people. The natural limits, recognized only by the inhabitants of a harsh, wind-stripped land, are the plains below the mountains to the south and east, the upwaters of the great Tigris river to the west, and the Black Sea shores to the north. The modern frontiers, created artificially by long-dead diplomats in faraway chancelleries, have divided up the territory with a confluence of boundaries scarring that kernel. The present-day nation states of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq now have uncertain stewardship of the towering mountains, the razor-edged ridges running between them and the cliff-faced valleys below, and jealously guard their sovereign rights with aircraft, artillery pieces, armoured vehicles, infantrymen and the shadowy agents of the secret police.
The people of this arbitrarily carved land are the Kurds. They have an old history, a culture unique to themselves, a language that is their own, and no country. Only when they are useful in gaining greater political advantage to outsiders is their dream of nationhood supported, or when their pathetic lot in defeat pricks foreigners’ consciences.
Most days of the week, most weeks of the year, most years of a decade, most decades of a century, their dream and their struggle are ignored by blind eyes and deaf ears. They are not Arabs, not Persians, not Turks; they do not fit conveniently.
A war progresses fitfully in that part of the Kurdish heartland that is nominally within the territorial boundaries of the Republic of Iraq. It is like a restless man’s sleep, sometimes aroused and flailing intensely, sometimes dormant. The enemy of today, as he has been for twenty years, is the President in his palace in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein.
Since the Gulf War, the modern army of Saddam has been kept out of the Kurdish territory by the threat of aerial action from American and British warplanes based at the Turkish NATO base at Incerlik. The army waits for the opportunity. It is a poised cobra watching for a prey’s moment of weakness.
Some Kurds say that the life, always waiting for the cobra’s strike, is not worth living, that it would be better to sidle up to the reptile and lie under its protection. Other Kurds say that the comforting words from Washington and London are hollow, spoken from toothless mouths. And a few Kurds say that the present time offers the last best hope of a military thrust to recapture their old capital city of Kirkūk.
By the frail light of a small torch, a child was buried beside the road going south to Kirkūk, her legs taken off by a V69 Italian-made anti-personnel mine laid by Iraqi army sappers.
The girl’s legs had been severed at the knees when her running footfall triggered the tripwire. She had been gambolling ahead of her father towards a meadow of yellowed grass where the family’s four goats grazed. He had known there were mines close to the small collection of homes that made a village, but it was the first day of April, it was eleven days after the sparse celebration of the Kurdish New Year,
, and the winter fodder for the goats was exhausted. They must find their own food if they were to fill their udders and give the family the milk of life. Had there been a hospital close by, had there been a four-wheel-drive vehicle in the village to take the child to it, then a life might have been saved. As it was, the child had died of trauma and blood loss.
Her father and brothers paused by the pit they had dug beside the road under the shelter of battered, stormtossed, leafless mulberry trees. The father slid down into the hole on his backside, and the eldest of the brothers took the small wrapped bundle from the mother and passed it to him. The tears ran on the father’s cheeks, dribbled with the rain on his face, and all the time the mother cried the dirge that was familiar to all women, all mothers, in northern Iraq.
‘Saddam! Saddam! Why do you sow mines in our fields?
‘Why do you hang our sons, why do you bulldoze our villages?
‘Why do you bury us alive? … We beg you, America!
‘We beg you, United Nations! We beg you, God!
‘Help us and save us …
‘For our lives are destroyed, and we have become beggars.’
The small convoy of vehicles passed her as she sat swaying her shoulders and crying her song. Her hands were folded tightly against the emptiness of her chest, where she had held her dead, desecrated child. The vehicles were travelling slowly along the rutted track on dulled sidelights. The torch that lit the burial of her child, with a weakened, failing battery, threw a wide cone of grey light into the first dun-painted, mudscarred truck that passed her. She did not recognize the man who drove, or the men squashed into two rows of seats behind him, but she recognized the young woman sitting beside the driver. The mother had never before seen the young woman, but she recognized her from the rumour slipping through the villages. It had been brought, as surely as the leaves of autumn eddied from the orchards, by nomads. She saw the young woman’s face, the combat fatigues on her upper body, the rifle against her shoulder, and the chest harness to which the grenades were hooked. All the mothers in her village had heard the whispered rumour of the young woman who had come from the north, many days’ walk away, where the mountains were highest.
She shouted at the limit of her voice: ‘Punish them. Punish them for what they have done to me.’
More vehicles passed.
Her child’s father and brothers were pushing the clods of wet soil and the stones back into the pit. Then the father stood and held up the torch so that the brothers might better see stones to heap on top of the shallow grave to protect it against wild dogs and foxes.
There should have been a man of God there, but they lived too far from any mosque to receive that comfort. There should have been neighbours and friends and cousins, but they were too close to the positions of the Iraqi murderers and the front line of their bunkers for any but the close family to venture into the darkness. The boys gasped under the weight of the stones.
The light of their father’s torch caught the last vehicle in the convoy. It had a closed cab and an open back in which were huddled men in fighting clothes who clutched weapons to their bodies. The men saw the mother, they saw the father and the brothers, they saw the stones that marked the grave, and all but one raised their fists, clenched, in a gesture of sympathy.
One man, squatting in the back of the last vehicle, was different. He gazed at the mother but his hands remained firmly on the straps of a many-coloured container, green and black, white and deadened yellow, and his rucksack. The beam of the torch caught the smeared lines on his face. He was different because he was not of their people. The mother saw the strange garment that the man wore, bulky, covered with the little strips of hessian net in the colours of the hills and earth, foliage and stones among which she lived. She thought he came from far away.