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Authors: Derek B. Miller

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BOOK: The Girl in Green
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Benton knows he shouldn't ask the next question but does, because it is the only question to ask.

‘Your wife?'

‘My wife? My wife was eight-months pregnant when a government sniper shot her and my unborn daughter. It went through my daughter's brain and out the back of my thirty-four-year-old wife, a woman whose kindness and gentleness of heart contained more poetry than will ever come from Ali Ahmad Said. They died from the same Russian bullet, provided as a gift by Vladimir Putin. When I got to the hospital, I saw eight other men like me — because that day eight other women were shot the same way. You see, the government snipers were playing a game. They shot pregnant women that day, ones that were near term. And they shot them in the same part of their bodies — through the baby. For target practice. For a laugh. Maybe for a bet. Assad wanted to teach us that we were powerless. He wanted us to know he was in charge. The big man. I haven't told my son. At home, I was still checking under his bed for monsters at night. He was too old for this, I thought. Why at eleven? But now I know he was right to ask me to check. How do I tell a boy who is so sensitive and gentle that his mother has been murdered and that his baby sister will never breathe life? How do you explain to a child that the only place there aren't any monsters is under the bed? I can't explain it to myself.

‘My son is waiting for her to come here and meet us. He is excited about the baby coming with her. Every time I try to work up the courage to tell him the truth, I vomit. I don't even have tears. My body cannot accept the truth. It tries to reject it. Coughs it up like an illness that will destroy me. I sob without tears. The air leaves me. Have you ever in your life seen anything like this?' the man asks.

His eyes plead for an answer.

‘Yes,' Benton says.

‘I don't believe you.'

‘I wouldn't lie to you.'

‘You've been to Syria? You came from there?'

‘I saw it here. In '91. In Iraq.'

‘Kuwait? Desert Storm?'

‘No. After. The civil war.'

‘Ah,' he says. ‘The Shaaban Intifada. You saw it.'

‘In Samawah. I saw it all.'

‘Why did you see it?'

‘Because I couldn't close my eyes.'

The man nods. ‘Yes,' he says. ‘That's right.' He turns back to watch the boys as he talks.

Benton says nothing. The boys have regrouped and are chasing the ball back toward the other end of the dirty pitch. Benton removes a bright red bandana from the inside pocket of his jacket, wipes his face, and returns it there.

‘You know what
shaaban
means?' the man says.

‘No.'

‘It means “separation”. Iraq was splitting apart. He was a weak tyrant after a bad war. Iraq erupted. No plan. No vision. No weapons. Everyone competing. Everyone running away, but not toward. You see the difference? They all hated Saddam, but what did they love? No one knows. Iran making trouble. Like now. But it erupted. Like now,' he says, tilting his head to the west, toward Syria, though possibly toward all of it. ‘But then Saddam killed everyone. Everyone-everyone. So fast. No mercy. One hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand. No one knows. He did this in two months. Imagine. No one remembers. Hundreds of thousands. No one remembers.' The man continues to stare ahead. ‘How can the world swallow up a hundred thousand people without a trace? I am terrified by this world.'

‘I remember,' Benton mutters.

‘You speak Arabic?' he asks.

‘No,' Benton says.

‘A very beautiful language. Filled with nuance and poetry. Many games. Many, many wonderful games. Puns and jokes and allusions. But also contradictions. You see,
shaaban
is the same word as the eighth month of the Islamic calendar. There is a story that on the fifteenth day of the month of Shaaban, the doors of mercy and forgiveness are thrown open, and those who sincerely repent for their sins are accepted by God. I am not a religious man, but I find this very beautiful. It seems wrong to me that this word should be shared by such events. That the word should be shared by God's forgiveness and also such cruelty. It is wrong. They should not be shared. I can't help but see this. This is my education. And so it is my curse.'

The man turns away from Benton and watches the children, who see nothing but the ball.

‘Tell me why you're here. You are important? A Big Man?' the man says.

‘I'm not important. I'm an old journalist. I'm a dinosaur. They want me gone.'

‘You're a journalist. You can tell the story.'

‘They're letting me run out a budget line that I asked for so they can fire me when I come up empty. I asked to come here for spurious reasons, and I think they know that. They had to let me because of my seniority, but I've cashed in all my chips. I've given them the excuse they need. This is my last trip.'

‘Where is your wife?'

‘In the bed of another man.'

‘Go back to England, my friend. Make peace with your wife. Forgive her. Forget the work, the newspaper, all of this. It is all dust. We are all dust. Your family is all that matters. Save them, if you can. It is the only way to honour the dead.'

‘I have a debt to pay before I go back.'

‘Here? In this place?'

‘It's an old debt. A friend of mine saw something, and he said he wants to set it right.'

‘What did he see?'

‘I don't know. A coincidence. An echo. A midday moon in a blue sky.'

‘I don't understand.'

‘Neither do I. There was a news broadcast,' Benton says to the man on the bleachers, ‘about an attack not far from here. They had footage somehow. It was broadcast all over the world. It happens sometimes that there is footage of an incident, it catches the world's attention, and it goes around. Anyway, the man I mentioned … he saw someone in it who looked very familiar and yet who could not have been there, because she was already dead. She died long ago. In March 1991.'

‘Ah,' the man says, not sounding surprised. ‘He saw a ghost.'

‘I don't believe in ghosts,' Benton says.

The man shakes his head. ‘That doesn't matter. People see things that do not exist all the time. They see hope. They see love. They see trust. They see a future. These things do not exist for many of the people who see them. Ghosts are no different. You see? Whether they exist or not, we see them. Your friend, he saw a ghost.'

‘This girl is in a video. She's not a ghost. I've seen it.'

‘So you have seen this girl, too.'

‘Yes. It can't be her. She's someone else. The resemblance, though, is uncanny.'

‘So you have seen proof, like your friend, but deny it.'

‘It is proof that there is a girl who was caught in an event who looks like someone I once knew, if briefly. It is not proof of a ghost.'

‘Proof. There is nothing more theoretical than proof. The pagans asked the Prophet Muhammad for proof — he split the moon in two, but that was not enough for them. In the West, you stare at the bodies of our dead in fifty thousand photos, all at the hands of Assad. Tens of thousands. You have the photos. High-level Syrians smuggled them to you. They have been forensically analysed. The videos are everywhere. And yet some of you debate whether you have proof — and if you have the proof, what does it mean and what should you do? We have all the proof we need. It is the making sense of it — that's the problem. Deciding what to do about it — that's the problem. You came here to find this person? This girl? To help her? To help your friend?'

‘I don't know why I'm here.'

‘Ah. Then you're here to suffer. You are in good company.'

They watch the boys run for a few more moments. Benton then makes to leave, but as he does, the man says, ‘You think we're going to die here? Me and my son?'

‘I think,' Benton says, ‘that whatever comes next isn't life.'

‘That's right,' says the man, turning away again. He nods to himself as he watches the boys. ‘That's right,' he whispers.

Benton checks his watch. Night falls quickly here. He stands up, dusts off his clothing, and puts the empty bottle and Kit Kat wrapper into his satchel. He'll toss it in a rubbish bin when he finds one.

‘Keep your son safe,' Benton says as he leaves.

‘Remember us,' the man says. ‘Me and my boy, and my wife. My daughter's name was to be Adar. Adar. Remember her for me in Cornwall. Remember her for me so that the earth does not swallow us up and we die twice.'

9

Only three days before, Benton was sitting in his living room, drinking beer from a glass, watching a re-run of
The Good Life
with
Richard Briers. The actor had died in February, and somehow it felt like a national loss. Tom and Barbara had come around for a bath and drink after their chimney ‘cleaned itself', leaving them covered in soot. Benton was enjoying the cold drink and the warmth of the show. Vanessa had gone. He'd kicked her out three weeks earlier, on finding her in their bed with another man. Their daughter, Charlotte — a scholar in palaeontology at the University of Bristol — had since been trying to solve their marriage as though it were an evolutionary riddle. Her technique was to study each of her parents' morphologies to find common traits, in order to try to prove that they were, by nature, members of the same family. Benton tolerated it, knowing she couldn't help but arrange dead things into orderly systems.

She was not actually helping, though. He had decided he needed a break from her calls, and so gave himself a seventy-two-hour respite from answering them. So when the phone rang as Tom and Barbara headed upstairs to bathe together, he let it ring.

The ringing, however, became persistent, and while persistent was in character, Charlotte was never deliberately rude. After fifteen and finally twenty rings, he had to answer it or unplug it. As he didn't have his reading glasses, it made unplugging that damn little plastic thing on the base of the phone all but impossible; and so, with little choice, he opted for his daughter's lecture and answered it.

He turned down the volume on the television, but didn't turn it off as he took the call.

‘Hello?' he said.

‘Did you see her?' said a voice that was not Charlotte's. It was a man's voice.

‘Who is this?'

‘Come on, Ferris. Who do you think it is?'

‘Arwood?'

‘Did you see her?'

‘Who?'

‘It was live on Al Jazeera five hours ago, then it was picked up by everyone. It's on the Web. BBC, CNN, MSNBC. It'll be on
The Daily Show
if anyone at the White House says something stupid enough about it. They're playing it over and over on the news. The clip is too good not to show. You haven't seen her?'

‘No,' Benton said. ‘What are you talking about?'

‘No need to wait for the loop. Al Jazeera has it on the website. It's on YouTube, too. You know what that is, right?'

‘Arwood … Christ. I mean, it's been—'

‘Benton, listen, OK? The video. I need you to see her.'

Benton rubbed his eyes with his free hand. ‘I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't read the papers.'

‘The papers. That's quaint.'

‘You know what I mean. How did you get this number?'

‘You live in the same place and have the same job. Go watch the video. I'll call back in ten minutes.'

‘What am I looking for?'

‘I'd hate to ruin it. Type in “mortar attack, Kurdistan, green dress, today”. You can't miss her.'

‘Who?'

‘Ten minutes.'

Benton sat at his workstation PC, which was old and slow and black. He turned on the speakers, expanded the image until it filled the screen, and sat back to see what had summoned forth the voice of Arwood Hobbes from the silence of twenty-two years.

He was right: it was easy to find.

More often than not, when the topic and locale are the Middle East, the screen becomes beige. It is a world of earth tones and browns, harsh lighting and harsher angles. When the story turns to the troops — to the Americans, the Brits, to the Iraqi regiments, or the irregulars — they move like matching and replaceable figurines in their dull clothes and camouflage. When the story turns to civilian life, though, their distinctiveness and humanity bursts to the fore in a tapestry of colour.

Because of this, the girl in green shone like an emerald against this pallid earth.

A newswoman stood close to the camera. It was a bust shot. Behind her was a line of refugee women and their children. Three-quarters of all the people streaming out of Syria and heading for Iraq were women and children. More than half those fleeing the country were children. Al Jazeera was making a point of it, to its credit.

The date was 20 September 2013.

BOOK: The Girl in Green
5.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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