Authors: Derek B. Miller
Tags: #FIC030000, #FIC032000
The next morning is bright, and forecast to be clear. Benton and Charlotte eat in near silence. After breakfast, he puts the SDHC chip into his computer and watches the video from Iraq. Convinced by the quality, he copies the chip to his hard drive, compresses the footage, uploads it to a shared site for large files that the
uses, and calls his editor.
âI'm back,' Benton says.
âProductive trip, I'm sure.'
âAs it happens, I found out what happened at that mortar attack everyone's been going on about. The Kurds didn't do it. I have raw footage of ISIL setting the mortar. And this should matter, because if the Kurds, difficult though they are, don't have political support in the West, there will no opposition against ISIL gains.'
âYou have this in your possession?'
âI sent it before calling.'
âI took it from the camera the terrorists abandoned at the site after taking the film and killing everyone. Clearly, before they sent it to the international media, they edited the version everyone is now watching, and we all took it as proof positive, because no one gives a damn anymore, as they'd rather be fast and wrong than slow and right. And at the risk of overstating the matter, it's because business depends on speed, and mere democracy depends on validity.'
âI take your point, but democracy doesn't pay the bills around here. And what about the girl? She's the story. What happened to her?'
âIn the green dress, Thomas. She's the human interest in the story. Surely you know that. If she's alive, there'll be a prize in it for you.'
âThe girl is dead.'
By mid-afternoon, the sky has darkened, and the colours of the day have already shown their best. It offers a chance to wallow and withdraw, but Benton feels, for a change, he'll have none of it. He still isn't ready for the conversation, though. So he puts on his shoes, his parka, and his hat, puts his crutches under his arms, and takes a very small folding stool with him. Prepared, he goes out to face it all.
âWhere are you going, Dad?' Charlotte asks.
âFor a hobble. I'll be back soon.'
âWe haven't spoken a word.'
âIt's part of the process. It's going better than it looks.'
He takes a cab to Squires Field on Park Road, only a short ride up the hill. The driver lets him out, and Benton crosses the road north to where a few stout-hearted parents watch their boys playing football in the English rain on a plush pitch. The boys are fit and young and focussed. Their energy is boundless.
A man he's known for years, Albert Crowley, recognises him and comes over to shake his hand.
âDon't get up, for heaven's sake, man. What happened to you?'
âThat's the leading cause of death, I hear. Going to heal?'
âBetter than most things.'
âThey said it would be sunny today. It occurred to me recently that they get paid either way. I would say you made a mistake with all the war stuff. Weather was the smart money.'
âI rather like this weather.'
âYou know the players?' Albert asks about the footballers.
âNo. I wanted to watch the future of the Commonwealth run around a bit.'
âIt's dire, isn't it? Little fuckers. Be getting drunk and ripping up bus stops before you know it.'
âI've seen worse.'
âWe're going to get a pint when the clock runs down. Come along?'
âIs there somewhere else?'
âLester working today?'
âHasn't missed a day since '78.'
âI'll meet you there.'
Benton watches the game for an hour before making his way by cab to the pub. Albert, with family obligations, hasn't arrived yet, so Benton seats himself at the bar. Lester places a coaster with a pint on top of it.
âHaven't seen you in a week,' Lester says. âStaying in London these days?'
âNo. An overseas assignment. Over now. Don't think I'll be going away for a while.'
âWhat happened to the leg?'
âNothing permanent, I'm told.'
âA little too interesting. Ask me again sometime.'
âEat something?' Lester says.
âNot for now. Switch to the news for me?' Benton asks. âThese reality TV shows are unbearable.'
âSo, Benton,' Lester says, leaning over the bar a bit. âI don't want to step in anything, but Vanessa was in here looking for you a few days ago. Now that I know you were travelling, I'm a little surprised she didn't know. So â¦ how are you? Anything you want to talk about?'
âOn second thought, bring me a prawn sandwich. And turn up the volume. I'm old.'
Benton checks the time. It is past 5.00 p.m., and so 7.00 p.m. in Dohuk. MÃ¤rta is probably still at the office. She'll be busy as the camp swells. He could call them. Tigger and Herb and MÃ¤rta can be right here in the pub with him if he presses the right combination of numbers on the phone that he can so easily dial with his fingers.
Still nothing from Arwood.
The trail is not completely cold, if he wants to follow it. The note he sent to MÃ¤rta was also sent to Arwood's Kurdish friends, and MÃ¤rta will have that number on her phone, too, having been copied into the message. He could ask her for it. Place the call. Maybe it would ring. Maybe the person on the other end speaks English, and survived the assault on the fortress. He may know what happened to Arwood: whether he survived, where he is now, where he's going next.
For now, though, Benton does not call MÃ¤rta for the number. As Arwood correctly said, Benton is not hard to find. If he's alive and wants to contact him, he will. If he's dead, Benton would rather not know. It is better for now to believe he is alive, and simply obscured from view by the dirt and debris kicked up by all the mortars.
Benton takes a long pull on his beer, and dials the only number important to him right now. It is answered quickly.
He tells his wife that he is at the pub drying off â if not drying out. He was watching the local boys play some ball at Squires Field. It was somehow uplifting. He's ordered a sandwich. There is a long pause that Vanessa does not fill. Finally, he says, âWould you like to come join me?'
âDo you want me to?'
And then Vanessa starts to cry, and he tells her not to because there is no need to cry, and that he has been away but now he is back and will stay. And while he knew it all along, he appreciates even more how lucky they both are. Everything else seems childish or trite at this point.
She sniffles once, and suggests he finish his lunch and come back to the house. She's going to move back in. He needs the help.
He suggests that all of them rent
s Day Off
tonight. He doesn't say why. She laughs, thinking he's joking. He insists he's not. âI need a laugh. And there are things I need to tell you both about the past.'
Benton watches the news, and drinks the remainder of his beer before ordering another. He had promised the Syrian with the footballer son that he would raise a toast to his dead wife and daughter. But it is too soon to fulfil that obligation. To rush would be to unburden himself of the promise, rather than to respect it. He will hold that for a moment when he is not alone. When he has friends near him. When he can find the courage to make death less of a private matter, and speak about it with the confidence of voice it requires. When he can find his inner Arwood Hobbes.
The sandwich comes. Benton places the napkin on his lap, and Lester glances at the TV, where a news presenter is showing the latest footage from Iraq about the mortar attack that happened a bit over a week ago. It shows men in black headscarves running from the launch point after the smoke clears. The commentators have opinions to share. They are the opposite opinions to the ones they voiced a week ago. This goes unmentioned.
âHere you go,' Lester says, putting the napkin and cutlery beside the sandwich. âFront-row seats to the world's events.' He looks up at the TV on account of Benton's interest. âThe things going on out there â Shiites, Sunnis, all these ancient hatreds just playing themselves out, day after day. Good thing we're not there anymore, I can tell you. I wouldn't want our boys over in the middle of all that. What are you gonna do, right? It's all a damn shame, is what it is. A damn shame. Don't you think?'
âYes, it is,' Benton says. âIt's a damn shame.'
My thanks to my agent,
, at Janklow
& Nesbit, for reading numerous versions of this manuscript and providing essential insight; to my wife, Camilla
Waszink, who was my first reader, my second reader, and my third reader (â¦); to my friends in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and also at the United Nations; Mat Zeller at No One Left Behind (nooneleft.org) for his thoughts and figures on those national staff and translators and allies we in fact did leave behind; singer and songwriter Mike Doughty for saying I could use his song title âInto the Un' as a possible title for this book, which I then didn't; to PJ Mark, Henry Rosenbloom, Angus Cargill, Lauren Wein, and all the unsung heroes with Janklow
& Nesbit and with my publishers who helped turn a pile of loosely affiliated
words into something called a âbook'.
This story drew heavily from my own PhD dissertation (2004), which became the book
Media Pressure on Foreign Policy: the evolving theoretical framework
(2007), in which I studied the Iraqi civil war of 1991 in depth. I was haunted by many of the stories I read, and I knew that, somehow, I needed to return to the subject matter through fiction in order to explore and share other truths.
Field-level history about Operation Provide Comfort drew facts, anecdotes, and timelines from Dr Gordon Rudd's excellent 1993 unpublished PhD dissertation from Duke University, accessed through UMI.
The setting of Checkpoint Zulu near Samawah was suggested by a 31 March 1991 article in
The Washington Post
written by Nora Boustany, called âU.S. Troops Witness Iraqi Attack on Town in Horror, Frustration.'
The first draft of this book was completed on 30 January 2014 â before ISIL rose to international prominence; before the Yezidi were massacred on Mount Sinjar; before the Kurds fully joined the fight and became backed by the West â¦ sort of. This book, therefore, did not rush to press chasing headlines: it preceded them. In retrospect, my primary flaw of analysis was failing to anticipate just how bad it would all become.
The proof discussed by the Syrian father on the football pitch refers to photos from the Syrian defector called Caesar. I have changed the chronology slightly to allow for this conversation.
The working title of this book was âWelcome to Checkpoint Zulu' because, in a way, we are all at Checkpoint Zulu now.
The phrase âIt's a Big Old Goofy World' was taken from John Prine's song of the same name (1991).
And, yes, the frozen-chicken thing really happened.