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Downstream on the Memphis Ferry

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It’s far too hot, and there’s sand everywhere: his eyes are gritty with it in the morning and he could swear the sandwiches at lunch tasted as much of sand as they did anything else. Even now it’s dark again, the heat has yet to fade and he’s sweating, shirt clinging to his back and arms. At least the beer is nicely cool – well, lukewarm, anyway, which is good enough to be an excuse for drinking more of it.

There’s really nothing to do at night except get drunk. Maybe if he hitched a ride into town there’d be something more fun, maybe he could pick a fight or find someone to fuck, but he doesn’t like the odds of anyone bothering to bail him out if he ends the night in jail, and besides, Egyptian jails are probably a bit worse than English ones. So mostly he stays put and tries to make the best of smoking and drinking and playing cards; some of the other guys have a supply of whisky, which is pretty good. Or rather, had a supply - he’s already won most of it off them. It’s not his favourite drink, but enough of it knocks him out, and if he still dreams, he’s too hung over the next morning to care. An archaeological dig is really not as glamorous as it seems in the movies.

[The water is brown with mud and silt, but it looks somehow as though it should be cool. No, he knows it will be warm: it’s him that’s changed. Warm is good, it’s cold that is the enemy: cold means nothing but sleep and death.

Sometimes there are screams, people thrashing desperately, clawing for escape, clawing for air. Sometimes there are animals, broken limbed and terrified, their skin torn off in great gashes. Occasionally there is nothing but huge silver fish, silent and eerie in the gloom. They thrash, too, ripping themselves to pieces trying to escape.

He’ll find something to cling to, to clasp tight in his arms in the thick darkness of the riverbed. It’s peaceful at the end, after the rolling and biting, after the delirium and violence of the attack, when there’s nothing but the last, feeble twitches in his arms, and the comforting welcome of the warm mud under the water.

Later, his mouth will taste of stale blood and rotting meat, cutting through even the spearmint freshness of his toothpaste.]

“Hey, Conway, get over here! You can piss around in the shade on your own time.”

His head is killing him and he didn’t drag himself out of bed in time to catch breakfast – probably wisely, given the sick lurch of his stomach at the smell of food – but a job’s a job, and he’s always a popular man when there’s heavy lifting to be done. He’d kill for a smoke, but he finished his last pack the night before, and also it’s quite possible the stink of cigarette smoke would be more than he can handle right now. The light stabs at him unrelentingly, and he has no idea at all why he signed up for this.

[There’s a joy to it: the strength of his body as he powers forward, gliding through the water with smooth sweeps of his tail; the burst of speed snapping suddenly from rest to running; the rough-house play of grappling, wrestling to submission a man, a bull, anything that catches his fancy; the peace of waiting, self-contained and patient, untroubled by the passing days; even the simple pleasure of the sun, warm on his back. The murky water holds no mystery for him now; there is no hidden secret he can’t search out, no depth he can’t explore.]

“Hey, pet, let me get you another of those.” The music’s too loud to hear her reply – he suspects she told him to stop calling her ‘pet’, but she doesn’t stop him buying her another drink. He runs into her sometimes at lunch, thinks she said she was Danish, but he can’t remember what it is she does. Maybe she’s a nurse. Does that make sense? They must have someone out here who can deal with injuries. Anyway, she’s cute and right there, and probably available if the way she’s eyeing the muscles on his arms is any indication. Lykke, that’s it, her name’s Lykke. He makes some god-awful joke about licking her, but luckily she’s drunk or horny enough to let it go. Maybe she’s just surprised he remembers her name at all. Any rate, she’s left off her bra and the top half of her shirt’s buttons in concession to the heat, and when he pulls her down to sit in his lap, she just laughs and feels up his pecs, and later she turns out to have a tattoo of a cobra on her arse, so she’s pretty much perfect, until the next morning, anyway, when she glares at him and says he kept waking her up shouting in his sleep and can’t he keep his weirdo issues to himself. So maybe that wasn’t so much of a success after all.

[Sometimes he’s waiting for something, hidden and unmoving. Sometimes he’s somewhere else, and someone is calling his name, but it’s not Conway Drake: those times his jaw aches where it’s been held upon, and he can never remember how to tell which people he should ignore, and which he should not. Sometimes his insides are being torn out with hooks, and after that there’s never anything but dark and cold.]

If you walk out a bit into the desert at night, it does get cold, cold enough that after a while he’s shivering, and when he goes to light the next cigarette he realises his fingers are getting numb. He stays out there until he’s too cold to think, and his throat is rough and sore from the smoke.

[It’s not a surprise if he dreams about the job, about the musty air in some undiscovered tomb, about an unmoving mummy wrapped in crumbling linen, surrounded by offerings that have no purpose now to serve. Surely that’s what he should expect to dream about, and everyone has dreams sometimes where they can’t move, can’t speak, where there’s nothing but endless stillness pressing down and no way to breathe.]

If it were just a job, that would be one thing. A stupid thing, admittedly, because it would be a better rewarded career digging ditches, but still. He loves this. He knows he does. Or at least, he remembers that he must have done. He chose to study it, right? So it must have been what he wanted. Maybe if he could have one good night’s sleep the world would set itself in order again, uncomplicated and straightforward and satisfying.

[There’s an constant drone of chanting, rising and falling like the cycle of the tides.

Praise be to you, first of the gods,
Come forth from the black waters and arrange the world.
Your followers give praise.

Praise be to you, who watches over us,
Tear up the dead, they are no longer required
Dead things must pass away.

How the gods rejoice, for the body of Osiris is whole.
How the gods rejoice, for the sons of Horus walk the land.
The souls in the land of the dead rejoice,
For you have restored their sight.
The travellers through the land of death rejoice,
For you have protected their way.

May you allow me to see the sun,
And the stars clustering night after night.
May you protect and feed me,
May my land be fertile, may I have many children,
May my image survive to save me.
I am as one who floats in a boat of reeds,
May I have your protection, may I escape your teeth.

Praise be to you, son of Neith,
May your strength protect Egypt, may our enemies fear you.
May you favour the suit of your followers.]

Perhaps he was never really satisfied. Perhaps when he thought he loved travelling, he was lying to himself, making it sound better than just not knowing what to do with his life. Perhaps when he threw himself into things, into learning, and drinking, and getting into fights, and gambling, and exploring the world, all with equal fervour – perhaps he threw himself into them not from sheer animal exuberance, but to escape how endlessly empty he was. But he doesn’t think it seemed that way at the time, so maybe it’s just something about Egypt, about these relentless fucking dreams, hollowing him out from the inside, trying to make him an empty canister for something else. He should leave: find an excuse to go back home, go somewhere else, anything. Or maybe he should stay, try to come to terms with whatever’s got into him. He’s never run away from anything in his life.

[The thing is, you can only survive if your name survives, if there are still images and symbols that tell the universe you should be there. And is it really an image if no one recognises it? A name no one knows is just a sound, and a word no one can read is no more than a squiggle in the dust.]