Against the Rest of the World
A small sound filters through the hazy edges of my consciousness. Thoughts begin to stir, registering information faster than I can consciously separate and connect properly: heavy object/firm impact/repeated sound, jingling/metallic/multiple objects, friction of rough fabric repeated at regular intervals/slightly longer every other repetition. The information coalesces: footsteps/keys clanking/rustle of standard-issue army trousers worn by someone with heavy thighs and a slight limp because he was once shot in the knee cap: my gaoler. I am awake, pull my eyelids apart. The keys are at the lock; he always chooses at least one wrong key before managing to fit the correct one into the lock. Idiot.
They’re all idiots; nonetheless they did apprehend and imprison me, but only because I had a fleeting moment of idiocy myself. Otherwise how could I have ended up in a makeshift prison cell in Antalya? At least it’s on the water. I keep telling myself this, babbling information I already know as though I have become soft in the brain. As though I am in any position to comfort myself in this situation! Perhaps I am developing schizophrenia. That would be interesting at least. What is decidedly not interesting is being trapped in a cinder block bunker in a slum of a city in Turkey with which I have not the slightest passing familiarity, chained to its bricks and so bored I cannot keep track of the days.
This is a slight exaggeration: I have been in this cell for precisely thirty-one days. A month. Or at least, a month if it were January, March, May, July, August, October, or December. Are those the months with thirty-one days? I think so. Never could be bothered to remember that. What’s the point, when one could just look at a calendar? Would say I had deleted it, but having been bothered to learn it in the first place is highly debatable. John would know. No. I breathe and switch off that thought. Back to the original topic.
All right, thirty-one days in this cell. Nine hundred and twelve days since the Fall. I would call it my death, but as that statement is fallacious in the extreme – although, if my captors have their ways, that could change soon enough, and what a tedious confusion that would be for everyone at home when (if) my corpse turns up in Antalya? Mycroft would probably sort it out, once he’d figured it out. Only he could figure it out. I wonder if he’s gaining weight again.
I wonder if he’s gaining weight again? Really, I ask myself, of all of the random questions it could occur to you to ask about Mycroft at this particular moment in time, your first consideration is his weight? Why not wonder if he has dissolved the parliamentary system yet, instating himself as supreme dictator of the realm, started a war with Iran, died alone in the bath, anything of slightly greater importance? Perhaps I have started to go mad in here. I always thought I would die of boredom one day. Perhaps this is it: the boredom will drive me mad and then kill me. Perhaps it will come with interesting hallucinations, at least.
The keys are shaken and shifted in my gaoler’s hand. He’s not really a gaoler and this is hardly a proper prison, but the term suffices for how I need to think of him. He’s got the correct key at last. Why is he here now? What time is it? Is it time to feed me again? Will they give me water? My chains are just long enough that I can relieve myself, but that is as far as their mercy has extended. I am thirsty. The air is acrid and dry in this irritatingly low-ceilinged box. I can taste the bitterness on my tongue. There is a small window (much too small to fit through; it measures precisely sixteen centimetres by eleven centimetres, or so I gauge) and no matter when I have been sleeping I can usually discover the time of day by the light. So far my captors do not control the rising and setting of the sun and it has not occurred to them to cover the window so thickly that I would not be able to tell. Perhaps I am overestimating how important it is to them that I know what day it is or how much time has gone by. Perhaps that only matters to me.
It does, somehow. I have kept track of every day since I left. Had to leave. Chose to leave. However you put it, I keep track.
The tumbler shifts and slides into place; the doorknob turns and the door opens. The gaoler pushes it to and inserts himself into the doorframe. “English Man,” he says, in his best impression of a sneer. (This is what he calls me.) This is followed by something muttered in Turkish. Regrettably, Turkish is not a language I speak. If I had only been taken prisoner in Germany or France. Rudimentary as both my German and French are, one can often make do with rudiments and body language. My captor is holding a plate of something greyish. Ah. The usual, then. I have deduced that it is some form of bulgur wheat porridge, wholly unseasoned. Am surprised I have not yet taken scurvy from the lack of essential nutrients. Will endeavour not to take eating for granted in the future. John would be so pleased. (Switch off line of thought.)
I look up. Have learned not to provoke this man if it can be avoided. (Cannot always be avoided.) He is stupid but short-tempered. Or rather, stupid and short-tempered. These traits frequently go together, to my constant exasperation. Too stupid to observe, too stubborn to be taught. He is holding the tin plate of the tasteless gruel and seems to be waiting for something. Me to provoke him, possibly? (Should I oblige?) I decide to wait.
He gives up, seemingly disappointed, and grunts, “Dinner.”
I unfold myself from my seated position, ignore the stiffness in my knees and hold out my hands for it in silence.
“No clever comments?” His voice is gruff, edged with something else. He has something else to say. Something important. Is trying to provoke me into speech. Interesting. “Nothing to say about cooking?”
I can’t remember if I have ever mentioned the appalling cuisine, at that. I don’t think I have. “Not today.” I raise an eyebrow, accepting the spoon by its handle. “And you? No clever comments about my situation today?”
His small, beady eyes are shadowed by a pair of absolutely enormous eyebrows. Despite having seen them at least once per twenty-four hour period since having arrived here, they never cease to startle and almost alarm me. These are set close to the tiny bridge of a nose which expands suddenly and bulbously, attached directly to the moustache below. This is like a third, even huger eyebrow, only stiffer and uglier yet. The mouth is always pursed, deep lines framing the mouth, running from nose to jowl. Not a handsome specimen, I’m afraid. His English is guttural, heavily accented, but quite functional, to my relief. I think this is why he is on constant duty: none of the others speak English, and as we have established that my Turkish is nonexistent, it would be difficult to either question or ridicule me in it. “I have message for you,” he says.
“A message?” I repeat carefully. Am waiting for him to leave before ingesting whatever amount of the meal, such as it is, that I can manage today. I don’t like to let them see me eating it. Feels somehow shameful.
“Yes. From Yilmaz.”
Yilmaz is the head of this particular group. He was who I was after when I was apprehended. This, therefore, gets my attention. My focus sharpens, the gruel forgotten. “What?”
The gaoler pulls a small piece of paper out of his trouser pocket and unfolds it, frowning as it he reads it, likely attempting to translate it into English. “He say, you know man called She – Shee-Field,” he says, stumbling over the name. “British soldier.”
Scottish, in fact. And yes, Jack Sheffield. A chance companion met in this underworld web of chasing after the iniquitous. A former soldier of the Black Watch turned intelligence. I met him in Hamburg seven months earlier and he’d sent a scrap or two of useful information my way twice in the intervening months. Smart man, very abrupt and very efficient. In exchange for some information he’d given me when we met, I’d served as back-up for a brief operation of his in the area. Bombing in the S-Bahn system, very nasty business, but he’d pulled it off. “Yes,” I say, as the gaoler’s eyes are fixed on me, waiting for confirmation. “I know him.”
He folds the slip of paper up again and tucks it back into his pocket with a decided air of triumph. “He is injured.”
“Oh?” Am careful to disguise any concern. “How so?”
“Bomb,” is all I get. “He is in hospital.”
“Which hospital?” I ask, hoping the information will continue.
I get a shrug. Perhaps he doesn’t know. “Yilmaz, he say maybe you want to visit your friend.”
“He’s not my friend. Just someone I know.” What new game is this?
The gaoler’s small eyes rest on mine for a moment. He sighs. “Yilmaz, he say he tired of feeding you. You no good for information. You know nothing. You go today. Go to Scotland and see Shee-field.”
I try to process this. What can Yilmaz’ motivation possibly be, save to get me out from under his nose? Is he up to something new? Redundant question, of course he is, but am I not safely dispatched at the moment? Oh – I understand: they are moving camp and I am the suddenly-unwanted baggage. Easier to let me go. They probably found information connecting me to Sheffield somehow and targeted him on purpose so that I would want to see him. Perhaps I should not have downplayed our acquaintance like that. Is he really injured and in the hospital? If so, I’m sure he’ll be fine, and if he’s too badly injured to be saved, there is nothing my presence will do to for him. So: the question is now, what is Yilmaz up to and where are they going?
I look up at my guard dog. “You’re letting me go?”
“Yes.” He nods at the plate. “Eat, English Man. Long way to Scotland.”
They really want me to go to Scotland. I wonder if there is more to this than just wanting me out of the way. (How can I possibly know?) “Is someone buying me a plane ticket?” I quip, just to see what sort of reaction that will get. “It’s a long way to walk.”
The blow comes quickly, causing me to drop the plate. It splatters over the floor as the left side of my vision blooms red, my face throbbing. “Funny man,” he says sourly, turning back toward the door. “Be ready in ten minutes, then you go.”
I cough, spit blood onto the floor and ignore him as the door clanks shut again.
I am led to the edges of the compound by the same man, who is behaving as though he is about to make a daring escape rather than obeying a command to release a prisoner. It is hardly assuring. “English Man!” he hisses, just above a whisper. “Stay low!”
I make my crouched stance even lower, knees protesting as we duck into the shrubbery. “Why? I thought they told you to let me go.”
The gaoler glares back over his thick shoulder. “Yes, but Yilmaz, he say he maybe take shot at you for fun. For memories.”
Ah. That would be payback for when I tried to shoot him back in Yemen. “And you don’t want to get shot,” I say dryly. “I see.”
He grins, exposing the missing first premolar on the upper left side of his mouth. “Almost at wall. Stay low.”
I watch his back advancing through the bushes and grit my teeth, breathing deeply. “Right.”
At the wall, he throws up a rope. It is caught on the other side and held taut. My captor gestures at it. “Go quick,” he says. “Probably, he shoot while you climb.”
Perfect. I glance back over my shoulder and consider my options. The nearest window of the compound is over sixty metres away. Is Yilmaz that good a shot? Possibly. Anger would disrupt his accuracy, however. A feint, then. I grasp the rope and begin to climb at an average pace. The month of stillness has taken its toll and I can feel my body responding slower than usual as it is. The instant my head appears above the foliage, I grip the rope with my knees and slide suddenly down a metre and a half, the shot ricocheting off the stone wall above my head. I count to five, clutching the rope, then begin an all-out climbing sprint. I can only climb so quickly; must rely on his annoyance in having missed to distract him while I haul myself to the top, which I do, hand over hand, as fast as I possibly can, yet agonisingly slowly. Bullets are screaming against the stone, my knuckles scraping themselves bloody. I must not panic but it is difficult; can hear my breath ragged in my skull. I get a knee over the wall, pull myself up and slide down the other side in cautious relief, well aware that there may still be a trap at the bottom.
I let go of the rope and drop into a defensive pose, elbows out, low to the ground. There is only the guard holding the rope. We look at each other. (Will he shoot me?) Apparently not. He jerks his head toward the gravel road. “Çik disan,” he grunts.
I have no idea what the words mean but the meaning is certainly clear. I nod and set off at a rapid pace, willing myself not to look back. The wall is too high to shoot over; none of the windows are high enough for a sniper, and I should be well out of range by now. Yilmaz is extremely wily and I would not put it past him to have stationed people further down this road. After five hundred metres, I begin to relax, though do not slow my pace at all. After a thousand, I exhale deeply and force my thoughts to settle long enough to take proper stock of my situation.
I am attired in beige army fatigues two sizes too big, flimsy rubber sandals that more or less fit but are rubbish for walking in, a thin, greyish cotton t-shirt, and a keffiyeh checked in black and white. I have nothing else: no money (Yilmaz’ men took my wallet with my bank card and the two hundred Euros I had in cash), no phone (it was only a disposable mobile that didn’t function outside Saudi Arabia anyway), no food, no water, no transport, and no way to get it. I consult my extremely small internal list of emergency resources. I could call Mycroft in dire need, but that would necessitate having to explain the not-being-dead bit sooner than I had anticipated, and given the precautions I have taken to avoid exactly such a circumstance, I would rather not do this. Not Mycroft. Jack Sheffield is, if the gaoler can be believed, in the hospital in Edinburgh and hardly well-placed to help. There is Katrin Reger, my former landlady in Berlin. She could possibly help, but I don’t know her all that well and don’t know how willing she would be. No: I can rely on myself. I will find a way. I always have.
The compound was located west of the city limits, but not far. If my sense of smell has not become completely deadened in that tiny cinder block box, I can smell the sea. I recall having seen that the Port of Antalya was west of the city; perhaps this road leads toward it. What I need primarily is to get to a bank, but even more than that, I need to get out of Antalya. Yilmaz’ operation is more than I can take on alone at the moment, weakened from a month of imprisonment and fully without resources. I will need to return to somewhere slightly safer and tap into my widely-placed network of informants for further information, then return with a better plan. Underestimated the extent of Yilmaz’ spies, evidently.
The soles of the sandals are so thin that I can feel the stones cutting into the soles of my feet. A sign looms up in the distance saying something with a picture of a boat and a number two. Two kilometres to the port. Good. What I really need, besides a trip to the bank and to flee the country, is access to the internet. And water. I notice the heat for the first time, check the position of the sun. About four in the afternoon, perhaps five. I will need hydration soon. I think back, yes, they gave me about half a cup with the morning dosage of bulgur porridge. Not enough in this heat.
A rumbling car engine approaches from the rear distance. Hitch-hiking to the port would be lovely, but it could be Yilmaz’ people sent to follow me. The motorway is raised from the plains on either side, just enough to conceal myself from passing traffic. I press myself into the side of the rise, some small, prickly plant scratching my face and arms until the vehicle passes. The vibrations have suggested another two coming from the other direction, so I wait until they have passed, too. Cautionary look around. The coast is clear, for now. It takes another twenty-five minutes to reach the port, during which time I am obliged to conceal myself several more times as the traffic thickens.
Finally the docks come into view. There is a small outdoor market just beginning to close on the side of the boardwalk where the private and commercial boats are moored. I slip into the small crowd still perusing the stalls and successfully lift a smartphone of some sort. An iphone. (Tell me it’s not locked.) I gain some distance at its (former) owner and scan his face and body for any clues to go by should the phone be passcode-protected. I also succeed in lifting a small bottle of water, then wander casually to the east end of the docks to inspect the cargo ships.
There are a number of choices. What I really need is a shipping manifest for each one, preferably with a destination listed. I am hardly attired as someone who works on one of the ships, so I make every attempt to look like a gawking tourist. A very poorly-dressed one with a bruise and cut on his left cheekbone, albeit. Perhaps they’ll take me as an aging graduate student-type with a propensity for fist-fights. I inspect the ships. Impossible to deduce the cargo from the outside, and quite impossible to deduce the destinations. What I want is a mid-size cargo ship just large enough not to get lost in but not too small to hide in, bound somewhere relatively close. One ship catches my eye, the Damocles. Greek name; Greece would be nice. I pull out the stolen phone and search the ship’s name. Ah, finally: a listing for the Port of Antalya. There it is: Damocles, cargo classified except to those with professional accounts for this website, bound for the Port of Kyrenia in Cyprus. Cyprus would be perfect. I enter a shipping time calculation. One day, eleven hours from Antalya, departing at eleven tonight. I can conceal myself that long. I hope.
I dream of John that night, a gentle dream of home and domestic peace. Disciplined as I have kept myself by day, my mind has its way when I let down my guard and sleep. Sometimes I know even while dreaming that it’s a dream, but not this time. Baker Street: home. More of a home than the house I grew up in or any place I lived afterward. Baker Street is tea and toast, garish Victorian wallpaper, fires in the small fireplace in autumn and winter, unthreatening arguments. Having someone to bicker with. I remember when that was new, marvelling privately at the fact that there was someone there, and then someone still there to bicker with. It was extraordinary in its very ordinariness: the way he took my oddities in his stride and accepted them as part of his own daily routine. Oh, he protested, but never in any real way. The sight of a severed head in the fridge or a congealing (forgotten) spleen in the oven might garner a sharp remark or rebuke, but he was never about to go pack his things and leave. How quickly I became accustomed to that, almost taking it for granted. No: I did take it for granted. Not him, per se, but his presence. Possibly him, too, I acknowledge. He never complained, not really. And there was no time to prepare myself to lose that, no time to see how deeply my roots had extended into his territory, or his into mine; no time to retract them delicately and create a safe separation. For self-preservation, not for a desire for the space. There was no time, and then when that terrible phone call took place, I realised what an idiot I am after all, realised how little I know about some very important things. John could have told me that. John always knows about those things, the parts he refers to as my astonishing gaps in knowledge.
In the dream, I must be there, or perhaps I am merely observing, as one does in dreams. John is moving about the kitchen, buttering toast, humming to himself. He opens his laptop at the kitchen table, peers at the screen while munching on the toast, then closes the lid, gets up and makes tea. Did the kettle boil? It must have done. The scene shifts and he is sitting in his chair, looking toward the fireplace. Is the fire lit? I can’t quite tell. Nothing much else happens, but not long after that, he turns his head toward (me? My chair?), and just when his eyes fall on me, I wake with a start.
I am shivering; I notice that first. I am lying on a metal bench built into the side of the cargo hold of the Damocles, screened by a swath of canvas that was dangling from the ceiling. The hold is full of wooden crates. Most of the crates bear Turkish lettering, but a few are labelled in Greek, which I can read at an elementary capacity; some sort of mechanical part. Nothing corrosive is all I really care about. The bench is cold. I had taken off the keffiyeh to use as a pillow; now I wrap it around my shoulders and try to stop shivering. I listen for a few moments, but all I can hear is the magnified underwater sounds carried through the metal hull of the ship. I risk checking the time on the stolen smartphone. Eleven minutes past four in the morning. Still a long way from Cyprus, then.
A good job I don’t snore, at least not according to John. He pointed this out while we were in Dartmoor, sharing a room. I didn’t tell him that he does snore, nor that it’s only mild and that I found it rather soporific, almost pleasant. (Should I have told him that? How would he have reacted?) I catch myself and firmly turn my thoughts away from John again. It’s too difficult to be constantly thinking about him. It was hardest at the beginning, when I missed him so much it amazed me, missed him the way I would miss a limb. He had become essential. I don’t know when that happened, precisely, but I was lost. It hurt like a physical wound. I had never realised how powerful sentiment could be, nor how deeply I – I, of all people – could be so affected. The irony didn’t escape me, either; that in doing what I did to save John’s life, I lost John. After two and a half years, I can only assume that he’s moved on by now. Found another flatmate, or found a girlfriend to move in with. Another portion of what I refuse to think about is how much more the latter bothers me than the former. However, I did what I did for reasons not of my own choosing: to save John. Now all I can do is see it out. For however long it takes.
I never thought it would take this long. I close my eyes and try to find my way back into sleep, lulled by the rolling of the ship, despite the cold metal bench and the lack of pillow or blankets. I have slept in worse places. I will not think about John but I cannot bring myself to hope that the dream won’t return.
It doesn’t. I dream of being captured, of Yilmaz’ henchman Emir taking my watch, wallet, gun, bag containing my clothes and jacket, then my shoes. The humiliation, and the hot midday sun, the sharp stones digging into my knees when they cuffed my hands behind my back and beat me for refusing to give a name.
I wake from that dream suddenly, too. It is mid-afternoon this time. I have not slept so long or so deeply since before the imprisonment. There are voices at the far end of the cargo hold, shouting above the sound of the water. I catch fragments only. I need to relieve myself. When the voices leave, I find a way to do it discreetly, then finish the rest of the water in my small bottle. Check the smartphone. The battery is very low now and there is no internet connection. I close my eyes and try not to think, not about anything. No data, nothing to consider. How dull. Thinking will have to wait until Cyprus. It should only be about half an hour from the Port of Kyrenia to Nicosia. I wonder if I can hitchhike. Then I will need to find a bank, then buy some clothes and shoes. And a plane ticket. I need to check on Jack Sheffield, too. The hold has grown warmer. I doze, half thinking through wholly hypothetical plans that I cannot complete without further information, half still trying not to think at all.
Several hours later the engines change and the ship reduces speed. The crewmen are shouting again; they must be Greek. I have been to Greece several times and I find that Mediterranean people are terribly excitable, prone to shouting. I don’t mind. The hull bumps against the quay. I unfold myself and prepare to find a moment, weak on my legs after thirty-six hours at sea, to make my daring escape onto dry land.
In the end it involves waiting a few hours more, until the crew has gone ashore. The quay turns out to be offshore, rather too far to swim. I quietly inflate a dinghy and steal down the gangway with it, half expecting to the shot as I row myself toward the shore with as little splash as possible. It is still daylight, perhaps about seven in the evening; I am quite visible.
Neither shot nor shout echoes over the harbour, however. I drag the dinghy ashore and abandon it with the oars inside. I turn to face Nicosia and begin to think about how I can find a lift, exhaling deeply.
I’ve done it. I have escaped from Turkey.