By Mark Burrow
“Passports,” said the man from behind a row of tables. We shuffled along. Farther back, by a wall, soldiers watched us going by, one by one. Their berets, khaki uniforms and Russian assault rifles clashed with our tie-die trousers, hats, bracelets and beads.
There were multiple pictures of the President, Hafez al-Assad. He gazed into the middle distance, looking like a slimmed down Saddam Hussein. Once our passports were checked, we were ushered from the fluorescent lighting and air con of the terminal and onto the tarmac. It was gone midnight.
“Wait here,” another man said, wearing the uniform of the airport staff.
Someone lit a cigarette. I lit one for myself and one for the woman who was with me. I looked up at the stars shining brightly in the night sky. I’d taken ketamine to smooth out the long journey home and hadn’t anticipated a stopover.
“Why are we in Syria?” the woman said to me.
A man started shouting at us and the other passengers. We ignored him.
“I’m so tired,” she said. “I just want to get home and have a hot bath.”
The irate man gestured for us to stop smoking.
Dreamily, she added, “Ah, what I really want is some strong-tasting cheese and a large glass of good red wine.”
The woman and I had started chatting due to turbulence. She was afraid of the plane’s vibrations and had gripped my hand in a moment of panic. I let her squeeze as tightly as she needed to and, once the wind currents faded, we made small talk, mostly about our travels round India. She said she had been sick with an upset tummy. I told her how I had soiled myself in a busy market in Pushkar. We called my episode, 'Pushkar pants.'
“No cigarette,” the man yelled.
Everyone ignored him until we realised he was going to call over the soldiers.
On the far side of the tarmac, I saw the lights of a bus coming towards us. “What’s this?” I said.
“That’s not an aeroplane,” the woman replied.
“Definitely not an aeroplane.”
The night air was filled with the babble of complaining voices. The man who told us not to smoke started shouting at us over the diesel engines of the buses, saying there was a hotel for us, a very nice hotel, and we should get on a bus, and yes our luggage would be there too.
Many of the passengers wanted to know why we were going to a hotel when we should be flying home. It was an argument they’d never win and their anger burned itself out. They formed a queue. The woman and I got onto the third bus after a stewardess pointlessly checked our passports, gesturing towards vacant seats.
I found a place by the window and the woman sat down next to me. She immediately rested her head on my shoulder. “I’m going to have a nap,” she said.
I liked the weight of her head against me. I reached out for her hand and she let me hold it. After half an hour or so, there was a pneumatic hiss as the doors closed. The driver crunched the stick into first. There was a half-hearted cheer from a few of the passengers as we moved off and out through guarded gates onto a highway.
I tried to figure out what the Arabic writing said on the walls of shuttered shops. How different were the adverts to Western ads? I looked at the stonework of the tenements. Thinking about the people sleeping inside and what they might be dreaming. I wondered how many murals and billboards of Assad there were across the country.
The engine strained as the driver picked up speed.
My friends were still in India. They were travelling from Goa down to Gokarna, chasing paradise. The beaches were supposed to be untouched and free of tourists. They planned to stay in huts on a beach for a month or two, swimming, sleeping, reading, playing chess, football and getting high. I was meant to go with them. The problem was that I also wanted to get back together with my girlfriend, Sara. Splitting up with her before leaving England to go travelling was a mistake.
I was reminded of Sara as the woman rested her head on my shoulder. Somehow, I had to get us back together. I kept telling myself that she was the paradise I had found and lost. That’s why I was returning home, to win her back. I’d be the person Sara wanted me to be and when she saw how I’d changed, we would be together again.
I would blow her mind when I told her I was going to train to be a teacher.
Except, in the meantime, I was in a strange land, steadily being consumed by the darkness of the desert. The buildings thinned out fast. I saw two stray dogs tearing at the carcass of an animal. Back in Varanasi, I had seen dogs maul the body of what must have been a child, washed up on the banks of the Ganges. I remember sitting on a broken wall smoking a spliff, tripping on acid, watching the animals tear off meagre strips of meat. Up above, hundreds of coloured kites fluttered in the sky.
I stared out of the grimy window of the bus. All I could see was the velvety blackness of the desert. The lights inside the bus were off. We might as well have been inside a capsule, travelling through outer space. Nobody knew I was in Syria. I relished the sensation of vanishing in a remote, foreign place. I felt like an explorer, a mercenary on a secret mission. I hadn’t lost that childish desire to imagine I was somebody else, someone special. If anything, it got stronger as the years went by.
We were about an hour into the journey when I noticed coloured streaks of light on the horizon. There were reds, blues and whites. The bus moved closer and as my eyes adjusted, I realised it was a fairground, smack bang in the middle of nowhere. The big wheel spun slowly round. Lights on the tracks of a big dipper flashed on and off. I searched for signs of people on the rides or walking among the booths and stalls on the ground. I couldn’t see a single person.
We arrived at the hotel about 20 minutes later. It was 2:00am or thereabouts (my watch needed a new battery). We stepped off the bus and a man shouted at us to form another queue. The passengers were exhausted, grumpy and confused. Their anger and indignation flared-up when they realised our luggage was at the airport and we had to stay in our dirty clothes.
I hurriedly dry boshed a pill. I then lit a cigarette for me and a cigarette for the woman.
“Where are we again?” she said, sleepily.
“Syria,” I replied.
“Isn’t that next to Iraq?”
We smoked and then joined the queue for a room. As we edged nearer to the reception desk, the woman said, “I’m happy to share with you.” And then she added, “I do have an upset tummy still.”
I took in what she said, looking at a giant fountain in the reception area. Lights shimmered and sparkled in the falling streams of water.
The woman tapped my arm. We were at the reception desk.
“Passport,” the man snapped.
“Can we have a room, please?” I said.
“Only a double.”
I looked at the woman and then turned to the man. Stupidly, I said, “Don’t you have a room with two singles?”
“A double,” the man replied.
I glanced at the woman and she nodded. I could see she was irritated. I handed over my passport and signed for the double. She did the same. We entered the lift and she pressed the button for the 4th floor.
There was a mirror in the lift. I was unrecognisable from when I landed in Delhi four-months ago.
“Why does every man here have a moustache?” the woman said.
“I guess Assad is a fashion icon.”
“Shoosh,” she said.
“The lift is probably bugged.”
We walked along an empty corridor. The building smelled brand new. We entered the hotel room and it seemed impossibly luxurious. There was a massive walk-in shower, a deep bath and the bed was soft and comfortable with crisp, perfectly white sheets. Everything was ridiculously clean.
“I am going to have a long soak,” the woman said.
I went to the window and, in the distance, I could make out the coloured lights of the fairground.
She opened a wardrobe and found a dressing gown. She went into the bathroom and closed the door. I took a condom out of my wallet and put it the drawer of a bedside cabinet. I pulled off my clothes, chucking them on the floor, and lay naked on the clean sheets. There was a TV on the wall. I switched the screen on with the remote but each channel was dead static.
I must have fallen asleep because when I awoke the room was dark and silent, apart from the whirring of the air con unit. The woman was cuddled up to me and had her hand across my belly. I gently moved her off me and got up, feeling the chilled air on my skin. In the bathroom, I saw her scum lines on the white tub and strands of brown hair. I knew nothing about the woman, except that she worked in public relations, owned a flat in Clapham and suffered from a dodgy tummy after travelling by herself in the north of India.
I flushed the loo and unscrewed the lid on a bottle of water by the dresser. I walked to the window and pulled a curtain aside, boshing my second to last pill. A gooey, orange sun was rising in the distance, casting a soft, creamy light over the rocky desert. I scanned the horizon, searching for the fairground. It had vanished with the sunrise like a vampire.
I climbed into bed. The woman cuddled me and made a sound to let me know she was awake. I kissed her and peeled off her nightdress. She found it funny when she realised I had already placed a condom in the drawer of my bedside cabinet. After we had sex, I thought we’d lay awake talking, sharing stories, and then have more sex. Instead, she went right back to sleep, turning her back to me.
I lay there, listening to the sound of her breathing and the air con. I didn’t want to return to England. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t become a teacher. It was a lie. No different to pretending I was a soldier of fortune or secret agent. I allowed myself to process the thought that Sara and I were finished. I had told her repeatedly on the phone, when calling from Arambol – either high as a kite or on a comedown – that I loved her. That we were meant to be together. That we had to remember the good times. As I was saying this, I couldn’t decide if I really felt what I was describing to her.
I’m not altogether sure I was feeling anything, except this fear of being rejected, of being on my own.
The hotel bed was unbelievably comfortable. I dragged my nails lightly down the back of the woman’s spine and then lit a cigarette.
I wondered about staying here. Finding a job in that fairground. Going to live in the desert.
Out in the wilderness, I could truly disappear.