History lecturer Richard Chambers is back in the Middle-East on a lecture tour. He is unable to stop himself from visiting the boy's school at which he had taught 37 years previously. He is surprised, that after all this time, he still feels guilt regarding a relationship that developed with one of his students. Here, in this short extract from the novel, "Whispers in the Hearts of Men," Richard Chambers sets off to visit his past.
The Foreign Office assured Richard that the danger to British nationals wishing to travel to the region was minimal, and Richard had looked forward to the trip despite Nicole’s warnings. He had even decided to go two days earlier in order to reacquaint himself with the place where “Dicky” Chambers had trod, lived and worked as a volunteer teacher at the boy’s school.
After lunch on the second day, Richard went back to his room intending to go through his presentation for the last time and to deal with a backlog of emails. He was anticipating a mail from a colleague in New Zealand and his report on a four-year study into suicide attacks in the Middle-East. Of particular interest to Richard was what these attacks revealed about the nature and characteristics of the bombers themselves. He clicked on to the internet and then to his email provider. While waiting for a connection he looked through the window, let his gaze dance over the house tops and the minarets to the low, parched hills on the horizon where he found an irresistible desire to revisit the school where his teaching career had begun. He was still staring through the window when the login box appeared on his screen. Richard’s hand hovered over the keyboard. While he logged off and got to his feet he was aware that the delicious anticipation of the visit was spoiled by ill-defined feelings of guilt. Making his way to the door of his room he eased his concerns by telling himself that in this faraway place, the events from that faraway time were somehow disconnected from him. Revisiting the past would be a secret pleasure, his own private cinema show.
It was the middle of the afternoon when he pushed at the doors and reeled out into the street to revisit his past. The warmth was as tangible but as untouchable as the women in black who shuffled beside the battered yellow taxis and the moth-eaten buildings. The women seemed to turn a disdainful ear to the car horns, the muezzin’s call, and the shouts of jihad, the shouts against Western imperialism, and the shouts about the rising price of vegetables. Mingling with it all and clinging to his clothes were rich and honeyed odours, heavy with suggestions of the orient and ready to carry it across the world.
While he strolled to the first circle, memories emerged, followed him down the main street and competed for his attention. From the tiny roundabout the school entrance was visible as lush and heavy oleander twisting up and around a black, iron gateway. There was no movement of any kind except the flower petals bobbing to the faraway sound of the city dwellers on their way home for a late lunch.
With memories now snapping close at his heels, Richard stepped under the oleander and followed his shadow until it broke over the low wall that separated the accommodation block from the play area. There was only the faint plop of his shoes, the sound of cicadas clicking, and the sun burning the back of his neck. A quickening of the air made him turn. Far away in the desert a huge brown wall, stretching from horizon to horizon and reaching high into the sky, was shutting out the sun in an orange glow. A sandstorm was coming.
Richard turned his head towards the shaded passage that joined the play area to the cloistered courtyard circling the classrooms. His eyes lingered in its darkness, and a wistful expression came to his face as though he were moved by a long musical note of great sadness or beauty. He was remembering the idea of his young self and the mixture of laughter, shouts of surprise and excitement that would rise up from the playground at the end of the school day. In his mind, the sounds faded to empty and distant shouts and the leathery thwack of a bouncing ball while from beyond the school gates and from all the seven surrounding hills came the settling sound of a breathing city preparing itself for lunch and an afternoon nap.
The sound of the ball was still present in Richard’s memory. He even walked in time to its bouncing rhythm towards the narrow passageway. Before he reached its entrance, the sound stopped, and all that remained was a vague pulse in his temple.
Richard gazed into the silence. Just inside the shade of the passageway, and framed in a vaulted recess, a memory was waiting for him. Khalid is lying on his back, and his feet are drawn up, the skin on his legs soft and pale. One arm curls upwards so that the boy’s head rests on the palm of its hand while the other arm circles a football, which lies on his chest. The boy is staring at the wall, his lips moving to some repetitive learning exercise or prayer while warm breaths of wind flirt with the hair over his forehead. Dicky embraces him with a look, his eyes caressing the curve of the boy’s legs where they enter his shorts.
Lying on the mattress in his cell, Richard fidgeted at this memory and the residue of feeling that accompanied it. He lay for some time, staring at the damp marks on the ceiling and tried to come to terms with the fact that Khalid was still dancing in his life, still talking and living in his dreams.