Anne Goodwin writes fiction for the freedom to contradict and continually reinvent herself. She has published 50 short stories online and in print. A recent—and somewhat evangelical—convert to social media, she has an active website, annethology, and associated writing blog, Annecdotal, and tweets at @Annecdotist. As a break from juggling her own words, she is an avid reader and barely-competent soprano in a mixed-voice choir. Her ambition, of course, is to publish a novel.
After five weeks and a day, they bound a rope around his wrists, put a sack over his head and bundled him into the boot of a car. His body shook and sweated and loosened in all the wrong places, yet he was determined to hold on to his mind right to the end. If he couldn't die nobly or bravely, if he couldn't die for some worthwhile cause, at least he could go honestly. With his self intact and with gratitude for all that had made him who he was.
Sacks of grain lay alongside him in the boot. He imagined them being put there for his comfort, like he'd imagined they cared on the odd occasion the food was edible when they slid the tin plate across the floor.
The sacks stopped him from rolling over too far, but they didn't prevent his body bouncing against the lid of the boot as the car bumped along the track. There were no tarred roads in these parts. He sneezed inside the dusty hood, and his ribcage grumbled.
Yet he'd had a good life. A career that let him roam the world, and a secure foundation to set out from. The steely love of his parents, the very different love of Hassan, and the others before him. Too late to let them know how much he'd loved them back.
He must have passed out. The stillness roused him, a sudden unrattling of his bones. The ache in his head, in his back, told him he was not yet dead.
He thought of his father, mounting his bike amid the crowd streaming from the shipyard as the siren announced the shift's end. It was the first photograph he'd ever sold, and he thought of his mother's shriek as she opened the Clydebank Post. Of reaching out for his camera to complete the circle with an image of her laughter and tears.
The boot creaked open. They hustled him out. He tried to stand but they kicked him to the ground. The earth was hard and cold, with a gritty covering of sand. He heard talk and bitter laughter, meaning muffled by the obscure dialect and the hood. He coughed and felt a boot in his kidneys.
He thought of his brother, his lopsided smile as he posed on the church steps, a girl in white lace on his arm.
A scuffling in the sand beside him and something pressed against his temple. Through the layer of hessian he recognized the metallic chill. He heard the revolver click.
His life not yet over. His determination to live it to the end. He thought of Hassan, his eyes half closed as he smoked his early-morning cigarette.
His executioner shuffled in the sand. Tested the rope around his wrists. Moved back. Car doors slammed. The engine revved and it all became clear. Clear that all the love and buzz and satisfactions of his life could not compensate for how it was to end. Dragged behind that car at forty miles an hour, skin flayed and bones splintered. Thirty-seven years of connections and commitments whittled down to a trail of scrappy body parts on a dirt road in a neglected land.
He had no thoughts. No memories. No pictures of better times to steer him through his final moments.
Something thudded on the ground beside him, an object tossed from the car. Another door slammed. The car moved off. He braced himself for the jerk of the rope around his wrists that would pull him with it. That bullet would've been so sweet.
He lay on the ground, unmoving, apart from a convulsive shaking from head to toe. The car whined into the distance.
He lay until he stopped shivering, until he dared to move. First, he jiggled his wrists. His shackles fell away and that scared him more until he realised their final act hadn’t been to attach a tow-rope, but to set him free. He ripped off the stinking hood. Blinked against the moonlight, ran his hand across the fuzz on his chin, on his head. He patted his body, torso arms legs; apart from a few sticky damp patches, he seemed intact.
They’d left him on a dirt road between fields of grain. Above, a navy-blue sky dotted with stars. Beside him, his backpack. Far on the horizon, the lights of a small town.
Still shaky, he rose to his feet. Slipped off his jeans and emptied out the contents of his jockeys. He cleaned his buttocks and thighs as best he could, finishing off with a handful of grit and sand from the road. He slung the jockeys into the ditch, rubbed his hands in the dirt and stepped back into his jeans. Then he picked up his backpack and began walking towards the lights.
The track seemed endless, the town sloping away like a mirage. He stumbled along regardless, accompanied by an ache that moved around his body, leaping from toe to shoulder, from neck to knee with a vigour no other part of him possessed. His eyes stung and his throat was caked with dust. He tripped over a rock, and eased himself down by the side of the road. His fingers still stank of shit.
He remembered his backpack, took it off and scrabbled inside. There would’ve been a bottle of water in there the night they picked him up outside the Astoria; none of the expats would venture out without a half-litre of imported eau minerale. He found his camera and a cashmere sweater of indeterminate colour, but the water was gone.
They’d used the Nikon to take his photograph, posing with the newspaper for the date. The assault of the flash after so long in the gloom. Like the locals, he’d begun to believe the camera was sucking out his soul.
He held the sweater to his cheek; its gentle weave served only to mock him. He pulled it on over his head, only now registering the chill of the night.
Once a week, with his camera, holding up the newspaper. The images would still be there, on the memory card, unless they’d wiped them. He felt defiled, like a woman with her rapist’s seed taking root inside her.
The photographs. The lukewarm stew, shards of carrot and lamb in a sea of grease. The fatigue, the boredom, the hypervigilance. Trying to guess from a tone of voice, from the weight of a footfall, from the smell of the air how his captors envisaged his disposal. Sitting on his arse and marking off the days in bundles of scratches on the wall.
On the whole, they treated him well.
They treated him badly.
It was nothing. It had been a terrible ordeal.
He’d coped valiantly. He’d been a coward. It was over now. In his mind, he’d never be free.
There was no point dwelling on those five weeks and a day. He had to move forward, get his body to the town somehow and from there to the safety of his flat. He hauled himself up, shuffled on his backpack and limped towards life.
His trainers scraped along the surface of the road. Dinna scuff your shoes, Dougie, his mother used to say.
He raised his head, looked up at the sky. A proper rural night, stars sharp as diamonds.
As a boy, he’d shared a bedroom with his wee brother. When he grew tall enough, he’d climbed a ladder and painted the ceiling navy-blue. Then he’d climbed back up again and stuck on hundreds of fluorescent stars. He’d done it as a surprise for Frazer’s tenth birthday. That wee boy was now a headmaster with children of his own.
He’d kept himself going in captivity with thoughts of home. All the homes he’d ever lived in, from his parents’ ex-council semi-detached with the raspberries in the back garden to his current apartment with a view of the mosque from the balcony. It was his own space he now longed for: turning his key in the front door; the plastic-flowers scent of cleaning fluid in the bathroom; the freedom to choose what and when to eat, whether to eat at all. The ritual of his old-fashioned stove-top espresso maker; his own photographs on the walls.
His trainers scraped along the track. The lights of the town were like dust in his eyes. Or diamonds.
At the hospital, they inspected him, x-rayed him, prodded and injected him. Cleaned him up and dressed his wounds. They fed him and watered him and let him sleep a while.
A woman arrived from the Foreign Office, asked him questions he didn't answer very well. How many were they? Tall or short, fat or thin, dark or light and what was their shoe size? He thought, if it were an interview, they'd never have given him the job.
Cameras flashed around his hospital bed. This way, Dougie, smile now! How's it feel to be free? He knew most of them at least by sight; all the media crowd used to drink at the Astoria. He cracked jokes about being on the other side of the lens.
They brought more food, changed his dressings, let him sleep some more. They let him take a shower and put on clean clothes that weren't his. They gave him a razor, let him shave his face but not his head. The woman from the Foreign Office said it would create the wrong impression for the cameras.
They filmed him on the phone to his parents. His mother sobbed and said Thank God and told him his niece had passed her piano grade three. His father said the snow had arrived in the Cairngorms. He ate some more and slept some more and had his dressings changed.
He did a longer interview for the BBC. How did they treat you, Mr Leckie? Have you any idea why they picked on you? The woman from the Foreign Office prompted him through an earpiece. He thought of his flat with the clanking air-conditioning, the sweet smell of cleaning fluid and the espresso pot standing idle beside the stove. He tried to give them the answers they needed, but his tongue felt thick in his mouth.
Food and sleep and more dressing of the wounds. When he said he'd like to go home, the people from the Foreign Office drove him to the airport and put him on a plane to Glasgow.
He was whisked through Arrivals to a party at the working men’s club. There were glittery banners saying Welcome home Dougie and more cameras to record it all. There were people he’d hardly seen in twenty years: his parents’ neighbours and former workmates; old school pals and sundry hangers-on. His brother had come over with his family from Edinburgh; they’d all been granted a day off school. Frazer grabbed him in a big bear hug. “You look a right daft gowk with hair.”
When it was over, he went with his parents in a taxi back to Bruce Street. He lay down in the bed he’d slept in as a boy. It was the guest room now, little used apart from a week in the summer when Frazer’s girls came to stay. The astronaut wallpaper had been replaced with dancing Barbies, but the fluorescent stars still twinkled in a ceiling of navy-blue.
He’d marked off his five weeks and a day in clusters of lines scraped on the stone wall with the edge of a spoon. Now the hours and days went by unchecked. His parents went to the supermarket and came home to watch TV. He lay on his back upstairs staring at the ceiling he’d painted as a boy. At night when his parents slept, he watched old soaps in the front room, or sat outside shivering among the raspberry canes, a cigarette burning itself out in his hand.
His mother brought him tea and fig rolls, bowls of tomato soup from a tin. She fetched the phone when his old school pals rang, or his brother, and made excuses when it was clear he couldn’t talk. His father invited him to play cards, to come to the club for a pint and a game of darts. He brought him books from the library, memoirs of men who’d been kidnapped for much longer than five weeks and a day and bounced back into life.
His mind turned over the questions he’d been asked on his release, looking for the answers he hadn’t been able to give at the time. Why did they take you? Why did they let you go? He didn’t know, and the Foreign Office weren’t interested any more. His story was old news.
There were other questions, simple ones a bairn could answer. How did they treat you? How did you cope? He even stumbled over those.
His parents had always been supportive, tolerant of a way of life they didn’t understand. They didn’t argue with his choice of degree, even though photography seemed more a hobby than a step towards a pensionable job. They didn’t flinch when he invited young men to stay over at New Year. They didn’t grumble when he set off to earn his living in a war zone, with nothing more than what he could carry on his back. But now he knew he was asking too much. Spending his days staring at an ersatz sky, he was asking them to tolerate something even he didn’t want or understand.
After five days or weeks or months, his brother came from Edinburgh and sat on the other bed. “Hey, skiver!”
His gaze stayed fixed on the ceiling.
“What’s the matter with you?” said Frazer.
“You’re wasting your life away.”
“I’m fine here with Mum and Dad.”
Frazer laughed. “You were desperate to get away when we were kids.”
“Maybe I was wrong.”
“You’re going to stare at stick-on stars for the rest of your days?”
“So what if I do?”
Frazer moved across to his brother’s bed. “Do you mind when you did that ceiling? I thought it was the sky from the Arabian nights.”
He almost smiled.
“I thought, that’s my big brother,” said Frazer. “He can do anything.”
“Aye well, perhaps I could back then.”
At night he used to lie with his hands on the quilt, staring at the ceiling until he could be sure his wee brother was asleep. Then, without making a sound, he unfastened the drawstring of his own pyjama bottoms. He took hold of his sex and, as it swelled, he felt the power and promise of being Douglas Leckie. The adventure his life was going to bring.
It was partly out of pity that he’d painted the navy-blue sky of the Arabian nights. Other discoveries, other pleasures, he’d been able to share with his brother. But Frazer would have to wait a few more years for this. Yet he’d wanted the boy to have something, something exciting in the bedroom, but right for a child.
Although what he did while his brother slept was secret, there was no shame in the act. Even when he came to the image of Ewan Campbell, rather than his auburn-haired sister Lorna, he knew what he was doing was good. Although nothing could be said to his family, it was their faith in him that made it possible. In the harmony of love and solitude, he had taken custody of his body and left his childhood behind.
There was a leanness, a lightness, about Douglas Leckie as he stood in line with his single carry-on bag. His clothes were more suited to a warmer climate and, with his hair and beard newly shorn, his face took on a somewhat gaunt appearance. But it didn't matter. There was no one around to ask questions, except as part of the standard check-in procedure. No cameras to record his departure, save the one buried in his own bag.
No matter how many airports he'd been to, they still delivered the thrill he'd felt as a wee boy, off with his family to the Costas for their fortnight in the sun. The queues, the waiting around had never bothered him. The airport was where the adventure began.
The stewardesses came down the aisle with the trolley. They offered him chicken or fish, tea or coffee, wine or a soft drink or beer. Douglas savoured the choice.
If ever he felt unsure, if those questions started up in his head, he thought first of the stars on his boyhood bedroom ceiling. Then he pictured his flat, smelt its cleanliness, tasted the bitter coffee from his stove-top espresso maker.
There were several empty seats on the flight. The Foreign Office continued to advise against non-essential travel. Douglas was able to stretch out across the row and doze until the pilot announced the preparations for landing.
When the fasten-seat-belt sign was switched off, Douglas took out his phone and scrolled through the address book for Hassan's number. He thought of his espresso maker, the gentle breeze on the balcony, the grey and red striped sheets on the bed. He smiled, switched off his phone and put it back in his pocket. After all, he could find Hassan at the Astoria tomorrow.
“ I don’t think there was a specific news item that sparked this story, but the hostage narrative is certainly one that resonates for me. It’s about bearing the unbearable; picking up the pieces of our lives after the worst has happened; processing experiences that seem unspeakable, impossible to put into words others will understand. However, I’m also delighted when others read something different into what I’ve written, especially when they come and share their interpretations on my blog, perhaps on the post inspired by this story on the terror of writing about terror. ”