Dale Connors simply wants to get on with the job of developing infrastructure projects in Libya. Drawn into international terrorism, shady deals and sabotage he races against time to put together the pieces of a puzzle that stretches from Libya to the UK.
Five and a half weeks had passed and Raya knew something was wrong. Sunlight streamed through the inadequate curtains, billowing slightly in the breeze and she desperately wanted to jump out of bed and wrench them aside. She yearned to throw open the apartment window and gulp in the fresh early morning air before the traffic in the almost touchable street below stirred up its daily dose of acrid pollution; but something seemed to be holding her down, like a great hand on her body, and so she lay timorously inert, unable, or maybe not daring to move until the feeling in her stomach subsided. She had experienced this yesterday and almost convinced herself that the feeling was simply caused by tiredness and too much lonely, late night red wine, but in the end, she had had to sprint to the bathroom where she had very inelegantly succumbed to the demands of what was politely called ‘morning sickness.’ Would it be the same today? She hoped not but suspected gloomily that it might.
She chose not to think of the future. That could wait a few minutes longer, at least. Instead, she allowed her mind to phase backwards to happier times, as if the mere thought of the past would undo what she dreaded might be happening to her. Memories flooded into her brain as she recalled her first sight of Gerald at London airport when she had landed. He had been the same tall, smiling, lean faced, well-dressed professional she held in her mind’s eye, with his windswept straw-coloured hair flopping seductively over one eye. Looking relaxed and sophisticated in his own surroundings, he was completely in his element as the immigration and customs officers rushed around to process his young VIP guest. She had been treated like royalty, in a quiet office very separate from the madding hoards who were queuing up in their hundreds to push to the front of the impossibly long ‘others’ line in the terminal building.
Gerald had arrived first after his three-year tour of duty in the Libyan deserts and had managed to pull some long strings in the British Embassy to help her visa application along. She had been nervously impatient, waiting for the process to be completed but then pleasantly surprised that the forebodings of her sister Hasna, about the British propensity for refusing entry to unmarried young women from unusual countries, had proven unfounded. She had simply done as Gerald requested and paid in advance for a run of the mill language school course. Then, waving the receipt at the embassy visa desk all manner of normally closed doors had been magically opened. She knew that Gerald had orchestrated this, and she would be forever grateful to him for that.
Raya now spent her daytime hours happily studying while Gerald went about his mysterious foreign office business. Occasionally, he travelled, often for days on end. She had no idea where, although his capability in Arabic, Italian, French and Swahili probably gave her an indication. Mostly, he stayed at her apartment in Earls Court, after all, he had paid for it, but he apparently still kept his own apartment elsewhere in London. She did not know why, and she had never been invited to visit him there. When she asked to see it, he politely demurred, citing vague national security reasons. Her upbringing had taught her not to question government officials too much and so she had pushed this to the back of her mind. There were more urgent and exciting things to entertain her thoughts.
Their nights together were the times she looked forward to most. She realised that inventiveness came second nature to her, and they rarely spent more than a few hours asleep before luxuriating again in intimacy. Every surface in every room in their tiny apartment had its own special memories and she pondered these when Gerald was away, like now. Raya found that she pined for his touch to such an extent that she seriously wondered whether she was simply addicted to sex. This idea of physical pleasure went against her childhood education so much that the thought had at first startled her, but her newly improved English and her ventures into the London libraries had calmed her concerns. She concluded that she was normal after all. Her research proved illuminating and she became an avid devourer of all things to do with erotic arts; so much so that she doubled the number of borrower’s tickets she held and set herself the challenge of educating her ever-willing Gerald.
The past few months since she had arrived in London had been a whirl of dazzling nightlife, from the London theatres to curious restaurants and weekend breaks in the country. She had visited his parents’ country estate twice but had never actually stayed there. For some reason she had not been able to fathom why, they had always moved on before nightfall and found some delightful out-of-the-way village inn with splendid food and a huge four-poster bed; but she was deliriously happy and saw no negative motives in anything her handsome lover might do.
As she lay there in the brightening daylight, her attention refocused on the second visit to his family’s estate. She had met his father then and the memory still made her shudder a little. Gerald had introduced her as a friend, rather than a girlfriend, but otherwise, there was nothing specific she could put her finger on. However, she recalled his cold looks and the limited conversation that had taken place, and it had scared her. Gerald had dismissed her concerns as being nervousness on her part, but in her heart she knew there was something wrong. Like today, she thought, there’s something wrong; and as if to prove the point she threw off the quilt and sat up quickly. Immediately she felt the urge to be sick and only just managed to reach the bathroom in time. After a few minutes to recover she managed to crawl back to bed, and into a safe horizontal position.
Gerald was due back that evening and she thought back carefully, to the crazy time they had had in Paris only a few weeks ago. That had been another display of family influence, in getting her a tourist visa at almost no notice, but that wasn’t the thought that occupied her at that moment. She realised that, of late they had become casual and lazy about contraception and had been taking ever more risks. It had become an exciting game to see how long they could engage in erotic play without actually reaching an orgasm. She realised too, that it was almost certainly her own pushing that had prompted this change in behaviour and her thoughts began to turn more towards regret. She wondered if another change of pace was needed although every erogenous zone her body argued for more, not less. She had no wish to disrupt their idyllic lifestyle and had fond hopes that one day soon they might be able to make their relationship legal, although she dreaded the obstacles that her family would raise to block her way, so she decided that some sort of plan was necessary. Firstly, she needed to be sure of her condition; no point in worrying unduly, she thought. Her stomach seemed to be behaving at last, so she forced her thoughts towards nearby pharmacies and looked up the English words related to pregnancy tests in her dictionary.
On the other side of London, Gerald was on a high. He had just completed a difficult negotiation to open the way for an exclusive oil deal in the Middle East for British companies. He regretted the fact that his recent three-year tour of duty in North Africa had not been as fruitful, during which he had been amazed at how little could be achieved when policy outranked money as the official language between governments. He was in a taxi from the airport and looking forward to seeing Raya. It had been nearly two weeks since they had been together, and he smiled in anticipation at the thought of their imminent reunion. Their parting was still burned into his brain, coming as it had a few days after their wonderful Paris holiday. It had been an emotional, if not completely exhausting occasion and he mentally urged the chattering cockney in front to drive faster.
He closed his eyes, and his near photographic memory captured her image and subconsciously catalogued his thoughts. Beautiful (of course, he thought), twenty-two years old, tall, slim, with an oval face, olive skin, and long, long black hair. How he loved the feel of that hair, and she knew exactly what to do with it too. He relaxed into the grinding cab and daydreamed his way back to her apartment. Memories of the tiny hotel with the huge bed near the Louvre, the cafés where water was more expensive than wine, and the romantic river trips all flooded back. He had been surprised, and pleased that Raya had taken such an interest in the Crazy Horse show, as if she was trying to see whether there was anything to be learnt. It certainly seemed there had been, as he found out late that evening back in the hotel. They had finally fallen asleep at eight o’clock the next morning before a wake-up call for the airport taxi dragged them back to reality two hours later. Happy days, he thought.
Gerald climbed the stairs eagerly to their second-floor apartment and pulled out his keys. He made a display of rattling and banging them against the lock, while he deliberately fumbled his way into the slot. Finally, he pushed open the door in the full expectation of having Raya fling her arms around his neck, shrieking joyously as she normally did when she heard him at the door; but she did not throw her arms around his neck, and there was no shriek, no sound at all. In fact, she wasn’t there.
He looked around the two small rooms quickly, searched the tiny kitchen carefully for signs of habitation but only found a few empty wine bottles, so with an almost audible intake of breath, he carefully pushed open the bathroom door. It was empty too. He walked to the fridge and opened the door, but everything was normal. His stack of beer was untouched, and the only other food was a stray orange. Raya was not the world’s most adventurous cook. He found a glass and poured a beer, then sat down to think. Maybe she’d mixed up the date, or maybe she’d gone to meet him at a restaurant, and he’d not got the message. He looked around the flat one more time, but found no notes, no messages, nothing. His disappointment sapped his energy. He kicked off his shoes, gulped down his beer and rested his head on the sofa. In a few minutes tiredness overcame him, and he slept.
Raya was sitting in the park, watching the children playing after school. Their mums were attentive to their charges but clearly relished the chance to chat together. Raya felt a little out of place but wondered what she might be doing herself in a few months’ time. Her mind raced as she tried to stop herself jumping to conclusions. Her trip to the pharmacy had allowed her to buy a couple of test kits but the pharmacist had reminded her that she ought to wait until the following morning to use them, otherwise she might get a false result. She felt betrayed by technology and her plans to do this, or that, depending on the outcome of the test were in complete disarray. She had no idea how long she had sat in the park but as she enjoyed the calm of the evening sunshine and the quietening scene in front of her as the mums and children wander homeward, she suddenly remembered that Gerald would be coming back today.
She glanced at her watch and in horror, realised that she had been sitting daydreaming for nearly three hours. But she was rooted to the spot. Her confidence had evaporated and, without knowing, she felt completely at a loss. She must ‘know’ she thought, and then it came to her, like a bolt from the blue. She looked hastily round and walked quickly to the nearby copse of trees. Another glance around but the few remaining mums were too busy rounding up their offspring. She went further into the shelter of the trees, took out one of the test kits, lifted her skirt with one hand and, holding the fragile spatula in the other, she crouched behind a holly bush, said a prayer, and peed.
A few minutes later found her running, running as she’d never run before. Her mind had slotted into gear and begun to function again. She wanted to see Gerald, now. She wanted to throw her arms around him as she usually did. She wanted to shriek happily as she normally did. So, she ran. It was not far, but it seemed to take forever to reach the main road, and forever to wait for the traffic to slow enough for her to dart between the cars, and then the pavements were so crowded. She pushed and shoved her way forward until at last she turned the corner of the road by the bank and ran up the steps to the large porticoed front door. She punched the entry code, pushed through and kept running, up and up the seemingly never-ending stairs. Their apartment door opened easily to her key, and she burst inside.
Gerald stirred on the sofa and blinked open a bleary eye to find Raya’s face almost touching his. Not a word was spoken but within seconds they were kissing and tearing at each other’s clothes as they searched and found, again and again. They eventually progressed to the bedroom where they collapsed, almost steaming in the cool of the early evening. Raya nuzzled Gerald’s shoulder and pulled the quilt around them. They dozed for a while.
But Gerald felt something was different. Despite her energy, Raya was not her usual relaxed and happy-go-lucky free spirit.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Raya nuzzled deeper. He pushed her gently away and looked carefully at her face. She refused to return his gaze and after a few seconds, prised herself away and reached for her bag of books, where she had thrown it on the floor. Gerald was wide-awake now, his senses telling him something was wrong.
Raya delved into her bag and pulled out a white spatula, no longer than her middle finger. The small blue patch near the end caught the overhead light and flashed ominously. She handed the spatula to Gerald. His eyes widened and a look of shocked horror came over his face as the consequences of this tiny patch of blue ripped through his brain. He physically backed away from Raya, until he was almost falling off the bed.
“How could you?” he shouted.
Raya’s world fell apart.
Irrigation seemed such an obvious need. The dusty sand blew lazily in snake-like rivulets across the sizzling, soggy tarmac leaving a pristine surface in its wake. The few trees that had struggled through the dunes were now gnarled and shrivelled sticks, long polished by the blown sand and dried to tinder by the relentless sunshine. They appeared in the overpowering heat like ancient statues of wizened old travellers, tramping through the desert and frozen in time. In the distance, the outline of the airport shimmered like an oasis in the afternoon desert air, its verdant welcome of featured fountains surmounted by waving palm fronds; a forlorn attempt to give the necessary good impression to newcomers. In the surrounding environs there was nothing, no farms, no buildings, no people, and no water. A solitary camel waded sulkily through the spiky undergrowth, nibbling occasionally from the unappetising meagreness. Between the road and the camel was a rusty steel mesh fence that looked as if it was designed to keep out an army, rather than a few grizzled animals.
Dale Connors had imagined he would change great prairies of dusty desert sand into swathes of rolling greenness like the East Sussex Downs of his youth. Dale was Business Development Manager for Global Infrastructure Ltd, a large multi-country, multi-cultural, multi-services company that specialised in the creation, design and management of large projects around the world. If people needed infrastructure, airports, roads, dams, offices, palaces, parks, railways, schools or hospitals then Dale and his colleagues were interested. He had arrived on his first visit to Libya full of optimism that he could make a difference and change just a small part of the world for the better. He often wondered at his own gullibility, hesitating to call it naivety and preferring the description ‘optimism.’ After all, he thought, without optimism and courage there would be no progress.
But this place was tough; much tougher than anywhere else he had worked, and he had already been to every continent in the world in his fourteen-year career, which seemed to specialise in working in the more unusual parts of the world. In the time since he had been coming to Libya he had learned emphatically that nothing was ever as it seemed. The whole country was run by committees. In fact, it was more correct to say it was run by committees of committees, all monitored by further committees of security officials. Everyone was represented by someone, somewhere in the multiple machinations of the cumbersome system, and everyone was watched and reported upon by someone else; and so the great stage settings of committee work plodded their tedious way around meaningless work targets and endless reports of artfully created results. They dwelt relentlessly on bureaucratic topics and yet insisted on recording suggestions for improvement with a sense of purpose that belied their ability for change. The ill-informed chairmen listening half-heartedly to the representatives of the people who, had they been there themselves might actually have had something useful to say. Dale and his team found the process intensely frustrating. Obvious solutions were, for obscure and unrecorded reasons always relegated to second place behind political interests, generally of the personal, vested interest variety. So, they learnt to match the whims and cover the foibles of ministry officials with some of their irrigation project’s aims; and in this way, they managed to at least appease the demands of both, whether they be voiced, clearly perceived or merely hinted at. It was enough to make slow progress.
The Ministry of Agriculture was housed in a forlorn looking building, some nine stories high. Its windows were shrouded in impenetrable grime and dust, its doorways uninviting and its security staff unbending to all but the intensely persistent. The ministry’s remit nonetheless governed the lives of the vast majority of the population. Simply put, they had to feed the nation, striving to grow any and every possibly crop on the mountains of sand and dust, which formed the hinterland to the coastal cities, or cultivating the endless salty flatland close to the sea. Equally simply put, their resources to achieve such a task were close to zero and their obstacles considerable.
They needed water, but there was none within practical reach of the coastal cities. So, Agriculture had to deal with the Ministry of Power, as most water came in concert with electricity from the fearsomely expensive desalination plants installed in bygone years. The plants ran on oil, piped over huge distances from the country’s interior. The economics of these two staple utilities was a well-guarded secret, except that most knew that they had made a select few of the ruling group extremely rich in illegal offshore funds.
They needed equipment and pipelines to transmit water to where it was needed, but sanctions forbade their import. So, they resorted to cannibalising the country’s older oil fields for their basic necessities. This took time, of which they had plenty, and influence with the Ministry of Oil, of which they had very little.
They needed economic scale but there was none. The farming communities were deliberately divided into small tenant plots where a single family could supposedly survive. Equality was the political watchword. Small families, small plots, small-scale farming, large-scale administration and bureaucracy built on committees. It was the politics of people-empowerment and certainly kept the population employed, or at any rate occupied, although in such an inefficient manner that Dale wondered inwardly how long it could possibly last. Each family was allocated a part share in a tractor, and they had to plan and argue for their use of this with several other families in the co-operative. The fuel was free but rationed. In fact, there were more officials dealing with fuel allocations than there were mechanics looking after the tractors and their various antiquated attachments. So, getting things done was slow, painfully slow, and in the meantime, water was scarce to non-existent. The families laboured under the sun to bring up their children with whatever produce they could grow, in addition to the quota needed for the common good.