Novel Serialisation – The Killing of Alex Millar Ep 17 & 18

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THE KILLING

 OF 

ALEX MILLAR

© BM 2008

***

CHAPTER Twelve

Chapter Twelve – Episodes 17  & 18

She sat down at the desk, and eased the chair a little away from her.  A pile of papers lay accusingly in front of her on the desk, the homework for 2C.  She stared at the papers as if she had never seen them before, and she did not really see them now.  After a full two minutes she extended a reluctant hand and lifted the top paper, a neatly typed effort in a plastic folder.  She groaned as she read the name ‘Amanda Berry’.  Amanda was a pretty girl, with a bust that the entire class envied, but a girl with as much knowledge of Italian as Francesca had of Swahili.

“No,” she said out loud,  “I cannot face Amanda Berry at this moment.”

The classroom was empty, and as she looked up guiltily, she realised that she taken more and more to talking to herself.  She scrambled into the middle of the pile and grabbed another paper.  Nadia Winters.  Well that was better, at least she had some fleeting interest in speaking the bloody language.  She cannot speak Swahili though.  Francesca glanced at the tee shirt she was wearing, a large long necked giraffe stretched across her chest with the words ‘Hakuna matata’ as a slogan.  If only it was true.   She had Swahili on the brain at the moment and hadn’t worn this tee shirt for years before today.  Alex had sent it as a birthday present the year after they had split up, as a reminder of their time in Kenya.  In those four years, she had not once sent him anything, for birthdays or Christmas.

The phone call from Maggie Connors had disturbed her more than she appreciated at the time.  Maggie’s words kept coming back to haunt her.  “A traffic accident.  His car hit a truck, not far from here, on the A24.”  On the A24, coming to see her.  And what else had Maggie said, about red roses in the car?  Oh, God if he hadn’t been coming to meet her, he’d be alive today.

“What are you saying?” she said out loud once again, and then more softly to herself, “he’s not dead.”  But he has been dead these last four years to you, Francesca, hasn’t he, and perhaps he has been dead to himself too.  He always said that.  Perhaps he had felt it, not just in the last four years, but on the day of the accident.  God, a dreadful thought came to her mind, and she quickly pushed it away.  It kept coming back.  Perhaps Alex had tried to kill himself.  In his more despairing letters to her, nearly always unanswered, he had told of his suicidal darker times.

She stood up and went to the window.  The classroom was on the first floor, and she leaned against the window frame and stared out across the playing fields, her arms folded across her chest.  The wood of the frame bit into her back, cold and unpleasant, but she remained.   A group of girls was playing hockey about a hundred yards away and even at this distance she could hear their shrieks.  The trees over to the right, next to the tennis courts, had begun to turn, their leaves falling wearily to the carpet formed by their deceased brothers and sisters below.

“Why was he bringing you flowers?  Because he loved you.  And not just any old flowers, either.  Red roses.  He was always a romantic.  And why did he start using that stupid name again?  Daina.”

“I’m not a bloody daina.”  She was talking to herself again.  He had never stopped loving her, never, not in their time together, nor in the long bitter years spent apart.  It had frightened her, and she had never understood why, how he could go on loving her, when she had behaved as she had.

She walked slowly back to her desk and picked up 2C’s homework.  No point trying to do this today.  I’ll try again tomorrow.  She placed the papers in the cupboard, and turned the key.  Her coat hung next to the door, and she walked to it, deeply depressed, and dropped the key into the pocket.  She put the coat on, and tightened the belt.

Simba, Simba, why did I want to see you after all this time?  You obviously thought one thing, and me, what did I think?  What did I want?  To sign that dammed book?  No, the book didn’t matter, it was just an excuse.  But an excuse for what?  Why did I want to see you, Simba?  Better to let sleeping lions lie.  Bloody silly name, Simba.  You were never a Simba with me, more a pussycat.  So what is the answer, Francesca?  Was it just curiosity?  Did you get this romantic, loving, sad, stupid, naïve man to drive down here in his beloved Jaguar, just to see you?  Yes, you did.  You know if you had asked him to walk naked up Mont Blanc, he would have damm well done it, or died in the attempt.  He should have told you to ‘bugger off, and buy a bloody book already signed.”  You would have deserved that.  But you knew he would come.

She closed the classroom door, and walked to the car park.  It had started to rain, and she shivered, pulling her coat tighter around her.  Her Fiat Bravo was almost the only car left in the parking area.  ‘Bloody rubbish’ he used to say about Fiats, and then, as if she was personally responsible for their manufacture, ‘sorry, Daina.’  She was immensely depressed, and her depression hung about her like a shroud.  It was impossible to shake.  Why, she asked herself angrily, as she started the car.  Why, in God’s name why?  We had lived apart for four years, and I made a rule never to contact him, not even to reply to his letters.  So, why am I feeling like this now?  He was out of my life, wasn’t he?

She left the car park, and turned left for home.  The traffic was snarled, and the rain had become even heavier.  She stopped at the lights on the London Road, and while waiting, pushed in a tape that was protruding from the radio/cassette player.

“Hello again, hello. Just called to say hello.  I think about you every night.”

“Neil Diamond, go away.   I don’t need you just at this moment”  She switched off the radio.

Alex always enjoyed Neil, and had, in fact, recorded this tape for her, as he had recorded many others.  Most were done after they split up, and were intended as a message, a message she usually tried to ignore.  She recalled once on a car journey, probably to Italy, they had been playing Mr Diamond and Alex had begun to sing along.  He stopped when she enquired “Darling, do you think you can sing better than Neil Diamond?”

He had stopped, and she knew that he had been hurt.  He was easy to hurt.  It came from caring so much.  And why did I think of that now?  Because I hurt now.  This man, with whom I have been so close, this man was lying in hospital knowing nothing.  A car braked violently in front of her, and she too braked hard, causing the Fiat to lock wheels and skid.  It slewed sideways and came to a halt just behind the other car.  It was still in gear and the engine stalled.

“Shit!  Be careful, your having an accident is not going to help.”

She restarted the car and arrived home without any further alarms.  The house was cold, unwelcoming, as it had been for several months now, ever since she broke up with Bill, and he had moved out.  Men!  Who wants them?  She poured a gin, and added a little tonic, and, after a moment’s hesitation, added more gin.  She turned on the heating and used the remote to switch on the TV, which she watched without interest for five minutes.

Part of the problem was that she no longer enjoyed teaching, no longer enjoyed anything very much.  She was now forty-one and financially independent, but she did not feel right.  Her life was lacking, but she was not able to identify what was missing.  Was it a baby, was the old biological clock ticking away madly, or had the bloody thing stopped?  Or was it just Alex, lying in that hospital bed?

Francesca remembered that she was to meet a friend from her days in teachers’ college, but she knew that she could not face it.            She reached for the telephone.

“Hi, Alexis, it’s Francesca.”  Why couldn’t she be called Mary, or any dammed thing but Alexis.  “Look, I’m sorry, but I have a bit of a cold.  Could we make it next week sometime?”

Alexis murmured some hopes for Francesca’s cold, and agreed.

“Great, thanks, I’ll call you.”

She returned to her gin.  God, teachers’ college.  That was in an other lifetime.

It had been hard work and it had been fun, going back to being a student for a full year.  It would not have been possible without Alex, and his support, emotional and financial, and more pragmatically, his BMW.   She realised with a little shiver of guilt, that she had never ever expressed her thanks for that, and now it was too late.  Ah yes, the BMW.  She recalled one fine November morning, leaving Alex half-asleep, and scowling jealously at his sprawled shape in the bed, as she was leaving, late as usual.

“Don’t do that Daina,” he admonished her, over his shoulder,  “most times it’s me leaving you asleep in bed.”

“What did I do, Mr Journalist?  I didn’t do anything.”

“Yes you did.  You made a face, or a rude sign, or something like that.”

“How can you say that?  You had your eyes closed, and your back to me.  How did you know?”

“Easy, I know you so well.  You’re a predictable witch.”

She hurled herself at the bed, and dragged the duvet off him.  “Now you can get up as well, and start earning a living.  Was that predictable?”

“Go away”, he spluttered through his laughter.  “I’m working at home.  Get off to school.”

He was in the bathroom with his mouth full of toothpaste when the phone rang.  “Good morning,” he spluttered.

“Darling, it’s me.  There has been an accident with the car, and it’s leaking water, and.”

“Never mind the bloody car.  Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m all right.”

“Any body else hurt?”

“No, no one is hurt, but the police are coming “

“Right, stay there.  Don’t move, I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

“But Alex, the car is…..”

“Screw the car, you are what matters.  Hang on, I’m coming.”

He called a cab and got to her.  She was late, as usual, and had been going too fast and had run into the back of a Ford Transit van.  The BMW came off second in that encounter.   Subsequently, he provided moral support in the Magistrates’ Court, when she was fined £ 50 for driving without due care.  Her chuckled inwardly when she gave her occupation as student, in her most appealing Italian accent.  If he had been the magistrate, Alex would have found her ‘not guilty’ and given her a pound out of the poor box, but he realised that he was probably a little biased.  As it was, she asked for time to pay, a request granted at twenty- five pounds a month.

They left the Court together, hand in hand, as much because she was trembling as because they enjoyed holding hands.

“I don’t know what this will do to my career.”  He looked straight ahead.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know, ace reporter living with someone with a criminal record.”

“What ace reporter?”

“Me.”

“Careful, mister, or I might end up with a conviction for GBD.”

“GBD?  What’s that?”

“You know, grievous bodily damage.”

He roared with laughter.  “You mean grievous bodily harm.  GBH.”

“Whatever it is, I will do it to you, if you do not shut up.”

They had very little money.  Francesca was not earning, and Alex, although reasonably well compensated for what he did, had a huge mortgage to contend with after the divorce, and much or the rest went into various pension schemes.  They had to pay for her training, and could only do this by instalments.  He had to go to his sister Patsy for a loan to help with the third payment.  They were happy.  For the first time in his life, thought Alex, he was totally relaxed, and at one with a woman.  Francesca’s pursuers had all either lost the scent, or had given up, because there were no longer strange men calling at the door, or making threatening phone calls.  He had always answered the telephone, and the standard line was “She’s gone back to Italy.”

Their problems were diminishing and their pleasures multiplying, at least, that was how Alex viewed it.  He didn’t truly know what Francesca thought.  She was very quiet, withdrawn even, and rarely gave out with her deeper feelings.  He assumed she had deeper feelings, but, if she did, she never chose to share them.  Alex assumed that she had had a very bad marriage, and that some long remembered event in her relationship with her husband prevented her from ever discussing him.

 On occasions, Alex would be woken at night by Francesca crying in her sleep, or talking anxiously in Italian, a language he still little understood.  He would hold her until she calmed and returned to sleep.  In the morning she never remembered anything of the night, or claimed that she did not.  None of this in any way diminished his love for her, a love he knew was growing stronger by the week, by the day, almost by the hour.  And he knew that it was more than his love which was growing.   Keeping apace was his need for her, not just physically, but more importantly, emotionally.

He still had to travel, but cut short his time as much as he could to be away from her as little as possible.  He went to Australia in 1993, to cover the story of some missing foreign backpackers.  He had protested long and hard to Harry Sawyer.

“Harry, I’m not a crime reporter.  Remember me, Alex Millar, political expert, with special interests in matters military.”

“Alex, I remember you.  I remember you when you were a journalist.  I remember you when you would have got on the next plane to Australia.  You used to live there, for Christ’s sake.  I remember you when you wanted to earn a wage.  I remember you when you were not being lead around by the balls by a little Italian girl.  I remember you when you were not a fucking pain in the arse.  Now you are going to Oz to cover this story.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, boss.”

“OK,” Harry cooled down a little.  “Now if Francesca was not at college and unable to get away, am I right in thinking the pair of you would be beating down BA’s door for seats?”

“Yes, Harry.”  Alex was bang to rights, and there was no point in arguing.

“Right.”  Harry was winning the argument and consequently becoming a little more expansive.  “Now, en route, do you know what ‘en route’ means?”

“Yes, Harry, it means before I get to Australia.”

“Good boy!  En route, I would like you to drop into Hong Kong, and do me something for the Sunday Telegraph on how people are viewing the return to China in ’97.  Does that appeal?”

“Yes, Herr Sturmbahnfuhrer.”  He clicked his heels and essayed a Nazi salute.

“Alex, one thing.  I like you, but no one is indispensable.  Understand?”

Alex held up his hands, palms outward.  “Just pulling your plonker, Harry.”

He enjoyed Hong Kong, and found time to take the hydrofoil to Macao, and a taxi into China proper.  He wondered at it all, recalling that, not all that time distant, he would not have been permitted to go to China.  He was astonished to see an Esso service station in the Peoples’ Republic, displaying the tiger on the pumps, like anywhere in the West.

That evening, from his hotel in Hong Kong, he phoned Francesca.  She listened eagerly to his story of the day.

“And then I went into China.”

“You did what?”  Her voice sounded shocked.

“I took a taxi and went into China.”  He was touched.  She was concerned for his safety.  There was silence at the other end.

She then said slowly, and with deep anger,  “You went to China?  Without me?”

A few months after his return from Australia, and approaching ‘school holidays’, he casually remarked one night in bed.  “Would you like to go to Israel?”

She looked up from reading.  “Have you got a job there?”

“No, I thought we could have a holiday.”

“What, no job?”

“No, honest, no job.”

“Why Israel?”

“Well, I was reading this book.”  He showed her a paper back edition of Ernest K. Gann’s ‘The Antagonists’.  “It’s all about the Romans and the Jews, and in AD73 the Jews were trapped up this mountain, and the Romans were all around it.  The Romans stormed it, and when they got to the top, the Jews had all committed suicide.”

“Aaah,” she said.  “Sounds grisly to me.”

“And there’s Jerusalem, where Jesus was.  It seems a fascinating country to me.”

“Is it not dangerous, Alex, with the Israelis and the Palestinians killing each other.”

“It’s bloody dangerous here, Daina, with the IRA killing people at random.”

It took a while, but she was persuaded, eventually.  They flew, on an overnight BA flight, into David Ben-Gurion airport, in Tel Aviv, picked up their hire car, and drove off east towards Jerusalem, at about six-thirty, in the embryonic rays of a golden day.

Israel is a small country, and by spending five days in Jerusalem, and five in Tiberias, they were able to see a great deal of it, with the notable exception of Eilat, down in the distant south.  They stayed in a pleasant hotel on the outskirts of the New City, which had a swimming pool on the roof, from where they could see the tantalising promise of the Old City in the shimmering distance.

They took the bus, and paid a few shekels for the twenty-minute ride to the Old City.  Everything fascinated them.  Alex, who had visited over a hundred countries in the course of his military and journalistic careers, had never been anywhere like it.  No one seemed to be even remotely interested in bothering them.  People went about their daily tasks, and allowed the tourists to go about theirs.  There were soldiers everywhere, male and female, and all very young.  Alex noticed that they were all hatless, and commented on it.

“I don’t like that.”  He indicated a group of soldiers by jerking his head over his left shoulder in their general direction.

“You don’t like what, darling?”

“None of the military are wearing hats.”

“So what, Simba.  Does it matter?”

He shrugged.  “Well, call me old fashioned, if you like, but.”

“All right, you are old fashioned.”

“Wait one, Daina, and call me old fashioned when I’ve done.”

She screwed up her face.  “OK.”

“Your hat, or cap or beret, or kepi, whatever, is a part of your uniform, and I think a soldier is incomplete without it.  It leads to carelessness, or slovenly attitudes.  Next thing people do not clean their weapons, or leave one up the spout.  In the end, someone gets killed, and usually it’s one of your mates.”

“Very good, major.”

“OK, OK, sorry.  Sometimes I go on too much.”

“Sometimes you do, Simba.”

The Old City fascinated both of them.  It was ‘old’, that was the first thing.  It looked old, it smelt old, and it was old to the touch.  They did all the usual things, as tourists do; visiting the Wailing Wall; the Dome of the Rock; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, along the Via Dolorosa.  The latter disappointed them because, even as non-practising Catholics, its tackiness and sordid commercialisation dismayed them.  They stood at the Wailing Wall, amid the devout Jews, and prayed with them.  It was necessary for all tourists to be properly dressed, and Alex had to don a skirt to cover his bare legs, and a ‘yarmulka’, or small skullcap.  Francesca also was required to cover her bare legs, and to pray at the women’s section, separate from the men.  They were both astounded to learn that the Dome of the Rock, the holy Islamic shrine, was situated on top of the Wailing Wall, on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple.

On their second day in the Old City, they visited David’s Citadel, and then decided to hike around the walls.  About half way around, and when in between two towers, they were assailed by a hail of rocks thrown at them by a group of eight or ten Arab youths.  They scurried into the shelter of a tower, and considered their next, and possibly injury causing move.  He picked up a handful of rocks that had skidded into the tower.  Many were as big as a man’s fist.

“Jesus, Daina, this gives me a whole new image of what goes on when Palestinian youths are reported to be throwing stones at the Israeli Army.”

“What are we going to do?”

He peered cautiously around the edge of the tower wall, to be greeted by an other shower of rocks.  “OK, I’m going to chuck this lot at the little bastards, and get them to throw back at me.  When they have let fly, you make a dash for that next tower as fast as you can.  How far is it?  Fifty yards?”

“They may be carrying more stones.”

“They may well, but have you a better plan?”

“No.”

“Right, let’s do it.”

His plan worked, more or less.  After the initial burst of throwing, Francesca took off like her namesake, the deer, and reached the next shelter unhurt.

“Right, Major,” he told himself, “you have got the troops away, now go yourself.”

He feinted to the left for three or four yards, drawing a flurry of stones, and then ran to the right as fast as possible to where Francesca was waiting.  He covered his head with his arms as he ran, and felt stones hitting his legs and back.  He joined Francesca, quite breathless.

“You’re bleeding, Simba.”

Blood was streaming down his right leg, reddening his white sock.  She reached down and dabbed at it with a handkerchief.

“Have you had that thing since Angola,” he demanded.

“I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”  She turned her face up to his and kissed him.  “What do we do now?”

He hugged her, and peered out of the tower.   “The bastards are still there.  You know something, Daina, I was less scared in Angola than I am here.  Those bloody rocks could kill someone.”

They waited for ten minutes, aware that their first ploy would not work a second time.  Fortunately the walls were perhaps thirty feet high, and did not seem climbable.

“Alex, why us?  We don’t look Jewish.  We look just like what we are, a couple of tourists.”

“I have no answer to that, except the oldest in the world.  Because we are here, that’s all.”

***

Their ordeal was brought to an end by an approaching patrol of two armed Israeli soldiers.  The Arab youths began backing away, and Francesca and Alex ran along the walls shouting to the soldiers.  One or two of the Arabs, bolder than the rest, let fly with a parting volley of rocks, but their aim had been distracted.  The soldiers lowered their rifles and pointed them, and all defiance evaporated.  It was not a pleasant experience, and one that did not endear the Palestinian cause to either Alex or Francesca.  They were further distanced from that cause on the following day.

“OK, Simba.  What’s the plan for today?”  She stared at him over her orange juice.

“God,” he thought, “I can never look at you without thinking how beautiful you are.”  To Francesca he said, “Do you know that I can never look at you without thinking how beautiful you are?”

She looked down, and then at him, through her eyelashes.  It was something he believed she had picked up from Princess Diana.  He liked it better on Francesca.

“Thank you.  Would you like to bring me into your plans?  You have been studying that guidebook for twenty minutes.  You must have chosen somewhere by now.”

“How about Masada?”

“Oh, the fortress in the desert?”

“Yes.”

“There will not be any bodies still hanging about, will there?”

He buttered an other piece of toast busily.  “No, I think they have all been shifted by now.”

They drove out through the Israeli checkpoint on the edge of the city, into part of the Occupied Territories, intending to take the highway alongside the Dead Sea down to Masada in the Judean Desert.  It was bakingly hot, and the car had no air conditioning.  Somewhere along the way, they became lost, and found themselves driving along an ever narrowing road, which then became a track, and the surface of which changed to baked earth.  There were a number of small depressing settlements, each one poorer than the one before.

They were uneasy, disturbed at the way the men and boys lolling at the side of the road stared at them.

“I don’t like it here, Simba.”  She moved a little closer to him.

“I don’t like it either.  Do you notice anything about the cars?”

“They are all very old.  Is that what you mean?”

“No, there are none with yellow plates.  These are all blue.  They are all Arab owned cars.  We’re in an Israeli car.”

“Simba, let’s go back.”

“I agree with you, lady.  Let’s get the hell out of here.”

They turned the little car around, and headed back in the direction they had just travelled.

“Alex, we need a little Union Jack, and an Italian Tricolour, to fly, to let them know we are not Israelis.”

“I do not think it would make any difference.”

The stones and rocks began flying as soon as he had uttered the words, and he put his foot down.  After perhaps fifteen minutes, some yellow plated cars began passing them and he slowed down.  He was shaken, and the sweat cascaded down his face.  His shirt stuck to his body, and he could smell the fear he was feeling.  He glanced at Francesca, who sat rigidly upright, pale faced, in her seat.  They saw the Israeli border post, and were waved through.  The breath seemed to be expelled from both their bodies at the same time.

“Thank God we are back in Israel,” she said with immense feeling.

“Amen to that,” he endorsed.

They rechecked the map and found the highway to Masada, passing the point where they had taken the wrong turning.  The day was almost at its egg frying hottest, and the open windows did little to assist.  Masada made light of their inconveniences in a very short time.  It was truly magnificently breathtaking.  It was awe-inspiring and stirred the imagination.  He could just see Flavius Silva at the head of the Tenth Legion, waiting to give the signal to attack, as the fire arrows of the German archers streamed over the rim.  And there was the great ramp.  Made from crushed limestone, and the sweat and painful deaths of so many Jewish slaves, it had taken three long years to construct.

They declined the option of ascent by the Snake Path, and choose the modernity and comfort of the cable car. 

“It is over a hundred degrees,” he excused himself.

“Don’t worry, Simba, you would have climbed it on your own.  I’m named after a deer, remember, not a mountain goat.”

The summit was even more impressive.  There was Herod’s Palace, where the King had come to escape the agonies of high summer.  There was the deep cool water cistern where the Zealots had unlimited water during the three year siege.  And here, on this scorched rock, on this barren hilltop, a thousand Jewish men, women and children had died in AD 73 rather than give the Romans a victory.

They stood together near Herod’s Palace, holding hands, their bodies touching lightly, gazing out over the shimmering desert, at the hazy image of the Dead Sea.

“You know that some regiments of the Israeli Army come here even today, to take their oaths of allegiance.  They swear that Masada will not fall again.”

“They have some enemies, don’t they?”  She said it so softly that he barely heard.

”What did you say?” 

“I love you, Alex.”

He kissed her.  “I love you, Francesca.  Will you?”

She put her finger to his lips.  “No, darling Simba, not now.”

They returned to Jerusalem, stopping en route for a ritual swim, or float, in the Dead Sea.  It truly was impossible to drown, as each time anyone went under the water, they popped up again, like a cork.  Alex did not like it, as the water smelt horribly of its component chemicals, and he felt he was swimming inside a storage tank at an oil refinery.  They rinsed under cold fresh water showers, and sat on the beach, drinking coffee they had bought from a stall, and watching the new people’s delight at their discoveries in the water.

“Not bad coffee,” he remarked,  “Pity he doesn’t do fish and chips.”

“Are you British, by any chance?” she asked.

Despite their two unpleasant experiences, they enjoyed their time in Israel, looking back on it later, as the best holiday they had shared together.  The ten days sped by, with visits to Jaffa, Haifa and Tel Aviv, where they sun bathed on a long golden beach, and swam in the gentle Mediterranean.  The second part of their stay was at Tiberias, on Lake Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee, depending on whom you were asking.  Francesca hired a wind surfboard, and took herself off on the cool fresh waters, while he lay in the sun, read the local English language newspaper, and slept.   She tumbled back from the water, running over the grass, and splashing him with water.

“Wake up, sleepy head.”

He did, spluttering as the coldness shook him from a pleasant doze, and tried to catch her.  He failed, and instead, contented himself with picking up the discarded newspaper. 

“Did you meet him?”  he enquired.

“Meet who,” she replied, towelling her short hair dry.

“Charlie.”

“Who the hell is Charlie?”

“Charlie the crocodile” he said, with studied indifference.

She stopped drying her hair.  “What crocodile?”

“Charlie, the one who escaped from the crocodile farm yesterday.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No, it’s in the paper.”

“Show me that.”  She snatched the paper.  “Where is it?  Are you just making this up?”

He got up with a sigh, and pointed out the small item of about seven or eight lines.  “There you are.  He escaped yesterday, and is believed to be in Lake Tiberias.”

“You bastard, Simba, and you allowed me to go windsurfing in that?”  She shuddered and pointed to the inoffensive looking waters of the lake.

“I only read it after you had gone out,” he replied with an unconvincing innocence.  “I tried to get your attention by waving, but you just waved back at me.”

She was only slightly mollified.  “Well, you wouldn’t want Charlie eating me, would you?”

“No, Daina, if anyone is going to eat you, it will be me.”  He grabbed her by the leg, and pretended to eat it, while she screamed and tried to get away.  The noise they were making caused other people on the beach to look at them and, in embarrassment, they stopped and sat down, giggling.

From Tiberias, they took off one morning and drove into the Golan Heights.  Having already been on the West Bank, Alex claimed two more countries to his list, Jordan and Syria.

“You can’t do that,” she scolded.  “They are both part of Israel now.”

In vain did he argue that this was not the case, but Francesca was firm and he gave up.  The Golan Heights were deserted of almost all human life and were an eerie and somewhat frightening place.  They stopped and inspected in silence the remains of a shattered village that presumably had been that way since the 1967 War.   Without speaking, she indicated the village mosque, a large gaping hole in the minaret showing blue sky behind it.  They passed the rusting remains of a tank, its gun barrel pointing uselessly skywards, like some long dead insect with one leg extended grotesquely in its final agony.  Much of the time they had little to say, such was the effect of the barren red earth through which they travelled, redolent with the constant signs of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.  At the side of the roads they travelled on they noticed a small forest of warning signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English, advising of the presence of unexploded mines.

“Good place to take your mother in law for a picnic,” he grunted.

“Your mother in law is all right,” she responded.

“Do you mean your mother?”

She realised what she had said, and decided not to follow this particular path.  “Keep your eyes on the road, driver.”

They were thrown abruptly out of their daytime reverie by the sound of an explosion, then several of them in quick succession.

“What’s that?” she demanded urgently.

“Mortars, I think,” he replied, anxiously twisting his head to see from which direction they were coming.  There were several small plumes of brown smoke, and perhaps earth, about four hundred yards to their left.

“Is it the Syrians shooting?”

“No,” he said, with a confidence he certainly did not feel.  “It will be the Israelies practising.”

“It is a bit too bloody close for comfort, if you ask me, Alex.  Let’s get out of here.”

“My sentiments exactly, let’s go”

They had only gone another two or three hundred yards, when there were three further explosions ahead of them.

“Jesus” he breathed, and turned left at a small intersection about fifty yards further on.  Half a mile down the road they were stopped by a little group of soldiers.  One of them was an officer.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he shouted angrily in English

“I suppose we must be lost,” replied Alex meekly.

“Right, straight down this road for a couple of K’s, and turn left on to a bigger road.  That will take you to the border.  Don’t bloody stop.  Understood?”

“Understood, sir.”

Soon they were back in Israel behind the now comforting shield of the Israeli Army, and in a land where the cars had yellow number plates.  They breathed more easily.

“What do you suppose that was all about, Alex?”

“I’m buggered if I know.  Did you notice something about the soldiers?”

“They were cross with us?” she enquired.

He laughed, a little grimly.  “They sure were.  Did you not notice that they were all wearing steel helmets?  Whatever they were up to, they were serious.”

The following day, their last in Israel, they stopped for lunch at a roadside café.  The writing outside was Arabic, not Hebrew, indicating Arab ownership.  On entering they noticed an Israeli soldier eating.  When he had finished, he went to pay the proprietor, a large man with a florid face and a huge moustache.  The soldier paid, and departed saying ‘Shoukran.’

“Did you notice, Alex,” whispered Francesca, “that he said ‘shoukran’ and not ‘todah’.”

He had and was impressed.

They had one final adventure at David Ben Gurion Airport before leaving, and one that almost caused them to miss their flight.  They arrived around six thirty, in the morning, in sufficient time, they thought, to return the car, have a cup of coffee and catch their flight, but it didn’t turn out that way.  First there was a long dispute with the Avis lady who wanted to charge them twice as much as the rate they had agreed before leaving the UK.  That was barely resolved before they managed to miss seeing a couple of security people checking luggage and put their cases on the check in scales.  The check in girl saw no approving stickers, and called the security team, a young man and a young woman.

“Would you like to tell us what you have in the cases?”

They did so, as a couple and as individuals, on three different occasions.  As the young woman started on lap four, Alex lost patience, as BA departure time crept closer and closer.  “Here are the keys.  Look for yourself.  I cannot tell you any more than I have already.”

She remained very cool.  “Don’t lose your temper, sir.  We are only doing our jobs.”

He was reminded of Kinshasa and a similar situation when crossing from Brazzaville.  This time she was younger, prettier, and not smoking, but the aggravation factor was the same.

“I am not losing my temper, but I will if I miss that dammed aircraft.  If you tell me what you are looking for, I will try to help you.  All I have in the case are dirty socks, shirts and underpants.  If you do not believe that, open the bloody thing and see for yourself.”

“Can I see your passport?”

He gave it over with a sigh, which probably did not help matters.  She turned over the pages one by one and painfully slowly.  Ostentatiously, he glanced at his watch.  The passport had ninety-four pages.  She noticed something, and pointed it out to her male colleague.  They turned over further pages and whispered some more.

The girl came back to Alex.  She pointed to a stamp in Arabic.  “Where is this?”

He looked at it.  “I haven’t a clue.  I don’t read Arabic.”

She pointed to several more.  “And this one?  And this one?”

“I do not know.  Could be Tunisia, or Morocco, or almost anywhere.”

“Why do you visit Arabic countries?”

“Because I am a bloody journalist, that’s why.  It’s my job.”  He took his Press card from his wallet.  “See, occupation ‘Journalist’.” 

It was the parting shot.  The two security agents handed back the passports, again declined to search the suitcases, and went about their business.  It was seven forty five, and they had twenty minutes to get on their flight.  They made it.

“You know something, Simba.  Life is never dull with you around.”

“It’s funny, Daina, but I was just thinking the same about you.”

They smiled at each other, and she leaned over and kissed him, gently.

Francesca awoke suddenly, sitting in the armchair.  She realised she had been dreaming, and closed her eyes again, trying to get back to 1993 and Israel.  It had been warm and sunny, and they had loved each other.  Softly she began to cry.

***

Chapter Twelve – Episodes 17  & 18

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