Risk, C K Stead

An extract from C K Stead’s new novel.

It was in December that Tom Roland was at home standing in front of the television set thinking about travel. The memory of a poem had set him off on this track. Or was it the other way around – the thought of travel that had made him think of the poem which began

When I was but thirteen or so
I went to a golden land;
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

Tom, who liked rhymes and thought of them as hand-holds for memory, wondered why the third line hadn’t been “Cotopaxi, Chimborazo” which would have made a rhyme with the first – but he was sure his memory was correct. He supposed it would have been because the poet, W J Turner, hadn’t wanted to commit himself to rhyming the first and third lines throughout as well as second and fourth. Second and fourth was going to be hard enough.

His eyes were on the television but he wasn’t seeing it. He was thinking that with the cold weather already here he and Hermione should perhaps do what was becoming quite fashionable among their friends, and escape the winter by taking a quick trip to somewhere far away and warm – the West Indies perhaps – Martinique, Guadalupe. Just saying the words over was like the poem, which had excited him so much in childhood he’d never wanted to know more than those names. Someone had told him Chimborazo and Cotopaxi were mountains in South America, but they could be anywhere. It was the sounds, and especially the sounds inside the framework of the poem, that made them special.

But travel: what about Cuba? Friends in the bank had gone there and found it charmingly raffish. Great fun they said, and you could take old Castro with a grain of salt – even admire the way he’d hung on so long. He was a tourist destination in himself, still making ferocious and interminable speeches wearing army fatigues and carpet slippers. Or further afield – South Africa for example? Maybe a game park, where you could see the animals close-up. And Robben Island – that would be interesting: see the cell where Nelson Mandela was locked up for twenty-eight years. Twenty-eight – imagine it – and we never spared him a thought! Or the Nile. He’d seen something on television about a cruise down the Nile.

And then there was the window-cleaner at the Interbank America building who had taken his wife on a cruise across to Florida and on through the Panama Canal, and then back by air – from Los Angeles, was it? He said going through the canal you could look over the rail from the deck and watch the jungle go by.

It was strange, Tom thought, to know that he could think of anything at all, any tourist destination, and more or less any hotel or resort, even quite expensive ones, for a stopover of a week or ten days, and know they could do it (flying business class, of course) and afford it. The time when they’d seemed really short of money was so long gone he had to struggle to remember it. They were affluent. Not rich; but affluence was the current reality.

The sky out there was grey and grey-black; the river, rushing seaward riding the outgoing tide, was grey-brown; the city in this light was like a dull mix of concrete and pewter and glass. And on television a man was being hanged.

Ushered towards his death by four men wearing black masks, he wore a large dark overcoat; he was dark-haired, ruggedly handsome with dark eyebrows and a whitening beard. He declined to have the bag over his head, and it was being arranged around his neck under the very large noose, as if a kindness to reduce rope-burn when he dropped through the trap. There was a lot of noise, loud talk, some shouting. Some of those around him or close by were hectoring him, abusing him. He seemed to be trying to focus on final prayers, final things a man says to his god as he goes to his death. He looked strong, unflinching, unbowed, dignified.

This was Saddam Hussein about to be hanged in Bagdad.

The recognition of what he was seeing – seeing only by chance because the set had been left switched on – broke into Tom’s holiday thoughts. With it came a feeling of horror. “Oh no,” he said to the empty room. “No no no, this is wrong. This shouldn’t be happening. Quite unnecessary.”

In Oxford, Charles and Amy were also standing, also watching. A CNN commentary cut in, saying the execution had possibly been rushed, brought forward because sectarian violence was out of control in Iraq and the government hoped to “turn the page” into the new year.

“Oh god.” Amy’s was a sort of end-of-the-world sigh, as the image of the noose being adjusted around the neck returned.  She whispered, not to Charles but to herself, “This is obscene.”

It was a year, maybe two, since they had talked freely about Iraq. Not, anyway, since the report which acknowledged that Saddam had ceased his nuclear programme as early as 1991. Charles and Ivan had talked about it sometimes, but only when alone together, not wanting to subject themselves to the pressure there was everywhere these days to sound off about the liar Blair, to dismiss the moron Bush, to deplore the “war on terror” as a crime against democracy. It had come up in passing with Amy, but always in a pinched and angry way. He wished they were not seeing this.

Her hand was at her mouth and her eyes were wide. He said, “I don’t favour capital punishment, Amy. You know that.”

It sounded weak. Why didn’t he keep his mouth shut, just let the difference between them stand? Why should husband and wife always agree? Even as he thought this he was suppressing the urge to say more.

She glanced at him once and her eyes returned to the screen. The condemned man was hobbled, hands tied behind his back. There was an English-language commentary, a low key explanatory monotone. Saddam was responding to the one or two who were telling him he would go to hell.

“The hell is Iraq,” he said. And then clearly, so it would be heard, “And Palestine is Arab.”

Now the noose was in place. He was over the trap and ready. He seemed to be reciting the Shahada.

Charles was looking at Amy as he heard the trap open and the man fall through. She was weeping angry tears. He put a soothing hand on her shoulder. “Don’t.” She shook it off. “Don’t touch me.”

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