N.K. Woods worked in financial services for years but left the world of business and banks behind to study Creative Writing in the University of Edinburgh. She received her MSc in 2018 and has recently had her first story published in Tales From The Forest. Born in Dublin and raised in Wexford, she now lives in Kildare but loves to travel, especially to Oxford, home of her all-time favourite bookshop.
By N.K. Woods
On the second night Alice finally went outside, armed with a glass so full that wine lapped against the rim each time she moved. Despite being nearly 2am, it was still hot, disconcertingly so after the best part of a weekend spent drifting between air-conditioned rooms. But at least on the balcony she could stare at the arid wilderness rather than the locked apartment door.
An unnatural calm lay over the high-security compound, almost as though sand from the surrounding area had snuck in after sunset to smother the residents. Every apartment on the far side of the artificial lake was in darkness, including her own in Block D. Peering across the water at her own windows, two levels lower on the sixth floor, made Alice feel dizzy and she quickly curled up in a wicker chair. Her disorientation was getting worse by the hour as the boundaries between day and night, home and work, and dreams and nightmares grew more blurred. It didn’t help that the saying about visitors being like fish, stinky to have around for too long, kept playing in a loop in her head. Her colleague and his wife had hardly expected a dinner guest to stay for so long – but Friday night had not gone as expected. Well, the rosti valaisanne had been the same as always, but it was Marcus’s speciality. It was only later that things had gone wrong; after dinner, when their organisation’s safety officer contacted them with the news.
‘I cannot sleep. This silence is more alarming than gunfire.’
The smooth voice startled Alice. She spilt some wine but Marcus didn’t notice, or pretended not to. His manners really were perfect. Nothing in his accent hinted at nationality. Correct grammar, with none of the backward phrasing that non-native speakers found hard to lose, made him sound formal rather than foreign, even to her.
‘The silence distresses Charlie. She wore earplugs to bed, and pretends there is normal noise to block out.’ Gracefully sidestepping both Alice and the red splashes on the tiles, he made his way to the other chair. ‘She wishes to go home, once this situation has been resolved.’
The announcement didn’t surprise Alice but came as a blow. Biting back a reply, she swirled the liquid in her borrowed glass – challenging herself to avoid another spillage.
‘She believes it would be reckless to start a family in this place,’ he continued, while staring into the night sky.
Following his eye-line, Alice’s gaze settled on two cranes beyond the high perimeter wall. They loomed in the moonlight and looked otherworldly. Conditions were calm and they stood still, but recent windy weather had seen them shift direction more than once. That sight had been almost more unnerving than the distant gunfire.
Since moving to the compound, she had grown used to the sound of shots at night; the triumphant release of bullets to mark weddings and happy events. But lately she’d come to learn that gunfire had a tone, like when children cry. She wasn’t a fan of kids but even she could differentiate between the roar of a stroppy toddler and cries made from fear or genuine pain. Gunfire was much the same, with the intent of the person behind the trigger seeming to coat each bullet before it exploded into the air.
The irony of comparing babies to weapons as Marcus revealed family plans didn’t escape her but she made no comment. During many hours spent together, he had never mentioned a desire for children and almost seemed too refined to be a father. But sitting there in sweat pants and T-shirt, with untidy blonde hair and bare feet, he looked capable of adapting to new circumstances.
‘This period of containment has brought much into perspective,’ he said. ‘Charlie made sacrifices to come here for so long.’
Was three years so long, Alice wondered; less than the time it took to pay off a standard car loan, but more than enough time to get divorced, watch your parents die, change job and lose yourself in a region peppered with terrorist cells.
‘She has become isolated. Things must change. Working from home does not suit her. Banter is a thing she claims to miss.’ He shook his head in disbelief, but Alice understood. Marcus lacked the sense of humour which she and his wife shared. ‘Each day you and I discuss political developments, plan strategies and eat lunch together, or with the staff. But Charlie must rely on Skype for company. And you, of course.’ After a pause, he added, ‘But one person cannot be all things to another.’
He reached out to take the glass from Alice. His fingers brushed against her thumb before curling around the narrow stem.
‘Where will you go, Bath or back to Geneva?’ she asked, while rolling up a shirt sleeve with her now empty hand.
The moon, only a night or two shy of being full, left his face exposed but Marcus’s expression was blank. ‘That is under negotiation,’ he replied, flatly.
That made sense. His job was a negotiator, a go-between who smoothed the path of humanitarian aid. And he was good, excelling in the management of both sides.
Given the choice, Alice would pick Bath – Charlie’s hometown. Alone, the women had discussed all they missed, from driving on the left to bacon butties and films without subtitles. There were times, Alice had confessed, when she’d have swapped world peace for a scone with proper jam and cream. Charlie was one of the few people she could admit that to. Marcus wouldn’t understand. He thought their work was too important, and it was, but sometimes selfishness was the only way to keep sane.
An imagination helped too, and Alice spent hours daydreaming, transporting herself between continents, relationships and seasons. In daylight, the view beyond the southern perimeter, down to the closed border, was almost an autumnal landscape with its swathes of yellow sand and ground burnt brown by relentless sun. Only a scattering of tiny olive groves provided any signs of life, like the last green leaves on a tree shedding itself of dependents for winter.
In a climate with only two real seasons, she would have to make do with the illusion of autumn, but Charlie could be settled in England before the summer foliage began to fade. ‘Go to Bath,’ said Alice, surprising herself. ‘You owe her that.’
Taking a sip, Marcus murmured, ‘I wish we…’
Alice shushed him and listened intently as voices carried up to them on the night air. She stood and tiptoed over to the corner of the balcony. Facing east, towards the entrance and away from the wilds, brought the distant city into view – a sci-fi image, rising as it did out of nothing – but much closer she could see shapes moving inside the gate.
A horn beeped, repeatedly. Marcus joined Alice and leaned over the side railing. She reached out to grab hold of his T-shirt but dropped her hand without making contact.
The voices at the entrance all sounded male, and angry. Rapid exchanges, with no one person getting in more than a few words before being interrupted, formed a pattern. Then the powerful security lights came on, making the large, locked gate resemble a bright screen in an outdoor cinema. In response, the car horn blared again, this time for a solid ten seconds.
‘The guards are waving their guns,’ Marcus whispered. ‘Merde!’
The single swearword, the first she’d ever heard him utter, stunned Alice more than the mention of weapons. Her heart pounded and a sensation that could have been vertigo or terror made her sit back down.
‘They have opened the outer gate and raised the barrier. One car has entered. It is going slowly. The gate and barrier have closed again. The car has stopped. The driver is talking to a guard.’
Marcus’s commentary went on, each sentence fully formed. But before he got a chance to complete his summary, Alice’s own ears confirmed that the new arrivals had driven in the opposite direction, along the road that swept inside the oval enclosure like a racetrack. The sound of heavy steel gates rolling down again came as a relief. On Friday night they hadn’t heard them being closed, but from the corner window they’d seen the compound go into lockdown. Never before had both the internal and external defences been sealed. But with news of hundreds dead and injured across the country, the guards were taking no chances.
No one had left the complex on Saturday, or come out from behind closed apartment doors. Alice had watched the ground below from their vantage point on the eight floor and seen no activity, not even at the small mosque. In the capital, tanks had been positioned on a landmark bridge, but the narrow crossings over their lake hadn’t supported a single person let alone an armoured vehicle. It was as though the private village for wealthy natives and nervous expats had camouflaged itself by shutting off the lights. And so far it had worked. Fighting had briefly spread to their remote border region, although not to their penned community. The danger had supposedly passed and things were eerily quiet, but the safety officer still wasn’t happy for them to venture outdoors, not even to make the quick dash from Block A to Block D.
Marcus sat back down and although Alice could see his lips move, a whooshing sound drowned out his words. The movement of air on a windless night made him flinch, while she curled up even tighter in her chair. Like a hedgehog peering out of a protective ball, she watched in astonishment as the sky disappeared behind a strange curtain. The outline of the bright moon was still visible, but it might have been the satellite of a different planet. Everything was bathed in red, including Marcus. It gave him an ominous appearance but when he spoke his voice was as smooth as always.
‘Be calm.’ He hunkered down and stroked her arm. Alice felt the cold metal of his watch press against her skin. ‘All is well. It is just a huge flag.’ To prove the point he stretched out and pushed the material. ‘More locals must wish to show their allegiance.’
All day, small flags had been appearing as if by magic from balconies and windows across the complex; red emblems of loyalty that made it seem as though everyone’s laundry had been dyed the one colour.
‘Do you remember the enormous flags that hung from the tallest blocks for the public holiday?’ he asked. ‘It would seem one has been put back into service. We have nothing to fear. And I do not think that car poses us any danger. Perhaps a resident who took shelter elsewhere has been admitted.’ The cold pressure from his watch was offset by the warmth of his fingers, with strokes turning into caresses. A new catch in his voice made him sound hoarse. ‘Perhaps they were at a dinner party that went on longer than expected.’
The rare attempt at levity surprised Alice and she said, almost to herself, ‘Maybe, then, it’s time for me to go?’
‘No,’ he murmured softly, tracing a triangle between the freckles on her wrist. ‘That time has not yet come.’ Alice didn’t pull away when Marcus leaned in, but he recoiled before his lips touched her neck. ‘Apples,’ he hissed, sounding as though she’d tried to poison him.
The memory of the smell came to her rather than an actual aroma; the memory of the apple shampoo she’d taken from the shower stand a few hours earlier. Her short hair smelt like Charlie’s, as did her body from the borrowed deodorant. Even the clothes she wore, made clean by detergent she hadn’t chosen, draped her in the scent of another woman. She pulled the ill-fitting shirt, donated by Charlie for the duration of the emergency, tightly around her body.
‘What was I thinking? This is not the place.’ Marcus straightened up and returned to his seat, still managing to sidestep the spillage on the tiles.
The place was two floors down, across the lake. Sometimes, when they left work early and spent an hour or two in Alice’s rooms, she wondered if Charlie ever wandered onto the balcony for fresh air and caught a glimpse of them behind distant windows. But the red shroud blocked the view to Alice’s apartment now. Feeling dizzy again, she gripped the armrest, closed her eyes, and pretended to be at home. The waking dream took hold, aided by Marcus’s prolonged silence, but the intrusion of a new voice forced her eyes open. An exclamation of ‘Jesus fucking Christ’ from the upper balcony was followed by a muffled exchange, the sound of a chair leg scraping against tiles, and the popping of a cork.
‘Where’s Dfor?’ asked a boy.
‘What’s that, baby?’ replied a woman, without any attempt at volume control.
‘Dfor! D for doggies,’ he shouted. ‘Can’t see out! Wanna see.’
A male voice boomed in amusement. ‘Keep coming up with lines like that and you’ll make a mint on the comedy circuit.’ He snorted. ‘The nerve of them, dropping their flag off the roof. Talk about double standards! Remember those bullshit complaints about us drying towels on the railing? Christ, this country is backward. Won’t even call a pizza by the proper name. What’ya say Marty, pide or pizza?’
The boy wasn’t to be side-tracked and demanded to know, again, where the dogs were. Normally packs of them prowled the scrubland at night, rooting through piles of rock and fighting amongst themselves. But even they seemed to have gone to ground.
‘Asleep, like you should be,’ laughed the woman, ‘but we woke you up to celebrate.’
Marcus frowned, his expression a blend of disapproval and confusion.
‘Oh, it’s happened here too. How lovely.’ Charlie appeared in the doorway and yawned. ‘This country really has the most beautiful flag. A giant one got dropped off the management building too.’
Marcus raised a finger to his lips and then beckoned his wife over. There were only two seats at the table so he pulled her onto his knee, just as the sound of clinking glasses rang out from the balcony above.
‘The bold people have been taken away so we don’t have to stay inside anymore,’ announced the loud man.
‘I can go to the playground?’ The hope in the child’s voice was unmistakable, and Charlie twisted around to share a smile with Marcus.
‘Screw the playground. With the compensation I’m gonna get, we’ll build our own theme park. The boss had no business sending us here. A stable country. What crapola!’
The rest of the conversation failed to register with Alice. Instead she watched as Charlie dug excitedly in Marcus’s pocket for a phone to check the news websites. It was official. The government had regained full control. The rebels had surrendered, order was returning to the country and the airports were due to reopen within a matter of days.
Charlie and Marcus took turns phoning worried family members with the good news, firmly promising, first in English and then in French, that the drama was over. Snatches of tearful responses reached Alice but she made no calls herself.
One hour passed and then most of another. Hunger, thirst and full bladders needed attention and could be addressed by taking a few steps indoors, but those steps would draw a line under something that didn’t feel quite over. Dawn was almost upon them when they heard the first call to prayer of the day. The reassuring voice and familiar foreign words soothed Alice, as always.
‘I’ll miss him,’ said Charlie, nodding in the general direction of the minaret. ‘His voice keeps me company when you two are in the office. He’s talked to me more in this place than anyone else.’ Her body shielded Marcus. Very little of him was visible. With his head lying against her back, he might have been asleep, but the muscle of his forearm flexed slightly as she spoke. ‘You should take over this apartment when we’re gone, Alice. You’ve always said it’s nicer over here, on this side.’
No mention of relocation plans had been made to Alice in Charlie’s presence. She felt caught out and didn’t know how to respond. That was something she’d miss about Charlie – being kept on her toes. Really, she was as important to Alice as Marcus; more important in many ways – she played more parts.
‘The view is better from higher up. You can see everything.’ Charlie pushed the flag away from the railing, setting off a wave of ripples. The long robe she wore made her look ethereal and in the unnatural light she might have been a ghost, but it was Alice who suddenly longed to be invisible. ‘Even the bad stuff doesn’t look so bad from up here. Just as well really. One stress at a time is all I can handle.’
The simultaneous beeping of Marcus’s phone and her own saved Alice from having to frame a response. She didn’t bother opening the shared message from the safety officer as Charlie read it aloud for both recipients to hear.
‘Coup failed. Danger passed. Remain vigilant. Backlash likely.’