He enters the bedroom. He stands at the foot of the bed where the English patient lies.
The rifle stock is against his chest, its sling braced against his triangled arm.
What was going on outside?
Kip looks condemned, separate from the world, his brown face weeping. The body turns and fires into the old fountain, and the plaster explodes dust onto the bed. He pivots back so the rifle points at the Englishman. He begins to shudder, and then everything in him tries to control that.
Put down the gun, Kip.
He slams his back against the wall and stops his shaking. Plaster dust in the air around them.
I sat at the foot of this bed and listened to you, Uncle. These last months. When I was a kid I did that, the same thing. I believed I could fill myself up with what older people taught me. I believed I could carry that knowledge, slowly altering it, but in any case passing it beyond me to another.
I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I knew if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I’d be banished. If I tied the wrong kind of knot in a tie I was out. Was it just ships that gave you such power? Was it, as my brother said, because you had the histories and printing presses?
You and then the Americans converted us. With your missionary rules. And Indian soldiers wasted their lives as heroes so they could be pukkah. You had wars like cricket. How did you fool us into this? Here … listen to what you people have done.
He throws the rifle on the bed and moves towards the Englishman. The crystal set is at his side, hanging off his belt. He unclips it and puts the earphones over the black head of the patient, who winces at the pain on his scalp. But the sapper leaves them on him. Then he walks back and picks up the rifle. He sees Hana at the door.
One bomb. Then another. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.
He swerves the rifle towards the alcove. The hawk in the valley air seems to float intentionally into the V sight. If he closes his eyes he sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map, the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them, the shadow of humans suddenly in the air. This tremor of Western wisdom.
He watches the English patient, earphones on, the eyes focused inwards, listening. The rifle sight moves down the thin nose to the Adam’s apple, above the collarbone. Kip stops breathing. Braced at exact right angles to the Enfield rifle. No waver.
Then the Englishman’s eyes look back at him.
Caravaggio enters the room and reaches for him, and Kip wheels the butt of the rifle into his ribs. A swat from the paw of an animal. And then, as if part of the same movement, he is back in the braced right-angle position of those in firing squads, drilled into him in various barracks in India and England. The burned neck in his sights.
Kip, talk to me.
Now his face is a knife. The weeping from shock and horror contained, seeing everything, all those around him, in a different light. Night could fall between them, fog could fall, and the young man’s dark brown eyes would reach the new revealed enemy.
My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers. Never trust Europeans, he said. Never shake hands with them. But we, oh, we were easily impressed—by speeches and medals and your ceremonies. What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen?
What is it? Jesus, tell us!
I’ll leave you the radio to swallow your history lesson. Don’t move again, Caravaggio. All those speeches of civilisation from kings and queens and presidents … such voices of abstract order. Smell it. Listen to the radio and smell the celebration in it. In my country, when a father breaks justice in two, you kill the father.
You don’t know who this man is.
The rifle sight unwavering at the burned neck. Then the sapper swerves it up towards the man’s eyes.
Do it, Almásy says.
The eyes of the sapper and the patient meet in this half-dark room crowded now with the world.
He nods to the sapper.
Do it, he says quietly.
Kip ejects the cartridge and catches it as it begins to fall. He throws the rifle onto the bed, a snake, its venom collected. He sees Hana on the periphery.
The burned man untugs the earphones off his head and slowly places them down in front of him. Then his left hand reaches up and pulls away the hearing aid, and drops it to the floor.
Do it, Kip. I don’t want to hear any more.
He closes his eyes. Slips into darkness, away from the room.
The sapper leans against the wall, his hands folded, head down. Caravaggio can hear air being breathed in and out of his nostrils, fast and hard, a piston.
He isn’t an Englishman.
American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA. You all learned it from the English.
No. Not him. Mistake. Of all people he is probably on your side.
He would say that doesn’t matter, Hana says.
Caravaggio sits down in the chair. He is always, he thinks, sitting in this chair. In the room there is the thin squawking from the crystal set, the radio still speaking in its underwater voice. He cannot bear to turn and look at the sapper or look towards the blur of Hana’s frock. He knows the young soldier is right. They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.
The sapper walks out of the room, leaving Caravaggio and Hana by the bed. He has left the three of them to their world, is no longer their sentinel. In the future, if and when the patient dies, Caravaggio and the girl will bury him. Let the dead bury the dead. He has never been sure what that meant. Those few callous words in the Bible.
They will bury everything except the book. The body, the sheets, his clothes, the rifle. Soon he will be alone with Hana. And the motive for all this on the radio. A terrible event emerging out of the shortwave. A new war. The death of a civilisation.
Still night. He can hear nighthawks, their faint cries, the muted thud of wings as they turn. The cypress trees rise over his tent, still on this windless night. He lies back and stares into the dark corner of the tent. When he closes his eyes he sees fire, people leaping into rivers into reservoirs to avoid flame or heat that within seconds burns everything, whatever they hold, their own skin and hair, even the water they leap into. The brilliant bomb carried over the sea in a plane, passing the moon in the east, towards the green archipelago. And released.
He has not eaten food or drunk water, is unable to swallow anything. Before light failed he stripped the tent of all military objects, all bomb disposal equipment, stripped all insignia off his uniform. Before lying down he undid the turban and combed his hair out and then tied it up into a topknot and lay back, saw the light on the skin of the tent slowly disperse, his eyes holding onto the last blue of light, hearing the drop of wind into windlessness and then hearing the swerve of the hawks as their wings thudded. And all the delicate noises of the air.
He feels all the winds of the world have been sucked into Asia. He steps away from the many small bombs of his career towards a bomb the size, it seems, of a city, so vast it lets the living witness the death of the population around them. He knows nothing about the weapon. Whether it was a sudden assault of metal and explosion or if boiling air scoured itself towards and through anything human. All he knows is, he feels he can no longer let anything approach him, cannot eat the food or even drink from a puddle on a stone bench on the terrace. He does not feel he can draw a match out of his bag and fire the lamp, for he believes the lamp will ignite everything. In the tent, before the light evaporated, he had brought out the photograph of his family and gazed at it. His name is Kirpal Singh and he does not know what he is doing here.
He stands now under the trees in the August heat, untur-banned, wearing only a kurta. He carries nothing in his hands, just walks alongside the outline of hedges, his bare feet on the grass or on terrace stone or in the ash of an old bonfire. His body alive in its sleeplessness, standing on the edge of a great valley of Europe.
In the early morning she sees him standing beside the tent. During the evening she had watched for some light among the trees. Each of them in the villa had eaten alone that night, the Englishman eating nothing. Now she sees the sapper’s arm sweep out and the canvas walls collapse on themselves like a sail. He turns and comes towards the house, climbs the steps onto the terrace and disappears.
In the chapel he moves past the burned pews towards the apse, where under a tarpaulin weighted down with branches is the motorbike. He begins dragging the covering off the machine. He crouches down by the bike and begins nuzzling oil into the sprockets and cogs.
When Hana comes into the roofless chapel he is sitting there leaning his back and head against the wheel.
He says nothing, looking through her.
Kip, it’s me. What did we have to do with it?
He is a stone in front of her.
She kneels down to his level and leans forward into him, the side of her head against his chest, holding herself like that.
A beating heart.
When his stillness doesn’t alter she rolls back onto her knees.
The Englishman once read me something, from a book: “Love is so small it can tear itself through the eye of a needle.”
He leans to his side away from her, his face stopping a few inches from a rain puddle.
A boy and a girl.
While the sapper unearthed the motorcycle from under the tarpaulin, Caravaggio leaned forward on the parapet, his chin against his forearm. Then he felt he couldn’t bear the mood of the house and walked away. He wasn’t there when the sapper gunned the motorbike to life and sat on it while it half bucked, alive under him, and Hana stood nearby.
Singh touched her arm and let the machine roll away, down the slope, and only then revved it to life.
Halfway down the path to the gate, Caravaggio was waiting for him, carrying the gun. He didn’t even lift it formally towards the motorbike when the boy slowed down, as Caravaggio walked into his path. Caravaggio came up to him and put his arms around him. A great hug. The sapper felt the stubble against his skin for the first time. He felt drawn in, gathered into the muscles. “I shall have to learn how to miss you,” Caravaggio said. Then the boy pulled away and Caravaggio walked back to the house.
The machine broke into life around him. The smoke of the Triumph and dust and fine gravel fell away through the trees. The bike leapt the cattle grid at the gates, and then he was weaving down out of the village, passing the smell of gardens on either side of him that were tacked onto the slopes in their treacherous angle.
His body slipped into a position of habit, his chest parallel with, almost touching, the petrol tank, his arms horizontal in the shape of least resistance. He went south, avoiding Florence completely. Through Greve, across to Montevarchi and Ambra, small towns ignored by war and invasion. Then, as the new hills appeared, he began to climb the spine of them towards Cortona.
He was travelling against the direction of the invasion, as if rewinding the spool of war, the route no longer tense with military. He took only roads he knew, seeing the familiar castle towns from a distance. He lay static on the Triumph as it burned under him in its tear along the country roads. He carried little, all weapons left behind. The bike hurled through each village, not slowing for town or memory of war. “The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage.”
She opened up his knapsack. There was a pistol wrapped in oilskin, so that its smell was released when she uncovered it. Toothbrush and tooth powder, pencil sketches in a notebook, including a drawing of her—she was sitting on the terrace and he had been looking down from the Englishman’s room. Two turbans, a bottle of starch. One sapper lamp with its leather straps, to be worn in emergencies. She flicked it on and the knapsack filled with crimson light.
In the side pockets she found pieces of equipment to do with bomb disposal, which she didn’t wish to touch. Wrapped up in another small piece of cloth was the metal spile she had given him, which was used for tapping maple sugar out of a tree in her country.
From within the collapsed tent she unearthed a portrait that must have been of his family. She held the photograph in her palm. A Sikh and his family.
An older brother who was only eleven in this picture. Kip beside him, eight years old. “When the war came my brother sided with whoever was against the English.”
There was also a small handbook that had a map of bombs. And a drawing of a saint accompanied by a musician.
She packed everything back in except the photograph, which she held in her free hand. She carried the bag through the trees, walked across the loggia and brought it into the house.
Each hour or so he slowed to a stop, spat into the goggles and wiped dust off with the sleeve of his shirt. He looked into the map again. He would go to the Adriatic, then south. Most of the troops were at the northern borders.
He climbed into Cortona, the high-pitched gunning of the bike all around him. He rode the Triumph up the steps to the door of the church and then walked in. A statue was there, bandaged in scaffold. He wanted to get closer to the face, but he had no rifle telescope and his body felt too stiff to climb up the construction pipes. He wandered around underneath like somebody unable to enter the intimacy of a home. He walked the bike down the church steps, and then coasted down through the shattered vineyards and went on to Arezzo.
At Sansepolcro he took a winding road into the mountains, into their mist, so he had to slow to minimal speed. The Bocca Trabaria. He was cold but locked the weather out of his mind. Finally the road rose above the whiteness, the mist a bed behind him. He skirted Urbino where the Germans had burned all the field horses of the enemy. They had fought here in this region for a month; now he slid through in minutes, recognizing only the Black Madonna shrines. The war had made all the cities and towns similar.
He came down towards the coast. Into Gabicce Mare, where he had seen the Virgin emerge from the sea. He slept on the hill, overlooking cliff and water, near where the statue had been taken. That was the end of his first day.
Dear Clara—Dear Maman,
Maman is a French word, Clara, a circular word, suggesting cuddles, a personal word that can be even shouted in public. Something as comforting and as eternal as a barge. Though you, in spirit, I know are still a canoe. Can swerve one around and enter a creek in seconds. Still independent. Still private. Not a barge responsible for all around you. This is my first letter in years, Clara, and I am not used to the formality of them. I have spent the last few months living with three others, and our talk has been slow, casual. I am not used to talking in any way but that now.