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Boredom, or, the yellow trousers.

Thackeray bought the trousers on the merest of impulses. He hadn't supposed--up to the moment he spotted the other Westerner through the windscreen of his rented Chevy Caprice, fifty yards down the road and crossing to his parked car--that he was in need of another pair of trousers. But something about the cut and colour of the fellow's pants, or the way the material fell (both men were much the same build), had him pulling up beside the wearer as he was stepping into his own car.

'I say, I don't know this town and I wonder if you'd tell me where a chap can get a pair of trousers like the ones you've got on?'

An amused frown touched the other's face, which was evidently neither English nor American: the frown was Gallic--as also was his Peugeot.

'Excusez-moi,' Thackeray pursued instantly, 'Vous etes Francais? Je viens de visiter Al Khobar. Je ne connais pas la ville. J'ai besoin d'un pantalon. Et si peut-etre vous avez acheter le votre ici en ville ...'

'I understand,' replied the other in Thackeray's native tongue. 'I will show you. Follow me.'

The young Frenchman--he could give Thackeray twenty years--started up, lowered his windows to release the intense late-morning heat until the air-conditioner took effect, and led the Caprice at a spanking rate into King Abdulaziz Boulevard, hung a U-ey at the first lights, filtered right onto Pepsi Road, and all the way down to the Gulf foreshore, and just short of the Hotel Meridien swung right again along the Corniche. They had covered a good mile from their starting point before the Peugeot swung right again into a lane behind Tamimi Safeways--searching. At last the two vehicles came to a halt across from an undistinguished shop-front bearing the sign 'Tawfiq' in Arabic and scimitar-shaped Roman lettering.

Thackeray's guide stabbed the air with his finger through the open window of his car, and drove off.

The impulse to buy a new pair of trousers had already virtually evaporated. Thackeray had two or three weeks more in this hot part of the world, looking up old contacts and reminding local presidents of international companies, his clutch of millionaire sheikhs and semi-Westernised princes of the unrivalled services provided by the global investigative corporation that retained him. Then he'd be home to his own acres in north Lancashire--his dogs, his ancestral house, his taut marriage--and to his fading, leggy mistress in London. Besides the pair of tropical suits he took with him on these Middle Eastern jaunts, he had packed one pair of lightweight slacks for informal wear. These he now wore. He couldn't honestly pretend he needed another.

Even so, here he was, having crossed half the town. The shopkeeper--Tawfiq?--behind the glass of the shop's entrance--had already been alerted by the gesticulation of the young frog, his past customer. Thackeray felt obliged to look in.

The door pinged. The premises proved rather deeper than the narrow shop-front implied. It was evident that the owner had secured a franchise for men's wear of a well-known Italian line.

Thackeray opened without enthusiasm. 'I was looking around for some trousers.'

There were just the two of them: the elegant Englishman, tall in his blue-grey open-necked shirt and linen jacket, and the shopkeeper: a bit squat, imperfectly shaved in cheap slacks and a shirt from the souk, not the white thobe and headcloth of the local Saudis; one of the ubiquitous Levantine tradesmen, presumably, that littered the Gulf. Something was amiss with his face, Thackeray saw, an off-putting tic.

'We have a collection here,' the man said, indicating the hanging rack down one wall of the showroom. 'What is the size?'

It was years since Thackeray had bought a pair of trousers off-the-peg. What was he doing in a shop like this? The long legs of his breed, not to say breeding, weren't catered for by manufacturers. Ready-made meant trouble. If the length was right, the fork came half way to his knees; or if the fork suited his crotch, the trouser legs seemed to finish halfway up his shins. He had been looked after all his life by the same tailors as his father. They had made all his regimental kit in his Brigade of Guards days, and since then his civilian clothes. They occupied premises in Savile Row, and despite repeated amalgamation with rivals in that besieged zone of craftsmanship remained the real thing. The cutter there, now over eighty, still called him 'Mr Jan' instead of 'M'Lord,' even though Thackeray's father had been dead twelve years.

'What would you say?' Thackeray asked the man.

'Thurty-two, thurty-four,' the shopkeeper speculated at his waist. 'Thurty-two.'

The man extracted from the rack trousers of various shades. Sure enough they were of the same style and cloth as those worn by the Frenchie. But Thackeray was unable to recall the exact yellow--or was it dun?--which had caught his eye and given him that sharp certainty that he would feel right in them. It was a sexual thing, he was aware. It was time to find himself a new woman, and to do that he always needed to feel right. For several months now that precise 'rightness' had evaded him. This was obscurely troubling, affecting the very core of him. Could it be a matter of libido? He had tired of his current mistress: that was reasonable. Yet might he have grown tired of the sheer pursuit of women? That was little short of horrifying. Hence this illogicality--inspecting off-the-peg trousers in a backstreet Arab shop halfway across the world.

He picked a darkish yellow. He did like the stuff, dense but smooth, almost silky, some sort of cotton-nylon mix. And cut baggy, rucked at the waist and with deep pockets--more a la mode than the pair he wore right now, hanging on his arse.

'What are you asking?'

'Asking?' Again the tic. 'Price is four hundred eighty. American Express okay.'

This was given with an air of conspiracy as if the price offered was a concession to a real fellow-insider. Yet there was nothing between the two men--the debonair English milord, of a mature authority, washed up in this God-forsaken Gulf port on behalf of the world's largest investigative corporation, and this short, swart young Arab with his unfortunate mannerism.

'Try them,' the Arab said, lifting them up. 'From Italy. Fresh. They will please.'

Four hundred and eighty riyals. Eighty quid. For all Thackeray knew he could pick up the identical garment for half the price in any of the big shops in Piccadilly or Regent Street. Not that they would ever fit.

'Try them,' the shopkeeper repeated, holding them against his customer, then drawing him away to the cubicle. 'Take time.'

Time he did have, that was undeniable. In the previous two days he had been stood up by two big conglomerate sheikhs and a prince. He had no appointment for the morning at all. Of course, a good half of his role with his corporation was to hang around. Was he not largely kept on, with his modest retainer, to spread the word about the group's formidable array of services among those who might be able to afford them? Such services ranged from persuading people who had defaulted on deals--often of a private nature--and failed to meet their obligations, to the extraction of information, also financial, which for all sorts of strange reasons certain people standing to benefit preferred to keep hidden (so ran the spiel). To illustrate the latter: lawyers, representing a wife faced with divorce and a nugatory alimony calculated on the basis of her spouse's admitted wealth, might wish to have revealed to them the actual, unaudited treasure or income of the would-be divorcer. Or again, certain parties might be interested in knowing the actual extent, plus who the recipients were, of payola on the massive defence and infrastructural contracts awarded in this highly secretive, prince-ridden oil-rich part of the globe.

Investigative work as such was none of Thackeray's role: that was for the rough boys, the ex-CIA operatives or--much the most effective of all the Middle East at prizing out the truth or the cash, with their confident Arabic and quick-change indentities--the former Mossad agents. The Israelis surely knew how to train their undercover men. Lord Thackeray had the entre--or so he persuaded his American masters--from his earlier Arabian days with the British Military Mission. And in the land of princes, it was the (perhaps facile) assumption in New York that an inherited English title opened doors.

If the retainer amounted to nothing too spectacular, the mysteriousness of this undercover role added an aura of glamour to Thackeray's existence that assisted in his primary interest in life and the natural calling of a gentleman, namely adultery. A few weeks' periodic abstinence on the Middle Eastern circuit served as a rule to sharpen the libido. Yet in this respect he had lately disappointed himself.

He came out of the cubicle in the dark yellow trousers and stockinged feet.

'Four eighty,' he declared, 'is far too much. And these things are really too long. I'm not at all sure this is going to work out.'

'Four hundred,' the shopkeeper said quickly. 'Last price.' In a trice the fellow was on his knees, tugging at the trouser-legs, to have them hang as naturally as they would.

'Put on the shoes.'

Thackeray complied. They were shoes he particularly liked, a very pale, almost white suede with brown leather piping around the flaps of the last when brown laces were threaded. A devil to clean. They had been made to his own design by Lobb's of St James's. The trouser ends rucked up over the uppers.

'Still too long,' Thackeray said. 'Why not admit it, old man?'

Half of him wished to be shot of the whole deal, get out of the place and back to the villa the friend of a friend had lent him, for a swim and top-up to the suntan before lunch. And yet, maybe these trousers didn't look so bad on him--the dark yellow against the blue-grey of his voile shirt.

'It is the fashion,' the shopkeeper insisted, 'long.' Again nipping at the cloth. 'My tailor take away one centimetre, maybe two. Maleesh. If you really want.'

He snapped his fingers and from behind a curtain at the end of the shop a dark Indian suddenly materialized, with a tape measure around his shoulders. Both stood back to inspect their pale customer in his fashionably over-long Italian breeks.

'Almost perfect,' the shopkeeper said.

'Vaist,' the Indian said. 'Permit me.' He stepped forward and ran his fingers under the waistband in both directions, slightly lifting the level of the trousers. 'You not wear a belt, sir?" he said stepping back. 'For these trousers, a belt.'

He tilted his head quizzically, viewing the full length of the trousers. One brown hand came up and fixed a little span between forefinger and thumb. 'One centimetre,' he said. 'Maybe.' The head tilted the other way.

No sooner had the trousers been removed and taken away for alteration behind the scenes than loudspeakers began summoning the faithful to midday worship of Allah in a mounting fugue of braying from all over the town. The shopkeeper moved swiftly to the glass entrance, locked it, yanked down the blinds, and switched off the shop window lights.

Thackeray was familiar enough with the country's obsessive prayer-time regulations to know that he was trapped in this damn shop for the full half-hour duration of the midday salah.

This was more than he had bargained for in the pursuit of a sartorial boost to his intimate self-esteem. The little imp of vanity, his Puck, had caught him out. If desire for his current mistress was faltering it was not, presumably, on account of any running down of his own virile energies but because he was bored with her. Any gent has a right to be bored by his lover. Yet could he be sure it was merely boredom? Only a fresh conquest would satisfy on that particular score. Hence indirectly (he again skirted the thought) the attraction of these dark yellow trousers.

He settled down resignedly in one of the two stiff, upright armchairs to sit out this tedious ritual of obligatory shutting shop for prayer-time.

'American?'

Oh dear--this shopkeeper was bent on conversation.

'Actually, English.'

'English good. Me, I am Palestine.'

The tic brushed the face like a passing shadow, leaving in the eyes an intensity of guilt, or possibly fear. The fellow drew a business card off the counter and presented it to his customer with a flourish of hopeless self-assertion.

Boredom was ever Thackeray's liability and already he was helplessly cornered by it. He only hoped the Indian in the back room was a Christian like himself and would be getting on with his alterations instead of bobbing up and down to Mecca behind his partition. He frowned at the card in his hand. 'Yusef Arawi,' he read, 'Manager. Tawfiq Est.'

Yusef Arawi was looking at him with his haunted guilt.

'You have the business card?'

Thackeray reluctantly drew his wallet from the inner pocket of his linen jacket and extracted a card. On it was printed 'Jan Makepeace Thackeray' across the middle, with the name of the organization he represented beneath. In the corner, in smaller type, there appeared 'The Lord Thackeray' and the address of his ancestral home in northern Lancashire.

Yusef studied it carefully.

'Jan Makepeace,' he read aloud. 'I think the name Jan is not English.'

'Dutch,' Jan said. 'Hollandi. It is pronounced Yan.'

'Why Hollandi?'

'During the war in Europe there was a famous Hollandi underground leader who was taken by the Nazi Germans and they tortured him and killed him. My father worked with him and admired him. I was named after him.'

'I understand,' Yusef nodded. 'Why they torture him?'

'To make him give away his friends.'

'Did he give away his friends?'

'No. That was why he was a hero to my father. Maybe he owed his life to that man. Without the original Jan I wouldn't have been born.'

'Why they kill him?'

'Probably they just took the torture too far. We don't exactly know how he died. But we caught the SS man responsible and executed him.' He sometimes wondered if the inherited image of Jan Niewenhuys was a source of his own attraction to the kind of undercover operations he was engaged on during his army career and subsequently.

'I was also tortured,' Yusef said simply.

'Oh really? Where?'

'You cannot guess?'

'Do I have to guess?' He wondered why the little man supposed he might care.

'My home town. Nablus. You know Nablus?'

'I can't say I've been to Nablus. A town in Palestine--that I know.' Every now and then Nablus broke into the news with a bomb blast or its Palestinian mayor arrested.

'My home town,' Yusef repeated.

'Who tortured you?'

There were worse ways of killing time than by chatting to this back street Al Khobar shop manager--this tormented economic refugee picking up a mean wage from some tightfisted indolent Saudi. It faintly intrigued him that anyone could have so miscast him as a salesman of sharp Italian male couture.

Yet the man had failed to answer the question. All Thackeray was receiving in return was the fellow's wild, hunted gaze and the raiding tic.

Thackeray repeated his query.

'You don't know?' Yusef said at length.

'Well, I suppose the Israelis.'

Yusef's response was the merest raising of the eyebrows. A finger went involuntarily to his face--not the index finger but the third and fourth finger, as if to tap some slight tension from its surface in the region of the cheek below the eye, where Thackeray could perceive scar tissue. The little gesture did seem for the moment to exorcise the tic.

'Why?' Thackeray said.

'Why? Exactly! It is their practice. The secret police. I know nothing. I was a student. I did not do politics. Not PLO, not Hamas, not anything. I was studying the literature--Arabic literature at Aleppo, in Syria. I was twenty years of age. I was on vacation at my home, the home of my father and my mother and my brother and my sister. They came in the night and took me. Why?'

'Maybe your father ... your brother ...'

'My father, nothing. A villager. My brother, a child.'

'You said you came from Nablus.'

'Our village beside Nablus.'

'They must have had some information.' Thackeray was a solid admirer of Israeli intelligence, the Mossad professionals.

'There was no information. It was a mirage. I know nothing. What can I tell them, if I know nothing? For them, they can do whatever they like. Torture me, finish me. Like the friend of your father. If I know some things--if I do not know, what difference? If I live, if I die, what difference? It is their practice.'

'What was it they did to you?'

'They put my head under the hood. Sixty-five days. My hands they tied in this method--' Yusef imitated handcuffed wrists. 'Every day they put question, question and question. Under the hood. One fellow, hitting me with his fists. I know nothing. What can I tell them?

'Then they said, "One day you will wish to marry and have the children. You care about that?" They took off the hood and showed me the electrical wires ...'

'Leads--'

'Exactly. Electrical leads.'

Thackeray was experiencing an obscure sense of nausea. The proper functioning of his old man was central to his view of himself. It was presumably so of every male, even a backstreet immigrant Palestinian salesman.

'So what happened?'

'They open my trousers and put the leads on my private members with tape. They said again, "You are a young man, one day you will want the wife. One day you will want the children. All we need is answers to our questions." What can I tell them? I still know nothing. I am fainted. It is terrible. I wish to die.'

The gaze with which Yusef now fixed the Englishman was inexplicably free of guilt and fear and the sweeping tic, and instead full of a pleading innocence.

Jan Thackeray, fourth baron, boulevardier, lover of many women, was not unaffected. He had a horror of impotence. His mouth was a little dry.

'And?' he prompted.

The little man was again unaccountably silent. In due course, all he did was to flatten his palms face downwards and splay his fingers.

'After,' he added at length, 'they take me from my cell and into a room and open the hood. Many people were there. One was my brother. I did not know him.'

'Your brother? Why?'

'My own brother. He was seventeen. I did not know him.'

'Had they beaten him up?'

'No. No. Just I did not know him. My mind, they had broken it. For those minutes, I did not recognise him. Then I know it was by brother, because he was weeping for me.'

Thackeray was disturbed, at the very roots of his view of himself. To his own private parts a sense of emasculation had penetrated.

'And so?'

'They released me.'

'But I mean--' He couldn't risk his question outright, not with the man gazing. 'I mean ... how long ago was all that? Ten years?'

'Eleven.'

'You finished the course in Arabic literature?'

The man nodded.

'And you came here.'

He was still nodding. Thackeray allowed a suitable pause.

'You have a wife and children and home?'

'I have a wife.'

Thackeray supposed the woman was back in Nablus receiving her monthly remittance from this wage-slave in Al Khobar. It was a familiar state of affairs.

'I too have a wife,' he said, still in pursuit of what he needed to know. 'And a couple of brats.'

'Brats?'

'Kids. Children.'

'I do not have the children,' Yusef said. 'They were not playing. They destroy this for me.'

Thackeray now caught a ferocity in the little man's gaze--a hopeless anger at the wanton penalty of his crippling. A shaft of unexpected pity pierced him.

From the nearest mosque they could hear, amplified, the imam's muttered invocations to Allah's mercy and the congregation's responding Ameen.

Thackeray said, 'You have my sincerest sympathy, old man, if they--er--did you damage in that department ...'

'Department?'

'Women,' said Thackeray. 'Ladies.'

When the trousers were at last ready, shortened by a centimetre in the leg, Thackeray slipped them on again. It seemed to him that they broke satisfactorily on the uppers of his pale suedes and looked so generally debonair that he decided to keep them on. He passed Yusef the other pair to bag up when he paid the bill. By and large, he was gratified by his purchase. He 'felt right'.

Since, following the midday Call to Prayer, the shop was closed till half past four, Yusef left with his customer, locking up behind him. Outside in the street, the heat him them like a mallet. Thackeray asked Yusef if he had a car.

'My car was taken,' he answered. 'Last week. By the thief.'

'That's terrible. I'll run you home.'

'No problem,' said Yusef.

'Of course I will, my dear chap.' Thackeray was insistent. He'd developed a soft spot for the fellow. 'I have no appointment until this evening.'

So in his hired Caprice he drove Yusef inland through the own to the latest suburban sprawl of Thuqba. Most of the population was taking early refuge from the intense heat. The district consisted of modest villas, squat apartment blocks and a complement of small stores of workshops. Driver and passenger alike deplored the epidemic of burglary and the crumbling of morality in a community formerly so disciplined. Yusef fingered his beads. Local youth, he said, were being fed a daily diet of crime and sex by satellite television beamed from the West.

'Oh we do have things to answer for,' Thackeray deprecated. 'Yet one would be mistaken in supposing that all the violence and shenanigans with women represent real life in the Western world. How will you get around without a car?'

'My friend will bring his van.'

They pulled up outside a solid iron gate set into a white wall, surmounted by bougainvillea.

'You will take lunch with me,' Yusef said with this characteristic directness.

Thackeray's immediate instinct was to decline, not least on account of the food that might be on offer. But he had been careless enough to have spoken of his lack of engagements and no immediate excuse came to mind.

'I am really putting too much on you, Yusef,' he said.

'It will be my pleasure. Also of my wife. Truly, I insist.'

The presence of the wife--this particular wife, a central aspect of whose marital situation Thackeray was already privy to--aroused his curiosity. He presumed her to have been left in Palestine.

'It's very good of you.'

Beyond the iron gate, Yusef led his guest across a paved marble yard, reflecting the harsh sun. They entered a small single-storey villa. As he was conducted into the living room, Thackeray heard Yusef announcing their arrival in Arabic. The mean room opened out through French windows onto the marble yard. The room contained a goldfish tank along one wall, three or four embroidered pictures of snowy mountains and virid valleys framed in mother-of-pearl inlaid into teak, and a suite of furniture of which the little tables were covered with elaborately flowered muslin cloths and doilies. Various Arabic magazines for women were evident.

Yusef moved to close the French windows and switch on the air-conditioning.

'Don't do that for me, Yusef,' Thackeray said. 'It'd be nicer open.'

Yusef's wife entered carrying a cat--a slightly built young woman, sallow, with her hair entirely concealed by a grayish cotton scarf. Thackeray supposed his presence had called forth this scarf. Otherwise she was dressed in the European manner, in a simple shift reaching to the knees, nylons, and slippers. A gold chain hung around her neck, which seemed incongruous with the shrouding headscarf.

'This is my wife,' said Yusef. 'Leila, this is Mr Jan.'

'Yan,' Thackeray corrected easily.

'Mr Yan came to my shop to buy the trousers.'

Leila regarded the elegant yellow trousers and, releasing the cat, held out a shy hand. Everything about her was shy--the little smile, the large liquid kohl-circled eyes, which had dutifully contemplated Thackeray's trousers but avoided his eye, and the full-sleeved shift hanging freely from a deep bosom.

The meal was taken in the living room, at the largest of the tables. A vase of plastic roses was placed in front of Thackeray, who was persuaded to sit between the couple at the head of the table. The principal dish was spicy chicken stew, eaten with rice, flat bread and pickles. This was followed by a dollop of blancmange tasting to Thackeray like talcum powder.

'You feel it like the home,' said Yusef proudly. The tic brushed his face. Thackeray beamed courteously.

Leila meanwhile, albeit shyly, showed that she too had mastered a little English at school in the 'Occupied West Bank', as they both referred to homeland. Each time she offered a remark, she would glance at her husband as if to corroborate both the substance of her contribution and her choice of primitive English. It was a sweetly feminine performance, Thackeray thought, in such contrast to the assertive females of his own world in England. Here was a woman bred to suppose her man stood beyond criticism and beyond complaint--even to the degree of his being barred from giving her children--provided only that he acknowledge her as his, for him to do with her as he would and to accept her readiness to please.

During the course of the mean, the sexual premise of the Arab attitude to the married relationship struck him--for the first time--as scarcely less than flagrant. They were all three here in a country where women were forbidden to drive motor vehicles. What inner motive for that absurdity could there be but sexual? A woman may not roam. She belonged to her fellow--a fleshly chattel. If a woman of this country committed adultery, Thackeray was well aware, her own family had the right to kill her, and not infrequently did--since she had betrayed the sexual sanctity of women's unconditional compliance to her given man, on which all family honour and society itself rested. Thackeray found these private reflections stimulating, in his new trousers. Yet these people, of course, were mere Palestinians, half-Westernised, or it would never have been socially possible for him to have been sitting here at table with the man and his wife.

He saw to it that the talk pushed along easily enough, enquiring about their own lives yet avoiding topics that might lead back to regions of pain. He told them just enough about himself to allow a sense of reciprocity and comradeship. He flattered them both by his interest in them; indeed, he was not unaware that his very presence flattered them. He precisely judged his appreciativeness of Leila's cooking and of their villa, its vulgar pictures and its garish aquarium. He was affectionate to the cat (he did not like cats). He established the exactly appropriate measure of complicity with them by ridiculing the Saudis' materialistic swank and moral arrogance. 'We foreigners,' he spoke of, bracketing himself with this Yusef and Leila.

In short, he charmed them.

Jan Thackeray's charm was at once gratifying and a snare--a snare to himself. At times he would marvel at this charm, its apparently unerring effectiveness when he chose to exert it. It could leave him with a sinister emptiness. Aware of its falseness, its adaptability to all occasions, its power to secure what are commonly accepted as the most valued rewards of life, he simultaneously treasured and despised this core gift. From a certain point of view, its infallibility contained the dreaded seeds of boredom.

'American coffee,' as Yusef chose to call it, was served. His guest asked if he might take it outside to the patio yard, partly now in dappled shade cast by the bougainvillea. Thackeray had a notion to top up the suntan he intended to return home with. A good tan made the best of his weathered ruggedness and his grizzled hair, still mercifully thick. A small circular white table already stood in the patio. As he himself carried out a high-backed plastic chair, he found himself following the narrow feminine back of Leila who was bearing a cup of coffee in each hand. He settled his chair in reach of the little white table, where the sunlight would neither burn nor neglect him. He slipped his linen jacket over the back of the chair and opened one more button of his blue-grey voile shirt before reaching for his cup. Yusef brought out a second chair to place on the other side of the table, took a sip of coffee, and disappeared back into the house. In a surprisingly few minutes, Thackeray had dropped into sleep.

He was awoken by the tapping of a loudspeaker's microphone. The imam of the nearest mosque was about to chant his amplified midafternoon Call to Prayer. Thackeray frowned at his watch. It was soon after three-thirty. He must have slept for nearly an hour.

He was alone. The sun had moved, leaving him in complete shadow. He rose to shift his chair to where once again the bougainvillea cascading the high wall provided a dappled shade. Yusef's cup of coffee, he noticed, was gone. His own cup, only half consumed, remained where he had left it on the table. He wondered if he should drink it cold, to please his host. But he had no sooner settled than Leila appeared, carrying a coffee pot. She tossed the remains of his cup into a drain in the corner of the yard and refilled the cup which she handed to him while avoiding his eye. The charm of her figure now struck Thackeray with the familiar imperativeness: such gratuitous weight and fullness of breasts supported by so demure and slight a frame.

Over the Call to Prayer in the immediate vicinity he could hear the sound of the television coming from the living room.

Sipping his coffee, he awaited the reappearance of the shopkeeper. But Yusef did not appear. Thackeray's mind speculated idly on Leila's skills or instincts as a lover. By and large he knew the Arabs of this society to be obsessed with the sexual function. The other day an English surgeon working in the capital's military hospital had described the mind of the average soldier as a 'cerebro-penile bundle'. Women were so strictly, not to say ruthlessly, haram, untouchable and out of reach, apart of course from the selected spouse. He had scarcely so much as met an Arab woman out here, let alone slept with one. Proven adultery, he knew, was a legal offence, punished by at least five years in prison for the male and, if her own family did not do for her first, death by stoning for the woman. He had heard talk of such a stoning taking place only the previous week here in Al Khobar. As a gesture of mercy, the blindfold woman had been finished off by a judicial mechanical scoop dropping a chunk of concrete on her.

Thackeray got up from his chair and entered the living room. There was the woman with the cat in her lap, watching a cartoon film. She had removed her headscarf and, standing suddenly at his entrance, was on the point of winding it back about her head when he interrupted the movement by handing her the empty cup.

'Better without,' he said softly. She caught his eye, sidelong, with a glance of coquettish fear, before turning to re-enter the kitchen. She was one of those women who from within their mousiness can suddenly be revealed to themselves as desirable.

'Where's our Yusef?' Thackeray called. He received no answer. He moved to the kitchen doorway. 'Did Yusef go back to the shop?' It seemed hardly likely: no commercial premises reopened before about four-thirty.

'To Dammam,' the woman said. 'His friend brought the van. He did not wish to wake you.'

'Why Dammam?'

'For customs.'

Dammam was the port of this region of the coast.

'Is he returning here before he reopens Tawfiq's?'

'I cannot know.'

The look he received from her seemed to plead, What could I have possibly done to escape you? with a tremulous fear in the eyes. It was as if he had deliberately trapped her like a timid animal. The mid-prayer groaning chant of the local imam reached them both over the district-wide amplifier from the Thuqba mosque. The woman had begun to rewind the scarf around her head.

Thackeray was engaged in rapid calculation. He had no idea when Yusef had left, yet Dammam was a good twenty minutes' drive away, even in this trafficless mid-afternoon period. If Yusef was clearing a consignment of garments, the operation would surely take another twenty minutes--very likely longer; after that he must drive back to Khobar. His shop would open around four-thirty--some fifty minutes ahead.

He stood there looking at her, half filling the tiny kitchen with his size and power. He could smell her fear. Her eyes, fixed on him, presumed violation; the invitation of fear.

It was not a difficult calculation. If Yusef were to interrupt them and dare to speak of it to others, he would have lost her--the only woman, who given the damage done to him, he might ever persuade to share his life. If the woman were to admit anything, whatever the consequences for himself, she could be signing her own death warrant.

That narrow blade of danger settled the matter for Thackeray.

The seduction--it was really too swift to be called a seduction--took place in the living room, and the act itself, with an edge of savagery, on the hard floor and thin carpet of that mean room. Charm played little part. Nor were the yellow trousers actually required to drop below his knees. Though she scratched him quite severely, he was sure he left no mark on her. Damage to her clothes was negligible; he was deft enough, a master at buttons, hooks, poppers and zips. For his purpose, he liberated those breasts, tumbling them forth like blind puppies.

Afterwards he could not quite decide whether her resistance was as genuine as her gasps of astonishment, or whether it was part and parcel of her instinctive love ploy. Possibly it was both.

Whatever the truth of that, were conscience to have touched him (which it certainly did not) he would have cited as mitigation (or compensation) the gift he had bestowed in the possible fathering of a child Yusef Arawi might choose to claim as his own.

Yet conscience did not touch him; not yet. Far from it. Reassured as to the elan of his libido and for several days spared the nagging threat from life's inherent boredom, he allowed himself to speculate whether little Leila might have come across the business card he had left with her husband and thus awoken to the quality of the seed that had gained its entry.
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Title Annotation:Stories
Author:Stacey, Tom
Publication:Confrontation
Article Type:Short story
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Words:5881
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