This morning I kissed Jasmine goodbye as though it were a normal day, as though it were not the last time. Perhaps after all I held her a little too long, for she squirmed away from me, embarrassed. I stood and watched her run to meet her friends, her small pink rucksack bobbing on her back, the sheer beauty of her limbs a blow to my heart. Later this afternoon she will play basketball, lead her team in the home match wearing the kit I had no need to remind her to pack. She is a capable girl, has inner resources on which to draw. I think she is a survivor.
As arranged, I am the first to arrive. Beneath me the city bathes in autumnal sunshine but behind the sealed windows of the hotel room the air is cool. My bird’s-eye view from the fourteenth floor—there is no thirteenth—warps my perception, lends the streets a swoony unfamiliar aspect. Sunlight dazzles the windows of the multi-storey opposite, bounces off the slowly moving traffic; my gaze can find no settled point. A movement at the far corner of my vision draws my attention. In the heart of this city of concrete and glass, among the international banks and coffee chains below, a municipal park harbours a playground where children craft a random choreography of play. Anxious, I strain to distinguish a face, to differentiate one child from another, but the gulf between us is too great. Rendered flat and abstract by distance, by silence, the children seem scarcely human.
A vertiginous shift of blood in the head unmoors me, sets my heart whumping; my limbs are beset by a nervy weightlessness. I remove my shoes in order to feel the deep pile beneath my feet as I cross the anonymous room, skirt the blank white bed where I shall not sleep. Aiming the remote, I flick through talk shows and daytime soaps; the manufactured laughter sets my teeth on edge. I come to rest on a man setting up camp in rocky terrain. He is going to demonstrate how to make fire with flint and steel. The affable heavy- limbed man is a regular on television, always attired in some version of the colour green. Today he is wearing khaki shorts and walking boots, with thick olive-coloured socks. He looks like a giant boy-scout.
With the wood shavings he has collected, the man starts to assemble the makings of a fire, crouching on beefy knees. Now we viewers must ignore the presence of the camera, and subscribe to the fiction that he has no matches or lighter at his disposal. Already he has told us about the importance of the flint which must be very sharp. I file away this information for future use; then remember that I have no more need of it.
From his rucksack the man extracts an implement called a steel, which must be strong enough to resist the pressure of the flint. Suppose, I wonder, finding yourself alone and exposed, you do not happen to have a steel in your rucksack, or indeed a rucksack—what then? My mind dwells distractedly on images of plane wrecks on frozen wastes; debris strewn across the snow, down bleak mountainsides. On stranded passengers forced in extremis to eat human flesh.
I am standing vacant in the middle of the hotel room, still in my coat. This is not good. Stashing my coat in the wardrobe, I heave my rucksack carefully onto the special stand reserved for luggage, stare at it for an instant, feel my stomach lurch. I inspect the fridge, study the mini-bar, but choose to forego the drink that would steady my nerves. I have not touched alcohol for over a year. The man on the television is talking about the char cloth, which will be used to start the fire. In order to make such cloth you must pack a small airtight tin (a tinder box!) with small pieces of linen, drill a hole in the top and place it on hot coals for twenty minutes or more. Once it has cooled completely, it must be left for several hours before opening, otherwise it will combust.
Jasmine at this very moment may be opening her lunchbox, peering inside to assess the contents. I hope she will notice with what care I have packed her favourite items: pita bread and humus, paper-thin slices of mild cheddar, green olives, a miniature packet of raisins, the crisp mini-apple for her teeth. She is a healthy girl, will grow up tall and strong in a land where such things are the norm. I give thanks for this, but cannot close my eyes, as others do, to those less fortunate. To see clearly is a moral duty.
Drawn back to the television, I see the man in green has removed the char cloth from his tin and holds the blackened pieces in his palm for our perusal. I am aware of a niggling doubt regarding this cloth, which resides in the problem of how one is to start a fire in the wild with this essential item, when one lacks the benefit of fire to prepare it. Perhaps the man travels always with a ready-to-hand supply in that bulky green rucksack he carries, along with his steel.
Last night, before packing my own weighty rucksack, I performed a final dress rehearsal: tried on the loaded vest, checked the connecting wires, the cylinders, the red detonator; went over in my mind the sequence of events. My heart flips into overdrive, I hear my own accelerated breathing. I force myself to sit up straight and take a few moments to collect myself, return my gaze to the television, concentrate hard on the man at his task.
It occurs to me that, in the event of a disaster, the ability to rub two sticks together might prove a more expedient method for making fire. I do not speak from ignorance. I have read and memorised the ins and outs of catastrophes that may conspire to overtake me, have rehearsed escape procedures, such as: play dead if a bear attacks; climb a tree in the presence of lions; run at speed from a swarm of bees. I am aware of the necessity for calmness after a snake bite; have memorised the way to condense water in the desert with a plastic bag and a stone; learned to avoid tall trees in a storm; in the event of a shipwreck, to float on my back in open sea. So many hours I wasted on such things.
This man knows his way around a wilderness or two. I have great faith in his abilities; he is a resourceful man, an expert in survival. He is a man who, it turns out, could recklessly dispense with all need of char cloth and simply make fire with tinder, should he decide to do so, though with difficulty. This reassures me somewhat.
Nevertheless, today, in the wilderness, he makes use of this material, along with a small quantity of dry grass, which luckily grows abundantly close by. With a good handful, the man proceeds to form a nest, on top of which he lays a small piece of the blackened cloth. Now he must strike the flint so that the minute sliver of metal thus generated will burn and fall on the charred linen.
When I watched the video footage of a long-range missile strike, there was no sound as the explosion occurred. Viewing the event from an aerial perspective, I experienced a troubling sense of detachment—it could have been a video game. The seconds ticked by in one corner of the screen so I knew the precise moment when the unmanned drone struck. The only sounds accompanying the footage were the detached male voices of the unseen pilots safe on the ground, perhaps thousands of miles away, who were tracking the action in real time. They could be heard requesting permission to fire; they spoke of targets, of individuals, of engagement; not of killing. After their day’s work, they go home to their children.
Tonight Jasmine will sleep in her father’s house. He is a good man; I could not wish a better father for my child, and it pains me to deceive him. It is only that he could not follow where I led and I must of necessity leave him behind. At eight o’clock this evening he will stretch out on the bunk-bed with my daughter and she will choose the tattered, well-loved book and hear again the story of Pippi, the little girl who can take care of herself. He will read to her until her eyes begin to close, her breathing slows and, though he tries to fend off sleep, his own eyelids start to droop. I bless them both and hope that one day they will understand.
A moment passes, or several, I cannot tell. Now the survival expert is kneeling among scrubby weeds. His muscled arms bulge as he holds the flint over the char cloth and strikes downward several times with the steel. Anxiously, I eye the screen; this is surely taking longer than it should. The man explains that it is best to make fire in a good wind, but that today there is no wind. I absorb this information, study the leaves of the trees for movement.
When the drone lets loose its firepower there is no going back; it is a matter of seconds before the target is hit. Alone in the hotel room I replay the internet footage in my head. From an elevated distance I see in grainy monochrome the isolated village coming into view; the zoning in on micro-figures moving across the landscape. The strange silence at the scene. The quiet almost gentle puff of smoke as the missile explodes, the plume rising into the air and spreading, the toy houses collapsing into dust. It is a clean way to kill, the enemy annihilated at the press of a button, and accomplished without military casualties—the ultimate escape procedure. It is called precision bombing.
Only later when the film crew arrives is the ‘collateral damage’ exposed; only then do we see the dead children. The flak-jacketed journalist is there to interview the bereaved, the maimed, addressing them in English as convention demands, though they answer in a foreign tongue. And, all the while, the camera tracks slowly among the demented mothers, the old men dumb with grief; zooms in for a close-up of the bodies wrapped in white linen, lying in rows like miniature mummies.
Without taking my eyes from the television, I sit on the end of the bed and watch the camera slowly closing in on the survival expert’s hands. Am held in suspension as he continues to strike the flint against the steel, generating plenty of sparks, he assures us, but as yet no fire. Until at last a spark catches and a thin wisp of smoke begins to rise. His large red hands are surprisingly dexterous as he folds the nest of kindling carefully around the smouldering cloth. Steady, as mine must be.
The man in green now has my full attention. Cradling the kindling in his hands, he holds the bundle aloft and proceeds to blow gently upon it. Against the smoke his eyes squint, but mine are fixed intently upon him; I hardly dare to breathe. It is a matter of seconds before I see a flame begin to lick the kindling. Now the man must lay the bundle carefully among the wood shavings. In an instant, they are aflame. He adds more twigs, leans back on his heels and allows himself a discreet smile of muted triumph. The tension leaves my shoulders and I release my withheld breath. I switch off the television and wait calmly for the others to arrive.