Charles Mortimer watched the rippled brown land wheel back to horizontal. He drained the last drops from the plastic glass of Johnnie Walker the air steward had given him, and decided: that's it, no more booze for a week. Au boulot.
His former life, his real life, stitched together by the clackety-clack of the typewriter and the patter-patter of the laptop, and by the roar of jets, was coming back to him now. Once again he was baptised in the odour of jet fuel (which still made him sick), born again in the air, the medium of his real work.
They had been flying for two hours, deep into the desert. As the plane finished its turn for final approach, one of the MiGs stationed at the El Zouarte air base sliced through the desert sky like a steel meteor. His heart tightened. The old feeling came back, the feeling you almost smelled in your nose which told you this was the one, this was the right place to be, you would find what you needed here—the feeling that guided you to the front page. Enough of those blustering columns on page twelve. How good that he had returned Mohammed Ahmoud's telephone call and gone to meet him at the Wolf and Whistle, that he had got away from the little office with its blue carpet and oversize computer terminal and private fax machine–all the perks just for him, the grand old man come home to grow fat and die.
"Welcome, Mortimer of the Maghreb," a man in fatigues addressed him when he reached the bottom of the airplane steps. Mortimer squinted at the man, who was grinning broadly, by which Mortimer understood that he was to take the greeting as a joke. He chuckled back. Like his compatriot Mohammed Ahmoud back in London, the man looked like he would weigh very little. He introduced himself as Ibrahim. Mortimer noted a certain friendly roundness about his face, almost a clownishness. Men like that could be dangerous, Mortimer thought. They didn't care about anything.
"Welcome to SAR," the man said, speaking awkwardly, with excessive emphasis, as if it was difficult for him to utter each foreign letter of his spurious nation's name. He hissed on the S. The letters stood for "Saharan Arab Republic." A seriousness came over the clownish face as he pronounced them.
Mortimer followed the man towards a waiting Land Rover. As he moved across the tarmac, away from the airplane, the wind caught him unawares. It was an extraordinary wind. He had travelled a great deal—in the Pamirs, the Balkans, the Caucasus, in South Africa, the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, all the world's trouble spots over the last thirty years—but never, it seemed to him, had he known a wind like this. Strong and steady, and so hot he felt there must be some mistake, someone had left an engine running, or opened a furnace at the wrong time. It scalded his face, burnt his neck. It came from nowhere, from everywhere. Mortimer looked round. Beyond the airstrip with the one jetliner there was nothing but flat, open desert, beginning at the edge of the tarmac and stretching away for hundreds, thousands of miles.
What a place to live. It was an unfinished world, not ready for human habitation. What a place for a war. He remembered his wars being in beautiful landscapes, among valleys and mountains and rivers. You would wake up to see the dew glinting on a gun barrel and feel the sun warming your back. You would eat your porridge overlooking a gorge. Or you would hike up a trail among fir trees. Or you might be staying in some dismal concrete city but from the hotel window you could see splendid dusty mountains. This was different. A construction site with no construction, an emptiness without end.
Mortimer had been here once before, over twenty years ago, but he remembered the terrain quite differently, as a glinting plain of gravel.
The Land Rover sped off down a paved road that soon became a washboard track and finally a set of tire tracks on packed earth. Beside the tracks ran an intermittent line of old oil drums, each painted with one white stripe. Finally the jeep passed several rows of canvas tents. The rows were very long. Mortimer couldn't see how long because far away the tents disappeared over a brow. This was the "canvas city," as Mortimer had dubbed it all those years ago, where the Rio Camello guerrillas and their people lived, the vast tent home of the "Nation-in-Exile," for whose homeland they had been fighting for more than two decades.
The jeep pulled into a compound of old buildings covered in peeling yellow stucco, some French desert post from long ago. Mortimer was left in a high room with a stack of foam mattresses and a pile of blankets in one corner. He understood that he was to arrange a bed for himself, a comedown after the way he had been treated so far, in Algiers and on the flight. He pulled the top mattress off the stack and began unfolding one of the thick, hairy blankets.
A soldier interrupted him. "Venez, monsieur."
Then, not sure if Mortimer had understood, he added, smiling: "Vamonos. Yalah, yalah."
One thing about these men: they really knew how to smile at you. Desert men were the ultimate brothers. Forget old-boy camaraderie. No men knew how to befriend one another like desert men. They held hands, they hugged, they sprawled by the fire with arms draped over one another's thighs like wild animals in repose.
He followed the man down a corridor, across the compound, and into a canteen. He took a seat at a long bench, along with some fifteen or so others, most of them local soldiers, but one a man in a pale blue shirt with a UNHCR badge over the breast pocket. A soldier brought Mortimer a plate of couscous with some red sauce and a lump of tough meat. A glass of a sweet pink drink followed.
Mortimer was halfway through the meal when the man called Ibrahim appeared beside him, squatting on his heels. "Are you ready?"
Mortimer was clearly still eating, but answered, with his mouth half full, "Whenever."
"Let's go," Ibrahim said, as if eating were merely a way of passing time.
Outside, another Land Rover, open-top, was waiting.
"Bring anything you need. We'll be gone four or five days."
Mortimer wasn't sure what he needed. He went into his room and pulled a toothbrush and a new notebook from his bag.
The men wrapped a headscarf round Mortimer's face, laughing, until he was left with only a slit to peer out of. The material smelled of plaster dust.
"You have to," Ibrahim explained. "We drive fast." A light chorus of laughter approved the remark. "The wind here, the dust. They can make you ill."
It was the most open a Land Rover could be: not even a windshield. Just the bare bottom half of the body, with two spare tyres and two giant jerrycans attached to the back. The whole thing was painted a dusty desert brown, and all bare metal had been coated in matte grey paint. Mortimer noticed there was no speedometer. No instruments at all. Just the pedals and the various gear sticks.
The Rio Camello fighters were good with their Land Rovers. They drove excellently and would long ago have had to give up their fight had they not. They likened the Land Rover to the old Bedouin's camel, to the corsair's sloop, to Britain's Spitfire.
Thus, so simply, before he was ready for it, Mortimer found himself finally embarked on another war story, another front line, back in business.
Charles Mortimer, chronicler of wars and plagues and ruptured governments, interviewer of popes and pashas, had had columns set aside for his use in papers the world over. He had smoked a Cohiba with Castro, dined on a Maine lobster with Reagan, and had drunk beer with the mad Billy Fuentes, beer baron of Bolivia, commanding chief of the death squads. He had been the toast of London and Washington. Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama had agreed to a joint interview with him. Noriega in his heyday had bestowed the Order of the Silver Stork on him, and the queens of Norway and Tonga had awarded him honorary degrees. For twenty-five years Mortimer had ridden the biggest waves in the business. Embracer of causes, instigator of hunts, winner of media coups, Mortimer had redefined his profession.
He had done all these things, but he had done them five years ago, seven, ten, twenty years ago. Now was different. It surprised Mortimer, when he thought back, both how long and how short five years were. That so long a time could go by so swiftly, so emptily. Or not emptily, but filled with something so uncomfortable, so different from what had come before. Five years of doubt, drunkenness, regret. Regret, the great devourer, could swallow half a decade in one go. Regret was a terrible trap, people said. Stop it, don't think about it. You must look forwards, onwards.
Five and a half years ago Mortimer had risked everything on his biggest story. He had succeeded in gaining an interview with the Soviet president, and after exhaustive consultation of every source, he syndicated a story on the impregnable primacy of the Supreme Soviet. Contrary to all reports, he declared, the writing was not yet on the Kremlin wall. Everyone took the story—Le Monde
, the Zeitung
, the Washington Post
, the Times
. It was the coup of a lifetime. Except that just five weeks later the Berlin Wall came down, and six months later the Soviet Union was coming apart at the seams.
Mortimer had not just been spectacularly wrong, he had risked everything. It was as if every editor and source he had was implicated in his shame. A Times
leader referred to him as a curiosity, an American paper alluded to his "disgrace," and the Spectator
cancelled his retainer. Of course most people were too caught up in the excitement of the new events to think about him; but he wasn't. After such a debacle, a man needed a change of identity. He needed to start all over again. Which was out of the question at the age of fifty-six.
Saskia, his wife, had argued with him about it at the dinner table. She had told him again and again that he was wrong, and she took their differences personally. Which was unlike her. Also unlike her, after his great misjudgement she started minding about his peccadilloes--the publicity girl at the magazine where he was an honorary editor, the assistant at the Times
news desk. Their marriage had long been pragmatic, accepting of human weakness, elastic enough to contain his work, his erratic urges, his sudden departures and returns. But now Saskia talked to him only in public, at dinner. Otherwise, she slammed doors, left the house without goodbyes, and forsook for the spare room the matrimonial bed that he often forsook himself. Eventually, eighteen months after his great embarrassment, she left him.
By then he was already caught in a swift stream of forgetfulness. It wasn't that he stopped working—he dabbled with foolish columns in the Standard
and the Mail
, long inches in which he was free to scribble himself hoarse on any matter that piqued him: waiters no longer wearing ties, wine lists in which the Australian imports had squeezed the clarets into an appendix; the new "Metro" taxicabs. The brash new world springing up around his ankles was ripe for stomping on. At three in the afternoon, with copy due for the evening editions, it provided an inexhaustible supply of annoyances for a man with a keyboard in his lap and a bottle of Pauillac in his belly, a man who would much prefer to have remained before his Camembert and gleaming glass than to have hailed a Metro cab back to the grey-walled warehouse of an office where you were no longer even supposed to smoke. At least they allowed him that: a little box of a room all to himself, regarded, incredibly, as a privilege in that open-plan arena, where he was permitted to smoke up a fog as long as he kept the door shut.
Occasionally, in the office, Mortimer would look up from his column—Mortimer's Monday; Mortimer on the Movies; Metropolitan Mortimer
—and sniff the air, test the ground: still foul, still tilted. When life went wrong, why didn't it right itself like everything else on God's earth? Five years on, the ground was still skewed. And while you waited for it to recover, the weeks turned into months, and once seven months had gone by, you saw that seventy-seven could do so, and before you knew it they nearly had.
The rushing chaos of these years could have gone on and on, he knew, until he found himself collapsed in a hospital ward with two weeks to live. Did you blame the drink? But he had drunk before, he had always drunk, except in Saudi or when he caught hepatitis. Was it Saskia's leaving? But he had never depended on her for his sanity or purpose. Things had gone wrong before she left, anyway. Was it really just his hideous error, then? But all men made errors. Editors knew that. They were willing to give him a second chance. He had only to indicate where he wanted to go, what war, what famine. Was it all these things combined? Why, every time he checked the weather, was it stuck on Stormy? All storms blew over. When, in short, would he no longer find himself churning out furious columns about newfangled menu items like arugula and pecorino ("What the devil is wrong with good old Parmesan?" he watched himself typing, like some foolish old colonel) and instead be back at work?
But it was a desperate not a hopeful question.
When Mohammed Ahmoud telephoned and reintroduced himself, they not having spoken for well over ten years, Mortimer had felt a stirring of old, good feelings—that simple enthusiasm, almost joy, of sensing that someone was about to do you a favour, and you would be able to return it, and together you would advance one another's causes. Over twenty years ago Mortimer had first brought Rio Camello's war to international attention, though since then the story had stagnated and dropped from the papers.
Chuckles of reacquaintance down the telephone line. It was morning, fortunately. Mortimer was more or less sober.
"Something important," Mohammed Ahmoud said. "Can we meet?"
Mortimer and Mohammed Ahmoud met in the Wolf and Whistle in Pimlico. That was something new—lunch in a pub, not at a white-cloth establishment. It felt good. It felt like things ought to feel.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mortimer of the Maghreb by Henry Shukman. Copyright © 2006 by Henry Shukman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.