The Boy That Never Was by Karen Perry
Prologue: Tangier 2005
A storm is rising. He can feel it in the strange stillness of the air. There is no movement, no flutter of clothing, not a whisper of a breeze along the narrow streets of Tangier.
Beyond the lines of washing strung between the buildings, above the tiled roofs, he sees a patch of sky. There is a strange luminous quality to it, a bluish hue and lights that look almost like auroras.
He stirs a cup of warm milk, blinks, and looks out again on to the changing and otherworldly colours of the sky.
Setting the spoon down on to the counter, he turns from the open window and crosses to where the boy is sitting, his face tightened in concentration at the jigsaw puzzle before him.
‘Here,’ his father says, holding out the cup.
The boy does not look up.
‘Come on, Dillon. Drink up.’
The boy looks at him and frowns.
‘No, Daddy, I don’t want to.’
His father hands him the cup again. The boy hesitates before reaching out, and in that moment, Harry feels the faintest beat of indecision. He ignores it and nods his head at the boy in encouragement. The boy takes long, slow gulps. A small dribble of milk escapes from the corner of his mouth, and his father wipes it away. Dillon gulps again and hands the cup back. ‘Here, Daddy,’ he says. ‘Finished.’
Harry takes the cup and walks to the sink to rinse it. At its bottom there is a fine residue of powder. He fills the cup with water and watches the residue flow up and out of it and down into the drain.
Leaving the tap running, he fills a pan and sets it on the stove. The gas is not easy to light, and he pushes the knob and presses the ignition switch several times before it takes.
The couscous is out. Next, he takes a handful of raisins and places them in a bowl. A half-full bottle of brandy stands on the counter by the olive oil. Harry takes the brandy and covers the raisins. Before placing the cap back on to the bottle, he holds its opening to his nose and inhales. Then swiftly, almost surreptitiously, he drinks from the bottle before screwing the top back on to it and returning it to its place beside the olive oil.
He looks out again at the changing colours of the sky. He wants to say something to his son about it, but he does not. Dillon is completing his puzzle, becoming drowsy.
Harry returns to his cooking. He pours a small amount of olive oil into his right hand and smears the chopping knife with it. He chops dates, gathers them into a bowl, and slides his finger across the knife blade before placing the apricots on the chopping board.
Beyond the window, the streets are quiet. Usually, at this time of the day, in neighbouring apartments, there are the busy sounds of people preparing meals, but this evening there are no raised voices, there is no clanging of dishes, no hissing of cooking fat, no crying of hungry babies. A hush has descended upon this part of the world. It is as if all the inhabitants of Tangier are holding their breath.
He turns to Dillon. ‘Time for bed.’
There are no protestations from his son, just a vague nod of consent. Harry picks him up and carries him to his room. There he undresses the boy. He leaves him in an undershirt and underpants and eases him under the covers. He strokes his cheek and leans over to kiss his forehead. ‘Night night, sweet prince,’ he whispers, but the boy does not answer. He is already asleep.
Back in the kitchen, Harry fixes himself a gin and tonic. The day has been long and difficult. The heat, his son’s
demands, and his own inability to concentrate cling to him, making his skin feel tight.
The air remains heavy, although the heat has dissipated. Now that the boy is asleep, he can finish cooking dinner. It is Robin’s birthday, and he has planned a special meal to celebrate.
He turns the oven on, removes the cover from the lamb on the counter, and seasons it with roughly ground salt, then massages the meat with rosemary and oregano and slides it into the oven. As he does so, he glances at the sky and wonders when the clouds will break and the downfall begin.
Rain in Tangier can be biblical. The torrential downpours can last for days. It is one of the things that surprised them most when they moved here, five years ago. He longs for one of those rainstorms now to clear the air and lift this dull, oppressive atmosphere.
The pain around his head has not abated, despite the gin. He glances at the old clock above the stove and refills his glass.
The phone’s ring startles him.
‘Everything all right?’ asks Robin.
‘Yes. Dillon’s asleep, and I’m getting dinner ready.’
The surprise in her voice unnerves him.
‘He was exhausted.’
‘Listen,’ she says then, and he can tell from her tone that she has some favour to ask. ‘Simo has gone home sick, so I told Raul I’d stay on a while longer to cover.’
‘But it’s your birthday.’
‘It’ll just be a couple of hours, that’s all.’
He is silent.
‘It’ll still be my birthday when I get home,’ she says.
He drains his glass and agrees that yes, it will still be her birthday when she gets home.
He says goodbye, hangs up and makes himself another drink. It will have to be his final drink before she arrives. He doesn’t want to get drunk and spoil things for her.
Tonight, with his headache, with the uneasy feeling in the air, he is as jumpy as a cat and craves the reassurance of her presence. For some reason, he does not want to be alone. So he distracts himself by putting away toys and gathering up books and returning the cushions to the sofa.
He clears clutter from the coffee table and sweeps the tiled floor. The place is coming back to itself, back to the tidy space that has become their home – the shabby yet comfortable sofa, the bead curtain that separates this room from the cubbyhole kitchen, the corner by the window where stacks of canvases are propped up against the wall. Even the wooden table they dine at is cleared. Harry is annoyed at Robin; perhaps he would not have made Dillon go to sleep so early if he had known she was going to be late.
Still, he tries not to be downbeat and goes about setting the table. Knives, forks, napkins, but where are the candles?
Earlier that day, he’d bought four white unscented candles at the souk, a roll of saffron-coloured linen to throw over the sofa, and a large, ornate serving tray cast in silver, decorated in a fine filigree of scrolls and curlicues. The tray is a gift for Robin, one he spent twenty minutes haggling for, but it is only now that he realizes he has left it and the other items at Cozimo’s.
He had not planned to go to Cozimo’s. It was a spur‑of‑the-moment thing. Almost immediately, Harry had regretted bringing Dillon. Cozimo was not used to having children around, especially in his own home. Dillon had grown bored and irritable while Harry sat chatting with Cozimo, and as the time passed, the boy began pulling at his arm, complaining loudly, so that their visit had ended abruptly, Harry sweeping the boy up into his arms and carrying him away, leaving his friend in a grateful peace.
‘Fuck,’ he sighs, trying to think what to do.
The obvious thing is to call Cozimo. But Harry knows what this would mean: Cozimo would insist on delivering the forgotten items, request a drink for his efforts, and before either of them knew it, they’d be deep in conversation – the dinner spoiling, Cozimo settling in, the evening on its way to being ruined.
Harry goes to check on the boy. He is in a deep sleep, and Harry knows better than to disturb him. Besides, Cozimo’s house is not far – a short walk down the hill. He can be there and back in ten minutes. Best to go now, quickly, before the rain comes.
Taking one last look at the sleeping child, he hurries down the stairs and into the empty bookshop, which is cast in shadow now that the evening light is fading and the sky beyond has grown dark and brooding. He steps outside, locking the door behind him, and strides purposefully through the narrow street.
The lingering quiet in the streets unnerves him. He looks up and catches sight of a veiled woman peering down at him. Quickly, she draws back from the window,
disappearing from view.
Somewhere nearby in the warren of alleyways a dog is barking, and he cannot shake the sense of unease. The gin, instead of taking the edge off things, has somehow sharpened his anxiety.
But what has he to be anxious about?
He has left the boy alone. Pangs of guilt make him increase his pace, and he half-walks, half-runs to the corner.
The neon sign above the bar gives off a loud, sibilant hum as he passes. He is aware of the strange figure he cuts – a white man hurrying through these streets.
He doesn’t stop until he reaches the ornate gate, where he leans heavily on the doorbell.
A moment passes before he hears the shush shush of soft leather slippers on the stone paving beyond the gate. A small figure clothed in a djellaba appears, and, as Cozimo approaches, his wizened features clear of confusion and he raises a hand in greeting.
‘My friend,’ he says, and opens the lock.
It is as the bolt is drawn back, sliding through the return with a rasping clink, that Harry hears it: an answering sound, louder, more violent and more frightening than the first.
This is no crack of lightning, no roll of thunder. The break, when it comes, is not above his head, as he imagined it would be. Instead, he feels it in the soles of his feet.
A low rumble rises from the bowels of the earth. The ground begins to shake. He reaches for the wall, but the wall shifts, and the gate jangles on its iron hinges.
The ground beneath his feet moves like liquid. There is a sickening swaying of the earth. The world is filled with a guttural roar and the sounds of breaking glass and falling roof tiles and the shrieks of rending wood.
Beneath Harry, the ground is pulsing, the earth slipping away from his feet, his heart catapulting in his chest.
Somewhere on the street, he can hear gas hissing out of broken pipes, and as he turns himself against the wall, he can see the building opposite veer and sway. It rocks back and forth on its foundations, smoke rises in the distance, the air fills with the smell of gas, and just as he thinks the building will topple, it stops.
The ground grows still. The roaring is silenced. The rage beneath the earth recedes.
He stays where he is, flattened against the wall, his hands splayed on either side of him. The building he has been watching settles.
His whole body is paralysed by fear, and it takes a few moments for him to calm himself. His muscles unclench; movement returns to his joints.
‘That was a bad one,’ Cozimo says, his face ashen, his eyes still wide with fear.
Harry is about to say something, but does not.
What? Cozimo wants to ask, but his throat is parched and Harry is already gone.
He runs past the bar, where the neon sign has fallen on to the road. It fizzes and spurts with bursts of electricity before going dead. All along the street, the lights cut out. There is silence now, a veil of uneasy calm, but it does not last.
The fragile peace is broken as people begin to stream past him. Down the hill they go, fleeing their homes, propelled by fear: fear of the aftershocks that will come, fear of the imminent collapse of these flimsy buildings.
He alone seems to be charging uphill, his breath caught in his chest, his heart beating like a madman’s.
As he runs, Harry hears the shrieking and the crying begin. Doors open, and people emerge from their homes, some dazed and confused, others driven by panic. A man rushes past him, carrying three children in his arms. A woman stumbles on to her doorstep, crying and bloodied, a crimson gash above one eye.
On the corner, a man calls out over and over again, ‘Allah sent it, Allah.’
Harry stops to catch his breath. A woman throws her arms about his neck. He pushes her away and flees.
All around him, buildings are rocking and flames shooting up. People on all sides are crying, praying and calling for help. Animals too, fowls and beasts, are crying out.
He runs on frantically. And then at the Hotel Mediterranean, there are three men on the roof. Rather than see the crazed men fall in with the roof and be roasted alive in the blazing building, a military officer on the scene directs his men to shoot them, which they do, quickly and accurately, before a dumbfounded crowd of spectators.
It feels like the end of the world.
Everywhere there is dust.
He inhales it, coughing and spluttering, his eyes streaming, his mouth dry. Smoke invades his nostrils. He sees buildings alight, flames licking at windows and doors.
In the distance, there is the whine of sirens. Other sounds too: sudden crashes as buildings collapse in on themselves, the thump of bricks toppling on to the street, the snapping of wood as eaves buckle and crack.
Still he runs. A building slumps against its neighbour, as if tiredness and old age had weakened it, and it could simply bear up no longer.
From cracks in the pavement, water bubbles up – water and sand. A foul sludge fills the alleyway and sucks at his feet.
At the corner to his street, the bakery’s façade has fallen away, revealing rooms with their furniture still standing.
He sees a bed and a sofa, curtains fluttering in the open air.
As he reaches the street he lives on, the dust in the air thickens. A great cloud of it rises to meet him.
He stands still.
About his feet, there is a shuffle and flutter. He looks down and sees hundreds of books strewn about the road.
In the clearing, the sky is flat and dark. The buildings that have remained standing look yellow and barren.
He scans the wreckage. An image from earlier in the evening returns: he is standing in the narrow passageway, holding his sleeping son in his arms – he can almost feel again the softness of his flesh, the warmth of his body.
And yet another astonishing reality confronts him. The building where once he worked, slept, loved, fathered, painted, put his son to sleep, where he lived and called his home, is simply and irrevocably no more; it is sunken into the earth, swallowed, gone.