Thrillers | Middle East | War
12 January 1991 | 26 Jumada 1411
Nine o’clock and only three more nights before the war starts. Rob Watson urges Cilla, his black Labrador, into the back of the patrol car, settles her on an old yellow carpet, and drives out of Acacia Court for his first night back on patrol. Swinging right past Banyan and Cactus Courts, he turns onto Perimeter Road and cruises beside the high chain-link fence of the airbase, headlights searching for breaks in the wire. Even at this time, the oil camp’s streets and courtyards are deserted, people huddled in their homes waiting for the next news bulletin, the first Scud alerts to start wailing out. But soon he’s feeling comfortable inside the patrol car, with the company’s Easy Listening music muttering over the radio and Cilla stretched out on the back seat, shifting occasionally to raise her head, look around, and settle back again.
As he left the house, CNN were reporting that James Baker, the US Secretary of State, was visiting the airbase, checking the preparations for war. Now, beyond the perimeter fence, the base lies waiting, brooding through this wintry night, and gathering itself to attack. On this side, the oil camp’s courtyards are silent, oblivious to what Rob knows is the frenzied activity over there; trucks shuttling aviation fuel and supplies along the roads, the candy men loading planes and helicopter gunships with munitions, pilots being briefed for their reconnaissance flights over Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Yet despite the sharp silhouettes of hardened shelters, the pinpricks of light in the gloom marking the giant Galaxy transports, that feverish activity is difficult to imagine here, cruising slowly along by the perimeter fence.
He drives down towards the Utilities Department, its illuminated Pepsi vending machine standing guard outside the office building. Further along, the still waters of the sewage treatment ponds glisten under yellow sodium lights. The emerald grass around these ponds was recently mown and he remembers reading in the company newspaper about a crazy golf competition there, an event designed to publicize the company’s new sanitation system.
Next stop, the camp garage. Old cars and trucks are parked haphazardly outside, abandoned when their owners fled after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi. Rob pulls into the space between a white Ford Transit and a Toyota pick-up with black garbage bags dumped in the back. Facing the padlocked gate, his headlights beam through the wire mesh onto the garage forecourt, the vehicles parked for repair and the inspection ramp curving up into the night sky. He gets out, scanning the area with his flashlight, checking for suspicious movements beyond the beam of his headlights. The smell of gasoline that always hangs over the camp is usually strongest here, but the chill wind from the sea is dispersing it, threatening more rain and discomfort for the troops camped up north near the Kuwaiti border. It’s the coldest and wettest Saudi winter he can remember, and he zips up his Security windbreaker and pulls the baseball cap firmly down on his head.
No lights show in the garage workshops where the remaining Filipino mechanics devote evenings and weekends to their private business, repairing Westerners’ cars and four-wheel drives. Behind the garage he can see the junk yard’s piles of rusting parts, with two large metal containers parked up against the fence. ‘It’s a weak point,’ warned Rick, the big American security boss, when he drove Rob around before Christmas. ‘Better stay alert.’
But tonight there are no suspicious movements. He reverses back onto the road, driving down towards the grove of palm trees screening the agricultural research station. He cruises into the car park, headlights washing over the dimly lit plant nursery and greenhouses, where tomatoes and cucumbers grow in plastic tubes without soil, sustained only by running water enriched with plant food. The tops of the palm trees are swaying in the breeze. The car is warm and comfortable inside, and he winds down the driver’s window. Already he’s feeling tired, needing this blast of cold air.
Past the agricultural station, the road turns sharp right, heading towards the lights of the bachelor housing block. But he drives straight on, following the chain-link fence. With a bump, he leaves the tarmac and pulls onto an unlit dirt track used by garbage trucks going to the landfill site. He drives more cautiously, headlights scanning the rough track and manoeuvring between potholes. Before the invasion, this wasteland with its mounds of rubble was a testing ground for teenagers racing BMXs and dirt bikes. After the invasion, most kids were evacuated with their mothers, back to homes around the world. He wonders how many will return. And will Fiona, his wife, ever come back?
Headlights pierce the gloom and a US army Humvee, with a searchlight and machine gun mounted on top, bounds along the track on the other side of the fence. Spotting the white patrol car, the base guards flash their lights, acknowledging their common purpose. They’re heading towards the Patriot battery hidden among the small limestone jebels and waiting to shoot down missiles attacking the base. The Pentagon has spent billions of dollars on missile defence systems but will this Patriot work? At first the Americans and British said that Saddam’s Scuds couldn’t even fly this far, but now they say they’ll shoot them down.
Rob parks and lets Cilla jump out to roam around while he walks up a small jebel, a rocky perch overlooking the airbase, where he can smoke a cigarette and perhaps spot James Baker’s plane on the tarmac. Five years since he stopped smoking, but for this time and place he’s awarded himself the luxury of just one Marlboro cigarette each night.
Lighting up, he savours the deliciously illicit taste, this moment saved for tranquillity, and looks across the base. The shapes of hardened shelters and barracks stretch into the distance, and the low moaning vibration of generators carries on the wind. It feels like he’s living next door to a friendly giant who’s kindly offered to take care of him. Or a mass murderer, whose surreptitious movements disturb him during the night, but when he sees him in the morning, he waves cheerfully on his way to work.
No sign of James Baker’s plane. Perhaps he’s already left. Rob wonders what he should think about tonight to while away the hours on patrol. Football? He and Chris, his student son, went to Anfield on New Year’s Day to see the Reds beat Leeds. So, are Liverpool going to win the League this year?
Or maybe he should think about his family. Back in Southport, on his last night at home, his parents and some friends phoned asking if he was still going back to Saudi. It was obvious there was going to be war and maybe thousands killed. Not sure whether he sounded brave or just foolish, Rob told them he was returning and gave his usual reasons—he wouldn’t be dictated to by Saddam Hussein, people at work depended on him, and he had to go back for Cilla, the family dog. But nobody seemed convinced.
After dinner he sat drinking coffee with Fiona and Chris round the kitchen table. ‘So why are you really going back, Dad?’ asked his son, more confident after his first term at university. ‘Is it the money?’
Fiona didn’t join in the questioning. He was conscious of her strained expression, her determination to let him make his own decision, no matter how ill she felt. But how ill was she? He’d been reluctant to inquire too deeply as she might flare up at him. She’d seen the doctor about headaches and depression and returned with some pills. Hopefully, they’d work.
In just a few months he’d complete ten years and qualify for full severance benefits. ‘I’m coming back after ten,’ he’d promised Fiona, as he nuzzled into her hair at Manchester airport. ‘Only a few months to go.’
Now he crushes his cigarette into the sand, strolls down the bluff to the patrol car and opens the back door to let Cilla jump in. On the radio, Phil Collins is singing about something in the air tonight, as Rob checks in with the Big House.
‘Assalamu alikum. Welcome back to Paradise, my friend.’ Abdul Karim—Al to his Western colleagues—greets him through the crackling, his Texan accent a legacy of detective training in Dallas. ‘How’s the family? You have good Christmas?’
‘Good. So how’s your family, Al?’
‘Zain. I take to Riyadh for safety. Only strong men stay for this war, sideeki.’
Al’s usual good humour sounds constrained. Is Rick, his American boss, listening in?
‘You see Mr Baker?’ Al asks. ‘He’s visiting the guys at the Base.’
‘No, he’s probably left. Nothing to report here. All’s quiet.’
‘Alhamdullilah. Good to know you’re back, my friend. But be careful out there.’ Al concludes with the familiar warning from the roll-call sergeant in Hill Street Blues.
Time now for Rob to drive to the small lake which drains off water from the camp’s sewage ponds. Scrubby tamarisk trees and bushes screen this man-made oasis where, in the evening, amateur naturalists and photographers come to spy on migrating birds. After a day’s work and in the cool of the jogging and dog walking hour, the lake seems a peaceful place, skirted by reeds and illuminated by the setting sun. But it’s close to the Patriot missile base. Terrorists could attack from here ...
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