10pm, 5th August (later that night). Faith
Max watched Elsa leave the dining room, on her way to check in on Kris before going to bed.
‘Your wife has a strong and kind heart,’ Abdullah said from across the table.
Max turned to face him. ‘Yes, she does,’ he replied. ‘In most ways she’s stronger than me.’
‘I think you are as strong as each other,’ Abdullah said in return, ‘and I do not consider it a coincidence that you have found each other.’
Max smirked. ‘You think it was God?’
‘Let’s just say you deserve each other.’
Max nodded, his smile widening.
‘Why do you smile, my friend?’ Abdullah asked, his head slightly tilted.
‘Because I can’t help, but smile when I talk to you.’
‘I don’t understand.’
’Let me put it this way. I don’t know what you hear when you listen to yourself, but for everyone else, it’s pure therapy. You have this natural ability to put people at ease and make them feel safe. Take all of us for example. You’ve come into all of our lives and in just a little over a month with the end of the world staring us down, you’ve counselled us, settled us down and to be fair, saved us from a world going bad. Fair enough, Joe has played a big role too, but it’s been you Abdullah, it’s been you who has quietly pulled all the strings in the background and got us this far and that takes skills and patience the likes of which I can’t fathom. That’s why I’m smiling. You make me want to smile.’
Abdullah looked down at his folded hands resting in his lap. ‘I have my faith to help me,’ he said. ‘God is the bedrock on which I stand and labour and that is all the support I need, but let me say this,’ and Abdullah raised his head again to look across the table at Max. ‘While you, Max choose not to recognise Allah’s divine influence and that is your fair and just choice, you do still follow a life of faith.’
‘And what faith would that be?’ Max asked, genuinely curious.
‘Faith in yourself. The burden you carry now is perhaps greater than any other burden in the history of mankind and yet you carry it as strongly as you carry your weights. That is because of your unbreakable faith in yourself,’ Abdullah said.
Max silently held Abdullah in his gaze for a few moments and then said, ‘What I say to you now, I know you won’t interpret as arrogant because it’s not. This burden you mention, it’s easy for me to carry because for a long time now I’ve known what I have to do. I’ve come to grips with it.’
‘That is true, but you do not place expectations on yourself either. If you win, you win. If you fall, you fall, but it would not be because you did not give it everything you have.’
‘That’s right. It’s the only way I know how to do this.’
‘However,’ Abdullah said, then paused, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the table in front, ‘despite your outward strength, you are afraid, aren’t you?’
Max hesitated, then nodded slightly. ‘Yes, but not about dying.’
‘No. Your fear is not for yourself is it? It is not for losing your own life?’
‘No, it’s not.’
‘You fear is what will happen to your family if you fall in the arena and you are not alive to protect them from whatever happens next. Is that not so?’
Max nodded again. Abdullah continued.
‘You say I have counselled each of us with words of comfort and guidance,’ he said, ‘but in this matter, my friend, I have no words that can allay your fears and I am sorry for it. You may well fall in the arena and the fate of your family and indeed all of us will lie beyond our mortal control and rest in the hands of God alone, so I will not shower you with false hope. If you do fall in the arena, your family may suffer in the aftermath. However, if you will permit my belief to intrude...?’
‘Please, speak your mind,’ Max replied.
‘...even if you do not have faith in God, I believe he will reward you with what is fitting.’
‘And what would be fitting?’
‘Death finds us all, Max. I do not have to tell you that. When and how it finds us is a mystery, but there is no mystery about what happens after we pass.’
‘You mean Heaven?’
‘Yes and for a good man like you and good people like your family, Heaven indeed awaits. That is the only consolation I can give you.’
Max held his new friend’s eye, not searching for anything, but rather trying to imprint the moment in his mind. Max had never chosen to be close to anyone other than Elsa and their children, but right now, right at this moment, he felt compelled to know this man. It felt right. It felt as though he and Abdullah were completely like minded, maybe even kindred. Then Max spoke.
‘You speak of mysteries, Abdullah’ he said. ’Well, your faith is a mystery to me and yes, you’re right. I do have faith in myself and yes, it is unbreakable, but I can only believe in what I can see and what I can feel. My hands, my legs and my heart. These are the instruments of my faith and I know they are powerful. I know I can move mountains if I choose to. That’s not hubris. It’s just the truth, but even though I don’t understand your faith and God Himself, I have to say, I admire your faith all the same. It’s as unbreakable as my faith is in myself and I have nothing, but respect for that.’
Sheikh Abdullah did not say a word. Instead he nodded, his eyes slightly softening and a tiny curl forming at the corners of his mouth. Max continued.
‘You don’t just wear your faith, Abdullah, you’re immersed in it and you’re not only comfortable in that place, but it absolutely suits you and there’s something else I have to tell you now.’
Sheikh Abdullah’s gaze remained locked on Max’s. Max resumed.
‘I might be the one in the arena saving the world, but you, your Highness, are the one that is going to keep the world safe after I’m done. The world needs me only right now, but it needs you forever more. You’re a man separate from other men and for what you have done already for my family, all I can say is thank you. Thank you for being here and more than anything, thank you for being you.’
Abdullah did not smile. He did not even move. A deep silence suffused the room as both men held in place, looking wordlessly across the table at each other.
Then Abdullah smoothly rose to his feet. Turning, he glided around the table to where Max sat. Max also rose and the two men stood before each other for a moment before warmly embracing and for those few moments, despite all the trouble in their worlds, doom slipped away and two new friends set their paths and fates together in stone.