The Pain Of A Good Man
9pm, 1st December (later that night). The Pain of a Good Man
The mansion’s formal living room ebbed and flowed with a tide of casual conversation and good natured cheer. As the crowd grew more and more comfortable, the volume of laughter steadily rose and the clink of glassware became more frequent. Christmas spirit gripped the island and for tonight at least, most thoughts turned away from the arena to find welcome respite in the festive season.
Prominently placed in front of one of the expansive windows overlooking the north lawn where Max and Kris trained, stood the Christmas tree, the angel crowning its peak looking down on the gathering, its glitter encrusted halo flecking the ceiling with blinking starlight.
Silver trays of Christmas cake, candy canes and rum balls adorned the sideboards and side tables, while the coffee table had become the serve yourself bar with various forms of spirits lined up next to a broad bank of glass tumblers. Beside the tumblers stood a metal ice tub, accommodating glistening bottles of genuine French champagne, while nestled in amongst it all was a large, glass bowl of punch, the sweet, orange-coloured cocktail brimming with large chunks of fresh citrus fruit.
Dinner had come and gone and many of the residents and workers in the household had now convened to toast the beginning of the Christmas season. Most people clustered inside the living room where the air conditioning held the sultry evening heat at bay, while out on the balcony there stood a single person.
Prime Minister Joseph Tollsen leaned silently against the railing, looking back into the room over the open threshold, his hands in his pockets and his wooden pipe stuck between his lips. It was hard to tell from a distance, but up close, a gentle curling of the corners of his mouth could be seen, the unconscious smile matching the warmth he felt in his heart.
Inside, Joe could see Millie and Jason playing at the feet of the Christmas tree, scouring the presents for any with their names on them. Helping them were a handful of other children also staying on the estate as sons and daughters of some of the support staff. Max and Elsa were talking to Millie and Jason’s teacher, while over the back, Kris was sharing a drink with several of the kitchen staff.
The entire household had never been called together like this before and Joe was a little surprised to see just how many people were needed to make this operation work. Again, another reminder that teamwork is the key. None of them could do this on their own. A memory flashed through Joe’s mind as he recalled Max on the Sally Sainsbury show earlier in the day and his soliloquy, ‘Alone we lose, but together we win.’ Joe’s smile widened a little more and he nodded to himself.
Joe then noticed the crowd part as another figure entered the fray. It could only be one person and as the parting of the crowd lined up with his perspective, Joe found Abdullah gliding towards him.
’As salam alaykum, Joseph,’ Abdullah said stopping in front of him and bowing slightly, ‘and season’s greetings to you also.’
Joe removed the pipe from his mouth and extended his hand, which Abdullah accepted with both of his.
‘And the best of the season to you also, Your Highness,’ Joe replied. ‘I would wish you many things right now, but I shall restrain myself to just one wish in this instance. May we all have peace?’
Abdullah straightened and nodded. ‘Yes. May we all find peace, my dear friend?’
‘Can I seek you out a beverage?’ Joe asked.
‘No thank you. However, I may attempt some of your Christmas cake a little later.’
‘My advice is first check with the kitchen staff, which tray has the alcohol free recipe. The piece I just had would absolutely not have been to your liking.’
‘I shall. Thank you,’ Abdullah replied, stepping forward and next to the Prime Minister to rest both hands on the railing as he looked over the distant palms to the star-rich sky. ‘I notice your pipe has become a more frequent companion in recent months. Does it still provide as much solace as always?’
Joe looked down at his pipe in his hand and turned it over, the rich grain of the wood shining in the hazy light.
‘Yes it does’ Joe said. ‘This pipe is as much a part of my life as any person and even though I have refrained from lighting a fire in it for four years now, I do still enjoy the feel and smell of it at close quarters. As you know, I went through my darkest days with the support of this old piece of wood and it has never let me down. Even now as I continue to starve it of sustenance, it fills me with comfort. Even now as we stare down the end of the world.’
Abdullah turned and looked at Joseph, enjoying the sight of his close friend lost in the sight and detail of his most prized possession.
‘It gladdens me to see you happy at this time, Joseph,’ Abdullah said. ‘You have worked tirelessly to corral and coordinate our political colleagues over these last few months and I must say, we have all been rewarded with wonderful success. In particular, your efforts at the United Nations Council this last month has been nothing short of magnificent. Our European counterparts are certainly struggling to remain united, but you have convinced them that hope lies in unity rather than isolation.’
Joe unlocked his gaze from his pipe and turned also to look out over the darkened edge. ’It is an age-old message and truth, Abdullah. True strength lies in unity. Weakness is spawned from isolation. However, it occurred to me this afternoon that while I and you I might add, have worked tirelessly to hammer home that truth, we should have just wheeled Max into the council. His performance today was astonishing.’
‘Yes, it was,’ Abdullah replied. ‘He is a most remarkable man. His physical superiority is without question, but every day, he reveals more and more glimpses of his natural leadership. When he chooses to, he not only speaks eloquently, but he speaks from the heart and it is pure. Our old foe, Charles Ingot the Third was right to fear Max. If we are successful and Max survives the arena and he chooses to, he could well initiate a new world order and bring other nations and institutions crashing down. Billions would follow him as a Messiah. He could command vast armies and unlike any other current leader or general, actually lead his armies into battle himself. The man has the potential to be a colossus. Fortunately and I do believe this to be true, Max harbours no such ambition.’
‘I agree,’ Joe said. ‘He is a family man and it is exactly that humility, which makes him great. I envy him. Not for his incredible traits and skills, but for knowing himself and for his humble pursuits.’
A silence enveloped them. Joe replaced his pipe between his teeth. Abdullah breathed in the night air. Neither man knew it, but the same thoughts filled their minds. Their childhoods. Their parents. Their siblings and where all of these dear people in their lives were now. The silence persisted, comfortably.
‘Gentlemen,’ sounded a familiar voice. ‘You’re hiding.’
Both Abdullah and Joe broke from their reveries and turned to see Max striding out over the threshold and onto the balcony to join them at the railing. Max popped a large slab of Christmas cake into his mouth and then repositioned a handful of rum balls in his other hand as he came up next to them.
‘Hiding, yes,’ Joe said, ‘but happy to be found.’
‘Good, because you’ve both been AWOL for the last two weeks,’ Max said as he sorted through his rum balls.
‘It is a conundrum,’ Joe replied as he turned back to the view, ‘but political life has actually intensified as the end of the world looms. I would have expected all of us politician’s to have been lynched or stoned to death by now.’
‘I’m sure that has actually happened in some parts of the world,’ Max said as he selected his next morsel, ‘and it’s just that here in the civilised world, our morals are lingering a touch longer. And you, Your Highness. Duty calls?’
‘I have been at home,’ Abdullah replied. ‘My final voyage.’
‘Not if I’ve got anything to do with it.’
Abdullah smiled and cast a quick glance at Max. Max flicked his eyebrows up and popped a rumball into his mouth.
Joe took his pipe from his mouth and turned to the other two men. ‘Gentlemen, before I go and avail myself of some ridiculously expensive champagne and mingle with the troops, Max let me just say that today you were nothing short of marvellous with Ms Sainsbury. I know you have been uncomfortable with the entire media campaign, but that discomfort has in no way affected your contributions. Today you spoke like a statesman. No, that is an understatement. You spoke like a leader and it is a voice like your’s with conviction and weight that the world needs right now. Our world is teetering once again, but today, I am already seeing evidence that you have pulled us all back together again, better than any way either I or Abdullah could have managed. You know there are already over fifty t-shirt designs around the world with variations on the theme of, “Alone we lose, but together we win”? You are an even bigger global phenomenon now than you were twelve hours ago and that I honestly thought would have been impossible, but apparently nothing is beyond you.’
Max held his gaze on his Prime Minister for a few moments and then looked sideways to find Abdullah’s piercing hazel eyes as well. He then looked down at the rumballs in his hand.
’You know, Mister Prime Minister, sure those words came out of my mouth today, but they were inspired by someone else. Two someone elses in fact. Yourself and His Royal Highness here,’ Max said, waving an arm towards Abdullah. ‘You two are the architects of Team Max, so if I sounded magnificent today, it’s because I’ve got two of the best mentors around. You’ve not only guided us successfully to where we are today and that includes keeping the entire world on track, but you’ve done it with compassion and kindness and if we do all fall at the arena, I’m glad of one thing, we’ve become friends. Before Macktidas carved my face all over the planet and caused all this trouble, I had no desire to really know anyone else. I didn’t need friends. I had my family and that was all I needed and wanted. Well, I was wrong. You’ve both opened my eyes and I know I’m a better person for knowing you both, so for what it’s worth, thank you. You’re good men. Thank you.’
A silence cocooned them and inside that silence, an unspoken bond cemented itself. Abdullah stepped forward and extended his right hand out into the space between them all, palm down. Max followed the Sheikh’s lead and stepped forward as well to place his own hand over Abdullah’s. Joe then followed suit last, his smile widening around his pipe.
Then Joe said with a small chuckle, ‘Your Highness, he just did it again.’
Abdullah nodded and smiled also. ‘Yes, he did. Yes, he did.’
‘Thank you, gentlemen,’ Joe said and plucked his pipe from between his teeth to raise it in toast. ‘I am venturing inside for some champagne. Enjoy the air.’
’Ma as Salama,’ Abdullah said. ‘Good evening.’
Max watched Joe go and something struck him. His Prime Minister was sauntering with one hand in his pocket and the other up holding his pipe in his mouth. The man actually looked relaxed despite the potential end of the world being closer than ever. Max smiled and looked up at the night sky.
Abdullah spoke. ‘Joseph does indeed seem at ease this evening does he not and if I could hazard a guess at the reason, I imagine it is because it is a long time indeed since he felt the warmth of family. Joseph has been alone in this world for a long time, too long, but in this struggle we are all in, he has found all of you and that has given him the comfort of family. You have all become his sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and he is a more contented man for it.’
Max turned and looked into his friend’s deep eyes, the hazel irises ebony in the half light. A gleam of secrets glistened inside them, but wrapped around the eyes, Max found the familiar reassurance of friendship. Max could not help, but trust this man and perhaps now was the time to find out some more truths? Perhaps there would never be a better time to learn of the man beneath the robes?
‘Abdullah, can I be completely candid with you?’ Max asked, stepping up to the railing and turning his back to it to lean against it.
‘I would have it no other way, my friend,’ Abdullah replied, turning to send his gaze back out over the horizon and into the stars.
‘Good. Thanks,’ Max said, absently watching the crowd shuffle and move inside the living room as he gathered his thoughts. ‘I have an observation and a question and you don’t have to answer the question, but gee you intrigue me, so I’ve got to ask.’
‘The feeling is mutual, Max and I think it only fair you ask for some insights into me considering what you have divulged of yourself over the last few months.’
’Alright, here goes. The end of the world might be coming and with you and Joe’s help, we’ve managed to hold things together pretty well. Not just for ourselves, but the whole planet. You and Joe can’t take enough credit for what you’ve done and if this all comes to a relatively good end, you both deserve the highest honours anyone can grant. However, here’s my observation, it’s been you and your quiet counsel that’s helped us all come to terms with our individual fears and regrets and make peace with ourselves and so now here’s my question, what about you? How do you make peace? No one lives a life without some sort of regret or pain. Not even you. Before you said Joe had lived alone in the world for too long and the moment you said that, I looked at you because if anything, you seem just as alone as Joe, if not more so. Maybe your religion is your company? I don’t know, but what I do know is that we’ve all got demons and for anyone who is alone, those demons get even more nasty. Just ask Kris. So, how do you make peace? What demons have you beaten down to be so content?’
Sheikh Abdullah did not move. A few moments later, Max realised the man had frozen and maybe even hardened a little. He seemed tense. Then Abdullah dropped his head and looked down at the ground beyond the railing. The silence held in place like a lock on a vault. Max wondered if he should apologise and abandon the subject, but then Abdullah spoke, quietly and not much more than a whisper.
‘Her name is Fathiya and she is waiting for me,’ Abdullah said, not looking up at Max.
The tone and broken inflections of Abdullah’s voice instantly betrayed the depth of his emotion and then he looked up and the gravity of the revelation hit Max like a boulder slamming down onto his shoulders. Even in the half-light, Max could clearly see Abdullah’s face and what was etched across it. Pain.
A deep sadness flowed from the wells in Abdullah’s eyes. The man’s hurt was palpable and Max suspected a lesser person would have been overcome by the magnitude of this emotion, but not this man. The expression on Abdullah’s face proved he had confronted his demons and beaten them down, but still they haunted him.
‘She was nineteen and I was twenty-one,’ Sheikh Abdullah finally resumed, his voice low, but clear. ‘We were betrothed and a wedding date set for her twentieth birthday. We had enjoyed each other’s love for many years as younger, more innocent creatures and knew our destinies were intertwined, so we decided not to rush. What did time matter to us when we had the rest of our lives? So, even with our families having already given us permission to marry, we held off and waited till we were ready.’
Sheikh Abdullah lifted his chin and cast a sightless gaze into the distance, tears welling in his eyes and then he said, ‘Such is life when you are young.’
The Sheikh then closed his eyes and a single, fulsome tear, streaked from one eye to run down his cheek and splash on the back of his hand as it rested on the stone railing. The dam did not break though. Abdullah held his composure and after a few moments of silence, he turned back to look Max directly in the eye. He did not wipe the streak from his face or in any way acknowledge the tear and even though Max could see that the few moments of collection had eased the pain, still it remained like the remnants of a wave on a rocky beach, the swash ebbing away, but pockets of foam still caught amongst the broken shore. Abdullah’s pain was deep. He continued in his low tone.
‘Fathiya died in a car accident, one month before her twentieth birthday. One month before the day we were to be married. One month before we were to stand before God and accept his blessing, but it was not to be. I lost my dream that day, but Fathiya lost her life. God had ordained a different design.’
Quiet descended again and Sheikh Abdullah once more turned his gaze down to his folded hands, his face creasing and his lips twisted. His demons had stirred again. The Sheikh’s eyes grew hard, the deep wells icing over. His eyes squinted and the tiniest of trembles flickered in his eyelids. Then, Abdullah lifted his chin to cast his gaze unseeingly heavenward again. The steel in his expression melted away and the soft sadness of before returned. Taking a deep breath like a man breathing in freedom after many years of incarceration, he resumed his tale.
‘I searched my soul for my faith through many dark nights and stark lonely days. You speak of demons, Max. They came to me in great hordes, hacking and biting, cutting and scoring, seeking to render me and bring me undone. For a long time, a very long time, I floundered and flailed and there were times when I did not care if I fell, such was my misery, but through all the darkness, I had a beacon. A veritable light that shone in the dark. Fathiya. Even though she had died, she had never left me. She was in my heart and watching over me as she always had. Fathiya saved me from my demons. It was she who kept me alive and after I had beaten the demons away, I came to one inescapable conclusion. One absolute certainty. Fathiya had entered my life for one reason and that was to be my salvation and to keep me alive and there is only one being in the universe capable of executing such design. God. Allah had seen fit to give Fathiya to me to keep me alive and why is that important you wonder? Why is it important that I live while she died? I do not yet know that purpose, but the last few months have perhaps given me a glimpse.’
Abdullah then turned and looked Max squarely in the eye.
‘To guide us,’ Max said slowly as the thought dawned on him like the sun rising on a new day. ‘God kept you alive to guide all of us to the end?’
A soft smile warmed Sheikh Abdullah’s features. ‘Perhaps, my friend? Perhaps? I do not pretend to know the mind of God, but perhaps?’
Max and Abdullah’s gazes remained locked together for a few moments longer as the separate weights on their minds lifted like balloons into a cloudless, blue sky, allowing broad, warm smiles to grace their features.
It was Max who looked away first, straightening from the railing and pushing back.
‘Time for some shut eye,’ he said. ‘Kris has me lined up for an early session tomorrow on the beach. Sand training and I suspect she’s probably going to wheel out that medicine ball cannon you built for her, which by the way I haven’t thanked you for yet.’
Abdullah smiled even more broadly as Max rolled his eyes. ‘I have no doubt,’ Abdullah said, ‘that it will take much, much more than that contraption to make you pause, my friend and to be honest and I think we both know this to be true, it will give Kris more pleasure in using it than it will aid you in your training. She enjoys testing you very much.’
‘You got that right. She’s a mean one. Anyway, see you tomorrow.’
’Ma as Salama. Good night,’ Abdullah aid with a slight bow. Max turned and started to walk off, but then was brought up short as the Sheikh added something else. ‘And thank you, Max, for asking after me. It has been a long time since I told anyone of Fathiya. You have resurrected some beautiful memories and I will sleep well tonight.’
Max said nothing, instead choosing to enjoy the compliment as he beheld his friend whose white robes gently shone in the low light against the sable backdrop of night. He nodded and then turned away as Abdullah watched him go.