‘What the fuck?’
Under the circumstances, it was a reasonable question.
‘Oh my God,’ Paul muttered to himself and then turned to me and asked, ‘what just happened?’
‘Lay off for a minute, I have to think.’
It had been a mixed bag of a day.
On the upside, neither of us were dead. On the downside, I had been killed on camera, and that was almost certainly my biggest problem.
It was not my only problem, however. In no particular order they included, but were not limited to: Paul had been shot, and although it didn’t look immediately life threatening, it limited my options; our recently requisitioned open-top Jeep had only a quarter of a tank of fuel left, and cross-country driving was drinking it; which segued neatly into another pressing concern, namely that Paul had just finished the only water we had, and we were in the West Bank, which was going to get very hot as soon as the sun came up; and we were two white, blood soaked journalists with no ID and no money in the West Bank.
On the upside, we’d lost the nutbags who had been following us.
And now another problem: Paul was no longer in shock and thought that this would be a good time for a chat.
I wished he’d pass out. Or die. Anything so long as he’d not do this now.
‘That’s a hell of a party trick,’ he said quietly.
I said nothing and concentrated on not writing off the car.
‘What’s the plan?’ he asked.
‘Get you to a hospital.’
‘What about you?’
‘Don’t know,’ I admitted. ‘Haven’t got that far yet.’
‘Can I just ask–’
He managed all of 20 seconds of silence. ‘Seriously, how did you do that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’ he said, ‘But what are you?’
‘Don’t be a dick,’ I scowled. I was genuinely offended.
‘Why does that make me a dick?’
‘Because you’ve known me for seven years!’
‘Well, today has been a bit of an eye-opener,’ he protested. ‘I mean... were you, sort of, dead? You looked dead, and with the throat and the blood and everything...’
‘What’s it like?’
‘It’s just like being unconscious.’
‘I nearly gave you mouth to mouth.’
I spotted an opportunity to change the tone of the conversation, because I wasn’t enjoying this one. ‘Ew, that’s gay,’ I teased.
‘It’s not funny, mate, I thought you were dead. Properly dead, I mean.’
‘Just promise me you’ll never give me mouth to mouth.’
‘Don’t make me laugh,’ his laugh turned into a cough into dry heaves and finally he was sick in his lap.
So much for lightening the mood.
‘Sorry,’ I said when he sounded like he was done. I don’t know why I apologised. This was not my fault.
This was his fault.
It had been his idea to go to the West Bank because he was bored flying a desk and doing the family man bit in London. So because he fancied a jaunt and because I was his friend, he talked me out of my long-standing policy of avoiding conflict zones and three days into interviewing rape survivors, we ended up clocked by a group of angry young men whose interpretation of Islam could only be described as unhinged.
‘I’d better not die.’ He said. It came out as more of a hope than a threat.
‘You’re not going to die.’
Despite the strain in his voice, he was still as animated as ever, ‘On what do you base that opinion? If I don’t get to a hospital I’m fucked. I’ll bleed to death or get blood poisoning or Jesus Christ I’m going to die.’
‘Calm down, for fuck’s sake, it didn’t hit anything important and this is not massive blood loss.’
‘Can’t you perform miracles?’ he said in an accusatory tone.
‘Do you think if I could I would have done it by now?’ I scowled.
‘Have you ever really tried?’
‘Paul, give me a break,’ I whined.
He made it to 15 seconds this time. ‘I’ve just thought, are you really old?’
‘Well… you’re clearly, you know…’ he said like I knew. ‘How old are you?’
‘Not in the scheme of things.’
‘In the scheme of things?’ he repeated, horrified by whatever I might say. ‘How old are you?’
‘A ton next birthday.’
‘Oh, okay, that’s not too bad,’ he seemed relieved that I was still within a normal lifespan. ‘You look like a teenager.’
‘I look like I’m 32,’ I corrected him.
‘30, at best,’ he said.
‘I know I look 32 because I was 32 when I died.’
‘You died?’ he repeated.
I had to remind myself that this was all new information to him. ‘Aye, at the D-Day landings.’
‘So you’ve died more than once?’
‘Today makes twice,’ I said. ‘It’s surprisingly easy to go a lifetime without being killed. Ah ha!’
‘What?’ he looked up.
‘We’re going to hit the highway very soon’
‘See the glow? That’s Bethlehem.’
‘Suppose that’s the modern equivalent of following a star,’ he grumbled.
We drove on, barely hitting 20mph over the alternately rocky and sandy terrain, waiting in tense silence for a road to appear.
‘Thank God, tarmac!’ I sighed with relief and finally exceeded second gear.
‘Do you think we should head to the border?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I think we should head to Israel. Besides, you need protection from the Caphilate. If word gets around, you’ll be diced up for the juju before breakfast,’ he said easily, as though that wasn’t a real concern.
‘I need to get out of the Middle East,’ I said, more for my benefit than his.
‘I don’t know. Look, I’ll drop you at the first checkpoint we get to, alright?’
‘Then I’ll turn around and go the other way.’
‘And then?’ he pressed.
‘I’ll wing it, it’s no bother.’
Another silence, he broke it again, ‘Is Chris your real name?’
‘No,’ I said, and answered the next question before it came, ‘Alasdair. Shaw.’
A name I hadn’t spoken in decades.
‘Alasdair? Do you want me to call you Alasdair?’
‘If you want. I don’t mind,’ I said. I was surprisingly ambivalent about what he was going to call me, since I was almost certainly going to get called worse if it got out.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked.
I smirked. ‘You wouldn’t have heard of it.’
‘Why wouldn’t I have heard of it?’
‘You’re not interested in astronomy.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he was irritated by me talking down to him, and then he realised the implication, ‘Holy fuck! Holy fuck, you’re an alien! Why? Why are you here?’
‘Well, you’re our nearest neighbours, we thought we’d have a look around. Incognito, like.’
‘But you’re... holy fuck. Holy fuck,’ he repeated that mantra a couple more times before he pulled himself together a bit, ‘Oh my God. But you’re Scottish. This is mental. Are you serious?’
‘I was winding you up. Sorry,’ I giggled, ‘I’ve been waiting thirty years to make that joke.’
‘Now? Really?’ he was incredulous.
I shrugged, ‘It took your mind off your shoulder.’
‘Oh, you bastard, I believed you! Seriously. Mate. Come on.’
‘I don’t know anything about it,’ I protested.
‘So where are you from?’
‘Stirling. You unbelievable dick, you really thought I was an alien?’
‘It’s plausible!’ he croaked. ‘You know what, this actually explains a lot.’
‘Like what?’ I was affronted. I felt that my resemblance to a human being was so uncanny I could still lay claim to being human.
‘Like... just... it makes sense. No one will be surprised.’
‘Well, if we could keep it so no one else finds out that’d be good.’
‘It’ll get out,’ he said.
He was right. The whole sorry episode had been recorded on a smartphone from start to finish. From having my throat sliced open to waking up pristine a few minutes later. It was probably already on YouTube.
‘It’ll be laughed away,’ I said hopefully. ‘It’s just terrorists with Photoshop, isn’t it?’
‘It’ll fuck up Christianity, won’t it?’
‘I hope not.’
‘Why not?’ he frowned, excited at the thought of pulling that particular plug.
‘You don’t think Christianity’s fucked up enough?’ I checked.
‘Fair point,’ he grumbled.
‘How are you feeling?’ I changed the subject.
‘Like I’ve been shot. You?’
‘Oh, you know,’ I mumbled.
He couldn’t know. The most scared most people ever get is immediately before they die and in most cases, that’s over with quickly. In my unique experience, the bit immediately afterwards is worse.
‘What time is it?’ he asked as though I might know.
‘No idea, bastards nicked my watch.’
‘Me too. Still, glad to be out of there.’
‘Aye,’ I muttered, because there was at least that.
‘I don’t know if Israel is a good idea,’ he announced.
‘You said you wanted Israel.’
‘Yeah, but what are you going to do?’
‘I’ll survive whatever happens,’ I said as though that was going to be an achievement rather than a certainty.
‘But the IDF aren’t just going to let you go on your way, are they?’
‘I’m not going near the IDF. I’m dropping you off and driving away.’
‘But you can handle yourself, can’t you?’
‘Are you joking, I’m 6’2”, I rely on that as a deterrent. I once got my arse kicked by a marine. One single marine who was so drunk he didn’t even have depth perception. Can you imagine? I’d have my balls handed to me.’
‘But there’s got to be another option,’ he said hopefully.
‘You can go to an Arab hospital, but everywhere around here there’s Caliphate eyes, and I bet they’re looking for us. No you’re right, I need to get you to Israel.’
‘But won’t Israel have the same eyes out?’
‘They’ve got some understanding of human rights in Israel. If you’re white, anyway. So I’ve just got to get you to a checkpoint. I’ll scarper, it’ll be fine.’
‘Is this really that urgent? I mean, you said, it’s not that bad.’
‘No, that isn’t, but blood poisoning is. Look, we’ve got no resources, in a quarter of a tank we can’t get anywhere, we’ve no food, no water, anything we can get hold of around here will make you ill, and getting found in three day’s time huddled in the middle of nowhere with me wiping your red-raw arse does not appeal.’
‘Isn’t it safer for you in Israel too?’
‘Not really,’ I sighed. I was between a rock and a hard place with religious fruitloops behind me and secular nutbags in front; both offered different but equally shit scenarios.
I don’t know what was going through his mind when he asked, ‘How did I not notice this?’
‘You’re a hundred years old, how did I not notice that?’
‘It was never a possibility, was it?’ I pointed out.
‘Yeah, but still... I don’t feel like a very good friend if I didn’t even notice that.’
He was in his forties but somehow still had the self-involvement of a teenager.
‘Nobody has ever noticed it,’ I said.
‘Because it was never a possibility.’
‘Yeah, but clearly it is,’ he grumbled, like I had cheated him out of his reliable reality.
I huffed, ‘Did you ever think to yourself, “wow, he knows a lot about Twentieth Century politics, I bet he lived through it”?’
‘Oh. Yeah. I see your point.’
‘But I’m not surprised.’
‘Oh for Christ’s sake,’ I grumbled.
‘Seriously. You are a bit odd.’
‘So are you,’ I countered.
‘I am not.’
‘Aye, you are.’
‘Well, this isn’t about me, is it?’ he scowled, while he made it about him. ‘I just, I’m sorry.’
‘Well, I feel like a right dick now. How many times have you sat there with me giving you all my words of wisdom going, “oh yeah, alright”?’
‘Never, I like your words of wisdom,’ I reassured him, despite him not deserving it. ‘Shows you care.’
‘I still feel like a dick.’
‘Well, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. If it’s any help, I never told anyone.’
‘But you’ve got a gob the size of the Mersey Tunnel,’ he said. ‘How did you keep this to yourself?’
‘It’s not that big a deal.’
‘You just came back from the dead!’ he cried.
‘Aye, it’s not like it happens that often.’ I insisted, ‘Jesus, I’d kill for a fag.’
‘Well, at least don’t have to nag you about quitting now.’
‘No, that one did get quite tedious.’
‘Sorry,’ he muttered.
I don’t think he was taking the piss when he said, ‘Sorry,’ again.
I grumbled something inarticulate.
‘Well, if I live, I’ll be telling my grandchildren about you,’ he said brightly.
‘If you don’t, I’ll tell them about you,’ I countered.
‘You know, I thought I’d never see my kids again.’
‘Don’t be so dramatic.’
‘There was a sword three inches from my neck. Jesus, if you didn’t... you know... wake up or whatever, when you did, I would have been killed.’
I knew from experience that it was a mistake to dwell on things that hadn’t happened. ‘Don’t think about it.’
‘No, I just mean, you know... thank you.’
‘Well, if I can return the favour…’ he said facetiously.
‘If you’re my last resort, we’re all more fucked than we realised.’
I could see the lights of a checkpoint up ahead and pulled over three hundred yards short. ‘Are you going to be able to make it?’ I asked him.
‘Yeah. It’s not that bad. Apparently.’
‘You can do me that favour,’ I said. ‘Tell them I was killed. I don’t need to tell you to embellish it, you never let the facts get in the way of a good story. But make it heroic.’
He snorted with laughter, ‘Yeah, alright. You going to be in touch?’
‘Of course,’ I lied. ‘Soon as it all dies down a bit, I’ll email or something.’
‘Where are you going to go?’
‘Probably Turkey,’ I lied again, this time so that he wouldn’t have to.
‘How are you going to get there?’ he pressed.
‘I’ll figure something out.’
He was motionless for a few seconds. I could sense he was about to say something sentimental so I got out of the car to help him to his feet, ‘Come on, on your way,’
‘Alright, don’t nag.’
‘You’re going to get me clocked.’
‘It’s all about you, isn’t it,’ he teased, and cleared his throat. ‘You stay safe, alright?’
‘I’ll be fine. Good luck with that. Hope they don’t have to amputate.’
‘Oh fuck off,’ he shoved me lightly.
‘I’ll be in touch when I land somewhere. Take care.’
He looked like he was about to go in for a hug, so I held my hand out to shake his.
‘Chris, Alasdair, I mean,’ he flustered, ‘are you going to be alright?’
‘I’ll survive whatever happens. Take care.’