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Darkness in Degrees


(Transmitted on BBC Radio 4, 2013)


His daughter’s latest mission was to improve his musical tastes and he was listening to the latest CD she had given him when he heard the blast. It broke the air into pieces. When it re-assembled there was silence. Whoever detonated the car bomb had stolen his hearing. The shock wave had blown out the windows of his office so he was no longer sealed from the city. Unconditioned air bullied its way in. He looked across the narrow street and saw a woman in the office opposite rummaging in her bag for a small mirror and checking her face. He called across the empty space: “Are you hurt? Are you OK?” but his voice was silent in his head.

Perhaps the woman heard him – or perhaps she too had been deafened in the blast, but she nodded, and went on nodding a little too long. Only then did he think of the people in his company on the floor below; his few remaining charges.  Ten years before, his practice had been making good money. Old Damascus was the destination to visit. Hollywood stars had given it their seal of approval, and he was the go-to architect who could be trusted to turn the caravanserai into Boutique hotels. He delivered the projects on time and on budget and he knew how to mix the old with the new in a way that would appeal to Western sensibilities without offending history. He had a good eye for detail. He understood dignity. This big bear of a man was loved, but also feared. He laughed rarely but when he did you’d earned his respect.  Now the boutique hotels were full of refugees. Now the tourists were gone and the streets full of soldiers. Now the sun cast shadows of jets on the streets.

From which direction had the blast come? Somewhere close to the centre of the city. 

He reached for his cell phone. He had a signal, but when he put it to his ear he could hear nothing. He looked across at the old CD player. The CD no longer span. He went to the computer but the power was off. Then, something else he had not registered: the dimness in the office. Somehow the warm air had confused his senses, compensated for the lack of artificial light. He wasted a moment remembering a remarkable interview he had read with a blind man who explained the way he navigated his city. It changed the way the man saw it forever, and when, afterwards, he talked to the young architects he often mentioned it, in fact he mentioned it so often they began to question whether he was losing his grip. No, he was ageing and one of its manifestations was the change in the way he saw the world, tasted it, processed the signals with his senses. It was, he tried to explain to them, like being born again. They should try it. His most trusted colleague tried to change the subject by making a joke. But the others never took their eyes off him because they knew he was serious, and ten minutes later they were walking out of the building – a human crocodile of blindfolded men and women in suits walking around the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus. And when they came back they all agreed it had been a worthwhile exercise.

Why was he thinking of that now? Because his hearing was broken. Somewhere, as though from a different world, came the sounds of a city. The sirens seemed almost apologetic, each car alarm triggered by the blast a good humoured reminder to the driver to return to the vehicle in his own sweet time. He went to the door and reached for the handle and only then did he see the blood on his hands. He looked down at the bib of his white shirt and saw that it was red. He reached to feel his face and felt the powder of glass. He licked his lips and tasted the salt of glass. It abraided his tongue and he tried to swallow it away but then knew he should have spat it out. So he did and the red slug of spit hit the floor, wriggled and died. No need for panic, just glass cuts surely. He was still standing. There was no majestic centre of pain so he had not been wounded in the blast. Nothing he could do but go to the washroom and check the state of himself in the mirror.

What he hadn’t vouched for, still living by the assumptions of life before the blast, was that the room was of no use to him. The light did not spring on when he opened the door so the washroom remained a black hole, a hellish prison cell of a room. A childhood fear revisited him and he pulled the door shut feeling the sweat break on his brow and his heart race. He knew he must go to the floor below. If they saw him covered in blood then they would just have to deal with it. He couldn’t be their father forever.

He went to the lift, but the lift was not working. He pulled open the door to the stairwell and another kind of darkness greeted him. Would the blind man he had read about recognise that darkness comes in degrees? Is the absence of light he experiences the hellish prison black of the washroom or the summer midnight of the stairwell? He has no choice but to take the stairwell to the floor below, but as he steps in he feels an enormous reluctance to release the handle and let the damper mechanism tug the heavy door shut. For a moment he stands just beyond the threshold. From somewhere he finds the confidence to release the door, reach for the metal banister and walk slowly, one step at a time, to the floor below. In the darkness he makes the brief, unwelcome acquaintance of the old man he may, if circumstances permit him, become. Vanity will desert you first, the old man somehow tells him. And then it is all downhill – in every sense of the word.

Down now and back on the flat smooth concrete of a stairwell floor. It is unsullied by grit or glass, swept six times a week, washed once a week with a solution specified by the architect. They know what a stickler he is for perfection: remember the time when they set the floor of that hotel with that new compound and it took them nearly eight hours and it was as perfect as a skating rink?  Even he, the contractor said, would be unable to find fault with it. But he did. A tiny fan-shaped imperfection in the surface veneer just below the third window. He saw it the moment he walked in, and he knew that the reason the architect had missed it was because the light had changed, and only in the late afternoon, as the sun had dropped, was the tiny prominence made visible. ‘And do you know what?’ He told his wife that night, as he ate his perfect meal, ‘I never mentioned it.’ He waved his knife in the air to add force to the statement.

‘You are a good man,’ his wife said to him.

Two children complete the good man’s family: olive-eyed, like him. Black lustrous hair, like his wife’s. Fourteen and twelve years old. Perfect, unblemished skin, like her skin. Two years between them. First the girl and then the boy. He had only a tiny, unexpressed irritation that the boy had come second, but he could nurture that imperfection away.

His son would talk – endlessly, aimlessly; a stream of happy chatter. His daughter would choose her words carefully, ever watchful, ever vigilant of her father,  impatient with her sibling. 

‘Listen to what your brother is saying,’ the man would chide, and despite his daughter’s spirit (which his wife knew he would never break), the girl would, for a while listen with insincere deference to her little brother. Already she was the only one in the world who could tame the temper of this man - her father - whose spirit and drive and intolerance she had inherited. And now she had learned to do it with music. “Buy yourself an MP3 player,” she would demand of him.

“I have a good enough CD player,” he would chide back, smiling. “Why waste money?”

So it became a ritual. Each week, on Monday morning before he left for work, she would deliver him another CD and he would pretend to be surprised and he would pack it into his briefcase and take it into work, and as he worked he would listen. And while he listened he would learn – with each CD he learned more about his daughter as she approached womanhood.

But where was the blast? From which direction had it come? He could not, would not, allow himself to begin to face the fear. Where did his wife say she was taking his daughter that morning? They were going to the bank. Yes, she said they were going to the bank and then somewhere else. Today, of all days, he should have paid her the attention she deserved. 

He opened the door to the corridor and the light and life of the floor below assaulted him. Under normal circumstances he would not have tolerated it. Stern words would have been expressed. This, after all, was a company which prized decorum and precision in both words and deed. Only the men were occasionally allowed to express what it was that made them men: but only when the women had gone.

Civilisation had broken down on the second floor. Only when he walked to the centre of the open room did calmness begin to assert itself. But it was not his presence or his authority which engendered it, it was the blood on his face and his hands. He was, they now saw, just human after all. Why had they feared him all this time?

He stood at the centre of the room and somebody guided him down into a chair. Soon a woman was kneeling beside him and asking permission to bathe his face with a paper towel and tepid water. She talked to him as she did it but he couldn’t make out the words. The sound of her speech was like large stones distantly rolling against each other. A semi-circle of his people were standing around him, telling him things, asking him for instruction, and all he could do was to shake his head and try to say that they would have to deal with it. A woman was the first to pick up on the fact that he could not understand what was being said to him. Somehow, the third floor had borne the brunt of the blast.

He saw her mime to a colleague that he could not hear and they should not bother him. He nodded gratefully and looked down into the bucket on the floor beside his chair. The water was dyed pink. The woman continued to dab at his cheek until he gently guided her hand away and tried to tell her she had done enough.

At that point his hearing came back with a rush. He felt as though he had surfaced in a swimming pool. The hard edges of the words returned, the room became a symphony of shrill emotion: details, speculation, reassurances. Then the power came on. Somebody turned on the TV. State television announced that the explosion had occurred in Sabaa Bahrat, heavily populated, close to the finance ministry and the central bank. Fifty-three people had been wounded. Shots were fired in the air to clear a path for the ambulances. More bombs were expected. The camera lingered on the ankles of the shrouded corpses: men, women, children. In the background, behind the mass of troops he saw the bank.

No, he said to himself. Spare her. Take me. In his head the music began. Almost as if she was singing it to him.

He stood and when he did so they waited for him to make a statement. Something Presidential. But he had only one thing now to say. The most important thing he would ever say. He would tell his daughter that he loved the music she had given him and he would buy an MP3 player. Please, he prayed, please let me have that conversation. He returned to his office and he unplugged his old CD player from the wall, brushed the dust from it and cradled it in his arms like a child. Then he walked out of the building, into the shadowed streets of Old Damascus, and headed home. 

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