The Things Inside Our Heartsbyscheherazade_79©
On October 27, 2002 the Los Angeles Times reported the creation of a new force in the War against Terror. Its name was the Proactive Pre-emptive Operations Group, otherwise known as P20G. Allegedly, its sole purpose was to provoke terror cells into action, and then swoop down on them with almost split second timing just moments before they committed an atrocity. Unsurprisingly, once the outcry caused by the initial report subsided, very little was heard of P20G again. This story is a work of fiction and all the characters and events portrayed are figments of my overactive imagination. But as this short introduction suggests, it's grounded in a very real what-if. If you are looking for a quick fill of gratuitous lesbian sex, then I'm afraid that this isn't the story for you. If, however, you haven't been put off by the political overtones and prefer erotic stories to climax with the plot, then it may be worth reading on.
Thirty years of dust had blown through the ancient city since Carrie's last visit, but the scene unfolding beneath her office window was virtually unchanged. Market day - and the sunbaked street was a writhing mass of people, swarming between the ramshackle stalls, bartering, arguing, bargaining, buying, selling and battling just for survival in a world that that had been poised on the trigger for longer than Carrie cared to remember.
Despite her sealed and secure environment, the greying woman could smell the spices and hear the babble of foreign tongues. The sensations were just as real as the empty baskets of bread, the old lady selling tea and hashish and the faded yet colourful displays of cherries, okra, dates, lentils and what Carrie would always remember as the sweetest and most succulent peaches in the world. She had no need to be there in the shunt and shove – she had lived this scene in her dreams and in her nightmares, thousands of miles from its source.
Carrie turned through three lonely decades to see the tired figure of her boss standing in the doorway behind her. David Forster was a man in his early sixties, and the model English diplomat – white-haired, dignified and although charming by default of his chosen profession, completely divorced from his own emotions. Today, however, he seemed rattled.
"I'm afraid I have a little paperwork that requires your attention." He made some attempt at an apologetic smile, but Carrie detected the note of tension in his voice. He handed her some papers, his displeasure apparently growing by the second. "Some damned idiot has been stirring things up. Going around like the bloody village gossip – a man, too - and claiming all manner of things!"
Carrie raised an eyebrow. "Another deportation?"
"Certainly. No two ways about it. We can't have people like that blackening the name of the UK nor of our allies in the States. He has to go - and the sooner the better. I'm recommending that that he's detained at Her Majesty's pleasure the second he touches down at Heathrow. Things are difficult enough for us as it is, without wild and founded claims that Intelligence is playing cat and mouse with terrorists!"
Carrie scrutinised the forms while she gathered her thoughts. She'd been just a month in a job that she'd beaten all odds to get. Female, working class, and a lesbian – about as far from the average Foreign Office employee as you could go – but her spark of intelligence, along with a gritty determination had shattered the glass ceiling that deterred most from even applying.
"Does this need to be done today, Sir?" Carrie shot a furtive glance at the clock. It was approaching two – her normal clocking off time. Visas, passports, work permits and even the arrangements for extravagant business dinners were a dawdle compared to deportations. Even in a best-case scenario it would be impossible to get through the mountain of forms in under an hour.
"Absolutely, my dear. This kind of lie does nothing apart from put innocent lives in danger. We need to move quickly and, unfortunate as it may seem – to all of us – you are the crucial link in the chain."
Carrie ran her fingers through her tussled hair. It was a gesture that she always resorted to whenever she felt uncomfortable or cornered in any kind of way. There were times, such as this, when she suffocated under the unquestioning obedience her job demanded. By nature she was a questioning person, and always had been. It had served her well during the rigours of her Cambridge education, earning her a coveted double first in Politics and International Relations. But here, at the hub of world co-operation, her questions weren't just redundant – they had the potential to explode in her face.
What she really wanted to know was why someone would say such a thing. Why would someone go to the effort of concocting such a slanderous rumour when the odds were so clearly stacked against him? Was it simply a wild story, or did this person genuinely believe that Intelligence would resort to such dangerous tactics? If so, why? There was rarely any smoke without fire, and the more Carrie weighed up the situation, the more she felt that this was a person who should perhaps be listened to rather than whisked away and silenced.
Forster was still in the doorway, his dark suit blocking the sunlight from the hallway behind him. He was waiting, once again giving the impression that he disapproved of Carrie's being there. He was what you might call 'old school', and Carrie was one of only a handful of females who'd even set foot in the building, let alone played an active business role. This was just another test – a test to see if she'd go the extra mile. While any male employee would have baulked at the suggestion and carried on with his career unhindered, Carrie knew that her refusal would be added to a growing list of reasons for her dismissal.
She was about to open her mouth to reply, when she heard a couple of sharp cracks followed by a volley of heavy gunshots ripping through the air. Loud screams provided the finale – bloodcurdling ones that were audible even through the reinforced glass. Startled, Carrie dived for cover. Forster, on the other hand, took the interruption in his stride and strolled over to the window to get a better look.
"Bloody idiots!" he spat as he peered through the glass. "Acting like children in a school dinner queue! When will they realise that their aggression is just going to bring them more trouble?"
Carrie rose shakily to her feet and edged slowly towards the window. The marketplace was emptying fast. At one end stood a handful of peacekeepers, guns raised and advancing on the dissipating crowd. Slowly a wide rift was opening in the middle of the street – empty apart from the three that had been left behind forever. Carrie wasn't so much horrified as numbed to her very core. It had happened so quickly. Three lives – gone, in a matter of seconds. Thankfully she was too far away to see the details. They might have been the ones who started the scuffle, but as Carrie peered harder she became painfully aware that one of the bodies lying mangled across the worn cobbles was considerably smaller than the others.
A wave of nausea washed over her as her heart pounded through her chest. While the silence crept by she simply stood there, feeling the blood drain from her face as small streams of the same substance trickled through the dusty street. It was as though the entire scene had been left hanging by a horrible moment.
Forster seemed barely affected by the event. "So there we have it," he commented after an awkward silence, "This is what happens when people act in an irrational way – lives are lost."
Battling against the brimming tears, Carrie stood stock still as Forster lowered the blind.
"Not to worry, Ms Morgan - these things happen, and, no doubt, will continue to happen for a very long time. It's the nature of the world- especially this particular corner. But of course, you did all your homework before applying for the job, so it should come as that much of a surprise." There was a faint sneer to Forster's voice that made Carrie's heart pound harder. She had surprised him during the intense interview process, and it was something he'd never quite been able to forgive her for. At the time there had been three other candidates, all male, yet Carrie's knowledge of the area and its history, as well as her sparkling academic record, had made her the only choice for the vacant post.
"Don't worry – everyone gets used to it sooner or later. It just takes a degree of acceptance, that's all. Nobody can change the world overnight, and more often than not it can't be changed at all. You see, that's the difference between men and women – the level of expectation. I've seen many a woman pack up and leave overnight. Men tend to realise that the darkest hour is before dawn, and stick things out. Not to be helped, though." He flashed Carrie his most unconvincing diplomatic smile, but her eyes were locked on the ground, burning with rage and utter frustration.
Forster gave a dry cough and made for his exit. "I'll have those documents on my desk by first thing tomorrow morning, if you don't mind, Ms Morgan. Time is of the essence." And with that he breezed out of the room, leaving Carrie to pick up the pieces of her shattered innocence.
Two hours later the troubled young woman was still ticking mindless boxes and completing forms in triplicate. With every word she wrote the event that she'd just witnessed came flashing back, over and over again until her nerves became raw from the trauma. By the time she finished with the details, the mid-day call to prayer had long wailed out and the streets were empty of people.
She stepped out of the air-conditioned building into a furnace - the strong afternoon sun beating down on the tightly-packed buildings and radiating back from the streets. No one, not even a seasoned veteran like her boss, could ever get used to heat like this. It was too thick, too intense and absolutely suffocating. Carrie's hotel room lay just three blocks away, but for the exertion it took under these conditions, it may as well have been a million miles. Prickly from the both the heat and the afternoon carnage, Carrie found herself cursing her decision to walk to work that day.
Her only blessing was the fact that most of the local men would be busy with the Salatu-z-Zuhr for the next couple of hours. Had she wanted to, she could have streaked down the alleyways naked without fear of repercussion. Instead she settled for the removal of her stifling headscarf and allowing her hair to blow in the fragile breeze. Despite Carrie's qualifications, the expectation that women should cover their heads was something she'd never been able to understand. It was always argued that the headscarf, the hijab, the jilbab and even the all-encompassing burqua were there to protect women from marauding males. But why was it that the women had to hide themselves when a small degree of self-restraint on part of the males was the nicer and more obvious option?
As Carrie pondered over the issue, the exhaustion set slowly in. Her resolution to get home was fading. It wasn't just the walk – it was more a feeling of guilt at having so much, while those around her had so little. Like the other embassy workers, Carrie was stationed in a plush room at the Sheraton. She had access to cable TV, running water, electricity, a comfortable bed and all the food she could eat, both from the restaurants downstairs and an extensive room service menu. To some it might have seemed like a holiday, but for Carrie it was becoming more like a prison sentence by the day.
Back home she would have stopped for a drink, or an ice cream, or even whiled away a couple of idle minutes on a nearby bench. But here, she was yet to work up the courage. It was a male-dominated society – far more extreme than the one Carrie had come from – and although she lived by the dictum that persistence was the key, she was wise enough to know when stubbornness wasn't enough.
This was one of the reasons why she usually drove to her workplace. Even with her head covered, Carrie was an obvious target for the sex-starved male population, who rarely saw western women, least of all pale-skinned, blonde-haired ones like herself. No matter where she went it was always to an accompaniment of catcalls and wolf whistles – not dissimilar to spending her life beside a building site. Today with its perfect calm and solitude was a beautiful, unusual exception, but Carrie was struggling to enjoy it.
Her mouth parched and her head beginning to throb, she leaned up against a stone pillar and rested her face against its cool surface. The wind had died down, leaving behind it an air that was heavy and unmoving. In the distance dark clouds were visible, gathering at a slow pace and beginning to blot the horizon. The storm was still some way off, but in the silent streets the rumbles were easy to identify.
"Hey." A voice rang out from a nearby doorway, causing Carrie to look up, slightly puzzled. It was a woman's voice - soft, slightly husky and alluring as crushed velvet. She turned towards the sound.
"Why don't you come in? You look exhausted." The person who'd spoken was a striking woman somewhere in her late twenties. She had long dark hair that seemed almost Arabic in its sleekness; but despite the golden tan, her sea green eyes and defined cheekbones pointed towards an unmistakably western heritage.
"Well?" A seductive smile played around the corners of the woman's scarlet lips.
Carrie stirred a little from her spell. The stranger spoke perfect English, but her words had a lovely foreign lilt that captivated the young Brit from the outset. Her eyes glittered as she spoke, and with each word that was uttered the slight blush beneath her cheekbones intensified. Carrie gazed, finding the smile infectious. The deep stonewall building was bound to be a cool refuge from the heat, but what Carrie was drawn to wasn't its darkened doorway or even what lay beyond it – it was the woman who stood in the centre, dressed casually in blue jeans and a loose white shirt, leaning against the frame without a care in the world.
Not needing to think twice, Carrie stepped inside and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim glow. She was in a coffee house - empty apart from a heavily shrouded woman inside the booth, who was too busy shining glasses to even notice her only customers of the afternoon.
Carrie had seen such places before, but never experienced them in person. In fact most of her knowledge of the Arab world came from picture books and documentaries – all because of the simple fact that as a woman, she was excluded from most places. At work and at home the only places out of bounds to her were board rooms and the occasional men's club. Here it was pretty much everywhere, and there were times when Carrie felt she'd choke from the limitations of her two-dimensional knowledge.
The first thing to strike her about her new surroundings was the unfamiliar smell – a combination of stale tobacco smoke, strong coffee, wood polish and the musky smell of many males gathered over long periods of time. Several water pipes lay curled like dormant snakes in corners of the room, and Carrie eyed them warily as though they were likely to strike out at any given moment. She was somewhere that she shouldn't have been, and the longer she stood there the more she found herself enjoying the experience.
"Is this your first time?" asked the woman, intrigued by Carrie's reaction.
"It's really something, isn't it? You can quite understand how the men like to come here when they have a spare moment. Although it really is much more pleasant without them here, don't you think?" She gave a mischievous wink as Carrie glanced back, and smiled as the exhausted blonde processed the signals she was sending.
"By the way – I am Nell." The woman extended a hand and Carrie reached out to take it. She was about to introduce herself when their skin made contact and Carrie felt a tingle down her spine.
Struggling to compose herself she held onto the soft hand for as long as she could, releasing it only when she became embarrassed about the sweat oozing from her own palms. She glanced nervously at Nell, but was unable to maintain eye-contact for longer than a second. It was too intense – and too real. It had happened quickly. Just a minute ago she'd been cursing her own existence; now her entire existence seemed a build-up to this very moment.
It was a while before Carrie summoned the nerve to say who she was. And even then, she made it as brief as possible. She was edgy – uncomfortable with the feelings that were building up inside her. She had always been cautious when it came to her feelings. She'd been hurt enough times to distinguish between admiration, lust and the all-powerful "L" word. Somehow, though, Nell seemed different, and in more ways than one. It could have been her appearance, or it could have been the graceful way in which she moved. It might even have been the voice that had called Carrie in from the heat and seduced her in a matter of seconds. Whatever the reason, Carrie was visibly captivated.
"It's always nice to meet another western woman," mused Nell, blushing slightly under Carrie's gaze. "We've had rather a drought recently - ever since the violence has escalated. Now all the corporations, aid agencies and foreign offices around the world seem to be keeping their women at home. It's crazy." She shook her head, her mind evidently far away. "Especially when a woman's touch is what this part of the world needs more than anything else. Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
A woman's touch… Carrie was in a suggestible state where couldn't fail to be affected by Nell's choice of words. A woman's touch was also what she wanted – and needed – every bit as much as her environment. Still in a daze she nodded – "That would be great. Do you think they serve ice cream here?"
Nell gave a chuckle of amusement. "You really haven't been in the country very long, have you? They do have ice cream, and I am told that it is very good – but I really wouldn't advise it."
"I don't know if you have ever noticed, but the electricity supply is such that it gets turned off at night to save resources. Where are you staying, Carrie?"
"At the Sheraton – in the Green Belt."
Nell nodded and then lowered the tone of her voice as if she were imparting a state secret - "The power grid is a mess. Of course, you won't notice because the large hotels for the foreign workers all have big generators. But for the rest of this God-forsaken place… it doesn't matter how many American firms are being contracted to make repairs and then boast about how well they are doing – the fact is, it would need an absolute miracle to get this country running smoothly on the funds that our governments is giving."
"So how does that affect the ice cream?" The answer was obvious, but Carrie was so busy hanging on to every word of the attractive brunette that the logistics flew straight over her head.
"When there is no electricity, there is no electricity to keep the freezers running, and soon everything is melting. Many people store meat in their freezers right next to the ice cream that you so desperately want now. I'd really advise against it, darling. Can I get you something else?"
Carrie racked her muddied brains, but was too engrossed with other matters to come up with another option. Sensing her indecision, Nell walked over to the booth and released a few words of flawless Arabic. The woman serving immediately stopped what she was doing and poured out two tall glasses of a thick grey liquid. Nell paid and then returned to Carrie, who was still standing totally transfixed.