Excerpt from BETWEEN THIS WORLD AND THE NEXT

By PRAVEEN HERAT

 

“Mr. Federenko come soon,” the driver said, lugging Fearless’s duffel up the stairs.

Above, on the landing, he saw a blur of pattering feet and what looked like a cowled figure disappearing through a door—but it must have been his mind playing tricks, he told himself. And the rain was disorienting; it hammered on the stairwell’s skylight like a hundred hundredweight of masonry nails tossed from above. Fearless’s work as a war photographer had taken him everywhere save Asia, so the sheer speed and volume of the monsoon surprised him. When the driver led him through the open door of a whitewashed apartment, he was stunned to see the water reaching pedestrians’ knees from its balcony, the thoroughfares now canals traversed by cars and tuk-tuks that left parabolae of foam rippling in their wake. Clothes stuck to people’s skin. Ropes of water twisted from awnings.

So this was Cambodia. Cambodia—at last. How long his life had been this way, disappearing in one location and resurfacing in another, consistent only in its utter inconsistency.

“Quae mundi plaga?”

That was his perennial question on waking: which country, which place, which time zone, which bed? Most often, the light from the crack in the curtains would show fruit slices under cling film or rectangles of Lipton tea; a whirring ceiling fan that signified: hotel. If he was luckier, Laure’s hair tumbling across the pillow, the constellation of moles on the nape of her neck, the cornflower blue sheets of their bed in the cottage.

“Cambodia!” Conrad had said, when he had told him about the plane ticket that Alyosha had offered him. “You’ve got to be kidding. The country that killed your father. Why on earth would you go there now?” Conrad was right; it was utterly absurd. But Fearless had been livid. There should be a name for this phenomenon: the rage you experience when someone voices what you yourself think but cannot accept. Especially when that someone is someone who loves you.

“I go now,” the driver said, putting Fearless’s duffel down by the sofa.

“You’re going. Really? Remind me of your name.” He liked the man’s gentle smile and thick wedge of hair and wanted to find a way to make him stay. (Maybe liking someone and not wanting to be alone were the same thing. Fearless had always known it was a special weakness of his.)

“My nem Bun Thim.” The ‘bun’ rhymed with the ‘un’ in ‘wunderbar’; the ‘h’ in the ‘Thim’ was barely detectible.

“Thank you, Bun Thim.” When Fearless reached to shake the man’s hands he noticed that their backs were ridged with horrible burns, the skin pulled tight, knotted and warped.

After he had watched Bum Thim’s Toyota crest through the waters and join the sporadic traffic back on the riverside, Fearless wandered slowly around the apartment. There were two bedrooms, one internal and one giving onto the street. He would let Alyosha decide who would have which.

He sensed something in his chest—a kind of tightness.

“I will not feel,” he said out loud. “I will not feel until I have to.”

Just wait, he told himself. Just wait for Alyosha to get here. He would have someone he could rely on, someone to drown his sorrows with and forget.

There now: a kerfuffle outside on the stairs—an ostentatious stamping of wet feet on concrete floor.

“Bacha! You’re here!” Alyosha cried, striding in and spreading his arms. Fearless hardly had a chance to take him in before he was bear-hugged—but it was enough to grasp just how much Alyosha had changed. This gentleman in a suit, hair trimmed and freshly Brylcreemed, was a far cry from the scruff he’d met six years ago. And there was weight around Alyosha’s cheeks, pressed firmly against his—the final signifier of a new prosperity.

“Mon frere,” Alyosha whispered—the greeting he always reserved for Fearless.

“Mon frere,” Fearless replied, returning the embrace.

Alyosha patted Fearless’s back several times, before a series of hiccups seized his chest.

“Oh Laure!” Alyosha murmured, which sent images spiraling through Fearless’s mind. Her red hatchback flipping end over end. Firemen wrestling hoses on a carriageway dotted with wreckage. The contents of her handbag strewn on the tarmac: the plane tickets for their last holiday before the baby was born; the hospital form with all the details of how she would give birth. They would listen to The Köln Concert and Spirit of Eden, she had decided.

Alyosha emitted another hiccup. “It seems like only yesterday I was talking to her on the phone.”

“You spoke to Laure recently?”

Alyosha came out of the embrace.

“It was strange,” he said, gripping Fearless’s upper arms, “She called and said she urgently needed my advice. And I gave her a time to call back and waited. And waited. And then—I heard the reason why.”

He hugged Fearless again with another stifled sob.

“How was the funeral?” “Fine,” Fearless said.

But it had been dreadful. There had been demons in the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral, curling their tails around the bosses and cackling. Laure would have hated it. A Church of England service. Congregation, save for Fearless, all dressed in black.

“They brought the baby,” Fearless said, “In this little white coffin.” He pressed his eyes into his friend’s pinstriped shoulder; the paramedics had performed an emergency C-section at the scene, knowing Laure was gone but the child might have hope.

Alyosha cupped Fearless’s head in both hands and brought it down till their foreheads pressed together.

Everything about the funeral had been wrong, so wrong. It enraged him now—he could have howled out loud—but he hadn’t dared argue with Laure’s father, brother and sister, their backs lined up on the pew in front of his. Laure had wanted a cremation with her ashes scattered in the Channel. “Afterwards, everyone can add a stone to the cairn in the garden,” she had said. “They can watch the sun set. Drink some cognac if they like.” It was a professional quirk to muse about such things—in hotel rooms, at bars, under curfews and gunfire.

“I’m just so glad you’re here, bacha,” Alyosha said, wiping his eyes. “I figured you need a change. Get away from that cottage.”

“I’ve barely been back there.” “What?”

“There’s too much shit.” “All her papers.”

“All her papers and files piled everywhere. Foreign Reporter of the Year. She was in the running, apparently.”

“Let Conrad and Lucy take care of it—what is family for?”

Fearless changed the subject: you had to swim into the grief; get deeper than its waves and hold your breath till they passed. But Alyosha was right: Lucy and Conrad were family. Surrogate sister and surrogate father: there was no one else who would lay claim to him.

He dug out a pack of cigarettes and held it out to Alyosha.

“No. I’ve given up.” “What? Jesus. No.”

“I have to keep these clean,” said Alyosha, drawing back his lips.

“Oh my,” Fearless said: Alyosha’s teeth, mangled in his Red Army days in Afghanistan, had been replaced by a set of gleaming implants.

“I have a dentist in Tel Aviv. And look,” Alyosha said, lifting his arm to reveal a golden Rolex. “Like Paul Newman. 36,000 vibrations per second.”

Fearless smiled at the joy Alyosha took in impressing him. The acquisitiveness he would have sneered at in any Western friend he forgave in someone who had lived through Brezhnev’s ‘gody zastoya’. Alyosha had queued for toilet roll in sub-zero temperatures. Supermarkets, salami and chewing gum were magical to him.

“See. These little sub-dials—that’s what they call them—sub-dials—have block markers. These tiny squares on the sticks.”

“So Cambodia. I can’t believe it. What the hell are you doing here?”

“I have clients to entertain for a few days in Phnom Penh. But we’ll take a trip to Angkor Wat. Visit the orphanage I’m helping.”

“Do people come to Phnom Penh for entertainment these days?”

“My boss has investments here. When I met him, it spoke to me. Because I’ve always felt a connection to the country through your father.” Alyosha clapped his hand on Fearless’s shoulder. “You know how much I believe in destiny.”

“But also that we’re all the masters of our fates.”

“Well, destiny exists, bacha, but our fates are not decided. The invisible hand puts us down on the board but we are the ones who choose when and where we move. And after this deal is done in Cambodia, I’ll be back. I’m going back to Russia. And no one will be bossing me.”

Alyosha’s certainty never ceased to amaze Fearless; it was why Fearless—for whom belief was always provisional, always tempered with the duty to see the other side—adored him.

Alyosha held up his finger and thumb and moved them slowly closer to each other. “Once this deal is done, I’ll have new apartment in Moscow. I don’t care if they are saying gold rush is over. Or a Stalinka. No—a house! Yes. A palace in Rublevka!”

“And Odessa?”

“What? No no. Forget about Odessa.” “What about Vera?”

Alyosha shrugged. “Things happen,” he said.

“Things what? You should have told me.” Fearless put his hand on his head and kept it there. “This is big,” he added.

“No, not big. No no. She has the Siemens washing machine she is always dreaming. Come—you know what Khrushchev said. About the wet hen.”

An exceptionally tall Black man now came through the door; silently, as if he had been outside, quietly listening, and wanted to save Alyosha from this uncomfortable conversation. His torso was broad and impressively tapered, his black t-shirt tucked into loose, black slacks. In his hand, he carried a metal Samsonite briefcase.

“Ah you’re back,” said Alyosha, “Fearless, this is Amos. Amos, Fearless. Did you manage that job?”

Amos nodded and raised the briefcase.

Despite his imposing build, Amos was no tough, Fearless saw. There was something about his short dreads that softened the first impression. And he had to be trustworthy—that was certain—for Alyosha was rarely happy delegating any task.

“Back in Bosnia and Chechnya, Amos, I was Fearless’s fixer. He gave me a job when I had nothing. I never forget this.”

“He showed me your p—pictures,” Amos said in a South London accent.

“Of the bombings in Nairobi,” said Alyosha. “Fearless is always the same. The right man. In the wrong place.”

It was pure coincidence, Fearless wanted to tell them. He had been in Nairobi to spend some time with Jimmy. For once, work had been the very last thing on his mind. He had passed out on Jimmy’s sofa, fully dressed from the night before, when the first explosion made him sit up in a daze. Then the second explosion followed—the real bomb going off, shattering the windows of Jimmy’s apartment, the hail of a million fragments bouncing off Fearless’s back as he crouched down and huddled, its thunderclap rattling his windpipe.

“The scale of the destruction,” said Alyosha, “is hard to imagine.”

“You don’t have to,” said Fearless, “It was just like Grozny.” Grozny, where they had learned that concrete can melt like marshmallows or even float in the breeze in papery strips. The seven stories of the building next to the US Embassy in Nairobi were pancakes, a crater ripped away from the asphalt in front. Fearless had hurried to get there on autopilot, grabbing his camera, tripping down the stairs, sprinting, then stopping and crouching in the street: making himself a stone in a river of panic as commuters fled in the opposite direction. He kept their grimacing mouths and eyes in the foreground, blocking out the dust and heat and screams, focusing on the essentials—light, aperture, shutter speed—that would help him take whatever was happening to the world. On Haile Selassie Avenue, a blast of fire had engulfed the street, incinerating anything within a 100-metre radius. He shot the side of a bus peeled back like the lid of a tin of sardines. Every pane of glass in every building was obliterated. Heading directly into the sulfurous cloud above the ruins, he stumbled on a moraine of smoldering rubble, bruising his knees and searing his hands. Through the haze, three soot-covered ghosts emerged to one side, each heaving a limb of a body bathed in vermilion.

All these memories had been swept from his mind, the space on its table taken up by what had happened when he returned to England the next day.

“You got close,” said Alyosha.

“You know me,” said Fearless, as he remembered stumbling out of the wreckage to find Jimmy somehow there—in his blue and white pajamas, his whole body quivering in shock.

“This is normal,” Fearless wanted to tell him, “Our ability to exterminate makes us who we are.” He wanted to share the mantra he used with Jimmy: “I will not feel. I will not feel until I have to.” And he wanted to know if he felt the same thrill when he saw the dead: the thrill that it wasn’t you; the thrill that they weren’t yours.

Alyosha knew all of these things without discussing them. They had lived through it together so many times.

But there was something Fearless wanted to confess: if he had caught the right flight back to England from Nairobi, if he hadn’t stayed to photograph what was unfolding that day, then Laure wouldn’t have been on that motorway alone. She might still be alive. If there was anyone he could say that to, it was surely Alyosha; he knew him and his work; he also knew Laure. Fearless could lay out all of his guilt to him; he could tell him about the ring he’d bought for Laure in Nairobi that now he would never have the chance to give.

 

Praveen Herat was born in London to Sri Lankan parents and educated in the UK, where he graduated from UEA’s Creative Writing MA. He lived and worked for several years in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a key location in his novel, Between This World and the Next. He has worked in a variety of fields: supporting victims of domestic abuse, project-managing museum events and working with young people as an academic coach. For the last decade, he has lived in Paris.

Read more excerpts by the finalists for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

Excerpt from BETWEEN THIS WORLD AND THE NEXT

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