a short story by Paul D Kennedy
© Paul D Kennedy, February 2001
prize in BT's In Brief Competition in February 2001.
At the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait I was living in a multi-roomed apartment on the 9th floor of a residential complex in downtown Kuwait City. There I felt relatively safe from the confusion I could see down in the streets. My wife, who was Thai, was out of the country on vacation. Tuk, her best friend, was subletting our spare bedroom.
During the first few days of the occupation there were rumours of assaults by Iraqi soldiers on women from the third world. Pon, a Thai friend of mine, moved himself, his wife Noo, and her friend, Moon, into my home on the second day. He felt they would be safer staying with a Westerner.
Shortly after Pon moved in we took the precaution of preparing hiding places for the women. But we never really thought that they would be needed. Indeed two Iraqi soldiers had visited the flat in the early afternoon of Sunday, the Fifth of August 1990, to check our IDs, civil identity cards, and they had acted fairly courteously. We didn’t feel threatened much. The dangers were below us in the streets.
That evening, Pon, Noo and I were in the living room playing cards. Tuk and Moon were in the kitchen preparing supper.
At about 6:15pm there was a loud double-knock on the door. Myself and Pon went to look. The door was thumped strongly, again and again. I squinted through the spy-hole and turned to Pon.
“Soldiers,” I whispered in Thai and stepped aside. Pon took a brief look and motioned me back to the living room.
“No for check ID,” he said.
I nodded. He spoke quietly to the girls and they went scrimping down the corridor towards the bedrooms. The knocking became louder and more insistent. Pon and I went back to the door.
I looked through the spy-hole. A very tall well-built soldier faced me through the glass. He was bare headed and his hair was a light almost-sandy colour. He wore a pale yellow-green camouflage uniform. He leaned forward, thumped the door hard with his fist and stepped back.
Behind the big fellow I could see two more soldiers. I recognized them. They were the two who had been in earlier, checking our IDs. One was a small runt of a man. On his last visit he had been full of energy, fussing over our documents. The other was a big country bumpkin type who had shuffled along behind the runt as the latter checked us out. Behind these two I could see another soldier. He was wearing a red beret.
The tall soldier came forward and stuck his eye up to the spy-hole. Then he stepped back and gave the door a mighty kick. The door shuddered. I jumped back. I wondered how long the door would hold.
I turned, stepped around Pon, and went to the main passageway. I looked down the corridor. There was no sound from the girls. They were hidden in the places we had prepared for them – Tuk and Noo under the double bed in my room and Moon under the divan in my office.
The banging and kicking on the door intensified. The door shuddered repeatedly. The aluminium frame shook in the wall. I went back past Pon to the door and looked through the spy-hole. The Big Fella, the tall soldier, had taken a few steps back and was launching himself full-bodied against the door. I jerked my head back as the door quivered violently and moved back to Pon. The door quivered again and again from repeated body blows. I looked at Pon. He said nothing. He just stared at the door. It juddered and almost turned around the lock. It was almost off.
‘OK,’ I yelled
The blows stopped. I looked through the spy-hole. The Big Fella was standing in front of the door. He shouted something in Arabic. It sounded very imperative, an order. Pon was standing right behind me. I opened the door a quarter of the way and stood in front of it. I said:
The Big Fella put his right foot to the door and shoved it fully open. Then he slammed me backwards with the palm of his left hand. I staggered backwards and he followed me. He slammed me backwards several times with the palm of his left hand. I fell back heavily against the corridor wall opposite the door. Pon nipped out of the way. The Big Fella pressed his left forearm hard across my chest and pinned me to the wall. I saw his right hand coming up from behind his back. It held a very large bowie knife. He brought the point up under my chin. He said bess, bess, enough, enough. His eyes were hard and pin-pointed. I was clamped hard against the wall. I could feel the blade under my chin. It was very real and very big. The point pushed my skin. I tried not to struggle. I didn’t want him to feel he had to use that fucking knife.
The Runt came into the flat. He went left through the kitchen door, through the open-ended kitchen, into the dining area. He stood there with his Kalashnikov, covering the living room and the corridor. The other two then came in and stood in the doorway just inside the flat. The Big Fella relaxed his pressure on my chest. I stood up straight.
Then he grabbed me by the lapels with his left hand, pulled me forward and sideways, and slammed me up against the wall to the kitchen. The Country Bumpkin went forward, around us, and covered Pon. The Big Fella stepped back, letting go of me, and the Red Beret shoved his machine gun into my stomach. The Big Fella turned and pointed his knife at Pon and with his left hand pushed him sideways into the main room. The Big Fella yelled and he and the Country Bumpkin went running down towards the bedrooms. The Red Beret prodded me with his Kalashnikov and moved me into the dining room with Pon.
Myself and Pon stood in the centre of the room with the Runt covering us from near the dining-table and the Red Beret covering us from the end of the corridor.
The other two soldiers came back from the bedrooms. They had found nothing. I took out my passport and offered it to the Big Fella. He got angry and pushed my hand away. He started yelling in Arabic. The only word I understood was bint, woman. Then he gave an order, and he and the Red Beret went back to the bedrooms. We heard them opening rooms and closets, slamming doors throughout the flat.
The Country Bumpkin kept Pon and I covered in the main room. He held his machine-gun stiffly, his eyes opaque. The Runt held his gun casually and wandered around the room eating nuts he filched from a guest bowl on the dining table. He strutted about, chewing and spitting the shells out on the floor, a proprietorial leer on his rat-like face.
There was a scream and whimper from my bedroom. We heard high-pitched breathless yells, sounds of scuffling. Tuk and Noo sobbing. A slapping sound and the girls fell silent. Then the Big Fella yelled and the Red Beret came back down the corridor. He nodded to the Runt, who grinned and ran down the corridor. A minute later the Big Fella yelled again and the Country Bumpkin walked down the corridor towards the bedrooms. We heard a door slam. Tuk and Noo shrieked.
The Big Fella came back to the living room. He pushed me and Pon over towards the big main window. We stood with our backs to the window, shoulder to shoulder, against a low cupboard. The Big Fella gave an order. The Red Beret unfolded the metal stock of his Kalashnikov and pulled a button on the side. Then he planted his feet apart and stood in an erect firing position. He pointed the gun at myself and Pon, at about shoulder height, aiming just between us. He was at least five metres away. I leaned my backside against the top edge of the cupboard. I needed the support. The Big Fella went back towards the bedrooms.
We heard doors bang. We heard Tuk and Noo whimpering. My bed-room door was banged closed again and the sounds became very faint. We heard someone go into Tuk's room, opening closets, turning the place over. Myself and Pon stood there, looking at the gun.
The Red Beret was neatly turned out in dark green camouflage. He had red splashes on the collar of his jacket and I guessed he was member of the Iraqi Republican Guards. The Runt and the Country Bumpkin, by contrast, seemed to be just ordinary soldiers. They wore mid-green camouflage and looked as if they’d been sleeping in their uniforms for the last night or so.
The Big Fella’s mottled uniform was well-tailored and clean. Unlike the other three, who had a sub-machine-gun each, he had no weapon except for the bowie knife, which he kept in a sheath tucked into the small of his back. I guessed he was out of some sort of well-trained special force.
Time passed. The sounds from the other end of the apartment were quite faint. Now and then the Red Beret glanced away briefly, down the corridor to the bedrooms, then back at us. He seemed a bit uneasy.
I needed a drag, badly. I motioned to my breast pocket and said:
‘No’, said the Red Beret.
He nodded his head vaguely.
I slowly put my hand into my pocket and slowly drew out my packet and lighter. I lit a cigarette. I took a deep drag and offered the packet to Pon. Pon shook his head. I leant forward and stretched out my arm to offer one to the Red Beret. I took a half-step forward. He instantly jabbed his Kalashnikov at me and said bess, enough. I move back quickly.
I smoked the cigarette slowly. We could not hear any sounds from my bedroom now. There were occasional noises from Tuk's room where someone was rooting around. Suddenly the Red Beret spoke:
‘Cigarette no good.’
He took his left hand from the barrel of the gun and tapped his chest.
‘Cigarette no good,’ he repeated. ‘Make bad inside. Big problem.’
He tapped his chest again and kinda smiled. Then he put his hand back on the gun and steadied it and held it straight at us again. I stared down the barrel.
The sounds from Tuk’s bedroom ceased. We could hear the soldier who had been in there going into my office. I ground the butt out on the tiled floor. Time passed.
There was a sudden scuffle. We heard Moon yelling haram, haram, forbidden, forbidden. She came running up the corridor and into the living room, yelling haram and other words I did not understand. She brushed past the Red Beret who started to yell in Arabic. The Country Bumpkin plodded after her into the living room. I told Moon to come over to me. She did so and I put my arm around her shoulder. ‘Pretend you are my wife,’ I said in Thai.
Moon leaned against me. She continued to yell in Arabic. After ten years tending shop in Kuwait her command of the language was good. I could hear the word Allah a lot. Now and then she broke into Thai. She was screaming that God was watching the evil that was being done. The Country Bumpkin just stood staring at her but the Red Beret got ultra-uptight and kept yelling down the corridor. My bedroom door was banged open and the Big Fella came to the living room. Moon was still yelling haram and Allah among other things. The Red Beret let loose a stream of Arabic at the Big Fella. The Big Fella became very annoyed and yelled down to the bedroom.
Then he motioned us over to the sitting area. We heard the door to my bathroom slam. Moon and myself were made to sit on the sofa in the corner and Pon was shoved down into a chair opposite us. The Runt came back into the main room and slopped down in a chair next to Pon. The cunt looked tired, spent.
The Red Beret stood in the background watching, his gun cradled in his arms. The Country Bumpkin stood near the window, staring. But the Big Fella moved around continuously. I put my left arm around Moon's shoulder.
‘Pretend you are my wife,’ I whispered. She leaned against me. Pon was facing us. We all stared at each other. The soldiers were becoming more and more ill-at-ease, looking around, unsure of what to do next. I let go of Moon and rested my arms on my legs.
The Big Fella noticed a lady's purse on the record rack. He picked it up and opened it. There was no money inside. He flew into a rage and flung the purse on the ground. He screamed at me in Arabic. I didn't know what he was saying. He whipped out his knife and slashed the air in front of my face. My head snapped back. He slashed in front of my face again and made me jerk my head back. He slashed the air again and again, closer to my face each time. Each time I had to jerk back. He never actually cut me. But I was fucking petrified, jerking back from the knife. I wanted it over. I wanted quick bullets, not a knife.
Suddenly his mood changed again. He quietened down and sheathed his knife, muttering to the others. The faces of the soldiers become contrite. The Big Fella said something and the Country Bumpkin sat down and opened the flaps of his battle jacket, and began pulling watches out of his breast pockets. The Runt did the same. The Red Beret stood in the background and the Big Fella smiled benignly. The two with the watches handed them to the Big Fella. He laid them on the coffee table and spread them out. He smiled. He gestured, inviting us to choose. There must have been at least a dozen watches on the table, some very expensive looking. We stared without moving.
The Big Fella pulled a large shoddy-looking watch from his pocket. He pointed at my Sekonda, which I had bought for thirty-five quid from a catalogue shop in London. It looked like a Rolex. ‘Why waste money on an expensive imitation,’ as the ad used to say. The Big Fella motioned for a swap. I took my watch off and handed it to him. He put his watch on the table in front of me with a formal sort of gesture and began looking lovingly at the watch I had just given him.
Suddenly he let out a bellow and shoved the watch into my face, under my nose. He pointed at the edge where the ‘gold’ had worn off. He was really angry, as if I had stiffed him. He flung the watch back at me and snatched the shoddy one up from the table. He started talking to the others. He was gesturing at me. He was working himself up into a fury, a deliberate frenzy. He pulled out his knife. The Runt and the Country Bumpkin stood up and pointed their guns at me. I felt a clamping tightness in my chest. I put my face in my hands.
But the Big Fella calmed himself down again. He put his knife away and turned to Pon and demanded his civil ID Card. Pon took out his wallet and the Big Fella snatched it. He walked around the room, his back to us, and went slowly through Pon's wallet. Then he handed it back, grinning and relaxed. He looked at my stereo rack and TV centre. He talked excitedly to the others. In the burble of guttural Arabic I heard the word video several times. Then the Big Fella shook his head.
There was a pause, a long pause. The soldiers were just standing there, looking very indecisive. I began hoping they would leave. Moon started to cry.
‘I go see Tuk and Noo,’ she whispered. She started to get up.
‘No,’ I said. I put my hand out and held her down. The Big Fella saw us.
He flew into a fury again. He leaned forward, pulled the knife from behind his back and slashed the air close to my face. My head jerked back. He was foaming at the mouth. He turned on Pon and slashed at him. Pon jerked up in his chair, his legs leaving the ground. The Big Fella did it to Pon again and again and each time Pon jerked in his chair, his legs leaving the ground. Then the Big Fella stood between us with his knife in the air, his arm upraised. He was shouting incoherently. The other soldiers watched, guns readied, waiting to be cued. I could see Pon tensing. But I was resigned.
The Big Fella barked an order. The Runt and the Country Bumpkin started gathering up the watches lying on the coffee table. The Big Fella barked again and they threw three watches back onto the table. Then the soldiers started to walk out, in single file, leaving us sitting there. The Big Fella went last, sheathing his knife. As he left the living room he turned around.
‘Masalaama,’ he said. Peace be with you.
I nodded soundlessly. Moon collapsed on the sofa, shuddering dryly. Pon stared frozen-faced.
When myself and Pon managed to get to the front door the soldiers had disappeared. We closed the door and ran to my bedroom.
Tuk and Noo were in the bathroom and the door was locked. We could hear running water. We could hear the two girls whispering together.
‘The soldiers are gone already,’ I said. ‘You can come out.’
‘We wash,’ Tuk replied.
I could hear the two girls whispering together and we had to wait at least five minutes before they opened the door. When they appeared their clothes were clinging to them and their hair was wet.
Noo walked slowly into the centre of the room. Tuk stood in the bathroom doorway. Moon came into the room beside me.
Noo stopped at an arm’s length from her husband. Her face was alabaster white. Pon put his hand and arm out straight and began to stroke his wife's cheek. A single large tear ran down Noo's face and onto Pon's knuckle. He brought his hand up to his mouth and licked the tear from his knuckle. He then wai'd to her, bringing his hands together up to his face and bowing his head, in the traditional Thai gesture of acknowledgement. He bowed extra low. Noo started to wai back but instead went forward and put both her hands on her husband’s shoulders. They stood there, the two of them, shivering together.
I looked at Tuk. Her lips were pulled taut, exposing her buck teeth.
‘Are you sore?’ I asked. She stared me straight in the face. She took a deep breath.
‘We not raped, Mr Paul, we not raped,’ she said. I was rocked. Tuk stared me straight in the face.
‘We not raped,’ she repeated vehemently. She turned and tumbled into Moon’s arms.
I was rocked rigid. Pon and Noo were a few feet away, close but not touching, watching me and Moon and Tuk. They were standing together and Noo was whispering to Pon and he was nodding. I could hardly hear Noo. I couldn’t make out the words. Pon was looking at me and I felt him drawing away from me. The Thai barriers were coming down in the face of the falang, the Westerner. Tuk stared at me straight in the face, up from the shelter of Moon’s arms.
‘We not raped,’ she repeated, again and again, like a mantra.
Tuk gathered herself together and stood up straight. Then she began telling the story of what happened. As she told the story she acted out her part, gesturing and using her body to show what had happened and where it had happened. Working on her audience of five she had the hard undeflectable conviction of a method actor. I listened and watched. I glanced at Noo. Noo was watching Tuk intently, nodding, as if determined to memorize something very important and complicated.
‘When soldiers come into room we under bed,’ Tuk said. ‘They not find us for time. Big man find us. He hear breathing. He poke under bed. We must to come out. When we half out big soldier pull us all way out, rough. Hurt. Hurt too much. There was soldier, another man, in room. Wore red hat. He had gun, point at us.
‘Then big soldier called others and soldier with red hat went out and other two, two who check IDs today, come in. Little soldier pushed me and Noo to closets,’ Tuk got up and stood with her back to the clothes closet.
‘He felt breasts, me, Noo,’ Tuk gestured. ‘Little soldier said my breasts bigger and I first. He grabbed me and pushed me on bed.’ Tuk showed us how and where she was made to go on the bed. ‘Big soldier told other soldier with stupid look who come check IDs to leave. Then big soldier close door. He stand against door. Little soldier start on me. He take off shirt him. He tear shirt me off me and start touch me. I push him. Noo go down on knees. She make wai to him. She touch his boots. She beg him, leave Tuk alone.
‘I able get off bed. I go down on knees between big soldier against door and little one. I make wai to them. I kiss shoes,’ said Tuk.
She went down on her knees, facing me. She curled her legs sideways beneath her body, feet pointing to the rear, and joined her hands together, palms inward with the fingers extended, in front of her face, the way Thais prepare themselves to kowtow to their King. Then Tuk arched her body and moved her whole trunk up and then down. Her face, with her hands extended in front, went right down to the floor in the traditional gesture of extreme abasement. She then raised her whole trunk up in the air, her face and hands coming up in the traditional gesture of frantic supplication.
She repeated the movement. Tuk stared me straight in the face. She repeated the movement again. I put my hand up to stop her.
‘I kiss shoes,’ she said and kowtowed again.
‘Stop now, it’s OK,’ I said. ‘I know.’
Tuk stopped. She sat back on her haunches and up-stared me straight in the face. She searched my eyes. Her eyes were chill black dots. I nodded. I squatted down beside her.
‘Then we hear Moon found in office you. She run out,’ Tuk whispered. ‘Big soldier open door. Too much shouting, running. Big soldier go out. He come back and say little soldier do nothing now. He said they come back tonight. I understand talk them. They come back tonight.’ Tuk’s lips shimmered around her teeth.
I helped her up from the floor.
‘They not rape us, elder brother, you understand? Tuk said. She stressed elder brother. I looked into her eyes and nodded.
‘Yes, I know,’ I said.
The five of us went back to the living room and sat down. We discussed what to do, where to go. The soldiers would be back. Moon said she had also heard them say so just before they left. Things would be worse next time, the girls said. Next time the visitors would rape them. We had to find another place, a safe flat.
Moon went to get some water for Tuk and Noo. I followed her into the kitchen.
‘Do you really think that they were not raped?’ I asked. Moon paused.
‘Me don’t know,’ she answered. Then, after a minute, she too stared me straight in the face.
‘No, not raped,’ she said firmly.
Relief swept through me. I didn’t have to worry about being the one who had opened the door. Tuk was my wife's best friend. She was my sister and she wanted the truth – that they had not been raped – known.
I don’t know why.
© Paul D Kennedy, February 2001