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Ibn Khaldoun

H e had lost his little sister. He was nine. He was very afraid. There was fog all around him. The fog seemed to contain faces. The faces were serene. He was like a blazing stick. He was frenzied. The calm faces were too great a contrast to his own feelings. He swirled around them. It was turning out very badly.

He could see the lights of the shop fronts and he could hear the lapping of the sea against the harbour stones. He grew more than a little afraid. His little sister could not swim. He heard her crying out and struggling against the too powerful sea, heard her drowning into silence. It was all in his head. He blamed himself. There had been some reason. Just. He had left her just for a moment and then she had disappeared. In his head he heard her screaming but told himself that she wasn’t screaming. She was as quiet as the grave. When he told himself that she was as quiet as the grave he shuddered and could hardly stand upright.

The lights were on but the shops were empty of people. He entered one, standing in the doorway with the fog following him in. It was a hardware shop. Everything shone, black blades and cutters and paper. The floor was wooden and scrubbed almost to the point where you could see your own face in the boards. But there was no one there. He almost spoke. He almost said her name. But there was a deep superstition in him. He felt that if he spoke her name that would be as far as he ever got in claiming her back again. The name would be substituted for the sister. This was his deep suserstition. It surprised him that he had this thought. He knew it was a crazy thought. For him, superstition was always ‘mere’ superstition. Always. But this time he was not sneering. So long as he didn’t speak her name, she might survive this shocking and terrifying episode.

He walked out of the deserted shop without touching anything. It had been warm in the place, however, and stepping back out again the freezing cold air was a ferocious nuzzling dead thing. There was a clamminess to the atmosphere like he imagined the inside of a frog to be. He shivered with the cold and hoped that his little sister remembered to button up her tiny red mac. She knew how to do this. That’s what he told himself next. He ran through the number of times he had helped her, wondering if he had shown her well enough. There was always doubt. He frowned as he realised that there was nothing he could be sure about. Even this, a simple thing. Had he instructed her well enough? Doubt. One way or the other. It was a howling shrug in the night, some terrifyingly ordinary looking fellow shrugging shoulders from a doorway. Behind this figure was just white light, a great expanse of hum.

Each shop along the harbour was deserted. The lights stumbled out into the fog like fooled up tramps. Indoors, however, the lights were strong and clean. Everything seemed washed by them. Outside , the fog with all those serene faces in its curves and curls and the little boy with his twisting, frenetic panic, there was a tightening misery living way beyond the talk of hygiene. This was a struggle for air and life. The little boy felt that his soul was beginning to lift itself out of his body, like a snail delicacy in butter. But again he would shake his head knowing that always he refuted the reality of the soul as a deranged religious sweetness.

He stood looking down over the edge of the harbour wall and saw down below the bullheaded obstinacy of water. The salt rose onto his lips. He wondered if his sister had been eaten by the sea. The idea stayed with him for a while. The idea of the sea having dinner almost made him laugh but there was a sincere dementia to him by this time. He shivered at the thought of cannibal feastings. He had heard terrible stories. He tried to calculate the difficulty of falling into the sea by accident. The wall was quite high. The sister would have had to have climbed on to the wall and then slipped over the other side. He considered this unlikely. His little sister knew the dangers of the waters. She would avoid such tomfoolery whilst lost. She would be too abroad to have been distracted in such a homely way. She was at heart a serious little girl.

He continued to walk, leaving the harbour wall and the immediate sea behind. He walked inland, through the tight streets with their imagined seriousness which was a rigor mortis rather than just rigour. The paint work on many of the old houses was peeling. The constant frets were merciless. Light shone but as with the shops there were no people. He kept glancing at the windows hoping that his sister would be in one of them, waving and smiling and shouting out to him. But there was nothing but a settled lull where the frozen time capsules were becoming rigid and permanent.

‘I am tired of walking around this town. It’s not a ghost town because even the ghosts have gone. I hardly knew anyone. And my little sister, she has joined them. I am foolish to wander around hoping to find what cannot be found. It is merely pride. How they would all scorn me. They would call me dim-witted and full of nonsense. They would have only the lowest regard for me. They would be laughing with gusto,’ he thought. At the end of the row of houses he peered into a window. It was like looking at a tv screen. Everything in the cramped room shimmered and scratched as if the reception was failing. He turned away and continued to walk to the top of the hill. The road was slow like his own shadow. The fog was dense even near the peak of the hill.

When he started to accept that he would not find his sister there came a curious calm which settled in him like an unsolicited free gift in a heavy post, a suprise package hardly believable. He looked back over his shoulder towards the town. It seemed that the fog had made it all soft on the outside. Its horror was the hardness on the inside. ‘The opposite of peas,’ he thought as an aside. He pushed his fingers into his belly. His finger tips were cold but his belly was hot. The yellow fog was pink on the other side of the yellow. He frowned and then went on to the very peak of the hill.

In the next town along the route he took more care. He visited, as you might visit a museum or a coffee bar, many of the deserted houses. He found some of the kitchens were well stocked, the food still fresh. This was always part of their charm. He tried to sleep on the back seat of a family estate car but found the seats too cold and stiff for comfort. They were like some kind of dead skin. He liked the way the fog seemed to follow his every move. The strange faces in the fog were forever smiling and gently swaying. The earth, he recalled, was white hot at its core but here there was cool, delicious cool.

It would be many years before he realised for sure that everyone was gone. It was years before he realised that the years were gone with them. Everything had been sucked inside itself, or taken outside of the inside. So this was a journey on the outside taken from the inside. Or it was the hard bone to the soft flesh, the pip stone to the fruit wet. This boy would have needed someone to teach him how to cry. But here, there would be no tears anymore. So he was not who he could have been. He felt his brain begin to expand. Soon the skull blasted itself open. A steam of paper and white fox-fur spewed out like a road. His eyes popped, his tongue lolled and there was a dribble like a river. Calculations were written in freehand, maths and codes and all sorts of bright black and white ideas. Stars fell out of the sky into the head. The skull replaced itself. Now the universe was on the inside and lived in him. He took a new perspective and smiled weirdly.


Ibn Khaldoun works in Cairo as a public servant. He enjoys reading and sometimes dreams of holidaying in Scootland. His hero is Robert Louise Stevenson. He wishes to be married but feels he is yet too young.

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