Qayyum raised the buttered bread to his nose, the scent of it a confirmation that Allah himself loved the French more than the Pashtun. Beside him, Kalam Khan, impatient for the taste of fruit, bit right through the skin of an orange to get to the flesh beneath, eyes closed in pleasure as his jaws worked their way around the peel.
– How is it?
Kalam wiped a smear of butter off Qayyum’s nose and spat a mix of peel and rind onto the train tracks, grinning – a boy who grew up in fruit orchards delighted to discover that his father’s produce in the Peshawar Valley was superior to anything France could grow in her soil. No matter that everything else here was better than the world they’d left behind – the cows sleeker, the buildings grander, the men more dignified, the women . . . what to think about the women? One of the men coming out of the station made a gesture as if holding two plump melons against his chest and there was a rush of men towards the doorway just as Lieutenant Bonham-Carter stepped out, followed by a Frenchman and a woman whose dress was cut to display her breasts as if they were wares for sale. ‘Whore,’ Kalam said cheerfully, but Qayyum looked away when he saw how the woman first crossed her hands in front of her chest and then, raising her head to stare down the men, lowered them to her hips.
Lieutenant Bonham-Carter asked for the regimental band to gather together. The Frenchman refused to take any money for the cigarettes, coffee, oranges and bread the men had purchased, and asked instead for the band to play the Marseillaise, as it had when the 40th Pathans disembarked at the port of that city and processed through town. Lieutenant Bonham-Carter smiled as he said it – he’d been the one to teach the dhol and shehnai band how to play the French tune on the journey from Alexandria. The brilliance of the English was to understand all the races of the world; how the French had cheered the 40th Pathans as they made their way from the docks to the racecourse in Marseilles. Les Indiens! Les Indiens! A cry of welcome that made the men heroes before they had even stepped onto the battlefield. How much finer this was than Qayyum’s first deployment to Calcutta where the Bengali babus were trying to cause trouble for the Raj and required a few Pashtun in their midst to instruct them how to behave.
The band followed up the Marseillaise with their regimental song, ‘Zakhmi Dil’, all the men joining in, including most of the English officers. Kalam turned to Qayyum, arms spread in resignation as he sang the opening words on a platform in rural France where the Pashto language might never have been heard before: ‘There’s a boy across the river / With a bottom like a peach / But alas! I cannot swim.’ When the song ended, the Frenchman, for whom none of the officers had provided a translation, declared: Magnifique! And the woman rested both elbows on the back of a bench and leaned forward, looking straight at Qayyum. Magnifique, she echoed.
Embarrassed at himself for wondering if she wasn’t talking about the song, Qayyum looked away and around the platform; how proud they were – Punjabis, Dogras, Pashtun, all! – to be received with such warmth by these strangers. The generosity of the Frenchman was all it had taken to allow them to set aside the disgruntlement they had been carrying around since Marseilles, where they were told they had to give up their turbans and drab-and-green regimental wear in favour of balaclavas and badly fitting, prickly uniforms of grey that were better suited to the climate. And their guns, too, had been taken away because they weren’t right for the French ammunition; the new rifles were unfamiliar, the weight, the shape of them not yet a natural extension of the soldiers’ bodies.
But a few minutes later, in the storage room where the smell of coffee beans soon fused with an even earthier scent, the French girl showed Qayyum how quickly an unknown body could become joined to yours. He was tentative until that became impossible. His only previous experience had been in Kowloon, the night before the 40th shipped off to France, with a woman who didn’t pretend he was giving her anything she wanted other than the money he’d been told to place on the table before they started. That had been less troubling in some way than the responses of this girl who seemed to derive pleasure from things that made him worry he was hurting her. Would a Pashtun woman react this way? he wondered, almost as soon as it was over, the thought making him feel ashamed for both himself and the French girl, who kissed him on the mouth and said something he couldn’t understand. It was only then he realized they hadn’t said a word to each other, and when he spoke to her in his broken English she shook her head and laughed. He had assumed all white people could understand each other’s language in the way all the Indians in the army had at least one tongue in common.
Kalam was watching for him when he stepped out of the storage room, his expression mocking, slightly hurt.
– Watch out, brother. You are too much in love with these people already.
– Salute your officers, sepoy.
– Yes, sir, Lance-Naik, sir!
His salute was so sharp it meant to draw blood. Qayyum – his promotion from sepoy just days old – dismissed him with a lazy wave of his hand, refusing to take the challenge. Yes, he was in love with these people, this world. The shame had passed as quickly as it had arrived, and he drew himself up to his full height as the train whistled its arrival, understanding at that moment what it was to be a man – the wonder, the beauty of it.
They arrived in Ouderdom in the rain, Kalam hobbling on the ankle he had twisted when he had slipped on a slick cobblestone. The fall had been a bad one, and Qayyum fell out to help him up, putting Kalam’s arm around his own shoulders, prepared to support him for as long as they needed to keep marching. But a Belgian woman had come out of her house, put salve on Kalam’s ankle, bound his foot in a bandage and disappeared back inside without a word. Kalam had felt shamed by that and hadn’t said a word since, except to tell Qayyum that he could walk on his own feet.
But now Kalam looked up across the farmland and smiled – there, walking across the field, were men whose faces were known to the 40th, not personally but in the set of their features, their expression. The soldiers of the Lahore Division, the first of the Indian Army to arrive in France. Above the howl of the wind a voice called out in Pashto: What took you so long? Too many peach bottoms distracting you along the way?
– We thought we’d give you some chance at glory before taking it all for ourselves!
Kalam, restored to good humour. Qayyum looked over his shoulder at the men of the 40th grinning, name-calling, all around him. Not just the Pashtun, but also the Dogras, the Punjabis. Brothers recognizing brothers with a jolt of love, a shot of competition. What Qayyum felt on seeing battalion after battalion of Indian soldiers bivouacked on the farmland was something quite different – a deep, inexplicable relief.
The havildar-naik of 57th Wilde’s Rifle fell into step with Qayyum as he walked across the moonlit stretch of grass. No sound except that of snoring soldiers and the call of a solitary night bird.
– Worrying about tomorrow, Lance-Naik?
– Sir, no, sir.
– I don’t want to be ‘sir’ just now. Mohammad Khan Afridi, from Landi Kotal.
– Qayyum Gul. Peshawar.
– Do you think one day they’ll tell stories about us in the Street of Storytellers?
The Afridi lit a cigarette, handed it to Qayyum and lit another one for himself. Qayyum’s shoes squeaked on the wet grass as he rocked back on his heels, blowing smoke up into the air, watching the ghostly trail of it ascend and dissipate.
– Did you hear about the 5th Light Infantry? the Afridi asked.
– No, sir. What? Are they here also?
– No, Singapore. On trial for mutiny. Not all of them, but many.
– Pashtun and Rajput Muslims. They heard a rumour they would be sent to Turkey to fight fellow Muslims, so they mutinied. Killed their officers.
Qayyum swore loudly, and the older man nodded his head, held the tip of his cigarette against an oak leaf and burned a circle into it. The smell carried a hint of winter fires.
– They join an army formed to fight fellow Pashtun in the tribal areas, but they’ll mutiny at the thought of taking up arms against Turks. That’s our people for you, Lance-Naik.
– The British Indian Army was formed to fight the Pashtun?
– Yes, of course. You didn’t know that?
Qayyum shook his head, looked over the encampment. At five thirty tomorrow morning they’d be on the march again. He cleared his throat, moistened his lips.
– What’s it really like? Fighting the Germans?
– Go and sleep now, Lance-Naik. Dream of Peshawar. That’s an order. You’ll have the answer to your question tomorrow, at Vipers.
Again and again the pain plunged him into oblivion and a fresh burst of gunfire pulled him out. Then there was silence, and he waited for the darkness to claim him, but there was only fire racing along his face, licking deep into his eye socket. An ant climbed a blade of grass and his laboured breath blew it off in the direction of the stream, a few feet away, unreachable; the sun that made the fire burn more fiercely on his face turned playful as it dipped into the balm of the water. I will die here, Qayyum thought and waited for Allah or his family or the mountains of Peshawar to take hold of his heart. But there was only the fire, and the blood drowning his eye and the stench of dead men. Was he the only man alive, or were there others like him who knew the gunners would find them if they twitched a limb?
Perhaps he was dead already, and this was hell. The eternal fires, yes. It must have happened just as they ascended the slopes – the Germans were right on the other side of it, just over the crest of the hill. But the first round of bullets must have killed him and flung him into this devil-made world in which men had to run across a field without cover, stumbling over the corpses of their brothers, and when the tattered remnants of one division reached the enemy lines on the slope across the field, a yellow mist entered their bodies and made them fall, foam at their mouths. Cover your nose and mouth, the order came, swift and useless; if they’d had their turbans they would have wound them around their faces but there were only the balaclavas. Qayyum remembered the handkerchief in his pocket, the one Captain Dalmohy had instructed him to dip into the buckets of liquid they passed, and he held it up against his face even as he watched the breeze move the yellow mist eastward. So this wasn’t hell. The mist would have leapt into his lungs if it were.
The emerald green of the grass turned to pine green; the sun sank entirely into the water. His hand had gone to sleep but he was afraid to shake it awake even though the numbness was moving up his arm. There had been a sepoy sitting upright in the field as men advanced around him, one arm ending at the wrist. Qayyum picked up the severed hand he’d almost trodden on, and passed it to the man who thanked him, very politely, and tried to join the hand in place. I think there’s a piece missing. Can you look? he said, and died. Qayyum had forgotten this, though it had happened only hours earlier.
Qayyum tried to pray, but the Merciful, the Beneficent, had abandoned this field and the men within it. Something was moving along the ground, a heavy weight; a starving animal, wolf or jackal, with its belly pressed against the ground, smelling meat; a German with a knife between his teeth. Grass flattened, the thing entered the space between Qayyum and the stream. Any movement was pain, any movement was target practice to the gunners. And then a whisper, his name.
– Kalam, stay there. They’ll shoot you.
– Lance-Naik, sir. Shut up.
One afternoon in the Street of Moneychangers, Qayyum and his brother Najeeb had stumbled on an object in the road – a dead rabbit with its lips sewn together, foam at its mouth. A man walked past a hundred cruelties in Peshawar every day, and nothing about the rabbit made him slow his stride, but Najeeb knelt on the street and carefully cut away the thread, the animal’s fur-and-mud-caked head in his palm. When Qayyum put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Najeeb looked up and asked, do you think its family was nearby and it tried to call out to them? As if that were the real reason for distress, not the needle lancing the animal’s lips, the hand which would have stopped the breath at its nose. Oh Allah, the cruelty of the world. How had Najeeb known this terror, this loneliness of dying alone? Kalam’s hand clasped his ankle and he felt tears dislodge the blood in his eye, which he couldn’t touch without feeling as if he were wiping off his whole face.
– Don’t leave me.
– Brainless Pashtun, do you think I came all this way just to smell your socks?
Time had never moved more slowly than in those minutes – or was it hours? – in which Kalam inched himself along the ground until his face was level with Qayyum’s, and he could see what the fire had done.
– Tell me. How bad is it?
– Don’t worry, Yousuf, all Zuleikhas will still want to seduce you and so will the Potiphars.
– Kalam, don’t joke.
– It’s this or tears. Just be patient, we’ll retreat when it’s dark.
– The sun has gone.
– My friend, you’ve forgotten the moon, large and white as your Frenchwoman’s breast and climbing through the sky. Still a few more hours. But I’m here, don’t worry. Your Kalam is here.
The end of his sentence disappeared in gunfire. Qayyum’s body jerked in anticipation of the bullets that would rip through him, but Kalam had a hand on his chest, telling him to hold still, the gunners were aiming at something else. You stay still too, Qayyum said, but Kalam braced on his elbows and used them as a pivot for his arms, the rest of his body motionless as – again and again – he lowered his palms into the stream and slowly, hardly spilling a drop, brought them to Qayyum’s parched mouth, washed the blood from his face and tried to clean the mess that was his eye. With the stink of blood all around, the only light in the world came from those cupped palms, the shifting water within them.
I’m sorry, no, it won’t recover like a knife-cut on your arm. We must remove it.
The Indian doctor stepped back and switched off a torch which Qayyum didn’t realize he’d been holding. When the doctor patted his shoulder and moved to the next bed, the white-skinned woman, grey-haired, with lines all around her mouth, stayed to replace his bandages, her touch impersonal in a way he’d never imagined a woman’s touch could be. Where was it they had brought him? Brighton, they said, but all he knew of it was the pebbled beach, the damp smell of the ambulance, and then this place, this page out of a book of djinn stories into which they’d carried him. Everything ever seen or imagined painted upon its walls, its ceilings – dragons and trees and birds and men from Tashkent or Farghana like those in the Street of Storytellers. Such colour, such richness. More than a single eye could hold. He was floating above it all, beside the gilded dragons on the leather canopy of the ceiling. England had made the pain stop. But the woman was speaking to him, he must return to the bed to hear what she was saying.
– We’ll fit you up with a glass eye, and you’ll be breaking hearts again in no time.
– I don’t want to break hearts.
– Oh, love.
He didn’t know why she looked at him in that way, or what a woman was doing among all these men, but when she said ‘love’ in that sad tone of voice he understood, even through the glow of painlessness, that he was maimed now, a partial man, and from here on he would never be admired, only pitied.
He used to be a man who climbed trees just to see the view from the top, one who entered a new city and sought out its densest alleys, a man who strode towards clamour. Now he couldn’t think of a branch without imagining the tip of it entering his remaining eye. Everything, everywhere, was a threat. Every branch, every ball arcing through the air, every gust of wind, every sharp sound, every darkened room, every night, every day. The elbows of a woman; her sudden movements towards him in desire; her hands searching his face for those expressions that only revealed themselves in the dark. He traced the skin around his bandaged eye. Who was he now, this man who saw proximity as danger?
A warning, brother, if you see me walking through the streets, stay far from me. What I want I will have – women or men, wine or gold. A blade through the heart of anyone who tries to stop me. This is how it is when a man walks into hell and survives it. When you return to Peshawar, tell my father he was right. I should have stayed in the orchards.
Qayyum looked up from the letter. Through the mist, the arched gateway and green dome of the Pavilion entrance seemed insubstantial, a fantasy thrown up against the English sky by the force of the soldiers’ homesickness. He wound his blanket tighter around his shoulders, his eye aching from the strain of reading only a few sentences. Was there a taunt in the letter beneath the rage directed at the world, or did this unease all come from within himself? One day at Vipers, and his war ended. Now here he was in the grounds of a palace in Brighton while Sepoy Kalam Khan wrote to him from the trenches at Aubers Ridge.
He raised his hand to his eyelid, permanently closed, and pressed down gently, feeling no resistance. There were men here who envied him this, his ticket home. When you return to Peshawar. But he wanted neither Peshawar nor Aubers Ridge – wanted only this domed pavilion by the sea, this place which did all that human hands could do to repair broken men and asked nothing about a soldier’s caste or religion to make him feel inferior but understood enough about these things to have nine different kitchens where food could be prepared separately for each group, and where the meat for Muslims was plentiful and halal. The King-Emperor himself had sent strict instructions that no one should treat a black – and this word included Pashtun – soldier as a lesser man. The thought of the King-Emperor made Qayyum rest a hand against his chest and bow his head. He had given his own palace to wounded Indian soldiers. What nawab or maharaja would do as much?
This thought first came to him when he looked at the great chandelier in Ward 1, which was once the banqueting room, its immensity hanging from the claw of a silver dragon; the long-tongued beast descended from copper banana leaves that seemed to grow straight out of the painted foliage on the ceiling. Was it beautiful or ugly? He couldn’t decide. But he knew that this one chandelier had more grandeur than all of Peshawar. In time, he came to see the chandelier as Empire – the King was the silver dragon, one single claw bearing the weight of smaller dragons, glass lotus flowers, a star of mirrors. He repeated this to one of the English doctors, and thereafter he was called upon whenever there were important visitors to explain that when he looked at the chandelier he gazed upon the glory of the King. What he said was a source of marvel equalled, if not exceeded, by the fact that he said it in English. When the supervising nurse was there to hear the compliment she’d wink at Qayyum and place a finger on her lips – she was the one who had taught him the English words he hadn’t known, polished the grammar of his sentences, explained that the glass objects were lotus flowers and not replicas of the dusters which the staff used to clean the chandelier.
It was astonishing how easy the nurses here made it to be in the presence of a woman who wasn’t mother or sister or wife. In the wards the soldiers talked endlessly about white women – not just the nurses but also the French farm girls some of them had bivouacked with and the female aviator who one of them swore he’d met (no one believed him, but everyone asked him to tell the story over and over). Nothing about France or England was more different from India than the women – and from here it was a step some of the soldiers made to declare that if India’s women changed then India too would become prosperous like the white nations, and everything from the livestock to the people would have a gleam to it. Qayyum listened to them and tried to imagine telling his mother she should be more like the women of Europe – she’d hit him about the ears with a shoe as if he were still a child.
Without warning, the air became driving rain, and Kalam’s words smeared across the page. Qayyum ducked his head and, as quickly as his fumbling hands could manage, threw the blanket over his head, covering it completely. The day his youngest sister put on a burqa for the first time she wore it backwards, no face mesh for sight or breath, and she had burst into tears until Qayyum lifted it off and put it on the right way round; she was still young enough to throw her arms around him and say, Lala, forget the army, stay here and defend us from our mistakes. Even the lost eye didn’t make him wish he’d listened. Here he was, in the King’s own palace.
But there was another side to this world and Kalam Khan was in it, regretting his soldier’s uniform, the brotherhood of the 40th, the honour of service. Qayyum wondered who had written Kalam’s words for him now that he wasn’t there to do it, and if the letter writer had left anything out. Qayyum recognized a process of selection as part of his own duty as letter writer to the wounded, unlettered men at the Pavilion. So many of them asked him to write home For God’s sake don’t don’t don’t allow my brother my cousin anyone from our village to sign up. Such words would never get past the censors, and they would reflect poorly on the Indian troops who had been trusted to come halfway round the world to fight for their King though there were many in England who thought their loyalty would fail the challenge. Any doubts about you are held only by those who’ve never had the honour of serving beside you. That was the only thing the English officers said, or needed to say, when the 40th set sail for France.
The rain was knocking on the blanket and pain was responding, yes, yes, I’m here, I haven’t really gone away. He peeled the wet wool away from his face and held it above his head like a canopy; the relief of emerging from the clinging fabric was immense. Across the garden he saw a limping figure. It was the sepoy whose ankle had been shattered by a bullet and whose lungs were weakened by chlorine gas; soon he would be sent back to France. His letter had been addressed to the King-Emperor himself, complaining that wounded Indians were sent back into the field with injuries that would allow an English soldier to return home. Qayyum wrote down every word the man said, knowing it would never reach the palace. The letter ended: If a man is to die defending a field, let the field be his field, the land his land, the people his people.
Two nurses approached, umbrellas held above their heads. Flanking Qayyum like bodyguards, they each placed a hand on his upper arms and guided him back to the ward, his one remaining eye closed to protect it from the piercing rain.
He saw the supervising nurse approach when he was in the Pavilion garden reading aloud a letter that one of the sepoys had received from his wife. The sepoy wept in his wheelchair, knowing that his wife’s dreams of the children they would have together when he returned would never be realized. Qayyum thought the nurse was there to let him know that the car was ready to take him to the glass-maker’s to be measured for an eye but, despite his eagerness to walk through the world with the semblance of a whole man, he finished reading the letter and sat with his hand on the sepoy’s shoulder for a period of time until the man’s sobbing quietened, before walking over to where she stood beneath a tree.
– You are very kind with the men, Lance-Naik. I think you must spend half your day reading or writing letters for your fellows.
– It helps the day become night.
– Yes. Well, I wanted to say goodbye, and good luck.
– I am going?
– Not you.
She glanced over her shoulder, and spoke to the Englishman in civilian clothes who had approached unobserved.
– Put this in your report. Tell them a fifty-six-year-old widow was seen giving signs of favour to a Pathan boy. Let the Empire tremble at that.
Turning back to Qayyum, she pressed her handkerchief into his hands.
– When you have your new eye, you may want something to wrap it in at night.
He didn’t immediately understand. Not that day or the one after, not even when he realized all the female nurses had left. But later in the week, on an excursion to the pebbled seafront, he met two fellow NCOs of the Lahore Division – a Sikh and a Rajput – who said all the women had been removed from York Place Hospital as well.
– Have the English decided women shouldn’t see wounded men? Qayyum asked.
The Sikh merely grunted, picking up a pebble with the hand that remained – his left – and concentrating all his attention on readying to throw, the sleeve on his right side flapping. It was early in the morning, the sun had barely risen; the hour when disfigured men went out into the emptied world.
But the Rajput with half a face in bandages and the rasping voice of one who has swallowed gas made a sound of derision.
– They haven’t removed them from all hospitals. Just the ones with Indian patients.
– Why do you think? Why do you think the Englishwomen who come to visit you in the wards and tell you how much the Empire owes you are never young and never out of sight of an Englishman?
The Sikh flung the pebble, his entire body pivoting. Qayyum stepped away from him, shielding his good eye. If the Rajput hadn’t been there to steady the Sikh he would have fallen to the ground. The pebble landed on another pebble – a sharp clinking sound – and the sea rushed in to cover it. The Sikh pushed the Rajput away, tottered, regained his balance, and when he spoke his face was a snarl.
– They’re right to worry. I’m going to find every Englishwoman whose husband is at war and quench her thirst for a man.
– Watch what you say. You Sikhs have to be twice as loyal as the rest of us now.
The Rajput spoke with sympathy, but his words were met with a string of curses. In Lahore, a conspiracy trial was underway for almost 300 men – most of them Sikhs – accused of trying to start a rebellion in the British Indian Army, backed by the Germans. The supervising nurse had said to Qayyum, if a whisper of doubt should attach itself to any of the soldiers here because of this wicked plot I’ll go to Lahore, and hang the conspirators myself. He had found himself imagining an embrace with the old lady. The conspiracy itself, which never had any real chance of success, wasn’t as unsettling for Qayyum as was the fact that some of the sepoys in the Pavilion had already started to use the name ‘Kirpal Singh’ to mean an informer, a double-dealer, one who couldn’t be trusted. Kirpal Singh, the man who had informed the British of the plot and sent his fellow Sikhs to prison and soon – it was inevitable – the firing squad.
One of the Indian doctors from the Pavilion, the one on the night shift, was walking towards them along the seafront. Qayyum called him over, and asked about the nurses. The doctor spread his hands to indicate the strange workings of the English and said their withdrawal had followed the outrage created in official circles by a newspaper photograph of a nurse standing beside the bed of Khudadad Khan, the first Indian to receive a Victoria Cross.
Neither the Rajput nor Qayyum knew what to say about that. All three men stood silently watching the Sikh, who had the end of his empty sleeve between his teeth, pulling it taut, and was dragging the sharp point of a pebble back and forth against the fabric just below the stump of his arm. The word ‘dishonour’ entered Qayyum’s mind and would not be dislodged.
Qayyum, I am here, in Brighton. At Kitchener Hospital. Don’t worry, it is bullet wounds in places where the flesh will heal and soon they will send me back to France. But I am here now, in Brighton. I pray to Allah you haven’t left for Peshawar yet. Kalam Khan, Sepoy.
He walked through Brighton’s streets, the sunshine sharp. Previously he had only walked the short distance from the Pavilion to the seafront in the early morning. Now he gathered a group of curious children who followed after him whistling ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ until he turned round and, expression blank, mimed playing a flute. One of the nurses had told him this was a useful way to make a crowd of children disperse and, astonishingly, it worked, though why they screamed and ran he didn’t know. On Queen’s Park Road a car stopped and the driver offered to take him to the hospital, but he was enjoying the grand houses and the quiet street and the feeling of anticipation with which he was walking towards Kalam, so he thanked the man and continued on. Further along the road an Englishman with large whiskers tipped his hat to Qayyum, and his wife murmured ‘Thank you’. His strides lengthened, the sun flung its warmth at him, extravagantly. He was still Qayyum Gul, despite everything.
Kitchener Hospital was a vast building, four storeys high with a clock tower against which Qayyum checked his wristwatch, stopping to wind it up and move the minute hand forward by a tiny degree. One of the doctors on the hospital ship to Brighton had strapped it onto his wrist, and no explanation was asked for or received. He would give it to Kalam, he decided, as he slowly approached the gate, squinting at every open window to see if a familiar form might be leaning out of it, waiting. With his attention on the upper storeys he didn’t see the man in the sentry box and would have walked right through the open gate if the man – a military policeman – hadn’t commanded him to stop, and asked what he wanted.
– Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul. Here to see Sepoy Kalam Khan.
– No visitors allowed.
– What time I should come back?
– No visitors allowed.
– Because today is Sunday?
– No, because no visitors are allowed. Any day. Any time.
– My friend is in there. We were at Vipers. 40th Pathans.
– No. Visitors. Allowed.
– I am a lance-naik. 40th Pathans.
– That won’t stop me from arresting you if you don’t move along.
A car, with three Indians and an Englishman in it, drove out of the open gate and stopped next to the sentry box. What’s going on? the English officer said in Urdu, and Qayyum, immeasurably relieved, saluted and said there was some miscommunication, his English wasn’t very good, could the officer please tell the MP he was here to visit one of the sepoys under his command.
– Sorry, Lance-Naik, hospital rules. No visitors.
– Can you find out if he’s well enough to come out? I don’t know how bad the injuries are but maybe he can walk, or use a wheelchair.
– No Indian personnel, except NCOs, are allowed out of the hospital grounds. Except on supervised marches.
– Look, Lance-Naik, I didn’t make the rules.
– But how do I see him?
– I’m afraid you don’t.
– But we were at Vipers together. Sir? We fought at Vipers. He was at Aubers Ridge. He was under my command. 40th Pathans.
– I understand what you’re trying to say. I’m extremely sorry, there’s nothing I can do, not even for men who were at Ypres.
Qayyum looked frantically at the three Indian NCOs in the car, two of whom had their heads turned away from him. The third – with the insignia of a naik – reached out of the car and touched his arm. Tell me his name, the naik said. I’ll make sure he knows you were here.
Qayyum tilted his head back, cupped his hands around his mouth and called out through the hospital gates as loudly as his lungs would allow:
– Kalam Khan!
His voice was cut off by the hand at his throat. The military policeman brought his face close to Qayyum, who could see the man’s eyeball, the yellowish tint of it, the blood vessels. What was he doing, this Englishman, young and able-bodied, standing outside a hospital keeping one soldier away from another?
–You are no one, Qayyum heard himself tell the Englishman.
– What did you just say?
The MP’s hand closed around Qayyum’s throat and Qayyum knew he could do it – he could strike an Englishman. But before that ‘could’ became ‘would’, the naik who had reached out towards him jumped out of the car, interposing himself between Qayyum and the MP, one hand on Qayyum’s chest.
– He’s only obeying rules, Lance-Naik. You need to leave.
The waves crashed over pebbles again – no, it was the gate closing, scraping the gravel beneath. The MP slid the bolt in place, and stood in front of it, arms crossed.
– Rules? Are there rules against saying a friend’s name?
Again he raised his voice, drawing it out from deep in his belly:
– Kalam! It’s me, it’s Qayyum. Kalam!
The naik rested a finger just beneath Qayyum’s good eye, the pad of his finger caressing the skin. Qayyum’s voice stilled.
– Good man. Don’t cause any trouble now.
Leaning in closer, he whispered: Even I can’t go out unsupervised. We are prisoners here. You will make it worse for your friend.
That last sentence made it impossible to do anything but leave. When Qayyum returned to the Pavilion he saw, as if for the first time, the barbed wire around the walls, the sentries at the gate, the boarded-up gaps in the hedge. For the briefest of moments he believed he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp, with English-speaking men and women all around – an elaborate plan to turn the Indian soldiers against their King-Emperor.
But no, this was England and Kalam Khan was locked up in a hospital waiting for Qayyum to come to him as he had gone to Qayyum across a field of moonlight and dead men and German gunners. Tomorrow, Qayyum would find a way to see him, even if it meant petitioning the King-Emperor himself.
The next morning came a note from the naik at Kitchener to say Kalam would soon recover, and in the meantime he had been transferred to Barton-on-Sea. And that afternoon Qayyum’s glass eye arrived from the glass-maker and the doctor said he could return to India.
On the last day in Brighton, Qayyum stood for a very long time near the doorway of Ward 3, formerly the saloon. Along the length of the walls were paintings of slim-trunked trees. A caged bird and an uncaged bird looked at each other, their gazes undeflected by the black-and-white butterflies flitting between them. The caged bird was the same muted orange as the door to its prison; the uncaged bird was the brown of the branch on which it stood, the tips of its wings the green and red of surrounding leaves and flowers. Qayyum took a step back – the birds, the flowers, the butterflies and the tree itself were enclosed in a gold frame, its shape that of a cage.
It wasn’t until he was on the hospital ship, on his way back to India, that Qayyum realized the reason he hadn’t received any response to the letters sent to Barton-on-Sea was that the message from the naik was a lie. He rushed out onto the deck, prepared to leap into the cold waters of the Atlantic, but it was too late, Britain was just a pinprick – such a small, small island.
Photograph © Nadav Kander