Norman Allan
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Art and Fiction


Chapter Eighteen

In the town of Ketama, Hadji Baba led Christopher through a courtyard to a room. "Sit," he said. Chris waited. Not alone. Four figures draped in jelabaes like pyramids, their faces hidden in their hoods, kept him company. Nobody moved. After a time the Berber returned with a brass tray and mint-tea. He was no longer clothed in white, and he was no longer fat. He was many weights lighter and dressed in black. "!" Chris exclaimed.

"Salome," said with a flourish.

"Who are you?" Chris asked very seriously.

"A thing which is a little mystery is vaguely named. A thing which is a great mysterioso is called a thousand things. We cannot describe it," he gestured hopelessly. "We must know directly to know it at all."

"I don’t know where you’re coming from," said Chris.

The Berber picked up an empty glass from a mint-tea service and handed it to Christopher. "I want you to throw this glass. To toss it in the air so that you may catch it. Toss it high, near to, but not touching the ceiling."

Chris took the tumbler and tossed it as bidden. It spun end over end. Shards of light flecked from it. Time seemed to slow. The glass drifted upward like a spaceship, and melted, became no more than the lines of light reflected upon its surfaces, lines which as the tumbler turned appeared to shiver and flash…

And Chris was somewhere else. The light flashed, and flashed. He was looking up at the sun through chop, chop, chop, through the blades of a helicopter. The helicopter landed with a bump.
Chris was someone else as well as somewhere else; someone who was stepping out of a helicopter into the desert. Whirlwind sands. He was wearing goggle-like binocular machine restricting his vision. And he was not thinking very much. No random thoughts at all crawled through his mind: he just followed the program blankly entranced.
Whoever he was, he stood in the desert before a labyrinth of mirrored walls. His reflection winked back at him from sundry directions and distances. He was a tubby little man, but he did not notice himself. He simply hummed the reflections. Then he spoke without thought: "Unit Peebeebeetwo Affirms Murmur "Conjecture". The reflections are musical. Pyramidal cadences with a high correlation with Egyptian harmonies."

A telex-like type print out appeared on the lenses of the apparatus he wore: "PROGRAM COMPLETE. UNIT PBB2 RETURN TO VEHICLE."

He turned. Fleeting reflections on an undefined wall caught his eye - an echoed image of the Berber? The red crystal ball, the gypsy’s crystal ball, falling? It will shat.shatter.…!"

"Catch it!" said the Berber. Chris caught the glass.

"What was that?" Chris gasped. Syed lifted his eyebrows and put his hand out for the glass.

"That was a Company operatives view of Murmur.

"Murmur?" said Chris.

"Murmur is my place of predilection. I found it when I was very young and it taught me many things. You will see."

"I will see?"

"Later," said the Berber.

"Who are you?" Chris asked again with petulance and impatience.

Syed shrugged. Despite his change of costume the Sy.ed remained in the clownish persona he had assumed as the merchant Hadji Baba. Perhaps he did this to keep Christopher off balance; perhaps simple to have fun. He continued in a burlesque manner with a consideration of his names. "I was born in El Stone. There I was Old Name of the Mountain. But Europe came to North Africa, and I left. Some years I went to France. This Louis Napoleon, I think, he is nowhere. I can do better. I start a few things, join the Masons, dinners with the Rotheschilds. There they are calling me Shaik Sansnom. Le deuxieme "ess" ce'et silent. Sannome. Ce chick sa, non? I have a thousand and one names and forty-seven passports. You call me what you like."

They smoked in the town of Ketama and time rolled on till night came down. Chris did not fancy sitting up all night. Nor did he fanny crashing out there with the Berber and his friends, relatives, what were they? He asked after separate board.

"You are safe with my people," said Hadji. "We are Berbers: proverbial good fellows."

"It's a religious matter," Chris insisted. "The meditationals."

The Berber spoke to one of his colleagues. The latter showed Chris to a small room, a cell with a mat to sleep on.

Chris returned to the Berber to ask for some drinking water to take up to his room and retired with a coke bottle full of well water. He stood it just inside against the closed door to be a wet clattering wake-me if disturbed. Little phantom misgivings teased Chris as he lay on his mat in the dark in his patchwork cloak. "If anyone comes in I think I'd rather sleep through it," thought our hero.

illustration by Sue Gibson

Chapter 19