“But what beauty, Eve thought. Abadan, the pearl sky above its refinery chimneys blowing flames as elegant as natural geysers, all swirl and blue and orange as if painted by Turner. And then, the single minaret of the grand mosque like a sword blade thrust against the horizon.”
Jon Redfern was awarded a $1000 prize for his novel-in-progress Hard Light of Morning, a mystery/romance set in Persia before World War Two centred on a missionary nurse working near the Abadan oil refineries during the reign of Reza Shah. Read the winning excerpt below.
They came in the night, four men wearing long robes, their faces blackened by shoe polish. The city streets stood empty, the lamps dimmed in all the windows. Only the deep hum from the chimneys filled the dark, a sound hovering over them as the four crouched by a tree and intoned a prayer to Allah. Each man then rose and began to run. One through the covered market, one past the workers’ dormitories, another down nameless lanes lined with mud brick houses. The leader, a tall broad man, took the most dangerous path, past the cinemas and the Persian Club, the guards outside too sleepy to care and stop him.
When all four reached the walled enclave of the British they spat on the ground; they were breathing hard but kept on together toward the neighbourhood of the engineers. Like hounds after a scent, they kept their faces to the ground, their noses taking in the peculiar perfume of lime trees and open sewers. They did not falter for they had become as one, all with eyes glittering and full of purpose.
Flame from the refineries along the Karun River reddened the sky as the men approached the house they had been ordered to invade. The leader made his fellow officers check their guns and knives. They all repeated a phrase, spoken in Farsi: “To the glory of Him, King of Kings.” Over the wall, hoisting and lifting each other, they crouched near the courtyard’s reflecting pool. Each moment became precious: the leader warned his cohorts not to breathe, to look before they stepped forward. The bits of poisoned meat tossed over the wall had silenced the watch dogs; the throats of the three servants soon lay cut, bloody grins from ear to ear. Inside the spacious rooms lined with painted faces in frames and patterned carpets, the men knew only one thing: do not kill the engineer. Capture him alive. He is a bitch-dog; he is a knife held against the throat of the Shah of Shahs.
Before them now the engineer’s face lay in sleep. Round, cinnamon skin, eyes closed, calm as an infant. Laid out on a chair was a suit jacket, a vest, a pair of trousers: British clothes for an English-trained monkey. The blood pounding in the ears of the four men raced from heart to mind to hands finding triggers and the blades of daggers. The leader stepped up to the edge of the bed and slipped off his long robe. From a pocket he pulled out a box of matches, lit one, and guided it to the small oil lamp on the bedside table. No breath could be heard as the other three men removed their robes and moved into the circle of light.
A sharp click, a twig snap, the dream fell away. The engineer blinked. He gazed momentarily with widening eyes. He sat up half-awake. Four dirty-faced soldiers stood like statues, their uniforms of deep blue reminding him of the British infantry he had once seen marching through the streets of London. Bright brass buttons, epaulets of gold braid: pathetic imitations worn by dupes of that barbaric clown the peasants call the king of kings.
“Salam, Doktor Nejad,” the leader whispered.
Dr. Nejad looked away from his countryman’s disgusting lips. “We are here to arrest you, traitor of traitors, dog of dogs, in the name of Reza Shah Pahlavi, King of Kings.”
Dr. Farhad Zahedi Nejad roused himself, throwing back the linen sheet covering his legs. He started to rise but a thick hand struck his face and he fell back heavily onto the mattress. “Get out of….” Nejad shouted. The engineer fought against sudden breathlessness, desperate to call his servants. He kicked, he rolled, a rope around him pulled tighter, biting into his chest. His ears suffered the cracking of furniture, the shattering of glass. A foul-smelling cloth now smothered his face; his head swayed toward the earth and Dr. Nejad fell numb, his limbs netted in rope as his limp body slid inside a large jute bag.
Then the four men and their burden ran silently through shadows and dust in back alleyways. A truck engine sputtered to a start. Tears stung the engineer’s cheeks as he awoke to a terrible jostling and a crotch clammy with piss. Oh, God, oh God. Useless words booming in his head.
From far off, sharp as birdcall, the muezzin’s dawn voice called the devout to prayer.
By sunrise, she was already watching the road from the mission hospital’s roof, her body prickly from a night of restless sleep. The governor’s entourage had threatened to come this day but there was always the chance they’d put things off until tomorrow. Eve Hume-Griffith stood in her white cotton coat, her hair pulled back. She loved this time of day, the early cool air, her bare feet balanced on the roof’s wide parapet as the yellowing sky lit up her sunburned skin.
“Remember, Eve, to cover your hands and face in cream. You are in a southern country and if you do not do so, you shall dry up into ghastly crinkles before you are thirty.” Her mother’s ever-wise words. Her father, Reverend Charles Hume-Griffith, beloved Papa, was a case in point. Cheeks shrivelled into ruddy prune-like pouches, cancer blisters on his ears and hairless pate. The work of India’s ruthless sun back twenty years. And now Persia’s desert furnace turning him into a linen-covered gentlemen walking about as if he were in disguise for Guy Fawkes day.
But what beauty, Eve thought. Abadan, the pearl sky above its refinery chimneys blowing flames as elegant as natural geysers, all swirl and blue and orange as if painted by Turner. And then, the single minaret of the grand mosque like a sword blade thrust against the horizon.
“If they come,” she said to herself, “they will travel slowly.” One hour at least after they pass through the city gate, leaving time to prepare the tents. ‘The servants will cook; mother taught you how to present and receive; no fear as you can do it well enough to impress them on their return.’ Take more time and do not count the minutes, Eve thought, as she held her gaze on the desert’s changing light. Beyond, outside of the compound, the row of plane trees stood with dawn-burnished leaves powdered by dust after one hundred and seven days without rain. Out across the sand lay the blue Gulf waters lapping, lapping the shore, regular as a heartbeat.
“Well, they will come or they won’t,” she said out loud to break her spell. Eve set a clay bowl full of kitchen scraps on the roof ledge and waited. Moving shadows soon appeared in the brush leading up to the mission hospital’s defence wall. Runty bodies crept to the corner of the compound. They knew it was a safe distance from the sentry’s box. Scabbed, scarred, a few with missing eyes, like foot soldiers, four or five crouched half-hidden in the brittle grass. More jackal than dog. The najes, the unclean ones.
“Come,” Eve shouted. She sang out in Farsi: Bia, bia! Golha.
She picked up the bowl and arched her right arm and made the scraps fly into the air over the parapet. Below, the wild dogs whined, panted, whirled like dervishes. They scrambled toward the splay of rice and chicken bits. Eve shut her eyes. “I will not watch.” Howling, high-pitched yelps, brutal snarling. This is Persia too, she thought. Stepping carefully down the narrow staircase from the roof, her right foot stamped and chased two black scorpions onto an open balcony. More steps, now in sun slant, toward her courtyard garden swirling with breezy dust. Her untended rose bushes bent under a colour of ash.
No matter what the hour, her dear Papa’s hospital reminded Eve of a castle. High thick walls, a dry moat around the perimeter full of refuse and vermilion flowers and sharp rock. The Christian Mission of Abadan built from donations gathered in the parishes of the Home Counties. How unlike old St. Bart’s in London. Eve brushed the coarse flank of the palm tree as she passed by the kitchen door.
“A colorful place, dear,” her mother had written before Eve had arrived. “Quite lovely red walls and blue arches reminding me and Papa of the Arabian Nights. Papa scolded as usual. ‘They more resemble those garish palaces in last season’s panto at the Adelphi.’ Papa was right, of course. Yet, dearest one, you shall love it I imagine. You shall be able to speak to the natives in their own language by the time you arrive and that, my dear, will please Papa immensely.”
Down at the sentry gate, Eve opened the porthole and thrust through it a tin megaphone. She shouted to Sergeant Fermoy on guard who was sitting on the veranda of his sentry hut fifteen yards away from the hospital’s wall. He stood and picked up his megaphone: ‘Good morning, Miss,” he said, his voice made nasal by the tin horn. “His Highness,” she yelled, “his Eminence and his eunuch may grace us with a visit today.” The sergeant answered with a sharp “Yes Miss.”
Eve had never seen Sergeant Fermoy’s face up close. He performed his sentry duties at a safe distance, protocol for a hospital under British command. It was one of his duties to pile the cart every morning with fresh food and water delivered from the city. Eve hauled it into the compound by a thick rope. “This morning, Fermoy, I will need your help. The governor will demand English tea and a shade. When you spot him and his retinue,” she said, “fetch the tents and sitting platforms from the warehouse.”
Sergeant Fermoy waved assent and put down his megaphone and walked out to the road, shading his eyes from the morning sun. Like many career soldiers sent to Persia from Britain, he despised the natives. He couldn’t fathom their customs, their guttural shoutings. Sergeant Fermoy followed orders and remained polite to those who ventured to come to the hospital. He’d heard good things about Miss Eve. His commander had told him of her ease and her kindness. Most of his mates who’d done duty out here admired how well she’d learned the foreigner’s language and that at twenty-two she was a beauty with a strong will. Sergeant Fermoy was twenty-five and he felt sorry that so pretty a young woman like Miss Eve had to suffer the presence of these oriental brutes. “Get on, Sooty, she’s a good hand, done famous for herself,” he always wanted to yell back at them. “She’s doin’ it all, she’s the whole business, she is.”
Coming back from the road, he jingled his keys and headed to the warehouse. He picked up a handful of pebbles and threw them hard at the feral dogs yapping by the wall. He readied the cart and pulled it out into the sunlit yard and then lit his pipe and waited. Soon the young chap with the cloth on his head would arrive by donkey. Big sagging jute baskets hanging from the animal’s sides filled with greens and sacks of rice and sugar and meat. It was Sergeant Fermoy who beheaded the live chickens and checked the slaughtered lamb meat carried out of Abadan. Checked it all for lice and maggots and rot stink.
Reverend Hume-Griffith and his wife would return from Kerman in three days. And then things would continue into the hot hard month of June with the sick and the delirious being holed up in the hospital’s twenty rooms. The surgery would operate only on British personnel. The Mission however welcomed children, those with measles or malnutrition and those needing wounds tended. Chapel, too, would be attended and lessons taught on the light of Christ. All a part of the mercy and wisdom carried by the reverend and his family into this dark land.
A drum beat turned Sergeant Fermoy’s head toward the ancient gate of the city. Its wooden doors opened framing a fantastic sight of colour. The governor and his entourage appeared under large green umbrellas. The grand eunuch was as tall as the governor was short and the two of them made Fermoy laugh as if they were Dick and Tom in the farce. The drum banged. The eunuch stepped ahead of the governor and the two in single file began the slow steady walk across the dusty road and out into the open land between the gate and the hospital.
Along with them a line of servants all dressed in red, slow and deliberate and jangling with pomp. Sergeant Fermoy rang the bell hanging from the porch roof of his sentry hut. He raised his tin megaphone and shouted to the thick wooden gate of the hospital.
“They’re coming, Miss,” he shouted. “On their way. The pooh-bah and his fellow.”
The tea things first. Cups and saucers, hot water, tea acorn, spoons and candied ginger from Harrod’s, still grainy and spiky even in this heat. The take your bath, quick and easy, then powder, oh yes much of that, Eve thought, and then down and out through the gate and under the tent with the grand man himself with his attendant. Oh, how she loved the idea that she, the daughter, now on her own for three days, her hair and face sheltered under a silk wrap was to show respect to him, the Mohammaden governor. Protocol and grace and a brave attempt at speaking. Her relish of speaking his poetic language. Of roses and peacocks and love smoking out of the graves as Hafiz and Saadi sang of the broken hearts of heroes.
‘A drum, a drum, the governor doth come,” Eve mused as she finished in front of her mirror, memories of her school days in Oxfordshire, the Shakespeare sketches and the cold mornings before the boarding house hearth and the yearning for her brother, dead and gone with the lung illness. Never let that barricade your heart from pity, she warned herself. How lovely he’d been, dear sweet Robert, with his blue eyes like hers, his chin as moulded, the ivory glow to his skin, like twins really although a year apart. Eve liked to think like a poet as she shaped her thoughts—‘the ivory glow’—but was it too maudlin, she wondered, too girlish and fawning?
No time for that now. Unfurling her umbrella and with stockings and long skirt on—hot and close as if she’d been wrapped in a jute sack—she pulled open the hospital’s gate and went out toward the shade of the grand tent. A blue canvass hoisted on four poles over a carpet and two carved chairs. Ten feet off, Sergeant Fermoy saluted and bowed his head as if she were Queen Mary herself. How sturdy he looked, his wiry, uniformed figure. His trimmed moustache a sight in itself.
Ah Eve, she whispered to her inner self: “You are a princess in a tale.” Move along, chin up. The eunuch entered the yard and stood still his eyes closed to the sun. Behind him, the governor stopped and did a sharp head bow toward Eve as his servants quickly gathered around him reminding Eve of pet dogs gathering around their master.
The drum ceased. The servants moved closer to the sides of the governor. He wore a silk wrap around his forehead and an Englishman’s suit with vest and a golden watch fob and his grand boots were those of Reza Shah’s military dress—high shiny leather riding boots with rounded toes. His huge moustache curled at both ends. He brandished a gold headed cane. Eve liked the round military caps on the governor’s servants and his eunuch—part of the shah’s new dress codes—all like army sergeants on parade. The drum rolled. Sergeant Fermoy saluted and stood at attention and announced the governor in a loud brash English voice. Eve’s curtsey was low but not too low as to seem kowtowing. “None of that,” her father had taught, “we are not here to be subservient to them but they to us for our industry and our mercy.”
Then the part of the ritual which Eve loved the best, having seen it performed three times before. The three servants pulled from their pockets small straw whisks, the handles made of black cotton. The eunuch lifted a scarf of red from a cloth purse and wrapped it around the governor’s eyes and nose like an elegant mask at a ball. Upon this gesture, the servants began a most peculiar and elegant dance. Each one raised a whisk and moving around the governor made the whisks begin a rapid movement, up and down the English suit, the collar, the sleeves, the chest and the back and the vest, circling the man and slowly lowering themselves until all three crouched in unison to attend to the legs. What a puff of dust arose. The sound of the whisks brushing and brushing reminded Eve of the unfurling of flags in a windy afternoon. Random yet at times together, soft and harsh, the servants shutting their eyes and holding palms over their noses as they worked until rising and stepping back and leaving the governor in a light golden haze as he stepped forward to enter the tent.