Just days after the publication of his thriller on 1 May, Taz, which features a mysterious Guatanamo Bay style detention camp in Ethiopia, it became clear that Swindon based thriller writer Neil McCallum has his finger on the pulse as news broke that such a camp does indeed exist.
Writing under the pen name of Dawood Ali McCallum, Neil of Old Town has drawn on his unique insight into political systems around the world. He works as a consultant to governments and public bodies helping to put in place efficient systems that allow people to work ethically.
Most recently he has worked with prisons in Ethiopia to ensure that prisoner information is recorded accurately, and will return to the country shortly. While some of the action of his contemporary thriller is based there, Neil reserves his harshest criticism for other countries, including the UK. "I hope anyone reading it will see that I have a deep respect for Ethiopia.
"I wanted to write about how people can be moved around the world and how they can disappear," said Neil.
In Taz, a Mumbai-based news reader, receives a letter from a man facing execution somewhere in Africa.
Her search to find out who the mysterious writer was brings her home to Swindon, then to Germany, Ethiopia, Ghana and the Gambia.
She finds that her identity as an East African Asian and British Moslem all come into question as the reality of the ??War on Terror,’ and India’s ambitions within it embrace her. This story is also about one woman’s journey of self-discovery in a difficult world.
Unusually Neil’s books are only published abroad by Penguin India. His first novel, The Lords of Alijah received considerable acclaim in India.
Taz is on sale at Borders at North Swindon District Centre.
PART I – BURNING BRIDGES
The name is Armitage Shanks. A bad joke at the best of times, which this surely isn’t.
I’m Armitage Shanks, and tomorrow I'm going to die.
Do you have any idea what it means to know you're going to die? Can you imagine it? Can you? I can't. Even now. At one level, I know the fact. Tomorrow, some essential, some literally vital, part of me will be destroyed. As a machine, a functioning entity, I will simply cease to work. Be switched off. Closed down. Cease to be. My body will remain, but what happens to all that explosive, passionate, confused essence? How can it just end?
Two things trouble me above all others; firstly, that I will die indoors. Secondly, that I will die hot, sweating.
The fact that I know the time precisely, or that I'm in a country not my own troubles me less. Strange.
When I first arrived, I was taken with the others on the back of an open lorry to a run-down army barrack. There we were made to sit on a concrete floor. More and more people were herded in; the heat, the day, and of all these bodies together, was insufferable. We weren't allowed to speak, or look up, or around at one another. We had to sit with our knees up, and our hands linked around our legs. First I was scared. Then, the sheer bloody discomfort of the situation became the dominant thought. My buttocks ached, and my muscles stiffened. The heat grew stronger; a couple of the younger men began sobbing. One of them was hit with a rifle butt. After a while, somebody vomited. Someone else could not control their bowels any more.
I don't know how long we were held there. After a while, the pain and discomfort all became one. It absorbed me, and I lost track of time. I never passed out, or fainted or slept. I just ceased to differentiate between sensation, thought and emotion. All became one.
When they split us up and moved us to various prisons, I was held first in a cell with fourteen others. There was one hard, vicious bastard who was the cell lord. He was, I think, a Somali, although none of us ever told one another much about where we were from or who we were. Informants, you see. Grasses were everywhere. So I never knew what he was picked up for, but he made a bee-line for me; thought it would be fun to a whack at the white guy. He'd killed men in that cell; everyone knew it, but he was never charged because no one cared. It cut down the numbers they had to feed. They never even reported the deaths; just dragged the body out and went on indenting for the allowances for funding the full complement, pocketing the spare. Someone once said that according to the paperwork, there were fifty-three men in that cell, even though it could barely hold fifteen.
Besides, the Somali kept the peace, ensured there was no trouble.
So what did I do? What any determined survivor would–made myself indispensable to him. I think in the end he really came to like me–he was certainly very angry when they took me out of the cell.
There's a familiar smell here–familiar from way back. It took me a long time to place it. I thought for ages it was simply the reek of fear. Then, suddenly, I awoke one morning and knew exactly what it was–as clear and certain as if I'd first smelt
The Slaughter House on Pound Street.
Then, after weeks, I was moved from the big cell to a smaller room, with only one other prisoner. He was a Shi'ite; a Koja. He had been jailed for killing his six-year-old daughter, because he said when he heard her voice, he heard the voice of the man who plays with dogs.
He was completely mad; barking, if you’ll forgive a pun in very poor taste. Hardly ever slept. His eyes were bright, like a man with malaria. Ridiculous though it may sound, he was good company. An ideal cell-mate. He was obsessively clean, careful, and private. In places like this, other people's bodily functions take on dramatic significance; he never even broke wind. Not once. He was determined that, before they executed him, he would convert me to Islam. In his insanity, he kept me sane. Exercising my mind by teaching me prayers, and lecturing me. The real torture in prison is the grinding, relentless monotony. Except for two meals a day, served (ha!) at the whim of the warden, there is no pattern. Nothing to structure and dissect the day. The lassitude, the torpor-induced surrender to their erratic timetable, their unexplained agenda. Meal times, bowel movements, sleep. That’s all there is. Other than hour after hour of sitting, staring at nothing. This is when moral fibre comes to the fore.
Well, call me shallow but I’d exhausted my inner resources within days. After a month, I couldn’t even be bothered to dream.
That’s why Islam was such a gift from God. Suddenly, so much to learn, practice and do: language, process, movement and a glorious, disciplined regimen the guards could interrupt and frustrate but could not impose on. Requirements, restraints, deadlines. All the dos and don’ts you think you would love to be free of but for which you (or at least I) physically ache for once they are taken away.
In return I taught my cell-mate a Gene Pitney song I'd liked as a kid: Not much of a trade really. Eternal salvation for 24 hours from Tulsa. When, without really thinking about it, I told him I’d become a Muslim, he laughed, and capered and kissed me. Told me I already was. From that moment on, he treated me like a younger brother, or maybe a son. He sat awake, watching over me, when I slept. He sat awake, talking incessantly to me when I was awake. He would guard me from everything he could protect me from: insects, and insults. He would snatch the food we were given, pool it, then give me the best. I suppose he loved me. I certainly came to love him and found sense in his crazy, obsessive ways.
There was some problem about his sentence; it was postponed indefinitely. In the end, the date of my execution was set before his day came, and I was moved to a single cell. As my life expectancy progressively shortened, so the quality of my accommodation has, in step, improved.
When they decided to kill me, they gave me my first medical check. The doctor complimented me; apart from worms, he said, I was remarkably fit. Good one.
I can't remember how long ago now I was sentenced to die; a few weeks. Maybe three months. I lodged an appeal; not that it mattered. An appeal was lodged for me, automatically. When it was turned down, automatically, three days ago, they told me I would die today, at 9.15 in the morning. Friday morning.
I'd had my last weekend, and I hadn't even realized. And in all that time, no one had asked me a single question. Weird, eh? Still, I guess that’s what happens when you are Armitage Shanks.
Once your appeal is turned down, various things follow at specific points in time. Forty-eight hours before you are to die, you get a haircut, your nails are trimmed and in theory, at least, the clothes you were arrested in are returned to you.
They couldn't find mine, but someone very thoughtfully rang around, and found for me the clothes an Indian businessman had died in. They are somewhat too large for me, but they're clean–apart from one rather troubling stain upon which I would rather not dwell–and of high quality. I’m wearing a pair of vintage Levi jeans, and a t-shirt which assures me Mumbai is a twenty-four-hour, non-stop adrenalin rush. Is it?
Maybe it’s the tradition of respect for the dead that I guess exists in all cultures. In the last few days, I've been treated with such profound courtesy…
Thirty-six hours before your time, they give you writing paper. As much as you want. I'd heard this, but never really believed it, not really. You're not allowed to write to anyone; merely to write. Or rather, you can write to whoever you want. It just won't get posted. It goes on to your file. Christ knows why.
Why did I write Christ? A last-minute relapse? Old habit, idiom, or simply exhaustion? I'm very tired, and my hand aches. I'm afraid to stop, however. Because if I stop, I will sleep. Then, when I awake, it will be simply to die. I'm not scared, or maybe its just that I've been scared for so long I don't notice it any more. At the very least, I'm not more scared than normal. Tired, though, that's for sure, and a bit of me just wants to get it over.
I've got a photo of you. It’s in front of me now. I'm afraid I've never heard of you, but the guy whose clothes I’m wearing must, I suppose, have been a fan of yours. I found your picture–it looks like it’s been torn out of a television guide in a magazine–in his pocket. Underneath is your name, and the words ??Good Morning Mumbai, 07.00.’
They gave me the choice of his other belongings, too, this dead guy, your fan. He had a paperback book of poetry. Classics. Coleridge. Keats. I thought about trying to learn ??Kubla Khan’ by heart but I don’t have enough time, so then I tried to make up extra verses; complete it. I tried doing it straight, then in a kind of pastiche. I think that's the word–what a time to want to extend my vocabulary! I wonder, if I asked for a dictionary, whether they would give me one. Shall I try?
I've written a will. It’s the jeans, you see. Much sought after. I've left them to one of the guards–the one I'm absolutely sure they won't fit. Cruel, eh?
Why am I writing this? Who even cares what I do? This letter will never be sent. They know it. I know it.They know I know it. So why am I writing to a total stranger who'll never receive this and why are they letting me do it?
They're indulging me, I suppose. And I'm indulging myself. I used to carry on writing to Father Christmas long after I accepted he didn't exist. I found it comforting to kid myself. You're my Father Christmas, except that I've got no more Christmases left, no more wishes and, from the way the sky is lightening, not very much more time, either.
The man with the prison haircut and the overlarge Levi 501s sat at the table bolted to the floor and wrote. He wrote with a ballpoint pen, a freebie from an airline. His face was set in a permanent frown of concentration. As he tired, the child in him came out, and the tip of his tongue protruded from the corner of his mouth. It was well through the night, he didn't want to know what time. His cell was lit by a single forty-watt light bulb. Beyond the cell door, with its peephole and clumsily welded metal plating, the sounds of sad men sleeping could just be heard. Ill at ease, throat clutching-snores. Groans, coughs and muttered blasphemies.
The man with the prison haircut and the Levi 501s paused, sat back from the table, and scratched the bridge of his nose.
He felt the air change; the pre-dawn chill. There was no glass in the high, narrow window of the death cell. Only thick, rusted, wire meshing. He had been plagued by insects, and dust. He had been caught, and chilled, by driving rain. Torrential rain. Now, a breeze, carrying a hint of the desert, and wild herbs, under heavy grey clouds, made him homesick, though he had no idea how or why.
He felt a pitching, sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach as he heard the door bolts sliding back. He fought down gasping panic, and forced himself to turn and face the door. Die with dignity, he reminded himself. As yourself. Then they don’t win. The guard whom he had befriended, whose home was up in the hills, stood at the threshold of the cell, hesitating to enter, unable to meet his eye. Two others lurked behind him, like sneak thieves.
??Is it time?’ he asked, surprised and pleased at the steadiness of a voice he hadn’t used for many hours.
??It’s time,’ murmured the guard.
There was a noise, a flurry outside. The guards turned, and stood aside. A young priest, red-haired and pink-faced, pushed past them.
??The Lord be praised!’ he cried, his harsh Ulster accent, so out of place, tugging a last smile from the condemned man. ??They called me, my son, asked me to be with you. What can I say? Thank the Lord I got here in time.’
The priest turned to the guards: ??You'll give me ten minutes with him, to hear his last confession, will you not?’
The guards, all devout men with too much on their consciences to be disrespectful to priests of any cloth, shuffled uneasily, and looked uncertainly at one another. There was a strict timetable to be followed; they did not have the authority to amend it. Nor were they particularly keen to return to the governor and seek his permission.
The condemned man saw their discomfort and, illogically, felt for them.
??It’s kind of you to come, Father,’ he said, ??but you should know I am a Muslim’.
The red flush returned. The priest ran a hand through his hair. ??Oh, they told me… It doesn’t matter. No, of course it matters. Is there nothing I can do? Shall I walk with you to…’
The prisoner shook his head, then felt ludicrously sorry for the crestfallen priest. This… boy who called him Son.
??Just hearing your voice has been comfort. I've planned out, precisely, every step of this journey. Where my thoughts are going to be and what prayers, and poems, and names and places and silly things I'm going to think about. I'm not sure I can get through it unless I keep to that plan.’ He held out his hand. ??Sorry.’
The priest stared at the extended hand for a moment, confused. Then, gripping it in both of his, he shook it vigorously. ??I wish there was something I could do,’ he murmured sadly. ??I’ll pray for you.’
A resigned smile, and a shake of his head. Then, silent still, the prisoner turned, and left with the guards.
Alone in the cell, the young priest tried to gather his waltzing senses. His pulse pounded in his temple, and he feared for a moment he would faint. He slumped into the chair, still warm from the last heat of the condemned man’s body. He looked at the pages of tight, neat text. He reached out and picked up the picture of the woman torn from a magazine. Furtively, he glanced back towards the cell door, still ajar. A moment’s further thought, then all indecision left him. Briskly, he folded the sheets of paper over once, then once again, and thrust them inside his cassock. He sat a moment longer, trying to get his thoughts, his breath, and pulse under control. Then he rose, and walked to the cell door. ??Can anyone tell me how to get out of here?’ he called out.
His question was greeted by guffaws of hollow, bitter laughter, curses and a particularly offensive, wincing, blasphemy.
??… So from me, Ash Kumar…’
??… and me, Taz Dhar…’
??….and all of us here at Good Morning Mumbai, have a good one.’
Ash Kumar eyed the camera, a lop-sided grin in place as the studio lights dimmed. The floor manager winked and held up three fingers. They were three seconds out on the close. Not bad; anything less than five seconds, either way, was as near to seamless as made no difference. The recording light blinked out, and Taz Dhar sniffed loudly.
??Fuck, I was sure I was going to sneeze during that last feature,’ she murmured.
The tension left Ash Kumar’s shoulders and back. His posture eased forward, his shoulders rounded and his ludicrously boyish face sagged.
??I saw you digging your nails into your palms; guessed some part of you was itching, twitching or aching.’
Taz looked at him sharply. ??What are you getting at?’ Her eyes narrowed, she sniffed again, and rubbed her nose. Ash Kumar began patting his jacket pockets; breast, then hips, three times each. It was the same every morning. Taz looked away. He's like a machine; programmed, she thought.
He found the single cigarette he carried, in his left breast pocket, where it always was, and brought it to his mouth.
??Anybody got a match here?’ he called out, his perfectly modulated voice muffled like a poor ventriloquist’s by the cigarette held between his lips.
??Prat!’ Taz groaned. This was a routine that pre-dated the channel’s smoking ban, and was, through indulgence and an appeal to constitutional rights, the sole exemption tolerated. Around them the technicians looked up, smiling at each other and at Ash Kumar. A few shook their heads, the same every day; what a guy! Just one of the boys, with just brains enough to realize he'd got the crap the market was buying that week. A sound man disengaged himself from his equipment, and leaned over the wide, reconstituted wood desk that looked, on screen, like teak. He held a lit match forward, cuffed in both hands, like an offering towards Ash Kumar. Kumar leaned forward no more than three inches, drew the flame into the cigarette, his heavily made-up cheeks drawn in, then stretched back, nodded gratefully, and immediately blew the smoke out in a thin jet.
??Doesn't even inhale. Wanker,’ Taz mumbled.
Kumar turned to her, his right arm draped over the back of his chair. Smoke from the cigarette ran up over the back of his hand, and curled up from his cuff.
??Got something to say, Taz?’ he asked.
??No, no,’ she smiled, shaking her head, ??nothing at all’.
Kumar shrugged, and carefully removed the microspeaker from his ear, wary, as always, of his hair. As Taz reached for hers, the voice of the floor manager breathed, ??Taz honey, Mr Mehta wants to see you as soon as you're through here.’
She glanced up questioningly to the control box. The floor manager, his face sallow and haunted, illuminated from below by the light of a dozen flickering monitors, spread his arms, and shrugged. He was tired, she could see that. He had to be, or he would never have called her honey. A clear breach of the channel's avid pursuit of gender-neutral language.
Ash Kumar caught the look, and frowned. ??What is it?’
??SK wants to see me, PDQ.’
??PDQ?’ repeated Kumar, puzzled.
Taz's eyes flicked skyward: ??Pretty damned quick,’ she explained. ??Oh, shit, do you think they caught my nose twitching?’
??Not a chance,’ Kumar reassured her. ??They'd never have picked it up; not with me on screen as well.’
??God! You're a narcissistic son-of-a-bitch!’ said Taz, rising.
??Thanks,’ said Ash, uncertainly.
??Maybe they're going to offer me a raise,’ said Taz with a confidence she didn't really feel.
Kumar had an instinct for uncertainty in others. ??Or maybe they're gonna give your job to that pushy little lesbian on arts and culture.’
??You're a real charmer, Ash, know that? Anyway, just ’cause she's pushy doesn't mean she's gay.’
??Ha!’ he cried, triumphantly. ??Gotya! You're not meant to say that; you're meant to say, 'Her sexual orientation is not an issue here.'
??Well, she isn't, and it isn't.’
??No? But she's certainly pushy, isn't she? And she's got her beady little lesbo eyes on your job too, hasn’t she?’
Taz paused to catch her breath outside S. K. Mehta's office. It had been two weeks since she had last been up to the fourteenth floor; then it had been to receive a few words of warning as a result of a series of complaints received about the tone of voice she'd used in an item about back office support centres she’d titled ??Cyber-Coolies’. Pretty standard kind of complaint–the sort SK was normally pleased to receive–except that the channel sucked in serious money from the specific company she had chosen as an exemplar, and which proved to have a fat wallet but an extremely thin skin.
Then, the title on the door had been ??News Team Leader’; now it was ??Current Affairs Co-ordinator’.
She knocked, and went in.
S.K.Mehta was tall and balding; in his early fifties. As the years passed, and his career stagnated, he had adopted a range of affectations; a bow tie, bifocals suspended around his neck on a red cord, and snuff. Taz suspected he really saw himself as a gloriously old-fashioned literary figure. On the wall of his office, amid the inevitable framed awards and pictures of a younger him with a previous generation of Bollywood heart-throbs and political big hitters, hung a half dozen Spy caricatures of long-dead British press barons and judges; pot-bellied, gloomy men, in top hats or tweeds, identified by a single initial in inverted commas beneath their distorted images.
S. K. Mehta was devoted to all things English. Taz had always suspected that's why, against all the odds, she'd gotten her job.
The room smelt faintly of eucalyptus and menthol; the prime constituents of his favourite inhalation, which he bought on his regular trips to London, and carried home. His A/C was set, as always, two degrees below ambient. He leapt up from his chair as she entered; his face crumpled with concern.
??Taz!’ he cried, moving quickly round the side of his desk to take her hands in his. ??Good session today; what were you, two, three seconds off? I liked the way you handled the piece on mafia dons. And that call from the guy in Vile Parle! It was really good.’
They stood awkwardly for a moment, SK still holding both her hands in his. He seemed unsure quite how to go on. Eventually, he led her toward the low sofa bracketed between the coffee percolator and a massive potted palm–the Comfort Corner.
??Oh, shit,’ thought Taz. ??What is it, SK?’ she asked.
SK looked away. ??I don't know how to say this, Taz. We've had a letter…’
Taz groaned. ??Not cyber-coolies again?’
SK shook his head. ??No, nothing like that. At first we thought it was fan mail, or another crazy wanting to kill you: that's why it was opened for you. You know the policy: Privacy with Protection. But it isn't. It’s personal. We've only read the covering letter, but its, er… obviously pretty serious.’ He crossed back to his desk, and picked up a bulky envelope. ??I'm really sorry. Really, I am. If you want to be alone when you read it, just say. Or if you want me to call anyone, then that's OK too. We're all here for you. You know that.’
Taz thought immediately of her mother in the UK, and her heart rate increased and her stomach churned. As she reached out for the envelope, her hand shook. The stamps were British, but she didn't recognize the handwriting. She took out the inner envelope, and the single sheet of paper. She scanned it quickly; it made no sense. She read it over, aloud.
??By the time you receive this, you will, I am sure, have been told through official channels of Armitage's death. I grieve for your loss, and pray that the Lord will give you strength to meet this tragedy with the same fortitude and resolve he displayed.
??I had the privilege to be with Armitage in his last few moments in this life. I am sure it will be a comfort for you to know that he died with courage and dignity. His last hours were devoted to writing you the letter I enclose. I have not read it; I do not think he would have wanted it read by anyone other than you. I am sorry to say I did not know Armitage well, but in the short time I spent with him, I recognized in him the strength and dignity that can only come from knowing that he would be meeting his God reconciled to his fate and at peace within himself.’
I pray that he will find peace and that the Lord will comfort you in your loss at this time.’