Authors: Carol Marinelli
at her carefully planned desert wardrobe when she climbed into his Jeep.
Cool capri pants, a T-shirt and flat pumps were clearly not what he had been expecting her to change into.
‘See if your sister has robes.’
‘I’m not wearing them!’ Georgie said. ‘Anyway, on the tour guidelines it said—’
‘That was for a play date. This is the real thing,’ Ibrahim interrupted. ‘You’ll get burnt.’
‘I’ve got sunblock on.’
‘Don’t come crying to me then at 3 a.m.,’ Ibrahim said, and then he changed his mind, gave her a flash of that dangerous smile. ‘Well, you are welcome to—just don’t expect sympathy.’ And Georgie swallowed, because they
flirting and a day in the desert, a whole day alone with him, was something she hadn’t dared dream of and certainly not with him looking like
dressed for the desert and it was an Ibrahim she had not once glimpsed or envisaged. The sight made her toes curl in her unsuitable pumps, for if her mind
could have conjured it up, this was how she’d have envisioned him. A man of the desert in white robes, his feet encased in leather straps and a black and white kafeya that hid his hair from sight and allowed more focus on his face.
‘What?’ Ibrahim asked, as he often did to silence.
‘Bring it back,’ Georgie said, and they were definitely flirting because he smiled as he registered what she meant.
‘Consider it packed.’
They drove for miles, until the road ran out. Then Ibrahim hurtled the Jeep over the dunes, accelerating and braking, riding the dunes like a surfer on a wave. He had been wrong to fear it, Ibrahim decided, because all it was was fairy-tales and sand.
He parked near a vast canyon, with a few clusters of shrubs and not much else.
‘Is this it?’ Georgie asked, curious at her own disappointment.
‘This is it,’ Ibrahim said. ‘You take the rug and I’ll bring the food over.’
‘To the picnic table,’ he teased.
‘Ha, ha,’ she said as she stepped out. She knew she was being a bit precious, or just plain shallow—she didn’t want belly dancers or for Ibrahim to produce a hookah. She’d just dreamt of it so, built it up to something majestic in her mind, and all there was … was nothing. She felt the blistering heat on her head and she scanned the horizon, trying to get her bearings, to see
the city and the palace behind, or the blue of the ocean that circled the island, but there was nothing but endless sand.
‘What direction is the palace?’
‘That way,’ Ibrahim said, spreading a blanket at the side of the Jeep for shade. She sat down and accepted some iced mint and lemon tea, but her eyes could not accept the nothingness.
‘You want camels?’ He grinned.
‘I guess,’ she admitted. ‘And I’d love to see the desert people.’
‘We might come across some. But most are deeper in the desert.’
‘What is this illness that the Bedouins are suffering from?’ Georgie asked.
‘A virus,’ Ibrahim explained. ‘It is not serious with treatment, and most have been vaccinated. Most in Zaraqua anyway, but out of the city …’ He looked out to the horizon. ‘Beyond the royal tent there is nothing to the west. It is accessible only by helicopter. There is no refuelling point, no roads …’
‘What if they need help?’
‘It is how they choose to live.’ Ibrahim repeated his father’s words, though today they did not sit well in his gut. ‘Ten years ago there was talk, contractors were bought in, proposals made, but the elders protested they did not want change and so, instead we concentrated on the town, the hospital and university.’
He watched her wriggle on the blanket, her capri pants and linen shirt uncomfortable now and her cheeks
pink. Instead of saying ‘I told you so’, he headed to the vehicle and retrieved a scarf, which he tied for her, and it was bliss to have relief.
‘Here.’ As he sat down he pulled something from the sand and he handed her a shell. ‘You are protected—that is what they mean.’
‘There really are shells? From when it was ocean?’
‘Maybe,’ Ibrahim said. ‘Or maybe a small animal. There are more questions than answers.’ He smeared some thick white cheese on bread and offered it to her, but Georgie took a sniff and shook her head.
‘I don’t like goat’s cheese.’
‘Neither do I,’ Ibrahim said, ‘when it is from a high-street store. Try it.’ He held it to her mouth and it was a gesture Georgie usually could not tolerate. Despite her healing, still there were boundaries and unwittingly he had crossed one. He held the morsel to her lips, told her what she should eat, only his black eyes caressed her as they did so, and there was, for the first time in this situation, the absence of fear. ‘Try,’ he teased, ‘and my apologies if it is not to your taste.’
It was to her taste; there was a note to it that she could not detect and he watched as those blue eyes tried to work it out.
‘The goats graze only on thyme,’ Ibrahim explained. ‘It makes this a rare delicacy.’
And she tasted other things.
Fruits she had never heard of that had been dried by the desert sun. She felt cool beneath the scarf. She felt brave in his company and not scared of the silence
when they lay back on the rug for a while—and she knew he would not kiss her, knew, despite the energy that thrummed between them, that their day must end soon. They had driven for hours and there was only half a tank of fuel, but she wanted something else from the desert.
She wanted more.
‘You would get a greater sense of it if I left you alone.’ He spoke to her as he looked at the sky.
She smiled at him. ‘I’d be bored out of my skull.’
‘No,’ Ibrahim said. ‘That is how they make you fear it.’ His face turned to hers and they lay on the rug, just talking, sure that they would play by the rules. ‘When I was four or five, my father brought me. I was the same as you. Bored with the picnic …’
‘I’m not bored.’ Georgie corrected. ‘I’m not bored with you.’
‘Bored,’ he said. ‘That was how I felt, and unimpressed really, and then my father climbed into the Jeep and his aide drove off. I thought they had forgotten me, that it was a mistake, but, no, it was done to all of us.’
‘They left you here.’ She was appalled.
‘They watch you apparently from a distance, but you don’t know that. It is to make you strong. When it is just you, when you are alone, then you are in awe of it.’
‘And did it make you strong?’
‘No.’ Ibrahim grinned. ‘I cried and I sat down and I cried some more, I cried till I vomited and then I cried some more when my father whipped me for being weak, which I was.’ He shrugged. He told the truth because
he would never let them shame him for how he had felt, and that was what had angered his father most. ‘I wanted my mother.’
‘That’s so cruel.’ Georgie couldn’t believe it. ‘That won’t happen to Azizah.’
‘What if they have a son?’
‘Could you imagine Felicity?’ He laughed at that thought and so too did Georgie. ‘I think we can safely say any future nephew will be spared that particular induction. Do you want me to drive off now?’ he asked. ‘To leave you alone with it for a while?’
‘No,’ Georgie said, because the thought made her shiver, but she did still want more from the desert. ‘Can we wait for the sunset?’
He turned his face skywards.
‘Sunset is hours away.’
‘Can we stay?’
And, no, they could not sit in the desert for hours—he could, for he had done his time in the land, but she was fair underneath the scarf and not used to the heat. He was about to tell her so but then something more fleeting than a thought changed his mind.
‘We can go to the tent,’ he offered. ‘We can wait there for sunset. There are horses we can ride if you wish. I will find you a docile one. I can refuel. Bedra, the housekeeper, will be there with her husband. It is a royal tent, it is ready always for the princes or the king.’ And he sounded very confident, as if he were suggesting they stop off at a café for coffee on the way home. Yet
he had not been back to the tent in years and it was not a prospect he usually relished—but for reasons unknown even to himself he wanted to show her.
‘What if Felicity—?’
‘Why do you need her permission?’ Ibrahim asked, a bit irritated now, but not at her, more at himself for his stupid offer. He had no desire to go to the tent and was rather hoping she would refuse. ‘You are your own person. Do you want to come or not?’
She did not really understand the change in him, for he whipped up the blanket and threw it in the vehicle, threw the remains of their food for the unseen wildlife and Georgie took off her scarf. They drove in tense silence and maybe it was because of too much sun because she certainly wasn’t relaxed in his company now. Still, she must have nodded off because she woke up with her head against the window to find his mood not improved by his unresponsive passenger or the increasing winds that threw sand against the windscreen and screamed around the vehicle. Inside the car it was almost dark, the sky bathed in browns and gold, and he had the sat-nav on. Ibrahim glanced over briefly as she stirred beside him.
‘We’re in a sandstorm?’
‘We have been for the last hour,’ Ibrahim said. ‘We will just refuel and then leave. You wouldn’t be able to see the sunset anyway. I will have Bedra prepare us some refreshments and then we will head back to the palace.’
‘Isn’t it dangerous?’
‘If you don’t know what you are doing,’ Ibrahim said. ‘We’ll be fine.’ Even though he sounded confident, he wasn’t so sure. Visibility was extremely low and worsening and could change to zero in a matter of seconds. Really, unless the storm passed they would have to wait it out at the tent. He had even considered halting the Jeep but if the storm worsened they could find themselves buried, so he had decided to head for the tent and assess things then.
Ibrahim had listened to the warnings before they’d left, would never have brought her out here had he known a storm was building, but even listening to the radio now, tuning in for updates, still there was no mention of this storm. He glanced as her hand fiddled with an air vent. ‘Leave it closed,’ Ibrahim barked, and then checked himself. She really had no idea just how dangerous this was.
‘Why have we stopped?’
‘Because we are here.’
They were. Beyond the curtain of sand Georgie could just make out material billowing a few metres away.
‘Wait there,’ Ibrahim said. ‘I will come and get you.’
She didn’t need him to open her door and ignoring him Georgie climbed out herself and immediately realised Ibrahim hadn’t been being chivalrous. The sand tore at her hands as she moved to cover her eyes, the scream of the wind shrilled in her ears, filled her mouth and nose and in a moment, in less than a moment, she
was lost, completely and utterly lost. The vehicle was surely just a step or two behind her, the tent somewhere in front, but it was like being spun around in blind man’s buff. Completely disorientated, she felt something akin to panic as she glimpsed for the very first time the might of the desert, and then she felt a wedge of muscle, felt Ibrahim’s thick white robe and his arm pulling her, smothering her face and eyes with his kafeya. He guided her from the screaming wind, every step an effort, until she felt the wall of the tent in front of her and then the bliss of relative peace as he pushed her inside.
The peace didn’t last long.
She coughed out sand. He lit an oil lamp and his expression was less than impressed when it came into view in the flare of the flame. Her coughing died down.
‘When I tell you to wait—you wait.’
‘I was trying to …’ To what? Her voice trailed off. To show him she didn’t need her door opened? To show her independence in the middle of a storm? There wasn’t a single appropriate response.
‘I’m not sure if you’re naïve or ignorant.’ Ibrahim was furious. ‘You could have died.’ He showed no mercy and neither did he exaggerate. ‘In the time it took me to get around that vehicle, you could have been lost.
Listen to me!
’ he roared. ‘In a storm, and one as severe as this one is becoming, you can be lost in a moment—or choked by the sand. It is that simple.’
‘I’m sorry …’ she said, but Ibrahim wasn’t listening.
‘Bedra!’ He shouted. ‘Where is everyone?’
He strode into the darkness, lighting lamps as he
went, revealing more and more beauty with each flare of light. The floor a scatter of rugs, the tent walls hung with them too, and there were ornaments, instruments she didn’t recognise. It was the desert she’d dreamt of and she wandered in quiet appreciation as Ibrahim grew more irate, walking down white corridors that led to separate areas. He called down them all.
‘There’s a note.’ Georgie found it as Ibrahim searched for the staff. ‘At least, I think it’s a note.’
She handed it to him and watched his expression turn to one of incredulity as he read it. ‘Why would Bedra and her husband be out helping with the sick? Their job is to tend to the desert palace—they should be here at all times.’
‘Well, given that she is a doctor, maybe her skills were better needed elsewhere,’ Georgie responded, and then instantly regretted it, because from the frown on his proud features she realized, he didn’t know. Felicity had told her about the secret desert work that she and Karim did for the Bedouins, the mobile clinic they ran, how Bedra was so much more than a maid. She had assumed that even if the king didn’t know, Ibrahim would—he was Karim’s brother after all—but clearly he hadn’t been told.
‘She’s not a doctor,’ Ibrahim said derisively. ‘She’s a housekeeper. She should be here.’
But as they explored the empty tent, clearly there were things that Ibrahim did not know, because beyond the servants’ quarters, where royals would never venture,
was a treatment area as well stocked as any modern doctor’s surgery.
‘I’m not sure,’ Georgie could not resist as Ibrahim surveyed it, ‘if you’re naïve or just ignorant.’
She wondered if she had pushed him too far, but he conceded with a slight shrug and a shake of the head. ‘Clearly I’m ignorant,’ he said. ‘She’s really a doctor?’