‘All resemblances to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental’
Men wearing ski masks entered the school bus, the acrid stench of the oil flares mingling with the sweaty air inside the vehicle. ‘Out!’ they ordered.
The boys of Year Seven lined up against the sand-coloured bus, this summer afternoon the ambient temperature neared halfway to boiling point. The masked soldiers shoved the lads’ backs against the scorching metal skin of the bus.
Private Ahmad Shivalingham snatched a school bag from the first boy, spilling its contents on to the hot sand, his steel-capped boots grinding books, pens, rulers into the dust.
‘Okay’, now pick this shit up, jildi! The rest of you, empty your bags. Like this. On the ground. We’re looking for terrorists. The boys did as ordered.
The Empire of Lulua and Marjan and Its Dependencies was ruled with an iron fist. Lulua was a mere 22 miles wide, sea-to-shining-sea. The neighbouring island of Marjan a blob of sand and rock about ten miles across. The ‘dependencies’ were islets and sandbanks some uninhabitable, on others off-shore luxury developments dug their toes precariously into a simulacrum of reclaimed terra firma; other dependencies hosted rigs exploring for oil and gas to supplement the Empire’s dwindling supplies, aggressively up to the maritime boarder with rival empire of Al Qurtran.
The Empire of Lulua and Marjan (and its dependencies) had itself once been the dependency of a real empire, now the ruling family were losing their grip on power.
‘Your books!’ Shivalingham snatched a book from a boy. All schoolbooks carried coloured pictures of the Three Wise Men on the first page: The Emperor, ‘The Greatest Giver’; The Heir Apparent ‘Guardian of the Future’; his octogenarian uncle the Grand Vizier ‘Symbol of Unity and Strength’.
‘Who’s’ this? Demanded Shivalingham ‘The Emperor! God Bless Him, may he rein forever!’ Mumbled the boy hoping he sounded sincere. ‘Very good!’ Shivalingham shoved the book back to the boy, snatching one from the next boy he thumbed it open.
‘What’s the meaning of this!’ Demanded Shivalingham. The eyes of the Greatest Giver had been penciled in to make them look crossed, pimples were coloured into his skin. ‘Nothing, just ….’ Shivalingham struck the boy full on the jaw, snatching a book from the next boy.
‘Sir!’ Shivalingham summoned Captain Omar Homsi in alarm, the officer commanding the roadblock. Homsi peered at the first page, his blue eyes squinting in the brilliant sun.
‘That boy’s coming with us. The rest of you, back in the bus! Driver, take this scum to their village!’
The soldiers watched the bus disappear in a cloud of dust. Shivalingham beat Mohsin to the ground, sinking his boots into his guts and chest, cracking ribs and bruising organs. The soldiers bundled the boy into their jeep.
Mehdi came round in an interrogation room, blinking into a blinding spotlight.
‘Turn that thing off’ hissed Johann Jates through his thin lips. ‘Show me, the evidence.’
Homsi presented Jates with the schoolbook, wrapped in a transparent plastic evidence bag marked ‘Metropolitan Police’.
Jates removed the book, flicking it open: ‘The Greatest Giver’ had been adorned with biro antennae, like a cockroach, a crudely stitched scar was inked onto his cheek, fart clouds emerged from his bisht, Frankenstine electrodes jutted from his neck; an erect cock crudely drawn with black felt-pen sporting a Union Jack planted in the the pubic hair was cumming into the mouth of the ‘Guardian of the Future’.
‘Here Sir, look!’ A grim Homsi drew Jate’s attention to ‘The Symbol of Unity and Strength’: devil’s horns projected from the Vizier’s head, vampire fangs hung from his lips, dripping school-ink blood onto his robes, onto his Vice Emperor’s sash and onto his prized medallion, The Companion of the Order of the White Elephant, given to him by a far off king.
Jates frowned ‘What do you know about this?’ He demanded of Mohsin.
‘Mo ‘adry shay ….’
‘He says he knows not nothing’, Shivalingham helpfully translated.
The Londoner cast the shaab a fixed stare. Mohsin thought the cop’s head resembled a skull with sprayed-on grey skinhead stubble.
‘Mo ‘aarif haayya ….’
‘This is nothing, just kid’s shit.’ Jates tossed the schoolbook into a wastepaper basket. ‘You’re wasting my time. Let him go.’
‘But Saheb ….’ Shivalingham ejaculated limply.
‘Rough him up a bit more, dump him in his village after midnight’ Homsi ordered Shivalingham, appeasing the Private’s disappointment.
‘Very good, Sir!’
Onglek felt drained. With each visit it got worse, each time he had to give more. He watched the black armoured limousine pass through the farm’s electrified main gate, vanishing into the distance where the thick dark jungle hid the road.
‘Come’, Pu held Onglek’s hand as with shaking legs they made their way to the refrectory. Twenty boys of around 15 sat around a wooden bench, their smart white sailor boy uniforms hanging limply from the boys’ enfeebled, emptied forms. All had ‘given’.
Onglek watched the red tropical sun sink as bowls were passed around, noticing how his skin looked pale, like a Farang.
He rolled the big iron pill between his fingers before putting it on the back of his tongue and washing it down with a can of Pokari Sweat. He picked at the small, round plaster covering the puncture mark the fat hypodermic had made on his arm. Greedily he tucked into the steaming Khoa Thom.
It was better than his life on the streets, just.
‘Giving’ had been easy, when it was just thalassemia, but with the old man’s leukaemia the demands were getting worse. He needed a complete blood change and the boys had been screened for their blood group.
Onglek had two more years to serve as a ‘giver’ on the farm, his king had promised him a scholarship in the UK. Two years earlier he had been selling himself on the streets, he would return to those streets a doctor, or a lawyer. He clung to his faith that this was true.
A wave of dizziness overcame him as his remaining blood rushed to his stomach to digest the soup.
‘Pom mai sa-bai’, ‘I feel sick’.
‘I’m sorry to hear that …’ said Pu.
The Learjet streaked Westwards across the Indian Ocean back to the Empire. The old man felt forty again, truly a symbol of strength and unity.
‘But for how much longer?’
The Vizeir needed to focus. He switched his attention to the latest file on ‘terrorists and insurgents’ provided by Wotan PLC, his private security consultants.
‘Humm, Mohsin … Their blood is allowed to us ….’, the Symbol mused.
Mohsin writhed in a gutter near his village, half immersed in bitter, salty seepwater, awakened by the croaking of frogs.
Biting the ground against his pain and anger he chewed a bread of dust kneaded with blood … the sacrament of Karbala ….