Cleaning Clothes in the Desert
By Benjamin Wolfe
Now that it's all done, and I've been pared down and broken up, and throughout my chest programs of controlled burning have created firebreaks that prohibit the temperature of feeling ever rising above room temperature, I have only two recollections of love.
One is a lady whispering music somewhere outside Baghdad. I was there working for a private security company, guarding the great pools of oil that flow into the West. And on this particular day I had a sack full of unclean clothes that I needed to have washed. So I walked down the dusty streets, feeling ineffably tired, my eyes heavy, a cigarette drooping out of the corner of my mouth and charring my lips. I smoked and hated it, and then lit another cigarette, obsessed that my hands be doing something. I was afraid that if unoccupied I might look less cool in desert and fall prey to a kidnapping and then a filmed execution, a thing which actually happened in Iraq back then. Smoking could save your life out there.
The launderette I found was nestled in the dustiest corner of a dusty street, round the back of a shop that sold chewing gum and newspapers. I had often seen a man lurking outside with an abusive face and a salty, sullen demeanour. His trademark was to lean unshaven against the walls and refuse to respond when you nodded at him. I hated men like him back then. When I was alone at night I would slip out and away from people, leave camp and look up at the desert stars and dream of saving the women that suffered under their yoke. I would be like Lawrence of Arabia, but my army would be comprised of beautiful women in veils, and we would fight for love, not Damascus. I would lie on my back on the sand of the desert and have thoughts like that. And if I did it long enough I would lose my place in the universe and feel like I was actually lying with my back against the sky, and the studded carpet above me was the desert, undulating, empty and free. If I had these thoughts whilst listening to music through my iPod I could bring tears into my eyes with ease.
But anyway, the laundry man's wife was such a woman, one among the legion of the repressed. She, of course, wore the veil. I had seen her hovering near the back of the launderette, flinching when you looked at her, hiding everything and running away. I was unsure of the rules back then, and I thought to myself that if I looked at her too long her husband would beat her later that night.
On this day her husband was not there. I stood outside, glancing in through the glass. I dragged on my cigarette. I flicked it, and watched it die slowly in the sand. As a child I had dreamt so many times of smoking in a place where one might get shot. But now that I was here I felt nothing, 40 degree Baghdad pulling downwards sleepily on the back of my brain.
I pushed the door open and nodded awkwardly. She nodded back at me and gave me a frightened smile. Immediately I was gripped by a desire to never let her be afraid again. Or perhaps it was a desire for her to be afraid over and over again, and each time for me to save her. I couldn't quite tell, but I think it was the former.
'Can I wash these?' I asked, speaking slowly, stilted.
She nodded and pointed to a washing machine.
So I crammed all my clothes into the little barrel. There was a tunic that was spattered with Iraqi blood. I pushed that in too, and looked out of the corner of my eye to check if she had seen.
Then I pulled up a chair and sat down to wait.
My chair was squeezed in between the washing machine and the counter which the woman stood behind. This meant that now I was less than a metre away from her as she leant over the surface and I sat looking down at my knee.
At the time I was preoccupied by death, and my thoughts soon drifted there. It wasn't really death per-se I suppose, not the doing of death, because that of course is something one can never know until it's all over. I was obsessed with the aesthetic of death, with the idea of dying somewhere strange and beautiful and arid. That was why I had navigated myself into the Forces, and why I was out here on this scorched afternoon in Baghdad, rather than sitting behind a desk in a bank in London. Because I could have been in London, air-conditioned and safe. But instead I was here, because the art of death and the story of Lord Nelson dying and his last words "Kismet Hardy" meant more to me growing up than they did to you.
I would say silently to myself, dozens of times a day, 'what if I die here?' And I loved the sound of the words in the context of myself in the desert. I think I'd heard them in a song somewhere long before, and some of the forgotten music still cleaved to it. Now I sang them silently, and like in a poem I saw myself dying a thousand times out there, saw myself falling whilst women wept, appended the words.
But as I was having these thoughts I became aware of another sound, faint and murmured. It was singing, and it was coming from beside me. I looked out of the corner of my eye. The laundry man's wife was still leaning over the desk, pen in the hand, looking down. Her lips were moving softly, parting with infinite grace, a little like the prayers of a believer, and she was rocking her head gently from side to side, her eyes half-closed. I listened more closely. I recognised the song. Bizarrely, she was singing Joe Cocker's Up where we belong. Eyes closed in reverie, her lips full of sincerity she sang:
Who knows what tomorrow brings,
And then, taking an ardent breath she sang the chorus: Love lifts us up where we belong, where the eagles fly, on a mountain high. And never have those words been sung more quietly or with more conviction. I wondered where she had heard them, how this song had filtered through the cracks and found its way here, into this woman. She must have heard it on an old radio somewhere, and never forgotten.
She was lost in it, dreaming of love whilst I dreamt of death. And our two dreams weren't that far apart, hunting extremities in this vapid, disappointing world. And as I sat there I wondered if we could merge them somehow. Fall in love and runaway together, and get hunted down and killed like dogs, dying like angels, clinging to each other.
Again I glanced cautiously at her, trying to understand if there was something coded in the words. I wondered if she was singing for me. But she kept looking down at the desk, her hand almost vibrating as it held a pen. I was overwhelmed by the nakedness of the feeling. Why wear heavy robes when your voice gives everything away?
Then there was a sound from the door. She started violently and looked up. There was a man there, bearded, his shirt open at the neck from whence sprang more black hair. He was standing just outside. He called something to her again in a rough voice. She left her desk and walked over to the door.
In doing so she had dropped her pen and exposed the little square of table that she had been shielding. I looked at the table, and on it, there in black ink, was an exquisite sketch of me. I recognised myself easily. I was in profile, my eyes full of fierce hopes, my lips pursed. I scanned the desert. Proud and protective, she had made me more handsome than I was.
I looked up at the door. The man was gesticulating about something, chopping the air in diagonal motions, and my woman was nodding, placating him. Then he was turning, beginning to leave, some sort of agreement reached.
I looked once more at the sketch. It was the most intimate thing anyone had ever done of me. And now I knew for certain the currents which flowed in this woman, knew what she harboured in silence. Twice she had consecrated her feelings in art in the space of ten minutes.
I looked up at her again. She was closing the door, turning with grace. She stood there in full black regalia, the emblem of another culture. We were separated by five metres and fifteen hundred years of different childhoods, but the flesh was the same. And I knew now that in a free market I could have loved her. I felt it. In another time, another place, without the barriers of culture. Those eyes might have been mine.
She came back towards the table, and looked down at the drawing, and then at myself, and knew that I had seen it. She stopped, guilty, her hands on the desk. The moment dictating, I got up without knowing what I was doing. I put my hand down and took hers from the table, and held them for a second, pressing them, my eyes locked on hers. She looked very sad, and very small. Then she shook her head, and pointed towards the door.
"Go", she said, in her wonderful voice with its Arabic tones that I'll never forget.
And so I walked quickly to the door and went, leaving my clothes and their blood spots behind in the washing machine. And I never went back there, but found a different launderette instead.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011