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The Boatman

Lawrence Osborne

For several years Hilal ran a boat hire out of Qantab beach, taking rich Saudis and Qataris to the remote coves that lay along the coast on either side of Al Bustan. He slept in a trailer and conducted his business entirely by mobile burner phones that he discarded every three months. His boat was forty years old and yet he painted it anew every few weeks to keep his customers impressed, an almond eye on either side of the prow. From time to time, when the season was slow, he was approached by the men who traded black- market items in and out of Muscat and was asked to take them to the same remote coves where goods were dropped off and picked up.

He never asked them their names or who they worked for. When the agents of state security came round, as they sometimes did, to ask a few questions of the men running boats, he shook his head every time and said that all he did was service tourists—may God praise them and their offspring. But the agents knew better. They told Hilal, intending to threaten him, that he was well known among the traffickers, who called him ‘Stray Dog.’ Kalbon dalon. The agents wanted to know why they called him that.

It was an insult he could explain. But Stray Dog, who already knew what the traffickers called him, protested that he had never heard such an insult applied to him. He was not a stray and certainly not a dog. He had a trailer parked behind the beach and a robust business. He walked over to the Qantab village mosque every day for his ablutions and paid his bills. By God, no man had the right to call him a stray dog, or even just a dog. His reputation among the families who drove down from the Emirates every season was such that he had no need to advertise his boat trips: they were famous by word of mouth. Such a man would never have to defend his honor, even to the Jahaz al Amn al Dakhly state security.

Yet he did keep watch on the sea. He was there night and day, every day of every month. He prided himself on being the sea’s eyes. Boats passed in the night without lights, smugglers making their way along the rugged coastline with their cargoes. He had heard that human beings were sometimes in their holds. The men who owned freelance boats in Qantab, a village of low white structures set again desert hills, all knew each other; as far as Hilal could gather, they all skimmed a little profit from the secretive trades when they were on offer. Yet no one talked about it, not even when they were drinking their sugared coffee together under the trees. Their main business was the tourists. Those wayward, fickle animals.

Sitting outside his trailer in front of his beached boat, he scanned the wide sands trapped between headlands. The tell-tale chaos of spoiled and fattened families were his prey. It was like crab-fishing. The ones who knew of him beforehand called ahead and made their demands. Picnics on the sea, transport to the isolated coves. Usually he would collect them at dusk and ferry them back to Qantab beach. He was sure that the women, secluded for the whole day, took off their niqabs and danced naked on the beaches out of view of the world. It was said that they did. Omar from Sifa once passed on a boat at midday and saw them for himself. Saudi women naked and screaming with joy. It was a lie, but it was an enjoyable lie.

Then, on a windless day three days after the New Year of the unfaithful, a young couple appeared on Qantab beach looking for a boat hire to take them to those same coves, and Stray Dog was the only man among the boatmen up at nine in the morning and available for hire. He could tell at once that the girl was an Arab; a Lebanese, he would have said, and probably a Christian.

The boy was a Canadian, but he could not have guessed just by looking at him. They were about twenty-five, in shorts and linen shirts, wearing straw hats and carrying water bottles and a little light scuba gear. Perfect prey and not even sunburnt yet. They must have flown in for New Year’s and ventured out for some mild adventure.

Stray Dog waved until they noticed him.

‘You want a boat, I can see you want a boat. I am Hilal. This is my beauty.’

He spoke in Arabic and the girl replied, ‘It’s your boat?’

‘God willing. For fifty US, it’s yours. Take you to a cove and bring you back at sundown.’

They came forward and the boy’s eyes were naïve and tender, but the girl’s, being attuned to his own language, were not. This was unfortunate and he would lose ten dollars on the transaction.

‘Thirty,’ she said.

‘By God, I cannot lose money on the round trip. Have mercy. Forty-five.’


‘Forty. Forty is theft, but since it’s quiet this morning I can consider it. Coffee?’

They sat on his folding chairs and exchanged their names. The girl was Isra, the boy was Clive. They were junior lawyers living in London. They had driven to Qantab from the Al Bustan resort a few miles up the road in a rental car from Muscat airport. It was the staff at the reception there who had recommended Qantab for a hired boat. Those admirable men could utter no falsehood.

‘You want to scuba, I see. I know just the cove for you. Where the water is very quiet and clear. Believe me, you are not the first.’

The boy was enjoying his coffee and thinking to himself that Hilal the boatman was the sort of con man you can generally trust. The man’s hands were worn down by the sea and, by the looks of them, by a few fists fights over the years. His eyes were cynical but also weary—it was a good sign. Doing something bad to them would take a lot of effort. Clive decided he liked Hilal. But for the duration of the coffee it was amusing to watch his girl from Beirut haggle with him. She was asking for an ice-box with cans of Coke. The boatman threw up an exasperated hand. ‘Habibi,’ he groaned, going Lebanese on her, ‘you want me to walk across this wide beach and get you Cokes?’ But in the end he relented by making a call to one of the vendors, who came over with the cans. They stacked them in one of Hilal’s ancient ice-boxes and carried it down to the boat. The visitors threw in their scuba gear and climbed in. They sat down at the prow, while Halil fiddled with the outboard motor and Isra took Clive’s arm for a moment. ‘How easy was that?’ she said.

Clive looked up at the granite cliffs with their striations and grooves, then out onto an empty dark-green sea where the rollers were far out. The desert wind had dried out his nose and he felt cleansed, invigorated. After a claustrophobic winter in London, the blueness of the sky was a beautiful shock. Women in black stood in the shallows eating frozen lollipops and there was about them a gentle quietness, a delicate contentedness. He had had his doubts earlier that morning about venturing to a practically uninhabited place, but Isra had supplied the confidence that he himself lacked.

When they pushed off, it was like saying adieu to all the prior days, which had been stressful. Especially trying to score a decent bottle of champagne on New Year’s in a dry city. We found a jolly pirate, Clive thought to himself. Although he probably found us.

They passed the bare headlands they had spotted from the car driving down from Al Bustan, the ranges of dark burnt-coke ophiolites rising behind them with their primeval jagged profiles. They moved around a large promontory as dolphins came up behind them, cautiously curious. The boatman cut the engine a little and they took it easy as they came round the promontory and its boiling rocks. On the north side were grotesque outcrops of wind-torn rock with hermetically sealed-off beaches between them. They could pick any one they wanted. No one could approach them unless it was by sea. The formations behind each beach represented a long and difficult climb, and Hilal assured them that nobody ever attempted it. They chose one randomly and the decision was set. Hilal guided his boat gently up to the beach of a cove a hundred yards wide, framed on both sides by immense igne-ous cliffs and divided by a stream cutting across the sand.

They pulled the craft half up onto the sand together and then offloaded the scuba equipment and the ice-box, now also filled with the sandwiches and apples they had brought with them from the hotel. These they hauled into the shade of the cliffs before Halil shook their hands, took the money and promised that he would return at five to take them back to Qantab.

‘If you need me before then, you can call me. Maybe the phone will work. Sometimes it does not. You have to be easy-going about that.’

‘All right,’ Clive said, breaking into the Arabic conversation, ‘we’ll see you at five. Are you punctual?’

‘Is sky blue?’ Halil replied in his own language.

They watched him move off from the sun-hot beach, the boat circling in the tiny bay and leaving them to while away the whole day. Hilal turned only once to give them his affirmative thumb and within seconds he was gone.

Nothing moved but the warm water of the stream flowing around their feet. They stripped off naked without delay and plunged into the surf. They swam just out of their depth, then returned to the beach and lay naked in the sun until the light became too much for them and they retreated again to the shadows thrown down by the cliffs. Above them, the dusty crags were pathless, covered with scrub, and the iron in the rock gave it a dark glossiness here and there. Behind the beach the flat, coarse sand looked like a desert wadi. So many hours, Clive thought, and nothing to do but vegetate. He reflected on the last four days and especially their night out on the town for New Year’s, a disaster that had culminated in a row in a booze-free Yemeni restaurant after hours of driving around in the seaside neighborhood called Qurum Heights, where they had tried the Crowne Plaza for an advertised champagne dinner and found it booked out by a vast Lebanese party. They had driven along Qurum Beach among hundreds of honking cars.

At the end of it, the Intercontinental, also miserably booked out even at $300 a head for Moët & Chandon at mid- night. Eventually they had asked people; a Yemeni place could do their midnight celebration, but without champagne. They had got there at ten to midnight, angry, lost, arguing, and found a vast garden of hanging lanterns.

A silent meal after a muted midnight toast. ‘I shouldn’t have trusted you to find champagne,’ she said. The bad mood had lasted into the following days, until in fact the very moment they had pushed off from Qantab beach. Isra had finally lost her simmering disappointment and had returned to normal.

Clive turned on the affection now to cement the new mood into place. He stroked her faintly sunburnt arm and then her hair. Against the current of their mutual mood, they found themselves aroused. Glancing up at the cliffs she registered a moment’s doubt but then cast it aside. An hour later, while he dozed, she started awake again and, still half-conscious, untangled herself from his sandy limbs. Across the blinding sand dozens of tiny crabs were scurrying down to the water. Wanting to be alone for a while, she quietly got up and walked down to the far end of the beach, where a grim wall of rocks broke up the currents. She dipped into the sea then lay in the sun waiting for the heat to overpower her. Strangely, she had only known Clive for about a month. They were relative strangers to each other. They worked at the same London firm and so had seen each other at a distance for longer than that. But they had only spoken privately for the last four weeks. And then, out of the blue, it had been her idea to take off for New Year’s, after they had been sleeping together for only a couple of weeks. A risk that had perhaps not paid off. She should have waited, but she had not. Sometimes the dice are worth rolling and sometimes not. Now she was beginning to feel the first pangs of regret.

They were not, perhaps, as compatible as she had at first assumed. The physical attraction was not maturing into something better, not even incrementally. Isra wondered what it would have been like to have been here alone. Better, surely. Richer. She had made a mistake, but it was not an enormous one. In a few days, after all, they would drive to Dubai, whence they had come, and board the same aeroplane they had taken on the way out. Back in London, they would disengage with good manners, and life would go back to what it had been before. They would remain pointless friends. Life would go on.

They spent the afternoon exploring the cove. There was a path that led up to one of the cliffs and from there they could watch boats passing at a distance. While they were there, sitting among the burning stones, she was suddenly seized by unease. This place was not as lifeless as they had thought.

‘I can hear insects,’ she said quietly, looking over at him. ‘Can’t you hear them?’


‘No, buzzing. I know what it is.’


‘I can’t hear anything.’

Clive couldn’t understand why she was being so standoffish since they had had sex. Had he done something wrong? Abruptly, as if not listening to him, she got up and dusted her legs. But she did it with a sharp impatience or, as became clearer, with alarm. ‘What is it?’

‘I can hear something. Like I said, buzzing.’

He laughed and defiantly relaxed himself, refusing to go along with her mood.

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

She picked up her towel and snapped it around her as if warding off something. He could see that she was genuinely agitated, but there were no insects there.

‘It’s a bee,’ she hissed.

‘No, honey. Calm down.’

‘Don’t call me “honey.” And don’t condescend. I said it’s a bee. I can hear it.’

‘No, you can’t.’

Since it was useless to argue with him, Isra swore as if to herself and moved off, taking the path back down to the beach.

Clive perked up. ‘Come on, honey, you’re exaggerating.’ ‘Get lost. It’s after me, not you.’ Within moments she was within shouting rather than talking distance. ‘What do you mean, you?’

She waved an angry hand and stumbled. He laughed again, but this time with a little more malice. She was heading down to the sea to escape the imaginary bee. So she was apiphobic—in a place with no insects at all. One had to marvel at the unexpected things you discover about someone.

He watched her run onto the beach, throw off her shorts and jump into the surf where the pursuing insect could not attack her. When she had calmed down they stared at each other.

‘Sharks!’ he shouted down.

Maybe she heard him because a moment later she rushed out of the water, glaring behind her. She stood lit by the sun, enraged, confused, caught between the dangers of land and sea. He waved to her in mockery. He was sure his laughter must have rolled down the cliff-face to reach her. The cove was an echo chamber. She gave him the finger, then seemed to relent a little. Maybe she had overreacted and there would be a truce. He waved again, shrugging theatrically, and she paused as she was putting her beach shorts back on. Changing her mind, she tossed them aside and began to run up the beach and then back down again. Better, he thought. No bees after you now. Then she stopped, her back to the sea, and began to do a little dance, Scheherazade-like, for her own pleasure. He was suddenly astonished at how magnificent she was, her body still oiled even after the dip, her hair now curled and salty as it whipped around her. He sat back and admired the performance, which must have been purely a release of tension.

As Clive sat there, pacified and meek, he sensed something move behind him. Before he could turn a bee flew past his ear and zigzagged down the path she had taken. He smiled to himself. If it wanted to try and kill her, it would. But in any case something else had caught his eye. Across the open sea a fishing boat had appeared, lazily trawling its way across the view, and three men lounging on its deck were watching the Lebanese girl dancing naked on the beach as if she was alone without a companion. Even at a fair distance, he could see the looks on their faces. The boat slowed, rocking in the swells, and still Isra didn’t notice them. Within a minute they had moved on and he was alone with her again. He walked lazily back down to the beach.

‘That was quite a dance.’

‘It’s my anti-bee dance. It always works.’

‘Well, I told you there weren’t any bees here.’

He reached out to spool her in and give her a quick kiss.

He felt a little guilty for a humiliation that he had not caused. Momentarily he wondered where the vagrant bee was.

It must have flown off without even noticing her. He took her hand and they walked back to the scuba gear, which they had not even used. Perhaps now was the moment? But the sun was waning and the high heat had begun to decline; the water was less inviting. Instead Clive suggested they drink the cold Coke and wait for Halil to return. He would be there in an hour.

‘I don’t know why we brought all that stuff,’ she said. ‘We could just have brought our trunks and a bottle of vodka.’

‘Vodka, here? They’d kill us.’

They lay on the sand waiting and five o’clock came and went. Clive called Halil, but the line was engaged. Repeated calls produced the same result. Soon the shadows projected by the cliffs engulfed most of the beach and the sea turned darker. The appointment had obviously been missed.

At six they began to fret. When night fell they would be stranded. To his surprise, Isra didn’t get overheated about it. Clive said he was sure Halil would show up, that he was late because something had come up at the last minute. Sure, that was it. It wouldn’t be in his interest to abandon them there. They’d go online and write bad reviews about him.

‘He doesn’t give a shit about that,’ she said grimly.

And she was right, he probably didn’t.

‘All the same,’ he said, ‘he’ll be here.’

The scuba gear was laid up among the rocks and was too heavy to move, but she suggested they take their light shoulder bags and return to the cliff where they had been earlier in the day. From there they would be able to see everything on the sea more clearly. If need be, they could flag down a passing boat and get a ride back to Qantab.

‘Flag down?’ he said with his utmost sarcasm.

Isra looked up at the sky, still bright at the edges, now filled with stars at the zenith, and didn’t bother to answer him. For the next hour they would be visible. They could shout.

Reluctantly, internally unconvinced, he agreed and they started to make their way back up the cliff in the dark. When they reached the top they sat in the same spot they had occupied previously and ate some biscuits. There was an unspoken agreement between them that climbing to this vantage point was safer than remaining on the beach. But why it was safer could somehow not be mentioned. Neither of them knew whether they were thinking the same thing. Hilal had not returned as he had promised, and they were now no longer protected by him. The wind picked up. A moon embedded in blue ice rose above the desert. They fell silent. It felt as if hours had passed before a light finally appeared out at sea.

Moving slowly, it approached their beach and soon a beam shot low across the waves. Clive impatiently stood up and raised his hands, about to shout out to the boat coming towards them. But Isra pulled him down violently and told him to shut up and wait. They had no idea whose boat it was.

‘What does it matter?’ he barked at her. ‘It’s a boat, isn’t it?’

‘It matters.’

She held him down and put a finger to her lips as if warning a child. And as she did so, the slim, dark form of the boat slid up to the beach and three men dropped silently into the water.

In the light of the beam they waded ashore and Hilal, they could tell even from a distance, was not among them. The men followed the beam inland towards the scuba gear, still piled against the rocks. One of the men, in a dishdasha, swept up to the rocks and passed an eye over the gear, ran a hand over it and then called back to his companions. The other two returned to the boat and dragged out a fourth man, whom they threw into the water and then dragged up onto the beach. Hilal, Clive thought. They shoved him onto the dry sand and left him there while they looked along the beach and then up towards the cliffs. One of them turned on a powerful torch and walked with it down the length of the beach, swinging the beam from side to side with the motion of a minesweeper. Reaching the cliff, he stopped and then swung the beam up at the cliff itself. There was nothing to see.

Retreating back to the group, he switched off the torch and knelt by the man, prostrate on the sand with his hands tied behind his back. They talked softly. Then, stooping down towards him, one of the men raised his hand and let fall a blow to Hilal’s head. The prone man shuddered and half-rolled onto his back. The others paused and sat back on their haunches. Isra made a sign to Clive: they should leave, creeping up the rocky hill behind them, away from the beach. It was cowardice, Clive thought, to leave Hilal to his fate, but there was nothing else to do. They crept away, their heads lowered, and disappeared into the pathless hillside, making their way almost by touch.

As they escaped the roar of the surf, they heard a cry. It was an animal’s guttural shriek. By now they were upright and walking normally, and Clive stopped and looked back. But Isra was behind him, pushing. ‘It’s none of our business.’ She was right. He let himself be pushed onwards.

Such things probably happened from time to time and it was best to roll with it, to let it go and escape as peacefully as one could. Behind the coastal cliffs, as they had seen on a map, a road ran that passed by their own resort two or three miles to the south. They soldiered on until they reached it, a road without street lamps that curved across the hills just in sight of the sea. It was near a place called Haramil. They trudged quietly away from the village and towards a larger main road that swept north to south out of Muscat and towards Al Bustan. Here the spherical lights burned in majes-tic rows, but the road itself was deserted.

They walked without much effort for about two hours until they came to a small public park to the side of the road. They went in and lay down under the darkened palms, now alive with dawn birds.

It was cool enough for them to recover their composure and talk again after the silence of the road. In the end, one could say, nothing had happened. It was not even certain that their scuba equipment had been stolen. They had to admit that they hadn’t understood what they had seen. Their car was still at Qantab and Isra suggested that they ask one of the staff to go down there and recover it for them. A tip of $50 would do it, since by car it was only a few minutes away. It was better that they didn’t go back there themselves.

‘Halil’s ice-box,’ he murmured.

‘He knows how to get it back. He knows where it is.’ It was true, she thought. And yet it had surely been him groveling on the sand with his hands tied behind his back.

Above the park rose a small mountain like a heap of slag, its turrets like all the black turrets of the ophiolites around them. Gradually it came more into view as the sky lightened. Isra felt refreshed as the moist grass around them extended its coolness to their bodies. Not a single car had passed and therefore no one had seen them. The incident on the beach had only been witnessed by the two of them. She could sense that Clive had begun to relax as daylight returned, and by the time they had regained the highway he was almost chirpy. From there it was a quick mile’s walk back to the Al Bustan resort and the cluster of serene government buildings that lay behind it. They came into the lobby as breakfast service was starting in the restaurant. They were the first ones there.

While Clive was pushing croissants into his mouth, Isra went back to the imposing mosque-like lobby with its cascading glass and marble and walked up to reception to ask the boys about retrieving their car. Hearing the Lebanese accent, they instantly relaxed with her.

‘What happened?’

‘We took a boat and got dropped off somewhere. We slept on the beach. It was wonderful. But, you know, Qantab is in the opposite direction . . .’

‘Ah, we understand.’ The money and the car keys had been pushed across the counter and further explanations were not needed.

‘You can just leave it in the parking lot. It’s kind of you. Thank you.’


She went back to breakfast overlooking the Bustan beach, where gnarled headlands were coming back into view. They ate without speaking, gratified by the cornucopia, gulping down iced kiwi juice and mandarin sorbet. When they were sated, they went up to their room and crashed on the bed with the shutters closed and slept until well into the afternoon. It was Isra who woke first, just as she had at the beach the day before.

She heard the sea and the vacuum cleaners of maids in the empty rooms around them. The car, she thought at once, they must have brought back the car already. Feeling a quiet unease, she dressed again and went back down to the lobby to ask them about it. Yes, they said, they had brought back the car for them, and the keys were returned to her.

‘About half an hour after we brought it back,’ the boy went on, ‘a man came down here to ask about it. He said he had seen the car at Qantab overnight and wanted to make sure it had been returned to the correct owner.’

‘Who was that?’

‘He didn’t say. He stayed for a while, then he left. Do you know him?’

‘Was his name Hilal?’

‘We forgot to ask him, I’m sorry.’

The boy then described a man who was clearly not Hilal. Something in his voice made him seem wary—was it someone the hotel knew?

‘Where did he go?’

‘He went back to the parking lot. Maybe he’s still there.’ A do-gooder from Qantab. It did not seem likely. She took the keys and walked out to the parking lot, feeling defiant. It was now about four in the afternoon and the air was crisp with salt. She looked around the lot, but saw no one waiting for her, not even a car that might look as if it didn’t belong at a five-star resort. She went to their own car and opened it up. It was filled with loose sand from Qantab and she suspected that the doors had been opened during their absence. Had Hilal tried to rifle through their vehicle during their day-long absence? No one would have stopped him if he had wanted to do that. She flipped open the glove compartment and checked that the maps were still there. In fact there was little worth stealing in the car. She slammed the doors shut and walked back down to the lobby.

‘The man who came up from the beach. Was he young or old?’

‘Young, about twenty-eight.’

‘Was he alone?’

‘He came to the lobby alone. Whether he came alone from Qantab we cannot say.’

‘I see. Can I just confirm that the room has been paid for in advance and that there’s nothing outstanding?’
‘Did you take anything from the minibar?’

She shook her head and they confirmed that, in that case, everything was in order. What about the couple’s scuba gear? they asked. Would they like someone to go back down to Qantab that evening and pick it up for them as well? So they had noticed its absence.

She said, ‘No, that’s fine. We prefer to leave it there. It’s annoying to haul it back and forth every day. But thank you.’


Returning to the room, she felt something dreamlike in the way she was behaving, as if extraordinary things were happening over which she had no control and which she could observe coldly from a distance. In the lift she thought about Hilal. What kind of man was he? Was he a dangerous man or just a man? The latter could sometime be almost as perilous to know. In the room, Clive was drinking tea in a bathrobe and reading the news online. He was sure there would be something about an incident on Qantab beach, but thus far his search had proved inconsequential. He asked Isra instead if the car had been returned correctly.

‘They brought it back in one piece.’

‘Well, that’s something. There’s nothing on the news meanwhile.’

He rolled onto his back. A crossroads had appeared in both their minds at the same time. They could stay and wait it out, whatever ‘it’ was, or they could go into flight mode. What would they be running from, though—a mirage, a misunderstood dispute? Maybe they had imagined something that had not actually happened. He said so, to see how she would react.

‘No, they were going to kill him,’ she said.

‘I think they were looking for us. For you. There was something that happened earlier, which I didn’t tell you about.’


And he related the appearance of the fishing boat during her dance on the beach.

‘You bastard!’

‘Well, there was no point telling you at the time.’

‘You let me make a fool of myself?’

‘You were doing it anyway. It was too late to stop you – or them.’

‘So that was it. They came looking for a sexual kill?’

He shrugged, as if to suggest that he didn’t really believe it. ‘Who knows? You know how fishermen are. Horny and violent.’

‘I’ve never met any.’

‘Well, I have, and they are horny and violent. I was afraid they would come in to shore, just looking at you.’

‘Were you really?’

He laughed and shook his head weakly.

Then she said, ‘Shouldn’t we leave tonight? I mean, go back to the Emirates. I don’t feel quite right here now.’ ‘Leave?’

‘Yes, we’re all paid up front. We can walk out the door right now. I’d feel safer. I know it’s a bit absurd, but that’s how I feel.’

‘What about the scuba gear?’

‘I don’t want to get it back. I don’t want to see that man again. We can write it off, and if the hotel gets it back later, they can send it on.’

‘But that’s a brand-new Ocean Reef mask!’

‘It hardly matters now, does it? We’ll get it back later. Let’s just drive to the border. We can be there in a few hours.’

Do it for me, she was thinking, and don’t make a contrarian fuss. But Clive’s face had clouded.

‘Ah, and I was getting to like this hotel.’

They talked it out until he had agreed; she said she was adamant and that her instincts were in ‘flight mode.’ It was simple. They would pack their two small bags and simply walk to the car and be gone, without saying a word to the staff.

Raising small objections, he gave way. They showered together and re-found their playfulness. They couldn’t believe that anything drastic would happen. It was only Isra who thought, We were witnesses. Witnesses are inconvenient.

It was dusk when they emerged with their bags and walked unobtrusively up to the parking lot, without stopping in the lobby. The air was filled with darting swallows. The car was where she had left it, and no one had touched it. They drove up to the empty main road in silence and passed along the same scenes through which they had walked the previous night: the little park, frozen under its now-active lamps—a soccer game going on beneath the rock formations—and the turn-off to the village of Haramil, plunged in dusty gloom. Soon they were speeding past the lights of the Sultan Qaboos Port on the edge of the capital. They reached the place in the port called Fish Roundabout, which Isra remembered from the outward drive; the urban buzz around them calmed her. They were around people again, they were immune, anonymous.

From there the road looped through industrial suburbs and into Muscat, slicing through the city without obstruction. The Omani capital was not unlike Los Angeles, a city of freeways and overpasses and impossible knots of slick roads that formed cat’s-cradles junctions. But because of this very confusion they could pass through it quickly without entering it. On the far side of the urban sprawl the desert reappeared and they drove up along the coast with its little resorts and clusters of houses, the light sparkling against a violet sea. They drove for an hour until they had subdued their unease; she called ahead to the Four Points in Dubai and told them that they would be there around midnight, provided that the border was not closed when they arrived at Hatta in the mountains, where it lay. Then she rolled down her window to breathe in the sea and said that she was hungry. Could they not stop for half an hour just off the road before they turned inland towards the border? Here and there signs for establishments pointed to the small roads that ran down to the sea. Clive turned off when they saw the very next one. It was a family place set at the edge of a hamlet, surrounded by low acacia trees. Because the outdoor tables were set on a small rise they could see the sea and the dusty track running down to it among the low, rectangular walls of houses and pale-grey trees. In a high wind, the lights rattled and they had to rouse the owner. Isra ordered fish and soup, and they sat at one of the tables wrapping their heads with a mussar and a lihaf they had bought on the first day at the tourist souk in Muscat. Filled with sand, the wind burned their hands. Yet the moon and the fresh air made it worth sitting outside and enduring it. Their holiday was ruined but there were worse things than a ruined holiday.

‘We could even come back again later,’ he said, smiling his lawyer smile.

‘And try again?’

‘Yeah, and try again.’

‘I’m going to the bathroom. I hope it’s immaculate.’

She entered the restaurant’s main building and found two women inside, manning the stoves. They greeted her in Arabic. A radio was on at a high volume, loud enough to be heard above the sizzling of the saucepans. The toilet was adjacent and it was, as she had half-expected, immaculate.

She didn’t lock the door this time, keeping it slightly ajar. She was curious about the conversation of the women. On the radio there was an account of Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Being a direct descendant of the Prophet, the Queen of England was revered in Oman and Changing of the Guard was often screened in outdoor public places. In this safe, wealthy and law-abiding country it was an appropriate entertainment. Isra listened to it, and to the women gossiping about their children. Then there was a burst of radio news. Oil prices, a state visit and, lastly, a man found dead on a remote beach near Qantab. Two tourists sought for questioning. She reached up and was about to lock the door, but it was merely a pointless reflex. The women commented on the news item, then went back to their gossip. Isra waited for the King’s Life Guard to return to the airwaves then walked back to the garden, where Clive was already devouring a plate of pickled carrots.

For a moment she considered telling him what she had heard. But then, moved by an obscure foreboding, she elected not to. She had to think by herself for a while. Surely now the border was out of the question, but if she told him why, he would disagree and would insist precisely on going there and giving themselves up—to be safe. Yet the road from there to Hatta was a wild one. It passed through the black peaks of the Hoggar. Between the coastal road and the remote border station anything could happen.

She had begun to think that they could have been followed all the way from the Al Bustan. Slowly, over the course of the day, this premonition had hardened and become more certain. When she sat down Isra said, seeing the fish that had arrived and the bowls of flatbread, ‘I’m feeling nauseous, Clive. I don’t think I’m going to eat. I don’t think I can. I need to lie down somewhere.’

It was a good act and he bought it. ‘What kind of nauseous?’

‘I might have eaten something earlier. I’m not sure I want to go on to Hatta tonight. Can’t we find somewhere to crash for the night?’


‘I can ask the owners. They’ll know somewhere nearby.’ ‘Are you sure?’ He glanced officiously at his watch. ‘We could be in Dubai in three hours.’

‘I know we could. But I’m feeling totally wasted. Besides, what if there is a delay at the border?’

He was furious, but he kept his emotion under control. ‘All right. Ask her then. But nowhere crummy, please. We have a nice room waiting for us in Dubai.’

She got up and went back to the kitchen. The two women looked at her skeptically. So she was Lebanese?

‘You want a hotel for tonight? There’s one on the beach down there. My husband and his brother own it. There’s a room.’

‘Can we take it?’

‘I’ll call my husband. We’ve had a lot of truck drivers staying over the last few days.’

Of course, Isra thought, it’s on the main road to Dubai, an hour from the border. Truck drivers.

She asked, ‘Is it, you know, comfortable?’

‘It has TV and air con. That’s comfortable.’

Isra went back to Clive and reported that there was a comfortable place down the road.

‘Really? Is there a pool?’

‘It’s on the sea. You don’t need a pool.’

He smirked and gave her the eye: ‘A pool is a sign of standards. It’s not that I need it.’

‘I just want to crash.’

But annoyed and wanting to punish her, Clive let the meal drag on, ordering fruit smoothies and pestering them for arak.

‘They don’t have arak, Clive. It’s not Lebanon. Stop asking for it. We’re right next to Saudi Arabia.’

‘I know where we are. I’ll bet they have some arak under the floorboards somewhere. Come on. Ask them nicely in Arabic. Since I agreed to waste a bloody night out here.’

One of the women, in any case, had come out to settle the matter of the hotel and Isra thanked her for the reservation.

‘By the way,’ she added, ‘please do not serve any alcohol beverages to my companion. Not even arak.’

‘We do not serve alcohol to anyone.’

‘It’s as I thought.’

But Clive had picked out the word arak and his eyes brightened.

‘See? They do have it.’

‘Not in a thousand years, you idiot.’

‘Another lonely night, then, in the lands of Allah’s mercy.’

‘You’d be lucky to get some mercy.’

The owner lit candles for then. As if for the first time, they could hear the sea, distant and close at the same time. Reassuring and unnerving at the same time. Under the single lamp illuminating the nearby dirt road, a cloud of moths weaved a ball in the air. Clive ate as languorously as he could. It delighted him that it irritated Isra so inordinately. A coming rupture, was all he thought, and marveled at what a new emotion it was. It had arrived only within the previous fifteen minutes.

When at last things had been concluded, he felt an immense weariness at the thought of the unknown little hotel at the bottom of the road. He was sure it was some sort of scam set up by the devious owners. Nevertheless he went along with it since, when all was considered, he didn’t have much choice in the matter. The owner came with them as they drove there. It was a real hotel, however, with a little illuminated sign in Arabic and a small lot of palms, right across from the beach. The reception was closed, but the mistress of the establishment had the keys. She said her hus- band would be by later to check their passports.

‘Is it really necessary?’ Isra said almost at once. ‘It is. But there’s no hurry. Why?’

‘I’m just exhausted and need to sleep.’

‘We can do it in the morning.’

‘Thank you.’

She took them up to a fairly large room filled with suffocating heat, even though the air outside was cool. Isra stepped to the windows and threw them open. The sea’s roar, the brusque wind, gave her a moment’s delight, which she kept to herself. Clive had paid for the room while her back was turned. The owner told them how to make tea with the electric kettle. For a moment they stood together under the tacky miniature chandelier, with the ants scurrying around them, and the owner seemed to give them a top-to-bottom look-down. As if there was something off about the two foreigners who seemed not to like each other very much. Then she bade them goodnight and turned to go.

Hamming it up a bit, Clive locked the door after her with a flourish and threw himself mournfully onto the awful bed. ‘Swimming pool, my arse,’ he said, staring up at the mosquito bloodstains on the papered wall.

But Isra didn’t mind. She just wanted to turn off the lights and let everything settle down. As before, she needed to think.

‘I wonder,’ Clive said when they were lying peaceably side-by-side in the dark with the windows still open, ‘what happened to Halil? I don’t suppose you have a theory.’



‘Nor me. We probably panicked for no reason.’

‘It’s often like that.’

‘Tomorrow we’ll be in Dubai, downing Margaritas.’

She had expected a conversation, but within minutes he had fallen asleep. She lay still for along time before getting up and going into the bathroom to take a cold shower. She didn’t know what she was going to do or how long she was going to take doing it. Returning to the room re-dressed, she stepped to the windows and stood for a while surveying the empty beach, where no doubt no one ever came at this season, or any season. Something came to her from far away, a message delivered on the airwaves. She could feel what it said to her. It was a command to leave the hotel at once by herself and walk away without the car. The car was what identified them. It might as well have been a message from the spirits, from the other world, quiet but deserving of respect. Then she recalled how the owner had looked at them. Of course she had heard the news on the radio as well. But it would not be her who called the police; it would not be the police who came.

Closing the door behind her as quietly as she could, Isra crept down the hotel’s stairwell with her bag loaded onto her shoulder and walked out onto the dirt track, which was lit only by the hotel’s single light. She went up it for a while on foot, and rested here and there under the low trees where the insects had not stopped shrilling. She passed the painted walls of houses where people already slept, past fruit trees with ladders stacked against them and finally a cemetery laid out under the gloom of dusty acacias.

She waited there for a while, hidden from the road, and at length a black car came creeping downwards with its lights turned off, feeling its way towards the sea. When it had passed on its way to the hotel, she turned into the groves of trees on the far side of the cemetery and made her way over open ground towards the lights of the highway, where the international trucks sometimes pulled over for a rest. She had determined to get a lift from one of them, using all her charms and her dollars. The vanity of men, after all, knew no bounds. The vanity of Clive and of Hilal was not at all dissimilar, though the two men had nothing to do with each other. It was generic, and therefore consequential. Even by the glare of the highway lamps, she could see how the men behind the windshields looked at her as she sauntered up to them with her smile. Dogs to the last, and in a way that was an insult to dogs.

Born in England, Lawrence Osborne is the author of critically acclaimed novels including The Forgiven, The Ballad of a Small Player, Hunters in the Dark, Beautiful Animals, and Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe novel commissioned by the Raymond Chandler estate. The Forgiven was made into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain.