The Empty Quarter

We’ve seen films of the desert, we’ve seen that vast expanse of sand, and that moment when the shimmering haze on the horizon turns into a human figure, but when you see it for yourself, that’s when you start to understand, if anyone could understand, what emptiness really is. For the first time you know why heat is described as merciless. You have never ever known anything on earth that comes anywhere close to here.

He pauses, listening to the magpie scratching on the roof, and then he taps out a few more words and finishes, his work done for the morning.

Salam from the Rub al Khali!

Time to pop into Caernarfon for the Saturday Guardian and a wedge of Snowdonia cheese.

*

This is the story of a boy who’d never been anywhere. Unless you count the caravan site at Bare Sands in the first two weeks of August. If the sun came out, his dad would unbutton his shirt, lay out the deckchairs and arrange himself with a view of Morecambe Bay. Why, he’d say – and the boy always knew what was coming – why would you ever want to go abroad? When the lad grew out of buckets and spades, he’d spend those weeks reading, raising his eyes now and then, to take in the broad horizon, and the Cumbrian mountains, which seemed at once remote and touchable. Knowing there were quicksands across the bay, and that the tides could be treacherous, he listened for the stir of helicopters. The far-off peaks also held the promise of danger, turning first into Tolkien’s Ered Gorgoroth, beyond which lay the Valley of Dreadful Death; and then into Wilfred Thesiger’s Zagros Mountains, ‘their summits high in cloudless skies where ravens tumbled’.

He’d stumbled across a documentary about Thesiger one night when he was channel-hopping on the portable TV in his bedroom. Later he’d move on to other travel writers – Norman Lewis, Eric Newby, Paul Theroux, Robert Byron – but he always came back to Thesiger and those lines in Arabian Sands:

No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

The brand which marks the nomad. As he grew up, that brand remained with him. He could feel its imprint right through, from his heart right down to his feet. Jason was born in a place no one had ever heard of, a nowhere town in England, where his folks had lived forever. Once he left for uni he was out of there for good. He went travelling in South America, spent a few years teaching English abroad, and then when his novel was published, spent much of his time on the road. He was taken on a promotional tour to the US, flown to festivals in Rio and Toronto and sent to Istanbul on a British Council exchange. Then there were the summer writing courses in Spain and the Greek islands. Not a bad life while it lasted.

But it didn’t last. It was never going to last, and even when it was still happening, he came back from every trip with a feeling that it was all just a bit of a let-down. Every airport was more or less the same – the shuffling queues, the yellow arrows and sliding doors, the pouting face of Keira Knightley, and the Starbucks and the tinkling of player pianos, and then the long drive down some generic freeway, through a denuded landscape dotted with concrete buildings. The same coaches parked outside colosseums and cathedrals, unloading lines of chattering schoolkids or middle-aged Chinese wearing rain hats. At every reading, another up-and-coming writer, that bit younger than he was, or better looking or more funny, and the same guy sitting in the front row with his arms folded, the guy who looked like his dad. The years were slipping by, and he was hardly writing any more, and still he’d not set foot on the Arabian Sands. And then came Paris.

He was giving a talk at a French university. He had no idea why they were interested in his novel, or how they’d even heard about it, still less what he was supposed to say, but fine, it was France, who’s complaining, and they said he could bring a guest. Booking the tickets, it looked pretty straightforward; you took the 5.35 flight to Paris, then caught the TGV at Montparnasse. Easy. But as the train trundled out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, grinding past the dark suburban stations, he knew straightaway that he’d screwed up. When he booked, he’d overlooked the time difference; even worse, he’d underestimated how long it takes to get from the airport; he’d been thinking of the Metro as some kind of time machine that could magic you instantly from one mainline station to another. Their best chance, he decided, was to get off at Gare du Nord and find a cab. Seconds, minutes, drained away as he located the taxi rank, trying to hide his rising panic.

The cab sailed across the cobbles, past the Arc de Triomphe and the sparkling glass triangle at the Louvre, like a stage set for a Pink Floyd revival, everything so very picturesque in the halogen light of the night time; and all those tourist sites were emblems of his utter panic and despair. Jason was floating, adrift in a boundless dream world without entrance or exit, a virtual world where nothing was solid, not even the lovely face of his unsuspecting girlfriend.

The streets were packed with elegant ghosts, strolling past glowing window displays. Boulevard Saint-Germain – wasn’t that by Montparnasse? ‘We’re here,’ he kept repeating. But they were not. In the six months Iris and Jason had been an item, they’d spent weekends in Amsterdam and Edinburgh, plus that cut-price break in Tangiers, and they were talking about Christmas with her sister in New York. Leave it to me, he always said, and the arrangements had never gone wrong. Iris was a writer too, short stories and poems; she was missing her MA class to be here, but she’d get so much more out of this. The cab nipped down little side streets, running over empty cartons, nearly knocking down a tramp in a hat and overcoat who was probably sent by Monsieur Godot; and then the cab entered another boulevard which unspooled into another and another. They reached the station at Montparnasse two minutes after departure.

The platform was deserted. This was not home. This train was never going to be late, they were never going to turn to each other, out of breath, laughing, as the whistle blew. Though the clocks read 9.17, it might as well have been midnight. There were no more trains to anywhere. Tout fini. The man still working in the SCNFR office took pity on the young couple, swapping their tickets for the morning train at no extra charge, and recommending the Hotel de Theatre, just over the road, only 120 euros, but when they reached the lobby the patron shook his head, pointing further up to the street where there might be a vacancy for another twenty.

How charming, how picturesque the Hotel de Theatre should have been, the narrow winding stairs leading to a modest room for two, overlooking a bustling street full of bars and restaurants. Directly opposite, in a white meringue building embellished with Art Nouveau swirls, a net curtain fluttered against the shutters, allowing glimpses of a lamp-lit apartment – a photograph in waiting that he didn’t want to take, a story he was never going to write.

‘This isn’t so bad,’ said Iris. ‘A night in Paris. What’s wrong with that? Let’s get something to eat.’

‘Hold on, I need to get a signal. They’re waiting. I need to get hold of Robert at the university.’

Rob-air,’ she said. ‘Rob-air.’ Disappearing into the bathroom.

Jason was exhausted, or in that state you call exhaustion, brought on by panic and tension. He’d rather have just gone to bed and shut down till the first train at seven; but Iris insisted on dragging him out onto the boulevard, joining all the other couples sipping wine and crumbling baguettes in the most romantic city in the world.

Well always have Paris,’ she said in the brasserie – mirrors, shining mahogany, globe lights, reflections of reflections – at the next table another couple just like them but a little more stylish. ‘What are you doing, are you texting? Do you need to do that now?’

Jason was in fact checking his Twitter feed, having already contacted his French host while Iris was doing her face in the bathroom. Rob-air was apologetic, as if all this was his fault, and also a little mystified. ‘Perhaps you didn’t remember, we can book the tickets for you, you can take the train direct from Charles de Gaulle? But you’ll make it tomorrow for lunch? And after the reading we have a very nice restaurant lined up, it’s a fish restaurant, you eat fish?’ His voice assured, tinted with a light American accent, Rob-air who might have been plain old Robert from Poughkeepsie.

In France it was always about food. They ordered the prix fixe – steak, a bottle of house red, with crème brûlée for dessert.

‘This is very drinkable,’ she said.

‘What do you mean, drinkable. Of course it’s bloody drinkable. It’s wine.’

‘Sorry.’ She wasn’t going to spoil a night in Paris with a stupid row. That was Jason’s job.

The wine was okay, the food was good, and Iris was looking beautiful, more beautiful even than her French equivalent at the neighbouring table – more beautiful in truth than Jason deserved – but still, he couldn’t get over the feeling that they were just sort of playing themselves in a movie. The snow began to fall on cue as they left the brasserie, and she snuck her arm round his, smiling in what, if he’d been a fraction taller, or her heels just slightly lower, would have made the perfect picture postcard moment. He’d been thinking of broaching the subject of moving in together – even getting engaged – but it didn’t feel right any more. And forget Christmas.

Iris gave the brasserie five stars. She gave four to the Hotel de Theatre and another five to the Hotel du Mail, where Robert had arranged accommodation, Lovely old hotel, beds a bit lumpy, but a beautiful location full of atmosphere. The proprietors very kind and thoughtful. And she liked the Facebook page of the fish restaurant, and the bar where they went afterwards.

You didn’t have to be there. You could read the fifty-seven postings on the Hotel du Mail’s listing; if you looked at the pictures online, you could see the pale cascades of wisteria in spring, you could smell the coffee and the yeasty fragrance of the croissants. You could reconstruct all Jason’s relationships through TripAdvisor, though not the final scenes of their inevitable endings. Iris had a star by her name as a Senior Contributor, with over sixty entries, covering fifteen per cent of the world.

*

Which is how Jason came to be both here and there, in one place and another all at the same time. The Paris trip came at a low point; nothing was happening for him any more. The writing was going nowhere. After the disappointing sales of the second novel, there wouldn’t be a contract for a third, and the fall-back position, teaching, wasn’t easy any more. There were too many other writers looking for work, people with a couple of novels, increasingly a PhD – people with thirteen hundred followers on twitter, who were stuck in the no man’s land between youth and middle age.

To be honest, he’d never dreamed of being a novelist; he never thought of himself as a born writer. No, his greatest wish was to be an explorer. That’s what he said in the Q&A, and later again in the fish restaurant. His dreamt was of treading in Thesiger’s footsteps across the Arabian sands.

‘Why don’t you go?’ said Robert. ‘What’s stopping you?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. But he did know. Even now, as he pictured that vast ocean of sand, swept by the wind into the pale ghosts of hills and valleys, his mind went back to that glass pyramid at the Louvre – the place that he’d seen, and also not seen, on the taxi ride through Paris. He was afraid that the places he yearned for were not really there. They were just copies.

Soon the Empty Quarter would be as busy as Mount Everest. Already four by fours loaded with hedge-fund managers were churning into the desert, ready for a night under the stars with BBQ and belly dancers. He got out his phone to show Robert the images of quad bikes and sand boarding and camel rides.

‘Hey, that’s you,’ said Robert, looking at a tiny figure whooshing down a beige-coloured slope.

‘I hate sports.’

‘But that’s you.’

He thought he was being hilarious.

‘You should write about it. You should write about not being in the Empty Quarter.’

It was Robert’s fault that this ridiculous, pointless and unworkable plan came to be. Robert from Poughkeepsie or from Paris – he never did find out. If Robert’s first and second choices had accepted his invitation, if a third novelist hadn’t dropped out, and if the third choice hadn’t mentioned Jason, he would never have had the conversation in the fish restaurant. Afterwards he stayed awake all night thinking about it, and as soon as he was back home to Manchester he got in touch with his old mate Dan – Dan whose slim novella was being made into a film starring Scarlett Johanssen, and who had a university job and was a Best of Young British, and despite all of that still kept a small press going, Why Not?, turning out anthologies and first collections, and now, increasingly, the novels of mid-listers who’d been dropped by mainstream publishers. This was exactly what he was expecting from Jason. But a travel book?

‘You? On a massive expedition?’ Dan took a sip of beer, pretended to contemplate its flavour. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but to be honest, mate, it’s been done.’

‘Not like this.’

‘So where will you be?’ he asked, once he understood that this book would be fake news, the journey a hoax that would be exposed on Twitter in the week of publication. ‘If you’re not in the Empty Quarter, where else will you be?’

‘Hiding out. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I was thinking of that place of yours in Wales.’

‘It’s pretty damp you know, in winter.’

‘Not where I’m going. It’s forty degrees. At a minimum.’

‘You’re serious?’

‘I’ve got nowhere else to go. Can’t afford the bloody rent in Manchester.’

‘I thought you were moving in with Iris?’

*

The cottage in Wales was inherited from Dan’s mother who’d been planning to do it up for her retirement. He never spent much time there, not even in summer; and he couldn’t decide what to do with the place, sell up or keep it in the family. You reached Tyddyn Bach up a track off the Bedgellert Road. It was both isolated and strangely exposed, with a public right of way running past, leading to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Caernarfon. The house was fitted with an alarm that rang through to the police directly, though in fact there was nothing worth stealing, just gloomy old furniture and dusty jars of chutney. Once Dan was stupid enough to leave his laptop in the car while he carried supplies to the kitchen. That one time served as a lesson.

Tyddyn Bach soon warmed up once you got the stove going. There was a knack to this process, as there was to everything at Tyddyn Bach, and soon the scent of wood smoke smothered the musty stench of dust and mould. When Jason first moved in, the toaster was draped with stringy cobwebs, burnt crumbs littering the cracked Formica worktop. A wooden bath brush streaked with black, a dusty row of little bottles that once held essential oils, a plughole clogged with grey hairs, a pile of audio cassettes with pencilled labels – it was like opening up a tomb, as if the place had been abandoned for years, though in fact it was only a few months since he and Iris spent a weekend with Dan and his missus, eating raspberries from the garden, and barbecuing Welsh lamb on an improvised fire pit. Hairs in the plughole don’t matter so much when the sun’s blazing, and you’re living out of doors. Nor the ivy creeping through the windowpanes, and the bedroom ceiling mottled like leopard skin with patches of damp. Not even the spiders, seeming dead, but actually alive, a light tickle on your hand, a moving shadow on the wall, seeded threads clustered in the corners of the bedroom.

‘You’ll be all right, mate?’ Dan said when he dropped him off, double-checking he had everything, the code to the alarm, instructions for the boiler, Wi-Fi connection, a good supply of wood for the stove.

And Jason said yeah, great, wanting just to get on with it now.

‘Sorry, I’ve got to get back…’

‘No, you’ve done me a massive favour. See you on the other side.’

It was already dark when Dan’s car eased down the track, crackling over twigs and pebbles as he headed back towards the motorway. The night was as black as a dead screen. Jason took out his old hardback edition of Arabian Sands, the buff-coloured one, with the dark figure of the Bedouin, rifle hoisted on his shoulder, casting his shadow over the dune. Then he set the automatic reply: I’m currently travelling and writing in the Middle East. I’ll be checking my emails periodically but will sometimes be in remote regions without internet access. Somewhere out there, Mount Snowdon, Moel Hebog and Mynydd Mawr, the Elephant Mountain, kept watch as he took his flight to Abu Dhabi. Conditions were good in the Rub al Khali as he set out on his journey, the temperature not quite reaching fifty degrees in the daytime.

*

You know there’ll be rain in North Wales. You know you’ll wake up to the splutter of gutters, and a darkness that gradually dissolves into a glum half-light. That you’ll rarely be fortunate enough to glimpse the mountains, concreted under dense layers of cloud. But what Jason hadn’t realized was that once it started the rain would never stop. He quickly built up a routine, writing in the mornings then taking a break, walking into Caernarfon along the river and the cycle path that rang alongside the steam railway, until he reached that amazing view of a child’s toy castle looking out to sea. On his first day the sun broke through as he clattered up the cast iron bridge to Segontium Terrace and into Market Square. On the way back, the skies flooded with a sunset in shades of pinot noir. He would remember that first sunset. It was the last intensity of colour that he would see for real in his travels through the Empty Quarter. It was raining every day for the rest of his expedition.

From Abu Dhabi he adopted the route recommended on http://thingstodo.viator.com/dubai/the-empty-quarter/, taking a two-hour taxi drive to Liwa. The road was straight and functional, studded with deciduous trees like a seaside promenade. If you look up Jason’s blog, you’ll find an account of the gigantic car museum, with the world’s biggest jeep parked outside, a place where he didn’t linger, having no interest whatsoever in motor vehicles; and the little oasis town where his driver stopped along the way, and the distinctive black camels, as big as elephants. My skin razored by the desert wind, my teeth gritty with sand.

In summer, the Afon Seiont runs busily under a canopy of trees, pea-green and soupy, and dappled with sunshine. When Jason was there before, with Iris, they heard a sudden splash, and watching the spreading circle of ripples, caught sight of a creature propelling itself underwater, its paws spread like paddles, definitely an otter – or maybe a water rat. Something from Wind in the Willows. Now, in the dying days of the year, the river was like used bath water, full to the brim, the ground spongy underfoot, dead leaves mashed yellowish and brown. But still, every time he took that walk into town he watched out for the ripples. He thought about Iris – how, when she saw a spider in the bedroom, she’d get to her feet without a word, and grab a jam jar, and then discreetly tip it out the window.

To get to the river, you had to cross the main road to reach a steep track, squeezed between a bank of brambles and a barbed-wire fence. The fence was guarding some kind of factory, though there was never any sign of activity there, beyond the low hum you could hear sometimes in the evenings when the road noise had faded and the wind was not so fierce. The long spurs of blackberry bushes grabbed at his jacket as he picked his way past those nettles still surviving at the tail end of the year. He learnt to be careful on the way down. Once he slipped on the mud, landing flat on his arse, drawing blood on his palms as he grabbed at the brambles.

One morning, rounding a curve in the river, he found he’d reached a swamp. The river had finally burst its banks overnight. He paddled through; his boots held, but his trousers were soaked to the knees. He turned back, and dried off in front of the stove while the rain rattled and spat at the house. The house was as dark as the grave. Here he was, on very edge of Snowdonia, with no means of transport, no one to pick him up for a drive. He’d already tried the footpath uphill in the other direction, the muddy track turning into a trail of empty cans and bashed-about cartons as he came closer to the industrial park. Now if he wanted to go into town he took the road through the council estate, passing the cemetery and the rugby pitch; once or twice he strolled along the Menai Straits past Morrison’s, watching a heron standing so still in the shallows he thought at first it was a statue. Being alone was no problem for Jason. It was having nowhere to go that was driving him mad. On those rare occasions when the cloud lifted, he caught sight of the big humped backs of the mountains, so close and yet so distant. Once he even took the bus to Llanberis and back. But Mount Snowdon was erased by the blinding rain, and he wasted time looking for a pub that was open before catching the last bus home at five. He was losing track of the days completely. It seemed that he’d been at Tyddyn Bach for months, for years. It seemed as though he’d never leave.

*

The plan had been to hang around Liwa for a while, taking his time to choose a guide, absorbing the atmosphere, and so on, but now he was keen to get going, stuck in an over-priced hotel, with its generic soft furnishings in burgundy and cream. And the internet was down. It was always going off for half an hour or so, and at first he thought it would just right itself eventually. His previous post was about the little kids zipping in and out of the main street on quad bikes, and about finding Abdullah, his Bedouin guide, who has grown up in the desert, and knows every inch of it like his own body. Abdullah was ready to leave; and of course they’d be offline in the Empty Quarter. But Jason wanted to know what was going on, and to see if anyone was looking at his blog, and maybe there’d things he wanted to check later on. After three days he gave in and rang Dan.

Dan’s missus answered. ‘Dan’s driving. Is that Jason? Aren’t you in Arabia?’

Okay, Dan said, you need to reset it with the password.

But of course the password didn’t work, and not only that, Dan’s missus heard the whole conversation. Probably Dan had forgotten to pay the bill, and it was too risky to ring him again. It didn’t really matter all that much. He could write up his notes on his phone, and post them from Caernarfon. (Tyddyn Bach being, by now, a dead zone; you couldn’t even get a signal on the radio cassette player.) He went into town most days, maybe getting a drink at the Black Boy Inn or a coffee at any one of the cafes round the castle and the market square. The place was so ordinary, with New Look and WH Smith and charity shops and pound shops selling big plastic boxes, toy guns and multi packs of crisps – same as England, except for the conversations in a secret language, the Welsh sounds as unfamiliar as the back-to-front speech in a science fiction movie.

He thought he saw Iris in Caffi Maes, unpeeling herself from a raincoat, shaking her hair from the hat – a different Iris to the girl in Paris, but that was Iris all right, ordering hot chocolate and a toasted teacake, her writer’s notebook no doubt in her bright blue satchel. She might not have recognized Jason with a beard, not unless she was looking for him, and why should she be, but it made him realize how stupid he’d been wandering round in public when he was trying to fool everyone into thinking that he was in the Empty Quarter, and from then on he avoided the places the tourists went, sticking to the burger joints round the bus station. But he had to go back to Caffi Maes that time, because he lost his phone. He must have left it behind, hurrying out the door before Iris spotted him sitting in the dim, dark-painted spaces at the back.

What a joke to think that someone like him could survive the Empty Quarter. How could Jason have trekked a hundred miles across the sands? He couldn’t even manage the Welsh rain. Couldn’t cope without his phone. And yet whenever his fingers met the keyboard, he was back there, writing his way through the sand dunes. He looked for re-assurance into the grizzled and sage face of Abdullah, his guide. He heard Abdullah whispering to the camel as he launched himself clumsily into the saddle, and there they were, two tiny insects, crawling over the endless undulating nude that was the desert. It always came as a surprise when Jason looked up and saw the brambles thrusting at the windowpane, the birds swinging on the feeder, and realized where he was in reality.

He went into Caernarfon less often, sometimes no further than the big Tesco by the crematorium. A brindled dog always ran out to bark at him on Cefn Hendre, and the same voice from inside the flats yelled at him Welsh words with ‘fuck’ running right down the middle. He never passed anyone on the track down to the main road, though sometimes from the kitchen window he saw figures shrouded in cagoules. One day there was a knock on the door, and two fresh-faced men in suits were standing outside beneath a big black umbrella, asking for a Mr Angel.

‘You mean Mr Moroni?’ They had to be Mormons. There wasn’t a spot of rain on them.

They kept their smiles, but didn’t rise to the bait.

‘Mr William Angel.’ One of them fetched out a notebook with the name and address written down, Tyddyn Bach. But Jason couldn’t help. So they moved on.

The laptop kept making its feeble automatic attempts at connection. Once or twice he had a go at Dan’s number; there was still at least one working phone box in Caernarfon. But he no longer felt in a hurry to get reconnected. He didn’t need to look up anything. He didn’t even need to open his Longman edition of Thesiger’s book. He made it all up. He wrote down everything that happened. He wrote about Paris and he wrote about Bare Sands and he wrote himself into the Rub al Khali. When he finished the book he was writing, it would include everything – the jolting of his bones and the dark slugs of coffee, and the shifting veils of sand, and the dreams that he had of a silhouetted figure strolling down the track past Tyddyn Bach with a rifle hoisted on his shoulder.

Jason lost count of the days he spent in the Empty Quarter. He often wrote through the night until his eyes were sore, and a blister formed on his left elbow. The problem wasn’t getting into the Rub al Khali, it was finding your way home. One morning, after he’d fallen asleep in the Rub al Khali , he woke up to find the rain had stopped. You could finally see the shapes of the Welsh mountains, so near and yet so distant, glowing pink in the sunrise. It was going to be another day’s hard ride. He could smell the coffee Abdullah was brewing as they prepared to set out on their journey once more.

Ailsa Cox

About Ailsa Cox

Ailsa Cox’s stories are widely publishing in magazines and anthologies including The Warwick Review, Best British Short Stories 2014 and The End (Unthank Books). Her collection, The Real Louise, is published by Headland Press. Other books include Writing Short Stories (Routledge) and Alice Munro (Northcote House). She is Professor of Short Fiction at Edge Hill University, and the founder of the Edge Hill Prize for a published short story collection. She’s also the editor of the peer-reviewed journal Short Fiction in Theory and Practice and the deputy chair of the European Network for Short Fiction Research. Born in the West Midlands, she lives in Liverpool with her husband Tim Power and her dog Mister B.

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