I rarely think of those years, what Melissa calls my “lost years”. Those times are immersed in a dusty landscape, tainted ochre like the small walls hiding death, a place where I missed her more than life, and my days were a long, uninterrupted, bloody nightmare. Behind me then were the golden years of a happy childhood, her love, her hand in mine, the little town with the old library, and its staircase. In front, around me, everywhere, was war. Not the neat little war of cavalry charges: the dirty war of the djebel, where friends were foes, where death struck in the shape of a small child, where women were fighting, got butchered, dismembered, like the rest of us. At night we – the leopards – talked of girls, and homes, of all the memories we were fast losing, of our disappearing childhood. In winter we crawled in the snow, in the sand tainted by the blood of our comrades. We fought with knives, with rocks, with the deadly hand-grenades that sometimes “they” threw back at us, smiling of the devilish smile of the victors.
But those memories are deep buried, and I want to keep them buried. I remember more about the “return” to civilian life, the despair, the chaos, and then the orgies. For a while we met at our vet association, but leopards age badly. Many of us took to drink and worse. I did not. After a while I decided for myself that life was, after all, worth living. And I forgot her, Melissa. In time I made money, and met you, my love. There is no shadow anymore, just the neat certainty of a happy life and marriage, writing, the mountains, and my sister.
But last night I dreamed of the dune. It may have been just looking at the night sky too much the evening before. It came back to me with invincible clarity. It was a month or so before we left: the last operation in the Aurès. My patrol had got separated from the main group. The enemy was nearby, silent, deadly. The night was clear, icy, and the moon was full. I told my men to stop and I moved alone towards the top of the hill to take a position (no sat-nav in those days!) The hill was crowned with a sand and rocks dune, and it was lit by the moon that gave it a silver hue. Silently I climbed to the edge, and in one fraction of second I saw her: she was lying flat against a small rock, her sniper rifle steady aimed at me. Her blond hair was bound under the small cap, reflecting the moon light. I knew I was dead meat: I kept still, waiting for the bullet. Nothing happened, she did not move, or at least I did not see her moving. I closed my eyes: death could not be that easy. But then, she was gone: the blond warrior had disappeared. I took the position with the little sextant and went back to the men. “You took your time sergeant, we were beginning to worry”. I smiled. I had seen Death, and She had spared me.
As I woke up this morning I could still see the lying shape, the dark green uniform, the moon light, the dark barrel of that rifle… So long ago: where is that woman now? Did she, like me, survived the war? I have no idea why this came back to me now. I did not say anything to Sarah, got up, and went to my desk. Memories are strange constructs, with a life of their own, independent from us. I know what they say about synapses and the complexity of the brain. In the peace of my study, as I type these words, I am thinking of Elga, and of what Sarah told me about her: that she is a collective mind, an association of perhaps millions of individuals who pool their thoughts. Is this our future too? And is Melissa part of them? Is this the message of my dream: we have been spared, but the way forward is to belong, to surrender our individual being, to mesh? Those thoughts trouble me: is Melissa showing us the way, the abolition of death, the abandonment of homo sapiens for something else, as distant from him as he was from the Neanderthals?
I leave these thoughts to concentrate on the letter to my publisher: the first draft is nearly completed, perhaps in a couple of months I will ask my editor to proceed. She’s very busy – and very competent – and I have to give her due notice. And I would like Sarah to read through too. She has read abstracts, she likes this version. Yesterday she told me about Shikoku, Kafka, and Shimamoto, the eighty eight temples… The shore… a moon-lit shore?
The phone rings, it’s Jane, she’s coming to dinner and she’s bringing the wine. Sarah picks up the upstairs handset. I leave the two of them chatting away. As I said, I am a lucky man. I finish my letter and mail it. Then I pick up where I left last night in the novel: Susan is now Paul’s lover, the two of them have crossed the border…