There had been a bomb in a distant market place. One of many bombs, the deaths caused by this event barely noticeable amongst the dreadful losses that filled the news every day. But a filament snagged and slowed the story down. Somehow that detail caught her; a market place, perhaps the most domestic public space there is. People shopping for food, plastic buckets, scarves, aluminium pans. Markets all over the world selling plastic buckets and aluminium pans. A place providing easy acquisition of the humbler tools of life; domestic wares, phone parts and gaudy cases, vinyl handbags, potatoes, eggs, cabbages. Mothers buying an evening meal, teenagers shopping for the excitingly new and obligingly affordable. A man buying a bucket so that he could clean his house. These ordinary people doing ordinary things, they would be the dead.
She thought of there being no dinner in some households, because the shopping never came back from the market. A husband whose anxiety makes him fear, as if finally by prophecy rather than grinding habit, that his wife has been killed. A family who wouldn’t know for long hours where their father had gone. Somewhere in a town where death might just as easily come at the hands of a check-point soldier, a sniper, a drone. Somewhere in a world where escape from such horror resulted in thousands of drowned bodies day by day as boats and brutal business men cast people to their fate in the deceptive, seductive glint of a blue sea that pretended to show the way to safety.
She felt impotent and angry, repelled by the ease with which such stories were made available almost as though they were part of the entertainment of her life. There was a casualness that she knew would not be tolerated by the news carriers if the victims were people living in England. But for these people, the only accounting for their lives was in the form of a tally. She was invited to wonder at the number and move on, without even knowing their names.
Over the next days, the dead behind the numbers began to materialise when she picked over stories in the news. As she was standing at a supermarket checkout she was hit by a surge of connection to the others in the queue. They were ugly and beautiful, unkempt, elegant, all mixed. Their banal ordinariness for once caught her attention, linked them to those killed by bombs in markets in Iraq, or in roadside bombs in Afghanistan. The young man with a backpack and scraggly beard buying four cans of hooped-together lager and some broccoli and biscuits, his trousers rolled up above his bare brown ankles. The woman with tired eyes and pink plastic earrings, grey showing at the roots of her black hair. The old man with beige slacks and an olive cap, a small brown shopping bag ready for his bread rolls and two bananas, a small shakiness in his hands. Anna felt a tender kind of love and sadness for them, these ordinary people caught here in a tiny moment of complex lives, as those killed were caught in what became the last moment of their lives, when a crude bomb exploded near enough to kill them. Any one of them, all of them could be one of the bodies, a life behind the numbers. She made her way through the queue, looked intently at the young cashier, haunted by a sudden picture of her, dead amidst the rubble of a far away town, her mouth open, small teeth exposed to the heat and dust of disaster. She felt the upwell of a sob as an echo that pulsed in her chest, an inappropriate urge to shield the unknown girl from a fate that was not hers, from any fate that meant her harm.
Later in the day, whilst she was walking through the woods, she thought about the nameless people who that morning had been reported killed in a suicide bombing. Who were the people hidden in that neutral measuring? Her curiosity pulled them to her, she started to fill them out, describing them to herself.
She imagined first a woman in her early forties, she saw a living body, warm, plump, sensuous. She saw black hair, falling in curves like layers of raven wings. She saw her clothed in stretchy turquoise trousers, a pale yellow top. She saw the woman asleep in bed at night, lying curled on her side holding her husband's muscular brown forearm. Other pictures followed, describing the woman’s busy life. She imagined her escaping briefly the tumult of her life, quietly sitting on her own, on a stool in her scruffy but beloved garden. Anna picked out these details with ease, with love almost. The woman seemed to appear in her mind, complete in the accumulation of random details. She had stayed within easy reach of Anna’s thoughts ever since, a mute companion. Filigree ghost patterns of love and grief had crept across Anna’s hollowed insides, like lichen, like salt crystals blooming on the innards of a calcified cave.
She imagined the others, a boy, men, women, a young girl. She saw in them ordinary beauty, a precious banality that at once made their deaths a terrible sadness. She saw curves of cheekbones, the sweep of a jawline, an array of clothing telling its own stories. The wonderful idiosyncrasies of ordinary people. She saw secret passions and hidden dreams, loves and pains, desires and hopes. She saw what was lost when they died. She imagined one of the men wearing corduroy trousers. It occurred to her that she didn’t know if men in a hot place would wear corduroy trousers, but realising how extensive her ignorance of their life was, she accepted a broad interpretation of differences and commonalities, accepted too that her own background would tell in the details more than it should. Her experiment must be one that remained ideally universal, and perhaps pragmatically crude.
Anna was taken unawares by her experiment. As the characters came to her she felt a bond with them, and sadness at their death; a confusing mourning of dead people who did not exist. As she walked through the woods, wintery light drifting down through the leafless branches, she saw the people standing amongst the trees, waiting and still, silent in the unexpected cold, caught inexplicably for a moment in this English woodland. Seen here, but not here. Not anywhere. People no longer breathing, thinking, moving, dreaming of escape or grander futures. People lost to the ones that loved them. She wondered if they died in a cluster or in a circle. How did they map their last moments of life? What marked the place that they shouldn't have been? Who marked it? Who calculated that perimeter, fantasised about making it bigger, one day perhaps achieving atomic reach? What a thing to do, to take the lives of the people standing with you in a street. Sweating in fear and hope for grand destruction.
As the days passed she had continued with the portraits, paying out in words and mental pictures what the numbers alone could not. She began to write them down. It was impossible and too gruelling to be comprehensive. But she kept to a steady, dutiful acknowledgement of the dead. Some of them, especially the first woman, she thought of often, in idle moments, enriching the picture she had made, thinking of her sitting calm and content in her garden, adding details to the story that she told. She became familiar with the garden, with the woman sitting quietly on the metal and wood stool. What had grown was a hushed but powerful love, a love built from recognition, from accepted kinship. People whose heartbeat and bones matched her own, people whose lives held nothing and everything in common with her own.
Over the last few years her collection of portraits has grown. Five notebooks and journals are now filled with them, her growing tribe of invented ghosts. This latest one, an old green exercise book found in the attic. The seven she is adding today fill most of the remaining pages. She writes quickly, stopping to think, finding in her minds eye the details that make the person real, real enough to matter, real enough to mourn.
30 November. Seven people killed by a roadside bomb.
She is a girl of eight, warm with puppy fat and pretty tops. She likes to eat tea cakes, picking off the chocolate first with tiny nibbles. She eats all delightful treats this way so that they last and last. A life so simple and so sure that a sweet and pretty cake is the greatest joy she can imagine.
Soft hair on a twelve year old boy’s head, the nap pushed into improbable free-style licks. He has large top teeth, slightly showing what ever he does with his mouth. He walks with a Krazy Kat lope, chattering in the still-high voice of a boy. Every so often he pauses for a small moment, head on one side, teeth on his bottom lip, then resumes his joy-filled commentary.
This man has sad eyes, dark skin, short receding hair, still black. He has a large and untidy moustache. He plays the guitar beautifully and sings not very well but with great emotion and commitment. He is in love with a woman who lives on his street, but knows almost nothing about her. He would not wish to impinge on her by finding out. For him, emotions are to be cherished, held, explored and examined. Unrequited love is the prize in his collection.
Five of seven is a man with a dainty moustache, smart, unattractive clothes. He is plagued by a need for particular neatness in all areas of his life. He clips and tidies, sorts and saves, orders all that he can, keeps the world at bay this way. He would be beautiful if this pernickety, slightly absurd and foolish carapace did not shield him so.
A young woman, her graceful head tilted to one side like a bird, hair a long sweep, a skein, brushed with early grey at the temple. She is tired, pregnant with a second child. Occasionally in crowds her hands sweep gently before her growing belly as she walks, a gesture ready to become that of protection for her child.
At home, this man’s children are meeting in furtive haste whilst he is out fulfilling errands, to discuss a surprise for his birthday. He has defined himself his entire adult life in the work he does to keep his family.
A slight woman, dark and burnished by loss. She has black eyes flattened by the pain of losing her sister, her son and her uncle to the actions of sky-born military, another country’s flag glittering on distant tail fin. She lost her husband subsequently to anger, to revenge. And so the chain stretches out. Her loss to be handed forward to new mourners, new carriers.