December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Spies and dolls

By |2018-03-21T18:18:05+01:00November 1st, 2004|"Short Fiction"|

amnuah Ibn Mamnuah totters up the narrow spiral staircase of the minaret. Halfway he pauses for breath and through the wooden slats trains his discreetly miniature binoculars on the compound swimming-pool a hedgerow and several tall walls away. But things are not as he might have expected. No tussling with temptation here. No challenge to either private or Public virtue – of which he, by appointment of the Zenobian Government, is a Deputy Commissioner, three crescents and double bar. Instead the lens fills with a couple of toddlers sporting pinkly in the paddling area, a bevy of overweight expatriate mothers discussing curtains and other household fittings over equally unsatanic cups of tea. The temptation level remains a definite zero. At this rate Mamnuah Ibn Mamnuah will be out of a job.

It is disappointing really. Particularly after last night’s viewing, in the cloister of his sitting room, of his confiscations at the airport. A recording of this year’s Wimbledon Women’s Final had preluded other videos for which no commentary was needed. Now there was temptation at its rawest, something worth doing battle with, the female form at its most corrupting. But these live specimens crowding the other end of his binoculars…They would be more tempting veiled and yashmakked, he reflects, tugging at his rusty grey beard.

Bringing to mind another recent seizure, a mischievous jinni whispers into Mamnuah’s ear how even those puff-up plastic dolls would be more alluring. Yes, albeit their bodies (if that was the right word) now lie riddled with bullet-holes the craftiest vulcaniser could not cure. Vice and virtue entwined like Californian mud-wrestlers, Ibn Mamnuah plays back the incident frame by frame.

Again he sees the sniggering line of guest-workers the other side of the Zenobian Customs counter. Again he hears the righteous retort of pistol shots as the dolls, shockingly pink and by now life-size, were taken round the back and, according to Zenobian law, executed for obscenity. Again he tunes to the crackle of bare synthetic flesh being consigned to the airport incinerator, whichever limbo or hell beyond.

The video that is his memory continuing, he pictures the wretched, breathless foreigner – one Stephen Marsh by name – sitting in handcuffs, head bowed and staring at the floor while he, Mamnuah Ibn Mamnuah, wrote down the censorious details, then tucked them into a file marked ‘For Future Action and Punishment.’

Rewind the case of Stephen Marsh and those forbidden dolls fifteen and a half days backwards – Pause – Press forward – And there at its beginning stood Ibn Mamnuah’s nephew, the tall moustachioed figure of Captain Qumri, Discipline and Appointments Officer with the Royal Zenobian Guard. An imposing croak in the dusty moonlight,the Captain’s voice rebounded between barracks. Banished from first his first, then his second wife’s bed, he was venting his frustrations on a line of raw recruits sprawled lizard-fashion along the parade-ground tarmac. An unfavourable comment by Fatima, his junior wife, itched at his self-control, and again he shouted. Another recruit bit the tarmac.

“At least someone obeys me,” he consoled himself. Until his memory prickled with his senior wife Halima’s, “So you think I am one of your soldiers that you can order me about anyhow?” With which she had mutinously turned her back on him, denying him his conjugal rights once more… “You there…yes, you…On your stomach! Crawl!” he transferred his authority onto a prostrate underling.

And as he shouted, he pictured the dolls, an advert for which he had happened to see in one of those confiscated foreign magazines his uncle Mamnuah Ibn Mamnuah happened to bring back from his work at the airport. Captain Qumri’s first reaction had been disbelief that such items should exist at all. Then this changed, for better or worse, into something altogether more complicated. Now that his real wives were being so difficult, why not choose a more submissive and manageable substitute? Or two or three, just in case the dolls proved defective. Besides through staying quite properly indoors all day, his real wives, less to liking, were putting on too much weight. A doll, at least, could not be faulted in that regard, the problem of flatness, not flatness, being curable with a few puffs of air.

Sad and ridiculous the dolls might be, and certainly forbidden.

But then lust was nothing if not an old and wily campaigner, a sort of djinni in itself. It had ways of sporting with and distorting truth which the Captain’s most virtuous resolve to the contrary could not match. Those dolls by a long frustrated stretch of imagination had become objects of Captain Qumri’s desire. However real or unreal they did not matter.

Only how, in strictest Zenobia, was he to get hold of one? Let alone two or three. Getting them through Customs, given his influence with Uncle Manuah Ibn Mamnuah, should be easy. The problem lay in appointing a purchaser and suitably willing pander, procurer, go-between, he scoured his mind like a thesaurus for a less discreditable title.

Then, not finding one, he barked out another order.

“I said not twenty push-ups, but thirty…”

The cadet below him looked up and the Captain saw, or thought he saw, in that young face a hint of a most disrespectful grin. Almost as if the young fellow were reading his thoughts…

“No, I’ve changed my mind, not thirty push-ups, but let’s double that and make it sixty…”

Captain Qumri was contemplating the same snag as he patrolled, this time, the Study Wing Corridors. Night had rolled into day and there he was, applying his scowl to the classroom windows and making notes on the various teachers – English, Irish, New Zealander, Egyptian. Haj Leave was two days away. To combat over-confidence amongst the employees, the Powers That Be had decreed that a number of them would be receiving a one-way ticket only. Qumri’s job, as Appointments Officer, was to decide which ones and then file a report.

Aware of this fact – A grimly-worded circular had gone round the staffroom – General Science Instructor Stephen Marsh gesticulated frantically at four rows of comatose heads and bodies. His reminders about Newton’s Third Law of Motion fell on deaf ears.

“Teacher, don’t make us nervous, but we had no sleep all night.

Crawling, a thousand one push ups! Hmm. Captain Qumri is no good. He gets what we call ‘black heart’, my teacher,” the normally exemplary cadet in the front row explained, genuinely apologetic, a backlog of tiredness catching up with him. Then his eyes glazed over and his head dropped for some turbo-sleeping. What hope then was there for the others?

Stephen could not really blame them, his sleepers being, whilst awake, polite and amiable enough. He might have borne the humiliation of this public lecturing to an audience of merely himself as part of the job, “Par for the course”, whatever. Only that the job was not that easy. Reference Official Circular 572: “Students sleeping in class is the unquestionable fault of the teacher, whatever the facts to the contrary. A very serious view indeed will be taken of any staff member who, et cetera, et debtera…”

To encourage himself to absurder efforts, Stephen recalled, less absurdly, the arrears on his alimony payments, the pending school-fees for this teenage son and daughter. At the top of his voice he invoked Ohm, Newton, Joule, Planck, Bohr.

Yet the sole principle prevailing right now seemed to be that of Nod.

A strategic 30 degrees left of the classroom door, Captain Qumri stood, and saw, and noted. His list of one-way teachers was now complete. Or perhaps not quite.

Dolls – Circular 572 – something about Mister Stephen’s character, his marked eagerness to please – The three factors came together in the Captain’s mind like the nodes of a spider’s web. Now add the glue of “Money” these foreigners were so keen on talking about in the Coffee Room, this as often as not accompanying an at best unfavourable reference to his country it was one of his duties to overhear…

The Captain managed a quarter of a smile.

In all of the above he had the makings of a request Mister Stephen Marsh could not refuse.

“Doll, life sizzle,” Stephen heard (or imagined he heard) as the Captain summoned him to his office during the break.

No flies enter the shut mouth, Stephen chewed on a local proverb – and waited silently for his ears to resume normal transmission.

“You bring me dolls from London, life-sizzle,” the Captain eyed him across a polished expanse of desk, application and report forms heaped beside his fist. Stephen’s puzzlement was replaced by a dangerous urge to burst out laughing. In seismic guffaws he felt it heave and twist and tickle at his insides, vanish somewhere down his intestines.

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, Captain Qumri,” Stephen was about to plead. Except that the Captain, after a shuffle in his in-tray, had produced a crumpled piece of paper evidently torn from some magazine not generally available in Zenobia. Clear as neon, there were the pictures of the mentioned product, the capitalised words below pulling Stephen’s plea from under him.

“But this is ridiculous,” Stephen behind tight lips rehearsed another objection. Seeing the dark look on the Captain’s face, he was about to revise this out loud to, “But this could cost me my job even,” when he ran up against an awkward fact. The same Captain Qumri, Officer in charge in Appointments, was also in charge of dismissals.

Suddenly Stephen’s understanding was as clear as the hairs on Captain Qumri’s fist.

School-fees, alimony, school-fees, tapped Stephen’s pulse in sleazy solidarity.

Next, as if by telepathy, Captain Qumri mentioned a figure by way of payment for Stephen’s special services.

Fast forward a few days to London: A job-safe return ticket for Zenobia inside his pocket, Stephen Marsh stopped nearby ‘Eros Lovetoys and Accessories’ and started to have second thoughts.

Though Mammon still squatted like a Sumo wrestler in one corner of his mind, into the other skipped the ectomorphic and re-energised figure of his conscience on a come back. “We are prostituting ourselves,” his academic colleagues would complain about the curriculum back in Zenobia, their having to re-teach topics that should have been learned way back in secondary school. If that was ‘prostitution’, what then about making oneself a purveyor of prostitutes?

But they are only dolls, stupid pieces of plastic, unreal even in the darkest dark, Stephen’s thoughts argued back on his own behalf.

Schoolfees, alimony, they dutifully repeated. Drew Stephen’s attention to the news-vendor across the street, his latest headline announcing ‘Unemployment Reaches New High’ in stark black capitals.

Weighed against such hard facts, what’s a rubber doll?

“Or dozens of dolls, should you decide on entering the import-export business?” he imagined less an answer than a sneer.

“But you have given Captain Qumri your word,” his thoughts again went on the defensive, then added, “Damn the fellow!”

“Very honourable, I’m sure,” another inner voice shot back.

“Especially when you are already up to your eyeballs in honour’s opposite…”

‘EROS,’ read the sign above, its swirling italics underlined with a mythological arrow.

Glimpsing his reflection in the pinked out window, Stephen headed inside, a peculiar mixture of gall and shame measuring his step.

“Dolls, er, three, please,” Stephen scarcely knew what to say to the lank-haired, direly-tattooed salesperson, love toys to the right of him, love-toys to the left of him, a stack of vids behind. There

was a long pause during which Stephen wondered whether the fellow in front might be deaf. Instead of raising his voice, Stephen put his hand down into his pocket and brought out Captain Qumri’s scrap of magazine.

Mercifully saving Stephen further explanation, the salesperson gauged the gentleman’s needs, had the exact items below the counter, together with customer-friendly wrapping and a year-long guarantee.

A delve, this time inside his wallet, an avoidance of eyes, and — forget about change — Stephen was back in the street, quickening his step.

“Ree’ aw abow i’! Ree’ aw abow i’!” went the news-vendor; Stephen on third hearing substitutes the Arabic sounding glottal stops for a more standard English, “Read all about it.”

Stephen repositioned Captain Qumri’s bundle beneath his anorak.

Then, thanking his lucky stars that his face is not in the least bit famous, he hurried on down the tube station’s escalators and out of view.

His leave now over, Stephen Marsh waited his turn in the male-only line at the Zenobian Customs. In front, above the counter, was a sign saying ‘Guest Workers/Males Only’. Suddenly it seemed women had ceased to exist. On the right was a sign warning how the penalty for drug-trafficking is death. Guest-workers excepted, everywhere stood men in uniforms or identical white robes and head-dresses.

“Remember, the real world stops as soon as you board the plane at Heathrow,” Stephen Marsh recalled the stale expatriate formula as now he glimpsed a confiscated copy of the Church Times, a torn ‘Hello” magazine (or at least bits of it), a holiday brochure pocked with holes where once there had been swim-suited bodies.

If these had not made it through Customs, what chance was there for the contents of his own suitcase? If family holidays received such dire treatment, what about sleazy monstrosities from Soho?

Beyond the counter, in the official video-viewing room, Stephen could see an official with a henna-stained beard berating a red-faced new arrival while a dozen screens flickered white and green and bronze with a women’s tennis match.

Stephen felt the mysteries of Zenobian law hang like a sword above his balding head. He had an impulse to turn on his heels and do a runner. Till he remembered the next London flight did not depart for another forty-eight hours. Besides, the gold-badged brown-uniformed customs officer was now pointing at him and commanding, “You, next, barsboor, barsboor…” Stephen handed over the said document. The officer looked now at the strangely youthful photo, now at Stephen as he was now, and did not give the passport back.

“Open bag you,” the officer then flicked a hand in the direction of the inspection counter. “Quoockly, open…Me examine all thing. Quoockly, quoockly…”

Stephen attempted interposing a final smile between himself and disaster. In defensively slow motion Stephen fiddled with the lock, undid the zip. Out of his suitcase came a Dictionary of English Synonyms for one of his cadets, if he ever got to see them again, a presumably innocent-shaped bottle of after-shave. Next appeared some toothpaste, three towels, some shirts, a box of Traveller’s Scrabble.

Some more heavy feeling around from the Customs Officer, the riffling and re-riffling of suitcase pockets…

Then came the inevitable question, “What this?”

“What?” replied Stephen, as if repeating the question would somehow make it go away.

“This, what this?’

“This? O, er, that…It’s a…er…a present, yes, a present, synonym gift, souvenir…”

But the rope of untruth is short, to quote a proverb from Stephen’s ‘Teach Yourself Arabic.’ Soon the offending items had been wrenched from their hiding place behind the suitcase lining. The Customs Officer held the guilty package above his head. Then, with the eagerness of a boy with a birthday present, he started tearing the customer-friendly wrapping to tatters. Other Customs Officers appeared, the supervisory greybeard from the video-viewing room.

‘The real world stops as soon as you leave Heathrow’ : Inside Stephen’s head the formula became a sort of spell, a wishful ‘Open Sesame’ from the nightmare that now surrounded him on all sides.

Stephen tried to convince himself that this was not really him. Those giggling guest-workers just arrived on Thai Air and lining up behind him were just a figment of jetlag.

“Blue,” said the first customs officer.

“Blue?” echoed Stephen, welcoming the attempt at a joke, however dire or feeble. But the officer’s face was as stonily serious before.

“Blue,” he repeated, this duly repronounced by the officer next to him as, “Blow, blow.” The second officer, beetle-browed and heavy-holstered, was not joking either.

Stephen puffed, and the first doll’s right leg, left leg swelled to neo-human proportions. It was all a mistake. He could explain everything, went Stephen’s thoughts as he took a breathless step

backward, one of the customs officers assumed the task of inflation. Hips, waist, bust ballooned to explicitly life size, were hurriedly cloaked in black abbayas. Then, on the instructions of the frowning Greybeard – though the grey, Stephen now noticed, bore tints of henna – another doll was inflated, then another. Greybeard issued a further order and the three offending items were taken away to somewhere round the back of the viewing room.

Six shots rang out, two for each doll so as to prevent any sudden and fiendish recovery.

The line of male figures behind might still be laughing, but Stephen Marsh was now handcuffed to a chair. Look, those dolls are not mine, really they aren’t, he felt like shouting. Then a glance

at the unlaughing eyes of the greybeard made him realise that excuses were inappropriate.

If only I had said no, his memory wriggled and tugged.

If only…Yet, to cite another of his ‘Teach Yourself Arabic’s’ store of proverbs, No one is so mighty that he can change the past. As the grim grey beard, Mamnuah Ibn Mamnuah, now watching over him would no doubt agree, What was written was written.

“Of course, it could not happen in the real world,” re-recites Stephen Marsh snug inside the Bull and Bladder, an all-English drizzle clouding the Pump Room window. Twenty-four hours have passed, enough to fly a quarter of the globe and still have some hours to spare the other end. Against expectation and the run of Zenobian law, he is a free man again, raising his third pint of best London bitter in celebration. And for the benefit of the couple next to him, he goes on to recount his “short but extremely un-airconditioned stay in a Zenobian prison-cell, cockroaches and

several jinni of stench and heat for company,” as he puts it – “ a waking nightmare spent dreaming of punishments to come.” Next day had instead brought freedom, then prompt repatriation. Whether this was due to divine or human intervention is not for him to say. “Only that I am here, not there,” he wags a finger Middle Eastwards, “That’s the important thing.”

Stephen’s tale is scarcely in the heroic tradition of a T.E. Lawrence, yet it holds its audience. The couple smile sympathetically, and the fellow sitting to his right offers to pay for another round.

“The dogs bark, the caravan passes,” Stephen applies an old Zenobian proverb. Beer fuelling his speech, he then launches with impunity into a less-than-flattering description of Captain Qumri, his ex-employer. “One wall is worth a hundred good connections,” he sums up with another maxim.

Putting down his glass, he is unaware how the same Captain Qumri, just hours before, had approached the grey-bearded Mamnuah Ibn Manuah and, nephew to uncle, anxiously requested his, Mister Stephen’s, pardon; how Uncle Mamnuah had, for whatever reason, agreed, the file marked ‘For Future Action and Punishment’ by now a shredded figment.

Martin Bennett is a teacher and translator based in Rome. He is a native of Birmingham, England, and has published stories on the BBC World Service.

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About the Author:

Martin Bennett was born in Birmingham, England. He has lived and worked in West Africa and the Middle East. He arrived in Italy in 2001 and now lives in Rome where he teaches at the University of Tor Vergata.