Water of Life

Sophie knew it was over the moment he ordered the whisky. Whisky? In Lebanon? In summer? She sighed. It was never going to last anyway. They had been lovers - was that the word she wanted? - for less than 24 hours. And now, the thing with the whisky. She hated the smell of it and wondered if she should tell him as much, but the words would not come. It was one thing to sleep with him, but to dictate what he should drink suggested a kind of intimacy which she had avoided. Yes, it was most definitely over. She had wanted him because if she was about to die she had wanted to spend the night with someone. Not quite "anyone," but .... she sighed again. No, she was not promiscuous, whatever that meant. Absolutely not -- especially when she considered the number of men she had actually slept with as a proportion of the much greater number of men who made it plain that they wanted to sleep with her. Not promiscuous at all by that calculation. But she did not want to die alone, and the Israeli bombers cutting through the Beirut sky suggested to her with every blast hitting the apartment blocks and other civilian targets not far from her hotel, that dying alone in her bedroom in a foreign country was something which might happen to her very soon. Perhaps tonight.

There was no easy way out of Lebanon once the Israeli attacks began. Beirut airport was closed. She had heard that a ferry to Cyprus was still possible, but that meant risking a trip to the port, and there were Israeli warships on the horizon. She decided to forget the idea, and had settled by the hotel pool in the sunshine with an air of increasing unreality, recognising that she might be about to die before she had really lived. She was in a war, or at least in a war zone, as the Israelis responded to Hezbollah attacks in the north of Israel by bombing Lebanon without any apparent discrimination, rather like punching your neighbour because someone else had mugged you outside his house. Sophie was trapped, but when she looked around the flawless blue hotel pool, the beach, the Mediterranean breeze tipping the leaves of the palm trees and the splendid bar area, it was obviously a gilded cage. And so she sat by the pool in the warm June sunshine sipping iced Perrier water, thinking that gilded cage or not, she did not want to die alone, she did not want to die in Lebanon, and if she was about to die just two months after her 25th birthday, then perhaps having sex would be as good a final act as she could manage.

"Out with a bang," she laughed at her own feeble and crude joke, "and maybe a whimper."

At that moment, as if prompted by some kind of cue, David had appeared. He looked around the pool and then walked over to where she sat.

"Just you and me then," he said, his eyes looking around the empty poolside. He had an American accent. Tall, dark, good looking. Short stubble. Alert eyes. It was not the worst chat-up line she had ever heard. The worst so far had been when she had been singing at a cabaret in Glasgow.

"There must be wings?" some random guy had said to her with a smile, looking at her back.

"What?" Sophie had replied.

"There must be wings, because you are clearly an angel."

Unbelievable. Dickhead. Sophie had shaken her head and told him that she was not interested. With David it was something different.

"Just you, me and the Israeli airforce," Sophie replied to the American, glancing skywards. The Israeli planes were at that point sweeping down over south Beirut. The air trembled with their speed. There would be a sudden flash. A few seconds later the ground and air would shake with the force of the explosions.

"About five or six miles away, I'd guess," David said with an air of authority.

"How do you know that?"

He explained that it was the same calculation as finding out how far you were from the centre of a thunderstorm. Light travelled so fast you could consider it instantaneous. Sound travelled much more slowly. By counting the number of seconds from the first sight of the flash of the explosion to the sound of the missile or bomb detonating, you could work out how far away the attacks were.

"I was never much good at maths," Sophie said, impressed. "Or physics."

But she was suddenly interested. She and David talked. He seemed all right. Nice enough. They talked of the sudden war which had caught her by surprise, of what it had done to Beirut which was trying to re-establish itself as a holiday destination, of the possible return of Lebanon to the dark ages of the twenty year long civil war. It was difficult to believe that package tour companies had been selling holidays to the Lebanese beaches right up until the moment that the F16s began pounding the streets and bridges to dust.

And then they talked of whether the Israelis had any right to punish a whole country for the kidnapping of two of their soldiers by Hezbollah.

"No," Sophie said firmly.

"Well, it depends," David replied. "Israel is a country under siege."

"Yeah, right," Sophie said, looking skywards. "Don't you think Lebanon is the country under siege? A country under the Israeli airforce?"

"Lebanon is a failed state," David replied. "With some wonderful people. And some real bad cases. The Israelis are ..."

"The Israelis are ..." Sophie tried to think of the right word for her interruption, "... bullies."

They disagreed, but it was good to speak with someone who was capable of arguing intelligently even if Sophie thought he was wrong. She told him as much.

"Thank you for the compliment," David said. "At least I think it is a compliment. Would you care to have dinner with me tonight? Here in the hotel? I'd guess the other opportunities for a social life are going to be slim."

She nodded.

"Sure. That would be lovely."

They sat by the pool talking for another hour or so, and then she went back to her room. She showered and changed and felt a new kind of excitement within her at the possibilities for the evening. When they met in the hotel dining room it was clear that he had dressed up too. He had made an effort -- a smart dark blue linen suit and shirt, no tie. She looked at a knot of hair on his chest and it aroused her. After dinner, a bottle of Lebanese wine plus liqueurs she found herself in bed with him, as she knew she would, trying to snatch some kind of humanity from an inhuman conflict. The sex was ... well, it was sex. Touch. Skin. Heat. Contact. Bodies intertwined. She would not confuse it with love or anything like it, but it was good enough for two people thrown together in a war in a strange place. David was earnest. He tried to please her and eventually, with a little assistance from her, he did. If she had to die now, she thought as she lay panting beside him, at least she had enjoyed some end of the world sex, although the best of it was when she pleasured herself on him.

When she woke at dawn and went to the bathroom for a pee she looked at the naked man in her bed and wondered how long it might be before the airport opened again and she could leave.

"Two or three days," David had assured her over dinner. He appeared to know these things. He appeared to know a lot of things, or to think he did. He said he was a New York based literary agent. He said he had come to Beirut to search out "new Arab writing talent," novelists mostly, but also some factual writers who might explain the Arab world to an American audience.

"Endless appetite for that," he claimed, "given the mess we're in."

"You speak Arabic?" she had said, surprised when he ordered dinner in the language.

"I'm from Dearborn, Michigan. My mother's from Syria. It helps." He said it with a self-effacing smile, and then put his hand on hers between the wine glasses. "You are a very beautiful woman, Sophie. How come you are in Beirut?"

She started to tell him, though the story sounded crazy even to her own ears. Crazier when she told it than when she lived it. She had been playing piano and singing on the pub circuit, a bit of jazz, some of her own songs. One night three months before in a hotel lounge in Kensington a woman from the audience came up and offered Sophie a card. The woman was from Lebanon, early forties, very elegant, with a taste for plastic surgery around the nose and eyes. The woman said she was an agent for musical and cabaret acts in the Middle East, and suggested that Sophie could get work in some of the clubs in Beirut and one or two of the higher end hotels. Three months before the war, it had not seemed so crazy.

"What kind of clubs?" Sophie was slightly suspicious. "I'm a musician - that is all. That is all I do."

"Good clubs, honest clubs," the woman said, putting her hand to her breast as if the very suggestion alarmed her. "Not bad clubs. Not that. Music, only."

"Well, maybe," Sophie responded.

"Weddings too," the woman said. "Lots of work for talented girl like you."

She was a Maronite Christian, obviously wealthy. She seemed nice. She promised a flight and a good hotel, and gave Sophie a hundred dollars upfront. Cash.

"You are a risk taker," David said. "Taking up an offer like that."

"How bad could it be?" Sophie replied. "I mean, I thought, well, it's a woman agent. I'd love to see Beirut, and get a bit of work. Made it sound like I would have a good time on the beach. And I thought, well, she's not going to rip me off, or try to sleep with me."

"And?" David said.

"I was wrong on both counts," Sophie laughed bitterly. "I was offered a thousand dollars for a week, five nights singing. She gave me two hundred. And then she turns out to be gay. When she put her hands on me and I told her I wasn't interested, she disappeared and won't answer her fucking phone, and all this happens just as the Israelis start bombing the place."

"You have a return ticket?"

"Yes, and the hotel bill is taken care of. But she owes me several hundred dollars and I still have to get out of here."

"Not tonight," he had said, and leaned forward. "Tonight we will stay together and try to forget we are in a war zone. Then I will get you out of here."

When he kissed her she felt desire leap through her, a desire to be held, a desire to make love, a desire not to die. Within an hour of the first kiss he was naked in her bed and now it was over, in part because of the whisky.

"Chivas Regal," he said. It was lunchtime, less than 24 hours after they first met, just two hours after they had finally climbed out of bed. They were sitting under red parasols at a beachside café alongside the coast road a few hundred metres from the hotel. The Israeli warplanes, for now at least, were nowhere to be seen. The waiter leaned towards David. "Chivas Regal on the rocks. Tonic water with ice for the lady. And a shisha."

She looked at him, and he turned to her.

"The Scots word for whisky is uisge beatha. In the Gaelic language they speak up there it means Water of Life," he said. She wrinkled her nose.

She had a very low opinion of Chivas Regal, and above all she could not stand the smell of whisky since getting very drunk on it a year before on a holiday trip with her then fiancée, Jon, on the island of Jura in the west of Scotland, the holiday which finally killed off their relationship. She had handed back the engagement ring, while they both endured a fierce whisky-induced hangover. Just the thought of smelling whisky again made Sophie feel sick. And maudlin. She looked over at David and knew she was not going to kiss him ever again, except on the cheeks, to say goodbye. She wanted to leave immediately, to get out of Beirut, and go home. For a second she thought again of asking him to drink something else, but could not bring herself to do it. They were not that close. And she was especially irritated by David's pompous attempt to educate her. They call it "Water of Life?" Prick. Donkey. She had noticed something about him the previous night which at first impressed and then irritated her. He was a control freak. He had ordered the food, the wine, everything, showing off his Arabic as if she was incapable of choosing for herself.

As the waiter went to fetch the drinks, Sophie looked at her watch and wondered whether she could try calling the airport or the port in the hope of getting out. She was ready to risk the Cyprus ferry. Maybe she would ask David to make the booking for her. In Arabic it would be easier than in her bad French. Maybe. She looked over at David. They were sitting on the street side of the beachfront bar. He said the place was "very authentic and very unique." She wanted to tell him that things were either unique or not, and that there were no gradations of uniqueness, but now she did not give a shit. She just wanted to be out of here. He offered her the chance to smoke a water pipe, the shisha, which she thought might be fun for a few puffs. A spliff would be even better, but he did not look like the sort to be interested, and so she said nothing.

"Chess," she said, noticing that the tables were set for games although there were no patrons. "I haven't played for years. Do you play?"

He nodded.


"Well, come on then."

She took white and tried to remember how to set out the pieces. As they put the board together a motor scooter with a single Arab man on the back puttered past.

Sophie looked up and caught the Arab's eyes. She saw something, but did not understand exactly what she saw. The man was not looking at her, which in Beirut was surprising. Arab men liked her. Liked her smooth legs and tanned skin and fair hair, liked her figure and her short summer dress. This scooter driver was looking instead at David with a peculiar expression on his face.

"Your move," David said.

She had moved the pawn in front of her king two squares and he had responded with a knight. She tried to remember the basic openings she had learned in the school chess club when she was a teenager. The waiter brought the drinks, the whisky for him, a tonic water for her. She leaned back so she could not smell the whisky.

"Slainn," he said, raising his glass, "Gaelic for cheers."

Sophie nodded, sipped her drink and said nothing. She wanted rid of him. She had no regrets, but she was irritated he was ... what? Taking up space and time in her life? Something like that. She had had her End of the World Sex, and now she wanted to get home before an Israeli bomb blew her to pieces. David had asked for her cell phone number and email and she had given it to him, knowing that she would not respond to his calls when she returned to the UK. It had been disposable sex for a disposable twenty first century. Goodbye, David.

"Check," he said, with a smirk. She flushed with anger and surprise. It had been so long since she had played chess it was hardly surprising she had become careless. She moved to defend herself and David swapped a pawn for her bishop. Damn, she thought, but said nothing. He took another sip of whisky, and Sophie caught a whiff of it. Overhead in the distance, to the south, the Israelis were opening up again. They had blown up roads and bridges and there were reports they were dropping cluster bombs. Behind her Sophie heard the sound of a scooter again. She was thinking about her next move but turned her head to see that it was the same scooter as before. This time behind the driver there was a pillion passenger. Sophie moved her queen for the first time. David smirked.

"You sure you want to do that?" he asked. "Think about it."

She looked at the pieces and realised that she had become even more careless. She had moved the queen to where his knight could put a fork on it and her rook. She would lose one or the other. A sacrifice.

"Always a good idea to rethink a bad move," David said, as the sound from the scooter ratcheted up. She was about to move the queen back and rethink when the scooter screeched to a halt beside their table. The pillion passenger had a 9mm semi automatic pistol in his hand and he shot David three times in the chest. Blood exploded over the table, on to the chess set and splashed down on her feet, sandals and bare legs. Sophie screamed and stood up in terror as the scooter drove away. The waiters came running. David had fallen from his chair and his body was all over the ground in a puddle of pumping blood. She had been with him less than 24 hours and yet she knew that the rest of her life was going to be marked by that moment. She would have questions to answer. She would have forms to fill in. Investigators to talk with. Newspapers, TV. Sophie heard the sound of police sirens. When she looked at the chess table she saw there was blood curling like smoke in his whisky glass.