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A Man of Few Words - by Swan Morrison


It would be half an hour before the pub opened. George Walker sat in his armchair and idly picked up his young daughter’s schoolbook. He opened her ‘Children’s First Atlas’ and inspected a map of Southern England.

George found London and identified his home borough of Hackney. There was Barking, Romford, Enfield. But what was this? Mid-way between Romford and Chelmsford was marked ‘Saudi Arabia’.

His wife came in.

‘Pat,’ he asked, ‘do you know where Saudi Arabia is?’

‘It’s just north of Brentwood, I think. I remember seeing a sign to it on the M25.’

George fell silent, intently studying the Essex map. Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait. There were all there. ‘Shit!’ he exclaimed, ‘I thought all these places were north of Newcastle.’

Pat smiled. ‘Didn’t you do any geography at school?’

‘No.’ He thought for a few moments. ‘Where’s America then?’

‘It’s on the other side of London, just west of Heathrow. Surely you must have heard of people passing through Heathrow on their way to the States?’

‘If there’s a war in the Middle East, that’s only twenty-five miles away. We might get hit by a stray bomb.’

‘It wouldn’t be deliberate,’ reassured his wife. ‘We would just be collateral damage. Anyway,’ she continued, ‘there are bigger problems nearer home. The North African famine for example.’

George was reluctant to ask. ‘Where’s North Africa?’ he said tentatively.

Pat looked at her husband disbelievingly. ‘The desert starts about two roads away. When I stand on a chair to dust the pelmets in the upstairs bedroom, I can just see the first line of sand dunes. That’s why Mrs Davis moved to the house in Acacia Drive. The desert begins at the bottom of her garden. When she gets fed-up with the drizzle, she can walk to the compost heap where the sun always shines and daytime temperatures are in the forties. She has problems with camels eating the petunias, but thinks the weather more than makes up for that. Mind you, I hate the drive to Stevenage - all those bleak refugee camps with shortages of food and water. It was all tropical rainforest, you know, before the logging companies came.’

George rose.

‘Off to the pub?’ enquired Pat.

‘No, there’s war, famine and ecological destruction within thirty miles of Hackney.’ He peered again at the atlas. ‘I’m taking food from the freezer to the Sudan. That should only take half an hour. Maybe I’ll make friends in the Middle East on the way back, or see if there’s any rainforest left to save.’

Pat glanced at the TV guide. ‘You know Manchester United are on telly tonight?’

That now familiar question arose in his mind. ‘Where’s Manchester?’

Pat paused, reluctant to admit he had caught her out this time. ‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s in the Pacific somewhere.’

‘I can’t be bothered with them.’ He hurried to the door. ‘That’s on the other side of the world. Nothing to do with me.’