A bead of perspiration squeezes through a pore, then joins another, and forms a silver stream down my face.
For an hour I simply sit, contemplating the desert. I can’t remember when last I absorbed so much of the world for such a long period. And, inadvertently, as the vastness is revealed to me, I begin to travel along a vast inner road.
There is a jingle of an icecream bell, the thump of little boys feet on a carpeted passageway as my brother and I gallop to the door. “Ice Scream Man”, we scream. We catch him only a few feet from the driveway. He pulls the lid from the large, Styrofoam box and wisps of icy vapour snake outward. Our small feet are standing on the soft, small rubbery front wheels of the icecream bike. We sink our arms into the icy dark cave, and pull out orange and chocolate wrappers, with small flattened wooden sticks poking out one end.
“How much is this one?”
“What about this one?”
Invariably we buy an icecream with waffle-like wafers on either side, and soft, cool, creamy vanilla on the inside. We dig out a blue two Rand note, with van Riebeeck’s head glancing at us.
We walk back home, our barefeet stinging on the tar, until we step into luxurious shade, my brother and I, our tongues wet with cold white, sweet dollops.
When I blink another bead has formed and snaked down my cheek. I bend over, and feel the wind lick me with its sandpaper heat. A drop of sweat loosens from my face and falls into the dust. It forms a dark spot on the red sand, and then suddenly it’s gone, as though it was never there to begin with.
The moment finally comes when my thumb squeezes the switch, and I pitch these words into space.
‘Delta, this is Echo 1.”
Then: “Roger Echo.”
“What is the situation?”
“Roger Echo. Ahhhh…uhhhh…Echo…there’s ah…uh…yeah, I’m…uh echo, there’s ahhh…”
“Roger Echo, we ahhh…uh…we’re having a…uh… fuel problem.”
“I know that we had an error on one of the gauges. Possibly a grain of sand. Apparently we were bone dry within half an hour after takeoff.”
“So, Delta, we’ll be needing more fuel, over.”
“There’s a fuel problem.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. How long will it take to get more fuel?”
“Echo, there’s a fuel problem.”
“Roger, can you give me a timeline.”
“Echo, we’re also experiencing a fuel problem here. Everyone is.”
Echo, we’re also experiencing a fuel problem here. Everyone is.
“Please advise. Do you want me to wait here? Over.”
“Sssssssssssh.” For at least a minute: ssssssssshhhhh. Like the sound of a single car on a desert highway, only it never reaches me…
“Please advise over.”
“Er, Echo 1…er….[muffled]….[unintelligible]…”
“Standing by over.”
“Delta, Echo 1 standing by, over.”
But the car never gets any closer.
“Er…Echo 1…ah….uh…Echo 1…”
Then, sharply: “I’ll do it! Ech – Andy! This is Tom van Leewen, the director of Operations at Orapa.”
“Roger, over.” Unusual for Tom to be at the airfield…
“Uh, Andy, we’ve got a bit of a problem here.”
I nod slowly to myself. I’m about to depress the button-
For some reason, I felt the penny drop right then. It’s not often adults, professionals, behave this way. I knew something had happened to shake the world. I knew it.
“What’s happened?” I ask softly. Then I press the switch and ask again: “What’s happened?”
“Uh, Andy…there’s a fuel problem. Some uh…some uh…oil well in the Middle East…er…a Saudi well was hit. Uhhhhhhh…ksssh…Um…a terrorist got into one of their super reservoirs; its been on CNN, on all the channels for the last few hours. The world’s biggest oil well, Ghawar, has gone.”
A big gaping hole instead of words.
“Yeah. Um…and the Chinese are already reacting to this. There’s been a sudden...uh...build up of forces...in the Gulf. The markets are going crazy. It’s uh...it's a meltdown. It’s an absolute meltdown. People everywhere are starting to… huh? Yeah yeah…horde fuel. Uh… So we’re struggling right now to get some to you. They’re uh…yeah in a minute…huh?[muffled voice in the background]...er… even looting in Maun and Gaberone. Listen Andy, hang on…”
I digest this news for several minutes, and start when the mike erupts again: “We advise you to abandon the ship. Try to get yourself to where food is, or shelter. Things seem to be getting worse by the minute. [Softly in the background: ‘Sir it’s your wife on line one’] Good luck Andy. Krrrrrchf.”
Those words introduced me to the desert of the real. I seem to hear them echoing back at me, through time, and each time they bury themselves deeper into me, like a thorn, or a nail splitting my bone, digging into the wood under my skin. Sometimes I wish I’d never heard them, but of course, how could that change anything?
So there I sat, with the radio steaming in my hand, and my eyes closing – thin flaps of skin with the sun burning through the red capillaries between them and the membranes of my eyes.