Claire opened her eyes as the moon’s cool light eased over the tent. She lay still, the narrow frame of the camp bed enclosing her like a box.
It was quiet now that woke her. She could hear the dusty air catching the back of her throat and the tiny knots of fabric in the canvas under her tighten and loosen as her chest rose and fell. She listened to the breathing of the other medics in the tent. The Dutch girl’s deep, meditative rhythm and the German’s light snore from lying on her back all night, too tall and wide to move between the narrow poles of the army issue bed. The other beds lay empty, stripped for the volunteers due at changeover in three weeks. Claire could imagine their new rucksacks, the pockets and zippers dirty and ripped, the bedrolls kneaded flat, and the packets of cigarettes and confectionery battered and spoilt from the trip. They would bring newspapers and letters from home she wouldn’t read. All Claire longed for was a bar of scented soap. A white box with a pencil sketch of lavender on the front, the raised gold letters of ‘Crabtree &Evelyn’ running along it, an item so simple that the thought of it in her hands, first the box and its sheen, the crisp white tissue paper fastened with a sticker, the soft smooth curve of the soap itself, absolutely new, the warmth of her fingers enough to release the smell, made her light headed.
Claire swung her legs over the bed and half stood, bowed under the tent’s roof. She slipped her jacket on over her scrubs and shuffled out of the tent.
Even as her feet fell on the useless earth, she expected to see grass and mud, trees and a cow looking at her over a hedge, or hear the sound of clear water rushing over a mossed stream bed. Claire lifted her eyes to see what she could still hardly believe was in front of her now.
Seventy thousand people at the last count, marooned in a dustbowl on the edge of a desert, barely surviving under tarpaulin squares tethered to empty crates and oil drums. Claire could make out some detail in the first row ahead of her, a broken suitcase, tyres, a ripped sheet hung on the chain link fence encircling the medics’ compound. But she knew that the camp spread half a mile deep beyond where she and the other volunteers worked in the hospital. The Big Top, so called because of the white, sand blasted bunting looped around five bell tents to signify surrender, Claire supposed, but which made just as good targets. They were down to antiseptic, dressings and basic pain relief – Claire had taken a similarly equipped first aid kit to Glastonbury for the weekend - rationed to the most injured and ill to the point of virtual impotence.
By this time of night everyone was too exhausted, malnourished or despairing to move and the camp was silent. Smog rose over the dark horizon, a dense, seasoned cloud of burnt refuse lifting up and away in the night wind. From behind it shone the moon, flat and hard and cold, the same moon no matter where or to whom it appeared. Claire took some comfort in this. Here was the same moon she’d seen sliced by helicopter blades when flying into the camp; the same moon she watched from the beach on Santorini, lying in the warm tide full of beer; the same moon that had lit the wings of the angel mobile hanging over her childhood bed. It was the same moon, seen by the same person but from a different angle in another place on the planet. This time would become another memory, relevant only to Claire, like the photo of her new born in her father’s arms, held up next to the television alongside the image of Neil Armstrong taking his step for mankind over the moon’s rubbled surface.
Claire stood, the dust stinging her eyes and drying her lungs, remembering the six month fitness regime she slogged through as part of the recruitment test to come to the camp. Taking up smoking and putting on weight would have been better preparation; her chest hurt and she was thin. She had quickly found that with no talk of food, without the rituals of shopping and preparation, she forgot to get hungry. She was living on powdered shakes and multivitamins, knocked back as the sun came up and the guards opened the gates. If she waited beyond then, she couldn’t stomach even that. More refugees always came, heads down if they were still standing, watched by film crews and counted and registered by NGO’s. A lot of the ones that crawled in died within hours, as if the relief of making it to safety was the final blow.
Claire stretched her hands above her and then dropped them down to her feet, feeling the stiffness in her legs and back. She bounced there gently, letting the weight of her head pull her down so that her hair brushed over the toes of her boots. She straightened and was reaching up to the moon again when she felt him watching her.
“Fuller.” The Chief Medic was sitting against the supplies shed, his elbows on his knees.
“Anderson,” she nodded.
It was weeks since they’d been on first name terms, at her induction in Geneva. Claire first saw Daniel Anderson in the hotel foyer, standing apart from the other team leaders, studying a vine that twisted out of an enormous blue and white china pot, up a wire frame and across a trellis suspended from the ceiling. The light from the window pushed through the thick upturned leaves on to his tanned face. Claire saw him in profile, the dark eyebrow and lashes, a slight shine across his forehead and cheek, and a band of white skin above his collar where his hair had been cut too short. He stood easy, comfortable, not moving when the others came forward to introduce themselves to the new recruits. When Dan finally turned, his hands in his pockets, Claire was standing in front of him with two glasses of sparkling wine.
“Sweet,” he said.
“I meant the wine.” He looked straight at her and Claire knew that she would be on his camp.
Dan had no ego about being a doctor, in sharp contrast to just about every man she had ever met at medical school or in practice since, and she found him even more appealing as a result. That week she listened to him talking about their camp, how it worked, how many people they treated, issues arising from malnutrition, compromised hygiene and sanitation. Dan talked without drama or the affected compassion that she was also used to seeing in her profession. There was no nauseating talk about ‘doing the right thing’.
Watching him speak she wondered, often, how he would be alone with her, not assessing infection rates but unbuttoning her blouse and running his fingers under the lace edge of her bra. And Claire wanted to see how his face looked when he wasn’t thinking about the camp or her, when he was asleep after. That week in Geneva she thought there would be plenty of time to find these things out about Dan and so had declined his invitation for a drink the night before leaving the hotel. But within three days of arriving at the camp, she understood what he already knew. Undiluted misery was no turn on. When Dan put his arms around her then she had wanted nothing more than the warmth of another human body enclosing her, and she quickly learnt to do without even that.
She walked over to him as he lit a cigarette. “Thought you’d given up, Anderson.”
He shrugged his shoulders and looked past her, exhaling. Claire’s shadow fell across him, the moonlight leaving his face in profile, but she could not match the feelings she had looking at him now with those she had on that first day in the hotel foyer.
“How’s the show?” She nodded over at the Big Top.
He drew on the cigarette, flinching as the ash blew into his face. “There’s good news and bad news.”
“Good news? I’m looking forward to that.” Claire sat down a few feet away from him, tucking the lower half of her face into her t shirt so as not to breathe in so much rising dust.
“Bad news first.” He looked out over the camp, rolling the cigarette between his finger and thumb. “Supplies are out. All gone. Cupboards are bare, Fuller.”
Claire had been expecting this, yet her insides still dropped with the shock of hearing him say it. She attempted a joke. “The Elastoplast isn’t gone too, boss?” A blister plaster had been nailed in its box to a central tent post by some wag, under a chalked ‘In Case of Emergency’ notice.
Anderson dropped his head on his knees. After a while, Claire spoke.
“What’s the good news?” she said softly. When he didn’t answer, she put her hand on his arm and shook him slightly. “Dan? The good news?”
He put his arms over his head in the brace position. “No more choices to be made, Claire. That’s the good news.”
So now all they could do was watch.
Claire looked up through the pillows of smog and saw the moon, the same moon from wherever she saw it, barren and without atmosphere, a dust ball with a disproportionate effect on the earth below it. Not here in the desert, its gravitational pull held no visible sway here with so little water to move. Here, the moon was just a flashlight when there was enough wind to unveil it.
Claire stood up and made the motion of brushing dirt from her trousers. Dan held out his hand and she took it and pulled him roughly to his feet. He looked old now, not wise and capable, just old and tired and profoundly depressing. A tear ran down his face, cutting through the grit sticking to him like a snail trail over a weathered terracotta pot. He clung on to her hand and pulled her to him, dropping his forehead against her shoulder. His hair smelt of old sweat but that wasn’t what made her want to pull away. It was his hot, wet breath misting her collarbone as he tried to supress the sobs that shook his body against hers, this weakness in him, that she thought would choke her.
“It’s alright,” she managed to whisper. “It’s alright.” She didn’t smooth his hair or put her arms around him.
“Don’t go down there tonight,” he said into her ear. “There’s nothing you can do for them. Stay with me. Please.”
She took him by the shoulders, her palms open and firm against the tops of his arms and pushed him upright and away from her. “Don’t let the others see you like this. Go back to your tent and wash up.”
He jolted his head back as if she’d slapped him. “You think that matters now?” His voice got louder, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me.”
Claire pushed him harder so that he stumbled back. “You set the tone, Dr Anderson.” Claire turned, striding out to get away from him, marching down behind the camp to the lime pit.
Balanced on the lip of the pit was a carport like structure made from strips of corrugated iron on stilts wrapped in barbed wire. Patients with no relatives or ID were laid out here for the day, rolled into the open end nearest The Big Top, their faces exposed so that they might be identified before they were rolled out of the other end into the pit. Claire came down here most nights to visit when the silence woke her. She had stopped saying prayers, the words drying on her tongue, but sometimes she could hum a tune as she nodded to each of them.
She walked along slowly, looking at the faces lined up over the jumble of limbs and rags, treading carefully so as not to kick sand in their eyes. In the moonlight their faces looked smooth, the pain and anguish gone. Then she heard it; not quite a cry, more like a hiccup. She stopped and waited. It wasn’t unusual to hear gasps and creaks as organs liquefied and limbs set. The wind scuffed sand over her boots and sent it clawing around her ankles. She walked on, turning her face away from the wind to draw breath. She heard it again, an unmistakeable mew and stopped to look around. Dan wouldn’t dare follow her, she was sure of that, and no animals ever made it this far. Claire checked herself, she was not humming or gasping, and knew in that moment that she wasn’t alone. She dropped down on to her knees, suddenly afraid, and felt wet crawl through her scrubs. She pushed her fingers into the dark circle around her and brought her hand up to her face, the bitter metallic smell of blood unmistakeable. The cry came again, short but clear, and she pushed her hand through the barbed wire and felt something move in amongst the bodies. Instinctively she snatched her hand back, slapping a hardened face as her sleeve snagged on the thorned wire and she lost her balance and fell back. For several seconds she sat on the wet dirt and waited.
When it cried again, Claire was ready. Pushing a hole in the barbed wire with the toe of her boot, she plunged her hands through the dark towards the noise and felt her fingers brush a slick of plastic. She wedged her elbows into the hole and leant in as far as she could, catching at the plastic and tugging it over the bodies until she could grab it and slip it through the gap. The sounds had stopped. She pulled frantically at what she now saw was a carrier bag, the knotted handles tightening as she scrabbled at it, knowing that she must be too late. A cloud of smog passed over the moon and the cool, blue light shone directly on Claire’s hands as the carrier split open and the baby fell into her lap.
Face down, its back thick with vernix, Claire’s first impression was of a large, smooth stone still wet from a retreating tide. She cupped it and turned it over in her hands. It was warm, with hands and feet and a face, balled up and furious, open mouthed from its last attempt at breath. The wind pulled the plastic bag loose and it twirled up and away on a wave of sand. Claire drew the baby to her, opening her jacket to rest it against her chest the way she’d seen new mothers do, and the placenta rolled over her belly, through her legs and on to the ground. The umbilical cord, fat and veined, jerked away with it and she saw the baby was a girl.
Cradling the baby’s head and bottom against her, Claire rocked slightly and looked up into the night sky. The moon looked back down over the silence. She remembered the picture of her new in her father’s arms, swaddled and safe, and how he loved telling the story of her being born moments before man first stepped on the moon. He would tell her that it was an omen, that she could do anything, that she was destined to do something good for her fellow man. He never said it would be a curse.
Trembling in the bloody dirt, the baby clamped to her, she wondered where she should leave it. She couldn’t bring herself to put it back where its mother left it alive. She waited, unable to make a decision, even to move. Finally she shuffled on to her knees and stood up slowly, light headed, the jellied blood from the afterbirth rolling from her thighs and down her legs. She brought the baby up to her face and rested her cheek against her head, breathing her in, nuzzling and kissing the child as if she were her own. She thought she felt a twitch and then the small furred head bang against her cheek. Sure it must be because she was shaking, Claire went to put the baby down on the ground and was immediately rewarded with a sharp cry of rage. Snatching her back up, she saw that the baby’s eyes were open and focussing clearly on her face. Claire kissed her swiftly, tucked her back into her jacket and started running away from the pit up to the Big Top, jumping over the sand peaks, her path clearly lit by the moon.