The Legend of Tristan and Isolde
According to legend, there are many versions of the doomed love affair between Sir Tristan and Isolde, this being the most common. Sir Tristan was Cornish knight, who after defeating the Irish knight Morholt in battle, he travels to Ireland at the bequest of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Tristan is tasked with bringing back the fair Isolde and in some versions of the story they accidentally ingest a love potion. In the courtly version the love potion lasts their lifetimes, in others that the potion was intended for King Mark, but Isolde gives it to Tristan.
Although Isolde marries Mark, she and Tristan are forced by the potion to seek each other as lovers. In Béroul’s version, the love potion eventually wears off, and the two lovers are free to make their own choice as to whether to cease their adulterous relationship or to continue. Mark seeks to have them executed for adultery, but the King, Isolde and Tristan are reconciled. Isolde returns to Mark and Tristan journeys to Brittany where he marries (for her name and her beauty) Iseult of the White Hands, daughter of Hoel of Brittany and sister of Kahedin.
According to Thomas’ version, Tristan was wounded by a poison lance while attempting to rescue a young woman from six knights. Tristan sends his friend Kahedin to find Iseult of Ireland, the only person who can heal him. Tristan tells Kahedin to sail back with white sails if he is bringing Iseult, and black sails if he is not. Isolde agrees to return to Tristan with Kahedin, but Tristan’s jealous wife, Iseult of the White Hands, lies to Tristan about the colour of the sails. Tristan dies of grief, thinking that Iseult has betrayed him, and Isolde dies swooning over his corpse.
Tristan and Isolde were buried together in Cornwall and two intertwined trees grew over their graves. Maddened with grief and anger, King Mark had the trees cut down, but they regrew every night.
After the emergency resuscitative trauma surgery, Sergeant James Ellis was kept in a medically induced coma and flown to Jordan by Russian helicopter. An RAF Aeromed team transferred him to Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham where he underwent a series of operations to repair the damage caused to his liver, pleural cavity and ribs by the 7.62 mm rounds. He woke up in the military ward of the hospital, six weeks after having been shot.
Afarin Khan was constantly asking Bartlett for updates of his progress by phone. She decided not to visit him as his life was still in the balance and she couldn’t have coped with his dying. Eventually James was well enough to be transferred to Headley Court for rehabilitation. His dreams were ridden with his shooting of the girl in Hashmi’s apartment, but he bore them in silence, waking up lathered with sweat and with a racing heart. Eight months after he had been severely wounded, Afarin finally spoke to him. It was a very long phone conversation, affirming everything they had come to know in Iraq and Syria. They made plans for the future, something that Afarin Khan had thought impossible.
James picked up the delivered hire car from the gate house and drove to the M25. It was its usual slow crawl clockwise until he picked up the M4 to the west. It was slow near Reading but picked up again as he headed past the Hungerford turn-off. James moved into the inside lane as he would be leaving the motorway at junction 15. And then he hit a wall of slow moving traffic near Swindon. He could see the junction about one-hundred-and-fifty yards ahead and he crawled along behind a delivery van. The company logo was nicely done, a barge with black sails for the Black Sail Delivery Company and a Bristol telephone number.
The driver of the French lorry was trying to make up time, because he was worried he would miss his last delivery and the night sailing from Plymouth. He picked up his phone to let his wife know and looked down, scrolling through the numbers. He didn’t see the stationary traffic up ahead because it was obscured by one of the M4’s notorious evening fog banks. The lorry hit the car and crushed it against the back and underneath of the delivery van. James Ellis was killed instantly. The French driver lasted twenty minutes before he died in the back of an ambulance. The French firm gave the driver’s widow a generous settlement because the haulage company believed in supporting its staff and their families. It was a small compensation but the widow was glad that her husband had worked for Iseult des Mains Blanches, a haulage firm based in Rennes, the capital of Brittany.
She had booked one of the best rooms in the Old Forge Hotel in East Kennett near Marlborough. It was Friday evening and the bar was busy. She was wearing a loose veil and a white, silk dress and while she read a magazine, waiting in nervous expectation, she attracted curious and admiring glances from the male and female customers. They were not used to seeing strikingly attractive Asian women in these parts. They would have a light supper and spend the next few days exploring the local area and each other’s bodies and souls. Then she would take him to her modest little house, an ex-married quarter near Wroughton village and they would see what life had in stall for them. She bit her lip with expectation.
As the evening wore on her expectation turned to anxiety and then to worry. By 22:00 she decided to call it a day and go to bed. If James had stood her up, it was for a very good reason. She slept badly and turned on the television the following morning. The local news was showing scenes of carnage on the M4, which had been closed in both directions since 18:15 the following evening. She sat down on the bed, wept bitter tears and knew that her life had come to an end. This was punishment for the murder of an innocent and she knew that she deserved it, but James hadn’t. She was weeping for him, not herself. She was already dead.
James had requested in his brief will, to be buried at Saint Martin’s church in Hereford as he had no family. The funeral was well attended by serving and former members of the Regiment, some she recognised and others she didn’t. She had been looking for one person in particular, but had no way of knowing he had died of cerebral malaria and was buried in the grounds of a Catholic Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
She was wearing an ivory silk dress and face veil, because she knew he hated seeing her in black and she had been wearing black clothes the last time he had seen her. She had paid for the inscription on the plain, white military headstone, In Loving Memory of James Ellis, a Gallant Knight and Pilgrim. She had also asked the vicar if she could plant two roses, one with white flowers, the other red, intertwined to grow together and a simple brass plaque: In memory of Scheherazade and Sir Tristan. We nearly had it all.
Shippers and Cohen were two of the troopers who bore his coffin, with such gentle decorum that they seemed to be bearing the bier of a dying child, rather than the mangled remains of a hardened soldier. Major Halward led the guard of honour and Mr H read Robert Binyon’s poem for the fallen. He went to move away from the lectern, but spotted Afarin Khan at the rear of the church. Totally unscripted he quoted a Native American prayer, specifically for her:
I give you this one thought to keep.
I am with you still. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone.
I am with you still in each new dawn.
It was all too much for her to bear and she slipped discretely away as the mourners gathered and dispersed to spend her last time alone with James in his cold, final resting place. After the funeral she left quickly, unable to relive those intense months in Syria, a wounded and angry child. As she drove south to her empty home, she pondered on the hollow, meaninglessness of her life.
That evening Afarin thought about the four months she had spent in Iraq and Syria. She thought about those men whose lives she had shared. She thought about James and cried freely and the people she had killed and for what reason? But most of all she thought about a lost, lonely little soul called Pela who had called the woman who was murdering her, Mama. This also was too much to bear and Afarin Khan cried bitter tears for the hopelessness and such a waste of time and lives. And she hated, with a deep, burning, all-consuming loathing as she concluded that there was a special place in hell for Cécile Hammond.
The “Matron” back at Ad Dumayr had said something that had resounded in her mind constantly now:
“It goes against the natural laws for a woman, the giver of life to kill.”
Afarin, cursed among women, finally decided and made a telephone call to a mobile number.
Alan Bartlett was clearing the dinner table while his wife was loading the plates in the dishwasher, when the phone went off.
“Sorry, Dear, I need to get this as it’s on my work phone. Sorry.”
He went out into the garden and answered the call, “Hello?”
“Alan, it’s me, Afarin.”
“Afarin. Gosh, I thought you were through…”
“Alan, that job you asked me to consider in Kenya. I’ve decided I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am now.”
“What made you change your mind, as if I need to ask?”
“James Ellis was killed in a road accident. He was coming to see me.”
“I heard. Afarin, I’m so sorry.”
“So I’m at a bit of a loose end now,” A single tear trickled down her face. “It was all for nothing wasn’t it? I killed people and murdered a little girl for nothing. James died for nothing. It might as well have been Cécile Hammond who killed him.”
Bartlett closed his eyes and said gently, “Afarin, James was killed by a French lorry driver and Cécile Hammond at least had the courage to do what the politicians were too cowardly to do. If you knew what they have done to that poor woman, you would not want to change places with her. Are you doing this for the right reasons?”
“I have nothing else, Alan.”
“Think about it some more, then come and see me on Monday. And Afarin, I really am so very sorry.”
“See you on Monday.”
Kensington Gardens is the nearest open space to the Russian Embassy. Alan Bartlett walked across the grass towards the Round Pond, enjoying the warm afternoon breeze. Lovers strolled hand in hand and a jet whined overhead. He saw Vanya Korovin sitting on one of the benches dotted around the pond and was amused to see his female staffer pretending to feed the ducks a hundred yards away. Bartlett sat on the other end of the bench.
“Good afternoon, Colonel Korovin. Nice day.”
“Good afternoon, Mr Bartlett. Indeed it is.”
“You might like to tell your staffer that the ducks tend to like smaller pieces of bread, rather than half a loaf.”
The Russian smiled, “She has a great deal to learn.”
“But very easy on the eye, Vanya. Is she a good staffer?”
“Her data inputting, interrogation and preparation for reports are first class. Just don’t ask her to analyse any of it.”
“Does she make you happy though?”
“Indeed she does, and we were trying to be discrete.”
“Vanya, I would like to offer our sincere thanks for the cooperation you and your country have provided us with, in our recent undertakings. I’m afraid the hard work of your surgical team was in vain. Sergeant Ellis was killed in a road traffic collision last week.”
The Russian looked down at the ground for a long time, “It does make you wonder if the Gods play us for fools. I am very sorry to hear that. However, it would be better if the thanks were official and from your government. It wouldn’t take much effort.”
“She will be gone soon.”
“To be replaced by another nonentity? Is that poor woman still incarcerated?”
“She will be released soon. Her uncle is applying the full weight of the law against the government, from the Republic of Ireland to get round the D-Notice. He’s going after individuals. The Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff are in his sights.”
Korovin sighed, “Alan, please don’t think that I’m being impertinent, but when did your country start to go so far off track?”
“I think the rot started in the 1960s, the left’s march through the institutions, particularly in the Home Office and education. It accelerated in the 1990s when the politicians removed the checks and balances that are required for a civilised society. Then the Leaders forgot how to lead, the clergy forgot about God, the judiciary forgot about blind justice and the media forgot how to be journalists. I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back.”
“And yet you remain a man of principle and honour.”
“But not popularity. My name is mud around Vauxhall Cross. I’m afraid that you and I are a dying breed from another time,” Bartlett stood up, “I must get on. I’m glad your staffer makes you happy. We should grab whatever happiness while we can, because life is so bloody, short and unpredictable. Thank you again, Vanya.”
“Alan, promise me one thing?”
“The next time your politicians have one of their really good ideas, keep it to yourself.”
Korovin watched him go and his staffer came over, bored with the ducks.
“Mashenka, I think that we deserve a holiday. Have you ever been to the Scottish Highlands?”
“Then we should leave on Saturday. Perhaps on the way up we can stop over at Dumbarton and see if any of their submariners are being indiscrete.”
“I’d like that, Vanya.”
Melbury Lodge is based at the back of the Royal Hampshire County Hospital site in Winchester and has functional mental health wards for adults (for illnesses such as depression, a personality disorder or schizophrenia), plus a specialist mother and baby unit. Melbury Lodge is a secure Mental Health Unit.
The man wearing dark glasses was behind the wheel of a Volvo SUV and he watched the woman walk out of the gates. He was shocked at her demeanour. She looked so thin and drawn, walking with a slight stoop. Her once glowing hair seemed dry and lifeless. She looked around nervously almost fearfully and carried a small holdall. It contained all her worldly possessions. The man groaned quietly with infinite sadness and thought of the quotation attributed to Prometheus from the poem The Masque of Pandora: Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad.
The woman looked at a piece of paper that had the phone numbers of local taxi firms. She had no idea where she was going and thought about Beachy Head, which wasn’t too far away. It would be over with quite quickly and she hoped the tide would take her mangled body out to sea, to avoid upsetting anyone who found it. She hoped it would never be found. The man in the Volvo took his glasses off and drove slowly towards her. He lowered the passenger door’s window and she gave a start of terror as she looked into the car.
“Hello, Cécile. I’ve really missed you.”
“Phillips?” She turned to walk away.
“Please, Cécile. Get in the car.”
“Why should I?” She was nearly shouting, “Where were you. Not once did you come to visit me while I was in there. Nobody did. Nearly a year and no one came! Not even my damned mother!”
“I tried to, but they wouldn’t let me. They said you were violent.” He knew what they had done to her. She had been kept in a chemically induced, zombie state with the medication and he suspected she had been subjected to electro-convulsive therapy. This had absolutely nothing to do with her mental health. She had known unequivocally what she was doing and was totally compos mentis when she did it. She was wreaking revenge and she had been Némésis. And the State, particularly a vindictive Prime Minister and a weak and vacillating Defence Secretary had wanted their revenge. This was nothing less than State terror and torture, used against a relatively lowly Crown servant who had defied them. The Soviet State apparatus would have been so proud of them. Reluctantly she got into the car.
“You were too busy whooping it up with your Army pals, while I was rotting in there.”
“I am through with the Army,” he told her gently, “I resigned as soon as I saw how the Armed Forces treated one of their own. I have lobbied veterans groups, as well as your and my local MPs to secure your release, with little success. When we were together in the Islamabad High Commission, you mentioned your uncle, just as Uncle Horace. Now I was a military copper and everyone has heard of Horace Cutler, the squaddie’s friend. I went to visit him in Lincoln and told him everything that had happened.
“We found out the government had put a D-Notice on everything to do with the operation and that you were being kept incommunicado. I was threatened with arrest as well for speaking with your uncle. Your uncle went after the Defence Secretary personally for abuse of power in public office. That’s why he was forced to resign, nothing to do with leaking information. But don’t worry, He’s being well looked after to buy his silence, because he threatened to bring the PM down with him. We even went to the European Courts of Justice. They were quite prepared to let you rot in there while they drove you mad. Over a year ago I made a solemn vow to protect you from harm, even at the expense of my own life. We don’t make these vows lightly and they don’t time expire. I will keep you safe, now and forever.”
She suddenly burst into tears and reached across and hugged him. Her sobs were wracking and terrible in their intensity. He gently stroked her hair while she slowly got herself back together.
“You broke my front tooth,” she wailed.
“And saved your life.”
“I hated you for that. What am I going to do? Where the hell am I going to go?”
“You can come and stay with me. There’s plenty of room and it’s nice and quiet, a piece of old Gloucestershire. We’ll take things slowly and think and you can get your life back on track.”
“I can never go back to the bar,” she said with a trace of rancour, “They struck me off.”
“There are plenty of other jobs out there, for a woman of your undoubted talents.”
“Why are you doing this, Mr Phillips?” she asked, looking at him intently.
“Because I love you, Cécile Hammond. It’s as simple as that.”
She was silent as she let this sink in. Cécile looked sideways at him, “Really? I always thought you were rather a cold fish, Mr Phillips and that you didn’t like me very much. Why and when?”
“Belgium, it was then that I knew and I don’t believe you have a choice in such matters, they just happen.”
“And you never let on. I wish you had of done, because I had become very fond of you during our time together in the High Commission. How could you be so stiff and formal all the time?”
“Because we had a job to do. And we did it, or rather you did. Did you intend to do it from the word go?” he asked.
“Yes, as soon as I saw the hideous things they did to Emma. But I wanted to kill Daffi Hashmi the most and he made it easy for me. I’m overjoyed that the other two bastards got what was coming to them. Emma and I, we were in love you know.”
“I do now. I knew there was more than simple revenge to your actions.”
“So are you happy that I’m a bit ambivalent on my sexual preferences?”
“I would never assume your gender or sexuality,” he said with a wry smile, “And my happiness doesn’t come into it. I ask for nothing in return. Whatever will be will be, Miss Hammond.”
“You are a truly wonderful man, Mr Phillips. What is your Christian name?”
He looked embarrassed, “Heathcliff,” he said quietly. “My mother was a huge Wuthering Heights fan. However, I am not, particularly after that bloody Kate Bush song.”
Cécile gasped and then started to laugh. Her laughter lifted their spirits and somehow, they both knew that it was going to be OK.
“In that case, take me home please, Heathcliff.”
“I will save you from the Hooded Claw. Keep the vampire from our door,” he affirmed and they drove off, heading north.
Just under three years later, Cécile announced to Phillips that she would be going to the Midlands for one, perhaps two days depending on the weather, to give closure to recent events. She promised to tell him all about it when she came back and her being away for a short time would give him opportunity to spend some quality time with their young son. He had learned it was best not to argue with her.
“Please just trust me, Mr Phillips. It’s something I swore that I would do and I have to.” She always addressed her husband formally because he hated his Christian name.
She left the following morning and headed north on the M5, skirting Birmingham to the south on the M42, then the M6 Toll Road. She picked up the A38 and followed the signs for the National Memorial Arboretum and parked. Inside the grounds she headed straight for the white circular walls of the Armed Forces Memorial that stood on its mound like an Iron Age hill fort. She followed the carved names round by year to 2014 and found what she was looking for. Two names had been added at the bottom of the list, starkly fresh carvings. But one of them she reached up and traced the carved letters with her fingers, like she was caressing a thing of beauty. Carved in the stone was: Flight Lieutenant Emma Halling – Syria – November 2014 – No known grave.
It was almost deserted within the walls and bitterly cold with a few snow flurries. Cécile was crying as she looked at the names, “I told you I’d get him, Emma, and I did. Rest peacefully in your lonely grave, but I’ll never forget you.”
She went and sat on a stone bench and a mother and her young daughter came in and the child skipped past, staring at the sitting woman intently, then went to pull on her mother’s sleeve.
“Mummy. That lady’s crying,” she whispered loudly in childish innocence.
“Shhh. This is a sad place. Perhaps she knew someone whose name is on the walls.”
Cécile smiled despite her grief, stood up and walked back towards the car park. In the distance she could hear the dredger from the nearby gravel pits. Just near the entrance building she felt a sudden lurch with little kicks inside her and stopped.
“Steady on. Stay in there where it’s warm and safe. There’s plenty of time for you to find out just how wonderful and bloody awful life can be.”
Mr Phillips had kept his promise to look after her with the added bonus that he was rather good at making her pregnant, so clearly he was no “Jaffa.” He had never made any attempt to “cure” her of the Sapphic elements of her sexuality. He had just been there with kindness, love and understanding and they had fallen into each other like it had been the most natural thing in the world. He had prevailed at naming their son Ross, after the character in Macbeth. But Cécile knew that this time she was carrying a girl and she would be baptised Emma Phillips. She smiled to herself, wrapped her coat around them and walked back to the rest of her life.
She had a long conversation with death, pleading with him to take her. Her version of death was a young, extremely handsome, blonde man who wore a cowl like a Catholic monk. He seemed to forgotten to bring his scythe. Death smiled sadly at her and shook his head, telling her it was not yet her time and she must bare the physical and mental pain of life for a little longer. There was still much for her to do and a child to bring into the world. Afarin Khan finally woke up in the Critical Care Ward of the Nairobi Hospital and started to gag. A nurse held her hand while the critical care team removed the tubes that had been ventilating her and keeping her alive. It hurt a great deal and the caring nurse comforted her patient. Afarin coughed and there was some blood as well as a searing pain in her right chest, where the 7.62 rounds had entered and exited her body after ploughing through her right lung. But there was no infection.
She was an extremely poor patient and the road to rehabilitation was a long and agonizing one. Timothy visited her twice and she held his hand and cried, knowing he had saved her life. But she was sharp and brusque with the nursing and physiotherapy staff, who could be equally sharp and brusque in return. Only the young nurse from the Embu tribe genuinely liked Afarin and often sat with her, something that would have been impossible in an NHS hospital of today. The young nurse recognised that there was something tortured within her patient’s soul and she understood. Afarin was bitter at the loss of her lower right arm and the constant pain in a limb that no longer existed and in her chest. She would curse God and fate.
Bartlett ensured there was a chartered aircraft with a private medical team laid on to repatriate Afarin when she was finally fit enough to fly. As she left the hospital, Afarin embraced the nurse who had been kind enough to listen to her as she unburdened her soul. The nurse gave her a piece of paper.
“This may help you. It will not provide the answers, but it will serve you well as guide when things seem as though they will overwhelm you. May God walk in step with you Afarin Khan.”
On the trip to the airport Afarin looked at the piece of paper, on which was printed a simple prayer.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him Forever and ever in the next.
St Thomas Aquinas attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr
This is dedicated to AK, the bravest of the brave.
That’s all folks.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file