Registering makes it easy to save your favourite writers, organisations and articles. You can also join over 250 participants in our online discussion area and contribute your expertise to the ILS conversation.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form
James Meek was born in London and grew up in Scotland. During the 1990s he lived in Kiev and Moscow.
James has published five novels and two short story collections. His novel The People's Act of Love won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the SAC Book of the Year Award, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and has been published in more than thirty countries.
His journalism has won British and international awards. James is a contributing editor to the London Review of Books.
His first book of non-fiction, Private Island, won the 2015 Orwell Prize.
It’d been midsummer in the north and the sun scarcely set. They’d spent their nights suffused in red and gold. Although Katerina was by some way the most beautiful person at the wedding, this was not meaningful in the evening light; in the radiance all human shapes and skins seemed to realise a dearly-held intention implicit in their being. Pat, Sophie, Kellas, Katerina, Rab, his bride Leslie and the artist Hephzibah Cooper lay in the long grass by the standing stones, listening to the insects, tickling each other with sedge and talking nonsense about the universe and the islands. When the wind blew it was warm and carried the smell of peat and salt water. Kellas spent a long time gazing at the thin gold chain on the back of Katerina’s neck while Hephzibah talked about how the stones went three yards underground, and somebody asked her how she knew, and she said Rab had told her, and Rab denied it. The voices and laughter came to Kellas through the waving seed heads and he listened, waiting for the next dart of wind to move Katerina’s hair and for her to put it back in place.
The party was held in and around a barn, decorated with the farmer father-in-law’s real hay and with the father-in-law’s ponies saddled and haltered for the guests to ride. The guests had been instructed to dress Western. Kellas and Katerina wore jeans and checked shirts, with cowboy hats and sheriff’s stars from a toy shop in Kirkwall. Sophie had found hand-stitched boots, an embroidered shirt, a bootlace tie and a real Stetson; Pat glowered as Pancho Villa, with bandoliers and a sombrero and a plastic moustache six inches wide. The band played till two and Katerina danced with a guest dressed as a cactus. Only his face showed, the costume was entirely rigid, and halfway through the Gay Gordons, he fell over and rolled around the floor, kicking his feet like an overturned beetle.
By four a.m. the sun was well above the horizon and Kellas, Katerina, M’Gurgan, Sophie, Hephzibah, Rab and Leslie were drinking on the floor in the front room of Leslie’s house. Somebody had asked M’Gurgan what Kellas’s parents’ place was like and M’Gurgan had asked whether they’d heard about the cat. He had the storyteller’s beckoning smile on him as he said it and when he said to Kellas ‘You tell the story’, Kellas said ‘No, you do it.’
‘We’ve come back from the pub,’ said M’Gurgan, ‘and we’re sitting in the kitchen. All the women have already gone upstairs and Adam’s dad comes in all ready for bed, which is quite an operation. He spends an hour patrolling the house making sure everything’s switched off, the doors are double locked, the heating’s turned up to tropical. The lasers are primed. You know, stakes coming out of the walls to impale intruders. So he’s done his rounds, and he’s standing there in an Albanian dressing gown and a tasselled cap from Uzbekistan, which he only wears when Adam’s there ’cause that’s what Adam gives him for presents when he comes back from one of his assignments to shitholes. And Adam’s dad says to us: “Can you make sure, if the cat comes in, you don’t let it out again?” And he shows us how to lock the cat door, and off he goes to bed. The allotted task seems simple enough, and we go on talking. Couple of whiskies. After a while there’s this sound from the back door. Now I’ve heard cats come through cat doors before. I have experience, and I know, they’re very lithe creatures. It doesn’t matter how big they look; they slip through that little opening with just a wee clatter, and they’re in. But this sound is different. It isn’t a clatter. We hear the “clat”, and we’re waiting . . . and there’s no “ter”. So we go and take a look. The cat is gigantic! It’s the size of a sheep. And it’s stuck halfway through the cat door, with its head and front legs through, and its hind legs and arse hanging out the back. It looks like a lion that’s tried to jump through a quoit. So I ask Adam what the hell this Gargantua is and he says his parents have only just got the animal, this is the first time he’s seen it. So we open the door, and the cat just moves with it, like this. Then Adam goes outside, and we close the door, and he puts his hands on the cat’s arse and pushes, and I take the cat’s front legs in my hands and start to pull. And Adam keeps saying “Don’t hurt him!” and I’m trying to pull delicately, and the cat looks at me very calmly and sinks its claws into my hands. Deep. I jump back and bang my head and start cursing the cat and Adam says “Not so loud, my dad’s a light sleeper.” I’m trying to staunch the blood from my wounds and then I see it’s looking bad with the cat. It’s making these little panting sounds, like two voles fucking. I imagine. Meanwhile Adam’s getting really agitated and I have an idea: we’ll use some butter to grease the cat. Adam starts rooting around and all he can find is a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. And this is when I know the kind of lifestyle he has because he starts drizzling the olive oil over the cat. You know – like it’s a rocket salad. I’m waiting for him to start shaving the Parmesan. So I massage the oil into the cat’s skin and we take our positions again, he pushes, I pull, the cat screams blue murder and it just shoots out of the cat door and into the kitchen. The next thing is Adam’s father comes storming in, in his Lebanese night attire, shouting at us for all the noise we’re making. We explain that the cat got stuck in the cat door. Adam’s dad looks down at this enormous mutant cat, panting on the floor, its paws covered in my blood and its belly all smeared in extra virgin olive oil like some avant garde north London starter, and he says: “I’ve never seen this animal before in my life!”’
On the plane, Kellas laughed out loud. McGurgan had still been wearing the false moustache when he was telling the story. A cold hard bolt shot into Kellas’s laughter and he felt the muscles around his mouth flatten and his lips closed. After what had happened, after what he had done, it didn’t seem possible he could ever be in a room with the M’Gurgans again.
The Boeing rolled back off the stand. From where Kellas was sitting, so close to the front, the moan of the engines when the crew spun them up sounded far away. Once the aircraft was turned round and began to move forward under its own power, Kellas felt the shame start to melt inside him. They joined the queue of aircraft waiting to use the runway. Tall tailfins moved across each other like sails crowding a harbour, and the narrow strips of cockpit window darkened and twinkled in the sun like the frowns of racing beings before the charge to speed. When the 747 carrying Kellas swung into the compass degrees at the start of the runway, and the sound of a sudden rush of burning kerosene into engines the size of blast furnaces reached his ears remote and muffled, like thunder in the next county, his shame at what he had done was almost gone. When the aircraft accelerated and he was pressed into his seat and the frame of the 747 shook a little and glasses in the galley chattered together like crystal teeth, the shame vanished, and when the aircraft parted from the ground, the faces and sounds of the night before in Camden stayed there. The old island had shed him to the mercies of the air like a gnarled tree shedding a dot of blossom and although he was still as doomed as anyone his doom had a vector and a velocity taking him away from the witnesses to what he had done.
The aircraft banked as it climbed. Kellas looked through the window and back to the wings. He liked to watch them bend, flap a little at the wingtips, as they took the strain of turning the big ugly jumbo through the thick air, and streaks of vapour like smoke shoot from the leading edge. The sky was crowded, the pilot told them, and they would level out low over the West Country for a while before they climbed to the high cold of the transatlantic jetway.
On the lands below there were shawls of frost on the rises, and lines of snow in the shadows unmelted from a week ago. Britain held a baseline greenness even in midwinter. Distance conferred mystery on the place, on any place. From here you couldn’t tell it was an island; it had a scale to it, a rumpled, hazy majesty. One thing that happened from ten thousand feet was that people only existed on the ground if you imagined them. Kellas could make out the half-legible Braille of villages and farms down there, but he couldn’t imagine the people in them. From this height, it was easier to place King Arthur in the mist lapping at the Welsh marches, and Titania and Oberon bowered by those fluffy copses, than to populate the market towns with the real millions, one by one. The best you could hope for from a stranger looking down, an American or Arab or African who’d never visited the island, was that they’d take it for more than Airstrip One; more than the lounge where Elvis meets Tintin when each is on his way to somewhere else. That they’d construct some decent facsimile of life below in the grass, brick and grey stone, perceive the human grain making up the fabric of the view. Otherwise what could the eye see as it looked down on a strange land from so high, except history instead of yesterday, prophecy instead of tomorrow, and a today that was either a view, or a target.
It was from about this height that the F-18 pilots would have looked down on the Shomali plain, between Kabul and Jabal os Saraj at the mouth of the Panjshir. Ten thousand feet was as high as a Stinger could rise to shoot them down, and none ever had been shot down. The pilots had left the air-conditioned cabins of their aircraft carriers, flown over Pakistan into Afghanistan and tattooed the earth with bombs, then flown home for a meal and a shower. They were still doing it. Hitting was also a kind of touching. But if hitting was the only kind of touching you did, you would damage the one you touched so badly that, by the time you came to embrace them, they would recoil from you.
The pilots had seen what they did from afar. They could not land. There had always been the distance. America reached out for thousands of miles and its sense of touch stopped three miles short. It threw the bombs, and pulled away again. It wasn’t entirely a matter of retribution, strong as the passion of vengeance was then. There was curiosity in that reach, and a kind of regret. In any act of hurting there remained the ghost of intimacy. Like the nineteen martyrs whose suicide had summoned them to Afghanistan, the American pilots showed that the power they represented was great and their cause irresistible. They were not afraid to kill or die. Yet no fulfilment lay in the destruction without a moment of understanding, an instant when all the bomber imagined about those he bombed, all his spite and defiance towards his imagined victims, converged with their forced embrace of death. When the bomber understood whom he was killing and the bombed understood whom they were being killed by, and they became one. In Afghanistan Kellas had wondered when this moment of union and consummation came. Was it the instant the hijackers saw the glass of the towers fill the cockpit windows, and the office workers saw a rush of darkness eat the light? The moment their bodies were vapourised together in an incandescent bloom of jet fuel, and their consciousnesses lingered just long enough to understand? When the Taliban tasted the dust kicked up by the American bombs falling around them, or when America and America’s pilots saw the explosions of those bombs on their screens?
Kellas had watched the jets jinking over the mud walls, irrigation channels and mulberry groves at the northern end of the plain. Once he had almost trod on a mine, following the sharky twists of the plane against the blue and not looking where he was walking. The sound of the F-18’s engines had drowned out the shouts of his colleagues, warning him that he was straying from the marked path. The F-18s were pretty accurate, on the whole. They killed and maimed the Taliban, as they were intended to. Every so often, though, they fucked up.
There’d been a night when they’d heard that the Americans had bombed an Alliance village by mistake. The reporters and photographers in Jabal were bored and tetchy because the war was everywhere and nowhere, like God; they were telling their editors that they believed in it but they seldom heard it, let alone saw it, apart from the sound of the planes and the columns of smoke on the horizon. It was late October. All of them expected a stalemate on through Ramadan, Hanukah and Christmas, to the very Year of the Horse. The rumour of deaths in a friendly village nearby, with the wounded taken to an Italian charity hospital in the Panjshir, gave them hope for a story.
Kellas glanced at the seatbelt sign. It was still lit. They were climbing again, over the Irish Sea. If he couldn’t remember every word and look of Astrid’s, what value did this journey to Virginia have now? He’d written to her, but she had not written to him, or called. A year had passed. He knew that he wanted to see her but to know what it was in her he wanted to see he could only delve back into the weeks in Afghanistan and sort through the jumble of her humours. They had fucked together and they had killed together and he did not know her.
On the night after the bombing he’d seen the sudden joy of leadership in her. The kind of leader that hopeless local rebellions threw up, or partisan bands, or complicated games of children, quick, eager and right. In Astrid the leader, charisma consisted of the natural balance of leading and needing to be followed. The journalists’ regular drivers had knocked off with the lateness of the hour and it was Astrid who organised a Toyota minibus to take them up to the hospital in the Panjshir before midnight. She’d turned to Kellas, who wasn’t sure where he stood, and said: ‘Want to come?’ She cocked her head to one side and raised her eyebrows and smiled and Kellas nodded. He remembered what she wore: the red woollen jumper, a little frayed at the hem, with the black scarf and too-big black anorak and jeans, and the black suede boots with toes that were almost pointed. When it was awkward for her to have her head uncovered she wore the scarf over it, or tucked her hair into a pakul hat. It flopped out.
Kellas and Astrid sat at the back of the minibus. In front of them two photographers were talking in French. The moon was bright enough for the silhouette of the mountains to be clear against the sky. There were no artificial lights on the plain or in the streets of the town. The mud buildings reflected the moon. Their walls seemed to glow with a faint phosphorescence, as if they were made of lunar material, and their glassless windows were dark as cavemouths. The Toyota hammered past the silent unpowered houses like the eyes of an atheist skimming the Koran.
‘My newspaper doesn’t give me the space to write that it’s beautiful here,’ said Kellas.