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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Borders

6 December 1987
Greg Mosse

For most of my childhood I didn’t live in fear. You don’t when you are small. But you become aware of it later, as you grow up and the world begins to show its teeth.
On 6 December 1987, we were driving home from work across the border in our old Mercedes. I used to wash it to earn my pocket money. Later, battered and scratched, I still tried to look after it out of respect for my father – because it was important to him.

There were four people in the car. Me, of course, with my books. I sat in the back with a cousin we called Filfil - pepper. His hair was a curly mop, frizzed with grey. So was his moustache that hung like a rag under his long hooked nose. My father had to take Filfil to work or his family could go hungry. When my father needed proper help, I went with him, even during school days.

In the front was a man we picked up on the road. The man had no coat and his wrists were thin, sticking bonily out beyond the thin red sleeves of his sweat shirt. His neck was swaddled up in a luxurious checked scarf, his face clean shaven and his hair well combed. Filfil – who was sitting in front at the time – told my father to ignore his waving arms and drive on, that it was dangerous. But my father paid no attention and pulled up alongside him in the dust.
‘Are you lost, friend? There are no buses here.’
‘Where are you going?’ Filfil called out.
‘I am going to –’
‘I don’t need to know where you are going, brother,’ said my father. Then he fake-slapped Filfil on the shoulder with the back of his fingers. ‘Get in the back with the boy. Get over the back and make room for a brother in need.’
Filfil climbed through the gap between the seats, slumping down next to me. He smelt like laundry that has been left wet too long.

The man thanked my father politely and got into the car. He did so gingerly and I leaned forward to see why – his feet were bloody. My father asked him: ‘Have you been walking long, my friend, on the hard ground?’
‘I was working for a settler. He was unsatisfied with my labour and took my shoes and my coat.’
My father nodded as if this was to be expected. ‘Then you will come with us as far as you need. Do you have papers?’ The man took out his wallet and showed my father who nodded again. ‘Yes, we can take you across.’
‘Thank you, may God bless you. This is a fine car.’
Everybody loved and admired that car. Parts were expensive and it was not economical to run, but my father didn’t care. He said it was reliable and the boot was huge for transporting tools and materials.

We pulled away. The heater was turned up high. The going was slow as my father tried to avoid the deepest pot holes. I was tired and at first half-slept, like a contented dog on a warm mat. Then the lurching of the old Mercedes began to make me feel sick. I pressed the button to open the window.
‘What are you doing? This man is chilled like a carcass in the slaughterhouse. His feet have been walking the cold earth with nothing to protect them but the calluses on his heels.’
‘I’m sorry, Baba.’
I pressed the button but the window only moved the width of my little finger then stuck. I had to press my palm against the glass and use friction to help it close.

We passed a beautiful house left intact by the fighting. There was even a stretch of fence with flowers growing through it – flowers that bloomed in December, with purple petals and black centres. Beside the house a bulldozer was parked and two soldiers leaned against it smoking. They stopped talking and watched us go by. The man with the bloody feet fidgeted in his seat and Filfil mumbled an insult under his breath – always the same one, to do with impotence and frigid wives. We went on another kilometre, almost to the checkpoint.

We trundled forwards until we joined the back of a queue of six or seven cars. Usually, the checkpoint soldiers looked at several vehicles at once then let them through together in a group. My father turned off the engine to wait. He and the stranger talked about the price of water filters and building materials. Filfil got out to smoke a cigarette, leaning against the window. His grey work trousers were split in the seat. I looked the other way.

Hidden from the border control by a small section of broken-down wall, there was a small boy. He wore a red jacket with cheap nylon fur trimming that I could see quite clearly in the perfect winter air. He was facing away from me and kept shambling back and forth behind the wall, as if practising a run up. As he lolloped about, I thought he looked like a clown, his trainers too big, flapping ridiculously at the end of his thin legs. I had an idea I recognised him. I think I knew then that something terrible was going to happen.

The boy peered round the wall and darted a glance at the soldiers. They were busy checking the papers of the cars at the front of the line. He scampered out and half shuffled and half ran across the dusty open ground straight towards me. He crouched down just outside my window. I looked into the boy’s eyes. He gazed up at me with a stupid expression of sly complicity. His skin was thin and drawn. His lips were chapped with cold in the December wind. His eyes ran and drips like tears drew lines down the dust on his cheeks. I recognised him.

People called him Mutassif because he was always sorry. At first it was just the local children but then it was everybody. Children always say exactly what they see and adults are too busy to find time to correct everything, especially the important small things. His mother beat him.
I waved at him to go away. He grinned at me. There was a roar of diesel engine and an armoured personnel carrier came droning past the little line of cars. My father and the stranger fell silent and Mutassif cowered down. I watched the APC park up at the barriers, saw the cold dust sprayed up into a cloud by its tyres then watched it begin to settle. I saw Mutassif weighing something in his hand, a lump of concrete or stone, testing its mass against the strength in his arm, feeling for the distance he could throw it.
‘No!’ I mouthed to him through the glass. I shook my head and wagged my finger from side to side. ‘No!’
Before he could do anything, the checkpoint soldiers started shouting all at once. They wanted us out of our cars where they could see us. ‘Now! Out! Right now!’
We did so, the four of us standing around the Mercedes like pall bearers about a coffin. Men and women climbed from the other vehicles. Mutassif crouched slyly behind me. We all watched the APC.
On top of the vehicle, there was a rocket propelled grenade launcher. The team of two gunners shinned up and aimed the launcher across the frontier. Their target was an area of residential streets. They covered their ears as it was fired. There was an abrupt whoomph from the barrel and a hiss as the grenade arced through the air. I heard Filfil curse again, then there was the falling cymbal noise of the detonation, muffled by distance. A moment later, a plume of smoke rose from the impact.
There was a pause, like a baby taking a deep breath before weeping. Then we heard a high keening ululation carried thinly on the harsh air. Soon, two other voices from the short queue of cars had joined it in impotent despair. From the streets of the suburb came futile blasts of automatic weapons being fired at nothing by people we probably knew and who ought to know better. I felt myself shorten my neck, cringing from the violence.
Mutassif ran round the back of the car.
‘Mutassif, no!’ I shouted.
My father turned round, wondering what was happening. He watched as Mutassif ran straight out in front of him. The boy swung his puny arm and launched his lump of stone just as one of the border crossing soldiers turned towards the noise. The stone arced through the air in a weak parody of the RPG and struck a glancing blow on the soldier’s right thigh. He immediately opened fire, the rattle of his automatic weapon painfully loud. The first few shells hit the road, then I saw Mutassif lifted off his feet and thrown onto his back in the dust. In the same volley, two bullets struck my father, one in the left shoulder and the other just below his left eye, removing a third of his skull and pasting an obscene spray of brain matter across the windscreen of the Mercedes. When I reached him, he was already a corpse.
Did the soldier kill him or was it Mutassif who caused the disaster? The crossing soldiers hurried us through as the APC drove away. To preserve the interior of the car he loved, we took my father’s body over in the boot. I sat next to him. The man with the bloodstained feet wore his shoes to drive. Every time we went through a pothole, the open boot lid bounced and struck me on the back of my head.

My father was a charitable man and he was respected, but he wasn’t well liked and his funeral was not important politically. We buried him the same day. It was a family affair and painfully lonely. I don’t know what happened to Mutassif.

Two days later, on 8 December 1987, I was cleaning the Mercedes when an army truck deliberately rammed a passenger car off the road into a ditch, killing four more Gazans and injuring some shoppers. At the joint funeral, there was political chanting and stones were thrown, quickly developing into an organised protest that we now call the intifada. Its purpose is to achieve respect.

© Greg Mosse February 2009
gregmosse at

Greg is an accomplished writer with a strong interest in crime writing and lecturer in Creative Writing

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