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“Mali?” I repeated, feeling my chest tighten. I stood up.
“I know! I had to look it up in the atlas and all, but it’s a real place alright. Nothing but desert and oil from what I could gather...and Timbuktu! Can you believe that? Darryl’s just down the road from Timbuktu!”
“Oh shit,” I groaned, my eyes fixed on the television.
“Summat wrong pet?” Darryl’s mother asked from the other side of the Atlantic.
I stared at the Breaking Story banner on the screen: Attack on BP Refinery in Mali.
“You alright love?” she asked.
“Mrs. Sifton, if you’re near a TV, turn on CNN or Sky News or whatever. There’s something happening in Mali, something you should see.”
“I’m out walking on the High Street. But I’ll be poppin’ in at the café in a few. Is summat the matter? What’s goin’ on?”
“I’m not really sure myself, it’s just... well there’s something on the news. Something about an attack in Mali, and I got...”
“What? You got what? Is Darryl alright? Is he okay?”
“I don’t know Mrs. Sifton, really, I don’t know... It’s breaking news, all of this. No one knows anything.” I was pacing back and forth now.
“Then why are you calling me? You said you didn’t even know Darryl was in Mali? Christ! Will you please tell me what is goin’ on?” She was pleading now.
In the silence that followed, I had an overpowering urge to hang up the phone. It was dawning on me that her son — my big, burly English friend from the oil patch — was most likely dead. In my mind’s eye I could picture his body, lying there, alongside the whispering woman and a shattered cell phone. In that instant, I couldn’t help but hate that Chinese woman for picking up Darryl’s phone and involving me in all this. What could she possibly have hoped to achieve? She’d been terrified, not making sense. I remembered the daughter she mentioned. No one wants to die alone, I thought.
A primal sound escaped through my clenched teeth, the kind of noise a weightlifter makes, hoisting too much at once. I thought of my own son, and the torment that I was putting this poor woman through. Hanging up was not an option. I’d instigated this, and now I owed her the truth, or at least some kind of explanation.
“Tell me, please. What’s happened?” she said, almost calmly.
“I’m sorry, this is all so totally messed up. I think something bad might have happened to Darryl.”
“Why? What do you know?”
“I got a weird phone call a while back. I’m pretty sure it was some lady in Mali. She was terrified and I could hear shooting. I think she was calling from Darryl’s phone, then the line went... it got cut off. That’s all I can tell you for sure. Honestly, that’s all I know.”
“Oh my God! But... you’re not sure, one way or the other, if my son’s alright?”
“I don’t know anything for sure, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry to have even called you.”
“No. No, thank you for phoning. It can’t have been easy. Look, Aaron, I’d better ring off now, and start making... some arrangements... find out exactly what’s happened.”
“Okay then... and Mrs. Sifton, I’m really sorry.”
“Thanks. Goodbye now.”
A series of beeps told me that she’d hung up. I sat back down and ran two sweating palms upwards through my hair. The TV was showing grainy cell phone footage of black smoke rising over a flaming oil facility. Ordinarily the scene would barely have registered — just more carnage and chaos in a desert somewhere. Now though, I stared transfixed, knowing with absolute certainty that somewhere beneath that smoke lay the body of my friend, Darryl, beside a woman who I would never know, a woman whose whispers would haunt me forever.
I turned off the television, then powered off the laptop. I switched off my phone and sat there in the darkness, hoping for dawn.