THE ENCROACHING SAND by Jim Mountfield
A mysterious noise, like a thunderclap, woke McCready up. He got out of bed sensing something was wrong. Under his feet he felt grits of sand that’d crept in beneath the doors and curtains from the veranda.
The bedroom contained half a dozen items of clunky, chintzy Arabic furniture but still seemed cavernously big and empty. McCready remembered standing there late last night, trying to remember if there was one last thing he should do before he went to bed. One last important thing.
Treading on a patina of sand, he went to the bedside locker and picked up his phone. The time on its screen was 7.43. Ahmed had arranged to collect him and several others at 7.30. He thumbed the screen to ‘clock’ and then ‘alarm’. It’d been set for 6.45 but the timer box beside it was unticked. That was what he’d tried and failed to remember last night. To set his phone alarm.
“Nine hundred and ninety nine times out of a thousand,” he groaned, “I’d have fucking remembered.”
He blundered out of the room. Even at the doorway his feet landed on specks of sand that’d penetrated right across the floor.
He entered the living room, which offered a better phone signal than the bedroom. One wall was almost hidden by a monstrous article of furniture that was a combined sideboard, cabinet and set of shelves. A long table with eight chairs parked around it occupied the middle of a rug with a Harlequin pattern of black and white diamonds. Despite these, the room felt even emptier and more cavernous than the previous one.
He called Cargill. “I missed Ahmed this morning.”
“The 7.30 bus. I’ve missed it.”
“They didn’t wait for you?”
“You know Ahmed. Waits for no man. The opposite of every stereotype about Arab unpunctuality.”
“And nobody thought of calling you?”
“Apparently not.” He assumed that was because nobody on the bus liked him much but he didn’t say it.
“That’s a pain. When can you be here by?”
“Soon. I’ll get the Suzuki out of the garage. Should be at the refinery before nine if I step on it.” Then he thought of something. “Only…”
Cargill guessed the problem. “Yeah, you and a few of the guys were at that archaeologist’s place last night. What’s his name? Kristof? I heard he was holding a little soiree with some homebrew that he’d cooked up in his bathtub.”
McCready sighed. “I should be okay, Jack. I didn’t drink that much. I couldn’t. Kristof’s homebrew was vile. And even if it’s still in my system and I’m slightly over the limit, it’s not like I’ll be driving conspicuously. Not by the standards of this country’s traffic. They haven’t touched alcohol in their lives and yet they drive like maniacs...”
Cargill’s voice was calm but McCready discerned a note of disappointment. “No, no. Best not to chance it. Give yourself a few more hours. I don’t think we’re so busy here this morning. Besides…” McCready heard the sound of venetian blinds being hoisted up. “Have you looked out of the window? It’s blowy. Lots of sand flying about.”
McCready had turned on the room’s air con but above its purr the wind was audible, clawing its way around the apartment building.
“Jack. I will make up the time I miss this morning—”
“I’ll see you later on. Just drive carefully when you do venture out. Okay?”
McCready sank down by the table. By now he’d noticed an ache in his head, caused by Kristof’s homebrew. He ached with humiliation too. He anticipated the reactions of his colleagues, the likes of Schulz and Dobson and Russo, all those unprofessional bums and chancers for whom he’d never tried to hide his disdain. Last night, they’d guzzled twice as much of Kristof’s booze as he had. But he’d bet his life savings that all of them, hungover, had made it onto Ahmed’s bus at 7.30. And they’d be laughing into their sleeves when he showed up at the refinery late.
He placed his phone on the tabletop, noticed a few sand grains scattered over its faux mahogany surface and swiped them away.
“Right,” he said, “sobering up time.”
He returned to the bedroom and got dressed. The floor there felt sandier than ever. Then he headed for the kitchen, the only room in the apartment that didn’t look oversized because it was long and narrow and packed with cupboards and appliances. Intending to make coffee, he carried the kettle to the water purifier at the room’s end. He felt a familiar grittiness under his sock soled feet as he turned the purifier’s tap.
In the corner beside him was a door opening into another veranda. A fan of sand, thick enough to hide the kitchen’s floor tiles, spread from its bottom. McCready opened the door, curious to see what condition the second veranda was in.
The apartment was on the ground floor. When the landlord had learnt a Western oil company was seeking accommodation for its employees, he’d sealed the verandas by fitting window frames and frosted glass between the tops of the waist high walls that enclosed them and the undersides of the balconies above. Westerners, he’d reasoned, would value the extra privacy. McCready had hung a dartboard at the veranda’s opposite end and, during his days off, would spend hours flinging darts at it.
Now sand carpeted the floor from the door to the dartboard.
“Jesus,” he marvelled. Sand did get past the landlord’s makeshift windowing, but he hadn’t expected such an accumulation since the last time he’d swept here.
He figured physical labour might clear his head more effectively than coffee, so he fetched a broom, pan and bin bags and swept the kitchen veranda clean. In the process he filled one bin bag. Then he went to the veranda by his bedroom and was shocked to find the sand there ankle deep. While he cleared it too, he heard a series of distant bangs punctuating the moan of the wind outside. His compound was still under construction and he assumed this was the builders hammering at something in a half finished block.
Though the bedroom veranda was only half as big as the kitchen one, he’d filled two more bin bags by the time he was finished. Sweat oozed out of him. Hopefully, he’d secreted some of Kristof’s homebrew as well. He took the full bin bags into the vestibule containing his front door. Its floor was also covered and he had to prise free his boots. Then he carried the bags to the door of the building, practically wading through sand that’d infiltrated the porch, and peered outside.
Some of the incomplete apartment blocks were concrete shells and others were stumps with stalks of steel rebar sprouting like weeds from the tops of their unfinished walls. He saw no sign of the builders, who were mainly cheap foreign labour from India, Bangladesh, Mali and Chad. Perhaps the foul weather had made them stop work. It mystified him why this spot had been chosen as the site for a residential compound. There was nothing for miles around but scrubland, home to a few flocks of goats and occasional fields of runtish, twisted olive trees.
McCready started down his building’s front steps, planning to empty the bin bags on the waste ground on the compound’s far side. Dervishes of wind and sand raced past him on the asphalt, almost corporeal enough to resemble running figures. They were accompanied by flapping plastic bags and rolling plastic bottles, the detritus that seemingly littered every landscape in this country. Then the wind shifted and the sand phantasms and debris left the ground and whooshed upwards. Strands of McCready’s hair rose off his head. Above, he almost fancied he saw the wind, veined with sand, form a spiral that churned around a dark central point in the firmament.
He heard a new sound competing with that of the wind, a ghostly wailing, like a siren, somewhere out in the scrubland.
He decided the weather was too much for him and retreated back up the steps and dumped the bags by the porch wall. He’d dispose of them later. When he tried to shut the building’s door he couldn’t get it back into its frame. It’d become mired in sand during the half minute it’d been open. McCready gave up and re-entered his apartment.
Back in the living room, he found he’d received a text from Cargill. It said: ‘Something’s up. Stay in your apartment. Repeat. Stay home.’
Puzzled, McCready tried calling him. When the ringing gave way to a recorded message, he tried Mustapha, the refinery’s head administrative officer. Again there was a period of ringing followed by a recorded message, in Arabic this time. McCready thumbed a quick text to Cargill: ‘What’s going on?’ Then, as he flung the phone back on the table, he noticed the surrounding room for the first time since returning from outside.
Brown gritty layers covered the horizontal surfaces of the giant sideboard-shelves-cabinets construction that dominated the wall. More sand lay over the rug and its diamond pattern only showed at the bottoms of the footprints he’d made behind him. He swept a hand across the tabletop and a sandy avalanche fell over its edge.
Determined to deal with this new encroachment, he went for the broom and pan, which he’d left in the bedroom veranda. Although he’d cleaned it minutes earlier, the veranda had somehow become a trough of sand again. The bedroom floor was completely brown too. He freed the broom, ran back to the living room and started forcing the broom head across the rug. But the broom simply made furrows, pushing as much sand to the side as it pushed ahead.
McCready persevered. A velvet curtain hung along another wall. The broom head snagged in its hem, the curtain trembled and sand cascaded down from its folds. Behind it was a door opening into a room with big, eastern facing windows, that he used as a drying place for his laundry. Suddenly wondering what was happening in there, he pulled the curtain aside, turned the doorhandle and opened the door. First he had to drag it back through the sand on the living room floor. Then it started moving of its own accord because a much greater weight of sand rested against its far side.
As this wave of new sand spewed through the doorway, McCready leapt back. Christ, he thought, the stuff must be waist high in the drying room—
Just then his phone began to ring on the table.
The sand flooding in from the other room was halfway to his knees. He wrestled his feet free of it, got to the table and saw Cargill’s name on the phone screen. Around him, he saw the sand pour through other openings too, from the doorway giving access to his bedroom and from the passageway leading to his kitchen and vestibule. It piled into the room with unbelievable speed.
“I’m hallucinating,” he told himself. “That bastard Kristof spiked his homebrew with acid!”
The sand seemed to come after him. It swirled around his knees and then, its level rising, around his thighs. It gripped his legs tight, rooting him there like a plant.
He answered the call just before the phone cut to a recorded message. Cargill’s voice rushed out. “Bob? You’re in the apartment still? You’re all right?”
“Yes,” croaked McCready, feeling the sand reach his hips. “I’m in the apartment. But no, I’m not all right—”
Cargill interrupted. “There’s been trouble. Along the road somewhere. Just stay put. Whatever you do, don’t leave your apartment!”
“Oh, don’t worry,” replied McCready hysterically. The sand continued to tumble into the room through the different doorways and openings and even, he saw, from the vents of the air conditioning unit. It was as if the apartment was buried under a giant dune and it was finding its way in through every gap and aperture. “I’m not going anywhere. No chance of that!”
It’d almost reached his chest. He gave up on the conversation and hurled the phone away. Then he beat his hands down against the sand’s surface. Its fluidity, the ease with which it churned around and engulfed him, was horrifying. Yet it had a hideous solidity too. It held his lower body in a grip as unyielding as concrete.
His hands became trapped. He felt the concrete grip climb along his arms and up over his ribs to his shoulders and neck. Then the grains were scraping against his chin. He refused to scream. He knew that to release a scream he’d have to open his mouth and the thought of that sand forcing its way in and down his throat was too horrific to contemplate. It wasn’t until he felt the grains crowding into his nostrils that revulsion overpowered him and he did try to scream, but by then his lower face was embedded and his jaw couldn’t move.
Thus, his screams were silent, mental ones.
Sand encased him. The pain of suffocation burned in his chest. A terrified energy raged through his body, trying to animate him, urging him to fight against his entombment. And somehow the sand shifted a little. McCready started struggling, first making tiny movements, then bigger ones.
Still he was suffocating. The fiery pain consumed his lungs and throat. He shoved harder with his arms and legs. If the sand were moving, surely there was space on the other side of it, space where he could breathe again.
Suddenly the sand broke apart and he sat up. He gasped and slobbered for a minute as his lungs got working again. Finally, he became aware of the wind blowing against him and he realised he was outside.
Before him was an expanse of scrubland, across which the wind pushed whirligigs of sand. In the distance were rows of olive trees. He twisted around. There was a road behind him and a bus that was partly on its wheels and partly on its side.
The bus managed to be in two different positions because it was broken in two. Its halves ended in twisted strands of metal where it’d been sundered, and McCready, sitting half in, half out of the sand, was aligned with the gap between the two parts. The rear half was the overturned part. The front half remained upright, though fires burned in the windows along it. One fire burned around the bus driver’s seat. A black scarecrow like figure was slumped over the steering wheel, flames dancing like sprites on its shoulders and the back of its head. McCready knew that the figure was Ahmed.
Then he noticed dozens of small round holes puncturing the bus’s sides. He remembered the bangs he’d earlier, which he’d attributed to the builders using hammers. What he’d really heard was the mopping up operation following the bomb explosion.
He prised himself free and moved along the roadside on his hands and knees. Objects lay scattered and encrusted in the sand around him, knapsacks, holdalls, helmets, high-vis jackets, dislodged bus seats. He also saw mounds twisted in different configurations but sharing the basic form of human bodies. He crawled close to one of those mounds, clawed some sand off it and uncovered an arm in a blue checked sleeve that he identified as Karl Schulz’s shirt. Past the arm’s shoulder, the shape of the head looked unnaturally flat and jagged. The sand covering it had become a red slurry.
Then, he spotted Schulz’s vintage Rolex below the arm’s sleeve cuff. The watch face was broken and it seemed to have stopped. Its hands were frozen at 7.43.
McCready suddenly felt exhausted. He sank down against the sand and somehow he kept sinking. The sand gave way beneath him whilst simultaneously massing against his sides and on top of him.
“No!” he roared. “I didn’t die here! I wasn’t on this bus this morning!”
He broke free of it again and, this time, managed to rise to his feet. He suffered a brutal spasm of pain as he straightened himself. Looking down, he saw his trouser legs sodden with blood, but he didn’t try to locate the wounds. Instead, he started limping along the roadside in the direction from which the bus had been travelling.
He spent a long time struggling through the wind and flying sand. Sometimes he grew particularly weak and dizzy and had to pause to recuperate. During one pause, he heard a blare of sirens and saw the headlights and flashing roof lights of a vehicle slowly approaching along the road. He didn’t make out the vehicle’s occupants and they seemed not to see him. The vehicle crept past him, heading towards where the bus lay mangled, and he resumed walking again.
Then, far off, he saw a cluster of narrow, rectangular silhouettes. Some were tall, others truncated. As he came closer, McCready identified them as his compound of complete, nearly complete and half built apartment blocks. Above them, tendrils of sand seemed to spiral around a central point in the sky. It was as if the wind and sand weren’t blowing sideways, but upwards and into a celestial hole.
He entered the compound and stumbled towards the door of his building. His body suddenly felt sickeningly off kilter. This wasn’t because of his injuries. Rather, the ground seemed to be tilting forward and he was moving faster. It turned into a steep slope he was careering down, then into a cliff face, which tipped him off his feet entirely. As the ground became a ceiling above him, he fell.
And ahead, his building’s doorway was no longer an oblong space in a concrete wall, but a round black hole at the bottom of a giant funnel. He plunged into it. His last impression was of being inside a giant hourglass that’d just been turned over.
McCready went barrelling into his living room and crashed against the long table. He leant against it for a time, breathing deeply, saturated with alcohol. That bastard Kristoff and his homebrew! Why had he even accepted the guy’s invitation tonight? It wasn’t as if he’d enjoyed the company at the party since most people there had been his co-workers from the refinery.
Still, he felt grateful for the effects of the homebrew too. The drunkenness it’d induced was like an anaesthetic that eliminated the pain of his injuries.
He sobered up a little. Injuries? Whatever had made him think he was injured? Briefly, the idea kindled memories inside him, but the memories were too vague and his mind too befogged for him to make sense of them.
He moved through to the bedroom. The wind whispered gently beyond the veranda doors at its far end. After he’d changed into his pyjamas, he looked around the room one last time, feeling there was one thing more he should do. One last important thing he should remember. He lay on the bed with his head turned away from the locker where he’d placed his phone. He was still wondering what he’d forgotten to do when he fell asleep.
Moments later, a first grain of sand scraped imperceptibly into the room, under the doors and curtains from the veranda.