by Arash Khoshsafa
Translated into English by the author
When Arman’s wife gave birth, I had just begun my military training. It was a harsh winter in the western region of the country, and everybody had been looking for an excuse to postpone their training to spring; when it was warmer, flowers bloomed and nature’s rebirth softened the agony of spending two whole months in military camp. Arman was no exception, and his excuse was marriage. He had already announced his marriage and just before dispatch, the final blow came in the form of his wife’s pregnancy. She was not supposed to give birth any time soon, but amazingly, she seemed to need emergency care in her second trimester.
Apart from growing up in the same neighborhood, Arman and I were classmates from elementary school all the way to high school graduation. We were inseparable for twelve years: spending daytime together at school and then devoted the rest of the day wandering round the neighborhood or goofing about in each other’s houses. Everything was going smoothly until he happened to fall in love with the carpenter’s daughter whose father had a tiny shop on our street. She sometimes went there to do her homework at her father’s colossal tables and studied amidst all the noise and wood shavings. The particular smell of wood that always filled the street made me pull Arman aside from time to time and tell him, “You idiot! You’re in love with the smell, not the girl.” He gave me a weird look meaning “You don’t know what real love is” and remained silent. And then, trying to turn my humor into an argument, I continued, “How come you’ve fallen for someone you’ve never seen properly?”
And I guess I was right. However, every time we reached that street he slowed down near the carpenter’s, pulled on my jacket to slow me down as well. Once we got to the shop, he stretched his neck to peer in and catch sight of the girl, even when she wasn’t there and all his efforts proved pointless. But when she was there, she had either her nose in her books or her luscious pitch-dark hair covered her face which was hardly visible in all that dust to begin with.
Our barracks belonged to Squadron A: a large field with two symmetrical, massive, metal sheds to its north and south sides, filled with lots of uncomfortable, creaking bunk-beds, themselves surrounded by angular, half-rusty, seaweed green wardrobes which smelled like urine. To the western side stood a long, narrow building with ridiculously short showers with plastic showerheads on one side, and on the other side a line of shitty toilets whose water was cut every other day. The east side of the area, which was actually the only entrance/exit for all of us, hosted three pay phones standing on a cement platform whose long queue of miserable, desperate soldiers rivaled the toilet’s.
The first time I got a chance to ring home, I had already spent ten days at the camp. I remember that day, after one hour and forty minutes of queuing in the faint winter sun with my cold payphone card in my left fist. I finally reached the icy, black, plastic handset. Dad had apparently made it to the bazaar for daily shopping, Minoo was at university and I could only talk to Mum. Before the normal greeting- which I had been expecting for ten bloody days-she interrupted by saying that Arman’s wife had given birth. I was just taken aback and became still for a moment. There was a long queue of despondent fresh soldiers behind me who wanted to make their phone calls before lunch and mandatory prayers. Some, like me, wanted to ring their own families and some were married with kids. However, I had sadly learned that only married soldiers’ families counted as “family”. The rest of us were robbed of our families and practically considered orphans. I couldn’t waste time. My eyes had grown larger in amazement.
“No way,” I said to Mum startlingly. “What is it then? Is it a boy or a girl?” I knew full well how he wanted to have a daughter.
“Not just one,” said Mum. The reception was bad and I could hardly hear a word, “there are three of them.” Triplets! “Now they’re all at his mother-in-law’s, but I guess they’ll come back home tomorrow.”
I had no idea what to say to Arman once I got a chance to talk to him. I wasn’t even sure enough whether to congratulate him or offer my condolences for his triplets.
I had nearly forgotten my own miserable condition in the camp and decided not to nag on the phone about anything personal. As for the whole queuing thing for payphones, I thought to myself I’d never undergo such a misery at twelve noon again. The best time to use the payphones was just before bathing time, right before the reveille. That way, you could possibly hit two birds with one stone: you could magically raise the chance of using a working phone – every third phone worked properly at any given time. sometimes you queued for ages and once you got to insert your card and celebrate the most stupid victory in the universe, there was no dialing tone and then you had no other way but to shamefully move to the other queue and wait for your next possible cloud nine moment – and you also didn’t need to worry about the long wait, desperate soldiers behind you who usually had this nerve-wracking habit of thrusting a hard corner of their phone cards into your waist or shoulder saying, “Shake a leg, bro.” or “Would you wrap up the conference, please?” That day, I decided to use the payphone only and only before daybreak.
My bed was the first one on the right; the top bunk was for me and the bottom one belonged to a weird, introverted microbiology graduate from Shiraz who I rarely talked to. Unfortunately, even though lights-out was at nine every night, I never fell asleep before one or two AM; it was either the noise of one hundred and seventy nine soldiers snoring like a banshee or the creaking metal gate opened and closed by the watchmen changing shifts every other hour. With every single creak I started to stare at the white ceiling above my head. It always took four or five watchmen to finish their shifts before I’d feel tired and could fall asleep, only until the next reveille.
As planned, the next morning I woke up at half past four in the morning and reached the ground gropingly. Our bunk beds had no ladder, so I needed to make a tremendous effort pressing my lips against each other not to step on the Shirazi guy who seemed to suffer from severe depression and slept like a log. Having touched the ground safely, I soon reached for my uniform overcoat hanging outside my closet and wore it over my undershirt, searched for my slippers in the dark (I wasn’t even sure they were mine) and stepped in the freezing cold yard with my olive green long johns on. Nothing was there except the projected spotlight and the icy silence of the dark yard. Before heading for the payphones, my eyes caught the sight of the 4-6 a.m. shift attendant, a miserable short, plump soldier standing opposite the arsenal who was constantly blowing his hands. Quite unconsciously, I waved at him before moving head, while he didn’t like distancing his hands from his blowing mouth and just nodded hesitantly wondering who on earth could possibly get out of his warm bed at this hour for a stupid phone call.
I was only worried that others might have woken up sooner and taken the phones, but as I looked at the payphones and found them all available, I felt excitedly relieved and lunged toward the cement platform. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe! I took the one in the middle and inserted the card immediately and picked up the receiver. I enjoyed the soft dial tone in the yard’s silence and took my tiny notebook out of my overcoat front pocket. Once I dialed Arman’s mobile number, I tilted my head to have a secret look at the plump guard whom I think was still assessing the level of my stupidity.
A good night’s sleep is priceless in the military. From the very moment you opened up your eyes at 4:50 a.m., they made you work like an ox and crawl and creep in all that snow all day long; and with that hulk of a rifle on your back all the time, nearly every soldier hit the hay long before reveille. Night sleep was so valuable that some soldiers even bribed daytime guards to cover for their night shifts so that they could enjoy a 5 or 6-hour night sleep instead. No, the guard wasn’t even looking this way and had started to walk instead of warming his hands with his breath.
Arman answered his mobile after the sixth beep and said, “Hello?” in a surprisingly alert voice.
My eyes were fixed on the black digits of the small display with my credit constantly dropping. Unprepared and confused, I immediately replied, “Hey, Aramn! It’s me, Pendar from the barracks.” Hearing my own voice out loud, I soon realized where I was and tried to curb the excitement and manage my voice.
“What a surprise!” His voice didn’t sound surprised, it sounded more like whining. “What’s up, buddy?”
I was thrilled he didn’t start swearing at me for calling him at 4:30 a.m. However, I thought it would be more considerate to bring it up myself. “I’m sorry I woke you up, mate.” I realized I had grown unusually courteous for no obvious reason.
“Come on!” He sounded as though he had been expecting to talk to someone for a good while. “I have no time to sleep.” I really didn’t know why, but he was sure I already knew about their triplets. “One of them wakes up at midnight and the two others start wailing.” A short sigh. “No need to worry about it, mate. I wasn’t sleeping at all. Jila’s feeding them in the living room.”
I let him open his heart. Then I looked back to check on the guard at the gate, but there was no sign of him. I turned back in worry and spoke with a much lower voice this time, “Yeah, they told me about it.” But I had nearly missed his last few sentences. “I just rang Mum yesterday and she told me everything about it.” Then I realized I could see my breath in the cold even when I talked quietly. “Say, how about their names?” I noticed the sharp fall in my credit on the pale green display.
“Nothing yet.” He sighed again and now I felt he was sleepy and knackered. “Everything’s been so hectic that we haven’t had time to think about it, you know. What do you say?”
I muttered at his surprising reply for a short while; my eyes went wandering around and once they caught the sight of a keyed scratch on the other phone (most probably by a despairing soldier God knows when) which read “Miss you, Sara.” I just went for it and said instantly, “How about Sara?!”
“What about the rest of them? They’re three, remember?” He sounded so uncaring as if I was trying to find names for his new pets or so. “Two girls and a boy.”
Focusing on my newly-developed talent of choosing names for new-born babies and a simultaneous feeling of having to take a leak soon, I tried to ignore Arman’s unsurprised tone and took the plunge and spurted, “Sssepideh and Sssina.”
Then I heard the doors open from behind. A half-sleeping soldier in his long johns and overcoat with shambolic hair was groping towards the toilets without noticing me. Then I realized the prolonged, whistling tone on the line changed suddenly and fainted away. “Hello? Hello?” I tried more loudly this time. The same whistle came out along with a couple of broken, blurred “Alright!”
Every morning at about five, a large group of soldiers rushed out towards the toilets and showers like soldier ants, barely awake. They just grew in number minute by minute. Once I turned my head back, I saw I had no credit left; even the dialing tone was gone too. As I put down the receiver, I noticed the arsenal guard’s shift end was being rewarded by a friend’s handful of trail mix and chocolate.
Then I caught a glimpse of our barracks and all the nasty bluish fluorescent ceiling lights which were feebly turning on one by one, illuminating the sleepwalkers left behind; gathering all their might to survive one more day
Soon it would be reveille and the end of the dark silence again.
Iranian-born, Arash Khoshsafa is an Iranian Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For his scholarly and research work, he focuses on literary criticism and American fiction, especially dirty realist writers such as Richard Ford. In the literary sphere, Arash translates fiction from English into Persian and vice versa. He has translated and published many novels and short stories in Iran and overseas. Besides, he writes fiction in Persian and English and hopes to gather and publish his stories as books in the near future. Arash currently lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.