Tales from the back of the eyelids


  • Sometimes my dreams are like action movies. It's true I never understand the plots - but that's the same with real films. One good thing about these dreams is that I get to be the main hero. But the best perk is that, unlike the cinema, I get in for free.

Cairo. Backdrop: the pyramids, visible through the café windows. 

Ahmed was sitting at a table in the corner reading a newspaper. Waiters in red fezzes and white jackets were running to and fro with silver trays. The room was noisy and full of tobacco smoke. I took the chair opposite Ahmed.

"As-Salam alaykum. What's up?"

Ahmed put his paper down. He was a fat man with a large head and wore thick black rimmed glasses which were too small for his face. He looked worried.

"Muhammad has been taken hostage!"

"What!" I exclaimed. This was serious.

"Yes. The prophet. He's been abducted. Peace be upon Him!"

"What do they want?"

"A ransom so big your government won't be able to pay it."

"My government never deals with terrorists."

"But we have to get him back somehow." Ahmed was a grass but he was principled. He only took big money from the side he agreed with. That's why I liked him.

"Who are they?" I asked

"They are the most fanatical and brutal gang the world has seen. They make al-Qaeda look like a troupe of bellydancers."

"Give me a name. A contact."

"Promise me that when they torture you, you'll kill yourself before you squeal my name."

I nodded and bent forward. Ahmed leant over the table to whisper in my ear.

The next thing I knew we were thrown to the floor by a huge explosion. Pieces of stone, metal and glass flew through the air. Where the wall behind Ahmed had been, suddenly there was a gaping hole. The room was filled with dust, shouts and screams. It was chaos and carnage.

I pulled myself out from under the table and clambered over a pile of bricks. Ahmed was lying on his back, his face covered in dust and his spectacles skew-whiff across his nose. I bent down over him. He was gone.

"Ma'a salama sadiqi. Goodbye, my friend," I murmured.

I heard shouts from across the street. "Allahu akbar!" Beyond the opened wall I could see a group of men on the flat roof opposite getting ready to reload a bazooka. I jumped up and climbed over the rubble out into the open. Shots were fired at me. I ducked and whipped out my semi-automatic from under my arm. I pulled the trigger and one of the men fell. I fired again and hit the man carrying the rocket launcher. He tumbled into the street below. The rest of the men panicked and fled.

"I'm going to like this dream," I thought. "I'm much more manly than in my usual dreams. And, to be quite honest, much more manly than in real life."

I replaced my gun in my holster and brushed off the dust from my suit. "I have to go to P," I said to myself.


London. Back-drop: the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge, visible through the windows of P's office at HQ. 

"So what does this Muhammad look like?" P asked.

"No one really knows, Sir. There were these drawings of him in a Danish newspaper a few years back." I handed P a wad of photocopies. He began to leaf through the pages. "Most experts, however, consider them to be fanciful," I continued. "He frowned on portraits in case they became graven images."

"I see. What you're saying is we have to find someone even though we haven't the foggiest what he looks like."

"Yes Sir."

"Well, you've got a big job on your hands. Where are you going to start?"

"Iraq, Sir. That's usually the place where this sort of trouble comes from."

The door opened and a woman with a long beige raincoat entered the room. It was the dark haired girl who, although I've never met her in real life, often appears my dreams. I smiled wistfully. She smiled broadly back. That's when I realised something was wrong: all at once I didn't recognise her any more. It wasn't the dark haired girl! We were in great danger!

I leapt up. "Get down Sir," I shouted "She's a suicide bomber!"

I grabbed her and we started to struggle. She was reaching for something under her coat. I knocked her to the floor and held her down. I pulled open the coat and unhooked a grenade which was on her belt. The bomb was unpinned. I hurled it through the open window on the far side of P's desk. A couple of seconds later an explosion shook the building and threw me flat onto the dark haired girl. For a moment my lips were pressed firmly against hers.

"Poor girl," I said to P as security led her away. "Brainwashed. I hope she gets back to normal soon."

"You are on an extremely dangerous mission," P said. "Whoever they are, it seems they'll stop at nothing to prevent you from releasing Muhammad. Make sure you succeed and make sure you stay alive. I can't afford to lose you Ludikar - you're the best man we've got."

"Understood Sir."


Baghdad. Backdrop: the winding streets of the historic quarter with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon visible beyond the ancient city walls.

I banged on the door. The shutter opened, a face appeared at the grille and I was let in. The atmosphere inside was lively. The hall was full of people who were chatting and laughing. On a long table at the end of the room six men in long Arabic robes were dancing and singing the can-can. Clearly the party was already in full swing. Scantily clad women floated about offering apéritifs. I took a mineral water.

"Ah! Mister al-Udik'ar. Our Saudi banker. I'm so glad to meet you at last."

I turned around to face a man with a bushy black beard sporting a black turban and black cloak. It was my host, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State. He smiled at me warmly.

"I verry happy you could spare zee time to come and talk. We have so much we need to discuss. But zis is too noisy. Let's step into my office. It's just heerr."

Al-Baghdadi led me to a room on the side of the hall. As I entered the room al-Baghdadi's two minders, who had been walking behind us, seized me and pushed me up against the wall. One put his hand under my chin and started to squeeze my windpipe. Al-Baghdadi turned to me, lunged and then slapped me violently across the face.

"You Shi-ite dog!" He screamed.

That meant big trouble. If he believed I was a Shi-ite I could expect a fate a thousand times worse than if he thought I was a spy. I jerked my right arm in a loop and sent the guard holding it somersaulting through the air. As he fell the back of his head struck the corner of al-Baghdadi's desk. With my freed hand I delivered a powerful right hook to the chin of the other guard. He immediately slumped to the ground. Al-Baghdadi reached for a handgun in the drawer in his writing table.

What happened next is fairly standard routine so I'll try to avoid unnecessary detail. I grabbed al-Baghdadi's arm before he managed to point the gun at me. We wrestled, exchanged blows and ended up struggling on the floor. I forced the revolver out of his hand and almost grabbed it for myself but at the last second al-Baghdadi kicked it out of reach. As I tried to grasp it, his fingers clawed at my eyes, trying to gouge them. I knocked his arms away and took a swing at his belly. He rolled over but before I had time to get up, he had pulled a dagger out from the belt of one of the motionless guards. We both leapt up. He stood up and sliced the air with the knife. I dodged and sidestepped until the right moment when I jumped forward, held his arm and elbowed him in the gut.

Again we were fighting on the floor. Somehow al-Baghdadi got on top of me and, despite my grip on his wrists, slowly began to force the blade down towards my throat. I kneed him in the groin, he dropped the dagger but sprung up and picked up the gun. Just as he swung the barrel towards me, I hurled the knife. It lodged in deep under his breastbone - he groaned, let the gun fall and crumpled.

I crawled over to him. He was gasping his last breaths.

"Abu Bakr, tell me where Muhammad is," I said.

"We ..we haven't got him," he wheezed.

"Who has? Say it!"

"It's...it's zee...zee Allée Réelle," I heard him rasp. His body then convulsed sharply and relaxed. A trickle of blood oozed from his mouth and ran across his cheek. He was dead.

"The Allée Réelle - The True Way," I thought. The title of the organisation was new to me. But otherwise everything made sense. The prohibition of religious symbols in schools, the banning of the burqa....

"It's the French," I said to myself.

I swung myself up onto the desk and aimed a hefty kick at the centre of the iron bars across the window. The metal frame crashed down and I jumped out through the opening into the street.


Paris. Backdrop: the Eiffel Tower and L'Arc de Triomphe, visible through the windows of Le Grand Hotel de la Vue.

Someone was in my room. I knew because the thread I had taped between the door and the doorway when I left had been broken. I entered silently with my gun at the ready. A slight noise came from the bathroom. I approached cautiously, then threw the door open. I grabbed a wrist, threw the intruder onto the floor and landed on top of him. Or - more correctly as it turned out - her.

She was the dark haired girl - this time the real one. She was wearing a black satin negligee.

"It's not the French, Philip," she said from under me.

"Have a look at this," she continued as we got up. "These images were taken by Google Earth on the day Muhammad disappeared."

The dark haired girl blinked firmly and we sat on the bed. Suddenly translucent pictures materialised and hovered in the air above us. It was a generation 29 hardwareless smart computer. Blinking turned it on and off, rolling the eyes scrolled down and up and winking turned the page.

The dark haired girl rolled her eyes. "That one there is John Smith," she said pointing. The name sounded familiar.

My companion winked. "And you know that one. It's Samuel Smith." She rolled her eyes again. "Standing there is Stone, Young and Boddington. And over in that group on the right is Worthington, Wadworth, Whitbread and Tetley."

I felt a twinge of annoyance and shame. Not only because Britons - my compatriots - were involved. It was much worse than that: all these were well known establishment figures. I had to restore my country's honour – and fast.

The dark haired girl winked. "These two in the middle of the action are a mystery. We believe, though, that their role is pivotal. They are known only by their monikers Old Peculier and Old Speckled Hen," she said.

Suddenly it clicked. "Of course! It's not Allée Réelle," I exclaimed. "It's Real Ale. Or more exactly, The Campaign for Real Ale, better known as CAMRA."

This shadowy organisation which had begun in England, and later extended its tentacles throughout Europe, was clearly intent on world domination.

"I have to stop them. I know where to go and I know what to do," I said.

"They won't notice if they have to wait an extra day for you Philip," the dark haired girl said, putting her arms around my neck. She pressed her lips to mine and pulled me slowly down towards the bed.

Then she blinked.


Nepal. Mount Everest and the Himalayas visible from the cockpit window of the supersonic fighter jet I am flying.

"Where are we going?"

"To Kashmir, Mother," I answered. My mother likes to join me on the more exciting missions.

"Why do you always call me 'Mother'? You know I don't like it."

"The only word you like is 'Mummy', and I can't call you that any more."


"Everyone thinks you're a playboy, you know," she said a minute later. "Why couldn't you stick to teaching? Everyone else in the family is either a doctor, an engineer or at least a teacher."

"I didn't like teaching, Mother."

"You didn't like any job you did. I don't know what's wrong with you."

Silence. Mother looked out at the spectacular scenery through the window.

"Tibet's near here, isn't it?" She asked.

"Just on the other side of those mountains," I said.

"I've always dreamed of going to Tibet. Let's go there!"

"Mother! I'm on an assignment. We can't."

"You really are an awful son."

"Mother, please be reasonable.."

"You never do anything for me. And like a fool I always do what you want me to do. Not that you appreciate it. You'll only realise it when I'm dead. Then you'll be banging on my coffin, screaming 'Mummy, Mummy help me!' The way you treat me is appalling. I know I've let you cross the red line once too often: but this time enough is enough!"

My memory at this point is hazy. Did Mother try to wrestle the joystick from my grasp? Or did she accidentally push a button on the flight panel as she waved her arms? Or – as Mother would certainly claim - did I fail to concentrate properly as every responsible pilot must always do? I'm not sure. All I know is that suddenly the plane was in a tailspin and we were hurtling rapidly towards the ground.

I pulled up hard on the joystick and successfully dodged a couple of mountains. As I veered away from a crevice, though, a massive boulder loomed up in front of me. I swerved hard to the left but I clipped the wing. I lost control again temporarily and we flipped on our side. I pulled back partially, released the undercarriage and managed to steer the wobbling aircraft towards relatively level ground. When we touched down there was a loud bang. Then everything went blank.

The next thing I knew I found myself lying on some blankets on the back of a pickup truck which was bouncing along a mountain road. Sitting around me on the benches were six or seven men in white turbans with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

"How are you, Philip?" The voice belonged to Kamran, the leader of this band of Kashmiri fighters.

"It's ok. Just a few bruises," I answered, rubbing my shoulder. "What happened?"

"You crashed in Taliban territory. Fortunately we reached you before they did," Kamran said. "We were lucky to receive the message so soon. You know they spare no foreigners who stray into their area."

"Thanks Kamran. But I have to go back. My mother was in the plane."

"I'm sorry Philip, there's no point. The Taliban were firing on us as we pulled you out of the wreckage. We didn't have time to check for passengers. I can only give you my sincere condolences."

"I see. Oh well, that's life," I said.


Northern Kashmir. Backdrop: The Crusader's Arms public inn perched upon a craggy mountain top, visible from the peak opposite through the binoculars Kamran has lent me.

"Why did they open an English pub out here?" I asked.

"Originally it was going to be Irish, but they then realised the market in this region was already flooded," Kamran replied.

"We're not up against a bunch of fools then. Any ideas how to get into the building?"

"There is a sports centre situated not far from it at zero four hours."

I swivelled the binoculars round. "Yes, I see it," I affirmed.

"It has four outdoor clay courts. Non-members can rent them for £12 for an hour or £22 for two hours. Group bookings can be made for all four courts at discounted rates subject to availablity."

I examined the surfaces of the courts carefully. They were well maintained and in good condition: the prices were reasonable.

"The club also offers a comprehensive program of coaching that caters for every level of play from serious tournament players to beginners," Kamran continued.

"I'm afraid I don't quite follow you." Kamran's lightning paced intellect sometimes leaves me streets behind.

Kamran smiled patiently. "We could tell them that after a tough match we are in need of copious amounts of liquid refreshment."

"That's an excellent plan Kamran," I said. "Let's try it."

As we had hoped, entering the pub went without hitch: I casually walked up to the bar and ordered two pints of bitter. Kamran and I sat down in some comfortable armchairs by the window, placed our drinks on the low table between us and began to talk about cricket. The pub atmosphere was suspiciously cosy. In the corner on the left three husband-and-wife teams were throwing darts at a board. At the other end a couple of youths were playing at a billiards table. Except for an elderly pair next to us (who sat silently, staring out at nothing from behind their beers) the room was full of people engaged in animated conversation. Occasionally the hubbub was punctuated by waves of laughter. On offer for lunch (as shown on a blackboard propped up on the counter) was steak and kidney pie with fried egg and chips or Cornish pasty with baked beans and chips. The normality was unsettling.

I needed an excuse to search the premises. After two pints I had a convincing one: I got up and conspicuously announced that I was going to take a leak. Out in the corridor near the men's room I heard a voice coming from behind a door which I realised led to the cellar. The voice cried out in exquisite classical Arabic:

"So a wall will be built between them with a gate therein; inside it will be mercy and outside it will be torment!"

It was Muhammad! The door was padlocked from my side. The world's best known teatotaler was being imprisoned amongst casks of the world's finest real ales. Obviously this was the work of a devious mind with an ingenious penchant for cruelty.

"Don't worry Muhammad! I'll have you out of there in no time," I shouted through the door. I began to pick the lock with a hairgrip I keep handy for the purpose.

"What's going on here?" Someone said behind me. I turned to face Tim Page, CAMRA's Chief Executive.

"You haven't got a chance, Page. The whole world is after you. Let Muhammad go while you can still save yourself." I told him.

"I will on condition our demands are met," he said.

"Which are?"

"First, we want the Muslim World League to issue a fatwa declaring the verses of the Qur'an which forbid the drinking of alcohol to be satanic."

"All right. I see some room for compromise there," I said

"Second, we want Beer Duty never to exceed 40 pence a pint."

"You're crazy, Page! The Government would never agree to that."

"Really? We'll see about that." Page held up a small rectangular black box. "If I press the red button on this remote control I will set off a timer on ten tons of explosives I have planted in the cellar. If we don't get what we want within a week, Muhammad will be blown to kingdom come."

Despite a cuddly-looking exterior, I knew that inside Tim Page was a man of ruthless determination. I had to act immediately. I sent a high kick to his right hand and the remote flew out and bounced across the corridor. Page turned to pick it up and, although I jumped on him, he succeeded in pressing the button. The display showed five minutes to go and counting. We struggled and rolled through the double doors into the kitchen. When we got up, he grabbed a carving knife from the wall. I head-butted his chest and he fell back onto the stove. He must have turned the dial on the cooker with his bottom, because a flame leapt up from one of the rings and began to burn the curtain nearby.

Page slashed at me with the knife and I defended myself with a frying pan. I grabbed a knife and my adversary found another pan. We circled each other like gladiators in the arena. The fire spread and flickered all around us. Surprising him with a feint, I knocked the knife out of his hand with the pan. Page, bent forward, charged at me – the impact of his shoulder winded me and I dropped my knife. We both fell backwards through the door to the serving area behind the bar.

As the door swung open, a gust threw a long tongue of fire into the lounge. The wallpaper and some of the upholstery caught alight. There were screams and the customers scattered while Page and I laid into each other. He landed me a hard punch which sent me reeling onto the counter, shattering glasses. For a second I must have been stunned because when I came round he was already above me, armed with a bottle, ready for the kill. I turned quickly and the bottle missed my head by an inch. With both feet on his belly, I pushed hard and sent him slamming into the cupboard opposite. He dropped to the floor and a large steel beer barrel teetered momentarily on the shelf above, before it toppled and fell on his head. Page lay underneath it, lifeless.

The flames were now licking the furnishings all around and because of the smoke breathing was difficult. I covered my mouth with a handkerchief and grabbed a bottle of stout. I ran to the corridor and saw that the timer showed a minute to go. I bashed the padlock with the bottle.

"Nearly there," I thought. The lock was almost off its hinges. I swung my arm to finish the job – but before I could, a hand clamped itself around my wrist and held my arm back. Page! From behind, with the crook of his elbow under my chin, he twisted my arm into an arm lock. I made an abrupt pirouette which was strong enough to propel him off my back and into the air. He hit the wall with a thud and slumped to the ground. I took a final swing at the lock.

Muhammad came out and made a dignified escape. My path, though, was blocked by Page, who was on his feet again. He raised his fist – I blocked his arm and knocked him squarely on the jaw. As he staggered backwards, there was a cracking noise from above and a second later a burning timber beam crashed down from the ceiling on top of him.

It was all over for Page but my own prospects didn't look good either: with fifteen seconds left on the clock and a blazing pile of rubble blocking the way, I had to think quickly. I darted into the men's room and, taking a running dive, smashed headlong through the window. I rolled down the bank outside and took cover in a ditch.

A tremendous blast shook the ground under me. A brilliant white and yellow streak broke through the roof of the pub and shot high in the sky. Then another blast, then another. The building disintergrated in a ball of swirling flames.

Kamran approached me when it was over. "Sorry I couldn't come to help. I was held by CAMRA agents. I escaped and came back with my fighters. All the CAMRA leaders have been rounded up and my men are escorting Muhammad back to Mecca."

"Good work, Kamran," I said.

As I was uttering these words, I heard the insistent sound of a nearby car revving its engine. Kamran and I spun around to see Tim Page wearing an evil grin, sitting at the wheel of a silver Aston Martin, roaring towards us. Kamran and I hurled ourselves to one side, narrowly avoiding the bonnet. The car attempted a sharp turn to relaunch itself at us, but lost control, flipped over onto its roof, bounced, rotated in the air and plunged over the edge of the cliff into the sheer drop below.

"That was his last round," I muttered. Next we heard a whirring noise. The Aston Martin rose up from behind the rocks, propellers spinning on both sides, and hovered above the precipice. Tim Page peered down at us, still grinning his evil grin. Then the jets at the back fired and the vehicle shot off between the mountains, flying far away into the distance.

"Our man got away," I said. "Never mind. The good news is there can be a sequel."


Prague. Backdrop: Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square visible through my apartment window.

I picked up the phone and dialled.

"Hello Mother, how are you?" I had called the SAS when I found out she had been left to the mercy of the Taliban and they immediately launched a rescue operation.

"Oh. It's you," she said.

"Mother, I'm going to be honoured by the Queen at Buckingham Palace next week for freeing Muhammad and saving the world. Would you come along to the ceremony?"

A pause.

"It's too far. I can't travel all that way."

"But Mother, you live in London! All you have to do is get on the Tube."

"You don't think of me at all, do you? You know I'm ill. Not that you would make a special effort for me because of it."

Another pause.

"What ever happened to that dark haired girl?" Mother asked.

"We split."

"You can't get on with anyone, can you? I think you've got some kind of mental problem. I hope at least you made her feel as if she was the one who finished it."

"She was the one who finished it. She said she never wanted to see me again."

"That's good."


"Mother, I should tell you. My next assignment is going to be very dangerous. I'm going undercover to Peru as a Mexican drug overlord to infiltrate the Shining Path terrorist organisation. They have joined forces with leading Russian computer hackers and are on the verge of subverting the world's banking system and developing a nuclear weapon."

"Peru? I've always dreamed of going to Machu Picchu. I'll come too!"

"I'm sorry Mother. After the last mishap there is a bar on bringing relatives along on missions. I'm not allowed to take you."

"Mishap? As if it was my fault! You are dreadful. People who have seen how you behave towards me often wonder why I don't disinherit you. Sometimes I am surprised I haven't done it already. That's what you deserve."

Silence. I was thinking. "I'm sure I could handle the next mission without any outside help. I mean, there's no need to involve the SAS when things get tough, is there?" I mused.

"I suppose no one apart from us has to know," I said out loud. "All right Mother, you can come along."

"Fine. But you must call me 'Mummy'."

"Of course I will Mummy."

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