How to die

Handel's oratorio Theodora, being staged as part of this year's Glyndebourne season, has a dramatic contemporary relevance, believes Jeanette Winterson. Her short story inspired by the libretto appears exclusively here
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The Independent Culture

Call me TD. I sound like an old-fashioned car or a secret agent. I am in the wrong time certainly, in the wrong place perhaps, and already I feel more like a story than a human being; that is, I am the kind of thing that gets written about. I am in print. Behind the print is a life, and it's the one thing I haven't borrowed for this journey.

Call me TD. I sound like an old-fashioned car or a secret agent. I am in the wrong time certainly, in the wrong place perhaps, and already I feel more like a story than a human being; that is, I am the kind of thing that gets written about. I am in print. Behind the print is a life, and it's the one thing I haven't borrowed for this journey.

When I agreed to come to Baghdad, I didn't have the clothes, the communications, the experience, the theory, the wherewithal or even the money. I had one thing I could give freely; my life.

The rest, no matter how much you paid for it, will belong to someone else, sooner or later.

The sun is rising, and every morning I wonder if I'll ever see it again. I don't own the sunrise, can't make it happen, but it feels like a gift. This is the gift of light and warmth, of hope and another day. At home I rarely saw it, and the morning was just a mess of alarm clocks and cornflakes and crossness, and usually a wish that sleep had lasted longer – that the day should not begin yet.

Here I wake up before the sun. I talk to the sun now. I ask for more time. I plot the shadows on the sundial with the jealousy of a lover. This glass of water, this cup of sweet coffee, this bread baked yesterday, this honey cake, are things I have never tasted before. I have them every day, but every day they are as new to me as the sun is new to me, as life is new to me.

I have no possessions here, but I am richer than an oil well. When I said I would give my life, I began to value it, and valuing it became a verb; an active part of speech. Nothing is missed now, I run up and down my mountains of treasure like a fabulous glittering thing from legend. I am all the gold and jewels of the East. I am my own flying carpet.

When did you last love life?

It was a simple decision to make. I am a Quaker. My father was an ambulance driver in the Second World War, and while other men fought with photos of their sweethearts in their pockets, my father carried a picture of a Queen Anne chair. He wanted to remember what it was he was risking his life for; and for him it was the continuation of culture, the fragile possibility of a civilised world.

Isn't that what we are fighting for?

All I know is that wars now lead to wars later. Violence returns as violence, and war can always be justified, made necessary, just this once, just this forever.

We have no choice.

I wanted to have a choice. I have no influence in the world. I do not lead countries to their destiny. What choice do I have when my country goes to war?

I made up my mind to vote with my body; I went to Iraq as a Human Shield.

I was illegal as soon as I arrived. I turned into a War Crime. I hadn't killed anyone or colluded in the deaths of thousands, but I was unpatriotic, dangerous to myself and others, I was someone who had to be punished. If I manage to stay alive, I will be arrested, charged, tried, found guilty and sent to prison. This is a strange world where it is brave to die killing others, and a crime to offer your own life in place of theirs.

Let me tell you now – I am not martyr material. Not for me the Joan of Arc of a burning stake and a burning heart. I could not wall myself up with a Bible and a crucifix. I have never believed in anything enough to die for it – perhaps because I've never believed in anything enough to live for it.

Like most people I have muddled through, content with a rough map, no clear direction, and not too many challenges.

How did it change?

The flight path changed.

I live near an airfield, only used for routine carrier planes. Then, because of the war, the airfield became home to American B52 bombers. They flew straight over the roof of my house, shaking the timbers, shaking me from sleep, from a sleep it seemed that had lasted for years. Underneath the 30 tons of bombs and cruise missiles, bulked in the belly of the plane like a monstrous alien birth, my sleeping mind woke up to loss. What if it was my house, my children, my familiar street, that waited every night for the low roar of the plane, knowing it would not pass over, to land innocently elsewhere, but knowing it would hatch its living dead on me? I would be the warm place it chose. This bed, where everything should be safe, would become my night-time terror. No covers over my head would save me. No quiet presence would come in through the door to hold my hand and wake me from an evil dream.

My flight path changed. I went into the cockpit, disabled the automatic pilot that kept my life on course, and took over the controls. I nose-dived immediately; I had never flown my own plane before.

Were the skies really so wide? Was the view so clear above the cloud-line?I was wrapped in blue like a Madonna, blue like a kingfisher, blue like the planet that spins among stars without fear of falling.

I became my own freedom.

The high-bound exhilaration didn't last. I was soon feeling like a fool, and a fool who nobody wants. What was I doing here, making a cause out of other people's despair? As I walked about Baghdad, meeting shopkeepers and kids, I began to learn what it is to live without hope. Kill the dictator or keep the dictator, would things really change? Few people thought so. Few had any faith in the liberation of change. They had built their lives around what they had, and such lives as these were, they wanted to keep. There was plenty of anger, plenty of willingness to fight, but no wide-eyed optimism that their world was becoming a different place. A different place was for rich people, powerful people; none of them were those people.

So I cooked and cleaned and pared vegetables and waited.

There was a soldier who used to come past my rented room every day in his truck. He was privilege, not fear, he was part of the elite, not the rank and file. He never spoke to me at all, just watched me where I sat squatting preparing food, until one day he came over, his gun slung on his back, and said, "You should go home."

"This is home," I said, and for no good reason I started to explain how this voluntary exile had become the home I never had; I never could live with myself, let alone anybody else. Here, I had begun to do both.

He said something about the West misunderstanding everything important. He called me a Crisis Tourist. He said that when the fighting started, I would be the first to run away.

"I have run away," I said. "This is the end of the line."

He laughed at me, and drove off, the dust making a mirage behind the wheels of his pick-up. In the spinning dust I saw an Arab on a dromedary, racing across the sands carrying a stone and a shell. Behind him, at some distance, galloped a man on a white charger. The man asked me where the Arab had gone and I pointed into the distance. "He carries Time and Civilisation with him," said the man, "but it is too late." As he galloped off, I looked behind him and saw the rushing tide of the glittering sea pouring towards us.

The bombing began around three o'clock in the morning – the hour when the soul most fears death, and the hour when the body is most vulnerable. Deep asleep, ripped into waking, we saw the government building opposite us wrapped in a burqa of black smoke.

The family I was staying with took a few clothes and cooking pots into the cellar, while the older boy grabbed a rubber dinosaur and tried not to cry. The baby clung to her mother, watching the rubber head of the Tyrannosaurus rex slowly disappear into the jaws of her brother.

That night, the next night, the night after, were much the same. We weren't dead, but we couldn't live. We were waiting in the zone of the lost, called War.

When I heard that ground troops had gone in, I knew it was time to leave the house and go to the fighting. I had hardly started down the dust-drawn street before a truck pulled up and two Iraqi soldiers dragged me in. One of them hit me across the mouth, and the other told me to shut up, even though I hadn't said anything. They drove me to a camp on the outside of the city and locked me in an interrogation room, that was a concrete hut half sunk in the sand.

My mouth was very swollen, but I could hear perfectly well when they told me they didn't want any American martyrs shown off on CNN. It was useless to say that I was British – what was the difference? – or that I had come here as a protest.

They took my passport and ripped it up. If I loved Iraq so much, well, now I could be an Iraqi. The last plane had left for the UK days ago; I should have been on it, I had been warned by my own embassy to leave. I, and others like me, had stayed; hidden, determined, but now cripplingly in the way. I was of no use to either side, but at least I was worth raping.

Women at war; it always comes to this, doesn't it? Our punishment, our solution; rape us.

I started to fight one of them, knowing it was useless. I felt his heavy cock against my groin. I had been willing to give up my body, but not like this. Why had I imagined I would be able to die gloriously in a moment of truth? The glory is invented after the war is over. There's no glory in dirt, sweat, scarred skin, open wounds.

I heard an angry voice shouting. The men got up, fumbling with their undone belts, and ran out of the hut. A soldier crouched down to help me sit up. I recognised him. He was the one who had stared at me day after day on the street.

"You can't die for us," he said. "You'll be killed in the fighting, probably, but you won't be dying for us. We will die for ourselves."

"What about the women and children?" I said. "Who will die for them?"

He didn't answer. Already there were other voices outside. He got up quickly and went out. The little I understood from the raised voices beyond the thick door told me they wanted me dealt with and quickly. Give me to the men or shoot me. Then I heard footsteps walking away.

Later, much later, in the night, after the eerie quiet followed by the howl of the air-raid siren, and the sick, constant explosion of the bombs, I heard the door open into the hut.

"Go," he said. "Just go and hide somewhere."

"Are you letting me escape?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

He sat down on the dirt floor. He told me he had been educated in America. He hated Saddam, but he loved his country and he did not believe in the right of this war. But he would kill when he had to; he wouldn't surrender. It felt like betrayal.

"The whole world should not belong to the United States," he said.

He took my hand and we went outside. The bombing had stopped for now. The power was out and the stars were visible above the city. What must we look like from up there? This beautiful blue world and the great rivers crossing it and the seas covering it and no boundaries or territories except the one that humans have made. The river flows on, careless of whose country it is. The forests grow where the soil is good. We share one sky and one small blue planet. And somewhere from the stars now this world is exploding.

His name is D. "I'd like to know you," he said, "in a better time."

Outside, a man hung with guns shoved into D's shoulder, and pointed at me, his voice raised – AMERICAN AMERICAN. He pulled a revolver out of his back holster. D knocked it away, and I stepped forward, my hands up.

The big man laughed, and D started talking quickly, angrily, his arm across my chest. The big man waved his gun at both of us, laughing all the time, then, he stood back and fired two shots straight into the dirt at our feet. D didn't move. I cried out and instinctively fell back. No one has trained me not to be a coward.

There was a terrific explosion. Suddenly the three of us were crouched against the bunker wall, cracked cement punching my back. My mouth was filled with dust and I was choking. D pushed a flask of water at me, and at the second of lull, dragged me towards a troop truck. He snapped an order at the soldiers, and the truck moved forward, slowly, like a heavy beast, like all the weight of the world.

It was dark in the back. Eight Iraqis, guns between their legs, sat on the metal flip-up benches bolted on either side of the truck. The canvas top was ripped, part of the floor had rusted out. One of them put his bag over the hole to stop the sand flying in.

None of them spoke English. One of them offered me some chocolate. They were just boys, with strong beautiful bodies that would hurt and wound and bleed, and I had seen the look of surprise on a man's face when a bullet entered him. How could it have happened? He had a wife and a new baby. He had promised to come home.

Do you remember, before the battle of Troy, how Hector says goodbye to Andromache and his tiny son, and the nodding plume of his helmet frightens the child? With such delicacy, he takes off his helmet, kisses his wife and baby, leaves like a hero, and never returns.

It was D who whispered that to me, holding my hand very gently as the truck criss-crossed the night.

I could hear the boom of guns getting closer. We were going to the fighting.

The truck's journey ended just before dawn. The soldiers had nodded asleep, their heads on each other's shoulders. I was sick with the smell of diesel, so I quietly climbed over the tailgate, and went a little way off to lie down.

The moon had faded to an outline and the stars were pale. D came and lay on his side next to me, throwing a blanket over us both. He kissed me. I wanted him to kiss me. His body, his warm skin, were truth. All the propaganda and the outrage, the politics and the rhetoric, miss the simple truth of my body and yours; we want to be alive, we want to be safe, we want someone to love, we want a place for our children, and everyone in the world wants these things. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder.

I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, D was smiling at me under a full sun.

"I love you," he said.

"You don't know me."

"I recognise you."

I nodded. Love is recognition. Love is re-cognition; a re-thinking of all we know, and all we are, because someone stands in front of us like a mirror.

D took out his binoculars and scanned the red horizon. He passed them to me, pointing. A long line of US tanks was moving slowly towards our position.

"It's time," he said. "Are you afraid?"

I shook my head and took his hand. I had hardly seen him before today, and I would not see him tomorrow. But this moment had years wrapped inside it, time before and time after. If there is a parallel world lying next to ours, perhaps it is at peace, and I will find you there.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

©Jeanette Winterson, 2003

'Theodora' opens at Glyndebourne on 10 August and runs to 31 August (01273 814686). The other festival productions are 'Tristan und Isolde' (opening 19 May), 'La bohème' (opening 20 May), 'Idomeneo' (opening 10 June), 'Le nozze di Figaro' (opening 6 July) and 'Die Fledermaus' (opening 27 July).



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