"My Mummy and Daddy," Bassim explained, the strained rationality in his voice making his words sound like plastic. "I must help them â€¦ in there â€¦ They're in there," he added, in case I had forgotten who lived in the house.
Bassim tried climbing up the exterior wall, but his efforts just dislodged more concrete and masonry. We picked our way around to the rear, looking for a way in but finding nothing viable. The fire inside was getting worse, snapping and spitting as it gorged on kerosene and cooking oils.
Then, on the far side, we found an entire upper room exposed intact to the black night air. Its outer wall had been peeled away, like a dolls' house or an architectural illustration, revealing the interior: a tiny wardrobe, a small armchair, a little writing table, a narrow pallet with a diminutive person asleep beneath pristine white sheets.
There was a noise like some giant beating on a steel door with a 200-foot-long hammer. Then came an intense roaring sound followed by a staggeringly huge explosion not far away. My cheeks flapped and lips opened involuntarily as the wave hit, shattering more glass and causing the dying house to lurch as if galvanized. Great pistons plunged through the tiny canals in my ears; I felt as if my brain was being squeezed by big soft hands.
Bassim, oblivious, had already scrambled up the brickwork and was soon cradling the little head. It was his great-aunt. She had probably died of heart failure around the time of impact.
I recalled the only thing she had ever said to me, the day before:
"You must tell Mr. Bush that this is not a good thing he does here. He thinks it is a good thing, but it is not at all good. Ask him which of his own children he would allow to die to destroy Saddam Hussein. He will not be willing to see his own child die for this. Then why must we see our children die for this madness? This is what you must write for the Americani to read â€¦ is it not so?" She had turned to the others for support here.
"Aunty wants to be the next Minister of Information," Bassim had told me, gently mocking the frail old lady.
"I don't have the imagination for that any more," she had said, not missing a beat. "Mohammed Sayeed Sahaf is doing a fine job, anyway, and this is because, you see, he always wanted to be a writer of novels. The 'Mother of All Battles' was his phrase, you know?"
"This is the Mother of All Aunties," Bassim had confided to me, loudly enough for his great-aunt to hear.
"Take him back to England with you," she had asked me, suddenly very serious. "Rana and Amira too. There is no life for them here. Make him go back with you â€¦"
Her voice had sounded so desolate and drained that I simply nodded to her grimly â€” Yes, I will, I will. I promise.
"Bassim, promise you will go back with Mr. Robert. Take your family. Get out of here!"
"Oh, Aunty, don't be so grim. Look on the bright side. Everything will turn out fine â€” you'll see â€¦"
If you don't have this book, go to the link and read the first chapter.