Beddington was late. The thought flashed through Conrad’s mind that maybe he wouldn’t show. He stood outside his hotel in the pleasant heat of the morning, waiting. Later, pleasant would change to unbearable and he tried to mentally and physically prepare for the ordeal ahead in which the heat would undoubtedly be a factor. What had seemed a bit of a caper after a few pints of lager was now beginning to look foolhardy to say the least.
A large American sedan swung round the corner and pulled up in front of him, the diminutive Beddington peering above the steering wheel.
‘What have I let myself in for?’ he muttered under his breath.
‘Hop in,’ Beddington called through the window.
Conrad climbed in and they drove off. After a few minutes they turned off the main road and headed down a smaller road in a more residential area. They took several more turns before ending up in a narrow alleyway where Beddington parked under a tatty canopy.
‘Here we are,’ he announced cheerfully.
‘Where?’ Conrad looked out of the window dubiously.
‘At the back of my apartment, out of sight of man and beast. This is where we’ll get you comfortable.’
Conrad got out of the vehicle. He had a small overnight bag containing the barest minimum of clothes for his expedition, leaving the rest at the hotel. The two men walked to the back of the car, looking around furtively to ensure that they were unobserved. Beddington opened the lid of the impressively capacious boot, or trunk as it would have been termed by its American manufacturer, and reached in. Brushing aside the various items cluttering the space, tools, high-visibility jacket, even a traffic cone, he lifted the carpet at the furthest part of the recess and fumbled underneath until he released a hidden catch. The bulkhead between the boot and the interior of the car lifted toward them revealing a small triangular space behind, the widest part at the floor and tapering to the apex.
‘Part of the space is taken from the boot and part from the rear of the car. The rear seat has a false back, no spring, and it’s been moved forward. It creates the space without it looking obvious,’ Beddington explained proudly. Conrad had to agree it had been skilfully constructed however the thought of squeezing in was not appealing.
‘Will I be able to breathe?’
‘Oh yes, don’t worry about that, there’s a number of tiny holes on both sides. And there’s a sleeping bag in there to give you a bit of padding. You’ll be able to hear me so I’ll tell you what’s going on and when we’re about to get to the customs post. You’ll need to be absolutely quiet when I stop there. They might want to search the car, look in the boot, that sort of thing. They don’t always, but be ready in case they do. I’ll tell them I’m going to pick up a fare at Aramco. They’re used to that and, as I said, a lot of them know me at least by sight.’
‘What about the extra weight?’ Conrad asked dubiously, ‘won’t they be able to see the car is down on its springs at the back?’
‘I’ve had the rear axle springs strengthened so that doesn’t happen. It means the ride’s a bit bumpier than usual, that’s all.’
‘You do seem to have thought of everything. Right, well, here goes,’ Conrad tossed his overnight bag into the boot and then climbed in after it. Once he was lying on his back he awkwardly manoeuvred himself into the compartment. He was lying sideways in the car, his head wedged up against the beginning of the rear wheel arch. He grabbed his bag to use as a makeshift pillow. He had to twist his torso and bend his legs in order to fit, as the car wasn’t wide enough to accommodate his six-foot frame.
‘Comfy?’ Beddington asked, his beard moving in such a way as to suggest there may have been a smile behind it.
‘The height of luxury,’ Conrad replied, sarcastically, ‘I shall probably fall asleep in a few minutes. Mind you don’t go over any bumps,’ he indicated the wheel arch at his head.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. Right, time to seal you in, ready?’
Conrad nodded and Beddington reached in and pulled down the false bulkhead. Darkness descended in Conrad’s small world. He heard Beddington secure the catch that kept the bulkhead in place then smooth the carpet back, followed by the sound of the boot lid being slammed shut. For a moment all was silent and he had to fight a feeling of claustrophobia. He closed his eyes and tried to fool himself that he was just lying in bed.
He heard the front door open as Beddington climbed into the driver’s seat.
‘You all right back there?’ Beddington’s muffled voice penetrated the gloom.
‘Yes, fine,’ he called out.
‘OK, we’ll be off then. We should be at the customs station in about half an hour.’
Beddington started the engine and reversed out of the carport and retraced his route back to the main road.
The King Fahd Causeway, commonly referred to as the Bahrain Causeway, was completed in 1986. Effectively a bridge some twenty-six kilometres in length, it connects Bahrain to the mainland of Saudi Arabia just south of Dammam. Halfway across, a man-made island is home to a rest area complete with a restaurant at the top of a tower as well as the customs point that would provide Beddington and the hidden Conrad with their greatest challenge.
Cramped in his tiny space with his legs bent and his torso slightly twisted, Conrad soon began to feel the strain on his lower back.
‘How are you feeling?’ Beddington called out cheerily as he drove.
‘I’ll be lucky if I ever walk again,’ Conrad replied grimly.
‘That’s the spirit,’ Beddington retorted, his cheerful demeanour undaunted.
Conrad closed his eyes and tried to will himself into a state of meditation divorced from his body. He failed. His compartment did not benefit from the car’s air-conditioning and within minutes he was drenched in sweat. He could feel a pool of water soaking through his shirt at the base of his spine, but there was nothing he could do about it, he was more or less trapped in his position with scarcely any movement possible.
The car went over a series of bumps and, as he had predicted, his head banged against the wheel arch.
‘Sorry!’ Beddington called out, ‘the roads out here aren’t all they might be at times. We’re just approaching the Causeway.’
Lying in darkness, Conrad had no concept of time. He couldn’t have seen his watch even if he had been able to bring it up to his eyes. If they had reached the Causeway, he supposed they had been going for about twenty minutes.
‘We’re not far from the customs checkpoint,’ Beddington’s muffled voice floated through to him, ‘you need to keep very still and very quiet. If you can stop breathing, so much the better!’
Mungo Beddington’s relentless good humour was beginning to get on Conrad’s nerves. He tried to think pleasant thoughts to take his mind off the numbing pain in his muscles as they protested against his unnatural and uncomfortable position.
He felt the car slow and come to a halt.
Conrad heard the driver’s door open and felt the shift in the suspension as Beddington got out. There were muffled voices from outside; Beddington’s and at least one, possibly two others. Conrad couldn’t make out what was being said, try though he might. He was barely breathing. The voices were moving around the vehicle. Suddenly the lid of the boot was opened and light flooded though the myriad tiny air holes. Conrad felt a chill run through his body. He could hear the guards’ voices mere inches away from him. If they found him in these security-heightened days, his fate did not bear thinking about.
‘There, I told you, nothing,’ he could hear Beddington protesting to the guards. His voice held no hint of any panic. He was simply reiterating the obvious.
‘I told you, I’m going to Aramco to pick up a passenger…’
Conrad heard a guard grunt at Beddington’s explanation.
At that exact moment Conrad developed cramp in his left leg. He felt it coming on almost as though in slow motion. It started as a slow tightening in his calf and he knew that in a matter of seconds he would be enveloped in excruciating pain. He tried to straighten his leg to brace it against the side of the car. As he did so he inadvertently let out a small grunt of his own. The noise seemed to ricochet around the small space. Despite the pain in his leg, he froze. Any second now the flimsy false bulkhead concealing him from view would be ripped away and he would find himself staring down the barrel of a semi-automatic rifle.
There was a loud bang and everything went black. Conrad blinked in the darkness, trying to work out if he was hurt.
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