By Helen Rumbelow
When Zoë Duncan (above) was 14, her eldest brother shook her awake one night. There were the thumps of bombs falling, the scream of low-flying jets. The children peeped through the spyhole of their front door and saw tanks outside, hundreds of them. Saddam Hussein’s troops were on their doorstep.
“My life was cut in two, before that moment and after, like a knife had come down,” she says. “Everything I knew disappeared and took years to find again.”
We sit with tea just inside from Duncan’s lush, drowsy garden. Outside the sun scorches a home counties village green. Yet in the heat time seems to warp: the events of that night in Kuwait at the start of the Gulf war are suddenly burning in front of us.
Before the war was over, her family would survive bombardment, intense fighting, being held at gunpoint, going into hiding like “cockroaches”, afraid to make a noise that would betray their position. They would witness Kuwaiti boys strung up to die, and make the near-impossible choice to tear the family apart. Her parents, stationed there by the British Army, would make sacrifices to try to save their four children; her siblings would make sacrifices to try to save their parents. She would lose her eldest brother to a violent death and later lose her only other brother too. What that night unleashed was pure destruction.
What Duncan has been trying to do ever since is create. Create a sense of what happened, create a life out of the ruins. At first she could only think: “Why us?” Now 41, she has widened her scope: from why to “what next?” — for anyone who, like her, has suffered “an abrupt end to childhood”.
On the cover of her first novel, The Shifting Pools, loosely based on her experience in the 1990 Gulf war, is a seagull. Duncan loves seagulls, even though, or rather because, they can’t find their place alongside human society. “They are survivors.”
The girl narrator in The Shifting Pools is covered in scars on her back from attacks in Kuwait. Just before I get up to go, Duncan lifts her T-shirt from her thin frame and shows me her back. No scars: those, she says, are on the inside. Instead, there is a tattoo of a flock of seagull wings. The experience, she says, “has taught me how beautiful life is, unbearably. However dark it gets, it is so precious.”
Scattered around her home are photographs unlike most British holiday snaps from the 1970s. Her family are sitting on the roof of four-wheel-drive vehicles, deep in the Oman desert, or on dry riverbeds in Sudan. Her father, Bruce, was a gentle man, an Arabic specialist in the army, driven to help locals wherever his nomadic postings took him across the Middle East.
At the age of nine she was sent away — Britain was then nowhere she recognised — to a harsh Catholic boarding school in Dorset. It was “not a happy time”, and she lived for the holidays. Then they didn’t wear shoes, at weekends they camped in the desert under the stars (“it wasn’t until I came to this country that I ever used a tent”). An itinerant military child, she did not know where to call home.
“Bloom where you are planted,” her mother, Toni, said. Although, as Duncan adds, that belies some emotional complexity, because her only stable point was boarding school, and that was “deeply unpleasant”. Instead Duncan constructed a home wherever her family was. Home vanished, as the girl’s character in The Shifting Pools says, when her family was blown apart.
In the autumn of 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. Most British people remember this as a warm-up act before the conflict that would engulf the region in 2003. However, for the Duncan family and hundreds of other British expats caught in those countries it made them into targets. The Duncans were in an isolated post near the border. For a week they endured the bombings before their escape was negotiated. Abandoning all they had, including a burning pile of their identity cards and all British army documents, they fled. Within 100 metres they were seized by the Iraqis.
They were split up, interrogated with guns in their backs. “I remember saying the same words over again to calm myself down,” Duncan says. They somehow slipped through, and while there was no chance of getting out of the war zone they were smuggled to an abandoned British embassy house farther south. Here they had to live on an upper floor as if no one was at home.
“We couldn’t look out of the window, we couldn’t flush the toilet,” Duncan says. “We had to dry each piece of cutlery one by one. We knew that people were trying to hunt us down. That really plays with your mind, people actively trying to do you harm.”
They tortured themselves with options for escape. She was the youngest. Her elder sister, Hannah, was 15; Rorie was 18 and due to start at the University of Oxford; and Alex was 19 and in his second year at Oxford studying maths. All of them should have been back in England for the start of term. Instead her parents were considering the offer from a friend to take the boys across the desert to Saudi Arabia. “It was a hugely risky thing to do,” Duncan says. “We knew someone who had been shot trying.” Her parents hesitated and “the net tightened”, cutting off that chance.
They survived that month only thanks to the generosity of Kuwaiti neighbours, who threw food and medicines over the garden wall, at great risk. “My father pleaded with one, who had lost three of his best friends doing a similar thing, to stop.” One night, listening, at a whisper, to the BBC World Service, they heard that women and children would be allowed to leave. “I can’t imagine what it was like for my mother to leave, can’t imagine.”
At 4am the girls and their mother said their goodbyes. “It was the last time I saw Alex alive,” Duncan says. They arrived in the UK with nothing but a toothbrush, and no way to know the fate of the male side of the family. “That was disorientation. Walking around in London when two days ago we were hiding in a house like a cockroach in the dark.”
Some weeks later Edward Heath, the former prime minister, went to Kuwait to negotiate the release of some British citizens — including, at the 11th hour, Alex and Rorie. In a chaotic series of events the boys were taken by Iraqi soldiers at high speed — reports say 150mph — in an attempt to make this precious flight out. The vehicle crashed and Alex died. Rorie was a mess of broken bones, fighting for his life.
On the eve of their parting in Kuwait Alex had debated for hours with his brother about whether they should try to talk their way into leaving with the women and children, and concluded they would not. Then Alex sat down and wrote a letter to his best friend in England and gave it to Zoë to take with her. Zoë delivered Alex’s letter, which was posthumously published in The Times. It contains one of the most moving passages I have read from war. Alex acknowledges that by missing this chance of escape, surviving the war looked “improbable”, but explains why he and Rorie decided to stay.
“Our place and loyalty is here with our father,” Alex wrote. “Our childhood is over and we will take the consequences of its sad departure.”
Meanwhile, Zoë’s father tracked down Rorie in a barely functioning hospital and managed to get them both to England. Rorie was paralysed and would need nearly two years of spinal surgeries. “Our family had been completely blown apart. We were in an elongated state of shock.”
Unwilling to be a burden on her parents, who were supporting Rorie in hospital, she went back to boarding school. This was a mistake. The nuns showed no mercy.
“The compassion wasn’t there. It was ‘buck up and be happy for my brother as he was in a better place’. There was no desire to put your arms around someone and offer comfort, quite the opposite. If I saw my child being treated that way now, I’d be furious.”
Later she followed her brothers to Oxford. A PhD led to the fast track into the civil service. But she was “very low, everything had been squashed down”.
“At Oxford, I remember opening my curtains one morning and thinking I saw tanks coming down the street. On the outside I could seem very sorted, like the character in the book, but I could feel very paralysed on the inside. I recognise that feeling of being stuck inside a life.”
Still the trauma came. Rorie managed somehow to get himself walking again, retrained as an Arabic specialist, and devoted the next decade of his life to working for the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). “For my brother, the tremendous physical pain he had to go through reminded him of what he’d lost every day of his life.” But he was a very positive person. He died at the age of 30 while running a marathon to raise funds for MSF. The cause was not thought to be related to his earlier injuries.
“That felt very cruel. There was a weird sense that I could not believe it happened. But also a weird sense of, of course we were going to lose him too. We had him on borrowed time for 12 years.”
So how did she get from there to here: with three children in a house filled with their art, and her art, and a rock-solid sense of home? What helped? Life, she says, “felt wildly wrong for years”. Despite all the advice you get, “I don’t think time is a healer. It just takes you farther away from something.”
Instead, she actively grappled with her past. Her PhD was on Iraq. Later, as she felt stronger, she would redeploy her more personal experiences into art, and now writing.
“I see a thread running all the way through it. I had this big albatross around my neck. The awkwardness of telling people what happened to my family wasn’t worth it, so you end up hiding it. Then you feel guilty about denying your brother’s existence. It took me a long time to feel it was a world I could have a child in, because I didn’t think I could bear the pain of losing them.”
Slowly, the albatross lifted, to leave a kind of soaring hope in the world. “Now, for me, it is about where you go from that point. It has hollowed me out into a shape where I could feel the depths of the human condition and experience the joys of it in a way I couldn’t before.”
So, are you saying you would not want to change that side of it?
“The skin came off me. It’s deeply painful. The displacement we felt was nothing compared to people who come to a place where people don’t want them. That side of it I don’t want to lose touch with. I have a tiny bit of understanding. I know what it’s like to turn up with a toothbrush in a plastic bag and everything behind you has turned to ash. The people I loved did not have a chance to be sitting in the sunshine today.”
Before we leave she shows me a bronze statue sitting in the corner of the room, made of her by a sculptor friend. The figure is downcast. On her back is a cross made of two slashes, to represent her brothers.
“He told me, ‘That is not your cross to bear, but your wings.’ ”
The Shifting Pools by Zoë Duncan is published on July 20 by Lightning Books, £8.99