Our extract this week is Diving for Pearls by Jamie O’Connell…
White. Two purring engines. Six round windows on each side. It flies, a sleek machine slicing through currents and gusts. A movie star inches down his Ray-Bans and looks out at the cloudless sky. ‘Beautiful,’ he says.
‘It only rains every couple of years,’ his companion replies, fixing his white robes. ‘Keep your eyes on the horizon. You cannot miss it.’
For some minutes, all the star sees are straight lines cut- ting across sand. Where do all those endless motorways go? His neck aches from the journey. A flight attendant asks if he’d like something to drink. ‘My usual,’ he replies, stretch- ing out across the soft leather. Celery and cucumber juice with a dash of lemon in a Riedel glass.
‘Thirty minutes to landing,’ the captain’s voice announces over the intercom.
‘Can I get you a hot towel?’ The attendant returns. ‘Would you like the masseuse?’
The star laughs, benevolent as a king, shaking his head and thanking the young woman anyway. He goes to the bathroom and checks his appearance in the mirror, splash- ing his face with water from the gold taps. A light tan hides the fatigue of flying. Drops make the whites of his eyes gleam, the irises like emeralds. And those teeth. The famous smile. He picks up the mouthwash.
The weight under his feet shifts. The plane begins its descent. He opens the door and makes his way back to his recliner, waiting for the skyline to appear.
Some miles below, Hiyam Husayin floats past rows of white yachts, out into Dubai Marina. Arms outstretched, she appears dazzled by the brilliance of the city. Lining the docks are beautiful skyscrapers, finished with white and blue-grey Carrara marble and studded everywhere with sparkling glass and steel. The window panes, sheets of tinted blue glass, are tinged green as they reflect the sun’s gold rays.
Above the marina, a monumental bridge supports a motorway. The sound of cars echoes down over the crystalline water: Ferraris, Porsches, Jaguars and Lamborghinis. Suited men on phones flag RTAs to Media City, tourists seek Atlantis on The Palm, and women jog with their personal trainers. None of them seems to have noticed the woman floating below.
At the marina’s edge there are many people – men, women and children – walking about, eating outside cafés, all dressed in a variety of sandals, flip-flops, shorts, burqas and string vests. Someone points out into the water and others follow his gaze. A young woman screams. Meanwhile Hiyam continues to bob, her clothes floating outwards. Children run away and hide behind their mothers as her blood furls and pools.
A line appears on the horizon, a tapering needle that quivers, over twice the height of other towers that nestle around it. Beyond them, desert.
‘It’s nearly as high as we are.’ The film star smiles. He attempts to appear calm. Will those ropes be strong enough to hold him? One knot slips and… it doesn’t bear thinking about.
‘Too late to say no now.’ The other man laughs a little. ‘Don’t worry. We have taken every precaution.’ He touches his keffiyeh and seems satisfied.
The needle grows closer, the base fleshing out – a series of rising cylinders that stagger into the final point. It gleams in the morning sun, elegant, an architectural poem, uncluttered, balanced. A jewel at the centre of a crown.
‘Impressive,’ the film star says.
‘Higher than your Empire State.’
The film star gives his signature smile – the flash of white teeth – but doesn’t say a word.
Outside the city, a television presenter grabs a handful of sand and talks into a camera. His suit is immaculate, possi- bly Tom Ford. He speaks in a series of clichés and tosses the handful aside.
‘Fantasy became reality. In the space of just twenty years, Dubai turned from desert into a jaw-dropping oasis of stone, marble, concrete, glass and raw excitement. And now this – a crowning moment. An international mega-star is to conquer the world’s tallest building.’
And with that, the camera rises up above him, panning over the city.
Somewhere in the distance, there is the sound of police cars. Crowds are forming on the walkway of the marina, gazing at the body of Hiyam, raising their phones. She looks insignificant through a lens. Her bobbing elbow could be the fin of a dolphin. It wouldn’t take much for her to vanish altogether.
A mother tells her maid to move her son away from the barrier – too grim a sight for a nine-year-old’s eyes. But he doesn’t want to go. Who is the woman floating? Why is she dead? The woman ignores his questions, promising ice cream and possibly a toy if he’ll just come away from the water’s edge.
‘Look,’ a person shouts. Not far from Hiyam’s body, a bag floats upside down. Louis Vuitton, Autumn 2010 collection. Somewhere at the bottom of the marina lie MAC liquid eye- liner, sugar-free gum, Dior Demoiselle 2 sunglasses in twilight green and storm blue, an iPhone 4 with a Swarovski crystal case, a black hijab and three condoms.
Inside the airport, people gather by the glass. A girl glances at her watch. ‘He’s late.’
‘Patience, darling. It’s only ten minutes.’
‘Will he wave?’
‘I’m sure he will, if he sees us.’
Maybe he will see them. Perhaps the star will give them a friendly raised hand, almost a high five. A bit of his lustre will rub off, leaving them with the afterglow of having come close, even for a moment, to something extraordinary.
Downtown, preparations have begun. Film crews bring in the large cases of equipment, filling the elevators, watching as the numbers on the dial rise, 138 . . . 139 . . . 140. Ears pop and, as they step into the lobbies, they can feel the slight sway of the colossal metal frame.
One of the workmen steps up to the glass and gazes down. The sun’s rays shine on the mall below and its fountains glimmer. Gleaming candy is offered for sale, as well as gleaming shoes, gleaming hats, and gleaming clothes of all sorts. People wait in lines for cream-and-red RTAs.
Billboards announce the arrival of this star. In a few days’ time, he is to ascend the Burj Khalifa, the highest man-made summit. He will conquer this tower of iron and glass, taunt death and climb higher still. People will inhale at the sight of his daring in a land of great feats. But he won’t slip. This is now, this is Dubai, and nothing else matters.