The line was taut. The cord circles tightened into handcuffs, burning his wrists. He was propelled forward, dragged on the rope, stumbling over sand and stones on the leash. His neck craned backwards, his face towards the sky and the glare of the sun fired the cloth of his blindfold. His tongue flickered to his lips, tasted their dryness. Sweat blossomed on his scalp, trickled down his temples, stung chapped skin.
He was sick with shock, his limbs convulsing. The man had jumped him from behind, from nowhere, and knocked him to the ground. He had pinioned him, his knee hard in his back, and bound his eyes before he could twist his face to see. Who was he? He caught the stink of male sweat; his own, bitter with adrenalin, and, overlaying it, the thick meaty smell of the man.
He stretched the tendons of his neck and managed to move the cloth a fraction. The material was wound tightly round his head, pressing into his eyes, and as he lifted it, he created a narrow slit of light at the bottom. Light, there, below, just beyond his vision. His eyes bulged, forcing themselves downwards, straining towards his chin, to focus on the paper-thin line of brightness. Was that a blur of sand he could see, dancing with pin-pricks of colour? His head was bursting with effort and fear.
He tried to take control of his body, to steady his breathing and, with it, his mind. This man is taking me somewhere. He has a plan for me. With this thought, hope rose. He almost giggled, intoxicated with it. If he were going to kill me, he would have done it by now. Wouldn’t he? Yes. Alhamdulillah. Thanks be to God. He grasped this hope and hugged it to him, a lifebelt thought. Yes. If he –
A sharp rock at his toes and he was tripping, his feet splayed. The cord closed its teeth more sharply round his wrists, biting into the skin. The rope jerked. Pain through his hands, a sudden white heat in his shoulder sockets, his arms. A rush of air on his face as he fell forward, crashing, bouncing hard against the ground. Air struck out of his chest, leaving him gasping. Fine sand rose in a cloud, filling his mouth, his nose, making him choke. The stink of grit close to his face, a smell of dead sand and desiccated dirt.
A pause. He was alive, breathing noisily, in, out. His nostrils ran wet with mucus or blood. He tried to lift his head and opened his mouth a crack to speak. His eyes, encrusted with sand, were trying to force themselves open beneath the cloth. His tongue was thick. He held his breath to listen. He heard the man, close to him, exhale.
His head was held down, his face pressed into the sand. A weight on the back of his head. A foot. The hard sole of a boot. He bucked and twisted, trying to flip over, to turn his covered face to the man, to beg. The boot held him firm, standing on his skull, grinding his nose into the dirt, causing a hundred minute sharp stones to embed in his forehead, his chin. A wave of nausea brought bile into his throat, riding a swell of panic.
A metallic click. A gun being cocked. He opened his mouth to shout but no word came. The sharp stink of piss, hot and steamy. The sudden wetness in his groin. A searing flash of white light. Cleansing and bleaching everything in an instant. The halo of the gunshot Jalil didn’t live to hear.
The room was shabby and hot. Ellen, sitting cross-legged on the threadbare carpet, tried to shift her weight and ease herself into another position without attracting attention. Her knees were aching.
Dust hung heavy in the air, suspended in the shafts of early evening light which were pressing in through open windows. The furniture was sparse. Just an old-fashioned television on a stand, a vast dark-wood dresser, scraped and scuffed by several generations, and worn cushions scattered across the carpet and against the walls.
Jalil’s mother was kneading her hands, rhythmically squeezing one through the other, back and forth. Her head was bent, watching her fingers as if their restlessness surprised her. The skin was papery. The veins along the backs of her hands stood full and thick with purple blood, part of the map of her new shrinking self.
Her scarf was pulled forward, screening her face, although the only male present was her young son. He was squatting on his haunches beside her, pressed against her body for comfort. He was a thin boy of ten or eleven with protruding ears and a scab on his chin. He was too young to understand he’d become the man of the house.
The daughter, embarrassed by her mother’s silence, tried to take control. She leaned forward to Ellen to whisper. “You understand,” she said. “A very big shock.”
The daughter pushed a dish of greasy long-grained rice towards Ellen. It was laced with flakes of nut and plump stock-rich raisins. Ellen added another spoonful to her plate. She broke off a piece of fresh ridged bread, warm and spongy, and wiped it round, pinching a piece of lamb and rice together with her forefingers. She leaned forward over the plastic cloth. It was spread out between them on the floor, dominating the room, covered with cheap glass dishes of home-cooked food, a litre bottle of Coca-Cola and a smatter of shot glasses.
She brought her hand to her mouth, pushed the food between her lips, even though she had no appetite. The lamb had been marinated in a pungent sauce and she chewed slowly. She knew the rules. They must press food on her even after she was sated, to show respect, and she, to show thanks, must eat it.
“He has a friend there.” The daughter’s voice faltered as she corrected herself. She was fiddling with the fabric of her headscarf, playing it between her long fingers, shading her eyes. “Had a friend.”
Ellen looked up. The daughter was nineteen or twenty, a little younger than Jalil. Her nose was broad and prominent, as his had been. Sitting so close to her mother, she looked a younger, less broken version of her, with clear olive skin and expressive eyes, ringed with kohl. She’d already lost her father. Now she’d also lost her older brother, any uncle or cousin could push her into a hasty marriage.
“His friend,” Ellen asked her, “is he also a translator?”
The daughter nodded. “His name is Najib,” she said. “An old classmate of his, also from Kabul.”
“And he’s still in Helmand?”
“Yes. Maybe now he can help you instead of Jalil.” She breathed heavily. “With your reports.”
The girl attempted a smile but looked away and it crumpled. Ellen pushed a piece of lamb round her plate with her bunched fingers, struggling to find the will to eat. In four years of coming back and forth to Kabul to cover Afghanistan for NewsWorld, this was the first time she would work without Jalil. He’d been full of life, of talent, exactly the sort of man his country needed. His death sickened her. He should never have turned to the military for work. She looked round now at the faces that mirrored his.
Jalil’s mother lifted her fleshless hands and ran them through the boy’s hair and along the contours of his face, as if she were a blind woman, learning him. He wriggled, sighed, scratched himself around the ribs, then settled against her again and submitted to the hands without protest.
“It was Najib who told us.” The corners of the daughter’s mouth were tight with tension. All this was just a week old and they were still in shock.
The daughter leaned forward automatically to press on Ellen the dish of meat and rice. Ellen forced herself to take a little more. The lamb split easily into pieces on her plate, releasing aromatic steam. It was good meat. They must have paid a lot of afghanis for it. Without Jalil, money would be tight. She was very conscious that she was the only one eating. The family sat round her, dull-eyed, and watched. This evening, she knew, they would pick at her leftovers.
The daughter was educated. Some course in management or teaching, Ellen couldn’t recall what exactly. Her neat gold earrings, her shoulder-length bob and the tailoring of her Afghan kameez gave her a hint of Western stylishness.
“What will you do now?”
The daughter shrugged. “Find work.” Her tone was lifeless.
“I could ask around,” Ellen said. “The aid agencies might need someone. Or the embassies.”
The daughter kept her eyes on the plastic cloth between them. It was dotted now with stray grains of rice and wet circles of water and Coke where glasses had stood.
Jalil should be here. Their visits to this small family room, with its bare walls and peeling white plaster, had become a ritual whenever she’d worked with him. He’d always invited her home for a special evening meal, planned for the end of her stay once their work was done, and hosted by his mother. It was an honour to be welcomed into an Afghan home. His family had been proud that Jalil had an important English friend who paid him well in dollars.
Without him, the air in the room was stale. She had done the right thing in making the effort to come, dashing from the chaos of Kabul Airport to these hushed rooms, but their grief was drowning her. She tore off a final piece of bread, ran it round the congealing sauce on her plate. Another few minutes and she’d have to head back to the airport to report for the military flight south to Helmand Province.
The daughter had lifted her eyes to the television and was staring at it sightlessly. The sound was muted but the images flickered on, splashing colour and light into the room. From the heavy dresser, Jalil’s face stared out. It was a black and white photograph which Ellen had never seen before, framed in black. A spray of plastic flowers sat in a small glass vase beside it. It was an old-fashioned studio portrait that looked several years out of date. Jalil was wearing a pale kameez with a stiff collar. His hair, usually so unruly, was combed severely to one side, glossy and fixed in place, perhaps with gel. His expression, straight into the camera, was serious and subdued. She bet he hated that picture. It wasn’t at all how she wanted to remember him.
When she looked away, she saw him as he used to be, sitting opposite her, stooped over his food, his long legs crossed, his back pressed against a cushion and the wall, his hair flopping forward over his forehead. His mother, shyly triumphant, would have fussed over their meal, pressing too much rich food on them both. She and her daughter would have cooked all day in readiness. His little brother, adoring, would be horsing around, over-excited. Climbing on him until he was pushed aside and told to behave. She looked over at the boy now. He had Jalil’s delicate features, the same long black eye-lashes and large eyes that would break hearts. Now, though, they were red-rimmed and anxious as he pressed his cheek against his mother’s side for comfort, like a much younger child.
She turned to the daughter. “On the phone,” she said in a low voice, “you said something. About the way he died.”
The daughter tutted under her breath, gave her mother a quick glance, then lowered her eyes to her lap. Her fingers plucked again at the hem of her headscarf.
Ellen persisted. “What did you mean? What makes you think you weren’t told the truth?”
“They said he was killed by the Taliban when they were out on patrol. An ambush. That’s what they said.”
The daughter unfolded her legs and brought herself to her feet, crossed to the dresser and opened a drawer. It was crammed with yellowing papers. She picked out an envelope near the top, withdrew a single sheet of thin paper and spread it out on the floor between them, smoothing it with her fingertips. The writing was neat, covered in the ink squiggles of Pashto.
Across the room, her mother had lifted her head to watch. Ellen felt the weight of the silence, of the room’s holding its breath.
“This is the last letter we received from him.” the daughter said. She traced the writing gently with her finger. “He says he is leaving Helmand, leaving the job with the military. We should expect him home.” She paused, blinked, continued. “But he sounds upset. “Things are not as I thought,” he says. “Not at all’.” He writes to Mama not to worry. He’ll find work in Kabul.” She glanced up at Ellen. “He means some work for foreign journalists, like he did with you. Translating.” She paused. “He liked to work with you. Always when you came here. He looked forward to it.”
Ellen nodded, holding her gaze. “I did too.”
The daughter sighed, turned back to the letter. “Don’t be angry. I cannot stay here any longer. It is not honourable.’ This is what he says.” She looked up again and Ellen saw her hesitate before she decided to speak. “I think he sounds afraid.”
Ellen let her eyes fall to her own hands, limp in her lap. She forced herself to face this new thought of Jalil’s fear. It sat heavy in her gut. Was it fear for his life that had made him decide to leave? A wave of nausea took her. She clenched her hands into fists, resisting it, and saw her knuckles whiten. It is not honourable for me to stay, he’d written. Honour. A cornerstone for him, she knew that.
It’s my fault, she thought. His death. I could have stopped it. She closed her eyes, screening it all out, digging her nails into her palms. Her breaths were coming in short bursts in the quietness and she tried consciously to slow and lengthen them. The family mustn’t see her distress.
A splutter of static and microphone squeal broke into the room from outside as the dusk call to prayer began. It filled the silence, shimmering in through the open windows and across the room, a young male voice of sad sweetness. Ellen sat, rigid, feeling the blessing of prayer wash over them, low and melodious in its devotion. She concentrated on breathing. The room was soft with memories.
The first time she worked with Jalil, they’d embarked on an intense ten day road trip, interviewing dozens of Afghans about the forthcoming elections. What did they expect from their politicians? Who did they support? They’d asked shopkeepers, housewives, farmers and traders, piecing together material for a four page spread on the general mood and how Afghans saw their future.
She’d been given Jalil’s number over lunch in Islamabad. A friend on The New York Times had just come out of Afghanistan. With so many journalists swarming through Kabul, decent translators were thin on the ground.
“Kinda young,” he’d said, scribbling down the mobile phone number on a paper napkin. “But good. Smart as a whip.”
For the first three days of the trip, she’d wondered. Jalil had been nervous, stumbling over his English. He seemed shy. He was little more than twenty and she was used to working with older men, canny operators who were usually ex-journalists themselves. They could be cocky and not always trustworthy but they brimmed with confidence and they knew a story when they saw one. By comparison, Jalil seemed naïve.
On the fourth day, they turned off the road and bumped along dirt to a cluster of mud-brick houses. A boy, herding goats, flattened himself against a wall to watch, turned to a ghost by the fine brown dust beaten up by the wheels. Beyond him a thin man was tugging at a donkey whose body was rendered invisible by a vast load of brushwood. A girl with a dirt-encrusted face ran to the man and clutched at his leg as they passed, her eyes round.
The schoolteacher, a contact of Jalil’s, greeted them warmly. They sat cross-legged on cushions in his bare front room and drank green tea from tall glasses. Jalil translated back and forth. Yes, the schoolteacher told them, his voice measured, everyone in the village knew about the elections. He was encouraging them all to vote. But would the politicians help them? He had his doubts. Would they bring electricity to the village? And then, there was the school. He shook his head, his eyes pleading. He hadn’t been paid his salary for so long now, for four, five months. How could he - ?
The throb of an approaching truck interrupted him. He looked towards the window, nodded to Jalil and, in the doorway, pushed his bare feet back into the sandals waiting there. Ellen sipped her scalding tea and listened to the slam of a truck door outside, then low voices.
The man who entered with him smiled round. He had a short beard and a brown Afghan hat and greeted them with easy confidence. Ellen sat up, interested, to watch. My cousin, said the schoolteacher, and clicked his fingers to his son to run for a fresh chai glass. Just a few minutes later, before the conversation had really resumed, Jalil got to his feet, thanked the schoolteacher and ushered Ellen hastily out of the house.
“That was abrupt.” Ellen watched the passing landscape with dismay from the backseat of the vehicle. They’d spent several hours driving out to find the schoolteacher and she’d left with barely half an interview. “What’s the hurry?”
Jalil was sitting in the front passenger seat by the driver. He mumbled something she didn’t catch.
“He had more to say,” she went on. The late morning sun was intense. Her head, encased in a headscarf, was already hot. “We didn’t have to leave just because his cousin came.”
“That man he calls his cousin.” Jalil turned back to her and lowered his voice. “He is not a good man.”
Ellen shook her head. “Why do you say that?”
Jalil raised his hand and worked it open and closed like the mouth of a glove puppet. “Blah blah,” he said, snapping his thumb against his fingers. “He is a man to go blah blah blah to someone. To some powerful man. He came rushing to see us for a reason.” He stared at Ellen. His voice had dropped to a whisper. “Maybe he is going blah blah to some Taliban.”
Ellen glanced out of the window at the swirling dust, the blank brown landscape. They were in the middle of nowhere. “Oh, come on.”
When she looked back at Jalil, he was frowning.
“Maybe they’re just cousins.” She sighed to herself. She’d hurt his pride. “He seemed friendly enough.”
“You saw his smile?”
“What about it?”
Jalil pointed to his own mouth. “So much of gold in his teeth. New gold.”
Ellen shrugged. So what? He had gold teeth.
“His watch?” Jalil ran his hand round his wrist. “Foreign watch. New.” Jalil paused, watching her reaction. “Who gave him all this money?”
He faced forward again. His hair was sticking together in clumps along the top of his neck.
Ellen thought about what he’d said. The teeth, the watch. She hadn’t noticed them. Jalil had. “He could be a businessman,” she said. “A trader.”
Jalil gave a dismissive grunt. “Business?” He gestured out of the window at the emptiness of the desert. “Here?”
She paused and considered. Maybe Jalil was smarter than he looked. He just wasn’t loud. “Blah, blah,” she said. She was used to Afghan men with big egos. Jalil was different. She lifted her own hand and opened and closed it like a mouth, as he had done. “Blah blah, blah blah.”
He turned back to see and she snapped her hand open and closed at him until they both started to laugh, saying “blah, blah” stupidly to each other as the driver swung back onto the road and they headed through the dry, swirling dust towards the next village.
Now, in this grieving house, the call to prayer gave a final burst of static and came to a close. Silence reached into the room. Ellen shifted her weight. It was already late.
“Manana.” Thank you. She placed her right hand on her heart in a gesture of thanks and bowed her head to Jalil’s mother. Ellen unravelled her legs and rubbed her ankles to bring them back to life. She reached forward to gather together the scattered dishes and help to clear them. Jalil’s sister protested, pushing Ellen’s hands away and scolding her softly, as Ellen knew she would.
In the dim hallway, she covered her head with a voluminous scarf, wound the ends round her neck to keep it in place and bent to lace up her boots. Jalil’s mother had retreated to the kitchen and only the daughter was hovering, adjusting her own scarf nervously in folds round her head and shoulders as she watched Ellen prepare to leave.
Ellen gestured the girl to come towards her. In a quick movement, she took a bundle of dollars from her pocket, folded the girl’s long fingers round the money and enclosed her hands for a moment in the mesh of her own. Behind them rose a clatter of dishes, shifting in the sink. A tap coughed and water splashed onto a hard surface. The girl hesitated and opened her mouth to protest.
“Balay,” said Ellen. Yes. Her voice was firm. “Please.”
The girl prised off Ellen’s fingers and thrust the money back at her. Her eyes were proud. She knows what Jalil asked me, Ellen thought. She blames me. The money was thick and greasy in her hands. Dirty. She pushed it back into her pocket. She and the girl stared at each other, unspeaking.
The moment was ended by Jalil’s mother who came out to them from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. Her scarf had fallen back to her shoulders. Her hair, prematurely grey, was clipped into a bun, dripping strands.
She embraced Ellen, kissing her on both cheeks, then pressed herself against her body. She smelt of rose water and spices and her hair was dry and prickly against the soft skin of Ellen’s neck. She pulled back and took Ellen’s hands in her own. She clasped them, looking up into her eyes. Her palms were hot and firm. Her eyes looked so like his. Deep brown with fragments of light radiating outwards. As she spoke, Ellen read the concern there.
“Don’t go, she is saying.” The daughter was standing beside them, her voice cool as she translated her mother’s words. “It’s too dangerous. Don’t go to Helmand, she says. Go back to your own country and forget your work here. Be safe.”
His mother embraced her a second time. Ellen felt the hardness of the smaller woman’s ribs against her own flesh, the compact muscle of years of labour.
“I must go,” she said at last. She put her hands on Jalil’s mother’s shoulders and lifted her away. “I’ve got stories to file.”
His mother was reaching up to Ellen’s cheek, patting it with a cupped hand.
“I’ll find out,” Ellen said. “Tell her. I’ll find out what happened to Jalil.”
His mother spoke once more as her daughter unbolted the door and opened it. The family’s guard, standing outside in the shadows, rushed forward, his rifle glinting in the half-light. He escorted Ellen across the shabby courtyard to the high metal gate set in the compound wall. His mother had used one of the phrases Jalil had taught Ellen in the time they’d worked together. One she didn’t need anyone else to translate for her. May Allah bless you, she’d said. May Allah protect you.