Reprisal, a short story by Helena Mulkerns

Taken from her debut collection, Ferenji, this powerful and evocative story set in Kabul captures the tension of working in a war zone

Two girls study peacefully in the grounds of Kabul University, once the scene of terrible factional fighting, on the day of the marketplace bomb depicted in this story. Photograph: Helena Mulkerns

Two girls study peacefully in the grounds of Kabul University, once the scene of terrible factional fighting, on the day of the marketplace bomb depicted in this story. Photograph: Helena Mulkerns

 

Emerging from the darkened office, Emily stopped at the edge of the lawn and gazed into an adamantine Afghan sky. She let her bag slide to the ground and released her shoulders, succumbing to the deep stillness of a billion stars. Pulling in the crisp air, her exhalation produced a brief curl of breath. Autumn. The Hindu Kush stood immutable between the earth and the sky, too mighty for argument, too tough for fear; somehow comforting. It was almost seven o’clock, barely time to get home before curfew.

Picking up her bag, she moved quickly towards the exit. The trees that had made the United World compound pleasant during the warmer season were undressing slowly. Sap receded deep inside their very branches as if the party was over now and winter would brook no greenery. Soon there would be snow and smelly paraffin heaters. Her heels echoed on the concrete of the walkway as she made her way to the entrance yard. Azad was waiting for her in the big white land cruiser and lifted his hand off the steering wheel in greeting, starting the engine as she got in the back. They stopped before the gate, waited as the security guards opened and looked into the boot, then under the engine hood. She smiled at the familiar face of the young Tajik as he passed a broad rectangular mirror attached to a broom handle underneath the car’s chassis.

‘Tashkoor,’ said Emily.

‘Khahesh mekonam!’ he responded, glancing only briefly at her, but smiling.

Like everyone else, she was used to the security routines, but lately the increase in attacks had begun to permeate the ‘it’s okay, I’m not military’ veneer worn by all the civilian staff. Earlier that week a pregnant diplomat had been abducted from a security-cleared café. The week before, NGO joggers had been held up at gunpoint by a twelve-year-old. Well, she thought. That nicely nixed her idea of taking up an early morning run.

‘Have you driven one of the armoured vehicles yet, Azad?’

‘No, not yet,’ he said. ‘The drivers call them ‘Elvis’ cars!’

‘Elvis?’

‘Rock ‘n’roll!’

‘Oh, right,’ she laughed at the accuracy. She thought of the weighty lurch and sway of a fully-armoured vehicle. ‘Sometimes I think I’d feel a bit safer, though!’

‘That is true, but they are so difficult to drive.’

She leaned back and tried not to think of the IED they’d reported at the morning briefing; two British squaddies dead. Young. A mobile phone detonation in an outpost that had previously known nothing remotely as sophisticated. It was the first time in three months she’d seen any kind of tangible reaction from the four military brass at the other side of the conference table. Technology was creeping into the provinces with alarming speed. Despite the fact that up to now there had been no incidents involving the urban office vehicles, there was no denying what a deeply disturbing experience it was, as a civilian, to drive through a militarised city. Potholes and rubble by day, flood-lit desolation by night. Armed guards at most gateways, and the only new homes, ghastly in their pink and gold vulgarity, belonged to drug lords and arms dealers. Not exactly the scenic route.

The car crawled past the International Peace and Security Contingent Base 1, which was barricaded behind a high concrete wall topped with razor coils and punctuated with manned watchtowers.

Giant lighted panels along the road bathed the night in an unnatural brightness. It was pure science fiction. She felt like she was in one of those blockbusters where the world is coming to an end, all taking place in some military hinterland. Except that it wasn’t the end of the world, it was just another drive home on a Wednesday night.

She glanced down at the printout of the latest Security Directive on her lap. ‘Internationals permitted to reside in security-cleared guesthouses only. No unauthorised movement outside the Designated Security Parameter (DSP). No movement permitted after curfew, 19:00 hours. No use of external transport of any kind. No walking in the city centre. Market shopping strictly prohibited.’ The usual stuff.

They were making their way through a sort of conflict-hewn canyon now, where both sides of the street were piled high with Hesco bags. Azad was driving at a snail’s pace, nerve-wracking at the best of times.

‘It’s a late meeting at the Presidential Palace,’ Azad explained. ‘The traffic is bad until after Base 2.’

‘Well, they have plenty to talk about.’ There was a regulation somewhere about expressing personal views, but fuck it. Azad looked at her in the rear-view mirror a couple of times and then spoke.

‘What did you think of the apology today, Emily Jan?’

She sighed. It was a fair question. All afternoon the country had waited for the International Forces’ Commander in Chief to issue an apology for the massacre of a wedding party gathered in a mountain village two days previously. When it came, he pronounced it from his own air-conditioned office over a live stream to a press conference in DC. Never mind the bereaved and their dead babies, she thought. Semi apologise – why don’t you – to a bunch of journos on another continent.

‘I think he should have apologised to the family.’

‘Yes.’ Shame was not part of her job description, but she felt it anyway. And she wasn’t the only one. ‘We all think that, Azad.’

‘Of course, Emily Jan, thank you for saying.’

The unease in the office had been muted but palpable. The Internationals were angry, the Afghan staff coolly polite. Twice that afternoon they’d played ‘spot the blast’ – you heard the distant boom, and you tried to guess where the device had gone off.

‘South Marketplace,’ Stefano had guessed first time, and he was right. The second one was closer to home and more troubling. Then there were the really creepy ones you didn’t even hear, but occasionally felt, like nudges from the tendril of some demon beyond your line of vision.

‘How are the studies going, Azad? Political Science, right?’

‘Yes. But they will be a bit more difficult for a time now. I am a father again!’

‘That’s great! When?’

‘My wife had baby boy, two days ago. He is wonderful.’

She stared through the glass at the armoured men and women posted at intervals along the street outside. American soldiers, their ruddy cheeks illuminated in the phosphorous-white light. They looked bored, but it was an edgy, volatile boredom, their faces as stiff as their Kevlar vests.

A kid at the checkpoint near the Italian Embassy indicated for Azad to roll down the window, with his weapon. She lowered her own window immediately.

‘We’re both UW staff, Corporal.’ She tried to calm the pique in her voice. The American ignored her.

‘I need ID, Sir. Show me your ID.’

For once, Azad’s ID wasn’t around his neck, and Emily winced as he reached into the glove compartment. The soldier moved back a foot, eyes glued to Azad, finger glued to his trigger. As Azad held out his badge, the kid took his time examining it, and barely glanced at Emily’s.

Then he jerked his gloved hand at the road and they moved on. Azad turned on the radio, which squawked security and transport messages for the rest of the trip. After ten minutes, they pulled up outside the guesthouse.

‘Congratulations on the new baby, Azad. Please give your wife my best.’

‘Thank you!’ Azad put his hand on his heart and smiled.

She waited in the car until one of the perimeter guards had unbolted the door in the iron gate, emerged, checked the laneway all around, and motioned with an old Kalashnikov for her to go inside. It was every bit as menacing as the American kid’s state of the art weapon. Then the guard came in behind her and slammed the bolt across again, moving back into the shadows at the side of the entrance in silence.

As she passed the gatehouse, little Karim, the youngest of the staff, stuck his head out the window.

‘Goood eefning!’ he called, flashing a broad Hazara smile. Up to now the only English she had ever heard from him was the joyous pronouncement, ‘Heh-low. I am Karim, Handy Man!’

She shouted back. ‘Goood eeevening, Karim!’ The strain of the trip home began to leave her.

The guesthouse was known as ‘Rose Haven,’ much to the amusement of other ex-pats, and the scepticism of friends and relatives at home.

But it was a haven of sorts. The main building was a once-fashionable villa, with a long row of former stables opposite that had been converted into single accommodation units. Emily sometimes tried to imagine the garden when it was beautiful: a sixties Bond Babe villa. Now the grass was patchy and the footpaths crumbling, it was more like Miss Havisham’s last stand. With typical ferenji audacity, there was a wooden pergola down one end, covered in Persian rugs and cushions. Late night Thursdays it was a cocoon for snuggling bodies, PX liquor and field stories. Party nights, it became a Go-Go dancers’ cage.

Once past the guardhouse, Emily pulled off the long silk scarf that covered her head and plucked the pins out of her copper hair, letting it fall loose and unruly on her shoulders. She shook her head back and felt the pressure of a light headache lift, savouring the tiny symbolic moment. As she walked down the path, she breathed in the scent of the dozens of overgrown rose bushes that were wafting the last of their evening scent. The rose beds were partially lit by a saffron glow coming from Raphael’s room.

He was leaning in his doorway perfectly relaxed, holding an elegant glass of red wine that was obviously not his first of the evening. Ella Fitzgerald singing Night and Day floated soulfully across the Kabouli air, and a lean grey cat curled between his ankles and slinked away into the dark.

‘Bonsoir, Mademoiselle!’

She smiled. Raphael, the academic who was really a jazz hound.

‘Ça va bien, Prof?’

‘The situation is delicate,’ he whispered.

‘Which one?’

‘The roses. They are fragile now, the petals sensitive to each little gust of wind.’

‘I hate autumn,’ she reached out to one of the flowers, and two petals fell away from the stem.

‘They have listened one too many times to Rumi.’

‘And what did Rumi have to say?’

‘He said, “live where you fear to live”.’

‘You’re sentimental this evening, Raphael.’

He rolled the wine round in the glass, and looked out at the shadowy garden. ‘Do you know that roses originated here?’ he said. He was speaking in an uncharacteristically low tone that she could hardly hear. ‘From ancient Ariana and Persia. The Garden of Islam brought us our most beautiful flower. Imagine ...’

The howl of a helicopter overhead flying into the base nearby drowned out the rest of Raphael’s words. He looked at his feet, barely concealing the disquiet evoked by the low-flying chopper. Francis Ford Coppola had a lot to answer for, thought Emily, but he’d got it right. She walked over to Raphael in his solitary doorway. ‘There’s some people hanging out in the dining room – Inga just texted. Will you join us for a drink?’

Raphael smiled again, his splendid bon vivant aura restored. She planted a kiss on his rosy cheek before walking on.

Nearer the main building, Monsieur Yasin was pushing his creaky bicycle towards her along the path, on his way home. He gave her a nod. He was a kindly and courteous man who kept them all fed. Tahir, the house manager, had told Emily once how he’d been a celebrated chef in Paris for years until 1992, when his wife and two of his kids were killed in a West Kabul battle. Then he’d come home to care for a daughter that had survived, blind and disabled.

‘What have you cooked for us this evening, Monsieur Yasin?’

‘You guess, and tell me in the morning! The vegetarians will not like it!’ He gave a chortle. ‘À demain, alors!’

As she entered the main house, the lights in the hallway dimmed down almost to nothing, then with splendid City Power trickery, they fizzed up again moments later. Fuck it, she’d left her iPod charging. She should really go and plug it out. But she needed food and another hour wouldn’t make much of a difference.

In the dining room, a somewhat heated exchange was ensuing.

‘Come on, Philippe. The ceremony tomorrow will declare eight whole kilometres of former city wasteland landmine free. There’s a school in the middle of it, and an orphanage. And it’s residential. All you can eat photo ops.’

‘Look, it’s just not what the agency goes for,’ Philippe said, huddled over his can of beer like a teenager. Emily moved his bag of equipment from a dining room chair to the window seat and sat down, smiling at the Leica still hanging from his neck.

‘Why not?’ protested Freshta, an area manager with The Innocents’ Trust. Emily scooped a cup of rice from one pot, followed by a cup of Monsieur Yasin’s surprise casserole from another, and joined the table.

Freshta was flushed and spat her words at Philippe. ‘Why must you always look for the negative? For once, this is a positive story. Just admit it. Just report a damned real story that isn’t about destruction – or that isn’t sanitised press office bullshit.’

‘Well, that’s exactly it. It’s not a story. It’s a PR exercise.’ Philippe drank from his can, sullen.

‘I know these EOD guys,’ Mohammed said. ‘They’ve trained for years, and they’ve worked for fifteen months on this project. They are totally dedicated. So what does their accomplishment effectively mean? Means that kids taking a shortcut to school over a wall won’t get their legs blown off.’

‘And in the next sector over, where the mines aren’t cleared, some kid still gets it in the morning…’

‘Oh, well – we might as well all go fucking home then!’ Freshta snapped.

‘Phil, I’d like to see you working out in the heat trying to disarm anti-personnel mines,’ Inga voiced this with a quiet gravity that Philippe couldn’t wisecrack his way out of. Emily wanted to hug her. Out of the mouths of babes. Her perfect young face was solemn. If ever there was a Human Rights archetype, she thought, it was Inga.

Mohammed stood up. ‘Fuck you, Phil.’ His chair clattered to the floor behind him as he left the dining room.

Oddly, this was followed by silence. Philippe looked sheepish.

Above them, the light bulb dimmed again down to a filigree thread that bathed them in a creepy gloom.

Then Emily recognised the main ingredient in the stew.

‘It’s RABBIT!’

‘Oh,’ Inga squealed, ‘that’s disgusting!’

‘Poor old Bugs,’ Phil mocked.

Then Raphael popped his head in the door. ‘Children, children! Some laughter, finalement! Are you finished fighting now? What about the veil, ladies? Shall we go for that argument again for a change?’

Even Freshta laughed at this effrontery, and for once allowed him to pour her a glass of Cabernet.

‘If you will just cut the crap for a few minutes, s’il vous plaît, you might enjoy this splendid piece of music I have for you all!’ He placed a CD in the boom box on the side table. The sound of an old Carlos Gardel Milonga filled the room, an unlikely aural balm. He was right. No one wanted to be stressed this late in the evening, with one more day at the office before the weekend.

‘Nice one, Raphael,’ Emily murmured, reaching for a glass. ‘Do you think it would work in Helmand?’

‘That’s not funny,’ Freshta began.

‘Ah, lighten up…’

An hour later, Marisol, who had joined them when she heard the Argentinian music, was dancing tango with Raphael in the party room and Phil had agreed to attend the deminers’ handover ceremony. They’d be there for some time yet, now that the night had broken over into down-time.

Making her way across the pitch black garden to her bedroom, Emily remembered the iPod, still plugged into City Power. Too late. No tiny green glow greeted her in the room, it was fried. Dead as a dodo, an ex-iPod. Rats.

And it’s just coming up to six forty a.m. now; you’re listening to the BBC World Service… The familiar clipped tones roused her from sleep. Hauling onto one elbow, she reached for her mobile phone, which already flashed a text message. It was Azad.

‘Early pick-up today. C U 30mins.’ Shit, she’d better get up. She showered and pulled on her red and grey selwar kameez, taking in the view of the compound as she gathered her things.

She stopped a moment by the window at the sight of Baba Najib, the house grandfather, sweeping up leaves in the middle distance. He’d been the gardener in the house since the seventies, and despite the many changes down the years, he still appeared every morning to work. The morning light fell on his wiry frame, the crags of his face deep and tired. She wondered how old he was.

Inga interrupted her thoughts then, knocking at the bedroom door. She was dressed to go out, her scarf already pulled up tight over her wild blonde hair. She was like a puppy.

‘Hey, Emily. Tahir’s taking me to the market early today so I can buy a nice rug. Do you want to come?’

Outside, brandishing a set of car keys, Tahir flashed a movie-star grin. Emily smiled back. Who needed George Clooney when they had Tahir?

‘No, thanks. And watch yourself, Inga. Don’t let Security see you in Tahir’s vehicle.’

‘I know, but I’m flying home on Saturday, I can’t go without a carpet!’

‘Well, just let Tahir do the bargaining, okay?’ Tahir laughed.

‘Come on, Miss Sweden,’ he said, ‘let’s get you a carpet.’

As she pulled on her own scarf, Emily spotted Raphael clowning at the window of the dining room across the way, holding up a cup of coffee. He opened it and shouted over:

‘Ma chère! Du café, tout prêt à boire!’

‘Merci! I’m coming!’

Some days, she thought, despite all the shit going down, there could be sun on the rose bushes, roasted coffee smells, clear skies – Hallmark bloody card stuff.

When Emily got to the dining room, Raphael had already gone ahead, leaving her fresh, diplomatic pouch coffee on the dining room windowsill with a saucer neatly on top. She reached for the cup, and was lifting it to her lips when the blast came.

It was the loudest, longest sound she ever heard. It was the briefest, the most chilling, and stark. The shock wave hit the window, and time itself shattered into infinitesimal fractions of its normal beat, so that she felt the weird, weird thud of the shock, heard the wood frames almost splitting, but not quite. Glass was smashing somewhere behind her, and nearby. Eyes jammed shut, every muscle taut; for a second there was a brief limbo of silence, and then there was nothing: a blockage in time.

Then random images began flickering in murkiness: Inga and Tahir, Azad, Karim, Freshta, Monsieur Yasin, Baba Najib, Raphael…

Everything flooded back in an onslaught, except oddly, just on one side of her head. Phones were ringing and a walkie-talkie crackled. She heard the surreal screech of a smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. For a moment, or forever, she felt like she was returning from far away, or emerging from underwater. She tried to hear what was happening outside, but sounds were distorted and sirens from the base were drowning things out, except for a man screaming and the chilling thrum of a Huey.

In a rag-doll heap on the dining room floor, she raised her shaking hands, first thought being that she was – astonishingly – intact, heart bursting. Ringing in her ears, and guts churning like rabid eels, but alive. The window in the side wall behind her had shattered inwards, but not the one she’d been facing. Lucky, lucky, she thought. You are so lucky. You are so fucking lucky.

She tried to stand up, but couldn’t, a heavy feeling in the back of her head. She crawled on her knees to the window, only to see a blurred horror of confusion, a cloud of dust fluttering scarlet petals across broken glass. Every pane along the courtyard opposite had been blown back into the rooms. The roof of the pergola had gone through Raphael’s window and it looked like a person was crushed between it and the casement. She saw a man’s legs. A burqa-covered body lay in the periphery of her vision, blood flowing down the path from beneath it, but though she saw the destruction, it wouldn’t really compute. Nauseous, she collapsed on the floor again, and pulled herself into a sitting position against the window seat. A chopper came in low overhead, churning a pall of black, stinking smoke through the smashed pane. The room seemed to be very dark now, everything getting louder, and it struck her that she hadn’t even drunk Raphael’s coffee.

She stared at the long spill of it, soaking into the threadbare carpet, and was surprised to see, blending into it like an abstract painting, several splashes of rich, seething red. Well, she thought, staring. Here we are. Reprisal.

Ferenji and Other Stories by Helena Mulkerns is published by Doire Press, €12.95

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