DOGS (shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards)

07:30 hours:

In early summer, a muted palette of colours made up the dust in Kabul. Brick dust, truck dust, crumbling concrete. Sometimes worse. It curled a low dance around the burnished feet of children and clung to the hems of burqas. It piled along the traffic meridians and the kerb sides. Just above the city, it hovered in a saffron-grey pall. There was always colour; in the streets around the guesthouse, bougainvillea swaggered over compound walls, the parks were filled with platoons of sunflowers, snow on the mountains crested white against eternal blue. But sometimes, driving through the city, it seemed to be smothering in a bone-hued powder. It would be good to get out into the country.

Once past the Ministry of Defence, Hanif drove towards the river and alongside it, with the old city on their right. Even this early in the morning, he had to dodge the honking cars and pick-ups that crowded the traffic lanes. Men on bicycles, APCs, buses, tinted-windowed 4Runners and donkey carts. A motorcycle weaved past them bearing a man, a woman and two children sandwiched between them. To their left, Spring’s melted Himalayan snows still flowed down the middle of the riverbed with goats and sheep grazing on either side. In a month it would be reduced to a trickle. They passed the marketplace, with its anarchic stalls offering everything from kites to songbirds, both once banned by the Taliban. Crossing the river further on, the traffic thinned and greenery began to emerge from breaks in the buildings, the structures got lower and the air began to clear. With the city behind them, the morning light had that clarity and depth that made everything seem perfectly sharp and clear.

Field trip. Were there ever two words that could lift the heart of a curfew-bound, security-regulated Kabul dweller? Emily checked her phone, and there was a text from the woman she was to accompany to the arms handover event in Ghazni province.

‘Hangin’ with Mahsood!’ it read. Emily pondered the mysterious words. Mahsood? As they rounded a corner, she smiled at the sight of the iconic, handsome face of Ahmed Shah Mahsood, splashed all across a giant billboard at the left side of the road. Incandescent leaves, morning sun behind them, framed the hero in reflective pose, brows furrowed. Above him towered a mountain and beneath stood a young woman, smiling and garbed in a dark, Khimar-style hijab. Emily waved.

‘Hi!’

‘Hi, I’m Tahmina. Nice to meet you.’

The woman hoisted two large bags up into the back of the vehicle.

‘The screen for the presentation…weighs a bloody ton.’

The last note of her sentence lifted up with the rich, unexpected tones of West Yorkshire. She settled into the seat.

‘Newcastle!’ Emily guessed.

‘Bradford via Peshawar, long story.’ She placed another bag behind the passenger seat.

‘It’s a shame emails don’t do accents,’ Emily said. ‘I would have enjoyed them so much more.’

Tahmina’s face was enveloped by the fabric of her hijab, which accentuated a glow of bare flawless skin. The rest fell tent-like as far as her waist, over the kameez that went below the knee, with the standard loose pants underneath. Interestingly, it was dark maroon, not black.

‘Nice colour,’ noted Emily.

‘Oh, I’m a real rebel,’ Tahmina replied.

Once she had settled into the back seat opposite Emily, the car built up speed and the road to the mountains improved.

‘Think this is okay?’ Emily was wearing a simple navy blue selwar-kameez with an embroidered panel in front and a clumsily-draped dupatta. ‘The scarf has a mind of its own.’

‘I’ll give you a lesson,’ said Tahmina. ‘You need pins. Possibly a hair cap.’

Emily made a face. ‘Really?’

Tahmina laughed at her. ‘In this heat, right? Lightweight. It isn’t so important for you, anyway. It’s me that needs to be careful.’

‘Were you born here?’

‘Yeah. Masters in Conflict Resolution: can’t cook pilau.’

‘I can’t cook, period,’ Emily grinned. ‘The York programme?’

‘University of Bradford,’ Tahmina said.

‘Great. So you organised the whole event.’

‘Well, with a just a little help from the United World Arms Decommissioning Agency.’ 

They laughed.

‘I hear you were in Darfur.’

‘Yes. Nearly two years.’ Emily said.

‘I was in South Sudan with UW, so my experience is mostly from there.’

‘That can’t have been an easy gig. What made you come here?’

‘Well, after South Sudan, my options were DRC, deep field Liberia or Chad. So I went for the easy option  …’ They laughed again.

She cleared her throat. ‘Any questions about the event?’

‘This seems like a fairly rural area. It would have been a Taliban stronghold, right?’

‘Yes, definitely. It’s not all-out conflict, like Helmand or Kandahar, but they’re regaining power now in this part of the province. Historically, it’s a community that has suffered with every change in power,’ Tahmina told her. ‘I mean, Ghazni was once the seat of a small empire, but you’re talking these days about really tough mountain men with no trust whatsoever in civil administration. And they have a deep hatred of the military, national or foreign. That’s the challenge, really.’

‘It would be quite a feather in the international cap if we could make a go of it there,’ Emily said.

‘Yeah. The international cap is a bit off-kilter these days, though.’

‘I’ve heard that a lot since I arrived.’ Emily looked at Tahmina. ‘Most people are finding it hard to keep positive.’

‘And that’s just the internationals.’ Tahmina raised her eyebrows.

Emily was silent.

‘Look, we can’t be negative,’ Tahmina went on. ‘I mean, let’s face it, you’d just crawl away and die otherwise, wouldn’t you? Look at the progress we’ve made. If we can continue to use the tribal infrastructure as a way of building up trust community by community—we might have a chance. That is where my being from here might help, that’s why I came back.’

09:30 hours:

Hanif was slowing down, gradually first and then he came to an abrupt stop, as the road ahead became jammed solid with skinny mountain goats. Try as he might, there was no room to manoeuvre the 4Runner around the herd. After speaking to the shepherds for a few minutes, he was not happy.

‘We will have to wait until the goats go off the road, they say maybe two kilometres down here,’ he pointed to a spot down several hairpin bends.

‘We’ll be late.’

Hanif said nothing, just inched along behind the goats, and Tahmina nodded at the view of the valley below. 

‘Look, no smog,’ she said.

Immediately below them was a valley carpeted in brilliant green vegetation like an emerald lake. A river flowed across it, glinting in the sunlight like a watery necklace and mountains rose from each side like craggy guardians. Apart from the low sound of the car’s engine, it was a timeless pastoral scene.

‘It’s beautiful,’ Emily said. ‘So…peaceful.’

‘When I see that,’ Tahmina said softly, ‘I think, Genghis Khan, British Empire, Soviet invasion, The Taliban, The War on Terror… None of their glorious plans and aspirations are worth even the goat shit on that riverbank.’

Once the last of the herd of long-haired goats in front of them had disappeared up a track, Hanif began to drive along the mountain road at frightening speeds. Tahmina had already opened the computer on the exact file of the presentation she was to give at the event, ready to plug in and project as soon they arrived. She held onto it with one hand, grabbing the door handle with the other. 

‘Hey, Hanif,’ Emily protested. ‘You know, they’re not going to start on time…’

10:30 hours:

But when they arrived, there were no officials outside, only the usual scattering of children and local civilians. There were three national policemen on the other side of the road, but the event attendees had already entered a gate set into the high brick wall around the District Administration Centre. Hanif parked behind the other international vehicles, took the screen and its stand out of the back and disappeared into the building.

Emily had just got out of the car as a tall man in traditional clothing and a turban was approaching the building. Half-way up the path however, he stopped and looked down at the UW vehicle. He stared for a moment at Tahmina, then he walked towards them, his wooden staff thumping the ground in time with the march of his steps. Emily tried to greet him, but he ignored her, instead pulling open the kerb-side door so hard that it jammed back on itself. He began to speak in angry tones at Tahmina.

In the car interior, Tahmina touched the edge of her hijab, looked directly at the man and began to say something. He cut her off, roared something else and started to gesticulate, delivering what sounded like a sermon. A crowd was gathering around the car. The police had come over and there was a cluster of blue Burqas and older villagers. Some of the burqaed women had babies in their arms.

‘Excuse me,’ Emily said. The man ignored her again. When Tahmina tried to speak once more, the man raised his voice and launched into an all-out tirade. A toddler began to cry. Tahmina’s lips were pursed, and there was more fear than anger in her eyes. One hand grasped the headrest of the front seat, the other scrunched a handful of her kameez tightly into her left fist, white knuckled.

Emily looked at her phone. No bloody signal. She wanted to go inside to the event and get someone, but was loathe to leave Tahmina with this maniac. Hanif came running back down the path. He looked at the man with a fear that shook Emily a little.

‘Who is he? Why is he shouting at Tahmina?’

‘District Administrator. Very important man. He say she bad woman. Prostitute.’

‘What?’

Reaching the car, Hanif began tennis-necking from Tahmina to the Administrator. He skipped foot to foot like a nervous hen.

‘No burqa. He say where is burqa? Face not covered. Hands not covered. Not going to the event.’

‘He can’t stop her from going in!’

Emily inched along the side of the vehicle, but the Administrator slammed his wooden staff down on the roof of the UW vehicle, just slightly to the left of her head, with a loud crack. She gasped at the violence of it. 

‘Emily—stop!’ Hanif hissed. ‘Do not talk to him’.

The man shouted now at Emily. She could smell body odour and heavy tobacco. Some of his spit landed wetly on her right eyelid just above the lashes and she had to stop herself from raising a hand to wipe it off. A band of icy liquid steeled its way across the inside of her chest; the force of his invective felt almost physical. She stepped back. When he turned and began to address the crowd, some of the women stood to attention, others bowed slightly.

‘He say nobody is help her. Punishment for look at her.’

After another loud strike on the roof of the car, the onlookers began to move away and soon were gone.

‘So, where are our colleagues? Why is nobody coming out to us?’ Emily glanced up the path.

‘Ceremony start now,’ Hanif told her.

The Administrator slammed the car door shut and turned sharply to walk up the path to the District Headquarters building. Tahmina sat back into the seat. After he had gone through the gate, there was only a blinding white calm, sun-baked and empty. Hanif ’s mouth was open, he looked panicked.

‘Okay, quick. Take the laptop in to Christophe,’ Emily told him. ‘It’s ready.’ She placed it into his arms with a power cable and an extension chord, dumping Tahmina’s printed speech on top. ‘Give this to him too.’

‘You come!’

‘No. I’m staying here with Tahmina a bit, she’s upset.’ She walked a few steps up the path with him. ‘So, Hanif—she can’t go inside?’

‘No, Emily. He say she cannot put her foot on the ground of his administration. Not even one foot.’

When the wooden gate closed behind Hanif, Emily realised she and Tahmina were alone. The national police were no longer there, the blue ghosts were all gone, children gone, old folks gone; she had never been in a rural village so deserted. It was Bergmanesque. She walked back and leaned in the window of the car.

‘Listen, Tahmina, it’ll be okay. I’m sure someone will be out to us in a minute, it’ll be sorted. It…it’s absolutely disgraceful.’

Tahmina said nothing.

Emily’s phone beeped. ‘Where RU?’ It was Christophe messaging.

Now a signal, she thought. 

‘Needed ASAP!’

‘Administrator has grounded Tahmina,’ she tapped back. ‘Pls help!’

‘Event started. Just come.’

‘Staying—or let’s bring Tahmina in.’

‘No!’ Then, ‘UR official photog. Needed here.’

‘Per UW Gender Policy, staying as support.’

‘Not here as Gender Off, here as Photog.’ Emily fumed. She looked at the tiny screen as another text popped up. ‘Do not embarrass this office.’

Emily’s nose crinkled in disbelief. What? She couldn’t believe it, not from Christophe. She looked around the plaza. A lizard blinked from a low rock beside the road. The white international cars were laid out in a line like metallic sunbathers and the only visible Afghan soul was sitting inside one of them, shaking. Emily looked at the mobile again. She switched it off.

‘Hopefully they won’t be too long,’ she said, walking around the car to sit in beside Tahmina.

‘You should go in,’ Tahmina said, quietly. She was sitting in the same position as she had been when the Administrator slammed the door.

‘And leave you here by yourself ? I don’t think so.’

‘You’re not Afghan, you don’t have to stay.’ Tahmina glared. Her Bradford was coming back. ‘Nothing will happen, believe me. He’s ordered them to stay away and have nothing to do with me. I’ll be fine.’

‘Well, he can’t order me. What I want to know is who is going to address this? They can’t just leave you here!’

Tahmina didn’t respond, and Emily kept talking.

‘Well, they can stuff their ceremony. I can’t believe this. To be honest, I have my period. I really don’t feel like walking around for two hours taking pictures of any of them.’

Tahmina leaned over and put her elbows on her knees and her forehead in her hands.

‘Look, maybe you’d prefer me not to stay,’ Emily stammered. ‘I don’t want to make more of a scene than what’s already happened. But maybe —I just thought—I mean, why should you stay here by yourself. They can’t do this.’

‘They can do this,’ Tahmina shouted. She lifted her head, eyes glistening. ‘I mean, listen to yourself! What are you thinking—they do do this! They do it every day. Do you think you can change the world by coming out here with a fucking scarf on your head?’

Emily said nothing.

‘They’ve done a lot worse, Emily … if this were six years ago I’d be in a pulp on the ground—I might even be dead.’

‘I was sort of thinking that some of our international colleagues would sort it.’

‘The boys in the suits? And why would they do that? Do you think this is the first time this has happened? Talk to your female Afghan colleagues—you have no idea. You think we like coming out in the field to be treated like this? When we made an official request not to be sent on field events, they didn’t hold a meeting to see what could be done about it, they told us, “if you can’t handle field trips you’d better find a different department”.’

‘My God.’

‘God has nothing to do with it.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I do want you to stay…’ Tahmina’s voice broke a little on the last word. ‘Look, a man shouted at me. So what? I’m still here and I’m fine. He didn’t hurt me.’

The traditional music coming from inside the building blasted and faded suddenly, as Christophe walked out the gate and down the path. He looked like an alien was going to burst out of his chest. Calm, controlled Swiss fury.

‘Christophe,’ Emily said, ‘Thank God you’re…’ 

‘Give me the camera,’ he snapped, ignoring Tahmina. Emily froze.

‘We’ll discuss this later. For now, I need some way of covering the event.’

11:30 hours:

‘Periods,’ Tahmina said. ‘They are our lowest common denominator.’

Emily laughed. ‘That’s for sure.’

‘They always come at the worse time.’

‘I hate these events, anyway,’ Emily said. ‘Sometimes you’re just a ghost. And there they all are—Western and Asian both—up at some podium swinging their willies…’

Tahmina laughed out loud. ‘Why should you care? I mean, you western girls—you’re sort of like extra-terrestrials—they don’t know what to do with you. That’s why they don’t expect you to wear a burqa.’

‘You know, the day I arrived, there was an event at the Intercon. I was told I wouldn’t need my scarf, since I was “an International.” So I walked in there like this—’

She let her scarf fall off her head for a couple of seconds and Tahmina’s face lit up with mirth.

‘Yeah. Like that.’ 

She covered up the Titian mane. ‘There was this Talib—my first encounter. I remember thinking, “if looks could kill, this is only my first day in the country and I am already quite dead.”’

‘So you went native.’

Emily winced. She deserved that. Just out here with a scarf on her head. ‘I find it more comfortable to wear the Pakistani gear.’

‘I’m not really native anymore myself. Do you know what they call us, the ones who’ve returned?’

‘What?’

‘Bottled water.’

‘Really?’

‘Because we grew up in Europe or America, we can’t drink the water out of the tap here like everyone else. We can only drink expensive bottled stuff. So we are “bottles of water.”’

‘Funny.’

‘You have to have a sense of humour about it.’

‘Must be hard, though.’

‘What’s hard right now is this heat. It’s got to be over thirty-eight degrees.’ They were beginning to swelter. They tried running the engine and leaving on the air-conditioning, but that produced a strong smell of petrol that was nauseating. They opened the windows, but with the sun almost directly overhead, there was no shade.

12:00 hours:

By noon the windows were still open, but there was not a breath of wind. Beads of sweat rolled down Emily’s face and her clothes were wet through all across her torso, under her arms and between her breasts.

They had several bottles of water, at least, but they were both swathed in dark colours, with long sleeves and covered heads. They both had worn sturdy shoes in case of rocky terrain. They removed the shoes.

Tahmina’s toes, painted a delicate shade of coral, twinkled under the seat. They unfastened their bras.

‘Can’t we take off these selwar things?’ Emily asked. ‘I mean, the kameez part is basically a proper, long dress…’

Tahmina snorted. ‘You have to wear the pants with it. You can’t separate them, it’s called a selwar-kameez. You wouldn’t be dressed…’

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘And what if he came back, you idiot?’ She began to fidget. Her face was fixed in a deep frown. She leaned back on the seat, eyes closed for a few minutes. 

“My cousin died sitting in a bus at the side of the road in the sun,’ Tahmina said.

‘Jesus.’

‘She was one of a group being taken to a healthcare workshop organised by a UW Women’s Group. A mini-bus came for them—they were waiting in the marketplace, but the driver had parked away from the other cars up the road a bit. So they walked up and all piled in… ‘ she paused again.

‘Then a few minutes later, the driver got out of the bus and walked away…’

Emily waited. Tahmina frowned in a silent, gathering back of grief.

‘They couldn’t get out of the bus to walk down the street—no man, you see. The driver was the official accompanying man, and he was gone. They wouldn’t have known what to do.’ Her words were being vacuumed back inside her, as she seemed to take breaths in without letting them out again. 

‘They were sitting there for ten minutes before the bus blew up. Eight women and their kids.’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’

Tahmina leaned forward again and put her hands over her face. Deep, smothered sobs shook her body. The force of the Administrator’s aggression was still ringing in Emily’s head, it flooded back again as she put an arm around Tahmina’s shoulder. 

12:30 hours:

In the compound behind the wall, the loudspeakers were droning steadily. At one point, they adjusted the sound system and they could actually hear the words. The Mayor got up to give his speech. The District Administrator got up to give his speech. The United World representative gave his speech, and Tahmina, who had worked on her speech all week, did not get to give her speech.

‘I think it’s bleedin’ hilarious,’ she said. ‘Four years at the Sorbonne, two in Bradford for an MA, two years in South Sudan and now home—to be locked up like a dog in the back of a car.’

Emily listened, and in her head, she visualised the scene inside the arms handover ceremony. Audience sitting in the cool shade of the courtyard, tea cups in hands. In front of the speakers there would be a long table covered with a white cloth, loaded up helter-skelter with a variety of arms; sometimes, it has to be said, rather old arms. She wondered whether there would be plastic explosives. Body belts. Digital devices. Even that genius, miniature death-dealer, the smartphone.

‘In America,’ Tahmina continued, ‘they have laws about leaving a dog in the back of your car. Actual laws where the person can do jail time or get a fine. ‘

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. It’s illegal to leave a dog in the back of a car in the sun. I read it somewhere after a couple in Texas fried a mastiff.’

Emily pulled her scarf up from her neck and scrunched her shoulders, trying to let a little air down her back.

What are you doing?’ giggled Tahmina.

‘Heat itch. It’s driving me nuts.’

Tahmina took a map out of the side pocket in the door of the car and began to fan them with it.

‘What about your family, are a lot of them abroad now?’ Emily asked.

‘My mother was killed in the eighties. We were sent to stay with my aunt in Herat for two years, because my father went to fight. He left everything behind—our house and everything—and joined Mahsood. But eventually, he got us out, I don’t know how.’

‘So he was one of the original rebels.’ 

‘Actually, he was an architect. You know that building beside the Ministry of Health with a facade and no back?’

‘Yes.’

‘He designed that. With a back.’

‘Did he ever remarry?’

‘My Dad? In a way. He slept with an AK-47 beside him in bed for the rest of his life. Sometimes when I would make the bed, I’d put the gun into the back of the wardrobe, but he’d just take it out again every night. He wasn’t an easy man.’ Her voice faltered a moment. ‘What about your father?’

‘He was an accountant,’ Emily said. ‘When I left school, he got me a job at the bank. When I got the visa for America, he wanted me to bring the bank uniform with me, because it was such good quality and might be useful for interviews with other banks.’

‘Well, you’re so much better off now,’ said Tahmina. ‘Working in a bank these days can be dangerous.’

It was beginning to really boil. They sipped their water, and after a while, they ate some samosas and oranges that the guesthouse cook had packed into a Tupperware container as a snack for Emily.

The Director of the UW Arms De-Commissioning Agency was on the podium now. He spoke of a new way forward and a different kind of brotherhood, where men would no longer need arms to survive.

There was a round of applause.

Tahmina and Emily looked at each other.

‘No arms, eh?’ Tahmina laughed. They began to giggle.

‘Stop, please, I’m going to pee…’

‘I’ve been wanting to pee for the last hour!’

‘No peeing women allowed!’

‘We’re not even supposed to have the thing you’re not allowed to pee with!’

‘I know.’ Tahmina’s shoulders were shaking. ‘Stop! I will really…’

‘Just say three Hail Marys!’ Emily snorted.

‘The Virgin Mary!’ Tahmina said. ‘I wonder how she ever had that baby…’

13:00 hours:

Every single thing in the car was hot to touch. Emily was hot just sitting in one place, but if she moved, the plastic seat was even hotter where her body had not come between it and the sun’s rays. The cotton of her garment was knotting into damp lumps that stuck into her legs and back. They sat, listless, headachy. Emily began to feel sporadic pain due to the natural urge to pass water. They decided to sit calmly and read. They sat calmly. They read. 

From inside the compound, a rich, spicy smell wafted over; lunch was being served. After another twenty minutes, Emily was in real discomfort, and Tahmina was shading a  twitch in her eye where a migraine threatened.

‘You know, the doctors in the UW medical centre have had to treat women for serious urinary infections due to stuff like this happening on field trips. It’s not natural!’

‘My friend got kidney stones,’ Tahmina said.

‘We have to pee.’

‘Maybe they’ll be back soon.’

‘Can’t we just get out and find a house?’ Emily asked. ‘Wouldn’t some woman let us in to go to the loo?’

‘Are you mad?’

Despite the harrowing temperature, Tahmina was going pale. There were dark circles under her eyes. Suddenly, she reached forward and picked up the large square Tupperware box, now ex-samosas. It was deep, and it had a lid. They pushed the passenger seat as far forward as it could go. The whole operation was difficult and terrifying, but they managed. Afterwards, their spirits were somewhat lifted.

‘You know that under Article 37c, Paragraph III, this is tantamount to abuse of official UW vehicles…’ Tahmina said.

Emily began to giggle again.

‘Vehicles may not be used as sanitation facilities by female staff unless Form 10B is filled out in triplicate and  sent to the Chief of Transport.’

‘Forty-eight hours in advance…’

‘Next problem, my dear. What are we going to do with that?’ Tahmina asked. She indicated the brimming Tupperware container.

‘I know what I’d like to do with it…’

14:00 hours:

It was another hour before the crowd inside began to emerge from the gate. The Administrator walked with the UWADA Director and the Chief of Section, followed by the Mayor, the local Chief of Police, more international staff and former combatants. They all shook hands warmly before beginning to make their way down the path towards the cars.

‘Here they come.’ Emily was nauseous, she didn’t open her eyes.

They were laying back, feet stretched out beneath the seats in front of them, their heads splayed against the back seat. Tahmina had stopped talking some time previously.

Emily could hear the British accent of the UWADA Director, who sounded like he was stopping a moment to speak to Christophe. Emily caught phrases of the exchange through the open window: Losing face… As if that woman didn’t know to cover up… No woman’s speech… to have touched the hearts and minds… No photographs… insubordination…No matter how many peace accords, you can never trust the bloody Airish.

Tahmina was holding Emily’s hand, the other was lying palm up on the car seat, and part of her hijab was folded over her eyes. She was immobilised with a migraine. Apart from the samosas earlier, they had not eaten since six-thirty that morning. Emily’s cheeks were cherry-flushed and burning up, she just wanted to get on the road.

She could hear people getting into cars, doors slamming, and it suddenly occurred to her that they had not met up with the main convoy on the way out, due to the goats on the road.

‘Hey—do you think they just didn’t know we were here, or do they not want to taint themselves, like the villagers?’

‘Screw them,’ muttered Tahmina, without moving her head.

Hanif scrambled up to the car.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked urgently when he saw them. He handed a cold bottle of water in through the back window.

‘Thank you.’ Emily put the bottle against her forehead.

‘Are you okay?’ Hanif repeated.

‘Just drive please, Hanif,’ Emily said. Before he started up the engine, he removed something from inside his waistcoat and handed back to Emily an amorphous, squishy looking packet wrapped in brown paper. Emily sat up too quickly, then closed her eyes as a peppering of dizzy stars ran across her vision.

‘This is not look very nice,’ he said. ‘But I bring for you.’

She let go of Tahmina’s hand and pulled apart the folds of the paper. Inside there was a crude white plastic bag filled with aromatic pilau rice and dollops of spicy goat meat.

‘Hanif, thank you so much—you are very kind.’ He began to drive away as the convoy started to move.

As she lay back again, Emily caught sight of two blue ghosts staring at her from a doorway across the street. At least she thought they were staring, but she couldn’t see their faces.

14:30 hours:

It wasn’t until they were well up into the mountains that their bodies began to cool down, and Emily was beginning to feel human again, just about. The chill of air conditioning soothed their burqa-less souls. Ten kilometres outside the village, they had to stop. Emily held Tahmina’s shoulders as she threw up the food Hanif had brought them. The white vehicles passed them by and continued on. There was no signal on her phone, but Emily guessed she wouldn’t be receiving any more texts from Christophe that day.

As they continued the journey, Tahmina lay back, in a silent battle with her migraine. Emily, feeling somewhat revived by the food and water, began to chat.

‘What we should do, somehow, is devise a way to airlift all the women out of the Taliban Area of Operations—every last one of them, old ladies, young girls, female babies—just get them the hell out of there. Then let those guys live all by themselves as manly men for about a year. That would sort it, really, wouldn’t it?’

Tahmina didn’t respond.

‘What am I saying? A week would do it.’ Tahmina still didn’t react.

Emily sighed. ‘Sorry, Tahmina, just kidding. But I suppose that’s a bad joke.’

‘No,’ Tahmina whispered from under the hijab. ‘That’s actually… blasphemy.’