‘Omar felt he had been traveling for weeks, heat by day, cold by night, dusty all the time, pitching tents at night by mountain streams, crossing perilous swinging bridges, fearing the elephant would miss its footing and crash down into the ravines below. Not good, my friends, not good up there.
As the air became chilly and they followed the guide deeper into the mountains, Omar leaned back into his swaying bower, longing for a warm brick at his feet, and sighing. Snow had settled on far off peaks like great mounds of white rice. How awful he had to fetch a bride and escort her back in such weather. They would never break through the steep mountain passes if they delayed, so he urges the procession on, swearing that an elephant might be tough but it was too slow. Omar dragged his enormous coat about his shoulders and shivered. He demanded the eunuch rub his feet.
“We should have left earlier in the summer,” Omar complained.
“Not to worry. The girl will be wrapped in carpets to survive this unusual cold,” the eunuch said.
‘They were deep in the mountains by the second week of traveling when high turrets appeared in the distance, followed by crenulated walls. Omar could see snow swirling around a building, revealing it in disjointed sections. A track wound up the mountain and continued over a swinging bridge towards the castle-like buildings. Omar summoned the guide. He called to their escort to climb the mountainside to what was surely a monastery above.’
At that moment a scooter spluttered outside, hiccupping and coughing. We all looked up. Rashid stopped talking. It had to be Alfredo, an Italian with an Afghan girlfriend. He swept in and grabbed a stool by Rashid and we knew by his face he had seen something unspeakable.
‘It’s the roadblocks. They dragged a boy out of a van and shot him on the side of the road. A kid! Bad, Bad. I came the long way around the souk. He lowered his voice, put his foot over his leg, and swiveled the heel of his boot. He leaned towards Rashid and gave him a roll of film. ‘I got it though.’
‘Put that away. You know better than showing that in here. Later,’ muttered Rashid. He turned to the bar. ‘Abdul, something strong for Signor Alf. He’s been through the roadblocks. Rashid waited until Alf spluttered on the brandy. Two young Dutch journalists and the Irishman shook their heads. We all knew how terrified Alf would have been. We knew his film showed terrible truths. But none of us spoke or interrupted as Rashid continued.
‘Now where was I? Ah, the monastery. A bell rang out guiding the little group up, its sound elusive as the wind caught it and a musical cadence fell and disappeared and was caught again over and over until the cavalcade weaved over a rickety bridge and entered a courtyard. An old monk silently beckoned them to follow him into the monastery buildings. Omar, stiff and sore, had to struggle down steps placed by his kneeling elephant. He stretched and before he had time to speak the monk broke his silence.
“You are from the great Akbar,” he said. “And now you are part of the great game of chance. Welcome to our monastery.” He bowed low and lifted his arms, opening them wide in greeting. “And you seek a bride.”