“Things do not always happen as they are planned, you know,” the old monk said and gestured to the party to sit and eat. Feet shuffled over teak floors as the monks carried in bowls of food. The sound they made as they moved was like the rustle of cards falling from a pack. Soon, after they ate, all Omar could hear from rugs and pillows around him was snoring.
In the morning, the animals were rested. Omar was sorry to leave this beautiful place that hinted at enlightenment and peace.
The monk gently told him, “But you will return, friend, for in each pot in the fire you find many things.”
Three days later the cavalcade came out of the mountains and were approaching Kabul. The elephant had a huge thirst. The sun burned over the plains and the mountains seemed far away concealed by haze.
“This blasted elephant,” complained Omar as they stopped at the tenth well on that day. “A nuisance,” he added. “Too slow.”
In the teahouse, I drew nearer to the brazier. Rashid paused his tale-telling. He was listening to a crackling radio. Alf moved closer to Rashid, their beards almost touching. Alf could not stop twitching. I shifted on my stool trying to catch the fading sound.
‘World service,’ Alf said. He looked up. ‘The Taleban are in control of Sarobi. Tomorrow Kabul.’
I shook my head. It wasn’t good. Rashid reached over and turned off the radio.
One of the Dutchmen said, ‘Never mind the Taleban. They’ll be on their way back to the mountains soon enough. Go on, Rashid, tell us what happened. Finish the story. Did he get the bride? Go on!’
‘Bet he fell for her himself,’ the other Dutchman added.
‘Or the eunuch did,’ joked my Irish friend.
Rashid called for honey cakes. ‘More cakes here please and a big pot of mint tea.’
We had seen it all here, I thought, skeletons of Russian tanks, buildings crumbled and crunched into rubble, Kalashnikovs at the checkpoints and our cameras snatched and eventually returned with a spoiled film. All of us had seen innocent blood spilled. The murder and rape of Kabul were not over. Moths were gathering around flickering lamps like miniature shrouds and out somewhere in the circling night we could hear shooting again, but none of us wanted to go out there. We wanted to escape into this tale, tall as a giant stick of cinnamon and as elusive as Ali Baba’s magic carpet.
Rashid began picking his teeth again. He was playing for time, spinning out his story, forcing us to hang onto every word. ‘What happened in the teahouse? What happened here, Rashid? I hacked a chunk of sugar from a slab on the table and laced my tea with it.
He leaned towards us and continued in a low conspiratorial manner. ‘My story has lost its ending but never the less let’s see what happens next. Now, where did I get to?’