If I was going to fake a moon landing video I would shoot it here, he thought. Afghanistan is more like the moon that the moon itself. He walked to the side of the road for a piss, his leaking left boot making a ridiculous sq-squeak, sq-squeak, sq-squeak as he walked.
While others in 45 Commando had found vast cave complexes containing weapons and ammo, his detachment had not seen so much as a dead goat by the road or a black vulture picking at carrion.
But at least now, they had a puncture to punch a hole in the tedium.
No one in the vehicle was surprised by this. The Snatch Land Rover was hated by UK combatants and offered, they said, less protection against land mines and RPGs than saying a prayer or closing your eyes really tightly. Privately he thought he would rather keep the punctured tire and discard the mobile coffin, but there you go.
There was some commotion by the Land Rover but the wind made it hard to hear the details. He was aware that he had finished pissing and was now just pointing his penis at some hills, but was distracted by the shouting and the last words he caught were nails, rocket and watch out.
It was dark when he came to. There were voices – Pashto – and he realised he was tied up. He’d been captured? Yes – nails, rocket and watch out came back to mind. His training kicked in and quietly he started testing his bonds. After a moment he realised he was not tied up and what he thought were his bonds was actually his arm strapped to his chest. As clarity returned, so did the pain. He felt tenderly at his wounded left arm. Suddenly, light.
He was taken aback by the Oxbridge accent.
“Your arm was broken, but we’ve set it as best we can. It’s better that you lay still.” An oil lamp flickered on and a young man came into focus. “Can I get you anything?”
“Where am I?”
“Ah, it doesn’t have a name actually. It’s a village, of sorts, off the Khost-Gardez Pass.”
“Oh, we found you, brought you back here.” The young man interrupted him before he could get out the inevitable next question. “I’m afraid your companions were not so lucky. Rebels. They dig in by the side of the road, try to force vehicles off and then ambush them. I thought the rebels had all moved on. You were unlucky.”
Unlucky, he reflected bitterly.
They tended to his wounds, shared their basic food with him, and let him sleep. Once, when he was brought the unforgiving broth that they seemed to subsist on, he asked the young man about himself.
“I was raised in Kabul, with relatives. They sent me to school in England and eventually I ended up at Oxford. My father died and I came back to – to take over.”
“To take over what?
“Rest now. Questions are for later.”
Over the next few days his strength returned although his arm continued to give him pain. He was allowed to walk around the few huts where noisy chickens outnumbered the silent people.The village was in a steep-sided gorge which closed at one end, which he found by following the stream to the point where it appeared from inside the mountain. There, he also found the temple.
Part building, part cave, it looked older than the mountain itself and was well cared for. There were voices and a dim glow from inside and, stooping through the cave opening.
“You should not have come yet,” said Oxbridge, who did nothing to stop him. The walls were covered with faded, chipped murals which reminded him of churches he’d seen in Ethiopia. Oil lamps, giving the scene a divine serenity, led to the end of the chamber and the boy.
The boy had bright eyes, wild black hair and a smile that promised mischief. “Hello”, the boy said, and indicated to a rug nearby. He walked over and sat down. “Hello,” the boy beamed again.
“I’m afraid ‘hello’ is all he can manage. He wants to learn English, but does not want lessons!” There was a look of affection between them followed by a torrent of Pashto from the boy, who began to look more serious.
“He says that your wounds are not healing as quickly as they should. How do you feel?”
“Soon I won’t need the sling, I can-” Another torrent.
“My apologies. He did not mean your physical wounds. He means your grief, specifically. He has seen it.”
The accusation of grief caught him out. Relying on his training he had not stopped to feel anything, and now that he was forced to – yes, there was grief.
“He knows. He says that the answer is yes, if you ask for it. But he has a warning for you, and conditions. Now, you are to eat, and rest, and you’ll return tomorrow to ask him the question.” Oxbridge indicated towards the entrance.
That night when Oxbridge brought his broth, he sat opposite him instead of leaving immediately.
“Who is the boy?”
“He doesn’t have a name. He’s probably forgotten it. My ancestors have always cared for him and at some point I knew it would be my job.”
“What do you mean, ‘always cared for him’? He looks half your age.”
“There are no clocks or calendars here,” shrugged Oxbridge, who seemed satisfied with that answer. “Sleep now. In the morning, ask him the question, and his answer will make sense.”
The night was darker and quieter than the void, and for long hours he puzzled over the question. He thought about the lack of clocks and calendars, and finally he wept for his dead friends. His grief brought clarity and with clarity, the question.
“Hello!” the boy chattered excitedly. He smiled at the boy as he sat on the rug.
“Do you understand the answer now?”
“Yes. There are no clocks or calendars here,” he said. Oxbridge smiled flawlessly.
“The conditions are these. You can only observe, you cannot interfere. If you change anything there, it’s changed here too, so be very careful. When you want to come back to now, you must find your way back to the village, to this temple. The boy cannot leave, and we cannot help you when you are there. It has to be here. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good. Now you have your answer, you may ask your question.”
“Can I see my friends again?”
The boy smiled.
It was light when he came to. Cautiously he opened his eyes and, staying low, studied his surroundings. As best he could tell he was about 400m from the Snatch Land Rover, which would be around a curve and down the track.
With care he picked his way between the boulders, as close to the scene as he dare. The sq-squeak, sq-squeak, sq-squeak of his leaking boot seemed so loud as the echo pinballed around his surroundings. Looking down on the scene from higher up the slope, he could work out where the rebels had come from and how they had crept up on the vehicle without being seen. He could see that the squad were already unpacking the spare tyre; he did not have much time.
He had never intended to follow the boy’s warning for his grief was too great. He had always intended to alert the others so that they would in effect ambush the ambushers, and to do that he had to make a hard choice. After an interminable wait he watched himself emerge from the side of the vehicle. He strained to hear as he told the others that he was taking a piss and they cursed him, laughing, as they changed the tyre and while strolled off to relieve himself.
He realized his error immediately. His military issue knife was still in the hut because he hadn’t expected to leave the temple immediately. He would have to improvise, with no knife and one arm still in a sling. Luckily, flint-like rocks were not in short supply. His boots almost proved his undoing. The sq-squeak, sq-squeak, sq-squeak betrayed him on the very last step.
The rock in his hand landed on the side of the head, glancingly, not square on the crown as intended. Assuming a rebel attacker he spun to face his assailant and was stunned to find he was facing himself. The distraction was brief, but enough. He raised the rock again. It took three more blows on the ground to finish himself off.
He stashed his body behind the boulder he’d been peeing against and ran back to the Land Rover in time to see the vehicle disintegrate again, just as it had before. And again he was blown backwards by the explosion, although this time he was further away and it was more of a blessing, as he was out of sight and behind the boulder when the rebels arrived. They did not see him.
Thinking fast as he watched the rebels loot the bodies, he formulated a new plan. He would go back to the temple and wait, recuperate and wait until he had the use of both arms. He’d hide his knife in his tunic and ask the boy to come back again. He couldn’t risk the time it took to finish his other self off and hide the body; he realized he would have just enough time to use decisive force, cut his throat or something, and leave him behind this boulder. It wasn’t a great way to go because he might take hours to bleed out and die but there could be no loose ends and that was all he would have time for. The advantage of cutting his throat, of course, was that he couldn’t then call out a warning, or for help. The plan made him physically nauseous, but it was all he could do if he wanted to save his friends.
Then, from behind, came the familiar quiet sq-squeak, sq-squeak, sq-squeak of his one leaky boot. A hand yanked his head back before a practised blade flashed across his throat, so sharp that there was no real pain.
“Sorry,” came the voice in a whisper, “but you’d have done the same.” With a shove he was tumbling down the bank away from the road. He heard himself exhorting urgently that he’d sighted rebels with an RPG, and convincing the rest of the squad to get into the Land Rover and get away. At least his mates had not been killed this time.
Slowly he struggled to his feet. The cut to his throat was not the severe wound he feared. It had been enough to stun and distract while the getaway was made and for that at least he was grateful, but it would not kill him. He did still need urgent medical attention though, so he made his way back to the road to where his vehicle had just been.
That was mistake number one. With no ambush there was no explosion to attract his rescuers. There was no way that he could find the village again because he’d been unconscious when he was taken there. With no village there was no boy, and with no boy there was no way to get back to then.
Entirely engrossed in this predicament, he made mistake number two in staying stationary. The rebel group that originally ambushed him found him by the side of the road, where they gleefully and savagely fell upon him.
A British military prisoner was a major advantage for them. They would beat him, yes, for being an infidel and an invader. They would make videos of him, where he’d be forced to renounce the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Americans, and their Western god, and swear allegiance to the one true God and his prophet.
But he alone knew what would happen next. The British would denounce it as a hoax, because the soldier they claimed to be holding hostage would be back at base with the rest of his squad. There would be no retreat, no exchange of prisoners, no advantage for the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Just beatings, torture, humiliation, savage reprisals that worsened the more he refused to admit he was lying. Just a man in a cave deep underground who swore he was a British soldier, and the pain that stretched on forever with no surcease. He smiled grimly to himself. There are no clocks or calendars here.