Continued from “Gambling with Our Lives”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 7
James, Aram guesthouse, 1 a.m.
I’m propped up against the bed. I’ve pulled the curtains back so at least I can look at the stars outside.
I’m alone here, and my rival K-Jim is now living inside the Iftar guesthouse.
K-Jim’s unusual name is an indication of the man himself: someone who wishes to attract attention. It isn’t the best thing to do in war-torn Afghanistan.
I first saw him sitting by himself at one of the dining tables at the Aram.
‘Join us,’ shouted Barry, ever sociable, catching the new arrival’s eye.
He stood up briskly, like a soldier, and came over to our table carrying his meal in one hand and holding out the other with an American ‘How you guys doing?’
‘Why K-Jim?’ I asked, while we were eating firnee for dessert. ‘That’s a bit of an unusual name.’
‘Yeah, well, goes back to school really. My name was Kenneth James, but everyone called me Jim, which I liked. And then we had this other boy who joined the same class, also a Jim, so at school they had to find a way to distinguish us and they started calling me K-Jim. So that stuck.’
Barry said, ‘Couldn’t we just call you KJ?’
‘Nah,’ he laughed. ‘Not distinctive enough. Prefer K-Jim.’
‘So what do you do, K-Jim?’ I said.
‘We have five choppers,’ he said, curling the milky saffron strands around his fork. ‘I’m in charge.’
Barry said. ‘You work for the army then?’
‘I work for an American contractor.’
With his regular clean-cut features, copper-coloured hair, bright-blue eyes and strong jaw-line, K-Jim, younger than me by a decade, was endowed with classic ladykiller good looks. Only the mouth was small, dispensing a tiny spray of saliva whenever he became excited while talking. I wouldn’t have compared favourably at all in the looks department with K-Jim, even if my prominent Roman nose and high forehead gave me a distinguished air, so I’m told. My long, narrow face ruined it for me.
K-Jim was hired as a helicopter pilot by a US firm that had been awarded a multimillion-dollar contract for road building. He was dressed in shorts, unusual and often unacceptable even for men in Afghanistan. One of the benefits of working in Kabul is that most employers don’t insist on a strict dress code, unless your job requires you to meet government ministers. I myself dress casually most of the time in shirts and jeans, but shorts are a bit too much. K-Jim was also wearing a T-shirt with the provocative figure of an under-clad woman bending down to tie her sandal strap. The slogan on the T-shirt was ‘Bachelor Party’ – what’s known back home as a stag party, the lads’ night out before a wedding.
‘That’s funny, K-Jim,’ I said, ‘but not the right thing to wear around these parts.’
‘Screw that, bro,’ K-Jim said. ‘They can do what they like. I’m damned if I’m going to let anyone tell me how to dress.’
K-Jim’s reaction was an indication to me of disregard and disrespect for local culture, bordering on stupidity. I would have said something more, but before I could do so he stood up to go.
‘Better be going up and packing,’ he said. ‘I’m off to Kandahar tomorrow.’
After the American had left, Barry said, ‘Doesn’t sound as if he’s going to be a fast learner. A bit stubborn, ain’t he?’
‘As long as he doesn’t put other people’s lives at risk,’ I said.
At the time, I had no idea how prophetic my words were going to be.
* * *
The next morning K-Jim and I went for breakfast at the same time, as it happened, so we sat together and got chatting.
I asked, ‘So what made you decide to apply for a job in Afghanistan?’
‘The employment situation in the US isn’t too good, bro,’ he said. ‘Getting a job isn’t easy.’
‘So were you out of work for long?’
‘Nah, I had a job, but it was paying too little.’
‘Uh huh,’ I said, buttering my toast. ‘I can understand employers penny-pinching with some of us but not a qualified pilot.’
‘To be honest, the money was all right, but . . . but it wasn’t enough to clear my debts.’
‘Student loans?’ I felt sympathetic, having always been grateful for the funding I myself had received after I was invalided out of the army.
‘I had gambling debts.’
He saw the surprise on my face.
‘Thing is, before I got here, I worked for a casino in Las Vegas.’
‘So you weren’t a pilot?’
‘I was. I flew high-stake gamblers over in a chopper for them to play at the casino.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘That’s the life of the rich and famous, bro. You don’t drive down to lose or win millions. Everything’s got to be done in style.’
I shook my head. This was a different world.
‘And somewhere along the line I got the idea that I’d play and get rich. I was a sucker. Didn’t realise you never can. My boss stopped me playing in Vegas but I had got hooked. So I went online and lost a ton of money.’
‘Hell, that’s tough. So are they paying you enough here?’
‘A shitload of money, bro. Don’t even ask how much . . .’
He broke off mid-sentence.
I could see from the way his mouth slightly opened like a goldfish gasping for air that her entry had had the same effect on him as on me.
A gleam of pale winter sunshine suddenly shimmered into the room and instantly set alight both our lives and hearts.
‘Let me get a refill.’ K-Jim headed off in the direction of the long table where the breakfast buffet was laid out. I’m not sure what exactly he said to her as he refilled his bowl with more cereal, but she came back with him to our table.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘My name is Amala.’
Unable momentarily to respond, I could only focus on her gentle, almost shy smile. Her cheeks dimpled and her small teeth glinted like pearls. A white cotton scarf, with the barest hint of an embroidered pattern, fell like snow over her dark tresses; a stray lock of hair dangled impudently over her forehead. She held out her hand for me to grasp. It felt soft and fragile in my hands.
‘Hello,’ I mumbled, and because it was an effort for me to remove my full attention from her and give my own name – which would have been natural under any other circumstances – I remained silent, trying not to stare but still delight in her beauty.
‘And what do you do, Amala?’ K-Jim asked, seeking to draw her attention away from me.
‘And you are . . .?’ She continued to look at me, ignoring his question.
‘James,’ I said. ‘James Stewart. Like the film actor.’ I felt anything but important while saying that. It was humbling just to be with her.
‘And about the same age, I reckon, if the guy is still alive.’ K-Jim stopped the movement of the spoon towards his mouth to make this intervention. He made a noise that was a cross between a cackle and a snigger.
‘Oh, I don’t think he’s old at all.’ My angel spoke out for me, freezing K-Jim with one of those ‘Be quiet, foolish boy’ kinds of looks.
‘You haven’t told us what you do.’ K-Jim laughed awkwardly, and repeated his question.
‘I work in microcredit,’ Amala said. ‘Just arrived yesterday.’
‘Giving low-interest loans to poor people would be one way of describing it,’ she said.
I was only half listening to their conversation. It was years since I’d met a woman who’d had this kind of effect on me.
I heard K-Jim say: ‘What kind of stupid idiot would refuse to take interest? I can understand someone wanting higher interest . . .’
It’s not unusual for someone to fall in love at first sight. It’s rather more unusual for two people to fall in love with each other at first sight. That too happens. But what is highly unusual, I suppose, is for two people to fall in love with the same person, a third person, at first sight. At the same instant. That’s how it happened with K-Jim and me.
I wonder how much this had to do with the fact that we men are so starved of female company in places like Afghanistan that a woman like Amala draws us like an irresistible magnet. But, speaking for myself, I’ve been in more such places than K-Jim, and I know this is true love. The once-in-a-lifetime feeling.
We had dinner together, the three of us.
Amala explained that she was staying at the Aram guesthouse only temporarily while her landlord was adding finishing touches to the Iftar guesthouse just across the street from ours.
Stay on here, we begged her.
‘Can’t’ was the one-word response.
* * *
A directive from Headquarters required all employees to band together, live under the same roof, so to speak. This wasn’t in itself unusual. The International Red Cross followed such a policy, as did Save the Children, but there were other agencies that didn’t bother with such a strict code. People like Barry, K-Jim and I were among those who were free to move around.
With K-Jim assigned to work in Kandahar, in the days that followed I was able to meet and spend time with Amala without any visible competition. I didn’t doubt that this wouldn’t have been the case had the infatuated American been around. I bumped into her one day at a seminar and invited her for dinner at my guesthouse.
We began seeing each other regularly over the course of the next few weeks. I could tell that she liked me, but there was considerable reserve. For my part I didn’t want to rush her, but with half a bottle of wine inside me, after a late-night dinner at Al-Sufi, one of Kabul’s better-known restaurants, I confessed my love for her. And then I confessed it all over again, once every three times we met, until she finally told me to stop. She would think over my proposition. A few days had gone by since then, but she was still holding out.
Continued to "Heartbreak"