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It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead
And talk of sports and makes of cars
In various bogus Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

John Betjeman, "Slough," Continual Dew, 1937


When the bus ground slowly to a halt in the middle of a landscape that looked at best like a rough draft of a habitable spot, a sketch that had probably been discarded because even Mother Nature couldn't figure out how to fit in, oh, water, shelter, soil, helpful amenities like that, Whitey's first paranoid response was that the ancient contraption had given up the ghost. There's a sleeping bag in the pack, he comforted himself, and apples and water under the seat, so we'll survive. His second, worse, nightmare was that, no, they couldn't protect their shit against fifty Afghans, tough as nails and mostly armed to the teeth. Perhaps it was a plot, a conspiracy by the bus driver and company to strand the filthy rich infidels, or their corpses, where no one would identify them until it was way too late to do any good except to ease the minds of the putatively doting relatives. He half-expected the rifle barrel he still saw out of the corner of his left eye to swing around and poke him in the ribs and rudely encourage his emergency exit.

Nothing of the sort: It was time for the sunset prayers. The muezzin were miles away but Allah is with us always. The men filed quietly off the bus, most of them with rugs under their arms, developed a swift consensus as to the direction of Mecca and laid out their mats. Mecca, of course, is a physical entity, but it exists, like the Oxford train, at least partly by consensual agreement among the faithful; what are a few degrees north or south in comparison to the higher reality of obeisant focus? And what are a few paranoid delusions in comparison to an obeisant focus on the reality of highness?

"This," thought Whitey, "is bizarre," and in his head he was right.

Buses are normal, ran the riff in his skull. It flowed underground like Alph the sacred river but still it fed the surface vegetation of his consciousness all unknown. We can handle buses, it continued. They go from here to there, and back, and occasionally somewhere else if the driver gets lost. We hang out in them, we talk, we space out, we even cop a quick smoke in the back if we think we can get away with it. But no way on God's green Earth, or God's bluish planet, or even God's light brown desert, do we get out of them at random and bang our foreheads on the ground.

Foreigners, said the subliminal shit-stirrer behind his neocortex, are out to get you.

Sez who? came back the righteous realist.

Blackie was gesturing at the tail end of the procession to the great outdoors, and Whitey pulled himself towards the aisle. He stumbled down the center, balancing on alternate seatbacks, instinctively averting his eyes from the remaining Afghans – women and kids last being the operative motto – and nodding blankly to the tourists, most of whom were checking their passports and preparing to stretch their legs. He jumped the three big steps down and grinned when he didn't quite fall but instead saw the world changed forever by the flash that struck him in that one convulsive leap.

Poincaré, they say, changed the history of the human understanding of mathematics by getting on a bus (the solution to a vexing problem appeared to him as if by magic, leaving him with only the dull task of writing it down) so why should we wonder that Whitey (no matter that he had never heard of the great scientist) would toss his world-view up in the air and see it come down, rearranged and ever more tightly organized, by getting off another?

"This," thought Whitey, "is normal," and in his head he was right again.

Standing silent in the moonscape, he saw the beauty and the power of the bodies beneath the tatterdemalion outfits before him. Mammalian muscles stretched in the pride of ritual abasement, these were the true men, proud and humble like lions when the monsoon floods them out of their water-hole. He tried to imagine his step-dad touching his forehead to the ground and he couldn't, and he knew immediately that the loss was as much his own.

He thought of that worthy's careless ignorance of his own body, of the boozing for its very own sake that had killed so many Saturday nights during his childhood in Newcastle, of the goal-oriented fucking that passed for sensuality in more modern circles, and he wanted to cry for the terrible separation he felt as a Westerner from a life he was sure must exist; and he looked again at the fifty rocks that rose and fell in the unearthly twilight and he saw that they were men and not so different from the sand and the stars and he wanted to laugh for the terrible integration he felt as a person from the world he knew lived in him, as he was present in it.

The prophet Elijah he was not, however. Even as approached some mystical moment, he was fully aware of his partner heading off behind a boulder for a quick leak (but why hide it?), of the concealed mothers, chained to the veil and locked out of their possible selves by the inexorable conspiracy of men (and how could that possibly be natural?), of the single loud-mouthed idiot back on the bus and stupid enough to disturb the silence (not to mention risking being torn apart by bears, or extremely heavy dudes in wide turbans), of the battered bus and the incongruous new road, the product of 'aid' of course ... he knew, in other words, what the scene looked like to, say, a television journalist.

He knew also what the scene felt like to someone inside it, and this was new to him.

Suddenly, Whitey felt vaguely embarrassed. He thrust his hands in his pants pockets, turned away from the crowd and sauntered over to the emotional shade of a huge rock. He cut himself apart from the scene, drawing back like a camera and insisting on his self, the observer, the one looking and pretending not to be part of the scene. He wanted to bottle this reality and put it away in his backpack. He wanted to talk himself down. He was scared. He was content. He hadn't decided what he was feeling and so he forgot to feel it.

Whitey's moment of clarity diffused into an inchoate confusion. He was left with a sense that there was something there to know and that somehow he could know it and someday he would.

If he was allowed to.

By himself.

Blackie shuffled gently out from the small granite mountain at stage left and squatted beside his friend, forearms resting gently on his thighs. The gibbous moon was high in the east, seizing the moment from the dying sun and bathing the desert in the coolness of its monochrome. The browns and blues were melting into elegant grays, earth tones fading under moonbeams into fantastical abstracts that turned the scenery into a sequence of impossible sculptures. The Afghan men began to roll up their rugs. Most of them wandered off in their turn to piss in a spot chosen apparently at random, a few dozen yards from the bus. A couple of the western guys joined them, and the women hustled off in the opposite direction, where there was a little more cover. The driver and his sidekick checked the oil. A wiseass local adolescent kicked the tires and got yelled at for his pains. Whitey felt a sense of normality seeping back and began to giggle. This was normal? Rather than try to explain, he pointed at a boy who had been imitating his dad on the other side of the clearing and now was following him back to the bus, without, it seemed, remembering to put away his penis, which flapped tiny and pink through his new (to him) western-style long pants. Dad gave his son an amused whack upside the skull and laughed with his friends. The kid looked sheepish and walked away with his nose in the air, like a cat who had fallen from the back of a chair.

Ciggie? offered Blackie without a word.

Thanks, nodded back Whitey.

They rocked on their heels, kinda slow and kinda easy, smoking and smiling at the little fragment of the universe in front of them.

Look, gestured Blackie, here comes what's-his-face.

The humanitarian from the row behind walked up, grinned his greetings and bummed a smoke with practiced nonchalance. You didn't need to understand Farsi (or was it Pushtu? Afghans spoke one or the other, if not both or possibly neither; it was always a confusing country) to see he wanted a cigarette. And Pushtu (Pashto? Farsi? whatever) would never be enough to figure out what the hell he was really looking for.

The Greeks had a word for it, they say, but who speaks the auld tongue these days? In Athens they use the demotic and the rest of us shrug and say with Shakespeare (Uncle Bill never ceases to amaze) that it's Greek to us. Not that our native tongue is much more accessible, even perhaps for Bill. It's so hard to find the mot juste that English gives up and pretends that the French have that certain je ne sais quoi. The trouble with words is that they're never quite right, except when they're right by definition and then they rely on a flimsy scaffold of others no better than themselves. It's inevitable: People make up the words to express their thoughts, which lose something in the translation, except when they gain, which is worse. The language of math is the exception, of course, but algebra won't score you a coffin nail, let alone let you explain why you're asking for it. Especially if you don't know.

There was no hostile vibe around this Afghan, so far the only one on the bus to reach towards the foreigners. His name, he later explained, was Zahir, after the late king (whose son, the incumbent, bore the prescient moniker Nadir and would be the last of the line). Zahir seemed to be willing to put up with a fair load of shit from his peers for the dubious privilege of hanging out with a pair of linguistically impaired aliens. He wasn't pushy, he didn't appear to be after their money, he couldn't engage them in deep conversation, he just hung out. Presumably it helped that he was bombed out of his gourd.

The silently smoking conversation had barely begun when the mechanics made it clear to all and sundry that the machinery was in excellent condition and they couldn't understand why the punters weren't back in the seats. There was no reason to turn the call of nature into an excuse for frivolous chit-chat. They'd paid good money for their tickets, so why didn't they use them, instead of hanging about making it hard for honest working folks to do their job. Like airport announcements, the words were incomprehensible to a goodly chunk of their intended audience, but the meaning came across anyway. Something about the beetled brows of a pissed-off Pathan bus driver caught the attention even of his compatriots. No one wanted to be stranded. No one ever does.

The only good reason for getting lost is getting found.