I feel an earnest and humble desire, and shall till I die, to increase the stock of harmless cheerfulness.
Charles Dickens, a most remarkable19th-century novelist
"Hey, guys," came the call from across the street. "When did you get into town?"
Stepping out of a doorway was Barb, trying to act demure but being foiled by own naturally exuberant vitality. She was dressed appropriately, with a long denim skirt, closed shoes, turtleneck and head scarf, carrying a brown paper parcel by its loop of string and looking just a little warm underneath it all.
"Mind if I join you?" she went on, pulling up a chair against no resistance at all, obvious or otherwise.
"Two days," said Whitey with a smile, nodding the rest of his greeting.
"Where's Ed?" contributed Blackie.
"Oh, Ed went off to walk round the old fort or something. The old walls of the city. Takes most of the day, apparently. He always likes to hike places, you know."
"Healthy bastard," commented Blackie, accepting a ciggie from Whitey. (Barb didn't indulge.) "Thought you did too."
"Oh, yeah. It's a mental health break. We made a rule when we started this trip that every week we spend one day apart, whether we want to or not, just so we don't get on each other's nerves, you know."
"Here?" inquired Whitey acutely. It wasn't just Muslim men who were protective of the li'l lady; most Westerners heading towards India were hyper-sensitive to the possibilities of white slavery, rape, kidnapping and being forced to wear the local regalia behind the harem doors. Better safe than sari was the general motto.
"Yes, well, that's what all this stuff's about, isn't it," she replied, untying her scarf at the back and flicking it briefly over her nose and mouth. "Makes me feel like the Queen Mum or something. Hot though. You'd think those black veils would be something awful."
"They don't go out in the sun much," pointed out Blackie, "And they make 'em real loose and light."
"That's true, that's right. You know, I saw a woman this morning, in that shop right there, and if she didn't have the veil on, she could have been in Harrod's."
Huh? indicated Whitey, leaning forward.
"Lipstick, nylons, nail polish, the whole bit. She showed me when the toad who runs the place went out back to get something for her. She asked me if I spreckened Deutsche but really hers was worse than mine. Pity, that."
"Oh, I'll have one of those cherry pop things, thanks. Yaw soda." This to an eight-year-old ambling by, filling orders with the aplomb and efficiency, though neither the uniform nor the income, of the maitre-d' at the Savoy Grill. "You tried them yet?"
"They're not bad. Kinda sweet, but anyway they're fizzy so they can't be too dangerous, I hope. And they come in these cute bottles, see."
Young Abdullah shuffled unobtrusively back with the beverage, which came in an old-fashioned (no!) pressure-sealed reusable glass container, bottle-shaped but working like a Mason jar, with metal wires to snap the top securely on. Poker-faced and punctilious, he popped the top and ruined its hygiene by running his finger around the rim, in search of glass fragments, before pouring most of the reddish liquid into a glass of dubious provenance. Hey, by the time you reached Kabul you'd picked up at least some immunity to the standard pests. None of them paid any attention to the dangers of the ritual. Abdullah waited for payment, and took the bill he was proffered away for change. He was entirely capable of keeping track of half a dozen running tabs in his head and if his grandpa would only let him at the cash box he could handle that too, but he had been well schooled in the old American maxim: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Some of these foreigners tried to get away with murder. They had to be watched.
"Cool," said Blackie, picking up the bottle and playing with the mechanism. "That's really smart."
"Remember them," mused Whitey.
"Yeah? I don't."
"Had 'em at Scarborough."
"At the seaside? Yeah? Bet you got to have rock too, with words in the middle."
"Hmm-hmm." A smile. The North Sea would freeze your balls off in a minute but it was still a part of the ocean and it lived and moved, swaying with the promise of a release from daily life. For all the chilly inconvenience, it earned the ritual worship of the Whitsun holiday. For some, it was all there was to connect them with the rhythmical joys of nature (until the blues came calling) and who knew if they knew, the news was true that was never discussed.
"Me aunty wouldn't let me have any. Said they'd ruin me teeth. Fuckin' bourgeois git."
Whitey smiled and Barb started to commiserate but Blackie broke in:
"So what's in the parcel, then?"
"A bunch of material. I'm going to post it home. Some of that mirrored embroidery, different stuff. Got it from the old lech across the street."
Huh? they asked in silent unison.
"Oh, he's awful. I went looking around with Ed yesterday and he had the best selection, not the best prices mind you but they're all cheap anyway, so I go back today and he's all over me, you know, rubbing up against my backside and pointing things out and trying to feel my tits 'scuse my French so I had to keep pushing him away. He was OK as long as the Afghan woman was there, but then she went and yucko."
"Coont," grunted Whitey, to Barb's surprise, once she heard through the accent to the obscenity below.
"Why didn't you leave?" asked Blackie, practically.
"I was bargaining!" she insisted. "I'd only have had to start all over. So I just stayed near the door, and kept pushing him away and telling him No! and pointing at other bits for him to lay out. It didn't feel dangerous, exactly, it was just a royal pain in the neck. Anyroad, it's done now. And I got him down to less than half price." None of them knew if this was good or not but it sounded good; the wily merchant was surely copping a nifty profit margin along with the attempt at a feel. "Anyway, where are you two staying?"
"Down the street. Can't remember the name. Dunno if it has one. Must do, I suppose?"
Whitey shrugged, like Atlas on a particularly good day, juggling the world and keeping it safe, all at the same time. Some questions weren't worth asking. Not that he bought the Ayn Rand bullshit, but he was more Let It Bleed than Let It Be. Neither of the twin farewells to the sixties had been officially released yet, but the Beatles' last gig had been blasted over Saville Row at the end of January and the Stones' smart-ass response (perhaps the only answer record to be released before the question) had long been rumored on the street. Spill the venom and let wordless but never mindless nature do the healing.
"Any good?" asked Barb.
"It's OK. Nothing special. I wouldn't stay there forever, you know, but it'll do. Where are you?"
"A mile or two north of here. We call it the Grape Place, 'cause it's got these amazing grapes all over the wall at the end of the garden. I dunno what Yusufi calls it."
"He's the owner?"
"Not really, he's the manager, I think. He's really nice." Lechers and occasional thieves aside, Barb thought everyone was really nice, which was probably why they were. "He says the owner's away, maybe in England, it's kind of hard to tell, because his English isn't, y'know, great."
"Garden?" inquired Whitey. The generic inn they had alighted at was short on such amenities. Its illustrious founder aimed at the budget trade with his Motel One-Half, supplying for 20 Afs (less than fifty cents U.S.) a clean, comfortable room without the cleanliness or comfort. No TV, no pool, no breakfast and certainly no wasted footage. Gardens, indeed. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting weekly rates. No shit, Sherlock.
"Oh yeah, it's like a real Afghani house. It's got a courtyard, big walls around, you know, and these great flowers and little ponds and stuff. It's gorgeous. Sixty Afs a night double, three-fifty a week."
Whitey looked over at his mate and raised the interrogative eyebrow. He looked so cool when he did that, Blackie got distracted for a moment and began to laugh. They discussed the pros and cons of sticking around versus moving on, with the obvious implications about relocating, possible visa extensions, sybaritic comfort compared to spartan frugality, and so on, in silence for at least a couple of seconds before Barb broke in on the debate.
"You want to come take a look? Ed won't be back for hours yet but I've got the chess set."
"Besides, I've about had enough of walking around by myself for the day. You'd be doing me a favor. I mean it's OK, it's just it gets to you after a bit."