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If it ain't baroque, fix it.

Canon Pachelbel, the soundtrack king of the late 17th century


The Inter-Continental was located not just in downtown Kabul but in Greeneland, that seedy and baffling virtual space of imitation faith and imminent disaster, where spies and salesmen confuse each other and even the cynics are idealists, unless they prefer their vice versa. It was the only proper hotel in the country, according to diplomats and the sort of travelers who use expense accounts – journalists, mafiosi, missionaries and the like. Its great attraction to all of them was its almost complete emancipation from Afghanistan. There was a barely-visible reality wall at its entrance, and splendidly robed fighting men to restrain the natives from attempting to broach the citadel. All in all, it was a dump.

The place did, however, have a sort of a bar, to which Blackie and Whitey repaired out of some atavistic instinct. All it had taken was the firm resolve to enter and the wall that had kept them out with the riff-raff for the previous several months dissolved. As dirty hippies, they were banned; as wealthy westerners they were honored guests; and which they chose to be was, to a surprising extent, up to them.

Their hair was long, remarkably long by now; clearly they were no conventional workers. Blackie had taken to braiding his, which with his bushy auburn beard and burly build gave him the air of a prospecting engineer on the verge of a major discovery, diamonds perhaps, or something to be used for nuclear research. Whitey's was straight and shone like polished jet, parted in the middle and hanging down past his cheekbones till he flipped it back over his shoulders; in the Saville Row tailoring, battered a bit but still showing its aristocratic heritage, he carried himself with a silent confidence that disarmed most authority – without the air, he risked the purely racist responses of the would-be colonialists who infested the area and to whom the management liked to cater.

The beer was German, expensive, and excellent. They took a table and awaited developments. She didn't take long to arrive.

A group of five off-duty airline personnel came in, still uniformed, evidently thirsty and chattering away in the kind of language that uses ü's or ø's or possibly even å's. Given this cacophony, the greatest redeeming feature of the uniforms was the implication that they must speak at least some of the only great language that doesn't mess around much with funny squiggles on top of its letters (single dots are normal). Not that it would have mattered much except that one of the stewardesses was not only an exceptionally pleasant sort of person, especially when she removed her cap and unpinned her long, straight, blonde hair, but contriving to smile over in the general direction of the English while she arranged it, rather like Whitey's but more so, over her shoulders.

"Ay, ay, lad," nudged Blackie, "I think we've got a live one here."

"Hngrh," agreed Whitey under his breath. He was looking at her with a directness that would have been disconcerting to most people. She seemed to like it.

The other four, it soon became obvious, were effectively paired off, which was encouraging. Pilot and co-pilot, or something of the sort, each specifically working on one of the stews. The odd woman out was much the coolest of the bunch (well, the two salivating on the sidelines thought so; they would, wouldn't they) and seemed to hold the others at a slight remove. Her skirt was shorter, her hair longer, her eyeliner heavier and her lipstick lighter than the other flight attendants. She conveyed the clear impression that she had already turned down each of the men flatter than week-old beer, and rather enjoyed watching the process of her colleagues getting picked up, as long as she could maintain her distance. She accepted, as no more than her due, a highball from one of the oafs and a king-size cigarette from the other and backed quietly out of their way.

The room was eerily quiet, filled with the ghosts of empires that never were, and someone's misbegotten dreams of progress. Over all presided a supercilious bartender whose splendid uniform fell just slightly short of a full complement of brass buttons and whose almost-pristine turban was wound with an insouciant flourish. The temptation was to think that both he and his domain had seen better days, but these in fact were they. Men and buildings faded fast in the harsh reality of Afghan independence.

Exactly half of those present seemed comfortable with the ambiance. The other four were in a hurry, evidently there to absorb a quick one before dressing for dinner in the depressing simulacrum of splendor provided across the hall and presumably undressing thereafter for entertainment in the ersatz efficiency of the suites upstairs. Four pink gins evaporated and there developed a bustle of standing and nattering and a gathering of purses and peaked hats, in the midst of which the odd one out sat enigmatically while Whitey edged up to the bar on her other side. A final cackle of consonants and unfamiliar vowels as the barman approached left her alone, stubbing out a cigarette and waving casually at her departing colleagues.

"Two beers." Ale there wasn't, for all the initial hopes, but this lager stuff was suppable. "Whisky?" This to his left, with maximum cool and effortless presumption.

"OK." The language problem, as expected, wasn't.

With a nod and an eyebrow, he led her over to the table. An almost-tangible psychic curtain fell around the table, another kind of reality wall that pushed away the rest of the world while three sets of adrenal glands went on alert. Instant, obsessive, envied love does this, the kind of bond that puts pairs in a bubble where they breathe each other's air, until they marry to fossilize the feeling – but this was not quite that (though lust was lapping hard below all their minds). Doom was in the air, a sense of possibilities, of destiny laid open by the completion of a triad, a karass, a puzzle that slotted together to form a base to build a future on, however brief or vast.

She's one of us, thought Whitey vaguely. (Blackie often thought in words but his mate dealt mostly in dreams and symbols too rich to write.) Barb was not – had not been; seasons had passed – though she was in some way connected. Barb was a life force of her own, one that Whitey had tapped into (Blackie a little less; and others too by proxy, Pete G. for one, probably Skip the Beard and doubtless more all around the continuum); she had touched them and moved them and indeed had helped to put them where they were, but they were a spice to her life, not an essential and therein lay the difference. In a way, Whitey had loved Barb, but never needed her. This one, well, need was only one of the urgencies in the air.

Blackie wanted words, as ever, so he began the inquisition.

"Gita," she responded coolly.

"Like the Hindu thing? The Bhagavad-Gita?" Orthography and derivations were important to him. Anyway they gave an edge, a way into the icy storm.

"Brigitte," she corrected briefly. "But you can write it with an 'a' because you're English, yes?"

"Yeah, right, we're from Newcastle. That's Whitey," (acknowledged with a blink or something fractionally more vigorous, "And I'm Blackie. You with an airline then, Gita?" (make friends and influence people, especially charming young ladies, by repeated use of their secret name).

"Charter. We fly out of Copenhagen. I am Danish," she clarified, responding slightly to his enthusiasm. Whitey offered a ciggy and she took it with slightly less self-consciousness. "But we are here because the Ariana jet broke down in London so we are filling in for it."

"The jet?" prodded Blackie.

"Maybe they have two. ¿Quien sabe? Anyway they break a lot."

"So you back to London tomorrow?"

They all knew she couldn't be. (And if the reader didn't, the author has been falling down on the job.) The atmosphere simply forbade it. Leaving aside the pointlessness of recounting a purely incidental encounter at this stage of this particular game (count the pages, the novel is winding down, or is it blowing up), Gita was no casual lay nor yet a compulsive conversationalist. Though she enjoyed the iceberg façade, with all its implications of depth and important secrets, she was (and knew it) inside the force field, drawn by something she recognized without history or teaching, ready to play the rôle of Flying Fickle Finger of Fate and, yes, ready to pay for the privilege.

On the surface, however, the talk was trivial.

"No, Mecca, then back here in two days. Then maybe again, it depends if they can make their own aëroplane work."


"Sure, the Haj."

"Hodge?" Whitey was baffled and willing (good for him) to show it.

"Haj. Pilgrimage. Every Muslim is supposed to make the journey to Mecca once in his lifetime, they say, it's very holy, but I think they sort of expected they'd have to walk over the desert, you know."

"And now the crafty little buggers fly in a 707, yeah?" completed Blackie gleefully. "Instant karma!"

"Karma's Hindu," pointed out Whitey, whose sense of rightness was sometimes disturbed by Blackie's ebullient approach to matters outside his own cultural context.

" 'Instant Karma's gonna get you, knock you right off your feet,' " talk-sang Gita, to an obvious and, to her, amazing lack of recognition on the other two faces. "You don't know that? John Lennon, John and Yoko, Plastic Ono Band, whatever. New single, 's cool."

"No shit!" exclaimed Blackie, not sure whether to be proud or resentful that the great man had beaten him to what he thought was a pretty nifty piece of wordplay. Whitey nodded and actually smiled; sounded good to him.

"Yeah, they cut all their hair off, too," she continued.

"No shit!"

"Sold it off for peace."

"No shit!"

"Yes shit!" she grinned. My, she had good teeth. Blackie felt faintly queasy about inspecting them like a vet but Whitey's eyes just opened a tiny bit wider and Gita responded in kind. "How long you guys been gone anyway?"

"Left Europe in September, more or less." Blackie was still doing the talking, though his partner was doing the communicating. "Six months, nearly seven."

"Wow. How long you staying?"

"Oh, a while." He wasn't quite ready to get into all that, like the reasons they split or how they could afford drinks at the Inter-Continental – heaven knows why, it was obvious enough to her, being as she was in the transport business so to speak herself; she'd been tempted to carry but so far at least hadn't done it. Blackie decided instead to glide the conversation back a bit and down a different direction.

"So how do these camel jockeys like the 'plane, then?" he asked, adding as an afterthought, "Done it before, have you?"

"Sure, one time. They're OK, though, I like the Afghans actually."

"Yeah, me too, I'm just being, you know ..."

"Rude," finished Whitey, with a tight smile that loosened a little when the others joined in.

"Pooh, you want rude, you should talk to those shits," she said, nodding at the door that had long since closed behind her fellows. "I had to get away."

"Looked like they had something on their minds," smirked Blackie.

"Oh sure, they fuck," Gita sneered, moving into the open, "They probably smoke too, but they're just bourgeois pigs really. I was telling them about this poor old guy last time, yes, never been on an aëroplane before, probably never been out of the desert before, he's about a hundred and ten, right, he's off to Mecca to die, practically. I saw him before, he was bug-eyed, I mean, he thinks we're like from another planet, you know, but he was OK, not grabbing your tits or anything like those shits from Stuttgart or Milano or any of those fucking businessmen, you know?"

They knew. (And if they were closet tit-grabbers, they kept quiet about it.)

"Anyway, this old guy has to go, you know, so he gets out of his seat and he squats down in the aisle and –"

"No shit!"

"Yes absolutely shit!" She was laughing now and so were they. Blackie was rolling half off his chair while Whitey's grin matched Gita's tooth for tooth, if slightly less brightly.

"So he does it you know. I mean, that's just what he does, yeh? He pulls up his pants and goes back to his seat and there's just this huge turd sitting there on the rug. I nearly stepped in it."

"So what'd ya do?" followed up Blackie.

"Oh I got some paper towels and a – what is it? – une truelle?"

"Truelle? Trowel! Like a fish-slice or something."

"Yeh, yeh, and I scooped it up." She shrugged mischievously. "No big deal."

"The others," prompted Whitey.

"Ach, them. I told them, you know, they didn't do this run before, you know, so I tell them and they freak and they talk about throwing the guy off the 'plane and tearing up his ticket and everything. Puouh." She blew them away theatrically. "They are as bad as Americans." She paused, then amended: "Not all Americans. The ones with blue hair and chequered trousers, you know." Perhaps the second whisky had got to Gita a bit.

"Wanna get high?" Whitey was ready to cut to the chase.

"Why not?" she asked rhetorically. "Not here, though."

"Come on back."

"Why not?"

The rest of the evening was all that any of them could have hoped, involving as it did a little of this, a certain amount of that and a most gratifying quantity of the other, in combinations and permutations that left little to any of their imaginations. Gita had a ten-o'clock call, but the co-operative (not to mention envious) Yusufi conjured up a nine-o'clock cab and an eight-thirty alarm of sorts (fist on door, functional if abrupt) so that was not a difficulty. She took her leave at the Grape Place door, with mutual agreements that on her return two days later they'd get in touch, so to speak, as Blackie couldn't resist pointing out, waggling his eyebrows at the pun. She glowed in the morning sun, more gorgeous than ever despite (because of?) the damage done to her eyeliner, and blew kisses out of the taxi window.

"Copenhagen," mused Blackie, "Perhaps it deserves its reputation."

"Fuck me," agreed Whitey.

"Hey, guys," came an American voice from the dim and distant past.

"Fuck me," repeated Whitey.

"Fuckin' hell," added Blackie, "It's Skip the Beard."