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Monday, June 28, 2010

Fizzy pop and the prison commander

Today started much as they always do: hot. I am slow to rise, my head fuzzy, dehydrated. I meet hornyculturalist in the corridor as I stumble my way to the kitchen to make a coffee, he mumbles something apologetic about using the bathroom from the bathroom door of his own home and I marvel at the ridulous politeness that afflicts us. I register a flash of his paisley dressing gown as I boil the kettle but it's all still in slow motion.

By twelve O'clock I'm just about ready to head out - I'm going to the women's prison at Badambagh. Iqbal is my driver and already I feel bad having made him wait half the morning whilst I sent emails. I wonder why I find it so difficult to live a life with so many people waiting on me; I turn my back for a second and my delightful cleaning lady who wears floral prints and a neck brace has tidied everything away. My room looks tidy for once but still I can't find anything and run around in frustration trying to find things that she may or not have whisked away to be laundered or may or may not have secreted in a draw or cupboard. It was probably a step too far when I discovered that she'd emptied my grab bag and put everything away in various places - the equivalent of someone going through your handbag, into your purse, sorting your coins and putting your stash of rainy day condoms away safely in your sock draw, finding your vibrator and kindly cleaning it for you. Here they have a different sense of privacy - ie none. Behind closed doors, everything is fair game.

We get to the prison and in my mind I just want to get inside, see if Snook has made it in herself, and get some interview material. Instead I am treated to a very long meeting with the prison commander in which he repeatedly asks me to help him to build a new health clinic. I tell him I'm a doctor not an architect or engineer and it's really not my sphere of expertise, but he's convinced that last time I came I had promised to build a clinic. I'm loathe to disappoint him but I fear that somewhere along the line he's gotten the wrong end of the stick. I get that sense of collective guilt and collective responsibility - I am a foreigner and therefore I must be able to turn water in to wine. Although I say it to the commander, I feel bad to admit that I am only one person, pretty much working on my own and that, much as I would love to be able to deliver a brand new, five roomed clinic building to the commander and the women of the prison, I feel just a tad inadequate to do so. The meeting goes on and I am wishing that I'd just kept it simple. Snook and K, her photographer, arrive and luckily for me the conversation is punctuated by their arrrival and questions. Still, I am sat in the office and I know that time is ticking on. Snook and K get to the end of their questions and prepare to take their leave. As they go we resume our conversation and I can feel Sherparai urging us to finish up. I cut to the chase and ask if I can see the expat women inside the prison, there are five or them: two Ugandans, two Nepalese and a woman from South Africa. Aaah, the commander says, but now it is lunchtime... please would you join us. Since first arriving here in Afghanistan I have barely said no to the offer of a shared meal. Often, these meals eaten simply, have been the best and most tasty food I have had, and touch wood, I have never been made ill as a consequence of eating like this. I have found that the sharing of food is significant, it is the act that binds you to another, once a stranger, in the giving and receiving of the nourishment that they offer. Iqbal and I step out in to the next room with the commander. The lunch is two large plates of rice and two bowls of lamb stew, lumps of meat swimming in a soupy broth, chunks of bread are heaped on another plate and there are two large plates of water melon. A bottle of bright orange pop graces the table and cups are filled for each of us. I am so warmed by the generosity which comes so easily here; there may be many things wrong and difficult here in Afghanistan but by this act of eating together I cannot see the commander as different from me - this is the soft underbelly of the dog - we all eat. I am sure that they've brought spoons and forks for my benefit and Iqbal and I eat together from one plate of rice, he from one side, I from the other. He's been my driver now for three days and this kind of intimacy in the UK would be the domain of someone pretty damned close to you. I make an internal note of my own observations and feel grateful that in my own upbringing the sharing of ones food was considered a natural and positive thing to do for others. I contrasted this with the typical British way of serving food, with each individual's plate arranged with meat and two veg; isolated servings and isolated eating, none of the collective advantage of the shared plate.

Later, when I am stuffed full of rice, meat and fizzy orange pop, we go to the prison block. The commander walks us over there himself and immediately, as we come through the door i am greeted by the head of the guards, a woman who herself refuses to wear a head scarf. She recognises me and we greet each other warmly. She takes us first to one of the classrooms but as usual the women are reluctant to be photographed and I'm too tired today to try to convince them only to snap a few shots of the backs of their heads, so we leave and I ask to see the new baby. One of the inmates gave birth a couple of days ago and there we go to say hello; a small dark haired creature lies in a cradle on the floor. Wrapped entirely in swaddling clothes, this tiny bundle is obviously the pride of her mothers eye. The mother lies beside the cradle on the lower bunk of a bunk bed, she looks obviously tired. There are plenty of other women in the room with her but none of them wish to be photographed and so we head on out to the room where the expats stay. Room five, we knock and go inside. I see the two Nepalese women and ask where Margaret is. Margaret is one of the woman from Uganda, inside for seven years for drug smuggling, she and the other Ugandan (Sarah) had body packed heroin. I greet these women, who remember me from last time and we chat, catching up on what has happened since I last saw them a couple of months ago. Margaret has had her second appeal - she'd hoped that her sentence would be decreased in light of the fact that she is HIV positive, but it seems that she's lucky that her sentence wasn't increased at the second court - here in Afghanistan, they are very strict when it comes to drug trafficking and might well have given her additional years rather than less. Margaret tells me that her lawyer does not speak English and she has no idea whether her lawyer has argued for her release on health grounds. Inside the prison, these expat woman have no consular representation, they have no friends and family here. Sundays is visiting day but they will see noone. There are no phones, all of their personal possessions and passports were taken away when they were arrested, there is no internet and they cannot write letters; there is noone to send them for them (plus no decent postal service in Afghanistan). They have no books, no clothes of their own and no money - effectively they are completely cut off. I think about my friend Jammer and his close call with the drugs police at Kabul airport and swallow hard at the thought that he might have ended up in some really hot soup.

Interestingly the two Nepalese woman have apparently converted to Islam as has Sarah the Ugandan, Sarah tells me that she has changed her name to Maryam, she comments on the kindess that she has been shown by many of the women here and by the wardens of the prison, she complains however that because she is fat none of the donated clothes ever fit her. I don't really know what to say to these women, I don't have anything to offer them. I say that I don't want to promise anything that I can't deliver, but I listen to the list of the things that they don't have and in my head I wonder which of them I might be able to make an impact upon -maybe I can find Sarah a skirt that fits her, some novels to read. Sarah complains about the food that they are given saying that Ugandans don't eat rice but here it's bread and water for breakfast, rice and potatoes for lunch and again for dinner. I think of my lunch of lamb and orangeade. I resolve to stay out of prison.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pedicure from hell

I think I just had the most god awful pedicure in the entire universe! Believe me, I did not grow up being pampered but since reaching my thirties (some years ago, I might add) I have indulged in the odd salon or two but this time, I swear, I just had a six year, old axe murderer sawing at my feet. I don't wish to be mean but a nail file really isn't that hard to use... but lets start at the beginning: a lovely, slim Philipinna lady welcomed me and, as I'd had the facials recommended by a friend, I was certain that I was going to do better here than I would do at home on my bathroom floor with a pumice stone and a bit of elbow grease. Upstairs, I was welcomed into the ladies changing rooms which was also the pedi room, and, perched on a banquette in the corner, I was dismayed that the confident lady from the Philippines was not also the pedicurist. I was faced by two cartoon figure washing up bowels and a sponge; my lady, a smaller fatter one, though very sweet, was I have to say, just awful. As a Brit I could only hold my tongue and grin through gritted teeth as I was sponged, half heartedly, then rubbed...a bit... in an equally tepid manner...I was peturbed. My lady was squatting and I worried that given the lack of light in the room, that she might be going blind. My paws were pulled out of water, one by one, to be brushed at at worryingly ineffective angles with the pedi egg. I was in need of some serious therapy but I certainly wasn't getting it here. I wasn't quite sure how someone could fail to use a pedi egg - one of those completely fool proof devices that they sell to old people on the shopping channel - but several misplaced strokes later and my poor cracked heels were none the wiser. I said nothing. She brandished the pusher - a pointy ended stick thing that jabbed me several times (where it wasn't supposed to), then came the nibbling... the nibbler as many women will know is a sharp-ended scissory object that should only be placed in the hands of an expert, and she, with both nibbler and pusher in hand, a fairly lethal combination, was pushing even my patient boundaries. The word cack-handed sprang to mind, but I was quick to push the thought away as I was here to relax and be pampered not be tortured and potentially maimed. But sat as I was, quasimodo styley in the corner, the relaxation part was going to be difficult (if nigh on impossible) and I'd ruled out the pampering a long time ago. She produced a pair of plastic booties that, wired to the electrical supply, resembled nothing so much as some kind of evil torture device which in fact they were, designed as they were simply to make your feet sweat (foot sauna she claimed) a curious beauty treatment in the 40degree C sweltering heat, it was all I could do to keep her from thrusting me in to them. Tired I certainly was but I was loathe to take my beady eye off the woman with the pointy instruments who was doing something dubious with bits of my dead skin. Apparently there weren't nail scissors and the best that she had were some manly nail clippers, I didn't want to end up with a serious injury so I commandeered them for myself and clippered away a bit in the hope that perhaps she'd let me finish off the pedicure I was paying for myself. Next up was the nail buffer, I think she'd been using that to try to file initially, then a random bit of filing (this time with the nail file) in various directions in a ham-fisted fashion, she was making it painfully difficult, I was almost relieved when we moved on to the painting of the nails. I was ceremoniously handed a tray of polishes - I'd been promised earlier that all of them came from Finland, that cool, icelandic country of professional nail polish, but no, they all looked like something you'd get at Hitchin market. Given the choice between hooker red and old lady pink I found my heart sinking, there were even a couple of bottles that looked liked they'd escaped from a Christmas cracker. I opted for a shade of blood red hoping that it might just disguise the digital injuries I'd sustained. I sat with clenched buttock cheeks as the ritual painting began; Parkinsonian brush strokes were followed by smudges and smudges were wiped away with copious acteone and with them most of the newly applied polish. My teeth (as well as my butt cheeks) were tightly clenched as the second coat went on and I just prayed for it all to be over so that I could run home take it all off and start again. There's nothing quite as tortuous as wishing that you'd just said stop instead of patiently waiting through something that you're hating. What can I say; I'm sure she's a very sweet person but there was nothing redeemable about her pedi performance. I thanked her and limped next door for my facial, she blissfully unaware, me seething and my paws more farmer Giles than than the pretty twinkle toes I'd hoped for.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Alien abduction and evil crepes as cat food

We'd been at L'Atmosphere for dinner and I had had a rather dubious crepe; some kind of processed liquid cheese combined with what appeared to be luncheon meat and a fried egg, French haute cuisine it was not but luckily my feline friends were on hand to help out and I launched chunks of ham, cheese and egg through the air to land on the grass where a series of moggies were patiently waiting for tid bits. Rangy little afghan cats, they knew where best to catch the crumbs and were delighted by the random lumps of fine fare that were raining down upon them, seemingly from the sky; "Thank you Sky Cat", I heard them saying to each other as another lump of ham appeared out of the darkness and landed at their paws. PM and I hypothesised about what it must be like to be a cat - or any other animal for that matter - interacting with humans and their stange ways. When a cat receives 'manna from heaven' does he believe that god is sending him food? At least if I didn't enjoy eating greasy tinned muck in a pancake the cats certainly did.

One afternoon I spied the tortoise in the garden and in my general enthusiasm whipped him up from the grass and brought him inside to have his picture taken. I had all but performed an alien abduction on him I thought as I pictured how it must feel to have big, pink hands descend upon you and suddenly levitate you effortlessly, transporting you up in to the sky. A large, gangly, alien being with no shell peering at you in the face and talking in strange tongues. A strange habitat filled with garish colours and patterns and machines with lights on that beep and whirr, some bright, bright flashes of light (no pain) and then suddenly, flying through the air again and landing, as if all was a dream, back on the grass, "White light, hazy memory. Roswell..., area 51... then nothing". Alien anal probe - my arse - that tortoise will have sold his story to the National Enquirer quicker than Elvis can down a burger on the toilet whilst flying a jumbo jet to the moon!

Nibbly nibbly, flying piggy...

Pigs doing flying and diving at the 2008 Royal Melbourne show in Australia.

This morning I woke up with puffy eyes; I'd been crying a lot and when that happens, just to make me feel extra glamorous, my eyes get piggy pink and swollen, not only am I dealing with whatever has pissed my off but my piss holes in the snow give me the kind of gyp that a girl could really do without when she's trying to put a brave face on it. It's an up and down existence here and things really do change in an instant; you can be quids in one second and then knee deep in shit the next. All told though I am doing ok and relentlessly busy: one minute you're elbow deep in a bowel repair operation, the next you're in the back of an ISAF military vehicle having your phone jammed and sweating your tits off, the next in a random office talking about designing uniforms for the Afghan Police Force, then caesar salad and espresso in the gardens of a five star hotel before finding back home that your loo doesn't flush and it's back to reality. Can't complain that there isn't enough to keep me busy here. It's probably the absolute randomness of this place that I love so much - from the sublime to the ridiculous is a daily occurence.

My first job of the day was to pick up some clothes and a bag from T's house, I'd been staying there for a few days whilst Richard D was out here with me in Kabul. The room I was staying in belongs to K, a freelance photographer, and I had to collect my things before she arrives back in country. We were greeted by the dogs; Tootsie, Moss and Ghazni. Moss has taken quite a bit of taming but today was friendly and didn't try to bite us. The Afghan cook and house person that takes care of the property had been very kind to us one evening when we arrived at the house and Moss was being an absolute little bastard, biting PM's heel and just generally being a fierce, bad dog. The Cook had come to find us - we were watching TV with Snook (not her real name) and Paw, when Cook called us to come outside; he had some doggie chews and with these we were able to tame Moss; Food as bribery for love!

This morning when we arrived at T's PM had dog food - dried puppy nibbles - in the car and we sat in the garden with Snook and Paw and fed the dogs whilst chatting about potential stories that Snook and I could write. PM was late for work so we didn't stay long and already the heat was rising. Back home at the rose garden house I opted for coffee with a large slug of whisky and plenty of sugar and a gherkin just to get the day started in style. I'd already succumbed to a cigarette first thing in the morning but that was because I had eyes like a pig and was feeling none too pretty.

Now I am sat at my computer in the conservatory looking out on to the rose garden and gently sweating like a fat bloke. There are rabbits frolicking on the lawn and butterflies turning tricks between the petals, a couple of medium sized goldfish languish by rocks in the pond and an ancient tortoise lumbers his way around a fantastic terrarium of grass and trees. This place is an oasis.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Morning! Dubai weirdness and Dubai kindness

My alarm goes off, I snooze it - still dreaming - then the wake up call from reception, and finally I am awake. I'd laid out my bikini and goggles the night before to spur me on. I sip water and eat the rest of the wasabi peanuts I have heart burn from eating them so late last night but I'm upright now so I eat some more and go to look for the pool. I feel strangely conspicuous wondering through this gigantic hotel of pillars and marble, mirrors and glass. I wonder if indeed I am supposed to walk aroun din my bathrobe, whether this is something peculiarly european. I greet a couple of staff,a bell boy, a house keeper. They're all from somewhere else; the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Everyone speaks English, noone bats an eyelid - must be ok. I find the pool, it's frankly hot and humid like the jungle and the water temp is better for my body. The sunlight, even through clouds is making me squint; I'm propped up at the side of the deep end looking out of one eye as this seems to hurt less than using two but there's no sense in that observation.

Later, when I am dressed and ready to go, I argue with the manager at the front desk as they took a commission when they exchanged my $100 usd for the deposit - Now they will give it back to me in Dirhams and I must change it back to dollars and pay yet another commission. I think it's pretty disgusting and I tell him so, it's against the ethical principle of a deposit that they should make a profit like that. He tries to tell me that all hotels do this (probably here in Dubai they do), he tells me that they don't keep dollars at the front desk (yeah - whatever), I say I don't believe you. In the end he agrees that he will refund the commission that they took on the exchange last night - USD to Dirhams, but he can still only give me Dirhams back. I decide to settle for this and at least have the moral high ground if sadly, I still need to pay commission (again) at the airport. My tiny stash gets smaller by the second and I haven't even done anything yet. I decide not to look at the exchange rates and just get myself out of there and to the airport. The hotel are still trying to put me in a Mercedes taxi even though I've specifically said 'ordinary taxi' (I should have said cheap taxi), but one turns up just as the bell boy and I are wheeling down the ramp with my numerous bags. 6.50 Dirhams to the airport beats the 26.50 Dirhams that I paid last night to get to the hotel, but hey ho, I'm a stranger in a foreign land and everyone is just trying to make a buck. This place is the Stepford wives on acid and everyone is working on a feverish commission. Money is king.

At the Safi desk I read the sign which specifies 20kg in the hold, I've got way more than that, (like probably double that) but I say nothing as my bags go on the scales. The guy at the check-in desk doesn't say anything either and I wonder whether we are both silently complicit in something that we can't talk about. Either way I am grateful to him, more than he will ever know, coz I'm down to my last few notes and I know that my credit cards won't work. No way to get hold of any more cash, it could all be rather embarrassing as I stand red-faced at the excess luggage counter. But I am spared this humiliation by the kind guy at check-in - thank heaven for the kindness of strangers.

Terminal one in Dubai is ok if you have time and money to burn on completely bizarre fripperies. Upstairs by the departure lounge is a Costa Coffee and I park myself there with a caramel latte and a fruit salad. I've no idea why a milky caffeine based drink has to be made molten before it can be served to you, the over enthusiastic use of the milk steamer is one of my pet hates - practically volcanic white stuff does not taste better and I wonder whether there is something strangely satisfying about watching a jug of milk flail and boil, bubbling its submission, why else would baristas flog the damned stuff so much in the belief that they are serving the customer?

I find a camera on the seat next to me and, given that it's Dubai airport (ie massive), handing it in to lost property is probably not going to do the owner any good, I have plan that I'll sit here with it, keep it safe in case the owner comes back for it and then if not I'll take it with me, put it in my blog and hope that by the viral marvels of the internet that someone who is looking for something they have lost will happen upon their pictures, message me, and be able to get their camera back.It's like an episode of Bagpuss and I'm waiting for the mice from the marvellous mechanical mouse organ to heave the camera into the shop window. Maybe it's six degrees of separation; somehow from the hub of Dubai someone will know someone who's niece's sister's uncle will know the people in the pictures and claim it back.

London to Kabul under someone else's fragrant steam

I look for a way to imagine what else I might be doing right now but it actually feels like I'm right here in the moment, carried by the current, slightly to the left of centre, faster flowing water and I'm with it; on the surface at the moment but only just, got to watch my footing, by breathing by brush strokes, I'm here but really, not really. That's how it feels to be flying back to Kabul with about $100 dollars in one pocket and a couple of the proverbial beans in the other. I've got a stack of bills arriving at the end of each month and only a whisper of a plan. I'm going back to Afghanistan but maybe I should stay in England, get a regular doctor's job and nine to five some sensible money. Instead I am dealing with the unusual sensation - reliant on others as never before - of even more elevated risk. I might come home with my tail between my legs but I might just come home in glory and it's that thought of achieving what I set out to do versus never knowing if I could that makes me stay, sitting in the aeroplane seat, facing forward and urging it to go faster.

All of it; I wished for it and then it happened: PM, and him being delightful, the trek, the opportunity to just to sit still with my film material for more than 10 minutes at a time. But I feel nervous that I don't have a title outside of the the one that I give myself. I have to provide my own justification and this is hard, probably one of the hardest things a person can have to do; it's just you and what you think of yourself, and what you say about yourself, and what you can be motivated and daring enough to do when you get up each morning. But I have hope, I have leads and I have the will and the energy. The trek scares the living daylights out of me right now, what if I'm not good enough? Expedition medicine yes , in theory, in some strange ways it's the game I've been playing all my life in various ways. But mother and child care; lets just say there'll be a whole lot of internet knowledge refreshment going on over the next four weeks. That said, it's not like we can perform major operations, so what's left: basic resus, analgesia, antibiotics, antifungals, de worming, nutrition. The suggestion of referral to a bigger centre, may be to Kabul, but probably only the slightest of chances that a person will make the journey from the Nuristani mountains to Kabul for medical treatment.

As I sit and observe those around me I try to still by fears of the as yet unknown and allow myself to be thrilled, as I usually am, at the unfolding adventure. It's a strange process of transition, like one is emerging from a glut of wealth and excess to a much leaner, clearer existence. Today, it feels like that; in four weeks time though I will be dirty and tired of stinking drains and wishing for Starbucks and Zara and Topshop.

In Dubai I stay at La Bustan Rotana, a hotel near to the airport, a pretty good choice as it has a pool, reasonable size, enough to do mini lengths, and opens at 6.30am. Would go there again and ++ close to the airport. It was only later that I found out about the hotel that is actually inside the airport - this one you can pay for by the hour which sounds really dodgy but is actually brilliant for those middle of the night London-Dubai-Kabul transfers.

I feel bad about not knowing what the exchange rate to Dirhams is so not sure if a 5 Dirham tip is enough or not. I apologise to the porter and then wonder why I feel so bad, why I am apologising; I'm the one who at 3 O'clock in the morning handed her last $100 dollars over as a deposit on the minibar (did they think I would drink it dry? At Dubai prices a $100 would probably get me a cup of orange juice and half a mouldy Toblerone!). In a place where wealth is everything I was only obtaining small solace in my 'freelance' and 'charity worker' status. I wished that I had a sign that said ' my religion forbids me to use credit cards', instead of the fact that all of my cc's are maxed out and just spit forlornly back out of the money machines, lonely and unaccompanied by even the smallest denomination of currency. I feel strangely detached, like a homeless person, outside the system. "Cash only? Sorry madam, you must be a bit strange, only children pay in cash". I was right back at the shop counter, counting the silvers and coppers over for something trivial, stacks of two pence pieces, some tens and then the shiny, beautiful hexagonal twenty pence pieces - five make a pound - always my favourite.

In my hotel room at 4am, I drink (free) water and eat expensive (not free) wasabi peanuts. I open the jar and then wonder why I bothered, I wasn't really what I was looking for but I eat them anyway - such is the persuasive power of the minibar. In the bathroom I play the usual hotel game of guess how not to scald yourself in the shower (a friend had a rather unfortunate accident with the hot and cold taps on a bidet and, with this in mind, I am always careful not to assume foreign plumbing will be straight forward. In fact, the bathroom sink has a curious arrangement, two identical gold plated taps either side but possibly one is temp, the other off and on but but they seem to switch over as I play with them; hot-cold, on-off, perhaps this vice versa arrangement is the height of Emirati sanitary-ware sophistication, but it's all very confusing, or perhaps, its just 4am in the morning and I should be asleep. I shower with caution and a plastic shower cap on and go to bed. Can't sleep immediately, bloody sods law! Fitful but nice, clean, white sheets; won't be having any of those for a while. Eventually I drift off.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Love really is greater than death

It’s pretty difficult watching someone that you care for dealing with something incredibly difficult; Pmonster heard today that two of his friends were killed in the Pamir plane crash just oustside of Kabul in Afghanistan. I’d received an email in the morning via the hash house harriers network and had mentioned it in passing to PM – one of those things, one never knows quite what to believe as there is so much scare mongering and exaggeration. Later in the day we were sat in an internet cafĂ© sorting out our visa application forms when he took a phone call, immediately it was obvious that there was something deeply wrong, everything about his tone of voice, his body language; this was not going to be good news that he was receiving. And indeed it wasn’t, the caller a good friend of PM’s based out in Kabul was calling to say that several Brits were on the plane and two were very good friends. At the time PM said “Well, that’s life”, but I could see him gritting his teeth. It was too soon to see the true reaction, he was here with me in London, he felt it but he didn’t feel it. We carried on with what we had to do, he, with a brave face, saying nothing very much, feeling for the wife, the parents of the friends who had died. How can it not affect you?

We headed for home, he to call the wife of one of the guys to offer his sympathy, to ask if there was anything that he could do. Once home, I think it started to percolate. We went for a run, to try and see something beautiful to off set the unfairness of it all. He wasn’t saying very much about it.

Back home and I worried for him, didn’t want to leave him alone whilst I went out but I knew he needed time to speak to other friends, to tell those that didn’t know, to experience his feelings and to be there for others. To do something, anything in the face of loss, to be making some kind of contribution instead of sitting there helpless to change the circumstance. CC was an old, old friend and colleague, DT a younger man but still a close friend. PM had shown me a picture of DT with the cat from one of the bars, said how much he loved them, a big, macho security guy who loved cats. And CC, I’d heard so much about him, one of the three musketeers, a pal, a colleague, a most dear friend, with so many shared experiences and the hope that there would be many more to come. It was hurting PM a lot and there was nothing that I could say or do to make it different.

PM had said. “It’s all part of the game”, wincing inside at the same time. He’d seen people killed, had lost friends before, gotten used to the idea that this was something that you signed up for somewhere along the line. Here, out of the blue, a confluence of unexpected shit, a few weeks ago CC was best man at JB’s wedding, now CC was dead. The plane crash was nothing to do with terrorist activity; the Taliban didn’t blow the plane out of the sky. The weather, the terrain and a split moment’s decision to go despite being told that the weather was bad led to a momentous shift. Nothing in life is for sure, nothing that you see today will always be here tomorrow. All of these people come to Afghanistan of their own volition, they come knowing that they may pay with their lives, the black humour is rife, a good way to keep the apprehension low, to keep calm and carry on. Perhaps no one ever expects it to be them, perhaps not their immediate friends either, it always some poor unknown person, a local national, a third country national. We count those that matter to us. We say that we are prepared for the loss whatever that may be but is it ever possible to be so? To be so prepared is that at polar opposites to the decision to be there in the first place, that somehow, it will never be me or anyone close to me. What is it that gives us that sense, and how is it that it feels so bloody raw to have to face the reality of loss. We are all there in the plane in those last few moments, terrified and alone, angry and helpless. We are there with those people, experiencing their last time on earth, sharing their fear, there with our friend or our loved one. Who wouldn’t want to take it all away and make the outcome different?

The weather was so bad that it was impossible for anyone to get out there and find the plane and passengers. Later in afternoon the American air force were able to fly close and to confirm using thermal imaging equipment that there was no one alive in the vicinity. This additional information obliterated any last vestige of hope of having escaped fate no matter how ridiculous or slim the chance; miracles do happen. But as the hours passed the absence grows steeper and it’s just a case of dealing with that drowning sensation, the disbelief countered by the knowledge; the two fighting it out – harsh reality winning in the end.

These people are hardened to war, to injury, death and loss but humanity reigns supreme and the love between brothers in arms has a strength all of its own.

The practicalities; the repatriation, who will accompany the body, the funerals, dominate the conversation. Several times I hear PM say, “No I’m not joking mate, I’m serious”, no one can quite believe. He takes it upon himself to let people know, he knows how precious information is; however much people don’t want to know this news they will need to know. He does that work though it must hurt enormously to say those words, to write them, with each iteration, scoring the reality deeper into him. I think he is brave and generous, the energy of his soul is working for his friends who are gone now.

Coming home from dinner I met PM back home, hugged him after he’d downed eight pints of guiness in various pubs , before starting in on the vodka back home, I didn’t blame him, how else do you work your way through losing two of your very good friends. Numb is probably a pretty good way to be.

I heard him talking long in to the night, talking to people in the United States as they woke up and heard the news. “DT, he’d only come for a week, just to fill in for someone else, he’d given up all the security work, wasn’t in Afghanistan full time anymore”. “CC wasn’t even supposed to be on that flight, he’d decided to go up to Kunduz just to get something finished. Later, in the quiet, I heard PM crying in the other room, mournful sobs that asked why is it this way?

I couldn’t sleep, found it difficult to just switch off and leave him out there alone. But I didn’t know these people and in truth I didn’t know what it felt like. I knew that he needed space to mourn alone, to think, contemplate and come to terms. At 2.45am he looked in on me and I got up to comfort him, to be with him. But he didn’t need that, he needed alone time. I got back into bed and recorded here my thoughts on the day. Let him grieve undistracted, without having to worry about how he looked in mine or anyone else’s eyes. Death is a strange and complete entity. In plain sight of death we contemplate our own mortality and that sensation of loss that is so fucking unfair.

Friday, June 4, 2010

As usual I'm late. I've been faffing around eating pickled onion flavoured monster munch and now as the time comes to leave I am finally in a position to select an outfit... I'd planned to wear a white silk taffeta top and get it on with a fight only to find that yes, there is a large sweat stain under one armpit and far from lady like I look somewhat tramp like, I struggle to get it off over my head and, with the clock ticking, go drag out another ballish outfit - this time a slinky brown number, a full length fishtail skirt that clings to every curve, but this time around there just a few too many curves for my liking and my VPL means only one thing: larger pants or smaller ones... Not being a fan of the g-string I can only go larger but where are all my pants? - heaven only knows, and once again it looks as though my cleaning lady has hidden them - Arrrgh!!

The hem of the fishtail skirt has conveniently decided to come down and I am wrestling with staples and safety pins when PM rings me - I am delighted to hear his voice but deep in the depth of wardrobe despair - and of course ... late!! I've got gold shoes and silver jewellery and no bloody pants! My pashmina's got a stain on it and my tassles have stuck to my sticky - what I wouldn't give right now for a roll of double sided sticky tape
- how on earth am i supposed to cope? :)

I shun the brown satin number, rush through the silver ball gown and onto a tried and tested favourite; the maxi black dress that I wore to the last fund raising ball I attended - No matter that I'm going tonight with JP whom I met at the ball and who has obviously seen me in this dress - luckily (and happily, I add) JP is a taken man and so I don't really have to dress to impress anyone except for my perfectionist self. I am super stressed but feel much more comfortable in the maxi - the curves are gently hidden under a mass of material and I can breathe in it which is always a blessing. Taxi's here and I've gotta dash...Wish me luck!