They were soon to discover that Afarin Khan had one hell of an attitude. To be fair, it was their own fault and in the attempt to keep her out of harm’s way, she was relegated to being an accessory. They didn’t even use her language skills properly and gave her a list of questions to ask the Afghan villagers, who wouldn’t answer truthfully because they were terrified of these soldiers, but more terrified of the Taliban. She tried to explain this to Morrison and asked them to let her speak to the women alone, but he insisted that they were around to protect her.
“Well then give me a fucking gun, or are you afraid that I might accidently shoot myself?”
He just laughed dismissively. And so Afarin Khan realised that she wasn’t trusted and spent most of the patrols in a moody silence, staring bleakly at the harsh Afghan countryside. Jarvis did try to involve her, but the barriers were up. She even ate alone in the mess tent and when Jarvis tried to sit and talk to her she just said, “Piss off and leave me alone, Mr Jarvis. You’re not interested in me. I’m just a useless inconvenience who is only here because I can speak the language and you won’t even let me do that properly.”
She could tell that she had hurt his feelings by the wounded expression on his face. In her guilt, she half-wished he would react, strike her or at least shout back, but this wasn’t Jarvis’ way. His annoyance with this prickly young woman was tempered by the realisation that she was absolutely right. She wasn’t trusted because she was of Afghanistan heritage and she just wasn’t one of them. But he never gave up and made sure that she had plenty of chocolate from the ration packs, because he knew the diet didn’t provide for her Muslim beliefs. Although she wasn’t overtly religious, she did follow the Muslim diet which made meal times in the mess difficult. Another thing she did that irritated them, particularly Morrison was that she smoked and none of the rest of them did, Whenever they stopped the vehicle for a break or a piss, she would light up and surround herself with cigarette smoke, like a moody, petulant cloud
On one particular morning, Morrison’s team weren’t earmarked for a patrol, so they gave the WMIK a service and attended to items of personal admin, such as washing clothes and getting haircuts. Jarvis preferred to keep his hair quite long and as he sauntered around the forward operating base, he saw Afarin Khan sitting alone, naturally and leaning against a Hesco Bastion blast wall. Her knees were drawn up and she was resting her forehead on them, as though she was in discomfort. For once she wasn’t smoking and she looked so lonely that Jarvis’ heart went out to her. He stood and watched her for a long time and then seemed to make up his mind and went across to where she was sitting.
“Hello. You look deep in thought. Everything OK?”
She looked up. It was Jarvis. She liked Jarvis because he was kind and never said anything unpleasant to anybody. But she liked him in another way that she wouldn’t even admit to herself. She had never seen him lose his temper or even swear, even when she had been horrible to him, but he was still one of them. He was wearing a black, woollen hat, that partially hid his long, wavy and luxuriant hair and he smelled particularly good. Jarvis was very nice to look at and unlike Henry Morrison, he didn’t know it. She could have liked Jarvis a lot more and perhaps under different circumstance, she might have. But he was a Blade. Unreachable. Too good for the likes of an ugly, little Afghan bint like her. And there was something about him. Something hidden and buried. Although she wasn’t aware of the expression “absconded” as used in heraldry, there was something perilous about him that he kept firmly under control. A sadness or was it anger? She knew they were all capable of great violence, it was the nature of their job, but Henry Morrison’s danger was part of his attraction. With Guy Jarvis the dangerous part of him both alarmed and excited her.
She shook her head and he sat down next to her, his carbine clouting her shin, “Sorry. What’s up? Tell Uncle Guy.”
He noticed she was wearing her issue shemagh over her head and shoulders, as though she was hiding her face, like she hunched forward as though to disguise her breasts, which Jarvis considered to be a little sad. He had concluded that she had a beautiful face with her slightly aquiline nose, common throughout the area bounded by the Hindus and Kabul rivers. Even her mouth, seemingly permanently turned down sullenly was appealing. Her hair was short and thick and when he got close enough such as in the back of the vehicle, he would swear it had a slight aroma of spiced oils. Her skin was clear and flawless, apart from three little craters at the side of her right eye, probably the remnants of childhood chicken pox. But it was her eyes that were most enthralling. They were dark, the iris flecked with violet and when she looked at him, as she was doing now, she seemed to be staring into his soul, as if she knew what a fraud he was. He smiled disarmingly, but part of him wanted to wrap her in his arms and keep her safe, but Jarvis suspected she didn’t want security.
Afarin decided to be awkward, “Well, Mr Jarvis. I have something of a “condition.” As Mr Morrison would delicately put it: I have the painters in. It’s been a few months and this time it’s heavy and painful.”
“Oh,” he said and stood up, “Wait there.”
She watched him stalk off and felt a degree of disappointment and contempt. These roughty-toughty men, running at the first hint of a woman’s monthly cycle. He returned about fifteen minutes later and gave her a bag, “A strip of Co-codamol, which should last you about four days and four chemical adhesive heat pads. Don’t put them on your bare skin, because they’ll burn you.”
“Where did you get these, Mr Jarvis?”
“The medical tent.”
“You didn’t tell them… Did you?”
“No I said I’d pulled a muscle in my back.”
Afarin could have cried at this unexpected kindness, “Thank you. Mr Jarvis, you’re kind. Why does everybody else hate me?”
He sat down next to her, “Afarin, nobody hates you. It’s just that we’re a pretty insular bunch and you’re an unknown quantity. Frankly you can go out of your way to be prickly and obstinate and it tends to hack people off. I realise that we’re not making the best use of your language skills and you didn’t ask to be here. But here you are and you should make the best of it. Stand up for yourself. You’re as good as everyone else, just a little bit different.”
“What you mean is I’m not trusted because I’m like them out there, a Raghead.”
He patted her knee in a friendly, platonic manner he far from felt, “No. It’s worse than that. You’re a Crab. What you need to do is push back. Get noticed and have a go at any numpty that treats you with contempt. The only way is to make them respect you. Stop being so damned touchy and stop being petulant because you have nothing to apologise for.”
She laughed and smiled at him, “You’re like a big brother, Jarvis. Thank you again.”
He smiled back and looked away shyly. If only she knew what he really felt about her, and he had known what his advice would unleash.
The next day they were patrolling along the road from Gardez to the border town of Shakin. The road twisted through the hills that lay in parallel like the scales on an alligator’s back. They approached a bridge over a gorge with a distant clump of partially ruined buildings some 500 metres distant. It was a perfect spot for an ambush and Morrison ordered Jarvis and Cooper off the vehicle to conduct five and twenty-five metre searches for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). In a gully at the side of the road were a bundle of rags, from which four carrion crows burst upwards. Scanning the ground, Jarvis approached the rags while Cooper went down on one knee to cover the hillside. Afarinn Khan started to get out of the vehicle.
Jarvis saw there were five bodies and not rags. Their blood had dried to a dark, sickly brown and their eyes…
“Stay on the vehicle!” He shouted at the girl, but she ignored him and looked at the bodies as she walked over to him.
“Oh God! I thought I told you to stay on the vehicle, Afarin.”
She looked bleakly at the eyeless bodies, “Mother and father, two girls and a baby boy. They cut the childrens’ throats, then shot the mother and father. They forced their car off the road,” She carefully scanned the ground, “Here. There’s the tyre marks in the dirt. It hit that rock and broke the nearside headlight.”
She pointed at the broken glass, “They were dragged out of the car. They killed the children first. Made the parents watch then shot them.”
“So where’s the fucking car, Miss Marple?” said Henry right behind her and she jumped.
“They took it. It got stuck in the gulley, and at first they tried to drag it out by its bumper. Over there. It came off.” She said pointing, “But they obviously got it out, because there are the tyre tracks.”
Jarvis was impressed with her grasp of what had happened and how observant she was.
“You could be right,” conceded Morrison, “So who did it.”
“The fucking Taliban.” Cooper said bitterly.
“I don’t think so,” She said in a small, almost helpless voice.
Morrison sneered at her, “So who was it then, genius?”
“Another tribe. Or the same tribe over some blood feud.”
“What the hell is a blood feud?”
“A feud is a bitter, often prolonged quarrel or state of enmity, especially such a state of hostilities between two families or clans. Pashtuns have a higher tendency to practice blood feuds, but all groups can be involved in feuds that descend into violence. The biggest reason for conflict is land disputes, which mainly happen between Pashtuns and Tajiks.”
“So it was Tajiks?”
“Or it could even be members of the same tribe involved in a dispute over cattle, grazing, opium production or marriage.”
“So they cut the throats of kids and made their parents watch, then shot them?” Cooper said aghast at the barbarity of it, “What a fucked up bunch of people they are round… Oh, sorry, Afarin.”
“It’s OK, Mr Cooper. You’re right. We are a fucked up people.”
They watched her trudge back to the WMIK, a sad, lost little soul.
“What shall we do, Boss?” Jarvis asked.
Morrison shrugged, “We can’t bury them We’ll radio in a report and let the Afghan police deal with it. The fucking bastards!”
When Jarvis had taken some photographs of the crime scene he went back to the vehicle. Her head was in her hands and she was crying silently.
“It’s OK to cry for them, Afarin,” he said softly. It’s all too much sometimes.”
“The trouble is, My Jarvis, I was crying for myself because I’m ashamed.”
Afarin would go out with them on the WMIK as part of the support troop on patrols. She was always unarmed, always accompanied and she was only allowed to question women and not suspects who had been captured. The questions they told her to ask were clumsily framed and showed a hopeless understanding of the people and culture of the area. She bore it for weeks and finally erupted with frustration during a morning’s O-group meeting.
Because of the small number at the base and the nature of their operations, everyone except those on essential duties attended the weekly main O-group in the Ops tent, round the “Bird Table.” Not everyone, however, was expected to have a speaking part. The command group would run through commander’s intent, scheme of manoeuvre, the latest Int briefing, weather for the aircrews, a logistics briefing and command and signal codes. The Colonel would finish with a pep-talk and then any questions from the main players. Just before the Colonel turned to leave, Afarin stuck up her hand.
“I’ve got a question, sir.”
The Battle Captain moved to behind the Colonel and made a chopping motion at his throat to signal to her to shut up. She ignored him and ploughed on.
“Why am I regarded as somebody who is here on sufferance? Why have I not been issued with a personal weapon of any kind? Are you worried I’ll shoot myself, or some of you lot? Why do you only allow me to speak with local women with questions that have the most dumb-arsed framing so they can only be answered yes or no? Why am I referred to as ‘Genghis Khant,’ the ‘’PONTI Paki’ and my personal favourites, the ‘Tinge with the minge’ or the ‘Gash with the ‘Tache.’ Why am I wasting my time and your time here, when I could be gainfully employed analysing data from RAPTOR Pods? You lot treat me with contempt and frankly, sir, I’m sick of it.”
The Colonel’s face was white and pinched. The grownups looked shocked and embarrassed, while some people were smirking. She thought the Battle Captain was going to spontaneously combust.
“Don’t worry. This Paki’s going to pack.”
She went outside and went into the MT compound, sat on the ground leaning against the wheel of a Land Rover and lit a cigarette. She was watching the Ops tent, waiting for the hammer to fall. One of the RAF Chinook pilots walked purposefully towards her after he came out of the Ops tent. His face was grim and as he reached her, he dragged her roughly to her feet and gave her a tight, warm hug.
“Very big balls, SAC Khan and an attitude the size of a planet. Good luck and I’ll help you if they get arsey. I don’t think they will.”
Back in the Ops Tent, the Colonel was talking animatedly with the battle captain. Jarvis thought, You stupid little girl, as he heard the words “inappropriate” and “gross impertinence, get rid of her!”
As the colonel stalked out of the tent, Jarvis caught up with him, “What is it, Jarvis?”
“Colonel, you were talking about getting rid of SAC Khan. I think we may be making a mistake, with all due respect.”
“Really? She’s a bloody liability!”
“Sir, we may be doing her a grave disservice.”
The colonel stopped and looked at the corporal, “She chose the wrong time and the wrong place. She ignored the chain of command and was an embarrassment.”
“Colonel, ask yourself honestly, are we being fair to her? Have we given her the chance to prove herself?”
The senior officer was listening to a lowly corporal, but he knew that Jarvis had been highly respected by the Pathfinders and just before the previous Christmas, Sergeant Edge had spoken to the Adjutant and said that Jarvis was potential troop commander material when the time was right. Coming from Edge that was praise indeed and the Special Forces were very much a meritocracy.
“But she’s from the RAF and they do things… Well differently. She would be a liability in a contact.”
“And we didn’t even let her bring her personal weapon. You served on Telic many times, Colonel. Did your interpreters have our standard of training?”
“No but they were male.”
“Civilians. Khan has had military training.”
“Huh, from the RAF. What are you suggesting, Jarvis?”
“That we give her a chance. Give her personal weapons and train her to use them. If she’s useless, then I’ll personally drive her back to the RAF Det.”
“Are you prepared to waste your time on this chit of a girl?”
Jarvis thought about it long and hard. There was nothing he wanted to do more, but he knew that she had to be accepted by the troop commander.
“No, Colonel. Mr Morrison should train her. If she is to be part of the troop, she must be accepted by the troop commander.”
It was the Colonel’s time to think and he concluded that Guy Jarvis had the Wisdom of Solomon, for someone so new to the Squadron, “He won’t like that but very well, warn Henry off, but if she doesn’t cut it, she goes.”
“Thank you, Colonel.”
“Why do you care about this girl, Jarvis?”
“Because we promised her boss at Khost that we would look after her and give her a chance and I don’t think we’ve done that.”
The colonel nodded. Jarvis suddenly realised why he could be bothered. He had fallen in love with her and the realisation made his head spin. He had been unpeeling her like the skins on an onion and he knew that underneath the hard, brittle outer skin, there were many layers of tender sweetness that remained well hidden.
“I hope we don’t come to regret it.”
Jarvis’ first port of call was the armoury and he filled out the paperwork for a C8 carbine, a Sig Sauer pistol and a Glock 19, 500 rounds of 5.56mm ball and 20 rounds of tracer, 100 rounds of 9mm ball, for collection by Staff Sergeant Morrison the following morning. Then he tracked down Morrison and gave him the good news.
“You are joking, right?”
“No, Boss. She’s drinking in the last chance saloon. Let’s give her that last chance.”
“Where is she now?”
“Moping in her tent.”
“Well she can fucking stew there, after this morning’s pantomime.”
“I thought it was rather funny,” Jarvis said with a chuckle, “Did you see the look on the Battle Captain’s face?”
“Yeah, I guess it was kind of funny. But the Colonel wasn’t laughing.”
It was as though she was provoking us to get rid of her,” Jarvis suggested.
“Well she isn’t getting off that easily!” Morrison said and Jarvis smiled to himself. He had set him a challenge and Morrison hadn’t seen it coming, “I’ll put her through the ropes tomorrow and today she can reflect on how much she’s pissed people off.”
Jarvis rather doubted that Afarin Khan would see it that way. He went to the mess supply tent to pick up the rations for that day’s patrol and the mess clerk told him to go in the stores and help himself. While he was rooting around for four 24 hour ration packs that weren’t menus one, two and three. He picked two Menu eights for Cooper because he knew he liked the meatballs, menu ten for Wayne because of the chilli con carne and menus thirteen for him and Morrison. He also came across a pile of Halal ration packs and thought of Afarin Khan. They hadn’t even bothered to see if they had Halal rations and thought guiltily of her existing on processed cheese and oatmeal blocks. Feeling incredibly shamefaced, Jarvis picked up four of the religious packs for her.
They went out on patrol without the RAF girl and saw no sign of her in the mess tent that evening.
“Sulking,” Morrison said dismissively, “She’ll come out when she feels hungry.”
“Did you know we had Halal ration packs in the stores?”
Morrison looked at Jarvis, “No I didn’t. Oh dear. Well, she should have asked.”
Jarvis pondered as to whether he should try and speak to her, but in the end decided against it. It was up to Morrison now.
The following morning he drew the weapons and ammunition from the armoury and put them in a bergen. He tracked the troop leader down after breakfast and gave him the rucksack and the paperwork.
“A C8, a Sig and a Glock, five hundred rounds of five-point-five-six, twenty tracer and one hundred rounds of nine mil and some ration packs for your romantic lunch, including Halal of course.”
“Why the Sig?” Morrison asked.
“Because she has small hands.”
“Aah-ahhh! She has a woman’s hand, milord! I’ll wager those dainty pinkies never weighed anchor in a storm.”
“Ha ha ha. – Aah! And her skin milord. I’ll wager it ne’er felt the lash of a cat, been rubbed with salt, and then flayed off by a pirate chief to make fine stockings for his best cabin boy.”
“Where would we be without a spot of Black Adder,” Morrison observed, “Wish me luck. Where is she?”
“Still in her tent. Remember, Henry. Play nice.”
Jarvis went and volunteered his services in the Ops tent, because it was always useful to have a good grasp of the situation. It was clear that the Americans were moving their main effort to the mountainous area south of Jalalabad where a salient of Pakistan plunged into Afghanistan like a knife. It was widely known that they had a lead on Osama Bin Laden after intercepted phone calls and suspected he and his closely-knit henchmen were hiding in a cave complex known as Tora Bora. And as always, where the US Special Forces went, so did the Brits.
That evening Jarvis was sitting with Wayne and Cooper in the mess tent, when Morrison came in looking pleased with himself.
“How did it go?” Jarvis asked, fearing the worst.
“I am pleased to report that perhaps I have got it wrong regarding our little RAF Afghan lady. I put her through the wringer, the works, firing with movement, the correct use of cover, speed reloads, me firing in close proximity to her, shuttle runs with her stripping and re-assembling the weapons. She is a natural shot with the pistol, but had some problems cocking the Sig, so we used the Glock, with which she is a better shot than I am. She’s extremely fit in more ways than one and I have to inform you that she has been hiding her natural charms under that smock that’s about four sizes too big for her.”
“Where is she?”
“Having a shower. I gave her the ration packs and she was a bit pissed off that we had some and didn’t tell her.”
“To be fair, we didn’t know we had them,” Cooper said.
“And we didn’t even bother to find out.”
Morrison looked at them, “I’ve invited her to have a drink with us and watch the baseball on AFN, break the ice and say sorry.”
“Will she come?”
“I can be very persuasive,” Morrison said and that was what worried Jarvis.
There were a few, a very few other women on the base, a chef, a Krypto Analyst, two signallers and an RAF Battlespace Manager. Their company was much in demand in the mess tent. There was a proper bar but no spirits and tins and bottles. They did have wine. Henry made room for her between he and Jarvis when he spotted Afarin push open the door flap tentatively. He beckoned her over and made proper introductions. She learned that Wayne was a stand in for their usual two IC a sergeant called Mark Edge, who was currently recuperating after a severe wound received in Kosovo and he had also recently got married. Afarin got the distinct impression that Jarvis didn’t like this Edge very much.
Jarvis was the only one who had shown any time for her and Afarin knew she could trust this soldier, explicitly. He was a gently spoken man from somewhere in the Midlands, Lichfield if she recalled. He seemed particularly smitten with Afarin’s performance at the O-group yesterday.
“Loved it. ‘The Tinge with the Minge and the Gash with the ‘Tache.’ I thought the Colonel was waiting for the ground to swallow him,” he chuckled, “I told you that you needed to stand up for yourself. I’m glad you did, but was the neutron bomb really necessary?”
“Well I’m still here and not buried out in the cuds,” she told him and Jarvis gave a slight shudder.
“I’ll tell you what wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Henry muttered in her ear, looking at the bar, “Going over and apologising to the Colonel. Clear the air. And don’t call him sir, address him as Colonel.”
“But he’s only a lieutenant colonel, same as a wing commander.”
Henry chortled, “Err, not quite. Go on, big balls.”
Reluctantly she went over and stood next to the most senior officer on the FOB, “Excuse me, Colonel.”
He looked round and scowled at her.
“I apologise for speaking out in a manner that you would class as inappropriate in an O-group.”
He chose to ignore the semantics, realising this was half an apology. He smiled ruefully, “Well Ms Khan, I realise that the Royal Air Force may do things slightly differently, but I wouldn’t do it again at a bird table, if I were you.”
“Oh I wouldn’t, Colonel. Unless it were an operational imperative.”
He huffed in amusement, “Well, having delighted me with your presence, I think your friends who put you up to this are waiting to hang on your every word.”
When Afarin got back, Henry was taking ten dollars off the RSM.
“You put a bloody bet on me not apologising to him?”
“No, on you’re not getting thrown off the base.”
“You lot really are bastards,” she said trying not to sweep drinks off the table with her slung SFIW (Special Forces Individual Weapon). She had only just realised she was the only woman carrying a weapon.
“Why am I the only girlie lugging bloody gu… Weapons around with me?”
“Because you’re the only girlie who’s going off base with us badasses and we want carrying and being confident with a weapon to be second nature to you.”
Suddenly Afarin felt humbled. They actually trusted her.
“I bet your Mum and Dad would be shocked if they could see you now.”
“To be honest, Henry. They wouldn’t give a toss. I’m dead as far as they’re concerned.”
He felt a lump in his throat, “Why? Because you’re here?”
“No. They haven’t known where I am for over a year. They didn’t want me to take the Queen’s shilling. It’s not the done thing in my community, apparently.”
He felt a desperate sense of sorrow for a young woman and gave her a manly, non-sexual hug. Her rifle clouted his shin.
“Well fuck ‘em!” Was the only constructive thing he could think of to say.
She sat back relaxing, nursing her can of coke, listening to their incredibly blokey conversations. To be fair, they tempered their language and tried to involve her, but she was too tired. Jarvis felt a weight on his shoulder and turned round. She had fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder. He gently shook her awake.
“I think you should go to bed. It’s been a long day.”
“Yes, Uncle Guy. Are you going to read me a bedtime story?”
“I will,” Cooper said earnestly.
She smiled and shook her head, “Thank you, Mr Cooper, but I can manage. See you all tomorrow.”
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