The next day they made a leisurely drive from the hotel, south to Wiltshire and the two cars didn’t get separated at all. They arrived on top of Wroughton Hill at around 13:00 and carried their few possessions and baggage inside. Jarvis was struck with how minimalistic the house was, as though all of Afarin’s efforts had been focused on other things, which indeed they had been. He put his bag in what was the spare room, not wanting to push or hurry things.
“We’ll need to do some shopping,” She told him, “Although I’m not really any good at cooking and that stuff.”
“You amaze me,” He said, remembering the terrible breakfast she had cooked them all at the FOB near the caves, “I’ll cook us something tonight. What do you fancy?”
She was self-conscious about eating in front of him with her artificial arm and elected for something simple, “Any stew as long as it’s tasty.”
“Would you prefer rice or potatoes?”
“Rice please.” It would be easier to eat. She never bothered when she was on her own, but suddenly these things seemed to be so important.
“Is there any meat you can’t eat?”
“Pork, but that’s because I don’t like the taste, oh and veal because it’s cruel.”
She gave him directions to the nearest supermarket and while he was shopping, Jarvis stared wistfully at the wine and beers aisle, but that was part of his life, which had gone for ever. He elected to cook a beef stroganoff and bought fillet steak, mushrooms and cream as well as the other staples, which he doubted she had. The finishing touch was a large bouquet of flowers and a glass vase. When he got back, she had tidied, dusted and generally cleaned the house.
“Can I have a shower before I start cooking?” he asked.
“There’s a shower in the bathroom. Feel free, but don’t leave the seat up,” She smiled shyly, “The flowers are lovely. Thank you, Guy.”
Jarvis grinned and went upstairs. He peeped into her bedroom, which was just as minimalist as the rest of the house and he felt a degree of sadness. Was this all she had to show for the years of risk-taking and fear she had put herself through? And then he thought about himself and what did he have? He pondered this while he had a shower. His life had been one long act, where he had pretended not to be scared shitless most of the time. The insecurities crawled under his skin, like a parasitic infestation. He didn’t deserve this chance.
Downstairs he said to her: “Right, pay attention. Your Delia Smith conversion course starts here.”
He showed her how to sweat down the onions and then the garlic with the butter, low heat so as not to burn it and make the dish bitter. He finely sliced the steak and dusted it with flour, then fried the pieces until well browned. Then the final stage of adding the stock and the cream as a finishing touch while the Jasmin rice cooked in stock. She laid the table with a proper table cloth and a candle and they sat down and enjoyed the meal and the gentle, companionable chat.
“You’re a pretty good cook, Guy. You make it seem so easy, like everything you do. I can’t help noticing that you didn’t have anything to drink with it, like a nice wine. Have you become a Muslim?” She joked
He looked down in shame, “No. I became an alcoholic.”
And he told her everything, the pain in his legs, Bluma and the family in the cave, but he didn’t mention killing the MI6 Officer or the little girl with the teddy bear that haunted his dreams. And the fear of the gunfire that had ripped out at him in the darkness. He told her of how he tried to kill himself, an act that ironically saved his life.
“Oh Guy. I’m so sorry,” she said putting her hand on his face.” You’re right, we are a couple of misfits, running away from our past. I was with you that night on HMS Ocean. Mark Edge came back for me with my handlers and we got out on a chopper. I sat with you all night and they thought you were going to die. When I was sure you had turned the corner, I left you.”
“You were in Libya and Mark Edge got you out? Why didn’t you stay?”
“Because I’m a coward.”
He scoffed, “Fat chance.”
“No really I am. Being in love with somebody terrifies me. It thought I loved Henry, but we were just using each other. I wanted to tell you how I felt about you in Basra, but you were gone. So, Henry and I just used one another again. I saw you talking to that woman with a child in Wales. I got that wrong as well, just like I get everything, wrong.”
“I’ll go home tomorrow.”
“You can’t. He’ll kill you.”
“The man whose wicked spirit haunts your house. You can’t feel it, but it’s there. I don’t want you to go. I want you to help me be brave.”
“Let’s do the dishes. There is no hurry to be courageous,” he told her.
But that night she swallowed her fears, although her pulse was racing and went into the guest room. She thought he was asleep and then saw his eyes glint in the darkness.
“There is no hurry, Afarin. We’ve waited a long time.”
She took his arm and led him through to her bedroom.
“Get in my bed, Guy.”
It was warm and smelled of her. She was shaking as she stepped out of her pyjama trousers and pulled the top over her head. She wasn’t wearing a prosthetic arm.
“It’s now or never and I’ve waited long enough. I’m going to warn you that I’m a bit lopsided in the boob department,” She told him, “It’s from when I was shot. Lopsided boobs are the least of my worries after dying on the operating table. So here I am, this is me”
“And it’s the least of mine,” He assured her, pulling down the quilt, “I’ve waited nearly twenty years for this moment.”
She spooned up against him, “You’ve left a cold bit.”
He smiled and this time he didn’t have to think for a moment where to put his hands.
“They feel fine to me. It’s been so long,” Guy concluded.
Their lovemaking was slow, unhurried and tender. It was as though they were exploring each other slowly. The passion and fire would come later. In the afterglow, Afarin buried he head on his chest and he could tell she was crying He stroked her hair, “What is it?”
It was a result of her physical release after so many years of abstinence and the intense arousal
“Oh, Guy, I’m so sorry.”
He felt his heart sink, “Whatever for?”
He had to listen carefully through her sobs to hear what she was saying, “I’m sorry for treating you so badly in Afghanistan. You were trying to be kind to me and I was horrible to you. You see, I was scared of you especially, because I was in love with you. I know that now. You were, are so handsome and I was an ugly little Afghan girl. I took a risk with Henry because I knew it would never come to anything, but with you I couldn’t bear the rejection. And I wanted you to feel jealous, which is stupid, I know.”
He shook his head in the darkness, “We should have taken the risk, because you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve met.”
“There isn’t a day that passed when I knew that, but I was too much of a coward. Promise me that you’ll stay.”
“We’re both human and make mistakes. It’s when we keep making the same ones over and over again, and expecting a different result, that’s stupidity. I’ve made too many mistakes not to stay, now and however long you’ll put up with me.”
They were blissfully happy exploring each other, often spending an entire day in bed, and Jarvis marvelled at the scars over her body, particularly on her breast and back.
“What’s this scar on your side, just under you rib cage?”
“Some bastard who I was watching, knifed me. He clocked and went for me. I had to kill him and get myself to hospital.”
On occasions she felt the need to be alone and seek the solitude of Barbury Castle and the Ridgeway path. She was not used to sharing her house, as she had spent years on her own, and she had to work hard to share it with someone else. But he was a good cook, a kind and gentle lover and full of passion and ardor when she needed it. Afarin smiled to herself.
It was the autumn now and she loved walking along the crest of the hills, lost in thought. In truth she was giving thanks, but to whom? Despite the damage he had done to his body, by some miracle she knew she was pregnant, against all the odds. She just knew she was carrying a girl and although she loved Guy with all of her heart, there was a feeling that she needed something else to be complete. Something had changed inside her.
As she drove up to the car park a song came on the radio. She had never heard it before but the plaintive female voice bowled her over and she stopped the car to listen. It was Amoureuse sung by Kiki Dee. She could have listened to it over and over.
“Not played very often, but such a beautiful song,” said Steve Wright from the radio.
Afarin thought a great deal about life, love and death. She knew that clinically she had died twice. The first time was of pneumonia, when she had left her body, stared down at herself and the man who was keeping her warm with his body heat. She closed her eyes and thought about James. Dear, kind James whom she had only known for a few months, but he could have made her happy. Now he was cold and dead in a Hereford graveyard, an unfulfilled love. Death was waiting for her and she hadn’t been frightened, but knew that it wasn’t her time yet. The second time she had left her body and the operating theatre, to go somewhere else, to step over away from the pain. Death was there again and he was beautiful. This time he explained to her what she still had to achieve in life, even telling her that she would be responsible for bringing life into the world. The growing clump of cells inside her would be a new life for her and Guy to nurture. The responsibility was terrifying and she needed support. She needed something else.
The anger against her background and the world in general had diminished, but something had to replace it and sustain her family. It was on the crest of the St George Ridgeway walk, that the realisation hit her like a hammer blow.
How will I know you exist?
Because you know. Why are you talking to me? You just have to have faith.
I’ve done terrible things in my life.
Are you sorry, truly sorry for committing them?
I’m sorry now and for the rest of my life, for most. Some deserved to die. Will you forgive me?
It is not up to you to gauge the value of a life. If you are truthfully sorry. Yours was the life of a soldier. Killing is what soldiers do, rightly or wrongly.
Because I love all of mankind, even an angry, frightened little soul like you. It will not be easy.
She suddenly realised she had been praying, not the slavish call to prayer and not to Allah. Perhaps he was God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but she knew she had been conversing with the God of Christ and the Redemption. Afarin Khan had set herself on the path to idolatry.
“Bloody hell,” she said out loud.
That afternoon while Guy cooked the Sunday lunch (she was learning but a roast was as yet beyond her improving culinary skills), she did some research on the internet and ordered some books. They came within a few days and she began to read up on the history of Christianity. If Jarvis noticed her sudden interest, which he did because he was no fool, he made no comment. He knew that she had a thirst for knowledge and was widely read. This new interest was nothing remarkable to him. In a month’s time it would be pure mathematics or Greek philosophy.
On a Sunday in November, she slipped almost unnoticed into the back of a Catholic church in Swindon and listened and observed. She was struck by how much this was a celebration of faith, rather than an obligation or oppression, with women segregated. After the service she left at the end, waited until he had dealt with the needy, and then spoke with him.
“Good morning, Father. That’s the correct way of addressing you, isn’t it?”
He looked at this Persian woman with the loosely draped hijab covering her head and shoulders and smiled uncertainly, “Yes. How can I help you?”
“I want to become a Christian, a Catholic. Could we speak about it please, if you’re not too busy?”
He looked at his watch, “Let me get changed and we can have a talk in the sacristy before the next service err…”
“My name is Afarin Khan.”
The priest felt a degree of unease because he knew what the penalty was for being an apostate. He took off his cassock and underneath she was surprised when he came to fetch her, she saw he was wearing chinos, a black shirt and no dog collar. He showed her into the sacristy and asked her to sit down.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Tea if you have any, please, no milk.”
He gave her a cup and sat opposite her, “Now Ms Khan, are you married?”
“No but I am in a loving relationship with somebody. He isn’t a Muslim.”
That was something at least. “But you are.”
“I haven’t practiced Islam for over twenty years and I have no regrets.”
“Tell me about yourself,” And she did. Even the sanitised version seemed to rock his world, “Good grief. What a complex and rather shocking life. You wouldn’t be taking the Mickey?”
“No, Father. I have been honest with you.”
“Why do you wish to become a Catholic? It would seem that the Church of England would be an easier path for your faith. The supreme pontiff is not very popular at the moment.”
“Because I don’t want an easy path. I want a path that stretches me spiritually and intellectually. I don’t want any part of a religion that has been feminised, emasculated, where the belief in God is an optional extra. Popes come and go and I hope the next one is from Africa and not an Argentinian Marxist, but true faith stands the test of time. I don’t want woke ideology. I want a faith that is not conveniently easy. This is a time in human existence when we should be fighting for the continuation of our free and democratic future, not supinely rolling on our backs to get our tummies rubbed by those who would seek to destroy us and our history. I don’t want to face the enemy with platitudes and understanding, I want to face it head on like La Valette and the Knights Hospitalar, with faith in my soul and a sword in my hand.”
“Good grief! Hopefully it won’t come to that?”
“And I know what you’re thinking and no, I’ve never read a Dan Brown novel. But I have seen evil, real evil, both in this country and abroad. When I was in Hospital in Kenya, an African nurse gave me a copy of the serenity prayer, which I have since learned, was written by St Thomas Aquinas over 1,200 years ago. It has taught me to accept the things I can’t change and the courage to confront the things I can. I am still learning the wisdom to know the difference.”
The priest stared at her over the rim of his coffee mug. There was something in those eyes. She was truly… He buried the thought. Dangerous territory for a priest. Punch and Judy.
“Normally I would tell anyone who wants to follow our faith, to go and think about it and read as much as they can. Clearly you already have. I would suggest joining a group, but we have none at the moment. I am happy to school you in these sessions, where you will learn about the teaching of Jesus as the Catholic Church has received it: teaching about God and about who human beings are in God’s eyes; the moral principles which God asks his followers to live up to; the ceremonies of the Catholic Church in which we worship God, express sorrow for our deliberate wrongdoing, and seek God’s healing in times of sickness; and the different ways of praying which are part of the Catholic tradition.
“Christian initiation is accomplished by three sacraments together: Baptism which is the beginning of new life; Confirmation which is its strengthening; and the Eucharist which nourishes the disciple with Christ’s Body and Blood for his transformation in Christ. There is quite a bit to consider, so the instruction can take several months, and often a year. Do you agree to this?”
“Yes, Father. I am currently pregnant, but I’ll make sure the birth of my child won’t affect my studies.”
“A gift from God, perhaps?”
“As is all life.”
That Christmas they spent the time entirely in their own company, besotted with each other. It was a simple time and they exchanged a few gifts. She went to midnight mass and eventually told him what she planned.
“Do you mind?”
He smiled, “Of course not. I’m afraid that religion doesn’t float my boat, but if it’s what you want, then that’s good enough for me. Just as long as you don’t become a nun.”
“Fat chance, stud. Guy, do you like it here?”
“I’d be happy anywhere with you.”
“You don’t miss your place in Lincolnshire?”
“Not since I’ve got my bike back and my journals. I was thinking of putting it up for sale because it’s just losing money lying empty.”
“Be careful on that bloody bike of yours. Guy, I would rather like to visit your friend, Mark Edge down in Devon.”
“Because he saved both of our lives and he is your friend. And I want to move away from here. I always feel as though I can be tracked down here and I’ve pissed off a lot of people over the years.”
“I’ll ring him and ask if we can visit after the New Year.”
“I have some news for you, Guy.”
“More news? You want to become a Trappist Monk?”
“No. You’re going to be a daddy. Well done and congratulations.”
He stared at her, “Bloody hell!”
Also from Blown Periphery now available on Amazon: War Crimes for the Political Elite
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© Blown Periphery 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file