Travels of an Innocent Man
Author: Rask Balavoine

Chapter 1
Night of Evil in Afghanistan

An odd-looking little boy showed me up to the second floor of the Evergreen Hotel. He left me standing in a corridor beside a wrought-iron grill that was held in place with padlocks. This was the door to my room. From the corridor I could see into the room and on through it to a smaller grill that filled an over-sized window space in the outer wall of the building, and beyond that again to the great outdoor mess that was Jalalabad, all washing, minarets and TV aerials.


It was a white room. The ceiling and walls had been freshly white-washed and the sheet stretched tightly over the bed-frame was starchy white. The whiteness was more noticeable for the lack of glass and wood and curtains: cool air moved freely in and out of the room through the iron grills. The overwhelming impression it gave was of wide open space split by incomplete walls. It was easy to forget that I was inside the building and not outside on a veranda as I looked from the landing through the room then on out the window into the distance over the roof tops of the town towards the mountains. I stood for a while longer in the corridor waiting for the boy to return with keys for the padlocks and stared out along a line that ought to have gone round corners, peering into a great chaotic beyond.


There was no reason to stay in the room once the boy was gone. I left my bag secure behind the iron grills and stepped out into the street to take the usual wander I like to have around every new city. I wanted to make it my own. I was hoping to find company; that was the only necessity I couldn’t pack in my bag as I moved about from place to place. On the street the afternoon was warmer than in the cool, aerated hotel room. Weak shafts of sunlight laden with dust struggled through the remaining traces of the morning’s fog that were still trapped in the twisted alley ways, dividing everything I saw into long, irregular shapes sitting in mid-air in front of me like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. I passed by all the usual shops and tea houses with their full quota of men sitting around the doorways, talking among themselves at the top of their voices. Small groups of cheeky, inquisitive children followed from time to time, but only within the confines of their own few streets. For a while it seemed as if I was being targeted by every beggar and trinket-seller in the city as I wandered around for the few remaining hours of daylight, watching and being watched, feeling that every well-defined concept of place and time and direction was being challenged. I was too tired and too sore from the morning’s journey to care.


On into the evening I sat myself at a table in a restaurant next door to the Evergreen. There was no-one else there and the starkness of the place made it feel cold and hostile. The faint smell of food struggled around the room and filled me with an inexplicable sense of foreboding. I pulled the blanket I always carry in the cold Afghan winter even more tightly around my shoulders and, always wary of rats, tucked my feet in below myself on the unsteady chair and was eventually able to order something to eat. It was a long time cooking.


While I waited I realised how hungry I had become. I hadn’t eaten since I left the bus towards the end of the morning. I felt nauseated, probably from a combination of hunger, tiredness and the smells that lingered everywhere, a mixture of food and damp air. While I sat mulling over all that the day had so far been filled with, trying to make sense of it all, a small, furtive looking man slipped hesitantly through the half-open door. He glanced around as if to check that no-one had followed him, then he pulled a chair over to the table I was at and sat down, not yet having spoken. I sensed that I was being drawn into something illicit and perhaps dangerous, some kind of conspiracy. I felt threatened. A heavy scent had entered the restaurant along with the man. It wasn’t a perfume that he was wearing; it was more like an unpleasant, sickly-sweet presence that lurked unseen around him, sweet but with a sinister charge to it. A suggestion of evil and darkness was what I began to detect in the altered atmosphere.


The man placed a small, battered valise on the table in front of me and said by way of introduction that he owned a garden. In the garden he grew all manner of sweet-smelling plants: Rose, Jasmine, Sandalwood….. He confessed coyly that he was a confectioner of perfumes, throwing far too much seductiveness into what turned out to be no more than a sales pitch.


The man’s posture and hushed manner of speaking reinforced the impression he had already given of a shared and dangerous confidence, something conspiratorial. I said nothing and couldn’t think of any appropriate reaction to offer I wished he would leave. I didn’t want to have to deal with anything more challenging than eating a meal and going to bed to sleep and wipe out the loneliness of the day. I wasn’t even totally aware of what was happening, my head more full of the past and the future than of the present.


Uninvited, the man opened the case on the table and brought from it a selection of small, crudely-blown glass bottles with all the panache of a well-rehearsed conjurer pulling a rabbit from a hat. He obviously expected an appreciative, amazed reaction and looked disconsolate when it never came. Each of the bottles was part-filled with gaudily coloured liquid, reds, yellows and blues. With feigned vigour the man demonstrated on the concrete floor of the restaurant that the bottles were unbreakable. When that phase of the demonstration was over he began unstopping some of the bottles enthusing extravagantly about their healing or aphrodisiac properties, addressing not only me, but an imaginary, unseen audience, other conspirators who he seemed to have conjured up in his mind for the benefit of the performance. He urged me to put some of the perfume on my wrist but I refused and leaned away.


The man’s demeanour suddenly changed at my refusal. Gone was what passed for charm. His expression moved quickly through feigned surprise to bewilderment, hurt and finally on to a dark malevolence. Suddenly I became aware of an ever-sharpening wave of nausea rolling up from deep within my stomach and I needed to be away from everything, the man, his perfume, the smell of the cooking. I wanted the night to be gone. I wanted rid of the loneliness that tortured me, but I knew that company would only make me worse.


Pulling my legs free I pushed the table out of my way sending the bottles of perfume crashing onto the floor. I lunged past the man, dragging my blanket in the dirt and pushed through the door onto the street. I didn’t know where to go but I had to go somewhere. I started running in the cold night air and there was no-one about. I ran through the same alleyways that had seemed so colourful and full of life just a few hours before but which were by now deserted. The exuberance and life of the day had gone, and brown, impersonal doors in high walls shut life away from the eyes of strangers.


I kept running. I ran until my lungs hurt and my gums throbbed. I was out of shape and out of breath. The night air was not only cold and clear but it held the smell of death and decay, filling my nostrils and burning into them the impression of defeat.


I found myself holding onto a pillar that supported a balcony. I leant against it and tried to slow my breathing, and as I started to calm myself a rolling wave of nausea crashed over me and I vomited. The sick shot against the mud bricks in front of me at face level. My chest hurt from retching and vomit trickled down my chin. I didn’t care. It was so good to get rid of whatever had invaded my being when that sinister man had tried to engage with me in the restaurant.

I walked about a bit more, from one wall to another, propping myself up at each alley corner before moving on. I had lost all sense of direction. Looking up past the high walls of the town into the clear, loving night sky I heard the click of the night policeman’s stick, and headed off in another direction. I came across a group of men huddled around a smoky brazier, watchmen I supposed. They made room for me and I joined them, grateful for the smoke from smouldering green branches that blew around me, breathing it in to fill my lungs and my head, letting it cleanse me from the foul influence the perfume seller had brought to my table.

 

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