For the past eight hours the bus had struggled through the mountains. It was night, and Carstairs was grateful for the fact that the vehicle had not had to halt for its hourly rest to allow the radiator to cool. The night air kept the temperature below boiling point,, but, in the bus, the body heat of the peasants and their livestock kept them from freezing in the cold mountain air.
Carstairs withdrew into himself, as an Englishman should, ignoring, as best he could, the body odours of peasants and chickens. He thought he detected a pig somewhere, as yet undeclared, and huddled himself into his anorak.
She had been missing for seven months. His heart turned over as he remembered their last meeting. There, in London, the risk had seemed remote. Her enthusiasm overcame his objections. It all seemed so simple. A trip through the Middle East and Turkey; the credits which would accrue towards her honours degree, the march she would steal on her principal competitors. A definitive work on The Kurdish Nation. How jealous they would be when she produced first hand research.
He had eagerly awaited her weekly telephone call which came, regular as clockwork, at seven pm each Wednesday evening. On the first occasion that she missed, he thought little of it. After all, there, in the wilds of Turkey, it might be difficult to find a phone with overseas connections. On the second week, alarm bells began to ring. He updated his passport and applied for a Turkish visa. On the third week he booked his flight to Ankara.
The trail had not been an easy one to follow. Friends at the Foreign Office in London had promised to make discreet enquiries but had warned him to pose as an ordinary tourist. Any mention of a Kurdish connection and he could expect trouble ranging from non-cooperation to summary deportation; and be grateful for that – Turkish jails had an unsavoury reputation.
Carstairs posed as a love sick swain pursuing an errant girl friend, a story not far from the truth, but later modified his role playing to that of a jealous brother protective of his family honour. It seemed more in keeping with Turkish psychology. He received a sympathetic hearing as he announced his intention of catching up with the wayward girl who had the temerity to gad about without his permission. Over endless cups of black coffee they shook their heads over the folly of the modern miss who so defied conventional behaviour.
Dawn’s steely light brightened the steamed up windows of the bus as it lurched into the tiny square of the village. Carstairs roused himself from any uneasy doze as the peasants about him began to gather their possessions, despite the early hour there seemed to be as many people waiting to meet the bus as were on it. Foremost among them was a huge fellow with a fearsome moustache, and standing at his side was Amanda!
’’George, you blithering idiot, what are YOU doing here?” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Do you want to ruin everything!” She smiled up at the big man and said something in Turkish. He directed a fierce glare at Carstairs and said in careful school English, “How do you do, You are come to visit your sister, no? You are now guest of Mustapha; my house is your house. Welcome. As representative of your family we will speak later of dowry, no? But first come to the house of Mustapha for restings and feastings. Come!” He rattled off a command in his own language and four villainous looking retainers seized Carstairs’ luggage from a cowed bus driver and heaved it onto a battered looking cart drawn by a tired donkey.
Mustapha strode at the head of the little procession meekly followed by Amanda. The little donkey was driven behind them. Carstairs, with his guard of honour bearing their long barreled rifles, brought up the rear. At least he hoped it was an honour guard, it felt suspiciously like prisoner and escort.
No one spoke to Carstairs as he trudged the narrow track that led higher into the hills. The sun leapt into the sky and blazed down pitilessly, and the last of the night’s cold vanished like a whisp of mist. Carstairs looked at his escort. Bandoliers of cartridges festooned their shoulders, long knives were thrust through their belts. Mustapha himself was better armed; he carried that modern badge of the freedom fighter, the AK.47 and wore a large curved sword. Their headdress seemed part turban, part arab head cloth, and they were clad in long robes of woollen cloth.
His musings were brought to an end as they emerged from a narrow pass onto a dusty plateau. Dominating the centre was an ancient fort. Clustered round its thick walls was an array of decrepit shanties. Smoke from cooking fires was redolent of the dung being used as fuel. Half naked children played in the dust as graceful women with babies on their hips carried tall jugs of water on their heads.
At the sight of Mustapha and his party, a sentry on the tower cried out a command and the heavy gate of the fort was flung open. A small horde of soldiers poured out, shouting in welcome and firing their rifles into the air. The shanty dwellers appeared to take no notice and carried on with their chores.
After the glare of the morning sun in his eyes, the shade of the fort’s interior was a blessed relief. A bevy of serving women bore down upon Amanda and whisked her away. Mustapha turned to Carstairs and waved him towards a deep alcove, more of a three sided room, and indicated that he should sit on a pile of elaborately embroidered cushions strewn on the stone floor. “Be seated, my friend.” He seated himself opposite to the bemused Englishman and loudly clapped his hands. Servants appeared, bearing trays of small cakes and thimble sized cups. With slick efficiency the thick dark coffee, the consistency of treacle, so beloved of the region was poured and handed to the chieftain and his guest.
“Again, Greetings.” Mustapha looked down upon his visitor. Even seated, he was a full head taller than the Englishman. Carstairs, as a six footer, felt slightly disconcerted having to look up at the giant,
“Thank you for your gracious hospitality. Forgive my ignorance, but how should I properly address you?”
‘”Exellency’ would be suitable”, growled Mustapha.
“Quite so,” said Carstairs. “For my part, you may address me as ‘Sir’. If it is sufficient for our Prince, who am I to insist on formality.” And he gazed along his patrician nose at his host. Take that! you unmitigate bounder, thought Carstairs. He turned his attention to his cakes and coffee, and awaited further comment from his host.
“Tell me of your House.” Mustapha was alarmingly direct for a middle eastern potentate. “Before I take your sister to wife, I must be assured of her suitability.”
“What has she told you?” countered Carstairs.
“Pshaw!” Mustapha made a sound of disgust. “Who can make sense of the talk of women. And foreign women…” He turned his eyes towards the ceiling as if asking for divine guidance.
“My Noble Father,” intoned Carstairs, bowing his head at his use of the word and making what he hoped would be taken as a ritual gesture, “is, I fear, angry with this, his youngest, daughter. She is promised to another Lord in marriage. Foolishly, she was permitted to pursue a modern education. Here she came under undesirable influences, Americans, you know,” he nodded confidentially at the chief. “I have been sent to bring her back in disgrace.”
“But what of the alliance of our Houses? Your Father,” and here he copied Carstairs’ gesture, “Will he not permit this?”
“Sadly, there is a problem. The Dowry, you see. It has been paid, already, to the other family. I dare not name it,. It is a very great family indeed! It is a question of family honour. I am sure my noble father,” (again the gesture), “would have been proud to have been allied to your Excellency if only for your oil wells. You do have oil wells?” he enquired artlessly.
Before Mustapha could speak, he continued “But there it is. A foolish girl has brought discredit on an ancient line. Let us ensure that this disgrace does not contaminate your noble house. It is lucky that I came in time!”
Mustapha, by now, was looking thoroughly disconcerted. After a moments thought, a cunning gleam came into his eye. “Perhaps your Father,” Here the gesture became more perfunctory, “Perhaps your father will pay for the safe return of your sister and yourself?”
“Sadly my sister is already in disgrace. And I too, if I fail in my mission to return her for punishment. No, I fear that my father” (the gesture showed a hint of fear), “would see this as a good opportunity to rid himself of the pair of us.
“Unfortunately, he might have to kill you too. He is at present trying to sell a new fighter-bomber to the Turkish government. They say that it can destroy a fort of this size with one bomb. 1 am sure your reputation as a proud rebel leader has not been exaggerated. Perhaps the authorities in Ankara might welcome a demonstration.
“Ah well,” he added bravely, “At least I will die in the company of a famous hero!”
Mustapha muttered an imprecation. “I am sure your noble father,” (the gesture was now performed with a deep bow) “will be anxious for you to complete your task without delay. I will have my women prepare your sister for the journey. Meanwhile perhaps you would like to refresh yourself and dine more substantially. The bus journey is long and tiring. We have time before it returns to the village this evening.”
In later years Carstairs would remember, as his greatest difficulty, escorting a bitterly complaining Amanda to the bus in the village. Now it was the setting sun in their eyes, but at least it was downhill. This time their escort was smaller, two armed guards and a servant laden with their baggage. Mustapha was not in evidence. He was doubtless musing on lost opportunities – and fighter-bombers!
Despite his efforts on her behalf, Amanda never became Mrs Carstairs. If you ask him, he will say that they are still good friends. If you ask her… Well, she still sends him Christmas cards. He sends her turkish delight!
(c) Copyright H.St.V.Beechey, 1994