About the Author
MacLean was born and educated in Canada. He is the author of
five previous books, including bestsellers Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon.
He has won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work prize and an Arts Council
Writers' Award, was twice shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize and
was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He is a
regular contributor to BBC Radio 4 and lives in Dorset with his wife and son.
Hot wind ripples across the blood-red earth.
Airy waves wash over the scorched stones, ruffle the ashen mountains, stir the fabric of elements as a pebble flicked into water.
The distant, shimmering vision stops me in my tracks. I stare toward it, past
the shells of burnt-out tanks and fusilli twists of thick armour
plate. The object seems to be suspended in space like a bird or a feather. It
is a camel and rider, a helicopter gunship, a levitating Valkyrie.
I'm alone in this raw, empty place and it's coming toward me.
As I watch, the spectre transforms itself,
reaching down to touch the boiling tarmac road, extending black legs, sprouting
tyres. Its flashing eyes become a split windscreen. Its phantom limbs are the
arms of men. I bend my ear toward the horizon and the familiar Leyland tick-tick rents the absolute stillness of the deserted valley.
The bus rolls out of the heat haze, two dozen
Afghan heads craning and calling out of its broken windows at the sight of me
by the roadside. Its engine brake thunders the ancient Bedford to a stop,
enveloping me in voices and dust. When the cloud clears, I'm staring up at the
riders, responding to their invitation, about to step onboard.
Then the metal body catches my attention. On
impulse, I sweep a strip of grit off its mottled surface. I see the crude
'Flying Muslim Coach' logo has been painted over flaking portraits of sultry
beau- ties, their faces scratched out years earlier by Taliban fanatics. I
brush away another coat of dirt and discover Russian words beneath the
portraits, faded reminders of the Soviet occupation. With both arms, I rub
again, pushing back another decade, reaching deeper into the collage and
discovering that the Cyrillic characters themselves efface psychedelic, Day-Glo
In the blazing heat, I'm looking for clues,
wanting to identify the transiting dreamer who brought the vehicle from Europe
to Asia in the 1960s. Then the driver sounds the horn. Arms reach out to me.
Voices beg me to stop cleaning the dirty old bus, assuring me that others will
do the job in Herat, asking me to honour them with
my company. The conductor, a laughing man with midnight-black hair and a glass
eye, pulls his Leili Leili jann cassette
out of the old stereo. He rifles in the bottom of a chest and clicks another
tape, worn and stretched, into the machine.
'Music for you! For you!'
he calls in English, cranking up the volume, filling the Valley of Fear with
the sound of The Who.
I'm disorientated, laughing with the other men.
I hoist my pack on to a shoulder and step onboard the four-wheeled palimpsest,
setting off between the war ruins 'on the road which so many once believed led
to a better world.
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