A Red Light

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5. Conflict


The day after Samira’s engagement party, Jenny dragged herself out of bed at half past six and made her way sleepily to the kitchen where she put the coffee on. She was glad that she didn’t have a hangover despite the fact that she had drunk a considerable amount of champagne. Being a female teacher in a Middle Eastern military establishment required a certain presence of mind, and that definitely included a clear head ! The bubbling of the percolator interrupted her daydreaming and indicated that the coffee was ready. She poured herself a cup and was about to sit down when her gaze met the kitchen clock. She gasped and put the cup down. It was already five to seven and she hadn’t even showered. The coffee would have to wait.

Youssef was still asleep when she crept out fifteen minutes later to wait for the Air Force bus which picked up all the teachers of English who taught on the base. With military precision the bus arrived at exactly quarter past seven. The base where Jenny worked was in south west Tehran, not far from Mehrabad Airport. It was surrounded by a sprawl of brown, cement rendered blocks of flats with washing waving from the balconies and flat roofs.

The bus always stopped on the main road at its junction with a narrow alley which led to the compound and the entrance used by civilian personnel. Jenny noticed that the usual bustle of people and animals was conspicuously absent. The streets seemed unusually deserted as they clambered down from the bus and followed their customary route.

Suddenly, they were confronted by a soldier armed with a machine gun.

“Walk in single file and keep close to the wall,” he barked in English.

Must be a military exercise, thought Jenny to herself. If anything was wrong they would have cancelled classes.

“Don’t point that thing at me. I’m British,” retorted a teacher called Barry, walking past the guard and pushing the barrel of the weapon downwards.

What an idiot, thought Jenny noting the incredulous looks of the other teachers and the soldier’s contemptuous glare.

“What’s wrong ?” Jenny asked him quietly as she filed behind the others.

“Terrorist attack,” he replied, “but I think they’ve all been caught now.”

Only then did Jenny see another heavily armed soldier at the end of the street, and two more guards flanking their usual entrance. At the gate, they were told to go as quickly as possible to the opposite end of the base, furthest away from the point where the attack had commenced. As they started to go across, they were startled to see four naked figures - two men and two women - being pushed and marched roughly at gun point across the parade ground.

“Must be the terrorists, “ whispered Barry to Jenny.

“Why have they been stripped ?” asked Jenny in amazement.

“You are naïve,” retorted Barry. “To make sure they don’t have bombs, or guns, or cyanide capsules concealed on them, but also to humiliate them.”

“What will happen to them ?”

“After they’ve tortured and interrogated them, they’ll be shot, but before they face the firing squad the women will be given to the soldiers, if you know what I mean, and they’ll find some other or even similar amusement for the guys.”

Jenny was horrified. “That’s barbaric and against human rights,” she whispered fiercely.

“Terrorists here don’t have any rights, nor should they anywhere,” muttered Barry. “You pacifists are all the same. Feel sorry for them you say, but no one feels sorry for their innocent victims and their families. Anyway, their fate is none of our concern. They don’t welcome interference here, Jenny.”

Jenny fell silent. She knew that Barry was right. If you blew with the wind-and the monarch’s portrait in every house confirmed that assumption- you’d be OK. But her stomach lurched as she thought of what lay in store for the four captives.

The building at the far end of the parade ground was the canteen, and all personnel had assembled there. Smoke was still pouring out of the blackened windows of a second floor apartment on the corner of the base opposite the canteen. Crowds of excited people were shouting and gesticulating at the damage to property and the inconsiderate disturbance to their torpid routine.

The terrorists had rented the apartment some two months ago under the guise of students, and had lain low biding their time. Unbeknown to them, the landlord had complied to the letter with the mandatory procedure involved in renting out any buildings within a certain radius of the base perimeter. All details had been passed on to the armed forces’ security department. However, as the tenants had no known records and regularly attended university lectures, they were classed as low risk. Nevertheless, the terrorists had not reckoned with the stringent contingency plans always in force as part of military security. They were always on the alert and allowed no room for complacency. Terrorist attacks and shoot outs were becoming quite frequent, and there would always be new anarchists with a cause waiting to carry on where their comrades had failed.

In the small hours, therefore, as soon as the first hand grenade had hurtled into the parade ground and the first resounding shot had shattered the stifling still of the night, the sentries had automatically responded by returning fire followed by incendiary devices fired through the windows of the flat to smoke the occupants out. Fortunately, although shocked, none of the other residents were harmed as a unit of soldiers stormed the building and dragged the rebels out. Despite having orders to shoot if in danger, they preferred to capture them alive if possible to have themselves a bit of fun. When the four had refused to take their clothes off after a barked command, their garments had been ripped off none too gently, but they remained defiant despite the ridicule they were subjected to.

“I wouldn’t mind tackling a couple of terrorists a day if they were all like this,” leered one soldier as he prodded the two women with his bayonet.

“Nor me !” “Or me !” “Me neither !” agreed the others in unison scarcely concealing their lust.

“Can’t wait till later when they’ve done with questioning them,” panted the first one running his bayonet tip up the girls’ legs.

They both turned and spat at him, but he only laughed. “Later, girls, later. I like a bit of spirit…” he reiterated coarsely.

In the canteen, Jenny was grateful for the chance to have the coffee which she had had to forego that morning. She had occasionally read a small article in the English language newspaper about terrorist shoot outs, but had never expected to be caught up in one.

“That was exceptionally good timing,” remarked Jenny’s friend, Jane, who was sittting drinking coffee next to her.

Jenny looked at her with raised eyebrows. Jane often made odd or careless remarks.

“This means we’ve missed the first lesson. I was going to be appraised this morning. Now I feel as if I’ve won a reprieve.”

Jenny relaxed and smiled. She had already had her appraisal, but she, too, had found it nerve racking.

“It’s not that bad, really,” she assured Jane. “And, anyway, you’re a good teacher, so I don’t know what you’re worrying for.”

“All the same, even teachers have bad days, and the class I have at present always plays up. But next week, I shall have a new bunch of recruits, and with any luck they might be a bit more cooperative.”

Jenny sympathised. She had experienced good classes and bad ones, and she certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be appraised in front of an uncooperative bunch of trainees.

Lessons recommenced mid morning after a security sweep had defused timed explosives left in the flat, the remainder of the building had been thoroughly searched, and the all clear had been given.

In the afternoon of the same day, a transatlantic call was intercepted by Savak, the feared, secret police. It was dialled from a downtown telephone kiosk in Tehran to a government building in Washington. In a richly furnished room, reclining in a high backed, brown leather chair, a man in military uniform picked up the telephone receiver.

“Yes ?”

“Lecture’s over.”

“Did they pass their exams ?”

“No. Subject too difficult.”

“Obviously,” came the terse reply.

“Shall I continue ?”

“No. Change to a new course.”

The conversation ended as abruptly as it had begun. Savak were convinced that the call had referred to the terrorist attack, but they were unable to pinpoint the exact location in time, and were left to speculate as to the new course of action they would have to contend with. They certainly didn’t expect to glean any information from the latest captives.

Jenny was excited when she returned home early in the afternoon, and told Youssef what had happened, but he was very angry that the teachers had been picked up for work when the base was under siege.

“They shouldn’t have taken the risk,” he declared angrily. ”That’s typical of the military. Everything has to continue no matter what. It’s alright for them. It’s their job, and they’re trained for it, but they shouldn’t risk civilian lives unnecessarily.”

“Never mind. It’s all over now,” soothed Jenny.

“Yes, this time,” muttered Youssef. “But you never know what might happen next time.”

“Are you very busy ?” asked Jenny, tactfully changing the subject.

“No, not particularly. It’s siesta time at the moment. I expect they’ll all start rushing back for food around six o’clock or later.”

“Well, let’s go and see your parents. Or, we could go swimming.”

“As it happens, my parents have invited us for dinner tonight,” replied Youssef, relaxing a little. “So, we can go swimming first, and then go on to their house later.”

“Wonderful,” said Jenny smiling. “It’s so hot. I’d love a cool swim followed by decent food. I’m beginning to look like a burger !”

She gave a little shriek and darted away as Youssef tried to catch hold of her.

“You’ll regret saying that,” he called as he ran after her.

“No, I won’t,” she laughed as he caught up with her in the bedroom and pulled her onto the bed.

“Say sorry,” he demanded.

“No, never,” she gasped as he tickled her. “Never !”

The swimming club was for the employees of the National Iranian Oil Company. Youssef’s father was Manager of Transport, and his membership extended to all close members of his family. The facilities were excellent with a large pool for adults and a smaller, shallow pool for young children and toddlers. Food and drink were available from an excellent restaurant and bar on the terraces-the whole complex located behind secluded walls in the Abbasabad district of North Tehran.

Jenny loved going there. It was the only place where she could unwind and relax. At school it was a battle of wits against the all male preserve of students, and at home Youssef was often stressed by the day to day running of the Wimpy Bar because of staffing problems.

“Any luck in finding a new waitress ?” she asked as they drove towards the club.

“Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you. Farid came to see me before Samira’s party, and when I mentioned that I was looking for someone, he said that he knew a girl who might like the job.”

“Oh, good. I hope she’ll last longer than the latest one.”

“Well, if Farid recommends her, I think she’ll be OK.”

“When is she starting ?”

“In two or three weeks time. She has to give notice where she is at present. It’s lucky we’re not too busy just now, but it will pick up when the University and schools open again.”

Jenny yawned suddenly. “Oh, excuse me,” she exclaimed putting her hand over her mouth.

“You must be tired,” said Youssef solicitously. “What time did you get up this morning ?”

“Six thirty.”

“No wonder you’re yawning. We didn’t get to bed till after three. You’ve only had three hours sleep.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll catch up on it at the weekend,” answered Jenny in the middle of another yawn. “But Samira’s party was wonderful.”

“Yes, it was,” agreed Youssef as he pulled into the car park of the Oil Company’s swimming club. “Come on. We’re here. A nice swim will soon freshen you up…”

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