A Red Light

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7. Changes


Little did Zahra know that her departure from New Town had marked a sinister turn in events.

An early morning refuse collector had been startled to find a hand protruding from beneath a mountain of rotting fruit, vegetables and boxes left there the previous day by local street traders. Being of a timid nature, he did not venture further than touching the hand to see if it was cold, and upon perceiving that the owner was beyond help, knocked loudly on the nearest door and asked the occupant to phone the police.

The news spread like wild fire and, by the time the wailing sirens had arrived on the scene, quite a large crowd of people had gathered there staring with morbid fascination, but keeping a respectful distance from the protruding limb. They were disappointed when their view was obscured by portable screens and the police ordered everyone to move on.

The officers who retrieved the corpse flinched as they uncovered the body of a pretty, young woman, aged about twenty, who had been appallingly mutilated. The evening papers that day carried a picture of her on the front page appealing for anyone to come forward who could identify her. The following day’s edition carried another headline stating that an anonymous caller had named her as a prostitute from New Town.

For a few days all of New Town lay low as an army of police officers scoured the area, and made house to house enquiries. They may not have been overly concerned with finding the murderer of a prostitute, but such a brutal assailant could strike again, and anyone could be at risk. Besides, they were only too glad of an excuse to postpone dull traffic offences and cases of petty theft, and be able to peruse the more interesting, shady haunts of New Town under the pretext of a criminal investigation. After a couple of weeks, no leading clues had come to light. The murder remained an open case in the archives of unsolved crimes, and the ranks of police returning to their desks, dealt with minor offences more leniently for a while, refreshed from their change in routine.

The girls of New Town, convinced that the murderer had singled them out for some form of retribution, kept to the main streets, and went out in pairs for several more weeks, but gradually, as no further incidents of assaults or threats were reported, lost all caution to the wind and returned to their old ways.

The dead girl, it seemed, had no one. A Madame or pimp would not claim any association with her, for that would amount to an open admission of their trade. And a family would never admit to having a daughter, sister, wife or mother who was a prostitute, because of the very base nature of such a profession.

She was buried in an unmarked grave in a white shroud with no one except a mullah present at the clandestine ceremony to read a verse from the Koran, and two grave diggers to commit her poor, battered body to the earth.

The police had never disclosed details of her injuries to the press, except for a terse statement that the victim had died from a massive haemorrhage resulting from stab wounds. With that they had to be satisfied. Local gossip soon abated, and only the refuse collectors remained wary and apprehensive when approaching large mounds of debris awaiting clearance at first light.

Zahra had been deeply shocked by the murder, and had nightmares imagining herself, or one of Madame Ziba’s girls, as the next victim. Helene had gone to her room several times after hearing her cry out in the night, and found her sitting up in bed her skin clammy, and beads of perspiration on her forehead. Helene had soothed her and stayed with her until she drifted back to sleep again.

Zahra found that she was able to confide her innermost thoughts and unburden her troubled spirit to Helene who quickly grew very fond of her. Gradually, she settled down and, when Helene deemed that she had recovered from her physical and mental distress, started work at the Wimpy Bar. The work was hard and the hours long but, for the time being, Zahra was content. Helene had made her promise to take a taxi home when she finished late at night because she believed in leaving nothing to chance.

Farid was a frequent visitor to the house, and took Zahra out when she wasn’t working. Samira had discarded many clothes, some of them practically unworn,, and gave them to Farid as he had requested. He persuaded Zahra to accept them and refused outright her offer to pay his sister. He had still not mentioned Zahra to her, and Samira, having a busy social life to keep up with, had long ago forgotten about her brother’s mysterious friend.

Zahra immensely enjoyed her excursions with Farid. He enjoyed her company and made no demands on her for which she was grateful. They went for picnics by meandering mountain streams, horse riding in the Alborz mountains, and even left Tehran in the small hours one weekend to travel north to the Caspian sea. The sub tropical vegetation was breathtaking, and stretched from the mountains down to the coast. They sunbathed on the beach, swam in the sea and then mingled with the crowds who gathered round the colourful gypsies selling corn on the cob which had been roasted on charcoal and then dipped in cold, salted water.

On the way home that night, they stopped at a little fish restaurant nestled high in the mountains in a spot called Black Grove. The place was renowned for its seafood, and Zahra and Farid ate their dinner out on the veranda under a star studded sky.

“How do you like the food ?” asked Farid.

“It’s superb. It makes a lovely change from burger and chips !”

Farid laughed. He was very fond of her and hoped that she was as happy as she seemed. Zahra had met many of his friends but he had steadfastly declined to satisfy their curiosity as to her identity or status. Her loveliness was unsurpassed, and they envied Farid for having at his side a companion who laughed when he laughed, who agreed with all his opinions, and who made every man who spoke to her feel he was unique, yet without a hint of suggestiveness or promise of any further familiarity.

The summer months stretched into September. Farid took Zahra into Farah Park one evening where they strolled together enjoying the coolness of a late summer night.

“Would you like an ice cream ?”

“Are you going to have one ?”

“Yes, if it makes you happy,” he teased.

He bought two ices from the ice cream van, and they sat eating them on the edge of the fountain watching it cascading into the pool. The coloured lights reflected in the water gave the waves an iridescent glow as they rippled to the outer edge of the pool.

“I’m joining the Navy in two days time,” said Farid.

“Are you looking forward to it ?”

“Yes, I suppose I am. I’m not really sure exactly because it will be a completely new way of life. I won’t have my freedom any more either,” he added ruefully.

Zahra laughed. “You’ll have days off. Everyone gets leave.”

“Yes, I know. I expect I’ll get used to it, but it’ll be very hard. Besides, I won’t see you so often.”

“Yes. I’ll miss you, too. But I’ll be here when you come out.”

“Good. I’ll tell you all about it when I get my first free weekend.”

When they had finished their ices, Farid took Zahra back to Eisenhower Avenue and promised to get in touch when he was allowed a weekend at home. He was looking forward to starting his new career, and Zahra felt secure in her new found way of life. Only Helene continued to feel the misgivings which she had had at the outset as she saw a relationship developing which she feared could never last.

The day for the new intake of recruits to the Navy had dawned. Farid arrived with his father at the main gates of the naval base in Tehranoh Avenue well before 6 am - the time stated in the letter sent to all those who had been accepted by the force.

At the appointed hour, a stern faced guard opened the gates and motioned the half dozen young men inside, leading them to a small office next to the entrance. They were met by another guard, a senior cadet, who asked them to produce their ‘shenassnameh’ (ID cards), checking their names and descriptions against his list. Farid then found himself, with the five other candidates, marching behind the guard who led them to their barracks. Inside their quarters stood three regulation bunk beds completely devoid of bedding.

“Right. Choose a bed. Put your things away in your lockers. Then, follow me,” barked the guard.

Farid was quick enough to claim a top bunk and put his things away in the appropriate locker. They were all back outside in two minutes, and followed the guard to the store room where they received their uniforms, and were each issued with crisply laundered white sheets and pillow cases, two pillows and two grey blankets. Then, they were marched back to change from their civilian clothes, to make their beds, and told how to keep them neat and tidy at all times with a change of linen once a week.

As soon as their beds were made, they were on the move again - this time to the parade ground where they were shown how to salute, march, stand to attention and stand at ease. The strenuous drill lasted an hour, and left them panting with exhaustion and with large patches of sweat staining the backs of their khaki uniforms. They were, indeed, grateful for the next manoeuvre which involved eating a hearty breakfast in the canteen.

Farid’s fellow cadets were called Amir, Kamal, Bahram, Reza and Dariush. Amir and Kamal were from Tehran, but Bahram came from Abadan in the Persian Gulf, Reza was from Isfahan, and Dariush from Tabriz.

“I needed that,” said Reza. “I hope we’re not marching again this morning. I couldn’t take another step.”

“It’s too hot for me,” complained Bahram. “Much too hot.”

“Look who’s talking !” exclaimed Kamal. “A native of the Persian Gulf and he thinks it’s too hot !”

“Well, we don’t go out in the heat,” protested Bahram. “We sit inside with the air conditioning on, or take a dip in the pool.”

“Be thankful it’s still hot,” said Amir. “When you find yourself standing on guard duty with the snow blowing in your face, your feet like blocks of ice and icicles hanging from your nose, you’ll pray for this bit of heat !”

“How much snow do you get here ?” asked Bahram.

“It depends,” answered Dariush. “You can always reckon on half a metre, but some winters are worse than others.”

“I’ve never seen snow before,” admitted Bahram.

“You’re joking !” exclaimed Farid.

“No, really,” said Bahram. “I’ve seen it on television and in films, but never the real thing.”

“Haven’t you ever been to Tehran before ?” asked Amir.

“Yes, of course I have, but never in winter.”

“That’s one of the best times,” said Farid. “Then you can go skiing at Abali or Dizin.”

At that moment, the guard who had supervised them that morning appeared at their table.

“Have you all finished ? There‘s no time for dawdling and idle gossip.”

The young men hastily scraped back their chairs and followed him. They were led to a building near the parade ground. The guard knocked on the door and a woman clerk appeared, read the requisition note which he handed over to her, and then went over to various shelves for pens and exercise books which were issued to the cadets. Finally they were led upstairs to a classroom equipped with desks and a blackboard.

“Right,” spoke the guard. “This is your first English lesson, and this is where you will come every day from nine till twelve to learn English.”

Their teacher was waiting inside. He was a good looking, young, American graduate, typically blond and blue eyed, who was under a two year contract to the Iranian Navy. His term was nearly up, but he had the option of renewing it. He liked Iran very much. The climate suited him, and he’d made several friends amongst the expatriates and local people. The money was much better than he’d been able to earn straight out of college back home, and the hours were short. The cosmopolitan city of Tehran offered every amenity - entertainment, international cuisine, latest Western fashions and local newspapers printed in English !

He was a little wary of getting involved with Persian girls - not that he’d been able to ask one out - but he figured that he would have to contend with heavy handed fathers or brothers if he tried, and he preferred a peaceful life.

Well, here they come again, he thought to himself, as the new recruits walked into the classroom. They were usually very full of themselves for the first week, but after they had been broken in, no one would recognise the spoilt, pampered young men who had first entered the base. The only exceptions were usually those from very poor families who had secured a scholarship, and whose families relied on their monthly salary.

One thing he liked about teaching in a military establishment was the discipline. It made him feel good when he came into class and the students stood up - and he knew he could reprimand them if they didn’t. He recalled that he hadn’t been obliged to do so for his own lecturers at college back home, but then they hadn’t insisted.

He motioned to the cadets to sit down and then introduced himself.

“Good mor-ning. My n-a-m-e is Rich-ard Wal-ton. M-i-s-ter Wal-ton,” he said, drawing out the syllables. He repeated the greeting and his name again, and then pointed to Reza, prompting him with “Good morning, my…”

“Ah, good morr-neeng,” said Reza. “My nayeem eez Meestair Volton.”

The others sniggered and looked at their teacher in anticipation.

Hmm, thought Richard to himself. A comic, eh ? He motioned Reza to stand up and face the class.

“This is Mr Walton,” he said, and promptly sat down in Reza’s chair.

The others roared with laughter.

“He’s turned the tables on you, Reza,” said Farid in Farsi.

Reza was undaunted and gave Richard a mock bow. Richard raised his eyebrows and then slowly got up.

“OK. We’ll start again,” he said , pointing this time to Farid.

“Good morning, my name is Farid Nezam,” said Farid on cue.

“Good,” exclaimed Richard, and pointed to Amir.

“Good morning, my name is Amir Razavi.”

“Good morning, my name is Bahram Mahdavi.”

“Good morning, my name is Dariush Mina.”

“Good morning, my name is Kamal Moussavi.”

“Good morning, my name is Reza Alavi.”

The morning continued with an intensive language lesson based on a text book, designed specifically for the Navy, which gradually introduced all the requisite military and technical terms they would need to know in English. At five minutes to twelve, Richard gave them their homework and gathered up his books. They all stood as he left the room, and then started talking amongst themselves.

“I wonder what’s next on the agenda ?” said Reza.

“We’ll soon find out,” said Farid. “Here comes our guard.”

“May I ask what’s next ?” enquired Kamal politely.

“Lunch,” came the reply.

“Oh, boy. Just what I need,” said Dariush rubbing his hands.

“Well,” said the guard. “Make the most of it. Dinner isn’t until seven.”

After lunch, they were allowed to rest on their beds for two hours. They were all so tired after the unaccustomed exertions of their first day, that they fell fast asleep until ten to three when the guard, whose name was Payam, remembering his first day, came to wake them up so that they wouldn’t arrive late in the parade ground. Another hour of marching was followed by a break for tea, and then they were told to make themselves presentable for the flag ceremony at five o’clock.

At six they paid a visit to the camp’s barber to have their short hair cuts made even shorter, and at seven they appeared duly shorn in the canteen for dinner. After they had eaten, they returned to barracks where they struggled with their English homework, barely leaving themselves time to shine their boots before lights out at ten.

Each day followed a similar pattern and, gradually, the marching, exercises and manoeuvres became less painful. After two weeks, they no longer complained of stiff, aching limbs, and found it remarkably easy to rise at the crack of dawn.

“My mother won’t believe this,” remarked Reza one morning, in the middle of shaving. “I never got up before eleven at weekends and during holidays. Now, I won’t be able to sleep when I go home for a visit.”

“I’ll be able to train for the Olympics before my father gets down to the pool,” joked Farid.

“Well, I won’t have any trouble staying in bed the whole morning, or the whole weekend, come to think of it,” sighed Bahram.

“You lazy layabout,” declared Amir. “Is that all they teach you in the South ?”

“How I spend my free time is my business,” retorted Bahram. “If you lot want to strut about with the cockerels, that’s your affair. I need my beauty sleep,” he added making an effeminate gesture. His remark was met by a volley of pillows from the other cadets until the approach of the senior cadet sent them scrambling to remake their beds.

A month later, they were allowed to spend their first weekend away from the base.

“Listen everyone,” whispered Farid after lights out. “Next week is my birthday. Let’s have a party here. I’m going to bring some vodka back. How about the rest of you ?”

The other cadets eagerly agreed except for Kamal. Farid thought he must be asleep and resolved to ask him again before they left camp. As ordinary midshipmen, they were not yet permitted to use the bar on the base, but Farid had no intention of letting his birthday pass without a celebration.

The following afternoon as they walked towards the gates, Farid fell into step with Kamal.

“Hey, wait up, Kamal. We’re having a party here next week for my birthday. Everyone is bringing some drink if you’re up for it.”

He was totally unprepared for Kamal’s reaction. The young man hung his head, and colour suffused his cheeks. Farid saw his head shake imperceptibly and then his chest swell as he took a deep breath.

“No, sorry, Farid. I won’t be able to,” he said averting his eyes.

“Oh ! OK, then,” replied Farid shrugging his shoulders. “It doesn’t matter, but if you change your mind…”

They returned to base two days later, and whooped for joy upon having reached their cabin without anyone detecting their haul of illicit drink. Everyone produced a bottle of spirit and put it on Farid’s bed.

“Oh, thanks a lot, chaps,” said Farid taking two bottles of vodka out of his bag and adding them to the others. “These are from me and Kamal,” he remarked as he put them both down.

The other cadets noticed nothing unusual, but Farid saw the look of gratitude which came momentarily over Kamal’s face, and was glad that he had mentioned the incident to Helene. She had chided him saying that Kamal, far from not wanting to join the party, probably came from a very poor family and could not squander precious money on alcohol. Farid immediately resolved to save Kamal from potential embarrassment and calculated that he wouldn’t draw attention to himself by disclaiming his supposed contribution. He knew the night guard who would be on duty on his birthday, and had already asked him to turn a blind eye to the proceedings.

At quarter past ten that night, Farid gave a low whistle and climbed down from his bunk. He walked around making sure the thick curtains were firmly drawn across the windows, and then switched on the lights. The others gave muffled cheers under their covers, and then scrambled out of their bunks with their tooth mugs at the ready, and started banging on their bedsteads.

“Guys ! Guys ! Less of the noise,” exclaimed Farid taking the bottles out of his locker. “Do you want us all to be rumbled and put in the slammer ?”

“Right. Shall I be mother ?” joked Bahram holding up some vodka.

He was greeted by a murmur of assent, and five mugs came towards him at alarming speed as he unscrewed the top of the bottle.

“Hold on. I have something else,” said Farid, returning to his locker. He drew out a box inside which sat a large birthday cake from Zahra.

“Wow, where did that come from ?” asked Amir.

“A girlfriend of mine,” replied Farid. “Now, does anyone have a knife ?”

“Don’t we have anything to mix with this vodka ?” asked Dariush.

“Nope, you’re out of luck, there,” said Reza. “But after a couple of swigs, you’ll get used to it neat.”

Amir suddenly arose and went over to his bed. From underneath his pillow he pulled out a small cassette player and put in a cassette of Western pop music. They all sat around on the floor eating cake, drinking vodka, smoking and joking. Two hours later, Amir put in a cassette of Persian dance music, and Farid got up unsteadily and started swaying to the erotic rhythm. As the others clapped and snapped their fingers, he lurched over to his bed to get his uniform belt, which he threw around Bahram pulling him up to join him on the floor. Bahram entered the spirit of the game and caught Farid in a mock embrace before dancing round him suggestively. The others whistled and stamped their feet, and Reza hauled Dariush up to dance. Only Amir and Kamal were left sitting cross legged on the floor. Amir had dubbed himself the disc jockey, and Kamal, though enjoying the party, preferred not to take part in the horse play.

They were having such a good time that they were totally unprepared for the door bursting open and the night guard appearing.

“Hey, you lot. Sorry to interrupt your party, but the officer of the watch is coming. Hide everything and get into bed on the double.”

He shut the door and they all scrambled feverishly to hide the mugs and bottles and dived into bed.

“The lights,” groaned Amir.

Kamal, who was in a bottom bunk near the door, rolled out of bed and ran to switch them off not a moment too soon. Half a minute later, the door opened and the officer of the watch entered with a sub lieutenant following on his heels. He glanced around, and was about to leave when he caught sight of the cake basking in the shaft of light streaming through the open door. On came the lights.

“Well, well, well. What’s going on here ?” he demanded.

The cadets stumbled out of bed and staggered to attention hoping that the vodka was as odourless as it was claimed to be.

“Sir, it’s my birthday and I was sharing my cake with the others. I’m sorry I forgot to clear it away,” apologised Farid, trying to sound sober.

“Your birthday, eh ? Congratulations ! How about a piece for my colleague and me, then ?”

“Why, yes, of course, sir. Excuse me, sir,” stammered Farid. He cut a large piece for each officer.

“Very nice,” remarked the higher ranking soldier savouring each mouthful and then pulling out a pristine, white handkerchief to wipe his mouth and fingers. “Now, at ease. You can all go back to bed.”

After they had gone, Farid and the others crept out of bed again and continued the party.

“Doesh anyone know any more joksh ?” asked Bahram.

“Yesh, me. I know a good one,” volunteered Dariush. “There was thish drunk at a bar an’ he kept asking the barman if lemonsh had legsh. An’, an’, the barman got a bit pissed off wiv’ ‘im, an’ told ‘im “No lemonsh don’t have legsh.” An’ thish drunk shez, he shez, “Then I’ve jush shqueezed your canary into my drink..”

Their inebriated state made everything seem hilarious and they rolled on the floor clutching their sides. By two in the morning, they were well and truly drunk. The bottles were all empty and Farid had slowly subsided onto the floor after a particularly lively dance.

“Lesh take Farid out for shum freshair,” slurred Bahram.

“No. No. Shumwun migh’, shumwun migh’ shee ush,” mumbled Amir.

“He needsh shum freshair,” insisted Bahram who could hardly stand upright himself.

“Yesh. I’ll helpew. C’mon,” said Dariush staggering towards Farid.

“Come on,” insisted Dariush. “He’sh heavy.”

The others struggled to lift Farid, and staggered out of the cabin, carrying him towards the deserted parade ground.

The cool, night air served only to further intoxicate their fuddled brains, and by the time they reached the parade ground, Reza, in a fit of hysterics, suggested debagging Farid and leaving him there. The others, amid guffaws, snorts and giggles, took off his regulation blue pyjamas, and stumbled back to their beds leaving Farid lying naked by the flagpole.

It was mid October and the night air was cool. Farid was cold and slowly came round shivering. For a few minutes he couldn’t understand what had happened until the awful realisation dawned on him that he had not one stitch of clothing on. If he were discovered, it would mean disgrace, a court martial and prison. His heart sank as a shadow loomed over him and he was pulled to his feet.

“Farid, it’s me,” whispered a voice. “Here, put your pyjamas on.”

He felt steady hands helping him pull on his garments, and a strong arm under his shoulder to assist him back to the cabin. It was Kamal who, realising what would happen to Farid if he were caught, had returned to rescue him from certain dishonour. He could not let that happen to someone who had saved him from loss of face.

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