A Red Light

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8. A Farewell Retreat


Farid’s parents had a small chalet at the skiing resort of Dizin, and in November, Farid had asked Zahra to spend a last weekend there with him before he flew to England. He returned home from base and packed his skiing things into the car.

“Where are you off to ?” asked Samira, almost bumping into him in the hall.

“To the chalet,” replied Farid catching his skiing goggles which had slipped off the top of the pile of things he was holding.

“I don’t suppose you’d like me along ?” she suggested hopefully.

“Well, normally I would, Sami. You know I would, but this is a special weekend, if you don’t mind.”

“No. No. I understand,” sighed Samira. “I hope you have a nice time,” she added graciously.

Farid grinned. “Thanks, sis. I knew you wouldn’t mind. See you when I get back. Oh, by the way, I’ve borrowed your skiing gear, too,” he added with a wink as he went out of the front door.

Zahra was already waiting for him when he arrived, and came out as soon as he tooted his horn.

“Can you cook ?” asked Farid as they pulled away from Helene’s house.

“Of course, I can.”

“Oh, splendid. I don’t want to eat out when we get to Dizin, so we’ll shop at the supermarket before we go. Take anything that you think we’ll need for the weekend.”

When they had made their purchases, they drove through the town of Karaj north west of Tehran, and into the Alborz mountains. In the autumn there was hardly any transition between day and night. One minute they were admiring the alpine scenery, and the next gazing at the twinkling stars as the powerful, headlight beams of the Camaro outlined their route. The ski resort of Dizin was one hundred and thirty kilometres away from Tehran on the Chalus road. Although the days were still fairly warm, the first snow had already settled on the Alborz, and the temperature in the mountains was much lower than on the plateau where Tehran lay.

Farid was hopeful of some good skiing.

“Can you ski ?” he asked as they drove along the tortuous, mountain road.

“No. I’ve never tried.”

“Well. I’ll teach you. It’s great fun.”

“Yes, I’d like to learn, but I don’t think I’ll learn much in two days. Besides, I don’t have any skiing stuff.”

“That’s all in hand,” Farid assured her.

They encountered the first snow after Karaj. At first there was a fine dusting on the road, but the higher they travelled, the more dense it lay on the ground. The drive lasted about two and a half hours. By the time they arrived at the chalet, it had started to snow again. They hurried out of the car laden with cases and bags, and reached the front door as the snowflakes began swirling down thick and fast.

“Oh, good man !” exclaimed Farid switching the light on as they entered. “Ahmad has set the fire and left plenty of logs.”

He deposited his bags on a table, and went over to the hearth to light the fire. In no time, it was crackling away while Zahra busied herself in the small kitchen to make a meal. When it was ready, Farid opened a bottle of wine, and poured out two glasses. “To friendship,” he proposed, raising his glass.

Zahra clinked her glass to his, and had a sip. “I do like wine. It makes me feel happy !”

“Good food makes me feel happy,” said Farid. “It certainly smells appetising. I’m starving.”

“Well, please eat before it gets cold,” urged Zahra.

She had placed the food on a very low table in front of the open log fire, and they both sat cross legged on either side, eating, drinking and chatting - Zahra about her job and living with Aunt Helene, and Farid about his new career in the Navy.

When they had finished, Farid pushed the table to one side.

“That food was delicious. I didn’t know you were such a good cook.”

“I wasn’t that good. I learnt a lot from Aunt Helene,” replied Zahra, very pleased that Farid had enjoyed the meal.

“Are you happy there ?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve never been happier. Helene makes so much fuss of me. I hope I’m not too much trouble for her.”

“Nonsense. You’ve given her a new lease of life. She feels she has a real purpose to carry on instead of just putting on a brave front to cover a lonely existence.”

“I do hope so,” answered Zahra.

“And how about the job ?” continued Farid.

“Well, it’s hard work,” admitted Zahra, “But Youssef and Jenny are very kind. Jenny helps in the afternoons and evenings sometimes, and I’ve been teaching her Farsi.”

“Oh, good. Maybe, she’ll teach you English.”

“Maybe,” laughed Zahra.

She was lying in front of the fire with her elbows on the floor, and her chin cupped in her hands, watching the flames dance over the glowing logs. They cast weird shadows on the walls and ceiling as if waving away invisible adversaries. In spite of the heat emanating from the logs, Zahra suddenly shivered as a fleeting image of macabre hands stretched towards her bearing a funeral wreath. She shrank back towards Farid, but he had noticed nothing unusual, and was looking out of the window to where the snow was still falling outside covering everything with a white mantle.

“Good skiing weather,” he remarked. “We must make the most of it. How about a skiing lesson straight after breakfast ? I’ve borrowed Samira’s skiing outfit for you.”

“I’d really like that,” said Zahra, regaining her composure. “What time do you want to start ?”

“Well, if we have breakfast at seven, and leave quickly, we can get a good four hours in before lunch, and more afterwards.”

Zahra sat up rubbing her eyes and stifling a yawn. “Oh, excuse me. Do you mind if I go to bed then ? Today was very busy, and the wine and cosy fire have made me feel very sleepy.”

“No, not at all. Do you want to sleep here in front of the fire, or in the bed on the gallery ?” He pointed upwards to where a small gallery half encircled the room at the top of an open plan staircase leading from the lounge.

“What about you ?” asked Zahra.

“You choose first and I’ll take what’s left. I can sleep anywhere !”

Zahra thought for a moment and then opted for the gallery. She was very tired, and soon fell fast asleep, snug and warm under a large feather quilt. Farid put more logs on the fire and then stretched out on the bed settee. He wondered if Zahra felt anything for him. He felt himself being drawn closer to her each time they met. Maybe it was a good thing that this was their last date. He could never offer marriage, and he didn’t want her to be hurt.

The fire was still glowing when they rose for breakfast the following day. It had stopped snowing, and the first, pale rays of the sun were glimmering above the horizon. The chalet was nestled amongst fir trees about half an hour’s walk from the ski slopes.

“We might as well go in the car,” said Farid. “You can’t ski down from here if you’ve never skied before. You really need to start on the nursery slopes. Do you mind ?”

“No, not at all. A set of wheels is a good idea. If I broke a leg, you wouldn’t want to carry me all the way back !”

Farid laughed. “You never know. I might break one myself.”

They were the first people to venture out that morning, and Farid patiently instructed Zahra in the art of skiing. She laughed good naturedly at her mistakes despite the number of times she slipped in the first two hours, landing on her bottom or getting her skis tangled in a flurry of snow. But eventually, by the time the slopes filled with other skiers, she was more confident and could manage a run without tripping over.

They ate a picnic lunch sitting on a bench by some conifers. Zahra finished before Farid, and built a snowman using orange peel for his eyes, nose and mouth, and fir cones for the buttons down his front.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” said Farid very seriously.

“Done what ?” asked Zahra alarmed.

“Built a snowman. Look at all the children rushing here to ask you to help them make one too,” laughed Farid.

Zahra retorted by throwing a snowball at him. The children saw this as an invitation to play, and a volley of snowballs whizzed towards Farid.

“Help ! This isn’t fair,” cried Farid, holding up his skis to try and ward off the cold, wet missiles. “You’ll turn me into a snowman soon if you don’t stop !”

“Serves you right,” laughed Zahra, but she gradually brought the bombarding to a stop by promising the children to help them build a giant snowman on skis. Half an hour later, she and Farid left a crowd of happy children dancing round not one, but two snowmen, and pelting each other with snowballs.

At four o’clock, after a hectic day, Farid declared that he couldn’t manage another run.

“I agree. I’ve had so much fun, but I’m getting chilled to the bone,” declared Zahra.

“Well. Let’s get back and warm up. I know just the thing. We’ll heat up the sauna and go in there while the fire picks up.”

It was practically dark by the time they returned to the car, loaded their skiing things and drove back to the chalet. But they could still see the fiery ball of the sun sinking below the horizon leaving a roseate glow behind the black silhouettes of the distant mountain peaks.

“Doesn’t the sky look beautiful when the sun sets ?” exclaimed Zahra as they drove up the mountain track.

“Yes. That’s why I love coming here whenever I can, anytime of year.” If I’m depressed, the mountains cheer me up. And if I’m happy, then they make me feel exhilarated, like now,” he added smiling at Zahra.

They arrived at the chalet tired but happy.

“I’ll make some tea and start dinner while you get the fire and sauna going,” offered Zahra.

She went first of all to the gallery and quickly changed into jeans and a thick jumper.

“You won’t need that in the sauna,” teased Farid as Zahra came down and made her way to the kitchen.

“I know,” she retorted, “but I’m not going to freeze while I wait !”

She busied herself preparing the food and put the dinner on to simmer slowly. Then she carried glasses of steaming tea to where Farid was coaxing the fire to ignite.

“Oh, thank you,” he said putting his cold fingers gratefully round the hot glass. “I’ve got the sauna going, and this has nearly taken.”

Zahra sat and watched as the tiny flames struggled to climb over the old cinders and dry twigs which Farid had arranged as kindling.

“Something smells good,” he remarked as the flames started to leap higher.

“Sorry, it won’t be ready for a couple of hours,” replied Zahra finishing her tea.

“That doesn’t matter. We can cook ourselves in the sauna while we’re waiting,” joked Farid.

He laid some large logs on the hungry flames, and then went to the bathroom returning with two huge bath towels.

“One for you and one for me,” he said, handing a towel to Zahra.

“I should pin your hair up, too,” he added. “Or it will drip down your back.”

Zahra changed in the gallery, and then met Farid by the door of the sauna.

“Go in quickly when I open the door, or all the steam will be lost. Ready ?”

Zahra nodded. Farid opened the door and shut it as soon as they rushed in. The room was completely tiled with a slatted, wooden bench running all the way round against the wall.

“Oh, it’s so lovely and warm in here,” enthused Zahra.

“Yes, it’s great, isn’t it ? We always come in here after skiing. It warms you up in no time.”

“How long do you stay in ?”

“As long as you like. Until you feel so hot that you can’t stand it a moment longer !”

Zahra sat down and leant back against the tiled wall. As the steam rose, Farid was reminded of the first day he had met her with the heat making damp tendrils of hair cling to her face. The humid heat of the sauna had brought colour to her cheeks, and her long eyelashes lay wet and silky on her face as she closed her eyes and relaxed in the invigorating vapour.

Farid sat opposite her watching her closely for several minutes before suddenly saying, “Do you know what they do in Scandinavia ?”

“No,” said Zahra opening her eyes. “With regard to what exactly ?”

“I mean when they have a sauna. Do you know what they do to cool off ?”

“No,” replied Zahra intrigued. “What do they do ?”

“Well, when they get really hot, they run outside and roll in the cold snow, and then run back to the sauna again.”

Zahra’s eyes opened wide. “Really ?”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve heard.”

“Have you ever done that ?” asked Zahra dubiously.

“Well, no,” admitted Farid. “I’ve always wanted to, but up till now, I’ve only been here with relatives, and they would have been shocked if I had suggested it.”

“Well, I certainly feel like jumping into an ice pool,” laughed Zahra. “I suppose a dive in the snow would be just as refreshing !”

“Come on then. I dare you !” said Farid, pulling her up. “I’m boiling.”

They raced out of the sauna and through the front door holding hands. It was dark outside, but a pale moon glimmered in the night sky. Farid threw himself down in the soft snow taking Zahra with him. She fell laughing on top of him clutching her towel, but lost her hold as Farid rolled over. He found himself looking down at her face. Her eyes were shining, her lips parted, and her cheeks were flushed pink. She had never looked more beautiful.

“You’re lovely,” whispered Farid hoarsely, and bent his head to kiss her. He felt her respond and his senses quickened as her arms encircled his neck. As his fingers caressed her smooth body, she felt a desire stir in her that none of her unsavoury clients had ever awakened. She moulded her body to Farid’s with an urgency that let him know his advances would not be rejected. They made love in the snow and then returned to the chalet totally oblivious to the cold and their saturated towels. They ate dinner in front of the roaring fire and then listened to some favourite music before retiring to bed. They slept together that night in the gallery, and at last Farid was able to luxuriate in the comfort and pleasure of a warm body next to his all night, and of falling asleep in someone else’s arms.

He didn’t want to get up the following day, and pulled Zahra back into bed when she said they would be late on the ski slopes.

“No, this is the only exercise I want today. I’m going to England next week, and probably won’t see you for a year.”

“I shall miss you,” said Zahra softly.

“I’ll miss you too,” answered Farid. “But, at least, I know I’m leaving you in safe hands.”

They stayed in the chalet engrossed in each other until after lunch.

“What a pity we can’t stay longer,” sighed Farid. “But I must be back in base by this evening.”

“Yes, I have to go back to work in the morning. But I’d love to stay as well.”

At two o’clock they left the chalet and started their drive back to Tehran. On the way, they saw the two snowmen still standing by the fir trees.

“You and me,” said Farid pointing to them with a smile.

What a pity that they wouldn’t last, thought Zahra sadly to herself, but she smiled at Farid as they drove past the silent, inanimate forms.

When they reached Tehran, Farid’s first stop was in Eisenhower Avenue to drop Zahra home. Then he returned home to spend a couple of hours with his parents and sister before taking a taxi back to the naval base.

The next morning, the cadets were still yawning as they stumbled out of the barracks to begin early morning activities - running, parading, raising the flag and singing the national anthem. After breakfast, they made their way to the guards’ room to read the week’s agenda on the notice board. It was routine stuff - English lessons, assault and survival exercises, a VIP visit, target practice - none of them paid much attention beyond the first two days. They wanted a quick smoke before going to class. Only Kamal had seen what lay in store for them at the end of the week and suddenly turned pale.

“What’s up, Kamal ?” asked Farid. “Don’t you feel well ?”

“I don’t think I can do it,” came the reply.

“Do what ?”

“Kill someone ?”

“Kill who ?” asked the others in unison, as Bahram, ever the joker, put his hand on Kamal’s forehead in mock concern.

“The man we have to execute on Thursday.”

They stared at him open mouthed.

“What on earth are you talking about ?” Reza finally managed to blurt out.

“Didn’t you read the schedule for the week ? We have to… ”

Kamal’s words were lost as they all rushed back and crowded round the notice board again.

“May Allah preserve us. He’s bloody right,” exclaimed Dariush.

“You lot must have known we’d have to do this one day,” said Amir. “It’s in the job description.”

“I didn’t think it would happen so soon, that’s all,” said Kamal. “I can’t get my head around having to snuff someone else’s life out.”

“Don’t get any funny ideas about not firing, will you ?” cautioned Farid. “You can’t be a conscientious objector. They do come round to check the firearms afterwards and you’d be court martialled and imprisoned if you hadn’t.”

“Yes, I know all that. And I know that they’re drug dealers, or traitors, and murderers and so on, but it’s a bit different from usual target practice.”

“Just pretend that he did something to your sister or your mother. Then you won’t have any compunction in shooting him,” said Dariush.

“Assuming it’s a he, of course,” piped up Reza.

“Well, we won’t know till the day, but I’m sure they wouldn’t give us a woman for our first execution detail,” said Amir confidently.

“It has been known,” remarked Farid. “They might want to test our resolve before we go to England. My father told me that his first execution detail was to shoot a female terrorist.”

“And… “ started Bahram.

Richard Walton wondered why his normally lively group of cadets were so quiet that morning.

He hadn’t given them particularly difficult homework and after a weekend’s leave, they were usually quite boisterous.

“Is there a problem ?” he asked the class after no one volunteered an answer to a grammar question studied in detail the previous week.

“A problem ?” echoed Kamal.

“Yes. I repeat - does anyone know the future perfect tense of fly ?”

“Er, yes. Will have flown,” answered Kamal.

“Well, thank you, Kamal !” exclaimed Richard caustically. “At least one of you has woken up. Why are you all so apathetic today ?”

They continued to stare at him. This was a new word. Apathetic ?

Richard voiced their thoughts and wrote APATHETIC on the board. “I suppose you don’t know what that means. Well, apathetic means unfeeling or you have no interest in anything. Write it down in your vocabulary books.”

He tried a different tactic. “Farid, did you have a good weekend ?”

“Yes, thank you, Mr Walton. It was very good,” replied Farid.

“And how about you, Bahram ?”

“I don’t remember much. I sleep two days,” answered Bahram grinning.

“Slept,” corrected Richard, noting a spark of curiosity returning to the class.

“Sorry, slept two days… “

“Amir, tell us what you got up to.”

“Got up to ?” repeated Amir.

“What did you do on the weekend ?”

“Oh, I went to jungle with my father and uncle to shoot.”

“You went hunting in the woods with your father and uncle.”

“Woods ? Not jungle ?”

“No ! Woods or forest.“ “Dariush, what did you do ?”

“I stayed with Reza in Isfahan because my family is on holiday in Europe. We went to disco and bar and had good time.”

“Reza, how did you travel home ?”

“We flied by aeroplane.”

“We flew,” corrected Richard, finally turning to Kamal.

“And what did you do, Kamal ?”

“I spent time with my family ?”

“Did you do anything exciting ?”

“Not really. I played backgammon with my father.”

“Is he good ?”

“He is always winner !”

“Now, there’s a game I can’t play,” admitted Richard to the class. “I can play chess but not backgammon.”

“You teach us chess. We teach you backgammon,” offered Bahram, cheekily.

“If you finish your English course with time to spare, it’s a deal,” promised Richard.

They were almost their old selves. He wondered if the note the teachers had received that morning had anything to do with their mood. They had been informed that their weekend would start early at Thursday lunch time. Putting previous facts together, he was quite certain that his cadets had been given their first firing squad assignment, because foreign civilian personnel were not allowed to be present on base when such duties were carried out. He knew better than to enquire, though, for they were strictly forbidden to ask any questions relating to classified military operations and procedure.

On the appointed day, the cadets performed their daily routine with some trepidation. They could only pick at their food at midday. Somehow, their forthcoming task had dulled their appetites. After lunch, they went to their barracks for their afternoon sleep, but that didn’t come easily to them either. All too soon came the dreaded rap on the door. They were already standing to attention when the officer on duty marched in to take charge.

“As a rule,” he told them, “cadets do not carry out executions. The operation is normally performed by appointed guards. However, in this instance, there has been a special request from high command to see how you respond to such an exercise. Are you men ready ?”

“Yes, sir,” came the reply.

They marched in step to the arsenal where they were issued with rifles and ammunition, then to the guard house to collect the prisoner. While the remaining four stood to attention outside, the officer went into the building with Farid and Kamal. Five minutes later, he emerged followed by the prisoner flanked on either side by the two cadets. The others were ordered to fall in line - two behind Farid, and two behind Kamal. They, in turn, were followed by two more guards to ensure that the operation went smoothly.

The prisoner’s head had been shaved, his hands were tied behind his back, and he was dressed in the customary blue and white striped prison uniform. In the yard reserved for executions, they were commanded to stand in line and prepare their weapons, the doomed man was placed with his back to the wall and asked if he had a last request. He nodded, and they saw the officer light a cigarette and place it in his mouth.

Kamal silently prayed that it would all be over quickly. They watched as the officer took the cigarette stub out of the man’s mouth and proceeded to blindfold him.

“Party take aim.. “

They saw the prisoner say something to the officer. “Retract arms.”

To their consternation, the officer walked up to the prisoner again and removed the blindfold. He repeated his earlier command. “Party take aim. Fire !”

Faced by the prisoner suddenly staring at them defiantly, the already tense cadets had been unnerved, and their aim was wide of the mark. One bullet struck the man in his left leg, another in his right arm, and the third in his right shoulder. The other three bullets ricocheted dangerously off the wall but, miraculously, did not hit anyone else. The prisoner was left writhing in agony on the ground. They watched mesmerised as the officer drew his handgun out of its holster and walking over to the wounded convict, put the pistol to his temple and fired. The man’s body jerked spasmodically and then lay lifelessly in an expanding pool of blood.

“Attention !” roared the officer walking up to the somewhat dazed cadets.

“Present arms !”

They lined their rifles up for inspection as he checked that each one had been fired. Then they marched back to the arsenal to return their weapons, passing on their way some orderlies running with a stretcher to retrieve the deceased.

Outside the arms depot, the officer told them to stand at ease. “The fact that you fired your weapons is commendable. However, your aim was appalling given the intensive training you have all had, and, if reports are to be believed, given that you all have near perfect aim. Let this be a lesson to you. When faced by insurgents, you do not have the luxury of wavering simply because they stare at you. A split second is all it takes - it’s you or them. Now, I believe you have a flight to catch tomorrow. You are excused from further duties today, and may leave the base. Report to the military attaché first thing tomorrow morning. He will be waiting for you at the airport. Dis - miss.”

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