“What’s your name, buddy?”
“Bulbul.” I say.
“Where you from?”
“Hounslow.” I say.
“No really, before Hounslow?”
Do I say Hackney? Slough? Refer him to the leaking flat on Inville Road?
“Where to, sir?” I leave his question hanging.
I plug it into the sat nav.
“Big fare sir.”
“No worries, the company pays. I’m in from New York on the red eye. My daft cow PA should have had a bloke with a sign waiting for me. Anyway, where you from?”
“Afghanistan.” I say, capitulating.
“First generation then.” He looks out into the predawn darkness, his fatigue is reflected in the glass. I think I may be let off the inevitable next questions, but he snaps himself alert. “How did you get here? Always find it incredible how you guys cross continents to get here. Fairplay to you, you get some stick, but things must be bad where you come from or you wouldn’t make the effort, would you?”
“I guess not.” I say, sliding the car on to the M4, and giving no more.
“So how did you get here, then?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Try me buddy, we’ve got plenty of time.”
I ease the car into the fast lane. Even this early the motorway is snarling itself up.
“I dreamed my way here.” I say.
“You did what? I guess this is your dream, but how did you get here?”
“I said you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Throw me a bone mate, that was hardly an explanation. What was it? Back of a truck, then a rubber dinghy? False passport? Freedom flight out of Kabul?”
“No sir, I dreamed my way here. Someone told me a story of a place far in the West where the beds were warm as the embers of a fire and soft as marshmallow. They said there were vehicles that moved without horses and woods full of mushrooms. It seemed incredible, but I believed the story and saw this place in my sleep. Now I’m here.”
“How’s that supposed to work?” He asks.
The brake lights of the car in front flare and I ease my foot onto the brake. We slow.
“If I tell you.” I say. “You won’t believe it, you’ll think it’s Eastern phooey.”
“Phooey? Good word mate. Go on, try me. I’ll believe you. I said I would.”
“Well, it’s simple. If two people want opposite things, and they meet in the dreamspace, they can swap. All that happened was I dreamed of this Western future while someone else dreamed of the Eastern past. We swapped, that’s all.”
“Okay, hang on.” He sits himself more upright. “So you’re saying you swapped places with someone from here because you dreamed opposite dreams at the same time.”
“Almost.” I say. “But I am from the past. I dreamed myself into the future.”
“You know what that is?” He says. “That’s Eastern phooey. What a load of bollocks.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“How can I be so sure? Because I’ve heard nothing so daft.”
He opens his phone and taps a message.
“That’s why.” I say.
“Phones.” I tap the car dash. “Cars, houses, box sets, fast food. You Westerners don’t have time for the spirit. You fill up space with noise, belongings, and desire. That’s why you can’t believe it.”
“Whatever.” He dismisses me. “Look Bud. I can believe you might dream of being over here. I mean, all that stuff you just listed is exactly why you want to be here, isn’t it? That and getting away from whatever shit you’re running away from. And that’s where your phooey falls down. Who’s going to dream of being over there when they could be here? Makes no sense.”
I let his question go. The tremblings of dawn are bleeding into the phosphorescent glow of London in my rearview mirror. Ahead, the traffic is opening up and we are charging West. He has the dog-eared look of someone who had a couple of inflight drinks before an awful night’s sleep. I realise I’ve told him too much and hope he’s run out of steam.
“How is it…” He has been cogitating. “How is it you think you are more spiritual than me?” “Maybe I’m not.” “That’s not the question. The question is how you think you’re more spiritual than me. That’s what you were saying.”
There is a bloodshot antagonism in his eyes. This is the type of fare who wants to cut and thrust. Who wants to finish up the ride being right. The type that, if ignored will dig and dig.
“Time and influences.” I say. “You have a lot of time with your soul if you walk ten hours a day with a camel by your side. And you have a lot of time with the souls of others if you have many evenings where the entertainment is a campfire and a tent of stars.”
“I travelled with Mesopotamians, Persians, Armenians, Roma, folk from the Steppe, Samarkand, and Turkey. There were traders from the high mountains and plains farther East than Kabul. I met shamans, seers, healers, and priests. I learned about many beliefs and religions, I witnessed the worship of gods now dead. It taught me all the possibilities of the soul.”
“That’s it.” He says, the note of triumph unmistakable.
“Sorry?” I say, not understanding.
“Typical. You gave me Eastern phooey and your proof of said phooey is that there is more phooey out there. That’s why the West is wealthy and you all want to be here. We’re rational, empirical. That’s why we have bloody phones and cars. Reason triumphs.”
“But you lost your soul.” I don’t point out that most of his rational triumphs are manufactured in the East.
“Bullshit. Go back to your dream exchange. Why would anyone dream of your life back in Afghanistan?”
The guy is tenacious. I nudge up the heating a few degrees. Sometimes that is enough to ease them into sleep. I’ll have to answer. Maybe I should agree that I was talking mystical nonsense. Capitulate to his greater reason. But my mind wanders back to the old places. Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Termiz, Samarkand, Ashgabat, the Caspian Sea, beyond.
“What?” He says. “What are you smiling at?”
“I’m remembering.” I say.
“Remembering the old places and how happy I was.”
“Pffft.” He puffs out through his lips and looks out of the window across the fields. Dawn has revealed the thick, ploughed, earth of autumn.
“I remember one time we travelled beside the Amu Darya River to the desert palace of Toprak Kala. We came upon it one clear evening. The sky was an unblemished blue, and the palace was lit by a golden dipping sun, its shape on the horizon a sand red riot of domes.”
As I talk, I steer the car in long parabolic waves between the confines of the lane markings.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Mike, Mike Armstrong.”
“Mike, we arrived at Toprak Kala during the time of festival, before the bitter cold of winter and after the fierce heat of summer. We had Eto and his players with us. They were there to entertain the Royals, and in return we were entertained royally.”
My parabolas rock him from side to side as I tell him of figs, fire worshippers, and warriors. His head nods to tales of Eto’s playing and the feasts after, to sitting under the shade of the apricot tree with Aadi the mahout, smoking hashish. I tell him of the silken and mischievous harem girls bringing sherbert, whose opiated eunuchs did not watch them well enough. Even when he sleeps and I see spit dribble from the corner of his mouth, I do not stop talking. Will my words echo through his dreams? I enjoy the sound of my voice. It is impossible to convey how wonderful Toprak Kala was to a trader used to hard roads and refractory camels. Speaking the words brings the memory alive.
I pull up outside his home in Chippenham. In front of a double garage sits a German car on a spotless block paved drive. Beside the drive is a neat square of grass devoid of borders.
“Mr Armstrong, we’re here.” I say in a raised voice. Normally, stopping the car is enough to wake them. He shakes his head and gives his face a two handed rub. As he does, his skin seems a paler shade of white and his hair a deeper shade of black. His eyes stare at me, a wild red from interrupted sleep.
“Bulbul?” He says, but his voice is not his own.
“Bulbul it’s me Eto.”
“Eto? Eto the player?”
“Yes Bulbul, it’s me Eto.”
“You believed the Boy?”
Eto smiles and, before the curtains of the Chippenham house twitch, I fire the car’s ignition and pull away from Mike Armstrong’s house.