Extract From Dust Blowing

Dust Blowing is set in modern-day Afghanistan. This is the opening:

Dawn is a long time coming. It will be colder today. Ahmed is hunched over the fire and I am hunched at the mouth of my tent. Last night I could not sleep and Ahmed would not. He stayed close, but not too close, wrapped tight in his patched burnous, his body blocking the worst of the growing North wind.

In the last nine hours – is it only nine hours? each time I looked up he turned to me, his dark eyes barely focussed, seeming as if he were about to speak, but did not. Last night, he said kindly, “David, there is but a single donkey now, and every day the snow is nearer.”

That it all.

I know, I know. The border is at least three days away, the distant guns and bombs never stop, and yes, I know that the first winter snow is a week overdue, that we cannot force our way through if it comes. But Ahmed, dear, stupid, old man, do you really think that makes me feel better?

Around us the camp is stirring, silence separating into small sounds – the rhythmic flapping of canvas, sandals scuffling the hard-packed earth, a baby grizzling, unable to feed. I move towards the fire, where Ahmed coaxes a flame from cigarette-sized curls of smoke, shielding it from the gusting of the wind until it burns steadily, the odour of donkey dung hanging pungent in the air.

Ahmed glances upward as my shadow falls across him, his eyes betraying nothing. He nods and gestures towards the half-empty water-bag. I crouch beside him and tip my head to trickle water into my mouth, swilling it round and round, trying to swell the volume with saliva, to wash the grit from between my teeth, the fur from my tongue. I dare not take much, for last night we collected only what little we could distil from the dew that fell with dusk.

We did not have the heart to dig.

A handful of children drift towards the fire and huddle close, rubbing with raw knuckles at the smoke spiralling into their eyes. They no longer play in the hour before we break camp. When we began this journey I would wake to scuffles and giggles outside my tent, with Nazim, always more forward than the rest, poking a stick through a finger-picked gap in the rough lacing to prod the soles of my feet stretched out beyond the thin blankets. I used to lie, pretending sleep, for just long enough, then rise with a roar, scattering the children beyond arm’s length, their laughter high and infectious.

There is no laughter now.

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