Early in the morning we arrived in Teremangal, a border town just inside Pakistan. It had rained the night before and the winding streets were thick with mud churned up by pack animals laden with supplies.
‘Stay here, Abdul, don’t talk to anyone. Wait for a man called Mahmoud.’ So said my guide, who promptly disappeared into the jostling crowds of men. With a sense of unease that was almost pleasurable, I was on my own. Camel trains laden with great beams of rough-cut wood swayed past; small boys in ragged shirts threw stones at dogs that darted between the hooves of horses; chai sellers carrying trays of steaming tea stepped gingerly through the slush and horse droppings; while beside me a couple of Pathans haggled over the price of a saddle. Everywhere there were men wrapped in dun-coloured petous and carrying guns.
I was squatting by the side of the road with the sun on my back and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, but my thoughts were elsewhere: between images of Kipling and memories of charades. Three days before I had been lying on my bed at Green’s Hotel in Peshawar, looking at the fan going round in the ceiling. At the time it had seemed faintly amusing that life could counterfeit cliché so realistically. Now I sensed, fleetingly, how a schoolboy dream could become a nightmare. I took refuge in the everyday: don’t bother trying to understand what’s going on, I told myself. Think of breakfast. Patience.