An extract from ‘Magic Bus’

Hot wind ripples across the blood red earth. Airy waves wash over the scorched stones, ruffle the ashen mountains, stir the fabric of elements as a pebble flicked into water. The distant, shimmering vision stops me in my tracks. I stare towards it, past the shells of burnt out tanks and fusilli twists of thick armour plate. The object seems to be suspended in space like a bird or a feather. It is a camel and rider, a helicopter gunship, a levitating Valkyrie. I’m alone in this raw, empty place and it’s coming towards me.

As I watch the spectre transforms itself, reaching down to touch the boiling tarmac road, extending black legs, sprouting tyres. Its flashing eyes become a split windscreen. Its phantom limbs are the arms of men. I bend my ear towards the horizon and the familiar Leyland tick-tick rents the absolute stillness of the deserted valley.

The bus rolls out of the heat haze, two dozen Afghan heads craning and calling out of its broken windows at the sight of me by the roadside. Its engine brake thunders the ancient Bedford to a stop, enveloping me in voices and dust. When the cloud clears I’m staring up at the riders, responding to their invitation, about to step onboard.

Then the metal body catches my attention. On impulse I sweep a strip of grit off its mottled surface. I see the crude ‘Flying Muslim Coach’ logo has been painted over flaking portraits of sultry beauties, their faces scratched out years earlier by Taliban fanatics. I brush away another coat of dirt and discover Russian words beneath the portraits, faded reminders of the Soviet occupation. With both arms I rub again, pushing back another decade, reaching deeper into the collage and discovering that the Cyrillic characters themselves efface psychedelic, Day-Glo peace symbols.

In the blazing heat I’m looking for clues, wanting to identify the transiting hippie who brought the vehicle from Europe to Asia in the 1960s. Then the driver sounds the horn. Arms reach out to me. Voices beg me to stop cleaning the dirty old bus, assuring me that others will do the job in Herat, asking me to honour them with my company. The conductor, a laughing man with midnight black hair and a glass eye, pulls his Leili Leili jann cassette out of the old stereo. He rifles in the bottom of a chest and clicks another tape, worn and stretched, into the machine.

‘Music for you! For you!’ he calls in English, cranking up the volume, filling the Valley of Fear with the sound of The Who.

I’m disorientated, laughing with the other men. I hoist my pack onto a shoulder and step on board the four-wheeled palimpsest, setting off between the war ruins on the road which so many believed once led to a better world.