Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Until Next Time

Note to Reader: This is the second occasion in my life that I sat down to write one story and a completely different one flowed, unbidden, from my fingertips, as though I was just an instrument for it to write itself. I am more than half-convinced that Shoichi Kimura from Found On A Body was a real person. I wonder if Ahmed from Until Next Time is – or, more likely, will be.   


The big man with the pink face smiled at Ahmed and said something in English. He had a very loud, booming voice.

Ahmed threw a frightened glance over his shoulder, but none of the other children had yet come squeezing into the room. He wondered why the big man was shouting, what he’d done to make him angry. It made no difference that he was smiling. Everyone was always angry at Ahmed over something or other.

The black-bearded translator frowned at him. “The gentleman asked you a question,” he said, in Ahmed’s language. “He’s asking if you want a job.”

Ahmed felt his lips moving. “Yes,” he whispered, using up exactly one fourth of the English he knew.

The pink man smiled, nodding. He was huge, and his skin was the pinkest Ahmed had ever seen. It was hard to imagine that people that pink could exist, apart from Jamshid the albino in the next village, of course. His shirt was the whitest Ahmed had ever seen, and his tie had patterns like a peacock on it. “That’s good. I like a young man who’s willing to earn an honest buck. How old are you, anyway?”

“Fourteen,” the translator said, without waiting for Ahmed to answer. Actually, Ahmed wasn’t quite eleven, and looked it, but the pink man nodded and looked satisfied. Everyone hired today would be fourteen. Fourteen was the minimum age of employment.

“Good. And why are you looking for work?” The pink man cocked his head to one side and studied Ahmed quizzically. “Tired of school, are you? The homework’s too much tyranny? The bullies are a problem?”

There was no school left, of course, since the teacher had stopped coming. The teacher had used to come twice, sometimes even thrice, a week, but the local warlord had started demanding he pay a tax for the privilege of earning his salary. So he stopped coming, and soon after the school burned down. In the village they said the teacher had come back in the night and burnt it as revenge. Or maybe it was the warlord.

“He’s done with school,” the translator said, the standard response. “He’s passed his final exams.”

“So, what about your parents?” the pink man asked. “Brothers and sisters?”

“No,” said Ahmed, finishing off another quarter of his knowledge of English. The translator spoke to him sharply and then turned to the pink man. “His parents are dead.” He didn’t tell the pink man why the parents were dead, how they’d died. “No brothers and sisters.”

“Is that so?” The pink man leaned forward, looking at Ahmed with new interest. “That opens up possibilities. Is he eager to earn money?”

“Of course he is.” The translator didn’t have to point to Ahmed’s cracked shoes and the torn right knee of his trousers. “Any money will be welcome.” He licked his lips, calculating his finder’s fee.

The pink man nodded genially. “Well, boy, we have a job for you. It doesn’t involve much work, but it does need the right person. Are you ready for it?”

“He’s giving you the job,” the translator said, frowning at Ahmed. “It’s a job better than those others waiting outside will be offered. Well?”

Ahmed dredged up the remaining two words of English he knew. “Thank you.”

“Sir,” the translator ordered. “Say sir.”

Ahmed nodded obediently. “Sir thank you yes,” he said.


Ahmed stood in the middle of the field, waiting.

Far in the distance, to the left, the village was still waking up to the new day. Woodsmoke hung bluish in the air, competing with the drifting morning fog. It was cold, and Ahmed hugged himself as tightly as he could, hoping it would soon be over. He wished he could go over and talk to Nazneen and Zulfikar, maybe huddle with them for warmth, but they’d been given strict orders to stand exactly where each one had been told. Besides, Zulfikar didn’t like it when Ahmed talked to Nazneen, and had once threatened to break his teeth if he did it again.

There was a droning noise in the east, and Ahmed sighed with relief as he saw the little yellow plane fly over the low hills at the further end of the valley. It was coming straight towards him, the rising sun shimmering on the arc of its spinning propeller. Ahmed had learnt well enough not to flinch and run as he’d done the first time. He’d been shouted at and they’d threatened to beat him. Not, of course, that there had turned out to be anything to run from.

Ahmed saw the white clouds appear from under the wings, and stood straight and rigid, exactly as ordered, when the drenching mist fell on him. Today, it had a slight odour, one which turned into a faint oily taste on the back of his tongue. One time, last week, his skin had begun itching fiercely and turned red, but there was nothing like that this time.

The plane reached the end of the field, turned and flew back slowly, the clouds settling on Nazneen and Zulfikar as well. Then it rose slowly into the air and vanished over the hills the way it had come.

Someone near the village raised a green flag and waved. They could go in and have breakfast, though they were forbidden to bathe until tomorrow. Once Zulfikar had cheated, and they’d beaten him, and not paid him anything. Ahmed had rather enjoyed the spectacle of Zulfikar being beaten, because he was a bully. But he’d taken care to not make the same mistake.

Then, after breakfast, they’d be paid. They’d, of course be paid only half the amount the pink man had promised, because the warlord would keep the rest as taxes. And then from what was left Ahmed would have to give the translator his share. But it was better than having no money at all.

“Come on!” the man with the green flag shouted. “Or don’t you lot want your food and salary?”

Ahmed rubbed the mist from his face on the sleeve of his shirt and began trudging towards the village.

It was over for today.

One day Zulfikar wasn’t there. Ahmed and Nazneen walked together to the field and he asked her about him, because she lived not far from him and should know. She shook her head so that her brown chador slipped over her forehead and on her face. “I don’t know. They said he’s sick.”

“Who said?”

“He stays with his grandpa, you know? I heard that he fell sick last night. That’s all.”

“He’ll probably be back next time,” Ahmed said. “Do you like him?”

“No,” Nazneen replied, pausing to put on her shoe, which had fallen off her little foot. “Do you?”

Ahmed shook his head happily. “Do you think they’ll pay us extra if we got sprayed in his place today, twice each?” he asked before they parted to go to their separate positions.

Nazneen shrugged. “The warlord would take it all anyway.”


They never saw Zulfikar again. Nazneen said she’d heard he’d died.

“So why haven’t they buried him?” Ahmed asked, looking in the direction of the little village graveyard.

“I heard they took his body to the city, in a helicopter.” Nazneen grimaced. “Someone was saying they’d cut him open and see what’s inside.”

Ahmed was impressed. “I never thought Zulfikar would ever get to the city, dead or alive. Do you think it’s very big?”

“Uncle Najib works in the city,” Nazneen said. “Before the warlord’s men chased him away the last time he came here, he told me it’s full of people like us sleeping on the streets and waiting outside restaurants for the garbage to be thrown out in case there’s something to eat in it.”

But Ahmed wasn’t listening. He was thinking about the picture of a city he’d once seen, buildings tall as the sky and white as ivory, streets filled with cars and crowds, beautiful women walking in and out of the shops. “Someday I’ll take you to the city,” he said, and then, remembering there was no Zulfikar to take offence, he squeezed her hand.

“Alive, I hope,” she said, and squeezed back.


Ahmed stood in the field, waiting, as the little yellow plane lifted over the hills and buzzed towards him like a drowsy bee. Today it was flying even lower and slower than usual, as though it was so heavily loaded that it couldn’t raise itself any higher. Ahmed wondered if it would come so low that he might see the pilot, and wave to him, and whether the pilot might wave back. Better not, though. He’d been ordered not to move at all.

The plane had just come close enough for the sun to gleam on its wings when it happened. There was a puff of smoke and a ball of light spiralled up from the ground and rushed up behind the machine’s tail, to end in a blinding flash of light and a blast of noise so loud Ahmed thought he’d gone deaf. The plane, suddenly transformed into a blazing, cartwheeling wreck, tumbled down on the far side of the field, striking with an impact that jolted Nazneen to her knees, screaming shrilly with fear as bits and pieces came raining down around her.

Ahmed couldn’t even do that much. He could not move at all.


Ahmed stood in the middle of the field, waiting.

It was a different field, a strange field, far away from the village. It wasn’t empty either. There was a burned out car nearby, and the remains of a hut behind him, just the smashed knee high remnants of a wall. The car and the hut didn’t seem like they belonged in the field. They looked as though they’d been brought from elsewhere and put here, like Ahmed himself.

They’d explained to him that after the bad men had shot down the yellow plane they could no longer give him the same job, since it wasn’t safe any longer. They’d said other things that he’d not understood, but they’d told him that if he came with them, they would see that he was all right.

They hadn’t taken Nazneen though. Ahmed had been a little sad about that at first, but Nazneen herself had lost all her interest in the work after the morning when she’d crouched screaming on the field while burning wreckage fell around her. The evening before Ahmed had gone with the men, he’d met her out by the mosque, sitting on a stone by the roadside.

“I’ll be going away tomorrow,” he’d said. “I’ll come back for you, though, when I’ve earned a lot. Then we’ll go away to the city together.”

Nazneen hadn’t looked at him. There had been a large bandage round her forearm, dirty and unwinding at one end, and she’d tried to tuck the loose end back in, one handed. “All right,” she’d said. “If you want.”

Ahmed had been piqued. “Don’t you want to go with me to the city?” he’d demanded.

“If you want,” Nazneen had repeated listlessly.

“So what will you do while I’m away?” Ahmed had demanded. “It’s not as though you have a job any longer.”

Nazneen had shrugged. “Waqar – you know, the warlord’s bodyguard – he said he’d give me food and a bed to sleep if I went to him. He’s a kind man.”

Ahmed wasn’t sure what that was about and hadn’t asked. “All right,” he’d said, getting up. “I’ll see you when I come back.” He’d hesitated. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” Nazneen had repeated. The last Ahmed had seen of her, she was still trying to get the bandage back around her forearm, and it had been more unravelled than ever.


The long, graceful wings bent at the tips as the drone banked over the airfield, turning towards the rising sun. Its bulbous, faintly phallic nose moved slightly this way and that, as though sniffing its way, before settling on a course. Inside its smooth fuselage, sensors whirred, tasting the ground below for images and heat traces, the movements of men and animals. Computers took the information, merged it, made a coherent whole of it, and then sent it two ways. One went flying back, in a stream of data, to a bunker beneath the base now far away. The other went a much, much shorter distance, to a computer somewhere in the drone’s bulbous head itself.

In the bunker beneath the base, a small knot of men in olive green uniforms, two of them seated, the rest standing behind them, watched an array of screens. “It’s performing perfectly so far,” one said, bending over the shoulder of another to get a better look at a screen.

“Keep your fingers crossed, sir,” the man in the left seat, who had stripes on his sleeve, said. “We’ll know in a minute whether the programme works.”

“There he is.” The right hand side seated man pointed to a tiny dot in the left lower corner of the screen. “Let’s see if Dragon does as it’s supposed to.”

Without the touch of a joystick, the scene shifted until the dot was centred. The view zoomed in, and the dot grew arms and legs, became a tiny human figure standing in front of a wrecked car.

“All going perfectly,” the left hand side man said, glancing at another screen, which was filled with coloured graphs and numbers. “Readouts are within parameters.”

“The kid’s not actually going to be hit this time, is he?” the officer bending over the left hand seat asked nervously.

“Not this time,” the right hand seat man responded. He glanced towards the officer, not attempting to conceal his amusement. “It’s a dummy run, just gathering target information and seeing if it works. You don’t have to worry, sir.”

The officer glared at him, but looked relieved all the same. “It must be a change for you,” he said, ‘to not actually have to do anything. Let the drone do all the work, make the decisions.”

The left hand man shrugged, pressing buttons. Lines appeared on the screen, around the boy. A red glow blossomed briefly around the little figure, and disappeared.

“That’s it,” he said with satisfaction. “A perfectly executed mission. Target searched, acquired, and annihilated, all totally automatically.”

“Until next time,” the man in the right hand seat said. “Next time we’ll use a dummy missile.”

“Until next time,” the officer whispered. He watched the dot in the screen recede, and began thinking of his own son at home. He’d go home on leave soon, and he’d need to buy a present for the kid.

A model drone, he decided. The boy could have fun assembling it.


Ahmed watched the tiny speck fly overhead, the sun shining on immensely long, tapering wings. He watched it fly over, waiting for the clouds of dew to fall from underneath, and was mildly disappointed when it turned round and flew away again. Maybe they would still pay him, though, even though the plane hadn’t sprayed him. After all it wasn’t his fault that the plane had flown away, was it?

Next time they might drop something, he thought, and watched the shining speck fly away into the brightening sky of the new morning.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016


  1. I thought this was a heartbreaking story. Maybe not a story at all.

  2. Mesmerizing -- and, yes, heart-breaking, as Benni says.

  3. Bill your stories are awesome. The bite of reality looms within all of them.


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