Sunlight periscoped through the squat doorway, illuminating the tall, thin figure with the slicked-back blonde hair scraped into a ponytail. Lara Croft stood, legs shoulder-width apart, with guns and ammo spread all about her. She knocked back whisky after whisky while her minions worked on a getaway plan.
I walked down the concrete steps of the German guesthouse and into this comic-strip world. It was not quite noon. Debbie looked pale, dazed and traumatized. Normally the life and soul of the Kabubble party, she had just fled her Afghan husband. Grave threats had been made. She needed to get out of the country fast, and Lara Croft – aka Vivienne, an Australian who worked for a security firm – was on the case, procuring flights, safe houses and other logistical essentials. She seemed totally insane.
My assigned role was to get us a room at the Serena. Afghanistan’s only five-star hotel had five-star security. There was an X-ray machine at the door, guards from the Ministry of Interior and a no-gun policy. When Vivienne arrived with Debbie, the first thing she did was toss her weapons on the bed. So much for tight security.
That evening we ordered pizza, and Debbie cried about abandoning her life of the past six years, in which she had built up two businesses and made a home. This American hairdresser had come to Kabul to help Afghan women, and had set up a beauty school and a salon; she was considerably less upset about dumping her husband, who already had a wife and eight children in Saudi Arabia.
I did not feel at all prepared for such an alarming situation.
In places like Kabul, people are supposed to have grab bags full of cash and clothes stationed by the front door, ready to go should they need to be evacuated at a moment’s notice. I did once have a grab bag with a change of clothes, some medication – probably Cipro – sunscreen, emergency food bars and water. But as the weeks went by, the clothes got worn, the bars got eaten, the water snatched as I left the house, and the sunscreen was applied at the mirror by the front door. The cash got spent on domestic bills and emergency Chicken Street shopping, important for keeping the Afghan economy afloat. You never think it’s going to happen to you.
I half expected Vivienne to abseil through the window the next morning but, more prosaically, she knocked on the door, laden with Afghan disguises for Debbie’s covert escape.
With Debbie safely evacuated, it now turned out I was being threatened too. Was the danger real? I wasn’t courageous enough to find out. For my protection, Vivienne took me to her villa. There we found a slumbering, pickled body of a man with grey hair flopped on the bed. Next to him was an AK-47. Seemingly oblivious to me, Vivienne lay down beside the man and cuddled up to his AK-47. This was her boyfriend, it turned out. Thirty-odd years old, but his hard-drinking, hard-partying Kabul life had aged him prematurely.
Alcohol fuelled a lot in Afghanistan, including this relationship, and the couple’s virtually incoherent conversations were all about guns and bullets. While I was glad Debbie was out of harm’s way, I had mixed feelings about entrusting my own safety to this woman. But I had been staying with Debbie up until now, and the great escape had left me essentially homeless. Moving house in Afghanistan was logistically challenging, and I hadn’t really got my head around what I was going to do. I needed a few days to take stock and process the possibilities. I wasn’t going to get them. Rumours had erupted on the intelligence grapevine that men were circling Vivienne’s house looking for me – who knew why? I had to move again.
I took temporary refuge with my French colleague.
She had a beautiful house where she often entertained – seemingly always dressed in leather trousers. One of her housemates was away on a job and she said I could rent his room. The house was located on what was known as Garbage Street, so named for its ever-present piles of rubbish, although these were hardly unique in the capital.
While the rest of the house had been decorated with great style and lots of Afghan furniture and artefacts, the room I was given had nothing but a bed and a rucksack in the corner.
At last I felt safe, but, in fact, the real danger had only just caught up with me. Within twenty-four hours I was incredibly sick – a victim of the kind of germ warfare that makes it impossible to get out of bed. For days, I could barely open my eyes. Through a fog of delirium one night, I seemed to hear a high-pitched wailing. I thought I had dreamed this, but as the microbes exited my body and I started to recover, I continued to hear that sound. I tried to figure out what it was, and when I was able to stand, I walked over to the corner of the room to find a cat had given birth behind the rucksack.
I was alive – and so were a large number of very cute kittens.
Lara Croft of the Kabubble is an extract from Heidi Kingstone’s new book, “Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe” (Advance Editions). It is due for release on the 5th of May, 2015.