Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Allegrezza Ficcione, Part 17

He had never passed through an international terminal so quickly before. It was almost aformal; things were done with an efficiency that he guessed had a great deal to do with his companion even though his companion never spoke, was never spoken to.

He picked up his tickets, a ridiculously low price which he paid for with travellers' cheques, deciding to keep as much cash on him as he could; was told to take his luggage with him – "The plane's fairly empty, & luggage has a tendency to get lost if there are connecting flights."

Only when they were in the Emigration area did the suit speak, asking for Allegrezza's passport which he took over to an official who stamped it. Then, after glancing up at a monitor giving flight information, he set off towards what turned out to be the most distant gate in the terminal.

The plane was boarding when they got there. The suit held out his hand, said "Go with joy, Allegrezza." They shook hands, & then the suit turned & headed back up the corridor.

The flight to Tashkent wasn't that bad, but the flight to Bukhara was all that the Iranian had intimated. There were no cabin crew. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to get the engines up to a thrust necessary for takeoff; & even then it seemed they became airborne just metres before the end of the runway. This with only a half-load of passengers. Allegrezza didn't want to think about what it would be like with a full load.

Just over an hour later they were descending again. It seemed too early to be landing, so he asked someone nearby what was happening. "Samarkand" came the answer. Allegrezza swore quietly to himself. He had been unaware that it wasn't a direct flight to Bukhara, made even more annoying by the fact that all he would see of this other fabled city of the Silk Road was the low terminal building. Through passengers weren't allowed off the plane; so he sat there for half an hour, with the engines still running & fumes coming in the open door.

They took off again, more easily it seemed this time – fewer passengers, less fuel? But half an hour later the left-hand engine started spluttering, fell silent, spluttered again then came back on. Stayed that way until they were descending towards Bukhara then gave up totally. The plane veered, was brought back on course, touched down with an expertise that seemed to indicate single-engine landings were something the pilot had experienced before.

He was the first person off the plane. Realised how much he was shaken & shaking when his legs almost failed to support him as he stepped onto the tarmac.

"Are you alright, Signor Allegrezza?" The question was asked by someone standing near the bottom of the stairs who appeared to be Indian. Brown-skinned, wearing a white shirt, levis & white joggers. On his head was a four-angled tyubiteyka, a duppi, white with black piping, & a red spot in the front that resembled a caste mark.

Allegrezza nodded. "Just wait a minute until I get my balance back."

The Indian smiled. "It is indeed a rough ride. I’m here to drive you to where you have to go. It'll be almost as rough, but not frightening."

He took the larger of Allegrezza's bags, & they set off across the tarmac, towards a small separate building near the airport's perimeter. The Indian knocked quickly on the door & opened it. There was a single occupant in the room, but his military uniform had enough bars & stars & decorations to have covered the whole of the Uzbek Army.

"Passport", he grunted. Allegrezza gave it to him. The General looked through it until he came to the Uzbekistan visa, stamped the page & gave it back. "Permitted to stay indefinitely."

"Who the hell was that?" asked Allegrezza when they were outside.

"A friend, who just happened to be visiting the airport."

The Indian walked towards an old righthand drive Landrover parked by itself, put the bag in the back, opened the passenger door for Allegrezza then went around to the other side. The engine caught immediately, purred almost, with an intimation of power that belied the age of the vehicle, that indicated that what was now beneath the hood was not what had originally been there.

"It's about a half hour's drive. South-east towards Qarshi, then south towards the Turkmenistan border. Unfortunately there's not much to see. Most of the country is the same. Flat. Dry. It's only when you head towards Afghanistan that it changes."

The house, when they came to it, was isolated & large. Two storeys high, with a satellite dish on two of the four corners. A covered balcony ran all the way around the first floor, a porch round the ground floor. There was a two-metre wide strip of garden &, almost incongruous in this landscape, an expanse of lawn with a few trees, oaks & sycamores, scattered across it plus a large pergola & what looked like, from a distance, a Henry Moore reclining nude. There was an orchard off to one side, & on the other a number of outbuildings, possibly garages & barns. He could hear a generator running somewhere.

A small man hurried out from the house as they drew up. He opened Allegrezza's door & held out his hand. "My dear Umberto. What a pleasure it is to meet you at last. Come inside. For the time being you can call me Aram Saroyan, or Yossarian – there are many names I answer to. We will have dinner soon. We will eat in the courtyard. There are fresh clothes that should fit in the room we have prepared for you. You will probably want to have a bath before you eat. Anil, show our guest the way."

He wandered back inside & had disappeared by the time Allegrezza followed the Indian in. They walked through an entry space & out into an internal courtyard paved with what Allegrezza thought of as Alhambra tiles. Large, shady, small flower beds & a small fountain which fell into a pool in which koi swam & water lilies grew. Again a covered first floor balcony with stairs leading up to it on each side of the courtyard. The house itself was apparently only one room deep all round, the rooms externally connected.

"Aram Saroyan? Yossarian?"

"He will tell you his true name in good time."

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