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It was nearly dark when I reached the bottom of the hill. Just before I did, I made out a figure coming up the path. It was a boy of about fifteen; he’d come to look for me, he said. Wondering who he was, I followed him along a shortcut down to the road, and  crossed it to join a group of people sitting beside a car. The scene was lit by a small electric lantern attached to the car battery. Parviz was among them and stood up as I arrived.

‘We were so worried..’ he said, shaking his head slowly with a grave expression.

‘There’s snakes,’ said the boy, ‘and wild animals.’

‘Worse,’ said a man’s voice, with a theatrical note. It was the boy’s father. He was sitting cross-legged at the far end of a carpet that had been thrown across the dust. Around it sat two other women, another man, and at its edge, a much younger woman, sitting in a wheelchair. Despite the hour, this was a family picnic. Parviz explained that the family had arrived more than an hour earlier, and as it got dark had decided to send the son up the hill to look for me.

‘Leaving your driver all alone like that!’ said the father. His dark eyes and skin gleamed in the light. ‘Poor man didn’t know what to do!’

The women took turns to fuss over me as if I were an old family friend, and they all joked about how worried they’d been. A glass of tea appeared by my side and one of the women prepared me a sandwich. The father introduced me in turn to his wife, sister-in-law, and her husband.

‘That’s my son, Ihsan - you’ve already met him. And that’s my daughter, Zohra.’ He pointed towards the forlorn-looking but attractive girl of about seventeen who was sitting in the wheelchair. I wondered what affliction had touched her life at such a young age.

‘There’s nothing wrong with her,’ he said, answering my unspoken question. ‘That’s my chair she’s in. I’m the one who hasn’t got any legs,’ he added with a chuckle, patting his knees where his legs, I now realised, ended. ‘I’m a war veteran. Zohra!’ He pointed to my empty glass. ‘Use yours and give the man something to drink.’ The daughter rose swiftly from the chair and refilled my glass.

‘So, how’s Iran then...?’

I said I was enjoying Iran very much, then made my usual joke; the biggest problem, I said, putting an arm on Parviz’s shoulder, was taxi drivers. There was laughs all round.

‘You want to watch their sort. How much did you pay for the ride here?

I told him, and he feigned outrage.

‘How much? I’ll take you back for half that...’ He pretended to make the effort to stand up. Then he returned to the theme of how unwise I had been to go along into the hills alone.

‘Our biggest worry,’ he said, ‘was that you might have ended up in one of those caves up there.’  His expression had turned serious. ‘Dangerous places.’


W’allah. By God, yes! You know what lives in them?’

I said I had no idea.

Khafash-ha! Bats! Blind things! Flying rats!’ A shudder of aversion rippled through the others. ‘They hang from the walls and wait for their prey there. They’ll attack whatever passes by. They’ve got eyes, mind you, but they don’t use them - they hunt with radar, just like a missile.’ With outstretched fingers his hand fluttered through the air in imitation of the creatures which, not much earlier, had been wheeling in just the same manner a few inches away from my face.

‘Woe betide any man who ventures into one of those terrible caves.’ He paused for effect. His hand came forward from the darkness, and a raised finger, gleaming at the periphery of the lantern’s reach, passed theatrically over us in turn. ‘People have gone in those caves and never come out.’ He shook his head gravely, and the others fell silent, spellbound at his description. ‘No trace was ever found of them.’ He paused again, then widened his eyes in mock terror, and his hand went up, the fingers pursed this time. ‘If one of those bats get the scent of you,’ his voice dropped to a whisper of light-hearted menace as the hand began to waver like a cobra, ‘one bite is all it takes!’ Then it made a sudden reverse and struck his own forehead with an audible slap. The children jumped visibly.

He asked me what my plans were. ‘When you’re back in Shiraz,’ he said, ‘you’ll stay with us. ’ He was adamant I be his guest, and wrote down his name and phone numbers. ‘Call the mobile if I’m not at home,’ he said, tapping the phone on his belt, ‘and I’ll come and get you.’

‘You shouldn’t stay in a hotel,’ said his wife.

‘Terrible places,’ said the husband, shaking his head disapprovingly. ‘And lonely.’

‘We’ll feed you properly,’ said his wife.

‘Once you’ve tasted my wife’s cooking you won’t want to leave. Fahmidid? Understood? That’s settled then...’