Stars Over Kabul

by Louise Beech



The lid is bedecked with hundreds of stars, large and small, overlapping as if fallen from a careless sky.  Grace opens the box, her fourth one, and touches the jigsaw pieces inside.  In ninety-three days she has created the World Trade Centre and the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower, one hour at a time, from thirty thousand unpromising pieces; in only a week she must now rebuild the sky. 

Holding a piece of gold, she imagines Brent in the gloss and strokes where his spiky chin would be.  

Five months ago he’d leaned against the fridge, in T-shirt and jeans as though Spain - not Afghanistan - beckoned, given her the boxes and said, “I’ll be home before you even complete them all, it’s only a six-month tour, remember.” 

Requiting his optimism, Grace kissed Brent’s smooth cheek, thinking how soon it would chafe.  “Don’t be sure you’ll be back before I finish them; I’m a talented girl, you know,” she said. 

When he smiled and put his head on her shoulder the calendar fell off the fridge with a disruptive rustle of pages, remaining open on a snowy January scene.

And then he was gone.


Alone, Grace ripped cellophane from the World Trade Centre box, scattering windows and steel and sky onto the coffee table.  She heard, in the soft pattering of cardboard pieces, cries of help me and she had no clue how to.  The answer came after a glass of wine.  When faced with such chaos it made sense to build from the edge.  Then, once she had a border, rigid and protective, all the pieces stayed safely inside and Grace found she could sleep and the sadness was contained.  

Brent phoned as she constructed tower one, its gleaming expanse of silver deflecting the gaudy city.  “What are the buildings like in Kabul?”  She held a miniature glass door between finger and thumb as she dropped the question.

“Wouldn’t make much of a postcard.”  The words were sombre, reluctant, then gone.

Grace whispered “I miss you” across the ocean and clicked his silences together to see what they formed, but identical pieces are the hardest to find a partner for.


Soon jigsaws filled the lounge like paintings in various stages of completion.  Joining the pieces made time pass faster, one day snapping to the next until it formed a month.  Grace learned with each box that you can’t build a picture without studying every segment, or anticipate the mood of a boyfriend calling from overseas, but still she crossed off the calendar days in red and coupled the pieces until his homecoming.


“I wish I could see you in your combats,” Grace said during their October exchange.  When Brent paused and asked what she was wearing Grace felt his smile.  Eyeing the threadbare slippers and old vest and bottoms that was evening attire - the uniform she wore to conquer world architecture - she lied.


The Taj Mahal puzzle began as ten thousand insignificant parts and grew gradually from the infamous path where Princess Diana sat without her husband, into white marble domes and the main gate (which the box said imitated a bride’s veil on her wedding night) and cloudless sky.  It spread slowly across the dining table, swallowing teak expanse in its domination of the room.  Grace picked up her wine glass and took it into the kitchen, leaving a circle of moisture, like a watery moon.   

“When the moon’s full here, is it full there too?” she asked in November.

“Of course, silly.”  When Brent laughed unsociable gunfire punctuated his better mood with exclamation marks.   “It’s the same sky here as there.  Just one sky.”

She said the stars must be the same then and when he didn’t respond, imagined his nodding.  After ten pieces of silence he asked how the puzzles were coming along.

“I finished the Taj Mahal,” she said.  “Next the Eiffel Tower, and then the stars.”


Grace discovered halfway into the Eiffel Tower that it’s best also to build by shade, and easier if those shades vary.  Pieces of similar colour like sadness or ocean are tiresome, impossible to mate without great patience.  When she clicked in the last piece, completing a string of lights that made the French monument resemble an iron Christmas tree, she remembered.


“Do you remember Paris?” Grace asked in December, the fireplace bare, her wine glass empty.

“Of course I do,” he said softly.

Brent promised that one day he’d take her again to a hotel where the staff called her mademoiselle and left chocolate on the pillow, and Grace laughed down the telephone because she’d clapped her hands when she saw that treat at bedtime.  She’d opened the window wide to reveal the western edge of the Eiffel Tower, and the lights had winked like they were laughing too.

“Let’s go in spring,” whispered Grace.


Now the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal and a brand new World Trade Centre dominate the dining table.  Only the stars are in bits, being the toughest to recreate, and why Grace has left them until last.  Tonight her fingers touch one segment and the next and the next, but nothing distinguishes them, no variation in gold or shine give clue as to their place in the final puzzle.  On the News at Ten buildings fall in Kabul and soldiers run and women cry and children scream and Grace builds her sky even faster.


She has space left in the centre of the puzzle for one more star, and Brent should be home tomorrow.  But there have been no phone calls for five weeks.  The Christmas tree died long ago and the fireplace is still cold.  Grace has no heart for the sweet wine that warmed her heart as she waited.  Sixteen pieces that form the last, tiny star lie on the coffee table, separated from one another by Grace’s choosing.  She turns off the lamp and goes to bed.   


In the morning the light is already there.  Sun touches the bed where Brent sits, holding the remaining gold pieces in cupped hands.  His smile is surrounded by beard, his eyes by weariness.

“You said you’d have finished them when I got home,” he says, touching her hair.

“It’s only one star,” says Grace.  “Why don’t you put it in the sky?”

©2009 Louise Beech

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