The Contact List
Sometime after my partly pointless pilgrimage to the heights of Muswell Hill I was looking down through neon Arabic script outside the window of the Hotel Everest on a very different city. I was headed for (or was it back from?) Nairobi and points further south, determined to take in a few Sphinx and create some riddles of my own. The view below my hotel room was worthy of a Hiram Hilton - a 50 foot replica of Ramases stood down there as if just about to dive into the small pool at his feet. Whizzing past the pharaoh's right ear was an overpass full of Fiat bubbles, Toyota pick ups and ancient flat-bed trucks. The Hotel Everest, as its name might suggest, was probably the tallest hotel in town, with views in the far distance to the beginnings of the desert. I was on the 28th of 54 floors in room 622, but I had the definite feeling that the 23 floors above me were empty of human habitation. In fact it was a very strange feeling, dare I say a uniquely post-modern feeling (I do allow having them now and then), staying in a high rise hotel of 60's provenance, which even more than it's sister buildings of London, Manchester or Aston, was in the last stages of dereliction and desertion. I decided that the hotel policy was to occupy the rooms closest to the 5th floor first (the ones below that were filled by empty offices) where the manager's office and dining rooms were situated. This meant that it was also probably less top heavy in the case of an earthquake or just a plain simple natural disintegration. The hotel was therefore remarkably full, 18 floors full to be exact, although I had only noticed one of the rooms on my floor locked, and the dining rooms appeared to be mysteriously empty most of the time, even at breakfast. Perhaps I just couldn't bare the fact that I was almost alone in this tottering monstrosity and preferred to feel it was more occupied. But my searches on higher floors had only revealed empty and open rooms without even the sight of a cleaner. The compensation was, of course, that I could make as much noise as I wanted to and so I sang and bellowed and recited Shakespeare and Eliot at all hours, and when tired of this, played the stereo ghetto blaster I had bought on a midnight boat from Vlissingen to Sheerness (the adventure of it’s acquisition and almost loss coming soon), which was an intended present for my best contact in northern Tanzania. The weight of those empty floors above me made me sing and dictate louder - oh yes the gist of these adventures of my luggage were always being recorded on my small dictaphone and it is to those recordings, complete with background music of an echoing Room 622 and a drone of Cairo city traffic that I now pin my ears before writing these words. I can hear again my shutters being closed and see the ghetto blaster on the bedside table, the African hold-all peeping from under the bed, the Greek satchel lounging against the metal chair, and my black briefcase with papers scattered over the spare bed.
In fact in the background to that recording, cunningly hidden from the casual listener by my own version of double tracking, I can now hear the recording of an earlier adventure in a Milan hotel room. I remember my frustration when I found that I had missed yet another train connection, which forced me to stay the night in Milan on the way south to Greece. I found a small but far from cheap hotel a couple of blocks from the station. And what a station - I had seen nothing before to match it’s grandiose design and execution - not even in the glories of St. Pancras, Antwerp Central or Frankfurt Hauptbahnhoff. The thing I love about such stations is that it is impossible to lose them, so big are they on the horizon of the city, and such a noble bequest from the public-spirited burghers of the past - a spirit of capitalist generosity which unfortunately is now dead, except in its warped manifestation of offering covert bribes to the coffers of modern political parties. It is the kind of place where you can have the most extraordinary conversations, whilst sitting on the marble reliefs, with fellow passengers destined for other far flung locations on the inter-European network. Of course Italians complain even more than we about the lateness of the trains, but waiting with such a backdrop of glorious heights and distances makes time stand still, and thus the train arrives more quickly than in some lesser shed of a station. I had been confirming with a passing fellow passenger the translation of the timetable for Brindisi and the Adriatic Coast when a decidedly down at mouth customer burst foward and knocked me over onto the immaculately clean marble floor. Surprising me, he offered to haul me up again and in my gratitude for his help I never suspected his true intentions - but unkown to me I was already a wee bit lighter of luggage - as we shall soon see.
The hotel was a short taxi ride away, indeed it was the driver who recommended as being just about within my budget. The room I had taken was also magnificent for its acoustics, and I decided to take full advantage of it by setting up my recording equipment for a layered performance: marble floors, marble fireplace, even the curtains looked as if they were made of marble. The echo was better than the Albert Hall, and I didn’t have to wait for so long for it to come back to me. I was halfway through a re-recording with hidden messages of the well known Dire Straits number "So Far Away": "I'm tired of being in love and being all alone When you're so far away from me. I'm tired of making out on the telephoooone....." when to my synchronistic astonishment the phone by the bed began to emit a curious bleating sound which must have been the Italian for "ring, ring" (though I guess no phones actually make this sound now anywhere in the world, bells are merely electronically simulated and in many countries, particularly Italy, the simulation is a simulation of a simulation etc.). I turned down the volume and picked up the phone, but continued to record. The manager of the hotel said there was someone to see me in the foyer and would I please, please, turn the music down as it was now 2.30 a.m. and complaints had been received by neighbours. I reluctantly switched off my equipment and went downstairs. I swear I had been no longer than 5 minutes but the place was completely vacant, my prospective contact had gone. I went back up to where I thought the manager’s rooms were, and stood there knocking as quietly as I could in the half lit hallway. His bald head protruded from the crack in the door and his sleepy voice protested that no, he had not phoned me, no, no-one had called for me but would I please keep the music down. Then he shut the door as silently as he had opened it.
I would have put this all down to a dream but half an hour later the whole process repeated itself. I was re-recording the "So Far Away" at a lower volume and yet again at the words "on the telephooone...." MY telephone broke in and it was definitely the manager's voice asking me in his broken English to come downstairs as I had a visitor. "Are you SURE?" "Yes, absolutelya sure." "Then I suppose I'd better come." I recorded the following conversation on my tape so I can't have been dreaming.
RESTTORYELL: Are you looking for me?
INTRUDER: If you are Mot Resttoryell.
RESTTORYELL: What do you want of me at this time of night and how did you know I was here.
INTRUDER: I saw you in the station, I was the man who knocked into you when you were explaining your travel problems to that guy with the bigga hat.
RESTTORYELL: And then you followed me here, but what for?
INTRUDER: Yes, I wanted to help you with your ah luggage, but you were too quick for me.
RESTTORYELL: Are you telling me you’re some kind of porter?
INTRUDER: No, no, I’m actually a pick-pocket, though I’m agraduating to be house-breaker in two years. I’ve come to give you back your wallet. I’m sorry, I stole it from you when you fell. But now I’ve seen it’s containments and I’m sorry I just wanted toa read some letters you have in it. As soon as I knew what you were doing I felt I just have to give it back to you. You’ll need every lire you’ve got if you are to ah succeed. Here it is.
RESTTORYELL: I’m flabbergasted, I’ve only ever been robbed once before but on both occasions I have recovered my funds straightaway, extraordinary! The first time the mugger was immediately knocked down by a bus.
INTRUDER: A risk of oura very dangerous occupation.
RESTTORYELL: Well thank for your kind sentiments, I never knew it was missing, I would only have missed it tomorrow when I came to pay the bill. Is there anything I can do for you?
INTRUDER: Well, actually, come to think of it, I could do with my fare home; it’s difficult to live on a student house breaker’s allowance, and my training hasn’t being going ah too well. Or still better, you could help me to a few silver candleholders in your room.
RESTTORYELL: No, no, you can’t do that, they’d bound to suspect both of us, the manager knows we’re up and around, here, take a few thousand lire, that’s all I can afford.
INTRUDER: Yes, I ah understand, I don’t want to get caught yet again, good luck then and I hope you find something to help all those poor buggers. Many of my friends are that way, and their alonliness is even worse than before, especially here in Italy. It must be better in England huh?
RESTTORYELL: I don’t actually live there anymore, so I can’t really comment. Look, you’d better go before the manager becomes suspicious. INTRUDER: Yes, yes, ok, buona sera!
RESTTORYELL: Buona sera al secchio!
After he left I resumed my recordings, glad to be restored to my wallet and its invaluable credit cards (yes! the honesty of the guy astonished me, but could he have the dreaded disease?), and nevertheless a little puzzled and maybe suspicious about what had happened. But I could find nothing missing from the wallet despite a thorough search. Contemplating the letter from Dr. Nabakov, our head of operations, the same one that he must have read, I realised that if the guy was NOT a thief, he could have learned rather too much from that letter. And who else could he have been - Italian Secret Police? Surely they hadn’t already been in contact with the Czechs? No, that was impossible – why would he have returned it? Maybe of course to plant a tracker on me. But I realised I was getting paranoid for nothing and put a halt to these thoughts. It was too late now, and really I had nothing to hide in all my papers. The task was just as it was laid out in the letter. My hidden personal project which the big money also paid for was tucked away in only my head, and even if someone were to listen to my taped interviews with the European contacts they would gather very little, buried as they were beneath the music in a way only I could retrieve. It was, after all, just more distantly related pieces of my medico-anthropological fieldwork. And the contact list had been safely locked in my briefcase: that was the only giveaway that I was busy frying bigger fish on the side.
When I woke that morning in 622 I wrote the following postcard to Rebecca, an ex girlfriend and fellow ethno-medical researcher in Geneva: "Here I am in Cairo, all my relatives have gone home now, so there is no-one left to bury except myself - I left Lord Byron in Bari so the only place to go is up the River Nanananile....." I have it with me again now as I stole it back when I visited her after my return to Europe. The picture on the other side is of the Everest taken from a plane with a desert sunrise (or set) in the distance. The card still smells faintly of Rebecca's musk perfume, though it's strange, I remember sending it to her because I had already smelt the same perfume in the Everest room, and on the pillows. It could not have been my daughter's - it's not her style and in any case she never visited the Everest. So was it my imagination or could it have come from a previous occupant of the room? I rushed downstairs via the lift, which creaked and braked and heaved it's gathering load of Spanish, Lebanese(?), Greek and Egyptian crooks trying to look like business men down the 20 odd floors to the dining room. As usual I was late and they were on the way out - the dining room was almost empty but not quite closed. I put down my Greek bag - a constant companion - as I sat at a table by the window with an uncommonly good view of the flyover just below, and picked up a paper (in Arabic) so as to be able to peep unobtrusively at my neighbour, who was a blond travelleress, dressed as if ready for a four wheel drive across the Sahara to the Siwa oasis to read her fortune. The waiter served grapefruit then a stale crust of bread, which I dispensed to the many cats howling hissing and fighting beneath the table. The only good thing you could say about the Everest breakfasts was that they came free with the room. In other cheaper hotels in Egypt you had to haggle over the price of a breakfast every new morning, otherwise it would double in price by the end of the first week. I wanted to engage in conversation with my neighbour but she, noticing my eagerness, broke out in an American style greeting and abruptly demanded if I could really read Arabic.
"Some" I replied non-committally, "if you don't want your grapefruit do you mind if I have it as I'm starving?"
"No go ahead, I only ever drink coffee in the mornings. Oh by the way I think you have that paper upside down."
"Oh yeah, as a matter of fact are you going somewhere serious?" I asked. "Serious, oh you mean am I travelling a long way? No, I've already been far enough, I'm on my way back to Saluda, South Carolina, leaving tomorrow. Why, where are you going?"
"Well, that's not easy to say, probably south...." Her smoky blue eyes narrowed and her eyebrows seemed to swing like a see-saw. "Towards Aswan you mean?"
"No, a long way over and past Aswan. I'm flying to Nairobi tomorrow if everything works out. Where have you just come from then?" She laughed, a light dry kind of laugh that made you want to slap her back.
"The desert, I really love the desert, I've been living with the Bedouin for three months, can you believe that - I can hardly believe it myself......" Somehow, I could just believe it and I realised I might be able to trust this woman.
"Look" I said, "I'd love to talk to you about your desert experiences, but I have to leave now, I have an urgent appointment and I've got things to buy, but if you have time, why don't we meet again same time tomorrow. What time is your flight?"
"Not until late afternoon, yes I'll be here in the morning, same time?"
"O.K. Nice meeting you, see you....mmm...soon. Oh by the way - what’s your name?"
“Lotte, Lotte Dickinson”
“Mine’s Mot Resttoryell, see you.”
"Don't forget your paper."
Refusing to acknowledge her joke, I rushed out the room and backup to 622. As I ascended I realised I had already forgotten her name, which I regretted even more because the pleasant halo of feelings associated with her image needed a name, a mnemonic for the rest of the day. But the smell of her musk perfume lingered in my nostrils. As always the first thing I did was to check my luggage and all its contents. The ghetto blaster stared at me mutely through its two great insect eyes, so I pressed the play button to listen to more of my journey through Italy. The Guatemalan bag was exactly where I had left it precariously perched (on purpose) on the edge of the bed. My hide hold-all was still under the bed, full only with innocent clothes. The tape bag was slung over the wooden chair bulging with electronic contrivances, wires hanging everywhere. And finally my black briefcase was sitting smugly on the other bed, combination locks remaining at exactly at the numbers I had purposefully left them 180.192, which was that day's date. To these I added my Greek bag, at the same time removing my latest contact list which I had hand written all over again the previous night. Looking at the scribbled names I realised that it would be totally unprofessional to send the list out to the members of the circle without placing it on a headed notepaper in typed form. So first I cut out some black letters and formed the heading SIDALTEL with a stolen "globe" logo from a Danish Metallurgy Conference that I happened to have with me. I stuck them on as a heading then copied it downstairs in the photocopy shop, thus producing a not unpleasing headed notepaper. All I had to do was find a typewriter with which to copy my list onto this new paper, and I at first thought of asking the hotel office if I could use theirs. But maybe it would be better to acquire my own - a second hand portable, perhaps, that I could take on to Kenya and use for my final reports. I had been disappointed in that the sponsors had not allowed me a laptop computer within my meagre budget, but in any case I would have needed one with heavy long lasting batteries for up-country use, as the solar powered ones were not yet available. The weight was a major problem, and indeed even a lightweight portable typewriter would mean yet another item of luggage. As the budget would not allow me to take taxis everywhere, I would face even bigger crises with my possibly seven pieces of luggage at every departure and terminus. At that moment there was yet another synchronic coincidence to my train of thought, because, the tape I was then listening to arrived in Brindisi station and I was treated to the following account of my immense struggles to get out the carriage.
The last station before the terminus was mysteriously called Monopoly, and was it a coincidence that I had been counting the last few remaining Lire in my possession? Then I realised I could not even afford a taxi, let alone to pay for a hotel bed. With what felt like sixteen bags, I watched the train slide to a halt, a neon sign flashed up, it was platform 4, 20.50 on the first Sunday after New Year. As I got down off the train, though I had carefully distributed my load, I had to pay special attention to the balance between the heavy hold-all strapped to my right shoulder, together with the briefcase in my right hand, and the combination of Guatemalan bag and tape recorder on my left shoulder and left hand respectively. Then, coming out of the station I was forced to fend off the usual attention of the taxi drivers parked in the square, who were almost plucking the bags and the boxed ghetto blaster from my failing grip. I struggled across the ill-lit square to a travel office opposite that dealt with the ferries across to Ignoumenitsa and let my arm pieces slide to the floor. I had missed the ferry I was booked on the night before because of the Milan fiasco, so I needed to check if I could get one that night with the same ticket. Yes it was fine to use that same ticket tonight, but would I not like to take a taxi down to the harbour as it was way across town? Imagine my relief when at that very moment in walked a backpacking New Zealander who was also asking the way to the harbour.
After receiving instructions for our route, we set off together and, because he had his hands free, Kiwi Ian kindly offered to carry the big box with the music centre. "Why have you got so many bags?" he asked."I dunno, they just seem to attach themselves to me.""Why don't you put it all in a backpack like me?""It wouldn't all fit in, and in any case I don't like to appear like a traveller." "You mean with this lot you're a traveller in disguise?" "No, I'm a spy disguised as a salesman." "That's not funny when you have to cross so many borders. Why the big recorder?" "It's a present for a friend." "In Greece?" "Maybe, it depends on who is nice to me." "Well I certainly can't use it." Though I did have my suspicions at the customs office when Ian inevitably strolled through much quicker than I and disappeared into the bowels of the boat along with my package. I got through some 15 minutes later after an extensive search of the books and files in the briefcase and the clothes in the hold-all. Of course this time there was nothing for them to find, not in my personal belongings at least. Ian didn't know what he had hold of.