The History of My Luggage

The History of My Luggage

The Novel

It'sa kinda fictional history with criminal spy overtones: follow the categories to get new Chapters.

The Black Attaché Case Part 2

Chapter 5Posted by Graham Thompson Wed, August 22, 2018 11:59:45
I will tell you now, this briefcase, though a generous gift from my former students in Wales, was becoming more like a curse to me, a millstone around my neck, a black hole in my consciousness.

* * * * *


After breakfasting with my friend Helmut in a favourite Hamburg cafe just by the Sternschanze U-bahn station, I drove on across the flat and uneventful North German plain towards Bremen, musing all the time about the present whereabouts of Almut, the beautiful redhead artist to whom I had given a lift on my way in reverse to Denmark when I first moved there some 6 months before this date in December. Almut came from Bremen, and I had called at her place there once, during my many criss cross travels in November, in order to see the opening of her show of three dimensional paintings in canvas and ceramics. It was her first public showing and I was eager to show my support. In any case I had had to visit another colleague of mine in Bremen at the time, a co-worker in Africa, who will figure much larger later again in my story. But to try and keep on that straight line of my autobahn, I was now closing on Bremen, and I had the choice of diverting off into the city to try and see Almut for one last time, or continuing on towards Antwerp and then England. I had suddenly remembered her when talking to Helmut and, looking into the mirror behind him, I glanced at a very similar redhead leaving the cafe at that very moment. Without saying a word to my friend I rushed out of the cafe in pursuit of her, but when I got close behind her I suddenly realised that this tall German fraulein was nothing like my diminutive Almut. I retreated back inside and explained my folly to Helmut. He laughed at my impulsiveness, but was happy to be infected by it. He was another I had met by chance on my travels across Germany, and his life had been changed by our meeting. In October when we had first met and we had discussed my work and future project, he had so been inspired by it that he had just now, two months later, quit his long time post with the car exhaust research facility in Hamburg, and in January was due to leave for Arusha to work for an NGO in appropriate third world technology. This was the main topic of our conversation that morning, and although it had taken him almost two months to finally make the decision, he was now feeling as light and free as a bird, with only a few weeks before he finished his present post.

But Almut, as opposed to Helmut, had disappeared off my radar altogether, and I would have taken the turning to Bremen, but for the fact that the phone call I had made from back in the Hamburg cafe just before leaving had remained unanswered, just like the previous three or four of my calls before I left Denmark. So there seemed little point in taking the Bremen turn, which I was now fast approaching. Instead, when I came to the Oyten Rasthaus I decided to pull over for a short rest and a coffee, as I was becoming pretty tired after my early morning adventures in Copenhagen and the long drive. I was careful both to lock my car (the break-in had been done so professionally, there appeared to be no damage to locks or windows) and remove my black briefcase in order to have it with me in the restaurant. I first went into the toilets to wash up and take a leak, then I came into the little cafe which is one of my favourites on the German autobahn, partly because it not at all resembles most rasthauses, but functions still as any typical small gasthaus to be found in a neck of the Teutoburger Wald much further south, and partly because it was the place I first met dear Almut. Now it was much fuller than on that day in July, but I still found space in a corner by the window with a view over the parking lot where Almut had come strolling with her little red ponytail and huge army anorak, asking the departing drivers for a lift to Hamburg. But as I sat slurping my coffee this second time it gradually stole up on me that the briefcase I thought I had remembered stowing under the table was no longer there. Panic broke out in my brain (yet again). Had I really brought it in from the car?. Yes, I was certain of that. Had someone stolen it from under my feet? No, impossible, no-one had been sitting anywhere near me except a little grey-haired old lady who was still behind me. Toilets, sodding toilets, I had left it in the toilet. I raced into the washroom area but of course there was no sign of the thing. I searched every toilet but the bowls stared back at me each with a similar OOOOO! blankness. At the front of the Rasthaus there was a small reception desk to which I desperately went. So many forced entries into the bloody briefcase and now I was likely to lose EVERYTHING because of my own stupidity, my dog dazed tiredness, my lack of careful planning. There was no-one there.

But yes, there was someone, she appeared suddenly from beneath the counter, as if like a red jack-in-the-box in her bright red uniform. Good morning, how can I help you? said she in her percussively bright German tongue. Sprechen sie Englisch? I stammered in my terrible English accent. Ja, no problem she sang back. I described the briefcase and she immediately swung down and disappeared again for a second, only to bounce right up with the very article I was desperate to see in her mits. I almost fell across the counter and hugged her neck. With a million danke schoens I left her and also abandoned my half finished coffee - no more risks of losing it - I would immediately drive on.

When I got back to the car all was as it should have been. But I noticed something odd about the briefcase. Everything was perfectly in place in the soft warm kid leather interior, but to get inside I had to introduce my combination number 300-648. I was sure that I had not locked it before by changing the number. But it had been locked by someone, perhaps by someone who had entered it to search inside and then absent mindedly locked it again. But nothing seemed to have been touched and that explanation seemed pretty unlikely. It was just another of the mysteries that had slowly grown up around this luggage item, and probably one that would never be solved, just like the ones that had occurred in Prague, which happenings I will shortly describe, just as soon as I finish my story about Almut.

For as I left the Oyten carpark and headed west I passed the point where I had first agreed to take her into my little Fiat, and then the turning to Fischerude out of which I had come from, that time eastward onto the autobahn. Almut had stepped into the car as if she owned it and persuaded me quickly to take her to her exact destination in Hamburg. Naturally we were soon talking about my visit to Worpswede and Fischerude, two small villages which were the centres of the early German Expressionist movement of the first years of the 20th century. As she too was an artist, Almut had much to comment on my own descriptions and ideas of the works of the painters Paula Becker, Otto Modersohn and Heinrich Vogeler, which I had been to look at in Worpswede.
“What attracted you to their work?” Almut then asked, “Are they well known in England?”
“Not really, in fact I only discovered them by reading Rilke, the early 20th century German poet - do you know his work?”
“Of course, and he lived with them for a time in Worpswede.”
“Actually he lived with Clara Westhoff, another sculptor from the group, in a small place called Westerwede, which I couldn’t find.”
“But what was it you read in Rilke that made you think about their work?”
“Well, Rilke wrote a little known poem called Requieme for Paula Becker which I discovered in translation some years ago. It was about her death when she gave birth to Otto Modersohn’s child somewhere around 1907. It was so moving that I wanted to know more about her life, and then I discovered that she was a famous painter, in Germany at least. So I tried to find paintings by her but there are not so many books on her in English. Also I was fascinated by Clara Westhoff, her best friend, and later Rilke’s wife. She never became as famous as Paula for her own work, and although she lived for a time with Rilke, he never really paid her the attention that she deserved, I think it was because he hated to feel tied down by any woman. When he was dying she finally wanted to come and say goodbye to him, but would you believe it, he wouldn’t even let her.”
“So you came to Worpswede to see her work and that of Paula Becker’s?”
“Yes, but also to find more about their lives there, I wanted to see some of the places where they lived. You see there is an atmosphere in their work which I think comes from the place, the great North German plain with it’s tremendously open skies and the boggy and birch-filled ground around Worpswede. And I was fascinated by these women who played such a major part in Rilke’s life. Why was he so affected by the death of Paula Becker in childbirth but on the other hand showed little interest in his own wife and even his own child? ”
“And did you find out more about them in Worpswede?”
“A little. After visiting Worpswede I went to the Modersohn museum which is in the house where Paula & Otto Modersohn lived. I actually talked to Modersohn’s son who is the curator now. He was born 8 year’s later from Otto’s third wife; Paula was his second. He would tell me very little about Paula, but he did tell me that Clara Westhoff lived until she died in a house at Fischerude, close-by. So I was determined to visit it to see what I could of her life there and try and find out if Rilke ever visited her again. You see before the first world war Rilke took the post of Rodin’s secretary, you know - the famous sculptor, and he learned a great deal from him in techniques of observation. It was obviously a great opportunity for Clara as well, and she joined him there from Worpswede for a time. But things somehow didn’t work out for them, and it was then she returned to Germany and took the house at Fischerude alone with their child.”
“Did you read about that before you came?”
“Yes, some things are in Rilke’s biography, but I got the best information from a neighbour of Clara Westhoff in Fischerude.”
“ Really? You talked with a neighbour who knew her?”
“Oh yes, she invited me in when she saw me looking at the now empty Westhoff house. She even had a key as the place was up for sale and she offered to show me round the building. She is pretty old herself, she was once a famous ballet dancer, but she was originally from Fischerude and knew the Westhoffs really well.”
“And did she know if Rilke had ever visited his wife again there?”
“It was well before her time, you must remember we are talking about more than 70 years ago. She knew Clara Westhoff and her family later, in fact Clara lived there until she died in the early fifties. She told me the family history as far as she knew it and it was pretty tragic. In fact Clara had found the Fischerude house even before she went to Paris and had begun to live there before Rilke invited her to stay with him whilst he worked for Rodin. He visited her perhaps once there in the very early days, but the house is obviously too small for both of them to have lived together - it’s really only a giant log cabin made in dark stained wood in a traditional way. Downstairs is one huge room with a big north facing window, which Clara probably used as her studio. Upstairs there are two small bedrooms. I can’t imagine Rilke settling into domestic life there, he was too used to castles and fine living, many of his patrons were female aristocracy. But he definitely visited the place, probably before he went to Paris. You see there is a main beam over the big room and on it is carved one of his short poems and the date - 1902.”
“Really? What was the poem, is it famous?”
“No, I had never seen it before, but it was pretty impressive, an epitaph, perhaps for his whole life. I have it written on the front of my notebook, look there on the back seat.” Almut picked up the book and quickly found the poem, then read it slowly in a muted and reverent voice. "Da vieles fiel, fing Zuversicht mich an Die Zukunft gebe Das ich durf Ich kann"
"But Rilke never came back again after living in Paris. In fact he rarely saw Clara, only when she rushed to see him once during one of his many illnesses after the war. He saw his daughter even more rarely, her name was Ruth, and she grew up there with her mother. He only saw her a couple of times, once on a family holiday in Belgium in 1906, the other when she had lunch with him in Munich in a train station. He was a man utterly devoted to his art and definitely not his family. Clara too was an artist to the end but she was never a well-recognised one, in fact her art was vilified along with Paula Becker’s during the Nazi period. And her family had a very tragic history according to my informant the neighbour. Clara was never accepted in the village, you see there was very few other artists in this place, and during the war she was denounced as a traitor and a witch. But she still went on living there until her death, ten years after the war. They refused to bury her in the churchyard, she’s buried separately with the suicides and the insane."

"Elizabeth, that’s the neighbour, told me the whole sad tale. Clara had married again, a violinist much younger than herself, who was almost as young as Ruth her daughter. It must have shocked the villagers. After her mother died, Ruth then married her stepfather. But sometime after this Ruth's own daughter from a previous relationship was killed in a car accident, somewhere on this autobahn. Life couldn’t have got better for Ruth and her husband, because in the early seventies they were found dead together in their car in the garage: they had gassed themselves with the exhaust fumes. She had never known her father Rilke well, he left her mother for good when she was 8 months old. She married her own mother’s second husband, no doubt looking for her own real father. But there couldn’t have been happiness there either, and then the death of her own daughter - it must have been too much for her what with the villification of the villagers as well.”
“It’s a dark story, are there any other Westhoffs or Rilkes left?”
“There’s a Rilke in Frankfurt, Elizabeth told me, but I don’t know whose son he is, she wasn’t sure. She thinks he may be an illegitimate son of Ruth’s. But there’s also a branch of the family in Denmark, on Langeland, that I’d like to investigate. Probably relatives of Clara’s brother Helmut, he was also a painter who left Germany after Nazi persecution. Helmut made a fantastic portrait of Rilke when he was still very young.” “Yes, I think I know it. How do you know the family moved to Denmark?”
“A complete coincidence, the family of a Danish friend of mine there bought a big manor house from the Westhoff family on an island off Langeland. They told me its history, and the Westhoffs had definitely come from Bremen during the last war, where Clara’s family originated. There are still Westhoffs in the neighbourhood.”
“Too many coincidences.” said Almut in a low voice. “When you told me about the death of Ruth’s daughter – that would be Rilke's granddaughter, yes - what was her name?”
“I think it was Naomi.”
“Well it gave me prickles - is that what you call them - on my neck.”
“Why?”
“I too nearly died on this motorway when I was a baby.”
“How? - now you are giving me prickles - oh I mean goose pimples, that’s what we call them.”
“When I was about 8 months old I was travelling with my parents along here and we were involved in a big crash. My parents told me about it later, because, thank God, of course, I don’t remember a thing. I was fast asleep in a basket, which for some reason had been put on the back shelf, just under the window. In the crash the window shattered and I was thrown out.” “But where the hell did you land?”
“That was the miracle. The rescue workers found me on the central part of the autobahn, and not only was I alive but I didn’t have a scratch on me. I can’t imagine how my mother felt.”
“That’s incredible - but sometimes babies are so relaxed that they don’t hurt themselves when they fall.”
“I think it was more than that, I’ve always thought all my life that I have a very kind and powerful guardian angel.”

* * * * *

Almut definitely had one, but if I have one too, it’s certainly not working for me now. Here in Egypt, back in the Everest, I asked the clerk to call a cab to take me and my growing band of luggage to the airport at 9pm. My friend Lotte had already left with the copy of the formula I was sending to Firemen in Florida. I felt nervous and vulnerable as I assembled my luggage on the pavement in front of the hotel, which cast its dark and high shadow over my leaving. The Cairo night was punctuated by the mad bleatings of the traffic and the lights from the great mosque from over the other side of the wide speedway. The pile of luggage seemed to look accusingly at me stacked there on the pavement: where in god’s name are you taking us now? And which of us might you mislay next in some godforsaken hole or other? But they had every right to stare back at me in such an accusing way – I nearly lost them all that night. The Greek satchel was on my shoulder but the rest – the black briefcase, the Guatemalan bag, the boxed ghetto-blaster, and, last but not lightest, the hide-leather hold-all, made even heavier because of the Franco-Egyptian typewriter hidden away in its voluminous depths – lay like a defensive wall on the pavement edge.

The taxi finally arrived, an old battered Fiat that had a faint resemblance to my own wreck, now wedged somewhere in a south London street. On that cold January night, my last in Cairo for some two months, the coincidence of cars lifted my spirits, but not for long. The chaffeur came around the back of his vehicle and lifted the boot saying: “Air-a-port mista?”
“Yes, yes – and be quick, I have a plane to catch in two hours.” I humped in all the bags but kept satchel and briefcase with me. I leaned by his window after he had returned to the driver's seat and asked him:
“And before I get in can you tell me how much is the fare?”, but then I realized at the same time my bags were already his hostages to my fortune.
“20 shillings mista, special rate, and we go quick, no worry, we there very soon.” Slightly reassured even though I thought his price was a little on the high side, I slid into the backseat and began to relax. The old leather was torn and ripped in places letting out the capock stuffing in tufts and bows. But I could afford to ignore such small trifles and sinking down began to feel so very tired from my previous days' exertions and a month of constant travels. The wide highway blazed its way through tall office blocks and then smaller apartments until we began to emerge into an area of crouching slums and smaller houses, swept up closer to the big road and threatening to spill their contents in front of us. The traffic began to disappear until the road was almost bare of cars going in our direction, but far from taking advantage of this empty roadspace my driver began slowing down and trailing along at less than 30mph.
“Why are you slowing down?” I demanded.”I need to catch that plane, so for godsake get on with it,”
“Very soree mista but I think we have no petrol. But no worry – we just make it to the next station at the bottom of the hill here.” We did make it – much to my temporary relief, but before filling up he turned to me and said:
“I need money to pay for petrol – give me 40 shillings so I can fill tank and get to town again. Petrol very very expensive these days.”
“But we agreed on 20 shillings for the fare.”
“Must fill up, so give me 40 shillings or I go home now. This is my town here.” What choice did I have? I needed to catch the plane and I did not fancy trying to get another taxi so I paid – but I hated to be blackmailed in this way. About one kilometre from the airport he slowed again and stopped in an area devoid of lights but still with the darkened shacks of slum-life on either side of the road. My heart sank as I knew what was coming. But this time I waited in silence for his explanation. He stopped the car and turned to me.
“Mista, I can't go more now – time is up – it's nearly 11 and I finish now, finished work tonight. Unless .........”
“Unless I pay you more!”
“How you guess? After 11 is night rate – double price.”
“But I already paid you double price.”
“So it is double double price now – give me 40 shillings more or I go home.”
“That's it, I am not having this – give me my bags – I will walk until I see another taxi, the last sign said 2 kilometres to the airport so it's not that far.” He got slowly out the car and went to the back.
“Ok mista, if you think it´s good – here are your bags, but not many taxis now in this direction, they all come back from airport now.” I sidled out and sat on my mountain of bags wondering what to do - try walking further with them or go across the central reservation and get a taxi returning on the other side of the highway. My driver got back in but just sat there as I contemplated the diminishing chances of my reaching the airport on time. Finally he said:
“Very bad place here mista, I don't like to leave you – many thieves in this district. Pay me half double rate and we go airport double quick.”
“And how much would that be?”
“20 shillings – just baksheesh – then no tip afterwards.” I looked around and noticed figures hovering in the half-light cast by the shuttered windows of the nearest shacks. Maybe he was right, and after all I would probably miss my plane if we didn't get moving right away. That would be bad enough, but what if all my bags were stolen and all that work of the past six months just disappeared into the night? So I loaded up my bags again and paid him the extra 20. My mind was boiling but there was nothing I could do, I would not even have time to report him to the police at the airport, and in any case I knew nothing would be done about it – I was just another gullible tourist here in Egypt.

On our arrival, after telling him to wait, I went in search of a trolley, but then I was shocked to hear him rev up the engine and begin to pull away with all my bags still on board. But when I screamed at him he stopped just down the road, got out and gave me a big grin.
“Oh very sorree sah, I believed you already take you bags. Here they are.” And he pulled open the boot and threw them onto the pavement. Oh my poor delicate ghetto blaster – I could only pray it was not broken by his rough treatment.
“Service with the smile please!” He shouted, then finally roared off and left me to drag them to the nearest line of trolleys. I always have the same mixed feelings when dealing with people like this in the poorer countries of the world. On the one hand I am outraged at such ridiculous behaviour, so far from the norms of natural human intercourse, and of a type that makes all communication a matter of economic bargaining rather than what it should be – a mutual interchange and search for knowledge of one another´s cultures in a spirit of normal friendliness and goodwill. But then, I put myself in their severely disadvantaged place – would not I too try and extract the maximum in profit from the rich foreigner who has manifestly all the advantages of his world over mine, and the added audacity to bring both the person and the symbols of that world of wealth fleetingly to their desperately poor neighbourhood? With these thoughts going round and round in my head, and the re-recognition that there were no simple answers to this dilemma,

I sank momentarily down onto the sidewalk outside the Departure Hall of Terminal 1, but nevertheless felt rather relieved that my ordeal at the hands of the mad Egyptian cab driver was now past, and, after all, not all Egyptians behaved like he did, thank God! It was then I suddenly felt the icy coldness of the night. I guessed that on this oasis of light and modern jet-stream sounds, the temperature was close to freezing from the air seeping in out of the darkness of those desert surrounds. The trolley rolled slowly towards the gutter, begging for its mouth to be filled with the stack of luggage on my other side. It was gone 11 and time to move quickly if I was to catch my plane: I had less than an hour to spare before my Egypt Air flight to Nairobi. Throwing in my bags, but carefully wedging the ghetto-blaster on top of them, I moved into the brightly lit entrance hall.

They were already calling my flight, so I hurriedly bundled all my bags except the Greek satchel and briefcase through the luggage check-in and rushed to the security gate. I was fearful of meeting new problems there, but my British passport was accepted without a second glance, and my hand luggage was allowed through with only a minimal search from the security guards. I was free at last of Europe, and now of Egypt, eager and ready to return to the freedoms and comparative safety of black Africa, to sit at the feet again of my mentor Mzee Yusufu, and to try and refind our mystery man Mbunge the Senator, who we hoped could supply the answers to the riddle of an illness which threatened the lives of millions. With excited thoughts about what I had already achieved and I might achieve, and of the fragile organization I had put together in less than three months of travel and the tasks we had for it when I returned with Mbunge's son, I passed through the gate and walked across the tarmac to my plane. It was close to midnight when I gained my seat and belted up ready for take off. There, through the blunted rectangle of the small porthole next to me, small flecks of snow blew out of a raging sky, strangely illuminated by the glare of the lights from the airport buildings and circling orange beacons. The loneliness and vastness of that desert night with its strange cargo of African snow gripped me and transported me back to the view of the first snowfalls of that winter some two or more months before. I was looking up out of the much larger window of a railway carriage as the train I was on bumped and clattered its way on broken communist rails towards Prague. The humanized Czech night was now ostensibly free of communist shadows, but still full of falling snow. My arrival however was not quite free of those old instruments of communist surveillance and control that properly belonged to a regime officially buried some 12 months before. And this eastern European sky was full of the cold air and cold war whisperings which I had never hitherto experienced.

* * * * *

I was still in a state of hyper-nervosity when my train pulled in at gone 11pm on that moonless Thursday night in December. It was no wonder, as I was still suffering from the hangover caused by that terrible dream brought on by my long conversation with that Bosnian refugee, and then the rude awakening and manhandling by the Czech border guards on my first ever entry into their country. Luckily I was not even conscious then of the loss (or was it theft?) of part of my literature review. Otherwise I would have been even more paranoid when I finally stepped from the train, probably a paranoia bordering on psychosis!

Arriving in Prague station was like entering a time-warp, or rather, a time-cocktail. The black vaulted glass roof and soot-grimed walls of the cavern, in which stood rails and platform, were straight out of the mid-nineteenth century, but the art-nouveau murals and wrought-iron metalwork of the main cafe and passages off the platform spoke of a badly faded turn of the century glory. Passing down a few drab blue steps I stumbled with just three bags into a 1950s style “Hall of the People” - communist, functionalist, vast and inhuman. Never having put a foot in Prague before, nervous and fearful for my coming nights in the city, I felt like I was suddenly thrust under the spotlights of the high ceiling that illuminated the huge naked marble arena and its square columns. Then as I turned I could see above me a gallery over the stairs I had come through, and there, looking down at the arriving passengers, stood three huge men dressed in a combination of mobster suits and long leather coats. If the Czechs still had a secret police, a local undischarged KGB – it was them. But I thought little of it on this first glance of the enemy, I was too preoccupied in finding the accommodation bureau that might lead me to a bed for the night and a place to unload my heavy briefcase and holdall which tugged at my arms, and the plastic tape case slung over my shoulder. After wandering around hopelessly looking for said office for some minutes, I finally sighted a hand written sign indicating an accommodation agency (in English) pointing down some stairs. The underground cellar below that marble splendour had more the appearance of painted brick horror chamber from some much earlier Kafkaesque era, poorly lit and crammed with left luggage lockers. There was an accommodation office at the side of the bottom of the stairs but it was clear everybody had gone home for the night. I would have to search for the first hotel I could find and come back in the morning to look for a cheaper place.

But the left luggage office and the lockers were still open, so I decided to take advantage of the latter to stuff my tapes and briefcase in for the night, leaving me only my African holdall (full of clothes, toiletries and a few papers) to shoulder around town in search of a hotel. As I bundled them into the locker, paid at the desk and handed in the key (a very quixotic system thought I at the time) and then headed back for the stairs, I had a very strong feeling of being watched, but the rows of metal lockers yielded not a sight nor sound of another human being. And strangely enough there were no surveillance cameras – at least no visible ones. As I came up again into the wide brightness and between the heavy square columns of the main hall, I half expected a forgotten giant portrait of Lenin or Mao-Tse Tung to be hanging between them, but of course there was none. But when I looked up to the gallery again, instead of three men leaning over and staring at me, there were now only two. But again, at the time I thought little of it, for I was now one of the only humans worth looking at, crossing the huge marble floors with my footsteps echoing behind me.

I exited the station and looked over a small park quilted with flower beds and taxi-car ranks. I approached the first vehicle and begged the driver to take me to a reasonably priced hotel. I guess he took me literally because half an hour later we arrived in some god-forsaken suburb at an ill-lit hotel on a main road still haunted by the late night trams of the city ghosting past empty and bright as a fairground ride. I entered feeling half naked with just my one big bag, and after paying the bald greasy man at the desk in advance for one night, I was shown up to a back room on the second floor which was reasonably clean but barely functional as a place of rest for the night – no shower included, nor as far as I could see was there one down the hall, just a bowl and jug on a stand, a thin damp towel and a creaking and badly sprung bed. But cheap, very cheap. Exhausted from my day's adventures and travels, I quickly fell fast asleep despite the malfunctioning neon hotel sign outside my window and the flash and rumble of the night trams going by. But at least I was not molested and my bag was safe beneath my bed; but this was not true of my other bags at the station – as I was to find out later the next day.

Early next morning I successfully called up one of my contacts, Magdalena, from the hotel desk telephone downstairs. I was less successful in trying to contact Dr. Maracek at the Ministry of Health, the local expert in the disease that was already spreading itself in the gay and prostitute community of Prague. Magdalena's voice was sweet relief from the cold night and frustrations of my entry into the city. But though she spoke soothing words in a hauntingly beautiful Czech-accented English, she was not able to see me, much less put me up for the few days I needed in Prague. She was at home with her mother and her mother was a very controlling and disapproving chaperone to her every move, even though Magdalena was already 20 years of age. I could understand that she could not easily welcome a 44 year old male stranger into her household, who may have had designs on her daughter. This was not at all the case but maybe I should explain to readers at this point how exactly we had met and what exactly was the nature of our relationship.

* * * *

I had just crossed the English Channel for only the second time that fateful year, after saying a final farewell to my home in West Wales, and all that was permanently lost to me there – friends, house and an ex-wife who had stolen it from me. But that is another story with which I do not need to prologue this one. I emerged from Calais port with a little Fiat full of my belongings and small items of furniture, bound for my new home in Denmark, where I hoped to pursue a more fruitful research association with Faber, Schmøll and Herschenberger-Kirkergaard, when who should I see on the side of the road but Magdalena – although then of course she was just a beautiful stranger hitching her way home to Prague. We really ate up the miles across France, then Belgium talking at full throttle and devouring each other's minds and thoughts at a rate accelerated by common views and a spiritual synchronicity. I was most excited by the fact that she knew a bunch of alternative and spiritual healers back in Prague and promised to welcome me there if I ever had the chance to come. She said she had been working in England, mostly as an au-pair, since just before the Velvet Revolution, but was disillusioned with the life in UK and the abuse she had received from the rich families she had served. She wanted nothing more than to go home and take part in the re-building of her country, even though she had no idea what she might do there for work and had no place to live except home. She thought maybe she should go back to school, but she also dreaded being dependent on what sounded like a very domineering mother. By the time we had covered our mutual histories and aired so many similar ideas we had got halfway across Belgium. I was headed for Carla's place as she had invited me to break up my journey there during a phone-call just before my departure from Wales. Our friendship was still young however, and I did not know what she or her husband might think if I turned up with another much younger woman. Carla and I (well certainly not I) had not yet fallen in love, but our own first meeting, just outside Antwerp some 2 months before on my way back from a first recce visit to Denmark, had in itself a foretaste of what was to come. We had met in the voluminous caverns of Antwerp station late one night, she on the way back from her TAROT class, I en route to the ferry at Zeebrugge. We took the same train and same small compartment to Ghent, and in less than half an hour established a common range of interests that were even deeper than what I found later with Magdalena. We had stayed in contact by phone and letter and she had planned to come to Wales with her husband as she was “gek om Celtische myther” as she put it in her Flemish – which I only half understood, but often thought I really did. She never came because I had decided that, after all my frustrations with the English authorities (both academic and legal) and my own insoluble marriage to a local Welsher, I would move to Denmark and seek funds there for my “action” research. It was a momentous change in my life but I was prone to such changes because of my nomadic childhood and impossible relations with the (at least British) opposite sex. And so here we were, Magdalena and I, but it was getting dark, and dear Magdalena had nowhere to stay. And was I now falling in love with a Czech. No, I told myself, there was no room for romance or complicated relationships in my life, I had now to dedicate it solely to the cause and the lives of others who were suffering from such a terrible malady.

So what to do? I decided to stop off at the next service station and phone Carla to ask if it would be ok if another guest might stay there for just that one night. She instantly agreed, but I do not think she asked her husband until after she put the phone down. But our welcome seemed reasonably warm, even though we got totally lost in the dusk trying to find their village in the undulating Flemish hinterland, and did not arrive until nine o'clock that night. We had a light meal offered to us and Robert, Carla's husband, though seeming a little stiff and formal, asked me many interesting questions about my work. How had I begun my interest in tropical plants, how did I really know that some of them might be effective in treating various diseases, and when I intended to get back to Africa again? I told him I was scheduled to go the following January for a last visit with my existing funds but hoped to get new funding in Denmark. He seemed polite and moderately friendly, but nothing more. There was no hint of his being the deadly foe that he was later to become, with his police connections that may have eventually spread throughout Europe and even to Czechoslovakia in order to haunt and hunt me.

Just before I was given a bed on the sofa, and for Magdalena one in a small guest room upstairs, Carla invited me to view her study, which was lined with books on spirituality, Steiner's works and alternative healing. There was a very special atmosphere there that I could feel instantly and we talked intimately of the special healing powers with which she had used to help cure her ailing father of chronic bronchitis. I felt I could really feel her power as she turned those hands towards me and used them to cure the headache that had been building up all day on my journey from Wales. The very air seemed to vibrate between us. That was the moment, she later told me, that she had fallen in love with me.

Foolishly, after Magdalena and I left the next morning, Carla had told her husband she had this very strong compulsion to come and see me in Denmark. And so she did, some 3 months later, with disastrous consequences for her marriage. Her husband apparently tried to persuade her that I was a fake; that I was obviously sleeping with the Czech girl, and would sleep with any woman who might throw herself in my path. But she would have none of it and still came – in the end, astonishingly enough, with her husband's agreement. But that is a whole other story and I must get back to Prague and what happened to me there, including my second meeting with Magdalena and the fate of my briefcase in that left luggage office.

* * * * *

I dropped Magdalena outside Cologne and she hitched on home successfully, sending me a beautiful postcard of thanks to my northern Danish farmhouse a week later. I had no contact with her until that morning in the rather grubby hotel in Prague, when she told me on the phone that she would try and meet me on the following day, in a famous bar called the Kosicka, close to the old square in the centre, around four in the afternoon. I had still the task of trying to contact Maracek at the Ministry, but more importantly of reclaiming my briefcase and tape-case at the station and fixing myself some semi-permanent accomodation. So I took a tram number 18 right outside the hotel which took me directly back there. It was my first experience of these old war horses, the high steps leading up to its wide interior, the funny little Czech voice on the tannoy intoning every halt's street name, and the cheerful trilling of its bell when any other vehicle dared to get in its way – a stupid thing to do as these vehicles seemed as heavy and well protected as a Russian tank. But I came to love them during my next days in Prague.

It was sunny and cold, the glistening snow on the little park outside the station reflecting my hopes for a better day than the last. I entered the station and found first the accommodation office, stashing my hold-all under my foot by the counter. I was surprised and delighted to learn that they could offer me a former communist bureaucrat's flat for a very cheap weekly rate. And it even had a telephone! The place they pointed out on the map was in a suburb quite close to the centre, just over the other side of the park to the east of the station in Prague's 3rd district. In fact it turned out to be a beautiful walk over the open green hill of the park, but before I discovered it I had to collect the rest of my bags. So I hauled out my big leather hold-all and made for the left luggage section in the cellar. There two guys in uniform handed me the key to my locker after I had produced my receipt. I went to the locker number 493 indicated on the key, opened it and found it – completely empty. At first I thought they must have given me the key to the wrong locker – I could not remember the number from the previous night, so, in order to be sure, I went back to the office. They were as perplexed as myself – the number of the key was the same as on the docket I had given them back. One of them came to examine the locker again, but of course it was still empty. They could not speak good English and I wondered if the locker could have been broken into, or the key used by someone else. On the first count there was no sign of any damage to the locker and it had been locked when I first went back there. On the second, it was difficult to make my meaning clear to them without seeming to accuse them personally. But from their meagre words and signs they indicated that the key could not have left their office. But I should report it as a theft to the police I insisted. By now my panic was rising from deep within as I realized most of my 9 months of research was at stake. How stupid I had been to trust it to them, but I had been so tired the previous night that I had not thought clearly about it, and trying to find a hotel so late with all my luggage had seemed to me equally if not more dangerous.

They tried to mollify me and asked me to come back at midday when the officer in charge would come on duty (“big boss big boss, he come 12 hours”) and he might have the answer. They seemed reluctant to involve the police. I too did not really want to go to the police – and certainly did not want to get involved with the secret police, so paranoid was I of being thought some kind of spy or international criminal – I was still scared from the time I had almost been confronted in Brussels Midi station by Carla's husband, and – was it his police chief brother? And had the British police contacted Interpol? And was it the Danish secret police who had ransacked my car outside Tima''s by Copehagen main station? What was worse I remembered that in my briefcase there were small sachets of a white homeopathic powder which I had been prescribed for my liver problems by Luc Verminderen in Holland. It was called Ignatia and was perfectly harmless, but it could easily be thought of as some kind of drug. And those heavy leather coated guys hanging around the station from the previous night - could they have been involved? Where they really the Czech KGB or remnants thereof? So afraid was I that I resigned myself to settling into my flat and coming back around lunchtime, desperately hoping it would turn up.

The accommodation agency had given me a big map of the city with clear markers on it how to get across the park and find my way to the street in Ziskov where my flat was located. As I strolled over the hilly open grounds behind the station I suddenly felt relaxed and clear-minded again after my ordeal in the left luggage offices in the dungeon-like bowels of the station. Was it the fresh air of the park? The stunning views over the city and its many spires? Or the associated excitement of being in Kafka's Prague and suddenly feeling that I felt like one of his characters, caught up in a vaster mystery which I could barely comprehend? Well that was all quite well and good but it didn't really compensate for the potential loss of half my life's work. Nevertheless it was with a pleasant, maybe even an excited expectant mood that I walked down the grand and long vistas of the middle class suburb of Ziskov. These were just the kind of houses where Kafka himself must have lived, grand 3 or 4 storey affairs, turn of the century with hints of art nouveau around their windows and railings. My own flat was on the first floor of a similarly styled terraced house, looking out onto the street. It consisted of three rooms and its own bathroom, and the furniture was something very special indeed. It was like going on a journey back to my childhood in the 50s - heavy walnut chest of drawers and radiogram in the living room, bakelite radio, ancient period toaster and even an American Frigidaire in the kitchen. Beds that resembled temples for sleep with immense carved headboards. I was in a retro-heaven. And there was the telephone on a small table in the entrance hall – again genuine black bakelite with heavy receiver and a glorious period bell-ring. After stowing my hold-all and small red bag, I immediately used it to phone Maracek – miraculously, not only was he in but he had received my letter from Antwerp and was keen to meet me – so we made an appointment for 2.30 the same afternoon and I was so glad that at last I was going to meet the top brain in the struggle against the deadly bacteria – well at least the best man in Czechoslovakia. Rather than feeling I was just being chased around the continent, I felt that now I could really achieve something, as not since my profitable time in Denmark had I the chance to properly get on with my work. I just sincerely hoped that my precious papers and the briefcase which contained them, would be returned to me later that morning. I tried relaxing on the enormous bed, but I just could not, as my head was full of the whereabouts of the missing briefcase, so I then made myself some instant coffee left in the kitchen (it was not only well equipped, but from the amount of food and even alcohol in the cupboards I guessed that its previous owner must have cut and run pretty quickly) then listened to some of my tapes on my own mini tape recorder which I had brought with me in the hold-all. This time in Prague was well before I had bought the Sony Ghetto-Blaster, but my Sony stereo portable walkman recorder was quite a machine all to itself; I was only sad that I could not match it to those big walnut encased Grundig speakers, as my various connectors were still missing inside my lost tape case. So I put on my headphones and listened to everything from Mahler's 5th to Dire Straits – pleasurably wiling away the rest of the morning.

Locking up the flat carefully after hiding my most precious items in the bottom of the heavy duty wardrobe, I quickly, and unusually empty handedly, ran back across the park and entered the station again. At the desk of the left luggage office I found now three personnel, and, indeed, the third member of the triumvirate was the superintendent of all that became lost in that lugubrious railway terminal. I could tell this just from the size of his large peaked hat. And from under the peak there came out a pretty good version of the English language – that was quite a shock. He tried to be very helpful, checking the docket that I handed back, finding the key and coming with me to open the locker again. Imagine my astonishment when we swung the locker door open and found both tape case and briefcase sitting there so innocently. I was still suspicious and asked how could this be when just three hours earlier the locker had been empty. He was sure that there must have been a mistake with the key, maybe I had been given the key to a locker adjacent to this one that same morning. But it had matched the docket I insisted. Maybe I had been given the wrong key the previous evening he suggested. But then – I said – surely this key, which matched my docket, would not open this locker. It was a mystery for which it was obvious that I would never get an answer to from these officials. In the end I just wanted to rush home and open my briefcase (which seemed on first glance not to have been opened, as it was still locked and the combination numbers were nowhere near my divorce date). I certainly did not want to open it in front of the others in this dimly lit cellar. So I thanked him with a grim smile and turned away back up the stairs towards home. This time there were no “KGB” officers looking over from the gallery above. But as I walked over the park and up the hill towards my flat again, I had the distinct feeling that I was being followed. Yet again. But, when I turned back I could see no-one on that little path, not even anyone sitting down suddenly on one of the numerous benches next to it. But I still had that undeniable feeling that someone from somewhere was watching my progress. As I came to my house, before I walked towards my front door I paused and looked up and down the street – but there was still nobody in sight. So I went in, up the stairs and into my kitchen. There were two important things I needed to check – first my papers and in particular my literature review and index cards. I turned the combination to my divorce date and opened the black box nervously.

There were some important pages missing from the introduction to my review, but for which I knew I had copies back in Antwerp. The plant card-index seemed intact except for a few unimportant plants, and in particular the plants used in the recipe for the cure were all there. Nevertheless someone had definitely been in my briefcase. Was it the Bosnian from the previous day's train ride from Geneva? He could easily have stolen my papers because some of them had lain on the seat beside me when I had had that nap, and then he had disappeared before we came near Czechoslovakia. He must have got out in Nuremberg. But perhaps this was the least likely solution to the mystery.

I began checking my white Ignatia homeopathic powders, which were carefully placed in a kid-leather pocket in the front of the briefcase. There had been ten of them left, of that I was sure, as they were numbered in separate small paper envelopes. All were still there. I then looked inside each one of them, and, sure enough in the final envelope there was only a small dusting of powder, not the full compliment as in the rest. Someone had removed the powder, perhaps as a specimen in order to test it. This rather pointed to a police force, a drugs squad, or, God-forbid, those “KGB” monkeys in leather coats. And if they had a specimen, and had read and taken my review, then surely they would suspect that I was trying to develop some kind of drug for the commercial or black market (if they were stupid) or, more worryingly, they would suspect me of drug-trafficking (even more stupid). But if it was the police, and not an agent of some pharmaceutical company, I was relatively safe – or so I thought. Once they had tested the Ignatia they would find it to be an innocent powder with such a small trace of strychnine as to be absolutely harmless and profitless. Nevertheless I would be on my guard and suspect anyone in Prague who tried to entrap me or ask leading questions. After all someone had stolen the introduction to my review – no vital information there, but it was worrying to think that somebody had gone to those lengths to find out more about me.

I took a beer from the fridge, a good and genuine Czech pilsen, and told myself to relax. Whoever it was, was not going to stop me in reaching my goal. I was here in Prague on perfectly legitimate business. Paid for, ha, ha, by the British government. Though of course they didn't know half of what they were really paying for. But my meeting with Maracek had been approved by my sponsors, it did not matter that I would also spend time in Prague on some of my own “underground” and unofficial research, as well as trying to meet some important healers. Indeed it was my plan to use my own body as a kind of test for these healers – all across Europe – if they could detect and help the very real problems that I suffered from, then they would be worthy partners in our forthcoming venture when I finally returned from Africa with the “Senator's” son.








The Black Attaché Case

Chapter 5Posted by Graham Thompson Wed, August 22, 2018 11:35:17

The Black Attaché Case

Shortly after I returned to the Hotel Everest after my long day’s labours in Cairo, including my abortive meeting with Wolfgang, there occurred one last incident in this event-packed day. I went down to the bank of phones opposite the hotel reception on the 5th floor in order to call Refaat, my diamond dealer friend, who was supposed to be in Alexandria now. Although Egyptian, Refaat actually lives in Amsterdam, where we had met some months before, though you will meet him in this story somewhat later at the appropriate baggage call. Anyway, I needed to talk to him about the secret money I had invested with him “for the cause”. But to my disappointment the number I rang in Alexandria yielded only an old Egyptian woman (his mother??) who couldn’t speak a word of English. However, she seemed to become very animated when I mentioned the name of Refaat, shouting out the name back to me then slamming down the phone. I guessed that Refaat hadn’t arrived after all and she wasn’t too pleased about it.

His non-appearance didn’t really matter too much, I didn’t need money rightaway, the British Government was going to be more than generous for the next six months, but I would have liked to know how he was getting along. When I got back to my room, to my horror I found the door wide open. In my tiredness had I forgotten to even shut it, or had there been an intruder? I was awestruck to see that the Ghetto Blaster had disappeared from my bed. Oh my God, would the thief find the precious formula that I had secreted in the speakers? I hurriedly checked through the rest of my things and to my slight relief nothing else seemed to have been taken.

After carefully locking the door this time I rushed downstairs again to the main office to check if anybody had handed the thing in, or at least find if valuables had been stolen from other rooms. But the lonely night porter (it was now gone midnight) could not enlighten me or lift my gloom even a tad. The cleaners had gone home hours ago, so they wouldn’t have tidied it up, or put it somewhere for safe keeping. And nothing else had been stolen. In my need for solace from a friend I decided to ring Refaat again, this time at home in Amsterdam. He was the only other person with a copy of the full formula and botanical details, so I also had to reassure myself that at least his copy was safe. But my head was exploding from the idea that a third person may now have the formula and be about to sell it to my enemies. This could be a disastrous setback to our plans. It was good in the circumstances to hear Refaat’s cool and soothing voice come on the line, just as if he was in the next phone booth.

“Ah, Mot, what are you doing phoning me so late, where are you this time my friend?”

“Cairo, of course, but more to the point, where the hell are you?”

“Don’t be sillee, mon ami, I am to where you are phoning, in my office here, in Amsterdam. Why? What is the matter, you sound, can I say it, a little perturbèd.” Refaat stressed the last syllable of this verb in his typically Frenchified Arabic version of English.

“Yes I am peturbèd, the envelope with our valuables has gone missing. Do we have the spare still, or have you already sold it to the highest bidder?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you sound like a storm in a teacup, do not worreee my friend. I have the copy very secure in the ‘otel safe.”

“That’s a bloody relief. Look Refaat, I’m going to be at least 6 weeks, maybe two months in Tanzania, will any of the fruit have ripened on the trees before I get back?”

“That’s difficult to say, we are waiting for the seasons to change, it is now still winter, but we may have some good weather soon, so it could be an early spring.”

“I get your gist. But might you be here in Egypt when I get back from East Africa?”

“The signs are no longer propitious my friend, maybe you should come back to Amsterdam in the Spring. Arafat does not fall in love with the Juifs”

“Yeah - umm, I could do that; but I have a lot of work to get through before then.”

“Don’t worry, your little egg is safe in my nest, yes the nest is right, no?”

“Yes, OK Refaat, I got it, I got to go now.”

“Good luck ami, you worry too much, see you when you get back.”

“Yo, goodnight.”

When I got back to my room, there in the corridor, sitting outside my door like a huge black squatting frog, was my ghetto-blaster.Shocked? I was more than shocked. It was plain eery. I pinched myself and finally picked it up to take into the room where I checked inside the speakers. The envelope was still there! As I had never sealed it, I could not be sure if anybody had read the details inside. It seemed unlikely. I was just so relieved to get the thing back - I needed that formula right away. I had a plan involving Lotte, my comrade in arms from the Otranto ferry. At first I was in two minds to go down again and ask the porter if a member of the staff had put it there for me. But in the end both my tiredness (it was now 2am) and the fact that the hotel authorities may have been involved in its temporary theft made me stop in my tracks. I would probably learn nothing, and in any case what could I do about it?

It was a nuisance. After I had quit Europe I believed that this kind of thing would stop happening. From the day that I had left my African holdall in C.’s car I had lived in a growing state of suspicion and paranoia. And now it seemed to be just going on and on - the bloody Egyptian police surely couldn’t be in on it, and Carla’s husband’s brother couldn’t have such long tentacles, could he? Or, my god, had it gone beyond that already? Was it one of the multinational pharmaceuticals? Yet how the hell had they got on my trail? Dr. Nabakov from the DOA had warned me not to get involved with them, but I had done nothing to let them know of my activities. Or had I? Maybe an associate, someone on my contact list, with funding from one of the big boys, maybe one of them had tipped off a drug company. So it could have been their agent who had been following me, searching my bags and now looking into the ghetto-blaster.

With these thoughts swirling around my head I tried to get some sleep. This was my last night in the Everest, my last in Egypt for quite some time.At least the contact list had been sent, the circle made complete. The receiving group of experts would be ready when I returned. Returning in triumph, yes in great triumph with our saviour, so to speak. If only those in the shadows would leave us alone. And what if one of them from the dark side were one of us?

* * * * *

I was greeted by another great yowling of cats when I entered the dining room the next morning. But there, snug in the corner with her own cattish grin, sat dear old Lotte. It was a bitter-sweet feeling I had that morning, for this was probably the last time I would see her. We were flying in opposite directions today. And that perfume again - always the musk.

“Hi Lotte, mmm that’s some perfume you got on there, probably distilled from the sweat glands of an ox.”

“Yeah kinda musky eh? “

“Did you pour it on your corn flakes as well?”

“Awww, can’t you give a girl a compliment for a change. Did you get everything finished that you wanted to?”

“Yes, I think so, I got me a great little portable typewriter, a real Franco-Egyptian speciality.”

“What’s wrong with a lap top?”

“Too expensive for the sponsors, I don’t have club class status yet.”

“So who is it that pays your expenses?”

“The great British taxpayer, baby. They’ve been paying for nearly ten years now. But I can say no more.”

“And how long have you been travelling like this?”

“On the road with all those bloody bags - yeah, from hotel to train to taxi to airport to hotel to god knows where...........”

“And boats too, we met on a boat remember, but that seems so long ago.”

“Yeh a lifetime in two weeks. It really was a little less than two weeks. But it was 20 lifetimes ago since I left home - 20 lifetimes since August. This year. Bloody hell the same year.”

“Woah there, we are now three weeks into January, you must mean last year.”

“What happened to Christmas and all that?”

“Well I celebrated it in Paris, literally drowning in champagne. Hey, you have never told me where you actually come from.”

“I don’t think I have a real home anymore. They call me The Wanderer, The Wanderer. My home in the UK is being sold from under my feet.”

Lotte bowed down to look under the table at Mot’s feet.

“Nope, no home there.”

“I mean there’s a woman in my house who is gonna sell it without my permission.”

“Aha, but I thought you mentioned Denmark once to me.”

“Yes, that’s my temporary home, a farmhouse in the north, falling down about my ears. Hardly a stick of furniture.”

“And no woman there?”

“That was a long time ago. No the woman who is my wife in all but name, and a thief in name and reality, is more than enough for me at the moment.”

“So where is this woman with the house she stole from you?”

“She is in Wales, the Pays de Galles. My house, my bloody home, where my children were born, is in the Royal Principality.”

“‘Sbad to get so maudlin’ at this time of the day. Is it a Welsh habit?”

“I’m not truly Welsh. Only half Welsh, much to my discredit.”

“Ah, you’re not really Welsh, and you’re not Scottish, like our friend Ian on the boat. I’d guess you were Italian to look at, dark skin, Michelangelo curls.”

“They called me wog at school because of my appearance.”

“What does that mean?”

“Negro. Nigger in effect. So you are going back down south at last. South Carolina.”

“Yep, now that the Bedouin don’t want me anymore. I’m so ugly that not even a poor Sheik would take me for his concubine.”

“Don’t say that Lotte, you’re not conventionally beautiful, true, but so much the worse for convention. You’re beautiful the way you wear your heart on your sleeve. And in your cheeks too.”

“Oooohh, tell me more, tell me more. Where were you last night when I needed you? I can’t stop blushing.” But it wasn’t true. I couldn’t imagine Lotte blush.

”How long has it been for you? On this side of the ditch I mean?” She stared at me intently, trying to check out a double meaning.

“Less than 3 months and I don’t really wanna go home. It’s only Mom and American humble pie that’s waiting for me. I love just driftin’, driftin’ down the River Nile.”

“To change the subject just a little, I have need of your help right now.”

“Only my help???”

“Sshhhh, this is serious. Do you think you could take something to the States for me? To Florida I mean, it’s not far from South Carolina is it?”

“The Florida Keys are more than a thousand miles from my home. So it had better not be that far.”

“The University of Penscola, Florida. It’s not so far is it?”

“Depends what it is you want me to take. No animals or heavy stuff. No drugs.”

“I.... I can’t tell you exactly what. But its small, just a sealed envelope.”

“Why can’t you just send it?”

“Too risky.”

“Too risky?”

“Yeah, you never know who opens the mail. It might just get lost.”

“Needs personal delivery?”

“Yes, to a Professor of Ethno-medicine there.”

“It’s not a bomb, not a chemical, not a a a radioactive piece of of of ......”

“Don’t be melodramatic Lotte - it’s just a piece of paper with some writing on it.”

“In code? In secret code?”

“You could say that. You certainly wouldn’t be able to understand it.”

“Are we......... I mean, am I in danger if I take it?”

“Not if you live the good life. Not if you take it and give it directly to him.”

“I dunno, I really think you are crazy, and I’m sure you are mixed up in something bad, but I know you are not bad. And I must be crazier than you ‘cos I’m gonna do it for you. I don’t know what you’ve got but I would sure like some, and I don’t mean what might be in the envelope.”

“Another lifetime huh. Maybe we will meet again, don’t know where...”

“Don’t know when.”

“Look, the man’s name is Manford, you’ll have to memorise it, as I can’t risk it being written down, least of all on the envelope.”

“And you’re not gonna tell me more, even if I do this for free for you?”

“Trust me, what you are doing is important, not just to me, but for everyone. Especially our disease affected friends.”

“What, it’s to do with **** .......”

Here I had to put my hand over her mouth and shook my head at her.

“No more questions, hey will you do it?”

“Ok, Ok, none of the rough stuff. When does your plane go?”

“12.35 tonight.”

“Then you can see me off at the airport this afternoon. I leave at 4.30.”

“I was going to see the pyramids.”

“Again?”

“I didn’t really see them the first time with my daughter.”

“Come shopping with me instead. I have to get some presents for the familee.”

“Well ok, I have time to kill, and I’m a lousy tourist. We’d better check out first and leave our bags in the office.”

“But not the envelope I hope.”

“That reminds me I have to photocopy it first before I put it in the envelope.”

“Do that in the office, they let you do it yourself.”

“Mmmm, maybe. Can you be outside the office by ten?”

“Sure, see you there, gotta do a lot of sorting out.”

“Check. And I’ll bring the copy of the formula.”

“And is this famous formula a recipe for a love drug or what? Can you make better love on it than grass?”

“Huh, no, it’s more of a post-love drug. Something to get you off the fatal consequences of love in its modern form.”

“Sounds like nothing I need.”

“You never know;”

I went back to my room to pack my luggage and check over my Literature Review which I had been working on the previous day. I wanted it to be in good order before the natural disorder of life and travels in Tanzania overtook me. It consisted of a survey of literature on the various uses of certain plants in the black sub-continent; not only for medicinal, but also for ritual, cooking, eating, drinking and even teeth cleaning purposes. The majority of the material was detailed on a card index system held together by a thick rubber band. Unfortunately some of this material had become lost more than one month prior to my arrival in Egypt, and I had been forced to return to London to the School of African and Oriental Studies library to make some of it good. However, other parts still remained missing, and I hoped to pick up some more of the detailed missing information from the Institute of Tropical Medicine Research in Dar es Salaam. The introductory pages of the draft review had also got lost and I still had to rewrite that. Seeing how many pages of introduction were missing, it got me thinking how this might have happened.

I was en route from the Belgian coast, where I’d been holidaying for a long weekend with some old college friends, to Prague, passing through Germany by train. The journey was a slow one with numerous transfers - first at Cologne, and then again at Stuttgart. After the latter change I settled down in my compartment tout seul, spreading out my Literature Review and cards on the empty seats, as I knew it was a long haul of more than 7 hours to Prague. But no sooner had I done this when the door slid open and a youngish looking blond haired man entered and settled himself opposite me. I thought it prudent to put away my things, but I did so rather over-hastily, stuffing them back into my briefcase, and placing it under the seat. The landscape passing by the window was the usual boring mix of flat river plains and gentle rolling hills, typical of Mitteleuropa. So naturally I turned my attention on my companion. First I played the game of examining his physical appearance in order to guess, as I often did when bored, his origins. I decided he had a vaguely Slavonic rather than German appearance - very blond hair, slightly slanted eyes, projecting thin but straight nose, and high cheek bones. His blue eyes were very clear and piercing, except for the fact that he always turned them away when my gaze met his. The mouth was very delicate for a man, supple and thin long lips that curled up slightly at the corners into a small dimple. They were also too red and wet, set as they were against his pale white skin. All in all his face was very striking, perhaps that of a descendant of a Russian nobleman or a Polish prince. But it also reminded me very strongly of an old schoolboy friend of mine, who indeed had had Polish ancestry. Perhaps that is why I decided to start up a conversation with him.

He himself glanced at me occasionally but showed little curiosity about the papers I cleared away or my bags. I say this in the light of what later happened. His clothes were dishevelled, not so much of a poor quality, but showing signs of having been worn for a long time without change. I realised he was not as young as my impression of him - there were small spider wrinkles at the outer limits of his eyes, and the beginning of a receding hairline above his temples. He was maybe 35 or more, but the cool bright look in his eyes made him seem younger, as did the thrusting pointed chin. His movement, too, as he shuffled rather than strode into the carriage, had been indicative of an older man, though he could just as well have been very tired. His hands could not stop moving about, they brushed both sleeves then rose one after the other to smooth back his long quiff, which otherwise fell into his face. His head moved constantly too, looking from window to the floor, to me, then sweeping again around the compartment to look outside once more. Despite these obvious signs of inner tension, the thought never entered my head that he might have been sent to rob me.

For the fact was I too was very tired and perhaps not as observant as I should have been. So very very tired after my 2000 mile back and forth train journey across Europe, which I had completed in less than 2 weeks. Feeling myself dozing off I thought I must start some kind of conversation with the man.

“Do you speak English? I’m sorry, I can’t speak German very well.”

“Yes, a little.” He replied in a thin reedy voice.

“Do you live in Stuttgart?”

“No, no, I live, no, I stay in Nuremberg with my uncle.”

“Ah, you don’t have a German accent, where do you come from?”

“Bosnia in old Yugoslavia. I am Croat.”

“Yes, and have you been in Germany long?”

“No, I just go there now, second time. I visit my home during one week - last time. I go look for my family. It gone, finished.”

“Sorry, what has gone? I don’t understand.”

“My house, my woman, my kinder, all gone, dead in the war.”

There was a long silence whilst I contemplated the stark meaning of his words.

“Bloody hell, that’s terrible, it’s so so........awful this civil war....” I wanted to say sorry, but sorry is such a uselessly small word. No wonder the guy looked so nervous.

“It’s OK, things can be much more bad, I could be dead, ha, ha...So I must go to Nuremberg again, do a new life, new woman maybe. Are you British?”

“Yes I am, but I’m not living there any more. I’m based in Antwerp at the moment, in Belgium.”

“Is it good place?”

“To live and work you mean?”

“Yes, to find job.”

“It’s not so bad, I’m just beginning there, but I work all over the place, it’s just my base. Hey, I’ve started again there from new, I know how it must feel for you, though of course I haven’t lost........” Here I tailed off again realising I had nothing to compare with his own experiences.

“It can be better than Nuremberg. I stay there two years now. But I don’t understand the Deutschers. They are so, how do you say it....?”

“Stiff, rigid?”

“Yes, I think so - they don’t say much, don’t like to have good time until they are very drunk. Then they shout and shout at me. It do me tired.”

“What do you do in Nuremberg?”

“I work in my Uncle’s cafe. I am waiter. Pay no good.”

“Look, I know it’s not much, but I’ll write you my address in Antwerp. Maybe you could get a job at the hotel where I stay. It’s just a small place, but the people are awfully friendly. Belgians usually are to foreigners. They were to me anyhow.”

“That is kind, but I must stay in Nuremberg, I must pay back Uncle lot of money. Must work for him, but maybe later. What your job?”

Before I could answer his question the train jolted to a halt, and so did our conversation. We both instinctively turned our gazes outside: the train was standing on a long bridge over a wide river - perhaps the Neckar - which swung to the right and cut into a low hill, beyond which there stood a typical little German town settled around a church with white tower and dark red spire. Past the town the too good to be true green meadows came sweeping gently to the river’s edge, full of fat lazy Friesian cattle chewing their cud. I felt tired with the perfection that stood before me, but even more tired of the world of dead endings and impossibly difficult beginnings, of wars and peaces that were a million miles from here and yet which also sat opposite me in the carriage. I could no longer bare to look at the man and imagine what was going on inside him. So I deliberately closed my eyes and was soon fast asleep.

I fell into a dream which obviously drew from our conversation. The scene was a deeply dissected landscape of large snowbound hills. I was walking inside a newsreel film of the war in Bosnia. Burnt out houses and abandoned vehicles clustered around the winding road I had taken, which led deep into the hills. I felt utterly lost and was searching each village I came to for .....what? Perhaps my lost companions, my old friends and family, or maybe just my dog. For there were dogs everywhere, sniffing and pulling at the dead bodies of people and cannibalising other dogs. These wide-eyed creatures, both dead and alive, seemed more hideous than the people, for they were naked, and their nakedness revealed their starving and broken anatomies. But with an artist’s eye I became more and more fascinated by their appearance. Their projecting rib cages were in various degrees of penetration through the disintegrating fur. Their eyes seemed like the saucers of the well known Grimms fairytale. And their ears were the most ragged appendages imaginable, ravaged not only by hunger, but by cold and no doubt the bites from many dog-fights. Even if I had come across my old retriever dog here I doubt whether I would ever have recognised him. I tramped on up and down the endless track through the same repeated scenes of murder and destruction, slowly climbing higher and higher into snowbound passes in which no-one, surprisingly, barred my way. At one point I was astonished to find a ditch full of abandoned weapons, all pointed in different directions like a strange half-submerged thorn tree. But where was I going? Was I escaping? Or was I going home? I seemed simultaneously to have been part of this landscape for my whole life (everything appeared almost too familiar) and yet at the same time I was definitely lost, or at least, no longer with a clear direction. I was absolutely submerged in these contradictory feelings when I suddenly woke again and looked again outside to find that the landscape of my dream was reproduced beyond the carriage window. Were we already approaching the mountain frontier of Czechoslovakia, or by some strange time-warp was I now waking into a past reality? The compartment was empty - was the man who had entered and seemed so vividly alive - was he too a manifestation of my dream?

No, I shook off my confusion, the Bosnian had been real, all too real as I found out the next morning in my Prague flat. He must have left the train whilst I was asleep, at the same time removing some of the papers from my briefcase. I found that the first section of the Review was definitely missing. These were replaceable but it was extra work for me, and more worryingly, it meant that some third party was interested enough in my work to steal it. This was the first time this had happened. So who in reality was my Bosnian friend? And who was he working for? The police? An international pharmaceutical? Or even a disaffected member of our European network? Had he in fact followed me all the way from Stuttgart? I could hardly believe it - he seemed so genuine, and his story of a missing family in the war rang sadly true. Nervous, certainly, but who wouldn’t be after what he had come through. I preferred to think that in my haste to put things away when he had entered my compartment I had dropped some papers down the back of the seat and not recovered them all. But there again there were rather too many sheets and cards missing to really believe this was the cause. This was the beginning of a whole series of paranoia-inducing events in Prague which I shall shortly describe. For it was indeed Czechoslovakia we were then approaching, a fact proven by the entry into my compartment of several leather coated agents of the Czech security services, and the unpronounceable name pasted on the peeling station board on the platform. The agents still exuded the silent menace of a totalitarian regime, rather than the look of a newly found prodigal nation of an old democracy. They looked in great detail at my (genuine) British passport, and with only the briefest glance at my bags, passed on down the train. Just one year after the Velvet Revolution, their presence did nothing to dampen my mounting excitement at entering an eastern European country for the first time in my life. But at this point I must return to the Everest in Cairo where I am still relating these events, as the time is getting close to my final departure for Tanzania and my return to black Africa. The events in Prague in which my attaché case was to play such a starring role, will have to be reserved for later.

I felt strangely serene again after my second meeting with the beautiful and humorous Lotte. It seemed as though I had completely lost my fears of the possibility of an Egyptian Secret Service agent or local pharmaceutical rep. stealing the secrets from my ghetto-blaster. I told myself that it was surely a cleaner, or maybe a neighbour who had wanted to borrow it to amuse himself for a while. Why else had it been returned? I was looking forward to meeting her and spending a few hours being a relatively normal tourist out and about in the big city of Cairo. But first I had to arrange my bags (clothes in holdall, tape machine and tapes in black plastic shoulder bag, assorted garbage in Guatemalan bag, files and other work in Greek satchel, and yes, ghetto-blaster back in its box with new plastic tape handles but minus the formula) and heave them down to the office. I deposited everything there under the beady eye of the balding manager, except my Greek satchel, which I preferred to have with me at all times.

After twenty minutes waiting in the dark lobby by the lifts I decided Lotte wasn’t going to arrive. I went back to the desk where the old Egyptian clerk looked up at me with a broad and vacant stare. “The young American woman, Lotte Somebody, do you know if she’s in?” I asked in the boredest tone I could muster. He gave the faintest of nods and stared towards the key rack. Apparently her key was not there for he then informed me that yes, she probably was, as she had definitely not left the building. Was he going to tell me her room number? Yes, he was, and he did it with his first smile - a rather lascivious one. “Room number 642.”

I took the concrete stairs up the one flight necessary to reach the sixth floor, then strolled slowly down the long corridor counting the numbers. But when I reached 642 and knocked there was no answer. The door swung open at my first attempt to open it and a horrifying sight met my inward gaze. Over the two beds were thrown an enormous mixture of books, magazines clothes, sweets and make up articles, but they were also falling onto the floor. In one corner sat two bags and a backpack with again a bewildering number of personal articles hanging from them or pushed onto the floor. On the window-sill were a mixture of more papers, toilet bags and food all in various degrees of disarray. I had the definite feeling that somehow they, whoever they were, had overheard my latest conversations with Lotte and entered her room in search of the formula, tossing the contents of her bags at random over the room.

But before I could wonder where Lotte herself was, the door from her bathroom suddenly swung open and she herself strode in with a bath towel round her semi-naked body. Her mouth momentarily dropped but she was still quicker off the mark than I:

“Don’t you know it’s rude to enter a lady’s room without knocking? Or did you hope to catch me naked in the shower? Too bad - it’s too late now and I got a lot of packing to do.”

“But my God Lotte, who the hell has made this mess with your things?”

“What mess? That’s the way my room always looks. You sure are paranoid. Why, what did you think someone would be looking for - my virginity? Too late again.”

“Oh nothing, it just seemed so.....” and here I kind of tailed off in embarrassment.

“Look as I said, I still gotta pack and get dressed” - and here she gave a quick glimpse at what was under the towel, but so quick it could have been just a retightening of the thing. “- so why don’t you just take a Turkish coffee downstairs, I’ll only be five minutes.”

I had no answer, just a renewed stare at the mess and a mental recalculation of her given time to 55 + 5 = 1 hour minimum. So I took off, leaping down the stairs three at a time in a kind of celebration of my relief. Maybe I was becoming a mite paranoid. But it was no wonder after surviving Prague.

I first went to my room and took out the formula from the ghetto-blaster, then I hurriedly returned to the main office in order to photocopy it for Lotte. The guy looked at me quizically so I said to him:

“Yes, she was there thank you. How much do I owe you for one copy?”

He waved his hand abstractly above his head without saying anything. I tucked the formula plus copy carefully into my inside pocket, and went into the restaurant yet again for the coffee. I tried to keep up my spirits by reading up on my literature review from my Greek bag, but I just couldn’t concentrate, the whole thing seemed like a waste of time when much more urgent action was necessary. I was tired of justifying my research to a bunch of experts who cared nothing for the lives of Africans, many of whom could be saved if they really just let me get on with my real work. Lotte surprisingly arrived in less than half an hour - just before eleven - and only an hour later than the time she had originally offered me. I tucked away the review but not before she could ask “What’s that load of papers? Your will?” - “And very long testament. No I hope not. I want to leave more behind than that bunch of tired excuses for doing more research.”

We took off on a shortened expedition around town and a lightning visit to the Pyramids. Lotte insisted on accepting every suggestion of our guide and driver to visit markets and shops in order, as she told me, to “get the family a little something.” Lotte had lined up the tour with a company called “El Joker” and it was really living up to its name. I had the sudden realisation that every time Lotte entered a shop and bought some junk imitation Egyptian relic, our driver received a back-hander from the shop-owner. As usual each purchase was accompanied by ten minutes haggling which reduced the price by at least half but still left it too high in my estimation. After more than an hour of this, and having seen very little of what I conceived of as the real Cairo, I began to develop a severe headache.

“When are we going to get to the Pyramids?” I moaned.

“Pyramids? Pyramids 50 shillings extra - not in contract. This Cairo tour.” intoned the driver.

“Oh God Lotte, I’ve got such a headache, maybe it’d be better if I got out here and took a bus back to the hotel.”

“Bus? Are you crazy? Look I only got to get a few more things for my nephew and niece then I’ll come back with you.”

“I think it would be better if we met at the hotel. You got to be back there soon, your flight is 4.30pm isn’t it?”

“That’s check in time - no rush.”

“Well come and pick me up at the hotel, if I feel better I’ll come out with you to the airport.”

“Well OK - but get a cab it’s quicker and safer. Then take a tab.”

“Nothing’s quicker in Cairo traffic, but yes, it’s quieter, I’ll get a cab.”

Two hours later Lotte returned and woke me with a gentle knock on my door. I was still feeling bad and hung over and I put it down to my imminent departure on a 6 hour flight to Nairobi.

“Hi, you OK?”

“Sort of. Look Lotte, I’m sorry but I can’t see you off. It’s a long flight tonight for me and my body is telling me I need to sleep first. You see I can never fly when I sleep.”

“Sleep when you fly.”

“Eh what? Yes, of course, sleep when I fly, not even on an overnight flight. It’s not just the sleep either, I’m kind of allergic to flying, got what you might call aeroplanitis.”

“Aeroplanitis - what in the hell is that?”

“Well, every time I fly my immune system goes crazy. I pick up the smallest bug, I feel completely sacked after the flight, and I get terrible kidney pains in my back. In fact that’s why I came to Cairo overland - just to shorten this flight to Nairobi, and if I could find a boat to Mombasa I’d rather take it. If I go above 10,000 feet I always get the same symptoms.”

“Since when?”

“Since the time three years ago I almost died on the way home from Dar es Salaam.”

“Just from flying?”

“No, that was the first time. I used to be OK in the air. But I had already contracted several lethal stomach bugs that time from a Chinese meal the night before I flew. It became the worst flight of my life and my liver was permanently damaged.”

“You mean the flight made your infection worse?”

“Yes, I think so, I don’t think it would have been so bad if I’d stayed on the ground. But I didn’t know I had a problem until I was in the air.”

“ So what happened on the plane?”

“Well I spent most of it in the john puking and heaving out my bowels, but the stewardesses didn’t seem to want to understand what was wrong with me. When I got to London it was my friends and not the airline staff that rushed me to hospital - I think the latter were just glad I was off their hands.”

“And how long were you in hospital?”

“About two weeks, but I was completely delirious with a temperature over 102 for the first week. Then it took me six months to get back my strength, though I’ve never been completely the same since then. My liver is shot, that’s why I get the back pain, it’s all the junk that goes out through my kidneys that should have been broken down by the liver.”

“So I don’t blame you for not liking to fly.”

“Well, sometimes it’s as if my body knows it has to go up there and rebels before I even get off the ground.”

“It’s funny ‘cos I kinda knew you had a back problem ever since I saw you get off the ferry in Ignoumenitsa. You were kind of bent forward with all those bags hanging off you. Is that why you never use a backpack?”

“That’s not my style - but yeah it would be difficult for me to handle.”

“Are you in pain now?”

“Not in my back - more hung over feeling. I just want to sleep. So look, why don’t you take this copy of the formula with you now.”

I drew out the photocopy from under my pillow and handed it to her.

“Wow - so this is the Holy Grail. Shame I can’t read Latin. Nor all these chemical symbols. Looks like alchemy to me.”

“No I assure you it’s hard science, but it will only work if it’s in the right hands. Put it somewhere safe. The address for Manford is on the back. Give it to him personally, and do not, do not, I repeat send it or leave it for him. He will be expecting it. Can you do that for me?”

“I don’t know why I should. I only met you two weeks ago and you are a pretty weird kind of a guy. But I guess I will. Pensacola isn’t too far really. Tell me again - am I really saving the world. Oh gosh oh golly gee.”

“Well let’s say it will make a big difference in a couple of years, maybe several million people will be still alive who otherwise would be dead. If, and it’s a big if, this all goes through. A lot counts on me and who I’m gonna bring back to Europe, but I can’t talk about that just now.”

“But how will I know if you are successful? Can’t you tell me more?”

“Well, if you don’t hear it on the news one day then you know I will have failed. I’ll probably have been killed.”

“What? Really? You can’t mean that. What could happen to you? And does that mean I’m in danger too? I mean, the people after you....” and she looked round the door back into the corridor at this point, “could they come after me?”

“It’s possible but highly unlikely. Have you shut the door properly? Yeah - I was followed in Europe, through Germany, Czechoslovakia, and even to my home in Denmark, but I think I shook them in Italy. Here I’ve seen no-one on my tail. Only one thing - the temporary disappearance of my ghetto-blaster - makes me suspicious.”

“But you got that back. It was probably a cleaner.”

“Maybe - the problem is my copy of the formula was in the speaker.”

“Then someone could have copied it. But who?”

“No, I don’t think so, I don’t want to think that they are here in Africa too.”

“But if they are that means I’m in danger too. They may be already on to me.”

“No, no, I don’t think so. Just act your normal self - go back home and see all your family. Then after a month without problems go down and see Firemen.”

“Yeah, I could go down for a little Easter vacation in Florida. And even if they are following me I’ll shake them off - whoever they are. I still can’t believe it - why did you choose me? It’s like working for an alternative CIA.”

“You were sent, no don’t get me wrong - you were just in the right place at the right time - and I know somehow I can trust you. But not a word, you hear, not to anyone, least not before the delivery. It’s safer that way for you too.”

“Yep, trust me, it’s gonna be delivered, but is there anything I can do for you before I go - a head massage or something?”

“No, Lotte - if you do this for me, I will always be in your debt, and, not just me, I mean all of us, especially those who are saved. Now just let me get some sleep. I feel like I haven’t slept in three months, not since I left Denmark the first time back in the beginning of November.”

Lotte finally went leaving a light kiss on my temple and I fell into a dream about Denmark my lost home. Yes, it had been a long time since I had lived in peace there in my little hideaway farmhouse in the north. But that peace had been rudely shattered in less than three months of my arriving there last July. I had only just begun to put together the European network and then something strange happened before I left on my travels in order to meet and confirm the support of those who were, at that time, mostly only names on a list to me. I had gone to the station of our local small town in order to collect Carla., who had come all the way from Belgium to help in my preparations and come with me on the first leg of my visits. Up until that moment I had lived in anonymous bliss, only having occasional contact with two of the local people, neither of whom knew the nature of my work. In any case I had rarely ventured out of my isolated lair hidden away deep in the Danish forests close to the north-western coast. I was busy working on the Literature Review, making occasional visits to Aarhus university, and finalising by post (I hadn’t even a telephone) my itinerary for the forthcoming tour - which was highly unofficial. Luckily my sponsors had also agreed to fund several visits to major European university libraries, and this helped pay for the secret tour of my contacts.

In short I believed that my plans were secret and never dreamt that the Danish police had already taken an interest in them. After I picked up Carla. from the small station on the outskirts of the town in my little mustard Fiat we suddenly hit some mist on that early autumn day. I had already put on my lights, as was legally required in Denmark - day or night - but I suddenly realised that they were hardly working. I stopped to take a look at them on the crest of a brow and was just looking under the bonnet at the battery connections when a man in a heavy leather raincoat came out of the mist and declared he was a policeman. I could then just make out the car he had arrived in parked a few meters behind our own. There were also three other figures at a little distance from our car, glancing around as if they suspected the arrival of a third party from somewhere. The policeman asked me for my identity papers and those of my companion. We both produced our passports and I presumed he just wanted to warn us about our defective headlights, but at first he never said anything about them. Instead he asked me (and not Carla) how long I had been in Denmark (I had no resident’s permit) and how long I intended to stay. I told him I was on an extended holiday recovering from an illness, but I was now planning to leave within a week or so. I thought it strange that his car had no police markings, so I asked him if he was from the local police. This he confirmed but somehow I still had my doubts, but I didn’t dare ask him for proof of identity. He asked me whether I intended finding work in Denmark and if so what kind. So I told him it had crossed my mind, and I had contacted several universities as I was a biologist researcher by profession. This was near enough to the truth to confirm the innocence of my movements in Denmark if, as I suspected, he knew more about me than he was letting on. Then he asked me where I was going now, so I told him I was headed home. Then he joked that this road was not in the direction for England, and when I went to tell him exactly where my farmhouse was he suddenly proclaimed that it wasn’t necessary to tell him as he knew exactly where I lived. It was if he wanted to gently warn me that they had me in their books and would be carefully observing my next move. As he left he finally turned and said:

“Oh by the way you should get your headlights fixed, it’s against the law to drive without them even in the day.” This finally confirmed to me that he was no ordinary cop - otherwise surely he would have mentioned this first or even booked me for the offence.

As we drove away slowly through the thickening evening mist it was the very first time that I had felt uneasy in Denmark, my temporarily adopted home. But by the time I left the place for good two months later in mid December, I was feeling absolutely paranoid. I can’t tell you all the steps that led up to this paranoia, but I must mention the last step, as it involved an attack on my briefcase, the least loved perhaps, but the most singularly important item of my luggage. And I do believe there must have been a link between that conversation in the misty rolling countryside of Thy and what happened to the attaché case in Copenhagen much later. Otherwise I wouldn’t have prefaced this account of the savage attack on my black box with a short summary of that conversation. But poor reader, you need to know a little more detail on the background to this attack, otherwise you will be lost in the hundred threads of my longer story.

I had spoken the truth to the inspector or whoever he might have been: within the following week I left Denmark for my month long tour of various European capitals and major cities, drumming up support for our circle of practitioners. But I did return for several visits to the country, mostly to Copenhagen, with at least one visit to the north in order to collect my newly repaired car. It was on this last visit when I drove from Thy to the capital, via the ferry from Aarhus to Kalundborg, that I had the feeling that I was definitely being followed. It was nothing specific, just a general feeling that my movements around and between the universities of Aarhus and Copenhagen were not what they had been before - innocent searches for future academic and financial support for the extension of my research in Africa. No, on the last occasions there was a certain negativity from the staff who had so willingly co-operated before and backed my project. There was an unease in their manner to me, and even my browsings in the libraries of both universities were accompanied by a feeling of my activities being monitored in some way. There was one occasion when I was sure that my books and papers had been slightly rearranged in my absence, but I couldn’t swear to it. On others I kept feeling that certain members of the library staff were taking too greater interest in the journals I ordered from the stocks but it didn’t amount to anything I could challenge or prove. On the road I was constantly nervous of the cars following behind me even though there didn’t seem to be one particular vehicle on my track. In Copenhagen all went much better, and I was beginning to believe that I was imagining it all. I stayed in a friend’s apartment close to the main station, not a very close friend, and so it was that I left most of my belongings in the locked car at night. The car was packed with not only my normal bags, but also boxes of clothes and papers I would not need and was transferring back to the UK during my longer travels to Africa. But the briefcase was the whole time with me during the last days of my meetings with my counterparts, except, crucially on the night before my planned early departure to drive to Belgium and later on to the UK.

The last day in Copenhagen had been filled with important meetings with fellow researchers and backers for the next phase of my activities in East Africa. I was awaiting an important decision from the Danish Foreign Ministry on my funding, having already had academic approval from the University of Copenhagen. One of the most influential linkmen in this process was Dr. Herschenberger-Kierkegaard, Deputy Director of the Institute for Tropical Diseases. I had been introduced to him two months earlier at a conference in Hamburg, and he had welcomed my presentation there as a major contribution in the search for possible cures for a disease that he himself had great interest in. This interest was not just academic, the disease had killed his former fiancée, who herself had been a researcher in Southern Africa. His competence was more medical than ethnobotanic, and so although he could not be a reference for me with the Danish government, he nevertheless introduced me to the top ethno-botanist Willy Faber who specialised in the research into Chinese Herbs and their use in Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM). Faber was a senior statesman in European ethno-botany, and his signature on my application for funds should have been the kiss of life for my long awaited project to bring back the herbs from East Africa for testing in Faber’s laboratory. Herschenberger-Kirkegaard also sent me to a Swedish anthropologist, now working for the World Health Organisation in Geneva, who was a top expert in East African traditional medicine. This was Frans Schmøll, whose name was also soon on my application as a referee. Although he was not Danish, Schmøll had spent most of his previous academic life researching and teaching in Danish universities.

I had in fact gone to the local WHO office next to the Tuborg brewery that very morning, and Schmøll had assured me that in the committee stage of the application, everything had gone very well for my project. He told me that the minister’s office would almost certainly give me approval within a few days. From there I went to have lunch with Herschenberger-Kierkegaard in the refectory of the Rigshospitalet, close by his office. After a wonderful dinner discussion on the merits of the composer Carl Nielsen as against Bruckner, we strolled down to Faber’s labs to see if he had yet unravelled the chemical wonders of ginseng. Denmark was a fantastic place to be based at this time in the early nineties as it seemed as though the old academic walls built between hard science and so called alternative forms of treatment were fast crumbling here, and re-knowned scientists and medical researchers were investigating the most way out practices.

A secretary showed us up to Faber’s laboratory where we found him busy with pipettes and test tubes, and dressed in the filthiest of lab-coats. The contrast between the two pairs of doctors, the one master the other former student, could not have been greater. H.K. was incredibly lanky and thin, probably two meters tall, and dressed in an anonymous light grey suit which was slightly too small for him. He looked like an outsize schoolboy on his first day of school, not nervous but always weaving and dodging around in perpetual motion as he stood there. Fabbio was almost half his size, replacing the lab-coat with an equally dirty and worn out sweater, which he pulled over his greasy silver grey hair in order to cover a sizeable paunch. Despite the obvious differences I could see that H.K. still worshipped his former teacher. Faber declared that he was close to publishing the results of his ginseng research, results which he claimed would lead to a stampede of drug companies trying to get a piece of the action. H.K. introduced me and it was with great pleasure that I realised Faber had taken sometime to read my own papers. Although his speciality was Chinese Medicines now, he also took a keen interest in herbs from Africa and the Amazon too. He outlined the planned research on the Chinese meridians, those lines of energy said to be a key organising principle in the body, and he excitedly told us that a Chinese micro-biologist and a Danish radiologist working under his guidance had already come up with some tentative but very positive results. Unlike most scientists he was convinced they existed, because, he proclaimed, he had witnessed many operations in China with the sole use of needles placed on the meridians to anaesthetise the patients. He then went on to tell us that he too was supervising a lot of semi-alternative research into the great disease with which I was also concerned.

“This thing, this terrible scourge, will not be easily resolved, I have a feeling deep down here in, what do you English say? In the guts?”

“Yes Dr. Faber, I would totally agree with you, but there are some rays of hope, and I don’t mean this ridiculous search for a vaccine - that’s an utter waste of time.”

“In this case I would have to agree with you. Nevertheless there are some exciting tests going on with Chinese herbs.”

“Well I hope you don’t work with control groups of dying sufferers - that would be too cruel for words if the experimental group showed any signs of success.”

“It is true we are a little restricted by our need to keep to the scientific method, but I shall never let it deprive sufferers of possible help.”

“I hope not. I have great hope that within two years we might have the cure. That is precisely why I need to get these Danish funds - to go to Africa and bring back the man who has found a remarkable treatment for this scourge. But maybe this scourge is also a great lesson for our arrogant species.”

“Aahh, I had a suspicion that was your intention Mot, reading between the lines of your application I could see that you might use the funds for a more direct solution. But what is the evidence for the success of this man’s treatments?”

“You would not believe me if I told you and that is why I have to bring him back, not only to you, but also to many in the alternative medicine camp. You see I think that if we only leave it in the hands of science the whole process will take too long and many people who could be saved will already be dead. But if we distribute the knowledge to the healers and herbalists - bingo - we will suceed that much quicker.”

Herschenberger-Kierkegaard looked worried and then broke in:

“But if the substances are not properly tested first for safety...”

“Oh, I understand your worries, but as far as I’m concerned they have already been tested in Africa on hundreds of people over the past year with no side effects, quite the contrary.........but it is not just a case of a herbal remedy, unique as it is in its basis, its preparation and even administration. I believe that the whole thing will not work without the shaman’s magic and that is why he has to be here, to use it himself, and to find his apprentices.”

“But this is incredible if it works....”

“It will work, Dr. Faber, believe me, I have seen it work, and in so many cases. Even the Tanzanian Ministry of Health is planning to visit my friend to see his work in person.”

“But do you already have the formula.....?”

“Ahh, the formula, yes I have it, but as I said, it needs the man too. I’m getting to the point where I would like to dispense with the scientific method altogether, it only holds things up, and in anycase, those who want to believe will believe in it, others whose eyes are closed will always remain blind to its possibilities, no matter how many it cures.”

“So you do not even wish to publish your results?” Faber turned his head to one side and looked at me through the corner of his glasses in a most off-putting way.

“Of course I will publish but when the time is right and the evidence is incontrovertible - with or without scientific testing.”

“The Danish government should certainly give you the money for the work in Africa, Schmøll and I have seen to that, unless of course there are hidden political motives for stopping you.”

“What do you mean political?”

“The political priorities could change, or they just might find something in your background they take an objection to.........it has happened before.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic Willy,” interrupted Herschenberger-Kirkegaard “what could they possibly object to?”

“No I think Dr. Faber might be right. If they dig deep enough they will find something, and especially as I’m not Danish......”

“That should have no bearing on it, as long as the project is right for them, and I believe it’s in their and everybody’s interest to foster your work.” concluded Faber, but he had already sowed the doubt in my mind that was to grow and grow.

We went on discussing my future trip until it was time for me to go back to the flat where I was staying in order to get changed for my last night in Copenhagen. I will tell you about that on a future occasion as it was an adventure all to itself, but was not directly connected with the theft that occurred later during the night, a theft that was to signal the beginning of my disillusion with Denmark as a free and open country. Whatever political thing Faber was pointing to became a reality before the end of that month when I received my rejection for Danish funding. My disillusionment was finally made complete by this refusal of the government to grant me research money for the African trip, on the sole and flimsy excuse that I would not be likely to return to Denmark or allow my research to have a specific benefit to the Danish university system. This, despite me having stayed six months in the country and having cultivated strong links with two major universities, mostly at my own expense. No, I can now feel the dreaded hand of the higher Danish authorities in my affairs, maybe the secret police, who had already been watching me in my northern home, and who made their final move that last night in Copenhagen. But at that time I was unaware of my failure to find funds, and although the theft that occured was unlike a common robbery, I was loathe at the time to make the connection between it and any official interest in my work. But now I realise that I had been watched all along, since my very first weeks in Denmark, and my erratic movements between August and December of that year, leaving and entering the country on numerous occasion for destinations all over Europe, plus my living in such a remote area without any visible means of income, must have made the authorities suspicious as to my true intentions. Denmark had one of the few borders in Europe at that time which was still tightly controlled by the police and douaniers. Perhaps they believed I was involved in running drugs across the border, or even more hideous and dangerous contraband. And once I made my application for funds for an ethno-botanic project in Africa, maybe they put two and two together and came up with five.

But when I came back much later that night and checked my car as I collected my Guatemalan bag with my night things, I had no inkling of a suspicion that things were about to become worse. I locked the car carefully, but stupidly left my black briefcase there inside, battered hero of many previous journeys. I walked from the car directly into the flats behind the grand central Copenhagen station where lived my host for the night: Tima the one eyed Kurd, a political refugee from Iraq, and gatekeeper to an organization that helped Eastern European & Middle Eastern refugees in Denmark. We had met a year earlier at a cultural function in Copenhagen, to which I was brought by the leader of the refugee organization, who just happened to be one of the leading alternative therapists, a retired psychiatrist, who now had a thriving art and drama therapy school in Holstebro in the north. Tima was his lieutenant and concierge for the centre in downtown Copenhagen, which provided about 10 transit bedrooms in a huge apartment behind the station. There was always one or two rooms free there to which Tima always grudgingly admitted me, he being a jealous gatekeeper, and suspicious of my need for accommodation, despite the patronage I received from his master in Holstebro. I think he suspected me of being some kind of stool pigeon for the authorities, perhaps of spying on the movements of the refugees, many of whom had no official entry permits. I in turn saw him as a potential stool pigeon, maybe a double agent, so intense was his questioning of me at times. On this night, however, he had already gone to bed and I had my own key. My main concern the next day was with the theft that took place from my car that night, which I could not suspect as having any connection with Tima.

I got up early the next morning to set off on my long drive to London via Antwerp. But I did not have to use my key to open the car door, it was already unlocked with, mysteriously, no sign of forced entry. Inside the car all my things had been turned upside down, and some of them, particularly the contents of my briefcase, had been thrown on the floor. The little estate car was certainly not as I had left it, but to ascertain if anything was missing, I had to repack it all and carry it up to Tima’s empire. He was by then already up, but was not glad to see me, on the contrary he greeted my announcement of the break-in with great skepticism, he merely thought it was an excuse to get another free night’s lodging out of him. After an hour of carefully sorting through my things I was able to disabuse him of his false assumptions by finally clearing out. But I was still in a state of shock from the break in and was now further upset to find that many of my botanic index cards were missing, and, strangely enough, some of my papers detailing my application for money from the Danish government. Not an ordinary thief thus, but it was difficult to check what other more personal items may have been missing, as I had bundled into my car just about all my possessions in Denmark when I had left the farmhouse up in the north. This was the first major intrusion into my luggage, but it was not to be the last, as we shall see. Who was looking and for what continued to perplex me as I left the Danish border and drove doggedly through northern Germany. As I said before, at that time I didn’t have grounds to suspect the Danish authorities, preferring to believe that it might be a drugs company who had caught wind of my African researches. But later, as you will see, I had the proof of the authorities’ involvement.

Though I would very much like to continue my story from the Everest in Cairo, and from Nairobi southwards to the final episode in the African bush, as I am already in Northern Germany en route to London, maybe it is more convenient to speak now about my halt along the Hamburg Bremen autobahn, which also involved, albeit in a very slight manner, a small mishap to my black briefcase.