Chapter 3Posted by Graham Thompson Sun, January 31, 2016 22:40:13
I will return to the typewriter and the young blond who is patiently waiting for the next morning's breakfast to renew my acquaintance, but first I must sketch out the marvellous trialogue that occurred on that midnight crossing of the straits of Otranto, drifting as we were, ever closer to the Orient. Yes two became three, because by the time I had caught up with Ian, he had already corralled a Californian woman called Lotte from Salinas on the floor under the gangway stairs, and so I joined them, piling my not inconsiderable luggage in protective formation all around us. We soon became a kind of unofficial left luggage office for all the gypsy youth of the world. Ian seemed to have already described what little he knew of my character to Lotte, as she began with the words:
LOTTE: I want to hear your story, you sound like a really weird person.
RESTTORYELL: Thank you, I take that as a compliment.
LOTTE(Laughing): Definitely. No, come on, what do you do?
LOTTE: Naw, come on, are you some kinda underground person?
IAN: I haven't seen Greece for ten years.
RESTTORYELL: For me it's twenty. No totally overground.
LOTTE: I dunno then, a psychoanalyst?
RESTTORYELL: Maybe a psychotic analyst?
IAN: No he's not a spy, and he's not a shrink.
LOTTE: You mean you already know?
RESTTORYELL: He has his suspicions, just like you. Try: anthropologist. Or botanist.
IAN: Yeah one of those might fit, you go around measuring the sizes of
RESTTORYELL: Way off, I didn't mean that kind of anthropologist. I'm not so good with the physical. Try living people not dead.
IAN: Ah, a SOCIAL anthropologist, you study culture and living people, strange people.
LOTTE: Are you studying us?
RESTTORYELL: Why not? But not for the academy. I'm something like a ethno-sociowhatsit but without the qualifications.
LOTTE: What then, some kind of writer?
RESTTORYELL: Bingo, I write.
LOTTE: And can I read something you've published?
RESTTORYELL: I don't believe in publishing my work or otherwise
prostituting my talents.
IAN: He doesn't believe in publishing his work... my God, he doesn't........
LOTTE: What do you do with it then?
RESTTORYELL: I tell it, if anybody wishes to listen.
IAN: You mean like an ancient teller of fairy tales and myths.
RESTTORYELL: No, I only tell true tales, but that's enough about me, what about you Ian. What are you?
IAN: You should be able to guess after all that I've already told you about my reasons for visiting Greece.
LOTTE: Some kind of scientist....
RESTTORYELL: You must be a Libran archaeologist with a family background in Scotland and Italy. You're a Libran, you were born in September.
LOTTE: Wow, is that all true?
IAN: Ha! Yes to the archaeologist and Scotland. BUT NO I'm not Libran, I'm Aries. I was born in March.
LOTTE: Are you good at guessing signs?
IAN: Well he got mine wrong, and I've no Italian blood.
RESTTORYELL: Not that you know of.
IAN: No no no, I've gone back a wee way and I'm sure......
RESTTORYELL: Eastern err..European ......
LOTTE: I have problems with all those professions that begin with the letter A.....
IAN: No, no, you've got it wrong again laddie...
RESTTORYELL: Well if you're not Libran, you're definitely Libran ascendant, you have the eyes, the Libran eyes......
LOTTE: Whadya mean the Libran eyes ....?
RESTTORYELL: Yeah. Can't you see he's got those slightly slanting Libran eyes, beautiful....
LOTTE disbelievingly): Libran eyes....give me a break.
RESTTORYELL: No, look, Libran eyes - they're set slightly apart, big beautiful eyes, with thick eyebrows that slant.....
LOTTE: You mean the sign that you're born in makes for the set of your eyes?
RESTTORYELL: Yeah, didn't you know that?
IAN: And of course they're well balanced.
LOTTE: Signs are about where your stars are, not about the way you look, you've completely missed the point.
RESTTORYELL: Yeh but they form your face as well.
LOTTE: No they don't, signs, signs, they form your..... stars not your face. He hasn't got a Libran face, you're wrong, I totally disagree with you. I mean, does he have Libran feet?
RESTTORYELL: No, he doesn't, they're too big for Libran feet.
LOTTE: You're wrong, you're wrong.
IAN: Maybe I do have Libran feet, I can kick equally well with
LOTTE: You're both wrong, you're crazy.
RESTTORYELL: I think his feet are Andromeda actually.
LOTTE (staring for the first time at Ian's feet): They are kind of colossal.
RESTTORYELL: OK then, can you name me the seven ancient wonders of the world?
LOTTE: Yes, one's the Grand Canyon, one's....
RESTTORYELL: No, no, no, I'm not talking about those natural ones, I'm talking about the original ones, the ancient Greek, well you know Mediterranean ones out of ancient history.
LOTTE: Oh those...
IAN: Well, there's the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
RESTTORYELL: Right, that's number one.
IAN: There ....was.........
LOTTE: There's Meso...potamia.......
IAN: That's the Hanging Gardens...
RESTTORYELL: That's just what he said.
LOTTE: Oh right.
IAN: There's the Colossus of Rhodes.
RESTTORYELL: Yep, right, what happened to them?
IAN: They fell down 'cos they're not there now.
RESTTORYELL: They're in the harbour, so they think, they're in the water, some people claim to have been down there and seen them, but the pictures are fuzzy, no good....but carry on, number three?
IAN: Eerrrmmmm.......I'm not doing very well with two am I?
RESTTORYELL: What happened in Alexandria when the Muslims got there?
IAN: Ah yes, they sacked the library.
RESTTORYELL: Yeah, burnt it down. So that's Alexandria library number three. There was another there too.....
IAN: You mean the lighthouse?
RESTTORYELL: Yep and it’s still there.
IAN: Not the original one surely?
RESTTORYELL: No, the original one burnt down just like the library. They probably put too much wood on the fire at the top.. OK number four. What happened in Greece, what disappeared in Greece?
LOTTE (excitedly): Atlantis!
RESTTORYELL: Right! Santoreeni.
IAN: What about it?
RESTTORYELL: There was a wonder of the world there. It was destroyed when Atlantis went up. Or rather went down when the volcano went up.
IAN: A temple?
RESTTORYELL: There was a temple, a very fine temple.
IAN: The Temple of ZEUS?
RESTTORYELL: Yeah, that's right. OK number five, any more?
LOTTE: Ha ha ha ha ha that was a sheer guess Ian!.
RESTTORYELL: Don't worry I'm making it up too!
IAN: No, there wasn't a temple in Santorini. But I can't remember.........
RESTTORYELL: No, I can't, I can't remember if...
IAN: Wait a minute, the Temple of Zeus was in Athens.
RESTTORYELL: That's right yeah.
IAN: There was a Temple of Zeus completed by....
RESTTORYELL: What about Solomon's Temple, wasn't that supposed to be.........
IAN: Naaair. That's mythological.
LOTTE: That qualifies then!
RESTTORYELL: What do you mean it's mythological? They have the bloody basement still in Jerusalem. It's not mythological.
IAN: Oh I'm sorry that temple, yeah. But it wasn’t a wonder of the world I don’t think.......
LOTTE: You know guys, I'm so glad you're here. I really like being with you here.
IAN: What about King Solomon's Mines?
RESTTORYELL: No that was in Africa.
IAN: Yeh, but wasn't that one of them?
RESTTORYELL: No, but can you name me the country they were in?
IAN: South Africa, Botswana?
LOTTE: Ethiopia? Queen of Sheba country.
RESTTORYELL: Well most people think you're right Lotte, but I know it was Tanzania.
LOTTE: I love those African country names. What about Chad. I'd love to see Chad. I wish I could say: I was born in Chad, hey I'm from Chad!
RESTTORYELL: Yeh, but it's pretty dry there, nothing much to do except look for firewood. OK, any more? There is one more wonder of the world in Africa.
LOTTE: Marrakech? OK you guys, (speaking to a bunch of travellers who had left a huge accumulation of bags besides us) we'll keep an eye on your bags for you.
RESTTORYELL: You should charge them for the service.
LOTTE: Are you kidding?
IAN: One of the pyramids?
RESTTORYELL: Oh yes, I'd forgotten the pyramids, yes I think we can count the pyramids.
IAN: Cheops, yes it was the Cheops.
RESTTORYELL: OK, that's number five, but what about another one in Africa? It's in Zimbabwe and nobody knows who built it.
LOTTE: A big temple in Zaire? What's it called?
RESTTORYELL: In ZIMBABWE! The only stone temple in black Africa. It's a mystery who built it, maybe, we don't know, maybe the Carthaginians built it.
LOTTE: They were in Zimbabwe? Where is Zimbabwe you guys?
IAN: Impossible - the Carthaginians? Zimbabwe is 3000 miles south of Carthage.
RESTTORYELL: But have you seen the pictures of it? It's immense and not unlike the prehistoric temples in North Africa.
LOTTE: Why did they build it there? What made them go all that way?
RESTTORYELL: Well the Carthaginians were really weird, they were related to the Phoenicians and they had all those strange gods with names like Baal, Smurg and Kraak, and when they got mashed up by the Romans, they went everywhere, a bit like the lost tribe of Israel. OK, they couldn't stay in the Mediterranean any more so where did they go? They went to Wales, and ...Iceland ...... but one group split off and went across the Sahara, and another group set sail along the west coast of Africa, so they must have gone through the Pillars of Hercules - hey that's right, that's number six: the Pillars of Hercules.
IAN: But the Pillars of Hercules.......
IAN: .... is the name for a perfectly natural rock formation.
RESTTORYELL: No, originally Gibraltar was much closer to Africa, and there was this big natural arch over the top, no sorry, I remember the photo, it was a man-made arch, enormous, through which the ships sailed. And Hercules ........
RESTTORYELL: So you've never heard of the big stone temple of Zimbabwe? It's actually named Zimbabwe. In fact that's what they named the country after. Wish I had a picture to show you. There are some drawings in some nearby caves where you can make out boats, just like the Carthaginian boats, the Phoenician boats.
LOTTE: That's really weird.
RESTTORYELL: I know.
LOTTE: What year was that?
IAN: But I would have thought that temple wouldn't be so old as that.
RESTTORYELL: Waal....the Carthaginians taught the Vikings how to sail.
LOTTE: What do you mean the Carthaginians taught the Vikings how to sail, nobody taught the Vikings how to sail.
RESTTORYELL: No, really....... there are pictures in Sweden of tall Zulu type warriors in Viking boats, pictures carved on the rocks of Sweden, I have my own photos at home...
LOTTE: How do you know they're not just Swedish people with feathers on their heads?
RESTTORYELL: Well, because Swedes just don't look like that, these guys have great long ears, pierced with bangles on them like the Masai, and big spears, and chins thrust out just like Negro warriors ...........
LOTTE: In Sweden?
RESTTORYELL: In Sweden.
LOTTE: Well they could have been drawn a lot later, in around 1200 AD.
RESTTORYELL: No, they were definitely drawn around 1000 BC.
IAN: Wait a minute, the Vikings may have gone down the river systems of Europe, but they never went to Africa.
RESTTORYELL: Yep, not only the river systems of Europe, but also Russia, the Black sea, and the Carthaginians went back with them and taught them how to navigate in the open sea. And who knows.....
IAN: Sure they may have been in the Black Sea.
RESTTORYELL: Well, then they went back because the Carthaginians
definitely went to Scandinavia. And took a bunch of Zulus with them.
LOTTE: But nobody taught the Vikings how to sail.
IAN: No, why should they?
RESTTORYELL: But how did they get to America then? Haven't you heard of the Minnesota Vikings?
LOTTE: What were they doing in the midwest?
RESTTORYELL: Traders, great traders. They were the first real Americans. And the Phoenicians fade out when the Vikings got going. So we only got six...............
IAN: I don’t trust that figure if you’re doing the counting.
RESTTORYELL: (Seeing the other two losing interest.) Aahh, nobody's
into alternative history anymore. It's much more interesting than the real one.
LOTTE: Alternative history, that's classic.
RESTTORYELL: Did you know that the Greek civilisation started in the Orkney islands?
IAN: Yes I have, I've heard that one too and it's also wrong.
RESTTORYELL: The same form of graves, beginning in the Orkneys, reproduced on Malta, North Africa, then later in Greece of the Mycaenean period.
IAN: They were not reproduced on Malta.......nor in North Africa or that's the alternative diffusionist theory....
LOTTE: Ha,ha,ha,ha,ha,heee..... the alternative diffusionist theory. What is the diffusionist theory?
RESTTORYELL: Everything started from Egypt and spread out............
IAN: Everything started from the Fertile Crescent and then spread
RESTTORYELL: Everything started from everywhere.
IAN: Until it finally reached the Orkneys and that was it's last dying gasp.
LOTTE: Wait a minute you guys, where exactly are the Orkneys?
IAN: They are islands north of Scotland.
LOTTE: I've been on Mull - is that anywhere near them?
RESTTORYELL: Well, yes it's quite near them.
IAN: It's nowhere bloody near.......
RESTTORYELL: The thing is they've got temples.......
LOTTE: Who has?
IAN: Yes, everybody's got temples.
LOTTE (Giggling): Well, everybody's got temples.
IAN: Anyhow what they decided was that the temples in Egypt were the biggest.......
RESTTORYELL: And best?
LOTTE (To others): See you guys, you're stuff is safe here (and becoming like the walls of Jericho around us).
IAN: Yeah, so they were the first, and they spread right throughout Europe, and you get copies of these temples, but they get worse, the masonry was not quite so good, the design not so rational.........so it's like spreading out the art through Europe.
IAN: Until the Orkneys. The Orkney islands were the last vestiges........
RESTTORYELL: 3000 BC. Have you actually seen that masonry, those corbelled vaults, you can't get a knife between.....
IAN: And this is based upon....
RESTTORYELL: But have you actually seen them, have you been.....
IAN (Speaking very slowly and scientifically): This is based upon......
LOTTE: What is based on what?
IAN: This is based upon carbon dating which was wrong.....
RESTTORYELL: By about 1000 years - and the wrong way for your argument - even earlier, a thousand years earlier.....
IAN: The carbon dating was corrected by an examination of the tree rings of the white bristle pine......
LOTTE: In California, hey I've been there where....
RESTTORYELL: No, these were in Utah...
IAN: This proved.........
RESTTORYELL: That the Egyptian temples had passed their sell by date....
IAN: This proved that some of.... the.....temples......
RESTTORYELL: Like the Orkneys.
IAN: ..... were older than the pyramids.
RESTTORYELL: Absolutely! So you agree!
LOTTE: Excuse me, excuse me but what's the Orkneys got to do with Californian tree rings?
IAN: Well you can either carbon date them or you can tree ring them....... and by carbon dating you get one date.....
RESTTORYELL & IAN: And by tree ringing them you get another.
IAN: But you actually find out that carbon dating is not a straight line graph but it's got a curve in it the further you go back.......
RESTTORYELL: It's not exactly a curve, it's more like a kink.....
LOTTE: Oooohhh, you guys are incredible, you know about a curve in carbon dating? I've never met two people like you who could talk about a curve in carbon dating.......
IAN: So after the correction they said that OK maybe civilisation started the other way around - in the Orkneys. The man's name was Renfrew. He was biased I think because he was a Scottish Nationalist.
RESTTORYELL: No, no, no, no, they said we could come up with that theory but really it would just be another diffusionist theory, so why don't we just admit spontaneous creativity on behalf of everyone?
LOTTE: Wait a minute, can I say something?
IAN: Well Renfrew's theory was that you get certain anthropological forces......
RESTTORYELL: Anthropological forces - what are they? Hey, I'm a sergeant in the anthropological armed forces!
IAN: People interacting within a community, and when they get to a certain level of interaction....
RESTTORYELL: Spontaneous civilised combustion? By people rubbing together? I never thought of it that way...
IAN: .......you get certain things that'll develop, and that happened in the Orkneys.
RESTTORYELL: Rub two primitive Orkneians together long enough and anything could happen.....
IAN: No, it's a bit more exact than......
RESTTORYELL: Hey, in America, have you seen the pictures of the beautiful Machu Picchu?
LOTTE: Yeh, I really wanna go there. To Peru, so badly, ooohh.
RESTTORYELL: Well the Orkneys are exactly the same, 'cos in the Orkneys they used to have volcanoes, back in 4000BC, so they made them with L-shaped blocks, perfectly fitted together......
LOTTE: They made L-shaped volcanoes?
RESTTORYELL: .....earthquake proof, just like in Machu Picchu. No, building blocks Lotte, building blocks AGAINST volcanic action...
IAN: Well they're similar but.......
LOTTE: Can I say something?
IAN: .......but the stones are not so big.
RESTTORYELL: But the DESIGN..... and execution......
LOTTE (Louder): Can I say something.....(flapping her arms) craaaagh, craaaagggh, craaaaaggggh, you gotta use your arms a lot if you wanna get noticed these days. OK, be quiet, be quiet.
RESTTORYELL: Real Californian style.
LOTTE: No, listen....
RESTTORYELL: Yeah, go ahead, tell the guys something. Give her a chance.
LOTTE: .....I've been waiting to say this for so long but I never seem to get a word in. Don't you think it's rather odd no matter wherever in the world you go, I mean from the Orkneys to Zimbabwe, and Egypt to South America, people always have to build these incredible burial temples. I mean so that everyone back in that time had a completely different perception of death?
RESTTORYELL: No, it's the same one as I have.
LOTTE: Well that's really besides the point. But that everyone thought the same way.
IAN: It's because they feared it.
RESTTORYELL: If they feared it then they would have ignored it man, just like we do today. They don't put temples up to death, it's something beyond death, it's transportation to a different world.
IAN: No they were trying to explain it.....
LOTTE: I mean maybe they had a bigger insight into these things, like the Chinese still, that death was further on, like it's a circular thing, samsara and nirvana.
IAN: No, I think it's a fear of the great unknown, they explained it in ways that they could understand......
LOTTE: It was more like they honoured the dead, but now....
RESTTORYELL: How about the correction theory?
LOTTE: .......yes then it was a great ritual, it was like a great transition, but now when you die it's nothing.
RESTTORYELL: Because now when you die, there's nothing after death, we're just specks of dust.
LOTTE: I know, but why, why has that changed?
IAN: You see this is where Christianity came in and tried to explain the great unknown, that there's really a heaven and a hell, and that you'd be better off......
LOTTE: But then that's still it, that's the short term end.
RESTTORYELL: What do you believe?
LOTTE: We're just dust in the wind.
RESTTORYELL: But won't you get blown somewhere and sprout seeds in the desert?
LOTTE: When you die, you just die, and that's it.
RESTTORYELL: And you believe the same Ian?
IAN: Yeah, I do.
RESTTORYELL: You're all crazy ......
LOTTE: Why, what do you think? Where you gonna go? Oh God!
RESTTORYELL: Look. Don't you remember your previous lives?
LOTTE: No, I didn't have any.
RESTTORYELL: I do. I do.
LOTTE: What were you, oh god, what were you?
RESTTORYELL: I was an advertising salesman for a Greek Tourist Agency.
LOTTE: You lie, you lie.
RESTTORYELL: I used to sell the ancient Romans tours to Greece.
Then earlier, I was an Orkney island bricklayer.
RESTTORYELL: But I also remember my future lives, though that's a little more difficult.
IAN: I've known people who've been to a hypnotist and found out about their previous lives. One was Marie Antoinette, and she was lucky......
RESTTORYELL: Lucky? Unlucky.....she had her head chopped off. She never did remember much after that.
IAN: Everybody seems to have been someone famous in a past life. Now, I ask myself: why?
LOTTE: Maybe it was compensation.
RESTTORYELL: Maybe they deserved it, maybe it was correction. (Forlornly) I wasn't anyone famous.
IAN: Why aren't you ever Mr. Smith who lives in the High Street?
RESTTORYELL: Because Mr. Smith’s life is so boring, there’s nothing to remember about it!
LOTTE: Mind you, there are so many places I've been to and you go walking into a street and I mean you've totally been there before and stuff........
RESTTORYELL: Yes! That's right and now why?
LOTTE: Well it's not because I've lived a previous life.
IAN: No, it's to do with your binocular vision.....
LOTTE: Ha, ha, ha, haaa.....
IAN: Occasionally, yes occasionally the right and the left hand side of the brain don't match, you see something and there can be a fractional delay in sending the message to the other half of the......... brain.......
RESTTORYELL: For some people it never gets there......
IAN: .......so you think....you've seen it before.
RESTTORYELL: Yes, where have I heard this conversation before? On the other side of my brain...........
LOTTE: No, it's what you call Vuja Dê.
RESTTORYELL & IAN: You mean dêja vu?
LOTTE (Laughing): No, I don't, I mean vuja dê......get it?
RESTTORYELL:......but why do you feel so good when you're talking like this?
LOTTE: What's that got to do with previous lives?
IAN: Or dêja vu?
RESTTORYELL: It's got everything to do with it - this conversation has spirit in it, it's touching the stratosphere......
IAN: No, no, it's because the brain loves making connections......
LOTTE: Well it's because you're always thinking of it in a scientific sense, and you're thinking of it in a trip-out, weirdo, mystical sense..... oh god I wish we had some grass on us, we should be smoking here......
RESTTORYELL: Isn't this enough?
Chapter 2Posted by Graham Thompson Thu, January 21, 2016 12:27:14
after my partly pointless pilgrimage to the heights of Muswell Hill I
was looking down through neon Arabic script outside the window of the
Hotel Everest on a very different city. I was headed for (or was it
back from?) Nairobi and points further south, determined to take in a
few Sphinx and create some riddles of my own. The view below my hotel
room was worthy of a Hiram Hilton - a 50 foot replica of Ramases
stood down there as if just about to dive into the small pool at his
feet. Whizzing past the pharaoh's right ear was an overpass full of
Fiat bubbles, Toyota pick ups and ancient flat-bed trucks. The Hotel
Everest, as its name might suggest, was probably the tallest hotel in
town, with views in the far distance to the beginnings of the desert.
I was on the 28th of 54 floors in room 622, but I had the definite
feeling that the 23 floors above me were empty of human habitation.
In fact it was a very strange feeling, dare I say a uniquely
post-modern feeling (I do allow having them now and then), staying in
a high rise hotel of 60's provenance, which even more than it's
sister buildings of London, Manchester or Aston, was in the last
stages of dereliction and desertion. I decided that the hotel policy
was to occupy the rooms closest to the 5th floor first (the ones
below that were filled by empty offices) where the manager's office
and dining rooms were situated. This meant that it was also probably
less top heavy in the case of an earthquake or just a plain simple
natural disintegration. The hotel was therefore remarkably full, 18
floors full to be exact, although I had only noticed one of the rooms
on my floor locked, and the dining rooms appeared to be mysteriously
empty most of the time, even at breakfast. Perhaps I just couldn't
bare the fact that I was almost alone in this tottering monstrosity
and preferred to feel it was more occupied. But my searches on higher
floors had only revealed empty and open rooms without even the sight
of a cleaner. The compensation was, of course, that I could make as
much noise as I wanted to and so I sang and bellowed and recited
Shakespeare and Eliot at all hours, and when tired of this, played
the stereo ghetto blaster I had bought on a midnight boat from
Vlissingen to Sheerness (the adventure of it’s acquisition and
almost loss coming soon), which was an intended present for my best
contact in northern Tanzania. The weight of those empty floors above
me made me sing and dictate louder - oh yes the gist of these
adventures of my luggage were always being recorded on my small
dictaphone and it is to those recordings, complete with background
music of an echoing Room 622 and a drone of Cairo city traffic that I
now pin my ears before writing these words. I can hear again my
shutters being closed and see the ghetto blaster on the bedside
table, the African hold-all peeping from under the bed, the Greek
satchel lounging against the metal chair, and my black briefcase with
papers scattered over the spare bed.
In fact in
the background to that recording, cunningly hidden from the casual
listener by my own version of double tracking, I can now hear the
recording of an earlier adventure in a Milan hotel room. I remember
my frustration when I found that I had missed yet another train
connection, which forced me to stay the night in Milan on the way
south to Greece. I found a small but far from cheap hotel a couple of
blocks from the station. And what a station - I had seen nothing
before to match it’s grandiose design and execution - not even in
the glories of St. Pancras, Antwerp Central or Frankfurt
Hauptbahnhoff. The thing I love about such stations is that it is
impossible to lose them, so big are they on the horizon of the city,
and such a noble bequest from the public-spirited burghers of the
past - a spirit of capitalist generosity which unfortunately is now
dead, except in its warped manifestation of offering covert bribes to
the coffers of modern political parties. It is the kind of place
where you can have the most extraordinary conversations, whilst
sitting on the marble reliefs, with fellow passengers destined for
other far flung locations on the inter-European network. Of course
Italians complain even more than we about the lateness of the trains,
but waiting with such a backdrop of glorious heights and distances
makes time stand still, and thus the train arrives more quickly than
in some lesser shed of a station. I had been confirming with a
passing fellow passenger the translation of the timetable for
Brindisi and the Adriatic Coast when a decidedly down at mouth
customer burst foward and knocked me over onto the immaculately clean
marble floor. Surprising me, he offered to haul me up again and in my
gratitude for his help I never suspected his true intentions - but
unkown to me I was already a wee bit lighter of luggage - as we
shall soon see.
The hotel was
a short taxi ride away, indeed it was the driver who recommended as
being just about within my budget. The room I had taken was also
magnificent for its acoustics, and I decided to take full advantage
of it by setting up my recording equipment for a layered performance:
marble floors, marble fireplace, even the curtains looked as if they
were made of marble. The echo was better than the Albert Hall, and I
didn’t have to wait for so long for it to come back to me. I was
halfway through a re-recording with hidden messages of the well known
Dire Straits number "So Far Away": "I'm tired of being
in love and being all alone When you're so far away from me. I'm
tired of making out on the telephoooone....." when to my
synchronistic astonishment the phone by the bed began to emit a
curious bleating sound which must have been the Italian for "ring,
ring" (though I guess no phones actually make this sound now
anywhere in the world, bells are merely electronically simulated and
in many countries, particularly Italy, the simulation is a simulation
of a simulation etc.). I turned down the volume and picked up the
phone, but continued to record. The manager of the hotel said there
was someone to see me in the foyer and would I please, please, turn
the music down as it was now 2.30 a.m. and complaints had been
received by neighbours. I reluctantly switched off my equipment and
went downstairs. I swear I had been no longer than 5 minutes but the
place was completely vacant, my prospective contact had gone. I went
back up to where I thought the manager’s rooms were, and stood
there knocking as quietly as I could in the half lit hallway. His
bald head protruded from the crack in the door and his sleepy voice
protested that no, he had not phoned me, no, no-one had called for me
but would I please keep the music down. Then he shut the door as
silently as he had opened it.
I would have
put this all down to a dream but half an hour later the whole process
repeated itself. I was re-recording the "So Far Away" at a
lower volume and yet again at the words "on the telephooone...."
MY telephone broke in and it was definitely the manager's voice
asking me in his broken English to come downstairs as I had a
visitor. "Are you SURE?" "Yes, absolutelya sure."
"Then I suppose I'd better come." I recorded the following
conversation on my tape so I can't have been dreaming.
Are you looking for me?
you are Mot Resttoryell.
What do you want of me at this time of night and how did you know I
saw you in the station, I was the man who knocked into you when you
were explaining your travel problems to that guy with the bigga hat.
And then you followed me here, but what for?
Yes, I wanted to help you with your ah luggage, but you were too
quick for me.
Are you telling me you’re some kind of porter?
no, I’m actually a pick-pocket, though I’m agraduating to be
house-breaker in two years. I’ve come to give you back your wallet.
I’m sorry, I stole it from you when you fell. But now I’ve seen
it’s containments and I’m sorry I just wanted toa read some
letters you have in it. As soon as I knew what you were doing I felt
I just have to give it back to you. You’ll need every lire you’ve
got if you are to ah succeed. Here it is.
I’m flabbergasted, I’ve only ever been robbed once before but on
both occasions I have recovered my funds straightaway, extraordinary!
The first time the mugger was immediately knocked down by a bus.
risk of oura very dangerous occupation.
Well thank for your kind sentiments, I never knew it was missing, I
would only have missed it tomorrow when I came to pay the bill. Is
there anything I can do for you?
Well, actually, come to think of it, I could do with my fare home;
it’s difficult to live on a student house breaker’s allowance,
and my training hasn’t being going ah too well. Or still better,
you could help me to a few silver candleholders in your room.
No, no, you can’t do that, they’d bound to suspect both of us,
the manager knows we’re up and around, here, take a few thousand
lire, that’s all I can afford.
Yes, I ah understand, I don’t want to get caught yet again, good
luck then and I hope you find something to help all those poor
buggers. Many of my friends are that way, and their alonliness is
even worse than before, especially here in Italy. It must be better
in England huh?
I don’t actually live there anymore, so I can’t really comment.
Look, you’d better go before the manager becomes suspicious.
INTRUDER: Yes, yes, ok, buona sera!
Buona sera al secchio!
After he left
I resumed my recordings, glad to be restored to my wallet and its
invaluable credit cards (yes! the honesty of the guy astonished me,
but could he have the dreaded disease?), and nevertheless a little
puzzled and maybe suspicious about what had happened. But I could
find nothing missing from the wallet despite a thorough search.
Contemplating the letter from Dr. Nabakov, our head of operations,
the same one that he must have read, I realised that if the guy was
NOT a thief, he could have learned rather too much from that letter.
And who else could he have been - Italian Secret Police? Surely they
hadn’t already been in contact with the Czechs? No, that was
impossible – why would he have returned it? Maybe of course to
plant a tracker on me. But I realised I was getting paranoid for
nothing and put a halt to these thoughts. It was too late now, and
really I had nothing to hide in all my papers. The task was just as
it was laid out in the letter. My hidden personal project which the
big money also paid for was tucked away in only my head, and even if
someone were to listen to my taped interviews with the European
contacts they would gather very little, buried as they were beneath
the music in a way only I could retrieve. It was, after all, just
more distantly related pieces of my medico-anthropological fieldwork.
And the contact list had been safely locked in my briefcase: that was
the only giveaway that I was busy frying bigger fish on the side.
When I woke
that morning in 622 I wrote the following postcard to Rebecca, an ex
girlfriend and fellow ethno-medical researcher in Geneva: "Here
I am in Cairo, all my relatives have gone home now, so there is
no-one left to bury except myself - I left Lord Byron in Bari so the
only place to go is up the River Nanananile....." I have it with
me again now as I stole it back when I visited her after my return to
Europe. The picture on the other side is of the Everest taken from a
plane with a desert sunrise (or set) in the distance. The card still
smells faintly of Rebecca's musk perfume, though it's strange, I
remember sending it to her because I had already smelt the same
perfume in the Everest room, and on the pillows. It could not have
been my daughter's - it's not her style and in any case she never
visited the Everest. So was it my imagination or could it have come
from a previous occupant of the room? I rushed downstairs via the
lift, which creaked and braked and heaved it's gathering load of
Spanish, Lebanese(?), Greek and Egyptian crooks trying to look like
business men down the 20 odd floors to the dining room. As usual I
was late and they were on the way out - the dining room was almost
empty but not quite closed. I put down my Greek bag - a constant
companion - as I sat at a table by the window with an uncommonly good
view of the flyover just below, and picked up a paper (in Arabic) so
as to be able to peep unobtrusively at my neighbour, who was a blond
travelleress, dressed as if ready for a four wheel drive across the
Sahara to the Siwa oasis to read her fortune. The waiter served
grapefruit then a stale crust of bread, which I dispensed to the many
cats howling hissing and fighting beneath the table. The only good
thing you could say about the Everest breakfasts was that they came
free with the room. In other cheaper hotels in Egypt you had to
haggle over the price of a breakfast every new morning, otherwise it
would double in price by the end of the first week. I wanted to
engage in conversation with my neighbour but she, noticing my
eagerness, broke out in an American style greeting and abruptly
demanded if I could really read Arabic.
I replied non-committally, "if you don't want your grapefruit do
you mind if I have it as I'm starving?"
ahead, I only ever drink coffee in the mornings. Oh by the way I
think you have that paper upside down."
yeah, as a matter of fact are you going somewhere serious?" I
asked. "Serious, oh you mean am I travelling a long way? No,
I've already been far enough, I'm on my way back to Saluda, South
Carolina, leaving tomorrow. Why, where are you going?"
that's not easy to say, probably south...." Her smoky blue eyes
narrowed and her eyebrows seemed to swing like a see-saw. "Towards
Aswan you mean?"
long way over and past Aswan. I'm flying to Nairobi tomorrow if
everything works out. Where have you just come from then?" She
laughed, a light dry kind of laugh that made you want to slap her
desert, I really love the desert, I've been living with the Bedouin
for three months, can you believe that - I can hardly believe it
myself......" Somehow, I could just believe it and I realised I
might be able to trust this woman.
I said, "I'd love to talk to you about your desert experiences,
but I have to leave now, I have an urgent appointment and I've got
things to buy, but if you have time, why don't we meet again same
time tomorrow. What time is your flight?"
until late afternoon, yes I'll be here in the morning, same time?"
Nice meeting you, see you....mmm...soon. Oh by the way - what’s
Mot Resttoryell, see you.”
forget your paper."
acknowledge her joke, I rushed out the room and backup to 622. As I
ascended I realised I had already forgotten her name, which I
regretted even more because the pleasant halo of feelings associated
with her image needed a name, a mnemonic for the rest of the day. But
the smell of her musk perfume lingered in my nostrils. As always the
first thing I did was to check my luggage and all its contents. The
ghetto blaster stared at me mutely through its two great insect eyes,
so I pressed the play button to listen to more of my journey through
Italy. The Guatemalan bag was exactly where I had left it
precariously perched (on purpose) on the edge of the bed. My hide
hold-all was still under the bed, full only with innocent clothes.
The tape bag was slung over the wooden chair bulging with electronic
contrivances, wires hanging everywhere. And finally my black
briefcase was sitting smugly on the other bed, combination locks
remaining at exactly at the numbers I had purposefully left them
180.192, which was that day's date. To these I added my Greek bag, at
the same time removing my latest contact list which I had hand
written all over again the previous night. Looking at the scribbled
names I realised that it would be totally unprofessional to send the
list out to the members of the circle without placing it on a headed
notepaper in typed form. So first I cut out some black letters and
formed the heading SIDALTEL with a stolen "globe" logo from
a Danish Metallurgy Conference that I happened to have with me. I
stuck them on as a heading then copied it downstairs in the photocopy
shop, thus producing a not unpleasing headed notepaper. All I had to
do was find a typewriter with which to copy my list onto this new
paper, and I at first thought of asking the hotel office if I could
use theirs. But maybe it would be better to acquire my own - a second
hand portable, perhaps, that I could take on to Kenya and use for my
final reports. I had been disappointed in that the sponsors had not
allowed me a laptop computer within my meagre budget, but in any case
I would have needed one with heavy long lasting batteries for
up-country use, as the solar powered ones were not yet available. The
weight was a major problem, and indeed even a lightweight portable
typewriter would mean yet another item of luggage. As the budget
would not allow me to take taxis everywhere, I would face even bigger
crises with my possibly seven pieces of luggage at every departure
and terminus. At that moment there was yet another synchronic
coincidence to my train of thought, because, the tape I was then
listening to arrived in Brindisi station and I was treated to the
following account of my immense struggles to get out the carriage.
station before the terminus was mysteriously called Monopoly, and was
it a coincidence that I had been counting the last few remaining Lire
in my possession? Then I realised I could not even afford a taxi, let
alone to pay for a hotel bed. With what felt like sixteen bags, I
watched the train slide to a halt, a neon sign flashed up, it was
platform 4, 20.50 on the first Sunday after New Year. As I got down
off the train, though I had carefully distributed my load, I had to
pay special attention to the balance between the heavy hold-all
strapped to my right shoulder, together with the briefcase in my
right hand, and the combination of Guatemalan bag and tape recorder
on my left shoulder and left hand respectively. Then, coming out of
the station I was forced to fend off the usual attention of the taxi
drivers parked in the square, who were almost plucking the bags and
the boxed ghetto blaster from my failing grip. I struggled across the
ill-lit square to a travel office opposite that dealt with the
ferries across to Ignoumenitsa and let my arm pieces slide to the
floor. I had missed the ferry I was booked on the night before
because of the Milan fiasco, so I needed to check if I could get one
that night with the same ticket. Yes it was fine to use that same
ticket tonight, but would I not like to take a taxi down to the
harbour as it was way across town? Imagine my relief when at that
very moment in walked a backpacking New Zealander who was also asking
the way to the harbour.
receiving instructions for our route, we set off together and,
because he had his hands free, Kiwi Ian kindly offered to carry the
big box with the music centre. "Why have you got so many bags?"
he asked."I dunno, they just seem to attach themselves to
me.""Why don't you put it all in a backpack like me?""It
wouldn't all fit in, and in any case I don't like to appear like a
traveller." "You mean with this lot you're a traveller in
disguise?" "No, I'm a spy disguised as a salesman."
"That's not funny when you have to cross so many borders. Why
the big recorder?" "It's a present for a friend." "In
Greece?" "Maybe, it depends on who is nice to me."
"Well I certainly can't use it." Though I did have my
suspicions at the customs office when Ian inevitably strolled through
much quicker than I and disappeared into the bowels of the boat along
with my package. I got through some 15 minutes later after an
extensive search of the books and files in the briefcase and the
clothes in the hold-all. Of course this time there was nothing for
them to find, not in my personal belongings at least. Ian didn't know
what he had hold of.
Intro & Chapter 1Posted by Graham Thompson Sun, December 07, 2014 19:41:56
A common enough story. One man and his bags. And many missed connections. Do we begin with the bags? Or perhaps with the journey? History as a list of items has a long pedigree: those kings in Sumeria or accounts in Knossos, all good excuses to put pen to paper or chisel to stone. But maybe origins are more important here as it gives us a lever on the itinerary too.
The everyday tale of a man trying to find himself or rather his luggage. But is there such a great difference? After all, the bag expresses and sometimes exposes the man. For a bag can contain not only, say, his outer identity, his clothes , but as in this case, his very life work. And if that ends up at the wrong destination and in the wrong hands - where is left the man?
Was there a beginning to these travels? Many of course: London, Antwerp, Athens, Dar es Salaam, my mother's womb, two Ice cream parlours - the one in Luton, the other in Atbara-on-the-Nile. All were small beginnings in their way, but the history of my most important luggage began in Dar. So we might as well begin there with the first piece of the story and etc. etc. The item of luggage for which our bagman had the deepest attachment began its life on the back of several wild animals of the East African plains. It was a hide leather holdall made in patchwork with two strong handles and a big black zip; the latter was its weakest part, though it was only after 20.000kms. or several years that this made itself manifest. Originally a light tan, it gradually weathered to a gold and shining brown, which at various times attracted cries of admiration from ticket inspectors, boxers, soldiers and air-force personnel (but never sailors), taxi-drivers, sociologists and the tannyboys of the African buses - those who, after throwing your luggage on the roof ran alongside, jumping and dancing on the side-rails before hoisting themselves onto the departing vehicle. The article was purchased one day in 1988 in the rundown market quarter of Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam. I had just emerged from the cool, dusty and slatted-light atmosphere of the old market when I was almost cut down by a white Peugeot taxi, pot-holing its way towards the centre of town. Falling like a Graham Greene hero into the gutter, I hauled myself onto the covered sidewalk and instantly stood amazed before the old Indian bag shop I had last seen (and then subsequently lost) back in '81. So I went right in and bought a replacement for the similar bag, which had fallen apart from the owner somewhere in Sudan, the victim of being thrown down from the back of heavy lorries and generally dragged about the desert for 6 months. This previous item, bought from the same shop, had proved to have a defectively thin bottom and rather weak stitching but it made up for all that in sheer character, so I was determined to buy something similar. In fact, after daring to enter the dusky interiors of the shop past assorted hanging kanga, kitenges, kikois, and kanzu, and then the stentorian and grave silences of the tall Makonde ebony carvings, hustling their black carved beauty in the desultory half light, I finally discovered the said baggage, thrown together with a host of other but lesser immortals. I haggled with the owner of the shop but with the usual lack of effect. I was forced to pay the full price, more than three times what I had paid for my original bag. I consoled myself with the fact that, allowing for inflation, the deal was not so bad. This leather holdall only had one disadvantage: it had no shoulder strap, but it easily made up for this in durability, and in any case, it had only to survive the comparative luxury of European travel, bar a few odd but quite cosseted returns to East Africa. And what did it store? Like all of my bags it soon began to take on a most individual character because of its contents. It showed itself to be most reliable in carrying clothes, mainly because it was the biggest of my luggage artillery. But occasionally, wrapped inside the clothes, it also stored magnificent gifts for friends and family - ebony carvings, ivory trinkets, copper bangles and semi precious stones. Such gifts always remained well-protected inside the voluminous but well stuffed caverns of its interior. And such gifts also sometimes had their inner secrets.
The second item was worn and carried with much greater ambivalence than the first. Let me describe it in detail first and, also, how it came into my possession, then the reader will perceive more clearly the sources of my ambivalence. This 45x32x13cm. black box of absolute rectangular line is known as a briefcase, or sometimes as the falsely diplomatic French term - an attaché case. Inside the hard black leather box was a contrastingly white and soft kid leather lining, a world all to itself, warm and secret and hidden, whose numerous small pockets were a sensuous invitation to explore them. But on the outside it was a dead giveaway - any bearer of such a box just had to be a businessman. But the owner was no businessman. Or rather the business he entered into was of such a nature as to be in serious conflict with the image of the briefcase. Perhaps that's why it was this item of luggage, the guilty black briefcase, that most often became detached from its owner. On the outside were two small combination locks which I synchronized with the date of my own birthday: 290252. However I was later forced to change this to the date of the divorce of my second wife (an even more momentous event) after I realized the code had been broken and the contents examined and some stolen. But more of this later. It came to me without my desiring it - in other words it was a gift. One ostensibly given by grateful former students when, in early 1991, I vacated a lecturing post , which over the previous three years had become the funeral and long wake on my creativity. The bag was actually chosen by my immediate college superior, who was only superior in the degree of her idiocy and toadyism to the higher authorities. She had been the willing tool in the dismemberment of her own department, in the name of streamlining, downsizing, cost-effectiveness or whatever other metaphors administrators and politicians dreamt up at that time for getting rid of people they didn't like and effectively reducing the quality of the teaching. I left before they could find a reason to fire me, which was most unfortunate for the department, as I was the only one who knew how to work a computer and they had previously fired all the secretaries. However despite my obvious ambivalence to the thing, the briefcase became somehow inextricably attached to me, returning like the proverbial yo-yo, even when I thought it had gone for good, and so afterwards I gradually became reluctantly attached to it. And what did it contain? Mainly my work, my records, index cards held together by numerous rubber bands, other people's business cards, letters, tapes, small cameras, films, pencils, pens and condoms etc. This meant that it was always too heavy and because it had to be hand-held was continuously moved from one arm to the other. It was always being dropped and so it amassed a number of distinctive dents and scars which we will come to later.
The third item of luggage sprang out of the anonymous arteries of electro-consumer land, which as any Londoner knows, is situated at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road. The only coincidence that this item of luggage had with the others was that it too was bought in a shop run by Indians, who now seem to control not only the ex-empire's baggage stores but the distribution and sale of its electrical goods. It had a purely functional and largely anonymous character: black in colour, plastic in material, with a nylon shoulder strap. It was bought one early November from one of a number of equally similar stores, which sold everything electrical, from the impotent jack plug up to the biggest wall-to-wall screen TV. Small and with numerous side-pockets, this bag had one function only: to store the numerous tapes and small tape recorders, microphones etc. required for the recording of a transient's history. This too, like its much handsomer and bigger brother, was the replacement for one of an identical character, that was lost during our story.
The origin of the fourth item of luggage was much more exotic. Our lone traveller was foraging the backstreets of a 1991 Antwerp shortly before another African trip when he came across a small clothing store specializing in South American goods. Inside was a labyrinth of wooden stairs and platformed levels, probably designed to look like an Amerindian house, on the very top of which I found a pile of the latest consignment of bags from Guatemala. Made in a Hessian-like material, this was a simple rucksack with black cloth shoulder straps, which could also be pulled tight around the neck of the bag to ensure the safe-keeping of its contents. The Hessian was woven from beautiful strands of striped and checked colours, mostly blue and black, but also with flecks of yellow and green and numerous red chevrons - one of my favourite motifs. Back in the days when I was a sedentary consultant I had toyed with the idea of calling my agency 'Red Chevvy', and had only been put off by the chrome connotations. The light rucksack was a late starter in this story, but it served it's owner well for a further 20,000Km. of his travels and is still, miraculously, in my possession. It frequently contained clothes of the kind that needed no special attention: sweaters and underwear etc, but it was also useful for things of immediate use such as toiletries, a small medical kit and my lunchbox.
The last piece of moveable luggage worthy of mention was born to me in a small Greek gift shop under the Acropolis in January of ‘91. It was the kind of shop that did everything for the discerning tourist and had a humdinger of a line in leather bags. This beautiful item, originally of a light honey-coloured shiny cow's leather, weathering slowly to a darker tan than even the African safari bag, was actually close in resemblance to a satchel of the 50's or early 60's - it is probably the reason why it so attracted the author. However, it was an extremely large satchel that could and did swallow as many as ten or eleven books at a time, as well the occasional file in current use. It was a very functional bag, as it also had two side pockets (for apples, trinkets, medicines, small knives and other boy scout accessories) and a larger front pocket on which there was a buckle for the main flap (this contained most often pens, diaries, address books, and the odd local map). Unfortunately, this buckle was the only deficiency in an otherwise perfect design. It was not weak and it did not lead to failure, but the weight it was forced to bear when hand-held pulled the leather below it into an ugly fold when it was at rest. The sturdy hand strap sat on the flap cover and was a useful addition despite its connection to this minor injury. The immensely strong and broad shoulder strap emanated from metal rings attached to each side, and through this adjustable belt there passed an additional piece of flat leather, also adjustable, to cushion the impact on the wearer's shoulder. Extremely strong and well made, it was finished in thick hand stitched cord that only once needed repairing in it's long and continuing life. The bag replaced a much smaller imitation red leather one which had been with me from the beginning of my first researches in Africa, but which decided to fall apart on its last journey through Greece. So, though we did not begin our travels together, we did indeed complete them, and this item is still with me as I make my much more minor excursions around and about the city of my final destination. These were the forlorn, and sometimes lost heroes of this story.
I will spare you a detailed description of the tired and ever more exhausted body that carried these bags. Sufficient to remark that I was a cross-breed of English father and Welsh mother, inheriting the dark locks of my mother and her small build, but the blue eyes and restless character of my father. The Resttoryells were a gypsy breed, the Thomases not at all. My father was descended from Roumanian gitanes who had made their way across the continent to England sometime in the late 18th century. They were dissolute drunkards who had only been saved from their sins by conversion to Weslayan methodism. My grandfather had been an itinerant preacher and my father an itinerant insurance salesman. What hope for me then except to widen the scope and horizons of the family travels? Mother, by contrast, was the daughter of a Merthyr miner, and had spent the first settled years of her life in the same valley; until she met my father, and then she had shared some twenty different homes before I was late born in her 45th year. She had not known she was pregnant, but was suddenly taken ill on a long journey to Scotland that my father had insisted on taking just to celebrate New Year. I was born in a hurry, one month premature, in a snowstorm, at a small doctor’s surgery in the small village of Catterick just off the A1 Great North Road. At least this was the story told to me by my parents, but I suspect I was born in the back seat of my father’s Ford Prefect as I still go into ecstasy when I smell the leather seats in old cars. Despite the surprise and inconvenience of my arrival, my father insisted on continuing the journey to Edinburgh for a double celebration, even though my mother was terrified of the Scots and having no friends or relations to help her in those first few months. It turned out father was actually on a recce mission and two months later he took the three of us to Falkirk, assuring my mother that the Scots were seriously under-insured compared to the Welsh or English. But it was only the first in a whole series of home changes which I had to endure throughout my childhood and youth, with the result that I attended no less than nine different schools, and we didn’t return to Wales until my mother insisted on it at her retirement. Then at last I managed to attend one Grammar school for three whole years and subsequently succeeded in passing my A levels and reaching university to study the only subject I was ever interested in: botany. My love for this subject had been developed by my lack of comradeship as a child (I was always the newcomer who never stayed long enough to find friends), for which I compensated by taking long walks out into the countryside and observing every detail of my surroundings. But perhaps it was also the order and discipline of the subject that attracted me, being in total contrast to my own always temporary and disjointed life. But we must not retrograde into irrelevant pasts, it’s time to commence with our intricate and labyrinthine tale, it’s enough to provide you now with this sketch of my history, so as to explain in part at least the longing for new destinations that drove me and my baggage through to the end of this travella.
You have to imagine the weary traveller at different points of time in the early 1990's stumbling down the steps of a German train with the Greek satchel over one shoulder, the black cassette case on the other, the briefcase in the right hand, the African bag in the other (but often swapped back and forth to even the strain) and finally the Guatemalan knapsack on his back. The stumbling went on from train to taxi, taxi to hotel, hotel to tram, tram to apartment, apartment to bus, bus to airport lounge, and so on, not only of course in Germany, but in a total of nine European and three African countries in the space of less than one year. As a result the shoulders inevitably began to droop, the spine buckle forwards, and the head became more bullish in its approach to the future and life in general.
The First Cassette Case
One night, late in November 1991, I was headed for Blackfriars station, London, on the last train from Dover, having arrived from the continent by ferry. It was a filthy night, the cliffs of Dover looked like the TB sheets from an ancient Brando movie. The illuminated orange world of the container dockyard and the consumer hell of the bright plastic entry terminal gave me no sense of welcome back to my native land. My progress that night had been very unpromising. On finally escaping customs, I had almost missed the bus from Dover Eastern docks to the station. Once in the station I learnt that the only remaining train would enter Blackfriars at 11.30 pm, probably too late to get the underground up to my destination in north London. Then to confirm my doubts the train was seriously delayed outside London. The only compensation was that I had managed to hold on to every single one of my four bags, and this was particularly important as the attaché case contained important documents which might help initiate an educational project in Israel, run by the man due to meet me that night. The black cassette box also contained tapes which I wished to distribute through my Jewish friend to the British members of the organisation I was trying to set up in Europe. They were recordings of the meetings I had had with our European counterparts. As I sat waiting and becoming more anxious about the lateness of the hour I distracted myself by engaging in a conversation with the young woman opposite me, a recent graduate in Comparative European Literature, who informed me that she had no chance of ever using her degree to get a job. We began a rather flippant debate about the serious lack of direction in English Literature, and then went on to discuss the relative merits of our German heroes, hers Brecht, mine Grass. The conversation entered the narrow straights of post-modernism as we slowly slid into the outer suburbs of south east London. At Dartford we were mulling over Baudrillardian ideas of literature (and life) as performance when we gradually noticed that the train had not moved for more than 20 minutes. Outside the darkworld was covered by drizzling and pealing boredom, and inside, it was probably only the increasing cold in the carriage which awoke us to the fact that the real world had stopped. It was already 11.30 pm, a Sunday night, and for the first time we both began to voice the feeling that perhaps we might not reach our respective destinations before bedtime. The voice from the platform speakers then began to muffledly penetrate our windows and hoping to hear something of consequence we stepped out into the murk. Through the banks of mist we heard, or thought we heard, the sound of a siren – surely we were nowhere near the sea? The posters on the wall of the station all appeared to be in heavy ancient characters which spelt out a language either English or German or yet some strange combination of the both. We wandered up and down until a semi-stifled voice emanated out of the mist, and this too was in a familiar but strangely foreign accent, which could barely be understood. Or was it just the effect of the thickened atmosphere? We moved right under the station speaker only to hear now the clear instruction that this train, due to some unpronounceable reason, could no longer enter Blackfriars, but would instead disembark at Charing Cross. This suited me admirably, but I saw the face of my companion visibly drop: someone was waiting at Blackfriars for her, she had very little money and he was the only means by which she could reach her journey's end. She reluctantly decided to stay on the platform in the faint hope of catching the next (if there was a next) train to Blackfriars. As I stepped back on the train there was another apology for the delay, and then the sudden and startling announcement that, after all, this train was destined for Blackfriars. But before my friend could move, the train decided to lurch into life and make a sudden departure from sodden Deptford. I shall never forget the face of that poor girl through the rain-smeared window of the train as we drew away towards her rightful destination. A queer mixture of horror, fear and fatalistic amusement. The kind of look that more and more often crosses the features of the survivors of our sad lost empire of transportation.
"So where is this train going to bud?" asked the American who sat across the gangway from me. I looked from his large frame to the very serious looking Samsonite cases that packed the gangway, and then across to his even bulkier companion before answering: "It looks like it's Blackfriars after all, but no-one can be sure." I decided it was definitely not my responsibility to apologise for my country's travel arrangements, despite the fact that a good deal of grumbling then resumed, based on the argument that they too had been told the train was destined for Charing Cross. Was this Blackfriars place very far from Baker St, and if not, was it safe to get a cab? - the questions began to fly around the carriage and I did my tired best to answer them.
20 minutes later we all stumbled off the train at Blackfriars, hauling our innumerable bags (I chose to ignore the Americans' complaint about lack of baggage trolleys though I knew that their disappearance had probably more to do with hooligans throwing them in the River Thames than inefficiency or lack of funding on the part of British Rail, but I could have been wrong) along the half-darkened platform towards the labyrinth of exit tunnels. We merely noted metaphysically the non-existence of the city's underground transport by means of a nod towards the padlocked metal grille which barred its entrance. Once outside we squeezed ourselves into the first of a long line of taxis in a silence redolent of a lost and defeated platoon, the sky of hopes somewhere above us, cut by the floodlit beams around St. Paul's. Grateful for the help I had given them, the Americans insisted they would pay for the cab when I got down in Trafalgar Square, which was just as well as I still hadn't changed my Belgian money.
Luckily I had a cash card that fitted in a hole-in-the-wall machine, though it wasn't until the third bank on the far side of the square that I found one that actually worked. Picture the poor pilgrim with his four heavy bags waiting patiently at each little red man, crossing and recrossing the zebras of the enormous square until monetary relief came out of the wall with that sweet little electronic bleating and the smile of "thank you - please take your money - goodbye" on the screen. The humans I met up with at the bus stop, and most of all the driver of the bus, were not nearly so accommodating. "You have to have the exact fare mate" which of course was not the ten pound note I proffered him. I and my bags were forced to retreat, back to the non-shelter of the bus stop. And yes, no-one could change a ten pound note in the queue for the next bus. Another sortie around the square and I found an all night drinks and tobacco shop. I don't smoke but I bought 20 Marlboro for my friend. Ah yes, my friend C. (I refuse to divulge his name for his own protection), had he given up on me and gone to bed? So I phoned him and he was still awake, still optimistically expecting my arrival. "Take a Taxi" he said, but I demurred on account of the cost, the organisation wouldn't wear it. "I'll be there in half an hour on the N26 nite bus, OK?" He didn't know the nite buses but it sounded alright to him.
By the time the bus arrived it was gone half past midnight andit was so full of people I had to fight my way to the space under the stairs were I could deposit some of my luggage. I placed the big holdall, my Guatemalan bag and the small plastic tape carrier in the dank hole and then stood guard as the bus slowly made its way through the west end towards Marble Arch, still cluthching my attaché case. Then it did something terrible: it turned left where I expected it to go straight on. We were headed in a direction some way parallel from the one I knew to be correct. Either my memory of the number the bus was defective or the routes had changed. With an exhausted sigh I sat down on the first available seat and strained to recognise the neighbourhoods through the window, paying no more attention to my stored luggage. The rain streaked the view onto a dark wasteland of constant terraces, factories and railway bridges. Tiredness crept through my sagging frame as I sank forward to rest my chin on the briefcase on my lap. The enemy of vigilance - sleep - was getting the better of me. But an imaginairy map was passing before my half-closed eyes, and on this map a moving pinprick of light suddenly illuminated a place at right angles to the marked destination. At this point, somewhere in Cricklewood, I fought my way out of sleep, dragged the remaining bags from their hole and almost fell from the bus onto the still wet street. Picking myself, and then
them, up, I strode through the bleary night to look for a phone. This was a very run down area, looking two cigarette papers thin to the side of dangerous, particularly because there was no-one about. After walking some time I found an all-night shop and asked for the nearest phone. It was round the corner and over the bridge, another 100 meters on my long and weighty journey. It was gone 1.00 o'clock and there was somebody in the phone booth......so I patiently waited, guarding my luggage.
I could easily overhear the conversation: the crewcut youth in a uniform of bomber jacket and trainers was demanding from someone to be let back into his/their flat. The demanding soon turned to wheedling and then pleading, so I realised that it must be a female at the other end of the line. He came out after another ten minutes of shuffling around the phone box to avoid my stares, then disappeared huffily into the darkness. I crammed myself in the square meter of space with all my bags (or so I thought), fearing to leave even a single one unattended in that neighbourhood. The net result was that I could barely move my elbows enough to dial the number. I explained to my friend my mistake with the bus and then went on to try and describe where I thought I was, which was rather difficult because in my anxiousness to find a phone I hadn't even taken note of any of the street names. I begged C. to come and pick me up as there wasn't a taxi in sight, and craned my head out of the door to try and see a pub name, a street name, anything. But it was too dark. At that moment the long lost lover boy came back, so I asked him where we were but he could only be accurate to within the term "Cricklewood". Then I remembered the name of the all nite shop and the fact that I had walked over a railway bridge, which information I quickly supplied. "Sounds familiar" retorted my friend, "it's only about ten minutes away from here, be with you soon."
I burst out of the booth, mumbling pointless apologies to the brusheaded kid, who looked, by now, pretty desperate for something he knew he had already kissed goodbye. I turned and pulled out my bags and set off back across the bridge to stand on the corner by the nite shop. Standing there, trying to strain my eyes in every direction at once and, simultaneously, to
remember the look of my friend's car, I began to feel a kind of lightness of being which unfortunately had little connection to that described by Milan Kundera: there was definitely a bag missing! It was the lightest bag, the one least likely to be missed, but the black plastic cassette case was definitely
A.W.O.L. First and most obvious conclusion: it was still in the phone
booth. Or was it: by now my crewcut friend had probably found it and gone on his way, and that way would certainly not to be looking for me. I moved hurriedly back across the bridge, my eyes hurriedly shifting from one bag to another, as if that somehow would make the missing one reappear. But could I also be certain that I had had the bag when I left the bus? Not one image, not a single picture of the bag attached to me, nor placed anywhere, could I conjure for the time after I had left the bus.
The door of the red telephone box hung open, revealing only a dangling phone, still gently swinging, but sign of my case was there none. I strode back across the bridge with a feeling that half the point of this crazy journey through the night had now been wiped out. No more tapes for distribution via my friend, our number one contact man in the UK. The recordings of my meetings were luckily also stored on a master in Antwerp, but they would be too much at risk if sent via the post, so yet another journey across the channel would have to be made. Of course there was still no sign of C. when I got back to the shop on the corner, and by now it was more than 30 minutes since I had phoned him. And then a bus came towards me in the distance, an N26, my N26 on its way back to central London: yes, the driver with the same moustache, the same miserably long face. I dropped my bags and rushed down the road, hoping to intercept it at the bus stop beyond the shops. I turned and threw my arms up some 30 meters from the stop, desperate to find if my little black case and my tapes were still on board. But the empty double decker was travelling to a point way past me, a fact clearly indicated by the stare of the heedless driver that stretched only into the distant night: it went by serenely like a ghost liner on a calm sea, its brightly lit windows revealing a moment of cavalier, almost fairground brightness, accompanied by a strange and suddenly vanishing music, which I thought I recognised as being the latest Dire Straights' album, the very same one I had recently bought on cassette in a Prague street market. And that same cassette had been in the missing black case. Although there remained a slight doubt in my mind as to the fact or fiction of that music, nevertheless I was suddenly convinced I had not stepped down from the bus with all my luggage. A phone-call to the Lost Luggage section of London Transport the next day might still secure the recovery of the tapes, if the driver were an honest man.There was nothing for it but to go back over the bridge yet again and rephone my friend.
The time was now gone 2.00 am and I had been up since 6.30 am the morning before, so I was all in. I hauled my three bags once more to the phone and was relieved to find it vacant. C.'s mother answered my call and told me he was still out there somewhere looking for me. I was almost struck dumb by this persistence. This time I had at least the sense to collect a few street names en route to the phone, which I relayed to her slowly. She recognised them and promised to instruct C. when he returned. I apologised for being so late, for getting the wrong bus, for losing my own location, and even for losing my bag, but she merely laughed and said "it happens". But for me nothing just happens – there were reasons why my arrival at C.s house had been thwarted – and I don’t mean just the inefficiencies of British Rail, nor the sudden deviations of a regular nitebus from its alloted route, not even my own tiredness and lack of awareness which had led to the loss of such a precious article. No I am firmly convinced that not only the particular material circumstances had made my passage to C;’s door difficult but also there were spritual forces which had been directly set against the fulfilling of my mission – not only on this particular night, but as we shall see, on all the journeys necessary for the achievement of my final goal.
Thirty minutes later C. came by in his little white Vauxhall. I fell into his arms and he bundled me and the luggage back into the car. He had been past here exactly one hour before, but of course I was elsewhere, chasing buses or walking my bags. His only comment was "there were more railway bridges in Cricklewood than I had imagined." He'd finally given up and gone home only to find his mother had the exact location. He was still laughing about it as we entered the house. We crept into his study were he had put up a bed for me on the floor, but by this time I had completely woken up again and wanted to begin discussing the loss of the tapes. I was warned to keep my voice down as mother was sleeping in the next room. As he whispered this to me I suddenly realised two amazing differences since the last time I was in this house with him. He was now dressed as a strict Rabbinical Jew whereas at our last meeting he had been in Islamic robes and hat There was the beginnings of a small lock of curled dark brown hair peeping out below his black skullcap, but fearing a long religious argument I refrained from comment. Secondly, on one side of the study there was a bank of the most astonishing collection of the latest high tech information equipment, whose function I could not even guess at. On the screen of one of the computer systems there was a great deal of information regarding educational institutions both in the UK and in the US which appeared to be changing constantly all by itself. As if in answer to my unvoiced question C. explained that he was now hooked up to the Internet and this information was being sent downloaded from the States. It was being automatically stored in the computer's memory and he could read it the next day. As I had not even heard of the Internet at that point in time I was truly astonished, not only at the communicative possibilities of such technologies, but also at the fact that C.'s fortunes must have changed rapidly for the better since I had last seen him. The cost of such sophisticated technology must have been enormous.
The sight of all that information speeding itself across the screen reminded me of my own business and the information I needed to share with him. We had a low whispering discussion about the work in Europe and if the tapes could possibly be retrieved. He reminded me that the next day was a Sunday and the London Transport offices would be closed, but he promised to go himself on Monday and to phone me in my home town in Wales if they were found. I had to leave the next day for that destination as I quickly needed to organise the money for the next African trip with my sponsors. I then took out of my satchel two files, the first called DOVES, the second SIDALTEL, all the time conscious of the flashing of the computer screen to the side of me. The Doves file contained all the papers C. had previously given me on the educational project in Israel plus some new material on similar projects in Scandinavia and Germany which I had come across on my recent travels. He put them in a tray to read the next day. Then I opened the SIDALTEL file and took out the European contact list which I had already prepared a first draft of. I asked if he could make phone contact with the UK members on the list and he said he agreed to make sure that they were brought up to date with my activities and kept in a state of readiness for my return from Afica with our saviour. He took hold of the list and began to laugh. When I looked from my list to the beautiful laser printed documents in his out-tray I began to appreciate the source of his mirth. "What the hell kind of machine did you type this with, or was it done by ancient Greek scribes?" At that moment the darting letters on his computer screen disappeared into total blankness and he went over and switched everything off.
Outside the light was gradually penetrating the heavy curtains of the study and in the hollow of a momentary silence I heard the plaintive and persistent song of a nightingale. The appearance of this guardian angel no longer astonished me at such moments. Many times before in my life had she sung when I faced great loss and despair. As we stared at one another in the early morning gloom I began listen to my friend’s story of the DOVES project with which he was as preoccupied as my own efforts for SIDALTEL We were fellow workers in the creation of a new dawn, which hopefully would not turn into yet another false one.