Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Sequel is here....

It's called Going, Goni, Gone, and here's where you find it. I decided to honour the second book with a second blog. Just click and go for it: Going, Goni, Gone

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Jim is back

Yes dear readers, I know there are droves of you out there, or at least, I can pretend that I don't know there aren't. Failing that I can take comfort in the certain belief that a double, nay, a triple! -negative will always get you out of a tight spot. Or at least into the frying pan. 

Anyway, that's too much nonsense and I mustn't upstage Bo.

So here's the good news. Our favourite author has been slaving away in a cork-lined room to bring us the second installment in the saga of Jim Stalker, which we've been waiting for with bated breath. You may all breathe again, it's coming. I have in my possession the first two chapters and will be posting them. Soon. (... cue echoing evil laughter)

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Chapter 51- end

Chapter 51
Imbecile or Idiot Savant?

Hopping around the Mediterranean is a pleasant waste of time for those who enjoy Brit-louts, beaches and beer, techno-thump and ecstacy. I take my e’s, but don’t burden myself with too much happiness. The venues merge into a paper-trail of hotel bills and travellers’ cheques. Thanks to Void’s generosity, there is money to scatter.
Only a genius or a fool could conceive of a plan so simple, so counter-intuitive, so dumb. Rigorous in the daylight, it does tend to smudge by nigh, though. I call London to remind myself that retreat is not an option.
They’ve moved out, Sarah exults, fallen out, gone their separate ways. How fortunate, I tell her, now you’ll be able to bully some real tenants. But I’m gritting my teeth, resisting the urge to return and bring Leo out here, which, in the circumstances, would be crazy. I have an existence to erase.
Scent of lemon trees and thyme. At a white table by a drystone wall (Ibiza, Cyprus, Malta, Crete?), I scribble one final postcard to Mayola Road. Full text: ‘Return to Zendau – address unknown’. Ruritania and Elvis, a nod to my swashbuckling illusions, my craving for fame and, some might add, an early death. Tomorrow I fly to Rome under the old identity, after which – it’s goodbye Jim, hello Bo
The Swedish passport, immaculate (touch wood), valid throughout and beyond the European Community, is Koff’s masterpiece. We were very careful; both our liberties are at stake. Don’t worry, he boasted, it’s a miracle of digital scanning.
And I have scanned, every day I’ve scoured the web pages of the Bolivian dailies, fascinated by the news. El Coronelito is standing down, a victim at last, of lung cancer not justice, but it’ll do. I blow a smoke-ring across the screen - his wreath.
La Paz isolated again. Sensing weakness in the government, the campesinos have reimposed roadblocks. The hidden hand of fugitive leader, Pancho Choque, is suspected. Good omen, could hardly be better.
And then this delicious last item to strengthen my resolve: ‘Catholic priest beaten up’. Church hierarchy denies Padre Ignacio ventured into the countryside to negotiate a settlement in any official capacity. The man himself claims he was just exercising a God-given right to celebrate Mass. Peasant-union spokesman, however, denounces the attempt at spying.
Yes, I’m going back. In a lifetime of casually taken (and mistaken) decisions, this is either the most daring or doltish of them all. Don’t ask for explanations. With a head start, bags of money and the illogic of a non-chess-playing grandmaster, I know where my future lies. My future lies in Pancho's court.
Yet, after dumping the card at the village post office/store, I wonder at my indiscretion. Prying eyes will intercept and scrutinize the message. Bad omen? Too bad, too late.

I mingle with the hordes of Christmas tourists in Cuzco. They swarm around the city, gaping at the Incan stonework, which is holding firm, and the colonial churches, now crumbling. Meanwhile pickpockets work in teams of three to relieve the foreigners of wallets and cameras - tourism servicing the local economy.
For authenticity, I also sample Macchu Picchu, a holy site on a holiday weekend and still I’m impressed. No photo has ever captured the giddiness of this condor’s nest. At the Hitching-post of the Sun, I’m moved to pray for success.
I dawdle, but eventually find myself in Puno by the Peruvian shore of the lake. Rejecting the taxis, I select the bus, now approaching the Kasani crossing-point while every butterfly in my stomach hatches at once. Well, keeping bowels intact distracts me from the ordeal ahead.
In the event, the border post is understaffed and overwhelmed. A harried official stamps a thirty-day permit. Isn’t it ninety? He lifts his head to study this well-informed tourist. Er, I stammer, that is according to the guidebook, whipping out a virgin ‘Only Plan It’. New regulations, he growls. Extensions from Immigration Ministry, Avenida Camacho, La Paz, nowhere else. That place, shit, outta the question.
Your first visit, señor? Of course.
I try to blend in with the backpack crowd, but can’t hide my thrill at being on home territory again. Ah, merely to breathe Bolivian air (though it's time they built some toilets at Kasani). Why tremble? Those particular policemen in their shabby olive-green uniforms, don’t know you.
Sarah’s meditation to the rescue. Relax, press on.
Can’t, road’s closed. Tourists trapped indefinitely in Copacabana, along with the bus-owners who’ve been blessing their vehicles at the shrine of the Virgin. Take the opportunity, then, to stroll along the lakeside and weigh the risks (trivial – death followed by a hefty jail sentence), ponder your motives (convincing – boredom, a bid for legendary status, wanting to be wanted).
Clambering about ruined terraces, I ponder the irony of the Inca crowning himself child of the sun, unaware that their sun-metal was summoning the conquerors. Certainties are treacherous. This plan, this lateral thinking of mine, what if it’s all-too-predictable idiocy?
Inactivity will prove my undoing. So when a military escort is arranged to evacuate us, I join it willingly, but don’t quite see the use of these pimply recruits in a conflict situation. They crowd the aisles, cadging cigarettes and pressing against the thighs of the female travellers.
Our convoy, seven buses and a jeep, crawls along the deserted highway. Every few miles, the soldier-boys disembark to clear a path through a million rocks and stones. They are certainly earning what we paid to hire them, if, that is, the officers decide to distribute the cash.
My eyes are mostly glued to the window. An occasional campesino family, out herding animals, stares at our passage; otherwise the altiplano is empty, tensed like a lion about to spring. One soldier grumbles, "We clear, the stones reappear during the night." His mates nudge him; an officer has boarded the bus to check passports.
Camera, guidebook, a logo-less green cap, dark glasses, floral t-shirt, shorts, horribly sunburnt legs – the impeccable tourist, at present shitting in his pants. However, it’s the lieutenant’s turn to maul the ladies, and I have an excuse to avert my gaze.
Tranquillo. We’re nearing San Roque on the outskirts of the Alto. Knowing that I daren’t visit my old haunts, I’ve prepared a little treat to commemorate the return. Insert the cassette, adjust the earphones, prime the walkman, wait.
The U2 tape, the one remaining genuine classic, was among Geordie’s devastated collection, and this song in particular hijacked my soul, made me weep. I’m crying now as I play it again, full volume. Listen to the lyrics.
I wanna run, hide, break down the walls that hold me inside. I wanna reach out and touch the flame, take shelter from poison rain, blown by the wind, trampled in dust. I’ll show you a place high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name.
Well they don’t have names, do they, not up here? Astounding, prescient, how the Irish fellows managed to compose an authentic anthem for the Alto.
I’m snuffling, then tears course down my face, have to fake a cold or a coughing fit. But the other tourists are being captivated by their first sight of La Paz in a bowl and the troops have already trudged away, exhausted, to the Tárapaca garrison. I wallow in sentiment. Yet not so far gone that I don’t note the tanks and armoured vehicles clustered at the Ceja and goon-squads guarding the bridges of the autobahn.

A word about the state of play. I quickly gather that el coronelito's illness and resignation have resulted in a groundswell of sympathy, turning him overnight from a monster into a monument. Much is made of his twenty years of democratic striving and conversion from dictator to elected president. Much is forgotten of the tyranny.
And his obsession to regain power goes unremarked, though it is perverse. Restored to the palace, his arse on presidential chair, he hadn’t the slightest idea how to run the country, though his cronies never forgot how to fleece the treasury. The young replacement is Washington’s poodle. Nothing much has changed. Enough, you get the idea.
To practicalities. I inspect the Sucre Palace Hotel, where Ché once posed as a Uruguayan businessman. But paralleling his swansong would be most unwise, plus I need to stretch my funds. So I choose a cheapo, not even a hotel, but a backpackers’ lodging house, oddly reminiscent of the jail, its courtyard leading to tiny cells. Faded jeans, not bodies, swing from the washing lines and the music is international, tasteful. Nevertheless, some nights, I wake all a-sweat.
The error is in overstaying my welcome. Others are hurrying between phases of the great Andean experience. The fat concierge has fixed on me. She knits in her glass-fronted office like a guardian of the guillotine reborn, and I know I’ll have to invent a cover-story to appease her curiosity.
Business, import, sorry, export, um, alpaca jumpers, looking for native producers, investing in the potential of............ Needles clack, her blatantly false teeth savage the woollen thread. She marks an asterisk against my name in the ledger.
Have to keep alert. But this ugly city in its beautiful setting, is gradually smothering me. A caffeine hit to dispel the lethargy. I’ll read the newspapers, ponder moves, kid myself I have choices.
So, what nonsense is El Diario spouting today? Aha! An editorial on Pancho. According to which, el Sr.Choque is a maniacal, ruthless, terrorist agitator whose influence must be extirpated from the nation, etc. Bien, you can see that the little coronel is still pulling the strings from his deathbed. And the clique are so scared that Pancho will sandpaper the veneer of civilization off their chessboard. Right, he’s going to indianise the whiteboys. And I’m desperate to contact him. But how?
Back out in the street, it’s like watching a video of myself, an inattention which almost costs me dear when, by the steps of the Finance Ministry, Edmundo and Osvaldo emerge suddenly from a chauffeur-driven limousine. Wow, I think, the comic couple together again, Edmundo cool and important (functionaries usher him inside), his sidekick scrambling behind, clutching the briefcase. And if either had glanced up, would the beard have fooled them?
I must break free of this trance.
But the call to Julio’s home is yet another mistake.
“Quién es?” Tangible fear on the line.
“A friend, phoning from abroad. I’d like to talk to Julio.”
“No está. Ha viajado lejos.” Long gone.
“Just leave us in peace, Jaime,” his mother whimpers and the connection is cut.
I’ve assumed public phone-booths are safe but, if Julio’s line is tapped, the call might be traceable. Why not? Bolivia, one of the favoured 51st States, must test-run American equipment for the embassy. Shit, and I left my fingerprints. The things I do for my boyfriends; they’re the only ones I really care about. I dive into a nearby store, watch. No black-gloved technician dismantles the phone, yet.
And to cap the sequence, cops swoop at night on the lodgings. The tourist police are a new phenomenon, their brief to protect and hassle travellers as appropriate. Bo Nesto’s passport raises no eyebrows, though its details are meticulously copied. I don’t tempt fate by producing the ID that Koff kindly doctored and extended for five years, also accredited to the Swedish architect.
Time to stop pretending that I can always leave if this doesn’t work out. After Bolivia, it’s the moon or Atlantis. Plan A (there is no plan B) requires me locating Pancho. Problem is, the survivors have probably melted into altiplano communities, inaccesible to me. And this city is simply too perilous. I should head for the hills, but they’re mountains, and I ain’t gonna shelter in no ice-cave.
Whether Pancho and his merry band will accept me as a comrade, I refuse to consider.

Chapter 52
Bum Deal

The drop hasn’t lessened any. In fact, the road to Coroico is worse, much worse, more traffic and a new generation of juggernaut supertrucks to push our bus over the precipice. I don’t mind tumbling three hundred metres; it might clarify some ambiguities.
Sandy and I met on this deadly road, and I could do with her calm logic now, I'd even take the barbed criticisms. Distracted, I also miss the transition from snowy mountain pass to tropics, though my fellow-passengers are ooing and aahing at the spectacle. Sorry, too preoccupied to deal with nature’s wonders, however dramatic.
On arrival, I climb to the same hotel that Sandy and I shared, but don’t last too long in the place. A clique of guests have imposed a weird communal trip, humming mantras to the sunset, and the German owner’s asking where she’s seen me before.
Finding the shack on the hillside above town is a stroke of luck. Great view of the rolling valleys and a light breeze late afternoon. Shack, I say, but sturdy and neat, basic furniture and kerosene lamps for the night. A stream sparkles close by, my water supply. Low rent and a none-too-inquisitive landlord further increases its charm.
Now I have the solitude in which to write. Like Proust, who finished his days in a cork-lined room, it’s my privilege to be lonely alone. Though the scribbling didn’t redeem his trivial life (and won’t justify mine), there is a bonus. Sarah’s meditation technique works only too well.
As I concentrate on the document, events return in technicolour detail like I’m experiencing them in the flesh. Not that I lay claim to many moments of clarity. This is newsreel, total recall (or false memory). Unfair; isn’t confession meant to lead to personal growth? A wart has appeared on my left thumb, will that do?
Most days I stick to the task until dusk, when moths and mosquitoes converge, attracted by the lights. Me too. I change clothes, swab my face, scramble down the path, eager for entertainment.
Caution restricts choice of company. I do encroach on some tourist circles, once I’m fairly sure they plan to move on tomorrow and know nothing about Sweden. So as not to be tempted into imprudent one-night stands, I say I’m an invalid recovering from an obscure virus. If they quiz me, I’m a sculptor by profession and have important examples of my opus ready to discuss (may Sarah pardon the plagiarism).
I never mention writing, not the least hint. This instinct to conceal my activity, I take so seriously that, on leaving the shack, I always hide the manuscript under a loose plank in the floor, despite my fear of the lurking creepy-crawlies. Probably unnecessary; after all, who’d want to read the boy's own story of an unsympathetic fool behaving badly?
I work steadily, cooking meals at home on an ancient, capricious primus stove. But I’m no mouse on a treadmill. When creativity fails, I’ll visit the town by day, usually to buy a morning paper from the first La Paz bus.
It’s a stiff climb back up in the heat, so I stay on a while, taking care to shop at different stores and never frequenting the same establishment too often, which rules out the internet and a decent cappuchino. I can’t be invisible, but I do endeavour to play the cranky outsider, best ignored. Meanwhile, I’m listening to tidbits in the market-place, pool-hall and bars, book in hand, pretending not to understand a word of the language. Mostly local gossip (‘and then she threw the pisspot over his wife, imagine,’). I may yet overhear something significant.
The foreign residents, earnest project managers, snobby restauranteurs, the odd artist (and I do mean strange), are palatable in minute doses. Safe in their gringo lairs, they swap and compare prejudices, oblivious to the country they’ve settled in. I’d love to score some dope (many look well-stoned), but daren’t risk being drawn in and having to create a fabulous past. And they’re an insipid bunch, no exceptions.
Until the handsome photographer surfaces. Three calm months, then Jan arrives to jolt me out of my detachment. Presence, poise, personality; he stands out. Of course, I do my best to suppress the longing, ignore the attraction, but there’s an electric current passing between us (upgrade that to thunderbolt). One glance says it all. He doesn’t approach me immediately. He gives me leeway, knowing that I’ll seek him out.
Inevitably we do meet. Over coffee he enthuses, “Ah, another artist. I knew you were different. I’m a photographer myself.” From Prague, with rather an Irish accent to my untrained ear. The conversation flows smoothly enough. Jan (as in yin) is careful to back off whenever I’m vague on details. He’s charming, so much so, that I’m tempted to lower my guard, especially when a sinewy leg brushes mine too often for misinterpretation.
“Look at these recent photos,” he says. They’re shot from unusual angles. “Interesting,” I mouth. “How talented you are.” Hey, that’s weird; hat slung low, I’m in some of them. Flattery? Intrusion?
“Oh, how clumsy!” I exclaim, tipping coffee over the photos. “Do apologize.” And with a paper towel carefully wipe my prints from his prints.
But Jan’s persistent. Luckily, I’m reaching the end of my literary labours, because each morning he materializes in the open field below the shack and, stripped to the waist, runs through his tai chi and kalisthenics routine. Such languid ease. I can’t concentrate anymore for drooling.
I stand on the porch pleading with my eyes that he work out somewhere else, that he should come on up, but, after an hour, the sweat glistening on his torso, Jan always waves goodbye. Whatever his agenda, he takes pleasure reeling me in slowly. Lord knows, I’m hooked.
Nights, I dream of dreadfully unsafe sex.
Weekends, when there are too many Bolivian visitors in town, I usually explore the neighbouring countryside. Now, I’m hiking daily, it serves to cool my lust. Wandering through hidden valleys, folds of soothing green, where families hoe maize, tend their coca plantations. A friendly greeting, an exchange of cigarettes for fruit, and on.
Today, returning from the waterfall, I pass three black women in bowlers and traditional polleras (a single layer of skirt only in this stupendous heat). They’re coming from Coroico, enormous bundles on their backs. Not an ususual sight; several Afro-Bolivian villages thrive in the Yungas, dating back to the colonies. So many black slaves died in the silver-mines, even the Spaniards could see the sense in transferring the survivors down to the warmth.
Those are real loads they’re carrying in their aguayos, sacks of noodles and sugar, flagons of cooking oil, carrots and onions poking out, enough to feed a multitude. That women there reminds me of Lidia, the same bulk. Naah, can’t be. Course, if Lidia’s a fugitive, home territory would be a natural hideaway. The angle of the bowler’s covering her face. See, she’s also turned and is making urgent signals that I go away.
I sit on a rock and smoke. If it’s really her, she’ll have good reasons for spurning me. I should go home and think this over. Instead I follow at a discreet distance.
Psst! She springs from the undergrowth, furious, ferocious.
“Lidia, what a shock you gave me,” I splutter.
“I gave you a shock. Estás loco, Jaime. What you doing here?”
“I’ve come to rejoin the struggle.”
“Hombre, don’t you have a country of your own?” And now that she’s consented to embrace me, I see it isn’t indignation or surprise. She’s perturbed, very nervous.
“Let me visit you. Just tell me where and when.”
“Never. Do yourself a favour and go.” She dives into the undergrowth.
Well, you can imagine, the encounter sets me thinking. Those women carrying tonnes of supplies towards self-sufficient communities (which certainly don’t need to purchase vegetables). Everyone expects the remnants of Pancho’s group to be sheltering in the altiplano. What if he’s gone counter-intuitive too? Soon, I’ve convinced myself.
En route home, I continue the truncated conversation. Take me in, Lidia, please. You’re my only true comrades. Friendship elsewhere is so ambiguous. I don’t ask for acceptance. I’ll settle for cover. My life is empty.
Comradeship? So long as I overlook the pack of Astoria planted among the crate of missiles. Wholehearted betrayal might be closer to the facts. A bunch of beaten opportunists, and I’m begging sanctuary at their castle in the air. Think they’ll let me thrash around in the moat before loosing the crocodiles?
No, no. Pancho told me stay loyal. He’s the comandante, I’m his disciple.
Over and over the arguments chase each other’s tale.
Too soon, I’m opening the door to the shack. And something is wrong. Maybe it’s like Poala says, I read too many spy novels, but this time I’m glad of the precautions. The strand of hair is broken, a layer of dust disturbed. There’s a subtle disorder in the room. The rummager is not a thief; he’s found and ignored my stash of cash. But (thank goodness) missed the writing under the floorboard, since he wasn't searching for any.
Oh Jan, this is getting personal. Which is what I yearn for, isn’t it?
I take to avoiding him.
Not easy. The photographer’s bent on exposure, laying trip-wires for the unwary. On the street, he addresses me in a foreign language, of which I catch the word ‘svenske’. What’s the game? I feign indifference, but he’s attracting and scaring me in equal measure.
During the night of the electric storm, thunder echoing round the valleys, a flash of lightning, his silhouette framed by the cabin window. After I’ve died of fright and recovered, what’s left but to resign myself to his bursting in and taking me? I’m in bed, ready, willing, his. That’s not Jan’s style. When I finally dare step onto the verandah, nothing.
A night of mounting dread.
Next morning, even the brass band swinging full-toot in the plaza, can’t lift my mood. I’m desolate well before the announcement on the radio. That's crazy - Yod’s dead? His jeep, plus eight Israeli passengers veered off the road, on the way back from Rurren last night, at the high pass, a mere thirty minutes from La Paz. Asleep at the wheel, the sources surmise. A journey too far and no-one to roll that crucial, homecoming joint, I know. And rat that I am, my first, unworthy thought is of racing to the city to comfort Tzipi.
My head's spinning. I have to get away from people, fast. Uchumachi, the cloud-forest on the hill, is suitably sombre. I can be there in a few hours. Yeah, here’s the church and the cows (wrong type, don’t see any cubensis in the dung), the pasture of golden bees coming next. I’m climbing up the last steep section, on the lookout for orchids and wondering whether Yod could have been my phantom midnight visitor, when I see Jan exiting from the thicket below.
With a photographer’s sense of location, Jan’s chosen an awesome backdrop for the ceremonial showdown. Put on a spurt of speed, James. What’s the point, the guy’s super-fit? Damn! I’m convinced I don’t want to talk to him, not now or ever.
Deeper within the silent misty woods, I select the spot and wait.
The man fromVoid saunters into the clearing, already half-naked. Wordlessly my czech-mate undresses me.
Later, much later, I receive instructions.
“They’re probably not far from here. Make contact,” he says.. “I’ve arranged matters with the Bolivians. They were moving to arrest you last week, you know.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Wouldn’t do that, Jimmy boy. There’d be health risks involved.”
The chopping motion of his little finger is all the more threatening for being so minimal.
Damned if I will; dead if I don't.

Srta. Sarah. I found this packet among the belongings of my aunt, Sra. Asunta Mamani, recently deceased. Joven Jaime left $20 to cover postage and I am mailing the document, as requested, to you at Mayola Road, London.

EPILOGUE Chapter One.

He punched the code in automatically, raced up the narrow staircase to her flat and bursting through the door, found Tzipi surrounded by her own people. Only later did he realize that the assembly was immersed in the traditional Jewish ritual of mourning; they were sitting shiva for the week, although Jim could be forgiven for feeling he’d entered El Lobo restaurant itself, with its pools of animated conversationists millling around the packed room.
Except for Tzipi who sat alone, upright in a wooden chair, not the muse he’d rushed over the mountain-pass to worship but a reigning queen of Shiva, the queen-bee, attended by a court of co-religionists whom she was ignoring. Dressed in an ill-fitting dark sweater, tatty skirt and slippers, her hair dishevelled, face puffy with tears and, even so, to Jim, she was still regal, regaling his presence with a single, proud glance before withdrawing again.
Here were all Israelis and he the one outsider, yet they barely glanced his way,as if they didn’t care less or had even been expecting him. And, of course, he willingly accepted the corner of the old orange sofa that a skull-capped traveller vacated, accepted the basic food they offered, the tinned sardine, the boiled eggs, the bread and coffee, accepted the providential and fleeting as his right - that would always be his style. From the moment he positioned himself in front of the mourner-in-chief wrapped in her solemn majesty, Jim felt absurdly secure in this sanctuary he’d managed to reach.
Several days to pluck up courage to break cover and risk the journey to La Paz. He hadn’t invented the scrutiny at the Unduavi control-point beside the mountain summit nor that on entering the city limits. A hesitation, a shrug and then they’d let him by; so maybe the official heat was off, as his contact had indeed implied, though his arrival was registered. Whatever their motives, little doubt about his. He intended to claim Tzipi and she hadn’t sent him packing, yet. Not that she’d encouraged him either.
Despite the impropiety, Jim Stalker took to staring at his prey, his prize, his goal, insisting, until, eventually, late evening, he was ushered out of the vigil. Yet, without question, they granted him camping rights, sleeping quarters being arranged next door in the room of the Havana Gila, the Cuban sidekick, who has survived the car accident and was apparently recovering in a local hospital.. Jim laid his sleeping-bag on the vacant bed, his room mates set out theirs on the dusty linoleum. The snores, the coughing, the rustling. After months of solitude, no wonder Jim dreamt that night of being back at San Pedro prison.
In the following days, he endured the extended elegy, unabashed, biding his time, a puppy curled doggedly at her feet, dozing off, coming awake to resume fixing her with that hang-dog look. Daylight filtering dustily in and nobody talking to Jim in any tongue he could understand, english/spanish/aymara, whatever, though he undoubtedly felt they were using their hebrew to comment on him. It hardly mattered who these other people were, whether Tzipi’s friends or mere random back-pack by-passers present from solidarity or obligation. The hermetic group, for reasons unknown, had accepted him. He was not required to play-act in front of this bunch of babbling strangers, though it always shocked him each time the congregation unexpectedly bounced to its feet in postures of mumbled prayer. Apart from which, he found himself fitting comfortabaly, as of right, into this temporary scene.
Jim was content to bask in the wash of lamenting voices, study Tzipi’s immobile face and when she did ocassionally utter a few words, register her new tone, not exactly timid but leached of emotion. The protective circle around Tzipi allowed them no discourse, but, well, fair enough; the woman had just lost her lover, Yod, in a car crash. Jeeze, as the hebrews don’t say, give her credit in the circumstances, for not cracking up.
But one should maybe wonder why Jim, usually so cunning a scribbler, doesn’t refer in that infamous diary of his to the totally inappropriate thoughts he was already succumbing to. Instead, in the copy I have to hand, he merely praises her poise and invents inane fantasies of her need for support or, more lyrically, yearning for a shoulder io cry on. But the company present must have registered the indelicacy of the situation, tolerating his gawking awkwardness for Tzipi’s sake. Occasionally Jim would glance with a sense of relief at the mirrors, which had all been hidden behind black cloth as a token of mourning, because right now, like the mirrors, it suited our ludicrous hero not to reflect.
By the fifth day, the group had stirred itself and made some effort to tidy and clean the bombed-out flat, under the command of the doughty Naomi, who commandeered Jim’s services in the enterprise, whilst freezing him out as she had done at their previous meetings.
Clean-up or clear-out? No coincidence that officialdom arrived that afternoon, not Bolivian, oh definitely not, more likely their embassy staff. They offered brief condolences and joined in a brief chant before pushing through the crowd to retrieve various boxes of equipment. Jim they registered with a shrug and a rhetorical comment in Hebrew.
The shiva, that period of intermittent conversation, of profound silences, of Yod the dead lover, present and yet not, hovering on the threshold of everyone’s awareness (even Jim’s, although his diary refuses to acknowledge this as yet), finally drew to an end. The seventh day of mourning called short to allow for the arrival of the holy Sabbath, culminated in more prayers led by a curly-bearded, leather-clad rabbi who arrived clutching a motorbike helmet.
Only then did Tzipi make steady eye-contact with Jim the intruder.
For the solemn leave-taking, she recovered her voice, thanking the guests but ordering them out now, once and for all, quickly. And despite his pig-headed, unkosher stubbornness, Jim surely felt that would also include him. Instead, in the first words in English he’d heard all week; she imperiously declared, “You stay, of course."
The end of shiva, sending shivers down his spine.

Chapter 2

Jim had unpacked his scant belongings, clutching the notebooks and sheets of paper that he called the treasure of his life; and they were, constituting a ripe section of the now famous/infamous book. “The spider receives me with open tentacles)”, being a typical entry from the man-child who still enjoyed apeing the scatterbrain, though he never dared to show her what he was writing and she didn’t ask to see it. Not the only topic off-limits. Her bedroom she denied to Jim. Anyway, she never slept in the old bed now, merely using her room to select a change of clothes. Their affair unfolded on a field of gold, or rather the illusion of one created by the golden brocade cloth with which Tzipi covered their double bed in the living room, actually the dingy orange sofa now joined to a camp-bed of almost equivalent height. Likewise forbidden was all mention of the deceased Israeli beau, although memories persisted. Within these confines, however, Tzipi was dedicating herself freely to her newly chosen regent.
Those readers who appreciate Jim’s pimply prose, will doubtless relish the atmosphere of the pair’s love-den. The single-bar electric fire radiating heat during their waking hours. The thick plastic curtains pinned shut, admitting a phantasmal half-light, rain or shine, while as backdrop, the traffic below throbbed unheeded. No visitors to the lair, the phone disconnected, provisions announced by a tentative, coded pull on the bell and left downstairs. Zero communication with the outside world; just the messy living room with its musty odours, low lighting cast from a single lamp shaded by the same green and gold brocade and Tzipi prowling between the discarded piles of clothing.
For after a while, she was hardly bothering to dress - a slip, a sleeveless vest and those silky blue pantaloons of yore, our slinky Scherezade bestowing a 1,001 favours on a 101 days and nights. Softer now, almost gentle, that was her ploy. And between the spells of love-making, more often languorous than frenzied, a slow, silence reigning. Not conducive to serious soul-searching, but that seems to have been another essential part of her technique.
And should Jim threaten a conversation or (heaven forbid) want to discuss personal matters, her soft fingers would hush his lips. So, instead, he kept on writing, whilst she used another notepad to design rhythmic pencil sketches of spirals, ferns, clouds, storm patterns, distant cities, horsemen galloping along a plain.
Readers of his journal (though some prefer to term it a novel) always ask why, given her strange behaviour, Jim failed to record any misgivings. One possible excuse is, as yet, he was stuck in fanatsy-mode. And loving him to exhaustion was indeed a part of her scheme, though not the heart of the matter. Note her deliberate intent to build up the intensity. Once the course was under way, once she had him smothered in her bubble-world, then initiation commenced.
Early one morning she emerged from the bathroom, clad in a long purple robe. Before Jim could comment, Tzipi lay down by his side.
“You know about the Khazaris?”
“Never heard of them.” But he had.
“Long, long ago, in a far away land……,” she chanted.
“Don’t do that, dearest. You’re hypnotizing me.”
“Of course. Of course.” Her intention precisely. Jim the stalker being stalked. “….. there lived a people who moved west out of the Asian plains and settled and built cities and prospered” His eyes were glazing.
“Yet, the king was not content. He considered his people barbarians because they prayed to so many gods and spirits. But he’d learnt that in the neighbouring countries, other folk…..”
Suddenly, Jim was awake. He’d come across some such tale quite recently.
“What century are we talking about?”
“Dunno,” Tzipi shrugged. “Eighth, ninth.”
“BC or AD?”
“Before or after Christ.”
“Ah. We don’t call him by that name. To us, he’s known as ‘That Man’. But, yes, after him.”
“And the king was so taken by the idea of monotheism that he called wise men from neighbouring countries to advise him how they worshipped the one God.”
“Ah, you know the story. Good, I felt you did. Yes, the rabbi, the mullah and the bishop debated the virtues of their grand religions for so long that the king got bored and became more confused than ever.”
“Then the king had a great idea.”
“No, it was the Queen who did!” Upon which, Tzipi hoisted her purple robe and mounted her lover. But what planet desire was this? From Jim’s angle, straddled and impaled, he knew he was being manoeuvred beyond infatuation into obsession. Next stop, abject servitude? Yet he was helpless in her grip and so, floating on the rip-tides, he let it flow and, his mind clouding, strove to remember the full story.
Out with it. “The question she put separately ........ to each representative,” Jim gasped gamely, “if not your own .......which of the other religions do you recommend. The mullah and the bishop chose Judaism and so…”
“The independent Jewish state of Khazaria came to be. The queen’s plan was perfect,” sighed Tzipi, as she rocked him gently him on to climax.
Yes, and finally he was recalling just who had sold him this idiotic tale. Koff, it was, the friend who had created his new ID and passport, forgeries which had fooledprecious few. Here’s to hoping that Tzipi’s fables were more reliable. “A glorious time in our history,” she cried, nursing her own climax.
But, in his post-orgasmic netherland, Jim already cradled doubts. Bad choice by little queenie, he wrote later, not at all logical. Doorkeepers of the Caucasus, charging tribute to all who passed through. The Khazaris, locked between Byzantium and Baghdad, between Christianity and Islam, were priming themselves for centuries of persecution. You see, they weren’t the Chosen People; the masochists had chosen this fate for themselves. I remember Koff putting that ironic slant of his tale. Jim didn’t speak his thoughts out immediately, though he should have. Sure, the laid-back Tzipi only played at scissoring him these days, but the sense of dread remained. Caught between a hard bed and a sultry mistress, Jim savoured more than ever being trapped in her power.
And Tzipi, in portraying herself as a Khazari queen reborn, clearly had reasons for initiating the new regent into her belief system. And methods too, such as burning foul black-smoke incense, and like playing scratchy cassettes of black-earth music (flute/pipes, stringy pluckings) on an antiquated tape-recorder, which Jim vaguely recognized - Hi Yod, (poor Jim often found himself addressing remarks to his predecessor’s spectral presence), remember your telling me once you’d traipsed that sound machine through desert campaigns in the Negev.. Oh spooky pal, do I now have your approval as replacement?
From symbolist poet Osip Mandlestam, she read Jim odes in fractured English via Russian and Hebrew to patches of cold Kharazi land. I can take this on board, Jim reasoned in the diary. Steppe by steppe, I’m being led into some crazy training programme, he joked. But oh these silly quips of his added nothing to an understanding of the situation, only serving to stifle his intelligence. I do it for love he claimed (oh yeah?).
So, he consented to the course of sexual healing, as she deemed it, loved the love-making and overlooked the commitment being demanded. And yet, somewhere along the way, Tzipi did somehow manage to transform him from a merely Lucky Jim to the Lord Jim we now recognise.

Chapter 3.

After months of rigorous training, Tzipi gave Jim leave to travel. With so much at stake (from her perspective), she could hardly risk boredom or antagonism to creep in. Even though Jim appreciated her regime of detached majesty, limited doses were sufficient. And released temporarily from the mental headlocks and tantric calisthenics, Jim took to roaming, no problem.
First he returned to the eastern slopes of the Andes, the Yungas, ostensibly to sample the saya dancing, the rhythms brought over by unwilling African slaves and conserved within the black communities as their heritage until the rest of Bolivia finally discovered the beat. He scoured the festival for sight of his friend and contact, Lidia, but couldn’t risk making enquiries. He hoped the Network (if it existed) would register his presence.
Then to the altiplano for the winter solstice at the mysterious ruins of Tiwanaku. The Aymaran New Year celebrations had seemed a fine opportunity to encounter old associates too. But the winter night on the high plain at an archaeological site (bonfires forbidden), proved unbearably long, and the sun eventually rose over a huddle of frozen tourists and shivering middle-class city-dwellers, whilst the genuine celebrants conveyed their contempt for the onlookers in low-toned Aymara.
So Jim journeyed to the lowland city of Santa Cruz, once cow pasture, now the financial centre of the thriving oil industry, to see for himself what the neoliberal worldbank cronies were claiming as the model for a modern Bolivia. The place was fast and crass, not at all what he’d came those thousands of miles to experience. No wonder the dictactor Banzer and his unsavoury pals had launched their dubious fortunes from here.
After which, he returned home, grateful for Tzipi’s welcome and, because of the shield she seemed to provide, increasingly careless of his safety. In which frame of mind, Jim one day decided to venture up to his old haunts in the Alto. “Going out!” was all he replied to his consort’s question (see, they were already slipping in a humdrum relationship of sorts). But don’t label him the unfeeling macho; the intention was to surprise her with an exotic gift and the sprawling open-air ‘16 de julio’ market was where he reckoned to find such a treasure.
Exempt from reality, untouchable, he was foolishly wandering round the streets of the Ceja mid-day, savouring anew the stench of refuse, watching last revellers being ejected from the clip joints, when the assault came. This being the Alto, the wastes of the Ceja, no place for a lonesome gringo to test his immunity. There were thieves about, remember, and right now a couple of them have lassoed your neck, Jim, and are throttling you with a thick, coarse rope.
Our hero on the threshold of black-out.. Did his life pass before him in slow motion or simply flash by? Not exactly; Jim recounts that he suddenly saw the foetid streets of the Ceja change into the banner emblazoned battlements of Atil (where on earth did that name come from?) and a black-clad figure uncannily like Yod lift the two riff-raff ruffians by their collars and gallop them off (on a steed, on rollerblades?), out through the city gates (what city gates would those be?).
While he sat restoring the circulation by massaging his neck, a young girl started applauding from the doorway of a bar, a bowler-hat cholita laughed and shook her head, a drunk offered him a celebratory swig of cane alcohol from a plastic bag. All had truly enjoyed the rousing adventure and were waving to the leather-jacketed Yod-like figure leaning against a lamppost in the distance, who acknowledged their homage. To Jim, he looked like one of those private security guards that had taken over protecting property since the latest round of privatizations and no longer seemed to bear much resemblance to Yod. Not that Jim had much chance to study the man; a dust-cloud on the horizon was rapidly transforming itself into a violent hailstorm and the public were dispersing indoors or busy protecting themselves under plastic sheets. So, what was that about, then, wondered Jim, doubting his senses and perhaps his sanity?
He paused momentarily, disturbed at how completely he’d incorporated Tzipi’s bizarre landscapes (Atil, capital of the old Khazari kingdom, no less), which brought on other considerations; the ease with which he was fitting into the regent-role at her bidding - the king is dead, long live the regent –nonsense. Compared to Yod, he was just an infatuated stripling. Actually, he missed Yod, the guardian angel who had just rescued him (or had he?). Tzipi‘s ability to take him as an substitute lover immediately also worried him – now, whatever her game, that was one insensitive move. Yes, some salutary thoughts he’d been repressing too long. Time to break the trance of the last months – for a moment.
But instead of breaking loose, he indulged himself in savouring the afterglow of that vision of medieval Atil, the moment in the movie when the valiant young rescuer dashes through the crowd in the market and ..........
.........with a jolt, Jim found himself back in the modern-day Alto of La Paz. Deep in thought, he’d automatically walked all the way to the Sunday market. Spread over acres, block after block of stalls selling doors, stoves, curtains, shoes, clothes, mining equipment, electrical goods, CDs, VCDs etc, smuggled from the Pacific, pirated versions or originals according to the resources of the pulsing crowds searching for bargains. Anything the modern household might want or need, except that Jim, this latter-day purist, was not impressed. He struggled on, street by muddy Alto street, past the rows of used cars, behind the domestic pets (cats/dogs, of course, through rabbits to parrots to goldfish), through the teeming market - a trader’s dream, Jim’s personal nightmare. He shook his head in disbelief; the monumental acreage was a monument to greed. Why should the consumimg public require all this trash? On all sides he saw ordinary householders adrift in a spendthrift ocean. Who could save us from the stupid market economy?
Yet even he was not immune to the charms of consumerdom. Jim had come here to try and locate the section devoted to house plants and herbs, where he hoped to find a bloom exotic enough to tempt his consort.
A slight touch on his shoulder had Jim whirling around in fear of another assault, but he detected no menace in the jostling crowd. Yet, an undulating whistle that he almost recognized made him turn again and this time he saw a known figure ducking behind an alleyway of kiosks. Stupified, he followed the call. A hand pulled him in to a covered stall.
“Pancho, what are you doing here?” was a valid enough question, but the wrong one to renew their acquaintance with. A thin, blue, plastic sheet was all that separated them from the traders and shoppers on the outside. Pancho lifted the sheet a fraction and pointing to a faded brown door over the street, signalling five minutes on his wristwatch and was gone.
Ancient Caucasian citadels, the shade of a dead friend and now the fugitive leader; Jim blinked, and made an attempt at connecting these events. Perhaps, a tip-off after the assault had alerted Pancho to Jim’s re-appearance in the Alto? Or the attack and rescue only a pretext? A chance meeting or had he been trailed? Pancho himself an hallucination? Confusion – no choice but onwards.
The door gave to a simple push, clicked shut behind him, leaving Jim in total darkness.
That astute, deep voice: “Jaime, you lack commitment That’s what your problem is..”
Oddly enough, once jumpy Jim felt not the slightest fear. Tzipi’s hard-core training was obviously showing results.
“ I came back, Pancho, didn’t I? Why’ve you been avoiding me? I know you’re on the run, but at least some sign to guide me.”
“Hombre, why should I bother with you? I no longer know who you’re working for. Che believed in change. He died for it on Bolivian soil. What do believe in, Jaime?”
Jim almost blurted out ‘the Khazari nation’ but checked himself in time. Wouldn’t do to be thought crazy as well as unreliable. Instead, he said what’d been bugging him for too long now.
“Your people tricked me, set me up that morning at the airport. So I got lucky, didn’t kill anyone. I don’t believe in violence. I’m not a terrorist, Pancho.”
The hidden man laughed scornfully. “Tell that to your Zionist girlfriend and while we’re on the subject, remind her that we’re expecting a new consignment and the cash to back it.” A mobile phone beeped. Pancho replied, “OK, hold them off. We’re on our way out.”
Three cloaked, masked figures slipped from the door into the fading daylight. Another storm was threatening.
“Don’t ask me why, but I still almost trust you, joven Jaime.”
Wait, shouldn’t that be the other way round? I almost trsted you, Pancho.
A volley of firecrackers (or pistol shots), a rocket flash from a local wedding party, a clap of thunder for farewell applause. Pancho’s back-up squad were certainly laying on the background effects.
Jim Stalker left the room circumspectly; he couldn’t hope to spot all the agents and counter-agents circling the market like crazed Keystone cops, but he managed a final scathing look at all the street traders recycling counterfeit and pirated goods, before choosing an alternate route down, one that undercut the motorway and bypassed the Ceja. A boneshaker of a bus-ride, but measured enough for him to scribble down in his notebook some bottom-line reflections.
Dept of Home Truths:
“The disclaimer on the rocket attack – bullshit. A badly aimed missile, that’s all. Pure incompetence on their part. I didn’t kill a soul, except my own. But that still makes me a terrorist by proxy.
The bit where Pancho claimed his movement was vital and dangerous. He’s getting crazier
- and more careless. One can be pinpointed by using mobiles.
Nor do I accept his opinions on Che’s abiding legacy. You don’t catch me in the tangles of history.
I’m not such an idiot.
Except when it comes to being beguiled by a sweet and vicious Khazari tiger.
And talking about the the stalker being stalked. Who should have happened to receive a report of a wanted foreigner riding the Special bus up to the Alto but our old friend Waldo Ventura? It came complete with a digital photo (those mobile phone have such useful accessories). But didn’t Waldo know who’s side young Jim was on?

Chapter 4.

Rising early, Tzipi made a show of cutting her hair short and spiky, tom-boy style, then dying it red. Naturally, the new look suited her, bestowing a touch of Greek-style nimble youth to her already regal pose. She divine, gorgeous, part warrior, part instructix. But who was she kidding? Jim understood the point in exhuming the sexual, the worthy goal of kicking a lifetime’s habits of self-abuse, though the prospect of further lessons in love increasingly filled him with dread. They lessen love, he wanted to shout as she re-positioned the mattresses around the floor – for what benefit?
And those exercises were being followed by lectures on the Khazari nation, the myths and consequences thereof, a game requiring commitment and loyalty, a test Jim hadn't anticipated and which, try as he might, couldn’t quite take seriously. This would make a good Borges story. The Khazaris chose Judaism but weren’t the chosen people, not in the biblical sense. And after surviving a few commercially successful medieval centuries, holding on to the space between Constantinople to the west and Baghdad to south, they were then overrun - from the north, mauled by the Vikings sailing down the twin rivers Dnieper and Don, finally destroyed and dispersed by the Rus. so that even the Khazari survivors had lost the memory of their origins and were excluded from history, ran his notes. Yet how could he express these doubts to Tzipi when they were hardly conversing?
After this particular session, Jim slumped in despair. Gimme some reggae or rock, Jim thought. Laughter might help or roll me a joint of grass for that matter, but smoking would just open up another pit for them to tumble into. Anyway, abstinence prevailed; they were living without any stimulants, so that was a pipe-dream. It was Yod who had been the provider of dope and Yod was gone, not to mention unmentionable. The rescue in the Ceja skipped all reference to Yod but Tzipi gloated over the odd vision of Atil. “Yes,” she purred.
“Listen,” she ordered, putting on the same tape, sighing as the mournful flute evoked its patch of cold-earth. What are the modern Khazaris, if they actually exist, Jim wrote. Zealots and partisans who’ve lost the plot, rather like that other dreamer, Pancho. Which reminds me. I’ve yet to dare relay his message.
Tzipi had altered her routine recently to include a daily outing for their supplies from the corner store - bread, milk, tea, tinnedstuff; they were living frugally, another essential part of the training, she had emphasized. Alone for the moment, Jim fell to considering life under his merciless muse. If she’d softened somewhat, slight waves of flesh rounding out the muscle tone of her body, the eyes had hardened. From the teasing and tormenting to the supple and vicious, Tzipi has only two modes; when the eyes go vacant, she’s exercising her fabulous earth-mother power, when focused, wreaking her will.
Jim’s turn to sigh. And freeze.
A hollow cough from the stairs outside. Had she left the street-door open? Unless...... Jim whipped open the door and, inevitably, (that’s why he’d been conjuring up memories of dope and Yod) - there, leaning on metal crutches, skulked the Gila. Shit; the return of the Cuban sidekick, just released from his hospital ward. Due to the rigours of indoctrination, Tzipi had neglected the visits these past weeks, an oversight the Gila wore like a badge of misery.
“I am allowed in?”
“Of course,” Jim said, standing aside with exagerrated aplomb, absorbing the waves of bitterness that preceded the visitor. The Gila shuffled past Jim in search of a place to deposit his bulk, but chairs had been banished by the new regime, so Jim had to rearrange some of the cushions. “Good to see you on your feet again,” Jim lied to the figure slouched on the floor. “She’ll be right back,” and wished she would soon.
The injuries were obvious, likewise his state of mind. “Don’t pretend you’re pleased to see me.”
“Can I get you a coffee, er, um…….” trailing off as he realized that he couldn’t recall the Gila’s true name. (The origin of the pun concerned a Cuban who just happened to look like a lizard and associate with Israelis - resulting in the Havana Gila tag – ho-ho, Jim – in those days you’d had a keen sense of verbal wit– as even your victims were forced to admit).
Tzipi strode in laden. “Ernesto,” (that’s what she called him), she exclaimed with surprise, “my poor friend, how are you?”, and bent down to embrace the injured colleague, chucking the groceries at Jim, who contrived to fumble them all. The Gila snorted. Our hero blushed. Tzipi breezed into the kitchen to prepare the coffee Jim had failed to provide.
Yod’s two ex-associates stared at each other. The distended Sancho Panza, with one arm in plaster and a newly acquired limp, pouting as if he blamed the loss of his knight on this lanky English kid, who in turn was wondering how best to defend his investment in Tzipi against the intrusion that the Gila represented. Both men radiated enough wounded prideto coat the walls with poison.
One should really deny Jim the right to envy an invalid battered in a fatal crash high in the Andes, six dead including the lost leader. Indeed, one must censure Jim for his ignorance in considering Tzipi his private property. But do allow him to be upset as Tzipi honoured the newcomer by kneeling at his side and engaging him in the kind of eager conversation thus far denied to Jim. Any humiliation intended or merely the pleasure of greeting an old accomplice? Either way, Jim underestimated their ties and the sorrow shared. And he considered the Cuban such a shifty character that he intuitively began an interrogation.
“So, what do you remember of the accident, er .. ... er, Ernesto?”
Nothing. Dear Ernesto claimed to have recovered consciousnes in the ambulance accompanying Yod’s body on its way to the morgue and he laid on the odd sniffle to emphasize his loss.
Which was when the weight of surely too much memory activated the shade of the deceased. They shivered. And Tzipi said (Yod suggested?), “Shal we go to the Lobo, and score some dope!” and she And Jim exited, leaving the Gila stretched out on cushions and, weeping, would you believe?
Now, after the experiences in the Ceja, Pancho obviously had some fate in mind for him, Jim felt less sure of his status outdoors. With Tzipi at his side for protection, Jim should be safe, but what he failed to count on was their reception at the restaurant.
The tables were jam-packed with Israelis deep in raucous conversation that faded into silence. Several onlookers rose to greet Tzipi. Other travellers regarded the pair quizzically and speculated about the statuesque red-head in flowing robes and her shambling bejeaned escort who could halt proceedings in the busy café by their mere entrance. The manageress behind the bar scowled and reached beneath the counter for her cell-phone or perhaps an emergency button.
Meanwhile, Tzipi had ordered beer and set to renewing former acquaintances. Huddled in a corner, she did make room for Jim, even poured him a glass of beer, then launched into a fluent Hebrew that irrationally depressed him. Well, he hadn’t expected to be introduced and certainly couldn’t compete with her performance, but observing how her countenance changed as she fell into old habits - the breathless laughter, the flashing looks, the flowing hand gestures, and how consummately she was managing the regulars, the Yod squad of yore, all of whom obviously doted on her, Jim gagged.
Such fierce loyalties - – a mask or her game? - for whom?
The manageress immediately collared Jim as he emerged from the bathroom. “Get out. Just get out. We don’t want trash like you around,” she spluttered, her make-up cracking under the strain of anger. “Out, I say.”
Tzipi was between them now, facing down the gross manageress. For Jim’s benefit Tzipi summarized the argument in English. “He’s legitimate, I tell you. His father is Jewish.” What’s that got to do with the price of fried herring, thought Jim as he was dragged away from the scene.
Not a word on the way home. The Gila had taken up residence in his old bedroom. Tzipi checked he was asleep but, anyway, turned the key to lock him in. Still livid after the brush with the harridan of El Lobo, she tood a small package from a pocket and rolled the spliff with a vengeance.
The dope caught me unawares, Jim records. Floating out of my body, I saw the two of us as incompatible strangers, enthroned on our cushions, staring through each other.
“A Jewish dad,” he murmured
“Who you’ve never met,” she replied.
Oy veh – no way, josé – so, why didn’t Mum tell me? - bloody Joanne – she probably didn’t even notice – but should it matter? - what does it matter? –
“Because you’re a prince of the line, my dearest,” Tzipi said, picking up on his thoughts, the effect of the grass or her omniscience .
“ I can’t believe in any of this bullshit. Don’t go for the hereditary stuff. I’m an anarchist – when it’s convenient - And what’s more, remember I was a history teacher, and in all my studies I’ve never come across these Khazars and their legends.” - cloud cuckoo land.
“Facts,” she parried. “King Baldur chose.”
A fatal choice, legacies that lead to the ovens of Auschwitz.
“Have it your own way, Jim. But first you’ll have to free yourself.” And in a single sinuous movement, she was on her feet, disrobed and dropped into a crouch, eyes full of menace, a puma ready to spring.
“Oh come on, Tzipi. Not that.”
“The training. Use your training, or I must finish you if you’re no use to us.”
Return of the dread. A warrior or a shape-shifting monster? An utter monster, faithless to the memories of Yod and her God. How could she have taken me as a lover straight off? Return of the attraction. She looks so great in that pose, a gorgeous vision, a nimble crew-cut Greek youth, breasts tight within the vest, the lanky predatory thighs flexed, already tightening......
No, enough. When her wiles don’t affect me anymore, then I’m, free.
And I’ll be the warrior.
According all she’s been teaching, what’s needed is to break routines, turn unpredictable.
“You do know Pancho’s waiting for the next consignment.”
Her eyes glistened, then faded. She sat down abruptly on the green, velvet cushion and mumbled, “Yes, of course. He’s expecting it, isn’t he?”
Cut and thrust. Cloak and dagger. Discovering her weakness.

Tales of the Don

Not interested by the Yod as security goon, ‘if it had battlements’ had to be the fortress of Sarket,
But thirsting for every detail of Pancho’s appearance – refuses to tell.

Chapter Five:

They passed the night on separate cushions, awake and, remarkably enough, even attempting some sporadic conversations, recognising at last their inherent isolation. Jim recounted his non-stop roller-coaster ride from London to the Alto, the hapless work and hopeless connections that culminated in detention and San Pedro jail, back to London and a re-run to Bolivia, hiding out in the Yungas, searching for Pancho
“Ah yes, Pancho,” she repeated, shaking her head. “Eventually finding you, Tzipi. But I want companionship as well as love, you know,” immediately regretting the triteness of the emotion. “Friendship and sharing,” she mused, “ You set your sights too low, dear. Life is not a chat room.” And once more they lapsed into silence.
You entered into my dreamworld, Tzipi. Should have listemed to the Aymara wisdom. Dreams as warnings and this one out of control, turning to nightmare, fast ...”
“Stop that internal dialogue,” snapped Tzipi, “ I was trying to turn you into a warrior and you’ve blown it. You’ll be living alone from now on always and silence will be your inner weapon.” she stated firmly but also with respect, as a sign of confidence taking her turn to reveal some of her own background.
The tales; one set of grandparents escaping the Nazis of Vienna to arrive in Bolivia, the only place in the world that was offering visas to Jewish refugees at that time (the President thought the country required intellectual muscle to develop). ‘Hotel Bolivia’, she called it, because at the end of the war, the thousands relocated to the States or Israel. Then she told of the other grandfather, a Jewish policeman in the Warsaw ghetto
I know where this is leading, thought Jim - to the scourge of anti-semitism in history; I’ve heard it before. But it wasn’t. In the next breath, she shattered his image of her as a battle-hardened zionist.
“Israel is a thorn. That’s why evangelical Christians so love the state of Israel.”
“You’re not Mossad, then.”
“Only when it suits me. We’re Khazaris. There is a Christian plot to break the semitic alliance. We’d take up with Al Quaida if necessary.”
Yeah, yeah. Boggle,boggle swills the sewage in my mind. The vision of an anti-evangelical alliance was far too strange for me to assimilate. Makes little sense but may at least explains her thirst for action. Or is she just trying to unsettle me once again with her vaunted unpredictability.
Or tempt him.
He was almost expecting an oscar-winning line: “Come, my lover. One last time.” Starry Khazari night Collapsing stars. The final, farewell fuck before the fearful dawn. This time with tenderness and endearments. But not on the agenda; they maintained their discreet distance, beyond the flesh.
“What were you doing to me?”
“Sharpening your intent.” Another blank in his head, though as an admirer of Don Juan, he should have recognized the quote.
She pulls out her mobile-phone(didn’t know she had one) and dials a number from memory. So, had she been using it when out on those supposed grocery-runs? Who’s she contacting and what’s the urgency? “Ready. Come now,” she raps. But for the moment they are still alone.
Evidently she does not consider them ready enough yet. First, she must inflict some wanton damage on the room; a lamp standard broken, a cushion or two shredded, the plants uprooted, the confining plastic curtains ripped down, ripped up, the window flung open to admit the noiseof traffic, while Jim stalks impotently around. Then Tzipi enters her bedroom to rummage in the clothes-store, returning dressed for action. The belt, dagger and insignia give a ceremonial aspect to the outfit, her travelling cape and knapsack suggesta journey. She looks prepared and dangerous but, miraculously, the wicked attire fails to turn Jim on. Is the poor lad cured?
She drops to her cushion, indicates that Jim do the same. Motionless, they watch the door and wait.
For whom?
Whoever he is, knows the code. A double ring and the masked intruder has burst in. Maximum points for drama. Jim glances over at Tzipi who stands to attention and executes a complex salute that the gunman repeats. Ditto for ceremonial impact. A gunman indeed, and his pistol pointed at Jim.
“Not yet,” Tzipi intervenes.
“He’s a double agent.”
“At least tie him up. They say he’s dangerous.”
Tzipi’s derisive laughter chills Jim’s soul to hell and back. He closes his eyes. Never has he felt so used, so utterly useless.
“Oh, in the long run, he’ll always prove useful,” chimes in a third voice. Jim starts, astonished to hear Pancho at his side and the unmistakable sound of Tzipi’s welcoming kiss. A smackeroo for Pancho. Where is all this leading? By the time Jim has regained his senses, the two conspirators are deep in conversation. “They’re no longer making a contribution, not pulling their weight. We’re going to make the difference,” he says. “Yes, it’s a question of strategy.”·she adds.
Oh the lure of empty phrases, how it unites them. Pancho is wearing his black hat, set at its usual jaunty angle, an altiplanic poncho, camouflage fatigues, and peasant sandals that emphasise his roots and will let in the rain. The lure of her power. The lure of his fascination. It’s mutual, isn’t it? His hand is resting affectionately on Tzipi’s shoulder. She’s smiling at him in open admiration. The masked guard is scanning the street.
Of course, for all his political savvy, Pancho assumed the test was still of power and strength, which he can’t really exercise on the run. Of course, if he’s pulled back from overt leadershipTzipi can provide another vision. Matching style and poise; not so much falling into each other’s arms as into each other’s lures. Of course, Jim would like to smash his smug face in and can’t possibly. And of course, they’ve already dismissed him........
“ ........... he’ll find a way of surviving, I’m sure,” she was saying and kissing Pancho full on the lips as long-term (or newly found) lovers will. They leave arm-in-arm without a backward glance, the glowering bodyguard ensuring that Jim commit no final act of rashness.
Which to indulge first, jealousy or sublimination?
He constructed a pyramid of the remaining cushions and stationed himself on top of the pile, surveying the wreckage of the dream. Out came the diary:
Mistrusted/ distrusted. Outsider/insider. Patriot/doppleganger, he recorded for posterity. Not honesty, that wasn’t in the game plan, product of abuse which breeds abuse, his fevered speculations steadily losing coherence as Jim attempted to make sense of his stay with the ninja-shrink.
Required to join a cause bequeathed by a father he’d never seen, a cause that were it ever to surface would upset the apple-cart of modern rivalries. Plum-bang in the middle of modern Chechenia where the Christians and Muslim are still slugging it out. Did they need these would-be Jews to muddy the waters? Asked to fight for a country he’d never heard of, whose heirs and survivors have no inkling of its existence.
Mind you, the Englishman in James reasoned, just who are we to talk? Consider England, a country that constitutionally does not exist (except in the mind of the world cup football organizers), whose patron saint George has been wiped off the list of saints by the Vatican because no proof of his ever existing exists, who achieved fame by killing an animal that also never existed. Talk about a land of imaginary beings.
Till the aftertaste of disgust changed to a sense of comedy as he contemplated the keystone cop exits and entrances of the key characters of his senseless adventure.
All morning he sat, in the dark yet, but surfacing slowly while he struggled to distance himself from Tzipi’s bubbleworld. But by afternoon he was suddenly unsettled, packed in a hurry and strode away, in which he displayed the renmants of solid intuition, because a mere half an hour later, his pal Ventura stormed in, also brandishing pistol, cop to the end, living out his own ambition, fantasies and fear, too late, alas, to have any impact on Jim’s fate.
Jim had copped out, opted for another movie. Or so he presumed.

As it could well have worked out, if only Jim hadn’t earlier taken the step of stashing that damned manuscript among his maid Asunta’s belongings and if Asunta’s niece hadn’t found it and then, following instructions, mailed the papers off to Sarah back in London.
On receiving the package just when she was stubbornly re-soldering (and eventually being compelled to discard) the skeletons of her latest, failed sculptures, furious at being alone and abandoned in the once thriving household, Sarah had brooded for a good stretch of time. She would later claim that the decision to push hard for the publishing of Jim’s work was inevitable and nothing to do with literary merit, nor to honour the writing’s honesty (as with any work of semi-fiction, she thought the novel/diary a pack of self-justifying near-truths). Creative and independent, but essentially a mean soul Sarah, was conceiving of a little plan, her motives based less on any clear strategy, more the product of personal frustration.
“Here take one and see what you make of this nonsense,” she’d say, offering copies to friends and contacts. She even financed the initial print-run herself, distributing enough rough zamisdat extracts to incite some enthusiasm and, then ( imagine her surprise) an escalating demand, whose impact caught her cold. Perhaps her point had been just to ridicule Jim’s posturings but she managed instead to complicate life by blowing his cover.
Because, in the event, she couldn’t block all those attractive bids from the serious publishing houses. Instead, she had to shrug her shoulders and, cursing Jim’s luck, decide to cash in, (in truth there were no longer any takers for of her holographic huntress series). Sarah ended up creating a modern myth round an individual whom she actually came to consider deeply repugnant. If that was the irony of her position, imagine Jim’s fate back in Bolivia, now stripped of his anonymity by Sarah’s misguided intervention, turning him into the subject-matter of a runaway but minor best-seller. And what timing; at the moment when that smarmy bastard Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his English-speaking consultants had battled (many would prefer to say, schemed) Goni’s way to a second term in office as president of the republic.

Chapters 46-50

Chapter 46
Outcast Inmate

The San Pedro penitentiary occupies an entire block of La Paz city-centre. A membrane away, in the plaza of the same name, life ticks on. To think, I once sat on a bench by the bandless bandstand and the trees and the shoe-shine boys and snarling traffic, stoned, sniggering at the bullet holes in those towering adobe walls, ignorant of the misery within.
Two guards march me through iron gates to a courtyard, three or four tiers high perhaps, hard to tell in the dazzle of the morning sun. Nor do I want to gaze up at the jeering galleries and have to decide whether the derision is aimed at me or the cops. The escort relocks the gate and departs.
A prisoner in a torn cardigan and shredded rubber sandals approaches. “Bed fifty bolivianos a week, blankets twenty extra.” I’m penniless. He shrugs, turns away. A succession of hustlers lower the tariff, but even at five for a bed (and what horrors might that entail?), I’m strapped by Ley 1008. Ah, they nod, smiling at the phenomenon of a gringo more desolate than themselves.
Judging by the upper balconies, the patio forms part of a larger central courtyard, but railings and slapdash brickwork isolate this section into a triangle. The number of people circulating strikes me as an optical illusion, has to be, so many cannot fit into such a limited space and yet I have the impression of encountering merely the early risers. Staircases lead into the recesses of the rabbit warren.
And surprise, surprise, our yard is chockerblock with crooks and madmen, whose main pastime appears to be a struggle for sunlight. This may explain the jostling, the shambling round and round. More prisoners, also in movement, cram the balconies. After the days of solitary, I’ve resurfaced to one of those Escher prints. I'm hunched against a wall, in arctic shade, watching the residents doing the bedlam shuffle.
For the next hour, I kid myself that someone in authority will break into a smile (ha, ha, just an initiation joke), that eventually I’ll be allocated my inch of space, that Waldo’s washing his hands of me can’t mean such utter humiliation. But the guards idling by the entrance are more concerned with the queuing visitors.
Loneliness fells me. Survival in this hell most definitely depends on having contacts - wives or girlfriends, family or friends, countrymen, fellow-convicts, misfits, anyone. Unfortunately, my particular support-group is on the run and/or underground, leaving me little alternative but to study the runes of cracked plaster on the walls while the jail gradually turns into a market. Only in Bolivia, only here.
Women are preparing meals, serving tea and coffee, their children scampering through the mayhem. I won’t call it a beehive (which would imply useful activity), but between the bargaining and bartering, the cards, the dice, the food, the hubbub, daily life in San Pedro enters a reassuring routine for everyone except me.
When in St. Peter’s, do as the Romans. I circulate, though nobody cares to talk to me, not even the genuinely insane. As I approach, they shy away. Am I dangerous or, in this warped market, does fraternity carry a price-tag too?
A tour of inspection then, confined to the patio since I’m not allowed into the corridors or up the stairs (fingers wag negatively). I can still peek; some areas achieve a cosmetic decency, the majority seem to deteriorate into mild stench and confusion. In my meanderings, I don't uncover any structure, leadership or aim, though I do detect plenty of vermin.
Dumped, but I must make some effort to steady my nerves. I should, at least, review the events that have brought me to this pass. After ten minutes’ concentration, however, I find nothing to report, no wisdom, no perspective. Since the arrest, I’ve been observing myself as in a movie and today the great projectionist in the sky has decided to feature a flashback matinée. For some reason, the images are all washed in rain. Result of my thirst, maybe.
Opening scene, rain streams from Sandy’s hair. We’re tumbling down the Uchumachi hill, fleeing the forest. Then a storm on the River Tuichi (logs batter the launch, Yod smiles enigmatically), leading to an interlude of swirling skirts - the drunken dancers before the downpour at the anniversary. Extravagant lightning accompanies a candlelit meeting of the directorio and the show concludes in a blizzard, Alejandro dousing the upturned jeep with alcohol.
Good movie, nice atmospherics, grim reality. I know, you don’t need to tell me, retro-fantasy is pointless and sad. But managing to erase this awful place, be it momentarily, is a bonus, c’mon. Now I’m back at Castle Escher, propelled by my body towards the toilet. Wouldn’t want to soil the only clothes I possess.
Grubby is not the word. And I thought this past year had inured me to basics. I’d gag over the contents of that rusty oildrums, but don’t have anything to bring up. I piss into the clogged drain. Enough; let’s deal with hygiene and the so-called amenities later – a lot of later lies ahead.
Attending to one bodily function merely highlights the next. Pots are bubbling on a half-dozen paraffin stoves. For those with family or funds, food presents no problem. So, do the rest of us starve under the terms of catch-1008? Probably not, or the yard would be littered with the stick-insect, sunken-eyed dying.
Yes, look, the gate’s swung open and some old lags are lugging in an antique trolley. The prisoners do not scramble, they form a line. I could relish the unidentified goo if I had a plate or a spoon. Borrowing’s out of the question, everyone’s chewing on their make-believe banquet very slowly and since it’s liquidy mush, I can’t resort to two-fingered, Bolivian-style eating. I’d scrape the crusty residue on the pot, but other outcasts have beaten me to it.
A plumb women in pollera, whose raucous laugh has been annoying me all morning, comes over, bearing a pan. I receive the greasy noodles in my outstretched hands like a seasoned beggar. See, one can never tell whence the drops of human kindness are going to trickle down.
As the day wears on, shadows stretch across the yard. For all its faults, this is no dripping dungeon. You wouldn’t claim the crowd are having fun, but they’re animated enough My personal torment comes from the noise of the radios, all tuned to Chacaltaya FM. You guessed, the inevitable cumbias. How could they a name tropical-music station after the highest ski-mountain in the world? No wonder the glacier’s receding.
Not having ear-plugs, I dedicate my afternoon to classifying the cumbia lyrics under a) blame b) self-pity c) death-wish and, given my situation, acquire some respect for those that combine all three noble sentiments.
Around teatime (for the fortunate majority), there’s an incident. Objects are hurled from the balconies. One set of police heads upstairs towards the source of the disturbance, another advances into our patio. The core of this squad parade the ultimate in lightweight, semi-automatic firepower. An outer detachment surrounds them, brandishing truncheons so that no-one is tempted to snatch any of the deadly, shiny new toys. Interestingly, prisoners and guests don’t simply retreat before this show of force, they also vacate the space under the balconies as if expecting bodies to fall. Point taken.
. With the patch of sky darkening fast, visitors are herded out. Prisoners vanish into holes. The remaining guards are neither hostile nor friendly when I approach them, nor interested in how I might spent the night. One points to a pile of filthy rags, and shrugs. You’re joking? He’s not.
Well, I can’t entirely blame the system or the cops for my plight. Sponging off Copcap softened me, left me unprepared. And the good sleeping bag I brought to this country, Joanne borrowed. Now I have nothing.
“Oye, gringo, choco, q’ara, up here, friend of mine wants to share his bed with you.” I’ll take my chances in the open, thanks. The catcalls dissolve into ribaldry. And lying here among the outcasts, I learn a useful lesson, first of the day - not to pull too hard on the threadbare blankets, lest sudden movement tear them to shreds. I doubt whether there is much honour among thieves, not on the evidence of this bleak introduction to San Pedro, but sanity among madmen, oh yes. We huddle closer.
Sleep is elusive. The partying continues around us and I don’t think I’m inventing the sound of female voices. The sun has shone nonstop during the day. Now the security lights are on, their sodium rays drenching us like bitter radioactive lemons. The flash of three rockets overhead announces a fiesta somewhere in the outer world.
I used to think the cold of the La Paz winter was exaggerated, a myth founded on a lack of domestic heating. But I realize, as the last of the day’s warmth is squandered into the thin air, that for me hell freezes over tonight.

Chapter 47
A Softer Cell

“Joven Jaime, get up.”
When I turn towards the voice, ice crackles, I swear it does. The rags have moulded into a solid sheet around our bodies but by some miracle of insulation (cold fusion?),we have survived till daylight.
“Joven, this is not the place for you. Gather your things.” I am my things, for your information, and who the billy-shears are you? But I obey, follow the funny little rotund man to this low-ceilinged room. While I’m thawing out over a mug of tea, he, his young son and a tailless, black cat observe me with interest. A dim bulb hangs from a naked wire.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he complains, picking his bulbous nose. I hum and hah, careful not to ruin this chance. “Ramón of the maskmakers.” Ah yes, of course, I dissimulate, nice to meet you again, Ramón. “I’m in here for debt,” he says. And the boy? “That’s a tough one. My wife’s gone.” And, sluggish as I am, I do wonder if he’s about to confirm the cumbia claim that women always desert their men. “No, she died in childbirth last year. Then my brother-in-law had me jailed.”
The rest of the cell-mates have discreetly given us time together. Now they pile in and a singular trio of characters they are - a bean-pole, a weasel, a muscleman. Intimidating. Look, I can’t pay and I wouldn’t want to incur debts and end up in jail like our friend here. Good for a laugh, that comment. The meeting has commenced well.
Money’s no problem, they explain - a matter of establishing a niche like in any market. “There are a hundred ways of earning a living in this place,” says Enrique, the tall, middle-aged Chilean. “Ramón carves toys. I play the guitar. El Loco over there,” the weasly guy treats me to a sharp, carnivorous grin, “is a supplier. And that’s Valentín his enforcer.” The big man shakes my hand, leaving it aching for an hour.
They puzzle over my reception. Odd the way you were abandoned, new prisoners usually have better luck. Ramón recognized you, but sometimes it’s wiser not to interfere in these special cases, could get in the way of business. Sure, we know why you’re in. Everyone knows everything here, you’d do well to remember that. By the way, we’re inviting you to join us.
“Very decent of you,” I say. “Thanks.” Another textbook example of Bolivian democracy in action, it would seem.
“Fact is we need to make up numbers,” Ramón responds, “and we prefer to choose.” “Yeah,” says el Loco, “Too many spies and informers around.” Valentín, man of few words, tenses those enormous hams.
The boy shyly offers me his crust of bread, Enrique strums a few celebratory chords, Mishi scratches in a corner, filling the small room with the stench of cat-litter. The guys catch my glance (it’s going to be hard to hide feelings hereabouts). “He works too,” says Enrique. Ah, the rats.
“I imagine you’ll appreciate this,” the supplier states, slipping a slim joint from the breast pocket of his shirt. Though weak compared to Sandy’s fare, a couple of hits and I’m vaulted onto a different level, one that isn’t particularly welcome.
San Pedro closes in, those acres of illusory freedom I used to enjoy compressed into this single city-block. My very latest new friends, alert to the cloisterphobia that strikes every new inmate, hoist me to my feet, march me down a corridor, back another patio, forcing me to face up. Quite correct; this is how every family lives in the million-strong Alto, cheek by jowl in one small room, no love lost. And jostling and cramped, they all fit in. Hey, organic life is cellular.
Fine, that’s space dealt with. And the other half of the continuum, time? Ramón presents me to the block lawyer, a defrocked professional of studied smoothness, a snake. No funds, I repeat, but he generously offers to crush my hopes for free.
“No, they don’t rate you as dangerous, otherwise you’d be in Chonchocoro. The plan, if they have one, is to forget you. A trial, don’t make me laugh. Some of us have been waiting seven or eight years. Oh yes, there’s talk of new penal procedures, but with this backlog of cases, well ...... you can count on a long stretch. We have lots of laws, my friend, plenty of them, but justice is another matter. Come and see me again when you’ve some money. I can always prepare your documents, always.”
The tour continues. How Ramón and his boy remind me of Elvira and son, never out of hand-reach, exchanging glances, smiles, fruit. The jailed four-year-old, trailing after his roly-poly dad, guides me up rickety ladders, along the low passageways, deep into the heart of the honeycomb. The prison authorities believe nothing connects, but Ramón hints at cubby-holes, priest-holes, hollow partitions, hidden mezzanines. Escher would approve.
When the way is barred, we apologize for the intrusion and retreat, emerging on some balcony to orient ourselves. Everywhere rooms, doors neither shut nor ajar, mellow the sprawling fortress, almost converting it to an eccentric hotel.
Except, throughout, one senses a seething discontent, a straining at the monotony. The police presence is not discreet to the point of apathy, as I’d assumed. Back in the yard, Ramón nods towards so-and-so who’s casually consuming a plate of noodles. A leader of his block, he murmurs. Nearby, two prison guards are keeping a sharp eye on the man.
Life is not arduous, however. The occasional rollcall or search will interrupt the routine but the authorities don’t push hard. After a while, I’m content to doze the days away dazed, one more species of insect burrowing into the bullet-ridden plasterwork.
But then visitors appear.

The first is insignificant, a pretty boy from the embassy, sent to check. He shakes his golden locks, offering nothing, not advice, certainly not access to my funds, though he admits to being a commercial under-secretary. Wolf-whistles pursue him. He’s lucky to escape with arse unbloodied.
Joanne’s re-entry is an entirely different story. A saner person would forfeit a year of life to escape from this accursed hole; Mum can’t be prised loose. She takes the penitentiary by storm, managing to evade detection for three whole nights whilst partying from cell to cell. My popularity soars.
What does the dutiful mother say to her wayward son? “Cool place, Jimmy, I’m proud of you. Tenes mas polvo, Ramone.’ Actually, it’s el Loco who’s maintaining her supply of white powder (homebrew fruit-liquor too), but everyone’s Ramone to her and they come running when she calls.
Note she’s performing in execrable Spanish. “Learnt it on the beach in La Coruña,” she reveals, “when me and Phil spent that magic summer there.”
“You mean, you stayed together for more than a couple of nights?”
“Son, Phil and me, I’ll have you know, experienced a full-blown affair.” She makes love sound like a viral condition.
Still, I do enjoy re-tuning to the gringo wavelength. On the other hand, she’s Joanne and a total embarrassment, even in such a madhouse. I grit my teeth, confident that boredom to set in soon and, sure enough, one evening she exits with the outgoing traffic. Before leaving, Mum divides a wad of money earned in the last few days (I daren’t ask how - she’d say ‘therapy’) and informs me that Bolivia is fab, she’s planning to stay for a short while yet. Flies to flypaper, as Thom, the ex-pat at the anniversary, would say. Joanne may yet be resident twenty years down the road.

It’s not often that anyone upstages Mum, but hot on her heels comes Tzipi and I do mean a-sizzle. Her outfit alone (black tights, denim miniskirt, body-hugging sweater) has the galleries goggling and groaning. Her spectacular, whirlwind visit effectively places me off-limits to all the randy guys and gays who’d had designs on my butt. Shame really, because I have my own list, those I’d fancy were it safe to do so.
She whips out a 50-b.note and, firmly, politely, orders my roommates out. Hands on hips, she’s sneering, “Time to shape up, what a mess you are.” I’d wonder at her idiomatic English but she’s thrown a knife at me (in a gentle arc, handle first, I’m glad to report) and gone into a crouch. “Yours, now use it, attack me.” An invitation to instant disarmament, perhaps dismemberment. I’m not up to it right now, dear. Can’t we alter out terms of engagement for once?
“This is not a game,” she thunders, slamming me onto the bed, “and don’t think it’s sexual.” Tell that to our awestruck, eavesdropping audience as crashes echo along the corridor. Practical, not erotic, she claims, her knee kneading between my thighs.
Lamentably, in its first test-launch since Vanesa’s farewell concert (was that really only one week ago?) my member misbehaves, accelerating from flaccid obstinacy to spurting rocket, toot sweet – all over so fast I don’t even get to hit Tzipi’s baggage section.
“You shouldn’t let the place bother you,” she soothes, caressing, pleasuring herself anyway, pressuring, tightening her grip. But where’s the fun playing the damp squid to her octopus?
“Don’t take prison so hard, ” she repeats.
Not that. It’s not the farting/snoring/wheezing/wanking that keeps me awake nights, though these noises do saturate our little room. Nor even my constant fear of the electric wiring, a firetrap-in-waiting. It’s not that, not that at all.
What’s thwarting the blessed sleep I so need is, I mean, (how to put this tactfully) am I paranoid or was I being used? Expressed like that, the accusation bypasses her completely. She scratches the headband that secures her wonderful sweep of blonde hair.
“Mossad – no?” I venture, pointing a finger at her heart
She breaks into peals of laughter but lifts herself off my body, the better to counter every scrap of evidence I can produce. Our military training, don’t read a thing into it, we Israelis all go through the army. Tour operators - smooth operators? Business requires the best in satellite fax & e-mail, course it does. Especially when importing drainage equipment from China, I enquire. At that, Tzipi changes the subject.
“So, I’ve arranged a job for you,” she announces. “You need money, don’t you?” Amid scattered applause (our exploits have evidently grown in the telling), Tzipi marches me through gates and guards (how?) into a quieter section of the jail, into the clutches of an over-handsome, over-bearing, over-intimate stranger whose name I catch as ‘Cheater’ (which suits him fine), though his real monicker is ‘Chito’.
The ex-mayor of La Paz kisses her on the cheek, before offering me his noble, sweaty hand.
“My men took you in, I understand. Good; I asked them to.”
Not the way I heard it. Wasn’t I voted aboard?
“Our dear friend Tzipi says you’re a teacher.” He kisses her again, this time on the lips. “I have work for you. $10 a day.”

The last visit is private, very private. Enrique escorts Miguelito to our room. “I’ll stand guard while you talk,” he says and stooping, departs.
“Incréible, compañero!” I blubber. “Great to see you.”
“Had to invent an uncle to get in here,” he whispers “It’s not safe, nowhere’s safe now.”
“Miguel, what’s been happening?” He stares at me, biting his nails, whether annoyed or disturbed by my question, I’m unsure.
“Don’t you get the news here?” he finally asks. Well, now that you mention it, I can’t recall seeing any newspapers and the cumbia stations don’t cater much to reality.
“Just a march like any other. So many died, a massacre, pitiful really,” he muses. What! “We didn’t get to identify the bodies but Rigoberto and Elvira are definitely dead, Amalia too.” Handiwork of the notorious Tarapacá regiment, resident in the Alto, which in its glorious history, he explains, has alternated between losing half the country and killing unarmed Bolivian civilians.
Julio? I falter, trembling, having to repeat the question.
“No estoy muy seguro. No-one has reliable news. Some were taken to a camp on the Paraguayan border. Many more are missing.” He unstitches the lining of his jacket and extracts a tightly folded paper. “This is for you.”
Pancho writes: ‘Thank you for your trust. Stay true. All is not as it seems.’

Chapter 48
Time Renamed

Pancho, marvellous to know you’re at large, the enigma still glimmering in the gloom. Here at St. Peter’s Institute for the Sad, the Mad and the Bad, things aren’t what they seem either. Valentín, resident heavy, let the biceps and pectorals fool no-one, is in for white-collar theft and fraud. Mild, myopic Enrique faces ten years, give or take a decade, for attempted murder. And this room is stuffy and cold. We wrap ourselves in blankets.
Our radio doesn’t receive signals this far into the catacombs, the 40-watt bulb casts a dim light, that spindly geranium on the locker will never bloom. Yet the cell is lively and we count on Enrique to keep the cumbia music at bay.
The current mania is chess, a nightly tournament in which Ramón, waistcoat unbuttoned despite the chill, reigns supreme. Valentín runs him close, evidence of a promising banking career now stalled. But Loco is a fitful player unless he’s betting and the chess/music mix distracts Enrique. Since outsiders are not welcomed to our inner world, I’m under pressure to play. While appreciating the majesty of the game, it ties my head in knots, so I refuse. Instead, I’m teaching little Diegito to count and, from there, we’ll advance to the simpler card games.
I do sometimes wonder about the spare bed I’ve inherited, but learn nothing about my predecessor except that he left, feet first I presume, his best chance of an early release. Until such a fate overtakes me, these are the guys with whom I’ll share my stretch. Accomodating to them is usually possible.
I feel closest to Enrique because we’re foreigners and both political offenders (I’d like to believe). The gaunt Chilean is old-style left, class of ’73, a survivor of the Santiago football stadium round-up, who witnessed Pinochet’s thugs hack the hands off Victor Jara. Imagine, the hands of the maestro, Enrique’s guitar teacher, hero, guide. Then, years later, in the streets of La Paz, he ran into one of the torturers. Fortunately, I was carrying a knife, says Enrique. Unfortunately, it wasn’t sharp enough.
The hierarchy of our cell becomes clearer during the freak-out over the cat. Mishi’s missing, blame falling squarely on me (and Tzipi) for the shenanigans which, Loco says, drove the beast away. Living up to his nickname, he’s teasing a blade across my throat while Valentín gazes on indifferently. It’s Ramón who rescues me with soothing, private words to the lunatic.
The outer world, which is to say the yard where we spend days sunning ourselves, also recognizes the power in Ramón. Again, not obvious, not until one’s observed the man negotiating. Even then, I don’t grasp the extent of his influence until he invites me to accompany him on his rounds.
The ward-bosses sport catchy macho names like Julio Cesar, Napo, Negrito, Numero Uno, Fidel, Domino, Chucky and they all live in rooms similar to ours, exempt from the general crush, sleeping in beds not bunks. Ramón is greeted as an equal, I’m regarded as a curio who should wait in the corridor.
His exalted status forces me to rethink our little gang. Of the group, Loco and Valentín pick themselves and Enrique is a minstrel. So, what have I done to earn the privilege of a bed?
After that visit, we’re sampling another of the perks, spicy chicken and rice from Doña Emma’s puesto. A fight breaks out. A couple of indigent clowns swapping creamcake punches don’t cause Ramón to break sweat. He sends an aide to cool them down. One bucket of water does the trick. They shriek, we laugh
“That’s why I never play chess outdoors. Trouble can flare at any moment and I need to be on my toes. Here,” he sweeps the yard in one grand gesture, “we play on the board of life.” Dunno, neither the metaphor nor his satisfaction with this microcosm pleases me. Above us, a vapour-trail bisects the triangle of visible sky. Suddenly I’m in need of horizons, a telescope not a damned magnifying glass.
“So, aren’t you bitter about that brother-in-law of yours?” I ask.
“Oh you met Alberto, you know what a bastard he is.” Ramón crunches on a chicken bone. “He ran the group for Chito, I ran the barrio. No hard feelings. Would’ve done the same myself but Alberto made the move. Checkmate.”
I did wonder how a recent arrival gets to direct this section of the jail. “Claro, favour from the boss, Chito and I go back a long way.”
We thank Doña Emma but don’t bother paying cash, courtesy of the boss. Yes, it all leads back to Chito, the chiselled, acceptable face of power. A very influential person. One doesn’t just barge in like Tzipi gave the impression of doing, though the feat certainly adds to her mystique.
I’m summoned one time, to finalize details of my new job and, as a bonus, get to tour his executive suite, well, his single stately room. A tv, a computer, a cellphone and, wow, the microwave, are impressive possessions for a bankrupt ex-mayor. I also watch him dispense rough justice. The offender (charge undisclosed) will spend the winter’s night in his underwear, gagged and tied to a flagpole. Yes, Chito has a certain style, charming, effective, lavish, bogus.
I just can’t fathom why he wants me to provide an English language course, and our conversation isn’t enlightening.
“It’ll give a boost to morale, hijo. The level of culture is extremely low in this jail, you may have noticed. Adelante. Eyes to the future, we’ll counting on you.”
“But I’ve no background in language teaching.”
“You’re a teacher, you speak the language. Design a three-month program and I’ll attend to the details.”
And Ramón, still licking the chicken-fat from his stumpy fingers, obviously shares this enthusiasm. “Enroll me now, Jaime. The boss told me I’m on the course.”
It’s not laziness that’s holding me back. I am making an effort to plan a module round the verb ‘to be’, the simple present, the present continuous – aye, there’s the rub, the present continuous. If eternity is a bird pecking a grain of sand from the mountain once in a lifetime, why do I hear this ticking, not of a clock but a time-bomb?

The space assigned to the course is generous. Formerly the infirmary, now the guards’ room, posters of Rambo and booby nudes advertise the IQ level of its present occupants. Resentful of our intrusion, they body-search us before and after each class. Laughable, inspecting notebooks for secret messages, when my teaching method allows students to communicate freely.
I begin the course by explaining that, in my opinion, grammar is not a priority. Imagine a guitarist practising chords, that’s all grammar does. Here we aim to make music. My students, who happen to be all the ward bosses and their lieutenants, stare blankly back, baffled by the metaphor. You’re gonna talk English, I clarify. Muy bien, they reply. Big Shot Chito is backing me; they're respectful.
Our opening class is interrupted by the arrival of the prison governor, a squat little fellow who may strut like a Roman emperor, but who’s really the pimp on loan from a Fellini movie. Chito makes his appearance one minute later. Boss and guv meet and greet as heads of state, each vying to outdo the other in courtesies. They bless our endeavours and depart, trailing a phalanx of bodyguards.
Over the weeks, a pattern emerges. I’ll present a structure which the students mumble anaemically until the practice groups are formed and I move round to check on progress. These groups are much more animated (maybe because they choose their own membership), but I must curtail their bad habit of conversing in Spanish. In fact, by the end of the two hours I’ve usually lost control of proceedings, though my students leave contented enough, taunting the cops with the four-letter English vocabulary they insist on learning.
“How am I doing, Ramón? Are you enjoying the classes?”
“Bién nomás. Well, don’t take this personally, but I think you’re too informal. You should be stricter.”
“Fine, then I’ll eliminate the groups.”
“No, please don’t do that,” he says, seemingly quite afraid that I might. “The discussions are the best part. We enjoy them very much”
Enjoyment is hardly a word one hears often these days in San Pedro. Searches have increased, as have random beatings and, coincidentally or not, the number of outcasts moaning and screaming day and night. The atmosphere is tense. I blame the cops/guards. Excuse me if I confuse the two, but they wear the same uniform and display an equal lack of training.
They’re scared, it’s obvious from their blank faces and the way they clutch those fancy weapons. No more private jokes, no favours, not even for the market ladies. The cops conduct their sweeps like amateur scientists unsure whether they’re searching for particles or waves, rampaging through the jail at night by flashlight, inviting trouble.
The ‘authorities’ have abandoned all pretense at counselling, medical attention (where’s the infirmary now, anyway?), the moribund work programmes. The only thing they’re capable of administering now are the beatings. Food is scarce, tempers frayed. And official frenzy has been matched by a decline in prisoner discipline, much to the displeasure of Chito’s men. I’ve taken to carrying my knife, though I couldn’t defend myself with it. Tzipi’s training session remains a pleasant blur.
Still, the English classes continue. We’ve agree on 3 months (as if time could have meaning here), terminating in the ritual of a graduation, diplomas n’all (Bolivians demand ceremony). By that time, my students may be able to parrot a few phrases. Yet, when I jokingly suggest we present some theatre, nothing more than a short sketch for the occasion, my students take me up on it and, thereafter, our classes are devoted to inventing a story-line capable of satisfying a dozen egos.
I’d be prouder of my theatrical talents if the actors wouldn’t twist the plot so. A shoot-out in downtown La Paz is a climax rather close to the bone, I feel. But the prison governor, a gangster/filme noire/thriller fan, approves. Worse, he wants a part written in for him.
“Governors are an odd lot,” my lawyer (now that I can pay him) confides. “They never last long. Quite the opposite to your case. I’ve heard the charge will be collaboration with terrorism. Twenty-five years minimum.”
Which is an essential difference beween me and the Bard, who delighted in long sentences.

Very touching, this zeal for amateur dramatics. Graduation day finds the participants wound up tighter than the British Embassy’s purse strings. The plot has mutated from gangsters to gangs to kidnappings. I’m calling it ‘Mousetrap’ (Loco’s doing a roaring trade in them now that Mishi, presumed eaten, has vanished permanently) and because of the messages, the hidden meanings I sense, plays within the play.
You see, we are aware of the news, of the crisis in Bolivia’s penal (for want of a better word let’s call it) 'system' that goes beyond the customary shambles. Our grapevine hums; hunger strikes in Cochabamba, whilst the Santa Cruz inmates have sown their lips together and are crucifying themselves.
“Masochism,” comments my production assistant, Ramón. “The first rule is to hurt the enemy.” He sorts through costumes, scenery, props, arranges seating for the guests. The prison may be edgy but our play has the governor’s personal go-ahead, even though his part in the production has been scratched.
Yeah, the guv realized that fraternization was not such a great idea and, anyway, he wasn’t prepared to toil like us at rehearsals, especially when his ideas were being rejected. So, one canny eye on the press, the other on future employment, he’s invited a range of dignitaries to the graduation – the inspector of prisons, the sub-secretary for penal affairs, a retired judge, a high-ranking policeman and, for balance, one human rights rep.
Ramón shifts the metal folding chairs closer to the stage that Negrito has constructed. Various actors are practising their lines and I’m distracted by a sudden realization of how descriptive their nicknames are - Fidel is bearded, Napo’s hand’s on his heart, Julio Cesar bald, Chucky has warts. Perhaps I should be more attentive to the weaponry others are stashing under the stage.
Have you guessed? Well, you’re smarter than I am, streets ahead. Yes, in the event, the dignitaries get more of a show than they bargained for. When the hostage-taking occurs towards the climax of the play, I’m as surprised as the disarmed, dumbfounded, dumb guards, word of honour. Our guests, pistols to their heads, disappear within the entrails of the jail.
Early into the confusion, Enrique hustles me out. Experience must be warning him that foreigners make ready sacrificial victims. It’s not easy being a Chilean in Bolivia, not since the War of the Pacific over a hundred years back when Bolivia lost its coast-line (file under ‘long time, no sea’). Thanks pal, I do appreciate your concern.
Somehow, I lose my knife in the tumult. Still, I should be safe in this part of the jail and have plenty of leisure to contemplate this, my latest debacle. Did Chito plan the uprising or is he, like me, a born loser? I saw him taken hostage too – was that a clever move on his part or just desserts? Foolhardy or foolish, a good question. I’d say the latter; his ambitious subordinates have outflanked him, he misjudged the chaos.
Enrique keeps me indoors, so I don’t get to see the lynching of the guards and I’m spared the horror of the reprisals, but do hear the riot-squad barking contradictory orders, lashing out. By the time the tear-gas forces me to emerge and accept my beating, both the fires and screams have largely subsided. The fragile snowfall of the previous night, which I regret missing, has already melted to city-sludge, tinged with blood.
Wanna know the final score? Sixteen dead (including hostages), a hundred plus injured. If I’m not responsible, why this certainty of being blamed?

“Your knife,” says Waldo, turning the object over and over so light catches the residues of the governor’s throat.
I feel positively reckless and light-headed as I shuffle the pack of possible excuses. Wrong place, right time or the reverse, will that do? (Too complex.) Plain bad luck, circumstances conspiring once again. (Too facile.) Karma? (Beyond Waldo’s ken.)
He’s back in uniform and earned some extra stars and ribbons during the last few months’ repression. The gold braid blends nicely with his little badge in the colours of Club The Strongest, yellow and black. “Viva Bolívar,” I say, not specifying if I’m cheering on the team or the Liberator.
Waldo clears his throat before dictating sentence. “Young man, your reputation as a trouble-maker is thoroughly deserved and we have had enough. The decision has been taken to rid ourselves of you.” A deathly chill washes over me. The room wavers, blackness descends, I faint.
I splutter. Waldo is forcing zingani down me, a wry smile playing on his lips. “Yes, that would be far simpler and it was proposed. But you have many contacts who might ask awkward questions.” He hands me the half-empty glass of zingani. “What I meant to say is that you’re leaving tomorrow. The embassy has bought your ticket. We’re washing our hands of you.”
Pull the other one, Waldo. My embassy’s so stingy they don’t invite British residents to the Queen’s birthday-do anymore, arms-dealer or teabag salesmen excepted. What’s the trick? Unless ............. no, no, please!!
I follow your bastard logic, you fiend. The attack on an American airliner, US policy always to pursue its alleged enemies, dope and radical politics add up to narcoterrorism. My one-way ticket to Miami satisfies all parties.
“Qué buen idea, una maravilla. Pity I didn’t think of it, but no, sorry to disappoint you, you’re travelling via Rio.”
Then I’ll be arrested on arrival at Heathrow.
“I have the impression,” says Waldo, filling his own glass of zingani, “that your government is hardly interested in pursuing the matter.”
How do you know?
“Come, come, Meestair Jeem, don’t be so modest. In fact, I should congratulate you on that last move in San Pedro. Very astute. It forced our hand. I completely underestimated your abilities.”
What on earth is the man rambling on about?
“You and I are in the same line of business,” he continues. “We understand how these things are arranged. A time will come when we may need a favour from your people.” He refills my glass. “I apologize that I have no wheesky to toast your departure.”
Absurd, yet I’m sufficiently flattered not to ask questions that would betray my ignorance. Perhaps that’s his intention. We sign a document entitled ‘international judicial adjustment measure’ or something of that ilk, a circumlocution for ‘the boot’ in Wim-speak.
“Mind you,” Waldo concludes, “this is not a pardon nor an amnesty. It is not amnesia either. We don’t want to see you again. If you ever step foot on Bolivian soil, I can personally promise you....”
I wouldn’t be such a fool.
He drains the tumbler and sighs.
“You may take this as a souvenir.” My ID.

The aerodrome at midday is surprisingly immense and unpleasantly germless, a scrubbed, gleaming gateway to the void. I have my passport, fifty dollars in cash, dark glasses to cover the black eye, freshly laundered jeans and a jacket (not mine). Am I not the perfect parody of a spy?
Instead of the cappuchino or espresso I’ve fantasized, the minders bundle me into a holding room, the opposite of a VIP lounge (Pests, Insects, Vermin only), before ejecting me onto another of those fragile planes that the Brazilians, who’ve snapped up this rival Bolivian airline on the cheap, hope one day will crash. What do I care? Rapini beats the rap, I’ve escaped, I’m returning home - to nothing, or worse.
A last view of the mountain-range, its jagged teeth gaping like an inexpertly opened can of worms.

Chapter 49
Home Groan

A hermit crab scurries to its one available shell, baking in the furnace of a London heatwave. The low gate at number 6 Mayola Road still creaks. A riot of sickly shrubbery masks the front windows. Years ago I ripped out the doorbell, replacing it with this lion’s head. My desperate knocks thud through the house - three, four, five times. If they’re away, I’ll find no alternative refuge.
The door opens a crack. “It’s me,” I manage, a monumentally stupid remark to direct at England’s sharpest pair of ice-blue eyes. “Been expecting you,” she responds. “Some woman phoned yesterday.” I follow Sarah sheepishly into her studio, now painted lilac (it used to be white). “Watch where you tread,” she snaps. The new colour-scheme doesn’t portend any softening of attitude.
Every inch downstairs, including the kitchen and bathroom, is considered studio. I have to weave past the circular forms and hi-tensile wires. Joshua-cat, brushing against my legs, may have forgiven my reappearance, but silences wider, deeper than oceans divide Sarah and I. The house is quiet and brooding, charged, changed.
“They’re not here,” she finally relents. “And I can’t say when or if they’ll return.”
Oh Sarah, that you’re here, here and now, so real, not a memory, you. After all the madness, I’m home, the condor has landed. The things that have happened to me, you wouldn’t believe. And she doesn’t. Perhaps because the first telling comes out bubbling, loose and sticky, recombinant porridge and diarrhoea.
Sarah retrieves her industrial stapler and starts attaching coils of rolled steel to what – a huge concrete ear? Evidently my tale is not rivetting enough. Yet Sarah, small, intense, ballsy, titless, no-nonsense, crew-cut Sarah is listening. When the information has been digested, she’ll pronounce. Just don’t expect sympathy.
“With you, Jim, it’s hard to know how much is invented.”
Well, admittedly, circumstances are open to interpretation. But if I could establish one single hard fact.
“You know who’d help,” she muses. “Koff. He’s been visiting upstairs quite regularly.” I don’t like the belittling tone of that ‘upstairs’, but let it pass. Sarah’s spot on, Koff’s the man, Koff the hacker, who else?
An old friend, one of the originals, all the way back to Joanne’s rolling circus, that far. Her household used him for their multiple dole claims; no-one could forge a document more skilfully. Later I’d call on his skills myself to launch my glorious teaching career. Creating a false certificate based on Geordie’s original, piece of cake for Koff. These days he’s moved on to computer antics.
I call (a series of clicks and burps before we’re connected), explain briefly, he promises to drop by. Find the cutting, he says, that ad from the Guardian. “Upstairs,” Sarah suggests. “Geordie photocopied it, I’m sure he did. Showed it to everyone. He was really jealous of your great escape.”
“Of me? He’s got Leo. I should be the jealous one.”
“Oh Jim, a year hasn’t made you any less pathetic. I’ll fetch the key.” Locks in this house. Whatever happened to the spirit of openness, our Mayola Road honour code?
“Died when you ran.”
“Didn’t you order me away?”

The clutter of the studio gives way to neglect upstairs, verily another kingdom. Sarah refuses to accompany me and I don’t linger on the landing, though the temptation to enter my room and gaze out back is very strong.
The key jams in the lock, almost snapping. Their den is heavy, gamy with a male smell of socks and sperm. Geordie’s saxophone-case rests against the wardrobe, Leo’s playful paintings, darkly bright, are gathering dust among discarded clothes. The computer slumbers under plastic wraps.
Unlatching the window merely raises the temperature, admitting a cloud of nasty flies and the street’s putrid counter-odour. A first and second revision doesn’t locate the ad. Soon I’m suffocating, bathed in sweat. It feels wrong to be rummaging like this and my old room is pulling me. I’d submit to its call but the crash of the door-knocker resonates through the house and suddenly Koff is bounding up the stairs.
If you’re wondering about that name, consider how you might have coped with the surname Firkoff. Yiddish-Russian speaking grandfather didn’t get the implications, but dad, brought up in Manchester on ovaltine and cricket, had no such excuse. He should have changed it before his son was forced to. The trauma has left Koff a little mournful.
For the second telling of Jim’s fabulous misadventures, I’m into my stride, tailoring the tale, stressing the mysteries and maximizing my naivety. But friends are wise to our pretensions. Try as I may to deliver it in byte-sized lumps, the story fails to impress Koff. He sees merely a task. We can work from here, never mind the ad. Geordie’s machine has e-mail & internet. “But first,” he moans, “I’m famished.”
“Don’t look to me,” says Sarah, who’s sneaked up behind us. “I live on fruit and veg. The chip-shop’s probably open.”
Excuse the grimace. In addition to the standard fish supper, Tony’s chippie offers charred, stale sausages, pastries and pies, speciality of the chef, smoked salmonella. Some things won’t change.
Sarah insists. “A breath of fresh air will do you good.” The air in question is thick and petro-polluted, W. Bush’s bad breath. A thermonuclear sun slows our progress to Patel’s mini-market (we bypass the chippie) and London has laid on it’s own trash strike for my benefit.
Outside Patel’s bootmarked screen-door, flies swarm around a vast mound of the standard black bags. Inside, the food racks are infested by wasps, all decked in the colours of Club the Strongest. “Viva Bolívar,” I intone and Koff looks askance. Must remember that such references are now unshareable.
Two figures retreat through the sticky dreamscape, Koff scoffing his take-away, Jim demurring. They’re by the gate now, gazing up at the plaque (1888 it reads), residences built for the solid bougeoisie. Only number 6 retains the space and grace of those days. The others are divided and subdivided, six families or more to each house, essentially the same deal as in the Alto. So, I shouldn’t feel lost, but I do. I’m displaced and disconnected, suffering from a lack of altitude. These streets are no longer familiar. Compared to La Paz, the colours are leaching, sounds muffled, shadows fuzzy.
“How are Geordie and Leo?” I tentatively ask by way of reorienting myself. But linking the two names requires some effort.
“Together, very together,” Koff replies between mouthfuls of the pungent, soggy rice-mix. “Doing the free festivals, far as I know,. They got tired of facing the publicity.” I don’t enquire further. He spits a lump of something onto the pavement. Flies converge. In quick, before I collapse.
To the naked eye, Koff appears somewhat vague. Once at the computer, however, he acquires the passion of a concert pianist, the delicacy of a surgeon operating on a vein in the eye. Then the eye blinks.
“Ha,” he grunts, “Our incursion is noted. Fascinating, ingenious – probably bad news.” He scratches his long curly locks, genuinely surprised.
“Can we continue?”
“Oh, we’re in. Never found one I couldn’t enter. But it’ll take time and leave traces.” Adelante. What? That’s Spanish - forward, straight ahead. “Aren’t we the cosmopolitan,” Koff mocks.
Daunted, I rejoin Sarah and, since repairwork blocks the bathroom upstairs, beg a shower - well, this being a poorer part of London, a bath with overhead leakage. In the event, the plumbing’s been modernized.
“Recent,” she smiles, “last week. Of course, normally I’d do the job myself but I’m so busy with the new installation. And these fellows turned up, said it was part of the grant. Very efficient they were too.”
Since when do workmen appear out of nowhere offering their services? Not in the England I recall.
“Jim, I’ve a month to finish and install the thing. I’ll accept freebies.”
“So, what is it, anyway?”
“It’s an acoustic timepiece, emitting sonic booms, triggered by signals, part of my clock series, you wouldn’t understand.” A bitterness, quite alien to the Sarah I knew, reveals itself. “This must seem tame to a latter-day Che like yourself,” she goads.
“I’ve never modelled myself on heroes.”
“Right,” she says and sets to shredding my motives (you ducked your responsibilities here), my activities (farting around in Bolivia while other volunteers have to confront disasters, famines and war), my conclusions (at most you were a pawn that’s been taken and discarded – forget it).
Listen Sarah, I loved the Bolivians, their customs, their way of life. Such as? Well, you know, the basic courtesies, everyone wishing you ‘buenos dias’ even when you hardly know them. Ha, she parries, empty ritual, sentimental nonsense, ‘have a nice day’ horse-shit. And after all their lovely greetings, did they betray you or not, Jim?
“You’re twisting it, Sarah. If I had a joint, I could explain this better.”
“You and your blessed dope. One of these days, start using your own unamplified braincells. I can teach you this wonderful meditation technique if you’ll let me, and you’ll never want another joint in your life.” I’d prefer a smoke, but for the sake of peace I do try and we come out of it calm enough to continue the conversation. I draw the line at the raspberry-leaf and chamomile tea mix, however.
“Geordie still working?” I ask, sipping very cautiously.
“The stuff you don’t know.” She gathers up her apron and, shocking to see Sarah so, weeps into it. “He had to resign from Leaside when the tabloids got hold of the story. Reporters at the door, police inquiries. Don’t get me wrong, I like the boy, he’s unique, I can see what attracts you both (sniffle) but, for heaven’s sake, he was a 14-year-old when you first brought him to the house.” Hey, grow up, Sarah. Who’s innocent at fourteen? By that age, I’d been deflowered, crosspollinated, mulched and pruned.
“Causing the misfit you are in your twenties.”
I’d better go check upstairs.
“Damn you, Jim, for wrecking a great relationship. I loved my Geordie. Still love him.”
Upstairs, the complexity does not lessen.
Koff’s exhausted and troubled. “Ngo, you said. I’d guess government from their encryption, some branch of the government definitely, and I hope it’s not the one I think it is. I’d rather not get involved, if that’s alright with you.” He shuffles apologetically away and is swallowed by the sultry night.
Leaving me no choice but to engage the phantoms. The contents of my room, as befits the belongings of an untouchable, are untouched. The Guardian cutting (‘we seek a confident young person eager for a challenge’) lies yellowing on the desk. One glance and I ignore it, striding over to the window instead. Beyond our back wall the ruins of the academy/orphanage/asylum glower under a waning blood-orange moon.
The scene of crimes unseen, Geordie used to call it. We could sense the spectral presences, though little of the courtyard is visible. Now that San Pedro has attuned me to institutional horror, I can clearly visualize the shuffling, screaming population of yore. They have me transfixed.
Tiredness dissolves. Rage takes over.
But I will get to the bottom of this, I promise myself, heaving Patel’s unopened rice concoction over the wall towards the patrolling ghosts and alsatians.

Chapter 50

The weather breaks and reforms, gusty storms racing in from the Atlantic (a strip of land off the US coast, we’re not permitted our own climate). Rain temporarily dispels the smell of trash, but the grime recycles and heat builds again. Strolling is like bathing in the first rinse at a laundrette.
I rarely go out, can’t face the muggy August haze, the bad tempers on short fuses. Anyway, if I went to the pub I’d turn into an ancient mariner, buttonholing my mates with yarns till they yawn. Cooler to suffocate indoors.
By mutual indecision, Sarah and I arm an uneasy truce. She’s immersed in her work, I’m on my cycle of readjustment. The upstairs facilities are adequate; an electric stove for bachelor meals, a partially usable bathroom, and Geordie’s largely unrecognisable CD collection (I register Leo’s neo-musical influence). Until the pair reappear, I’m living on Sarah's hundred-pound loan and borrowed time.
She’s lonely, but doesn’t want company. “My space, mine,” she says. “I have to concentrate.” Oh Sarah, all angles and stress like your sculptures and then, out of the blue, you’ll summon me to meditate (medication, I call it) and make annoying suggestions such as, “Write it all down. When the story’s on paper, it’ll become that much clearer.” Ha! etc. Still, I do begin scribbling.
To be interrupted by Koff delivering some weakish hash which he refuses to smoke. “I’m a Khazari warrior,” he explains. Who, what? An independent Jewish kingdom in the Caucasus, sixth to tenth century. Splattered and scattered by the Russian Prince Igor, their dispersion the probable origin of the Ashkenaz. Fascinating. “Strict diet of milk and honey this week,” he says with barely a touch of self-irony. I can offer yoghurt and white sugar, alright?
But despite his resolve, Koff remains awfully timid. "Those people who employed you, the ones I checked, do be very careful. Please leave them alone.” Just teach me how to use the internet well, Koff. I’ll decide on my moves.
Trawling for news of Bolivia - there’s none, wouldn’t you know? Silence, a deceptive calm reigns, the eye of the storm in the teacup,. A country safe for investment, reliable sources agree. Uprising, what uprising? Isolated local disturbances may have occurred in response to the IMF adjustment packets. Or may not. I worry about Julio.
Meantime, in the house, signs of strain show. Sarah’s hassling me about rent, asserting her property rights when what really she’s concerned about is the lads' returning and my attitude when they do. Why are you constantly on my back, Sarah? Friendship, she’ll reply; friends have the right to trespass. That must be London’s motive too, for it’s the city pressing in, sucking my soul worse than any Dementor’s kiss.
“You exaggerate,” she says. “Write!” Right.
I cogitate, I do, the cogs whir audibly. And hindsight for beginners is a beguiling exercise. This jumble of events settles into a neat little pattern. From the very first chapter of the memoirs, it all seems to point in one direction. To that anonymous office building in central London, the sweaty suit who claimed to represent an organization by the name of ‘Volunteers for International Development’ and their absurd advert – ‘no experience required, no Spanish,’ no-brainer - an invitation to the void.
Frustration ejects me, hysterical, onto the sweltering streets, to return within the hour, dripping sweat, in need of a shower. The rubble upstairs I’ve cleared, but the drains tend to clog. So Sarah obliges, though she won’t tolerate my whining: “I was a wanted man in Bolivia. Here, I’m an unwanted.....”
“……prize prick,” she sniffs, daubing claret paint across an elastic drum.
I wrap one of Geordie’s towels around my waist and probe her foolish confidence. “You do realize,” I begin, “those workmen who popped up so conveniently to finish your bathroom...........”
“Were spies, don’t tell me,” she drawls.
“Yes, and they’re listening in, I’m sure of it. Probably left devices all over the place.”
By now she’s folded over with laughter, in danger of tipping paint on the floor.
“Whoever you are, I’m coming tomorrow, ” I bellow into the toilet bowl. “You’d better be in that office waiting for me. We have matters to discuss.”

This is going to be an expedition. A vicious, hot wind has arisen from some uranium-depleted desert, churning the debris in the streets, these serpentine streets that, sure, have names but no identity. London’s diversity has become a confusion of gangs and clans, tribes, totems, divisions and fear. We’re all outsiders here, even us indigenous palefaces.
Even so, I’m the stranger who most urgently needs to relearn the rules. Resist eye-contact, remember. But that group of schoolkids over there, what are they chanting as they head towards me? A bunch of my former students, I suspect, because I can hear a medley of the nicknames I used to be called – Goofy, Droopy, Drip. And a new one, Pea-dough? Oh, I get it, Paedo.
Retreat to a passing 253 bus, once my favourite double-decker. Too slow, too vulnerable, so I duck into the nearest underground station. The already stifling air thickens inversely with the drop. Midday crowds shove mercilessly. I clutch at curved walls to prevent myself from lurching onto the sizzling rails. In the carriage, tight-lipped weirdos stare through me.
Resurfacing to this wind hardly rates as relief. Every step is like jogging under the ventilation shaft of a chemical factory. But there up ahead is the office block in question. Its lobby has been reconceived in primary colours (red, yellow, blue), although there’s only so much they could do with the plastic and chrome. What was anonymous has turned into a poisonous toad.
The muscle-bound receptionist eyeballs me, then mutters into a panel on his desk. I enter the lift and press the button for the twenty-third floor, losing my nerve at the seventeenth and deciding to walk the rest. The damned machine ignores my command, carries sleekly on up.
The door is bare, the brass plate missing. If this ever was the ‘VOID’ office, it no longer claims to be. A moment’s doubt and then I charge forward, almost touching the handle before the door swings itself inwards to reveal (who else but?) an immaculately dressed woman. The door shuts behind me.
“Sit down,” says the unsmiling Poala. Unlike the occasion of the first interview this time the office is in use. She shuffles a sheaf of paper briskly and clears her throat.
“Congratulate your friend,” she says. “We’ve had to revise our entire computer security.”
“Full marks to the plumbers you sent,” I reply.
“Why are you so concerned about us? We’re simply an organization that provides consultancy and training services in international development.” My eyes squint, my head tilts. “Dumb insolence won’t get us anywhere, Mr. Stalker.” she snaps.
“Maybe I’m a sceptic. What kind of training did you give me?”
“You were the trainer, in case you didn’t notice. Which reminds me,” she types onto a keyboard without taking her eyes off mine. “Your last report never reached us. On receipt you will credited an additional bonus to .........”
“An account which has ceased to exist. Frozen by Interpol, I believe.” The printer spews. “We have dealt with that problem, Mr. Stalker.” I pocket the sheet, my goldmine, with as much indifference as I can muster..
“You people are very influential, and why not call me Jim like when you were pretending to conduct the Copcap evaluation, though I never did quite catch your real name.”
“Mr. Stalker, I understand you’ve had a rough time. This can happen to some of our volunteers.”
“Development officers.”
“Jack Hughes. No, no, he’s not on the payroll. I said, j’accuse.”
“Ridiculous. You’ve been reading too many paperbacks.”
“Waldo didn’t think so.”
“It’s odd how you care more about the Bolivians than you do for your own country.” I scrape back my chair, stand. She presses a button under the desk. “By the way, you did well. We’re pleased with you. Take a deserved rest and when you’re ready to work again, there’ll be another job waiting.”
Flickering between rage and fear, I make to storm out, but the door won’t budge.
“And don’t think you can walk away from us so easily. It’s not over, Mr. Stalker.”
Incredulous, I’ve half-turned to assimilate this last comment, which is why the door catches me on the knee as it swings open. I hobble out. But I’m determined to restore some dignity, so try slamming the bastard thing. It sighs gently shut on its cushion of air. OK, then I’ll race full-tilt downstairs, except that, two flights below, a steel door bars the way. The lift doesn’t tarry in sliding to a halt and opening for my convenience.
I think the plan is to push me over the edge of sanity. Their watchers are obvious, chosen to attract attention. That guy in reflective glasses chatting into a mobile phone, who follows me down into the tube station and then out again, doesn’t take off his shades in the dark, a giveaway. Another’s got bright green shoes, the next a red carnation. In Baker Street (touch of humour here), a tall thin man in a deerstalker is smoking a funny bent pipe. And the woman in the Arsenal scarf. I wave to her, but she looks at me curiously then threateningly, so maybe I’ve misjudged that one.
It’s choreographed and it’s freaky. I’ll admit I’m rattled, almost to the point of running to the Sikh policeman in his turban, but reckon he might also be an extra. Plus, I do recall the last time, on a stoned bet, that I asked a friendly neighbourhood bobby for directions. Name, address, occupation (you Irish?), culminating in the drugs shakedown.
At least the lacerating wind has abated. In its place, a muggy flatness is building to a storm.

They follow me to the gate of number six and then I forget all about them. The tingle in the atmosphere, that gleeful laughter, arms waving from the upper window; Leo and Geordie are back. There’s a stampede down the stairs and Geordie has me in a bear-hug. Leo prances up and down the corridor.
And yet, within minutes, the undertow is dragging us down. They kiss, I look away, Geordie turns red, Leo acts up in compensation, the little flirt. Half in, half out of her studio, Sarah sternly observes the tableau.
The glitch is resolved by Geordie inviting me up to sample what they’ve brought from their travels. “Fucking ace stuff,” pipes Leo in a voice that refuses to really break. “Fetcha good price. Sell this and we won’t hafta sign on the dole till winter.”
It’s been a long, long time since I handled a slab of top-quality black. Lacks the innocence of our Bolivian ultraviolet-soaked homegrown, inevitably, when the hashish of the world goes to financing Afghani bigot warlords, Paki military torturers, armed Kashmiri separatists, Lebanese child smugglers. But savour that perfume, and it works, oh boy, boggle-eyed I soon attest that it works.
So, recount your adventures, the boys beg. You really want to know? We do, we do. Then let’s take a walk; this house is bugged, I remember too late. They nod, the keen conspiracy buffs, showing not the slightest doubt. After a summer on the road battling English landowners for the right to pitch a tent, every lawn is a grassy knoll.
Geordie breaks a piece off the slab. At the door we notice how the weather has turned ominous, a boil in need of lancing.
“Never mind,” says Geordie, “if we dash, we’ll make the arches.” I thought they’d been bricked up long ago, but he knows of one that still serves as a shelter.
So, against the flow of sensible citizenry hurrying home, we race through the streets, along the towpath of the River Lea, turn onto the Marshes and, exhilarated, plunge under the railway just as the rain begins battering the archway in earnest.
A gale-force breeze doesn’t hinder joint-rollers of this calibre. The lads can hold a steady flame to hash in weather conditions yet to be invented. They rapidly fashion a couple of spliffs to accompany the third telling, which is accepted with due awe and apt exclamations.
Outside, the angled rain lashes itself into a fury, but our den is silent. I gaze at the two of them, the hairy bear and the cherub, out of their skulls on a rattling good tale. And then Leo, the precocious brat, speaks up. “Why’d Edmundo want you out, I mean, he wuz in on it, wazn’t ‘ee? Don’t make no sense.” The cockney whine is his birthright, those lapses of grammar a recent affectation. The teacher in me cringes/winces.
Geordie scratching his rough beard adds, “None of it makes much sense.” So they start to sift the ashes for evidence. And get no further than I have. Thought you were dumb, that’s why you were chosen, to infiltrate the organization, but you made friends. No, that was part of it - they expected you to get involved. But did they? Round and round we circle in the deepening gloom.
I’d like to assume that Geordie’s definitive comment, (“You’ve got to run as far away as possible,”) is not influenced by his striking a match and catching Leo stroking my knee. A moment frozen in time; Leo gazes at me, I look at Geordie who’s staring at Leo, none of us aware of the intruder until he sneezes.
The bedraggled Rasta squats beside us. I offer him the joint, forgetting the injunctions against tobacco. He pulls out a pipe and Geordie takes the lump of hash from his pocket, gives it to the guy. I throw the matches over. He nods as we leave him to it. The storm has steadied to a tropical downpour. What the hell, there’s plenty more dope back at the ranch, we joke on the way home.
But life is never that simple. The police unit beating on the door have a warrant in my name, though stalwart Sarah’s been stalling them. We walk into the trap and shrug. This way, officers, if you please.
I can see at a glance that Sarah has cleaned up, to the last ashtray and roach. “Where is it?” rave the cops .Overconfident, they left the sniffer dogs behind. And now they’ve given the game away (proof of eavesdropping will invalidate the arrest). Frustrated, they ransack the upper floor, before charging downstairs.
For all their aggression, the impact of conceptual art stops them dead. Or it might be the studio’s utter clutter that causes them to despair. Either way, they sort gingerly through the odd pile of discarded junk and depart, without noticing how the concrete ears have suddenly acquired wax fillings.
Not coincidence nor synchronicity, certainly not fate, we agree during our emergency conference. The music is turned up loud, taps and shower are running, we whisper. A campaign of harassment has begun, I say, a taste of muscle to back Poala’s job offer.
“Out,” hisses Sarah. “My work is too important for this kind of nonsense.”
“You’re not the only pebble on the beach, m’dear. The lads have a vote.”
But they’re asleep in each other’s arms, snoring.