Notes From The Terminal Hotel
“Smells awfully masculine in here,” Sandy declares, dumping the backpack on her mattress. “You don’t mean to say .......?” Julio turns away to gaze at a fresh spider’s web. Distant but affectionate, he hasn’t dared share another night. Now that his special friend’s back, he certainly won’t.
My attitude to the platonic pair is mostly untainted by jealousy. In pidgin Spanish, they’ve agreed to buy qiswara trees from the market. Fine, plant them, decorate the street; it has has no name. The new saplings will brave a hostile world. In the yard, their flower borders race against the onset of winter. A commendable effort from the green team.
Six months’ rain hasn’t induced any greening of the Alto. The drenched electricity poles lean further askew, wires sagging closer to head height. A fungus spreading from the ditches has temporarily swallowed part of the street-crud. But as for the garden-city in bloom, forget it. Despite which, Sandy and Julio plough on.
My house, on the other hand, has acquired a name. Utasa, ‘our house’ in Aymara, that’s what it’s being called. And the gang of unemployed knitters, transplanted farmers and half-hearted diggers have taken to hanging out here.
Doesn’t bother me. The visitors bring sugar, bread, a string of onions to help out. Food is scarce, and while their gifts don’t cover a day’s feeding, we won’t starve. This crowd should make me happy now that I can present a buzzing, informal household to Mum when she returns. She’ll be impressed at what her awkward, loner son has achieved. Some of the more practical are embellishing (so they think) Utasa with plaster and paint. But for all the energy being invested in it, our house continues to squat like a benign tumour.
“Your straight commune,” Sandy jibes, and suspects that all is not as it appears.
“These friends have been dropping for a month,” I claim in defence of my myopia.
“But you don’t even know a lot of the people, and do they talk to you? They just eat and meet and leave their stuff around.”
“Well, these are extreme times.”
See, Sandy, I can understand the attraction of this place and why it has superseded the office. Sure, Utasa can’t compete for facilities or space. But who needs a telephone that might well be bugged and or a cavernous room to remind us of past glories? I have breakfast with unknown companions, arrive to a meeting in progress, get awoken past midnight by latecomers needing a place to crash. So what? I’m the guest. The association own the house, anyway.
“And if they were a bunch of travellers, Sandy, you’d be calling it wonderland.”
“You’re no Alice.”
Which I appreciate during the quieter moments, cigarette in hand, stroking Chappie’s matted curls., surveying this useless house in use and wondering at its transformation into such a terminus. Or should that be terminal? And in what sense – bus depot, electric circuit, connection or the end of the line?
When not at home, I wander from empty office (which holds no terrors for me, though I do regret the gradual dissolution of our fine intentions) to the dig (where I’m welcome but surplus) and back through a density of indistinguishable streets. Maybe Sandy’s right; I accept the set-up far too casually. Then again, if I'm feeling adrift, I can always blame the supergrass she's brought, a hit and a half, no mistake.
Laidback or not, I am surprised to find old Mario basking in the patio today, holding court under a brightly coloured parasol (not mine). A rare visit. The blind bard is recounting the death of Tupac Katari. He has everyone’s attention. Julio rests bronzed forearms on his pickaxe, Asunta tends a cauldron of thick broth over an open fire, even Sandy is watching from her window.
To be honest, I've been confusing Tupac Katari with some rap singer, only to discover a few months ago the eighteenth century indigenous hero who almost upset the Spanish applecart. “The uprising ended in glorious failure,” says Mario, laying on the agony. “He was captured and dragged to the provincial town of Peñas, where the Spaniards tied his limbs to four stout horses pulling in opposite directions.”
Julio stiffens, almost saluting the corpse, the dream ripped apart. Asunta’s eyes brim with tears, though she must have heard the tale a thousand times. Oh dear, whether by dismemberment centuries ago, or a bullet to the head in NY or LA, the Tupacs of the world tend to take the rap.
Mario acknowledges my greeting absently, my Brit accent so blatant that he doesn’t need to strain his eyes. Unlike Beto, Mario seems to be thriving in these latter days, no doubt eager for the final fruit after many bitter harvests.
“Sit next to me, Jaime,” he says indicating a low chair.
“How goes the struggle, comrade?”
“We are at the turning point,” he confides, beyond the reach of my flippancy. “It’s time for drastic action. The government’s attempting to inject division into our movement. They have stage-managed a so-called congress of their hired cronies who aim to desconocer a Pancho.” Pancho will be disowned.
These ‘des’ words in Spanish, love ‘em. ‘Desmentir’, literally to unlie, a particular favourite among politicians denouncing their opponents. ‘Desprecio’, losing one’s price, means to scorn .......... Enough pedagogy, focus. Pancho disowned. “But does it matter?” I ask. “Was Pancho ever elected in the first place?”
Which, actually, has been bothering me for a while. The indigenous Andean peoples are so rooted in democracy, yet we’re led by a wildcard fugitive.
Mario dismisses my comment - natural leaders arise. He’s more concerned with the news that the American ambassador flew home last week, summoned by Washington for urgent consultations, a sign of our impending victory, he claims. The rat that flees a sinking ship.
And mellow Julio (what a change one night of true love has wrought), instead of his usual corroborative analysis, weighs in with a pair of excellent jokes.
“Why has the United States never experienced a coup d’etat, Don Mario?”
The old-timer wants to answer this strange question seriously, but Julio cuts him short. “Because, it’s the only country without an American Embassy.”
A second joke: el coronelito is giving his annual address to a docile Congress. “When I took over the reins of office, this country was on the brink of a precipice. Now I can confidently state that we have taken several steps forward.”
The silence shows surprise at Julio’s frivolity or perhaps a fear of Mario’s displeasure. Miguelito breaks rank first, his chortle spreading round the yard. Then Mario himself laughs and casts sobriety aside by ordering a dozen beers, proving that party members can party. But, for me, this uncharacteristic jollity jars.
Others arrive one by one, clutching liquor, Elvira with a bottle of Johnny Walker, Lidia sticks to zingani (the brandy not the footballing hero), those diggers drag in more crates of beer. I might attribute the spontaneous gathering to telepathy, if I hadn’t seen Julio whispering into a mobile phone.
Sandy calls me for a joint. “They’re up to something,” she sighs, expelling a huge cloud of wondersmoke across the bedroom.
“You aren’t the only one who enjoys a good time.”
“I sense a weirdness coming on. I’m leaving,” her usual line, and she would have but for Joanne’s abrupt entrance. “Hi,” mum waves up from the yard. “You’ve forgotten about me, haven’t you?” Truly; for one snatch of eternity I can’t imagine what she’s doing here in Bolivia. The comrades are embracing her. My dislocation intensifies. This grass Sandy brought is awfully strong. Hurtling down the stairs, I grab her, check if she’s real.
They all want to know how she broke the blockade.
“Your air-force rescued me.” But there’s no landing strip in Sorata. “Helicopter, son. Quite thrilling. Cost me, you, a packet.” Helicopters, like bi-planes, don’t function in the altiplano. “This one did.” General amazement and popping of beer-bottles. Though Mario looks perturbed, he’s determined that the fiesta continue. Joanne vanishes upstairs.
As customary, I’m bored within the hour. Hanging out is definitely not my scene. The procedure takes too long, and my refusal to match drink for drink is causing offence. What’s more, I have the impression of a serious intent to incapacitate me, though they can’t compete with the grass. By moving around, splashing my beer over the patio and shunning hard liquor, I remain sharp while my companions slide into incoherence.
“Jaime wansabe the new Che,” slurs Mario. “Amigo, we’ll make you head of the banco central.” Right, I get the reference, I’ve seen the photos. Che was great in that job. He placed his feet on the desk, smoked a cigar and worked damned hard, I explain. But Mario’s lost track. I work to convince him. A young digger intones, “Joven Jaime, tranquillo hermano, tranquillo.” Calm as a tsunami, don’t you worry, compañero.
Amid the frothsome hilarity, only Elvira and Lidia manage a little dignity, the steady drone of their conversation contrasting with Joanne’s edgy whine that floats down from the bedroom window. She and Sandy are in there fashioning an instant lifelong friendship.
High again, not laughing, not boozing, a spectator at this madcap workday merrymaking, stranded with my mother, a one-night lover and their antipodean advisor. Not quite alone; the hideous house leers back and two neighbours in black leather jackets, one holding binoculars, the other a video camera, are studying us from the unfinished building over the way, recording the scene for their later amusement. The stuff people will film these days.
Too bad, they’ve vamoosed by the time it’s dark and Rigoberto, Alejandro and Ismael appear, each trundling a tarp-covered wheelbarrow. Don’t tell me, the famous central distribution mechanisms.
“Yes, there was almost a break-in last night, so we thought to bring these boxes here - for security,” says Rigoberto. No hay ningun problema, but why not use public transport or our driver’s services for that matter?
Alejandro handles the query: “Oh, such a lovely evening for a walk,” he replies, eyes a-twinkle. “And can you ever find a taxi when you need one?”
“We knew you wouldn’t mind,” adds Ismael, adding his touch to the masquerade.
They unload the boxes gingerly by the wall, out of sight of any inquisitive neighbours and join the drinkers, not forgetting to toast my health every so often.
“What’s all this play-acting?” I ask Elvira.
“You’re the only one performing around here, Jaime,” she says and winks.
At eight, the comrades disappear en bloque, except for the young directorio lad, still in the same frayed suit, who insists on sleeping in Asunta’s old adobe room by the latrine. Julio risks one marvellous last bearhug (he doesn’t grapple, that’s Tzipi’s domain), before he stumbles into the dusk and out of my life forever.
Sandy and Joanne’s door is firmly barred, haven’t seen them since the party began. They’re obviously going to board together. The squeaks and squeals emanating from within suggest they share rather more.
Around ten, my compadre Luis knocks on the gate, claiming some implausible errand. Huffy, puffy, night-sweaty, he pretends to be studying the improvements to house and garden, then peeks under the tarp, thereby sealing his death warrant.
A Nameless Treat
I should never have mentioned the mushrooms. That I do is pure self-defence. Mum and Sandy are in gotta-getaway mood, baiting me all day, desperate for any entertainment. He’s so agreeable, conventional. He’s ordinary, where did you find him, Joanne? Oh, it’s a kind of rebellion, he’ll grow out of it. You reckon? Can’t make a dumpling out of a pancake.
Well, hipster ladies, for your information, a flat-earther I may be, but if you knew what I’ve got hidden away .....
Show us these so-called mushrooms, then. Cubensis? Sure they ain’t poisonous? Well, I suppose it could be another of Yod’s little jokes. I’ll check says Sandy and fetches a blue crystal which she rigs as a pendulum. Positive, very positive, she reports. But it’s rather late in the day. First thing tomorrow, and we’ll need to get well out of this bloody place.
Their eagerness; ye gods, up at dawn and cooking. Cooking? Don’t think we’re going to eat the buggers dry, do you? And leave that omelette alone until we’re there. Put it in your pack and tell us where we’re heading.
“There are hills behind Viacha.”
We’re waved through the people’s check-point, whether entering or leaving a liberated zone is unclear. “Family outing, Jaime?” enquires a guard I almost recognize. This is no picnic, I want to reply; the omelette’s throbbing like a dragon-egg about to hatch. “You’ll be safe,” says my unknown acquaintance, recording our names in his notebook. If only you knew, pal, I’d be safer skateboarding a rollercoaster.
For starters, we almost get off the bus at the low hills before town, until I remember there’s a maximum-security jail nestled in there. That would be fun, out of our heads, stumbling onto goons and narco-generals. But then Viacha is hardly an ideal location either, a garrison town on the eve of civil war.
And we do have reason to be nervous in Viacha. Alternate mounds of earth and trenches (half-expect to see Basilio supervising) block the entrances to the barracks. The protesters hereabouts don’t know us. Our presence seems to aggravate tensions and we still have to come back this way.
And apart from this atmosphere, I have to cope Joanne’s disparaging remarks, can’t seem to plug her flow. Ready for countdown, babe, wanna hold my hand. Mum, I have tripped before. With Londoners, they don’t count, she taunts. Oh my, whatever happened to the generosity of the love generation? You’re so like your dad, she counters. And whatever happened to him? Whereupon Sandy has the sense to intervene. Our disharmony now will echo mightily in the void ahead.
At least the stage is well chosen,. the fossil-filled cliffs forming a natural amphitheatre that gives onto the altiplano. Diminutive butterflies, reddish-brown, dance to greet us, joining the ones already jittering in the pit of my stomach. Of course I’m nervous, and what I fear most is stripping those coats of fantasy that I so carefully paint over the cracks in my life.
Sandy lays the aguayo blanket on the ground, unpacks our ritual meal with ceremony. It doesn’t look too appetizing, slightly muddy, not yellow, tinged blue at the gills. To be or not to be, quips Hamlet the omelette, egging us on. Headfood, Mum certifies. We nibble a bitter slice each.
The nausea strikes in waves, I’m having trouble keeping it down. For a while I concentrate on Sandy, her cut-off jeans, the floppy hat. Then I turn to watch Joanne twirling, skirt billowing. I want to tell her to protect her head (against the blistering sun, that is), but those fascinating trails of colour the women leave distract me. A sudden wind streams through my navel. On this cloudless day, a cloud-mass is churning, the ground is heaving, so, naturally enough, I pick up the aguayo (commendable our foresight in procuring a magic carpet) and fly into the vortex.
Patterns too complex for words, the architecture of our living planet. An altiplano lush with forest, the plains spread with tiny purple and yellow flowers. Landscape past or future? Figures in radiant garments, an old woman with upraised arms who could be Asunta and then come the beasts, such horror that I can only dare describe the encounter in the third person.
He ran from the puma and the coyote but the black dog sprang the trap.
“Welcome to our dimension, voyager. Returned at last,” coos Sandy. “Crikey, were you a handful.” It’s night. I’m in a street, confined by earthern walls. Overhead, a broody moon skulks to the smell of stale piss. Like mountaineers glissading down from the summit, we’ve somehow arrived back.
“Just look for the key and open up, Jimmy,” she repeats, shaking me. Sounds like a real-time message and there does seem to be quite a crowd outside the door. Joanne’s slumped against the netting that protects the new kiswara trees, Sandy’s pinching my arm again. “G’won, they’ve been knocking all day.” I stick the key in; incredible how a little strip of indented metal can assume such importance for these people. We surge in like water from a breached dam.
Asunta is perched on a rock in the garden staring at her hands. She’s glowing. Their giggles alert me. “You didn’t,” I say, addressing Sandy because under pressure Mum will lie. “Well,” Sandy drawls in such a far-off voice, “share and share alike. Granny takes a trip, ho-ho. Yes, we prepared an extra portion.” Fact, she’s always snaffling leftovers, but to spike her breakfast and then leave the old dear unattended, that’s cruel. No wonder she failed to answer the door.
I guide Asunta tenderly into the house, settle her onto the mattress by the stairs, gaze into those burnt-out eyes and fear the worst. It never is. A little boy is jerking my sleeve frantically. He has something to tell me, if he weren’t choking on his sobs.
While the mob wanders aimlessly in and out of the yard, (what do they all want here?), my personal madness descends in the form of smiling toadstools, red with white spots. Think you’re the fun guy, the mushrooms whisper, we’ll see and then they dissolve.
“I remember that kid, isn’t he one of Doña Rosa’s bunch?” Sandy’s saying. “What’s he on about? Calm him down, I think he’s hyperventilating.”
The boy manages to say please, we must go to his house, es muy urgente.
“I’ll put on some warmer clothes and come with you,” says Sandy. “That kid’s giving me the willies We’ll have to leave Joanne with Asunta, she not capable, neither of them are.”
“Just clear up one point for me, Sandy. How could you do that to Asunta?”
“Joanne suggested it. Seemed like a prank at the time.” Well, I know that Mum has a laxative effect on one’s moral fibre, but Sandy blame-shifting. Now I’ve seen everything.
“And you do me a favour,” she continues, not looking me in the eye. “Get rid of those people. We don’t need them around. Then we’re out of here.”
Oh, anywhere. The scene in this house is bringing me down so fast that I’m heading for an attack of the bends.
Last Rites Issue
Whoever combed Viviana’s hair also found a pink ribbon to tie it up. In that pleated skirt and white blouse, without the petulant teenage scowl, she looks quite attractive, really quite serene. Shame that to achieve this transformation, Viviana has to be lying in an open coffin.
Her mum sways to some remorseful, remorseless rhythm. Ana, gripping a handkerchief, ignores us. Rosa, shock-frozen, can barely acknowledge my handshake. Settling into a corner, we accept the tray of cigarettes and coca offered by Viviana’s brother. He won’t talk either. Cocooned in the silence, I drift back to tripping.
Mosaics of light and shadow resolve into forest. Detritus from the girl’s short life litters the trail - teeny magazines, pop posters, deodorant spray, discarded nail-varnish. And is that the black dog again, bounding through the clearing, its laugh like a hyena’s?
No, it’s Rosa weeping, keening, leaning over me. I rise to embrace her, but she pulls me over for a closer look at Viviana’s face, wiping away the powder that hides the girl’s bruises. Rosa turns on her daughter-in-law, “So, she fell downstairs, you say.” From a single-storey building?
“I’ve no idea how Diego found out about the pregnancy. I never told him,” the mother protests. But you did.
“I might have helped the poor girl," Rosa cries. "Talked to Diego at least, prevented him from ......... Now this.”
The post-mortem is interrupted by a group of neighbours who present their condolences and sniff the air for scandal. They add white flowers to the bouquets already smothering the coffin, mumble their paternosters, scrutinize the corpse. “Rat-poison,” whispers one woman knowingly to the next. The attendant youths, serving us thimblefuls of neat alcohol, regard the gathering with undisguised contempt.
In the flickering candlelight, I’m granted one last insight, an overview of the Alto as an endless tangle of intersecting, family-sized jails. The vision is so detailed that I can pick out Viviana’s crewcut lover in his military fatigues, the tear-drenched pillow, Diego administering one last beating, so compelling that I turn to Sandy and blurt out, “By her own hand.”
“Then she died of stupidity,” Sandy mutters, “hers and these people’s.”
As if understanding our English, the mourners set to commenting. No need for the clairvoyance of the mushrooms, everyone has guessed the facts, and Viviana will take full revenge, saddling her clan with guilt to the nth generation. Tut-tut, tut-tut, chants the neighbours’ chorus. Rosa collapses onto the bench. Shit, and I thought my household was the bummer.
As the night limps by, I can’t help studying Ana. The styled hair and smartish clothes suggest she’s moved up a notch from social work into professional employment. Good luck to her, though it’s comic the way she fills that power-suit; so might California cram itself into Rhode Island.
She’s possibly about to swallow her pride and talk to us, but Diego has arrived tipsy. Branded the villain, he’s determined to shine it on. “Gringito, wanna tell you,” he splutters, wiping sweat-stained bristle on his sleeve, “that I loved my daughter.”
I won’t swear he’s acting more than the others are, but there is something unpleasant, verging on repulsive, in his performance of the grieving father. Whereas the women did what they could and were found wanting, here’s the ogre who pushed Viviana and her baby too far.
Yet Diego’s lament goes unchallenged, presumably he’s within his rites. The mistake he makes is in turning his attentions on Sandy, especially when he paws at her knees. I’ve noticed this of Sandy before; her anger is less an emotion than a precision instrument. She stands to deliver the combination right-hook left-uppercut that launches Diego into never-never land, smashing his addled head against the drinks tray and then onto the rough cement floor. Blood aplenty. Does Viviana rejoice?
The mourners, however, are aghast; we have infringed the rules of hypocrisy. I have to hustle Sandy outside. “Don’t you touch me either,” she snaps. “I’m going, I’m packing, and I’m taking Joanne with me. I can find my own way home, thank you very much, just leave me alone.” In her present mood, I wouldn’t argue, though some minutes later I do dispatch one of the youths to keep a discreet eye on her progress.
May I be forgiven, on returning to the wake, I apologize for her behaviour. After which, slumber is merciful, but Rosa’s poking my ribs. “It’s disrespectful to sleep in the presence of the dead.” Or dangerous. Easy to succumb, so much simpler than life’s complexities. Rosa leads me to her own room, covers the armchair with a blanket, lets me doze. It's not drowsiness; it's saving the dregs of my trip from those people.
At dawn, the candles are not guttering, they’ve grown taller. A dozen weary, bleary drinkers blink through the smoky air, still doggedly toasting the deceased. Function, dysfunction, family reunion, disunion, they no longer care. When in strides the stranger.
Not that well dressed, he nevertheless exudes an executive confidence. Hold on a moment, mark the gleam in his eyes. Oh jeez, it’s the messianic cowboy, that glint eastward is the giveaway, and he’s glaring at us with disapproval.
Rosa leaps up to greet the man, scattering the scraps of coca from her skirt. “Buen dia, pastor,” she begs. Instead of responding (how utterly nonBolivian), he unslings his well-thumbed, tub-thumper’s black bible and fires from the hip. Abandon these pagan practices, throw away the flowers he rants, she doesn’t need them, our young sister Viviana is with Christ in paradise. Hallelujah, ain’t she the lucky one, I almost respond.
It’s the Ana of old who confronts the mean evangelist. My niece, she hisses, was deprived of a decent life and now you’re cheating her of a proper send-off. He simply bristles his moustache and smugly tells us this world has nothing on offer, see you in the next one and don’t be late. Across from him, a submissive Rosa is already snuffing the candles and collecting the flowers.
I add my rage to Ana’s. The girl had a life ahead of her. Would’ve had but for her brutal father (stepfather, Ana corrects), a feeble mother and deluded grandma, that boyfriend who’d never heard of condoms, a lousy rotten school, army dreaming, ex-dictators who espouse democratic fascism, cumbias, tabloids, tv, junkfood. I carry on despite a loss of lucidity, may even have lurched into English. The preacherman stares steelily back.
OK, if this is the end, armageddon outta here. I slam the door behind me. There are miracles; Ana follows. She interrupts our silent, indignant street-tramping to suggest that we call Ignatz and produces her faithful cell-phone to demonstrate intent. For all his flamboyance, the padre’s the one to rout the puritan and despatch Viviana in style. Absurd yet true, so we do. But I won’t stop to watch the show.
And she has to get to work, she claims, unwilling to specify quite where. “Look, it doesn’t matter to me, even if you are working for the government,” I joke, unable to resist ruffling her feathers.
“El Fondo de Inversion Social is a semi-independent body,” Ana parries hopping on a bus, but as it chugs around the corner she’s shouting in defiance, “And I don’t mind telling you that my new boss is Edmundo.”
Damn, the woman knows where it hurts. The thought of her realigned to that fat smarmy parasite forces me to spend the day on the run, beserk, careening into each and every activity that crosses my path, trying to outdistance the affront.
The Machaq Q” yard is a-bustle with volunteers preparing soup or watery stew, depending on your perspective. The office is padlocked, so this food must be intended for the groups of striking workers who cannot leave the buildings they’ve occupied. Though I don’t recognize anyone here, they know me. Easy, I’m the white-face that proves not all ravens are alteños.
“Jaime, seas un buen muchacho,” urges a woman in miner’s shawl, passing a lethal little knife and indicating a mountain of onions between the bones and the bean-pile. The amusement is not overly malicious when my eyes start to water. My companions even hand me a pair of dark glasses, so that I can view the empty building sombrely.
Glancing at the dusty windows, I wonder whether the great chamber will ever again reverberate to debate. On those occasions when I do manage a serious conversation with Elvira, she’s confident that the association will revive - once the national crisis ends. Maybe.
By the time Luis rescues me from the onion torture, I’m depressed enough to have abandoned the glasses and be weeping openly. I dump the modest heap into the vat, scramble for the Toyota, failing to wonder why he’s still at the wheel or register at first that Luis is asking far too many questions today. Mother and friend, on their travels – seen Rigoberto, not today – the trenches, advancing – your plans, who knows?
Until I pop one of my own.
“Luis, why are we driving around like this?”
“Well, compadre, the motor needs running or it’ll go rusty.”
“Drop me here, Luis.” And I forget to say farewell.
Together with a dozen others, I wrap a handkerchief over my face and lend a hand burning the piles of trash, uncollected since the latest troubles began. For a good while, amid the sweet smoky decay of the foetid heaps, I do succeed in losing myself.
Further down the road, stones are being stacked for use against the armoured vehicles which have taken to racing round the Alto. The populace is far from intimidated, despite the threat of military violence. Well, if I didn't amass a great rock collection in London, why not start one here? It’s a good distraction making cairns and listening to the folk-analysis of the situation.
The campesinos blockade all routes into the major cities. The coca growers are marching to La Paz. Teachers and parents have taken over the schools. This grassroots rebellion has the government by the short and curlies. And the Little Colonel, el Yanqui before him, both thought that they’d delivered a docile, compliant workforce to the nikes and exxons of this world. Well played, Pancho!
But there is danger in cornering the beast and discussion moves to the threatened imminent reprisals. The people at my side are confident of victory. Yet the prospect of stones against tanks unnerves me. Foolhardy, we should know better. Tired of the bravado, I decide to look in on Villa Mercedario.
Hey, the diggers are hard at work, extending trenches at a furious rate. Weird that only they, of all the alteños, are not on strike. “Jaime,” hails Basilio, wandering over for a chew and a smoke. “Good you’ve come, I’ve been trying to contact you. Day after tomorrow is when we’re installing the control axis. We’ll be starting early. Five in the morning.”
“Want me to bring the boxes over.”
“Don’t even touch them,” Rigoberto unexpectedly snaps from behind, causing me to jump. When he shakes my hand, I note his grim expression frames eyes that sparkle with enthusiasm. “Five o’clock,” he repeats. “Be here, on time.” Am I usually late?
And they leave me, exhausted by the day’s labours, slouched against the airport perimeter fence. Mind you, this is a restful scene, bucolic almost. Wish I had a joint on me. The dipping sun, a flock of warblers, waders, whatever, scouring the river bed. And those men with binoculars trained our way must be birdwatchers. How admirable their dedication to charting the wildlife of Rio Seco in such difficult times.
The axis then, day after tomorrow, fine, that’ll be Wednesday, making today...... Oh holy fried nodules of shit, Vanesa changed our date because her kid is sick. A half-hour to arrive and look at the condition I’m in. This is going to be one sweaty tryst. Hope she doesn’t mind.
In the event, Vanesa is outraged. “How could you, how dare you? You’re filthy,” she grimaces. Well, that’s rich from her ladyship lounging on a greasy counterpain in this shoddy motel. “And you’re late,” she pretends to sob. “After all the effort I’ve made to get here, the very least you can do is make yourself decent.” She chucks a pinkish, spunk-stained, threadbare towel at me. In a bathroom down the corridor, while counting cockroaches, I work at redistributing the grime over my body.
Meantime, Vanesa has assumed her voluptuous pose, hair spread across pillow, three ivory buttons of the blouse undone, trousers loosened, legs arched invitingly. Her mouth is moist, her eyes lock on mine.
Usually works, but today the room has turned into a chipboard mockery of itself, a cubicle for lost souls and instead of the ardent mistress, I see Viviana before me, stretched in her coffin. Must be those mushrooms talking again.
Fake it. “Um, sorry you had to come such a long way. Where are you working now?”
“You never listen to me. I told you I’m at the Clinica del Sur.” Fair enough, you did. And I remember thinking then how smoothly the Coprocap professionals have accomodated themselves to new careers. The socios were right in their suspicions of Edmundo and Ana and you. I just hope they don’t consider that I’m.........
“Come to me, Jaime.” She’s wriggling out of her clothes now like a moulting snake (or does moulting require feathers?). Dunno, can’t seem to get it up today, unforgiveable, eh? Let’s just call it a day, dear. As Beto would be the first to appreciate, we’ve enjoyed a classic love affair in sonata form - moonlight, appasionata, pathétique, les adieux. Goodbye Vanesa.
Back at the house, I discover Asunta is not parked in front of the tv, but upstairs gazing at Sandy’s mandala. She doesn’t respond to my presence. The girls have gone, leaving an extremely generous amount of the supergrass (they may simply have forgotten the bag), for which I’m grateful. After preparing a pot of tea and serving both of us, I light the strongest of joints and blow smoke up Asunta’s nostrils, hoping to revive her. Nothing.
The shock waves of the blast rattle the windowpanes. Asunta looks in the direction of the office and announces in a distant, oracular voice, “That’s your compadre on his way to heaven.” And ten minutes later, yes, breathless messengers pound on the door, telling of the bomb under the Toyota, though there’ll be no lying-in or funeral, not till they locate some fragments of Luis’ body.
A Sitting Sin Arrest
Morning completes the cycle. My Chappie poisoned. And with due respect to Viviana and Luis, I’d say the third victim hits hardest. The dog lies stiff-legged by the wall, mouth frozen in a rictus of earth-flecked froth. He died defending Utasa, that much is clear from the scratch marks on the adobe. Heard him barking in the night but I couldn’t summon the energy to get up, let alone investigate.
The boxes are gone, good riddance, reclaimed by their Chinese or Israeli donors, I hope. Though it wouldn’t surprise me either if our own folk, preparing for tomorrow’s installation, snuck in once they’d prevented Chappie from alerting the neighbourhood. Dogs and people are dispensable nowadays, it would seem.
I’m shovelling, Asunta wields the pickaxe. An old lady in raggetty clothing and her equally tripped-out young companion, we’ll fashion a grave between the two of us, dig a pit fit for the mutt. Noble of Asunta to help, considering the battles she waged to keep him from the house. Her vigilance was pointless; our house is haemorrhaging fast, as certified by the peeling wallpaper, the scuffed lino, the sofa on its last legs.
Lowering Chappie into his garden grave (compost, dear Julio, compost), I’d like to feel that my tears aren’t simply for the dog, but also for the teenager who despised me and the compadre whom I, in turn, scorned. Actually, I’m probably weeping for myself, engulfed by this rising tide of violence
It’s only Miguelito knocking but I drop the shovel, I’m that nervous. A note from Elvira. Extremely important, be sure to see me today. OK, I’ll pass by the office later. Don’t forget, he says, Doña Elvira asked me to stress that, never seen her so agitated. He helps us pat down the mound. On impulse, I embrace the lad and he clasps me back, before hurrying out.
I take Asunta upstairs to her retreat in Sandy’s room, making sure to pocket the grass on the way down; an early mourning joint will be in order further along the road. In the yard, I only just stop myself from whistling for Chappie. Unusually, there are no visitors today - too guilty to face us, huh? Lock the door, Jim, the hounds of fate are loosed. My dog’s probably joined the pack.
A few minutes later, I’m examining the twisted metal of the office gates, the scorch marks across the street. Doesn’t need much detective work to recreate the crime. Luis parked, went inside. Meanwhile, someone did the dirty work, them or us?
Standing in the empty parking-lot, I summon up the memories; my arrival as a raw recruit press-ganged into coordinating a bunch of faulty projects, nearly outmanoeuvred by the bosses until the socios adopt me. An image forms - the millucha, that spooky ritual which may have culminated in Luis’ death.
My train of thought’s cut by the new guard, a gruff Laikan, who’s stomping over to intercept me. Does he think I’m about to force an entry through the bomb-shattered windows? Those tactics are for Chappie’s murderers.
Elvira in yet? Shakes his neanderthal head. I’ll call later. Don’t bother, he growls, the phone was cut off yesterday.
Reeling blindly away, while the playback continues; grassroots resentment leading to the intervention, the cursillo, all those grand plans we hatched. And now? It would be easier to resuscitate the trio of victims than bring the cursed office back to life.
These surroundings aren’t going to calm my mind. Brick has replaced adobe in our relatively prosperous part of town, rows of four-storey buildings, all of them standing empty, cube on cube, stacks of ugliness and waste cubed to infinity. If this is Julio’s city of the future, I’d rather head for the humbler reaches, where mud still rules.
Long way. Takes ages to leave the brick and plaster mess behind. At last, tussocks of tough grass insinuate themselves between the houses, the altiplano invading the streets. Those awful churches, sticking out like eyesore thumbs, no longer stalk me. Fresher air. Even so, the feeling of being shadowed persists.
I halt by a doorless, rough-hewn, adobe wall. In its centre, a hatch suddenly opens to reveal a woman arranging wares. The hole in the wall is a store. Must buy a glass of frothy pop here, simply to say that I’ve shopped at the original wall-mart.
Crak-crak, a bird of dark omen sweeps by and once again loss jolts me with the impact of a blow to the stomach. I collapse against the wall, checking automatically first for human or animal faeces. Shivering in chill sunlight, I start to roll a joint. At moments such as these, one could do with a friend or three.
So, I’ll invent a conversation with Geordie just to generate some warmth. Man, howzabout we go and watch Orient play football, down to the pub later, have some fun. But Sarah interrupts. By what right do you steal my husband? Here, take your little boyfiend and begone. Curly-mop Leo winks. The bleeding London mess coagulates before my very eyes. No comfort in that movie.
And this one’s in danger of turning into a waking nightmare – complete with sound effects from Ignatz. Can’t be, the dope’s spinning extra strands of paranoia, we’re beyond his territory. Only church hereabouts is the Alto cathedral and I know for a fact that the archbishop has banned him from meddling in that precinct.
Better roll another, a big, fat, five-skin monster, put flight to the heebie-jeebies. Busy hands to defuse (no, think of a less explosive word), divert this sense of doom. Yeah, listen to that pair of songbirds piping nearby. Lovely.
A fellow idler has joined me, a hundred metres, a hundred miles, along the wall. Should I hide the joint? Well, he’s seems to be fully occupied plucking hairs from his chin with a pair of tweezers. Unless the handheld mirror is for signalling. Oh sure, let’s pretend he’s a spy and those tweezers are his radio transmitters.
But fantasy is cheap. The pain remains for the living; Viviana’s ruined path, Luis in shreds, greedy Chappie convulsing on baited meat. And thinking on it, yesterday I was also riding in that fateful Toyota. What if bomb was already under the chassis? I can hardly light the joint, my hands are trembling so. Jesus help me, I whisper.
Beware what one prays for! Sometimes, and Mr. Dylan makes this very clear, salvation arrives in a lethal dosage. Listen, heading this way, the Ignatz show; that crackling sound of silence, now changing to his off-key rendition of blowing in the wind.
The white jeep materializes, an enormous speaker on its roof-rack. Ignatz, one hand on the steering-wheel, the other grasping a mike, is negotiating bumps with total disregard for the laws of gravity. The man is out of his mind, not to mention out of bounds, Lord forgive him his trespasses, I can’t. I’m in no mood for this intrusion. The birds have scattered, he’s wrecked my calm interlude, he has a lot to answer for.
I mean, what kind of madman races round the back of beyond squawking like a drunken parrot? Answer: the kind of maniac who’s already leaping out of his vehicle and waving ecstatically in my direction. Well, I’m also blowing in the wind, brother. I’ll offer him a toke, maybe help him cool out. Except that he doesn’t give me the chance.
“The poor girl,” he’s bleating, “was an innocent soul. But that bomb was product of the violence I warned you against. It’s not too late. There’s still time to pull back. Please convince your friends. Justice cannot be achieved by these means,” etc. And of course he’s right.
I’d follow his advice if he weren’t so damned sanctimonious, if he could offer one viable alternative. The hapless naivety has to be a front. Who do you really work for, Ignatz? But the radiant smile says it all. God’s on his side.
Not standing to greet him is my error, a lack of respect which he registers. Plus, from this position, the smoking phallus is belching its heady perfume into his face. His eyes widen, his mouth hardens. “I hardly believe what I’m seeing, young man. You’re a menace to the community. It’s time someone taught you a lesson.” Actually, I consider myself a servant of the people, but we won’t argue.
“Ease up, Ignatz. Try some of this before you make judgements. Jesus Christ, it’s great stuff.”
“Sacrilege!” he rages in English now. “You sink I von’t denounce you to the polis?”
Bluff, bluff, a poker game. He’s as much chance of coming upon a policeman hereabouts as a needle would of finding a haystack. This is the edge of the Alto, old man. But there’s no convincing a priest on a mission. “Achtung,” he appeals once in the jeep, “Atención, atención,” turning the volume up full, and pelts off in search of assistance. His problem.
The wildlife is all disturbed, the shopkeeper’s closed her hatch, the beard-plucker’s gone too. May as well make tracks, he’s wrecked the day. Believe in omens? On the way back, I see a small translucent snake. Snake in the grass, ha!
Halfway between here and there, I’m lighting yet another joint when the patrol-car sneaks into view, siren not wailing. Coincidence or hallucination, I wonder, watching the unlikely vehicle’s progress over stones and holes and piled garbage. It halts in front of me and out steps, yes I recognize him at once, that sergeant from the Copcap intervention, he of the fur-lined parka, the one who failed to detain the Trail Blazer. (That’s a point, wasn’t in the yard last week. Where is it – sold/stolen/destroyed?)
If I blink, he will disappear, won’t he?
Sergeant Huanca advances with pistol drawn like he’s cornered some desperado. Even when he points it at me, I still assume that my politics are what he’s concerned about. So, I casually fling the joint to one side and put my hands in the air. But now he’s into a bodysearch and, whipping the bag from my pocket, gives a triumphant chuckle. Craw, craw, shrieks that dark bird, its shadow falling over us.
His mate, angular as Huanca is thick, has handcuffed me to the wire caging at the back of the car. They climb into the front seats, smirking. This is far too real for my present life-style. The priest has executed a citizen’s arrest on me, the dirty sneak.
He’s won this round, but when I get out, first thing I’m gonna sniff around, pick up any muck I can on his holiness and those under-age choristers who are always hanging around the vestry, see if I don’t.
If I am released, that is. The way they’re filling out forms at the Ceja station desk seems rather zealous, very ominous, final. I do permit myself a giggle on discovering the arresting sergeant’s full name, Nicolas Huanca, (knickerless wanker, get it?) but it’s the last gasp of a drowning sinner.
My unsubtle attempt at bribery also fails and it’s the Wanker himself who relishes telling me why: Law 1008 - confiscation of all assets and property belonging to narcotraficantes. Hey, I’m not a drug dealer, that bag’s mine, for my own consumption, understand. He extracts a romanilla from the desk drawer, one of those spring-weighted balances we used in Copcap to weigh wool. C’mon, they’re notoriously inaccurate.
“Over fifty grammes,” he gloats. “The law applies.” And the policemen rub their hands at prospect of a share-out. I’ve underestimated him. A lumbering wrestler he may be, but one who converts a hold into a grip into a lock.
Into the lock-up, carajo, quick march. The door slams behind me.
Conforming to all known scripts, the cell stinks, there’s an incredibly foul bucket in one corner and the window has bars over it. A group of thieves and villains stand ready to pounce the moment their fat, scarfaced leader gives the go-ahead. Talk about stereotypes. Don’t the guys in casting have any imagination nowadays?
I’m saved by the full pack of Astoria that the cops overlooked, though the gang complain they’d prefer suave, filter-tip America cigarettes. Still, they make room for me on the bench.
What’s a gringo like you doing here? Drugs. Got any? Did have. Tough.
. A long afternoon and only the prospect of soup at seven to break the monotony. “If you get one with a bug in it, swap,” says one joker. “I need some protein.” Even the humour is corny. But I don’t have an opportunity to sample the slops.
There’s an argument going on outside in the corridor. Has to be over my custody because soon I’m wrenched from the hands of the plodders and being driven down to the city by cool customers in jeans and black jackets whose badges read ‘Felcn’, the national drug squad. I spend the night in Sopocachi, isolated, fairly comfortable, trying to count on the fingers of one thumb the bright points to my lost immunity and failing to think of any.
Known Aims/No Names
Seven o’clock, shouts and the slamming of doors. I brace myself for interrogation but nothing happens. Instead, the morning drags on. Is starvation part of their softening-up routine? A lone fly buzzes. Among other regrets, I curse myself for distributing those Astoria so freely.
Surely this is weird, the absence of all jailors. Indeed the lock-up itself, an ordinary suburban house, is spooky and unsettling. My room has a bed, a chair, a table, even a flush toilet (without toilet paper - I’ll strip the wallpaper in case of need). Less a cell, rather a sterile bed-sit. The remains of the previous occupant have already been scraped from the wooden floor, doubtless.
I can push the window open an inch till it jams against the filigree grating (not bars). The fragance of yellow retama flowers drifts in, together with the undertones of a neighbour’s tv. A morning show, counselling and cookery for the housebound. And on the subject of food, breakfast. I thump on the door, raising echoes through the empty house. The lads are off wasting taxpayers’ money (or DEA hand-outs). Come back and serve me my bread and water, you bastards.
Frantic newscasters interrupt the tv programme, but the volume’s too low for me to catch the content. And what do I care? Here in middleclass Sopacachi, a screen has dropped between me and the world. The view of the wall is acceptable, so long as one ignores the knee-gouging glass embedded on top.
Still the sense of dread builds, and it’s almost a relief to hear argumentative voices return at midday. Prompted by my growling stomach, I beat a tattoo until the door bursts open. An agent, in jeans, bracelets, longish hair, surveys me. I would prefer my captors in uniform; this one’s is too casual, like he’s been dipping into the confiscated goodies, the kind of guy you’d score from at any street corner.
And I don’t fancy the way he’s shaking his head at me, not threateningly but in disbelief.
“Do you serve a late breakfast in this hotel?”
“Qué idiota, just as everyone says,” he grunts and walks out. Sticks and stones, mate.
But it helps to be direct with these people, because a few minutes later he does return holding a mug of lukewarm tea (intentionally spilling half its contents), a stale roll and a slender slice of cheese. Fast food, food to fast by, my first bite since yesterday morning. Ignoring his contemptuous gaze, I gobble it all down.
“Don’t push your luck. You’re in more trouble than you can imagine.”
An ounce, a mere misdemeanour. He shakes his head again, as if dislodging a piece of wax from his ear, spits, leaves. Fine, build up the suspense, your little games won’t rattle me.
But questions are going to be asked. I do need a plausible story before they set to work on me. Get spinning, Jaime, concoct. Where did you buy the grass? Um, a pub I suppose, I mean a club. Which? That one with the Beatles imitation group, called........ can’t remember. Such a while since I’ve had any social life, beyond a touch of predatory sex. Not getting out anymore, the Alto took over, distorted me.
The Alto - wonder if Asunta’s still locked in, whether anyone over at the Mercedario trenches noticed I missed my appointment this morning. This is absurd.; there’s civil war looming and I’m inside on a dope rap. Still, when we win, they’ll liberate me, won’t they? First on the list, a living folk legend carried shoulder-high in triumph as in the days of the Bastille. Though, chances are the little coronel’s going to reimpose his iron rule, and I’ll be forgotten. Don't worry, you’ve left the world behind, remember?
Idle thoughts dwindling into hunger and depression. For all the bustle within the house, no sign of lunch. Relax, enjoy this last freedom from pressure. Choose where to nap - the bed, the table, the chair, the floor, the loo - all yours.
Deep into the afternoon, the bolt is withdrawn again and a delicious smell wafts in. Dreamtime? No, the cool operator enters bearing a plate of steak and onions, fried potatoes, rice and salad. He sets it down carefully because Waldo is watching him from the doorway.
Oh Waldo, I love you, thanks for not abandoning your London friend, ra-ra the Arsenal, toda la vida. In different circumstances we would’ve got round to those English classes, really. I jump up ready to embrace him. But the pressed, dress-uniform (plus medals) and that pistol jutting from the holster intimidate me. His expression is awfully severe.
Start anyhow. “I can explain, Waldo. Just a small amount, my little vice.” Perhaps he scents the untruth (marijuana is, after all, my defining statement), or he’s genuinely uninterested.
“Eat first,” he says, observing me with deadly calm.
I could devour this, tear chunks from the dead cow, cram them in my mouth. Somehow, in line with his solemn demeanour, I retain my manners. The meal’s dry as usual, when are they going to invent gravy in this country? Waldo reads my mind (unnerving) and orders the guard to bring water, then him sends him packing with one scathing look (ditto).
“Gracias,” I say, licking my lips, savouring the fatty residue, feeling quite pleased with myself. Hope rekindles. Not that Waldo is exactly an ally, but go back to first impressions, Jim - that olive green uniform, the dapper moustache, the silly cap. Here we are in Tin-tin country, anything might happen, including a miraculous turnaround.
I don’t attach importance to the newspapers under his arm until he drops the bundle on the table. “I still can’t decide whether you are a fool or just pretending to be one,” he says, pointing at them. “But you’ve certainly made me look like a idiot.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No, you probably don’t. That’s been my worst mistake,” and furious now, his eyes flashing danger, he twiddles the pistol butt, then controls himself. “Read the newspapers, special afternoon edition.”
“You having me on, Waldo? This isn’t London. Morning papers only in La Paz, everyone knows that.”
“Not today, my friend, not today, thanks partly to you. Read. You’ll find it interesting. I’ll come back once I’ve handed in my resignation.” He takes a deep breath, expands his chest making the medals dance, and strides through the doorway as he would to face the firing squad.
Truly, the three newspapers are special editions, some kind of supplement. Let’s see, we’ll ignore El Diario, the far-rightest-wing of the press (military police stand guard outside head-office). La Razon, owned by a Serbian millionaire, reject that too. La Prensa is reasonably independent, let’s see what the big emergency is.
I unfold the paper and my heart stops cold while a crazy pounding rips through my head. Anatomically difficult perhaps, yet no less incredible than this headline:
MISSILE ATTACK ON AMERICAN AIRLINER !!!!
I attempt to read, but either there’s an earthquake or I’ve lost control of my arm movements. Try again – ‘routine daily flight to La Paz - eyewitness Padre Müller (Ignatz?) driving to early Mass (who else?), reports seeing three flashes in the sky, thought it was a fiesta, he says – 176 passengers aboard, including the American ambassador on his return from Washington ............’
The part of me that is desperately denying any connection to the trenches, the boxes, the axis, this morning’s assignment, confronts my subconconscious going ‘click, click’ like a demented geiger-counter.
‘Aircraft on final descent to El Alto airport – 2 of the rockets missed their intended target – one hit – fortunately plane had sufficient momentum to land safely – no casualties though contents of baggage section lost – terrorists believed to be linked to the Tupac Amaru movement, (isn't that Tupac Katari?) taking advantage of current excavation in the area........’ Oh hell!
The next few minutes I spend flipping through all the sections, devouring the headlines and photos, skimming texts.
This one, for example:
UNEXPECTED GIFTS FALL ON ALTO RESIDENTS is oddly humorous. ‘Christmas comes early to Mercedario - raining baggage - the only injuries of the day, two women on their way to market hit by falling suitcases which disintegrate on impact - most residents claim they saw nothing – landed elsewhere, Sr. reportero, may God be my witness’. The photo shows a young girl in a luxury coat and her brother sporting an oversized NY Yankees baseball cap. No caption necessary.
And a grisly smile is permissible for this headline, too:
SHAKEN AMBASSADOR ABANDONS AIRPORT WITHOUT COMMENT. In the picture, the stocky Texan diplomat is wearing steel-rimmed glasses and an expression to match. He’s frozen in mid-trot. Panicky agents urge him towards a limousine. The one passenger capable of a sound-bite is an aerononautic engineer: “a miracle the aircraft didn’t go into a spin. We were lucky.”
PRESIDENT TO ADDRESS NATION TONIGHT: presumably, he’s going to apologize, the creep, before the Yanks impose sanctions. But after assimilating the extraordinary news, my next feeling is one of deep disappointment. ‘Big shot misses climax’ would make an appropriately sexual sub-title to my role in the exploit. Look at that clean hole in the plane’s butt. I should have been there to see the Versace and Gucci-ware flutter down on the Alto, to distribute the cartons of Marlboro, the CDs, the precision watches and bottles of perfume.
What about the people who nearly died? Consider the flip-side.
ARMY ON MAXIMUM ALERT – CONFINED TO BARRACKS:
Ominous, the beast. And this one?
POLICE MOUNT GIGANTIC MANHUNT FOR TERRORISTS:
‘Key suspect already captured, held by Felcn’ – Hit the pause button, that’s me!
And suddenly the outrageous, fun aspect of it all dissolves, replaced by the weight of the earth’s mantle enclosing this trapped potholer.
Absurd, judge not. The article merely mentions the attackers ‘taking advantage of the excavation work in the area’. Nothing to involve the diggers. I ransack the photos, trying to identify the exact location, a face, the box – there it is, open and empty, the caption reading, ‘Terrorists disguised missiles as drainage equipment’ Get real, Jim, couldn’t be clearer. You almost caused 176 fatalities.
Work it out. Rigoberto had said five o’clock this morning. All that sweet-talk in the association; we need you, our teacher, our guide, orient us, knowing that I’d fall for it, using my idealism and my innocence, setting me up. The suspicion grows that my comrades were thinking to leave me, taper in hand like some Guy Fawkes, the foreign mastermind of the dastardly plot.
The situation’s as clear as mud.
This much is true; I’m going to be interrogated, soon. And they won’t believe how little I know. I’ve seen violence, fought by George’s side, he’s a boisterous lad. But this not a pub brawl or a scuffle on the Leyton Orient football terraces. A systematic assault on my body is planned and I kid myself to think I’ll be able to keep much back.
Make a resolution, the most I can manage. No names.
Whatdjaknow, preparation commences at dusk. An indistinct sound resolves itself into a beating, screams, pleas for mercy, but succeeds in turning me to jelly for a only few minutes. Then the tape runs slow, speeds up, slurs, snags, stops. Very funny, nice try at psychological warfare. But (niggle, niggle), the recording was authentic. Made where?
They change to loud cumbia; now that’s what I call real torture.
A prelude, however; five minutes later the pair of Interior Ministry thugs enter, one brawny, the other stringy and sinister. Both wear embossed gold rings designed to leave scar-tissue wherever applied. Fat and thin, the mould of my oppressors from Edmundo and Oswaldo to the present.
“In case you’re interested,” Beef snarls, “Capitán Ventura has been relieved of his duties.”
“Si,” complements Jerky, “tu patrón is off the case.” And he slams a ringed fist into the palm of his left hand. End of good intentions. They won’t need the electrodes, the nail-pullers, the water immersion unit, none of that equipment. I’ll cooperate.
And yet these guys know next to nothing, couldn’t tell ridley-scott from diddley-squat. They show me the photo of a certain, now infamous, crate and poke around for the Chinese connection. Laughable. Telling them that I’ve visited the Pagoda takeaway earns me a first slap.
When they identify the Hebrew lettering as Arabic, I don’t disabuse them but ponder the question of Yod and Tzipi, whom I can no longer view as mere tour-operators or drug-runners. Worth speculating on at leisure, should I survive this interview.
However much information they lack, the thugs are animals trained to follow their instincts and they quickly have me sweating and squirming. When did you first meet Pancho Choque? Who? Slap, punch, blood. They will extract some truth or disappear me in the attempt.
The door opens, in strolls Waldo. He’s dressed de civil, I won’t say plain clothes; in the blue blazer and white slacks he is once again el señor of his Achumani mansion. Well, thank goodness for this distraction, unless he’s arrived to supervise the session.
“Out, muchachos,” he orders. They think about protesting, but Waldo’s voice carries thirty years of authority and the pistol is strapped to his waist. He may or may not still be their superior; they don’t wish to guess wrong.
“Incredible,” I say, rustling the newspapers nervously. “Any proof the diggers were involved?”
Waldo snaps his delicate fingers impatiently. “Please don’t bother to defend your friends. They intended to incriminate you, otherwise why should they plant an Astoria packet at the scene? Your fingerprints are on it.”
“But I wasn’t even there.”
“Of course you weren’t. That’s why I’ve tendered my resignation.”
“I don’t get it.”
Waldo reverses the chair, rides it, the picture of nonchalant elegance. “Yesterday we left you talking to Padre Ignacio,” (see, whisker-plucker was a spy. I’m not that paranoid). “And then we sat waiting for you to come home ………but you never arrived. So, we spent the night searching for you.” And missed the climax, too.
“You been following me, Waldo? That’s not nice.”
“Oh, Meestair Estorkair, we are following you from day one. Why do you think you were invited to this country in the first place?”
I clamp my eyes shut, the better to ingest the implications. Nothing significant occurs to me until the swirling colours coalesce into the following scene. I'm at the entrance to the airport. Over the tollbooth is a painted sign. On it, a fair-haired youth and his snow-white dog, their backs to us, observe the mountains. A seated man, gaunt and distraught, gazes towards the Alto. The lettering reads:
‘Welcome to Bolivia, where Tin-tin meets Kafka.’