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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.”
“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.