Once, sitting down with Spike Milligan, at his his mother’s rather nondescript house in Woy Woy in New South Wales Australia, we were talking about children and his children’s books. He looked at me in that typical Milligan way that could always raise a smile and said. “What children’s books? We are all children when we don’t have to playact at being grown up.” Later we took a slow, rambling walk on the beach. He was hunched and shuffling, his eyes always looking down. Now and then he would bend and pick something up. “Little things.” He said. “If only we could always live in the land of small things. There are whole universes on every grain of sand.” On the way back to the old and tiny house which had been his mother’s he squatted rather painfully on crackling knees to watch a dung beetle rolling a huge ball of horse dung before him. “Imagine if that dung beetle was God,” he said “and that big ball was the world. All the microbes, all the bacteria could be us.” I loved Spike. He was the kindest man, the saddest man and the most likeable man I ever had the privilege to know.
He was an old, and sad man when I knew Spike, consumed with regrets about his ancient perceived sins and worried about what would happen to the world when he was no longer in it. He wanted to stay to the end. “Like a really terrible film.” He would say. “You hate it, you groan at every word of unbelievable dialogue, you begin to pick out the continuity errors. You finish your popcorn and yearn for your money back. But then something keeps you glued to your seat. You just want to see it through to the end. To see what happens. Nothing does. Everyone dies, and you are left thinking that surely you missed something important. Something someone was trying to say to you. But they weren’t and you feel cheated.”
Like me Spike was manic depressive, and like me he hated the newspeak ‘bi-polar’.
Today, while I lie flat on my back full of valium, Neurontin, and morphine, feeling sorry for myself because all I can move arms and legs, and trying to keep the depression at bay I think of my old friend. A friend I wish I had met in his younger years when he was a master of expression, a founding member of the timeless “Goons” with Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine (in the early days), and the magnificent Peter Sellers. From Milligan’s writing of The Goon Show with collaboration from Eric Sykes and Larry Stephens, Maurice Wiltshire or John Antrobus was birthed Monty Python, The Goodies, and perhaps even The Young Ones benefited from Spike’s mania and depression.
Today, I picked up my morphine, my valium, and my Neurontin, planning to order in a bottle of vodka and pound up my pills with my lovely marble mortar and pestle, when Spike whispered in my ear. “I’m the oldest manic depressive I know.” I heard it as clearly as the day he laughingly said it to me. So I made up my mind. I too am going to be the oldest manic depressive I know. I owe that to Spike. At the very worst I can promise to live longer than Keith Richards! (After all we’re the same age and he has had a lot more fun than I have!) e
Thank you Spike. For having lived, and crossed my path, and in doing so, taught me a lesson. I will stay till the movie is over no matter how horrible the acting or the script!
UPDATE: I had previously said that the house in Woy Woy was Spike’s “birthplace”. Even as I wrote that I knew that he was actually born in India, but I blithely skipped by and carried on writing. Thanks to Russell for keeping honest here. If it’s any excuse I was flat on my back with a prolapsed disc and in great pain. However, excuse it might be, but not absolutely honest.
Well into my 50’s I was able and willing to verbalise my anger and dismay at the cynical manipulation of truth by the powers behind our media, and the loathsome ambition of career politicians.
Corporate media journalists would rather climb the greasy pole of butt-licking success than question the machinations of their media owners. Some even begin to believe their own lies, after all the big pay-checks come with super cleaned bums.
You can perhaps feel some compassion for ‘celebrities’ who chase fame and fortune at any price, and who do not give a shit so long as the spin-doctors continue to regurgitate vast streams of vomit.
These days I understand the impotence of this white-hot rage. I am getting old. I am going to die sooner rather than later and all my ranting over these many years has done nothing to change one solitary mind.
I am not naturally political. Not a socialist, nor a capitalist, not right wing, or left wing. Neither am I prone to being very moderate. Dress up a pig in satin and silk and it is still a pig. I have been wrong a million times. I used to think that Barack Obama was an honest man. That he had a backbone. Sadly, he and his psychopathic cronies still twist the truth for their own ends and those of the rich and powerful. After all, what is one more little atrocity committed in the Middle East? Just another crime against humanity, but committed on the side of God, and Justice, and Freedom.
Even my country Australia, sucks bum with ‘bi-partisan resolve’. Just when you think you have an honest politician on the opposing benches he or she lets you down by standing with the psychopathic loonies. They won’t stand on trial at the Hague, not one of them.
Over my almost 70 year lifespan I’ve seen how easy it is to create lynch-mobs. Herds of sheep. You only need three ingredients. 1) Greed. 2) Fear. 3) Stupidity.
Acting in combination it now takes no time at all to re-write history. As little as a few days is all that is required. Constant loops if video run over and over again bamboozles viewers into believing that they are seeing a much more massive conflagration. Genocides can be perpetrated and the reasons for them entirely forgotten by We The People in just a few weeks. Even knowing the horror of our actions, those who caused us to turn our needless ferocity upon innocent people cover up their crimes by convincing us that we truly were justified, and therefore, absolved of all guilt.
Then, in waves of self-disgust we vow ‘never again’, and we keep those vows for as long as it takes the psychopaths to count their shekels and pay off their Judases.
Do you know what TRUTH is? I don’t. So far as I can tell, truth is now only something that most people believe until we are told that we should no longer believe it. Friends become enemies, and enemies friends, between going to bed at night and waking in the morning.
I do not want to offer up a history lesson, but perhaps a small example is worth while. Before 1611ad there were hundreds of translations of the bible. Then along came James 1 (James V1 of Scotland.) This despicable creature personally supervised the torture of women accused of witchcraft. Some people think of him as a scholar and yes, during his reign culture and literature did flourish. He sponsored the translation of the bible (from the Latin vulgate), which became the King James Version, based on his ideas and personal views. Nowadays this version of the bible is the one that most people know the best. BUT if you think there were only ever ten commandments, you are deluded. That’s OK, you are one of millions. My point is that if you tell a lie often enough, and spread that lie through fear and finely tuned propaganda it becomes the truth.
During WW11 Paul Joseph Goebbels was a master manipulator and propagandist who easily convinced even the most moderate and ordinary of German folk that they were the master race. His success was international and today most Americans would swear on a stack of King James bibles that the USA was NOT funding and supporting Hitler’s gang of thugs. Not just major banks, but motor companies, newspaper moguls, and simple ordinary people who, like sheep followed their ‘leaders’.
Most British people would viciously attack my character and motives if I were to point out that at that time, the British too were anti-Jew. You would call me a liar if I told you that my own mother was spat at and called a ‘Jew Lover!’ by our own townsfolk in Yorkshire, England. Those who did not spit and heckle simply crossed the street and dropped their heads. My mum’s crime? She took in a Rabbi and his family to live in our home during the years after WW11. In the main though, when I grew up after the war anti-Semitism was not a noisy activity. It was something quietly brought up in the living rooms of ordinary folk. “They’re Jews you know!”
Who needs history lessons when history is so quickly and easily reconstructed and rewritten? Even old buggers like me end up doubting our own memories of things if a lie is perpetuated long enough and vociferously enough.
I was in the Middle East in the mid-sixties, but to this day I am suspicious about why we were killing youngsters my own age and younger. I was one of those sailors from HMS Phoebe on exchange with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders in 1967. I have not viewed this piece of film and have only just found out about it’s existence. My research however suggests that we were lied to and manipulated by our own government. The men I served with were amazing, courageous people. We did as we were told, and in retrospect we were told a pack of lies by a despicable gang of politicians and military psychopaths in powerful positions.
So why should things be different now?
On a recent Sunday night an interview was aired television with our once Prime Minister John Howard. For me it was a shocking interview. In answer to a question put to him about sending Australian troops in to Iraq and in to combat he bare-faced stated that he was “embarrassed” that he already knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction. He knew! He lied and sent young men and women to their deaths. He showed no compassion or concern for the innocent people of Iraq! John Howard LIED and perpetuated that lie, only admitting now that he was ‘embarrassed’. This man, and his masters in the United States and Britain CREATED the environment that has led to the ultimate horrors today. In my opinion, he and his co-conspirators are guilty of war crimes.
What have we become?
In the past few days the Palmer United Party senator Jackie Lambie not only posted a criminally racist and disgusting assassination of a brave Afghan woman policewoman’s character, but she claimed to be doing so in HONOUR of that woman. Jackie Lambie, who claims aboriginal heritage, (denied by aboriginal elders) is a bumbling racist who demanded that anyone who followed Sharia law should “get out of Australia!” When asked to define Sharia Law she fumbled and farted,
talking about terrorists and the Australian Constitution. This stupid, ignorant, half-witted evil-minded piece of excrement is a powerful reminder that just about anyone can take a seat at the table to decide how MY life should be controlled and manipulated. Her astonishingly racist, religionist views, full of uninformed hatred and fearmongering actually has wide support in the community! Her leader, the mostly affable Clive Palmer, billionaire miner and founder of the Palmer United Party has done nothing publicly to admonish this woman. He has simply disagreed. She is therefore, free to continue to spread the bile, bigotry and lies as a senator in the Australian parliament.
Last week the United States declared that they are considering supplying arms to ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria. Wait a minute… MODERATE rebels? That is not just oxy-moronic, it is plain downright moronic! What happens when you issue these remarkable people with guns and artillery? Do they remain MODERATE rebels? DOH!
John Kerry weighed in a few days ago with a speech on television. I heard that speech and was shocked. (Incidentally, Sky news misquoted him. He did not say “alleged”.) This supposedly informed ‘moderate’ and powerful man claimed that Australian police had just arrested a ‘large group of terrorists’ who had plans to ‘create mayhem’ by ‘indiscriminate beheading of civilians.’ He has not bothered to correct that statement. So was it true? No it was not. This is what in fact happened. Some reports say 600, others say 800 police officers swooped on a number of suburbs in Sydney. At first it was claimed that there were 15 people arrested. As a little time went by 14 of those 15 were released, and ONE person was arrested and charged with (as far as we know) sending an angry and threatening text message.
Of particular interest with regard to this story was the immaculate staging. TV and press all ready and waiting to grab their images and stories. Not much of a secret was it? Since last week the story has crossed the world, and gained credence. No one in authority has yet described the non-event for what it actually was. It was a great publicity stunt, and depressingly linked to other things that have since come to pass. I wonder how history will treat this. There is a great beating of drums right now. There is a movement on to greater things, one linked to another. The politics of fear is humming along nicely. It’s a great time to confiscate even more freedom and human rights. In fact, so great is the fear that many folk are volunteering away their rights and freedoms. Not me!
So what is next in this great saga of fear and loathing? The jigsaw is becoming clearer. At the same time as this ridiculous ‘raid’ in Australia happened, several other things were put in to play. There was a not so subtle change in the news reportage about Australian troops going into Iraq once more. Islamaphobia is being carefully and cynically marketed into the streets of Australia, Britain, and the USA.
Violence against Muslims, and loathsome commentary against Islam is becoming prevalent in the streets. While in Australia there has as yet been NO genuine terrorist attack, it will happen. It has been created deliberately and without conscience by government and police, by right wing groups, by fascists, and once decent people now believe that they are under attack and they are acting in fear. There is a genuine belief within the wider community that terrorist attacks have already occurred in Australia. The lies are becoming truth, and those lies are becoming more strident and outlandish.
Security agencies are being given powers that were previously unheard of, and the people are volunteering away their personal rights.
Just a day before the Big Raid in Sydney, the Prime Minister upgraded Australia’s security status. A few days later he made a speech announcing the deployment of 600 troops to Iraq. He said that there would be ‘no boots on the ground’. He spoke of ‘advisors only’, and ‘targeted air strikes in Iraq’. (Nothing then said about Syria. You will have to wait a few weeks for that.) Then, a few days later he made a speech about ‘terrorists’, saying that it was ‘against God. Against religion.’ Wow! Now that’s a new one for a secular society! And then came the words ‘combat troops’. Yes, COMBAT troops. Those troops on the way out of Australia were SAS, nothing but SAS. SAS troops do not serve in ‘advisory’ roles. They are not office workers. They are on the ground combat troops. So…’no boots on the ground’? Hmmm!
Islamaphobia, fearmongering, the building up of hatred against the world’s second largest religion, (a peaceful religion) leading to the prosecution of yet another war. Oh what sheep we are!
I am old. My rage is impotent. As we enter another era of war and desolation, history is both being repeated and re-written exponentially.
What will the truth be tomorrow?
I am Australian. Every day on the streets of our cities Muslim women are attacked, terrorised and molested because they wear the hijab. They go largely unreported. I walk the streets of our suburb, day and night without fear. I have a house tenanted by three refugee boys, all Muslims. I cannot stop what is happening, but I can say this. I am sorry. I am so sorry.
UPDATE: The one man who was arrested and charged with ‘terrorist related’ crimes has appeared in court. He was found in possession of 4 rounds of ammunition (no firearms), left over from the last time he went hunting, and a broken Taser, given to him by a friend for repair. He was given a $500 fine and a good behaviour bond. That is what it took between 600 and 800 armed and dangerous police officers to be called out for.
What is the Butterfly Effect? There is a mystical theory that if a butterfly flaps it’s wings somewhere on earth, then the vibrations will change everything in every other living thing. Perhaps everything we do, every thought we think, has the effect of changing the entire world at any given moment.
I’ve been writing the follow up to The Girl From Kosovo for the past twelve months and now it is nearing completion. The first book was more thoughtful, but left many questions. I felt that the characters were still living even as “Kosovo” was coming off the presses. There was more to say and the ‘action’ had only just begun. This book is less of an idealistic expose and much more action. It will be ready for the publisher on deadline in March 2014 and I can promise you a lot of twists and turns.
In their wisdom the publisher has decreed that “Butterfly” will be available only as an Ebook for six months. Thereafter it will be available in hard and softcovers before Christmas next year. I would have liked to publish this book complete here on my blog, but that will not be possible due to the terms of my contract. So this is just the first of FIVE installments, and if you want the rest please send me a comment and I will email the novel to you on the same day it is posted for sale. This means that if you read it, and like it, here, you don’t have to wonder. Just ask me and you can have the complete story free of charge as my thank you. Enjoy.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Escape was pointless. Even if she managed it, she knew she would return of her own volition. Already she would give anything, do anything; just as long as the needle followed.
They no longer bothered to shackle her. The heroin was shackles enough. Shivering, stomach cramping, she clutched at her belly and dry-heaved once more. Tasting the H at the back of her throat. Ashamed that she wanted to swallow back on it, feel the euphoria as the drug entered into her bloodstream.
She could smell it on her sweat, doubly ashamed that even in her filthy state the smell was a comfort. And a hunger.
A sweat-stained cotton shift, her only covering, clung to her body. Her hair — once blacker, more lustrous, than any raven’s wing — hung in wet hanks to her waist. Before, Sunguoshu would brush it for her each evening in the little Shenzhen apartment she once thought a place from which to run. Now, thinking of home and her big brother gave her a few seconds of respite from the hunger. But only for moments could she grasp and hold such love, before the Horse kicked at her guts again.
Soon a man would come. Perhaps he would bring another. Or others. Only a few infinitely long days ago, she had fought. Screamed and scratched until her fingernails broke one by one by one. Held her legs together with such desperation that her brain burned up. Then after the abuse, the blessed needle. Heaven and Hell. Reward and Punishment.
Lena would not be working in the Big House — not the Big House of her dreams anyway. Another big house. One of nightmares. Not saving her wages to send back to Sunguoshu so that one day… One day. She tried to think away the hunger.
She remembered the blind girl, Su Li, who tried to warn her at the airport. Thanking her, Lena crossed into London and propelled herself up the dark steps to a fate of her own making.
The red-haired woman. Friendly. Welcoming. Filling in the Model Release form. Smiling in encouragement, the woman turned the paper for Lena’s signature. Checked the false passport and grinned as a co-conspirator. Unfolded and, with a small curl of amusement on her thin lips, perused the leaflet tucked inside the faked document. Opened a desk drawer and deposited the papers. Closed and locked the drawer with a key hanging on a leather thong between her soft flabby breasts. The short telephone call.
‘Exceptional,’ was all the woman said to an unknown question.
Lena drank coffee. There was no tea, as would have been customary at home, while waiting for the photographer to arrive for her audition.
Shy, she giggled and posted her eyes to the floor, round face soft. Just how they like it. The photographer snapped away. ‘Just a little cleavage.’ Lena fisted her little hands against her breasts until the photographer pulled them away with less than encouraging fingers. When she baulked, the woman unbuttoned her blouse for her, exposing a pretty lace bra. And then the photographer was throwing up his hands. Shouting.
‘You want to leave?’ Grabbing her elbow. ‘You want to go? That it?’ Hissing into her face. ‘I’ll call them for you. Immigration, is it? Go back to China? You want that?’ She did not want that, but the questions were rhetorical anyway. ‘Forget it!’ Snarled. ‘You’re never going home, baby.’
And then she was clothed only in her bra and panties. The man got rough. The red-haired woman left, but not before extracting the documents from her drawer and stuffing them into her big black shoulder bag.
That was days ago. Days and nights. Some men came and spoke in Russian. Hauled her down the stairs naked. By then it was dark. Into a black van and into the black night.
Lena fought. Screamed. Cried. Begged. To no avail. And bled. Sore and humiliated, the blood streaming down her thighs. On the little cot in the dark room she wept. All ‘face’ expunged. Peeled away. Her last vestige of pride, pissed into a bucket. Urine and blood leaving her body in equal quantities. That night, for the first time, after another savage round of abuse, the man pushed a needle into her vein.
Blessed, and cursed, Lena slept.
Yorkshire: Happy family.
Yesterday afternoon pewtered clouds swagged high. Snow fell like duck’s down. In the absence of wind or breeze Nikki could catch the big feathered flakes on her tongue. She could spin around and make the falling flakes dance. Her simple happiness had infected the household. And she felt safe. Loved. Cherished even.
Christmas now long gone and decorations packed away for another year, the snow returned before the March winds and painted a new landscape. A gift of such munificence that her heart swelled for the sake of it.
Robbie, loaded up with a Fair-Isle sweater beneath his quilted anorak bent willingly to the early task of bringing in and stacking enough wood to last the Aga a month. He perspired under the wrappings, but determined to stock up enough to last through a blizzard if needs be. The big stove, mean on fuel, squeezed every ounce of sweat from a log.
The events of the past year when Robbie had ended up in plaster, and Nikki almost got herself killed- several times in fact- now seemed like a dream.
There had been some good done in those dark days though. A lot of good. Any light shining on the darkness of human trafficking was a good light and things had worked out just fine. Nikki’s ‘force for good’ had triumphed and the Lighthouse Foundation had done so much for Nikki’s personal spirit too. An eccentric but likeable and quite amazing group, the Freegans of London Bridge had taken a strong voluntary role in the operation of the foundation. They were good hands to be in.
Nikita, hunched over her laptop at the kitchen table squealed, clapping her hands. Seventeen and closing in on eighteen fast, Nikki had at last discovered childhood. And she wasn’t going to let it go for a while yet.
No one, Robbie the least, begrudged the girl her youth. She had been grown up before she had had a childhood. Something to be redressed. She was working on her book.
‘Andy sent email!’ Nikki, underscored her excitement with a squeal and clap of delight, dedicated to the man she now respectfully called ‘daddy’.
Jilly took Billy off the boil, preparing the oversized teapot with big scoops of loose tea leaves.
‘Read it to us our Nikki.’ She shouted up the stairs, ‘Robbie! Mam!’ and waited a few seconds. ‘Email from Andy! You comin’ down?’ Nikki swivelled around and around in her office chair impatient to read it aloud.
Robbie pounded down the stairs still buttoning his shirt. Having got up early and wrapped up tight to fetch the wood he was sweating liberally when Jilly, as big sisters can, had complained ‘You stink our Robbie!’ He had lifted his right arm and sniffed his armpit, prepared to declare that his sweat should be bottled and sold as an aphrodisiac. But Nikki had snickered and winked at Jilly. In spite of his hugeness, not even six foot three of perfectly proportioned manhood stood a chance in a girly household.
He dragged out a kitchen chair and sat down. His shoulder butted up to Nikita’s. Robbie could have been hewn from a block of oak wood.The months had changed Nikki. Older, of course. Wiser too. But best of all younger as well. Now she laughed a lot more.
‘I begin?’ She looked around, spending a few moments more gazing at Robbie than at Jilly. Phyllis appeared and took over the tea-making. ‘Go on luv. I’m listening.’ She said absently.
‘He says,’ Nikki read aloud, ‘My dear Nikita. Time I think moves faster as we grow older. Or perhaps happiness shifts it along at a pitiless pace. Yesterday you were seven years old, now soon to be nineteen. Or is it twenty? . If time is passing quickly for you, then it is not age, but happiness the cause. Grace however, keeps me youthful.
Nikki giggled. ‘Always Grace! Grace this! Grace that! I think he loves Grace!
Robbie laughed. ‘Jealous little Girl from Kosovo!
Nikki elbowed him. Hard and without amusement. ‘Do not call me so! I am Withernea girl! Withernsea!’
‘Alright Nikki.’ Jilly glared at her brother who knew full well he had been bad. And then at Nikki for equal measure. Robbie bowed his head. He had overstepped a mark. It had been agreed between them. She hated being The Girl From Kosovo. Hated it. Bowing her own head she called an undeclared truce and read on. ‘Grace is finally divorced from SO10 and the SIS Her simple delights now revolve around my dear Ann, Ben, and of course yours truly. Just as Ann, when she was a little girl, referred to me as daddy, she now addresses Grace as mum. What a strange occidental/Caucasian family we have become.’
Nikki clapped her hands again in girlish glee. Commander Grace Kelly had done her job as a police officer with SO10- Special Branch, against the odds. Inducted into the SIS, the British Secret Intelligence Service by insidious means, Grace understood the need but not the methodology by which the innocent were entrapped into deniable activities. Had she remained a serving officer there would have been another move sideways. Rank. Praise. And out of the way. The less than agreeable alternative might have been another kind of retirement. She no longer conformed to the philosophy of The Greater Good.
Nikki read ahead, her lips moving silently before she engaged her throat once more.
‘We are in constant contact with our friends in London. The foundation is in fine hands with Richard Deacon and his associates. How were we all so lucky amidst such tragedies? The Butterfly Effect appears ever likely to have value as a theory. I trust that Meegan, Maryija and Pixie will do it justice with their new documentary which I understand is to be narrated my Mr. Mactavish.’
‘Keeps ‘is finger on the pulse I reckon.’ Jilly spread a thick slice of toast with Very British Marmite, the taste of which resembled bird shite. At least as she imagined bird shite to taste. She handed it off to Robbie with a smirk of disgust. Robbie loved the stuff. ”E knows more about goin’s on than we do!’ He licked at the thick black smear with a gross look at Jilly. ‘Good job I saw it comin’ out the jar our Jilly. Looks like your undies!’
Nikki shoved in. Not before giving Robbie a sharp elbow to the ribcage. ‘He says; Soon I will have new legs. To be free from pain is a gift to be treasured. Meanwhile I am happy to endure Grace’s manhandling.’
Robbie hooted. ‘Woman handling I reckon.’
‘Behave our Robbie.’ Phyllis cut in, plunking mugs of scalding tea on the table. Gross-outs were no new thing to her, but decorum still had to maintained to some degree.
‘Go on our Nikki.’ He chose to ignore his mother’s admonishment.
‘That’s all really. He just says to say hello to all of Withernsea and to say that he is happy and hopes that we are also.’
No, winter stood no chance in this household. Days filled with banter. With laughter. The letter from Andy filled each one of them with a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.
Daily life returned to the comfortable unspoken word. Nikki, hunched over laptop and lined exercise book. Typing, jotting, cutting and adding. Every now and then, when her brow furrowed and the eraser end of her HB pencil tapped her lip, Robbie ruffled her hair from behind. Though she shook her head in mock annoyance, she really did not mind. She minded even less when he wrapped his big arms around her shoulders and blew naughtily in her ear.
Jilly, long legs hanging over an arm of the tatty but comfortable armchair near the window, finger-picked something classical on her twelve-string guitar pausing to make some note on a staved notebook.
Phyllis bustled. Quietly unflustered by anything at all. These days every day was gold. A constant stream of tea mugs and platters of sandwiches. If no sandwiches, then scones, cakes, fresh hot bread rolls straight from the Aga oven. All Phyllis needed in her life were a brood to look after and a day in town with Mrs, Boulster playing bingo.
Later, the youths might take a hike out beyond the drystone wall that surrounded what in spring would become the garden.
The girls were ready to be moved. Each to a new location. The Russians discouraged bonding. In this house each girl knew that others existed. They had never seen, only heard. And what they heard was never laughter or conversation. Only cries, pleading, begging and screams.
Lena stretched. Now empty of shame she invited the needle into her ankle. Careful to avoid pumping the same location the man released the rubber strap, dropping the syringe into a slotted container hooked over the side of the trolley. He pulled back a white hand-towel covering a stainless steel kidney shaped dish. Loaded syringes were lined up with military precision. Obsessive preparation.
He looked almost kind when he smiled down at her. From the bottom shelf of the trolley he lifted a bundle of clean linen. Towels. A dress. Underwear.
‘When you can, you must dress.’ Yes, there was a kindness in his voice. A schoolmaster’s voice after the corporal punishment. Accented, but not Russian.
Then Lena’s eyes dropped and she stopped caring. Warmth spread through her naked body. A million soft, fluttering wings eased the pain. Her eyes flickered. Head too heavy to lift. A beatific smile softened her lips.
The man touched her. His hand warm on her cold skin. It was not a predatory touch, more one of careful concern and she was grateful for it, this human contact that was not brutish and ugly.
When Lena opened her eyes he was gone. Her cell door was open and the sound of water shushing through shower sprinklers sounded like monsoon rain. Knowing, but still without knowing exactly what was expected of her she scooped up the pile of clothes. Freshly laundered. The smell divine. She pressed her nose into the top folded towel. Felt its softness. Inhaled the scent of oranges.
Deep down a tiny spark, no more than a flicker, invaded her shrunken soul. Not daring to think of the spark as hope, it became so. There was hope now of no more beatings. No more depraved, shaming rapes. No more shackles or invasions into her body. Only the needle. And submission. She must find the water and cleanse the stench of stale humanity from her body.
Everything until now had been schooling. Lessons. The Buddha taught acceptance, and through acceptance dharma-happiness. That was the way of the Buddah. Lena knew these things to be true. The Hong Fa temple in the Fairy Gardens at home in Shenzhen showed these things to be true. Ah, the temple. Just a tourist destination. The legend of a fairy coming down to the Xian Hu the Fairy Lake was for tourists. But not the thought. The meaning. Now, acceptance must come. Only through submission could dharma be sought. This, she could teach to the western girls down the hallway. Their voices, devoid of laughter soughed through the hallway, mingling with the shushing of water.
Naked in the shadowed hallway Lena took tiny steps. Longer steps would take her to her destination quickly. Faltering, she closed her eyes. If she delayed, courage would leave her and panic fill the void. She would not panic.
No door held back the sweet-scented steam. The odour inviting. Coursing through her veins, the skank had shed the cloak of misery and now she felt normal. As normal as the poison permitted. For the first time, out of her cell, Lena took in the surroundings.The place was big, with many rooms. Lines of doors, each one barred with inch thick steel. No guards at the shower room door, and none within. The warm fog thick,but not impenetrable. The open door drew away the bulk of it, wisps of steam dancing into the cold air in the hallway.
Five girls, four of them tall, blonde and milky-skinned. The fifth, a short, modestly plump girl, younger perhaps than the rest, washed herself separately from the others. Even under the circumstances, her posture cried Outcast. Her skin, counterpoint to the other girls, a dark-chocolate black. This girl faced the white-tiled wall, over-hot water cascading down her back.
The white girls were talking. Not in whispers, but subdued and listless. They too were stoned. Lena’s appearance in the doorway imbued the space with a momentary shock. The air sucked back into silence. The girl’s vocal cords snapped shut, conversation trapped at the back of their throats. Then, perceiving no threat the air opened up again and they began talking where they had left off as if Lena did not exist. Strangers might be captors.
The girls speech was not English. They conversed quietly in some European tongue unknown to Lena. Most Chinese understand the English language nuances even without speaking it. But few can determine European accents. The girls were not English. They were however, round-eyes. Gweipo the feminine of Gweilo ‘white devils’. Gweilo once disparaging no longer bore its original stigma.
Lena placed her bundle on a nearby wooden bench and stepped up to a wide, fixed-in-place shower head. The build up of calcium and green copper from years of use and no cleaning blocked most of the water from the sprinkler. She turned the star shaped tap half a turn and instantly the water turned scalding. She turned the cold tap to regulate the heat and the sudden pressure blasted out the caked dirt and hammered like cold needles against her skin. Carefully she adjusted the taps until the spray was comfortable. For a few moments she luxuriated under the shower, but then the pipes rattled and banged and the pressure came and went, scalding and freezing.
There being no way to control the heat or force of water, Lena stepped away, gradually moving closer, using her hands, palms up. Soon the cleansing downpour comforted. She washed her filthy body in silence. Without warning a thick burst of fury and disgust overwhelmed her. She tore at her skin, wanting to rip away the flesh, to dig out what had crawled inside her. In her mind’s eye her body was full of worms. Tiny white revolting worms burrowed into her skin, through flesh, invading organs eating at her brain.
But as the water soothed, the feeling quelled and she used the basic yellow slab of carbolic soap to get inside every crease and crevice. Lena rubbed and scrubbed at her private parts with an awful sense of panic. But the worms inside her brain had eaten away all chastity. Nothing would return to her the face that had been ripped so violently away. Something else had been planted inside her, Something foul and stinking. And it would grow in the darkness of her soul.
Where the racking sobs came from only the Buddha, God, and Satan could know. They burst from her mouth and nose in an endless string, unheralded and unwelcome. Even the scalding water, the chilling water, neither one nor the other, with the force of a fire hose, could sluice away the fluids from her body and into the drain quickly enough.
Lena had come to wash. To dress in clean, chaste clothing. To offer the wisdom of the Buddha. To soothe these other captive souls and give hope to the hopeless. To accept and counsel acceptance. Now the other girls-even the outcast, Lena’s mistaken presumption, gathered around her. Comforted her with their hands. On her shoulders, her face, arms, neck. Arms wrapped around her waist, her neck. Not a hand, nor a finger, not a single part of flesh touched her where they had. They knew, these girls, even as she knew without knowing that to touch her there would be further defilement. All they had between them, the shared experience. And compassion.
Dressed and clean the six girls waited, unsure of what came next. The drug thickening in their veins, they waited. At first they sat together on the wooden bench and talked in earnest quiet tones. They offered up their names. Where they had come from and how. In common they were all illegals. Each with a different story to tell. Each the same in its essence. Irina, Mariena, Chloe, Sondra, Rebecca. Lena. No. With a burst of pride she tossed away that ghost of a name.
‘Guo Ya Na. That is my name. I am not Lena Guo. I am the sister of Sunguoshu. Lena Guo is only a passport. A fake. But I am real and I am Guo Ya Na.’
Lena Guo did not exist. Had never. She did not ask about the other girls, or if their names were truth or fiction. No matter. What harm small secrets now? The Buddah had spoken into her heart and mind. In order to accept, she must be who she was. Anything else was not acceptance, but denial.
Lena Guo had been a victim. Guo Ya Na, sister of Sungoushu was not a victim. This little thing she could choose. If all other choice had been ripped from her, this she could keep. Maybe it was not much. Not diamonds or gold, but precious beyond price.
The hours passed. The girls stood, walked, turned and paced. Sat. Squatted. And with the passage of time need slithered and sliced its way into their guts. Cold slipped into the tiles. What had been bright and white became yellow with age. Bare plumbing pipes, rusting tap fittings. The building shedding its comfort. Now shrouded in decay, it yawned and displayed its awful past. Sondra pointed to the horrible words arced above the door to the cavernous tiled room. Randall Asylum for the Insane. 1807.
The heroin that had made everything look bright and shiny now brought forth rats, and the smell of misery and decay. Irina began to shiver and the familiar clutching at her belly made the other girls nervous. Soon they too would succumb to the pain. And it would be terrible. The alternate constipation and diarrhoea, nausea and dry-heaving. They would begin to run their tongues around their gums, that chemical smell in their nostrils. The taste in their mouths. Sondra started to scratch. Under her arms, down her arms, her thighs, ankles. The itch all over her. She gritted her teeth.
Guo Ya Na could see that the girl Sondra had strength. She would call upon the Buddha for wisdom. For the gift of extra strength for the girl. One by one they were falling into the pit of need for the drug. In a short time all of them would become compliant. Would beg. Would offer themselves to the humiliation, and be thankful for it. She must call upon the strength of the Buddah’s teachings to help them. For herself too, for Guo Ya Na sought the strength of humility. ‘They will come soon.’ She said softly in English.
Irina looked up from the floor where she squatted. Snakes squeezed her guts. She swallowed the taste on her tongue. ‘Yes. With the drugs. I know this.’ She fell quiet. She did not want to think of the needle. The thought was like sustenance and she knew that if she thought she would want to gobble it up.
‘And they will give us dharma-happiness.’ Guo Ya Na wrung on the corner of a towel, twisting against the cramps now too clutching at her belly. She too swallowed, forcing nausea back.
Rebecca, the Sudanese girl, her teeth chattering, but seemingly strong set her face at the others.
‘Men from my village came in the night. They came with machetes. And hammers. I do not want happiness. That happiness will kill me too slowly. They have my life because they hold me on a spike? No. They will take it the hard way. I will fight, and if I die I will die like a warrior woman.’
Guo Ya Na nodded, a small smile of respect for the black girl pulling at her lips. ‘I understand.’ She said in a small whisper. ‘Like the Shaolin of Henan. Warriors also.’
Mariena, jittery, sweating even as the cold seeped into their bones nodded. ‘I think soon we will beg. Now, we are still strong and brave. But soon they will put us to their use again. This is only a part of our torture. This is to make us soft and willing. Tomorrow, the day after, next week, they will turn us into play dolls, and then we will be for sale. I know this.’
‘We can escape’. Chloe, the Ukrainian girl. Tall, big boned and stunningly beautiful. But diminished.
Irina, deteriorating fast, gasped out. ‘I need it Chloe. So much I need it. I don’t know if I have will to do this, what you are thinking. Even if we can walk out, we will steal, sell our bodies. We will seek out the drug and when we find it they will find us. There is no escape for us.’ Sondra had remained silent. Listening to the others. All her energy locked into simply coping.
‘I came to study. Medicine. I think we can if we plan quickly and well. In three days the heroin will be leached from our bodies. I know some things we can do. Hot baths. Massage. We can help each other together. In a week, maybe two weeks we could die from heart failure. But we could also be free. Whichever way, heart failure or survive, we will be free. Not slaves. I do not want to be a slave.’ She bit down hard on her lower lip. Hard enough to draw blood. She too was fighting the pain as hard as anyone was. ‘Maybe we can try.’ She said. ‘If we can escape we can make hope for us.’
Guo Ya Na shifted from face to face. She had wanted to bring comfort. To talk about the Buddha and to accept. But what of acceptance? Of submission? Only now, of a sudden she understood. Now she accepted. Now she submitted. She accepted the pain. Submitted to it. The Buddha was wise. He would say accept, submit. But to what? The inevitable?
This, a life of defilement and abuse. Of hunger and submission to the delicious euphoria. This was not inevitable. Only death was inevitable. ‘I have been wrong.’ She said quietly looking to Sondra. Then to Rebecca. ‘I will accept death if that is what the Buddha asks of me. I will not submit to life if life is one of submission to dishonour. My brother Sunguoshu told many stories when I was very little. Of opium. How the Chinese people became slaves to their masters who ruled an empire from Britain. To plunder our people. Until one day when the Righteous Harmony came to cast them from our land. Yes. I think we can escape. No masters. No submission to those who would make us slaves. I will honour my brother.’
All the girls had spoken. If they could stay together, just for a little while, maybe there would come an opportunity to fight. Hope stirred in them all. Hope infected them and Guo Ya Na knew that if she spoke with strength they would follow. Guo Ya Na was no leader. Her brother had always cared for her. But the Buddha had spoken into her head. Even now he spoke. They would fight, even maybe against each other as the disease raged. Maybe there would be betrayal. She must keep them strong and do what must be done. Not just against men, but against time and the poison that shackled them. They must do battle.
Down the hallway keys rattled. Wheels trundled over bare wooden boards. The man was coming.
YORKSHIRE. THE FARM.
The wall phone rankled its archaic dring dring! Dring dring! Sounding as old and tired as the finger dialler on its face. Phyllis liked it that way. No 1812 overtures or Homer Simpson’s Doh! Doh Doh that Robbie found so amusing.
No one stirred. To the Three Stooges it was Phyllis’s phone. Robbie argued that if any phone in the house went doh doh doh he would not expect Jilly to run and answer it. Similarly if the 1812 Overture clobbered the quiet, that was for Jilly. No one was going to budge at Nikki’s choice of ringtone that just implored ‘pick up Nikki! Pick up Nikki.’ Phyllis had resisted the youth’s rampant rush to technology. The recording studio, the computers, the smart phones and wireless cameras. So, if the old bell still went Dring Dring! Dring! The only activity from Robbie, Jilly or Nikki was to flap their gums.. ‘It’s your phone mum!’
‘Hello?’ The inquisitory ‘hello’, Phyllis’s best effort at coping with unknown callers. She would never get used to the telephone and their disembodied voices. Shy by nature even telephones sent a frisson of fear up her back.
‘Oh. Do you want to.?’ Phyllis glanced around the room at the eager faces all wondering who might be calling mum. But Jock butted in while Phyllis looked uncertainly at the kids.
‘No. No just wantin’ to check if yer all ‘ome eh? Don’t want t’turn up for nowt if’n yer all gone out or summat eh?’
‘No. We’re all in Jock. The kids were goin’ to go off on a hike over t’jackdaw woods later.’ She giggled nervously. The kind of giggle that made every man of a certain age- and younger, say something flirty. Jock Mactavish was no more resistant to Phyllis’ sweetness than any other man.
True to form Jock threw one in. ‘Pity then eh? You can leave crumbs in my bed any day eh?’ From other men the insinuation would have been sexual harassment. From Jock, no more or less than a compliment. He would never act on any of it anyway.
Embarrassed, Phyll brushed back her thick, wavy red-hair with her left hand. Her freckled face blushing up her cheeks. No matter that the caller could not see. That was just a Phyll thing and not one she would grow out of at this late stage.
Robbie got up and grabbed a couple of warm scones. ‘Who was it mam? Boyfriend wantin’ a night in then?’ He broke open a scone and flicked a blob of home made white butter on both sides.
‘Don’t be silly. It was Jock. He’s comin’ over from town. Wanted to know if we’re all in.’
‘What the ‘eck for? Snow’s a bit thick on’t ground for comin’ out this far in’t it?’ Then with a sly bat of his eyebrows, added ‘We can clear out for an hour you know. Mind, knowin’ Jock he’d be in and out in ten minutes.’ With a typical Robbie grin he added, ‘ The ‘ouse I mean.’
Phyllis could not help herself, her natural smile lighting up her face, and the admonishment falling from her lips bore no heat. ‘Now give over our Robbie! He asked if we’re all in so I expect he wants to see you lot for something. Though I don’t know why he can’t tell you over the phone.’Robbie teased, stuffing a whole scone in his mouth at the same time. ‘He’s after yer mam. Half the blokes in town ‘ve been eyeing your skirts since we was little ‘uns.’
‘Robbie! I said give over didn’t I?’ But Phyll was quite pleased really.
Jilly propped her guitar up against the armchair, uncurling cat-like. The lazy day, the warmth in the kitchen, the whole cosiness of today had made her languid. They’d always ‘lived’ in the kitchen. It was big and warm. Close to food.
‘I’ll be Polly then.’ She said, filling the kettle full enough to bubble out of the whistle. Second thoughts made her pour a little off before she jammed Billy’s whistle back on his spout.
‘I’ll be Sookie.’ Nikki waved an arm away from her laptop without looking backwards. If Polly put the kettle on, then Sookie always took it off again. Nursery rhymes tended to stick around in these parts.
‘Too late f’walkin’ in’t woods anyhow’ Robbie volunteered, gazing out the kitchen window. A huge mushroom of nimbo cumulus, billowing white and steel grey was rising, grumbling into the early afternoon air. Growing into a giant ice-cream cone, it formed quickly.
‘I reckon we’ll be snowbound ’til spring.’ Gathering up another couple of scones, Robbie set them on a side plate. He reached up to the top cupboard and spread his big fingers around the handles of half a dozen plain white, pint mugs.
‘Oi! Yer bloody greedy bugger our Robbie!’ Jilly skited, grabbing for the last two scones while his hands were occupied elsewhere. Robbie glared at her but undeterred she waved her clutched fists at him. ‘Emergency rations.’
Peeved, Robbie waved the side-plate, plonking the mugs on the solid old kitchen table. ‘These are fer Nikki anyway.’ He retorted, slapping more great globs of butter between each one. Whether they had originally been for Nikki or not, the words had committed him, and he strolled over to where she was hunched at the kitchen table. Still working on her book.
Phyllis laughed, wiping palms on her floral smock. Nikki always thought she looked pretty in it. Decorated with big red roses, the pastel colours suited Phyll’s complexion and accented her femininity. All told, in her mid forties, and generously proportioned, Phyll was disarmingly attractive. Fair skinned and freckled, she had always drawn attention, though she was -even more attractively, oblivious to her looks. ‘I better put another dozen in then.’
‘Better make it three if Jock’s stomach is comin’ with ‘im.’ Jilly said.
‘Better still, make that four.’ Robbie added. ‘No doubt we’ll need emergency rations.’
Jilly punched him, though not hard enough to cause a flinch.
Nikki, not being whole-hearted family could easily have felt left out of all this personal banter. Not with this family. She looked on at the three adoringly. From the very first moment, she had been enveloped. Now she couldn’t bear Robbie NOT to touch her, which he did often. Ruffling her soft curls ,draping a big arm over her small shoulders. In private ,he kissed her, and she allowed. The feel of his lips on hers, the heat in her lower belly sometimes made her want to risk it. Phyll did not see them as children, no matter how she referred to them as kids. If they were sixty they would still be her kids. Phyll had no objections if they chose to share a room and a bed. Secretly she desired it.
Nikki was afraid though. That he would be disgusted, and never want to touch her again. In those times when a hand accidentally or not so accidentally brushed her one little breast it generated the closest thing to a panic attack she had ever experienced. Sometimes the feeling became so unbearable that it was almost asthmatic and she had to run.
Those times Robbie, always misunderstanding, traipsed after her, eyes cast to his shoes, stammering apologies followed by a day of humiliated silence. And those days hurt Nikki too. She wanted to tell him everything, though she was sure she had explained much of it clearly enough.
Once, some years ago when she was fifteen she had flirted. On the promenade by the Pier Towers she’d offered herself to him, but he had to do it to her with her clothes on. She’d forced a laugh at his shock. A laugh that came manufactured from a soulless place. She had meant it then.
In her room upstairs there was no full length mirror. Nikki did not need to be reminded of the deep hole in her chest and the scar the size of the side-plate Robbie had placed on the table. The deep ‘bear-claw’ scratches from shoulder to backside meant that back or front the view was not of beauty. She felt ugly.
Loving Nikki had always been easy for Robbie. Dealing with it though, impossible. If he so much as peeved, Nikki he saw it as hurt and strove to make amends to the point of annoyance. She had learnt not to be annoyed and even if it crept in at the odd moment Nikki was good at pushing it aside.
On the other side of the coin, hurting Robbie made its own hurt too. Phyllis had been the rock on which this family stood. She gave more of herself to her youngsters than most parents gave to themselves. It had been cathartic to show Phyllis the scars. Letting Phyllis touch them with her fingers. Outside of doctors no one had ever done that, and there had been a faint tickle. Phyllis had slumped down on Nikki’s bed so hard that she bounced.
‘You know luv, if it’s to be, there will be a time. Just let it rest as is and he’ll see you as he wants to. I can tell our Robbie’s feelings.’ She chuckled. ‘You can when you’ve changed their nappies you know.’ That made Nikki giggle. The image of a strapping six three block of a man having his nappies changed. She stifled it quickly enough when the sadness dropped back in like a stone.
The series 11 Land Rover Jock Mactavish piloted would never gain accolades for stealth. Even less so with snow chains and his home-engineered snow plough jutting off the front end.
The old truck, the last of the flatbed model in the area clanked and wheezed in ‘snow gear’. All four wheel hubs engaged into 4wd, the snarling V8 wore its disguise well.
Richard Deacon and Micheila squished shoulder to shoulder on the bench seat, with Jock at the wheel, felt every bump and jounce.
‘We’ll not be long now eh?’ Jock grinned at his relatively new ‘old friends’.
‘I hope not.’ The Deacon muttered through clenched teeth. The ‘rover, never more than utilitarian had been further stripped over the years and judging by the smell, had been recently transporting sheep or other large livestock.
Micheala, known to all as Mitch was taller than The Deacon by almost a head yet she managed to maintain a regal stature in spite of the confined space.
Today her jet hair which when loosed, caressed her ankles, was braided into hundreds of perfect plaits, and folded under so that it looked impossibly thick, falling only to her waist.
‘Eh yup!’ Jock whooped. He seemed to be enjoying himself even if his passengers were not. ‘I’ve lost road eh! ‘ang on to yer ‘ats!’
Just in time they braced their palms against the bare metal of the beast’s roof. The vehicle, with plough and show chains; all 2000 pounds plus of it, dipped its nose, crossing a five foot wide snow filled ditch with a sickening lurch.
‘Found it eh.’ Jock said, hauling a hard left on the ‘drover’s massive steering wheel. .
”ere y’are.’ Taking one hand off the wheel he pointed into the middle distance. Standing stolidly in the apparent middle of nowhere the boxy red-brick two storey farmhouse was like the first glimpse of land to a lost sailor.
The snow, which had begun to fall even before they left Withernsea just a few miles back, as if to acknowledge their imminent arrival, turned into white-out.
‘Just med it I reckon eh?’ Nothing phased Jock Mactavish, farmer’s son of this parish. He flicked the switch on the windscreen wipers. For a couple of moments they jammed and juddered. Jock gave the windscreen a thump with his scrawny fist. The wipers behaved.
It had taken two hours to travel eight miles.
Phyllis, unprepared for visitors, other than the old reporter, scooted up the stairs rabbit fast exclaiming that ‘I’m not decent!’ Too flustered to be seen by city folks in her at-home smock.
‘Someone with ‘im.’ Robbie reported too late. He stared snow-blind from the kitchen window, not keen to throw open the door yet and let in the blizzard.
Jock parked the ‘drover close to the wall in the lee of the house. Jilly, ever the welcomer, made a scolding noise that sounded like ‘Welleteminthen!’ Before racing to the front door herself. Grudgingly Nikki flopped down the lid on her laptop and closed the notebook from which she was working. She was busy piling her books together trying hard to disguise her unwelcoming demeanour.
Nikki loved the isolation. Guests, with the exception of those she knew well and trusted, were an unwelcome diversion. An intrusion rather. She had taken to being enjoyably grumpy at intruders into her family space. That was until she heard Robbie’s big voice roar. ‘Deacon! Mitch!’
Fortunately the two guests were also huggers. Robbie threw his great arms first around Mitch, and then the Deacon. Anyone smaller would have been crushed in the embrace. He had much to thank this pair for. Not the least of which had been the unstinting care he had received at the London studio apartment. Granted they – well- Meegan, had run over him in the first place. But none of that mattered. It was they who had been instrumental in bringing Nikki home to stay.
Nikki too lit up. She buried herself mouse-like in the folds of the Deacon’s coat before he could shed it and get a grip on the girl. Then Mitch got her share.
Settled, after Jilly and Phyllis made up beds, the household knuckled down to catching up. Questions and answers flowed thick and fast from all parties. Having consumed multiple pint mugs of tea while Micheila filled in on London gossip she got to her feet and announced with little concern for volume that ‘I’ll be peeing for a week. Where’s the toilet.’
‘Such a lady.’ The Deacon grinned. Seldom did this man relax into the comfort of friends. Most people found him surly and stodgy.
Jilly showed Mitch the way to the ladies room, which also doubled as a men’s room and boasted a plaque on the door ‘Potting Shed’. Just a private Robbie potty joke.
Jock needed to be back in Withernsea before too late and it was already dark. ‘A bit ‘o snow’ wouldn’t be a worry. Jock’s ‘drover came complete with Arctic sleeping bags and metho stove. Not to mention suspicious looking foil packets of ‘probably food’ labelled ‘made for NASA’. He slapped his ever present chequered cloth cap over his mop of never-combed hair, shook hands with The Deacon, gave Mitch a suspiciously sexy hug and threw open the door to the blizzard. Outside, and out of sight, he hunched his shoulders, shed his affable grin and fought his way back to the trusty car. He did not want to be present when the reason for this emergency visit was finally announced.
So evening fell, gossip trailed off and there was silence. Uncomfortable silence. The Deacon was a surgeon. He didn’t do well with human interaction unless his gloved hand wielded a scalpel. That’s what Mitch was for. Partly. That the unlikely pair adored each other was simply a bonus.
So. Darkness still came early in this part of the world. Though not yet five, in another half hour the world outside would become impenetrable. And the world inside would have changed forever.
‘I suppose you’ve all guessed something’s askew.’ Mitch fiddled with her eternity ring twisting it around and around.
The Deacon placed his surgeon’s hands on the table and pushed himself to his feet. Leaning forward supporting his upper body on his palms he turned his head, birdlike, and stared at each questioning face for a long time. He was gaunt. His eye sockets hollowed out pits. He looked like a man who had been long sampling his own medicines.
‘Hrrump.’ This was going to be bad. ‘We received..Mitch received a not..hrrump. A note. We are unclear as to how it came to be in the pocket of her greatcoat, but by the time she discovered it we had already wasted a great deal of precious time.’ Mitch placed a small yellow post-it note on the table. The Deacon nodded and she retrieved it. He nodded again his consent.
‘It’s just an instruction really. It gives a url, a, a web address, followed by a telephone number. It’s a 381 number. For Serbia.’
‘We are assuming that the note had been in Mitch’s pocket no more than a few hours.’ The Deacon added.
‘I’d been walking in the wet and the hem got truck-splashed. I was about to take it to the dry-cleaners after lunch.’ She said. ‘By the time I found it and we called the number we’d already passed one deadline.’
The Deacon broke in again. Still holding his body hunched, palms flat on the table, as if his legs might imminently fail him. ‘It was the voice of a little girl. Just a small child. Hrrmmp! A..’
Mitch got to her feet and went to him. Everyone stared. She towered over him. His hands left the table and encircled her, his head falling to her ample chest. And then his shoulders heaved. The Deacon was sobbing as if his heart might break. Mitch held him and spoke over his shoulder, now smoothing his hair. Her own voice strong. ‘She said that we had failed her. That the egg timer had run dry. That’s what she said. That the egg timer had run dry and we had failed her. Then she said to come here and collect Nikita and we would be given further instructions.’
Now Mitch’s own voice began to tremble. ‘Uh, he,uh. First he. Uh, made her scream. He said we had to listen and that he was, um, he was taking out her eyes with a spoon. And then there was a loud bang. He shot her! He shot the little girl.
Robbie sprang to his feet. ‘Bullshit!’ He rounded the kitchen table and stood behind Nikki, putting his big hands on her shoulders. She sat for a moment, glancing first at Mitch and the Deacon, then fleetingly at Jilly and Phyllis. ‘He wasn’t bluffing Robbie.’ She said. ‘You know what he’s capable of.’
‘How do you know that? How can you be sure?’
Because I was one of them!’ She snapped angrily. Shock at her own venom blooming on her face. Too late to take it back, Nikki dropped her eyes and began to fumble with her fingers. When she spoke again her voice was soft. Defeated. ‘There is more I think.’
Phyllis jiggled a tray of cups. She put a bowl of fresh milk on the table, scones and butter, sugar; as much for the sake of busy-ness as comfort and sustenance.
‘You said there is a URL to go to.’ Jilly said. ‘Should we see it?’ She flipped up the lid of her laptop and pushed the power switch.
‘NO!’ The Deacon boomed, his deep baritone conveying a sense of absolute authority he almost certainly did not feel. ‘No good purpose would be served to view such depravity.’ He wrapped his hands around the pint mug Phyliss had placed before him, taking in the comforting steam.
Andre Docic aka Max Lomax had fled to a small village in Serbia. Before taking his leave however, he had made a diabolical attempt on Nikki’s life, which also deprived her friend and mentor Andy Mackay of his legs.
‘Ye Gods and little fishes!’ Robbie exploded. ‘Lomax is a monster! A war criminal. A slave trader! He’s a murderous psychopath yet no one has ever seen fit to lock him up and throw away the key. Or better still, eliminate him!’
The Deacon dry-washed his face in his hands. Silent frustration accentuated the sound of the burgeoning blizzard outside, and everyone sat around the kitchen table feeling trapped and impotent.
Nikita snapped to her feet suddenly animated. Panicked even. ‘Why a deadline? And why now?’ she shouted at four bewildered faces. ‘It does not make sense this deadline. What is it for? ‘ She flipped a hand through her blonde curls, swatting at it like a bothersome fly. In the past year she had let it grow down over her shoulders in feathery ringlets. ‘If he wanted me he would have taken me a year ago. He would have sent someone. This is nonsense!’
Mitch said ‘I know it doesn’t make sense Nikki- but.’
‘No!’ Nikki shouted, slapping her small palm against the hard pine of the kitchen table. She grimaced. It hurt. ‘The bad weather means that you cannot use the helicopter. Yes?’ The little Robinson 44 whirlybird was a shared obsession between the Deacon, who owned it, and the Geek who spent long hours grooming and polishing it. Nikki was pointing at the Deacon, waving her hand like a manic orchestra conductor.
‘Yes. I mean no, we can’t fly in this weather. Even the trains and buses have been disrupted. We damn near broke our necks trying to get lifts. Once off the M62 at least the M1 was still open most of the way.’
‘Yes, yes yes.’ Nikki waved off the logistics. She was heading off in her own direction. ‘All over Europe for more than one month. Everything nearly stops. Yes?’
Everyone nodded. ‘I think he kills this girl for drama. Not missed deadline. And for making you guilty to feel emotion and to disrupt your thinking. Yes?’
‘Yes.’ Mitch and The Deacon spoke together, looking at each other with a dawning dread.
‘In more than one year we have nothing. No word except that he is in Serbia. We follow his money and take it back until then it runs out and he disappear. And now he make you come here. He knows already that you cannot keep to his deadline. Already the girl is dead I think. No matter what you do. I think that is correct. You see?’
Normally Nikki’s stumbling over her English would have raised a smile and jocular admonishment. Robbie enjoyed baiting her to annoy or frustrate her into slipping into fractured English. It constantly delighted him. Now though, Mitch was staring open-mouthed. ‘Oh my God! We’ve been set up! He’s set us up!’
SURREY. HOME OF SIR PETER PARKES QC
Sir Peter Parkes QC put up with his daughter’s simplified outrage because he loved her. Tantrum some would say. Sir Peter, a man who took matters of law seriously would argue ‘simplified outrage.’
Even at home, the portly, bespectacled Counsel went about in suit and tie. Except in the library where Zoe and he hung out. In which case he donned a threadbare cardigan, open to reveal a white cotton business shirt speckled with tiny black burn holes. ‘We would be knowingly harbouring illegal immigrants sweetheart.’
‘Well what’s wrong with fighting fire with fire?’ Zoe stalked her way around the generous wood panelled reading room. Moving as if any moment she might pounce on a quivering mouse. She plucked weighty volumes of law from the shelves with no singularity of reason, examined the spines, and returned them. This, her annoying modus operandi soon to garner an exaggerated ‘Will you stop that! You’re making me dizzy.’
It worked every time, and had done since she was old enough to heft the volumes in her small hands. Small was no longer Zoe’s sufferance. In counterpoint to her father she could almost reach the second top shelf. Sir Peter on the other hand used a stool. He of the Friar Tuck hair, Zoe, like her mother Elspeth, crowned with a head of thick, wavy, rich auburn. They shared the same chestnut brown eyes. His attention gained as usual, Zoe introduced her argument. ‘Stealing is against the law.’
‘Ahh!’ Sir Peter stretched and placed his brown slippered feet on his favourite brown footstool. In the library the colour throughout tended to be brown. Except where it was crystal glass decanter and crystal whisky glasses. He was up for a joust. He enjoyed any opportunity to polish argument. And to sharpen his daughter’s already well honed concepts. ‘If I stole your phone and a year later you took the opportunity to steal it back, would that also be theft?’ He ventured.
Wise to his clever introductions she followed up. ‘Daddy! You know that’s a fallacious argument.’ Fallacious, the new word to be inserted rightly or wrongly into every conversation. Nevertheless he would pass on that one and not be tricked into pedantry on her terms. He liked the pedantry to be on his own terms. Zoe kept picking. ‘Maybe if it was the same phone, I would call that repatriation. But if it was a different phone, regardless of the fact that you stole my phone, yes, it would be theft.’ Repatriation, another well used new word to offer into any argument. ‘BUT. You’re on the board of a foundation that draws bucket loads of money by illegal means from crooks.’
Given that Zoe had championed that very thing prior to implementing the activity, her argument had the odour of mischief. ‘Is this going somewhere sweetheart? I haven’t made any connections yet.’ He hooked his forbidden pipe from the rack of meerschaums. Forbidden only because this one actually filled with tobacco and got clenched between his teeth. His wife Elspeth tutted at that, declaring that the tiny burn holes in all his shirts were the result of the ‘filthy habit’.
The poor woman never knew what to believe when husband and daughter delivered alternative explanations with deadpan seriousness. ‘Mummy! That’s because he’s cheap and buys that seedy weed. The seeds explode all over the place.’
‘Young lady! How dare you suggest such a thing? I grow my own and NEVER let it go to seed!’
Elspeth was smart enough to know that she was not smart enough to enlist in their contrived hypotheticals. She made tea and tended to her herb garden, that inviolable patch, off limits even to the gardener who, bless his heart kept her in healthy plants. Father and daughter, left to their own devices, always in the library, manoeuvred between nonsense and considered logic. Sometimes reaching conclusions, even agreement. Jousting required keeping the opposition constantly off balance with feints and deviation.
Zoe flicked open a leather bound limited edition. ‘The law is a maze of contradictions through which we must feel our way. When we think we have navigated our way to the exit once, thereafter we can follow the same trajectory any number of times we think. Erroneously. The design changes. Often on the whims of society.’
Realising almost as she spoke that her opening gambit, stealing money from crooks, would lose on points, she deviated. Exactly the same ruse her father used in court. He would use deviation, arguing that money did not exist except as data until..all that rot, and suddenly she would find herself hemmed in against her own argument. Tactics.
The Art Of War Sun Tzu’s ancient but revered text, along with Machiavelli’s identical titled tome were, Zoe thought, ironically filed as law books on her father’s shelves. Sir Peter often remarked that at University he had majored in ‘Machiavelli twelve’.
‘Daddy. You always say that ignorance is no excuse, so I’m not going to even suggest that you plead ignorance. But there must be a moral argument. We’re talking about girls and children. They don’t have a way out. No credentials, no money. They just turn to doing the very thing they’ve tried to escape from, and being exploited. All that money you’re repatriating could fund refuges. Secret, safe houses. Somewhere to help them to fight back. You don’t have to say you didn’t know they are illegals. Just find a way to make it less illegal’
‘Ahh.’ Now he got it. Sir Peter tamped his pipe with a yellowed thumb and waved at the book still in Zoe’s hands. ‘I wrote that when I was a year older than you are now. The thesis was Defending the Indefensible. I was twenty five. Did you know that you can still buy some old copies of that in left wing bookshops. I think someone stole the text and published it as an ebook on Amazon. Should I sue them?’
Yesterday Zoe joined the pony club and began collecting ribbons. Quite a few yesterdays went by until on a different yesterday she put aside law in favour of social work. On yet another yesterday she decided that the structure and strictures of the system were self serving.
Secretly. Not so secretly Zoe was proud of her father’s left leanings. He was honest. He cared, even if his honesty was a teensy weensy bit subjective.
Tea came. Elspeth went. The jousting continued. Only Zoe had the advantage of clarity. She wound in and out and all around the houses, throwing up fallacious arguments and then deviating from them. Experienced in the knowledge that youth will always triumph over age and that beauty aided brains, Sir Peter gently placed his bone-china cup back on its delicate saucer.
So,’ He ventured, steepling his fingers as he did when partly conceding to a view point. ‘What you are postulating is that you want to expand this Lighthouse Foundation adventure further into the dark side?’
‘Not if you put it like that daddy.’ Zoe pouted. Delighted in scoring the point. Careful now. The old panther still has claws! ‘I can do the work if you can make it arguably legal.’
‘Sometimes you worry me sweetheart.’
‘But you love me.’ She pounced. That quivering mouse had always been her father. Panther indeed! Got you! From behind his armchair she snaked her arms around his shoulders, her cheek against his ear. ‘And I love you too. Squeek squeek!’
‘No fair.’ He muttered to the empty air after she had stalked silkily away. Never try to rub your triumphs in lest they come back and bite you on the leg. Zoe knew enough to quit while she was ahead. Her well executed retreat warranted fair consideration.
The bleeding of laundered cash from corrupt entrepreneurs accessed unspeakable wealth. The intent early on had been to dry up their funds and thus curtail the speed of further expansion. That was proving an impossible task. The criminal entrepreneurs had quickly vacated the Everyman’s Internet, though there were still rich pickings there. The diabolically simple, encrypted TOR network made the most depraved of activities accessible to almost anyone with the will. The Onion Router, a tiny bit of anonymyzing software downloaded to the users computers made any depravity accessible, and the use of Bitcoin, the Internet Currency, made tracking the money very difficult indeed. The space vacated by Max Lomax in the real world, filled instantly by the equally vile Russians. And if not the Russians, then the Yardies, the West Indian Mafia, or the Mexicans, Colombians, Chinese. Name a nationality.
At the most secretive levels of government ‘tactics’ turned morality on its head. The argument that the big fish should be allowed to swim freely so that the smaller fish could be trawled ended up being ludicrous. Organisations expanded exponentially. They touched and melded with others until Right and Wrong were to be measured only by degrees. And then there was ‘the law’. Zoe bless her cotton socks, struggled with concepts and ethics just as her father had. And still did.
‘Refuges.’ Sir Peter pulled out his little black notebook. Kept always at the ready in his cardigan pocket. As he had done his entire working life he began making careful notes.
LONDON: THE ASYLUM.
Dimitri bore none of the hallmarks of the movie bad guy. His eyes though blue, were not iceberg blue, but the blue of a summer sky. His smile even, rather than curling up on one side into a sneer. Teeth neither rotten nor film-star doctored. Above all Dimitri was polite, introducing himself with a slightly Teutonic bow, he apologised. With professorial demeanour he looked first at Rebecca, and then quickly and directly into the eyes of each girl. Even as he spoke six pairs of eyes scanned over, then lingered on the six syringes.
On a white napkin the syringes. Perfectly aligned and loaded with clear liquid bliss. At their head a stainless steel oblong dish. Cotton buds, white meth, rubber straps.
A banquet. The table laid perfectly. Precisely. An invitation to savour uncommon delights.
Irina, wound over tight already, absently flicked her tongue around her plump lips. Clearly she wanted to rush the table and feed with both hands and no finesse.
Dimitri sat on the bench, drawing out the girl’s pain. Feeding himself on their need. ‘Your lesson is my lesson.’ He explained without using his hands to inflect. His body language entirely vested in his face. ‘Harsh treatment is a necessity in the understanding of subordination. Your basic training,’ He smiled, ‘You will be gratified to learn, is complete. But I would like to explain. You must consider this time as a boot camp.’ He nodded at his own perfect analogy. Deciding that this route would hasten their understanding, he followed his own train of thought. Many texts had contributed to the knowledge he would now impart.
‘Conscripts are not the same as volunteers. You understand? A volunteer is appraised of the process which builds a unified force. So they quickly assimilate and accept the rules as they are laid down. The conscript however, is initially less malleable. There is need for a little extra incentive to ensure compliance.’
Dimitri by name, but this young man was educated with no trace of an accent. Highly educated. He would not defer to those of lesser vocabulary. Besides, the girls would quickly get the drift. He would brook no argument, and expected attention while he spoke. There would be time set aside for questions later. After the lecture was over. ‘I have not been party to your experience. You understand, my role is academic. I am a student of medicine and neuro-psychology.’ Pausing, he let this sink in, that he personally had not been a part of the abuse in any physical sense. ‘Your lessons will form a part of my thesis of course.’ He said this with more than a hint of personal pride.
Sondra listened with as academic an ear as the girl’s situation allowed. Auschwitz. The doctors. Those men and women of kind demeanour and dead hearts. Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen. Though young, in her home village the old folk had talked about the gates above which the words Arbeit Macht Frei had been emblazoned. Work May Set You Free. Sondra had learnt at home near Kiev of the Babi Yar Ravine, not far away, where 33,000 souls, children and babies too, were hurled into the ravine.
The trolley. The table of delights. It’s display of succulence began to draw more greedy glances. Irina’s eyes locked. She scratched. Her chipped nails scraping off pieces of skin. Dimitri’s monotone coming from somewhere far away in another galaxy.
‘So that we can rebuild, so, first we must destroy. That is the purpose of training. Everything you were has been removed and all that you are now is what you have been given. Today, you are graduates.’
Sondra with inspired will kept her eyes averted. Away from the trolley. She concentrated on the wall tiles, the detail of dirt in the grouting, flecks of red rust. The smell of over chlorinated water. The sound of Dimitri’s voice. His monologue. His cold evil intent. Dimitri, feeding off their agony. Tasting, savouring, enjoying this drawn-out soul pain.
He looked at Irina with a beneficent fatherliness. Just and only for her. His eyes clouded with momentary sadness. ‘Soon.’ He said. Only to Irina, as she were alone in the company of a favourite uncle. ‘The final lesson is now. Patience.’
Sondra wanted to rush to Irina’s side. To comfort her, but knowing too that to do so would invite immediate punishment. She bit down on her lip and concentrated.
‘Religion.’ Dimitri said suddenly as if abandoning his original cliché ruled approach. ‘Some of you, most of you I think, believe in a God. Or perhaps merely a concept of God. You may even believe that after such disciplined training that your God has gone on a vacation. Perhaps never to return. You think He has deserted you.’ Again he nodded at his own revelation, pleased with his choices.
‘Today, and for eternity you have a new God.’ he did not have to glance with such powerful meaning at the syringe laden trolley. Nor any meaning. Nevertheless, for effect, he did so, even though it was self evident. ‘You have been instructed in obedience. You have learned that art of submission, and so long as you are compliant and work hard you will be treated well and rewarded.’
Dimitri put his hands on his knees, pushed himself to his feet. Leaving much unsaid, he approached the trolley.
Dimitri smiled in a kindly manner. A college professor inviting discourse after a gruelling lecture.
‘May I speak? Sir?’ Sir. She even managed to make the monosyllable rich with respect. Sondra Swat. Ever willing to learn. To study. Sondra prided herself in learning quickly and well. As a medical student she had already extracted blood a thousand times. She had volunteered at local surgeries and schools at home in Kiev, where university had been a dream. When she could no longer study after her first year, she had been devastated.
‘I would like to learn to inject myself.’ Eschewing eye contact, Sondra gazed shyly at her toes.
Dimitri, taken aback, paused. The wheels of thought processing the request. And then he smiled that smile again. ‘Yes! Yes, of course. You must learn.’ Without irony he looked around. All eyes had followed Sondra’s lead and were cast to the earth.
Rebecca glanced furtively with a flash of question at the big blonde girl. Then returned to her subservient posture. Nothing worse than what had already been visited upon them could happen now. Not even death. Right now, ten hours after the last administration of the drug, shooting up held no fear. Fear fell away like a lead shroud.
Mariena stepped forward. Her teeth chattering, shivering cold, but by comparison, doing well.
‘Yes. Yes’ Dimitri waved a magnanimous hand, inviting. ‘Come. Gather around so that you may observe.’ He beckoned and the sorry troupe shuffled around the tall girl, tentative and shy.
He handed Sondra the rubber strapping. ‘To pump up your vein.’ He explained. ‘For ease of access we will select your arm? Right or left?’ Sondra held out her right arm, underside up. ‘You should wrap this around like so.’ Dimitri took her arm, his hands soft and unworked. ‘You should pull the strap tight around your arm. You may use your teeth. When you have it tight, this buckle,’ he pointed, ‘will lock. You can release it when you finish by pulling against the buckle. See? Easy. You now.’
Dimitri instructed with clarity, showing how to keep the syringe low, laying alongside the vein.
Sondra snagged the strap, pulling tight. She looked up into his benign face, the strap between her teeth.
Not much older than herself, she thought. A few years. Very handsome but for his overblown ego and cold heart. Very handsome.
With satisfaction she saw his eyes widen when he felt the sting in his backside. Mariena had plunged her syringe. Unloaded it directly into his left buttock. Guo Ya Na thrust hers into his belly. Rebecca, into his back. Irina, pausing regretfully only for a moment jabbed his muscled upper arm. And then Chloe.
Shocked by their own instinctive actions the girls stumbled back, fearful. Dimitri stood stock still. Surprised, but with no sign of panic. He looked instead a little disappointed. Other men, those who had previously tormented would have lashed out. Dimitri stood, not a trace of fear or concern floated across his features. The only change, an odd look of concern.
‘Intra muscular.’ He voiced this cryptic compound medical term twice, stressing each of the five syllables. And then. ‘Intra venous.’ Again twice, stressing each of the four syllables.
For once, Sondra was glad of her height. She knew what Dimitri was expressing. Intra venous. Intra muscular. Vastly different absorption rates. In the vein the rush is instantaneous. Dimitri turned, addressing the five anarchists, now huddled together, contrite. Defeated.
But before he opened his mouth to remonstrate, his eyes rolled up to red-veined white.
Sondra stood, trembling and empty handed. The syringe still embedded in Dimitri’s jugular vein, he crashed to the floor and was motionless in seconds.
Shock filled the void. Surely the hallway would pound with booted feet. The thousand thousand horrors already ingrained into these walls, retreated into an awful silence. Frozen into an alabaster statue, Sondra stood, eyes wide, arms limp by her sides.
Rebecca, moving through space and time, faster than her own thoughts, which too had jammed like an engine seized, found herself a the tall girls side.
Adrenalin filled every molecule of her being, where heroin fought for supremacy. Fight or Flight. That nanosecond that fires the human body into superhuman acts.
A little girl, imagining herself as small as a chickpea. Machetes raining down. Oceans of blood. The sickening dull crunch of hammers. Brain matter, just snot, sticking to the walls of a crude shack in a razed Sudan village.
No God. Least of all heroin. Rebecca, all fear expunged, shook Sondra with such force that she rattled her own teeth. ‘It is done! We must go! Now!’ She raced back to the huddled mass of limbs. Without care she kicked. Barefoot, the impact did no harm but Mariena, taking the brunt of it, stirred.
Still there was no sound. No raised voices in the hallway. The old building as dead and decayed as an ancient corpse.
Rebecca pushed, shoved, hauled on dead weight. And slowly, synapses began to spark once more.
At the hallway’s end, a small office. Perhaps once a nurse’s station- or a guard’s. Dimitri’s lone lair. A small two bar electric heater glowed. The only light a table lamp which illuminated several thick books. One lay open. ‘The Psychology of Terror in Modern Warfare.’
Zombie girls followed the flying black banshee. Rebecca swept the books from the desk. Scrambled through drawers. Snatched at a stainless steel hoop crammed with keys. Scores of them, big, small. Jailers keys with long shanks to fit fat ancient locks.
The Sudanese girl alight with the fire of potential freedom bit down on the alluring after-taste of poison bliss. Acting only on screaming instinct she tossed the bunch of keys at Sondra, who caught them with the practised ease of the basket baller she had once been.
‘Go! I follow!’
Not wanting to leave this amazing black girl, Sondra hesitated.
‘Go!’ Rebecca turned away, tearing at pages, emptying drawers of stationery onto the floor. ‘Go!’ She repeated, refusing to look back to see if the Ukrainian girl still hovered.
Rebecca slammed open cupboards, a maelstrom of destruction. A cabinet held boxes of syringes, cotton buds, methylated spirit. Too impatient to open the childproof caps, she dropped each plastic bottle, stomping down hard with bare feet. Plastic splintered, drawing blood.
Down the hallway Sondra’s voice, herding. Guo Ya Na in concert. Two German Shepherds herding a tiny flock.
Their voices receding into the distance, Rebecca continued her assault, ransacking the obsessively neat office. Dimitri’s black medical bag, a fat, bulging antique by the side of the desk, reminiscent of a plump toad. She upended it, pouring out and sorting the contents. Repacking for her needs, she placed it by the door. The girls would need it.
Soon she had a bonfire piled up. Paper, wood, the naughyde office chair. Anything combustible she threw on top. Methylated spirit soaked paper she scattered around and on the mounting pile. She tossed several more unopened bottles into the mess, holding on to one.
The squat little electric fire burned her hand when she ripped off the flimsy wire guard. It didn’t matter. Rebecca was beyond minor burns and lacerations. She hurled it atop the bonfire. With growing satisfaction she surveyed her creation. Then, the final bottle of meth in her hand, she squeezed off the top, splashing and pouring until it was empty. A second thought, and she plucked another bottle from the floor, uncapping it with surprising ease.
She splashed and dashed every combustible surface as she fled down the hallway, hauling on the heavy doctor’s bag. Pelting down the echoing hall to catch up with her new found friends.
TO BE CONTINUED.
The new Novel The Butterfly Effect will be ready soon for publication. But it needs it’s final spit and polish, and this means completely re-writing to add in the ‘colour’. I’ve just been on a ‘research tour’ and this is where I went.
I am sitting in a quiet little nook in the foyer of the Moonview hotel in HANOI. When we first came to this hotel it was called Bro and Sis, but in the past two years the hotel has been upgraded. Upstairs on the 12th floor there is a neat and tidy breakfasting room which serves as a small restaurant in the evenings. Set off from this is a well stocked small bar where you can drink beer, wine and spirits and even smoke a cigarette if you wish.
What a pity I am now in my retirement years! Thirty years ago I would have been in a lolly shop. The girls are so pretty! I have been to many countries in my 66 years, but honestly I can’t remember a place where the people were so sweet, so honest, and (in the case of the girls, so positively gorgeous.) Perhaps this is the same for boys, but as a male I am not qualified to say. What I can say though is that the boys are smiling and polite, and my old experienced eye tells me that Hanoi boys have a love and respect for girls that might just attract any western girl to their charms. Well if that sounds sexist I know it does but I see it just as being a male in this complex culture we live in. Girls still fascinate me, and in Vietnam the climate has given the girls and the boys alike those clear soft skins and features the seem to have been created by a group of Gods working together.
Taking a taxi to the WESTGATE DENTAL CLINIC where we were booked in for dental work (taxi fare $2.95 from the hotel), scooters, low-powered motor bikes and electric bicycles appeared like a great swarm of angry bees. Car drivers beware. It is not the bike riders in this city who have to be careful. The cars are the minority and car drivers are not regarded as significant in the scheme of things. So, drive slowly with your foot close to the brake pedal and be sure to keep your eye open for errant bike riders crossing your path. The riders, looking like kung-fu bandits with their faces covered with bandanas to keep the choking air from their sensitive nostrils. Everywhere there is food. Food being eaten, cooked, chopped, sliced, and traded. Everything seems to operate through food. You could also be forgiven for thinking that Vietnam holds the record for coffee houses. They are everywhere, and they are so good!
First impressions: Coming from the airport at 10pm we had to rely on trust to negotiate the price of the taxi when we reached our destination. No need to worry. The doors to the Moonview swung open and the doorman, (pleasant young man) inspected the taxi meter and declared that the fare would be a little over 300,000 dong. Shock turned to pleasant surprise when this huge sum of money turned out to be a little over $15 US. Similarly the trip to the WESTGATE DENTAL CLINIC some 3.5km away was just 59,000 dong., ($2.95). It takes a long time getting used to all those zeros on the currency. 20,000 dong is $1 and 21,000 dong will buy you a packet of cigarettes.
We had been in Shanghai for a week to visit our adopted girls and their babies. After 8 years of visiting China, this trip was a disenchantment. The China we had grown to love over the years of openness had changed subtly and not for the better. Where once we had been able in the hotels which catered for “foreigners” to log into facebook or our social networking sites, we were no longer able to. China has grown exponentially, but with the greater freedoms of consumption, the Chinese people have not noticed the door closing quietly on their contact with the outside world. In China news is the news the government want. Sadly it seems that there is much trumpeting about how wonderful the Chinese have managed their economy, and how much better off the Chinese people are. And now Michelle is pregnant for the second time. She could have a quick and legal abortion and she feels inclined. Apparently the burden of two children under three is going to prove super stressful and fatiguing. I told her she’s lucky that she and Jason can have two children. (They get one each is they are only children themselves, so both Jason and Michelle qualify.) Modern Chinese youth is contributing shamelessly to the philosophy of hedonism. So long as they don’t question the government ,living is getting easier. There is now an arrogance in China that once did not exist. Or it existed hidden from Western eyes. Now they build cities that few will ever live in just to spend the money overflowing from the government purses.
Arriving in Hanoi was a new breath of fresh air. Every place we go to has fast wifi, there is an abundance of fabulous coffee shops, and the pastries, breads, and cakes are to die for! This is a place that was taught to bake bread and pastries by the French during the colonisation of Vietnam and this art has been taken to mouth watering limits. In fact, if you can’t find a decent eating place among the thousands and thousands of establishments, you probably live on dry bread and water! Eating in Vietnam is quite unlike China, (where the food is magnificent, but you go to a restaurant to eat and run). In Vietnam you have time to linger over your food, sit back and drink copious quantities of Hanoi Beer (or your choice of hundreds of different brands) and you don’t feel uncomfortable spending time. No one looks at you as if you are taking up another paying customer’s seat. Besides, there is nothing nicer, even at this writer’s advanced age, sitting watching the girls go by! Oh to be young again.
Walking around Hanoi, my camera constantly demanded to be at eye level. Slim buildings slotted into impossible areas of land, with extravagant fascias cried out to be snapped. Every picture seeming to be a work of the artistic eye, where, in fact, the composition created itself. Point your camera, and press the button. So long as you have a decent exposure and focus, the result is a pleasing work of art that will make any amateur snapper look good.
Our location at the Moonview Hotel made it possible to visit some essential locations. Everyone who comes here should visit the Presidential Palace. Quiet walkways, lined with shady trees take you away from the frantic hustle of pavement cafes and the mass of scooters that seem to be everywhere in the city. Walking across the wide parade ground and being able to take pictures of the fabulous architecture is a pleasant break. Visitors must take some time to visit the museum where you will get an idea of the history of the struggle of Vietnam to become what it is now; an independent, free, bustling country where people can feel safe and life the lives they always longed for.
There are several lakes in Hanoi which locals spend time at fishing, eating in the huge range of cafes and restaurants and just sitting watching the world go around. This is a laid back culture where people smile a lot, and there is a constant feeling of safety.
Vietnam has has a lot of growing to do yet, and if you come here to visit and to enjoy the magnificent views and lifestyle you will be getting the very best of the young and vibrant land.
I’m in love with Hanoi. With the cafes, the restaurants, the girls, and the many places to visit.
Things to do: One must, is to visit the art galleries. Vietnamese artists are rising on the world stage and their work would hang on any wall. Right now prices are as low as they will ever be and wise investment will pay dividends.
Food: Foodies will find Vietnam an absolute delight. Bread and pastries, coffee ,and the delicate tastes of Asia will not mess with the waistline. There are not many fat people here. In fact, the people are what my partner calls ‘walking clothes horses’.
Some things to avoid: Every now and then you will be caught out by rogue taxis. They my look like legitimate taxis, but the giveawayis that they do not have the driver’s ID in the front of the cab. To all intents and purposes the rogue cabs look the same as the legal ones except for this one thing. Check, or be prepared to pay the cost. It’s no shame to get caught out. This happened to us one day, but after being caught out just once, we began to rely on the hotel staff to ensure that we took the right one from the Hotel, and whenever we needed to get back we were able to identify the good guys. Everyone gets caught. Fortunately the sums are not large and you might feel that the cost of a taxi in New York or London is similar.
Have fun in Hanoi and look for my blog on Ho Chi Minh City.
By the time you finish reading this article over 1000 new book titles will have been published. Six months into 2013 the number of new titles published is 1,305193. By the time you have finished this sentence another seven titles will have been added to that number.
Simplistically, by this time in six months, almost three million new titles will have been published. Globally, more than 796 million people in the world cannot read. Forgive the statistics, but there is more. At the time of writing, there are over 140 million books available to read ,
An astonishing 42% of college graduates, after graduating, never read another book for pleasure, and over 80% of American families did not buy or read a book last year. The United Kingdom fares little better. More than 4 million people in UK have never read a book. In the past six months more than 12 million people in UK had picked up a book to read for enjoyment less than twice.
I was never good with numbers, can just about do long division and work out how much cash I have left for food and entertainment after paying necessary bills.
But something about these figures is scary. Of the world’s 7 billion+ population probably half of them either cannot read, or never read a book for pleasure. That leaves about 3 billion who do read, and probably half of them don’t read books regularly or often. If estimated figures are to be believed, there are more Google, Twitter, and Facebook users by far, than book readers.
Is it that books are just too hard? Or take up too much precious social networking time? Someone better than I will have to address those questions.
On the one hand more books are being published every year than in the whole of history. My google stream is full of people writing books, joining writing communities, talking about books. It seems too that in spite of the previously quoted figures, the book business is very healthy. The book business is healthy because those few of us,; an actual MINORITY who do read, buy the majority of books sold.
Since I began this article the number of new titles published this year has just reached 1,305,453 and the chances of most of those titles ever being read is tiny. That number is only the number of books actually published. If my social networking is to be believed, there are many many more people writing books that will never see the light of day. Of all those writers, (and given the figures quoted) I wonder how many of those people writing books, and talking about their books actually buy a book, or pick up a book and read it. I would hazard a guess that easily half of those wannabe novelists don’t actually READ or buy books themselves.
How many books have YOU bought this year?