Friday, 24 April 2009

Chapter 5

Enter the Don...

Chapter 5. Arrival of Geordie and Koff


         It took them all of January to settle their affairs. The main problem was where to find the cash for the trip out and this they eventually solved. Contributions appeared; no mystery, but, hush hush, confidential. Koff used the time to pursue research on Bolivia. Geordie wasted his energy, basking in the reflected glory of his chivalrous quest. Each according to his heritage.


         Koff came from a Jewish immigrant background; his grandfather had fled from the pogroms in nineteenth century Ukraine and this has made Koff circumspect but inquisitive. His curiosity is voracious but tempered with caution. Just don’t assume this makes him a soft touch by any means.


       Geordie’s father had been a shop steward in a Birmingham car factory and Geordie grew up inheriting a natural flair for organization until involvement with the local drug culture alienated him from his family. But behind his facade of debauchery, a taste for militant action remains.


            So both lads arrive at the Alto prepared in their own way -  Geordie a big man, a large-sized package, frayed at the edges by evident excesses, Koff looking trim and collected. Both are excited and though not yet clued into the specifics, aware that various trials and even traps lay ahead, knowing that Jim would arrange a special reception for his special friends – his speciality.


        So at the airport they’re putting on a brave face, making a raucous, jestful entry, leaning on each others shoulders, too loud, in a manner that immediately draws attention to themselves (tut,tut).


        They have accepted any arrangements already made and so head straight down, staring for the first time with amazement and without comment at the canyon that drags them in and at the splendour of the distant peaks beyond.


          On the journey down the motorway Geordie’s thoughts are focused on Jim.  He’ll be entering a scene which Jim has already established as his own, whether as a trusted mate or as a rival, the history of their prior times together leaves undefined. But Geordie has no doubt that he is arriving as of right; he is fully entitled to share whatever fate is marked on their cards. As Koff is in complete accord, they’re determined to put on a brave face, though both are more concerned about the reception awaiting them from Sandy. After the mauling they received at Mayola Road, they can have no illusions of her as an ally.  However confused she pretends to be, the woman is too sharp to be taken in by their show of brash bravado.


         “Hope she’s made contact by now.”  Such e-mail messages that she’s bothered to send have revealed nothing, or less.


         “Some hope.”


         Straight to the hotel, then, where they’re not surprised at being expected and already booked in, though they find the manager grumpy and inattentive. He despatches them with Mario to an isolated area beyond the public display of renovated, restructured stucco suitable for waltzing or tangoing, up into a dim passageway of creaking, splintering, wooden stairwells where the ancient building reveals its true age and character. Without any ceremony, Mario dumps them into a cold, grimy room of faded colours, high up among the rafters.


                 At least, during the day a dusty cracked skylight provides some light but the decrepit naked bulb will make night reading a strain. Luckily, this pair of travellers usually have other matters in mind for the evenings. As for a night-time trip to the murky bathroom, this will involve a hazardous journey down the groaning stairs and along a filthy corridor on the off chance that the shower is still functioning and actually supplies hot water..


              A far cry from the civilised facilities being offered to Sandy. Talking of whom, surely she has been advised of their arrival because, there she is, waiting like a ravenous vulture, by the reception desk. And so the inevitable meeting they’ve been dreading commences.


          “ So what’s news from friend Jim?” they ask.


            Silence, pokerfaced silence, accompanied by a  steady stoney stare directed at the two of them.


            “I presumed you’d been in touch,” she finally relented, “hatching plots among yourselves.”


             “Huh!??” was all the response they could manage.


            “I tell you there are games going on. Trickery. I get the feeling it’s all a set-up for the benefit of Lord Jim.” The irritation just oozes of out Sandy.


            “You’ve made no contact, then. Right, OK, tell us on what grounds are you making these charges?” reply the lads.


           “Well let’s start with this character behind the desk.” She cocked a thumb at the spritely clerk who was scowling at them. “From the first I suspected he was not all he seemed to be. Not a clerk, not even the manager I discovered, but the owner of this marvellous palace, lording it over the poor staff, “ she indicates with distaste.


           “What would you expect? This is Bolivia after all, “Geordie interrupts, “Back home we have capitalist pigs aplenty.”


              “Let me finish,” Sandy says. “ I enquired about Jim’s whereabouts and the manager turned icy cold. Since when I‘ve not had a civil word out of him. And worse, in fact, obstruction. Why should that be?”


                   Koff shrugs.


                 “ Then one fine day a man comes in with a lawyer in tow. Something about an unpaid debt and the lawyer pulls out a legal paper for the manager to sign. ‘Can you verify your identity?’ the lawyer demands and asks for his ID as proof. ‘So you really are Dr. Beto Villegas?’ he said.” Sandy places her fists on her hips for emphasis and nods in the direction of the reception desk. No reaction from Geordie but Koff is suddenly smirking.


                    “I presume that Sarah gave you all your copies of tha’ book? I’m sure she did. Do your homework! For example. Chapter 34 onwards. This here is the same doctor whose girlfriend Jim stole. The man he cuckolded and he makes sure that we’re put up at this guy’s hotel!”


                   “ So what’s your point?”


                   “That’s precisely my point. Chicanery. Jim wants to complicate our lives. He’s placing us in impossible positions.”


                    ‘Paranoia’ is the boys’ verdict and they leave her standing there, red-faced and almost in tears. In short, they cut her short and instead of arguing the point, they scoot off for the Perez to take up Jim’s personal recommendation from his latest email, nay, his drooling fervour for the shoeshiners’ regular evening football game and free-for-all (Jim really knows what would attract these lads).


                   If Sandy had been able to witness their enthusiasm at that spectacle, she would surely have given up in disgust at their amoral behaviour and left Bolivia forthwith, leaving the boys and Jim to their own devices.


               But events were shaping around her that would refocus her zeal. Sandy was about to be caught up in the tragedies of Black February and the shame she felt for Goni’s wretched governance would utterly eclipse any wayward pleasures of her British acquaintances.




Koff’s research on Don  Quixote.-


     The author Miguel de Cervantes led a tempestuous but trying life before getting round to writing his masterpiece. After being crippled in the naval battle of Lepanto (1571) it was his ill-fortune to be intercepted on his way home by Arab corsair pirates and held as a slave in Algiers for 5 long years until his ransom could be paid off. Then despite his early unsuccessful attempts at a literary career, Cervantes became bankrupt and was thrown into a Spanish debtors’ prison, which is where he conceived his notion for the novel about a gentleman whose theatrical obsession about the chivalric world of knights errant leads him into madness and ridicule.


   It was a this point, that Koff picked up the lead, since unsubstantiated, that Cervantes, before falling into bankruptcy, had been offered a senior post in an obscure corner of the Spanish colony of Upper Peru but somehow Cervantes fluffed his interview with the royal court officials. How fascinating, conjectured Koff. If Cervantes had managed to obtain that position in La Paz, he would have been saved from financial embarrassment and maybe Sancho Panza and the melancholy Knight of the Sad Countenance would never have ridden into immortality


         But Koff could never find corroboration for this yarn and forgot about the connection, until he uncovered another piece of the puzzle that would tie in directly with the krew’s quixotic quest. The story of the unfortunate hidalgo was published in two parts and the first proved a fantastic success. Quotes from the parody were on everybody’s lips, so that when a rather chastened Quixote rides into action for a second instalment he and all the other characters in the plot are aware of the personality of this known fantasist with his misplaced sincerity, and play practical jokes on him. Quixote is cured of his ludicrous quest for imaginary justice and dies a sane but sadder man


        Now, as the tale of the krew’s exploits developed without Jim clearly stamping his presence on the show, Koff grew increasingly concerned that Jim, after the phenomenal success of tha’ book back home in England might be heading for a similar fate, and the phrase ‘quixotic’ no longer seemed so alluring. For this state of affairs he blamed Sarah, though he should have placed more faith in Jim’s sound judgement.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Chapter 4

Apparently, Bo doesn't appreciate me divulging his unearthly provenance. So you will all just have to keep shtum about it, ok? Don't tell anyone else, especially not if they're wearing a black suit and reflective shades, and answer to the name Smith...If you've already been visited by a Smith, it's probably too late, but I guess you won't be reading this. Pity. Ok, here's the next Chapter!

Chapter 4: Sandy moves South

Nevertheless, based on experiences in the Alto, for the next stage of her investigations Sandy had decided to shift into what she called her professional research mode, having identified certain key problems in her current situation.

One, was that she was sending mails without friend Jim ever bothering to reply. She felt as if she were whistling into a vacuum. Not quite true, she admitted. But she could not quite fathom the logic behind their communication. There appeared to be no logical consequence to their interchange.

Furthermore, even if he was not playing games with her, she had the distinct impression of his deliberately avoiding her. She could not be certain whether he was in trouble or not as Koff and Geordie maintained. Good point: she had limited time before these fractious creeps entered the scene and muddied her freedom of movement. But what freedom? Like a stray piece on a chess-board Jim was manipulating her moves, indeed anticipating them. For example just as she has decided to continue her quest in the southern residential part of the city, a mail arrives drawing her attention to the possibility that Joanne could be located there.

“ My Mum’s latched on to a new boyfriend,” it read, “ a rich kid. His name is Alejandro - Ali for short. If you could you please go and check them out, I’d be most grateful.” So gracious that request, how could she possibly refuse? Jim then went on to hint that the not-so-young Ali (a swinging middle-aged kid, no less) was into shady deeds of some description. Having been second-guessed in her plans, Sandy reluctantly called on the address so kindly provided. Why didn’t he go and look for himself? He was truly beginning to fuck her head up.

Sandy traipsed all the way down to the residence in the zona sur (or ‘zona sewer’ as Jim has got to calling it, in reference to the chapter in tha’ book where he described the south zone - ‘where the dregs gather’). Indeed, the main pleasure Sandy derived from the tiresome journey was dipping into Jim’s book once again, which she had taken with her in the hope of identifying a couple of the major characters for future reference.

In the event, she got no joy from the visit. A dusky, insolent servant informed Sandy that “the Master and his Lady were visiting their country farm in the Chapare,” before shutting the door firmly in her face.

After this rebuff she chooses for her next initiative - the American School. The official label of this august educational establishment carries the name of the American Cooperative School. Sandy chuckled as she read the sign outside the gates of the school, and then shrugged her shoulders. Everyone should know that the Yankees don’t cooperate, they compete – that being their style.

She had organized this outing as a diversion purely for her personal pleasure. The school was organizing what they chose to term a ‘Book Fayre’. It was the staff’s opportunity to make a clear-out of excess stock, not just from the classrooms but also from the extensive library shelves. So word had spread among gringos of this a rare chance to plunder a source of books in English .

And here is where Sandy hits pay-dirt. As she’s piling the finds into her backpack, and though lamenting that all the volumes on offer dealt with affairs from the US homelands (what else could be of interest to the Yankee public?), she’s reasonably satisfied to have encountered a volume on landscape management through natural means such as fire control by Californian indigenous tribes – this was interesting – must have slipped by the net. When suddenly...... she notes among the bustle of gringos selecting their bedtime readings, that she has distinguished company of sorts.

Look who she has casually bumped into; for she recognizes the same group of advisors that she’d seen emerging on her first afternoon from the presidential Palace. This time the delegation is casually dressed - no suits, no ties and, moreover, no control over what they were blabbing. They have grown so accustomed to living at a privileged level in a foreign country that they forget at the American school everything they say can be understood and reported

Tuning in to their loose talk, Sandy gathers this bunch of government advisors are indeed celebrating Goni’s recent presidential election victory, no less. Then they turn in ribald tones to the coming demands of the World Bank. “That’ll be some showdown. Let’s see how the great Goni handles that one,” they guffaw. And meanwhile they are addressing the dapper plain clothes security escort who’s carefully shepherding them through the book ravening hordes. And they respectfully refer to him in their atrocious accented Spanish as a certain Captain Ventura. Though the gentleman’s dressed in civilian clothes, the thin moustache, the stiff military bearing – leaves no doubt - has to be him! Nestling tha’ blessed book, Sandy settles on the grassy lawn, where a game of baseball is in progress, turns to the relevant chapter and carefully matches the description to the infamous Waldo Ventura who so hounded Jim.

The unexpected discovery so engrosses Sandy that she fails to notice a rangy individual who has seated himself on the turf next to where she’s rifling through tha’ book - until he startles her by addressing her in a deep mid-Western drawl.

“That looks interesting. Did’ja pick it up at the New Year’s sale?”

Sarah had enough presence of mind not to hand the book over. “It’s about fire control in California,” she blurts out.

“Are you a journalist, ma’am?”

The question was odd, yet something about the man’s relaxed manner (maybe because he was engaged in sketching a butterfly on the bush opposite and not looking directly at her) puts her at ease and leads her to confide in him.

“I’m searching for a friend.”

A bad move she soon realises. Who exactly is this man? But he puts no more posers to poor, confused Sandy. Instead the Yankee Doodler fishes in his jacket for a pen and writes an extension number on his US Embassy calling card…

“My name is Chester. Call me whenever you have problems.” He assumes there will be.

Dammit, Jim. This is getting complicated.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Chapter 3

Apparently, Bo Nesto was not born, but deposited fully formed by Tralfamadorians on a doorstep in Nether Wallop Road, Grantham. More on that later, but here's Chapter 3!

Chapter 3: Up to the Alto

The next morning she makes a point of waking up early, so avoiding the attentions of Mario. She doesn’t need his assistance anymore. As she cuts through the Plaza Murillo, Sandy notes a large detachment of police outside the Congress building and wonders just who they’re protecting so early in the day. Merely taking up precautionary positions, she presumes.

Then she heads past the Cathedral along the pedestrian walkway that leads to the Perez from where a continuous stream of minibuses leave for the motorway up to the Alto. No question of waiting. Just hop into the first one to announce ‘Ceja’. But, beforehand, she samples some of the delicious herb tea on sale to early risers who have also foregone their breakfast. And then, her hunger satisfied, she settles in to observe the bustling city dissolve into irrelevance as the minibus gains height.

Most public transport takes the same route out and up, passing the imposing beer factory building where an inviting display of vast window space invites the attentions of any stone wielding mob, Sarah intuitively predicts. Thereafter, the motorway proper begins. She relaxes in appreciation of the marvellous view, in a way she has not managed to do on arrival. Jim was quite right. For him, the Alto represents home base. No wonder he’s lodged there. Sarah didn’t doubt they’d be meeting up there very soon…

In the confusion of changing buses at the Ceja, she suddenly feels faint from the sudden increase in altitude. But Sandy doesn’t resent the giddiness– two and a half miles high, as Jim had enjoyed pointing out. Sure, the Ceja itself, with its shoving, heaving crowds is a mess and the roads, a nonstop stream of heavy traffic always perilous to cross. Negotiating the Ceja was a trial to be endured. But once she hits the new roadways (a surprise these) where fully loaded trucks (clearly contraband), avoid customs control and transport police checks, whistling through at full speed, Sarah suddenly feels more at ease.

The briefest of inquiries reveals that the Plaza Redonda lies on the way to Villa Adela, definitely Jim territory (to which he had bestowed the tag of Villa Abdullah in a display of fake homage to its crazy priest and tutelary dervish, Ignatz). Unfortunately the Round Square is also an Ignatz precinct. One of his absurd churches, this time Swiss cheese style, complete with holes, whilst in the square itself a gruesome larger than life statue of a crucified Christ, also complete with its bloody holes, seeps gore onto a huddle of awaiting worshippers. And to cap it all, here is the priest Ignatz himself in person leading a prayer session to precede the meeting. And Sandy has to admit his hold on the assembled congregation appears absolute. But, confronted by this show of personal power, Sandy experiences nothing but antagonism and revulsion. So here’s the bastard who’d had Jim thrown in jail.

But Sarah has underestimated the power of the Alto masses. They grow restive with the tame praying. There are important matters to discuss that concern the neighbourhoods. Evidently limits to Ignatz’s exhortations and prayers exist. Amid booing and catcalls the priest is eventually forced to withdraw.

Before the meeting commences, Sarah is pulled aside by someone who introduces herself as Doña Matilda and mentions Jim by name. “He said to watch out for you, especially if any trouble brews. You’re the only gringa around. So I reckon you must be Jim’s pal, right enough.” Sarah has instinctively taken to the woman in rough working clothes, especially when she has described how they’d arrived at this zone of the Alto. “All of us moved in block when our mine at Bolsa Negra was sold by Goni’s company to a foreign company. Relocation they called it. A nice phrase for not paying fair wages. The Canadians didn’t approve of negotiating techniques. So they replaced us with non-union labour, and we moved here to survive as best we could.”

So Sandy has at least brought Jim indirectly into the conversation but Doña Matilda doesn’t exactly specify where he might be found. “Well, for a start, you could look over there by the shoe-shine boys. That´s his natural bunch”, but they’re all wearing knitted balaclavas that hide their features. So Sandy didn’t investigate further. Or maybe she should have noticed the one talking into a mobile phone. On closer inspection she might have seen blue eyes scrutinising her from within the knitted helmet.

But anyway, trouble was bubbling at the meeting and maybe that’s what distracted her. Too many complaints about Goni and his government’s measures were being aired and transmitted by Radio San Gabriel in their lunch-time news bulletin to the general public. So an order had come from the authorities higher up for the police to disperse the gathering and in the rush to escape from the sudden teargas assault, Sarah found herself dragged to Matilda’s home nearby where she was presented to a sister who, interestingly enough, made a living as a cholita wrestler (whatever that might entail) at a place called the Multifunctional at the Ceja. Sandy saw piles of kids but no obvious husband nor indeed any of the older generation. She was also shown a field of freshly sprouting potatoes (this being summer in the Southern hemisphere, she realized with a jolt) and an invitation to the coming harvest still some time away, but no sign of Jim, nor indeed a single reference to her friend until she asked directly. In the Alto it obviously paid to be direct.

Yes, Jim had been their lodger for a while, though not now.

“Who knows what he’s up to these days?”

Damn it. Yet she couldn’t blame Jim for not showing up in person, could she?