fatman Find the clues!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

...But Why Are You Here?

Khabarovsk - Komsomolsk

The hydrofoil gently cruises into the river dock of Komsomolsk-na-Amur, five hours after its departure. Our journey across the Amur river was fairly pleasant on the whole. Except that we had to get out of bed at six in the morning to get to the sodding hydrofoil because the President of Belarus was coming over to Khabarovsk and so getting from point A (our comfortable, warm beds) to point B (the hydrofoil at Khabarovsk pier) was done at a frantic pace. And as we finally lurched into the seats of the hydrofoil, exhausted, just about to nod off again....we get told that we were in the wrong goddamn seats. We felt like fools. The cinema patrons from Hell who kick up a fuss about allocated seating ten minutes into the film. And on the boat there was a dive bomb squad of mosquitoes. The constant noise of whap, whap as passengers crushed the mozzies to death on their foreheads was equally as annoying as the blood-sucking insects themselves. So...a relatively pleasant journey. More or less.

After a slight confusion caused by people who forgot to get off the hydrofoil at their destination (again, our fault entirely. We sat in our seats as if in a stupor going, 'Is this it? Is this our stop?') we grab our luggage and fight our way off the hydrofoil. We are greeted by Mihail, a tall, good-natured Russian. His hands are gigantic, like those foam hands you get at sporting arenas. With these hands he begins to shake mine and asks, 'Are you Chris?'
'No, no, no. He's the guy behind me fending off the hoard of people trying to get on the hydrofoil.'
'Ah. Good, good.' He waits for the other two to climb over the mob. When they eventually reach us, breathless, Mihail smiles and says, 'Welcome to Komsomolsk!'
After a slight pause he says, '...er...why are you here?'

Komsomolsk-na-Amur was built over swamp lands in 1932. Some generals over in Moscow were looking for a place in the East to build a training ground for the Young Communist League and pointed on a map saying, 'There. That'll do.' Soon steelworks, an aircraft factory and shipbuilding yards were built and Yury Gagarian came into town to officially open things by cutting ribbons and smashing bottles of champagne over stuff. His statues are everywhere, along with another astronaut who was born in the area.

Mihail is an outdoorsy type. Healthy in the way that gym teachers are healthy. His travel company is geared towards other healthy, outdoorsy people who would like nothing better than to spend a week in the mountains with a compass, some string and a spear. People who get in tune with nature. People who have killed many a four-legged beast and swap stories about fishing while eating reindeer heart over an open fire. To him, we are a bit of a mystery.

He had the foresight of organising a tour of Komsomolsk with a translator, Vera, and her assistant/pupil, Natalya. To them, we were an oddity too. 'Most Australians we have met,' begins Natalya, not quite sure how to proceed, 'are...how you say? Stronger. Better fit than you.' I look at my travelling companions. They are the kind of guys who derive an unnatural amount of pleasure reading maps. Nik has a fear of uncut fruit. Not the mountaineering folk that my country produces. Still, we are here because something drew us here. What ever the heck that was.

Born to Run (very slowly),

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Night Train To Khabarovsk

Vladivostok - Khabarovsk

At the start of the trip we were talking about spending the last day in Vladivostok basking in the radiation emanating from the nuclear submarines that may be based here, but on the actual day we decided to go to the Poshta (Post Office) to use the internet facilities there. The rest of the day was spent buying groceries (accomplished by a lot of finger jabbing in the general direction of the things we wanted and nodding or shaking of heads according to what the unfortunate shopkeeper may grab). Nik also had the foresight of bringing a sack of koala bear key rings which he distributed to our host, a babushka with very little grasp of English (...and yet about a grudzillion times better than our grasp of Russian).

We boarded our train, the "Okean" (Ocean) bound for Khabarovsk. In the third class carriage there are four bunk beds. After we occupy three of the bunks we say to each other, 'Let's hope that no one else enters our carriage for the rest of our (10 hour) trip. We need to seriously practise the lingo.' Some deity for pathetic travellers must have been listening for no one else entered our carriage.

The "Okean" sets off. Adios Vladivostok. The train rumbles away from the station with a shudder and we head towards to parts unknown. The view out the window is like the view out of most trains. We see graffitis on walls, people going home from work and dogs running on the other side of the tracks. A man carries a sack of potatoes, maybe for a family feed. Five seconds of a football match. It's like an old family movie taken by a Super 8 camera, shaking slightly, telling only a snippet of a story that doesn't end. Russia is a lot greener than I expect it to be.

Afternoon becomes night. The train stops at a station. Chris, Nik and I are going through our 'Teach Yourself Beginner's Russian' book ("Excuse me. Could you ask a hotel porter to come to our room? There seems to be a dead contortionist in the bath tub.") when the door to our carriage opens suddenly. A young man stands on the other side. Peering once again at his ticket he decides that this indeed is his carriage. He asks us something in Russian. We nod politely. A tired smile crosses his face. Great. None of you gap-toothed morons can speak my language, he's thinking.

Minutes pass. Some form of conversation eventually takes place. Pointing, flipping through our phrase books, grimaces signalling no, nods signalling yes and stick figure drawings establish that Raman is an army man. I mime a rifle shooting an invisible target. He nods. Going to Khabarovsk to...teach? Be taught? Something to do with teachers. Makes sense seeing that the city was founded in 1858 as a military observation post. 'Ya iz Afstrali-i.' we say repeatedly, 'I from Australia.' He nods. Got it. Australian, not Yank. He pulls out a 2 litre plastic bottle of beer and some cards. 'Cards?' he asks.

The game is confusing the hell out of us. Who's go is it? Mine? I put down this card. Raman shakes his head in disapproval. Are you not listening to my instructions? Not that card! This one! Did you want to lose foreign people? We smile. A couple of Raman's army mates duck their head in the door. 'Aloha Raman!' they say in Russian, 'Who are your new friends?'
'They are Australian imbeciles who can't play a simple flippin' card game.' says Raman, or words to that effect.

The carriage now has six people. There is a lot more pointing. Cards thrown angrily at the table. 'How do I lose three games in a frickin' row?' I roar. The others laugh. It's fun to watch people lose! More army guys poke their heads through the door. What's happening here?

A dozen army guys. The corridor is filled with 'em now. Introductions are quickly made. Names are forgotten in succession. Serious drinking has started. Funboy says 'You guys came to Vladivostok from Japan huh? I an uncle in Japan.' His English rocks.
'I'm half Japanese.' I say to them, 'Karate!' I make chopping motions.
'Oooohhhh.' say a half dozen army guys. We're so scared. Kid Carnival laughs and smiles a lot. He takes pictures of the dumb Aussies with Funboy's camera that has an Angelina Jolie wallpaper.

By the time I get back to the carriage with a bottle of vodka the guys are winding down. I show them the drink. Raman groans. 'We've figured out exactly what these guys are.' says Chris, 'They're Russian SAS. They are going to Khabarovsk for officer training.'
'Cool.' I admit as I pour the vodkas for Funboy, Moose (a red-faced guy about 8 ft tall), Goldie (a little guy with a mouthful of gold teeth) and Kid Carnival . Raman politely declines.
'Your friends are thinkers,' says Funboy several drinks later, 'Logic. They logic. But you. You chatty one. Never shut up.'
'I don't even understand the language.'
'This what makes it so funny.' says Funboy. Nik produces his bag of key chains. 'Who wants a koala?'

We crashed out soon after.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Bar Americano


We wake up in a different city, a different Vladivostok. The Lord of the East seems to be in a better mood today and has allowed us to travel the streets without inflicting upon us weather that resembles the inside of a washing machine on the 'warm' cycle. The streets are now full of people doing Vladivostoky things. There is a shell game going on in one of the main streets where tourists (a.k.a. suckers) are encouraged to pit their eyes against the nimble hands of the busker. Taxi drivers sit in their cars doing the crossword, waiting for their fares. Naval personnel wander around in groups and we even come across some Russian Mormons.

Vladivostok is rebuilding itself. Although the gates of the city had been shut off from the outside world until '92, today it is a hive of activity. Workmen are patching up wounded buildings with bricks. Cheap Korean workers are mending cracked footpaths. But everyone seems so intent on fixing everything today that some building have been half-finished while the builders, carpenters and road workers move on to patch up another part of the city.

Observations on Russian people thus far (WARNING: Cliches ahead!):

The guys in Vladivostok wander around wearing little in the way of clothing. They are either in shorts and t-shirts (it is a hot day) or wearing Adidas tracksuits. Some walk around shirtless. Though at home I'd think the shirtless guys would be just showing off here I think they do it because it is hot. I could be wrong. Most of the men here have short haircuts and are clean-shaven reminding me, with a three-day stubble, that I am an outsider (if i should happen to forget). They all look like they play sports; soccer (what the rest of the world calls 'football') or outdoor basketball. Strangely enough, I counted about eight of them with hand injuries. Nik counted about four.

Russian women are tall and beautiful. But beautiful like...like...someone like Asia Argento is beautiful. A bit distant perhaps. They don't make eye contact on the whole, and those that do look at you seem to see your reflection in a mirror, rather than the you who is wolfing down hot dogs and trying to get a glimpse of their cleavage. They look like they don't wear any underwear. Probably have pool parties where the likes of us are never invited. Not too dissimilar to the chicks on Chapel street, but more Eastern European.

We bump into Konrad the German Chaos physicist again. 'You were not there at Bar Americano last night?' he says. It sounds like a question but it isn't. No, we say, we were tired and damp and besides we didn't know how to get there. 'I shall draw you a map.' says he.
Did he have a fun night without us last night?
'Oh, yes. It was a wonderful evening. I was lost in trying to get to this place and I asked people if they knew where Bar Americano was. After I asked the third one he offered to guide me there as it was diffklut to get there. We found this place and he bought me drinks all night long. Then he introduchted me to some beautiful Russian ladies.'

Holy Crap! This Bar Americano is sounding pretty damn good. They buy you drinks and help you get laid!

So that night we trek off to find Bar Americano. Since we're staying with a little Russian old lady we decide to leave a little earlier than usual so we can return at a decent time (ie- before five in the morning). We follow Konrad's hand drawn map.

...and get lost.

...and get lost.

...and get lost.

By the time we find the place the land is getting dark. The bar is situated inside a block of flats. We know this because, phrasebooks out, we finally decided to ask someone. 'Does thou know Bar Americano?' I ask in my heavily accented Russian to a guy standing outside of his apartment block talking to a lady. 'Da,' he says, 'Over there.'

Bar Americano turns out to be a pool hall. Despite its name, there are no Americans there. No one speaks English. And Alex's brother is not there either. We drink some beer and head home.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

City of Rain


Outside the porthole is Vladivostok, birthplace of Yul Brynnar. It is surrounded by a curtain of grey. 'Looks like rain,' says Chris simply, 'or maybe dew.'
'Chris. You are not blaming the Jews for rain are you?' I ask angrily.
'No no no. Not that sort of...' he stammers.
'He's toying with you. Ignore him.' advises Nik. Chris looks at me. 'Mm.' he says. His mouth retracts into his beard. He does this when he doesn't want to talk to me anymore.

We step outside, past the dodgy secondhand "car dealers" with Toyota car doors under their arms and a handful of Japanese tourists (will they be the first people on Mars? Time will tell) and into the rainy embrace of Siberia. After going down the rickety stairs (every third one loose), Nik, Chris, Konrad the 26-year old German Chaos theorist and I make our way to Immigration.

(45 minutes of waiting later)

The Custom guys have a look at my passport. 'Ah. Афстралиа (Australia)!' they say. 'Da.' I reply.
'Australia good. America not good.' they nod me through the gates.

We exchange email details with Konrad and bid him goodbye. A van is waiting for us- part of the arrangement with the travel company that organised our visas and accomodation. We are whisked away to the apartment where we will stay for the next two and a half days.

Rain has taken the city hostage. Although it goes way beyond that. It has shot several of the hostages and thrown the bodies from atop a high tower. It is demanding a helicopter with a full tank of fuel NOW before it starts cutting ears off the remaining hostages who are cowering on the floor in their own feces.

The streets are rivers. The mall is a lake. The sky is a broken sprinkler system without an off button. Chris, Nik and I are drenched minutes in to our surveying of the city of Vladivostok. There is rain and rain and rain and rain. A few Russians pass by. 'Does everyone else seem less wet than we are?' I ask. It looks like we have taken a dip inside a hotel pool with our clothes on.

We bump into Konrad again. 'Hello my friends,' he says, 'what a day yes?'
'It's an awful (untranslatable) day here in f(thunder rolls across the skies)ing Vladivostok! Why the (censored) are we even here in this (car passes by, splashing us more)-forsaken, (bleep)-licking place?'
'I'm sorry? What was that?'
'He's just annoyed because we haven't had any food yet.' explains Nik, 'Actually we are getting a little peckish ourselves.'
'Try this food place down this oolitza(street). I had some nice chicken just then. Kentuky-style!'

We agree to follow Konrad's advice. Before we part ways again we invite him to a bar where we were supposed to go later that evening. Bar Americano. Nik's Russian friend, Alex, happens to have a brother who runs this place a few blocks from where we were getting drenched.

After being unable to find the "chicken place" recommended by Konrad and getting further soaked in the process we barge through a random door. It is a Russian restaurant. With a Russian menu. Water-logged phrasebooks out on the counter, we try to decypher the menu before us. Soup and french fries. That's all that makes sense to us. That may be all we will eat for the entire trip. Unless....

A man orders a big plate of roast chicken. 'What's that?' I ask in Russian (Probably more like 'Wat?' followed by vigorous pointing). The counter lady tells me. 'For me. One.' I say. The others agree that chicken will be fine. I try to pay the woman. She stares at the note and says something in Russian. I blink. She waves the note and says something in Russian again. Rain drips from my nose. 'Huh?' I ask, in English.

Minutes later her son, about 12-years of age, is brought to the counter. The Counter lady shoots off a barrage of Russian words at the kid and hands him a note. The kid looks at her, looks at the note, looks outside and his face unfolds into the univeral expression of: You want me to go outside in THAT? To exchange this 1,000 rouble note that this idiot foreigner has handed over and expects change for? He crosses himself and bolts outside, into the rain.

'We are not going to be popular here.' I muse as a steaming plate of chicken is handed to me by an annoyed Russian counter lady.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

My Hovercraft is Full of Eels

Ferry to Vladivostok

Damage report: Chris sustained an unknown head injury from last night and bled for some time, Nik woke up saying, 'Where am I? Where are my glasses?' and the toilet roll in our bathroom was drenched (the result of Nik deciding to have a shower while quite clearly intoxicated). Apart from that all is good.

We spend most of the day in our cabin, away from the gold toothed-mafiosi with toothpicks jutting from their mouths. We assume that the tracksuit wearing guys are Russian mob. We could be wrong of course but they all seem so dodgy. The ferry is so laden with cars without number plates that its not funny. Even the swimming pool has cars in it! The secondhand vehicles cling to every surface of the ship, like metallic leaches. Even inside the ferry we can't seem to get soft drinks from the bar without coming across cardboard boxes with Subaru parts, just sitting in the middle of the walkway.

In our cabin I try to study up some last minute Russian before we dock into Vladivostok tomorrow. There is a black-and-white TV here in the cabin that has been on pretty much constantly since yesterday. There's a Russian police drama (we presume), a game show ('Who wants to win a Thousand Roubles?') and an onslaught of news reports about a mob boss getting gunned down by Kalashnikovs, planes falling out of the sky, a famous church burning down in Moscow and in Missouri tornados are tearing apart the landscape.

I hadn't done as much Russian revision as I'd like to have done. In class, our Russian teacher, Barbra, would sometimes play a video tape shot in the 70's. It was supposed to help us with our vocabulary. So, the whole class would be listening intently to these overacting Russians from thirty years ago, and suddenly they'd burst out laughing. The whole class. I'd look around confused. An hour later I'd still be trying to figure out what was so funny.

Today I am faced with the same problem. As I pour over the books and the notes from months ago I'm trying to recall key words and phrases. Nothing seems to be sticking in my mind. I'll just have to hope that the minimal phrases I know ('Hello'- two different ways; formal and informal, 'Your ferret looks dangerous' and 'How old is your daughter?') and pointing will suffice for the next month.


Friday, August 25, 2006

One if by Land, Two if by Sea

Takaoka - Fushiki - Ferry to Vladivostok

The reason most Japanese people have never, nor ever will, go to Fushiki is that there's nothing much there. The only people who'd ever trek there would be fishermen or people going on the ferry to Vladivostok. We were in the latter category.

Though the ferry was due to depart at around four thirty we had to go through customs at around two. I confess that I'd imagined the customs agent to be a bald guy with a scar running down the left side of his face- the result of a knife fight in Bosnia where he was the victor. He'd have grey eyes that would be sharp as guillotine blades and that could reach into the depths of your soul. 'So,' he'd say as he stubbed out a Vietnamese cigarette, 'do you have anysink to declare?'

We get to the docks. There's a long fence where a half dozen men sell an assortment of semi-legal goods: car stereos, bikes, tires, etc. out from the back of their vans, straight off the boat. I amble over to the man at the gate that separated the outside world and our boat. 'Customs?' I inquire. He looks at his watch. 'You're a bit early. Just head over to the ferry where you can drop off your belongings.' That was about it. A cursory look at our passports and a nod towards where we were supposed to go.

There were a lot of cars between where the guard at the gate was and the ferry. A whole car park full of secondhand Japanese cars that were getting shipped off to Siberia. Due to the law in Japan where ever car on the road could not be older than five years there were a lot of surplus vehicles that had to be sold or destroyed. The Russians buy them for a fraction of the cost and make a bucket load of roubles back home.

Chris, Nik and I lug our stuff up the steps of the ferry. There is a woman behind the counter at the top of the stairs who is collecting ferry tickets and passports. We pass them over to her. 'Minutichko,' she says, 'wait here for wan minute please.' Moment later someone who may be the Captain of the ferry (though in all likelihood not the captain. He dressed like one and had the presence of one. Actually, he reminded me of my high school history teacher, Mr. Mitchell, who would hit me in the back of the head any time I dozed off in class) comes by and says, 'You may take your luggage and wait in your room for the customs to start. This will be in an hour?'

We drop our stuff off in our room, hang about for a bit, get bored and go wandering around the decks. Chris, ever the pessimist, wants to know where the lifeboats are. Nik says, 'I wonder what the Russian phrase for "Everyone abandon ship!"?' We observe a few Russian guys throw some coins overboard and into the sea. About ten minutes later another guy does the same. Chris: 'It must be some kind of custom. To appease the god/s of the sea for a safe passage." I take out my wallet and grab a handful of notes, about $400 worth. Nik: 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
Me: 'Well, if a few coins are gonna make a boat trip good then a few hundred dollars would make it GREAT!'
Nik: 'Don't be so foolish.'
Me: 'It's the best idea I've had all trip!' Chris and Nik wrestle me to the ground and take my wallet from me.

Later that night...

We are joined at dinner by a German fellow by the name of Konrad. 'You guys speak English?' he asks. It turns out that Konrad is the sole German onboard and had come over to Japan on a conference. He decided to go back to Switzerland (where he works) via Russia and Germany. 'I am going to see my father before I go back to work. He is in Leipzig. You have heard of this place?'
'Yeah I know Leipzig.' I reply, 'Didn't Leibnitz live there for some time?'
'Yes? Also J.S.Bach.'

Konrad was working on trying to predict behavioral patterns of tourists based on ticket prices, weather, travel books and assorted other factors. Chris: 'That seems very complex.Even Edward Lorenz (an early Chaos Theory pioneer) had problems with simulated weather prediction back in the 60's. To add a human equation into the mix is going to make it infinitely harder to predict.'

Konrad: 'Yes? (The way Konrad says 'yes' is with an upward infliction at the end of the word, making it sound like a question rather than a simple statement) It is much more complex to try to predict what a hundred motorists will do than what will happen to the weather.'

Me: 'Hey Konrad. You know that the Russian word for a German person is "Nimitz" right?'

Konrad: 'Yes?'

Me: 'Do you know that "Nimitz" means idiot?'

Konrad: 'Is this true?'

Me: 'Absolutely.'

We all head off to a bar in the ferry where we drink several bottles of Sapporo longnecks. We make a toast to our new friend Konrad. 'Let's grab some vodka!' I yell suddenly.
'I don't know if we should....' someone begins.
'Nonsense! It's the best idea I've had all trip!'

Full of cunning plans,

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Caveat Emptor

Roppongi - Takaoka

The sun is a merciless bully with a voice of fire that attacks our eyelids ceaselessly. There is colour, too much colour, that is assaulting our vision so we spend most of the morning groaning and keeping our eyes closed. We are having breakfast at our hotel in Roppongi. Shoving food around really. Not eating anything. Just sitting there sipping an assortment of juices. Literally the last people in the breakfast area. The two remaining waiters hang about, waiting for us to leave.

'Man what a night.' mumbles Nick. Chris and I groan. 'Did we really get that drunk last night? Did I really buy that leather jacket?'
'Yes Nick, you bought that leather biker jacket.' confirms Chris.

Average temperature in Japan: About 31 degrees Celsius.

'Wow. That was stupid of me.' Pause. 'Still, for only $50 bucks Australian, that ain't too bad is it?'
Chris and I look at each other.
'You might want to check your maths there chief.' I warn.
Chris: 'Mm. I think you've got the yen-to-dollar ratio a bit mixed up.'

Realisation hits Nick like surface-to-air missiles.

'Five HUNDRED dollars?!? I've bought a LEATHER JACKET in this HEAT for FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS? Why the HELL didn't anyone try to stop me?!?'
Chris: 'Well, by the time any one of us realised what had happened you'd already bought it. Besides, you really wanted that jacket.'
Me: (laughs)
Nick: 'This isn't funny!'
Me: (laughs harder)

For the rest of the day, all the way to Takaoka (about three hours away from Tokyo), we'd think about the jacket and laugh and laugh and laugh.

I don't not use double negatives,

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ice To See You

Roppongi (continued)

Gaijin Girl would later confess to me that meeting me was 'the most important experience in my (Gaijin Girl's) life thus far. Seeing you for the first time I was stunned...speechless even. You were like a God who had decided to visit us mortals just to see what it was like. The muscles rippling under your shirt was like a couple of weasels fighting over a tuna sandwich. And your commanding voice...so powerful. Like every word that came out of your mouth was carved out of lightning.'

(Gaijin Girl: That is so not the sort of thing I'd say.
Me: Just go with it.
Gaijin Girl: How do you carve words out of lightning anyway?
Me: Shut up.)

So after about a year of corresponding with Gaijin Girl I'd finally caught up with her, in Japan of all places. She was sitting by the front of some bar when Chris, Nick and myself staggered through the door with Hannah, Ceigen's daughter, who was making sure we didn't stumble into anything sharp. 'We been having shots of sake.' I explain drunkenly, 'Thass why the world's wobbly!'

Gaijin Girl and I sit and chat for a while about Japan. I berate her for not speaking Japanese. Talk moves on to my cousin Josh, the microbiologist, who Gaijin Girl knows coincidentally enough and then, inevitably, to the Jacobites.
'Do you know much about the Jacobites?' she asked.
'Oh sure.' I say offhandedly. I turn to Chris. 'Yo Encyclopedia Brown,' I belch, 'Jacobites.'
'They're the guys who supported James VII after he fled England in around....1689 because he supported the Roman Catholic Church. "Jacob" being an alternate name for James, hence Jacobites. It was when William of Orange came from....etc, etc.'

The Absolut Ice Bar: Gaijin Girl, knowing that I'm a sucker for gimmicky things, had booked us into the Absolut Ice Bar, Tokyo. At about $40 a head to get in, the place is like Superman's Fortress of Solitude that serves vodka based cocktails. Made entirely out of ice, customers can only be inside for 45 minutes until they freeze to death so we went straight to the bar and started drinking. 'So...this is what it's like to be an Eskimo.' I muse.
'We're drinking purple things. Did you want one?'
'Does the Pope piss his name in the snow?'
We drink 'em quickly.

Mugambo's: Or Mambo's. Yojimbo's. Or something like that. This was the next bar that Gaijin Girl took us to. Hannah, who had said that she was only going to have one drink, is probably on her eighth by now. After wandering down a few wrong alleyways we find this place. The barmen are Irish and the customers seem to all be English. We order drinks. I look up. 'Whassa?' I ask, pointing upwards. The whole ceiling is covered with polaroids of various grinning customers. 'That's what you get when you buy the entire bar a round of shots.'

I like the idea.

'Nick, Chris. Give me 20,000 yen (about two hundred dollars).'
'W..why?' asks Nick.
'Jes...Jest do it. I'll 'xplain later.'
'This is a stupid idea.' says Gaijin Girl, 'How am I going to afford a taxi home?'
'It's the best idea I've had all night. We'll be immortals Gaijin Girl. Immortals! Our faces will be up there with the thousands of other people up there that no one cares about.'

High Riders: After being escorted out of the bar, without having bought everyone in the bar a drink, I stagger outside followed by the others. Walking down the street we come across a...Biker Bar? No, not a biker bar. A bike memorabilia store that sells alcohol. How bizarre. The owner is having a chat with a long haired customer at the front. Seconds later we are seated at the bar, having a look around the place. There's bike helmets, leather jackets, imitation WWI fighter pilot goggles and assorted other stuff. Ted, the owner, and his wife set this place up because of their love of all this stuff. Adding alcohol in the mix was a touch of genius. We stay, we drink, Gaijin Girl goes on a bike ride through Tokyo with Ted, and we meet the long haired dude at the front, Ko, who happens to live in Berlin. We make plans to see him when we get to Germany.


Home James!

My Dinner With Ceigen


We walked into the downstairs restaurant, a place filled with smokey, chickeny aromas, where the man cooking the deceased poultry looks up and yells 'Irashai!'. The word for 'welcome' in Japanese is 'Irashaimase' or 'Irashai', which is a shortened form. The way the chicken-cooking man says it though, is the way you would hurl a boulder at enemies. It is a weapon, an attacking thing. An escaped lion that rrrrumbles the 'r' and launches the rest of the word at its prey. The guy cooking food next to him, not to be outdone by his colleague, rivals now, lets out an 'Irashai!' of his own, a runaway locomotive. An uppercut from a giant. The third guy has his work cut out for him and throws an 'Irashai!' of equal volume and intensity. 'I shall leap over the counter and shove yakitori skewers down your throats!' is what I hear. We back off a pace, startled. I can taste adrenalin in the back of my throat. 'Table for five?' asks the chicken-cooking man. I like this place already.

Ceigen is an old buddy of my mothers and every time I come to Japan I try to look him up. When I told him that my friends and I were dropping past to Nippon on the way to Vladivostok he insisted in taking us out to dinner. He also generously got us a hotel room since we didn't know where we were going to stay in Tokyo.

'Soooo,' says Ceigen (not his real name. I've modified it slightly to protect his identity) ',Russia huh? Going on the Trans-Siberian express.'
'Yes Ceigen. It should be a blast.'
'Make sure you don't come back as Com-u-nists.' Ceigen spent several years in Poland. Several times throughout the night he asks us to be wary of Communism and Communists.

His wife is on the other side of me and pours me a shot of sake, cold. 'Skoal!' I shout and down the sake in one. 'Tra-di-tionally in Japan we sip on our sake.' informs Ceigen.
His wife pours me another shot of sake. This one is warm. 'Drink, drink.' she insists.

Yakitori chicken skewer after chicken skewer, shot after shot of sake, we progress through the meal. Hanna, Ceigen's daughter, is on the way to join us. Should be here in about twenty minutes, they say. The chicken-cooking man produces something else from atop the hot coals. It looks like mushrooms on skewers. 'Eat, eat.' insists Ceigen's wife. Chris, Nick and I start eating. She then informs me of what it is in Japanese.

'We're eating mushrooms called 'Matsutake'.' I tell them, 'How does it taste.'
'Pretty good.' says Nick.
'Nice.' says Chris.
'The three thin slices that we're eating now; they retail for about a hundred Australian dollars.'

They both stop eating mid-chew. If they're anything like me they are probably thinking the same thing: If I can spit out what's left in my mouth and sell it will I be able to at least get $50? The moment passes. We gulp down the mushrooms. 'Such a silly thing is it not?' asks Ceigen's wife, 'Ten thousand yen for some mushrooms. But it's what we Japanese do to spoil ourselves. More sake?'

You must be 'shrooming,

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Leave Melbourne in a Rearview Mirror

Melbourne Airport, Australia - Narita, Japan

I slept the sleep of condemned men awaiting execution the night before. There is a sharp pain that occurs every time I turn my head. It feels like evil chiropractors snuck into the room at night and gave me a crick in the neck, forcing me to observe the world at an unusual angle. This is not the way I want to start my journey- on two hours' sleep and with possible spinal injury. I'm grumpy and I must snap out of it.

On the way to Melbourne airport I try to think of a good beginning for our saga but I can't think of anything worthwhile. During the check-in at the airport I think about somehow tying in the story of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, the real life guy who had been stuck at the Charles De Gaulle airport in France who inspired the abnormally crappy Tom Hanks flick The Terminal. I try to question the notion of 'destination' and how we are all a little bit like Nasseri the Terminal Man, stuck in a strange limbo where there is no end, trapped and yet free at the same time. I think these things but the words don't come.

I'm on the flight now, the QF 179 to Narita, after a minimum amount of fuss. I try a different approach. I think about the person who starts the journey and the person who arrives on the other side. They are essentially the same person but much has changed. This makes me think of the Transporter in Star Trek. In Star Trek teleportation is made possible by a computer scanning a persons body completely and then replicating the data on an alien planet. So far so good. Unless you're wearing a red jumpsuit or something horrific happens to you mid-teleport and mixes your DNA with that of an insect, making you a fly/human hybrid, all is peachy. Not so, according to a discussion I was having with first year philosophy students at uni months before I was turfed out of the tertiary education for malicious ignorance. See, the problem is that the original copy of you left on the Enterprise is destroyed in the process of teleportation. The question then becomes; Who arrives on the other side? Is it you, or a clone of you? What happens to the soul? I talk about it to Chris, who is sitting next to me on the plane adjusting his headset. 'Don't forget to mention Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principal.' he says casually.

About my travelling companions:
Now seems to be a good a time as any to paint a picture of my travelling companions. The guys I'm going to spend the next two months with. Chris, I believe, is the reincarnation of a wise old guru. Before wikipedia, when people wanted hard questions answered, they'd have to travel across dangerous terrain and climb up mountains where guys like Chris would be sitting in a deck chair and enjoying the high altitudes. They'd then ask their questions and the Chris-like gurus would ponder for a moment, scratch their beards and answer the question posed in about a minute flat. The guy would then bow politely, leave his meagre offerings of cola, snail meat and gold bars and head back to civilisation, and possibly bury the bodies of his companions who perished along the way. Nick, on the other hand is a bit more like me. He's a hospitality guy who spends too many nights drinking and too many mornings regretting the previous nights activities. Physically he's a bespectacled gent with a face like a painted egg. They are also both allergic to fish.

Which would make me the dumb, lovable one,

Monday, August 21, 2006

Buy the Ticket Amigo!

'You're pretty sure we're going to Yuma.' 'And you're pretty sure we're not,' Scallen said. 'Well, I've got two train passes and a shotgun that says we are. What've you got?'

Three-Ten to Yuma, Elmore Leonard

Very few people become Mexican wrestlers. As a youngster I thought that it seemed almost a perfect job that married my childhood desire of hurting other people, mainly by kicking them in the balls, and swearing in Spanish. But as the years went by we grow older and the dreams of wearing colourful latex masks and ripping out the tongues of our opponents slowly diminishes. The death knell for this particular dream was when Mr.Hendry, the school guidance counsellor, marched me forcibly out of the office after I asked him what the requirements were for becoming one of these behemoths of the ring. He said mean things to me and shook his head a lot and said 'May God have mercy on your miserable black soul.' before slamming the door in my face.

And so we become things we never intended to be. We become architects and photocopier repairmen and bank tellers, living from one laundry day to the next. Maybe that's a good thing. The world can only sustain so many Mexican wrestlers who enjoy hurting each other and swearing in Spanish.

But if best selling motivational books and Robin Williams movies have taught us one thing, it's that you have to grab each day with your bare hands and tackle it to the ground, like you would a kid brother. There's affection, sure, but you have to be a bit brutal with it as well. Give it Chinese burns. Heap on the wet willies. Kick it while its down until you realise that you may have broken a few of its ribs and it might have internal bleeding. Because one day our destinies are going to be 8-foot tall and wanting revenge for all the times you were mean to it. Its going to be waiting around the dumpster one night with some of its mates, who have been drinking a bit too much and angry at something, and its going to beat the snot out of you when you least expect it.

I've been hell bent on going on the Trans-Siberian for a while now. I've been saving like crazy and not going out and trying to learn another sodding language on Saturday effing morning so...I can catch a train on another side of the planet. Now, the money could probably been better spent on helping rebuilding a poor African village but I want to experience Russia before it gets engulfed by tourists. After the journey is over, once I've regaled everyone with anecdotes involving guys named 'Dimitri', I'll probably go back to my usual self-complaining about pizza toppings and watching late night re-runs of Tommy Lee Goes To College. But for the next two months the Mexican wrestler that I've kept within is out to play.

Smell ya later,

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Return of the Flip

About a month ago...

This is what happened when Flip came to town and why everything tasted like wasabi for a while. This is the sort of thing that happens when I go drinking with Flip. Not necessarily with my taste buds being set firmly on 'wasabi' mode but you understand. Or maybe you don't...

I hadn't seen Flip in about a year. Before then he was a regular visitor to our house back when Micah was living with us since they both worked at the Blue Train cafe, which was like a commune for deadbeat hip hop freaks. You could always tell when Flip would visit since he was one of the loudest, clumsiest drunks with the most vulgar foot odours I have smelled in living memory. It is this foul, noxious stench that would seep from his feet and into the walls and carpet of the house for days. Tear inducing. Like exhuming a corpse this smell. Like having your sense of smell be attacked by sinister triangles, their angles all sharp and pointy. Our other housemate Darren hated him.

But it's hard to dislike Flip. For all his faults, which were plentiful, he's a pretty decent guy with a strict code of morals and ethics. He was just him. People would parody his mannerisms and the way he talked all the time because it's impossible to talk about Flip without using a liberal dose of Flipisms. To be honest I think Flip would even parody Flip, making a hyper-real version of himself.

Flip had been in Byron Bay (located in the north coast of New South Wales. A haven for sunburned surfers, hippies and others who want to relax and take soft drugs and have sex with kids who have just graduated from high school) for a year where he had worked as the head chef/ bar guy in one of the biggest bar/restaurants there. It was a fun yet unusual time there for him. He returned with a Canadian girlfriend, not much possessions (what he had accumulated over the year had been destroyed by the owner who was irate at his "sudden" departure) and a 32-year old brother that he never knew he had (long, long story).

He dropped into the Amethyst bar tanned and with a few extra tattoos on his arms. I was just finishing the rest of my beer thinking that it would be a perfect time for me to leave when I saw him walk in with a broad grin and all his worldly possessions (two backpacks and a skateboard). I remember thinking this was not going to bode well.

Beers. Shots of Jagermeister. Beers. Shots of Tuaca- an Italian caramel liqueur. Beers. Vodka. Cigars. Off to St. Jeromes. A long neck of Cooper's. Shots of Jagermeister with the staff. Closing time at St.Jeromes. Stagger stagger.

By the time we had reached e:55 and ordered our drinks it was quite clear that we were well and truly pissed. Why else would we have agreed to a wasabi pea eating competition? And why is English Paul here? Did I invite him? Did he just turn up out of thin air?

Unlike most other nights with Flip where we are manhandled by bar staff out of the premises or have to go for a light jog to avoid being savagely beaten by a rugby team visiting from country Victoria (Flip's tendency to mouth off to the wrong bunch of guys is almost legendary. He would come in some days to work sporting a hideous bruise that he'd receive while in a queue for a burger in a late night fast food joint. There is just something suicidally inherent in his nature that gravitates him towards the biggest, meanest, country bully in a venue. Guys who've grown up on farms where they've learnt how to slaughter cattle before they learn to ride bikes, use outdoor toilets and perform the occasional beheading of a snake with an axe) the night ends peacefully. I offer him the couch at our house to sleep on.

How Flip wound up in a complete stranger's bed is this...

After coming home and giving him blankets for the couch I asked him if he would like anything else. 'Mebbe a dvd or somefin'.' I grab him a copy of Starsky & Hutch. 'Now Flip, now Flip, now Flip,' I say, for I too was intoxicated, 'I'm givvin you a shleeping bag as well so ifyew get too cold jest use that as well.'
'Cheers bro.'
'Sleeping bag.' I point for emphasis. Flip cranks the volume of the tv up to maximum and promptly falls asleep.

...where Darren would find him five minutes later as he is violently awoken from a peaceful slumber to the deafening noise of Stasky & Hutch. Darren stumbles into the lounge room, sees all the lights on, sees the tv, sees Flip, Grrrr. Flip! Turns off the tv and goes back to bed.

Flip wakes up sometime later. His lips are blue. He is dying of hypothermia. His teeth are chattering uncontrollably. Blankets and sleeping bag forgotten he lunges down the corridor of the house in search of warmth. He needs to survive the night. He needs to eviscerate a Tauntaun and crawl inside its stomach cavity for warmth. Anything. In his drunken state he has forgotten that Micah has not lived with us for quite some time and enters a room now inhabited by Secondhand Bookstore Steve. Who has never met Flip.

Steve wakes up. There is a silhouette of a man near the door. A ghostly apparition? 'C-c-c-cold,' says the shadow, 'S-s-so cold.'
'Who are you?' asks a confused Steve.
The man doesn't answer.
'You have to leave here. Go to the couch.'
'C-c-couch cold. D-d-dying.'
The shadow comes closer, closer.....

'And you just let him sleep in the bed with you?'
'Well, he'd fallen asleep almost immediately and he was too heavy to move.' says Steve. We are having coffee in the afternoon surveying the damage that Flip has caused in a single night. ' I honestly thought he was a homeless guy who wandered in from the street. Man, the stench!'
Darren grumbles something.
'That didn't bother you? A hobo crawls into your bed. Could've been dangerous.'

For the next few days we'd find pleasant reminders of Flip's visit to our household. He broke a plate (Darren's), microwaved Darren's dumplings till they were shrivelled and inedible, ate all the dips in the fridge (also Darren's), found some Sayos crackers from god knows where and left them behind the couch (we didn't find that one for days) and left behind a pair of mud-encrusted socks in Steve's bed as a souvenir. a little token of his thanks.

With friends like these...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Currently Reading...

I'm currently reading Alain De Botton's 'The Art of Travel' since, heck, I'm in a bit of a travelling mood. This was one of those books that stared at you while you loitered around bookstores with that smug look on its cover that so many pop-philosophy books for the wannabe intelligentsia have. I mean, its called 'the Art of Travel' for Chrissake. I circled around it like a wary shark, picking it up, reading the blurb and putting it down again. This would happen at the rate of once every two months or so for a few years before I finally succumbed and bought it recently, since so few books deal with the 'whys' associated with travel.

The book has some interesting points to make and it is fairly well written (if, like me, you only read books that have plots involving subway terrorism and the kidnapping of the President's only daughter) He introduces the works of Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wordsworth, Ruskin and the like to people who may not have come across them before and incorporates it to his own life to give it a semi-personal feel. On the down side one can't help but shake the feeling that Alain De Botton is a cocksucker of the highest magnitude. Now, it may be possible that my conviction that Mr De Botton enjoys the flavour of penis may be completely unfounded. Perhaps it has something to do with his French-sounding name (He's Swiss) that brings out the hatred deeply encoded in our DNA of all things French. But for my defence I'll quote a passage of his work.

"The building was architecturally miserable, it smelt of frying oil and lemon-scented floor polish, the food was glutinous and the tables were doted with islands of dried ketchup from the meals of long-departed travellers, and yet something about the scene moved me. There was poetry in this forsaken service station, perched on the ridge of the motorway far from all habitation."

Poetry in this forsaken service station? Wanker.

The other book I'm reading at the moment is 'You Shall Know Our Velocity!' by Dave Eggers, the current fave of the lit circuit. Editor of McSweeny's and author of 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius', Eggers is actually a delight to read. 'Velocity' is a fun book full of interesting characters as well as the boring people we meet on our journeys. Starting from somewhere in the beginning, it tells the story of Will and Hand, who have recently lost a friend of theirs, and their attempt at travelling the world in order to give away $32,000 to absolute strangers.

I have a misshapen head,

Friday, August 11, 2006

Son, Be a Dentist

(Written 26/06/06)

I get a phone call from the dentist's office about once a year for my annual checkup. Basically the conversation that follows is the caller (the dentist's receptionist) somehow persuades the callee (some sad sap-Yours Truly in this case) to come into a pristine office to potentially get every single tooth in your mouth ripped out of from their roots and pay for the privilege for this to occur. What should, in any other circumstances, be bone-chilling words, are rendered nice and perfectly normal by courteous women in the employ of my dentist. I have a thing for dental nurses. I think we all kind of do. There's something about a gorgeous woman who can get away with hacking into our mouths with machetes that turn normal folks like you or I into masochist of the highest order, like a modern day Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, who likes nothing more than being bound/ tortured/ humiliated in a dentist's chair.

'Mr. Heazlewood, would next Thursday be a good time for your appointment?,' asks the receptionist sweetly.
'Yes. Yes it would. Will you be pulling out all of my cavity-ridden teeth? I don't know if my jaw can handle it.'
'Don't worry sir this is just a routine checkup.'

Thursday comes along. I find my feet walking towards the dentist's office against my better judgement. Run you fool! cries the self-preservation part of my brain, we can still catch a plane to Honduras! I know that the fear is unjustified. There is not going to be an elderly German by the name of Szell-der Weise Engel- who is going to operate on me, sans anaesthetics, and ask me 'Is it safe? Is it safe?' throughout the whole procedure.

Pretty soon I find myself strapped in a chair. There is the oral hygienist, who's job it is to hack away my diseased gums, and an assistant to suck blood and saliva from my mouth and to cauterise any wounds that may be inflicted during the procedure. After some pleasantries and a promise that I'll stop giggling every time anyone says "oral" the ladies descend upon me.

A while later the oral (snigger) hygienist, who has been stabbing into my mouth with really sharp metal objects asks me if I grind my teeth. 'Grrndd mrugh teergghh?', I ask with a mouth full of weird objects.
'Mm,' says the oral hygienist, 'I can see that you've been grinding your teeth for some time. Maybe you do it in your sleep.'


Ever since I left the dentist's office, spitting blood but smelling minty, I've noticed that I do grind my plaque-encrusted teeth when confronted by an idiot. And this can happen as many as eight or nine times a day.

At work-
Person: Do you guys have Heineken on tap? (He is standing right in front of the beer taps, of which there are only two)
Me: Nope. Just Carlton and Beck's.
Person: So, no Heineken then?

Grind, Grind, Grind

Ordering Pizza-
Me: (after delivery guy has left) Hey! I specifically asked for no pineapple!

Grind, Grind, Grind

Filling out forms-
Me: This is so frickin' confusing. Grind, grind. "Sign not on the dotted line if thou hasn't had a heart condition in't the last three moons"? Grind. What the grind heck does grind that mean?

Not only do I have to adhere to a strict regimen of flossing once a day but now I find that I have to calm myself down and count till ten or something every time I'm confronted with a situation. For the sake of my teeth I need to control my inner rage bubbling just under the surface.

Serenity now!

End of Part 1

Well, I've made the executive decision to put 'Fatman and the Alchemist' on hold for a while. It pains me to do it since it's finally getting to the action bit but I'm about to go on holidays and I don't want to rush the finish. Expect the saga to end sometime around mid-October....which will be a welcome relief to some of you. I'm getting some friends who are worried about my mental health and some who are just bored (quote from an email by Miss Kristy W: "you getting excited about going? i have to actually ask you this seeing as your blog is still in the land of stupid.")

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Let's Get Ready To Rumble!

It is fast approaching 3 o'clock. The agents are getting ready for action. Usually this would mean wearing the darkest suits and clip-on ties, like they are going to a funeral of a distant relative or a work colleague. In dangerous missions they would wear Kevlar vests. Today, although the mission is deadly, the agents have to accommodate for the extremely heavy headgear that they are all wearing to block out the psychic intrusions of the German mercenaries in the employ of our target: Leopold Grimshawe, a.k.a. the Alchemist.

'So, wadda ya think?' asks Agent Oslo Fontina, CIA hitman. He is covering the whirring machinery on his head with an Afro wig. 'You look ridiculous,' I tell him frankly, 'like a Harlem Globetrotter gone wrong. Like Napoleon Dynamite with a gun.'
'Heh. Yeah.' he smiles as he checks out his reflection in the mirror. Some of the other agents do the same. One guy is camouflaging his headgear with a ten-gallon hat. Does he want people to think he's a tourist?

'Fatty,' says Fontina, 'frankly this might be the last time I see ya.'
'Let's hope.' I mutter.
'Nah man,' he says, suddenly deadly serious, 'I mean Roquefort might have you killed.'

My heart feels tingly. An arctic wind rips through my soul.

'...or maybe not.' Fontina continues, 'in any case I want you to have this gun.' He slips a tiny pistol into my jacket pocket. 'Now just in case something goes wrong just head for the hills sahib. They may or may not find ya. That's up to you.'
'Wh...why are you doing this Fontina?'
'I like ya. Besides....if anything were to happen to me I just....could you tell my Ma that....that...I did good? Tell her I was a painter or something. You don't have to say I was successful or nuthin'. Shit, maybe tell her I was a..a..house painter with a mangy dog. I don't know. Just tell her I was happy. I don't want her to know that...I...that I'm....a...anyway here's the address.'
I peer at the scrap of paper. 'You're from Gibsonton, Florida?'
'Born and bred baby!'

He turns back towards the mirror and has already forgotten the conversation.

Plump and plucky,

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

By Hook Or By Crook

A clock ticks. Seconds pass. There is mildew on the window. A whole room-full of people wearing gigantic mechanical contraptions on their heads stare intently at the leather briefcase at the front of the room. What could TAR BABY be? Is it a bomb? A jack-in-the-box? Elvis' gold jumpsuit? the Ebola virus? Marsellus Wallace's soul?

Finnegan Roquefort, CIA director of European Operations and the human embodiment of Gluttony is beaming with pride. 'Looks just like it don't she?'
'Looks just like what?' I blurt. Eyes turn to face me. Chills. I feel like I'm getting filleted by the sharp looks of the secret agents.
'Like the Liberry son,' Roquefort says with restrained fury, 'like the goddamn Liberry.'

So this is what the infamous Lost Library is supposed to look like. Not a vast subterranean hall filled from top to bottom with mouldy books but something the size that can be carried by monkey butlers. It's so small. How could the sum knowledge of human existance be contained in an attache case?

'The real thing is headin' into town as we speak,' continues Roquefort,' and Grimshawe is going to try to buy it from the seller. An ex-Librarian who wants his thirty pieces. Lucky for us this Librarian decided to shop around for the best offer. He got in contact with our friends in Eng-a-land-' he nods at the representative of MI-6, Peregrine Maltravers, who raises a martini glass,'-who decided to share info with our good selves.'

Roquefort takes a sip of rum, grimaces, continues. 'Here's the deal. 3:45 Librarian comes into town via train. Met there by some Kraut spoonbenders who'll make sure he has the goods. From there (4:00) Librarian will take a "random" taxi driven by Mr. Maltravers to head to the meet with the Alchemist. They'll probably have a Jerry psychic or two in the cab but that's OK. We'll drive 'em to someplace secluded and kill 'em. Thanks to these friggin' heavy headgear we have on they won't see it comin'. Librarian gets off. Adios Librarian. He'll be replaced by cannon fodder boy-'
'The names Heazlewood.' I growl.
'-who is impervious to mental attacks due to some birth defect. The meet is going to be at a small cemetery which is perfect for us since we can see the bastard coming from every direction. Snipers will wait for the sucker to appear. He'll probably have a few spoonbenders as bodyguards but big whoop. If he don't cotton on that we've swapped his Liberry with TAR BABY we'll let TAR BABY do it's...thing. If he does tweak that something is wack we shoot the fuckers then and there. Kill 'em all let God sort 'em out. Party back here at 5.'

Sounds pretty simple.

Bloatus Maximus,

Monday, August 07, 2006

To Catch a Spy

By and by he said, "Well, I expect I got you this time, Brer Rabbit," says he. "Maybe I don't, but I expect I do. You've been around here sassing after me a mighty long time, but now it's the end. And then you're always getting into something that's none of your business," says Brer Fox, says he.

"Who asked you to come and strike up a conversation with this Tar-Baby? And who stuck you up the way you are? Nobody in the round world. You just jammed yourself into that Tar-Baby without waiting for an invitation," says Brer Fox, says he. "There you are and there you'll stay until I fix up a brush pile and fire it up, "cause I'm going to barbecue you today, for sure," says Brer Fox, says he.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

We are sitting in an upstairs room of a post office in a little known town called Gehenna-on-the-Rhine, Graubünden, which has become the mission central for Operation: TAR BABY. In the room: a dozen CIA agents including Agent Oslo Fontina, Tito Pecorino (the former with a deathly pallor, the latter smelling distinctly of latrines and fish vomit. He sits at the far side of the room) and Dellwood Gruyère. Also in the room are Peregrine Maltravers-an MI-6 Agent-and his long suffering 50-year old secretary Miss Penny Sterling-Pound. They are all wearing ridiculously large, silver headgear that make clanking noises every so often.

The headgears were an invention from one of their sister agencies, Yawning Anus [1], who-unpleasant as they may be- know a thing or two about mind control and telepathy. These devices supposedly block any mental intrusions from German "spoon benders" (Agency parlance for the ex-Bundesnachrichtendienst mind readers in the employ of Leopold Grimshawe- the target of Operation: TAR BABY). Unfortunately these headgears are incredibly heavy and one can only wear them for only six hours at a time before your neck snaps. Finnegan Roquefort, head CIA guy in charge of the operation and looking like a beanbag come to life, enters the room munching on some Bündnerfleisch- a Swiss dried beef delicacy. The headgear fits snugly on his head.

'Dellwood!' he barks. 'Who or what is an 'Allegra'? Ah been hearin' that name all mornin' from thu townfolk.'
Dellwood Gruyère, Swiss expert, linguist and self-confessed Magnum P.I. fan: 'They're probably just talking in Romansh [2] boss.'
Roquefort: 'Say what son?'
Gruyère: 'Romansh. It's a language that's spoken in this region of Switzerland. Is...that not at least mentioned in the briefing documents?'
Agent Oslo Fontina: 'All I know about this region is some dude shot an apple off his kid's head with an arrow [3].'
Agent Tito Pecorino: 'Didn't the Swiss have some civil war that only had about a hundred casualties?'
Gruyère: 'This is fascinating. Does our briefing have any information about events that took place in the last hundred and fifty years?'
Roquefort: 'Quit with the yakkity yak ladies! Ah'm about to show you lasses our greatest weapon 'gainst L.Grimshawe. Allow me tuh present....TAR BABY!'

With the grace of a dying sea lion Finnegan Roquefort heaves a briefcase onto the podium. Talk about being underwhelmed. I was expecting TAR BABY to be a bazooka.

These wasabi peas are making me thirsty,

[1] Perhaps they'd claim that to call Yawning Anus one of their "sister agencies" was a bit too much on the chummy side. An "inbred, illegitimate, halfwit second cousin, thrice removed, sticks-pencils-up-their-own-nose, please-don't-let-them-turn-up-for-Christmas-O-Lord agency that has recently been paroled" would be a better term.

[2] A language spoken in Graubünden. The least common language of Switzerland- the others being German (64%), French (19%) and Italian (8%).

[3] Actually a crossbow bolt.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Instructions for Agents going to Gehenna-on-the-Rhine, Graubünden:

Welcome to Switzerland (Insert Agent name)! The land of chocolate, secret bank accounts and cheese with holes in them! Located somewhere in central Europe, next to France....somewhere, this is a funky place to be sent to, even if it may be the last place you'll ever go to! Did we mention that we are sending you guys up against the Alchemist? Yikes. Sucks to be you!

You will be greeted at the airport on arrival by one of our highly efficient, competent, etc. linguistic experts who shall give you a quick guided tour through the little known town of Gehenna-on-the-Rhine (local name of town currently unavailable) before we get down to business of...er...killing.

A man looking conspicuously like a secret agent waves at me from the taxi rank at the airport, a perfect target for disgruntled postal workers atop towers with high-powered rifles. Mid-30's, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sporting a pornstar moustache that falls from his face every few minutes, Agent Dellwood Gruyère shakes my hand. 'Wow. You're Fatman? Far out man. I thought you'd be seriously fatter. Like a combine harvester or something.'

I grunt in reply.

'Now, weren't you one of the guys involved in the Vegas Incident of a few years ago?'
'How'd you do it? What was your secret?'
I lean into his ear.
'Identical twins.' I whisper.
Gruyère lets out a long whistle, impressed. His moustache falls off. Gruyère looks over my shoulders and says, 'So, where are the other dudes? Says here on this slip of paper that I'm supposed to pick up Agents Fontina and Pecorino as well.'
'Agent Fontina got seriously ill from mistakenly chewing on some cyanide capsules that he thought were tic tacs and Pecorino fell through an open sewer pipe in Beijing and hasn't been seen of since. If either of them survive they'll be on the next flight in.'

Once all the members of the team in place your contact in Gehenna-on-the-Rhine will fill you in on all pertinent details.

'Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here?'
'Didn't they fill you in with the details back in Beijing?'

Gruyère is driving us down a narrow street dominated by fishmongers and hungry cats. How European!

'Look, sport, they've edited most of the info from my homework and I couldn't sneak a look at any of the other agents' copies of the document because most of the agents had burned 'em before reading it. Why hold a meeting in sodding Beijing when the operation takes place in Graubünden?'
'Because of the German spoon benders that Grimshawe has in his employ.' Gruyère replies, reattaching his moustache.
Me: 'The ex-Bundesnachrichtendienst mind readers. I heard that some of those guys went mercenary after they got booted out of the BND (Germany's Federal Intelligence Service). Rumour is that after they closed down the Psi-Division most of the men extracted revenge by winning an inordinate amount of quiz shows.'
Gruyère: 'True. But some of them were extremely bitter. Way beyond petty quiz show tampering. They sold their services to rebel South East Asian generals and Middle Eastern warlords.'
Me: 'Like ex-CIA agents do.'
Gruyère: 'Your cynicism offends me. We're the good guys. Anyway, we needed the mission to be briefed in another country altogether. Beijing seemed as good a place as any.'
'Skip to the bit where I'm required.'

All Agents will be required to use their skills to the utmost. Not only are we dealing with the Alchemist we are dealing with a lot of other dedicated professionals in his employ. Foreign professionals. With cooler code names than us. Fear them.

'Turns out that some years ago another agency called Yawning Anus,' he spat, 'found that it was having difficulty with some of their mind control experiments. These individuals were labelled 'misfires' by the agency-unaffected somehow by their psychotronic broadcast towers-and filed away for record keeping purposes. Though on one hand misfires could be a potential danger to national, and even international, security, it was decided by the Powers That Be that it may prove useful in the future to know which of these individuals were impervious to mind readers/mind control and to keep close tabs on these individuals.'
'Oh yeah. Psychics have told me that my mind is too chaotic to read properly. Nothing to grab hold of. That's important for this upcoming mission?'

Agent Gruyère turns to face me. 'It's crucial.' he says, and remains silent for the rest of the journey.

Hips don't lie,

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Time stands still.

It is the moment in between heartbeats, a polaroid picture that somehow captures every crime and every sin in that instant. There is a thin mist of blood in the air. This probably has something to do with the bullet that is currently sailing through the head of a secret agent who will tumble to the floor, dead, as soon as time lurches back to its plodding normality. The air smells of cordite- the smell of ejector seats and discharged firearms. And in the centre of this room, sitting casually in an armchair, is Leopold Grimshawe-known also as the Alchemist- who holds in his hands a weapon, an old breech-loading British army service rifle, courtesy of Messers James Paris Lee and William Ellis Metford. A puff of smoke sneaks out from the barrel of the rifle suggesting that the bullet emerged from there.

Grimshawe looks like a retired Oxford professor. He wears a tweed coat and a checkered vest where a fob watch sits snugly in a pocket. He looks utterly at home in this room filled with dead bodies, as if he's listening to a gramophone in a smoking room, puffing on a pipe. The only giveaway to the beast that resides within his soul are his eyes. They are the eyes of a predator-black and merciless with flecks of grey. It is like looking into the face of Azrael. Grimshawe looks up from what he is doing (i.e. killing someone) as if I've interrupted him pondering a crossword clue and says in a slow, deliberate voice, 'So....you've finally arrived.'

Each word feels like its a teak furniture or a Chippendale cabinet being placed in a hallway. I know I am moments away from dying.