Sales Pitch

Hurghada lies on the east coast of Egypt, across from the more popular resort of Sharm El Sheikh just where the Gulf of Suez is absorbed by the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia lies further east glowering over disapprovingly at its more liberal neighbour.

The city’s promenade is a long thoroughfare of empty shops, battered restaurants and tired looking supermarkets. The walls of every house have been bleached white and beat into brittle blocks of crumbling shortbread by the punishing daytime sun. Piles of dirt and rubbish waiting to be lifted sit in every corner and weeds poke through the cracks in the uneven concrete slabs of the pavements. It’s far from the stereotypical image of Egypt: of ancient pyramids and bustling bazaars. The only sounds this early evening are from cars and motorbikes buzzing up and down a far-off motorway. This once bustling resort town favoured by rich Europeans and Americans is now flat on its backside and struggling to recover after a slew of terrorist attacks ranging from stabbings on the beach to the downing of a passenger airplane.

My brother and I are making a preliminary recce of our destination after landing in Egypt an hour previously. We walk on the edge of the main road not venturing too close to the many shop assistants that are trying to summon us into their establishments.

‘Where are you from?’ roars a young man from across the street.

‘Scotland’ I call back.

‘Ahhhhh, (obviously stumped), how you doing mate?’ comes a question in a comedic cockney accent.

‘Come inside, just looking, we have much things for wife, for girlfriend or mother’

‘No thanks man, maybe tomorrow’ I reply.

We move 10 metres down the road and are hailed by another man outside a shop.

‘Hello, hello, how are you?’ calls a man in an old Liverpool shirt.

‘Good thanks’ replies my brother.

‘Come and visit my shop friend, we have many things for you. Very cheap’

‘No thanks, not tonight, maybe tomorrow’ replies my brother.

Each shop sells the same tired fare; tourist tat with images of Cleopatra; small golden pyramids; busts of bygone rulers and crudely moulded ornaments of ancient gods and deities. I doubt much of it is made in Egypt but shipped in by the container load from China.

After six or seven salesmen using the same pitch the novelty wears as thin as the cheap clothing they are hawking inside. These are the guys that imbittered tourists whine about after returning home. By the time we reach our hotel we have been beckoned by of at least twenty of them and we are not even replying. We raise our hands to wave with a dismissive ‘yeah, yeah’. It’s bothersome but bearable. Only doing their job I suppose.

Over the next week we travel a little but mainly laze around the hotel reading books, watching Arabic subtitled TV and feasting on the all-inclusive meals and booze. Whenever we venture out, we are met with a smile, humour and hospitality. On our penultimate day, we go on a sightseeing tour. I am ripped off by the Bedouins that guard the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, bartered down into buying small alabaster busts of Nefertiti, procure marble scarab beetles and obtain an ‘ancient’ papyrus script which lights up luminous in the dark. We visit the Temple of Hatshepsut, wonder at King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and cross the river Nile to the grand pillars and statues at Luxor. Our only regret is that we decided not to take an extra plane to the Pyramids and back. When we climb up the stairs into our airplane to return home our bags are crammed with Egyptian gifts and stereotypical tourist jumble.

Our plane is (an Airbus A321- 32b) a short-to medium range, narrow body, commercial passenger twin-engine jet airliner.  A bit like the cabin crew this plane looks older than usual and a bit worn. The upholstery is tatty, and the plastic frames scratched and marked through years of passenger abuse. There are no personal tv screens but a shared screen that bends down from the roof to be shared by nine passengers: this mainly presents the plane’s flight path, speed and ETA. A fold down table – which is very practical if you have arms like a tyrannosaurus rex – holds all available food and drink which can be bought in due course.

There are 36 rows of: 3 seats, the aisle, then another row of seats, that line up to 220 passengers the length of the body. Each passenger has 28 inches of body and leg room with 17 inches available width. As a big lad I have no room for manoeuvre and my knees knock against the back of the seat in front, neither can I recline the seat its 3-inch capability, but this doesn’t stop the passenger in front trying to unsuccessfully recline hers several times. Because of these constraints I must sit upright with perfect posture and not my natural slouch. My head sticks out high above everyone else. This is our sarcophagus for 6 hours and we are positioned rigid and stationary as an embalmed mummy inside.

There is one toilet at the pilots end of the plane (remember this is important) and a further two toilets at the rear. The American Airline airbuses are outfitted with a business class area however in this plane everyone is squeezed tight together like packet of polo mints. I take my seat by the aisle while my brother, who immediately sets about sleeping despite being of similar height and girth, is sitting across the aisle in the other trio of seats. In my row there is an old couple: the wife is fidgeting in corner by the window while her husband is agitated and suffering from air anxiety or a brutal hangover. They are bickering and swearing at other under their breath. In front is a large Indian family of three generations, the kids clamber over their smiling parents while the grandparents look on. I smile back signifying that the kids don’t bother me. I buckle my seat belt and begin to watch the attendants stony faced demonstration of the flight emergency protocols.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the nonstop service from Hurghada to Glasgow International. On behalf of your Captain and the entire crew, welcome aboard Thomas Cook Airlines flight MT711B. Our flight time will be of six hours and fifteen minutes. We will be flying at an altitude of …”

The announcement is unnecessarily loud making the plastic speakers vibrate under the pressure. The message is bawled at the passengers most of whom ignore any information and place their headphones over their ears. The engines growl and we race down the runway and gradually rise above the airport, city then into the clouds.

No sooner has the belt buckle light dimmed then the old woman in the corner of our row needs to go to the toilet. This produces a furious response from her a narky little husband.

‘For fucks sake, we’ve only just took off’ he spits at her before turning his head to me.

 ‘Excuse me sir could you let my wife out to go the toilet, sorry’

I’m disarmed by his politeness and rise out of our row to let them both pass into the jostling queue of passengers for the toilet. An attendant is quick to scold me for taking the empty seat in the front row, but I explain that the old couple will be returning soon, and I’ll only get in the way until then. She accepts my excuse with a disdainful sneer then busies herself organising her food trolley.

An older woman is squirming at the tail of the queue eager to get into the single toilet. She is thin with a gaunt face and is wearing an old blue tracksuit and worn trainers: the old tatty type of gear that your gym teacher used to wear. I decide that she is Canadian merely because she doesn’t look Scottish but more French with a hint of American. She is clutching a grey, metal walking stick and crouches down and steadies her forehead upon her knuckles. It’s not a good look and I immediately appreciate that unless she gets into that toilet soon things will go awry very, very soon. The old couple and the others however are oblivious to her state and use the toilet with the speed of pregnant hippos.

It’s at this point, the sales spiels start roaring through the speakers: loud, obtrusive and about as welcome as a camel sneeze in the ear.

 ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, in a moment your cabin crew will be moving through the plane and you will be able to purchase everything from the catalogues situated in front of your seats’

I turn around to catch the response of the other passengers, many of whom are contorting their faces in discomfort. The luckiest put on their noise cancelling headphones but the majority must endure the racket from above.

 ‘For this journey only, we will be offering special prices on select perfume and aftershave, perfect gifts for Christma …’

Even with my iPhone feeding loud house music into my skull I can still hear the din.

The old couple complete their affairs letting the Canadian crawl into the toilet behind them. I’m ordered back into my seat and sit back and close my eyes and try to fool myself into believing that I may drop off into uninterrupted a six-hour slumber.

 ‘You will notice that today we have a special offer of any two bottles of spirits for eighteen …’

Unlike the shop tenders in Hurghada the flight attendants already have their customers in their premises, yet their sales technique is more impolite tenfold. In the process of selling their merchandise they have destroyed their passenger’s comfort and discarded their customer service. As they busy themselves at the rear of the plane, I notice the door of the toilet flap open and shut a few times followed by a hand poking through the gap to attract some attention. I turn to see if I can hail an attendant, but they are too busy preparing themselves to sell, sell, sell, so I press the help button above my head.  Thankfully the attendant rushes past me and straight to the aid of the floundering Canadian. Upon reaching the toilet she hesitantly edges open the door but is repulsed by the sight inside. She turns from the door with her eyes bulging and cheeks puffed out like an asthmatic hamster. Another attendant joins her and they exchange some disbelieving stares. Something has gone seriously wrong within that toilet and the curtain separating the bottom area is immediately drawn.  Minutes later the Canadian’s husband (a small bearded man), is hailed from the belly of the plane and he rushes forward complete with toilet bag and a change of clothes. I’m struck by his preparedness and relative joviality surmising that isn’t his first rescue.

Then in act of unnecessary callousness the attendants loudly address the passengers through the speakers:

 ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, for the rest of tonight’s journey the toilet at the front of the plane shall be out of order, please use the toilets at the back’

Everybody is now concentrating upon the toilet at the front of the plane. Only doing their job I suppose.

After five minutes of hidden theatrics the curtain is finally pulled back to reveal the Canadian who must now endure a needless walk of shame down the aisle of the plane. She tries to steel her way past the condemnatory eyes of her fellow passengers with a taut, forced smile cum grimace. I stare forward not wanting to catch her gaze (my earphones are in, but my music has long been stopped) and I feign casual disinterest. I notice that she has returned minus her tracksuit bottoms and instead some dog-eared blue shorts. She passes my field of vision and takes her seat somewhere behind me.

The attendants immediately start accepting orders in the Canadian’s wake and start to distribute food and drinks while receiving credit cards and cash in return. The old woman in my row orders a small bottle of champagne while her husband crumples himself into temporary hibernation. After a while I turn around to see the Canadian several rows back: she is fast asleep, her head tilted back and snoring loudly, nobody bothers her for the rest of the journey. I try to get comfortable and start to leaf through the airlines catalogue and prepare to spend, spend, spend.

Where are all the Bees?

Where are all the Bees?

 

 

Monday

Monday morning in Highland Perthshire is as quiet as quiet can possibly be. The locals are still rising, no cars are on the streets, even the birds are still yawning. The rays of the morning sun begin to bank over the hills of the surrounding valley and creep along the green, undulating lumps of the putting green lawn which I must mow. It’s not a bad start to the working week as far as working weeks normally go.

I always stop the mower for Bumblebees or dodge them as they lie on the lawn. The slight change in direction ruins my tidy straight lines so I must go back and retrace my path. The fat, little insects are usually crawling along like drunks. Using every blade of grass to clamber and stagger to safety. Slowly staggering until the sun’s rays reach their shivering torsos. The late evening cold snap stuns the bumblers mid-air sending them tumbling from the skies like stricken Lancaster Bombers. This climatic difference is called the Chill Coma Temperature or the critical thermal minimum temperature (7 °C) that bumblebees need to avoid entering a reversible state where neuromuscular transmission and movement stop. Meaning their flight muscles are unable to be warmed up enough for them to flutter and fly. As a result, until the morning temperature increases, they are stranded, frozen and drowsy. Lying prone like old planes in a Mojave boneyard.

I read that you should feed them a sugar to replenish their energy. It isn’t practical to carry around vials of sugary water at work so I won’t continually interrupt my early morning mow with acts of kindness, but I will spare the majority the death of a thousand cuts, the equivalent of you being torn in the blades of a combine harvester. Inevitably, some of them will be sacrificed and their broken torsos thrown into the mowers grass box then dumped in grassy heaps. Because of the pace of the mower we can’t work in our clump, steel-toed boots but change into trainers. My Dad often chooses to do his mowing in bare feet which warms my heart to see. His big, paws thumping behind the mower, the only time his toes see the sun. It’s a commonly held belief that you can pick up a bumblebee without fear of being stung but this is only half true as only the females sting.

 

Tuesday

Ladybirds used to be a common sighting in the garden when I was a child. I can remember David Bellamy telling us that if a Ladybird was fifty times its size it would eat you. That goes for most insects. Of all the flying insects Ladybirds are probably the most impressive especially in the way their dotted red shells half into wings when they take off. Like a Transformer changing from a tank to helicopter in milliseconds. These days I hardly ever come across a Ladybird in the garden but if I do, I never flick them off my arm like an aphid, but gently push them on to a leaf or ease them back into the air.

 

Wednesday

Like Japanese Knotweed and the Himalayan Balsam weed the Buddleia is deemed to be an invasive species, (a difficult term which always sounds racist to me i.e. a foreign blight, coming over here strangling our plants). It particularly thrives in arid conditions and as a result commonly found beside railway tracks and around disused buildings. Despite being deemed invasive the Buddleia could merit the award of Britain’s most loved plant such has its popularity been with garden owners in recent decades. In late autumn the Buddleia can be hacked back to its woody spine and still return in spring with a full purple bloom of nectar rich flowers. Most of our customers will leave the bush unattended in their gardens until the weight of the petals pulls down the stalks which splits the roots down to the soil. Still even then the Buddleia will sprout new shoots and return in spring rejuvenated.

Insects flock to the bush’s bounty of nectar especially butterflies hence its common name: The Butterfly Bush. Their bountiful flowers hang over like grapes enticing flying insects to feast, load and return like greedy narcotrafficantes. Unlike other pollinators, Butterflies consume plants nectar primarily as a fuel for flight however during this process the butterflies also pollinate the Buddleia and many other plants.  Although their method of pollination is less efficient than Bumblebees or Honeybees, they still play an important part in the natural process of airborne insect pollination. Shake the bush or edge near it and a cloud of butterflies explode into the sky providing you with one of the most colourful and pleasant sights within a garden. Initially spooked and probably mistaking you for a predator they linger in the air until the danger has passed then are drawn back to their quarry to feast. In the recent years these throngs of butterflies have become increasingly rare in our customer’s garden.  If we are lucky, we will get one or two rogue Red Admirals or the odd moth. It’s generally believed that their numbers are rising across Scotland, but I haven’t noticed this at all.

 

 

Thursday

I’ve sacrificed a few days’ work because of clouds of midge swamping my eyes and ears. They particularly go for the bony areas of the skull and around the wrists and ankles. I’ve used all sorts of repellent, head nets and old traditional techniques but ultimately I ’ve always had to surrender and abandon work defeated. Legend has it that upon capturing Government Redcoat soldiers, Highland clansmen would stake their prisoners naked amongst the heathered glens, those being a rich breeding ground for midges. The midges would attack and feast sending the redcoat insane with the torture. I can appreciate how brutal the torture must have been.

 

 

 

 

Friday

Wasp stings are an acceptable hazard when you share gardens with these insects during the day. Gardens are their natural habitat and you are the interloping nuisance. They tolerate your presence but in the event of a slightest infraction they are quick to remind you of your place in the horticultural pecking order. Several years back I mistakenly buzzed strimmer into an underground wasp bike despite plenty of warnings from my co-workers. You tend to switch off when completing your daily tasks and slip into an almost meditative dream like state, able to complete the day to day while listening to podcasts and idly letting your imagination fly. But a seething cloud of truculent bastards soon snaps you out of this torpor. A strimmer makes a deep, growl from its two-stroke engine and a furious fizz from its spinning head. On first appearance a squadron of wasps could easily mistake you for a massive, more furious wasp or some type of predator. Not that they need much provocation. In my case the wasps scrambled in a furious storm, rallying in defence with a pre-emptive attack. I abandoned my strimmer and escaped to the other side of the garden, but they pursued me with dogged ferocity for many metres until I was stung three times on the stomach. The wasps then returned to base, no doubt ecstatic in victory while I searched for anti-histamines and balm in the work van, anything to sooth the pain and counter the swelling and inevitable itching.

Not long after this harsh attack, I edged open a customer’s garden shed door to satisfy my nosiness and was met by another cloud of nasties, this time bees defending their football sized hive. Like a homing missile, Red Leader flew into attack, targeted my top lip and drilled deep before falling away stricken. The initial confusion soon gave way to intense pain and unbelievable swelling. My top lip ballooned to around eight times its normal size giving me the look of one of those poor Z list celebrities who experiment with collagen. The injury, for such a small assailant, was baffling and when I shared my discomfort with my co-workers I mas met with extreme concern (Father) and hysterical laughter (Brother). It took a full afternoon for the inflated lip to deflate and a further two days for it to return to normal size.

Unlike bees, wasps can sting multiple times but alike bumblebees only the females can sting. Only honeybees sacrifice themselves in attack as their stinger remains in their victim and the resultant damage to their abdomen is too traumatic to survive. Most impressively, upon stinging all Bees and Wasps release pheromones which carry back to the nest warning their comrades of impending danger. This amazing combination of emergency flare and natural Bluetooth then inspires the attack scouts to scramble into action in the form of swarm. This pheromonal communication also maintains the normal social structure of the wasp/bee colony but in late summer this cohesion begins to break down as queen cells have been laid and the hormone is no longer produced. As a result, the workers become confused, go looking for sweet foods which puts them in conflict with humans. Fortunately, I’m not stung as frequently as in past years, this could be due to my growing wisdom, but I doubt this as this is not reflected in my general life. A common question from fellow gardeners and customers is increasingly: “Where are all the bees?”.

 

 

Saturday

One of the most laborious and soul-destroying parts of a gardener’s working week is weeding. Not only do you have to get finger deep into mud and whatever else has been discarded in a flower bed, but you also must contend with more stingers at bended down eye level. However, as there are no overheads involved with weeding or “tidying up” it is also the most time consuming and as a result most profitable.

The only other option to hand weeding is weed killer using a backpack sprayer which is cheaper for the customer but far more dangerous for all. Round Up is the most popular herbicidal weed killer in the world and for decades it has been used by gardeners to destroy bothersome weeds. Roundup is usually used with a carefree abandon being sprayed with a handheld device however its industrial use requires a strict adherence to safety precautions and mixing guidelines. The safety equipment of face mask, suit and rubber gloves makes you feel as if you are handling radioactive material rather than a popular herbicide. A cap full of Round Up is added to around 20 litres of water, mixed together then broadcast upon any visible weeds. Farmers multiply this same concoction 100-fold then spray it across fields using tractors or even planes. Millions of litres are used annually. After use all the equipment must be confined in a steel container which in turn must be locked in a secure premise and any industrial users should possess a recognised certificate for legal use. After the initial dousing a weed- or any other plant-will absorb the Glyphosate through its leaves where it attacks the enzymal structure of the plant, fatally infecting the plants life systems.

Round Up was the ’flagship’ product Monsanto until it was acquired by Bayer in 2018, in turn creating an all-encompassing super agricultural corporation. Their amalgamation is widely appreciated as an effort to avoid the growing number of multimillion negligence lawsuits that have arisen since Roundup’s main ingredient: Isopropylamine salt of Glyphosate, was recognised as the of cause of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in everyday users. However just as scientists are beginning to realise – or admit – how harmful this evil syrup is to humans the evidence is also building that Glyphosate is contributing to the dramatic reduction in numbers of airborne pollinators. Simply, the chemical is infecting the insects gut microbes leaving them increasingly susceptible to fatal diseases.

In effect Glyphosate together with other factors such as insecticides and destruction of habitat is decimating the insect numbers across the globe.  The insects which have taken millions of years to perfect evolutionary miracles such as pheromonal communication and pollination, are now threatened with extinction. Monsanto have managed to achieve this feat in a matter of decades.

Bayer/Monsanto cannot control natural pollinators, yet, but it increasingly looks like they are decimating their numbers to the brink of extinction or at least until consumers are completely dependent upon their products. Products which in turn are killing their customers through deadly Glyphosate contamination. These dreadful statistics tally with my own amateur observations at work. You tend to notice small things in the garden when you spend half your waking life there. And while I am no expert it doesn’t take a scientist to prognosticate how dreadful the future will be without any pollinating insects.

 

Mind of a monster

On Thursday 1st of February 1829, Andrew Longair was three days shy of his twenty second birthday and living in Scotland’s capital city. As he set about completing the last of his long list of daily duties there was little to indicate that today would prove to be the most important day of a long and interesting life. A day when he would finally conjure the courage to invite the love of his life out on their first day together; initially converse with his lifelong mentor and before sunset be invited to stare into the mind of the devil himself.

The city of Edinburgh had been described as the “Athens of the North”, a title that was as ill-deserved as it was false as the ancient capital of Greece had never been this cold nor ever smelled this abysmal. True, the Scottish city was recognised as a church of ‘Enlightenment thought’ and mecca of medical learning but for most of the cities dwellers this was only a pretentious veneer. Many of city’s inhabitants lived in desperate poverty and had to endure the type of squalid living conditions usually only suffered by livestock. The poorest of all were confined to the West Port and Cowgate areas just below castle, the bulk of those were Irish immigrants and exiled Highlanders. To further preserve the chasm between the classes the city authorities had recently implemented the construction of a New Town complete with beautiful new Georgian townhouses, ornate buildings and connecting cobbled roads. The affluent then abandoned the crammed Old Town areas, leaving the deprived to their tenement slums.

The gaze of the civilised world however was not trained upon Edinburgh for benign reasons on this winter’s day. The recent West Port murders had horrified the city’s many inhabitants and word of the heinous crimes had rapidly spread down to England then abroad. The city’s reputation was besmirched and tipped into the polluted river the city sat upon. And while the Irishmen that had slain sixteen souls then sold the bodies had been caught, the real scandal was that it was an educated man and member of the plutocracy that had rewarded the murderer’s acts.  Unbeknownst to Andrew he was just about to be pulled into the very belly of all this horror.

It taken the Andrew near to a year to adjust to living in the city. The farm boy had tired of his rural surroundings and escaped down to Edinburgh just after his twenty first birthday. At first, he had gotten lost in the warrens and burrows of the city streets and the sheer scale of the city had terrified him to the bones forcing him to scurry back into his bedroom at night. However, he had gradually built up his courage through the hard work and routine of the local brewery. All day he swept floors, cleaned equipment, fed the horses, rolled barrels around the warehouse, loaded them into the waiting carriages then delivered the beer around the hostelries and bars of the Old Town. The work was arduous but provided him with an invaluable insight into a growing industry. His employer: Mr MacLaren, was a kind old industrialist who had recognised Andrew’s spirit of curiosity and encouraged him to he read and learn about the new ideas that had recently washed across Europe. His real education however came from his older co-workers who had adopted him as kin and provided him with the more important schooling he needed to survive in the city. They had advised him where to drink, where and how to dance, how to behave with women, who to trust, who to fear and which areas of the city to avoid. Every day he ate up all their guidance and heaped the wisdom in the back of his skull.

‘Aff to join the crowds in the New Toon are you Andrew? See if you can catch a glimpse of the West Port monster?’ asked Robert (the old barrel maker) while crossing his eyes and lolling his tongue from the side of his mouth.

‘Maybe so Robert, see whit all the fuss is about’ replied Andrew.

‘Nah, it’s no monster he’s planning to see this morning Robert. He’s aff to see his wee Irish sweetheart at the Atholl Arms’ teased Patrick the cart driver.

Andrew felt his cheeks flush but did not submit to his playful tormentors. He dove his hand into an open sack of oats and held a straight handful below the nose of the cart horse. The mare snuffled up the food while spraying cold, wet air from her snout.

‘Well Andrew, don’t being taking her anywhere near here if you aim to impress’ said Robert.

‘Aye, you should take her to the Meadows’ added Patrick.

‘Wheest Patrick, they’ll be chased from the Meadows. The rich don’t the likes of us in their parks. No son you should take her up to Arthur’s seat and take in the city view’ advised Robert.

‘Aye right enough, right enough, Arthur’s seat would be better, but mind take something to eat and a bottle o’ water, no’ beer, she has enough of that in her nostrils all week’ added Patrick.

‘As always gentlemen your advice is invaluable. I think I’ll do just that’ replied Andrew.

The older men mocked Andrew’s polite tone and bade him cheery farewell. He wrapped his thick, woollen scarf around his face and neck twice before tucking it into the front of his tatty waistcoat. He had initially abandoned this scarf, being embarrassed by his mother’s knitting, but as the temperature plummeted it had become invaluable protecting him from the bracing gales and shielding his nose from the Cowgate’s dreadful smells. He pushed open the thick wooden doors of the warehouse and marched into the bracing wind of early afternoon. The frozen soil of the thorough fare crunched below his boots as he crossed the streets and weaved through the lanes of the Old Town. Horse drawn wagons trundled up through the middle of the streets  rutting the mud into lines while a constant flow of hawkers, shoppers, maids and delivery boys zipped down the frozen pavements. Everyone seemed determined to make their frostbitten commute as brief as possible.

Andrew saw Bridget on the door step of the Pub long before she recognised him. He watched her screw up her face and turn from the smell of a bucket of slops that she was emptying into the street. Even during this moment of horridness, he thought her more beautiful than Helen of Troy. The effluent from the bucket spilled onto the cobbles then oozed into the stinking mess that always collected outside the local hostelries. The brown mess seemed to creep up the walls like a gangrenous stain, living but rotting everything in its path. Bridget’s expression lightened upon recognizing Andrew slip, stumble and scramble up the rutted road.

‘Coming to see me, are ye? Asked Bridget in her mellifluous Irish brogue.

‘Just passing by’ replied Andrew with a smile.

‘Jest passing by he says, passing by to where exactly?’

‘Ahh you’ve got me Biddy. I’ve come to try and convince you to come out with me tomorrow’

Andrew adored the rhythmic poetry of Bridget’s speech, as if each word that flowed effortlessly from her rosy red lips were tied together in some sort of predetermined sonnet. She was twenty-one and like Andrew only recently moved to Edinburgh, only she had escaped from the confines of Strabane on the North West coast of Ireland. Her long black curly was collected in a bun under a white, maid’s hat but one wisp always seemed to escape down across her forehead. Andrew gazed into her blue eyes and marvelled at her little bunny teeth which crossed her bottom lip when she smiled.

‘Where would you be taking me tomorrow then Andrew?’ asked Bridget.

‘I can’t tell you, it’s a surprise’

‘A surprise he says… Well Then, I’ll make you a deal, I’ll accept your invitation but only if ye do me a little favour in return’

‘Anything for you Biddy’

Bridget slipped through the doorway of the pub and returned with a bundle of three books tied together with twine.

‘One of the doctors from up at South Bridge left these in the pub last night, in a right old state he was, I’ll agree to accompany you tomorrow if you deliver these to their owner’ said Bridget.

She held the books out towards Andrew chest. He unfastened the string’s bow and opened the first book and read out the hand written first page.

‘Doctor Lizar, Surgeon’s Hall, South Bridge, Edinburgh’

‘You never know he might know one of those Frenchmen you’re always rabbiting on about’ teased Bridget.

Andrew drew the twine from under the books and looped it around Bridget’s neck, tied it at her chest then pulled Bridget close and kissed on her on the forehead. She giggled at his little, romantic gesture and pushed the books into his chest. He put the books into the pockets of his jacket and stepped back from the doorway and back into the frozen mud of the road.

‘I’ll see you on the way back Biddy’ said Andrew before turning towards the New Town.

‘I hope so Andrew’ called Bridget before disappearing back through the door.

To reach Surgeon’s Square Andrew had to traverse some of the most treacherous parts of the city where even during daytime there were still enough shadowed closes and darkened lanes for predators to hide in. As a result, he kept to the safety of the middle of street also avoiding the frosty pavements and chamber pots that were always being tipped from above. Hunkered up in one of the doorways a Policeman was waiting for victims like a large dark jungle cat. His long black jacket was held together with a line of brass buttons reaching from neck to groin and his velvet top hat sat askew upon on his mammoth cranium. The officer spotted Andrew and crossed the road to block his path by placing his wooden baton upon Andrew’s chest.

‘Where do you think you’re going Paddy’ asked the officer in a distinctive Highland drawl.

‘My name’s not Paddy’ replied Andrew. ‘And I have an important delivery for Doctor Lizars at Surgeon’s Square’ answered Andrew while showing the Policeman the books in his pockets.

The Policeman chuckled at the young man’s quick temper also noting his shared accent.

‘An educated man, I’m guessing you’re not from Inverness then?’ asked the Policeman.

‘No, Nairn’ replied Andrew.

‘Close enough … Surgeon’s square? Off to join the crowds, are you?’ pried the Policeman.

‘No Sir, I had enough of all that on Wednesday at the hanging’

‘Aye well, I wouldn’t be lingering around the square today, there’s a fair-sized mob gathering, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be leaving until they see yon dead Irishman from the Mill Port’

‘I don’t intend to stay there any longer than necessary’ said Andrew.

The Policeman motioned to Andrew to carry on and slunk back into the cover of the doorway.

At the top of the steep hill that plateaued onto the South Bridge Andrew climbed upon a wall to get a better view of the mass of people that had gathered. He had never seen so many souls gather in one place. The horde was massed around the newly built Surgeon’s Hall; a massive building that dominated the line of newly erected libraries, University buildings and legal offices of Edinburgh’s New Town. Several sets of large stone stairs led to the Grecian pillars at the entrance, its ostentatious design designed to reflect the institutions stature and self-reverence. A phalanx of uniformed Policemen stood between the throng of protestors and the dark suited students and doctors, sporadically the uniformed men beat the throng back, cracking skulls and whacking limbs with swings of their heavy batons. Andrew stepped down from the wall, eased into the crowd and sidled into earshot of the nattering demonstrators. Each man- and the occasional woman- were trading gossip and rumour like currency and there were various thoughtless ideas being passed around. Many thought the body had disappeared or risen from the grave. Some that the private dissection had revealed some hideous fact; that the murderer had the innards of a demon, dragon or worse. A few that the corpse had turned to stone after being pulled down from the gallows. Regardless, everyone was demanding for some sort of viewing of the murderer’s corpse to prove otherwise.

A couple of zealots were standing upon wooden boxes each espousing their beliefs and damning all with contrary opinions, a small group of sycophants surrounded each nodding and parroting their guru’s bile. Andrew crept up to beside one gang that encircled a dog collared minister whose fat seemed to squeeze out of every vent of his ill-fitting tunic. Andrew inhaled deeply in full expectation of the religious nonsense that would follow.

‘And what are we to expect of the increasing hordes of Hibernians that have washed upon our shores. These heathens have no respect for humankind and answer only to their Pope in Rome’ bellowed the bloated holy man.

The gang murmured their approval and encouraged the minister further.

‘And it was written that it is sacrilege to deface a human body. We demand to see the body of the heathen resurrectionist and that his humanly remains be interred on holy ground’. cried the minister while holding a small bible high above his head.

The hypocrisy burned within Andrew like the core of a bonfire. How could these religious fools have so much sway with the masses?

Before realising, he blurted out the words of Voltaire, a philosopher his employer instructed him to read.

‘Are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same god?’ cried Andrew.

Andrew’s voice cut through the religious fervour like soldier’s bugle horn.  The minister’s bootlickers immediately about turned to face him and the minister ceased his sermon to scowl down at Andrew from his makeshift pulpit.

‘And Lo, we have a non-believer in our midst, come to tell us how to behave’ said the minister.

The preacher’s sycophants began to circle Andrew like jackals stalking an antelope. The swollen hypocrite seized his chance to exact divine retribution directing his flock to attack.

‘Smite the heathen with all the fury of the lord’ cried the preacher.

The mob responded and began to jostle and hassle Andrew. Before he could muster any type of response he was rabbit punched in the back of the head sending him sprawling to the ground. A torrent of catcalls and abuse poured upon him together with a hail of kicks and punches. He tried to cover himself from the assaults but felt himself slide into unconsciousness. Above all the din a clipped tone ordered ‘Grab him, grab him, before they do him a serious injury’. Then he felt himself being lifted high into the air and planted on his backside onto the cold, sandstone stairway.

‘I’m not sure if your mad or stupid but that was no place to advocate your enlightened beliefs young Sir’ said a voice.

A young man barely older than himself was studying Andrew’s injuries from above. He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and held it to Andrew’s bleeding nose. One of the Policemen dropped his cap on his knee.

‘Come with me’ ordered the young man.

Andrew rose from his seated position feeling the effects of the many strikes on his body. The young man pulled Andrew’s arm around his neck and lifted him through the main doors of the hall and onto a chair in the building’s hallway.

‘Thank you, Sir, I thought I was a goner’ squeaked Andrew.

‘I noticed your books and together with your opinions I thought you a fellow student, but you hardly seemed dressed as such’ replied the student.

‘No Sir, I’m not a student, I’ve only come to deliver these books to a Dr Lizars’

‘Lizars eh? Left them in the Pub again did he?’ asked the young man with a chuckle.

The young student checked over his new patient before delivering a consultation: ‘No broken bones but you’ll have a few minor war wounds and bruises to impress the ladies with tonight. Now then, let’s see if we can find you Old Lizars’

Andrew was led down a long, carpeted hallway past sniggering students and curious Doctors. All the students sported the same uniform of black tunic and white shirt with collars that reached up to the lobes of their ears while the doctors wore tight fitting suits with black stockings. The student knocked three times on a large, wooden door prompting an officious ‘Enter’ from beyond. He pushed open the door and stepped into a brightly lit study.

‘Well Robertson, as if I don’t have to tolerate your appearance all morning, why are you bothering me this afternoon?’ spat an older man from behind a heavy, wooden desk.

‘Sir, I have a young man with a delivery for you’ piped the student.

‘It’d better not be another corpse Robertson’ replied the older man.

The young man smirked at the dry wit of the older man before beckoning Andrew forward.

The doctor was an older gentleman of around sixty and had a worn, crumpled face with large front teeth giving him the uncanniness of an old mountain hare. His white mane was slicked back like a horse and his piercing blue eyes sat behind a pair of bone, rimmed spectacles. He was on sitting a wooden throne like chair in front of a wide wooden desk that had open books, diagrams of animals and what looked like ledgers of names scattered upon it.

‘Well, what is it laddie?’ asked the older man.

‘I brought you your books Sir, they were found in a carriage at the bottom of South Bridge’ replied Andrew.

‘Fine, Robertson, you can leave us now’, ordered the old man to his student.

Andrew shook the student by the hand and thanked him for his help. The student then slipped through the door and pulled it shut with a clack.

‘Carriage you say? That’s queer, I can’t remember leaving these books in a carriage. I’d swear blind I left them in the Atholl Arms near Cowgate’ said the doctor.

Andrew squirmed under the glare of the older man but did not respond.

‘Well, how should I address you? What’s your name laddie?’ ask the doctor before rising from the desk and stepping forward towards Andrew.

‘My name’s Andrew Longair Sir, once of Nairn but now a trainee at MacLaren’s Brewery on Candlemakers Row’.

‘Pleasure to meet you’ said the Doctor while exchanging a handshake. ‘My name is Doctor John Lizars, Professor of Surgery and Senior Operating Surgeon of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’.

‘Pleasure to meet you Sir’ replied Andrew.

‘Well, young Longair it seems we share a taste for fine ale and a raucous atmosphere, and there’s little wrong with that, but I appreciate your discretion in front of my students. It would not do for a Doctor to be rumoured to frequent the hostelries of the Cowgate’.

‘Your secret’s safe with me Sir’

‘Glad to hear it’, said the Doctor with a smile.

The Doctor studied Andrew like he was some sort of strange animal in a zoo.

‘Now… let me see if I can repay your favour and in a small way apologise for your troubles outside… Follow me’.

The Doctor took his books, opened the door and led Andrew into a long, carpeted hallway that’s walls were covered with large portraits of Lairds and Dukes with ornate furniture and glass cabinets containing skulls and bones lying beneath. The Doctor paused at a door signed ‘Operating Theatre’ then turned to address Andrew.

‘As you would have noticed outside, we are very popular these days what with our important guest. We’ve just finished with him. Unfortunately, most of the medical students demanded an audience and now half of the damned city are demanding a viewing too’

The Doctor then pushed open the door and ushered Andrew into a huge round room of wood which on first impression looked like a courtroom. There were around one hundred stalls banked in circled levels like inside a small coliseum. At the bottom a table was covered by a white blanket until the doctor pulled the blanket away to reveal a dead male body below.

The cadaver lay back at an angle and was naked save a cloth to hide preserve the man’s decency. The skin was the pallor of grim grey and appeared to Andrew like the meat of some great fish. His eyes were closed as if in deep prayer and without prior knowledge you would have thought he was dozing or drunk. The skull was shaved bald and there was a deep red cut that ringed the forehead like he had just removed an extremely tight top hat. It looked like the cadaver had begun to harden as the skin was pulled taught over the bones and face.  Most unsettling to Andrew was the man’s lips that had begun to curl creating a hideous grimace.

‘Is this I the West Port murderer Sir?’ asked Andrew.

‘No Andrew, this is Rob Roy’ answered the Doctor with a shake of his head.

Andrew edged towards the corpse feeling a rivulet of seat drip down his spine and muscles of his legs begin to twitch.

“He’ll do you no harm now young Longair’ said the Doctor.

Andrew walked forward until he saw the stubble on the corpses chin. The blood had drained from the face, but a dark blue bruised crease had collected around the neck. There was a deep, chemical smell emanating from the body both unnatural and unnerving. Without warning the Doctor laid his hand upon the corpse’s head then pulled the scalp clean away like it was the top of a turnip. Andrew’s eyes widened in fascination propelling him further forward for a better view.

‘And behold, Master Longair, look upon the mind of murderer’ exclaimed the Doctor.

Andrew inched forward and peered down into the skull. Crimson, dark blood and bone were ringed around the skull like a cross section of a tree’s trunk. In the middle was the veiny sliced cauliflower of the brain.

‘So Longair, on first impressions what can you deduce about this man?’ asked the Doctor.

Andrew took a moment to contemplate his answer.

‘Well, the marks around the neck were probably caused by the hangman’s noose’

‘Correct, well done, and what else can you tell me?’

‘Well by the calluses on his hand and the condition of his fingers he was a physical worker probably a navvy’

‘Excellent, Longair, you have an investigative eye’

The doctor replaced the top of the skull and stepped back from the corpse.

’They’ll sew the head back on for the public to view tomorrow. We are expecting thousands of the great unwashed to pass through the theatre, I suppose this is what passes for entertainment in these bleak times’ said the Doctor with a snort of laughter.

The Doctor reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced a small note which he passed to Andrew.

‘I confiscated this from a student not two hours ago’.

Andrew unfolded the note and involuntarily read out the words that were written in a dark red ink.

“This is written in the blood of William Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28 Jan 1829 for the murder of Mrs Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken from his head on the 1 Feb 1829.”

Andrew was horrified at the callousness of the note. He turned to the Doctor and handed it back.

‘Hardly the behaviour of a civilised professional Sir’ said Andrew.

The Doctor bellowed a large laugh at Andrew’s disgust then answered: ‘No, it is not Master Longair but in these dark times blood calls for blood. And the criminal that you look upon now did not afford the same respect to his victims that you do to him’

Andrew took a second to deconstruct the full import of the Doctor’s words before finally appreciating their wisdom. The doctor re-covered the body with its sheet and turned back to Andrew.

‘Well Longair, I’m afraid I have work to do and can’t stand about all day talking to you, I trust you can see yourself out’

‘Yes Sir. Thank you for the lecture’

‘And thank you for the return of my books. In fact, take these and come back to me in a month and tell me your opinion’ said the Professor while passing the books to Andrew.

‘Thank you, Sir, although I’ll sooner read these in a week’ replied Andrew.

‘Maybe so, but you’ll not understand them in a week, so reread and reread again then report back’ said the Professor before exiting the theatre with a parting ‘Until next month’.

The abrupt exit left Andrew standing as stiff and awkward as Burke’s corpse below the sheet. He twisted around one last time to appreciate the theatre before climbing the wooden stairs, walking through the hallways and emerging back outside to where the mob was still spoiling for trouble. As he descended the sandstone steps he was spotted by the bloated minister that had directed his mob to attack fifteen minutes before.

‘Well boy, did you see the body of the Irish Devil?’ spat the fat fool.

Andrew nodded, not wanting to engage conversation with the brute.

‘And what did he look like? Did he have horns and hooves or red wings like a demon?’ asked the zealot while simultaneously addressing his congregation.

‘He looked very much the same as you.’ replied Andrew before merging back into the crowd and off to see Bridget.

The Last Fight

 

 

The man’s trainer edged his head around the shower room wall and called out:

‘Your guy’s in a bad way, he’s been put into an induced coma, doctor says there’s an eighty percent chance he’ll come out a vegetable or worse’.

The man cursed his trainer’s matter of fact honesty and replied.

‘Thanks for the great news Terry, now fuck off and leave me alone’

He laid his palms flat upon the tiled wall and let the warm water beat upon his scalp. The red water ran rivulets past the welts and bruises on his chest and down around his legs before spiralling into the drain. He lifted his head to let the spray attack his face, felt the shower stream sting the cuts upon his face then opened his mouth to let it fill with water. The salty combination mixed in his mouth making his inner cheeks sting and teeth throb, so he spat the dark red mixture down into the drain. A crimson pool collected at his feet. Shocked he stepped back and pondered if all the blood was his or the man he had just incapacitated. He twisted the temperature control to increase the heat to how far his injuries would tolerate. Induced coma? That can’t be good. Barely an hour had passed since he left this room where once he was stricken with doubt and anxiety. But now, after being beaten to a bloody mess and punching a man into a coma, all he felt was a dark feeling of shame.

 

An hour previously, the fighter was waiting in the changing room with only his trainer, brother and corner team for company. Selected well-wishers and local business men would dart in and out to offer encouragement, each blandishment incrementally increasing the pressure upon the boxer until the burden of occasion was near overwhelming. He barely recognized the visitors, merely nodding to acknowledge their admiration. Now was not the time for conversation. He briefly shadow boxed for the camera crew and his trainer assented by shooting orders and drilling and reminding the fighter of his requirements. When all his obligations had been fulfilled he sat on the wooden bench and laid back against the changing room wall, closed his eyes and feigned a state of mediation. He was scared to death of failing. Petrified of being humiliated in front of everyone he knew and respected. Of being knocked out cold like a novice and carried from the ring. This mental torture was far worse than any punch, the self-doubt degrading his core like a dentist’s drill and the anxiety welling up to his limits of submission. He briefly thought about chucking it in, of slipping out the window and returning home to his new wife and mother, neither of which ever attended any of his fights. He opened his eyes and scanned the room of solemn faces, immediately catching his little brother’s admiring gaze. His sibling exchanged a smirk and clapped his hands together:

‘Once you flatten this donkey, we’ll shoot up to the pub, have a few pints then bring home mum a curry’ ordered his brother.

‘Your shout kid?’ responded the fighter.

‘No way mate, you’re the champion with the big bucks now’

His brother stood up and crossed the changing room towards him. They embraced and exchanged the types of stare only family understand.

‘He’s an old fucker mate, he’ll be done by the middle rounds’, said his brother. ‘listen to Tel and keep to the plan’

His brother exited the changing room leaving only the barebones of the corner team. A young man with a headset around his ears peeked his head through the door before it closed.

‘Ok guys, you’re up. Soon as the bass kicks in you start your walk down to ring ok’

 

The fighter and his corner team walk to the edges of the crowd till the fighter feels the spotlight beam upon his face. The crowd roars their approval to his entrance. On cue, the bass kicks in and fighter starts jogging down to the ring with a camera crew a few metres in advance. He reaches up to touch the outstretched palms of the adoring audience, accepting their adulation while hundreds of camera phones flash into his face. Upon reaching the ring he climbs up onto the blue canvas and bends under the thick, braided red ropes that surrounds the squared ring.

There’s a hotchpotch of faces surrounding the ring: camera men lean their elbows on the ring apron ready to shoot, managers and promoters scheme and calculate while bloated journalists scribble on notepads. In the first rows suited flyboys, soap opera actors, gangsters and glamour models all wait to be entertained. There’s a selection of old pugs sitting more rows back, their blunted faces twitching from years of abuse. Their trophy wives sit next to them each with bouffant hair dos and deep orange tans. A beery smell of revelry fills the arena, the booze fuelling the crowds’ determination to support their man and create an upset.

The fighter’s Mexican opponent is like an old dangerous dog tied up in a back garden. He’s growling and glaring from across the ring desperate to attack. His ripped muscles are stretched taught over his small frame and his bulging veins wrap like ivy around his arms. His overblown physique reeks of steroids, far more chiselled and defined for a man in his late 30s. And yet there is a paunchiness to his mid riff, a clear indication of misbehaviour. Hubris. The rumours of too much partying; not enough fights and too many late nights begin to look true. The fighter glowers back at the angry face of his opponent with customary flat nose and thick battered lips. He has impressive dark Aztecan Tattoos inked across his chest and many Spanish slogans down the arms. The green, red and white of the Mexican flag colour his long, tasseled shorts to complete his battle dress. He is a walking stereotype, fiercely proud of his country and eager to show loyalty.

The referee invites the men into the centre of the ring and explains their duties. The boxers stare, each man trying to extort a measure of fear from each other. The first round begins with the boxers tentatively circling the ring as feuding tomcats. The fighter jumps on his tip toes, bouncing, feinting and throwing out probing headshots. He jockeys from side to side not wanting to provide a stationary target and goads his opponent like a playful puppy. The Mexican grows impatient and attacks. The fighter tries to ward him off, but his jabs are eaten like popcorn, so he covers up and accepts the inevitable early onslaught. The fighter notices the face of an ex-champ and boxing legend sitting ringside. He’s humbled to see such a legend attending his fight. The moment of reverie is all the opportunity the Mexican needs. The next second the fighter is on his back, lying flat as if he’s basking in a field looking up at a blinding, bright sun.

The referee starts counting “ONE… TWO …”

His trainer slaps the canvas of the ring and screams “Get up! Get fucking up’

“THREE”.

The stunned fighter feels the shuddering of the canvas and wakes from his slumber.

“FOUR”

‘UP, UP’ screams the crowd.

The fighter rises without thinking, plants the soles of his feet upon the canvas and tries to uncloud his confusion. He bangs his gloves together in frustration. Stupid. The referee stops at the count of eight and takes the fighter by his gloves. The fighter looks deep into the eyes of the referee, eager to prove his capability to continue.

“You ok kid? ready to continue?” asks the referee in dirty, New York accent.

‘Ahhm ok ref, let’s go, let’s go’ he responds.

The referee steps backwards to reveal the opponent who’s waiting in a bundle of murderous intent, eager to inflict a final blow. The fighter pulls his arms tight to face, summoning punishment and expecting an onslaught. Punches reign down upon his skull, chest and arms, thundering shots that shudder the him to his core. He reacts, counters then cowers like a hedgehog. The bell rings to end the round and the referee separates both fighters to their corners. The crowd roars their support relieved to see their favourite survive.

The fighter slumps back into the waiting stool and a sponge is squeezed above his head, emptying water on his scalp and cleaning the bullets of sweat from his forehead. His trainer wipes his face like a mother and inspects his cheeks and eyelids for cuts. Exhausted and confused the fighter is relieved to be in the sanctuary of his corner. He drops his gumshield into a cornerman’s waiting hand and water is scooshed into his gaping mouth.

‘What the fuck are you playing at?’ scolds his trainer ‘You fuck about and this guy’ll take you apart, you can’t afford another mistake like that son, keep your fucking guard up, always’

‘Ah know Tel, ah know’ responds the fighter.

‘You’ve got to be smart son, don’t stand there and trade punches, punch and move, cover up then escape, you know the fucking drill’

‘Ah know, ah know, punch and move’

‘Stick to the plan son, he’ll be fucked in 3 rounds but remember to hit back, rile him up, get him mad’

‘Ah know Tel but his punches are hard’

‘They’re supposed to be mate, it’s boxing not a tickling contest …. you’re tougher than him, stronger and smarter, remember your training’

The Mexican has already risen and is prowling the ring ready to herd his prey like a sheepdog manoeuvring lambs. The fighter again bounces on his tip toes until the bell tolls and the referee directs them both back into conflict.  He sways and shimmies, but his opponent incrementally steers the fighter back into the neutral corner. The Mexican is an expert body puncher and relentlessly chops at the trunk of the fighter, whacking at his ribs and sides. Each punch powerful and pin point accurate. The fighter clinches, smothers and spoils the onslaught, soaking up the violence. Before the punches become too unbearable the fighter offers a straight right hander then twists out of the corner like a trapped rabbit. Hit and move, hit and move. His coach screams directions from below, manic like a panicked parent and the crowd bellow their support, thousands of them all desperate to see their champion ride out the whirlwind of punishment. The fighter slides along the thick blue ropes then lies back pulling his arms in close and gloves up to his face. The Mexican pursues relentlessly, dictating the pace with all the subtlety of a wolverine. At the bell the fighter tumbles into the corner and collapses onto the waiting stool.

‘You alright kid?’ asks his trainer ‘He’s not got much left now mate, he’s blown himself out, ah told ye he would’

‘Ah fucking hope so Tel, ah can’t take much more of those body shots mate’ responds the fighter.

‘C’mon mate, be strong’ pleas his trainer.

The next two rounds pass with the same violent intensity. The fighter dances around the ring until he is trapped in the corner and cramped in a coffin. He covers up and adopts a peek a boo style: hiding behind his gloves then offering a sly stinging strike to enrage the Mexican and rile him into a mistake. The fighter has been drilled to encourage his opponent’s rage. Fuel the fury. He swallows the impact of the punches with his body and absorbs the punishment.

Mid way through the 5th round the fighter finally notices the Mexican’s sure footing falter. The signal that his opponent is starting to tire. Like a leopard after his chase the Mexican has exhausted himself, expended all his energy and is now at his most vulnerable. The fighter moves in the centre of the ring and begins to intimidate the bully. His solitary punches expand into combinations then unanswered flurries. The crowd screams their approval, revelling in the brutality of the retribution. Every one of his punches is landing while nothing is coming back. So sharp, so fast. It’s as if he has an extra second to think and act. The Mexican feels the power and falls back on his heels, shot worn, the juddering punches wear him down him until his hands drop with exhaustion. He stumbles like a drunk, wounded and defenceless but the fighter is unmerciful. He twists his torso and steps into his final strike feeling the jaw bone crack through his glove. The stricken Mexican slumps unconscious to the canvas. The referee pushes the fighter to his corner and immediately waves off the contest from above the opponent who lies as dead as a deer in a roadside ditch. The referee hooks the Mexicans gumshield from his mouth with his finger and summons a doctor from the corner. The only proof of life is the Mexican’s stomach which is inhaling and exhaling violently, desperately overworking the oxygen around the boxer’s body. The fighter’s glove is raised in victory and a jubilant mob envelop the ring.

 

After all the celebrations and coronation, the man stood with the gold covered belt around his waist as a congregation of strangers and friends alike sidled up to take photos and offer congratulations. His hands pulsed and his face stung with salty sweat, but the adrenaline was still masking any major pain. His corner team were ebullient, revelling in the frenzy of the triumph. It pleased the fighter to see his pals reap such joy from his exertions.

Then his coach whispered it into his ear: ‘The Mexican’s in a coma, they’ve taken him to the General Hospital, doesn’t look good mate’

The fighter slumped back onto the wooden bench of the changing room and dropped his head into the palms of his hands. His coach draped one of the red stained towels over him and began to knead his back. Half an hour earlier he had been anointed, his arm held aloft victorious; a champion who had knocked out the best in the world in the very city he had grown up. But his triumph was ephemeral and had evaporated. The new information spread around the room like a virus it’s import contorting the many smiles into grimaces. The congregation that had gathered to share the post-fight bliss were no longer able to buzz on the vapour of victory. The congratulations morphed into condolences, praise into pity and the once swollen entourage sat down their plastic cups of champagne and slowly drained out of view.

‘He was a fighter just like you son, he knew the risks, we all do’ cajoled his coach. ‘You’re still the champion of the world kid, nothing can take that away’.

The fighter nodded in affirmation. Tell that to his family. You still expect to go home after a fight, no matter how hard. The fighter threw the towel onto the ground and sat back against the cool, brick wall of the room. His arms panged with pain and his chest wheezed with the efforts of the night. The soothing adrenaline had begun to thaw leaving a throbbing ache in its wake. He picked at the bandages swathed around his knuckles and began to unwrap his hands. There was nothing to say. Nothing that could bring that man back to his family in the way he entered the ring. His coach ushered the remaining hanger-on’s out into the corridor and left the boxer to stew in his misery.

‘Get yourself cleaned up and I’ll be back in 10 mins son’ said his coach.

His bare knuckles were swollen and bruised, creaking as he straightened them for the first time. He turned to the wall mirror to inspect the cuts and grazes upon his bloated face but was shocked by his reflection. The laces on his boots were painfully loosened before being placed beside his world championship belt. He dropped his shorts and groin protector to the ground and waddled naked into the shower room, every step agonizing, every slight movement of his body met with excruciating pain.

GHOST TOWN

GHOST TOWN

A ‘splashdown’ is an evasion technique used by narco-traffickers when crossing the border of Mexico and the United States. When the traffickers are discovered then pursued, they race to the Rio Grande and deliberately drive their cocaine or marijuana laden pickup trucks straight into the river. The resultant crash causes a ‘Splash’. The traffickers then swim to the Mexican bank of the river and the bales of narcotics float away from the American border patrols and back into the hands of waiting co-smugglers. I’m reminded of this as I study a large white pickup truck parked in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. It’s more tank than car. A gas guzzling leviathan with an engine more appropriate for a tractor. It sits atop of 4 bulky, black tyres, has black tinted windows and sparkling mirrored chrome covering the hub caps, bumper and front grill. Its impressive and unlike in Britain where anyone can gain credit for a new car, a new pickup truck still reflects a level of prosperity in Mexico.

Its March 2009 and I’m three months into my latest job as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. I’ve started to smoke again and I’m dragging on a fag outside my school. In the UK you would be discouraged from smoking outside your place of work, but my current boss actively encourages it. She figures the sight of gringo teachers smoking outside the school is better advertisement than any Facebook advertisement or flyer. My franchised language school is part of large shopping complex named Plaza Sendero in an area called ‘Industrias’ which sits in the middle of a zone of factories, units and Industrial buildings all involved with the international automotive industry.

One of my fellow teachers, Andrew, a gregarious, young American from Portland spies me through the glass, front door of the school and joins me outside.

‘Hey man, you wanna go to the ghost town’ he asks.

‘Ghost town?’ I reply.

‘Yeah man, one of my students is a manager at the San Pedro mine just outside the city. He says It’s also a ghost town, like the movies’

Normally I wouldn’t be interested in a tour of a ghost town or a mine, but I’d been stuck in the city since arrival and needed to escape the city and explore.

‘Cool man, I’ve got classes until 5 though’ I answer.

‘Me too man, ideal’ he replies before slipping back into the school.

At 5pm I meet Andrew outside the school. We are joined by Robert, a fellow English teacher from Germany and Carlos the manager of the mine. Carlos is a short man in his mid-fifties. His shirt is pressed and starched, but his jeans are baggy and oversized. His slicked black hair and tinted glasses make him appear like a hybrid of Joe Pesci and Diego Maradona. He seems quiet and unassertively ushers us to the large, white pickup that I’d been previously admiring. Robert and I clamber into the back seats while Andrew sits shotgun in front. Carlos starts the tank’s engine then quickly gets us onto the neighbouring highway and roaring past the traffic.

With every kilometre we seem to slink back a decade. The massive highways taper into single carriages then brittle, dusty roads. Buildings become more decrepit and dilapidated, the moisture starved foliage browner and the painted wall advertisements for potato chips and petrol more faded and ignored. As we turn into a dirt road an old man sitting atop a homemade, horse drawn cart crosses the road. Carlos thumps his car horn to clear the way and reaffirm his technological superiority. San Pedro is only 10 minutes outside San Luis but in that time, we have retreated 100 years.

Cerro San Pedro which translates as the Hill of Saint Peter is the ghost town. It feels like we have driven onto a film set. Spanish Franciscan monks arrived around here in 1592, found gold and silver and remained until their language, religion and corruption were embedded so deep that they would never leave. The productivity of the mine created its neighbouring city and contributed to Spain’s dominance over Latin America for the following centuries. Most of the buildings are dilapidated and crumbling like broken pieces of shortbread. The sandy roads are buckled and badly maintained. You could imagine Pancho Villa galloping down these broken streets, firing his rifle in the air to inspire revolution a century before. Little seems to have changed since those times save modern cars and the tangled electricity wires and street lamps above. The main plaza contains an overgrown garden of agave plants and weedy grass and is surrounded by all the town’s main buildings. The church stands proud and tall among the crumbling ruins, its bright yellow walls shimmer in the late afternoon sun while the red blocked trim echoes the colonial past. The church bell hangs aimlessly as a dead snake hung by its tail in the 60-foot tower. There’s a couple of small tiendas and some bare cafes to cater for the scarce inhabitants and tourists that should be wandering around the empty streets. The infrequent locals breeze aimlessly from door to do as if buffeted by the ghosts of their forbearers while we are left to roam the town like wild goats. At the town limits an ancient mine cart acts as a town sign. Its thick, iron wheels are sturdy and well used but well capable of working another hundred years. The old cart has been superseded and is merely a relic much like the town its sleeps in.

I’m left wondering why Carlos has brought us to San Pedro first before visiting the mine. Maybe he wanted to show how desolate the town is and demonstrate how the mine provides much need vitality, like viewing a sick man in his hospital bed before being dosed of penicillin. As if predicting my gnawing, contemplation Carlos claps his hands and says: ‘Vanamos amigos’, and with that we climb back into truck and drive the short distance to the mine.

On arrival to the mine we are suited up in red and luminous safety vests and brand-new white, safety helmets emblazoned with the company New Gold Inc, a Canadian company which operates the mine under a myriad of legally challenged subsidiaries. We are then shepherded into a room and offered bottles of water. A projector screen is rigged against the wall and for the next 20 minutes we are treated to a corporate, feel good movie. The whole system of mining is broken down into benign basic systems and functions complete with captions and graphics. At the end of the video, New Gold Inc head honchos are pictured with beaming local children each of which are sporting new football strips and carrying new schoolbooks. I recognise the propaganda immediately and exchange a cynical eye roll with Robert.

Next, we are moved out to a panoramic vantage point of the overall mine. There’s an acrid, chemical smell that nips at your nostrils and tickles the eyes, an unnatural scent amongst the dry sand of a desert. I peer over the massive craters that would take mountains to fill and take in the manmade valley of terraced ridges. There are tiny cars whizzing round the ridges creating small clouds of dust in their wake. It’s only when I focus that I realize that these cars are enormous, dump trucks each about 70 tonnes of iron and engine with a carrying capacity of twice their tare. There’s about 20 of these automated ants tear arsing around the mine shifting loads of soil at break neck speed. With two diesel tanks of 160 litres each they can run continuously without stopping for a full week.

We walk down from the viewing platform to what seems like massive swimming pools lined with thick, black plastic.

‘What is the black plastic for?’ I ask Carlos.

‘So the acid does not go in the land’ he answers with his basic English.

I’m confused on why they must use acid at all and not employ some sort of shaking and separation system. I slowly piece my confusion together like a baffled child working out a sum and I’m stunned.

I later learn that the system is regarded as ‘Heap Leaching’ and the acid used is cyanide. Firstly, dynamite is used (25 tonnes daily in this mine) to blast and rip the soil from the earth. The soil and rock are then dumped on huge beds of thick, black plastic where it is sprayed, soaked and degraded by the corrosive cyanide. The gold and silver are eventually washed and filtered out while the leftover soil – a useless, poisoned chemical mulch – is discarded back into the earth. The precious metals? Well their collected, smelted and shipped out across the west to be fashioned into rings, jewellery, watches and other trophies. Carlos assures us that this process is safe and harmless. ‘Everything is returned to land and the acid and aqua is separated’ he says unclasping his fingers.

We follow him along the plastic lined pits to the large pipes and sieves that collect the acid and water and separate them to be reused. To demonstrate this dubious process there is a tap plumbed into a huge, metal, water vat. Carlos twists the tap head and lets the clear liquid spray onto the concrete path.

‘Look, the agua is puro. You can drink’ he says.

‘You take a drink then’ I tell him in a rare moment of effrontery.

He laughs at my cheeky taunt ‘No amigo, not today, I don’t have cup’

I laugh at his reply knowing that I have called his bluff and seen through the façade. I’m almost triumphant as we hand in our vests and helmets and leave the mine in the pickup truck.

We have one last stop before returning to San Luis and pull into space alongside a phalanx of pickup trucks which are clustered around a large, marquee tent. We are ushered inside and into a seat around one of the many round tables. I ask Carlos what the occasion and he is informs us it’s a quinceanera, or girl’s 15th birthday party. We are introduced to the girl’s father: a Ranchero complete with Stetson and slick snakeskin cowboy boots, then to the birthday girl and in turn half the tent. Beers and tequila are placed in front of us and we are quickly incorporated into the party.

A full Mariachi band is blaring on the stage at the bottom of the tent playing an ear-splitting cacophony of marching rhythm, booming brass and yodel like singing. It’s wonderful, and they soon have audience singing and swaying in appreciation. I lie back in my seat and savour this most Mexican of scenes. But just as the band have the audience captive a squall rips through the side of the tent.  The wind whirls around the tables spraying dust into faces and gusting up the tablecloths and plastic dishes. The band are pounded by the gale and fire back against its ire, defiant and resolute but they are quickly defeated and the is party ruined. However, it’s during this moment as the guests begin to scatter and the band clings to the stage that I begin to understand Carlos and his compatriots’ dilemma. These mine workers and their families seem to be thriving like no residents of Cerro San Pedro have done before. The girl’s birthday party is as much a celebration of the community’s state of prosperity as it is the girl’s pass into womanhood. In Mexico many live a subsistence life with 42% of population living below the national poverty line. Few can afford a car never mind a brand-new American pick up so any opportunities to prosper, alike what has been provided by New Gold have to be seized. And while the Canadian company’s practices are offensive to my Western eyes and sensibilities the community of Cerro San Pedro simply cannot afford my vaulted morals. What I began to learn after my visit to the mine was that it is instability and unpredictability that are the biggest problems for Mexicans be that economic, societal, environmental or even climatic. If it is impossible to build on shifting sands this is why Mexicans, maybe more than any other nationality, have such a short-termed outlook on life and grab what and when can they can. Paradoxically this may also be why Mexico is so close to a failed state (Drug Wars and Northern neighbour’s not withstanding) and this is also why people will continue to ‘splashdown’ their pickups into the Rio Grande.

Note: Following contamination of the local water supply Environmental groups successfully protested and petitioned the Mexican government to cease practices at the Cerro San Pedro in 2016.

The Oblivious Obligation

 

The dog’s howling awakened him immediately. He turned to the clock and noticed it was far earlier than the usual morning rouse so he curled back into the duvet and tried ignore the noise. As hard as he tried to drift off his mind would not rest and he found himself staring at the ceiling his thoughts spinning and reeling without purpose. It was the feeling that he had forgotten something important and pressing, a gnawing sense that an important task had been overlooked or some long ignored debt that had to be repaid. The dog’s whining turned to barking and he punched the mattress realising that he would have to go downstairs. His wife was never disturbed by the dogs wailing, she had taken her usual double diazepam washed down by a bottle of red which sent her into a deep coma until the morning. She was snoring like a farm beast, side-down on the pillow and her saliva was oozing onto the pillow. She was far from the beauty he had managed to snare nearly 5 years ago and in recent times she had let herself go, both physically and mentally, content to stay inside and pickle her stunned feelings with booze and reality TV. He flicked on the bed lamp, threw back the duvet, slotted his feet into his waiting slippers then slung on his old rugby shirt in a long practised routine. Both his daughter and younger son still had their lights on despite his constant protestations, this did not surprise him as both had long lost his respect and ignored him daily. They were spoiled brats who enjoyed the luxuries that he could only dream of at that age: the football strips, clothes, iPads, phones and PlayStations that were updated and discarded on a monthly basis. He sloped his way down the long staircase, sliding his hand along the newly polished bannister, past the many family murals and the garish wallpaper that his wife had chosen. He hated this house and all its ostentatious ornaments of greed, the whole place screamed tacky footballer not the inspired scientist he was. The hall light illuminated the grand open plan base level with all the gadgets and accoutrements a family could ask for, the trappings of wealth which hung round his neck like granite scarf. The huge flat screen television had been left on, as always, to churn out drivel to an absent audience while magazines and empty sweet bags were strewn across the floor and sofa. His dog, Pancho was in the kitchen to meet him, frenzied with enthusiasm and joy at companionship, his only friend in the house. The ageing mongrel was his oldest most dependable pal, always open to conversation and never criticising, eager for company and never ignoring his attention. The man decoded the house alarm, unsnibbed the door and turned the key in the lock letting Pancho race into the darkness, yelping in excitement. As usual there wasn’t a sound in suburbia save distant sirens and the low hum from the motorway miles away, this was his favourite part of the day, peaceful and quiet where a he could feel perfectly at ease with his own thoughts. He was always reminded of his early morning jaunts returning from parties or strange houses as a young man, when the birds were beginning to chatter and sing and were the only witnesses to his nocturnal adventures. The gardeners had cut the grass that day and the fresh smell of clippings together with dew perfumed the night air. He looked at his spacious garden with its huge lawn and grand trees and had a rare sense of achievement like a king assessing his lands, maybe things were not as bad as he thought. Pancho dropped the rubber ball at his feet so he kicked it hard to the top of the garden, immediately cursing his stupidity being only in slippers he was forced to hop then crouch to the ground in an effort to stifle the pain.  As the dog reached the gate at the top of the garden a long whistle immediately halted it and sent it cowering back to the man as if belted by an invisible force. The man peered into the darkness and grabbed a long handled shovel that was lying against the garden shed bringing past his head like a baseball player at the plate.

‘Who the fuck is that and what are you doing in my garden’, snarled the man in the direction of the whistle.

‘Long time, no see boss,’ said a deep voice from behind a big beach tree.

The man was instantly on his guard, furious but petrified at this intruder.

‘Show yourself, you cheeky bastard,’ roared the man.

‘Come, come boss, don’t be like that. I’ve come a long way to see you,’ said the voice.

A tall, black man stepped out of the shadows and into the illumination of the full moon. He was wearing a light, tan suit with a sky blue waistcoat and yellow tie, an outfit more appropriate for the 19th century than now. His greying hair and white beard were well trimmed and his teeth beamed in a strange, crooked smile. He was carrying a silver walking cane with what looked like duck’s head for a handle, the man immediately took this for a potential weapon and so tightened his grip on his spade.

‘You don’t remember me boss, I’m disappointed. You spent a good few ours putting de world to rights all dem years ago,’ said the stranger.

It was the term boss that jolted his memory together with the recognisable West Indian or Jamaican accent like the Bob Marley or Usain Bolt. He racked his brain for some friend or work mate from Jamaica but couldn’t find anything, not even as far back as University. And then it all came back, flooding into his consciousness like a tidal wave.

A few years previous he had gotten bogged down in his job and had decided escape the stress and toil of his position. He had served at the same company since leaving University but couldn’t get ahead despite being the star of his research department. He had longed for a break and not being confident enough to backpack around Asia and having exhausted the Mediterranean he decided to set off on an all-inclusive cruise around the Caribbean. He spent most of his time on the high seas emptying the mini-bar and watching re-runs of American detective shows in his double bedded room. His only opportunity of escape came when the ship berthed in a harbour and could disembark and escape into the local nightclubs and beach bars. It was on one of these nights, docked in Nassau that he had met a stranger sipping on a tall drink at the end of the bar. At first he was reticent to strike up a conversation but as the booze increased so did his courage and he began to add in little pieces of chatter the stranger about the football on TV. Their mutual admiration for Spain’s La Liga spiralled into a full blown natter about the beautiful game and its merits and weaknesses. The stranger seemed to be a local but had obviously seen a bit of the planet, interjecting small tales and anecdotes from his many travels. He was quick with a nod and a laugh and actively persuaded the man to sample the local spirits behind the wooden bar. The 80 % rum was particularly potent and harsh to the throat however the more you drank the easier it was to take. As the night progressed the man found himself opening up and sharing the type of fears and desires he had only previously divulged to his close family or friends. The booze fuelled conversation quickly descended into a wallowing diatribe of self-pity and woe mainly directed at the man’s boss of many years and his inability to climb his career ladder. He bitched and moaned like a teenager for most of the night.

‘If only the wanker would just fuck offf, and leave me his job, if only, then everything, evv-ree—thing would fit into place,’ slurred the man, barely managing to sit on his stool.

‘I’m sure sumthin will turn up, de Lord works in mysterious ways boss,’ said the stranger.

‘Yeah, well I wish he would work something out for me,’ whined the man.

The stranger listened closely, puffing the occasional cigarette and necking back the Red Stripe beers and rum like a veteran. He was older than his drinking partner and had the battle scars to prove a life well lived. At the end of the night, the stranger thanked the man for the conversation and entertainment, paid the bill for all the bar in full, tipped the barman and disappeared into the night before anyone could offer their thanks. The man returned to his room, retched into his sink and toilet bowl then collapsed into his bed beaten and burst from the brutal rum shots. In the morning he woke with headache like a haemorrhage and a mouth that tasted like the remnants of a campfire. The next day was filled with more trips to the toilets and fitful sleeps punctuated by recollections of his embarrassing outbursts and admissions from the night before.  And that was that. Until tonight.

 

‘What the fuck, what are you doing here, in my garden at 3 in the morning?’ asked the man.

The stranger dipped into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a small, battered tin which he opened with a metallic pop. Inside were tobacco, rizla papers and a small amount of grass. He pulled three papers from the pack and set about joining them together with a few licks of the gummy sides. He added a few pinches of tobacco then sprinkled some grass on top the finally rolled it all into perfect cone. The stranger sparked his lighter to a flame and ignited the end of the joint, inhaling deeply before blowing a white, grey cloud into the night sky.

‘You owe me a favour boss, and I’m ere to collect,’ he said before passing the joint to the man.

‘Oh, aye and how do you figure that one out?’ replied the man.

‘Well, I eliminated your problem which created de ah-por-toon-itee for you to progress and flourish. Look at you man, you have all de trappings of a wealthy man. De trophy wife, big house and gaahden and the top of de range Mercedes Benz man. You got it all boss. All tanks to me,’ said the stranger.

‘And how exactly do you figure that one out then?’ asked the man while taking the joint from the stranger.

‘Your boss man, I got im out of da picture and let you movie in just like you wished,’ said the stranger.

‘Just like I wished, what the fuck are you a fucking genie? And my boss was killed in a mountaineering accident in Bolivia years ago,’ replied the man.

‘Haaa Haaa, that’s the spirit boss. Actually it was Ecuador, and it was no accident and I’m no Genie man, just an investor who recognised an ah-por-toon-itee’

The man reeled at the strangers corrections. His boss had indeed died in Ecuador, falling into a gorge on assent up Mount Pichincha a few months after his Caribbean trip. The man had gone to the funeral, cajoled his boss’s wife and grieved with his workmates at the elaborate wake. Now this stranger was telling him that his boss had been murdered at his behest, all because of some drunken bout of confessions.

‘You’re telling me you arranged the murder of my boss based on pissed conversation years ago in a beach bar?’ asked the man.

‘Now, you’re getting it boss, you it’ de nail on de head,’ replied the stranger.

The man stared at the stranger in disbelief. He was still trying to comprehend this strange reunion but now with this bizarre confession to add to the mix it was difficult to comprehend.

‘So what do you want in return for this kind service?’  Asked the man.

‘Well….after I left you at de bar dat night I went back home and googled your business card you gave me and found out dat you were some big shot scientist in London. And I taught to meself, dis man’s going places….with a little bit of help,’ said the stranger grinning.

‘Ahhhh, so its blackmail then? You must be wanting a bumper pay-out for all your hard work?’ asked the man.

‘Man’s gotta eat boss, and I’ve put a lot of money into you.’

‘And what do you do if I tell you to fuck off? What then?’ Asked the man.

‘Well, den I go and tell me story to de Poh-lees tomorrow and de take all this away,’ said the stranger, motioning his hand towards the car and house.

‘Well that would be a bit fucking stupid wouldn’t it, you’d be admitting to a crime’ said the man.

‘Obviously, I’m not going tie de noose around me neck boss there’s ways of informing da

Poh lees anonymously.’

‘Why have you waited so long for this? I was in Bermuda over 5 years ago, why wait till now?’ asked the man.

‘All investments have to mature boss, I had to wait until you were ready’ said the stranger.

 

The man sucked on the joint and held the smoke in his lungs. He felt the harsh vapour soak into his brain and wash through his sleepy head. He gazed at the black, saloon car in the driveway and the six bedroom palace all his labour had garnered. He stared into the bedroom where his wife lay comatose and at the lights left on by his kids, he felt the wet grass seep into his slippers then looked down at Pancho who was waiting impatiently with a ball.

‘You know what, you can tell the Police whatever you want, I couldn’t give a flying fuck. I’ll even drive you down to the station in the morning, until then, unless you want this shovel round the back of your skull, I suggest you take this joint and get the fuck of my land’ said the man.

The stranger took the joint from the man, turned without a word and walked to the gate. It was only when he had left the garden that he looked over to the man watching him pick up a ball and throw it down the garden for his dog to scramble after. Normally his targets would pay up or at least return a favour, normally they would relent in an effort of self-preservation but this guy simply didn’t care. He could tell that he wouldn’t be getting any money from this guy and creating any trouble would be too risky for himself. He pulled a small black notepad from his waistcoat pocket and scored the man’s name out with a pencil. The next mark would pay up, they always did.

Trip to the Jungle

 

After 3 months in Quito I was eager to escape its urban din and cross those mountains that looked down upon me every morning. Large cities become very similar no matter what continent you are in and I was getting sick of the walk back and forth to work, the endless lines of buses and incessant cars beeping and roaring around the streets. I had come to Ecuador to climb the Andes, mix with the indigenous tribes, learn from the people and bathe in the warm Amazon River not join the queues and hordes in inner city toil. At last Semana Santa (Holy or Easter week) was my chance to escape.

I had searched the internet for a place that provided cultural breaks and found “The Suchipakari Eco Lodge” which was situated on the edge of the Andes and promised the right mix of relaxation and adventure. It lay about 20 miles south of the town of Tena, a small city that depended on tourism and cinnamon as its main industries. I had to make my own way their but the bus fare would only cost around 10-12 dollars return and I was assured that a local would pick me up from the station when I arrived. So straight after work I headed off to the far edges of Quito and Quitumbe Bus station. By bus it was a good hour to get there so I splashed out for a taxi and zipped my way to the station reaching the busy depot just before 9 o’clock.

Latin America suffers from a stereotypical old fashioned reputation especially the Andean countries where you expect locals to be toiling up hills with donkeys and all the buildings to be tiny adobe walled huts however Quitumbe bus station was more modern than any bus station I had visited in Europe and easy to find your way around. The bus companies each had their own little booth and had their prices, destinations and timetables on view behind attentive and friendly staff. As the biggest holiday week in Latin America the bus station was heaving and people packed out the main hall. Couples were huddled together, kids scrambling about, whole families lying on mattresses and old women were wrapped in thick homemade blankets. Many locals were sipping on coffee in an effort to fight the evening temperature, as when the sun goes down in Ecuador the altitude kicks in and the bitter cold takes hold.

A ticket collector directed me to the proper terminal which already had more waiting passengers than possible for a 50 seated bus. There were a few families in the queue, each with large boxes and overfilled bags. An old woman held a cat in her arms and little boy trailed a wild eyed dog. As I leaned back on a post I heard a quack and looked around to see a couple of bags rumbling at my feet. It was a bag of ducks, alive and being transported along with us humans. I felt sorry for those poor birds tied up in a sack. As usual in Latin America there was a mini battle to get on to the bus and although I had booked a ticket I initially feared that I may not get on. Manners and politeness go straight out the window with the locals, its every man, woman and child for themselves and as soon as the bus driver opened his door the passengers barged, shoved and jostled their way on board. I only managed to get on because I was harder to budge and such a hassle to everyone’s embarkation.

I never find it easy to sleep on buses abroad, there is always the apprehension that someone may rifle your bags or pick your pocket as you snooze also tonight I had the constant meowing of the moggie two rows down and as result the squeaky pine of the overexcited mutt. (Luckily for me the ducks were stowed in the hold below). As it was a night journey the lights were turned off leaving the garish luminous glow like those of low end strip bars to enlighten the bus. I did managed to get sporadic moments of sleep in 10 -15 minute spells but as the journey was a good 6 hours I could hardly say it was restful. I remember waking for the last time after a mini snooze and watching the sun rise over the huge mountains.

The landscape had changed drastically and even within the air cooled bus you could tell the temperature had warmed gathered my gear together while the other passengers began to wake and ready themselves for arrival.  I jumped off at Tena bus station, an old broken down building that hadn’t been cleaned or painted in decades. I did have a phone number to call but there was no answer after several attempts and it quickly became obvious that I would have to make my own way to the lodge. As it was early in the morning there were not many people about so I had to hang about until lazy taxi drivers started to show an interest. I finally managed to secure a lift down to the town of Misahaulli where I was promised I could get a 4×4 deep into the jungle where the Lodge was. I arrived in a small town 30 minutes later which had small monkeys nibbling on scraps on the street and chasing cats. These were the famous Capochin monkeys that stole tourists’ cameras and handbags, disappearing up trees with their bounty. Luckily, a local driver was able to leave immediately so we jumped into his new pickup truck and set off down a dirt track and into the never-ending foliage. Plants with huge leaves dominated the sides of the roads, wild banana trees and long grass and vines encroaching on the road and strangling the manmade structures. The only signs of inhabitants were the wooden shacks that were built on huge stilts to protect the owners from floods and crawly beasts below. The track road was uneven and rough and twisted like a long snake up, down and through the harsh terrain.

I managed to strike a basic conversation with the driver.

“Where are you from?” he asked in Spanish.

“Scotland” I replied.

“Where is that, in America?” he asked.

“No, in the North of Europe. Do you know the film Braveheart?” I asked.

“Ahhh, William Wallassh, with the skirts, ha ha” He replied.

“Yeah, that’s the one” I said.

He was middle aged and fairly overweight with a beer belly that spilled over his belt. He was wearing a yellow, Ecuadorian Barcelona shirt (they are the big football team from Guayaquil on the coast) and we were able to share our love for football, our teams and Lionel Messi. Like many taxi drivers the conversation he was keen to learn about the different types of whisky and the women in my country, fed him some invented information given that I knew little about either. After a further 30 minutes and a sore arse from the billion bumps in the road we reached another shack by a dirty slow river. Again there was no one to meet me or offer assistance. The only signs of life were to two horrible spiders lying in the middle of their vast webs that spanned the shacks rafters. I decided to ignore them ad tell myself they were probably harmless. I paid the driver and I reminded him to pick me up again in two days, he laughed and directed me up a dirt path to the Lodge. I could feel the mosquitoes nip my legs and many varied flies bump off my face as I traipsed up the track. There were a million noises made by a million insects, birds and anonymous jungle beasts all around me, this was their home and I was the intruder. In truth, despite the nervous excitement all I could think of was getting a few hours’ kip and maybe a shower before a pre-planned jungle trek in the afternoon.

I was welcomed by a worker at the entrance who needed a bit of coaxing, by showing my invoice, to let me into a room. My room was basic and completely assembled out of wood from the chairs, table and walls to the roof above. The sheets were clean and draped over two sturdy beds at either ends of the room, there was no TV nor internet but one electric plug to charge your phone or IPod. Thankfully there was a net covering the glassless windows as I knew at the dusk those dammed bugs and mossies would be eager to sneak inside. I dumped my stuff and joined a table where a group of tourists were already tucking into breakfast.

As is often the Lodge didn’t look as plush and luxurious as the internet photographs. It was fairly run down and struggling to strive within the jungle. It was really just a big shed decorated with indigenous paintings and ornaments and was attractive in a basic sort of way. It was surrounded by thatched roofed cabanas which were linked by narrow footpaths and shaded by grand palm trees. There was an old swimming pool out front which was full of dank water and green algae with some type of beetles skating on the surface. Large butterflies glided from tree to bush and wasps and dragonflies buzzed in and around the many exotic flowers. At the bottom of the garden were couple of raised platforms where you could lie in hammocks and gaze down the valley. The main reception was also a bar with a beer fridge and spirit bottles on shelves, there didn’t seem to be any computers but a large TV sat above the bar showing some early morning soap opera. In the main dining area there was an old pool table and 5 wooden tables and chairs and some furniture made from tree trunks. There were no windows leaving the whole place open to the jungle but a large corrugated tin roof protected everything from the afternoon downpours.

The other guests were already finishing their breakfast so horsed down my meal of exotic fruits, local delicacies and homemade coffee. I was just beginning to relax when a guide came to my table.

“We leave in 15 minutes, for Jungle trek” he said smiling.

I strained a smirk of faux enthusiasm but it betrayed my utter devastation at the news.