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.

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.