I’m down visiting a pal in Glasgow. He rents a bottom floor flat of a large Victorian townhouse and as I’m waiting for him in the shared hallway, I start to peruse the many books in the large bookshelf that spans the hallway’s wall. There’s many Barbara Cartland, Sven Hassel and Stephen King paperbacks jammed together with European city guidebooks, celebrity biographies and fishing handbooks. I’m about to open the front door when I can just make out the word ‘ghost’ on the spine of a thin paperback so as always, I pull it from its shelf for a look. I recognise the castle on the cover immediately. It’s the book my Uncle gave me all those years before. For years I had been searching for ‘Scottish Ghost Stories’ without any specific author whereas I should have been searching for ‘Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts’ by Peter Underwood (Underwood, 1974). Flicking through the pages I instantly recognise the black and white photographs of eerie mansions and dilapidated castles plus the large section on Glamis Castle. I contemplate shoving the book in my pocket fearing I might never see the book again but during a rare moment of inspiration, I remember I can buy on Amazon through my phone. A quick search and there’s an exact match available for £1.49 including postage so I order the book and place the copy back in its position. Three days later and the book is waiting for me on my doormat. I rip open it’s wrapping and start to leaf through all the old stories instantly recalling the ‘Big Grey Man of Ben MacDui’, ‘The Empty house of Fettercairn’ and ‘The Wicked Earl of Ethie Castle’. However, when I reach the section on Glasgow there’s no mention of a woman being buried alive, a séance or even Glasgow University. I’m confused so rake through the remaining stories but I’m still unable find the story not even a similar plot or characters. This type of conundrum often bothers me till I find a solution, so I spend the next few hours down a google rabbit hole searching for an answer. It’s only when I abandon search queries related to Glasgow and Scotland that I finally find a tale with similar elements to my supernatural origin tale.
Rosa Spandoni was an Italian woman who died in town called Camerino in 1950’s Italy. She was not murdered by her husband but fell into a coma after an illness, was wrongly pronounced dead then buried alive. There was no Society of Parapsychology and no séance but a demonstration of mediumship to a psychology class in the Camerino University. A medium did channel the unsettled spirit of Rosa who complained about her cruel death which in turn inspired the exhumation of her coffin and when her coffin was opened there were scratches on the coffin lid and her fingers were thrust down her throat. These last two facets are the only parts I recalled correctly, the other differences were totally invented, by me.
The story was not collated in ‘The Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts’ but described in half a page of a ghost story collection called ‘The World’s Greatest Ghosts’ by Roger Boar (Boar,1983). My mum bought me this cheap paperback to read when I was taking the bus to and from Glasgow during my first year at University. I did not attend the ancient and gothic looking Glasgow University, but I used to walk past the building daily, on the way to my lower status University down the street. As I read the story, I must have associated the Italian University with the more familiar Glasgow building, this false memory was then fossilised as I repeated the story to friends. As a teenager I truly believed in the supernatural or paranormal, so I was eager to connect the dots or even create the dots of the many dubious stories and strange tales.
There is no recorded proof of Rosa Spandoni’s death only a few apocryphal retellings and passed on tales. However, you don’t need hard evidence when you have the desire to believe and an overactive imagination. I, like the audience members of the four medium’s shows altered the facts to better suit my preferred reality. I reworked the storyline, bent the plot and even added characters to fit a more desirable narrative. I wanted the story to be more believable, so I created elements to make it sound true. I also misremembered my discovery of the story, relating it to a totally different reminiscence.
I don’t want to be a sceptic. I don’t want to be so cynical. I want to believe. But in general, there’s precious few concrete examples of the afterlife and spirits to believe in and there’s been even less evidence at any of the medium shows that have attended. In the end, I hoped to discover some sort of clever ruse or a method of deception, some planted audience actors, a hidden microphone or covert earpieces but the reality is far basic and prosaic. These mediums need only be amateur actors to convince their pliable audience of their abilities. It’s all show. And it’s a show that many want to believe in. Most of the time, that is all you need.
EDINBURGH (FRIDAY 21ST OF JUNE)
The spirits must have known I was coming to Edinburgh tonight as they sabotaged my Sat-Nav and got me hopelessly lost after the Forth Road Bridge. Added to this a brake cover rusted off its bracket making my front left wheel squeal and squeak with every revolution. This noise was magnified ten-fold in the echo chamber of the multi-storey carpark, so any possible prospect of stealth was destroyed.
Tonight’s venue is a Unitarian Church which is an actual church although it looks like a simple, Georgian townhouse from the outside. Inside, there are several, banks of wooden pews arranged in the usual semi-circle around the pulpit and stage. There are Unitarian Church and Conan Doyle flyers on the wooden pew tables but no bibles, no crosses on the walls or stain glassed windows, the overall effect is still churchy but without the usual painful iconography. I’m confused by this meeting of Spiritualism and Christianity, not so long-ago mediums would have been ostracised by all churches, further back they were tying similar heretics in sacks then throwing them into rivers. Tonight’s event has been organised by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre. Arthur Conan Doyle is famed for creating the famous Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes who championed reason and scientific method. However, Conan Doyle was also a committed Spiritualist who claimed to frequently converse with the dead and who was fooled into believing that fairies were dancing at the bottom of a garden by two mischievous schoolgirls.
I take a seat four rows from the front then scan the room seeing many mystic looking crones of which around 20% are male. There are many retirees, a surprising amount with either blue or pink tinted hair. I’m pleased to recognise the blonde Elvira from the Perth event while Karen Docherty is several rows behind, stony faced and studying everyone intently. A youngish couple are sitting in front of me looking worried and tired, I decide that they have probably lost a child and maybe hope to contact him or her tonight.
The room has slowly filled to around three quarters full when an older woman grabs the mic and addresses the audience introducing herself as the Conan Doyle Centre Chairperson. She starts rambling on about all the various courses, seminars and workshops that the centre provides then finally introduces tonight’s medium. Lisa Williams is a bone fide ‘Celebrity Medium’ having presented a popular US TV series and made many chat show appearances across the globe. Although born in Birmingham she now resides in the United States: the epicentre of all thing’s spiritualism and evangelical. It’s fair to say she’s achieved the kind of success that all mediums aspire to. According to the flyer provided she claims to communicate with the dead, investigates haunted houses, conducts other spirit-seeking activities and is descended from a long line of English mediums and spiritualists.
Williams struts onto the small stage and is greeted with an enthusiastic burst of applause and a couple of woops of delight. She looks a little more frayed than her photoshopped website pictures and a touch heavier around the torso. She’s wearing a stylish, white blouse with blue, floral patterning and black trousers giving her an overall ‘soccer mom’ appearance rather than celebrity.
‘Can you hear me okay? I wasn’t sure if my microphone is working,’ she says. ‘It’s so lovely to be here. How many people have never seen this type of thing before?’
She identifies two people raising their hands and thanks them especially for attending.
‘How many here are practicing mediums?’ asks Williams. A mass of eager hands reaches for the sky like clubbers at a rave. There must be about 30 mediums, all sitting in the front pews. I turn back and notice that Karen Docherty isn’t raising her hand in solidarity.
‘Own It, own it,’ calls Williams. ‘How many people are here to do Forensics? We’ll be working on real life cases.’ Again, the front two rows all raise their hands.
Forensic mediumship is the following day’s workshop taught by Williams in the Conan Doyle Centre. The course claims to show how to breakdown evidence supplied from spirits and extra sensory perception which aids police in solving important cases. This type of claim demonstrates mediumship at its most opportunistic and callous. Every highly, publicised missing person or abduction case attracts mediums like flies to a rotting carcass. Mediums are always keen to draw attention to their involvement in these high, profile cases while the Police rarely acknowledge any of their involvement.
I’m struck by William’s confidence in front of a large crowd, she’s clearly at ease in front of an audience and instantly builds a rapport.
‘I’m going to explain how I work,’ says the medium. ‘I personally like to blend English mediumship with American mediumship which I have a love hate relationship with, in that’s very message based. Of course, my English accent isn’t put on, so I try to connect more with my English mediumship abilities. I like feedback, so If you relate to anything please let me know. I never get offended by “No”. I delve into that “No”. If something resonates with you after the event come back to me later Facebook. Also, I’m very, very much spirit based and spirit centred. I want to make friends with the spirit’.
‘Now, I need you to hold the microphone like an ice cream and make sure I hear you as I am partially deaf and I don’t have my glasses to see you, so help me with the microphone. If I give you a name and it’s close, think outside the box, involve all the audience. Let’s communicate. And basically, that’s it. I wander around and give people messages. I like to have fun. For everyone to be relaxed’.
She goes on to joke about the American sense of humour and Donald Trump, then describes her recent visit to Mary’s Close, a haunted alleyway used in Edinburgh’s many ghost walks. She stresses the importance of accepting any sort of link with the messages she receives no matter how tenuous, explaining that her spirit connections can often get muddled.
‘Ok, are we good?’ asks Williams to the audience.
‘YES’ bellow the audience like a pantomime crowd.
‘Ok, let’s talk to some Dead people. Now, I have a young girl that is coming through. Actually, she’s not a young girl, she’s a teenager, she’s 16. She’s showing me a car accident, or she got hit by a car. A friend of yours?’ Asks Williams to the overall audience. ‘I’m getting a school friendship link also s giving me, I might be wrong so don’t take a definite, I’ve got Amanda or Mandy and I’m being drawn directly in front of me.’
Two people in the front pews raise their hands to signify recognition. A woman recognises the girl but not the names so is discarded in favour of a middle aged, bald man in a blue checked shirt.
‘You recognise the name?’ asks Williams to the man.
‘Yes, the name and she was the daughter of my school friend, my old neighbour,’ replies the man.
‘And she passed in a car accident?’
‘She walked in front of a car.’
‘Perfect, got it. Sometimes we get double messages. I know the name is very strong. She makes me aware that you were like an Uncle?’
‘The name is very strong. She’s very noisy. So, what does Alan mean?’
‘Oh, ehm, Yes.’
‘Don’t worry about that, I’ll leave it with you. Now I’m getting felt pens, remember that smell? It’s giving me a bit of a headache. And I’m getting a connection to a letter in purple writing that may be smelly?’
‘Thank you darling’ answers Williams to the spirit. Unlike the other medium’s Williams chats with the spirits as if they are standing on the stage, she then relays these messages to the sitting audience member.
‘She just told me there’s also a Birthday coming that is significant?’ asks Williams to the man.
‘That’s my Mum’s,’ replies the man.
‘But she’s not crossed, she’s still with us, yes? She wants to say Happy Birthday. I’m assuming that she knew your Mum?’
‘Well my Grandma was like a Mum to her.’
‘Ok, I understand love,’ says Williams to the spirit of the child before turning to the man.
‘She’s drawing my attention to her shoes, asking me do you like my shoes? Her shoes are important. And her clothes are very connected and important to her?’
‘Yes,’ replies the man. ‘Her mother still has as the clothes that she was knocked down in.’
‘Thank you,’ says Williams to the spirit. ‘Ok, so you understand there’s an elderly woman with her and that must be your Grandma?’
‘Now she’s telling me that she realises that your Mum may not believe in the woo woo world but it’s important that you do. In fact, you work in the mediumship world, don’t you? And you took her through and crossed back over, yes?’ asks Williams.
‘Yes.’ replies the man while chuckling.
‘She’s bringing me a gin and tonic, I’m not sure why and I’m not sure if it’s you that drinks the gin and tonic or your mum. She’s letting me know that she’s having a great time, and everything is okay. She’s saying your car needs cleaning and there’s lots of seeing chocolate wrappers inside. Somebody is supposed to be on a diet but there’s chocolate wrappers in the car?’
A woman next to man laughs and admits, ‘That’s me.’
‘Well, all I can say is, BUSTED’ replies Williams sparking the whole audience into laughter. ‘Is your father in spirit?’
‘Now he’s just come in and put his arm around your grandmother and I’m getting the sense that you were close to him?’
‘Yes, very close.’
‘He was a quiet man? He used to shuffle around but a gorgeous guy. I’m seeing tobacco on his fingers as if he was a heavy smoker and I’m getting a strong, strong smell of smoke.’
Clairalience or clear smelling is the supposed ability to smell a spirit or characteristics associated with them.
‘He just wants everybody to know that he is okay and that he has got her. So, I’ll leave that with you.’
‘Yes, yes, thank you.’
‘Now, just one more question I have a fire fighter in spirit, does that mean anything?’
‘No, not really’, answers the man.
‘Ok, I must be switching over to the next spirit, so I’ll leave that with you darling.’
A spontaneous round of applause fills the room to signify a change, so I join in.
‘I want you to clap as it cuts the energy,’ instructs Williams to the audience. ‘It’s very hard getting the message but sometimes a clap raises vibrations and changes the energy. I don’t care if you clap for me or not. is that okay?’
‘YES’ bellows the audience.
‘Ok, so all this is a bit strange to me as they usually kick me out of churches. I’m seeing those Cadbury’s chocolate eggs and somebody here tonight was eating them on the way here tonight. I’m a Vegan so not allowed to eat them and it’s one of those things that I miss the most. I’m still connected to a fire fighter or somebodies Dad who was in the forces or the military or in uniform.’
I resist the urge not to scream ‘Cadbury’s cream eggs are only sold in Easter months’ and instead sit back and admire the William’s deft combination of both Piggybacking and Shotgunning.
‘Ok, my love’ says the medium to a spirit before returning to the audience with, ‘I’m getting pulled to the back of the room this time’.
A woman at the very back of the church raises her hand and the microphone is passed along.
‘Ok, so this is your Father?’
‘Grandfather,’ answers the woman
‘And your grandfather was in the forces? And you like Cadbury’s eggs or he used to give you these eggs for Easter?’
‘He’s is a funny guy and he lost weight by the end. He was quite a stocky chap. Do you understand a tattoo on the arm?’
‘No, that is somebody else.’
‘That person with a tattoo is still with us?’
Williams stops to listen to the spirit then returns to the woman.
‘Did he have a brother?
‘Was he in the service?’
‘Now, I’m getting a tattoo of someone in spirit, maybe somebody with your Grandfather maybe called Fred?’
‘Ok, I think I’m getting messages mixed up, let’s get back to your Grandparents. Now your Gran is in spirit too?’
‘She’s a character, a great laugh but also a bit of a busybody. I love her, I call these nosey people curtain twitchers.’
Williams has got a far more evolved stage presence and appears far more experienced and refined in her interactions with the audience. She keeps the performance upbeat and interesting, interjecting jokes and humorous comments despite often wandering off her chosen subject and person.
‘Ok I hear you darling,’ says Williams to the spirit before returning to address the woman.
‘Now, she’s saying that something in your life means you need a pick me up. And she wants you to know that it’s all going to be okay and when you look up to the sky at night and you see the stars twinkling that’s her winking down to you. Now you can’t see (to the audience) but she’s getting a little bit emotional at the back but it’s good to have a cry. Now she’s mentioning a ring that is very important and she’s warning you not to lose it,’
‘Yes.’ answers the woman snivelling.
‘And she’s referencing a boy. Do you have a son?’
‘They want you to know he’s a credit to you and you’ve done a fabulous job of being a Mum to your boy. They’re both proud of you. And do you have a dog in spirit?’
‘Well, the dog has just come through to say hello.’
‘And with that I think that we’ll leave it with that, okay.’
As recommended applause meets the end of the connection. I’m baffled by the mix of spirit, medium and audience member in the conversation. It’s impressive to witness William’s ability to measure and captivate a crowd but there’s little psychokinesis to be marvelled at.
‘So, I’ve got a feeling this new gentleman was a medic or a nurse? Oh, come on darling. I’ve got a woman now, pushing her way into place. So, I’ve got two people. He was a medic in the army but had an awful bedside manner and she was also a medic. Does this make sense to you?’ says Williams to a middle-aged woman with her hand raised.
‘Yes. I worked with him,’ answers the woman.
Williams admits that she knows this audience member and that she is one of the following day’s students and an aspiring medium. Unsurprisingly, the woman is perfectly accommodating and goes on to answer every question with gusto. Everybody in the front three rows are gobbling up William’s performance like teenagers watching a boyband. At one point a woman in the corner seat turns around and faces the audience, I’m struck by her Bambi eyed look of satisfaction as if she is watching a guru master at work. I begin to ignore the medium and become entranced by the acolytes collected faces in the first row only being snapped out of my interest by another round of applause. Williams goes on to link with other spirits with waiting audience members, she highlights more subjects such as shoes, medical ailments, pets and household ornaments. Each pontification seized upon like ducks eating bread.
‘So, I’ve got a younger guy and believe he rode a motorbike, or he died suddenly on a motorbike?’ asks Williams to the audience.
A tubby middle-aged man in a middle row raises his hand to claim the connection. Everybody waits as the microphone is passed from one side of the congregation all the way to the other side.
‘Yes.’ proclaims the man in a deep voice.
‘Now, he became very excited when you took the microphone and he’s saying, “He’s your boy”.’
‘Well, he was like a son to me, I used to take him fishing.’
‘And he’s been through from the spirit world to meet you before? This isn’t the first time?’
‘I’m not sure, but I’m getting a birthday soon?’
‘That would be the wives.’
‘Now, he’s so grateful to you both for all you did for him.’
‘He’s telling me that he knew he wasn’t going to be long on Earth. Now, he’s also telling me he knows that there was something wrong with the bike that caused the crash?’
‘Well, he was riding a bike that his Father bought him, but it went off the road and hit a lamppost and he was killed instantly.’
‘Now, I’m getting another dog coming through, and she’s Pitbull or a mastiff, one of those lockjaw dogs. She used to jump on your lap and slabber all over you?’
‘She just put her paw up to say hello.’
This latest connection seems completely ridiculous. Not only can Williams speak to the dead but also dead pets. I ponder if Williams understands barking or if the dog is speaking English to her. Any of my deep consideration however is obliterated by profound sense of stupidity for attending such a farce and for parting with my hard-earned cash then driving two hours down the road. I get the impression that Lisa Williams could say anything to this crowd, and they’d suck it up, I however have had enough, and I begin to zone out. The last thing I recall is a cat spirit being invited on stage and a woman who accepted a connection with the claim: ‘My Aunty Mary’s Dad was a lorry driver and his friend lost a leg’.
Again, I’m totally unimpressed and unconvinced despite this medium being one of the most celebrated and famous in the field. William’s has an amiable style and she builds a convincing rapport with her audience, but all her intuition is achieved through wide guesses and a cooperative audience. She simply inundates her audience with questions then picks through the reactions. There’s no supernatural ability bar the capacity to talk, talk, talk then roll with the answers. She reminds me of one of those butchers working out of a caravan at a market or a salesman hawking knife sets, egg slicers or miracle cleaning fluids. ‘A Yap’ as the locals say.
On the way home My Sat Nav refuses to update its signal in time, so I miss important turn offs and end up in the south of the city, extremely lost. It’s well past midnight until I finally pull into my driveway, shattered.
The following Friday and I have the night off but I’m attending ‘An audience with Ally McCoist,’ a charity event where a famous, old footballer entertains a large, drunken crowd about his career. On the journey down to Dundee I mention to my co-passengers that I have been attending the medium events in the previous weeks and so far, I’ve been unimpressed with the results.
My friend in the back of the car is as sceptical as me but the driver (another pal’s father) is far more believing in the subject. He tells us that he thinks there are a certain amount of people who have genuine psychic gifts and possess the ability to speak to spirits of the dead. He then describes how he and his close family (sisters and mother) used to get regular readings from a local mystic called Madame Rosa. In these readings the gypsy styled medium revealed deeply personal details that the sitter had never previously shared to anyone and passed on insightful messages from long, dead relatives. I try to appear ambiguous while explaining the methods the mediums use and the psychology of piecing this altogether, but he is still convinced of the Madame’s powers. The conversation tails off with some daft remarks and shared laughs so that nobody is offended by the differing set of beliefs and we return to reminiscing about Ally McCoist.
This is an opinion that I have met regularly i.e. ‘I don’t believe in any of that rubbish, but there was one time my mum/sister/aunty/uncle went to a medium and ….’ Every time I have shared my attendance of these events people are initially scathing in response however eventually, there is always a caveat of a personal, supernatural anecdote or passed on tale. It’s easy to shoot holes in any of these shared stories and douse the embers of supernaturalism with the cold, wet logic of science but this in turn also ruins the imaginative entertainment of storytelling.
As a gardener you often have cut down many types of trees, one of these being the Rowan. The Rowan is a very beautiful tree with its feather like leaves, silver branches and bright red berries but for whatever daft reason there’s a lot of superstition around them. Last century, Scottish householders would often plant a pair of Rowans at each side of the entrance of a garden to protect both the house and its’s inhabitants from evil spirits and malevolent entities. Whenever a customer chooses to have a Rowan felled my Dad (who is also my boss) suddenly becomes very superstitious despite normally being a very practical man. By his reckoning a relative once cut down a Rowan tree in his garden and was dead within days due to some sort of curse or the removal of the tree’s spiritual protection. As a result, the Rowan tree remains standing and left for another less scrupulous gardener to come and cut it to the ground. Its wild nonsense of course, total hokum yet there’s always a little squabble over this clash of superstition and reason. If my Dad is not around the tree will be cut down and nothing will ever happen but if he’s in that garden we let him rule the day not because of any respect for superstition but rather that its less hassle and squabbling slows the day down and makes the workday exponentially harder. This is how superstition and the supernatural become generally accepted, not because the belief holds any credibility but it’s easier to feign tolerance and carry on with your day.
Where are all the Bees?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”.
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.
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’
The stunned fighter feels the shuddering of the canvas and wakes from his slumber.
‘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.
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 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.
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.
Maria was late and still had to cross the city. She had crawled into her pit four hours before still drunk from a house party but luckily the clunk of the letter box had awoken her shallow slumber. She rose, washed and changed into her blue uniform in barely a minute, stopping only to quickly gander into the mirror and fix her hair. She then stepped into the brightness of a Saturday morning and scoured the streets for a taxi but typically there were none around. She paused, momentarily confused and felt some dredges of booze soothe her skull. No taxis, no car, and no options she thought. The hospital was fifteen minutes by taxi but that was through a convoluted maze of side streets and traffic laden roads. She regularly went jogging around the park which lay beside her flat so she figured that she could maybe cut across it and reach her work in under ten minutes. She jumped back inside the house and climbed the stairs to her bedroom where Mark was still snoring below the duvet. Her dainty work shoes were hopeless for running so she slipped her trainers on and put the shoes into her handbag. Back down on the street she set off at her jogging pace taking her usual route down Turnoak Avenue then onto Claremont Avenue where football fans were already massing for the early afternoon match. There were two sets of fans: the red and white of Woking FC, which she saw fortnightly, but she didn’t recognise the red and blue stripes of the others. She smiled and thought of her father who could name any football shirt in Europe at a glance, he would know.
‘Where you going in such a hurry luv, you’re going to miss the match,’ said one of the visiting fans smoking a cigarette outside the pub.
She ignored the man but noted the local accent then carried on down the road feeling a cold stream of sweat run down the middle of her back. The previous night’s booze was beginning to ooze out of her pours and she hoped her patients wouldn’t notice. The streets were far busier on a Saturday morning, teeming with people criss-crossing over roads and racing down the pavements. She often marvelled at this hotchpotch mix of people and felt comforted being a foreigner herself. In London there was everyone, from every continent and all crammed into this rabbit hutch metropolis, climbing over each other and jostling for an edge. Maria kept to the edge of the pavement but continually had to stop, parry and avoid the other pedestrians. She nearly collided with an old Asian man unloading stock into his shop but swivelled around him like a downhill skier at the last second.
‘Perdon,’ she cried before jogging on.
She passed the Argentinian restaurant where she had once had a stand up row with the owner, crossed over the roundabout, got into the park then bounded through the fields of cut grass like a panicked hare. Once she was into the hospital car park she slowed her pace so not to appear too hurried.
‘Did you run all the way from town Maria?’ asked old Strachan who was lurking by the entrance.
‘Morning Sir. Well, you know it’s healthier than a taxi,’ replied Maria puffed out from the run.
‘And cheaper, but I’m not sure your patients will appreciate the footwear,’ said Strachan with a nod to her feet.
‘I have my shoes in my bag Sir.’
‘Well, you better get in. Don’t want you resorting back to Colombian time,’ said Strachan.
‘Sorry Sir, It won’t happen again.’
‘I know Maria, I know, I was only joshing, you’re the best we have,’ said Strachan before heading for his car.
She looked at her watch as she passed through the automatic doors pleased that it was still before ten. As always she deducted six hours and wondered what her family were doing back home in Florencia.
Claude pushed his head through the hole at the top of the shirt and let it fall around his body. The shirt was brilliant blue with the club crest covering his heart. He puffed out his chest and smiled, taking a second to compare himself with Didier Drogba on his bedroom wall, another African that had become a hero for Chelsea. The same football club had sent the shirt along with polo shirts and tracksuits together with money for his family. At first he had been hesitant at their invitation for a trial in England, not eager to travel so far from this new home, not wanting to start again after just becoming settled but he knew it was an opportunity that could not be missed. He looked around at his box room which he shared with his brothers then joined his family downstairs. His mother was packing some fruit and sandwiches into his rucksack.
‘Mama, I told you I cannot take that onto the airplane,’ whined Claude.
‘Then you can eat it before you leave, those airlines never give you enough food,’ replied his mother.
His younger brothers were sitting on the floor playing the PlayStation. They looked up at him in his tracksuit and playfully mocked him as a big football superstar. His Father sat up from the sofa and pulled Claude into a crushing bear hug.
‘Show those English coaches how good a player you are son, after you get settled I will come and visit, it’s not even 2 hours on a plane,’ said his father.
‘Ok papa, I’ll skype you when I arrive,’ croaked Claude.
He turned to his mother who was holding out his rucksack. She was struggling to contain herself so he put down the rucksack and hugged her.
‘It is okay mama, London is not far away,’ said Claude.
‘I’m so proud of you my baby, you are going on a huge adventure, listen to your coaches and don’t forget your studies, be careful on those streets and don’t trust anyone,’ said his mother.
‘Anything else, should I write this all down,’ joked Claude.
‘Yes, never forget that you can come home if you don’t like it,’ said his mother.
‘Hey you two, the next time you see me I’ll be on TV scoring against Liverpool,’ said Claude to his younger brothers.
‘Yes, but Chelsea will still lose 5-1, ha ha,’ said Fabrice before jumping onto David.
His family gathered at the front door and waved goodbye as he got into the car. His uncle drove him to the airport, reminding the boy of his footballing weaknesses and strengths after each separate manoeuvre of his car. When they stopped at the airport his uncle reached into the back seat of his car and gave Claude a brand new football, the type they used in the World Cup.
Ivan sweltered in the relentless heat of the jungle. The deep foliage that canopied the camp acted like a greenhouse, trapping the heat and circulating the sour air. He had been summoned once again to lend his expertise and oversee this laborious process. An old soldier wise to the ways of the Government troops and skilled in the production of coco paste. He watched the labourers tip plastic sacks of dried coco leaves into the tarpaulin lined pit till they heaped into a large, green mound. The leaves were then scrunched and mulched by a garden strimmer before various chemicals were bucketed in to create a thick, dirty, green soup. Ivan then walked through the mess, wading like a fisherman retrieving a stricken fish from the sea. He was unusually meticulous for a coca producer and performed the process with the diligence of a bomb maker. He did not always like this job but he was determined to be the best, a trait that was recognised by his employers and amply rewarded for. His earnings had funded his eldest daughter’s time at University and now she was a Doctor in London. He hoped for the same for his younger daughter who was about to leave school and move to Medellin to study. Through all this process Ivan was being studied intently by Diego, a sneering young Narco who was leaning against a tree with a machine gun hung around his neck. Ivan stared in disgust at the young man, another street kid that had evolved into a thug with just enough intelligence to pull a trigger and little else. The thug wore a vivid blue football shirt, dirty shorts and some expensive trainers which seemed laughably impractical for the jungle and indiscreet for the job at hand.
The unnatural waft of the hospital braced her as Maria passed through the sliding doors. A clean but cutting reek like smell of weed killer. She weaved passed the visitors that were always blocking the hall and took the lift to the third floor. The common room was empty so she reached inside her handbag, grabbed her deodorant and skooshed the sweaty parts under her uniform. She stuffed her bag into her metal locker and returned to the lift. Maria always used the eight seconds the elevator took to set her badge, tidy her clothing and steady herself for the bedlam below. She counted herself lucky to have landed such a sedate post at Woking Community Clinic. Previously she had had to work in Medellin’s main hospital where gunshot wounds and major trauma were a nightly norm. Since leaving Colombia she had worked her way through London’s hospitals gathering experience till she was a finely tuned practitioner in the ease of human suffering. After a couple of years she was rewarded for her toil with this cushy little post on the outskirts of London. The automatic doors eased open revealing the busy hive of the minor injuries unit. She approached the reception desk where the shift nurse was trying record the details of mumbling, confused old man.
‘Anything for me today,’ asked Maria to Helen the shift nurse, a chunky, black woman who Maria counted as a friend.
‘Buenas dias, Doctor,’ said the nurse before handing her a clipboard with clamped sheets listing her morning’s work.
‘Muchas gracias amiga, all good this morning?’ asked Maria.
‘Ah, you know. The usual, drunks, punks and skunks to deal with, oh and an actor from EastEnders with a very suspicious injury,’ whispered the nurse with a nod down.
‘Very interesting, which actor? Is he still here?’
‘Nope, he left after we tidied him up, I’ll tell all later,’ replied the nurse with a wink.
Saturday mornings were always strange shifts. There was a weird lull following the madness of Friday nights. A brief respite for the doctors and nurses to catch a coffee, grab a fag or zone out in the lunch room. At ten in the morning, the drunks had been arrested, the maniacs sedated, the critical moved on and hypochondriacs subdued. Still there was a steady flow of accidents, frantic parents and hyperventilating grannies all demanding attention. Maria scanned the waiting room for any pressing states and tried to match the sheets to any worried relatives. There was a middle aged couple sitting by the coffee machine staring into the adjacent ward. Maria noticed their hands clasped together, their knuckles stretched and bare like tree roots and took this as a plea for help.
‘Hi, my name is Doctor Suarez, is there anything I can do?’ asked Maria.
‘It’s our little girl Doctor, she’s through there in a right state after a rave,’ said the man pointing to the ward. ‘We don’t know much, only she’s been taken here in the ambulance. Her sister called us see.’
‘Okay, what’s her name?’ asked Maria.
‘Becky, I mean Rebecca, Rebecca Townsend,’ said the father.
Maria thumbed through the papers until she found Rebecca’s sheet.
‘Okay, Rebecca Townsend, twenty-two, came in at eight thirty with a sprained ankle,’ said Maria.
The mother squinted her eyes then ripped her hand from her husband’s palm.
‘Sprained ankle?’ squealed the mother ‘I’ll bluddy kill her, I thought she’d overdosed on ecstasy or something.’
‘Can we go through and see her Doctor?’ asked the father.
‘I don’t see why not although I’d imagine she’ll be ready to go soon,’ replied Maria.
Three days after his arrival and Claude had still not been given the opportunity to impress his hosts. He had still not seen the stadium and still not seen any star players or even a first team coach. He had been housed in Chelsea’s training complex in a town called Cobham, which lay an hour outside London city centre. His room was impressive and more swish than any hotel he had ever been in, even having its own bathroom and shower. On the first night he carried his laptop around the room and building to show his family the extravagance. There were about a dozen other boys from around world sharing the building. At night he chatted with the Africans and played table tennis with a boy from Toulouse but the Latin American kids seemed shy and their English was poor. His days consisted of: early breakfast, training sessions, lunch, study then further training in the afternoon but his evenings were free. At night he read his English workbooks and watched films on his laptop but he soon became bored and grew eager to see a bit more of London. He had watched a movie about some young men that had travelled to South America by performing football skills and marvelled at the amounts of money they had earned. He thought this might be a good idea to earn a little cash so on Friday night he decided that he would to venture out with his ball the next morning. His new English teacher advised him not to go into the city but to the nearest town called Woking that was only ten miles down the road. On Saturday there was to be a big derby match between Woking FC, a lower league club and a top league giant called Crystal Palace. After breakfast the next morning he caught the bus to Esher and sat up the front near the driver.
‘Going to the match son? You’re in the wrong colours,’ said the bus driver.
‘Oh, I’m a Chelsea trainee at Cobham,’ replied Claude catching the driver’s face in a big mirror above the driver.
‘Oh yeah, the next big star eh? Where you from son?’
‘I’m from Cote D’Voire, I mean the Ivory Coast but I live in Paris.’
‘Oh yeah, just like Drogba eh? What position you play?’
‘What you got your ball for Drogba? Gonna try and get a game?’ asked the driver with a smile.
‘I thought I could do keepy up on the streets near the stadium and get a little money,’ replied Claude.
The bus pulled into a stop on a busy street.
‘This is your stop here son, you need to take the next train down to Woking, take about twenty minutes,’ said the driver. ‘Hey Drogba, watch yourself son. There’s a lot of boozed up nutters at our matches and not all will appreciate your shirt, na what a mean’.
‘I’ll be careful, thanks for your help,’ replied Claude
He took the train down to Woking and found a spot nearby Woking’s stadium, shaped his tracksuit into a nest then started to perform tricks with his ball.
Diego prowled like a lizard around the pit studying Ivan’s every move. His teeth were black and ruined like rotting daffodils and face rutted from abuse. He toyed with his machine gun, clicking the safety clip back and forward then holding it with one hand in the air. Ivan almost pitied the young idiot but also feared his wildness having seen this cause many needless deaths. The chemicals from the green slurry were choking so Ivan pulled his scarf over his nose.
‘I don’t have a scarf man,’ said Diego.
‘Then break a cigarette and put it up your nose,’ replied Ivan.
The thug pulled two cigarettes from his pack, broke one of them inserted each half into his nostrils. He lit the other and leaned back against a large tree.
‘How old are your daughters old man?’ asked Diego.
‘Maria is 28 now and Tatiana is 17’ answered Ivan.
‘17 eh, almost a woman,’ sneered the Narco with a chuckle. ‘Maybe, I’ll be luckier with Tati than Maria eh?’ The thug glowered at Ivan eager to incite a response.
‘Why are you trying to provoke me? Why are you here Diego?’ spat Ivan.
The thug jumped down from his position and approached Ivan who was mixing the soup with a long handled shovel.
‘To learn from the master, to study and learn so all your expertise is not lost,’ said Diego.
“Be careful of your cigarette. Lost? Am I going somewhere?’ asked Ivan.
‘Well, you won’t be around forever old man and someone must replace you.’
Ivan was first to hear the strange sound from the valley; a distant, constant pulse that spat through the air.
‘What is that? Is it an animal?’ asked Diego.
‘Worse. Far worse,’ replied Ivan.
Suddenly the leaves were blasted apart with wild squalls of air and the sky roared with the thunderous chop of rotor blades. The Army had pounced upon them like jaguars. A man bellowed down upon them with a megaphone ordering them not to resist and put down their weapons. The workers dived to the floor cowering under the din of the helicopter, petrified but wise enough not to flee. Diego aimed at the chopper and sprayed it with a wild, torrent of bullets which clunked of the armoured windows of the pilot. The metal wasp banked then then repositioned above them.
‘What are you doing you fool,’ scolded Ivan.
The Narco laughed, turned to Ivan and pointed the gun at him.
‘You were never going to leave the jungle alive today old man,’ said Diego.
Before he could fire a rinse of ammunition ripped through Diego shredding his football shirt before tipping him into the green soup. Ivan turned and ran, ran like a rabbit, ran past the pit and down the hidden warren paths and into the cover of the jungle. He bounded down the paths fuelled by the fear of capture. At the bottom of the cocoa field he climbed into a hide and covered himself with branches. He sat and waited, waited for long hours until the boots of the soldiers stopped battering along the paths. He cowered and listened to their conversations not daring to look. When night fell and the soldiers finally returned to their trucks Ivan dozed off until morning when beams of early sunlight peaked through the leaves. He then quietly uncovered himself and made his way down the path until he came to the back garden of his house. His wife, Isabella was waiting in the kitchen.
‘I saw the helicopters and thought you had been arrested,’ said Isabella.
‘I nearly was and worse,’ replied Ivan.
‘So what will we do?’
‘We have to leave Isa, and we have to leave today. I was lucky, the Narcos had plans for me tonight.’
‘Are the Army looking for you?’ asked Isabella.
‘No but the Narcos will be.’
‘Where shall we go?’
‘To my sisters in Quito, we can take the truck to the border then crossover at night.’
‘What shall we pack, what can we take?’
‘Everything you need, everything you love,’ said Ivan.
The ball made a delightful ping as Claude chipped it spinning into the air. He trapped the ball against his ankle then rolled it up the inside of his leg before flicking it over his head and onto the back of his neck. He had a full array of tricks and skills to impress. A mother with two children stopped and applauded his tricks then chucked a pound coin into his tracksuit before walking on. A couple of young men with blue and red shirts then approached him from the side.
‘Paaaalace, Paaaalace,’ bellowed one of the men in his face.
He was stout, mid-twenties with an old style comb over and mouth like a frog. He snatched the ball from Claude’s arms then started mock dribbling with his friends. It pained Claude to see his beloved ball being scuffed and scratched on the tarmac. Frogface passed the ball to his fat friend then turned to Claude.
‘You Chelsea scum, wot you doing on these streets with that shirt?’ asked the man.
‘This is my uniform, I’m a Chelsea trainee,’ replied Claude.
‘Anutha fucking foreigner, no wonder our nashnal team is so shit when you lot keep coming over,’ snarled the man.
‘Can I have my ball back please,’ asked Claude.
‘It’s our ball now,’ replied the man.
He reached for his ball but the man twisted around and knocked Claude down with a clout to his mouth. Claude reeled back and landed flat on his backside. He tried to rise but his legs buckled like melted ice poles. Dazed, he lay down on the gritty pavement and felt a groggy wave wash over him. The woman with the children screamed at the louts so they bolted leaving Claude’s ball in the gutter. Claude woozily came around with a ring of strangers looking down upon him.
‘You alright dahling, you ok? It’s alright we saw everything, don’t worry luv we’ll get em,’ said the woman with the children.
His lip stung as the woman dabbed it with a handkerchief. He felt himself being lifted in the air then down into the seat of a taxi then motored along a busy road. The taxi pulled into a car park then the driver lifted Claude through some automatic doors and into the reception of a hospital. A nurse directed the driver into a ward where Claude was placed onto a bed where he instantly began to cry.
Maria flipped through the pages on the clipboard as she walked into the ward. A young man in a Chelsea tracksuit was lying on the bed nearest the door his face stained with tears.
‘You look like you have been in a war?’ asked Maria.
‘I was attacked by some men just because my shirt, I don’t understand,’ replied the patient.
‘Let me see chico,’ asked Maria.
Maria inspected the young man’s mouth noting a butterfly stitch that a nurse had applied. His lip was bruised but the injury was superficial and his teeth were not damaged.
‘Where are you from?’ asked Maria.
‘I am from Cote D’Ivoire, I mean the Ivory Coast. I am a trainee with Chelsea, at Cobham,’ replied the young man.
‘The next big star, like Falcoa or James Rodriguez?’ asked Maria.
Maria noticed the young man’s eyes registering her football knowledge and smiled.
‘You are from Colombia?’ asked the young man.
‘Yes, my name is Doctor Maria Suarez, and yours?’
‘Claude, Claude Adebayo’.
‘Well Claude have you talked to the Police yet?’
‘It is better that the Police are not involved Doctor as my coaches will not be pleased and they will tell my family, who will worry,’ said Claude.
‘Well, I think you’re ready to leave Claude if you don’t want to hang about for the Police.’
Maria looked at Claude and noticed the collar of his tracksuit was stained red. He was still a little shaky but had recovered after a shock.
‘I’ll tell you what, stay here for five minutes and I’ll be back, ok?’ said Maria.
She took the elevator back up to the common room and reached inside her bag for her purse, taking the £30 in notes from it. She noticed that her phone was illuminated and she had missed seven phone calls, all unknown which meant home. She dialled her home number and waited for an answer.
“Hello, Maria?” answered her mother.
‘Mama, what is wrong?’
‘Maria, where have you been? I’ve been trying to call for hours. It’s your father, he has gotten himself into trouble and now we have to leave Florencia and Colombia for good.’
‘Are you ok?’ asked Maria.
‘We are all ok, but we have to leave,’ replied her mother.
‘Where will you go mama?’
‘We will go and stay with your Aunt Lucia in Quito until we figure out what to do. Maria, speak to your father.’
‘Hello, Maria,’ said Ivan.
‘Are you Okay Papa?’
‘Yes, I am okay. It was a matter of time Maria. It could not last, this time I was lucky’
‘Papa, are the policia looking for you?’
‘No, but the narcos will be so we must leave tonight and get to Ecuador.’
Maria stared at the notice board in the common room frantically trying to dredge some inspiration from smiley faces in the National Health leaflets.
‘No Papa, you must go to Bogota for a few days then come to London. You can come here, at least till everything has calmed down,’ said Maria.
‘But Maria, your job,’ said Ivan.
‘That doesn’t matter, there is no other option. You must come here. Everything will be okay once you get here.’
‘But what about our things?’
‘You can leave them with the neighbours, no one will steal them. Trust me Papa, everything will be okay if you come here, then we can work everything out. Get to the city first then call me at night. I have to go Papa I’m at work, speak soon,’ said Maria.
Maria dumped her phone back into her handbag then took the elevator back down to the ward. Her mind was whirling. Claude was sitting on the edge of the bed waiting. She took his hand and walked him to the hospital entrance where there was a taxi waiting for outpatients.
‘Here chico, take this money and go directly back to your lodgings, tell your coaches you walked into a window or something. And next time remember the colour of the strip is sometimes more important than the colour of your skin in London, okay?’ said Maria.
“Okay”, replied Claude before he climbed into the taxi.
Its not so much our relative success in the opening fixtures of the 2016 qualification campaign but the way we are doing it that is really pleasing. Gordon Strachan has instilled a confidence in the players not only in their abilities but the whole attitude to the game. Not long ago we were being bullied into submission by even 3rd rate European teams, submitting possession and chances to likes of Georgia and Poland. Now we are dominating them in the midfield, passing around them and harrying defenders like never before.
When is the last time we saw Scotland play the ball, on the ground, out of defence?
When was the last time we saw a Scotland team take the lead or even equalise away- to a top Euro team?
Strachan’s team is the totally opposite to a confidence sapped, ultra-defensive Levein 11. Whereas Gordon has inspired and led Levein destroyed buckled.The core of the team that wilted and underperformed under Levein is still there but they appear rejuvenated under fresh charge and eager to please both manager and country. The addition of Ikechi Anya, Robertson and Gordon Greer same to outweighed the loss of Kenny Miller and Kris Commons and the swing away from the pragmatic and dull style of play of old has combined in a reinvigoration and new found belief.
This optimism may come crashing down around our ears next month against table topping Ireland but at least we are still in the mix and have a fighters chance of qualification. I am confident we can beat Ireland at Celtic Park and in the process boost our chances and reign back the Irish into the fold. The Irish seem to be organised and dogged while carrying a fair bit of luck : much like the Scottish national team in before Strachan, but i think we will have more than enough to beat them soundly.