The knock on the door came as they were preparing their luggage. The knock was not entirely unexpected which was why they were throwing everything into their bags in such a hurry in the first place. What was unexpected — or on reflection, perhaps it wasn’t — was that these were the self-same policemen in faded ‘official’ blue shirts over tattered denim cut-offs who had earlier that afternoon accepted a good handful of multi-coloured banknotes generously offered to avoid this very happening. And so, while families were being assisted by this generous donation, it was not the family that had been intended.
Outside the furnace-like heat of midday hadn’t yet given way to the cool breeze that blew in from the iodine ocean. Instead it had solidified to some fourth state of matter both air and liquid, and heavy with the odours of decomposition and wild fruit and exhaust fumes.
The policeman lead them, almost apologetically, through the deserted afternoon streets till they arrived at the backroom of a café, showed them inside, and then closed the door on them.
The rented Jeep had bolted down the track. It was fuelled by musky amber rum and heavy with the fruit mixes and cocktails and crushed ices as it careened like an ice cube on a hot stove along the road. The boombox in the back was blasting a ragga-reggae-dub and scaring the bright hued leaves from the overhanging trees from where they flew off squawking and screaming.
“Wooooow!” Charlie cried out as they hit another pothole and her D&G sunglasses shot off her sun-bleached hair and into the mess of empty bottles and crumpled wrappers at her feet.
“Whazat?” slurred Denny, turning to see Charlie throwing the trash into the air as she dived after her glasses. “Don’t—!”
There was a sudden, maddening, sickening thump at the front of the Jeep. Then a dark mass hit the windscreen and flew overhead.
The car jerked round and left them imprisoned in the damp, too green bushes at the side. The CD in the boombox was stuck and hiccoughed the same riff over and over and over.
“What the—!” Charlie screamed.
She gripped the top of the windscreen and tried to pull herself up. Blood was oozing down her face from a gash on her left eyebrow. She fell backwards into her seat and punched Denny in the ribs.
“Idiot! Frakking idiot! You cretin!” she screamed, punctuating each punch.
Denny lifted his head from the steering wheel, then pushed back violently as the braceletted fists flayed out at him again. Charlie was projected across her seat and against the side of the Jeep from the force of the blow.
“Gerroffamee kid!” he growled. His lower lip was bloody and swelling from the impact with the steering wheel.
Charlie started crying in hysterical gulps before hitting back with the first thing that came to hand.
He pulled the sweet wrapper from her hand, then held her by her wrists until she was still.
“You look like you’ll survive,” he said.
“Doesn’t feel like it!” she spit back.
“I’m climbing out the back,” he said, letting go of her. “You coming?”
Before she could answer, he pushed at the bushes above, grabbed the rollbar and half-climbed, half-fell onto the CD player. It stopped stuttering.
She heard him clamber over the back seats and their bags and then…
“Oh my god!” came Denny’s voice.
She heard her sunglasses crunch underfoot as as she pulled herself up, falling into the back and finally onto the jungle track road where Denny was bent over a form lying like a broken doll in a pool of motor oil.
She sheltered her eyes from the sun then, feeling the world spin, collapsed cross-legged onto the dried earth.
It wasn’t a doll.
They had hit one of the scrawny, ragged kids who played played out in the dust here.
Stupid kid, she thought. Don’t they know it’s dangerous playing out in the road.
Other children and a handful of chickens looked on. The chickens unperturbed, tapped and scratched the packed earth. One of the kids kneehugging a small motorbike circled the scene and then sped off like an angry mosquito.
Denny stood up. He was livid, showing off the blood and swellings on his nose and mouth.
“C’mon Char,” he said, pulling at her elbow. “Let’s get out of here.” She shrugged him off. “Char! Trouble’ll get here any minute. Snap out of it! Let’s move!”
She allowed herself to be lifted up before collapsing down again as soon as he eased his grip. He was about to make another attempt when the two policemen had arrived on rickety bicycles.
The door had closed on them like a sentence with no appeal. The dark room was a prison cell with no release date. All they could do now was wait.
Standing just inside the door, they waited as their eyes adjusted to the obscurity of the room which smelt of damp and rot and old tobacco and other things too.
As they waited, not daring to move or speak, a great white grin appeared in mid air. They heard a deep sigh and then a sharp scratch as light flared and they shaded their eyes. The light flashed white and yellow, then red and orange as the person sitting opposite pulled on a cigar and extinguished the match.
In the dull glow they made out a very large man sitting opposite, across a table. In fact, they could see him now because his skin and clothes were darker than the shadows, a deep lustrous black. Each time he smiled and puffed out a cloud of smoke, his massive white teeth lit up the room.
“Please,” he said, and his voice was deeper than the infrabass on the boombox. “Please, be seated.”
They found chairs just in front, pulled them out and sat down facing him at the table.
“I want to contact the Consulate,” Charlie blurted out.
The man opposite blew out a cloud of smoke.
“You have bring responsibilities upon yourselfs.” The deep voice filled the room. “Now you pay the responsibility. You have great responsibilities now.”
“We did pay,” Denny protested. “The police said—”
The man swiped the air with a hand as large as a frying pan.
“That no my concern. That for the living. I talk for the dead man.”
“Boy,” said Denny. “He’s a… He was a boy. Look I’m really sorry but—”
Again the massive hand swept through the cloud of smoke.
“You want Consulate, you want Police. No problem. You get fair trail.” Fat fingers moved dismissively. “Very fair,” he continued. “And is human society here. Not barbaries like some country. No hanging or garrotte, no injection or electric chair here. You get maybe fifteen year. Out in ten. But you visit prison here? No.” He shook his head. “Is funny. Tourists they come, but they no visit prison here. Prison tell you a lot about a country. Here, only bad man in prison. So prison bad too. No air conditioning. No TV. But food good.” He smiled. “If you got family bring it you, food good, real good. Accommodation so-so. That a disappointment. Room small. She have ten, fifteen people in her. But OK, you know. Each person he wait to sleep. And piss. But prison good for one thing. You alive. I spend three year in prison and I still alive, no?”
His words remained vibrating in the air, like smoke from his cigar.
“But somebody got to care for boy. And that difficult for you in prison. So no prison. You got responsibilities now.”
He paused, and just as if it had been planned, there was a knock, a sort of light tap, at the door behind them.
“Entrez!” called the man.
The light that flooded the room was dim and grey, but for the first time they could see their surroundings. The room was small, as they had imagined it, with, along the sides, rickety wooden chairs similar to the ones they were sitting on. But behind the man, and they now had a clearer perception of his bulk, his biceps as fat as calves, his cheeks striped with scars like tears just below his watery brown eyes, his brow and chin, bulging and shining — as if he was carved out of butter, thought Denny. Behind him the wall was entirely covered with framed pictures with scraps of paper and tissue attached to them, covering all the free space on the wall, and even some of the pictures. On either side of the wall was a tall thin table with a candelabra on top, but they were buried under the fossil drips of thousands of candles, as if the candleholders themselves had disappeared centuries ago leaving only the wax drippings in place. And right in the middle, lined up right behind the head of the man opposite was a ram’s bleached skull, its horns twisting like the wax from the candles.
It was an alter, but to whom, or to what, they did not really want to find out.
The man who had knocked at the door shuffled round the table, bending to whisper in a ear hidden in the mounds of flesh. This visitor was quite the opposite: he was tall, thin to the point of emaciation, with a long face and sharp cheekbones, as if his skull was about to pierce the surface. He wore a bowler hat perched on long grey-flecked locks. His sombre manner and reserved expression made him look like an undertaker.
“Amen!” said the seated man, slapping the table and jerking Denny and Charlie upright on their chairs.
“Three day,” he said, holding up three fingers like massive overripe bananas. “Three day and then you go.”
He turned to the thin figure at his side murmuring in the native tongue of the island, the rhythm of his voice beating like a drum. The other nodded, slowly, then unfolded himself to his full height.
“Three day. You stay here. You no go way. You wait. You understand?”
They nodded, not understanding in the slightest.
The thin man ushered them out into the empty café, then up a worn staircase to a shuttered room. Their bags were already piled on the ancient bed.
He closed the door on them and left them in the dark.
Immediately Charlie turned on Denny.
“This is your fault. Get me out of here!”
She punched him, repeatedly, on the chest and the upper arms. Denny waited until she calmed down, then walked over and opened the door.
Two teenaged boys were standing guard. They turned to look at him from both sides of the door. The bigger of the two had the same tear-like scars under his eyes.
“Er… Toilet?” Denny said.
They led him along a corridor to a makeshift lavatory. While everything was reasonably clean, it was just a hole in the floor and a wash basin with one tap. The basin had large brown streaks where the rusty-coloured water dripped down from the tap.
The elder boy stayed staring at him as Denny inspected the black hole and the stained basin. He looked at his reflection in the speckled mirror tacked to the white-washed wall with rusty bent nails. Denny walked back to the room.
The boys looked at each other and shrugged, but said nothing.
“We’ve been robbed,” Charlie said, sitting amongst the contents of their bags “Cameras, phones, CDs, money… everything.”
Curiously enough, once they inspected everything they found that they still had their passports, credit cars, driving licences. And the return tickets. Yet each of these must be pretty valuable in its own right.
Denny walked back to the door.
“Some of our things are missing,” he said with a sort of resignation. Again the boys shrugged. Denny returned to the room, to sit down. And wait.
There was a knock at the door and the tall thin man with the bowler hat was there.
“You are asking after your possessions,” he started, in a sing-song, lilting voice before waving in a woman carrying a tray. He spoke to her in another language and this time his voice was sharper, his speech quick and rhythmic. She left the tray on a sidetable and slid back out of the room.
“You must understand that some of these formalities are very expensive. We took the liberty of deducting a few consumer items — anonymous, easily tradable — to assist in covering costs—”
“But you have no right!” Charlie exploded, darting towards him.
“Charlie,” said Denny, grabbing her arm. “Don’t make things worse.”
“Worse than what?” she snapped.
“He means,” said the other, breaking into a half smile. “Worse than they could be. We have brought you some tea. There will be food later.” He turned to go. “These are gifts,” he said. “While you must wait.”
And with that, he left.
What else can be said about three days spent cooped up in a shuttered room in the tropics with no TV, no DVDs, no music, no games, no books or magazines even. With no ventilation or showers, and a diet of tea and boiled fish or chicken mixed with overcooked rice or soggy grains… except that the days passed. They passed in fitful naps, quarrels and confrontations with the two silent, shrugging boys at the door until the last day, when there was a knock at the door and the tall man entered.
He was holding his bowler hat in his hands.
“Everything is in order,” he said, with his sad half smile. “My boys carry your things down and we may proceed with the last formalities.”
They shrugged. They were used to it now. They returned to the room below.
This time there were candles burning against the far wall. The massive man was waiting, already seated. Everyone waited while the seated man wiped his face with a large handkerchief.
“You chancey. Real lucky,” he said. He pocketed the handkerchief and placed an envelope on the table. “Everything ready in time. God he smile on you, indeed.”
“You mean we can leave this hellhole?” snapped Charlie. “Your little game’s over? You’ve finished with us? You’ve got no authority, you know?”
He lifted his great hand as if to still her, then pushed the packet across the table.
“What is it?” Charlie cried. She ripped open the envelope, shaking the contents into her hand, looking at them blankly before shoving them at Denny.
There was a birth certificate, a plane ticket, and a passport. They all looked real, especially the passport which had all the biometric stuff and the RFID tags that various governments had spent millions persuading us all that this can’t possibly be falsified.
The photo of a small boy inside looked vaguely familiar.
“But—” started Denny.
He was interrupted by a knock at the door.
They both turned and saw the boy. He was deathly pale, even in the half light, and advanced awkwardly with stiff limbs.
“But he’s dead!” Charlie said, for once in a hushed voice.
“Of course,” said the tall man standing just behind the boy. “That is why he needs extra special care now. And that is why we have chosen you to look after him.”
“Your plane leave in couple hours,” the big man’s voice resonated. “You go now. Get to know each other on voyage back. That good.” The boys arrived carrying the luggage from upstairs. “You drive careful now.”
This is the first story that references a previous one. I had to admit that when I’d finished with John in Perfect Teeth, I wondered how he got where he was, poor kid. This is his story then.
Enjoy, and see you next time.
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Last edited: Thursday, August 27th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus