FLASH PAST Part2 Ch.6

Chapter 6

Tripoli

Sunday 10th March 1974

Achmed turned in through the open gate of the junk-yard compound and pulled up beside the steel roller door of the soils lab.  At a nod from Holson he jumped out of the VW cargo van and, picking up a scrap of steel pipe, used it to bang on the door. Tufik appeared round the corner of the block and yelled in protest.  Achmed smiled in satisfaction at the quick response and got back into the truck where he sat proudly behind the wheel. It was his first day on the job.

Ray Holson stepped out of the van and raised an arm in greeting towards Tufik.  After some salamming and nodding Tufik pointed towards the office door. Ray pushed open the dull green door and came face to face with Aniela Grasse for the first time.  Aniela was still living from hour to hour in fear of repercussions from her frightful Friday. This western dressed stranger, rough looking as he was, was clearly not one of the security police she half-expected.  Ray was struck by the sudden look of relief on her face as she looked up from her grey steel desk. They both turned their eyes to the door at a burst of tinny-sounding eastern music as Achmed switched on the cracked transistor radio that he took everywhere. Achmed sat grinning and mining deep inside his nose, while waggling and swaying his head like a cobra to the repetitive tuneless rhythm. Ray and Aniela were for an instant bonded in a sense of cultural superiority.

Ray quickly glossed over introducing himself and explained his interest in using the lab for some new engineering work he was about to start at Geotechnic on siting microwave transmission towers.  He would need rock and soil samples tested.  Could he look around the lab facilities?  Aniela called for Tufik to roll up the receiving bay door to the lab. Tufik scurried in and while he was pulling the rattling chain and winding up the clattering slats of the door Aniela raised her voice and shouted assurances of the excellence of the test capabilities and her staff’s qualifications. The sunlight flooded into the lab as she led Ray through. After what Ray judged was a seemingly thorough inspection of the recognisable sieves and the oven, and his knowing nods around the unknown devices and tools, which he had never seen the likes of before, he asked about the sample receiving and storage arrangements.   Aniela showed him the samples from other clients that were stored in labelled bags.  Ray carefully inspected the labels to try and decipher geographical place-names.  He could see that a large number were from a place called Nalut.  He pretended to have heard of it.

‘What’s getting built in Nalut?’ he asked disingenuously.

‘They’re designing a new road from Giosh to Nalut. These are samples of local road-stone that they plan to quarry for building the road.  And these…’ Aniela went along the rows of bags.  ‘…over here are sands being tested for sewage filtration; and these wooden boxes are core samples from test wells for the big desert irrigation scheme.’   She lifted a wooden lid and uncovered semi-circular section wooden troughs, each trough holding grey and brown cylinders of rock.

‘Where are those from?’ asked Ray casually.

‘About 100 kilometres south, up past Garian on the escarpment.’

Ray continued to look at the bags but could see no sign of the lustrous blackish rock he was seeking. ‘Too much to expect it to be that easy,’ he told himself. He thanked Aniela and assured her he would get back in touch in a week or two. Aniels didn’t care one way or the other and just smiled as if to say, ‘Suit yourself’.

Ray hopped off the concrete doorway onto the oil stained dirt and returned to the van. Inside the radio was yeoweling to itself. Achmed was missing. Ray looked around the yard and saw Achmed in a far corner, leaning against the door of an old army truck with his face at the open window. He seemed to be talking but Ray decided that he was just nosing around out of boredom and was still mouthing and nodding his head to the horribly hypnotic music.

‘Shit! I could get hooked too if I’m not careful, ‘ he muttered. ‘Achmed! Shape up! Shipping out!’

Aniela stood by the office door. She hesitantly returned Ray’s wave as the van chugged out of the compound, leaving a pleasantly aromatic blue haze enveloping Tufik where he stood gazing after the van in the bright sunlight. As Aniela turned to enter her office she heard the familiar sound of Tufik as he hawked and spat into the iridescent puddle of oil left by the visitors.

 

***************

 

Zophie couldn’t believe her luck. She at last got finished at work and rushed back to her apartment. She was first back and stretched out on her bed to think it all over again. A week in Dresden! I’ve never heard of such a thing. Libya sending a Pole as a representative to a conference in Germany!  It seems too good to be true. And how in the world did I get to go and not Aniela?  Aniela must be mad with envy, even if she managed to hide it when she said it was a ‘fully- merited’ reward from the Ministry of Public Works.  But if only Helene could have been going too. That would have been perfect and given her another chance to smooth Helene’s ruffled feathers.  This conference will only irritate matters. Helene stuck here while I go on a week’s holiday to her home town.   But I have to go anyway. It’s an order really. Then she remembered another time, the only other time, she had gone to a conference at the Technical Institute, and she turned her face into her pillow. She turned over and lay on her stomach, her head buried under an arm as she ran through the whole tragedy of her brief marriage. She remembered the little brass hammer and sickle lapel badge of the man who knocked on the apartment door to tell her of Adolf’s death. She couldn’t remember the man’s face, just his badge and the frayed cuffs of his grey flannel trousers as she stared down in disbelief and averted her eyes from his stilted rehearsed words. She re-lived the summer strolls along the Elbe with Adolf’s arm around her, past the vineyards and trio of Schlosse on the opposite bank to the beer garden at the Blau Wonder, picnics on the grass in the Grosser Garten, afternoons spent on the trams and buses, going to the ends of the lines just to see what was there. Then she  remembered the bombed-out ruins of the Frauenkirche, and the creepy feeling  of standing in the Altmarkt and thinking about incinerated bodies of whole families, couples like them, babies, infants, school-children, a few centimetres underneath her feet. The heart of the city was a weave of beauty and culture thickly woven with the blackest dyed threads of old hates, horrors and murderous deaths. Zophie sobbed, shoulders heaving until she had exhausted herself and lay quiet. She fell asleep.

 

When Zophie woke up about an hour later and opened her swollen eyes, Helene was sitting on her own bed watching her.  Helene wore a deep frown and her thin mouth was down at the corners.  There were thick creases from the sides of her nose down past her arched lips all the way to her chin.  She was staring into space but as Zophie eyes opened Helene’s eyes brightened and her face slid effortlessly into a gentle and kind smile.  ‘ Gott, Zophie, what is the matter?’ she asked very quietly.

Thirty minutes later Zophie’s face was washed and all their plans were made for Zophie’s trip. Far from being jealous, Helene was happy and had extracted from Zophie a promise to visit her brother Stefan in Dresden and take him a little gift Helene wanted to send him, one that was heavy and expensive to send by mail. Helene would write him a letter and ask him to meet her at the airport.  They started making a list of things for Zophie to buy and bring back to Tripoli. Toilet soap, shampoo and milk chocolate topped the first page. They decided that a special trip to the suq was warranted to buy the biggest suitcase they could find. They discussed the possibilities of a speculative investment in golf balls but decided the money would be better spent on more chocolate. They agreed to revise the list each night as a vicarious shopping binge for the benefit of Helene.  The technical agenda and timetable for the conference had not been provided to Zophie. Neither she nor Helene gave that a moment’s thought.

While they were in earnest debate about the volume:want ratio of things that could fit inside the suitcase and estimating the factor for converting the airline baggage allowance into equivalent units of scented soap and milk chocolate there was a heavy knock at the door of their flat.  They hid their lists under Zophie’s pillow and went together to see who was banging so loudly.

‘Who is it?’ Helene called in what she hoped was a firm confident voice through the peeling paintwork and warped panels.

‘Zophie, is that you?’

‘Mein Gott it’s Iain’, said Zophie, ‘open the door.’

Helene opened the door and Anderson stood beaming at Zophie, a handful of wilted green stems in one huge fist.

‘It’s me Zophie,’ said Anderson redundantly, ‘I jist thought I’d drop by an’ see how ye are.’

‘Well come in then now you are here.’

‘I brought ye these Zophie. They were a’ I could get. Some o’ the petals fell off coming up the stairs. Still it’s the thought that counts eh?’

‘Petals?, asked Zophie, ‘what colour were they?’

‘A real bonny shade o’ blue, Zophie.’

‘I’ll try to imagine them. Thank you.’

‘They might pick up a wee bit if ye put them in water’

‘I’ll do that.’ Helene interrupted as she plucked the sad bouquet from Anderson’s fist and went off to the kitchen.

Zophie dithered for a few seconds wondering where to put Anderson in the flat. He had never been there before and she was suspicious of his sudden visit. There was no living room, just the hall, pokey kitchen and the bedrooms. She decided firmly against inviting him into her bedroom.  Helene had been thinking through the same problem and settled the matter by going into the bedroom she shared with Zophie and shutting the door behind her.

Zophie took Anderson into the tiny kitchen that had a rickety square table set against a wall opposite the sink. It was barely big enough to hold three plates rim to rim. In the centre of the table was a cracked jam jar holding half an inch of cloudy water and the once-blue weeping bouquet. Three heavy wooden stools served as dining chairs. Anderson plunked himself down on a stool and it gave a loud farty crack as the top split. Anderson flushed and made a daft grinning face in his attempt to express innocence. He wriggled to get his nipped bum out of the split. The stool creaked and cried out under its uninvited burden.  Zophie sat down opposite and pushed her long black hair back from her face.

‘You don’t want a drink of water or anything.’ she stated rather than asked.

‘How about a cup o’ tea?’

‘ Tea.’ Zophie said flatly. She got up with a distinctly audible sigh and put water on to boil in a saucepan. She dug around in the cupboard and found a crumpled packet with their last spoonful of tea, except for the fat packet marked BR on Bogdana’s shelf.

Anderson looked around at the kitchen.  Even he could see what a mean ill-furnished dump it was. It was clean though and a few little attempts at decoration had been made by taping postcards to the walls. There was a current one-year calendar hanging up on a nail, which was even torn off to the current month. Beside the calendar there was a sheet of paper squared off with the roster for kitchen, hall and bathroom cleaning, strictly up to date with BR ‘approved’ initialled ticks. Anderson concluded that they looked after the bedrooms themselves. His mind wandered by association from bedrooms to bed to Zophie and he turned to watch her shapely bottom as she moved about making the tea. He looked down at his upturned palms and back at the bottom as if judging the fit. Perfect. He sighed loudly and let escape an unintended grunt.  Zophie spun round. ‘Bitte?’

‘Eh?’ Anderson replied, startled out of his daydream.

‘You said something.’

‘Me?, no, I was just sitting here waiting for my tea.’

‘Mmmm..’ Zophie frowned and turned her back. Anderson decided to keep his eyes firmly on the table. He studied the little cuts and gouges in the green plastic top. Zophie gently set a stoneware mug in front of him. He looked questioningly into her beautiful dark eyes. She gazed back trying to anticipate his next advance. She had no doubt he was here for more than the last of her tea. He continued to look deep into her eyes, as if trying telepathy. She kept her eyes wide open and tried not to blink. She didn’t want to miss the message, if it came through.

‘Have ye no’ got ony sugar and milk?’

‘Vva―! Nein! she snapped. ‘Dummkoff’, she thought, cheated of her intended rebuff.

‘Oh, well maybe I’ll no bother with the tea.’

Zophie sat down, took the mug and started to drink it herself.

Anderson rested his hands on the table and sat twiddling his thumbs. He decided he may as well broach the subject of his visit. He had been forcibly reminded by Withers of his undertaking to Her Majesty’s Secret Service and urged to get samples of the stones from Zophie’s lab ‘pronto’. His chances of an Aston Martin were slipping with every day that past.

‘Zophie, I need into the lab this Friday night.’

‘What? I thought you have plenty of your Flash still left.’

‘Aye, I do but it’s all spoken for and I have a new order, worth a lot Zophie, some money for you too in it.’

‘It’s impossible for the next two Fridays.’

‘Three weeks! My God, why?’

‘Because I am going to Dresden on Friday for a week, to a conference.’

‘Good grief! I mean that’s great Zophie! How did you wangle that?’

‘Wass ist Wangle?’

‘Oh never mind. That’s great. It will be a nice wee holiday for ye.’

‘And I will be meeting Helene’s brother Stefan. He lives there.’

‘Oh that’s grand. He can show you the sights. Aye, that’ll be―’

Anderson was interrupted by the flat door banging as Bogdana came in and entered the kitchen carrying a bag of her groceries.

‘Who is this?’ she demanded of Zophie with a scowl. The flatmates had agreed not to entertain any men in the flat. And to add to the insult, Anderson was sitting at Bogdana’s established place at the table. Anderson was twisting around to greet Bogdana with a welcoming grin when his fleshy backside was caught by the razor sharp edges of the split in the stool. He leapt to his feet and screamed as he came face to face with Bogdana.  ‘Aahh, ya fuckin’ bastard’ he roared, as he clutched his torn buttocks with both hands. ‘Buggery hell!’ Oooo, ma erse!’ he concluded as Bogdana cringed back in terror from his greetings.  Suddenly remembering himself, Anderson removed his right hand from his bleeding behind and offered it to Bogdana.

‘Hello, I’m awfy pleased to meet ye.’ he gasped.  Zophie belatedly rushed to make the introduction.  ‘Bogdana Iain, Iain Bogdana.’

Bogdana gave Zophie a withering glance and, ignoring Anderson’s hand, she turned her back on them and started to unpack her groceries. Anderson could feel blood seeping from a welt across his right buttock. Turning his back to the wall he slipped his hand down inside his underpants and felt for confirmation. It felt like a good time to leave. He muttered a sad good-bye to Zophie, wishing her ‘a’ the best’ for her trip and backed crab-wise towards the open flat door. Bogdana was busy writing BR on her packets and tins and stocking her little grocery shelf. Zophie watched Anderson’s back as he turned to depart and noticed the ragged red line of blood seepage across his backside. She felt sorry for him for a second, then gave a sigh of relief that he was gone. She looked at the leaning stool and quietly bent to straight it up so that the split closed. She looked at Bogdana’s backside as Bogdana continued to monogram her purchases. After a two second pause she decided not to mention the stool and went to the bedroom.

Helene had fallen asleep on top of her bed, an open magazine across her chest and chin. On the front cover was the familiar red tractor and on the back cover inspirational graphs of Hungarian annual beetroot production. Zophie silently closed the door and sat on her own bed.  She quietly took the Dresden wish-list from under her pillow and lay down to read it through yet again. She closed her eyes and drifted into a confused dream of scented soaps, charred ruins and tunnels cut into hills of flaky milk chocolate. There were bombs exploding and fires everywhere and women screaming, screaming, screaming; and then just one woman screaming, nearby and  louder than all the others. She sounds a lot like Bogdana, dreamt Zophie.

 

 

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FLASH PAST Part 2 Ch.5

Chapter 5

Tripoli

Friday 1st March 1974

Bob Brewster was in the pink. He had been lime-green all day but for tonight’s little reception he had changed into a fresh suit of dusty rose pink. He buckled up his white leather belt and slipped on his white calf leather shoes then studied the effect in the tall mirror on the back of his bedroom door. ‘Looking mighty fine’, he complimented himself. He checked his watch. Tons of time.

The past week had restored Ray Holson to fighting condition. He still hadn’t met Russ Adams. By the time he had woken up on Saturday, jet-lagged and suffering from lingering nausea, Adams was off to Benghazi for a week to organize a drill crew at Qar Yunis. Some crazy Swedes had a scheme to build a beach-front tourist resort there.

Mohammed Shyer had taken Ray’s passport to get him registered with the police and security departments in Tripoli then started in motion the complex paper machine that would eke out his thirty-day business visa into a twelve week residence permit. Shyer and Bob Brewster had helped Ray find a VW truck and Shyer was finding him a driver. Then Brewster himself had driven Ray around the city a couple of times to show him the main landmarks needed to get around without street signs or a map. Maps and city guidebooks couldn’t be bought anywhere. A few old maps survived from colonial times but were very rare. In any case it was not wise for a foreigner to be seen around the streets with a map. It quickly attracted the soldiers.

Ray lay resting on top of his bed in Geotechnic’s villa and thinking forward to this evening. It was time to get down to some business. Brewster had invited along a few contacts whom he thought could be of use to Ray, some American style ‘networking’.   Adams was due back from Benghazi later that night. It was time they met. He would be Geotechnic’s field contact man with Ray on drilling work and survey support.  Shyer would be here as a key man in the local Geotechnic administration and a limey called Withers from the British Embassy. Brewster had unnecessarily reminded Ray that Withers was his official diplomatic protector, he being a subject of Her Majesty, and Canada having no embassy in Libya. Aniela Grasse and Zophia Doerner from the soils laboratory were invited, in anticipation that the AsCerti project would need their services. And he had invited another Geotechnic client in the shapes of the Scottish and Irish engineers; Anderson, who had been easily primed to show up with a crate of special refreshments and that rarely sighted bird, mystery-man-Maloney.

Anderson arrived first lugging two Fanta crates into the hall and rattling them onto the stone floor.

‘Where’s Maloney?, Brewster asked as he held the door open.

‘Oh, he sends his apologies and says to tell you he might manage along later. I couldnae wait for him in case you need the bottles before yer other guests arrive.’

Ray heard the bottles and left his room to greet the visitor.

‘Hi, I’m Holson, call me Ray’

‘Oh aye, hello, I’m pleased tae meet ye, I’m Iain…Anderson that is.’

‘Great to meet you Anderson’

‘You too…Ray. Fancy a wee drink? Ye can help me set out the bottles on the bar.’

Ray looked around and saw Anderson meant the dining room table, almost identical to the one in Anderson’s villa, but lacking the sticky rings and scratches.  ‘Sure thing bud’. He and Anderson set up the makeshift bar, while Brewster went to answer the door again.

Mohammed Shyer walked into the room. He was very smartly dressed in a charcoal suit, white shirt and dark green silk tie. Anderson looked around from the table and saw Shyer looking straight into his eyes. Shyer turned his eyes to the bottles on the table then back to Anderson. Anderson’s rosy nose and cheeks flushed a darker tone as he gave Shyer a slight nod to acknowledge his implicit message and turned back to arranging the bottles. Shyer read the printing on the back of Anderson’s canary yellow T-shirt, ‘McEwans is the Best.’ His attention was distracted by a one-eyed hook-handed pirate coming towards him.

‘Hey man!’, called Ray, holding up his palm in Shyer’s face.

‘Good ev— How! Hey!’ he corrected himself showing his palm and wondering if he should have dressed differently, perhaps with beads and a feather.

Anderson pointedly handed Shyer a glass of orange Fanta. Shyer frowned and sniffed the drink before taking a tentative sip. ‘A’ right?’ asked Anderson. It was all right, just fizzy orange. Anderson chuckled and went back to the table.

Shyer and Ray got into a discussion about a driver named Achmed who was to be hired on trial.  Brewster was across the table from Anderson, arranging overlapping shingles of four-year old Ryvita Original Crispbread that he had spied lost down the back of a freezer in a nearby shop. The door buzzed and he dropped the faded blue packet to rush off and open the door. Zophie entered bringing Helene and a small paper bag containing eight buns.

‘Aniela Grasse not come with you?’ Brewster asked.

‘Mein Gott! Nein. Nie!’ thought Zophie. Had Aniela been invited? Had she known she would have stayed away.

‘No’ , she replied, ‘this is my friend Helene. She made the buns.’  Helene locked her eyes onto Brewster’s froggish face, trying not to be caught gawping at his rosy pink outfit.

‘Yes I know. Love it, seeing you again that is, Helene.’ Brewster made a toad-like  smiley face at Helene, the tip of his sticky tongue visible. Helene flushed until her cheeks were a perfect match to Brewster’s outfit. He took this as a hint of secret affection and, leaving Zophie to amuse herself, he laid siege to Helene with a heart-warming account of the current economic revival of Chattanooga thanks to its expanding cremation oven factory.  So intent was he on expounding the finer details of gas jets and ornamental cast-iron that he didn’t hear the buzzer when it went again.

Anderson answered the door and let in Withers, who followed Anderson directly towards the ‘bar’.

‘Here ye are Nigel pal, on the rocks, shaken not stirred eh?’ Anderson winked and handed Withers a pale orange drink with a cloudy ice cube submerged near the bottom of the glass.  Withers raised his eyebrows in an unspoken query to Anderson.

‘Next week Nigel, next week I’ll have something for ye,’ he whispered. Nigel raised his glass and took a deep draught, his hawkish nose tilted towards the ceiling.

‘Nige! Nige! Come and meet Ray.’ Withers gulped and twisted his neck round then steeply down to see Brewster who had at last noticed his arrival. Withers saw the dusty pink blob on the far side of the room. He had a flitting memory of his childhood and wobbling strawberry blancmange as the two men approached.

‘Nige, this is Ray, Ray Holston, Ray this is Nige, Nigel Withers.’ Brewster beamed.

‘Hi Nige!’ said Ray reaching out his hand.

‘How do you do, Holson,’ replied Withers, hurriedly transferring his drink to his left hand and allowing his pale stringy right to be clutched and crunched.

An hour later, Anderson was drunk from nervously knocking them back under the menacing glances of Mohammed Shyer. He had to act. On a pretence of showing off his Citroen DS, Anderson and Shyer slipped outside into the cool dark night and a small bag of stones was transferred from the white Citroen to the white Beetle.   Shortly after they came back inside, Shyer stiffly made his apologies, thanked his host and left the villa.  Anderson gave a sigh of gratitude as the door banged shut. His palms were sweating.  He wiped them on black curls of the cavalier on his canary-yellow barrel chest and poured himself another last drink.  He hoped he had done the right thing. He had spent at least fifteen minutes bagging those stones, some off the ground, most off the roof where little street arabs had helpfully pitched them while conducting a ritual stoning of the house of the infidel. Anderson scratched his flaking scalp. Well what else could I do? What would 007 have done? Taken Shyer for a test run in the DS and pressed the ejector button?    For the first time since he had inherited the Citroen he became sensitive to its deficiencies. It suddenly seemed dull, banal, not up to the job. Didn’t even have a built-in machine gun. Maybe if he did a good job on the lab business he could ask Withers about an Aston Martin. A DB6. A Walther PK what’s it. Theme music swelled in his brain. Dum-der-um dum, dum dum dum. Dum-der-um dum, dum dum dum…whooo hooo dum dum dum.

He slumped into a chair and looked blearily across at Zophie. She was sitting on the couch beside Helene and cramming a fat cream bun between her pretty pink lips. Helene sat upright, back straight as a poker, knees clenched together, her arms firmly crossed over her chest. She pressed her thin pale lips together and puffed her cheeks as she glowered up at Brewster who was perched on the arm of the couch, launching a second advance by advising Helene on how best to hunt, prepare and cook the American Bullfrog, should she ever be in the vicinity of Chattanooga. ‘Coo-faced bisom’ Anderson muttered.

There was a loud rattling crunch and the front door swung open. Russ Adams dragged in a shiny alloy suitcase that screeched like chalk on a blackboard and left a sinuous white metallic scar across the green stone floor of the hall.

‘Never again!, he yelled, I’ll never take a domestic flight again even if I have to walk!’

He had a bulky white paper package slung over his denim back. He let slip the twine binding that was cutting sharply into his fingers and the bundle slammed onto the floor and split apart. Everyone looked round in time to see the glossy covers of oiled and bronzed naked young men spread across the floor as they slid from under a few neatly folded architects’ drawings. Adams’ cowboy boots hurriedly swept the glistening muscles, buttocks and penises against the wall and he set down his suitcase to screen them from view.

‘I was able to get some mags for Simon,’ he called out overloudly. ‘Hey Nige, you could take them for Simon tonight when you leave.’

‘Out of the question!’ snorted Withers. He turned his stiff back on Adams.

‘Russ my ol’ buddie! Russ come here and meet Ray!’ Brewster called out as he was distracted from his lecture on edible ranidae, greatly to the relief of his nauseated student.

‘Mein Gott!’ Helene’s spine shuddered. ‘He eats toads and frogs. No wonder he looks like one!’

Brewster went and wrapped his arm around Adams and propelled him towards Ray.

‘ Hi Russ!’ said Holson, extending his open palm.

‘H―.’ Russ glanced up and saw Ray’s face. He stammered a ‘Hi’ as he looked again at the broken nose, spiky grey hair, boxer face. ‘We’ll talk later Ray, got to get my things cleared away first.’ He rushed away and dragged his belongings down the hall to his room as he grappled with his memory. ‘I’m tired out. Must have it wrong. But boy! He sure looks like the same guy!’

*****************

Aniela Grasse missed out on the networking session. Not that she had ever intended to go.  The scribbled note of the time and address that she had faithfully copied down when Brewster telephoned his invitation lay crumpled in the torn cardboard box at her feet, her office waste paper bin..  She glanced down at her feet and poked around in the box to look for the note. Perhaps she should keep the address. Amed had not got around to emptying the bin for the past week. After a few minutes she gave up. She could always get it from Doerner.  The passing thought of Zophie brought on her headache and she slumped forward on her desk with her head resting on her crossed forearms. Die polnische Frau!

This had been the day for flying out the samples in her steel cabinet. She had put the six heavy boxes in her car and driven to the airport. There she took them to the little concrete block building near the main terminal where private cargo was handled.  Showing her special security pass she had been allowed to supervise the loading of her boxes onto a small private jet. By the time she had driven home the jet was cruising  to Niamey.  There the cargo would be forwarded to Buenos Aires on a commercial flight that regularly carried rock samples for the mining companies in Niger. Any slight risk of radio-activity being detected by the slack security would not raise an alarm.  Well she had done all that as planned, but was worried sick all that time.

When she had taken the six boxes from the cabinet she had a feeling that one box seemed lighter in comparison to the others. Puzzled she had re-weighed the box on the lab scales and compared the result with the weight on her shipping form. It was about a kilo less than it should be. She had checked the scales then re-weighed the other five boxes. They were all underweight by about half a kilo. She opened the taped up boxes and inspected the contents. The core cylinders of rock were all present but it looked as if some of the split and fractured pieces were missing. She had tried all eighteen cores and confirmed her suspicion.  The opposing faces of the split cylinders didn’t quite match up anymore. Chunks were missing.  She had broken out in a cold sweat. How was it possible? ….Who? Trying to calm herself and think clearly she had repacked the samples with trembling hands.  She had to be in time for the flight. After she had filled out a new shipping form with the reduced weights and  delivered the cargo she had gone straight back to the lab.

The drive to and from the airport was a blurry sandstorm of fearful imaginings, doubts and recriminations. What should she do. If I made a mistake with the scales.. no that was not possible and I definitely saw that pieces were missing. I should never have hidden the cabinet key on a magnet. Oh Holy Mother save me, I will get the blame. What if I keep quiet and pretend never to have found out? As she drove along she quickly transferred her fears into anger at whoever had fired her like a cannonball into the midst of this nightmare.  Zophie Doerner! The only other person authorized to have keys for both the gate and the lab’s shutter door. Inside the lab she could get into the unlocked cubby hole of an office.

She had to report the situation to her boss in Tripoli.   She had composed herself as best she could, had telephoned and stated the facts as she knew them and had been instructed to wait by the telephone for a call back.

Aneila raised her head from the desk and straightened her back. She rubbed her dry eyes. Her eyeballs seemed to be thickly coated in dust and the sharp grains of sand in her tear ducts were like lumps of coal.  After an hour of misery the telephone rang. She took up a pencil to scribble down her orders.  She was so intent on copying the words down that she scarcely took in what they meant. She was told to read it back and as she did she grasped the surprising key point among the other details. Zophia Doerner was to represent the Ministry of Public Works of the Socialist Peoples Libyan Arab Jamahiriya by attending a technical conference at the Technical Institute of Dresden and be ready to leave in two week’s time.  After she put down the heavy black receiver on the dial telephone she buried her face I her hands and shook her head slowly from side to side. ‘A conference!  I thought they would shoot her!’

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FLASH PAST Part2 Ch.4

Chapter 4

Tripoli

Friday 22nd February 1974

The soils laboratory where Zophie worked was a front.  Zophie and a couple of Polish assistants were hired to carry out legitimate activities of the soils laboratory for construction and development projects. Under that cover Aniela Grasse, her boss, secretly worked with a team of Argentinian geologists who were looking for uranium in the rocks of the escarpment 70 miles to the south.

Aniela was employed directly by the Tripoli headquarters of the Ministry of Public Works of the Socialist Peoples Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.  Born in Meissen in 1933, she had spent most of her life in Buenos Aires.  Aniela’s father had been a Gestapo inspector, promoted through the ranks as the reward for his cruel efficiency.         Her pro-Nazi parents had escaped reprisals by emigrating in 1945, posing amid the post-war confusion as ordinary displaced refugees.  Unrepentant and bitter after their fall from power and influence they had taught Aniela to trust no creeds or politics and to live her life totally outside the domain of morality.  Aniela was now motivated by very fat and regular deposits into her bank account in Buenos Aires, nothing else.

When some Argentinian experts had approached the Libyans through their embassy contacts in Buenoa Aires and Tripoli, the military rulers were pre-disposed to believe their contention than the rich uranium ores known in Niger and Chad would also be found in Libya, where the coastal plain gives way to the Saharan plateau.  Plans were presented for a two-year prospecting programme that was to be carried out under the guise of looking for underground water reservoirs for desert irrigation.  Imaginary irrigation schemes were devised. Colourful professionally drawn illustrations of circular green fields bursting full of luscious crops were presented at village gatherings of communities that would inevitably see the drilling machinery at work.

The engineering soils laboratory was not equipped to analyze the ore. That would be done in Buenos Aires, in secret. The soils lab was needed as a place where ore samples could be packaged among benign materials then shipped out by air. Chemical analyses of the water-bearing bedrocks were necessary for the mythical irrigation schemes. That served as the cover for shipping ore samples to Buenos Aires. Aniela kept direct control of all sample packaging and shipping.   One or twice a month, always on a Friday, she drove up the escarpment and met the geologists where they inspected the drill cores and assembled consignments of specimens.  Aniela transported them back to the lab in the trunk of her car, usually in salvaged strong cardboard boxes. The boxes showed no resemblance to the clear thick plastic bags usually used for rock received at the lab and the apparently careless choice of container was deliberate. Aniela kept careful records of every consignment’s source by map coordinates and depth below ground based on the driller’s logs.

This evening she had just driven about 90 miles to the lab from Kmishat where the drillers had a trailer camp on the edge of the village.  She unlocked the steel gate with her own key and parked outside the office. She left the boxes of rocks in her car and went inside carrying her brown leather satchel over her shoulder.  Taking a packet of index cards from her desk she carefully copied sample data out of a small black notebook from her satchel.  She went back and forth to her car and carried in six heavy boxes. She opened the first box and looked inside. Three smooth cylinders of stone lay side by side, a thick black number marked on each one. One cylinder was complete, 3 inches in diameter and about twelve inches long. The other two were fractured and lay assembled in natural sequence but had flakes of laminated stone at the breaks. Aniela carefully picked up a fractured end and looked at the flaking broken face. There were veins and flecks of yellow and orange and the rock itself was almost black. None of these characteristics were visible on the outside where the diamond tipped drill-bit had ground the surface to a uniform dove-grey. She carefully set the piece back in the box and went back to work on the shipping consignment cards.

It was getting very gloomy inside the office as the evening light faded but she left the light off. A faint metallic click from outside stopped her pen in mid-air. She went to the window and looked at her car. There was a breeze and stirring of sand in the yard. Must have been the wind on the gate. She had left it looking closed but slightly ajar to save time when she left. No one would be coming in on Friday night.   She finished her paperwork then stacked the boxes inside her grey steel office cabinet and locked it.  She hid the steel key on a magnet behind the cabinet. Picking up her notebook and satchel she went home, locking the door and gate as she went.

As the sound of her car faded away tousled black hair rose behind the battered door of the old army truck that lay on its rusted chassis in a corner of the yard.  Amed climbed out and stood listening. The wind was getting up. He strained to hear above the sigh of the wind and the faint hiss as grains of sand bounced off the steel gate and the scrapped vehicles. He looked all around, peering through his eyelashes and then stretched his back and his raised arms, leisurely, unhurried as a cat.  He reached inside a pocket of his tattered trousers and shuffled through the whirling sand towards the office door.

************

Bob Brewster nearly fell when he received a very heavy spongy thump full on the back of his russet-brown shirt.  He was saved by crashing into the green uniform of a man in front, who went flying into a low steel baggage counter with a noise that sounded like a blow from a hammer.  The security guard, he could have been a soldier, screamed in agony. Bent double and clutching his kneecap with his left hand he was twisting around and snatching at his pistol, frantically tugging at the strap of his holster. Bob saw the tears rolling down his cheeks and into his thick black moustache. Bob felt something shift in his bowels and stretched his open palms out in a mixed message of apology and surrender. The guard looked around, his pistol wavering from side to side, eager to shoot somebody. Probably Bob. Bob’s eyes bulged out of their sockets at the menacing moustache, the oiled thick black hair and the watery black eyes.  ‘He has a very bad squint’, voiced Bob’s innards as they slid lower towards his behind, irritating Bob who momentarily wondered why he was wasting the last seconds of his life noticing such mundane trivia. The guard straightened up and seemed to be looking far over Bob’s right shoulder. He put his pistol back in its holster. Bob gulped in a long overdue breath. Suddenly he realized that the guard didn’t have a squint. He rushed past Bob and as Bob turned he saw the guard grab at a double bed mattress tied into a roll with thick hemp rope. Barely visible below the burden there was an old man dressed in a long striped nightie and shiny black-lacquered cardboard shoes on his bare feet.  The guard snatched at the end of the bedding roll and spun the old goat around.  The mattress fell to the floor and the old man landed on his back beside the roll, his arms and legs flailing like an upturned beetle.  Bob noticed that the yellow soles of the man’s shoes were new. The guard raged and screamed and gave the helpless traveller three or four wild blows on his legs and arms with his thick army boots. One of the man’s shoes flew off and was instantly crushed under the feet of the throng that jostled past indifferent to their fellow traveller. Some laughed. The old man howled and lay in shock, beseeching mercy, pleading innocence, unaware of having knocked Bob into the guard with his mattress as he whirled around in search of his flight.  He was still clutching his fluttering green and black ticket. The guard tore the ticket from the man’s gnarled fingers, ripped it up and threw the sheds at his face. Then he dragged him to his feet, made him pick up his enormous bundle and forced him back through the milling throng and out the door.  He would not be flying anywhere that day.

‘Holy Mother of Shit!’ said Bob out loud, simultaneously relieved and horrified. ‘Holy Jeezus, this is a fuckin’ madhouse!’  He retreated from the centre of the high steel zoo. He squeezed his dapper sweat-stained russet-brown matching shirt and slacks through the boiling mass of travellers, scuffing his white leather shoes and catching his belt buckle against their luggage as he manoeuvred his trembling bowels and squeezed-tight arsehole towards the exit in search of sanctuary.

Bob thanked God that he wasn’t flying out.. What a half-assed screwed up terminal! There were no trolleys for luggage, no seating, no marked lanes for queuing, no overhead signs above the airline clerks. Toilets? Don’t ask! It was impossible to see the check-in signs or the knee-high counter until swept against it by the tide of sweaty stinking bodies and crashed against its sharp stainless steel reef. Then everyone in the front row had to move sideways and swap places to get in front of the correct airline clerk. International and domestic flights all mixed together.

And everywhere the incredible domestic flight luggage, underfoot tripping-up toe-stubbing metal trunks, ankle and shin cracking wooden crates, head-high skull-concussing eye-poking cardboard boxes, prodding, stabbing and raping luggage for gut, groin and arse; bursting suitcases the size of wardrobes, rolled carpets, huge boxes of TV’s and Hi-Fi systems, kitchen chairs, full-length mirrors, Korean golf clubs, packed chests of drawers bound with rope, full steel filing cabinets, bed ends, sacks of potatoes, domesticated animals, alive and dead; ranks of wives holding shiny red imitation alligator-skin Chinese handbags; most of it intended as cabin baggage to get around the checked baggage weight allowance. Fuselages sagging and creaking. Pilots refusing to take off. Security guards boarding the planes, lessening the load, ejecting random passengers with half their belongings, boarding cards ripped to shreds, the vacant seats instantly filled by other men’s Panasonics and plunder.

Bob at last was spat out into an eddy and against a wall near the exit where he firmly wedged his russet-brown backside between the rust encrusted flanges of a steel column. He took solace. If his bowels gave way it would be less conspicuous there. He looked down with dismay at the black scuffs and tread-marks on his white calf leather shoes.

He was at this black metal shed of an excuse for an airport terminal to meet and collect his new man, due in any time from Toronto via Amsterdam on KLM. ‘Holson may have to be plucked out of the crowd. I should have a hook on a long pole!’  Just then he saw a stocky man of about five-foot nine with grey spiky hair and a flattened nose.  The man was using his suitcase as a crowbar to pry open a path towards the exit.  A space cleared between them and Bob could see the man’s chest now.  His safari style jacket was open over his white T-shirt. On his broad chest there was a large picture of a pirate who was holding a sword and standing with one leg resting on a barrel. Under the barrel in big letters it read “Captain Morgan“. Bob could hear him clearly now above the racket. ‘Please get the— , oops, sorry. Please? Out of my way, eh?’

‘Aha,’ chuckled Bob, ‘That must be my man! The Snowbird has landed!

Hey! Holson? Holson! ..OVER HERE!’

****************

On the drive in from the airport, Bob Brewster tried to engage Holson in a discussion the new project that had brought them together. Brewster had been briefed by his boss in the States. Holson’s employer was Wolfe Engineering, a construction management company out of Toronto, which had a contract with AsCerti S.P., an Italian telecommunications company, to install a country wide network of towers for microwave dish antennae.  Towers would be required at roughly 20 miles intervals along line-of-sight routes between all the populated areas. Wolfe had subcontracted Brewster’s company Geotecnic Inc. to supply drilling rigs and crews to test foundation conditions at prospective tower locations.  Holson was there to select tower sites and to direct the drilling programme.  He would use old aerial photographs from the sixties as a starting point to drive around and select suitable tower locations.

Holson was not talkative. He had been travelling for seventeen hours including the drive to Toronto and the two hour stop-over at Schipol. He was split between two pressing needs, sleep and throwing up. He pretended to listen. Brewster talked non -stop all the way in, feeling some obligation to welcome this representative of a client, and he was genuinely pleased to see a new face, albeit not a pretty sight. Perhaps this tough-looking customer, and he was a customer after all, would turn out to be good company. Brewster’s years and position of seniority over Russ Adams was a barrier between them at times.  A new man in the villa would be good all round.  ‘He doesn’t say much though.’

‘We’ll be there in a few more minutes, Ray. After you’ve had a shower you’ll feel much better.’

‘Sure.’ Ray sat looking out his side window at the suburban sprawl of poor low-rise apartments and houses, the beat up cars and deep drifts of litter along the side of the highway. Night was fallen in the twenty minutes since they escaped the airport and now some feeble street lights cast a sickly yellow tone over the few yards of beaten earth between the asphalt and the houses.  They passed a row of one and two-man workshops where men were welding and hammered wrecked cars back into service. Men were bent deep into the guts of engine compartments working under dim yellow bulbs strung from the nearest building. Others sat crossed-legged on the oil stained ground, working on pistons and valves laid out on rags spread over the dirt. Old tires were stacked against the walls. Fires burned in oil drums, dancing bright yellow flames under black oily smoke. Ray saw some young boys running together in the half-light like a small shoal of fish as they chased after a ball.  His eyelids drooped.

‘There’s the barracks, inside that wall.’ said Brewster nodding his head towards the left. ‘That’s the new Palace I guess, now’.  His lame joke fell flat. Ray was feeling too nauseous and tired to even smile.  He barely glanced over in time to see a shut green gate and some soldiers hanging around.  Brewster could tell he wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing.  ‘Yep, I sure guess it’s been a long haul,’ he persisted. ‘Nearly there. A shower will fix you up and we’ve got a decent room in the villa for you. Russ should be in tonight if he hasn’t gone out to visit his buddy Simon. He’s fussin’ to meet you. Guess he’s getting mighty sick of my company.’ Ray Holson was losing his battle.  Introductions to Russ Adams could wait.  ‘I hope the prick’s out,’ was his final conscious thought before his chin sank onto his chest and he fell asleep.

************************

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FLASH PAST Part 2 Ch.3

Chapter 3

Tripoli

Friday 15th February 1974

Zophie and Helene pushed their way through the crowd and out the heavy wooden doors of the central post office. They stopped on the broad terrace to zip their stamps safe inside the pockets of their purses. They were dishevelled and flustered from the half-hour of chaotic jostling and shouting that they had endured to buy a few stamps for their letters home. Grinning, they faced each other as they wiped their sweaty brows, swept back strands of hair, tugged at the waists of their white nylon blouses and the seams of their taut blue slacks. Helene held her handbag over her crotch and surreptitiously re-arranged the hem of her panties that had been painfully cutting into her for the last twenty minutes.  They moved over to the top step of the high paved terrace and stood peering through the blue haze hanging over the square at the closed oak doors of the cathedral opposite. The shimmering petrol fumes and bustling traffic emphasised its stillness. It looked solid, impassive and unperturbed by the commotion, its columned facade deep in shadow. It restored and relaxed them. Then they stood side by side, loosely holding hands, eyes closed, their faces raised to the noon sun as they drew in the luxurious winter warmth.  Their letters home would be arriving to grim smoke-blacked streets of dirty snow and biting winds.

There were almost no women in the crowd, other than a handful of huddled black figures scurrying here and there. Among the shabbily dressed men and the shrouded women Zophie and Helene stood out like naked marble statues.  They were attracting long blatant stares from the men passing in and out of the post office. Men began to pause, then to gather round and stand, inspecting them, as the men did around the sheep and camels at the live market. They studiously examined the straps and clasps of bras, the outlined hems of panties. They began to compare impressions and exchange comments. The men became bolder. The remarks became louder. There were laughs. Suddenly Zophie opened her eyes and squealed. She dragged Helene down the terrace steps and they scurried into the shadows of an arcaded street. The men laughed and hooted after them until they were out of sight.

They hid in the shadows and caught their breath. With regained composure they strolled along under the broad arcade looking in the shop windows. Many of the shops were closed with steel shutters locked over the doorways and windows.  They passed one small shop selling ice-cream but they didn’t buy any. They had tried it once before and found its taste very odd. Helene had said it was probably made with goat’s milk because she had never seen a cow in Libya. Zophie had argued that it wasn’t made with any kind of milk at all, just powder out of a tin. Whatever it was they didn’t like it, even though it did look tempting. They came to the large windows of all the city’s travel agents, huddled side by side for convenient comparison, or safety in numbers.  Zophie and Helene paused to wistfully study the posters: paddle-steamers cruising on the Rhine between steep cliffs and white fairy castles, miles and miles of bright red tulips, a whale breaching in front of a glistening iceberg, a stag with gigantic antlers, the snow capped Canadian Rockies, skiers slaloming and drinking hot red wine, purple mountains mirrored in a pristine ice-green lake; everywhere the bluest of skies, whitest of snows, greenest of leaves, reddest of petal, every colour saturated and richer than life.  Zophie stared with her mouth slightly open and moving, reading to herself and sucking in the exhortations to ‘ESCAPE’.   Helene observed the brown dusty shelves below the posters and the thick sprinklings of dead flies. She noticed that some had bright blue spots.

After strolling and window gazing for twenty minutes they arrived at what was once the Piazzo Castello but was now a much enlarged area known as Green Square.  They were standing half way along the south-east side of the square, which was really a rectangle about two hundred yards by one hundred yards in extent. Four paved football fields. A hundred yards away on the opposite side, a little to the right stood the forbidding red-brown walls of the ancient ‘red’ fortress, Directly opposite, at the left side of the fortress was a narrow lane into the old city suq. To their left, along the south-west face of the main square, was a small rectangle of grass and about six palm trees. The ‘green’ of Green Square? No, the revolutionary green of the green and black flag flying above the fortress. The old piazzo had served for military displays of power against the backdrop of the imposing fortress.  Rommel’s Africa Corps had paraded there in 1941 and later, in 1943, to celebrate Rommel’s defeat, Montgomery’s Eighth army had held a victory parade there attended by Churchill. Even with that history, the old Italian Piazzo Castello had been found inadequate by the current purposes of revolutionary demonstrations and had been made even bigger by demolishing a theatre. But on this Friday in early afternoon it was quiet. A few people were cutting across the square to and from the suq.

Helene called Zophie’s attention to a nearby magazine stall. Helene was addicted to glossy literature. They went over and Helene started to browse through the magazines. The unshaven attendant sat in the shadows under a sagging brown canvas canopy, only the crown of his cropped silvery head visible above the sloping display. He was slumped forward, his eyes hidden from view and he gave no sign of hearing them. Zophie thought he was asleep. She bent down and peaked under the magazines. He was lethargically opening packets of five razor blades, and arranging the blades on the lid of a shoe box for sale as ‘singles’.  Zophie moved along the stall scanning the magazine covers. When she got to the end she saw a boy of about eight sitting on an upturned bottle crate. He was clean, with short shiny black hair and was neatly dressed in shorts, a white shirt, white socks and brown canvas shoes.  He looked newly scrubbed for school. ‘His mother takes very good care of him.’ thought Zophie. The little scholar had a high pile of magazines in front of him and a cardboard box behind him. Zophie watched entranced as the boy picked a magazine from the pile, opened it and mechanically went through every page with a thick marker, blacking out pictures and every ad illustrating women’s lingerie, swimsuits and large breasts in blouses. Sometimes he carefully tore out a complete page and put it in a separate thin pile he kept hidden under his backside. Then he put the sanitized magazine into the box behind him, ready for sale on the stall, and picked another from the pile.

‘Mein Gott, Helene, look at this. Now you know who has been censoring your magazines all these months!’

Helene bought a Hungarian farming magazine with a bright red tractor on the front.  She couldn’t read any Hungarian and had never set foot on a farm, but the illustrations of wheat fields, tractors, and combine harvesters had been spared.

They wandered to the left around the square and watched a TV crew setting up their cameras in readiness for that night’s spontaneous demonstration. They hurried past some soldiers near the cameras and scurried across to the suq. They vanished into its intricate maze of wynds and narrow lanes, cool and dark, tunnel-like, lit only by slits of sunlight reflected off the walls high above. On each side of the lanes worn very thick stone steps led to the hip high floors of the stone cells that served as shops and tiny factories. Carpets and clothing hung on nails outside the open doorways.  Tins and packets were stacked against walls.   Brass trays and dishes of spices were arranged in the doorways. Brightly coloured plastic pails hung on ropes strung above the lanes.  The first impression was of an utter lack of order.  Then with time it became clear that one lane or a part of a lane was devoted to hammered decorative brass-work, another to carpets, rugs and prayer mats, another to women’s clothing and colourful shawls; and the right-hand side of the suq entrance was entirely taken up with shoddy ill-tailored menswear from eastern Europe and soluble black-lacquered cardboard shoes from China. With experience gained from their previous visits Zophie and Helene easily found what they were looking for, brightly coloured finely woven cotton shawls, unlabelled but, they assumed, from somewhere in the exotic east. After the ritual of haggling and pretended walk-aways Zophie spent the little sum she could allow herself that month on two more floral-patterned shawls, one for her and one for her mother in Zgorzelecki.

Walking from the shadows of the suq back out into the afternoon sun, Zophie thought again of telling Helene about her time in Dresden. It was so awkward now. When they had first met and Helene had told her that she came from Dresden, Zophie had been taken aback by the coincidence. But her own painfully raw memories of Dresden had stopped her from saying that she had lived there. She had only mentioned having visited once for a technical symposium, and having lied, it was now difficult for her to tell Helene the truth.  The silly white lie kept gnawing at her conscience.

They walked over towards the harbour and sat down on a stone bench in the shade of the tall palm trees in a dusty park.  They looked out past the light afternoon traffic on the corniche to the blue horizon beyond the empty inner harbour. Lines and lines of ships lay at anchor as if gathered for a convoy. They were all waiting to be off-loaded, their captive crews in despair, their foreign owners in fits of frustration and their insurers writhing under claims for rotting cargoes.

‘I wonder which one has the sugar’, said Helene. ‘Or more golf clubs!’, laughed Zophie.

Helene got a blue pad of airmail paper from her bag. With her red tractor magazine on one knee as a desk she rummaged again in her bag and found a yellow Biro. She started a letter to her only surviving relative, Stephan Freisler, her older brother in Dresden. ‘Dear Stephan….’

Zophie watched Helene’s face, watched her lips squeezed tight in concentration as her pen hovered and wavered above the top corner of the thin blue paper. ‘It’s hard to start when you really have nothing to say’, she thought in sympathy with Helene. She noticed for the first time that Helene’s thick and short wavy golden hair had a few wisps of white at the temple. On the side of Helene’s pale neck there was a small rosey-brown mole with a single white hair curling from it. Zophie kept watching, willing Helene’s pen to start.

‘Aach!,’ Helene said, slapping the Biro flat across the pad, ‘I have absolutely no news, nothing has happened, my life here is totally uninteresting, a complete blank, just like this paper.’

‘But Helene—’

‘No Zophie! it is! I am nearly thirty-seven, no husband, no children and no hope, stuck it this place for another year at least. I could weep!’  Helene covered her face with both hands and did weep, letting her pen, paper and magazine slide off her knee to the ground.  Zophie bent down and picked up her things, shaking off the grit and sand. She put her arm around Helene and lent her forehead on Helene’s trembling shoulder. ‘It’s alright Helene, we all get like that here sometimes. Go ahead and cry. You’ll feel better after.’

Helene removed her hands from her tearful face and dug into her bag for a handkerchief.  She wiped her eyes and the drips from her red nose, her head bowed in embarrassment. She sat dabbing the tears as they continued to well up and flood her eyes. Zophie was admiring the finely worked corner of the handkerchief that hung from Helene’s curled fist. She remembered it was Helene’s only keepsake of her mother, who had embroidered the delicate blue forget-me-nots . Helene never went anywhere without it but never used it. It was too precious.

‘You’re mother’s handkerchief, Helene!’

‘Aach mein gott!’. Helene carefully replaced the handkerchief in her bag and dug out her everyday plain cotton hankie.

‘Helene there’s something I need to tell you’, Zophie murmured in a serious tone.

‘Ja?’  replied Helene, reluctantly turning and showing her swollen eyes to Zophie.

Zophie at last brought herself to tell Helene about her short-lived marriage to Adolf Schmidt, a young engineer from Dresden whom she had met at a technical symposium. The symposium had been held at the Technical Institute of Dresden.  He fell in love with Zophie during their first date.  They had skipped off a dull afternoon presentation and gone to see the Blau Wonder bridge.  There they had sat in a beer garden, sipping wheat beer and watching the paddle steamers and barges plying up and down the Elbe.  After the week long symposium, Adolf had courted her every Sunday by driving the 70 miles to Zgorzelecki. They had married in September 1970, only three months and two days from the day they first met. They found a two room flat in Plauen. Adolf started a new job on a tunnel for an autobahn extension.  He was killed in April of 1972 when a large chunk of rock split off the tunnel roof.   Zophie couldn’t face staying in Dresden after that and there was no work in Zgorzelecki for her. She had to get away. Still in shock, she had signed on under her maiden name of Doerner to the Polish government’s job-force that was hired out to Libya.

Now, she told Helene, all she wanted was to get away from Libya and not go back to a lonely dreary life in Poland or East Germany. Dresden had been good with Adolf, but without him, it was just ugly concrete blocks of soviet-workers housing amid bombed out ruins. She wanted to get to the west, even to America.  ‘I even thought of Scotland but think I can do better than Iain and his Flash. Damn him to hell. He is as bad as the Russians with their vodka.’

Helene stared in disbelief. Why was she was just hearing this now?  Why hadn’t Zophie trusted in her? She couldn’t think what to say. She looked away towards the ships in the distance. ‘I thought she was my friend,’ Helene reflected bitterly, ‘my only friend in the whole world.’ She felt the tears welling up again in her newly-opened blue eyes. She blinked to force them back then suddenly stood up.

‘Let’s walk back to the car,’ she said firmly, ‘we’ll try the door of the cathedral on our way by.  Any port in a storm, ja?’

************************

Anderson adjusted his headphones.  He was lying on his side in bed with his head propped up on his left elbow. His large right paw rested on the night-table as his clumsy thumb and fat first finger twiddled with the switches and knobs on a large radio. Some nights, well after dark when reception was good, he would spend an hour or two trawling through the short-wave bands. The magic of countless radio waves bouncing all around the world between the earth and the ionosphere never failed to amaze Anderson.

He had bought the Yaesu FRG-7700 second-hand from a small shop near the top of Abbey Mount Road in Edinburgh and had brought it to Libya. He had justified he considerable expense by the need to keep up with news broadcast on the BBC World Service. A much simpler radio would have done for that, but the Yaesu could also pick up morse code and the side-band transmissions of the world’s ‘radio hams’.   When the weather and darkness combined to give good reception Anderson could escape his captivity for a while by listening to radio conversations all around the globe. He had recently eavesdropped on a radio-telephone call from a US military transport plane and a house in Vermont. An excited woman, accompanying her US Senator husband on a flight to Geneva was showing off by placing a call to an earthbound friend. Anderson had heard a crewman talking to his base in Washington, where a voice said ‘patching you through…’ then Anderson had heard a telephone ringing as if it were in the next room. After many rings, the phone was answered with a feeble and drowsy ‘hello?’. Someone had been fast asleep a minute ago. ‘Angela , it’s me, Marcelle! I just had to call. You’ll never guess…I’m flying right above your house on my way to Geneva with Patrick…’. Anderson had heard the whole gushing story on one side and the sleep-laden sour grunts on the other.’ Anderson had chuckled as he lay in bed, picturing the faces of the rivals.

He rolled onto his back and put his head back on the pillow. As the reception faded in and out, he lay listening past the squeals, hums and chirps to strange and exotic music. South America?  He drifted off on the gently undulating waves. Suddenly he shook himself awake. ‘This is pathetic’, he thought, ‘I should be bangin’ Zophie, not lying here by mysel’. Yer a fechin’ eejit Anderson!’

He couldn’t believe how Zophie had succeeded in stringing him along all this time. He bought her little gifts, bought her meals and let her escape to the villa from her pokey flat when she needed to get away from Bogdana for an evening.  In return he got into the lab every month or so to distil his Flash but he never got into Zophie. The clever Zophie usually brought Helene along to the villa as a companion and chaperone. The two women would do some cooking, eat, tidy up the kitchen a little then they would stretch out head to toe, facing each other on the settee and chatter away in German. ‘I’m a right softy!’ Anderson would scold himself, but he never said anything to chase them away. Who else had he for company? Only Holy Baloney Maloney? Bugger that! Anyway, Viv was hardly ever about. When he was in the villa he shut himself in his bedroom with his bibles and church magazines.

This dull frustrating routine had become Anderson’s life for the past year.  But then had come that other burden to keep him awake at nights. A very odd visitor had come to see him. The Friday before, around 9 o’ clock at night, Viv had gone out and a moment later, the gate buzzer had squawked. Anderson had assumed that Viv had forgotten his key and locked himself out. He had dragged himself outside and had opened the high solid gate. A large dark-complexioned man in a business suit was waiting. The stranger had whispered that he was a business associate of Brewster and needed to come in for a minute. Anderson had guessed that he was wanting to buy some Flash and warily led him into the villa. Anderson had looked the visitor over as he stood under the brightly lit chandelier. Under the light Anderson noticed that his dark complexion looked much lighter, olive. The man was very similar in build to himself, big boned and heavy, but looked several years older.  He was smartly dressed with a white open-neck shirt and dark suit. His hair was straight and dark brown with greying at the temples. He wore black-rimmed spectacles and would have looked intellectual and dignified but for his present unease. ‘A business man, perhaps a Syrian or Lebanese’, Anderson had pondered. The visitor only gave his name as Mohammed.  ‘That’s very likely true,’ Anderson had thought, ‘there’s a lot o’ you about.’

The visitor had begun by complimenting Anderson on the quality of his Flash and had assured Anderson that he was not there to cause Anderson any problems on that score. The secret of the Flash production would be safe with him.

He had then gone on to tell Anderson that he knew about his illicit distilling activities at the laboratory. That had really thrown Anderson.  How could he know that? Zophie? Never. Perhaps he had let slip more than he remembered at that never-to-be-repeated fiasco of a Flash party last year. No. He was sure no-one had picked up on that at the time. Mohammed had refused to say how he knew about the lab other than saying he was well connected.  He had also thereby conveyed the message that he was someone whom Anderson would do well to keep in with. Anderson had detected a veiled threat.

Having established his power over Anderson, Mohammed had given him instructions to use his access to the laboratory to steal stones.  He was to steal one or two stones from every consignment bag that he could find in the lab, taking just a few, not enough to be missed and to carefully re-seal any containers that he disturbed. He was to store the stones at the villa until Shyer collected them and on no account to tell anyone else about their arrangement.

Under the implicit threat of jail for alcohol manufacture and peddling, Anderson had agreed to do what he could.  ‘Maybe there’s diamonds or gold in the stones. Well I’ll just pretend to play along and see what happens.’

After the mysterious Mohammed had left he had sat thinking over the strange request and suddenly it had occurred to him that it would be impossible to get the stones without Zophie noticing.  She was always with him during his night-time cookery and she kept the lab key.  Then he had had a brainwave. ‘I could get stones from just anywhere. How would he know the difference?’  He had puzzled over that for a long time without reaching a conclusion.

As he lay listening to the radio he heard the front door’s loud bang over the soft music in the headphones. Viv had gone out. ‘Where does that git get to at night?’ he asked himself, ‘the wee bugger is awfy secretive.’ A loud long buzz came from the gate. ‘Oh tae hell!’ He got up and reluctantly went out and opened the gate, expecting to see either Viv or Mohammed. What if it’s Mohammed? He hadn’t been to the lab in the past week. He hadn’t collected any other stones. He cracked open the gate. It was Withers! Greatly relieved, he snatched hold of Withers’ hand, shook it vigorously and ushered him along the path and into the villa. Withers coming alone at night for Flash? It was odd. This was not the aloof Withers’ style at all.

‘So sorry to drop in un-announced Anderson, something private to discuss.’

‘My visa renewal?’, Anderson asked disingenuously as he led Withers into the living room.

‘No no, nothing like that,’ Withers replied, looking around, ‘Is there anyone else in?’

‘No just me, same as usual,’ Anderson said ruefully, ‘fancy a drink?’

‘Mmm, yes. Why not? Yes! Why not? Thank you Anderson.’

‘How’s things wi’ Simon these days?’ Anderson shouted over his shoulder as he went to the kitchen for the bottles.

‘Same as ever I’m afraid. One scarcely knows what else one can do to get rid of him.’ Withers looked around and sensed the depressing atmosphere of the dreary room.  Anderson appeared from the kitchen. He had four full Fanta bottles, two clear, two orange, in his left hand; and two tumblers in his right held between his thumb outside and two thick fingers stuck inside each glass.

Withers stood watching Anderson as he mixed the drinks on the Glenmorangie tray at the teak table. He had thought for a long time about Anderson and his aptitude for the job. What was the downside risk? None really. Anderson could do the simple task required, he had a ready-made cover with his Flash activities and was breaking the law so he could be coerced if that became necessary.   But first Withers would try the softly-softly approach and appeal to Anderson’s North British patriotism. He had been encouraged by Anderson’s genuinely enthusiastic welcome at the gate and so he decided to get down to business.

They sat down at the teak table with the Glenmorangie tray between them. In diplomatic circles getting down to business still requires a lengthy preamble. Withers noticed the leaping salmon on the tray.

‘Fish at all, Anderson?’

‘No’ recently.’

‘In Scotland man, ever fished the Tweed?’

‘Oh aye, one or twice at Peebles.’

‘Shoot, Anderson? Deer? Pheasant? Grouse?

‘No, no’ me…I widnae’ hurt the puir beasts.’

Withers looped in his line and cast again. ‘Mmm, …I see…tell me where are your people from, Anderson?’

‘My faither came frae near Dalkeith and my mother was Hawick’

‘Dalkeith! I ‘ve been there, at the Palace for a hunt ball!’

‘Aye? fancy that! Nane o’ oor lot would hae been at that.’

Anderson glowered into his tumbler.  His drink had only a faintest tinge of orange. Withers swirled his tumbler and took a big gulp that drained it. Anderson topped him up. Withers knew he was struggling with his stilted pleasantries. ‘Like casting pearls before swine,’ he thought, ‘might as well get to the point.’

‘Hmmm….well this is good stuff you make, Anderson, considering the conditions. Must help though, having all the right gear, the lab, what?’

For the second time in a week Anderson was flummoxed. ‘How can be know about the lab?’ A deja-vu sensation swept over him. He pretended not to have heard the tail end of Withers’ remark. He sat silently staring at the salmon.

Withers tightened the screw a turn. ‘Been there recently.. the lab?

‘No, not for weeks,’ Anderson conceded with a sigh.

Over the rapidly emptying bottles Withers rambled on at some length about ‘one’s duty to Queen and Country’,.. ‘standing up when called upon’… and a lot more of what Anderson classified as ‘pea-brained snobby-nosed twiddle twaddle’.  By the time Withers had wound up his convoluted soliloquy Anderson’s tumbler was empty for the fourth time and his eyes were glazed over, partly due to Flash, mostly from Withers.

Withers wriggled his backside on his chair, straightened his back and raised his head to a pose worthy of making an announcement.

‘I’ve been given a little job from our security and intelligence people in London, Anderson, a teensy bit of pilfering that needs to be done by someone in your position.  In fact Anderson,…they were rather hoping it would be done by you Anderson.’

He then went on to give Anderson exactly the same requirements for stealing stones as those specified by Mohammed Shyer. Anderson immediately realized that he should tell Withers about Mohammed’s visit.  ‘After all I am British…I suppose when it comes down to it.’ he had muttered grudgingly under his breath. But he didn’t tell Withers.

‘What’s that?’ Withers asked.

‘Oh, nothing, I was just thinking it over.’

‘Thinking it over?…well old man, one can hardly say no to Her Majesty’s Secret Service, can one?’

‘Her Majesty’s Secret Service,’ Anderson silently repeated to himself, ‘MI6… James Bond…007.’ He shut his eyes, savouring his fifth drink. A glorious vision   flashed across his brain..….Ursula Andress, emerging from the waves,…her snorkel,…her white bikini,…her dagger,… her conch shells,…her fantastic tits!

‘I’ll do it!’ he roared.

**************************

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FLASH PAST Part2 Ch.2

Part2

Chapter 2

Misratah, Libya

Friday 1st February 1974

Shyer braked gently and stopped behind the cluster of vehicles up ahead. A dusty brown truck was lying on its side near the right edge of the single highway, its huge load of cement bags exploded across the asphalt and sand in a greyish-white blanket. A wide swathe had been ripped into the wild prickly-pear cacti lining the road. A crowd stood around shouting questions and instructions to the three men who were standing on the cab door and peering inside at the driver.  He was unconscious and slowly bleeding to death from a cut in his neck. It would take an hour or more to summon an ambulance to this remote stretch of the coastal highway. ‘Insha’Allah’, they muttered, ‘It was God’s will.’  A few minutes later the crowd dispersed back to their own vehicles and shared taxis and moved off. A police patrol would come by eventually.

Shyer didn’t get out of his white Beetle. After using his fingertips to wipe the dust from the scratched lenses of his new black-rimmed spectacles he took a long swig of lukewarm water from a plastic bottle in the door pocket.  Then he rummaged in the pile of cassettes scattered on the passenger seat and finding what he wanted shoved it roughly into the player bolted under the dash. Soon he was back to cruising speed and casually steering with two fingers at the bottom of the wheel as the opposing traffic whooshed by about three feet away in the other lane. Wwhhoo, wwhhoo, wwhhoo every few seconds. The 130 mile route from Tripoli to Misratah was a run that virtually guaranteed the sight of two serious accidents and numerous close calls every trip. Perhaps unable or unwilling to invest in good tires, maintenance and caution, many drivers trusted to a bunch of talismanical trinkets dangling over the rear view mirror or a collection of stuffed toys blocking the back window, or more commonly both.

Mohammed Shyer had made this trip many times but not in the last few months. He was firmly set up in Tripoli having made the move to the ‘big city’ from Misratah years ago. His widowed mother Habiba and his half-brother Saif still lived in the old family home of Saif’s father.  Habiba had moved from Tripoli to Misratah and married Saif’s father, who had adopted Mohammed as his son. Saif was born a year later and the two boys grew up as close brothers. When Mohammed was old enough Habiba had told him of his natural father, a young soldier who had been killed in 1943 before his son was born that November.

Shyer twisted the rear view mirror and stole a proud glance at the back seat. Wrapped up in shiny silver paper lay a gift for Habiba, a red imitation crocodile-skin handbag. Out of view, jammed against the back of the front seats lay a bag of golf clubs for Saif. An enterprising Egyptian had bought at cost sets of the Korean golf clubs from the new department store, then had an agent in Greece send him a consignment of golf balls (the department store had never had any balls in stock) and he had started a craze among a handful of young men who thrashed around the beaches and scrubland on Fridays between prayers.  The fad was dying out already as the golf balls became lost. But Saif would think it a great gift. He’d be the first golfer in Misratah. He could play ‘links golf’ among the high dunes on the north side of town, near the sea.

Shyer at last arrived near the turn-off for Misratah, a simple left turn across the oncoming traffic with the real prospect of being killed if the driver behind was half asleep. He made some swerves and flashed his brakes to check the driver behind was awake, stopped at the turn and waited for a gap.  He turned on the left indicator. Its loud clucking seemed unusually fast. With a sudden squeal of tires he cut through into the side road and then gave a sigh of relief. He always felt the same sensation right there, as if he had just escaped indoors from a sandstorm. He drove along, swerving past a small sandy island for a future roundabout, the arms of the non-existent cross road just short stumps pointing into the desert, and crawled into town relishing the familiar calm atmosphere.  It was so peaceful compared to the terrors of the highway and the aggressive bustle of Tripoli.  There were no ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations every other day, no frantic wild-eyed crowds screaming and chanting, both arms raised, fists clenched, egging each other on. It had often occurred to Shyer that those people in Green Square were actually frightened themselves and that their yelling was somehow akin to whistling in the dark.

Misratah was a moderate sized town, by no means a city, but a place of significance non-the-less. It lay tucked between the highway and a blunt promontory of high dunes just before the coast swung in a wide arc around the Gulf of Sirte and up to Benghazi. It had been the centre of a bloody uprising against the Italian colonisers, which had left the town with the legacy of a mass grave of executed townsmen when the attempt failed.  The lesson had been passed on and the people were more cautious now.

The population was deceptively large, the town centre being compact and lacking much by way of public amenities. It was mainly low-rise dull old apartments and shops. Surrounding the centre was a narrow dense belt of poor housing on unpaved streets. Outside that, and forming much the largest proportion of the built up area, were less densely scattered single-storey villas, each in a walled compound, laid out apparently at random with no pattern of streets. Winding tracks, barely wide enough for a car, ran like crazy paving between the blank walls.  Further out still, towards the coast, there was a wide green belt of small-holdings with irrigated groves of olives and dates, the greenery broken here and there by scrubby dunes, old cemeteries and smouldering garbage dumps. A single lane dirt road ran around the north edge of the town as if holding it back from the sea. Backing up the flimsy road lay a quarter-mile wide ridge of high dunes and weak sandstone ledges. This higher ground formed the final barrier dividing the choppy blue waves of the Mediterranean and the last traces of the restless Sahara. At several places along the road wheel tracks led up the ridge to new security fences.  Behind the fences concrete slabs were being cast to carry batteries of Russian Scud-B missiles.

Shyer continued straight ahead into town. The road became the main commercial street, flanked by shops at street level and apartments above. There were no sidewalks. Cars, pickups, motorcycles, crates, cardboard boxes, junk and litter randomly cluttered the oil-stained strips of packed earth between the asphalt and the buildings.  It had rained briefly that morning and there was a damp sewer smell hanging in the air.

He arrived at the town centre and its small square of grass and date palms. The dust and sand dulled the grass to a drab greenish-brown, but the palms had been rinsed shiny green by the rain.  On one side of the square stood the Balidiyah building with its district administration offices. Diagonally opposite, defying the geometric order of the square was the higgledy old suq and fish market  Shyer’s car squeezed and coaxed its way between the straggling shoppers and past the busy stalls. It was early evening and the market was crowded. The sharp salty smells of fresh fish blended with the sweet sickly whiff of the sewers.  Past the fish market, turning left, he came to a broad open space.  On his left a row four open-fronted meat shops displayed large chunks of meat on hooks. The sheep, goat and camel meat looked to have been chopped up at random with little regard for particular cuts or organs. Surprisingly, there were very few flies at the raw meat. To his right across the open area and facing the row of meat shops was the town’s slaughterhouse. A large metal roofed shed-like building with a high sliding door. Two woe-faced camels were tethered to the wall beside the open steel door, humps sagging and their heads bowed. The interior was faintly lit by the low evening sun. Inside a man was hosing the concrete floor and moving away into the shadows. To the right of the slaughterhouse and set back against the far corner of the building was a large round pond that held the drainage from the killing floor. The shimmering surface of the gory pond was a gorging mass of fat black flies. Shyer continued north past the slaughterhouse and then generally east and then south through a tortuous maze between the houses until he pulled up, safe at last, outside the blue steel gate of his family home.

Late that night, after Habiba had gone to bed, Mohammed and Saif sat side by side on a brightly coloured carpet lounging on cushions against the wall. They picked among the nuts and dates heaped on a large brass tray, which lay on the carpet between their feet. On the wall, above where they sat, hung a thin gaudy rug depicting a romantic scene in an idealised oasis.

The room was almost square and looked spacious due to its sparse furnishings. It only had the carpet, the large plump cushions on the floor along one wall and a TV that stood in a corner on its tapered brass legs.  A large pair of rabbit ears were balanced on top of the set, which was always kept on for Habiba’s comfort and company, even when she was not in the room.  The snowy screen was showing a jittery image of a man’s head and shoulders. Every few seconds a wide black horizontal bar slid up the screen. The man was reading with his eyes down in a mono-tonal drone. His voice was very faint and Saif was oblivious to the man’s words and the steady background hum.  Mohammed was trying hard to ignore the TV and was intently listening to Saif.

The two men looked quite different thanks to their different fathers.  Mohammed was heavily built, large by local standards and pale of complexion. He could have been taken for an Italian or a Lebanese.  Saif was slight, with much darker brown skin and short black tightly curled hair. He was looking very serious and he spoke very quietly.  He closely watched his brother’s eyes as he began to disclose the reason why he had asked Mohammed to come.

‘We have information from our brothers in Benghazi, Mohammed. They have asked for our help. They have heard that the madman has found the material needed to make a nuclear weapon, a small bomb or even a war-head for a missile.

‘Saif! He can’t have.’  Mohammed retorted dismissively to his little brother.

‘Look! The Russian missiles are coming here soon. They are preparing the places for them right now in Misratah. I will show you tomorrow.  If the madman gets this other power in his hands we will never remove him. Even more fools will think he is a hero.  The Benghazi brothers say that if the rumours are true they must strike before he has time to make a nuclear weapon, no matter how small.’  Saif paused for a response and nervously poked around at the food on the tray.

‘But what could they expect us to do?’ asked Mohammed, peering over the top of his spectacles.

‘If we agree to help they will tell us more but first we, I mean you, are to try and check that their information is correct.  If it is false they will hold off taking action and wait for a safer opportunity when the people are angry. Just now with the schools and hospitals being built a lot of people say they are better off now than ever before.’

Mohammed took off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes while trying to think. ‘This is madness,’ he thought, ‘ the man owns the people of  Tripoli  and Sirte and we are in the middle.  What if the Benghazis lose and we are found out? We’ll be hung up on hooks like those camels. God save me from this!’. He tried to compose himself under the cover of replacing and adjusting his spectacles.

‘But why us? Why me? Why not you, Saif? These people came to you!’

‘Because the stuff is supposed to be in Tripoli and they know that you have contacts there that could help you to get at it.’

‘What stuff?  I wouldn’t know what to look for?”

‘They will tell us where to look and what to do if you find it. It looks like stones.’

‘How can they know where to look, Saif?’

‘Because Mohammed, they have spies everywhere, just like all the others.’

‘So why don’t they use those spies for this?’

‘They will be.  Others will be looking too, in other places.’

‘Oh I don’t know Saif, I don’t like it. Even if we did all this and they decided to fight, what chance would they have? No chance at all, Saif.  And when they lose we will get shot too, or worse!’

‘Listen to me Mohammed, we are not fools. They have thought about that. I have thought about that. In Benghazi they would have the same fears, except for this. They have been promised support from the Americans. Weapons, supplies, everything will arrive when it is needed.  The Americans hate him. He has chased out their ambassador, pushed up the price of oil, made them look stupid. No Mohammed, it will succeed with the backing of the Americans. That is why the madman must lose.’

Early next morning Mohammed and Saif drove up to the coast and slowed to look at the missile pads as they went by.  A few workmen were lethargically moving around on top of the ridge but there was nothing much to see.  They saw an army pick-up truck up ahead. It was coming towards them and they turned left onto a rutted track, scraping the underside of the Beetle on the thorny scrub until they reached the small-holdings and found their way back into town.

After a final farewell to Habiba, Shyer dropped off his brother at the Balidiyah building where Saif worked as assistant to the chief administrator. Then he continued west towards the main highway, down the long street of shops and apartments that he had passed on his way in. He saw a ragged line of people off to his left patiently waiting outside the wide doorway of a bakery.  The thought of hot fresh loaf for the journey made him sharply pull over and stop opposite the door. He got out and walked closer to absorb the warm and comforting smell.

Inside the doorway was a scene from hell. Half-naked bakers, dripping sweat, were rushing back and forth in front of an enormous black oven. It must have been six feet high and twelve feet wide. There were nine heavy iron doors in three rows.  The morning bake had just finished. Holding long steel bars the bakers unlatched the hinged doors and started to drag out black trays of red-hot golden loaves. Shyer could see steady blue flames and wildly leaping yellow flames through the open doors. The long straight loaves were identical but for variations in the firing. Some were darker than others. The trays were being tipped at random into three large wooden crates that stood on the apron of concrete floor outside the doorway.

Shyer stood back enjoying this happy chaotic scene as the bakers emptied the oven and filled the boxes. Then the customers pounced and jostled like a pack of dogs to get their preferred shade of crust from the boxes.  Those in front started, using rags or newspapers as mitts, to pluck searing hot loaves from the boxes and thrust them into cotton shopping bags.

He heard a heavy truck backing up in front of his car.  He turned and saw three soldiers standing under the brown canvas top. Before the truck had stopped moving two men jumped off over the tailgate. Shyer could see the third soldier inside the back of the truck. He was using his feet to push heaps of loaves forward and clear a space behind the tailgate. Shyer knew at once the boyish Slavic features, shaved heads, the ill-fitting uniforms and scuffed clunky boots. ‘Russians.’ As the first two soldiers loped the few strides to the bakery, laughing and chattering, the locals instinctively herded together and retreated to the far side of the doorway. The soldiers picked up a crate and tipped all the loaves into the truck. Then they returned twice more.  Throwing down the last crate, still absorbed in conversation and seemingly blind to the watchful silenced huddle by the door, they climbed over the tailgate and stood among the loaves. Gears grated and crunched. The truck lurched away leaving a dense black cloud of diesel smoke hanging in the poisoned atmosphere.

Shyer got back into his car and pulled away. ‘Perhaps I should at least try to do something’, he thought.

**********************

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FLASH PAST Part 2 Ch.1

Part 2

Chapter 1

Erie Weekly News

Saturday 13 October 1973

‘ The boat that was found in August beached at Presque Isle State Park by two local men, twin-brothers Mike and Russ Adams (23), is back this side of the border after it was bought at an auction by a local boat dealer Aaron Reingold on behalf of a client.  Mr. Reingold said he had no qualms about the boat’s history and that allowing for minor repairs and a change of registered name it would be an excellent purchase for his client whom he declined to name. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Hatley, the man charged with the gruesome events leading up to the August beaching remains in the Kingston Maximum Security Penitentiary  in Canada awaiting trial.’

******************

Kingston, Ontario

15 November 1973

‘Hey Hatley— dickhead!’

‘Screw you! Lard-ass!’

‘Havin’ a nice day shitface!’

‘Up yours! Blubber,’ ended Chuck feebly, tired of the contest.

The guard chuckled as his step faded down the corridor. He and Chuck had got into bandying insults as a way of  breaking up the boredom of their daily existence in the KP.  The obese guard felt almost as much a prisoner as the other, up until the end of his shift. Chuck had one twenty-three hour shift every day plus an hour walking alone around an exercise yard. His bare cell in the Kingston Maximum Security Penitentiary, known locally as the ‘KP’, was 7 feet wide and 9 feet long with a thick-barred window blocking a handkerchief of grey sky; just a toilet, a tiny desk and a hard cot. His face had a permanent beaten up look and a broken nose. He looked a tough customer with his prison haircut, the bristles barely long enough to show that it would grow in grey if it ever got another chance. He was mid-thirties, stocky build and would have been about medium height if standing but for now he was flat on the cot, reflecting on his future prospects.

His lawyer had said his service record could tip a jury in his favour, but if not, here he was, apparently facing twenty years. To rub it in, he was lying just a couple of miles from his service base, the country’s most prestigious. If the wind was from the east he could sometimes faintly hear pipe and brass bands parading near the military college.

‘Where had he gone wrong?’ people wondered.  Taking up with Gina after his wife ran out on him? Yes, Gina was generally agreed to be the rotten signpost that led him down the wrong path. The rum was just a root he had tripped over along the way.  Plenty guys drank and didn’t end up in the KP for murder, rape and ‘related charges’ as the newspapers had put it so quaintly. Like stealing a boat, attempted evasion of customs duties, interfering with ‘wildlife that could pose a threat to the environment’.  Ha! Those bastards had really piled it on when they got going.

Chuck was, or least he had been, a respected officer in (CFNCIU) the Canadian Forces National Counter-Intelligence Unit ‘responsible to provide (SI) Security Intelligence and (CI) Counter Intelligence services in support of the (CF) Canadian Forces and the (DND) Department of National Defence during peace, crisis and war,’ as it was gleefully chorused by the proud men and women in the unit. He had started out paying his way through school as a reserves cadet at the naval support base (AWS)Airforce Wing Shearwater then got a place at (CFSCE) the Canadian Forces School of Communications and Electronics, had served as a member of the ‘Frozen Few’ on (SIGINT) Signals Interception at (CFS ALERT) on Ellesmere Island, spent a couple of years in Ottawa with (CSIS) the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service undergoing training in (HUMINT) human intelligence, (TECHINT) technical intelligence, (OSINT) open source intelligence, (DOCINT) documentary intelligence, (MASINT) measurements and signatures intelligence and (IMINT) image intelligence. Chuck had battled his way ‘with merit’ through countless acronyms in the service of his country and had the certificates and badges to prove it.

‘Intelligence! That’s a sick joke!’, his former colleagues mourned, ‘all that training at the taxpayers’ expense…, gone to hell over a slut!’ As he lay staring at the patch of daylight reflected under the lintel he went over and over in his memory the story of the past three months.

One day he had got home to find a note from his wife.  While Chuck had been away for six months freezing his balls off in Alert she had met a Yank in the Thousand Islands Casino at Gananoque.   She had run off with him to Pennsylania and wasn’t coming back.  All that was undisputed fact. Chuck decided she wasn’t worth going after and was to be found consoling himself in bars, drinking more than usual, but not so much as to affect his military service.  One day he had gone down to Port Dover.  It seemed that he just wanted to drive and think.  In Port Dover he had gone into Terry’s down by the waterfront and eaten some Lake Erie whitefish and fries.  He had wandered down to the pier and, coming across a memorial plaque, he read that the United Empire Loyalist settlers of Port Dover had had their little fishing village burnt to the ground by the Americans in 1812. “And they’re still screwing us, the bastards”, he had muttered to no one in particular. A leather-clad biker with fat tattooed arms was hunkered beside his Harley. He had turned his bandana bound skull and had looked up at Chuck for a moment then went on polishing his chrome.

Chuck had strolled along the solid concrete jetty looking into the murky green water. At the end he had  sat on the concrete slab and warmed his back against the sunny white wall of the squat lighthouse. He had stared through the summer  haze on Lake Erie towards the invisible shore of Pennsylvania. Had he been drawn to this place purely by chance?  Perhaps he didn’t know himself. But he had never gone there before.  He had closed his eyes, watched the dark floaters inside his orange-yellow eyelids and begun to doze off.  Then he had heard a dribbling noise close by his left ear. Opening his eyes he had seen a miniature dog pissing on the wall a few inches from his left hand.  He had felt a few drops splashing on the back of his fingers. ‘You little fucker! I’ll wring your—’.  He had stopped abruptly when a pair of shapely legs in red alligator-skin high-heels had appeared in view round the corner of the wall.

‘Ooooo! Spunky! Ooooo! Spunky! Spunky! You naughty boy!’.  It was ‘Gina.

‘If only he had snapped Spunky’s ratty neck there and then…’, the taxpayers later mused bitterly.

******************

While Chuck lay on his cot two scruffy truck drivers were sitting in Tim Horton’s coffee shop a few hundred yards away near the LaSalle causeway to the military base.  They sat at a small round table by the glass wall and looked out over the beginning of the St. Lawrence River towards Wolfe’s Island.  One man was looking bored and impatient to leave.  The other was almost holding him by the sleeve of his thick plaid shirt as he repeated for the umpteenth time the local hearsay version of Chuck Hatley’s downfall.

‘……so Chuck kind a’ landed on his feet as you would say with this Gina women with plenty dough and her last husband had fell down dead and left her with a fancy big friggin’ boat like I was tellin’ you about.  It was kept in a boatyard up in a little creek that ran in from the harbour.  I don’t know if you’ve been there but there’s a road bridge over the creek and the bridge has to open up for the sailboats to get through or the masts would get stuck.  Anyways back up in there there’s a big boat yard with lots of boats set up out of the water and places for tie-up at a fancy members only club…’

‘….Port Dover is a real nice little spot if you’ve gotten yourself a boat.  Yes bud, you can sail right on over to the States in a day easy, and a lot less if an’ you have a good sized motor on her….mind if I take yer sugar?’

‘…a real fancy one, white leather seats and polished chrome and a cabin with glass sliding doors and steps up to the top where you could sit out in the sun and the whole works.  It was painted on the back with a giraffe and the name of the boat, ‘Highballs Are On Me’, on account of the widow woman’s last husband had been the big cheese at some zoo in Florida……’

‘…Chuck he took to drinkin’ Captain Morgans on account of him being in charge of running her boat.  The widow woman didn’t like going out in the boat in case it got scratched or wet or somethin’ and just used it like a cottage tied up at the shore.  You never saw her without a Bacardi and coke in her hand. They had their own little space with “Gina an’ Chuck” burned on a little wood sign stuck in the ground and a gas barbeque and picnic table all set up and lots of weekends they would stay there.  She told Chuck it was their secret love-nest.  Boy! That Gina, Lord, I could tell you some tales… anyways what happened was Chuck had been haulin’ her ashes well an’ good one night on the boat and then Chuck got into the rum.  Chuck didn’t know shit about drivin’ a boat but after suckin’ up to the forty-ouncer he took a crazy notion to go out see the full moon on Lake Erie.  The boat club had been talkin’ about it was a harvest moon setting way over behind Long Point and how it was really somethin’ to see….’

‘So’s anyways while his woman was asleep in the cabin Chuck started the motor and started down the creek.  You must know Port Dover and how they have that bridge to get under into the lake.   Wells anyways Chuck got the boat backed out and turned around without hittin’ more than two or three little plastic sailboats and he headed out, down the creek.  You must had been in there sometime and seen how it is. The fancy sailing club on the one side of the creek and the junkyard crap on the right, an’ it was dark as….’.

‘So’s he’s got her headed down the creek an’ — There’s that fat guard works at the Pen just come in.  Think he would keep off the donuts wouldn’t ya?…’

‘So’s anyways while the widow woman was near dead asleep in the cabin from the bacardis an’ workout she just had got from Chuck, Chuck fired her up an’ got her headed down the creek.

‘Well it was real dark  an’  Chuck wasn’t seeing too sharp anyways on account of the rum… You must know Port Dover and have been in the creek they have with that bridge to get out under into Lake Erie?   You must know how it is set up with the fancy sailing club on yer left as you go out and the rusty — , I told you that bit already did I?…’

‘No?, Yes? Well it is an’ the creek kind of twists an’ you have to kinda hang a left to aim under the bridge an then you have to hang a bit right to aim out the harbour.   There’s these two big sucker rock walls you sail between to get into Erie an’ the one on yer right has a ugly concrete friggin lighthouse stuck on the end.  If ye’ go there in summer you see hundreds o’ dumb tourists standing all along on the lighthouse side an’ gawking across at hundreds of seagulls shitting on the other side and starin’ back at them tourists…’

‘But time I’m tellin’ you about it was one or two at night an’ there weren’t nobody out ‘cept maybe a couple of stray hookers…

‘Anyways I can see as how you’re in a hurry so’s I wont even tell you about how Chuck’s boat was fitted up with a row of fishing poles that stuck up way high above the top and how they went off like a friggin’ machine gun when they rattled under the steel beams underneath the bridge … my Lord, it brought out the RCMP who spent weeks an’ never catched on…’

‘ So anyway that night Chuck was steering the boat towards the moon and staring up into the sky when all of a sudden a huge bright ball of green and white light came screaming towards him and scared him shitless.  He fell back and stepped on the Captain Morgans bottle that was rolling about at his feet and slipped and banged his head on a rail.   You want the rest of my donut?..’

‘ No? well anyways the next thing he knew was waking up lying on his back and a bright light shining in his eyes.  An’ a loud voice through a horn was ordering him to put his hands up and lay still an’ accept boarders.  Well Chuck was too pissed to even put his hands up so’s all a sudden a bunch of guys with guns jumped on board and yelled out that they was the US Customs Officers and ready to shoot!’

‘Turned out that after Chuck had knocked himself out ’cause of the meteorite that the boat kept chugging along by itself all the way to the States!  Well Chuck wasn’t too too worried as he wasn’t smugglin’ and just sat there with his hands cuffed and his head throbbin’ while they searched the boat.  Well, ah’ll tell ya, them suckers got a shock then. They went down the cabin an’ found Gina lying naked and spread-eagled on the bed and dead as a highway porc’pine, ‘cept not so flat…an’ a lil dawg curled up between her legs.

‘What?.. no, she must’ve been dead for hours.  That’s why she didn’t wake up when they hit the bridge but Chuck was too drunk then to notice…so’s they arrested Chuck and took the boat at the same time with Gina still in there and towed them in to Erie.

‘They locked Chuck up and after two days on the phone they towed the whole kittin’ caboodle ‘cept Gina back over the border to Port Dover and dumped it on the Mounties. They went to town and charged him with a whole slew of stuff, starting with rape and murder, an’ theft of the boat, an’ drunk drivin’, evading customs, rum running, exporting Canadian water without a license, zebra mussels an’ anythin’ else they could dream up.  It took them two hours to—Hey come back! I ain’t finished!…Shit!’

*******************

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FLASH PAST Part 1 Ch.8

FLASH PAST

Part 1

Chapter 8

TGIF

Tripoli

Friday 22nd Dec 1972

Helene and Zophie lay on narrow beds in their shared bedroom. Fridays were the only days they had free and they were feeling lazy. Helene lay reading an East-German photo-magazine, propped up by her pillow against a dark peeling headboard that in turn was propped up against the wall. Four feet away Zophie lay parallel, writing a letter.

The square room had an unwelcoming appearance with its bland white plaster walls and hard tiled floor overcoming their half-hearted attempts to make it homely. The wide-open doorway was central along one wall. The door had a loose round brass knob that was darkly tarnished except where it had been kept polished and worn thin by the fingers of countless tenants.  Thirty-four years had passed since the four-storey block had been thrown together on Shari-al-Jamahiriyyah to house some of the ‘ventimelli’ settlers convoyed in from Italy by governor Balbo. It lay roughly mid-way between Zophie’s soils lab and the city centre.  Azizia Barracks was a few blocks away to the east.

Between the beds and directly opposite the open door stood a makeshift night-stand assembled from bottle crates.  Directly above was a steel framed casement window with green wooden louvre shutters inside the glass. On the narrow tile sill was a slender cut-glass vase with a red plastic rose, trophies from the Gurgi restaurant.

Zophie had been making slow progress with her letter due to her frequent trips to the bathroom, her “chicken runs”, Helene had joked.  She  was writing to her Mother in Zgorzelecki,

“…and Helene and I were at a very pathetic excuse of a party last night at the house of Iain, the ugly Scotchishman, and a silly Englishman just like one in the cinema and the weirdest Americans. One was like a midget cowboy and the other looked like the child made by a lemon and a toad! Mein Gott mama I wish you could have seen the toad. He went hopping after Helene but she escaped! This is my day off and it is nice and peaceful here with just Helene for company. Mirna has to work at the hospital and Bogdana left early to go shopping.  I don’t know how I would bear it here without Helene who is so kind—”. She stopped, pen poised, as the flat door crashed open and Bogdana came in. Bogdana threw down her bulging string bag, crossed the hall and stood in their open doorway, hands on her hips and feet apart, looking very hot and flustered. She stretched out her bottom lip and blew a sweaty black curl back off her brow.

“Glupota! Glupota!”, she screeched, “stupid stupid people! It is unbelievable!”.  She threw back her head, rolled her large black eyes at the ceiling and shook her head ferociously from side to side like a dog with a rat.  Her long black curls thrashed the air.  ‘Glupota!  Now I have seen absolutely everything.’

Bogdana stood poised in a show of furious disbelief, head indignantly thrown back in martyrdom. Zophie surreptitiously slid her notepad behind her back. ‘Now what?’ she asked herself. Helene slipped lower behind her magazine pretending to be deeply absorbed in an article on Bulgarian women’s weight-lifting.

‘Oh no!’, remembered Helene and Zophie simultaneously, ‘the sugar!’

When they had arrived home from the party at Gurgi, Zophie had rushed straight to the bathroom. Helene had gone to the kitchen to replace the borrowed sugar.  She had opened the single wall cabinet that was supposed to store enough for four people. It had three shelves, two shared between Zophie, Helene and Mirna and one entirely reserved for Bogdana. Encroachment on Bogdana’s shelf space was considered an act of aggression.  It was only workable to a degree because Mirna never bought much, and pilfered meals at the hospital. Zophie’s and Helene’s tins and packets were mixed together and they shared back and forth.  Bogdana had every one of her packets and tins thickly marked with her initials “BR”. Things like potatoes and onions were stored on the floor in a two cardboard boxes from the soils lab. One box was marked “BR”.  Bogdana had not initialled individual vegetables, but the thought had crossed her mind.

Helene had set the bag of sugar down and had opened Bogdana’s “BR” plastic margarine tub where she kept her sugar safe from the ants and cockroaches. Helene had just been about to replace the ‘borrowed’ sugar when Zophie had called from the bathroom, requesting urgent help. Helene had put down the bag of sugar and hastened to deliver toilet paper from the rare and precious rolls they kept stashed under Zophie’s bed.  Helene had stood outside the bathroom door, consoling Zophie, and had forgotten about the sugar.  She had left the open sugar bag beside Bogdana’s open tub on the countertop and had crawled into bed. She had not been back to the kitchen since. She had drunk one bottle of Fanta for breakfast from the four she had taken from Anderson’s villa. The remaining three bottles were neatly in a row under her bed.  Everything of value or scarcity in the flat was kept under somebody’s bed.

‘The modern department store is open for the first time today and it is incredible!’, shouted Bogdana. Greatly relieved, Helene’s eyes peeked over the pictures of dubious looking women with bulging muscles.  ‘Oh good, what does it look like?’, she asked, hoping to keep Bogdana on this diverting topic.

‘Look like? It’s looks like a great big concrete box on three levels, with tall narrow windows.  You can’t miss it. There’s nothing else like it in the country!’ replied Bogdana whose schoolgirl German was imperfect.  She took the question too literally.

‘Did you buy anything?’ Zophie chimed in helpfully.

‘No! I don’t play golf and even if I did there are no golf courses for a thousand miles!’

‘Yes, GOLF!’ yelled Bogdana in response to their raised eyebrows.

‘The first level is entirely filled with identical red imitation alligator-skin ladies’ handbags from China. The second floor is totally empty. And the third floor has rows and rows of identical bags of Korean golf clubs! That’s all they’ve got!  I expect the second floor is reserved for the next ship that gets unloaded. What will it’s cargo be?’

‘Coffins! ‘Zophie offered through a giggle. ‘Cannon balls!’, laughed Helene.

Zophie and Helene roared with laughter and Bogdana joined them, bonded for a moment by their shared sense of superiority over the bungling Libyans.  One or two of those powerless managers and low-ranking officials would get it in the neck for the ridiculous cock-up. Bogdana suddenly stiffened to her usual self and turning on her heel went back to unpack her shopping.  Helene’s laughter was quickly cut off and she lay looking nervously towards the door. Zophie took out her notepad and went back to her letter,  “…to me. We sometimes talk about places we have both visited around Dresden but I have not told her that I lived once lived there or about Adolf…”.

A heart-stopping shriek came from the kitchen.

*********************

Late that night Bob Brewster sat in the window seat of a row of three on a Lufthansa plane bound for Frankfurt.  Beside him two heavily built men sat talking quietly.  Bob could not recognise the language from the few words he could overhear. The man nearest had nodded briefly to Bob when he found his seat. Then, while he was stowing his dark green trench coat in the overhead bin, Bob had noted his white freckled complexion and reddish short wavy hair. He was wearing a brown coarse tweed jacket and olive-green corduroy trousers and, what caught Bob’s eye most of all, a shiny gold harp that pinned his green woollen tie to his white nylon shirt. The man squeezed his small carry-on bag under the seat in front and thumped down heavily into his seat.

Bob looked out at his reflection in the dark window. He would connect to Chicago and be in Chattanooga in plenty time to accompany his mother to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. He looked forward to a few days at home with his widowed mother then a few days seeing some of his old college buddies. After the usual chaos at the airport he could relax now.  When the plane had taken off a dozen oil workers sitting up ahead had cheered in relief at getting away and had shouted for drinks. With pretended sternness the stewardesses had urged patience until the rate of ascent levelled off enough for them to manage the trolley.  Bob closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the edge of the window.  His mother would like the Christmas gift he had bought at the last minute on the way to the airport, a red alligator-skin handbag.

The heavy man in the next seat adjusted his position to get comfortable for the three hour flight.  His broad thigh pressed against Bob’s and Bob felt a sharp lump pushed into his leg.  Bob remembered the other little gift he had brought for his buddy Mike, the rock-hound and collector of minerals.  He squeezed himself over and reached into his trouser pocket to take out his handkerchief and switch it to his other pocket.  As he adjusted the folds of the pale lavender cotton he peeked inside at the little stone from the Glenmorangie tray.

**********************

Due to a chance remark at a Flash party and Zophie’s innocent theft of a cardboard box for her cake, information would meander up through two intelligence services and it would become a matter of secret conjecture in two world capitals thousands of miles apart that Colonel Mommar Qadhafi had found a source of uranium inside his national borders.

END of PART 1

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