Monday, 27 July 2009

Musical Recommendation of the Week:
Back To Living Again - Curtis Mayfield

Port E, Inspirationally Twinned With Lashkar Gah


Part One.

This weekend I stayed at Wembury, the beautiful seaside house of Emma & Timmy Hanbury who hold an annual house party for the Port Eliot Literary Festival. I went to Port E imagining I might write my blog about literary folk, but as it is far less Lit port than overwhelmingly messy E Fest; I was struggling. Then, on Saturday evening, I went to listen to the documentary filmmaker Sean Langan talk about his experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan and he inspired me to write about kidnapping…

An oddity of the word is that it takes the masculine form; a man gets kidnapped, while a woman or a child get abducted. Useful information should it ever happen to you; no longer will you have to fret about the correct way to sound the alarm.

In this country and in the States kidnapping is a rare crime due to the poor risk-to-benefit ratio - particularly the vexed question of the cash drop-off. However, there are dozens of countries where entrepreneurs snatch people rather than launch restaurants.
Holiday destinations to gently pencil a line through are Sub-Sahara, Yemen, the seas off the Horn of Africa, Somalia etc,. The place most likely to part a browsing tourist from his ticket home is Baghdad, kidnap capital of the world, snatching that title from Mexico, which in turn succeeded Colombia.
As Sean discovered, the Afghan-Pakistan border is a place where you can be forcibly made to escape the rat race.
[Refering to it as Af-pak makes it sound like a diet butter or styrofoam packaging rather than the lawless wilds it is.]

We might think that kidnapping is a foreign thing - something that happens to others, far away, and yet a form of it is operated by thousands of women every year. Women sperm-nap. They steal a man’s freedom to choose when or with whom they bear children. ‘It was an accident’ they cry - but an extremely high proportion are being disingenuous. Going the accident route with conviction usually necessitates going into a lifelong denial [you lie best when you lie to yourself] because here’s the thing: it’s very easy to avoid getting pregnant. But away from gametes and back to the multiple cells of kidnapping proper……..

Of all the ugly crimes we humans inflict upon one another, the theft of someone else’s freedom is second only to the theft of their life. In our curious, comedy world of unexpected consequences, the person who murders someone else to ‘rid themselves’ of them, in reality bind themselves to their victim forever.
Listening to Sean describe how he was held by Taliban fighters from March until July last year, it struck me that in the vile enterprise of kidnapping, the guards become as captive as their victims.
The story Sean told was a very heavy one, but he is a witty man who kept making the audience laugh about his ordeal. It reminded me of a recent, riveting programme [in Radio 4's Reunion series] when they assembled former Beirut hostages, Terry Waite, Bryan Keenan, John McCarthy along with McCarthy’s former girlfriend, Jill Morell. Between the three men, they were held prisoner for 14 years and 7 months in total. Laid end to end this was time for a boy to be born, go to 3 schools, grow to full height, have his voice break, get a girlfriend... It made me wonder how, or even if, I would cope: the fear, the time limbo, the boredom. Before winding up chained beside the other two, Terry Waite was kept in solitary confinement for 4 of the 5 years he was held.
The astonishing thing was just how much they laughed during their interview. Keenan told of waggish remarks made on meeting Waite - a giant of a man at 6’ 7’ - when their two sack-covered bodies were thrown on top of one another in the boot of a Mercedez transporting them to a new hiding place. Waite recalled the first book his
non-English speaking guard gave him to read was The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill; the second, a breastfeeding manual.

When one day he found a guard had left a gun behind in the loo, Waite left it alone, because to use it would have gone against everything he had been arguing with his captors: that violence only breeds more violence. You only have to look at the toxic clinch that the Israelis and Palestinians are in to see these Petri dishes of cyclical violence on a larger scale.

The Islamic Jihad Organisation’s foot soldiers, who spent years of their own lives ensuring the incarceration of these three intelligent men effectively screwed up their own freedom in the process in exactly the same way Colombia’s FARC militia have made themselves prisoners of the jungles that hide their victims.

Extraordinarily, sixteen years after he was freed, Waite volunteered in 2007 to travel to Iran to help negotiate for the release of British sailors seized in disputed waters. The programme ended with Waite describing how, when he was finally released, the suit they gave him didn’t fit him at all. McCarthy’s immediate suggestion that it ‘was too big’ reduced them all to helpless giggles, and as a listener you got a sense of their indomitability of spirit and that a key ingredient in the power of that spirit was levity.

Sean Langan appeared to possess this vital ingredient. He talked about how it took him four days to twig that he and his translator had been kidnapped. His approach to filming was always to ‘bed in’ with his subjects whether they were British squaddies besieged in a town, or Taliban mountain men so being taken somewhere with a hood over his head was the norm. It was only when he was told he and his translator were being held as spies that they realised that they weren’t getting out of the small stone room any time soon. ‘They didn’t allow Beaujolais, but they did offer me smack’ he said.
They were interrogated for days, subjected to mock executions, but mostly they were left alone with a radio on which they listened to the World Service. The news stories were filled with the story of how Elisabeth Fritzl had finally escaped after twenty-four years in her father’s cellar, although to his growing alarm, there was never any word of his own disappearance.
It made me think about how it never sounds right when the Foreign Office advises families of kidnap victims to stay quiet, while they do the softly, softly approach. Are they doing anything at all? It smacks of bullshit to me. Why let sleeping dogs lie?
If I was a family member I’d make a big stink like Jill Morell did. Hostage takers respond to the political not the personal, so it may have done nothing to shorten the time he was held, but at least John McCarthy knew that people were aware of his plight and cared.
It is hard to imagine the additional torment of being held and also feeling you have been forgotten and abandoned. From the tapes shown on the news, it certainly seems to be how the three surviving hostages in Baghdad are feeling. Meanwhile, back at home, the general public are neither tying yellow ribbons, nor lighting candles, nor marking the days of their internment, which currently stands at 2 years 2 months, about the time it takes a newborn baby to learn to smile, walk, talk & get a haircut. What despair they must feel.

Sean described how being locked for months in a room without a mirror was the first time he had been made to really take a proper look at himself. He forced himself to forget about the passage of time and worked to a daily routine that allowed him to escape from his captors and into his own imagination.
Sammy, his translator had a nervous, and then a physical breakdown, Sean took the roll of 'the PE instructor' for them both. He lost five teeth and three stone. The plight of Sammy, the bulletins about Elisabeth Fritzl and the photograph of his two small sons he had hidden in his sock - glimpses at which he had to strictly ration himself to avoid emotional collapse - all made him ‘acutely aware of the suffering of others’.
When he was finally on the way to being released he realised they were not freeing Sammy. Fearing they would execute him, Sean demanded to be returned until Sammy came with him. When that happened he was taken temporarily to safe house where he sat with a Mullah’s three-year old child on his lap watching a TV playing jehadi beheadings followed by Mr Bean. Hearing this highlights how just how hard it is for us to understand these people.
When he was about to dumped on a street in Islamabad, one of the Taliban asked him if he ‘might ask a personal question’, to which Sean said yes. ‘Are you sure you won’t take offense?’ Silently swearing that they could hardly be more offensive than to hold him against his will for three and a half months, he assured them no, he wouldn’t take offense; and to ask away.
‘Is it true that women in the West are free to marry animals? ’ There was a pause, ‘Even small animals?’
Sean said he yearned to say, ‘Sure, I know girls who marry blue whales and another married to a rhino – but for God’s sake! We draw the line at small ones!’ Instead, he stowed his yearning for levity and assured them that no, it was not true and inquired how they had come to think that. They explained that there was a book in wide circulation, used to learn English. It was a children’s book in which a girl marries a frog… ‘They want to kill us because they think we fuck frogs’ said Sean and concluded his interview.

Next Week.
Kidnapping, Part Two


Prestat Review No. 2.
Organic White Chocolate Wafers Infused with Sweet Orange

I have a problem with white chocolate.
I file it under 'edible soap', along with mozzarella. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against edible soap, but as I'm not a fan of white chocolate, so I asked my son Atticus to review the taste. He pronounced it 'pimp' and the fact that there are still some left in the box is only due to the fact he's upstairs with a bout of the man swine. Before posting, I thought I would at least give one a try and if I shut my eyes, it doesn't taste quite so white, but nicely orange, so they're not lying on the infusion front. i was reminded of when I bit a chunk out of Doris Day [she got down on her knees & begged me] She tasted a bit like this.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Prestat Review No 1:
Chilli & Persian Lime Dark Chocolat
e.

Chilli? What madness is this? But this chocolate square [slightly larger & thicker than a scrabble tile] has just won Gold at the Great Taste Awards.
The combination is unlikely, but it works. The lime infused chocolate is gooey soft but not too sweet and with the faintest hint of fire. Delicious.
When I bit a chunk out of Omar Sharif [it's a long story] he tasted a bit like this.


Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Prestat, Palace of Chocolate

Prestat Chocolate are now sponsoring my blog & I will review one of their chocolates each week.
In preparation for this, I went to visit their factory in West London, a vast gothic palace with stained glass windows, once the home of Baron Professor Oskar Gottmeister von Elzenberg, discoverer of Molybdinum.

On arrival, an elegant footman in a dove-grey suit with silver frogging materialised & ushered me through the vast oak doors & up a sweeping staircase to the director Nick Crean's office.
After showing me his expansive collection of leather-bound books on the history of chocolate, we dressed ourselves from head to foot in white and headed to the factory floor through a series of heavy electronic doors.
The smell was glorious.
In a series state-of-the-art kitchens, silent figures went elegantly & efficiently about their business. It was as if we were on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, only more hygienic.

There were machines producing flowing waterfalls of glossy chocolate, coating hazelnuts, walnuts & chunks of ginger. At the far end, a stunning woman with restless breasts rolled out green marzipan to make perfect pear shapes, beyond her, a woman, moving like a panther around another hi-tech machine, was creating peppermint wafers. She looked up and gave us a lazy wink.
Satie's Gymnopeides was playing over an invisible sound sytem.
In the next kitchen, a man who looked exactly like James Dean would have if he'd reached middle age, was dusting chocolate powder onto fudge bricks. He stopped to talk passionately of his life-long mission to master caramel, the trickiest of all chocolate box ingredients.

At the packing section two pairs of identical Cuban twins were making short work of a large order of rose creams. Their hands working in such swift harmony it looked like hand ballet.

I've never seen such good looking staff outside a Hollywood blockbuster.


At every turn, Nick, learned & avuncular, pointed out various award-wining creations: chilli & lim
e chocolates, violet creams, champagne truffles, old fashioned fudge, geranium squares, white chocolate... and at every turn, I ate what he pointed at.
After my twentieth chocolate, I began to feel a little abnormal and while Nick's white coat remained pristine, mine was besmirched with a dense lattice chocolaty smears.
I felt a bit ashamed that my approach was proving to be one of depravity rather than learning - but I was in good company. The Queen, to whom Prestat are official chocolate suppliers, is an ardent fan and in a framed photograph hanging in the marble hallway, she's got a chocolate moustache as big as Sancho Panza's.

I will review the chocolate tomorrow, when my palette is less overwhelmed.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Musical Recommendation Of The Week:
Cry To Me - Solomon Burke

Run Baby, Run Baby, Run.....

On Thursday, I took a train to Manchester to see the Punchdrunk theate company's new production, It Felt Like A Kiss.
I had bought tickets for my children, but they were unexpecetedly needed elsewhere, so I resolved to go alone.

Headed by a Viking with a pointy beard, Punchdrunk has put on Faust, Tunnel 228 and the breathtaking Masque of The Red Death. Punchdrunk’s productions are known for their beauty, strangeness and scale. Their plays are staged over dozens of rooms, leaving the audience to wander freely to follow the actors or explore the intricately detailed scenery in atmospheric siderooms.
In Masque of the Red Death, the audience had to wear white, heron-beaked masks, so we became part of a huge Edgar Allen Poe inspired art installation.

If I had done any research into the new play beforehand, I would never have even considered going alone, so it was by great good fortune that at the last minute I was joined by my fetisheuse friend Julie Goldsmith
[see above. check out her creatures on www.juliegoldsmith.co.uk ]
and Hermione Pilkington, the daughter of a friend.
They turned out to be the perfect companions for such an adventure: Julie’s son’s girlfriend was working as part of the play’s production
team and Herm
ione is studying Theatre at Manchester University and had been unable to get tickets before she broke up for the holidays.

The play is staged in a non-descript six-storey office block in Manchester's business district.
Entrances were staggered and we went in twelve at a time, at fifteen-minute intervals.

We rode to the top of the building in two elevators and came out into a darkened passage. An arrow pointed towards a vast Clown’s mouth that we stepped through into a pitch-black passage with thin wet rags hanging from the ceiling. [above, a passage scene for It Fe
lt Like A Kiss]
We reached a screen room that played a sh
ort, soundless film clip on a loop. When it finished and we were wondering where to go next, I glanced to my right. A huge man wearing a clown
mask was standing silently beside us. This was just the beginning of three and a half hours and six floors of ever-increasing terror.

What Punchdrunk had created was a horror movie, one into which we had all just stepped. We were now both the audience and the victims. We stumbled through blackened rooms filled with balloons and th
en made it to a typical suburban 60s sitting room, where a mother & child were watching television with strange images. Next door was a study & then two deserted children’s bedrooms. Everything was dimly
lit, but occasional a light in the next room would glow a little brighter, leading us on. We came out onto an as
tro-turf roof, with sun-loungers and an abandoned picnic, then into a concrete staircase down to the next floor. [right, scene from Like A Kiss] There was a weird figure dressed in yellow oilskins and then a sud
den, terrifying noise.
The group had splintered and by now, it was just the three clinging together. We went through rooms where absolutely everything was painted dark blue, another where all was red and then an office that was completely white. We passed through FBI rooms covered in charge sheets, mugshots of felons; details of murders com
mitted by psychopaths.
In the next office, there was a sheet of paper in an old Reming
ton typewriter detailing the dangers of confusing the psychotic and the psychopathic ‘…the psychotic is rarely able to realise his fantasises, while the psychopath is entirely unable to stop himself from making his fantasies reality’.
There were tiny laundry rooms hung with clean shirts, a beauty salon with a stripey awning, the reception desk of a seedy hotel with green flock wallpaper, a dental surgery, a place like a fish factory with thick
white sheeting hanging everywh
ere & another figure in oilskins lurking.
[left, still from Curtis film, as are all other double images on this page]
We went through a recording studio,
a backstage dressing room and down narrow dark passages of metal lockers that we feared might contain people. Everywhere was 60s ephemera, from the furniture, to pictures on the walls, and down to the clunky pink hair dryer an
d magazines; the detail was overwhelming. [The rooms may well not have happened in this order, as there were dozens and also due to the general agitation.]Often the rooms were not spooky at all, but the i
dea that something bad might happened coloured our passage. Some inspired feelings of comfort, enjoyment & ease, but there was also creepy desertion, surveillance and conspiracy.

Arriving in a large room decorated with swags of white streamers for a Prom party, we found about sixty people sitting watching the film we had seen only fragments of on our way here. For the first time, we got an idea that we were not just a tiny group moving through t
his bizarre world. The film is the latest work of the genius documentarian , Adam Curtis.

Charlie Booker in the Guardian described it like this: ‘Curtis's virtuoso… film is as
tonishing. If you're familiar with his previous work, you'll know he specialises in creating mesmerizing collages, simultaneously impish and forbidding; utterly accessible yet often giddyingly deep…So what's it about? In a roundabout way, it's about you. But it's also about the golden age of pop, when the US rose to supreme power. It encompasses everything from Rock Hudson, Lou Reed, Saddam Hussein, a chimp and Lee Harvey Oswald. It's a heady brew.’And I would add, with a fantastic soundtrack. [See musical recommendation of the week]

If you want to see what I’m talking about go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/Scroll down past the 1st trailer you get to see a slightly longer one. The website says he is running an hour-long cut of it on the same site on July 19th, the last day of the Manchester festival. If you like what you see, I u
rge you to see the longer version.

The title It Felt Like A Kiss is taken from a song written by Carole King having discovered her babysitter

sequences of our ideological mast[who became Little Eva of Locomotion fame] was being beaten by her boyfriend, but excused him by telling
King it was because he loved her so much. This mangled view of affection works as a metaphor for America's worldview. The film weaves a story about the unintended con
ers, the rise of
AIDS, the joys of living in a rich, liberal nation, the sincere belief of ‘a righteous cause’ it is also about alienation and the power of suppressing and harrying the small people.
It is very brilliant.
When seen in conjunction with Curtis' film, our experiences take on the feeling of the souring of an American dream. A funhouse gone wrong.
After the Prom room, the fear is cranked up. We move in a motley group of about ten people. There are moments of pitch-blackness and terrible noise and then we arrive in a vast labyrinth of wire lockers, each hung with a clipboard holding a handwritten survey.
The maze opens out in a space with a spot lit telephone. A sign above it
flashes on: Pick Up the Phone and at the same time it rings. I answer. Unintelligible words and then nothing. At the next open space the same thing, but with a pill and a glass of water, the sign says Take The Pill. Someone does.
More wire labyrinth and a gun on a table: Fire The Gun. It’s as if we are being invited to do progressively more transgressive things.
A girl does, and the gun goes off with a deafening report, flames shooting out of the end; the smell of cordite.
She was so horrified she fled through one of the many ‘escape’ doors and left the building. We reach a cha
insaw on a table. Another order to start it up, but we can’t.
Finally, we come to a table with a comb on it, in front a lank-haired figure is leaning against a wall. Comb His Hair says the sign. As we dither, behind us the chainsaw starts up and a man is chasing us.
Panicking, we flee from the room through a wood of birch trunks an
d finally reach another suburban 60s room. A sign flashes: Bolt The Door. ‘Someone bolt it!’ a old woman screams.
When we catch our breath, we realise we are in identical domestic suburban rooms to the ones upstairs, but this time figures are slumped; an abandoned family meal, a father looks over a sleeping child in a menacing way. It’s all gone rotten.
[right, a passage from It Felt Like A Kiss] We walk through the slum-like dormitory of a Black Panters' hideout and more surveillance rooms - this time lined with sheets of printed paper blacked out as heavily as our own dear MPs expenses.
We begin to hurry.
We pass a body in an unlit corridor and finally we arrive in a hospital area where people are sitting around filling in the surveys we saw in the wire lockers before the homicidal maniac lit after us. The
questionnaire asks things like, Do you believe you are free thinking? Do you believe in violence to affect positive change? White-clad nurses hand out hospital bracelets. I am in Cell B. We are a group of 8. We are told to stick together and are sent to a room filled with static fizzing TVs, like air traffic control or the security of the building. A figure is slumped across the controls. Cards on our chairs read, ‘in 1984, eight people died in a funhouse fire. Their screams were ignored. People assumed they were enjoying themselves.’
We set off again, past a small glass window with a clown mask in it. The eyes follow us.
Feeling very small and very harried we are lead down, down, down into the basement.
The only comfort I have was this group of companions.
A message flashes CHOOSE YOUR PATH or maybe it says YOU ARE ALONE NOW. There is another another film clip, but I can't oncentrate on it before we are direct towards a pair of heavy steel football turnstiles. Once the first three people have passed through, the door suddenly locks and we are forced through the other one. We can see the others through the metal fencing, but our sheep pens lead us away from them. The last comforts of companionship are being removed.
We reach a pair of glass paned doors through which we can see two long passages, one is lit, the other dark. We're not stupid, choose the light. Julie and Hermione get through, but then it locks.
I am left to go down the dark passage with two guys. left in our group.
‘I’m going to have to hold onto one of you.’ I say. They are butch Mancunians and neither of them like that idea at all and make me walk point until we reach a door. There is no glass in this one to see what is next. I open it. Immediately it slams behind me. I am alone, an individual – the thing so championed by our society.
I am free to do what I want in a long dark passage.
I start to run.
I reach the end.
It is so dark I can’t see where to go, then a tiny distant light beams to my right. I run towards it.
I look behind me. Someone is chasing me. When we were together I screamed quite a bit, but now I am silent in my terror.

We spill out of the building and into the light, shaking and giggling with relief, then head straight to a cafĂ© for a cup of tea. We stand in the doorway gibbering sub-linguistically. A young waiter comes up to see, smiling kindly, ‘You’ve been to It Felt Like A Kiss haven’t you? Take a table, I’ll sort you out.’
I can't believe I almost went to it on my own.
Thank God for other people.
We talk it over on the train back to London where we arrive at 10pm, & go our separate ways.

Driving home, I have forgotten about a large, empty box in the back of my car. Turning a corner, it tips forward and hits the back of my seat. I scream and only just miss a lamppost.
Some stuffy London critics who like Spamalot & Bombay Dreams gave lukewarm responses to such a bravura display of evil genius; but it's genius nevertheless.

[At the date of writing this – It Felt Like A Kiss ends in Manchester on July 20th and will not be re-staged.]


Monday, 13 July 2009

Musical Recommendation of The Week:
River of Salt - Bryan Ferry

A Dunch of Flaws - excerpt

Dear All,

For the past week I have been traveling all over Scandinavia with my son & am still writing up the trip.
So, if you will forgive me, thi
s week I offer you a small excerpt of the new book I am writing. It is the story of a shy, dyslexic boy called Houston Penrose who lives with his family in 1970s Mombasa and to whom terrible things later happen. The novel is called A Dunch of Flaws, the title taken from a Valentine's card my son [also dyslexic] gave me when he was aged about eight. It was a wobbly picture of a bunch of flowers, with that across the top. Please keep in mind the writing has not been buffed at all. I hope you enjoy it.

A Dunch Of Flaws
Excerpt from Chapter One.


The view through the balcony posts was of a dripping, steamy world. Rain from the cloudburst was still pouring steadily from the roof into the covered water butts below. The frog symphony had entered a soft, syncopated movement. Houston saw Joshua emerge from the outhouse. He watched as Joshua stooped to stroke the dogs who were sheltering under the eaves there, but they turned and walked away stiffed-leggedly, as if to be subjected to something so lacking in machismo as a pat affronted them. They were two large Rhodesian ridgebacks; their job was to help the night watchman keep them safe. They did this by barking at bicyclists and fruitbats; beyond that, any relations with the occupants of the house were decidedly cool.Houston took the harmonica away from his mouth and dangled it between his forefinger and thumb wondering whether to drop it into the puddle directly below; a musical apology by way of a mercy killing. He was trying to decide what to do, when a something caught his eye - a butterfly the size of his hand was tacking in his direction. As it stuttered closer and closer, he stopped peddling his legs and kept as still as possible. Seconds later, to his delight, the butterfly had settled on the corner of his harmonica. Very gently, with his other hand, Houston offered a finger towards its legs. Hesitantly, it sidled aboard. He lifted the creature up to eyelevel and examined the beautiful metallic blue of its wings, as they pumped like tiny slowing bellows. Whoomph! A sudden rush of air, a ruffling swirl of speeding wings, and the butterfly was gone. Houston let out an involuntary yelp, unable to grasp immediately what had just happened. He looked about until he finally caught sight of the assailant. A dive-bombing bee-eater had snatched the butterfly and was now on a branch near the top of the mango tree. Two bright, stiff wings stuck out of its beak for a second before the bee-eater tipped it’s head back, opened it’s mouth a fraction and swallowed. Houston peered closely at his finger to see if it had drawn any blood, but no, it had struck its prey with such precision there was no damage, just some dots of pollen that had been shaken from the butterfly’s wings.
Darling!’ Houston heard his mother’s call on her third try and scrambled to his feet.
‘Coming Mama!’ he answered and took the stairs three at a time. At the bottom he padded quietly across the sitting room and out of the front door where he was hit by a waft of j
asmine. Hadija waved to him from the ladder murmuring, ‘Houston….’

At the far end of the garden Boaz and Joshua were untangling the Chinese lanterns. Nina was tying cushions onto chairs. She turned as she sensed her son’s presence. He held up his finger. ‘A bee-eater snatched a butterfly right out of my hand.’
‘How bold.’ she replied. ‘What was it? A carmine, a Madagascan, a cinnamon-chested?’
‘It was a Lesser-thieving one, Mama’ he said and made her laugh.
‘Help me with these cushions darling. Where’s Gibb?’ ‘He ran over to Jenny Rasbash’s house about an hour ago. They like to swim in the rain.’
‘Well, go to my address book and look up the Rasbash’s number would you? Call and ask them to send him home straight away; we have a mass of things to do. Tell him Jenny can come - that might help.’
‘I thought you’d banned her?’

‘She can’t be sick on the ambassador’s shoes twice, can she? And even if she is, the law of probabilities means it’ll be a different ambassador, surely.’
‘Maybe she could come instead of me?’ suggested Houston. Nina looked at her son for a moment. On the whole, she let him retreat when he wanted, but tonight would not be one of those occasions. ‘Nonsense darling. You’re a teenager, you’ll be fifteen next month. You’ll be fine.’ Houston looked at her, puzzled as to how being a higher number had any connection to an increased enjoyment of meeting strangers. Nina stroked his cheek. ‘Why don’t you help Boaz serve the food? When you have a job, it’s easier.’

Houston shambled off to the telephone in the hall. Cradling the heavy Bakelite handle under his chin, he held the address book close to his face so he could see the writing and dialled. He waited a few minutes and then tried again. After his third try he said, ‘Telephone’s broken Mama.’
‘Not again!’
‘Not ours - we’ve got a dialling tone, I think it’s the Rasbashs’.
‘Well then darling, run over there like a good boy, but put a shirt on, you can’t walk around bare-chested.’
‘Why not?’
‘Why not? Well, because it’s not befitting for the son of the soon-to-be counselor at the British Embassy in Rome to be seen wandering about like a hobo, that’s why not. There should be something in the ironing.’
Houston went out of the back of the house and chose a navy blue t-shirt from the pile. Muthoni and Prudence, the two housemaids championed starch and the shirt made a pleasing ripping sound as he prized the edges apart and wriggled around to stop it feeling as if he was wearing a sandwich board.
As he left the house he took his harmonica out of his pocket and started to practice Summertime once more. Hadija laughed at him ‘Houston,’ she said as she fixed the last loop of her jasmine swag, ‘wewe nsikia mahewa kama mawe.’ [You have the musical ear of a stone] He could still hear Boaz giggling as he reached the gates at the top of the drive.

The Penroses lived at the end of a dirt track in a sleepy corner at the northern end of Twiga Heights. It was one of smartest Mombasa districts, with well-proportioned homes set in enormous gardens - although everything lay concealed from the street. High walls stuck with broken bottles and razor wire shielded the occupants from the cauldron flurry of the city. The road leading from the city centre to Twiga Heights was abundantly potholed and lined with telegraph poles festooned in dense entanglements of cable that explained why the telephone service was so intermittent.

The street was quiet for the time of day; people were only just beginning to emerge into the sunshine and pick their way through the puddles. The usual smells of exhaust fumes, spices, and raw sewage had been dampened by the rain. Houston passed a gaggle woman with buckets balanced on their heads, their kanga-clad sugar-bums undulating rhythmically as they walked. Two of them carried babies so heavily swaddled, their heads appeared like tiny chocolate drops at the centre of gigantic Swiss rolls tied to their backs.
At the junction of the main road a Maasai moran with ghee-burnished skin and long bead-strands slung over his shoulders, stood on one leg, squinting into the middle distance: a cou
ntry boy feigning indifference to the city, the insouciant drape of his red plaid shuka belying his careful styling. On the opposite corner, a pack of shenzi dogs slept in the dust, while a couple of puppies foraged for scraps in the drifts of litter.

The Penrose's house lay a few streets west of Kimathi Avenue, Twiga Height’s main shopping street. The Rasbashs lived a few streets beyond it to the east. Houston exchanged nods with the juice-seller who was singing along softly to a tinny radio tied to the top his fruit-barrow canopy and crossed the road. He dodged in front of a brightly painted truck lacing its way through the water-fille
d ruts and climbed up the four steep steps that led up to boardwalk. He loped past the shady doorways of haberdashers, ironmongers and shoe stores.
The local sho
ps here on Kimathi counterbalanced Mombasa’s bustling centre by conducting their business with the all urgency of continental drift. Opening hours were erratic, stock was always problematic and months could go buy when the shoe store only had size nine galoshes to sell, or the ironmongers had a glut of axe-heads, but no shafts.
At the end of the parade, Mr Ali Kisii, sporting a resplendent hennaed comb-over, lounged in the doorway of his barbershop. ‘Good afternoon Master Houston.’ he said, deftly spinning his scissors round his fingers, ‘where are you off to in the heat of the day?’
‘I have to fetch my brother, we’re having a party tonight.’
‘A party? We are too: a big barbecue for my nephew’s engagement.’
‘Ours is a leaving party.’

Ali Kisii looked shocked. ‘You are not leaving?’
‘Yes.’ Houston looked at the ground. ‘It’s very sad.’ He didn’t really like saying it out loud. ‘My father has a new posting.’ A taxi tore by, pressing his horns instead of his brakes; forcing them to pause their conversation for a moment. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To Rome.’
‘Rome! My god above! Well, at least if I ever get tired of going to Mecca, I know that I can come and visit you in the home of that devil the Pope. When are you going?’
‘Not until the end of school term. We’re having the party now because everything will be packed up by then – my mother’s already made a start.’ ‘Yes surely, surely.’ Ali Kisii said vaguely, he was sizing up a rotund old man walking down the boardwalk towards them. Houston gave him a small wave and carried on. ‘Maybe you need a haircut!’ Ali Kisii called after him. ‘It is a wonder you can see where you're going, if I may say.’
‘It’s the fashion Mr Kisii’ Houston replied, turning and walking backwards.
Ali Kisii flipped the scissors upside down and held the handles to his eyes like lorgnettes. ‘Well if I may say so, it is most definitely a lady fashion you have stumbled upon in error.’
Houston smiled. ‘Perhaps tomorrow.’
But Ali Kisii and turned his concentration to the portly man who had crossed the street and was studying the price list that hung in the barbershop window beside illustrations of the hairstyles.

When Houston reached the Rasbashs’, he rattled the gate until the guard arrived and let him in. He walked straight to the pool, which was round the side of the house, hidden from view by oleander bushes. There was no one there.
Music started blasting out of the Rasbashs’ sitting room window, so he walked over to the front door and knocked. The music was far too loud for anyone to hear him, so after a minute, he turned the handle and went in.
Susan Rasbash was dancing around the sitting room, dressed in a long pink kaftan and matching turban.
She swooped around the room, arms weaving, her eyes lightly shut behind oversized sunglasses. Houston froze in the doorway overcome with embarrassment. He coughed, but she remained unaware of him. The room Finally, when a crackly hush descended upon the room between tracks, he coughed again. Susan Rasbash turned and fixed him with a steady gaze, showing no sign on surprise.
‘Well looky here, sneaking up like a handsome spy, Houston Penrose.’ Almost immediately, his head felt it might explode from the surfeit of blood that had disobediently rushed there. Voluptuous orange painted lips parted and she grinned at him, pushing back the sleeves of her kaftan to fiddle with complicated earrings that had caught on the turban. She had remarkably hairy arms.
His mother said everyone got hairier in the Tropics, but Houston had read in his Look and Learn comic that body hair helped keep the body warm and put it to her that people should really get balder. She had been unable to explain to his satisfaction, why it was the opposite and if the hair grew to provide the surface shade, or if the greenhouse heat just sent the follicles into wonky overdrive. They both agreed it was a strange phenomenon manifested particularly strongly in Mrs Rasbash and why it had earned her the nickname Hirsute Sue.

‘Wasn’t that pivotal?’ She sighed in a glorious manner. ‘That was the title track. It’s my favourite I think. My sister sent it to me. It’s a smash hit in England. Look!’ And she marched over to the side-table, grabbed the album cover and strode over, waving it at him. ‘It’s called Aladdin Sane. Do you get it?’ Houston dragged his eyes away from her arms and stared blankly at a photograph of a bare shouldered man with a lightning flash painted down his face. What was he meant to ‘get’?
‘Er’ he said.
‘He’s saying he’s mental !
Aladdin Sane: A lad insane. You see?’ she cried jabbing her finger along the title.
What he wanted to say was ‘It’s you who’s acting mental Mrs Rasbash, could you stop because it’s scaring me’ but instead he said, ‘He does look a bit loony, yes.’

‘Oh no, no, you’re wrong there!’ She said fiercely, striding back to the record player. ‘Bowie’s a goddamn genius.’ He felt lost and alone in uncharted Rasbash territory, where it was alright for her to call a singer mad, but not him. She settled the needle back down and it crackled into the opening bars of a lazy guitar strum. He surfed a wave of dread that she might start dancing again and resolved to get away as soon as he could.
‘I need to find Gibb!’ he said, raising his voice over the swelling music. She swayed a bit, but thankfully this next song was a ballad. ‘My mother needs him to help with the party.’

‘Oh sure, the party. Gary and I are coming. You must be pretty excited about going to Italy.’ She looked into the middle distance. ‘What I wouldn’t give to live there.’ Houston shrugged. All the grown ups said the same thing to him, but all he felt was sad and nervous. He would miss their house and he would miss Boaz. He thought he should probably miss Joshua, but his English was very bad, so they never really spoke much; not like Boaz.
He didn’t really want to talk to Susan Rasbash about it, so instead he said, ‘Is Gibb here?’
‘No.’ she replied. ‘But they’ll be back soon. They went with Clarence to see the fire.’
‘The fire?’ Houston knew nothing about a fire.
‘The Malaika bangle factory burned down last night. They’ve gone to see what’s left. Good riddance I say!’ Susan Rasbash picked up a glass and took a long, noisy draught. She waved the glass at Houston and said, ‘Straightener?’
‘No thank you Mrs Rasbash.’
She shrugged and poured herself some more Campari and lifted the glass to him in a lazy salute. He was beginning to panic a bit. Could he leave a message for Gibb, or should he wait? He wasn’t sure how long he was going to manage being on his own with Mrs Rasbash in this mood.
‘Yes, we read about it in the paper this morning. I imagine that cloudburst probably put the last of it out.’ She grabbed the Daily Nation off her coffee table. ‘Listen to this,’ she said, tapping a Rooster cigarette out of a soft packet and lighting it. ‘“The Malaika Factory, Mombasa's most visited tourist site after Fort Jesus.” Most visited site? They must be mad! It was only visited it because that gigantic neon hand was an easy landmark for people to meet. Where was I? “was destroyed in an inferno last night. The destruction of the bangle factory is not only a great blow to local jobs but also a loss to Mombasa’s rich and diverse heritage. Six fire engines attended. Foul play is not suspected” It’s unbelievable!’ She threw the paper down in disgust. ‘It goes on to describe it as some sort of tragedy for jewelers everywhere and a cultural cataclysm for rest of humanity’s wrists. Everyone knows that place was the wretched black heart of child labour in East Africa! I’m glad it burned.’
‘Mrs Rasbash?’ he interrupted.
‘What?’
‘Your telephone isn’t working.’
‘Damn and blast! Not again!’ and she strode out onto her front porch, arms folded, propelling him forward in the bow wake of her indignation. She gestured beyond her property.
‘Just look at it, I mean, really.’ In the line of telegraph poles in her street, the nearest one to her house was missing.

‘Did it fall over?’ Houston asked.
‘Who knows? It might have been struck by lightning, or been chopped up for firewood, or stolen to make a boat mast. Instead of replacing it, those idiot telephone engineers have simply draped the cable between the trees. Do you see?’ It was true, the wires sagged so badly, they almost touched the ground. ‘Even if I could call for help no one would come. I’ve no bloody idea what I would do with myself in this godforsaken country if it wasn’t for Rasputin.’
‘Rasputin?’
‘Yes, Rasputin. Pet tortoise. He means the world to me. Keeps me calm.'
Mrs Rasbash ushered Houston back into the house and ranted on about the telephone system, Rasputin, David Bowie, the bangle factory and much else besides until, to his great relief he heard the crunch of a car arriving and the slamming of doors.
Gibb swaggered into the house and clapped his brother on the back. ‘You missed a trip Houston. The Malaika Factory is completely burned out. It’s still smouldering man.’
‘We have to get home Gibb.’
Jenny, who had followed behind Gibb and gave Houston a friendly wave.
‘Hey Jenny.’
‘Hey Houston, looking forward to tonight?’
‘Not really, but Mama says you are invited over as well. You can come now, if you like.’
‘That’s nice of her after the....’ she stopped herself and glanced quickly at her mother. She looked down at her gingham shift and swiped at some smut marks.
‘I’ll come later with Mum and Dad, if you don’t mind. My hair reeks of burnt plastic. I need to change.’

Houston had spent quite enough time at the Rasbashes’ house and started pulling Gibb towards the door.
‘We have to get back. Mama needs our help. She sent me to fetch you. I’ve been waiting for hours.’
‘Ok. See you later’ said Gibb, blowing Jenny a nonchalant kiss. ‘Thanks for the beer Mrs Rasbash.’
‘My pleasure Gibb’ said Mrs Rasbash.
‘She gave you a beer?’ said Houston, as soon as they were in the drive and out of earshot.
‘Yep, earlier she did, two in fact’ said Gibb. ‘Don’t tell Mama.’
‘I won’t. She offered me a gin or something.’
‘You? Blimey. Jenny says her mum gets "coast crazy" and her dad has to take her upcountry to get her calmed down.’

‘Might be time for them to take that trip’ said Houston, and they strolled past the telephone cables in silence.