Saturday, 14 May 2011

Chapter 26: Behind the Moustache - On the Road to Baghdad - Iraq

Crossing no man's land towards Iraqi Customs

The GMC darted through one of the arches and past a statue of vague resemblance to the Iraqi leader; arm outstretched in a welcoming pose. My driver became surprisingly more serious. “And don’t say anything - let me do all the talking,” he concluded sternly as we pulled into a small parking lot in front of some dusty buildings.

We entered one of the buildings and found three men dressed in tatty green uniforms lounging against a desk. Upon our entrance the men returned to their efficient duty and many forms appeared amidst a babble of Arabic conversation. As I filled in the forms I noticed that just past the desk was a large room full of comfortable low chairs neatly and symmetrically arranged upon large rugs. Upon three of the walls were pictures of Saddam Hussein in various uniforms and dress looking for the entire world like a lovable caring dictator. The fourth wall near the entrance was entirely covered from floor to ceiling with a mural portrait of a young looking Saddam in traditional Arab dress which totally dominated the room. I could only imagine that the handful of waiting occupants of the room were being completely overwhelmed and intimidated by this dramatic imposition. VIP Room was painted on a small sign above the entrance.

That was where I assumed I would also have to wait but to my surprise I found myself being ushered back outside and into the GMC with the driver and one of the custom officials and driven to another office. At the official’s request I was led into a small room where a fat sweaty man, also in green uniform, sat behind a small untidy desk and motioned me to the seat directly in front of him. I turned to find support from my river but was alarmed to see that he was being detained outside by the official who had quickly left the room.

The man stared straight at me for some moments without speaking. I noticed an old metal bed against the wall to my right. It had torn sheets and blankets thrown over it. I had heard that on some occasions custom officials will seek an aids test which has to be strongly opposed. I really wanted to pee.

Finally the man spoke in Arabic and made a gesture towards the small travel bag I was clutching. I interpreted this as some form of inspection so I placed the bag on the table and the man rose a little from his chair to peer inside. At that moment my body went to jelly and my bowels to soufflé. I suddenly remembered the money belt which was at the bottom of the bag. Iraq was a cash society without the convenience of ATM’s, credit cards or a reliable banking sector so my only option was to bring enough cash in to last the three months until my next leave break. With accommodation, food, refreshments and incidentals to consider I over compensated with the sum of $US5,000. If discovered, most if not all, would be confiscated and it was probable that I would spend time in a prison cell as it was forbidden to cross the border with large sums of money. Lunging at the bag would arouse suspicion so I could do nothing but hold my breath and bladder. My saving grace turned out to be the books, papers and other items I had on top of the money belt as once he flicked them back and forwards a few times he became content with what he saw and sat back down heavily in his chair.

(For future border crossings I purchased a thin belt with a long zipper which I threaded through my jeans. I never had any more problems transferring money.)

“A tip for my friend,” he attempted in broken English nodding at a tall thin man who had been standing motionless behind him. Anticipating a request of this nature I removed a $US5 note I had previously placed in my back pocket for such occasions and plonked it on the table. Having achieved their goals I was then allowed to leave the office and join my driver outside.

We returned to the main customs office to collect our passports considerably more subdued. Once the car was parked a man appeared dressed in civilian clothes and ushered all bags out of the car and onto a bench where they were opened and inspected thoroughly. Then he began a search of the vehicle which included looking under the bonnet. The driver followed him nervously.

Suddenly the man turned and walked away and the driver urgently beckoned me to load the bags back in the car. “Let’s go, quickly,” he said, and we headed out of the car park and onto the highway turning left in the direction of Baghdad.

We stopped almost as suddenly as we began at a fuel depot a few hundred metres down the road. I noticed benzine was being sold for only a few cents per litre in drastic contrast to the price in fossil fuel starved Jordan. My driver was happy and proud to explain that they make the trip from the border to Amman and back on the fuel they purchase at this depot, naturally benefiting the bottom line of the business.

Once fuelled up and on the road again the driver became visibly more relaxed exclaiming happily “Cigarette!” and he lit up a smoke. “Music!” and he proceeded to turn on the radio. “Coffee!” he added turning on the water heater. He sat two cups on the dash without asking.

He laughed loudly with a mix of jubilation and relief then noticing that the water had boiled proceeded to make two strong and sickly sweet black coffees.

Then he picked up his mobile phone off the seat and announced, “Won’t be needing this now,” and promptly threw it in the glove compartment. With Iraq without a mobile phone network he had ensured that all his calls were made well short of the border before losing signal.

Picking up speed he set the cruise control on the vehicle at one hundred and sixty kilometres per hour and then tucked his feet up on the seat under him. From then on I could see the mathematics being simple. The sign just inside the border informed Baghdad was five hundred and fifty kilometres away so I calculated a travel time of almost three and a half hours if the speed could be maintained. And to my later surprise and alarm it was.

The driver’s limited English combined with loud Arabic music coming from the car’s stereo kept conversation limited. I did ask him at one point how many times he had completed this journey and with a determined movement of his head forward he replied, “I know every rock,” which gave me my answer in no uncertain terms.

His family’s long haul taxi company was enjoying the benefits of having sanctions imposed on Iraq. With a total ban on international flights in and out of the country the only means by which internationals could reach the Iraqi capital was by utilising a taxi venture such as this. It was a classic tale of make hay while the sun shines for the moment the sanctions were lifted and flights resumed this lucrative enterprise would abruptly cease. There was only a question mark over the timing of the demise of the sanctions. In the meantime with over two hundred internationals working in northern Iraq for the UN the company’s fleet of GMCs plied the road continuously, day and night, which left me continuously questioning each drivers’ state of preparedness.    

The passing landscape was barren and featureless broken only by the occasional sight of a Bedouin shepherd attending a scraggly flock of sheep pitifully trying to extract life from the desert surface.
The road was considerably better on the Iraqi side of the border. Three lanes ran in each direction separated by a guard rail with very little traffic. It crossed the Syrian Desert towards Baghdad in long sweeping curves. The oil trucks which had congested the road in Jordan now appeared to be using a secondary road several kilometres to the south. “Because they don’t want oil spilt on the new bitumen surface,” was the extent of my inquiry.

On the Road to Baghdad
Settling into the rhythm of the journey my driver appeared content to pass the time smoking, drinking coffee and moving to the music.

I watched the extensively damaged guard rail between the lanes rush past with rising suspicion. I began to sense the obvious pitfalls of high speed driving on this stretch of road. I had already grown weary of the Arabic music but found comfort in the thought that it was probably helping to keep the driver awake.

Finally we shot across the Euphrates River flowing heavily beneath us towards the Persian Gulf. At one hundred miles an hour it was only a glimpse but I saw enough of the reed lined banks to bring images of babies in little reed boats to mind. Then as we passed Fallujah the emptiness of the desert gave way to small clusters of mud brick houses, date palms and small areas of agriculture. Donkeys and horses pulled carts and children played in the dust.

It was about then all romantic sentiment for the region evaporated. The harsh reality of sharing more of the road with vehicles from a by gone age at high speed became blatantly apparent. Entering the outskirts of Bagdad became a terrifying ordeal. The driver persistently denied his state of fatigue and became increasingly frustrated with the increasing traffic volumes which threatened to slow his progress. Impatient to end the long drive he refused to slow down instead swept all before him with long blasts from the horn. Slower vehicles and even the occasional horse and cart were found in any of the three lanes and were scattered as we came through. Those that didn’t hear us or stubbornly refused to migrate from their path were simply veered around. My braking foot almost punched its way through the floor and onto the road with the amount of instinctive braking I performed.

From then on Baghdad couldn’t come quick enough and with great relief we reached the first set of traffic lights which forced my driver to finally bring the GMC to a halt. Diagonally opposite was a GMC garage and we thankfully pulled in alongside rows of similar vehicles parked in shade offered by long car ports.

People would often ask me if it was dangerous in Iraq. My reply has always been that the risks from any other threats to my life were minuscule compared to the risk of travelling on the roads. My initial journey into Baghdad was in summer and the long days meant the capital was comfortably reached in daylight. The perils of completing the journey in the winter months when darkness fell with a hundred kilometres or so remaining were startlingly frightening and unexpected. On one such occasion thin wisps of fog appeared across the road impeding the driver’s sight. To my horror no attempt was made to slow down. I implored him to do so but was met with stubborn resistance saying that he knew the road so well it didn’t matter if he could see it or not. This fact I have no doubt but I tried to reason that there were other road users out there some of whom had no taillights or on occasion had no lighting whatsoever. All I received in reply was a shrug. After pleading failed I was reduced to shouting at him to slow down which he reluctantly did to around 120-130kms/ph but then I would notice the speed gradually increasing back up to 160.

After that particular trip I spent the evening with some colleagues, who were based in Baghdad at the time, at a restaurant and I was amazed that one of them observed that I was in shock.

The return trip to Amman I would later discover was on a horror level all on its own and that is another story for a later blog. (Chapter 39: Five Days to Love - Day One)

My belongings and I were instantly bundled into the back of a dilapidated car which had just pulled up and I was told without question that GMC’s were not allowed to enter the centre of Baghdad and that I would be driven to my hotel in this small car.

With his duty completed my driver rested in the passenger seat as, what appeared to be, his Iraqi friend soon had us back out amongst the traffic and headed across the city.
With no air-conditioning and opened windows I had my first breath of stifling hot air.
Baghdad was impressive as well as hot. The car darted through the crowded streets displaying wonderful examples of Arabic architecture and past many highly imaginative statues of the Iraqi leader in various dominating poses. Magnificent fountains played coolly and bustling market places abounded.

As we came past the awe-inspiring hands and crossed blades of the Swords of Qadisiyyah monument I pulled out my camera, but a hand instantly reached over from the front seat and pushed the camera down. “No mister, no pictures,” the Iraqi pleaded.

Later whilst passing a long wall with abundant trees and security cameras the Iraqi caught my eye in the rear view mirror, “Big Brother’s house,” he said.
“Who’s Big Brother?” I queried.
“Saddam,” the man replied with a grin. “One of his palaces…no pictures,” he warned again.

After endless tunnels, flyovers, crowded streets and toots of the horn we crossed the River Tigris and finally turned off the busy streets to pull into a quiet lane beside the Hotel Petra.

The hotel reminded me of something out of an old paperback spy novel. No computers, no eftpos machine; just papers a journal and an old black bakelite phone sitting on the receptionist’s desk. The Arab equivalent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, dressed similarly in pressed black trousers, matching bow tie and a white shirt took my bags and escorted me up a flight of stairs to my room which was musty but clean and the two single beds were neatly made with starched sheets. The beds were a welcome sight after the gruelling days travel from Amman.

After a quick wash I willingly forego exploring Bagdad for the time being instead retreating to the convenience, coolness and calm of the hotel restaurant. Having found a table in the near empty room I took a seat and waited for the waiter to take my order. I heard a phone ring and moments later a man entered the dining area and walked purposefully towards me. “Excuse me Mister,” he waved a hand towards reception, “telephone for you.”

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Chapter 25: Behind the Moustache - On the Road to Baghdad - Jordon

Monday 21st May 2001

I flew out quietly the following Monday afternoon. There was no point in more farewells as that had been done to death and people were wary of another false alarm. I cleared my desk, booked a flight and went straight home to pack my bags over the weekend.

Tuesday 22nd May 2001

I arrived in Amman late Tuesday afternoon around dusk. Taxiing to the terminal I noticed two Iraqi Airways DC9s parked on the outer limits of the tarmac. They looked dusty and neglected. I wondered how long they had been sitting there and if they were capable of even flying again when the time came for them to return home.

Once inside the terminal I was met by a small, balding man carrying a card displaying my name. Upon ascertaining my identity he hurried across and gathered up my belongings without uttering a word and scurried out of the building to a waiting van. The James Bond feeling washed over me again and I was filled with excitement.

The man took me into Amman and dropped me off at the Orchida Hotel. Along the way I spotted a road sign suggesting the Dead Sea. I promised myself a swim before leaving for Baghdad.

Wednesday 23rd May 2001

The following day, once rested, I ventured out into Amman, passport in hand to obtain the visa at the Iraqi Embassy. Amman impressed me. The sandstone coloured buildings contrasted brilliantly with the deep blue sky. It was hot, bright and full of energy.

The Iraqi embassy was confusing and frustrating but once I completed my business I promptly set out for the UNDP office in Amman to make contact.

I found the office in a quiet street and in contrast to the chaos and heat of Amman the office was quiet and cool. I found my contact, a man with whom I had exchanged many emails over the past six months, and he was engaged in conversation with a young woman who had just come out of Iraq on leave. I sat and listened to them and discovered to my horror that her UNDP car had been fired upon the previous day on her way out of Iraq. From what I could gather from the conversation a taxi full of men wielding Kalashnikovs fired repeatedly into her car before speeding off. She survived the attack because she had her seat laid back sleeping and the driver escaped injury as a bullet heading his way ricocheted off the windscreen wiper. I was later to see this bullet ridden car in Erbil which confirmed the story. As I sat dumbfounded at this news the only reaction from my UNDP contact was a casual shrug and turning in my direction said calmly, “Ah well, all is the same in Iraq.”

To my surprise the women left the office offering the assurance that she would return at the end of her break.

A little subdued I returned to the Iraqi Embassy to collect my passport complete with visa (I would later learn that the only reason I obtained a visa was that they gave me one from someone who was not returning. A new visa was never granted) and took a taxi to the Dead Sea to float around and cover myself in mud.   

Thursday 24th May 2001   

Early the next day I checked out of the hotel and loaded my belongings into a GMC which was going to deliver me to Baghdad. The young man at the wheel already appeared tired as he negotiated the traffic and this was confirmed further as he tried to prepare a coffee from his onboard coffee making apparatus only to spill the contents all over his trousers. My apprehension almost reached breaking point but after we reached the open road on the outskirts of Amman he settled down into a rhythm and I convinced myself that he was probably capable of completing the journey.

Heading for the Al- Karama Border Crossing

The three hour drive out to the border across the Syrian Desert was particularly non eventful, punctuated only by the many oil trucks toiling back and forth along the two lane bitumen road and the occasional small town. Even the desert was a little disappointing, just scrubby sand and rock and a never ending transmission line.  

At a small village 70 kilometres from the border we stopped and the driver insisted we have and early lunch. Sitting over a plate of greasy chicken and chips in a shabby restaurant he explained that the food in Iraq was much worse and that the last time he had eaten he became ill. I could hardly wait.

Finally, in what seemed the middle of nowhere, low lying buildings appeared out of the shimmering heat and we were at the border, near the village of Trebil. The driver parked under the shade of the Jordanian customs shelter and disappeared inside with our passports. I had almost reached the point of no return. While he was gone I stood beside the car and gazed across the half kilometre or so at the symbolic arches of the Iraqi customs. My bowels churned. I was looking into a political abyss. What these two arches represented was a tyrant dictator, a rogue state, a state on the world stage for all the wrong reasons, a state on the edge - on the outer. What was I doing? What was I considering?

Before I had time to rationalise my thoughts my taxi driver emerged from the customs office and ushered me into the car. As the powerful V8 revved into life he nodded across the baking earth towards the Iraqi border. What he uttered didn’t fill me with any comfort. “Well that’s the easy part, now the hard part.”

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Chapter 24: Behind the Moustache

I ended up in pre-war Iraq more by good luck than good management. With the post phobia period coming to a close my confidence was up and my depression bouts (which I might add used to strike with such intensity and last so long during the phobia years that even my short term memory was affected) had practically evaporated away altogether. I had now returned to a position, mentally, to bring the dream of working overseas back into my mind and I was open to any opportunity that came my way.

That opportunity did come my way in the form of my manager bounding into my office seeking personnel to fill two appointments; one in Antarctica and the other in Iraq. As luck would have it the resident surveyor in our office who took care of the majority of overseas assignments was out of the country at the time and my colleague sitting next to me had a passion for cold climates so he readily snatched up the Antarctica posting which left me, the only other surveyor in the office and the one with minimal overseas work experience to speak of on my resume, with Iraq.

After my manager gave me a quick briefing and left the office my mind was in a spin. The first thing I thought of was Saddam Hussein and a so called evil state which I thought could not be good for anyone going there but then romantic images of the middle east flooded into my mind of camel trains, burning deserts, ancient Arabic cities, Arabic architecture, biblical history and of course one special donkey and the idea of going didn’t seem so bad.

My life immediately was turned upside down. There was so much to do to prepare for a speedy departure. I was quickly swamped by acronyms which were foreign to me - UN, UNDP and ENRP - people’s names which I could barely pronounce and place names which I had never heard of.

The work was decidedly simple, however, obtaining and providing data for the design of mini-hydro schemes in the Kurdish autonomous region of Northern Iraq, well within my professional grasp but the logistics of getting there and operating there were mind boggling.

The first and most important item to address was obtaining a visa. At that time with Iraq under UN sanctions visas were hard to come by. One of the only ways to enter the country legally was to be issued with a visa linked to the “Oil for Food” program which the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) administered. My engineering colleague who was residing in Northern Iraq and who had requested my presence assured me that the visa request had been instigated by the appropriate UN personnel stationed in Iraq and all was well.

With this procedure underway I concerned myself with the multitude of tasks necessary to prepare myself for the journey.
Expecting to travel in the very near future I booked a flight to Amman - Jordan, I handed all my files on my desk back to my supervisor and hastily embarked on a round of farewell drinks with my friends and work colleagues.

It all appeared quite straight forward and simple but it wasn’t long before the harsh reality of working in a sanctioned country became apparent.

I had heard that the Kurdish surveyors working on the project were hampered in their endeavours by using old and obsolete equipment. Modern state-of-the-art equipment had been procured and was on its way but was held up in the lengthy sanctioning process. I thought I could speed things up by taking modern equipment with me. It was suggested to me that I declare the equipment to Australian customs so that at a later date I could bring it back into Australia easily and swiftly without it being queried for stamp duty. I dutifully faxed off a note to the local customs office late one evening before departing for home.

That night while I slept peacefully it seemed an international diplomatic storm raged all about and when I returned to work the following morning I learnt to my horror that the assignment had been put in jeopardy by my foolish action. I never did fully grasp the full ramifications of my actions but it appeared, to me anyway, that the sequence of events that occured that night went something like this: Apparently Australian Customs had latched onto the destination country as being Iraq and had notified DFAT (Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade) to query that some idiot was taking stuff into Iraq. DFAT contacted the UN Security Council asking who was this idiot taking stuff into Iraq, the UN Security Council got in touch with UNDP asking who was this idiot taking stuff into Iraq, UNDP got in touch with the Programme Directorate for UNDP-ENRP stationed in Northern Iraq at the time and asked who was this idiot taking stuff into Iraq and the Programme Directorate fired off an email to the Chief Technical Officer to ask who was this idiot bringing stuff into Iraq who in turn sent an email to my office, and various other notable persons around the globe, asking who was the naïve idiot bringing stuff to Iraq. It was my first taste of international diplomacy and I was correctly the victim. After a flurry of very apologetic and retracting emails later the whole idea was abruptly abandoned.

The other thing which I was totally oblivious to was the fact that the Government of Iraq had no intention of granting me a visa. Their task was to hamper the international operation taking place in the north of their country and one effective tool they had at their disposal was to restrict the issue of visas. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months as I patiently waited for news of my departure. I took my files back from my supervisor, friends and colleagues became bored with false alarm farewell parties and the girl at the travel agency suggested that I quit postponing my flight and just secure a fresh booking when I knew I was certain to be leaving. Life basically went back to its humdrum self.

During the waiting game there were moments to rekindle the anticipated excitement. I had a briefing with an engineer who had returned from the north on leave. His strong Macedonian accent and hints of strange meetings with strange men in strange lands and the talk of dust storms suggested I was embarking on a James Bond mission. “…a man will meet you and take you to your hotel,” he explained, “…you must call this number and speak to a man named, Camille; he will help you…try and get some sleep at this point as you will have a long journey the next day…”

Then one Friday evening in May 2001, after six months of anxious waiting, I was closing down my computer for the weekend just as an email arrived from the Kurdish city of Erbil. It simply stated, “Pack your bags, you’re coming.”

The adventure had begun.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Chapter 23: A Fleeting Glimpse


   Then – explosions, expansion, radiation, swirling gases, ferocious winds, veils of pinpricks of light, catastrophic gravitational collapses, scorching heat, thermonuclear reactions, stellar alchemy, supernova explosions, freezing ice, contraction and spectacular collisions. A tiny planet hurtled past through the blackness. Blue - flecked with white - placid and tranquil - a hint of brown and green. Life!

   A billion or so years later the early morning silence that hung in the dimly lit corridors of the maternity ward was shattered. A newborn baby boy sucked air into its tiny, delicate lungs and screamed. A nurse, reading in the soft glow from a lamp at the main desk, look down the corridor towards the source of the commotion and smiled. The miracle of new life never diminished in its wonder she thought, before returning to her book.
   The room was brightly lit with white light. A woman lay on her back, on starched sheets, panting and drenched in sweat. Her gown was pulled up above her waist, and a bloodied and slimy bundle rested on her stomach as the final link to the warmth and safety of the womb was severed. Total exhaustion was replaced with overwhelming joy with the realisation that the ordeal was over and as the magnitude of the event became apparent. Her face radiated utter fulfillment through the damp hair that clung to her face and shoulders.
   The midwife wrapped the wrinkled little body in warm cloth and then handed the precious gift back to the mother so a unique bond could form as the helpless baby boy drew strength from an offered breast. The midwife paused at the door, as she retreated from the room, to glance back at the overjoyed couple looking proudly down at their new possession. Utterly dependent, the newborn, contentedly, settled into its new world with its face screwed up and its black eyes blinking in the glare of the bright lights.
   A nurse stood by the wall quietly watching the events unfold. She turned and looked, with vague interest, out through the venetian blinds. The street, outside the small hospital, was splashed in light from a nearby street lamp and was deserted. Her mind wandered, and she deliberated, briefly, on what she would cook for her breakfast - kippers perhaps.
   She slipped quietly from the room. The family, huddled around the hospital bed, was unaware of her departure.

   The “Dopplerfied” scream of a jet-fighter plane echoed between the barren, windswept hills as it hugged the contours of the shallow pass and sped down the tussocky slopes towards the bay.
   A young man sat huddled in a muddy trench blowing warm air into his cupped, frozen hands. He replaced his gloves and slapped his arms in an attempt to restore the flow of warm blood through his cold, aching body.
   He followed the flight of the plane in awe. It was sleek, swift and deadly - a creature of intimidating beauty - and he was not surprised when he saw a flash of light under its wings and a long, black, pencil-shaped object  streaked towards the harbour leaving a thin trail of white smoke. The plane abruptly turned and rose while the missile, within seconds, had penetrated the watery surface and sent a plume of white water, exploding, upwards into the air. The young man waited, expectantly, for the sound of the explosion, and when it finally came he turned and searched the sky for the jet-fighter, but it had already disappeared, safely, over the ridge.
   The young man shivered, so he slapped and hugged his body again. He watched a group of small, black objects on the water making their way slowly towards a rocky beach. One altered its course to avoid the turbulent patch of water where the missile had struck. He could see movement in each of the landing craft. They had been discharged from a large ship that lay at anchor several hundred metres from the shore. Its grey paint work blended, drably, with the cold, stark environment.
   As the young man surveyed the activities, taking place on the bay below him, his mind was drawn back to his homeland. Warm summer afternoons, soft sunlight, the gentle chink of Wedgwood at garden tea parties, good friends, laughter and leisurely conversations; it all seemed another life away compared with the nightmare he was presently forced to endure. He thought of his fiancé and her tearful face on the morning of his departure down at Southampton Dock. It had been a heart wrenching farewell, but now there were only a handful of long, miserable days remaining before she would be in his arms again.
   This thought cheered him, and he watched the return of the fighter plane with more enthusiasm. It screamed down the slope, again, towards the bay and the helpless specks in the water. For a moment he was saddened by their, seemingly, pathetic vulnerability. They didn't stand a chance.
   He remembered a day, filled with powerful emotion, when he had come across some of the prisoners that had been captured. He had expected to hate and despise the rows of pale and expressionless faces but some limited conversation had shamefully shocked him into realising that they were only frightened young men, confused and disorientated. They were essentially just like him only they spoke a different language. Something, unexplainable, made him hope that the missiles would continue to miss their targets.
   He concentrated on the plane, and predictably the flash of light came as another missile exploded from its wing. This time the pilot had more success, and the cylinder penetrated the water much closer to the group. The exploding sea engulfed one of the launches, and it disappeared into the churning water. The rest scattered like tormented ants. It was then the young man noticed a flash at the bow of the ship. Another missile began its, predetermined, flight. It searched for the jet-fighter and began its pursuit, drawn by the heat of the engine exhaust. A deadly game of "cat and mouse" began with all the odds in the "cat’s" favour. The plane rolled and turned sharply, desperate in its attempts to rid itself of the unrelenting pursuer. Then it dipped and dropped out of sight behind the hills in the distance. Suddenly, the hills and the low grey clouds were lit up by a blinding flash, and    
a huge ball of smoke billowed up into the sky.
   The young man felt nauseous. The suddenness and swiftness of death shocked him. He noticed he was shaking again, although now it was mainly from fear. He longed to be far away from the wretched island. Away from the cold, the hunger and the perpetual fear. The shabby collection of ramshackle houses and sheds below him, at the edge of the bay, were of no interest to him. He had not even heard of the place before he had been enlisted. So why they were here, he thought, defending a cluster of bleak islands, seemingly, lost in an endless ocean - constantly pounded by green seas and buffeted by low, scudding squalls? They could have the place - whoever they were - whatever their reason. The journey home in a few days could not come soon enough. He bent over and vomited, violently, into the mud.
   The repetitive thud of blades sweeping the air startled him. He turned to see a helicopter, dark and menacing, hovering just above the ridge behind him. Panic seized his being. Instinctively, he reached for his gun in a pitiful, futile act of self defence. No sooner had he raised it to his shoulder when he was slammed against the wall of the trench, pain searing through his body, his flesh tearing. He slumped into the swill of mud and vomit in the bottom of the trench - frightened, cold and wet - alone.

   People gathered in the tiled-wall, tomblike enclosure. Most were smartly dressed. The men wore suits and long heavy coats - the women, fashionable, in expensive, executive style outfits. Some were, contentedly, reading the evening paper while others peered, nervously, along the shining rails that disappeared into the dark gloom, anxiously anticipating the rumble and faint breeze on their cheeks that hinted of an approaching train.
   They shared the dusty, concrete platform with an old man, sitting with his back to a graffitied wall and staring straight in front of him at nothing in particular. His shabby appearance was in stark contrast to the suits and coats. Long, dark hair that was matted and tangled was streaked with grey and covered a brown face that looked tired and worn. A beard of similar texture fell down over a tatty, brown coat worn through at the elbows and torn at the right shoulder. A piece of string held up his baggy, black pants. Unlike the commuters he instead appeared a permanent fixture in this particular place. A sense of belonging - as though he had always been there and always would. The people stepped over and around him not wanting to know - not wanting to be involved. Anyway, really he wasn’t even there - just another piece of platform furniture. One day he would go away. It would be easier that way. The to and fro of rattling, screeching trains through the station meant nothing to him. He had come from nowhere and was going nowhere. He had no-one to see. And the people looked obediently away.
   The atmosphere, within the cauldron, began to change. Patient anticipation turned to tension, frustration and agitation. The train was delayed. People began glancing at their watches.
   Suddenly, the public address system crackled into life and a loud, static message echoed around the underground void. "This is your Bakerloo Line information service," an anonymous voice drawled, monotonously, “Due to a person under a train at Baker Street, there will be no service beyond Baker Street. For those people going further than Baker Street, it is advised that you..."
   The voice droned on but the people standing on the platform had already ceased paying attention to the information. There was to be no train. They fidgeted and became restless. Some swore softly to themselves. Others turned and headed quickly for the stairs and escalators. Their routines had been ruined. Their lives had been, temporarily, placed in turmoil. They were, inconveniently, forced into making other plans and arrangements.  Damn that person!
   Above the grime of the London Underground the streets were filled with lights, people and decorations. Toy, red-cheeked Santa Clauses peered out through shop windows at the bustling passers-by, who were bracing themselves against an icy, Arctic blast. They pulled their coats and scarves tighter around their bodies as they struggled with their heavy loads of shopping. Their bags were overflowing with gifts and presents which would bring joy and laughter into their busy lives. Signs, wishing people a merry and happy Christmas, abounded.
   For one young man though, the signs had not been enough.
  There was promise of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men”, but this proclamation had appeared to the young man as trite and futile.
   High above the crowded streets, in a ribbon of light  near the top of an office tower block, the massive profits made by "The Cuddly Toy Company", due to a successful marketing campaign of a new soft-toy range, "Santa's Little Helpers", were being toasted by directors  and other assorted figures. Their glasses were charged, their hands were raised and they clapped each other, enthusiastically, on the back.  
   But, for one young man, this euphoria had not been felt down on the streets. The magic, being temporarily woven by an approaching Christmas, had provided little consolation and enchantment to his disfigurement and shattered life. In one brief moment the spell was broken.

   Somewhere, in a lonely, dark corner of the universe, the small planet slipped silently past.

   And maybe someone was watching…

Chapter 22: “The Sherrin” in Flight

After the bails have been lifted
As the pitch becomes covered in leaves
And wood smoke hangs still and hangs heavy
While the neighbours dust off their skis
A rising tide of excitement, envelops
A nation that has cause to unite
Just a few more days ‘till the opening round
And first sight of “The Sherrin in flight.

Something is stirring down Punt Road
Cats begin purring down the bay
And far away, Lions wipe the sleep from their eyes
As Eagles start looking for prey
And a hush descends on the office
As tipsters consider their plight
For all that remains is the bounce of the ball
Then the sight of “The Sherrin in flight.

Drivers chase pole at Monaco
Wimbledon’s in awe at an ace
While at Assen a bike gets it all out of shape
On the first bend in the race
And the teams make a breeze of the high Pyrenees
As Europe hosts sport through the night
But give me “The G” instead of TV
And the sight of “The Sherrin in flight.
There’s no logic at all to the passion
That makes people stand in the rain
Eat cold pies, limp chips and drink warm beer
And shouting, “What’s wrong with ya, ump?” seem OK
But one cannot describe the excitement
When your team gets up just in time
A mark, a quick handball, a snapshot
And a star is born to mankind.

And the kid at the park kicks the footy
While his mates sit at home with the cat
And his thoughts are on legends before him
And decides that’s where it’s all at
Climb high in the air on tall shoulders
Kick goals from the square out of sight
But he dreams of the day when they’ll say, “Let’s see the game
For the sight of that young champ in flight.”

And through the week things are rarely forgotten
As the media serves up a blitz
A barrage of scores, plays and statistics
And hypothesising over “what ifs
But as the weekend slowly approaches
Ones thoughts are on putting things right
For there’s always a chance at the four points
With the sight of “The Sherrin in flight.

Then the last weekend in September
A tradition as old as the sea
The loud shrill of the field umpire’s whistle
Heralds a mighty roar at “The G
And all foes before are forgotten
As everyone’s cheers unite
For they know it’s the last time of the season
They’ll catch a sight of “The Sherrin in flight.

Chapter 21: Alabaster Tribute


       Many, many years ago
       I climbed the stairs at work
       To seek an engineer unknown,
       To ask him for a berth.

       So then upon the quay one day
       There stood a motley lot,
       But Tony moulded us like dough
       To form a winning yacht.

       So then for years we forged a soul
       To do battle on the seas,
       And regularly at seasons close
       A trophy we would seize.

       Summers came and summers went
       As weekends I did crave
       To share a joke and a beer
       With the new friends I had made.

       And then there were the cruises,
       Organised to a tee,
       Morning snack at ten o’ six,
       Lunch at twelve fifteen.

       But amongst the merriment
       Tony always got us home,
       There always was a steady hand
       As one trip clearly showed.

       Tucked in behind an island
       The anchor should have been a tree,
       We found ourselves quite worst for wear
       At the mercy of the sea.

       But Tony took the tiller,
       Local knowledge it did came,
       He found shelter in a tiny cove
       That barely had a name.

       Then after many races
       Commanding from the stern
       Tony turned to me and said,
       “It’s time you had a turn.”

       So each week I’d approach the line
       With a crew as loyal as could be
       Proud and honoured that Jude and Tone
       Would trust their pride and joy in me.

       And then as fate would have it
       A change was in the air,
       Armin left the foredeck,
       I wondered how we’d fair.

       Then off to the land of the kiwi bird
       As dead as they may be
       Enough to give the Dennes the taste
       That there’s much, much more to see.

       So wherever you may travel,
       And how ever far you roam,
       You always will be in the thoughts
       Of the friends you’ve left at home.

       So thank you Jude and Tony
       For sharing your yacht and home,
       Thanks for all the memories,
       And Tony, have a great five-oh.

Chapter 20: A Bow-Man’s Plea

Upon the foredeck he did stand,
Shouting loud and clear,
But no one took no notice,
The buoy was getting near.

“Untie those knots, I need the kite,”
He screamed with all his might,
But no one seemed to be aware,
Of his desperate plight.

“Let go the brace, pull up the pole,”
He added with more concern,
But glancing back all he saw,
Were people looking astern.

What do I have to do he thought,
To get their close attention,
What was said was quite effective,
But here I cannot mention.

And around the buoy we went,
Silent pleas for luck,
But a casual glance up at the mast,
Showed the spinnaker was not up.

A barrage of advice did come,
From every different direction,
Only to be blown away,
As we slipped further from contention.

Then three cheers as up it went,
And all before forgotten,
Followed by a collective hush,
The top was at the bottom.

Armin slumped upon the deck,
Commiserations he did got,
Next time he left the shore he thought,
Please let it be a shorter yacht.