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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

Mystery on the Zeppelin Express


Richard Jurgens - 2010-05-06

There is a pleasure in simple things which only those who have lived in squats and seamy boarding houses can know. Quietness. Time to think. A clean bathroom. An inviolate fridge.

Hilton Ellis set down a tray of snacks and settled into his armchair. Sip of steaming mint tea, bite of samoosa (a Surinamese hole-in-the-wall nearby did them perfectly). The cats, which normally acted as if he was plotting to turn them into a pair of fluffy slippers, were sleeping. Lights, hot running water, a bathroom, a kitchen. And TV on tap. Luxury. What more could you want?

Hilton flicked the switch idly. A political programme: intellectuals agreeing furiously in front of a poster featuring a cartoon granny kicking a black-and-white checked missile out of Europe. No. A programme for children, with grown-ups dressing up in funny costumes and acting like stupid kids. No. A rerun of Dallas. Maybe. American wrestling, a titanic battle between two men with redneck haircuts and the bulging muscles of superheroes. Forget it. On the BBC a rerun of Brideshead Revisited – the perfect adagio for a snooze. Hmm. Off to Texas, then, and the treacherous world of the 1970s ultra-rich …

At that moment the doorbell rang. Hilton’s first instinct was to ignore it. But it would be the neighbour, complaining about the cats, probably. Hilton had been warned about him. Occasionally, in fair weather, the cats made their way down a precarious walkway to shit in the neighbour’s garden. It seemed the neighbour disapproved of this. Dealing with such annoyances would be one of Hilton’s tasks.

Grunting, he struggled out of the armchair and went to open the door.

"Surprise!" Hilton stared. Alex and Sasha. Large as life, their holiday luggage strewn around their feet. They were smiling, sure he’d be pleased to see them. Sasha ignored Hilton’s micron of hesitation and planted three kisses. Then, over his shoulder, she caught sight of the flat.

"Omygod."

"Welcome home," Hilton said.

Sasha’s progress through the flat was punctuated by a series of Omygods that rose in volume and shrillness.

"What the fuck," Alex said.

Well, Hilton had no affinity with cats; he’d never lived with them. On his first night in the place, he’d given the felines some leftovers of his Peking duck – to make friends. You’d have thought they’d have an instinct for what wasn’t good for them. But no. They’d gobbled up the heavily five-spiced, MSG-impregnated morsels like there was no tomorrow. And as it turned out, Szechuan cuisine disagreed with kitty guts. Cat-aclysms had followed.

"What the fuck, dude," said Alex again, as he looked around at the carnage, but he sounded more stoical.

Sasha came out of the kitchen with a mop and a bucket. "Where are they?"

"Who?"

Seizing the mop and bucket, she went into the sitting room. There she located and dislodged the cats from the warm spot on top of the dresser where they had been roosting nervously since their traumatic encounter with the Chinese duck. They skittered out of the window.

Alex had to satisfy his morbid curiosity. "Come on, tell me, why didn’t you clean up, like a normal person?"

"You guys came back early," Hilton said. "The place would have been shining in two weeks."

Sasha tuned to Radio 3 and started swabbing the place out. Crashes and bangs echoed as furniture shifted. Alex reached for his scarf and jacket. Hilton did the same.

*

Alex went straight to the red light district to score an eightball. If the aim was to pacify Sasha, it worked. She received him like a returning hunter, ignored Hilton, and the happy couple retired to the sitting room to chase the dragon. No chance of TV. Hilton went to his cupboard bedroom to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

At three the next morning he was woken by a blast of music that made the walls of his cupboard bedroom tremble. Alex and Sasha were winging their way through the cosmos on their golden dragon and sharing their heroic backing track with the neighbourhood at full volume. "Communication Breakdown." And that immortal screaming rhyme: doin’ and ruin.

Hilton got out of bed and heaved his mattress up against the door. The music pulsed still, but as if contained in an old leather suitcase.

*

The following morning Alex was enjoying a cup of coffee and a foul-smelling shaggy cigarette in the kitchen, like any working citizen. Sasha was curled up dreamily on her chair. No one said anything about yesterday.

They’d liked Istanbul. The souks, the coffee shops where a hookah preloaded with rose petal-scented tobacco came with the price of a cup of coffee, the shambolic neighbourhoods. But they’d soon seen enough. Besides, the city swarmed with swarthy, corrupt-looking men straight out of the worst parts of Midnight Express, while the muezzins’ voices echoed in the sunlit squares, calling the faithful to prayer. A Western junkie didn’t feel he could safely score there.

Very shitly, they’d also been confronted with a lot of poverty. Ramshackle dwellings, kids in rags playing unattended in the streets, crippled peddlers selling unwanted wares. You weren’t used to such sights, coming from Europe. It put you off your holiday. Hilton thought with longing of his tiny room, but Alex’s intensity held him fixed in his seat like a magnetic beam.

"Well, there was nothing you could do about it at that moment, was there?" he said.

This was the thing, Alex said, getting alarmingly enthused. There was something they could do about it. There was always something you could do about it. And while they’d been away, they’d heard about the big march. They’d come back to be present at it. To be a part of history. Hilton was puzzled.

"The march against the American missiles that they want to put in our country," said Alex slowly, as if explaining an abstruse problem of Euclid to a dim schoolboy.

"Oh, right," Hilton said.

"You should come with us," said Alex.

"Sure," Hilton said.

*

He beat a retreat at last to his cupboard bedroom. He was holding on to his solitude like a straw, he knew it. At some stage he’d have to accept the fact that it was gone, and that he shared the world with other people. But on the other hand, people were so draining. He fell asleep.

He woke up several hours later sweating, heart pumping. He’d had an odd dream in which he was in a zeppelin of some kind, flying among white clouds. Why had the dream affected him so? But it dissolved, and he needed a cup of tea. And after that, breakfast. He was starving. It might also be a good time to make himself useful.

He found Alex and Sasha slumped in front of the TV: camera views of people filling the square and the streets. Banners. BAN THE MISSILES! NO NUKES ON OUR SOIL! Hilton had never seen such a crowd. The people flooding the familiar streets of the city could have filled ten football stadiums ... twenty. The place was awash with humanity. A commentator huddled in a winter coat informed his viewers of the progress of the march against a background of songs and drums and the whistles and calls of people in the masses pouring past who caught sight of the camera. Notables from a wide range of organisations scrambled to get on to the podium. Soon there would be speeches. The mood was determined, but oddly festive.

Hilton swept Mutt, or was it Jeff, out of an armchair, and sat down. The cat gave him a green-eyed stare and flounced off. To hell with felines and their delicate sensibilities, Hilton thought. The revolution was being televised, after all. And he’d had a bright idea.

"Weren’t you supposed to be there?" he said. "It’s not too late. You could be there in ten minutes."

Alex and Sasha looked at each other. Could they get through those crowded streets, make it for the speeches? They came to a silent conclusion and sat back on their sofa. No, they weren’t going anywhere.

Instead, Sasha brought out her supply of dope, which she kept in a plastic pencil case, and began preparing a hit. Alex watched her and then leaned forward impatiently to take over the task. Square of tin foil, little heap of powder, squeeze of lemon juice to make a paste, lighter flame to underside of tin foil, application of thin tube of tin foil to smoke, sharp breath in to draw the greasy smoke into an eagerly expanding nostril. A well-practised routine.

"Beautiful," Alex said, glancing at the TV. The vast crowd was cheering the arrival of one of the speakers. "Man, that’s people power."

"What happened to changing the world?" said Hilton.

"There are so many people there already," Alex said. "Look!" He waved at the busy television screen and took another hit of dragon smoke. Then, to Hilton’s surprise, he proffered the reeking square of smoking silver paper. "You want?"

Hilton drew back primly, like a governess resisting an improper suggestion on the coach to Canterbury.

"It’s not compulsory," said Alex, shrugging, as he took another hit. Even from a distance the smoke smelled repugnant: like burning paint or plastic, some sort of really toxic waste.

*

The speeches on the square began. The massive crowd settled in stillness while banners whipped in the chilly wind, and cheered at the high points.

"Well, maybe I’ll make breakfast, then," Hilton said. "A good meal makes up for many woes, as my granny used to say. Bacon and eggs, fried tomato, lashings of toast."

"Not in my kitchen," Sasha said.

"I was just trying to help."

"You know how you can help," she said, giving him an intent look, and turned back to the TV.

The sudden aggression! She’d been friendly earlier. This was why Hilton didn’t do heavy drugs. She wanted him out so they could get high in peace, it was as simple as that. Luckily he didn’t have his finger on any kind of live red button, or he’d have pressed it and nuked Sasha right where she lay, on her comfortable sofa.

He and Alex had been friends long before Sasha appeared on the scene. When they’d first met, Alex had been a lefty student by day and a dedicated punk by night. Hilton had visited him often at his first-floor walk-up on the dim, grim street where he then lived. Alex would roll a joint of the new high-THC skunk and they would get goofed and talk all kinds of shit. He’d been articulate back then. He’d opened doors to the city that Hilton would never have discovered otherwise: Einstürzende Neubauten, Jesus and the Gospel Fuckers, Crass, Angelic Upstarts and The Ex. And one day he’d shown up at the squat where Hilton was living, urgently needing a place to stay.

Get that, bitch? he thought. Urgently needing a place to stay. Me and Alex go back in this city.

Alex chose that moment to sit up. "You know what, I’m hungry," he said.

"Ten minutes," said Hilton. He got up to put on an apron. Yoko wasn’t going to win this time. His weapon would be her kitchen.

*

The task took a little longer than he’d expected in the still unfamiliar kitchen, but at last Hilton had produced three perfect plates of fry-up. He couldn’t wait to sit down and get his fangs into that bacon.

When he brought the plates through, he found Alex and Sasha slumped in depression. The speeches on the box were over. The crowds of the historic day were dispersing. They’d had their say, and they were going home.

"Food’s ready," Hilton said brightly.

Sasha gave him one of her sharp looks. It was one of those alienating moments when you see yourself exactly as another sees you. Hilton’s willy shrivelled.

"Look, let’s go for a walk," Alex said wearily. "Let’s talk, okay?"

This was it. They were going to ask him to leave. And this in Amsterdam, where it took years just to get on to the waiting list for a house. Yet the thought of his impending expulsion was somehow liberating, like standing on the edge of an abyss. One way or the other, you made a decision.

Hilton looked at the eggs, the wedges of crisp bacon, the fried tomato melting on the plate. "Now?"

"Now," said Alex.

*

"Where are we going?" Hilton said.

But Alex was walking at speed, and he soon had no breath for talk. They followed the curve of the canal to the Westerkerk and turned right behind the palace. Coming out into the open square with its phallic white marble war memorial they ran into a hostile wind. It was blowing straight from Siberia and it felt like it. Drawing breath was dangerous. Hilton had to stop in the long shadow of the Hotel Krasnapolsky to rest.

"You should get outside more frequently," Alex said, looking at Hilton’s generous belly. "You need movement."

Hilton consulted the Babel fish. Alex’s English wasn’t always quite on the button, or the nose, or whatever ... Ah, right, "movement": "exercise". Well, it had to be some kind of huge fucking irony, a junkie handing out health lectures. People had been telling Hilton things like this all his life. He wasn’t going to start listening now. But he was wondering when Alex was going to stop and give him The Talk.

"I’m OK."

They turned a corner on to a narrow canal. The neon lights of cafés and sex shops glinted dully in the still, thick water of a grey November dusk. Despite the cold, the streets were thronged with knots of tourists rubbernecking at the near naked girls in the windows. Dubious-looking individuals hung around on the bridges. There was trash everywhere. It was mindboggling, when you stopped to think about it – how much fluid had been spent and consumed in this seventeenth-century district. It was probably the most piss-, beer-, and sperm-drenched square mile on the planet.

Alex turned abruptly into an alley lined on both sides with red-lit sex kiosks. Most of the curtains were closed. They passed a couple of cops in blue enjoying a cosy chat with a blonde who was adjusting the strap of her minute red bikini in her doorway.

"How’s things, love?" Hilton heard one of the cops saying in the city dialect as they passed. "Busy enough for you?"

Aside from the litter and the stench, the red-light district at night was more like a film set than reality. A remake of Irma la Douce maybe. Or an adult theme park, with real girls and live fucky-fucky onstage.

But they were soon far away from the well-trodden and well-lit tourist streets. Hilton was beginning to feel nervous. Alex stopped at an iron gate at the beginning of a side alley. There was no bell to ring that Hilton could see.

"Why are we here?" Hilton said, looking around with some apprehension. "I thought we were going to talk."

"We are," said Alex.

A young Chinese man appeared in the shadows behind the bars. Seeing Alex, he unlocked the gate without comment and let them in. Then he locked the gate and led the way along the passage, which was very dark.

At times they passed other passageways faintly lit by the occasional lights of apartments. Hilton would never have been able to find his way back out of that maze. He knew that Alex was still ahead of him only because he bumped into him.

They came to small courtyard that was just visible in the dim glow of a lamp above a door. Alex was clearly familiar with the routine in this hidden world. He raised his arms and allowed himself to be frisked. Hilton didn’t have anything with him that would count as a weapon – unless, like Dr Jonathan Hemlock, you counted a set of keys or your five fingers as weapons. But he balked at the idea of being searched. Why were they here, anyway? Alex shook his head slightly. Hilton submitted to the sensation of strange hands running lightly over his body.

The ritual over, the young man knocked on the door, which was at the top of a short flight of steps. After a while it ground open to reveal an old lady in a faded smock of black and gold. "Ah, Mr Alex, long time," she said. She led them into a dim room with a number of candle-lit alcoves, or cubicles equipped with low couches. Hilton noticed lacquered panels of scenes celebrating sublime nature. In a corner, a bronze life-size Buddha meditated in a circle of candles, his hands resting with palms open on his knees, his feet surrounded by lotus petals.

It was as if they had time-warped to another continent and another century. The old lady indicated one of the alcoves, like a maître d’ showing a couple of diners to a table. Alex removed his shoes and lay down. Looking around, Hilton saw that most of the alcoves were occupied by people who lay as still as sleepers except for the glint of candlelight on their immobile eyes.

"Is this place what I think it is?" he said, with his hands on his hips. He felt quite indignant.

Alex was getting comfortable on his couch, as if settling in for a home movie. His pillow, which had a bow-like depression to support the neck, reminded Hilton of a carved African headrest except that it was upholstered and embroidered.

"Lie down," he said. "You’ll enjoy it."

Something had brought Hilton here; fatalistically, he saw no point in further resistance. He removed his shoes and lay down. The Buddha smiled at him inscrutably from the shadows flickering in the corner.

"I thought you were going to ask me to leave," he said. A sort of peace was filling him.

"No, friend," Alex said. "I want to explain something to you."

Hilton frowned. "What?"

"Why you should stop judging us."

The old lady held out a long-stemmed clay pipe.

"Take it," said Alex. "When you understand, we’ll talk. Deal?"

Hilton put the pipe to his mouth. The crone applied a flame with ritualistic gesture to the bowl.

*

He was flying through clouds, a blue sky, in bright sunlight. It was very quiet, except for the wind whistling in rigging or wires somewhere.

He noticed that they were in a gondola and that it was hanging from the underside of a huge zeppelin that was visible through a glass ceiling. The canvas panels of the zeppelin were painted in bright colours, porn cerise, electric blue, Jamaican green, banana yellow. The gondola, though as large as a railway carriage, was made of fine, densely wrought basketwork. There was a sumptuous bar to one side with great brass beer taps, attended by an impressive-looking gent with rolled-up sleeves and a handlebar moustache.

Hilton caught a glimpse of himself in the large mirror behind the bar. He was dressed in Victorian khaki field kit, including pith helmet. He was aware that he was here to investigate something, but he didn’t know what. Mystery on the Zeppelin Express.

At the other end of the gondola was a viewing gallery. From there he could see the airship’s engines. They were strange contraptions of cogs and flywheels and chains and shiny brass interconnecting levers that cranked propellers shaped like windmill sails. The transparent canvas of the sails shimmered like dragonfly wings in the sunlight.

"Come and see this," said Alex, who was standing with a group of very well-dressed people in the viewing gallery.

He was wearing a worn blue corduroy jacket and a little black peaked cap of the kind favoured by Rhine barge captains. The change of clothing conferred on him quite some authority. Sasha was wearing the heavy make-up and tilted hat of a 1950s KLM air hostess. She beckoned to him. He went over. Below them the clouds were parting, and they were afforded a view of the land over which they were drifting silently.

Africa. Savannah. Wildlife trails, herds of wildebeest on the rolling green plain, baobab trees. Then a village of thatched huts, children in ragged clothing running out on to the hard red square of turf that passed as their football field to wave at the passing airship. Then townships of tiny iron shanties huddled against one another, thousands and thousands of them. Then suburbs of houses, each with its green garden and blue postage stamp swimming pool.

At any moment, Hilton knew, he would see that familiar high-rise skyline above the Highveld, jagged as a newspaper graph in turbulent economic times: Jo’burg. His hometown. He hadn’t thought of the streets where he had grown up for ages. He was intensely moved.

"Do you understand?" said Alex, the zeppelin captain.