Unwrapping the Palestinian flag

The world we live in today is not the one I grew up in, but in many ways, it has not changed.

As a child the IRA would plant bombs in rubbish bins, so rubbish bins disappeared in public places. However, we did not really live in fear of terrorists attacks. They were for many of us an annoying wound on the arm, which would occasionally open and bleed.

Although the atrocities like the Warrington bomb, or the Chelsea Barracks nail bomb shocked us as a nation we did not really change our way of life, and we did not see ourselves as a country constantly under attack.

Other countries, other people lived in fear, survived constant attacks, and lived through civil war on a daily basis. Countries like Israel.

I first travelled there in the days when I still thought it was shocking to realise how easy it was for a desperate man to take control of a bus and drive it down a ravine, as easily as a shepherd boy leading goats down the valley. How easy it was to take 16 lives in the blink of the eye without a bomb, without a knife, but with the same searing hatred of a suicide bomber.

Living in Israel was a compete revelation to someone from a country like England. In the first few months the outbreak of what was to become known as the Intifada began and we watched from the side-lines how a nation coped with constant conflict, where two groups of people cannot be reconciled, cannot live together in peace.

I have, over the last 30 years re- visited the country many times and nothing has changed. In the light of Trumps incendiary claim that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The violence continues. A photo of a dozen armed IDF soldiers surrounding one unarmed Palestinian youth took me back to the days where young girls would be shot and killed for throwing stones at settlers, at how a nations over reactions have de humanised one group of people, how life for many is cheap.

On one trip two years ago, I travelled to Israel and stayed in Haifa a city in the north. I was planning to do research for the sequel to my novel Jewish Days Arab Nights. Although there were outbreaks of violence down in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I did not think this was unusual. Palestinians lived under curfews and brutality from the Zionists and would rise up and retaliate when they could.

One day whilst watching a news report about the wave of stabbings occurring in Jerusalem, I decided to forgo the plans to go into that city for the day and instead to take the train from Haifa to the old crusader city of Accra.

When I first arrived in Israel in 1987 there was not a train route up the coast from Haifa to the Old Crusader City, my last trip had been by bus, so I was looking forward to the coastal train ride.

It was a day like any other, soldiers going or coming from their shifts climbed on with the bags and their guns casually hanging over their shoulders or placed between their feet. This was always something that shocked me, the casual way soldiers carried their guns in public, the same we in England would carry an umbrella in case of rain.

As the carriage doors closed and the train pulled away, one of the young soldier girls sat in an empty seat opposite me. She was a skinny pale blonde girl, and she mainly stuck out because of her paleness. How she had avoided the Israeli, sun I could only assume was by hiding in a dark dungeon somewhere.

The soldier girl unzipped a bag and began to apply her makeup. At first, I merely glanced out the corner of my eye, but it was when the girl began to apply the vibrant red lipstick, that I started to feel uneasy.

She was making herself glamorous for a days’ work in the army. To do what? Was she one of those girls who would be playing spot and shoot? A disturbing way of killing people by computer, like a game, but unlike a computer game someone was often killed and did not get back up for level two.

It was a job given to the girl conscripts, and they ultimately just pressed a joystick and killed whomever they thought was suspicious, even an innocent man digging up potatoes in a field.

Her face once complete was pretty and the rosebud lips where of course begging to be kissed by some young male conscript. The girl glanced at herself in her small mirror a look of disdain creeping across her face. Her final touch was a beauty spot she applied with a pencil. She was complete, dressed to kill.

I felt I had to look away. Uncomfortable at the contrast of ideas going round my head, a heavily vamped up girl and killing innocent people.

The girl who sat next to me had a parcel on her lap. As the train moved further away from Haifa station, she began to un- wrap the package. I could see it was a piece of material.

Firstly, I saw the green, then the black and the white and then I saw the smaller red triangle. The girl was un-wrapping a Palestinian flag.

I frowned at the little red triangle in the middle of the stripes, remembering something. The red flag like a warning at a beach or a danger, danger of drowning.

I heard someone shout, thought I heard the word, “Saboteur. Saboteur!”

Then I saw the gun held out at arm’s length, aimed towards me, no, not me, the girl with the flag. I froze; I did not crouch down like the rest of the passengers. I just stared at the site of the gun, something I now realise I had never seen aimed at me before.

The boys’ hands were shaking but I had no time for my brain to compute that, because a noise exploded in the carriage and I felt something fly past my face, butterflies wings on fire I thought. The girl next to me screamed and held her hands to her ears, the soldier with the rose bud lips crouched further down on the floor. Trying to crawl under the seat. A smell like a November 5th firework pervaded the air. Hanging like an accusation in the confined space of the train carriage.

The bullet hit the side of the window frame and ricochet up to the luggage rack above. People were pointing at the girl, then to the fabric, and then to the soldier. They spoke in Hebrew but I guessed what they were saying. The soldier had shot at her because of the flag.

Someone had pulled the emergency cord. I sat and watched the aftermath unfold, saw how quickly the passengers went from panicking back to stoic resolution, how we all just sat and waited.

Someone spoke to me holding out a hand. I mumbled, “Lo Ivrit. Lo Ivrit.”

“Are you OK Madam? Are you Ok?”

I stared unable to comprehend her words even in English. Finally, I managed to exhale and say, “Yes. I am fine. Really I am fine.”

How terribly British I would think later back in my apartment. How terribly British. To say, “Yes I am fine. Thank you. I am fine.” Just been bloody shot at but I am fine!

Part of the Palestinian flag was draped across my legs and the young soldier across from me who I had watch put her war paint on earlier. She who had been the first to hit the ground, the edge of the flag covered on of her shoulders like a shawl.

There had actually been very little panic considering the situation a group of people experienced. Fortunately only one bullet had been fired, the gunman had been quickly subdued, by his – what would you call them? Colleagues? Friends? I don’t know what you would call them. Where they from the same platoon? I did not know and would never know.

The train was driven back to Haifa station, and by then an army of police had descended and where waiting to take the “terrorist” away. Except of course it was quickly made apparent there was no terrorist, just a young girl un- wrapping the Palestinian flag and a young boy who had misread the situation.

That was all he was, a boy, who had been given a gun by a faceless Government official in the name of national security and he thought that made him a man. Now he was standing there shaking and sobbing, a wild look on his face. The girl who unfolded the Palestinian flag stood calmly watching. Her lips closed as if she knew that whatever she said would be wrong, misinterpreted or would make the situation worse.

One of the police officers spoke to me in English. I told him what I knew. What I had seen. I told him how shocked I was that a soldier could just open fire in a public place like a terrorist.

He shrugged his shoulder and said, “These things happen. This is Israel. This is the life. She shouldn’t have waved the Palestinian flag.”

“She didn’t.” I corrected him. “She merely unwrapped it.”

Once again, the officer shrugged. I was used to the tough Israel way of speaking, but his indifference still unnerved me a little bit. “As you obviously are not hurt I will get someone to take you back to your apartment. Where are you staying?”

I knew there would be no further communication from the Haifa police. That was that, nobody had died nobody was hurt. What will happen if I was to suffer from PTSD? I almost asked and then thought better of it.

“I can walk thank you.” I coldly replied. “I am staying across the road.”

I was literally a four , maybe five-minute walk away. From where I was standing, I could see the date palm trees that lined the small street where my apartment balcony looked down on.

I walked back through the army of police cars and vans that were slowly preparing to depart, now that they knew nothing more was required of them.

Why did she unwrap the flag I wondered? Was it a gift that she did not realise the importance of until it was too late? On the other hand, had she played a clever psychological gambit? Not an act of violence but an act of defiance? Defiance thinly veiled in a flag.

As I walked, back to my apartment the sun was now at its zenith. I could feel the heat burning my skin. Just a five-minute walk and Israel was leaving its mark on me.

What of course was less apparent at the time but would stay with me longer then the suntan on my face was one young girl’s innocent or not so innocent act of unwrapping the Palestinian flag on a train  from Haifa to Accra.

I lay down on the bed my head was banging and I felt a faint burning on the side of my cheek. When I washed my face later that evening, my cheek was stinging; looking in the mirror, I could see a very fine line, a burn mark. It was a sobering thought to realise how close the bullet had been to my face.

That evening I switched the TV on for the news. There was no mention of the incident on the train in Haifa. There had been stabbings, shootings and riots across Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. Scenes of Palestinian youths being surrounded and kicked down onto their knees by armed Israeli soldiers. In one incident, a youth had stabbed two Israelis before being shot dead by armed police. I recognised Jaffa Gate and remembered my first walk through in to the old city back in 1987. Three days later the uprising called the Intifada began.

No nothing had changed. The world we live in now is just the same as the one that I grew up in. It is not the world. The people in it need to change.

For many months after I returned home, my hearing was badly affected by the incident, speaking on phones in my job as a credit controller became challenging. I was constantly straining to hear a voice down the line that would have previously been very clear. However, I remained silent about it. I felt I had no right to complain for I had gone to the terrorist capital of the world, Israel/Palestine. Now of course with the wave of terrorist attacks we live with here it is apparent we do not need to travel far to be affected by random acts of violence or even perhaps the innocuous action of unwrapping a flag on a train.

I would never know what happened to the girl or to the soldier. I trawled through many newspapers and internet news sites, nothing, there was no mention of the incident on the train again. Until now.

In the light of recent events with Trump, I see the Palestinian flag on the news, and on Facebook, and I am can see the little red triangle, in the middle, like a warning to swimmers at sea. Danger.

Spieglein Spieglein an der Wand

I was three years old when I ran my father over. I can assume safely it was an accident, for I am sure that a three-year old does not intend to run someone over, even their own father.

Now 50 years on I have been thinking about that strange incident. Two things have made this memory surface. I was on a train in Northern Israel when an army recruit opened fire at a person he thought was acting suspiciously, I was sitting next to that person.

Even now I don’t remember the full course of events, but instead I can remember 50 years ago, slipping the hand break off on the taxi and gripping the wheel whilst standing on the driver seat in the black cab and rolling the cab across my father!

I can remember that Candy our white German shepherd was sitting in the luggage compartment next to me. I can remember the taxi continued rolling after passing over my father’s body. I remember laughing because I was driving like daddy, it had of course escaped me that I wasn’t driving like daddy and I had actually had to run over daddy to achieve this precarious position of not being in control of a taxi.

We were on a hill and I continued to roll, I remember laughing and hearing my father shouting and seeing through the mirror him running after me. His face a mixture of fear and something else, something I had forgotten, love. He had loved me once.

I remained silent about the shooting, but then someone started to mess with my head. Started digging around my mind like an old woman at a jumble sale looking for a particular item.  But I don’t give up my thoughts and feelings that easily or so I thought.

But the digging has revealed bones of a long gone spectre, one I buried before it had actually stopped breathing.

At the moment I am in a dark place and I have realised that for me to move on I have to move back to another time and place. A time when again I was in a dark place, one which I thought I had moved on from, but now I know I have been living in the darkness ever since.

I’m only going to go back 14 years you will be relieved to know, but this is not about my travels round the world, the furthest we get is Toulouse in France. This is about the end of the relationship between me and my father.

But of course there has to be a beginning for there to be the ending.

When I was a child, I like many little girls put my father on a pedestal. It didn’t help that he had the good looks of a 1950’s Hollywood star, resembling Cary Grant. It seemed every woman wanted to sleep with him and every man wanted to buy him a drink. Even my girlfriends at school thought he was lovely.  However by the time he died he had become a very public alcoholic. The two persona couldn’t be further apart and I often wonder how on earth he was reduced to the later.

I suppose now as an adult it was obvious he was an alcoholic all along, but my perception like many people was of the Hollywood star not the sad tramp he grew into.

By the time of his death, very few people had much contact with him, any of his respectable friends had either died or had begun to keep my father at arm’s length. The only people he had contact with were people who had stooped so low as to cadge drinks from him, but thought themselves so high that they were being kind to him. And of course me the one constant in his life, the annoying wayward daughter, she was still there.

As a child I ran in his footsteps. Walked the roads he walked, sat in the pubs he drank in and smiled at the friends he talked with. His cab driver friends knew me almost like their own.

He understood me then, my belligerent way with the children at my school. My refusal to accept because a child had Alice in wonderland hair that did not make them better than me and certainly did not make me want to be like them.

I was not in the clique, never wanted to be. I ran alone, ran amok, and created upsets and havoc, but always on my own. My father seemed to understand me, seemed to endure the constant visits to the school where teacher after teacher listed complaint after complaint. He understood my way of ignoring what was told because it only suited the adult who was trying to control me. The word autistic had not been coined then. The words difficult, awkward, disruptive and uncontrollable seemed to be used on a regular basis in these talks at school. He remained silent, if he believed them he did not say, he was there for me as a child who was at odds with the world.

But my relationship with him as I grew older became more and more confrontational especially as it became glaringly obvious I had no intention on settling down and marrying. I started to travel to more and more obscure places and we grew further and further apart. When I picked a country that was troubled to visit, he would say I was doing it just to annoy him, I wasn’t, I just wanted to visit troubled countries. A population of troubled people had to be investigated.

And then I seemed to become the coat hook for him to hang all his own failures on. Anything that went wrong became my fault. I became the reason he drank. I was the reason the taxi broke down, the crucifixion of Christ was my fault, the holocaust, my sister having her house repossessed. My brother going home to Tasmania. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders literally. And so I kept moving, I was a free spirit and the world was mine to explore and enjoy.

After a trip whale watching in New Zealand I phoned him waxing lyrical about my sightings of whales and dolphins , it was 6.00 in the morning where he was and he was drunk and then the enormity of his problem hit me, how could he be drunk at six o ’clock in the morning?

Travelling back  home via Australia, I was mugged in Sydney and naturally I tried to phone my parents, by making a reverse charge phone call, my mother was forced to refuse to accept the phone call, by what I now realise was a very nasty drunkard.

When I returned from my trip I went home and to see the transition was frightening, a blood stained drunk sitting in the corner of the room. Still in the same clothes that he had been wearing for longer than was acceptable.

Not long after that my mother left him. It took guts for her to do so, not only was he the love of her life, she was in her 60’s and would not find it easy to move on from nearly forty years of marriage.

I watched my father descend so low that it actually became too painful to watch, it ripped me apart in fact. It was eviscerating, a word I was reminded of when I worked in Madagascar – their largest carnivore the Fossa eviscerate their prey, usually a Lemur.  But I just couldn’t’t look away. Eventually stories would be passed to me of his drunken behaviour in a club or pub and it started to take its toll on me.

By now I was walking across the common in the dark 5.00 in the morning to walk the family dog and to turn the gas fire off where my father had fallen asleep slowly cooking his legs. Then a young girl was raped on the common by what later would become known as the M25 rapists. I knew something had to give.

I had a phone call one day to say he had collapsed in a car park and the mini cab driver had driven off and left him on the ground unconscious. Whilst he was in hospital I took our last family dog Branston to a vets and he was found a good home. It was not easy.

When I walked into the hospital I looked at a man with a purple face his bruising was so bad and yet he still rejected me. Nobody else visited him that night, just me and my guilt and my anger.

Nurses and Dr’s stared at me as if I had done something wrong. I realised what had happened was he had cooked his legs on the gas fire and they blamed me. I wanted to tell them that we couldn’t be in a room together he hated me but I remained silent and took their silent condemnation and agreed I was the worlds worse daughter, I had failed.

When my father returned home having rather ungraciously discharged himself from hospital, he came home to an empty house. He phoned to demand his dog back. I refused.

And then I packed my rucksack and took a one way Euro star ticket to Paris. I made my way down to the Languedoc region of France and thought I could hide from it all.

I embarked on a fling with an art student. I had met him “begging” outside a church, but it was his way of getting money to subsidise his fees. He was beautiful I could have stayed for longer. Lost in his eyes and his free spirit love.

I got a job as a waitress at a restaurant where the owner didn’t want to speak to English people. But even I knew that it could not be, to run away was denying part of what I was but to stay and watch my father’s self-destruction would take away a central piece of me.

But return I did, to find him lying in the living room, almost dead, skeletal but still defiant, as soon as I touched him he managed through his dehydrated mouth to say, “Leave me alone, stop mauling me.” Those words often linger in my mind, even when he was at death’s door he did not want me.

Whilst I was in France he had shown his last act of defiance. He had taken me to court to have his dog returned to him. Of course I was unaware of this fact and therefore did not attend the hearing. In my absence I was told to return the dog to him. After his death I had to explain to the courts that I could not comply with their request, at first they were most unsympathetic, but when I wrote asking how I could return an animal to a dead person, they finally relented and had the CCJ dropped.

I still am not completely sure why he had taken me to court. Was it to show me he still had some moral fiber left in him when it came to his responsibilities? Or was it to show me he still had reasons to live, I don’t know. I don’t bear him a grudge about it. And although painful to part with Branston I had acted in the best interest of the animal.

I miss my father of course. I miss the brutal honesty that we had, but I don’t miss that eviscerating pain of watching him slowly him kill himself with alcohol and how it took away the real Gordon. The kind funny person who everyone had liked and admired.

I hear people talk about their alcoholic husbands and fathers and I get the feeling with some that they use them to obtain sympathy from their listeners.

That is something I never want. I think I had an unorthodox upbringing, and I certainly wouldn’t’t have changed my childhood. But sympathy? No way.

I would just change those last minutes when I found my father lying on the ground, a shadow of a man, but still a fire blazing in his eyes, the bit where he hates me I want to change.

I once asked my father once why he couldn’t love me, we were in a pub, an alcoholics’ favourite place, they can hide in there for years, his reply was – “It’s like looking in a mirror with you.”

I should have guessed there would be no denial, no “Of course I love you, you are my daughter”.  I was never the family favourite, too much of a rebel apparently.  If I was my sister I would have played the feminine card and cried, and he would have perhaps patronised me and said something nice. But that was not his way or mine.

For years I stopped believing I deserved love or had right to be happy.

Of course years later I now realise it was himself that he hated so much. The shabby alcoholic he had become had taken all trace of the proud handsome man he once was. Apparently I am very much like him. He was a very strong man in all other aspects and very charming when sober, I am a very strong woman and apparently very funny when I want to be.

But sometimes when I take a sip of wine, I wonder is this the day that I will truly become the mirror of my father, that refection he so detested and slip into alcoholism? It’s a fear that can never really go away. I live with it on a daily basis.

Many partners have described being married to an alcoholic as a horror show, well for the offspring, it’s like walking through the hall of mirrors at the fun fair. Grotesque at one moment and then deceptively normal at another.

And how can you reject that which created you?

Now all these years after his death I want to draw a line under his own self-loathing and ultimately my own. I have got to move on. The last few years I have slipped to a place of darkness, of ghosts and demons. Creatures crawl through my mind constantly devouring my positive thoughts before they can grow. It’s not a good place.

The hall of mirrors I walk through hover now between grotesque and deceptive, not even normal anymore.

When my father died I did not grieve for him. For I had buried him deep within me many years before, but now it’s like a flood has washed away the soil on his grave and the bones of the dead are stacking up on the pavement for all to see.

I now have to start again, begin from where we left off. Move on from this place I have found myself in.

And Dad if you are looking down on me, I forgive you for not loving me. I forgive you for not liking the reflection you saw. I can’t make people love what they don’t want to but I’m going to learn to love myself. And perhaps eventually when I look at myself in the mirror I may just like what I see.

And Dad forgive me for making this so public, the bullet on the train missed me but the person digging around in my head , well they found a nugget ,but were too selfish to realise what they had found and threw it back as worthless.

I was asked recently was I sorry the bullet on the train missed me? No I was glad it missed the innocent person on the train.

A memory of Locusts

How to cook locusts- Remove the wings and hind legs of the locusts and boil in a little water until soft. Add salt to taste and a little oil and fry until brown.


Gabra’s long ebony hands more suited to playing a piano then driving, caressed his stomach or the part of his torso where less lean men would have had a stomach. Animated pidgin words escaped from his mouth which I translated as thus – From out of the pages of the bible, Ethiopia was to have a plague of weird flying creatures that had cymbals strapped to their abdomens to encourage females to mate with them.

I imagined a hoard of singing creatures on a sexual rampage, clashing cymbals loudly before embarking on a lust fuelled evening of insect debauchery.

And yet however strange this image was, I was not sure how their mating exploits could possibly prevent me from going out in Gondar for Christmas Eve. Although Ethiopia was still at war with Eritrea I had so far managed to avoid any major conflicts with man or beast, perhaps now it was all about to change.

My armed escort that came with the driver was fortunately more fluent in English and he managed to explain the impending catastrophe more succinctly if a tad less quaintly. A plague of locusts was about to spread across the landscape, devouring everything edible in their wake. The cymbals were not I was rather disappointed to hear noisy musical instruments, but were tymbals and muscles on the abdomen of the male locusts popped them in and out to make a chirping noise so attractive to the females.

I had encountered many unusual phenomenon whilst travelling the world, but a plague of locusts was not one of them. I do remember as a child watching the “Natural World”, and one of the episodes filmed a plague of locusts somewhere in Africa, maybe even Ethiopia. I remember a living cloud creep across the land like the dark shadow of a giant and the barren wasteland they left behind them.

Now here in Ethiopia I contemplated how the new famine was about to begin and how quickly it would take Bob Geldof to fly in to begin his next “feed the world” concert.

The words of God, a page from Exodus 10 –“I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses…..”

Gabra had suggested a “handful from god of flying creatures”.

I guessed it depended on how big Gods hands were as to how many locusts would descend on Gondar.  On our drive down from my hotel one solitary locust landed on the windscreen of the car. “One locust does not a plague make.”  I concluded. But how big the hand of God was I was soon to find out.

Gabra drove us to an innocuous looking café. The room was painted a pastel mint colour and was furnished with Formica tables and plastic chairs. A man sat in a corner table staring up a large TV screen; he barely acknowledged the two of us as we came in. But his eyes lit up when he saw I had cigarettes.

I had purchased cigarettes and cans of Heineken as gifts for making friends with the locals and had also raided the mini bar at my hotel  so was happy to hand a token cigarettes to the man.

But Gabra became agitated and finally hissed at me, “No gifts for him, bad man. He is a bad man.”

How did anyone know what a bad man looked like? How would I know? He didn’t have a tattoo on his forehead. I wondered what constituted a bad man in Ethiopia, a country that had had its fair share of wars. He must have been a soldier in one of those wars.

Gondar had played a pivotal part in many of the atrocities of war. My hotel room had a fabulous view of the Fasilida Castle, where once the residents of the city had awoke to find the bodies of

Insurgents hanging at the castle gates. Had this passed the order for such a deed? He seemed so unassuming so passive but who really knew the heart of any man?

Gabra introduced me to his cousin Rebekah and she took me to her room where there was a fridge for the cans of larger to stay cool. She then offered me Tej, the local Ethiopian brew a honey mead concoction which depending on the brewer varied in degrees of potency. Hers was pretty potent.

As the evening continued Rebekah our charming host asked several times if we could leave the room, as a “boyfriend” had arrived.  I became confused at the number of “boyfriends” she and a few of her friends had. But who was I to judge?

When asked to leave the room we joined the company in the cafe where the bad man was accumulating a pile of money from men that appeared to just walk in off the street. No words or very few words passed between him and these men. And he merely sat occasionally his eyes averting from the TV screen to me.  And his face would contort into a form of a smile.

But Gabra’s warning of him being a bad man stopped me from trying to engage in conversation with him.

After several glasses of tej I finally needed to brave the outside toilets. As I stepped outside into the courtyard the first of the visitors of the predicted plague had arrived. One landed on my hand, as I peered down at it I saw it was pink. I frowned was it the harshness of the lights strung up around the shack like buildings that had distorted the colour. I thought all locusts were brown. I inspected it more closely, what colour pink was it? Congo Pink, Pig Pink, Spanish Pink, Carnation Pink, Pearly Pink?  None of these seemed to describe the colour.

Even his antennas were pink and the lids of his eyes had a pink dusting like eye shadow, perhaps it was a gay pink locusts.

Variations of the colour pink paraded through my mind like fat can can dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

And then the spell was broken, his hind leg slowly kicked out and I felt a stinging sensation on my hand. I flicked him away and continued to the latrines. I could hear a whirring sound of insects in flight. The one insect was now plural and they had begun to flutter enthusiastically round my head. I was no longer interested in their colour.

When I came out of the toilet the night sky was filled with creatures and I started to ineffectually flail my arms in the air, the locusts landed in my hair, climbing like monkeys through trees I could feel the vibrations of their bodies on my scalp as they  chirped and whirred.

I rushed towards what I thought was the door the communal l room I had first sat in, opened the door and slammed it behind me whilst trying to rid myself of the locusts.

And then I opened my eyes and saw in the low light, two naked bodies on a bed. Both black. They literally stopped in mid copulation to stare at me. It finally dawned on me where I was the local brothel. All the money being handed over to the bad man in the cafe was for services rendered.

I stood embarrassed for a moment and then backed away to the door and opened it to be greeted by the sound of locusts.

The only way to describe the noise a swarm of locusts make is a gentle exhalation of air like a fart, hundreds of locusts farting in the air. And I had to run through the gamut of them, my hands covering my face I ran across the courtyard towards the light of the kitchen diner.

And then I could feel fingers slowly pick the locusts out of my hair.

A pan had been placed on the flames of an old belling gas oven.  Rebekah dropped locusts into steaming water then with a ladle, transferred them into a frying pan of hot oil as they hissed in the heat I thought they were still alive.

A plate of the insects was placed in the centre of the table and we ate Gabra, Rebekah, her three girlfriends and four men. For a few moments the sound of whirring hung in the air and then the crunching of food as we ate. “When locusts swarm we eat.” Rebekah finally said.

The crispy snacks of locusts seemed to be never ending as did the guest who paraded through the room. Each time the door opened more locusts for Rebekah to cook invaded the room.

Finally a bed was made up for me on the floor where the locusts that had crept under the narrow gap in the door now had set up their own form residence  the lullaby of farting locusts finally sending  me to sleep. Through the remainder of the night I was vaguely aware of the sounds of beds creaking in other rooms and distorted grunts of desire, but I slept and daybreak seemed to arrive too soon.

When Gabra and I left the room that morning it was Christmas day for me but not for him. For Ethiopia lived by a form of the Julian Calendar and Christmas day would not be until January and to complicate things even more they have 13 months in a year.

And I was happy to find out that I was seven years younger when I landed in the country as they are seven years behind us in the west!

My eyes became accustomed to the brilliant blue of the sky and the bright African sun there was a scrunching sound as a walked across the road to the car. Millions of gossamer wings still floated through the air. Under my  feet were the carcasses of locusts. Did they die happily in sexual congress? I knew not, but the sound under my feet was like the sound of walking on snow, deep and crisp and even.

I was headed to the monasteries on Lake Tana this Christmas day. As we drove away I didn’t ask Gabra why he had taken me to a brothel to celebrate Christmas Eve. But I did wonder what locusts would taste like if dipped in chocolate.

The Billiard Room

I can’t believe that it was so long ago that I first saw her. What must be over 45 years? The childhood memory is one of those few that are still vivid to me.

My dad was looking after the club known in those days as the “Hollies.”

It wasn’t his normal job he was a taxi driver, but he volunteered to run the place whilst Dougie and Millie went on holiday. I idolised my father and went everywhere with him, so I found myself helping clear up the club that particular evening. The one and only time I saw her.

My shoulders slumped immediately my father spoke. “Go up to the billiard room and clear the glasses up into the dumb waiter.”

“Can I take Candy with me?” I pleaded.

“Of course. But there really is nothing up there to be scared of, Pedro. It’s just us men blaming our bad shots on something more than inept snooker.”

His words didn’t make me feel any better and taking Candy our German shepherd dog wouldn’t help much either she was scared of the room as well.

The billiard room, everyone knew it was haunted. The men always spoke of how when they were playing snooker, suddenly the ball would shoot of at a different angle. Or how certain coloured balls would have been hidden in other parts of the room when they came up to play their first game of the day. Glasses moved from where they were placed and an atmosphere that could not be explained.

Although I had never seen her, I knew it was a she. And knew something bad had happened in that room.  It was strange that the ghost was a she. The club was a men’s only venue and it really was a stuffy masculine place. But the worse place was that room.

I dragged myself slowly up the huge staircase with Candy trailing reluctantly behind me, she was already trembling and by the time my hand touched the big brass door knob so was I.

I peered into the room, the lights were always dim and it just made it worse. The heavy oak wood paneling dragged the atmosphere down even more. A smell of cigars and stale beer pervaded the air.

I started quickly to pick up the glasses and place them in the dumb waiter. Faintly the scratching noise began, getting louder and more frantic. I tried to shut the noise out.

“Mice”, my Dad had tried to tell me the last time I heard it. “Place is infested with them” Bloody big mice I had thought, not convinced.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw something. I figure in black and white. I swirled round, nothing. “Silly.” I said to myself she won’t show herself to you.

Candy was following me round like a bad smell, with one eye on the door ready for her quick escape. I had left the door open deluding myself that it would make things better. But the heavy oak door slowly creaked back on in hinges to shut itself and we were trapped for now.

Above one of the snooker tables the light flickered as if a bulb was going to go. And then I heard her. “I didn’t mean to. Please don’t put me in there. It‘s dark I‘m scared .Please no.” And then sobbing. And the scratching got louder. More frenzied.

I froze. Candy was cowering behind my legs trying to hide from – from nothing. There was nothing. Only the sobbing. And the scratching.

I bolted for the door and flung it open wildly. I ran full pelt down the stairs Candy overtaking me before we reached the last step.

As I rushed into the main bar my father must have seen the look of fear on my face. I ran towards him and he opened his arms. “What’s the matter Pedro?” he said softly.

“Nothing, I thought there was someone in the room and ….” I trailed off.

My dad smiled down at me benevolently, “There is nothing up there. It’s just a very creepy room. Too many male egos rest in there. I suppose I will have to go and finish clearing up there instead.”

He turned toward the same stairs I had just catapulted myself down.

“Daddy, if they ever pulled the panels down, what do you think they would find underneath?” I suddenly asked.

My father frowned, “Well probably pink walls. It was a girl’s school many years ago. Run by French nuns for the daughters of rich local gentry. Why? What do you think they would find?”

“Dead bodies. Something horrible happened in there I know it I can feel it. I heard her crying, they killed her. I know they did.”

My father had turned back, recognising my fear, a barely discernable frown on his face. “I think we will leave the glasses for the morning. Come on its time to go home. Mum will be waiting up for us. I shouldn’t have bought you out it’s much too late for you.”

We locked up together and walked over to his taxi. I loved his taxi. I loved the leather seats and the shinning black. I always felt special and safe in there.

As we pulled away I looked up at the window of the billiard room. And there she was, the face of her anyway. She stared for a second at me, pale as moonlight, she had an almost petulant look on her face, as if disappointed I was leaving her, but within seconds she was gone. I was about to tell my dad but thought better of it.

And now I’m back in my home town and each day I drive past the building and each time my head turns and glances up at the window. Do I hope I will see her? Or do I hope she was just my childish imagination?

One day they will knock the building down and then the truth of the place will be known. But for now I drive past and remember the scratching and the crying.

Lamia -The Red Dragon of the Galapagos

The wall of tears, was sobbing, a sound like the wind howling through stone. But there was no wind, only a blistering draining heat. The islands born from fire and ice were at the fire stage. Ice would now be a blessed relief. Perhaps that was why the Wall of Tears was crying, worn down by a heat so searing nothing could give any sense of liberty.  And this heat must have been stronger then shackles binding the slaves who built the “El Muro de las Lágrimas”. Something had drawn me back here; the wall had some magnetism for me in my delirious state.

It gave no shade from the sun there were no shadows to protect me even momentarily from the sunstroke I was now suffering from. Huge yellow tipped larva cacti were dotted across the harsh landscape as if grenades had been thrown in violent abandonment. And the explosion of land had been frozen in time with the needles of the cacti a deterrent to all but the totally insane.

Something moved slowly slowly through the landscape, an animal with his house on his back, moving ponderously a giant tortoise.

I needed water. Somehow I had managed to lose the group of fellow cyclists on the way back from our cycling trip on Isabella. Why had I agreed to cycle anyway? And in the 40+ degree heat I was never going to have enough water to stop my dehydration.

I can’t remember if I rashly had said, “You guys go on without me, I’ll catch you up.”  Would I have said that? And would they have left me? It appeared the answer was yes on both counts, because here I was back at the wall of tears alone, and without a bike, but even worse without water.

A searing pain was slicing through my dissolving brain like a knife through melted butter. I had intermittent seconds of clarity when I knew my situation was not good. And then redness blinded me and I could see only hell.

Now in a moment of that clarity I knew I had to go downwards not uphill as my delirium had driven me. I had to go down back to the coastline. Follow the trail back to the sea.

But there be dragons I deduced, red dragons of the Galapagos. I would have to face them if I was to have any chance of finding help. I had seen them on the journey up, when I had water and the last vestiges of common sense still with me. One had been at least four feet long and was a vivid crimson colour. I had stopped to admire them without fear and they had merely observed me without suspicion, interest or as potential food.

The sound of a bird distracted my already addled state of mind. From the corner of my eye I saw a small flurry of feathers. The small bird seemed to be singing louder than his little body would ever be able to accommodate. And he was taunting me. Of that I was convinced. Egging me on to something but I could not explain his true intent.

So blindly I moved down towards the sea. I tripped over something and fell to the black lava ground, the something moved, it was red. Its tongue flickered, licked at my skin. I lay with my face pressed against the black lava stones. The dragon approached closer his skin next to mine the red skin like sunburn.

He splayed his wings as if to take flight, but then he sauntered past me and merely flicked his tail provocatively as he went.

Relieved to establish that I was inedible to a dragon, slowly through gritted teeth I got back up and continued my descent.

I felt the stinging on my sun baked skin, was it the sting of the dragon, or was it the cacti needles? I knew not and cared even less. To the sea, to the sea, to the turquoise sea, like a mantra I murmured.

And as if in tune with me the bird I had encountered by the wall chirped alongside, running like a pygmy roadrunner. Was he encouraging me towards my destination or was he really mocking my stupidity?

The land under my feet began to change; the lava rocks gave way to sand. I saw shade of sorts from a tree, a mangrove tree, one that’s roots were buried under sand that at high tide the lower branches would hang in the salt water of the sea. Was this the coast line I was aiming for? Or had I once again veered away from the path of greater safety?

The sand shifted and moved in front of me. Black creatures – Iguanas slowly retreated from my path. I again tripped and fell; my hands stretched out and I grabbed hold of metal, the handle bars of a bike, the bike I had discarded. I was so numb it would take a few hours for me to realise that I had burnt my hands on the bars, the metal was white hot.

How many hours ago had I embarked on this fool hardy trip? Was the sun any closer to setting?  I collapsed under the minimal shade of the mangrove tree.

It was only a brief respite. I could feel my brains dripping down my face and onto the ground. How many brain cells would I need to continue this journey? None was the answer, for I could not complete this journey back to town without water.

Had the rest of the group seriously abandoned me? Had there been a falling out, or an accident?

Before I had time to consider just why I was out here alone suffering sunstroke the sound of a hungry dragon filled my now empty head. It started out as a dull rattle, but increased in volume and intensity. I was too weak to look for a place of safety or to be precise knew there was no place to escape the red dragoon.

My feathered companion was dancing up and down on the branch of the mangrove chirping ebulliently as if singing, “Now you are going to die, eaten by the red dragon, just by the turquoise sea.”

I lay back under the green leaves, the sunlight piercing through the green creating a dappled effect. And I began to recite Keats. The poem called Lamia, the one with the lines, – “She was a dazzling shape of Gordian hue. Vermillion spotted, golden green and blue: stripped like a zebra, freckled like a pard. Eyed like a peacock all crimson barr’d.”

Lamia moved ever closer, the noise rising to a crescendo of rattling and growling and then, then she beeped her horn. I don’t remember Lamia having a horn. Then there was a screeching sound and the banging of a door.

A shadow loomed over me, blocking the red and angry sun. And then the sound of a voice that I vaguely recognised as coming from Fernando, one of the guys from the Isabella Giant Turtle Breeding Centre that I was working at.

Water was splashed over my face and a bottle was put to my mouth. I felt the liquid flow between my parched lips. Lamia was not a dragon just an old battered jeep that rattled and the radiator steamed constantly.

I was maneuvered into the jeep by Fernando and David. As I slumped down in the seat, I wondered if they noticed that my brains were still dripping albeit at a slower rate down my face. If they did neither of them commented on it.

Later lying on my bed back at the Flamingo Hostel, having been given fluids and dehydration packets, I established how I had come to be separated from the group.

After reaching the Wall of Tears, where I had not climbed the steps to the lookout post, having complained I was too weak for the steps, we had cycled to a lagoon, where we had swum with the seals, a usual occurrence in the Galapagos.  David had moaned all the way from the wall of tears that his bike had a flat tyre. I had offered to swap saying, “I’m too tired to cycle back I will walk with your bike.”

By the time the group had realised I was not trailing behind them I had disappeared. After a brief but worrying search, they had returned as quickly as possible to raise the alarm for help.

Our gracious host at the hostel had at the start of our trip expressed her reservations of me going cycling with the group. She had merely raised a dark Spanish eyebrow at me and had said, “Vas a encontrar en una bici” – “You are getting on a bike?” That and the look on her face had said it all really.

And of course I had confirmed in my dehydrated state that she had been right.

Why had I found myself back at the Wall of Tears? Had the ghosts of the prisoners lured me to a possible death? I don’t know that part of my memory is lost.

My hands from grabbing the handlebars of the discarded bike were red and raw for a few days. The scar from the dragon’s sting remained a livid red for a few days but that too subsided. I recovered remarkably quickly from the sunstroke. As to the number of brain cells that melted beyond repair? Of that I cannot confirm.

There are no recorded sightings of red dragons on the Galapagos Islands. Maybe once there were red dragons, but today there are only two varieties of Iguana’s, the black marine iguana and the more colourful land iguana called conolophus subcristatus. But the Island of Isabella has the sub species called the Galapagos Pink Land Iguana, commonly known as the “pink morph”, which resides near Vulcan Wolf. I was too far from their range to have encountered these in my delirium. Yet I had am sure I had seen them on way up to the Wall of Tears before my sunstroke had started.  The bird that had taunted me through my ordeal was indeed the “mockingbird”.

The Vanity of Parakeets

  • Joseph Nambawa, was dreaming, he was standing in a forest clearing with a machete in his hand. Blood was dripping from the steel blade down his fingers round his wrist and creating warm red lines down to his elbow.

There were people screaming and soldiers laughing. The Church was on fire and it was from behind the closed wooden doors that the screaming was coming from. The laughing was from him and the group of soldiers he was standing with.

It was from this day in his dream that Joseph had been running from for the past twenty years.

He thought he had succeeded quite well until the past few months.

He woke up with a start, there was a noise of parakeets outside his window which reassured him of where he was, not in Rwanda, but in Esher in Surrey, England.

The dream that had once been the truth of life had for many years remained conveniently lost and forgotten. But now it was bubbling to the surface like water in a witch’s cauldron. And all because of this dumb game he had agreed to play, a kind of honey trap to get back at someone that had humiliated his friend.

He stared out at the parakeets, something he had not expected to find in England, they reminded him of the parakeets of Rwanda, the rose ringed variety. And at first he had found them reassuring, something of the exotic had managed to survive and flourish in a foreign land, like him. But they had been so successful that regular culls had been needed to keep their numbers down.

Joseph had believed he too had succeeded at adapting to England. But now he had an uneasy feeling that it was all about to go wrong.

The noise of the birds that had once re assured him in the morning now started to be a constant reminder of his past.

He believed now as did the congregation at his church that he was good man. That the Joseph that had lived and existed in Rwanda had gone.

But things were changing and he felt that the game he had been in control of was now been dictated by another person much more devious and probably far braver then him.

For with out a shadow of a doubt Joseph was a coward, he had been running for twenty years. Living in exile as a result of what he had done.

And now all because a friend had wanted to get his own back on one lonely lady, things were unravelling.

“It will be easy, she is a sad lonely spinster, and she is hungry for it. You just have to be careful how you handle her; she can be unpredictable and is very, very fiery.” Marlon had emphatically said.

“Don’t be afraid though she is just a crazy bitch who needs a good seeing to.”

Joseph had his doubts about all of it. Lonely for one thing. It was obvious she was never at home. When he started emailing and texting, she was never in, always out some where, working, out with friends or her niece and nephews. Lonely she definitely was not. But then they could mean she was indeed gagging for it. So he tried the booty calls and texts late at night.

Nothing not one whisper of the sexy texting that Horace had said she had driven him mad with lust for.

But she had been stung by Marlon and was at the once bitten twice shy stage he reasoned.

And then the one meeting that had been arranged in Hyde Park showed to him the crazy bitch side. But that had made here more of a mystery.

And so the texting and emailing had begun in earnest.

And as Marlon got more and more impatient for the coup de grace Joseph had started to enjoy the bizarre relationship they had.

But he had to tread careful; she was secretive and would not give up her personal life too easily. But just snippets came through that made him think she had been married.

“Don’t be stupid.” She has never been married she is a frustrated spinster. What gave you that idea?” Marlon had argued one day.

“She said she is not a sad lonely spinster. So that must mean she is divorced or widowed, or perhaps still married.” Joseph tried to reason.

“Or maybe the crazy bitch killed him” Marlon had replied.

The more Joseph got dragged in to her world the more uncomfortable he became. He started to look for faults in her personality something he could use to bring her down. He breathed a sigh of relief at one stage, she was arrogant he deduced. That was an easy one to break.

But no nothing was working, and he came to the realisation that she knew the game he was playing and was just playing back harder and crueller then he thought a mere woman could.

He started to get angry and frustrated tried to tell how to mend her ways, to be modest, to be humble but it merely seemed to make her worse.

And then she came up with that ludicrous idea of having a tattoo. What the hell was middle aged sad lonely spinster having a tattoo for?

“You should spend you money on getting fitter. Not wasting money on tattoos.”

She had laughed at him “Ill spend my money on what I like. I’ll have two now”, she had retorted.

“One a lioness and one a fire breathing dragon!”

It was the mention of a lioness that had got Marlon all riled up. That had been one of his nick names for her.

Joseph had tried to go with that at the beginning but she would have none of it. And of course she had loads of sexy nick names for Marlon in return, “Black Panther, Hot Chocolate, the list of names quite clearly alluding to his black sexual prowess.

She had none for him though and very rarely mentioned his colour.

“She likes black men trust me, she is crazy for it.”

Joseph was beginning to wonder if she was just crazy and that Marlon had made all this up for his own self esteem which was taking a constant battering just lately.

The battle was constant, with every step forward with becoming intimate with her she would throw him a curve ball and they would be back to square one.

But he was in the web of a black widow spider and couldn’t really untangle himself.

And now Marlon had swanned off to Jamaican for what he called some “Hot Jamaican sex.”

And every thing was falling apart.

He had woken up with a headache. The noise of the children was unnerving him, no he corrected himself the noise of the parakeets was sounding like the noise of the children. The children before they had been marched into the church.

He sighed in frustration, why had he mentioned DNA to her. Or more to the point how had the conversation got round to DNA?

What was it she had said to his question about “What do you do with your DNA?”

“Mixed it with dynamite to save the world from future retards like you.” had been her reply.

And then he had made that fatal mistake, but she had driven him to it, of calling her nephew a retard. But to fair he had called the whole family retards, so it was her own fault and he had text her to say it was the medicine she didn’t want to take.

But now she had cut off all communication with him. And when Marlon got back from his fuck trip in Jamaica he would be expecting to hear how, “You got invited into that bitch’s bed and fucked her till she was unconscious.”

Except of course it had never got even close to that because she knew the game from the start and all she had fucked with was his head.

And then that odd text that she sent, “Be careful whilst cycling there are some crazy drivers out there.”

He thought at first it was threat that she would run him over.

Marlon had said, “Don’t get near her when she is in her car she is dangerous.”

“More dangerous then when she is in bed?” Joseph had asked.

“Well no but just don’t go near her when she is driving.”

But days had gone by and no accident had occurred. He missed her communications but knew it was finished. He was persuading himself that he had got the better of her. But Marlon said on his return from Jamaica. “You didn’t fuck her did you? All you did was just insult her family.”

Now weeks later he had slipped back in to his dull lonely life. Just who was the sad lonely one?

As he cycled home from work he was deep in thought. The dreams he was having about Rwanda were so lucid, so real.

And somehow he knew that she had got the better of him. He had lost as had Marlon and she hadn’t taken her medicine as he had boasted to her about. She would always be both arrogant and enigmatic now forever.

Suddenly a car door opened and blocked his way on the road.

He looked up startled, a man in a suit stepped out of an innocuous black sedan.

“Joseph Nambawa?” The man asked.

Joseph nodded.

“I’m from the immigration office.” The man briefly flashed his card.

“We would like to discuss your visa with you there seems to be a discrepancy.”

Joseph’s heart sank. The noise of parakeets was rising to a crescendo in his head.


Joseph Nambawa was dreaming he was standing in a forest clearing with a machete in his hand. Blood was dripping from the steel blade down his fingers round his wrist and creating warm red lines down to his elbow. It was his blood. He could hear screaming, it was him screaming louder than the parakeets.

One Christmas Eve in Gondar. (Part One) — lenawaltonWAYWARDDAUGHTER

How to cook locusts. Remove the wings and hind legs of the locusts and boil in a little water until soft. Add salt to taste and a little fat and fry until brown.

I had been trying to understand my Ethiopian drivers’ attempts to explain to me in his very broken English why we […]

via One Christmas Eve in Gondar. (Part One) — lenawaltonWAYWARDDAUGHTER