Archive for the ‘Hugh Paxton’s Writing’ Category

Scams and Fraud: Part one of two parts. “The Diary of Abbot Buggly – Diamonds.”

September 28, 2013

Hugh Paxton’s Blog has just received a new post from TheGirl outlining a fiendish scam originating in Yemen. Clever but fiendish! And potentially very expensive for the unwary victim. I’ll run her post in a minute. First here’s something on scams from the Hugh Paxton Blog archives.

BLOG ED NOTE: Nine years ago my wife and I had a daughter. We were in Namibia at the time and I decided to record her first year of life in diary form, ostensibly written from her perspective.  All the events described in the book, no matter how improbable they may sound, actually occurred. The book, titled “The Diary of Abbot Buggly” trotted around a few publishing houses who all said the same thing. “It’s a charming book but…” The problem was that the book didn’t slot neatly into any established publishing genre. So that was that. At one years-old my daughter had already joined the long list of aspiring authors to hit a brick wall. Not that she noticed. The story didn’t quite end there. With a little help from her Daddy, Annabel (my daughter) approached Air Namibia’s in-flight magazine, Flamingo, and for the next six years ran a monthly column describing her African adventures. She was, and remains, Africa’s youngest travel correspondent.

‘Abbot Buggly’, incidentally, is just one of many ridiculous nicknames we have inflicted on the poor girl during her lifetime. Some time I’ll tell you why but not now.

It’s scam time! Hey ho! Let’s go!

 

Excerpt from The Diary of Abbot Buggly: START:

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN:  Diamonds.

Akiko (our Flat A tenant and my godmother) has a new Owambo boyfriend named Paulo.

 

For some reason whenever I see him I start screaming. He tries to be friendly but I scream. Oddly no other individual I know has that effect on me. I’ve met Basters who’d give Freddy Kruger nightmares but all I do is smile at them. I’ve been barked at by enraged baboons. No problem. I’ve even seen some of my father’s drinking buddies  – not a sight for the faint hearted – but all they do is make me chortle. Paulo turns up, wearing a suit, Mr. Respectable, smiling tenderly, and I just let rip!

 

“Waaaaaaaahhhh!”

 

It embarrasses my parents but he seems to take it in his stride.

 

“She just hates me,” he explains.

 

Paulo is some sort of director at Namdeb, the parastatal that controls Namibia’s diamond mines and the domestic diamond industy. Namibia has a LOT of diamonds.

 

At one time they were so plentiful that they could be collected by moonlight – lines of poorly paid serfs would shuffle forwards on their hands and knees out in the desert looking for their pale reflective glow.

 

Its not that easy now. You need to dig for them, or dredge off shore at the river mouths, particularly the Orange river mouth. But there are still a lot of them about.

 

 

ABBOT BUGGLY ADVISORY TO WOULD-BE DIAMOND SMUGGLERS.

 

If you are a diamond dealer and receive an invitation to Namibia to view a diamond that has fallen off the back of a lorry, so to speak, the invitation has in all probability been sent to you by a policeman.

 

The same rule applies if some chap surreptitiously saunters up to you outside the Hidas Shopping Centre or the Maerua Mall.

 

Fish are caught by shiny lures and so are diamond smugglers. It’s an expensive business, being hooked, what with the crippling fines and legal costs and whatnot. But it keeps the State coffers stocked.

 

Inserting diamonds into orifices of one sort or another (but usually the first sort that springs to mind) is also inadvisable. The concept is neither new nor imaginative.

 

A cleaner at Namdeb made unfortunate headlines by leaving NamDeb’s premises through an X-ray machine weighing a few more carats than he had when he’d entered the building.

 

His name was – and this is probably why the arrest made the headlines – variously reported as Mr. Sodem or Mr. Sodom.

 

A lot of people DO smuggle diamonds. The illegal trade comprises anything up to 15% of annual global turnover. But they’re usually Lebanese, Angolans or have their own private armies

 

And the black market keeps a lot of potentially rich countries perpetually poor as drug crazed warlords rampage and fight and lay waste the land (see my father’s hideous novel, Homunculus, for grisly details).

 

No, take my advice, go with the nappy ploy (see Chapter Two).

 

Or leave Namibia, sun-bronzed, happy and about as rich as when you came. Diamonds may be forever (they’re at least 4 billion years old) but a ten stretch is no tick of the clock.

 

While we’re on the subject of receiving uninvited offers you cannot refuse from Africans you’ve never met and never heard of, take the Abbot Buggly stance. Just say no.

 

My father and mother regularly receive emails from Nigeria, or Senegal and most recently from Cameroon and Cote D’Ivoire.

 

The emails come from government officials disgusted with the state of corruption in their respective countries, or from earnest NGO workers appalled by the mismanagement of state funds, or from bankers who want to mobilize public money  (that would otherwise be wasted by self-serving politicos) for the benefit of the poor.

 

Occasionally the mails come from a lawyer who has just discovered that a very distant relative of my parents has died leaving 500,000 acres of oil-rich land to them to apologize for not having kept in touch.

 

In every case there is a request for funds to be transferred to an account, or a request for the fortunate recipients of the email to provide their own bank account details. So that funds can be transferred to their own account, you understand.

 

You see, in every case there is the offer of making my lucky parents rich for facilitating the financial procedures.

 

My father has just been offered ten percent of five million greenbacks if he could only help a human rights activist release the said sum from a Nigerian account held by a dead member of the former military dictatorship. The money would help in promoting democracy.

 

“Yeah,” my father said, “right.”

 

Strangely a large number of people actually get suckered in. To quote a recent Nampa-Reuters report, “The so-called 419 scam, named after an article in Nigeria’s penal code outlawing it, has been so successful in the past 20 years that campaigners say it is now the third largest foreign exchange earner in Africa’s most populous nation.”

 

The third largest!

 

One wretched German was informed by a “government minister” in Lagos that that old staple, a distant relative, had died leaving an estate worth well over ten million pounds. In order to transfer the property to the German, funds were needed to smooth the procedure.

 

This is not Europe, the German was regretfully informed, this is Africa and sadly riddled with people whose palms need greasing before things get done.

 

The amount of grease needed in this case could have kept an armored division rust free for the best part of a decade; several hundred thousand smackers. There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. Emails to the German, more money transferred to Lagos fro the German.

 

The German then received a communication from the Lagos police authorities.

 

The German was, they regretted to inform him, the victim of a criminal gang specializing in mail fraud.

 

The good news, however, was that the authorities were on to them. The fiends would be arrested. The money returned.

 

But this is not Europe, the police told him, this is Africa and sadly in order to get things done funds were needed to facilitate things.

 

By this stage most people would be entertaining serious doubts when encountering a Lagos government letterhead, no matter how nicely forged it was.

 

Not the German. No expense was spared to help the law track down the scoundrels who had duped him. Hundreds of thousands. But he was determined to fight to the bitter end.

 

This came when he finally ran out of money.

 

And never heard from anyone from Lagos again.

 

An even more extreme case occurred when a retired Czech doctor was taken for $600,000. Understandably disgruntled, the man stormed the Nigerian embassy in Prague last February, and shot dead the leading consul.

 

Of course Interpol takes a keen interest in these shenanigans, but more amusing is the phenomenon of scam baiting. Scam-baiters lead the con artists along with a view to humiliating them. One Englishman is building up a large collection of scammers’ photos.

 

First he gives the scammer his name. It is a false name. Then feigning keen interest in the scammer’s proposals he requests photos of the scammers holding a placard displaying his false name. It’s so he can see who he’s dealing with, he tells them.

 

One scammer obliged by sending a photo of himself, beaming amiably into the camera and proudly holding aloft a piece of paper reading “Iama Dildo.”

 

That gets it said.

 

……

 

Back to diamonds. Yesterday there was a robbery . Three men made off with several cases of shiny stones from Namdeb down in Orangemund .

 

Early evening, Paulo came over with a gift of two large frozen fish (the deal being that my father will cook them and then everyone will gather and eat them). After the fish had been appraised, praised and manhandled into the freezer compartment of the fridge – they weren’t large fish really, they were huge fish – my father asked about the Orangemund incident.

 

After I’d stopped shrieking at him (it took a long while), Paulo gave a derisive snort.

 

“We’ll get them. Those guys were SO dumb. So DUMB! Idiots!”

 

Seems the robbers were wearing overalls and balaclavas to hide their identities. Clever. After making their getaway they changed their clothes, dumped the overalls, but one of them forgot to remove his birth certificate from a pocket.

 

Why would anybody bring their birth certificate along on an armed robbery ? Shotguns, yes. Balaclavas, yes. But a birth certificate ?

 

Dumb. Real dumb.

 

….

 

This morning the phone rang unfortunately early. Our caller had seen the advertisement in the window of our Isuzu trooper.

 

“How does it work ?”

 

My father launched into his patter. “Well, it’s a smooth runner, has 170,00 kays on the clock give or take..”

 

“No,” the voice interrupted. “I mean how does the deal work?”

 

“Well, I guess you come and see the car, we take it for a test drive, if you like it you give me money, I give you the car.”

 

 

“So you want money for the car?” The voice was now sounding furtive. Sleazily furtive.

 

“Uh huh. Yes. ”

 

“Can we work it differently?”

 

“What differently? You mean you take the car but don’t give me any money ? “

 

“There can be ways of doing things. Shall we make a plan?”

“Go away.”

 

A moment later the phone rang again. A different caller, this man got to the point fast in a strangely offensive “jiveass” pseudo-black-1960s-American pimp accent.

 

African pronunciation of English is mainly a wonderful thing. It is solemn, considered, structured, sincere; it employs a splendid, entertaining, enthralling vocabulary.

 

It is possible to listen to a politician making the most outrageous ly deranged statements  and find yourself nodding; awed, overwhelmed by the richness of the voice, the syntax, the steadied rhythm. Unless they’re some racist monstrosity like Mugabe.

 

That man could be singing Grand Opera a la Pavarotti only better. You’d still want to throw eggs.

 

But this jiveass thing. Yech! Drives my father wild. He was now fully awake. So was I.

 

“Hey man I need the wheels. Your Land Cruiser.”

 

“My Land Cruiser is an Isuzu Trooper. And why don’t you go away?”

 

“S’right, man. Cool. The Trooper. I’ve got to be over the Angolan border by seven tonight. We’ve got to make speed. I’m packing stones.”

 

“Where are you ?”

 

“The Tech.”

 

“Windhoek Polytechnic ?”

 

“Ya man. The Tech. Can you pick me up ? We got to check this thing out.”

 

“Go away.”

 

“Heeyyy! We need to work on this!”

 

“Go away.”

 

 

Catherine is a colleague of my mother. She’s from Kenya but is on a one-year renewable contract with UNDP’s Environment Unit here and she intends to stay in Namibia.  Catherine is willowy, elegant and altogether lovely. Fantastic telephone manner. Makes great cakes.

 

But this is not germaine to my tale.

 

She advertised that her car was for sale and she got similar telephone calls.  Subsequent encounters with the prospective buyers indicated that they were all criminals seeking to convert smuggled diamonds into something more legally sellable than lumps of compacted carbon.

 

Cars don’t last forever but at least they are useful.

 

Catherine did sell her car eventually, but not before she and her mother were lured by a smoothly packaged individual into a small room with a Chinese gentleman sitting behind a desk. On the desk was a neat little suitcase.

 

Pop went the suitcase’s locks.

 

“Take a look,” said the Chinese gentleman, or words to that effect. They looked. The stones, supremely indifferent to the passage of billennia and their current surge in popularity – a mere nothing in geological time-scale –sat there.

 

Catherine and her mother got out fast. Then they sold their car to someone who wasn’t waving minerals at them.

 

Wendy summarized the whole phenomenon perfectly.

 

“If they want to buy a car why don’t they sell their diamonds and use the money to buy the car?”

 

Why not indeed?

 

Akiko coming back with Paulo pointed out that if my father was interested in buying stones and making a huge profit he’d need to know whether the stones were worth anything.

 

My father admitted that he knew nothing about diamonds.

 

Akiko gave a gay laugh. “Of course not, you’re not Jewish.”

 

Good point.

 

Paulo was equally well informed.

 

“They sell you glass. Your car crosses the Angolan border. That’s it. Your glass. Their car.”

 

Then he said, “Hello, Isobel!” and gave me a wide smile.

 

Isobel????

 

Isobel!!!!

 

I screamed at him. He fled.

 

Speaking from a five month old perspective, if I saw an uncut diamond I’d ignore it. Dull, soapy looking pebble of a thing. Perhaps if someone had cut it so that it reflected light and sparkled, I’d swallow it.

 

Or choke on it. Or throw it away. Or lose interest in about thirty seconds. My question to the world is this. Why are wars, atrocities, madmen in Sierra Leone/Angola/ Liberia/Congo beating baby’s brains out being funded by these silly little things ? Why don’t the people buy small yellow furry octopi that squeak when you squeeze them instead?

 

They’re fun.

 

And I don’t think that anyone has killed anyone over a soft furry yellow octopus that squeaks when you squeeze it.

 

Or tried to exchange one for a car.

 

But, heck, I’m young and I’m sure the world has things to teach me.

 

 

 

 

 

Hugh Paxton’s books going cheap!

December 13, 2012

Hugh Paxton’s Blog just got a message suggesting I buy my books! Apparently they are on sale! Amazon is knocking off the dollars! What are you waiting for! Homunculus? The perfect stocking filler for anybody in a mental hospital. Overland’s quite fun if you like deranged safari stories with lots of witches and Koevoet meteorite smugglers. Jimmy and the Djinn is a favourite of mine. Crusader knights, chminney chases, murderous harps.

Fill those stockings fellows!

And have a slightly unusual Christmas while you read my stuff!

My very best

Hugh!

Train ghost story

November 14, 2012

Hugh Paxton’s Blog finished a fine cup of coffee and felt like writing a quick, short ghost story.

I’ve not thought of a title yet.

START

“Mister Twine! Mr Twine!”

“The man’s not listening, Ma,” said Joseph.

“He’s running like the devil! Something’s up!”

Something was usually up and Joseph wasn’t in the mood. His night had been disturbed by moans and creaks as if the house was to fall down on his head and he hadn’t slept more than a cat on a coal fired grill.

“Mrs Preece! Mrs Preece!”

“She’s not listening,” said Joseph.

“Jack Stanthwaite! Jack!”

“He’s drunk,” said Joseph.

“Heard that, Jo,” said Stanthwaite and he crossed the cobbled street and came rather too close. He was a skellington of a man, always in a black coat and top hat, awry like a chimbley stack brushed aside and bothered about by a high wind.

“And yer right,” said Stanthwaite, breathing gin. “Bad luck to put a cork back into a bottle. Why’s your mother yowling?”

Joseph trembled. Too close. Stanthwaite was too close. And he had his hand on Joseph’s arm.

A skellington with fingers of terrible strength.

“Ask her,” said Joseph weakly mustering a bit of defiance .

“Don’t need to. It’s more murmurings isn’t it? More tappings? More pulsations and beatings? And more and more tappings?”

“That’s all rot,” said Joseph, feeling a little bit stronger. “There’s no such things as ghosts.”

“I don’t recall mentioning ghosts,” said Stanthwaite.

“Mister Twine! Mr Twine! Ah you’ve heard me, Mr Twine! Whatever is ado?”

“Murmurings, pulsations, beatings!” shouted Mr Twine. “Every thirty minutes! Regular as clockwork! The streets is shaking with it!”

“What has befallen us?” asked Joseph’s mother. “We are haunted!”

“Bedevilled,’ shouted Mr Twine.

“Fools,” said Stanthwaite. “They are running the first trains on the new Underground railway.”

“How do you know that?” asked Joseph. “They weren’t to do that till tomorrow”

“First hand experience boy,” said Stanthwaite, “Never trust a train schedule. And never sleep on the tracks.” His body slid into two halves – one fell left, one fell right but both twitched and then subsided. Then vanished.

From beneath everybody’s feet there were more murmurings.

“I don’t like this,” said Joseph’s Mum.

BLOG ED NOTE: All the noises described in the story were reported by Victorians new to the concept and effects of the Age of Steam. They aroused great concern – thousands gathered in a lane off the Anlaby Road in Hull to hear the “pulsations or beatings” that, to quote Mathew Sweet “thrummed in the walls of a tenement building.” It wasn’t the devil come thrumming – just a passing train shaking the place up a bit. The Industrial Revolution brought great hope but also fears – the railway ghost story expressed some of the latter and birthed a lot of urban rumour and one of the greatest ghost stories of the era – The Signalman by Charles Dickens.

Hugh Paxton’s Next Project poems about ghosts

September 10, 2012

Hugh Paxton’s Blog is looking for an illustrator (and a publisher) for my next book project. It’s foolish poetry. But fun.

Cheers!

Hugh in Bangkok

Annabel Jones had a bag full of bones.docx

Japan Times: Helltoads

March 21, 2012

Hugh Paxton’s blog is bracing for the Call of the Wild. Frogs!

Before explaining this, I must first bore you with a BBC Award Winning Nature Writing Essay, called Helltoads!

Helltoads Essay starts:

 

I’m afraid this one has to read like a diary. It started on a date I can’t precisely remember, but it definitely began like this.

DAY ONE: Two blobs of stuff in a footprint in the mud with barely enough water collected to cover the base of either. The tops of the things sag in the sunlight towards the heel-print made by the shoe. In the day of the drain, this is what passes for standing water in our neighbourhood. Small wonder the Japanese student with me doesn’t know what laid these beaching jellyfish of eggs.

“Frogspawn,” I explain.

“Ah,” he answers. “From a frog?”

DAY ONE (later): There’s not much room in your average Japanese house and now there is less room than normal in ours. My wife, Midori, has removed clothes from one of our plastic storage drawers. It sits by the television filled with water. The coils of jelly have expanded.

DAY THREE: The pet shop has everything a pet shop should be inspected for before being shut down. Agama lizards, chameleons,  young sturgeon, pine martens,  chicks dyed blue and pink for the fun of it. Accessories. Bags of leaves to feed your rhino beetle larvae. Each bag of 30 leaves costs 180 yen. A bit more than a pound.

I ask the counterman whether there’s something special about the leaves, something added or subtracted.

“No, no,” he reassures me, “these are natural.”

I leave with 10 equally natural strands of pond weed. A snip at just under eight quid. As I said, there’s not a lot of standing water around. Pond weed-wise, tokyo’s a seller’s market.

DAY FOUR: Eggs hatching. Thin, brown things, leech-like, tentatively emerging. Our landlord’s agent phones to politely remind us that we are contractually obliged not to plant trees in the garden. This is unfortunate. We have just planted five Japanese maples. Midori asks, not unreasonably, why, given the aforementioned contractual obligation, the actual contract failed to mention anything about trees?

The agent says he’d understood that it was understood. He compromises. We can keep the trees but when we move, we must uproot them and take them with us.

“Perhaps the next tenants would like the trees?” Midori suggests.

The agent admonishes her for being selfish. “Not everyone likes what you like.”

Hard to believe anyone could dislike a tree. Not with the going rate for leaves.

DAY TEN: Three of our plastic drawers are now wiggling with exuberant life. We have borrowed two books on amphibia. The first largely confines itself to the sort of experiments that, when applied to humans, incurred stiff penalties at the end of the last World War. The second book has been written by someone who actually likes frogs. Refreshing. My wife and I read it together as the radio burbles away in the background about 50 kilometer traffic jams, catastrophes, and busy, dismal human affairs. There is something hypnotic about watching tadpoles. I have discovered that I can do it for hours.

“This is what we’ve got,” says my wife pointing to a photo. It’s an education, that photo.

DAY ??? No precise day what this is – I’ve let this essay/diary slip. We are now surrounded by water-filled plastic drawers – fifteen in all. June humidity fogs the air, and the rainy season is so close you can almost breathe it in. The tadpoles are unrecognisable. No longer the discrete little black blobs that wiggled so delicately, our drawers now bulge with brawling adolescents. They write and fume and gape their mouths, and thrash.

“Man,” says an American visitor, “That’s horror movie material. Frogs from hell.”

“You don’t know the half of it. Those frogs are’nt frogs. They’re gamagayru. Giant Japanese toads. When they’re fully grown you’re looking at a heavily muscled ambhibian the size of a cow pat. We’ve got 2,000 of them.”

“Wow,” he murmurs. “Biblical.” Then he poses a good question. “What are you going to do with them?”

FOUR DAYS LATER: The first arms are appearing. It’s an odd shock seeing those arms. Like having a young daughter who starts growing breasts. Tempus fugit. we’ve added some tanks, and more drawers, half-filled with stones and earth, half-filled with water that’s gone the colour of strong green tea. Our neighbours are intrigued. They have also started planting their own trees. Lord knows what the landlord’s agent will say if he gets wind of the precedent set by Operation Toad.

TEN DAYS LATER: The time has come for bold, mildly illegal, action. Japan’s civil engineers (and construction companies with dubious links to government ministers and yakuza cement salesmen) have an obsessional love affair with concrete. Tokyo has no real rivers left. Just drains. Small wonder that proud batrachian parents have to leave their offspring in boot marks. What is needed are ponds, and I’ll be damned if we aren’t just the people to dig them.

Our house, incidentally, is is surrounded by hundreds of cemeteries. cemeteries are the single largest local industry. The bootmark that began this saga was left in a muddy path through scrub between two cemeteries, one, somewhat incredibly, a multi-storey affair – a sort of final car park. It is in this area of scrub that we will commence digging, and it’s in these ponds that we hope future generations (and our generation) will spawn. As we set off, shovels on shoulders and with a horned moon sickle sharp in the heavens, we refrain from conversation. Midnight, shovels and cemeteries are a combination open to misinterpretation. The security guards though are not alert. They would rather stay in the entrance gate houses with sake and incense. They are frightened of ghosts and demons and gods in this cemetery town.

TODAY: Ponds dug, but not as many as initially planned. A bit of field research has found some perfect, if unexpected, release sites. The most unusual is an underground WWII aircraft factory staffed, if that’s the word, by Korean slave labour. It’s under our house. Several hundred meters under our house. No way we are sticking our toads in a cavern labyrinth. But cave seep leaks out from the hidden entrances. Nobody’s going to drain them. Ghosts of history keep these pools and permanent puddles safe. On the higher and more dangerous mountain ridges we’ve found springs. And more pools.

Invitations have been sent out to like minded friends.

“We are going to have a release a (small) giant toad party. Date uncertain but likely to be at the end of the month. Bring beer and panniers for carrying toads.”

As I write this, the drawers squirm and churn with amphibious life, impatient to be off.  I won’t miss their food and weed bills and that’s the truth.

And it would be really nice to get our drawers back.

Bassho, the Edo poet, wrote something that every Japanese learns by heart.

It is, apparently, the definitive haiku, although it suffers a bit in translation.

“A frog jumps into a pond. Plop.”

Bassho Edo Poet

Here’s one from my Japanese wife, also, I am sure destined to become a classic:

“A whole bunch of giant toads get kicked out of my damn drawers and then get hurled into a pond and spawn and if this happens again, Hugh Paxton I’ll…”

BLOG ED NOTE: That’s not quite how the BBC award winning essay ended. But Midori’s increasing ire with having no storage space has remained a fairly consistent theme. This year, in Thailand, Hugh Paxton’s Blog raised and released 10,000 or so tree frogs. Their mother had dropped her foam into a swimming pool. Obviously we had to rescue them, nurture them, remove storage drawers, fret about them,  then  release em or more accurately let them find their way and climb up and off at their own pace. We’ve just heard them begin to sing. Or squawk. The monsoon is a few weeks away yet. But mozzies? We haven’t been bitten this evening.

 

As I write this

TODAY:

Japan Times: Tsunami – The Slow then Sudden Death of a Japanese Whaling Town

March 8, 2012
Hugh Paxton Blog Ed note: This coming Sunday marks the first anniversary of the March 11, 2011 tsunami triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
PART ONE: HUGH PAXTON MEETS THE WHALERS.
In 1995 Hugh Paxton’s Blog (or more accurately, just Hugh Paxton – this was long before my blogging days) visited the Japanese whaling town of Ayukawa with a couple of other journos and my wife; at that time she, Midori, was a staff editor and reporter for the Japan Times Weekly. She wrote a four page story and the whaling industry and its hired New York spin doctors attempted to destroy her career. Their attempts failed. Quite a drama – farce, duplicity, and ultimately a Paxton prompted research/expose scandal that caused nationwide food safety panic and dealt a body blow to Japan’s whaling people. But that’s another story and a long one. I’ll save it for another time.
After my visit to Ayukawa I wrote the following story and it won a BBC Wildlife Magazine Award for Nature Writing.
Ayukawa was subsequently largely destroyed in the great tsunami (I follow my essay with an AFP report on the death of the town and the destruction of the whalers).
The original title of my essay was “Old Men and the Sea” but the BBC writing competition rules stipulated that the title should comprise just one word. I chose “Whalers.”  In retrospect  and following what happened I should have called it “Liars.”
THE OLD MEN OF THE SEA (WHALERS).
One  old man’s name is Toba, and he sits on a rusted mooring post with his stiff, starched back to the gleaming ripples of the bay. Below, and behind him, the 24 ton trawler with its mounted harpoon cannon lolls in a greasy slick against the concrete of the quay. To both left and right, sharp clean cliffs, painted with pines and the special clinging, forest mists of Japan, hold the harbour safe from the chill and oily rollers of the Pacific beyond.
It is a special day for Toba. His overalls are freshly laundered, freshly pressed – you can see the crisp lines, you can see the fresh stains.
White-haired, stiff-backed Toba is not surprised to see me, an English journalist, and my interpreter. We are here, in this remote, dying village on the northern Honshu coast, at his (and the Fisheries Agency’s) invitation to hear him speak and to tell the West his tales.
Behind Toba, gulls float, then dip. Their beaks snip at the drifting, ugly bits that wallow in the troughs. If they were more numerous, those gulls, more daring, then they would be up here with us on the quay. There are ugly bits everywhere. I have one pulped beneath my shoe. The smell, I know from past experience, will sit on me for days. There is not a soap devised that will clear this smell quickly. it is the smell of a huge spilled stomach.
We watch Toba on his perch, shifting his shiny, spotted boots. Behind us, the village delegation shuffles its eight feet, murmurs for quiet. somebody photographs me photographing Toba. This reminds me of my rather unique position. I’m writing about Toba, and I am being written about as I write about Toba. Later I will be sent photographs of me photographing Toba. Pursuing this business to its bitter end, a friend will, later send me photographs of photographers photographing me photographing Toba. I’m planned as potential propaganda.
When Toba opens his mouth he shouts. In his prime, when his village was the base for Japan’s Antarctic fleet and the flensing sheds echoed with industry, Toba was a master harpooner. The thunder of the killing, though, has cost him clear hearing. Toba’s eyes, now slowed by age and thick glasses, have seen blood splashed against the crisp white of Antarctic ice; have spotted the brief breach of pilot whales in the Sea of Okhostk; he has received bonuses for accuracy in waves that have tilted his firing platform like a toy. There was a time when Toba was young.
Warmed by the handclaps of the village delegation, Toba shouts about the joy and pride of life-time employment, of the nobility of catching meat rather than buying it, de-blooded under the fluorescence of a supermarket. He swears that he could take his boat out and the sea would be black with whales. He, Toba, could take 50 minke in one day off this coast.
There are traces of magnificence about Toba when he speaks like this, despite his dwindling body. A cleanliness of purpose. Old, yes. but still on fire with battles of survival that mark an earlier age.
As for finding whales, well. there’s no doubt Toba can still do that. He owns one of Japan’s last coastal whaling companies.
Four pilot whales, sleek black torpedoes, part of Toba’s allotted annual catch of 24, are still being peeled, sliced and diced in the flensing shed behind us. A squid, an unfinished last whale meal, has just squirted past soothed on its way by a hose and a surge of red water.
“There’s no shortage of whales,” Koba tells us.
Indeed, whales are making seals extinct by eating the same food and breeding uncontrollably. Environmentalists complain about rainforest destruction, yet they eat beef! We could feed the Third World with whale meat! Why can’t we catch as many whales as we want? We can control the catch.We have scientists, and they have quotas and a revised management procedure. Americans lost the Vietnam War. Why do you hate Japan and make us stop catching whales?”
Toba’s fingers point with increasing fury. Spittle flies from his mouth.
Things are becoming odd. Incoherent. My interpreter is looking embarrassed.
“International Whaling commission is environmentalist!  IWC is not logical! It’s emotional! People say whales cry – any animal cries when you  kill it!  You say whales  are intelligent! They are stupid! They are fish!””
Behind us the village sags lethargically in the late sunshine. The population is down by 3,000 from the heady days of the 1950s. Some 2,000 remain. One hundred years ago there was no village here. We are in the remains of a Boom Town built on blubber. It is quiet. We’ve seen no young people, but that in itself is not strange. A thousand, ten thousand, Japanese villages just like this, have bled their youth to the perceived freedoms and wealth of the cities.
As Toba’s rant runs ever wilder, I look down at my notes and the questions that I had prepared but now know will not be answered. I think of other former whaling villages that I have seen. some now watch the whales they once hunted. These villages are much visited. There is optimism in these villages. The inns are full. Villagers feel useful, noticed by the world.
It could work here. “Have you considered whale watching as an alternative to carrying on with the hunt?”
The village delegation joins in Toba’s shouts.
“We’re not whale-watchers! Whale-watchers are baka (idiots)! We are whale-hunters! We want to hunt whales!”
Leaving, I think of Joseph Conrad’s pointless, desolate ship firing its guns at a continent. The old men are still shouting, backs to the sea. The retirees who flense carcasses to supplement pensions shuffle back to their knives. More dead whales are coming in on a late boat delayed by foul weather. For Toba, I suspect, there will never be enough.
“Things die slowly in Japan,” says my interpreter, “but they do die.”
I’m glad. We leave as the sunset burns the village a brief and burning gold.
END.
PART TWO:  WHAT HAPPENED TO AYUKAWA
Tsunami harpoons Japanese whaling town

AFP

Ayukawa, Japan — The Japanese whaling town of Ayukawa has survived the wrath of environmental groups for decades, but had no defence against a giant tsunami that wiped out the industry here, possibly for ever.

One of only four communities in Japan that have continued to hunt and eat whales in defiance of international opposition, the town was already down to a single operating company, Ayukawa Whaling.

The March 11 tsunami that slammed into Japan’s northeast coast took most of Ayukawa with it, destroying 80 percent of houses and leaving 400 of its 1,400 residents unaccounted for.

The wave shattered Ayukawa Whaling’s storage facility and carried its fleet of three whaling ships hundreds of metres inland where they now lie grounded and impotent.

“This is the biggest ever crisis for us,” said company chairman Minoru Ito.

Ito, 74, survived the disaster, along with all of his 28 employees, after they fled to higher ground in the wake of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered the tsunami.

The survival of their livelihoods is another matter and Ito said he had already decided to lay everybody off and suspend all whaling operations until further notice.

It was a tough decision. Ito has been hunting whales for half a century and his father was an Ayukawa whaler in the town’s boom days.

“For me, whaling is not just culture or tradition. It’s part of my life,” he said.

The history of commercial whaling in Ayukawa dates back to the early 1900s when three major whaling firms set up in the town, which lies on the eastern tip of Ojika peninsula, bordering the Pacific.

The industry lost ground during World War II, but bounced back with the growing demand for whale meat as a cheap and plentiful source of protein in the lean post-war years.

Temples dedicated to the souls of whales attested to the town’s heritage, and tourists were drawn by a whaling museum — now gutted by the tsunami — that boasted skeletons, hunting tools, educational displays and a 3-D cinema.

But the industry had long been in decline, especially since commercial whaling was banned in 1986.

Japan has continued to hunt whales under a loophole that allows killing of the sea mammals for what it calls “scientific research”, although the meat is later sold openly in shops and restaurants.

Japan’s argument that whaling is an integral part of the island nation’s culture finds some of its strongest voices among the residents of Ayukawa, for whom the prospect of stopping hunting is inconceivable.

“We should resume whaling at any cost,” said 70-year-old Ryoetsu Okumi. “Whaling is my job and my life. If someone takes whaling from me, nothing will be left.

“Anti-whaling groups may be pleased with this disaster, but we will never surrender.”

The tsunami came shortly after Japan recalled its Antarctic whaling fleet a month early, citing the threat posed by the militant environmentalist outfit Sea Shepherd.

The group, which says its tactics are non-violent but aggressive, has hurled paint and stink bombs at whaling ships, snared their propellers with rope and moved its own boats between the harpoon ships and their prey.

Okumi’s defiance was not shared by all Ayukawa’s residents, some of whom said the tsunami had probably dealt a death blow to the town’s already ailing whaling operations.

“I’m afraid that not so many people will stay under this kind of condition. It’s hard to resume,” said retired whaler Taichi Endo, 82.

And despite hopes that the central government will step in and help Ayukawa Whaling get its ships back in the ocean and back to work, local officials were also pessimistic about the future.

“Whaling represents Ayukawa. That’s for sure,” said Shin Okada, a local government official.

“But facing reality, I have to say the current situation is quite hard.”

Greenpeace Japan said its opposition to commercial whaling, including Japan’s “scientific research”, remained unchanged, but insisted its primary concern was for the victims of the tsunami in Ayukawa.

“We hope all survivors, including whalers, will recover,” said spokesman Junichi Sato.

Photo 1 of 3
Whaling industry had long been in decline, especially since commercial whaling was banned in 1986
Map

Hugh Paxton’s Blog Goes Pro For 2012

January 6, 2012

Just a very quick post to announce that I’ve upgraded my blog to pro status for 2012. It was a painless process, but should make it an even better read, with embedded video potential. I hope you all enjoy it.

Japan Times: “Tanuki”

December 11, 2011

Hugh Paxton’s blog wrote the following rather  heart-wrenching piece a few years ago. It won first prize in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s annual Nature Writer of the Year Awards. I’ve won a couple of other BBC writing awards and I’ll post them when I find them. Found this one in a stack of papers – an unfinished play that I failed to finish 30 years ago and which I really ought to finish. 

Here’s the story. It’s true. And it still makes me sad. We’ll be re-visiting Takao in April. Hope things are better when we do!  

“TANUKI”

Flitting like a pale ghost through the pines, the tanuki is all wrong.

The time is wrong. Tanuki (raccoon dogs) are nocturnal. This is mid-afternoon. A darkly overcast day, true, but nonetheless this animal should not be about at this time.

The tanuki’s colour is wrong. Too white, way too white. Its fur is gone, its skin’s exposed, scrubbed raw by frantic scratches.

Its movements are wrong. Unsure, in fits and starts it is circling, wobbling. It hits a tree then patters on, turns, and patters back.

We watch, my wife and I, in sickened silence, her thoughts and mine the same.

“It’s happening again.”

Takao’s odd. It’s a Tokyo suburb, but it’s hilly, out on the city’s western fringe. Takao’s hills are abrupt dragon-back ridges, and the clustered houses nest where they can.

If you, like us, live high on the sheer slopes then you get 1. Views through the Japanese cedars of the city stretching grey, low, rather dismal accross the Kanto plain to the horizon. And 2. Wild Japan with a capital “W.” and a capital “J.” 

The two worlds, so very different, come so ridiculously close here.

At night, in between the plaintive honk of commuter trains, you can hear the rootle, scuffle and snorted altercations of wild boar beneath the trees, the thump of a giant flying squirrel landing on the roof, the sweet orchestra of forest insects.

We’d only been here a week when ‘our’ tanuki first visited. It was Spring and the ridge behind our house was alive with night time rustles. The mammals were on the move!

 Palm civets, serpentine in their movements, fluid as mercury and questing in pairs, passed through our garden. A solitary badger. The boar were busy.

The tanuki, however, was the most importunate visitor and therefore most swiftly won our hearts.

It would wrestle, bushy tailed, with the compost bin. No matter how deep we sank the foundations, come 11 PM there would be commotion as it fought our green plastic tub into defeat, then scattered the contents in search of grubs.

Each dawn rose on glorious background anarchy – testament to our tanuki’s triumph.

On evening BBQs, when the aroma of scorching chicken mingled with the forest mists, the tanuki would race excitedly about on the periphery of vision, very low to the ground like a particularly bristly welcome mat.

Tanuki, in Japanese myth, are shape shifters, prone to pranks. Our tanuki never assumed human form to rob us of our sake, but it had a delightful antipathy to anythig planted by my mother-in-law on her weekend visits. Particularly tulips. Under cover of darkness the tanuki would not just unearth each and every bulb but fire them off the slopes with a flurry of indignant paws.

Then things began to go wrong.

The compost bin made it through the night untustled. The cursed tulips went unmolested.

Then there came the kitchen raid.

It was awful. By the cooker, surprised by my sudden arrival (and vice versa) was the tanuki. Its haunches were devoid of fur. An abrupt Mohican tuft stood tall on its badly balding head. Comical, but for the gummy, swiming eyes that stared beneath it. The tanuki fled through the open back door weakly. Into the dark.

Our friend, a vet, confirmed it. The plague of mange sweeping Japan had reached our doorstep. The mange is a mystery. There is dark talk of pesticides, dioxins, weakening immune systems. The vet didn’t get into that. Sedate the tanuki, was his advice. “I’ll come,” he said.

We drugged steak. A cat raced off with it in triumph. We drugged more steak. We initiated “Steakwatch” and bought a pistol that fired plastic pellets to repel roaming pets. But for Steakwatch we needed Steakwatchers and our phone is never idle, the email inbox bulges and the fax unfurls long tongues of obligations 24 hours a day. Steakwatch fizzled.

We never caught the tanuki. We fed it. By God, we fed it! But we never managed to catch it. The tanuki got white, pinker, feebler as its remaining fur withered and in the last days, as the vet had predicted, the tanuki, blind, perhaps now mad, emerged by day and it rushed, confused through the pines.

And then? We never saw it again.

 There was a sort of sickly, guilty feeling of relief. It was over. But there was also a taint to the Spring. The boar did famously. Our frog ponds seethed with new life.

But behind nature’s glorious exuberance their was a hairless shadow that had once been a tanuki. I’d feel it at my shoulder when I filled the compost bin.

This year it’s happening again.

Elsewhere in Takao, there are no doubt others mourning ‘their’ tanukis, leaving offerings of fried tofu (tradition has it that tanuki are particularly fond of tofu) and hoping.

We’re hoping, too.

Hoping, hoping, that next year this will not happen again.

Another Hugh Paxton Tale of the Supernatural: The Guest at Allthing Hall

November 17, 2011

THE GUEST AT ALLTHING HALL.

By Hugh Paxton

 

 

On a dark December morning Martha Theakstone rose at her customary hour of 5.30 and, shivering wretchedly, descended the stairs to make up the fire before her guests began to stir.

 It was very cold indeed – Radio Four the previous night had warned of temperatures well below zero – and Martha’s breath puffed frosty little clouds as she entered the sitting room.

 The sitting room was large, high ceilinged, oak paneled, paved with flagstones and filled with many armchairs. 

 There were several chipped cherry wood coffee tables. Each had magazines laid out upon it. Horse and Hounds. The Field. Reel and Line. Country Life. She had even ordered one copy of the Japan Times newspaper in case an oriental gentleman or lady (or both) might visit as paying guests at Allthing Hall. 

 Neither had yet, but Martha was a woman who liked to plan for all contingencies.

 Martha stopped abruptly, her hand still on the doorknob.

 Something was wrong.  Awry.

 She peered about the room.

 What ? What was wrong ?

 She peered at the huge fireplace. She peered at the slightly threadbare window seats. She peered at the far door which led to the entrance hall and her reception desk, then at the door in the wall to her left that led into the dining room.

Nothing seemed out of place.

But still there was something not quite right…

…something…

 …something …

 And then it came to her. There on the far wall, above the fireplace, was the musty mounted head of ared deerstag. Nothing wrong with that. There’d been a musty mountedred deer’s head there for every day of the 14 years she had slavishly and single handedly operated her husband’s hotel.

 What was wrong was the stuffedred deerhead to the left of the stuffed deer head.

 Allthing Hall had only ever had the one.

 Now, though, it had two.  

 …………………

 Martha was a woman of very fixed routines. If the Hall was not to plunge into bankruptcy, discipline and regularity of habit and procedure, she believed, were essential.

 Only when she had laid the fire (keeping a wary eye on the new deer’s head whose glass eyes seemed to gleam with an unnatural and rather knowing light) fired up the aga, and got the kettle steaming,  did she return up the stairs and ask her husband if he was responsible for the new, and not entirely welcome, decoration. 

Her husband, Harold, was a man rarely persuaded to wake and leave his bed before noon.

He had, or more accurately believed or claimed he had, contracted something called ME also known as yuppie flu. Though in Harold’s case yuppie was not a word that sprang immediately to mind.  Cantankerous, yes, valetudinarian certainly, and damn lazy were all adjectives tailor made for Harold Theakstone, but, whatever his faults Harold had never been a yuppie.

Martha woke him with difficulty.

One eye eventually and grudgingly opened.

“Did you put up the deer head ?” Martha enquired.

“Course not,” muttered the eye’s owner belligerently. “I’m a sick man, woman. I’m dying by degrees.”

“Dying or not, I want you to come and have a look at it, right this minute. There’s something very rum about it.”

‘This minute’ was a piece of calculated optimism, but Martha was one to have her way when her mind was made up – and in this instance her mind was very much made up. 

After a quarter of an hour’s cajoling and scolding, the master of the house was eventually persuaded to shuffle on his green leather slippers, wrap a muffler about his neck,  pull his night cap tightly about his ears, fasten his dressing gown secure against drafts, and venture downstairs and into the sitting room.

There was a figure seated by the fire.

It was Mr. Beetham from room three.

Unemployed and without a home (his house had been destroyed by some form of explosion; gas it was rumoured) Mr. Beetham was Martha’s least favoured guest.

He’d been placed at Allthing Hall by the DHSS and the Council and although the Council did pay his bills, Beetham lowered the tone of the place considerably.

As did Martha’s husband, in Martha’s opinion. 

Oh, how she wished she could get shot of both of them, leave Allthing Hall, the bleak unlovely moors, the eternities of dusting, the toil and grind, just chuck the lot, then move south and maybe open a nice little tea shop in Devon. Or abroad. Some where warm. Not too foreign.Greeceperhaps.

But to do that she would need money and money she had not.

Allthing Hall ate money. Simply ate it.

Her regular, if monumentally unsuccessful, attempts to win the National Lottery didn’t help either.

“What’s all this damn nonsense then, woman? Thy lost thy mind?”

“Harold, I, that is to say, I…”

Martha paused; then stopped.

Thoroughly perplexed.

There was only one deer’s head above the fireplace.

The other one was gone.

 ………………

It was curious the way he managed it, unemployed and penniless as he was, and given the remote location of Allthing Hall, but Mr. Beetham had the knack of laying his hands on strong drink.

Then drinking it.

When Martha approached Mr. Beetham,  in the interests of clarifying the situation vis a visred deerheads,  she did so with justifiable feelings of trepidation.

It was as unusual to see Mr. Beetham up at this hour as it was to see her husband out of bed, or indeed, a vanishing deer’s head.

Martha assumed that Beetham would be drunk.

“A thoroughly good morning to you,” said Mr. Beetham turning a bright smile in her direction. He had shaved. He had combed his hair. He was wearing a tie.

He looked – Martha hardly dared use the word in connection with Mr. Beetham – civilised.

“Trust you are in good health, Mrs. Theakstone ? Mr. Theakstone ?” said Mr. Beetham. “Another chilly day ahead of us, sleet perhaps, snow I’ll wager, but I find this northern climate invigorating. Most.”

This northern climate ? Invigorating ?  Most?

Mr. Beetham, to the best of Martha’s knowledge was as Cumbrian as curly sausage and heavy rainfall.  Born and bred was Beetham. Had lived here all his life. What on earth was the man talking about?

“How his eyes shine!” thought Martha inadvertently.

What she said though was, “Good morning, Mr. Beetham. A little early for you is it not?”

Then she said, “I don’t suppose that you noticed a person, or persons, removing a stuffed red deer’s head from above the fireplace at some time in the last quarter of an hour?”

“Not I, Martha, not I!”  Mr. Beetham chuckled richly.

“I’m catching me death standing around here,” broke in Harold with tremulous petulance. “Enough of this ruddy tomfoolery, woman. ‘Elp us back to bed.”

“You sicken, sir?” enquired Mr. Beetham with courteous and sympathetic curiosity.

His eyes twinkled and danced.

“You ail?”

“Ruddy well do. Me ‘ealth’s orf. Lord knows me tribulations,” said the night-capped figure turning and wobbling towards the door that led back upstairs. “I’m a martyr to me ‘ealth, a martyr.  Well come along, come along. You going to give us a hand, woman or am I going to have to climb these stairs by meself?”

………..

After she had helped her husband back up the stairs to his bed, and he, muttering imprecations had finally allowed her to make him comfortable then ordered her to turn off the lights, so he could “catch a bit of well-earned kip”, a thought struck Martha.

Perhaps Mr. Beetham had a twin.

Perhaps, while she had been preparing roast beef dinners for her eight guests in the converted dairy that abutted Allthing Hall the previous night, perhaps her husband had exerted himself, actually answered the front door, ushered in a guest and remembered to ask the guest to pay cash and sign the register.

True, it was an unlikely scenario.

Still…

She hurried down to check.

As she entered the sitting room, she was surprised to find herself nonplussed, no, disappointed,  that Mr. Beetham had left.  

She looked at the fire in the fire place. The wood crackled and snapped. Imps of flame rushed about the coals seeking purchase. It would be a good fire – Martha’s fires always were – but it would be an hour yet before its warmth would break the chill of the room.

Her hackles suddenly rose.

She looked at the windows. Sleet was swirling about the panes. It was still dark outside; very dark. The darkness of winter night seemed to press with crushing mass against the walls of Allthing Hall.

Once again she sensed that there was something wrong.

“Dear heavens!” she gasped. 

The second deer head wasn’t back.

But where there had been one copy of The Japan Times newspaper on the coffee table in the corner, now there were two.

“Poseidon In Industrial Dispute AGAIN,” read the headlines. The sub header ran “Obstinate And Miserly Sea God Refuses Wage Raise, The Cod-Faced Fool”.

…………

The reception desk was unobtrusive. No credit card machine, no cash register, just one vase of flowers,  one large visitors book and one leather bound log in which she entered reservations and accounts. 

It was this latter that she opened.

Most of her guests were long term residents, the exception being Basil Twithby in room 12. Twithby was a traveler in wines. He would stay at Allthing Hall from time to time but never for more than a day or two.  

“December 13th,” murmured Martha turning the pages. “Yes, here we are. How rum!”

Sure enough there was an entry for the previous day; but it was not in her husband’s quavery hand writing, nor was it in her own.

In blue ink someone had written “Check in date:  December 13.

Name:   “Proteus Esq.”       

Address: “Variable. Times past usuallyGreece. Here at the moment.”

Occupation: “Prophet and former seal tender.”

In the check out date section, the person had written, “That very much depends.”

“What on earth,” said Martha, “is going on?” 

She noted bleakly that whatever else Proteus Esq. had done he had not paid cash. The accounts column was empty.

There was nothing in the kitty.

………….

At eight o’clock, it was clear that the day was going to be dreadful. Low dark clouds sat heavily on the moors that surrounded Allthing Hall. The sleet had become snow; thick driving gusts that swirled and turned the landscape into one of ghosts.

Seven of Martha’s eight guests had assembled for breakfast. There were Miss Neasden and Miss Dorringden, two spinsters in their eighties who had been at the Hall for years.

There were the Beasly twins, again spinsters of advanced years. There was Twithby, looking nervous, clearly worried about snow drifts and ice on the roads. There was the Reverend Badcock, a retired Church of England cleric from Borhem.  The final person at the table was Albert Dordoran.

He was a spoiled, half witted, weak chinned, wall-eyed individual in his mid-thirties, the son of wealthy jet-setting parents who had placed him permanently at Allthing to avoid social embarrassment.  Albert rarely spoke. He enjoyed the music of Oasis.    

Absent, as usual, was Mr. Beetham. 

And so was Proteus Esq, whoever on earth he was.

“Has anybody seen a gentleman fromGreece?” Martha enquired brightly as she brought in toast and home-made preserves. She didn’t feel bright. There was a clogged claustrophobic quality to the hall this morning.  The weather, perhaps.

“Funny you should mention it, but yes I have. Rather a quantity of them, if I recall,” said the Reverend Badcock cracking his boiled egg with his spoon.  “It was some years ago. I was inAthensat the time attending a theological conference so perhaps the encounter was not particularly remarkable.”

Martha could feel the beginnings of a headache.

“I meant, has anybody seen a Greek gentleman in the hotel.”

“We saw one, didn’t we ?” said Miss Neasden. “An artist. Charming man by the name of Joachim Pupkewitz. That was back in 1995. Or was it 1996? ”

“He wasn’t Greek. He was Polish,” said Miss Dorringden.

“He was Greek!”

“Did anybody see a Greek gentleman yesterday?” Martha slogged on. “I wondered whether any of you checked him in. Or had seen him?”

The guests shook their heads.

Martha withdrew to the kitchen. After breakfast, she decided, she would check all the untenanted rooms.

If there was one thing she did not like, it was a mystery.

…………..

Approaching the stairs, Martha noted that the second copy of the Japan Times had vanished.

As she mounted the stairs she wondered if Jeremy Beadle had installed hidden cameras at Allthing Hall. Would she shortly be asked if she was Game For A Laugh?

She wondered whether someone else was playing pranks. Her husband perhaps? No, an impossibility. One of her idiotic guests? Not a chance.

So. Jeremy Beadle. 

It seemed unlikely but no other conclusion seemed to answer the circumstances.

How awful.

A consoling thought struck her. At least she could find his hidden camera and throw the damn thing out into the blizzard.

As she reached the landing Martha paused. Once again there was something wrong. This time however she didn’t need to spend long seconds in careful scrutiny of the view.

Standing, where nothing had stood before, in a niche in the wall, was a set of poker and tongs.

“Right, you,” said Martha advancing grimly. “Game for a laugh? No!  I am not! I have worked, I have toiled, I have slaved to keep this hotel afloat!  I have sacrificed much and you my cunningly hidden little secret camera are destined for…”

At her approach the poker and tongs reared back in alarm, then fled clanking up the stairs and vanished around a corner. She could hear their rattling flight along the corridor that linked rooms one to four, then there was silence save for the wind which moaned without the walls and the soft tap of snow at the casement.

Jeremy Beadle was no longer a possibility, Martha realised.

Animated ironmongery!

Was she going mad?

……………

The morning passed in the following fashion. After a large glass of restorative apple wine Martha checked every room. Mr. Beetham answered his door looking disheveled and bleary. He had, since she’d met him earlier that morning, managed to lose his tie and grow a stubbly beard. He smelled dreadful.

So far everything seemed normal.

None of the other rooms were occupied. Proteus Esq. was nowhere in evidence.

At a little before noon she encountered Albert on the back stairs. He was whistling brightly. It wasn’t a tune by Oasis. Rather it was a jolly, folksy sort of melody. For no reason that she could pin down, Martha suddenly had an image of olives and rabbit stew and boats with eyes on them. Herbs on dry hillsides, a Cyclops leering from a cave..

“Gosh!” said Martha.

The ‘Gosh’ wasn’t induced by the fleeting vision of a leering Cyclops. It was a stranger thing than that.

Albert was carrying a book.  

It was a leather-bound book with gold inlay and was old; part of the library that had come with Allthing Hall.

“I didn’t know you could read, Albert,” said Martha.

Albert looked a trifle shifty.

“Oh yes,” he said with a gleam in his eye.

He passed her by and as he did so she glanced at the title. She couldn’t read it for one simple reason; it was in Greek. 

……………

Some people are capable of rising rapidly to suit changing circumstances. Of shaping themselves to the environment and the times.  Of swiftly adapting. While Harold was not such a person, Martha was.

So, Martha began to suspect, was Proteus Esq.

December 13th waxed and waned and December 14th was born. The new day offered weather every bit as foul as that which had blighted its predecessor. Mr. Twithby announced his intention of leaving for Whitehaven but obviously changed his mind for he turned up for dinner along with the other guests.

“Not gone to Whitehaven, Mr. Twithby?”

Mr. Twithby shook his head firmly. “Too near the sea. I’ve done with all that. Keep them himself, he can. I’ll not be keeping them. Smelly brutes! ”

December 15th duly arrived. And with it the realisation on the part of Martha that while Mr. Twithby was still gracing Allthing Hall with his presence, his car was not. Twithby’s Ford Fiesta had gone.

Martha pondered on that. Then spent time in the library.

There was a thing on doppelgangers but it seemed to be missing the point, Martha thought. Her gaze was drawn to the higher shelves. The Classics. Before she could find a ladder, however, the bell rang meaning that Harold required attention. A hot water bottle, or pillows in need of plumping no doubt.

Something urgent. 

On her way to minister to the sick she noticed a wild boar leaping and rolling in the snow outside the converted dairy. It appeared to be enjoying itself immensely.

On her way back to the library after having hitched up the counterpane Martha was not surprised to see that the boar had gone. 

She was  surprised to see the younger of the Neasden twins clinging to the ceiling of the kitchen like a gecko.

But she wasn’t as surprised as she would have been had the encounter taken place before the arrival of Proteus Esq.

The Neasden twin scuttled off with alacrity when it realised that its location had been observed.

The 16th of December turned up and the meteorology of the moors took a turn for the even worse. 

Martha made her guests their breakfast, watched them eat and fuss over it with barely suppressed impatience then as soon as the last of the wittering fools had left, hurried for the library. 

“Doppelgangers be damned!” thought Martha. “This is in quite a different league indeed!”

She concentrated on the Classics shelves, pointedly ignored the service bell when it tinkled in an attempt to summon her upstairs to minister to Harold and eventually from the library emerged with a look of considerable satisfaction on her face.

She marched across the sitting room past Mr. Twithby and entered a rarely visited wing of the Hall. In the games room she found what she needed.

A large shrimping net.

She returned to the sitting room.  Twithby’s head was clearly visible in the chair by the fire – the same chair that Mr. Beetham had sat in. He appeared to be bent over the coffee table writing a note.

Martha’s aspect changed. No longer was she a fifty-ish, rotund hotelier. Every sense was honed. Every muscle taut.  A grey hound, a leopard was coiled, poised and determined to pounce.

Devonwas in her sights. Cream teas. An end to Harold and to her slavish subservience to Allthing Hall.

Silent as snow, she stalked across the floor, net poised for the strike.

Twenty feet…fifteen…ten…

Then the door opened and in wandered the Reverend Badcock  .

“Lunch ready?” he asked.  

Mr. Twithby turned at the sound, took one look at her shrimping net, threw Martha a reproachful glance and vanished.

………..

Dear Sir, (the note read)

I have considered your renewed offer carefully but regret to inform you that the remuneration you propose remains sadly inadequate and does not reflect the current weakness of the drachma or the current Greek debt scenario.

It is my intention not to resume work in the Aegean but to reside here in this desolate hotel which I have selected with care because it is situated as far from your watery domain as is possible in this country.  I have chosenBritainas domicile because I have had my fill of Greeks. Ferries sinking all over the place, Olympics,Greeceis a disgrace!   Here in the brisker climes of the north I will consult my health and relax.  

I have left the company car, as well as the fishes and two-legged steeds that draw it, near Xakynthos.

I might add that as a mode of transport it is increasingly unreliable and antiquated.  Had you been a more courteous and modern employer you might have issued me with a miniature submarine or some other form of transport that reflects technological developments. But no, not you! 

There is no point in your appealing my decision nor will sending harpies weaken my resolve. My days of counting and tending your seals are …

(And here the note ended).

 Martha replaced it on the desk. Desolate hotel, indeed!  The nerve of the man!  Though he was right about Allthing Hall’s location. It was, by chance, located as far away from the sea as was possible. At least inCumbria.  

 “Right, buster!” Martha resolved, “Time we had a chat!”

 She scoured the room for excess items or fixtures, found none, and then advanced into reception.  Fourteen years of single-handedly maintaining Allthing Hall had resulted in an intimate familiarity with all its features.

Most would have missed the fact that the front door now had a letter box. Not Martha. 

She rushed at it with her net.

The letter box dissolved, dropped to the floor of reception and became a hare which bolted between Martha’s legs and back into the sitting room.

Martha gave chase.

…….

By mid-afternoon, the guests at Allthing Hall – even Albert and Mr. Beetham – were aware that something was amiss.

They gathered in the sitting room to discuss the developments of the day.

“I saw her wrestling with a milk churn out in the kitchen garden. Snow falling! Wind howling! Yet there she was wrestling with the milk churn and shouting ‘Tell me the number of this Saturday’s national lottery!’ It was awful!” 

“I was just dozing in front of the fire, dozing away quite happily, and then all of a sudden there was a sort of …shrimping net brought down over my head and there was Mrs. Theakstone shouting at me, ‘I know who you are!’”

“Nets, eh?” said Reverend Badcock.

Albert muttered, “She like told me to stop pretending I was a morin.”

 “Moron,” corrected the Revd Badcock.  “Not morin.  She called you a moron.”

 “Oh.”

 “But Albert has a point. It’s true. She burst out of the broom cupboard, fetched him a blow to the head with an old steam iron and told him to stop pretending to be a half witted, wall-eyed, slack-jawed moron when she knew that he was really the divine off-spring of Aegyptus and Argyphia. It was very odd.” 

 “I was caught in some sort of man trap,” said Miss Dorringden. “It suspended me head first from the ceiling for the better part of an hour. During that time I witnessed a Grandfather clock hopping along the corridor chiming most strangely and Mrs. Theakstone in pursuit.”

 There was a trip wire across the top of the stairs wasn’t there Mr. Beetham?”

 Mr. Beetham did not respond, but the bandage around his head and his two black eyes spoke eloquent confirmation of the trip wire incident.

 “And there hasn’t been any lunch,” quavered the elder Beasly.

 At that point the discussion was interrupted by the door from the dining room bursting open.

 “Stop that blue flame! ” yelled Martha as a glowing ball the size of a goldfish bowl rushed through the sitting room  and vanished up the chimney.  

 “Useless fools!” explained Martha. “To think that I’ve been waiting on you hand and foot in some cases for years and you can’t even arrest a fleeing Greek demi-God that’s on strike and which is in the guise of a blue ball of flame! Must I do everything myself?”    

 “When’s lunch?” asked the older Beasly whose sight and hearing weren’t the best.

 “Lunch? Lunch? Eat snow!  There’s enough of it about the walls!”  With a wild laugh, the manager of Allthing Hall whirled away and rushed back into the dining room.

 …………

 At a quarter to five that afternoon the front door bell rang. Martha opened it to see a tall figure wrapped in a blue cloak. There was a strong smell of sardines.

 “Come in,” Martha said.

 “Thank you,” said Poseidon. “Don’t mind if I do. There’s a fearful wind.” His skin was blue. Martha wondered if that was his natural hue or simply a result of the cold.

 Martha led Poseidon into the sitting room and asked if he would like a drink.

 “Bouillabaisse, if you’ve got it,” said Poseidon.

 “I haven’t,” said Martha. “Tea?”

 “Please. With plenty of salt. Four spoons.” 

 When the drink had been served, Poseidon got down to business.

 “You have a guest staying with you.”

 “Indeed I have and he’s led me a merry dance I can tell you. I’m at my wits end how to catch him and make him tell me this Saturday’s National lottery number.”

Poseidon shook his head sympathetically. “He cannot abide telling the future. That’s always been the problem with Proteus. All times are one to him, past present and future but will he share his knowledge? No he won’t. At least he won’t unless you can catch him. And no-one can catch him. At least no-one can catch him without divine assistance.”

“I see,” said Martha glumly. The prospect of continuing to run Allthing Hall with a habitual and compulsive shape shifter loose on the premises was not enticing.  Three days of deer heads, balls of blue fire and leaping clocks were bad enough, but Proteus Esq. might stay for weeks. Months. Years!   

“Menelaus caught him by disguising himself as one of my seals,” said Poseidon thoughtfully. “That wouldn’t work here, of course. A seal would look completely out of place. Perhaps I could disguise you as a leather backed arm chair?” 

“Could you?” asked Martha with sudden hope.

“Certainly,” confirmed Poseidon. “Then when he sits on you, you hold on tight. I’ll give you this rope cunningly fashioned from the tentacles of a poulpe to aid you.   Don’t let go.”

“I won’t,” said Martha grimly.

……….

At a little past eight Proteus Esq. tired of simulating an onyx egg in a cabinet on the second floor and assuming the form of Twithby – he’d experimented with the forms of all the guests but found Twithby’s guise most comfortable – strolled downstairs in search of dinner.  

Dinner was there none. Neither were there any guests. They’d all packed their bags, ordered a taxi and fled after the ball of blue flame affair.

There was however a merry fire in the hearth and on a coffee table near the fire (and near an enticing chair) someone had laid out a glass of what looked like dry sherry and a bowl of twiglets.

“Oho!” thought Proteus. “Just the job!”

……….

Thirty minutes of violent struggle later a chastened demi-God provided Martha with six numbers. Despite all the shiftings of Proteus, Martha with the help of Poseidon and the poulpe rope had prevailed.

27   3  5  47 48 50.

Martha thanked him.Devonwas as good as in the bag. Poseidon had obligingly turned Harold into a lobster. Life was looking up.

“Thank you ever so much,” said Martha, 

Proteus, clearly annoyed, ignored her.

“Right,” Poseidon announced. “There’s been more than enough horsing around from you. My seals need tending and you’re the one that’ll be doing the tending. Zeus himself is insisting on it.”

“Blah,” said Proteus.

At trident point Poseidon marched him from the premises and in the direction of the coast.

 

END.

 

 

(Not Suitable For Children) This Reminded Me Of Homunculus

October 27, 2011

These links were recently sent to me by a friend. The Vice Guide To Liberia reminded him of my novel, Homunculus.
http://www.vbs.tv/newsroom/the-vice-guide-to-liberia-1-of-8–2

Yes, indeed! This site has been nominated for twice for a Webby. I think it’s got a very good chance of sweeping the prize.

Back to Liberia, this picture is pretty incredible.

http://i.imgur.com/ScoKn.jpg

Yes, that does appear to be a drugged up drag queen toting an AK 47.
They say truth’s stranger than fiction, in this case they’re about equally strange! Visions of hell, both.
Thank you, Mason


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