Thursday, 8 November 2012


I'm not blogging much at present (Please tell me you noticed!) I've decided to post the story that gave me runner-up slot in the 2012 VS Pritchett Award for best unpublished short story. On Monday night I had a great free dinner with some literary luminaries at the Royal Society of Literature event. Dead chuffed. Here it is:


            The flash flood that blighted Rosario Alcántara’s life was like many human events: only the last in a chain of consequences whose cause, far upstream, remains impossible to predict or comprehend.

            On a day in late spring, well past the season of rains in the Sierra Nevada, the sky was its customary piercing blue, with just a hint of cloud near the peaks. The earth was heaving its fat life upward to the sound of birdsong and cicada drone, and José Alcántara, husband of Rosario, was crossing the small river at a place where a poplar grove met a bank of loose shale. With him were his six fat cows, splendid black and white beasts of Dutch ancestry.

            It may be that, being animals and therefore more in tune with nature than José, the cows hesitated momentarily as they neared the ford.  Or perhaps the birds ceased their singing as they are said to do before an earthquake.  We will never know, because there is now no one alive who saw the wall of brown water roar down the canyon like a locomotive, a churning filthy wave of uprooted trees, boulders and mud that swept away everything familiar and altered the geography of Villaflores and Rosario’s life forever.

            Afterward, the sun was still shining.  The clouds that spawned the disaster so far up in the mountains could not even be seen.  The flood was gone as quickly as it came, and those who looked down upon the vega were shocked to see a lunar tableau of wreckage where moments before there had been cultivation. After days of numbed and futile excavation, one black and white foreleg was found in a river bank halfway to the next village.  The remains of the cow were exhumed with difficulty and brought to Villaflores in instalments. No trace of José or the other five animals was ever found.

            Life went on in Villaflores, though it was difficult to accept the absence of José Alcántara.  This was not because he had been especially beloved.  To the contrary, evenings in the bar seemed less fraught without his continual carping about village life, about rainfall, agricultural prices and – above all—the cultural inadequacy of life in Villaflores. Not that José had ever lived anywhere else, except for a brief stretch in the military, when he had been posted to Catalonia. That would have made his criticism more realistic, if not less irksome. His choice of profession demonstrated his perverse dislike of everything local: there was hardly enough flat land in the valley for milk cows to graze on, after all.  But José, faithful to some real or imagined memory of life on the slopes of the Pyrenees, built his small herd despite the derision of others. He wished to be a dairyman, and so he was.  His wife, Rosario, known for her patient temperament, had been the only girl in the village who could have married him. But with all that, his acerbic presence seemed to leave an even greater hole in the shape of village life when he was gone, and many said they could not believe he was dead.

            Rosario mourned respectably, though the absence of a body to carry up the hill to the cemetery robbed the act of a certain finality. For the full seven years she wore black clothing and refrained from public hilarity, never a great failing of hers in any case. This seemed doubly noble, because Rosario was an attractive woman with a broad brow and intelligent eyes. At the end of this time, when word came from the magistrate in Granada that José had been declared legally dead, she received her insurance money without show. Within weeks she had converted a part of the corral of a house bordering the plaza into a hermita, or shrine.  She arranged for delivery from Sevilla an icon of the Virgin which rivalled the church’s statue in fineness of sculpture, but, modestly, not in size. An electric lamp made to look like an array of candles was kept burning day and night, and each day she laid fresh flowers on the little altar. The hermita was dedicated to her late husband, a fact that perplexed the village, because Jose Alcántara had not set foot inside a church since his wedding day. Even the priest who made a brief committal for Jose confessed that he could not place him, though, of course, God could.

            Through these years of mourning Rosario was consoled by her friendship with Enrique, a vine grower and neighbour. He was a large man who spoke little and lived alone. Some thought that Enrique had always wanted to marry Rosario, but if this was so, nothing was ever seen to confirm it. Rosario’s propriety was never in question, and if Enrique was sometimes seen returning from her home after midnight, this was not the occasion of gossip. Sometimes, after the hermita was constructed, Enrique would stand outside respectfully while Rosario swept and changed the flowers, though he never entered himself. In all things to do with Rosario Alcántara, respectability reigned.

            Even mourning becomes routine, and it is possible that the steady rhythm of their lives might have continued forever, if Encarnación Rodriguez had not made a journey to visit her in-laws in Loma de Cabrera, a village in the Province of Almeria. It was the time of fiesta there, and along with the curious traditions of the village that bemused Encarnación, such as the ripe tomato fight with which the inhabitants ended the time of party before the procession of the Virgin of Pilár through the streets, it might have passed off as merely an interlude of no significance. But on the final afternoon, while standing with her cousins near the church, she saw something that sent her scurrying in shock back to Villaflores. The next afternoon she went with her mother and sister to Rosario’s house.  The women had something to tell, and the ritual preliminaries of coffee and Serrano ham were marked with that combination of fear, embarrassment and perverse pleasure that always accompanies bad news.

            The story came out between gasps, and so quickly that even those who had heard it before had to ask Encarnación to repeat herself. On that last day of the fiesta at Loma a large van bearing Barcelona plates pulled into the plaza. The approach scattered revellers like chickens. Three men got out. They were dressed in city clothes. Two of them were local, or relatives of locals, but the third had the unusual singsong accent of the villages near Villaflores. The men were laughing drunkenly, with hams and jeroboams of wine slung over their shoulders.  One of them, the foreigner, passed nearby and Encarnación looked full into his face. Ten years of history had eroded his features, but there could be no doubt: she was looking into the face of Jose Alcántara.

            The chatter ceased. Rosario’s composure wavered only slightly, though she did use both hands to replace her coffee cup in the saucer. Disappointingly to the excited visitors, she thanked them for their concern and sat rigidly until all three had left.  Afterwards she remained seated, eyes closed in thought.  Then she got up, took a basket as if to tend her garden in the countryside, and, greeting every passing child and horseman as usual, went to the vineyard of Enrique.  Only then did she reveal any emotion, and that only a slight paling of her cheeks.  She sat calmly on a bench by the door of the cortijo.

            “Enrique,” she said levelly, “Have you and I behaved with propriety since José’s death?”

            “You know that we have,” was his reply.

            “We have given respect to my dead husband, representing his soul properly to the village?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “Then why…” Rosario’s voice broke only slightly, “Has his ghost returned to haunt me?”


            Enrique’s family was large. That evening, four taciturn men sat late in the family home, moderately taking olives and wine. Rosario was not there, having exhibited serene control of herself during a short visit to all four of them. Her conviction and her voice had been firm as she spoke to the brothers. The logic, as she presented it, was impeccable. If José had indeed been seen, this must be a sign that his soul was uneasy, either because his remains still had not been unearthed, or because he was unsatisfied with Rosario’s mourning. This made it all the more important that his remains were found and laid properly to rest, but because Rosario was merely a woman, and alone, she needed the help of her friends.

            If José’s bones could not be found by their searching, Rosario had said calmly, then his ghost must lead them to them. If this was not possible, then it would be a sign that the haunting was of brief duration and that she could rest at last. Looking long at Enrique, she said that it was now time for life to begin afresh, and that the appearance of José’s ghost might herald this change.

            For some time after she left, the brothers sat quietly. There was not a lot to be discussed. All four knew what was right to do. Then they rose together and walked to Enrique’s truck in the Plaza.  It was going to be a long drive to Loma de Cabrera.


            There had been nothing unusual about the morning except for a few welcome drops of unexpected rainfall. The slight sheen of moisture on the streets gave a lush appearance to the village streets, like the oil on men’s hair in church.

            No one watched as Rosario entered the hermita for her morning routine.  She carried a bunch of carnations picked from the old man’s garden near the fountain.  She had noticed that as his arteries stiffened and the gates of Heaven grew nearer that he had grown progressively more generous with his flowers.  A neighbour woman heard the iron door creak as Rosario opened it and then the faint whisks of her broom.  There was a sudden silence and then a crash as a vase fell to the floor.

            Rosario emerged.  If she had been rattled, she was now composed. She paused to collect her things, then locked the door and went home. In a few moments she was joined by Enrique.  Her door remained shut until afternoon, and then the two—now clearly a couple—walked together into the plaza.  Enrique had oiled and combed his hair, and Rosario had on a red dress that had hung unused for a decade.  It fit her, said the village later, as if she had bought it that very morning. Later some would attribute her sudden beauty to the miracle, others, more cynically, to unleashed desire.

            Standing near the fountain Rosario waited until the priest emerged from his lunch at the home of a parishioner.  She held him by the sleeve and dispatched a small child to rouse the mayor from siesta.  When the two men were together she spoke quietly to them.  No one else heard what she said, but the priest looked grave and the mayor genuflected.  Then, with the calm of a saint, she turned to the rapidly swelling crowd of wives, drowsy pensioners and children and held aloft a small object. It was a ring of pale gold, not in itself remarkable, but because it had been worn by her late husband José, and because it had appeared on the stand of the hermita this very morning, it seemed to glow like the Virgin glimpsed by moonlight.

            Years after the wedding of Rosario and Enrique, an event which drew hundreds from neighbouring villages, someone would from time to time ask what had happened to the ring, which would have had the status of a minor relic, at least.  No one was able to answer, not even Rosario.  As for Enrique, he spoke little anyway.  Things just happen, and what causes them, so far upstream, is impossible to predict or comprehend.





Monday, 3 September 2012

Pedants, Unite!

My name is Art Lester and I’m a pedant.

There.  I feel better already.
In case anyone is looking for the child abuse hotline, let me spell that for you again:
P-E-D-A-N-T. That’s letters away from “pederast”.  I want to avoid the fate of that poor paediatrician in a Portsmouth riot a few years ago.

I’m getting so bad that there are whole publications I can’t read and TV programmes I avoid, because the writers and presenters say things like “There are less people here now.” My wife, Gilly, bears the brunt of my righteous wrath. I always give her a lecture about someone confusing words of quantity with words of number. I rise from my chair and shout. I say things like, “The only way to have LESS people is to put them in a blender and liquefy them, and pour them into unequal amounts into two containers. Then you’d have LESS people. Otherwise, &@!!**!! it, you’d have FEWER people, as God intended.”
Maybe it’s because I go around speaking a foreign language every day that I have become hypersensitive to word usage. I have to remember to say “lorry” instead of “truck” and “got” instead of “gotten”. If I slip up and say “gotten”, someone among my British friends is bound to laugh and point out that I’m still very American. “Yes, I’m the only begot son of some Yanks, alright,” I respond, but the irony is usually lost on them, poor fools. They must have forgot.

In some ways, clichés affect me even more gravely. I can remember eavesdropping on a conversation on a bus one day, in which both participants spoke entirely in clichés, to the extent that I couldn’t fathom their meaning. Things like, “At the end of the day, it’s all swings and roundabouts, innit?” Response, uttered sagely, “Horses for courses.”
And I’m, like…”what?”

I’m joining Pedants Anonymous.  This afternoon. I’m doing that, because if anyone says “vast majority” in my range of hearing, I will be forced to maim them.


Thursday, 23 August 2012

More Goat, Brother?

I have a “goat brother” somewhere in Kenya.

After six months of living in a remote location north of Nanyuki, I at last made a friend.  This was a Masai elder called Letai. He was one of a handful of local people who stopped short of ignoring the couple of Mzungu (white people) who had come to live in the empty house of a teacher of a school that never got built.
I had got into the habit of sitting on a log in front of the house during the afternoon, learning to do nothing in particular. If you’ve never tried this, I recommend it. Almost everyone in the world knows how to do it better than we do. You don’t read, look at your wristwatch or fiddle with your keys. You just sit.  If you sit long enough, and earnestly enough, someone will come and sit down next to you.

Letai sat down one day.  After the obligatory greeting, we just sat. An hour or two of nothing much happening will teach you a lot. I used to sneak looks at his left earlobe, which had been pierced and stretched to receive an aluminium film can which held his tobacco, matches and cigarette papers.  He carried an orinkaa, a knobbed club, wore a red plaid sarong and sandals made of old tyres.
For some weeks we just sat. Sometimes I would bring him some tobacco from the trading post at Dol Dol, some 14 km away on my motorbike. My Swahili improved enough so that we could talk if we wanted to. One day he told me that he wanted to become my goat brother, and that I was to appear with any wives I had at his nkang (log stockade) the following afternoon.

I was delighted. I didn’t know what a goat brother was, but I didn’t care. I ran inside and told the only wife I had the good news. She gave me her customary sceptical look. I should have paid attention.
When we arrived the next day, I was carrying a small gift of tobacco, which Letai accepted without comment. He gestured for me to follow, and I set out behind his lean, imposing frame along a path through a patch of woods. Barbara was captured by the women and taken elsewhere. We emerged into a large clearing, where ten or twelve goats were clustered suspiciously together. Letai told me to choose one.

I didn’t happen to need any livestock, but I pointed to a reddish animal. Letai’s eldest son called out a name and the goat came forward, just as a dog would when called. We all stroked him for a moment until I felt a prodding at my back. I turned to find a Masai man, who shoved a knife into my hands. It was a big, chunky knife, made from the leaf springs of a car. It dawned on me that I was not going to take a live goat back to the teacher’s house; I was to be its executioner.
For the squeamish reader, I will leave out some of the gorier details. I’ll just point out that the gesture of running a finger across one’s throat in pantomime of slaughter doesn’t tell it like it is. In the end, I had to be thrust aside so that the animal didn’t suffer needlessly. Some of the Masai grimaced in dismay at my efforts, but Letai was unruffled. He knew I was a Mzungu, and what can you expect?

Feeling like I wanted to find a church and pray for forgiveness, I followed the men back to the nkang. This was cedar posts, cut from the forests of Mt Kenya, driven into the ground and sharpened at the top to deter leopards, the main local predator. We walked across a spongy yard, which was years of animal manure compacted into a mattress-like surface, and ducked into the home of Letai’s eldest wife. Two other houses were in evidence, belonging to wives two and three. I guessed that one of them contained Barbara.
A Masai house is like a beehive. It is too low for a man to stand up in, which is fair, because they belong to the women.  A Masai elder has to ask permission to sleep in any one of them, which is sometimes denied. Letai had been known to sleep with the cattle and goats on the bare ground when all of them were angry at the same time.

The houses are made of bent branches, covered with woven matting and smeared with cow manure.  They have the shape of a conch shell, curving toward the hearth at the centre.  There are no windows, just holes poked through the wall that allow small beams of sunlight to enter. A single bed space is filled with a leather sheet attached to four stakes. This can be occupied by the woman and any man she invites to share her bed.  If a troop of warriors asks, they will be given priority over everyone and all pile onto the bed. That is one of the reasons that of Letai’s 28 children, very few were genetically related to him.
We sat in front of the hearth, a fire of sticks burning between cooking stones.  A beam of light from a window hole made patterns in the smoke. There was another man already there. He looked different from the Masai, and was introduced as the Doctor of Boys. He wore face paint and an elaborate necklace of shells.  He was utterly terrifying. He was the only one who could perform the ritual circumcision of young men about to become warriors. This was done with a metal disc which he showed me, grinning and demonstrating how it worked. You can’t have any sort of ceremony without the Doctor of Boys, even if you wanted to, say, become someone’s goat brother.

A wife appeared carrying chucks of the murdered goat.  She set them to boil in an aluminium pot and withdrew. After a few minutes, the Doctor began to chant. It wasn’t Swahili he was speaking, nor Ol-Maa, the Masai language. I later learned that he was a member of the Dorobo, a tribe of hunter-gatherers who had been in this place longer than the Masai. The goat boiled.  My eyes were burning from smoke and I coughed a lot. That’s probably why I didn’t realise it when the Doctor spoke to me.
I grasped none of what he was saying, so he addressed himself to my host. Letai, said, “My name is Letai, son of Letai.  I was born in 1938 and circumcised in 1952.” The Doctor turned to me.  I hesitated, then said, “My name is Arthur, son of Hugh.  I was born in 1943 and circumcised…” I hesitated, then said, “…in 1943.”

There was a gasp from someone.  I think it was one of Letai’s sons. Later I was told that I had either uttered a complete nonsense (best case), or a fact that, if true, would embarrass me forever. After a period of silence in which I resisted running for the exit only by praying for cross-cultural tolerance, the Doctor resumed the proceedings. He spat copiously onto a hot stone in the fire, reached into the bubbling saliva with his index finger, and smeared the spit on Letai’s forehead.  He did the same for me.  He shouted something in his language and everyone laughed, except me.  Then he lay back and unscrewed a pint of Kenyan whisky, which he nearly knocked off with a single gulp.
We had been blessed. We sat and waited. The goat meat bubbled.  A wife appeared with some mismatched plastic bowls and shovelled the meat into them. Letai opened a sack and sprinkled salt onto the chunks, which appeared to have bits of goat hide still attached.

If you’ve never eaten golfball-sized hunks of tough goat meat with your fingers, you may not understand why I’d rather live un-brothered by a Masai elder forever than do it again. My teeth weren’t up to the task, so I resorted to swallowing pieces whole, like big pills. There was enough water in the plastic bowl to wash them down with, but I knew that the experience was going to live with me for many days. When my first bowl was within about 12 ounces of being dealt with, Letail fished out some more chunks, put them in my bowl and smiled.
I reckon that I consumed something like three pounds of goat meat by myself that night.  I later learned that Barbara was being similarly force-fed in another house, while also being required to drink soured milk from a gourd. I refused a third helping by upending the bowl on a stone. The Masai were enjoying it.  They were chatting and laughing, but my peristaltic struggles blanked out my language centres, and I couldn’t understand a word. I finally managed the equivalent of, “Gosh—is that the time?” And got to my feet.

Barbara was waiting for me in the manure outside. I knew she would never be rude, but I realised that she had basically gotten up and run from the house. Just then, Letai joined us. It seems that the goat must be eaten entirely on the day of the ceremony. Every last chunk. Even the couple of dozen children and wives hadn’t quite managed it.  So Letai produced a leg and handed it to me with a generous smile. I took it, being careful not to let the blood drip on my shoes and thanked him effusively. In a few minutes we were outside the nkang and heading for the teacher’s house.
Like people who have survived a disaster, we could hardly speak, but I could tell by Barbara’s gait that her ordeal had matched, if not exceeded mine. We walked through the darkness by memory with a bit of moonlight to help. A few hundred yards from the nkang, I had a thought. The Masai built high walls to keep out leopards, nocturnal predators.  And here we were, carrying the dripping leg of a goat right through their hunting ground. As the thought occurred to me, I heard branches swishing and small twigs cracking. I didn’t have to say anything, I could tell by Barbara’s round eyes that the thought had seized her at the same moment.

We were far enough away from the nkang to risk it. I shouted out, “My name is Arthur, son of Hugh. I was circumcised in 1943, so come and get it!” I chucked the leg into a stand of trees, and we staggered home. There wasn’t going to be any evidence the following morning.
So Letai, goat brother, if you’re reading this, I apologise. You’re welcome to turn up and become a Caesar salad brother of mine anytime.




Friday, 17 August 2012

Coffee and Witchcraft

Up yours, Starbucks. That goes for you as well, Nero and Costa. I have been up on the mountain (literally) and found the ultimate cup of Joe.

           Marcelina was my next door neighbour in the mountain village of Rio Limpio, ten miles from the Haitan border. She was a witch, or so it was widely claimed, but the only magic she ever showed me was my morning coffee. I know she wouldn’t mind me sharing her secret.  Anyway, I’m too far away in time and distance to worry about spells and potions.

          The local coffee was of the Robusta cultivar, not the Arabica that everyone seems to go for these days. The trees are actually a type of cherry, and harvesting the fruits could involve some climbing. They grew half wild on the slopes behind my house. When the berries were ripe, I used to slip on them en route to the outhouse. You can eat them, but the skins are bitter.

          When harvested, the berries were tossed onto the road, where passing donkeys and humans trod on them, birds pecked them and the sun dried out the flesh, leaving white seeds everywhere.  These are coffee beans. After a week or so, you could go out to the road and shovel them into a sack, along with the dust and other pollutants, and wash them clean.

          Every morning, Marcelina would take a double handful and dump them onto a cast iron skillet set on an open fire, where the smoke could get at them. She would add a big lump of raw sugar from the local cane fields and roast them until nearly black. Then she put them into a hollowed-out stump from a Bruscon tree and pounded them to pulp with a six-foot log, called a pilon. Pounding in a pestle and mortar, she told me, is always better than grinding the beans. If you are ever offered café de pilon, accept it. And give thanks.

          She put the pulp into an old nylon sock, tied the top around a stick and then hung the mixture in a pan of boiling water until the colour pleased her. My cup was the least chipped enamel one. The handle was too hot to hold, so I drank it with my hand in my shirttail. No sugar needed.  And no milk.  Ever.

          I just stopped writing this for five minutes, went across the road and got an Americano from a trendy café. Sorry, Marcelina. I should have known better.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Your Turn

          We were working in a village in the mountains of The Dominican Republic, ten miles from the Haitian border, among the poorest people I have ever known. Their problems would fill pages. I was there to help with what was idealistically called “appropriate technology”, and my wife’s job was health and nutrition among the women and children.

          One of the goodies in my kit bag was the Lorena stove, a way of using firewood that was twice as efficient as open fires. This was to help slow down the tree-felling that was causing erosion that in turn lessened crop yields. The stove could be made by compressing clay and sandy soils into a block, with maybe a touch of cement as a stabiliser.  Tunnels dug out of the block recycled the hot smoke and sent it up a chimney made of old tins, away from children’s eyes. Along with boils on people’s backsides, conjunctivitis, leading to trachoma, was a big health issue in Rio Limpio.
          Like the cliché of a volunteer from someplace rich, I went around cheerfully touting Lorena stoves, convinced that they had a lifesaving role to play. Surprisingly, nobody wanted one. We managed to talk a few of our acquaintances into letting me build one in their outdoor roofed kitchens, but we noticed that when we passed by the only fire to be seen was the traditional open flame. But I was convinced that if we kept selling the idea it would take hold.

          It never did. When I asked why, people sheepishly told me that the smoke from the old fires kept the insects away. And anyway, they liked looking at the flames when they sat around after eating.

          One of my wife’s friends was a pretty widow called Llo Lla (pronounced “Georgia”). Barbara used to visit her and her kids and take little presents—things like sugar and powdered milk. None of them had shoes. One day, Barbara decided to invite her to our house.  This was a 9 by 16 foot palm board shack with a thatched roof.  But it housed our one guilty secret.

          We had no vehicle, nor did anyone in Rio Limpio. The roads were impassable about half the year, and our sending agency believed in its volunteers living at a basic level. The sole exception to the rule was a camping stove with an LP gas bottle. The reckoning was that, if we spent all day as everyone else did, hauling water and firewood, that we’d have no time for teaching anyone anything. So every few weeks a guagua, or local taxi, would bring us a refill.

          Llo Lla was shy as she entered the shack. Barbara sat her at a table in a folding director’s chair we had brought from the capital.  She made Earl Grey tea, added a couple of biscuits from a tin and put a jug of UHT milk on the side. Llo Lla didn’t like the tea, but smiled anyway and finished the cup like cough syrup. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the gas stove.  I could see she wanted to say something, but just waited. Finally, she asked if she could try it.  I gave her a kitchen match and she lit the cooker, staring into the blue flame hypnotically.

          Barbara was moved.  She burst out, “Oh, Llo Lla, I feel so guilty because I have so much and you have so little!”

          Llo Lla was a woman of sweet disposition, but when she spoke, her eyes were hot with something like anger.

          “Listen to me, Barbara,” she said fiercely, “It’s your turn. If you don’t enjoy it, then how can I wish it was mine?”

          Twenty years later, I’m still working on that.


Saturday, 28 July 2012

Steven Spielberg and Me

          Living broke in a small mountain village in Andalucia, I was always on the lookout for a way to make a few pesetas. So when my wife saw a news item that said Steven Spielberg was hiring extras for a film, her ambitions for my future as a star of the silver screen went into overdrive.

          The story said that the famous director had been in Granada, hiring members of “la raza Arriana” (Arian race) to appear as Nazi soldiers in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.
          “I’m forty,” I grumbled. “Too old for soldiering.”

          “Chicken,” was all she said.
          The next morning we drove our creaking old Seat over the highest mountain pass in mainland Spain to the somnolent town of Guadix, where the railway station had been transformed into Isfahan. It was six a.m. and there was no one on the lot except a few lighting engineers and a guard, who told me that the shoot’s headquarters was in a motel a mile away.

          “Well, that’s that, then,” I told my wife. “Pity we came all this way.”
          “Drive,” was all she said.

          A throng had gathered at the motel.  It was roped off with yellow tape and patrolled by some useful-looking security men.  Barbara pushed me forward to the tape, where a guard looked at me and wagged his finger, windscreen wiper-style.
          “Say you’re in the film,” Barbara hissed behind me.  I did.

          “Where were you hired?” asked the guard, I thought reasonably.
          “Say Granada,” Barbara growled, finger on my fifth vertebra. She was the ventriloquist.  I was the dummy. I did, and to my astonishment, the guard said, “You’re late. Better get to wardrobe.”

          I was the last Nazi to turn up. The other ten were all blond young Germans, already dressed in Afrikakorps uniforms and carrying rifles. I sat down in a chair in front of a mirror, where a Hollywood makeup artist named Fiona gave me a despairing once-over.
          “How long have you had that beard, Sweetie?” she asked.

          “Twelve years,” I replied.
          “You sure you want to lose it? They’re only paying 90 quid a day for this, you know.”

          In ten minutes I was clean shaven and dressed. I had been given a sergeant’s uniform, perhaps befitting my age.  My lower face, long protected from sunlight by my beard, had to be sprayed tan. I was the last to leave.  Someone shoved a submachine gun into my hands. I went out the door and saw Barbara, who was leaning over the rope, trying to catch a glimpse of me.  I walked over. She looked past me, and I realised that my wife of 16 years didn’t recognise me.
          I was hustled onto a bus and we headed for the lot. There were three buses, all packed with costumed extras. Most of these were Andalucian gypsies, wearing Iranian peasant clothes.  As I got on, I felt hostile eyes following me. A man next to an empty seat was reluctant to let me pass. I hung on as we jolted over the rutted road, wondering why my usual good nature was letting me down.

          I found out when we were herded into two groups at the lot. I was with the other Nazis, who were laughing and aiming their guns at each other.  Their average age was probably 19. They spoke to each other in German. I later learned that some of them were on holiday from Dusseldorf or somewhere, and didn’t speak Spanish.  They ignored me. The gypsies stared rudely at us, and it began to dawn on me that Nazis would be as unattractive to them as to Jews, because they shared the same fate in the ovens of Dachau.
          The rail station car park had been covered with sand.  Palm trees in pots cast a little shade from the combination of Spanish sun and the magnesium lamps on towers every few yards. Everywhere out of shot, fat cables crossed the ground, making it easy for someone in combat boots to pratfall. Big trucks with Lucasfilm painted on the side crowded the entrance. A wall had been built between the station and a row of buildings next door. It was cracked and ancient-looking. Two camels stood beside it, unmoving.  No one told me what to do, so I stood as near the shade as possible and looked official, still worried that I would be unmasked as an imposter. A throng of onlookers stood on the other side of a rope.  One of them was Barbara, who had made her way from the motel on foot. I smiled in her direction but she waved me back toward the work.

          Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies were on the set, huddled in folding chairs near a large van. Body doubles for each were lounging with the lighting crew. We seemed to be waiting for something. Then Spielberg arrived. He got out of a Land Rover he was driving with a boy of ten or twelve. I guessed that this was his son, going to work on Saturday with his dad. He had a ball cap on his head and sported a trimmed beard. As he neared the actors, he glanced around the lot.  His eyes rested on me for a moment.  I thought my time as an extra was about to end, but he moved on.
          Things moved slowly. A harassed-looking man with two clipboards herded us Nazis into two groups and told us to walk up and down and peer at the gypsies, who had apparently been instructed to be a crowd in a market. I walked up and down, peering and walking for an Oscar. The gypsies’ expressions were more hostile still. One guy spat near my boots.  I was taller than he was. An impulse to hit him ambushed me from somewhere in my psyche.

          The lunch trailer opened its awning and we were told to break. We queued up and the gypsies broke line.  They sneered at us. They took two meals each and got back into the queue, from where they would begin to sneak upstream. By one o’clock I was feeling like a member of the master race. I swaggered as I walked.  When a gypsy glared, I glared back.
          It took a while to realise what was happening to me—and to them.  We were being driven into role, by the uniforms and the guns.  The other Nazis were really scary; they acted like real ones, and I wondered just how deeply all this fascism was actually buried.

          After lunch I strutted through my role. Spielberg was buried beneath a black cloth on a camera, which I later learned was a TV monitor synchronised to the main film cameras, so that he could see exactly how the shot was framed. We walked up and down, peering.  I didn’t know if I was being filmed or not. A Mercedes pulled up. Sean Connery got out of the back seat and Spielberg and he talked for a moment. I strutted as near as I could get away with, but couldn’t hear anything. Connery drove away.
          About four o’clock, six of us Nazis were instructed to stand near a palm tree placed beside the faux wall. A tall young German was told to pull on the tree.  When he did, a doorway opened to reveal a truck parked behind it.  We did that for an hour or so until the clipboard guy waved us away.

          At five, we were herded onto the buses again and driven back to the motel.  Relations with the gypsy/Iranians had deteriorated. Two of us Nazis sat in the very back, radiating threat, while the gypsy/Iranians swore at us. We turned in our uniforms and queued at a window for our pesetas.  Some of the inferior race tried to collect their wages twice. We of the master race were outraged.
          As I drove us home, I heard myself talking about the gypsies in a way that unsettled my liberal soul.  Barbara scowled. By bedtime that night, I had recovered enough to launch into a philosophical lecture about how external things like uniforms and role play could be responsible for turning a good person bad.  She didn’t reply.  I reckon she must have gone to sleep. When I switched off the light, I was wondering whether I would go back the next day. 

Of course I did. Ninety pounds was a month’s wages in that village.

Postscript: Don’t look for me in the scene in Isfahan where Denholm Elliot is kidnapped, chucked through a wall and bundled into a Nazi truck. There really is something called the “cutting room floor”.


Thursday, 12 July 2012

My Life as a High School Traitor

          I went to high school with a guy who had an IQ so high that tests couldn’t measure it. Or so it was claimed, anyway, when we got into trouble.
          His name was David P. He was the very first out atheist I ever met.  Once in the school dining hall, after collecting $1.50 dare money, he stood up on a table and shouted, “There is no God!  If there is a God, let Him strike me dead now!”

          Most of us were only trying out this atheism stuff.  This seemed serious.  Unconsciously, as a body, we moved away from the table like pigeons scattering in the park. I had on rubber-soled shoes, but that didn’t seem enough. There was a thick silence.  Even the teachers were waiting, it seemed, for a lightning bolt. David P pocketed his buck-fifty and got only two days’ detention.
          David P went around talking about Nietzsche and Sartre.  I made do with Jack Kerouac. He would interrupt history class and spiel what seemed to be intact lines from The Communist Manifesto.  He refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer in home room. After some bullying, I went along with that too. We got five strokes with a paddle as punishment, administered by a football coach in short pants. They didn’t fool around when it came to halting blasphemy in Robert E. Lee High School.

          We went to school as little as possible.  There was a cinema in Five Points where a couple of adolescents could slip in the fire exit door and make their way to the balcony seats, where only a few old men sat with their coats in their laps. We got caught for playing hookey and punished.  David P used to sing the Internationale while getting his licks. We were put on what was called “Garden Club”, a day when you carted bricks from one end of the sports field to the other and carted them back after lunch.
          One day, David P had an idea. “These morons are Christians, aren’t they?”

          “Sure,” I said.
          “Then let’s go to the movies,” he replied.  I went unquestioningly.  Anybody who read Remembrance of Things Past on the toilet could work out a plan to miss Garden Club.

          We were on the carpet the following morning.  The Principal and the Assistant Principal were both there. None of us were smiling except David P. The Principal asked us why we had walked off the school grounds without permission.
          “Well, you see, Christ appeared to me on the football field,” David P said. “He emerged from a white cloud, dressed in a long robe and said, ‘Leave this place and go to a place of worship and spend this day in prayer.’  So we did. Didn’t we, Art?”

          Time telescoped. I looked up, expecting to see enraged Principals.  But their faces were white and frozen.  Probably not as white and frozen as mine.
          I still claim I was more afraid of Jesus than the two school officials, but I’m sure David P never believed me. I got two weeks’ suspension, but maybe I’ll get it back in heaven someday.

          I said, “We went to see The Swamp Thing.”