Storyline - 22: Up the Swannee - life could be sweet on sunny, tropical, screwed-up Lumbago ...if only...
"No riots in downtown Lumbago today..."
The newslady chirped and went on to tell about the new-fangled water cannon the police there took delivery of the month before we were due to fly out.
"President Algernon Pokem has assured businessmen their premises are safe..." a roving reporter takes over whilst the cameraman pans a scene of ripped-up fences, smashed telephone kiosks and shop windows. The words echoed in my head, "... premises are safe..."
I hope so, that's where I'm headed on holiday tomorrow! A whole ten days to look forward to in the tropical paradise of Lumbago with the girlfriend no less. Three months we've known each other, Angie and me. The travel agent painted a wonderful picture of this idyllic island, twenty miles long by ten wide. "Nowhere's more than a five mile trip down wide roads lined with tall, waving palm trees. Drive along in your hire jeep and take in the balmy, warm air..." The travel bureau booking clerk had everything set up by the day after, hotel vehicle hire and air travel to St. Kitts... the rest by ferry. Aah, I could see it, Angie sat back, leaning against me with a long drink in her slender long fingers. Me with my army jungle hat forward over my brow... Until that newsflash came up. "Let's hope it's not as bad as it looks", I thought to myself. No need to unduly stress Angie with things she hadn't seen, in the steaming bath.
The ferry was a beat-up old fishing boat with a small cabin just big enough for the 'skipper', as he called himself.
His 'crew' was an old guy of ninety - if he was a day - and an over-eager mongrel of uncertain years that drooled over Angie's white cotton dress as it stood gaping up at her, watching for scraps. Didn't they feed it, ever? She, Angie, had a ham roll in one hand that she'd packed for the plane but the stewardess gave her a black look that she must've practiced in the mirror on a dark night. So for the past half hour she had this ham roll in one hand and a can of Pepsi in the other. At least we were the only passengers.
"You headin' for Lumbago, man?" Ben had asked as we tugged our bags from the taxi that took a roundabout route from the airport - all of fifteen minutes drive and we could see the planes from where we stood on the ramshackle little pier.
"We certainly am - er, are", I answered, trying to get into the spirit of things.
He looked across the boat at Angie,
"Don't trail yo' hands in the water, dahlin'", he told her after we'd set off. 'Dere's t'ings swimmin' about in dere dat like yore pink flesh".
Needless to say Angie pulled her hand back double-quick and checked it, that all the pinkies were still where she last saw them. The old boy, Bertram gave her the choice of Pepsi or ome interesting-looking bottle with a Spanish name printed on the faded label. "Stick with what you know", I whispered in her shell-like. Being a smartie he needed no advice from me really. She'd got that bit worked out for herself.
The island grew bigger as we neared. "It ain't dis'n", Ben shouted almost triumphantly from his wheel-house. The island with its.lush-looking hotels and neat beaches passed to our right, into the distance and memory, along with our hopes. Another, smaller island showed on the sea-line where it almost vanished into the dark clouds from across the South American mainland.
"Here we are", Ben finally steered towards a beach. "Dis is where you'se get off".
"Where's the pier?" I remember asking. He just smiled. The old boy told us in a matter-of-fact way that he'd hand us our bags when we'd got over the side.
"What about sharks?" I asked, looking nervously down at the shallows.
"Dey ain't gonna come here... not right now. It's not deep enough. If you look sharp you'll make shore before de tide comes back in".
"Do you get many tourists on your boat?" Angie asked pointedly. He didn't answer, just gave her a quizzical look and we struggled through the shallows, trying not to drop our baggage into the sea water. At least we could see where the box jellyfish were, and strode on to the shore as the water deepened and lapped at our shins by the time we reached dry land.
A pair of uniforms emerged from a hut at the head of the beach,
"You got anythin' to declare?"
"We've come on a long ferry trip -" I began.
"We haven't all day, Sir. You got anythin' to declare, yes or no?"
"No, not yet", I answered tersely. I was tired, so was Angie, and we needed to rest. Raised eyebrows showed he was not happy with my retort. "Better keep any funny stuff to myself", I thought. Instead I just asked how to get to the Hotel Miramar.
"Typical o' that Ben", he smirked. His sidekick smirked in unison. "He's dropped you off at the wrong end of the island. Did you tell him you wanted the town?"
"How far?" I asked. A sidelong glance at Angie told me she was not amused. "As the crow flies?"
"It's twenty miles", the sidekick chipped in, cutting the other officer's obvious glee at our predicament.
When I asked, "What about taxis?" they both echoed my words, grinning from ear-to-ear. It was getting dark and my sense of humour was being tested by these two goons!
"A mile down the road there's a garage. Ask there to use the 'phone", the helpful one told me. I thanked them, but only out of politeness, hefted my bags and - followed by a mute Angie - set off in the direction they pointed. Thankfully - thankfully? - there was no-one around as we trudged, stopped, changed hands on our bags, and trudged again. A mile, he aid. Did he mean a country mile or a Martian mile? Maybe an hour later, with the sinking sun a distant memory we saw lights.
"This must be the garage", Angie sighed hopefully.
"What you doin' here man?" I only saw a pair of eyes stare out at me from under the brim of an old straw hat, a bit like Huckleberry Finn.
"Is this the garage?" I asked, looking around. It didn't look like one.
"Does it look like a garage?" he asked in turn, looking threateningly at Angie but she stood her ground, dropped her bags and leaned against me, dog-tired. "Who told you it was a garage?"
"We were met by a pair of uniforms at the beach when we came ashore", I told him and he grinned toothily.
"Marty and Harry, ha-ha! Uniforms you say. They're a pair of cards, eh! No this ain't no garage an' they ain't no uniforms. They're gangsters who borrowed the cops' gear after the riot down there, man!" He pointed north with his right thumb over his shoulder, looking Angie up and down. "When you get fed up with the honky look me up, girl. I'll show you some -"
"Shut your filthy mouth boy!" A woman's voice now. The wooden floor within shook and a door opened to my left. "Who're you, my dahlin'?"
"I'm Tony Meakin and this is my girlfriend Angie. We're from -"
"I can guess where you're from, honey-pie". The woman was big. She cuffed the young man across the back of his head, telling him to go and do something useful, "Like stick your idle head in a bucket o' your scorpions!"
"Do you have scorpions on the island?" Angie asked.
"It's got a voice, hear heaven! Yes, didn't they tell you they're big enough to direct traffic in town!" When Angie clung to me the woman laughed out aloud, "Ha-ha-ha, li'l lady you don't need to worry your li'l head now. I'm gonna drive you there, the both of you".
"That's a relief!" I coughed out the words loudly and he grinned, showing a set of fine, pearly white teeth. I bent down for my bags and Angie waited a few seconds more. She stared at something behind her and froze, mouth clamped tight shut to stifle a scream. I looked where she pointed... at a scorpion on the ground, and it came nearer even as I watched.
"Damn' thing!" The woman brought down a sandalled foot on the creature, squashed it flat under the heel and yelled out, fit to wake the dead back in London. "In the name of all that's reasonable, keep your pets where they belong - Jerry, are you listenin'?"
She picked up the dead scorpion between two fingers and flung it into the bushes, telling Angie,
"Never mind them, honey-bun. Jerry, come on an' pick up these good folks' bags an' put them in the back of the wagon!"
Jerry came back from banishment, the straw hat still forward on his head over the bridge of his nose.
"I said take their bags to the back o' the wagon and show them the way", she batted him across the back of the head with the flat of her hand again and vanished back into the shack. We were shown to an old Land Rover, the British number plates still attached showed it to be from the mid-Sixties.
"Sit in the middle", he told us sullenly and threw our bags into the truck back.
It had been an estate but somebody did a conversion job on it to make it more like a Safari truck. Jerry disappeared back to the shack just as the woman showed again. She must've been a handsome figure once, at least six foot, and now almost as wide as she was tall.
"Jump in", she leapt onto the driving seat and the vehicle sank to the right before it sprang back.
"Great springin', these things", she laughed, a deep operatic sort of laugh. "Brought this back from Solihull along with the old man. Gordon his name was, did the job on his own over a couple of weeks hard graft. He didn't like it here an' went back. It's my home, I'm used to the chaotic lifestyle here. Poor Gordon needed order, he said, so he's gone back to Birmingham".
She says Birmingham like an American, stressing the 'ham' at the end in the way that sends 'Brummies' up the wall. Solihull she'd said like 'Sowli-hull'. No wonder Gordon went back to the production line life he'd led before. Mind you, she was a dab hand at driving her wagon, light on the steering wheel, but heavy on the footbrake!
The Hotel Miramar was in the process of window replacement when we pulled up with an ear-splitting screech of wheels at the lobby door. At least the hotel looked something like it did in the brochure - at night anyway. We'd see it in its full glory the following day, without the gold-coloured spotlights and floodlighting. At the back, facing the bay our rooms seemed smaller than they did on the glossy page. Maybe they used wide-angle lenses to make them look bigger. All the same we were glad of the rest, up there on the second floor. The shower worked, even! This was the life at last.
Gloria, our driver, yelled out her name before the 'Landie' vanished into the darkness away from the showy town centre. She'd pointed out President Pokem's sprawling palace behind its high wire fence and chisel-faced Kalashnikov-armed guards.
"Enjoy your vacation!" she'd waved as she sped away again after giving her name. "Give my love to Blighty!" At least it sounded like that.
Angie cuddled up to me in the bed and we were in dreamland almost straight off. Then the lights came on, full, again and we were roused by someone in a uniform that was smothered in official 'scrambled egg'.
"God, not another goon pretending to be a cop!" I said aloud, pulling the pillow over my head. My mistake. The pillow was snatched away by one of his sidekicks and he loomed over me.
"Oh, would you care to elucidate?" This uniform spoke Oxford English, like Philip in the TV comedy series 'Rising Damp'. Come to think of it he even looked like him. I looked around, expecting to see the landlord character Rigsby, but no sign of him. 'Philip' waited for me to start talking. He was not happy with me. He was no happier when I told him about the two uniforms at the other end of the island. "Are you saying my officers are goons?"
The way he said 'goons' sounded like a German officer in a post-War British black-and-white prison camp escape movie.
"I was talking about the two we met when we came ashore". Another mistake.
"You came ashore at the other end of the island", he said in the way you hear Gestapo officers wind themselves up for an interrogation. He looked around the room and back at me. "I know, I was told. Why did you come that way and not into the bay harbour here?"
"It was the way we were brought in. We were told by - er, your officers, that the town was at the other end of the island, about twenty miles away north".
"You know how long the island is?" His left eyebrow lifts slowly, as if it should be a state secret.
"It's in the holiday brochure", I sighed. "...Ten miles wide by twenty miles long. You can't miss it, it's at the top -"
Angie elbowed me to mind my manners. He said nothing more to that but scratched the back of his head with the tip of his baton and then started to slowly slap the baton into the open palm of his left hand, thinking.
"Why did you come here?"
"It seemed a good idea -" Before I could add the words "at the time" Angie elbowed me again, probably thinking I'd cause trouble for her as well. This holiday was fast becoming a nightmare again. 'Holiday'? Who coined that word? What was he going to come back at me with next?
"You sound as though you think coming here was a mistake, Mister Meakin". I couldn't win, could I? I didn't want to say anything but I couldn't stop Angie,
"I'd say it was a bloody mistake, matey! This holiday has been going downhill since even before we got here. Only Gloria's been of any help!"
"Gloria?" The uniform looks at one of his sidekicks, who beckons him and whispers into his left ear. He came back, waggling the little finger of his left hand around in his ear. He coughed for attention, "You will come with us".
"Where?" I asked. "Don't you lot sleep?"
I seemed to keep asking daft questions.
"To see Gloria. I'm sure she won't mind seeing you again so soon". One of his aides pushes my clothes at me and tells me to get dressed.
"What, here, with you lot gawping at me?"
"You might otherwise try to escape", he told me.
"From up here?"
"Get dressed", the number one man tells me with a hint of a smirk. Shen Angie reaches for her clothes he shakes his head. "Not you, lady. We only need him, for now at least".
He leered at her but I could do nothing with all these gun muzzles pointed at me. It sounded ominous the way he said that. I pictured myself in a bare, concrete walled room, me tied to a chair, him behind a desk with a lamp shining in my face, surrounded by his goons with their shirt sleeves rolled up... Maybe I should give up watching war movies. I dressed, showing as little of my manly anatomy as I could. Smirks greeted my efforts but finally I was ready - for what?.We went downstairs to the lobby to await his jeep. Was this what they meant when they said in the brochure about "jeeps being available for hire, to take in the warm, balmy air"?
We left town and sped along in a column, along the island as dawn broke.
It was a scenic island, there was no doubt about it, but my 'holiday-bubble' had been burst and I was in no mood to appreciate it. There was an extinct volcano at the end of the island we came to. A smaller isle lay offshore in shallow waters, which provided the 'saddle' of sand we were dropped off at by Ben.
A dozen or so armed cops searched the hut where we were taken by the two uniforms on arrival. All they found were the clothes minus the guns. The wearers had made themselves scarce, as thin as the mist that rose in the thick forest that rose up the volcano's slopes. Thankfully no dead bodies.were found. Then we went where Angie and I were directed to. The shack was empty - turned out it was a chicken shed anyway - and there were no signs of Gloria or Jerry having been there. Nor was the 'Landie' there any more, although there was engine oil on the sandy ground and stone foundation of a house. Empty cages at the back showed signs of having been occupied. Bits of uneaten small creatures lay on the cage floors, but no scorpions (thank heaven)! Something I hadn't noticed last night was that the whole place was overgrown.
"This place is empty, has been for a while!" The top man was annoyed. "What about this woman... Gloria?"
"She gave us both a lift from here to the hotel Miramar, said she'd worked on the Land Rovers at Solihull and came back home with her old man Gordon - and that he'd gone home".
"Solihull?" The eyebrow arched again.
"It's where Land Rovers are built. Hers had a British number plate on the back still", I told him. It was like telling a Martian what was what on Earth.
The eyebrow rose again, and dropped when one of his underlings came back to him at the shack.
"He's been lying". This underling was an Englishman. "Led us up the garden path, he did".
"You've lied to us, Mister Meakin", the head honcho smiled thinly. "Do you want to know how seriously we take this sort of thing? People enter our office and are never seen again. If you are not straight with me I can arrange for you to disappear too, do you understand, Mister Meakin?"
"I understand and I still say what I told you happened. You can ask -"
"Ask who? Who can we ask - your girlfriend? Be aware I will ask her, with or without your permission. We have ways... And we will wipe that supercilious grin off your face".
I'd had this thought going through my head, "Ve haff vays..." I almost imagined him click his heels and throw up his right arm, palms down.
Ah, those palms. What wouldn't I give right now to see those waving palms.
I haven't been abroad for ages, just in case the nightmare comes back. I haven't seen Angie either, since we got back to Heathrow last year. Still... Got myself another girlfriend called Gloria. though. She's a big girl who likes to drive old Land Rovers off-road in the Welsh hills. She introduced me to Gordon went we went to the Midlands. He did a conversion job on an old 'Landie' I bought myself for a couple of Grand through a used vehicle magazine.
Gloria's used to the stares we get as she puts her foot down on the back lanes. Why should I care? She's a great gal, knows a thing or two about cooking yams that sends me! (Mind, I've put on a few pounds since we met up again).