The red star on a grinning policeman’s hat matched his star-studded, red epaulettes. A passing truck’s noise helped me “ignore” that cop’s whistling attempt to stop me.
Rounding a corner, I looked back. The cop was grinning at Andrew’s passport. My long, late-afternoon shadow reflected my wish to escape.
Andrew ran after me, freckle archipelago stretching across his smiling face.
“Sorry,” he said, “but it’d be bad for us if you disappeared.”
I trudged back, head down. Light crowned Elsa’s blonde hair. She, too, was under arrest.
The cop smiled at my passport’s entry date. I should have been out of Policiasadistica weeks before. Bare patches lightened the cop’s black beard. A black hole, where a front tooth was missing, became a pupil in eye-lips of malicious joy.
He put my passport into his shirt pocket and tapped it contentedly.
The police car’s red taillights resembled blisters, Grinner in the front beside another cop. We rocked over potholes. Breeze fists smacked our faces through open windows.
Why didn’t I run? Not ruthless enough!
“This is bad,” the cop said, his grin exposing brown, broken teeth. “Very bad, indeed.”
Brown lines intersected on those broken teeth, his oily forehead shining like a fluorescent stain.
The police station’s walls were bare. Light cords, without bulbs, hung, like tits on old, female dogs, from the ceiling. A farmer with a black-stubble face spoke incessantly, smiling if looked at. The cop gazes he trapped became pained grimaces of disinterest.
“Someone stole his cows,” Elsa said.
She spoke Policiasadistican.
“Probably the cops,” I replied.
The cops’ weaponry suggested that war was raging, the farmer oblivious that the police weren’t there to do normal police work.
One cop after another glared at us as if we were muck dumped onto their floor by evil. Paint hung off the walls as if clawed beasts had slashed the room.
A handcuffed Gypsy got slapped across the head. Andrew and I groaned. The Gypsy’s eyes shone with terror. He got thumped in the kidneys: his crime: being a Gypsy.
The cop who had arrested us came past and smiled.
“Bad,” he grinned. “I’ve just read the report.”
We were taken into a room. ID cards in cardboard boxes covered the floor. Maybe a lucky dip, the “winners” arrested?
An inspector was at a desk, three chairs against a wall. The inspector screamed into the type of phone my grandmother had had forty years before–lime green, hard plastic, circular dial, big numbers.
Policiasadisticans love screaming, volume implying authority.
The inspector hung up. His straw-coloured, bushy eyebrows resembled Astroturf. His skin’s shininess suggested that microsurgery had increased his puppet appearance.
He looked from Andrew’s passport to Andrew and asked: “Are you really British?”
Andrew didn’t respond.
“Yes,” Elsa replied, “he’s British.”
Andrew looked like a Gypsy. The Gypsies wanted a country like the Jews. Was Andrew working for international Gypsydom?
The inspector enquired about my expired visa. When the truth won’t be enough, we often lie. I told the truth anyway.
“You entered Policiasadistica on a UN van that didn’t stop at the border? Have you got evidence?”
The UN document I showed him indicated when I’d travelled from Laidbacksico to Policiasadistica.
Phone calls were made. The bellowing suggested that vast contingencies abounded.
He said: “Your organisation isn’t registered with us.”
Elsa’s eyes focussed with unnerving fascination.
“He just said that HWB isn’t registered here,” she said.
“Oh, wonderful,” I said.
Illegal immigrants with an illegal organisation, working with ethnic minorities who wanted political change!
The telephone epitomised central-control kitsch. The room’s old heater’s thick grates had the captivating revulsion of big spiders. The authorities were the designers, so everything was kitsch.
The inspector’s sudden enthusiasm suited his arcane unpredictability.
“Produce documents related to your organisation,” he said, “and your visas will be renewed. Okay?”
Elsa handed papers from her backpack to the inspector who spoke pleasantly.
Elsa said: “He’s got a brother in London.”
Why, how civilised! He was “going to look after” our passports until we returned the next day. And he had a brother in London!
“Go home, get a good night’s rest,” he said, “and be back at eight in the morning.”
“Why,” I asked, outside, “couldn’t he have renewed our visas if there was no problem?”
Relief on escaping the police station became serious concern. The inspector had said he was too tired to do the renewal. I boiled with scepticism. Who renews visas at eight in the morning? Did Puppet Astroturf have to discuss our case with others?
We returned to the flat our organisation was renting. Elsa tried optimism. Her low-cut jumper increased her long neck’s elegance.
“What if,” she asked, “he’s telling the truth, and he does intend to renew our visas?”
“At eight in the morning?” I asked.
“Maybe he’s got things to do later,” she replied.
“I’m taking all my stuff with me,” I said.
Immediate deportation was likely–if we were lucky.
“Ending up,” Andrew said, “in a Policiasadistica prison on false charges. What a nightmare!”
Glaring at the ceiling, he swept a hand of fear through his hair.
“It’d be nice to know,” I said, “if they’re supposed to give us time to get our stuff together if they intend to deport us.”
“The law won’t matter,” Andrew replied. “They’ll do whatever they like.”
Horrible-surprise agreement smacked me.
We took everything possible with us in preparation for deportation, without appearing as if we were expecting it; but I suspected this wouldn’t influence the police. They believed they had something remarkable to protect. Having all our possessions with us will probably reduce the incentive of kicking us out, I thought, the pleasure of an abrupt expelling reduced by the victims being prepared for it. I was plunging into my adversary’s mind, acquiring their paranoia.
My small backpack contained clothes, photography equipment, notebooks, and novels. Tension made the sunshine shimmer harshly. Trees’ reflections in the garden beside the police station decorated the tabletop we were sitting around, the shadows’ clarity opposing our uncertainty. Passing cops sneered at us, time now a long singularity. Birds hopped upon branches. How free they looked. Everything else looks free when you’re trapped.
A policeman snorted at us that the inspector would see us “soon,” his face hardening while spitting speech.
“Stay put or else there’ll be even more trouble,” he said.
Illusions about visa renewals sank before the spite parading around before us in red. Ironic release underpinned my uncertainty. I had to feel trapped to feel this escape from having to make decisions–from affecting outcomes–comforted by being in the same predicament as others, a base of low-level liberation upon which emancipation could be built.
A handcuffed prisoner’s uncertainty got magnified by his captors’ scowling eyes. The prisoner’s irises exuded fearful wonderment: his only defence–impassivity which was no defence at all. A cop squeezed the prisoner’s neck. The man’s rising shoulders were his only protection against attack. I felt his kidneys throbbing with anticipation. A fist clobbered those unprotected organs. His knees buckled. His eyes sweated.
“Geeeaawd,” Andrew whispered.
“I’ve got a brother in London,” I said. “Now you just fall into that cell with damaged kidneys and get a good day’s rest. Your kidneys will be renewed in the morning.”
The policeman’s stomach drooped over his belt with gluttonous indifference to beauty. Another cop announced that we had to go to the courthouse for a trial. Our passports were with a magistrate. Instead of visas being renewed, we were going to be facing justice.
Naïve optimism had made us incapable of accepting any departure from the police station without our passports. Hours had passed, no end in sight. Irresolution’s untouchable horizons screamed: Where’s this leading to?
A metal detector blocked the courthouse’s entrance. Neighbouring Laidbacksico had recently had a war in which the repressed, ethnic majority had rebelled against the minority Policiasadisticans, grabbing power. In Laidbacksico, amid rubble, I’d found a bayonet. It was in my bag. A sign said: NO WEAPONS ALLOWED.
Big knives reduce vulnerability; this one was having the opposite effect.
“Well, well, well,” I imagined a cop saying. “Bayonets for humanitarian work?”
Our predicament was already absurd enough. But getting charged with unlawful possession of a weapon, after my imploring that I was a humanitarian, one working for an unregistered organisation, would have……I saw pointless imprisonment.
Elsa was ahead of me, waiting to go through the detector. A woman, trying to get a dog into the courthouse, got stopped by a cop, the mutt’s tongue flapping like a meat windsock in enthusiasm wind. The woman was blocking our way.
I reached around Elsa and stroked the dog’s head.
“Oh, sweet,” I said. “Quick,” I whispered into Elsa’s ear, “move!”
The distracted cop stepped aside as the policeman accompanying us started bellowing orders to the dog’s owner. She tied the dog up to a lamppost outside.
Inside, I told Elsa about the bayonet.
“Imagine,” I asked, “if they found it?”
Policiasadisticans suspected that ethnic Laidbacksicans were building tunnels under Western Policiasadistica to house weaponry. All evidence–amounting to none–suggested this. Maybe I was an arms dealer playing humanitarian?
“You’ve got a bayonet on you!?” Elsa said. “Why?”
“For,” I replied, “peeling oranges.”
“A bayonet!” she hissed.
Her eyes bore into me, my “carelessness” justifying her anger with me for saying “I’ve got a brother in London…..” I didn’t want to talk about it. The cop was listening. Although I doubted he understood English, I didn’t want to risk discovering he was a polyglot. Maybe there was another reason why suspicion lurked in his eyes. I couldn’t work out if that expression resulted from self-consciousness: were we talking about him? Or information gathering?
A long bench ran through a landing at the top of some stairs. Those waiting to enter the courts waited on the bench. A big wall clock suggested that this was a fantastic waste of time. I imagined Dalí clocks melted by overheated irrelevance, obliterated by sapping senselessness.
A heavily made-up woman in a miniskirt kept emerging from a hallway to announce the “winners” randomly selected to face justice. Elsa had asked the policeman who she was; without her my ignorance as to why I was there would have been complete.
Two policemen knocked on a door facing the bench. One asked our cop a question about us. The response elicited the malign cheeriness from the other two that made their jobs so pleasant. They laughed with hard eyes. I yawned.
Brilliant Lips, the clerk of the court, announced a name that ended in “ski.” “Ski,” a hulk, with tangled-up, mangrove hair, lumbered towards her, his substantial muscle just sufficient to move his massive weight, his gait a war between power and gravity.
“He’s been charged,” I told Elsa, “with hurling traffic off a bridge.”
Elsa’s red-faced giggling covered her fear.
“And,” I said, “for strangling the zoo’s gorillas.”
Elsa’s cheeks were vivid-red against her straw-coloured hair.
“Has the national-gorilla-strangling champion fallen on hard times?” I pondered.
Elsa’s cackles caught the cop’s attention. He stared like a shark. If the room had been an aquarium, Shark would have been floating around us, contemplating murder.
My name emerged from the red vanity whacked onto Brilliant Lips’s face. At last, I thought, nonsense is ending.
Brilliant Lips led us to a room. An elderly woman was behind a desk beside a young woman who was sitting before a typewriter–another antiquated object that stimulated childhood memories, the typewriter’s cracking a sound that time had archived into memory’s recesses. The keys to this ancient recording device produced splat, splat, splat, splatting when the elderly woman asked for our personal details. This took half an hour, machinegun interrogation with a sedate face, the information placed upon papers that detailed our alleged offences. The need to appeal to the sensibilities of a bureaucrat had nothing to do with courtesy. It was theoretically possible that this square-faced woman, with thick, black-rimmed glasses, could have been reasonable. An open book on her desk showed the punishments meted out, under the law, related to visa offences. She and her secretary faced us over desks that were small enough to fit into the room. A calendar, with pictures of alpine scenery, decorated the wall behind them.
I was asked if I wanted a lawyer. I confirmed the charges with the magistrate, and also whether legal fees would exceed any potential fine. The magistrate said that a lawyer wasn’t worth it. Even if the charges were dropped, legal costs would exceed the fine. This calmed me with regards to trumped-up charges.
I explained why I was in Policiasadistica without a visa. Her initially gruff demeanour softened. She, I thought, is listening. But is she really the magistrate? Or is she here to take details–already provided to the police–to give to someone else?
Tension was broken when Elsa said: “She’s just asked if you think you’ve committed a crime.”
“A crime!” I laughed.
My cackling caused the magistrate to smile. Even the secretary’s ashen face quivered with amusement.
“She’s asking,” I asked, “for my plea?”
“Oh, yes,” Elsa said.
“Did she actually say crime?” I asked.
“No,” Elsa replied, “I made a mistake. She said misdemeanour.”
I laughed again. The magistrate waited patiently.
“Tell her,” I said, “that nobody commits more misdemeanours here than the police.”
“I don’t think,” Elsa replied, “that’s why she asked the question.”
“Ask her why she asked it.”
“Why do you think she asked it?”
“Who knows? We’re in Policiasadistica. Anything’s possible.”
Elsa informed the magistrate that I was “curious about something.”
“What?” the magistrate inquired.
“The reason,” Elsa replied, “why you’ve asked his opinion regarding his thoughts as to whether he’s guilty or not.”
“Curiosity,” the magistrate replied, smiling.
Elsa beamed while passing the information on.
“Justice,” I said, “with a smile. Does her roulette wheel have a section for not guilty?”
“He said,” Elsa lied, “that there should have been a border check when he re-entered the country from Laidbacksico, and that he should have been given a visa then. He feels this should be considered when making your decision. He thanks you for your kindness in asking.”
The magistrate, or whoever she was, sent us back to the bench. Brilliant Lips would call us after judgements had been passed.
The Blue-Eyed Shark’s restlessness resulted in yawning.
“She was nice,” I whispered to Elsa.
The Blue-Eyed Shark turned his head, revealing vicious, deadpan eyes.
“But was she the magistrate?” Elsa asked.
“I hope so,” I replied.
“What do you think’s going to happen?” Andrew asked.
“We’ll get fined,” Elsa replied.
“Yes,” I said, “but how much?”
“I wasn’t too happy,” Andrew said, “about those questions about salaries.”
“I think,” I said, “they just wanted to make sure the fines’ll get paid.”
“Maybe,” Andrew said, “they want to extract a big whack of cash?”
“If it’s ridiculous,” I said, “I’m contacting the embassy to find out the law regarding fines in civil offences in this country.”
“That’s assuming,” Andrew replied, “you get a chance.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” I replied, “if they kept us here until someone delivers the cash.”
“All the stuff we brought,” Andrew replied, “could then turn out to be useful.”
“We might also get deported on the spot,” Elsa said.
“Hopefully,” I said, “not today. I left some stuff in the flat in Lackafreedia; my films for a start.”
“If we get a chance,” Andrew said, “we’ve got to go there to get everything together before coming back here to pay the fines.”
“Why have you left your films in Lackafreedia?” Elsa asked.
“Because,” I replied, smiling at the irony of the police being the main threat to law and order, “I didn’t know what the security situation was like here before we arrived. Now that I know what it’s like, I wish I’d left myself in Lackafreedia and sent the films instead.”
“What if,” Andrew proposed, “we go to Lackafreedia without our passports and the cops pick us up over there as well?”
“God,” I said.
“Yes, but,” Elsa replied, “in Lackafreedia there are havens the police won’t go into.”
“We’ll just have to catch taxis,” Andrew said.
My patience was proportional to the dread caused by having to face the magistrate again. The Blue-Eyed Shark’s struggle with boredom improved my waiting. He scratched his chin and yawned. His dead, wide eyes studied that “melting” clock, his afternoon wasted by institutionalised paranoia. Fear damages economies. Too many resources enter the worst possible hands for the worst possible reasons because people detest sharing.
Brilliant Lips returned. Her reasonableness would have probably crumbled under the threat of open-mindedness. She would have hurled out the coiled-up fears of a thousand absurdities, losing control, had an outsider raised the subject of human rights, too grateful to be in a system.
Following her, I sniffed fragrances. Her jewellery glittered. Dangerous situations are glamorous; therefore I head for them; but I appreciate that this is bizarre to people who spray themselves with chemicals.
The magistrate faced us. Nervous quiet accompanied Andrew’s deferential movements. He self-consciously deposited himself upon a seat of split leather, white foam visible in broken seams.
“I’m going to fine you all 2,500 winars,” the magistrate said.
A week’s entertainment. I relaxed.
The magistrate said our passports would be returned once the fines had been paid. Elsa and the magistrate talked. Informal gestures complimented their soothing facial expressions.
Elsa said, dolefully amused, “After we pay, we’re supposed to go back to the police to see what they want to do with us.”
It felt like a nail had been driven between my eyes. Andrew and I, in stereo dread, wailed: “Oh, Geeeoood!”
When, I thought, will naïve relief get replaced by real alleviation?
We’d been in a storm we hadn’t seen. Elsa’s face softened into droll mortification. How innocent democracy makes one. We’d assumed that punishment by magistrates, and no one else, was universal, our tiny moral and legal experience creating false universality. I shivered in randomness’s heat.
The Blue-Eyed Shark was asked by the magistrate to sign a document. Eagerly, he did so and left. What would have happened had Shark not been bored? What would have stopped him from imprisoning us until someone produced the winars? The magistrate? The judiciary? Hah! The judiciary only existed to appease the great powers. I was now a master in reality. The first lesson in reality is that there’s a gulf between the judiciary and law enforcement agencies in most places, this hitting me hard and properly. We could easily have been the next victims of this phenomenon, one outside statuette books. Had the Blue-Eyed Shark not been desperate to leave and had he had only just begun his shift and been in the right mood to reinforce the red uniform’s reputation, we would have been facing the black hail of random repression. I wasn’t going to be paying my fine until I’d got my things; then I would decide whether to cross the border or return to the police, hoping they would allow me to stay, enabling me to begin the project I wished to partake in, the latter desirable, but risky.
We huddled in the hallway. Fluorescent-light reflections smeared the walls.
“I was amazed,” Elsa whispered, “when she told me.”
“I’m going to Lackafreedia,” I said, “to get my stuff before I pay the fines.”
“We have to go now,” Andrew said.
We shifted awkwardly; the magistrate was approaching with a policewoman.
“Oh, Gawd,” Andrew grimaced.
“You must,” the policewoman said, “stay in your flat over the weekend. The police could do anything. Get your money and come back on Monday.”
It was late Friday, courts closed on weekends. The magistrate and the policewoman disappeared. We’d just been warned by a magistrate and a policewoman to avoid the police!
“We’ve just been told,” I said, “to depart.”
“Let’s get a taxi now,” Andrew replied.
The sun slipped under the horizon. Car lights beamed. The sky’s pink felt like a reminder of previous naivety.
The absurdity of passing the police station, still illegal, made me think: “You’ve already got my passport, but I need to go to Lackafreedia to get my stuff before I pay the fine in case I end up in prison. But you’re about to arrest me, so I’m about to reappear before a magistrate for the same reason I appeared before a magistrate today, so I will definitely get another fine, creating a cycle of charge and release until I’m imprisoned for non-payment of fines. Is that correct?”
Taxis were parked along the road. Elsa spoke to the driver of the first one, Andrew and I yelping: “It’s too small!”
Elsa spun, saying: “What are you two doing? You care about comfort now!”
Seeing our backpacks, the driver shook his head. Boot too small.
The second was big enough, the driver slow in arranging our backpacks, his movements too lackadaisical for my delicate tastes. He was too concerned about using the space perfectly. He picked my backpack up twice, placing it on its back, then on its side. My temples throbbed. A cop came onto the road. Splintering concern cracked my cranium.
We jumped inside the taxi as the boot’s top came down. The walloping of slamming doors had the charming impact of a Beethoven crescendo. Driver: hit that accelerator, I thought. Stop fucking around with those keys.
The policeman crossed the road and entered a shop.
“The beauty,” I said, “of speaking incomprehensible foreign tongues is that one can express one’s emotions without tarnishing one’s good reputation. Therefore, I’d like to say: you fucking prick! Stop fucking around and fuck off! See, my good reputation remains untarnished, and I feel strangely appeased.”
We cheered as the taxi left; outside Arrestematallcostica, the capital of Policiasadistica, Elsa apologised for her outburst at the first taxi.
No problem,” I said. “Do you think we should see the police after we pay the fines?”
“What’s the worst thing,” Elsa said, “that could happen if we see the police again?–deportation. It’s worth the risk.”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “We’ve been working for an unregistered organisation. Apart from this country’s disregard for human rights, we haven’t got a clue about their tax laws. Help Without Borders might be liable to pay fines for non-registration and non-payment of taxes. We’ve got no idea how we, as employees, fit into this scenario. The cops will visit the flat in Lackafreedia.”
Elsa, pained by this rational pessimism, grimaced. She took inconvenient facts as personal affronts, her eyes burning holes into her porcelain face, my fault things weren’t as her imagination would have liked. I should have asked the UNHCR’s financial director first before puncturing her cherished vision with “darts of cynicism.”
The flat was on the seventh floor of a fifteen-story block of apartments in a grey building of functional stairways that exuded the uneventful comfort I had been uncharacteristically yearning for the previous few days. Abnormal situations produce abnormal reactions.
The ragged plants at the building’s entrance exuded the liberated aestheticism I wished coloured the world. That aestheticism only existed in galleries and in the imagination of the repressed individual who was now crammed into a rectangular space with two others, a claustrophobic ascending that led to another enclosure, larger, but even tighter, where Denae’s pretentious open-mindedness awaited. She epitomised the UN: a dictator, scorning totalitarianism, of false empathy. She nodded with grave consideration as Elsa explained our situation, Denae’s purple-framed designer specs suggesting knowledge: she knew it all, Ronald, the NGO’s new country coordinator, beside her, convinced of his mentor’s wisdom.
“Did that solicitor,” I asked, “comment on penalties for late registration?”
Denae’s hands flew up. Her trauma-hiding façade of cultivated sensibility collapsed before this rationality. Her glasses, slipping down her nose, dishevelled her manicured perfection.
“I’m sure,” she hissed, “that if there had been any problems like that, she would have said so. She’s done this quite a lot before, you know.”
This sharpness revealed the disturbance underneath the marketing her culture demanded she master. Okay, I thought, we’ll see.
Ronald had just replaced the organisation’s local coordinator, the previous one deported for not registering with the police. Denae blamed the last one, Wilbert, for the non-registration of Help Without Borders in Policiasadistica.
“It’s Wilbert’s fault,” she screamed.
Wilbert had refused to sign the forms. The lack of professional advice the organisation had received had inspired him to resist Denae’s attempts to get him to sign, a sore point with Denae.
I tossed a match into the arsenal by saying: “One person can’t be blamed. We’re all responsible.”
She thumped the table and yelped: “It’s Wilbert’s fault!”
I imagined froth foaming around her jowls, her façade ripped from its foundations by clawing trauma. Her days were spent before a computer, immersed in untested abstractions. Policiasadistica’s reality hadn’t transferred from literature into fact in her mind. The IT world, with reports about other people’s excesses, was too abstract to make her see that these realities affected her as well.
Pursuing a marketing order, she calmed down. The gas of infallibility hissed out of her face like oxygen escaping from a damaged spaceship.
I rang the consulate; several phone calls had already been made by them trying to locate me. A voice uttered relief when I informed my interlocutor that I was in Lackafreedia.
“We were worried,” he said. “Someone in your position was jailed last week.”
Fear stopped me from enquiring about the jailed person’s welfare.
“When are you paying the fines?” he asked.
“Tomorrow. If you haven’t heard from us by five,” I replied, “then you’ll know we’re in trouble.”
I returned to the living room. The hallway’s solitude had afforded some relief, this tranquillity obliterated by Ronald’s unctuousness. He smiled obsequiously beside his superior. His faith in her supposed perspicacity revealed his naivety. She tapped on a keyboard while bantering rigidly, her upright back stiff. Ronald laughed at her jokes. She was keeping Ronnie in his Dutch darkness to hide her incompetence. She wanted those papers signed; she wasn’t going to do it herself–a mysterious attitude given she’d been in the country for six months, and that she wanted the registration to happen, Ronald oblivious to contradictions.
I went to the flat’s balcony. Lights dotted the hill overlooking the town. Calming promise, twinkling in the firmament above, contrasted with the uncertainty pulsating within internal worlds below.
I turned from this sweet premonition to face the human realm. Ronald’s chatter resembled Japanese water torture, too hopeful in his young years to see anything sinister beneath the facade beside him. I lay on the sofa and closed my eyes. I couldn’t blame these people for thinking that positive outcomes were likely. Their experience had taught them that positive outcomes happen in civilised circumstances; they just didn’t realise their circumstances weren’t civilised; they couldn’t see they were ants in disturbed randomness. They believed that crossing back into Laidbacksico, then returning to Policiasadistica and registering with the police within a day of arrival, as is required, would solve Help Without Borders’ problems. They giggled in cocoon optimism as my hands swelled, my temples throbbing, Ronald’s obsequious flippancy pounding like uncertainty’s undefined end–both annoying. Equanimity could only be restored by leaving. But I had to get my passport first.
And I hadn’t run! Ruthlessness! Some people are unconscious–they just react. I envy them, jailing now possible, so I envied them even more. Ruthlessness is perspective. Andrew and Elsa wouldn’t have been in a different situation had I run. And will we be in contact with each other after this is over?
I stretched out. Pains flashed in my hands. Aches throbbed in my upper right arm. My nose felt clamped. I had a headache. I also had unsavoury knowledge and Denae, knowing this, clamped communication, tension clamping my temples. Denae resembled the police. The living room, of misleading calmness, bred a silent turmoil of stirred-up ideas that mirrored wider reality. We should be open-minded, unlike those who drag people into police stations on ridiculous pretexts and beat them up; but how can we be enlightened if we maintain repressive status quo for fear of fallibility?
A bar’s noise, crashing through the balcony, thumped out the fact that people were having fun–being free.
Andrew and Elsa unfolded a sofa bed. My head required unconsciousness. Swollen capillaries were throbbing. Something other than insomnia concerned me, so I fell towards sleep like a leaf falling into easy descent.
Night’s black mist engulfed the room, my opening eyes seeing ebony fog. My headache had gone. I had dreamt about border crossings. That morning, after getting the money to pay my fine, I joined Andrew and Elsa in a café. They wanted to stay, Elsa’s eyes shimmering like taffeta optimism. Her imploring attempts to eradicate my “cynicism” came with sweeps of her hands. She was hopeful that the person deciding our fate would be reasonable, a being free of local propaganda, this as beautiful as it was absurd. My hopes weren’t going to colour my judgement, especially as ADRA’s senior coordinator had been deported for overstaying her visa, something that stitched everything up for me. If they were prepared to deport the head of one of the world’s biggest NGO’s I had no chance. The least thing that was going to happen was deportation–the least!
They had forgotten that Wilbert had been beaten him up by the police when being deported.
Andrew felt that the best time to approach the police was mid-afternoon, mid-afternoon too late to deport us; they would take our passports, forcing us back in the morning, time to be prepared.
But Andrew and Elsa weren’t aware of the jailed Brit. Their circumstances differed from mine; their visas hadn’t expired; they had merely failed to report to the police within twenty-four hours of arriving in the country. The jailed individual and I were on expired visas. No question for me about staying.
“I don’t feel like,” I said, “spending the night in prison, just to be carted off the following day. That’s assuming they’d just cart me off and not dump me in some rat-infested cell for God-knows how long and at what cost.”
Elsa’s cheeks bloomed with fiery dismay.
“Why?” she asked, “don’t you just see what happens? They might even let you stay?”
“On the balance of probability,” I replied, “I doubt it.”
Andrew said: “Everyone should make their own decision.”
“But,” Elsa replied, “don’t you think it’s worth the risk? They’re only going to deport you?”
“I might,” I said, “want to come back. If they’re prepared to deport the head of ADRA, why would they let me stay? And how do you know that deportation is all they’d do?”
My “paranoia” watered Elsa’s facial roses to full maturity.
“Look,” I said, “you stay.”
Her small mouth withdrew into diminished, unhappy flesh.
“Everyone’s free to make their own decision,” Andrew reiterated.
My comments about signing registration papers, and the likelihood of a police visit, were the workings of a paranoid idiot–apparently.
“Let’s get a taxi,” I said, “say, about two? Taxis are the only things I feel safe in.”
Elsa shook her head, not believing that the flat had become a risky place–or that anything was possible in and outside it.
“I’ll ring for one here,” Andrew said.
It pulled up at the entrance. Cops were sauntering across the facing square, the “missile silos” of the Islamic quarter beyond a nearby river. A heatwave flushed me all over. The police observed Andrew–perhaps divine intervention caused them to get distracted by the Gypsies who were arguing in a park on the other side of the square, the Gypsies fighting over money. The taxi made it to a main road, the police’s attention another reminder that Andrew was mystery for the locals.
“Thank God,” he said, “for my beloved brothers.”
“They’ve just saved you another fine,” I suggested.
Only when outside of Lackafreedia did our heart rates fall. Psychosomatic responses to red, now frequent, were sending pulses into overdrive.
The taxi stopped at the grandly titled Halls of Justice. The last time there, I’d had the weapon that was now in my main backpack. The metal detector wasn’t on; this wasn’t relevant because a policeman in the reception beside the detector had our passports. He examined the papers handed to us by the post office where we had just paid our fines, his sluggishness due to minimal literacy, each word examined, index finger a marker, sometimes raised, then deposited at a new place. He asked questions, reviewing our cases. His face was round, docile, surprised, Elsa’s agitation with this slowness expressed by her hissing: “This guy’s so thick!”
I wasn’t concerned by intellectual deficiencies; it was his attitude that interested me. Was he contemplating getting an escort to imprison us? He made a call, a threshold moment. He hung up. His voice had been gentle for a Policiasadistican. His facial expression remained unaltered. He handed our passports over. Elsa declared: “My God, Einstein he isn’t.”
Elsa and Andrew decided to return to the police. I waited in a café. I dashed through its front door and hid in its dark recesses. From the back, through the well-lit slit of the front door, I watched Elsa and Andrew’s silhouetted figures entering the police station. They were stopped by a cop who waved his arms around in a flurry of explanation. Elsa and Andrew came back up the driveway. An unexpected twist in proceedings had occurred that shouldn’t have surprised me; but again I had been surprised, not possible to predict events in Policiasadistica, where outsiders mistakenly connect prediction with experience.
Andrew and Elsa had to buy forms from a newsagent’s before their eligibility to stay could be contemplated.
“We spend weeks,” I laughed, “avoiding that joint, and when you try to get into it, you can’t!”
“If you want,” Andrew said, “you can go back to Lackafreedia now.”
“And miss the action?”
“It could,” Elsa said, “take hours.”
“If you,” I replied, “aren’t out of there by five, I’m contacting the embassy.”
They entered a newsagent’s; then I saw them coming back. Another discussion with the same cop occurred. The cop walked with them to the top of the driveway. His arms rose and straightened and swung. I heard him from where I was sitting in the café–despite the traffic. Pointless volume reflected the sterile idiocy he represented.
Andrew and Elsa entered the café to announce that they had to go to another newsagent’s. The last one had run out of forms.
“These people,” I said, “love thwarting ambition.”
My comment hadn’t been serious; then I realised just how serious it was.
They left the café again. Being an uninvolved spectator had become an entertaining luxury.
The cop who’d handed over our passports in the Halls of Justice crossed the road. He was short and compact, his watchful eyes looking around as he moved his stubby limbs. He carefully observed with sensitive timidity, avoiding eye contact; sympathy drenched the normally dry plains of my attitude towards the red uniform. He had done the best he could do; given his poor education, he wasn’t left with the choices I possessed. He disappeared to undertake some personal business.
Andrew and Elsa entered the police station again. This time they were allowed in.
Ten minutes later, they reappeared.
Elsa said: “The inspector won’t be back for two days. They asked us to come back then.”
“These people,” I replied, “are having the times of their lives.”
My smile was removed when Andrew said: “We were told to wait inside for two days.”
“You mean,” I replied, “a cop told you to avoid the cops?”
“Time,” I replied, “to move.”
Fortunately, there wasn’t any shortage of drivers in Policiasadistica who were chasing quick winars.
Pink clouds again sat over the police station, the falling sun mellowing an unfathomable world. Two more days! Patience was being plied out of us by gnawing restriction. We depend on the knowledge that pleasures, without uncertainties, await. We need guaranteed islands of relief in this sea of absurdity.
I rang the consulate from the apartment in Lackafreedia.
“Can I spend time at your place over the weekend?” I asked.
“You mean the morning?” the Consulate General asked.
That night in a restaurant, Denae claimed that the pizzas were superb. They tasted like cardboard topped by dry cheese. Ronald, maintaining the illusion that everything would now run smoothly, smiled, and chatted, glad I was supposed to be facing the police in two days. He suspected I’d be deported, and that Andrew and Elsa wouldn’t be. Therefore, the project could begin with me gone. I exerted a bad influence over whether the police should be faced and Denae had managed to deposit her fears about this into Ronald’s misty head.
“We spent hours in the police station because HWB isn’t registered,” I said. “They spend hours checking us out.”
“Rubbish!” Denae belched. “It’s your private situation. You should’ve got another visa.”
“The van went straight through the border.”
“You should’ve gone straight to the police on arrival.”
“Have you got any idea of what these people are like? Why don’t you go to the police here yourself, instead of charging back to Laidbacksico?”
She hadn’t registered with the police either.
“I don’t even know why I’m having this argument,” she screamed, “I don’t even give a shit!”
Andrew’s face suggested that he had bitten a lemon, the same look he had produced when seeing Gypsies being thumped by the police.
“Look,” I said, “I appreciate you don’t care. The point is I’m leaving–tomorrow!”
My comment ignited the powder keg under Ronald’s thin geniality.
“You can’t leave!” he said, clenching a fist. “You must see this through. You can’t just run. Think of what might happen to the organisation!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked. “I’ve got no chance of being able to stay. I’ve overstayed a visa–even though I was outside the country! They’re going to throw me out! And that’s the least they’re going to do!”
Thumping silence pounded. Despite Ronald’s ignorance of the arbitrariness of justice, Andrew knew that the new coordinator should have at least inquired as to why I considered fleeing a viable option. All interest in speaking fled out of me. Another aspect of freedom: having sympathetic listeners.
Ronald had said he was going to go to an internet café after eating. I couldn’t wait for him to leave. I hadn’t realised how much I craved for free speech, how much I’d taken it for granted, how lucky I’d been in having understanding people with whom I could express my views.
I went to the toilet. The longer I spend in here, I thought, the less time there’ll be to endure Deny Denae and Restricting Ron–the communication clamps. The uneasiness stimulated by their syrupy insincerity was rising. The capacity they had to arouse negative emotions demonstrated that dictatorship has no typical face; it’s as varied as liberty itself.
Ronald’s departure resembled a cool breeze on a searing day. Denae told Elsa about lack of confidentiality in Germany caused by CD ROMs in public libraries that contained personal information about German citizens. Her hands waved as if this animation had something to do with what she was thinking: the names, addresses, marital status, partners, and professions of Germans were available for public inspection. Denae elucidated with the self-possession that deluded people into thinking that she knew what she was talking about or that she cared, her face, of dramatic gravity, punctured with eyes that beamed shallowness, her lack of conviction emerging from the abstract nature of a life free of experience, reports not conveying to her their real essence, her hands frenzied with pretentious concern. She couldn’t have cared less about Germany’s attitude towards information, the lack of fire in her eyes contrasting vividly with her flying hands.
“Anything could happen,” she concluded.
Her speech had reinforced the female bond. Elsa’s admiring eyes soaked up her coordinator’s “wise, shocked perspicacity.” Those irises had become sponges of appreciation, absorbing the facade of concern in Denae’s speech.
“With this information available,” Denae said, “it’s just madness.”
Satisfied that Elsa’s view of her was still intact, despite my perception, this issue of confidentiality became as irrelevant to Denae as she considered it to be, its existence a vehicle for the reassertion of her hope in her infallibility.
She fell back into her seat, puffing on a cigarette, relief in her eyes as she announced her departure. Relief, a release from the prison constructed by the cage of Denae’s personal entrapment, caused me to utter: “I could use another drink.”
We ordered wine; it was darker than the red that caused trepidation.
“What an outburst,” I said, “from Rocket Ship Ron.”
Andrew said: “Shame about you. Just think of the organisation!”
“What do you mean?” Elsa asked.
“What do we mean?” I asked. “Do you expect me to put myself at the mercy of the police just to avoid HWB having its reputation soured with other groups in this country!?”
Elsa tilted her head towards me in preparation for an assault. I was ready. If you have a bombshell, wait for an appropriate moment to explode it.
“Why,” she asked, her hands waving like banners of “sense” in the supposed winds of my irrationality, “are you so concerned about avoiding the police? At worst, they’re only going to deport you.”
I bleated out: “Have you wondered why the embassy spent all day yesterday trying to contact me? Do you think they wanted to invite me to next year’s annual dinner?”
Elsa pulled her head and hands back, the missile perched on the launch pad.
“Why then?” she asked.
Her voice gained agreeability.
“Someone in my situation was jailed last week. A Brit.”
Gasps emerged from their mouths.
“Now you know,” I said, “why I’m not thrilled with Rocket Ship. He and that fucked-up bitch you admire so much could have at least asked. If I knew they were just going to deport me, no problem, I’d get a free lift back to Laidbacksico. Do you think I’d knock back a free lift? Unfortunately, I don’t fancy financial ruin in a fucking cell in Policiasadistica. Do you? And don’t you know that they didn’t just deport Wilbert? They beat him up!”
“There’s another thing, too,” Andrew said. “David said there might be tax implications for anyone who signs the registration papers.”
Elsa wanted me to elaborate.
“No,” I said.
I’d lost faith in her listening skills.
She asked Andrew to tell her what I’d told him.
“Correct me,” he said, looking at me, “if I get something wrong.”
He explained that there might be indirect taxation problems for the person who signs–that Policiasadisticans had visited Britain to examine its indirect tax system with the intention of implementing it here.
He spoke slowly and accurately. Elsa’s puffed-up astonishment deflated.
“What I can’t work out,” I said, “is how much Denae knows. Whatever, she wants The Ship to sink in a quagmire of ignorance.”
“When you were in the toilet,” Andrew said, “I tried talking about taxes, but Denae kicked me under the table while sticking her index finger against her lips. Ronald didn’t notice.”
“Ha!” I laughed.
Denial Denae, I thought, is snuffing out potential accusations of incompetence, baby Ron minced in her control mechanism.
“We can’t walk around the streets freely,” I said, “and we can’t stay in the flat.”
“What’s wrong with the flat?” Elsa asked.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“You tell me.”
“The police,” I said, “are going to visit it. HWB still isn’t registered.”
“Oh, come on,” she panted.
“Fine,” I said.
“Why do you think they’re going to visit?” she asked.
“Why?” I asked. “This organisation is helping people who this country’s government wants to repress and this organisation is illegal. That’s why!”
She slunk back into her seat, pulled in by magnetic consideration, her eyes widening as if exposed to weird light. Reality often has that type of luminosity.
“And this is what would happen anywhere,” I said. “The only difference is that the police here aren’t bothered by decorum. Deportation is the least they’d do if I gave them a chance. Hence, I’m leaving. Why do you think the police here keep warning us to avoid the police? Because they want to kill us with generosity?”
The silence that followed–that absence of undesirable sound–was lovely.
Freedom also implies not having to explain yourself after having explained yourself.
Next morning, my eyes shot open like a spring fired by light. Denae was preparing to leave. She induced mental palpitations. She intended to cross the border and then come back and register with the police. Fortunately, she didn’t hang around for long; it was still well before nine. I wanted to leave before working hours began.
Weightless sapphire filled the windows. Too bad, I thought, I’m not in the mood to enjoy that blue radiance, my mind gripped by the alert, surreal tiredness that pressure induces. Sickly gleams touched familiar objects.
The door was locked. I’d been creeping around in preparation for a sneaky departure and Denae had locked the door! And I didn’t have a key!
“Jesus!” I hissed.
I rifled through Andrew’s pockets, searching for a key, another unexpected obstacle. Since being stopped by the police I’d oscillated between fear and relief, the coming and going of these extremes seemingly orchestrated by a malign intelligence that fired up gnawing uncertainty. My morning eyelids had been blasted open by two facts: jailing; and the deportation of ADRA’s senior coordinator, both motivating. All I had done in moments of relief was re-enter that blindness that deludes us into feeling that absurdity doesn’t exist; and if it does, it can’t last for long because it’s just too ridiculous. Like hell! Ridiculousness is perennial, the norm. The fact that I was locked inside a flat I was desperate to escape from epitomised absurdity’s creativity. In this century alone, millions have died in ridiculous circumstances. Has one day ever passed without repressive absurdity not undermining the world’s innocents? Not one! Only now, in the West, where a certain freedom exists, are we innocent enough to apply our unreal logic to the realities of human existence; and what happens when we discover that our logic is wrong? Yes, we say it’s ridiculous! Of course it’s ridiculous! It’s always been ridiculous!
I was now doing something ridiculous: rifling through other people’s pockets. Andrew and Elsa were intertwined on the sofa bed. Every pocket, and there were quite a few, yielded nothing; so I went through them again. Why not repeat ridiculousness ad infinitum? After all, why does this universe exist? Surely that’s its purpose–to promote ridiculousness! Our mental chaos has evolved in the universe’s mathematical precision. We dream we can replace the within with the without–and how we dream.
I found the key. I’d only been up a short time–I hadn’t even left the flat–and already my emotions had been spun like chips in a lottery barrel, the hand of titillated ridiculousness reaching in to choose the next state. For days, I’d swung between fear and transitory comfort, like suffering from a virus. A virus! That’s it! Viruses are invisible: they appear unexpectedly, hitting without warning. In our dizzy cocoon of Western “logic” we don’t consider if places like Policiasadistica deserve their poor reputations, especially if, on the surface, there were also cars and buildings and nice-looking people, just like in any other place; and just like in any other place, the sun shines, and the breeze sways trees. Some people even smile; often the police even ignore you–all perfectly normal. So what’s the fuss? I’ve never had a bad experience, so why should I have one here?
Viruses remain unconsidered if you think you’re safe from them, limited experience misleadingly comforting.
I put the key back into the pocket where I had found it after opening the door. Light touched Andrew’s sleeping face. He and Elsa were breathing with a comfort I was hoping to experience later that night. First: book on the UNHCR’s four o’clock bus to Laidbacksico. The earlier I get to the UNHCR the better. The security of discovering I can catch their bus will produce a positive certainty in this unpredictability, putting absurdity’s dark hand back into its black glove.
I nipped through side streets, worrying about the police headquarters down the road from the UNHCR, a visual confrontation with red inevitable. At least I knew where to expect it.
I stayed away from busy streets and shopping centres. High concentrations of people spread viruses. The high walls lining the streets I walked down appealed to my need for obscurity. I slipped down a dusty alley. A black cat slithered through an open gate. I emerged onto a roundabout. People were on benches in the roundabout’s centre. The UNHCR’s offices faced the benches. A man wearing a blue safari vest entered the UN’s offices over which blue flags were flying.
Red uniforms filled a door down the road, red in police-station grey. My temples dread-panged. A car park was filled with UN vans. The blue-vested security guard’s dark expression contrasted with his helpfulness.
Inside the UN’s offices, I felt free, redusperilitis negative, like receiving a vaccine in a clinic devoted to eliminating diseases. But clinics spread diseases too.
My temples cleared like pink twilight after rain. An ethnic Laidbacksican smiled. He rang to check if I could take the four o’clock van.
He put the phone down and said: “Quarter to four, here,” he said.
“Thanks,” I replied.
Outside, red writhed around the police station’s front door, like germs magnified by repression’s microscope, slithering across the glass plate of an innocuous background. I fled as if fleeing from an epidemic. Cops flashed by on motorbikes. My heart pumped: The virus’s first symptom: stress.
I went to a restaurant, rapid service a plus, the restaurant’s location also significant: a narrow side street without traffic. I ordered kebabs. The first chomp got interrupted by my noticing a white van, eagles stamped on its side, beaks ajar below “Security.”
I’d even contemplated returning to Arrestematallcostica and confronting the police! But now I was witnessing two cops observing an internet café used by foreigners. I had used that internet café myself.
Observation increases with the virus’s first symptoms. Original obtuseness puts you in an ignorant malaise–the phase when the virus seems harmless. But here was evidence of its effects. They waste time watching! Unbelievably silly! Just watching!
My pretence of casualness–I glanced idly away–didn’t reflect my endeavours to finish my food. My cheeks bulged hamster-like. Each kebab represented time, temporal-unit consumption, disappointing wasting a hunger on this, all niches infiltrated by the virus, millions threatened by contagion, no immunising rights, forced to hide to avoid carriers.
The police located a target. The victim opened his palms out, pleading for common sense. He got pushed into the van, ignorance replaced by fear. The former condition enables one to swan through places with misguided laxity; the second yields a smothering uncertainty that only crossing borders can eliminate.
I was overjoyed about the police’s departure. I’d had my turn, now it was someone else’s. But I couldn’t afford cockiness. I dashed through a housing estate to a main road, looking for a taxi. I felt exposed on main roads, as if naked.
A taxi was parked down the road. I waved. The driver’s movements were cumbersome.
Useless prick! I thought. I got into his cab.
“Come on, you useless fucker! Move!” I muttered.
In the cab, relief became cheeriness. The smiling driver, elbow out an open window, seemed inoculated against the pestilence. One day, I hoped to be driving a car the same way: lightly touching the wheel, grinning, elbow protruding.
We arrived at the embassy. I tipped the driver, guilty for having called him a prick. He called me “a good man.” You should have heard me ten minutes ago, I thought.
A woman, possibly called Gloria–flaming-red hair and glittering gilt jewellery–opened the door, producing a cosmetic supernova.
She smiled and said: “Hello.”
“Hello,” I said, “I’m David Coulton.”
“Oh, yes. Come in.”
The sofa I sat on was like floating on feathers. A plant under Her Majesty’s face spouted greenness against yellow. I longed for the plant’s unrestricted growth.
“Come into my office,” the consulate general said.
We sat on leather seats. His photographed wife was on his desk.
“Smoke?” he asked, indicating to cigars.
“What I’m about to say,” he said, “can’t be repeated until you’re a long way from here.”
A spoon chiming against porcelain caused my neck to tingle as tea was being made. I was undergoing remission.
He mentioned “tourist tax”–arbitrary fines given by the police–adding: “There’s no guarantee you’ll only be deported.”
I told him I was leaving on a UNHCR van at four o’clock.
“Do you mind if I spend some time here?” I asked. “I don’t want to go back to my apartment or be seen on the street.”
Denae had asked me why I hadn’t gone to Policiasadistica’s embassy in Laidbacksico to get a visa before getting into that ill-fated UNHCR van. Unbelievable! Policiasadistica having an embassy in Laidbacksico! Laidbacksico didn’t even have a government. The war had just finished. They were still working out how to conduct elections. No one even knew how the police were going to be controlled or who was going to run the sanitation services or the fire brigade, let alone if it was appropriate to have diplomatic relations with a country that had ethnically cleansed Laidbacksicans. An embassy in Laidbacksico! Huh!
“I see,” the consulate general said, “that you’re having a good time.”
He’d heard me chuckling. Stress release had caused chortling parachutists to leap from my mouth, indiscriminate laughing another sign of remission.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” I said, “if I told you why.”
He emerged from his office, his countenance round and curious, like one of those ruddy-faced, Panama-hat-wearing chaps who tell witty tales about foreign adventures at dinner parties. I explained.
“Oh,” he said, tilting his head, as if struck by fist facts, “and she plays a key role in your organisation?”
“Yes. I think she’s going to find herself on a vertical learning curve with a section devoted to self-awareness.”
“Perhaps,” he smiled, “you could send an email of your accumulated wisdom.”
“Her response would be unprintable.”
Later, he ordered me a taxi. I wanted to see Andrew and Elsa before I left. They were behind the apartment in a park, a sensible place to hide, an almost police-free zone–if that was possible.
I sat with them on a bench. The ragged shadows before us resembled reflections torn from a more beautiful reality. People were walking dogs. Wind hissed. Distant traffic’s droning emerged from an unapproachable world nearby.
I mentioned the four o’clock bus. A simple remark: anyone should be free to make it. But it wasn’t only governments who detested freedom. Governments only reflect popular moods. There were at least two people who would not have appreciated my decision. One was out of the country, the other in the flat.
“We thought so,” Andrew said. “Jailing’s not worth it.”
“I’ll break the news to Ronald when I grab my bags,” I said.
“He said he can’t stop you from going,” Andrew replied.
“What are you two going to do?” I asked.
“We haven’t decided,” Andrew said.
“The consulate told me to go,” I replied.
“What did he say about us?” Elsa asked.
“Fifty percent chance of deportation.”
I imagined a passing grandfather saying: “Targets on bench forty-two. Plan seven?”
Andrew wanted to know what I’d been told by the consulate.
“Bribes by lawyers are normal,” I said. “I’m not facing another magistrate here.”
I was grateful they came back to the flat with me. Ronald’s presence was constricting. I felt sorry for him, to be honest. He was too young to be conscious of the sharp edges his attitude forced from his head at multivariate angles, the edges’ brittle spikes waiting to be snapped by reality.
I said: “Ronald, I’m going.”
He glanced from behind a computer screen. His face displayed a benign evenness of temper previously unseen. For once he looked genuinely thoughtful.
“It’s your decision,” he said. “I can’t stop you.”
I decided it’d be cruel to let him know my thoughts. Fate would do that. It’s a fine teacher–better than us.
We shook hands.
“Anyway,” he smiled, “everything should be all right from now on.”
He had convinced himself the police wouldn’t be visiting. I thought: Why destroy illusions? The police are paid for that, not me.
“Sure,” I lied.
In the lift, Andrew asked: “Sure about what?”
He and Elsa had been waiting outside in case the police had shown up.
“About nothing,” I replied. “Avoid this place this afternoon.”
“We will,” Andrew replied.
They waited for my taxi to leave before returning to the bench behind the apartment. Just after I left, the police arrived. Ronald hadn’t locked the door. The reds burst in; germs do that, unconcerned about their victims’ moral conditions, evidence that benign Gods don’t exist, certainly not the God many hope rules. Maybe God is principles-destroying bacteria?
Andrew sent me an email that I read the following day. Ronald had been staring out of the window, face redder than usual, as Andrew and Elsa had entered the flat to change their clothes.
Ronald had said: “The police came–“
“I don’t know. We couldn’t speak to each other. They didn’t speak English.”
“What did they do?”
“They looked around to see who was here.”
Andrew wrote: He was shocked. Optimism shattered.
Ronald, typically Dutch, had assumed his grip on reality was indisputable, confusing belief with knowledge. He was so young he thought his experience was universal, reliant upon order, vulnerable to Denae’s manipulation.
“I told him,” Andrew told me, “that if Elsa, myself, David and Denae had all been here there would have been a major problem.’
Ronald had agreed. Events had affected his trust. He’d trusted Denae whom he then suspected of realising that the police had more than just a passing interest in HWB. Maybe David was right? Maybe we’d been held for so long because HWB wasn’t registered? He was desperately honest, painful watching him facing facts. Ascension into awareness is often wretched. We seek this ascension, oblivious of the pain involved; enlightenment is pricey.
“The following,” Andrew told Ronald, “is only my opinion. I don’t want you to be tough on Denae, but I think she’s, ironically,’ (apparently, he stressed “ron”), “in denial. She got here weeks before the last coordinator so she thinks people will say she should have organised HWB’s registration herself. That’s probably why she went mad when David suggested that we were held by the cops for more than for visa infringements. Policiasadisticans are paranoid. They don’t throw people out because of visa infringements. They’re worried about outside interference. It sounds incredible, particularly when you wander around here freely, feeling safe, but beneath the surface there’s turmoil. Too bad Denae isn’t more relaxed about her role. But that’s life. Elsa and I think staying’s pointless. We’ll probably be deported–bare minimum. David didn’t tell you he’d been warned by the consulate that he could be jailed. This happened to someone in his position last week. Let’s say David was sensitive to red.”
“So why,” Ronald asked, “didn’t he tell us this himself?”
“David can’t speak to people he perceives as narrow-minded. But he can be quick at arriving at that conclusion. Unless he’s got one hundred percent attention, he won’t bother.”
“And he thinks,” Ronald asked, “I wouldn’t have listened?”
“Probably,” Andrew replied. “Anyway, he said he’d ring from Laidbacksico if he gets there. He was worried.”
“Do you think,” Ronald inquired, “there’s something else I should know?”
Andrew glanced at Elsa.
“Yes,” Elsa said.
“What?” Ronald asked.
Andrew told me he thought Ronald resembled a lost child, like kids he’d seen in care homes. He explained that he had once signed a paper making him the director of a company he wasn’t managing that crashed. He ended up owing money to Inland Revenue. He felt obliged to let Ronald know that he could be facing a similar dilemma; as Andrew explained the dangers of signing registration papers, Ronald’s face hollowed. Denae had told him there would be no problems with signing. You, Andrew told me, would have said: “The Ship exploded on the steep launching pad of Unexpected Education.”
Andrew asked Ronald: “Do you mind if I make a suggestion?”
“No,” Ronald replied, “go ahead.”
“Get Germany to confirm that you’re not under any unforeseen obligations if you sign. They’re under a major obligation to ensure that their response is accurate.”
“And,” Ronald asked, “what about Denae?”
“Tell her,” Andrew replied, “that you’re waiting for an email from Germany. David thinks Denae’s probably had too smooth an existence, no foul-ups; because this might look bad for her–for the first time in her life–she doesn’t know how to deal with it. I wouldn’t worry about her. Wait for Germany’s response. At least you’re safe from the police.”
During their chat, that I heard about the following day, I was charging across town. The world’s facade of cars, buildings, shops, grass and trees, and the people’s self-absorption as they wandered along pleasant streets, made repression seem theoretical, like a front covering uncertainty; through this front, worry’s rivers gurgled, something like dark matter making things opaque.
I fled into the UNHCR’s offices. A coagulation of red down the road had made my fizzing temples pound. The man who had booked me onto the UN van said: “Sorry. The van’s not going. There’s a disturbance in Laidbacksico.”
My head felt as if it had been smacked between drum symbols. Weeottt!! Hope’s fragile mesh had been ripped again by the scythe of bitter surprise.
Disbelief placed spider-web cracks across the screen through which I was viewing reality.
“Gawd!” I snapped.
I shook my head, staring at the ceiling.
The statistical charts on the walls, related to refugees, flattened down refugee-despair’s collective gasp to a mathematical purity behind which we could sit without being reached by essential information’s lashing tentacles.
“Are you saying there’s no public transport?” I asked.
I was sick of UN inaccuracies. I left without another word. The man I had shouted at was the victim of me being clobbered by yet another unexpected obstacle; and I’d also heard so much nonsense from UNHCR employees over the previous three months that I felt it was time that I let at least one of them know my thoughts about their misconceptions. Public transport would be operating. Because I suspected that the police would be visiting the apartment, I couldn’t go back there and wait another day. I had no option but to step onto the roulette wheel of public transport. A tense trip across town on foot, past ubiquitous, hot, lurid, vivid red, awaited.
I walked quickly. Ignorance inspires meritorious action, an achievement for the informed to bite the bullet of fate and plunge into the clouds of uncertainty that envelope our wishes, the ignorant failing to see the mists. I was conscious of the dangers that youth’s bright firmament didn’t illuminate. Somebody once said: Whilst timorous consideration ponders, audacious ignorance hath done the deed. By not standing around for a taxi, and by charging across town on foot, I was exhibiting the audacity of the ignorant, but displaying the knowledge of the informed, perfect for whipping up stress.
Lackafreedia’s central square is huge if you’re trying to cross it quickly. Vision pierces from everywhere. A bridge crosses the river to the bus station. The square’s cobblestones intertwine glitter and dullness, falsifying distance, like tricks of the eye.
Gypsies were in a park; a kid emerged from their surreal picnic and flew across the cobblestones, his white jeans stained, his face over-tanned. He grabbed my left leg and screamed, my advance halted. The German panzer divisions could have used infantry like this. I tried shaking him off; he clung on, conspicuous in the most popular place in town! Why hadn’t I waited for a damn taxi?
I threw coins, the clatter heard from across the square. The kid charged off, gripped by the possibility of someone else getting his bounty.
Another Gypsy was begging on the island in the centre of the road at the bridge’s beginning. She held up a cup. A police motorcyclist appeared from a side street. The bike whined, spluttered, and howled, like the nuisance it was. I looked away. Subconscious accumulations tell us that survival in the amoral cosmos depends upon effective use, or perhaps selective non-use, of eyesight. I waited to see if my life was going to be irreversibly changed. Metal plates whirled in my brain. My headache had grown, like fungus spreading through my brain.
The motorbike’s roar drifted away. If these people could take holidays in The Riviera there wouldn’t be a problem. But they live in a frustrating cocoon, no release, horizons short.
Above the curving bridge’s horizon was a minaret. The bus station was in the city’s Laidbacksican quarter, refreshing normalcy gurgling in the bustle. Taxi drivers, newsagents, waiters, cafés, food peddlers……It throbbed like an excited heart. I was amazed by the police’s absence. Police-state police thrive where the frequency of opportune arrests is high, like bacteria in hot, windless spots. But there wasn’t a policeman in sight, a positive, unexpected twist at last! I suspected it couldn’t last. It didn’t.
The woman in the ticket office waved her hands to indicate “no” when I said: “Dowotevayarlika,” Laidbacksico’s capital. The bus wasn’t going to be going there, but to some other place whose name was unrecognisable. I bought a ticket anyway. Crossing the border was paramount. The bus was supposed to be doing that, the cost more than expected. The money I’d thrown away to distract the Gypsy would have made the difference. The bus was leaving in ten minutes. The ticket officer printed the tickets from a computer. I ran to the money exchange. Someone was waffling to the person behind the counter; someone else tried usurping my position in the queue by slipping their notes on the counter ahead of mine. Individual battles occur everywhere, small-scale cheating festering, opposing scripts. In this script you had the right money. You paid to get a ticket to the place you wanted to go to, then the bus left. But this was Policiasadistica, home of the arbitrary, where authority’s tormenting of strangers was as natural as a child’s smile.
I got my money with sixty seconds to spare. My hopes in that precise instant were hysterical in comparison to that long, lavish hunger that real ambition inspires.
At the entrance to the bus car park, two cops were talking to a local. Please, I instructed myself, act calmly. I moved with misleading imperturbability to where the tickets had to be shown to enter the station proper. A glance from one of the cops flashed chrome worry in my temples. The cop looked back at his interlocutor. Relief inspired me to run. The driver was in the bus, its engine churning. So were my thoughts. The bus moved. I smacked its side. The bus halted at an obtuse angle to the parking lines. The driver let me on. Sweat cooled my back. The wet patches on my shirt formed humid islands in a sea of parched fabric. I showed my ticket. The right one! An incomprehensible language, with an incomprehensible alphabet, just what I had also needed! I had been convinced the driver would shake his head and say: “Wrong bus.”
I sat down. Shut that fucking door, I thought, and move! Someone else was now running across the bus station, doing what I had done, me thinking: MOVE! Seconds before I had been pleading to a God I didn’t believe in to stop the bus from leaving. Now the bus couldn’t shift fast enough. Mind-eating Redusperilitis causes hypocrisy.
The bus left. I wiped sweat from my face. Someone lifted up the window in the roof. Soothing air rushed in; concern’s tides rose again: the border. A policeman was going to see my illegality. Mood, not established procedure, would decide my fate. We hope justice exists, but we’re puppets before random grace or spontaneous malignity.
A whirring wheel spun within me, the magnetism it produced yielding fields of stress. The border, a type of destiny, crept closer, increasing anxiety, impossible to keep destiny down; someone in the frontier environs of nebulous disorder was going to see a passport of mysterious inconsistencies, its treasures readily available to the malicious mind. I wondered who it would be. What mood were we both going to be in at that moment?
A river meandered through forested mountains. Boulders whitened flowing waters. Autumnal hues reflected my mood. The road curved where vehicles were queuing. The queuing might have been caused by the “disturbance” in Laidbacksico.
We stopped at the end of the queue. My estimation of the time it would take to reach the border wasn’t helped by seeing many people, disillusioned with waiting, leaving their buses to walk to the frontier, families lugging luggage, like refugees escaping war.
Feeling tormented by nefarious omniscience struck when I saw a cop in the middle of the road–a rotund germ directing traffic. We’d been dumped into the slow queue. The knowledge I could have been in one of the UN vehicles that were flashing by on my left tossed frustration into my steam-bath of stress that was fogging my future. In a stationary vehicle, I was a target without inoculation. And, yes, UN vans were crossing the border!
The driver got the all-clear to move; unfortunately, he crept into a forbidden spot. A cop’s right arm jerked angrily. Police eyes flashed. These police took misdemeanours as personal affronts, men chosen for their distaste for disobedience.
The big germ ran towards the bus and bashed on its door. I was convinced he would enter. But he just stood outside, ranting. The driver’s hands expressed apologetic guilt. The excessiveness of the driver’s obsequious gesturing indicated his fear of the whimsical use of power that Policiasadistica’s police employed. This was going to be a painful crawl. Police cars were parked along the road. Impatient walkers lugged luggage past accumulating cars. If a policeman appeared on the road beside the bus, I feigned sleep. I’d been told by Laidbacksicans that I looked like one of them, so I hoped the police would agree, merely a local going home.
The driver left the bus, holding papers, his disappearance due to his audacious manoeuvring. I was now paying for it. The door had been left open–a hole through which germs could have swept in, each second passing with portentous brutality.
UN vans continued racing by on their way to the border. So much, I thought, for the “disturbance.” NGO’s think they’ve got fresher insights than the locals, another form of colonialism; in crisis places, they spread economic and spiritual messages; in the grand tradition of conquerors, the cultivated knowledge of local opinion gets deemed unreliable.
Another cop approached the chasm door. I pretended I was dead. The activity on the road stopped him from making an impromptu passport inspection. Vehicles, approaching each other in opposite directions, fought for the same spaces: the horn-blowing, hand-waving, pig-headed recalcitrance that resulted from these confrontations would have been delightful had I not been so worried. I felt frustrated because my situation didn’t allow me to enjoy this festival of uncooperative bitchiness that disorganisation had created for the connoisseur. Drivers with the same rights as those that confronted them were screaming at those who were screaming back, the police screaming at everyone–including the cop near the door.
The bus driver returned. His flippancy had nearly sunk us both–especially in an atmosphere so polluted by fury. Soon we were on the back of another queue, a bombed concrete plant visible across the border, charred metal, like split hairs, protruding from a hole in the plant’s white wall, a twisted conveyor belt above shattered bricks, the plant resembling my fractious mind.
We edged forward. A police car was on the other side of the road. One of the cops in the car was from Arrestematallcostica! I moved away from the window and shut my eyes. Dazed alertness hit–worry with sharp haziness–a mixture of opposites, like Policiasadistica.
The bus’s engine’s churning made me open my eyes: we covered another thirty metres. I breathed out. I had decided that if the passport inspector was from the infamous force, then I would argue. I was through with this tormenting, jail or otherwise! Defiance shot up through me like obstinate magma.
My thoughts whipped like lashing cables. A river flowed past a refugee camp inside Laidbacksico. Fitful speculation helped me see a contrast between the river and the camp: A woman, with a covered head, was walking between tents. The river’s effervescent glitter mocked the woman’s entrapment.
People, queuing to cross the border, were carrying bags and suitcases, like a fancy-dress party of luggage. The variation of these variant possessions heightened the feeling of disorganisation as the walkers headed into territory recently liberated by their genetic brothers.
The road split into lanes. Pillars bordered the lanes. Offices, in which policemen were positioned to check passports, had been constructed inside the pillars. The luggage-lugging rabble split into queues to face the police.
A big red dice rolled down my bus’s aisle: black hair, dark-blue eyes, tall, capable of raising a smile.
“Passport?” he asked me.
He studied my expired visa.
“Did you fly into Lackafreedia?” he asked, politely.
“No,” I snapped, expecting a confrontation. “I came in by UNHCR van!”
Surprise stumped him. It didn’t even occur to me he may have been an ethnic Laidbacksican, that his branch of the force may have had nothing to do with Arrestematallcostica.
“Okay,” he said, “no problem.”
He left the bus. We passed between two pillars, like driving into an airport. We still weren’t in Laidbacksico, another hundred metres to go. I still couldn’t afford the luxury of relief. Policemen were observing traffic from a timber building on the other side of the pillars. A truck driver, trying something audacious, got stopped by a silver-haired cop who remained unimpressed by the truck driver’s unctuous attempts to mollify him. The cop’s snarling displeasure and the jerky, rapid fluttering of his hands fuelled the driver’s obsequious grinning.
While this deferential smiling unfolded, the cop who had arrested us in Arrestematallcostica emerged from the timber building and saw me! The bus was stationary! Time started demonstrating its flexibility. We’d been directed to a place where we were supposed to wait for the call to move forward. The cop’s face assumed hunter’s mode. His leering smile got wiped clean off his mug by seeing me. He pointed while speaking to his silver-haired superior who spun to look. Both moved towards the bus. The truck driver got his opportunity to escape. Random distractions caused Policiasadistican police to apply random interest–and random disinterest–maximising unpredictability.
The bus driver had left the door open. I slung my bag over my shoulder. I ran down the aisle, escaping before the cops could get me. They screamed. I ran up between two buses towards the border. Conviction had crushed indecision, righteousness producing a physical impulse that had crushed fears about using violence. Two policemen were between me and the frontier. The first I palmed off with a hand-off to the face. The second, who had pulled a gun, I struck with a gorgeous right. The blow’s sound had the solid fullness of a perfect impact, like a watermelon hitting a floor. Adrenaline shot through me. NATO soldiers, with indecisive wonderment, were pointing their guns at me from the Laidbacksican border.
I sprinted towards them, yelling: “Don’t shoot!”
I wanted them to hear my accent.
Curious heads protruded from car windows. I sprinted past parked, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Time slowed as reality sped up, the border sharp within blurred peripheral vision, strange chemicals pumping through my veins.
I shouted: “They’re trying to arrest me for a visa offence. This is my passport.”
The soldier I showed my passport to looked perplexed, his smooth forehead above black-caterpillar eyebrows.
“These people,” I said, “are insane.”
“Okay, okay,” he replied. “Stand over there.”
The Policiasadisticans started yelling incomprehensible execrations. I gave them a single finger. An American soldier listened to my story. His fresh, youthful face looked incongruous with his killing capacity–a face possibly fooling many into thinking he was harmless–like the regime down the road.
“The same guy who arrested me in Arrestematallcostica,” I said, “and the British consulate warned me that another Brit got jailed last week.”
“The only thing I’ve got to declare,” I added, “is my relief.”
In Dowotevayarlika, the “disturbance” was a party celebrating the Laidbacksico Liberation Army’s disbanding. Drivers honked horns. People on the bonnets of moving cars waved Laidbacksican flags. Flags hung from balconies and car windows. Parading people in black uniforms passed on the main street, people on balconies observing their heroes, the ex-combatants’ ebony attire making a gorgeous contrast with the burgundy flags of their fledgling nation that the fighters held aloft in white-gloved hands. An international police force stood around smiling, partying with the locals. Repression had ended, replaced by a police force expunged of redusperilitis.
Away from the city’s centre, the poorly lit streets were ashen, as if covered with black-grey dust.
HWB’s coordinator in Dowotevayarlika was polished and scrubbed to a worrying perfection, as if horrors avoided him. His round, white face, oozing with hysterical conservatism, like a facial laser beam of unsubtle belief, made me feel uneasy, like the red men who de-humanise humanity by crushing its eccentric, jutting edges.
“Someone,” I lied, “is going to be killed out there tonight.”
The crap we produce in pathetic relief.
Only a sensible person could have thought this. I was determined to be sensible. I wanted accommodation for a few days, so I feigned common sense.
I rang Lackafreedia. Andrew answered.
“You made it?” he asked.
“A few hitches.”
“Like clobbering two reds fifty metres from the border.”
“I produced the greatest try in Policiasadistican rugby history. Guess who spotted me?”
“The Arrestematallcostica arsehole. He saw me just after passport control. I fled from a bus and sprinted to the border, clobbering two reds in the process. Shall I let them know you’re coming?”
Quick realisations stacked alarmingly.
“After your try,” Andrew said, “if we go back to Arrestematallcostica, they’ll murder us.”
“Leave tomorrow. Good luck with the UNHCR. They fed me crap about it being too dangerous to enter Laidbacksico. They said it was a disturbance. Guess what it is?”
“They’re throwing water bombs?”
“If it was that dangerous, it’d be out there.”
“A tea party?”
“A huge street party. The friendliness could kill you. They’re celebrating the LLA’s last day.”
“He might even be there. It’s that friendly.”
“He’s also probably there too. Both would make a change from Mister Uncertainty who was with me all the way today.”
“His brother’ll be travelling with us tomorrow. He visited Ronald today.”
“The cops showed up?”
“Not long after you left.”
“That must’ve shaken The Ship?”
“Badly. I told him about possible complications from signing registration documents.”
“What did he say?”
“He took on the information.”
“How did Denae take all this?”
So Ronnie didn’t sign: first acknowledgement of redusperilitis. Some people go through life oblivious that it exists.
Denae had a message for me: it was FUCK OFF!
She and her German residency reminded me of Frederick the Great who once said: If you try to defend everything, you defend nothing.
“Tell her,” I said, “to join the local police force. They need people who repress free speech.”
Andrew repressed his laughter.
“See you tomorrow,” he whispered. “I hope.”
“Andy?” I said.
He had been about to hang up.
“Answer yes or no. Has Elsa woken up about Denae?”
“My faith in humanity has been restored. Maybe that’s a delusion caused by freedom? But it sure tastes good.”
About the Author
Kim Farleigh has worked for NGOs in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine, and Macedonia. He likes painting, art, bullfighting, photography, and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. 183 of his stories have been accepted by 107 different magazines.