Bare-faced cheek in Culebra

An Encounter in Culebra – John Schofield

Mid-morning, anchored in a secluded cove off Bahia Honda, Culebra. We were lounging naked in the cockpit, enjoying our tea and toast, when the drone of an outboard motor caught my attention. A small boat with a striped Bimini top was heading towards us.

“We’d best get some clothes on, love, looks like we’re having company” I said.

The boat was nearer now and I could see it was steered by a man in a suit and tie. His passenger, a large lady in a flowery dress, was kneeling on the bow-seat struggling to maintain her balance as she held aloft a tabloid newspaper in both hands.

They puttered closer and now I could see the newspaper was the Watchtower; this couple were water-borne Jehovah’s Witnesses. The way he was handling the boat, I could tell the guy at the helm was going to ding my hull and when he did, I’d yell something he’d probably consider very unchristian. Better deal with it now. I stepped onto the side deck and waved them off. They did an immediate about-turn and roared off into the distance.

The blonde emerged from the cabin, having donned tee shirt and shorts.

“That’s got rid of them” I said.

“Yes, I see that. I think it had less to do with your imperious arm waving than with your failure to take your own advice and put some clothes on.”

Oops.

This little tale was published in Yachting Monthly Magazine some years ago and by way of payment I was given an original Mike Peyton cartoon (pictured) of the incident. It hangs on my office wall.

I want one!

When the time comes I really want one of these. So appropriate to my sailing background. I’d use it for nipping down to the bookstore and the wine shop and for strolling along some sunny waterfront admiring the boats.

But hopefully I won’t be needing it for a long while yet.

Still on the subject of modes of transport, how about this useful bike for the larger family.

Actually, it’s an artwork I photographed at the Tate in Liverpool.

These Darkening Days by Benjamin Myers

These Darkening Days is the sequel to Benjamin Myers’ Turning Blue which I reviewed last month.

Roddy Mace, journalist and procrastinating author, has decamped from the moors to a Pennine valley village never named but remarkably like Hebden Bridge. James Brindle, obsessive detective with a head full of demons, is now on gardening leave following his cocking-up of the situation in Turning Blue. He’s reunited with Mace to investigate a series of brutal attacks on women.

When fading sex bomb Jo Jenks is slashed across the face, local poacher and druggy “Trembles” Garner is the first to become ensnared as the inept local plod search for a perpetrator. These skilfully drawn characters kick off a grim story that will keep you in its grip to the last page. But this isn’t a convoluted conundrum of a detective story, it’s a tale of disquiet and menace in a community haunted by valley fever, superbly observed.

Although they’re stand-alone books, I suggest you read Turning Blue first. If you’ve read Turning Blue it’s a good bet you’ll already have read These Darkening Days.

Oh, spoiler alert, this one has a few commas in it.

 

Misdirection

I came across this sign whilst out walking. After pondering it a while I came to the conclusion it was intended to misdirect alien invaders. It certainly bamboozled me.

Land of the Rising Blood Pressure

The company’s new Japanese owners had plucked me from my cosy position as Sales Manager and made me Director of Operations. I hadn’t even made my first trip to Japan but the management were convinced I was the one to lead their acquisition into a bright new future. Fueled by ambition and an element of greed I accepted the position. I was to maintain my office in UK, but my new empire was worldwide. I was summonsed to Head Office in Japan for indoctrination. My first day went a bit like this:

I found myself at a hotel in a small town somewhere near Hiroshima. It wasn’t a luxurious hotel by any means but it was okay. There was a convivial bar and that’s where I’d been these last couple of hours. Earlier in the evening I’d been out to find dinner. There were several restaurants to choose from in the town centre. To attract custom, the restaurant owners put photographs of their dishes in their window. This may be an effective ploy when your customer demographic is Japanese but to me it looked unappealing: There was a plate of rice served with a handful of caterpillars and other slimy tubular things. Then one that looked like dog shit alongside a boiled egg and the egg contrived to look less appetising than the dog shit. Another offering looked like bits left over after a heart transplant operation. Feeling queasy, I returned to the hotel for a beer.

There were a few small dishes on the bar and they weren’t bad. This would be dinner. The man beside me asked in broken English if I was American. I told him I was English but we’d exhausted his linguistic skills a sentence after we’d exhausted mine. We smiled, nodded a lot and sipped our beers.

I’d arrived the day before at Hiroshima. There was a modern and pleasant-seeming hotel at the airport but this one is close to the company headquarters, so I was here. This morning I’d walked to the factory, arriving in time for morning exercises. I was led to a group of workers lined up two abreast alongside several other phalanxes and Fukawori-san, my minder, told me these were my workers, they were assigned to me, I should join in. Recognising this as another test I strode to the head of the group and led them in their calisthenics. Actually, my men were following the instructions blaring from the loudspeakers located around the quadrangle and I was following my men.

At the end of the exercise period Fukawori leaned in to me and suggested I address my new team with inspirational words. I did this in English with fanatical intensity, the way I’d seen it done in a documentary on Japanese work practices. Loud, spitting phlegm, red faced. They roared their appreciation when I’d finished, waving their fists in the air, having understood not a word but knowing full well upon which side their sukiyaki was buttered.

I went on to work for the company for another six years. Then I left to sail my boat around the Caribbean for a couple of years to restore a somewhat battered mind and body.

Just a thought…

Is the story everything?

Stephen King tells us, in his terrific book On Writing, the story is everything. I’m not going to argue with a master storyteller, but does the story transcend the manner in which a book is written? If the story is really, really good can it be writ badly? Does the story forgive bad grammar, misused punctuation, too many redundant adverbs, an over-abundance of cliché?

King doesn’t imply this, of course, I’m sure he’d be horrified at the thought. But it came to mind recently when I was browsing for a book on Amazon and found, distressingly quickly, an offering that prompted this thought. It seemed to me it might be a very interesting story so I dived in and read the sample few pages. Well, by the third page I realised I was so enthralled by the bizarre punctuation I had no idea what the story was about. I went back and started again. This time it was the undisciplined nature of the writing that distracted me. I abandoned the book then, grateful I’d been able to sample it before wasting time and money.

I know writing is subjective and we all have different tastes but I’m talking about basic errors – no capital after a stop, commas misplaced and overused, inconsistent formatting as well as bad grammar. The sort of thing your agent or publisher wouldn’t allow, had you gone to print the conventional way rather than self-publish. Self-publishing is great in many ways but it does tend to allow a writer to by-pass quality control should they so choose.

I’ve decided no matter how engaging the story might be I couldn’t read a badly written, or edited, book. Could you?

Up the Khyber Pass

Many years ago I was in Peshawar on the northwest frontier region of Pakistan, a young engineer starting up a new flour milling facility.  I’d always wanted to travel through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border at Torkham but so far had been too busy with the mill. Throughout history the Khyber Pass had been an important trade route between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, part of the Silk Road, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see it. Then one morning the mill director told me a driver and a couple of employees were to go to Landi Kotal, a town at the highest point on the Khyber Pass, to pick up some duty-free goods. He suggested I go with them and while they shopped the driver would take me another three miles to the border so I could look into Afghanistan. I quickly agreed and we set off early the next morning to cover the thirty or so miles to Landi Kotal.

From Peshawar, we took the Asian Highway up through the Spin Ghar Mountains, through the Khyber Pass. The road snaked this way and that as it gained altitude, a precipitous drop to one side, my side, a steep rock wall to the other. Down in the valley I could see concrete anti-tank structures strewn like giant children’s jacks, a legacy of the Second World War. We passed convoys of gaudily decorated buses belching black smoke, their roofs piled high with people and baggage and bicycles and boxes, and trucks staggering under massive loads of timber, scrap metal and grain sacks.

At Landi Kotal, the western end of the Pass and highest point at 3,500 feet above sea level, we dropped the men, made arrangements to meet them in an hour and set off for the border. Parked at a spot just off the road I looked down into Afghanistan, the valley floor broadening out to an endless plain framed on each side by mountains. In Pakistan they drove on the left and in Afghanistan they drove on the right. This conflict was resolved at the Torkham border post below us where a sort of miniature spaghetti junction directed the opposing flows of traffic across each other to continue their journeys on the other side of the road.

Back at Landi Kotal the driver went off to round up the others while I wandered through the town in the increasing heat as noon approached. The bazaar appeared to have grown haphazardly over the years with crude structures erected here and there with no logical layout. There were stalls offering leather goods such as Peshwari sandals, belts, holsters and bandoliers, there were colourful mountains of fruit, piles of exotic eastern spices and bolts of material in every hue. Goat carcasses hung from steel hooks outside the butcher’s shack, the proprietor occasionally flicking a whisk to momentarily interrupt the gorging of the black flies which encased them. Men squatted in groups drinking green tea, smoking and chatting, their eyes following me as I strolled by, an alien interloper.

Further on I came across some rough brick buildings and in these were several gunsmiths. I watched a worker boring out a metal rod by hand to make a gun barrel and stacked against a wall were several completed rifles. This area had a reputation for producing unlicensed copies of firearms using primitive machine tools and whatever scrap metal was available. They’d make anything from a perfect copy of a British Army revolver to a musket and the quality would vary from superb to dangerously rubbish.

Pashtun tribesmen with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders strolled in twos and threes. The pungent smell of hashish was all around, mingling with the tang of wood smoke from the small bakeries churning out coarse chapattis. I returned to find the others already in the car enjoying the air-conditioning, surrounded by boxes of electrical appliances and stainless-steel pots and pans. Then we were wending our way back down the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, dust billowing behind the car.