It would be nice if we shared some writing. Not for a critique cos while the spirit is willing, there just isn’t time for that. But just to share. So I’m going to share. This is the first chapter (and a bit) of a book that might get written one day. No. Scratch that. This is the first chapter (and a bit) of a book that will get written one day.
It’s late at night, maybe early in the morning and the cab, an old white Ambassador, is hurling itself up some unlit Indian road heading from some hippie encampment in Goa towards Delhi. God knows where we are, I guess the driver knows though how he can see anything on these so-called roads, only he knows. White lines, cat’s eyes, street lights… forget it. The air in the car’s hot and sticky. We’ve opened the windows in the back to try to get some air flow, but the air outside is just the same hot and sticky air. It doesn’t help. It’s all just… just hot.
I’m sitting in the back of a cab with Polly, a Swedish girl 15 years younger than me. She’s gorgeous. Lovely. Really lovely. A bit on the short side, but perfect, with thick red hair and bright shiny eyes, eyes lit up by a strange youthful energy I’m not sure I had even back when I was her age and was supposed to have that sort of stuff. When I say her name’s Polly, it’s not really Polly. Polly’s just the name she calls herself. Her real name’s Caroline, though thinking about it that doesn’t sound very Swedish either. Anyway, she’s calling herself Polly and if that’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.
It’s beautiful outside. Through the darkness, you can just make out the shape of the trees. Every so often a pack of dogs leap out of the dark and chase the taxi. My eyes – my mind – keeps flicking between the window, Polly and the effigy of Ganesh hanging off the rear view mirror. Ganesh. The God of wisdom and learning and the remover of obstacles. He’s also the God of middle class English blokes in over their heads. Maybe it doesn’t actually say that in the scriptures, but I’m sure it’s true.
The driver keeps looking in his rear view mirror. What’s he looking at? It can’t be the road through the mirror because mostly it’s pitch black outside. What’s he looking at? Every time he looks in the mirror, I catch his eye. He’s looking at me, I’m looking at him and every time I look at him, Ganesh looks back at me. The movement of the Ambassador is making Ganesh rock back and forth, but to me it’s like he’s shaking his head, his big trunk going back and forward. You just concentrate on removing obstacles, will you?
I’m not surprised the driver’s looking at me. He picked us up in Goa in the middle of the night and he cant be that stupid. We don’t look like people you pick up in Goa, especially not in the middle of the night and especially not from a hippie house in Anjuna. I’m wearing a three-piece black suit – well, not the jacket but still, it’s a three-piece suit – and white shirt. My skin’s tanned, my eyes have that ‘been away too long’ glaze and my hair? I can’t even think what that looks like. Sitting in the back of the cab, a hippie dressed up in a three-piece suit in a spliffed-up, lame attempt not to look like a hippie.
The whole thing, it’s not mad. It’s whatever the word is about ten on from mad. What you want to do is look like everyone else. Blend in. Be part of the crowd. Not stand out. But I had this really bright idea that we should look respectable and to me respectable still looks like this. A nice, well cut suit with a good shirt. If I was in media land back in London I’d be fine but here? Here I look as natural as if I were sitting in a bar in Old Compton Street in a tie-dyed sarong and batik waistcoat.
“Polly,” I whisper in the dark. “This isn’t going to fool anyone.”
Polly’s wearing a suit too, a smart women’s outfit knocked up by the same Goan tailor who made my suit. He actually did a good job, good suits. Cost nothing too, but be honest. If you were a cop looking at me and Polly right now, in this Ambassador in these clothes, would you think “Ah, they look a nice couple, sharp suits too. Good look”. Or would you think ‘They look dodgy as fuck – Western hippies on the Goa road dressed in freshly knocked up suits.’ What’s that all about?”
I’ve got to stop thinking about all this and concentrate on the matter in hand. And the matter in hand is in a cloth bag sitting in the back of the cab between me and Polly. The bag’s the thing. The bag’s why we’re here.
What if there’s a cow on the road? I’ve heard the stories about what happens if there are cows on the road. Everything stops. You can’t disturb a cow here, they’re holy. You’ve just got to wait for it to move out of the way or do whatever it does before you can move. You could be there for hours, waiting for the bloody thing to move. Are cows awake at night? Teenage boy cows, hanging round roads, waiting for cars to come along to fuck around with the drivers. Bored cows, looking for cheap entertainment. The rest of the cows – the good cows, the ones who are tucked up in bed – tut-tut about these hoolicows – “Shouldn’t be allowed, it’s an outrage” – while other, more liberal cows try to excuse this unruly behaviour. “They’re just kids, they’ll grow out of it.”
Holy cows. Hoolicows. I’m babbling like a brook that’s burst its banks. C’mon. There’s not going to be a gang of teenage cows in hoodies hanging around these streets in the dead of night, but right now my mind is racing like Lewis Hamilton on a wet track, going too fast, looking for some traction.
Polly looks over at me.
“It’s OK. You look great.”
Clearly she knows me better than I realised. I might be doing the stupidest thing anyone has ever done ever, but as long as I look good… Polly leans across the back seat, takes my hand and puts her head on that soft spot between my head and my shoulder. A little nuzzle.
She seems so cool, so relaxed. What’s she thinking? I’m all over the place. Worried about what we were doing, worried about how it was going to go, worried about how I looked, worried… just worried. She doesn’t look any of those things. Maybe she’s picking up on my vibes and is just trying to calm my nerves. I’m supposed to be the older one here, the wise head. I’m supposed to be… Listen, this was all my idea. I’m the reason we’re here. It’ll be fine. It’s all fine. It’ll all go well. I look at her. She looks at me, smiles back and squeezes my hand.
We’ve been together a while now, a good few months, almost a year, and I’ve picked up a bit of basic Swedish. You know, how to order a coffee (Dubbel espresso, vänligen), say please (vänligen) and thank you (tack), normal holiday stuff. I love you and your three piece suit. Don’t worry it’ll all be fine. (Jag älskar dig och din tredelade kostym. Oroa dig inte allt ska vara bra.). A bit of hand holding and a nuzzle was Swedish for “Calm down, it’s going to be fine.”
The bag. In the bag is what feels like hundreds of pellets. You can’t see exactly what they are in the dark, but they feel like small translucent stones about the size of a grape. They’re kinda slippery, but slippery enough for what we’ve got in mind? That’s a question.
Next to Polly is a bottle of water, an open yoghurt pot and a spoon. By our feet is a larger bag. It’s open, and at the top are two shampoo bottles with their tops taken off. The tops are in my pocket. Each shampoo bottle is about half full. But soon enough they’ll both be full to brimming and then I’ll quietly and carefully reach into my pocket, get out the bottle top and, one by one, force the bottle top on, click it down, shut it closed. And I’ll be discrete. Ganesh won’t know a thing.
So that’s the set up on the back seat of the Ambassador. Me, in two pieces of my three piece suit then a cloth bag full of small, shiny stones, then a bottle of water, an open yoghurt pot with a spoon, then a much younger, much prettier young woman also dressed in a two piece suit. And I was wondering why the driver kept looking in his rear view mirror. Be honest, cows on the road were the least of it.
What’s the story with the stones? The stones are… well, the shiny, translucent stuff is cling film. Yards and yards of cling film, wrapped and wrapped and wrapped and finally burnt closed with a lighter. The flame melts the cling film and creates a solid bond. So you pick at the seam and unravel the cling film until it comes off and there’s another layer of cling film. Same story. Pick that at the seam and unravel more yards of cling film until there’s a nugget, a small nugget, of the finest Manali dope. Hash. Marijuana. Cannabis. Black. Spliff. Smoke.
Yes, that’s the story. We’re smuggling dope. Mostly in our stomachs – that’s what the yoghurt pot and the spoon is for – and what we can’t swallow goes in the shampoo. Mostly though it goes in our stomachs. We’re eating the dope gonna hold it in and then, almost a day later, we’re going to carefully and diligently… What goes up must come down. Or rather, what goes in, must come out.
Don’t even ask.
The thing is, we’re not really drug smugglers. This really isn’t our world. We’re not what you’d call experts. We’re not even novices. I don’t even know what we’re doing here. Me, a middle class, middle age, middle middle Jewish bloke from north London and her a girl from – I think, I don’t even know, I think – from Sweden – have somehow got involved in a story that could ruin our whole lives. And why? And for what? I don’t know.
“Your honour, we did it because it seemed like an idea. Yes, I know strictly speaking it’s against the law, but it was good dope. Top notch.”
When I say it’s the finest, really it’s the business. The fucking bollocks. Soft and creamy, fresh down from the mountains from a place called… well, actually I’m not supposed to say where it is or what it’s called. Everyone calls it Manali, but actually it’s north of Manali up between Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, and this place it’s so spiritually pure the gaijin – that’s us whiteys – are allowed to go there but we’re not allowed to touch the walls of the buildings.
Each stone is maybe about a gram and a half. We were supposed to do seven grams at a time, but what if the cling film came away and we were left with, you know, naked pieces of dope knocking around in our stomachs? How much dope would you have to swallow before you… Well, how much is safe? We were so worried the dope was going to spill into our guts and kill us that we really – and I mean really really – went overboard on the cling film.
If you do this thing properly, if you wrap and cling film properly, you can take in about – maximum – 700 grams. Maximum’s for the pros. We weren’t even amateur, so we thought we’d play safe with 500 grams total which was going to get us about $5,000, but there was never 500 grams here. Maybe 500 grams of cling film. I kinda suspect that even if we were going to get away with this, any profit would be swallowed up – swallowed? Suit yourselves – by the cost of the cling film. Now if we were smuggling cling film, if there was an international market in cling film… we’d be laughing. 200 grams. Maybe 250. And when you take off the cost of buying the stuff, of transport, of these suits… what are we going to make?
You can only access this place that isn’t Manali a couple of months of the year, the rest of the time it’s cut off by snow, and you get there by walking over this faded mountain pass, through a forest canopy that’s enveloped by this strange permanent mist. As you emerge out of the mist, you see it rising over a distant mountain top. It reminds me of a TV show I used to watch when I was a kid, The Champions. One of the stars was this woman called Alexandra Bastedo, who had cheekbones you could ski off. Amazing things. Came into the room a good few minutes before she did. Anyway. The story’s about these three secret service agents who are flying over the Himalayas when their plane crashes. They don’t die because they land in soft snow. It looks bad for them but they’re taken in by these mystic monks who live in this mystic land and have strange mystic powers. The monks nurse them back to health and give them their own strange powers which they then use for the common good.
Not Manali’s a little bit like that except there are village women instead of monks and there’s top notch dope instead of soft snow which, in fairness, some people claim makes them feel a bit on the mystic side.
We never made it to Not Manali. We were going to go but at the last minute I got hit by a gut-wrenching bout of dysentery and spent a week variously lying down, running and sitting down, trying not to think of things that rhyme with Khyber pass.
I’m not actually sure there even is a place that isn’t Manali. Maybe it’s just something hippies who sell dope say to make it sound like it’s really top quality. Tell people it’s from Manali and stick a few quid on the price. You know what hippies are like. Peace, love and profit margins.
“It’s a good thing,” said Polly during my week of lying, running and sitting. “You’re clearing out your system so that you’ll be ready.” I didn’t feel like I’d cleared out my system. I felt like I’d napalmed it.
Spoon of yoghurt in the mouth, small stone in the mouth and… swallow. Mouthful of water. That’s the idea. It’s supposed to be easy. Anything we can’t swallow goes in the shampoo bottles. And when we’re done, bang down a couple of Imodium tabs, maybe three. Instant constipation. Back door closed for a week.
As a plan, it’s almost foolproof. Now then. What word jumps out at you? Almost? Fool?
Have you ever tried swallowing something about the size of three panadols? In the dark. In a bouncing car. And you’re nervous. And you’re wearing a three piece suit and Ganesh is looking at you. It’s not as easy as you think. Things didn’t get better when I tried to slip a couple of stones into the shampoo bottle and shampoo squirted out of the top of the bottle. Ganesh is going to smell that, the size of his nose.
Polly threw me a look. Oroa dig inte allt ska vara bra. Easy for her to say.
Same as it ever was? I don’t bloody think so. How did we get here? Well, as with all the best stories, it all began a long time ago in a faraway place…
“Fuck it. We’ll go to Yokohama”.
What could we do? We were in Shanghai and it was nice enough, fascinating in a cultural exchange kind of way, but I’d exchanged all the culture I wanted to. Time was running out, money was getting tight and we had to get out.
“I thought you said there was a boat going to Hong Kong?” said John.
“I thought there was a boat going to Hong Kong”, I said.
“No, I didn’t check, but I thought there was a boat. I was told there was a boat. What do you want? I was wrong. I thought there was a boat and there isn’t.”
“You thought there was a boat? How did you think there was a boat?”
“I told you. Someone told me. They must have cancelled it.”
“According to that bloke in the office there, they cancelled it three years ago.”
“They didn’t cancel it. They just moved it.”
“Yeah, to Yokohama. It used to go to Hong Kong. Now it goes to Yokohama. That’s where the boat goes now.”
“Oh well. Yokohama.”
“Yeah. Yokohama. Where’s Yokohama?”
And that was that. That’s how I ended up in Tokyo. I was going to go to Hong Kong, but the boat changed its mind. One thing I’ve learnt in this game is to keep an open mind. Go with the flow, you know what I mean? When I was younger I used to say that life was like an apple. You’ve got to eat it now. If you keep it, save it for later, it goes mouldy.
I said that to someone once.
He said “I think life is more like an orange. You’ve got to peel it before you get to the good bit.”
To be continued…