Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Imperial

I hate my readers. I have written twenty-two books and nobody knows my name. No authors write words of praise on the covers. No-one says “his prose is reminiscent of a young Tom Wolfe,” or “his descriptions of Calcutta really capture the lingering smell of cow shit.” If I held a book signing no-one would show up because they liked my overview of the Mauritius bar scene. After 10 000 rupee of scotch I didn’t much like it either.

But I don’t hate you, obviously, for I am letting you in on the joke.

I am held up in the Imperial Hotel, Cielo, with a laptop and a case of cheap tequila. If you haven’t heard of Cielo, it’s because I’ve made it up. There is no old town square with a statue of St. Josephine. Josephine was a whore I picked up in Honduras. There are no boulevards of gridlocked motorbikes tumbling like river pebbles under the Arch de Chuck, or perfect beaches of bare-chested supermodels or waves that hang up long enough for you, dear reader, to remark at their beauty.

There is, however, a good bottle shop down the road.

Cynicism found me when I was penniless in Uganda. It followed me to my first Iranian brothel and had me head down over a toilet in a Monaco casino. I’ve eaten salmonella in Florence and E. coli in Ethiopia. I began inventing restaurant reviews because I was sick of people’s hospitality.

After six hundred hotel rooms I can write reviews based entirely off the name. ‘Nationals’ are soulless. Kids piss in the pools at ‘Oases.’ ‘Budgets’ are budget. ‘Imperials’ are “for the tired traveller looking to relax after a long day.”

Maybe it was my disappointment with the real world that had me inventing my own. My first invention was Dumpool, a Lancashire town so abhorrent that no-one would dare visit. My editor passed it without question and the publishers received no complaints from disappointed tourists. I was in awe of the repulsive power of my fantasies.

So from my hostel in Havana I planned my utopia: a patch of farmland on the south coast of Cuba called Cielo. I stole impossibly airbrushed photos from the internet of supermodels and hairy men in tight bathing costumes. I invented bars with invented drinks made from invented fruit. I built a red light district and shallow fountains you can scoop coins from to take to another casino. When I was finished I felt empty knowing that such a paradise could only be constructed from disappointment.

In my fantastical excitement, I finished compiling my Cuba book a week before deadline. So to fill the time I hired a car and, persuaded by my imagination, decided to drive to Cielo. I guess I was curious to know what was actually there. It was the most excited I had felt about travelling since my first book. I remember my anticipation as I drove around that last bend in the sugarcane. I imagined myself winning armfuls of peso at the Saint Guevara Casino and taking beaming photos underneath the Arch de Chuck: a monument dedicated entirely to me.

In a way it was exactly what I had expected: sugarcane plantation all the way to the horizon.

And so here I am. I’ve parked the car and walked along Desnudo Boulevard. I’ve sat on my balcony at the Imperial Hotel and watched the waves come and go until the noise felt like a logical metaphor for the stupidity of my life. I’ve thought about my Cuba book falling off the printers into shelves and shopping bags to be carried onto the planes and hire cars of hopeful tourists who would inevitably feel as silly as me.

And suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad, because if enough people come to Cielo on the same delusions that brought me to this “sunburnt eye candy” of a beach, then maybe we can build Cielo after all.

And maybe people will know my name.


Look at me. Right now I am two letters on a page. But I’m not. I am so much more, so much you don’t know about, wont care about. I am tempted then to casually say fuck you and move on. But I won’t. Because I am interested in you; where you are three letters and so many possibilities. We may have so much in common (in spite of no common letters). So I want to know you. Generic you.  Let us try to become friends. But how do we know when we are friends? How many indents in out dialogue categorises as conversation. How many conversations will it take until we, as a collective, are granted access to this label? I hope I’m not boring you; I’d hate to get off on the wrong foot. I already feel so pretentious, little old me, talking about myself in the third person.

Thursday, 6 December 2012


What is most painful is knowing how vivid those final images must be for her. I sat in the field hospital beside her and watched thoughts ripple and break across her forehead. She will remember holding my hand at the market and the air raid siren howling like a woken baby and each thudding footstep tripping and stumbling over the darkness through the rose gardens where we had stopped to pick flowers and everything is smeared in a teary snot-clogged paste that catches in her throat. She will remember the swastikas watching from the windows along the Bautzner Straße as the night roared and flickered and we heard the thumping of giant’s footsteps. She has lived in the house we broke into. She has painted dust on the steps to that wine cellar and vineyards on the blood red bottles and when the bomb hit she saw the light shining off the splintered glass like rain.

When the doctors saw that her eyes were irreparable they sought to discharge her immediately but I convinced them to let her stay one night. Each hour she awoke and each hour I told her was the morning of a new day.

I began to believe myself. It was strange to see the darkness turn to grey then to know the sun could rise after the world has ended.

In the morning I led her between the rows of camp beds that lined the old warehouse. We stood outside so she could feel the February sun.

“Where are my roses?” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I dropped them. But we can pick more.”

She was silent. Her head pointed at her shoes.

“A letter arrived from daddy while you were asleep,” I said.

“Really?” she said. “What did he say?”

“He said we pushed the Soviets out of Budapest. He says the Soviets are falling back like they have always done.”

She began to cry. She cried until blood appeared in her bandage. I placed my arms around her shoulders and held her head to my chest.

“I want daddy home,” she said.

“Daddy will be home soon,” I said. “You have me. We’re going home.”

“Ok,” she said.

I took her hand and we walked into the street.

“What do you see?” she said.

“I see the Bautzner Straße. I see the beer hall and it is open and there are men drinking and laughing in the street and waving flags. There are flags up and down the street. They know Germany is a strong proud country. They’ve heard about our victory in Budapest. They know the Fuhrer was right: ‘our unbreakable will and our capabilities will allow us to prevail.’ The sweet shop is closed but there are children playing hopscotch in the street. They are using debris as stones. Some houses were hit with bombs but there are Hitler Youth repairing them.”


“I’m your brother. I wouldn’t lie.”

“Tell me more.”

“And the rose gardens. The roses have bloomed. They are turning their heads to watch the sun.”

She loved to pick flowers from the rose gardens. She would wait until there was no-one around and take daddy’s scissors from her coat. She would spend hours arranging the roses into the vase on her window sill.

But she doesn’t ask to stop. She just smiles.

“Tell me more,” she says.


I carry a jigsaw piece in my pocket
because I’ve lost the other nine hundred and ninety nine pieces.

I don’t remember what it made
or where it went.

But I look at it sometimes
and hold its tiny arm between my fingers.

It has a red corner (but don’t we all?),
and it’s blue at the bottom (if you hold it the right way),

and the rest is purple
which is really just red mixed with blue.

It could have been the lips that join a kiss.
It could have been the dagger in the dead man’s back.

It could have been a picture of happiness
or maybe I’m holding it upside down.

It doesn’t matter what it was.
But I keep it with me

because I am looking for other lost jigsaw pieces
to link arms and make a picture

where red becomes green and yellow and blue and
when I look at it, it could mean something or everything or nothing

 if only I had another piece.