Best of Both Worlds – The Dubious Art of Finding a Story

ITV STORYTELLING EVENT MAXUS

It’s not so straightforward to approach people these days.  I’m not saying folk are unfriendly, by and large the world turns around because most of us are law-abiding, decent and civil.  But with the increase of crime comes the rise of suspicion, so when you make a beeline for a complete stranger in a pub, deep down you might expect the cold shoulder, a mouthful of abuse or even a smack in the mouth.  So you’d think I’d be cautious, but to be honest I’m not.  Not entirely.

All those years ago when I was interviewed by Health Unlimited for the job in Rwanda I was asked how I’d cope in a dangerous place and/or situation, and I used the analogy that as a writer I see two pubs in the town square – one looks quiet, the other sounds rowdy.  I choose the rowdy one because that could be more interesting; I might get a story and a character with my pint.  And that was the case in Leeds recently.  The story I found isn’t the greatest ever told but I’ll use it to illustrate my point.

But first, you don’t find stories sitting on your arse, and I’m not a great fan of researching on the internet, which to me is the last resort.  You have to market yourself and I find the pub has the best footfall in terms of setting out my stall.  And there I will feed carrots to the horses and get the stories from their mouths.

So I’m in a rough pub in Leeds, where I order a pint and casually take in the customers.  There’s a ladies’ darts match on and I note the tattoos, the hairdos or attempts thereof, the cleavage, the banter and frankly the admirable ability to find the treble twenty.  It’s a weekly event they practise for, dress up for, then look forward to post-match drinks, fags and trays of meat paste sandwiches and limp lettuce.  But that’s not all.  In a corner there’s a couple of fellas playing ukelele and banjo, singing folk songs.  In another there’s an elderly couple mouthing the words, probably inaccurately, between sips.  At the bar there’s a passionate debate happening for three tough-looking guys, the crux of which sounds like would Leeds go up this season and would re-ownership of Elland Road bode well?  I feel like adding my views but resist temptation because I’ve seen someone to pick on – the biggest and roughest-looking man of the considerable bunch of clientele.

He’s on his own right now but I sense he’s waiting for someone or something to happen.  He’s a big guy looking 50 but probably younger, covered in body art.  One of the tattoos, a serpent, coils around his neck and into his bald head, finishing at the fontanelle.  In his nose he wears a ring and in his ears are those big holey things I don’t know the name of but remind me of the Maasai I’ve seen in Kenya and Tanzania. His considerable torso is covered with a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, showing his impressively-painted guns.  I ask if this seat is spare and he just nods.

After a few slurps of my Timothy Taylor I finally manage to get a word.  Riskily I tell him I’m not a local and he tells me he knows, he has me down as a traveller.  He’s clocked my bag, he’s clocked me scraping together shrapnel at the bar and he’s figured I’m on my uppers.  I confirm this, and tell him I’m living in a van.  He seems to relax now, and even commends my story, saying he’s done most of the UK and Europe on his motorbike, a Harley.  I know nothing about bikes but explain my brother had one, and he’s impressed until I add that it was a Suzuki 250.  Sensing there’s not much mileage in my brother’s bike I push it maybe and ask if he’s a Hell’s Angel.  He shakes his head, insisting he just likes bikes and he also likes free-living and having sex, and with a tap of his nose he adds that he doesn’t work.  His name is Craig but people call him Bex.  I want to push further and ask why Bex, and how he makes his living, but he begins his story so I hang fire…

He’s waiting for his wife.  Well, she isn’t his wife, not any more, she’s his first wife and now his mistress, his current wife is playing darts.  She knows he’s having an affair with his ex, and his ex knows he’s got a wife at home, and knows that she knows.  It’s all hunky dory for Bex, he’s got the best of both worlds.  At this point he asks if I want another and I decline, saying I’m driving, but he insists that if I refuse he will finish up falling out with me.  It’s the first hint of aggression and I realise this could go either way.  When he returns with three pints (one for his mistress who he says has just texted to say she’s on her way) he tells me more about both his worlds: the bikes, the bike crashes, the metal pin in his left leg thanks to some knob-head in a BMW on Snake Pass, the brawls, the women, the sex.  There’s still an edge to his pitch and I kind of hope his mistress would turn up and change the dynamic.  Then he asks if I’m married, so I tell him separated, and he asks how I go on for sex?

Sometimes in unpredictable situations I find self-deprecation can help – it can throw the the other person, surprise them into submission, make them see you’re no threat, or even make them laugh.  So I go for telling him I don’t get lucky, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d be any good at it anymore – I’d have to pretend that were someone else.  The gag is not mine it belongs to the Bob Monkhouse estate, and Bex laughs so I’m cool with robbing a dead man if it achieves the change of gear I’m after.  But lurking beneath the laughter and testosterone and clouding the beer I sense another story, if I dare ask.  Because there’s a sadness in his worlds and a depression in his eyes that I can see; it takes one to know one…

… Bex was born Craig B (name withheld) in Scarborough, where his father was a fisherman his mother a seamstress.  It wasn’t a happy marriage.  His father was a chronic drunk; when he wasn’t at sea he was in the pub and when he wasn’t slurping pints he was beating his wife.  One night the beatings got out of hand and his mother lashed out in self-defence, but this only provoked his fury and he clouted her over the head with the coal shovel, killing her… and into that beautiful world was born Craig.  As his father did time and subsequently died inside, Craig was brought up by his Aunty and abused for years by his Uncle.  Then at the age of fifteen he ran away and never went back.  To this day he won’t go near Scarborough.  He’ll travel the world, but not there – too many haunting memories…

I’ve summarised the story but you get the picture – this gargantuan man, looking for all the world the toughest you’d encounter, reduced to near-tears as he unburdens to me, a complete stranger he’s only met one pint ago.  And I don’t really know how I’ve done it, how I’ve managed to get him to offload.  Or maybe it isn’t me at all, maybe I’ve just picked on someone who really needs to tell?   Anyway, not abruptly, after a bit more chat (you can’t just jump up and leave when someone’s borne his soul) I say it’s nice to talk to him but I really must get off and find somewhere to stealth-camp.  And thankfully he’s fine with that, so I wonder if he’s had his fill of emptying his closet of skeletons.

As I empty my bladder before heading out, I ponder his story and its ratio of fact to fiction.  Did his father really kill his mother while she was carrying him?  Did he ever meet his father, look into the eyes of his mother’s slaughterer?  Was it really a coal shovel?  Does he really own a Harley?  Is his left leg really made of metal thanks to the knob-head in a BMW?  Is his wife really throwing arrows in the bar?  Does the first-wife-cum-mistress exist and is she really on her way?

Then as I head for the exit I look back to our corner.  And there is Bex grinning over at me and waving, and at his side is a very attractive blonde, sipping her pint, smiling and also giving a wave.  Whether she’s his wife or ex-wife-cum-mistress I’ll never know.  But I leave it to my imagination as I head for my van, passing a beautiful gleaming Harley Davidson on the way.

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The Land of a Thousand Hills – A Story of Genocide, Love and Human Strength

Rw-map

I’ve come to the point in my novel where I retrace my tentative footsteps through Rwanda and the African Great Lakes Region.  And the story goes like this:

I first saw Aline Aimee when she came to me for a job on the radio soap opera Urunana (Hand in Hand).  She was tall, elegant and beautiful, with the kind of smile that only a Rwandese woman could have.  She spoke Kinyarwandan, English and French.  I wanted to give her a job but the vacancies were filled (I could’ve filled them 100 times over) so with a heavy heart I had to turn her away.

I saw her again in the Ramera Market and she smiled that smile.  I bought her a soda, over which she told me her story – both her mother and father were lured to the Nyamata Church on the outskirts of Kigali, believing they’d find refuge, only to be slain by machete-wielding Hutu Militia (Interahamwe – we kill together).  In hiding back in Kigali, Aline was left to look after her younger siblings and with the help of neighbours she made the long escape to Uganda.

After the war she made the 100-day trek back to her roots, carrying her little brother and sister and everything else she owned… a can for water and the clothes they stood up in.  Taken in once again by kindly neighbours she began to eke out a living by selling cobs of corn at the roadside so she could feed her family and buy herself an education.  Now, her siblings are six and eight and she wants to make sure their future would be better than hers.

Over the coming weeks Aline and I became friends and she like the team on Urunana would call me Mutijima (kind heart).  It transpired she had family in America and she dreamed of travelling to see them.  She also dreamed of saying her goodbyes to her dead parents, so I took her to the church near Bugesera where they rested…

Here, many hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered and their bones are piled like a skeletal monument to the dead, and their skulls are racked like hundreds of ostrich eggs, many bearing cracks where the machetes and clubs had met their target.  I wanted to stand back and allow Aline to pick over the bones but she took my hand, begging me to go with her.  We entered the church where layer upon layer of bones, clothes, children’s books and other worldly possessions were matted between the pews, and we had no choice but to walk on them.  It felt disrespectful to trample over the dead but Aline said we must, to get to where she needed.  At the altar, a bible lay open and a skull had been carefully placed on top.  Beyond this, in what I supposed was the bombed-out chancel, were the skulls.  I noticed nothing except stillness; no smell of death now, and no sound except for monarch birds tweeting in the eucalyptus trees.  Aline looked over the skulls, tears in her eyes, then reached out and touched one of them.

“C’est mon pere,” she said, “Et a cote de lui c’est ma mere.”

I’ll never know how she knew it was them, or even IF she knew it, but I couldn’t question.  Who could?  She was saying her goodbyes and that was that.  She asked me to touch her parents too, and so I did, running my finger along the crack where the machete had fatally fallen.  This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body but it was the first I’d touched; two people I’d never known but I’d never forget.

As Aline then knelt to pray I stood back to leave her in the moment, and choking my own tears I could only write something probably insignificant in the book of condolence – what words are there to amply embrace the horror felt at the sight of such murderous meaningless?

“Merci,” she said, “Merci de m’avoir permis de les voir.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Aline would visit me in the house in Kigali, where my night-guard called Joseph lived up a tree and Gysenge my day-guard tended the garden with his machete.  I hadn’t been able to give her work but I always made sure Aline had food in her belly and something to take home to her brother and sister.  One night I played guitar for her and sang (something to remind her of her family in America I think) and she told me she loved me but I said I couldn’t love her back.  I kissed her on the cheek and tasted her tears.

I visited her too, in her little hut in Ramera, and met her brother and sister.  And one day out of the blue she said,

“Je veux voir l’homme qui a tue mes parents.”  (I want to see the man who killed my parents).

So I took her to Gitarama Prison, a hell-hole where it was said that inmates stood up in their own shit, while ones more privileged for whatever reason would be tasked with making furniture, dressed in pink to tell the world who they were.  As we sat outside the gates, peering in, I wanted to know if Aline was sure.

“Oui je suis sur,” she replied, “Et je suis sur qu’il est le seul.”

As she pointed to one of the prisoners in pink, again I could only take her at face value.  I saw this time she didn’t cry.  There was sadness in her eyes but nothing fell from them.

“How does it make you feel?” I asked.

“Rien,” she said, “Je ne sens rien.  Maintenant je veux aller a la maison.”  She’d seen all she wanted to see.  She’d looked into the eyes of her parents’ killer, and now wanted to go home.

Soon my work in Rwanda was done and I was heading home to Manchester via Paris, eager to be reunited with my own family.

“Thank you Mutijima,” she said, in English this time, “thank you for everything you’ve done for me.  And for everything you’ve done for my country.”

But on the plane I knew I’d done very little.  Yes I’d done my best to create a project to help bring some sustainable stability to a troubled but beautiful country, and yes I was proud of my achievements.  I still am.  But what was this compared to the super-strength of a young orphan forced to mother her baby siblings, and her determination to make a better life after Genocide had taken nearly everything?

Now, more than twenty years on, when the black dog comes barking and I feel sorry for myself, I often think of Aline.  I wonder if she lived?  If she managed to get her siblings into school?  Did she save enough to get to America and reunite with her uncles?  Somehow I think she probably did all those things.  She’d lived through a horror and a sadness I could only imagine, yet I never once saw her feel sorry for herself.  She just got on with life.  I should never forget that.

Baby Wipes

I did buy deodorant.  It’s called Sure but I’m not sure it’s going to be enough.  Thank God for Baby Wipes!  This reminds me of living in Rwanda and the African Great Lakes during the Genocide of the 90s.  I’ll blog more in future on that wonderful if frightening experience, but for now I want to talk about my quest to stay clean while living off-grid.  Given my leaky water pipe I’m relying on baby wipes and it reminds me of my life in the African fields because I feel I’m giving off the sweet and sour perfume of baby wipes and shit.

Maybe it’s paranoia, or my mind and nostrils playing tricks.  But anyway I was glad of a bit of sun this morning after a wet weekend, as I filled a bucket with spring water and washed my hair, allowing the sun to dry it and the gentle breeze to style it.  I say style it, I’m actually growing it, and it’s at that stage when it looks crap.  A real friend called Kelly, a hair-stylist by trade, advises me to keep trimming it round the ears.  I will take her advice but am afraid of the Ottermobile suddenly rocking and I finish up doing a Van Gogh and chopping off an ear.  How would I wear my sunglasses?  Or live life listening to music in mono?

Like my late father I used to be dapper.  But now it doesn’t work that way, I’m spending every day trying to keep clean and dress somewhere between practical and respectable.  Sunshine is a Godsend for the off-gridder because shorts and T-shirt are easy, everyone is wearing them, so they’re a sartorial leveller offering no distinction between the rat-racers and the unwashed.

This interests me.  It’s a desirable lifestyle I’ve chosen but it makes me feel less than desirable.  I mention my hair that won’t behave itself, and staying with the follicle theme I managed to shave yesterday owing to my ITV commitments, where I needed to look respectable (not that people in TV are generally that bothered about such things).  In a tight space like the Ottermobile it’s not so easy with a wet shave, becoming a chore rather than a pleasure.  I don’t enjoy it and once again I fear for my ear.  I already have a Goatee but I think I’ll go the whole hog.  Better to have a beard and two ears than be clean-shaven and unable to hear someone say I look good.

But how will I look?  Unwashed?  Like a tramp, a tatterdemalion, a hobo?  And will I care?  I used to care, but do I any more?  Will I lose my self-respect because I’ve chosen to opt out?  Does opting out of society mean opting out of washing?  Of course not, not for me, it’s not in my nature.  So until I get the water pipe fixed the baby wipes will do.  Vanity might’ve vanished, Narcissus may have been left in the mirror of my swanky apartment in Salford Quays, but I have to take some self-respect on the road with me.

In Media City I’ve had my share of company.  My real friend Kim is giving me a lift to Home Bargains later for a fresh supply of spring water.  We’ll no doubt have a glass of wine afterwards, hopefully in the sun outside the Dockyard.  Talking of which, I’ve just been listening to some BBC lanyards talking shop.  One of them said something was “hash-tag-tastic”.  I called him a hash-tag-tosser.  Now work is done I realise I soon need to leave all this behind.  Partly because people are beautiful and smart here and I smell of baby wipes and shit.  Partly because I’ve had it with the Media tossers and I need to hit the road.

Nobody with me, nobody getting on my tits, no contortionists (see previous blog “The Erection Campaign”).  Nobody telling me what to do, nobody telling me I need to be in a certain place at a certain time, nobody telling me I stink of baby wipes and shit.  Suits me.  I want to be alone.  So who wants me?

dockyard