Monday, 9 October 2017

Did I tell you about when... I was really hungry

Have you ever been hungry? I don’t mean missed-lunch hungry, I don’t mean Hollywood-diet hungry, I mean 3rd world hungry.

I have.It was November and the tourists were long gone and they’d taken all their money with them. I had put some money away for my flight home but that had quickly become a ticket on the magic bus which had become 1000 drachmas, little more than the cab fare to the next village and back and my cupboards were bare.

chickenI had bought a bag of lentils and some assorted veg and made soup, a lot of soup. Each day I would take out a bowl of soup and pour in a cup of water.
The water was beginning to win out.
Now that sounds really grim but the upside was that almost every night a car stopped outside my apartment to take me out drinking, I had been living on a diet of beer and bar nuts for about a month and I was hungry.
I visited friends and left with their potato peelings. Don’t get me wrong, they would have fed me but something had kicked in, something stoic and British. I would let them feed me when I had money, I would take some beers or retsina, but now I had nothing and I couldn’t, before I was poncing, now I was begging. I couldn’t beg.
Twitshot
It was that same pig-headedness that had got me in such dire straights. I had had one too many animated altercations with Fat Yianni. I refused to sell five portions of chicken stew that had been bouncing round the kitchen for days.
“You couldn’t sell the ice cream in the Eskimos!” Fat Yianni spat at me. He had a big problems with mixed metaphors, but not only did I understand it, I was offended.
And I might have risen to the bait but I had asked the cook for a portion the day before. She shook her head grimly and brought me souvlaki, a fact that I had yelled at him in front of a packed restaurant.
That was late August and the end of my revenue stream. I got a little job on the scooters but there were no meals and I’d forgotten what an expense that could be. The ladies from the kitchen would feed me when Fat Yianni was away and leave care packages on my doorstep from time to time but that ended with the tourists.
The cycle continued with the car outside taking me for beers that were given freely by the bars that I had sent tourists to all summer. I guess it was gratitude or maybe just payment for my lunatic antics that spiced up a dull off-season in Halkidiki. I didn’t care. I got beer, I got nuts, I got wasted. The same car, I think, would then drive up outside the village and dump me on the roadside. A drooling lump of Essex laundry with a grin who could continue to entertain himself on the short walk through the village, singing made-up songs to himself, before passing out in the general vicinity of his apartment. Yes, sometimes I did not get all the way.
So, one night I was zig-zagging my way home when I heard a familiar sound. Familiar but this time it had new resonance, new meaning to a man who had been sustained on spot-the-lentil soup for too long. It was the clucking of a chicken. It sounded clucking tasty. I was clucking drooling. I looked around me and vaulted the fence. Now, I was of the opinion that chickens came in buckets and were finger licking good but I had some experience of turning a living thing into satisfied tummy back when we used to visit Uncle Ted. Uncle Ted had a small holding with goats and sheep and even a cow but most importantly in my education, he had rabbits and chickens. Uncle Ted had, when I was about 13, made me wring a chuck’s neck. Now, Uncle Ted had hands like two pound of Wall’s bangers, I did not. He took the poor dumb creature by the neck with his fist inverted and swung its body over the back of his hand. The chuck’s body did most of the work. It was still twitching but it had clucked its last. Then he looked at me. I took it in my boyish hand, “SWING IT!”. I did. In fact, I did it so hard, afraid that I wouldn’t do it hard enough that one of its claws nearly took my eye out. The adrenaline pumped hard, the chicken twitched. I did it. And, I could do it again. Difference was this time I didn’t have Uncle Ted to catch the bastard and hold it for me. I picked the one that looked a little slow on its feet. Was it lame? Did I care? I leaped and slipped in chicken shit but I got it. SWING! I shoved it into my jacket and zipped up. I couldn’t vault back over the fence holding the bottom of my jacket to stop the wriggling lump from falling so I climbed gingerly. A nail snagged my nads. My quarry fell on the floor. Now, many would have you believe that chickens run around after they are decapitated, it’s true they do twitch a lot and I guess if you were to put them on the ground they might run, but they don’t. That said, this one was doing a bloody good job of escaping. Its kinfolk were clucking and flapping while it lay back on the coup side of the fence giving its last. The sun wasn’t long to peer over the horizon and the last thing I wanted was to get caught chicken rustling. I leaned over scooped it up and launched my right leg over the fence. My jeans gave a rip! and unsnarled from the nail and I was off.
Back at the homestead, I pulled out the chuck and stuffed it into a saucepan. My biggest still had the remains of a soup that had sustained me so long so I went for the next down, it didn’t fit but it would have to do. I went to the balcony to suck a few lung-fulls of calm from a cigarette.
Now, what I did know was not much but I did know that plucking a cold bird is a hiding to nowhere. Those feathers need to come out warm and fast. I searched the kitchen for a plastic bag but I hadn’t bought anything for so long that I had nothing. All I could do was use my spare pillowcase and remember this was not a clean white bird, it stunk. I took it to the bathroom and ran it under a hot shower, some of the bits of grit hopped away.
I plucked, I’m not a cluckin’ plucker, I’m a cluckin’ plucker’s son and plucked some more then stuffed it back into the pan and fell unconscious on the bed satisfied with my labours.
I woke in the afternoon with chicken down in my nose. I had left the balcony door open and the breeze had got to the pillow case. I made a cup of tea, I hate tea but someone had left me a couple of boxes of Lipton bags before leaving. I had no milk or sugar but it was better than the taste of my own mouth. And I was spitting feathers.
The chicken’s legs were sticking out of the pan and it still needed gutting and cooking. I had images of mum’s roast chicken but I didn’t have an oven. I dreamed of chicken schnitzel, chicken chow mien, sweat and sour then I found half a bottle of medium sweet red wine, it was a little darker than I remembered. To be frank, I didn’t remember acquiring it or drinking it.
Coq au Vin!
Soon with blunt knives and brute force, I had it gut-free. I put the remains of the lentils in another pan and swished it round under the tap. Ready, Steady, Cook! It was as much as I could do not to nibble on bits of the carcase. I think the stock ended up with a Knorr cube and two parts drool, I was having problems staying objective.
As it was boiling, I went through the cupboards adding pinches of green stuff, red stuff, I even found one of those leaves mum used to put in the bolognese, at least I thought it was.
A knock at the door. Shit! Was it the gamekeeper? Or was it someone smelling my creation and inviting themselves for dinner. I froze. Again, a knock. I swallowed my lungs. I could hear my muscles creaking. Eventually I heard steps away from my door and I sucked in as much air as I could and nearly spat up my throat, fuck! that wine was tart!
I knew it would take an hour or so to cook but I didn’t want to leave it so I moved a chair into the chicken, I mean kitchen and tried to read. After watching the words dance around on the page, I gave up. I brushed my teeth, twice and swallowed the toothpaste. I tidied my room. I collected the feathers. The chicken boiled and boiled. I tried to nap but my stomach had turned on me, growling and griping. I couldn’t take any more. I went to the kitchen and fished out some of the meat that had turned white and brought it to my tongue, which was hanging around my knees. And ate.
The meat was tough but it tasted like Christmas. The juices needed some bread but the bakers would need me to give some bread and I had no bread.
It only took a plate full to make my stomach push against my belt, so unaccustomed to anything more than beer and peanuts, and I slept. I slept Christmas-day-in-front-of-The-Sound-of-Music sleep.
I woke full of beans but added some more coq to them before making my way down to the village square with a scribble pad and a head full of ideas. I slipped round the back of one of the tavernas that had closed for the winter and lifted a crate of empty Amstel bottles and took them to the supermarket. Ten Drachmas a bottle plus the crate got me two full bottles and a packet of Camels.
I pitched up on a wall at the square and began scribbling, poems and lyrics mostly.
A couple of old codgers pitched up within earshot.
“Come on Kosta, you know you can’t count!”
“No mistake. yesterday, I had twelve. This morning, I had eleven.”
“Malaka, It was hiding in the coup.”
“I'm telling you! Bloody Albanians stole my chickens....”
“Well... one.”
"Yeah! one..."

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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Did I tell you about when... I got picked up by the fuzz

So there I was, scurrying along late and lost, as usual. It was a balmy moonlit night and I was going to pick up a friend's kid from night classes. I had circled the neighbourhood and finally found a space miles away from the music academy. Looking at my watch, it was 10.30 and getting close to the time when the kid would be looking for me and making panicked calls to his parents.

I was in full scamper when I heard the farty toot of a police horn, I looked round in curiosity. It was Papaki squad, two bikes loaded with four officers locked and loaded. Who were they after? I doubted they were going to ask for directions but maybe I might have seen some suspicious type running away from a crime scene. One of the pillions was standing and they tooted again. I stopped in a who-me? stance. The standing officer alighted and approached, was this really happening?
Twitshot
He told me they just wanted to do a little check; blood pressure? customer satisfaction? 

He asked me if I live in the area, I told him I didn't. I told him to make it quick as I was going to pick up a kid from classes. He told me it would take 2 minutes, so I played ball. Word to the wise, Greeks baring gifts can and usually is very pleasant, Greeks talking minutes is tears en route.

I was asked if I was carrying anything illegal, I said I really hoped not as this wouldn't be the best time. He deadpanned the same question again until I told him that I was not carrying.

He asked me to turn out my pockets and normally I would have told him to turn out his first but instead I turned out my pockets and everything was carefully scrutinised. It was about this point when I realised what was really happening. No just cause, no suspicious behaviour, just a 40-something late and lost.

I raised my arms and accepted a full body frisk. One minute I'm doing my bit for community relations, next I have my nuts in a copper's palm. Thankfully he had gentle hands.

Once they had satisfied themselves that I was no immediate threat to society they asked me if I was from round here, I told them again where I lived, not my address, just the area. He looked at me and asked the question again. I knew the question he wanted to ask, my accent had set off alarm bells. He persisted with variations of the are-you-local question without directly mentioning ethnicity. I told him that I'm British and he corrected me saying Greek-British, I told him English-British, BBC-British, Marks and Spencer British... British! Then the short one next to him started demanding papers. Now, I rarely carry ID as such, credit cards maybe but if you've ever lost your passport or driving licence you’ll understand that the risk of a night in the cell is worth all the hassle and cost of getting it replaced.

I told shorty that I took them on holiday abroad and I didn't realise that I would need to prove my identity crossing the municipal line. Shorty tells me that I am abroad and had to prove my legal status in the country. Yes, this really is happening. I told him that I'm a Greek tax-payer and European citizen. He asks me again if I had any ID, I tell him again that I was under the assumption that I was free to move around as I would be in Britain, yes I know this was taunting but by this time I had had enough of their bullshit. He told me that they would have to take me down the station if I wanted to continue (read: keep it up, sonny!) 

I offered my hands ready for cuffing. "If you are going to, get it over with..." 

They had two bikes and two pillions, how they would get me there was anyone’s guess.

Finally, shorty told me that due to having to pick up the kid they would let me off… Let me off for doing nothing, stopped with no just cause and after discovering no illegals on me; how fucking gracious!

I told them how grateful I was for their kindness and wished them a good evening, whatever that may entail.

As I shuffled off, I slowed my pace to a gentle mince in order to furtively readjust the two kilo bag of coke and various fire arms I had previously shoved up my arse... Nah, not really!


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Saturday, 23 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I went to a party half-cocked

12.30, I’d just finished work and I was on a mission. Word had reached me of a major party at the hotel where I had stayed when I first arrived and It wasn't going to happen without me. I had borrowed a 50 Vespa and I was on my way. Gerakina beach was some fifty kilometres away and with a top speed of about sixty, I would have to be patient. Very patient.


The road stretched out ahead of me and at sixty kilometres an hour it stretches a lot. I went through a village set on the main road which was still bustling with tourists and locals alike but after that I knew I had a lot of road that went through nowhere in particular so I settled in.
Vespas have a distinctive buzz, you know vespa means wasp in Italian, of course you did, well after twenty minutes that can become quite hypnotic. I've ridden the length and breadth of the UK on a Vespa, Exmouth, Skegness, Isle of Wight but always with a lot of company and always at more than 60kph.
Twitshot
The road ahead stretched and stretched and faded.
The handlebars were snapped out of my hands and my legs flung in the air. I awoke with rocks and a dense patch of nature ahead. No time for coffee! I grabbed control and pulled the levers hard. I was only a couple of metres from the road but only a couple of metres from the edge that would have had me swimming home or worse. Fortunately, both wheels were pointing at the ground and my feet planted firmly in the dust.
I dismounted, sat on one of the boulders I had so nearly painted with my face and sucked the calm from a camel cigarette. Ok, I know smoking isn't good for my health but it tended to hover so low on my list of activities that I lit another with the first.
The second leg of my journey was filled with singing and wide open eye exercises to ensure my family would not have to fork out for one of those little shrines by the road and a mangled 50 Vespa.
It was around two when I indicated the right into the Gerakina resort and it did cross my mind that the party may have begun to wane by my arrival. No chance. The bar was heaving. I rolled in, hugging, cheek-kissing and high-fiving to the bar and got straight down to business. There was Michaili who I’d rented my first scooter from and who had given me my first left-hacker to drive, Tina the lovely barmaid and Tim. Tim had arrived in Greece the same day as me but he was working for Thomson holidays as a rep. He spoke in a northern tainted RP accent and clearly hadn't got out much before getting here, I had taken him under my wing which probably wasn't a good thing, I was fully expecting his parents’ lawyers to be contacting mine when he got back to Lincolnshire in the autumn.
I’ll tell you some day how I came to be in Greece and while love has a lot to do with it, it’s not how most think it is. For now, me and life were having a torrid affair.
Now, among the throng was Pasqual, Tim’s boss and head rep for the area. He had been working in the industry for years and had seen most of the world, in little blue shorts and a logo’d polo shirt but he’d been around and had tales to tell. We had a laugh and joke until he asked me what my plans were for the night, I obviously wouldn't be taking the Vespa the fifty kilometres home, not anytime soon. I told him that I didn't have any plans but I was sure Tim could put me up. Tim kicked me in the ankle.
“He most certainly will not!” was Pasqual’s curt answer. Whereupon he went into a diatribe about going off half-cocked and without making appropriate arrangements. Damn! I never did anything half-cocked! As for the arrangements, he had a good point. I think he was still going on when I left him to revisit the bar. Tim came and scalded me for getting him in shit. I told him not to worry and his boss would never know. Tim was making significant progress but was still decidedly risk-averse.
So, I had nowhere to stay. This bombshell had me upended so I danced to Happy Mondays on a table with Amanda, the new kiddies rep who had transferred from Corfu, or some such island.
By the time the sun began to yawn over the horizon there were just a few of us sitting in the bar. Tim had slipped off, possibly to avoid having to say no to me. Pasqual had waited for Tim to leave but was now gone, Michaili was still as chilled as always but still in full effect. Tina the lovely barmaid had been relieved by the owner, much to my disappointment so I was sitting with Amanda, who was just as lovely. She asked me where I was staying. She wasn't familiar with my village so I explained where it was and how far.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
I pointed at the diminutive scooter sitting outside.
“You came on that? Yor mental!”
“Chicken oriental!” I replied.
She asked when I was going back and if I would be sticking around for a while.
I shook my head, “Gotta get back tomorrow, today. At some point.”
She reached her hand across the table and I took it, I'm nothing if not polite. “You could stay with me but I share.” I concealed my disappointment. “But, but I might have something.” She stood suddenly. “Come on!”
The hotel was quiet, apart from some Germans laying their towels on the sunloungers. She smiled at the guy on reception and led me by the hand. Eventually we reached a door and she tried the handle, it opened. She raised a finger to her lips. She didn’t give me much time to survey my surrounding but I got the impression that it was some kind of store room. It had no windows so I went to turn on the light. She stopped me, whispering ‘no’ into my ear.
We bounced around the room, bumping into furniture. There was a big soft pile of something that was probably towels in plastic bags which suited our needs for a while then another stack of something harder. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark I spotted a pile of mattresses. I told her breathlessly to wait while I pulled one down onto the floor. We continued. I thought we were being quite quiet but to be honest I couldn’t be sure.
Finally, we were finished and laid out on the single mattress when she leapt to her feet swearing in a loud whisper.
“Oh shit! Oh my god!”
“What’s up?” I knew she had work but surely we hadn’t lost complete sense of time. She continued swearing and pulling her clothes from around the room pulling on my t-shirt in her panic. I asked again. She said it was nothing.
Not to be dissuaded. “You late for work?”
“I got my period! Satisfied?” Then slipped out of the door.
I grabbed half an hour sleep then slipped out myself, looking both ways before exiting.
In a cafe across the road I had two strong coffees, a spinach pie and the rest of the camels in my box before kicking the Vespa into life.
As I left the resort I nearly had a head-on with a police car that was in a hurry for something. I looked over my shoulder to check that he didn't turn. I wasn't wearing a helmet and although they rarely pulled anyone for such transgressions in those days, it did happen if they were in a bad mood.
I broke the return journey into manageable legs punctuated by coffee and camels. I laughed at myself, I had a couple of spots of blood on my trousers and even my t-shirt. Poor girl, she must have been mortified. I resolved to call her when I got back to reassure her that it was no biggy.
I didn't call, we had no mobiles then and I didn't know her surname. I could have sent a message through Natasha, the Thompson girl in my village but I got distracted and forgot.
A few weeks later Tim was transferred to my village. We went out for drinks which he insisted on paying for in lieu of letting me down that night. I told him it was fine but he felt in my debt. I had been helping him with some of the apartment owners, his Greek had not progressed as fast as mine. He had exhausted his tales of difficult holidaymakers when his eyes lit up.
“You know, the police made us give them all our lists!”
“When?” I asked.
“Must have been after the party.”
“Why?”
“There was a murder at the hotel! One of the rooms was covered in blood.”
“My round,” I offered…


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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I was late for work

It was a beautiful summer morning as usual, well this is Greece and if there is one thing reliable in this country, it's the weather. Come to think of it, it IS the one and only thing. I awoke strangely refreshed. I say strangely because I had got to bed around four the previous night but this was a comparatively early night. It must have been mid-July and I had been partying since May, burning the candle at both ends was too benign an idiom for it. I was burning a Molotov at both ends and that nothing had exploded yet was outrageous fortune.


late for workI took a cold shower to rinse off the night and headed down through the village to work. Work was the nice restaurant where I waited tables for Fat Yianni, the classiest place in town. Although my work ethic was thoroughly Anglican, my play ethic was even more dedicated. I slept no more than two hours a night and lived the other twenty two like tomorrow was just a vicious rumour. Of course, I would get forty winks on the beach in the afternoon but most of those winks were to just about anything in a bikini.
Twitshot
I sauntered through the village well aware of the fact that I would be ten or fifteen minutes late but me and Fat Yianni had an understanding, he knew I was awesome and I knew he wasn't paying me what I deserved. He had confessed one drunken night that he had never seen anyone extract tips or sell ‘specials’ like me. I had no fears about my job yet I executed my obligations with diligence and aplomb.
Hangover was a pretty standard state but I had the constitution of Keith Richards and when it was showtime, I performed.
Nearing the village centre, I passed the first taverna and the owner was standing outside watching the world go by and swinging his worry-beads. I smiled and waved a kalimera. He grimaced and swung his hand in a chopping motion, this meant that you were in trouble, the cutting motion was a certain part of one’s anatomy that were for the chop. Christ! I was quarter of an hour late, tops!
I passed the souvenir shop and offered a warm morning greeting, she swung her head and tutted. When the same thing happened at the next taverna, I realised that Fat Yianni was in a foul mood and I would be getting it for some reason when I got in. I could handle the old bastard and our rows were legendary in the village but he would not do without me and he knew that I knew that as well as he.
When I arrived, maybe twenty minutes late, the restaurant was empty and I made quick work of readying it for brunch service. The girls were busy in the kitchen and I did my best to jolly them up. I'm a great believer in investing in a convivial work atmosphere. If you work in a miserable place, maybe you are the reason for it. I worked in a wonderful environment. The girls were reluctant to talk to me and no amount of horseplay would loosen them up.
Fat Yianni arrived in a tempest and I resolved to give him space to get his first frappe coffee with Bailys instead of milk down him before I engaged him. He planted himself behind the bar and followed me with his black gaze. His fat head was swinging, punctuated by swear words. I had already played out the game in my head. He would start griping, I would placate him until I reposted vehemently enough to provoke a full-on altercation, storm out and join some friends who had said they were going water-skiing. Whereupon I would return for evening service sell all the specials and leftovers and harvest a wad of tips then go down to the strip where I would party myself spastic and all would be forgotten.
“Where you yesterday, koufala?”
Game on. I ignored him.
“Malaka! Where you yesterday?”
“I was on the strip, mostly Bubbles bar. You?”
“I am here, doing yourself work, hamoura!”
“You couldn't do my work if your life depended on it, you muppet! I do the business, you collect the money!” I was readying myself for water-skiing.
“We banged your door. We shout you. You no answer!”
“Yianni, what are you on? Go back to your frappe, I got work to do!”
“WHERE YOU WERE, STUPID ENGLISH! WE GO YOUR HOUSE… MANY TIMES”
“Listen, you stupider Greek, I was here until that table of Greeks left at, what was it, 12.30? Then I went down Bubbles. And, now I'm here!” The villagers were right, he was worse than usual. I may have to forgo my evening tips to win out this time. He was like Mussolini on his period!
His big moon face cracked a smile. “David. What day it is?”
“Listen Yianni, I'm off!”
“DAVID. WHAT DAY IT IS?”
“You fuckin' muppet! It’s Tue—”
I snatched the rip-a-day calender to shove in his fat face. It read Wednesday 18th July…


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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I went hitch-hiking II

Hitch-hiking
Anyone who thinks buses are an unreliable form of transport should try thumbing their way through the mountains between the port of Patras and just about anywhere. It was getting late and the sun was sipping cocoa. Many hitchers stay in one place where they are most likely to get a lift, often with a cardboard sign. I like to walk, while I'm heading in the right direction, I'm making progress. Even if I'm in the wrong place, I 'spose that speaks volumes about me but maybe I'm just stupid and impatient.

Twitshot

  A car passed and lit its indicators and my heart did a little dance. I ran to the waiting car just for it to speed off. Ha fucking ha.
I was starting to climb into the mountains, into the worst possible place to get a lift when Pasquale eased his huge truck into the side of the road. I knew he was called Pasquale because he said the word with a tombstone smile several times. The truck wore Italian plates and Pasquale spoke neither English nor Greek, I remembered a few words of Italian but they were of no use. I patted my chest and said David. Pasquale was carrying steel rods. I don’t know where and I didn't know that they wouldn't get there, not then. All I knew was that I had a lift.
Pasquale was working the gears hard but I was surprised at how nimble the huge vehicle was climbing the up into the wooded mountain.
Behind him was a cupboard full of snacks. He offered me some crisps and fizzy pop. Inflight meal. I was blessed.
So, we were winding through the narrow pass. I watched the sheer drops from my window, reassuring myself that Pasquale, a professional driver knew exactly what he was doing.
His hand had moved from the gearstick as the road levelled and was now working his shrivelled knob which he had stealthily slipped from his trousers. Fuck! It was dark outside, god knows how far from anywhere. I made the concerted decision to ignore it and hope it went back where it belonged.
“Wanky, wanky!” So, Pasquale had been a little coy about his mastery of English. But what he didn't understand was that when one is being ignored, one should stop playing with one’s cock to avoid any unnecessary faux pas or transgressions of etiquette.
Being British, I was well schooled in how to politely diffuse such situations. “Put it away.” I said in an even tone.
“Wanky, wanky!” Pasquale was Italian and never had the privilege of an education in the country whose main export is manners and civility. Plus, he was the driver and I was the passenger in the middle of the mountains where the headlights were doing their best to penetrate the blackness.
I galvanised my tone and repeated, “Put it away!”
The cock was now back safely behind his fly and I clenched praying for the next town to arrive.
I watched the tyres skim the edge of the road sprinkling stones down the sheer face.
Now, while London cabbies have famously enlarged hippocampi, the same cannot be said for Italian lorry drivers and it wasn't long before he had forgotten my request. Pasquale’s cock was out again.
“Wanky, wanky?”
Now, I failed to mention that while British to the core, I was raised in Essex, where a subculture of English restraint exists. I sung my fist across the cab and it landed square in his right eye.
“PUT YOUR FUCKING COCK AWAY!” Shit! I would drive this thing if I had to. My fist was now a grip on his collar and I had twisted to bring my right into play if circumstances demanded.
His cock disappeared in a nervous shuffle. I hoped it got stuck in his fly!
Now, the atmosphere in the cab was a little terse with Pasquale’s romantic advances rebuked. We've all faced rejection from time to time and it’s no fun.
I watched the edge of the road swing back and forth, the tyres kicking more stones over. He was clearly impatient to get me home, his expectations of a kiss at the door and a nightcap dashed.
A sweeping left leaned the cab over so that the tyres were momentarily out of sight. I caught my breath. The next right brought them back into view. I watched the cliff edge drop to an abyss then replaced by the door of the truck as the cab swung from side to side. I could clearly make out the letters of the livery. Then the wheels disappeared again.
They did not reappear.
The wheels had gone under and stayed under. The side of the mountain was coming but it was taking its time. Salt and vinegar crisps, Fanta, dust and moans filled the cab as we slid down. Down into the forest.
We hit the trees hard and the windscreen cracked.
It took a moment to confirm that I was still alive but I was. Pasquale was moaning his own name. He hadn't fallen on me, maybe his seatbelt, I wasn't wearing mine. I couldn't tell you.
My kitbag was between my legs but the footwell had compressed so I had to remove my shoe to retrieve my foot. I put my shoes back on and braced myself against my seat and kicked out the windscreen. It fell and I heard it tumble down into the trees. I pulled myself out and stood on the side pillar of the truck’s windscreen. The cab had snagged on some trees, pines I think but the trailer was hanging.
Pasquale reached out a hand. “Pasquale urrrgh!” The same hand that had been teasing his cock. The same cock that had got me in this situation in the first place. I braced against the window frame and threw a front-kick into his head.
I grabbed my kitbag and started to scramble up the steep slope. I could make out a car and two figures at the road.
“YOU OK?”
My right ankle was getting heavy and blood was coming from a deep cut on my right forearm but all things considered, I was good.
“Yeah. I'm fine!”
When I got to the top I found I had more blood over my left cheek but it wiped off easily, it was only Pasquale’s.
The police turned up followed by an ambulance. An officer took me aside and asked me what had happened.
Now my Greek was not great but I knew the word for masturbation, don’t ask me how. Trouble is that it gets used for everything in this country. I explained that the driver was, well, pulling his pud and this may have explained his lack of due care and attention but that translates as he was fucking about. I tried to rephrase with added gestures. The officer nodded in false comprehension, “Yeah, he’s a wanker!” I finally gave up.
Pasquale was sitting in the ambulance, chianti pouring from his head. I was ushered to join him. Pasquale freaked, waving his arms about. His black eye and busted nose were indirectly related to the accident but related nonetheless. I went in the squad car.
I was taken to the hospital first where my examination consisted of being asked to pull down my trousers and left in an empty room for half an hour. The doctor returned, asked me if I was OK and told me to hoist them back up. The irony of ending my evening with my trousers round my ankles despite my efforts was not lost on me, oh well.
The police were waiting outside. They took me for coffee down at the station and asked me to tell my story, tell my story! How were they to know? About two hours, four cups of coffee, a packet of the officers fags and a couple of ouzos later (I drank, the officers being on duty) they had written a vastly abridged version in Greek and asked me to sign it.
So now it’s about midnight and they want me out of town nearly as much as Pasquale. They take me down to the bus stop but the bus had left some ten minutes earlier. The officer waves wildly and we jump back in the car. He hits the road hard and we speed down the windy roads at a cracking pace. But, being professional drivers, I trusted in his experience…
         
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Sunday, 10 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I went hitch-hiking

the hitcher
I think Rutger Hauer put the final nail in the coffin for hitch-hiking in the English speaking world. Anyone who saw The Hitcher would think more than twice about picking up any stranger from the roadside and most of us were already reluctant to stick out a thumb on the highway. In Greece in the 90s it was still fairly common practice. Young men on leave from their national service would wear uniform to garner sympathy. I would regularly village hop by thumb. So, when someone suggested hitching the six-hundred kilometres down to Zakynthos to see my grandparents, it struck me as a perfectly reasonable idea.
Twitshot
I loaded a kitbag, which was actually my kick-bag with the stuffing taken out and hit the highway south. A friend from the village gave me my first leg and dropped me at the toll gates out of the Thessaloniki. It was midsummer and the Greek sun takes no prisoners. My thumb was exhausted and I was nearly at the point of jumping the first bus back when a rickety Zestava pulled over. He was a middle-aged guy in a similar condition to his car but he was going my way and could take me some two-hundred kilometres down the line. Result!
My Greek at that time was pretty rudimentary at the time and he spoke with an impenetrable accent so conversation did not flow. What I did gather was that he was a policeman heading down to arrest a pretty heinous criminal. Dialogue soon dried up after him asking me to repeat everything twice and me trying to guess what he was saying through the clatter of the old car and his accent. I got the impression that he wasn’t the most amiable companion in any language so I decided instead to settle in for the remaining hour and a half trying not to nark him too much. The car was too small for any more friction.
The sun was high and piercing the windscreen so I opened the window. Clunk! It wound down a few inches then fell into the door. So much for not narking him. He was leaning across me trying to pull it back up, swerving across the lanes and snorting like a bull when he finally gave up. His destination would take me nearly half of my way and as it was a fairly big city, it would be a good place to get another lift.
My sunglasses were not enough to stop my retinas burning so I reached for the sunshade and flipped it down. A bunch of papers took flight like a flock of seagull through a jet engine and shot straight out of the window. Screeetch! My driver hit the brakes so hard I hit the windscreen. I barely had a chance to ask if they were important when he leapt from the car. He was dancing around in the breeze trying to grab the airborne pages. I watched as the slipstream from a passing truck flung them over a hedge into a field. He had stopped dancing for the paper and was now just dancing mad. His impenetrable accent was now simple expletives and they were aimed at me, my mother and my whole nation. He wanted to hurt me. Fortunately I stood a whole head taller than him and broad enough to deter any physical attack. But, he really wanted to hurt me.
In his ranting he told me what the papers were and I went back to make a more concerted effort to retrieve them. He went back to the car and drove off then stopped. I thought he had reconsidered his impetuousness, leaving me stranded on the side of the highway. He opened the passenger door so I ran toward it. My kitbag fell out onto the verge and he spun dust in my face allowing the acceleration to close the door.
Now flying across the neighbouring fields was the arrest warrant for a very heinous criminal.


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Friday, 8 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I got run over

Off to the beach, Yay! This is Greece, so nothing odd there except that we were in the grip of capital controls. Mr. Schauble and his Eurogroup were rapping naughty Mr. Varoufakis’ knuckles by shutting down our banks. My adopted home was in a state of panic. The cash machines would allow only €40 to be withdrawn each day and everybody wanted their money out. There was a slow but persistent run on the banks and queueing at the ATM had begun to dominate everybody’s day. So we went to splash in the sea and top up our tans.

Twitshot
It was a bright and pleasant morning, bollocks it was! Greek summer had kicked in and we felt like spicy KFC wings. People often say that I must have gotten used to the heat but I ask you this, do chickens get used to roasting? We loaded the car with inflatable toys and umbrellas like a bargain bucket for kids and headed for the coast.
We dived and splashed and drank frappe until finally, we were baked and ready to head home for austerity pie. On route we passed through a busy high street so I decided to stop and empty my accounts some more. I had four accounts at different banks and flip-flopped around the various machines, waiting in line to add to the trot on the banks. Eventually, I had taken my daily allowance from each of the machines and as I was wearing beach shorts, I had the cash and cards in my hand and a fog in my head, how much longer could we stand living in this teenager’s bedroom of a country? Surely we could earn enough back in my native Britain to not have to go through this and still be able to visit her beaches frequently enough. And, what about the kids, shouldn’t we take them somewhere where they would have a future. I swung my head checking the traffic, my cards and cash gripped firmly in my fist. I stepped off the curb. I heard the screech of brakes. The cracking of plastic and glass. I saw a car pass me. The horror in the passenger’s eyes. I spun. The tyres stopped squealing. I was sat on my arse in the middle of the road with one flip-flop. My wife ran across the road her mouth making wide vowels. I told her to take the cash and cards still firmly in my grasp. Yes, I really am that tight!
The passenger ran over in a sea of apologies, the driver still clinging to the wheel probably fearing the next few years in a Greek jail. He asked if I was alright and I told him to pull me to my feet. I limped to the other side of the street and started pacing. The driver joined us and by the look on his face he had already imagined dropping the soap. My foot was heavy but in no great pain, the pain in my left arm that had been holding the cash was seeping through the adrenaline. My wife checked me over for damage. Nothing apart from my elbow and foot. The car had gone over my right foot, my elbow had struck the windscreen, breaking it, my body had shattered the door mirror. My mind was racing over every frame of the scene. I continued pacing, ignoring the pleas to sit down. My foot was getting heavier, I didn’t want it to seize.
We exchanged contact details with the driver and he promised to take care of any expenses, a promise he held. Then we went home, my wife asking me over and over if I wanted to go to the hospital.
Later she and my mate convinced me to go. Say what you like about Greek hospitals but they keep the sick off the streets. I had Vangelis’ Midnight Express theme ringing in my ears. Vangelis is Greek, I wondered if he’d visited many hospitals.
The doctors were more concerned about me reporting the incident. I told them the car was Italian and I was British, no contest really. Fortunately, I had no breaks just a swollen foot. Same foot, incidentally as in the truck accident. My football career was over before it had even started. But, hey, I only have two so I guess it would always be 50/50.
As I left the hospital, I bumped into my youngest’s godmother. She was on crutches, she had broken her fibula tripping up a curb.
I prefer not to think about what could have happened. What did happen was that I got hit by a car and came off better. What did happen was that I was reminded of the tightrope we walk, one slip and the planet will hit you hard. Down will come up and bitch slap you out of existence.
But this was not my time.


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Thursday, 10 August 2017

Bring back national service

bring back national service
If you’re British, you would have to speak to your grandfather to have any chance of learning anything about National Service. The last healthy young men received their call-up papers in 1960. National Service was introduced in many countries after the wars as a legacy of conscription. It was a simple solution to keeping the borders safe and protecting the democracy of the nation. The bonus was that it also instilled discipline and obedience into many who, as impressionable young men, had been through the military process. Another bonus is that many who served together developed the bonds and camaraderie only possible with people who have had a difficult and defining experience together. Some European nations still have a mandatory period of national service although its number has reduced significantly. Greece, for example, still has 9 months, reduced from 2 years over the last fifteen years. However, the only threats to Greece’s democracy has come from within, civil wars and a coup d’etat. The biggest threat to most western nations’ democracy comes from ignorance and complacency, again from within. Now, it strikes me that National Service should be reintroduced but this time not military but governmental.

Twitshot
In my previous article ARE YOU QUALIFIED FOR DEMOCRACY I discussed the idea that the nation gets the government it deserves. However, we cannot hope to get any better without informed decision and democratic engagement. This cannot happen unless the government invests in the people. Many would, quite rightly, argue that this would not serve the agenda of the political classes and that the persistent dumbing-down to a point where people vote more fervently for x-factor than the nation’s government is part of the plan. I think that in order for any country to be truly democratic, the people need to have some idea about the choices they are making and the effects that they have. Just having the right to put your cross on a ballot does not constitute democracy. To that end, I think that the secondary school curriculum should include a government and politics course and all 18-22 year-olds (I feel the 15-17 year old age group of the ‘National Citizen Service’ scheme would is too young and could have the opposite effect if mandatory) should do a period of no less than 6 months in the service of the country taking roles in local and national government as well as political parties. I am not talking about community service, I do not suggest that the nation’s young be put to work in parks and maintenance departments (something that has been suggested before with great support), what I suggest is putting them into the places (in something like an intern role) where budgets are balanced, decisions made, policies pondered. This would give everyone an insight into how the country is run and motivate the young to take more interest in why it doesn't run as well as it could do.

Party politics
Now, who wouldn’t want to spend 6 months hanging out with Jacob Rees-Mogg, taking notes for Boris Johnson, mucking in with Jeremy Corbyn or working with any up-and-coming candidate or back-bencher. Maybe not, but working with political parties in fund raising, campaigning and administration would help conscripts to understand how the system works, its machinations and manoeuvres. They may choose which party they wish to work with. I think the parties would vie to be chosen as it would be an opportunity to convert young voters, also if any party tried to avoid taking conscripts, they would be seen in a very bad light by the electorate. It may be a good idea to get a balance of working with different ends of the political spectrum in order to obtain a more balanced impression but this may prove complicated. That said, the overall effect across the nation should provide this balance. Of course, working with the parties may strengthen the affiliations of some who had a tendency to their beliefs to begin with, while seeing behind the curtain may cause others to change their opinions. I also believe that having a steady stream of civilians going through the offices would cause them to change their ways. In a way it would be like Big Brother in reverse, the people would be watching, and no doubt tweeting, about the things they saw. This would keep them on their toes, maybe even keep them in touch with the people they are supposed to serve.
Some may become so disillusioned by the state of party politics that they begin to set up their own. Lets face it, some of the parties are so focused on their own survival and internal bickering that they really do deserve to be allowed to be put out of our misery. If it cannot be fixed or is so resistant to change, they should be just allowed to die.

National government
Whitehall may not be able to accommodate many conscripts but spending time in the house of commons and its backrooms would definitely show the young how the country is run. Of course, it would be a pain in the arse for many MPs and civil servants but they have chosen to serve the country and serve they should. Having daily contact with real people may help to keep them grounded to the issues they have sworn and campaigned and been elected to do. Putting TV cameras in parliament was supposed to reign in the carnival of government and it did to a certain extent, I’m sure having voters in their midst would keep them on track. Of course, let’s not be naive, politics and government is not as simple as having a good idea, a compelling argument and a just cause. There are thousands of those and only limited resources. Conscripts will learn negotiation and compromise, skills that would benefit them in all careers and benefit many industries, just imagine having a huge pool of experienced, talented political negotiators to call on during issues within the EU, maybe Brexit would never have been necessary.

Local government
From local MP through town councillors to the people on the front line, seeing how their town is run would give the conscripts an insight into the difficulties of the community. It is easy to throw stones at the council for not patching roads, fixing fences or maintaining schools that the pupils work so hard to destroy but compromises need to be made, even with best of intentions of the best of public servants. Solutions may be offered that have not yet been explored. And, maybe, just maybe more young would learn that working together for what they would like (a better place to live) is better than destructive protest. I’m sure that a more proactive input from the young could solve many of the problems communities face everyday.

Difficulties
Now, of course there will be some huge problems to overcome. First and foremost is the little fact that the UK has over four million people between the ages of 18 and 22, most countries would have similar proportions of the population to deal with. Places would need to be found to occupy the conscripts. We could not have them running around in the House of commons tagging the walls of Westminster but each conscript would serve maybe six months so once the initiative got rolling it would be around four-hundred thousand for each session, eight-hundred thousand per twelve months, considerably less than the number of unemployed. Another issue would be getting appropriate people into the right departments, not everyone is suited to academic administration while others lack the practicality to assist in other departments. I am not talking IQ or schooling but some kind of assessment would be necessary, that said I think most would be surprised at how capable many kids who the school system has written off could be. Now the BIG one, cost. This would be a new financial burden on the national economy and no doubt costly but it seems to me that so much money is spent on patching up problems caused by the breakdown in communities, so much money wasted dealing with the ramifications of a despondent society that this would be a proactive investment, hopefully stopping some problems before they become problems.

Disclaimer
This is an embryonic idea, an idealistic proposal and not to be taken as a blue print but what I do know for certain is that something needs to be done. Not more patching up, not more dumbing down. A nation’s most valuable resource is its people and none more valuable than its young. Governments are elected by little more than half of the electorate in most countries and of those who do vote the majority are 40plus and their choices driven by unreliable media campaigns (also discussed in ARE YOU QUALIFIED FOR DEMOCRACY). In the Brexit referendum, which attracted a significantly larger turnout than general elections, constituencies with proportionally larger young populations faired the worst, with Oxford and Cambridge notable exceptions (draw your own conclusions there). We could just make voting mandatory but that would not address the matter of engagement, people would vote ‘whatever’ or spoil their ballot. This is not democracy.

A YouTube video I watched recently said, “Harley Davidson, as American as low voter turnout…” funny until you see what those who did turnout chose and what the only viable opposition was. Time for change, I feel, before it is way too late!

… I await your comments below

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY