Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas At the Sharp End

A short story I wrote for my creative writing class a couple of years ago.  Briefly e-published, now available here for free to anyone who wants to read it...

Christmas at the Sharp End

            We started at about three in the afternoon.  We wanted to get the obligatory long-distance phone call to the folks out of the way early enough.  Well, I say phone call, Baz’s brother was technologically savvy enough to have Skype so he was able to make a free call over the internet.  Mine cost me a fortune, but it was good talking to my Ma.

            Me and Barry got up before noon because if we’d got up any earlier on Christmas day it would have been a bit too depressing.  Our flatmate was away with his girlfriend and we were happy enough to be rid of him.  If he had somebody to be with then good luck to him.  Like us, he was a stranger in a strange land, though he was born in this country he was from the other side of it and as much a blow in as myself, from a shitty wee estate in a shitty wee town at the edge of Belfast and Baz, a dirty Dub but a good lad all the same.

            We pottered about the flat with some kid’s Christmas film blaring in the background and generally gave the place a bit of a square round before the other two came.  We knew it was going to get extremely messy later but it didn’t seem cool to just leave it as it was.  We’d no tree but we had a few lights up around the walls.  They were actually there from Halloween and were shaped like pumpkins and Witches Hats but somehow they looked the part.

            I still had half a take-away box of Chicken Noodles from the Christmas-Eve carry out so I nuked them in the microwave and ate them in front of the big widescreen TV we had in the flat.  Not exactly the best Christmas breakfast I’ve ever had but it tasted good and was a bit better than the “meat” pie Barry had in the oven.  We ate our stuff and watched the Bill Murray classic Scrooged.  Great movie, must have seen it dozens of times but it was only that time when I was watching it that I realised that the title of the film was a sort of play on the word “Screwed”.

            About halfway through the film, in the middle of the scene where the guy with the big ugly face that used to be in that American punk band, you know the one Malcom McLaren managed before the ‘Pistols, anyway your man that was doing the cabbie-Ghost-of-Christmas-Past takes Bill Murray back to his childhood, and the door goes.  It’s Aleks, the guy that lives in the bedsitter upstairs.  He’s from some place in one of the nastier countries at the fringes of Europe, bit like ourselves, just the other end of the continent.  We don’t know him too well but we knew he’d be kicking around that flat on his own upstairs being all miserable and killing our buzz if we didn’t have him down here with us.  Besides at least he seems to have got the message about what we were at, he’d brought his own drink for it and his face lit up when he saw we were watching Scrooged.

            “Yes, this is good one, with the Ghost-buster.  You put on Sub-titles?  I read in English better.”

            Normally I can’t stand subtitles they distract me from what’s on screen and every little difference between what comes up and what’s said grates at me, but you know ‘Christmas’ and all that, so I was like; “Aye, why not?”.

            Around the end of the film where Bobcat Goldthwait was chasing Bill Murray around with a shotgun we had another knock at the door.  This time it was Adé.  Adé is one of the Nigerians from work.  He wouldn’t be one of our partyin’ crowd, but he would knock about with me and Barry and our mates in the warehouse, eat his lunch with us.  For some reason he doesn’t get on with the other Nigerians, different tribe or religion or something, same-shit-as-we-get-at-home sort-of-thing, but he’s a good lad and when I explained what we’d be doing he was well up for it.

            As the film died to the strains of that “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” song, I nodded at Barry to get his attention.

            “Anything else on?” I said.  He surfed a bit through the channels.  We didn’t have the best package for ourselves but we had a couple of hundred channels easy.

            “Nuthin’.  Just a laod a Christmas family shoite”.

            “Well” says I, this time to the room in general, “are we havin’ a party here or what?”.

            This pronouncement was met with general applause.  The TV went off and I put on the CD of cheesy electronic covers of Christmas classics I had randomly bought for a laugh a couple of years ago.  To be fair to it, for an impulse buy it had worked out sweet, we played the absolute fuck out of it that first year and it was always on at our Christmas parties now.  Luckily for me the first track, a Euro-Trance version of Silent Night, had a nice slow build-up, which gave me just enough time to do the wee speech I had prepared for the occasion.

            “Well, you boys all know the score.  Wee Christmas party, we all bring our own drink but we all bring a little something we can share with the rest of the group, and since this is my party I’m hoping you boys don’t mind if I go first”.

            Not waiting for a reply, I took the small mirror we had on the fire place off the stand and put it on the table.  I took the bags of white powder out of my pocket and dropped them on the table.

            “That there is three grams of Mephadrome, the very last of the good stuff.”  I opened one of the bags and poured the substance onto the mirror.  “Now you see the way it’s not exactly powder, kind of like big crystals?  That, if you care to remember before last summer, was ‘the good shit’.”  I took out an old store card from a chain of music retailers back home which had long since bit the dust in the credit crunch, the card I kept for these occasions, and began to grind the crystal shards into a fine dust.  “I got a good ounce of this in off the internet before it was banned over here, twenty eight grams, sold a load of it and took a serious load of it myself.”  The powder was now fine enough so I started to chop it up in preparation for doing lines.  “Never made that much off it but hey whatever, kept me partying for a wee while, and now that’s all that’s left.”  I chopped the entire gram into four long thin lines, which I adjusted, then re-cut, then moved a small quantity from one line to the other, then realised I’d overcompensated and mixed them all in together to start over again and repeated the process.  “Could have sold these a long time ago, or cut them and made a wee packet, but I wanted to save them for a special occasion”.

When I was satisfied I stood up and took a step back from the table. 

“Anybody got a note on them?”

Aleks nodded in assent.

“You’re up first then, big-boy.”

Aleks took a nice crisp fresh one from his wallet that he must have just got from a bank-machine and rolled it into a perfect tube.  With a goofy smile on his face he addressed himself to the table, breathed in, let a long slow breath out then went down and hoofed a whole line in one go.

He whinced a little and his eyes watered but his smile burst into a full-on beamer.  “Reminds me of the old country on a fresh day in spring.”

Impressed at his fortitude, I went next.  I somehow came at the line at a weird angle and left a bit, but I got the rest on the next pass.  It stung like a high-dive bellyflop into the most chlorinated pool in the world.  Hits you right between the eyes.  It hurt damn good but I liked it because that’s how you know it’s pure.  I got that heady Meph-rush for the first time in a long time and the ache in my knee died.  Ah its dirty stuff, but I love it and now it’s gone.

Adé went next.  I can only think he didn’t know what we were doing or saw the way we took to it and didn’t know what to expect or something.  He drew in about a third of the line and stood with a look of shock and surprise on his face.  He rubbed the nostril he’d been using in obvious pain and his eyes were bloodshot.

“Woah, easy there big lad” I said, “if you’re not use to it you just take your time with it sure.”

“In old country we say ‘The pain make you strong, is the pain that make it good!’”.  That Aleks, he can be a funny bastard some times.  I don’t believe for a minute that anyone ever actually says stuff like that where he’s from but every time he’s out with us he always finds some way to come out with some crack like that about “Old Country”, usually something completely ridiculous, and it gets me every time.

I took the bottle of clove oil I kept in the place out of the drawer and passed it to Adé.  “Sniff that, it’ll take the edge off”, I says, and it did.

Suitably chastened, Adé picked up the note and went back in for round two with the line.  Took him a few goes but he got there.  Unlike Baz who went straight for it, no note no nothing, just smacked his nose to the glass and snootered the whole thing.

We were all feeling pretty good about ourselves after those lines so we all grabbed another drink and shot the shit for a wee bit.  I did us all some shots out of my bottle of absinthe and Aleks told us all the story of losing his virginity to some wee snow-maiden in his home town back in ‘Old Country’, and near dying of exposure because the only place they could find to do it was outdoors, then nearly dying again when her Da found out and went after him.

 I knew what Barry had for the party, he had managed to get a gram of Ket and some really good green.  All good stuff, especially since Ketamine has been like gold-dust this weather, but more for the inevitable wind down and we had many hours of Christmas to get through before that would be happening.  I asked Adé, “so big lad, what all did you bring for the us?”.

“It is on its way, it will be here around ten tonight.  I’ll get a text message then I’ll go get”.

I didn’t like hearing that because there was always the half chance he was pure going to get in on whatever we’d all brought then be all like “sorry guys, it didn’t come”, but he had a look on him like he knew something we didn’t and he was lovin’ it.  I reckoned there probably was something on its way right enough. He was blatantly bustin’ to tell us but he didn’t want to ruin the surprise.  Anyway, at worst he’d have to buy us all a drink to make it up to us somewhere down the line.  Whatever it was it would have to wait so I asked Aleks for his contribution to the festivities.

This turned out to be a bag of really good ecstasy tablets.  These weren’t the usual crap pills that were going round either.  They were white with blue flecks through them, were slightly bigger than the one’s I’d been seeing recently and had an exclamation mark stamped into them.  God bless him, he didn’t know how many of us there were going to be so he bought ten of them.  We split two into half, then banged one and a half each so we would all have one left for later.  They were tremendous, they hit me like a freight train and had me tripping, which I haven’t done on pills since I was a teenager.

By this time the TV had picked up, Die Hard was on one of the foreign language channels but it was subtitled over English (thank god).  Not that that would have mattered, I must have seen that film about a hundred times or more.  It was one of my favourites when I was a kid, and I could probably act in it by now.  Actually, a badly dubbed Die Hard with us filling in the dialogue might have been good fun but alas it was not to be.

We watched away at Die Hard drank our drinks, polished off another gram of ‘drome in little coke-lines and smoked cigarette after cigarette, enjoying every minute of it.  At about quarter past ten Adés phone went.  By now I was quite curious to see what he had coming fir him.  So he makes his apologies and nips off, then comes back in about 5 minutes.  Instead of bringing a wee bag or a wrap of something, or I dunno like, a bunch of big dudes with sawn-offs to stroke all our stuff and merk the whole lot of us, he brings this girl in.  Pretty wee thing, big heart face and a button nose.  When she took her rain-drenched faux-fur coat off she was wearing black fish nets, black denim hot-pants and a tight sleeveless blouse over a petite but smoking-hot figure.  She also had a shit load of make-up on her face doing a not-very-good job of hiding how young she actually was.  It shows you how naïve I am that I initially assumed she was a stripper but I have to say, I laughed at myself a bit when I realised what was really going on.

“Jesus-hell Adé, you brought a hooker!”

“Yes my friend,” he replied absolutely shameless, “I have her booked for whole evening, we all get to share!”

Now to be fair, I was a wee bit dubious about all this, particularly since I know Adé has a Mrs and a few we-ones at home in Africa, but I thought, well fuck it, if you can’t give your mates a bit of lee-way at Christmas when can you?

I smiled at the girl and chopped her out a line of Meph from the pile and offered it to her.  “Here, love you have a hit of that.”

She gave a shy wee smile back as she went to it, but when she got the line she opened up a bit. 

“Oh, that is very nice, thank you!”, she said leaning over to stroke my knee, “you’re gorgeous, I can’t wait for later when we….”

At that point I took her hand and held it.  “Nah, you’re alright kid, I don’t do girl on girl, tried it once and it didn’t agree with me.  You’re lovely though if I was going to go lez it would definitely be with you.”

“It’s a shame, you’re so sweet and you have such lovely big boobs!”

I took a complete reddener at the compliment.  I supposed I do like, but you don’t notice these things so much, your boobs are pretty much your own boobs and if they’re bigger than the average you don’t see it.  Well not me anyway, I’m more worried that the one on the left is fractionally smaller than the other one, not that I’ve had any complaints mind.

Adé started getting stuck into the girl, Aleks and Baz were having some inane conversation about the European champions league and I was getting pretty lit up by this stage so I sat back on the chair feeling a bit smacked out and watched the window where the rain had turned to snow which was softly falling in light drifts, the flakes picked out in the amber glow of the street lights.  Then, I don’t know if it was all the drugs I had taken up to that point or what but I started feeling a bit, ‘Emotional’.  We were all strangers really and could have all been stuck with only ourselves for company today.  My work visa was coming to an end and I could feel the city lights of Belfast calling me home already.  Maybe I’ll know these guys the rest of my life but there’s a good chance that I’ll never see any of them again after I go, just a random person on Facebook, a tiny face in the corner of the computer screen until such a time as I’m having a red out of old contacts and people I don’t talk to anymore, and then not even that.  But here we all are, together and having a good time.  It might just have been me coming up on the pills but it felt like something more than that, like being happy just to be where I was with these people and full of ‘Christmas Cheer’ for the first time since I was a kid.

I wiped the little tears out of the corners of my eyes, raised my glass, said quietly but audibly to the room in general, to myself, to no-one in particular, “Merry fuckin’ Christmas everybody”.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Cartoons all Revolutionary Socialists should make their kids watch, Part IV Cities of gold

Mysterious Cities of Gold (TV Series, DiC Entertainment and Studio Pierrot 1983)

What it’s about:

The year is 1532 and we are in the midst of the golden age of exploration, or to put it another way, the first period of European colonialist expansion.  In the midst of the Spanish conquest of continental South America three children and three adults set out to find El Dorado, the Mysterious Cities of Gold in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.  They are constantly pursued by Spanish conquistadors, who are also looking for the titular Cities of Gold and get into various adventures along the way.

Why It’s Good:

Out of the various feature length cartoons I have talked about and will talk about in this series on this blog this is probably my all time favourite.  I have fond memories of watching this on BBC children’s television when I was a kid myself.  The way they had a “previously on” and “next week on” at the beginning and end of every episode meant that essentially you got to see everything three times so the complicated episodic plot was relatively easy to follow for me even at that young age.  Then I read about it as a teen and was pleased to find that this old favourite was regarded among Animé fans as a classic and although I couldn’t see it at the time.  Then years later when it was finally released in on DVD 2007/8 after protracted wrangling over the copyright I bought it, watched it again and marvelled at how good it actually was.

In the middle of quite a pumpin’ wee adventure story there are skilfully inserted elements of science fiction (it’s never stated overtly but the advanced technology of the inhabitants of the Cities of Gold at the end of the series include nuclear fission) and historic fiction (real world historic characters are part of the plot and are presented in a way that is easy to understand and gives you some insight into the era).  Also, the little 4 minute mini-documentaries at the end of each episode where the factual real-world elements are explained are very well done and informative.

The animation was ground-breaking at the time and still stands up as a product of the two best cultures as far as animation and sequential art go both then and now, Japan and France.  The music all the way through is pretty immense, the theme music is catchy enough that it’s indelibly lodged in the back of my consciousness as a bridge to that time in my youth, as I'm sure it is many other peoples.  All together, it’s just a nicely done bit of work.

What the young ’uns will hopefully take from it:

Mendoza, brilliantly morally ambiguous 
Well, here’s where it gets interesting.  This is pure “baby’s first anti-imperialism”.  Rather than glorifying the conquest of the new world, as some children’s adventure fiction set in that time will do, the whole process is depicted as a rapacious land grab, a scramble for resources and specifically gold.  The fate of the Incan and Mayans is presented as tragic.  The three children, who are the unambiguous heros of the story, are all native Americans.  The white European characters are all either evil and motivated purely by greed (the conquistador characters) or stupid (Sancho and Pedro, the protagonists comedy sidekicks) and even Mendoza, the children’s adult protector is at best an anti-hero, a rouge who is depicted as being on the children’s side out of enlightened self interest and only comes out as unambiguously heroic in the last couple of episodes.  This is powerful stuff and alongside the factual elements of the story make for quite an education as to what the conquest of the new world actually was.