The Piper

 

My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore.

I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off  the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny.

I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time.

 

My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off  the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off.

The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of  laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh.

During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls.

“You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit”

I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else.

There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a  shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh.

By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight.

 

As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of  dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care? There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck?

So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything.

The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space.

The roustabouts, one with a radio on the same the frequency as the crane driver, landed the containers and pipe.

The crane driver moved back and forth between the cranes, depending upon the load, where he had to pick it up, where he had to land it.

A night shift, on deck, in a North Sea gale, wasn’t a good time to discover that Kenny was near sighted. The remarks weren’t made by the other roustabouts, as I suspected, to try to scare me. In the black and white shadows of the big, swaying lights, in the horizontal rain, it was an unwelcome revelation.

 

Kenny’s cranes lifted tons of steel from the decks of bobbing sea going tugs, up over the sides of the platform, across containers of different heights. They said that it was his perspective which was bad. On those stormy nights, when it was hard to see and he was tired, the best tactics were to find the spot the container was supposed to go, do your best to signal him and get out of the way. You always looked around for an escape route, in case he didn’t see you. Your greasy rain suit and slipping boots didn’t help when you were being chased across the container tops by steel boxes, in high winds.

What could you do about a crane driver with bad eye sight?  Everyone knew about it, but no one seemed to care. Kenny was Kenny. He was a fixture, no one had been killed or crushed yet.

During my time offshore with Kenny and the boys I did little except eat, sleep and shower when we weren’t working. On occasion, I lay half asleep in my bunk, while Kenny did business with visitors from all parts of the rig.

I had long ago given up trying to sort out the dialects of the British Isles. Many of the thousands of offshore workers were from Northern England and Scotland. The money to be made on the rigs, for fishermen who were risking much more, for no guaranteed income, drew the coastal Scots like flies. Since they were sailors to begin with, they knew about ropes, knots, shackles, hard graft in the rottenest weather. It was understood that they would prefer to fish rather than this, but their fishery was in trouble, they had families. The oil business, like the British military, was happy to recruit there, because they knew the value of the workers.

The industrial cities of Britain all sent men to work offshore. There were men from the islands and from small farm villages. There were ex military men as well as merchant mariners driven off their decks by containers. When you mixed in some Aussies and Kiwis, you came close to Babylon when they all spoke fast, at once.

Many of Kenny’s conversations took place while I was in the cabin but were unintelligible to me, though I heard them. The language was impossible to understand.

Kenny, was a partner with another crane driver in a pornographic video scam. He got videos for the rig. Probably he was selling them to individuals, as well.

 

I laid in my bunk, reading, when a conversation about videos took place. It was business talk with a group of guys, about a week after I arrived. By then, Kenny judged me to be safe to have around. He knew that I was only there till the end of the hitch, I’d probably never be back.

On this old rig, the crews were pretty well set. The company had a seniority list they’d use if the injured man didn’t return.

As they left the cabin, one guy told me to keep my mouth shut by zipping his lip. I nodded. He left with a smile.

What was I going to say about it? I had enough problems surviving the twelve hour shifts. We were a hundred ninety kilometres northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. Like dumping the shale into the ocean, it seemed a necessary compromise. I did the job, kept my mouth shut, in return for good money and experience offshore.

The first step in working offshore was to get experience. It was the first thing they asked when you applied for a job. When you had worked offshore once, you were ahead of the game. There were piles of applications for the jobs on each company’s desk. It was the classic catch – 22.

The Piper had two theatres. There was a regular theatre, with comfortable movie type seating, where they showed contemporary movies. They even had a guy outside the theatre with a request sheet on a clipboard. If you wanted to request a movie, they’d try to get it.

The other theatre, with the same interior, was strictly for porn. Kenny had a connection, through the supply ships, to Denmark, where they manufacture a lot of porn. He got every kind of porn.

 

I tried the porn theatre one night. I didn’t like it. There were forty or fifty guys sitting together with their hands in the pockets of their accommodation coveralls, watching endless sex videos. Living for two weeks with two hundred men was bad enough. That just made it worse. I went to bed.

Kenny and his boys were busy. To supplement the porn enterprise, they were stealing from the containers. Word was, there were cartons of cigarettes and booze stashed all over the rig.

As the roustabouts and crane driver landed containers on the deck, they tried to place the ones for the galley as close to the accommodation as possible. There was even a small deck outside the back door of the galley where some containers could be landed. That was supposed to be the end of the roustabouts’ and crane drivers’ dealings with those containers.

Certain sealed containers were locked by Customs and Excise. They were opened only by the galley boss, emptied into the galley by the stewards. There was no drinking allowed offshore but at Christmas each man was allowed one beer and a cigar. It varied from company to company, rig to rig. Who knew what the bosses got shipped in? Teetotallers became very popular around Christmas time, offshore.

The Christmas I was there, Kenny’s gang, the other crane driver and some roustabouts, managed to land the special containers at night, break into them, steal the booze and cigarettes. They had a system of ripping off the containers, stashing the goods, blaming it on the cooks and stewards.

I didn’t know anything about it at the time. It could have happened on a shift when I was working. There were jobs all over the rig to which Kenny could have assigned me to get me out of the way.

There were no fire drills when I was there. No one knew if the evacuation procedures would work. The platform kept pumping oil, one hundred twenty thousand barrels a day, everybody made good money, the company was happy. The British government collected five hundred million pounds a year, in revenues, from the Piper Alpha.

 

When my hitch ended on the Piper, I took the taxi from the heliport to the warm Aberdeen pubs to have a drink with the boys, say our goodbyes.

I met one of them, a few years later, in Aberdeen. He had left the Piper, was working on another rig, like myself. He told me that the police had finally raided the platform, searched lockers and the rest of the rig from top to bottom, found all kinds of contraband including a working homebrew still. Some guys lost their jobs, some were charged.

I assumed Kenny would have been fired. But, sometimes, guys like him never get caught. Even if he did get run off of the Piper, it might have saved his life.

A few years later, I was in Ottawa, trying to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was a major change after what I’d been doing for the past twenty years. I picked up the paper outside of the apartment we shared. The headline read, ‘153 missing in rig disaster’.

Two hundred, twenty-seven men, including construction workers, were working the night shift or in their bunks. The ones inside the accommodation, near the centre of the platform, were killed immediately by the explosion and shaft of fire, which sucked up all the oxygen. The ones working their shift up on deck, were lucky. One survivor said, “It was a case of over the side or die there”. They jumped seventy metres into the heaving, black North Sea. Some were rescued. The emergency procedures didn’t work, nor did the lifeboats. As for the spark which ignited the leaking gas, a welder’s torch was suggested, but it could just as easily have been a guy having a smoke where he wasn’t supposed to.

 

Some of the men I worked with were on the Piper, that night. There were stewards, cooks, office workers, even a few roustabouts, who were lifers on the platforms. They said goodbye to families and friends, went off to work for two weeks at a time, for their whole working lives. Two weeks off every month beat a nine to five. The money was good, there were no expenses at work except tobacco and toothpaste. Your bed was made, your laundry done, there was good food, all you could eat every day, prepared by professional chefs. Many guys got addicted to it. They couldn’t work any other way. The longer you did it, the harder it was to leave. Those crews packed their bags for that two week trip in the summer of 1988, said their goodbyes, never came back.

The final count was 164 dead.

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The Hockey Game

 

It started up around Fort Coulonge. We were ice fishing down past Quyon, when it got to us. It was a heated affair by then. Somehow, the boys in Portage du Fort had trained a moose to wear a bridle. He liked the hay and oats that the Walkers fed their horse, wanted some too.

There was Big Herbie Walker and his brother, Silas. They were thrown out of the logging camps for drinking and fighting enough times, nobody would hire them. They tried their hands at farming, but it was too hard, so they did odd jobs around town. When they weren’t working, they spent half their time in the Campbell’s Bay lockup, the other half, drunk.

The Walkers acquired a whole sled full of hockey sticks, probably stole them, said they were payment of a debt. They used the horse balls produced by Ned, their old sleigh pulling nag, as pucks. They tied the moose, named Gerald, to the rear of the sled, started a game.

It might have been the wind that pushed them downriver, maybe they just yearned for freedom, we’ll never know.

There were some farmers who weren’t logging and some ne’er do wells, who could skate, from Sand Bay, who joined the game where the river widened there.

Baad Fred, from Shawville, happened to be hauling ice from the river when he saw them. It was said that he had an unnatural affinity for sheep. He always wore rubber boots.

 

Whenever Baad Fred entered a bar or a pool hall, the imitations of bleating of sheep began. He never noticed, never caught on.

It could just be a rural legend. The boys from Quyon would believe it of a Shawville native and vice versa, but that was just because they didn’t like each other.

Fred became the number one goalie for the team going downriver. When the wind was against him, he’d play goal for the team going upriver, but moving backwards.

They reached us the first night. The score had long been forgotten, initial fights were over, the group of them seemed content to skate down the river, some forward, some backward, passing jugs as they went. The boys were playing on teams which nobody could identify except the players.

Silas Walker drove the sled, Big Herbie played defence. Gerald walked behind.

They had Billy Aye on the right wing. Billy’s nickname was “Swoop’‘ because of his patented style, bearing down on goal. If you hit his stick with the horse ball at exactly the right time, he was sure to score. If you didn’t, he still swooped, made an impressive display, but never scored.

One night, soon after we joined the game, Billy swooped, missed, disappeared. No one stopped to see where he went. It wasn’t till the next morning, we noticed Billy wasn’t around. The glass half full consensus was that he got bored, went back to robbing banks. The glass half empty held that he swooped into open water. We’ ll never know.

By the time they got to us at Quyon, the game had picked up a life of it’s own. That night, the laziest man among us would rather play hockey than sit still. It was in our blood

 

A whole gang joined the game around Arnprior, ice fishermen there on the river. The Boar from North Gower was there, in the pack of them from the Ontario side. They were like dogs, once the hockey fever seized them. The ones from Carp were crazed.

There was a lot of blood spilled when the game arrived in a new town. Things eventually cooled down, but boys will be boys.

The McGraws were known as the type of men who’d rather fight than eat. They were employed as bouncers, to clean up unruly bars. They could skate because they were from Quyon. They could fight because they were McGraws. It was always a help to us, to have them out in front when we approached the fishing shacks outside the next town.

The St. Pierre brothers joined the game around Eardley, on the Quebec side of the river. They were known as the “crash line” because they kept crashing into each other. There was Rainy, Rene and Renny. Whenever you passed them a horse ball and yelled “Rainy”, they’d all hear their own name and go for it at once. It saved a lot of high speed collisions to pass it to someone else. They were fine when they didn’t have the puck (real pucks entered the game and disappeared regularly) but they were a danger to themselves and others when they got a pass.

By the time we got past Aylmer, on the river between Ottawa and Hull, hundreds had joined the game. The Gatineau River contributed hordes from the towns on the Quebec side.

Men in Hull and Ottawa looked south and north, respectively, saw the game, took days off to join. There was a lot of carousing and fighting when the game passed the Parliament Buildings.

Taverns sent their staffs down to the river to take care of their customers, catering companies were run off their feet.

 

Three days and nights passed before the game moved east on the river. The teams from upriver took the side of Quebecers in the large brawls.

Some of the fast, little Frenchmen were big scorers. The Quebecers always came up with a good goalie.

The boys slept, ate, drank, in shifts. Many from upriver, thought nothing of collapsing for a few hours on the Walkers’ sled.

Gerald the moose enjoyed the attention of city folks who watched him eat the Walkers’ hay and oats, fed him sugar lumps and carrots.

Teams grew and shrunk, one side dominated the other. There were open ice hits which everyone admired except for the man who got hit. If he had an appreciation of the game, he often admired it himself in the retelling. The fact that he was knocked unconscious, couldn’t have witnessed most of what he recounted, in no way diminished the awe in which he was held. Reputations grew over the years. Some men from the Pontiac drank on the stories for lifetimes, for free. Others, like Lyle Stiles, didn’t drink, went into denial.

As the game moved down the river, teams and individuals came and went. Just past Thurso, Cy McBunn joined the game. He was accompanied by a bunch from Alfred. They wore striped uniforms, didn’t play long, disappeared.

Cy’s specialty was skating backwards. He could skate rings around most of his opponents when they were skating forward. But his inability to skate forward was a major contributor to his lack of scoring prowess. He didn’t make it to the opposition net very often, skating backwards.

 

Cy had a tendency to blow up, frustrated, not being able to score. He’d inevitably take a good, solid hit in the back, go sprawling toward his own goal. His outbursts took the form of powerful slapshots in front of him. Goalies hated playing for Cy’s team. He scored too much on his own goalie.

The snow blew, the wind howled. The game moved downriver.

They said Gros Pierre La Barge was from around Montebello. He showed up one snowy night when Ned got constipated and stopped producing horse balls. We’d lost the real pucks upriver.

Gros Pierre felt like fighting since the game was grinding to a halt. Most men on both sides were sitting in snowbanks, resting, passing a jug. Gros Pierre swung his stick viciously at anyone who looked English. He terrorized teams too tired to fight. Someone directed him at the Pontiac boys. We were forced to wake the McGraws. They were passed out on the back of the Walkers’ sled, surrounded by restless men waiting for Ned to have a movement. Gros Pierre roared in the background while he chased another “maudit Anglais” around the river.

The McGraws and Gros Pierre met at centre ice. They were still fighting when they disappeared the wrong way, upriver. It seemed safer for all concerned to let them go. We heard, years later, that someone saw the three of them drinking quarts in the Wolf Lake bar. We’ll never know.

There was what only could be described as an epiphany, at L’Orignal. In the brawling and drinking of the hockey game, a native of the town saw Gerald. He was struck dumb by the sight of the moose munching hay from the Walkers’ sled. The French speakers told us that they were glad he was struck dumb, the man talked too much, anyway.

 

The word “l’orignal”, in French, meant “moose”, in English. They had named a whole town after the beast. There seemed to be a much deeper meaning for the native of the town. He jumped onto Gerald’s back, headed east, toward the St Lawrence. The look in his eye told us he was going somewhere, only he could see. The French speakers told us that he’d lost his other eye fighting with the wife.

The Walkers followed toward Montreal, Big Herbie on defence, Silas on the wing. Ned pretty well found his own way. He was back to producing horse balls for their games. The silent native of L’Orignal rode Gerald toward the dawn.

We turned back upriver. It had been an enjoyable week, but there was still ice fishing left to do this season. The hockey fever had diminished. It was no mean task to skate upriver with the winds against us.

It’s a good source of talk on windy nights. Slumbering by the woodstove in the fishing shack, a quart near to hand. It’s a fine memory to ponder, that hockey game.

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Hitching to London

 

I was leaving Matala with Anne and Thomas, the dedicated communist German from Ulm, who owned the French Peugot which elevated and lowered its suspension at the flick of a switch. He and I had argued about communism and democracy for a week every night in the taverna. My strongest argument, the one which he couldn=t answer, was to ask him where all the communist travellers were? Why was he the only one from a communist country who was free to travel where he liked, do what he wanted?

Thomas= idealism was admirable. We agreed, at least, that the rich, communist or capitalist, were still screwing the poor. He owned a car and offered me a free ride to Iraklion when he learned I was leaving.

Anne was leaving Greece, too. She was from England, I was heading for London. She had seen me around Matala, decided to accompany me.

I collected the drachma which were saved for me by my boss, Costa, the young, local godfather in Matala. He gave me an allowance each week, kept back a portion of my pay. I worked on various construction jobs he had, was hardened, tanned and strong when he paid me off.

 

He held back a bit for himself, just to make sure everyone knew who was the boss. If he hadn=t saved some of my pay for me, we both knew I would have blown it all.

The ferry from Iraklion to Piraeus was boring and uneventful. Just as well. After living for six months in Matala, on the southern coast of Crete, never leaving, it was a slow emergence into the outside world.

One of the most embarrassing occasions in my life occurred just then. I had the crabs. I got them in Matala and was at the stage of exterminating them which required sexual abstinence. There was to be no carnal contact, not even snuggling, in case of infection of another and a rebirth of the cursed bugs. But I was ashamed. I was too embarrassed to tell Anne.

God knows what she thought.

Anne had lived in Matala long enough to know that I wasn=t gay. She was attractive enough, the ex girlfriend of a guy who was the grandson of Robert Graves, the poet.

But I passed up perfect opportunities and situations which thrust us together. You don=t get much closer together than when you hitchike together. I had recently been through hell, living in my makeshift tent in the campground, scratching at myself. I wouldn=t have wished it on anyone. But I couldn=t bring myself to tell her.

It was bad enough telling Costas and the boys in Matala. They all took a step away from me.

Costas wrinkled his nose when he asked why I didn=t tell him sooner. Later, he admitted that when he got them, he separated himself from his family home and friends until he got rid of them.

 

After a few smog filled days in Athens during which we were treated as fair game, ripped off everywhere we turned, we concluded that the air fare to Britain was too costly. There was an election on in Greece, something catastrophic was happening in Northern Europe, living in Athens, even on our skimpy budget, was too expensive. Reaching London could be done, cheaper, by hitching most of the way.

Anne was fighting with her parents, proving her independence. She could easily get the required air fare home but refused to make the call, thereby signalling to her family that she was dependent upon them.

I thought she was crazy.

A guy seemed to meet us in Brindisi, when we landed in Italy. He appeared, smiling like a long lost brother, gave us pizza and a room for the night, ostensibly, for free. He finally demanded payment in sexual favours, from Anne, but too late. By the time he sneaked away from his wife, it was morning and we fled.

On the motorway, heading north, it was easy to see why veteran travellers advised always to hitch with a woman in Europe. Even eighteen wheelers with full loads stopped for women.

The first big rig which came by, skidded to a fishtailing halt, up the highway. The driver didn=t care about the truck, the load or the other high speed traffic.

We had travelled most of the day when he caught me dozing, told me to climb into the bed behind us. Everything looked fine. I gratefully passed out in the bunk after Anne and I oohed and ahhed over the pictures of the driver=s family.

I wasn=t expecting to be awoken by Anne=s kicks as she scrunched herself up against the passenger door and yelled at the driver. We were shocked that the friendly family man was so intent on groping Anne that he nearly ran the big Volvo off the road.

We got him to pull over and let us out.

 

The next driver who picked us up in a big rig on the freeway which runs up the spine of Italy, showed us his automatic revolver which he pulled from under his seat.

We were thinking furiously, Anne prodding me in the side, our eyes glued to the weapon as he casually handled the pistol while driving. He explained, near the turnoff to Milan, that every truck driver who stopped in Milan carried a weapon to defend against hijackers.

He smiled, checked out Anne=s body openly, when he let us off at a truck stop. We clambered down from the cab, grateful for the lift, glad to be getting away from his aura of danger.

Anne and I finally separated in a train station in Switzerland. By this time we were barely speaking. I was irritated at her stubborness. She was frustrated at our slow progress.

I didn=t have anything to prove to anyone so she seemed, to me, to be involved in a frivolous game. I had given up hope that she=d call home for money enough for two flights back to England. The Greek bread had hardened in our packs. We could barely afford coffee and chocolate bars.

The tension between us grew every hour.

We stopped, at night, in the little station where we got some sleep on benches, warm and dry.        When we awoke, we were greeted by backpackers with English accents who got along famously with Anne and onto whom she latched. She went their way and I went mine. We were glad to part.

I headed for Shaffhausen, on the German border. In Matala, some of the German visitors had given me addresses and phone numbers for places to stay and jobs. If I could get into Germany, it seemed worth checking out. My resolve to reach London didn=t waver, but I took a detour. It seemed logical that I should see a little of Germany while I was so close. Some of the jobs were even on Canadian bases.

 

The Alps were truly breathtaking. Some of the rides were with young, Swiss natives who pointed out that many of the idyllic scenes in the postcard mountains contained, in reality, many poor people struggling to get by. The underside of Switzerland was obvious to them, never explained to the tourists.

When I arrived, I called the number I had in Shaffhausen, knocked on the door of the address I was given, but there was no response. I stayed around for two more days but never found anyone.

I couldn=t find a youth hostel in Shaffhausen and I couldn=t afford a room so I used the only shelter I could find, a public toilet, in a park. The place was clean. If I laid in a certain position I could manage a few hours of sleep in the glare of the all night lights.

I waited, for two days and nights, walking around, looking at windows full of displays of Swiss chocolate for the tourists, living in the public restroom, eating my loaf of bread with the last of the jam I had carried from Greece.

Finally, I couldn=t wait any longer. I approached the border crossing between Switzerland and Germany. The early morning traffic was travelling slowly, I got a lift with a young businessman who lived in Shaffhausen, crossed the border, every day, for work, in Germany.

The German border guards ordered me out of the car, searched my pack, studied my passport, ordered me to take off my cowboy boots. They studiously examined the Greek sand which fell out, presumably for drugs, counted my little wad of American bills, rejected me.

I had to shoulder my pack and walk back across the border beside the line of cars going to Germany. The Swiss guards shrugged and laughed when they saw.

AGermans@ they said with a gesture that was meant to explain that they were as baffled as I.

I consulted a map, took the rest of the day to hitch to Basel.

 

On the side of the highway, at an intersection, I talked to a hippie looking couple who were hitching in another direction. They said they had slept in a park last night, had awoken to find food and coffee in the grass, beside their sleeping bags.

Through Basel I would get to France, then England. If I had stuck to my original plan, with good luck, I=d probably be there by now.

The day was ending, darkness approaching, the sky spit rain. I stood on the side of the freeway outside of Basel, watched the lights of the comfortable houses, wondered how many cities I=d stood outside of, how many hours I=d spent waiting for lifts on freeways..

Then Bernt stopped.

At first, I thought he was gay, picking up a hitchiker in the dark. But his simple reason for helping me out was that once, on a motorcycle trip around Germany, someone had helped him out. He asked only that I do the same for some other stranger when the opportunity presented itself.

Bernt took me home to his comfortable, modern apartment, let me use his shower and phone.

I called Canada to borrow a little money. It was sent by American Express. It meant nothing in Canada, the world to me.

Bernt and a friend wined and dined me. We ate and drank in the tavern which Hermann Hesse frequented while he wrote Steppenwolf. We ate Swiss rosti, drank wine, tried to remember which parts of the tavern Hesse described in his book. Perhaps from outside the window.

They took off for a weekend, left me with the house after Bernt showed me his copious wine cellar.

 

I used the Basel trams to get my money from the American express office, left Bernt a thank you note, hitched to France.

From Basel I was lucky to get a lift all the way to Strasbourg where I stood on the freeway with my thumb out until a funky looking, old, walk-in van pulled over and picked me up.

The driver was French, returning from Poland where he worked with Solidarity to press for democracy. The paintings and slogans which decorated the van were encouragement to Solidarity and its cause. He had installed a finely tuned, powerful engine in the old van. He laughed at the system the Poles were overthrowing as we sped toward Paris.

When he let me off at the suburban metro station, I consulted my address book, called Frank.

He had given me his number when he visited Matala, insisted that I call him if I ever got to Paris.

I spent the next few days in Frank=s family=s expensive apartment.

Frank, a handsome blond Frenchman, was an expert in judo. He had trained for most of his life, had awards, could truthfully say that it saved him once when he was attacked by a gang in a metro station. He was about to join the French army. Frank had lots of girlfriends.

We sped around Paris in someone=s car, visited expensive restaurants and cafes. Of course, I started out nearly broke and that finished it. I thanked Frank and hitched to Calais.

One way of avoiding the fare from Calais to Dover and London was to get a lift with a trucker. I canvassed the truckers I saw waiting for the ferry. There were dozens of big rigs heading to London. Most of the drivers wouldn=t risk picking up a hitchhiker because of the travelling insurance inspectors. I was looking as desperate as I felt.

Finally, a driver with an English accent told me to wait by the dock, then to get into his truck, quick, while he was loading. That way, he passed the custom inspections before picking me up.

 

Once we rolled onto the motorway, he checked the mirrors, installed me in the cab so that I couldn=t be seen from outside. He told me of his life driving regularly all over Europe. He worked shifts which allowed him some time with his young family in the north of England. He let me off with a cheery AGood luck@ at the southernmost tube station in London.

By the time I reached Rob=s co-op flat in Finsbury Park, I was exhausted. I had been thoroughly shaken out of the dream I had lived beneath the Matala moon.

We sat around his kitchen, drinking tea, reading newspapers, one drizzly morning. That was when I found the article on the shortage of rig workers in Scotland.

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Spinners

 

He felt like a father figure when they talked on the morning bus from Kanata. They usually got a seat together because they were first at the park n ride which took them downtown, he to the headquarters of National Defence, she to the waitress job at the hotel.

They were actually close in age, he, the married father of three, almost bursting his uniform buttons from the desk job, she, the single mother of three, a kind of speed freak, the kind of person who couldn’t gain a pound if she tried. Lady Madonna.

His was an understated importance in the military. He got used to deflecting direct questions about it. The odd time it required a quiet “secret” to a persistent questioner, but mostly “bureaucratic stuff” or “paperwork” covered it.

She diplomatically changed the subject when she felt they had entered forbidden territory in their morning conversations. Her son, Chris, was the usual topic of conversation, anyway. He had just joined the army. The other kids were still in school and she was glad to see Chris do something. The dead end jobs and bleak prospects were too much. Even if it seemed crazy once, now it made more sense for him to join the army.

 

He highly recommended it though he was privately glad that Danny, his eldest son, had avoided the army and gone on to play football for the university.

She felt better when he praised the discipline and character the military instilled in young men. And she did see a difference in Chris when he came home on his first leave. In fact, he looked better than he had in years. She still couldn’t imagine anyone getting him up at 5 AM never mind all the other stuff they made them do.

Some mornings, especially in winter when the outside world was still dark, they lapsed into long silences, each contemplating the day ahead as the bus carried them into the city. When spring turned to summer, the sun rose every morning over the fields on either side of the six lane highway and they chatted about Chris’s latest adventure in the army.

 

One day that summer he had endured a hard shift at his computer, fielding access to information requests, filling in for annual vacations being taken, when she saw him on the same express bus going home to Kanata. They stood all the way, hanging on to bars and straps, the bus packed with people.

She told him that Chris’s unit was going to Afghanistan next month. In herself, she wasn’t sure about Chris’s gung ho attitude and she definitely didn’t trust the government mouthpieces. The more they praised it, the less confidence she had. But Chris said when you sign up, that’s it, no more choice, you have to do what you’re told. So he was going.

She allowed herself a little touch of pride when she told him, grateful to see that he was impressed.

 

He made a mental note to see which units were about to be rotated to Afghanistan as he walked across the lobby of DND. Captain Rogers, that little bastard from RMC. will be there this afternoon. Everyone will think the superior officer is monitoring his new crew but the jumped up little bastard will really be there to learn something. He knew nothing about public relations and the information wars. And they had put him in command of the whole bunch of them, the information warriors. Not a clue, hadn’t ever worked behind the scenes where the real fights were fought. Someone had enough drag to promote him fresh out of university, young and confident, but lacking the one thing necessary in this business, experience. You had to know the law to a point, but it was mostly experience. Almost a gut instinct. What the public will swallow, what it won’t. What to hide and what to offer. Only learned by experience.

He could see the little bastard at the back of the room, watching while he led the classroom full of future intelligence officers through the basics of his trade. It was policy now to immerse the new ones in as much of the machinery as possible before they were sent out into the world.

“Embedded reporters are no problem” he crossed out the words on the blackboard.

“A one way ticket home will not be questioned by headquarters if it is necessary. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, they get out there and go a little crazy. Not sure if it’s too much of that Afghani hash or what” It brought the usual chuckle.

“Anyway, ‘operational security’ is a good enough reason if they get out of line. If we see bad news here, news that hasn’t been approved, they’ll be on their way home and somebody over there will be in deep shit”

He enjoyed using the word because it always brought a further chuckle from his audience. It also drew a silent, disapproving frown from the little bastard at the back.

 

He was good at what he did so he was given free reign in these sessions with intelligence officers, diplomats and spin doctors of the future. The younger people related to his intelligent but homey style. They loved his forays into irreverence.

“This” he held the paper up between two fingers, at arm’s length, with a distasteful expression “is an access to information request form. There is a standing order, unspoken and unwritten, of course, that the first one gets shitcanned. Maybe even the second one. If they’re persistent and keep after the information, there are a whole bunch of lawyers who you’ll probably meet later, who’ll take over. They have lots of ways to delay it. But if they’re that persistent, hey, my personal advice to you is, cover your ass first. Get your commanding officer or somebody above you to contact the lawyers. Believe me, when they’re really persistent, really determined, it’s best to get away from it”

An appreciative grunt came from the audience, as if they’d suspected that all along. The little bastard’s frown deepened at the back. He got up and slipped out.

 

She sat with him on the express downtown on the Friday before Labour Day. They chatted mostly about her job, some of the crazy tourists she saw, how glad she was that the busy season was almost over, the restaurant was always so hectic. She had to work through the weekend. The busiest time, the most tips. The tips paid for the sitter and more.

He admired her pluckiness and inexhaustible energy. He had Billy to register in his hockey league, his wife had Becky. He also had the shopping to do and the lawn to cut. Maybe a little time for some beer and CFL football.

They said goodbye when he stood up so she could get out on Laurier Ave, one stop before his.

 

 

He awoke with adrenalin coursing through him, his heart beating fast. The phone.

His wife interrupted her snoring with a complaining grunt. He picked up the receiver.

“Hello”

“Deaver?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“It’s Briggs, Deaver”

General Briggs. What the hell did he want?

“Sorry to wake you, Deaver, but we’ve got a problem”

“No, no, it’s okay, sir. What problem?”

“There’s been some soldiers killed and wounded in Kandahar. We don’t have all the details but it’s bad. We need someone senior in the office. Now. Tonight”

A pause.

“The press has some of the story, Deaver. They don’t have all of it and we need time”

“Ok, sir. I’ll go down in my car. It’ll take me about an hour”

“Good man, Deaver. Everyone’s on vacation. We can’t have the press talking to that crew that’s there now. They’re all recruits or temps. Call me at home when you’re there. You might have to write a press release but use operational security as much as you like. Talk to you soon”

“What about Captain Rogers, sir?”

 

“I’ve already talked to him. I know you guys were pissed off that he got made up to your commanding officer right after graduation. He’ll stay out of your hair. I made it clear that you’ll be in charge for this crisis. We’ll probably have to give details by Tuesday, after we tell the families. You know what to do. Don’t give em a thing till you hear from me. I’ve got to go, Deaver, call me”

 

He showed his id to the soldier at the entrance to the underground parking where a burly sergeant with a sidearm met him. Another soldier parked his car and he was escorted by the sergeant up to the ninth floor office. If the man had heard anything, he showed no emotion, said nothing.

Mayotte, Ryan and Dupuis, three raw recruits who were manning the office for the long weekend, looked up as he walked in. He wasn’t in uniform and they didn’t have their hats on but they stood up as he entered.

“As you were, gentlemen,”

They sat down and watched him as he turned on the screen on his desk and read.

When he twirled around he spoke directly to Dupuis in a low, steady voice,

“I want the numbers on how many allied forces have been killed by the American Air Force in Afghanistan. Injured too, if you can get it.”

Dupuis looked up from writing on a pad. His stubble cut was growing in. He spoke with earnest young eyes,

“It’s not the kind of information the US military is likely to give up, sir”

His mind was racing as he called General Briggs.

“No, you probably won’t get anything out of them, try NATO, try the armies, try the governments, see what you can find. We may not need it right now, but I want it, in case”

“Briggs”

 

“Hello sir, I’m here. It looks bad. Two killed, a couple seriously wounded and some walking wounded. They’ll be out of commission for a while. The report says friendly fire”

“Shit. Americans?”

“It looks like it, sir”

“What the hell are they doing? Something’s wrong there. This is ridiculous”

“Some good news though, sir, no reporters”

“Good, that’s a relief. There are some press reports but they’re vague. Ok, Deaver, I’ll be in touch. You know what to do. I’ll get back to you when I hear how they want to handle this. Good luck”

“Thanks, bye sir”

He turned to address the others.

“Ok. We’ve got a few hours. Then the phones are going to start ringing. It’ll be the media. I’m going to write down five talking points. Make a copy and as you answer the calls, stick strictly to the script”

Mayotte and Ryan watched him with expressions like Danny’s, wide eyed, almost innocent, respectful. They were Danny’s age or younger, Ryan still with a bad case of acne.

He wrote out the points he wanted them to follow when dealing with the media…basically, tell them nothing. He gave them a lecture on the importance of shitcanning the first access to information requests about this incident and told them to pass it on to whoever relieved them. Who knew how long this would go on? The first few days of vagueness and saying nothing were necessary in order to give them time. It looked bad but maybe it could be massaged, manipulated, fed to the public slowly so it didn’t look so bad.

 

He spent the rest of the night answering nervous phone calls from General Briggs and drafting a press release which showed the military was on top of the situation.

When the day shift, such as it was, arrived, called in from cottages and parties celebrating the end of summer, he ate breakfast alone in the food court across in the Rideau Centre and called home to rearrange his schedule. His wife was angry but she would cope. He might be home in the afternoon.

He and his counterpart, Captain Shields, were constantly busy talking to officers who called or showed up when they heard. Their computer reports didn’t really communicate the tragedy like talking to another person did. Especially someone like him, someone right in the heart of the crisis.

Finally, after innumerable conversations which he couldn’t avoid and two meetings with the staff at which he emphasized the importance of secrecy, General Briggs ordered him to go home, get a shit, shower and shave, and return to the office, in uniform, for however long it took. So far there were no big problems but a situation like this could turn volatile at any time.

He resigned himself to a lost weekend as he pulled out of the parking garage and adjusted the radio.

When he stopped for the light at Laurier and Elgin, there she was. She was looking straight at him from the bus stop.

He pulled over when he was through the light and waited until she ran to the car and jumped into the passenger seat.

She was surprised to see him downtown on a weekend but glad for the lift. The shift had been exhausting and she was ready for a rest. She chatted on as they approached the Queensway, quieted down while he negotiated the ramp and speeding traffic.

 

When they were safely travelling in the middle lane, she told him that she had just gotten an email from Chris, that he had been made a corporal.

“Corporal Chris Defalco” she said with a laugh.

“Defalco? That’s not your name. Isn’t it Mackenzie?” he said with s glance at her. He could feel it burn through his breast pocket. His hand involuntarily rubbed it. He felt sick.

She stared at the line of cars ahead, said that Chris had kept his father’s name and that she had gone back to her own. She looked over at him.

“Your eye. Something in it?” she watched the tear run down his face.

“Yeah, yeah” he reached blindly for a tissue below the dash.

She handed him a tissue.

He wiped his eye.

“Something blew in the window…” he rolled up his window a few inches. They drove in silence as the Queensway climbed the hill to the Kanata park n ride.

“Thanks for the lift, Captain Deaver, see you Tuesday morning” she shut the door and walked to her car.

“See you Mrs Mackenzie”

He pretended to look into his eye in the mirror as her car passed behind him. They waved goodbye.

He turned the key. The car stopped, the radio played.

Lady Madonna.

He fished the list out of his breast pocket, unfolded it slowly.

At the bottom. Names of the dead.

 

Corporal Chris Defalco.

He leaned his forehead on the steering wheel and wept.

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Beneath the Matala Moon

Matala is a small fishing village on the very southern coast of Crete, between Africa and Greece. It is famous among travellers like the route from Australia to Europe is famous. By the time it is listed in the travellers’ books, it is old and well known.

I was staying with Rob, a friend from Canada, who lived in Finsbury Park, worked at the London zoo. He mentioned that ”beneath the Matala moon” was in the lyrics of ‘Carey’, that he’d had a good time there when he’d gone in the past. This was all the direction I needed. I had always liked Joni Mitchell’s songs.

My first memory of Matala was waking up, hung over, a dog barking near the fence. I felt around my sleeping bag, couldn’t find my passport or traveller’s cheques. There was a guy cowering by the fence. He had them. His name was George.

George was frozen to the spot, quaking in fear, confronted by a big, hostile German Shepherd named Cello. Harry was Cello’s owner. He was a big Dutchman with a mullet, a FREE SONNY BARGER sleeveless t-shirt, big muscles. He liked to push people around.

Harry had seen Cello trap George as he ripped off my stuff. He was up early, making a coffee in his trailer, just outside the wire fence of the camp grounds. He lived there for the summer before travelling with Cello, his two boys and wife, back to Holland, for the winter. He knew Manoli who had, by this time, responded to the barking. He stood, sleepy, beside George, smiling resignedly. I tried to look serious and angry, thrashing around in my sleeping bag.

 

We had a meeting in Manoli’s office, where he had a cot and some coffee making utensils. Everybody in the campground left their valuables there when they went to the beach. I slapped George once, settled for my passport and Traveller’s cheques back. I found out later that George could have killed me in a fight, nothing short of a gun was going to stop him.

As we talked, George quiet because of Cello’s presence at the door, Harry and Manoli believed that what I said was true: I wasn’t a rich tourist, I dug ditches at home. All I wanted was a coffee, some boiled eggs at the taverna. I told them to tell George not to do it again, to let him go. There was no harm done, no cops for miles.

Harry gave me a tarp, to put up between two trees, for a tent. I joined the other tourists at the taverna. We sat, guys from three or four countries, rock and Marley turned up loud, at the taverna across the road from the campground. We’d welcome, with quarts of German beer, the buses which showed up from Iraklion, four or five times a day. They would stop, disgorge passengers in front of the taverna, refill themselves, before heading back to Iraklion with their load of tourists.

The departing tourists had done their time in Greece, were moving on. The visitors in the summer months were two or three weekers. Some, were on package excursions from Australia, some, on two week vacations from their jobs in England or Germany or Norway. They were all replaceable to the Greeks. They were all replaced.

I didn’t notice the Greeks at that time. I had the same attitude toward the locals as most of the tourists. They were there for my needs, but they weren’t important. The other tourists and travellers were interesting to me, the Cretans, who I call Greeks, were in the background.

Matala was crawling with women. Every bus disgorged more who only stayed around for a few weeks. I didn’t see the Greeks, but they were there. Sipping quietly on a Coke or coffee, they were, like us, watching the girls.

 

There were caves in the cliffs at Matala. Some said the early Christians used them to hide from the Romans. Someone in Joni’s crowd discovered them. Probably hippies looking for a Journey to the East. But they shat in them. They were, according to tourists and Greeks, too gross to be worth looking at. I saw the Matala moon many nights, but I passed on the caves.

The Greeks approached me after I stuck up for a Greek, in a fight with some Germans, over a woman in the disco. They had been watching me since the incident with George. They knew, through the staff  at the taverna, that I would be out of money soon.

My first job was with Janni’s crew of woodcutters. He owned a dump truck and a few chain saws. He employed some older Greek guys and an Austrian also named Janni. The Austrian Janni spoke only Greek, lived with his wife, in a quiet village, away from tourists. I accepted him as he accepted me, neither of us asked the other why they were there.

They were all amused by me. I was as blond as they were dark but I could work like them, withstand the heat and bugs, put up with the cuts and scratches I received on the job without complaining. I was satisfied, if not happy, with the wages they paid me.

I felt better getting home to the campground, having a shower, getting drunk, eating in the taverna at night, than just crawling off the beach, drunk by three in the afternoon. After roughnecking in the bush of Alberta, there wasn’t much one couldn’t make one’s self do. Every year the Greeks took some tourists or young locals to work with them, every year most quit.

Austrian Janni was a hard worker. He and Greek Janni, a large, jolly man with curly brown hair and a bushy moustache, kept three of us busy picking up the old branches, throwing them into the dump truck. At the end of each tree, we combined to throw the bigger logs into the truck.

 

They were old olive trees, eighty to one hundred years, which didn’t produce any more. So every day with Janni’s crew was, for the most part, in an olive grove.

By tradition and custom, the boss supplied the food for lunch. Sometimes we’d all clamber into the dump truck, Janni would head for the nearest restaurant. It wasn’t a tourist place, more for Greeks like these woodcutters. There was nothing fancy out front, just a couple of tables and chairs where the old men could drink their coffee.

I rubbed a cold quart of Henninger over my forehead in the shady back of one of these places, watched Greek Janni bargain with the owner over our lunch. He inspected the carcasses of freshly killed rabbits, they reached an agreement.

The parts were fried, in a pan, there in front of us. I started to understand, a little, the Greek, the communication between the men. I stuck to the large parts of the rabbit, those that looked familiar. The Greeks and Janni the Austrian popped the lemon shaped rabbit skulls into their mouths, crushed them with their teeth, devoured the contents. They laughed at my look.

I took two buses, to meet Janni, in the morning. I changed buses on a hill where students in uniform waited, buses and cars full of people went to work. There was a cement plaque by the side of the road which I couldn’t read. People had been waiting in that spot for thousands of years. The cliffs fell to the Mediterranean Sea, beside the road. Before the heat of the day descended, the sea breeze blew across Crete.

 

When we were on the job, in the olive groves, we had the best lunch. The two Jannis shut down their screaming chain saws, the crew made itself comfortable in the shade of a big olive tree. The Greek Janni supplied the wine and feta from his house. The tomatoes, onions and cucumbers were cut into the big bowl with a generous slug of olive oil, to soak them. The bread, from the bakery, that morning, and an occasional can of mackerel pieces were bought. The rest of the meal was grown at home.

The best of the olive oil was kept for the family, the rest, sold. Janni’s olive oil was smooth, golden. You could eat it with just a piece of bread from the loaf. All of the Greeks seemed to have another side, a hidden side, which you could only see if they trusted you.

My next job was for Georgio who called me “Stefanos”. He had a farm in the mountains, drove a little Toyota pickup. He showed up one day at the taverna, offered me a job. I agreed, he picked me up every morning until the job finished. He and his compadres squeezed me into the cab of the pickup, talked to me all the way to the job. They wanted me to hear their illegal Partisan songs on the cassette tape.

Georgio owned a huge field, maybe many fields. All I knew was that he needed wire to be strung across hundreds of the concrete posts which we had planted, so that his usual crop of tomatoes would climb, avoiding spoilage on the ground.

Costa had seen me in action, by now, with the tourists, the travellers and the Greeks. He knew I was ok. He checked me out in the campground, taverna and disco and knew I was no threat to his position as godfather of the surrounding valley. He knew that I could do the Greeks a lot of good. He gave me a job working with his crews on construction and, then, in the new disco he was building, in Matala.

 

Costa picked me up each morning at six am on his Yamaha 750, at the campground. We roared off into the hills to one of the many construction jobs he had going. Sometimes he walked through the campground to survey the sleeping women. If I slept in, he approached my tent, moved my sleeping bag, with a toe, to see if it was empty. If it wasn’t, he looked over the woman I had slept with. He turned up his nose or gave me an approving smile, depending on what he saw.

One hot day, the tourist police showed up on a job. The guy, with a uniform, gun and a belt that went over his shoulder, talked to someone on the other side of the site. Costa left the forming he was doing beside me, touched my shoulder as he passed, confronted the policeman. His brother George, a big guy who spoke no English and wore a carpenter’s belt, like everybody else, stopped work, stood beside the policeman. The other guys told me that George was a champion boxer. He was built like a weight lifter.

They looked over at me a few times but the outcome never was in doubt: Costa had a job to do, there were houses standing half finished all over Crete. If a man was willing to work and he was productive, why stop him? Because the young locals won’t do it for the wages? Bah! The policeman walked away, smiling at George. Costa gave me a wink and a smile when he returned to our forming.

At Costa’s mother’s, we sat beneath the grape vine filled pergola, drank iced tea, his mother bringing us glasses. He said that he’d been to London, checked it out. His sour look was tempered by understanding, but I had no inclination to defend London while I sat there with Costa and his mother on their family farm.

I was sleeping half at the campground, half at the new disco, when Rob came to visit me from London. He brought a forty ouncer of Johnny Walker Black which he called “mother’s milk”. Thomas was a German who made friends with Rob the second he saw the Johnny Walker. I was working, only saw George and a band of young guys from the area heading up the hill. George, who I met when I first arrived, liked ultraviolence. He had a determined frown, a long, lethal looking flashlight in his fist, as he started up the hill.

 

The young men of the village took care of business. They had recently kicked a whole tent of Frenchmen out for attacking the other guests, especially the females ones. They had, just last week, shot an Italian dead on a nearby beach, for selling heroin to the kids. The legal inquiry had just finished. Nobody knew anything, therefore, no one was guilty. There were no cops in Matala.  Rob had, long ago, given Thomas the bottle to drink. The German was getting violent, challenging the whole campground and the Greeks, to knock him off the hill. Rob was protecting himself as well as getting away from Thomas’ aggravating bleating. He had to see a Swedish girl, anyway. Why hang around Thomas?

Thomas, I saw the next morning, as I waited for a lift, suffered a lot of cuts from some bats around the head. He was unceremoniously trundled onto the first bus leaving Matala in a near catatonic state. He had big clumps of hair missing beneath the bandage on his head.

As the season went on, the disco neared completion. I was living day to day, Costa holding back some of my week’s drachma so I’d have something to leave with.

There were women from all over the world there. Some women were there for the weather, some because Greece was Greece, but these Greeks believed, and it seemed to be so, that women were there, to be with them. One girl told me that a Greek propositioned her on the beach, saying, “Maybe you’re with Stevie, but he’s not a Greek”

 

The Greek men had a heart sworn assumption that the tourist women should pay for everything. If I, in my goofy, chivalrous way, paid for the drinks or the snack for myself and a woman, I was the butt of a lot of jokes the next day or considered a sad case, to be pitied. They spoke of a man as “poly mafia” when he was seen night after night with a tourist girl but didn’t pay for anything. The “Papa” (Pope) was the greatest Godfather of them all, the Catholic church was the greatest mafia body.

I was constantly getting called from the disco or my tent to come settle disputes. An Australian or Dutch girl would be trying to explain to Manoli, in a headlit scene, that just because she danced with a Greek guy or let him buy her a drink, that she wasn’t giving herself for the night or marriage. The Greeks loved the drama of it. Manoli would console the Greek guy, I would shoo the tourists to their tent. The guy would look mad for a while, then, after making sure that the girl wasn’t with anyone else, go back to the disco to see if he had time to pick out another. I don’t know what the married Greek guys told their wives. All of the tourist women agreed that the Italians were worse than the Greeks at aggressive come ons. The women said that if they slapped a rude man in Italy, they got slapped back.

I stuffed myself at the snail feast. The snails grew on everything below a foot. I saw women and children out gathering them off of rocks and plants in the fields. We gathered in a shack near Matala, ate our way through many pounds of the little shelled creatures. They were served by the men, to the other men, from a big, boiling pot. More were boiled while we ate. We sucked the little critters out of their shells by windpower alone. Until I got the hang of it, I had to use the fork on the table to loosen that last little piece of flesh stuck to the shell. After a while, I could get the last piece by using, as the Greeks did, the shell from the one before. We ate them for hours.

 

One morning, on Costa’s bike, we stopped at a crossroads, in a sleepy village, where an old man with a net hat, baggy jodhpur pants, big, black, leather boots, stood under a tree. He had a grey, bushy moustache. The dappled sunlight glistened on his knife. Costa and he exchanged greetings and information. He had hanging, in front of him, the carcass of a goat, half skinned. He told Costa something, looked over for confirmation to two young boys who were sitting in the shade of a neighbouring tree. Above them, two goats, which had grazed on the lower branches of the tree, were standing on the thick, lower limbs to get at the leaves above them.

Tourist season was ending, regulars who had been there all summer, were thinning out. Some of us got drunk on the raki they made from the dregs of the wine harvest. We finished the disco. Prospects for the winter narrowed. I could leave Matala to work at a tomato canning factory, in Crete, or hitch north. It was time to go.

Costa paid me off, one night, at the disco.

He told me,

“To work in Greece, Stevie, takes some grease” and pocketed a percentage of my savings.

I hitched back to London where Rob and I found a pub with ‘Carey’ on the jukebox.

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The Good Provider

 

I clean the cream from my whiskers with my paw. I sit watching the delicious little birds hop from seed to seed on the dying thistles in the garden outside the window. This window seat is made for these lazy autumn afternoons. Red’ll be home soon. I love to watch his change of expression when he approaches the house to greet his latest wife. She’s Lola this year. It was Linda back in those days, Bennie’s sister. It’s getting harder to remember that I used to live with Bennie.

The boys came up with the idea, in a poker game, at Bennie’s. There was Mutt, Jeff, Bennie and Slocum. I watched from the back of the couch, cleaning my paws with my tongue. There were clouds of smoke and interesting smells emanating from the table that night. The boys were flying high. Bennie figured his ship had finally come in.

The next morning, as we drove to work, Bennie talked about the score. He talked to me, but he was really talking to himself. He was a good provider though, so I went along with it.

Bennie was my owner, a cat worshipper, who also owned Brutus, a watchdog. Bennie took me to work with him most days. I was an excuse for Bennie to talk to himself, a warm body to have around.

Bennie was the only employee left in Red Smith’s auto parts warehouse. Red didn’t make much wholesaling used auto parts, but he had a famous safe which made him a tidy profit. He held payrolls for a lot of companies which didn’t have the facilities to handle large amounts of cash. They couldn’t fit into bank schedules. The safe also held such items as receipts, estates and some money from questionable sources which Red labelled, ‘Other’.

 

On the way to work the next morning, Bennnie dreamed along with the sports show on the radio.

“With my cut, I could buy an island, like Brando. Down in Tahiti. So what if he’s fat? Women still love him. I’d have a party for the boys, but not for a couple of years. This is Slocum’s chance too. He can escape from his old lady, finally. The guy’s not well. She’s a bad influence. Don’t you think he’s shrunk and turned grey since he’s been with her?”

I sat in the back seat watching some dogs on the sidewalk. Gross.

Brutus ran out when Bennie opened the front door of the warehouse. There are dogs and there are dirty dogs. Brutus was dirty and aggressive with everyone except Bennie and me. Bennie had trained him, I had shown him my claws when we first met. He almost lost an eye that time, always respected me since. I wouldn’t turn my back on him, though.

Brutus is big. He’s a big, dirty watchdog who would tear anything apart just for fun. Unless someone killed Brutus or otherwise incapacitated him, they’d never be able to steal from this warehouse. Unless they had an in and knew how the safe worked, that is.

Bennie was counting on this as part of his plan. He could control Brutus and retirement was approaching. If he ripped the place off, he could sit tight for a few years and let things cool down. If everyone kept their mouths shut and they paid a lawyer Mutt knew, they would all end up rich. Even Red had some kind of insurance for a robbery, Bennie figured, but it wasn’t an urgent consideration. Red could afford it, no doubt.

There would be questions. There would be all kinds of cops. They would insist on a lie detector test, but he didn’t have to take it, they couldn’t use it in court.

 

Brando never backed down from a role. This was one for which Bennie had been preparing all of his life. That was the way Bennie saw it, anyway. I always thought he was a little crazy, but who could have known?

The safe only opened once a day. If robbers did get past Brutus and the other alarms, unless they came at exactly the right time, they would have to blow the door off of it. It would take a big explosion to blow the door, neighbouring alarms would go off all over the place. There wasn’t much paper around, but there might be a fire. The other thing, which only Red knew about the safe, but no one else knew, was that it expelled all of the oxygen, slowly, after the door closed. Red got it from an art museum when the government closed it down.

One of the perks of having a foolproof safe was that big companies were advised, by word of mouth, to use Red’s, in emergencies. Red made a pretty penny helping out big companies.

When the boys thought up the plan at the poker game, it was after Bennie had told them all about the “special job” Red was doing that weekend. A big company was moving millions of dollars from city to city. They were leaving it in Red’s safe overnight on the weekend. Bennie and the boys planned to rip it off.

 

I stretched and tasted the fresh cat food Bennie had left in my dish by the office door. I settled in the comfortable window, watched Bennie strike poses in front of the mirror. Every time I cleaned the outside of my ears, I remembered the ticks. Getting rid of them was a painful process.

Bennie thought he looked like Brando when he practised a sneer. I thought he looked like an overweight Elvis impersonator. There was an inventory to keep, some paperwork to do, but Bennie mostly listened to a redneck on the radio and talked to me during his work day. When we were at the warehouse, Bennie kept Brutus in his run outside in the back.

 

Red dropped in on Friday afternoon for a few minutes. He ruffled my fur, scratched my ears. Red was just getting to like me in those days. He went over the delivery of the money on Saturday morning, told Bennie that he had Sunday off, that he, Red, would be there to make sure of the pick up on Sunday morning.

Red sat in Bennie’s chair, feet up, smoking a cigar, called Linda. He put Bennie on with his sister, enjoyed their fraternal banter. Red glowed with love for Linda. His face changed when he talked to her on the phone. When he spoke about her with Bennie, the latter thought he was kidding. Bennie looked at Red, quizzically, behind his back, after these conversations about his older sister.

The boys planned to pull into the warehouse as soon as the delivery was made on Saturday morning. They would load the money and take it away. They would leave Bennie in the safe to be released by Red the next day. The story would be that the robbers showed up right after the security company delivered the cash, pushed Bennie into the safe, left with the loot and the security film. The key to getting away with it was for everyone to behave normally. These guys thought they could pull it off.                                                                                                                    It sounded good, that night, when the boys met for poker at our place. Mutt had all the papers and powers of attorney for them to sign. It would give their lawyer, who wasn’t above a bit of graft himself, the right to move their money around. No one could quit their jobs or do anything out of the ordinary for at least two years. They were all thinking about retirement. The boys were closer to old than young.

 

The delivery Saturday morning went smoothly, the security company guards moved the cash into the safe. They had just pulled out of the parking lot when Mutt, Jeff and Slocum pulled up, at the front door, in Slocum’s black van.

Bennie had already taken the film out of all the security cameras when they walked into the office. They wore gloves, but no masks or disguises. Bennie showed them the millions of dollars they were stealing by opening a package. They got lost in a delirious minute of congratulations while they admired the bills.

After a short debate, they figured that I should keep Bennie company in the safe. There was nothing soft and warm inside the safe. I never did like it. They threw me in with Bennie after they put my dish and some water inside the door. I circled the safe quickly, ran out, just as they slammed the door shut.

They left him some chocolate bars and water, but they couldn’t do anything about the light. There was no light, but Bennie planned to sleep and rehearse his shock and anger until Red arrived. They didn’t even notice me until it was too late. No one had time to worry about me, so they left.

The three of them giggled as they got into Slocum’s van. In a few years, they would be on easy street. Margaritas all around at Bennie’s place in Tahiti, one island over from Brando’s. All they had to do now was to drop off the money at the lawyer’s.                                                                At the time, I didn’t know, nobody did, except Red, about the slow leak of oxygen from the safe. Bennie must have realized that something was wrong because he made a lot of noise in the safe around the same time that Red arrived, the next morning.

 

Red’s Cadillac pulled up beside Bennie’s Celebrity in the empty parking lot. I watched from the front window as Red got out of his car and walked toward the building. He looked back once at Bennie’s car. He was about half way between his parking space and the warehouse when his cell phone went off. He dug it out of his jacket pocket and answered it. I could tell that he was talking to a woman he loved by the change of expression on his face. It lit up. He stopped, looked at the sky as he talked. He had a big smile on his face when he turned back to the car. He listened to the phone, smiled at his shoes.

Red got back into his Caddy, talking on the phone, his eyes on Bennie’s Celebrity. He was talking to Lola that day. He thought Bennie had his days off mixed up, so that he was taking care of the pick up. He was partially right, Bennie was there, but he was in the safe.

The noises from the safe got fewer and further between, quieter, then stopped all together. Brutus started howling and whining from the back of the warehouse. Brando’s death scene in The Godfather always was one of Bennie’s favourites, but I think he would rather have played it in a tomato patch.

When the security guys from the pick up company arrived, there was no one around. They called Red and told him that they could see the cat in the office window and that Bennie’s car was there, but no Bennie.

By this time I was hungry, the litter box was filling up. I knew, from Brutus’s mournful howl, that Bennie had somehow died in the safe.

Red drove over from Lola’s the next morning. He took a long time calling long distance, pushing digital codes to open the safe before its special time.

Red’s reputation was on the line. The reputation of his service to the big companies. The security company had to have the money.

 

Red breathed through his nose a lot, walked around the office with a serious expression followed by the security guards talking into their cell phones. If they had arrived earlier, if Red hadn’t taken so long to open the safe, they could have seen Bennie gasping for his last breath.

The police were called as soon as Red opened the door and found Bennie dead in the safe, the money gone.

Red seemed surprised and a little hurt by the discovery of Bennie’s body. When he saw the cat dishes of water and food inside the safe door he adopted me on the spot. He took me home to his very comfortable estate. It was as if he was protecting me.

He switched from Linda to Lola just after Bennie’s funeral. Linda accused him of holding out on her, but Red paid her off. It wasn’t the payment she wanted but she had to settle for it.

The police questioned all of Bennie’s friends. Nobody talked and no one was caught for the theft.

Lola’s a real cat lover so I’m pampered and lazy here. There are no poker games with smoke and interesting smells, but the food is great. Yesterday she got some cat treats and served them to me on a pillow. It gets harder and harder to remember life at Bennie’s.

Red suffered his loss manfully, in public. Bennie’s death was so shocking that Red’s compensation from the insurance company went unnoticed.

 

Red doesn’t know Mutt or Jeff or Slocum. They don’t move in the same circles. They were all there at Bennie’s funeral which was also attended by a large number of undercover cops. I watched from the passenger seat of Red’s Caddy.

 

When it was over they filed past the Cadillac on their way to the cars. Red argued with Linda over Bennie’s grave. Slocum looked me right in the eye and winked as he passed the windshield. He knew that I had seen it all and that Red was a good provider.

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