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I recently had a read of the ultra-conservative, autocratic nineteenth-century Russian scholar, Konstantin Pobedonostsev. Allegedly, he was the inspiration for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor. As a continuation of Pobedonostsev’s long career supporting the Tsardom, he wrote a work entitled Reflections of a Russian Statesman. Titled somewhat more provocatively is a chapter within this work, The Falsehood of Democracy.

Now, while I’m not a supporter of ultra-conservative autocracy, it has to be admitted that Pobedonostsev’s assessments of democracy’s shortcomings are pretty damn… well, accurate. To illustrate this, let’s compare some of his critiques with the most famous democracy of them all, the United States of America…

“In theory, the election favours the intelligent and capable; in reality, it favours the pushing and impudent. It might be thought that education, experience, conscientiousness in work, and wisdom in affairs, would be essential requirements in the candidate; in reality, whether these qualities exist or not, they are in no way needed in the struggle of the election, where the essential qualities are audacity, a combination of impudence and oratory, and even some vulgarity, which invariably acts on the masses; modesty, in union with delicacy of feeling and thought, is worth nothing.”

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“Experience shows that in great assemblies the decision does not belong to reason, but to daring and brilliancy; that the arguments most effective on the mass are not the most symmetrical – the most truly taken from the nature of things, but those expressed in sounding words and phrases, artfully selected, constantly reiterated, and calculated on the instinct of baseness always dominant in the people. The masses are easily drawn by out-bursts of empty declamation, and under such influences often form sudden decisions, which they regret on cold-blooded consideration of the affair.”

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“What is a Parliamentary party? In theory, it is an alliance of men with common convictions, joining forces for the realisation of their views in legislation and administration. But this description applies only to small parties; the large party, which alone is an effective force in Parliament, is formed under the influence only of personal ambition, and centres itself around one commanding personality.”

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“Any vagabond babbler or unacknowledged genius, any enterprising tradesman, with his own money or with the money of others, may found a newspaper, even a great newspaper. He may attract a host of writers and feuilletonists, ready to deliver judgment on any subject at a moment’s notice; he may hire illiterate reporters to keep him supplied with rumours and scandals. His staff is then complete. From that day he sits in judgment on all the world, on ministers and administrators, on literature and art, on finance and industry. It is true that the new journal becomes a power only when it is sold in the market – that is, when it circulates among the public. For this talent is needed, and the matter published must be attractive and congenial for the readers. Here, we might think, was some guarantee of the moral value of the undertaking – men of talent will not serve a feeble or contemptible editor or publisher; the public will not support a newspaper which is not a faithful echo of public opinion. This guarantee is fictitious. Experience proves that money will attract talent under any conditions, and that talent is ready to write as its paymaster requires … The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great mass of readers, idlers for the most part, is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured by any editor who provides for the satisfaction of these hankerings, for the love of scandal, and for intellectual pruriency of the basest kind.”

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“In our age the judgment of others has assumed an organised form, and calls itself Public Opinion. Its organ and representative is the Press. In truth, the importance of the Press is immense, and may be regarded as the most characteristic fact of our time – more characteristic even than our remarkable discoveries and inventions in the realm of technical science. No government, no law, no custom can withstand its destructive activity when, from day to day, through the course of years, the Press repeats and disseminates among the people its condemnations of institutions or of men.”

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Never been a time like this? I would suggest Donald read a book… but just our luck the one book he’d read would be that of a Russian autocrat!

So… what comes next?

1200 – The Mongolian Empire is founded

1210 – The Magna Carta is written

1220 – ‘Trial by ordeal’ is abolished in England!

1230 – The Treaty of York is signed

1240 – The Aztec Empire is founded

1250 – Fibonacci dies. 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377 610 987 1597 2584

1260 – The Opus Majus is written

1270 – …the Ninth (and last) Crusade…

1280 – The Thai alphabet is composed

1290 – The Ottoman Empire is founded

1300 – William Wallace dies.

1310 – …the Great Famine of 1315 – 1317…

1320 – Tenochtitlan is founded

1330 – …the Hundred Years’ War begins…

1340 – …BLACK DEATH…

1350 – The Hanseatic League is founded

1360 – Nagarakretagama is written

1370 – Earliest reference to playing cards! A2345678910JQKJOKER

1380 – The Peasants’ Revolt

1390 – The Medici Bank i$ founded

1400 – …T h e R e n a i s s a n c e

1410 – Perspective is discovered!

1420 – …the Siege of Orleans…

1430 – The printing press is invented!

1440 – The Vatican Library is founded

1450 – The Byzantine Empire collapses.

1460 – The works of Plato are translated into Latin

1470 – Oldest recorded game of chess is played!

1480 – The Vitruvian Man is drawn!

1490 – The Americas are contacted!

1500 – The Statue of David is sculpted!

1510 – …T h e R e f o r m a † i o n

1520 – First circumnavigation of the globe!

1530 – The Church of England is founded

1540 – …T h e S c i e π t i f i c R e v o l u t i o π

1550 – First recorded use of the = sign!

1560 – The pencil is invented!

1570 – Imaginary numbers are defined!

1580 – The Spanish Armada

1590 – “Knowledge Is Power”

1600 – …the Gunpowder Plot… (remember?)

1610 – Heliocentricity is proven!

1620 – ♪ The modern violin is invented ♪

1630 – …the trial of Galileo Galilee…

1640 – “Cogito Ergo Sum”

1650 – …T h e E n l i g h t e n m e n t

1660 – …the Great Fire of London…

1670 – Bacteria are discovered!

1680 – Gravity is discovered!

1690 – …the Salem witch trials…

1700 – The United Kingdom is founded

1710 – The steam engine is invented!

1720 – ♪ The Four Seasons is composed ♪

1730 – The automaton is invented!

1740 – …the War of Austrian Succession…

1750 – Electricity of lightning is discovered!

1760 – …T h e I n d u s t r i a l R e v o l u t i o n

1770 – The American Revolution

1780 – The hot air balloon is invented!

1790 – The French Revolution

1800 – …the Napoleonic Wars…

1810 – The locomotive is invented!

1820 – The camera is invented!

1830 – The electric motor is invented!

1840 – Communism is developed

1850 – Evolution is discovered!

1860 – …the United States Civil War…

1870 – The telephone is invented!

1880 – The automobile is invented!

1890 – The combustion engine is invented!

1900 – The aeroplane is invented!

1910 – …World War I…

1920 – The television is invented!

1930 – …the Great Depre$$ion…

1940 – …World War II…

1950 – …the Cold War begins…

1960 – The Moon landing!

1970 – The personal computer is invented!

1980 – The Internet is invented!

1990 – The Cold War ends!

2000 – …September 11…

So… what comes next?

Operation 8

“Yet the poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – Plato

Forgive me if the rest of this account isn’t as eloquent as Plato. I’m not a philosopher. I’m certainly not a hero. Shit, I ain’t even a soldier. Technically, I’m a veteran, but in reality, all I am is a survivor – and a witness. A witness to the weirdest conflict this godforsaken world has ever seen. Historians with better ideas of how to write might refer to this conflict as ‘The Insect War’, or ‘The Infestation’. But to me, and the men I knew who fought in it, it was and always will be known by another name – Operation 8.

SONY DSCOfficially, I’m not a witness. Officially, the events I’m about to write about never even occurred and I never even saw them. Officially, my name is Private Finn Thomas, a photographer in ‘Redback Company’, 29th Infantry Battalion, United States Army.

Unofficially, Redback was just an otherwise nameless detachment of degenerates and no-hopers who saw only one way out of the corporate urban slums of America: joining, fighting, and dying in a cleanup operation in the Mojave Desert in the summer of 2021. This operation that “never happened” was known as Operation 8.

It was, militarily speaking, a successful mission. On a personal level, however, it was a crisis of epic proportions, one in which I don’t suspect I’ll ever overcome. Even so, this account is my first step towards doing just that, and while I suspect I will never come to terms with what happened, perhaps I may succeed somewhat in telling people just what took place out in that desert in that summer. The world deserves to know the truth.

I took many pictures during that summer. I can only show you the ones of which I’ve managed to steal the prints. If they ever catch me, the US Government will likely charge me with treason for making these photos public. I will be tried, found guilty, and if not executed, I’ll be imprisoned for the remainder of my life. This is a risk I’m willing to take. It’s the least I can do for my dead friends.

SONY DSCThis is the only photo I took of my four buddies. I never thought to take a photo of all five of us together. I guess it simply never crossed my mind. In this picture, from left to right, is Miles Monk, Douglas Iverson, Fred ‘Po-boy’ Green (called Po-boy on account of him coming from New Orleans), and Jack Irish. Jack wasn’t really Irish and that wasn’t really his surname, but he was found outside an Irish pub in Boston when he was two years old so the name kind of just stuck to him. He never did find out what happened to his parents.

On June 8th, 2021, a chemical factory right on the state line between California and Nevada, some miles southwest of Las Vegas, had an explosion in their wastage silos. It was later discovered that they were dabbling with certain materials that they really shouldn’t have been. Now – and this is the crazy part, the part nobody would believe if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it – the upshot of these chemicals exploding was that every insect in a two hundred foot radius was suddenly enlarged by a factor of one to eight hundred, depending on their distance to the fallout epicentre.

You don’t believe me? Sounds ridiculous? That’s what we all thought, too. Until, of course, we came face to face with them.

SONY DSCAnts were a constant threat. They could appear out of the ground basically without warning. The only way to know one was coming was to listen carefully to the rumbling sound they made in the dirt. Often, though, they would burst out of nowhere, their pincers gnashing wildly. Their exoskeletons would eventually give way to machine gun fire, and their heads were big enough targets, but if you failed to put them down in time, their razor-shape pincers could cut you in half. That was the fate for poor old Miles Monk. There was nothing we could do to save him.

SONY DSCBees and wasps weren’t too common, but they offered the cleanest, noblest, and most favourable of the deaths. They would simply stab you with their stinger, just like being stabbed by a sword or bayonet. The area around the wound would burn, but it would eventually go numb, and if it was seen to by a medic soon enough, you’d live.

Scorpions were bad. There must have been a few on the outskirts of the factory blast zone because they weren’t enlarged to nearly the same extent as the ants. Even so, their stingers and pincers were sharp and they could move fast. I almost fell into this pit. The identities of these soldiers are unknown.

SONY DSCQuick as they were, though, at least the scorpions couldn’t fly. Flies were the worst of the ‘airbornes’. Unlike the bees and wasps, flies would regurgitate the most foul smelling, vilest, most disgusting, shitty, vomit-like acid all over you. It would burn your skin and then they’d eat it. There was nothing glorious about any of this, but flies presented us with the most degrading death of them all.

Poor Douglas Iverson met his end at the filthy handiwork of a fly. It all happened so fast, I had no way to save him. All I could do was take pictures as his outpost was attacked…

SONY DSC…and his body dissolved into the desert sands.

SONY DSCAll of these ‘critters’ were our enemies and we killed any damn critter that moved. The laws of nature would suggest we were the predators, entering their environment to commit genocide. But if there was anything we learnt out there in that desert, it was that the laws of nature no longer applied.

At least, that’s what we thought for a long time, that the rules of nature had been broken, but as we began to fight our way towards the chemical factory, towards the epicentre of this nightmare, where an outpost had been established, we soon discovered that the rules of nature were very much still at play. We discovered that we weren’t the only ones out in the desert hunting. There was something else hunting the flies, the bees, the wasps, the scorpions, the ants – and the humans.

Something which made our blood run cold.

SONY DSCThe spiders were different to the other critters – they could think. The explosion appeared not to have just made them bigger, it made them smarter. They could form complicated ideas and communicate them to each other. In the ruins of the factory, they’d built a fortress. They used ants to bore tunnels. They could lay traps for us to walk into. They could ambush us.

Remember that photo I showed you of the ant attacking those two men? Well, here is the same incident from another angle a few seconds later.

SONY DSCAs well as being intelligent, they were also fast on the ground and much harder to put down. They could keep low and run with agility at terrifying speed and were able to jump as much as one hundred and fifty feet. On top of this, some were poisonous. Others just pulled you apart. I found this soldier en route to the factory, his head had been pulled clean off.

SONY DSCAnd this fleeing factory worker had survived the explosion, only to have his legs ripped off, from which he bled to death in the desert.

SONY DSCThe route to the factory was also lined with more nameless, melted victims of the flies.

SONY DSCA fly had vomited over these two troops, melting them into each other.

SONY DSCAnd this poor bastard was still standing upright, all his skin melted off.

SONY DSCBut not even the flies would dare enter the factory area. They were afraid of the spiders. If it was up to any of us, we wouldn’t have entered the factory zone either. But this was the Operation 8 objective: “Enter the factory blast zone, destroy all hostiles with extreme prejudice.” The only way I was gonna get out of this mess alive was by entering the ruins of the factory. The same was true for Po-boy and Jack Irish.

It was raining the day we arrived at Operation 8 Headquarters (O8HQ), just a mile out from the factory. June 20th, nearly two weeks after the explosion, and the three of us finally made it through the desert full of critters to the nerve centre of Operation 8. That was when we met a man known only as the Colonel. He was the most senior officer on the ground, the only top brass who had any idea what we were really dealing with. He was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met.

SONY DSCIt was also the first time we saw the kinds of ‘defences’ the spiders had built; we called them “poles”, they were mediaeval-like, pieces of wood they’d whittled down with their teeth into sharp points and stuck in the ground. We lost a lot of good men clearing them.

SONY DSCBut even from the relative security of O8HQ, we weren’t safe from the spiders. They were stealthy and seemingly fearless.

SONY DSCWe stationed lookouts, building watchtowers, or “targets”, out of scrap metal and the poles.

SONY DSCBut the spiders could almost make themselves invisible. By the time you see the spider in this photograph…

SONY DSC…you’re already dead…

SONY DSCHolding this position was futile; we needed to advance. So, it was from these outskirts of the factory that the Colonel decided we would make our main assault on the ruins. You might ask why we didn’t just get the almighty power of the US Air Force to bomb the place back into the stone age. We did. But the spiders had dug in. No matter how much or what kind of bomb was dropped on these bastards, they were going to have to be flushed out one by one.

Our great fear was that we wouldn’t exterminate them all before their eggs hatched. If that happened, if this war spread outside of the desert, all I can say is I wouldn’t have to share these photos with you. You’d have seen it yourself, eventually.

The day of the assault was June 22nd. It wasn’t until the Colonel ordered us to storm the ruins of the factory that I saw he was missing a hand. It had been pulled off by a spider. He was the only man I’d ever heard of coming that close to a spider and living to tell the tale.

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THE BATTLE OF THE FACTORY

The objective was clear: kill everything, burn the place to the ground. In the chaos of the ensuing battle, however, I lost track of Po-boy, Jack Irish, and the Colonel. My efforts on this day remain a frantic, horrified, and confused blur. I didn’t know what was happening, who was winning, or what to do. I simply tried to survive and take the pictures I’d been sent into this mess to take.

SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCBy nightfall, once it was clear we’d won, we started the painful process of counting our casualties and retrieving the bodies of the fallen, our friends.

When I think about the most harrowing photos I took during Operation 8, a few final come to mind. The first is the Colonel lying dead in the desert.

SONY DSCThe second is the one of Jack Irish, or rather what was left of him, embedded into a wall of rock, still holding his gun.

SONY DSCThen there’s the one of Po-boy, hung up in a web, dangling over the battlefield. He was still alive when the spider that did this to him began to eat him.

SONY DSCBut the photograph that haunts my sleep more than any other is the last one I’ll show you. Before I lost Po-boy, only to later see him after the battle hanging up in “spider silk” and half-eaten, I took a picture of him moments before we were separated. I didn’t see it at the time, I only saw the look of terror in his eyes, but I later realised that the spider that would string him up and slowly eat him is in this picture too.

If only I had seen then what I’m risking everything to show you now…

SONY DSCYou might ask how the US Government ever hoped to keep this all a secret, but a better question might be: how could they ever hope for me to keep it a secret?

The Implication

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Thompson, Howe, and Brewer’s last day of the war would be this one – October 19th, 1914. They sat in a muddy gun pit; a thin roof of sheetmetal ensnarled in barbed wire. They huddled around their terrifying device. It was a machine that spat metal, cutting men in half. Guarding their endless muddy field, they held intense stares.

“Fog’s getting thicker”, Thompson said. He was the one who pushed the button on their insane machine.

Howe held binoculars to his face, peering deeper into the white mist as it sank upon the mud in all directions. Brewer nervously held the cold metal belt of bullets in his hands, feeding them into the insatiable hunger of the gun.

“You heard the barrage, they’ll be close”, Howe finally said in reply, scanning, peering.

They listened for the rumbling of men’s footsteps coming towards them, the echo that followed the hellfire of artillery. The breath leaving their lungs joined the thick fog. It was a cold place to die. Their hearts beat quickly, as if knowing they would soon stop. Knee deep in sludge, they shivered in the coldness of fear. An icy breeze blew in their faces, rustling a lone piece of paper behind them. A grenade acted as a paperweight to a brief, heartfelt letter scrawled by Thompson’s mother.

To my dearest Christopher,

I hope this letter finds you well. There has yet been an hour go by that I haven’t thought of you. I keep strong in the hope that you will return and the Lord will watch over you until such a time. Do not worry about us here. Your father and sisters are taking excellent care of me, and I of them. Our prayers are always with you. The only thing missing from our lives is your comforting smile and generosity.

Come home my son, we need more memories with you,

Your ever-loving mother

Then, as the letter stopped flapping in the fading breeze, men began to thunder. Grey outlines of the Enemy appeared from within the mist. The three men braced themselves, waiting as the bayonets ran closer.

Thompson then pressed down on the button and the mad machine gun began consuming bullets and lives. Howe swapped his binoculars for his rifle, adding to the slaughter. He kept shooting when the machine gun ran out of ammo. Brewer reloaded another belt as fast as he could, Enemy lead hailing down around them. Thompson reopened fire, resuming blood into the air.

Finally, the Enemy wave broke. The brown earth washed red in their blood. The machine gun clinked as it cooled. Smoke billowed out its barrel. The three men breathed heavily. Ten seconds passed before any of them relaxed, worried the Enemy might still be out there.

“Shit”, Howe said, “I’m out of clips.”

Concern joined them in the gun pit. Thompson then looked out across the battlefield at the Enemy lying dead.

“Go get theirs”, he suggested, “I promise I won’t shoot you.”

“Thank God for the mist”, Howe said, preparing to scamper out of the gun pit and into no-man’s, before adding, “To Hell with him for the war, though.”

Howe dashed into the foggy wasteland in search of ammunition. Thompson and Brewer began to lose sight of him as he greedily, desperately, collected as many rounds as he could find.

Brewer picked up the binoculars and tried to keep an eye on Howe.

Thompson took his eyes off the wasteland for the first time since he began firing at it. He sat back as Brewer kept lookout. Moving the grenade off his letter, he reached for a small pencil in his pocket. For a second, he simply appreciated his mother’s handwriting. It always curled in a way he found satisfying. Turning the letter over, he began writing.

Dear Ma,

Thank-you for your letter. No words can express how warm it felt to hear of you, Pa, Abbey, and Lucy. Unfortunately, I’m not permitted to say much about my circumstances, other than I am well. Don’t worry about me. I will return; a proud veteran of the…

Thompson stopped writing; a question had entered his head, one he couldn’t believe he hadn’t asked before, one he couldn’t answer, one which stopped him writing.

“What is the name of this war?” he quizzed himself.

Brewer noticed Thompson staring blankly at the letter, holding the pencil just a few millimeters from the paper, so he joked, “If war be the food of man, fight on.”

Thompson looked out across the wasteland, the Enemy sinking into the mud.

“What is this war called?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” Brewer scoffed.

“Well, what will it be known as? How will people write about it?”

Brewer thought about this a moment, “The… ah… I don’t know.”

Thompson raised his hand, “Don’t worry, it’s a stupid question.”

Brewer refocused his attention on no-man’s land as Thompson refocused on his letter.

the…

He stared at the blank space but couldn’t think of what to write.

the…

Until now, he’d only thought of it in terms of ‘the war’.

The European War? – what about the colonies?

The Continental War? – misleading; it made it sound like continent verses continent.

The Great War? – used already to describe Napoleon.

The Imperial War? – ‘Imperial’ sounded like an adjective, not a proper-noun.

The War To End All Wars? – propaganda, absurd, academically puerile.

His train of thought was halted in its tracks when Brewer invited more concern to join them, “I can’t see Howe.”

“He shouldn’t have gone far”, Thompson said. Seconds passed before a minute came and went. A faint sound could be heard way off in the mist and confusion.

“Is that him?”

However, like rain gently beginning to fall, a pitter-patter at first gradually climaxing in a deluge, came the rushing footsteps of the Enemy.

“Holy shit!”

Thompson tossed his writing aside and leapt to the clutches of death the machine. Brewer scrambled to fed it bullets. The Enemy soon appeared within the fog, running towards the gun, unaware it was there. The sound of Thompson’s gun was like a thousand men slamming hammers onto stone. The result was likewise; the Enemy ripped in half, collapsing in pain and fear. The many hundred hammers flew through Brewer’s hands, nailing the Enemy to the mud.

This second Enemy wave was smaller but it was fighting better; their returning bullets began splattering around the gun pit, flicking mud into Thompson’s face. He daren’t wipe his eyes nor look away. Brewer grew horrified at the shortening belt of ammunition. He closed his eyes, praying it would be enough. It was – just. All the Enemy were dead. Eight bullets were left.

Both men breathed heavily in their familiar state of shock; how unnatural it was for man for more murder than seconds to pass him.

“Howe must be dead”, Brewer finally said, “But I didn’t hear any gunshots.”

“He probably got spiked”, Thompson said, admitting the morbid truth.

“We need more ammunition”, Brewer confessed.

“You run back to the support trench and get it”, Thompson said.

“What about you?”

“We can’t abandon the pit, I’ll hold it.”

“What if the Enemy attacks?”

“Well, you better hurry.”

Both men gave each other telling looks.

“I’d play dead if I were you”, Brewer said, readying himself to leave the pit.

“We’re already playing dead”, Thompson replied.

Brewer hauled himself out of the pit and began running through the mud and mist towards the support trench. Thompson watched him vanish before turning to face no-man’s and the worst wait of his life.

Seconds passed, then minutes.

It’s curious where the mind wanders sometimes. For Thompson, it was to his letter. He picked it up out of the mud and reached for his pencil. He wondered once more, “What will they call this war?”

Scanning the muddy graveyard before him, his thoughts drifted to the future. He imagined a world of flying cars transporting people from skyscraper to skyscraper, an industrious world where chic and class were brightly lit, a world where–

“World!” he suddenly thought.

The World War.

He was just about to write this when his thoughts began to extrapolate; a bleak and uninspiring truth was then revealed to him.

…the First World War.

All my love,

Your ever-loving son

He finished writing his letter as the shadowy Enemy began to pierce the fog of war.

The Magic Hour

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Aegean tides gently bathe white shores

A purple sky, day’s end approaches

Bluish colours darken deep before

So stars, convinced, reveal their motions

and sands, still warm, are cooling

With his walking stick in one old hand

His sandals dangling in the other

In the evening beach there walks a man

Who, as he slowly walks, he wonders

just who the gods are fooling

Breathing the aroma of the sea

Watching the setting sun of twilight

His aging eyes peer the mystery

And admire the silk of nighttime;

how darkness starts to shimmer

Carefully, he collects seven stones

And placing the largest at his feet

He twirls around in the sand and combs

With his stick – he traces circle streaks

and maps the solar system

He places a stone in each new groove

Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Mars

Saturn, the Sun, and not last the Moon

Earth; to witness them and to the stars;

soon to wash away in waves

Little did he know of his drawings

Were all part of the long ancient spell

Of knowledge, wisdom’s magic scrawling

Enchanted science which would propel

he’d conjured up the space age

The Saxophonist

I entered a 300 word short story competition a few years ago, and although my entry didn’t get a place amongst the finalists, I always thought it was kind of cool…

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The SAXOPHONIST by DAVID COYLE

The saxophonist is dishevelled. His clothes are unloved by someone else before he un-loves them further. His shoes are old. He doesn’t tousle his hair deliberately, his erratic lifestyle does it for him. The frantic way in which he cuts through the streets, as if pupated by jazz itself, makes everyone think him a little mad. Nevertheless, he makes it to the bar on the east side of town just in time.

Unclipping the silver clasps of his saxophone’s black case, he takes out his golden horn. The other musicians start; the snap of the drum, the rain of the piano, the roll of the bass. The audience watches on, drinking in silent admiration. Then, with the chunky valves at his fingertips and the moan of a dead generation on his lips, in his breath, the saxophonist unleashes the raunchy howl into the night.

Everything in his life is otherwise meaningless and off, but for this sole purpose; the breathing of summer’s heat into winter’s evening. For this, he is exact; a sly master, perfectly formed, no longer out of place. Seemingly without effort, like an insect that lives only for a day, he is precise and brief.

With light on him, and all else dim, he takes his listeners to New Orleans, a Chicago noir, back alleys, drunken sophistication, that apartment with that girl, one woman listening even finds herself thinking – “What is life but the enjoyment of sweet delusion?” – and then they’re back to the bar.

To see anyone as good at any one thing is to know that people can be fine.

The saxophonist then backs out of the light on the stage, out of the only environment he suits. He dusts off his jacket and his soul and fades away, never to be seen again.

Nola Til You Die

I recently went back to New Orleans and it was even cooler than I remembered it. The last day of the Jazz Fest was probably one of the best days of my life!

I stayed in St Roch and saw some sad realities, however. I saw a shooting; thankfully not the gunfire but a guy with a bleeding stomach being led into a car. I later read in the newspaper that he died on his way to hospital. He can’t have been much older than me.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is still painfully present as well in St Roch; empty lots scattered around the neighbourhood, abandoned schools, and busted sidewalks. The only hints that the hurricane happened over a decade ago come in the form of overgrown weeds, too tall and numerous for the hurricane to have been recent.

The French Quarter and the Garden District are fine, that’s where the tourists go, but one can’t help but suspect that the government’s neglect of the outer neighbourhoods has something to do with the demographics of the people living in them.

At the Jazz Fest, I sat in the shade of a statue of Etta James and met a guy who claimed to be a voodoo priest. He told me the story of the name of the stage before us, Congo Square. Congo Square is a relatively nondescript area in Armstrong Park, on the northern edge of the French Quarter. A understated monument of dancing slaves marks what is nothing short of a remarkable location.

The voodoo priest explained to me, “New Orleans was the only place in the world to give slaves a day off, so each Sunday the slaves could congregate at Congo Square and see their family members and friends who were owned by different plantations. The musical traditions from far-ranging West African backgrounds were all pooled into this one place when the slaves would sing and dance in an effort to boost each others’ spirits and make the most of what little freedom they had. It’s because New Orleans gave slaves an afternoon off that we have music as we know it today.”

Escape from Mexico

We don’t fear sleeping just because we might have nightmares. In the same way, I don’t fear traveling or adventure just because it might go badly. Quite the opposite, I get tired of daily life and am always looking for somewhere to close my eyes and drift away to. So, when in December last year the opportunity to live and work as an English teacher in Zacatecas, Mexico, presented itself, I didn’t hesitate seizing it with both hands.

What I thought was a dream first began in early January this year by traveling to Auckland, where I spent a few nights with my friends, Gary and Alana; two film school sweethearts I’d met 11 years earlier at South Seas. I also caught up briefly with another old friend, Nic, who was on his way back to his adoptive home in Melbourne. After Auckland, I flew first to Hawaii, sitting next to an irritating American woman who asked me incessant questions about myself, told me incessant information about herself, and proceeded to claim knowing, on a personal level, every Hawaiian musician who appeared on the safety video with a ukelele. The airport in Honolulu had a distinctly 1970’s decor feel about it, lots of browns, tans, and oranges. I was only there for a few hours. Flying into Los Angeles always has an ominous feeling; the city is such an unapologetic monster, especially at night. This was true of this descent into Los Angeles, just as it always is. It was also my first time arriving in the mainland of Trump’s America. Screwing up my flight times, I had to book an earlier ticket to Zacatecas to avoid being cast adrift in Los Angeles for 24 hours at 1am. I finally boarded a Mexico-bound flight and began heading south towards the most magical country I’ve ever known.

Through the pitch black of night, I flew high over the deserts of Mexico; a thin band of crimson appearing on the horizon to the east as the new day, and my new life, began to dawn. My plane landed at what I assumed was the airport in Zacatecas, however, I later learned we’d landed somewhere else entirely because of fog clogging the runway in Zacatecas. We waited a few hours on the tarmac as the rising sun revealed the dessert landscapes around us, tall mountains in the distance buttressing the brightening sky. In hindsight, the irritating American woman, the screwed up flight times in Los Angeles, and the fog delay in Zacatecas – these were all early signs my dream was swerving into a nightmare, I just didn’t realise it.

However, the first indication of this that I was truly aware of was when the Fluency First Institute school director, Francisco Lopez, picked me up from the airport and showed me the ‘accommodation’ that had been included in my employment package. It was filthy, looked more like a prison cell, and had no working water. I was a little shocked, but I reminded myself that Mexico is a poor country and I hadn’t moved there for glamour but to try and make a positive impact in the world. I was cautious of being a ‘precious westerner’. Besides, Francisco seemed like a nice enough sort of guy and he’d said he’d get the water fixed the following day.

Four days later, however, he still hadn’t contacted a plumber, and I was desperate for a shower, so I asked him if he knew of a nearby apartment building I could move into. He took me to a building nearby and introduced me to Jaime, the building owner. They showed me a room with a disgusting, but functioning, bathroom and with a balcony that had a spectacular view of the city. Unaware what the going rate for such an apartment was, I trusted Francisco had my back and signed a lease for six months, and signed my fate. In reality, Francisco didn’t have my back, and this place, this day, and this signature were together a ticking time bomb. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

I finally had my first shower since leaving Auckland and got my first classes ready for the following day. Francisco hadn’t told me anything about these classes, who the students were, how many there were, what level of English they were, or what was expected of this first lesson – but I assumed a general ‘breaking the ice’, ‘getting to know each other’ sort of thing was needed. The true extent of Francsico’s disastrous organizational skills, or rather the complete lack thereof, was revealed on this first day of classes, as a meeting with the other teachers took place that morning before the classes were due to begin. Us teachers didn’t know how the course was structured, what books we were using, the size and level of our classes, which assignments were expected or when – it was like Francisco was making it up as he went along.

But it wasn’t my job to orgainze the course, so I went with the flow and all things considered, my first day of classes and my first day in my new career as an English teacher went well. So did my first week; I gradually figured out what was expected of my classes, I got on well with the students and they seemed to like me, and I discovered just how much I loved teaching. I’d even made friends with someone, who I’ll keep nameless, who was also working in Zacatecas as a teacher. He would come to save my ass in the drama that would unfold in the coming weeks. He showed me around town and introduced me to his friends and I began making the most of being young, free, single, and relatively monied in a new and exciting place.

Zacatecas itself was beautiful and the lifestyle, full of wonderful music and food, was easy to get hooked on. I started writing the opening chapters of a new book. I went on a few dates. I visited the Museo Pedro Coronel, which was empty when I went one afternoon, giving me a private moment with walls of Picasso paintings and an exquisite piece by Salvador Dali. The only other person in the gallery was an old man asleep on a chair at the end of a hall.

The other teacher had been in Zacatecas since August and helped me with my Spanish and the general day to day stuff someone needs help with when moving to a new city. This was supposed to be Francisco’s job, but I was beginning to get the measure of this guy; always having to ask him to pay me and hearing stories from other teachers of his short temper. I began to notice more and more unpaid, last minute work cropping up; extra meetings, extra programmes, extra promotion of the school, etc., but I didn’t complain. I was enjoying life in Zacatecas.

The first serious crack, however, showed up a few weeks later when Francisco asked me into his office for a meeting, the point of which I’m still not sure of other than to tell me I was being “paid too much”. My hourly rate was 80 pesos an hour, just over US$4, and I was being given a food allowance of 500 pesos a week, though I always had to ask Francisco several times each week for him to actually give it to me. I told Francisco that I was sorry he felt that way but that was the deal his business parter in Utah, Jared Rhodes, had made with me before I’d started working for Fluency First and that any changes to this deal could cause a problem. Francisco lost his infamously short temper, refused to discuss it further with me because “you’re not listening”, and said that he needed to talk to Jared in Utah. I left his office feeling a little upset – and a lot concerned.

But everyone thinks their boss is a jerk, right? This wasn’t anything to be too worried about, right?

However, then the dream really started to turn into a nightmare when I got mugged one night outside my apartment building. I was walking home when some guy landed a solid punch square in the centre of my face. I’m pretty sure he broke my nose. In any case, I fell to the ground and he ran off with about 2,000 pesos out of my pocket. This kind of thing can happen in any city in the world – so I licked my wounds, laid low for a few weeks, taught my classes, and kept to myself. There were no cameras covering the part of the street I’d been attacked in and the police would never catch the bastard, so I sucked it up and let it go. Besides, there was a problem brewing which meant I couldn’t go to the police for help.

Despite telling me before I arrived and started working that he would arrange the visa I needed through the school, Francisco let it slip one afternoon that he’d done no such thing. I suddenly realised I was working illegally in Mexico. That night, I called the New Zealand embassy in Mexico City and asked them what I should do. Francisco owed me a large amount of money, so I didn’t want to simply leave in the middle of the night, but that was basically the advice from the embassy. They warned me that if the Mexican officials found out about my working illegally I could be detained for one or two months in jail and then deported. The amount I was willing to pay would probably determine how long I’d have to wait for a plane ride home. Fluency First would also get into trouble, but the only way I could ensure Francisco got into hot water too was if I was willing to go to jail myself as well. Catch-22.

So, I couldn’t turn to the police or immigration for help. Whenever I asked Francisco for my money, he always just said, “I’ll go to the bank tomorrow” – but he never did. It dawned on me that I was in a bad jam. I was owed money but had no way of getting it and I had to avoid the authorities. How the hell had this happened? I had been so distracted by moving to a foreign city, starting a new job, and learning a new language that I’d fallen into a serious trap.

But things were about to get a lot worse.

I came home to my apartment one day and noticed my iPod and cash were missing from my desk. I checked the doorframe and noticed a chunk of wood was missing from around the lock. I’d been robbed a second time. Despite this robbery coming without any physical harm, it was altogether more unsettling than the first – someone had been in my room and I had no idea who or when. I contacted the building owner, Jaime, and told him what happened. To my surprise, when he arrived 20 minutes later, he had the missing piece of wood from my door in his hand. He told me he’d smelt smoke coming from the room a few months before I’d arrived and needed to break in to make sure there wasn’t a fire. I’m not stupid; it struck me as unusual. I was immediately suspicious of Jaime, but as the apartment was always pitch black in the hallways, I couldn’t be 100% sure this piece of wood hadn’t always been missing. “Besides”, I thought to myself as Jaime was talking to me, “Why would a landlord break into one of his own apartments? Wouldn’t he just use a spare key? It’s not like there’s cameras in this building, it would be the perfect crime.”

Anyway, seeing as Francisco had landed me in a position of not being able to go to the police for fear of being detained and eventually deported, I decided an iPod and a few hundred dollars wasn’t worth risking my neck over. I asked Jaime if I could change rooms. He took me to a much smaller but slightly cheaper and probably safer room. He still charged me the full rent of the other apartment, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to be out of there, and this room didn’t have a toilet that leaked sewerage.

However, a few days later, my friends found out about my situation and were aghast to learn just how much rent Jaime had been charging me. It was double, nearly triple, the usual price. I was furious at Jaime, but even more so at Francisco – I’d moved to this city, this country, to help out his school for $4 an hour and this was how he was repaying me. I began formulating plans to move cities and change schools, but I was really enjoying Zacatecas; I had friends here, I’d been dating a beautiful woman named Gabriella, I loved my students, and found working with them to be really rewarding.

Despite everything my shady boss and landlord had done to me, I didn’t want to leave Zacatecas.

It was around this time that I began to suspect that it had been no accident that Francisco had shown me to this particular building and that I had been robbed from it. Other than suspicions, however, I had no proof. But my friends remained alarmed with my situation. They’d had similar problems with this extortionate landlord – even getting a lawyer involved when they ended their lease early because they didn’t feel safe there and Jaime had demanded months and months of rent paid as a ‘fee’. The lawyer described Jaime’s leases as legal garbage, having simply typed them up himself in Word, not numbering the pages, not providing copies to tenants, and operating outside of the law.

It was only a matter of time before this perfect storm of bullshit exploded completely and utterly, and on the morning of the 25th of February, only some eight weeks after I’d arrived in Mexico, I woke to discover I’d been robbed a third time, this time in my sleep. Someone had come into my bedroom, presumably with a spare key, while I was asleep and had taken my laptop, my phone, my credit card, my driving licence, my cash, my sunglasses – even my electric razor. They’d gutted me of virtually everything valuable I owned. All I had left were my clothes, my camera (which they can’t have seen, it being protected by a good luck charm I’d been given in Hiroshima in 2016), two pesos, and – thankfully – my passport.

But I had no way of contacting anyone, no way of buying a bottle of water or anything to eat, and no way of getting the police to help. I walked around the streets in a daze, sitting outside on the curb for an hour or two, desperately trying to figure out what to do next. I went back inside and knocked on my friend’s door but there was no reply, he must’ve been out somewhere. I began to panic when I realised the only way insurance would help me recoup some of my losses was if I had a police report – but I was too worried about being put in Mexican jail to go and get one. I had no idea what to do.

In the end, I approached a traffic cop, hoping they’d be the least likely to enquire of my immigration status, and asked for help. I told her I’d been robbed and needed help contacting my friends and family. She helped me contact a local friend of mine, Jose, who drove down and collected me from the side of the road. I reasoned that if I could get Jose to do the talking at the police station, telling him to ask for a police report and only a police report, then maybe I’d get away without further prying into my immigration status. Thankfully, at the police station – my plan worked and I got my police report.

Now, as much as it broke my heart to go, I needed to get the hell out of Mexico. My parents organized a flight home for me, but before I could go I needed my money from Francisco and my remaining stuff from Jaime’s building. I decided to get my money from Francisco first, but when I asked him to pay me, he lost his temper again, swearing at me (“Fuck you!”, “Fuck off!”), demanding I pay Jaime this absurd amount of money as a fee (in the clearest sign to date that they were old buddies), and even punching me. If it wasn’t such a pathetic punch, I probably would’ve returned it with a proper one, but I really didn’t want to get arrested so I simply walked out of Fluency First without fighting back.

With the help of my friends, I managed to sneak my belongings out of Jaime’s building and together we all went back to Fluency First. Jared, Francisco’s business partner, was thankfully in town from Utah and was easier to deal with. Aside from assuring me that Francisco “really is a great guy”, he did promise to pay me the money Fluency First owed me.

I spent the next few nights at my friends’ house and got my money from the school the day before I was due to fly out. They wanted to photocopy my passport before paying me but the last thing I was going to do was hand these people my passport. It was sad to say goodbye to my friends and to this beautiful city, but I was glad to be going. I needed to wake up from this nightmare. My only regret was never finding out Gabriella’s last name, so with my phone stolen I lost the ability to contact her and never got a chance to say goodbye. I hope that someday she finds out what happened what to me.

Then, the last hurdle was getting through customs at the airport without any questions about my two months in Mexico and what visa I had been using. It was a nervous wait as the customs official took my passport away to “check something” with his supervisor. I stood at the gate and tried to distract myself with my Spanish copy of The Lord of the Flies (El Señor de las Moscas). Luckily, when the official came back, it had simply been a matter of verifying that my ESTA Visa for the United States was indeed attached electronically to my passport.

A brilliant sunset dropped behind the desert in the distance as I walked out of the terminal and onto the tarmac. My last breaths of evening air in Mexico. My heart was broken into a thousand pieces – I loved Mexico and didn’t want to go. Flying away, the scattered desert towns illuminated in artificial light below, spread across the black velvet of the night, appeared to me to represent all the broken shards of my heart, flung far and wide across the desert.

I didn’t truly feel safe until we were flying low over the gargantuan sprawl of Los Angeles. It struck me that it was always nighttime in Trump’s America, dark, with thick black ink blotting out the sky. I thought of Shakespeare’s “Unto the kingdom of perpetual night”.

With 11 hours to kill in Los Angeles before my flight back to Honolulu, retracing the steps I’d made only eight weeks earlier, I decided to get a cab to a nearby bar to do some writing, have a drink, and meet some of America’s characters. The cabbie reeked of marijuana and I think I caught him mid-smoke, so he was happy to oblige my request to “take me somewhere nearby”, whereas most taxi drivers in LA will only take you to a specific address. He ended up taking me to a bar called ‘Melody’s’, about ten minutes down the road from the airport.

The first person I struck up a conversation with was a woman studying political science at UCLA. She asked me what the political scene in New Zealand is like and I said, “Well, there’s an unmarried pregnant woman in charge. She’s also young, and liberal, and probably an atheist, but nobody really cares enough about that to ask.” The look this young American student gave me, her whole lifetime probably being told America is the greatest democracy in the world, was one of total disbelief. “Any one of those things would bury an American politician”, she said, flabbergasted, “But you have a Prime Minister who is ALL of them?!”

I later met someone else, his name was Devon. I told him what had happened to me and he cracked up laughing, “You stupid fuck! What did you go to Mexico for? There’s a difference between being humanitarian and being an idiot!” I liked his candid approach. We shared a drink and then I figured I should probably go back to their airport. When I got to the Hawaiian Airlines check-in desk, however, it was still four hours away from opening, so I tried to get some sleep on a nearby row of seats. A few hours later, a cop woke me up, “Is this what they do in New Zealand, fall asleep and miss their flights?” I thanked him for waking me up and he said, “C’mon, go home.”

Some hours later, I was in Hawaii again, and some hours after that I was in Auckland. I crashed the night in an airport hotel before flying to Wellington the next morning. One hell of a surreal trip finally coming to an end.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot I can do to Fluency First from here in New Zealand. I’ve had a meeting with the Mexican embassy and told them my story, hopefully beginning a process whereby the school will be investigated by the Mexican authorities, but other than that – the bastards pretty much got away with it. To think, all I wanted to do was teach English and learn Spanish. The only other thing I can do is blog about them, spread the word and warn others to avoid them. One of the books they’re getting the students to read, even though it’s absurdly difficult for someone learning English, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is often misquoted as saying something which seems relevant to this situation, regardless of who actually said it:

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”