Monthly Archives: October 2014

Desconfianza . . . (episode 43)

Blue containership with containers 7

October 28 1998

Castro Central Women’s Prison
Havana
CUBA

Querida Mama

I am just about as far as it is possible to get from the container ship ‘Sugar Cane Sue.’ And I never got to see the Havana Botanical Gardens. I never really got out of the city. I met Edgar in a wine bar while consoling myself, in my loneliness, in a wine bar. And, like Austen, he exuded intoxicating sexual warmth in the way that only a man of beauty and charm can. I won’t go into the (predictable) details, but it seems that I must be the type of woman who never learns.

Ultimately, we ended up at Havana International Airport – having spent a week in New York – and I was the recipient of Edgar’s earnest entreaties to get about 100g of marijuana past customs. I didn’t want to mum, but he looked at me through his exuberant lashes and said, ‘Come now carissima. It will be alright.’ Excuse me if I’ve got the Spanish wrong here; I never was much good at languages. So I ended up taping this stuff behind both of my knees with duck tape and, speaking of knees, they were both knocking so hard all the way through the concourse, that they must have sounded like castanets at customs. Of course – I’m sure I must have looked frightened – I was detained, while Edgar sailed through with barely a backward glance. In fact, I’m sure I heard him say, ‘I hardly know her’ when asked if he knew me. That sounds like something Austen would have said doesn’t it?

The long and the short of it mum, is that I have been sentenced to a year in a Cuban women’s prison, at the end of which my visitor’s visa will have just about expired. I’d heard of ‘desconfianza’ of course – the fear of state surveillance which permeates the heart of every citizen – but it was considerably muffled behind the walls of Edgar’s casa, and even more muffled by the cases of wine that we consumed. I can feel the sweat of fear now, on my face and my fingertips, because the writing of letters is prohibited in here. It is only the courage of Ana-Maria (Edgar’s housekeeper) – who has brought me in paper, and a pencil, which has enabled me to write to you.

The physical conditions are only just bearable. I share a 4m x 3m cell with three other women and there is no electricity. At one end of the space is a 20cm hole in the ground into which we urinate and, above it, is a 5cm pipe through which water to drink, and to wash in, comes when the guards turn it on (which is not often). There is just one, high window, through which I can just about glimpse sky. The air is hot, and oppressive, with humidity and – perhaps the worse, and most feared, thing of all – is the mosquitoes, which whine in our ears all night. My skin is red and swollen with their bites. One woman has just been returned to our cell from the punishment area and her skin seems to have been bitten. I asked one of the other women what this was and she told me it was the rats which come up through the pipes in search of food, and human warmth, in winter. She is very thin, the newcomer, and can’t seem to stop coughing. She is a political prisoner, so they say, and they get the worst treatment of all.

I’m going to go now mum. This little scrap of paper is all used up.

Hasta siempre

Harriet

Burning ragwort . . . (episode 42)

iStock_000021621315Small

October 26 1998

The Hard Shoulder
M1 Motorway
Just outside Newcastle Upon Tyne
UK

Actually Auntie

It is far from fun here at my station on the Hard Shoulder Up North. Perhaps you should come along and try it sometime. We have been accommodated in a ridge pole tent – unheated – in a field just over the way and will not be returning home to London until the weekend.

Our instructions, thus far, have been to dig up specimens of mature ragwort littering (in their thousands) the grass verge alongside the motorway. And we have been equipped – perturbingly – in the sort of protective gear that one would normally associate with the nursing care of victims of Lassa fever, i.e. elbow-length rubber gloves, a plastic apron, goggles, and a face mask. Now it doesn’t take an absolute genius auntie to work out that these ragworts are mature plants and, at this time of year, they will already have shed their seeds! And, furthermore, it is virtually impossible to remove the entire root of any plant. We have been issued with buckets of rock salt to pour down the hole left by any removed plant but, frankly, this stuff is just bouncing off the tussocks. Casting a jaundiced eye over the hedge into another field positively bristling with horses – and bare patches of earth – I would have thought it might have occurred to The Government that the overstocking of pastures by munching equines could be mightily contributing to this ragwort’s establishment in any field.

And then there is the monetary issue . . . Although, on Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), we do get an extra ‘training’ payment for such work, it is nevertheless the case that – when an hourly rate of pay is calculated – it comes to the derisory sum of £1.62 per hour. And that sum, I may add, is derived by adding the JSA to the ‘training’ payment and dividing by 40 (hours per week). It may have escaped your attention auntie, basking as you are in the MI6 retirement pension due to one of your considerable status, but the UK Minimum Wage is not due to be introduced until 1999, which is a whole 6 months from now!

Today, in any event, has proved far from boring. In The Government’s zeal to reduce the costs which go with any ‘New Deal’ such as this, they seem to have neglected to allocate enough staff to the enterprise! And each pair of supervisors has had to patrol a 50-mile length of motorway in their efforts to keep an eye on five groups of 20 reluctant conscripts. Having been told that we shouldn’t leave any wilting ragwort on the verges (it is apparently more palatable to horses in this state) one ‘bright spark’ in our group decided to light a bonfire and reduce it to ash. Well auntie, the upshot of this was that voluminous clouds of thick black smoke then blew across the motorway and occluded any possibility of anyone driving safely along it. In fact, I do believe that when an apparent fire bomb lit up the sky at around 4pm, it must have been due to a combustible petrol tanker, plus load, hitting that copse of pine trees on the bend!

Yours, slightly singed,

Ralph

Cosy old sock . . . (episode 41)

mole

October 25 1998

10 Forsythia Grove
Outer Hamlet
CORSETTSHIRE ZY6 4GT

Ralph dear

Thank you for your (admittedly rather incoherent) telephone call the other night. I have only just had a chance to bone up on Lord Tidbit’s idea of occupying UK benefit recipients with the task of plucking ragwort from grass verges running along motorways Up North. Surely, pet, there are one or two plus points associated with this scheme? For one, you will have less opportunity to loiter about under the bedcovers and, secondly – given the free transport provided – it will be an opportunity to explore a whole new part of the country? Ragwort has really quite a pernicious, not to say poisonous, effect upon equine health you know, and so your labours would not be quite as mindless as those spent, for instance, sewing mail sacks. There is further the point that you are in receipt of some FREE government funds and so a day or so, per week, of constructive endeavour would offer a level of recompense. One of your weaknesses, if I may mention it dear, is that you have not actually determined upon a direction for your life to take! And I do myself hope that some time spent in the breezes on the hard shoulders Up North might give you the time to think about this!

Meanwhile, I have had one or two disturbing encounters with that bully, Sir Ponsonby Crawler. For all the years (eight) I have lived at Forsythia Grove, this individual has concerned himself with a) to what extent I am working at all and b) whether I am working sufficient hours to his satisfaction. Now, normally, I am able to elude his attempts to intrude into my private life but, a few weeks ago, our acquaintance took a significant downturn. There we were on the same stretch of pavement when he accosted me with the words, “ARE YOU WORKING TODAY?”
A distinct lack of smiling accompanied this question and so I retorted,
“I don’t see that’s any of your business! I don’t ask you what you’re doing?”
“I (imagine an emboldened, capital, letter here pet) am walking down the High Street” he said.
“Well, so am I” I replied, turning my back, and walking off. So, do you know, he actually had the gall to call after me – I imagine with hands cupped about his mouth –
“SO. NOT WORKING TODAY THEN.”
Honestly Ralph. I was fuming, as you might well imagine.

Things were luckily quiet then for a couple of weeks as I did not encounter him whilst on any of my peregrinations about town. Then, one horrible morning – at around 8am – I encountered him in a (deserted) alley en route to the canal. Well it was absolutely like that film ‘High Noon’ with two gunslingers striding towards each other from opposite ends of a dusty thoroughfare. Neither of us smiled, neither of us said hello, and we locked eyes. I felt, dear, that he wanted to force me to look down but even the prospect of being beaten to death with his walking stick could not persuade me to do that. He was up against a more redoubtable lady than he thought! I immediately stepped forward and pinched his windpipe between thumb and forefinger – raising his neck a trifle towards the sky. Delightful the gurgle that then issued forth! After a few seconds squeezing, I released my hold and proceeded on my way . . .

This morning, I am pleased to relate, we encountered each other on the High Street and both of us essayed a most respectful good morning! What I need dear is a Cosy Old Sock (in the metaphorical sense) to go about with. It is ladies who are apparently alone who seem to be subject to such overtures from individuals who, while bullies on the one hand, are often cowards on the other.

Well dear. You must send me a postcard from any box adjoining the M1 if you are up that way any time soon. I have enclosed a cut-out of a Ragwort in flower for your edification and further study!

Yours

Aunt Evangeline

Mole intelligence: EPISODE 40

mole

October 1998

10 Forsythia Grove
Outer Hamlet
CORSETTSHIRE ZY6 4GT

My Dear Ralph

I hope this finds you well pet? And less in ‘happy valley’ mode? I had a little word with your General Practitioner in the interests of reducing what appeared to be the toxic overload of pharmaceuticals entering your bloodstream. What this (rather uppity) individual appears to be conceiving as a ‘therapeutic’ dose of nine different chemicals – all taken at the same time of day – is, in the words of the independent pharmacist I consulted, a clear case of iatrogenic medicine! In any event, I hope that you are seeing fewer baskets of kittens adorning a neighbouring roof? And that the visions of homeless teenagers littering the gravel outside are now gone?

I myself am recovering from my recent indisposition and I have managed to leave my mobility scooter behind in the garden shed. And, rather than engaging in the digging up of huge, and well-entrenched, Buddleias and the like, I am now imparting the (inestimable) benefit of my horticultural opinion to garden owners at large. My last case has involved a huge hedge apparently untouched by human hand for quite some centuries. It seems to mostly comprise hedging honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida), blackthorn and hawthorn and all three of these are amenable to renovation, i.e. they will grow back if cut back in drastic fashion. My proposal to the owner of this imposing structure is that we cut back only one side this autumn (the evergreen honeysuckle needs to keep on photosynthesizing all winter) and cut back the other side in the spring. And that, pet, (I hope you are concentrating!) will only leave the top to be cut in a year’s time.

Well, must dash dear. Amongst the (increasing) list of recent afflictions I seem to be suffering from is a bladder which needs to situated in close proximity to the nearest available toilet – at all times. This condition really is a pest but, luckily, I have been able to convince many garden owners that the quickest way to make compost is to frequently irrigate it with activator in the form of human urine!

You know Ralph. I must really write to you more often as it is most soothing to put pen to paper in this way, and a little smile is playing about my lips at this very moment.

Yours

Aunt Evangeline