Arrested Without Cause
Some travel to find themselves—I was travelling to get lost. Panga seemed a perfect place to start. Ever since the monarchy of the tiny kingdom had been overwhelmed by a military regime, the ban on international telecommunications and the web meant that anyone was hard to pin down. Here I couldn’t be phoned, emailed, texted or poked on Facebook. You couldn’t even Google me. In short, it was a good place to be unaccountable, which suited me fine.
The border crossing was as tedious as you would expect from a third-world country mired in corruption, apathy and red tape. Every passenger was forced from their buses, trucks and cars and marched into a crumbling customs building, while soldiers took the luggage out the back, no doubt to go through it for loot. After an interminable wait, a whistle sounded, and battered doors slid open at one side of the building. There was a mad stampede as we all rushed to get our bags, and then we stood around for ages waiting to be processed by the bored staff.
I remained stationary in the glacial customs queue, grimly satisfied at the ennui hanging in the air like smog. One thing for sure, there would be no Club Med bonhomie in Panga. So when the black man walked up to me, I feared the worst; he was tall and handsome and he clutched a Bible in his left hand—trust my luck to strike a missionary while unable to flee. He appraised me as if he were the Head Chef at Bon Bon’s and I was a frenched lamb shank.
His voice had the resonance of a preacher. ‘If we were a gay couple, they would not suspect me for having no baggage.’
It was the last thing I expected. His accent was African, he definitely wasn’t American and I made a calculated guess he wasn’t a missionary. I had to laugh at his presumption. I said, ‘If we were a gay couple, we’d be travelling together.’
He scowled like I was spoiling the party. ‘How do you know?’ he demanded.
‘I’m straight,’ I said. ‘Not interested. Thanks anyway.’
The queue shuffled ahead and I slid my suitcase forward. He moved with me.
‘Who is not?’ he asked.
I admired his persistence. ‘Who isn’t? Ah, to name a few: Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Patrick White, Elton John, Rock Hudson…’
He seemed genuinely shocked. This guy might have been from the back blocks of Timbuktu; perhaps they hadn’t heard yet that the paragon of leading men batted for the other team.
I nodded. ‘Not only him, J. Edgar Hoover, too.’
His face went blank. ‘Who?’
I wasn’t sure if he was hazing me or if he truly was a rube from nowhere. I wasn’t going to give him a lecture on the history of the FBI. The queue shuffled again and I pushed my suitcase ahead.
‘I am a diabetic,’ he said, coming alongside me again. ‘It brings shame on me to mention hunger, but I must eat soon or I will fall sick and die.’
I studied him more closely. Behind the apparent health in his face there was a second layer, like two cloud systems tracking far apart, blocking out part of the sun.
‘Where’s your insulin?’
‘I cannot take it. I am allergic. I must eat every few hours.’
‘Where’s your luggage?’
‘I gave it to some children. They were cold.’
I shook my head. ‘You think I’ll believe that?’
He waited until I made eye contact. ‘Even if you do not believe, it remains the truth.’
There was something about him I couldn’t pinpoint. While it was annoying to be hassled, he didn’t present like the average con artist. ‘Really, I’ve heard most of the scams, but yours is unique.’
When I turned away he grabbed me firmly by the shoulders and swung me around to face him.
‘My name is Easter. I have come here to find the grave of my ancestor, a pirate captain, who was buried under a ton of gold doubloons by his murderous crew.’
His pitch was so far-fetched and his mien so intense I burst out laughing. ‘Murderous crew? Pirate captain? That’s priceless. You really are a champ.’
I glanced around to see if anyone else got the joke. No one was paying us any attention. I noticed the only other white guy in the place, a beefy, bald dude in a suit, getting waltzed through customs by a couple of soldiers. He must have been someone to warrant a welcome like that—either that or they were taking him off to be shot.
The African hadn’t let go of me yet. He kept watching me through those earnest eyes. I peeled off his hands.
‘You could be anybody. A drug smuggler or a murderer. Who knows what scams you could be up to? If I said yes, how do I know you wouldn’t slit my throat the minute we got out of here?’
He shrugged and smiled. ‘I could say the same. Who knows what you are doing here?’
‘Exactly. You shouldn’t trust strangers. Didn’t your mommy teach you that?’
His expression was at once hard and soft, difficult to explain if you haven’t been close to a powerful man who you sense could throttle you but who is restrained by his humanity.
‘She taught me the opposite. She said to trust them.’ He paused. ‘You could say it killed her.’
Before I could reply I realised the queue had miraculously ended. The jaundiced official across the brown linoleum counter peered at us, the putative gay couple on holiday with one suitcase between them. He nodded me forward, and much to my irritation, Easter stepped forward as well. I decided I would explain him away the minute he tried to claim any association with me.
Security Attendant 7268 had a shocking case of smallpox scars and his eyes carried the hazing of too much narcotic. He had the skinny physique of the opium smoker, which was unfortunate for me because he was clearly hoping to find something in my luggage that he could either smoke or inject or sell.
I was as surprised as he was when he opened the suitcase: it was packed full of vibrators. Easter turned to me, his face showing that he had misjudged me after all, and that I had been churlish to accuse him of smuggling when I was clearly a degenerate privateer myself.
‘That’s not my stuff,’ I said, offended. ‘There’s been a mix-up—this suitcase belongs to somebody else.’
The official reached in and pulled out one of the purple units. He found the switch. The noise of a vibrator is enough to put some people off their game; here it was more like a magnet—the bodies pressed around us, the faces stupefied, embarrassed, fascinated and hostile.
Security Attendant 7268 lifted his heavy lids at us and tried to focus. ‘This what is, sirs?’ he said, provoking sniggers in the crowd. Everyone pressed forward for the answer. If it wasn’t for the roar of the vibrator you could have heard a cell door closing.
‘Jig-a-jig!’ someone shouted, and laughed.
A man in front with a huge moustache formed his hand around the buzzing device and jerked it up and down. His grin revealed one silver tooth in a gaping mouth.
I noticed Easter was suddenly sweating, and the old greenish fluorescent lights cast a flickering sheen onto his blue-black skin like something out of a voodoo movie. Our border guard was very stupid or very stoned or both because he pressed ahead. ‘What is?’ he asked again, squinting at the tube that was humming in his hand, that hummed in the hands of millions of people all over the world, and not only in their hands, even the ones sold as massage aids, relaxation devices, and muscle stimulators, even in outposts as remote as this one in Panga.
The moustachioed man cackled. In a flash, he was on the counter, hands and knees scattering our documents, grabbing the vibrator and plunging it between the folds of his pwaralis. He moaned and groaned and writhed as the large crowd watched mesmerized. All the other officials glanced up from their in-trays, rubber stamps, desk spikes, triplicate carbons and filing cabinets. The soldiers rushed over, yelling, pointing their Kalashnikovs.
A boy soldier about fourteen thrust the business end of his muzzle into my back. I instinctively put up my hands; so did Easter, though he grabbed the offending device on the way through and switched it off. About half-a-dozen soldiers surrounded us, all of them shouting in Panganese and waving their weapons violently.
Easter glared at me while sweat ran off his face and mouthed, ‘What is?’
I had never before seen the vibrator in question, and had no clear idea how my suitcase with its innocent contents of unwashed underwear and stained shirts had been swapped for a load of sex aids, but the only other white guy in the place had gone through ahead of me, so it was not beyond the realms of possibility that our cases had been accidentally swapped. Maybe he was a smuggler running sex aids to the top brass. Maybe he was merely a door-to-door salesman a long way from home. I didn’t really know. I was not overly eager to die, but if it had to happen I was hoping it could be accompanied by a degree of intrigue, so here was a good opportunity. I could either flog it in Australia or the States. The editors would want a column inch at least; Journalist Killed in Vibrator Incident seemed the likely heading for the World Titbits item. But could I write it before I died?
Easter must have decided to go down in flames, because he lowered his hands, wiped the vibrator under his armpit and placed it to his lips as a microphone.
‘Because I’m a cad!’ he sang, ‘I’m a cad, really, really a cad, You know I’m a cad, I’m a cad…’
Like John Kennedy, Money Jackson was one of America’s greatest export successes, and the sound of his hit tune did the trick—the crowd immediately began laughing and clapping. Perhaps it was just as well Easter left off the opening line—all your booty is mine…
The oldest soldier, who might have been eighteen and could shave but hadn’t bothered to, began shooting into the ceiling. Little bits of fluoro and white ceiling showered on us like downsized hail. The crowd got quiet very quickly.
‘Stop silence!’ he shouted, though no one was making a sound. ‘You monkey ass! I kill you mother!’
Easter sucked in a lung full of air. ‘Banana!’ he shouted at the soldier. ‘Yoghurt! Glass!’ He torch-songed the mic-vibrator and sang again, even louder, ‘Because I’m a cad! I’m a cad, really, really a cad, You know I’m a cad, I’m a cad…’
Another burst of automatic weapon fire sent more atomised flakes floating down on the crowd. Easter had a nasty gleam in his eye and I wondered if this was the diabetes showing or if he really was an axe murderer.
‘Kill you!’ the soldier shouted. ‘Dog sex man!’
Apparently this was a nasty slur in Panga because the crowd hushed expectantly, waiting for Easter’s response. He leaned over and kissed the soldier on both cheeks.
The boy was so taken aback by the kiss that he momentarily forgot to shoot Easter—in the time it took him to react, his fellow troops started to guffaw and an old man in a dirty jacket appeared carrying a green-patinaed tray bearing Easter’s requested ingredients.
Easter snatched the banana and bit the end off it—not an easy trick unless you have excellent teeth—and he gave it a pyloric squeeze that shot the white missile like a rocket out of a launcher. It carved a thin parabola through the muggy air, up into the hanging cordite mist, followed by a hundred pairs of eyes yearning for the secrets of fruit flight. Down it fell in slow motion and down some more and down again until it plopped smack into the tall glass in Easter’s waiting hand.
Now so swift it might have been a conjuring trick, he snatched the bowl of goat’s yoghurt and slurped it into the glass. Everyone watched as he switched the vibrator on; it buzzed like a dentist drill. He plunged the machine into the glass and blended the banana yoghurt smoothie, then tipped it back and drained it.
I held my breath. When the laughter peeled out from the throng, it was with some relief that I relaxed my sphincter muscles.
‘What is!’ he shouted at me over the crowd. ‘What is!’
It is never a good idea to humiliate armed men; unfortunately, due to the soldiers’ lack of humour, the Vibrator Penetrates Border item I was mentally composing would have to be submitted later than I hoped, for we were taken away to be locked up. In all the confusion, the phallic blender disappeared, but it would not surprise me to learn that Security Attendant 7268 had made something out of his day after all.