Rui Zink

From O destino turístico (Tourist destination)
Plan_b_medium
Plan B by Lina Theodorou
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

He arrived in the morning on the night flight. There were no problems at the airport. Or, rather, he was expecting more problems, but since he experienced none of those expected problems, there were no problems.

His visa was in order, his passport valid until Methusalah’s next birthday. There weren’t many people on the plane. Nowadays, the only people who landed there were either fools, suicides, soldiers of fortune, arms dealers or else journalists of little brain but with a great desire for glory.

Nevertheless, it took a while to cross the border. A passenger with the look of an experienced traveller, possibly a businessman, murmured: Bloody bureaucrats.

And he was right. It was a known fact that the country was just a fragment, that it wasn’t even a country, but a zone, a zone of death, a savage, brutal hunting ground, so what were they up to pretending to be great defenders of order? That was the impression given by that entrance to the frontier: a grandiloquent gateway, full of arabesques and curlicues, that opened onto nowhere, pretending not to know that the palace to which it was the entrance had been wiped from the face of the earth. In a way, though, the frontier was an accurate prediction of what lay ahead. Farewell, outside world. Hello, hell.

When customs officials found a semi-automatic weapon in the businessman’s suitcase, he grew angry:
‘What do you mean, I can’t come into the country with a gun? You’re joking, aren’t you?’

The weary, knowing, cynical guards replied:
‘Security measures, sir.’
‘Security measures? That’s like banning high heels from a disco!’
‘Those are the rules, sir.’
‘Look, I have a licence to carry a weapon. I’ve even got a licence to kill. You must be having
me on.’
‘We’re just carrying out orders, sir.’
‘Bloody bureaucrats!’
‘That’s rather uncalled for, sir.’
‘Uncalled for? Why, you monkey, I’ll give you unca…’
‘Would you mind coming with us, sir?’

What would they do to the man when there were no witnesses? Beat him up and show him that he couldn’t insult the authorities with impunity? Or simply make life uncomfortable for him and give him the boredom treatment, stick him in a locked room without even a toilet, and then put him on the first plane back to civilisation? The most likely outcome was that they would simply confiscate the gun and let him go. The country needed foreign currency, and not even a band of uniformed psychopaths would kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.

When he leaves the airport, he’s greeted by a whitish light, by dust and bare earth, the dried-up remains of what had probably once been pools of mud or else craters left behind by the feet of some giant reptile. And that, while improbable, was not impossible: in the brochure they referred to the zone’s picturesque history and local folklore. Apparently, there were stories (though it was hard to say how reliable they were) of the existence, a few years ago, of just such a monster. Unexplained attacks, people disappearing, mysterious footprints. True or false (or, rather, false or false), it made a good story. There were two theories: one, that a race of extinct dinosaurs had been resurrected by mutation, the fruit of years and years of an endless cocktail of radiation and chemicals; the other, rather more poetic, that the monster had always been there and had simply been hibernating for a season or so, about 65 million years, a mere nothing.

From a logical point of view, the fact that no one had confirmed the existence of these creatures was certainly not proof that they didn’t exist. The same reasoning that had been applied, elsewhere, to the existence or not of weapons of mass destruction was applicable here too, or was this zone inferior to other zones? It would be a terrible injustice to make hierarchical distinctions among the world’s various paradises of chaos.

Then again, life has never been fair.

He found a taxi easily enough. He didn’t even haggle, on the principle that only a very stupid taxi-driver would propose a price that was much higher than that of his competitors. Not that this mattered, he had money enough. Even if you were going somewhere in order to die, you still needed money. Besides, money was for spending, especially given the continuing rise in the cost of living, unless you invested in such sure-fire things as fuel, food and nanotechnology.

Inflation was a worldwide scourge. Even normal countries were dying on their feet, and so it would be interesting to find out how much death cost here in the zone. The moralisers never tired of repeating that the zone was a microcosm in which all the usual values had been turned upside down, although they said this in resigned tones, more resigned than moralising. If life was worth little or nothing, perhaps death was worth more than it usually was. And he was prepared to pay whatever was necessary.

Two lines of tanks, one on either side of the street, 120 millimetre guns set at the diagonal
(like scimitars), ensuring that the one road between the airport and the city was not taken by
rebels.

‘You see how our government prizes security, sir.’

It was impossible to gauge whether there was any mockery in the driver’s voice.

‘Yes,’ the passenger said.

‘Not that the nationalist rebels would do anything,’ the driver went on. ‘It’s not in their interest.’

And he explained something that the passenger perhaps already knew, that many of the rebel gangs made their living from kidnapping foreigners. If the airport ceased to function, they would lose one of their main sources of income.

The passenger had no idea if he was in an official, regulated taxi or not. He didn’t yet know what the taxis there were like, the colour, the smell, the external signs, if they had a meter or merely worked out a price per kilometre. It was likely to be a pirate taxi – a private car transformed by some enterprising individual into a taxi by a mere act of baptism. On the other hand, experience had taught him that the weaker the government, the more it tried to control everything.

‘If you like, I can be your driver for the next few days. Cheap, boss, cheap. I can take you wherever you want. To see our beautiful country.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ answered the passenger.

The driver eyed him in his rear-view mirror.

‘Are you American, sir?’

‘No.’

The driver fell silent and waited, as if that one question had exhausted all possibilities.

After a few moments, the passenger gave a sigh and lied:

‘I’m Swiss.’

The driver seemed relieved:

‘Ah, Switzerland. A beautiful country. Not that I’ve been there. But from what I’ve heard, a beautiful country. Mountains and tunnels and snow, eh? And neutral too, eh?’

The passenger agreed:
‘Yes, neutral.’

The driver said approvingly:
‘That’s good. Neutral is good. And do you have a name, sir?’

The passenger looked out of the window. They were crossing a kind of grubby brown desert interrupted by occasional houses, mostly shacks, a few bodies walking through the void with bundles on their head, and others just standing, watching the world pass by. A shepherd, tall, thin and almost naked, crook in hand, leading his scrawny flock. And the carcases, lots of them, of what had once been vehicles. The burned-out bodywork of tanks, jeeps, SUVs, vans, ordinary cars, even helicopters. A cemetery of carbonised metal bones, except that it seemed unlikely that any diamonds would emerge from that particular mine.

What did it matter if he told him his name. What difference did a name make in a conversation between strangers? He could simply tell the truth. On the other hand, he could continue to lie. Like that Greek hero, Ulysses. A consummate liar was our Ulysses. When the Cyclops asked him his name, he said: Nobody. And when the monster complained to his father about what the Greek had done to him – put out his one eye – and the angry god asked who had done that vile deed, the foolish ogre replied: Nobody, Papa, Nobody did it. ‘Nobody’ and ‘Ulysses’ were both good names. And what other name, apart from that Greek hero’s name, could he have?

‘Greg,’ he lied. ‘My name is Greg.’

‘Guereg?’

‘No, just Greg.’

‘Guereg. A good name. I’m Amadu, at your service.’

‘Nice to meet you, Amadu.’

‘Nice to meet you, Mr Guereg. The pleasure is all mine.’

Amadu spoke English, which was good. The agency had told him that everyone spoke English there. It was like a second language, or sometimes, a third or fourth language, but they spoke English.

It seemed that poor people had a way with languages. A genetic thing perhaps. English wasn’t Greg’s first language either, but it shocked him, really shocked him, when no one spoke English or at least Hindi or Mandarin. There, thank God, it wasn’t a problem. Some people would be sure to speak English. Thank you, God, Greg felt almost compelled to say, sukran, gracias, xie xie, vielen Dank, dhaniavaad, spassiba, djecui, samalat po, barak brigadu, for having someone in this godforsaken place who speaks English.

‘Soldier of fortune, Mr Guereg?’

Amadu might not have been a great driver, but he was nothing if not persistent. Perhaps it would be worth hiring him for a few days. Like a marriage of convenience. Until death us do part.

‘No.’
‘Businessman?’
‘No.’

Amadu had one eye on the road and the other on his passenger. The left eye was fixed on the dusty whiteness that was the world outside the car; his right eye kept watch on the rear-view mirror. He seemed to have given up, poor man, unable to guess the profession of his illustrious passenger.

No, one last try:
‘UN?’

Greg decided to lift the veil on the mystery which was no mystery:
‘Tourist.’

‘Ah.’ It would be no exaggeration to say that Amadu’s eyes lit up.

Greg, however, didn’t seem to understand that look, because he felt it necessary to repeat:
‘Yes, a tourist.’

Amadu laughed, and the passenger was somewhat surprised to see that he still had all his teeth. He must be younger than he appeared. In fact, now that Greg looked at him properly, he really was much younger than he appeared. Not in his forties or even thirties, but in his twenties. Maybe even the moustache was fake. A good sign. A very good sign.

Amadu nodded, still laughing, and said:
‘Tourist? Yes, I understand. Tourist. Welcome to our humble country, Guereg the tourist!’

Greg didn’t know if the taxi driver – amateur or professional – had overcharged him or not. Nor did he care. He didn’t know how much time he would be spending in the zone, although he hoped it wouldn’t be long. He had reserved a room for a week, half-board. However, if all went well, his stay would last only two or three days. That’s why he had come, because this country had a reputation (deserved, he hoped) for being a place where one didn’t have to wait too long to get the particular product he was hoping for.

They were entering the city now. Battered, dilapidated, charred buildings; it was hard to tell whether they were half-built or half-destroyed. Many had no roof, others only half a roof, still others were mere ruins or else bare structures, nothing but concrete and steel, and the occasional brick building. The streets were nothing but dust, with rubbish and plastic cluttering the ground and the air.

And all around a blinding light. The expression ‘blinding light’ should be a paradox, but it wasn’t, not there. Far from helping you to see, the light was so bright you could hardly see anything.

During the journey, Greg could make out (rather than see) a few squares, a few shops, some people wandering the streets. Here and there, in a black crater, he thought he could recognise the ghost of a café or a pizzeria, even though it was besmeared with soot, a sudden blackness in violent contrast with the whiteness of the light. Besmeared or besmirched? Let the devil come and decide.

What was he saying? The devil didn’t have to come, he was already there. The devil was, if not the owner, certainly an inhabitant honoris causa of the zone. That was the reason (precisely because it was a hell) that Greg had chosen that place, what remained of it, because the devil of that former paradise had made his home there.

Let’s be clear. Greg had come there to die. And filled by a sense of euphoria, he almost offered a toast: he had a feeling in his bones, an intuition, a hunch, he felt that he had chosen the right scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango, for me, for me, for me?

After living life more or less on a God-will-provide basis, only to end up with the brutal knowledge that God had signally failed to provide, his death would at least have some sense, because he had sought it out, pursued it, had been the one to choose the place, if not the hour, for his last (or first - opinions on this differed) meeting with the creator – or creatoress.

The hotel had a swimming pool. Greg didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The hotel had a swimming pool.

Even though the rooms weren’t all occupied, there was still quite a racket in the reception area. A lot of businessmen, some looking overburdened with work, were talking on their mobile phones or sitting on the sofas, leaning earnestly forwards, embroiled in some passionate discussion.

A man with his hair slicked back, as if with brilliantine, was waving his hands around a lot. A tall woman, wearing a khaki waistcoat with a lot of pockets, and a pair of high boots, somewhat reminiscent of Lara Croft (the actress in the films, not the one in the video game), was issuing instructions to a hairy man with a camera resting on his knees. A group of Filipinos were following what appeared to be a local woman (pretty in her way) who was holding aloft a circular fan, like a traffic policeman. Now there were Filipinos everywhere. Always in a group – worse than the Japanese.

Amadu was unable to help Greg carry his suitcase, for which he apologised; unfortunately, taxi drivers were not allowed into the hotel. There had been a few problems some time back, perhaps Mr Guereg had heard about it. Apparently, the management thought that it damaged a hotel’s reputation for their guests to be blown up in the foyer. It wasn’t so much inconvenient as inelegant. After all, that was what the zone outside was for, wasn’t it? The hotel foyer was a place for relaxation and repose, as safe and sophisticated, given the circumstances, as was humanly possible.

Greg kept Amadu’s card, but made no firm arrangements. He would see what transpired. A porter accompanied him to reception, where he gave his name, showed his passport, and left his credit card details. Greg assumed that, as usual, this was so that they could charge him later for anything taken from the minibar or for any telephone calls, or even for using the gym, but the receptionist peered at him over the top of his glasses as a librarian might look at a reader who was late returning a book.

‘We thought you knew. We charge a week in advance for any expenses incurred for hospital treatment, emergency transport, personal services, detox, prosthesis, casino bills…’

‘In advance?’

A slight, almost imperceptible grimace appeared on the receptionist’s face, which could have meant (a) that he deeply regretted this state of affairs or (b) that he regretted the guest was so slow on the uptake.

‘As I’m sure you know, sir, no one can get insurance to visit the zone. That is why, much to our regret, we have no option but to charge in advance.’

‘Oh, so you charge for services I haven’t even had…’

‘But you can be sure that, at the end of your stay, if the balance is in your favour, it will be our pleasure - although it is, alas, a rather rare pleasure - to reimburse the difference.’

Greg thought it best to let the matter drop. Why get into a fight he couldn’t win?

‘Fine. If those are the house rules…’

‘And the good news is that access to the swimming pool and the Turkish bath is free. If you’ve forgotten anything, bathing trunks or tennis shoes or swimming goggles or any other piece of sports equipment, we will be happy to provide you with them for a modest charge.’

‘You’re not telling me there’s a tennis court in the hotel?’

‘I’m pleased to say that there is. Naturally, the use of the courts depends on the waiting list or on the need to sweep up any bits of mortar shell, but that’s relatively rare now.’

‘Your hotel is full of surprises.’

‘Pleasant ones we hope, sir. We may not be the largest hotel in the zone, and we’re certainly not the oldest, but we try to provide our worthy guests with the best possible service. We live by the motto: the zone might be Barbary, but we are an oasis of civilisation.’

Greg was intending to take a stroll around the area as soon as he had unpacked his case. He lay down on the bed to rest for a minute, but found himself admiring the high old ceiling, which was impressive both for its height and for the relief arabesques, motifs drawn from the plant or perhaps the marine world, fish or eels, eels being halfway between snakes and fish, with the difference, in relation to snakes, that they were less disgusting to eat. Sea creatures coiled about each other in a circular movement that went (in a spiral? like a Rorschach ink blot?) from the candelabra in the middle to the four corners of the ceiling…

When he woke, he felt slightly irritated, as happens when a person’s sleep patterns are disturbed. He shouldn’t, he realised, have underestimated the effects of jet lag and, then, when he felt for the light switch, he almost knocked over the bedside lamp.

He hadn’t dreamed at all; at least, when he woke up, he had no memory of having dreamed, which, to all intents and purposes, came to the same thing. So he hadn’t dreamed.

He tried to turn on the light – nothing happened. He got up and flicked all the other switches too, even in the bathroom. Nothing. He lay down again on the bed, feeling a headache coming on. After a long moment, he remembered that the receptionist had warned him that there might be power cuts. He had even told him where to find the matches. Of course. In the chest of drawers.

Greg discovered that there were candleholders on the walls complete with candles, rather like the torches you get in medieval castles in films about medieval castles. It was the same in the bathroom. The power cuts must be a daily irritant.

Bent over the sink, he splashed his face with water and didn’t like what he saw in the mirror: a full, rather plump face, its brown eyes already dull, and with suspicious marks on its somewhat flaccid cheeks – liver spots probably. The face of a man who was already more on that side than this in the balance of human time.

He opened the curtains. Everything lay in darkness. It was still night. He was about to go back to bed in order to try and sleep when an orange flare lit up the sky, followed by another and another. It was hard to tell how far away it was, although it clearly wasn’t very close, because had there been any noise of bombardments, it would have been muffled by the double glazing.

Hm. Interesting.

His good mood restored, Greg lay down. Contrary to his expectations, he soon fell asleep again.

This time he did dream. He dreamed about an enormous dinosaur, possibly a tyrannosaurus, grinning broadly, with a flattering, reptilian smile; it had vast back legs, pure muscle, that contrasted with its comically feeble front legs, with which the tyrannosaurus was doing…crochet! Crocheting with the bones of its victims? Making a pair of bone bootees for a baby that was on the way?

It was the very definition of a restoring dream.

By the second day, he was beginning to get acclimatised. He still couldn’t make out the names of the streets, most of which, as far as he could see, were more like goat tracks than streets, and used by shepherds with goats and sheep and by carts drawn by donkeys or mules.

A woman had walked past him only minutes before, barefoot, carrying her child in her arms, its head and arms hanging limply, and leaving a trail of blood on the ground. Where was she going? Was there a hospital nearby? Why didn’t anyone help her? Was it normal for a woman to walk down the street holding her dying child, so normal that no one offered to help? And who was there to take her to hospital? The few cars on the streets must have other things to do than go out of their way for someone else. Petrol was expensive. And, of course, only those involved in the war would have access to it.

Besides, memorising street names would take up a time and a will he no longer felt he had; yes, he was lacking in both items, time and/or will. However, he felt that he could safely explore the streets within a radius of five blocks from the hotel without getting lost. If, that is, they would leave him alone. They wouldn’t. His short morning walk was taken under escort from the hotel security guards. He tried to shoo them away, but to no avail: ‘Those are our orders, sir.’

Even this failed to dent his good humour. On an impulse, he took his mobile out of his pocket, checked that there was a signal – there was – and phoned his wife. The answer machine responded, of course, but he spoke to it as if he were speaking to her:

‘It’s really nice here. Yes, you’re right. It is dirty and chaotic, but even the dirt and the chaos are nice. A little while ago, a woman walked past me holding her child in her arms. It looked like the child had been hit by a cluster bomb, you know, those bombs that explode before they hit the ground and which don’t kill, but maim.’

The signal died. He didn’t try to phone again, even though he felt like talking, with an enthusiasm that was only partly feigned. He imagined the rest of the conversation: Did she understand the beauty of the cluster bomb concept? Yes, exactly, to do as much damage as possible to human flesh, by spraying out thousands of nails, an instantaneous zap-zap-zapping. Like a harpooner, not of whales, but of sardines, who, when he throws his harpoon (it doesn’t matter in which direction), releases a thousand mini-harpoons, each going off in search of its sardine or its baby. Anyway, I’d better go. Lots of love. Yes, I’ll wrap up warm, don’t you worry.







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