I met Dimitri on the Train.
Well, no, that’s a lie. I was meant to.
I spied him on the platform looking forlorn but nonetheless well appointed.
Being so short he’s easy to miss in a crowd. Still, he makes good ground.
He made good his escape, for a start. He’s a veritable tunneller. Like a hedgehog.
Well more like a wombat. Squat and rotund.
A low centre of gravity and the ability to move deceptively quickly.
The platform was not so overcrowded on this occasion and I spotted him from my post behind a stanchion, which afforded me sufficient cover to remain out of sight of those eyes that seek to join the dots and connect you with the contact.
CCTV must be seen to be believed so not to belie the circumstantial evidence pinned on the case like a tracking device in days before GPS, drones or plants posing as tourists with smartphones held out to evince credible distraction.
There was enough pedestrian traffic to allow me to blend in and keep my distance without losing him in the crowd.
His suit was his uniform of customary off the rack lines and indicated he was on duty.
It was a warm day for November, and I wondered how he kept his cool.
I observed him calculate the effort as he approached the escalators and stairs.
He slowed his gait and seemed to falter as he altered his trajectory and made for the escalator in preference to the strain of hauling his bulk up under his own steam.
(There’s nothing more unbecoming than a big man perspiring in his synthetic suit after the merest of exertions might remind him to splash on some extra aftershave to compensate for his body odour.)
I followed and took the stairs to the upper concourse of the station.
Dimitri stopped at a kiosk to buy a cold drink.
This was understandable in the circumstances, but I suspected it could also have been a ruse to give him pause to determine if he was ‘alone’.
I ducked behind an advertisement for antacid, burped at the association and tasted my previous evening’s repast.
The Big ‘D’ lingered at the kiosk and lit a cigarette.
He took only a few short pulls on it before he dropped it and ground it beneath the sole of his shoe. The half-finished cold drink remained on the kiosk counter.
I waited long enough to see the attendant reflect on its neglect and decide to drink it himself rather than see it go to waste. It had been paid for after all.
I re-emerged from behind the advertising hoarding and continued my perambulatory surveillance.
As I passed the kiosk, its attendant smacked his lips with relish at the taste of the cold drink and nodded at me with an acknowledgement of worthy deservedness.
Or was it deserved worthiness? Either way, I was no longer completely invisible.
I returned the nod and embellished the gesture by doffing my hat and licking my lips.
The attendant in turn mimicked his apish antecedent self with a sound scratching and beating of his chest.
We both then hooted in acknowledgement of our mutually natural affinities.
Dimitri had advanced in his lead on me so I picked up the pace and made up good ground on him until I was able to hold back and make my observations in a mood of unhurried anonymity, a synthesis of our being in character and acutely aware of the expectations of us; something not unlike the lot of a Disney mascot at large.
At least we were spared the indignity of having to wear padded costumes in stifling conditions, to be poked and prodded by children determined to prove their favourite characters were more than celluloid magic.
The station’s locker facility appeared to be his predestination and I proceeded in its direction secure in the knowledge that I had my own locker as cover. I paused momentarily to confirm the locker key was still safely in the pocket of my waistcoat and resumed without a doubt in the success of the operation.
Even in the daylight and haze of the persistent steam inducing rain, the neon advertising still managed to shine through and illuminate the atmosphere like flickering insects crawling on the facades of buildings and the faces of passers-by.
I pursued him down from the concourse via the escalator and dedicated ramp for trolleys to the labyrinthine layout of the lockers.
The dank bowels of the station owed nothing to any particular style of architectural modernism, like that of a van der Molenesque escapade for brutal inclusion of hoon culture on the syllabus of a university; and yet, it captured a functionality more reminiscent of a prison designed to break rather than educate.
In need of playing up to conformity, I advanced confidently along the banks of lockers laid out like dominoes; the Cold War had a lot to answer for including my own reference points. It was like a Berlin Wall of hedging your bets.
This way at least I could raise the stakes by simply appearing to make do.
It all seemed so long ago now, when our paths had first crossed in the crosshairs of our facilitator’s favouritism. Handler seems a quaint term now, but then I suppose we were like animals to be tamed. My naivety astounds me in hindsight.
Nothing surprises me anymore. Even myself.
I put my disguised excuse for a consular bag and other purpose made case down on the wooden bench that ran along beneath those lockers not at ground level for larger items. This gave me a chance to survey the scene unencumbered and set my mind to remembering the opening movements of my Tai Chi routine. A few partial squats and bounces on the balls of my feet and I was ready to proceed.
Dimitri was no more than several metres down the line from me as he arranged his own belongings on his length of bench. We pretended to ignore each other’s presence and busied ourselves in our rationed sector of the time and space continuum.
He opened his carryall and began to rummage through its contents which bulged at the reinforced leather hide and its seamless nerve endings like a bag full of puppies.
Apparently satisfied with his haul, my trailblazing confederate decided it was timely to remove various articles and placed them on the bench for his perusal, if not my befuddled envy.
I surreptitiously surveyed the growing display as each item was removed and placed beside the bag. Without warning, Dimitri paused, looked in my direction and winked in confirmation of my existence. This was breaking protocol, but under the circumstances of our being alone I permitted the familiarity as a sign of trust and nodded in acknowledgement.
Without any hint of self-consciousness, the target of my attentiveness continued to busy himself with the task at hand. In random order appeared the following: two clear, plastic dry cleaning bags with their coat hangered innards pressed and tagged, which he draped over the bench – one contained what appeared to be a boiler suit, while the other consisted of a tuxedo – and patted affectionately; a toiletry bag cut from the same material as the carryall; a thermos and lunch pail; expanding file with the insignia of a muted post horn belonging to the Trystero, a secret underground postal delivery service; an urn of the sort used to contain human ashes; a concertina; a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; a fez; an hourglass; a candelabra and candles; bongoes and a length of Persian carpet, which he unrolled and placed in front of the locker.
Other than my trumpet, which I had removed from its case and held like a weapon of choice at my hip, the artefacts I had brought with me amounted to little more than my own state of mind and a physiological forswearing of impending trends in artificial intelligence dressed up like a garish Polynesian shirt doing the rounds at an office Christmas party.
(My critical view of the man bun remained intact despite my immediate superior’s insistence on sporting it along with a Movember moustache and a soul patch that threated to turn him into a jazz touting Buffalo Bill look-alike.)
I suppose you could say Dimitri and I were of the old school of cloak-and-dagger entrepreneurial entertainments.
Divertimentos for a distantly attuned affinity for enigmas so bewildering only a self-effacing policy of estranged engagement could hope to turn the tide of ‘woke’ and swagger excuses for social conspiracies born of hyper-connectivity.
(By the way, did you know that twins who represented their country in rowing at the Olympics had an idea for connecting people so temptingly simple that they were paid out to a considerable sum to keep shtum about nerdish activity bordering on the reprehensibly inane? Now look at the nerd in question up before the duly elected to defend the right to free speech of all things.)
Subterfuge (or super fugue if in Bachian tones of postal celebration of timely deliverance), would seem to be tantamount to insult in this day and age of echo chambers and political straightjacketing; and yet, any semblance of blackface in an attempt to conceal our porcine complexions would have proven unnecessary given the nature of our rendezvous and the rules we like to abide by.
Not to mention how nugget tends to run and smudge official relays in the catastrophically claustrophobic conditions forced on us by climate change.
No. We would recognise each other anywhere.
It was for others to guess as to intentions and tacit reason for being here, there and everywhere. It wasn’t as if we walked around with a mission statement emblazoned on A-boards slung over our shoulders.
We played the game to the utmost (without being cutthroat) but preferred not to look preposterous in the process.
Dimitri had placed the candles into the candelabra and stood back to appraise the effect. Something was amiss. He made to thoroughly investigate his person in search of a source of ignition for the wicks. All to no avail. Right on cue I stepped forward, twirled the trumpet in my hand and took a lighter from my waistcoat pocket.
I slowly covered the ground between us and stood beside him.
He kept his eyes fixed on the imaginary flames flickering before us.
He clucked his tongue.
I took the hint and lit the candles.
He deigned to turn his head towards me.
“Bruno. It was my last match. Thank you for obliging me in this ceremony. It means a lot to me.”
“We know our roles only too well.”
“Hah! Yes. You could say this is how we roll.”
“Shall we get changed?”
“Yes. You go first. Use the toilets next to the bottom of the ramp. We don’t want to draw any unwarranted attention to ourselves. I will stay here on alert. Take your trumpet with you for protection.”
“Why, of course.”
Not that the locker area was in any way busy. Almost as though a lack of spectators had been preordained until we were quite ready. Funny how things can be made to work. Or go away until required.
Dimitri handed me the dry-cleaning bag that contained the tuxedo.
Five minutes later and I was back by his side.
He took the bag containing the boiler suit, excused himself and returned as if he had stepped through a revolving door in the time it took me to pick up the urn and tap it to gauge its integral density.
It appeared no one had yet predeceased us in our bid for longevity.
We each took our own clothes and put them out of the way – he in his commodious carryall, and me in my locker.
Before we were ready to make our next move, we were interrupted by a horde of school kids out on an excursion. They appeared to be lost.
Their two schoolteachers and two parents who accompanied them seemed on the verge of putting them on the next bus back to school.
“Grade Five, please keep the noise down while we work out where to go.”
Dimitri took the advantage and offered his assistance.
He spoke without his customary Minsk accent, in what passed for a plausible Strine.
“Excuse me. Can Oi help yaw?”
“Oh, yes please. Thank you. We need to find the counter for the regional train departures.”
“Yaeh, soie. Righto.”
The lead teacher paused.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Jus' like Oi said. Heah to help. Yaw need to go stwaight back th' way yaw came 'n take th' first right at th' escalato'…”
She didn’t seem convinced.
“It’s a baeutiful day fo' an awtin'. Weah awe yaw goin'?”
“Do you work for the Met?”
“Wat does it lewk like? Oi am merely doin' yaw a cawrtesy.”
I decided to interject for the sake of brevity and to facilitate the situation.
“Miss, please excuse my friend’s expression. He is not from these parts. We are travellers, minstrels, entertainers here to perform for the city’s cultural festival. We are lucky enough to get official dispensation to use this space for our rehearsals.”
“Oi reckon. Th' accawstics awe blewdy beautiful!”
“He said the acoustics are second to none. May I suggest you retrace your steps back the way you came and take the first right at the escalator.”
“Haeir. Thats jus' wat Oi told hah.”
“Indeed, Dimitri. Indeed.”
“Thank you for the directions. I think I see where we went wrong. And good luck with your show. Come along children.”
Before the grade five class could be moved along, an outspoken boy could not hold his tongue and observed that my offsider looked like something other than he really was.
“He looks like one of those wind-up toy monkeys that plays the cymbals, Miss.”
I followed his pointing arm and turned to see that Dimitri had put on the fez.
I had to admit that in combination with the orange and yellow boiler suit he was ably turned out to ham it up for the kids.
“He’s a chimp off the old block, that’s for sure”, I added for good measure.
The kids all broke into dopey, eye-rolling peels of incredulous laughter.
Dimitri made the most of the occasion to produce one such very mechanical toy from his carryall and set it on the carpet. He then took up the bongoes and drummed out a rhythmic pattern while grinning wildly in the face of our audience’s rapt delight.
Not to be outdone, I put my trumpet to my lips and unleashed a cavalry charge.
The locker facility resounded with the fanfare and signalled the school group’s withdrawal, apparently for fear their young ears could not withstand such an exuberant outburst. They had that to look forward to on the train trip, especially if little Mr Cymbals was true to form.
Without further ado, it was then down to brass tacks. A schedule was a schedule, after all, and we would not be getting a bonus overstaying our welcome.
Dimitri went along the bank of lockers to his left and took a necklace from beneath his boiler suit to reveal a key that had been strung to the length of leather chord.
He motioned to me to sidle up to him with my briefcase and took a breath before he inserted the key and gave it a turn.
I had placed my trumpet back down on the bench and retrieved my case in order to play my part.
Swap meets were one thing, but this was something else entirely. Not your average day at Camberwell market, that’s for sure.
Dimitri had removed the fez and replaced it with a miner’s style headlamp attached to an elasticised band wrapped round his cranium. This had apparently been concealed in a pocket of the boiler suit, but which I hadn’t noticed him reveal until his swift sleight of hand produced its usual magical results.
I stood beside him as he opened the locker and turned on the headlamp.
Inside was an object wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string.
Dimitri produced a pair of surgical gloves that he put on before proceeding.
What ensued reminded me of a laboratory technician working with isotopes in a radioactive protected screening incubator, as he sought to gently unwrap the object form its swaddling cloth and present it for our appreciation.
Once released from its wrapping, we were able to feast our eyes upon the treasure within.
“May I present to you Bruno, an original work by Blake.”
I stood back to better appraise the painting that was illuminated by Dimitri’s beam.
“It could pass as a paint by numbers effort.”
“The style maybe more naïve then we’re use to these days, but it has done him a service over the last nearly 200 years. He may have died in both poverty and obscurity, but he will make us infamously rich and wiser.”
“Well, I’ll say from what I know that he was not entirely artless.”
“Nor gormless, however much people thought him insane.”
“The figure is a little bit like a gnome, if you ask me. What’s it called?”
“Heaven’s Gate. I agree the figure is a bit gnomic. It is nothing like the Ghost of a Flea. Too short and mischievous. Not so menacing. He claimed to have visions, you know.”
“Is he guarding the gate or trying to get in? He seems to find something amusing.”
“Perhaps he is meant to be laughing at us who look upon the work. Maybe he is wise to something unseen.”
I had to put on my glasses which I had transferred from my jacket when getting changed and looked more closely in at the work of art.
“It is so small. The size of a hardback book. No wonder he had visions. He must have gone blind.”
Dimitri turned to squint at me quizzically.
“Small, yes, but it’s dimensions are suited to an altered consciousness.”
“The long and the short of it, yeah. Just like Laurel and Hardy?”
“Hardly, Bruno. They were almost of equal height. Rather, one was rotund and the other scrawny.’
“Much like us. Although we are not clowns.”
“Are we not?” Certainly not to be taken for fools.”
“I take it has been verified?”
“Was that rhetorical?”
“Very funny. All measures should have been taken according to the plan. Our buyer is in place and awaits word as to delivery. We just need to…Wait! Who’s that?”
We were caught off guard as a contingent of state politicians, their minders and a media scrum converged on the area for a walk through and doorstop interview.
They had to come right past us in order to emerge on the concourse for a photo opportunity to promote infrastructure works promised at the election.
Dimitri quickly closed the locker and we turned to edge back towards our original position, where we calmly and casually leant against the bank of lockers discussing our apparent performance rehearsal schedule.
The contingent stopped right in front of us for what appeared to be an informal high visibility chance for the Premier and Minister to chat with citizens and look concerned to hear our opinions.
We good naturedly obliged and spruiked our role as goodwill ambassadors at large who sought to inject a dose of levity into the city’s daily news.
After a few banal questions of us about our public transport experiences in the city (to which we replied that we favoured an alternative two wheeled variety requiring improvements to cycling paths and bylaws, not to mention upgrades to timetables for bus services in outer suburbs - we felt we had to do our bit for the common good and this was a chance to highlight inadequacies), the tune was changed and we were asked for a number.
“42!”, I hollered before a line-up of bemused faces, sagacious nods and a couple of embarrassed groans of recognition.
I picked up my trumpet and Dimitri his bongoes.
We broke into an impromptu rendition of La Cucaracha and made to forma a haphazard conga line to lead the group away from our position so we could resume the delicate operation.
With the encouragement of the photographers and camera crew, the politicians and minders fell under our spell and joined the routine with abandon. This would prove an unexpected spotlight for the arts festival, especially the comedy component.
We escorted them out towards the concourse, much to the dismay and delight of commuters. Once clear of the locker facility, we bid them adieu and returned to our echo rich patch of the transit system.
Back by the lockers we set about finishing our Houdini like escapade.
The painting was rewrapped and removed from its temporary tomb.
“You know what to do, Bruno. I’ve done my part. It’s up to you now.”
“Have I ever let you down, Dimitri?”
“Now is not the time for petty point scoring, my friend. We must be on with the show or we won’t be passing go or collecting the small fortune promised us.”
“Let’s just hope we can trust the dealer.”
“Hah! This is not Wheel of Fortune, my friend.”
“And I took you for a high roller of cashed out casino pedigree.”
“Only in Monte Carlo. Your serviceable regional Crown is askew, after all.
A media mogul’s endowment isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, you know.”
“Definitely a chip off the old block head, if you ask me.”
“Well, I didn’t. Suffice to say I was never sure about that Mariah Carey proposition. Whatever did she see in him apart from his money?”
“More like grandstanding. Anyway, we need to get moving. No time for idle gossip.”
Dimitri closed the locker, handed me the parcel and set about tidying up his belongings, which he replaced in his bag of tricks before taking his leave to get changed.
I placed the parcel in my bag, my trumpet in its case and awaited my turn.
Once we were both changed and back in our civvies, we stood at our respective lockers and bowed our heads in ceremonial reflection of our sacredly appointed mission.
This was to be our parting, as Dimitri had to go on to his next sanctioned drop and recovery, which would take him on the Skybus all the way to the airport.
We had planned this nicely – he only had to make his way to the bus terminal at the other end of the station and he would be on schedule.
We each muttered the incantatory oath and turned our backs on each other.
When I turned around after calculating the passing of a ten second delay, he was gone.
I busied myself with my own departure and made haste to secure my personage against unwanted attention. This consisted of making sure my tie was consistent with a correct Windsor knot (woe-betide if it should have diverged from accepted practice), affixing a remembrance poppy to my lapel, removing the false chin strap score of a goatee’s underpinning to leave only a moustache (it was Movember, after all) and donning a pair of vintage 1950s Ray Ban Caravan sunglasses.
How could I not look the part I was conscripted to play?
To think we had been labelled ‘cultural terrorists’. Sight unseen, at that.
No cultural terrorist ever looked as bespoke as us. Or, at least I was keeping up my end of the bargain.
My next stop was the Royal Exhibition Building, where a prefab stall had been set up in the adjoining gardens for an art display and collectibles fair.
The next part of the stratagem saw me posing as an antique book seller and collector of rarities, both old and new, kitsch and authentic.
I had insisted that this posting permit me some free reign to indulge my fancy for self-expression and performance so I could whip up interest in my booth by tootling on my horn.
Not entirely incompatible, if you asked me.
I made good time, thanks to the tram service not being disrupted by any further industrial action.
Don’t get me wrong. I support the underpinning logic of trade unionism, but it could tend to prove to be a disruptive inconvenience just when you found yourself wanting to avail yourself of an especial service.
Come to think of it, why didn’t we belong to one? A union. That is.
It would have to wait. Dimitri and I could use this as a talking point after our debrief.
Nothing like ex officio repartee to help restore a sense of rhyme and reason for the cause.
In the meantime, I had to finish putting the final touches to the booth, which had been delivered to my specifications complete with old locked ammunition boxes chained to the pylon supports for the shelving.
These boxes were themselves relics of another war on error, from another era.
A war against vainglorious falsehoods masquerading as redemptive and enlightening discovery.
Raiders of the Lost Ark may have been one basis for an evaluation of a turning point in the critical construct of a character’s imposed raison d’ etre, but the slick shtick of fake news permeating the global conversation really stuck in my craw.
No, that’s not what I meant.
Has anyone ever seen inside a parliamentary despatch box?
Would it have the same effect as a plundered Ark of the Covenant?
Would it blow your socks off and melt your face?
(I would also have to consult Dimitri on this matter.)
Call my horn John Coltraine by any other name and I’ll bop you!
The correct honorific is Dizzie, thank you very much.
I was nothing if not utterly up front; unless my arrested development insofar as creative thinking to deceive in the line of duty could be attested to as by design.
Anyway, I had boxes to unpack.
(And that’s another thing – I’ve never heard anything more ludicrous than the notion of unpacking ideas. Where the hell had they been, anyway?
Sound like queue jumpers to me…)
Security was tight and I made good my acquaintance with the guards allocated to my patch to reinforce my standing in their eyes should things take an adverse turn.
I even managed to enlist the help of one with the unpacking and arranging of items on the shelves and counter for display. He seemed genuinely interested and offered to help each day I was supposed to be there, as well as keeping a vigilant eye on the locked boxes once they had been repacked each evening.
Funnily enough, his name was Grigory. I seemed to attract Belarussians like flies to fairy floss. I have always hated the stuff, but this did not mean that I suffered from wholesale self-loathing. I was more discriminating than that. Flies, however, especially the summer blow ins, deserved only the moribund endgame of Mortein.
Not that I wished Grigory to buzz off in a hurry or felt compelled to swat Dimitri for any daft discord that may have arisen through no fault of my own.
We made a fist of it and in what seemed no time at all were able to stand back and admire our handiwork.
The cordons were soon lowered, and the crowds began to stream in along the paths that led between the array of stalls.
I waited until Grigory had turned his attention elsewhere before I attended to the matter of concealing the little painting.
Amongst the more kitsch items of contemporary Australiana I had included were a couple of framed Ken Done prints (I refused, however, to condone the sporting of one of his signature jumpers) and an original work by Reg Mombassa of Mental as Anything and Mambo fame.
I thought it befitting to use this as a front piece for the original by Blake and secreted the little gem in behind the frame of the Mambo one-off that had lent itself to inestimable reproduction and unsealed the fate of the brand as an archetypal conceit of whimsical social commentary.
A ‘SOLD’ sticker was place on the corner of the frame to dissuade interest in its purchase.
I just had to await the arrival of my go-between.
Ramesh Choudhury was an international art dealer, formerly known as a champion cricketer. What he championed now was the ideal of capital ideas and a return to solvent opportunity.
Not ever having met him, and his appearance known to change to protect his identity, I trusted in his chameleon nature coming up trumps to prove you should never judge a book by its cover.
I bided my time fielding enquiries and even made a few legitimate sales of merchandise acquired through honest graft in the market, drank tonic water (with a shot of gin to aid in the numbing absorption of anti-mosquito antibodies induced by the quinine; apart from blowflies, these guys are a blight in summer and always get me wailing as though I was a plant at an anti-mosque rally to monitor ultra-right types on the verge of a neural collapse), and tootled my horn.
This afforded the double pleasure of passing the time and attracting a passing audience who were generous enough to place encouraging tips in the fez I had been bequeathed by Dimitri, who recommended I keep my own hat on as a sign of fad defying supplication.
The evening was soon upon us as I continued my watch and act routine.
With the fading light, the colourful oriental lanterns came to the fore to illuminate the way and corresponded nicely to the theme of the blockbuster exhibition at the museum attached to the Exhibition Building.
I refrained from any more liquid refreshment until the transaction had been made. Besides, my playing was becoming unaccountably sloppy and I feared I may turn away prospective clients and paying appreciators of the form.
And then I saw him.
It was like an apparition. He approached my stall as if responding to a homing beacon. He was in fact being led by a guide dog; a beautiful Afghan hound equipped with saddle bags.
The blind man wore wraparound sunglasses and a peeked tweed cap.
He held on to the dog’s harness with a deft hand adept at a certain softness required of a batsman looking for placement rather than going all out for power in a shot.
He wore a tracksuit streaked in a garish graphic design reminiscent of street art and an avian print more at home on a Hawaiian shirt. The top was unzipped down to the bottom of his sternum, exposing a thick matt of chest hair and a couple of gold necklaces that featured pendants of Olympic proportions.
He vigorously chewed gum as though to focus his powers of deduction or as an aid in quitting an addiction, which made his moustache rise and fall with steadfast regularity.
Unimpeded in his approach due to the crowds having thinned out in time to make the most of the food trucks parked on the museum’s forecourt, he made a beeline for my stall and its beacon of the large orange lantern suspended from the overhanging tree line at my back, directly above where I had placed the Mombassa original and its hidden treasure.
Man and dog came to a stop in front of me as if for my appraisal before anything was expressed as to their intent.
I nodded and touched the brim of my hat. The dog barked and unapologetically let its tongue loll as if to receive canine communion, or a morsel of human kindness.
“Carmel approves of your star attraction. I can’t say that I ever liked his music, but she has a fondness for his images that feature the musically farting dogs.
Are you sure it’s not for sale?”
I detected an unsuccessful attempt to disguise an Indian accent.
Uncharacteristically caught off guard, I gawped like a stunned mullet in mute acknowledgement of their presence.
“Maybe this will explain my purpose.”
He withdrew from the sporty fanny pack he wore to the fore a business card that incorporated braille with the more common written English descriptors and placed it before me on the countertop.
“Permit me to introduce myself. I am Sumit Googly, connoisseur of naïve art.”
The glasses were lowered sufficiently for him to produce a wink suggesting otherwise. I knew instantly with whom I was dealing. The eyes had it.
The famously deceptive cross-eyed confusion of the cricket great himself.
In his playing career he’d had the unnerving ability to keep one eye on the bowler’s hand as it delivered the ball and the other on a fielder at silly point, as he converged on the centre square to intercept the invariably favoured shots in his direction.
A ‘cut and pasting’, as the sports commentators referred to the accumulation of runs scored this way, invariably eluding the outflung hand of the poor sod fielding.
So, this was Ramesh Choudhury.
The imposture was so blatant that no one would give a second look to the blind man and his dog, despite the novel aspect that could only be attributed to the fact he didn’t realise what he looked like.
“Mr Googly. A pleasure to finally meet. Your reputation precedes you.
I am would be delighted to facilitate your interests. I am Mr Bruno Sachs.”
Carmel barked again and tugged on the harness her master still had in his hand.
“Mr Sachs, it appears my faithful servant is determined to acquire the Mombassa work. Are you sure it’s not for sale?”
“Well, I’m afraid it was sold; however, the buyer has failed to return with the payment. A promissory note would seem not to guarantee securing the item, especially so late in the game. How much were you willing to offer?”
Mr Googly came closer to the countertop, leant in conspiratorially towards me and continued in hushed tones.
“Sir, it will be as agreed. Our patron has provided me with the wherewithal to carry out the exchange. You will not be disappointed.”
Once more he lowered his shades and winked. Carmel barked in affirmation.
Without any further ado, he casually squatted beside the dog and opened the saddle bags. When he reappeared above counter level he placed before me four large leather-bound tomes and leant in again.
“These I think will very much be in keeping with your tastes in the obscure.”
Mr Googly took out a key from his fanny pack and unlocked the clasp on one of the volumes. He slowly opened the book to reveal its contents: the inside had been hollowed out and contained 500 crisp, bound 1000 Swiss Franc notes.
Adhered to the binding of the currency was a plastic pouch that contained a rare gold coin of the Helvetic Republic.
“Each of the four volumes contains the same denominations and gold coin to the value of nearly 3 million Swiss Francs. You drive a hard bargain, Mr Sachs.”
“And I am sure our patron will consider it an equitable transaction for what they shall receive. So, Blake is bound for the Holy See?”
“You know I cannot divulge the identity of the buyer. Suffice to say that this is considered a holy endeavour by the powers that be. You may well imagine yourself figuratively kissing the Piscatory Ring before taking a step back into the shadow world to await further decree. Your devotion to the cause will be rewarded in not only this but the next life. Don’t spend it all at once.”
I quickly removed the books from sight and placed them in an ammunition box.
The delicate part that followed involved the removal of the little masterpiece from the Mombassa frame – it would fit snugly in one of the panniers and would not draw attention as would the larger work jutting awkwardly out or carried aimlessly by a blind man.
I surreptitiously extracted the little frame from within, still wrapped in its protective shroud, placed it in a padded bag for good measure and handed it over.
Mr Googly did not insist on verifying that what he had in his hands was the genuine article. This would have undermined the good faith established between his people and mine; better than impaired belief in human nature as a folly to justify when self-interest deserves a payout. Or, something of a similar fortuitous nature.
The parcel went into a pannier and Camel barked approval.
“A pleasure doing business with you, Mr Sachs. We will be in touch once delivery of this relic has been made. I bid you adieu, Sir. Safe travels.”
He turned and was led away by Carmel through the crowds that were beginning to mill again after the food trucks had plied their trade.
It was only then that I realised how dark it was becoming.
The lanterns gave forth a ghostly effulgence and added a carnivalesque quality to the scene.
It was time to make myself scarce.
As perfect timing would have it, a Chinese tour group had converged on the immediate locale and began to hover and swarm about the various stalls.
I made the most of the opportune moment and disappeared into the crowd, pulling the ammo box along on wheels specially fitted to afford mobility to the cache of cash concealed within the loot proof coffer.
The tour group were variously posing for photographs and I had to be demonstratively firm in rejecting a request for a selfie from a distinctly nouveau riche example of vapid acquisitiveness. She took the picture anyway. What a jian huo!
I sluiced my way through without making much headway, all the while gripping steadfastly to my towed cargo, like a fanatical pilgrim reliant on a nettling nag nudging him ahead to pay homage to a vexed saint of private enterprise.
I could very well have been perceived as the protagonist in a game of blind man’s buff, in a perverse reverse-take on the customary blind man being led by his virtual eyes out front. I think I preferred the idea of a blinkered Rocinante at my rear than a pooch to signal my impairment.
But, then, I wasn’t tilting at windmills. The evening’s light had all but faded, with the lanterns providing the only immediate source of revelation. The exterior beacons of life from the main building and museum had dimmed and it was from within that they glowed with a beguiling promise.
A commotion erupted around me as the Chinese tourists clamoured to point their smart phones skywards. Did my eyes now deceive me? Was this some kind of mass hallucination as diversion brought on by a collective refusal to believe in the modern phenomenon of truth’s transmutation or had the projector in the IMAX cinema gone through the roof and begun to paint the night sky with illuminated characters from a reality stranger than fiction? What was myth and what remained fact? Was my sanity to remain intact?
Above us appeared 3D dirigible likenesses of an alternatingly pouting and grimacing spray tanned baby in a diaper, shaking a rattle at the crowds below, being chased and almost set upon by a certain Afghan guide dog free of its harness and paniers, salivating at the prospect of setting its incisors into the orange rolls of infantile blubber.
The silky coated dog barked to see such appetising game invoked as a treat for her loyalty and orientation. (Carmen was to be exposed as bi-strenuous and not afraid to take the lead in advocating for recognition and rights considering her master’s own leanings towards a charmed appreciation of same sex mystification. No wonder Dimitri played hard to get, and yet we did really seem to hit it off in or out of the private eye’s discriminating gaze.)
The Chinese broke into unified applause and waved their passports above their heads as a historically ignorant and inadvertent throwback to a different kind of discrimination and disavowal – of the very syllables, symbols and tones of their mother tongue? I wondered.
“Hen hao! Hen hao! Hen hao!”, they cheered as the spectacle unfolded above us.
And how. I half expected to see an enormous chicken do a fly by in this the year of the Rooster.
What we got beggared belief.
Carmel succeeded in giving the cry baby a good nip on his heel, resulting in the orange squealer shooting off under his own hot air as he deflated and cornered the market in a trajectory hell bent on a carrion flower display in the Royal Botanic Gardens. What a whiffy gewgaw!
She then gave us all pause for thought in this time of climate crisis and global warming. Spare a thought for the drought, she seemed to rebuke the congregation below, and the people doing it tough on the land, not to mention the poor fish gasping for an even flow from upstream.
Without warning she cocked a leg and began to unleash a well-aimed series of squirts, concentrating on the numerous paper lanterns that lined the promenade along which the fair’s stalls had been set up.
The lanterns were suspended form wires strung between the trees that formed a natural colonnade between the stalls and the forecourt of the main buildings.
Our spirit guide succeeded in dowsing them, as well as several overly vociferous tourists who surmised that this was all part of the festivities and that the golden shower was integral to what followed.
She finished her emissions, barked in satisfaction and floated away in the direction of Gertrude Street.
With the lanterns extinguished, the surrounds were tipped into a murky atmosphere broken here and there by the luminosity of phones exchanging verdicts on the supposed entertainment.
Without warning the heavens opened and a host of angels descended in a flood of brilliant rainbow coloured beams. Trumpets sounded and cymbals crashed.
A gong reverberated from within the Exhibition Building’s dome and the combined buildings seemed to throb from within.
Percussive pops detonated all around and the thrum of an eminently rendered bassline stalked at the periphery of our awareness, struck as we all were by the sight of the seraphim as they cavorted about the cupola.
It was then that I felt something tugging on my trousers.
I looked down to see two cherubic creatures in animated, though silent discussion, apparently about the next course of action and my place in it.
Unlike the spoilt, inflated and overcooked toddler whose diapers could not contain the twaddle he produced, and which gardeners would avoid using as fertilizer for fear their produce may be contaminated with a parasitic self-righteousness, these two babes in trench coats radiated genuine empathy for idealistic entrepreneurs such as myself (even though I would consider myself more of a flaneur or boulevardier in the context of this assignment’s pedigree).
The angelic spectacle continued to hold the crowd’s rapt attention with a series of synchronised manoeuvres an aerial acrobatics team would be proud to claim as their own.
With everyone looking skywards, I knelt to see what my two little companions wanted.
“Can I help you?”
They need not have spoken as their expressive eyes said it all.
They plead to communicate. Their lips quivered, but their mouths did not open to speak. Instead, they articulated their thoughts directly through to my cerebrum, which, I must say, was a highly original experience for me as I had never been on the receiving end of a telepathic conversion. Err, sorry. I meant conversation.
I refuse to be indoctrinated by the verbal diarrhoea that is to ‘interface’ as a verb for interaction. Spare me!
Now, where was I?
It seemed that I was to be the designated passenger on a journey to deliver the haul to headquarters. Little did I know that we had recruited the likes of these diminutive operatives. Typical. It’s always not until you’re in the field these days that you are let in on information that could very well change the whole complexion of an operation.
I made a mental note to raise this at the debriefing and hoped that my silent interlocutors wouldn’t take it the wrong way.
Under cover of the continuing hubbub from on high, as the angels executed their display of daring-do, I was escorted to the food truck area where awaited a van, all ready to depart the scene.
It was a dispensary on wheels for a particular brewery, which craft style beers claimed protection under the symbolically stylized logo emblazoned on the van’s side – a stein wielding little creature with wings captured in mid-flight, apparently raising a toast to mortal health.
Little Creatures; not to be confused witha certainDirty Creature in a song lyric;although, to split ends would be unfair in this case as it was obvious they were small in stature, unearthly and yet, however innocent, capable of a ribaldry to equal the lowest common denominator of human expression.
A vulgarity undeserving of ironic, punitive refrain.
Unlike an ice-cream van, this vehicle lacked any loudspeakers with which to hawk its wares. I made up for this by silently humming the chorus to the unclean entity ditty to reassure myself that this turn of events was quite righty beyond my ken’s perspicacity (or Roy’s domain, by any other name’s appropriation).
This served to bring wry smiles to the faces of my little companions, which made me wonder if they knew the song or were simply amused by my subliminal inability to hit the right note, even when I thought no one else could hear me.
I definitely sang better in the shower, to which thought they nodded their acclaim.
No, in this case it was the call to alms captured in the logo’s unfurled banner that did all that was necessary to promote my unaccustomed custom. This seemed like an economy in reverse, for it was I who was to give of my virtue inasmuch as I possessed a sophisticated palate fit for waxing lyrical.
I only hoped Dimitri had not fallen foul of the mysterious and contrary powers that were afoot, intent on preventing the delivery of our hard-earned spoils (not to mention slaking the thirst for answers).
It seemed they needed a mouthpiece for the next phase of this escapade.
I happily volunteered my services to them and they opened the rear of the van for me to load my box on wheels and settle myself for the journey.
Once ensconced, I sat atop my haul and proceeded to open a six pack or two of hoppy ales to sample for the ride - this being the stipulation of my drivers who grinned and rubbed their distended tummies before they closed the rear doors and hopped in the front.
This kind of communication was like an intercom inside my head and it buzzed and fizzed back and forth as we set off.
My collaborators had introduced themselves as Sap and Ling and assured me I was in good hands; they were graduates of the Ethereal Defensive Driving School.
As the journey progressed through audibly familiar precincts (confined as I was, I could not see out of the van with the servery window closed and no other vantage ports from which to behold the passing points of view), all I could say was that I was torn between the Rogers’ and Dog Day’s session ales.
Almost as testing as differentiating between Dimitri’s loyalty and that of a drover’s dog.
At least I wasn’t to be led astray by misguided allegiances to mute mischievousness.
Having ever only seen certain scenes from E.T. on TV and never having owned a dog, I determined to raise with Dimitri such missing elements (and misgivings) from my personal manifesto when we next convened.
I just prayed he hadn’t boarded the wrong flight…