My plane actually landed in Amsterdam. I had to take the bus/boat/train to Glasgow.
I remember Amsterdam from when I was three. It had really put the zap on my brain. The coins were golden, like they are in fairy tales. One day I dreamed we wrapped those golden coins in paper and tossed them from our balcony up into the blue sky, so that the beautiful music that filled the house would continue.
Years later I learned it wasn't a dream. It actually happened. An organ grinder had been cranking out tunes down in the plaza. We wrapped the coins in paper so they wouldn't scatter.
These small details took on numinous meaning in this unfamiliar country. Culture is the colour of water, invisible to those who swim in it, and when the colour changes everything changes with it. What had been impossible is suddenly commonplace.
For example, in Amsterdam you could buy eggs with double yolks, which was clearly impossible. How could you know without cracking the shell? And yet here they were, on sale by the dozen. Years later I learned they just held them up to a bright light.
When I returned in 1986 the city creaked, under the weight of post-war socialism. This magical land where it seemed anything might happen had devolved into a place where anything goes. No limitations. Pot, whores, and permanent pogie. The train station was chock full of junkies moving in slow motion. Thanks to my busted knee, I couldn't outrun them so they clustered around me like fruit flies.
One guy followed me right into the bureau de change and watched as the cashier counted out my guilder notes, whinging, "Oh man, with just one of those I could get a fix, I need my heroin, man, I'm sick!"
Which was unpleasant but true, like the part in the Bible where you end up as your brother's keeper, even though he's an asshole. But I hobbled through the train station as fast as I could and slowly managed to outdistance my brother.
I started school in a whitewashed bungalow a stone's throw from the source of the River Nile. My friends were from all over: Cherri, whose forebears came from Bombay to build the railway up from the coast, and who could turn his eyelids inside out and impersonate a zombie; Daniel, son of a local chief, who had an alarming penchant for sticking giant crayons in his mouth because he loved their waxy texture; and Paul, an English kid who was tongue tied, but went on to become a writer and leader in the British Young Conservatives movement.
Paul went back to England when his dad's contract was up; Cherri was defenestrated in 1972 after Idi Amin had a dream where God told him to expunge the Indians who ran Uganda's economy. Daniel probably ran into trouble when Amin began to liquidate tribes that had traditionally been at war with his own.
I knew nothing about Amin in those days, although my dad had occasional dealings with him. One afternoon he drove up to the school in a jeep and asked for a particular student. He announced the kid's mother had just died, which is the closest Ugandans come to an end-of-the-world scenario.
The kid collapsed, they strapped him into Amin's jeep, and they peeled out of the school courtyard. Next day my dad called the game warden near the boy's village. His mother was fine. Later the kid was found wandering at a crossroads a hundred miles into the bush in the opposite direction. No one ever figured out what Amin had been up to. My guess is: no good.
But these were adult concerns. I was more interested in setting fire to the grass with marbles, hanging out at the verboten snake pond, where you could perish in a moment, or getting up to no end of mischief with Paul, who, for a crypto-conservative, had an anti-authoritarin streak as wide as the Nile.
Perhaps because this is where my narrative begins it's still the only place that ever felt like home to me. Falling from that mountain where the soil is red as blood, humans are a medium-sized critter, the jungle thrums with noise at night, and the moon lies on its back like a boat, was like falling from heaven.
Next thing I know, I'm puking on my shoes in a tarmac playground in Glasgow and wondering where all the animals went.
19: The Approach
Hemorrhaging cash, I caught the red-eye down to London. First thing I saw in the dawn's grey bleed was a massive gate ringed by riot cops. Over top it said HOME OF THE SUN. You don't have to be Joseph Campbell to figure that one out.
It was Rupert Murdoch's tabloid Sun, first English paper published off Fleet Street, a union-busting move, so people kept throwing Molotov cocktails at the delivery vans. But everyone in the realm bought the Sun because it said on the front
BRITAIN'S BIGGEST BAZOOMS! SEE PAGE THREE!
The biggest bazooms in Britain belonged to Samantha Fox, a working-class hero. But when we pulled into Victoria Station there was a huge billboard of her wearing a tweed suit and reading the Times.
The caption read: "It Was Time I Moved On To a Paper With Better Coverage."
London was dark. Dark in the daytime. Everything way too expensive. Major anxiety each time I cashed a traveller's cheque. My only hope was a crumpled piece of paper with Steven Bouey's address on it.
Steve was my best friend. I met him in Prince George when we first arrived in Canada, in the school gym, with the student body splayed in daisy chains around TV sets on the hardwood floor watching the Canada-Russia hockey games.
Steve said the scar on his neck was from an emergency tracheotomy, because he was born with a fever of a hundred and ten, and they had to lay him on a block of ice and slit his throat while a priest baptised him on the spot in case he wound up in Limbo.
I thought, This guy's cool.
Now he lived in a flat on Denmark Hill with his new wife Sung Ha, whom I'd never met. They were studying opera together at some academy. Living with them was very dramatic. They talked in a kind of recitatif:
Sung Ha: I just found a Q-tip in the toilet bowl... and it was yellow! (swoons)
Steve (to me): What were you doing? Cleaning out your ears?
Me: But I... I...
Sung Ha: Disgusting! I feel sick!
Steve: Why didn't you flush! I told you to flush!
Me: I thought I flushed the damn thing twice! It must be broken! Broken!
...And so on.
For a couple of weeks I crashed on the couch while they made love as quietly as they could a yard from my head and I pretended to be asleep. In October they went to Spain to sing in a competition, and while they were gone I pulled as many night guard shifts as humanly possible so I could buy a ticket to Cairo.
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